The Wisconsin Legislature will take up a right-to-work bill next week in a surprise move that runs contrary to the wishes of likely 2016 presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker who had urged lawmakers to delay any debate until later in the year.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced the plan Friday on WTMJ radio, saying he expects Walker will sign the bill even though he doesn't have any assurances. Walker was in Washington on Friday for a National Governors Association meeting and his spokeswoman didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
Walker rose to prominence in 2011, when he pushed through a law known as Act 10 that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. That led to protests involving as many as 100,000 people at the state Capitol and a 2012 recall election that Walker won.
Walker is a longtime supporter of right to work and even sponsored a bill when he was in the state Assembly in the early 1990s. But this year, as he eyes a White House bid, he urged the Republican-controlled Legislature not to take up the issue because he saw it as a distraction.
Unlike Act 10, which Walker proposed, the right-to-work push is coming from Republicans who control the Legislature.
"I think we can do this next week without it getting really ugly," Fitzgerald said on WTMJ. "We'll see next week whether the Capitol blows up. I don't know."
Karen Hickey, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin's AFL-CIO chapter, didn't immediately return email and telephone messages. Neither did officials at the Wisconsin Laborers District Council.
Steve Lyons, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition, a group of more than 300 construction-related private businesses in Wisconsin that oppose right-to-work legislation, also didn't return a telephone message.
Under right to work, private-sector workers would not be required to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment. Twenty-four other states already have the laws in place.
Proponents of right-to-work argue it will make Wisconsin more competitive and that workers should have the freedom to decide whether to pay and join a union, rather than having dues automatically withdrawn.
Passing right-to-work is a priority for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the statewide chamber of commerce that represents 3,800 large and small manufacturers and companies, local chambers of commerce and specialized trade associations.
Opponents argue the law is an intrusion on the private operations of businesses and results in lower earnings, weaker benefits and higher health insurance premiums. Critics also say right-to-work would jeopardize a successful business model under which workers receive privately funded training to prepare them for work.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jennifer Shilling called it "absurd" that the issue was being fast-tracked.
"Rather than creating economic uncertainty for Wisconsin families and small businesses, Republicans should focus their attention on boosting family wages, closing the skills gap and fixing the $2.2 billion budget crisis they created," she said in a statement.
Fitzgerald said in the radio interview that the bill would be introduced Friday with a vote planned for Wednesday night or Thursday morning. He said he finalized the plan on Thursday with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
The Legislature will call itself into extraordinary session to quickly pass the bill, Fitzgerald said.
Republicans currently have an 18-14 majority in the Senate. That will grow to 19-14 after an April election to fill a vacancy where a Republican is the only candidate on the ballot.
"The theory is when you have the votes, you gotta go," Fitzgerald said. "They know this is the right thing to do. The senators know it."
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