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The Act 10 Saga Continues: Wiscosnin Judge Holds WERC Commissioners in Contempt for Enforcing Act’s Recertification Provisions

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secunda-paulThe Wisconsin Act 10 story took another unexpected turn this past Monday.  Those of you that have been following this saga know that Act 10 is the anti-public sector collective bargaining law enacted under the leadership of tea party Governor Scott Walker in 2011.  There have been all sorts of bizarre twists and turns in now almost three years of political and judicial fighting among the Walker administration and impacted unions.

Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments on November 11th on a trial judge’s ruling from September 2012 that Act 10 violates free speech, association, and equal protection rights of public sector union members under the federal and Wisconsin state constitution, there has been quite a side-show in the meantime.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) is tasked with applying Act 10’s onerous recertification provisions, which require public sector unions to annually certify through vote than 51% or more of all members (not just voting members) still wish to be represented by the union.  In its previous incarnation, WERC did meaningful public sector employment work in the areas of fact-finding, mediation and arbitration. That function is mostly gone under the Act 10 regime.

In any event, the dispute here is whether Judge Colas’s decision striking down Act 10 only applied to the unions represented in that case or to all public sector unions in Wisconsin. The initial ruling was less than clear in this regard.  Because of the ambiguity, WERC has continued to apply the recertification provisions by decertifying the Kensoha teachers union for not seeking recertification and by planning to hold recertification elections in November for other public sector unions.

Judge Colas ruled on Monday that the two WERC Commissioners were in contempt of court for seeking to still apply Act 10 because his ruling applied to all public state and local employees in Wisconsin.  WERC has responded by completely ceasing its efforts to apply these provisions of Act 10 in order to purge their contempt.

It is unclear what happens next.  On the one hand, I, and most others, suspect that the 4 to 3 conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court will strike down Judge Colas’s decision invalidating Act 10, which makes all this contempt hoopla eventually moot. But when that decision comes down is anyone’s guess, although likely before next summer.  On the other hand, the government has indicated that it will seek immediate relief from Judge Colas’s conempt order by asking the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to stay or vacate Judge Colas’s order.

I am somewhat bummed by all this on a personal level. I published what I thought was a comprehensive law review article detailing the entire Act 10 story in the summer of 2012 (shortly before the unsuccessful recall election of Governor Walker), but now I see I might have to write a second part to this saga.  Sigh.

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on October 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Secunda is an associate professor of  law at Marquette University Law School.  Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law.  Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media.  He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.


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Honeywell Plant Freezes Summer Vacations

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Mike ElkAt a time of year when many workers are taking family vacations, uranium workers at Honeywell’s plant in Metropolis, Ill. won’t have that option. On July 27, the company announced a vacation freeze. United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the plant, claims that the decision is just another salvo in a three-year-long battle by Honeywell to bust the union.

Honeywell is currently in the process of rehiring several hundred operations workers at the uranium plant who were laid off in July of 2012 when the plant shut down for earthquake-safety improvements requested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Earlier this year, Honeywell began slowly rehiring the laid-off workers—both hourly union employees and non-union salary employees—to restart the plant. Now all but 21 of the 200 union employees have been rehired as the plant moves toward full operationality. But instead of rehiring the final 21 union workers, Honeywell is proceeding short-staffed and calling in workers on their days off to make up the gap.

In order to put pressure on the company to rehire the 21 laid-off union members, some union employees are refusing to work any overtime (and passing up the time-and-half pay). In response, Honeywell announced that because of the staffing shortage, no workers can take a vacation this summer.

In a July 27, 2013 email to employees, Honeywell Metropolis Operating Manager Jim Pritchett wrote:

Effective immediately, all vacations are cancelled and no further vacations are to be granted in operations including individuals’ days—that includes all hourly and salaried staff. The purpose is to assure we are staffed to support operations and to continue to get the remaining units on line so we can support our customers. … I am disappointed it has gotten to this but we have no choice due to employees not responding to call ins and taking care of their responsibilities…. This vacation freeze will be lifted as soon as the business needs of the plant are being effectively met by people coming when they are called.

