The 97-union South Central Federation of Labor of Wisconsin is laying groundwork for a general strike if Gov. Scott Walker succeeds in enacting legislation that would strip most bargaining rights from most public employee unions.
Federation president Jim Cavanaugh said Tuesday that he couldn't predict how many unions might take part in a strike, but opposition to Walker has grown rapidly.
"Two weeks ago who would have thought there would have been 70,000 people on the Capitol Square demonstrating on behalf of worker rights?" Cavanaugh said. "We have had an awful lot of statements of support from around the country."
The labor federation, which represents more than 45,000 workers, voted Monday night to endorse work stoppages by union and nonunion workers nationally, Cavanaugh said.
A spokesman for AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka declined to comment specifically on the Wisconsin federation's resolution.
Delegates to the six-county federation said they are preparing for a strike even if unions in other parts of the state or the country don't sign on. Ultimately, individual unions would decide whether or not to strike.
Walker's proposal, part of a bill to close a $137 million budget shortfall for the year that ends June 30, has sparked nine days of protests at the Capitol and a walkout by Democratic state senators that has stalled action on the legislation.
A strike could affect schools, governments and private businesses, but crucial life-and-death services would not be interrupted, said Tony Schaeve, federation delegate from Plumbers Local 75.
"Schools come to a halt, construction sites come to a halt, our printing presses come to a halt, our state administration comes to halt — you can't go the DMV anymore," Schaeve said.
A coordinating committee is being formed to contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes, and to begin educating and organizing unions, students and other groups, said Carl Aniel, labor federation delegate from AFSCME Local 171
"It doesn't mean that everyone is going to stop working on a particular moment or day," Aniel said. "It means that we are preparing so that the decisions are made in a very significantly different way so that it protects the people of Wisconsin."
The unions haven't begun to map out a plan for what services would be shut down, he added.
"If it was decided the governor's mansion really wasn't that important and it wasn't that important to heat it or give it electricity or to guard it, then those things wouldn't happen," Aniel said.
'We're going down if we don't repeal this'
About 60 delegates of member unions voted unanimously for the resolution to fight Walker's proposals, Cavanaugh said.
"Everybody in that room was thinking the same thing — we're going down if we don't repel this," Schaeve said. "It's not about us anymore, it's about the nation, and we're at ground zero."
A spokesman for Walker responded to the strike threat by expressing gratitude for public workers.
"Governor Walker is glad the 300,000-plus good, hard-working public employees are showing up to work to do their job," spokesman Cullen Werwie said.
In a televised address Tuesday night, Walker said 1,500 state employees will be laid off before June 30 if the bill is not passed. Up to another 12,000 public employees — up to 6,000 each from state and local governments — also face layoffs, he said.
Strong probability of a strike
Richard A. Epstein, a professor at the University of Chicago, said he sees a strong probability of a major strike because national labor leaders know that if they lose this battle in Wisconsin, other states will fall.
"They see this as a trillion-dollar proposition if it replicates itself across the country," Epstein said.
Linda Kaboolian, a Harvard lecturer on labor-management issues, said unions are too weak to organize a national strike.
"The assumption that a national strike is possible without organizations to help mobilize their members, etc. as in France and other countries that pull off national strikes — is hard to imagine," Kaboolian said in an e-mail.
Paul Secunda, a Marquette University professor who studies labor law, said a general strike may be inevitable.
"The ultimate power that employees have at the end of the day is to withhold their labor," Secunda said. "This would be the ultimate trump card that the unions could pull out, and it will be extremely powerful."
The unions would need to be creative in deciding which services to shut down and for how long, he said.