WASHINGTON -- A year after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed groundbreaking anti-collective bargaining legislation into law, union supporters from across the world are gathering in the state to to share lessons from the fight and rally for the governor's recall. Candelight vigils are planned across the state Friday night, with a "Reclaim Wisconsin" march on the state capitol building in Madison planned Saturday at 10 a.m.
The law, signed by Walker on March 11, 2011, after a weeks-long battle, stripped most public employees of collective bargaining rights. Labor leaders denounced the law as an attack on working families.
Mary Bell, a teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council teachers' union, said a record number of educators retired last year after the bill was signed into law. The Wisconsin state pension fund received 18,780 retirement applications from state and local governments and schools districts in 2011, a 79 percent increase from the average in each of the previous seven years.
"Membership has been hit, there's no question about that," Bell said. "People were taking anywhere from three to six thousand dollars in pay cuts, and they were looking to be able to support their families."
At the same time, union advocates said the fight has brought renewed energy to the labor movement.
"For individuals, the effect of all this has been absolutely horrendous," said Larry Brown, the secretary-treasurer of the Canadian National Union of Government and General Employees, who has been involved in protesting the Wisconsin law. "For the unions as organizations, it's been difficult, because there's been a loss of dues and so on. But for unions as mobilizing forces, it's had the opposite effect."
A primary focus has been the effort to recall six Wisconsin Republicans: Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four state senators. Democrats, who picked up two seats in recalls last year, could flip control of the Wisconsin State Senate with one more victory. The recall petition against Walker collected more than 1 million signatures, far exceeding the 540,208 required.
Walker's office did not respond to a request for comment. The governor has said the law was necessary to balance the state budget and make government more efficient.
Beyond triggering the recall efforts, the law also established Wisconsin as the center of a broader power struggle between labor unions and governments.
"Wisconsin has really become symbolic, because Governor Walker tried to have Wisconsin leading the way in the attack on collective bargaining rights," said Mark McCullough, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union. "Wisconsin was kind of seen as the front lines."
Labor leaders see Walker's law as part of an international trend of curtailing unions' power, often as a response to financial crises.
"It isn't limited to the United States," said Brown, the Canadian union representative. "Throughout Europe, and in far too many countries of the world the exact pattern is happening, with the difference only in the detail. Around the world, you look at Greece, you look at Ireland, you look at Portugal, in all these places the economic tension is being used as an excuse for anti-labor behavior."
Michael Whaites of the New South Wales Nurses' Association, who flew to Wisconsin to participate in the anniversary, said there was an increasing need for unions to band together.
"We know that unless we have a global response to these global attacks we're not going to win, but we do know that because we do have a global response we we will keep fighting, and we will prevail, " he said.
His note of optimism was shared among union organizers in Madison this week.
Teresa Marshall, the communications director for global public trade union Public Services International, said the mood was largely positive.
"People have been telling us over and over again that Walker may have been trying to divide or weaken the labor movement, but instead what I'm witnessing on an hourly basis is that people are pulling together as never before," Marshall said.
Stephanie Bloomingdale of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO agreed.
"I think the real lesson is that Scott Walker thought that he could put a death nail in the labor movement," Bloomingdale said. "And what he saw was a revived labor movement in Wisconsin, and really, we think, nationwide and worldwide."