The union speculates that Honeywell has an ulterior motive for not hiring the remaining 21 workers: It doesn’t want to rehire Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech. Under the union contract, Honeywell is obligated to rehire all of the laid-off union employees according to a mutually agreed upon list developed according to workers’ qualifications and seniority. The next person on the list is Lech.

“It’s directly targeting me for my work as union president,” says Lech, who thinks that Honeywell is trying to send a message about the length that the company is willing to go to crush the union.

The union says that instead of following the list, Honeywell has told the final 21 workers that they must compete against outside applicants and reapply for their jobs as if they were new hires directly off the street.

“It’s a violation of the contract,” Lech says. “How can Honeywell do it? Well, Honeywell does whatever they want.”

“It will take six months before the case even gets before an arbitrator and another six months before the arbitrator rules,” he says.

Workers are refusing overtime in the hopes that they can resolve the issue sooner. Many were planning family vacations and were outraged by the vacation moratorium.

“It’s a morally bankrupt company that punishes their employees for staffing shortages it created out of spite,” reads a text message to Working In These Times by one Honeywell employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. “Two years ago we took their lousy contract and they’re still kicking us.”

Honeywell did not respond to request for comment for this piece.

Lech says that despite being laid off, he is undeterred from his work for the union.

“This absolutely will not stop me from doing my job,” says Lech. “Heck, I got more time than ever to work as union president.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.


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Just When You Thought the Hostess Story Couldn’t Get Worse…

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Kenneth Quinnell

Money that was intended for employee pensions was used by Hostess Brands management to cover operating expenses and workers were never compensated for the lost payment, Yahoo News reports. An undetermined amount of money that Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Miller (BCTGM) members were supposed to receive as part of their contract with the company was used to keep the company running after mismanagement led to significant losses and eventual bankruptcy. 

This was during the same time period that Hostess began paying out massive bonuses to executives. BCTGM learned that the then-Hostess CEO was to be awarded a 300% raise, and at least nine other top executives were to receive raises ranging between 35% and 80%.

The process of taking the pension money was quite simple for Hostess:

For example, John Jordan, the local union financial officer for [BCTGM] Local 334 in Biddeford, Maine, said workers at a Hostess factory in Biddeford agreed to plow 28 cents of their 30-cents-an-hour wage increase in November 2010 into the pension plan.

Hostess was supposed to take the additional 28 cents an hour and contribute it to the workers’ pension plan.

Employees never saw that 28 cents. In July 2011, Hostess stopped making pension contributions and used the money to run the business. Employees never received the pension funds and the compensation Hostess promised the workers was not made up in wages, either.

In all likelihood, the tactic doesn’t violate federal law because the money didn’t get paid to employees first, but went directly to the pension fund. Lawyers call the situation “betrayal without remedy” and it’s unlikely the money can be recovered.

Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn’s response ranged from understatement to “it’s not my fault.”

Gregory Rayburn, Hostess’s chief executive officer, said in an interview it is “terrible” that employee wages earmarked for the pension were steered elsewhere by the company.

“I think it’s like a lot of things in this case,” he added. “It’s not a good situation to have.”

Mr. Rayburn became chief executive in March and learned about the issue shortly before the company shut down, he said. “Whatever the circumstances were, whatever those decisions were, I wasn’t there,” he said.

Rayburn’s predecessor at Hostess, Brian Driscoll, refused to comment.

The end of pension contributions by the company was a key reason for the BCTGM strike:

Halted pension contributions were a major factor in the bakers union’s refusal to make a deal with the company. After a U.S. bankruptcy judge granted Hostess’s request to impose a new contract, the union’s employees went on strike. Hostess then moved to liquidate the company.

