Family Farms and Unions: Wisconsin Farmers on Collective Bargaining as a Farming Issue
Some farmers are supporting union workers in Madison, WI who oppose a state bill that would cut collective bargaining for government employees.
Five or six times a year Joel Greeno takes out his 1935 Allis Chalmers WC tractor to offer tractor rides in his Wisonsin community.
“We have a potluck dinner and go for a 35 to 40-mile tractor ride, come back and eat the leftovers, and then go back home and do chores,” Greeno describes, explaining that it’s a chance to enjoy life, have a good time with friends and get away from everything. Now, he’s hoping to use his tractor on Saturday in a tractorcade of protests in Madison, WI.
“We applied for a police permit to take my tractor down and parade it around the capitol in support of the workers, but I haven’t heard back if they granted our permit or not, so we’ll see. So if I don’t get that, I may just go down Saturday and partake in events.”
Greeno is a dairy farmer and Vice President of Family Farm Defenders, a Wisconsin organization that has been working to support union members demonstrating in Madison.
Demonstrators are challenging a bill in the Wisconsin state legislature that would end collective bargaining for public employees. The bill passed the Assembly on Friday and is moving towards the Senate.
Greeno and other family farmers in his organization fear that the bill affecting the union workers will also hurt them.
“This issue of collective bargaining rights hits a little bit close to home,” Greeno explained. “I founded a dairy co-op here in Wisconsin 12 years ago called Scenic Central Milk Producers. And that’s grown from the smallest co-op in the U.S. to the 40th largest in the U.S. now.
"Collective bargaining rights are the principles that all of our co-ops operate on. And if they start eroding collective bargaining rights for workers, farmers in co-ops are just next on the chopping block, so if we don’t stand together and defend our rights, we all going to take cuts in turn.”
Greeno is also concerned that the bill could make it harder for family farmers to get healthcare.
“One of the things that’s involved in this bill 1318 is that it would give the governor and the Department of Health full authority at will to make decisions on Medicaid and the Wisconsin Badger Care program,” Greeno said. “It would be one thing if they had good intentions, but their intentions are to cut those programs to bare bones. Many of our state’s farmers’ only health care is the badger care because they can’t afford anything else.”
John E. Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, agrees. “One of the reasons the farmers are concerned is that it also affects our badger care which is our state Medicare/Medicaid program. A lot of farmers have no healthcare except what they can get from these taxpayer-subsidized programs. That’s been a big deal for a lot of farmers.”
Peck is also concerned that the bill could hurt farmers who participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in which members of the community buy shares in return for a percentage of the harvest. Many of the CSA members are teachers and public service workers.
“Consumers won’t be able to have as much money if their wages are cut,” Peck said. “The recession is bad enough already. Why make it worse by taking away what few benefits and living wages that people do have thanks to the labor unions? It doesn’t make much sense.”
“Everybody deserves a living wage, not just a few people. Farmers understand that because they are always at the bottom of the pile,” Peck continued. “I think that’s why they can empathize with the workers. It’s just not fair. It’s a human rights issue.”
In addition to Greeno’s tractorcade, Farm Family Defenders has been supporting the demonstrators in Madison by bringing them food.
“We had one farmer who brought 10 gallons of milk fresh from his cows,” Peck said, adding that he's heard that people from around the country, even the world have been ordering pizzas on-line for the workers occupying the capital.
“What we’re seeing in the capitol in Wisconsin right now is that people are organizing themselves, they’re realizing that they can do things on their own. You can do a lot of stuff on the local level," he said.