‘Right-To-Work’ Legislation on GOP’s Launching Pad in Wisconsin

Roger Bybee

A triumph by Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday’s recall election in Wisconsin could mean a push for right-to-work” legislation aimed at crippling private-sector unionism, following Walker’s 2011 signing of Act 10 that severely hobbled public-sector unions.

Right-to-work” legislation allows non-union members to receive the same pay, benefits, and legal protections as union members, without paying dues or incurring the disfavor of management. The result is that right-to-work states are characterized by microscopic levels of union membership (e.g., 3.4% in South Carolina, 2.9% in North Carolina).

Consequently, as University of Oregon labor studies professor Gordon Lafer notes, The average worker in a right-to-work state is paid $30,167 a year, or about $5,333 less than workers in states without the rule, according to U.S. Labor Department data.”

Despite the current, growing concentration of income among the richest 1% and the shrinkage of buying power among the vast majority of Wisconsinites, Republicans appear deeply convinced that a right-to-work law will bring prosperity to Wisconsin — or at least greater wealth to those who truly matter.

The indicators of the subterranean right-to-work drive in Wisconsin include:

Company-by-company offensive: A wave of contract disputes where employers have suddenly challenged long-standing union security” clauses in the name of free choice” for the workers. In at least two cases, two manufacturing companies ignored near-unanimous votes to retain the union-security provision and forced strikes, and brought in replacement workers. Conflicts over union security” and the assertion of complete management control have arisen at a number of other workplaces.

Not the right time’: The Republicans long-term plan was blurted out by freshman state Rep. Dean Kapenga at a town hall meeting in the wealthy Milwaukee suburb of Delafield in mid-May. Kapenga spilled the secret in responding to an impatient right-to-work advocate:

We have right-to-work legislation in (three) different offices ready to go. If we had done it earlier, when we wanted, then Prosser would not have been elected. [This refers to the hotly-contested April, 2011 Supreme Court election where Justice David Prosser — long a reliable Walker ally — barely beat back a challenge from a totally unknown liberal candidate. Prosser is still facing ongoing charges arising from an argument over Act 10 during which he put his hands on the throat of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley]

Right now is not the right time. We have to wait until it is politically feasible.

Back on March 27, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald blurted out the barely contained support for a right-to-work law among his zealous Republican colleagues, as revealed in a fine Salon​.com piece by Josh Eidelson. With so much backing for a right-to-work law, Fitzgerald saw the extreme Act 10 as a relatively modest middle ground.” Eidelson wrote:

The [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel] reporter asks Fitzgerald whether he was surprised when Walker described his plans to attack public workers’ collective bargaining. No, it wasn’t a shock to me …” responds Fitzgerald. My caucus wanted to go further. I had people in my caucus that was, you know, were wondering if we were going to do Right to Work in this state.”

Divid and conquer: The new offensive against union rights at the bargaining table and the remarks by Kapenga and Fitzgerald place Walker’s now-infamous divide and conquer” videotaped comment to billionaire and strident right-to-work advocate Diane Hendricks in a harsher light. At first, I interpreted Walker as trying to make private-sector union members resentful of their public-sector counterparts in order to keep them out of the fight over Act 10.

But Walker’s January 2011 statement — in response to Hendricks’ plea for action on right to work” and becoming a red [Republican] state” — now makes more sense in terms of a two-stage war on organized labor: The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”

The meaning now seems clear: public-sector unions are to be isolated as the initial target, and then a further-disabled labor movement will be too weak to fight off the passage of right-to-work legislation.

By this point, Wisconsin union activists fully believe Walker will be content with nothing short of right-to-work, although he continually denies it, as he did again Thursday night in his debate with Tom Barrett. Walker tried to avoid a direct answer to Barrett’s repeated assertions that Walker ultimately seeks to impose right-to-work” legislation on Wisconsin. Pressed on whether he would sign such legislation, Walker finally claimed, It’s not going to happen.”

Scott Parr, assistant director of Machinists District 10, dissected Walker’s response in these terms: Walker isn’t going to directly come out against a right-to-work bill because it would turn off his corporate backers and the right wing, and alienate some potential supporters in labor. But his phrasing tells me that he would sign it.”

So Wisconsin unions are engaged in an all-out battle to convince their members about Walker’s true intentions and to mobilize them for a maximum turnout today.

We’re firing every bullet in our guns,” says Parr. We’re doing face-to-face contact with our shop stewards, so that members are talking with people they know who are providing them with information. We’re doing phone banking, and encouraging people to vote early so that we’re sure that our people have voted.”

While the final results are not likely to be known until very late tonight given the closeness of polling numbers, the response thus far has been hopeful for Parr. A lot of our guys are saying, You warned us about voting for Scott Walker and you were right. I’m not going to do that again.’”

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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