“The company’s cessation of making pension contributions was a critical component of the bakers’ decision” to walk off the job, said Jeffrey Freund of Bredhoff & Kaiser PLLC, a lawyer for the union.

“If they had continued to fund the pension, I think we’d still be working there today,” said Craig Davis, a 44-year-old forklift operator who loaded trucks with Twinkies, cupcakes and sweet rolls at an Emporia, Kan., bakery, for nearly 22 years.

The amount of employee compensation lost by the company is not known, but the numbers are staggering:

In five months before this past January’s bankruptcy filing, the company missed payments to the main baker pension fund totaling $22.1 million, Mr. Freund said.

After that, forgone pension payments added up at a rate of $3 million to $4 million a month until Hostess formally rejected its contracts with the union. The figures include company contributions and employee wages that were earmarked for the pension, according to Mr. Freund.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on December 11, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a senior writer for AFL-CIO, and a former precinct committeeman in the Leon County Democratic Party. He is a former vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s Legislative Liaison Committee, and during the 2010 election, through the primary, Kenneth Quinnell worked for the Kendrick Meek campaign. He has written for Think Progress, AFSCME and for OurFuture.org on Social Security.


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Judge Rips Up Union Contracts for Twinkie Makers

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A bankruptcy judge turned the screws even tighter on workers at Hostess Brands last week, giving corporate managers the right to unilaterally cut wages and benefits for the thousands of men and women who make the Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other baked goods that have made the company famous.

Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y., handed down his sentence against the workers on October 4. His action was intended to force other unions to follow the lead of the Teamsters union, which reluctantly acquiesced to draconian contract cuts at Hostess last month.

The decision endangers the livelihoods of thousands of workers at Hostess, including about 5,000 members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), some 200 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), and smaller groups of workers represented by four other unions.

BCTGM members are being indirectly punished for a rank-and-file vote last month in which they rejected a draconian contract offer that would eliminate jobs, cut wages, slash benefits and end pensions. BCTGM President Frank Hurt announced in mid-September that 92 percent of union members had voted against the offer in local union meetings held across the country.

“Our members reviewed the analysis of this company’s business plan provided by a highly respected financial analyst retained by the company which showed the plan had little or no chance of succeeding in saving the business but would provide the investors with a windfall. Our members know that this is a company that is controlled by Wall Street private equity and hedge fund firms, whose sole objective is to maximize their own returns, not rebuild the company for the long haul,” Hurt stated.

Hurt’s statement reiterated alarms he has been raising for months that the Hostess bankruptcy is a sham. Rather than a serious effort to repair the company’s crippled finances, the plan is nothing more than an a scheme to crush the unions, shed millions in pension debt, and then sell off the company to new owners, Hurt charges.

Key to such a plan will be whether Judge Drain agrees to release Hostess from more than $100 million in debts owed to a long list of pension plans, especially the plans for members of BCTGM locals and units of the Teamsters. With about 7,500 members at Hostess, the Teamsters are the company’s largest single union, closely followed by BCTGM. (Hostess said it had a total of 18,500 union and non-union employees at the time it filed for bankruptcy, but that number appears to have dropped since then.)

The company’s corporate managers succeeded in getting the Teamsters to agree to concessions, including pension cuts. On September 14, a rank-and-file vote approved a new contract for Teamster workers that was very similar to the one rejected by BCTGM. Posed as a choice between accepting a terrible contract or losing their jobs entirely, Teamster members voted 2,357 to 2,043 to accept the new contract, according to a statement from union headquarters.

Under that contract, 10 to 15 percent of Teamster jobs will be eliminated, all wages will be cut by 8 percent, health care costs to workers will rise sharply, and no further pension contributions will be made until at least 2015. The terms do not require Hostess to resume pension contributions in 2015, but if it does so (at lower rates), it will be forgiven its current debts. Terms of the agreement were laid in detail to union members in a 45-minute video released by Teamster leaders.

