Archive for the ‘Labor’ category

Advice For Democrats

April 6, 2015

David Haynes’ column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel got me thinking about the need for political realignment in Wisconsin. The paper’s editorial page editor recounted the dismal electoral standing of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and argued the faltering Dems need to rethink and rebuild their party.

I offer my two cents in a guest column in the Journal Sentinel:

First, dial back the vitriol. The hatred and contempt [the Democrats] show for Gov. Scott Walker has been repudiated by the voters. Instead, they should stick to the issues. Look to the future. Embrace the millennials. Champion the tech sector. Celebrate start-ups and entrepreneurs. Support the Ubers of the sharing economy. Get real about unions. Give tough love (and financial support) to public education. Welcome immigrants. Offer a helping hand to the poor.

Most of all, accept the necessity of change. Wisconsin hasn’t. Too often, our political and economic leaders act as if they’re historical re-enactors at Old World Wisconsin. They refight the old battles when the world — and the economy — has moved on.

I made many of these points in a story (see below) that appeared earlier in Isthmus. To read more of my Journal Sentinel piece, please go here.

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We Need A Generational Change In Leadership

September 23, 2014

I spent a lot of time in early 2014 researching and pondering how Wisconsin’s economy stagnated after rising to pre-eminence in the 1970s. Among other things, I found Wisconsin’s leadership was resolutely stuck in the past while the national economy had moved on.

[T]hose old fights define Wisconsin, economically and politically. It’s as though our leaders are historical reenactors at Old World Wisconsin. They fire their muskets and shout the old-time shibboleths. Most of this is just spectacle — not really connected to resolving Wisconsin’s precarious economic position in the 21st century. But old habits don’t easily die.

Looking back at old glories, Democrats embrace the unions. Indeed, nothing rallies the base like a pledge to repeal the union-gutting Act 10. But unions are a declining force and face a questionable future in an era when worker-filled assembly lines are disappearing. Nationally, only one in nine workers is a member. In Wisconsin, union membership plunged from 33.5% of the non-farm workforce in 1965 to 12.4% in 2013, according to the economists at the Unionstats.com website.

The future is not bright. The expanding IT field, with its mix of collaborative teams, creative work and 1099 workers, seems particularly ill-suited to old-school unionism.

Republicans, meanwhile, embrace big business, especially traditional manufacturing, and have decisively tilted the state’s tax, regulatory and development initiatives to its benefit. That’s a king-size problem. Manufacturing jobs may have led Wisconsin’s modest recovery from the Great Recession. And Wisconsin does rank with Indiana as one of the top two industrial states in the nation. But Wisconsin’s glory days of manufacturing have decisively passed.

In 1979, manufacturing and its high-paying unionized work accounted for 33% of the jobs in Wisconsin. By 2012, it was 18%, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Reality is that Wisconsin never recovered economically from the crushing recession of 1981-82. The bloody harbinger of Rust Belt de-industrialization, it laid waste to the huge manufacturing base in the eastern half of the state that runs from the Fox River Valley through Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha and out to Janesville and Beloit.

I make the case that we sorely need of a generational change in leadership. Both the techies and the Millennials are the sort of pragmatic idealists Wisconsin needs.  You can read a lot more here. Also, posted below is a related piece that ran in the same issue of Isthmus.

Making Public Unions Relevant Again

July 8, 2012

In this column for Isthmus, I argue that Wisconsin’s battered and maligned public employee unions need to fundamentally rethink their reasons for existing.  The answer, I suggest, might be found in the very origins of public employee unionism in the 1930s:

Recently, I spent an afternoon at Memorial Library paging through old master’s theses (by Marver Bernstein, 1940; and Samuel Satterfield, 1961) that detailed the early years of the labor group now known as the Wisconsin State Employees Union. Some of it was downright inspiring.

[Gov. Albert] Schmedeman came into office in 1932 as the first Democratic governor in 38 years. He was hell-bent on firing state employees and hiring his friends. Fearful of the Democrats’ plan to destroy civil service, the nascent state employees association began organizing. Their objectives included a forthright pledge “to extend and uphold the principle of merit and fitness in public employment.” There was also the promise to advance the welfare of state employees.

