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Labor Gears Up to Fight Right-to-Work Legislation in Wisconsin

Marti Mikkelson

The state capitol could be a busy place this week, as lawmakers begin debate on right-to-work legislation.

Republican leaders have fast tracked a measure that would prohibit employers and unions from forcing members to pay union dues.

A state Senate committee plans to hold a public hearing Tuesday, with debate in the full Senate scheduled for Wednesday.

In the meantime, union leaders plan to hold rallies at the Capitol to protest the bill. They even braved the cold and got together Monday night at Ziedler Park in downtown Milwaukee.

Nearly 200 people showed up in 15 below wind chills to protest right-to-work. Many people in the crowd were members of big private sector unions, such as the Teamsters and United Steel Workers.

Public sector workers also turned out. Pat Burger belongs to the Waukesha County Technical Educators Association. She says unions have made many people’s lives better.

“Unions are the ones that fought to give everybody weekends off, fair wages, sick leave. So, I’m hoping people whether they’re in unions or not will stand up against this injustice,” Burger says.

Many of the people who attended Monday night’s rally will be in Madison Tuesday and Wednesday for protests outside the Capitol.

A handful of union leaders held a news conference in Madison on Monday to announce the rallies. Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt says right-to-work would lead to lower wages and benefits for workers.

“Right-to-work is an attack on all Wisconsin families. Right to work cripples the fundamental rights of all workers to join together and have each other’s backs in the workplace. When solidarity is eroded, it’s the entire middle class who suffers,” Neuenfeldt says.

Neuenfeldt criticized Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald for putting the bill on a fast track. Fitzgerald quickly called a news conference late last week. He says he had been working on the bill since mid-December, and had been polling GOP senators, trying to gauge when he would have the 17 votes needed to pass the measure.

Fitzgerald says he realized just last week that he had his magic number. “I think there were many people who were like, we are ready to go. And, my experience as leader is, if you have the votes, you don’t wait around,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald says he’s afraid if he waits too long to act on the bill, outside interests could try to influence members to vote against it. He thinks many businesses have hesitated to move their operations here.

“It’s kind of a bigger, overarching question about, do we think this will actually have an impact on the state’s economy. And are there certain corporations that aren’t willing to expand or locate to Wisconsin because we’re not a right-to-work state. I think the case can be made. All 17 senators who support the bill right now are convinced that this could be a game changer for Wisconsin,” Fitzgerald says.

The Senate Labor committee will hold a public hearing Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. The full senate will begin debate on the bill Wednesday and discussion is expected to last into Thursday.

There’s little doubt the measure will pass; then it heads to the Assembly next week.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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