Wisconsin Assembly slogs through debate on right-to-work bill; unions cry foul

By Brendan O'Brien
A crowd of about 200 people and union members gather in frigid temperatures in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin February 23, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan O'Brien

By Brendan O'Brien

MADISON, Wis. (Reuters) - Weary Wisconsin lawmakers debated into the early hours of Friday a measure supported by Republican Governor Scott Walker that would stop private-sector workers from having to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.

Opponents call the draft law a thinly disguised assault on organized labor that will drive down wages, and security staff had to clear the Assembly gallery on Thursday after protesters temporarily halted the debate with chants.

Walker, a presidential hopeful, is expected to sign the so-called right-to-work bill on Monday if it gets to his desk after the marathon debate, which could end up lasting 24 hours.

Wisconsin would be the 25th state to enact such a law and Walker's history of pushing back against union rights has bolstered his credentials as an early favorite in the battle for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

The state Senate approved the text last week, and the Assembly, where Republicans hold a 63-36 majority, is expected to follow suit.

Supporters cast the measure as an incentive for attracting businesses and jobs, saying it is wrong to allow unions to force workers to pay dues if they don't want to.

"This is about freedom ... it's time for right-to-work in Wisconsin," said Republican Representative Dean Knudson.

Opponents say the law will leave workers vulnerable, arguing that so-called collective bargaining, where unions negotiate on behalf of all their members, helps maintain better pay and conditions.

"I rise today to stand with labor, the mighty force that built this state," Democrat Rep. JoCasta Zamaripa said.

Tired lawmakers rubbed their eyes as coffee cups and soda bottles gathered on their Assembly floor desks, as the Democrats elongated the debate with winding speeches about the history of organized labor in Wisconsin and the state's economy.

Three hundred demonstrators opposed to the bill rallied outside the capitol on Thursday and dozens of demonstrators who tried to get onto the Assembly floor were blocked by capitol security officers. Two people were arrested, police said.

Thousands of workers demonstrated last week when senators debated the bill, but capitol crowds have been far thinner than four years ago, when tens of thousands of people protested a push for a law limiting the powers of public sector unions.

Walker's push for the 2011 bill covering public-sector workers raised his profile among Republicans, and his support grew when he survived a union-backed recall election in 2012.

About 8 percent of private-sector workers in Wisconsin are union members, down from about 22 percent three decades ago, according to Unionstats.com, a website that tracks U.S. union membership.

"The law is a symbol of the weakness of unions," University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist John Ahlquist said.

(Editing by Crispian Balmer)