Five Wisconsin workers are intervening to preserve the state’s right-to-work law, which faces legal challenge from some of the state’s most influential labor unions.
The workers filed a legal brief asking the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to preserve Act 1, the right-to-work law signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015. The workers’ attorneys argue in the brief that the end of coercive unionism represented a victory for workers rather than a blow to labor unions.
"It prevents a forced taking, namely, the taking of monies from nonmember employees as a condition of their employment. At its core, Act 1 merely makes it illegal to force nonmember employees to pay fees to a union as a condition of employment," the brief states.
Three unions have filed suit to strike down the law, arguing it created a free rider program. That argument led a circuit court judge to block the law.
The unions—the Machinist Local Lodge 1061, U.S. Steelworkers District 2, and Wisconsin State AFL-CIO—argue that the right-to-work law represents a theft of services since all workers receive compensation and employer benefits negotiated by unions even if they do not pay for representation. Federal labor laws require unions to represent every member of a bargaining unit in grievance proceedings regardless of their dues status.
Lodge 1061 President Dean Stenson told the Washington Free Beacon that his union has only seen a few existing members drop membership after right to work was passed. He is concerned that new hires will balk at paying membership dues because they are unaware of the benefits delivered by union representation. The union has cut initiation fees in half to entice new workers to join, but it is an uphill fight, according to Stenson.
"We are hiring people and we are having a harder time recruiting," he said. "There should be no free ride. They reap the benefits of our negotiations and representation in grievances. Everyone would like free cable, but if you don’t pay for it eventually it gets cut off."
The Wisconsin Appeals Court will decide whether to uphold a district court ruling that struck down the law.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation represents the five workers. Right-to-work laws have faced legal challenges from unions in nearly all of the states where they have been passed. Unions in Indiana challenged that state’s law on similar grounds. A federal judge tossed out one lawsuit in 2013. A state court dismissed a similar legal challenge in 2014.
Union attorney Frederick Perillo said that the Wisconsin case differs from the argument that failed to persuade the Indiana judiciary. The jurisprudence surrounding the taking of property without just compensation has evolved in different ways in the two states. The Wisconsin suit's focus on the state constitution rather than federal law also gives it a better chance of prevailing, according to Perillo.
"There's a long line [of Wisconsin jurisprudence] that says compelled services must be paid in money, which was not the case in Indiana," he said. "The Wisconsin law both imposes the taking and denies the just compensation and both those things weren't the case in the Indiana law."
The foundation said that right-to-work laws have "withstood intense legal scrutiny for over 60 years" and cleared the bar at the state and federal level.
"Wisconsin’s popular new Right to Work law provides a simple but essential protection for Wisconsin employees by protecting freedom of choice when it comes to union membership and payment of dues and fees," said Mark Mix, the foundation’s president. "Instead of spending so much time fighting worker freedom in court, Wisconsin union officials ought to reflect on why they are so concerned that the very workers they claim to represent will not voluntarily support them when given a free choice."
Stenson said that workers are free to choose whether or not they desire union representation even without right-to-work laws.
"They have a choice to work in a non-union environment if they feel that strongly about a union," he said. "At the very least I should not be forced to represent people who don’t pay their fair share."
The AFL-CIO and Steelworkers did not return requests for comment.