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Scott Walker's Anti-Union Push May Not Prove So Easy As President

Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., holds up a $1 bill during a town hall in Las Vegas where he announced his plan to take on labor unions.
Isaac Brekken
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., holds up a $1 bill during a town hall in Las Vegas where he announced his plan to take on labor unions.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose battles with labor unions in his own state made him a hero to Republicans, is now proposing huge restrictions on unions nationally as he seeks to revitalize his presidential campaign.

On Monday, Walker released an eight-page plan to take on unions, titled "My Plan to Give Power to the People, Not the Union Bosses."

He's vowing to:

  • Eliminate the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB.
  • Eliminate unions at the federal level.
  • Until unions are eliminated at the federal level, earmark the amount of federal worker union dues used for political activity and withhold that money.
  • Require online disclosure of union expenditures.
  • Have the Labor Department issue reports on state collective-bargaining agreements and note what would be saved if those agreements were overhauled.
  • Push for all states to become so-called "right-to-work" states, which means that no union could require dues to be paid by members.
  • Push to allow workers, who would otherwise be union, to be allowed to negotiate contracts non-collectively.
  • Push for a federally supervised, so-called "secret ballot" for workers to approve a strike.
  • Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring federal contractors to "pay their laborers and mechanics employed under the contract no less than the locally prevailing wages and fringe benefits for corresponding work on similar projects in the area." For jobs over $100,000, the act requires those employers to pay overtime to workers who exceed 40 hours in a week.
  • What Walker is proposing is sweeping and would be among the biggest changes to labor unions in American history. But he may find that much of what he was able to do at the state level, may not so easily translate in Washington, if he were to become president.

    Back to the Greatest Hits

    The front page of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plan to take on labor unions.
    / Scott Walker for America campaign
    Scott Walker for America campaign
    The front page of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plan to take on labor unions.

    In his run for the White House so far, Walker has stumbled on foreign policy and immigration, so he's back to singing a familiar tune in this post-Labor Day push.

    "I think it is, in a way, Walker playing his greatest hit, especially after a summer in which he's had difficulty finding a theme and sticking to that theme," said Charles Franklin of Marquette University, who's watched Walker closely.

    Walker took on public-sector unions in Wisconsin and faced down and defeated a recall effort that meant he had to win three statewide elections in the span of four years. It's what made his mark.

    "When more than 100,000 protesters occupied our Capitol, we didn't back down," Walker said in a speech unveiling the policy push Monday in Las Vegas. "When there were death threats against me and threats against my family, we didn't back down."

    Walker added, "We took on the big-government union bosses, and we went big and we went bold."

    "Union bosses" is a term he used more than a dozen times in his speech.

    The NLRB

    The NLRB was created 80 years ago as part of the National Labor Relations Act passed during Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term in the White House.

    Walker's plan describes the the board as "a one-sided advocate for big labor special interests." Democrats currently hold a 3-2 advantage on the NLRB.

    But the board's political leaning depends on who the president is.

    Under Republican presidents, including the immediate past GOP president, George W. Bush, for example, Republicans held the edge — and used the NLRB to their advantage.

    Angela Cornell, a specialist in Labor Law at Cornell University, says eliminating the board is not as easy as Walker makes it sound.

    "It's a statute that's passed by Congress, so it's not something that can simply be eliminated through executive order," Cornell noted. "It's a statute, and it's the will of Congress, and it's been in place since 1935."

    Expanding "right to work" and eliminating federal worker unions

    Twenty-five states have right-to-work laws that say workers cannot be required to join unions and pay union dues as a condition of their employment.

    Walker says he wants to expand that to be federal law as well.

    Walker also pledged to do away with unions for federal workers. But, again, to do so would require congressional actions.

    In fact, to carry out both of these promises, a President Walker would need not only GOP control of Congress, but also a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

    Currently, Republicans have a wide majority in the House and can pass almost anything on party-line vote.

    But, in the Senate, Republicans hold a 54-to-44 majority (and two independents caucus with the Democrats). Republicans would have to net six seats in the 2016 elections for a filibuster-proof majority.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

    You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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