Leading from Behind: How Years of Denials Got Scott Walker In Position to Approve Right-to-Work
In Washington and New York, the middle of February has been covered as a slack, gaffe-ridden period for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. In Walker's home state, none of that's true—he's actually en route to a triumph. The state's Republican-run legislature is gearing up to pass right-to-work legislation, forbidding labor unions from requiring dues or membership as conditions for any private-sector employment. "If this bill makes it to his desk," gubernatorial spokeswoman Laurel Patrick told Bloomberg, "Governor Walker will sign it into law."
The state's labor unions are at Defcon 1, pondering the sort of mass protests that shut down Wisconsin's Capitol four years ago. Their deja vu is boundless: Now, as in 2011, they're trying to prevent Walker from doing something he gave voters no indication that he'd do. After he introduced a budget control act that ended collective bargaining for most Wisconsin public sector unions, Walker insisted that the electorate had given it the OK.
"The simple matter is I campaigned on this all throughout the election," he said. "Anybody who says they are shocked on this has been asleep for the past two years." As Dave Umhoefer reported, after a hard look at lots of campaign rhetoric, Walker had never promised to end collective bargaining. Labor groups, Democrats, and pundits like MSNBC host Ed Schultz banged on endlessly about this—for all the good it did them.
Walker's relationship with right-to-work has followed the same pattern. In 1993, as a young state legislator, he introduced a right-to-work bill that never got anywhere. Walker's star rose when he exited the legislature for Milwaukee County government, but he won his 2010 gubernatorial race without advocating right-to-work. The best indication that right-to-work was on his mind came in January 2011, when Republican donor Diane Hendricks buttonholed the new governor as a camera rolled.
“Any chance we'll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions?” Hendricks asked Walker.
“Oh, yeah!” said Walker.
“And become right-to-work?” Hendricks asked. "What can we do to help you?"
“Well, we're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill," said Walker. "The first step is we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer."
But that video wasn't uncovered for months. In two tough elections, his 2012 recall race and his 2014 campaign against Democrat Mary Burke, Walker was asked countless times if he'd sign a right-to-work bill. He always punted, insisting that he'd never get the chance.
That was what happened in the summer of 2012, when Walker debated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, his opponent in the recall. Moderator Mike Gousha asked Walker whether or not he'd veto a right-to-work bill.
"I've said it's not going to get there," said Walker. "You're asking a hypothetical."
Barrett jumped in, insisting that Walker's status as the "darling of the Tea Party" depended on him signing the law, just as the Hendricks video proved.
"I'll say it right now, if that bill hits his desk, he's signing it," said Barrett.
"And it won't," said Walker.
In 2013, after gerrymandering helped restore Republicans' Senate majority (it had been lost in a series of recalls), the Wisconsin GOP affirmed its support of a right-to-work bill. Walker was asked whether he, too, wanted right-to-work.
Asked about potential for right-to-work legislation to advance in Wisconsin, Walker said: "It's not on my agenda right now."
"If there were ever to be a discussion it would be not just in the governor's race but more specifically in races for the state Assembly and state Senate," he said. "If people want to pursue it, then talk about it in the campaign. If they don't, then I don't think it's something that is likely to move forward in either house of the Legislature."
In July 2014, after a court victory for supporters of the Act 10 reforms, reporter Dan Shaw checked in on how right-to-work was going. He found the chirping of crickets.
Gov. Scott Walker, who could not be reached by deadline Thursday afternoon, has said that the inevitable fight over any right-to-work bill would be a “huge distraction” from his efforts to bring jobs to Wisconsin.
On Thursday, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said pursuing right-to-work legislation would not be on his list of priorities for the next legislative session should Republicans remain in control of the statehouse following the November elections.
The campaigns continued; Walker was asked again about right-to-work in September 2014, when he appeared to be struggling in his re-election bid.
He said Tuesday he was not advocating for it and did not expect the Legislature to send such legislation his way. "I think it's pretty clear the Legislature has worked with us hand in hand in the past and I'm making it clear in this campaign, as I'll make it clear in the next (legislative) session, that that's not something that's part of my agenda," Walker said. "My point is I'm not pushing for it. I'm not supporting it in this session."
I covered some of Walker's re-election campaign, and remember hearing this question and this basic answer at at least one October bus tour stop. Walker won; the GOP gained a large enough majority to pass major bills without the threat of Democrats shutting down the vote by fleeing. (This was what delayed the 2011 bill.) The confident GOP leadership in the legislature, led by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, announced plans to take up right-to-work. By Dec. 6, Walker was still unconvinced. "A month from today is the day we all take the oath of office, so it's pretty premature to be commenting on any piece of legislation," he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Was that a position shift? "I didn't say I'd flipped on it. I just said I thought it was a distraction."
Walker kept talking down the prospects of right-to-work; his tone, typically, was frustration with a media that kept obsessing over one hypothetical bill. "I just think there's a lot of things that are going to keep the legislature preoccupied for a while," he said in a Jan. 4 interview on Madison's Capitol City Sunday. "Even though there's a lot of buzz a few weeks ago, I don't know that that's the first thing they're going to start out with."
It wasn't first, but it was close. On Jan. 21, reporter Mike Rowe ran through the legislature's plan, Walker's many attempts to avoid the issue, and whether or not Walker had actually told the legislature to back off.
"Has he specifically said to you, ‘Fitz, don’t do this?'" Rowe asked Fitzgerald.
“No. No. No," said Fitzgerald. "I’ve never had that conversation with the governor at all."
The bill kept moving—and finally, on Feb. 21, Walker confirmed that he would sign it. He did so not in Madison, but at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, the same place where the Washington Post had rumbled him with a question about President Obama's religion.
"I've never said that I didn't think it was a good idea," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I've just questioned the timing in the past and whether it was right at that time. ... Right-to-work is essentially in effect for a good chunk of the people who four years ago were in a union, most of which in this state were in the public sector."
He was telling the truth about his position. Walker had never told voters that they could count on him to sign right-to-work. He said he wouldn't focus on it. He said the bill would only come up if state legislators campaigned on it. He said they'd rather they work on less explosive issues. To borrow a phrase from an anonymous-yet-infamous Obama administration official, Walker led from behind—and confirmed that when he dodged a question, he was never saying "no."