Commentary: Wisconsin's Governor Gives Union Workers the Shaft

Commentary: Wisconsin's Governor Gives Union Workers the Shaft

Wisconsin replaces paid union workers with free prison labor.

Published July 10, 2011

Wisconsin’s ultra-conservative Gov. Scott Walker has absolutely no love for labor unions. Walker gained national notoriety for his union-busting measures that limited the majority of the state workers’ right to engage in collective bargaining. This virtually obliterated the power of Wisconsin’s state workers by severely limiting their ability to fight for better wages and/or working conditions.


Walker’s drastic legislative action set off massive protest throughout Wisconsin, with state workers staging a '60s style sit-in to convince the governor to reconsider his abrasive action back in March. Many of the state’s Democratic leaders left the legislature in order to prevent Walker from having a quorum, hoping that their absence would effectively kill the bill in the house. It didn’t. Critics decried Scott’s austere legislation, saying that it set a dangerous precedent for governments of other states as well as the private sector to follow. Walker virtually railroaded his bill through the Wisconsin legislature. The governor even ignored a Wisconsin Judge’s restraining order blocking the anti-union legislation.  


Now it seems that union leaders’ worst fears may have been realized as Wisconsin’s union workers find themselves on the short end of the state’s economic stick. Many of them are seeing their wages shrink and the number of union jobs dwindle.


In some parts of the state, government workers have seen union jobs filled by cheap nonunion labor. A salient case of dwindling union jobs can be found in Racine County where the local government has elected to use prison labor to replace landscaping jobs once held by union workers. Inmates are not paid for their labor; instead they receive time off their sentence for their “service” to the state.


Gov. Walker believes that replacing these union jobs with free prison labor will save the state money and go a long way toward balancing the budget. But is it what’s best for the overall economy of Wisconsin? Keep in mind that the inmates who work these jobs don’t earn wages that they can put back into the local and state economy. It is also possible that the union workers that the inmates replace may eventually have to seek unemployment, apply for food stamps and other state and federal assistance programs. When Scott Walker ran for governor in 2010 he promised to create over 200,000 jobs for the state. I guess replacing paid union workers with free prison labor is one small way the governor is making good on his promise.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Written by Charlie Braxton


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