This Labor Day, remember SB5, but also learn from Wisconsin’s deception: An in-depth recounting of labor’s recent past, our country’s future

I recently spoke with Ed “Flash” Ferenc on America’s Work Force Radio. He asked me, “Do you remember SB5? Are you familiar?” Of course, I responded! How could I forget my teachers and family members fighting so hard to maintain their collective bargaining rights? I was 16 when Governor Kasich waged war on labor, but I realize that this battle–that labor won–is in some ways fading into the past, not rising to the forefront of the minds of most in my generation. A friend who listened to my interview asked: “Could you remind me what SB5 was?”


Ahead of Labor Day, Dan Kaufman of the New York Times published a nuanced and compelling look at Wisconsin’s war on organized labor–from the sparks that ignited the national labor movement in Wisconsin in 1886 to Wisconsin becoming the 25th Right to Work state in the U.S. just this past March.

Kaufman’s piece illuminates many aspects of the oft-forgotten history of our country’s labor movement. The horrific workplace conditions. The riots. The deaths. The rise of collectivism in the fight for workers’ rights.

“A citywide strike for an eight-hour day and better working conditions had shut down every large factory in Milwaukee except Rolling Mills, and as the marchers began climbing the hill toward this last holdout, members of the Wisconsin National Guard fired down on them. They killed seven people, including a 13-year-old boy.”

Today, the struggle for workers’ rights continues, though its nature has changed. The exchange of contributions and endorsements for policy objectives blurs the lines and splits allegiances among unions who still share the same sources of political lifeblood, and depend on the same policies to protect their workers’ rights. Take, for instance, Scott Walker’s campaign for Wisconsin’s governorship back in 2010, when he promised Terry McGowan, President of Local 139 Machinist’s Union, that so-called Right-to-Work legislation–which abolishes a union’s rights to require that workers pay dues for their collective representation–would not come across his desk, and would not ever be law.

“’If you can tell me that right-to-work will not come on your desk, then I will take you for your word.’ He looked me in the eyes, and he said, ‘It will not make it to my desk.’ He was looking for a contribution, and I was looking for a commitment. We both got what we came for. He kept his, and I lost mine.”–Terry McGowan

Walker’s strategy is divide and conquer. Go after different sectors, maintain some support among the labor crowd, then ultimately have what he needs to conquer all. It’s terrifying, but it’s working. When Walker stripped collective bargaining rights from public sector workers in 2011, he did so while maintaining support from private sector laborers. According to Kaufman: “Walker consistently praised private-­sector unions, particularly those in the construction trades, calling them ‘my partners in economic development.'” He promised highway and construction projects and an iron-ore mine that would create thousands of union jobs. At the time, it was a hard proposition for union leaders to turn down. But, now, the consequences…

As Ohioans gathered to fight SB5, so did Wisconsinites–except not completely. While they rallied, many Union leaders found themselves faced with a dilemma of moral consequence. The governor praised private-sector unions. The governor was focused on jobs. The governor promised that Wisconsin would not become a right to work state. The governor lied… But that wouldn’t be known until its time.

Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Labor activists gather in the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Right to Work on Feb. 25. Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Randy Bryce, a member of Milwaukee Ironworkers Local 8, became active this year in opposing Right-to-Work. Bryce, featured in the New York Times article that inspired this blogpost, knows firsthand the consequences of Walker’s “divide and conquer” strategy, from conversations in his own Union hall. “I would ask them, how can you say there are good unions and bad unions?…This is the strategy they’re using to do it. They’re splitting everything up. They’re going after them first, then it’s going to be somebody else. Then they’re going to get to us too.”

Make no mistake, Right-to-Work is a deceptively named political cataclysm that allows business owners to skimp on training, lower workers’ wages, and bring a disproportionate amount of profit to the top of the administrative rolls. Right-to-Work states experience wages that are 12.2% lower than states without restrictions on collective bargaining. Right-to-Work states have more low wage earners than non-Right-to-Work states. Poverty rates are higher in Right-to-Work states. Right-to-Work states invest less into education. The rate of workplace deaths is 54.4% higher in Right-to-Work states than in free-bargaining states.

