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Wisconsin Republicans Silence Debate to Advance 'Right to Work' Bill

Photo courtesy Wisconsin AFL-CIO on Flickr

UPDATE, Feb. 26: The Wisconsin State Senate approved the right to work bill 17-15 late Wednesday night. Thousands of workers, community supporters and others rallied outside the Capitol earlier in the day to protest the bill and later packed the Senate chambers for the floor debate and vote. The bill now goes to the State Assembly for vote likely next week. We’ll bring you more details later today.

Wisconsin Republicans, led by state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) and state Sen. Steve Nass (R), have made it abundantly clear this week that they don't care about the voices of their state's working families. They had previously made it clear that they didn't care about the rights of working families. On Tuesday, Nass shut down debate on a proposed "right to work" bill, with hundreds of Wisconsin workers still waiting to testify about the bill. Nass previously admitted that the Fast Track process through which the bill was brought up was intentionally designed to limit public protests. But thousands gathered at the state House in protest of the legislature's actions, with more planned rallies already set to go . The Senate Labor Committee advanced the bill on a party-line vote, and it now goes to the full floor for a vote.

The Wisconsin State AFL-CIO strongly condemned the moves to keep the public out of the debate:

The Capitol Rotunda has been jammed with workers, faith leaders, business leaders and community members all day who have been waiting for hours and hours to testify in opposition of the so-called right to work bill. Many took off work. Many traveled hours. All have been waiting patiently to make their voices heard in the respected democratic process of the Wisconsin tradition. In a gut-wrenching move, Sen. Nass abruptly shut down debate, ramming through a vote and silencing the voice of democracy.

When asked during the hearing about the limitations on debate, Fitzgerald responded: "That’s part of politics.” Fitzgerald sponsored the current bill and says it is just "part of the larger picture," suggesting that more anti-worker laws were on the way. 

As previously reported , the right to work legislation is anti-worker legislation designed to undercut the voice of employees on the job. Unions are required to represent all employees, even non-members, during contract negotiations and collective bargaining efforts. Currently, nonunion members may be required to pay their fair share of the work that a union does on their behalf. Right to work would permit nonunion members to stop paying their fair share for the representation the union provides them at work. As seen elsewhere, right to work laws provide employees with no protections and weaken their voice in negotiations. Not only that, both union and nonunion workers end up making an average of $1,500 less in right to work states, they have weaker benefits and workplaces are less safe.  Wisconsin is already a more dangerous place to work than the national average, and right to work would make it even more so.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, told the assembled crowd that unions were important because they raise wages and boost the economy, helping to “make sure every person has a chance at the American dream. Right to work puts that dream further out of reach." Mike Mooney, a member of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers ( SMART ), called out Republican hypocrisy on right to work: “Government should stay out of private-sector businesses. Isn’t that your mantra? Now government is going to force my union to provide benefits and services to people who don’t pay? Our families deserve better.” United Steelworkers ( USW ) member Cindy Odden stressed the importance of fighting back: “Our elected officials are not listening, so we have to be louder than in 2011. I’m fighting for my grandchildren’s future. I have to, because this is not just an attack on unions. It’s an attack on all Wisconsin families. And we’re not going to stand for it.”

Several business owners also expressed opposition to the bill, saying it would undercut the quality of their workforce. James Hoffman, president and owner of Hoffman Construction Co. of Black River Falls, Wis., said it could devastate his business buy cutting funding to union-sponsored training programs that provide him with quality workers. "I ask you: Why are you doing this to my company?" he said. Paul Christensen, chief executive officer of mechanical and plumbing contractor H&H Industries, said much the same: "Who's going to pick up all the training that we do? My guess is the taxpayers are going to. Well, I don't want that. I want to stand on my own two feet."

Gov. Scott Walker (R), who had previously expressed some indifference to right to work but is now considered to be a potential Republican presidential candidate, has suddenly expressed a willingness to sign the bill.

Tyrone Sutton, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers ( UFCW ), had a message for the likes of Walker, Fitzgerald and Nass: “The stakes are too high. We will not back down.”

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