Pardon the use of the broad brush, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say construction workers — at least in some parts of the state — are regularly in Republicans’ corner come election time.
It’s not just people on the management side like Tim Michels, a one-time GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate and a part owner of Michels Corp., one of the largest union companies in the state. Support for Republicans probably extends deep into the rank and file, as well.
As Terry McGowan, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, puts it, construction workers simply tend to view the world in a way that more often than not aligns them with Republicans. Many own guns and hunt, believe that affluence is within the reach of everyone who is willing to work hard and have a general preference for keeping the government out of their business (although most also have no qualms about going on the dole when laid off.)
Construction unions, for their part, can be found bestowing their largesse on both Democrats and Republicans. Take McGowan’s operating engineers. It endorsed Scott Walker when he first ran for governor in 2010 and continued contributing to his campaigns even after he signed the Act 10 legislation that took away the bulk of public workers’ collective-bargaining rights.
Given all this, one of the more interesting questions for the 2016 elections is: Have recent changes to construction-related laws angered enough trades workers to get them to turn against Republicans? Of course, the two recent policy shifts that have received the most notice are Wisconsin’s move to become a right-to-work state and the subsequent overhaul of the state’s prevailing wage laws.
But it’s not just those changes that have many in the industry steaming.
Republicans lawmakers also took a huge chunk out of the state’s road building budget after they found they could not persuade Walker to go along with a plan to raise vehicle registration fees. And as a side effect of the governor’s original plan to rely heavily on borrowing to pay for transportation projects, the state’s current budget for vertical construction was whittled down into one of the smallest in recent memory.
All of these policies are likely to hit construction workers where it really counts — in the pocketbook. But will the pain be enough to result in action at the ballot box?
The top Republican in the state Assembly certainly seemed to think so a few months ago. During a radio interview broadcast in April, Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, warned of the electoral consequences that the GOP could suffer from first making Wisconsin a right-to-work state and then not even waiting a year to start mucking around with prevailing wages.
“(It) is an actual cut in wages to an awful lot of folks around the state,” Vos said. “And that’s where I think that a lot of folks in vulnerable districts worry about having taken a vote for right-to-work and then another one that would reduce wages.”
When the state’s current budget was passed by the Assembly three months later, it was over the opposition of 11 Republicans, the most to vote against any biennial spending plan originating with Walker. At least three of those lawmakers released statements tying their “no” votes to the changes the budget made to prevailing wages (in the end, the laws were repealed only for local governments.)
Signs of a possible defection from the GOP have meanwhile begun to emerge. Jim Hoffman, owner of Hoffman Construction, of Black River Falls, recently said that he had always thought of himself as a Republican but that he will have a hard time supporting a party that rolled back prevailing wages while providing no new revenue for road building.
And former Assembly Speaker John Gard, a Republican from the Green Bay area, wrote a letter earlier this month to a current lawmaker expressing dismay over the way the debate over the prevailing wage changes had been conducted this legislative session. Gard became a punching bag for conservative media outlets because he lobbied on behalf of the operating engineers against both right-to-work and the prevailing wage overhaul.
His letter implied that those policies will cost Republicans.
“Ultimately, I sincerely believe that these men and women had come over (to) the Republican side,” Gard wrote. “I am hopeful that I never have to hear the words … ‘President Hillary Clinton’ and I deeply believe that these are some of the people that could’ve helped deliver a successful result in 2016.”
To be sure, there are reasons to believe Republicans might not be facing as great of a threat as some might hope. There is probably a sizable number of construction workers, most likely on the industry’s union side, who tend to vote for Democrats, making it impossible for Republicans to lose their support.
Moreover, the recent changes to prevailing wage laws are expected to make it easier for nonunion companies to bid on government projects. Workers who see their fortunes improve as a result might be inclined to reward Republicans.
Then there’s the labor shortage in the construction industry. Although right-to-work and the prevailing wage changes could undermine pay over the long-term, the current competition for workers is tending to push compensation rates up. Trades men and women who don’t see an immediate pay cut will be less likely to be angry when they go to the ballot box.
Still, the quick succession this year of what many perceive to be hits to the industry comes just before an election when Republicans will be vulnerable. Democrats almost always do better when they share the ballot with presidential candidates, as will be the case in 2016.
In the state Assembly, the Republican’s huge majority – they hold 63 of the chamber’s 99 seats – is built in part on a handful of districts where voters could just as easily have elected a Democrat. The GOP lawmakers who represent those places have particular reason to be worried.
In truth, it’s hard to believe that the policy changes of the past few months have not stirred up some resentment among construction workers. If Republicans have anything to take solace in, it’s that voting habits, like most old habits, are hard to break.