As the head of the largest construction union in Wisconsin, Terry McGowan has often found himself and his members bearing the brunt of what many consider Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union polices.
McGowan has even gone so far as to say Walker lied to his face by telling him he would not sign right-to-work legislation into law and then going on to do that very thing just a few years later. Yet, despite that history, McGowan insists his latest attempt to link Walker’s polices to deteriorating roads — using a group called Safe Transportation Over Politics, or STOP, to complain that highways and streets are riddled with what he derisively calls “Scott-Holes” — isn’t personal. It’s not even political.
Rather than defeat Walker in his bid for re-election in November, McGowan says he’s merely trying to make sure that the issue of roads isn’t left by the wayside this campaign season. Too often, he said, concerns about the transportation system get paved over in debates about state affairs.
“I’m trusting the governor will have a sense of humor about it,” McGowan said, recalling how Walker had once chided Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by referring to a detour route set up in the Zoo Interchange as the “Barrett bypass.”
But it’s not laughs that McGowan is after.
“We can talk about this all we want using these whimsical terms,” McGowan said, “but it’s a really serious issue.”
How serious, McGowan said, can be seen in the results of the latest Marquette University Law School poll. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents to that survey rated the condition of roads where they live as either fair or poor.
And when people living outside parts of the most populous cities were broken out from everyone else, the results were even worse. Sixty-six percent of the respondents living in northern and western Wisconsin deemed roads near them to be in fair or poor shape.
McGowan said the governor’s current policies are not going to make the situation any better. Walker’s full-fledged backing of Foxconn Technology Group’s plans to build a $10 billion factory near Racine have resulted in tens of millions of dollars of highway money being funneled into southeast Wisconsin from other parts of the state.
It’s no exaggeration, McGowan argued, to say that southeast Wisconsin will have a practically new highway system in coming years while drivers up north and out west will continue to be plagued by, well, “Scott-Holes.”
“People living out there, they are paying as much in taxes as people living anywhere in Wisconsin,” McGowan said. “The only difference is they aren’t getting anything.”
McGowan faults Walker primarily for two policy stances. One, there’s the governor’s adamant refusal to even consider raising revenue by increasing the state’s gas tax or vehicle registration. Second, there’s the governor’s heavy reliance on borrowing, something that even members of Walker’s own party have pushed back against in recent years.
Tariffs threaten to make the situation only worse. The new duties on steel and aluminum imports could easily push up the cost of materials by double-digit percentages every year, McGowan said.
“With the repeal of prevailing wages, they could maybe go out and find a highway crew that will work for them at a minimum wage,” he said. “But they are not going to be able to control the price of the materials.”
Despite the headwinds, McGowan said the prospects are far from bad for the industry. His union now numbers 10,000 members and has 600 apprentices in training.
If there is one thing he worries about, it’s that the new construction workers don’t fully comprehend just how cyclical the industry can be.
“I keep trying to tell these younger guys be careful buying these toys, the ATVs, the boats, the SUVs,” he said. “That last recession was really rough on a lot of those young kids.”
As for politics and the governor’s race, McGowan and Local 139 have given almost all their support to Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, the head of the state firefighters union and a long-time friend of McGowan’s. Mitchell’s prospects, though, don’t appear great. He, like most of the Democrats running, has so far trailed steadily in the polls behind Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public schools.
If Evers did end up winning the primary election on Aug. 14, McGowan has no doubt he’d be a strong advocate for roads. And even if Walker were re-elected in November, that wouldn’t necessarily spell disaster for McGowan and company.
“If he gets re-elected,” McGowan said, “it’ll just mean it’s his mess to clean up.”
The Daily Reporter: What surprises you most about your job?
McGowan: Positive attitudes. It surprises me that I have seen people in very bad situations and I’m not talking about just in my office, I’m talking about out in the field. And sometimes it amazes me that they can stay positive. I love that about people in my industry. I think people realize that if you let yourself get dragged down, it only gets worse.
TDR: Which living person do you most admire?
McGowan: My counterpart down in Chicago (Bill Dugan.) He recently retired. And he built a strong union, and I’ve always admired him and I’ve always thought he did one hell of a job building up that Local. I try to accomplish some of things he did up here in Wisconsin.
TDR: What’s your greatest fear?
McGowan: My greatest fear is that we might one day see the loss of the skilled trades, because there are a lot of legislators who have tinkered with construction trades lately and everything they do affects us. And all you have to do is look at the architecture in Milwaukee and some of the old masonry. That’s lost, and I don’t want to see the skilled trades move back anymore.
TDR: What’s your greatest extravagance?
McGowan: I like red wine.
TDR: What would you never wear?
TDR: If you could change one thing about yourself, what it would be?
McGowan: I had a lot shorter fuse when I was younger and there were times I lost it when I probably should have been more tolerant, say, when a conversation didn’t go my way. In my old age, I’ve learned to be a little more tolerant.