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Politics & Government

What a Right-to-Work Law Could Mean For Wisconsin Unions

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It seems inevitable that Wisconsin will approve a right-to-work law. It would prohibit companies and unions from forcing workers to pay dues.

The Assembly is expected to approve the bill later this week and send it to Gov. Scott Walker. He has promised to sign it into law.

Union membership would likely fall in Wisconsin, if the state enacts such a measure It’s the trend, according to Cheryl Maranto. She’s a management professor at Marquette University.  Maranto says union numbers tend to drop in right-to-work states, partly because many unions think it’s futile to expand into new workplaces there. 

“It makes it less attractive for unions to put in the resources to organize new bargaining units, and the result is union membership does decline over time,” Maranto says.

One state that has seen its union numbers fall is Michigan. It became a right-to-work state in late 2012. Reporter Rick Pluta has been following developments for Michigan Public Radio Network. He says union membership has dropped dramatically because of individual decisions workers made.

“Because people who were in organized shops opted out of the union. It’s that simple. They said they didn’t want to join,” Pluta says.

Pluta says Michigan has 48, 000 fewer union members since right-to-work became the law there two years ago.

Some trade unions have tried to make themselves more relevant by offering training and testing opportunities. For example, workers in some contracts must be certified. So a union van will show up with the necessary computers and software to prepare employees for the job.  There is an association of business owners in Wisconsin fighting right-to-work, because their unions provide such services.

John Drew says the UAW plans to hold frequent meetings with workers, doing a hard-sell to convince them to join – and pay dues. Drew is an organizer.

“Workers will see the value of being part of an organization that provides them with a collective voice in the workplace, the voice to press for protections against unsafe conditions, the voice to press for improved wages, benefits and fair treatment,” Drew says.

Drew says he hopes Wisconsin will buck the trend and keep its union membership stable. Yet he admits it could be tough to compete with a “no dues” policy.

“You will have the free loaders who want something for nothing and will stop paying dues, but I believe the vast majority will want to stick with their union,” Drew says.

Drew says there are currently 10,000 UAW members in southeastern Wisconsin.

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