Walker, a Republican, picked up his Harley habit in 2003, when he was tasked to lead a parade on one in Milwaukee as county executive. He practiced in the parking lot of the Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball stadium until he got the hang of it. Since then, he has not only become an avid hobbyist, getting his first Harley Road King as a present from his wife, Tonette Walker, in 2008, but has also made riding hogs a part of his political brand, tapping into a conservative, everyman biker culture evocative of Americana and a passion for personal freedom.
“I’m a guy with a wife and two kids and a Harley,” Walker said in his closing statement at a GOP presidential debate in Cleveland earlier this month. “One article called me ‘aggressively normal.’”
But the continued financial pressures on the workers who manufacture these beloved machines may be an illustration of Walker’s biggest hurdle as he campaigns for his party’s nomination and the White House: an economy that, some argue, has failed to boost the fortunes of middle-class Wisconsinites.
Harley-Davidson workers in Milwaukee interviewed by Al Jazeera America, who declined to give their names because of fear of reprisal from their employer, said that even as the company has rebounded from the recession, reporting $885 million in income in 2014, conditions have continued to deteriorate for employees.
“It went from somewhat good relationships with the company to very awful, the bottom of the barrel,” said one machinist who has worked at Pilgrim Road for two decades. “We lost a lot of insurance, we lost vacation time, we lost pay, we had layoffs, and a lot of the retirement benefits that were a mainstay were totally stripped … and the union has been weakened to a point of nonexistence.”
Maripat Blankenheim, Harley-Davidson's director of corporate communications, said in a statement that the 2010 contract improved efficiency in Milwaukee and has helped keep the company competitive and profitable.
"The contract Harley-Davidson signed with the company’s Wisconsin-based represented employees in 2010 was a significant step toward our current flexible production system, which helps us produce and deliver motorcycle models that customers want, when they want them," she said. "The contract also included an extremely competitive compensation package while providing the cost-competitiveness needed to succeed as a U.S. manufacturer in a global economy."
Masic, now retired after 21 years at the Pilgrim Road factory, too noted that there are few alternatives for workers looking for good jobs with decent wages in the flagging Wisconsin labor market.
“You have to look at the whole picture. Where are you going to get a job that replaces one like that?” he said. “You have disposable income, and you’re making more than most places in Milwaukee.”
The broader trends that have ensured smaller paychecks and less job stability for Harley-Davidson employees and Wisconsin workers overall are bigger than Walker and predate his tenure, but his fiercest critics say the two-term governor should be held accountable for leaving those structural challenges unaddressed.
“We got a governor that likes to tout his record,” Masic said, offering one such perspective. “But if anybody came in and took a good close look, I don’t think he’s accomplishing everything he’s saying.”