Before right-to-work think balance and checks

It sounds nice. Like a pill, an easy and painless cure to the decaying economy, the right-to-work law will move Wisconsin forward by creating new jobs. That’s what our neighbors in Michigan and Indiana might say as proponents of the right-to-work act. On the other hand, opponents believe that the right-to-work bill will significantly stunt wages and scrape off the employee rights. These oversaturated assertions from both sides require some dilution.

The right-to-work law gives private-sector employees the decision to join and contribute to the services provided by labor unions. Wisconsin is nearing the passage of this law. The bill passed the Senate last week 17-15. The Assembly, on Wednesday afternoon, will have an opportunity to make adjustments to and vote on the bill. If adjustments are made, the Senate will vote again.

Rewind to 2012, when Michigan and Indiana underwent the very same debates with the very same talking points that are now being fired in Wisconsin. It’s been two years. Evidence of what right-to-work actually does for the economy is inconclusive. Matter of fact, in the past year, the unemployment rate in Indiana has leveled off while Wisconsin and Michigan continued to drop. It’s difficult to link any trends in the employment rate or the economy to the single act of turning into a right-to-work state. Moreover, it is questionable whether the demographics, economic environment, and social programs can be transplanted from one state in place of another state for comparison. It’s just not that simple.

To the proponents of right-to-work, it seems as though this is the only way to invigorate the economy by creating new jobs. But, there are a number of different ways stimulate the economy, attract new business, and outcompete neighboring states like tax breaks or targeted state-sponsored initiatives, strategies where Wisconsin is already leading the way.

It is true, however, that we should be wary of the fees paid to Unions. In the past, labor unions were stained with corruption. It was once common practice that unions collected donations out of membership fees to lobby for representatives that favor the authority of labor unions, whether or not the union members, the individual employees, agreed with the positions of these representatives.

But therein comes in the Taft Hartly act of 1953.

This is the act that allowed states to place right-to-work laws because of the previous legal slant in favor of labor unions. More importantly, this is the act that created the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to act as the arbitrator between union members, labor unions and employers. This is the system in place to keep labor unions in check.

Perhaps right-to-work doesn’t sound too terrible since only about 11 percent of the American workforce is a part of a Union. However, for those that are a part of Unions, they are crucial. If there would be a disagreement between employees and employers, unions step in to act as the representative body to voice concerns of the employees to the employers, and then to the government if there are further disputes. By putting these responsibilities in the hands of unions, employees don’t have to worry about losing a job from bringing out their workplace concerns. They don’t have to learn the legal playbook to argue for better working conditions. They don’t lose hours of their paycheck. They can continue work as usual as the union representatives argue their case.

Unions will attempt to provide these services whether or not the right-to-work bill passes. However, the key to the issue is the fact that employees will no longer be obligated to pay for the services provided to them by unions. Should the right-to-work bill pass, and should employees decide not to contribute to unions, the money will not be there for the unions to supply these services. No longer will the labor unions nor employees have the resources to keep their employers in check.

Unions are most crucial in the battles between employees and the big businesses. When employees are competing with big businesses. Unions are necessary to finance, organize, and implement the calls for change to put employees on a level playing field as their employers. They are key to providing a system of checks and balances between the employee and the employer.

How a streetcar can affect Milwaukee

After more than a decade of deliberation, Milwaukee has latched onto the transnational trend of implementing streetcars as catalysts for economic growth.

The Milwaukee Common Council on February 10th approved the 2.5-mile streetcar project connecting downtown Milwaukee and the lower east side in a 9-6 vote, claiming that the streetcar will drive economic growth. With the recent developments, an anti-streetcar movement began to gain traction throughout January. Opponents of the streetcar believe that the money could be better spent on improving the current public bus system and repairing intercity roads.

Here are the facts. Funding of the streetcar will be 80 percent federal and 20 percent local. Much of the federal support is legally tied to funding a streetcar, and a streetcar only. The local funds will be gathered by increasing the taxes on the downtown areas that will benefit from the streetcar. Technically no money will be lost or gained for any current public projects. The streetcar is designed to supplement buses in niche parts of the city. The building of the streetcar will occur concurrently with the developments in high traffic highways and the improvement of bus quality through federal grants.

The streetcar trend was made possible in part by grants from the federal government U.S. that have been available since 2009. Since then, more than 18 streetcar projects across the nation have received grants, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

Cities comparable to Milwaukee, like Portland and Seattle, have seen growth in their employment rates alongside already established forms of public transit like buses and subways. Milwaukee is one of the more densely populated cities in the U.S. and of the few without an alternative public transportation system.

But even without a transportation revamp, Milwaukee has regained economic footing as the national U.S. economy stabilized. It is worth debating whether or not Milwaukee needs a streetcar to develop.

There are two ways to look at streetcars.They can be seen as simply as an alternative public transit that takes commuters from point A to point B. Then there is also a more cultural view with the purpose of a streetcar reshaping the norms and habits in a specific area by building it alongside concurrent development projects. This approach takes the streetcar as more of a public contract for future development in a specific area. It’s important to clarify that the two views of streetcars are not mutually exclusive of one another.

Mainstream media often played up the role of streetcars attracting and transmitting millennials into developing cities. Even the official website of the new Milwaukee Streetcar embraces the belief that the streetcar will “attract and retain young talent needed to grow Milwaukee’s economy, support the creative class and fuel a culture of entrepreneurship.” Having a streetcar in a buzzing economic location is a logical decision. Scott Drewianka, associate professor of demographic economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees.