But organizers took it a step further. They also pledged “to promote efficiency in public services” and to reduce to a minimum “overlapping and duplication of services.” In other words, they focused not just on their own needs, but also on looking out for the taxpayers. They were outlining a mission — a cause — that reached beyond their own enrichment

This is precisely what a newly focused public employee unionism needs today to regain relevance. The hard truth is that the old industrial- union model doesn’t cut it anymore. Public employees aren’t working on a factory floor. The old focus on minutely defined job descriptions, lockstep pay levels and prizing longevity over merit has to give way to a sense of mission and professionalism.

To read more, please go here.

I’ve been writing about the decline of public employee unions even before Gov. Scott Walker gutted them in early 2011.See this cover story in Isthmus, among other pieces that predate labor’s Armageddon.(Sadly the Milwaukee Magazine links appear broken.)

John Kinsman, the Family Farm Defender

May 30, 2012

Interviewing John Kinsman, the farmer activist  from Lime Ridge, was easily one of my more enjoyable assignments. The guy is fascinating, uniquely American in his personal history and  in committment to holding our country to its ideals. Here’s how the story in The Progressive magazine begins:

What could be more rare than cactus in a Wisconsin farmer’s wintry backyard? That would be the farmer himself if it’sJohn Kinsman. At age eighty-five, Kinsman has lived a singular life of activism.

This modest farmer from the Dairy State boondocks has traveled the world to stand with small farmers and indigenous people.

“You have to put your whole self into it,” he says of his approach. “You have to live what you’re saying.”

Kinsman has certainly done that. He’s locked arms with Native Americans like Winona LaDuke in their struggle. He founded the activist group Family Farm Defenders in 1994. He marched with his friend the French farm leader Jose Bové of anti-McDonald’s fame in “The Battle of Seattle” in 1999. He’s even sailed with Greenpeace.

How he managed all this while running a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, near tiny Lime Ridge, and raising ten children with his wife, Jean, may be the most improbable thing of all about Kinsman.

On a winter afternoon, Kinsman is just another Wisconsin farmer as he walks his 150 acres. He and Jean bought the worn-out, rock-strewn farm in the early 1950s not far from where his parents farmed. An early run-in with chemical pesticides put Kinsman in the hospital and converted him to organic farming. He points to the results.

Here are the pastures on which he rotationally grazes his milking herd of thirty-six Holsteins, the forested hills where he’s planted, literally, tens of thousands of trees, and the stand of fruit trees and bushes he’s grown around his house. And that patch of cacti—the prickly pear—was no exotic transplant but a stubborn native remnant from a warmer geological age in Wisconsin. Sort of like Kinsman himself.

Kinsman is a fourth-generation Wisconsin family farmer. His grandmother Samantha, who died at the age of ninety-seven in 1944, saw General Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Sandusky, Wisconsin. His dad was a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would vote for a dog if he were a Republican,” he says with a laugh. His own political awakening began in World War II, when on an Army train through Mississippi, he was upbraided for waving to the black people along the track.

To read more, please go here: http://www.progressive.org/family_farm_defender.html

Handicapping the Recall Election

April 9, 2012

I offered my take on the upcoming gubernatorial recall election for the blogger David Blaska. You can find all of the responses here.

Here’s what I had to say:

            Who’s going to win the recall? I don’t know.

I will venture this: For that sliver of the electorate that is undecided, the recall won’t pivot on the union issue, but on the condition of the Wisconsin economy.

Scott Walker could have a big problem here. It’s not just that the job numbers were so bad in his first year, but the Republicans fumbled two key economic development issues–creation of a venture capital fund and writing viable mining legislation.

Who would have guessed they would be so inept on fundamental business issues?

Walker’s best hope requires a twist worthy of an O’Henry  short story: Will there be enough of an Obama economic recovery to lift the floundering Badger economy?

As for the Democrats, their chances of beating Walker will almost certainly decline once they pick a candidate. Their leading hopefuls are palookas–the scarred losers of  previous statewide races.

Perhaps party chair Mike Tate can persuade the Democratic candidate to put a brown paper bag over his or her head. It could help.