In several decisions this spring, Judge Drain assisted Hostess in forcing the contract down the throats of Teamster workers. He supported company claims that only dramatic cuts in labor costs could avert the total dissolution of Hostess. He had ruled against BTCGM on the contract issue earlier on May 4, and his continued admonitions to the unions to negotiate with Hostess were correctly interpreted as threats to destroy existing contracts.

Last week he extended his decision against BTCGM to force concession on five other unions that represent smaller groups of  workers at Hostess:  Machinits; Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers; Firemen & Oilers (a unit of the Service Employees International Union); International Union of Operating Engineers; and Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

As of this week Hostess managers had not yet implemented the new Teamster contract–or any of the forced cuts authorized by Judge Drain at BCTGM and elsewhere. Implementation is expected within the next 45 days, one Teamster official told Working In These Times, when the company intends to enact cuts at all the unions at the same time. Cuts for non-union workers are also to take place then, he said.

According to Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn, the possibility of a BCTGM strike is now plainly on the table.

In a public letter to employees on October 4, Rayburn noted that Judge Drain had no authority to prevent a strike by BCTGM members. Rayburn nevertheless included a partial statement from the judge that seemed to urge BCTGM members to accept the company’s new terms in hopes of saving the company.

By relying on the remarks of Judge Drain, Rayburn implicitly conceded a charge made by BCTGM’s Hurt–that the Hostess CEO’s own credibility among the workers and union leaders has been shredded just as completely as the old collective bargaining agreements.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 10, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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PTSD Counselors Forced To Attend Anti-Union Meetings on Troubled Army Base

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In 2010, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes labeled Fort Lewis-McChord, a joint Army and Air Force base in Washington state, “the most troubled base in the military” due to its inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or address mental health problems. Fort Lewis-McChord has one of the highest suicide rates of army bases across the country, and last year had the highest number of total suicides with 16. It was where Sergeant Robert Bales was stationed right before he was shipped to Afghanistan and massacred 16 Afghan civilians–including nine children–last March. And it was where the soldiers who formed a “kill team” that murdered civilians in Afghanistan in 2010 had previously been stationed.

The murders of Afghan civilians and high rates of suicide among the soldiers stationed there are believed to stem from the failure of Lewis-McChord’s doctors to adequately treat mental health problems. In the past five years, approximately 300 soldiers saw their PTSD diagnoses reversed by doctors at the base. The Army is currently investigating whether doctors at Lewis-McChord reversed the diagnoses in order to save money.

Now, a Working In These Times investigation has found that workers assigned to help families suffering from the effects of PTSD have been told to close cases on suicidal patients in order to save money, haven’t been paid on time and have been forced to attend anti-union meetings that they claim the contractor, Strategic Resources Inc. (SRI), has billed to the federal government, in violation of federal law. (In July, an In These Times expose on union busting at Fort Lewis-McChord spurred a federal investigation into whether General Dynamics was illegally using government dollars to engage in union-busting.)

Kevin Cummings, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), has been attempting to unionize mental health counselors employed by SRI at Lewis-McChord for the past several months. Counselors at the base tell Working In These Times they often have been told to close cases early in order to save money and to lie to federal investigators about how much the contractor was reimbursing them for driving expenditures. They also report being met with illegal threats and intimidation when they tried to unionize.

“[SRI] had no idea really what victim advocates do,” says Kara Karlson, a former counselor with SRI’s Victim Advocacy group. “It’s just completely about money-making. When we were hired on, they didn’t send us any training materials. I got a company handbook that was only eight pages long. They would do whatever they could to save a penny for themselves and hang you out to dry.”

“There was a lot of pressure to close cases quickly even if we didn’t feel like we should close them,” says another counselor who works in SRI’s New Parents Support Program, and who requested anonymity out of fear of being fired. “I had a friend who was working with a family that had a suicidal teenager and was told to back away from the family. She refused to back away. They wanted other services to take on the risk of dealing with someone who is suicidal.”

