POLITICS

'It's Heartbreaking': Already Down, Wisconsin Unions Reckon With Right-To-Work

02/24/2015 09:45 pm ET | Updated Feb 24, 2015
Bloomberg via Getty Images

MADISON, Wis. -- The capitol dome here filled quickly Tuesday morning with workers in overalls and hard hats, their jackets signifying proud membership in Wisconsin's blue-collar unions: steelworkers, ironworkers, pipefitters, carpenters, operating engineers. As a Senate committee hearing got underway upstairs -- the first step in the fast-tracking of so-called right-to-work legislation in the state -- the union members crowded the balconies and floor of the rotunda.

The call: "United we stand!"

And the response: "Divided we fall!"

It's been four years since Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Wisconsin Republicans enacted Act 10, a deeply divisive law that stripped most collective bargaining rights from public-sector employees. Membership in the state's public-sector unions has since plummeted, as they can no longer effectively bargain for their members over wages and benefits.

Already diminished, the state's labor movement is now watching, with near helplessness, as GOP lawmakers move legislation that would similarly weaken Wisconsin's private-sector unions. To many inside the dome, there was the feeling of being kicked while down.

"It's heartbreaking to see," said Joe Mikich, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union who works at Wisconsin Vision, an eyeglass retailer, in Milwaukee. "We knew that this day was pretty much coming. We feel like our voice is being silenced. It's just not right."

Now on the books in 24 states, right-to-work laws create a serious problem for organized labor. Under U.S. labor law, a union that wins an election has to represent all the workers in the bargaining unit. Unions therefore prefer contracts in which all workers are required to pay fees to the union to cover expenses. Right-to-work laws make such arrangements illegal.

After the laws are passed, many workers inevitably stop paying fees to their unions, which have to keep representing their interests anyway. Unions derisively call this free-riding or free-loading. As funding drops, unions become less effective in bargaining for their members and organizing to attract new ones.

"Representation costs money," said Dru Zellmer, an executive board member of Communications Workers of America Local 4603. "Take away 20 percent of our funding, and that's 20 percent less we can do."

Zellmer's union represents many AT&T workers in the Milwaukee area who, as he says, "climb telephone poles out in traffic." If union density falls as a result of right-to-work legislation, Zellmer said he and his colleagues will feel not only less equipped to bargain for pay and benefits, but also less safe at work.

"We really do have dangerous jobs," Zellmer said. "It's a concern that standards would fall in the industry."

Despite past support for right-to-work, Walker had recently said that such legislation would be "a distraction." He insisted, when asked about its prospects, that a right-to-work bill would never reach his desk as governor. He once even called private-sector unions "my partner in economic development."

"And yet here we are," said Mikich, the UFCW member.

But Walker, who is now laying the foundation for a White House run, confirmed through his office last week that he would sign the right-to-work bill if it were passed. Many of the union members inside the capitol on Tuesday recalled that Walker had once told a donor, in comments captured on audio shortly before Act 10 was introduced, that he would use a "divide and conquer" strategy against unions. The members said they understood right-to-work legislation to be the second piece of that equation.

Perhaps underscoring the effectiveness of that strategy, the large majority of protesters Tuesday appeared to hail from trade unions. Public-sector union members -- teachers, firefighters and the like -- were present, but they were harder to come by near the capitol.

Buzz Soderman, a retired teacher and the husband of an active one, said he has watched ruefully as dues-paying members have dropped out of his union since the collective bargaining rollback was passed. Holding a protest sign aloft on the capitol steps -- "Act 10 lowered my standard of living, right-to-work will lower yours" -- Soderman said he views the pending legislation as the fulfillment of divide-and-conquer.

"It saddens me tremendously," Soderman said. "We had worked for all the things we got. And they [private-sector union members] worked for the pay and the benefits they got. They sacrificed over the years and built themselves up. To tear them down like this is not right."

Given his presidential aspirations, Walker probably didn't appreciate the timing of the right-to-work push. He had already cemented his reputation as a foe of unions with Act 10, and therefore had little to gain from the divisiveness of another battle with organized labor. But after the state Senate's GOP leader, Scott Fitzgerald, said last week that he planned on fast-tracking the bill, Walker's office said he would support it.

Fitzgerald appeared before the Senate's labor committee on Tuesday, fielding sharp questions from Democrats about who was pushing the bill and why it had to be moved so quickly. Under the extraordinary session called by Fitzgerald, the measure will receive less scrutiny and deliberation than it normally would.

"Who’s asking for this?" asked Chris Larson, a Democrat. "Who exactly were you meeting with in the last two months who said this is something that needs to be passed?"

FItzgerald did not name any names. But he did say that neither unions nor Democrats should be surprised to see the bill now on the docket.

"This has been around prior to Act 10. It was underscored by Act 10, when many members were talking about including it," Fitzgerald said. "Talk to some of the labor unions and ask them if they think right-to-work is something that's been discussed."

One Republican member of the committee recalled the heated demonstrations surrounding Act 10, saying a colleague of his was "cornered like a wounded coon" by protesters.

"You attack workers and then you’re surprised when they’re angry?" shot back Robert Wirch, a Senate Democrat.

Saying there'd been a threat to disrupt the hearing, Republicans cut short debate and abruptly passed the bill out of committee late Tuesday, sending it to the full Senate for a vote. Union members who'd waited hours to testify were turned away.

For all the turnout on Tuesday -- there were at least a thousand protesters outside the capitol, where the head of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and others spoke -- Wisconsin unions have precious few political levers to pull at this point. Republicans enjoy solid majorities in both chambers of the statehouse, and if passed by the Senate on Wednesday, the bill will begin moving through the Assembly as early as Monday.

Despite some calls for a general strike, the chances of a mass walkout by the state's unionized workers appeared dim on Tuesday. Several union members said that their locals had not seriously discussed it. Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University Law School, recently told HuffPost that "if the union movement has any strength left, it's in the power of withholding labor. If it's not willing to do that, there's very little power they have."

"I’ve been trying to bring it to people's attention," Randy Bryce, an executive member of Iron Workers Local 8 in Milwaukee, said of a general strike. "It's an extraordinary session, and the only way to beat it is using extraordinary measures. I’m not in a position to come out and call for one. But I'd love to see one."

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