Economic Justice and the Wisconsin Uprising

Since the uprising in February 2011, Wisconsin’s legislature has implemented a raft of legislation that denies basic rights for all working people, not just unions. The agenda advances corporate power over the interests of average families, including corporate takeover of public resources such as education.

The real occupy movement today is found in state houses across this great land where big money interests aided by faux journalistic outfits, think tanks, and lurid amounts of campaign funding run roughshod over the rights of working men and women. Ultimately, many of these forces seek policies that advance their interests at the expense of working people and the public systems and institutions that serve them.

With his election in November of 2010, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker used economic crisis, the result of Wall Street corruption, to usher in a raft of oppressive polices. Many states nationally saw similar orchestrations where instead of blaming budget shortfalls on economic collapse, healthcare and pensions were blamed instead. The electorate was told again and again that it wasn’t Wall Street that caused the shortfalls, it was the cost of public spending.

In classic divide and conquer fashion, the 2010 mid-term elections will go down as one of the greatest propaganda triumphs in history as the moneyed elite effectively steered political outrage away from themselves onto the backs of working people. The declining economic status of the middle class, with its loss of jobs, income, and homes—and the fact that the President was for the first time a man of color—created volatile conditions in which it was easy to enact long-simmering plans to attack the public sector.

These conditions did not result from union fault or miscalculation. The crime of teachers and state employees was that they had secure healthcare and retirement while families working in the private sector did not.

Unions are nothing more than the right of people to stick together and stand up for what they believe in. This is a constitutional right that resides at the heart of democratic freedom. Collective bargaining is the process through which a group of individuals with a common interest come together to petition an employer for such basic rights as cost of living pay increases and secure healthcare for their families. That these rights are being systematically undermined should be of great concern to all citizens.

Intrigues surrounding the implementation of Wisconsin Act 10, the infamous legislation that essentially stripped public sector men and women of their statutory right to bargain, could fill a book. Introduced in special session just after legislators were sworn in, the bill was published on the second Thursday of February 2011, with votes set for the following Tuesday.

Democrats hoped to negotiate and refused to establish a legislative quorum needed for the fast-track vote. A handful of Democratic legislators left the state. Republicans retooled the bill to claim it was no longer a fiscal item, thus allowing different rules for its introduction. Republicans then staged a secret middle-of-the-night vote, lasting just seconds, to push through the anti-worker bill without Democrats even aware of the vote. Procedural questions abound including whether or not the bill was properly noticed. But the deal was done, the result of a predetermined agenda taken off the shelf day-one after the election in which Republicans won the governorship and legislative majorities.

Massive protests organized by the unions, along with spontaneous outpourings from many others including university teaching assistants, followed introduction of the legislation. Families camped out crowding the rotunda; music filled the halls; speeches were made; and Saturday protests intensified to more than 100,000 people. Calls echoed through the capitol corridors: “whose house” went the question; “our house” came the response.

These actions gained national coverage and spurred discussion about rights for working people. From Wisconsin protest moved east to Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey. The Occupy Wall Street movement started in September of that year pointing a finger at the great inequities now confronting the nation. Bernie Sanders would have no such following without these actions of recent history.

Volunteers and union folk circulated recall petitions and gathered nearly 1 million signatures. The resulting elections saw two state senators who backed Act 10 lose their offices. But it was poor timing to unseat the governor. A recall by law must be a minimum one year after election, which provided time for the incumbent to gather money and strength. His message that public employees should have their benefits reduced still resonated with a public in the throes of economic distress, and which saw no criminal wrongdoing in the legislation to justify a recall.

Act 10 was appealed and lower courts found against many of the provisions. Those justices—and even their families—who questioned the scope of change, or the process by which it was enacted, were subjected to open ridicule even though many were appointed by a prior Republican administration.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court came eventually to consider Act 10 and supported the legislation. Four justices had received millions in campaign contributions from the very same groups supporting the governor—which also happen to be the groups backing anti-union initiatives and corporate takeover of public schools. Chief among them was Wisconsin Club for Growth, a Koch-backed enterprise.

As a result of alleged election misconduct during the governor’s recall, a John Doe case wound its way to the Supreme Court. With strong minority dissent, justices who received millions in campaign funding from the very same parties now appearing before the Court formed a majority that found no wrong-doing. The activist decision rewrote election law, blessing retroactively un-reported coordination between issue advocacy groups and the campaign. The case was recently denied a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Wisconsin’s Center on Media and Democracy has documented the connections between campaign funders, legislation, the judiciary and these political actions.

As convoluted as was the Court’s decision upholding Act 10, it is important to know the distinction it made between statutory bargaining (state law that identifies mandatory subjects of bargaining that employers must talk about), and constitutionally protected bargaining, which remains intact. We the people have the right to assemble and to collective speech; and employers have an equal right to speak with people whom they employ, but they are not compelled to do so by law. Many in Wisconsin and nationally are unaware that this legislation only restricts statutorily prescribed forms of bargaining; Americans can still bargain collectively under constitutional protections.

