By Patrick Marley, Daniel Bice, and Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)
MADISON, Wis. — In an abrupt vote recalling the chaotic labor protests of 2011, Wisconsin Republicans pushed right-to-work legislation out of a committee Tuesday night after a day of impassioned testimony and demonstrations, setting up a showdown Wednesday afternoon on the state Senate floor.
The proposal has returned bitter labor protests to the state’s Capitol at a time when Governor Scott Walker has traded on his past record of taking on unions to move into the top tier of GOP presidential hopefuls nationally.
If passed and signed by Walker in the coming days, the bill would leave police and firefighter unions as the only labor groups left in the state with the full powers that all unions had when Walker and Republicans took control in January 2011.
The vote in the Senate Labor Committee was 3-1, with all three Republicans voting for the bill to prohibit requiring workers to pay union dues and one Democrat, Senator Bob Wirch of Kenosha, voting against. The other Democrat on the committee, Senator Chris Larson of Milwaukee, did not cast a vote as he and demonstrators in the room argued unsuccessfully for Republicans not to take the vote at that moment.
Republicans had planned to end public testimony at 7 p.m., but shortly before 6:30 p.m. Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Nass said that he was cutting off the meeting abruptly because of what Nass called a “credible threat” in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report. That story said that union demonstrators were planning to peacefully disrupt the committee vote by raising their voices if Republicans didn’t let everyone from the public testify.
“When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article came back, that’s credible to me or they wouldn’t be reporting that,” Nass said later of his decision to call the vote early, adding that he wanted Wednesday’s state Senate session to start on time.
“I think the whole objective on the other side was delay, delay, delay,” he said after the vote.
During the meeting, the source for the Journal Sentinel report, Bruce Colburn of the Service Employees International Union State Council, stood up in the middle of the committee hearing and told Nass that there was no threat or need for concern. Colburn and AFSCME Council 48 Executive Director Boyd McCamish later told the Journal Sentinel that the newspaper’s report was accurate but that they disagreed with Nass’ contention that their plans constituted a “threat,” calling that argument a “sham.”
“There was no threat,” Colburn said. “We wanted to insure that people had a right to speak.”
“They used it as a straw man to get out of a very uncomfortable position,” McCamish added. “It’s an act of political cowardice.”
Union supporters reacted with disbelief and anger to the sudden vote, shouting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as police escorted Republican lawmakers from the hearing room. Despite the passions, a spokesman for the Walker administration and Capitol Police said that as of 7:30 p.m. there were no incidents and no arrests.
The right-to-work bill has spotlighted Walker’s stance on the measure.
In May 2012, the governor said he would do “everything in my power” to keep the legislation from getting to his desk. But Walker, who is now eyeing a run for the presidency, has said in recent days he would sign the bill.
The latest sign of his presidential ambitions came Tuesday, with a report in the Des Moines Register that Walker’s political operation had hired Eric Woolson as an Iowa adviser. Woolson has backed Christian conservatives in the last two presidential cycles in Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.
Fresh off a trip to the East Coast for political events and a meeting of the National Governors Association, Walker was in Wisconsin on Tuesday, appearing in Wisconsin Rapids and Green Bay.
Later this week, he is to appear at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and a private meeting of the conservative Club for Growth in Palm Beach, Fla. Other likely GOP presidential candidates will also attend those events.
Walker, who began his second term last month, made his May 2012 pledge on right to work one day after the Journal Sentinel reported on a video of the governor discussing the policy with a billionaire donor. That promise came about a month before Walker became the first governor in the nation to survive a recall attempt over his signature law limiting the power of most public-sector unions known as Act 10.
Speaking Tuesday at a Green Bay hospital, the governor said that he has always supported right-to-work legislation, which bars private-sector labor contracts from requiring workers to pay union fees. He said he didn’t think in 2012 that it was the right time to advocate for it.
“I thought it would create all sorts of chaos and misdirection,” Walker said. “And I think for the employer base in this state, we needed to have some stability to give people confidence that Wisconsin was headed back on the right track.”
Asked if there was, in effect, a term limit on his pledge to fight right to work, Walker said, “At that time, yes.”
The governor didn’t say that explicitly at the time and he also repeatedly said in his re-election bid last fall that he would not pursue the matter, saying he was “not supporting it in this (2015) session.” However, he has also been careful over the past four years not to answer whether he would sign it if it got to him and as a state lawmaker he co-sponsored the legislation.
“I didn’t denounce any of my support (for right-to-work legislation) in the past,” he said Tuesday. “You all (in the news media) asked me a hundred different questions to see if I would, and I didn’t.”
Democrats expressed surprise that Walker contended his pledge had been temporary.
“I don’t think there should be an expiration date for a promise,” said Democratic Rep. Daniel Riemer.
Walker is following a path blazed by other Republican governors in Great Lakes states. Governor Rick Snyder in Michigan and then-Governor Mitch Daniels in Indiana initially took a hands-off approach to the issue yet eventually signed right-to-work legislation after passage through their states’ Republican-controlled legislatures.
In Madison, about 2,000 people gathered Tuesday to protest the legislation as the Senate Labor Committee heard eight and a half hours of testimony.
“This issue is at its heart about worker freedom,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, told the committee.
Fitzgerald said it was essential to get Wisconsin out of an “antiquated system” and adopt a right-to-work law, as 24 other states have.
But James Hoffman, president and owner of Hoffman Construction Co. of Black River Falls, said the change could devastate his business. Operating Engineers Local 139 runs training programs that provide him with a steady stream of workers.
If those employees can opt out of paying union fees, membership rolls will dwindle and the training programs will likely be scaled back, he said. Without those programs, Hoffman said, he couldn’t rely on a ready set of workers.
“I ask you: Why are you doing this to my company?” he said.
But lobbyists for business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce said training programs could continue even if workers opted out of union fees. They noted businesses with nonunion work forces have such programs.
“Union dues don’t pay for training,” said Scott Manley, WMC’s vice president of government relations.
Supporters argued workers shouldn’t be forced to pay fees if they choose not to join unions and argue the legislation would help attract manufacturers to Wisconsin.
“All this is telling people you don’t have the right to compel someone to financially support them. You have to persuade them,” said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Opponents said unions should be able to charge fees to all employees who benefit from the job protections and higher wages they seek. Unions have to represent all workers in a workplace unit — members and nonmembers alike — in grievances and other situations.
Wirch, the Democratic senator, argued the Senate majority leader was “peddling a double standard” because unions have to represent all the workers in a workplace unit. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and local chambers of commerce won’t do the same for businesses that don’t pay fees to them, Wirch said.
“You and the business community want to impose a system where freeloaders can take services from unions while those two business organizations wouldn’t tolerate that situation,” Wirch said.
Nass told the committee that it was essential to move quickly on right-to-work legislation to avoid the sustained protest of 2011. Then, lawmakers had to “go through tunnels like rats” to get into the Capitol and a senator was “cornered like a wounded (raccoon)” by protesters, Nass said.
“It’s prudent to not let this languish for months,” Nass said.
But Wirch countered Republicans should not be shocked by a strong reaction from unions.
“You attack workers and you’re surprised when they’re angry. That’s amazing,” Wirch said.
If the bill passes the Senate on Wednesday as expected, the Assembly likely will take it up next week. Republicans control the Senate, 18-14, and the Assembly, 63-36.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr