The move by Gov. Scott Walker to strip unions that represent state workers of collective bargaining rights could spill over to unions in the private sector, according to many leaders of organized labor.
“Do I believe (the governor and Republican state officials) would do it to us if they could? Absolutely,” said Sheila Cochran, chief operating officer and secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “I don’t know if (private sector employers) would do it or not. A lot of private sector employers are depending on the relationship they have with their individual unions. That relationship is based on a different set of circumstances.”
Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, believes there will be a future assault on private sector labor unions by Wisconsin politicians.
“I think we’re going to see some legislation for the right to work and prevailing wage repeal,” he said. “I don’t know when it’s coming, but I think it’s possibly coming. We’re waiting for the other shoe to fall.”
Michael Bruening, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2150, agreed.
“We think there is going to be a spillover – whatever is being done to the public sector will be done to the private sector,” he said. “They’re pitting the middle class against working people, pitting worker against worker.”
Unions that represent workers employed in the private sector have made significant concessions to manufacturing-related employers in Wisconsin in recent years. Companies such as Harley-Davidson and Kohler have demanded wage freezes and much lower wages for new hires under their union contracts, which organized labor has ultimately agreed to.
The elimination of collective bargaining rights from state employees is a far more egregious demand, Balistreri said. The concessions made by unions in the private sector to the loss of collective bargaining rights by state workers might not be an apples-to-oranges comparison – however it is part of the same trend, he said.
“This radical shift toward solving budget problems by hurting people who work for a living is something that is going to be felt for a very long time,” Balistreri said.
If some of the changes that are part of the bill that eliminated collective bargaining are allowed to stand, organized labor is going to find itself in a very tight spot in Wisconsin, Balistreri said. If the state will no longer automatically deduct union dues from paychecks, and if union members are allowed to choose whether or not they will pay dues, organized labor, both in the public and private sector, could find itself significantly underfunded, he said.
“The next step is to eliminate the voice for working people. If the unions aren’t the voice for working people, who is?” Balistreri said. “If they take away the right to take out dues, we’re dead in the water.”
The tone taken with the changes to Wisconsin’s organized labor movement does not bode well for the future, Balistreri said.
“Working people need to be respected, and they need good paying jobs,” he said. “There’s a way of doing these things. It wasn’t the working people who did this (created the state budget crisis). It was irresponsible government.”
“These are our members (that are being affected by this) and this is their lifeblood,” she said. “I think the budget repair bill (and the elimination of collective bargaining) is a direct assault on everything we support. We’re sick and tired of being treated as if we do not pay taxes and as if we’re not part of this community.”