MADISON — It was the question no Republican in Wisconsin could answer.
“What beating hearts are asking you to pass right to work legislation?”
Senator Janet Bewley, a Democrat, put the simple query to the other side of the aisle Tuesday night while the chamber debated a “right to work” bill that will effectively kill private sector unions in the state by ending the requirement that workers pay dues for representation.
The answer, of course, is no one. That much was clear at the state capitol. There were no signs asking to join a union shop but not the union; no bullhorns asking to skirt paying dues.
If there was anyone at Monday’s hearing on the bill who asked lawmakers to pass right to work, their names weren’t mentioned by any of the Republicans. In fact, the only Republican to mention someone’s name was Senator Jerry Petrowski.
“I’m a Ronald Reagan Republican, and like President Reagan I was a union member for many years,” he said before becoming the only member of his party to vote against the bill. Nevertheless, it passed 17-15 and sets Wisconsin up to become the 25th right-to-work state.
This death warrant for unions wasn’t drafted in Wisconsin though. The fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing special-interest group, were found all over the bill. Nevertheless, Governor Scott Walker is ready to sign it after dealing unions a mortal wound in 2011 by ending the right to collective bargaining for public employees.
“Walker said that it wasn’t time for this, that it would be a distraction,” said Tom Much, a 58-year-old retiree from the Communications Workers of America. Hundreds of union supporters and Much stood outside the Capitol as snow fell Tuesday afternoon, about an hour before debate over the bill began.
What did Walker think the bill was distracting from though?
“You tell me,” Much said.
It could be the state’s $2.2 billion deficit, often cited by Democrats as they futilely filibustered the bill . More than likely, though, it is Walker’s presidential ambitions that right to work would distract from. So, while much of the talk regarding Walker in the past few days and weeks has revolved around his no-comment status when it comes to President Obama’s religious beliefs, and prior to that his punting on the question of evolution, in Wisconsin, the governor’s about face on the law has gone almost unnoticed by national political reporters.
“Now, he says that he will sign it,” Much said, noting Walker’s intent to approve the right to work bill when it reaches his desk, something the governor always insisted was unlikely to happen. “Seems to me to be a bit of a turnaround.”
Not quite. Walker has avoided talk of making Wisconsin a right to work state—until recently—and has let his Republican allies in the legislature perform most of the heavy lifting regarding the bill.
His fellow Republicans didn’t have much to say during Tuesday’s proceedings, instead letting their votes do the talking. Fitzgerald began by introducing the bill, saying it would be a boon to the state’s economy. Almost all other comments from the GOP came in the form of bickering with Democrat Sen. Chris Larson over the previous day’s hearing, which ended abruptly when Republican Sen. Stephen Nass cited a “credible threat” that the proceedings would be disrupted by protesters. Twenty-five minutes before the scheduled end of the hearing, Nass called it quits, fueling anger among some in the crowd who had waited hours for their chance to speak.
“Are we afraid of what the public is going to say?” Larson said Tuesday night in arguing for a failed attempt to push the bill back to committee. “Maybe if we go back there someone will show up who’s not from a right wing think tank to speak for (right to work). I know I was on the edge of my seat waiting for that to happen.”
Larson was likely referring to James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation, who testified in support of the bill on Monday and has been extolling the virtues of right to work for the conservative think tank in op-eds at National Review. Larson noted that, in eight hour’s worth of testimony, more than 1,700 voiced their opposition to right to work, while just 25 expressed support for the bill, including Sherk.
This was the backbone of the Democratic argument against Walker’s policies Tuesday night: they represent special interests, not the people. Walker and his allies would likely reply that groups like ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, and those represented by the Kochs have just as much a right as any to have their voices heard as anyone else, but that they might lack the “beating hearts” that Bewley asked about.
“At issue here is the simple matter of individual freedom,” Fitzgerald argued in introducing the bill.
Who those individuals are—the corporate or manufacturing interests who backed Wisconsin’s right to work bill, or the men outside in hard hats and Carhart jackets who voted for union representation—is up for debate. But it’s a back-and-forth that Walker has so far stayed out of. His job is simply to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
That will likely happen soon: Republicans have a 63-36 majority in the state assembly, where the bill is headed next week. If it does and right to work becomes law as quickly as everyone anticipates, the distraction to Walker’s increasing presidential hopes will be minimal. But a few people won’t forget what happened Tuesday. Among them, Tom Much. Watching through the snowflakes as his fellow union members had what will likely be their last and loudest stand, Much held a sign, aimed at the Capitol steps.
“Remember at the polls.”