Another political storm gathering over the Capitol: Right-To-Work debate could come soon

MADISON (WITI) -- Another showdown between Wisconsin unions and Republican lawmakers could be right around the corner. The epic 2011 "budget battle" cut collective bargaining for public workers, but the next fight could be about union employees in private companies. It's the debate over so-called "Right-To-Work" legislation.

Four years after the epic budget battle, another political storm is gathering over the state Capitol in Madison. "Right-To-Work" is shorthand for a business-friendly law which "prohibits unions at private companies from requiring workers to pay fees for representation." According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states have "Right-To-Work" laws.

But it's a new phenomenon in the manufacturing-heavy, union-friendly Midwest. In 2012, both Michigan and Indiana passed "Right-To-Work" laws.

"That does not create one single job. It is really a misnomer," State Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-LaCrosse) said.

Democrats and union leaders have said a better name would be "Right-To-Work-For-Less."

"Right-To-Work really destroys the middle class. It destroys people's ability to have decent wages and have safe workplaces. That's what really happens with Right-To-Work legislation," Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO said.

So is Wisconsin next? The entire 2014 campaign for governor came and went without "Right-To-Work" emerging as a top issue -- but after the election, in December of 2014, a group formed called "Wisconsin Right-To-Work" promising to "aggressively promote" new legislation saying private-sector workers couldn't be required to join a union and pay union dues. The group's founder, Lori Pickens has ties to "Americans for Prosperity," the conservative political organization funded by the Koch brothers. That kind of law could have a big impact on some of the area's largest employers, like Caterpillar and Briggs & Stratton.

The group's founder said in a statement: "Our mission is to advance freedom in the workforce."

"It's still an issue that's bubbling out there, and has been going way back to Act 10," State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said.

"Right-To-Work" has boiled in the background of state politics since the bitter standoff over Act 10, and may be ready to boil over. Act 10 effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers and forever earned Governor Scott Walker the reputation of a leader who would take on labor. The timeline of Wisconsin's "Right-To-Work" movement can be seen in Walker's public statements. Shortly after he was elected as the state's 45 governor, and sworn into office, Walker was captured on tape speaking about the issue with billionaire campaign donor Diane Hendricks.

Diane Hendricks: "Any chance we'll ever get to be a completely red state?"

Governor Walker: "Oh yeah."

Hendricks: "And become a Right-To-Work. What can we do to help you?"

Governor Walker: "We're going to start in a couple of weeks with our budget adjustment bill.  You divide and conquer."

Act 10 was introduced in February 2011, sparking massive protests. A week later, FOX6 News asked Governor Walker directly about the possibility of a broader confrontation with the labor movement.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "Is this the first step in making Wisconsin a Right-To-Work state?"

Governor Walker: "No. For us, this is 100 percent about balancing the budget.  If it was about that point, we would have eliminated everything."

During the most recent campaign for governor in 2014, Walker told FOX6 News it wasn't on his agenda for a second term.

''Any discussion of re-opening Act 10 for any reason - as well as Right-To-Work and a few other issues like that would take our eye off the focus of the economic and fiscal issues here," Walker said.

After the election, he repeated the point.

"My answer after the election is no different than what I said before.  I just see that as a distraction," Walker said.

Governor Walker hasn't said whether he would sign or veto a potential "Right-To-Work" bill, and has left the impression he has spoken with top lawmakers about not bringing the issue up -- saying he wants them to focus on tax cuts and education reforms.

"My hope is the legislative leadership will focus on the same sorts of things we're focused on," Walker said.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "Has he specifically said to you, 'Fitz, don't do this?'"

"No. No. No.  I've never had that conversation with the Governor at all," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald says the issue should be debated by the Legislature -- saying the sooner, the better.

"It's an issue that needs to be discussed, and if you are going to tackle something like Right-To-Work it's got to be done earlier in the session versus trying to tackle it a year from now or certainly something in the spring right before you adjourn," Sen. Fitzgerald said.

"That would be very disruptive here in the month of January. I don't think -- as we were out campaigning -- now we need to govern. That is not something people were calling for and clamoring for," Sen. Shilling said.

Shilling, the Senate's Democratic leader says the government has no place legislating the nature of private-sector relationships.

"It is a government overreach and an intrusion between two private-sector entities," Shilling said.

The bill is a long-held priority of conservatives. Now, Republicans have stronger majorities in both the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly -- yet it's not clear when or even if they'll take up the measure -- a frustration for Fitzgerald.

"If that's the case, then myself or somebody else needs to stand up to the podium and say, even with expanded majorities in the Assembly and the Senate, there's just not the political will to take this up.  I'm not there. I'm not going to do it.  I think there is a way of working on this so it makes sense," Sen. Fitzgerald said.

"We think that any kind of movement to promote Right-To-Work is a step back for Wisconsin," Stephanie Bloomingdale with the Wisconsin AFL-CIO said.

It is difficult to tell whether the ultimate effects of Right-To-Work. A comprehensive study from the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute showed Right-To-Work states have lower wages, on average than pro-union states.

But another academic study from Hopstra University showed that Right-To-Work laws do help states attract new businesses.

"Once again, re-energizes the idea that Wisconsin is a place where you can do business and we can still deal with the training component," Fitzgerald said.

Experts say it's hard to make state-to-state comparisons because each state has different industries, different characteristics and unique policies affecting Right-To-Work laws differently.

"It's complex.  It's far more complex than many members even know," Fitzgerald said.

One thing that's not hard to understand are the political consequences. Unions remain the backbone of Democratic Party fundraising, and union leaders say economic arguments for "Right-To-Work" are simply a pre-text for a political attack.

"Right-To-Work would really hurt all workers, not just union workers," Bloomingdale said.

The laws have the unquestioned effect of eroding unions and weakening their political muscle by draining their membership money.

"It would be bad for Wisconsin.  It would be bad for the middle class," Bloomindale said.

The debate will likely come to the Capitol soon.

"We're ready for anything," Bloomingdale said.

"I'm hopeful that at some point we can figure out whether or not we can talk about this issue," Fitzgerald said.

This week, Senator Fitzgerald said a debate over "Right-To-Work" likely won't happen until after a special election in April to fill the vacant seat left by Glenn Grothman's election to Congress.