Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Unions

Wisconsin Unions are No Stranger to Presidential Politics

flagLast Tuesday night, shortly before Tom Barrett strode to the stage to accept his party’s nomination to take on Scott Walker in Wisconsin’s June recall election, Barrett received a big atta-boy from the White House. In a statement, President Obama announced he was “proud to stand with Tom Barrett,” because the Milwaukee mayor would “move Wisconsin forward.”

It wasn’t the first time Obama had involved himself in the Wisconsin imbroglio over public sector collective bargaining. At the outset of the Madison protests last year, he called Walker’s proposal an “assault” on government workers. As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and “walk on that picket line” to preserve the “right” to collectively bargain.

Obama’s interest in Wisconsin is easily explainable; a Barrett victory would aid the president’s prospects in the state immeasurably come November. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that will determine the presidency in 2012; if Walker is seen as vindicated, it could demoralize the state’s Democrats. For this reason, many see the recall as a precursor to the presidential election; in many ways, November could be Wisconsin writ large.

Of course, the current recall effort is unprecedented. But this isn’t the first time the issue of public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin was inextricably intertwined with a seminal presidential election.

In September of 1959, telegenic young U.S. senator John F. Kennedy made the third of what would be many trips to Wisconsin to build support for his eventual run for the presidency in 1960. Wisconsin was the first primary in the nation, so Kennedy needed to win the state to show he was a serious player on the national scene.

On September 25th, Kennedy’s plane landed at Truax field in Madison; he was greeted by newly-minted governor Gaylord Nelson, Madison mayor Ivan Nestingen and state Democratic Party chair Patrick Lucey. They immediately shuffled Kennedy off to a meeting with 40 state labor leaders at Madison’s Park hotel.

Kennedy’s relationship with labor was tenuous, at best. He had served on the famous Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, which investigated the rampant corruption of Teamster’s president Jimmy Hoffa and his predecessor, David Beck. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, served as the chief counsel for the committee, and was widely regarded as an aggressive prosecutor of union misdeeds. (Robert Kennedy later documented his experience uncovering widespread union corruption in his book The Enemy Within.)

Inspired by his work on the committee tasked with exposing union corruption, John F. Kennedy introduced legislation that reformed union financial and reporting structures. In 1959, the Kennedy-Ervin union bill was merged with a much stricter President Eisenhower-endorsed Republican House version (the “Landrum-Griffin” bill), and became law.

Yet unions believed the final bill too closely resembled the original Republican version, and held Kennedy’s support of the final bill against him. At the September meeting in Madison, organized labor leaders excoriated Kennedy for voting in favor of Landrum-Griffin.

Madison Federation of Labor president Marvin Brickson asked Kennedy why he supported legislation that was “detrimental to labor unions.” Kennedy answered that Landrum-Griffin actually helped unions, as it would have prevented the corruption that had sullied the name of organized labor. (Hoffa had been creating so-called “paper unions” with phony members, which he then used to gain more control of the Teamsters.)

Harold Rohr, president of the Madison City Council and a representative of Painters Local 802, told Kennedy that the bill made “second class citizens” of honest workers. “The rank and file of labor people didn’t want to be harassed by this type of legislation,” Rohr protested.

Michael McMahan, business agent for the construction workers’ union, complained that the legislation unfairly targeted building trades. “I’ll say it as bluntly as I can,” Kennedy responded. “The building trades came out pretty well in this bill.” Kennedy then asked McMahan what he would suggest should be done. “I suggest you leave labor alone,” McMahan shot back.

That very day, in a show of solidarity with organized labor, Governor Nelson approved the nation’s first law allowing local employees to unionize. The 1958 election of Nelson, only the second Democrat elected in Wisconsin in the 20th century, made all the difference for labor unions.

Due to the Progressives’ takeover of the state Republican Party in the early 20th century, elected Democrats in Wisconsin were scarce. By 1958, it had been 26 years since a Democrat had won the Wisconsin governorship.

Democrats had been in the minority in the state senate and assembly since 1893. For four straight legislative sessions (1923–1929), there were no Democrats in the Senate.

