Between 1,800 and 2,000 protesters crowded the Capitol Tuesday to speak out against proposed right-to-work legislation while a public hearing featuring expert testimony on the subject raged on. The committee voted to recommend the bill to the Senate for passage Wednesday.
The hearing before the Senate Labor and Government Oversight committee featured testimony from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, researchers and experts on labor movements, as well as business and labor organizations.
Fitzgerald and legislative Republicans proposed the bill Friday in a surprise move. The proposal would prohibit making union membership a requirement of employment.
Public hearing on the bill
Fitzgerald, who initiated the proposal Friday with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, emphasized the individual and economic freedom the law would create for the state.
“This does not inhibit the ability of unions to organize,” Fitzgerald said in his testimony. “I would argue that there is no piece of legislation that sends a stronger message to businesses. We need to make Wisconsin more competitive and this does that.”
Fitzgerald’s remarks met resistance from state Sens. Robert Wirch, D-Kenosha, and Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee.
“I didn’t hear one name [of someone who supports the legislation],” Larson said. “So who are we doing this for?”
James Sherk, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, testified for the legislation, saying it would bolster Wisconsin’s economy.
“Right-to-work laws are economically beneficial,” Sherk said. “Wisconsin has fallen behind and this would slow or even reverse that trend.”
Union members were among those who testified against the bill, with one member saying the bill would “strip away” the benefits that unionization has provided workers.
“This would erode wages, training and jeopardize security,” Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Builders Association, said. “Right-to-work would hit the average worker, union or non-union.”
As of press time, Spokespeople for Sens. Richard Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said their respective legislators had not yet decided which way they would vote on the bill.
The bill needs 17 votes to pass the Senate and be sent to the Assembly, who would take up the bill next week.
A spokesperson for Fitzgerald said a count by their office late last week showed they had the votes to pass the bill.
While the committee was hearing testimony, a rally organized by the state branch of the AFL-CIO was taking place outside with labor and political leaders addressing the crowd.
The crowd then moved inside the rotunda, a scene reminiscent of the early stages of the Act 10 protests in 2011, which opposed a law that stripped away collective bargaining rights from public sector unions.
Committee approval in question
The right-to-work bill moved out of committee under disputed circumstances Tuesday night. In a harried 3-1 vote, the Committee on Labor and Government Oversight approved the proposal.
Committee Chair Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, ended the public hearing before the 7 p.m end time, citing an unspecified threat, and appeared to call for a vote.
Nass and Sens. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, voted for the bill while Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Kenosha, voted against.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said later that he was unable to vote, as he was trying to continue hearing testimony.
A visibly angry Larson decried the end of the session as “an excuse to shut down the public hearing.”
“This was a disgrace to democracy, a disgrace to the public. There was no debate” Larson said. “They were looking for an excuse to shut down the public process. Republicans saw the writing on the wall—every person who came to speak against this law, who wasn’t paid by the Bradley Foundation, expressed opposition to the proposal.”
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, was in the room waiting to testify when Nass moved to end the hearing early.
“The Chair [Nass] said he was shutting it down,” Taylor said. “The Republicans didn’t want to continue the hearing. This was a ruse, justification to shut things down.”
Taylor said she didn’t hear a vote take place.
A crowd of roughly 200 people were in the building and the abrupt ending reignited protests that had been going on throughout the day. The group remained in the Capitol until the building closed at roughly 8 p.m, singing protest songs while Democratic lawmakers roamed the floor.
The only arrest of the day came thirty minutes after the Capitol closed, when Irving Smith, the last protester to remain, was led from the Capitol in handcuffs following an impassioned monologue against Walker and Republican leaders.
The Senate will convene tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. to begin debate on the bill. If the bill passes it will be messaged to the Assembly, which will meet to take up the bill early next week.
Capitol Police officers said they expect protests over the next few days, although they couldn’t estimate the expected size of those movements.