WISCONSIN: Why It Matters – The Feminist Wire

WISCONSIN: Why It Matters

By Joy Schulman

I arrived in Madison in September 1969 to begin my junior year at the University of Wisconsin. Moving from Newark, New Jersey, Madison’s calm, all white faces and rural beauty was unsettling to me. I thrived in Newark’s grit and tense ambitions during the Civil Rights movement. On my second day, when I left campus and went downtown, my initial perception was challenged. There, hundreds of black and white welfare mothers were occupying the Capitol protesting the meager amount of public aid they received in their monthly checks. Even for the 1960s, their boldness was notable.

Since mid-February, an estimated 300,000 people have braved the weather in response to Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public workers. Wisconsin boasts a history of Progressivism, Farmer-Worker Alliances, a non-corrupt civil service, a great public university system, free parks and swimming pools. The state also produced red baiting Joe McCarthy and, more recently, Governor Tommie Thompson, who in the 1980s changed their welfare grants from one of the most generous in the nation to the least supportive outside of the South. In the last election cycle, like the rest of the country, Wisconsin citizens swept out the Democrats and ushered in the Republicans—even Senator Russell Feingold, a liberal icon in the senate for decades, was roundly defeated by corporate finance and in the person of libertarian business advocate, Ron Johnson.  Part of that sweep brought in Governor Scott Walker, who had been a figure in the Milwaukee County Board for a long time. Insiders say he has always been rabidly anti-union and anti-public sector, but his extreme ideas were previously squelched by his co-legislators for either differences in ideology or strategy. Elected as governor, he must have decided his time had come. Walker introduced a bill with the following provisions and demanded an immediate vote:

–Significant decreases in state funding to education and other municipal services.

–Drastic cuts in Medicaid, the health program that serves mainly poor mothers, children and residents in nursing homes.

—No bid contracts, allowing the state to contract jobs without an open bidding process and no obligation to use the lowest bidder; allowing state government contracts to be payback to political contributors.

— Education Vouchers, presently reserved for poor children in poorly functioning schools, extended to middle class and wealthy children in high functioning, well-resourced schools.

—Increasing public workers contribution to their pension and health care by about $7000 per year.

—-Changing the public collective bargaining law that now allows bargaining on all conditions of work (including wages, pensions, health benefits, seniority and hours of work) to a law where only wages are negotiable and cannot go up more than inflation.

—-Prohibiting union dues to be deducted from payroll checks; turning Wisconsin into a “right to work” state where workers can opt not to pay union dues even though the union is legally bound to represent them; and forcing the unions to prove their majority every year through elections.

The last two items on this list are those about which we have been hearing. In the spirit of shared sacrifice, the dozens of unions that represent these public workers have agreed to the financial cutbacks sought by the governor. The demonstrations in Madison (and elsewhere in the Midwest) are and were in opposition to the proposed changes and the eradication of the collective bargaining law for public workers. But Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to have a collective bargaining law; and there, as everywhere else in the country, that law, along with civil service, has kept public jobs from becoming plums to political volunteers. The law also created standards for services to the public that were expected from public workers and gave these workers security through seniority protection, health insurance and retirement pensions. The union’s decision to agree to the financial cuts highlighted the fact that what the governor really wants is broad, sweeping power (similar to those now enjoyed by his Michigan counterpart, Rick Snyder) rather than merely balancing the state’s budget. It also made their case more sympathetic to the thousands of unemployed workers from the private sector.

The United States workforce has been devastated in the past 30 years. Overall wages have not gone up at all. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that median wages have been flat since 1978, while the 2010 Census notes that the top 20 percent of wage earners earn 14.5 times the income than the bottom 20 percent, with the narrowest ratio  in 1968 while the top 20 percent of wage earners earned 7.69 more than the bottom 20 percent.  If families are doing better it is because now there are two adults working. Manufacturing jobs, in which you could earn a decent living regardless of education, have nearly vanished. Those jobs have gone to countries where U.S. manufacturers can pay the notorious “dollar a day.” This low international wage scale has impacted the pay of the entire private workforce in the country—with those manufacturing jobs that remain commanding lower pay for decades; and formerly high paying computer jobs dipping drastically. Agricultural workers are brought in seasonally to labor for nothing and then demonized as illegal immigrants; high priced hotels and restaurants have a low-paid invisible workforce making the beds and washing the dishes.

Until now, the only segment of the U.S. workforce that has not been severely impacted by the domination of international capitalism has been the public workforce. This collection of workers, though struggling, has largely escaped this fate because these jobs are unionized, because they cannot be shipped out, because they serve people here and because they require more education. The anti-union legislation introduced by Walker is so significant because it is a clarion call to attack the public workforce—the only part of the U.S. workforce not devastated and de-unionized in the last 35 years. In a January 21, 2011 press release, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that unionization rate in the public sector was at 36.2 percent and 6.9 percent in the private sector. However, overall union density was only 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent in 2009.

