Scott Walker “dropped the bomb” back in 2011 with Act 10, which did away with most public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Now the Republican leadership in the Wisconsin state legislature is gearing up to throw a Molotov cocktail at all workers. Making Wisconsin a “right to work” state is at the top of the Republicans’ agenda, according to state senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (Republican of Juneau).
“Right to work” is a deceptively pleasant sounding term for putting all unions out of business. Under “right to work” laws, non-union employees must receive the same benefits as union members in any workplace, and cannot be required to pay dues.
If unions can’t collect dues from their members, and there is no benefit to being in a union, unions will quickly cease to exist.
And when unions cease to exist, all workers pay a high price.
Around the country, in “right to work” states wages are low, workplace fatalities are high, and health care and other benefits are hard to come by.
And it’s not just union members who suffer. The whole climate stinks. Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are all right-to-work states—and the worst five states to live in, according to a 2014 ranking for quality of life by Politico.
That’s because having unions in your state brings up the floor on wages and working conditions for all workers, by setting a standard that even nonunion employers follow. The effect is so great, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute, that “the impact of unions on total nonunion wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages.” EPI researchers found.
Taking time off to care for a sick child, going on vacation, not taking calls from the boss on Sunday mornings, or holding out for higher pay and health care and retirement benefits—all of that goes out the window when workers in your area have no collective bargaining rights.
And unions reduce overall inequality, by increasing wages for workers at the low end of the scale—creating a fairer, more pleasant, more livable economy.
Who likes the idea of a law that destroys organized labor? Billionaire bosses like Diane Hendricks, one of Scott Walker’s biggest backers, who was caught on film back before Act 10 passed, asking eagerly, “any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state, and work on these unions?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Walker.
“And become a right-to-work [state]?” Hendricks added, hopefully.
To which Walker made the infamous reply: “Well, we're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”
That “divide and conquer” strategy has torn our state apart, prompting mass demonstrations, a recall race, a new tone of bitter divisiveness, not to mention a lagging economy.
Now comes the next step.
Walker, like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who signed Michigan’s right to work law, has sent mixed signals, calling the recent announcement that right to work will be at the top of the legislative agenda come January a “distraction.”
(Snyder made similar remarks, and then signed right to work in a hurry as soon as it came to his desk.)
Fitzgerald says he's considering a bill that would exempt some unions, who happen to have supported the Republicans.
More divide and conquer.
The real question is what will Wisconsinites say--particularly the one-third of union households who voted for Walker, believing that he would stop short of an all-out war on labor.
“We need to stop calling it right to work and call it what it is: corporate servitude, wage theft,” says Randy Bryce, a veteran organizer for the iron and electrical workers who spends time talking to conservative guys in the trades in the Milwaukee area who supported Walker. Some of them feel betrayed by what is happening in their state.
As bad as things are going to get in 2015, it's going to take everyone working together to claw back a livable society from the likes of Walker, Fitzgerald, and Diane Hendricks.
It starts with understanding that the policies Walker and the Republicans are enacting are leading directly to the underfunded schools and local communities, low wages, and lousy working conditions in states at the bottom of those most-livable-state lists.
As Bryce puts it, “If it’s so doggone good, why aren’t they including the people that supported them?”