Scott Walker is Not Big Labor's Nemesis

But he has paved the way for one when the economy tanks again


Scott Walker
Gage Skidmore / Foter / CC BY-SA

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) pulled off a stunner of a solid victory last week. And after his very public fights with Wisconsin's public sector unions, the governor's re-election is being billed as a major blow to Big Labor.

In the long run, that is no doubt true. But unions might not have that much to worry about in the foreseeable future. That's because there just aren't many governors, including Walker himself, who are going to have the appetite or the need to push anti-union measures until the economy tanks again.

It's easy to see why Walker's win is seen as terrible for Big Labor. Unions had put a bull's eye on Walker ever since he signed the union-deflating Public Act 10 into law in 2011. Walker's law went well beyond eliminating compulsory payment of union dues as a condition of employment in union shops, as right-to-work laws (including one signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder) do. Although, unlike right-to-work, it applies only to public sector unions, it: bars employers from withholding dues from employee paychecks and tells union bosses to make their own collection arrangements; requires unions to be recertified every year; mandates government employees to contribute more toward their pension and health care benefits; and restricts collective bargaining to base wages — making benefits, workplace arrangements, and staffing levels off limits. These restrictions were crucial in freeing local budgets from the chokehold of unions, saving state taxpayers $2 billion in just its first year.

And that's just on the fiscal end. On the political side, PA 10 broke the nexus between the Democratic Party and Big Labor. By preventing labor from garnishing dues and funneling them back to elect Democrats (who, in turn, would reward their union benefactors with sweet contracts), Walker ended a key political advantage that Democrats have been milking for a long time in the Dairy State (as others). In the first year after the law went into effect, membership in Wisconsin's public unions fell from 50 percent to 37 percent.

This is why Big Labor pulled out all the stops against Walker, including forcing him in 2012 to suffer the indignity of being the first Wisconsin governor to face a recall election. (He won with an even bigger margin than his original election.) They accused him of siring an illegitimate child. And, more recently, the Democratic assistant attorney general of the state opened a "John Doe investigation" that allowed him to raid and ransack the homes and offices of Walker's staff to look for evidence of collusion with conservative advocacy groups without establishing probable cause first. (He came up empty.)

If such harassment had succeeded, it would have sent the message to other Republican governors that they shouldn't try similar labor reforms at home. That's why Republican National Congress Chairman Reince Preibus declared on election eve that if Republicans won the Senate but lost Walker — or Snyder — it would "not be a good night" for Republicans.

Still, for now, these are largely moral victories for Republicans. National Right to Work spokesman Patrick Semmens told me that Republicans have no plans to spring any major labor reforms on other states. "There is no vast right wing conspiracy," he chuckled. And it is highly unlikely that any governor will unilaterally push right-to-work laws, let alone drastic Walker-style reforms on his or her own.

That Walker is still standing despite a relentless union onslaught certainly shows that the union bark is worse than its bite, as Mackinac Center for Public Policy's Labor Director Vincent Vernuccio points out. Still, victory hasn't been without costs for Walker. He was forced to spend his first term fending off union attacks, something that left him little time to actually govern. Worse, the uncertainty, as Walker himself admits, depressed growth and jobs in Wisconsin as businesses held back investments. This is why, despite his unusually strong stomach for confrontation, he has foresworn making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, even though that will leave its manufacturing sector at a huge competitive disadvantage compared to the 24 other right-to-work states in the country, especially neighboring Michigan and Indiana.

Likewise, Ohio's John Kasich, a Republican who just cruised to a second term, has pledged not to push restrictions on the collective bargaining rights of public unions or right-to-work laws after voters overturned his Wisconsin-lite legislation in 2012. As for the other non-right-to-work states with Republican governors — Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Mexico — they are simply not red enough to count on strong public support to make a switch stick.

And if right-to-work is going to be hard to pull off, targeting public unions with Walker-style reforms will be almost impossible for the simple reason that their time may have passed for now.

Indeed, when Walker assumed office, Wisconsin, like many other states, was staring at a massive $3.6 billion biannual budget deficit, thanks to the recession. Hence, he could justify bold conservative measures to put the state on a strong fiscal footing.

However, with the recession over, revenues are once again flowing in and state balance sheets are improving. Only 14 states now face a deficit. And it's a rather small combined total of $8.6 billion, according to a National Association of Budget Offices survey. "This is a drop in the bucket compared to what states faced four years ago," notes Reason Foundation Director of Government Reform Leonard Gilroy. Radically stripping unions of their collective bargaining powers in the absence of a fiscal emergency risks coming across as a nakedly political move that might not sit well with state voters. That is why Walker's Republican colleagues in other states will have to be very careful about the lessons to draw from his experience.

The country had to wait over 60 years for more dominoes to fall after an initial wave of states went right-to-work in the 1940s and 1950s. The next round might not have to wait quite so long — just till the next economic downturn.

Big Labor can take a deep breath until then and pray that the economy never tanks. But Walker's victory shows that when it does, they will be fair game.

This column was originally published in The Week.