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Is Wisconsin a victory for unions?

By Nelson Lichtenstein, Special to CNN
A protester holds an American flag during a demonstration inside the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday.
A protester holds an American flag during a demonstration inside the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday.
  • Wisconsin moving ahead on bill stripping public unions of collective bargaining rights
  • Nelson Lichtenstein says the move is energizing supporters of unions
  • He says climate hostile to unions has changed and Wisconsin could be a turning point
  • Unions are essential to represent people in the ranks and to promote equity, he says

Editor's note: Nelson Lichtenstein is the MacArthur Foundation professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author of "The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business" and editor, with Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, of the forthcoming "The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination."

Santa Barbara, California (CNN) -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has won an important battle against public employees in his state, but the war -- and here we might justifiably call it the class war -- is far from over. By pushing through the state Legislature a bill stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights, Walker has become a hero to the Republican right.

But the outcome of this legislative melodrama is turning out to be of secondary import to the larger shift in political sentiment that the Wisconsin events have set in motion. The irony here is that as Republican officeholders attack public sector unions in Wisconsin and other Northern states that were once union bastions, including Ohio, Idaho, Indiana and Pennsylvania, public support for collective bargaining remains strong.

Just this week a Bloomberg National Poll found that 64% of respondents -- both Democrats and Republicans -- say public employees should have the right to bargain collectively for their wages. The Wisconsin events have energized unionists and liberal Democrats, whose activism and ideas are essential to any remobilization of the Obama forces.

And the way we talk about unions -- and here I include the conservatives -- is beginning to shift onto a terrain that is much more favorable toward organized labor. Two years ago, unions took it on the chin when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other anti-union groups spent millions on an advertising blitz that tarred organized labor as thuggish and boss-controlled.

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The ad campaign succeeded in stymieing union/Democratic Party efforts to pass a law, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have facilitated union organizing by making majority sign-up -- "card check" -- an alternative path toward rapid union certification. That would have bypassed the lengthy, employer-dominated election process during which workers frequently come under sustained and intense management pressure to vote against unionization.

And in that same political season, the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, traditionally unionized auto firms, generated an enormous backlash against the United Automobile Workers and other unions, which Republicans now labeled as special interest beneficiaries of the much-maligned stimulus.

But that kind of rhetoric carries a lot less weight today. Although Walker labels his laborite opponents as "union bosses," the charge hardly resonates when tens of thousands of animated and determined schoolteachers, librarians, home health care workers and firemen fill the Statehouse rotunda and the surrounding streets almost every day.

Opinion: Street theater obscures real issues

Walker's real objection, and that of other Republicans, flows from the capacity of the unions to deploy their energy and dues to support politicians and causes that sustain the welfare state, tax the rich, and bedevil his party. The near-spontaneous demonstrations which have erupted in so many states are a good indication that many rank-and-file unionists enthusiastically back their own labor leadership.

This is the kind of social energy and popular mobilization that was sorely missing from the labor effort to pass EFCA last year or rescue the auto companies from bankruptcy. In Wisconsin, labor and the Democrats are now channeling this revolt toward the potential recall of at least eight Republican state senators. So we are finally getting a liberal version of the social and political anger that last year characterized the Tea Party eruption.

Likewise, the rhetoric deployed by conservative anti-unionists in the Wisconsin fight has actually conceded important ideological ground to the rest of the labor movement. Opponents of public employee unionism often make the argument that since these unions are politically active and sometimes help elect the very same public officials with whom they bargain over wages and benefits, unions like the National Educational Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sit "on both sides of the bargaining table."

This was the argument recently offered by Wall Street Journal editorial board member James Taranto, a supporter of Walker. "It is a collusion and conspiracy against taxpayers," he declared on National Public Radio. To make his point, Taranto contrasted such bargaining in the government sector with that between unions and management in corporate America. There, said Taranto, "unions represent workers on one side of the table and management represents shareholders on the other side of the table. There is a clear conflict of interest and they work out an agreement."

Precisely. And we should all be delighted that an influential conservative opinion-maker has made such a sterling argument for the existence of trade unionism in every privately owned workplace in the land. I hope executives at the Chamber, as well as Wal-Mart, Fed Ex and other firms that declare unions obsolete, are taking note.

Indeed, if conflict between workers and their bosses is a prerequisite for the existence of trade unionism, then there is plenty of evidence that it exists in government employment as well.

Right-wing assertions of a conspiracy between public employee unions and friendly officials represent a triumph of ideology over experience. Government officials, even those elected with union backing, have hardly been patsies when it comes to negotiations with state and municipal employees.

We've had plenty of union-management battles in the public sector, going all the way back to the strikes of teachers, garbage collectors, and social workers who led the way to the formation of municipal unions in the 1960s and 1970s. And in more recent years, tough bargaining sessions, full of layoff threats and midnight deadlines, have preceded the compromises that are embodied in virtually every public employee collective bargaining contract.

But it is not just a question of money or pensions. Anyone who has worked in a school, a government office, a firehouse or a police station knows that conflicts, petty and grand, exist between workers, their bosses, and the bureaucracy in which both are enmeshed.

Unions are essential to represent workers at the bottom of this heap and to make the whole system work in more equitable fashion. The drama unfolding in the state of Wisconsin is educating Americans to this reality.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nelson Lichtenstein.

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