“My guess is that streetcars would be more popular and effective when they cover a route that many people want to travel, run frequently, and are safe and inexpensive, and also when other means of transport are less convenient, for example when traffic is congested or it is hard to park,” he wrote in an e-mail.

However, according to the 2010 census data, the age demographics between Milwaukee and Portland are similar with or without streetcars.

In 2012 the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, released a research report criticizing the role of streetcars stimulating the economy. The real problem that comes with developing around a streetcar is that as the areas around the streetcar develop, neighboring areas without the economic stimulus will be out-competed. If transportation is an issue in a developing city, the report suggests reinvigorating areas of the city with low employment by expanding the bus systems rather than investing in a new transit system in an already economically booming location.

Portland, often cited as the original success story of streetcars, saw economic gains through government development subsidies worth more than the actual investment of the streetcar itself. It is clear that a streetcar, as a means of transit alone, will not bring about economic development.

Jeff Brown, department chair and associate professor at the department of urban and regional planning at Florida State University, led a case study of five cities with streetcars in the U.S. The conclusion was it depends.

The report showed Portland as the golden star of streetcar cities. But, Portland’s experience came out of a unique combination of local populations, employment patterns, land development policy decisions and public investments that may not be applicable elsewhere.

One crucial factor in Portland’s success was the fact that it had a high-speed rail already connecting the neighboring suburbs into the downtown city area. If Portland is the standard, then Milwaukee is doing this backward.

There is a reason to this in Milwaukee. In a public forum about the streetcar issue in January, Mayor Tom Barrett said the U.S. Department of Transportation is reluctant to offer further aid in Milwaukee because of the Wisconsin’s rejection of the intended $800 million grant of the 2010 high-speed rail between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.

More than anything else, it is the prospect of new businesses entering the city that will attract new employees. Portland had several business initiatives that encouraged development along the transit lines.

In order for Milwaukee to attract businesses, Milwaukee must rebrand itself as a modern city. Milwaukee will need some sort of investment to attract new businesses but also connect it to the surrounding neighborhoods. Reports dating back to 2008 highlight the disconnect between economic growth the inner-city areas and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Milwaukee already has several initiatives to attract new investment in the downtown area, such as the ReFresh MKE campaign, and the development of a water research business park. Kevin Muhs, a transit planner for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, believes Milwaukee has reached its limit in terms of developing Milwaukee without a centralized transit system.

“We’ve got good bones, how do we take them further,” he said during a public forum in Milwaukee. “The streetcars are what’s going to bridge that gap. If you look at Denver, they’re just booming. It’s not just downtown but in the neighborhoods around it are connected by various fixtures of transit.”

Everything boils down to how much of an investment Milwaukee puts into the development in the area to attract future businesses, whether that be through developing areas around public transit that are supported by the federal government or city lead subsidies and improved bus services.

The Wisconsin Idea is a Wisconsin college success story

Gov. Walker’s proposed revision of the University of Wisconsin mission statement carved out the core of the Wisconsin Idea. Yet, even after a weekend of heated brushback, recalled statements, and uncovered truths, the Wisconsin Idea remains a vague or long-winded statement about service to the state (there is a 92 page report defining the Wisconsin Idea).

For clarity’s sake, the Wisconsin Idea was the fabric of kinship between an unlikely pair of Wisconsin boys; Robert M. La Follette a fiery aspiring attorney and Charles Van Hise a pragmatic geological scientist. The two were roommates and classmates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduation, Van Hise immediately began his career as an instructor. He was to spend the next years of his life committed to adapting the sciences for practical use.

Fighting Bob

“Fighting Bob” Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

La Follette began his political career as a district attorney and quickly gained a seat in the U.S. Congress. The story goes that La Follette refused to take a bribe and lost his seat at congress. Bitter, he spent the next ten years across the state of Wisconsin with his fist pounding into the air and his eyes glaring with disappointment, resentment and belief in the people of Wisconsin. He demanded political reform and social justice that was trusted by logic and reasoning. Fighting Bob, he was called. He was the Progressive era.

Those ten years won Wisconsin’s trust. La Follette became governor of Wisconsin. Van Hise became president of the University. Through a twist of fate, the two roommates were reunited under their dedication to the University and Wisconsin. They moved under a united cause; to provide data and research for citizens to make informed decisions and hold the government accountable to the people. They pushed, drafted, and created room for collaboration between state officials and university experts.

One of the first iterations of the Wisconsin Idea came through a speech by La Follette in 1901. He rallied the duty of students to give back to the state that has allowed the University to grow. In 1904, Van Hise echoed similar remarks as he began the official implementation of the Wisconsin Idea into the University. He created the Extensions Network. With this structure, the Wisconsin Idea finally took a physical form.
Researchers reached out to farmers, factories, and villages to study their needs, hear their concerns and address them as fellow citizens of Wisconsin. Few laws were passed before they had been carefully studied by the university experts. This is what is meant by “the boundaries of the state are the boundaries of the university and the service to the state.”

Wisconsin became a central model for social reform in the nation. Newly established municipal research institutions, such as Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the National Bureau of Economic Research, adopted the Wisconsin model of applied empirical research for the public. This heartfelt and idealistic idea that grew from a couple of Wisconsin boys was now being implemented across the U.S.

Van Hise and Hoover

Van Hise and President Hoover Source: UW-Madison Archives

The Wisconsin Idea is Wisconsin’s college success story that shook the nation. According to a professor at UW-Madison, instructors at the University are familiar with this success story. For many, the Wisconsin Idea is reason they chose Wisconsin over any other higher paying, prestigious schools across the U.S. Only with story and context can the essence of the Wisconsin Idea be captured.