Right to Work: Is Walker’s Grasp Slipping?


Gov. Walker calls Right to Work legislation a distraction from his primary second terms goals, yet the legislature plans to advance it anyway. Is this some ploy by Walker to launch an assault against private sector unions, or is it out of his control?

There are several facts to establish before delving in:

  • The situation could be interpreted as slyness by Scott Walker, publicly proclaiming that he’s against taking up RTW legislation while back-channeling to get it passed. That would give Walker a convenient scapegoat, the legislature, onto which he could direct any blowback, inevitable in a rusty, old, unionized state.
  • Walker cannot veto a RTW bill if he plans to run for president. Considering Michigan of all states has RTW on the books, and considering an anti-RTW Republican would be hammered in a primary, vetoing such a bill would squash Walker’s hard-won reputation on the right. Should the legislature pass Right to Work, Walker’s hand would be forced.
  • The previous two points in balance, it’s very doubtful that Scott Walker would engineer the forcing of his own hand. That projects weakness, implies Walker has lost control, and it’s just too conspiracy theory-esque to be believable. Therefore, I find it quite likely that RTW is being taken up by the legislature simply because the governor has lost control of a process over which just a few short months ago he held an iron grip.

Walker commands tremendous respect from the conservative rank-and-file in Wisconsin, therefore he still has tremendous influence. Local GOP chairmen, legislators, and activists alike regard Walker as a bona fide celebrity, a cult of personality, and a political powerhouse. But very few of those people believe Walker plans to run for governor again in 2018, and his presidential ambitions transcend the purview of any local activist in po dunk Wisconsin. With a motive to serve Walker out of the way, and no further elections in which they can be consequential for Walker, the grassroots’ ambition trumps their heretofore staid loyalty to the governor.

Just weeks after his re-election, Walker has lost control. His grip on the grassroots has weakened and, as a reflection of that, the leadership of both houses of the legislature have determined now is the time to propose their own agenda, regardless of Walker’s plans. Both of those heavily Republican caucuses have their own conservative ambitions that are not forged in the crucible of the Walker governing agenda, such as Right to Work for Wisconsin. Conservative leaders like Scott Fitzgerald now feel free to take what just a year ago would’ve been a bold action and defy the stated strategy of the governor, pushing forward on legislation that wasn’t proposed by Walker – indeed, that was tacitly opposed by Walker.

Political capital is valuable and limited, especially for a governor who wants to push through another series of bold agenda items like further tax reform amid criticisms of phantom budget shortfalls. Signing RTW will require Walker to empty virtually his entire wallet and create a likely firestorm, including a backlash from groups like the Operating Engineers that supported Walker.

Walker nurtures an image that appeals to the middle class, the sort of working person who at least nominally benefits from private sector unions. Blue collar, gun toting, deer hunting, beer drinking rural types; those folks are the kind of people who should be Republicans, but nonetheless send people like Ron Kind to Washington every two years. Republicans hate their unions, favor the corporations, and advocate policies which are superficially not in the interests of their bottom line, at least according to the countervailing narrative peddled by unscrupulous Democrats.

There could in fact be electoral opportunities amidst the likes of unionized Pipefitters, Welders, and Plumbers for Republicans in states like Wisconsin, which have a long union tradition and a struggling blue collar class that’s perpetually on the precipice of a paycheck-to-paycheck sort of subsistence. Those people work for their money and pay taxes just like everyone else, and they – like most Republicans – resent the avenue available to some to live off government, off the taxes paid by those who work.

The Walker reforms that busted public sector unions were necessary for good government because it broke the machine that deposited taxpayer dollars wholesale into the pockets of the Democratic Party, but private sector unions are a different thing altogether. They exist – duh – in the private sector, and like any other organization they have the right to support whatever party they want. It’s not impossible to believe that Walker could score a sizable share of the private sector union vote – the flesh of the middle class – in a presidential bid.

It’s not preordained that private sector union members will oppose Right to Work. Some may appreciate the choice it provides when it comes time to pay union dues. But it also risks (unfairly) furthering the GOP’s pro-corporate image, and it will cost Walker tremendous political capital in the crucial first year between his re-election and his likely presidential bid. Regardless of one’s position on RTW, the yet-to-be-written legislation appears to signify that Walker has lost his signature control over the legislative process.

Upcoming: Right-to-Work’s struggle for my heart and soul





About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.