Given the roiling conflict in Wisconsin these past four years over the limits of public-sector unionism, it only was a matter of time before the scene would shift to the private sector. This Monday, Governor Scott Walker signed Right to Work legislation. The law, which took effect immediately, bars unions from forcing private-sector employers to fire workers who don’t pay dues. Two dozen other states have similar laws. Yet what really is getting under the skin of organized labor is the triumph of their nemesis, Gov. Walker. More than ever, he looks like a top-tier Republican presidential candidate in 2016. Union leaders are preparing accordingly. And they’re getting help from President Obama.
Readers of Union Corruption Update are familiar with all this. Back in early 2011, Scott Walker, who had just taken office, inherited a two-year budget deficit estimated at $3.6 billion. This shortfall had a number of explanations, but one stood out: escalating employee health care and retirement obligations. And if left unchecked, these commitments, at the local and state level, eventually could trigger severe service cutbacks. Walker responded with a proposal to curb these expenditures, very much driven by union collective bargaining. The proposal, part of the Budget Repair Act, or “Act 10,” would require public employees to contribute substantially more to their health care and pension plans, accept pay hikes tied to the Consumer Price Index, and forgo collective bargaining over benefits and working conditions. Moreover, it would prohibit public-sector unions from automatically deducting dues from member paychecks. As concessions, the measure would protect current workers against layoffs. And it would exempt police, firefighters and state troopers from coverage.
The legislature passed the labor reforms, first as a stand-alone measure and then as part of Act 10, that spring, following a highly illegal three-week takeover of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in February and early March by hundreds of pro-union activists. The law subsequently would survive a legal challenge in the state courts on procedural grounds. Unions and their allies responded with recall elections of several lawmakers who supported the measure, and then of Governor Walker himself. Those efforts were likewise unsuccessful. Union lawyers then filed lawsuits at the state and federal levels to overturn the law on constitutional grounds. These efforts also failed. In the meantime, public-sector unions, particularly AFSCME, lost many members since dues payments now were optional.
If union activists hate Governor Scott Walker’s guts, they’ve got their reasons. After all, he pushed through a budget law that limits public-sector union collective bargaining power and reduces union membership. He survived a special recall election challenge from Milwaukee Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett in 2012, his opponent in the 2010 general election. He won re-election last November over Democratic challenger Mary Burke. He is a potential presidential campaign front-runner. And to add insult to injury, he now has signed Republican-sponsored Right to Work legislation. The nerve of him!
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 authorizes unions to negotiate “security agreements” that forcibly commit employers to fire workers who refuse to join a union or pay “agency fees” in lieu of joining. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 put a brake on this aspect of union monopoly power. It granted state governments the authority to override union-driven security contracts; several states, in fact, already had enacted “Right to Work” laws to protect individual workers at unionized private-sector work sites from being forced to pay union dues or agency fees. Most of these statutes were created decades ago, primarily in Southern, Great Plains and Western states. The relatively heavily unionized Great Lakes region remained virgin territory – until 2012. That year, Indiana and then Michigan passed legislation banning forced-dues collections. The Michigan Right to Work experience was an especially stinging rebuke to union officials because that state since the 1930s had served as a symbol of American labor movement militancy.
Now Wisconsin has become the 25th state with a Right to Work law on its books. Starting late last year, supporters in the legislature, at first hesitantly and then more concertedly backed by Governor Walker, launched a full-scale effort to put their state in the Right to Work column. On February 25, the Wisconsin Senate narrowly approved the bill by a near party-line 17-15 vote; one Republican, Jerry Petrowski (Wausau), sided with the Democrats in opposition. A little over a week later, on Friday, March 6, the Assembly voted for passage by 62-35 along strict party lines after nearly 20 hours of debate. Governor Walker signed the bill into law three days later.
Walker expressed strong optimism at the signing ceremony at the headquarters of Badger Meter, a Milwaukee-area maker of utility meters. “This is one more big tool to help places like Badger Meter make the case when they put jobs anywhere around the world that Wisconsin is the right place,” he said. “Wisconsin is showing yet again we are open for business. It’s more than just a slogan. It’s the way of operating and doing business here in this great state.” Badger Meter CEO Rich Meeusen, who plans to add workers to his payroll as a result of the law, stated at the ceremony: “Right to Work is simply another indicator of how friendly the state is and how open the state is to competing with other states.”
