Scott Walker’s Needless War on Labor

When Scott Walker was first elected governor of Wisconsin as part of the national GOP landslide of 2010, he was viewed as a generic Republican and not an especially ideological (much less charismatic) one at that. No one could have predicted that just over four years after he took office he’d be the early favorite to win the Iowa Caucuses and perhaps the best bet of all the contenders to become the GOP nominee for president.

While Walker boasts of all sorts of accomplishments as governor, there is zero question his national prominence is attributable to one and only one thing: his successful war on Wisconsin’s labor movement, encompassing the withdrawal of most collective bargaining rights for public employees, a harsh set of forced concessions from those employees to finance Walker’s own agenda, and then as a coup de grace, enactment of a Dixie-style “right to work” law denying union shop contracts for private-sector unions as well. Recitation of this record–along with the requisite breast-beating over the death threats he and his family received as a result–is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at GOP events on the campaign trail. And it’s deeply endeared Walker to corporate hard-liners like his friends the Koch Brothers who view what’s happened in Wisconsin as the wave of the union-free future, turning the former heartland of labor-driven progressivism into just another replica of the Deep South’s business-climate paradise.

In a sneek peak from the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, the University of Maryland’s Donald F. Kettl (who is also a former director of the Robert M. LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin) takes a closer look at Walker’s assault on the unions and concludes it made little or no sense other than as an act of partisan and ideological warfare that he would be likely to continue in Washington if he becomes president.

Kettl examines wages and benefits for Wisconsin public employees closely, and discovers there’s no basis for the idea they were “out of control” in any meaningful sense; indeed, the teachers who were the real object of Walker’s vengeful attention are compensated at less than the national average. No, the war on public sector unions was about politics, not the state budget, continuing a savage partisan war between business interests that financed the GOP and unions that financed Democratic candidacies in the state.

The new labor law Walker ultimately signed did help the state and local governments extract approximately $3 billion in labor givebacks, largely through high employee contributions to their pensions and heath benefits. But other states also closed large budget deficits that year. Some, like Connecticut and Rhode Island, did so by winning large labor concessions, but through old-fashioned hard bargaining and political compromise. The unions in those states retained their collective bargaining rights. Indeed, early in the negotiating process with Walker, union leaders said they would concede to his demands for higher employee contributions to pensions and health care if he would drop his insistence on gutting collective bargaining. The governor said no.

As Kettl carefully documents, the whole saga as Walker presents it of rapacious unions driving a blue-state electorate to call on a tough-minded conservative to “defend the taxpayers” is wrong on almost every score. The badly political motives for Walker’s crusade are best illustrated by the exemptions from his new laws he offered to the public safety employee unions that supported him in 2010. And the rationale so often advanced for assaulting public employee unions–addressing “runaway” pension costs–is entirely irrelevant in Wisconsin, where 99.8% of state employee pension obligations are funded.

What Walker won from his battle with the unions–and his defeat of a recall effort in 2012, followed by re-election in 2014–transcended any impact it had on the state budget, and even the credit he received from ideologues for a victory over a hated foe. It gave his presidential campaign, and potentially the GOP, a narrative to compete with Democratic “populism:”

The 2016 elections will be a battle over the role of government in failing to spur a too-weak economy and boost stagnant incomes. The Democratic nominee will likely present herself (or, less likely, himself) as a champion of the middle class who will wrest control of government away from the big banks and other powerful corporate interests and use it to benefit average Americans. Walker will be armed with an equivalent reform narrative. The problem with government, he can say, is not just that it is too big, holds back private-sector growth, and robs us of our freedoms—the standard Republican view, which he tirelessly proclaims—but that it has been captured by its own employees, who run it for their own benefit, not the public’s. Just as he took on the unions in Wisconsin, he can say, so will he take on the bureaucrats in Washington, returning power back to “the hardworking taxpayers.”

If the labor demonology Walker deploys was at odds with the facts in Wisconsin, it’s wildly off the mark when applied to the federal workforce, where per capita employment levels have been dropping for years, there are no collective bargaining rights, and unions represent only 19 percent of workers. But that won’t matter to Walker:

If Scott Walker became president, what would his policies be toward the federal government and the people who work for it? As far as I can tell, no reporter has ever asked him. Not that he’d necessarily be very forthcoming. During his race for governor Walker gave virtually no hint that he would push to strip government unions of collective bargaining rights. As governor, he foreswore any interest in right-to-work legislation until he signed such a bill handed to him by his GOP-controlled legislature.

In all likelihood, then, a President Walker would adopt the views of his fellow Republicans in Washington toward federal workers, which these days can be characterized as “Off with their heads.”

My own impression of Walker has always been that he represents a sort of hammer-headed approach to the application of conservative ideology: there’s no real passion or nuanced understanding in how he assesses problems–just an impressive ability to figure out exactly how far he can go in pursuing a prearranged agenda designed to reduce enemies to an impotent rage that he then uses to depict himself as courageous and invincible. There are partisans you can reason with and partisans that you know would be perfectly happy running a one-party authoritarian state. In that second camp Scott Walker proudly pitches his tent.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.