In the weeks since Trump’s inauguration, many observers have exclaimed, “We’ve never seen anything like it!” Of course, no analogy is perfect, but we certainly have seen actions “like” Trump’s throughout history. And at present, one comparison in particular jumps out: Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin.
Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which exposes the role of money in politics in Wisconsin and advocates for clean government, has tracked the course of Walker’s slash-and-burn governorship to the letter. He says that as president, Trump has so far been vividly reminiscent of Walker.
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“It seems like Reince Priebus [who came to the Trump administration out of Walker’s political machinery in Wisconsin] has been printing up copies of Walker’s playbook and handing it out not only to Trump but to the Republican leadership in Congress, as well,” Rothschild, who worked at The Progressive magazine as its editor and publisher for the better part of 32 years, added.
If you think things are bad now for the nation, a closer look over what happened in Wisconsin shows us that we need to brace ourselves.
Scott Walker’s Shock and Awe
In 2010, while running his first campaign for governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker gave little to no clue of the reactionary proposals that he would begin putting forth promptly upon taking office. For example, he made no mention of attacking the rights of unions to engage in public sector collective bargaining.
It is worth noting that in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to authorize public employees to bargain. Lobbyists for unions worked on legislation for several decades afterwards. Anti-union legislation was nearly nonexistent.
But that trend changed abruptly when Walker took office.
Shortly after his inauguration, Walker was caught on tape telling a right-wing billionaire funder that he intended to “divide and conquer” the unions by introducing legislation that would destroy collective bargaining.
Not long after Scott Walker was inaugurated, he told his cabinet that he was going to “drop the bomb.”
The bomb was Act 10 — the legislation to grievously curtail the power of public sector unions in Wisconsin. The Act stipulated that the unions could bargain only for wages up to the rate of inflation, and that they couldn’t bargain on working conditions.
He has been plowing ahead with that plan ever since.
In 2015, Walker and his Republican legislature pushed through a bill making Wisconsin a “Right-to-Work” state.
How did Walker accomplish this wholesale attack on organized labor?
“The tactic was to attack everyone at once, like a political carpet bombing, so that people were put on the defense on every public issue at the same time,” Charity Schmidt, who was one of the leaders of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), which played a crucial role in the protests and occupation early on, told Truthout.
Schmidt, who is now an organizer for the South Central Federation of Labor AFL-CIO of Wisconsin, explained that Walker’s multipronged push made it more difficult to resist, since people and groups were each struggling to defend the issue most immediate to them. It made the solidarity that had been built during the Wisconsin Uprising difficult to maintain and put into strategic action.
“[The multi-issue attack] severely limited official methods of convincing Republicans to break from party line even when common sense begged for it,” Schmidt said. “It is no mistake that Reince Priebus was behind Walker and now Trump in developing Republican Party strategy.”
“We knew when Walker was elected that there would be a shift in state politics toward austerity policies and defunding public education and services, but few foresaw how severe and swift that shift would be,” Schmidt explained. “The attacks were immediate, and just like Trump, he wasted no time in announcing controversial legislation, and started with acts that would be the most polarizing.”
She explained that Act 10, which was aimed at destroying public unions in the very state that birthed AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], was an example of Walker’s divide and conquer politics at the onset.
“Policies such as this, and his funding cuts to the University of Wisconsin (UW) also solidified his base by fueling a politics of resentment, [pitting] rural against urban Wisconsinites, non-union workers against union members, those connected to the UW System and those who aren’t, and so on,” Schmidt said.
Legislation that erodes the power of unions, abortion rights, fewer regulations on firearms, slashing taxes and government spending, and expanding school-choice programs in an effort to hobble public schooling are all happening apace.
The slew of attacks has had significant repercussions — not only for organized labor, but for workers in general.
“He has attacked worker’s compensation and unemployment compensation, both of which were born in Wisconsin,” John Matthews, the executive director emeritus of the Madison Teachers Union told Truthout. “In addition to effectively ending public sector bargaining, his legislation has caused about an 18 percent loss in income to public employees by forbidding their employers from paying the employee’s share into the retirement system.”
Walker’s legislation also required that public employers not pay more than 88 percent of health insurance premiums.
