Bruised but not broken by losses at the ballot box and in the courtroom, labor unions will find new ways to organize and ratchet up their influence to the point where legislatures and courts will be forced to recognize that workers’ rights need to be respected, predicts Barry Eidlin, a post-doctoral fellow in sociology at UW-Madison.
But that point is a ways off, he admits.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling this week upholding the constitutionality of Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public workers, is part of a larger Republican effort to turn back much of the social legislation of the 20th century, Eidlin says.
Union activity is already being stripped back to pre-New Deal levels, he said. It took strikes and social upheaval for workers to win rights in the 1930s and “workers will once again have to take up that fight,” he says.
More broadly, Eidlin says, the most optimistic view of the nation’s economic future is that “people will recognize the economy is incredibly skewed toward the wealthy and powerful and something has to be done to redress the situation for the rest of us.”
There may be no sign of such a mass movement just yet, but historically such societal upheavals are recognized only in retrospect, he says. People involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, didn’t realize they were making history for a long time, he says.
Local labor leaders are vowing to boost their efforts — in political and community spheres — in the aftermath of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling.
“MTI is stronger than ever before,” declares John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., which brought the lawsuit against Walker that was decided Thursday. His membership has signed labor contracts through 2016 that the Madison Metropolitan School District says it will honor.
Matthews predicts that the court’s ruling will invigorate public employees in the upcoming gubernatorial election.
“We have the governor, who has taken rights away from a lot of people, and we have another candidate who says she supports collective bargaining. We will do everything we can to get Mary Burke elected,” Matthews says. “I think she will have very strong support from the private as well as the public sector.”
Campaign work is on the agenda as well for members of AFSCME Local 60, who work for the city of Madison, Dane County and Madison Metropolitan School District, says executive board member Rick Marx.
“We’re supporting Mary Burke and any candidate who is willing to meet with representatives of their employees,” Marx says.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Local 60’s contracts with the city will be terminated at the end of the year, while Dane County has indicated they will continue to honor labor contracts that are currently in effect.
Local 60 hasn’t been waiting around for the legal system to hand it a victory, Marx says.
“We’ve been spending two-plus years assuming we need to develop strategies beyond collective bargaining,” he says.
Marx refers to Justice Patrick Crooks’ concurring opinion to Thursday’s decision, in which he argued that Act 10 was constitutional, but went too far.
“He said collective bargaining is the best way to maintain good relationships and have justice and dignity for the worker,” Marx says.
In the opinion, Crooks quotes an 1891 encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Progressive U.S. Sen. Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin and Ronald Reagan in mounting an argument about the “value of work and contributions of workers to their societies.”
Eidlin, too, refers to Crooks’ opinion in talking about the value of state protection of collective bargaining rights.
“They serve a role in social stability,” Eidlin says. “Take that away and you should not be surprised to see less stable social relations.”
Public sector unions play a further role in the sense that they are a symbol of the social state, “the vision of a government that sees a role in taking care of its citizenship,” Eidlin says. ”Public sector unions are a bulwark for social protections. The Republican Party recognizes that. That’s why there has been a consistent attack on public sector unions. That’s a key reason why Act 10 was enacted.”
While he does not expect to see a mass movement for worker rights and economic justice immediately arise, there are some promising signs of resistance to the growing income gap, Eidlin says. They include the increased attention being given to raising the minimum wage, organizing fast-food workers and the National Labor Relations Board’s review of a standard that would allow corporate franchisers to be liable for labor practices in their franchise stores owned by others.
In the interim, Eidlin expects membership in public sector unions to drop, as membership has been made more costly and onerous by the provisions of Act 10.
That has been the trend thus far, with membership in the Wisconsin Education Association Council dropping from 98,000 members to about half that number and enrollment in the Wisconsin State Employees Union falling by as much as 60 percent, Milwaukee Magazine reports in a comprehensive story on the aftermath of Act 10.
In contrast, overall union membership in Wisconsin rose slightly from 2012 to 2103, increasing from 11.2 percent of workers to 12.3 percent of workers, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Eidlin’s research focuses on the comparison of labor history in the U.S. and Canada over the past century and a glimpse at that suggests the link between union strength and economic inequality.
The two countries had nearly identical levels of union membership until the mid-1960s, he says. But while most Canadian provinces now have laws requiring “agency shops” where even union non-members must pay agency fees, 24 of 50 U.S. states have “right to work” legislation prohibiting union membership or payment of dues or fees.
Union membership is now three times higher in Canada than in the U.S., Eidlin says. And income inequality in Canada, while growing and relatively high compared to other industrial nations, is “nowhere near where it is in the United States,” he says.
An academic study published in 2011 found that the decline in union membership rates was a key contributor — more than had been assumed — to the rise in economic inequality in the United States, Eidlin says.
“When the top 1 percent captures almost the entire economic growth of the past four or five years, it’s saying something about the whole system and how it allocates resources,” Eidlin says.