By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein
After saying in his re-election bid that he wouldn't push so-called right-to-work legislation, Gov. Scott Walker committed Friday to signing it, acting after GOP leaders fast-tracked the proposal for a Senate vote next week.
Walker as a lawmaker sponsored the labor legislation two decades ago and as governor was careful never to say he would veto it, but as recently as September he said he wouldn't be "supporting it in this session." That changed Friday as Walker's fellow Republicans in the Legislature made clear they would act on the issue at a time when the governor has won a second term and is spending more time outside the state pursuing the presidency.
"I've never said that I didn't think it was a good idea. I've just questioned the timing in the past and whether it was right at that time," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a Friday interview at a National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C.
The governor's potential White House run was made possible by his signature 2011 lawknown as Act 10 that repealed most collective bargaining for most public employees. Walker pushed the law through despite protests by tens of thousands of union supporters. That prompted a historic, unsuccessful attempt to recall him, helping Walker become a conservative icon.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said he had the votes needed to pass the proposal and was hoping to avoid the chaos that surrounded the passage of Walker's union law four years ago. Fitzgerald said he had spoken to Capitol Police and Walker aides about security at the statehouse.
"My experience as leader is when you have the votes, you go to the floor," said Fitzgerald, who used the abrupt action to pass Walker's labor bill in 2011. "...I just have my fingers crossed as to whether something is going to happen like Act 10."
Right-to-work laws -- in place in 24 states -- bar businesses and unions from reaching labor deals that require workers to pay union fees. The Wisconsin measure, like those in 18 other states, would include criminal penalties for agreeing to a contract with a fee requirement.
Supporters say right-to-work laws provide workers with free choice on whether to join unions. Opponents say unions and businesses should be free to structure labor deals as they see fit and all employees should pay for the work unions do.
A Senate leadership committee will introduce the bill Monday, Fitzgerald said. The Senate Labor Committee will hold a hearing on it Tuesday, and the Senate will take it up as soon as Wednesday.
The Assembly will vote on it the following week, under the Republicans' timetable.
Lawmakers are calling themselves into extraordinary session for the bill because Democrats would have fewer chances to use delaying tactics available to them in a regular session, Fitzgerald said.
During the fight over Act 10, Senate Democrats were able to stall the measure by decamping to Illinois for three weeks. They won't have that option this time because the right-to-work bill does not require three-fifths of the senators to be present for the vote, as the earlier legislation did.
Walker, who was in New York City this week to meet with conservative donors, is scheduled to be out of state for much of the coming week.
On Monday, he is to be in Nashville, Tenn., to address a Christian media convention. Later in the week, he is to appear in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference and in Palm Beach, Fla., to address the conservative Club for Growth with other potential Republican presidential candidates.
Walker indicated he likely wouldn't cancel any of those appearances to deal with the biggest legislation of this session besides the state budget.
After Walker came into office in 2011, Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks greeted him and asked him when he would make Wisconsin a "completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work" state.
Walker responded by telling her about his plan to curtail collective bargaining for public workers. "The first step is we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer," he said.
After footage of their encounter became public in May 2012 -- and in the years since -- Walker has insisted he did not want to take up right-to-work legislation.
He downplayed the possibility of a right-to-work bill passing throughout his 2014 race against former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive Mary Burke.
"I think it's pretty clear the Legislature has worked with us hand-in-hand in the past, and I'm making it clear in this campaign, as I'll make it clear in the next (legislative) session, that that's not something that's part of my agenda," Walker said in September.
"My point is I'm not pushing for it. I'm not supporting it in this session."
But on Friday he said a right-to-work law would "affect a small percentage" of people because most union workers are in the public sector, and they are already prohibited from being required to pay union fees under Act 10.
"Right-to-work is essentially in effect for ... a good chunk of the people who four years ago were in a union, most of which in this state were in the public sector," he said. "They now have that freedom to choose."
The states that have most recently adopted right-to-work laws are also Great Lakes states -- Indiana and Michigan, both of which adopted them in 2012. The legislation moved swiftly in those states, just as it is poised to do so here.
"Wisconsin should be a right-to-work state," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a statement. "The public widely supports worker freedom and the potential positive impact to the state's economy can no longer be ignored."
But Terry McGowan, business manager for Operating Engineers Local 139, said supporters' claims about freedom for workers was a "smoke screen."
"It has nothing to do with worker rights. It has everything to do with pulling us down," he said.
By the Republicans' logic, people should get to take stock of the government services they receive and then decide whether they want to pay taxes, he said.
"How about you let the taxpayers decide -- you can either pay taxes or not pay the taxes? Isn't that freedom, too?" McGowan said.
McGowan's union represents about 9,100 heavy equipment operators. It runs training programs using fees paid by workers. Those will slowly go away as workers decide to keep the money instead of paying fees, he said, and taxpayers will have to pick up training costs through technical colleges.
Local 139 regularly gives to candidates from both parties and has made more than $460,000 in political donations since 2008, according to state figures. But McGowan suggested support for Republicans pushing the labor measure would end.
"Will I support them? Hell no," he said. "Not just no, hell no."
But he downplayed the possibility of launching massive protests at the Capitol, as happened four years ago.
"I don't know what banging on a plastic bucket and blowing on a horn will do," he said.
Economists say it's difficult to determine the effects of right-to-work laws in other states because of a host of factors, ranging from taxes and the skills of the workforce to interstate highways and the weather. That's a problem when many of the partisan studies looking at the effects of such legislation assume that there are no other causes for the economic outcomes in states as different as New York and Alabama.
Economists say some careful studies suggest that right-to-work laws tend to produce some additional investment and jobs in a state's manufacturing sector, somewhat lower wages for those jobs and less funding for unions as some members choose not to pay dues.
In the Senate, Fitzgerald can afford to have only one GOP senator vote no -- Republicans control the body 18-14 -- but he confidently said he had the 17 votes needed.
The vote is still likely to be very close. Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), for instance, has opposed right-to-work in the past and called it a distraction last month.
Other Republicans who have said they considered the measure a distraction have come around to the idea. A spokesman for Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) said he would vote for the legislation.
The plan to move quickly on the legislation comes a month after Fitzgerald said the measure would not be taken up until after April 7, when a vacancy is filled in the Senate. That seat will go to former Rep. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg), who won a GOP primary this week; no Democrat is running for the seat.
Fitzgerald said he was moving the bill now because he had the votes. He said he also was concerned opponents would launch TV ads that could change some Republicans' minds.
"I lay awake at night losing sleep over that," he said.
Fitzgerald said he brought up the right-to-work proposal as a possibility to the governor Wednesday. On Thursday, he alerted Walker's chief of staff, Eric Schutt, to the plan to act on the bill next week.
Neither Walker nor Schutt discouraged Fitzgerald from putting the bill forward, Fitzgerald said. He called Walker "supportive" but said "he still probably believes there is a potential this could turn into something that would be disruptive."
In the Assembly, Republicans have a 63-36 majority.
All Democrats in both houses are expected to oppose the measure, as Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) made clear.
"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," Shilling said.
The state can't make changes to existing union contracts. Any labor pacts requiring workers to pay fees that are in place when the law is signed will remain in effect until they expire.
Fitzgerald said part of the reason he wants to pass the bill quickly is to prevent unions and businesses from rushing to sign new contracts before the law takes effect.
Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
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