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Fired for a Short Skirt? The Realities of Anti-Worker Laws in Wisconsin and Ohio

The bans on collective bargaining, enacted in Wisconsin and overturned in Ohio, have had effects not just on organizing, but on workers' daily lives.

Last year's labor protests across the Midwest rattled the country. They shook Republican politicians who thought they'd have an easy time erasing union workers' rights. They spurred thousands of rank-and-filers into action. They rejuvenated a beaten down progressive movement and forced middle-class progressives to rediscover the language of class and workers’ rights. They inspired talk of tactics and ideologies that haven’t been tried since the 1930s. They laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new and vibrant protest movement that spread nationwide.

And they reminded Americans of the value of organized labor. People who'd never been part of a union stood and marched, rallied and voted, knocked on their neighbors' doors to gather signatures on petitions for recall elections and a ballot referendum.

"For all its faults, the National Labor Relations Act established that it is the policy of the US government to encourage collective bargaining," Jacob Remes, assistant professor of public affairs and history at SUNY Empire State College, told AlterNet. "The New Deal established collective bargaining as a fundamental part of democracy--what they called industrial democracy. We talk about how the New Deal era has ended, but I think one of the great things about these fights is that they reminded people--politicians, pundits, the populace--that despite the decline of the rest of the New Deal, we still believe in at least this element of industrial democracy."

In Wisconsin, despite over 100,000 protesting in the streets of Madison and a weeks-long occupation of the Capitol, Governor Scott Walker signed Act 10 into law, stripping around 175,000 public workers of their right to bargain collectively with their bosses over anything but wages. Wisconsinites turned to recall elections to express their anger; they recalled two Republican state senators and are now working on getting rid of Gov. Walker.

“One of the things people we represent now see is the value of their collective bargaining agreements,” Marty Beil of AFSCME Council 24 told AlterNet. “Workers come in and they take for granted all the protections and benefits and processes. Now that there's no collective bargaining agreement and management can do what they want with you, folks are getting a better understanding of the value of their union.”

In Ohio, state law allowed workers to get SB5, the anti-union bill, on the ballot as a referendum in 2011 and overturn it by a substantial margin. While that hasn't stifled Governor John Kasich's attacks on workers, it has certainly limited his ability to directly crack down on union power. The anti-labor Right hasn't rested, though, and it is still pushing other bills—and even a constitutional amendment—that would undermine unions in other ways.

It's obvious that the conditions on the ground for working people in Wisconsin and Ohio are very different. AlterNet took a look at the struggles of public workers in both states—what it's like to have lost collective bargaining rights, the endless string of new attacks on workers, and what people in both states are doing to fight back.

Missing Collective Bargaining in Wisconsin

For those watching Wisconsin after last year's protests, most of the news has been of recall elections—last year, the recalls of  two Republican state senators and this year's recall of Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and four more state senators, launched with a petition signed by over one million people.

But in the meantime, Walker's Act 10 went into effect June 29, 2011, instantly stripping collective bargaining rights from some 175,000 Wisconsin public employees, and the recalls have yet to produce changes in the law.

According to information gathered by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a state worker who earns $40,000 a year, under Act 10, has lost an average of $3,668 from her paycheck. “That's $70 a week cut from a family budget, $70 weekly which cannot be spent at local stores,” they point out. They also estimate the loss to local economies caused by the pay cuts and hikes in the workers' side contributions to health insurance premiums will be over $700 million—and that taking that money out of Wisconsin's economy will lead to the loss of nearly 7,000 private-sector jobs in the first year of the governor's austerity budget.