How Scott Walker Turned the GOP Against Workers

 The following article first appeared on the Web site of the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters. 


Manchester, NH—When I asked Newt Gingrich if he planned to campaign for Scott Walker in the recall election the labor-bashing governor of Wisconsin will almost certainly face, Newt answered, “Sure!”

“Scott Walker’s fight in Wisconsin has made him a national leader on issues [that are] important to Republicans,” said the former Speaker of the House. “Of course I would campaign for him.”

The Republicans who would be president disagree on some issues. But they are pretty much united in their affection for the nation’s most embattled governor.

After Walker attacked public-employee unions last February, Mitt Romney announced that he was donating $5,000 to support the Wisconsinite. And Rick Santorum hails Walker’s “tremendous courage.”

What is it about Walker—who is so unpopular that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites are petitioning for his recall and removal—that makes him so appealing to the leading figures in the national Republican Party?

That’s simple. Scott Walker is an anti-union zealot. And anti-union zealotry has become a core premise of the twenty-first-century Republican Party.

Attacks by Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich on public-employee unions may have gotten the most publicity. But other governors, most notably Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, are striving to undermine the collective bargaining rights of private-sector workers.

But nowhere is the disdain for organized labor more evident than on the Republican presidential campaign trail. Never in the modern history of the Republican Party, which once made a serious effort to compete with Democrats for labor endorsements and the votes of union members, has a field of GOP presidential candidates been so united and so aggressive in opposing collective-bargaining rights for public-sector and private-sector workers. As recently as 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee appeared at the annual convention of the International Association of Machinists and received the industrial union’s endorsement in the Republican primaries. Today, just four years later, the Republican contenders are not just refusing union invitations. They are using every opportunity to explain their opposition to labor’s agenda, along with their support for legislative initiatives that are designed to undermine collective-bargaining rights.

At Sunday’s final debate before the New Hampshire primary, a question about efforts to enact antilabor laws unleashed a furious bout of union bashing. Passing laws that make it harder for unions to organize workers and bargain on their behalf “makes a lot of sense,” chirped Romney, while Texas Governor Rick Perry argued that erecting structural barriers to union organizing can make a state a “powerful magnet” for job creation.

Here in New Hampshire, Romney has endorsed efforts to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which would legally bar unions from collecting dues from all the workers they serve, and which would make collective-bargaining virtually impossible in many workplaces. Gingrich is an enthusiastic proponent of right-to-work laws. Even the supposed “moderate” among the GOP contenders, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, is urging New Hampshire legislators to gain a “competitive advantage over your neighbors” by passing anti-union legislation.

But the Republicans candidates don’t stop there.

Gingrich says: “One of the things the Congress should do immediately is defund the National Labor Relations Board.” Not to be outdone, Romney is airing a new ad in South Carolina that declares: “The National Labor Relations Board [is] now stacked with union stooges selected by the president.”

Santorum, who has tried to present himself as an ally of working Americans with talk of renewing our manufacturing base, is as militant as Walker when it comes to attacking the collective bargaining rights of public employees. “I do not believe that state, federal or local workers…should be involved in unions,” says Santorum. “I would actually support a bill that says that we should not have public-employee unions for the purposes of wages and benefits to be negotiated.”

Aren’t there any prominent Republicans who think unions make a positive contribution to society?

I found one. This guy says: “Collective bargaining…has played a major role in America’s economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere. Too often, discussion about the labor movement concentrates on disputes, corruption and strikes. But while these things are headlines, there are thousands of good agreements reached and put into practice every year without a hitch.”

Who is this Republican outlier who spoke about “the sacred right of American workers to negotiate their wages”?

A fellow named Ronald Reagan. Some people used to think he was quite a Republican. But Reagan’s no Scott Walker.

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