The Corporate Rot Eats Away at Wisconsin

The corporate coup d’etat in Wisconsin is harder to ignore since June 5 when Scott Walker was deemed winner of the recall election. The veil is being lifted on the identities of the people who have their hands on the levers of power in the state and the economic interests they represent.

Gogebic Taconite is a case in point. This week, Matt Rothschild broke the story revealing dissension within the ranks of the mining lobby. James Buchen, the Vice President of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, took the Wisconsin Mining Association (of which Buchen himself is a board member) and its executive director, Kennan Wood, to task for working on a compromise mining bill with Democrats in the legislature after the one written by and for Gogebic Taconite failed to pass the state senate earlier this year.

The letter offers a rare glimpse of the inner workings of corporate influence in Wisconsin politics and illustrates several points:

1) That lobbyists and the businesses that pay their salaries believe they control the legislative process;

2) That consolidation of power within a certain corporate faction – namely the defense manufacturing and resource-extractive industries – is nearly complete. Total domination of the state apparatus only requires two more senate seats;

3) That even the people promoting the Gogebic Taconite project themselves realize that it is not viable unless extraordinary de-regulatory measures are taken to subsidize it; and

4) That they believe the very purpose of the legislative process is to do the bidding of wealthy corporations.

But Gogebic Taconite, a company owned by coal-mining billionaire Chris Cline from West Virginia, is a Johnny-come-lately to the scene. It’s the corporations that have been in Wisconsin all along, influencing politics and attempting to dip into the state budget till, that, having tasted the blood of the failed recall attempt, are now poised to go in for the kill. They believe they have the power to do it because they’ve been contributing to the campaigns of politicians like Scott Walker for years, and they’ve been working on action plans for decades.

The Gogebic Taconite mining bill served as a test case. If they could get a bill this outrageously contemptuous of public process, environmental protection, Native American treaty rights and federal clean air and water standards through the legislature, it would be an object lesson for other corporations with political clout and financial power who seek to exploit Wisconsin as a resource and labor colony. Think Koch Industries (Georgia Pacific, Flint Hills Resources fuel terminals), Enbridge (multinational pipeline company that is proposing an alternative high volume pipeline to Keystone XL to transport tar sands oil by expanding the existing Wisconsin pipeline), American Transmission Company, Murphy Oil, and the largest mining equipment manufacturer in the world, Caterpillar.

Last year, Caterpillar purchased Bucyrus International, Inc., a mining equipment company with facilities located in South Milwaukee and Oak Creek for $8.6 billion and moved their global mining division headquarters to Wisconsin. The Assembly representative for that district is Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee), who is mentioned by James Buchen in the letter to Wood as the author of the mining bill.

The former CEO of Bucyrus is Tim Sullivan, who retired after the sale and now serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Mining Association, as well as a Special Consultant for Business and Workforce Development to Scott Walker. As such, he heads Walker’s Office of Business Development, chairs the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment, and sits on the College and Workforce Readiness Council.

Now that he’s a free agent, Sullivan is stepping out as a leader in the multi-pronged assault on public education under the guise of “strengthening workforce development.” He’s using these councils to create the illusion of bipartisan and inter-agency consent to drastic changes in state policy that shift control away from democratically elected bodies to “public-private partnerships,” and to other drastic changes in the state budget that privilege the interests of manufacturers over the needs of Wisconsin kids.

The Council on Workforce Investment and the College and Workforce Readiness Council are working closely with Competitive Wisconsin, an alliance of politically connected businesses organized by Jim Wood, president of their family PR firm Wood Communications. Jim also sits on the board of the Wisconsin Mining Association. Wood Communications has a long history of promoting controversial mining projects in the state such as the Flambeau mine in Ladysmith and the Exxon mine in Crandon.

Competitive Wisconsin’s Be Bold campaign, launched in 2010, resulted in the proposal to break up the Department of Commerce and create the semi-privatized Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation that is in the business of handing out corporate tax credits to “job creators.” At a meeting in Madison last week, Jim Wood told participants that both candidates for Governor in 2010 – Democrat Tom Barrett and Republican Scott Walker – agreed to adopt the recommendations of that campaign. Indeed, Scott Walker decided to adopt Be Bold’s ready-made proposals as his own agenda once in office. A brief comparison of the Be Bold website and the Governor’s website shows a remarkable resemblance in content and language.

Though Competitive Wisconsin describes itself as a nonpartisan policy group, the interests they serve are easily discovered by a perusal of their policy papers. They make no bones about who they are promoting in the document BE BOLD: The Role of Capital in the Building and Maintaining of Wisconsin’s Entrepreneurial Economy:

“The public and private sectors must also focus now on encouraging and enabling current employers who have expansion and growth potential to maximize that potential as quickly as possible. Strong exporting cluster industries, such as defense manufacturing, medical devices, and minerals, would fall into this category.”

“Be Bold 2: Focusing on Jobs” is their new initiative. It would more accurately be subtitled, “Raiding Public Education Budgets.” Competitive Wisconsin hired Manpower, Inc. to do a study called “The Talent Mismatch” that will analyze the demand for vs. supply of job skills in the Wisconsin labor force. According to Wood, they hope to show that “a lack of resources creates tension on the high demand skills market and constrains business growth.”

