Presidential Campaign

How do you like unions now, Gov. Walker?


After placing as high as second in the national polls for the GOP presidential primaries, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) announced on Sept. 21 that he was leaving the race. In July, Walker polled better in Iowa than Donald Trump, but his support began to fade and, after a mere 71 days, Walker burned up. On his way out the door, Walker claimed he was stepping aside so the party could unite against Trump’s campaign.

{mosads}Along with other explanations, political analysts pointed out that Walker’s focus on organized labor failed to gain traction among conservative voters. Walker’s claim that he was the candidate best suited to deal with Islamic terrorists because he defeated union leaders in Wisconsin simply lacked resonance. Trump’s appeal, in contrast, tapped into deep discontent among the Republican base and fueled its incendiary temper. The strategic gap between Walker and Trump has implications for the American labor movement.

From his first days as governor, Walker undertook a frontal assault on Wisconsin’s public sector unions. He rescinded collective bargaining laws that had been in place for decades, and he then survived a recall election in June 2012, strengthening his reputation for taking tough political stands. According to a CBS News report, most of Walker’s financial support in the recall came from outside sources such as Americans for Prosperity. In all, he got more than $63.5 million in campaign funds, more than twice as much as the previous record.

Walker reached the peak of his political career in March of this year by signing a right-to-work bill in Wisconsin. He saw this accomplishment as the platform for his presidential campaign, but Walker’s sell-by date had already passed. As Trump surged in the polls, it became clear that GOP primary voters were driven by a deep and abiding bitterness toward the political power structure. A lengthy feature article in The Economist noted that the Trump base “is characterized not by the fidelity of its conservatism, but by the ferocity of its rage.” Illegal immigrants, Muslim terrorists and other outsiders offered better targets than American workers.

Because Trump brilliantly focused the free-floating hostility of the politically discontented on global villains, his actual domestic policies mattered little. His plan for tax reform attracted widespread criticism from policy experts, who concluded that it would primarily benefit the wealthy and substantially reduce revenues, further exacerbating federal deficits. None of it matters to the true believers.

Despite Walker’s relentless condemnation of unions, the labor movement still retains an important degree of public legitimacy. An article in the November 2014 issue of Social Problems demonstrated how union membership is statistically associated with higher levels of first marriage among men. The authors’ explanation is that the job security, income and fringe benefits of union work are conducive to increased domestic stability, which in turn expands our national social capital. Other studies find that unions are associated with more progressive tax schemes, higher per capita income and better opportunities for human development.

In addition, the anti-union meme is losing its snap. Union membership continues to decline, but a Pew Research Poll in April 2015 found that 52 percent of respondents believe that declining unionism is mostly bad for working people, compared with 40 percent who say it is mostly good. The percentage of respondents who view labor unions favorably is the same as in 1994 and has recovered from lower ratings in 2010.

Opposition to unions is a thin agenda for a presidential bid. As with his candidacy, Walker’s attempt to derail Trump will end in failure. The political headwinds eventually will blow Trump’s hair off and reveal what little is beneath, regardless of what Walker says or does. Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times that Trump’s ego could not withstand an actual vote, but “the more famous he becomes, the more he can charge to slap his name on buildings or perfume or men’s suits.”

By the end of his faux presidential run, Trump will have created one of the most effective marketing campaigns of our times. His investment has already paid massive dividends in publicity to his brand. Scott Walker, on the other hand, will languish on the sideline, morosely brooding over the shards of his political career. His wealthy benefactors reap the benefits of weaker unions in Wisconsin while Walker fades into a footnote of failed aspirations.

Hogler is professor of labor law, labor relations and human resource management at Colorado State University.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign 2016 Republican primary anti-union Collective bargaining Donald Trump Labor labor union right-to-work Scott Walker Wisconsin

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