Unions in crucial showdown with 'divide and conquer governor'


AMERICA:DIANE HENDRICKS’S late husband Kenneth founded ABC Supply Inc, the largest roofing company in the US, before he fell off a roof and died five years ago, leaving her $2.8 billion.

The widow Hendricks is the richest woman in Wisconsin, and she uses her roofing fortune to finance right-wing causes. This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed she paid zero state income tax in 2010. Before donating $510,000 to help Governor Scott Walker withstand the Tuesday, June 5th, recall election, Hendricks wanted to make sure he was the genuine article.

A private conversation between Hendricks and Walker, surreptitiously recorded at a social event in January 2011, became the “gotcha” moment of the recall campaign when it was finally released on May 10th. Though he may well survive the recall, Walker will not shake the title of “divide and conquer governor” bequeathed upon him by the video.

“Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions?” Hendricks asked Walker. (A “completely red state” means a completely Republican state.) “Oh, yeah,” Walker interrupted. “And become a right-to-work?” Hendricks continued. (Twenty-three US states have passed “right-to-work” laws that prohibit private sector unions from asking employees who refuse to join the union to pay dues.) “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer,” Walker told Hendricks.

The seemingly banal exchange with Hendricks fanned Democratic theories of a secret Walker plan to gobble up private sector unions once he’d dispensed with those in the public sector. It has found its way into campaign ads, posters and fliers.

Walker banned teachers, sanitation workers and publicly employed doctors and nurses from negotiating their salaries and working conditions. In his first exercise of “divide and conquer”, he made an exception for police and firemen.

“If he had done that for the garbage men and nurses, I don’t see any of them saying, ‘Take mine away too’,” says police officer Mark Buetow, vice-president of the Milwaukee Police Association, which represents some 1,600 policemen and endorses Walker.

“If I’m the only one sitting in the lifeboat, I don’t tip the lifeboat over so I can drown too.” Buetow doesn’t see the special status Walker granted the police as an example of “divide and conquer”, though he admits that police officers married to teachers have encountered hostility at home. “Some of ’em understand. Some of ’em don’t. I don’t like the fact that you lump all government employees together . . . There isn’t a school teacher out there that works weekends and summers.”

Poor neighbourhoods of Milwaukee “use more police services than they are paying taxes for”, Buetow complains.

“Our officers are frustrated when they see people abusing welfare and food stamps. They go into homes and there’s no furniture or clothing for the babies, but they have 52-inch television screens . . . I don’t want to see my taxes wasted so people can buy fancy things with money that’s meant to feed children.”

Buetow’s office on Blue Mound Road is across the street – perhaps one should say “the front line” – from Wisconsin AFL-CIO union headquarters, which is covered in anti-Walker posters. A solitary demonstrator with a shaved head, goatee, track suit and sunglasses stands outside, brandishing a homemade placard that says “I support Walker”. Passing motorists honk or wave a thumbs-up in approval.

Pete Litzau (58) a registered nurse, stands in front of the AFL-CIO office for two hours daily, because, he says, he wants taxpayers – not labour unions – to decide what is done with their money. Surveys show only 2 per cent of voters have yet to make up their minds; Litzau hopes his protest will motivate more Walker supporters to go to the polls on Tuesday.

“I’ve had coffee thrown in my face. I’ve been spat at and called names. Two AFL-CIO goons tried to take my sign away. That’s why I stand in front of this building; it’s personal.” A small contingent comes out of the building. “One man does not constitute a movement,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for Wisconsin AFL-CIO, sniffs dismissively.

The symbol for the recall Walker movement is a bright blue clenched fist — roughly the outline of the state of Wisconsin — with a star in the lower centre symbolising the capital Madison. It looks like something from an old Soviet poster. “It’s a friendly graphic, isn’t it?” Bloomingdale says cheerily. Somehow clenched fists are never “friendly”, I reply.

“This is the most important battle I have ever fought,” Bloomingdale continues. Her union represents 200,000 Wisconsin workers. If Walker is reconfirmed as governor, which looks likely, it would be a devastating blow to organised labour in the US. For Bloomingdale, “This is bigger than Wisconsin. It’s bigger than the US. It’s a worldwide issue.”

Trade unionists from as far away as Australia and Europe have sent messages of solidarity, even visited. “Unions are the last check on corporate greed,” Bloomingdale warns. Whether it’s London, Madrid or Milwaukee.”

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