During the leadership of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin became anti-union, with the enactment of so-called “Right to Work” laws and the elimination of Prevailing Wage. Though current Gov. Tony Evers is more union-friendly, the Wisconsin legislature maintains a historically anti-union majority
The existence of so-called “Right to Work” laws and the loss of Prevailing Wage created a hostile climate for Wisconsin unions as they struggled to fight for the rights of all workers, to maintain quality wages and to ensure workers have a safe and healthy work environment.
International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) District Council 7 Business Manager/Secretary Treasurer Jeff Mehrhoff joined the America’s Work Force Union Podcast to discuss how the IUPAT approaches these challenges and why more must be done to improve the lives of workers.
The struggle to organize in an anti-union climate
When Mehrhoff was first elected to his position in 2016, he wanted to focus DC 7’s efforts on organizing. Since then, DC 7 has made progress on recruitment, he said.
DC 7 once focused on a top down approach — talking to contractors to convince them to partner with the union. Now, it now takes a bottom up approach — speaking directly to workers to best address their goals and concerns when it comes to organizing, Mehrhoff said. This approach can be time consuming and requires more patience, but ultimately they have seen better results.
Workers are the driving force in any organizing campaign, he explained. You must listen to workers and their concerns in order to help them. After losing sight of that focus for a while, DC 7 has returned their focus to workers.
Listening to the concern of voters is especially critical now that Wisconsin is a so-called “Right to Work” state, Mehrhoff said. Since it is much easier to leave a union, representatives must do everything they can to address the problems of members and give them beneficial reasons to be a part of the organization.
The cost of Prevailing Wage loss
The loss of Prevailing Wage hit Wisconsin unions particularly hard, Mehrhoff said. As a result of the move, there was a huge increase in the misclassification of workers. Contractors are able to bring in out-of-state workers and pay them much less, often in cash, he said.
Since these out-of-state workers are often paid under the table, local governments miss out on tax revenues. This also results in fewer people paying into unemployment and supporting the tax bases of local communities.
Work remains strong during COVID
Mehrhoff reported that work for DC 7 members has not slowed down, even during the pandemic. Their affiliated contractors have been busier than ever. Only one portion of its membership saw a lay off. The District Council is affiliated with a union who represents workers in tradeshows. Those individuals have not seen much work since the start of the pandemic.
Apprenticeships paused briefly in the spring of 2020 before virtual training classes began in June via Zoom. In-person classes resumed in August of 2020 and continue to be in-person, he said.
Fortunately, not one apprentice or staff member has gotten COVID-19 since the apprenticeship program has reopened, Mehrhoff said.