When President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, Scott Walker was 14 years old. It must have made an impression, but that is all it did. As Walker tries to compare himself to Reagan in dealing with state employees unions in Wisconsin, he seems unfamiliar with the facts and circumstances that faced his hero. All labor unions are not the same. The Wisconsin unions in question are not on strike. They do not threaten national transportation. They have offered concessions.
With Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., in town to rally protesting demonstrators and with Wisconsin State police searching for absent Democrat legislators, Walker’s anything-but-Reagan moment in the national spotlight provides an interesting trial balloon for public opinion and a sticky problem for public affairs professionals. It begs the question, what does Walker want?
Public opinion can be decried as being a mile wide and an inch deep on many topics, especially when the public knowledge base is weak, as it is with American public opinion about the Mideast. In that case the deficit in question is information and not money.
But Americans do know about labor union membership since they, their friends or their neighbors are union members. Moreover, American opinion about unions and collective bargaining rights is changing. For example, Gallup’s new poll “broadly suggests that Americans are not anxious to see state workers take the brunt of the pain” with respect to budget cuts “either in terms of reducing their pay or eliminating their collective bargaining rights.” Gallup says that the “public isn’t eager to see these fellow residents lose pay and benefits or union rights.” But the poll notes that “they aren’t convinced unions are good for states either.”
The latest New York Times/CBS News poll reports that “Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.” As to Walker’s (and others) charge that union members are paid too much, “61 percent of those polled — including just over half of Republicans — said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either ‘about right’ or ‘too low’ for the work they do.”
The new Pew Research Center survey shows that more people “back Wisconsin’s public employee unions rather than the state’s governor in their continuing dispute over collective bargaining rights.” The polling reports that roughly “four-in-ten (42%) say they side more with the public employee unions, while 31% say they side more with the governor, Scott Walker.”
Ezra Klein writes in the Washington Post, “A new PPP [Public Policy Polling] poll of Wisconsin shows that if the state’s voters could do it over again, they’d elect Walker’s opponent as governor.” The reason for that is “self-identified Republicans who are also union members.” So the numbers are changing.
Be that as it may, the public relations implications are also becoming less favorable for Governor Walker. I asked a question of former military public affairs professionals, who are used to dealing with tough situations and who are not political public relations people. “If you were the public affairs officer for the governor’s office in Wisconsin, what would be your top concerns?” Here is a sampling.
“Groupthink trumping sound PA [Public Affairs] advice,” responded Jamie Robertson, communication director of a Canadian government commission involved in public safety. “Telling the governor what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear,” Robertson added.
“My main concern is not that [Governor Walker’s] efforts to control costs will be misunderstood or that all [Walker’s] actions will be cast in an unfavorable light by interested parties. That’s part of politics today,” responded J. David Knepper, principal of a Florida media firm. “My main concern . . . is that [he will not do] what is right.”
David Cagle, president of a California public relations and communications company answered, “With the newly released audiotape of the governor admitting to a prankster that his office had considered using agitators amongst the demonstrators, and admitting in a press release that the voice we hear is indeed his, I just don’t know how he could be doing it worse.” He continued, “The only . . . thing he can do now is start telling the truth.”
Walker’s public affairs team must have been out the day of the punked phone call, in which Walker refers to moderate Wisconsin State Senator Tim Cullen as “about the only reasonable one” of the 14 Democratic legislators who fled the state. However, Cullen told Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, “This is the eighth governor that I’ve worked with in one way or another — four Republicans, four Democrats — and this is the first governor who takes a clear public position that he will never negotiate.” The Badger State’s new governor evidently missed the part about his hero Ronald Reagan’s practice of deal making. “I don’t budge,” Walker said on the taped call. “I’m not negotiating.”
It has become clear that the budget impact of Walker’s attempted union busting is negligible. Not only does it not save money, it threatens to lay off as many as 12,000 people.
Walker’s “…attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions — an offer the governor has rejected,” wrote Paul Krugman in the NY Times. “What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab — an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis…”
There is a point at which the question of competence in office will rise above others. To assail the GOP on the competence issue is a cheap shot. But the longer Scott Walker tries to make a name for himself above executing his duties as a governor, which includes competent negotiation, the name he is making will not be a good one.