What Wisconsin Means for America's Unions

What Wisconsin Means for America's Unions

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In the last few weeks, Wisconsin has started to resemble the Middle East and the similarities are more than striking. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced a state budget recently that stripped state workers of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights, and cut their pay and benefits, he started a firestorm of public discontent about employment and worker's rights that has now manifested itself in significant demonstrations. At the heart of the battle is a fight, not just by state employees, but by their families, friends and supporters to maintain the integrity of unions in the state of Wisconsin. David Bacon is a photojournalist and associate editor of New America Media.

New America Now's Shirin Sadeghi: Welcome to the show David Bacon.

David Bacon:  My pleasure.

NAN: So just tell us what's happened in Wisconsin.

DB: Well, what's happened is an incredible outpouring of opposition to the legislation that was proposed by Wisconsin's governor that ostensibly was intended to resolve its budget crisis by requiring public workers to pay more for their pensions and their healthcare but in reality turned out to be a piece of legislation that also would have essentially made it impossible for the unions and the public workers to function. And so, people have been occupying the state capital building for days protesting about that.

in fact, their unions already agreed that they would essentially grant the economic concessions that the Governor was demanding but would not agree to the kinds of changes that he was proposing that would have attacked the existence of unions themselves, and so, people came out and occupied and have been occupying the state capitol building in order to essentially defend their union

NAN: So why did the Governor decide that to resolve the state financial crisis he would specifically target public workers and, basically, unions?

DB: Well, I think this is part of the Republican party's agenda nationally and what the Governor's doing in Wisconsin is pretty much identical to what governors and Republican legislators are also doing in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and there was even a proposal in Congress that got over 160 votes from Tea Party Republicans in Congress that would have done away with the National Labor Relations Board which is essentially the same thing as doing away with federal legislation that gives all workers in the United States the right to have unions.

NAN: But why specifically -- if you're saying it's Republicans or perhaps it's not just Republicans -- but why would any person in a position of power want to be rid of unions in this country?

DB: Well, I think that the reason for this particular attack on unions is an effort to try to use the budget crisis that is the product of the current recession as a way of rolling back the political power of unions. I think the Republican party essentially is defending the interests of large corporations here and there has been a lot of media speculation about the relationship between the Governor of Wisconsin and other governors who are making similar proposals, for instance, the Koch brothers who are very large corporate funders of the Tea Party section of the Republican party. This is about politics and political power, really.

NAN: Is this possibly also an effort to target minorities? Because I know that there are a great deal of minorities in the unions in this country. i mean African-Americans are in many positions of leadership in unions.

DB: Yes, that's true. I think that the Governor would deny this and the Republican party as an official decision would deny this. But demographics here, I think, speak for themselves. What's taken place in states like Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin is that as the auto plants and the steel mills and the big industrial concerns that employed large numbers of African-American workers, especially after people came north after World War II. Over the last 25 years we've seen just an enormous elimination of those jobs as the mills and factories have closed. So public employment has become the main area which African-American workers are concentrated.

We're talking about everything from hospital workers, to bus drivers, to teachers to essentially people working for state and local governments here. In fact, I think you could argue that the representation of African-American workers in those positions, led to, in many cases, the unionization of those jobs because of the high degree of support among African-American workers and people for unions.

Now we find that many of the unions for public employees are unions that are being led by African-American union leaders. In fact, the most important leader of the main union that is opposing the governor in Wisconsin, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has been Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy and Bill Lucy was the highest African-American union official in the country and also the founder of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists which was designed to increase the involvement of African-American workers in unions.

NAN: Well, has Bill Lucy or any other African-American leader in the unions in Wisconsin sort of spoken up and said, 'wait, this is becoming a race issue'?

DB: I don't think that they have put it that way. I think that people have been very careful about trying to make this a movement in which all workers can feel that they are represented and can find a home. So, despite the fact that demographically speaking this attack is having its sharpest effect on African-American workers, when you look at the photographs, for instance in the newspapers, of the demonstrations in the capitol building in Madison, you see a very large diversity of people. There are African-American workers, White workers, Latinos, Asians -- pretty much a cross section of the U.S. work force.

I think unions are trying to be very careful to ensure that everybody feels that the union belongs to them, that you don't have to be a particular race or nationality to feel that your union is going to represent your interests here.

NAN: Let's talk about the teacher's unions because I think there's been a bit of a surprise in the Office of the Governor in Wisconsin and elsewhere in Wisconsin about the fact that the attack on the teacher's unions has been taken up as a cause by the students and parents of these teachers as well.

DB: That's right. There really have been enormous numbers of students in these demonstrations in Madison. And as the demonstrations are now taking place in Columbus, Ohio and then Indianapolis, Indiana, you see the same thing, which is the students sticking up for the teachers. And this kind of defies the way in which the media has kind of portrayed the relationship between students and their parents and teachers, which has generally been to say that students and parents are at war with teachers over the problems of the U.S. educational system.

And, you know, what you're seeing, especially in these demonstrations in Madison, is a very strong identification of students with their teachers. In other words, the students who have participated in these demonstrations have come there to say, essentially, that cutting the salaries of teachers by making them pay more for their pensions and their healthcare and attacking their ability to have unions is something that is going to affect the education of students themselves.

The working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students. And so, that's what I think has brought students out into the arena here, is their effort to defend the schools that they themselves are going to.

NAN: Has there been any force used against the demonstrators? Because the Governor shockingly announced that he had alerted the National Guard in case people strike or rise in protest.

DB: Well I think that was a scare tactic there and he was attempting to tell all those demonstrators who were packing the hallways of the capitol building and the legislative chambers that they were going to be arrested for trespassing.

But he also did one other thing with the same end in view and that was to tell firefighters and police officers that he was not going to require the same changes from them, either in terms of economic concessions or especially the attack on their unions that he was requiring from the unions of other public employees. In other words, essentially it was to try and buy the loyalty, especially the police and the firefighters.

When you look at the people who are out there in the hallways of the state capitol you see that the Governor really very badly miscalculated because there are a lot of cops and firemen in the ranks of the people who are sitting in the hallways there, and they, I think, feel very strongly. In fact, there have been statements by the unions for firefighters and police that if the Governor is successful in restricting the rights of unions for other public employees, eventually he'll come after the unions for police and firefighters, too.

NAN: David Bacon, thank you for joining us today.

DB: It was my pleasure.

David Bacon is a photojournalist and Associate Editor of New America Media.

The original audio of this interview can be found here.