In The News
Scholar exposes rot in Walker’s approach to worker rights
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted March 31
It is not surprising that Scott Walker stands in ideological opposition to President Obama. But to the pope? The conservative Milwaukee archbishop? International courts, the UN and the Protestant leaders of his upbringing? Call it stubbornness, density or basic ignorance of history, but that sure takes a lot of something stupid.
The issue is workers’ rights – and few on either side would now disagree that Walker over-reached badly in concept and tactics. Whatever ill will he sensed in his corporate buddies about public workers, the answer was not robbing them of their rights while pretending it wasn’t about the unions and political power. If you want to see how much it wasn’t about the budget as he first claimed, check out full details of what his rights bill seeks to take away from unions. Temporarily blocked by court order, Walker for days further inflamed citizens by standing Wallace-like in the doorway against the court decree, raising bad memories of elected officials who considered themselves above the law. On March 31 it took a third absolute court decree to make him stand down for now.
His behavior is under a national academic and media microscope because it so flies in the face of basic democratic principles in a capitalist society.
Walker probably thought he would get away with the attack by separating public workers from private industry, a distinction carved out in the 1935 US labor law. Even the National Labor Relations Board is excluded from intruding on state laws about public workers despite years of collective bargaining success for both management and labor, despite Walker spitting in the face of so many established precedents.
As noted University of Wisconsin scholar and author William Jones explained March 29 in the prestigious annual Zeidler lecture, there has always been a clear distinction in bargaining rights between public and private workers – but that does not mean such worker rights don’t exist on both sides, long codified in laws and discourse.
To try to pretend otherwise requires deliberate oversimplifications of history and public statements. It requires legal dancing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin, devices that have become common practice for right wing ideologues and their blind funding networks.
One common exaggeration puts us back in the semantic games of the health legislation debate. Is health care a right or a privilege? It became clear back then that it was a privilege if you had the money for good health care and it was a right too long denied if all society was required to do was cart you off the street into the hospital when you were seriously ill or dying. So those who worried about cost and those who worried about basic human decency were on a collision course created by the lexiconnivance of “privilege” vs. “right.”
The game unfolds again in collective bargaining rights, and note how they have long been called “rights.” More of the history and the current reality were explored by Jones in eloquent clean terms that enthralled an audience of several hundred at Centennial Hall, while the speaker resisted the vitriolic bait of questioners who wanted him just to unload on Gov. Walker. He stuck with measured if pointed scholarship in explaining how misguided were backers of Walker who flooded the Internet with statements that bargaining rights for public workers were regarded as unneeded and unwanted “privileges” by famous civil libertarians of the past. One example they cited was Frank Zeidler, the socialist mayor of Milwaukee after whom the lecture is named, and the other was the founder of the New Deal and of labor laws, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR famously opposed public worker strikes and so did Zeidler, since both feared that power could threaten essential public safety. And even today, the right to strike is denied many public workers. Of course, conservatives extend that caution to try and restrict many workers whose strikes would hardly jeopardize public safety such as might be the case with police and air controllers. The ban often extends to payroll clerks, woodcutters, teachers and garbage collectors – yes, those abused public workers whose right to strike in the bigoted South was what Martin Luther King was marching for when he was assassinated.
But, as Jones explained in detail, supporters of Walker carefully don’t quote the paragraphs before and after the phrases of Zeidler and FDR. That would make it clear they validated full-throated collective bargaining “rights” for public workers with certain distinctions and limitations because of their public responsibility to service. It’s quite a fabrication to suggest that, just because collective bargaining was in their view different for public workers, it did not exist.
Jones also points out that the shrinking of private sector unions and other changes in the economy had actually knocked labor history on its ear. Forty years ago public workers were the underpaid and abused orphans of society whose work in hospitals and on the streets was scorned while private sector workers and their employers gained ever greater wages and benefits as engines of the economy. Society and enterprising public administrators who wanted their own pensions and wages to rise welcomed union efforts to grow toward private standards. But then, unable to stand up to capitalistic power, private workers lost unions and ground even as public workers and unions grew in value. Today’s effort to disembowel their rights is viewed by many as an attack on union political power, the last bastion of resistance to big money dominance in politics – and simply a major step to then knock out the last union props from under private workers.
Jones didn’t say that as bluntly as I write it, but his historic view of the progression made it clear. He was more diplomatic than many progressive groups are these days.
You will hear the right wing claim that federal workers cannot bargain on wages and benefits, which is true, though they rigorously bargain through unions in other areas that Walker would deny. But then, presidents and congresses of both parties have always provided strong wages and benefits as both a matter of self-interest (they’re public servants, too) and to keep the best people.
The International Commission for Labor Rights (ICLR) defiantly argues that this is just a convenience of benevolence and that Obama should reinstate in bold language the rights of federal employees to collective bargaining on wages and benefits -- even within the concerns expressed by FDR and Zeidler, Affirming rights by executive order as presidents regularly do is not enough, the ICLR insists. – not in the current environment, when there are misguided governors and their dutiful lawyers trying to suggest collective bargaining rights for state employees are illegal.
The ICLR, a nonprofit group engaged in policy research and a network of pro bono lawyers working with international labor groups, actually sent a notice to the Wisconsin Legislature that its attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers was illegal. It cited exactly what those rights are and why "freedom of association" was a fundamental right and collective bargaining is an essential element of that freedom, recognized worldwide as a brake on unchecked power either by corporations or government.
Jones did not need to touch the ICLR statement. He focused instead on the strong history of collective bargaining both public and private, instituted in Wisconsin by leaders of both parties, and the lessons of labor peace, progress and civility with only a few bumps along the way. He offered his own vision of why basic fairness as well as history were against the governor.
He also shared a personal story of how a sleeping national giant has wakened. As historian, Jones had abandoned five years of work on a book about collective bargaining because publishers were not interested in so esoteric a subject. He turned instead to a contract to write about the history of civil rights – and then Wisconsin erupted and publishers and reporters started clamoring for his research on collective bargaining. He faces an eager public that can’t be satisfied until he fulfills his civil rights contract.
The audience chuckled at Jones’ dilemma even as they applauded his insights. He also seems braced that in these hostile times even a thoughtful scholarly attitude may not long save him from the fate of a colleague at UW, noted historian William Cronon, whose own research into current Walker budget tactics led to demands by the state Republican Party for all his university emails on related topics, a fishing expedition to find some bias in the professor.
That doesn’t worry Cronon, who is internationally respected, or Jones. But Jones’ even-handed manner in discussing Wisconsin events diminished when asked about this episode. He could not disguise his clear emotion and contempt for such a McCarthy era tactic aimed at a colleague and so clearly intended to chill academic freedom.
Jones’ Zeidler lecture will be on public TV (check your local cable lineup) at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 3, on MPTV Channel 36, and 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, on Channel 10.