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."