“[Workers] are directed to keep a certain number of cases open and keep a certain number of cases closed,” says IAM’s Cummings. “The lead will tell them, ‘You have too many cases open, close that one.’ They are telling them to close cases on people on suicide watch. If [SRI] need [to hire] additional bodies, they need to get them. Maybe the contract needs to be opened to help them hire additional people.”

In addition to finding it difficult to provide proper treatment, counselors in SRI’s New Parent Support Program and its Victim Advocacy Group say their pay was cut by as much as 25 percent when SRI took over their contract three years ago.

Most federal contractors must abide by the Service Contract Act, which mandates that workers be paid the prevailing wage for the job in the region. However, workers at SRI, many of whom have master’s degrees, allege the company misclassified them as less skilled employees. As a result, they make only $27.50 per hour, instead of the $36.05 per hour that would be mandated under the Service Contract Act’s provisions if they were classified properly. The workers hope that if the Department of Labor reviews their contract, it will find that their work falls under the better-paying classification.

In addition, SRI has refused to pay workers overtime, claiming that they are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to Cummings. However, he says that isn’t actually the case.

“Read the act,” Cummings says. “It says they are not exempt if their work is preventive or investigatory in nature. The VA [Victim Advocates] Group absolutely meets those criteria, [and] the NPSP [New Parents Support Program] seems to as well. NPSP has to provide me a full breakdown of their duties, but the job description and service contract for them indicate they should not be exempt either.”

Workers at SRI say that to keep them from joining together to demand higher wages, the company instituted a rule prohibiting them from talking to each other about their wages. Such a rule would violate the National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to discuss their wages.

Along with the low pay and unpaid overtime, workers claim the company routinely delays compensating them for the gas mileage that they accrue when driving to meet families in crisis or victims of crime or abuse. “We would spend $250 a month on gas sometimes and have to wait up to five months to get paid,“ says one worker with New Parent Support Program, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing her job.

When workers informed the Department of Labor about the delays, the department sent an investigator to examine the complaints. That prompted an SRI manager to tell workers to lie about their gas mileage, according to one worker. The worker cites a May 12, 2012, conference call in which the manager instructed workers to redo their forms and change key information, such as the number of miles that they had driven.

Finally, after seeing another group of SRI workers employed as IAM-unionized truck drivers picket Fort Lewis-McChord over their greivances, counselors in SRI’s New Parent Support Program and Victim Advocacy Group decided to organize with IAM. SRI responded with behavior that the union claims was illegal.

According to email exchanges and conversations with the workers, in July, the nine women employed as counselors in SRI’s Victim Advocacy Group say they were forced to attend a meeting in which an outside consultant warned them about the dangers of joining a union. In August, 14 counselors with the New Parent Support Program were also forced to attend meetings in which the same consultant spoke out against unionizing.

In both instances, workers claim they were forced to bill the time attending the meetings to the federal government. President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13494, which went into effect last December, prohibits federal contractors from being reimbursed for the cost of their anti-union activity. (In an interesting side note, SRI Presdient Rose McElrath- Slade and her husband Cleveland Slade were major donors to Obama, giving a combined $100,000 to his inauguration fund in 2008.)

“The workers were mandated to attend the meetings, then directed to charge as though they were working on their normal jobs,” says Cummings. “Our money is not supposed to be used for this. Our money is supposed to support our rights, not deny them.”

The command of Fort Lewis-McChord did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In an email to Working In These Times, an SRI spokesperson wrote, “Your inquiry is the first we have heard of this. SRI strives to comply with all applicable laws/regulations and to honor our commitments to our customer, the federal government. We have different levels of review for timesheets for accuracy. Any error identified is corrected to ensure compliance.”

