Economy

Wisconsin Workers Fight Back Against Right To Work

CREDIT: Joe Brusky

As lawmakers in Wisconsin held their first and only hearing on fast-tracked “right-to-work” legislation, bill author Scott Fitzgerald (R) said the controversial measure is “just one piece of the larger picture” and hinted more labor reforms are coming soon, including bills to change the state’s prevailing wage laws and curtail collective bargaining on public works projects.

The “right-to-work” proposal, which will receive limited debate and public input before an expedited vote next week, allows workers to opt out of currently mandatory union fees, forcing unions to provide bargaining and training work without payment. Fitzgerald noted that his bill’s text “closely mirrors” the right-to-work law passed by Indiana in 2012. But he did not mention that that law was struck down in 2013, calling into question whether the Wisconsin version will stand up in court.

Regardless of the outcome of the debate and potential court challenge, some local activists said they’re worried the labor battle has sucked the energy away from a movement that was building against Governor Walker’s budget proposal that aims to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from public media, conservation programs and higher education.

“It seems like part of [state Republicans’] strategy to overload the agenda with as much as possible,” Eleni Schirmer with the Teaching Assistants Association told ThinkProgress. “As grad students and workers we have our arms pulled in both directions.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that state lawmakers have been pulled in many directions too, and that the “right to work” debate has left them without the time to read or understand the more than 1,800 page, $68 billion budget that is packed with major legal and financial changes.

But Schirmer, who works at UW Madison, says though she and her members are doing what they can to keep public attention on the threats to the university budget, they’re resisting the attempt to divide the different activist causes and pit them against one another. Instead, they plan to educate the community about how the efforts are intertwined. “We can’t be divided into issue camps. We have to stay together,” she said. “Right-to-work is going to depress wages for workers in Wisconsin at the same time the UW cuts are going to make tuition more expenses, so families will be double hit.”

UW students and TAs joined workers from across Wisconsin and neighboring states Tuesday to march against “right-to-work” and pack the committee hearing room, where the Republican-controlled Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform heard more than nine hours from lawmakers, students, professors, workers, activists and community members opposed to the bill. At the same time, nearly 2,000 workers braved sub-freezing temperatures to rally outside the capitol while others camped out in the rotunda chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and “United we stand, divided we fall.” Schirmer said she was proud to participate, and hopes the crowd will have their back when it comes time to fight against the budget cuts. “This gives us a chance to build some solidarity.”

The Republican-controlled state legislature is likely to pass the “right-to-work” measure and Governor Walker has promised to sign it, though up until last week he called the plan a “distraction.”

On Tuesday, those testifying against the bill aimed to use conservatives’ rhetoric against them.

“Government should stay out of private sector businesses. Isn’t that your mantra?” asked Mike Mooney, a 28-year veteran of a union of sheet metal worker. “Now government is going to force my union to provide benefits and services to people who don’t pay? Our families deserve better.”

Others on the committee and testifying took issue with the process that put a debate over the state budget on hold in order to put the “right to work” bill on fast track.

“Who’s asking for this?” demanded Senator Chris Larson (D). “Who is saying this is something we need to jam through this week, and bend the rules so we’re curtailing debate?”

Fitzgerald responded, “That’s part of politics.” Senator Steve Nass (R), a supporter of the bill added that the fast timeline was intentionally designed to prevent activists from organizing protests like the ones that took over the state capitol in 2011. “We don’t want to go through the ugliness of Act 10 again,” he said. “It’s prudent to not let this languish for months.”

But the demonstrating workers, including Cindy Odden from the United Steelworkers, said lawmakers hoping to avoid a 2011-style showdown are out of luck. “Our elected officials are not listening, so we have to be louder than in 2011,” she said. “I’m fighting for my grandchildren’s future. I have to, because this is not just an attack on unions. It’s an attack on all Wisconsin families. And we’re not going to stand for it.”

Speakers cited studies that found that all workers in “right to work” states, regardless of whether they belong to a union, lose an average of $1,500 a year in wages as a result of these laws. Others focused on how Wisconsin workers have already been hit by Scott Walker’s policies over the last few years. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, median household income in Wisconsin has dropped since the passage of the Act 10 in 2011, and is currently about $800 below the national average.

“The stakes are too high,” said Tyrone Sutton, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “We will not back down.”

UPDATE

The Senate Labor Committee voted along party lines Tuesday night to send the “right-to-work” bill to the full Senate for consideration. Though they had promised to hear public testimony until 7 p.m., Republicans cut off the hearing around 6:20 p.m., when hundreds were still waiting in line to speak. The lawmakers quickly voted and were escorted out of the room by Capitol Police as those who had waited for nearly nine hours to testify chanted, “Shame.” The full Senate will begin debating the bill Wednesday.

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