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Wisconsin Governor To Sign Right-To-Work Bill Amid Protests

Wisconsin Governor To Sign Right-To-Work Bill Amid Protests

State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald is the lead author of the right-to-work bill, which he says is a step towards modernizing Wisconsin's labor laws.
Shawn Johnson / WPR
State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald is the lead author of the right-to-work bill, which he says is a step towards modernizing Wisconsin's labor laws.

Update 11:10 p.m.

As expected the state Senate passed the right-to-work bill late Wednesday, 17-15, after eight hours of debate, Wisconsin Public Radio's Erik Lorenzsonn reports.

Most of the protesters from earlier in the day had left the Capitol by the time of the bill's passage. Nevertheless, the few that remained chanted "Shame!" at lawmakers as they exited the Senate chambers, while some began singing protest songs in the Capitol rotunda.

Original Story

Union workers are protesting again at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison today. This time, it's against a fast-tracked right-to-work bill that would ban mandatory union dues at private sector businesses.

The Wisconsin Senate is poised to pass the plan, the State Assembly could pass it next week and Gov. Scott Walker says he'll sign it.

The scene is reminiscent of four years ago when Walker all but eliminated bargaining rights for public employee unions.

These protests are a lot smaller than those four years ago when tens of thousands gathered daily at the Wisconsin Capitol, but they have their fiery moments.

The crowd chants, "What's disgusting? Union busting! What's disgusting? Union busting!"

Philip Gruber of the Machinists Union tells a crowd of a couple thousand gathered on the steps of the Capitol that the only way to stop the right-to-work bill was to stand still.

"That's right, I said stand still. I think it's about time that we stopped the production in this country. Let's stand still!" he says.

But for the most part, the atmosphere here is far more reserved in 2015 than in 2011.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald matter-of-factly announced on Friday that he would introduce a right-to-work bill and he already had the votes to pass it.

At a public hearing yesterday, he said it was time to modernize Wisconsin's labor laws.

"The bottom line is that to move our state forward, Wisconsin needs a modern economy," Fitzgerald says. "The status quo has served us well in the past, but in order to see our economy continue to compete at a global level, we cannot remain mired in the antiquated system."

Greg Mourad of the National Right to Work Committee says Wisconsin's current labor laws that let private sector unions collect dues from all workers are akin to being kidnapped in a taxi cab.

"The other passengers don't let you out, they sit on either side and hold you there. The driver ignores your protest. After a lengthy drive, they pull over in Green Bay, the car stops, they untie you, and before they let you go, they demand $300 for your share of the cab fare," he says.

Unlike four years ago when he made going after public sector unions his signature achievement, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been mostly quiet on right-to-work. That's because he has said again and again that right-to-work would not happen on his watch.

"Private sector unions are my partner in economic development," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But once a right-to-work bill surfaced, Walker wasted little time in announcing his support.

"I haven't changed my position on it, it just wasn't a priority for me. But should they pass it within the next two weeks, which is their target, I plan on signing it," Walker says.

While this right-to-work bill would keep collective bargaining intact for private sector unions, it could result in situations where union members who pay their dues are working side by side with workers who don't.

Patrick Veeser is the union president at a Green Bay company that builds machines for the paper industry. He says his union has a great relationship with management, and he worries a Republican-led effort will hurt that.

"They're reaching in and they're getting into private business," he says. "They always say less government? I'm seeing more government here. How can they rule on something they've never experienced?"

But as much as many union members dislike this bill, most don't think they can stop it. Steamfitter James Piper worries that it will starve his union to death.

"I'm here today as kind of like a funeral for a friend. I'm not the least bit positive or hopeful that this is going to have any impact on the decisions made inside the building," he says.

Piper says he's worked long enough to see the good that unions do for workers, but he concedes that many younger workers don't want to join.

"Hell, we won't even be able to get a newsletter out and say let's all get together down at the state Capitol and have a rally," he says.

If it passes, Wisconsin will become the 25th state with a right-to-work law. It's a type of law that used to be more common in the South, but Republican governors in Michigan and Indiana recently signed right-to-work laws.

And, despite objections that unions no longer carry much sway with their state government, Wisconsin appears to be following the same pattern.

Copyright 2015 Wisconsin Public Radio

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.