Evers Takes Aim at Right-to-Work Law, Seeks Prevailing-Wage Protections

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers / Getty Images

Gov. Tony Evers has called for the repeal of Wisconsin's right-to-work law and the restoration of prevailing-wage guarantees in public-works projects, despite critics' concerns that those proposals could become a drag on the state's economy.

The governor's February budget blueprint supports the elimination of the state's right-to-work statute, which restricts private employers from entering into agreements that compel union membership as a condition of employment or mandating the payment of dues to a labor union.

Evers also supports the restoration of the prevailing wage on state and local public-works projects to ensure that workers are not underpaid in comparison to employees performing similar tasks in the region.

Among the groups expressing concerns about the new Democratic governor's proposals is Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, whose state director said the proposals would overturn protections on worker freedom and increase the cost of doing business in Wisconsin.

"Wisconsin's economy is roaring because of numerous pro-growth reforms over the last decade, but the labor reforms in this budget put that growth at risk," Eric Bott said in a prepared statement.

Not only would repeal of the right-to-work law limit worker choices about union affiliation, but it could be a drag on the state's ability to attract job creators, he said.

"Right to work lets Wisconsinites keep more of their paycheck, so that they can invest their hard-earned money in the things most important to them, like their families, local businesses and communities," Bott said in an email.

And Evers' support for a prevailing wage would be a bad deal for taxpayers, he said.

"The governor is supposed to stretch our tax dollars, not shrink them," Botts said. "Restoring prevailing wage would drive up the cost of every public-works project and pass those costs on to taxpayers. … Let's be clear, this doesn't benefit the average Wisconsinite. This benefits special interests."

Frank Emspak, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin Extension's Department of Labor Education-School for Workers, doesn't expect Evers' effort to repeal right to work to be embraced by the majority of state lawmakers.

"Given the nature of the state legislature at this point, a repeal is probably not going to happen because Republicans control the legislature, and they are very much opposed to the repeal," Emspak told Watchdog.org.

There is no established link between the right-to-work issue and decisions by companies to invest in the state, he said. In the case of a heavy goods manufacturer that uses industrial machinery, labor costs represent only 5 to 7 percent of the cost of doing business, according to Emspak. A more significant issue is land acquisition and the cost of borrowing money, he said.

"The effect of the right-to-work law in Wisconsin has been pretty marginal," Emspak said.

Foxconn, which is building a sprawling electronics facility in southwestern Wisconsin, agreed to locate its campus in the state not because of right to work but because of $3 billion in tax advantages negotiated by the previous governor, he said.

Restoring the prevailing wage would be helpful to both the construction industry and the employees who work in it, according to Emspak. Allowing companies with public-works contracts to pay their workers less than their counterparts in a region means those firms are undercutting the competition by cutting labor costs, which in turn drives down wages and working conditions, he said.

Having the prevailing wage in place means the construction companies would be in a better position to focus on providing high-quality, skilled work at a competitive cost, according to Emspak.

Labor union officials generally support Evers' proposals. Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said Evers' budget blueprint strikes the right note for workers and the state's economy.

"The repeal of right to work is a step towards a healthier middle class with strong union rights," Bloomingdale said in a prepared statement. "Restoring prevailing wage and the right to a project labor agreement will grow our economy with family-supporting jobs while ensuring tour construction projects are completed safely on time and on budget."

The National Institute for Labor Relations Research, however, contends that right-to-work states have seen greater economic growth than states with no right-to-work laws. Right-to-work states recorded an 8.8 percent growth in employment between 2007 and 2017, while job growth over the same period in other states was 4.2 percent, the Virginia institute reported.

And manufacturing employment grew by 5.5 percent in right-to-work states during that time period, compared to 1.7 percent for states without right-to-work laws, according to the institute's numbers.

Lucas Vebber, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Poverty, says the idea of forcing workers to accept and pay for union membership is an affront to workers' freedoms.

"This harms workers in Wisconsin and harms our state's economy overall by putting us at a massive disadvantage to attract businesses here," Vebber told Watchdog.org in an email.

And the concept of a prevailing wage is antiquated and forces taxpayers to support above-market wages in construction projects, he said.

"Wisconsin was right to have eliminated it just a few years ago, and the governor's proposal to bring it back will do nothing but drive up the cost of government projects, harming taxpayers and ultimately our state's economy as a whole," Vebber said.