One of the many tributes paid to Wisconsin AFL-CIO president emeritus Phil Neuenfeldt when he passed away earlier this month came from a longtime colleague of his, public-union veteran Rick Badger.
"Phil was on the side of workers but he wasn't against business," said Badger. "He wanted business to succeed. He believed if you had a well-trained workforce they would work better, the business they worked for would do better, and the city where the business was located would be better. It wasn't about us versus them."
That captured the true essence of what Neuenfeldt stood for as a union leader. No responsible labor leader wants to make it impossible for an employer to operate his or her business at a profit. They want the business to do well and prosper, but they also want the employer to share the successes with the working people who helped make it possible. In other words, they only ask for a level playing field.
One example of employer-union partnerships we see here in Madison is the free annual Holiday Fantasy in Lights display at Olin Park, which is delighting families from now until Jan. 1. It's an annual holiday gift stemming from the cooperation between electrical contractors and their unions.
But relationships like that are a far cry from the message that comes from the leadership of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's powerful business lobby that has a seemingly bottomless war chest to finance politicians and judicial candidates to do their bidding when the chips are down.
The organization with the "take no prisoners" reputation claims 4,800 members, many of whom are indeed businesses with union contracts and good employee relationships.
You'd never know it, though, by the path WMC follows in its transparent attempt to wipe out all unions and workers' protections. In WMC's book, there should be no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to employers and employees.
For the past two decades, WMC has pulled out all the stops to fund its anti-worker muscle. It began by lavishing millions on the election of conservative state Supreme Court justices and now practically owns the court. But it was the 2010 election of Scott Walker and a overly conservative Legislature that put WMC in the driver's seat. For these past eight years, it has received everything it wanted — no increase in the $7.25 minimum wage, the destruction of public and teachers' unions, a law making Wisconsin a so-called "right-to-work" state, the repeal of longstanding environmental regulations to "free" business to do as it pleases, the end of prevailing wage rates and the quashing of local laws on livable wages and family leave, just for starters.
Yet this still wasn't enough to sate WMC's greed. Only Tony Evers' win over WMC's favorite son, Scott Walker, may have at least slowed it for now.
How time has changed WMC, the result of a 1970s merger of the state Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Manufacturers Association. A key aide to the late Republican Gov. Warren Knowles, Paul Hassett, engineered that merger and went on to serve as its CEO until his retirement in 1985. Under Hassett, WMC was a strong voice for the state's business interests. It mostly supported Republicans and lobbied hard for business legislation.
But WMC recognized there were other interests that government must serve as well. Politics wasn't an all-or-nothing game — there could be winners on competing sides. WMC recognized that in the '70s, Democratic Gov. Pat Lucey did more to help Wisconsin manufacturers than had many GOP governors.
It wasn't long after Hassett retired that WMC began changing its stripes. In the course of a few years it became a strident political force. Not only should business get every break, WMC espoused, business shouldn't have to pay state taxes at all. Individuals could pick up the slack.
WMC's current CEO, former banking lobbyist Kurt Bauer, tipped his hand last month when on the eve of the November elections he wrote in the organization's magazine that WMC and the Scott Walker administration had effectively "reversed the failed 100-year Progressive experiment in Wisconsin."
Apparently still smarting from a column I wrote about WMC four years ago that was accompanied by a Mike Konopacki cartoon depicting Bauer putting lipstick on a pig that resembled Scott Walker, Bauer implied that everything is just fine now in Wisconsin thanks to the governor's pro-business, anti-labor agenda. "That's a good looking pig," he claimed — but it appears a majority of Wisconsin citizens didn't agree.
Bauer, though, was showing not only his complete ignorance of the history of Wisconsin's progressive movement and what it did to bring economic equality to the state, but also what it meant for the state's business climate. He obviously doesn't know how the Wisconsin Idea, a progressive initiative, forged a relationship among the government, the university and state businesses to build and expand with new ideas and research, just for starters
Perhaps Bauer thinks it would still be OK for unregulated banks to cheat farmers, for insurance companies to refuse to pay claims, for corporations to conspire to put small companies out of business with questionable sales practices, for paper mills to pollute the Wisconsin River and for manufacturers to cover wetlands with parking lots.
The brash big-business CEO is probably right, however, that his organization and Walker did damage the state's long history of progressiveness. Where Bob La Follette and his crew drove out the special interests and removed their chokehold on lawmakers and judges, WMC and its allies have bought and bullied their way back into control.
Perhaps he shouldn't forget what happened when they began abusing their power and insisting everything go their way.
Those progressives are far from dead.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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