Joseph A. McCartin: What's Really Going On in Wisconsin?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Joseph A. McCartin is associate professor of History and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. This fall, Oxford University Press will publish his book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.]

Anti-labor forces have waited decades for the opportunity that they are now trying to seize in Wisconsin. Republican Governor Scott Walker’s plan, echoed in proposals put forward by several other conservative governors, to take away the collective bargaining rights of most Wisconsin public employees under the guise of deficit reduction represents a bold effort to undo a half-century of labor history. It would turn back the clock to the early 1950s, a time when public workers still labored under a form a second-class citizenship. The goal? Republicans insist it is to spur economic growth—but, in fact, it is to undermine organized labor as a political actor.

First, some history. Public-sector collective bargaining arose in tandem with the civil rights movement between 1955 and 1965. This was no coincidence, as both movements were making the same point: How could the nation justify denying some citizens the rights and freedoms that it granted to others? The Wagner Act of 1935 protected the right to organize unions and bargain collectively for many private-sector workers, but it did not cover local, state, or federal workers. Nor did the Social Security Act cover them. By the 1950s, as the civil rights struggle pricked the conscience of the nation, this unequal treatment seemed less and less justifiable. As collective bargaining helped open the door to a middle-class lifestyle for millions of private-sector workers in the 1950s, the inequity became even clearer. Thus, by 1955, a special committee of the American Bar Association had called government labor practices “an apparent anachronism” and concluded that any government “which imposes on other employers certain obligations in dealing with their employees may not in good faith refuse to deal with its own public servants on a reasonably favorable basis.”

Following the example of cities like New York and Philadelphia, in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to enact legislation recognizing the rights of government workers to bargain collectively. Similar laws spread in subsequent years, encouraged by Wisconsin’s law and inspired by Executive Order 10988, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, which allowed federal workers to bargain over some aspects of their work (but not their pay or benefits). Critically, this growth enjoyed bipartisan support: Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act in 1968, which brought public sector bargaining to California. Through his own executive order in 1969, President Richard Nixon strengthened the bargaining rights Kennedy had first offered federal workers. As a result of this support on both sides of the aisle, between the mid-’50s and the mid-’70s, there was a tenfold increase in the membership of government workers’ unions.

But, since 1970, bi-partisan support for government unions has eroded. By the middle of the decade, anti-union voices on the right, alarmed by the rising political influence of public-sector unions, had begun a long battle to roll back collective bargaining—the same battle we’re seeing waged today in Madison....

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wim groeneveld - 2/21/2011

Big difference with Europe where all workers are protected and free to protest and demonstrate wether in private or in Government jobs