Wisconsin GOP continues its “right-to-work” steamroller

MADISON, Wisc. – The Wisconsin state assembly is expected to pass today the so-called right-to-work bill that was rammed through the state senate Wednesday and is expected to be signed into law by GOP Gov. Scott Walker as early as Monday. 

Republicans aren’t slowing down their steamroller despite widespread opposition that continued this week from all quarters in Wisconsin. Among the descriptive terms for the legislation used by workers and their allies are everything from “right to mooch” and “right to freeload” to “right to become Mississippi.”
During the limited hearings that have happened, the GOP was delighted when told that among the 25 people registered as “for” as opposed to the more than 1,000 registered to speak “against” there was the owner of a small business who was not connected to the right-wing, pro-business Bradley Foundation’s lobbying groups. (The foundation had been supplying most of the speakers in favor of the legislation.)

When Jim Murray, the conservatively-dressed and well spoken lawyer rose to speak in favor, however, he pulled off one of the great comedy stunts in the tradition of Stephen Colbert. Murray championed right-to-work as “great for my business” – he is a personal bankruptcy attorney! “Wages go down in right-to-work states,” Murray noted, complaining that Wisconsin was now stuck at  only 12th on the list of personal bankruptcy states but would, because of the GOP steamroller, soon advance into the “top 10 to join other right to work states.”

“I can’t wait,” he told shocked GOP committee members to chuckles from the audience. “Right here this body can break the backs of Wisconsin workers and take away all hope. We can spread the word that Wisconsin is open for bankruptcy and help my  small business in the high speed race to the bottom.”  

His tongue-in-cheek testimony delighted the Internet and demonstrated how citizens in this embattled state, which traditionally votes blue but let the GOP gain overwhelming gerrymandered majorities in the Madison legislature, are using humor as well as logic to handle this  juggernaut that can’t be stopped or even deflected at this point.

When he needed  the votes for governor last September, Gov. Walker called “right to work” a distraction he didn’t want in the next session. Now, however, he  is flying back from fund-raising trips for his presidential ambitions to sign it Mar. 9, knowing that his right-wing donors love the idea of sticking it to the unions.

That,  Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said, was the only reason for the “right to work” push.  During the floor debate Mar. 5 she pulled out the ALEC playbook where the same bill appears word for word and heralds this chance to crush unions.  “I’ll make a deal,” she told the GOP. “I’ll never mention ALEC again if you stop bringing us their bills.”

Facing a 63-36 imbalance in the Assembly and only having one GOP senator brave enough to speak his mind and lower the “right-to-work”  margin to three votes in the Senate, Democrats  are using common sense, eloquence and touches of sarcasm, shielding frustration with civility. Such courtesy is  not sufficient for some citizens, however. While steelworkers and other union members sat quietly in the gallery, following the rules, a few angry visitors in the other gallery stood up, chanted, and broke out in insults at the motor-mouth platitudes of Republican Speaker Robin Vos.

It was not quite the violence from workers and their allies that the GOP was hoping for and even encouraged, as pointed out in a previous Peoples World story. But it was enough, and at 1:55 p.m. on Thursday, the GOP ordered all galleries cleared, forgetting that grade school students were visiting, as were representatives of GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s office.

Despite pleas from Minority Leader Peter Barca, the lockout continued into the night. The peaceful workers, many of whom had driven for hours and given up working wages, missed dozens of speeches that further embarrassed the GOP with actual facts about the downward effect on wages and living standards in right-to-work states.

Incredibly, Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald kept suggesting more people would be speaking for “right-to-work” were it not for intimidation and union thuggery. It was much like Walker’s saying if he could handle 100,000 protesters against his killing of collective bargaining rights, he could handle ISIS.

Democratic Sen. Chris Larson ridiculed the GOP, noting how thousands of ordinary citizens were speaking up “without wearing a bag over their heads.” 

“What is even more interesting,” he said about the senate hearings, ” is who did not come out in favor of the bill: There were no local chambers of commerce, no individual businesses and no union workers.”  Actually, more than 450 companies had lined up in opposition.

GOP speakers threw around such terms as “choice” and “freedom” to describe their bill – a bill that forbids employers from signing labor contracts that allow unions to represent all their workers and denies unions the right to collect fees from workers they are required to represent.  “How far will you go to defend a bill that people just don’t want?” asked Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Points. Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, whose husband travels the state on union jobs as she raises their children and has often lived paycheck to paycheck, called both the bill and the arguments “a personal insult.”

Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, wondered aloud in his maiden speech, “If the bill is about worker freedom, why are there no unions backing the legislation?” New Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, said, “These are human lives we are talking about. Wisconsin is known for the strongest and best labor not the state with the cheapest labor. I don’t want to join a race to the bottom.”

“Don’t mislead the state anymore by excusing right-to-work as freedom,” thundered veteran Rep. Andy Jorgensen at the GOP side of the chamber. “If you are actually going to listen to the debate and are free to react,” he added, looking pointedly at Vos, “the outcome would be different  – though years in this chamber have made me cynical about that.”

Insiders in the Capitol from both sides know of 10 GOP members of the Assembly who have quietly told colleagues they oppose the way the bill is being rammed through. It is unlikely, however, that any of them will show the independence of GOP Sen. Jerry Petrowski who has openly voted against “right to work.”

Vos, on the floor and on TV,  contrasted the few thousand who showed up this time to protest as a sign of acceptance compared to the hundreds of thousands who surrounded the Capitol in 2011 over Act 10, which did to public sector unions what he is now doing to the private sector unions. “Last time we thought we might win, this time we know we can’t,” said John Drew, a prominent leader of the UAW and also a former statewide regent for the University of Wisconsin system. “They’re throwing so many myths into this debate, no one can keep up.”

Drew pointed out the GOP talking points are full of references to “closed shops,” which have been illegal for nearly 70 years, and how “freedom of choice” means to Republicans that a union doesn’t have to represent non-union workers.

The Senate’s Fitzgerald also drew laughter  when he couldn’t explain why the bill deliberately removed the historic “labor peace” preamble to the bill. “It is not in anyone’s interest  to eliminate ‘process of justice’ and return to the more primitive ‘trial by combat,’ ” complained Sen. Kathleen Vinehout. When Fitzgerald said the preamble was not relevant to the legislation, “Then why take it out?” inquired senior member Sen. Fred Risser.

The Democrats finally concentrated on four amendments that in the real world would have a chance: A 90-day delay to give businesses more time to finalize any contracts; removing criminal penalties so business owners don’t face jail or a $10,000 fine that insurers probably won’t pay; restoring the labor peace preamble — and sunsetting the law if, as likely given “right-to-work” history,  wages drop.  All were rejected on party line votes.

Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, opened the all-day floor  session Mar. 5 with a prayer and then a mistake. He chose a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” At the famous concluding phrase, “Was blind but now I see,” a woman shouted from the gallery, “If you can see, why can’t you see the workers of Wisconsin?” Observers said she wasn’t ejected. There is a difference between being disruptive and being perceptive.

Photo: Wayne Hasel, of Fort Atkinson with Local 95 UAW, attends a rally against the right-to-work bill outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.  |  Amber Arnold/AP


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.