This post first appeared at The Nation.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2016 presidential race.
Scott Walker suddenly remembered how enthusiastic he is about “right to work” laws.
When Walker was running for re-election as governor of Wisconsin in 2014, he was frequently asked if he would sign so-called “right to work” legislation, which is designed to weaken unions and undermine the voices of workers on the job and in public life. Despite his reputation as an anti-labor zealot, Walker dodged the question again and again and again.
A month before the 2014 election, at a point when the polls were close and Walker was running for his political life, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Walker “won’t say if he would veto right-to-work legislation barring private-sector workers from having to join a union as part of their job.”
The Associated Press reported three weeks before the election that “Walker says he won’t push to make Wisconsin a right to work state or expand the Act 10 collective bargaining law if elected to a second term.”
As Election Day approached, Walker went further. He claimed he had told Republican legislators not to send him that legislation. Recalling the historic protests that arose four years ago when he attacked the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, Walker warned that raising the “right to work” issue would “bring the whole firestorm back.”
“Those aren’t the sorts of debates that are helpful for us to take the next step forward,” said the governor, as he made his case for re-election. “It’s about the tenor and the tone of the Legislature and what it means to the state as a whole.”
Every indication from Walker suggested that he wanted the issue to go away. “Right-to-work,” the governor declared, was “not something that’s part of my agenda.”
“My point is I’m not pushing for it,” he said. “I’m not supporting it in this session.”
Plenty of Walker critics in the labor movement and the legislature expressed skepticism about the governor’s temperate statements. After all, when one of his wealthiest supporters, Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks, had asked in 2011 about making Wisconsin a “right to work” state, Walker was caught on tape replying: “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” That did not sound like a man who had any qualms about signing anti-labor legislation.
Yet, throughout the high-stakes 2014 campaign, the governor stuck to his newly moderate line, presenting himself as a smart manager who wanted to get things right rather than the rigid ideologue of the 2011 conflict.
That was then. This is now.
Walker’s not worrying about Wisconsin these days. He’s in a new race — scrambling to win the support of 2016 Republican presidential caucus-goers and primary voters who like their candidates to take a hard line on social and economic issues.
So Walker’s line just got a whole lot harder.
On Friday, two of the governor’s closest legislative allies, state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and state Assembly speaker Robin Vos, announced that they will call a rare “extraordinary session” to rush through a “right to work” bill with limited public input and debate. With solid Republican majorities in both chambers, they say they aim to pass the measure — which mirrors “model legislation” language peddled by the corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council — in a matter of days.
This development took most Wisconsinites by surprise. Republicans and Democrats had thought that the issue was on the legislative back-burner — not just because of Walker’s pre-election and post-election talk about wanting to avoid distractions, but also because some legislative Republicans had griped about the wisdom of advancing “right to work” legislation.
“It is absurd that Republicans would fast-track legislation to interfere with private business contracts and lower wages for all Wisconsin workers at a time when our state is facing a massive $2.2 billion budget crisis,” Wisconsin Senate Democratic leader Jennifer Shilling said after the announcement that the “right-to-work” fight was on.
“Objective polling clearly shows that the vast majority of Wisconsin residents view this issue as a distraction,” added Shilling, using the precise language that Walker had employed in dismissing discussions about advancing “right to work” initiatives. “Rather than creating economic uncertainty for Wisconsin families and small businesses, Republicans should focus their attention on boosting family wages, closing the skills gap and fixing the $2.2 billion budget crisis they created.”
But what does Walker say? Now that the issue has come to a head, is he wrestling with it, as he seemed to be during the campaign? Is he still asserting that “right to work” is a distraction? Does he worry that the proposed legislation would make it a Class A misdemeanor to maintain a traditional union shop in Wisconsin? Is he explaining that this move isn’t “helpful for us to take the next step forward”?
Walker, who is busily preparing a 2016 Republican presidential run that highlights his anti-labor stance, is now all in for “right to work.”
His office announced Friday that: “Gov. Walker continues to focus on budget priorities to grow our economy and to streamline state government. With that said, Gov. Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a lawmaker and supports the policy. If this bill makes it to his desk, Gov. Walker will sign it into law.”
Why didn’t Gov. Walker say that during last year’s gubernatorial campaign?
It’s not like he is suggesting that he has come to some new conclusion with regard to anti-labor legislation of this sort, which the Economic Policy Institute warns “is associated with lower wages and benefits for both union and nonunion workers.” In fact, Wisconsinites have heard plenty of warnings in recent months that “right to work” legislation could do real harm to the state’s workers and communities. In a recent opinion piece written for the Journal Sentinel, Marquette University Economics Professor Abdur Chowdhury explained that “right-to-work legislation would provide no discernible overall economic advantage to Wisconsin, but it does impose significant social costs.”
What the statement from Walker’s office reveals is what the governor would not say when he was running for re-election in 2014 but what he will say as a 2016 Republican presidential prospect. He was just fooling some of the people some of the time when he feigned uncertainty on last year’s gubernatorial campaign trail. Walker is what he has always been: a longtime supporter of this agenda “who co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a lawmaker and supports the policy.”