With State Senate’s Approval, Right to Work Looks All But Certain in Wisconsin

David Moberg

Pro-union protestors gathered outside of Wisconsin's state capitol earlier this week to oppose a right-to-work bill, which at this point appears to be an all but done deal. (Preston Austin / Flickr)

MADISON, WISCONSIN — Against the wishes of thousands of angry constituents in two days of protests outside the state capitol building this week, the Wisconsin state senate late Wednesday night voted 17 to 15 in favor of a right-to-work” law. Only one Republican, a former union member from the northern woodlands of the state, joined all Democratic senators in voting against the anti-union law that the Republican leadership has rushed through an extraordinary session.”

If the Assembly approves the bill next week — and with a GOP margin of 63 to 36, larger than in the Senate, it is almost certainly expected to do so — Gov. Scott Walker has promised to sign it, giving a former union stronghold the dubious distinction of becoming the 25th state to pass such legislation.

The law will make it illegal for unions and employers to negotiate union security“ agreements. Such contract provisions typically require all employees in a bargaining unit to pay dues, or some fair share of the regular dues, to pay for the work the union does on behalf of all workers in collective bargaining and representing them in the grievance and discipline processes.

After Congress authorized such state laws in 1947, they were largely confined to the extremely anti-union South, where business owners fought to keep wages low and cultural hostility to collective action ran strong. The ranks of right-to-work states grew irregularly after the 1950s, but the political right has sensed a chance to make progress in the traditionally well-unionized industrial Midwest states and elsewhere since 2012, when states like Michigan and Indiana passed right-to-work laws.

If — or, more accurately at this point, when — the Wisconsin law is approved, the right-to-work campaign will have reached a critical mark: half the states in the U.S. and just under half the private workforce will be under right-to-work rules.

Even supporters concede there is little chance of stopping the law in Wisconsin.

It’s about 99 percent sure thing it’s going to pass,” Steve Buffalo, district manager for the Operating Engineers Local 139, said as he prepared for a noon rally before the Senate vote. If we could get one or two Senators to flip, we could stop this.” But now that the Senate has passed the bill, the task is all but impossible now.

The hard odds against blocking the legislation may have kept the turnout for the opposition rallies below the numbers who protested and occupied the capitol four years ago. Those marches, sometimes reaching 100,000 participants, were intended to stop Walker from pushing through legislation that eventually stripped public employees of most bargaining rights. Still, several thousand demonstrators showing up for two days in a row during a workweek and biting winter cold and snow was a respectable turnout. 

Republicans also took precautions this time to undercut mobilization: The right-to-work bill is being rushed through the extraordinary session in less than two weeks. Rather than allow the huge list of witnesses to testify against the bill through the night, as happened four years ago, the committee chair abruptly cut off the stream of witnesses early with the excuse that the committee had heard of planned disruptions. Also, unlike four years ago when the capitol was occupied round the clock, a sign was posted on every entrance prohibiting anyone from bringing in items like sleeping bags.

Why the urgency? Now is a pretty good time for them to do it,” Walker said after the Senate vote.

But on whose timepiece? Two surveys showed that passing right-to-work legislation was at or near the bottom of priorities for Wisconsin voters, many of whom were more concerned about issues such as the budget cuts Walker is imposing on education.

Indeed, Rep. Tod Ohnstad, a former United Auto Workers leader from Kenosha and a member of the Assembly labor committee, thinks that the right-to-work initiative may be a ruse to distract public attention from the budget cuts.

Also, after initially discouraging a vote on the bill this year, making him appear reasonable and leaving provocation of the unions to Senate president Ed Fitzgerald, Walker agreed to sign it. This will give him more cover in the early primaries” in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Ohnstad said, referring to the need of candidates to placate the party’s far right in early contests. 

The day after the Senate vote, Walker was in Washington, D.C., at the Conservative Political Action Convention, using his anti-union bona fides as surrogate credentials for his ability to fight terrorism.

If I can take on 100,000 protestors, I can do the same across the world,” he postured, implicitly comparing union members to ISIS terrorists.

They tell us right-to-work is on the top of the list of manufacturing companies, and why they want to move to a vote,” Buffalo said, but I hadn’t heard from one manufacturer who said that was near and dear to their heart.” 

Indeed, a group of nearly 400 small businesses and contractors formed an opposition coalition, the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition. Members say they count on strong unions and their training programs to provide them the skilled workforce they need.

But it was at the top of the list for Republican Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald, who has said the enactment of right-to-work will establish workplace freedom.”

It also appeared to be at the top of the very discreet list of the right-wing Republican funders (like the Koch brothers), foundations (like the Bradley foundation, based in Wisconsin), Tea Party activists and established anti-union advocates (like the National Right-to-Work Committee and the Heritage Foundation).

But if passing a right-to-work law was a low priority for the public, stopping such a law seemed almost as low. In a poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the progressive coalition We Are Wisconsin, Wisconsin voters appeared less supportive of right-to-work than a national Gallup sample polled last year.

Gallup found that 71 percent supported right-to-work, even though 53 percent of the same respondents approved of unions. The GQR poll found that 50 percent of Wisconsin voters supported, 37 percent opposed, and 13 percent were uncertain about a right-to-work bill after a neutral description of its provisions. After offering more vigorous arguments for both sides, 46 percent still favored right-to-work laws, 42 percent opposed and 11 percent are uncertain.

It seems that average voters react out of a gut ideological hostility to the idea of being forced to pay for or join anything they do not want to join (or pay), even if they benefit.

Proponents of right-to-work laws argue that the measures will boost job growth and general economic activity, but it’s not clear how big a role the argument plays in determining popular opinion. The research findings support labor’s opposition: there’s no clear evidence that right-to-work laws in themselves promote job or GDP growth, but they clearly reduce union membership, weaken unions, reduce health and safety at work, lower wages and benefits, increase profits and shareholder wealth and increase inequality.

Four years ago, the South Central Labor Federation raised eyebrows around the country with its talk of calling a general strike to fight back against Walker, and the idea popped up again at the capitol rally.

I think it’s about time to seize the moment in this battle,” Machinist international vice-president Phil Gruber told the crowd. Let’s stand still. Let’s stop the buses, trains and trucks. It’s time for action. Everyone who has a union card has to stand together.” 

It’s a romantic idea, yes, but also realistic under certain conditions. Unfortunately they don’t exist now in Wisconsin or any other place in the U.S.

It’s not just a matter of unions having limited experience really working together; it’s not just the limits of power if everyone with a union card adds up to no more than 11 percent of the workforce. Without public sympathy and clear understanding of how workers like themselves share an interest with the labor movement, even when they are inconvenienced, leaders like Walker could easily turn the power of the state against such mass action and probably win over much of public opinion.

Yet the labor movement could, with that vision of mass solidarity in action in mind, take small steps in that direction that might eventually build capacity for actions that come increasingly close to that ideal.

Most people want a job that can make it possible to raise a family, give their children an education and count on a decent retirement, and they need both a union and government leaders who answer to average citizens, not lobbyists for the rich, nurse Allison Sorg told the protest rally.

That’s all we want,” she said. Is that too much to ask?” 

Apparently Scott Walker, Wisconsin Republican politicians, and the bankers, billionaires and ideologues who call their tune think it is. Passing the right-to-work legislation is their way of saying so.

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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.

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