Back in February and early March, union members and their supporters seemed galvanized across the state, launching massive ground campaigns and ad air strikes that emptied tens of thousands of people into the streets of Madison, that seemed destined to win a Supreme Court seat, not to mention the recall of Republican senators, and to enact successful boycotts of both local businesses and big corporations.
Now, with Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill passed (if held up in court) and in the wake of a potentially devastating loss for unions by JoAnne Kloppenburg to incumbent justice David Prosser, the mood in union quarters is suddenly a lot less upbeat.
Certainly, no one can legitimately say their forces are defeated. The recalls are still moving along, though with much less prospect for resounding success, and, though the streets have emptied out, some spark and spirit remain in their rallies.
The boycotts, however, have virtually fallen apart.
Those latter efforts started with promise. Large labor organizations conceived and embraced the idea - even the police and fire unions jumped on board - and they all raced with figurative sirens wailing to throw down the gauntlet to businesses supporting the governor, big and small.
"The undersigned groups would like your company to publicly oppose Governor Walker's efforts to virtually eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin," four union officials wrote in a March 11 letter to Kwik Trip CEO Scott Tiegen. "While we appreciate that you may need some time to consider this request, we ask for your response by March 17. In the event that you do not respond to this request by that date, we will assume that you stand with Governor Walker and against the teachers, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, and other dedicated public employees who serve our communities."
What's more, the letter continued, if Tiegen could not bring himself to support the unions by the appointed deadline, the unions would "publicly and formally boycott the goods and services provided by your company."
Tiegen did not, and the unions did.
The officials signing the carefully worded correspondence were James Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, Joe Conway, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 311, and John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers, Inc.
It all looked like a heady late winter for the labor movement, the perfect storm.
A different season
But then came spring.
And suddenly, exactly like a popcorn storm puffing up in a warm spring sun only to dissipate within minutes as the sun sets, the union thunderclap was quieted, too, not least by the sunset of April 5, otherwise known as Supreme Court Election Day.
Even before that, though, the boycott efforts had been dispersing rapidly.
The union label did not even appear on most boycott threats, especially in the Northwoods and in central Wisconsin. A few business owners were challenged directly early on and threatened with economic harm if signs were not displayed - a Rhinelander incident comes to mind - but mostly the boycott efforts have been surreptitious, haphazard, and unclaimed: Anonymous notes left at The Lakeland Times; a single letter of individual boycott directed at a Minocqua business owner; anonymous notes posted in scattered school work rooms, presumably the handiwork of teachers but without any union stamp of approval.
In early March, for example, a sign naming companies that "Supported Walker" appeared in a Wausau West High School teachers' lounge, listing Wausau Papers, Menards, Culver's, M&I Bank, Church Mutual Insurance, Wausau Homes and other local businesses.
The word "boycott' was never mentioned.
Two weeks ago, the same thing happened in Minocqua at MHLT. A list of corporations and associations that "supports Walker" appeared in a staff work room, according to MHLT superintendent Jim Ellis.
Again, there was no mention of the word "boycott'; there was also no signee or endorser's name on the message, and it named just four entities, Ellis said: Georgia Pacific, M&I, Menards and the Tavern League.
Ellis said he took the sign down and destroyed it. There was no indication who posted it, he added, and no one came forward to claim it.
"I addressed staff that night when it was brought to my attention - it was taken down - I actually had two board members there, too," Ellis said.
Ellis said he took it down because it was an inappropriate posting in the school.
"It should not happen in a public school district, on either side," he said. "There's no place for it."
He said the note had not been reposted: "I destroyed it, and there's been nothing further."
In yet another local incident, a business owner who wishes to remain unnamed received a written threat of boycott because the owner was supporting the recall of state Sen. Jim Holperin. The letter writer said the writer had been a patron of the store, but would never return and would spread the word to the writer's friends.
While most of the efforts in northern and central Wisconsin have been similarly underorganized, if organized at all, in southern Wisconsin, where larger unions did get involved, some impeachment efforts actually backfired - and had union leaders quickly backing off.
In late March, to cite the most famous example, Jim Parrett, a field representative for AFSCME Council 24, fired off a letter to local businesses in Union Grove telling them to display pro-union signs, or else.
"It is unfortunate that you have chosen "not' to support public workers rights in Wisconsin," Parrett wrote in the March 28 letter. "In recent past weeks you have been offered a sign by a public employee who works in one of the state facilities in the Union Grove area. These signs simply said, "This Business Supports Workers Rights,' a simple, subtle and we feel noncontroversial statement given the facts at this time."
