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Right-to-work’s effects muted in other states

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//December 26, 2014//

Right-to-work’s effects muted in other states

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//December 26, 2014//

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An Indiana trades-union group proclaims on its website that a so-called right-to-work law would “be devastating for Hoosier workers” and would “lower wages and benefits for all Hoosier workers.”

But more than two years after Indiana passed a law of that type, Pete Rimsans, executive director of that union group, the Indiana State Building and Construction Trades Council, said the effects have been scarcely noticeable. As Wisconsin lawmakers prepare to debate similar legislation, Rimsans said right-to-work may not be as big a threat as many think, at least for the trades.

Right-to-work laws, in general, ban contract clauses that oblige all employees in closed-shop companies to pay union dues, regardless of whether they are union members. Opponents have expressed concerns that the prohibition could prevent construction unions from performing functions that go beyond negotiating at the bargaining table, such as training and recruiting workers.

Rimsans said one reason Indiana’s right-to-work legislation seems to have made hardly a ripple is that it is so new. The state adopted the law in 2012, and he conceded it’s likely the effects will become more pronounced as time goes by.

Another reason for so few noticeable effects, Rimsans said, is that Indiana lawmakers allowed the extension of union contracts that were in place before the adoption of right-to-work. That decision meant unions and management representatives temporarily kept in place “union-security clauses,” the contractual language that right-to-work laws explicitly ban.

“A lot of the locals,” Rimsans said, “extended their contracts out for five or six years.”

Even when those deals expire and their replacements are stripped of security clauses, Rimsans said, he won’t be concerned that right-to-work will prove particularly harmful to construction unions. The biggest source of anxiety for many is that the laws let employees retain the benefits of collective bargaining without contributing to a union’s upkeep.

If given the choice, right-to-work opponents say, many workers will become “free riders” while receiving wages and benefits negotiated on their behalf. Unions will be sapped of an assured source of support and lose much of their clout at the bargaining table.

Rimsans, though, said he does not think right-to-work will lead to an exodus from construction union halls. Unions, he said, provide too many valuable services to those in the trades to be easily dismissed.

Many in the industry, Rimsans said, received their initial training from a union apprenticeship program. When layoffs occur, he said, unemployed construction workers often turn to union hiring halls to find their next job.

Moreover, those who have been in the industry for many years tend to be vested in pension and health plans that are managed partly by unions. All of those benefits, Rimsans said, give construction locals a value that goes beyond representation paid for with dues.

“We are fortunate in the building trades,” he said. “Our members tend to realize the benefits they get.”

But the idea that right-to-work laws will be benign for construction unions is not widely shared in states where the laws are being debated. An announcement was made Dec. 17 in Madison that a Wisconsin Contractor Coalition had been formed to fight any right-to-work legislation that might arise in the state.

Rather than labor representatives, the group comprises more than 300 contractors from throughout Wisconsin. Union officials have said they are working in tandem with the contractor coalition to oppose right-to-work.

Many company executives are deciding whether they want to join. Anna Stern, vice president of Fitchburg-based Tri-North Builders Inc., said she would like to know more of the specifics of what is being proposed before committing.

Acknowledging that relations are not always smooth between management and unions, she said she gives the construction locals credit for helping fill open positions in recent months, when a labor shortage has weighed on the industry. She said Tri-North executives, like those at many union contractors, did not have unionization forced on them by workers who voted to organize, but rather chose to go that direction.

Although many of the biggest construction companies in Wisconsin are unionized, the trades industry does not employ the most union workers. That distinction goes to manufacturing, in which 72,666 Wisconsin workers belonged to unions in 2013, according to statistics compiled using data from the U.S. Census Bureau for the website

Total numbers aside, though, construction workers are the most likely in any industry outside the public sector to belong to a union. Of the 106,352 people employed in the Wisconsin trades in 2013, according to the data, slightly more than one in four was a union member. In manufacturing, only 15.3 percent of workers belong to unions.

Worries that right-to-work would not only hamper locals’ bargaining power but also their ability to train and recruit workers, have not gone unnoticed by state lawmakers.

State Rep. Chris Kapenga, a Delafield Republican who said he plans to introduce a right-to-work bill after the Legislature reconvenes in January, said he is willing to listen to arguments for why the trades should be exempted from a right-to-work bill. And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Milwaukee, on Dec. 4 about possibly supporting some protection for locals that represent pipe fitters, carpenters and operating engineers.

Skeptics were quick to point out that Operating Engineers Local 139 was one of the few unions to continue supporting Republicans and Walker after the governor successfully pushed for Act 10, a law that greatly curtails most public employees’ collective-bargaining rights. The local’s main political action committee has given nearly $420,000 to members of both political parties since 2008. It gave $43,128 to Walker on Oct. 13, less than a month before his re-election.

Yet, rather than curry favor with political supporters, Fitzgerald’s main goal is to protect the training function that unions now perform, said Myranda Tanck, Fitzgerald’s spokeswoman. Republican lawmakers have made economic development and job creation their top priority for the next legislative session.

They might be able to have their way even without a watered-down right-to-work bill. Bart Carrigan, president of the Associated General Contractors of Michigan, has said unions in his state have lost little, if any, of their ability to offer training and recruitment following the adoption of right-to-work legislation that resembles Indiana’s.

Both states’ laws were passed in 2012 amid protests and predictions that they would suppress wages and ravage industries. Like Rimsans in Indiana, though, Carrigan said the effect on Michigan’s trade unions have been barely perceivable. Carrigan said his organization, which represents union and nonunion companies, did not even lobby on the bill.

Carrigan said Michigan lawmakers, much like their counterparts in Indiana, were wise in allowing labor and management negotiators to keep union-security clauses in contracts by extending the agreements past their expiration dates. If a contract is renegotiated, the clauses are out. But agreements can be extended any number of times with amendments that change things such as wages and benefits.

Carrigan said that has let unions retain a primary source of their power while also not depriving employers of something that often proves useful in bargaining. He said companies can continue to offer the collection of mandatory union dues in return for concessions on wages, benefits and other matters. Employers in states where union-security clauses are universally banned, he said, have lost that bargaining chip.

Rimsans said that result is one of the more ironic aspects of right-to-work debates. Often perceived as being detrimental to labor interests, the laws in fact further tie employers’ hands at the negotiating table.

“A union-security clause is optional,” he said. “You don’t have to have one. Contractors tend to know that.”



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