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Fired for a Short Skirt? The Realities of Anti-Worker Laws in Wisconsin and Ohio

Last year’s labor protests across the Midwest rattled the country. They shook Republican politicians who thought they’d have an easy time erasing union workers’ rights. They spurred thousands of rank-and-filers into action. They rejuvenated a beaten down progressive movement and forced middle-class progressives to rediscover the language of class and workers’ rights. They inspired talk … Continued

Last year’s labor protests across the Midwest rattled the country. They shook Republican politicians who thought they’d have an easy time erasing union workers’ rights. They spurred thousands of rank-and-filers into action. They rejuvenated a beaten down progressive movement and forced middle-class progressives to rediscover the language of class and workers’ rights. They inspired talk of tactics and ideologies that haven’t been tried since the 1930s. They laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new and vibrant protest movement that spread nationwide.

And they reminded Americans of the value of organized labor. People who’d never been part of a union stood and marched, rallied and voted, knocked on their neighbors’ doors to gather signatures on petitions for recall elections and a ballot referendum.

“For all its faults, the National Labor Relations Act established that it is the policy of the US government to encourage collective bargaining,” Jacob Remes, assistant professor of public affairs and history at SUNY Empire State College, told AlterNet. “The New Deal established collective bargaining as a fundamental part of democracy—what they called industrial democracy. We talk about how the New Deal era has ended, but I think one of the great things about these fights is that they reminded people—politicians, pundits, the populace—that despite the decline of the rest of the New Deal, we still believe in at least this element of industrial democracy.”

In Wisconsin, despite over 100,000 protesting in the streets of Madison and a weeks-long occupation of the Capitol, Governor Scott Walker signed Act 10 into law, stripping around 175,000 public workers of their right to bargain collectively with their bosses over anything but wages. Wisconsinites turned to recall elections to express their anger; they recalled two Republican state senators and are now working on getting rid of Gov. Walker.

“One of the things people we represent now see is the value of their collective bargaining agreements,” Marty Beil of AFSCME Council 24 told AlterNet. “Workers come in and they take for granted all the protections and benefits and processes. Now that there’s no collective bargaining agreement and management can do what they want with you, folks are getting a better understanding of the value of their union.”

In Ohio, state law allowed workers to get SB5, the anti-union bill, on the ballot as a referendum in 2011 and overturn it by a substantial margin. While that hasn’t stifled Governor John Kasich’s attacks on workers, it has certainly limited his ability to directly crack down on union power. The anti-labor Right hasn’t rested, though, and it is still pushing other bills—and even a constitutional amendment—that would undermine unions in other ways.

It’s obvious that the conditions on the ground for working people in Wisconsin and Ohio are very different. AlterNet took a look at the struggles of public workers in both states—what it’s like to have lost collective bargaining rights, the endless string of new attacks on workers, and what people in both states are doing to fight back.

Missing Collective Bargaining in Wisconsin

For those watching Wisconsin after last year’s protests, most of the news has been of recall elections—last year, the recalls of two Republican state senators and this year’s recall of Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and four more state senators, launched with a petition signed by over one million people.

But in the meantime, Walker’s Act 10 went into effect June 29, 2011, instantly stripping collective bargaining rights from some 175,000 Wisconsin public employees, and the recalls have yet to produce changes in the law.

According to information gathered by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, a state worker who earns $40,000 a year, under Act 10, has lost an average of $3,668 from her paycheck. “That’s $70 a week cut from a family budget, $70 weekly which cannot be spent at local stores,” they point out. They also estimate the loss to local economies caused by the pay cuts and hikes in the workers’ side contributions to health insurance premiums will be over $700 million—and that taking that money out of Wisconsin’s economy will lead to the loss of nearly 7,000 private-sector jobs in the first year of the governor’s austerity budget.

And it’s not just wages that have been lost. “Regardless of what happens with the recall, we’re probably not going to be able to completely roll back the increases in contributions on health insurance and pensions,” Jenni Dye, an attorney and candidate for Dane County Board, told AlterNet.

Meanwhile, under Act 10, unions are now required to recertify each year, holding an election that requires 51 percent support of all employees in the bargaining unit—even if some of them choose not to vote. This means that, unlike political elections in this country, any non-vote is counted as a “no.” In large bargaining units, made up of thousands of workers, Beil said, that makes recertification nearly impossible, and many of the unions didn’t try.

