MADISON — Dane County Circuit Court Judge William Faust struck down the state’s private-sector “right-to-work” law late today.
In February 2015, Governor Walker and the Wisconsin legislature pushed through a private-sector right-to-work bill over the objections of thousands of workers and 450 Wisconsin construction firms who rallied against the bill. Workers in right to work states have significantly lower wages and fewer benefits. The battle over "right to work" and the future of Wisconsin's workforce was the subject of a New York Times magazine cover story.
CMD quickly exposed the bill as a verbatim American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) measure authored by ALEC member legislators, including ALEC's National Chair and Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir.
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO, Machinists Local Lodge 1061 in Milwaukee and United Steelworkers District 2 in Menasha filed the lawsuit challenging the measure. The groups argued that the law was an unconstitutional seizure of union property because it required private-sector unions to extend benefits to workers who don't pay dues.
In his ruling today, Judge Faust found that the unions had “a legally protectable property interest in the services they perform for their members and non-members.”
“When members pay their dues and non-members their fair share fees, all would say the union is building a treasury that it holds as property. When it expends those funds to perform services, as it must, no one would dispute that that money is the union’s property. Plaintiffs will be obligated to spend treasury—their property—on services for which they cannot legally request compensation. This is enough to establish that unions do have a legally protectable property interest at stake,” read the ruling, in part.
“Right-to-work goes against the Wisconsin principles of fairness and democracy and hurts all of Wisconsin by eroding the strength of our middle class. Right to Work has always been unjust, now it’s proven unconstitutional,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, President of Wisconsin AFL-CIO, late on Friday.
Classic Koch-ALEC Power Play
The Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy reported at the time that the passage of right-to-work in Wisconsin was a classic Koch-ALEC power play.
A short time before ALEC member Rep. Chris Kapenga dropped the bill, Koch operative Lorri Pickens announced a new 501(c)(3) "charitable" organization called "Wisconsin Right to Work." While the group claimed to be "a grassroots citizen engagement organization," it consisted of a P.O. Box and a website registered by Kurt Luidhart, an Indiana resident whose media firm had run online fundraising for Walker's campaign. Luidhart, like Pickens, had worked with the Koch frontgroup Americans for Prosperity.
There were so few businesses and citizens in favor of right to work that it was pushed through the legislature with help from a traveling team of out-of-state Koch allies, including an ALEC "scholar" Richard Vedder who rolled out a misleading cookie-cutter study on the alleged benefits of the bill. “Expert” James Sherk, with the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, also flew out to testify. Sherk's effort to devise a local right-to-work strategy and peddle it though ALEC was featured on the front page of the New York Times in 2015 in an article entitled "Foes of Unions Try Their Luck at the County Level."
Greg Mourad from the National Right to Work Committee also flew in. Mourad’s group received $1 million from the Koch brothers' "secret bank" Freedom Partners in 2012. State Senator Chris Larson grilled the Koch crew in the Senator Labor Committee, which abruptly cut off testimony and abruptly ended its hearing fearing demonstrators.
Americans for Prosperity popped up its usual TV commercials in support of the bill and Governor Scott Walker, who called right-to-work "a distraction" during the 2014 campaign, then rapidly reversed course to support it shortly after the election.
In the meantime, the real grassroots, the actual 450 Wisconsin construction firms that formed a coalition to fight this interference into private sector contracts, were sidelined and ignored.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel has already said he will appeal the measure, and the issue may be settled by the right-wing Supreme Court which was elected to office with massive expenditures by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Club for Growth, both supporters of the bill.
Jessica Mason contributed to this article. Learn more about the passage of the ALEC bill in Wisconsin here.