By Governor Scott Walker
Published by the Penguin Group (2013)
Unintimidated is the story of Governor Scott Walker's courageous fight for budget reform in Wisconsin, and how he won out in spite of a fierce campaign by organized labor and the Democratic party that drew upon resources at the national level.
Earlier in his political career, Milwaukee county executive Scott Walker had come face to face with the drivers of what would become the worst budget crisis in Wisconsin's history. Over the years public employee labor unions had gradually gained veto power over any and all attempts to rein in out of control state and local spending. In the meantime, the generous union pensions and health care plans they had won for themselves were driving up the deficit.
It was in the capacity of county executive that Walker first proposed that public workers make modest contributions towards their own benefits. With taxpayers tapped out, the alternative was to start laying off public workers. Walker had other suggestions, such as the temporary adoption of a thirty-five hour work week, but changes required union sign off, and his proposals came to nothing. In fact, it was impossible to move a clerical worker from one office to another, even within the same agency, without a union sign off. Union bosses were in control and they chose layoffs over even the slightest change.
I will never forget sitting across the table in my office from Rich Abelson, the head of AFSCME Council 48, explaining to him that without some of these modest changes we would have to lay off hundreds of workers.
He looked me in the eye and said: “Go ahead and do it!”
As county executive Walker had no choice. Layoff notices went out. But in November of 2010 Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor, and Democrat, Tom Barrett to become governor of Wisconsin. By that time the previous Democratic administration had run up a record $3.6 billion state budget deficit. No amount of belt tightening or tax hikes was going to fix that problem. Tackling Wisconsin's budget crisis meant tackling Wisconsin's collective bargaining rules. A daunting challenge, but as governor, Scott Walker had gained the power, the incentive, and the impetus to take it on.
Governor Walker proposed Act 10. It required that public employees contribute 5.8% of their salaries to their pensions where before, they had contributed nothing. They would pay 12.6% of their health insurance premiums where before, they had contributed only 6%. Collective bargaining for everything except base wage would be eliminated, as would compulsory union membership and forced collection of union dues.
When it finally became law, Act 10 reforms allowed school districts to buy health insurance on the open market and to hire and fire teachers on the basis of merit. When local governments gained flexibility in dealing with educational needs and with hiring and firing of workers, they were able to dramatically reduce their costs. Instead of causing teacher layoffs, the reforms made it possible for school districts to balance their budgets, hire more teachers, reduce class sizes, and implement long overdue improvements, all at the same time. This allowed the state of Wisconsin to cut education aid to cities and towns, and turned a state budget deficit into a surplus.
But getting Act 10 into law was a huge battle. Labor framed its argument against Act 10 in terms of "collective bargaining rights," and almost won it. Protests against the bill went on for months. Protesters occupied the state capitol building. There were death threats against Republican legislators. Democratic state senators absconded to Illinois where they stayed holed up in a motel. Their absence meant that there were not enough votes to pass Act 10 since the bill had a fiscal provisions in it. The Republican majority eventually passed it without the Democrats by splitting fiscally related items out from legislation to reform collective bargaining rules. This meant the bill could be passed by a simple majority.
It passed and Governor Walker signed it into law. But the battle didn't end there. Protests got larger. Labor proponents successfully petitioned for recall elections to remove Scott Walker and a half dozen Republican legislators from office.
Labor's best chance to defeat Act 10 was a bid to derail what would otherwise have been the ho-hum re-election of state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg was expected to favor overturning Act 10 on a technicality. If she could prevail in the election she might have become the deciding vote to strike down the law. The election drew campaign money from all across the country. The national attention turned it into a close race, but in the end Prosser prevailed.
And so did Walker. He won his recall election becoming the only U.S. governor in history to be elected twice to the same term of office. Four of six recalled legislators won as well, depriving Democrats of the majorities needed to overturn the law legislatively.
In the end it had become clear. It was about the money. Organized labor's opposition to these reforms boiled down to two crucial issues, compulsory union membership and forced collection of dues.
The unions would have given up anything else in the bill to keep the dues. The involuntary dues were the their lifeblood, the source of their power. They knew that if government workers had a free choice, most would decide to keep their dues and the union coffers would run dry. They could not allow that to happen. They could not care less if we were to lay off fifteen hundred workers or fifteen thousand workers, so long as they could keep their precious dues.
Unintimidated is an important book for conservatives because it lays out what conservatives have to do to win their battles for reform. The lessons are there to be applied in the state and federal levels.
First and foremost, reform requires courage. Vested interests will resist reforms. They have a financial stake in the corrupt status quo, and they will resort to intimidation and threat of violence to prevent the loss of their taxpayer funded income streams.
But if conservatives can remain faithful to their principles they can win the public opinion battles. Rather than abandon positions that opinion polls say are unpopular, it is crucial that conservatives advocate for their policies and explain the benefits.
That lesson was driven home to Governor Walker when, under the stress of the endless protests going on in front of his house, his wife, Tonette asked him, "Why are you doing this?" That brought him up short. If his soulmate didn't understand why pursuing Act 10 reforms was the right course of action, he obviously hadn't made the case for the citizens of Wisconsins. The success of his subsequent campaign to to explain it all was proven out when he won his recall election.
When conservatives make their case, they generally have to do it their own. A significant number in the media generally oppose reductions in public spending (unless of course it's a reduction in defense spending). Conservatives do not have media allies to promote their policies the way progressives do. It is crucial for conservatives leaders to explain, and continue to to explain, why conservatives policies will benefit everybody, even the most disadvantaged among us.
Conservatives must champion the vulnerable. The American dream is real. Unfortunately, in this day of multicultural political correctitude, too many are being lead to believe the American dream is a gift provided by government. But the mandated layers of "protection" inevitably become obstacles to anyone seeking to achieve their dreams through initiative and hard work, and inevitably the most vulnerable are the ones who are most easily held back. Conservatives have to make their case to those people.
Governor Scott Walker demonstrated that it is both possible and necessary to continually reform government, and in the process, to win over hearts and minds to the cause. He wrote a book telling us how he did it and how it can be done all across the country. The book is Unintimidated, and I highly recommend it.