Can organized labor win back Wisconsin?
Early last year, the US Postal Service awarded a contract to Oshkosh Defense, a manufacturer of military and other specialty vehicles, to build a new fleet of mail trucks. The contract, which could be worth eleven billion dollars, was met with euphoria in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where the company has its main assembly plants. Since 2012, the number of workers in factories has been reduced by almost half; the new contract promised at least a thousand well-paying jobs for a decade or more. But, a few months after the announcement, the company announced that the vehicles would not be built in Oshkosh but at a closed Rite Aid distribution center in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Tim Jacobson is an assembly line worker at Oshkosh Defense and a steward for United Auto Workers Local 578, which represents factory workers. “I think they used the existing factory facilities, the workforce and the reputation of that workforce in their bid,” he told me in the auditorium recently. from Local 578’s room, a simple room decorated with pictures of military vehicles and a giant mural of an American flag with the words “UNION TILL WE DIE” written across the top. “No one in their right mind is going to give eleven billion dollars to what is, essentially, a startup.” Jacobson believes South Carolina was chosen because less than 2% of its workers are unionized, the lowest rate in the country. (“The Spartanburg facility,” a company spokesperson said, “gives us the best ability to meet the needs of the USPS.” A House committee is investigating the company’s decision.)
Along with other UAW officials, Jacobson mounted a campaign to pressure the company to reverse its decision. In February, he traveled to Washington to plead the union’s cause. For weeks prior, Local 578 leaders had been trying to arrange a meeting with Ron Johnson, a two-term Republican senator from Wisconsin who is seeking re-election Nov. 8. One night at his hotel, Jacobson saw a clip of Johnson telling reporters, “I wouldn’t step in to demand that anything be made here with federal funds.” Johnson added, “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin.”
“I thought, are you really serious?” Jacobson told me. He acknowledged that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is currently low. (It’s three percent, just like South Carolina’s.) “But these aren’t just any jobs. These are union jobs that support the family,” he said. “I make twenty-eight dollars an hour.” He also receives benefits and, most importantly for Jacobson, a pension. US manufacturing workers’ total compensation, including benefits, averages forty to forty-five dollars an hour, about double what service and commercial workers earn. Retail. The percentage of Wisconsin’s workforce employed in manufacturing is the highest in the country.
Johnson’s comments were widely reported and criticized by Wisconsin politicians. The next day, Johnson’s staff contacted Jacobson to say the senator could take time off for a meeting. “We just gave him our side of the story, why we think we needed this job here,” Jacobson said. When they asked Johnson if he really thought Wisconsin already had enough jobs, he didn’t back down. Jacobson said he had, however, promised to try to arrange a meeting between the union leadership and the CEO of Oshkosh, whom he was to see the following day. “That’s the last we heard from him,” Jacobson said. (Johnson, who did not respond to interview requests, disputed Jacobson’s account but defended his refusal to get involved. “This was a dispute between a company and its union, not a problem a U.S. senator should get in the middle of,” a spokesperson said.)
At the end of February, the union organized a rally in front of the company’s headquarters, opposite the factories. In attendance was Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who was running in the Democratic Senate primary. In August, Barnes won the nomination by a landslide, his path aided by the surprising withdrawal and endorsements of his main opponents less than three weeks before the primary. Like other Democratic Senate candidates in the Rust Belt—John Fetterman, Pennsylvania; Tim Ryan, in Ohio—Barnes, advocated for manufacturing jobs and the labor movement. Their efforts are a test of whether Democrats can blunt the appeal of right-wing populism for working-class voters — a phenomenon for which their party bears some responsibility. Since the late 1990s, the Party has lost support among unqualified white voters, and this drift has become increasingly multiracial. During this time, the United States lost five million manufacturing jobs and about seventy thousand factories. The majority of job losses are largely due to the shift from NAFTA and China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, both enthusiastically pushed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, whose free trade policy was continued by Barack Obama.
The Senate race has taken on national significance because unseating Johnson, among the nation’s most unpopular senators, is one of the few opportunities Democrats have to tip the scales of the equally divided Senate. Johnson centers his campaign on public safety, grievances against the culture war, and immediate economic concerns such as inflation and gas prices. Barnes is running against Johnson’s pro-business agenda and the past of his own party, which for decades embraced much of that agenda. “He’s the kind of candidate the Democrats should have run twenty-five years ago,” Dave Poklinkoski, former president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2304 in Madison, told me. “You have to ask yourself if it’s too little, too late.”
Ron Johnson was born in 1955 and grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, a small town southwest of Minneapolis. His campaign biographies read as if they were written by a Midwestern Horatio Alger. “At age 15, he got his first paying job as a dishwasher at a Walgreens grill,” reads the current version of his website. “He rose through the ranks as a soda jerk, fry cook and finally night manager before he turned 16.”
In 1979, Johnson and his wife, Jane, moved to Oshkosh to work for Pacur, a manufacturer of plastic packaging materials. Pacur was a Jane family business, founded by her brother Patrick and closely tied to the business interests of her father, Howard Curler. (Pacur is short for Pat Curler.) Howard had invented the technology to vacuum-pack meat and cheese, making him one of the wealthiest businessmen in the Fox River Valley, an area in northern -eastern Wisconsin which includes Appleton and Oshkosh. He lived modestly and was generous with his family and employees. “Howard Curler probably created more millionaires in the Fox River Valley than any other businessman,” a former employee told me. Howard was the CEO of Bemis, a multinational plastics and packaging company that, when Pacur launched, opened a plant across the street. Johnson, who worked as an accountant for Pacur, said he built it “from scratch,” but the company had one significant advantage over other startups: Bemis was waiting to buy its products. At first, Pacur’s only customer was Bemis, and since its inception, it has sold over one hundred million dollars worth of merchandise to the company.
“Ron is not a self-made man at all,” the former employee, who worked for Bemis, told me. “As soon as Ron and Jane got married, Ron never had financial worries for the rest of his life. There was no risk in starting this factory.
Johnson bought Pacur before launching his political career, which began with a speech at a Tea Party rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2010. “The next two elections are by far the biggest and most important in our life,” he said. “America must be removed from socialism and state control.” Shortly after, he announced he was running for the Senate. Johnson, a political novice, was heavily promoted by Charlie Sykes, then a powerful Milwaukee-based conservative talk radio host, and he defeated two Republican rivals to win the nomination. More surprisingly, he unseated Russ Feingold, a nationally recognized progressive Democrat, winning one of the Tea Party’s most significant victories in his banner year.
Johnson’s trademark is his implacable hostility to the government. “Today marks the one-year anniversary of the greatest assault on our freedom of my life: signing Obamacare,” he wrote in the the wall street journal in March 2011. Two years later, he was a guest speaker at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which circulates model bills to conservative state legislators. “I often hear politicians say, ‘We need to restore trust in government,'” he told them. “Absolutely not.” (Johnson also called the public servants’ unions “the root cause of local problems.”)
In 2016, as Donald Trump took over the Republican Party, Johnson refused to endorse him for the presidential nomination. On some economic issues, Trumpian populism was a rejection of the Tea Party. Trump has promised not to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid and has spoken out against free trade agreements such as NAFTA; Johnson said “we can’t afford” Medicare and Social Security, which he called a “Ponzi scheme,” and he praised free trade agreements, citing the need for “creative destruction“. But, after Trump won the Republican nomination, Johnson pledged to vote for him. (Trump’s economic apostasies were mostly rhetorical. His 2020 budget proposed deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and his administration presided over a net loss of nearly two hundred thousand manufacturing jobs.) Johnson became the leader. one of Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress. Last year, Trump declared his “total endorsement” of Johnson.