The Magazine

The Battle for Wisconsin

Scott Walker awaits his challenger.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Brookfield, Wisc.
Governor Scott Walker is facing the fight of his political life. On June 5, in the third gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history, Wisconsin voters will either choose to keep Walker in office or elect a Democrat. Polls show a tight race with Walker hovering at or slightly below 50 percent and holding a small lead over potential opponents. Walker won’t know which Democratic opponent he’ll face until May 8, when the recall primary is held. Meanwhile, he’s letting the state of Illinois serve as a stand-in.

Cartoon

Gary Locke

Speaking on April 19 to machinists in blue-collared shirts, jeans, and boots at the Trace-A-Matic Corporation, Walker contrasts Wisconsin’s record with that of its neighbor to the south. “A year ago their unemployment rate was above 9 percent,” he says. “And today, a year later, it’s still above 9 percent because they made some poor choices. They raised taxes on businesses and individuals. On individuals, believe it or not, they raised it by 66 percent.”

And Wisconsin? Unemployment has dropped from 7.7 percent to 6.9 percent since Walker took office. Property taxes are down for the first time in 12 years. A $3.6 billion deficit was eliminated without lots of layoffs. The message resonates with the machinists. Almost all applaud enthusiastically for Walker.

“Unions had a place in history,” says Mike Payne, one of Trace-A-Matic’s machinists. “But I think it went to the other extreme. And I think to diminish them a little bit is to really benefit us because that brings things back to a fairer level.”

Sitting in one of his campaign offices later in the day, Walker considers whether he might have avoided a recall. “If I hadn’t gone so far, would I face a recall? I don’t know,” Walker tells me. “But if I hadn’t gone as far as I did, I wouldn’t have fixed it.” And fixing Wisconsin’s fiscal problems is what matters, he says. “I’m running a campaign to win. And I aim to win. But I’m not afraid to lose.”

Democrats say they’re attempting to recall Walker not only because he limited the collective bargaining power of public sector unions but because he “lied” about it. “The most effective anti-Walker message,” reads a Democratic party of Wisconsin strategy memo published by Mother Jones, “focuses on the fundamental fact that he lied to the people of Wisconsin about what he would do as governor.”

“He never once said he was going to attack 50 years of collective labor law in the state,” said Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial opponent and frontrunner in the recall primary, at a Democratic forum in Madison on April 11.

In fact, Walker did in office what he promised on the campaign trail. To balance the budget without raising taxes, Walker said government workers at the state and local level would have to pay more for their pensions and health care benefits (but still contribute far less than the typical private sector worker). Requiring government employees to pay more for their benefits necessarily meant paring back the rights of unions to veto changes to their members’ pay, benefits, and work requirements. As a top policy adviser to Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August 2010: “The way the proposal would work is we would take the choice out of the collective bargaining process.”

Union leaders saw that requiring government workers to pay more for their benefits polled very well, but limiting “collective bargaining rights” polled poorly. So union leaders tried to delink the two interlocking issues. They pledged to accept cuts in order to keep their “rights.” But after Walker’s budget passed, union leaders made a mockery of that pledge and proved Walker’s point. The Milwaukee Public Schools union had locked in a collective bargaining agreement until 2014 that is not affected by Walker’s law. Faced with a choice of cuts to benefits or layoffs, the teachers’ union chose layoffs. According to the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, the school districts of Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine—all of which are still operating under collective bargaining agreements—make up 13.3 percent of the state’s educational staff but accounted for 42.5 percent of staff reductions. Outside of these districts, there are no public education horror stories.

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