MADISON, Wis. — 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."
Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation in 1993 as a freshman in the state Assembly but he stressed Friday he has no interest in signing such a bill into law as governor.
"It's not going to get to my desk," Walker said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure it isn't there."
Walker said he has been a good partner with private unions to help bring jobs to Wisconsin.
Supporters believe right-to-work would give more freedom to workers and make it more attractive for companies to invest and hire employees. Opponents say it undermines unions and doesn't help the economy.
The Walker footage was first reported late Thursday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Walker faced a $3.6 billion budget deficit when he took office in January 2011. Despite widespread skepticism, he has maintained since unveiling his "budget repair bill" that February that the collective bargaining restrictions written into the bill were needed to give the state and local governments the flexibility to confront looming budget cuts.
Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein captured the footage while shooting "As Goes Janesville," a documentary on the city of Janesville's efforts to create jobs after a General Motors plant in town closed. The conversation took place at the Beloit headquarters of ABC Supply, the roofing wholesaler and siding distributor Hendricks co-founded.
Lichtenstein has worked for Democratic campaigns and donated to Barrett, but he said the timing of the clip's release wasn't linked to the recall. He said he planned to release snippets of the film only after he completed it and showed it to the people it follows most closely and finished those screenings last month.
"It's absolutely not a political attack. This is 28 seconds in a 10-minute trailer in a 90-minute film," he said. The documentary is expected to be shown at film festivals and on PBS stations this fall.
The video makes for interesting campaign fodder, but it's unlikely it will sway many voters. After a year and a half of recall talk, most people have already made up their minds about whether they support or oppose Walker.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Green Bay, Carrie Antlfinger in West Allis and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
"As Goes Janesville" trailer: http://bit.ly/LxHYgl