Scott Walker’s anti-union stance plays to Republican gallery

Conservative firebrand flaunts credentials as conviction politician despite angry protests

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker received one of the loudest cheers of his speech at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) when he told the crowd that the state was on the verge of passing yet more legislation that would chip away at the power of the trade unions.

The state is expected to become the 25th state to pass a “right to work” Bill that would bar workers hired under union-negotiated contracts from being required to join those unions or pay them fees.

Walker is ready to sign the bill, adding to legislation he passed four years ago that scrapped the right of most public-sector workers to collective bargaining and diluted other powers of the unions.

The second-term governor's bitter fight against the unions has cast the Republican on to the national stage, making him a favourite among American conservatives who want smaller government, lower taxes and more freedoms for individuals; and enabling him to surge into second place after Jeb Bush in the polls to be the party's 2016 presidential nominee.

At every opportunity Walker parades his three election victories in four years – he won a recall election in 2012 engineered by opponents of his anti-union measures. He flaunts his credentials as a man who follows through on election promises despite the angry protests.

"Those voices can't drown out the voices of the millions of Americans who want us to stand up for the hard-working taxpayers," he said to cheers, as he shouted down a pro-worker heckler at the CPAC think-in in National Harbor, Maryland, the country's biggest gathering of conservatives.

Walker at times flexes his anti-union muscles a little too much. Asked after his speech in a questions-and-answers session, how he would take on Islamic State militants if he was president, he drew parallels with taking on pro-union protesters in Wisconsin.“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said.

The Wisconsin Bill is the latest assault by Republican state legislators on trade unions across the industrial midwest. Indiana and Michigan, once the cradle of America's labour movement, have already curtailed the powers of private-sector unions passing right-to-work Bills in 2012. Moves are afoot to pass similar measures in Kentucky and Missouri.

In Illinois, Bruce Rauner, the first Republican governor to be elected in the state in 12 years, is trying to turn around one of the most financially parlous states in the country and break a long tradition of unionisation in Chicago. Rauner wants to ban non-union workers from being forced to pay "fair share" fees to unions who collectively bargain on their behalf. He says it's unconstitutional, despite a 1977 Supreme Court law saying that such fees are lawful.

“It is politically profitable now to stand up and say I am going to defend the individual worker of my state,” said Mark Mix, president of National Right to Work Committee, which campaigns against workers being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

If Rauner succeeds, the unions will be weakened in another state. Due-paying members may decide to cancel union membership, which in turn would undermine collective bargaining powers.

Falling membership

Nationally, American trade unions have been on a long period of decline. The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.1 per cent in 2014 from 11.8 per cent in 2011, driven by the union-trimming laws in Indiana and Wisconsin, and big employers such as Boeing and Volkswagen locating new manufacturing operations in the non-union southern states of South Carolina and Tennessee.

Private-sector union membership fell to 6.6 per cent of workers in 2014, down from a peak of about 35 per cent in the 1950s. Membership in public-sector unions is far higher, at almost 36 per cent.

Michael Bolton, director of the United Steelworkers union's District Two division, which covers Wisconsin and Michigan, accused Walker of pushing his anti-union agenda to drive up his poll numbers among conservatives and to appeal to billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch who have pledged a massive $889 million (€784 million) war-chest to fund Republicans in the 2016 elections.

“There is nobody really in our states asking for right to work. It is being driven by these right-wing donors that are funding these guys’ elections,” said Bolton. “Walker’s numbers were down until this right to work started and now they are up again. He is saying all the right stuff which conservatives like to hear.”

Jim Boland, president of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and a Roscommon-Leitrim native, said that Walker and Rauner were "demonising public unions unfairly" at a critical time when the American middle class was disappearing amid the worst class-income inequality since the Great Depression.

“They are taking power and voice away from the unions and from some of the most heroic workers in our population who have worked very hard,” he said. “Those unions have been stepping stones for those people along the way.”

On Thursday Walker paraded his Wisconsin conservative fiscal project as a road map for a grander plan for America beyond 2016.

“If we can do it in Wisconsin, there’s no doubt we can do it across America,” he told the meeting of conservatives.

For trade unions, that’s a threat rather than a promise.