MADISON, Wis. — The last time President Barack Obama celebrated workers' rights at a Wisconsin Labor Day event, there was barely a hint of the turmoil that would embroil the state later when public employees staged massive protests in an unsuccessful bid to keep their collective bargaining rights.
Now, four years later, he's returning to the state with the anti-union law's architect, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, locked in a tight re-election campaign while considering a run for the White House in two years.
Polls show that Walker and Democrat Mary Burke are deadlocked with the election just over two months away. Walker is running on the platform that he turned around the state's economy, thanks largely to his union rights law, which was his signature accomplishment.
That law, which put Wisconsin at the center of a national debate over union rights, stripped most public sector union members of their ability to collectively bargain and required them to pay more for their pensions and health care, which amounted to a pay cut.
Burke, a former state Commerce Department secretary and Trek Bicycles executive, isn't promising to repeal the law if she's elected. But she does support the restoration of public workers' collective bargaining rights.
Obama's visit to this year's "Laborfest" will mark the first time he and Burke have appeared at the same public event, but there are no plans for them to share the stage. Burke will meet privately with Obama, her spokesman Joe Zepecki said, and she will not be speaking at the labor rally because it's not a campaign event.
Burke has invited Obama to return for a campaign event before the election and is optimistic that will happen, Zepecki said.
Republicans are trying to turn the visit against Burke as Obama's approval ratings in the state hover below 50 percent. A Marquette University Law School poll released on Wednesday showed that just as many likely voters — 49 percent — have a favorable view of the president as an unfavorable one.
"Mary Burke is willing to meet with President Obama in private but she refuses to campaign with him in public?" said Walker's campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre. "Burke can offer up excuses and try to hide from President Obama and his rotten approval ratings, but she can't hide from the fact that her and the president's failed economic policies are one and the same."
Much has changed in Wisconsin since Obama's last Labor Day appearance four years ago.
"Public sector unions are clearly not better off," said Paul Secunda, labor law professor and program coordinator for the Marquette Law School's Labor and Employment Law Program in Milwaukee.
In 2010, just over 15 percent of private and public sector workers in Wisconsin were represented by unions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in 2013, that had dropped to just over 13 percent, still above the national average of 12.4 percent. While private union representation has held steady in Wisconsin, it dropped nearly 25 percent in the public sector, thanks to Walker's law.
"Public sector unions have hemorrhaged members as it's become impossible for them to service their members," Secunda said. "It makes no sense for a public sector employee to join a union when they can't offer them anything."
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