By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Oh, it is true what they say: Politics do make strange bedfellows.
And it seems to be getting a little weirder all the time in Wisconsin.
Why, surely you know conservative icon Gov. Scott Walker, scourge of public-sector unions, hated in solidarity by many members of private-sector organized labor.
Yes, the same Scott Walker who has received full-throated praise from Wisconsin’s building and trades unions for pushing and signing the mining regulatory reform bill that their Democrat-backing brethren can’t stand.
Yes, the same Scott Walker, the architect of the death of collective bargaining as Wisconsin once knew it, who has garnered public-sector union support for a budget provision that prohibits local units of government — the city of Milwaukee in particular — from enforcing residency requirements on public employees.
What gives? Is Walker turning into a Teamster?
No, assuredly not, says Republican Sen. Leah Vukmir, who, like the governor, lives in Wauwatosa.
But Vukmir recalls just how much things have changed, reminding her fellow Badger State residents that it was two years ago this week the Republican-controlled Senate passed Act 10, the bill, now law, that gutted collective bargaining for most unionized public-sector employees. That contentious bill created the “first Occupy Madison” movement, as Vukmir likes to describe it, with thousands of protesters camping in and around the Capitol to oppose Act 10 – many of them from organized labor.
Fast forward two years, and labor is offering Walker some back-up, at least in part, to two highly contentious bills that have given fits to the Democratic Party, the party of unions.
Don’t be alarmed, liberals and conservatives. Your worlds have not turned upside down.
Art Cyr, political scientist and director of the A.W. Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha, says these seemingly strange turn of events can be chalked up to politics and self-interest, the latter which isn’t strange at all.
“(Walker), I think, is trying to establish his credentials as a pragmatist,” Cyr said.
And the governor is picking up the battle with an old foe, Cyr said, going after Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s twice-defeated challenger in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial elections, on the residency issue.
Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council have railed against the governor, claiming the residency provision is nothing more than the state subverting local control.
Cyr, like others, believes the budget item is political payback to police and firefighters who have supported him — public-sector employees, coincidentally, who are exempt from Act 10.
But Michael Crivello, president of the 1,700 member Milwaukee Police Association, said the residency change is long overdue and “much appreciated by those officers who believe they should have the freedom and liberty” to live where they want.
Vukmir , who has authored and championed residency rule reform, said she has heard from “countless” public school teachers in Milwaukee’s suburbs who have expressed support for the proposal. She said some educators would like to work in Milwaukee but can’t due to what she asserts is an archaic residency, in place since 1938.
Private-sector union support of the mining bill is a case of old-fashioned self-interest, it would seem.
Steve Breitlow, secretary treasurer of the Wisconsin Pipe Trades union, with 6,500 members statewide, said mining reforms will create badly needed construction jobs in northern Wisconsin and around the state. Gogebic Taconite LLC has proposed a $1.5 billion iron-ore mine in northwest Wisconsin, contingent on passage of a bill that streamlines mining regulations. They got their wish Monday when Walker signed the bill that critics charge Gogebic and mining proponents paid for.
“If it makes it easier to bring more jobs to the state, we’re all for that,” said Breitlow, adding that his union hasn’t taken any heat from organized labor effectively at war with Walker.
“We don’t like to play into partisan politics. We’re looking at the jobs,” the union chief added. “For us, this is not political. It’s not who did it, it’s that it’s creating more jobs.”
Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Trades Council, said he has had his share of tussles with members of other unions who are adamantly opposed to the mining bill, some of whom, Balistreri said, hate it just because it comes from Walker and Republicans. The unions have agreed to disagree, the union chief said.
While he said he was no fan of Act 10 and the damage it did to public-sector collective bargaining, Balistreri said there is a difference between public-union employees who were asked to pay more for their pension and health-care benefits and their brothers and sisters in construction and manufacturing.
“We lost our jobs,” he said. “We suffered 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent unemployment in many areas of the state.”
“Why anyone would be against jobs?” he added.
Opponents of the mining bill, including every Democrat in the Legislature, argue the legislation is bad for Wisconsin’s environment, and that jobs mean nothing without clean air and water.
Walker seems to believe, and his sometimes-union allies do, too, that it’s hard to make it without a job. And the governor, according to pundits like Cyr, is reaching out well beyond his conservative base to keep his.
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Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]