Portrait of the Governor as a Young Union-Buster

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 23 2011 2:36 PM

Portrait of the Governor as a Young Union-Buster

MADISON, Wisc. -- Robert Costa, who's in the state, has a great read on Gov. Scott Walker's history as a Milwaukee County Executive. This is the experience he's continued to cite as evidence that he can't negotiate with unions, and that he can win.

Walker continued to roil the Left with his streamlined county budgets. "People would sit in the chambers when I presented my budgets, where the people could sit right there in the chamber of the county board. I’d have whole sections of the gallery filled with AFSCME leaders in green shirts holding up signs that read 'Negotiate, don’t dictate.’ So I have great credibility when I talk about the need to change collective bargaining. I saw firsthand how the unions thumbed their noses at local elected officials."

"We are not budging — that is the unions’ mindset," Walker sighs. "Even if you wanted modest changes in health-care and pension contributions, you could not get it. One year, I even tried a 35-hour workweek for a couple weeks and they told me to forget it. 'Go lay people off,’ they said, 'you’ll be gone soon enough. We may not get our people back, but our benefits won’t be reduced.’ They had no interest in doing anything reasonable with local officials."

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The thing is, all these things happened in a much lower-key environment. This was a good local story; there was nothing approaching the all-out war from national union leaders. There was no multi-day occupation of Walker's office. There weren't donations from 50 states and several foreign nations to buy food for waves of protesters. So we have a lot of insight into how Walker is approaching this, but no real precedent for how he'll resolve it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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