Elections matter. When Tony Evers challenged Scott Walker, the Democrat promised to reverse the Republican’s anti-labor agenda, in order to put the leadership and the laws of Wisconsin back on the side of workers. “It’s no secret Scott Walker has made his career by attacking Wisconsin’s workers time and time again,” the challenger’s campaign declared in 2018. “This ends in an Evers administration.”
That was not an idle promise. Evers is determined to renew Wisconsin’s historic commitment to worker rights. And he is proposing concrete steps in that direction, with an ambitious plan to overturn the noxious “right-to-work” legislation that was a centerpiece of Walker’s second-term agenda.
Walker signed that legislation as he was preparing to bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination on a promise to take his anti-labor program to the national stage. Walker miscalculated; his campaign went nowhere after Donald Trump shredded the Wisconsinite in debates — with his declaration that, under Walker, “Wisconsin’s doing terribly. It’s in turmoil.”
After he crashed and burned as a contender for higher office, Walker announced that, instead of the presidency, he really wanted another term as governor. But Evers, the state’s longtime superintendent of public instruction, objected.
Evers mounted a campaign that highlighted the damage done to the state by Walker’s implementation of policies that were popular with the Koch brothers — cuts to education and public services, assaults on the environment, giveaways to multinational corporations — but that made no sense for working Wisconsinites.
Evers won, and so did every other Democrat running for statewide office in 2018.
Replacing Walker was step one. Now, two months into his governorship, Evers is focused on step two: replacing the special-interest-dictated program that replaced Wisconsin’s traditional Main Street Republicanism — as exemplified by former Gov. Tommy Thompson — with the cruel politics of Walkerism.
Last week, he unveiled an ambitious “people’s budget” that seeks to undo Walkerism. At virtually every turn, the new governor proposed a change of direction. For the most part, he was suggesting a new course that gets Wisconsin focused on meeting the 21st century challenges that went unaddressed during his predecessor’s reactionary tenure.
When he delivered the budget to the Legislature on Thursday, Evers tapped into a sense of urgency about moving forward.
“We have to be a better version of democracy than we have been in the past. At times, we’ve succumbed to the trivial pursuit of political out-posturing. At times, we’ve let partisanship cloud the opportunity for compromise. And at times, we’ve let power be the enemy of the good,” said Evers, who explained that “this cannot be one of those times. We cannot afford to play politics with this budget. Folks, the stakes are simply too high.”
As Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the 32-year-old community activist who now holds the state’s No. 2 position, announced on his popular @TheOtherMandela Twitter feed:
"@GovEvers first budget address was a home run derby!
"• Criminal Justice Reform
"• Automatic Voter Registration
"• Healthcare Expansion
"• Redistricting Reform
"• Driver’s Licenses/In-State tuition for immigrants
"• K-12/Higher Ed Funding
"• Transportation Fix
"• Clean Water."
Evers and Barnes know that worker rights issues have to be a part of every serious discussion of the future. Globalization, a digital revolution that is already here, and an automation revolution that is rapidly arriving are reshaping our work life and our home life in radical ways. Any program for reclaiming a proper balance must, necessarily, involve the renewal of unions (which will themselves need to adapt to the changing times).
Walker’s determination to erect structural barriers to organizing strong unions, and to render collective bargaining virtually meaningless, moved Wisconsin in precisely the wrong direction. So when Evers proposes to take those barriers down, by overturning the state's right-to-work law and by restoring prevailing-wage protections, he is not just undoing Walkerism. He is talking about getting ready for the future.
Needless to say, there will be resistance to a future in which organized labor gives workers a meaningful say on the job and, perhaps more significantly, in society. This resistance will be evident throughout the budget debate in Wisconsin, where the gerrymandering of legislative district lines and the obliteration of campaign finance rules have allowed Walker-aligned Republicans to retain control of the state Assembly and the state Senate.
Evers has a fight on his hands. The Republicans will not bend easily to an agenda that would reverse their right-to-work legislation. And it will be even uglier when Evers attempts — as he eventually must — to upend Walker’s destructive Act 10 legislation, which was designed to gut collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers and their unions.
All of the progressive proposals that Evers is advancing as part of his budget plan will face intense opposition from conservative legislators who imagine that his defeat of Walker was a fluke. But the struggle to renew and extend worker rights and to allow for the organizing of strong, forward-looking unions is no fluke. It’s the fight for an equitable future and the “better version of democracy” that must come.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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