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Some friends have asked why I hadn’t yet addressed the situation around Gov. Walker and the union protests here in Wisconsin. OK, I will. But I mentioned one key side issue on Feb. 21 in my blog entry titled ” Unions Have a Big PR Problem.” Unions still do. The sub-text that caught the nation’s attention during the massive demonstrations in Madison was that Gov. Walker seemed to be pulling the rug out of pocket book economics for the little people — teachers in particular — right after he had created new tax benefits for business capitalists in the state. He seemed to be robbing the little guys to help the fat cats. He was declaring his hard right belief in trickle-down economics, and union members were paying the price: giving up their collective bargaining rights as state employees.

The unions did a good job of turning out their members and their supporters, organizing crowds of peaceful demonstrators topping 100,000 supporters in and around Wisconsin’s Capitol building. But as I said before, even those well-behaved crowds of supporters were interpreted by the right and much of the press as a specter of the danger of empowered unions. Unions have represented state workers in Wisconsin for more than 50 years, and have seemed to do so fairly well, looking back. But since Detroit collapsed a few years ago, and unions were portrayed as the bad guys who had negotiated exorbitant compensation and retirement plans for auto workers, unions have had a bad PR reputation in America. Of course, the failure of Detroit capitalists to design and build the cars Americans had wanted for more than a generation, defaulting to the more responsive Japanese, South Koreans and Germans, was played down.

So, even though Gov. Walker had the political clout to kill state employee unions, he clearly hit a nerve when he seemed to trample the little guys, at a time when the economy was already doing that to them, while he supported the capitalists. Any reasonable person might have seen a compromise in which the unions agreed to back off on economic pressure for a year or two, but Walker would have none of that. Yes, the unions have a PR problem. They are not appreciated as being responsible champions of the little guy. If unions are to survive, they’re in need of a lot of good PR, and they had better earn it. Meanwhile, autocrats like Gov. Walker will keep eating their lunch.

I happened to somewhat accidentally catch the first half of the Glenn Beck show on Sirius radio last night, when he called for policemen to separate themselves from their unions because, he said, the unions are inexorably linked to the heritage of Mao and Lenin, he said, through what seemed to me a complex and baffling string of relationships, which presumably he was sketching out on his infamous chalkboard. I was reminded to the worst of the rantings of the John Birch society in the ’60s. The guy is a loon, as we like to say in Wisconsin.

Here’s the New Republic on the well-deserved decline of Glenn Beck.

The protests in Madison, WI demonstrate that while unions and their supporters can rally a lot of people when the cameras are on, their ability to communicate the social value of unions and the union movement, for the benefit of both their members and the rest of us, is sketchy at best. The union movement needs vastly better PR, and they better get busy making up for lost time, or the movement will go out of the unions.

I don’t vote in Wisconsin, but I own a home, spend a lot of time and care about the people here — after all, my grandfather was one of the local citizens who bailed out the Green Bay Packers in the 1920s. So, why is Walker wrong?

Yes these are tough economic conditions to address, and “shared sacrifice,” as Walker calls it, is called for to address state budget issues. BUT, Walker recently passed more than $100 million in new tax breaks for business, then turns around and asks to help make up for that by cutting the benefits and future negotiating power of the unions representing certain state employees. Of course he exempts the fire and police unions that supported his election campaign, but nails those, including the teachers unions, that didn’t. That is vindictive politics all right, but it’s also asking chronically under-compensated teachers to give up current and future compensation, just when we need better education more than ever. Meanwhile, highly compensated business owners wallow in new tax breaks.

How dumb, how vindictive, how peevishly political, how shortsighted can a so-called leader be! If the Democrats are substantially behind organizing the teachers and other state employees to occupy Madison to make their plight known statewide and nationally, at least their efforts are transparent, while Walker threatens behind the scenes to slash state jobs if those protesting don’t back off and encourage Democrat legislators to cave in.

March 2023

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