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Walker: Right to Work off the table in WI

By   /   February 6, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — While some see a wave of legislation aimed at weakening organized labor following Indiana’s new right-to-work law, Wisconsin is not expected to join it anytime soon.

“No,” Cullen Werwie, spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, told Wisconsin Reporter on Monday when asked if Walker thought the Republican-controlled Legislature would pursue legislation prohibiting labor organizations from requiring workers to join unions.

Republicans on the record said they’ve heard of no proposals. Off the record, some in the GOP said no one is interested in waging another big battle over labor matters in this season of recalls.

“Boy, I don’t think so,” said Charlie Bellin, research assistant for state Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, chairwoman of the Assembly’s Committee on Jobs, the Economy and Small Business.

“With the events of last year, I don’t think they’re going to shake anything out,” he said.

The “events of last year” put Wisconsin on the national stage in the GOP-led move to reform the state budget and, opponents say, undercut organized labor.

Act 10 was passed into law on a party-line vote and signed by Walker after mass protests at the Capitol.

The law limited collective bargaining for most public employees to cost-of-living adjustments and increased workers’ contributions to their pension and health-care plans. And much like right-to-work laws, Act 10 eliminates unions’ ability to collect dues from all members, and requires unions to re-certify each year.

Last week, Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law the state’s right-to-work law, the first in more than a decade and the first such law in the Rust Belt, a traditional union stronghold.

Decried by opponents as another assault on organized labor, the law affords employees at unionized workplaces the right to opt out of paying union dues.

Indiana became the 23rd state to implement the law, and the first since Oklahoma adopted its right to work legislation in 2001.

Supporters hailed it as a victory for Indiana’s economy, asserting the changes would be more inviting to businesses looking to grow and locate in the Hoosier State.

Supporters are hoping to draw momentum from Indiana, looking to spread right-to-work legislation beyond the South, the Mountain West and southern Midwest.

Opponents, meanwhile, are pushing back, trying to slow down a national campaign that will play prominently in the presidential election.

“No American should be forced to join a union and pay dues to get a job in this country,” U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, said in a statement last year as he joined several GOP senators introducing the National Right to Work Act.

“Many Americans are already struggling just to put food on the table, and they shouldn’t have to fear losing their jobs or face discrimination if they don’t want to join a union,” DeMint said.

The AFL-CIO called the Legislature’s passage of the bill a “sad day for working Hoosiers,” reflecting an “extreme partisan agenda that is all about payback for corporate donors.”

AFL-CIO of Wisconsin did not return requests for interviews.

Some attribute Wisconsin’s bitter battles over Act 10, in which 14 Senate Democrats left the state for Illinois to stall a vote, as setting the stage for right-to-work debates.

“The standoff in Wisconsin over benefits and rights of public employees could, for the first time in decades, spur changes across the country over so-called right-to-work laws’,” noted the opening of a Fox News story on Feb. 21, 2011, just as tens of thousands of protesters were descending on the state capital.

But it doesn’t appear there is more taste for tackling more labor issues, particularly on the private-sector side.

Gordon Lafer, associate professor of political science and labor at University of Oregon, said right to work is push-pull issue between “well-endowed” national interests, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and local and state governments.

The national interests, Lafer said, want to strike while the iron is hot, while Republicans, who swept into power in 2010, still hold the seats.

The reality on the ground, however, may be different.

“My sense is on the part of elected officials there is a reluctance this way,” he said. “There’s a push nationally to say, ‘Do it now, even if you win ugly, because this is the chance to push it through.’”

Lafer is a research associate who has published papers taking aim at the benefits of right to work through the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

He disputes research from right-to-work advocates asserting the laws lead to higher economic activity.

Data from the conservative National Institute for Labor Relations Research, drawn from federal labor and commerce statistics, show that private-sector employment in right-to-work states rose by a fraction in the last decade, while jobs declined 5.5 percent in states that require all unionized employees to pay union dues.

Research recently presented by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in the legislative debate, noted during a 30-year period through 2008, showed personal income and employment grew faster in the right-to-work states than the others protecting unions, as did migration.

Lafer argues the data is disingenuous, not taking into account a host of other factors, such as warmer weather in right-to-work states, immigration and other issues.

But Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, a Springfield, Va.-based lobbying group, said states that afford workers the freedom to choice create a better overall business climate.

“All around the country, including the Midwest, we have seen the most interest activity on right to work than we have in a very long time, maybe ever,” he said.