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Celebrating Wisconsin's workers (copy)

Portraying cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, Lisa Van Buskirk of Madison Fire Local 311 joins union supporters in a song of solidarity during LaborFest 2016 at the Madison Labor Temple in Madison.

Despite the machinations of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican majority, there is still a strong progressive movement in Wisconsin, and nowhere is that more evident than in Madison and environs. You'd think that would translate into a more enlightened approach to employee relations. Not necessarily.

Employers here function pretty much like they do everywhere else. They work in the interests of the company and themselves, while employees work in the interests of their families and themselves. Sometimes those interests align. Sometimes they collide. And sometimes in that push-me/pull-you of competing interests even "good" employers go bad.

Case in point: Epic Systems. The company gets 3.5 out of 5 "stars" at Indeed.com, where workers can enter ratings and remarks about their jobs. Not bad. Epic also has a reputation for trying to establish a more egalitarian work environment that challenges old-school, business-as-usual practices younger workers in high tech find repugnant. Yet with all those good vibrations resonating from the top down, Epic would not tolerate its nonunion workforce getting together to resolve some pay claims.

Epic fought worker Jacob Lewis, who thought other workers should be able to join him in a complaint about non-payment of overtime. The dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court — and Lewis lost. The court said Epic workers were not entitled to "concerted activity" under the National Labor Relations Act because (1) they waived that right when they signed individual arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, and (2) the law "focuses on the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. It may permit unions to bargain to prohibit arbitration."

Think about it. The court's conservative majority just told millions of America's workers that their best shot at getting a fair deal is to join a union. While those of us in the labor movement abhor the court's denial of "concerted activity" rights to nonunion workers, it underscores why unions came about and exist today: There's strength in numbers.

Employers know that. They have lawyers, lobbyists, politicians and political parties on their side. And they have one another. Epic enjoyed abundant "concerted activity" from a rogues' gallery of big-time, big-business advocacy groups that filed amicus briefs in favor of denying workers' rights. Here are highlights of just a few — with ties to the notorious Koch brothers — that Sourcewatch uncovered in its extensive research:

National Association of Manufacturers opposes environmental regulations, donor disclosure and sanctions on Russia, and supports tort reform and makers of asbestos. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is an affiliate.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes paid sick leave, environmental regulations, unions and anti-smoking laws, and supports tort reform and the tobacco industry.

Business Roundtable supports "voluntary" cuts to greenhouse gases, limits on class action lawsuits and privatization of Social Security.

Pacific Legal Foundation "is the key right-wing public interest litigation firm in a network of similar organizations [that] support capitalism and oppose environmental and health activism and government regulation," according to Sourcewatch. 

It gives one pause that a "good" company like Epic would be in league with bad actors like that. It's not unusual. It's what employers do. They want control and seldom want to share, especially when it gets down to the bottom line. It doesn't matter how well they are doing or where they stand in the Fortune 500. It's all of a piece. The question is: Where does that leave you?

Do you have the resources to sally forth against a corporate juggernaut all by yourself? Are you comfortable talking openly with co-workers about workplace issues? If you wanted to, could you negotiate your own contract to secure your freedom of association and "concerted activity" in case you needed it?

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If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need a union. The Supreme Court just said so.

Kevin Gundlach is president of the South Central Federation of Labor, an umbrella organization of almost 100 labor unions in Dane, Dodge, Sauk, Columbia, Jefferson, Iowa, Green, Grant, Lafayette, Richland and Marquette counties. 608-256-5111; thefed@scfl.org; www.scfl.org/; #LaborSCFL. 

Editor's note: This column was written before the Supreme Court’s June 27 decision on “fair share” fees. Look for Gundlach’s commentary on that decision, coming soon to captimes.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that Washington Legal Foundation is associated with the Pacific Legal Foundation. The Washington Legal Foundation says it is an independent 501(c)(3) public-interest group, incorporated in 1977.

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