By Amanda Terkel
WASHINGTON — While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) may have won the most recent battle in Madison by securing passage of an anti-union bill, labor activists are optimistic they may emerge as the victors in the long run.
Forming a union is a lengthy process, and although labor officials say they already see more interest from workers, it’s too soon to measure an increase in membership numbers. But there is one indication the battles in Wisconsin are providing a boost for labor.
Working America, an advocacy organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO that provides an outlet for non-union members to support the labor movement, has signed up approximately 20,000 new members since Feb. 15. The group was active in the state in 2008, when it built up the bulk of its membership, which now stands at 65,000. It was inactive for the past couple years, however, and just reopened shop the beginning of 2011.
Joining up with Working America is far easier than enrolling in a union, involving simply filling out a form either in person or online. New members are asked to contribute $5, although no dues are required.
Joining a union, on the other hand, requires holding elections and often battling with management, which may employ all sorts of tactics to slow down or stop the process.
“The increase in Working America numbers provides one of the first real-world examples of what we’ve seen, which is increased interest nationally and in Wisconsin of supporting workers’ rights,” said one labor official.
In late February, the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse voted 249-37 in favor of union representation through AFT-Wisconsin, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. One professor at the university said Walker’s actions galvanized them to form a union.
Labor officials have publicly acknowledged the role that Walker and the fight in Wisconsin have played in their mobilization efforts. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently dubbed the governor “the Mobilizer of the Year,” predicting Republicans would suffer politically from their efforts to take away collective bargaining rights.
“Now they’re seeing what backlash really looks like,” Trumka said. “I promise you this. It’s like the old song goes, ‘You ain’t seen n-n-n-nothing yet.’”
Working America field organizer Kevin Pape said that in addition to the traditional door-to-door canvassing, the group has been actively recruiting new members at the rallies around the state. Pape said that at these protests, they have had large numbers of people approaching them and asking about the organization. “It’s pretty much the easiest organizing you can ever do,” he said.
“People are just thirsty for a connection to a labor movement,” Pape added. “The effort required to get somebody to join has definitely decreased. This is an avenue to join the labor movement, and they’re just jumping at it.”
Working America regional director David Wehde said that in their door-to-door recruitment, many people are eager to show solidarity with the protesters but can’t make it to the big rallies in Madison. “So when we come by their doors and check in with them about what’s going on, they’re literally grabbing our clipboards and saying, ‘Great! What do I need to do?’ That’s one group of folks, and that’s a level of intensity that is new.”
Another growing group comprises people concerned about what’s happening and who may have personal experience with the economic downturn. But it’s unlikely they would have become involved if someone hadn’t come to their door.
“At Working America, we’ve always been focused on an economy that works for everybody, creating good jobs that you can raise a family on,” said Wehde. “People always have been responsive to that. But the interest that people have right now is much more about connecting the dots. They’re seeing something happening — what’s happening in Madison, what’s happening across Wisconsin with this legislation that is really an attack on workers, and more people get that than we have seen.”
Bob Emberger, a retired resident of River Falls, Wis. — approximately 250 miles from Madison — told The Huffington Post that he joined Working America earlier this month when an organizer came to his door. Even though he said he didn’t particularly like the last union he was in — the Chicago Bartenders Union in 1960, which, according to Emberger, “represented most of the awful things you’ve ever heard about unions” — he believes that collective bargaining rights are important to preserve.
“I have relatives who have told me about how things were before the days of unions, and so I thought that they were pretty important,” said Emberger.
Working America has recruited more than three million members in the last seven years, and in 2008, it helped mobilize white working-class voters for the Obama campaign. An AFL-CIO post-election survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found 60 percent of Working America’s members identified as “moderate” or “conservative.”
Polls taken around the Wisconsin dispute show majorities against taking away collective bargaining rights. Additionally, a recent poll by a conservative think tank in Wisconsin showed evidence the enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans in the state in 2010 has vanished.