Wisconsin rising against right to work for less

MILWAUKEE – Interrupting the Atlanta meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council for a press release on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remorseless special session push for the Right to Freeload (commonly mislabeled Right to Work), federation president Richard Trumka nailed the attack on Wisconsin workers as a “sham about much more than unions.”

He knows Walker needs a scapegoat the right wing will accept. Even in an improving national economy, his economic policies are far behind the gains of his neighbors. His new budget based on borrowing and massive cuts in education is controversial even within his own Republican party. The brief bloom he got in Iowa is already fading. Constantly on the road raising money and publicity for his presidential quest, Walker is finding his record at home a bigger disaster than his fumbles of simple interviews. How can he keep his conservative base from running? Enter the unions and RTW.

“It’s ridiculous,” said one noted economist as the state AFL-CIO organized protest rallies through February 25 at the Madison Capitol, as the bill is scheduled to become law within a week. “As bad as right to work is, blaming unions is nonsense – they are only 12 percent of the workforce. Too small and weak to be blamed for his downturns.”

His deception also confronts overwhelming evidence that RTW will further hurt a low-wage state that needs more buying power. 

Trolling GOP districts in central and northern Wisconsin, Lori Compass wrote for the nonprofit Wisconsin Business Alliance: “I haven’t found anyone who says we need the government to tell us how to run our business.” 

It’s also a publicity trap against angry workers, noted Sheila Cochran, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council who led a lot of the Madison protests in 2011 against Act 10’s emasculation of public sector workers. She is keenly aware of how glib and slippery Walker can be in a fight. Already he influenced media coverage of an anti-RTW march on his Wauwatosa home by saying his aging parents who also live there were upset. He has tried to turn his media fumbles in London and New York into “gotcha questions from the Liberal Media.” Now with a bill modeled word for word on ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council that has emerged as the right-wing’s factory for state legislation, Walker hopes to so rile workers into violence over his lightning passage that he can demean them as the ugly extreme ones. Yet a few months ago before his self-engineered failures he labeled RTW as “a distraction.” 

The trap is already sprung. The GOP has limited access and public testimony to one session Feb. 24 knowing protests will grow afterward. Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) told the media the legislation could “lead to unsafe conditions at the Capitol.” GOP Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is shepherding RTW through, intoned “We’ll see whether the Capitol blows up. I don’t know.”

It’s a stale ploy of bullying, noted Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who called the GOP out for “eighth-grade trickery.”

Determined to maintain peace while expressing passion and reason through the rallies, state AFL-CIO leader Phil Neuenfeldt has resisted the call from several community groups and maverick unionists for a general strike. He and other actual union leaders have solid reasons. Public workers are barred by law from striking, many private unions have signed labor peace agreements – and “we’re not big enough.” Walker clearly wants to pretend the unions are a problem they cannot be. He doesn’t realize the size of the upset. It was non-union forces and community activists, with some teachers, that led impromptu rallies against RTW in Milwaukee – one Feb. 23 closing Wisconsin Ave with signs and dozens of workers from local businesses and neighborhoods. So far they have pushed but stayed peaceful.

But where is the line between tough response and crowd discipline? Without enough votes to stop RTW, how long-term and how wide will the protests be? How deep is the gumption? What kind of national coverage will flow Wisconsin’s way? The state is clearly in turmoil, but the AFL-CIO is emphasizing the larger picture. RTW is “simply the next step in the billionaire right wing’s attempt to strip our freedoms to bargain with our employers,” said Trumka. “We need to use this fight to help all workers – union and non-union – in their demand to raise wages throughout our country. “

Neuenfeldt detailed to a radio audience in Madison the special-interest motives of ALEC, the Koch brothers and Walker’s biggest financiers. “They don’t dare give the people time to understand this,” he said. “They don’t want to have a debate, because they know once people realize what’s going on here they’re really going to object.”

Photo Facebook: Quickly organized rally against RTW blocked Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee’s Downtown briefly Monday night Feb. 23.



Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.