WASHINGTON -- A Republican state legislator in Wisconsin said Tuesday that he planned to introduce a right-to-work bill. The legislation could be the next episode in the state's ongoing struggle over union worker rights, which triggered massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker (R) three years ago.
State Rep. Chris Kapenga told The Associated Press that he hadn't yet set a date for when he would bring the bill forward in the legislature, but said he believed right-to-work legislation would help the state's economic growth.
Right-to-work laws forbid companies and unions from making contracts that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. Unions are opposed to such laws because they allow workers to benefit from collective bargaining without contributing to it. Many workers inevitably opt out of funding their unions when right-to-work is in place, reducing the power of organized labor.
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had said in July that he did not intend to pursue right-to-work legislation in the next session, which begins in January. On Monday, however, Vos' office issued a statement saying that he would be willing to discuss the benefits of becoming a right-to-work state. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald also said he was open to a right-to-work bill.
Walker, who won a second term in November's elections, has said right-to-work legislation isn't a priority of his, though he hasn't explicitly come out against it. In 1993, he co-sponsored similar legislation as a freshman lawmaker in the state assembly.
The governor has established himself as a formidable adversary of unions. His 2011 law that took collective bargaining rights away from public workers led to protests for nearly three weeks, with tens of thousands gathering daily at the Wisconsin state capitol. Democratic state senators left the state for two weeks in an attempt to block its passage. Walker was recalled over the matter in 2012, though he survived the recall election, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the law earlier this year.
In recent months, however, Walker has suggested that he's not interested in passing right-to-work, in part because he wants to avoid triggering another round of protests from pro-union activists.
Wisconsin's Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca told the AP that he does think the state can expect to see massive protests once again if Kapenga's bill picks up steam.
Stephanie Bloomingdale of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO told The Huffington Post she thought it was "reasonable" to assume that there would be large protests following any legislative action on a right-to-work law. She said in a separate statement that such a law "would be a move in the wrong direction for Wisconsin."
"So called right to work legislation is partisan distraction and a direct attack on all working families and our middle class," Bloomingdale added. "These bills have proven time and time again to decrease wages and safety standards in the workplace."
The news of the potential introduction of the right-to-work bill came just a day after a conservative activist announced that she had started an organization, Wisconsin Right To Work, to promote such legislation. The activist, Lorri Pickens, previously worked for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, whose supporters include the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, for seven years.
Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now, said he thought Kapenga's right-to-work bill was really a political ploy to get concessions from Walker during the negotiation over Wisconsin's next budget.
"We believe that the speaker and majority leader will use this to try and extract from Walker things that they want in the budget," Ross told HuffPost Wednesday. "This bill coming to the floor is more than realistic, but we also believe that this is a negotiation tool."
Ross hypothesized that Walker may want to avoid a heated battle over right-to-work legislation given that he may seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
"Walker has one foot out the door, he wants to get the budget out of the way as soon as possible because he wants to run for president and he needs it to be noncontroversial, while at the same time serving the people who put him in office," Ross said. "The legislative leaders dictate Walker's way out. If they lay down for him, he'll be fine and will be able to reduce the public knowledge of him thrusting Wisconsin into turmoil, because people remember the pictures of the Wisconsin capitol being occupied."
Kapenga rejected Ross's hypothesis in a conversation with HuffPost, saying that he has worked on right-to-work legislation for four years and that the bill would have no connection to the budget process.
"We’ve had no discussions with Gov. Walker on this," Kapenga said. "My job in the legislature is to present a strong case for the legislation -- obviously [Walker] has to make the decision if it's a good thing for the state or not."
Twenty-four states in the U.S. have right-to-work laws, but only two of those states -- Michigan and Indiana -- enacted their laws within the past 10 years. Michigan in particular may be a concerning precedent for progressive activists. There, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) repeatedly stated that right-to-work legislation wouldn't be a priority of his, but ultimately signed the legislation when it reached his desk in 2012. Snyder's decision was met with large protests in Michigan.