“Right to Work” Will Kill Workers

On Wednesday, February 25, the Wisconsin Senate passed a so-called “right-to-work” bill, which will almost certainly be approved by the Republican-dominated state Assembly next week and signed by Governor Scott Walker. As debate began, I was arrested and dragged away by at least six police officers along with my brother. We were standing in a hallway outside the Senate chamber; the police deemed that we as Wisconsin citizens had no right to be there, in our own house of government. I was processed and held at the county jail, and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Resisting arrest is a class A misdemeanor with maximum consequences of up to nine months in prison and $10,000 in financial penalties.

This is not my story. I am not now a union member and never have been. But because my own legislators refused to hear my voice, along with the voices of so many other Wisconsinites on this important legislation, I choose to speak. This is my testimony.

I am a former staffer to United States Senator Herb Kohl, for whom I served as an investigator on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. In that role, I worked to protect this country’s senior citizens from abuse in nursing homes, financial scams perpetrated by unscrupulous insurance agents, and participated in a major investigation into the kickbacks pharmaceutical and medical device companies provide to doctors in order to gain their support for certain products.

I loved that work, but became frustrated by the toxic political environment in Washington, DC. Since it seemed legislative solutions were impossible, I sought out a career in which I hoped I could help people more directly. I became a safety and risk management consultant, working directly with the owners and top management of businesses across the country in the hopes of improving worker safety and reducing on the job injuries. I spent more than five years in that role and worked with hundreds of employers across the country, many of them in Wisconsin. I gained the top certification in the field of safety (Certified Safety Professional), along with several other related designations. I was published in leading industry publications, including Risk Management magazine, Professional Safety magazine, and Employee Health and Safety Today. I developed and freely distributed an employee training program on new chemical safety regulations, which has been used to train tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of employees across the United States. I was selected to speak at the National Safety Council’s annual conference in 2014.

I do not claim to be an expert on the economic impacts of “right to work” legislation. But I do know about safety, and I know with absolute certainty that the passage of this legislation in Wisconsin will result in more worker injuries and deaths.

I quit my last job in the safety and risk management field roughly six months ago, and in writing this, I am unlikely to ever be employed in that field again. I got into that career to help people, and I like to think I did. But I also was party to things that still make my stomach churn. I regularly aided and abetted the owners and managers of businesses large and small in keeping their workplaces unsafe.

In the course of my work, I constantly looked the other way as employers intentionally violated even the most basic safety regulations. Worse, I helped employers hide, minimize, and even cover up such violations in the course of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspections. I have heard wealthy business owners laugh about their own injured employees. I have witnessed the common practice of hiring private investigators to follow injured workers off-the-job to attempt to prove their injuries are fraudulent. I have been in the room when company owners have decided to illegally discriminate against injured workers, as well as employees who dare to raise safety concerns. I sat quietly as an employer decided not to inform several employees of their exposure to a dangerous chemical, and not to provide them with the appropriate (and legally required) health testing as a result. The stated purpose of this decision was to avoid creating a paper trail that would lead to potential liability for the company.

The things that are said by company owners and top managers behind closed door would shock their employees and the public. As disgusted as I was and continue to be, I can’t say that I would consider many of these individuals to be bad people. They were often generally pleasant, appeared to care about their families, and seemed to view their actions as consistent with the nature of their jobs and in the best interest of their respective companies. As for me? I was being paid by company management, not their employees. But I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I did it anyway. To the workers who have been hurt as a result of my actions, I am so sorry.

Company owners will never do what it takes to protect their workers out of the goodness of their own hearts. That simply isn’t the way our economy works. It costs more to provide a safer workplace and owners/managers are incentivized to reduce costs wherever they can. Let me be clear: the cavalier attitude toward worker safety I have described is the rule, not the exception.

In my five years as a safety consultant, the only effective protection I saw for worker safety was a unionized workplace. While not perfect from a safety perspective, the unionized companies I worked with were uniformly safer than those without union protection.

Along with roughly 200 other members of the public, I had signed up to testify before the Wisconsin Senate Labor Committee on the “right to work” legislation. After waiting more than eight hours for the opportunity to testify, Republican committee chair Stephen Nass abruptly ended the hearing due to what he called a “credible threat” that a peaceful protest might disrupt the hearing, refusing to hear additional testimony.

Kevin Tostrud of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 was one of the last Wisconsinites allowed to testify. He had worked a night shift the night before, slept a couple of hours, then spent all day at the Capitol waiting to be heard. Kevin is a crane operator, one of the most highly-skilled and dangerous professions in construction. Other workers put their lives in the hands of crane operators every single day; one mistake can easily cause several fatalities. Of the “right to work” legislation, Kevin asked the lawmakers: “Are you prepared to be accountable for the deaths that being a right to work state can create? I don’t want to be accountable for a death. But if it happens because of a deterioration of the construction workers that I work with every day, that is a big concern for me… I fear that making this a right to work state will cause deaths.”

Andrew Voelzke of the United Steelworkers Local 209 recalled a story from his early days in a union. He was working in wet conditions with a tool that had been damaged and received an electric shock. He went to the job foreman, who told him “You want to keep your job, you get back out there and do it.” Andrew stopped, thought about it, and realized “Wait a minute, I’ve got a union here, he can’t make me do this… I felt I had that security.” Andrew continued, “Now you’re looking at legislation which is going to weaken that. I don’t know what’s going to happen, it could be your kids or your family or friends of your family, that are working somewhere, and somebody says… ‘Do this, or do that, or you’re out of a job.’ Andrew’s story speaks to an important truth: without unions, workers have very little option when instructed to perform an unsafe task.

These are just two union workers’ stories. If the Wisconsin legislature took the time to listen to its own citizens, it would hear many more like these. They are the ones who deserve to be heard. They are the ones whose lives will be put at risk by this so-called “right to work” legislation.

This has been my testimony. I am sorry for what I have done, but I hope to someday make it right. “Right to work” in Wisconsin will result in more of our friends, neighbors, and families being hurt and killed. It is as simple as that.

Now let them speak.

Will Kramer is a Certified Safety Professional. He spent more than five years serving as a safety consultant to businesses across the country. He was arrested standing up for worker safety during protests of "right to work" legislation in Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter: @wnkramer. Read other articles by Will.