On July 31, the nine counselors of SRI’s Victim Advocacy Group voted to join IAM. The 14 in the New Parent Support Program are still in unionization talks with IAM, despite being forced to attend the anti-union meetings that they claim were billed as regular work to the federal government.

“There is a problem when they are using taxpayer money to deny taxpayers their basic rights,” says Cummings. “If they want to talk their employees out of unionization, that’s fine, but don’t send taxpayers the bills on it.”

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 3, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at [email protected]


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Thousands at Fighting Bob Fest in Madison Cheer Anti-Walker Ruling

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A throng of thousands in Madison, Wis., erupted in cheers upon learning of Dane County Circuit Court Judge’s ruling this Friday that Act 10—Gov. Scott Walker’s law aimed at stripping public employees of meaningful rights to union representation—violated state and federal constitutional protections for free speech, association and equal protection. The judge struck down provisions of Act 10 in relation to municipal and educational employees, though not state employees.

The Madison crowd was assembled this weekend for the 12-year-old, annual Fighting Bob Fest, which takes its name from the state’s legendary progressive governor Robert M. La Follette Senior. The festival marked the first major gathering of progressives in Wisconsin since the failed effort to recall Walker in June.

Walker raised the ire of labor and liberals with his 2011 plan to “drop the bomb” on public workers by crushing their unions. He privately described the move as part of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy to play off private-sector workers’ resentment against their public-sector counterparts.

Gov. Walker’s Act 10 had explosive reverberations: It triggered a six week siege of the State Capitol in Madison by crowds of at least 100,000. This spring, an exhaustive effort by progressives gathered more than one million signatures demanding a June 5 election recall—nearly matching Walker’s winning vote total in 2010. But Walker’s massive fund-raising advantage of about 7-to-1 and the enormous TV ad campaign it bought sufficed to swamp the grassroots organizing and allow the governor to hold on to office.

In the wake of the disappointing recall failure, Colas’ ruling served as a major morale booster for the Fighting Bob crowd. “The crowd love it when we announced at the start that Act 10 had been rule unconsitutional,” says Madison labor attorney and festival founder Ed Garvey.

But the ruling isn’t the last word on Act 10. The case will now go to the state’s Supreme Court, which already voted 4-3 to uphold the law earlier this year after a federal judge in March tossed out provisions clearly designed to make maintenance of union membership as burdensome as possible. The debate among state Supreme Court justices in that instance was so bitter that Justice David Prosser, Walker ally, was accused by several witnesses of choking fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley before the vote.

Give this, Garvey sounded a cautionary note in his Fighting Bob speech: “We all know how David Prosser is going to vote. This is a reminder of how important Supreme Court elections are to the people of Wisconsin.”

Daily Kos, too, has warned labor and progressives against excessive celebration of the Colas decision, noting the limited nature of the ruling and Gov. Walker’s determination to end the state’s 70-year tradition of public-employee rights by any means necessary.

Walker, true to form, responded to the ruling by claiming that his June 5 recall victory constituted a mandate for Act 10’s extreme limits on public-employee rights. He expressed smug certainty that the Colas ruling would be tossed out:

“Sadly a liberal activist judge in Dane County wants to go backwards and take away the lawmaking responsibilities of the legislature and the governor. We are confident that the state will ultimately prevail in the appeals process.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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Teabaggers Are To Congresspeople What Union-Busters Are To Workers

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After reading an article by Chris Townsend the other day, I noticed the the strong similarities between union busting and the tactics of teabaggers — namely, how they suppress, intimidate, and delay action at all costs. They both rely on intimidating people to the point where there is no longer any space left to make any logical argument.

From Chris Townsend, who started off his career as union activist thirty years ago as a garbageman in Upstate New York and thirty years later is continuing to take out the trash in Washington, D.C. as Political Action Director for United Electrical Workers (UE):

House and Senate Democrats should know that what they are now witnessing in their meetings is nothing more than what hundreds of thousands of working people are subjected to every year when they try to join a union. The only difference is that working people are forced to endure months of intimidation, lies, disruption, and chaos – and frequently termination from their jobs — when they try to exercise their right to join a union. The Democrats should be glad that they are only forced to tolerate a few hours of this corporate attack.

