Ten years ago, after overcoming a monthslong protest movement and legal battle, a law called Act 10 took effect in Wisconsin. The nondescript name cloaked the most significant attack on labor rights since President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union in 1981.
Ostensibly meant to address a shortfall in the state’s budget, Act 10 steeply cut the state’s contribution to workers’ pensions and health care premiums, but its defining feature was to effectively eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Most important, it sparked a nationwide attack on labor that fueled the rise of right-wing populism and helped elect Donald Trump.
Since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, many historians and political observers — not to mention Democratic politicians — have grown increasingly concerned about the future of American democracy. Those fears have only intensified with the passage of new laws restricting voting rights in Georgia, Florida, Arizona and 14 other states. Yet the Democratic establishment has continued to minimize the importance of labor rights, failing to draw a connection between attacks on organized labor, exemplified by laws like Act 10, and the unraveling of democracy.
That connection is clear from the bitter legacy of Act 10. Introduced by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, the law mandated that public sector unions hold recertification elections annually — and, unlike in typical democratic elections, unions would need to win a majority of all eligible voters, not just a majority of votes. It outlawed collective bargaining for workplace safety — a crucial issue for workers like corrections officers — and for any issue except base wages; even the raises that workers could negotiate were capped by the rate of inflation. Most revealing was a provision that made it illegal for employers to collect union dues from paychecks, even with a worker’s written consent, though it permitted such deductions for charitable organizations like the United Way.
That provision, coupled with $13 billion in tax cuts passed during Mr. Walker’s tenure (most of which benefited corporations and the state’s wealthiest citizens) and Mr. Walker’s exemption of firefighters and nearly all police unions (many of which endorsed him) from the law, showed how the bill was primarily a political attack against a crucial pillar of financial and organizational support for the state’s Democratic Party.
Mr. Walker underscored the law’s political nature when he privately told a billionaire donor in January 2011, a few weeks before he announced his attack on public employee unions, that it would be part of a “divide and conquer” strategy to pit public and private sector unions against each other to weaken labor’s power overall.
By that measure, Act 10 has been remarkably effective; Wisconsin’s public sector unions have lost about 70 percent of their members on average over the past decade. The diminishment of public employee unions helped pave the way for Mr. Walker to sign a so-called right-to-work law in 2015, breaking his earlier pledge not to do so. Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from requiring workers in a unionized workplace to pay dues, which erodes the union’s finances and bargaining power. Along with Act 10, Wisconsin’s right-to-work law has contributed to a 40 percent decline in the state’s union membership rate since 2011. Now barely 8 percent of Wisconsin’s work force are members of a union, roughly the same percentage as in Alabama, a state with a long and violent anti-labor history.
But Act 10’s impact over the past decade goes far beyond a decline in union membership. The law has damaged the state’s public infrastructure and services, including K-12 public education. According to a survey by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the number of incoming college freshmen at the state’s four-year universities who intended to become teachers dropped by a third between 2012 and 2018. The loss of collective bargaining rights made teaching less attractive. It has also made teachers’ wages and benefits more uneven across the state. Wealthier school districts can entice sought-after teachers while poorer districts, many of them in rural areas, face persistent teacher shortages and high turnover rates. Wisconsin is also experiencing stagnant wages, regressive tax policies that disproportionately burden working- and middle-class families, and its highest level of income inequality in nearly 100 years.
Wisconsin’s history as a pioneer in the expansion of labor rights — it was the first state to enact a workers’ compensation law and an unemployment insurance program, and to recognize collective bargaining rights for public employees — made it a particularly attractive target for national conservatives. In the wake of Act 10, more than 100 bills curtailing collective bargaining rights were introduced in states across the country. In 2018, the attack on public employee unions was successfully nationalized with the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which essentially instituted a right-to-work law for the country’s public sector unions.
Private sector unions have been targeted, too. The right-to-work movement — which had been founded by an avowed white supremacist named Vance Muse in the 1940s before being taken over by conservative industrialists like Fred Koch — appeared to have petered out by 2010. But over the next decade, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, joined Wisconsin in becoming right-to-work states. Now 27 states have right-to-work laws.
Such laws have contributed to a seemingly bottomless drop-off in union membership. Today, roughly 10 percent of American workers belong to a union, half the percentage that did so in 1983. The declines in Michigan and Wisconsin were particularly important, because of Mr. Trump’s exceedingly small margin of victories in each state. “Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 did not lay the groundwork for Republican political dominance,” the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist wrote in 2017. “But the March 2011 signing of Act 10, a dramatic reform of public sector labor laws, by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker certainly did. To understate it: If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics. It’s that big a deal.”
While Joe Biden narrowly won back Wisconsin and Michigan last year, the states are increasingly polarized, a trend that has been exacerbated by labor’s demise. As the Economic Policy Institute has shown, the decline in union membership correlates with a rise in income inequality. It is also a central culprit in America’s political dysfunction and in the atomization of the electorate; studies have shown that union members are more active in civil society, more likely to vote and less prone to racial resentment.
While the 2010 midterm elections, which gave Republicans control of state government in 20 states, including Wisconsin, are recognized as a political turning point, the movement that arose against Act 10 is an underappreciated spark for the current progressive revival. The protests in Madison against the bill, which at times drew 100,000 participants, formed the first significant resistance to the Tea Party, while also exposing the powerful right-wing network, spearheaded by the American Legislative Exchange Council, that has been propagating attacks on labor, voting rights and public education in statehouses across the country for decades.
