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Construction And Business Groups Debate Right-To-Work

State Capitol Not Moving Forward, For Now

Chuck Quirmbach/WPR News

Wisconsin’s largest business group and a coalition of construction contractors have started to debate what may be a contentious issue at the state Capitol this spring—right-to-work legislation.

Right-to-work laws allow employees at a unionized firm to avoid joining the union or paying union dues. Critics argue it weakens collective bargaining in the private sector and should really be called “right to work for less”.

Gov. Scott Walker has said debating right-to-work in Wisconsin would be a distraction, but some Republican lawmakers seem determined to go forward with a bill. At a joint meeting of the Milwaukee Rotary Club and Milwaukee Press Club Tuesday, advocates and opponents of right-to-work squared off.

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Kurt Bauer of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce said the other two dozen states that have right to work perform better on many economic measurements.

“For example, stronger economic growth, lower unemployment rates, better wage growth and more disposable income, more private-sector investment, fewer welfare recipients, higher population growth—which is actually critical for Wisconsin, if you look at our demographics, we’re in desperate need of workers and are going to need more of them over the next 20 or 30 years, or so,” Bauer said.

But Steve Lyons, with the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition—a group representing 400 firms—said he talks with many business owners who don’t want right-to-work.

“These are private-sector businesses that are looking at this and scratching their heads and saying, ‘Why are we doing this?’” said Lyons. “They’re not union, many of them CEOs, many of them former WMC members, some of them current WMC members, and they’re saying, ‘This doesn’t make economic sense.’”

Lyons said many firms work collaboratively with their unions, citing the example of Payne and Dolan, a construction firm in Waukesha.

“They’ll call up the union and they’ll say, ‘We just received a bid, I need 20 welders.’ The union will do the drug testing, they’ll make sure that they’re certified, that all their certifications…are up to service, they’ll have been trained in state-of-the-art facilities and those 20 welders will come on site and be ready to go. And so it’s this partnership,” Lyons said.

But Bauer, of the WMC, said the building trade companies are just afraid of the unknown.

“I mean, the reality is that there’s nothing to fear here,” he said. “Right-to-work works for those states and it will work for Wisconsin…It’s compelling, the freedom of choice argument, the economic argument.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau said recently that not much will happen on right to work legislation until after a special election in April, that will fill a vacant Senate seat.