Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been in New York City all week, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his all-but declared presidential campaign and trying to show the nation’s financial elite he is not some kind of wild-eyed conservative radical set to torch his political opponents.
But back in Wisconsin, Walker’s fellow Republicans in the state legislature are pressing ahead without him.
On Friday, legislative leaders announced that they would convene an extraordinary session to take up a measure to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state— in spite of Walker’s public pleas to shelve the policy.
Walker has been a proponent of right-to-work through much of his career, sponsoring similar legislation as a young assemblyman in the 1990s, but he remained committed to his non-committal stance on this measure during his 2014 campaign for re-election, explicitly because he wanted to focus on shrinking the size of government.
But many Wisconsinites wondered if really he wanted to avoid another series of Occupy-style protests like Madison experienced in 2011- the last time Walker pushed anti-union measures.
“Governor Walker continues to focus on budget priorities to grow our economy and to streamline state government,” said Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick in an email. “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.”
Right-to-work legislation permits private sector workers to decline to join workplace labor unions or to pay union dues. Currently 24 states have right-to-work legislation, but they are largely concentrated in the south and plains states, although neighboring Michigan passed a right-to-work bill in 2012.
Labor leaders say that such laws decimate union protections since they permit workers to get the benefits of their union without paying dues; ultimately, most workers stop paying altogether.
“Right to Work rings a false promise for Wisconsin. Right to Work will not create jobs and will lower wages for all workers,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, President of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. “Every worker suffers when states enact anti-worker Right to Work laws. Rushing this legislation through in an extraordinary session is a slap in the face to our democracy.”
Walker achieved national fame back in 2011 when he surprised many Madison lawmakers by pushing to strip public sector employees of collective bargaining rights.
That decision set off a massive protest in the state capitol as thousands occupied the building for weeks while Democratic lawmakers fled the state to keep the legislature from achieving a quorum.
Walker faced a recall election as a result, but he defeated it with relative ease and became a folk hero among conservatives concerned about the power of public sector unions.
Even though Walker wrote a book about the showdown called Unintimidated, he always maintained that he had no inclination that his signing of the collective bargaining legislation would result in quite such an uproar.
This time around Walker and his Republican allies appear wary that their anti-union push will set off another round of protests.
“I think we can do this next week without it getting really ugly,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told a Milwaukee radio station. “We’ll see next week whether the Capitol blows up. I don’t know.”
Unlike most other states that have passed right-to-work laws, Wisconsin has a long labor history, producing such liberal heroes as “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a longtime governor and senator.
The city of Milwaukee was led by a series of socialist mayors up through the 1960s.
But this time around it appears as if the backlash to such liberalism that Walker helped usher in is now operating outside of his control. Madison political analysts remarked that it showed how little control the governor now exerts over Republican lawmakers, that they pushed this bill when he was out of town and over his stated desire that they delay.
If in the public’s mind, Walker is a right-wing ideologue bent on reducing the pillars of liberalism into piles of sand, his campaign team is bent on putting forward a friendlier face, one that they hope soothes the nerves of establishment Republicans doubtful about the conservative bonafides of Jeb Bush. And a horde of drum-banging college students and workers could sow doubts in the mind of independents that Walker will be able to bring the country together after decades of dysfunction in Washington.
“If Scott Walker and his Republican Party are going to darken our door with another assault on the rights of workers to form and join a union, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin will march with our brothers and sisters in organized labor every step of the way,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Mike Tate. “Because the surest way to get into and stay in the middle class is through having a powerful labor movement. The fight for workers and their rights is worthy of Wisconsin and our proud progressive legacy.”
Tate ended his statement with one word: “Solidarity.”
Another big fight in the state capitol could also show off Walker’s sophisticated political skills. Part of his appeal has been that on the one hand he has taken the fight to the Democrats while on the other hand keeping his poise and remaining above the fray.
This time, Walker hasn’t even pushed for the bill. If it passes, Walker will have scored another major hit on labor and Democrats, all the while keeping himself at a remove from the battles below.