This past Friday brought the sudden announcement that legislative leaders in Wisconsin would call an extraordinary session in order to pass “right-to-work” legislation. The impending death blow for Wisconsin’s private-sector unions—coming four years after the state’s public-sector unions (save those that supported Scott Walker) received the same treatment—promises to suck up all of the state’s political oxygen in the near term. Workplace freeloading will likely acquire the force of law within a week, and it is worth reflecting on the parallels between this newest legislative push and the slightly slower-moving attack on the University of Wisconsin System, to which the state’s attention may in due time return.
Right-to-work is being moved through the legislature with all the subtlety of a daylight mugging. Wisconsin’s experience is reminiscent of what happened in Michigan, where a lame-duck legislature passed similar legislation in December of 2012. Proponents of right-to-work recognize that time, consideration, evidence, and argument are significant impediments to passage. Wisconsin’s small businesses are not in favor of it. A Marquette economist told WUWM last week that right-to-work is likely to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue. Its champions in the legislature, it seems, are acting out of nothing so much as a desire to demonstrate their adherence to the most thoroughly discredited economic theory this side of full communism.
Hence the fast track. And so it is with the proposal, introduced by Scott Walker and endorsed by UW System President Ray Cross and several chancellors and other top administrators, to eliminate Chapter 36 from Wisconsin statute. Chapter 36 defines the UW System and lays out the statutory guarantees of tenure and shared governance, among many other things. UW administrators have been at pains to stress their desire and intention to maintain the spirit of Chapter 36’s guarantees in Board of Regents policy after the proposed transition to a public authority. They have equally studiously avoided making any written or spoken guarantee to this effect. The rights and protections presently enumerated and enshrined in state law will be blithely tossed into the black box of the public authority without anything like a proper period for public review, input, and due diligence. UW administrators have been doing an awful lot of protesting about the high regard in which they hold Chapter 36, and precious little advocacy for its retention in state law.
The rights and protections afforded under Chapter 36 apply not just to faculty, but also to students and academic staff. The United Council of UW Students issued a strong statement of opposition to the public authority conversion today and in defense of their rights under Chapter 36. Faculty are quickly waking up to the danger, as well. While a public authority might offer a margin of safety from a radical and hostile legislature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to countenance the motives of an administration that endorses the wholesale elimination of rights and protections long codified in law, much less one that sees a suitable replacement in the good intentions of a Board of Regents dominated by gubernatorial appointees.
If the public authority is actually an idea worth pursuing, then UW leadership should push to get it off the fast track. And it must give some substance to its so far empty defense of Chapter 36.