Amber Arnold / AP

Wisconsin Senate passes anti-union legislation amid mass protests

Bill heading to Assembly would limit unions’ ability to have work conditions, wages negotiated by collective bargaining

The Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday night narrowly approved a proposal to make Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state in the nation, as thousands of demonstrators protested the measure at the state Capitol.

The Republican-led state Senate was expected to approve the bill, which would prohibit requiring private sector workers to join or financially support unions, and move it to the state Assembly, where Republicans also hold a majority.

Supporters of organized labor in the gallery chanted "Shame!" as the legislation was passed on a 17-15 vote. One Republican senator, Jerry Petrowski, broke with his party and joined all 14 Democrats in the chamber in voting against the measure.

Supporters of the right-to-work measure contend it could attract more businesses to the Midwestern state.

"I think this is something that is going to have a direct impact on the manufacturing sector in Wisconsin," Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald said after the vote.

Labor supporters said the legislation is aimed at gutting union membership, which helps control workplace conditions and wages through collective bargaining.

"We will have no more rights as workers," said Freeman Monfort, 83, a union member for 60 years. "This is about dignity and the working class."

About 3,000 demonstrators opposed to the measure gathered at about midday around the Capitol, the second noontime rally in as many days, in an echo of massive rallies in 2011.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a possible Republican presidential hopeful, will sign a bill if it gets to his desk, his spokeswoman has said.

Walker drew accolades from conservatives across the nation in 2011 when he ushered through legislation limiting the powers of most public sector unions in Wisconsin. That move was also met with mass demonstrations by union supporters.

Fitzgerald said at the start of Wednesday's session that the bill closely mirrors laws adopted in Indiana and Michigan in 2012 — which also prompted large demonstrations by labor activists.

"We have the duty to taxpayers to explore any opportunity to make Wisconsin more competitive," Fitzgerald said.

Demonstrators interrupted Fitzgerald's opening twice, shouting opposition to the bill before being escorted from the Senate gallery by capitol police.

"This is a sham ... this is an attack on democracy," one protester shouted.

Average wages across all industries in right-to-work states were $4 per hour lower than those in states without the legislation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wisconsin alone could experience a net loss of between $3.89 and $4.82 billion annually in workers' incomes, one study said.

Walker's anti-union efforts have resulted in the state leading the nation in job losses for two months in a row, a statement from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), a union for professional football players, said Tuesday.

"Devoted food and commercial workers who spend their Sundays servicing our players and fans at Lambeau Field will have their wellbeing and livelihood jeopardized by Right to Work. Governor Scott Walker may not value these vital employees, but as union members, we do," the NFLPA said.

"The proposed legislation unfairly risks the health and safety of employees by depriving them of on-the-job protections that unions have historically defended," the union added.

Republican leaders have fast-tracked the bill, introducing it on Monday and holding a more than eight-hour Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, which the chairman cut short by 30 minutes, citing the threat of a disruption by bill opponents.

The committee voted on party lines to advance the bill to the Senate, drawing criticism from Democrats.

"It is deeply concerning that honest, hardworking Wisconsin taxpayers have had their voices silenced by Republican senators who are unwilling to listen to the overwhelming opposition to this divisive bill," Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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