Conservative Activist Launches Push for Wisconsin 'Right to Work' Law
Madison — A longtime conservative activist with ties to national groups has started an organization to promote so-called "right to work" legislation.
Wisconsin Right to Work will seek changes in state law to prohibit businesses and unions from requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers already banned such requirements for most public employees in Wisconsin, but their 2011 law known as Act 10 didn't affect private-sector unions or police and firefighters.
Advocates say that prohibiting employers and labor groups from making these agreements would give workers more freedom. Opponents of the measure say it dramatically weakens union finances and clout by allowing workers to get any potential benefits from a labor group in their workplace without having to provide anything in return.
"Wisconsin's public employees have already demonstrated their strong desire for their right to choose as evidenced by the sharp decline in enrollment in the teacher's unions since the passage of Gov. Walker's (Act 10)," Lorri Pickens, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Work, said in a statement.
Walker and GOP leaders in the Legislature have repeatedly said that extending Act 10 to private sector and public safety workers is not a priority for them and that their focus is on taking other steps that they say would help the state's economy.
But they have not ruled out passing such a labor bill. A proposal has not been introduced in the Legislature for many years, though it counts a number of supporters among conservative lawmakers.
Between 2005 and 2012, Pickens worked for the free-market conservative group Americans for Prosperity, whose backers include business interests and industrialists such as the brothers Charles and David Koch.
Pickens worked first as an associate director for Wisconsin for the group and then as its national director of state operations.
It will be some time before Wisconsin Right to Work, as a nonprofit, needs to file disclosure reports with federal tax officials.
But its nonprofit status would allow it to advocate for legislation with the public as well as lobby lawmakers.
Its board includes president Chris Martinson of New London, Kenosha School Board member Bob Nuzzo, and Randy Melchert, who ran unsuccessfully in the GOP primary for state treasurer this year.
On Monday, Democrats criticized the formation of the new group while Republican elected officials did not volunteer any praise.
Scot Ross, executive of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, a group that receives labor support, criticized the new group for its out-of-state ties.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said that further weakening unions was the wrong prescription for an ailing middle class.
"Wisconsin is powered by our middle class — by the nurses, steel workers, teachers and construction workers who help shape our future, keep us safe and drive our economy. Right to Work would roll back the clock on workers' rights and take Wisconsin in the wrong direction," Neuenfeldt said.
A spokeswoman for Walker gave no sign Monday that the legislation has moved up the governor's list of priorities, saying instead that Walker was focused on the economy and jobs.
"Anything that distracts from that is not a priority for him," Laurel Patrick said.
Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation in 1993 as a freshman in the state Assembly.
As governor he has consistently downplayed seeking any restrictions on private unions in public statements while at the same time declining to say whether he would sign such a bill.
In late 2012, for instance, during the lead-up to Michigan joining Indiana as a right to work state, Walker said that he was not worried about competition from Wisconsin's neighbor to the east.
Walker said then that he viewed Illinois and Minnesota, and not Michigan and Indiana, as competitors in the business marketplace.
"We already have a competitive advantage over Illinois," he said. "For us to be competitive, we need to improve our business climate."
The governor has also said that he doesn't want a repeat of the large protests that accompanied the passage of Act 10, saying in December 2012 that such a move could create uncertainty and cause employers to hesitate on hiring as he believes businesses did in 2011.
An extension of Act 10 to the private sector did gain some ground in the Legislature in November's election, particularly in the state Senate, where outgoing GOP moderates Mike Ellis of Neenah and Dale Schultz of Richland Center were replaced by more conservative lawmakers.
Van Wanggaard of Racine was also elected to the Senate after promising to support a right to work proposal.