MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s contention that a right-to-work proposal would be a “huge distraction” from his efforts to create jobs has not prevented business groups from tabbing the legislation as a priority.
And if that legislation pops up in the Capitol next year, a business lobbyist said, there is little reason to expect a distraction as severe as the one that greeted the governor’s Act 10 legislation. Scott Manley, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce vice president of government relations, said Monday that he has several reasons to believe a right-to-work bill would be easier to adopt than the 2011 law that stripped most public workers of the bulk of their collective bargaining rights.
For one, Manley said, right-to-work legislation would be much simpler and probably require less time to debate.
Right-to-work laws, which have been adopted by 24 states, generally free employees in unionized shops from paying mandatory dues, even if benefits have been negotiated on those workers’ behalf. Walker’s Act 10, in contrast, prevents public employers from bargaining collectively on anything save pay increases tied to the rate of inflation, requires public-sector unions hold annual recertification elections and imposes a variety of other restrictions.
“Right-to-work is simply about being given the freedom to belong to a union or not,” Manley said. “It’s a very different issue.”
Manley made his comments the same day that a longtime conservative activist, Lorri Pickens, announced the formation of Wisconsin Right to Work. According to a Monday news release attributed to Pickens, the group’s mission will be to “advance freedom in the workforce by ensuring that all individuals, whether or not they choose to join a union, have the same benefits, rights and protections.”
Pickens’ background in conservative politics in Wisconsin includes serving until 2012 as state director of Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group that receives much of its money from the conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. Pickens also was campaign manager of Vote Yes for Marriage, the group that supported a 2006 state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and in 2007 was a lobbyist for Wisconsin Family Action, an anti-abortion group that supported the same ban.
Pickens said Monday that she no longer works for Americans for Prosperity and that her new organization is not receiving support from the Koch brothers. She described Wisconsin Right to Work as a “grass-roots” group that is meant to start a discussion about the possible benefits of right-to-work legislation.
Pickens said her main goal is to encourage the public to express support for right-to-work by visiting the group’s website at freedomtoworkwi.com. If the backing is as strong as she thinks it will be, she said, she will try to present the results to lawmakers.
Manley said the adoption of right-to-work legislation ranked as the second-highest priority among the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce members polled in a survey earlier this year. He said the respondents, including executives at construction companies, showed a greater interest in only one other possible change: tax reductions.
Manley said he believes most private-sector unions in Wisconsin represent workers in the construction and manufacturing industries. Nationally, nearly 7 percent of all workers were members of private-sector unions in 2013, according to the latest figures available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manley said he believes the percentage is similar for Wisconsin.
So far, construction trade groups are staying mostly mum about right-to-work legislation. Jim Boullion, director of government affairs at the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, said he is gathering opinions from the organization’s union and nonunion members.
A representative of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, which has adopted the principle that “every worker should have the right to belong or not belong to a labor organization,” could not be immediately reached Monday afternoon.
But Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building & Construction Trades Council, pledged to fight right-to-work by telling lawmakers how the legislation could depress wages in the state. And the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin, an umbrella group for many private-sector unions, put out a press release Monday deeming right-to-work laws “a ploy to attack the middle class.”
Manley said the state’s next legislative session, which will start in January, is likely to be a particularly good time to introduce a right-to-work bill. Republicans, who generally favor laws that constrain union power, will hold 63 of the state Assembly’s 99 seats, enough to ensure they can pass anything they want.
In the Senate, where Republicans will hold 19 of the 33 seats, the margin will be smaller. Still, if Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, decided to pursue right-to-work legislation, he could lose a few of his caucuses’ votes and still get a bill passed.
Fitzgerald in the past has said he is willing to discuss the possible benefits of right-to-work laws but has not committed to introducing legislation. Myranda Tanck, Fitzgerald’s communications director, said Monday that his position has not changed.
“At this point, we have not set any firm policy objectives,” she said, “and will need to discuss the issue with the governor’s office and other legislative leadership to determine the level of support.”
Walker is not the only prominent state politician who has said a right-to-work bill would not be a priority this legislative session. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said shortly after the state Supreme Court upheld the legality of Act 10 that he would not push for the adoption of a right-to-work law in the coming two years.
Like many proponents of right-to-work, Vos has said he thinks the policy would make Wisconsin companies better able to compete with rivals in states where unions have less ability to force up wages. Yet he also expressed concerns, similar to the governor’s, that a huge fight over right-to-work would distract lawmakers from job creation and other priorities.
At the root of many of the anxieties are the protests that erupted in Madison in 2011 following the introduction of Act 10. Thousands of demonstrators occupied the state Capitol and nearby grounds for months early in the year in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent lawmakers from passing the law.
Manley, though, said he thinks the reasons for worry have been exaggerated. Right-to-work, besides its relative simplicity, would not have to cross the same legislative hurdles as Act 10, he said.
Act 10, because it affected state employees’ compensation, was subject to a legislative rule requiring at least 20 state senators be present for votes concerning budgetary matters. That rule let Senate Democrats bring the legislation to a temporary halt by leaving the state and refusing to form the necessary quorum.
A right-to-work bill, Manley said, would not affect state finances directly and could be passed by a simple majority vote in the Senate.
“It’s something our membership is very supportive of,” he said. “We continue to hear more and more from businesses that we are at a competitive disadvantage because we are not a right-to-work state.”
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.