Politics & Policy

In Wisconsin, Labor’s Last Gasp

Union protesters inside Wisconsin capitol on Tuesday.
Right-to-work elicits a faint reprise of 2011’s public-employee occupation.

When I talked to a top Wisconsin legislative leader a few months ago, he was worried about the protests that might erupt at the state capitol if the legislature took up right-to-work legislation. It was likely an aftershock from 2011, when public-employee unions besieged the statehouse, occupying it for weeks on end.

“And 30,000 teachers looks a lot different than 30,000 Teamsters,” he told me.

On Tuesday, the legislature took its first steps toward making Wisconsin right-to-work, holding hearings on a bill that would bar labor agreements requiring union fees. The bill was announced late last week, and the legislature has called an extraordinary session to pass it quickly. If Governor Scott Walker were to sign the bill, which he has said he will do, Wisconsin would become the 25th right-to-work state.

But on Tuesday, the large-scale public-union-style protests didn’t materialize. Early on a snowy morning outside the capitol, the sidewalks were empty. Several hundred union members, decked out in hard hats and iridescent safety jackets, milled about inside as the legislature conducted its public hearing on the bill. Perhaps expecting some of the chicanery of four years ago, police posted signs explaining that bringing live snakes into the capitol was prohibited.

At lunchtime, the union members headed outside and circled the capitol, some holding signs. None were heard chanting. Police estimates put the crowd at 2,000, which seemed a bit on the heavy side.

It was a somnolent affair, nowhere near resembling the carnival-like atmosphere of four years ago. Instead, bricklayers, electricians, and other laborers quietly gritted their teeth and dutifully marched in circles before heading home. (One individual was spotted wearing a giant papier-mâché Scott Walker head; it was clear he had spent a great deal of time getting Walker’s now-famous bald spot just right.)

One lobbyist noted that five years ago, a union protest of this size would have been a big deal: “Legislators would have really sat up and taken notice if a couple hundred union guys were outside their door, but after 2011, now it’s pretty much a non-event.”

Arguably, right-to-work is a far more drastic measure than limiting public-union power. Eliminating government unions is a complete no-brainer; there’s almost no reasonable argument for their existence. When public-sector unions negotiate against “management,” they are negotiating against taxpayers.

But right-to-work, even if it frees private-sector employees from having to pay union dues as a condition of employment, is a stickier question. Which is why, until recently, Walker himself had steered clear of the issue, calling it a “distraction.”

So why did Tuesday’s protest fall so flat?

For one thing, private-sector employees don’t have the luxury of taking as much time off work as the typical public-sector union worker. For many tradesmen, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. “A lot of my guys are saying, ‘I need to get home and get back to work,’” one trade-union lobbyist told me.

And there simply aren’t many private-sector union members left anymore. Only 8 percent of the state’s private workforce is union; when Walker weakened government-union bargaining power, he may have squeezed out whatever fight the unions had left in them. Further, private unions are more geographically diffuse; the city of Madison is home to tens of thousands of state- and local-government employees, all of whom are within a 10-minute drive of the capitol. Wrangling plumbers and pipefitters onto a bus for a two-hour ride is a totally different story.

But most significant, labor leaders now know that this is a legislature that cannot be intimidated. In fact, every bullhorn speech and beating drum only serves to further Scott Walker’s presidential ambitions, as it reminds people of the tumult he conquered four years ago — and emerged more popular as a result.

In fact, earlier this week, some Democrats even considered fleeing the state to prevent a vote on the right-to-work bill, as they did in 2011. Walker would have gladly paid for their bus tickets to Illinois or Minnesota, as the move backfired substantially four years ago.

After an abruptly called vote meant to dodge a mid-roll-call demonstration, the bill passed the Senate committee on Tuesday night.  That is why this year, labor leaders know right-to-work is a fait accompli. Which is why Wednesday’s gathering wasn’t so much a protest as a funeral.

— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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