In the next few weeks, Wisconsin may become the 25th right-to-work state in the U.S..
Despite heavy protests at the Senate hearing Feb. 24, the bill passed a Senate vote the following day. Now it will go before the Assembly, which is the last threshold before going to a Governor who has already committed to signing the bill if it comes his way.
The question that remains is what this change will mean for Rhinelander and the Northwoods.
“This legislation will provide workers with the personal freedom to choose whether to become a union member and/or pay dues and fees,” said Representative Rob Swearingen in an email to the Star Journal. He continued to say that the legislation “will help spur economic development, attract new businesses to the state, and grow wages in Wisconsin similar to the 24 other Right to Work states.”
Not everyone is so hopeful. Jackie Cody, president of the Northern WIsconsin Center for Working People, called the legislation “offensive,” adding that the methods used to push it through have been “anti-democratic.”
“The problem I see with it is that it rips away security for Wisconsin families,” Cody said. “Right now, there are workers who are paying Union dues who are dissatisfied. So for them this is going to be a short-term economic gain, in their pocket. In the long-term, it’s going to hurt all workers.”
Right-to-work policies are aimed at unionized workplaces, where right now even those who don’t want to belong to a union must pay union dues. The tradeoff is that the union’s bargaining power covers all the employees within the unionized workplace—and will continue to under the new law, even for those who opt out of payment.
As a result, unions will have less money to function, limiting their power to negotiate on behalf of employees. Opponents of the bill say this will lead to lower wages and worse conditions for employees.
Andy Loduha, chairman of the Republican Party of Oneida County, on the other hand, believes that the need for unions has faded in today’s economic atmosphere.
“I think that unions absolutely served a purpose at a point in time in our country’s history. But the country has changed,” Loduha said. “I think people want that freedom of choice… I also say that there’s probably a logical reason why union membership in the country is at 11 percent right now.”
According to an article by the Wall Street Journal, wages in right-to-work states do tend to be lower, but job growth is stronger.
It’s an argument that has raged since the beginning of the right-to-work movement, which originally started in the south as an effort to draw businesses away from the north, a heavily unionized area.
The question may become whether or not the affects seen after adoption of the law in sothern states will be replicated in a northern state that has a long union history.
“I think we have to look at why businesses locate places. They don’t necessarily locate there because there is a low wage,” Cody said. “They are looking for amenities.”
Another controversial factor of the debate is the way this bill was introduced. It was less than a week from the bill’s introduction to going before the Senate, giving almost no time for an organized opposition.
An argument for shadowy political underpinnings to the bill have been made, some saying the goal of the GOP-backed legislation is to weaken the influence of union politics.
“The way in which it is being shoved through the state legislature… Is there a crisis here in Wisconsin that required us to do this right now? No,” Cody said. “Is it being done for other motives, one can guess at that.”
Whatever the political motivations in Madison, on a local level the debate of whether or not it will benefit the area is going strong.
“Right to Work is not about being pro-union or anti-union,” Loduha said. “It is about freedom of choice, and I believe workers should have the freedom and right to choose whether or not they want to belong to a union.”