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The Battle for America 2010: Labor Unions Looking to Rescue Feingold in Wisconsin

Russ Feingold is hastily circling the union wagons in order to salvage a Senate campaign that is quickly taking on water. A new automated Rasmussen poll released in Wisconsin last weekend shows incumbent and long-time Senate fixture Russ Feingold now trailing Republican challenger and political newcomer Ron Johnson by 12 points (54% to 42%). Two weeks ago, the CNN/Time poll, the only live interviewer survey conducted in the state since July, showed Johnson leading by 6 points (51% to 45%). Feingold’s efforts to manufacture a pro-job, pro-business campaign message appear to be falling on deaf ears, because the very unions supporting the lifetime incumbent are the ones responsible for the destruction of Wisconsin’s small business and manufacturing landscape.

Over 90,000 Wisconsin households received a mailer last month that read: “Ron Johnson’s workers don’t have a union, and that’s the way he likes it.” The mailer, from the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, is funded by workers forced to pay union dues or fees and accept mandatory union representation just to keep their jobs. Wisconsin State AFL-CIO executive vice president Sara Rogers said the mailer is just the beginning. “We will do whatever we need to do to get the message out that Ron Johnson is not for working families,” she said. But working families need a place to work. And the last time I looked, after decades of Democratic and union-friendly governing, Wisconsin businesses were headed for the exits.

Back in 1953, Milwaukee County Stadium was built on a prayer, and the Boston Braves answered that prayer when they moved to Milwaukee. The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations were just beginning merger talks, and the manufacturing industry was the backbone of Wisconsin’s metropolitan areas. After 30,000 layoffs in the wake of Japan’s surrender after World War II, Milwaukee had successfully retooled for peacetime production.

Edward P. Allis & Company had grown to become one of the largest and most diverse manufacturers in North America — Allis-Chalmers — and had relocated to North Greenfield Avenue in the city that still bears its founder’s name (West Allis). Milwaukee became known as the city of beer, and Schlitz, Pabst, Miller, and smaller local breweries employed a steadily growing workforce. According to John Gurda’s The Making of Milwaukee, at least 56 percent of Milwaukee’s workforce was engaged in the manufacturing industry in 1953 — one of the highest concentrations in America. Workers’ paychecks swelled from $47 in 1946 to over $93 in 1956, growing at over twice the rate of inflation. It’s no wonder the hit sitcom based on Milwaukee in the late 1950s was called Happy Days.

It did not take long for the winds of change to blow, however. Union demands forced many local companies to move south to lower wage, non-union environments. In 1953, 56.9 percent of workers made their living in the manufacturing industry. In 1970, that number had fallen to 43%. Today, that number is less than 20%, according to the most recent Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development estimates. This impacts the community in more ways than simply contributing to unemployment. The workers in the old Allis-Chalmers plant making nearly twelve dollars an hour were replaced by a shopping center, in which clerks made $5.23 an hour — the minimum wage at that time.

By 1980, the industrial climate in Milwaukee looked much different than it had thirty years earlier, and Allis-Chalmers’ workforce was half of what it had been fifteen years prior. As David Scott, chairman of Allis-Chalmers put it, “You can’t make a loaf of bread for a dollar and sell it for eighty cents.” In 1982 A.O. Smith held a job fair and the turnout for the few available jobs was so great that they had to rent out State Fair Park in order to accommodate all the unemployed looking to turn in their applications. Soon thereafter, Allis-Chalmers, Kearney & Trecker, Siemens, and A.O. Smith had all moved on.

As recently as last month, Harley-Davidson itself was on the union chopping block. The Milwaukee Harley plant was at its breaking point after more than a century, with high Feingold-supporting union labor and production costs threatening to end 107 years of tradition. Hanging in the balance were 1,630 Wisconsin jobs. Harley sounded the warning alarm last April when it told deaf union leaders that it desperately needed to cut production costs if it was to survive. In an economic recession worsened in large part by the financial naivete of a young pro-union, redistributionist president with whom Russ Feingold votes in lock-step, union leaders should have been eager to make concessions and save jobs. With only seconds left on the clock, Harley’s three Wisconsin unions agreed to a new contract — saving Harley, for now.

