About 2,000 construction workers, electricians, carpenters and other union members rallied at the Wisconsin state Capitol on Tuesday, pushing back against a fast-tracked right-to-work bill backed by Republicans Gov. Scott Walker.
The gathering was larger than most at the Capitol, but paled in size and intensity to protests four years ago when Walker pushed through his measure that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. Those rallies lasted for weeks and grew as large as 100,000 people.
"Let's be loud today and let them hear us," Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said at the rally where people — many in hard hats and union jackets — sang, chanted and held posters with phrases like "Stop the war on workers."
Right-to-work laws, in place in 24 states, prohibit private-sector companies from reaching labor agreements in which workers have to pay fees to the unions as a condition of employment. Indiana and Michigan were the two most recent states to pass such a law, in 2012 and right-to-work was also being debated this year in the New Mexico Legislature.
Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, has said over the past four years that right-to-work wasn't a priority, wouldn't come up this session and was a distraction from his agenda that could lead to protests again that would hurt the state's economy.
But on Friday, after legislative Republicans made the surprise announcement that they were moving ahead with it this week, Walker said he would sign the bill. He has been a longtime backer of right-to-work and had proposed it as an Assembly member in 1993.
An all-day Senate Labor Committee hearing on the bill was slated to end Tuesday evening, with the Republican-controlled panel voting at the end on sending the measure to the full Senate. Debate there was to begin Wednesday, with the Assembly taking it up next week.
Economists, academics, representatives from think tanks, union members and others testifying at the hearing presented conflicting studies and research on the potential impact of a right-to-work law.
"We need to make Wisconsin more competitive and this certainly does that," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the bill's sponsor.
Fitzgerald and other supporters including the state chamber of commerce argued in the hearing that a right-to-work law would raise wages, give workers freedom to choose whether to pay union dues and improve the economy.
"We think it's a policy that's good for workers, good for businesses and good for the state as a whole," said Scott Manley, lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber.
Opponents said the measure will lower worker pay and allow non-union members to benefit from protections and benefits negotiated by the union. Unions have to represent both members and nonmembers in workplace grievances and in other situations.
Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, testified against the bill, saying Wisconsin does better than right-to-work states on a variety of measures, including income, poverty levels and violent crime.
"Right-to-work states should be saying, 'How can we become more like Wisconsin?' — not saying, 'How can Wisconsin become more like Mississippi and Alabama?' " Lafer said.
The NFL Players Association issued a statement opposing it as well, saying right-to-work would hurt union workers at Lambeau Field where the Green Bay Packers play.
The right-to-work debate comes in the wake of the 2011 fight over Walker's law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. That law also prohibited the automatic withdrawal of union dues for public workers, like the right-to-work measure would do in the private sector.
Capitol Police estimated that between 1,800 and 2,000 people were inside and outside the Capitol at midday and there had been no arrests, said Walker administration spokesman Cullen Werwie.
After the rally, protesters filed into the Capitol rotunda and joined the ongoing hearing.
While union members were vowing to fight the measure and try to sway Republicans to vote against it, some were resigned to defeat given GOP majorities and Walker's support.
"I think it's inevitable," said Sally Feistel, a United Steelworkers union leader from Menasha.
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