Walker emerged on the national stage in 2011 when he declared war on public-sector collective bargaining rights. His attacks on labor have grown increasingly elaborate since then, culminating most recently in a so-called right-to-work law, which curtails unions' ability to organize workplaces through “closed shop” representation, which undermines labor representation and financing across a collective bargaining unit. Though conservatives peddle such measures as “freedom to work” protections that give workers a “choice” of whether to join a union, labor has villainized right-to-work as an ideological attack on organized labor's political power as a whole. But that's fine by Walker, who overcame a labor-driven recall campaign to crystallize his reputation as “Big Labor's” arch nemesis.
As one of several conservative Rust Belt governors who helped spread right-to-work laws to about half of U.S. states, Walker hopes to push a federal version of the policy, which he described in a recent interview as “establishing fundamental freedoms“ for “the other half of America,” which hasn't had the same opportunity to unilaterally suppress workers' right to organize.
If you're wondering how that will make him remotely electable in the general election, you might be thinking a little too far ahead. In the lead-up to the primary, Walker frames himself as the candidate straddling the GOP's twin planks: the “establishment conservative” who delivers vicious blows to federal regulations, corporate taxes and social programs on the one hand—but also the "family-values Republican," who loves God, loathes reproductive rights, and recoils at protesting teachers at the Capitol with the same hostility he vows to inflict on terrorists abroad.
With his latest budget plan, Walker moves beyond marginalizing organized labor, to decry basic social protections across the state, under the rubric of promoting “growth” (which some say Walker is exaggerating). Walker just nixed the state's 100 year-old living wage law—a progressive measure guaranteeing that Wisconsin workers earn no less than what it takes to live with “decency” and “reasonable comfort.” Dismissing these minimum protections pits him firmly against Hillary Clinton's and Bernie Sanders' rhetoric on economic fairness and the need to address the inequality that has exploded since the Great Recession.
For good measure, Walker heaped on several more anti-labor measures: undercutting a state mandate for one rest day per work-week (even a minister's son like Walker may not be keen on Sundays off); easing curbs on payday lenders, exposing more workers to financial predators in the process; and repealing a “prevailing wage” mandate for many state contract workers, such as laborers on local infrastructure projects. To put a finer point on it, he's also proposed drug-testing welfare applicants, just to ensure the state's largesse is spent only on those willing to endure ritual humiliation to atone for the sin of poverty.
Walker has reserved a special place for education in his new budget, with funding curbs for public school districts and a $250 million cut to the state's flagship University of Wisconsin. He has also gutted state protections for academic tenure, which help protect professors' academic freedom (something Walker probably sees as expendable given his past willingness to wage war on education workers). Ideologically, this places Walker in direct opposition to unions. That's a standard Republican line, but can be more readily exploited as a talking point by a two-term governor who's already proven himself willing to face down the labor movement as nothing more than a liberal “special interest.”
Gutting K-12 budgets coincides with Walker's push for education vouchers, which steer children and public funds toward religious schools. According to Bob Petersen, former head of Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, voucher-supported institutions tend to be “overwhelmingly religious” and “subject to minimal public oversight.” Marginalized Black and Latino urban public schools, meanwhile, are hit with hardline reform schemes that could undermine desegregation policies.
When Walker isn't busy hammering on the poor, he's larding budgets with tax breaks for corporate and real estate interests, which have carved a $275 million crater in the public coffers (conveniently offset by $300 million in education cuts).
Hell bent on shrinking big government, Walker has set his sites on Obamacare, denouncing federal profligacy as he helms a state that just dropped tens of thousands of Wisconsinites off of the state's own subsidized healthcare program (while quietly shunting some of that group onto federally-supported insurance).
While eroding healthcare for the poor across the state, Walker has particularly relished a more surgical cut to medical care: defunding Planned Parenthood and pushing a 20-week abortion ban, to show he's tough on reproductive rights (which he previously brushed off as “not an issue that voters talk about” on Democracy Now!).
On other issues voters don't talk about, Walker's open disdain for women and workers suggests that if elected he would relish the “freedom” to smother environmental protections (having rebuffed pending regulations on power plant emissions) and further marginalize undocumented immigrants, whom, in a Glenn Beck interview, he recently suggested should “go back to their country of origin” in order to protect “American workers and American wages” (though he appears curiously less willing to protect American unions and American labor laws).
For now, pundits are hedging their bets on Walker, noting that, despite his earnestness, his utter lack of charisma may ultimately prove unworkable. Still, wherever his presidential run leads, in the crowded GOP field, candidate Walker will bask in the spotlight as the perfect conservative wunderkind who wrangled a state whose proud motto is “forward,” and made it go backwards.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times and Dissent, blogs at The Nation and co-produces the Belabored podcast. Follow her @meeshellchen.