Wisconsin Assembly sends right-to-work bill to governor

Mark Niquette
Bloomberg News

The Wisconsin Assembly passed a labor bill that may bolster Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential ambitions after more than 19 hours of debate punctuated by police escorting out protesters and Republican complaints about Democratic “derangement syndrome.”

Opponents spoke for more than 10 of those hours on a motion they ultimately withdrew that would have referred the measure to a committee for yet more argument. They offered amendments that they knew wouldn’t be accepted. One lawmaker spoke in verse. Yet the outcome Friday was never in doubt after what Democratic Rep. Robb Kahl called “a really bad play with ugly actors.”

The Assembly granted, 62-35, along mostly party lines, final approval of the right-to-work bill that allows employees in union workplaces to opt out of dues and membership. Walker has said he will sign it Monday, making Wisconsin the 25th U.S. state to enact such a law, joining neighboring Iowa, Indiana and Michigan.

Democrats portrayed the bill as an effort to weaken unions while bolstering Walker’s appeal to Republicans he will need to win his party’s nomination in 2016 — including this weekend at an agricultural summit in Iowa. Republicans said it would free workers to choose, and would attract businesses.

“Right to work is simple for Wisconsin: It means being more competitive,” Republican Speaker Robin Vos said during debate. “When right to work passes, you are going to empower workers, you’re going to empower workplaces.”

The bill is an assault on Wisconsin’s legacy of fair collective bargaining, said Rep. Peter Barca, the Democratic leader. “I can’t think of any policy, any policy, that’s more antithetical to Wisconsin values, to our very heritage,” Barca said.

Rep. Steve Doyle, a Democrat, gave his speech against the bill with rhymes based on the poem, “The Night Before Christmas.” It ended with: “We should all be at home, snuggled up in our beds, with thoughts of bipartisanship dancing in our heads. But as it sits now, there’s no end in sight. Unfortunately Mr. Speaker, it’s going to be a long night.”

Debate had just started Thursday when the speaker pro tem ordered galleries cleared after protesters began chanting “right to work is wrong for Wisconsin.” Police escorted them out, but they could still be heard.

Democrats complained that the bill was being rushed through an extraordinary session to distract from criticism of Walker’s budget and to promote his presidential bid.

“It’s the workers in this state that are suffering through the politics of our governor’s ambitions,” said Democratic Representative Cory Mason.

Vos said Democrats have “Walker derangement syndrome” and were obfuscating the issue. He and other Republicans said unions would thrive if they serve their members.

“I would think that those workers, if they see that value and that value proposition, that they would continue to pay their union dues,” said Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, a Republican. “Are the unions afraid that the workers won’t see value?”

The right-to-work bill is unlikely to have a major economic impact, said William Jones, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Organized labor has been in decline for three decades, he said.

Union membership in Wisconsin represented 11.7 percent of the workforce in 2014, down from 17.8 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2011, as many as 100,000 pro-union demonstrators occupied the Capitol during a weeks-long standoff over Walker’s move to curb bargaining for public employees. About 300 rallied Thursday for the final Assembly debate, police estimated.

Jeff Constance, 42, a union carpenter, took the day off to drive 325 miles from his home in Superior for the rally — even though it was clear the bill would pass.

“I’m hoping at the last minute they might actually look out the window and see this is not such a good idea,” Constance said. “All we can do is try.”