But wait…if  Herb Kohl miraculously changes his mind and runs, game over.

Everyone knows that the wild card is the John Doe probe. All hell breaks lose if Walker is indicted for the shenanigans that occurred while he was Milwaukee County executive.

What the Democrats need — and probably won’t get — is a business-savvy candidate like Kohl who understands the utter centrality of growing the Wisconsin economy.

Bar none, there is no more important issue in Wisconsin today.

Kevin Conroy, the biotech innovator (and the son of a former Democratic Michigan state senator) who briefly considered a gubernatorial run in 2010, might have filled the bill. But his Exact Sciences start-up is at a critical point of development.

Finally, given the chaos of Wisconsin politics, I don’t rule out an intervention by space aliens.

Bat-crazy weirdness–this is the new norm in Wisconsin politics.

Gov. Walker At One Year

January 7, 2012

Madison Magazine was nice enough to ask  me to write an assessment of Gov. Scott Walker’s first year in office. Here’s how it begins:

On Nov. 19, 1955, the modern age of conservatism began with young Bill Buckley publishing the first issue of his new magazine, National Review. Famously, Buckley said in the mission statement that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” to the liberalism that had dominated American government for the first half of the twentieth century.

Almost fifty-five years later, inspired by the same beliefs as Buckley, Gov. Scott Walker stood athwart Wisconsin history and yelled Stop to a century’s worth of progressive policies, as he announced his plans to break Wisconsin’s public employee unions as a way to rein in government spending.

The move ignited a cataclysm of protests that remain unabated today. And they helped frame the three paradoxes that mark Scott Walker’s tumultuous first year in office.

Go figure…

  • For years, Scott Walker had been a likable and gifted politician—a conservative rock star who could convince Democrats to vote for him for three terms as county executive of decidedly liberal Milwaukee County. Yet today, after pursuing a political agenda that is either remarkably courageous or spectacularly suicidal (maybe both!), the affable Walker finds himself dangerously underwater in the polls, disliked by most Wisconsinites and blamed for the state’s political turmoil.
  • Even if Walker is ignominiously recalled from office in 2012, he seems certain to be judged by historians as a transformative governor who changed the political DNA of Wisconsin. In short, public employee unionism will never be the same after Scott Walker, even if liberals sweep to power at the Capitol.
  • Walker is an unabashed pro-business governor who has proved surprisingly inept on key development issues. Bereft of savvy business advice in his inner circle, this corporate cheerleader fumbled the crucial venture capital issue, wasting months, and seems prisoner of a simplistic eighties-style of economic thinking. Meanwhile, his brash pledge to oversee creation of 250,000 jobs in his first term could be the petard on which his own political career is blown up.

Make no mistake: the paradoxical Mr. Walker is difficult to explain. The old Kris Kristofferson line —“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”—comes to mind.

Count me among the people who underestimated Walker….

To read more, please go here.

I also asked a cross-section of  Madisonians to offer their advice to the governor. Here’s what they had to say.

Former UW-Madison Chancellor had more to say than most people, and  this is it.

Public Workers As Civic Workers

August 10, 2011

Last fall, before Gov. Scott Walker lowered the boom on public employee unions, I wrote about the hard times coming for public workers.The links appear broken for my Milwaukee Magazine stories, but here’s the cover story that appeared in Isthmus.

I returned  to the topic for this Isthmus column, making the case that unions need to retool their game to prosper in the 21st century. Here’s how I framed the issue:

Simply put, sympathy for battered union members doesn’t mean support for the old union agenda. Gallup and Pew polls show a sharp decline in union favorability ratings. And Walker was right when he said that unions can selfishly manipulate the political system to enrich themselves…. He was also right to think the union agenda can be at cross-purposes to the public interest. Walker’s mistake — to his and the state’s detriment — was to fumble the fix.

That leaves an immensely important question still unanswered: Can a meaningful public-employee unionism emerge in the 21st century?

I  argue:

Unions need to embrace merit and high-quality performance as core values. They need to lighten up on work rules, as Joel Rogers, the head of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, says. They need a mission statement focused on public service.

Follow this link to read more.


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