Senate leader pitches right-to-work as way to get economy moving

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald today pitched his right-to-work legislation as a vehicle to get Wisconsin’s economy moving, saying the state can no longer operate under an antiquated system.

An economics professor, however, questioned the likely impact of right-to-work as a stream of witnesses at today’s public hearing on the bill threw out various facts and studies to back up their claims on its impact. The bill under debate would ban contracts that require workers to belong to a union as a condition of employment.

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the status quo is no longer working because the state is competing not just with others around the country but a global economy. Without something significant, the state will not see its economy expand dramatically.

“I don’t think there’s any other piece of legislation that sends a strong message to those who might think about expanding here or locating here than this bill,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think there’s anything else you could possibly do that could be a game changer like this.”

Fitzgerald also pitched the legislation as a simple bill that was about worker freedom and would not impact current union contracts. He stressed workers will still have the choice to join a union, and the right to collectively bargain would still be protected.

Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Kenosha, accused Fitzgerald of operating under a double standard. He said Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and local chambers of commerce insist on membership fees to gets the rights and services the organizations offer.

“Yet you and the business community want to impose a system where freeloaders can take services for unions while those two business associations wouldn’t tolerate that,” Wirch said.

Fitzgerald said he gets the analogy, but didn’t have any further comment.

Meanwhile, Oregon economics associate professor Gordon Lafer dismissed studies from conservative groups backing right-to-work as “propaganda with footnotes,” arguing the change will not produce the economic benefit backers claim.

Lafer singled out studies like one from the Mackinac Center that suggested unemployment in right to work states is lower than in other states. He put up a slide with federal labor statistics that showed seven of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates have right-to-work, as do four of the five lowest.

He said it underscores that there are other factors driving the economic performance of those states and many of the studies from those backing right-to-work fail to account for them before spitting out studies that purport to show the benefits.

“There is no question that all of those pro-right-to-work studies would be thrown out by any court in the country as junk science,” said Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center.

Follow today’s developments in the Quorum Call blog.