Let Freedom Ring Must Reads
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who rose to national prominence in the Republican Party by cutting the collective bargaining rights of most public sector unions, strongly indicated in the final days of his re-election campaign that he had no plans to expand the battle with labor unions that defined his first term.
On Monday, as he was inaugurated for a second term, Mr. Walker spoke of improving education, shrinking the size and scope of government, and weeding out fraud and waste, but made no mention of “right-to-work” legislation, which would outlaw labor contracts that require workers to pay union fees.
Yet as Wisconsin’s Legislature comes into session, with an expanded Republican majority, prominent members of Mr. Walker’s party seem determined to take up the issue and resume the battle with labor, this time taking on private-sector unions. A group calling itself Wisconsin Right to Work has begun running radio ads here, and the state’s largest business association, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, favors such a drive.
Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader in the State Senate, said recently that he believed the Legislature could not avoid tackling the matter.
“If there’s a time to move on this, this is the time,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who has been an ally of Mr. Walker’s. “It’s very difficult to see us going through this session without having this debate.”
The passage of further legislation opposed by labor unions is not assured. Wisconsin went through turmoil, beginning four years ago, from demonstrations and various recall elections after Mr. Walker’s fight with public-sector unions led to the limits on collective bargaining. The prospect is raising new tensions, even among some Republicans.
For Mr. Walker, who is considered a potential candidate for president in 2016, the terrain is particularly complicated. His ability to survive a recall election catapulted him into favor with national Republican power brokers. But a resumption of battles with labor could pin him down and draw interest groups backed by Democrats into the fray against him.
In recent weeks, Mr. Walker has said that he viewed the issue as a distraction from his focus on jobs and the state’s economy, though he has not said whether he would sign or veto such a measure if it came to his desk.
Some Democrats say that Mr. Walker, who helped sponsor a right-to-work bill as a member of the Assembly decades ago, is tacitly supportive of it now. Others view the situation as a sign of a serious rift within his party over a question that Mr. Walker might prefer not to address when he is seeking broad national appeal.
“Look, if the governor really doesn’t want them to do this, it will not happen, period,” said Peter Barca, the Democrats’ leader in the Assembly, who described Mr. Walker’s grip on the Republican caucus in the Legislature as firm. “I think it’ll be almost solely dependent on the governor. If the governor pumps the brakes, it will not go through. The governor will decide.”
Advocates of right-to-work laws, who are pressing for similar legislation in other states and municipalities, say that the timing in Wisconsin is ideal, in part because this state’s voters in November tightened the Republicans’ hold on the state even after tumult over unions in a place with a rich labor history. But while Republicans hold an overwhelming majority in the Assembly, they have narrower control of the Senate.
Among 24 states that prohibit requiring workers covered by union contracts to pay fees to the unions, the two most recently added to that list were in the Midwest, potential competitors to Wisconsin for companies seeking new locations. In 2012, Indiana and Michigan passed laws allowing employees represented by a union to opt out of paying union fees.
“Our status as a non-right-to-work state is a competitive disadvantage,” said Scott Manley, vice president of government relations at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
Opponents of such a law say it would lead to lower wages and less say for workers. “Up here we need to be focused on jobs, increased wages and family incomes — not going in the other direction,” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O., said.
Under federal law, a union that negotiates a contract for employees can require those who choose not to be union members to still pay fees to cover the cost of being represented, unless a state or territory outlaws it.
In Indiana, Mitch Daniels, a Republican who was then the governor, signed the legislation, though he had once said that he did not wish to add such a provision to the state’s labor laws. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed the bill, though he had previously said he did not consider it part of his agenda.
On Monday, from the rotunda of a packed Statehouse — the same place where angry union supporters had filled the halls after Mr. Walker’s collective bargaining cuts four years ago — the governor steered clear of the issue. In an inauguration that featured the children of elected leaders, including his two sons, Mr. Walker spoke in sweeping terms of smaller government, his record of tax cutting and an improving economy.
“In Wisconsin, we understand that true freedom and prosperity do not come from the mighty hand of the government,” Mr. Walker said. “They come from empowering people to control their own lives and their own destinies through the dignity that is born from work.”
In what some saw as an early glimmer of a bid for national office, Mr. Walker characterized his state as a place of action in comparison with Capitol Hill. “In contrast to the politicians along the Potomac, we get things done here in the Badger State,” Mr. Walker said. “There is a clear contrast between Washington and Wisconsin.”