David Michael Miller
Perhaps it was the familiar uniform of the gathered ironworkers, the electrical workers and the laborers -- steel-toed boots, blue jeans, hard hats -- or maybe it was the signs bearing slogans recycled from the Act 10 protests of 2011, but the demonstrations this week at the Capitol felt worn out.
"We've been through this before," says Jim Leary, a UW-Madison professor of folklore and member of the American Federation of Teachers union and a former member of an industrial workers union. "But it's good that people are still showing up."
The crowd was 2,000 strong at noon on Tuesday, as the state Senate committee debated the so-called right-to-work legislation inside the Capitol.
Proponents of the controversial anti-union law, which would prohibit businesses from reaching labor agreements that require workers to pay union fees, say it will allow for "workplace freedom" and encourage businesses to relocate to and expand in Wisconsin.
But opponents say the law would cripple Wisconsin's already dwindling private-sector union membership, leading to reduced wages and benefits, diminished training programs for skilled workers, and poor working conditions for union and non-union members alike.
The Senate Labor and Government Reform Committee pushed through a vote Tuesday night amid an uproar as the committee chair, Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), abruptly adjourned the daylong public hearing 30 minutes early after learning from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that protesters planned to disrupt the proceedings at 7 p.m. if all those who had registered to testify had not yet spoken. Dozens were still waiting when he adjourned.
The state Senate is expected to vote on the bill by the end of the week. The bill's sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), says he has the votes to pass the legislation. From there, it will go to the Assembly and to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker, who now says he will sign it into law.
Walker previously called right-to-work a "distraction," saying he had "no interest in pursuing" it. Pete Stern, a member of Iron Workers Local 383 in Madison, says union members who initially supported the governor were "gullible" and "foolish" to believe him.
A union member for 15 years, Stern has also worked non-union jobs. He says the difference in wages, benefits, working conditions and treatment is significant.
"It's about our life and, really, our livelihood," he says. "It's about human dignity."
Brian Loohauis, a 40-year member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 494 in Milwaukee, says he raised a family of six children on "good union wages."
He traveled to Madison with his son-in-law Rob Tutkowski, who is also an IBEW 494 member.
Tutkowski isn't a regular at political demonstrations. But since his son recently graduated from UW-Green Bay and plans to enter the electrical trade, he feels it is important to show up to support future generations of workers.
"We're not here asking for special favors," he says. "We're asking for things to stay as they are."
In more than eight hours of testimony for and against Fitzgerald's bill Tuesday, experts presented conflicting economic data that both Republicans and Democrats accused of being politically motivated.
James Sherk, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, testified that right-to-work provides economic benefits and would give Wisconsin a competitive business advantage over other states.
Abdur Chowdhury, a professor of economics at Marquette University, argued the opposite, saying that right-to-work will have a direct negative effect on Wisconsin's annual income and mean a loss in revenue for the state government.
"Overall we do not see any economic advantage of right-to-work," he says. "There will be significant social cost."
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify the views of union member Pete Stern.