Yet in the 1950s, Democrats began to emerge as a serious party in Wisconsin, in large part due to the money they raised from labor unions. When Democrat William Proxmire ran for governor in 1954, 55 percent of the money he raised was from organized labor. Labor also offered Democrats vote mobilization, phone banks, Election Day transportation, and independent expenditures. In The History of Wisconsin Vol. 6, author William F. Thompson speculated that “the triumph of the Democratic party in the late 1950’s would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, without these various contributions of the unions.” Republicans still outspent Democrats two to one, but organized labor was able to close the gap considerably.

Republicans, sensing the threat, in 1955 passed the Caitlin Act, which prohibited labor unions from contributing to political parties, committees, or candidates for state or local office. After passage of the act, union donations to Democrats plummeted.

But Democrats quickly adapted, and soon the state stopped enforcing the Caitlin Act altogether. In Nelson’s successful gubernatorial race in 1958, 21.7 percent of his money was raised from labor.

Shortly after Nelson took office came the law allowing collective bargaining for state and municipal employees. Soon, government unions flourished — and so did Democratic fundraising. Thanks to contributions by organized labor, a Democratic Party debt of $10,000 after Nelson’s election was turned into a $50,000 surplus by 1963. Soon, Democrats became the dominant political party in Wisconsin.

But while Nelson was pushing ahead for the unions, organized labor remained skeptical of Kennedy. Many Democrats thought Kennedy was simply trying to buy a Wisconsin primary win, although he and his competitor, Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, both spent about $150,000 in the election. Humphrey, who was an expert in labor politics, and who at one point in the campaign joined a union picket line and sang “Solidarity Forever,” despised the wealthy “Kennedy machine.” At one point, Humphrey likened himself to a “corner grocer running against a chain store.”

On election night, Kennedy got the Wisconsin win he needed; albeit by a slim 56 percent majority. Kennedy won six of the state’s ten congressional districts; the overwhelming majority of his votes came from the four most Catholic of those districts. Humphrey took the results as good news and stayed in the race to fight on in West Virginia; later, Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson would all join in the Democratic primary to unsuccessfully thwart Kennedy’s ambition.

Had Wisconsin labor not been so skeptical of Kennedy, it is possible he could have cruised to his party’s nomination, and avoided the convention fight he would eventually face. In the general election, Kennedy would go on to lose Wisconsin by four percentage points to Richard Nixon, although, of course, he would win the presidency.

So while it may seem like Wisconsin is swimming in unchartered waters, it isn’t the first time union angst in the state has altered a presidential election. Only this time, Democrats have to hope a Walker win doesn’t erase some of the pages of their blueprint.

-May 14, 2012

Fan Mail of the Day

From today’s inbox, a comment by someone at Ohio State University:

Saw your article “It’s Working in Walker’s Wisconsin”. History does seem to repeat itself and go in cycles. I guess the public will just have to relearn why their grandparent’s generation fought the robber barons and those extremely exploitative jobs. I wish someone would do an analysis on the types of jobs Walker is bringing in. I can tell, Mr. Schneider would never want to work that type of job. Corporate sluts like Walker and yourself will never know what it’s like to work and be stuck in a labor intensive job, though karma would tell us it’s exactly what you deserve.

You, sir, are no friend of mine, you hate your common brother enough to send him to the sweatshops. All for selling out to money from Walker or the Koch bros. The suffering you contribute to will hopefully be put on your shoulders by St. Peter.

I’m only offended because I am more of a standard slut, not the corporate variety.


The 2011 Year in Review

My Year in Review column for the Isthmus is up.  It discusses, naturally, the goings-on in Wisconsin politics over the past year.  Here’s a snippet:

It was a year that granted the definition of the word “democracy” a previously unimaginable elasticity. While bullhorns around the Capitol blared “this is what democracy looks like,” 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to prevent democracy from occurring. Later, a single Dane County judge would overturn Walker’s law, which irony-deficient Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called “a huge win for democracy in Wisconsin.” The law would later be reinstated by an incredulous state Supreme Court.

