Republican legislator promises to introduce right-to-work legislation

A Republican lawmaker promised Tuesday to introduce a right-to-work bill, prompting warnings from a Democratic leader that the state could see a round of protests reminiscent of the massive demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker's law stripping public workers of their union rights.

Rep. Chris Kapenga of Delafield, one of the most conservative members of the Assembly GOP caucus, said he's convinced right-to-work legislation is right for the state. He said he believes giving people the choice of whether to join a union will boost incomes and the state's economy.

"It's the right direction to go," Kapenga said in a telephone interview. "I'm convinced this is a very important piece of continuing growth in the state."

The new two-year legislative session begins in January. Kapenga wasn't sure when he would bring the bill forward, saying he needs to talk to the Assembly Republican caucus and make the case for the measure. He said Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, supports the concept.

A Vos spokeswoman had no immediate comment Tuesday evening. 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. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, had no comment Tuesday. Fitzgerald said Monday that he was open to the idea.

Walker, who won a second term in November's elections, has said right-to-work isn't a priority but hasn't said he wouldn't support such a bill. His spokeswoman was noncommittal Tuesday evening, saying again that Walker is focused on creating jobs and anything that distracts from that goal isn't a priority.

Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from forcing private-sector workers to join them or pay dues as a condition of employment.

Walker's 2011 proposal that stripped nearly all public workers of almost all their union rights drew tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for almost three weeks. Democrats were so angry after the bill passed that they forced a number of Republican officeholders, including Walker, into recall elections.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he hopes Republicans don't bring the bill to the Assembly floor for a vote. If the bill gains momentum, though, the state can expect to see massive protests again.

"There's no question that right-to-work is a significant issue," Barca said. "To further polarize the state at this time would be extremely harmful. I certainly hope they would not want to put the state through that."

Kapenga's announcement comes a day after conservative activist Lorri Pickens said she had formed a group to push right-to-work legislation. The news release announcing the group's formation said the organization wants to advance freedom in the workplace.

A spokeswoman for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO didn't immediately return messages Tuesday evening. The union put out a statement Monday responding to Pickens saying right-to-work amounts to an attempt by corporations to drive down wages and "erode" the middle class.