Wisconsin is set to become the nation’s 25th so-called “right-to-work” state. Republicans in the state legislature are fast-tracking a bill to Gov. Scott Walker, who is a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
The state Senate passed a right-to-work bill late Wednesday, and the State Assembly could pass it next week.
The measure aims to weaken private sector unions by letting workers opt out of mandatory dues. Wisconsin Republicans appear to be following an anti-union playbook that’s been circling the Midwest.
Four years ago this month, the biggest political story was Walker’s Act 10, the law ending collective bargaining for public sector unions. Thousands of protesters swarmed the Wisconsin Capitol building for days, demanding that lawmakers reject Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill.”
But state lawmakers did no such thing, and while Walker insists the policy has helped the state, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last fall that a second battle with big labor would be a distraction.
“So particularly, on that particular issue, and any other substantive changes to Act 10, I just think that opens up a whole other can of worms out there,” he told the newspaper.
But that can is now wide open. Walker, who’s been inching into the national spotlight as a presidential hopeful, says he will sign a right-to-work bill. Opponents say his goal is to erode unions’ ability to fund Democratic candidates and causes. But the governor argues that a right-to-work law makes Wisconsin more competitive with Indiana and Michigan, neighboring states that adopted right-to-work laws in 2012.
“This old, old, old piece of unfinished business on the part of the American conservatism has come back,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He says the right-to-work movement started in the 1940s in the anti-union South and trickled West. Lichtenstein says in Midwestern states that have recently targeted organized labor, private sector unions have lost significant members and clout. Republicans who control statehouses and governor’s mansions have also made convincing arguments about union members getting more than their fair share.
“And so these Republican governors have been able to push this through in a number of states in the, what had been, the traditional heartland of American unionism,” Lichtenstein says.
So far, recent laws have passed only in states with Republicans in control. In fact, even some language in the new state laws is nearly identical to a model right-to-work bill drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which seeks to advance a conservative agenda.
Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, says this is about fairness.
“We think that every worker should be able to join a union and pay dues to a union, but no one should be forced, so on those merits alone, we think it’s worth passing right-to-work,” Semmens says.
But at a right-to-work protest this week in Milwaukee, retired steelworker Greg Gorecki says he can’t understand why any working person would support a law weakening unions.
“Unions kind of set the whole tone for wages throughout the whole economy,” he says. “We set the wages for the middle class. So if you take away power from the unions, it’s only going to drop the wages for everybody.”
And researchers like Gordon Lafer at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, say Gorecki’s right. At a public hearing on the Wisconsin bill this week, Lafer cited a study by the chief economist at the Labor Department.
“What the most rigorous research shows is that all other things being equal, the impact of adopting a right-to-work law in 2015 is to lower wages by about 3 percent for both union and non-union workers across the state,” he says, “and to lower the chance of getting health insurance or pensions.”
But those who support right-to-work present different data. Semmens says the policies lead to higher growth in private sector employment and income.
“And, you know, certainly in the Midwest, they’re looking for good jobs and right-to-work has a good track record for that,” he says.
But many academics dispute those claims, which come from groups that have a dog in the fight.
Still, warnings about spiraling wages have not seemed to gain much traction as the anti-union movement marches on. Right-to-work bills are now in play in a number of other states, including two states with Democratic governors, West Virginia and Missouri.