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In what might be one of the world's most flagrant proofs of the adage that history repeats itself, "right to work" has suddenly leapt to the top of the priority queue for Wisconsin's Republican party.
In December 2010, after months of campaign promises from the GOP that of course they wanted to work with public employee unions, anything else would be silly, the newly-elected and -empowered Republican majority started throwing weight around against the unions and before long had "dropped the bomb" – Gov. Scott Walker's words – to decimate the unions' power and strip them of basically all collective bargaining rights.
Here we are four years later, following a long campaign where the some of the same folks who misled us in 2010, like Walker and State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, claimed that "right to work" was not on their radar and wouldn't be any kind of a priority, and, you guessed it, a "right to work" bill now tops the Republican legislature's to-do list, according to State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Even right-wing websites are calling it a "reversal" of the publicly stated positions.
Like many other Republican-fermented fever dreams, "right to work" means nothing of the sort. The list of Republican ideas turned into double-speak named bills is frighteningly long--from the "Healthy Forest Initiative" that expanded logging to the "U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act" that undermined Americans' liberty, the Republican Party has a knack for naming something after its opposite. Even the 2011 Wisconsin anti-union bill was put forward as a "Budget Repair Bill" and only passed without a Senate quorum after Republicans admitted it was a non-budgetary measure.
Right to work? Pffft. There is not, right now, in Wisconsin or any other state a prohibition on people working. You or I or even Scott Walker could, at this very moment, stroll into any joint with a "Help Wanted" sign and start slinging hash or widgeting widgets or whatever the help is that they want. (Maybe not Walker, come to think of it; he's a middle-aged college drop-out with practically no private-sector work experience, so it might be hard for him to get hired.)
The act ought to be called the "right to freeload" bill. The bill's point is to allow workers in a union shop to get the benefits of being in the union – compensation negotiations, improved working conditions, being called a "union thug" by Charlie Sykes – without paying the union dues.
That's freeloading, pure and simple. I don't know what else you would call it, or how you could possibly justify enabling that kind of parasitism.
Luckily, there's a coordinated right-wing campaign to just that: justify the freeloading.
Long-time GOP operatives, including Lorri Pickens, who goes back to the 1997 state Supreme Court election that resulted in convictions for campaign violations, were ready to go just moments after the election results were finalized with a non-profit to promote the idea with radio ads and a Facebook campaign and op-eds repeating the same talking points over and over.
None of the talking points say what it's really about, although Scott Walker did. In 2010, he was caught on video saying he had a plan to "divide and conquer" private sector unions, almost all of which, like their public counterparts, opposed Walker's election bid.
It's not about "individual freedoms," as the pro-Right to Work group claims. Because, come on, you have the freedom to work in a union or not already.
It's about breaking the last institutional stronghold of the Democratic Party, organized labor. Labor gets its strength through unity, from the idea among its members that we are all in this together and it is not a zero-sum game; what helps you helps me, and what helps me helps you.
The right wants to kill this idea. They have for a long time, and not because the average American is better off for it. In reality, as union membership has fallen – and as the Ayn Randian nonsense that selfishness – or "individual freedoms," I suppose we're calling it now – is the only virtue – wages for normal people have stagnated or fallen and the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us has exploded.
Canonizing selfishness over unity means we can't question income inequality, we can't question why CEOs and investors make a killing from cutting wages and laying off workers, we can't question why wages are lower in right-to-work states, and we can't question why it's OK to let some freeloading jerk take a job in a union shop and claim benefits the union earned without paying his fair share.
If that jerk were me, I wouldn't be able to face myself in the mirror every morning. But then again, I still believe that we're in this together, and what benefits me should also benefit you.
Are people like me disappearing in Wisconsin, to be replaced by selfish jerks? The Republican party thinks so, and the fight over the right to freeload is their push to prove it. For the sake of us all, we need to push back.