The New York Times Sunday magazine launched another emotional attack on Wisconsin's Republican (and presidential hopeful) Gov. Scott Walker, whom the paper cannot forgive for successfully taming his state's public unions and then surviving an expensive, union-funded recall election. Contributor Dan Kaufman's romanticized, pro-union 5,700-word cover story was portrayed on the cover in an aggrieved, exaggerated fashion: "Labor's Last Stand -- Scott Walker and the dismantling of American unions." A pull quote from a union official captures the tone: "Wisconsin has become a kind of laboratory for oligarchs to implement their political and economic agenda."
Kaufman wrote a similar, slanted anti-Walker article about the Wisconsin union fight for the magazine in 2012, "Land of Cheese and Rancor – How did Wisconsin get to be the most politically divisive place in America?" That 5,000-word story was keyed to the recall election pitting Walker against Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who Walker beat in the actual election in 2010. He left out left-wing union protesters who took to the state capitol comparing Walker to Hitler, and ended with a lesson in Times-worthy political decorum, as one Republican state senator regained his "civility" by voting with the Democrats.
Bolstering Wisconsin public unions in their battle against Walker was common in the paper. In February 2011 Times reporters posed the ludicrous yet "inevitable" question, during the dawn of the Arab Spring: "The parallels raise the inevitable question: Is Wisconsin the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights?"
The main source for Kaufman's latest cover story, which featured only pro-union sources, was Randy Bryce, a union worker who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a state senate seat in Wisconsin -- a fact the author mentions in passing halfway through the long piece. Bryce is portrayed as a lunchbucket hero.
On his first day of work in three months, Randy Bryce asked his foreman for the next day off. He wanted to go to the Capitol in Madison, Wis., and testify against a proposed law. Bryce, a member of Milwaukee Ironworkers Local 8, was unloading truckloads of steel beams to build a warehouse near Kenosha, and he needed the job. He has an 8-year-old son, his debts were piling up and a 10-hour shift paid more than $300. But the legislation, which Republicans were rushing through the State Senate, angered him enough to sacrifice the hours. Supporters called it a “right to work” bill, because it prohibited unions from requiring employees to pay dues. But to Bryce, that appealing name hid the true purpose of the bill, which was to destroy unions.
The next morning, Bryce, who is 50 and has close-cropped black hair and a horseshoe mustache, woke up at 5:30, got dressed in his usual jeans, hoodie and Local 8 varsity jacket with an I-beam and an American flag stitched on the back and drove 90 miles to Madison in his gray Mustang. Despite the February chill, crowds had begun to gather in the square outside the Capitol. The scene was reminiscent of a similar one that played out four years earlier, in 2011, when thousands of people occupied the Capitol’s rotunda for more than two weeks to protest Act 10, a law that demolished collective-bargaining rights for nearly all public employees. The protests in Madison were the first significant resistance to the ascendant Tea Party and helped set the stage for Occupy Wall Street. For Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, it was the moment that started his conservative ascent....
At the Capitol, dozens of state troopers (who kept their bargaining rights) and Capitol police officers (who lost theirs) were now patrolling the rotunda to prevent it from being occupied again. The Senate hearing room was already packed, so Bryce watched the hearing on monitors outside while he waited for his turn to speak. First came the expert witnesses. James Sherk, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that unions operate as cartels...Greg Mourad, a spokesman for a lobbying organization called the National Right to Work Committee, which has received significant funding from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, compared the experience of being made to pay union dues to being kidnapped and extorted....
Kaufman carefully chose parallels to make Bryce the humble hero and Walker the feted favorite of the wealthy elite.
Bryce still wanted to speak. He had lost a day’s wages, and the committee’s two Democratic senators had remained to hear more testimony. State troopers were now blocking the door to the hearing room, though, so he decided to address a group of protesters in the hallway outside instead.
“My name is Randy Bryce,” he began in a loud voice. “I’ve been a member of Ironworkers Local 8 since 1997. I’ve had the privilege in that time to work on many of Wisconsin’s landmarks, private businesses and numerous other parts of our infrastructure.” As he spoke, the protesters began to quiet. Bryce described how he had wandered from job to job after he left the Army, how Local 8’s apprenticeship program had given him direction, a real career. Finally, he presented the case against what he called “a blatant political attack” on his union. “All of our representatives are elected,” he said. “All of the decisions that we make are voted on. The general membership is given monthly reports on how every dime is spent. Every dime spent is voted on. Unlike what is taking place this week, Ironworkers Local 8 is pure democracy. I am disappointed beyond words at not just what this bill contains, but how it is being passed.”
Two days later, just after the full Senate approved the bill that would make Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state, Scott Walker was in Maryland, attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual showcase for conservative activists and Republican presidential hopefuls. At a question-and-answer session, one attendee asked Walker how he, as president, would confront the threat from radical Islamist groups like ISIS. Walker’s answer was simple, and may in the end define his candidacy. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” he said, “I can do the same across the world.”
In passing, we learn that ironworkers in Wisconsin have a pretty sweet deal: "In southeastern Wisconsin, union ironworkers earn $55 an hour and receive $33 of that in pretax income...."
Kaufman played with state economic figures to ignore Wisconsin's impressively low unemployment rate of 4.6% as of March 2015, nearly a full point below the national average of 5.5%.
But if Wisconsin is a model for what Walker might achieve nationally, it is worth examining his results so far. Walker credits Act 10 in part for the decline in Wisconsin’s unemployment rate since he took office in 2011 and has said he considers right-to-work “one more arrow in that quiver” for the creation of jobs. But since 2011, the state has fallen to 40th out of the 50 states in job growth and 42nd in wage growth, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data conducted by The Capital Times of Wisconsin. Act 10, officially called the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, was supposed to fix persistent budget shortfalls by lowering labor costs and eliminating union rules. But Wisconsin’s two-year projected budget deficit has actually increased; in May, the Legislature approved a $250 million cut to the state’s prized university system to help close the gap. Wisconsin is now among the top 10 states people move out of.
Kaufman came full circle to paint Bryce as heroic and the conservative Heritage Foundation economist as petty and dismissive, using a photo of Bryce on top of the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium during construction.
It was difficult to see Bryce and his co-workers, 350 feet in the air and bracing against the wind, as members of a cartel, as the Heritage Foundation economist had described unions in his Senate testimony. Miller Park had claimed the lives of three Local 8 ironworkers, who fell 300 feet to their deaths when a giant crane collapsed into the stadium on a fiercely windy day.