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Walker's War Against Workers Spreads to the Private Sector

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- now facing an unprecedented recall election June 5 -- launched nothing less than a war against the state's public employees in early 2011.

Utilizing hardball tactics, Walker managed to win passage of his bill crippling the activities of public employee unions, but not without the courts challenging key provisions and Walker igniting a massive grassroots petition effort for his recall signed by nearly one million Wisconsinites.

Most of the state's attention is now understandably riveted on the June 5 election between Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett, with much discussion about the $25 million that Walker has hauled in from the top 1% for his effort to stay in office.

However, labor observers are noting the second recent case of a Wisconsin manufacturing company very deliberately provoking a strike to gain the insertion of a "right-to-work" provision, suggesting that Gov. Walker's attack on public employee rights is spreading to the private sector.

In the small town of Ashland at the north-central tip of the state, earth-moving equipment firm Ashland Industries forced a strike April 1 by 43 members of Machinists Lodge 428 by demanding that the union sacrifice the "union security" clause establishing the plant as a union shop.

The IAM members had voted 40-0 to reject the company's demands, of which the union-security provision was the most central issue.

Union members were perplexed that Ashland Industries was so insistent on removing the union shop clause when all IAM members had voted against the company proposal to end it. IAM business representative Steve Nickel complained that Ashland Industries' motivation made no economic sense:

It baffles me. It really truly baffles me. These guys have customer commitments. Let's get them back together and get the customers taken care of.

But the company remained intransigent on its demand for eliminating the union shop. After several weeks on strike in an impoverished area of the state, the union faced nine members crossing the picket line and the company aggressively recruiting "scab" replacement workers. On May 4, the strike ended with the union forced to swallow hard and accept the elimination of the union shop.

However, only about half the workers are now back at work, according to IAM Midwest Grand Lodge representative Marty St. Peters. The month-long strike forced by company intransigence had led to the cancellation of orders, he said.

The scenario in Ashland seems like it was drawn precisely from the template used by Manitowoc Crane in a three-month strike that started last fall. In fact, Ashland Industries negotiators repeatedly brought up the Manitowoc Crane precedent.

"The company cited Manitowoc Crane numerous times at the table," recalled the IAM's St. Peters. "They basically said, 'Manitowoc Crane got rid of the union security clause. We want that, too.' They kept saying that they wanted to give the employees 'freedom of choice.'

"I asked them, if you want the workers to have 'free choice,' why don't you listen to them? The workers chose to have a union shop when they voted 40 to 0."

There are several crucial parallels between the two strikes, noted Wisconsin AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale:

  • Like Ashland, Manitowoc Crane was clearly not acting out of economic desperation. Manitowoc Crane CEO Glenn Tellock's compensation soared from4.9 million in 2010 to nearly8.7 million in 2011, while Machinists working there average a much more modest40,000.
  • As at Ashland Industries, Manitowoc Crane issued an ultimatum demanding an end to the union-security clause, in the name of "free choice.' Manitowoc Crane simply ignored the results when Machinists voted almost unanimously (180 to 2) demonstrate that their choice was to retain the union shop.
  • In both cases, union members seemed to be caught off-guard by the companies' implacable willingness to provoke a strike unless they could get rid of the union shop.

Additionally, Manitowoc Crane sought to impose a requirement that the union hold annual elections to get re-certified by its members, a page torn directly from Walker's demands on teachers, nurses, librarians, police and firefighters.

The machinists' St. Peters sees the anti-union campaign of Walker infiltrating the private sector. "It's definitely a playbook that's going on in Wisconsin right now," he said. "They have a new playbook and they're ready to use it.

"Scott Walker used some of the same rhetoric against unions and for 'free choice' that you're hearing now from company negotiators," said St. Peters.

Just as Walker sought to virtually extinguish public employee rights with restrictive new rules, these employers have taken major risks to gain "right-to-work" style provisions in their contracts, defending their moves with Walker-style rhetoric.

"Right-to-work" laws, like the one recently approved in Indiana, have severely undermined labor by imposing a unique burden on unions. Workers, with eager acceptance by management, are granted the choice to avoid paying union dues. Yet such workers reap the full protections of members and all the gains negotiated by the union. With some workers outside the union, management finds it easy to divide workers and manipulate unions which were intended to be independent, democratic voices for workers. Further, management selectively hires anti-union applicants with an eye toward eventually displacing the unions.

Predictably, "right-to-work" laws have made it almost impossible to sustain unions, and union membership in some Southern states with these unjust laws is a microscopic 3%. Union membership in the US private sector has fallen to just 6.9%, down from 35% in the mid-1950's in an era when workers received a far larger share of the wealth they produced. But in 2010, for example, 93% of increased wages went to America's richest 1%.

Like Scott Walker, said the AFL-CIO's Bloomingdale, Ashland Industries and Manitowoc Crane are fixated on depriving workers of their voice in workplace and in politics and further driving down wages.

"The union serves as the workers' democratic voice in the shop, and the Manitowoc Co. and Ashland Industries are trying to divide and weaken that voice, just as Gov. Walker and major corporations want to silence the voice of labor across Wisconsin and continue trying to crush the middle class," Bloomingdale declared.