Not everyone in the state has been so friendly. During Senate floor debate, union partisans packed the balcony gallery, frequently disrupting the proceedings with angry chants such as “Shame, shame!” and “Right to Work is wrong for Wisconsin!” An estimated 3,000 demonstrators had gathered outside the Capitol Building on the day of the vote to make their opposition known. During debate, Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) remarked: “They are evaporating the middle class, and no one in this room seems to care.” Pro-union spectators also packed the gallery on the day of Assembly debate and were noisy enough to be ejected. Following passage, Assemblywoman Terese Berceau (D-Madison) issued a postmortem: “Today is the day we have solidified the Regressive Era in Wisconsin.”
State labor officials and members, whose organizations contributed a combined $575,000 to the 14 Democratic senators who voted against the legislation (more than $90,000 of which went to Sen. Hansen), also have expressed indignation. Jim Koeberl, a representative for United Auto Workers Region 4, believes the measure is a “smokescreen” to deflect public attention away from the Walker’s biennial budget. Joe Mikich, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, stated: “It’s heartbreaking to see. We knew that this day was pretty much coming. We feel like our voice is being silenced. It’s just not right.” And Steve Buffalo, district manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, had this to say: “We’re going to have free riders and freeloaders. But these guys are so strong that I think we’ll stay intact.”
At the national level, union leaders are beside themselves with anger. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, let off this rather hackneyed blast of populist Leftism immediately following Senate approval:
This terrible legislation hurts families and it hurts the economy in Wisconsin. Gov. Walker and his out-of-touch allies in the legislature have dealt a blow to working families…All working families deserve a fair shot at having a good life. Unfortunately it’s clear that Gov. Walker is siding with greedy CEOs and wealthy special interests against families that work hard to make ends meet.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was every bit as overheated even before Senate passage. He stated:
The effort to lower wages in America is going to reach new heights in Wisconsin this week. Wall Street billionaires and political extremists are joining together to force a vote on Right to Work legislation which is wrong for Wisconsin hard-working families. This is a blatant attempt to silence workers’ voices to stop us from speaking out about lower wages and mistreatment at work…Billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Walton family are engaged in a systematic attempt to dismantle our economy by lowering wages, while lining their pockets with record profits.
Most significantly, President Obama weighed in with this note of strong disapproval on Monday:
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the middle class in America coincided in large part with the rise of unions – workers who organized together for higher wages, better working conditions, and the benefits and protections that most workers take for granted today. So it’s inexcusable that, over the past several years, just when middle-class families need that kind of security the most, there’s been a sustained, coordinated assault on unions, led by powerful interests and their allies in government. So I’m deeply disappointed that a new anti-worker law in Wisconsin will weaken rather than strengthen workers in the new economy. Wisconsin is a state built by labor, with a proud pro-worker past. So even as its governor claims victory over working Americans, I’d encourage him to try and score a victory for working Americans – by taking meaningful actions to raise their wages and offer them the security of paid leave.
The words of the President, to say nothing of other critics, are misleading. First, unions, by their nature, fight for “working Americans” only insofar as they are current or prospective members. Confirmed non-members, in their eyes, are rivals who undercut collective bargaining power. Second, unions, by intention and by outcome, raise barriers to labor market entry, especially for non-college-educated young adults. Their goal is to drive up the price of labor whether or not productivity increases. Third, workers should have the right to decide for themselves if they want to join a union or otherwise furnish funds for operations. Unions already enjoy monopoly bargaining in the form of exclusive representation. Fourth, Gov. Walker, far from “claiming victory over working Americans,” is claiming victory on behalf of them. And the victory is real. Workers in Wisconsin no longer will have to choose between paying tribute to a union or losing their jobs. Making union membership voluntary is not the same thing as suppressing the right to form or join a union.
The State of Wisconsin did the right thing in passing Right to Work legislation. Research has shown that economic growth is more pronounced in Right to Work states than elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Wisconsin will suffer economically. Unions in that state still have the right to organize workers and make their case for representation. What they no longer have is the “right” to collect dues or fees from unwilling workers. As one supporter in the State Assembly, Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R- Fond du Lac), asserts: “I’m not going to apologize about using the word ‘freedom.’ I’m going to use it over and over again because that’s what this is all about.” If Governor Walker runs for president, he may find himself having to use that word, too.