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“We Have Reached a Turning Point”: Journalist Frank Emspak Says Protests Will Grow in Response to WI Anti-Union Bill

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All eyes are on Wisconsin today to see how the state’s labor movement reacts to the surprise vote in the State Senate, moving Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill one step closer to becoming law. We speak with Frank Emspak of the Workers Independent News in Madison. “We’ve had democracy by deception here,” Emspak says. “You’re talking about disenfranchising millions of people, not only in Wisconsin, but also throughout the Midwest, and basically saying that working people, in an organized fashion, have no right to participate in the electoral process. That is what the Republicans are doing.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re now joined by Frank Emspak of the Workers Independent News Service and Professor Emeritus at the Department of Labor Education, School for Workers, University of Wisconsin.

Welcome, Frank. Your sense of what is going on now in terms of the labor movement in Wisconsin?

FRANK EMSPAK: Well, you have the official statements, and you have what I think is really going to happen. The official statements last night around 10:30, 10:45, were, of course, legal. The Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell said that teachers should go to school today, and the Wisconsin State Employees Union Executive Director Marty Beil didn’t make reference about people working, but he said that people should gather in public spaces at some point and make their positions clear. But this whole uprising has really been characterized by individuals taking action on their own, starting two or three weeks ago when people just came in masses to the Capitol, or last night, for that matter.

So I think we have the following. It’s 7:45 in the morning here, almost, which is the time that many state workers go to work, and, of course, school opens in about a half an hour. I don’t think we know exactly what’s going to happen yet, except people are enraged. And I think there is a sense that if we just depend on a two- or three-year legal process or something else in six or seven months, it’s not enough. So, my guess is — and this is just a guess — is that we’ll first of all see thousands of high school students. They announced last night — we got a leaflet at 8:00 — for people to begin to gather and really fight for their education. That’s what’s going on. And then, secondly, I think we will see, as the day progresses, more and more workers exercising their right of free assembly and free speech and demanding — and demanding — that this kind of legislation be dumped. Now, we know, of course, that if you just say, “Strike,” that’s illegal. But I think in any kind of protest of this nature, it’s impossible to, you know, repress everyone. We’ve seen that all around the world. And my guess is that Mike is absolutely right: we have reached a turning point here and elsewhere.

One thing that strikes me — and, I suspect, other people — we’ve had democracy by deception here. In neither Michigan nor Wisconsin did the powers that be run on a basis of going after collective bargaining and destroying rights. And yet, we have this government-controlled — Republican-controlled government basically eviscerating unions, but mostly disenfranchising people at every single level — the state, the city, the municipality — by these various laws. They take away the ability of the average citizen to participate. And I think that has enraged everybody. It certainly has here.

So, I think during the course of the day we’re going to see more and more people exercising their right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. I think it will be a huge thing here. You know, on Saturday — tomorrow is Saturday — today is Thursday, wait. So, on Saturday, the farmers were going to come here to Madison — we have a lot of farmers — with tractors, because 11,000 of them, out of the 70,000 in the state, may lose their health coverage, because they’re on BadgerCare. So they were coming to the capital anyway with their tractors and farm equipment to make a statement. I suspect we’ll just see this massive, massive outpouring on Saturday.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Frank, we’ve covered it before on Democracy Now!, but I don’t think people really grasp the full sense of what this legislation would mean to the union movement. Could you go over some of the details of what the Senate actually passed, the Republicans passed last night, in terms of the direct impact on, in essence, democracy, or some form of democracy in the workplace — the dues checkoff, the situation with the one year — every year a new vote on whether the union will represent you? Talk about some of the details of this.

FRANK EMSPAK: Well, I think in both Michigan and Wisconsin, there are similarities. What you’re basically doing is installing dictatorship in the workplace and getting rid of 50 years of activity. So, the legislation here, first of all, says that no political entity can receive union dues, meaning you cannot have a dues checkoff, which essentially, under present circumstances, bankrupts the union. The second thing it says is that in order for a union to be in place anyway, you have to have an election every year, paid for by the union, as a matter of fact, and that getting one vote is not enough. You have to have 51 percent. And to continually have these elections, of course, will also not only be really disruptive, but of course means you don’t have time to do anything else. Thirdly, the actual legislation on collective bargaining says that the only thing that can be discussed in any kind of meaningful way is a wage increase, as long as it’s limited to whatever the cost of living is. Arbitration, just cause, conditions of work, fairness in the workplace, hours of work — all that is no longer subject to bargaining.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Health and safety issues.

FRANK EMSPAK: And, of course, for the average — I beg your pardon?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And health and safety issues, as well?

FRANK EMSPAK: Health and safety, as well. So for the average person — and I was a shop steward and elected union official for many, many years at General Electric — it isn’t these massive things like wages — that’s very important. But in the workplace, to be able to have the supervisor say, “Do this,” and you have no recourse, all that does is bring back the 19th century. And it is terribly destructive. It destroys morale. It destroys service, the concept of service. It is really bringing back a form of industrial relations or labor relations that most people thought left in 1900. And that’s what happens. It’s really dictatorship at the workplace.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Emspak, we just have a minute, but I wanted to get your reaction to the comments of the Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — not to be confused with his brother, who’s the head of the Assembly, Fitzgerald. Speaking on Fox News just hours before Wednesday’s vote, Fitzgerald openly admitted Republicans have pushed the measure because weakening unions would hurt the Democrats’ electoral chances.

SEN. SCOTT FITZGERALD: Well, if they flip the State Senate, which is obviously the goal with eight recalls going on right now, they can take control of the labor unions. If we win this battle and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult — a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Frank Emspak, your response?

FRANK EMSPAK: Well, he’s talking about Citizens United, where the corporations can buy the election. Three out of the 10 top contributors in the presidential elections last time were unions. He is saying they’re going to disenfranchise those workers who voluntarily give their dues money to accomplish something collectively for working people. So you’re talking about disenfranchising millions of people, not only in Wisconsin, but also throughout the Midwest, and basically saying that working people, in an organized fashion, have no right to participate in the electoral process. That is what the Republicans are doing. And I think we need to say, fundamentally, that this is an attack on the fundamental aspects of democracy — the idea of peaceably assembling, expressing your opinion, getting together, and doing something collectively. And these attacks, very well thought out, are basically to undermine the ability of working people to participate in the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Emspak, I want to thank you for being with us, of the Workers Independent News Service, Professor Emeritus, the Department of Labor Education, School of Workers, University of Wisconsin.

FRANK EMSPAK: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, we’ll continue to report on these events through today at our website,, and on tomorrow’s show, as well.

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