There is no wrath like that of Wisconsin’s white middle class.
I spent several years as a union organizer in Southern California, and I can tell you that what is happening in Wisconsin—statewide outrage over the loss of collective-bargaining rights after weeks of demonstrations at the capitol in Madison, contentious town hall meetings in rural districts, arrest warrants issued for boycotting legislators, all culminating in a massive protest led by a line of farm tractors and calls of class warfare—would not happen in California. The closest we ever came was the Justice for Janitors campaign that swept through downtown Los Angeles in 1994 and revitalized the labor movement by organizing the new low-wage Latino workforce. My union, the Service Employees International Union, had become a grievance-filing service for ossifying union shops filled with complacent workers who had never been through an organizing drive. But Justice for Janitors transformed the SEIU, and sparked an aggressive ten-year campaign to organize California’s service economy, one that was and still is dominated by Latina and Filipina women. We tried to refashion the land of open shops into a new kind of union town. But what we originally saw as an advantage—building a diverse labor movement from scratch—became a great disadvantage. There is no doubt that the push to organize low-wage workers of color raised the standard of living for hotel maids, nursing assistants, and food-service workers, but it took the anger of Wisconsin’s white middle-class workers to capture the country’s attention.
Union busting is taken personally in Wisconsin. Over the course of two reporting trips to the state this month, I heard one commonly repeated phrase, from the streets of Madison to the far-flung Wisconsin Dells: “My dad was in a union.” Or, “My grandmother retired on a union pension.” These sentiments were rarely heard from the workers we tried to organize in Southern California for the SEIU; most fathers we heard about were workers in Jalisco, and grandmothers were called abuelitas and never had anything resembling a pension in their lives. In Southern California, unions are not often identified as a step up into the middle class—owning a small business is. Southern California workers most closely associate unions with strikes—the bad kind, the kind where you lose. [Read more below.]
At the capitol in Madison, there were several signs that read, “SAVE THE WISCONSIN IDEA.” The Wisconsin idea is the century-long tradition of a state-sponsored curriculum that would meet the “wants of the greatest number of our citizens.” As a result, college instruction in engineering, social work, and education is highly emphasized. Three generations of Wisconsonites have had their educations heavily subsidized by the state. They go on to become public employees. Contrast this to the California dream of home ownership, equally noble, but not one that is bound to public service. Looking back over the past month of demonstrations, the constituency that rallied the most sympathy and support were public school teachers.
Can you think of a more maligned group of public workers in California than the teachers union?
When organized labor in California faced a similar attack in a 2005 special election that sought to prohibit public-employee union dues from being used as political contributions, the bill’s sponsors demonized the teachers unions. Though the proposition was defeated, it took a heavy lift from California labor unions. Rank-and-filers were bused to the capital dressed in union swag and whooped and chanted till they were hoarse. On the weekend canvasses, union staff and members told voters that the proposition was a Republican strategy to defund Democrats, which it no doubt was, but there were no mass demonstrations in support of public employees.
Pulsating through Wisconsin right now is the sort of economic populism—the kind that transcends cultural wedge issues like gay marriage, abortion, religion in schools—that could be the revitalizing spark the labor movement has so desperately needed. Wisconsin is, after all, the birthplace of the nation’s largest public-sector union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. So perhaps the vanguard of the new labor will come from the unlikeliest of places: home.
Vargas-Cooper is on assignment in the Midwest for Slake: Los Angeles, and is writing a longer narrative on the Wisconsin labor fight for Slake No. 3. Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp through 1960s America. She is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Awl and writes for The Atlantic and other publications.
Photos by Vargas-Cooper
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