On Feb. 25, the Wisconsin Senate passed a so-called right-to-work bill, which will almost certainly be approved by the Republican-dominated state Assembly and signed by Gov. Scott Walker. As debate began, I was arrested and dragged away along with my brother. We were standing in a hallway outside the Senate chamber; the police deemed that we as Wisconsin citizens had no right to be there, in our own house of government. I was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
This is not my story. I am not now a union member and never have been. But because my own legislators refused to hear my voice, along with the voices of so many other Wisconsinites on this important legislation, I choose to speak. This is my testimony.
As a former staffer to Sen. Herb Kohl, I served as an investigator on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. I worked to protect senior citizens from abuse in nursing homes and from financial scams perpetrated by unscrupulous insurance agents, and participated in a major investigation into the kickbacks pharmaceutical and medical device companies provide to doctors in order to gain their support for products.
I loved that work, but became frustrated by the toxic political environment in Washington, D.C. Since it seemed legislative solutions were impossible, I sought out a career in which I hoped I could help people more directly. I became a safety and risk management consultant, working with the owners and management of businesses across the country in the hopes of improving worker safety and reducing on-the-job injuries. I spent more than five years in that role and worked with hundreds of employers, many of them in Wisconsin. I gained the top certification in the field of safety (Certified Safety Professional), along with several other related designations. I was published in leading industry publications, developed and freely distributed an employee training program on chemical safety regulations, and spoke at the National Safety Council’s annual conference in 2014.
I do not claim to be an expert on the economic impacts of right-to-work legislation. But I do know about safety, and I know with absolute certainty that the passage of this legislation in Wisconsin will result in more worker injuries and deaths.
I quit my last job in the safety and risk management field roughly six months ago. I got into that career to help people, and I like to think I did. But I also was party to things that still make my stomach churn. I regularly aided and abetted the owners and managers of businesses large and small in keeping their workplaces unsafe.
In the course of my work, I constantly looked the other way as employers intentionally violated even the most basic safety regulations. Worse, I helped employers hide, minimize, and even cover up such violations in the course of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspections. I have heard wealthy business owners laugh about their own injured employees. I have been in the room when company owners have decided to illegally discriminate against injured workers, as well as employees who dare to raise safety concerns. I sat quietly as an employer decided not to inform several employees of their exposure to a dangerous chemical, and not to provide them with the appropriate (and legally required) health testing as a result. I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I did it anyway. To the workers who have been hurt as a result of my actions, I am so sorry.
Company owners will never do what it takes to protect their workers out of the goodness of their own hearts. That simply isn’t the way our economy works. It costs more to provide a safer workplace and owners/managers are incentivized to reduce costs wherever they can. Let me be clear: A cavalier attitude toward worker safety is the rule, not the exception.
In my five years as a safety consultant, the only effective protection I saw for worker safety was a unionized workplace. While not perfect from a safety perspective, the unionized companies I worked with were uniformly safer than those without union protection.
Along with roughly 200 other members of the public, I had signed up to testify before a Wisconsin Senate committee on the right-to-work legislation. After we waited more than eight hours, Republican Committee Chair Steve Nass abruptly ended the hearing due to what he called a “credible threat” that a peaceful protest might disrupt the hearing, refusing to hear additional testimony.
Kevin Tostrud of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 was one of the last Wisconsinites allowed to testify. He had worked a night shift the night before, slept a couple of hours, then spent all day at the Capitol waiting to be heard. Kevin is a crane operator, one of the most highly skilled and dangerous professions in construction. Other workers put their lives in the hands of crane operators every single day; one mistake can easily cause several fatalities. Of the right-to-work legislation, Kevin asked the lawmakers: “Are you prepared to be accountable for the deaths that being a right-to-work state can create? I don’t want to be accountable for a death. But if it happens because of a deterioration of the construction workers that I work with every day, that is a big concern for me. … I fear that making this a right-to-work state will cause deaths.”
Andrew Voelzke of the United Steelworkers Local 209 recalled a story from his early days in a union. He was working in wet conditions with a tool that had been damaged and received an electric shock. He went to the job foreman, who told him, “You want to keep your job, you get back out there and do it.” Andrew stopped, thought about it, and realized, “Wait a minute, I’ve got a union here, he can’t make me do this. … I felt I had that security.” Andrew continued, “Now you’re looking at legislation which is going to weaken that. I don’t know what’s going to happen, it could be your kids or your family or friends of your family, that are working somewhere, and somebody says, ‘Do this, or do that, or you’re out of a job.’ " Andrew’s story speaks to an important truth: Without unions, workers have very little option when instructed to perform an unsafe task.
These are just two union workers’ stories. If the Wisconsin Legislature took the time to listen to its own citizens, it would hear many more like these. They are the ones who deserve to be heard. They are the ones whose lives will be put at risk by this so-called right-to-work legislation.
This has been my testimony. I am sorry for what I have done, but I hope to someday make it right. Right to work in Wisconsin will result in more of our friends, neighbors, and families being hurt and killed. It is as simple as that.
Will Kramer, of Middleton, is a certified safety professional.
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