“Employees get hit very hard with Walker’s legislation [Act 10] because they have very limited bargaining rights relative to wages and they lost the employer paying the employee’s share into the retirement system and they cannot effectively bargain wages,” Matthews added.
Walker has approached politics as a game of handing down mandates.
“Walker didn’t want to negotiate with organized labor,” Rothschild said. “He wanted to crush it.”
Destroying the Unions
With Republican governors and legislatures now controlling more states, some are seeking advice from Wisconsin. Kentucky’s State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer spoke glowingly of some words of wisdom he received from a senior Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin: “Move quickly.”
Today, in 25 states, Republicans hold both the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the legislature — and many GOP lawmakers are acting at the same lightning-fast speed that Walker did when he took power in Wisconsin.
The strategy of union busting in Wisconsin is something we should expect on a national level now.
In Wisconsin, Act 10 also said that unions had to “recertify” every year, with a majority of members voting in favor of keeping the union (regardless of what percentage of the members actually cast ballots). Other clauses said that employers were prohibited from taking union dues out of workers’ paychecks, and that union members would essentially take a 10 percent pay cut because they’d have to contribute to health care and pensions in ways they weren’t before.
“This was an all-out assault on the public sector unions, which were the strongest and most politically powerful in the state, though Walker tried to couch it as a ‘budget repair’ bill,” Rothschild explained.
However, thanks largely to the immediate response by the TAA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and by Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI, the local teachers’ union Matthews represented), protests began around the Capitol Square.
Due to around-the-clock work by dedicated organizers, they mushroomed into the largest protests in Wisconsin’s history. More than 100,000 protesters gathered around the Capitol Square on the weekends and several hundred people occupied the Capitol Building, sleeping there for several weeks.
However, according to Rothschild, the massive protests that mobilized against Walker early on failed primarily because labor leadership decided to pour money and resources into the Democratic Party channels rather than allowing the movement to be truly grassroots.
Moreover, Walker aimed to make public sector unions as ineffective as possible by limiting their capacity for political action.
Act 10 prohibits public employers from deducting for wages an employee contribution toward the union’s political action fund, and forbids the employer from deducting a fair share fee from non-members, as existed prior to Act 10.
Walker also rolled out the policy of drug-testing public workers as a condition of their receiving unemployment benefits, another strategy that is being deployed nationally now.
Walker has also proposed eliminating the labor, judicial and education oversight commissions.
As a result, according to Matthews, “The loss of income to Wisconsin public employees has caused huge morale problems — and the loss of revenue among businesses, since public employees have far less disposable income.”
Most labor protections for public employees are now gone in Wisconsin.
“Unions have, effectively, been destroyed,” Matthews said.
Walker’s Slash and Burn
According to Rothschild, in going after the unions, Walker wasn’t simply aiming to attack labor policies. He was also working to dry up the main source of money for the Democratic Party. By destroying AFSCME and the Wisconsin Education Association Council (the state teachers’ union), he accomplished his goal, leaving the Republican Party solidly in control of the state for years to come.
“There was this sick symbiosis going on,” Rothschild explained. “The right-wing corporate sector essentially paid for Walker to get elected, and then he delivered whatever policies they wanted to see enacted. And once he had proven his loyalty, they gave him more money, which kept him in office and enabled to keep delivering the goods to them.”
Wisconsin’s labor movement has been effectively devastated, along with the following more egregious laws that have been passed:
- Imposed onerous voter ID requirements and limited the hours of early voting.
- Rewrote the campaign finance law to allow wealthy individuals to give much more, to legalize coordination with outside “issue ad” groups, and to allow corporations, for the first time in 100 years, to give to political parties.
- Gerrymandered Wisconsin’s districts in one of the most blatant efforts in modern US history. A panel of federal judges, in a recent landmark case, ruled this gerrymandering unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to redraw the maps.
- Destroyed the Government Accountability Board, the nonpartisan agency that regulated campaign donations, ethics and lobbying. He replaced it with an Ethics Commission and an Elections Commission, with partisan appointees.
- Changed the law on special prosecutors by prohibiting them from investigating elected officials.
- Boosted the private school voucher program.
- Drastically cut back on funding for the University of Wisconsin, and decimated tenure protections at the University Wisconsin.
- Refused federal funds for expanding Medicaid, while passing massive tax cuts for corporations.
