March 6th, 2015
On Tuesday, February 25th, A Wisconsin Senate committee heard arguments on a proposed right-to-work bill for several hours. The hearing was cut short by the chair if the committee, a Republican, who cited a “credible threat” which would disrupt the committee’s approval or denial the bill. In a rushed vote, the bill passed the committee along partisan lines: three in favor, all Republican, with a single Democrat opposed. The next day, after eight hours of debate, the Wisconsin State Senate passed the right-to-work bill 17 to 15, and the bill is expected to be taken up in the Wisconsin State Assembly on the week of March 2nd. If it passes the Assembly, which it is expected to, it will go straight to Governor Scott Walker’s desk, where he is expected to sign the bill into law. Once signed, the law would take effect immediately.
What was the “credible threat” cited by the Committee chair which inspired the rushed approval of the bill? Hundreds of protesters, almost 2,000, had gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to protest the right-to-work bill. Phil Neuenfeldt, President of the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O., had this to say: “The more people understand the impacts, people are less inclined to support it. [The Republicans] are just trying to ram this through with little or no public debate.” Neuenfeldt’s concerns are legitimate, considering the Wisconsin State Legislature, of which both houses are controlled by the Republican Party, has called an “extraordinary session” in order to get the bill through.
So how does right-to-work work?
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to remove the “closed-shop” rules which made union membership compulsory for all employees of a given business. Taft-Hartley instead stipulated that workers, though free to choose whether or not to join a labor union, would still be required to pay agency fees (the equivalent of membership dues) to the union. In exchange, non-union workers would still benefit from the rights and protections that the unionized workers enjoy. Right-to-work laws remove the agency fee requirement from non-union workers, which allows them the keep the same benefits as the unionized workers, but without having to pay a cent in return.
In other words, right-to-work is actually the right-to-freeload. By removing the agency fee requirement, right-to-work laws effectively remove all incentive to join a union at all. Why pay for something when you can get it for free? The problem is unions depend on agency fees and dues in order to support their collective bargaining activities. Weak unions cannot bargain effectively, and without effective bargaining, benefits are lost, wages go down. This is good for businesses, but not for workers.
The decline of unionization has been correlated to the increase in economic inequality. A thirty-year study by the International Monetary Fund found that in the industrialized countries, as union membership went down, the wealth of the richest 10 percent of the population increased. In addition, the Economic Policy Institute issued a press release in 2012, which stated that “to a remarkable extent, inequality, which fell during the New Deal but has risen dramatically since the late 1970s, corresponds to the rise and fall of unionization in the United States.”
Why has right-to-work come to Wisconsin? Supporters of right-to-work legislation point to the promise of greater economic prosperity, pointing out that businesses will be in a better position to grow if they are not burdened by union contracts and benefit packages. According to State Senator Scott Fitzgerald, who testified in favor of the bill during the committee hearing, right-to-work would provide a much-needed boost to the state’s industrial economy. “We’re competing with Midwestern states. We’re competing with states nationwide,” he said.
In that one sentence, Sen. Fitzgerald summed up exactly what is wrong with the Republican leadership in Wisconsin, and why right-to-work is wrong for workers in Wisconsin, and across the nation.
The rhetoric, like their policies, is divisive. It speaks to the spirit of competition, pitting us in an imagined “us vs. them” scenario where we must compete with each other and prostitute ourselves to the industries and businesses in order to prosper. Unfortunately, this is the reality which Governor Scott Walker and the Republican leadership have imposed upon us.
But the fight isn’t over. Thousands of protesters have gathered in Madison to speak out against the right-to-work bill, calling on both parties to reject the bill and prevent it from going to Gov. Walker’s desk. If the bill passes the State Assembly, Gov. Walker should veto it. But without pressure from us, there is little chance lawmakers will pay any attention. “They’re not listening,” said Cindy Odden of the United Steelworkers union, “We have to be louder than in 2011.” We also have to remember everything that labor unions have done for us. The eight hour workday. The weekend. Overtime. Every benefit we take for granted now, we owe to labor unions. Let us not forfeit those victories by turning our backs on them now. If we are to conquer a dividing force, we must be able to stand united.
About The Author
Nicholas Toyne is a word lover, cat enthusiast, and aspiring polemicist. He is currently a bachelor’s student of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @nick_knack52