Commemorating the Wisconsin Uprising

by Frank Emspak

The Wisconsin Uprising began on August 3, 1981. On that day, president Ronald Regan fired the 11,000 striking Air Traffic Controllers. The vast majority were never allowed to work again as air traffic controllers.

The AFL-CIO was slow to react, in part because the Air Traffic Controllers union had endorsed Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president. However, starting almost immediately local unions and labor councils began to demand action. Within about two weeks, more and more unions coalesced around the idea of a massive solidarity demonstration to be held in Washington DC on September 19,1981. My local, IUE Local 201 representing workers at General Electric in Lynn, MA, put up the original money to rent trains from Boston to DC.

Thousands participated. The march was a huge success. In a show of support the AFL-CIO rented the then-new DC subway system for a day to provide free rides for the marchers. However, there was almost no on-the-ground follow-up or work actions. There was no strategy to deal with the new reality. There was no coordinated response from other unions in the industry.

Direct action opportunities did exist. Access to some of the largest airports, such as Boston, Chicago, and LaGuardia in New York City depended on relatively long and narrow access roads, or in Boston’s case, a four-way intersection. As we demonstrated in Boston, it would have been easy to block the access roads to the airports. For example, the car driven by myself and a colleague experienced engine failure just as we got to that intersection. But our efforts and some similar disruptions at other locations remained the exception.

The strike was lost but the corporations saw something. They saw that the labor movement could put on a big demonstration – but little else. The corporations went on the offensive against the private sector unions, demanding concessions and proposing contracts that no union could accept. Unions were forced on strike, and lost. Whether it was Greyhound or Hormel, the American labor movement was on the defensive. During most of the next 20 years it did not manifest any ability to act in a unified manner to resist concessions or deal effectively with increasing capital mobility. There were exceptions of course: the Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997 and the anti-free trade battle of Seattle in 1999.

By 2010, conservative politicians had been attacking the public sector unions for years. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and his political allies constantly reminded private sector workers and middle class people who had lost pensions or had none to begin with, who lost medical insurance or had none to begin with, that public sector workers were privileged and essentially sponging off of them. To an extent, this attempt to split the working class worked.

Walker, sensing that the public sector unions were politically vulnerable, took action. When the Democrats lost a key member of the Senate though resignation, leaving the public sector unions, especially AFSCME and the AFT, with no state contract in force, he announced that everything was off the table. AFSCME dropped its demands for contract improvements and offered to accept the Walker proposals if Walker would sign a contract. Walker refused, pointing out that he had no obligation to do so. But Walker and his allies had another objective – destruction of meaningful collective bargaining in the public sector. In February of 2011, he announced the evisceration of collective bargaining known as Act 10. He had been watching the labor movement and bet that AFSCME, the AFT, and the WEAC would continue to use political mobilization but did not have the internal organizational strength or leadership to mount effective workplace mobilization.

Just like in 1981, there was a huge outpouring of support for public sector workers and their unions. Thousands marched. Initiated by the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), the Wisconsin state capitol was occupied for several weeks. In spite of the huge crowds and the 24-hour a day occupation of the capitol, there was no violence, no vandalism, and no rioting. But there was also no formal call for any direct action at the workplace. Once again, the labor movement and supporters showed that we could mobilize on the street, but that we were fearful of or unable to mobilize in the workplace where it counted.

While thousands were in motion, the state leadership of the public sector unions was meeting across the street from those occupying the capitol. They never met with the people in the capitol.

While thousands were in motion, the state leadership of the public sector unions was meeting across the street from those occupying the capitol. They never met with the people in the capitol. Public sector unions continued to emphasize only the political, with AFSCME continually polling to assess public opinion. The Wisconsin Education Association Council did make a successful effort to reach every teacher in the state but it was to deliver the message NOT to engage in any work stoppage, but only to come to Madison on Saturday. This was in spite of the fact that the Madison Teachers Inc. – a WEAC affiliate – had figured out a strategy to close the schools, arguing that teachers had first amendment rights of freedom of speech, and that the schools were also unsafe because so many students had left. AFT-Wisconsin, with thousands of members within walking distance of the capitol, never even asked their members to think of taking a long lunch as a show of force so that the Republicans would have an idea of the value of state workers. There was not even a union signup sheet. Instead, all official mobilization efforts focused on organizing a recall of the governor, which lost in June of 2012.

2011 looked like 1981. A great demonstration. Obvious widespread public support for the workers but as with the Air Traffic Controllers, no strategy except political mobilization combined with a refusal to creatively mobilize at the work site. One cannot say that victory would have been achieved had there been workplace actions, but it was perfectly clear that without the workplace mobilization the Republicans had no desire to change their minds. By mid-March of 2011, the Republicans passed their legislation. Collective bargaining in the public sector was gutted.

However, unions were not outlawed because the freedom of association, the first amendment to the Constitution, is still in effect in Wisconsin. After 10 years what is their situation? Employers must bargain in good faith with unions that are a certified bargaining agent, which means that the employer recognizes the union as the exclusive representative for the workers in its jurisdiction. In order to remain as a certified bargaining agent, each year Wisconsin unions have to be recertified by wining 50% of all those in the bargaining unit.

Act 10 also limited the subjects covered by collective bargaining, as well as limiting the total amount that a union can win in wage increases. Act 10 also eliminated dues checkoff. Dues checkoff is a system that allows workers to have their union dues deducted from their paycheck and forwarded to the union by their employer. It is an important contributor to union financial stability. Given these circumstances, many workers simply do not participate. The American Federation of Teachers lost close to 90% of its largest state unit. AFSCME has also experienced significant losses at the state level, and considerable losses at the county and city level. However, AFSCME has been able to maintain significant levels of organization in places where there were stronger units to begin with and where there’s a more favorable political situation, such as in Madison and Milwaukee.

The single largest number of organized workers in Wisconsin were K-12 teachers and support staff, most of whom were members of the WEAC. Because they are organized on a school district by school district level, many of their locals were able to maintain themselves and so total WEAC membership is a bit more than 50% of the prior membership. There are some positive exceptions such as Madison Teachers Inc., which has close to 90% of its former members.  

Working people in Wisconsin are at a cross roads. If we are to regain rights at the workplace and become organizations that the employers have to meet and confer with, we are going to have to figure out ways to show the employer how valuable we are.

Workers at state hospitals, like UW, had their rights to collectively bargain eliminated completely, essentially destroying the nurses’ union at UW Hospital. UW faculty and academic staff, which had just won bargaining rights in 2008, were again shorn of those rights and United Faculty and Academic Staff local 223 was left with a couple hundred members. The TAA chose not to certify under the new rules. However, even though they have suffered considerable membership erosion they have a significant functioning organization, in part because they never abandoned their culture of continuous organizing and membership mobilization.

In the most basic sense, public sector workers found themselves back in the 1960s. Some had collective bargaining rights, but with a very narrow scope, all the locals were under extreme financial pressure, and none had the ability to initiate direct action in the workplace. Finally, taking advantage of the weakened labor movement and in violation of the promises he made to the building trades, Governor Walker initiated passage of a right to work law in 2015, basically further weakening private sector unions.

Working people in Wisconsin are at a cross roads. If we are to regain rights at the workplace and become organizations that the employers have to meet and confer with, we are going to have to figure out ways to show the employer how valuable we are. In the absence of that, even with an effective but purely political mobilization, there is little likelihood that the balance of forces will change.

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