Parrett said continued resistance to the signs would bring consequences.
"Failure to do so will leave us no choice but (to) do a public boycott of your business," he wrote. "And sorry, neutral means "no' to those who work for the largest employer in the area and are union members."
Instead, Parrett's letter brought consequences for the union. The Wall Street Journal called it union thuggery, and many business owners themselves rebelled, including Dawn Bobo, who was seen in newspapers in a Racine Journal Times photo holding her own sign: "We support Union Grove, not bully tactics."
Business owners also reported an increase in business traffic rather than a decrease.
After only a few days, the union had backed down and was saying there was no boycott, after all, in an email from Marty Biel, the executive director of AFSCME Council 24.
"There was some unfortunate overzealousness in the field," the email stated, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported it. "We have made clear all along that we see small business as a partner and ally in getting Wisconsin back to work."
Why sizzle to fizzle?
Observers have fixed the failure of the boycotts - at least their failure so far in an unpredictable political season - on a number of reasons. For one thing, given the outcome of the Supreme Court race, public support for the unions was never as strong as it appeared during the height of the Madison protests.
In other words, there was indeed a silent majority, or at least a silent 50 percent.
For another, some unions have seemed to teeter close to a fine legal line and perhaps have decided to step back from it. While organizing boycotts based of what businesses have chosen to do or not do is legal, threatening a boycott if a business doesn't make a certain decision veers close to the legal definition of extortion.
That statute reads: "Whoever, either verbally or by any written or printed communication, maliciously threatens to accuse or accuses another of any crime or offense, or threatens or commits any injury to the person, property, business, profession, calling or trade, or the profits and income of any business, profession, calling or trade of another, with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened to do any act against the person's will or omit to do any lawful act, is guilty of a Class H felony."
Truthfully, extortion charges are highly unlikely against anybody, but a public conviction on the charge in the minds of the people must have at least occurred to union leaders after the Union Grove incident.
The biggest reason the boycotts are fizzling rather than sizzling could turn out to be economic. The businesses being targeted for boycotts happen to employ thousands of Wisconsin workers, who, along with their friends and families, might not appreciate the union position.
Finally, in another down note for the unions, recall Walker efforts and boycott Walker supporter efforts appear to be seriously lagging online.
For example, the most successful Facebook page, "Boycott Scott Walker's Contributors" had 23,333 "likes" Tuesday night, far fewer than those who marched in the streets.
Recall efforts online were doing even worse. At the website Scott Walker Watch, only 6,702 had signed the recall petitions (a recall cannot formally begin until next January but sites are trying to line up supporters), while only 10,381 people liked the Facebook page, Recall Scott Walker.
One the other hand, 62,734 people liked the governor's official Facebook page.
The vitality has indeed scattered from the union storm front - certainly not all of it, but a significant portion of it. Perhaps the unions can reform the front line, but, in April, what had been an updraft of explosive force had suddenly become quite a downdraft, and a downer for unions.
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com.
Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011
Article comment by:
Am confused. Why is freedom of choice bad? Isn't my ability to choose where I buy one of the great things about America?
Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2011
Article comment by:
You go right on believing that,Richard. You go right on believing that all the disgust here in Wisconsin has blown away with the spring winds, and you go right no encouraging Scott Walker to make ever more confrontational statements & try to take ever more obnoxious actions. You go right on confusing support for some of these more extreme boycott actions (which I do not agree with) with support for recalls (which I do agree with).
Please, go right on, right through the end of this year at least, if you would be so kind to oblige.
Posted: Saturday, April 16, 2011
Article comment by:
Paper has moore lies
Facebook: "540,000 to see Scott Walker out of WI, January 2012" : 60,987 likes. Do a search on Facebook for Scott Walker and you find far more groups in opposition than in support. But whatever, this paper is not at all biased and only reports the facts. The ones they *want* you to see anyway...
Posted: Saturday, April 16, 2011
Article comment by:
From the article you wrote:
"Recall efforts online were doing even worse. At the website Scott Walker Watch, only 6,702 had signed the recall petitions (a recall cannot formally begin until next January but sites are trying to line up supporters), while only 10,381 people liked the Facebook page, Recall Scott Walker"
Apparently you haven't visited the united Wisconsin website, which hast 180,000 pledges for recall as of April 11l. The organizer has held meetings in major cities across the state with an overwhelming amount of volunteers willing to canvass in Jan.
And think of it, if Prosser was supposed to 'walk away' with the court election, as it should have been, won't those 700,000 (give or take some) that voted for Kloppenburg be willing to sign a recall petition?