Is "Right to Work" Next on Walker's Agenda?

Many are wondering if making Wisconsin a "Right to Work" state is next on Governor Scott Walker's agenda if he wins the recall election on June 5. Right to Work laws weaken unions by allowing members to opt out of paying dues. Workers get the benefit of working in a union shop (higher wages, better benefits), but are not required to pay their fair share for union representation. Right to Work laws have been used effectively in the South to bust unions and keep wages low, which is why they are dubbed "Right to Work for Less" laws by opponents. The recent push for this legislation is emanating from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where corporations and right-wing legislators vote as equals behind closed doors on "model" legislation.

This issue is newly on the radar of Wisconsin voters due to a video released earlier this month by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showing Governor Walker having a frank conversation with his largest campaign contributor shortly after he was elected. Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks asks Walker how he will make Wisconsin a "red" state and if he will "work on these unions" and "become a Right to Work" state. Walker replies that the "first step" will be "to divide and conquer" Wisconsin unions through a budget bill dealing with public sector workers. One month after the video was filmed, Walker "dropped the bomb" and introduced his bill to strip some 380,000 public workers of 50 years of collective bargaining rights, starting a race to the bottom in wages and benefits. (CMD has embedded a campaign video on left only because the MJS video is not available for embedding.)

In the same video, Walker cites as his role model Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who first did away with collective bargaining for public workers by executive order, then successfully went after private sector unions with Right to Work legislation.

Right to Work Debate Heats Up in Wisconsin

Representative Scott Walker: Walker has a history with this issue and with ALEC, which has promoted a "model" Right to Work bill for decades. Before becoming Governor, Walker was a state legislator from 1993-2002. As a freshman legislator in 1993, Walker joined ALEC and cosponsored Right to Work legislation in Wisconsin. If passed into law, 1993 SB 459 would have applied to public sector as well as private sector workers. That bill failed to pass, but Walker kept trying, sponsoring another ALEC favorite, "Paycheck Protection" legislation (1997 AB 624), which would make it tough for unions to spend money on elections. Immediately upon being elected governor in November 2010, Walker started drafting a bill to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights, even before he was sworn in. Previously, Walker had told Congress that he decided to move on the bill only after unions attempted to rush final contracts through a lame duck session of the legislature in December 2010.

Walker's proposal sparked huge protests, the departure of 14 Democratic state senators, and an 18-day Capitol occupation. While Walker did not tell voters of his plans to balance the budget on the back of working families and did not tell Congress the truth either, he is certainly telling the truth today when he says that if anyone is surprised by his actions "they have not been paying attention."

Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald: Over the past 18 months, Right to Work has been actively on the radar of top legislators in both houses. In a December 2010 roundtable discussion, Majority Leader Senator Scott Fitzgerald, former ALEC state chairman, was asked by Jeff Mayers of WisPolitics about making Wisconsin a Right to Work state. Fitzgerald enthused: "I just attended an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting and I was surprised about how much momentum there was in and around that discussion, nothing like I have seen before." ALEC has long promoted a model Right to Work bill and when Republicans took trifecta control of 26 state houses in November of 2010 it was a top agenda item at the December 2010 ALEC meeting. CMD has obtained a November 2010 email from ALEC's policy shop to ALEC members in Wisconsin highlighting this agenda item. ALEC touts "Right to Work" as a "solution... for your state's most pressing issues." Subsequently, "Right to Work" bills were introduced in 21 states. The president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), Harold A. Schaitberger, is one of many who cite this December 2010 ALEC meeting in D.C. as the source of the anti-union legislative onslaught.

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald: Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald has been a member of ALEC since 2001. In 2011, he was listed as a member of ALEC's Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force (CIED Task Force), the committee responsible for a raft of anti-labor and anti-consumer legislation including Right to Work, Paycheck Protection bills, bills that would roll back living wage ordinances, prevailing wage laws, and even state minimum wages.

In a newly released video taken in March 2012, Fitzgerald is asked by a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel whether he was surprised when Walker described his plans to attack public workers. "No, it wasn't a shock to me..." responds Fitzgerald. "My caucus wanted to go further. I had people in my caucus that was, you know, were wondering if we were going to do Right to Work in this state. So to tell you the truth, the collective bargaining, to me, I thought was more of a middle ground if you can believe that."

"Divide and Conquer" in the Pipeline

Governor Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers have all said that they have no appetite for Right to Work and continued strife in the state. Walker says he considers private sector workers "partners" in his reform efforts, but Wisconsin unions are not buying it.

"Walker said Police and Fire were exempt from the collective bargaining changes that were forced on all other public sector unions. With the budget cuts forced on municipalities by Walker, and the limits on levy increases, police and fire were forced into bargaining the same concessions as all other public union employees or face layoffs or significant increases in health insurance co-payments (from $1000 to $5000 or in some cases $10,000). Nobody is exempt with Walker, including the private sector. It's just a matter of time before you too are subject to divide and conquer," said Joe Conway, head of IAFF Local 311.

Even if these politicians decide not to go for Right to Work, there are still plenty of bills that would crush wages and limit health care coverage for working people in the ALEC playbook. These bills benefit one group only -- the corporate CEOs of Wal-Mart, Koch Industries, State Farm, Exxon Mobile, big tobacco and big Pharma, that fund ALEC and whose representatives sit on ALEC's "Private Enterprise" board of directors.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


Right to work here in NY means that almost everyone I know can lose their job at any moment without real reason or justification, with no compensation or warning. For example, if your boss doesn't like you for any reason, (s)he can simply say, "we're making changes and going in a new direction". If they have illegal reasons (race/age/sex/orientation/etc), it doesn't matter if they don't voice those reasons when they "let you go". It's happened to many of us. This means you don't complain when the company doesn't provide enough bathrooms, or clean them. Forget all those other things like disability requirements, and a harassment-free workplace. No one wants to complain because you can be fired any day. We find that a few very large companies stick to the rules because they have the resources, infrastructure, and the policies. You'd be surprised at the work environment created by "right-to-work".

Right to work laws are about competition and fairness for ALL (not just union shops). I would think Wisconsin workers would welcome this and allow open competition. this could bring a lot more job opportunities to the state.

I live in Missouri and you really do not want to become "right to work". Think lower wages/smaller paycheck/less pay for more work/inability to refuse to do things that may be hazardous to your health and the possibility of being fired at any time for any reason or no reason at all. Contrary to what they say, employers do not suddenly flock to the state to open new businesses and open up job opportunities. You don't want to go that route.

It's the same in telecom companies in California. They can let us go for no reason at all. Typically, they hire triple the amount of people needed and work all of them less hours. Here, if there is no union, there are no seniority rights, so us old-timers in the company get about 25 hours a week, just enough to keep the companies from having to pay unemployment benefits for us. Typically, it was like this: Go out and start the next construction job. As soon as the design work and the cable routes were established and the big cables were installed, out for the old-timers and in for all the minimum wagers for the rest of the job. Promises made to the customers that qualified personnel would be on the jobs were totally ignored and many jobs went bad after we went home. But it takes on the same claim that Texas has, that more jobs are created after imposing these "new rules", so the governor can take credit for the number of people working, but no one makes enough to pay all of their bills and the customers do not get better quality. This is hippocrisy at its worst and only serves to weaken union and private worker benefits even more in exchange for the additional profits the corporations will make.

Does the employer have any recourse when an employee wants to quit? Can they make them stay? Do they get compensated by the employee who leaves them short handed?