But the Democratic Party establishment distanced itself from the Wisconsin uprising. Notably, President Barack Obama did not go to Wisconsin during the Act 10 protests, betraying a campaign promise to “put on a comfortable pair of walking shoes myself” and “march on that picket line with you” if collective bargaining rights were ever under attack. (Vice President Biden did not go to Wisconsin either.) Outrage over Act 10 prompted an effort to recall Mr. Walker that garnered nearly a million signatures and forced him to face a new election in 2012. But Mr. Obama deliberately avoided campaigning with Tom Barrett, the governor’s Democratic opponent. “This is a gubernatorial race with a guy who was recalled and a challenger trying to get him out of office,” Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama’s deputy campaign spokeswoman, told NBC News. “It has nothing to do with President Obama.”
The fallout from the financial crisis, and Mr. Obama’s tepid economic response to it, helped enable the Tea Party backlash, allowing the movement’s funders to realize long-held ambitions of weakening the labor movement and the public sector under the guise of austerity. That effort was made easier by the Democrats’ embrace of their framing. A few months before Mr. Walker announced Act 10, his predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, bragged that he made steeper cuts to size of the state employee work force than any governor in Wisconsin’s history. Mr. Obama, too, championed public austerity, imposing a two-year wage freeze for federal workers just after the 2010 election.
These actions reflected a decades-long shift in the Democratic Party away from working-class voters. In a 1978 speech, President Jimmy Carter announced a plan to cut 20,000 federal workers and cap pay increases for government employees. The following year, Mr. Carter appointed Paul Volcker as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. To reduce inflation, Mr. Volcker, a former vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank, raised the prime interest rate to 20 percent, which sparked a recession, a 10 percent unemployment rate and a wave of deindustrialization that accelerated the transformation of the industrial Midwest into the Rust Belt.
Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and negotiated the agreement to grant permanent most-favored-nation status to China, decisions that have cost more than four million jobs, a disproportionate number of them well-paying unionized manufacturing jobs. In 2009, Mr. Obama, who had a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, quickly abandoned a promise to require employers to recognize a union when a majority of workers signed cards indicating they wanted one. “Obama and Clinton both surrounded themselves with a lot of Wall Street people who had no clue,” Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., told The Los Angeles Times last month. “We were an annoyance to be dealt with.”
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden promised to be the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” And on his first day in office, he fired Peter Robb, the powerful general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. For decades, Mr. Robb had been a management-side labor lawyer and, in fact, had been Mr. Reagan’s lead attorney when Mr. Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, effectively breaking their union. (In a particularly wrenching but revealing irony, the union had endorsed Mr. Reagan.)
Mr. Biden also spoke out in favor of the unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and has professed support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the most ambitious effort to strengthen labor rights in decades, which passed in the House in March. The bill would, among other things, weaken right-to-work laws, give the N.L.R.B. the power to fine companies that retaliate against organizing workers, and allow many gig workers to be reclassified as employees, making it easier for them to unionize. Mr. Biden replaced a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office — installed by Mr. Trump — with one of Franklin Roosevelt, labor’s greatest ally in the White House.
But Mr. Biden also quickly abandoned an effort to include a $15 minimum wage in the $1.9 trillion reconciliation stimulus package, one of labor’s top priorities, and the PRO Act stands virtually no chance of passage without the elimination of the Senate filibuster, which Mr. Biden has equivocated about.
Meanwhile, labor’s fall continues. Last month, the Supreme Court overruled a California regulation that made it easier for farmworkers to organize. And while this year’s budget proposal by Mr. Walker’s successor, Tony Evers, a moderate Democrat, called for repealing the right-to-work law and much of Act 10, the proposal stands almost no immediate chance of success — the State Legislature has been firmly in Republican control since heavily gerrymandered redistricting maps were passed in 2011. Other Democratic governors have been downright hostile to labor. Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, opposes an effort to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law, despite his party’s control of all three branches of state government there.
If Mr. Biden’s portrait exchange is to be anything more than symbolism, he and other Democratic leaders will need to fight harder to expand labor rights. Labor unrest and growing hostility from the business community helped push Mr. Roosevelt to sign the Wagner Act, a 1935 law that guaranteed private sector workers the right to form unions and to strike. Mr. Roosevelt understood that labor rights were essential, not peripheral, to the New Deal; by empowering workers with a collective voice, they become more active participants in democracy and create a counterweight to the political and economic power of capital. Mr. Roosevelt also understood that labor rights are good politics; Mr. Biden would do well to remember that Democrats’ period of greatest dominance in the country, starting with the New Deal and running through the Great Society, was a time when union membership was at its peak. Labor’s capacity to foster social cohesion is essential to tackling seemingly intractable problems like economic inequality, racism and climate change.
After the Jan. 6 riot, Mr. Walker tweeted out a specious comparison between the violent mob at the Capitol and the peaceful protests against Act 10. As Charles Tubbs, the chief of the Wisconsin State Capitol Police during the weekslong protests in Madison, told me recently, “They were as different as daylight from dark.” Out of an estimated 1.5 million people who participated in the protests at the Capitol, Mr. Tubbs said, only 16 were arrested by the police, nearly all of them for acts of civil disobedience.
But Mr. Walker’s comparison reminded me of a different analogy, one that appeared on a few of the signs held by Act 10 protesters. They warned that one of the Nazis’ first actions after taking power was to ban independent trade unions. That warning underscored labor’s crucial role as a bulwark for democracy, and while it seemed hyperbolic at the time, and maybe still does, it looks more ominous in the aftermath of Jan. 6.
Mr. Biden and other Democratic leaders would do well to remember it.
Dan Kaufman (@dankaufman70) is the author of “The Fall of Wisconsin.”
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