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

Kathy Wilkes September 22, 2015

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. She is based in Madison.
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