What You Need to Know About the New Right-to-Work Law in Wisonsin

(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

True to his word, Gov. Scott Walker signed the controversial “Right-to-Work” bill that has had his state’s labor members whipped into a hostile frenzy in the last month. At the beginning of March, Walker’s spokesperson Laurel Patrick emailed the Cap Times stating that he would plan to sign the bill if his state’s congress passed the legislation.

Gov. Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a lawmaker and supports the policy. If this bill makes it to his desk, Gov. Walker will sign it into law.” Even without this clear sign though, it would have been obvious which way Walker leaned given his record on labor. In the past he’s had tense relations with Wisconsin’s labor unions while making efforts to curtail labor group’s collective bargaining rights in the public sector. However there are varying arguments on what this policy does, and whether the economic effects are worth the level of damage done to unions.

What is the Right-to-Work bill?

The right-to-work law cuts away at the power of unions to demand involvement or payment from workers within the company or field in question. The law can either completely prevent any requirements hefted onto employees, or it can simply regulate or limit these demands. In the case of Wisconsin’s newest law, it prevents mandatory worker payments or anything else that would basically amount to union dues.

What other states have similar legislation?

Wisconsin is hardly the first to support this type of legislation in its state legislature. Michigan and Indiana both put similar laws in place in 2010. Predictably the result was stronger businesses but weaker unions — and employment in Michigan and Indiana post-recession was hardly sparkling.

What does it say about Walker? What does he say about the bill?

For Walker, looking at a 2016 presidential run, he has nothing to lose by backing the bill. His history with labor ensures that he’s unlikely to curry much favor with that group, but his staunch support of right-to-work ensures that Republicans of similar mind can have confidence in his reliability on labor issues. He’s simply further entrenching himself in conservative supporters and solidifying his base there.

As for the economic result, he hopes it will have a positive business effect on his state, at least based on his words upon signing the bill. “This freedom-to-work legislation will give workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union,” said Walker, according to The New York Times. “And [it gives] employers another compelling reason to consider expanding or moving their business to Wisconsin.” This is once again an area that will appeal to Republicans, many of which are in favor of improving employment opportunities and pay from the top down, by helping businesses grow, rather than the bottom up, with workers rights.

What do labor rights supporters say?

While businesses may flourish under right-to-work laws, workers themselves have a reduced ability to bargain with their employers, meaning benefits are worsened and pay is less competitive within that state. So while business may be incoming as a result, jobs may not be opening up, or at least not opening up with good wages.

Wisconsin’s Workers Independent News recorded the state senate decision on the floor of Congress, and the disapproval is audible, with shouts of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” coming from the senate gallery.

It drives wages down and it pushes jobs out of state,” said Kevin Flynn of the Operating Engineers 150 in Chicagoland, according to Labor Radio. “The name ‘Right-to-Work’ is an illusion and it’s meant to fool and deceive people,” said Bill Carol, Teamster with Local 344, “It has nothing to do with right to work. It has everything to do with eroding workers’ voice on the job, unions and organized labor’s influence.”

On the other hand, simply cutting the requirement to contribute to labor unions doesn’t necessarily mean that labor unions themselves can’t hold membership together. The loss of mandatory fees and involvement will lose some, yes, but not necessarily enough to have such a destructive effect on jobs and wages. “There are still vibrant labor movements in right-to-work states,” said Paul Secunda, law professor and director of labor and employment law at Marquette University to Think Progress. In other words, if labor unions work to appeal to their members and satisfy needs and build community, this loss can be mitigated and the bill is hardly a death sentence. It may weaken unions, but there are other state’s examples to consider before writing off labor effectiveness in right-to-work states.

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