Wisconsin was the first state to ever formally provide collective bargaining rights to public-sector employees, reflecting its long legacy as a traditionally manufacturing-heavy, blue-collar state stradling the American Rust Belt.
But by 2016, when, for the first time since 1984, the Badger State voted for a Republican presidential candidate, much of that century-long legacy had been reversed — after a series of bills introduced by former Gov. Scott Walker over two terms of solidified “Right to Work” legislation and restrictions on bargaining.
In a Monday night event immediately preceding former Walker’s talk at Cornell, Prof. Lee Adler, labor relations, dissected how — in just eight years — one leader’s tenure turned a once hotbed for union activism into a state synonymous with organized labor’s most high-profile, decisive defeats.
Sponsored by the People’s Organizing Collective and co-hosted by the Cornell Democrats and Cornell Students for Bernie, the talk was held as a counterpoint to Walker’s speech, which organizer Daniel Bromberg ’20 said would offer a “platform of disregard for public-sector unions.”
Instead, Adler, who has represented dozens of unions in his decades-long career, offered his diagnosis of what went wrong for labor and what a way forward for the beleaguered groups might look like.
According to Adler, Walker, who was described as a “smooth talker,” successfully leveraged conditions created by the 2008 financial crash in order to build popular support for measures that reduced the size of government.
“Republicans had created a deficit in state funding by passing huge tax cuts,” Adler said. “Then, [Walker] turned to everybody, and said ‘we need to find a way to have enough money.’ And the only way ‘we can do that is by changing the education budget and ending collective bargaining.’”
That “end” to collective bargaining restricted teachers’ ability to negotiate for higher wages, capping salary hikes to increases in inflation, which at the time, Adler pointed out, amounted to an effective “wage freeze” on the state’s almost 60,000 educational professionals.
Notably — and in a move Adler regarded as core to Walker’s strategy of “divide and conquer” — police and firefighters were exempted from the changes, occupations that have traditionally provided Republicans with one of their strongest bases of support.
While public safety officers were spared the restrictions, Walker argued that teacher unions posed an obstacle to increased school choice, accountability and the ability to fire underperformers, further justifying the need for reforms.
The measures sparked immediate and massive backlash, prompting thousands of union members and their supporters to stage a constant flow of sit-ins that regularly numbered in the thousands. That backlash culminated in the 2012 recall election of Walker, which, like much of labor’s attempts at resistance during the Governor’s tenure, failed at rolling back changes.
“The unions brought out enormous numbers of people, but they couldn’t … there was no strategy to change that numerical majority that had been gained in the election from the Tea Party and super wealthy right,” Adler said, who argued that much of the Republicans’ political successes in Wisconsin were buttressed by a small handful of wealthy, conservative benefactors.
But while Adler asserted that conservative maneuvering — producing high deficits in the hopes of selling even greater cuts to government spending — and a deep-pocketed Tea Party revolt drove much of Walker’s political success, Adler withheld little blame for Democrats, whose recent record has cost the party its once iron-clad union support.
For instance, Adler said that former President Obama and former Secretary of Education Arnold Duncan’s reforms, particularly Race to the Top, had a particularly strong effect in stymieing and provoking the anger of teacher unions.
The bill made it so that “essentially every state in America seeking to gain half a billion to a billion dollars from the United States could show the President that they were really threatening the power, the hegemony of teacher unions” through increasing the use of teacher evaluations and the prevalence of charter schools, Adler said.
“Those were the liberal Democratic reform measures on public education,” Adler said, which had the effect of putting “so many public-sector teacher unions on the defensive” by placing in opposition rank-and-file members and the Democratic Party.
But while much criticism of Walker centered on specific legislation, Adler said that the Governor’s dramatic reshaping of Wisconsin’s policies was a war fought on a far broader battlefield — often focused more on cultural divides than on the intricacies of bargaining power.
Echoing President Trump’s shocking upset victory in the State, Adler said that much of the political energy behind Walker came not from explicit policy ambitions, but feelings of resentment that have long been simmering among the working and rural classes.
“Why did they turn against these school teachers?” Adler said. “They wanted to be against urban elites, the people who disrespected rural culture and real life.”