Scott Walker pushes through "right-to-work" law -- and labor takes another hit

In Madison, "right-to-work" protesters joined Black Lives Matter youth to take on Walker and a new police killing

Published March 10, 2015 8:45PM (EDT)

Scott Walker                                    (Jeff Malet,
Scott Walker (Jeff Malet,

The photos coming out of Madison, Wisconsin, this week have been both heartening and heart-wrenching.

Heartening, to see the Capitol that was the site of the 2011 uprising that kicked off a wave of protests against austerity, injustice and inequality filled once again with protesters chanting, singing, holding signs. To see people who were part of that uprising, like Mandela Barnes, now standing in the Legislature as elected officials, denouncing Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Party's push for what is popularly known as “right-to-work,” despite having little to do with rights at work. To see a youth-led protest fill the Capitol rotunda with the chant that "Black Lives Matter."

Heart-wrenching because the labor protests were much smaller than those in 2011, where tens of thousands clogged the Capitol building, slept in hallways and built libraries. Heart-wrenching because all of that uprising then was not enough to stop Scott Walker's bill taking collective bargaining rights from public sector workers, and has not been enough to keep him from signing the no-rights-at-work bill into law. Heart-wrenching because another unarmed young man, Tony Robinson, is dead and no amount of protest will bring him or the hundreds of other victims of police violence back.

I am writing about these things together not simply because they happened in the span of a few days, but because their histories are deeply linked. As Jennifer Epps-Addison of Wisconsin Jobs Now tells Salon, “This generational poverty that is being inflicted, particularly on the black community in Milwaukee, is a form of state violence that desensitizes the rest of the Wisconsin community to these killings, and makes the rest of our state see a justification in these police murders.”

And what we now call “right-to-work” laws were spread in part by racist rhetoric that exploited already-existing divisions in order to pass laws that took rights away from all working people.

First, I should explain what these laws actually do. Legally, no worker can be forced to join a union. But if a union wins an election to represent the workers in a particular workplace (“shop”), the contract it wins through collective bargaining covers all of the workers in that shop, whether or not they voted for the union or signed up to pay dues to it. Accordingly, the law requires all workers covered by a union contract to pay a “fair share fee” to the union to cover the costs of representing them — not limited only to contract negotiations but also filing grievances and the like. What “right to work” does is give workers the “right” to the gains negotiated by the union without having to contribute anything at all to its costs.

These laws are designed to defund unions, pure and simple. They don't make organizing impossible — the history of the Culinary Workers, UNITE HERE Local 226 in Nevada, attests to that. But they drain the coffers of unions, limiting their ability to do other political work or engage in organizing workers who don't yet have a union.

The fact that we refer to these laws as “right-to-work” is one of the most successful branding operations the right has ever run, and labor has struggled to come up with an answer for it. Yet for years these laws were mostly limited to the South and Southwest, where race-baiting (and Red-baiting) had helped them succeed.

Before they were “right-to-work” laws, the name was, if possible, even more Orwellian: “The American Plan,” as Mark Ames notes, not so subtly aligning unions with things un-American, Communist and not white. (Think of people shouting about Obama's birth certificate, and you'll get the gist.) But “right-to-work” was the name that stuck, giving a rights-conscious, progressive-sounding name to a bill sold with virulently racist campaigns that promised to uphold “the color line.” Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies explains:

“Muse and the Christian American Association saw danger. Not only were the unions expanding the bargaining power -- and therefore improving the wages and working conditions -- of working-class Texans, they also constituted a political threat. The CIO in particular opposed Jim Crow and demanded an end to segregation. Unions were an important political ally to FDR and the New Deal. And always lurking in the shadows was the prospect of a Red Menace, stoked by anti-communist hysteria.”

And as historian Elizabeth Tandy Shermer points out, in some campaigns for these laws, proponents specifically targeted black voters, arguing that union shops kept out black workers and that “right-to-work” would open up jobs for them. (A similar tactic was used in the deregulation of the port trucking industry, where promises of “diversity” were part of a push to turn steady union jobs into poverty-wage “independent contracting” gigs compared to “sharecropping on wheels.”)

The labor movement has been contending for decades with the ramifications of its checkered history on racism. The exclusion of certain workers from New Deal labor protections has come around to haunt labor as more and more jobs now emulate the working conditions of 1940s farmworkers and domestic workers. The fall of Indiana, Michigan and now Wisconsin to “right-to-work” (and the flood of articles misrepresenting just what it is that RTW laws do) should remind us, if we needed the reminder, that legislated inequality will never remain tied to one region or to one kind of worker.

Wisconsin's 2011 uprising centered around Scott Walker's successful move to take collective bargaining away from public sector workers (and notably for today's anti-police-violence movement, allowed cops to keep their rights). The public sector has historically been a place where black workers could get access to decent union jobs that were relatively protected from the racism that they faced in the private sector; the attacks on public-sector union rights were attacks that disproportionately hurt workers of color.

But Walker promised that he didn't want right-to-work, though many observers figured that to be a line from the get-go, and he managed not only to stave off the recall that the pro-labor movement forced, but to see himself reelected. And now, safe in his second term, he has broken what some workers considered a promise.

The movement, though, continues. On Wednesday, March 11, as part of a national “We Rise” day of action that is slated to include more than 20 events in 16 states, Wisconsin workers and their supporters, organized by groups including the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, Ferguson to Madison, Youth Empowered in the Struggle, and Wisconsin Jobs Now, will come together to draw connections between attacks on union rights, growing poverty, mass incarceration and state violence. Jennifer Epps-Addison explains,

“This action was planned before the murder of Tony Robinson. The real goal for the action was to lift up the voices of young people, of people of color, of nonunion workers in this movement for economic and racial justice, particularly in light of right to work and the impact of right to work on those communities.”

The death of Tony Robinson has reminded Madison that even liberal cities are built on a history of segregation and denial of rights to their black residents. Wisconsin, Epps-Addison notes, has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the entire country. And, she points out, the systemic divestment from schools and services in communities of color is itself a form of state violence.

That's why Wednesday's event, she emphasizes, will not just be a rally. It will include direct actions targeting employers engaged in wage theft and demanding the immediate release of people who are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay fines. “Our march really is on both, on the institutions that perpetuate these systemic problems, the corporations that benefit from them, and Governor Walker himself,” she says.

It will not be an easy fight in Wisconsin or anywhere else — Scott Walker is already trumpeting his victories over union workers as a foreign policy qualification that prepares him to take on ISIS, and Democrats all too often acquiesce to a kinder, gentler version of austerity. But the coming together of movements for justice in the workplace and the home and the streets to demand a comprehensive agenda for a more just state and society is a development worth celebrating even in dark times. There is building going on behind those dramatic photos from the Capitol.

To move forward, Epps-Addison says, “We fundamentally believe we can't bring back progressive power in Wisconsin by giving people a Republican-like agenda. What we need to do is make our case and build relationships between working-class white folks outstate, between communities of color in Milwaukee, Madison and Racine, to understand that we're all in this together, and that these forms of institutional classism and racism impact everyone.”

By Sarah Jaffe

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Black Lives Matter Gov. Scott Walker Right-to-work Unions Wisconsin