Right-to-work hearing today at Capitol, along with protests

The AP

Opponents of a Republican push to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state planned to converge on the Capitol on Feb. 24 to hold a rally and testify in opposition of the measure on a fast track in the Legislature.

Gov. Scott Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, has said he will sign the bill into law once it clears the Republican-controlled Legislature. Lawmakers made a surprise announcement late last week that they were going to push the bill through in a matter of days, giving union opponents little time to organize against it.

There are 24 other states with a right-to-work law prohibiting companies from reaching labor agreements in which workers have to pay fees to the unions as a condition of employment. Indiana and Michigan were the two most recent states to pass such a law, in 2012.

Supporters say it’s about giving workers the freedom to decide whether to join unions. The state Chamber of Commerce has been one of the most vocal proponents, arguing that passing the law will open Wisconsin up to jobs and investment that now are going elsewhere.

But opponents say that the measure is really about weakening the power of private-sector unions and that passing it will ultimately lead to lower wages for workers.

The issue comes to Wisconsin after Walker in 2011 pushed through a law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, as well as prohibiting the automatic withdrawal of union dues.

Walker didn’t propose right-to-work then, and in a series of statements over the past four years he’s said the issue wasn’t a priority, it wouldn’t come up this session and it was a distraction from his agenda that could lead to protests like those in 2011 that would hurt the state’s economy.

Memories of those massive rallies four years ago, as well as the failed 2012 recall effort against Walker that grew out of them, are still fresh in the minds of union members who are coming together again to take on right-to-work.

“Is labor in solidarity to fight right-to-work?” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, on Monday. “The answer is a resounding `yes.'”

Still, Neuenfeldt said he had no idea how many people may show up for the Tuesday rally. There is also a public hearing before the Senate Labor Committee on the bill.

Another rally was planned for Wednesday, the day the Senate was expected to begin debate. The Assembly hopes to take it up next week.

Neuenfeldt and other union leaders said they were urging their members to contact state senators and push for them to vote against the bill. Republicans hold an 18-14 majority in the Senate, and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he has 17 votes to pass it.

With an even larger 63-36 Republican majority in the Assembly, along with Walker’s support, some union organizers are resigned to defeat.

“I think it’s inevitable,” said Sally Feistel, a United Steelworkers union leader from Menasha.