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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Waiting for a new public unionism
Mission and service need to be at its heart

Okay, it's over. What next?

That's the key question for public employee unions after their recall bubble was popped on June 5. The old liberal regime has been conclusively turned out. The Walker conquest won't be rolled back. But that doesn't mean the unions can't revive even in a hostile environment. This will require a new, improved unionism suitable for the 21st century.

Hints of that future can be found, oddly enough, in the past - in the very founding of the Wisconsin State Employees Association in the 1930s as a bulwark against political patronage and worker-hostile governors. The group first battled the efforts of Democratic Gov. Albert Schmedeman to abolish civil service and then the vengeful efforts of Republican Gov. Julius Heil to cut their pay.

I thought of that history as I read Ron Seely's fine series in the Wisconsin State Journal on the precipitous decline in enforcement actions at the state Department of Natural Resources. Notably, there was a go-easy policy for a Republican-connected waste hauler accused of serious environmental lapses. Forget the polite euphemisms - the hauler is accused of spreading human shit too thickly on farm fields in Jefferson County.

"One of the neighbors couldn't hang her laundry out to dry, the smell was so bad," says Kimberlee Wright, head of Midwest Environmental Advocates. "This guy was spreading human waste right up to people's property lines."

Channeling his inner Chicago alderman, Republican State Rep. Joel Kleefisch chose to sit in on enforcement meetings between the hauler and DNR staff. He argued for kid-glove treatment of the shit spreader. Can you imagine how intimidated state regulators felt?

But as Seely reported, a number of dedicated midlevel DNR employees still spoke out on how political considerations seemed to be undermining enforcement decisions.

Wright, who put in six years at the DNR, isn't surprised by their courage. "It was clear to me that the majority of the people I worked with got it - they understood public service. The 'walking dead' waiting for retirement were such a minority at the DNR."

Recently, I spent an afternoon at Memorial Library paging through old master's theses (by Marver Bernstein, 1940; and Samuel Satterfield, 1961) that detailed the early years of the labor group now known as the Wisconsin State Employees Union. Some of it was downright inspiring.

Schmedeman came into office in 1932 as the first Democratic governor in 38 years. He was hell-bent on firing state employees and hiring his friends. Fearful of the Democrats' plan to destroy civil service, the nascent state employees association began organizing. Their objectives included a forthright pledge "to extend and uphold the principle of merit and fitness in public employment." There was also the promise to advance the welfare of state employees.

But organizers took it a step further. They also pledged "to promote efficiency in public services" and to reduce to a minimum "overlapping and duplication of services." In other words, they focused not just on their own needs, but also on looking out for the taxpayers. They were outlining a mission - a cause - that reached beyond their own enrichment

This is precisely what a newly focused public employee unionism needs today to regain relevance. The hard truth is that the old industrial- union model doesn't cut it anymore. Public employees aren't working on a factory floor. The old focus on minutely defined job descriptions, lockstep pay levels and prizing longevity over merit has to give way to a sense of mission and professionalism.

Wright's personal story illustrates how challenging this is for old-school union leaders.

A longtime activist, Wright joined the state to run the DNR's Stewardship Program, which purchases valuable natural areas. Her contact with her union left her unimpressed. "I paid about $50 per month [in dues] and personally resent not being better represented."

This came crashing home for her when she alleges she was pressured by Gov. Jim Doyle's office to divvy up the stewardship money in a certain way, and she pushed back.

"I was threatened with insubordination, and I went to my union for help," she recounts. Her steward was a nice guy, but he said, "There's no way we can help you with that."

Wright's little union, she says, was run by "slick insiders who fed us bullshit to further their own interests." She adds, "I couldn't get the time of day from [the leadership]." Wright, who describes herself as pro-labor, says, "You have to invent the idea of a union all over again."

She's right. Civically minded unions are needed as a counterweight.

Patronage jobs are reaching deeper and deeper into the bureaucracy. Both Democratic and Republican administrations pull strings and pressure state employees. One can acknowledge that governors have a mandate to pursue their policies, but that doesn't include running government like an airline perks program for supporters.

Organized civil servants could once again be a bulwark against the political hustlers. But whether public union leaders can learn a new strategy - actually a very old strategy, as I saw in the stacks of Memorial Library - isn't clear at all.

Marc Eisen is a former Isthmus editor.

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