I’ll admit – I’ve been less than enthusiastic about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke. I’ve been critical of the way her campaign has been rolled out, and I’ve been less than thrilled with her reluctance (at least initially) to give straight answers about her policy positions. However, I recently had an opportunity to sit down and speak with Burke, and after our conversation I came away less apprehensive about her candidacy.
Given the deep concerns many public employees have about the negative impact Scott Walker’s attempts to bust public employee unions through Act 10 has had on them, I started our conversation with a question about Act 10. I pressed Burke to share her thoughts on Act 10, and Burke made it clear that she not only supports collective bargaining for public sector employees, but that she would work to get those rights restored.
“Any success we have is because of our people,” Burke said, noting that while pay and benefits are important for recruiting and retaining good public employees, improving employee morale is equally important, given how morale among so many public employees has suffered as a result of Act 10. Burke noted that the actions of Gov. Walker in implementing Act 10 is exact opposite approach of the one she took as Commerce Secretary. Burke noted that as Commerce Secretary she got into the field to get to know the workers in hopes of finding out what they needed in order to do their jobs better, and she said she found that the voices of the people in the field weren’t being heard. Burke said that she created “councils” for employees and management to get together and talk about issues, which led to an improved workplace as a result.
As our conversation continued, I asked Burke to explain how she reconciles her narrative as a job creator with criticisms of Trek Bicycle’s record of outsourcing jobs, especially in light of a recent Labor Department ruling which said up to 20 former Trek employees are eligible for federal aid after their jobs were outsourced. In response to my question, Burke said, “I would say first and foremost that Trek does more than any other bike company to support manufacturing in the United States.” Burke also pointed out that Trek Bicycle produces more bikes in the United States than any other company, adding that the company’s payroll in Wisconsin has more than doubled over the past 20 years while employing nearly 1,000 people in the state.
Burke added, “[Trek employees] buy over $40 million in goods and services from other Wisconsin businesses, many of them small businesses, that help, again, create more jobs in the state.” She also defended Trek’s record when it comes to its employees by pointing out that the company values its people, with the largest single shareholder being the employee stock ownership group, so that every employee has a stake in the ownership of the company.
Asked if she would support an increase in the state’s minimum wage, Burke said would like to see an increase in the state’s minimum wage, but she was quick to note that she would need to make sure analysis is done to ensure no jobs would be lost or that job growth would not stagnate as a result of a minimum wage increase, especially in a weak economy. Burke added she felt more also needed to be done to address underlying issues that can affect the ability of individuals to earn a better wage, issues such as education. According to Burke “[M]aking sure people have the opportunities to be working their way up and be able to earn more money” should be a priority in our state.
Pressed about so-called “right to work” laws, Burke made it clear she does not support so-called “right to work” laws, saying, “We should stick to the laws already on the books.”
Burke has previously indicated she would have taken federal funds to expand BadgerCare in Wisconsin, and so I asked her if she would also support restoring eligibility criteria for BadgerCare back to 200% of the federal poverty line. “I would consider it,” Burke said, qualifying her statement by saying that the state needs to live within its means and make sure its budget is balanced. As long as those criteria are met, Burke said she’d look at the options available on how to expand BadgerCare to more Wisconsinites.
While my interview with Mary Burke didn’t touch on every issue I had hoped to, it’s my hope that I’ll have an opportunity to sit down with her again to cover those issues we weren’t able to cover.