It was these same “democracy enthusiasts” who decided to use Wisconsin’s 85-year-old recall law to cast a number of democratically elected Republicans from office. Since the law was passed in 1926, only two state elected officials had been recalled from office; in 2011, nine state senators faced that fate, demonstrating that this is what democracy has never looked like. Despite over $40 million being spent on the senate recalls, Republicans won four of the six contested seats and retained control of the state senate by a one-vote margin.

In some districts, Republicans won by more comfortable margins than they ever had before. Of the two GOP senators who lost, one was in a district Barack Obama carried by 18 percentage points. The other was embroiled in a personal scandal involving a 25-year-old mistress. Thus, after the rancorous recall process, the enduring lesson was: It\’s probably a bad idea to cheat on your wife.

It was a year where Madison teachers showed parents how much they valued their kids by walking out on them for a four-day sick-out. Some teachers even brought their pupils down to the Capitol to help them protest. When a group of Madison East high school students were asked why they were marching on the statehouse during a school day, one young man said he was “trying to stop whatever this dude is doing.”

Read the whole thing here.

Public School Principals: No Good Turn Left Unpunished

Over at the mothership, Sunny Schubert has a wonderful column about a teacher she knows that has attempted to infuse his school with a little class. Zach, the fresh faced 22 year old newbie, decided he needed to set himself apart from his 7th grade students, so he started wearing a tie to school. For this transgression, he was mocked by the veteran teachers, none of whom saw any reason to dress up for school. In a show of solidarity with their teacher, Zach’s students actually started wearing ties to school – while the other teachers took time out of their day to trash his classroom with gaudy neckties.

This story is good enough – but Schubert also mentions a wildly entertaining “scandal” brewing at Glendale Elementary School in Madison, which serves a large number of African-American children. (In fact, Glendale has the highest percentage of poor and minority students at any Madison elementary school.)

In 2005, Mickey Buhl took over as Glendale’s principal, with the purpose of instilling the school with a new attitude and more innovative techniques. Since he took over, the school’s test scores have risen dramatically.

Yet Buhl’s techniques haven’t sat well with a handful of the school’s teachers, who have filed a number of complaints against the principal. Schubert points out these complaints are summarized in this 27-page attorney report posted at the website.

It is an astounding document. It details the travails of a principal merely trying to provide the best education for his kids, yet having to spend most of his time refereeing the most banal, petulant disputes between teachers and himself. Even when Buhl attempted to mediate disputes between teachers or between a teacher and himself, the teachers generally lawyered up and demanded a teacher’s union representative be present.

Among Buhl’s transgressions that earned him complaints:

  • Upon taking office, he urged teachers to stop “gossiping” amongst themselves. Teachers found that the term “gossip” made them “uncomfortable.”
  • He often tried to talk to uncooperative teachers who either insulted him or simply walked away. Many thought his insistence that he be treated respectfully were “intimidating” and it made them uncomfortable.
  • An attempt to tell a food service worker to stop raising her voice to the kids eventually led to that worker contacting her representative at the food workers union to file a grievance. The worker also refused to do any tasks that went beyond her duties as a food service worker, even for a few minutes.
  • Sometimes, Buhl would attempt to compliment his teachers by comparing them to his former school. He would tell them they do this-or-that much better than he had seen in the past. According to their complaint, some Glendale staff members were “uncomfortable with Mr. Buhl’s use of comparisons as compliments.” They believed he shouldn’t be “putting down” people in order to “build them up.” (A hearty eye roll and head shake is warranted here.)
  • One teacher who had previously resigned offered to return as a volunteer. Buhl thought it was a good idea. Of course, the union objected and filed a complaint, as they generally oppose volunteers doing the jobs of paid teachers. That teacher then gave up and never volunteered.
  • At field day in 2008 and 2009, Buhl would play with the kids, picking up a hose and squirting them with water. Some of the teachers were squirted, as well. Uncomfortable. Complaint.
  • Buhl and many of the teachers disagreed over the school’s bullying policy. Buhl thought bullying was repeated instances of unwanted touching, while the teachers thought one touch was enough. To demonstrate, Buhl pushed one of the teachers as a demonstration to ask if that was “bullying.” Uncomfortable. Complaint. (Although it doesn’t say the teacher herself complained – it merely says the fact he touched her made “some staff members” uncomfortable.)

