Julius Getman

More than 100 union and community supporters marched to the Capitol from the Texas chapter of the AFL-CIO headquarters on Lavaca and 11th streets to send a message of solidarity to public employees in Wisconsin.

They held flashlights and posters while chanting in support of Wisconsin public workers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed public employees pay more for benefits to balance the state’s $137 million shortfall. The bill would also eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.

An attack on one union person is an attack on all union people, said Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller.
“We’re concerned with what is happening in Wisconsin,” Moeller said. “What they’re trying to do is attack labor unions across the country.”

Public employees in Texas do not have the right to collective bargaining, the right to negotiate salaries and working conditions. But if they can do it in one state they could do it in other states, Moeller said.

“Labor unions have helped build a middle class in this country,” she said. “For Gov. Walker to just decide to attack labor unions in Wisconsin, we think it’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Tara Cohen, a Madison native, said the proposed union cuts hit home. Her friends and family who are teachers and hospital workers would be affected. She said their whole lives can potentially change.

“It will give power to people from Austin and people from Madison are paying attention to what’s going on elsewhere with our support or not,” Cohen said.

Polls show 65 percent of people, excluding government officials and their families, think the governor has gone too far, law professor Julius Getman said. It is a combination labor union and community issue, he said.

“I think the governor of Wisconsin has awakened the sleeping giant and it’s going to be interesting how it plays out because the labor movement has been much too dormant in recent years,” he said.

He said this will be a turning point for labor unions. If the workers lose they would have gained something, and if they win it will be a tremendous victory not only for Wisconsin but for unions all over the country.

“Similar legislation was pending in other places and if they’re not going to get it in Wisconsin they’re going to back off,” Getman said.

Getman said that everyone is surprised by the concern and magnitude of the protests around the nation.
“By being militant, the Democrats and the union people have shown there is still power in union,” he said.

Labor unions need to change their strategies before they can improve working conditions, said UT law professor Julius Getman on Thursday.

Getman gave a talk in the UT Law School about his book “Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement” and the state of labor unions in the U.S. today. While labor unions are the best way to improve working conditions in today’s economy, they should return to their roots as a social movement to regain the strength they once had, he said.

In 2009, 12.3 percent of American workers belonged to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership has dropped steadily since 1983, when more than 20 percent of workers were unionized.

“Everything I’ve written has in a way been critical of organized labor,” he said. “I think that they blame management for all of their woes, but it’s too easy to say that the reason we’re doing so badly is because management is breaking and violating laws, so it’s not our fault. I’ve done enough field work that I can statistically demonstrate that that’s wrong and that unions bear responsibility.”

Economic disparity is as bad now as it was during the 1920s after the decline of labor unions following World War I, said Elliott Becker, a UT law student and senior events coordinator of the American Constitution Society.

“It’s just as bad now as it was during that Snidely Whiplash, robber-baron sort of period,” he said. “We’ve done enough glosses of work safety so that 8-year-olds aren’t losing limbs in factories now, but people are ultimately in just as bad of conditions.”

Becker said workers today continue to live as tools for the economic machine and deserve the autonomy that labor unions can give them. He said he organized the event to raise progressive students’ interest in labor unions, which he believes is the answer to giving workers access to the resources they need to gain economic independence.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of choice in my life, and I think there are enough resources in the world so that everyone can have choice,” he said. “I’d like to see that happen, and I think labor unions are the way to do it.”

Labor unions are not perfect and should have a greater impact on today’s economy than they do to improve working conditions, said UT law student Andres Pacheco-Fores. He said Getman’s lecture provided historical context and insight into how organized labor can remain relevant.

“I don’t think unions are as relevant as they could be or should be,” he said. “I’m on Professor Getman’s side. “They’ve been screwing up a lot lately. They should be stronger; they should be a movement.”