Guest Column: 'WMC Doesn’t Speak for All Businesses'

The state's largest business lobby has a lot to say on behalf of the "business community," but that doesn't mean they speak for every business.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Evan Dannells of the Madison restaurant Cadre testifying against cuts to enhanced UI being proposed by the Republican majority. Photo by Shawn Phetteplace

Guest column by Shawn Phetteplace, state manager for the Main Street Alliance.

When former Gov. Scott Walker declared Wisconsin “Open for Business,” what he meant was it was open for deregulation, tax cuts and special deals to companies like Foxconn. 

Throughout the ensuing decade, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group, helped further entrench gerrymandered incumbents, supported measures to limit voting rights, and pushed policies that privileged larger employers over Main Street. 

There are countless examples of when WMC supported policies pushed by members of the legislature that were actually bad for business. 

In the Winter 2019 edition of the “Wisconsin Business Voice,” Chris Reader, then the group’s director of health and health resources, makes the argument against BadgerCare expansion. For the past ten years, WMC has been one of the driving organizations in the state working to stop expansion. But the facts are as follows: if Wisconsin took the expansion, the state would now receive $1.6 billion dollars on top of the annual federal funding for the program so that more than 95,000 people with lower incomes would receive better healthcare. 

BadgerCare expansion would help small businesses. It would allow employers offering part-time work to make sure employees have health insurance, it would help small businesses retain employees who seek health benefits, and it would help small business owners manage the burden of their own coverage. 

WMC’s strongest supporter in the legislature, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, has repeatedly made bad faith arguments about BadgerCare and equated it to welfare, a clear dog-whistle to make it clear that “other people” would receive the benefit. It’s bad faith argument after bad faith argument. 

I recently spoke with another business association in Wisconsin and asked them why they hadn’t supported taking the expansion, since it would clearly benefit many workers at their member businesses across Wisconsin. The answer? “We work for the owners, not the workers.” That much is obvious! 

In 2017, WMC agreed that lead was dangerous to human health, but would not support a policy that would add even one penny to their members' water bills to address it. They were more than willing to risk a Flint type situation in Milwaukee, creating a ticking time bomb for Wisconsin families. 

Currently, 7.5% of children in Milwaukee are exposed to lead. But time and again, WMC-backed legislators have helped block action to address this problem. Lead is a known contributor to many health issues, including cognitive challenges. Allowing this problem to continue unaddressed hurts the workforce, and it hurts families.

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Recently, WMC has been pushing a patently false narrative that the enhanced unemployment insurance benefit to Wisconsin families is causing the current worker shortage issues that some employers are experiencing. You can read about why that’s not accurate here, here, here, here and here

This “blame Wisconsin families” strategy to paint folks as lazily sitting on the couch, watching Netflix isn’t based on the experience of the vast majority of workers. Frankly, it is offensive. 

Access to quality child care is still a major challenge for working families. That issue remains unaddressed.

During the pandemic, many folks permanently left job sectors that let them go, and are now working in other fields. That’s another important factor. 

And unemployment in Wisconsin is already very low. We are simply experiencing a tight labor market for the first time since, well, right before the pandemic and before the UI benefits went into effect. 

Take, as an example, Klondike Cheese who spoke at the recent press conference with the legislative majority, blaming UI benefits for the worker shortages. In 2017, the Wisconsin State Journal published a story ran about Klondike’s challenges getting workers. This illustrates clearly that it’s not UI that’s to blame, but broader challenges in the economy, such as child care, paid leave, and health care policy. We should be focused on helping workers, not hurting them. 

The fact is, WMC doesn’t speak for all business owners in Wisconsin. Not even close. For too long, the debate around small businesses and Main Street have been dominated by groups that don’t share the interests of the smaller employers in the state.

Since launching in August in Wisconsin, the Main Street Alliance has quickly grown to a membership of more than 100 small businesses across Wisconsin, from Blanchardville to Bayfield. Want to pass permanent paid leave? Pass BadgerCare expansion? Ensure that families have access to affordable childcare? Join us at Mainstreetalliance.org


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