Wisconsin Is a Battleground Against the Billionaire Kochs' Plan to Break Labor's Back
[This article has been updated, as of April 27, 2011]
As some 30,000 protesters overwhelmed the state capitol building in Wisconsin today, Democratic state senators hit the road, reportedly with State Police officers in pursuit. The Dems left the state in order to deprive Republicans the necessary quorum for taking a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's bill to strip benefits and collective bargaining rights from state workers. Newsradio 620 WTMJ reported that the Democratic senators were holed up in a Rockford, Illinois, hotel, out of reach of Wisconsin state troopers. Now, it seems, Republican lawmakers are beginning to waver on their support for the union-busting bill.
Last week, Walker threatened to activate the National Guard in the event of any disruption in services from public employees that, he said, could occur as a result of his legislation.
Gov. Walker claims that his war on the public workers in his state is simply about balancing Wisconsin's budget; believe that and there's a collapsed bridge in MInnesota I'd like to sell you. UPDATE: TPM's Brian Beutler reports that half of Wisconsin's budget shortfall results from three of Walker's own business-coddling initiatives. According to the Capitol Times, as quoted in Beutler's piece, in January, Walker pushed through "$140 million in spending for special interest groups." Walker claims a budget shortfall of $137 million. You do the math.
The fact is, Walker is carrying out the wishes of his corporate master, David Koch, who calls the tune these days for Wisconsin Republicans. Walker is just one among many Wisconsin Republicans supported by Koch Industries -- run by David Koch and his brother, Charles -- and Americans For Prosperity, the astroturf group founded and funded by David Koch. The Koch brothers are hell-bent on destroying the labor movement once and for all.
During his election campaign, Walker received the maximum $15,000 contribution from Koch Industries, according to Think Progress, and support worth untold hundreds of thousands from the Koch-funded astroturf group, Americans For Prosperity. AlterNet recently reported the role of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Americans For Prosperity in a vote-caging scheme apparently designed to suppress the votes of African-Americans and college students in Milwaukee. In 2008, Walker served as emcee for an awards ceremony held by Americans For Prosperity. There, he conferred the "Defender of the American Dream" award on Rep. Paul Ryan, now chairman of the House Budget Committee.
On Monday, AlterNet reported on the gaggle of Koch-sponsored politicians who individually graced the podium at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (including several from Wisconsin: Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Ron Johnson). Rep. Michele Bachmann, also a Koch favorite from next-door Minnesota, kicked off the conference.
Not Just About Wisconsin -- or State Workers
It's said that states are the laboratories of democracy, but the Kochs are determined to make Wisconsin a laboratory of corporate oligarchy. Nationwide, the war on public workers -- and government in general -- is not simply a facet of an ideological notion about the virtues of small government. The war on government is a war against the labor movement, which has much higher rates of union membership in the public sector than it does in the private sector.
Labor is seen by corporate leaders as the last strong line of resistance against the wholesale takeover of government (and your tax dollars) by corporations. So, by this line of thought, labor must die.
But it's even deeper than that. The labor movement holds whatever modicum of workplace fairness standards exist for the rest of workers, be they organized or not. Contracts won by organized workers function as a ceiling for what the rest of the workforce is able to demand. Without the labor movement, there's not a worker anywhere in the nation who has much of a bargaining position with her or his employer. And that's the way David Koch and his brother, Charles, want it.
Midwest Frontier Province of Kochistan
Although headquartered in Kansas, Koch Industries has at least 17 facilities and offices in Wisconsin (by my rough count of facilities and companies noted on the Koch Industries "Wisconsin Facts" page), and operates "nearly 4,000 miles of pipeline" through its Koch Pipeline Company, L.P. Which may account for Wisconsin's evolution into the Midwest Frontier Province of Kochistan.
The conglomerate boasts "four terminals and strategically located pipelines" through its Flint Hills Resources, LLC, which it describes as "a leading refining and chemicals company" that markets "gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, ethanol, olefins, polymers and intermediate chemicals, as well as base oils and asphalt."
