How will Walker play protective union card?

Curbing collective bargaining for Wisconsin police and firefighters could help Gov. Scott Walker’s national standing among conservatives.

It could make him just the perfect man to be the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate in 2016. The governor, who has given multiple speeches to conservative groups across the country, is mentioned by some as a potential national figure.

Walker’s speeches have focused on his successful efforts in 2011 to break public employee unions at the state and local level. That legislation exempted police and firefighter unions.

Conservatives love the idea, but his 2011 law will be old hat by 2016. “What have you done lately?” is the political question the governor must answer if he harbors national ambitions in 2016. Maiming local police and firefighter unions would certainly attract national attention.

With 30 Republican governors and nearly four dozen U.S. senators, there are plenty of elected Republicans who may dream that the Marine Band will play “Hail to the Chief” for them.

The idea of extending the antiunion efforts to police and firefighters came when Walker suggested there might be a “greater opportunity going forward,” then added that “things worked out” in the aftermath of the new law. Among the “things that worked out” in his mind probably was winning a recall election last year.

The governor even suggested police and firefighters might be willing to forgo collective bargaining, union dues and arbitration to settle disputes with management.

But leaders of police and firefighter unions say the governor was wrong. They said their members won’t be willing to give up those rights. One police union official said it was important that his members could bargain for things like weapons and equipment.

Police and fire unions in Milwaukee backed Walker in the 2010 general election and the 2012 recall election. Walker wouldn’t want to lose their support as he seeks another term in 2014, even if the national political writers call Walker an overwhelming favorite next year. The lack of a clear Democratic alternative has helped contribute to that media view.

Walker tried to put distance form the idea – at least for now. After union leaders assailed the idea, his spokesman said Walker would look at it if it popped up in the Legislature. Republican legislative leaders also tried to head off police and fire union criticism, saying there has not been any discussion of it among their members.

Local government officials have urged Walker and the Republican-controlled legislative majorities to extend the anti-union efforts to the protective sectors. They argue that all local government workers should be treated equally. The police and firefighter salaries make up a large part of municipal government budgets.

Public employee unions aren’t the only potential anti-labor targets in Wisconsin. Some of the bigger Wisconsin donors to his 2010 election would like to see the state adopt a “right-to-work” law which would ban required membership in private-sector unions. Those proponents contend it would help companies expand in the state. Indiana recently passed such a law.

James Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Union, said Walker was talking like a presidential candidate, not as the governor of Wisconsin. “What he said would appeal to some extreme conservatives on a national basis,” Palmer said.

But there are other political considerations. In 2018 Republicans will be seeking a Wisconsin candidate to run against U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democrat. That could fall to Walker, assuming he isn’t elected to national office in 2016.Walker may need the police and fire unions if he wants to defeat Baldwin.

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