Walker signs ‘right-to-work’ bill, unions sue

By Lisa Neff, Staff writer

So-called “right-to-work” legislation sped through the Wisconsin Senate and raced through the Assembly on a fast track to Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Just four years ago, Walker said he had no plans to attack private sector unions as he gutted public employee unions. But the governor signed the bill on March 9. 

In video shot in 2011, during the debate over Act 10, Walker said, “The bill I put forward isn’t aimed at state workers and it certainly isn’t a battle with unions. If it was, we would have eliminated collective bargaining entirely or we would have gone after the private-sector unions. But we did not because they are our partners in economic development. We need them to help us put 250,000 people to work in the private sector over the next four years.”

Now Walker, who is courting the conservatives who are influential in GOP presidential primaries, is an advocate of the legislation, which makes it a crime — punishable with a jail sentence of nine months — to require private-sector workers who aren’t in a union to pay dues.

“The governor is not just a flip-flopper, he is a master manipulator,” said state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. “There is little doubt that Gov. Walker is using this issue to curry favor with right-wing funding sources and distract from his $2.2 billion budget deficit and a state economy that lags behind most of the nation.”

GOP legislative leaders began preparing to introduce right-to-work legislation after sweeping the November 2014 midterm elections.

For months, Walker claimed to be cool to the concept. But, as he opened campaign offices in Iowa and New Hampshire, he came out in support of an extraordinary session to take up the legislation.

The Senate took up the measure first, holding a hearing at which opposition to “right-to-work” legislation was about 70–1 but shutting down public comment despite hundreds of people who were still waiting to speak.

The Senate passed SB 44 by a vote of 17–15 in late February, drawing congratulations from Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin director David Fladeboe, who called the legislation “long overdue” and claimed the vote was in the best interest of working-class families. Proponents say the legislation is about worker freedom and improves Wisconsin’s standing with business interests.

Opponents say the legislation creates dangerous workplaces, damages unions and depresses wages.

“Right to work will lower wages, increase workplace deaths and erode the base of the middle class by crippling the ability of workers to team up and join together through their unions for a strong voice in the workplace,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

The Assembly Labor Committee on March 2 heard hours of testimony, mostly from opponents of the measure.

Three days later, at about 2 p.m. on March 5, the full Assembly opened debate. Democrats drove the debate, delivering speeches through the night and into the morning, with the deadline for a vote looming at 9 a.m. on March 6.

Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat from Madison, was among the final speakers during the debate, and she focused on “freedom” and “heroics” and called “right-to-work” an “out-of-state idea” promoted by billionaires.

Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca called the legislation “right-wing extremism on steroids.”

But when the roll was called, the vote was 62-35 for the bill. No Democrats voted with the GOP majority.

Outside the Capitol, opponents of the bill staged a demonstration on March 5, one of many held in Madison over a two-week period. Wisconsin State AFL-CIO representatives addressed the ralliers, along with AFSCME member Shannon Maier, Young Black and Gifted member Eric Upchurch, Beloit ironworker Anthony Anastasi and Burger King employee Corneil White.

“Our fight is for the state and soul of our country,” said Bloomingdale.

Opponents also crowded into the Capitol, shouting, “Wrong for Wisconsin.” They delivered petitions signed by thousands and circulated a report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin Extension showing lower household incomes in right-to-work states.

“The evidence clearly demonstrates that so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws intensify the race to the bottom and further erode the middle class,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

Right-to-work laws exist in 24 other states, including Michigan and Indiana and have been upheld by several courts of appeal.

With Walker’s signature, Wisconsin’s measure took effect immediately.

The next day, the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO and two local labor unions filed a lawsuit, seeking to block the law. Their argument is that it is unconstitutional because it requires unions to act on behalf of workers who are no longer required to pay union dues and therefore receive an unfair benefit. A hearing is set for March 19 in Dane County Circuit Court.

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