MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll tell you about a new documentary that describes how the Wompanoag people of Massachusetts revived their native language that had not been spoken fluently for more than a century. We'll have that story in just a few minutes. But first, a newsmaker interview with the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. He is now the subject of a recall effort in that state.
Organizers are furious about the governor's successful effort to curtail collective bargaining rights for most public employees. The recall effort gains momentum after Ohio voters voted down a tough collective bargaining law in that state earlier this month. Activists are hoping to gather over half-a-million valid signatures in just over two months. If they can do, that Wisconsin citizens would vote next year on whether Walker should be removed from office.
Already, the fight's gotten personal. Earlier this week hundreds of demonstrators associated with the group United Wisconsin marched past Governor Walker's home. Joining us now to talk about all this is the man himself, Governor Scott Walker. He's with us by phone from Wisconsin.
GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: Great to be with you.
MARTIN: Governor could we just put the politics aside for a minute and talk about the substance for those who have not had the opportunity to hear your thoughts about the subject that brought you to this point to begin with. What is the connection between curtail and collective bargaining rights and the state's budget problems, which is the issue that you said you were trying to address?
WALKER: Yeah, well, let's be clear. Collective bargaining's not a right. In our state it's been an expensive entitlement, and if it was right federal government employees would have it. I was a local official for eight years and throughout that time I spoke out repeatedly about this because I would find anytime there was a tight budget that we proposed some creative solutions and in every instance our biggest union said, no, we'd rather have the lay-offs. And for me - not only for me and other elected officials in the county, but we repeatedly would have workers come to our office saying, isn't there something you can do to go forward with this so we don't have to see our co workers laid off?
And we'd say, well, no, that's what happens with your collective bargaining contract. We're bound by that unless the state changes it. So, we knew if we were going to make reductions in the budget, if the biggest piece of that reduction would be the biggest part of the budget aid the local governments, we need to give those local governments the tools to offset that. And the way you do that is by changing the process that before it prevented them from making modest or reasonable changes, and instead it would affect the services.
We avoided the massive lay-offs you see in other states. We avoided the massive tax increase. In fact, our taxes in many cases are going down for the first time in five or six years. Those things all happened because of our collective bargaining reform.
MARTIN: And you touched on this in your remarks just now but I do want to just ask specifically about this why not ask the unions to renegotiate. There is a history of unions giving give-backs in certain circumstances. Certainly, the autoworkers unions have done that...
MARTIN: ...in recent - and why not ask to renegotiate?
WALKER: In Wisconsin there are 1,700 municipalities, there are 424 school districts, there are 72 counties, and in each of those the bargaining is done between the local collective bargaining unit and the school district or the local government. The irony was, in the midst of all this early this spring when they said that, the handful of school districts and local governments that did have contracts or that they were rushing to fill had nothing close to the 5 and the 12 percent in terms of a contribution.
So, that's when we pointed to that and said, you know, actions speak louder than words. This is a red herring put out to try and slow the process. The reality is, one, you can't guarantee that in every jurisdiction, and secondly, more importantly, part of the reason why our state like so many other states was in the fiscal mess it was in was because of years - and many times it's in both parties - years of putting off tough decisions and bouncing things with - two years ago at one-time federal stimulus aid.
Or years before that, raids on things like a transportation fund or a patient compensation fund. All those things just deferred the problem. I looked at this, you know...
WALKER: ...I'm going to think more about the next generation than I do about the next election. We're going to fix this and we're going to fix it for both state and local governments so our kids don't have to face even bigger challenges than we face.
MARTIN: We're speaking with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is now facing a recall challenge from Wisconsin residents who want to remove him from office. They're angry about his efforts to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights, among other things. You're saying you're more worried about the future than the next election but you are defending your record. I'll just play a short clip which is out defending your record. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
WALKER: I'm committed to working together to create more jobs, to improve our schools, and to protect our seniors. You know, Wisconsin's best days are yet to come. It won't happen overnight, but we are on our way.
MARTIN: Now, the listeners can't see this but the text on the screen says progress yes, recall no. Is that the core of your message and I'm also interested in what else you're doing to fight this?
WALKER: We've got all sorts of people from all across Wisconsin who are telling the story. Some of them kind of an unusual way for an ad - is isn't all just ra-ra. In many of them mention the concerns or the worries they had up front, but now that they see that the reforms are working, they see that the majority of schools, for example in our state, have added or kept the staffing at the same levels. They see that property tax bills coming out at a time when so many people are living on tight budgets will actually be frozen or lower than they were.
All those things are things that largely have been glossed over. When we had recall elections for the State Senate earlier this year there was a total of over $40 million dollars spent on those races; most of it money attacking me and what we had done and we wanted voters to hear the truth, to hear the facts, and I think the more people know what's happened, the more people understand not only why we had to do what we had to do, but the results are. I think in the end people are going to respond positive.
MARTIN: So, sorry, excuse me, I just want to clarify for people who aren't sure exactly what you're talking about. Two Wisconsin state senators lost their seats in recalls last summer but they - how many were up five or six overall?
