The Worst Governor Ever For Workers?
Six years later, Gov. Scott Walker’s impact on unions, worker rights and jobs.
Terry McGowan is the president of Local 139, a statewide union of 9,000 heavy machinery operators who endorsed Scott Walker for governor in 2010 because he promised to increase highway funding and build more roads. McGowan was among a significant number of private sector union members who supported Walker, even after he succeeded in passing Act 10, which decimated public unions in Wisconsin.
Prior to the 2014 election, McGowan met with Walker, who was seeking a contribution and another endorsement for governor, as writer Dan Kaufman reported for the New York Times. “I looked across the table at him, and I said, ‘We are both God-fearing men,’ ” McGowan said. “ ‘If you can tell me that right-to-work will not come on your desk, then I will take you for your word.’ He looked me in the eyes, and he said, ‘It will not make it to my desk.’”
And so McGowan’s union once again supported Walker. And just four months after his reelection, Walker signed a right-to-work bill championed by Wisconsin Republicans which makes it far easier for companies to kill unions.
“Scott Walker will go down in history as the worst governor for workers,” says Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. “He has a consistent record of attacking workers’ rights while failing to create jobs. Since the day Walker took office he has been looking to advance the wants and desires of his millionaire and billionaire campaign donors at the expense of working people.”
How badly have unions been hit by Walker? Act 10 left most public workers in the state without union representation and took $3 billion from the pockets of these mostly middle class workers, who were required to pay more for their benefits. As with Act 10, the Right to Work law will likely reduce the numbers of private sector union workers while reducing their average wage, as has happened in other states.
Those are the two biggest blows, but Walker and the Republicans have passed many other bills with a negative impact on unions and workers:
–Repealing the 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which made it easier for women workers victimized by wage discrimination to seek remedies.
-Legalizing a “seven day work week,” repealing a law that said employees must have at least one day of rest every seven days.
–Repealing the “living wage” law, which gave workers the option to demand better pay — as much as $6,000 annually — than the minimum wage. Meanwhile Walker and Republicans have resisted calls to raise the minimum wage, which have been passed in 21 states.
-Ending project labor agreements by local governments, which require the use of union workers for public works projects. The state Senate and Assembly have both passed similar bills which simply need to be consolidated.
-Eliminating child labor law rule that “16- and 17-year-olds couldn’t work more than 26 hours during a school week and more than 50 hours a week during vacations,” as Bloomberg.com reported. The new law lifted those restrictions.
Walker and Republican legislators are also pushing for more changes this session:
-Eliminating the century-old Labor and Industry Review Commission, which handles thousands of disputes between employers and employees each year. The commission, “whose three members are appointed to six-year terms by the governor, is an independent agency that provides a ‘quasi-judicial forum’ to resolve disputes involving unemployment insurance, workers compensation and equal rights,” as the Journal Sentinel has reported.
-Changing the Department of Workforce Development permit process for children aged 16 and 17 entering the workforce. This bill would weaken the state’s child labor law by eliminating the requirement for parents to approve their kid’s work schedule and other workplace conditions.
These laws were typically championed by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and will certainly make things easier for businesses, while reducing worker rights and pay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will help the economy. As Data Wonk columnist Bruce Thompson has written, there is no evidence right-to-work laws help the economy. And research suggests employees working more than 48 hours per week (much less seven straight days) suffer from fatigue, stress and mental and physical health problems, resulting in lower productivity.
The governor fell far short of his goal of creating 250,000 new jobs in his first term, and even today, after six years in office, has overseen the creation of just 185,208 new jobs, or 64,792 short of his goal. The state has consistently trailed the nation in job growth creation under Walker, using the quarterly jobs statistic Walker favors.
When asked about missing his jobs growth promise by the Journal Sentinel “Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson didn’t address the jobs figures,” but offered this: “Wisconsin’s business climate has consistently improved from one of the worst in the nation to one of the best under Governor Walker… We’ve seen more people employed than ever before, wages are up, and Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate continues to be one of the best in the country.”
But as Bruce Thompson has reported, these ratings of a state’s business climate are contradicted by data showing the most highly rated states, like Wisconsin, have actually had the worst economic performance.
As for the idea that more people are working because the labor force participation rate is high, the state’s relative performance has actually declined slightly. In 2010 — the year before Walker took office — the state’s participation rate was 63.4 percent, compared with 58.5 percent nationally, meaning the rate here was 8.4 percent higher than nationally. Wisconsin’s January 2017 Labor Force Participation Rate increased to 68.1 percent compared to the national rate of 62.9 percent during the month, meaning the rate here was 8.3 percent higher than nationally.
As for the idea that average wages have increased in Wisconsin, Evenson offered no figures on this. The best I could find were figures showing a small improvement in median household income. Thus, the state’s median income of $50,293 ranked below the national median of $51,144 in 2010 and still ranked below the nation in 2015, at $55, 638 vs $55,775 nationally.
This modest improvement in the state versus national figure, however, only gives an average (as would an analysis of average wages). The entire thrust of the Walker administration has been to oppose anything that might reduce the growing wealth gap in America. Most of the $3 billion in increased benefits costs largely paid for by middle class public employees went to an income tax cut, and 44 percent of that went to the wealthiest 20 percent in the state.
Nationally and in Wisconsin the economy has grown tremendously since the Great Recession, but all the evidence suggests Walker’s policies haven’t changed the fact that Wisconsin regularly trails the nation in jobs growth. Meanwhile his tax policies have been skewed to help the wealthy and his weakening of public and private unions have given workers less power over working conditions, wages and benefits. Union leaders like Terry McGowan have learned a painful lesson: Walker’s policies are meant to put them out of business.
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