MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate is set to dive into what could be a fierce debate on a Republican right-to-work bill after an evening of bitter protests over the legislation at the state Capitol.
The Senate plans to take up the bill Wednesday afternoon, and it looks like the session could be long and ugly. Democrats are seething after Republicans on the Senate labor committee cut short a public hearing on the bill Tuesday evening. Dozens of people who had waited all day to speak flew into a rage, hurling profanities at the three GOP lawmakers on the panel.
Right-to-work laws, in place in 24 states, prohibit private-sector companies from reaching labor agreements in which workers have to pay fees to the unions as a condition of employment.
The legislators quickly approved the bill on a 3-1 vote. Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat, didn’t vote. When his name was called, he accused committee Chairman Stephen Nass, a Whitewater Republican, of wimping out and left the room under a police escort.
Throngs of union supporters then gathered outside the Senate chamber, chanting, “We’re still here” and “Whose house? Our house!” One protester held a sign that read, “We are not lab rats for Iowa, Scotty,” a reference to GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential ambitions. Another protester wore a suit jacket over red long-johns and a Viking helmet with a sign taped to it that read, “Gore Scott Walker.”
All but one of the protesters cleared out after Capitol Police closed the building at 8 p.m. Officers led the remaining protester away in handcuffs after he refused to leave.
“This is just an example of them taking away workers’ voice,” said Bruce Colburn, vice president of Service Employees International Union. “What they did here was an act of political cowardice.”
Nass began the hearing at 10 a.m. and had planned to end it at 7 p.m. At 6:20 p.m. he announced he had to shut the hearing down due to a “credible threat” that Service Employees International Union was going to disrupt the vote. Colburn said union members had planned to protest the hard 7 p.m. stop but the effort would have been peaceful.
Nass issued a statement Tuesday evening saying he wasn’t going to let protesters wreck the hearing the way they did when Walker was pushing his signature bill stripping most public workers of their union rights through the Legislature in 2011.
The hearing meltdown capped a tense day at the Capitol that saw roughly 2,000 union supporters rally on the building’s steps and in the rotunda. The gathering was nowhere near as large as the protests four years ago. Those rallies went on for weeks and drew as many as 100,000 people.
Despite all the shouting, it is almost inevitable that the bill will pass. Republicans have the votes they need in the Senate. Republicans control the state Assembly; that chamber is expected to vote on the bill next week. Walker, who is mulling a 2016 presidential run, has repeatedly called right-to-work a distraction but on Friday said he would sign the measure.
Indiana and Michigan were the two most recent states to pass a right-to-work law, in 2012, and such legislation was also being debated this year in the New Mexico Legislature.
“We need to make Wisconsin more competitive and this certainly does that,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the bill’s sponsor, testified in front of the labor committee.
Opponents said the measure will lower worker pay and allow nonunion members to benefit from protections and benefits negotiated by the union. Unions have to represent both members and nonmembers in workplace grievances and in other situations.
The NFL Players Association issued a statement opposing the legislation, saying right-to-work would hurt union workers at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.
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