Some conservatives are disappointed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s apparent reluctance to push for right-to-work legislation in his new term. Today the Wall Street Journal joins the chorus, calling it “unfortunate that he’s ducking a chance to make Wisconsin the country’s 25th right-to-work state.” But Walker has made it clear that such legislation is not a priority and that he wants to focus instead on education reform and on cutting Wisconsin’s woefully bloated budget.
Walker is right, and it demonstrates yet again that he’s got the right formula for conservative reforms.
As Walker explained to me last May, Wisconsin is already essentially a right-to-work state. The major union power was in the public sector, which was squeezing the state’s finances and economy, and Scott Walker broke that stranglehold in his first term, with the passage of Act 10. Public-sector union membership has fallen by more than 50,000.
Meanwhile, private-sector union membership in Wisconsin is down below 7 percent of the workforce. Basically most people in Wisconsin already have a de facto right not to join a union, because the vast majority of firms are not unionized. A right-to-work law would be great; it just wouldn’t affect that many people.
The political downsides, on the other hand, are considerable. Private-sector unions in the Badger State have much more public support than membership, which means that right-to-work legislation will antagonize many more people than it will benefit.
The Journal notes that Wisconsin’s economy is lagging behind that of other Midwestern states. But that has little to do with its status as a union state under the National Labor Relations Act. The main reason, as I have argued, is that the state’s budget is bloated and imposes a crushing tax burden on Wisconsin’s businesses and working families. Even after billions in tax cuts under Walker, per capita state spending in Wisconsin is the highest of any state in the Midwest, including Illinois. In per capita terms, its state budget is twice as big as that of Texas.
Dramatically reducing the overall size of the state’s government is by far the most urgent priority for Wisconsin’s conservative reforms — and it will require a lot of political capital. Every dollar in the budget has a powerful special interest gunning for it, and those special interests fall across the political spectrum. Cutting the budget will require both Republican and Democratic legislators to defy some of their most important constituents.
Right-to-work legislation, by contrast, is politically convenient for Republicans. The only special interests who will oppose it are in the Democratic party, which is a weak and attractive target after losing two elections and too many recalls to count. Kicking them when they’re down would be fun, and campaign contributions will pour into GOP coffers from the business lobby.
But it’s low-hanging fruit, as the Journal itself seems to allow. “If Mr. Walker has bigger economic reforms on his mind,” it writes, “he should make them known and explain why they’re more important than right to work.”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe Walker needs to do a better job of convincing conservatives that he’s still committed to big and bold reforms. But he has been quite clear that cutting the budget is his main priority for economic reform. And that’s the right one.
To be sure, right-to-work legislation is the right public policy. Interference with efficient labor markets is always fraught, and the federal labor laws are among the most awful legacies of the New Deal. The Texas model of letting as much competitive oxygen into the economy as possible is clearly best.
Wisconsin very simply has bigger problems right now than right-to-work. And the whole country has a stake in Walker’s successfully tackling them. The reason Walker matters is that, more than any other Republican governor, he is demonstrating how to build a broad coalition for historic conservative reforms, a coalition that includes independents and Democrats. With the exception of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, that hasn’t been seen in a conservative leader since Ronald Reagan.
Actually getting things done in government means building coalitions for your agenda. That should never be an excuse for compromising on principle. But it is a good reason to avoid needlessly antagonizing the opposition and polarizing the electorate along party lines for little practical benefit.
Conservative reforms will succeed only if they benefit the great majority of working families. The key is for legislators to champion the public interest over the special interests — including the special interests that support them. That’s Walker’s formula for success, and Wisconsin’s conservatives should stick with it.
— NR contributing editor Mario Loyola is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.