Governor Scott Walker sat with rolled up sleeves at a table with a “Freedom to Work” sign emblazoned across the front.
The invitation-only ceremony was held at Badger Meter, a manufacturing company near Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 9, 2015.
To Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the other invitees, Walker said the legislation he was about to sign would send “a powerful message across the country and around the world.”
The drama was heightened by an irony — only months earlier, Walker had seemed cool on right-to-work, calling it a “distraction.”
Nevertheless, with the stroke of his pen that March day, right-to-work became the law in Wisconsin — workers were now free to opt-out of union membership and dues.
But the next day, the unions rolled up their own sleeves, beginning the inevitable legal challenges to the law, charging it violated Wisconsin’s Constitution.
Whatever the ultimate fate of right-to-work in Wisconsin, Walker’s signature was only the latest blow he delivered to organized labor in his state. In fact, during his entire governorship he had struggled with Wisconsin’s unionized workforce, which had painted him as a rabid anti-union right-winger.
But was this portrait accurate?
The Long Walk to the Governor’s Mansion
Walker’s interest in government began when he was in high school in Delavan, Wisconsin, where he attended American Legion’s Badger Boys State Program. According to the group’s website, Badger Boys State “teaches the workings of government ‘by doing.’”
This and other programs provided Walker invaluable lessons in the mechanics and purpose of state and federal government, lessons that would soon carry him to the State House and beyond.
His political career started in 1993, when he was elected to Wisconsin’s State Assembly. After four terms in the legislature, Walker was elected to serve as county executive of Milwaukee in 2002. According to the governor’s official bio, Walker cut the county’s workforce by upwards of 25 percent, reduced debt by 30 percent, and authored nine consecutive budgets that did not increase property tax levies.
Keen observers of Wisconsin’s political scene would have, even at this early stage in his career, seen in Walker a potential threat to public unions, whose pension demands often act as parasites to the public purse. His competence and intense focus on budgetary process, in addition to his obvious ambition, were inculcating a formidable — if unintended — future foe.
After a failed run for governor in 2006, Walker was successful his second attempt in 2010. When Walker was inaugurated as governor on January 3, 2011, the state had a projected $3.6 billion deficit. Wisconsin had upwards of $800 million in unpaid bills and had lost nearly 134,000 jobs in just the previous four years.
Walker looked at the books and saw immediately the main culprit behind Wisconsin’s flood of red ink:
‘Acting’ Out Against Unions
As a new Governor, Walker faced a big fiscal challenge. According to the Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefish, Wisconsin’s budgetary nightmare was largely due to public-employee health plans, which had gone up 90 percent over the prior nine years.
Fortunately, Walker was ready to hit the ground running. Just weeks after his inauguration, Walker had a complete fiscal reform plan. Act 10, introduced on February 11, called for drastic collective bargaining changes, requiring public-sector union members to increase their health plan contributions by nearly double (still below the national average), among other reforms. Over the next two years alone, Act 10 was estimated to save the state $330 million.
Public unions arranged rowdy protests outside the State House in Madison to intimidate the legislators.
Despite these efforts, Act 10 was approved by the legislature and enacted on March 11, 2011. Enraged union bosses fought back, forcing Walker into a recall election not even halfway through his first term. They failed, and on June 5 Scott Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election.
Though Act 10 sank Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, it did not completely oust Big Labor from the state. At the beginning of Walker’s second term as governor (he was reelected in 2014), many private-sector unions remained untouched.
Fortunately, federal legislation from 1947 provided a solution.
In 1935, the Wagner Act was enacted as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), enshrined collective bargaining into national law and included provisions for exclusive representation that in effect forced millions of workers into unions against their will.
But Congress stood up to the NLRA in 1947 by passing the Taft-Hartley Act despite President Harry Truman’s veto. The Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to pass laws outlawing forced unionization. These laws, also known as right-to-work, give workers the freedom to opt-out of union membership and dues.
Proponents of Taft-Hartley argued that the NLRA violated the freedom of association given to Americans by the Founding Fathers in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In fact, by the time Taft-Hartley was enacted in June of 1947, five states had already passed right-to-work that year alone; Congress was merely formalizing an arrangement that was rapidly sweeping the states. To date, half of the fifty states have become right-to-work, including Indiana in 2012 and Michigan in 2013, taking significant steps towards unrusting America’s Rust Belt.
‘A Perfect Storm’
As Indiana and Michigan embraced right-to-work, activists in neighboring Wisconsin watched closely and waited for their moment. It came finally in November 2014, with Walker safely reelected and the sturm und drang of Act 10 behind them.
That December 1, Lorri Pickens, formerly of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), started a new organization called Wisconsin Right-to-Work to begin the public discussion.
