Gov. Walker woke the giant

My home state of Idaho now ranks as one of the most conservative in the nation. But it wasn’t always so. In the early days of the 20th century, unions were a powerful force there, especially in the mining country of the north. Dynamite was a more common organizing tool than picket lines, and was even used to retaliate against a governor who called in the Pinkertons in a failed union-busting effort that led to an assassination attempt to even the score. 

At mid-century, labor was still a powerful force in the mining country, and both Republicans and Democrats had to give the movement its due. Unions often made the difference in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections well into the ’70s, and, as I learned the art of politics, deference to labor was a given.

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Then came the decline of the mines, Ronald Regan breaking the air traffic controllers and an influx of conservatives transforming the Republican Party from the Rockefeller mold to what has become a Tea Party-driven political movement. That transformation is not unique to the Gem State. We’ve seen a similar transformation in places like Wisconsin, once a bastion of progressive liberalism.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker can probably be forgiven for assuming his mandate from voters included “standing firm” in his ideological position on state employee unions. His arguments must have seemed strong to him — unions get politicians elected, then negotiate fat state contracts with them behind closed doors. What he didn’t count on was waking a sleeping giant. His proposed budget and restrictions on unions galvanized labor as nothing has in a generation. 

In retrospect, the actions of 14 Democratic members of the Legislature look like a brilliant piece of political maneuvering — although not necessarily good government. By going AWOL they stopped dead the governor’s original proposal stripping nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers and forcing concessions amounting to an average 8 percent pay cut. With a Senate in suspended animation, labor had the window it needed to flex long-flaccid muscles. Upwards of 80,000 union members and their supporters converged on the state capitol in a series of protests over a three-week period. Unions in other states rallied in sympathy, with some sending busloads of members to Madison.

The citizens of Wisconsin heard them. Sentiment has turned against the once-popular governor. Political pressure has mounted on Republican members of the Legislature — eight of whom are now targets of a recall effort. Some polls show over 60 percent of voters opposed to the governor’s proposed restrictions on unions. Wisconsin voters and those all over America have remembered the value of unions — even though only about 17 percent of Americans belong to one. The Wisconsin face-off has become a classic battle between “the working man” and the big businesses that supported Walker’s campaign.

Now the governor is showing signs of “softening” his attitude. In a series of e-mails that surfaced this week he has proposed several compromises, though he still maintains he is not budging on his principles. He now says workers would be able to continue bargaining over their salaries with no limit, a change from his original plan banning negotiated salary increases beyond inflation. He also says he will allow collective bargaining to stay in place on mandatory overtime, performance bonuses, hazardous duty pay and classroom size for teachers.

Increased contributions for health insurance and pensions, projected to save the state $330 million by mid-2013, would remain. The unions and Democrats agreed to those concessions weeks ago to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall — a gesture on their part that seemed to solidify in voters’ minds that the unions were willing to compromise while the governor wasn’t.

It looks as though the unions are winning, and they are doing it with one of their most fundamental tools: a strike. Public employees didn’t walk off the job, but Democrat legislators did. One can argue that their going AWOL is not in the spirit of good government, but you can’t argue with the results. They bought time, their union allies returned to their roots and rallied their members, the huge picket line got the attention of the public and voters supported their actions. That is exactly how union activism is supposed to work.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com