Ron Johnson is the Republican senator from Wisconsin. But his constituency has always been the billionaire investor class that seeks to depress wages, undermine environmental protections, and diminish democracy to maximize profits. Johnson, a millionaire who bought his way into the Senate with family funds and generous contributions from out-of-state billionaires, has never been all that secretive about where his loyalty lies. Last week, however, he delivered an anti-worker message that was so dismissive it shocked even those who thought they knew the depths to which the most craven crony capitalist in the US Senate would go.
Asked at a political event about the Oshkosh Corporation’s decision to bypass its namesake town in Wisconsin, where workers are unionized, and produce as many as 165,000 US Postal Service vehicles at a non-union facility based in South Carolina, Johnson responded, “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin. The biggest problem we have in Wisconsin right now is employers not being able to find enough workers.”
The move will cost Wisconsin $6 billion in initial investment and 1,000 high-wage jobs. Just as importantly, it will deny the historic manufacturing state a claim on the future of vehicle manufacturing. The eventual production of the Next Generation Delivery Vehicles for the United States Postal Service, which maintains one of the largest delivery fleets in the world, will likely play a critical role in defining the scope and character of commercial transportation in the 21st century. So vital is this contract that the Biden administration has made it a centerpiece of its clean-energy initiatives, and is currently pressuring the postal service and Oshkosh Corp. to increase the number of electric trucks that will be produced under the multiyear agreement.
Workers in Oshkosh, who have a long history of producing trucks and other vehicles for the Department of Defense, say that they are ready to get the job done for the postal service. Local officials add that there are more than enough people in the region who are ready to go to work for Oshkosh Corp. The union that represents OshKosh manufacturing workers, United Auto Workers Local 578, has launched a “We Can Build It Here!” campaign. US Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, is strongly supporting their efforts. But Johnson, a former Oshkosh-area corporate executive who claims that he is “obviously…always supportive of manufacturing here in Wisconsin,” is telling these workers in his hometown that he won’t go to bat for them.
The notion that a senator, any senator, would refuse to fight for high-wage jobs—and for the promise of future employment—in the state he represents would seem to go against the basic premise of representative democracy and smart politics. But Johnson, a feverishly enthusiastic fan of author Ayn Rand’s tributes to unfettered greed, has a long history of anti-union, pro-corporate politics.
He famously declared during his initial Senate campaign, in 2010, that he was enthusiastically supportive of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and other corporate-friendly trade deals that had devastated manufacturing in Wisconsin. “The fact of the matter is NAFTA and CAFTA have actually been successful for our economy,” announced Johnson at a point when auto companies such as Chrysler and General Motors were shuttering factories in Wisconsin.
Asked how that could be so, Johnson chirped, “Well, in a free-market capitalist system, there are always winners and losers. It’s creative destruction. That just happens. It’s unfortunate. But let’s face it, if it weren’t for that we’d still have buggy whip companies.”
To be clear, the factories Wisconsin was losing at the time were state-of-the-art vehicle manufacturers. Now, a dozen years later, as Wisconsin workers and their unions struggle to secure another state-of-the-art vehicle manufacturer, Johnson’s answer is the same as it has always been: There are winners and losers, and as long as he has any say in the matter, Wisconsin workers are going to be losers.
But perhaps Johnson will not have a say for much longer.
The senator, who once promised not to seek reelection in 2022, is mounting a new campaign, with backing from his close ally former President Donald Trump. But the Democrats who seek to replace Johnson are having a field day with the incumbent’s rejection of Wisconsin workers. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a progressive populist who was a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2020, has already erected a billboard near Oshkosh that features the message, “Ron Johnson doesn’t care about our jobs.”
“No matter which way you cut it,” said Nelson, “Ron Johnson always sides with the big corporations.”
Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, a Democrat who is also seeking to challenge Johnson, dispatched letters to President Biden, members of Congress, and company officials, asking them to do “everything in your power” to reverse the decision to shift production to the non-union plant in South Carolina.
“This is personal for me,” said Barnes. “My dad is an active member of the [United Auto Workers]. He spent 30 years on the assembly line, assembling catalytic converters, and he’d be the first to tell you that if you want something built right, you build it right here in Wisconsin with our incredible union workforce.”
State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, another of the Democratic contenders, was blunter, declaring as news of the senator’s statement circulated, “Ron Johnson doesn’t give a sh*t about Wisconsin workers.”