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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Unions Protest Karl Rove and WMC

“Bush’s brain” tells local businesses how to treat workers

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The conservative lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) invited former Bush aide Karl Rove to tell local businesses how to best treat their workers. The Tuesday morning meeting about the Employee Free Choice Act at the Milwaukee Athletic Club was closed to the public and the press.

While WMC representatives weren’t speaking to reporters about Rove’s visit, they did hand out recent survey results showing that 70% of Wisconsin residents oppose “legislation that could take away the secret ballot for workers in union elections.”

Based on these survey results, WMC is claiming in its press release that “Wisconsin businesses and workers are united in opposing the end to the secret ballot in union organizing elections.”

Tell that to the estimated 150 members of more than a dozen local unions and their supporters who protested Rove and WMC’s meeting.

Rove and WMC oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, which would amend the National Labor Relations Act by making it easier for workers to form unions. The bill would also give employers and unions the option to use a mediator if they were not able to negotiate a first contract within 90 days. Penalties would increase for companies that interfere with the organizing process or discriminate against pro-union workers.

“Let me get this straight,” state Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) told the crowd. “The guy who was the architect for this economic theory that brought down workers and brought down the economy, that even brought down the banking system, is here this morning telling us how to run our workplaces. Is that right?” The crowd booed Rove’s actions.

In its fact sheet, WMC claims the bill would overturn “longstanding principles of fairness and balance between workers and employers, directly threatening employers’ ability to create and retain jobs and remain competitive.”

But rally-goers said that the current system is already imbalanced in favor of employers and big corporations that don’t look out for their workers. Since 1981, when the Reagan administration broke the air traffic controllers’ union, many argue that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, making it very difficult to organize a union.

Rep. Barbara Toles (D-Milwaukee), a member of AFT Local 212, said that the legislation would not hurt businesses. “In fact, I think it will help to build business because, when you treat people fairly, they will come to work and they’ll be happy to come to work and they’re much more productive when they’re happy,” Toles said.

Demonstrators also countered WMC’s interpretation of the Employee Free Choice Act—mostly, the claim that the legislation would take away the secret ballot because it would allow a union to be formed if the majority of workers agreed to it.

“That is an outright lie,” Sheila Cochran, head of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, said of the WMC’s argument. “The only thing we’re doing is modifying the legislation that allows the employees to say if they want to go into an election to vote. Right now the employer makes that decision. Why would organized labor take away anybody’s opportunity to vote for anything? We do everything by a vote.”

Cochran said the bill was more of a tweak of existing labor legislation, not wholesale reform. “But it does tell you something about employers when they go to this extent to keep unions out of their workplace,” Cochran said.

Richards said the WMC’s stand on labor issues was “wrongheaded and shortsighted. For the last 30 years we’ve been fed this idea that the only way to be competitive in the world is to degrade workers’ rights. But with the economic collapse, we see that theory is completely false.”

He said he’s trying to help workers by increasing access to health care and creating healthier, smoke-free work environments. “Just last month we passed a law making it more difficult for insurance companies to exclude people based on pre-existing conditions,” Richards said.

Cochran said that most unions are formed because of safety issues in the workplace. “It hurts me when people come to me and tell me the conditions that they’re working in,” Cochran said. “It’s disheartening.”

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