In other instances, Buhl is accused of “raising his voice” or using “threatening body language.” Yet after reading through all the snarky insolence he had to endure, it’s a wonder he kept his cool as well as he did. (In many instances, problems arose with the school’s interpreters for deaf students – had I been principal, I may have sent them an unmistakable signal in sign language.)

Someday, someone is going to write a great movie contrasting how elementary students learn the basics of how to interact and relate with one another – while each disagreement their teachers have with one another ends up in a soap opera-style drama or a union grievance. Clearly, the 4th graders are more mature than many of their teachers.

And as for Buhl, this is the thanks he gets for trying to give kids the best education they can get. He was exonerated on all of the complaints mentioned in the report, yet he clearly spent hours and hours trying to mediate the BS the teachers slung at him. It’s mind-boggling to think what goes on at elementary schools that don’t have principals as dedicated to the children.

Why a Lame Duck Session Could be Good For Unions, but Bad for Taxpayers

duckFor the first time in ages, Wisconsin is going to have a new governor that did not rise to the state’s top job from the ranks of state government. Yet the specter of one of the current candidates is already affecting how the current state government does business.

The polls may be close, but Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has held a consistent lead in the gubernatorial race against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. This fact is not lost on the elected officials and bureaucrats in Madison, who have been bracing state government for a win by the conservative Walker.

For instance, Walker has said that if elected, he would make it his mission to stop construction of a federally-funded $810 million rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. As a response, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) reacted by shoveling as much money out the door as possible, to make it more difficult for a potential Governor Walker to stop its construction. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $300 million will be committed to the project by the end of 2010, up from the $50 million previously estimated.

Other legislative actions attempted to buttress state government against Walker’s potential victory. In its waning session days, the Wisconsin Legislature entertained proposals to extend the tenure of existing cabinet secretaries (making sure they stay in office well into Walker’s first term), and further restricting the Wisconsin governor’s veto authority – a move Democrats resisted during Jim Doyle’s tenure.

And while the session has ended and legislators are strewn throughout the state trying to get themselves re-elected, legislative Democrats still have one large pre-emptive chip to play: state employee union contracts.

Every two years, the Legislature sets aside funds to pay for unionized state employee raises. For the 2010-11 fiscal years, $351 million was budgeted for this compensation reserve fund.

Once the money is set aside, the state Department of Employment Relations (DER) is charged with negotiating contracts with the state’s 19 professional unions. Currently, all 19 units are actively negotiating with the state. Once agreement is reached with the state, each bargaining unit must go back to their members and ratify the contracts before they are voted on by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employee Relations.

Normally, this is a fairly lengthy process. But with a new governor entering office in three months, this isn’t a normal year.

Consider the fact that union-friendly Democrats hold control of the State Legislature all the way up until the new session begins on January 3rd of 2011 (the heads of both legislative houses are former labor leaders). Also, consider that former state senator and Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Joe Wineke is the DER representative negotiating on the state’s behalf. Wineke, currently the Administrator of the DER’s Division of Compensation and Labor Relations, has a long history of supporting union-friendly legislation, including “card check” proposals that would allow greater intimidation of workers hesitant to unionize.

The calculus isn’t difficult. There’s a large pot of money waiting to be handed out to unionized state employees, and the process is controlled by the legislators most likely to reward those employees with pay raises. And with a fiscal conservative like Scott Walker poised to take control of the governorship, this might be their last chance to reap the largesse of the state’s compensation fund.

If settlements are reached with the unions soon, it could only be a matter of weeks before the contracts are ratified and sent to the Legislature for approval. Democrats would have to bless the contracts during their lame duck session, which to this point would be unprecedented. But they’re two years away from another election, and many of them will be leaving the chambers for good when the new session begins.

