Governor Scott Walker may be a new marvel to cable news, but he is certainly no stranger to Wisconsin politics. Scott K. Walker, son of a Baptist preacher, began his political career in the early 1990s when he ran for an Assembly seat in the State Legislature. Even as a young legislator in his twenties, Walker took a hard-line, penny-wise approach to labor unions. During a debate in 1993, Walker advocated reforming union laws that oversaw local government labor disputes. Little did he know that his career in Milwaukee politics would be tested and weighed by his exchange with those very laws.
After nine years in the State Legislature, Scott Walker campaigned for Milwaukee County Executive – a seat that no Republican in Wisconsin has ever occupied. But Milwaukee County was recently rocked by a massive pension scandal - one that had given away six-figure backdrops to hundreds of public employees. The area was ripe for a new breed of leadership, and Walker’s message of frugality and fiscal reform seemed to reverberate with the voters. In 2002, Milwaukee County elected Scott Walker, the first ever Republican County Executive.
As Executive, Walker’s skirmishes with unions began shortly after he promised he would balance county budgets without raising property taxes. Without counting on these revenue-raising mechanisms, Walker had to lean on the county workforce for program cuts.
In 2003, Detractors accused Walker of ginning up a false fiscal crisis in order to justify slashing budget items. Drumming up false budgetary crises became a perennial charge against Walker, so he didn’t waste opportunities to remind them that unfunded pension liabilities threatened the solvency of their county government.
In 2006, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – Walker’s nemesis in all budgetary matters - criticized Walker for what they called a “Sky is Falling Tour.” A few months later (ironically), the Greater Milwaukee Committee – a private sector civic organization – released a damaging report recommending a state takeover of Milwaukee County's finances due to their daunting health care and pension costs.
In late 2006, Walker made headlines when he decided to veto the entire counter-budget proposed by the Milwaukee County Board. Walker vetoed it because the County Board had restored 125 jobs that his budget had planned to cut. A verbal battle ensued starting with Walker blaming the County Board for caving in to union pressure. The County Board explained they partially restored those jobs to entice unions to come to the negotiating table. That didn’t work. Rich Abelson, President of AFSCME’s Council 48, was so angered that he promised to start recall campaigns on every County Supervisor that failed to fully fund those positions. Abelson said, “We know who they are, and we won’t forget.”
In 2009, Walker’s battle with Milwaukee’s biggest union resulted in successfully privatizing the County Courthouse’s housekeeping. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel characterized his victory as “half a loaf” since the County Board thwarted Walker’s attempt to privatize the County Courthouse security as well. A few months later, Walker stunned the Board by invoking emergency budget powers in order to privatize those security jobs anyway. His authority was later challenged by AFSCME and reversed by arbitrator Amedeo Greco, who ordered Milwaukee County to rehire the guards they had fired with months of back pay.
In eight years as Milwaukee County Executive, Scott Walker learned a lot about how local governments work. While taking on a formidable Democrat machine in Milwaukee, Walker experienced some bumps and bruises, but he had some victories under his belt too. He learned that there was more to balancing a government budget than fiscal wisdom. Every budgetary choice made by Scott Walker involving cuts was bucked, in one way or another, by AFSCME.
The year that best summarized Walker’s saga with local labor was probably 2010. As the 2008-2009 Great Recession hit the country, Milwaukee County's tax base felt the pinch. Walker called for an aggressive strategy of employee wage cuts and increased benefit contributions. AFSCME refused to accept those concessions provoking Walker to order layoffs and furloughs for hundreds of county workers. The exchange typified the continuing narrative that is Scott Walker.
At no point during Walker’s eight year tenure did AFSCME recognize the financial impact the pension scandal had upon Milwaukee County. In short, Milwaukee County’s Pension Board - without so much as a cost study on pension benefits - passed ultra-lucrative pension buy-backs to hundreds of employees. Almost in a day, Milwaukee County government found herself mired in a $60 million hole without a viable exit strategy.
Instead of acknowledging the county’s fiscal woes, AFSCME fought Walker every step of the way. Walker took his story to the public explaining that 48% of the county budget was spent on wages and benefits. He also explained that more concessions were necessary to narrow their $10 million budget gap. Ultimately, AFSCME refused to make any concessions prompting Walker to order 22 furlough days for nearly 1,500 county employees. In a rare display of solidarity, the County Board put their firm support behind Walker’s decision in the hope it would prod the county’s largest union to be reasonable. That never happened.
Rich Abelson , President of AFSCME’s Council 48, said “His [Walker] union-busting attitude shouldn’t surprise anybody.” In some sense, Abelson was right. As the County Executive, Walker may not have tried to “bust” unions, but he fought them tooth and nail for eight years on issues such as privatizations, program cuts, furloughs, and on employee givebacks. Walker always put the taxpayers first going toe to toe with Abelson every time.
Walker is no newbie when it comes to collective bargaining. He has eight years of experience standing up to labor unions in the most liberal county in the state; seemingly, Walker was bred for this moment in history. He has always believed that the services provided by governments must be defined by the taxpayers’ ability to pay. It was a dogma that served Walker well.
During Walker’s tenure, he reduced the size of the county workforce by 20%, decreased the county debt by 10%, and did it all without raising the property tax levy from the previous year. According to Moody’s, Walker’s “strong management and prudent budgetary controls” strengthened the county bond rating for future investing. Nobody would argue that Milwaukee County’s fiscal health is without ailment or disease, but there is no doubt that Walker left the county in a healthier state from which he had first found it.