Wisconsin will soon become the nation's 25th "Right to Work" (RTW) state. RTW prohibits employers and unions from negotiating agreements that require non-members to contribute to the cost of representing them. It weakens unions and increases economic inequality. The state Senate passed Bill 44 last week. This week, the Assembly will pass an identical Bill 61 and Gov. Scott Walker (R) — described by Joan Walsh as a "Koch brothers subsidiary" — will sign it into law.
Walker has spent several years denying that he wanted to make Wisconsin a RTW state. In 2012, Walker had "no interest" in pursuing RTW. He would "do everything in [his] power" to prevent it because private-sector unions had "overwhelmingly come to the table" to be his "partner in economic development." In January, RTW wasn't on his agenda. But last month, he embraced the divisive and damaging bill, because he had "never said" it wasn't a "good idea." So much for partnership!
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel awarded Walker's U-turn a "Full Flop." So what explains his sudden push for RTW?
Instead of acting in the interests of ordinary Wisconsinites, Walker has swallowed hook, line and sinker the anti-union extremism of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is linked to the Koch brothers. Bill 44 is based almost word for word on model ALEC legislation. Republicans fast-tracked RTW through an "extraordinary session" in order to to muzzle dissent, while a shadowy group with Koch connections, Wisconsin Right to Work, has aired anti-union radio ads.
Walker's enthusiasm for RTW has nothing to do with job creation. There's no evidence it attracts investment, and the anti-union statute will create zero new jobs. Indeed, when asked if a lack of RTW legislation in Ohio had deterred firms from locating there, Republican Gov. John Kasich (R) said: "No, we don't see that in our state. ... We're up almost 300,000 jobs and I don't find that to be a big issue in our state."
Nor will RTW promote "employee freedom." The conservative National Review wrote: "Wisconsin is already essentially a right-to-work state. ... Private-sector union membership is below 7 percent. ... Basically most people in Wisconsin already have a de facto right not to join a union, because the vast majority of firms are not unionized."
The true impact of RTW is well-documented: It weakens unions and creates a downward spiral in wages for both union and non-union workers. RTW supporters have admitted as much. Missouri State Sen. and ALEC co-chair Ed Emery (R) replied to criticism that wages would go down: "Sure they go down." Most workers won't earn $25 per hour "because they’re worth $20, or they're worth $17, or they're worth $12," and because employers would have "more freedom." According to PRWatch, at last week's hearing on Bill 44 — attended by a "who's who of Koch-funded institutions" — James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation stated it would "'drive down labor costs.'" Thus, RTW backers believe that many workers are "worth" poverty wages.
Walker has pursued ALEC's extremist agenda with a greater fervor than almost any other Republican governor. In 2011, he explained to a billionaire supporter who urged him to introduce RTW that his strategy was one of "divide and conquer." First, he would destroy public-sector labor rights, which he did in 2011, and then he would eviscerate private sector unions. Next, he will likely go after other worker protections, such as family and medical leave. As a reward for allowing them to call the shots, the Koch brothers have poured millions into Walker's election campaigns, and he has won favor with the GOP's hard right.
Before the hard right captured their party, many Republicans outside the South and Mountain West opposed RTW. Not now. In 2012, Republicans passed RTW in Indiana and Michigan. Last year, they introduced bills in 20 states. With 13 other bills pending this year, right-wing activists hope that 2015 will be a "tipping point," with more than half the country adopting RTW. But 2015 may also prove to be a tipping point for the middle class, with more working families being driven into poverty as a consequence of this reactionary anti-union legislation.
Last week, Walker equated fighting unions with fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). (He also called President Reagan's busting of the air traffic control strike in 1981 the "most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime.") But the Republican crusade to annihilate unions comes just as economic inequality has emerged as a leading political issue. Those who have acknowledged that rebuilding unions is critical to reducing inequality extend far beyond the usual suspects. The "Report on Inclusive Prosperity," co-chaired by former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers (hardly a labor ally) stresses the need to "support the growth of unions ... so workers can capture their share of productivity increases." Confessing that he has never been a union supporter, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, "I was wrong" because it's "increasingly clear that [unions] were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life." Even the International Monetary Fund concludes that union decline "has fed the rise in incomes" of the super-rich.
The evidence is overwhelming: Unions reduce inequality and mitigate the political influence of the ultra-wealthy. RTW, in contrast, will lower incomes for all but the wealthiest Wisconsinites, and increase the power of billionaires over state elections. By the time he leaves office, the nation's most divisive governor will have done much to diminish middle-class life and increase economic inequality in Wisconsin.
Logan is professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.