The unions themselves have noticed. On their website, the Wisconsin State Employees Union has specifically called for a legislative special session in November or December, so they can get Governor Doyle’s signature on their contracts by January 1st:

“Our window of opportunity gets narrower if we decide to settle, we would want to gain legislative approval and the governor’s signature before January 1, meaning we only have November and part of December to have a special session called for ratification.”

What’s stopping them?

-October 20, 2010

“Mommy, What Does a Union Member Look Like?”

The stereotype of the typical union member is time-tested. Union Man is a pot-bellied factory worker or tradesman making a good living despite never having graduated college. He wears an old flannel shirt and muddy work boots. And much like the Catholic Church hierarchy, in which the bigger your hat, the greater your importance, union status is conferred on those with the largest mustaches.

Union Man believes in the strength of numbers—that the security of his job depends on the security of his colleagues’ jobs, even if he knows he works harder than they do. He’s suspicious of people who make more money than he does, and Union Man thinks “the rich” aren’t paying their “fair share.”

As such, Union Man supports Democratic candidates with both his union dues and his vote. And he isn’t afraid to vote against his best interests if it means sticking it to management.

In Wisconsin, this stereotype was most recently reinforced by the saga of Mercury Marine, a small-engine factory near Sheboygan that faced falling revenues and a beckoning suitor in Oklahoma. Mercury asked its union for concessions or suffer the closing of the plant. It took the workers three contested votes to reach a deal to save their jobs.

As this charade rolled on, the public gazed, incredulously, at the union members in their natural habitat, tempting the catastrophic closing of their plant with their obstinacy. Thus, the age-old stereotype of the union simpleton as hardhat economic illiterate gained currency.

But not so fast.

In reality, the typical union member is a very different person. A statewide poll conducted in September by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (publisher of this magazine) found the typical union member to be female, with a college education, making more than $75,000 per year. Of the union households responding to the survey, 79% had attended college, with 14% completing graduate work.

Even more intriguing, the typical union household is much more fiscally conservative than traditional stereotypes would suggest. Among union members, 52% listed either “holding the line on taxes and government spending” or “improving the state’s economy and protecting jobs” as the top priority of the Legislature. Traditional union priorities, such as making health care and prescription drugs more affordable (12%), scored much lower than expected.

Among union households, President Obama is still popular, with a 64% approval rating. Yet Gov. Jim Doyle, who is to Wisconsin unions what Hugh Hefner is to teenage boys, actually has a high unfavorability rating, with 49.7% rating him “somewhat” or “very” unfavorably. This is even higher than the 47.4% unfavorable rating Doyle received from the public at large.

So put away the stereotype of the typical union member. Forget about the picketing goon and consider the professional woman who tends to be an economic conservative. How did our perception get so wrong?

For one, unionization in America has been changing rapidly. According to the census, 20% of workers in the U.S. were union members in 1983. Twenty-five years later, union membership has dropped to 12% of the workforce. Yet membership remains high in public-sector jobs, with government workers five times more likely to be union members than their private-sector counterparts. And within government, education and library service jobs were the most heavily unionized, at 38.7%.

As we know, “education” and “library” jobs have traditionally meant “women.” And that is why, after men held a 10-point lead nationally over women in union membership in 1983, it appears professional women may have crept ahead in Wisconsin in 2009.

And these women, despite being unionized government employees, are educated, well paid, and shell out a boatload in taxes. Which may explain, in large part, why they may be more apt to be skeptical of government.

For instance, when asked whether government should guarantee every citizen a job and a good standard of living, 67% of union households objected to the notion—even higher than the overall 65% “no” from the general public.

So when you’re out at a restaurant and commenting on the typical “union goons,” remember: Today’s union members walk among us, like chameleons adapting to their new environments. Their changed appearance has thrown our “union-dar” out of whack, so it’s much more difficult to tell who might be a card-carrying AFL-CIO member.

And today’s union members may be more reasonable than we remember. Before conservatives write them off, it might bear electoral fruit for Republicans to get to know them better.

After all, these are not your father’s unions.