Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly edged closer to making their state the 25th to pass a right-to-work law, moving within hours of a Friday morning deadline to vote on the union restrictions after enduring a night of speeches by Democrats opposing the measure.
The GOP controls 63 of the 99 seats in the chamber, so it has more than enough votes to pass the bill. The state Senate approved the bill last week. Assembly passage would send the proposal on to Gov. Scott Walker, and the likely 2016 presidential candidate has promised to sign it into law on Monday.
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Debate in the Assembly began in earnest at around 2 p.m. Thursday. Democrats and Republicans agreed to end the session no later than 9 a.m. Friday. Still stinging from Walker's signature 2011 law that stripped most public workers of nearly all their union rights, Democrats railed against the bill for more than 17 hours. One after another, they delivered rambling speeches in which they tried to persuade Republicans to send the bill back to a committee for revision.
They were still at it as the sun rose Friday morning. Most of the Republicans had long left the chamber; only about 15 were left on the floor as of 6:30 a.m. Frustrated with the lengthy speeches, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the GOP would end debate on committee referral at 8 a.m. and move to a vote at 9 a.m., as agreed.
The bill would make it a crime punishable by up to nine months in jail to require private-sector workers who aren't in a union to pay dues. Supporters say the measure is about worker freedom and that a right-to-work law would make Wisconsin more attractive to businesses looking to move in or expand. But opponents say the goal is to destroy unions, which tend to vote Democrat, and a right-to-work law would depress wage and create more dangerous workplaces, in turn hurting the economy.
Twenty-four other states have right-to-work laws. Michigan and Indiana were the two most recent states to enact it, both in 2012.
Minutes after debate began in the Wisconsin Assembly, protesters in the chamber's gallery interrupted Vos, shouting "Right-to-work is wrong for Wisconsin!" Vos ordered the galleries cleared, resulting in about a 10-minute delay as police escorted dozens of people out.
Union supporters have mounted several rallies at the Capitol over the last weeks, including one Thursday that drew about 300 people. Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, told the crowd that union members keep coming back "because the stakes are so high."
"Our fight is for the state and soul of our country," she said.
The protests paled in comparisons to demonstrations against Walker's public union restrictions four years ago. Those rallies drew tens of thousands of people and went on for weeks.
Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca, at a news conference, called right-to-work "a very destructive bill for the middle class." Barca said it was an example of "right-wing extremism on steroids."
"Right to work is desperately wrong for Wisconsin," Barca said during the debate.
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