I learned that AFSCME was born right here in Wisconsin in 1932, due to the abuses put upon state workers by the corporate Democrats. Even though they had formed a union, it was still illegal for AFSCME members to have collective bargaining. So the men and women of the time found other ways to get their rights protected including working on electing officials who weren't beholden to the Big Money special interests of the time.
In 1957, AFSCME finally was able to get a bill on the floor of the state legislature. However, Governor Walter J. Kohler (yes, of that Kohler family) followed the orders of the well moneyed special interests and vetoed the bill.
That opened the door for the election of the great Gaylord Nelson, who signed a bill in 1959, which allowed collective bargaining for public sector workers. The state and its people prospered for the next 50 years.
Then, as the gentle reader knows, in 2011, Scott Walker dropped his "bomb" of Act 10, which attacked served no purpose other than an attempt to bust AFSCME. What the law did was hamstring the members by taking away thousands of dollars of their take home pay each year, making it extremely difficult, if not difficult, to make ends meet, much less pay their dues. When the attack drove public sector workers into bankruptcy and on to the income assistance programs, it can be hard to justify any other expenses.
Despite the fiscal burden Walker has put upon the workers, membership is starting to grow again. In Milwaukee County alone, more than 700 workers have joined or rejoined AFSCME since last summer. They have realized that while it can be hard to pay the dues when Walker and Chris Abele has taken tens of thousands of dollars out of their take home pay, it's even harder to afford the continued attacks and the way these two continue to try to balance their corporate giveaways on the backs of the workers.
Given the current state of the state, the leaders of AFSCME have started the groundwork of merging the three District Councils into one cohesive group in order to best serve and protect its members:
In mid March, elected leaders of Wisconsin’s three AFSCME Councils gathered in Wisconsin Dells for an historic event.While I hate the need for it, I support the move.
Recognizing an opportunity to usher in a new era of activism, board members convened a two-day summit exploring the possibilities of a unified AFSCME Wisconsin.
Discussions focused on growing workplace activism, increasing organizing, improving services and building a unified, bold, action-driven union.
The leaders delivered a constant theme throughout the weekend, stressing that unification of Wisconsin’s Councils must be member-driven, and that a new council must be democratically directed by membership.
Participants set out on an ambitious agenda to address the many questions involved in such a process, with the goal of being able to present their findings to membership and gain feedback as the year progresses.
Committees led by the elected leadership of each council, with input from in-state staff and technical support from International Union staff, will tackle three main focuses and functions, defined as: Vision and Program, Finances and Personnel, and Constitution and Structure.
The Vision and Program committee will look at internal organizing, workplace action, political action, education, communication, representation and services, and building participation among Next Wave and retiree members.
Finance and Personnel will look at the various ways current councils deliver services and implement programs across Wisconsin.
Taking a comprehensive view of Constitution and Structure provides an opportunity to ensure your union remains firmly in the hands of its members.
The most inspiring aspect of the weekend was to see the solidarity formed by a group of over 50 leaders from all of the councils.
A small band of activists started a union in Wisconsin over 75 years ago, with not much more than an idea that workers should be treated with dignity and respect. From that was created our International Union that today stands 1.6 million members strong.
Starting from a much firmer foundation, Wisconsin AFSCME members now have the opportunity to regenerate the labor movement and bring about a new era of organizing, activism and victories.
If the three Councils were to remain separate, they would have less power than in the past and they would be more vulnerable to the divide and conquer strategies of people like Walker and Abele.
It also makes sense in that we are facing very powerful, very big, well-moneyed entities like ALEC, the Koch Brothers, the Bradley Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Committee. The best chance to fight these monstrosities is by all of us working together. They might have the money, but they cannot buy the people we have and they cannot stand up to our solidarity.
We've done it before and we'll do it again.