As Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature prepare to ram through right-to-work legislation in a special session this week, public and private sector union members and their supporters are converging on the Capitol.
But don’t expect a repeat of the historic protests of 2011. Walker’s successful drive to effectively do away with collective bargaining by public employees is having one very visible effect: teachers—who led the massive rallies against Act 10—can no longer get out of school for a day to march in protest. Nor can they attend hearings on the destruction of unions, or, for that matter, on Walker’s massive budget cuts to schools.
“Most of our members can’t take a personal day now to stand up for their partners in labor, because it’s a one-sided situation in our schools,” says Christina Brey of the Wisconsin Education Council (WEAC).
“Even for hearings on budgets, in the past, educators could have a union day or a personal day to testify,” says Brey. “Now they are doubly removed from the process. They are no longer at the bargaining table, and they can’t get to Madison to testify. This was the plan all along—to disempower workers.”
Union membership in Wisconsin has plummeted on Walker’s watch, which weakens labor’s political power. That’s good for Republicans, since unions are the only significant financial and organizing power pushing back against the corporations and billionaires who bankroll Republicans like Walker.
Sticking it to unions also depresses wages and investment in public schools. In the twenty-five right-to-work states, the Economic Policy Institute reports that average wages for both union and non-union workers are $1500 a year lower than in states that don’t have right-to-work laws (“right to work” means all workers are entitled to union benefits but don’t have to pay union dues, effectively shutting down the power of unions to fund their organizing work.)
Right to work states also spend 30 percent less on education.
Right-to-work proponents argue that the legislation gives workers a “choice” in the workplace, and that unions are too powerful. And, they claim, ordinary citizens are clamoring to disempower unions.
Certainly, Walker has tapped into a powerful current of resentment among strapped, non-union workers. He was re-elected on a promise to make teachers pay more for health care and pension benefits, and on an appeal to private sector workers that they if they lack the security unions provide, why should their neighbors be so lucky?
Still, private sector union members who supported Walker feel betrayed by his turn toward right to work.
And if Walker is scoring big points with the Koch brothers and the far right base in Iowa, his divisive politics won’t necessarily win over blue-state Wisconsin in a Presidential election year.
A recent article in The Washington Post on Walker’s toxic politics in Wisconsin includes quotes from small-town workers who are bitterly divided over whether unions are too powerful and whether union workers deserve health care and pension benefits.
But Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, disputes the idea that ordinary citizens of Wisconsin support Walker’s union-busting politics.
“We spent months traveling all over Wisconsin, talking to union and non-union workers in every corner of the state, and not one person talked about Act 10 or right-to-work as a priority,” Gundlach says.
The priorities Gundlach’s team heard about from Wisconsinites—middle class, working class, small business owners, people with jobs, and the unemployed alike, included:
- Raising wages
- Maintaining quality schools
- Basic community infrastructure, including stop signs
- Job training opportunities
- More affordable education
- Good housing
“Not one person told us, ‘We need right to work.’” Gundlach says.
No surprise, then, that the right-to-work bill introduced this week in Wisconsin comes from outside the state. It is, as Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy reports, literally word-for-word the product of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the national coalition of corporations and Republican state lawmakers.
Back on the home front, Walker’s immensely destructive budget, not right-to-work, is what most affects the state.
“This is a distraction,” says Betsy Kippers, the president of WEAC. The budget, with its vicious cuts to higher ed, K–12 schools, parks, environmental protections, and infrastructure in communities across the state, has been front and center in the news, Kippers points out.
“They are trying to take the focus off that,” she says.
“Our state values its workforce,” Kippers adds. “No one out in the communities is screaming for this legislation. What communities are screaming for is funding what’s important to them.”
By taking the emphasis off what the public wants, and stirring up division, Walker keeps his “big, bold” Presidential campaign politics going—fueling his national political career by burning down Wisconsin.
Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive.