Gov. Scott Walker called private-sector unions “our partners in economic development” and said he wasn’t seeking to limit them because he needed their help to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin.
That was back in February 2011, amid massive protests over Walker’s measure to all but end collective bargaining for most of Wisconsin’s public workers.
Four years later, the Republican governor — and likely 2016 presidential contender — said he would sign the state’s right-to-work bill, which is expected to reach his desk as soon as next week.
In recent years, Walker has called right-to-work legislation a distraction and said it was not a priority for him, adding that he had no interest in pursuing it.
It’s part of a pattern that dates back to his 2011 controversial collective-bargaining measure, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.
“This to me looks like somebody who is initially coy about his policy plans,” Burden said. “Then, the bomb gets dropped.
“There’s clearly an inconsistency in what he’s said on right-to-work,” Burden said.
“Unfortunately for him, he’s providing material for an opponent,” he said.
He added that Walker will likely be criticized as “a waffler, a flip-flopper” by either a GOP presidential competitor or a Democratic opponent.
But a Walker spokeswoman said the Republican governor has been a consistent supporter of the policy.
“Governor Walker is a long-time supporter of right-to-work as a policy. His position on the policy has always been clear, as evidenced by the fact he co-sponsored right-to-work legislation when he was a lawmaker,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said. “Now that Governor Walker’s budget is introduced and ready for review in the Legislature, right-to-work will not distract from the priorities outlined in our budget, which will be debated in the coming months.”
During the last four years, Walker never vowed to veto the legislation.
There is no doubt that Walker is a longtime supporter of right-to-work legislation who has chosen not to say so during the last four years, said UW-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim.
But in 2011, Walker was already in a pitched battle with public-sector labor over Act 10, which all but stripped them of most union rights.
“At that time, he didn’t want to antagonize the entire labor movement at once,” Heim said. “That’s why ‘divide and conquer’ is the appropriate term.”
The term became associated with Walker after a filmmaker captured the governor with Republican donor Diane Hendricks, owner of ABC Supply of Beloit.
When Hendricks asked whether Wisconsin could be a right-to-work state, Walker said: “Well, we’re going to start in a couple of weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”
In 2014, a Marquette Law School Poll showed Walker had support of almost one-third of union households.
Despite efforts by Democrats to draw him out on right-to-work during his re-election campaign, Walker said such a law would be a distraction from more important matters.
“If he had come out for right-to-work, he would have lost a substantial amount of the labor vote,” Heim said.
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democratic lawmaker, agreed that Walker only sounds like he changed his position.
“Scott Walker parses his words so carefully, one needs to engage in Talmudic interpretation to understand him,” Lee said.
Another example came during his 2014 campaign. When asked if he would serve all four years if re-elected governor, he answered by saying he was focused on being governor of Wisconsin, Leesaid.
“He is extremely disciplined, and he always says what he wants to say, and he never says anything he doesn’t want to say,” Lee said.
But Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll, said it would be difficult to argue Walker has had a complete change of heart about right-to-work as a policy.
“I think it’s fair to say that he has shifted the emphasis from one that downplayed the likelihood this would come up,” Franklin said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that he has reversed his position on the substance of right-to-work.”
In a news conference before the Senate’s extraordinary session, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said Walker misled Wisconsin voters by repeatedly saying right- to-work legislation was not a priority.
“The governor is not just a flip-flopper, he’s a master manipulator,” Shankland said.
They played video of Walker filmed during the massive 2011 protests, in which he said, “The bill I put forward isn’t aimed at state workers, and it certainly isn’t a battle with unions. If it was, we would have eliminated collective bargaining entirely or we would have gone after the private-sector unions.
“But we did not because they are our partners in economic development. We need them to help us put 250,000 people to work in the private sector over the next four years.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that while Walker may have downplayed his support before, he now is facing a different audience as he looks ahead to 2016.
“Given that his audience now is not the Wisconsin electorate, but Republican primary voters, that’s one more feather in his cap,” Kondik said.