“…big money interests…run roughshod over the rights of working men and women…and the public systems and institutions that serve them.

What’s really at play?

The agenda, of course, is not solely about unions; that is just a wedge used to pry away a whole slew of democratic protections from American families. A number of changes in Wisconsin law that affect the rights and economic health of families are identified below. But weakening unions has additional benefits as well. Unions are the major form of organized money that can oppose corporate-right dominance of our republic, and they generally favor Democratic candidates. The erosion of unions depletes the voice of working people, often securing Republican outcomes at the state-level while further entrenching the effects of big money on the legislative process.

Voter suppression

Other actions intended to shore up Republican success also took place in Wisconsin, including the 2011 Supreme Court election of incumbent David Prosser. Initially his challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg, won; but two days after the election the county clerk in Waukesha, who once worked for Prosser and Republican leadership in the Assembly, mysteriously found uncounted bags of ballots. When included, the number of ballots created just enough margin for Prosser to escape a recount. Now he won. These shenanigans locked in a conservative majority on the Court which upheld Act 10 and found no wrong-doing during the governor’s recall election. Prosser recently resigned from the Court.

Wisconsin, like many states, enacted a number of voter suppression proposals. The legislative majority held closed door sessions and gerrymandered the state. Democrats won substantially more popular votes in the 2012 statewide election, for example, but still lost legislative seats. Wisconsin implemented a voter ID law that restricts the right to vote, closed offices that issued voter IDs in certain areas, and restricted the hours and days allowed for early absentee voting. The legislature also eliminated the Government Accountability Board, most likely for permitting investigations of election misconduct in the recall.

Economic rights

Wisconsin’s poverty rate is currently at a 30 year high, and a full 43% of single women with children earn poverty level wages. Wisconsin lags nationally in job creation, residing in the bottom third. Income growth is ranked 35th nationally, and overall economic growth lags other states in the Midwest and the U.S. as a whole.

Yet in the last five years the legislature enacted numerous policies detrimental to women, children, and the overall economic security of families. A wide ranging body of legislation—from environmental protection to clean government and economic rights—is being systematically dismantled.

The legislature overturned existing law that provided women equal pay protections for equal work making it more difficult to challenge wage discrimination. It weakened child labor laws allowing employers to now ask kids to work unlimited non-school hours 7 days a week. Legislators significantly restricted access to healthcare by cutting funds for Planned Parenthood, affecting among other things federal reimbursement rates for contraception. The governor refused to expand the Affordable Care Act. Wisconsin could receive one billion in federal dollars the next 6 years, expanding healthcare coverage for tens of thousands of Wisconsin families while tapping literally hundreds of millions for the state budget to fund other programs.

Legislators took away the statutory right of nurses and early childhood providers to bargain collectively. They lessened the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, reducing take home pay for thousands of families. And legislators weakened Homestead Tax Credits, which help low-income families and seniors stay in their homes. All this happened while Republicans simultaneously passed billions in tax cuts that disproportionately benefit multinational corporations, manufacturing and the wealthy.

Wisconsin enacted “right to work” legislation, eroding protections for private sector workers. The new law blocks the right of unions to collect their fair share of dues from people who by law they must represent and who benefit from negotiated raises and benefits. “Right to work” really means: let’s defund groups that stand up for the rights of working people, which is to say rights for almost all of us. Weakening unions undermines free speech by diminishing the capacity of working people to project their voices, actions necessary to forge the checks and balances of democratic debate. Individuals alone stand little chance of establishing a counter narrative that can compete with corporate power.

Republicans eliminated prevailing wage laws, which ask any government-accepted bid to be from contractors that pay average wages or above. The elimination of prevailing wage laws makes it more likely that low-cost bids, sometimes associated with shoddy work, will win the day, driving down pay and living standards for Wisconsin families that work in construction and trades.

Legislators overturned a sick leave ordinance in Milwaukee that secured the rights of employees to tend to ill parents or children, or not to serve you a burrito when they have pneumonia. The legislature then forbade any municipality in the state from enacting ordinances to secure sick leave for employees. The governor also blocked the right of workers to petition for a living wage, effectively denying local jurisdictions like Dane County and Milwaukee from enacting ordinances to improve the standard of living for working people, as happened in Seattle and elsewhere.

So much for the long touted Republican tradition of local control. When it comes to this virulent strain, the party blocks local, democratic expression to advance the policies of its corporate-right funders.


The legislature enacted historic cuts to the renowned University of Wisconsin, one of the nation’s leading research institutes. The cuts forced layoffs, restructuring and dampened salaries across-the-board. This February 2016, the University Extension—a national model for bringing business and agricultural research to rural communities around the state—announced a new round of layoffs.

Republicans eliminated tenure for university faculty, a fundamental principle central to academic freedom. This change made hollow claims from the time of Act 10 that legislators would never do to faculty what they did to teachers. The Chancellor and Departments are scrambling to prevent the exodus of top-flight faculty by changing internal policies and awarding incentives, but some have left already.