Plainly speaking, they want to make the argument that public K-12 schools, tech colleges and universities should be aligning their curriculum and programs of study with the jobs demanded by manufacturers in the defense, medical device and mining industries, with health care as an afterthought. The results of this study will then be reported to lawmakers, perhaps through the Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School that met for the first time last week, and then legislated into policy next year.

That is also the goal of Tim Sullivan and his workforce development groups. Although on the face of it they seem to be bipartisan policy research groups, these councils and consortia are actually private clubs of the corporate elite and their allies in government agencies where they build consensus about how to best pursue their interests. In this case, the interest is focused on the jackpot that is the $33 billion biennial public K-12 education budget.

Sullivan wasn’t pulling any punches on Thursday during a meeting of the Workforce Investment Council. After a presentation of a map of all federal and state workforce development money available for job training and work-readiness programs, the group’s conclusion was that $406 million a year is not nearly enough to meet the training needs of companies that claim they can’t find qualified workers, and the unemployed workers themselves.

But Tim Sullivan has a plan, and it involves getting access to some of that $33 billion of the public education budget.

Never mind that it was slashed by $1.6 billion in last year’s biennial budget and that local school districts are scrambling to get their staffing and programming requirements met for this coming school year.

Never mind the reduction in property tax receipts and the legal cap on how much local units of government can raise that Scott Walker imposed last year.

After pointing out that out of the $11.5 billion spent on K-12 education every year, “only $280 million goes into Career and Technical Education,” Sullivan said, “That’s only 2.4% and that’s not right."

Sullivan isn’t talking about moving money out of the education budget; he’s talking about getting political influence within the K-12 system so that the resources already being used in public schools will be devoted to the requirements of corporations.

They’re planning to do the same with technical colleges and the state university system. At the Competitive Wisconsin meeting, the Madison Area Technical College President, UW Colleges Chancellor and the UW-Madison Provost were practically begging the business people in the audience to let them know how they could be of service.

Back at the Workforce Investment Council meeting, Sullivan continued to detail the endgame of a starve-the-beast campaign: "I committed to the Governor that we weren’t going to concentrate on governance changes because governance doesn’t need to changed, nor would we be looking for new taxes.”

No governance changes are required if the leaders of those institutions are already on board with your plan.

No need to raise taxes to empower the people working in those institutions with adequate resources so they aren’t so desperate that a hostile corporate takeover seems like charity.

“We’ll find the money,” Sullivan went on. “We need better focus and efficiency. Thirty-three billion dollars a biennium on K-12 education. That’s a lot of money even for the private sector, and you got to know that with focus and looking at things a little differently, there’s money everywhere." Just hand over the power to drive curriculum and programming, and we might chip in a little for employee training too.

What would this look like?

In addition to public schools, colleges and universities providing curriculum and courses specifically tailored to the needs of individual employers, the Youth Committee of the Workforce Investment Council is talking about taking more teaching and staff resources out of classroom instruction and redirecting them towards organizing more internship and apprentice programs in private businesses for high school kids.

"Typically, experienced machinists don’t have the right personality skills we’re looking for,” said Ron Polum of Pointe Precision, a company that makes parts for jet engines. Pointe Precision has worked with twenty-two youth apprentices over the past several years. “If kids have a good attitude, we hire them… Apprentices are making money for the company running machines just like an entry-level employee hired off the street does" he added.

Robin Kroyer-Kubicek, Youth Apprenticeship Curriculum Coordinator for the Department for Workforce Development, is a big booster for increasing child factory labor. She said, "Manufacturers told us that child labor laws would not allow them to work with youth, but we are working on a new child labor law guide to make it easier for manufacturers to work with youth legally." That guide is being written with the help of Jim Morgan, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Foundation as part of the WMC’s PR campaign to promote manufacturing careers.

You know things are bad when agents of the state are promoting the exploitation of child labor to businesses.

But wait, that’s not all. In addition to cheap labor supported by public school dollars, corporations are also asking for more tax credits.

Kent Olsen of Olsen Tire & Auto service in Wausau tried to put it in a cost-benefit terms. "We need to differentiate the value and costs for using Youth Apprenticeships. I don’t need resources to pay their wages, but I need some kind of tax credit to make the investment.” Betraying his business’s larger goal, he said, “The Youth Apprentice program is the single best use of money for gaining traction in education. I cannot state that enough."

During a live chat on Billmoyers.com last week, Chris Hedges talked about how oblivious most Americans are to the corporate coup that has already taken place in this country. “If we continue to deny reality, then we cannot talk of hope. Our reality may be bleak, but once we face it honestly we can begin to talk about the capacity for change.”

Wisconsin is a special kind of reality. It is one in which global political and economic forces have been sped up in the past two years by the concentration of power in the hands of a faction of capitalist businesses hell-bent on turning the state into a labor and natural resource extraction colony. Until a critical mass of people face this reality, no electoral campaign or attempt at reform will have the power to stop it.

The best those of us whose eyes are open can do is to pay close attention, chronicle what we witness, and hope that information spurs others to action.

“We may feel, in the face of the ruthless corporate destruction of our nation, our culture, and our ecosystem, powerless and weak,” said Hedges. “But we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored by a media that caters to the needs and profits of corporations, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative. It will, as the rot of the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers.”

Let’s hope so.

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.