MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Newly released documentary film footage shows embattled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shortly after his election describing a "divide and conquer" strategy for taking on unions by first going after public employees' collective bargaining rights.
Walker's opponents insist the remarks undermine the Republican governor's long-held claim that the polarizing law he and the GOP-led Legislature pushed through, stripping most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights, was meant solely as a budget-balancing measure. They also say the comments signal that Walker ultimately means to go after private sector unions by making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, which would allow workers to not pay dues even if they are covered by a union contract.
Walker said Friday that he has no desire to pursue right-to-work legislation and no such bill would pass the Legislature under his watch. Speaking at a news conference at the Wisconsin Republican Party convention, Walker said his "divide and conquer" comment was about protecting the taxpayers from unions he said stood in the way of helping the state deal with a budget shortfall.
"For too long, a handful of special interests controlled things at the state and the local level," Walker said. "I wanted to stand up and fight on behalf of the hardworking taxpayers. We have firmly put the taxpayers of this state back in charge of the state and local governments. That's a fight I'll continue to have."
Walker, who faces a recall election next month largely because of anger over the collective bargaining law, made the documentary remarks in January 2011 in response to a question from Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who subsequently gave his campaign $510,000 — more than any other person. She asked Walker if he could make Wisconsin a "completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work" state.
"Well, we're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill," Walker responded. "The first step is we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer. So for us, the base we've got for that is the fact that we've got — budgetarily we can't afford not to. If we have collective bargaining agreements in place, there's no way not only the state but local governments can balance things out."
Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee who lost to Walker in the 2010 election and who is running against him again in a June 5 recall election, has been accusing Walker of secretly wanting to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state. Barrett told reporters at a news conference in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb, that Walker's remarks on the video left him flabbergasted.
"It is so clear whose side he is on. He's not on the side of the working people of this state. He's not on the side of the middle class. He's trying to curry favor with his masters who are in the right wing of the Republican Party," Barrett said. "Now is the moment of truth. Now he's going to have to say whether or not he would veto a right-to-work bill if it hit his desk."