What Wisconsin Means to Us

Recording Vice-President's Report

Volume 111, No. 4April, 2011

John O'Connor

In the fall of 1973 I moved to Iowa City because it was the nearest place to my hometown to have a chance to ply my musical and performance skills in their local bar scene. I went to work for the University of Iowa as a public employee while I worked on my music career. If I had wanted to work in a higher-paying job I would have stayed in Waterloo, where the private sector manufacturing jobs had the best wages and union protections. If you worked in the public sector, it was quite well known that you were most likely going to be working for less money.

At that time public workers in Iowa did not have the right to collective bargaining. By the time I left Iowa in 1977, there had been a bill passed that gave public employees some watered-down rights to collective bargaining, but the law made for fairly weak bargaining strength on the side of the workers and their unions. Public work was still the underpaid sister of the private sector. And, as is true in most public collective bargaining rules (including Wisconsin), workers do not have the power that private sector unions have.

By the late 70’s and early 80’s, something known as capital flight began to take on worrisome patterns. Those nice-paying private sector jobs in Waterloo (and elsewhere – think Big Steel and Auto) were disappearing because the capitalists were making decisions to have their products built in low-wage countries. It wasn’t long before it became impossible to buy a completely U.S. made car and harder and harder to buy other U.S. made manufacturing goods, such as appliances and clothing. Private sector wages plummeted.

What this trend led to was the decimation of the foundation of American unionism: industrial, private sector jobs.

Now we have elected officials from the far right of the political spectrum trying to convince us that those who work in the public sector make too much money. And they are using that unfounded claim to go after public sector unions, a fact that anyone not living in a cave has been witnessing in Madison, Wisconsin.

We in Local 802 have every reason to be concerned. We have been experiencing anti-union rhetoric from every direction for some time now, but now there seems to be a full on attack on organized labor’s largest sector: government service.

I argued in a recent column why our union should be involved beyond Local 802’s immediate scope, but Wisconsin is now making my argument for me. If we witness the crushing of public worker unions, there is no question that all unions will be (further) severely weakened. Local 802 has an undeniable stake in what happens in Wisconsin and anywhere else union rights are under attack.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may have won the battle for now, but he will lose the war. A recent major poll shows that most Americans are against weakening collective bargaining for public workers. Not only that, but some of those workers who have been singled out for attack are teachers, who are in a profession that is one of the most respected. Teachers have a tremendous amount of clout due to this fact. It’s why they have one of the strongest unions.

That’s something we need to bear in mind as union musicians. Musicians are likewise part of a very respected profession. And much of the clout we have lost over the years through erosion of our industry can be compensated for if we are smart about how we fight for our rights.

If you scratch the surface of anti-union sentiment, you will find misconceptions and stereotypes that don’t hold water. Most people believe workers should be paid fairly. And in our industry, it’s the same. Evidence also shows that most people want to see live musicians behind the source of the sounds they hear when they are being musically entertained. Bringing our message to the public in a cogent way will serve us in defending the loss of musical jobs in New York. Our interests and the public’s interests are one and the same. An attack on musicians and their unions is an attack on the art of music. This is the message we need to continue to deliver in more and more effective ways. Local 802’s public relations campaign is seeking to do just that, wherever we are striving to maintain and strengthen our rights in our work and art.

What happens in Wisconsin affects us all. We need to support the union struggle there among public workers just as we need to support symphonic musicians fighting union-busting in Detroit. A stronger labor movement makes Local 802 and union musicians stronger too. Solidarity is an essential ingredient to our mission, not just a slogan.