Maddow Mocks Wisconsin GOP for Opposing Public-Sector Unions - Which Were Also Opposed By FDR

Normally you'd expect a left-winger like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow to do cartwheels if current-day Republicans agree with opinions held by Franklin Roosevelt during the depths of the Great Depression.

This is not one of those times, however, as we are learning during the ongoing battle in Wisconsin over public-sector unions.  

What's happening in Wisconsin, according to Maddow, is an existential threat not just to unions but to the Democratic Party. Since the Supreme Court ruling last year in Citizens United v. FEC, Maddow said on her show Friday, Republicans have increased their advantage in political donations from outside groups such as corporations, unions and advocacy groups --

MADDOW: In terms of substantial, game-changing money players in politics, unions are it. They are the only big players on the liberal side. They are the only fish of any real size on the liberal side. And so they must be destroyed. The Republican Party right now has the most direct incentive you can possibly imagine to use public policy to destroy unions. Thirty-six percent of public employees are unionized? Oh no, that cannot stand.

Maddow then showed a brief clip of her MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews interviewing Wisconsin Republican state senator Glenn Grothman --

MATTHEWS:  Get rid of the public employee unions all together, just get rid of them.

GROTHMAN: Personally ...

MATTHEWS: Yeah!

GROTHMAN: ... I cannot see that Scott Walker would. Personally I would, yes.

MATTHEWS: You'd like to get rid of the unions. So you don't believe in collective bargaining for public employees, period.

GROTHMAN: No, I don't think public employees need collective bargaining. That's correct.

Back to Maddow, who sarcastically echoed Grothman's remarks --

MADDOW: That's correct, absolutely. Public employees should not be in unions, says the Republican state senator from Wisconsin. Democrats do not tend to think like this.

... with the awkward exception of Franklin Roosevelt, the definitive Democrat of the last century. In a devastatingly effective column titled "FDR's Ghost is Smiling on Wisconsin's Governor," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Patrick McIlheran writes --

Somewhere, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is grinning past his cigarette holder at Wisconsin's governor. They are on the same page regarding government unions.

Except that Scott Walker -- Republican cheapskate, his visage Hitlerized on signs waved by beet-faced union crowds besieging the Capitol -- is kind of a liberal squish compared to FDR. He's OK with some collective bargaining. ...

Roosevelt's reign certainly was the bright dawn of modern unionism. The legal and administrative paths that led to 35 percent 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. (emphasis added)

"The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be translated 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."

If you're the kind of guy who capitalizes "government," woe betide such obstructionists.

McIlheran points out it was "orthodoxy" among Democrats well into the 1950s "that unions didn't belong in government work."  The shift away from this belief started in 1959 in -- you guessed it, Wisconsin -- when Gov. Gaylord Nelson signed the law allowing collective bargaining for state workers. Other states followed suit, and teachers were soon unionizing as well.

Still, opposition to this trend remained in place on the political left -- in, of all places, again Wisconsin -- according to McIlheran --

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 the 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.

Flash forward four decades, and Gov. Walker is a revolutionary seeking to dismantle this dubious "principle" while union apologists are shrill reactionaries defending an unsustainable status quo.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts