John F. Kennedy Wouldn't Vote for Scott Walker

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Martin Halpern is a professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkansas.  He is the author of two books, "UAW Politics in the Cold War Era" (1988) and "Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents: Seeking Social Change in the Twentieth Century" (2003).  His most recent publication is a review article on “Labor,” in William Pederson, The Blackwell Companion to Franklin D. Roosevelt (2011).

As voters go to the polls in Wisconsin June 5 to decide Scott Walker's fate and across the country November 6 to decide Barack Obama's, it's worth pausing and reflecting on a executive from an earlier time: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Three related aspects of JFK's legacy are particularly worth recalling: his response to peace and justice movements; his view of government’s role in the economy and society; and his attitudes toward unionized public workers and labor unions. A focus on Kennedy’s legacy in these three areas may bring to the fore key issues that are central to whether Wisconsin -- and the country -- go forward or backward in the years to come.

Although his early actions as president disappointed peace and civil rights activists, Kennedy later took forthright initiative in both areas. An aggressive cold warrior at the beginning of his presidency, Kennedy was nevertheless an independent thinker who learned from his mistakes. In June 1963, he called for reexamining the Cold War and for “making the world safe for diversity.” He listened to pleas from those who protested the harmful effects of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and, with the Soviet Union and Great Britain, negotiated the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the first major Cold War arms agreement. Similarly, in June 1963 Kennedy shifted from hesitancy to strong support for the civil rights movement. He characterized civil rights as a moral issue, called on citizens to take action to end racial discrimination against black Americans, and proposed a civil rights bill enacted into law the next year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

How have Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and President Barack Obama responded to today’s peace and justice movements -- protesters against the continuation of the Afghan war, the Occupy movement, the movement to defend public employees’ collective bargaining rights, and the movements of students against tuition increases and aid cutbacks? Are they listening to the voices on the streets or do they reject those protests in the name of a default agenda of service to corporate backers?

Like Kennedy, Obama is a pragmatic person who has disappointed activists for peace and social justice, but he also appears to be listening and responding to those movements in articulating his vision of society and in his policy planning. Walker, on the other hand, seems committed to rule from above, expressing unvarnished loyalty to his well-to-do funders.

There is a sharp philosophical divide between presidents Kennedy and Obama, on the one hand, and Governor Walker on the other. Kennedy’s view and Obama’s view today is that government should play positive roles in promoting economic growth for the benefit of all and in aiding the neediest. To Walker, the role of government is two-fold: policing and assisting business. About the federal government, Walker pronounced: “To me, in its essence, the role of the federal government should be fairly limited to protecting our shores in terms of our military, handling disputes in terms of interstate commerce.” If it were up to Walker, any government social service program -- Social Security, school lunch, public health, unemployment compensation, Medicare, safety regulations -- would be at an end. Why put in charge of government an individual who in principle opposes government serving the people?

Perhaps of greatest importance is the example of President Kennedy’s policies toward labor unions and public workers. Walker appeals to voters as atomized, envious individualists: I’ll lower your taxes; why should those working for government be better off than you are? Why should public workers have collective bargaining rights? By contrast, in Milwaukee on April 3, 1960, Kennedy opposed “so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws,” delays in NLRB certification proceedings, and “legislation designed to repress labor.” Directly challenging a central theme of the anti-labor campaign of the 1950s, Kennedy remarked: “There are those in America today who say that labor is too big -- that it has grown too strong. But I say that the size of organized labor is a blessing -- and its strength is a powerful force for the good of all America.”

Kennedy’s support for workers’ rights was more than rhetorical. In 1962, fifty years ago this year, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, granting for the first time limited collective bargaining rights to most civilian employees of the federal government. Kennedy and his Task Force on Employee-Management Relations in the Federal Service predicted that providing recognition of employee organizations would lead to more cooperation between federal workers and managers and better service to the public. Kennedy was also responding to a growing demand for participation in their work lives and collective bargaining rights by hundreds of thousands of local, state, and federal employees across the country. Indeed, Wisconsin was the first state to respond to these movements, establishing a “declaration of rights” for public workers in 1959 and machinery for conducting elections and authorizing collective bargaining in 1961.

Initiating a key reform at the federal level, Kennedy helped public worker unions move from the margin to the center of the labor movement in the United States. Significantly less likely to be union members than their counterparts in private employment prior to the 1960s, public workers in the space of a few years achieved a unionization rate comparable to that of private-sector workers. With the erosion and decline of unionism in the private sector since the mid-1970s, due to a coordinated assault by multinational employers, public-sector workers in the year 2010 were more than five times as likely to be union members as were private sector workers, 36.2 percent as compared with 6.9 percent. A relatively weak and marginal component of organized labor in January 1962 when Kennedy took his supportive action, fifty years later public workers’ unions were a central component of the movement, encompassing over seven million members and 51.2 percent of total union membership.

The attitudes of President Barack Obama and Governor Scott Walker to labor unions are well known, but unfortunately corporate mainstream media attention to the issue has receded; there is no more important issue for our future as a democracy in which each of us cares for and wishes well to the other. Unions provide workers with an opportunity to participate in the decisions that shape their work lives. Equally important, unions play crucial roles in our politics as advocates for social justice and the needs of the poorest among us.

If less successful than Kennedy in assisting unions, Obama nevertheless supports unions and has appointed pro-union individuals as the secretary of labor and as members of the National Labor Relations Board. Walker, on the other hand, is committed to an anti-union agenda and right-to-work legislation. The passage of legislation abrogating public employees’ collective bargaining rights was the most important action of his first year as governor and aroused a vast movement of opposition among unionists and members of the public receiving government services. If Walker remains in office, Wisconsin’s pioneering role in supporting public worker collective bargaining rights may become a distant memory.

Scholars of labor unions wonder today whether the labor movement will be able to survive in our country given the decline in unions in the private sector and the recent assault on collective bargaining rights in the public sector. Should Wisconsin voters retire Scott Walker for his anti-democratic actions on June 5, they will contribute to the movement to rescue our country from the domination by the 1 percent. Likewise, by voting for Barack Obama in November, voters across the country will express their optimism that the president will continue to move in the direction of listening to the movements for peace and justice and support efforts for democratic workplaces. It is a good time to honor the legacy of John F. Kennedy: to listen to social and economic protest movements, respect unions for the good they do, and to promote the idea that government serves the people.

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