Organized labor, like its second cousin big government, ignores the realities of life here in Wisconsin. With unemployment at nearly 8%, Wisconsin is in the middle of its own recession and its older industrialized regions  — the heart of America’s “Rust Belt” — may well be in a depression.

As evidence that Wisconsin union leaders are living in another dimension, last month, the United Auto Workers local representing 2,750 employees at Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Corporation voted unanimously to reject a one-year contract extension proposed by management. What were they being offered? Terms that included a 3.5% increase in wages, a $750 signing bonus, no increase in health care costs to the workers, and generous increases in pensions and fringe benefits. Not only did they reject the offer, they did so angrily. Even Harley-Davidson’s reluctant and last-minute “concessions” — a wage freeze, layoff of 325 workers, and union employees accepting the same pension plan as salaried workers in exchange — seem like a no-brainer in today’s economic climate.

Union leaders in America today must open their eyes and realize that any American working at a job with benefits can be considered extremely lucky. The inexplicable rejection of management’s proposals by the UAW at Oshkosh Corporation is only the latest example of the fantasy world where the law of supply and demand has been demoted to a debatable theory. “Fight greed” is the mantra of the UAW, yet it is union greed that hurts the majority of hard-working Americans who do not belong to a union.

Russ Feingold may believe he is fighting for “working families,” but it appears to be Ron Johnson who sees that 85% of non-union employees in Wisconsin who are struggling. Enter the selfish teachers’ unions. Modeled after antiquated and destructive labor contracts suited for factory workers, the typical teachers’ union contract is loaded with provisions that not only do nothing to promote education, they harm education. Harmful and selfish education union provisions drive away good teachers, protect bad teachers, raise costs, and tie principals’ hands. As national attention turns to education solutions such as charter schools and merit pay, teachers’ unions will be there throwing grenades every step of the way.

Ron Johnson recognizes that the dramatic rise in influence enjoyed by the teachers’ unions has coincided with stagnant and unacceptable levels of student performance. A new documentary on the teachers’ unions’ responsibility for the abysmal state of American education entitled Waiting for Superman is now out in the theaters. I doubt Russ Feingold will see it. Despite paying lip service to education reform, you could hear only crickets chirping from the Feingold camp when the Obama administration — in an effort to avoid angering the unions and endangering their political contributions — took a hatchet to the very successful D.C. school voucher program, despite a United States Department of Education report that showed students had made statistically significant gains in reading achievement.

In August, Russ Feingold released an ad called “On Our Side,” featuring what are supposed to be ordinary Wisconsinites praising Feingold for siding with them. Unfortunately, two of the “ordinary Wisconsinites” praising Feingold in the ad include high-powered AFL-CIO lobbyist Joanne Ricca and a woman from the office of the AFL-CIO president.

For his role as union accomplice in dismantling Wisconsin’s private and small business communities, Feingold has received the highest possible (100% or “A”) ratings by the SEIU, AFSCME, NEA, and the AFL-CIO. That’s really all I need to know on November 2nd. Between more than $1 million in campaign checks, the repeated use of AFL-CIO higher-ups in his ads, and his consistent support of “card check” and other pro-union bills in Washington, Feingold is in lockstep with the unions, and that puts him out of phase with the 85% of Wisconsin employees who are non-union.

Wisconsin and Russ Feingold have to rethink their approach to labor. Our global economy has provided struggling industries with a new source of labor — foreign workers willing to work for a lot less than the prevailing wage here. Rather than sitting in lawn chairs with union-made picket signs in front of U.S. companies where the doors are locked and the grass is no longer cut, unions must recognize their new environment and adapt. The American economy can no longer afford “cradle-to-grave” employee care, retirement at 55, and lavish pensions worth more than the annual salaries of many private employees provided to union workers by their employers.

As we look at another Labor Day — the official workers’ holiday — in the rear-view mirror, we need to honor the American worker as well as the role that unions have played in building this country. But we also need to recognize that a new day has dawned for American labor. At a recent AFL-CIO rally in Washington to stump for card check legislation — the equivalent of potassium chloride to Wisconsin’s small businesses — the unions handed out hundreds of hardhats to their members to wear while posing during their march.

Inside the hats it said, “Made in China.”

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