Lawmakers and policy experts were at each others throats on Tuesday to debate a state right-to-work proposal being considered by the Wisconsin Senate.
The policy, which has passed in 24 states, outlaws forced union dues as a condition of employment. Testifying before the Wisconsin Senate, experts opposed to the Wisconsin version of the policy, known as SB 44, argued it lowers wages for workers and does nothing to attract jobs, while the experts in favor countered with opposite findings.
During the debate, labor unions and their supporters held a rally in front of the state capital. The Wisconsin state chapter of the AFL-CIO led the protest with support from the Service Employees International Union along with other local and national unions.
“The issue at its heart is about worker freedom,” Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald declared. “It does not prohibit union membership.”
Fitzgerald, a Republican, is a long time proponent of right-to-work legislation. He helped to bring about the legislative debate by calling for an Extraordinary Legislative Session in the hopes of passing the bill.
“This bill makes no changes to existing contracts and does not prevent collective bargaining between employers and unions,” Fitzgerald detailed. “Workplace freedom legislation is important to achieving these goals. The bottom line is for Wisconsin to move forward, we need a modern economy.”
Gordon Lafer, a political economist and associate professor at the University of Oregon, took issue with the idea that right-to-work laws help with employment and wages.
“The impact of adopting right-to-work laws in 2015 is to lower wages,” Lafer said before the state Senate.
Lafer attacked studies that show right-to-work legislation create more jobs and improves the economy. He noted such studies don’t take into account other factors that lead to the positive results.
“Factors besides right-to-work explain what’s going on in these economies,” Lafer argued. “There are hundreds of things that effect a state’s economic growth.”
Lafer found in his research that factors like access to transportation, job training and technology all ranked higher for businesses when they are considering whether to move somewhere. He noted right-to-work policies were not anywhere near a top consideration for businesses to expand or move somewhere.
“Legislatures should not make decisions based on anecdotes when we have so much data,” Lafer declared. “Right-to-work does not prevent jobs from leaving.”
Lafer also argued that strong labor unions are a vital component when it comes to having a middle class. He argued the middle class benefits the economy and general society because it helps to reduce violent crimes, poverty, teen pregnancies and a whole series of other possibly negative societal outcomes.
“The reason you have this is because you have a big middle class,” Lafer argued. “The reason you have a big middle class is because workers can negotiate with their employers.”
Mike Nichols, the president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, fired back. Nichols details how his research approached the question of whether right-to-work is good by looking at both public perception and economic analysis.
They found by conducting a poll of Wisconsin citizens, which was released in January, the overwhelming number of them support right-to-work. The poll found 62 percent would vote in favor of such a law, 32 percent would not and 6 percent didn’t know.
“Of course those are just opinions so we have a second line of inquiry,” Nichols noted. “This is not anecdotal; it’s a very detailed analysis.”
Nichols found, in research he and his team were able to finish in time for the legislative session, that right-to-work laws were very beneficial to workers and the economy. He argued that contrary to opposition research, right-to-work does actually attract jobs. As he argued, “Right-to-work laws are economically beneficial.”
“We know in Wisconsin that we have fallen behind economically in the last few decades,” Nichols argued. “Right-to-work laws would slow and possibly reverse that trend.”
State Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat, attacked the research and the legitimacy of the polling. Larson called it a “push poll” and doubted there was credibility to it.
Nichols countered the claims by pointing to Politifact, which upheld the results. Politifact turned to Charles Franklin, a nationally recognized pollster at Marquette Law School, who found that the WPRI poll was better than the other state polls because it can be directly compared to a similar Gallup poll. Additionally the poll asked a baseline question in one of two additional ways in order to frame the issue.
Larson also attacked WPRI for being biased, since much of its funding comes from the Bradley Foundation, a conservative institute based in Milwaukee.
“Bradley doesn’t tell us what questions to ask,” Nichols countered. “There is never a direct expectation of us doing particular research.”
“I think it’s important to look at the methodology and the results instead of a spat on where funding comes from,” Nichols went onto argue.
Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, an economic expert at Marquette University, echoed the idea that right-to-work laws are not an important factor for creating jobs.
“For business firms, right-to-work is not a priority issue, they look at other factors,” Chowdhury claimed. “They don’t look at right-to-work when they relocate.”
Chowdhury also argued that the reason some studies show right-to-work states do well on average is because those, like Texas, are holding up the rest.
“When you look at individual states the numbers are not that good,” Chowdhury noted. “If we have a right-to-work law in Wisconsin it will lead to lost income and loss of revenue to the government.”
James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, argued against research that found wages go down. He noted such studies are misleading because they don’t account for standards of living.
“Right-to-work laws have no negative effect on wages,” Sherk argued. “All right-to-work does is stop unions from coercing workers to pay them dues.”
Sherk claims that when factors like cost of living are accounted for when comparing right-to-work states with compulsory union membership states, the results show wages are about the same.
Rick Esenberg, the founder of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, testified to answer the question of whether a right-to-work bill is even constitutional. He found, in a purely legal sense, the state could pass such a law, and any legal challenge against it wouldn’t have merits.
“Whether it will fail and whether Wisconsin will have a right-to-work law is a decision that rest on this board and this board alone,” Esenberg declared.
If it’s approved by the Senate, the bill will be sent to the State Assembly. If both the Assembly and Senate approve, it will move to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk to be signed. Fitzgerald is confident they have enough votes in both chambers to pass the bill.
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