MADISON (WITI/AP) — Republicans abruptly ended a hearing on so-called "Right-to-Work" legislation on Tuesday evening, February 24th -- but not before lawmakers voted to send the bill to the full Senate for debate on Wednesday. It was a surprising end to a marathon day of emotional testimony.
On Tuesday morning, lawmakers entered into an "extraordinary session" at the Capitol in Madison, as the Senate Labor Committee heard testimony on Right-to-Work legislation. Testifiers disagreed as to whether making Wisconsin a Right-to-Work state will improve the economy, create jobs and help workers.
Public testimony was supposed to go until 7:00 p.m., after beginning at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday -- but just before 6:30 p.m., Stephen Nass (D-Whitewater) cited a "credible threat" that union workers planned to disrupt a vote, and he cleared the room.
In the chaos, Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was unable to cast a vote, so the bill advanced to the full Senate by a 3-1 margin.
"What you saw tonight was a disgrace to democracy, was a disgrace to the public who had waited the entire day, in some cases traveling four, five hours to get here at the chance of having their voices heard," Senate Larson said.
Republican senators were led out of the room by armed officers. This, as protesters expressed their disappointment outside the hearing room.
Afterward, Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) issued an explanation for what happened:
"We got wind of threats that were being made to disrupt the hearings, and it was a different crowd of people that were coming into the Capitol, and Capitol Police were concerned that there might be an issue. There were threats that they were going to disrupt and force Capitol Police to haul them out physically," Wanggaard said.
The so-called Right-to-Work bill would ban contracts between businesses and unions in which workers are required to pay union dues.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state's Chamber of Commerce, has been pushing for Wisconsin to join 24 other states in passing the measure.
Wisconsin's measure would go the extra step of making it a crime, punishable by nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Wisconsin Public Research Institute president Mike Nichols says research has shown that passing the law would help the state's economy, raise wages and give workers more freedom.
Advocates for Right-to-Work say it's a policy that gives the workforce more freedom and makes businesses more competitive -- especially in the manufacturing-heavy Midwest, where both Michigan and Indiana have recently passed Right-to-Work laws.
"The bottom line is to move our state forward, Wisconsin needs a modern economy," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said.
Senator Fitzgerald authored the "Right-to-Work" legislation. He was the first to testify Tuesday. He argued that the purpose of the legislation is to help Wisconsin's workforce.
"At issue here is the simple matter of individual freedom. This issue at its heart is about worker freedom. That means no employer can discriminate against any employee for their refusal to join or support a labor organization," Senator Fitzgerald said.
This testimony took place as hundreds of protesters rallied at the Capitol Tuesday.
Union workers are among those opposed to making Wisconsin a "Right-to-Work" state. They're irate over what they see as a push for corporate profits and political power.
"This to me seems like if they would be honest and say, 'you know what? This is nothing more than a political front. We want to kill labor as a political movement.' I would say, 'you know what, so be it. Then we know where you're at.' But to say 'it helps the workers?' That's B.S.," William Mensing said.
Tuesday's hearing was the first step in what promises to be a fast-tracked legislative calendar. The Senate Labor Committee plans to vote to send the bill to the full Senate Tuesday night. That body plans to pass the bill by Thursday.
Scott Manley with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is the bill's leading supporter.
"What we found over the last 10 years is that Right-to-Work states grew twice as many jobs as non Right-to-Work states," Manley said.
Gordon Lafer, a professor at University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, says Wisconsin does better than Right-to-Work states on a variety of measures, including income, poverty levels and violent crime. He says each state has a different economy, and the fact that some create jobs is the result of a variety of factors. For example, successful Right-to-Work states like Texas and Florida rely on oil, good weather and tourism for jobs.
"There's no law you can pass to put oil under your ground or to change the weather or to make yourselves a tourist destination like Disney World, so you have to take those states into account, and not say how are those states doing and assume it's because of Right-to-Work. You have to say all other things being equal, what would the impact be of a Right-to-Work law?" Lafer said.
Scott Manley says Right-to-Work is "a significant reason" why those Right-to-Work states have added jobs, but he admits it's not the only reason.
The full Senate is expected to debate the bill starting Wednesday. Another protest is planned for Wednesday at the Capitol.
Governor Walker has said he would sign Right-to-Work legislation if it made its way to his desk. While in Green Bay on Tuesday, Walker said this will be good for getting more businesses into the state of Wisconsin.
"What is some of the top things they look at -- it's a variety of things from tax climate, regulatory climate, legal climate to workforce issues, but one of the things they routinely ask bout for businesses for coming in from the region, around the country, or sometimes from around the world is 'what's your status whether you're legally required to be in a union or not?'" Walker said.
- Explanation: What exactly is Right-to-Work legislation?
- “Right-to-Work” states map
- “The political center of the universe:” What lies ahead for politics in Wisconsin in 2015?
- CLICK HERE for further Right-to-Work coverage via FOX6Now.com.