Governor Union-buster goes for Washington

July 27, 2015

Robin Gee and Brian Ward provide a primer on what everyone needs to know about Scott Walker--now a leader of the teeming field of Republican presidential hopefuls.

LAST YEAR at the Conservative Political Action Conference--a dog-and-pony show featuring the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination--Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker famously responded to a question about how he would handle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by saying, "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world."

That's right. Scott Walker compared ISIS to a bunch of union activists in Wisconsin.

On July 13 of this year, Walker, who has led the charge nationally in right-wing attacks on union rights, threw his hat into the Republican primary ring. Walker hopes to take his assault on working people to a higher stage. If he succeeds, Wisconsin gives a glimpse of what the country could expect.

Walker has become a poster boy for the right-wing agenda of gutting public services--which also goes by the name of austerity. Conservatives are taking great pride that Walker has been able to carry out his assault in a state with a long history of progressive politics and a reputation for being a union stronghold.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

But behind the image of conservative crusader, Walker has been able to rely on support from Wisconsin's corporate interests, both in planning his scorched-earth offensive and in overcoming the angry resistance it produced.

Ever since Walker came into office in 2011, he has made it his job to transform Wisconsin and make it "Open for Business," as the state's "Welcome to Wisconsin" signs at its borders now declare. As soon as he took over the governorship, Walker proposed a budget that not only gutted the benefits of public employees, but also sought to destroy collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions.

In the final hours of the 2011 budget session, the Republican-controlled state legislature rammed through Wisconsin Act 10, known as the "Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill." This was anything but a "repair"--the legislation sought to eliminate or drastically restrict union rights for state employees.

After Act 10, the scope of bargaining for public-sector workers was restricted to base wages, with increases capped by rises in the consumer price index. Public-sector workers took an immediate hit to their paychecks through new requirements for increased employee contributions to their health care and pension plans.

The legislation also took aim at union treasuries, requiring all public-sector unions to undergo recertification campaigns every year. Unions now need 51 percent of the entire bargaining unit to certify, in order to remain at a very limited bargaining table.

WALKER DIDN'T get away with this without a fightback--one that, in fact, reverberated around the world as the "Rebellion in Wisconsin."

When Walker first proposed his "budget repair bill," he had no clue what was about to happen across his state. He's also conveniently forgotten that part in his current bragging about how deftly he "handled" Wisconsin's workers.

The first major show of resistance after Walker's announcement came from the teachers, who led the call for union members and concerned citizens of the state to stand up against the attack. An effective sickout by teachers led to successively larger protests at the state Capitol building in Madison--which was then occupied, giving a focal point for the furious response to Walker.

Public and private unions, students, activists and concerned Wisconsinites from all over flooded into Madison to support the struggle against the right's attack on workers' rights. The mass protests emboldened Democratic state senators to boycott the budget session, denying Walker the quorum he needed to ram through Act 10.

Occurring shortly after the Egyptian revolution, workers on both sides of the globe recognized the connections. People at the state Capitol held signs that read "Walk like an Egyptian" and made calls to oust "Hosni Walker," in reference to Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak. Workers from Egypt France, Greece, England and other countries sent messages of solidarity. As the Capitol remained occupied through the month of February, as many as 100,000 people rallied against Walker--the largest protest in state history.

During these demonstrations, there were talks of a possible general strike to stop Act 10 from going through at all. The South Central Federation of Labor, representing more than 45,000 workers, voted for a statewide strike. Soon after this endorsement from labor however, the Democrats and the leaders of big unions around the state decided it was time to step back from confrontation. The Capitol occupation was ended, the Democratic senators returned to Madison to give Republicans the quorum they needed, and union leaders endorsed an effort to recall Walker.

The recall effort did what Walker and his right-wing supporters were unable to back in February. It steered all the efforts and energy of the struggle, centered around the Capitol occupation, into uncertain elections months down the road. When the recall election of Walker finally took place more than a year after the occupation ended, Walker was able to defeat a timid Democratic challenger and claim vindication.

COMING OUT of this victory, Walker seemed stronger and more arrogant than ever. He continued to push his conservative agenda, turning his focus toward private-sector unions.

Although he had told the press that he had no interest or intention of making Wisconsin a "right to work" state, once Walker set his sites on the presidency, it wasn't long before he had changed his tune. The Wisconsin right-to-work bill was signed into law in March, following similar moves by Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Walker's attacks have not been limited to labor. As far back as his term as Milwaukee County Executive, Walker viewed public parks and recreation areas merely as sources of revenue, and angered many by attempting to sell county land in an effort to balance the budget.

