On the day that the bill passed the Wisconsin Assembly effectively ending 50 years of collective bargaining in Wisconsin and eviscerating the ability of public unions to raise money through dues, a new front opened in the battle for the future of Wisconsin families.
Bagpipes blaring, hundreds of firefighters walked across the street from the Wisconsin Capitol building, stood outside the Marshall and Ilsley Bank (M&I Bank) and played a few tunes -- loudly. Later, a group of firefighter and consumers stopped back in at the bank to make a few transactions. One by one they closed their accounts and withdrew their life savings, totaling approximately $190,000. After the last customer left, the bank quickly closed its doors, just in case the spontaneous "Move Your Money" moment caught fire.
The sedate, old fashioned M&I Bank on the Capitol Square has gained some notoriety in recent weeks. Oddly, a tunnel in the M&I parking garage links to the capitol basement. Dubbed the "rat hole to the Walker palace", the tunnel was used by Governor Scott Walker to ferry lobbyists into the capitol building to hear his budget address during a time when the capitol was in a virtual lock down in defiance of a court order and after Sheriffs has quit the building refusing to be a "palace guard."
Now the bank is getting caught up in the controversy again. Word is beginning to spread that M&I is one of Walker's biggest backers. Top executives at M&I Bank have long been boosters of Walker. M&I Director and former CEO Dennis Kuester and his wife gave $20,000 to Walker in recent years. When you package individual and PAC contributions by employers, M&I is number one -- at $57,000 dollars. The firm apparently uses a conduit to bundle much of its money to Walker. Flyers, webpages, and Facebook sites have popped up encouraging WI consumers to boycott Walker campaign contributors and "Pull the Plug on M&I Bank." Other banks whose employees have donated large sums to Walker, such as Associated Bank and North Shore Bank may also be seeing their customers soon.
Joe Conway, President Madison Fire Fighters Local 311, explained to CMD that the action was totally spontaneous, but that "economic transparency" was going to be a big theme in the fight ahead. "Groups will be sending letters to Walker's major donors giving them the opportunity to support the teachers, firefighters and police in their community." Conway is well aware that new polling shows that 74% of Wisconsin families support collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Two of these letters are already in the mail to M&I Bank and Kwik Trip. "The undersigned groups would like your company to publicly oppose Governor Walker's efforts to virtually eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. In the event that you cannot support this effort to save collective bargaining, please be advised that the undersigned will publicly and formally boycott the goods and services provided by your company," the letter says. "However, if you join us, we will do everything in our power to publicly celebrate your partnership in the fight to preserve the right of public employees to be heard at the bargaining table."
The letters are signed by the heads of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 311, Madison Teachers Inc., Dane County Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Madison Professional Police Officers Association.
Just the Beginning
Walker's list of campaign contributors is already in wide circulation on websites like "Scott Walker Watch" and fast-growing Facebook pages like "Boycott Scott Walkers Contributors". These grassroots efforts are backed up by solid names and numbers extracted from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) database, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics.
The WDC data shows that Walker's major contributors include a diversity of national and state-based firms including Koch Brother Industries, AT&T, Walmart, John Deere Tractor, Johnsonville Brats, Miller/Coors, Kwik Trip, Sargento Cheese, and SC Johnson & Sons (producers of Windex, Glade, Pledge etc). The letter writing effort is being undertaken not to put people out of work, but to encourage workers to let their bosses know it is time to reconsider their support for Walker's newly revealed radical agenda.
Sam Hokin, a Wisconsinite and small businessman who started the Facebook page in the early days of the protest, put the strategy bluntly: "The only thing the Republicans care about is money. The only way you can touch them is through their revenue. They don't care about signs and protesters. They don't care about the opinion of the majority of the people in the state, their bottom line is money." Unions, pension funds, cities and counties and average consumers bank at these banks and support these firms by buying their products and services. They have tremendous clout in Wisconsin's small economy.
Greatest Heist in History
Wisconsin workers are keenly aware that they are part of a historic push back that is spreading from state to state. After $14 trillion dollars of housing wealth, wages and retirement savings were taken from the middle class during the 2008 financial collapse, workers are being asked to take it on the chin again. Michael Moore put it best: "We aren't broke. Wisconsin is not broke. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It's just that it's not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the über-rich."
M&I Bank is in the process of being bought by a Canadian bank. It took $2 billion in TARP bailout money from the taxpayers and have yet to pay it back. "They [state Republicans] came in like the Grim Reaper to drive a knife into the heart of labor," yelled Jim Garity at a recent rally. Garity is a unionized Jefferson County Highway Department worker and leader. "But we are going to stand and we are not going to bleed. Governor Walker's plan is to give more money to Wall Street, but we are going to take back our money from Wall Street and put Main Street to work!" Walker's recent moves include over $200 million in tax cuts for corporations while stripping $1 billion from Wisconsin schools and local governments.
The "take it back" movement is gaining steam. At the federal level, AFL-CIO, SEIU are joined by consumer groups in a fight to apply a small financial transaction tax to damaging Wall Street speculation in order to recoup over $100 billion dollars a year for job creation and other essential needs.
It's About Power
Walker's collective bargaining bill not only seeks to gut a 50 year tradition in the state where public unions started, but by doing away with automatic check off for union dues he seeks to cripple the the ability of public sector unions to hire employees to organize, grow and be a force in Wisconsin politics. State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, one of Walker's closest allies in the legislature, admitted as much to FOX News. "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you're going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin," said Fitzgerald.
While some hold out hope for a general strike and vigorous recall efforts are underway, others remain focused on leveraging the power of the "sleeping giant" to force Walker to back down and to prevent devastating cuts to schools and municipalities. Stay tuned. This fire might be hard to contain.
The Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy has been reporting live from the Wisconsin Capitol for four weeks. Learn more at our website PRWatch.org. An earlier version of this article put WI corporate tax breaks at $200 billion, it should be $200 million and school and municipal cuts at $1 trillion, it should be $1 billion. The writer regrets this error.