If Trump follows Walker’s model, he will betray his base

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently visited the White House, prompting speculation that the Trump administration might be looking to follow Walker’s model of anti-unionism. But following Walker’s model means betraying the very people who put President Trump in office: frustrated working-class Americans.

In 2011, at the urging of the billionaire Koch brothers, Walker pushed through a law that effectively eliminated the right to collective bargaining for state and local government employees. School teachers and custodians, child case workers, and road repair crews all lost the right to bargain for decent wages and benefits. Walker portrayed his action as standing up for hard-working nonunion taxpayers in the private sector who were being bled dry by the Cadillac pensions of fat and lazy public employees. In fact, however, Walker’s bill was just one more part of a playbook written by corporate lobbyists to make the rich even richer and our economy even more unequal.

Public employees are working- and middle-class, and all of them suffered dramatic health insurance cutbacks. But when the state cut people’s benefits, what did they do with the savings? They certainly didn’t give it to hard-working families struggling to make ends meet in the private sector. Instead, more than half the savings were doled out in tax cuts to the richest 20 percent of the population. While Walker gave the rich— those who needed the least help— an extra $680 per year per person, those struggling to get by in the poorest fifth of Wisconsin families got less than $50 each. Walker’s model is not taking from the haves and giving to the have-nots: it’s taking from working people and giving to the elite.

Walker’s attack on unions was part of a broader strategy of playing one group of workers against another. While cutting wages for public employees, Walker insisted he was a friend of private sector unions. Then he attacked private sector unions by signing a so-called “right-to-work” law, but insisted he was still a friend of construction workers. Finally, when all the other unions had been undermined, he’s supported cutting prevailing-wage laws for construction workers.

And with unions weakened, Walker and his allies in the big business lobbies were free to go after nonunion workers. Under Walker, Wisconsin eliminated the right to paid sick leave in Milwaukee and made it illegal for any city’s residents to vote on establishing a right to sick leave. He cut construction wages—for both union and non-union workers— on publicly funded building projects. He abolished limits on how many hours high school students can work during the school week, so employers can replace adult employees with teenagers. And he eliminated the right to one day’s rest per week.

Anti-unionism is not part of making life better for hard-working Americans. It is part of a well-funded corporate agenda that, in every way possible, makes the rich richer and leaves everyone else worse off. If Trump takes up this model, he will be playing the most cynical of jokes on the working people who put faith in him.

Gordon Lafer is author of the forthcoming The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America, One State at a Time.