- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - In what promised to be a marathon all-night session, the state Assembly began debate Thursday of a fast-tracked bill that would make Wisconsin a right-to-work state. A vote was expected sometime early Friday.

Here are the highlights:

WHAT’S HAPPENING:

The Senate passed the bill last week, now it’s the Assembly’s turn. Republicans hold a 63-36 majority, making the bill’s passage all but certain. Speaker Robin Vos said he doesn’t expect every Republican to vote for it, but there will be far more than the 50 votes needed. Under a bipartisan agreement, debate could go until 9 a.m. Friday.

Once the bill passes, it will head to Gov. Scott Walker. The Republican said in September, during his re-election campaign, that right-to-work was not a priority and wouldn’t come up this session. But two weeks ago, when Senate Republicans said they were going forward with it, Walker said he would sign it. He planned to do that Monday.

Democrats said the issue was being pushed to help Walker’s likely presidential campaign.

“It’s the workers in this state that are suffering through the politics of our governor’s ambitions,” said Democratic Rep. Cory Mason, of Racine, during debate.

WHAT IS RIGHT TO WORK?:

Right-to-work laws make it illegal for a private-sector business to enter into an agreement with unions that require all workers to pay union dues. Twenty-four other states have such laws, and several other states are considering them this year. Unions oppose the measure, saying it will weaken their power to negotiate salary, benefits and working conditions. A coalition of more than 400 Wisconsin businesses is also against it, saying the government shouldn’t intrude on a system that’s working. But Republican backers say workers should be given the freedom to decide whether to pay union dues, and they believe the law will attract businesses that may otherwise set up shop elsewhere.

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING:

Republicans argued that the bill was about giving workers the freedom to decide whether to pay union dues and also lead to more economic development

“Today’s a great day for individual liberty,” said Republican Rep. Dan Knodl, of Germanton, at a news conference just prior to debate starting.

Vos argued during debate that right to work will make unions stronger because they will have to be more responsive to members to make them feel like it’s worth it to pay their dues.

Democratic opponents said the true goal was to weaken private-sector unions, much like public unions were targeted four years ago when nearly all collective bargaining rights were eliminated. They argue the law will lead to lower wages and make workplaces less safe.

“Our fight is for the state and soul of our country,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, during a rally attended by an estimated 300 people outside the Capitol before debate began.

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.”

PROTESTS:

Just minutes after debate began in earnest, Vos ordered all spectators removed from the Assembly galleries after protesters interrupted his speech with chants of “Right to work is wrong for Wisconsin!” Debate stopped for about 10 minutes as police escorted dozens of people out as they continued yelling, some of them exhorting Vos to allow them to stay.

___

Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and follow Dana Ferguson at https://twitter.com/bydanaferguson

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