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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

‘Wisconsin Shouldn’t Be Left Out’

A Shepherd Q&A with Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale

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Organized labor is in a process of rebirth, but it’s doing so in a very challenging economic and political environment that promotes corporate profits and the consolidation of wealth over workers’ ability to earn fair wages. Part of labor’s rebirth includes new leadership at the 250,000-member Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. In September, Stephanie Bloomingdale, formerly of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, became the secretary-treasurer, while her predecessor, Phil Neuenfeldt, became president.

Bloomingdale spoke to the Shepherd about the AFL-CIO’s campaign to save high-speed rail in Wisconsin and its work to ensure that corporate CEOs and shareholders hold up their end of the social contract. Here’s an excerpt from our interview:

Shepherd:
The state AFL-CIO—along with Voces de la Frontera and the Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition—has held a number of rallies in support of Talgo and high-speed rail, which Gov.-elect Scott Walker has promised to eliminate. Why is this project so important?

Bloomingdale:
We at the AFL-CIO are standing shoulder to shoulder with community groups and religious groups and asking Scott Walker to reconsider his position on high-speed rail.

The reason why Talgo is so important to our community is that Talgo chose Milwaukee to set up their permanent base to build high-speed rail components to be used across the country. It’s not just for high-speed rail in Wisconsin. At the beginning they were planning on having 150 jobs there. But those jobs can grow.

It’s so important for this particular site, especially, since it was the site of Tower Automotive and A.O. Smith. At one time more than 10,000 workers showed up to go to work there every single morning. It’s amazing how many workers were able to have a good life because of good-paying union jobs there. Especially in that community, those jobs are needed so much now. But Walker is clinging to this shortsighted ideology pushed by his small circle of advisers. By saying no to the train he’s also saying no to Talgo and saying no to jobs. That’s just irresponsible.

Shepherd:
How would the project help the rest of the state, especially those who don’t live near the proposed line or won’t work on it?

Bloomingdale:
This project is critical to Wisconsin. It will bring jobs to Wisconsin. People are desperate right now. They’re out of work. They’re really struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table for their families. This rail project would bring at least 5,000 jobs just to construct the rail line and also thousands and thousands more permanent jobs. And it’ll create the infrastructure we need for long-term growth in Wisconsin, which is very important. Finally, this is a nationwide rail project that is designed to improve our means of transportation. Wisconsin shouldn’t be left out of the overall infrastructure plan.

Our campaign to save the train is really just the first campaign in a series of many as part of our overall jobs agenda. We are going to hold Scott Walker accountable for every single one of those 250,000 jobs that he promised to create. When he makes foolish decisions like this one, which jeopardizes jobs—15,000 jobs that we’ll lose because of his shortsighted adherence to the views of his narrow circle of political advisers—we will be there to speak out about it every step of the way.

Shepherd:
The recent economic downturn has allowed employers to cut workers’ wages, hours and jobs. Did employers take advantage of the recession to get concessions that weren’t absolutely necessary?

Bloomingdale:
We’ve seen the erosion of our economy because of deregulation and tax breaks for the rich. Now that they’ve ransacked our economy, they’re asking workers to give back more. That’s just not fair and it’s just not right.

It’s like if you had a wedding and you had enough food for 100 people and one person came and took the food for 90 people and said, “There’s not much left for everyone else. You’ll have to make do.” That’s what’s happened to our economy. This 1% has taken 90% of the wealth. Rather than saying, “We should give some back,” they say, “You’ll have to make do with less.”

These are American companies. They have prospered because of the infrastructure we have here in the United States. But they break the social contract when they ship jobs overseas. Americans are angry about this. We need to raise our voices and hold these CEOs and shareholders accountable to Americans through our laws and our regulations, but also through our voices. When a company decides to move out and they move out silently in the night and no one says anything, it becomes so much easier for the next company to do the same thing. We need to reclaim the power of protest and the power of speaking out.

Shepherd:
A few Wisconsin-based corporations have gotten significant concessions and tax breaks by threatening to leave the state. The employees really cannot refuse the company’s new offer or they’ll lose their jobs. Is that fair?

Bloomingdale:
It’s not fair. I think it’s important that we help everyone in Wisconsin to rethink what it means to be an economic patriot. These companies are American companies, but they’re taking our jobs and shipping them overseas. They don’t really care about the well-being of American society. I really question their patriotism. A truly patriotic American company should not only think about their bottom line, but they should also think about the well-being of the American people. These companies that only care about their shareholders and don’t care about our society are truly unpatriotic.

It’s a dangerous trend for union workers. It’s a dangerous trend for all workers. In the end it will destroy our middle class. There are so many corporations that are sitting on unprecedented amounts of cash, yet they’re still using the economic recession as an excuse to cut wages and benefits. We have to get better at demanding accountability from these corporations. We have to be serious about their responsibilities to Wisconsin and to the United States of America. Many of these companies enjoy huge tax breaks and their CEOs and shareholders also enjoy huge tax breaks. When you talk about the deficit and why we’re in this economic situation, we know exactly where to place the blame, and that’s the unnecessary tax breaks for the richest among us and huge tax breaks for corporations and massive deregulation.

Shepherd:
The news can’t be all bad. What are some success stories? Which companies have struck fair agreements with their employees and honored them?

Bloomingdale:
Bucyrus. Their workers developed an incredibly good working relationship with management, which has benefited not only the workers but the company and the shareholders. This is an important lesson for all of us, because when labor and management work together, the company does better. The workers on the front line understand better than anyone where the problems and solutions lie. Of course, Bucyrus has been bought by Caterpillar, so we’re hoping that the level of labor-management cooperation continues under the new owners.

Shepherd:
On to politics. In his 2010 and 2011 county budgets, Scott Walker included wage and benefits concessions that had never been negotiated. Will he do that in the state budget?

Bloomingdale:
Nothing determines the future like the past. I think we can expect more of the same from Scott Walker, but now it’s going to be on a larger scale. It’s going to be our job to point out these irresponsible actions. We really cannot allow what he did to Milwaukee County—almost bringing it to the point of bankruptcy—to happen to our wonderful state of Wisconsin.
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