For those that did go through the recertification process, Act 10 placed extreme limits on what they can bargain over—wages only, up to a capped increase at the consumer price index. (The AFL-CIO noted that there is no such cap on non-union workers’ wage increases.) Vacations, benefits, working conditions, sick days, overtime—bargaining for any of that is expressly forbidden.

Now Walker has even refused to negotiate with the unions willing to jump through all these hoops to comply with his law. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that two of the unions, the State Professional Education and Information Council #1 and the Wisconsin State Attorneys Association, have filed unfair labor practice complaints against Walker’s administration because it has refused to set a date for negotiations—and as many as four other unions might also file suit. These unions have gone through elections, finishing, according to Beil, in December of last year, and have been trying to get Walker to come to the bargaining table ever since. Dye said that Walker’s refusal to negotiate proves that his goal was always “to see an end to collective bargaining, period, in Wisconsin.”

Beil represents, among others, workers at the state’s correctional institutions, who are openly being told by their bosses that they simply have no union anymore. Yet the unions keep fighting for the workers, even without official recognition. AFSCME and others have to use the courts or administrative hearings to fight for the workers. Beil called it “a campaign of suppression and intimidation.”

Beil told a story of guards at a women’s correctional facility, who get sent along with inmates when they have to go to the hospital to hold a “vigil.” If one of the guards has to use the bathroom while waiting, they are now required to call the prison, get a replacement sent out, and not use the bathroom until they have returned to their post at the prison. “Workers are every day subject to this kind of abuse and degradation. There’s absolutely no dignity in the workplace anymore,” he said.

Wisconsin’s teachers, are also feeling the loss of their protections at work, with new handbooks replacing their old union contracts, containing strict and arbitrary rules on dress code and restrictions on their outside-of-work activities. In New Berlin, teachers reported [PDF] that not only were workdays for teachers getting longer with no pay increases, but that teachers must adhere to a dress code that includes skirts below the knee, no jeans, no open shirts, and that they can be dismissed for the crime of having students as “friends” on Facebook. They are also required to report any traffic incidents or tickets to their school district.

“’Moral turpitude’ is a standard [officials] are trying to now use in very vague ways,” Dye said.

And because Act 10 expressly forbids collective bargaining, Dye noted, some districts are worried that if they collaborate with teachers to design an employee handbook that is fair to all, they could actually be in violation of the law.

But workers haven’t given up, and are finding new ways to fight despite the loss of their union protections. “The decertified unions in Wisconsin are in some ways a return to a world before collective bargaining was the sine qua non of a union. This is scary, certainly, but some unions might find it liberating. It allows them the opportunity to experiment with new ways of building power,” Remes pointed out.

In Madison, the teachers’ union, Madison Teachers Incorporated, is playing a large role in school board elections, because those school board officials once in office have the ability to write rules for the teachers. Dye, who decided to run for office after being deeply involved in last year’s Capitol protests and occupation, noted, “It’s even more important that we have strong candidates and strong elected officials on school boards, county boards, because now those officials have so much more power and control over our public employees.”

Dye and others like her, running for office around the state or joining up with insurgent campaigns as organizers, are part of a movement that is determined to bring some rights and respect back to Wisconsin’s working people. “It’s actually kind of difficult to have a sense of the real movement spirit that is part of the day-to-day life here on the ground,” Peter Rickman, a union organizer and former leader of Wisconsin’s Teaching Assistants Association, told AlterNet. “We’ve gone from feeling like the right-wing is ascendant, to now—not only have we staged a dramatic fight-back at the Capitol, but collective action is a part of everyone’s day-to-day lives.”

Rickman pointed out that the organizing happening now is bringing together community groups, political organizations and unions, building new organizations (many under the umbrella of We Are Wisconsin) that can last beyond one protest or one election cycle. “We do rallies and we do protests and we do direct action in addiction to voter contact. We have strength in numbers, the 1 percent has the money,” he said.

The logo that became ubiquitous during last spring’s protests, the state of Wisconsin redesigned as a blue clenched fist, is still everywhere, Rickman said, a sort of talisman for those involved in the movement. “When you have the blue fist button folks will come up to you and say ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing, what are you up to?’ We have a real social movement on the ground, and it involves everyday people.”

