A Contract Campaign Across Unions



Doug Swanson

As Wisconsin faces a nearly $6 billion budget deficit, state employee unions are determined to make sure the crisis isn’t “solved” on our backs. All union contracts with the state will expire June 30. As we strategize, we’re remembering our successful campaign—“A Deal’s a Deal”—from 2003. . . .

As Wisconsin faces a nearly $6 billion budget deficit, state employee unions are determined to make sure the crisis isn’t “solved” on our backs. All union contracts with the state will expire June 30. As we strategize, we’re remembering our successful campaign—“A Deal’s a Deal”—from 2003.

In February 2003 a joint committee of the Wisconsin legislature refused to approve 16 agreements that had been ratified by the members of six state employees’ unions. Over the years, state employees had consistently been used as punching bags by many of the legislators holding the contracts hostage.

For years they had told citizens that high taxes were the fault of state employees, ignoring the fact that the employees implemented programs created by the legislators themselves. The unions needed to build support not just for the contracts but for the state workers who provided valued services.

‘A DEAL’S A DEAL’

The unions knew they needed a message that was short and clear. “A Deal’s a Deal!” was born. It didn’t matter whether you liked unions or state employees—everyone understood that a deal’s a deal.

If the politicians were allowed to dishonor an agreement negotiated with their employees, what would they back out of next? It was a message adaptable to any environment or audience.

The campaign depended on four factors: mobilized members; consistent individual efforts; intensive education of and pressure on legislators; and support from the public and the media.

To mobilize members statewide and in many different bargaining units, the unions used cross-union meetings. At that time most of the unions—American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin (AFT-W), National Education Association, Service Employees (SEIU), AFSCME, and the building trades—did not work well together. But through this crisis, walls came down and coalitions were built.

If the politicians were allowed to dishonor an agreement negotiated with their employees, what would they back out of next?

In buildings where members of multiple bargaining units worked, cross-union “brown bag” meetings were held and all members were encouraged to attend. Members would wear buttons in solidarity and share information from their locals and other state employee groups.

With each two-week cycle, the number of meetings grew as more members became involved. Flyers gave updates on the campaign and laid out what was coming next. They were easily distributed to members who didn’t come. AFT-W prepared a recording on an 800 number for an “update of the day.”

“A Deal’s a Deal” posters went up in work sites, and more than one were seen facing the state capitol building.

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At the local Labor Temple in Madison, the state capital, ad hoc meetings were called every four to six weeks where anyone could talk about what was and was not being done.

The unions held rallies and vigils at the capitol building over lunch hours, organized through e-mails and the 800 number. AFSCME held rallies at prisons outside of Madison as well.

The unions created “union bucks” for members to pass out when they shopped or to enclose when they paid their bills. These were slips of paper about the size of a dollar bill, with a message on the front about the value state employees provided to the community and the Wisconsin economy.

The reverse was blank, and members were encouraged to write personal notes about their jobs. Members passed out the union bucks by the thousands.

One member wrote to each of the car dealers in his area detailing the age and model of his car. He said he had planned to replace his old car with the raise he would have received if the legislature had approved his contract.

His creativity spurred others to write to resorts and recreation centers in the districts where some legislative leaders lived.

EDUCATING LEGISLATORS

It was a challenge to educate new legislators on the valuable contributions of state employees, on how collective bargaining works, and on why contracts could not be changed once ratified. Members sent letters and e-mails and made calls, but more effective were face-to-face meetings, back at the district offices and at the capitol.

The campaign bought radio ads on the “A Deal’s a Deal” theme, and members wrote letters to the editor, articulating how unfair their contracts were when compared to the raises politicians were receiving.

If the politicians were allowed to bargain in bad faith, they argued, the government’s credibility would be called into question. These letters led to meetings with editorial boards from major papers around the state and drew significant attention to the campaign.

In May the contracts were sent back to the joint committee, unmodified. They went through the Assembly and the Senate and were finally signed by the governor.

The lasting effect of “A Deal’s A Deal” was the coalition built among the unions. Six years later, the coalition that the employer calls “the Gang of 18” still meets monthly.


Doug Swanson is a staff representative for AFT-Wisconsin.


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