Reversal: WI Republicans to push right-to-work legislation after all

Alternate headline: Republicans move in for the kill. During the midterm cycle that saw Republicans keep control of state government at all levels, Governor Scott Walker and other party leaders dismissed questions about whether they would take up full-blown right-to-work legislation if they won in November. Now that the election is over, though, Republican leadership in the state Senate plans to immediately produce a right-to-work bill that would bring Walker’s first-term reform to its natural conclusion:

After years of seeking to change the subject, the top leader in the state Senate made clear Thursday that lawmakers in his house would debate the issue of so-called “right-to-work” legislation within weeks and bring the volatile issue of union law back into the statehouse.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes of WTMJ-AM (620) that he was considering so-called “open shop” legislation to prohibit employers from striking deals with private-sector unions to require workers to pay dues. He said he was considering making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to attempt to exempt certain private workers such as the operators of earthmovers who have supported Wisconsin Republicans in recent years.

It was a complete shift from the general election rhetoric of Republicans in recent months who have said that the issue is a distraction and not a priority.

“We can’t tiptoe through this session without addressing this. We’re not tackling this six months from now. We’re not tackling this a year from now…there’s no way we avoid this issue. We have to deal with this issue right now,” Fitzgerald said.

The unions have pushed back this afternoon, lamenting this as an attack on the middle class:

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said that further weakening unions was the wrong prescription for an ailing middle class. “It’s a sad day for workers and the middle class,” he said. “Right to work is bad for everybody, no matter how you slice it.”

That might have been true three or four decades ago, when unions still represented middle-class workers and not progressive politicians. The long decline of unions in the private sector at least correlates with their gradual co-option by Democratic and progressive politicians, with whom they share a symbiotic relationship — in large part because of forced dues payments and closed shops. Unions have used those to pour money into the coffers of Democrats, and their marginalized status among private-sector workers has left them particularly vulnerable to similar hardball politics from their opponents in response.

At least as of yesterday, Scott Walker was still saying that he didn’t think right-to-work legislation should be a high priority, calling it “a distraction” from the rest of his agenda:

Walker said Wednesday that he thinks Republican leaders should be focused on education, tax and regulatory reform, and balancing the budget without raising taxes.

“The right-to-work legislation right now, as well reopening Act 10 to make any other adjustments, would be a distraction from the work that we are trying to do,” Walker said, after speaking at a Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce meeting in Milwaukee.

Fitzgerald’s counterpart in the Assembly had been on record as favoring other legislation ahead of any debate on a new right-to-work law. On Monday, he changed his mind as well:

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in July he didn’t intend to pursue the issue in 2015 but on Monday issued a statement saying he looked forward to discussing the benefits of becoming a right-to-work state.

Whether Walker’s really reluctant to take up the legislation or he’s sandbagging a bit for the media, it looks like it will reach his desk soon — assuming that unions don’t try to shut down the capital again. Act 10, Walker’s PEU reform law, produced a three-week standoff in which Democratic legislators went on the lam ( remember “fleebaggers“?) to deny the Republican majority a quorum to pass the bill. Activists occupied the Capitol building, causing damage to its interior but mostly capturing national media attention. It fueled the recall effort that failed the next year, which meant that Walker ended up winning three statewide races for two terms as Governor. That may be why Walker would prefer to keep a low profile this time, although it’s all but certain he’d sign the bill if it got to him.

This time around, though, it might not be all that controversial. Act 10 already stripped those provisions from most public-employee unions, and the private-sector unions aren’t anywhere near as powerful as the PEUs were pre-Act 10. Will teachers and government clerks clog the streets for private-sector unions?  Maybe, but probably not for a sustained period. If that’s the case, though, Walker may be right — the benefits of pushing this now may not outweigh the bad publicity, especially for a governor eyeing a presidential bid. For Wisconsin Republicans, though, it’s unfinished business that they clearly want to complete, and early enough to keep it from complicating re-election bids in the next couple of years.