Following a heated, all-night debate between lawmakers in Madison, the Wisconsin state assembly passed right-to-work legislation on Friday morning, sending the controversial bill to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker (R).
Once Walker signs the anti-union bill, as he has promised to do, Wisconsin will become the 25th right-to-work state in the country, further weakening an already-diminished labor movement in the state.
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO called the legislation "reckless."
“The GOP is more concerned with advancing the rights of out-of-state special interests who write their campaign checks than protecting the rights and protecting the wages of hard-working Wisconsinites,” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state's AFL-CIO, said in a statement.
The assembly's passage of the bill, by a vote of 62 to 35, ended two weeks of passionate protest at the Wisconsin capitol, where union members and their backers rallied in hopes of pressuring lawmakers to drop their support for the measure. The results, however, were essentially foreordained, since Republicans hold safe majorities in both houses of the legislature. Last week, the Wisconsin state Senate narrowly passed the measure, 17 to 15.
The votes in both chambers fell along party lines, except for one senate Republican who sided with Democrats. Democrats insisted the legislation would reduce wages and fail to create jobs, while dramatically changing long-standing policy on labor unions in the state.
Under U.S. labor law, a union that wins an election in a workplace must represent all the workers in the bargaining unit, even the ones who may have voted against the union. Since that representation costs money, unions prefer contracts that require all the workers in the unit to support the union financially. Right-to-work laws bar such requirements.
Under right to work, no employee can be compelled to pay fees to the union. Once provided with an out, many workers naturally choose to stop supporting it, even though they remain covered by the union's contract. As workers withdraw their support, the union becomes less effective at bargaining and organizing new members.
Historically speaking, right-to-work laws have been restricted mostly to the South and West. But that's started to change in recent years, with conservatives successfully enacting such measures in the formerly union-strong Midwest. Republicans in Indiana and Michigan passed right-to-work laws in 2012.
After Walker signs the Wisconsin bill, half of the states in the country will be right-to-work -- a symbolic victory for the conservatives and business interests who have long advanced the measures. The percentage of workers in the private sector who belong to a union has dropped below seven percent, and the proliferation of right-to-work laws will make it even harder for unions to maintain their steadily diminishing membership rolls.
Walker, who is laying the groundwork for a White House run in 2016, had previously assured Wisconsinites that a right-to-work bill would never reach his desk, and said as recently as December 2014 that such a measure would be a "distraction." Famous for crushing public-sector unions in 2011 with Act 10, a law that stripped them of most collective bargaining rights, the governor presumably had little interest in joining another high-profile attack on labor, this one aimed at the private sector.
But once Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) signaled that he planned to fast-track the right-to-work bill, Walker confirmed that he would sign the legislation if it passed.
Since then, Walker has disclaimed his earlier ambivalence toward right to work. Furthermore, as Wisconsin Public Radio reported on Wednesday, he has even tried to take some of the credit for the bill's imminent passage, telling the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, "We brought that up."
"If you're a company that's here and you're looking to grow, or if you're talking to one of your colleagues in the industry and trying to get someone to come here, we now have given one more big thing on that checklist to say that Wisconsin is open for business," Walker told the group, according to WPR.