State and national labor leaders rallied in the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday, ahead of a day-long committee hearing on a so-called 'right-to-work' bill, which undermines collective bargaining by allowing workers to opt-out of paying the costs of union representation.
Wisconsin Republicans, who have expanded their majority in the state legislature since the last labor showdown in 2011, called a surprise "extraordinary session" late last week in an attempt to fast-track the bill. Anti-union Gov. Scott Walker, a potential Republican presidential candidate, said he would sign the legislation if it reached his desk.
"This Right to Work sham is about much more than unions. It is simply the next step in the billionaire right wing's attempt to strip our freedoms to bargain with our employers as we see fit, ensure safe work places, and raise wages across the country."
—Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO
The Center for Media and Democracy revealed last week that the Wisconsin measure is taken word-for-word from American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation.
Thousands of workers and community members from across Wisconsin are protesting in the state Capitol building on Tuesday and Wednesday, charging that right-to-work laws weaken unions, keep wages low, and do little to help the economy.
"Right-to-work legislation is part of a national anti-worker agenda that won't bring one job to our state or help a single family put food on the table," said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
"Everyone's wages are going to be reduced as a result of this," John Eiden, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
"We are going up against a beast...its whole purpose is to demean our unions," said Gerry Miller, a welder and member of the United Auto Workers, at a demonstration in downtown Milwaukee on Monday night.
"This Right to Work sham is about much more than unions," national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka declared on Monday. "It is simply the next step in the billionaire right wing's attempt to strip our freedoms to bargain with our employers as we see fit, ensure safe work places, and raise wages across the country. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Walton family are engaged in a systematic attempt to dismantle our economy by lowering wages, while lining their pockets with record profits."
According to the Journal-Sentinel, this week's protests "are expected to be large compared to typical Capitol gatherings, but not as large as the sustained, massive protests of 2011, when tens of thousands of people flooded the Statehouse in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's limits on collective bargaining for most public workers."
At Salon on Tuesday, David Dayen described the ramifications of Walker's previous salvo against workers:
The public employee union law—which barred contract negotiations on everything but base wages and limited annual salary increases to the rate of inflation, forced most unions to collect their own dues rather than having them deducted automatically by the state and mandated annual recertification of affiliates—has been more successful than even its supporters hoped.
In the state where public employee unions got their start, public workers see no need to stay enrolled, since unions cannot by law effectively advocate on their behalf. Membership in the Wisconsin affiliate of the National Education Association is down one-third; the American Federation of Teachers dropped by one-half; the state employees union fell 70 percent.
There are fewer public employees working, too, even though Gov. Walker claimed that the passage of the anti-union law would save jobs. The Wisconsin Budget Project finds that the ratio of public employees to total population is at its lowest level in at least two decades.
Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, called on the crippled labor movement to take one last stand—in the form of a general strike by the state's unionized workers.
"I think they should shut it down," Secunda told the Huffington Post. "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. If it's not willing to do that, there's very little power they have."
Twenty-four states already have right-to-work laws on the books.
As Trumka noted, the fight in Wisconsin is part of a national trend. According to Bloomberg:
Unable to pass labor-related legislation in Washington, Republicans shifted attention to the states, where the 2008 economic downturn gave governors a new argument for cutting public-worker pension funds and limiting future bargaining rights. Republican-led legislatures have pressed measures that range from stripping bargaining rights to imposing stiff fines for protests and picketing.
Wisconsin Republicans can hope to repeat the example of Michigan, where right-to-work legislation flew through a 2012 lame-duck legislature in one week, with limited debate and without considering it in committee.
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