Think about the hell that these Congressman are going through at these meetings and then think about what workers must experience when they try to join unions. You’d be folding the way Democrats are folding on the public option if you feared losing your job in the same way.

Bosses and union busting consultants rely on threats to intimidate and coerce people. In 57% of all union drives they threaten to close factories, but only close them 2% of the time. Indeed, they do fire workers in about 34% of all union drives just to intimidate the rest of the works.

From Townsend:

When workers try to join a union today in the private sector, in almost every case the boss goes into action; he hires a lawyer to delay, and then he hires a union busting consultant to launch the legal and illegal counterattack. The boss never admits to this, however, and claims throughout that he just wants everyone to have a “secret ballot” election someday to settle things fair and square.

Hmm sound familiar? We just need some more time to make sure we do this right? Isn’t this what Republican and their corporate allies Blue Dogs in Congress did last month hoping to buy some time so they could get to the rough intimidation sessions of August. Townsend goes on to explain:

The boss and [union busting] consultant then turn the workplace upside down — just like they are doing in the town hall format — with their contrived chaos and terror. They lie, misrepresent, instill fear, generate chaos, and completely muddy the waters with their sophisticated and unsophisticated tactics at the same time. And not satisfied to browbeat workers in a group setting.

The boss and his [union busting] consultant then subject workers to one-on-one interrogation and humiliation sessions all intended to make it clear to the worker that voting “no” is their only option. By the time the “secret ballot” election rolls around the damage is done. Confused and terrorized workers then vote “no” and against joining the union. Their desire or need for a union does not matter any more. The laws protecting the worker don’t matter because they are rarely enforced. By election day workers just hope to just have some sense of normalcy returned to their workplaces after the bosses contrived turbulence has run its course.

Sounds exactly what members of Congress are experiencing right now. They are being threatened in completely safe districts by opponents using lies and violent outbursts to scare them into voting against the public option. Townsend goes on to wonder what would happen if they held an election:

We suggest that they go so far as to conduct a “secret ballot” election after their meeting has been destroyed by the current crop of disruptors, and then we’ll ask them how legitimate they think the results are. Democrats must learn this lesson; the operators storming the town hall meetings are interested in killing-off all reform efforts, and they will do or say or raise a stink any way they have to in order to win. Because just like in the world of the anti-union consultants, they know full well that when the confusion and terror has run its course, large numbers of people who were formerly in favor of health care reform might not be in favor of it anymore.

Free and fair elections don’t exist in the workplace in America because of the intimidation and lies that employers use against their workers. Studies have shown that 60 percent of workers want to join a union if they were able to but only 8 percent of private sector employees are members of unions. I don”t know how conservative can claim an election could be considered democratic if you have to choice between your job and voting your conscience.

These teabag protests have showed to the nation what conservatives and their corporate bedfellows consider “democracy”. Democracy for the corporate right wing is “You Shut Up or I’ll Destroy You”. The Corporate Right Wing and their allies engage in lies because if they told the truth that they were putting people before profits, nobody would support them.Teabag protests have demonstrated their form of democracy. Democracy to the corporate right wing is the so called secret ballot union elections in which 1 in 5 workers lose their job.

What they are really creating is climate of fear in which no logical argument can be made. My experience as a union organizer has taught me that the only way to counter these types of arguments is to fight fire with fire. If 10 protesters show up at a town hall to shout lies about “killing grandma”, we need to show up with 100 protesters to stop the smears and shout about how lack of health care is killing us all.

It’s time to stand up and be counted that’s the only way to win. Please go to Campaign for America’s Future website to see how you can attend your town hall meeting.

Mike Elk: is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post on August 19, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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