Many reasons have been given for why the crowds that gathered over the past two weeks in protest of Wisconsin’s right-to-work legislation did not come close to rivaling the size of those of four years ago.
Perhaps it’s that labor groups have grown weary and pessimistic after seeing that their massive show of force in 2011 accomplished little beyond giving rise to a presidential contender. Or maybe it’s simply the political math: Republicans now have more seats in the state Assembly than they did four years ago while retaining control of the Senate and the governor’s office.
Then – never to be underestimated – there was the weather, which was colder this February than it was four years ago.
As true as all this may be, it overlooks one important consideration. In 2011, members of public-sector unions – supported by their private-sector brethren – stood united against a single law that threatened to deprive them of most of their collective-bargaining rights.
This year, though, private-sector unions are being besieged by a series of bills striking at what they hold most dear. Republican lawmakers are proposing not only to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, but also to repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law and ban contract clauses requiring contractors to sign onto project-labor agreements before they can bid on public projects.
It’s fairly safe to say members of all private-sector unions feel threatened by these polices. But perceptions of which would be the most harmful seem to vary from industry to industry.
Contractors and construction workers have been among the most vocal opponents of right-to-work. But many also privately acknowledge that they see the possible loss of prevailing wages as an even greater threat.
Some have also said they held back in protesting right-to-work for fear that too aggressive of a display would only make Republicans unwilling to listen when it comes time to argue for keeping the state’s prevailing wage. In other words, they have been keeping their powder dry.
None of this is meant to suggest that I doubt the ardor of those who came out in droves this week and last in opposition to right-to-work, or who sat for hours through public hearings to testify in what was recognized early on to be a losing battle. Really, it’s too bad: The 2011 protests set so high a standard that anything smaller – no matter how big – is bound to seem like somewhat of a failure.
The big question for unions eager to keep the state’s prevailing wage then becomes: If nearly 3,000 protesters were not enough to stop right-to-work, and 100,000 protesters were not enough to stop Act 10, what more can they do?