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PORTSIDELABOR  March 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDELABOR March 2012, Week 4

Subject:

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

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Tue, 27 Mar 2012 22:24:21 -0400

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Fired for a Short Skirt? The Realities of Anti-Worker
Laws in Wisconsin and Ohio
By Sarah Jaffe AlterNet
March 26, 2012
http://www.alternet.org/story/154705/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 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."

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly
identified Peter Rickman as with the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
He no longer works there.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a
rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her
at @[log in to unmask]

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PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
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