Wisconsin companies join the fight against right-to-work-for-less

MADISON, Wisc. – Given rising anger in business ranks against Scott Walker’s right-to-work-for-less law, a law they were supposed to love, there are beginning to emerge increased efforts by some of them to lobby against the law and even cases where they say they will move out of state in order to avoid the law’s negative effects on their bottom lines.

It’s a quiet effort that moves in the same direction as the more blatant effort by unions that continue now to go to court in their own frontal assault on the anti-labor law.

Gov. Scott Walker, in December, had dismissed any such law as a “distraction” but then reversed himself and pushed right-to-work through when it fit his presidential ambitions in conservative voting primary states. His abandonment of state interests for his national push has not gone unnoticed.

Suddenly selling himself as the destroyer of unions gets attention on the campaign trail despite the fact that the majority in Wisconsin don’t feel the same way about unions. Businesses still want state projects but are worried about the complications right to work will cause for them.

Even corporate lawyers recognize the ground may be shifting under Walker because of his overreach. Republicans are criticizing his two-year budget as an attempt to double down on past mistakes.

New scrutiny from the national media is putting back in play the way he raised money to survive the recall election. It’s unlikely to be union court action that will bring down Walker, however.

While allowing the legal challenge to Wisconsin’s right-to-work law to proceed, a Dane County judge on March 19 refused to grant a temporary injunction to immediately halt the law. In effect, Circuit Judge William Foust wants to wait for the “irreparable harm” that the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers and machinists (IAMAW) believe is inevitable from a law that only went into effect March 11 and can’t change existing contracts.

The conservative court system reacts more sympathetically to attacks on business rights and profits than to union concerns – and several businesses say they are contemplating court action against right to work.

“I’ve never seen my client, a construction company, so hot under the collar” one corporate lawyer confided to me after I shared my similar interview findings – three companies considering court action to oppose RTW for interfering with their profits. The law doesn’t let them make pay pool deals on training and benefits with a union workforce. Any workarounds look extremely costly.

Even more companies agree with North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey who wrote the New York Times that RTW will not, as Walker claimed, provide a “compelling reason to consider expanding or moving to Wisconsin.” It will actually send businesses scurrying to states where they can find “the skilled craft professionals needed to get projects done safely and efficiently,” McGarvey said, now that in Wisconsin “the training infrastructure has gone away.” Seeing that change, workers are starting to avoid living in Wisconsin – and smart companies know it.

But where unions are outspoken businesses move more cautiously. While they are getting lawyers involved, they are looking at other options as well.

Some might move to non-RTW states or even relocate a portion of their headquarters to Minnesota, including James Hoffman of the highly regarded construction firm in Black River Falls. To outrage from Wisconsin me-firsters, Republicans in Minnesota are openly luring Wisconsin businesses — and now even Illinois is getting into the act.

Hoffman Construction Company as well as workers in general are also worried about the next ALEC shoes the Walker forces may drop – the disemboweling of prevailing wage regulations. Such a bill is moving through the Madison legislature.

These are median standards of what workers should expect to be paid county by county for jobs. It is actually done by government surveys, not by unions, and helps businesses anticipate the costs of construction projects, covering pay scales for everything from painters to laborers, from back hoe operators to ceiling tile installers, from landscapers to carpet layers. Non-union construction companies such as ABC have been chafing for decades not just to break apprenticeship limitations imposed by the state laws but to pay workers lower than these medians.

It may not be as sexy to tea partyers and Walker’s presidential ambitions as RTW, but eliminating prevailing wage standards “faster than anything will destroy Wisconsin’s family incomes.” So noted Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building and Trade Council, US Rep. Mark Pocan and leaders of non-union worker coalitions, all affected by these standards.

Photo: March 5 Rally to Oppose Right to Work. Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Facebook.




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.