- Passed a concealed carry law for guns and eliminated the 48-hour waiting period for purchasing a gun.
- Cut funding for family planning and imposed onerous restrictions on abortions.
- Effectively dismantled Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and scrubbed any mention of climate change from state websites.
It is easy to see that the Trump administration is already racing forward with its own multi-issue attack.
The Future in Trumpistan
Based on his experience with Walker and watching the parallels thus far, Rothschild provided several warning signs for the country to heed as the Trump administration continues to consolidate power.
“He’s going to keep moving fast, he’s not going to compromise, and he’s going to play on the politics of resentment,” Rothschild explained. “Walker, during the Act 10 debate, actually made a “fairness” argument by saying it was unfair that his brother-in-law, who worked hard in the private sector, didn’t even have health care or a pension, and these public sector workers are complaining about just having to contribute to their health care and pensions.”
Rothschild gave an ominous warning for national unions.
“He’s going to go after federal labor unions and protections,” he said.
While the jury is still out on how Trump might personally be going after organized labor, as Rothschild implies, what is clear is that the now Republican-dominated House and Senate will ensure that the White House continues forward along a multi-decade systemic attack against unions, a strategy launched in 1947 with the Taft-Hartley Act. That law began the wholesale restriction of labor unions, and the eroding of union power continues to this day.
“For the country, it signaled all-out war on the labor movement and on progressive politics in general,” Rothschild said. “State after state that was under the control of a Republican governor and a Republican legislature started to copy Walker’s playbook.”
And now Trump is doing the same.
“Walker told him essentially to do to the country what Walker had done to Wisconsin,” Rothschild concluded. “Be ‘bold,’ move fast, despite the opposition that will arise.”
In early January, Gov. Walker told the media he spoke with Vice President Mike Pence during a visit to the White House about Act 10. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker said he and Pence talked about “what we’ve done here in Wisconsin, how they may take bits and pieces of what we did with Act 10 and with civil service reform, and how they could apply that at the national level” for federal workers.
“It’s something that they’re interested in,” Walker said. “It’s certainly something we’re willing to offer our assistance on, particularly if it helps improve not just the nation, but in turn helps improve the ability to be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars here in Wisconsin.”
And that is exactly what we are seeing.
“Trump’s going to encourage Republicans in the legislature to bend the rules to get their way,” Rothschild continued. “Already, he’s told Mitch McConnell to go nuclear. And already, a Senate committee has voted on cabinet nominees while the Democrats were not even present, which actually happened in Wisconsin, too, to get Act 10 passed.”
A slash-and-burn strategy matches up with the inner circle with which Trump has surrounded himself. In fact, Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and senior counsel, told the Daily Beast in 2013, “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
In addition to Trump, GOP state legislatures are emulating Walker’s strategy.
“Act 10 is now being introduced in Iowa, [as it is already being introduced in other states, including Washington] and in my opinion, will soon be promoted by Trump for federal employees,” Rothschild explained.
Matthews issued an urgent warning to workers across the country.
“Public employees across the nation should be preparing for Trump to copy Walker’s promotion of anti-worker, anti-union legislation,” he said. “Employees and unions must engage in every election, lest they be run over by the right-wing machine.”
Schmidt drew a direct parallel between Walker and Trump as far as their willingness to “wield all power of the state to bulldoze over the democratic process of government to get what he and his funders want.”
“With [Walker’s] announcement of the so-called Budget Repair Bill, which became Act 10, came a threat to call in the National Guard should there be any work stoppages or actions against it, just as Trump threatened to call in the National Guard in Chicago,” she said.
Schmidt also cautioned against relying on normal political processes to resist Trump.
Once the Walker administration took hold, she said, it “became obvious that we couldn’t count on politics as usual in fighting his radical measures, as they were willing to subvert the democratic process to reach desired goals. Government just suddenly ‘worked differently.'”
Once the usual political approach of holding up the veneer of clean politics in Wisconsin fell away, and when Walker won the recall election in 2012, Schmidt said that was the point at which “he was further emboldened to continue on his draconian path.”
The Trump administration has yet to really begin fully enacting its policies. However, given what we’ve seen thus far, anyone who wants to protect our rights, our liberties and our planet should take heed of what Walker has done — and continues to do — in Wisconsin.