Nelson Lichtenstein: The Long History of Labor Bashing

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (Metropolitan Books, 2009) and the editor, with Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, of The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, Imagination, forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press.]

When he was still President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now mayor-elect of Chicago, famously quipped: "Never allow a crisis to go to waste."

Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and other states have certainly taken that advice to heart. By emphasizing, and in some cases manipulating, the red ink flowing through so many state budgets, they have leveraged the crisis to strike a body blow at the public-sector unions that represent so many teachers, professors, social workers, and municipal employees. The collective-bargaining rights of the police and firefighters, often a privileged caste, are also being threatened in some states.

Unionists and Democrats denounce this as opportunism, and in Wisconsin they have made the case that there is hardly a fiscal crisis at all, that public-employee wages and pensions are not out of line with those in the private sector, and that collective bargaining works pretty well. Neither the Wisconsin Counties Association nor the League of Wisconsin Municipalities was consulted by Gov. Scott Walker when he drew up the anti-union legislation that he claims is necessary for the solvency of his state's counties, towns, and cities. Nor do officials of either group support the governor's initiative.

But it would be a mistake to see the contemporary GOP offensive against the unions as some kind of hasty and ill-planned gambit. Walker's rhetoric and his legislative program reflect and refract a multidecade barrage by conservatives—in politics, academe, think tanks, and corporate management—designed to eviscerate trade unionism so that it will, in effect, simply wither away. Their assault, both ideological and political, has depended neither upon the presence or absence of a fiscal crisis at the state level nor, for that matter, upon the profitability or competitiveness of those American companies threatened by global competition. The collective organization of workers, private or public, stands athwart their vision of how markets should work and the polity should function....

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