In the same way Christopher Columbus proudly “discovered” an America already populated by millions of indigenous people, the Republicans have belatedly come across the painful reality of workers’ falling wages, the shrinking supply of family-supporting jobs, and a growing concentration of income and wealth among the richest 1 percent.
As if reading from a dusty telegram sent years ago, Mitt Romney breathlessly pronounced what he and fellow Republicans like Jeb Bush perceive as “news": “The rich are getting richer.” Similarly, House Budget Chair Paul Ryan—architect of cuts in food stamps and unemployment benefits and adversary of higher taxes on the top 1 percent and US corporations’ offshore operations of US–elevated hypocrisy to new heights, declaring, “The Obamanomics that we’re practicing now have exacerbated inequality,” he claims. “The wealthy are doing really well. They’re [the Obama administration] practicing trickle down economics now.”
No kidding. The top 1 percent hoarded 95 percent of income gains from 2009 to 2012, excluding 90 percent of the public from any genuine “recovery.” Median household income has fallen 8 percent since 2007. For young workers aged 25 to 34, the median inflation-adjusted wage has fallen in every industry except for health care. The supply of middle-income jobs has shrunken, as many have been sent offshore to Mexico and China and millions of other jobs de-unionized and downgraded in pay and benefits.
But the Republicans are responding to this crisis, first, by withholding band-aid programs s likefood stamps and extended unemployment benefits for those most profoundly wounded by the loss of income and economic security which is supposedly animating them.
Even worse are the Right’s proposed long-term “solutions,” which were summed up by Lawrence Kudlow and Robert Sinche in the National Review: “Lower benefits, higher jobs.” While Kudlow and Sinche were focused on unemployment benefits, the corporate/Right agenda of targeting wasteful “benefits” has stressed the destruction of union rights.
In Wisconsin, for example, the Republicans are eagerly advancing a prescription for sagging wages and opportunities in the private sector that would certainly result in a fatal “cure” or workers’ plight: a “right-to-work” law. Right-to-work laws are intended expressly to weaken unions by banning labor organizations from collecting fees from all workers who benefit from their extensive and costly efforts. This gives management a powerful incentive to divide workers by pressuring new workers to avoid financial support for the union.
Eventually, this translates into the erosion and near-complete decimation of unions in right-to-work states, the decline of worker safety, the marginalization of advocates for a strong social net, and predictably, primitive indicators of neglected health and educational needs. Instead, reflecting the hollowing-out of real democracy right-to-work states, these state typically neglect social needs and lavish vast public “incentives” on huge and profitable corporations.
But to avoid discussing the deplorable results of right-to-work laws, the Wisconsin Right to Work group––with close ties to Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers (see here, here, and here), and the well-funded Bradley Foundation––is raising the phantom specter of a non-existent threat called “forced unionism.” In reality, no one in the United States can ever be compelled to become a union member under any circumstances.
Thus, in Wisconsin and twenty-four other states, unions are quite reasonably allowed to assess “fair share” or “union-security” fees from every worker who gains from unions’ work representing them. That eminently sensible provision is now the target of a vast corporate and right-wing campaign.
However, if labor and progressives can aggressively educate the public about the clear-cut impact of right-to-work laws over seven decades, it will hardly be appealing to Wisconsin’s working majority, particularly at this moment of declining wages and disappearing jobs. Already, Wisconsin workers in the private sector are enduring average weekly wages 15 percent below the national average.
A Wisconsin right-to-work law would only intensify this downward slide in wages and families’ ability to send their kids to college or even to hang on to their cars and homes. By making it nearly impossible for unions to function and survive, right-to-work laws create a substantial gap in pay between workers in right-to-work states and those in states which permit the collection of “fair-share” fees from all workers.
Drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Congressional Research Service concluded in a December, 2012 report that states permitting “fair-share” or union-security” provisions showed sharply higher median wages: $50,867 compared with $43,641 in right-to-work states, a 16.5 percent differential amounting to $7,226 per year. Numerous other studies confirm this substantial advantage for workers in states allowing “fair share” contracts, while those in right-to-work states banning “fair-share” contracts suffering significantly lower pay and benefits.
A right-to work law would thus reinforce powerful trends which are already decisively transforming Wisconsin into a low-wage state. Wisconsin’s private-sector wages are now substantially below the national average, as noted above. All of the net job growth occurring between 2010 and 2013 in Wisconsin has been concentrated in low-wage jobs paying under $12.50 an hour, according to a recent study by Prof. Marc Levine of the University of Wisconsin Center on Economic Development.
Moreover, most of this increase in employment took place in jobs in the lowest rungs of the pay scale. “Over 60 percent of the 2010–2013 growth employment in low-wage occupations occurred in very low wage occupation” paying hourly wages under $10 an hour, Levine reported.
The study reflects the ongoing loss of middle- and high-income jobs––as many are subjected to downgrading––with growth the overwhelming in low-wage work:
- Mid-range jobs (those paying between $12.51 and $25 an hour) fell from 52.4 percent of the workforce to 45.7 percent in 2013.
- A number of occupations tumbled from middle-wage status into low-wage territory between 2010 and 2013. This occurred “especially in manufacturing, where real wages fell noticeably between 2010 and 2013.”
- “The downward trend in manufacturing and other middle-wage jobs suggests a pervasive, continuing erosion of the middle tier of Wisconsin’s occupational wage structure.”
- Of the fifteen occupations projected to grow most rapidly between now and 2020 through employment growth (as opposed to replacements), ten pay median hourly wages of $12.50 or less.
Clearly, the very last thing workers in Wisconsin or elsewhere is any further collaboration between corporations and state governments to weaken workers’ voice and thereby drive down wages.
But with overwhelming Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature, extensive corporate backing, the Koch brothers looming in the background, and fiercely anti-union governor Scott Walker not even weighing in yet, stopping the right-to-work juggernaut will require labor and its allies to launch a coalition effort of unprecedented scale to educate the public and exert intense pressure on the most important backers of right-to-work.
The moral appeal, the creative coalition-building, and the careful targeting of non-violent civil disobedience of the Moral Monday movement led by Rev. William Barber may offer some lessons—and inspiration––to advocates of economic justice in Wisconsin.
Finally, the Wisconsin labor movement very urgently needs to go on the offensive and seize the spotlight from the right-to-work gang. Labor can win this fight only by re-focusing public debate on the urgent moral and human need for higher wages so that Wisconsin workers and their family can once again live with dignity and security.
Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for 14 years.