Assembly (copy)

The Wisconsin Assembly is in session at the Capitol in Madison in this October 2013 file photo.

The same week as the launch of a group that aims to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, a Republican lawmaker has promised to introduce a right-to-work bill in the upcoming legislative session. But one liberal group suspects the move is more of a political bargaining chip than a serious policy proposal.

Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, announced Tuesday that he will lead the push in the Assembly and promised to introduce a right-to-work bill. 

Kapenga said that the essence of the bill would be to "simply allow workers to choose their union status."

In right-to-work states, employees in the private sector cannot be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Gov. Scott Walker's signature legislation, Act 10, prohibited that practice for most public-sector employees. Right-to-work policies would go a step further, affecting the private sector.

Supporters of right-to-work say the policies give employees more freedom and strengthen the economy. Opponents argue they attack workers' rights by weakening the influence of unions.

"It's going to help increase jobs, the overall number of jobs," Kapenga said. "The indicators are very clear it's going to help raise up the level of wages that are in the state."

Kapenga said one factor he explored to bolster the argument is job growth, citing Bureau of Economic Analysis data compiled by the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy that showed, from 2001-2011, right-to-work states added 1.7 million jobs while states without such provisions lost 2.1 million jobs.

On the other hand, according to a study from the liberal Economic Policy Institute based on a 2009 analysis of U.S. Census data, wages are 3.2 percent lower in states with right-to-work than in states without such a law.

"Any introduction of right to work legislation would be a move in the wrong direction for Wisconsin and a serious disappointment at a time when Wisconsin needs legislators to focus on family-supporting jobs and reviving our sluggish economy," Wisconsin AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale wrote in an email. "So-called right to work legislation is partisan distraction and a direct attack on all working families and our middle class. These bills have proven time and time again to decrease wages and safety standards in all workplace."

The new group Wisconsin Right to Work, led by longtime conservative activist Lorri Pickens, said Monday it will "aggressively promote" its agenda. 

Kapenga hasn't drafted a bill yet, he said, adding that for now, he's talking with leadership and members of the GOP caucus about the merits of the legislation. He expects broad support for the measure when the Legislature launches its new session in early January.

"I think everyone knows it’s something we can do to continue the job growth we’ve seen in this state," Kapenga said.

Walker and Republican leaders in the Legislature have signaled they would support right-to-work policies but that the legislation is not a priority in the upcoming session.

"As he has said previously, Gov. Walker's focus is on growing Wisconsin's economy and creating jobs," Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick wrote in an email on Monday. "Anything that distracts from that is not a priority for him."

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he hopes Walker will "stay true to his word and what he led the voters to believe" — that he doesn't think it would be appropriate to move forward on right-to-work during this session.

"Having said that, I think the people of Wisconsin have to take this extremely seriously," Barca said. "You’re talking about a major assault on the middle class and on working class people."

Barca said there's "no question" such legislation would have a negative impact on wages for the middle class.

Assembly Assistant Minority Leader-elect Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, told the Cap Times last week she is concerned about the possibility of a push to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state.

"That goes way too far for Wisconsin and Wisconsin will not tolerate it. There will definitely be an issue there," Shankland said.

Barca said he believes people would be "extremely alarmed" and would protest a right-to-work bill much in the way they did in response to Act 10. He said the polarization that would result, on top of the aftershocks of Act 10, would "create a schism that could take decades to overcome."

But Kapenga doesn't think that will be the case.

"No, absolutely not," Kapenga said. "I think Act 10 was a very different situation. Absolutely, people are going to be passionate about it on the other side. We will have some very healthy debate, and I look forward to that. That's part of the legislative process."

Scot Ross, head of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, thinks there's more at play behind the scenes.

In order to explore a 2016 presidential run, Walker needs to pass a budget as quickly and smoothly as possible, Ross said, adding that right-to-work would get in the way of a quiet budget.

"He doesn’t want the country to think every time he does something ... Wisconsin erupts," Ross said.

Ross said right-to-work is an opportunity for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to get what he wants from the governor behind closed doors, with the threat of bringing the bill to the floor looming over negotiations. 

Barca said that could very well be the case, but he thinks the people pushing the policy are "very serious" about wanting it to pass.

Currently, 24 states have right-to-work laws, including Iowa, Michigan and Indiana.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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