As the Republicans swept through statehouses, governor’s mansions and Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010, there was an almost immediate reaction from one of the left’s biggest supporters: unions. Legislation proposed in the beginning of 2011 that would bar public sector unions from a practice known as collective bargaining sparked the reaction. From Madison, Wis., to Columbus, Ohio, union members became the backbone of weeks-long protests that gripped Rust Belt states.
For Republican-controlled legislatures, the idea of thumbing their noses at major private sector unions, a large supporter of Democrats, through enacting anti-union legislation, was an enticing prospect for the Republican’s new majorities in state houses. How could these legislatures work to further dismantle the unions? Right-to-work legislation.
After Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, states took up the battle and began to outlaw an employer from requiring someone to join a union if they want a job where a union is present. This law debunks current conservative talking points that say employers are “forcing” new workers to join a union, even though after passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, states were given the option to outlaw this practice.
These laws prevented employers from signing contracts with unions that would require all employees, even those who didn’t vote for unionization, to pay for representation fees. These fees go to help the union negotiate contracts and manage administrative grievances, according to UW-Madison Political Science professor John Ahlquist.
The Republicans in the Wisconsin state Legislature had floated the idea of a right-to-work bill for the current legislative session, and the state Assembly is likely to pick up the state Senate-passed right-to-work bill, which cleared the upper chamber last week. Gov. Scott Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, has stated he will not block the bill’s passage, strengthening his previous ambiguous position on right-to-work legislation.
What has made this bill so controversial, other than the attack on a very small section of the state’s private sector workforce, is the process of how the legislature has decided to take up the bill. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called the legislature into an extraordinary session, a tactic used for emergencies within the state. Bills proposed in this session typically move quicker than in a regular session.
Ahlquist expressed skepticism about why the legislature decided to call an extraordinary session for this bill last month.
“[Sen. Fitzgerald] even said that a big reason for the timing, the fast-tracking, was to make it more difficult to organize protest in opposition to it in Madison,” Ahlquist said.
Out of a workforce of 2.5 million, Wisconsin only has about 10,000 workers who didn’t vote for unionization in their field but still pay representation fees, according to Ahlquist. He noted that this bill was more about weakening traditional opposition to conservative causes.
“I think its weakening organizational and monetary bases of the governor’s political opponents in the state, and a variety of conservative groups around the country want to see this bill pass” Ahlquist stated.
Right-to-work legislation isn’t giving employees a right that had been taken away or a new right that they were prohibited from previously. Twenty-four states, four of which swung to President Barack Obama in the 2012 Presidential Election, currently have right-to-work laws enacted, either as part of their state’s constitution, or just on the books. Studies have shown that in right-to-work states, employees, in jobs which previously would have mandated union affiliation, make $5,000 less than their counterparts in states without right-to-work. While Ahlquist said this is more correlation than causation, Minnesota, which doesn’t have right-to-work legislation, consistently outperforms other Midwestern states like Indiana or Michigan, which do have right-to-work laws.
Republicans, grasping at a logical argument to garner support of this legislation, have said right-to-work will help to make the state more attractive to outside investment. Ahlquist said their argument is more implicit.
“The argument there is that it’s more attractive because you can pay workers less,” Ahlquist said.
We feel the use of the extraordinary session for passing a politically charged bill that has no positive effect on the Wisconsin economy is the legislature’s way of turning politically divisive beliefs into state policy. The strong history of unions across the country is under attack from the right, who call out so-called “big labor” as a problem, even though unions are less powerful now than ever before. Sen. Fitzgerald using the extraordinary session to pass this bill is a shameful use of the legislature’s procedural power, and only serves to help boost Walker in his eventual bid for the Republican nomination for the upcoming presidential race.
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Correction: A previous version of this article said the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed employers requiring new workers to join unions. Instead, the law gave states the option to outlaw that practice. John Ahlquist was also quoted as saying "monitory bases" when it should have been "monetary bases." The Daily Cardinal regrets these errors.