My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
It has been a political roller coaster for several months, but it appears that Wisconsin will become the 25th right-to-work state, possibly as early as this week, as the Legislature moves into action. Enacting right-to-work legislation will help Wisconsin’s economy. More importantly, the state government will finally cease infringing on workers’ right of association.
Detractors excel at injecting fear and confusion into the debate over a right-to-work law, but it is an exceedingly simple concept that is rooted in universally recognized human rights and in the principles of our nation’s founding. All it does is forbid the government or employers from forcing workers to either join or not join a union. That is it. Simple.
Right-to-work legislation affirms the principle stated in Article 20 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states, “(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” It also affirms the principles of freedom of association and conscience enshrined in our national and state constitutions. Given how egregious our state has been infringing on these rights of workers, one wonders why we have allowed our government to get away for it for so many years.
Right-to-work opponents like to frame the debate in terms of an “attack” on unions and collective bargaining in general. It, however, does not do anything to diminish people’s right to collectively bargain. In fact, the legislation under consideration specifically reaffirms people’s collective bargain rights in Section 11.
Furthermore, the impact of right-to-work laws on unions is mixed. Both Michigan and Indiana passed right-to-work legislation in 2012. Since then, union membership in Michigan declined slightly, but union membership in Indiana actually increased.
The result in Indiana is widely believed to be because overall private sector employment has increased in Indiana, with its unemployment rate dropping from 8.3 percent in 2012 before right-towork was passed to 5.8 percent at the end of 2014. As more jobs are created in Indiana, more union jobs are created too. Clearly many of the private sector unions in Indiana still make a compelling case for workers to join them.
It is also worth noting that Wisconsin’s private union membership has been on the decline for many years. In 2004, almost 17 percent of Wisconsin’s private- sector workers were represented by unions, but only 12.5 percent are represented by unions now. Should Wisconsin pass right-to-work into law, it will only affect a fairly small minority of workers who are already in unions, but it will preserve the fundamental choice for all workers to join a union or not.
As of now, it appears as if right-to-work legislation will shortly be the law in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker, despite once authoring a right-to-work bill when he as a legislator, has been trying to stave it off by deprioritizing it. But the legislative leaders of the Assembly and the Senate know that it is not going away.
It is a priority for elected Republicans and their constituents. The overwhelming election of Duey Stroebel in the 20th Senate District, who strongly advocated for right-to-work legislation, reconfirmed the mood of the Republican base regarding this issue. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos both said they would call their legislative houses into session for right-to-work passage and Walker publically declared that he would sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
As it looks like a right-to-work law is imminent, the Legislature should remember to keep it simple. As written, the right-to-work bill is less than five pages long. This makes sense because it does not take much to affirm such a simple principle. There has been talk recently of enacting certain carve-outs or exemptions for political reasons. The Legislature must reject all such notions and pass a simple, clean bill enacting right to work. Anything else is a recipe for political and legal trouble.
(Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. His column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)