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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Sep 22, 2015, 10:30 am

Scott Walker’s Campaign Failed Because Voters Actually Don’t Want a Union Buster-in-Chief

BY Kathy Wilkes

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American voters weren't interested in what the Wisconsin governor was selling. (Michael Vadon / Flickr)  

Yesterday Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced that he was ending his campaign for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. It was a week to the day after placing all bets on his record as a union buster to propel himself into the White House.

With the theatrics of a magician pulling a pigeon out of his sleeve, Walker last week in Las Vegas revealed a sweeping plan that, among other things, would rein in—and potentially eliminate—public worker unions at the federal level, institute a national "right-to-work" law compelling private sector unions to work for free and abolish the National Labor Relations Board established in 1936. The reaction from the Walker-friendly crowd: just "polite applause," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Yet at Wednesday's Republican candidates debate, broadcast from the presidential library of his idol, Ronald Reagan, Walker got all of seven minutes airtime and barely managed a squeak about his ideas to decimate the labor movement. Four days later, his poll numbers among GOP voters tanked to a barely perceptible half a percent.

Political observers who had tagged him as the likely favorite of party faithful now attribute Walker's freefall to the appeal of upstart political "outsiders" like Donald Trump and Walker's own lackluster performances on the road and in debates. Fair enough, but they are missing something far more essential and unique to Walker.

Though he could "me too" his way through the base's obsession with terrorists, Mexican immigrants, and the goings-on in the American female’s nether regions, his primary branding for the last four-plus years has been Union Buster in Chief. It was an old, broken record that didn't play.

The most recent Gallup poll had union approval going up, with 58% of all respondents—including 42% of Republicans—affirming support for organized labor. More than a third of respondents said they wanted unions to have more influence.

In deep red, right-to-work Texas, support for union busting was so low that Republican legislators failed to muster sufficient votes to ban payroll deductions for public sector union dues—something Walker had crowed about accomplishing in Wisconsin.

The Economic Policy Institute found that 58% of workers would like to be union members instead of the meager 11% we have now as a result of decades of union busting. Further, the "single biggest factor" keeping workers' wages down, EPI said, is "the erosion of collective bargaining," which has hurt union and nonunion workers alike. 

A new and alarming study from the London School of Economics drove the point home, showing out-of-whack wealth distribution near Depression-era levels. Forget the One Percenters: The top one-tenth of a percent (0.1%) now have as much wealth as the bottom 90%.

Voters didn't need all the gloomy statistics—they’re in serious pain. Smart politicians paid attention. Rising inequality became a prime topic among presidential candidates as diverse as Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. Among them, only Scott Walker wanted to do more of what's already done workers in: kill off unions.   

Walker's tone deafness was no different in 2015 than it was at the peak of the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising when he stripped public workers of collective bargaining rights. Back then, 53% of Wisconsin's likely voters disapproved of his actions. Nationally 61% opposed the implementation of such actions in their own states.

Ultimately, busting unions didn't deliver the economic boom he had promised. The state ranks 35th in job creation and began the year with a $2.2 billion projected budget hole GOP legislators are plugging with money from cuts voters hate. Walker's approval rating in the state sank to a new low of 39%.

He paid no mind. He kept spinning his record for the out-of-state right-wing billionaires who funded his campaigns. He heard them loud and clear. Thanks to them, he had survived two bruising re-elections, spending three times as much as his opponents in the 2012 recall and double his opponent in the 2014 mid-term. Now, even with $20 million in Super PAC money stuffed in his campaign war chest, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders could beat him in his own state, according to two different polls.

Walker's Big Union Bogey Man wasn't so scary after all and started looking more like a savior to workaday folks besieged by greedy elites. He was left in political limbo. A career politician, he was certainly no "outsider," and other candidates did better in form and substance with other issues. All he had was some cranky rich characters so ideologically blinded they didn't see the limits of his appeal.

Whether they will ever want to hear Walker’s broken record again is anybody's guess. Voters, on the other hand, have clearly moved on.   

Kathy Wilkes is an award-winning labor writer and editor, and a former union organizer, co-founder, officer, negotiator, and communications director.

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