Wisconsin Senate Passes Labor Bill After Union-Led Protests

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Over loud objections from pro-union protesters, the Wisconsin Senate passed legislation that would reduce organized labor’s revenue and membership and might aid the presidential ambitions of Republican Governor Scott Walker.

The Republican-led Senate voted 17 to 15 in favor of a right-to-work bill to let employees in union workplaces opt out of membership and dues. The action came after about 8 hours of debate punctuated by interruptions from protesters, who were removed from the gallery after shouts of “this is an attack on Democracy” and “shame.” The measure, which Walker has said he will sign, goes to the Republican-controlled Assembly for consideration next week.

“We have a duty to the taxpayers to explore any opportunity to make Wisconsin more competitive,” Senator Scott Fitzgerald, Republican majority leader and the bill’s sponsor, testified in support of it.

The renewed confrontation over organized labor, reminding U.S. voters of the fight with unions that brought the governor to national prominence, comes as Walker looks to build his standing ahead of a likely presidential campaign.

All Democrats and one Republican, Senator Jerry Petrowski of Marathon, voted against the bill. Petrowski said in a statement the he was “not convinced that the supposed benefits of passing this bill will materialize and offset a potentially disruptive impact on our economy.”

Chaotic Approval

The measure was approved by a Senate committee Tuesday night in chaotic fashion. The panel’s chairman shut down the hearing as protesters shouted, and police escorted the three Republican members out after they quickly approved the measure 3-1. One Democratic senator said he didn’t get the chance to vote in the confusion.

The Republican majority in the Senate on Wednesday rejected a motion by Democrats after a lengthy debate to refer the bill back to committee for more testimony and also opposed amendments including raising the state’s minimum wage and providing more funding for worker training.

“You have written a dark chapter in the history of our great state,” Senator Jennifer Shilling, a Democrat from La Crosse and minority leader, said during floor debate.

Union-led demonstrators rallied with snow falling and temperatures at 15 degrees (-9 Celsius). One carried a sign that read, “Walker is addicted to Koch,” a reference to the billionaire brothers who are Walker supporters.

Competing for Business

“They want to beat us down, brothers and sisters, because we are the only ones standing in the way of their drive to drive our wages further down,” John Drew, a United Auto Workers leader, said during the rally.

There were between 1,800 and 2,000 demonstrators, the same as Tuesday, according to Capitol police estimates. In 2011, as many as 100,000 gathered in a weeks-long standoff over Walker’s ultimately successful move to curb bargaining rights for public employees.

Walker, 47, and other Republicans said the new bill is needed to keep Wisconsin competitive with nearby Iowa, Indiana and Michigan, all right-to-work states, by giving workers choice and attracting employers. Labor leaders have criticized it as an attempt to weaken unions, which traditionally have backed Democrats, while hurting safety and wages, they said.

Fitzgerald, the majority leader, told reporters after the vote that the measure will particularly help manufacturing. “If we don’t do this, we are going to continue to be sluggish,” he said.

Walker Absent

Twenty-four states already have right-to-work laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Walker wasn’t present for any of the debate or confrontations and made no public appearances at the Capitol. On Thursday, he’s scheduled to speak at a manufacturing conference in Milwaukee, before traveling to suburban Washington for an evening speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Walker won re-election to a second four-year term in November, two years after becoming the first U.S. governor to survive a recall in the wake of his first union fight.

Enacting the measure is part of Walker’s appeal to the voters he’ll need to win the Republican nomination in 2016, said Democratic Senator Fred Risser, 87, the longest-tenured legislator in state history.

“Everything he does is for the national constituency,” said Risser, who has served with 12 governors.