In another action that eroded protections for freedom of thought and professional practice, legislators overturned civil service laws first enacted during the Progressive Era. Here too Republicans reneged on earlier statements, in this case that state employees shouldn’t worry about loss of contractual protections under Act 10 because civil service laws would remain intact. These are gone now too. Wisconsin’s civil service laws set a national standard for hiring qualified professionals to serve the people of the state. They help everyone by preventing cronyism while promoting high standards for employment. Now, any hack who made a campaign contribution can be hired for state service; and qualified staff that may oppose the governor’s polices are likely not to be considered.

Public schools experienced unprecedented cuts in funding five years ago, with per pupil expenditures reduced by $550. Per pupil increases have been frozen or less-than inflationary ever since. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that when adjusted for inflation, Wisconsin experienced a 12.7 percent reduction in general support per student, the fourth largest cut in the nation since 2008.

Teachers lost on average $4,000 to $5,000 in take home pay as a result of benefit restructuring, and then saw pay frozen as paralyzed districts waited for the courts to decide the outcome of Act 10. The average teacher makes less today than they did six years ago, and wage-attrition continues due to on-going benefit restructuring about which education employees have little say and no control.

Teachers today work harder than ever, but rates of job applications have plummeted statewide posing significant threats to the long-term quality of Wisconsin’s highly ranked public schools.

The legislature is more interested in privatizing schools than they are in investing in public institutions or helping children. Forty-two percent of the state’s children now qualify for free and reduced lunch, yet legislators reduced public school funding by one billion compared to if they had maintained base-level funding since 2010. At the same time Republicans implemented a new statewide voucher program that takes state aid away from public schools to subsidize private education instead. State aid is now diverted from public school districts in which private students reside even though they may never have attended public school. As subsidies for private school tuition increase through time, the pool of aid for public schools will diminish.

Hardworking families in Wisconsin are now forced to pay tuition for private schools; and, in a separate piece of legislation, to pay tax breaks (credits) for those very same private school families. The tax credits are the most generous in the nation and have no income ceilings. With these giveaways, Republicans are implementing a playbook designed to promote a private takeover of public education.

With each annual increase in the number of vouchers allowed, the spigot for private funding opens further and further until, in ten years, annual limits evaporate altogether. More for-profit schools will arise, ready to exploit Wisconsin’s newly emerging market in education. In its ultimate expression, just a few years down the road, vouchers will expand corporate control over one of the most important democratic institutions we have: public education. Taxpayers will be footing the bill as private school franchises housed on Wall Street draw dollars out of our communities and away from our public schools.

None of this long list of extreme policies enacted the last five years does anything to promote the common good or improve the economic outlook.

What does it all mean?

Job growth is anemic, and household median income lower than three years ago. Policy after policy is driving down the economic status of Wisconsin families.

Nor is Wisconsin investing for future growth. Persistent tax cuts are perpetuating a vicious cycle where fabricated shortfalls are used to cut important programs. Public programs and systems like public schools, roads, and utilities are the foundation of economic success and are important for creating and supporting a strong middle class. Education is one of the best means the state has for promoting long term economic growth.

The principle narrative explaining the constellation of new laws and actions in Wisconsin is discomforting to those believing in the American Dream. The pattern is abundantly clear: the policies advance the power of corporations and big money over the lives and wellbeing of ordinary citizens, often to the benefit of campaign funders and cronies.

America needs a new measure of economic success based on the health of working men and women. Pundits need to cheer a new Dow Jones average that measures gains in household median income, affordable health care, and retirement security—and make this index the new measure of our success.

Americans should slap themselves on the back when opportunities for children are systematically expanded, not eliminated. As the economic status of the average family rises the overall economy grows with increased demand—a growth that is more stable than gains derived primarily from speculation.

Corporations include millions of good people trying to get by, and many do good work as institutions. There also are abundant small and midsized businesses that struggle to compete with the very same economic forces identified here: forces that promote economic concentration instead of the democratization of wealth. The overriding issue confronting Wisconsin today is that after a rightwing strand of big money took over the state house, democracy went awry and the economy went out of balance right along with it.

The disproportionate influence of a few rogue billionaires, coupled with a corporate-right agenda that uses wage suppression as a strategy to promote profit, is wreaking havoc on the economic health of America’s middle class. Unions, as imperfect as any form of human organization, stand as the only organized workplace resistance to these forces.

Specific to education, unions fight to maintain public control of public resources and to provide funding children need to get ahead. Today, for-profit interests want to control these public resources for themselves. Wisconsin unions fought big money forces that are shredding the nation’s social contract. After a good fight which helped shape national debate, there are myriad reasons and complexities that went into the loss of state-sanctioned bargaining.

Ultimately, however, we know that healthy economies require good policies; they do not magically arise. Children need opportunities to get ahead, and citizens need economic rights. Wisconsin could better position itself for long-term economic growth if the economic interests of ordinary working men and women were once again reflected at the capitol.