With his signature Monday on a bill passed almost purely on party-line votes, Republican Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the 25th state to adopt a “right-to-work” law, dividing the country in half between “anti-union” and “union-friendly” labor law regimes.
It is the first such law passed since Indiana and Michigan in 2012 made historic inroads into the northern industrial states, but it may be just the beginning of attacks on worker rights in many states this year, including roughly a dozen potential right-to-work initiatives (one of which prompted weekend protest rallies in Charlestown, West Virginia, of around 6,000 union members and supporters from around the state). Wisconsin Republicans, as well as conservatives in other states, are planning to push through other laws that would drive down construction workers’ wages (such as eliminating state “prevailing wage” laws and project labor agreements, both of which guarantee quality and performance on public works and the prevailing, typically union-scale, pay for workers).
States are allowed to pass right-to-work laws, which weaken unions and consequently all workers within a state, under the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA is supposed to encourage collective bargaining. Unlike the implications of the name, right-to-work laws give no right to employment. However, they do prohibit employers and unions from negotiating a contract that requires all employees to join a union after hiring or pay all or some portion of union dues that is used for bargaining and representation. As a result, unionists complain, workers can be “free riders” if they want.
Gov. Walker, a likely Republican candidate for the party’s presidential nomination, had said that he didn’t want the legislation to come to his desk, in a move likely designed to avoid re-election campaign anger last fall. But he publicly switched to promise support as the legislature opened an “extraordinary session” to ram through the bill despite thousands of protestors mobilizing against it.
The signing marked a symbolic division of the country in half over the controversial provision in the 1947 Taft-Hartley labor legislation that gives states the power to prohibit contracts between unions and employers that require all employees governed by the contract to either pay union dues or some portion that represents a “fair share” of dues used to bargain for and represent all workers, whether they are union members or not.
Walker signed the legislation in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, at the unionized factory of Badger Meter, which builds valves, meters and related products in a factory there and in other cities in the U.S. and around the world. Badger Meter’s chairman, president and CEO Richard Meeusen, has shipped jobs recently from Brown Deer and plans to ship more to its factory in Nogales, Mexico. Meeusen was one — out of at most a very few — business executives to speak out publicly in favor of the right-to-work legislation.
Labor leaders around the country denounced the state’s right-to-work law. “It’s never been clearer that Scott Walker perceives Wisconsin’s working families to be the enemy,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said. “This legislation not only demonizes working people — union and non-union alike — it will hit everyone in the pocketbook with lower wages and an economy that’s thrown out of balance.”
‘Walker has revealed that his plan to win the Republican nomination is a willingness to say and do anything to attack and tear down workers,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “It’s cynical and sad, and will ultimately fail. Scott Walker fails the test of common decency and common sense. If you want good jobs, then you also must stand up for the workers who hold them.”
“By signing Right to Work, Gov Walker continues his crusade on the hard-working , middle-class families of Wisconsin,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt said. “From refusing to expand BadgerCare for the sick, to enacting tax cuts for the rich, gutting education and eroding collective bargaining rights for working people — Gov. Walker has shown a true disregard for Wisconsin families.”
Across the country, progressives have cheered local initiatives to raise minimum wages, but at the same time, the conservative offensive has not only won a key right-to-work law and could score a couple more victories (though with more difficulty than in Wisconsin) but is likely to weaken other worker protections. Republican governors, like Walker and his neighbor, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, are proposing deep budget cuts that will hurt the middle class as well as working class families at all income levels.
Also, according to a new Economic Policy Institute report, nine states have cut back on unemployment insurance benefit provisions, hurting particularly the long-term unemployed who remain jobless despite the growth of jobs.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.