About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

The Will to Win

March 10th, 2011  |  Matt Pavich

After Wisconsin’s state senate passed provisions of the controversial budget that stripped most collective bargaining rights from public employees, much of the discussion centered on the legality of the parliamentary procedure and recall efforts against Republican state senators.

The nature of those discussions tells you all you need to know about why the events in Wisconsin and, to a lesser extent, Ohio and Indiana, represent a true watershed for organized labor.

A consensus seems to be growing that the passage of a “budget repair” bill that did nothing to address budgetary issues, but instead tore hard-earned collective bargaining rights from teachers, sanitation workers and other public employees will serve to rouse the organized labor movement. That may well be the result, but for now, such an outcome is merely speculative. What is not speculative, is that anti-labor forces will strike hard at unions once they achieve political power. The interests arrayed against organized labor have displayed the will to pursue anti-labor goals and, when in political power, they have used that power to accomplish those goals.

Just look at what has transpired in states ranging from Idaho to Wisconsin since the dominant Republican performance in the 2010 midterms. Idaho enacted a measure stripping collective bargaining rights to teachers. Wisconsin will do the same thing, but will include all public employees except police and firefighters. Ohio put the cherry on the anti-union sundae by taking those rights away from all public employees. In each state, anti-union legislators had both goals and the will to ensure that those goals were met. Indiana alone, among states that pursued strongly anti-labor legislation, backed off, with Governor Mitch Daniels deciding that his state would not pursue right-to-work legislation yet because his Republican legislators hadn’t campaigned on the issue. But, even in Indiana, the end result depended on the anti-labor governor. The power lay with the opponents of organized labor.

Now, just for comparison, let’s take a look at what national Democrats did when they won the White House, Senate and House of Representatives in 2008 with the strong support of organized labor. The sole major piece of pro-labor legislation advanced, the House-passed Employee Free Choice Act received scant support from the White House and never even had a vote in the Senate. There was, it would seem, insufficient will to make that legislation a priority. The advancement of a more labor-friendly agenda instead fell to the executive agencies which, following the Republican ascent, now find themselves on the defensive, warding off threatened budgetary cuts and defending their actions and initiatives.

Which brings me back to the rose-tinted view of the Wisconsin vote. It may be that this bill and the manner in which it was passed will, indeed, serve to galvanize a movement that many observers had left for dead. Even if it does, however, all the energy in the world won’t help organized labor if its legislative allies continue to fail to fight for the movement.

This is where the recall efforts in Wisconsin truly matter. Protests and rallies look impressive on television and, no doubt, convince some that organized labor still has teeth, but they do next to nothing to either reward, or punish, legislators on their labor-related votes. If organized labor truly wants this latest anti-labor swell to propel the labor movement in this country, it needs to ensure that the legislators who ensured the “budget repair” bill passage are recalled from office. Because if organized labor and its allies can do nothing more than protest an already-passed bill, if they can’t rouse a spirited defense to one of the most intensely anti-labor legislative measures the country has seen in this century, then organized labor has already lost their war.

I am not saying that they should, nor am I saying that those elected officials should be recalled. But if organized labor wants to mount a comeback, it needs to display its will. Only in doing so will the movement have a chance to win.