Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has history of going up against unions
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 10:58 PM
MADISON, WIS. - On a Tuesday afternoon in September 2003, during Scott Walker's first term as Milwaukee County executive, scores of union workers gathered at the local courthouse to protest layoffs he had ordered as part of an aggressive effort to balance the budget and avoid what he said would otherwise be necessary tax increases.
They shouted anti-Walker chants, and union officials and Democratic officeholders took turns denouncing his slash-and-burn approach.
The layoffs Walker had announced that summer decimated the county's public parks staff and also reduced the number of county social workers, corrections officers and janitors. As a result, park bathrooms were shuttered and pools were closed. Trash was piled up so high in the Milwaukee County Courthouse that visitors had to sidestep apple cores and coffee cups, and some judges resorted to cleaning toilets, a local newspaper reported.
Despite the deep cuts and the union uproar, Walker cruised to reelection the following spring and remained in his post six more years, until his successful gubernatorial run in the fall.
The 43-year-old governor has garnered national attention in the past week - challenging unions in a birthplace of the progressive movement and joining other high-profile governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie (R) in pushing deep budget cuts and straight talk on fiscal restraint - but allies and opponents alike say they are hardly surprised. While deficit reduction and spending cuts are in style these days in Washington and beyond, they have been Walker's bread and butter for two decades.
"Anybody who said they didn't see this coming wasn't paying attention to the election," said Joe Sanfelippo, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and a Walker supporter. "He's true to his word . . . he's not going to back down."
Indeed, Walker showed little concern for the sea of protesters singing Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" outside his window Friday evening. Dressed in a navy suit and red tie, he shrugged off the chants for his resignation and the signs portraying him as a dictator.
"My last couple budget addresses [in Milwaukee County], I literally had protesters from the unions in the chambers standing up during my speech holding signs. . . . I had people catcalling and the whole bit; I'm used to it," he said in an interview in his spacious Capitol office, with its dark wood furniture and tightly drawn burgundy blinds.
"Obviously these guys have a right to be heard, but this is still a small fraction of the percentage of all state and local government workers," he said. "I can't let these voices overpower the voices of the millions of other taxpayers I represent."
Asked whether his experiences with unions as county executive had influenced his bill to curb state employee benefits and put tight restrictions on their collective-bargaining rights - the same measure that brought the chanting masses to his doorstep - he didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," he said. "Totally."
During his eight-year tenure in Milwaukee County, Walker never raised property taxes. He cut the county workforce by 20 percent, improved its bond rating and gave back hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own salary as part of the effort to trim spending. But he also saw his relations with local unions deteriorate.