Friday, July 29, 2011

Issue #15- 48th Assembly District and Union Saving

Issue #15- July 29, Whither go the unions or wither go the unions?

While most of this issue will be devoted to looking at what is happening to unions in Wisconsin and where to go from here I was asked to provide more information about the race in Assembly District 48.  While there shouldn't be much of a race, the information I found about the Republican candidate was too much fun not to spend some time sharing.  I can't count how many times I've commented on the absolutely ludicrous nature of what we are facing here in Wisconsin.  If this wasn't actually happening it would make a great satire.  The race in the 48th continues this pattern.

Assembly District 48
Spencer Zimmerman (R) vs.
Chris Taylor (D)

Spencer Zimmerman has run for several offices in Wisconsin, losing each time.  He last ran for Dane County Executive in the spring of 2011.  During this campaign he didn't participate in any forums, raised no money and didn't respond to interview requests.  He did complete one survey and said he was against taxes and favored abolishing the County Executive position.  County GOP chair Mike Herl stated, "Nice guy.  As for knowing him personally, I don't know him."

A little more checking found that he is also running for state senate in Nebraska.  He is a former member of the Air Force and was stationed in Omaha for a time, though he lives and works in Madison.  He is running in part on a platform to make the legislature a unicameral system.

He currently has raised $400 for his Assembly campaign.  Of these donations $200 comes from him personally with one other donation from a chiropractic group. 

Chris Taylor won a difficult primary against several other qualified candidates.  A check of websites and social networks shows that she is actively participating in recall efforts supporting Democrats.  She was the public policy director for Planned Parenthood.  She has the support of key Madison political figures and state Democratic leaders. 

Who is the more qualified candidate?  Please remember to vote if you live in the 48th.  Low turnout is the only way Zimmerman can compete with Taylor.  He has had some close losses in local races, primarily due to low numbers voting in off years. 

Whither (to what place) or
Wither (fade, decay, shrivel)
the Unions
With the passing of the Budget Repair Bill all of us who are represented by public sector unions are wondering, what will happen now?  A brief review of what the BRB (SB-11) does:

This bill limits the right to collectively bargain for all employees who are not public safety employees (general employees) to the subject of base wages. In addition, unless a referendum authorizes a greater increase, any
general employee who is part of a collective bargaining unit is limited to bargaining over a percentage of total base wages increase that is no greater than the percentage change in the consumer price index.

This bill requires an annual certification election of the labor organization that represents each collective bargaining unit containing general employees. If, at the election, less than 51 percent of the actual employees in the collective bargaining unit vote for a representative, then, at the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement, the current representative is decertified and the members of the collective bargaining unit are nonrepresented and may not be represented for one year. This bill requires an initial certification election for all represented state and municipal general employees in April 2011.

This bill limits the term for general employees to one year and prohibits the extension of collective bargaining agreements.

Except for salary deductions for public safety employees, this bill prohibits the salary deductions for labor organization dues. This bill also allows a general employee to refrain from paying dues and remain a member of a collective bargaining unit.

Why Break Up Unions?
The reason behind this legislation is clear.  It has been shown that SB-11 is not about fiscal responsibility.  It is all about breaking up the unions and destroying another base of support for the Democratic Party.  Combined with "reform" of voter registration, redistricting, the Citizen's United ruling and other Republican efforts the electoral process in our state (and country) is being stolen.  Republican candidates and talking heads are pulling out all the stops to vilify unions.  Clearly breaking the unions is a big part of their plan to consolidate their power.    

Are Unions Still Relevant?
Some would argue that the unions are no longer necessary.  One message board had this statement, "Unions have outlived their usefulness, back in the old days when REAL abuse was rampant they were necessary…"  The implication is that now things are great.  Of course we all know that this isn't the case.  No matter where you work and how good things are at the moment we all need some support and protection.  This is especially true as the climate in Wisconsin changes and becomes more management friendly. 

Union membership has declined significantly in the past 30 years.  Estimates put the number of union members at about 12.4% in 2007.  This includes public and private sector unions.  It has been shown quite clearly that as membership has declined, wages and other benefits have followed for all workers (not just union members).

