After he pushed laws to limit collective bargaining for public employees, sparking mass protests last year, it's hardly surprising to discover that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker told one of his biggest contributors that he favored right-to-work laws and would take a "divide and conquer" approach to union power. But when a video clip surfaced late last week, showing the governor saying just that, it offered his opponents a major opportunity.
In the film, shot before Walker introduced his anti-union legislation last year, billionaire Diane Hendricks asks Walker if there's any chance Wisconsin can become "a completely red state, and ... become a right-to-work state." Walker responds by saying "The first step is we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer." The clip appeared as part of a trailer for an upcoming documentary film. Since the exchange took place last year, Hendricks has given more than $500,000 to Walker.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett won the Democratic nomination last week, but he did so over objections from labor. While the major unions swung to support him as soon as he declared victory, Barrett is walking a tough line. He's trying hard to appeal to the very small number of undecided voters, for whom issues like jobs and the state economy are likely to decide the race. For the most part, Barrett's ads have been extremely negative, yet they don't emphasize the anti-union laws Walker pushed, instead focusing on job losses and cuts to education.
But this video creates an easy opening for Barrett to talk about labor issues, thereby energizing the Democratic base. Barrett's campaign has made the most of the video. They put together an ad showing the key exchange in a clip with the title "Scott Walker says he wants to 'divide and conquer' Wisconsin." The YouTube clip has already received over 85,000 views. The video even won Barrett an endorsement from one of the police unions that backed Walker in 2010.
Walker said in January that he will not pursue right-to-work laws, legislation that would have devastating implications for the private sector, as well as for public unions. While it's unlikely that right-to-work laws would pass in Wisconsin any time soon, Walker has not taken a clear public position on whether he would actually veto such measures. As the Journal Sentinel points out, while Walker co-sponsored a right-to-work bill in 1993 as a freshman lawmaker, more recently he's called private sector unions "my partner in economic development."
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker's responded to the video by affirming he has "no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation in this state" and accused Barrett of wanting to "rehash, replay the debate." The trouble is, the debate is obviously not quite finished, or the governor wouldn't be getting recalled. In particular, the video reinforces images of the governor as sneaky, rather than straight-forward.
The news is coming at a great time for Barrett. While a Marquette poll at the end of April showed Walker and Barrett in a virtual tie, two more recent polls have shown the mayor falling a bit behind. Walker has more money by an order of magnitude.
But one shouldn't underestimate Barrett, who has the power of unions and viral videos on his side.