Our Path Forward: Support Worker Rights to Collective Action

All workers should have the right to improve their jobs and employment through collective action and union membership.

In Wisconsin and across the nation, working people have been under ongoing attacks to destroy their ability to fight for better wages and work conditions through collective action. The war on labor has resulted in a nearly 50% decline in the proportion of workers covered by unions between 1983 and 2017.[note]U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey: Table 1. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by selected characteristics. Retrieved from:[/note]

In Wisconsin, divide and conquer tactics have been used to destroy workers’ rights. In 2011, public sector unions were crippled by ACT 10, which allowed people to take union benefits without being members or paying costs, eliminated “Just Cause” requirements for firing public workers, and reduced the protections for pensions and health insurance.[note] Wisconsin State Legislature. 2011 Wisconsin Act 10. Retrieved from:[/note] In 2015, Scott Walker extended the assault on workers with “right-to-work” laws that made the worst parts of ACT 10 apply to private sector employees as well.  Between 2011 and 2016, union membership in Wisconsin declined by almost 40%, and reached an all-time low of 8% of the workforce.[note] Beck, M. (January 27, 2017). Union membership down almost 40% since Act 10. Wisconsin State Journal. Retrieved from:[/note]

What’s the Problem Addressed?
Collective bargaining is essential to making the workplace fair for all employees. There are almost no other controls over large employers: the laws made by state and federal legislatures are not designed to give workers a voice in the workplace. 

The declining power of labor is directly tied to stagnant earnings and income inequality. [note]Gordon, C. (June 5, 2012). Union decline and rising inequality in two charts. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from:[/note] Declining union membership hurts everyone: since 1979, the decline in union membership has led to an annual loss of $109 billion in wage income for nonunion workers.[note]Rosenfeld, J., Denice, P., & Laird, J. (February 27, 2017). Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers. Labor Tribune. Retrieved from: [/note]

In Wisconsin, the decline in union membership accounts for most of the decrease in the share of income paid to workers between 1997 and 2014.[note]Manzo, F., & Bruno, R. (March 13, 2017). Union Decline and Economic Redistribution: A Report on Twelve Midwest States. Project for Middle Class Renewal, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign / Midwest Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from:[/note] The share of income going to the state’s top 1% doubled in recent decades, and they now take home more than 1 out of every 6 dollars of income in Wisconsin.[note]COWS and The Wisconsin Budget Project (August 2017). Pulling Apart: Focus on Wisconsin 1 Percent. Retrieved from:[/note]

Unions help protect everyone–not only their members– by working for things like better safety standards and anti-wage theft laws.[note]Ceniceros, R. (December 2, 2012). Workplace safety a major push for unions. Business Insurance. Retrieved from:[/note] Labor unions are critical to the success of progressive policies.[note]Western States Center (September 2011). Unions and the Progressive Movement: More Than Just Workers’ Rights. Retrieved from:[/note] Throughout history, labor unions have participated in struggles for eliminating the gender wage-gap, promoting civil rights, and protecting the rights of immigrants.[note]AFL-CIO. Our Labor History Timeline. Retrieved on January 24, 2018, from:[/note]

How does OWR’s Proposal Address It? 
The attack on workers and labor unions in Wisconsin must be stopped. OWR will fight for workers’ power to improve wages and working conditions through collective bargaining and other collective actions.  However, collective bargaining can only succeed if people can come together in their workplace and make themselves heard. OWR will strengthen workers’ ability to speak up at work by passing legislation to prevent employers from restricting workers’ use of fliers, posters, t-shirts, signs, and their own voices to speak out on bargaining and grievance issues in the workplace. 

Who Else is Doing This? 
In 2017, the Republican-controlled Legislature in Missouri passed Right-to-Work legislation; in response, a coalition of labor groups and concerned citizens worked to force a ballot initiative to protect workers. The ballot initiative passed, and Right-to-Work was rejected by a wide margin.[note] Erickson, K. & Suntrup, J. (August 8, 2018). Democrats, unions declare victory as ‘right to work’ loses by wide margin in Missouri. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from:[/note]

In Michigan, the newly elected governor Gretchen Whitmer ran on a platform that included repealing the Right-to-Work law passed by a Republican legislature in 2012.[note]Oosting, J., & LeBlanc, B. (September 3, 2018). Right-to-work repeal push pits Whitmer against Schuette. The Detroit News. Retrieved from:[/note] Whitmer pledged to repeal the statute “so all working people have the freedom to negotiate together with their employers[.]”

Why Not Wisconsin? 
Historically, earnings in Minnesota and Wisconsin have grown at a similar pace. When Wisconsin passed a right to work law in 2015, as earnings growth in Wisconsin slowed relative to the neighboring state. In 2017, the average hourly earnings gap between Minnesota and Wisconsin was 42% greater than it was in 2015.[note]Van Wychen, J. (April 4, 2018). Minnesota Still Outperforming “Right to Work” Wisconsin. North Star Policy Institute. Retrieved from:[/note]

Repealing “right-to-work” legislation is a necessary step to strengthen unions – but it is only a first step[note]Reich, R. (May 28, 2015). The Big Picture: Strengthen Unions. Retrieved from:[/note] Wisconsin needs to pass legislation that makes it easier to form a union, with a simple majority of workers voting up or down. The state should also set real penalties on companies that violate labor laws by firing or intimidating workers who try to form a union.

Gov. Evers has stated his support for repealing Act 10, right-to-work legislation, and changes made by the GOP to prevailing wage laws.[note] Tony Evers for Wisconsin. Workers’ Rights. Retrieved from: [/note] His victory over Scott Walker, who championed the attacks during his term, shows the public support for these steps. As the new administration assumes its duties, reversing the anti-labor measures approved in recent years should be one of the first items in its agenda.