We need a pro-worker candidate

March 12, 2012

Katie Zaman, Michael Billeaux and Elizabeth Wrigley-Field report on a decision by the teaching assistants union at UW that will put pressure on the Democrats.

THE UW-Madison Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), the nation's oldest graduate student union, passed a resolution by a 2-to-1 margin February 23 that establishes strict criteria for the endorsement of gubernatorial candidates running in the recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose attacks on public-sector workers sparked last year's uprising in Wisconsin.

The TAA, one of the unions on the front lines of the uprising, debated and passed the resolution that acknowledges the attacks on labor by the Wisconsin legislature and governor--and the response of the people in the form of an unprecedented grassroots movement. But it also notes that the Democrats have been complicit in attacks on labor and the imposition of austerity in Wisconsin and nationwide.

Most importantly, the resolution says that the TAA will not consider for endorsement any candidate that does not include as a part of their platform the following:

1. Full restoration of collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers.

2. Repeal Act 10, also known as the budget repair bill, and restore all funding to 2010 levels for every program that was cut.

3. Restore all wages and benefits for all public-sector workers.

Wisconsin Gov. Scot Walker
Wisconsin Gov. Scot Walker (Jeffrey A. Rohloff)

In other words, the resolution states that any candidate who wants the TAA's support to replace Walker must commit to repealing Walker's cuts that inspired the labor uprising against him.

The resolution was and remains controversial, and will be challenged at the TAA's next general membership meeting on March 20, where some members will propose to overturn it.

Nevertheless, while its final outcome remains uncertain, the discussion generated by the resolution is already an important step in challenging the culture within the labor movement of rubber-stamping Democratic Party candidates, no matter where they stand on unions' core issues.

LIKE OTHER unions in Wisconsin, the TAA had been active in the collection of over 1 million signatures on petitions to recall Walker and his allies. Many people assumed that the TAA would back whichever candidate had the best chance of beating Walker, as other unions in the state have done already with their endorsement of the first candidate who promised to return collective bargaining rights.

Some members felt strongly felt that an electoral strategy supporting Walker's Democratic challenger and Democrats running in state Senate recall elections is the only chance that Wisconsin voters have at reclaiming the state government, albeit under new austerity terms. They voiced concerns about whether the labor movement would endorse a "radical" platform insisting on only supporting a candidate that pledges to repeal all of Walker's attacks. They say that any gubernatorial candidate who agrees to such a pledge is committing political suicide.

On the contrary, a bold statement of our demand for a bare minimum return of the rights and wages that by Walker's administration is what should be expected from a union. While it is true that the Democratic Party will probably not take much note of the TAA's resolution or non-endorsement of their leading candidate, the TAA has a much more important audience.

The TAA was heavily involved in the Capitol occupation last year, and has built up a reputation among fellow activists and other progressive groups, which have already begun to take note of the its position. The goal of the resolution is to send a message that labor is back, and we are not willing to pay for a crisis we did not create. Getting collective bargaining back is not enough. We demand the health and retirement benefits taken away, and the social services, upon which many working people--including those who are not organized into unions--depend.

Charity Schmidt, a member of the TAA's executive board, put it this way:

The source of power for our uprising came from civil society. The response of rank-and-file and grassroots activists galvanized union leadership and the Democratic Party. To maintain our collective power, we must be affirmative in our platform--this is why it's so important to make demands on our elected officials. This also maintains a space for democratic discussion. For the TAA, the resolution has inspired us to talk about what we want our union to stand for. The discussion is shaping the ideas we will fight for in the coming months, and beyond the recall of Scott Walker.

To date, the only candidate who has promised to veto any budget that does not include restoration of collective bargaining rights to public workers is Kathleen Falk, and this statement has gained her the endorsement of many of Wisconsin's most important unions: Wisconsin State Employees Union/American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 24, Wisconsin Education Association Council and AFT-Wisconsin.

But Falk, Dane County's first woman County Executive, is not the pro-labor politician that she makes herself out to be. In her declaration of candidacy, Falk recalled her past work with unions, saying, "I sat down with eight unions and negotiated cuts in their pay, increases in their cost sharing of what they pay in their health insurance. I got the job done without abandoning workers' rights."

Falk made it clear that she is proud of the concessions that she negotiated from unions in her position as county executive, including proposing a 3 percent pay cut for 2,500 county workers in 2010 after already having won a 5 percent cut from them the previous year and after threatening them with layoffs. When Falk isn't shaving off worker wages and benefits, she is proposing service cuts, demonstrating that she agrees with the political consensus between the two major parties: Debt crises must be solved by making working people pay.

Falk, in fact, briefly attended the February 23 TAA general membership meeting shortly after the resolution passed. She was challenged by ISO member and TAA activist Dan Suarez on her record of cutting county workers' wages. In a room full of committed union members, she stuck by her commitment to make public-sector workers across the state pay their "fair share": that is, accept more concessions or face layoffs.

With many unions already behind Falk and some individual TAA members supporting her endorsement, the TAA resolution is an important reminder that knee-jerk endorsements for candidates who can't manage to promise a minimally pro-worker platform is not a winning strategy for the labor movement.

The union's role should be to fight for candidates who will genuinely have workers' interests at heart, not career politicians who will pay lip service to collective bargaining, but take away union gains through that very process.

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