Gov. Scott Walker stands ready to deal the Wisconsin labor movement its greatest blow yet. Within the next few days, Walker, a Republican and a likely 2016 presidential candidate, is expected to sign right-to-work legislation that would ban union shops in the state.
Wisconsin would be the 25th state to institute right-to-work legislation, which bars unions from charging service fees to nonunion members of the workplaces they represent. Organized labor fears that right-to-work laws create a free-rider problem: In the short term, employees in a unionized workplace can reap the benefits of collective bargaining without joining the union or providing any compensation for its troubles. The longer-term consequence tends to be a statewide decline in union membership and power, according to reports such as a February 2011 study by University of Nevada and Claremont McKenna economists.
The Wisconsin Senate’s labor committee will conduct a Tuesday morning hearing on right-to-work legislation, followed by a floor debate over the proposal on Wednesday. The Wisconsin branch of the labor federation AFL-CIO will hold rallies outside the state Capitol on both days.
“[Right-to-work] is going to bring everybody down,” said Russ Krings, the directing business representative for the Milwaukee union International Association of Machinists District 10, during a press conference with other labor leaders on Monday. “It’s going to affect not only the union families and nonunion families. It’s going to affect all the businesses that we go and spend our money at. This is going to bring the economy down.”
If right-to-work becomes law, it will mark a nadir for Wisconsin's labor movement. Once a union fortress, the Badger State turned into hostile territory over the course of Walker’s first term in office.
Within weeks of his 2011 inauguration, Walker proposed and won passage of Act 10, legislation stripping unionized public employees of most collective bargaining rights. An incensed labor movement attempted to remove Walker in a 2012 recall election; Walker handily beat his Democratic opponent in that race, becoming the only governor in U.S. history to successfully weather a recall. Two years later, in 2014, he sailed to a second term on a nationwide Republican wave. He was accompanied by a newly enlarged Republican majority in the state legislature.
Walker has bested organized labor in every direct confrontation. It appears that this time will be no different. Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neufeldt said at Monday’s press conference that unions would try over the next few days to “educate the public and change the minds of elected officials.”
"I think we have an obligation to provide an opportunity to participate," he later told Al Jazeera.
Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, suggested a more proactive approach: a general strike.
“I think they should shut it down,” he told the Huffington Post’s David Jamieson last week. “Public sector workers in solidarity with private sector workers should walk out next week. I think if the union movement has any strength left, it’s in the power of withholding labor.”
Labor activists in Wisconsin have flirted with the notion of a general strike before. During the battle over Act 10, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor floated the idea but never put it into action. As of publication time, the federation did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether it would support the tactic now.
“We’re not in a position to support something like that,” said Neufeldt. “That would be up to affiliates, locals and the working people of Wisconsin.”
If anything, the labor movement’s struggle against right-to-work may be more muted than the campaign against Act 10. Comparing protests against the two laws, Mike Browne, the deputy director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now, said, “You’re not going to see 100,000 people at the Capitol tomorrow.”
“The effort at this point is to educate the public as much as folks can about why right-to-work is wrong for Wisconsin,” he said. “The strategy on the Republican side is to rush it through before people figure it out, and other folks are interested in informing the public and having a full discussion about it.”
Legislators who vote for right-to-work, he added, “are going to have to stand for election at some point.”
Wisconsin isn’t the only state looking to take up right-to-work legislation during the next two years. Kentucky has already considered the issue, and Illinois, another traditional union stronghold, is weighing a plan to create local right-to-work zones around the state. In December 2012, Michigan, the ancestral homeland of the United Auto Workers union, passed its own package of right-to-work bills.
Walker, perhaps fearing 2011-style mass protests, told the press as recently as last month that he was not interested in trying to pass right-to-work legislation. But Republicans in the legislature moved forward with a proposal regardless, and he changed his tune last week.
“I've never said that I didn’t think it was a good idea,” he told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday. “I’ve just questioned the timing in the past and whether it was right at that time.”
Browne said Walker, whose office did not return a request for comment, is courting Republican donors for a 2016 presidential bid.
“He will do or say anything to win an election. 2014 is in his rearview mirror. He’s looking at the presidency, and he’s making a different calculation now,” said Browne. “And that’s to appeal to right-wing millionaires and billionaires versus serving the people of Wisconsin.”