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Recall survivor Gov. Scott Walker extends half an olive branch to unions

Governor Walker said he does not intend to pursue right-to-work legislation.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), survivor of a recall election last week, sought to clarify his motive for eliminating collective bargaining rights for many state workers in 2011, saying the fight “wasn’t about unions” so much as about fiscal responsibility. He also said, again, that he does not intend to pursue right-to-work legislation, which labor leaders see as akin to union-busting.

But his tone was not all sweetness and light, as he took credit for setting the reset button on state and union balance of power in Wisconsin government. Labor leaders never believed “anyone would ever dare to make the changes we did,” he said Thursday at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters. For too long, “they intimidated local officials into never daring to make tough decisions.”

The reform agenda he and the Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature pushed through early last year eliminated collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions except police and firefighters. The agenda brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to Madison, the state capital, for months, and motivated the recall challenge that resulted in last week’s election.

Walker has long said those reforms were needed to eliminate the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit without tax hikes or widespread layoffs. Unions held sway for so long in Wisconsin, he said Thursday, because no previous governor had challenged them. Still, media reports after his June 5 victory “overstated” the blow it represented for public-sector unions in Wisconsin, he said. 

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Walker also said right-to-work legislation is something he is “not going to do,” noting he would not have support for pursuing such a bill. Such legislation would ban negotiation between a union and company if nonunion members are forced to pay fees for representation.

His statement Thursday was the firmest yet on the issue. In a televised debate held days before the recall, he demurred when asked if he would veto a right-to-work bill, saying only that it was a moot issue because the bill is “not going to get there.”

Republicans often promote right-to-work laws as a job-creation tool that states can use to help attract businesses; they also say it gives workers a choice on whether they want to commit to union dues. Democrats see the legislation as a backhanded method of weakening unions.

During the recall election campaign, the prospect of right-to-work legislation was often cited by Walker’s challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

“One of the ten commandments of the far right is you have to be against unions. You have to be in favor of right-to-work,” Mr. Barrett said in the debate. Walker “would fall from grace with the far right if he said he would veto [a right-to-work bill], so he can’t.” 

With the recall now in the past, Walker said his single regret is not spending enough time explaining to voters the reasoning behind his budget-cutting agenda early in his term.

“I was so eager. I fixed it, then talked about it. In the future, I’m going to do both,” he said.