Labor Rights

Judge Strikes Down Wisconsin’s Right-To-Work Law

In a win for labor unions, a Wisconsin state judge on Friday struck down the state’s so-called “right-to-work” law, ruling that private unions can collect fees from non-members for the services the union provides for these workers.

The anti-union Wisconsin law, which went into effect last year, prohibits unions and employers from collecting “fair share” fees that prevent non-member “free riders” from receiving the benefits of the union without contributing to the cost of providing those benefits. These types of state anti-union have the potential to undermine the collective bargaining process, which has led to better workplace conditions, better wages, and safer work environments. Importantly, under federal law, no one can be forced to join a union.

Shortly after Governor Scott Walker signed the Wisconsin measure into law, three private-sector unions—the Wisconsin AFL-CIO chapter, Machinists Local Lodge 1061, and United Steelworkers District 2—filed suit, arguing that the law constituted an illegal seizure of property under the Wisconsin state constitution because unions were forced to provide benefits to workers who did not pay for such services.

Dane County Circuit Judge C. William Foust agreed with the unions’ argument, citing the state constitution’s provision that “the property of no person shall be taken for public use without just compensation.” The “property” in this case is the benefits and services provided to members and non-members alike.

“Today, the courts put a needed check on Scott Walker’s attacks on working families by ruling that Wisconsin’s Right to Work law is in violation of our state constitution,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, President of Wisconsin AFL-CIO. “Right to Work goes against the Wisconsin principles of fairness and democracy and hurts all of Wisconsin by eroding the strength of our middle class. Right to Work has always been unjust, now it’s proven unconstitutional.”

The state’s right-to-work law is just the latest anti-labor measure Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has championed. His 2011 law, known as Act 10, which significantly limits collective bargaining rights for most public workers, was upheld by the 5-2 conservative majority on the state Supreme Court in 2014. Since the Act’s passage, Wisconsin has seen a drop in union membership. Much of that drop has been in the public sector.

Right-to-work laws are currently in effect in 26 states. According to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), right-to-work states are associated with lower wages for all workers, especially women, because these statutes drive down union membership. Women represented by a union earn more—$212 per week on average—than women in non-union jobs. The union advantage—including benefits like retirement plans and health insurance—spans every state and every racial and ethnic group. It should come as no surprise then that right-to-work states are home to some of the largest wage gaps for women. Eight of the top ten largest wage gaps are in right-to-work states: Louisiana, Wyoming, West Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Michigan.

Foust’s decision is the first in the nation to overturn the legality of right-to-work laws. Brad Schimel, the state’s Republican Attorney General, has already promised to appeal the decision.

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