03/10/2015 05:53 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT

The union-walloping governor of Wisconsin produces yet another surprise

WASHINGTON - The union-busting governor of Wisconsin is a man of surprises.

Scott Walker shocked friends and foes alike a few years ago when he informed them of a plan to strip away collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions.

He'd never campaigned on anything of the sort — so it was enough of a jolt that when he announced the plan at a closed-door meeting, one fellow Republican said he felt an actual pain in his chest. A union official later dismissed Walker as just blowing hot air, according to a book chronicling his governorship.

Oh, but he was serious.

He informed lawmakers that he'd alerted the National Guard in case of unrest, and he compared his plan to Ronald Reagan's taking on the air-traffic controllers and showing those Soviets he meant business, according to the book by a pair of Wisconsin journalists, "More Than They Bargained For."

Walker continued defying his foes. He survived weeks of protests, and a recall battle, and a re-election bid to become a hero of the conservative grassroots and a sudden contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

The surprises didn't stop there.

Walker expressed regret for not having been more transparent about the change in 2011. He explained why he wouldn't go after private-sector unions: "Because they are our partners in helping economic development." He even repeated the pledge in the subsequent election.

Yet there he was this week, ending mandatory union contributions in the private sector and signing a bill that made Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work U.S. state.

The political bounces kept going his way.

President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning the new law — which, as some of Walker's boosters pointed out on Twitter, amounts to a ringing endorsement in the eyes of Republican primary voters.

The White House took the rare step Monday night of issuing a press release about state legislation.

"It's no coincidence that the rise of the middle class in America coincided in large part with the rise of unions," Obama said in a statement.

"Workers who organized together for higher wages, better working conditions, and the benefits and protections that most workers take for granted today. So it's inexcusable that, over the past several years, just when middle-class families and workers need that kind of security the most, there's been a sustained, co-ordinated assault on unions, led by powerful interests and their allies in government."

As noted in that release, the U.S. labour movement hasn't fared so well. In fact, its fortunes have trended in the opposite direction of Walker's political star:

—Unionization rates have dropped by half, to a paltry 11 per cent, in the last three decades. The enrolment rate is 36 per cent for public-sector unions, and 7 per cent for the private sector.

—Canada's rate has also levelled off, but at a far less dramatic pace. From 1981 to 2013, Canada's unionization rate declined from 38 per cent to 30 per cent, and the trend has eased the last few years. In the public sector the rate is 71 per cent, and it's 16 per cent in the private sector.

One U.S. union president points to a big difference between the countries: corporate money in politics. It's restricted in Canada, and almost unlimited down south.

"We basically have a political system that's run by billionaires," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

"This is a disease — it's much worse in the Republican party, but it's crept into the Democratic party as well.... The people who fund (Walker) get a good return on their money. Maximize profits, cut down what you pay people, take away people's rights, and the one per cent of the one per cent get more powerful."

He said three factors are conspiring to depress the U.S. middle class — big-money politics, attacks on bargaining rights, and trade policy. Economists often point to a fourth factor: new technology, which reduces the distance between labour markets, increases productivity and allows companies to work around unions.

He said the U.S. labour movement needs to respond by creating a so-called democracy coalition, with unions, civil-rights groups and students fighting to take the money out of politics.

"Yeah, it's grim in the United States," Cohen said. "There's no other word for it."