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Abortion Rights, Workers’ Rights and the Wisconsin Election

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Wisconsin Uprising, 2011. State Capitol full of protesters.

Wisconsin’s “which side are you on” moment: the April 4 election is “a fight for basic rights, and livelihood, and survival.”

For 12 years, Wisconsin residents have been living the day-to-day consequences of hard-right domination of their state government. The April 4 election will decide whether they have a chance to claw back many of the rights lost—or will continue on their path back to the 19th century.

“Wisconsin has been ground zero with attacks on workers since 2011 with Act 10, the destruction of the public sector unions, and right to work laws hitting private sector workers hard. We’ve been living it, we’re not on the other side,” said Victoria Gutierrez, an active union nurse and member of the executive board of the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), which brings together Madison-area unions. ”Now we are ground zero fighting for bodily autonomy since the Dobbs decision.”

Wisconsin Uprising

Scott Walker rode the Tea Party wave into the Wisconsin governor’s office in 2010. The state faced budget shortfalls: revenues had been declining since the 2008-09 financial crisis, and the legislature had passed a series of tax cuts. Walker took advantage of the situation to wrap his attack against public sector workers in the cloak of economic rescue and relief for the middle class. His so-called “budget repair law,” Act 10, eventually prevailed, and was upheld by the state Supreme Court, which by 2015 was dominated by Federalist Society judges. The combined effects of restrictions on collective bargaining agreements and dues collection, along with new requirements for recertification, were devastating both for workers’ rights and for democracy in Wisconsin

But Walker’s power play sparked major resistance. Four months of demonstrations, including massive sit-ins, brought as many as 50,000 Wisconsinites to the state capitol. Public and private sector workers, students, farmers, and non-union allies joined in the powerful shows of solidarity.

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These solidarities are vital again today, as voters head to the polls for an election that will set the political tilt of the state’s legislature as well as its Supreme Court. If Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin wins the special election in State Senate District 8, she will break the GOP super-majority. This will restore Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ veto power. A victory by Judge Janet Protasiewicz would deprive the Right of its Supreme Court majority. That majority has approved changes in voting rules restricting access to the ballot, and GOP-drawn district maps that make Wisconsin one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

A challenge to Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban seems likely to reach the state’s high court in the next year or two as well. The state has a “trigger law,” so that when the US Supreme Court issued its Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade, that ban took effect. It makes providing an abortion a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine, with no exceptions for rape.

“Slavery hadn’t even been abolished when this law was passed,” Victoria Gutierrez said. Wisconsin had only four abortion clinics before Dobbs. Now it has none. Reproductive rights touch everyone “in the privacy of your home,” Gutierrez said, at the same time they link to workplace rights. “This is a right-wing agenda of controlling workers. Last year it was Dobbs, this year it’s Glacier Northwest,” she said. Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, now before SCOTUS, would gut the right to strike.

Connecting people, connecting issues

Gutierrez moderated the “Abortion Rights Are Workers’ Rights” panel convened by the South Central Federation of Labor. The International Women’s Day event highlighted these issues so  central to the April 4 election—and how making the connections among them can fuel deeper coalition-building.  

During the panel, historian Linda Gordon wove together the context for the current fight, beginning with feminists in the early 20th century who pushed to legalize contraception, and moving to the New Right’s creation of the anti-abortion movement:

“The anti-abortion movement created hostility to abortion. It was much less that they took advantage of it, but that they began really building it…. Using abortion and some of these other sex and gender things like gay rights and sex education and so on was a crucial milestone in building the right-wing political alignment that we have seen growing in this country over the last few decades.”

Gordon also pointed out:

“Today’s states with the most restrictions on abortion rights are also the states with the least labor union presence and they are also the states with the highest poverty rate. This is important because reproductive control is not only a matter of bodily rights. It is a social necessity if we’re going to ever move toward greater equality—and of course at the moment we seem to be moving in the other direction, toward greater inequality.”

Comparing the map of right-to-work states to the map of states with abortion bans makes Gordon’s linkage clear. The states that choke off access to reproductive freedom also hamstring workers’ efforts to unionize—and have higher incarceration rates.

International Association of Flight Attendants CWA President Sara Nelson spoke to the breadth and urgency of the stakes in the April 4 election:

“The fight for women’s equality is a fight for all workers. Because since the beginning, the premier tactic of the boss has been to use racism and sexism to divide working people and to keep us in check and to keep us thinking that we are in competition with each other. So in Wisconsin, as you fight for a Supreme Court that may give you a chance to have equal rights in the state, to control what happens with our own bodies, that is not just for our families, not just for our communities. It’s not just for our children. It’s for taking on the corporate class who has controlled us for too long, pitted workers against each other, to take more and more and more to build a billionaire class that doesn’t even have to talk with real people… And this inequality has grown more and more and more so that workers everywhere can understand that we have a common cause together…”

The national AFL-CIO, long quiet on abortion rights, has published a guide for members who want to talk about the issues with their co-workers. The resource explores the ways lack of access hurts women economically—raising the chances that women will live in poverty and lowering their opportunities for full-time work. It points to the high cost of childcare and the low wages for care workers and the persistent race and gender wage gap.

Not surprisingly for a high-stakes race in a battleground state where elections are decided by whisper-thin margins, the Wisconsin Supreme Court contest has already been the most expensive in the country’s history, with $30 million in expenditures recorded a few weeks before Election Day. Close to $4 million of that has come from election-deniers.

As labor and community groups articulate and organize across issue areas, they’re pulling out the stops for GOTV.  Many of them have joined with Women Win Wisconsin to “Rally for Our Rights,” educating and mobilizing voters in towns and cities around the state, including SEIU Wisconsin State Council, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

“People are making connections,” Victoria Gutierrez said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen April 4, but I do firmly believe that a social movement is gathering momentum. There’s not a lot I that I can hold onto, but I can hold onto that. It’s been incredibly inspiring and powerful. It’s a fight for basic rights, and livelihood, and survival.”

Featured image: State Capitol sit-in during the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising.

Sandra Hinson contributed reporting to this story.


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