Washington (CNN)The Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday passed a "right to work" bill Wednesday, sending it for likely approval to the GOP-controlled state Assembly.
Wisconsin Senate passes 'right to work' legislation
The proposal, which would let workers opt out of paying mandatory dues, is another blow to unions in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 helped pass a bill curtailing the rights of the state's public sector unions.
He won plaudits from conservatives for taking on the state's unions that year and ultimately surviving a recall attempt launched because of the move.
That 2011 fight catapulted him to the national stage and has contributed to his support in polls of the potential 2016 presidential race, where he routinely comes in the top four of the pack.
Supporters of the Wisconsin "right to work" law note that laws like it are sweeping the Midwest, and have already been passed in Michigan and Indiana. They say it will help make the state more competitive for business.
But critics say Republicans are aiming to undercut unions' electoral strength, as they typically vote and organize heavily in favor of Democrats.
Thousands of protesters circled the Wisconsin state capitol and interrupted Senate floor action on Wednesday to register their displeasure with the new development, a presence reminiscent of the heavy opposition Walker faced in 2011 over the union bill, according to local media reports.
In the middle of a tough reelection fight last year, Walker expressed reluctance to re-litigate a battle with unions. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he said he had told Republican state lawmakers not to send him a right-to-work bill because it would "bring the whole firestorm back."
"Those aren't the sorts of debates that are helpful for us to take the next step forward...It's about the tenor and the tone of the Legislature and what it means to the state as a whole," Walker said.
But last Friday, his office released a statement expressing support for the bill.
"Governor Walker continues to focus on budget priorities to grow our economy and to streamline state government. With that said, Governor Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a lawmaker and supports the policy. If this bill makes it to his desk, Governor Walker will sign it into law," the statement read.