Unions say rush to pass Wisconsin right-to-work law, apathy over past defeats mute protests
For two straight days this week, 2,000 union members converged on Wisconsin's Capitol to rally against a new right-to-work bill, chanting, marching and hurling profanities at GOP lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker.
The tone of the rallies has been bitter and angry but hasn't come close to matching the energy that coursed through the building four years ago during massive protests against Walker's proposal to strip public workers of most of their union rights. This time around, union members said Republicans are moving too fast to organize large crowds. Some have even conceded it's a lost cause and the governor is bound to score another victory against organized labor.
"People are tired," said Gerry Miller, a 44-year-old welder from Milwaukee and United Steelworkers member who joined Wednesday's rally. "You do have a moral base that feels helpless."
The dynamics of the right-to-work fight are very different than the 2011 battle.
Republicans who control the Legislature are moving at lightning-speed to get the bill through to Walker. They introduced the measure on Friday and the Senate began debating it Wednesday, making it difficult for unions to mobilize large-scale protests during the work week.
In 2011, public unions had weeks to organize and hold daily rallies against what became known as Act 10 because minority Democrats in the Senate decided to flee to Illinois in an ultimately futile attempt to block a vote in that chamber.
The Senate needed a quorum to vote on Act 10 because it had a fiscal effect on the state, a requirement Republicans eventually got around by stripping the fiscal elements out of the measure so they could pass it without the Democrats. Leaving the state wouldn't help Democrats this time. The right-to-work bill has no state fiscal effect.
"(Republicans have) gotten smarter," said Perry Kettner, leader of the Milwaukee and Madison Allied Printing Trades Council. "They're trying to push it through quickly when people can't come in. On a weekend when workers get out of the factories, they'd be here."
Right-to-work also doesn't have the novelty or scope of Act 10.
Twenty-four states already have enacted right-to-work laws, which generally prohibit businesses and private-sector unions from mandating workers pay union dues regardless of whether they're union members. The laws don't restrict unions' bargaining powers like Act 10 did.
Union membership has declined in Wisconsin, too. Last year, 11.7 percent of public- and private-sector workers combined belonged to unions, based on figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — down from 12.3 percent in 2013 and 14.2 percent in 2010.
There's an air of inevitability hanging heavy over this fight as well. Republicans clearly have the votes in both the Senate and Assembly to pass the bill and Walker, who is mulling a 2016 presidential bid, has said he'll sign it into law.
Union members are exhausted after watching Walker push through Act 10, survive an ensuing recall attempt and win a second term in November, said Seth Markgraf, a 34-year-old construction worker from Arlington.
"You fight the good fight against Walker and he beats you," said Markgraf, who belongs to construction-trade union LIUNA's Local 113 Milwaukee chapter. "They beat us in the recall and they beat us in another general election. It's just apathy. How do we beat Scott Walker?"
Miller acknowledged the bill will pass, which means unions will have no choice but to work harder to convince people to join them.
"We start again with what other right-to-work states have done — explain why it's important to be a member," he said. "We have a whole other agenda now."
Associated Press writer Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.
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