Gov. Scott Walker has created a new category of “takers” in his state of Wisconsin. Opposed to people getting something for free, he has signed the misnamed “right to work” law that allows people not to join the unions at their places of employment. To some people, this is “freedom,” but unions are not free to protect and negotiate for only their members. They must do this for all workers in places that unions cover. That means employees who don’t join unions but still benefit from the hard work of the organization are actually taking something free from the people who do pay for these services.
The law makes Wisconsin the 25th “right-to-work state” and the first state since Michigan and Indiana in 2012. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provided wording, also used by Wisconsin, for this bill and those being pushed through legislatures in other states. The takers of Wisconsin are funded by ALEC backers such as the Koch brothers, the Coors family, and Exxon Mobile. This law follows Walker’s stripping collective-bargaining rights from many state workers in Wisconsin.
Although the ALEC-worded RTW bill may succeed in Missouri, it has run into problems in Montana, Colorado, West Virginia, New Mexico, Kentucky, and New Hampshire—at least for now. Michigan has introduced a RTW extension for police, fire, and public safety unions. Kentucky is passing RTW on the local level, and billionaire GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has issued an executive order for RTW in Illinois public unions. On the federal level, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced a “National Right-to-Work Act,” and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced its companion act in the House.
Walker said, “This [law] sends a powerful message across the country and across the world.” His message is his move to the right as he prepares for a presidential campaign. His email message immediately after he signed the bill is that he wanted money for his campaign when he asked for donations of $10, $100 and $1,000.
Walker consistently reneges on his statements. Until a few weeks ago, he denied that he would make Wisconsin a RTW state and claimed throughout his reelection campaign, “Private-sector unions are my partner in economic development.” Before his 2010 election, he told newspapers that he would negotiate with public sector unions; his anti-collective bargaining bill was introduced immediately after he took office in 2011. Two years ago, he was in favor of giving undocumented workers a chance at citizenship if they obeyed the law. Now he reversed that opinion to join another possible presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
The governor’s position on abortion has also reversed. Before last fall’s election, he told voters, “I support legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options.” He claimed he supported a bill that “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.” Now he plans to sign a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks in constitutional violation of Roe v.Wade and removing the decision from a woman and her doctor.
Wooing Iowa, he switched his opposition to mandating ethanol and other renewable fuels. Now he wants to continue the Renewable Fuel Standard. Iowans might want to use caution in believing him. Walker will no doubt flip his promises for any personal gain.
ALEC has been helped by the 60-year-old National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), led by fundamentalist Christian Greg Mourad, that also receives huge donations from the Koch brothers. The organization was co-founded by right-winger Fred A. Hartley, who co-sponsored the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricting unions and also co-founded the John Birch Society. The NRTWC has been behind the skyrocketing income inequality in the United States. CEOs who earned 20 times a worker’s pay 50 years ago, now receive at least 300 times the worker’s pay. Between 1973 and 2014, public-sector union membership dropped by 78 percent. Unionization and minimum wages helped equalize the distribution of wages. That’s why the Koch brothers are determined to get rid of both.
In a comparison of the share of income going to the middle 60 percent of population, the workers in the ten states with the lowest rates of union membership brought home 46.8 percent of total income, and the ten states with the highest rates of union membership brought home 47.4 percent of total income. It may sound like a small percentage, but the difference is equivalent to billions of dollars.
Abdur Chowdhury, professor of economics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, explained why Walker’s legislation could annually cost Wisconsin $4.5 billion in lost income and revenue: “If our income goes down, we spend less money on groceries.” Walker also loses money for his state: less income means less tax revenue, at least $234 million. The state won’t get this back from the wealthy and corporations because of the massive tax cuts that Walker gave them.
Despite claims from ALEC “economists” that RTW laws boost per capita personal income, average wages for all occupations in RTW states were about $4 an hour lower compared to non-RTW states in 2013. In RTW states, workers have $5,971 lower wages and fewer employers offering pension benefits or health care. Employers looking for skilled workers or a well-developed infrastructure will most likely not go to RTW states because these are less likely to have these advantages. That’s a reason that 400 businesses formed a coalition to oppose the law.
Oklahoma, the first state to pass a RTW law in 2001 for 25 years, was also the first state to do so in the post-NAFTA era of globalization. There has been no positive impact on employment in Oklahoma in the last 14 years. In addition, the number of companies relocating to the state and the number of manufacturing jobs both fell by a third in the first decade after the law was enacted.
Walker is not finished with trying to lower wages for workers. He’s trying to restrict the role of administrative law judges in workers comp disputes and take authority for the system away from the state Department of Workforce Development, a move that has been found unconstitutional in Florida. Also, Wisconsin is one of 32 states with a wage law to “prevent lowball bids from depressing wages,” something that Walker wants to repeal. The third reduction of wages would come from prohibiting “project labor agreements” that bars non-union contractors from working on publicly-funded projects.
Unions in Wisconsin are fighting Walker in creating his new category of takers. The Wisconsin state AFL-CIO with chapters from the International Association of Machinists, and United Steelworkers unions have filed a suit on the basis that the law “deprives the unions of their property without just compensation by prohibiting the unions from charging non-members who refuse to pay for representative services which unions continue to be obligated to provide.” In other words, Walker’s permission for employees to free-load off the unions is unconstitutional.
When Walker was elected, he promised a massive increase in jobs in his state. He failed. Since Walker became governor, job growth, GDP, and decline of unemployment have all lagged behind neighboring states and the nation as a whole. He may fail again with his new RTW law. Seven of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates are RTW. After stopping RTW laws in 2012, Minnesota’s average weekly wage is $877.81, almost ten percent higher than its RTW neighbor Michigan that has a 6.3 percent unemployment rate compared to Minnesota’s 3.6 percent. Indiana, another RTW state, has an average weekly wage of $788.70 and a 5.8 percent unemployment state. Minnesota is one of the five fastest-growing states in the nation since 2012.
RTW Michigan also has a huge budget deficit and no industry coming into the state. Gov. Rick Snyder has had to lower the number of jobs that businesses need to create in order to receive massive tax credits. The worst is yet to come because workers are still operating on contracts made before the 2012 law, something that won’t happen in Wisconsin because the law goes into effect immediately.
Quality of life in RTW states is measurably worse with eight of the worst states in the nation having RTW laws, and eight of the best being non-RTW. RTW states have poorer life expectancy and infant mortality, higher homicide rates, worse pollution, lower voter turnout, less broadband access, lower educational levels, and poorer housing. The 24 RTW states have 34 percent higher rate of deaths on the job in the construction industry. During the 20th century, the middle class grew as unions grew; it began to shrink when unions were weakened through the so-called “right-to-work” laws.
Walker’s legacy will be the bodies that he leaves strewn along his path toward the White House.