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Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker, who co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a member of the Assembly during the 1990s, has repeatedly said he does not believe such a bill will arrive on his desk. And yet, throughout the recall campaign, Walker refused to say he opposed right-to-work, which leads some Democrats to believe he will support the initiative if legislative Republicans push for it.

In his first term as governor, Gov. Scott Walker dealt one of the most significant blows to organized labor in recent American history.

In few, if any, states are the collective bargaining rights of public-sector workers so limited, and in few places are the barriers to organizing a union in a public workplace so high as in Wisconsin, due to Walker's signature legislation, known as Act 10.

However, there is still much Republicans could do to further marginalize Wisconsin labor unions.

They could push for a right-to-work law, which would forbid employers in the private sector from entering into contracts with unions that require employees to join the union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Right-to-work is often described as a legal mechanism that weakens unions, since it encourages a “freeloader” effect, in which employees do not join the union or pay union dues but continue to enjoy the benefits of union representation.

When asked about the issue, Walker, who co-sponsored right-to-work legislation as a member of the Assembly during the 1990s, has repeatedly said he does not believe such a bill will arrive on his desk.

And yet, throughout the recall campaign, Walker refused to say he opposed right-to-work, which leads some Democrats to believe he will support the initiative if legislative Republicans push for it.

“It may be an internal fight for them but there are some people who are openly campaigning for it,” says state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. “(During the recall campaign) you had a governor who couldn’t even utter the sentence that he would veto it because he didn’t want to upset national conservatives.”

Indeed, a number of Republicans, including incoming Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have publicly supported the idea in the past.

GOP sources, however, indicate party leadership is not interested in sparking another major labor battle, particularly after Walker has said publicly that he sees private-sector unions as a “partner” in job creation.

“I know there are a few members of the GOP that want to see it, but leadership in the Senate and Assembly don’t want to take that on,” says one lobbyist with Republican ties.

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Sources close to leadership in both the Assembly and Senate also indicated that such a battle risks distracting from the party’s priorities, which include resurrecting the failed mining legislation from last session and introducing an income tax cut.

Perhaps most importantly, another major conflict could threaten Walker’s re-election chances.

“I haven’t heard any talk along those lines,” says state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, one of only five Republican legislators who voted against Act 10.

Schultz acknowledges there were few indications of Walker’s anti-union plans two years ago, but trusts that the governor now “knows that he has to put his policies out there and sell them.”

Departing state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, believes Republicans will pursue the issue because they feel their grip on power is secure enough to withstand controversy. 

"In the last session, Wisconsin Republicans went with the most extreme version of every national right wing policy they could find, and electorally they away with it," she says. "Now they're emboldened." 

Terry McGowan, the business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, one of the few unions that supported Walker’s election in 2010, said in an interview in September that he had obtained the governor’s assurances that right-to-work was not on the agenda.

“I think the reason he doesn’t outright say ‘veto’ is because of the controversy it creates with his base,” he explained.

Is he really confident that Walker is on his side, I asked.

“I have no choice. I have to take him at his word.”

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.