The Kochs' Georgia Pacific paper and wood products division has six facilities in Wisconsin. Its C. Reiss Coal Company "is a leading supplier of coal used to generate power," according to the Koch Web site. "The company has locations in Green Bay, Manitowoc, Ashland and Sheboygan."
Is it any wonder that Gov. Walker signed Americans For Prosperity's pledge (PDF) against energy reform legislation?
"I Don't Run a Union Facility"
At the Americans For Prosperity Foundation's RightOnline conference last July, a breakout session for managers and entrepreneurs focused on how to talk to workers about legislative issues -- including the Employee Free Choice Act, which would simplify the process by which workers could elect to join a union. Among the panelists was former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who is currently exploring a presidential bid. (Last month, Mark Block stepped down from his perch as state director of Americans For Prosperity Wisconsin chapter in order to serve as Cain's chief of staff.) The panel also featured Timothy Nerenz of The Oldenburg Group, a mining and defense equipment manufacturer based in Milwaukee. [UPDATE: Nerenz, who describes himself as "a card-carrying libertarian," contacted AlterNet to clarify that the appeared at the RightOnline panel representing only himself, not his employer.] Nerenz illustrated how he talked to his workers about EFCA: "[W]e don't operate a union facility. That's all I have to say."
"Now, you certainly have a right to a union, right?" Nerenz continued. "You got rights, I got rights, all God's children got rights. But you need to know before you make that decision what's involved in that decision." When I pressed him after the panel to clarify whether he was threatening to shut down a factory whose workers chose to unionize, he simply restated his initial point: "We don't operate a union facility."
Stimulus Spending Seen as Too Friendly to Unions
You'd think that a big business like Koch Industries would love the idea of stimulus spending, since it's bound to improve the economy. So, what gives? Why do these guys hate the stimulus funds so much?
Well, it seems that too much of it, in their view, goes to preserve the jobs of unionized workers -- like autoworkers and teachers -- which, in turn, preserves unions as part of the U.S. workforce. So that's why, presumably, Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips today sent out a newsletter touting an anti-stimulus bill introduced by a House member from the Midwest Frontier Province of Kochistan:
By the way, newly-elected Congressman Sean Duffy from Wisconsin (emphasis mine) made one of his first efforts in Congress a bill that returns non-obligated stimulus funding to the taxpayers. Now his bill has been included in the continuing resolution the House is working on this week. It’s great to see our efforts to end government overspending become the core of actual legislation and not just something we all rally for.
While we're on the topic of e-mail blasts, I received quite the indignant one today from something called the Campaign To Defeat Obama, a.k.a., Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a.k.a., Tea Party Express. The e-mail expresses great consternation at the fact that Organizing For America, the remnant of the Obama campaign's organizing effort (now part of the Democratic National Committee), helped get protesters to Madison to protest at the Wisconsin state capitol. "They sent out 54 messages on Twitter alone!" the e-mail shouts (emphasis theirs). They accused the Obama administration of sending in a "mob" to the state capitol to "bully" state lawmakers to abandon Walker's bill.
In the e-mail, Tea Party Express Our Country Deserves Better Campaign to Defeat Obama screams:
Organizing For America is responsible for most of the chaos, and has been filling bus after bus with protestors and shuttled them to the State Capitol. This was not a spontaneous uprising - this was an organized effort by Barack Obama to further his radical, leftist agenda.
Tea Party Express worked with Americans For Prosperity during the mid-term election campaign. What did they do? Filled buses with activists to get them to rallies and protests.
Today, however, it seems Americans For Prosperity had a hard time finding takers for their free-bus-trip offer for those wanting to support Gov. Walker's union-busting, worker-bashing bill. As of scheduled departure time, reports the Racine Journal Times, only six people had boarded AFP's Racine bus to Madison. Several key Republican lawmakers, according to recent reports, are beginning to waver in their support for Walker's labor-bashing bill.