To fully answer the question, just think about what your workplace would be like without the efforts of unions over time.  Then think about what it will look like in the future without unions fighting to protect our rights.
Why should we protect our unions?  What do they provide for us?
*Legal support and protection
*More power in the workplace
*Personal and Professional support
*Safety Nets
*Information and resources
*Stability and consistency
*Community and Unity

I can think of many examples of how MTI has supported me and given me a sense of being part of a bigger whole.  However, not all unions are as strong as MTI.  Some districts and unions didn't have contracts in place when SB-11 took effect and are therefore already operating under its provisions.  Also there are divisions within all unions that will be widened by the stresses caused by the loss of income and loss of workplace rights.  It is important that these issues are addressed or they will be the final nail in the coffin that buries the union movement.  For MTI the differences between the different bargaining units, between classroom and specials/support teachers and difference between different levels (elementary, middle, high) are potential causes for divisions in the collective whole.

The simple reality is that many people will be pro or con regarding unions based on financial realities.  The same message board quoted earlier had a posting, "The union is good because at the moment the contract is pretty good."  That's exactly what the Republicans are counting on.  After SB-11 takes full effect contracts won't be good and therefore unions will lose membership.  Combined with the fact that dues won't be automatically deducted and recertification elections must take place annually, you can see the writing on the wall for our unions.

No one can argue that unions are perfect institutions.  Like all organizations they have flaws and these flaws will be exploited by the conservatives.  The flaws, divisions and financial costs will challenge the survival of public sector unions. 

How Can Unions Be Saved?
How can we counter this?  Think about your own workplace and the people who work there.  In my school there are many different perspectives on unions ranging from avid supporters to anti-union feelings.  In many cases the support of the union is based on personal and immediate needs. (What have you done for me lately?)  What will make the union stay alive and strong in your building/district.etc.?  Change is often scary, frequently difficult, but always necessary.  Unions will need increased flexibility to survive the attacks by the Walker administration.  Here are a few ideas that could provide ways to maintain union membership and even increase participation.

First, unions must make it clear to the workers they represent that they still have power.  In order to do this they must be visible in the recall efforts and in future elections.  Employees who recognize the impact that unions can have will support them.   During this time of crisis unions must carefully choose their battles and pick fights that they have a chance of winning.  They must clearly identify their purpose and fight hard to defend what they truly value.  People support a winner.  Unions must publicize their efforts and successes.   

Second, union members must reach out to each other and build personal relationships to keep the membership engaged and united.    The strength of unions is in their ability to connect people and provide strength and support in a collective whole.  Unions are the people and need to build on this strength.  Excessive bureaucracy and red tape only pushes people away from organizations.  These are times for unions to look at the way they do business and make changes.

Unions are the epitome of democracy in action.  They can't be imposed from the top down.  Just as we've learned that you can't simply declare a country to be a democracy (there are a few historical examples here), the same holds true in creating and/or maintaining a union.  Many union members are (re)discovering their belief in union values at the same time these values are under attack.

Third, while it may seem counterintuitive during this time of crisis, unions need to look for ways to expand their influence and cooperate within the labor movement.   Within each bargaining unit there are groups which feel underrepresented and even disenfranchised.  Unions need to reach out to these groups and gain their trust and support.  Just as individuals gain strength in numbers, unions can also benefit from association with other groups who share goals and interests.  Unions have sometimes competed with each other for membership and influence, but now isn't the time for infighting in the labor ranks. 

Fourth, unions need to educate their members.  Workers need to see where their unions came from, why they were created and what influence they have had in creating current working conditions.  If union members only know the present situation they won't realize how important unions have been in the history of America.  Learning about your history can be a source of strength and pride.  Many younger employees don't haven't experienced the conditions that lead to the formation of unions.

Finally they must provide services and activities that are needed by members.  Things like legal advice, financial relief and social outings among others, can remind members that unions care about their members.  The sense of support, common purpose and community are the driving forces in the formation of unions.  This sense of togetherness highlights on of  the major differences between Liberal and Conservative philosophy.  Conservative philosophy centers around the individual while the Liberal line of thinking looks more to people within communities.  The union slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all", is a clear example of the differences between the philosophies. 

All of these efforts rely on a strong base of caring and committed union members.  These members must be willing to sacrifice and work hard to provide examples to other employees and build support for the union.     

These are a few general ideas that can help save unions.  I will look at them more closely and provide examples in future issues.   


  1. Zimmerman is running for United States Senate in Nebraska. The FEDERAL office! On a platform of restoring the unicameral one-house Continental Congress that we had during the American Revolution!

  2. My mistake. I posted before I left town for the weekend and wasn't able to correct the error.