Just three days later, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald signaled that right-to-work was suddenly on his front burner. Fitzgerald was quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 4 explaining: “It’s my opinion it [right-to-work] has to come up early.… I don’t know how we get through the session without having this debate.”
That same week, State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who had that summer publicly stated he did not intend to pursue right-to-work, released a statement saying that he was now willing to discuss the matter, according to the Huffington Post.
Also that week, State Rep. Chris Kapenga made clear in an interview with the MacIver Institute that he would champion such legislation: “To me it [right-to-work] is the single most important thing we can do to help move this economy forward.”
However these legislators seemed to be going against the expressed wishes of Wisconsin’s newly re-elected governor. Walker had already told reporters on December 3 he did not think right-to-work should be a priority for the next session: “As I said before the election and have said repeatedly over the last few years, I just think right-to-work legislation right now… would be a distraction from the work that we’re trying to do.”
Walker placed a much higher priority on budgetary matters and education than right-to-work. However, the Governor seemed to go even further by downplaying its economic benefits.
Whatever the reasons for Walker’s apparent coolness toward the idea, right-to-work advocates remained undeterred and moved swiftly.
Wisconsin Right to Work and the Wisconsin chapter of AFP mobilized grassroots activists and unleashed a media blitz to rally public support for right-to-work. Meanwhile, a C4 started by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce lobbied state legislators to support the nascent legislation.
In spite of these efforts, in January 2015 many were uncertain whether the votes could be found in the senate even though Republicans had majorities in both houses, a Republican sat in the Governor’s office, and 73 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin supported right-to-work according to an early December poll conducted by the Tarrance Group.
Senator Fitzgerald saw in these conditions an historic opportunity and focused his energies mightily to secure the required support from his caucus. A bill was introduced, and after eight hours of debate on February 25, 2015, the bill passed Wisconsin’s senate 17-15.
Over that weekend, unions mobilized a protest at the state capitol led by Wisconsin AFL-CIO. However, they were pitiful affairs compared to the screaming hordes that had shaken Madison during the incendiary Act 10 debates.
Some insiders speculate that the unions had such low turnout this time around because either labor had been exhausted physically and financially by Act 10, or there was a relatively low unionization rate for Wisconsin’s private sector compared to its government employees to begin with. Then, too, events unfolded so swiftly that even had the money and will been there, organized labor was simply outmaneuvered by right-to-work advocates.
Whatever the case, the union agitation was unable to sway the Assembly from approving the measure, which it did on March 6, 2015.
On Monday morning, March 9, Walker signed it and an already dying labor movement let loose another whimper.
Opponents of Scott Walker painted him as a fascist intent on destroying organized labor for ideological reasons.
But interviews with key players in Wisconsin’s Labor Wars reveals a very different man indeed. Were Mr. Walker an ideologue, he would surely have leapt at the chance to push for right-to-work as soon as it was politically possible. But that’s not what happened.
True, Walker signed the bill when it landed on his desk. And no one ever doubted that he would do so; he had even introduced similar legislation himself nearly two decades earlier as a state representative.
But he did not push for it as governor. Many speculate as to why that is so, but there is no reason not to take him at his word; he had other priorities, most especially his budget.
And in fact, it was only to save his state’s budget that he created Act 10 in the first place. Wisconsin’s public unions were drowning his government — to save it they had to be cut loose. Act 10, people rarely remember, was called by the governor the “Budget Repair Bill” for a reason.
Walker doesn’t hate unions. He’s in love with solvency. If it was organized labor’s rapacious ways that were standing in the way of his balancing his books, well, that’s its misfortune.
And in fact, we see in Walker’s early career this gleeful and rare interest in the mechanics of public budgeting and the scrupulous accounting of taxpayer dollars when he authored nine consecutive budgets as Milwaukee County executive.
Right-to-work’s victory in Wisconsin was a stunning and unexpected victory for labor reform advocates. It’s a victory with many heroes, and Walker is certainly one of them.
But what emerges time and time again when talking to people in Wisconsin who were intimately involved in the fight is the unwavering and indispensable leadership of Senator Scott Fitzgerald. Lorri Pickens, founder of Wisconsin Right-to-Work and herself one of the principle architects of the strategy that led to victory, told the Center for Worker Freedom that Fitzgerald is deserving of the lion’s share of the credit: “The real hero in this effort is Senator Fitzgerald. [He] did not have near the comfort in majority that the Assembly did… And despite the vacant Senate seat in the 20th Senate District, Senator Fitzgerald built the momentum and kept his majority together. That’s real leadership — he’s a real hero.”
The story of Wisconsin embracing right-to-work passed relatively lightly in the national press compared to Michigan, but it is an instructive tale on how a few passionate activists and lawmakers with an opportunity and an appetite can make broad and real change.
It is also a tale of how a mild mannered Midwestern governor can earn the enmity of the Left by doing nothing more radical than balancing his books.