But nothing in his past compares to what Walker has done with public land while governor of Wisconsin.

Despite tons of data showing the devastating effects on the land, water and public health, Walker continues to work hard in support of the Gogebic Taconite proposed mine. This mine is to be the world's largest open-air iron ore mine, located only six miles downstream from the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

Like other "infrastructure" projects, Walker didn't attempt to get approval from various Northern Wisconsin tribes. Instead, he did whatever he could to help his mining friends. And no wonder--the company donated $700,000 to Walker's recall campaign. The governor helped out by pushing through legislation that would relax environmental restrictions and clear the way for the mine.

This mine isn't the only project jeopardizing Wisconsin's environment. The proposed expansion of the Enbridge tar sands pipeline would cross the state, pushing tons of toxic sludge through Wisconsin on its way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2010, the Enbridge pipeline in Michigan sprung a leak that dumped 1.1 million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. Although cleanup estimates are close to $800 million, the work is still far from complete.

Nevertheless, in an effort to ease the burden on his friends, Walker supported an amendment to the 2015 budget that removes a requirement for Enbridge, due to its track record, to buy additional insurance in case of a spill.

Walker's attack on the environment is far from over. Think Progress' Alice Olstein, who covers Walker's dirty work, says, "The governor plans to openly defy new federal regulations on coal plant emissions, and has said he believes the Environmental Projection Agency should have its powers gutted."

AS IF gutting workers protections, wages and environmental protections isn't enough, Walker has stepped up his game in terms of the conservative social agenda.

Before he had that White House gleam in his eyes, Walker appeared to prefer to focus on clearing a path for business to operate unbridled. But since he declared his presidential intentions, he's been making certain that conservative voters in Iowa and elsewhere know he stands with them on all the right wing hot-button issues.

While the Republican-led legislature has chipped away at abortion rights and funding for women's and children's health, Walker has been vocal about signing a stringent 20-week ban on abortions in the state. As Ben Ratliffe commented at about the bill:

There are no exceptions in this bill for rape or incest. The bill does include exceptions in cases where the health or life of the mother is in danger. But physicians would be threatened with penalties of $10,000 in fines and three-and-a-half years in prison should they provide an abortion after 20 weeks outside of an emergency situation.

Attacks on the poor have also been central to Walker's term in office. After rejecting federal money aimed at expanding insurance coverage, Walker advocated cuts in the state's BadgerCare program, forcing an estimated 63,000 people to try to find insurance coverage elsewhere. To date, some 38,000 people remain uninsured. According to the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau, by rejecting federal aid, the governor cost the state $119 million.

Walker also supported a law that requires every Wisconsin voter to show an ID in order to vote. This has been proven to disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color.

Education has also been on the chopping block. Simultaneous with attacks on teachers' wages and unions, Walker created a more friendly atmosphere for for-profit schools, and increased emphasis on testing and performance-based funding, while lowering standards for new teachers.

In the most recent rounds of budget amendments, Walker successfully cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin budget. In a sick twist, the state Senate just approved the same amount of money to be set aside for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

There is no clearer example of Walker's priorities than the stadium deal. With pleas of poverty, money was taken away from one of the country's most accessible university systems--and now, that same amount of money will line the pockets of the billionaires who own the Bucks.

THE BUDGET cuts and attacks on working-class Wisconsinites pushed by Walker's administration present a microcosm of what he and his cronies have planned for the rest of the country--with the aim of a further redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top.

But you don't have to take our word for it. Walker explained his own record best when he announced his presidential bid:

Since I've been governor, we took on the unions, and we won. We lowered taxes by $2 billion. In fact, we lowered taxes on individuals, on employers and property owners. Property taxes today are lower than they were four years ago. How many other governors can say that? Since I've been governor, we passed lawsuit reform and regulatory reform. We defunded Planned Parenthood and passed pro-life legislation. We enacted the castle doctrine and concealed carry, so we can protect ourselves, our families and our property. And we now require a photo ID to vote in this state. If our reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in America.

As the presidential race heats up and the media gives the floor to Walker to explain all the wonderful things he's done, just call one of your friends in Wisconsin, and they'll tell you exactly whose side Walker is on.

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