No matter how fervently Gov. Scott Walker and GOP leaders deny intentions to push right-to-work legislation, Wisconsin labor leaders are prepared for the worst, especially in the wake of Michigan's swift passage of such a law over the past week.
“They’ve lied to us before, so why would they start telling us the truth now?” asks Kevin Jeskie, president of United Steelworkers Local 1343, which represents 1,400 workers at a number of large companies in Milwaukee, such as Bucyrus and Nordco.
Jeskie says his private-sector union has been preparing for right to work, which outlaws mandatory union dues or union membership, ever since Walker gutted collective bargaining for public-sector unions in February 2011.
“It comes up at least every other union meeting — we say 'keep your eyes open,'” he says. “We’ve been teaching our members who aren’t necessarily as active why unions are needed.”
Like many of the union leaders I talked with earlier this year in Indiana — which recently became a right-to-work state — Jeskie expresses confidence that his union would survive such a law and remain strong. Strong is a relative term, of course. Local 1343 only has one full-time employee. Even Jeskie works part time as a steelworker.
The language Republican legislators and other insiders use to dismiss plans to push a right-to-work law suggests they simply don't want to deal with yet another bitter labor battle like the one seen here nearly two years ago. The apparent vindication that came with Walker's recall victory also came with a considerable price in time, energy and friendships.
But there is a reason Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, are not willing to rule out such a bill in the future: The door for the policy is open while Republicans have control of the governor's office and Legislature.
So does labor have any cards to play to prevent right to work from popping up a few years down the line? Yes, but they might not be very strong.
For starters, a full-scale right-to-work law would likely anger the Milwaukee Professional Police Association and the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association — both of which typically support Republicans. However, any legislation devised by legislative Republicans would likely exempt police and fire unions, as Act 10 did and as the bill in Michigan does.
Then there’s the International Union of Operating Engineers 139, a 9,000-member organization that represents workers in the road building business and has historically worked closely with construction interests to push for infrastructure spending. IUOE supports members of both parties but endorsed Walker in 2010 and remained neutral in this past year’s recall election.
IUOE 139 and other building trades unions — such as the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association — have poured thousands of dollars into GOP campaigns in recent years. More importantly, perhaps, they have vocally supported certain Republican policies, such as the controversial mining legislation that stalled in the Legislature earlier this year.
In past interviews, IUOE 139 President Terry McGowan has expressed confidence that Walker would not push right to work. And yet, on Tuesday many Michigan Republicans who had been supported by IUOE’s Michigan chapter (Local 324) voted for such legislation.
In its post-election newsletter in 2010, Local 324 celebrated the promotion of state Sen. Randy Richardville to Senate majority leader.
“That means Richardville will hold one of the most important positions in state government, and he will be able to advocate for middle-class families on a much bigger stage,” gushed Lisa Canada, the group's political activities director.
Things have since changed.
On Tuesday, Local 324’s website urged members to flock to the statehouse to protest, and NBC reports that Richardville and other GOP leaders were represented on the Capitol lawn by inflatable rats.
Were there unique circumstances that made such a situation possible in Michigan (and Indiana) but not Wisconsin?
“I can’t answer that,” says McGowan in an email. “But I sure hope we can find out soon so that we may learn from it.”
But he did offer one theory: “Unlike Wisconsin, the heart and soul of lower Michigan has been on life support for quite awhile and, unfortunately, some misguided thinkers in their legislature believe that allowing wages, benefits and training to fall apart is the silver bullet.”
With an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, Michigan is certainly in a worse position than Wisconsin. But if a sluggish economic recovery is what spurs right-to-work legislation, Badger State unions have reason to be on alert.