How the Fight in Wisconsin Got Started

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 19, 2011

John Fund reviews the bidding:

[Governor] Walker’s proposals are hardly revolutionary. Facing a $137 million budget deficit, he has decided to try to avoid laying off 5,500 state workers by proposing that they contribute 5.8% of their income towards their pensions and 12.6% towards health insurance. That’s roughly the national average for public pension payments, and it is less than half the national average of what government workers contribute to health care. Mr. Walker also wants to limit the power of public-employee unions to negotiate contracts and work rules—something that 24 states already limit or ban.

The governor’s move is in reaction to a 2009 law implemented by the then-Democratic legislature that expanded public unions’ collective-bargaining rights and lifted existing limits on teacher raises.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that Governor Walker’s attitude towards public sector collective bargaining is significantly more favorable than the attitude maintained by perhaps the paramount hero of liberal Democrats, and his contemporaries:

[Franklin Delano] Roosevelt’s reign certainly was the bright dawn of modern unionism. The legal and administrative paths that led to 35% of the nation’s workforce eventually unionizing by a mid-1950s peak were laid by Roosevelt.

But only for the private sector. Roosevelt openly opposed bargaining rights for government unions.

“The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, “I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place” in the public sector. “A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government.”

And if you’re the kind of guy who capitalizes “government,” woe betide such obstructionists.

Roosevelt wasn’t alone. It was orthodoxy among Democrats through the ’50s that unions didn’t belong in government work. Things began changing when, in 1959, Wisconsin’s then-Gov. Gaylord Nelson signed collective bargaining into law for state workers. Other states followed, and gradually, municipal workers and teachers were unionized, too.

Even as that happened, the future was visible. Frank Zeidler, Milwaukee’s mayor in the 1950s and the last card-carrying Socialist to head a major U.S. city, supported labor. But in 1969, the progressive icon wrote that rise of unions in government work put a competing power in charge of public business next to elected officials. Government unions “can mean considerable loss of control over the budget, and hence over tax rates,” he warned.

There was “a revolutionary principle rather quietly at work in American government,” he wrote.

Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for signs to be displayed in Wisconsin comparing FDR to Hitler, and putting cross-hairs over pictures of his face. Such treatment–in the aftermath of the Giffords shooting, mind you–is only afforded to Republicans.

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