It was smart and necessary for the public workers in Wisconsin to give in to the financial cuts to highlight the collective bargaining issue. But focusing on collective bargaining issue has come at a great cost, subordinating issues of ideology and policy that we all have a stake in:

—The ideology that the rich are better has prevailed. Instead of seeing clearly that most wealthy people are wealthy because they have inherited that wealth or made it through the exploitation of others, the dominant ideology narrates that the rich are better because they are smarter, work harder, etc; and therefore they are doing the rest of us a favor by paying any taxes at all, let alone a fair share because they are so smart and self sufficient they do not need government at all.

—But, in fact, government does more for the rich than any other constituency. Aside from the subsidies, tax breaks and the other hallmarks of rampant corporate welfare, the rich ship their goods on public roads and subsidized trains; the schools in their neighborhoods are better; the streets are kept cleaner; the garbage is picked up more often. The rich live longer than the poor and therefore collect Social Security and Medicare for longer periods, and receive more health care from publicly subsidized hospitals.

The nationwide budget crisis comes partially from both excessive greed and de-regulation that led to millions of foreclosures; because lenders happily collected fees for each loan to people who could not afford the loan they were being sold. Mortgages that start out at five percent result in an average monthly payment is $900, and after five years, go to 12 percent with an increase payment of $2200.  In this scenario, lenders know that the mortgage terms were unaffordable, and the five years of financial jeopardy and failure for the lendees is just long enough for the lender to sell the mortgage to a fund that supports pensions. And so some people lose their housing and other people lose their secure retirement. All of these transactions are, or should have been, illegal, but no one has gone to jail for these practices and they still prevail, albeit in a less blatant form.

The nationwide budget crisis does not only come from the financial excesses of the last few years; it comes from starving the government and infrastructure through the well-off refusing to pay their fare share of taxes many times over. The top two percent of the country is fighting to keep their tax rate under 40 percent. The rate in the 1950s was 91 percent; in the beginning of 1970s, the top rate was 70 percent.  Right now billionaires pay the same tax rate as those who earn $350,000 a year, and those who earn $350,000 a year only pay at a 10 percent higher rate than those who earn $35,000 a year.  Billions of dollars could be added to the treasury if the tax rate was raised 5 percent for families earning over $250,000, 10 percent for families earning over a million, 15 percent for families earning over $2 million, etc. Thus, these wealthy citizens would maintain a high standard of living and there would be money to rebuild the U.S. infrastructure—high speed trains, secure bridges; new schools could be built, teachers could have smaller classes, nurses a smaller patient load, and more. Without progressive taxes most of the country will continue to suffer a declining standard of living.

For the past 30 years, union and non-union workers have given up wages to keep their health benefits. As long as there is a for profit health care system, it will drive down the standard of living. Those who work will have to give up wages for health benefits; and those who receive Medicare and Medicaid will be inadvertently part of the system of the government overpaying tax dollars for medical services. We need non-profit healthcare for all.

Finally, the severity of the right wing attack on public workers and the public sector is fueled by racism and sexism. Compared to the rest of the economy, those who work for the government are more likely to be women or minorities. And those who receive benefits from the government are more likely to be women and minorities. Women of all races are the least protected in this attack on workers; those who will raise the next generation and receive benefits on their behalf.  African Americans who, 60 years after “Brown v. the Board of Education,” still receive an unequal education and suffer discrimination in the workforce.

The increasing non-white immigration, forecasting eventual non-white majorities and the election of our first African-American President, has returned into the mainstream every reactionary racial theory. It is probably wise to remember that Ronald Reagan “started” this resurgent culture war with his vulgar and inaccurate portrayal (over the course of five years!) of the Chicago “Cadillac Welfare Queen.”

In 1969, welfare mothers felt empowered to petition their government for more assistance. Today, only the rich are petitioning the government on their own behalf. The Lion of Labor has roared these past two months in Wisconsin and throughout the heart of the country. Will that roar spread to other issues and other places, or be choked?


Joy Schulman is a long time labor and civil rights activist. Her activism began as a student in Rutgers, Newark, in 1967, organizing against the Vietnam War and for open admissions for African-American students because of under-representation due to discrimination. She was a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement at UW Madison from 1969 to 1971.  She lived in Milwaukee Wisconsin from 1971 to 1987. During that time she was staff for Welfare Rights Organization; Milwaukee Public Schools Human Resources Department in support of the De-Segregation Order; District 1199W Health Care Workers Union and as a benefit specialist for Legal Action of Wisconsin.


She moved back to NJ in 1987 and continued activism around school equity through being on the school board in Highland Park, NJ and as a statewide activist for progressive school funding.  Also was staff for CWA representing NJ public workers for 11 years. From 2002 to 2005 attended CUNY law school, interned at the Education Law Center in Newark, NJ and worked as Legislative coordinator for United for Peace and Justice.