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Construction worker protections part of union push in WI


Wisconsin union leaders say the state is seeing more buzz among organized labor after a decade of anti-union laws hindered regional membership. Construction unions continue their push for protections for nonmembers they said are being exploited.

Wisconsin's union membership was down to nearly 8% last year, below the national average. But advocates say recent examples, such as the threat of a nurses' strike at UW Health, are a sign of hope.

Burt Johnson, general counsel for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, said when it comes to construction sites, they still want policymakers to take issues such as wage theft of immigrant workers more seriously.

"We need to take developer accountability into the hands of those who make the laws," Johnson asserted. "If the developers can't clean up their own house and ensure that these things don't happen, it is a public issue."

The council is amplifying these concerns after a sexual harassment incident and lingering wage-theft problems tied to subcontractors in neighboring Minnesota. The contractors in question were hired for a development led by the owners of the Minnesota Vikings.

In Wisconsin, a wage theft task force, created by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, has developed recommendations, but political gridlock is seen as a roadblock for implementation.

Johnson hopes the case of the Minnesota worker who reported being sexually assaulted while on the job sheds more light on the added dangers women face on construction sites.

"There are many women in the construction industry that have faced harassment in the workplace," Johnson pointed out.

He noted what happened in Minnesota is a more extreme example, but still needs to be considered as part of a broader call for more protections.

Meanwhile, on the economic side, a recent report noted 15% of construction workers in Wisconsin do not have health insurance, more than twice the rate of all workers in the state. In 2011 and 2015, Republican policymakers in Wisconsin passed laws viewed as major obstacles for union activity.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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