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.