Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has moved to the front of the Republican 2016 pack with a series of well-received speeches outside his state. But his biggest move yet will take place back in Madison next week, where Walker is expected to sign a “right to work” law weakening private sector unions by forbidding them from requiring workers to join and pay dues. The state assembly passed the bill, which has already cleared the state senate, by 62-35 margin on Friday.
While Walker was never exactly known as a paragon of moderation, the latest move is part of a broader rightward swing on economic and social issues alike as he gears up for a likely presidential run. In addition to the new labor fight, Walker came out for a 20-week abortion ban this week, took a new hard line on immigration, and made headlines over the last month by refusing to label President Obama a Christian and by likening his state battles against unions to combating Islamic State militants.
"By passing that, and by us signing it into law on Monday, it gives us one more tremendous tool," Walker said of the Right to Work legislation in a speech to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on Wednesday. "If you're a company that's here and you're looking to grow or if you're talking to one of your colleagues in the industry and you're trying to get someone to come here, we now have given one more big thing on that checklist to say that Wisconsin is open for business.”
In the case of the labor fight, this represents a marked shift towards confrontation. After an epic fight to limit collective bargaining for public sector unions that sparked months of protests and a recall election, Walker toned things down and indicated over and over that he had “no interest” in pursuing another bruising battle with private sector unions over right to work laws.
Walker's latest move upends several years of shaky truces with labor. After an epic fight to limit collective bargaining for public sector unions that sparked months of protests and a recall election, Walker toned things down and indicated over and over that he had “no interest” in pursuing another bruising battle with private sector unions over right to work laws.
Now that he’s in the national spotlight, his interest is piqued after all. The Republican-controlled state senate passed it, the state assembly is expected to do so next, and Walker is egging them on. Politifact awarded Walker a full “flip flop” rating for his previous comments opposing the bill, which he had called a “distraction.” Still, Wisconsin voters should probably have seen it coming: He told one donor who grilled him on right to work legislation in 2011 that his public sector fight was only “the first step” in a “divide and conquer” plan against organized labor.
Business conservatives, like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, pushed Walker to take up the bill as a way to cut costs for employers and reduce the political influence of labor, a core Democratic ally. Progressives are as horrified as the right is enthusiastic, blaming curbs on unions for depressing wages and weakening worker protections. Wisconsin Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca told reporters this week it would "reverse 75 years of labor progress."
Walker’s reversal gives him a fresh new scalp to present to conservative voters as they prepare to ask their presidential candidates what they’ve done for them lately. He’s already put his previous battle with public sector unions at the center of his still-undeclared campaign message. His book and recent speeches revel in the gory details of his confrontations with pro-labor protestors, right down to the smells and he now gets to add a fresh set of images to the scrapbook. The collective bargaining fight plays such a large role in his personal mythology that he boasted to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week that it showed he could stand up to ISIS as president.
“Right to work” is not the only area where Walker has moved to the right from a previous position lately. In recent weeks, he’s renounced his previous interest in a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, saying he now believes he was wrong to ever entertain the idea.
"My view has changed,” Walker told Fox News earlier this month. “I’m flat out saying it.”
In an election where likely rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are already getting raked over the coals by conservative activists for their support for reform, Walker is clearly positioning himself to attack from the right on every front. His relative purity and record of electoral success (though, importantly, never in a presidential year) offers a compelling case to GOP voters eager to win, but hesitant to make any significant changes in policy in order to do so.
The race is early – so early that no candidate has even declared they’re running for president –but Walker’s relentless rightward march has put him at the front of recent national and state polls of GOP primary voters. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows Walker getting 18% support versus 16% for Bush, with no other candidates breaking double-digit support. That’s an encouraging result for Walker, who is still less well known than many of his prospective opponents – 52% of respondents said they didn’t know enough to form an opinion about him.