The Legacy of Wisconsin’s Act 10

The mass mobilization in response to Wisconsin’s Act 10 of 2011 was unprecedented in the memory of several generations of Midwesterners. The Wisconsin left hadn’t mobilized on the scale of the 2011 protests since the Vietnam anti-war movement. While it is easy to overlook the precedent for the 2011 protests, it is nonetheless fair to say that entire generations of Wisconsinites lacked any sort of radical touchstone on the scale the Act 10 protests. In this article, I will revisit the text of Act 10 in order to provide a greater understanding of the strategic intent of the bill, as well as its consequences for Wisconsin’s working class. Strategic thinking is crucial for future socialist organizing as Act 10 was not a blind attack on unions but a calculated effort to divide and injure the working class.

Act 10 is often remembered as the law that ended collective bargaining for public sector employees in Wisconsin. Yet, its scope was far greater than collective bargaining, and in many ways far more beneficial for the capitalist class. Notably, collective bargaining is not entirely eliminated through Act 10, but rather it is restricted to bargaining over base wages and cost of living adjustments that are tied to the consumer price index. Further, the bill did not target all public-sector unions and instead focused on teachers and caregivers while exempting police, firefighters, and the state patrol. The result of this was to target women in Wisconsin’s public-sector workforce, who disproportionately comprise the labor of teaching and caregiving in this state.

By allowing for collective bargaining of base wages, Act 10 serves to reinforce a foundational tenet of capitalist ideology, which is that if an individual works hard, that person shall be appropriately rewarded. It is a policy that creates an illusion of equity in a fundamentally exploitative labor market for public employees. Thus, the post-Act 10 scheme perpetuates the myth of individual merit, an idea that hides a panoply of capitalism’s sins, from the supposed justice of free-market economics to white privilege. This myth is central to the conservative narrative that speaks to the working class and also identifies the source of working class turmoil in unions and market regulations.

Buried beneath the restrictions on collective bargaining were massive pay decreases for public sector employees across Wisconsin. The bill requires state employees to share 50 percent of the cost of their contributions to the Wisconsin Retirement System—previously paid by the employer—amounting to 5.8 percent of individual salaries as of 2011. Further, employees were required to increase their share of health care premium payments from 6 percent to 12.6 percent, while the state was simultaneously directed to explore “health insurance cost containment strategies.” The result was a pay cut of massive proportions for Wisconsin’s state employees. By 2014, Governor Walker estimated that about $3 billion had been cut from employee compensation.

Walker’s combination of massive pay cuts and collective bargaining restrictions set a rhetorical trap for union leadership. AFSCME had refused to accede to terms similar to Act 10 during contract negotiations only a few months earlier in 2010. By later offering to accept the egregious pay cuts in exchange for the protection of collective bargaining, Governor Walker was able to paint public sector unions as only interested in their self-preservation through collective bargaining, rather than the welfare of their members. Although AFSCME and other unions offered concessions as a tactic to appear “reasonable,” the result was a massive failure both for the unions as organizations, and for the welfare of the working class. The essential thrust of Act 10, which is to extract more labor from the working class for less money, is the hallmark of the Walker era. As Wisconsin reaches historically low unemployment, we are also experiencing increased poverty and low wages.

The “budget repair bill” goes on to strip Limited Term Employees of access to health and retirement benefits, allocate $22 million to the Department of Corrections and the adult prison system, and authorize the sale of Wisconsin’s heating plants to private ownership. Just as the collective bargaining regulations were gendered, Act 10 also allocated $37 million in excess Temporary Aid for Needy Families revenue to the Earned Income Tax Credit program. Excess TANF revenues is a banal term for a deeply exploitative and often racist product of Wisconsin’s implementation of the federal TANF grant, called Wisconsin Works, or W-2. Wisconsin spends less on W-2 than it receives in funding from the federal government. More egregiously, Wisconsin engages in a practice of having non-custodial parents pay for a portion of the W-2 benefits the other parent may be receiving. This occurs in spite of the fact the state receives more than enough money from the federal government to pay for its implementation of W-2. Thus, Walker sought to buy goodwill from the white working class—the primary beneficiaries of EITC—with the stolen money of black workers who disproportionately rely on W-2.

The aftermath of Act 10 underscores the need for a coherent politics founded in a critical analysis of capitalism. The consequences of Act 10 are that the working class is making less money while working hard than ever. Meanwhile, the material needs of survival—healthcare, housing, education, water—were either made more expensive or simply unavailable as a direct result of the 2011 legislative session. All of this occurred as the Republican legislative agenda sought to alienate workers from one another along lines of race, gender, and economic privilege. As we look forward to the future of class struggles, our focus must be on the needs of the working class, not simply the institutions of liberal political economy to which we have become accustomed.

Works Cited

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