POLITICS

Wisconsin Lawmakers Pass Right-To-Work Bill As Thousands Protest

02/25/2015 10:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2015
Win McNamee via Getty Images

MADISON, Wis. -- Spelling more trouble for organized labor in the U.S., Republican legislators in the Wisconsin state Senate approved a right-to-work bill here on Wednesday, sending the measure to a GOP-controlled Assembly where it's also expected to pass. Republican leaders chose to fast-track the bill in what's known as an extraordinary legislative session, allowing for less debate than usual.

Debate over the bill drew an estimated 2,000 protesters to the state Capitol on both Tuesday and Wednesday, reminiscent of the passionate labor demonstrations surrounding Act 10 in 2011, though vastly smaller in scope. As with that earlier legislation, which stripped most collective bargaining rights from public-sector employees, vocal opposition from the state's unions wasn't enough to stop the right-to-work bill in its tracks.

Legislators are expected to take up the measure early next week in the state Assembly, where Republicans enjoy a comfortable majority. The office of Gov. Scott Walker (R) has already said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

The fight in Madison is just the latest indication of how state Republican leaders, often controlling both the statehouse and the governor's mansion in their respective states, are managing to enact laws that weaken the clout of organized labor. If the Wisconsin measure is approved, the Badger State will become the 25th right-to-work state in the country, following two other Midwestern states, Michigan and Indiana, that passed such laws in 2012.

"It is a symbolic tipping point, or an inflection point," Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, said of potentially half the states in the country being right-to-work. "For the longest time there were 22 right-to-work states. Now the right-to-work people have the momentum."

Under U.S. labor law, a union that wins an election in a workplace must represent all the workers in the bargaining unit, even the ones who may have voted against the union. Unions, therefore, prefer contracts in which all the workers have to support the union financially. Right-to-work laws make such arrangements illegal.

Under right-to-work, no employee can be required to pay fees to the union. Once provided with an out, many workers inevitably stop paying, leading to what unions derisively call "free-riding." With less money in the coffers, unions can't bargain as well or recruit new members as effectively.

The fallout from Michigan's passage of right-to-work is already visible. Last year, the estimated number of union members dropped by 48,000, despite the fact that the state added 44,000 more workers to its economy, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the halls of the Wisconsin Capitol, union members voiced their own fears about what the legislation could mean for their wages, their benefits and their unions' long-term viability.

"We're going to have free-riders and free-loaders," said Steve Buffalo, district manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, which represents heavy-equipment operators. "But these guys are so strong that I think we'll stay intact. We've been here a hundred years and we plan on being around for another hundred."

Conor Kuzdas, an apprentice with the operating engineers, said he worries what a loss of funding could mean for the training and safety of workers who come up behind him.

"I know everyone is worried about wages and pensions, but that's a big thing for me," Kuzdas explained. "There's just a lot of dangerous stuff that we do ... We want to make sure that the people around us are trained."

On Tuesday, members of the Senate's labor committee listened to a stream of testimony from experts, business owners, business lobbies and unions about their predictions if Wisconsin became right-to-work. Backers of the legislation promised more business would come to the state, while detractors assured it would result in lower wages with no additional jobs.

In the end, all that testimony did little to sway the expected outcome, as Republicans cut the session short and moved the bill out of committee, while many union members were still waiting to testify.

As expected, the bill then survived hours of debate Wednesday in the full Senate, with Republicans beating back a host of amendments put forth by Democrats, including one that would have raised the state's minimum wage. The final vote split mostly along party lines.

One Republican, Sen. Jerry Petrowski, said he was not voting for the measure because he wasn't convinced of the purported benefits advanced by backers of the bill.

"I’m a Ronald Reagan Republican, and like President Reagan I was a union member for many years," Petrowski said in a statement. "Under the law as it stands, unions are formed by a majority vote and everyone gets to choose where they work."

Petrowski, however, was alone among Republicans.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said Republicans fast-tracked the bill to avoid discussion.

"They do that for a reason,” Neuenfeldt said. "The reason they do fast-track is they don’t want to have a public debate. They don’t want people to understand what they’re doing."

The bill's fast-tracking presents another problem for unions. If the law is quickly enacted, unions won't have much time to extend their current contracts before the state becomes right-to-work. (Many unions in Michigan managed to do just that, likely delaying a loss of dues-paying members for a matter years.) Democrats proposed an amendment that would have put off the bill's enactment for three months, but Republicans voted it down.

Just as discussion of the bill by lawmakers began Wednesday, union members and other protesters filled the balconies in the Capitol, shouting “shame” at the closed doors of the Senate floor, which was cordoned off by police.

Randy Bryce, a former Democratic state Senate candidate and member of the Ironworkers Local 8 union, was removed from the gallery for disrupting the proceedings just as Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate’s GOP leader, began reading the bill. Bryce told The Huffington Post afterward that he spoke out because he never had a chance to testify the previous day, even though he was listed on the schedule.

“I told them they’re turning Wisconsin into a banana republic,” Bryce said. “The way they’re passing this bill is wrong -- it’s not democratic.”

Bryce said he and many of his union colleagues had given up a day’s pay from their construction jobs to join the protests on Tuesday and Wednesday. Ultimately, they never got a chance to put their comments into the record.

"I don’t think what I did is nearly as disruptive as what [lawmakers] are doing in there,” Bryce said.

Much of the language in the right-to-work legislation was drawn from similar bills in other states. Business lobbies, in general, tend to push right-to-work bills, since they have a way of weakening unions in already-unionized workplaces. By extension, the bills also hurt the Democratic Party, since unions tend to back Democratic candidates.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a state trade group, is one of the leading proponents of the measure in Madison. Wisconsin still has above-average union density when compared with other states, with 11.7 percent of wage and salary earners belonging to a labor union. The national average is 11.1 percent, and just 6.6 percent in the private sector.

But overall, union membership in Wisconsin has dropped sharply since Act 10 rendered most public-sector unions unable to bargain; the state's overall rate of union membership fell by more than half a point last year alone, likely driven by more public-sector workers dropping out of their unions. If passed, a right-to-work bill would similarly depress membership in the private sector.

"Membership always dwindles after right-to-work legislation passes," said Secunda. "And at the end of the day, this is going to go through."

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