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Right-to-work effort winds around Great Lakes into Wisconsin

This week, the right-to-work debate moves front and center in Wisconsin.

With Republicans in the Legislature aiming to fast-track a bill to Gov. Scott Walker's desk, they're following a playbook that

has been executed in other GOP-led states in the upper Midwest.

In early 2012, just before the Super Bowl came to Indianapolis, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a right-to-work law in Indiana.

Later that year, it was Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's turn to hand a stinging defeat to organized labor.

And now, it's on to Wisconsin, where the labor battle has come full circle.

Walker, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, has said he'll sign a right-to-work bill once it is pushed through the Legislature. Compared with the struggle over Act 10, when Walker was in the lead in taking on public-sector unions, the governor is now in the background responding to lawmakers.

But Walker's peekaboo style on right-to-work would have the same effect: unleashing a big blow to big labor.

His signature would make Wisconsin the nation's 25th right-to-work state. It would also mark another historic moment in the history of business and labor relations in America.

"In some ways it's the end of a very long decline of the strength of unions and a weakening of protections both at the federal and state level for unions," said William P. Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor.

Right-to-work prohibits businesses and unions from reaching labor deals that require workers to pay fees to the union.

Supporters say it provides workers with free choice on whether to join unions.

Opponents say that unions and businesses should be free to structure labor deals as they see fit and that all employees should pay for the work unions do.

Slow power drain

Jones said unions have been losing power since the late 1970s, with a renewed push against organized labor in the wake of the 2007-'09 Great Recession.

The new battleground over labor and right-to-work has been in the Great Lakes states, the old Rust Belt.

"If there was a state that was going to do it in the industrial rust belt, Indiana would be the first," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee and Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. "Once they did, other states would look at it to remain competitive."

As early as 2005, the battle began taking shape as Daniels ended collective bargaining for state employees in Indiana by executive order.

In 2011, Walker's dramatic standoff with public-sector unions over Act 10 catapulted him to national prominence. It also showed other Republican governors in the Midwest that they, too, could defeat organized labor.

The governors didn't win every battle, though. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich signed a law curbing collective bargaining for public-sector unions, only to see the measure repealed by voters.

But eventually there were big wins for governors in Indiana and Michigan.

"What you're seeing from Indiana to Wisconsin to Michigan is that those brave elective officials who take on labor reform see their states rewarded, despite all the noise people make against them," said Vincent Vernuccio, a policy analyst for the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based think tank.

Walker, commenting Saturday at the National Governor's Association gathering in Washington, said passage of right-to-work in Indiana and Michigan creates a competitive issue for Wisconsin.

Businesses need "to know where Wisconsin is at compared to Indiana, Michigan and other places on right-to-work when they're making decisions about locating their businesses," he said.

Asked how it might affect his likely presidential bid, Walker said: "I think it's another positive. We're proven problem-solvers."

ALEC model legislation

National groups have played a big role in this fight, from the largest unions such as the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association to conservative groups such as the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which sponsors model legislation in a number of areas, including labor law.

Wisconsin's right-to-work bill shares some close similarities with ALEC model legislation, the Center for Media and Democracy reported Saturday. The center is a liberal Madison group that has long tracked ALEC's activities.

Federal law allows states to pass right-to-work legislation prohibiting unions and employers from requiring private-sector workers to pay labor dues or fees. But federal law limits what states can do in very specific ways.

That makes national model legislation, such as ALEC proposals, more useful to state lawmakers, since legislators have very little leeway in terms of what they can do to private-sector unions. Wisconsin's bill, for instance, is five pages long and is much shorter, less complex and less specific to this state than Act 10 was.

Even with right-to-work laws implemented in Michigan and Indiana, and also surviving court challenges, unions haven't gone away. But they have been hard pressed.

In Michigan, union membership declined from 16.3% of wage and salary workers (633,000 people) in 2013 to 14.5% (585,000) in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Right-to-work benefits the people at the top while it works against the rest of us, so we shouldn't be fooled when these kinds of policies are pushed," said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Michelle Kaminski, an associate professor of labor relations at Michigan State University, said it will take time to assess the full impact of right to work.

"Any contract that was in effect before the bill (was signed) remains in effect," she said. "Right-to-work doesn't apply to those unions until their contract is expired and renegotiated."

In Indiana, the number of union members actually increased from 9.3% of the workforce (249,000 workers) in 2013 to 10.6% (299,000) in 2014.

"Right-to-work is not a death blow, it's a death by a thousand cuts, a long-term attack," said Jeff Harris, communication and legislative director for the Indiana AFL-CIO.

Journal Sentinel reporters Jason Stein in Madison and Craig Gilbert in Washington contributed to this report.

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