By Chris Mueller, Stevens Point Journal
STEVENS POINT — For 28 years, Kevin Zurawski has been a member of a carpenter's union, paying dues and attending meetings.
Now, though, he fears the existence of his union — Carpenters Local 804, with roughly 130 members in Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids — is at risk because of a right-to-work bill making its way through the state Legislature. Zurawski, the union's president, is concerned if the bill is passed, it would cripple unions across Wisconsin and threaten pensions for current and future union retirees.
"I think the livelihoods of a lot of these people are in jeopardy, especially the younger generation," Zurawski said.
Right-to-work laws, already in place in 24 states, prohibit private companies from reaching labor agreements in which workers are forced to pay dues to unions as a condition of employment. That means once a right-to-work law is passed, private-sector workers laboring under a union contract are no longer required to join or pay fees to their unions, which are still obligated to represent their interests.
The bill passed the Senate 17-15 on Wednesday, with all Democrats and one Republican voting against it, after nearly eight hours of debate. The Assembly is expected to deal with the issue this week. Gov. Scott Walker has already said he would sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk.
About 2,000 construction workers, electricians, carpenters and other union members protested against the bill in Madison on Tuesday and Wednesday as lawmakers debated the legislation.
Rick Skutak is secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 662, which represents about 7,000 members in 42 counties in the state. Skutak, of Mosinee, was in Madison on Tuesday and Wednesday, alongside many others gathered to rally against the bill.
"We were inside the Capitol building, talking to those lawmakers and trying to argue our case," Skutak said.
The rallies this week were nowhere near the size of those four years ago, when a measure effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers was passed. Still, Skutak said the atmosphere was similar to those protests.
"Most of the people are mad because they're being attacked," he said. "This is a law that is not going to help working families."
Skutak believes the bill, if passed, would do more than cripple unions — it would hurt the state's economy.
"When you lower the standard of living and lower the wages, they're not going to have the money to put back into the economy and the tax base is going to go down," he said.
Proponents argue right-to-work laws help businesses and give workers the freedom to choose whether to pay union dues.
Protesters meet Tuesday at the State Capitol in Madison to rally against a right-to-work bill that was brought up in an extraordinary session.
The bill remains on track to be put before Walker for his approval this week, a fact that is upsetting to Skutak and other union members.
"They don't want the push back, they don't want the rallies, they don't want people at their doors," Skutak said. "They want to do this work in the middle of the night so they don't have anybody standing in the way."
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, claimed the right-to-work bill is intended to draw attention away from Walker's state budget proposal, and described Walker as a "flip-flopper" and "master manipulator" in a news release Wednesday.
"There is little doubt that (Walker) is using this issue to curry favor with right-wing funding sources and distract from his $2.2 billion budget deficit and a state economy that lags behind most of the nation," Shankland said. "Democrats are not going to stand idly by as he further harms the middle-class workers and families who are the backbone of this state."
Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, strongly criticized the bill Wednesday during the debate on the Senate floor. She also attacked supporters of the bill, which is backed by Republican majorities in both chambers.
"You refuse to consider raising the minimum wage, you make it harder for people to get unemployment benefits, you rob public servants of their right to a voice in the workplace, and now you want to effectively destroy organized labor altogether," Lassa said. "Today, we witness once again that the party of the outer ring is dedicated to the politics of destruction."
Zurawski, too, said he believes the legislation is at least partly motivated by politics, rather than economics.
"They're not doing it for the constituents or the people of Wisconsin," he said. "They're doing it for their own party."