Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a leading Republican presidential candidate, has intensified his long-standing feud with public employee unions with his startling comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday.
Responding to a question about how he would fight the terror group ISIS, Walker said, “I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat of radical Islamic terrorism does not wash up on American soil.” As the cheers from the crowd died down, he continued, “If I could take on 100,000 protesters, I could do the same across the world.”
Walker may come to regret that off the cuff remark – and he and his staff wasted little time walking it back after his well-received appearance.
But it also comes at a time when Walker is shifting his focus from his epic battles with public employees unions over collective bargaining rights to a broader arena of labor groups including the AFL-CIO and Teamsters representing nearly 14 million workers largely in the private sector.
The Wisconsin Senate narrowly passed a bill this week to weaken the state’s private sector unions by barring automatic deductions for union activity from employees’ paychecks. Walker has promised to sign the bill once it clears the Republican-dominated state Assembly next week.
That would make Wisconsin the 25th state to adopt “right to work” laws that are designed to prevent unions from requiring automatic dues payments from workers they represent in collective bargaining. Walker succeeded in stripping Wisconsin’s public employees unions of many of their collective bargaining rights in 2011 and then survived a recall election in 2012 mounted by the unions in retaliation.
Now that he has catapulted to the top tier of potential Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign, Walker’s efforts to further curtail labor activity and resources are assuming greater importance nationally. In a nation where the long decline in private sector unions has contributed to a pervasive slump in wages, as The New York Times noted today, Republicans’ support for anti-union legislation runs counter to their new-found commitment to assist the struggling middle class.
There are 13 other states with pending right-to-work bills, while in Illinois a new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is trying to undercut the public employee unions by executive order. Moreover, there are bills pending in 18 states to repeal prevailing wage laws, which require private companies and contractors bidding on government contracts to pay wages comparable to those in the private sector.
Taken together, all of these efforts are accelerating the downhill slide of labor organizations representing workers in the private sector, such as construction crews, plant operators and printers, hospital workers and others. And Republicans and their business allies are finding widespread public support for their efforts to go after organized labor.
A Gallup survey last year of Americans’ attitudes about the labor movement shows that just 53 percent still approve of unions and their goals – while the vast majority favors so-called “right to work” laws that have greatly accelerated the decline of private-sector union organizations.
Labor unions once had enormous political and economic clout in this country, but their influence and support have waned in the private sector while growing more robustly in the government sector.
“Walker’s comment won’t hurt him a bit among Republican voters,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political professor. “In fact, if an opponent chooses to use it against him, it will simply highlight Walker’s fight against the unions in Wisconsin, which is wildly popular in the party base.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times