Beating Back Mini-SB5s in Ohio

In Ohio, state law allows for a “Citizens’ Veto” of a law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor—and the citizens took advantage, first gathering 1.3 million signatures on a petition to overturn Senate Bill 5, the anti-union law, 6,000 volunteers dancing them in a parade down to the Secretary of State’s office, and then resoundingly defeating the law in an off-year ballot referendum that saw record voter turnout.

“It got people to start thinking about the role of labor in Ohio,” Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, told AlterNet. “You can almost thank John Kasich and the Republicans because it woke up a lot of Ohioans who had been bombarded by talk radio and had forgotten what labor meant to them.”

But Kasich and Ohio Republicans—and even some Democrats—aren’t done trying to eliminate union power just yet. Jason Perlman of the Ohio AFL-CIO told AlterNet that they’re seeing attempts around the state to revive bits and pieces of SB5 in local legislation, attacking workers’ rights by dribs and drabs.

One development is a new plan to overhaul Cleveland’s schools—and like the emergency manager provisions in Michigan, give officials the power to break existing contracts with workers. “Really, if this happens, they can do what they want, no contract has meaning, the school board has no more power of authority. It’s a little authoritarian in its concept,” Perlman said.

Workers are still facing pressure to take pay cuts (the same rhetoric around “shared sacrifice” hasn’t gone away) and many have faced cuts to their benefits as well. Perlman noted, “I think people are still unfortunately confused as to what they perceive a public employee actually making. The other side did a very good job of portraying public workers as overpaid and underworked.”

The Dayton Daily News reported that five local governments stopped paying 100 percent of their employees’ insurance premiums in 2011, requiring employees to contribute part of the costs. In the city of Moraine, unions have agreed to pay freezes, job cuts, and the city has doubled the deductible on its employees’ healthcare plans. Public employees have been making concessions on their contracts for years, Perlman noted, but they understand that right now they still may have to give up a bit more to show good faith. “I’m hoping and believing that this is a one step back, two steps forward process,” he said.

But Rothenberg pointed out that in Ohio, at least, the employees still have a seat at the bargaining table, and that has an impact on the entire economy; when union workers get better wages, it helps set the standard for non-union workers’ pay as well.

Meanwhile, while union workers are giving up hard-won wages and benefits, others in the state are pushing for a misleadingly named “Right-To-Work” law—they’re working to get the provision, which defunds unions by allowing employees represented by a union not to pay the costs of representation, passed as a constitutional amendment. To get an amendment on the ballot this year, they need around 381,000 signatures by July 4—which Perlman said seems unlikely. And, he noted, even many Republicans have distanced themselves from the proposal, which is being pushed by Tea Party groups and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio.

While the anti-union crowd might be having trouble getting signatures together for their no-rights-at-work agenda, Rothenberg said that the progressive and pro-labor coalition that overturned SB5 is in great shape, having just collected signatures to redo how redistricting is done in Ohio. And Perlman appreciates the help from community groups. It’s nice to see people who aren’t union leaders discussing the benefits of unions, he noted. “When people see the head of a labor union talking about the good things they do, of course he’s going to say that.”

Beyond the benefits of unions in the workplace, though, Rothenberg argued that part of the reason Ohio is in a better place right now is that it is not reliant on politicians—the citizens had to find other means by which to fight their governor’s regressive agenda. “The lesson of Wisconsin and Ohio is that those citizens can be organized and they can make a difference regardless of who’s in power.”

In both Wisconsin and Ohio, what started as an attack on public employee unions that a couple of Tea Party governors thought they could sneak past the public has turned into a vibrant people’s movement. Perlman pointed out that for a long time, workers had grown used to a middle-class lifestyle and were distanced from the fights of the labor movement that had won them decent wages and benefits in the first place. The attacks they’ve faced in the past year, and particularly in Wisconsin, the struggles workers face every day now that they have lost collective bargaining, have woken them up to the reality that the other side wants to eliminate all their rights.

“For a long time the American worker has had it good enough, they’ve had something to lose,” Perlman said. “I think people are finally starting to realize that we no longer have it good enough.”

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