MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans on the state Senate's labor committee ended a public hearing on contentious right-to-work legislation early and sent it on to the full Senate Tuesday, enraging dozens of people who had been waiting all day to speak and sparking a demonstration in front of the Senate chamber.
The daylong hearing began at 10 a.m. Sen. Stephen Nass, a Whitewater Republican and the committee's chairman, had planned for it to last until 7 p.m. But around 6:20 p.m. he announced he was ending the hearing due to what he called a "credible threat" that union members planned to disrupt the proceeding.
"We're not going to take a chance," Nass told the crowd. He issued a statement later Tuesday evening saying he didn't want protesters disrupting his meeting the way they did hearings on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's signature measure stripping most public workers of their union rights in 2011.
"As Chairman, it is my duty to keep the legislative process moving forward and not to allow the protesters to take over the process of representing all of the people of this great state," the statement said.
Dozens of people in the hearing room who had waited hours to speak leapt to their feet, shouting profanities. Nass called a vote on the bill over the din, but it was impossible to hear the roll over chants of "Shame!" Nass' office said later the vote was 3-1. Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat, did not vote, instead accusing Nass of "wimping out."
Police escorted the three Republicans on the committee out of the room after the vote.
Service Employees International Union officials had planned to protest the hard stop at 7 p.m., but the effort was going to be peaceful, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin Vice President Bruce Colburn told reporters later.
"This is just an example of them taking away workers' voice," he said. "What they did here was an act of political cowardice."
The Senate was expected to take up the bill Wednesday afternoon. Throngs of union supporters migrated to the corridors outside the Senate chamber after the hearing ended Tuesday, chanting "Get up, get down, Madison's a union town" and "Hey-hey, ho-ho, right-to-work has got to go." The Senate was not in session.
All but one protester left without incident when Capitol Police closed the building at 8 p.m. Police led the remaining protester away in handcuffs after he refused to leave.
The breakdown at the hearing marked the culmination of a tense day at the Capitol. About 2,000 construction workers, electricians, carpenters and other union members rallied against the bill on the building's steps and in the rotunda around midday.
The gathering paled in size and intensity to protests when Walker pushed through his public union restrictions. Those rallies lasted for weeks and grew as large as 100,000 people.
Right-to-work laws, in place in 24 states, prohibit private-sector companies from reaching labor agreements in which workers have to pay fees to the unions as a condition of employment. Indiana and Michigan were the two most recent states to pass such a law, in 2012, and right-to-work was also being debated this year in the New Mexico Legislature.
"We need to make Wisconsin more competitive and this certainly does that," Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the bill's sponsor, testified in front of the labor committee.
Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, has said right-to-work wasn't a priority and would be a distraction from his agenda that could lead to protests again that would hurt the state's economy. But on Friday the governor said he would sign the bill.
Opponents said the measure will lower worker pay and allow nonunion members to benefit from protections and benefits negotiated by the union. Unions have to represent both members and nonmembers in workplace grievances and in other situations.
The NFL Players Association issued a statement opposing it as well, saying right-to-work would hurt union workers at Lambeau Field where the Green Bay Packers play.
While union members were vowing to fight the measure and try to sway Republicans to vote against it, some were resigned to defeat given GOP majorities and Walker's support.
"I think it's inevitable," said Sally Feistel, a United Steelworkers union leader from Menasha.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.
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