For days, weeks, months, Wisconsin was the center of national attention as hundreds of thousands flocked to the Capitol to protest one of the most significant anti-labor laws of a generation.

The buzz died down as the protests dwindled and Gov. Scott Walker won the recall election, but progressive activists and union leaders are still watching Wisconsin intently to see if the damage inflicted on unions by Gov. Scott Walker will spark a new form of labor advocacy.

“Act 10 is forcing unions to reinvent themselves and build power at the base,” reports labor writer James Cersonsky in Salon.

Indeed, when I interviewed former Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell last year, she emphasized how the elimination of automatic dues has forced union leadership to aggressively engage with members on a face-to-face level to explain the benefit of continuing to pay dues.

But now that public sector unions have no meaningful bargaining power, it is tougher to convince employees to pay up. The Journal Sentinel reports that membership in public unions has indeed taken a steep drop since Act 10. If a union can’t bargain on your behalf, then what are you paying it to do?

Cersonsky’s answer: Direct advocacy.

Instead of raising money to elect Democrats or hire lobbyists, unions will ideally become more grassroots-oriented, engaging in the type of direct advocacy that many progressive activists complained the large public unions had eschewed because they had become a part of the political establishment.

A prime example he cites is the Teaching Assistants Association at UW-Madison, a union that once upon a time had full-time staff to deal with issues of collective bargaining, but has now essentially become an advocacy group for grad students.

“With the drop in member dues, the union laid off all its staff. In place, it has reinvented itself to leverage worker voice outside the bounds of collective bargaining. Last school year, it launched 'Pay Us Back.' Through 'grade-ins' at administrative offices, petitions and informal bargaining, workers are seeking a raise in wages, which sit, on average, below $10,000 a year, and a remission of required fees, which soak about 10 percent of their pay.”

With no institutional framework (collective bargaining) within which to resolve grievances, larger and more conservative unions (the TAA has always been aggressively left-wing) unions are relying more on mobilizing the voice of members.

For instance, recalls AFSCME Council 24 executive director Marty Beil, rather than file a grievance when a school employee was told to remove his AFSCME shirt at work, the union organized a 75-deep protest.

While labor’s behavior in Wisconsin has certainly changed since Act 10, it’s tough to know whether some of the changes are reaping rewards. How, for instance, are we to regard the recent vote by state corrections officiers to leave AFSCME — the state’s second largest public union — and potentially set up their own, independent union? It may be an indication that the leadership of AFSCME is disconnected from many of its members. Or it may be a sign of truly engaged union activists who believe they can effect change better on a smaller, grassroots basis within their workplace.

Cersonsky concludes: "Once again, Wisconsin is ground zero for the future of the labor movement — the catalyst for a new, disassembled, fitting-and-starting labor movement."

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.

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(14) comments

WI_Expat
WI_Expat

Lets see how big public union labor in a liberal state like California treats peaceful protests...and not in the capital rotunda but along public roads:

http://youtu.be/4hzjy9WSqIc

http://youtu.be/l-CC8yAlvVM

Not heard any Solidarity Singers along public roads getting attacked and signs ripped from them.

Appears that liberal California is WAY more against the 1st Amendment than little ol Scotty in Wisconsin!!!!


teabaggersunited
teabaggersunited

Wages for the workers need to increase. Lower the stock options of the CEO and give the money to the front line workers who really create the wealth with thier day in day out hard work! No one person's productivity is worth the millions these CEO folks earn! These higher wages for the front line workers will be spent on products and services that will create demand and then more jobs here in USA! Demand creates jobs.

Cornelius Gotchberg
Cornelius Gotchberg

@Alec/TBU;

A real shame they kicked @Alec to the curb, am I right? (sic)

Or is your unqualified brilliance unable to be adequately expressed with just the one commenting account?

The Gotch

timbo
timbo

What is a "75-deep protest"?

Argyle
Argyle

It's not surprising that Unions are waning. They were built by blue collar workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas. The unionizing going on with service workers is heartening. It's a huge portion of the work force and certainly one of the most abused. Unions built middle class America and hopefully they will help us fend off the new feudalism the plutocrats are building.

mbadger
mbadger

Most citizens are on to the abuses unions inflict on the taxpayers. Unions will not make a comeback as way to many people are fed up with them. Walker has even been able to hold the line on tax increases after years and years of higher taxes.

Argyle
Argyle

You mean abuses like 40 hour work weeks, minimum wage, anti-child labor laws, sick leave and unemployment compensation? Are those what you feel abused about?

196ski
196ski

Those have been codified into law for decades.

The union model doesn't work in an open economy. If wages drive the cost of a good or service beyond a competitive price then the company fails.

Wis_BlogRider
Wis_BlogRider

196ski. Agree with you the huge impractical amounts of wages American CEO's are taking can drive the cost of goods and services beyond a competitive price and the company will fail. When wages of the American workforce need to be matched to slave labor conditions in countries where wages are next to nothing our whole country sooner than later is going to fail unless we start making some prudent corrective actions.

Norwood44
Norwood44

Nav. Interesting take from you since you have chastised others repeatedly by saying the unions are old news. But I agree with you. If the unions could rescind ACT 10 they would do it in a minute, and we would be subjected to the same bad contracts that brought us Scott Walker. So which is it? Are the unions a dead issue or not? If they are, then my criticisms of their political power and wealth, fat cat bosses and unfair contracts are fair game.

Nav
Nav

I have always felt that the Labor movement was not going to die in spite of ACT 10. If anything, it may well emerge stronger in the months and years to come, totally baffling our Governor and his supporters.

Act 10 is a TEMPORARY law that will either be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or be invalidated by a future legislature. It has no place in a progressive state.

Huck
Huck

Contracts with orderly procedures and tricky language were always tools of management designed to keep control. True collective activity is issue by issue and has few rules if any. I hope we will see the birth of this type of collective power. We have seen glimpses of it in WI over the years. I believe Walker will have recreated a giant and this cleansing was necessary.

Norwood44
Norwood44

No municipal employee needs a 150 page contract. Name one private citizen with one like that. Wretched excess at the expense of citizens.

Argyle
Argyle

They don't if they are being employed in good faith but that ship has sailed.

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