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Scott Walker could destroy the last stronghold of U.S. unions

Scott WalkerScott Walker
Scott WalkerPhotograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The demise of America’s unions —from a pure numbers perspective—has been well documented with the union membership rates overall declining steadily over the past few decades to reach a low of 11.1% in 2014. And if Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker gets elected, he will take steps to decimate unions even further.

At a town hall meeting in Las Vegas on Monday, the GOP hopeful—whose support suffered the steepest decline of any candidate in the latest poll, from 13% to 2%—unveiled a plan to crack down on unions and gut the National Labor Relations Act that was established in 1935 to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights.

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Walker’s plan enraged labor organizers while reemphasizing his anti-union roots. The Wisconsin governor entered the national political scene early in his first term in 2011 when he proposed eliminating public workers’ collective bargaining rights—a controversial measure that he eventually muscled through the Wisconsin legislature, despite Democrats’ harsh opposition to it.

The plan Walker announced on Monday would introduce similar efforts on a national scale. The candidate, who will appear in Wednesday’s CNN Republican debate, wants to make it illegal for federal employees to form unions while eliminating the National Labor Relations Board—the five-member body that enforces workers’ organizing protections—and imposing right-to-work laws that ban paying union dues as a condition of employment. He also wants to prohibit unions from automatically deducting union fees from workers’ paychecks, require federal employee unions to disclose what percentage of member dues are used for political activity, keep union organizers from accessing workers’ personal data, and roll back President Barack Obama’s proposals to require employers to pay overtime to salaried employees and provide paid sick leave.

The agenda—which some observers have called “draconian”—would obviously hamper the labor movement in multiple ways, but the biggest blow may be the elimination of federal workers unions—a proposal that would require an act of Congress—since organized labor in the public sector has buoyed the nationwide unionization rate, helping labor organizations retain their clout.

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In addition to outlawing unions in the federal workplace, Walker says that as president he would “stand in solidarity with any governor, Republican or Democrat, who fights the big-government special interests in their state and takes on collective bargaining reform like I did in Wisconsin.” That promise poses an enormous threat to organized labor since nearly half of the 14.5 million Americans who are currently members of unions are federal, state, or local government workers, even though the total public sector workforce is less than one-fifth the size of the private sector.

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Luckily for labor advocates, the likelihood of Walker’s proposals actually taking place are—at this point—slim to none as he continues to slip in the polls, but the platform Walker announced Monday nonetheless illustrates how successful attacks on public sector organizing could cripple the union movement.