There are rumblings in the Capitol about a proposal Walker is going to make tomorrow with regards to state employee unions. Although Walker has threatened to completely decertify the unions that represent tens of thousands of state and county workers, there are also rumors that the threat is a negotiating tool to get the other side to accept a more modest proposal, such as eliminating the unions rights to bargain over health care benefits and pensions.
For Republicans to completely ban state unions would be a radical break from 50 years of precedent governing labor relations between the state and its workers. That the move is even being discussed symbolizes the significant ideological shift the GOP has taken in recent years, as well as the unprecedented monopoly on power the right wing of the party now holds in state government. During the 90's, when the GOP last had complete control of the Capitol and the governor's mansion, the party had many more moderate members. In fact, Gov. Tommy Thompson won AFSCME's endorsement in 1994, and it was former Republican Assembly Speaker David Prosser who got collective bargaining rights for public defenders passed.
If Walker's concerns are truly budgetary, he could do a lot without pushing for complete abolition of public sector unions. He has the support, both from the legislature and the public, to pare back state employee benefits. It represents a pittance in the context of the budget (employee salaries make up 8 percent of total state spending, and benefits represent much less than that), but if he wants to do it, he can do so easily.
That's why it's important to understand that the motivation to push for aboliiton is primarily political, and bears little relation to fiscal concerns. Public sector unions are a powerful Democratic interest group, and their funding comes from member dues. There is nothing that would give Republicans more pleasure than to cut one of their largest political opponents off from its funding source, and there is no better time to make that move than amidst hysteria about impending fiscal crisis.
Another political move Republicans have been considering is changing the law to require unions to re-certify every year. This might sound more reasonable to the public and it would accomplish almost the same political objective as outlawing the unions, because, unless I misunderstand labor law, it would force unions to spend their time signing up members. Again, take the unions off the campaign trail. That's the main goal.
What's going to happen if Walker pulls out the big guns? Something radical. As the newest proposal from WEAC demonstrates, the unions are willing to negotiate to a certain extent to fight for their survival. However, the backlash against a direct assault on their existence will be brutal. We could see work stoppages. But I don't think Walker is going to budge.