Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rose to national prominence in 2011 when the Republican waged – and won – a war against public employee unions in Wisconsin, and substantially restricted workers’ collective bargaining rights in the state. Now, with Walker a newly-declared presidential hopeful, unions are hoping to exact revenge.
Unions have failed at that task once already, when they came up short in an effort to recall him from office in 2012. And if they are aiming to be more successful in derailing Walker at the national level, they are keeping their plans close to the chest.
Michelle Ringuette, a senior official with the American Federation of Teachers, told msnbc that the union – which represents 1.6 million members – was “absolutely” going to get involved in the GOP primary process, specifically to target Walker. While AFT has not yet carved out a budget to take him on, Ringuette said paid ads – in addition to field operations and public information campaigns – are all on the table.
“To a lot of the country, Scott Walker is still a fresh face. He’s not really well known. So first and foremost people need to know who is he and what his agenda is,” said Ringuette, whose labor group recently endorsed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for president.
Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council – the state affiliate of the National Education Association (the largest labor union in the country) – said they too would “widen our message” against Walker. For starters, that means reaching out to partners and educators across state lines, largely through grassroots initiatives and social media.
One source in the labor community, who has been in coalition meetings with labor groups, said unions’ targeting of Walker will focus on highlighting his economic record in a state that has struggled with job growth. That will also mean drawing comparisons to neighboring Minnesota, which is leading Wisconsin in practically every economic indicator – despite both states having similar manufacturing and farming building blocks, a history of organized labor, and electing new governors in 2010.
Big Labor’s message is clear: Minnesota and its union-friendly Democratic governor are a success, while Wisconsin and its union-busting Republican governor are a disaster.
Other labor leaders have pounced on Walker’s bid but haven’t indicated what they might do to thwart it. “Scott Walker is a national disgrace,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a blisteringly concise, six-word statement on Monday. Spokesman Josh Goldstein explained that when candidates like Walker decry the minimum wage, or when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Americans should work longer hours, “they’re going to hear the backlash … We’re not sitting on our hands while any candidates attack working people.”
Goldstein said targeted ads could be part of the game plan, but would not go into detail about the exact strategy or how much the group was willing to spend in the primary season.
Of course, Walker – who is considered a top-tier candidate in the crowded GOP field – frames his battles with labor as a badge of honor, not a liability. During his announcement speech on Monday, he proudly proclaimed “we took on the unions and won.”
He added, “My record shows that I know how to fight and win. Now, more than ever, we need a president who will fight and win for America.”
Walker was heralded as hero on the right after his very public union battle – facing weeks-long demonstrations and thousands of protesters at the state capitol, becoming the first governor to survive a recall election, and signing legislation making Wisconsin a “right to work” state earlier this year. Walker’s union-busting has even earned him praise from the influential billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, who have hinted they will throw some of their considerable financial clout behind his candidacy.
But at the same time, Walker’s stance could hurt him among white, working-class voters who are critical not only to victory in the general election, but who can be big factors in primaries throughout the rust and industrial belts. Those voters have trended Republican in recent years but haven’t been confronted with a candidate as blatantly anti-labor as Walker.
“I think the broader question is if the children or grandchildren, of say assembly or auto workers, see this as particularly important,” said Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former Democratic lawmaker.