MILWAUKEE — In saying the Wisconsin Legislature must take up right-to-work legislation next year, the state Senate’s majority leader Thursday brought up the possibility of exemptions meant to preserve construction unions’ role in training workers.
State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, spoke on the air with Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host on WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee, at length about the likelihood that the Legislature next year would debate a right-to-work law aimed at freeing employees from having to pay union dues. Fitzgerald said legislation of that type could take many different forms, and lawmakers even might consider changes to the state’s prevailing-wage laws, which require governments pay workers on public projects at a rate meant to reflect the average paid in a particular trade in a particular area.
But in the main, Fitzgerald said, he is interested in seeing if Wisconsin lawmakers can come up with a proposal that does not require reinventing the ways in which workers are prepared for jobs in the construction industry. He noted that many construction unions work closely with technical colleges to train workers for various trades.
“If you wipe that slate clean,” Fitzgerald said, “I don’t know where you go from there.”
Contractors have been struggling with a labor shortage in recent months as the economy and construction have picked up pace. Fitzgerald said he wants to be careful to avoid doing anything that would stymie economic development.
Fitzgerald told Sykes: “There has been a historical kind of system in place that basically says, whether you are a private-sector employer or somebody that just fully is a union shop, that if you need 10 plumbers, and you go, you say, ‘Listen, I want plumbers that know what they are doing, are well-trained, drug-free, ready to work,’ all I do is simply is call up the union and say, ‘I want 10 of these guys in a year.’ And the union trains these guys.”
Right-to-work legislation often is portrayed as being pushed by management interests eager to weaken unions. Fitzgerald, though, said such depictions are often too simplistic, especially when applied to the role unions play in the trades.
“You might have some push back from some management teams in Wisconsin,” he said, predicting that some executives might say, “We like this system and the way it works for us, and we are not necessarily on board with your right-to-work legislation.”
In the interview, Fitzgerald made specific mention of various trades groups, including pipe fitters, carpenters and operating engineers. Operating Engineers Local 139 was one of the few unions to support Gov. Scott Walker after he fought for what is commonly known as Act 10, a 2011 law that deprived most public-sector workers of most of their collective-bargaining rights.
Reached by phone, Fitzgerald’s communications director, Myranda Tanck, said her boss was not proposing exempting particular trades unions or the construction industry in general from a prohibition on compulsory payments of union dues. She said Fitzgerald and his staff members are studying the right-to-work laws that have been adopted in 24 other states to learn if there is a way certain union functions, such as training, can be preserved.
Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, a nonprofit group that advocates for right-to-work laws, said no state makes an exemption for an entire industry. Attempting to do that in Wisconsin, he said, would be unwise and would make any law the state might pass more vulnerable to court challenges.
Semmens said a legal template has been established for right-to-work. Those who diverge from it, he said, do so at their own peril.
“In the 24 right-to-work states, these laws are perfectly legal,” Semmens said. “Every time they’ve been tested, they’ve been successfully defended.”
Semmens said he does not know of any states that make special exceptions to preserve certain union functions. He said he thinks Wisconsin could find a way to ensure workers receive the training they need without watering down a right-to-work law.
John Mielke, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, noted that not all preparation for the trades occurs with the help of unions. The ABC, a group that maintains that workers should be free to choose if they want to belong to unions, runs its own training programs in collaboration with technical colleges.
“We have worked with thousands of apprentices outside the context of collective-bargaining agreements,” Mielke said. “So it’s not like it can’t be done.”
Walker, during his re-election campaign this year, said right-to-work was not a priority and would be a distraction. He repeated that position when asked about it Wednesday, saying he wanted the Legislature to focus on other priorities.
On the air, Fitzgerald told Sykes the Senate will move aggressively on right-to-work, whether or not Walker wants the debate.
“We can’t tiptoe through this session without addressing this,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not tackling this six months from now. We’re not tackling this a year from now. … There’s no way we avoid this issue.”
Fitzgerald said he and other proponents of right-to-work will have to consider if they could win more votes in the Legislature if they pass some sort of exemption for the trades.
“The changes that you make will certainly bring people on and take people off that bill,” he said. “That’s why we need to have this discussion now.”