In an article appearing next to Terry McGowan’s byline in the winter issue of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139’s Wisconsin News, the president and business manager of the road-builders and excavators union declares there are “strong political allies standing with us” in the fight against right-to-work legislation, changes to the state’s prevailing wage and similar proposals.
But are those allies really so steadfast?
True, as McGowan noted in the article, Gov. Scott Walker has repeatedly called any attempt to make Wisconsin a so-called right-to-work state a distraction from the priorities he has placed on fostering economic development and adding jobs. But the governor seems to have backed off in recent days.
Speaking in Madison more than a week ago, Walker reminded reporters that he had been a sponsor of an ultimately failed right-to-work bill years ago when he was in the state Assembly. Perhaps even more telling, Walker has stopped short of taking the one step that would almost certainly put an immediate end to any right-to-work proposal: saying he would veto it.
McGowan’s operating engineers was one of the few unions to continue its support of Wisconsin Republicans after they passed 2011’s Act 10, which stripped most public-sector workers of the bulk of their collective bargaining rights. In the latest donation Oct. 13, the Operating Engineers Local 139’s political action committee gave Walker $43,128.
The three unions were the same ones referred to by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, when he spoke on the air Dec. 4 with Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio-show host in Milwaukee. Fitzgerald then proposed finding a way to exempt those unions from any Wisconsin right-to-work law, or, at the least, to protect their ability to collect training fees from a general prohibition on mandatory union dues.
Perhaps because of their support for the Republicans who now control Wisconsin’s statehouse, McGowan referred in the article to the three unions as being “in the most solid position politically to make the case against this effort and get our legislators back to what is important: JOBS!”
In any event, the idea of having a carve-out for particular unions seems to have died. When Fitzgerald went back on Sykes’ show Jan. 30, the lawmaker talked about how right-to-work, changes to Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage law and similar policies could help justify the large amount of transportation projects the state is likely to take on in its next budget.
Walker on Tuesday released a budget proposal that calls for putting about $6.5 billion toward Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange, an east-west section of Interstate 94 and the Hoan Bridge, among other large projects. Much to some Republicans’ chagrin, $1.3 billion of that would come from new borrowing.
Fitzgerald argued right-to-work and other changes to laws that unions hold dear would prevent artificially inflated pay for construction workers from making those projects more expensive than they should be. He likened the policies to Act 10, saying they would strengthen government officials’ ability to tamp down costs.
It’s been difficult to get McGowan on the phone in the weeks since lawmakers started talking seriously about passing a right-to-work law this year. John Gard, who lobbies for the Operating Engineers and represents the engineers and a variety of organizations with similar interests through the nonprofit group Wisconsin Infrastructure Investment Now, said he doubts McGowan regrets his past support for Republicans, even if some of them are among those now calling for the new policies.
For one, Gard pointed out, Republicans are far from united in supporting right-to-work. Getting a proposal through the Senate will be particularly difficult.
Even though Republicans are likely to control that house 19-14 by the time any bill is proposed, at least one GOP senator, Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, has said publicly that he probably won’t vote for right-to-work.
Second, the Operating Engineers’ interests continue to align with Republicans’ on a large number of policies: support for mining and repairing the state’s crumbling roads, to name a few.
McGowan, for his part, wrote in his article that he never much cared for the idea of exempting the operating engineers and other construction unions. Even if Republicans had some plan to pay back supporters, he suggested, carve-outs for a particular groups have next to no chance of standing up in court.
In other words, no thanks.
“This is proof once again,” McGowan wrote, “that you cannot unleash hungry wolves and tell them who they can and cannot devour.”Follow @TDR_WLJDan