When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced bold plans to strip public employee unions of most of their powers and make government workers pay more for their benefits, he included this footnote:
If state employees reacted with job actions that would disrupt services, Walker said he was prepared to call on the National Guard for help.
Some Democratic-leaning organizations, however, took the new Republican governor’s warning to mean something more.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Washington, D.C., organization that backed former Democratic Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold in his failed 2010 re-election bid, said it sent an e-mail to 13,000 of its Wisconsin members on Feb. 14, 2011, that contained this line in bold:
"Walker has threatened to call out the National Guard if workers protest against these cuts!"
It goes on to say:
"The idea that a governor can use the military to impose his personal, political will on the people he governs is a primitive relic of the past -- one that resulted in a century of bloodshed in this country. The last time military force was used against workers was during the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, just days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It must not be repeated again."
Walker certainly anticipated a strong reaction from government employees to his plans to strip bargaining rights and increase their contributions to pensions and health care premiums.
But did he threaten to call out the National Guard in response to protests?
And did he threaten to use them in this manner, to use force to "impose his personal, political will"?
Like the progressive committee, Citizen Action of Wisconsin issued a news release the same day that condemned Walker’s "threat of force" and mentioned the King assassination. That release also cited the Bay View Massacre of 1886, when seven workers protesting for the eight-hour workday were shot and killed.
We asked the progressive committee for evidence to back its claim that Walker threatened to summon the National Guard in response to protests.
It cited three Feb. 11 news stories:
- Milwaukee public radio station WUWM-FM reported that "if there is worker unrest, Walker says the Wisconsin National Guard is prepared to respond" and that Walker said the Guard is prepared "for any problems with workers."
- The Associated Press reported that Walker said the Guard "is prepared to respond if there is any unrest among state employees."
- Milwaukee-based Biz Times Daily reported that Walker said he "is prepared to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to respond if there is any unrest among state employees.
None of those reports quoted Walker directly, so let’s see what he actually said at the news conference where he announced his proposals.
Walker made reference to having made contingency plans and was asked by a reporter whether they included the National Guard.
"In state government, we have had, before I’ve taken office, plans for contingencies no matter what the circumstances. We have updated those," Walker said. "I got a full briefing from all the major, level-one state agencies as well as the
the National Guard yesterday (Feb. 10). We are fully prepared and equipped to handle whatever may occur. So we have every confidence we can move forward on that.
"But again, you plan for the worst, you expect the best. And I expect from the good men and women who work for state and local government that they’re going to continue to do the good, professional job they do each and every day."
Referring to the Guard, he added:
"They’re not called up at this point. We obviously have a whole series of circumstances that would lead to that. I’m not anticipating that, I’m not expecting that, but I want to make everyone certain in this state that I’m fully prepared for whatever may happen."
When he spoke later that day to Journal Sentinel reporters and editors, Walker used the example of the National Guard helping run state prisons in the event of a strike by corrections workers.
In an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin, Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie wrote: "In the unlikely event that core government services are disrupted the Guard would be used just to continue those services. That’s what the National Guard does."
Indeed, demonstrations over Walker’s proposals were held in Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin on Feb. 14 and 15, with thousands of people showing up, but the National Guard was not summoned.
And on Feb. 15, the Guard issued a news release saying it "has not been mobilized for state active duty" and "we remain in our normal state of readiness."
Let’s return to the statement.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee said Walker "threatened to call out the National Guard if workers protest against these cuts!" The governor spoke of possibly calling up the Guard if state workers didn’t show up for work, but he made no reference to using it in response to protests. And certainly none that would suggest the Guard is authorized to use force to impose anything on state workers.
We rate the claim Pants on Fire.