As a party-line vote sent a so-called “right to work” bill to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker (R) in Wisconsin on Friday, the labor groups that opposed the measure were bracing for still more legislation that will help employers at the expense of working peoples’ economic security.
Friday morning’s 62–35 vote in the State Assembly means Walker will soon sign the right-to-work measure, despite having downplayed the idea when he was running for reelection. Labor groups and worker advocates often refer to such laws as “right to work for less” because they have been shown to systematically undermine wages, benefits, and bargaining power for employees in states that adopt the policy.
Right-to-work laws are almost a status symbol for very conservative politicians. The measures draw scrutiny wherever they are proposed and serve as a sort of litmus test, so Friday’s vote is something of a crowning achievement for the forces that have turned Wisconsin’s labor law upside down and shaken the change out of its pockets ever since 2011’s high-profile fight over public worker union rights. But state Republicans are far from finished with Wisconsin workers. Three lower-profile measures are still on the horizon.
First, Walker’s budget includes significant changes to how Wisconsin’s workers compensation system works. The move would reportedly restrict the role of administrative law judges in workers comp disputes, and take authority for the system away from the state Department of Workforce Development. The new system would be co-run by two other agencies. It’s unclear what should motivate a revamp of the state’s system, which is both low-cost and known for producing swift, positive outcomes for workers and employers.
One state Democrat told the Wisconsin State Journal that the proposed changes “are based on practices in Florida, whose system has been found to be unconstitutional; Illinois, where litigation rates are high; and Texas, which is getting rid of its worker’s compensation system.” If Wisconsin weakens its system, it will perpetuate a trend in recent decades of state lawmakers undermining the employer-financed workers comp system in ways that add red tape for workers and shift the cost of on-the-job injuries and disabilities onto taxpayers.
Republicans are also reportedly planning attacks on two other important statutes that help keep blue-collar wages high and keep state dollars from going to out-of-state firms that promise to do public works on the cheap. Wisconsin is one of 32 states that has a prevailing wage law on the books to “prevent lowball bids from depressing wages,” the New York Times editorial board recently noted. At least 18 of those states are already mulling a repeal of their prevailing wage system, and Wisconsin is reportedly set to join that crowd soon.
State GOPers have also signaled that they will target “project labor agreements,” a close cousin of prevailing wage laws. When a government entity institutes a project labor agreement (PLA), it bars non-union contractors from working on publicly-funded projects. If a non-union shop wins the bidding process, it must unionize in order to complete the work. There is no state-wide PLA in Wisconsin, but city governments sometimes use them, and Republicans want to prohibit them across the state. While the federal government maintains a prevailing wage law for federally-funded projects, PLAs have been banned from federal work since a 2001 executive order from President Bush.
By undermining blue-collar wages, these measures would all have spillover effects on Wisconsin’s economy beyond the jobs and workers they immediately target. Right-to-work laws themselves do damage to middle-class families regardless of whether or not they include a union member or anyone who works in a unionized shop. They reduce annual pay for all workers by about $1,500 and make it less likely that employers will offer pension benefits or health care to employees, but they do not enhance job growth in the state in the ways that supporters of the policy claim. And because the earning power of a given state’s middle class is directly correlated with the strength of labor unions in the state, the law’s gradual chokehold on union resources creates a kind of economic sinkhole beneath all middle-income households.