WALKER: It was six Republicans were up, which is really the focal point. Two of them lost in districts that are...
MARTIN: OK, but two questions, governor, and you've been generous with your time and we do appreciate it, but I have to ask you about this, though. There are two issues that your critics bring up. One, is that they don't feel that you've had a mandate for this initiative because they feel that you didn't campaign on this specific platform. So, they don't feel that you had a mandate for this. And the second issue that they point to is that all employees are not covered by this.
MARTIN: ...but public service workers are not covered by this; by and large police and firefighters and so forth. And they argue that that's kind of a - if you don't mind my using this term - some kind of a cynical way to divide public employees and those who would otherwise support them. And so, I'd just like to ask you if you would address those two points?
WALKER: Sure. Well, clearly as folks in southeastern Wisconsin know where I was the county executive, even my hardened opponents when I was in county government all had said publicly nobody should be surprised because I talked about this for eight years as a county executive. And even in the campaign, and I literally ran an ad where I talked about asking public employees to pay 5 and 12 percent for pension and health insurance premiums and said I'd apply it to myself. Actually, I'd pay a higher amount that other public employees do on the pension edge.
On the fire and police, it's real simple. I knew if there was a walk-off or a work shortage I could handle just about every other critical area in state and local government. There were means, that I have back-ups at our correctional facilities and at the health facilities and other places like that where we provided critical 24/7 services. But with 1,700 municipalities across the state I couldn't guarantee that in every city and every town that there wouldn't be a work shortage in fire and police.
And even though I believed the overwhelming number of professionals would have never even considered that, if we had just one place, one community, one location that had that problem, you know, we had other public employees in the midst of this debate walked off and if they were at a school for three or four days off that's a inconvenience for parents but nobody's life is at risk. With fire and police we just couldn't do that.
MARTIN: It's no secret that there is national attention being paid to Wisconsin, in part because of these efforts and because of this issue. And I'm interested in what role you think is appropriate for interest groups outside of Wisconsin, both those that support you and those that oppose you.
WALKER: Well, I mean, the appropriateness is interesting because, obviously, I can say it, but there's no way to enforce it or evoke it. I mean, it's going to happen no matter what. We saw, in the Senate race, most Republican Senators were outspent at least two to one. In some cases, three to one by all the parties that came in from both throughout the state and across the country.
I believe, actually, if they get the signatures it will largely be because he's national - the big government unions put the money behind that. I would imagine they'll spend the tens of millions and, if it was over $40 million for the Senate recalls, that they may well be $70 million or $80 million there.
MARTIN: Well, there are conservatives that are supporting you.
WALKER: And I think more people look at that and say, that's absurd. You know, I spent $13 million running for governor. You're going to see multiple times that amount. You're going to see groups coming in from outside of our state who want to influence more about power, because let's remember the real reason the union's nationally are involved in this isn't because the pitch in their health care contributions or workers' rights or anything else.
The real reason is because we also, as part of our reforms, gave every worker in our state the right to choose whether or not he or she wants to be a part of a union and no longer have their dues forcibly removed from their payroll.
MARTIN: OK. But there are groups supporting you, too, governor, if fairness. There are outside groups that are also interested in this for their own...
WALKER: Yeah. Every election...
WALKER: ...has, like, every - but they wouldn't be here if the national unions weren't forcing a recall. I mean, I think most of your listeners across America probably are scratching their head on the recall to begin with because most states have recalls and say misconduct in office, some sort of thing like that, that triggers it. Not just - I disagree or agree with a piece of legislation.
But this is really about power. The Recall Scott Walker website was actually started in November of 2010, so anyone who thinks this wasn't - you know, that somehow this is an organic movement that just popped up, the reality is the person who started that recall site started it last year, two months before I took office.
MARTIN: But could it also be about philosophies of government?
WALKER: Well, if that's the case, then have a debate. See in 2014 if that philosophy has worked or not worked. That's what elections are about. You're elected, you serve a term and the people like what you do. If they want to continue down that course and go further in the future with your plan, then they vote for you. If, after a term is up, they don't like it or they want to tread up a new course, they elect someone different.
But here, really, what you're having is largely fueled - because, believe me, there wouldn't have been the number of bodies, and this is not hyperbole. I mean, we saw the signs and the banners and the posters of people who proudly said they were in from other states earlier this year around the capitol. We see the people streaming back over from Ohio after that referendum vote a week ago. They're not shying away from it. They're not saying that's not the case. They're actually embracing it and saying, we're bringing bodies and money in from all across America.
WALKER: To me, this has all been about power. It started last November, not earlier this year.
MARTIN: Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin. He was kind enough to interrupt his obligations to speak with us by phone from there. Governor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WALKER: My pleasure. Great to be with you.
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MARTIN: Coming up - we just heard from Governor Walker. Next, we'll hear another side of the recall story from one of the leaders of one of the groups organizing the recall campaign. We'll hear why she thinks Governor Walker needs to go, and soon. And, in case you were wondering, she's not a public employee. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.