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Wisconsin Enacts Right to Work Law; Unions, Obama Strike Back

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Given the roiling conflict in Wisconsin these past four years over the limits of public-sector unionism, the recent passage of Right to Work legislation, and signature Monday by Governor Scott Walker, wasn’t unexpected.  But it may escalate union political activism nationwide to levels not seen in decades.  The law, which took effect immediately, bars unions from forcing private-sector employers to fire workers who don’t pay dues.  It’s not a novelty; two dozen other states have similar laws. 

Yet what especially rubs organized labor and its supporters the wrong way here is the symbolic triumph of their arch-nemesis, Republican Governor Scott Walker, who signed the measure Monday morning.  More than ever, Walker is a potential frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.  Union leaders are preparing for that possibility with all hands on deck.  And they’re getting help from President Obama.

Wisconsin, as readers of this web site well know, since early 2011 has been a nonstop battleground between public-sector unions and their employers.  At the time, Gov. 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 seemed to stand out:  rapidly rising health care and retirement obligations.  And if left unchecked over the long term, these commitments, at the local as well as state level, could trigger severe service provision cutbacks.  Gov. Walker responded with a proposal to curb these expenditures, which were very much the result of aggressive 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 (though not base pay).  Moreover, it would bar unions from automatically deducting dues from member paychecks.  As concessions, the measure protected current workers against layoffs and exempted 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, in the spring of 2011, following a highly illegal three-week takeover of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in February and early March by pro-union radicals.  The law subsequently would survive a union challenge in the state courts on procedural grounds.  After that, unions and their allies launched a recall election 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.  These efforts failed as well.  In the meantime, public-sector unions, particularly AFSCME, lost substantial membership once dues payments became optional. 

If union activists hate Governor Scott Walker’s guts, they’ve got their reasons.  After all, he pushed through a budget law that has limited public-sector union collective bargaining power and reduced union membership.  He survived a special recall election in 2012 and then defeated Democratic challenger Mary Burke last November in a regularly scheduled election.  He has emerged as a potential frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.  And now, to add insult to injury in the eyes of organized labor, he has persuaded the legislature to pass Right to Work legislation.           

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 by explicitly granting to state governments the authority to override such contracts.  In the ensuing decades, 24 states have enacted Right to Work laws, protecting individual workers at unionized private-sector work sites from being forced to pay dues or fees.  Most of these statutes were created decades ago, primarily in Southern and Western states.  The heavily unionized Great Lakes region, by contrast, was 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, backed by Governor Walker, launched a full-scale effort to bring Right to Work to their state.  On February 25, the Wisconsin Senate narrowly approved the bill by a nearly party-line vote of 17-15; 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 Scott Walker signed the bill into law three days later.    

Gov. 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 company’s 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.”  

But not everyone in the state was 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.  Immediately 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 that 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.  Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, let off a predictable blast of Left-populist boilerplate following the Senate vote:

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 Richard Trumka proved every bit as overheated on the eve of 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. 

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