Laborers care about these facts. Union activists care about these facts. Progressives care about these facts. The few billionaire, far-right backers who are mutilating the democratic process–such as the Koch brothers, who financed Walker’s gubernatorial campaign, financed right to work campaigns in Wisconsin and Michigan, and are financing Walker’s presidential campaign–do not care about these facts.

What frightens me when we talk about Ohio’s labor movement, when we “remember SB5,” is how effective Walker’s strategy really was. Because, beyond social justice, beyond solidarity, people care about having a job. When President Reagan fired and replaced over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, he sent a clear message: we can fire you, so shut up and appreciate your job and your wages. He broke a union on that day. Even worse, he set a dangerous precedent that has been called upon every year since by those who try to silence the voice of the American workforce.

While unions ensure that workers earn good wages, have good training, and can operate in safe conditions, Wisconsin showed us how easy it is for big money and empty promises to divide the labor movement through the carefully laid plans of conniving politicians. Walker was able to remove collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, while maintaining his endorsements and contributions from Ironworkers. And, while the consequential backstabbing by Walker to the labor leaders who supported him is certainly humiliating, the truth is, the Ironworkers really didn’t have many options when it came to endorsement time. Walker promised jobs. Walker promised no Right-to-work. Walker went back on those promises, and Wisconsin is 40th in the nation for job growth, 42nd in wage growth, and the 25th Right-to-Work state.

Koch puppet and protestors at the Rally to Defend the American Dream in Columbus, OH August 21

Koch puppet and protestors at the Rally to Defend the American Dream in Columbus, OH August 21

As we move forward in the fight for workers’ rights, we have to be prepared to rise up as a united force. We see what’s been done in Wisconsin. We see how Walker and his allies manipulated their positions, giving no-win options to local unions that had to make the call they thought would be best for their workers. Dave Poklinkoski, president of a Wisconsin IBEW local (Electricians’ union) thinks there’s a lot more to come, even on a national scale:

“Wisconsin has become a kind of laboratory for oligarchs to implement their political and economic agenda. We’re small enough that they can carry it out. Can they carry it out on the national level? We’ll find out.”

Knowing what we know, tracking the dollars behind Wisconsin’s collective bargaining and right to work legislation, and just listening to how Walker talks about unions on the campaign trail, we must brace ourselves with the knowledge that the worst is yet to come. Poklinkoski says: “People think that unions are useless today, that we’re dinosaurs. Well, how did that happen? We let it happen.” Now, more than ever, we need to regain control of the conversation. The public needs to see what’s truly happening, and they need to understand why. Younger generations of Ohioans need to remember not only SB5, but the fundamental value that hard-fought rights like collective bargaining have to our society. This same society where the middle class is disappearing, wages are basically stagnant, and unequal pay for equal work is the norm of the land for men and women of color, and women overall.

As a final part of Kaufman’s New York Times piece, there is a powerful set of photographs taken by Philip Montgomery during this year’s Right-to-Work battle in Wisconsin. The photos are cast in black and white, perhaps to remind us of an older time, a historic time; but, these photos were taken in 2015. Looking at these images– the people, the moment of time– you know that we’re living through something with great historical significance. Though Labor did not win the battle in Wisconsin, there is no telling where the arc of this story will end. We’re a part of it now. What we do here and now, in Ohio– a non-Right-to-Work state (for now)– matters hugely to the future of the American workforce.

We remember the Bay View Massacre of 1886, Pittsburgh’s Homestead Strike of 1892, Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre of 1914. We remember when Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. We remember what Labor Day means and why we celebrate it. We remember the solidarity we felt the last time we came together to rally for a common cause. We also remember SB5. And we are prepared to defeat it, again, and again, and again.