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Union laborers lined up outside a hearing of the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform Tuesday. They were registering their opposition to right-to-work legislation while the committee heard expert testimony in favor and opposed to the bill.

A public hearing on Wisconsin's right-to-work bill amounted to a ping-pong match between supporters and opponents during its first hours Tuesday morning.

Testimony before the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform began at 10 a.m., with the first several hours scheduled for comments from invited experts speaking for and against Senate Bill 44. 

Speakers alternated between supporters and opponents, with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald opening the hearing. 

"This issue, at its heart, is about worker freedom," Fitzgerald, the bill's author, said.

Fitzgerald described the legislation as a "game changer" for Wisconsin in the effort to attract businesses considering expansion to the state. 

The Juneau Republican said making Wisconsin a right-to-work state is a first step toward strengthening the state's economy. Future reforms might include making change's to the state's prevailing wage law and prohibiting the use of project labor agreements for public projects, he said.

In his testimony, Fitzgerald laid out what the bill does and doesn't do. He said the bill exercises Wisconsin's right to prohibit mandatory union membership, adding that it does not inhibit a union's ability to organize, change an employer's obligation to collectively bargain or make any changes to existing contracts.

Fitzgerald said the bill's implementation would have no impact on the training provided by unions, nor would it impact unfunded pension liabilities. 

For employers and unions who wish to continue their existing relationship, nothing in the bill requires them to change that, Fitzgerald said.

"The penalty for requiring someone to quit their union is identical to the penalty for requiring someone to join a union," he added.

Fitzgerald argued that a right-to-work law would lead out-of-state businesses considering expansion to view Wisconsin more favorably and keep existing jobs in the state.

By noon, the committee had heard from University of Oregon economist Gordon Lafer, Marquette University economist Abdur Chowdhury — both testifying against the bill — Wisconsin Policy Research Institute president Mike Nichols and Heritage Foundation labor policy analyst James Sherk.

Lafer cited research to bolster the argument that there is no relationship or pattern between right-to-work states and economic performance or unemployment. Lafer's findings showed that adopting a right-to-work law in 2015 would lower wages by 3.2 percent for both union and non-union employees. 

"If it didn’t lower wages and benefits, there would be no reason to think it would draw new employers into the state," Lafer said of the law.

Nichols cited a study from Ohio University economist Richard Vedder that found, over the last 30 years, right-to-work states have experienced greater per capita income growth than states without such laws. Currently, 24 states have right-to-work laws on the books.

"We see this as a fundamental issue of individual freedom," Nichols said.

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Chowdhury argued that businesses look first to factors other than right-to-work — such as infrastructure development, IT development and tax policy — when they consider whether to locate in a particular state. 

He said a right-to-work law would result in a loss of income for workers and ultimately a loss of revenue for the state government.

"Overall, we do not see any economic advantage of having a right-to-work law, whereas there will be significant social cost," Chowdhury said.

Sherk argued that not only do labor unions harm a company's profitability, they drive up prices in a way that negatively affects low-wage and middle-class workers.

All right-to-work does is prevent workers from being coerced into paying union dues, he said.

"Labor unions operate as a labor cartel," Sherk said. "They try to control the supply of labor in an industry, to drive up wages."

By noon, the sixth of 15 scheduled testimonies had begun, with many others waiting to speak later. The hearing is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at which point the Labor Committee will vote to send the bill to the Senate.

Leadership committees in the state Senate and Assembly voted Monday, on party lines, to take up right-to-work legislation in an extraordinary session this week. The Senate is expected to take up the bill on Wednesday, with the Assembly taking it up next week.

Protests are planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, though it remains to be seen if they will reach the scale of those triggered by Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker's signature legislation which eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public-sector employees. Right-to-work laws prevent private-sector employees from being required to pay fees to a union as a condition of employment.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.