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Right-to-Work Public Hearing Cut Short, Bill Heads to Senate

Overpass Light Brigade

The Senate labor committee hastily approved a right-to-work bill 3-1 Tuesday evening, after the chair cut short the public hearing, fearing disruptions were imminent.

The full state Senate now begins considering the legislation Wednesday afternoon. The bill would make it illegal in Wisconsin to force private-sector workers to pay union dues.

The committee began listening to testimony at 10:00 A.M. Tuesday, while several thousand protesters rallied outside the Capitol midday.

Credit Overpass Light Brigade
People gather in Madison for Tuesday's right-to-work public hearing.

Among those who urged the committee to approve right-to-work was Rick Esenberg, president of WILL, Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty. He told committee members that workers should not have to accept what they don’t want.

“More productive workers, for example, who don’t want lock-step compensation systems. Younger workers who don’t believe that seniority should be the sole determinant of who is laid off. Workers who would rather have steady employment at a lower wage in the boom or bust cycle of layoffs and callbacks, workers who don’t like the causes that the union supports or the candidates that it contributes to. All of these must, nevertheless, financially support the union,” Esenberg said.

Another advocate of right-to-work was James Sherk, an economist with the Heritage Foundation. He said unions pit worker against worker.

“Union contracts benefit some employees at the expense of others. Consider a seniority system. Under a seniority system the senior employees have wonderful job security. They’re last in line to get fired if tough times at the company. The newer hires, they’re pretty much guaranteed to have to walk the plank if bad times come upon the company,” Sherk said.

Sherk also contended that unions damage other workers’ standard of living.

“You can open up any introductory labor text book and it will explain that labor unions operate as a labor cartel. They try and control the supply of labor in an industry so as to drive up its price, namely wages. Like all cartels, these gains come at the cost of greater losses to the rest of society,” Sherk says.

Sherk cited salary and benefit deals between the United Automakers and car companies, as the reason for increasing car prices.

Among the people who stepped up to the microphone to oppose right-to-work was Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon. He cited statistics, saying the best research he’s seen shows that right-to-work laws lower wages for union and non-union workers by about three percent - and make it more difficult to get a job with health and pension benefits.

“The whole idea of right-to-work is to weaken unions in order to lower wages and benefits particularly in manufacturing in the hopes of attracting more outside companies into the state,” Lafer said.

Lafer told committee members that the majority of states with right-to-work legislation adopted it in the 1940s and 1950s, but that it does make sense in today’s global economy.

“Decades ago, there were companies that left the upper Midwest for the south and southwest for a variety of reasons, but definitely including cheap labor," he says. "But companies that are looking for cheap labor today are going to China or Vietnam or Mexico, they’re not going to South Carolina or Arizona."

Credit WKOW
Demonstrators gathered outside of the state Capitol on Tuesday.

Outside the Capitol, demonstrators, including sheet metal worker Daryl Olson, criticized right-to-work.

“You know what freedom looks like to me? Freedom looks like making a good living, having a voice in the workplace and being able to take my dad to a doctor’s appointment. The millionaires and billionaires pushing right-to-work in Wisconsin could care less about our freedom. What they really care about is silencing our voices,” Olson said.

Before demonstrators began assembling at the building Tuesday morning, two busloads of police arrived from the state patrol, capitol police force and DNR. Officers scanned the building with bomb-sniffing dogs.

As the nine-hour scheduled public hearing entered its final hour, committee chair Sen. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater) said he got word that parties were planning to disrupt proceedings when the panel planned to vote, so he ended the hearing early. All three Republicans on the committee voted in favor, one Democrat voted against and another missed the vote, reportedly, in the uproar that resulted. Some people who had waited for hours to spear were upset. 

After the hearing ended, right-to-work opponents gathered in the Senate chamber and chanted for more than an hour, before Capitol police closed the building. Officers had to physically remove one protester who refused to leave.

The scene resurrected memories of four years ago, when thousands of union supporters rallied and then camped in the building to oppose Act 10, the GOP plan that weakened most public unions in Wisconsin.

Tuesday's public hearing was the first chance the public had to weigh-in on the proposed law affecting the private employment sector. Supporters of the legislation announced their plans to advance it on Friday afternoon and then called senators into extraordinary session this week to vote.

If the Senate approves the item, it will move to the Assembly where passage is also expected. Gov. Walker says he would sign it into law. Wisconsin would then become the 25th state to enact right-to-work.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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