The Wrong Lesson from Walker’s Withdrawl

This op-ed column was originally published at

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is claiming Scott Walker’s demise proves an anti-union message doesn’t connect.

“This is a clear rebuke of the anti-worker platform on which Gov. Walker based his entire presidential campaign,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Gov. Walker found nearly zero support for his policies that would have tipped the scales even further against working families.”

Hardly. While dancing on the Walker campaign grave, these union bigwigs are also whistling past the graveyard. Mr. Walker’s campaign went south when he went off-message with bizarre proposals like building a wall on the Canadian border. That’s a “South Park” episode, not the policy of a serious presidential candidate. And while Mr. Walker’s campaign may have died for failure to connect with voters, one major labor reform he was proposing is very much alive.

It was one week before he dropped out that he found his labor reform voice that had first made him so popular. But then he made a second mistake. In a desperate overreach, he offered a kitchen sink of reforms that collapsed of its own weight.

Though he mentioned the hugely popular Employee Rights Act (ERA), it was in passing at the end of a speech riddled with proposals that were irrelevant or too arcane for the average primary voter to understand. How can you expect excitement around National Labor Relations Board reforms when most people don’t know what the acronym NLRB means? And why spend time promoting right-to-work laws when the vast majority of the early primary states have already passed those laws?

Talk about burying the lead. Mr. Walker would have had far more success if he had led with the pro-employee message of the ERA and based his labor platform on it. The ERA is easy to understand — its eight reforms pivot around 80 percent favorability among Republicans and union household members. What part of an 80 percent favorability rating among Republican voters did Mr. Walker not understand?

It’s interesting to note that in all the post-mortem of Mr. Walker’s campaign, no Democrat or union leaders have equated his support for the ERA as a reason for his downfall. There are few union shills suggesting with a straight face that the ERA is anti-union. It’s the proverbial Sherlock Holmes clue of the dog that didn’t bark. Something can be learned when Democrats and labor leaders recognize the ERA is so popular that they are afraid to refer to it.

Republican candidates should learn the right lesson from Mr. Walker’s demise: It stemmed not from his labor proposals but from avoiding what proved so popular in Wisconsin and with conservatives across the country. Republican candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie are on record supporting the ERA, but — like Mr. Walker — in a somewhat timid fashion.

A major reason why the ERA resonates so deeply with the electorate is because it’s more about freedom and morality than about labor policy. It’s about stopping union leaders from hijacking employee freedoms and their money. Stopping unions officials from taking forced dues payments and using them for their personal political piggy banks has few objectors.

Today many union members have seen a portion of their dues funding Planned Parenthood’s political arm, the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, U.S. Labor Against the War, and a myriad of other activist groups that don’t benefit more conservative and moderate union members. This opt-out provision is in-line with the principle that no Americans should be forced to choose between their values and their jobs. And it isn’t an academic concern: 38 percent of union household members voted for a Republican member of Congress in 2014 but 90 percent of union dues money goes to fund Democratic candidates and causes.

Other provisions seek to guarantee secret ballot elections and outlaw union intimidation of employees in the workplace.

The ERA allows Republicans to stake out the moral high ground on the issue of workplace rights and force Democrats into the unenviable position of defending a system that is clearly in need of an update since the last reforms passed in 1947.

As the saying goes: There’s no such thing as failure if you learn from it. The remaining Republican candidates should learn a lesson from the Walker campaign. When they get tired of debating high walls on the Mexican and Canadian borders, GOP presidential and congressional candidates should embrace an 80 percent issue that the Democrats and their union paymasters wish would go away.