Scholar exposes rot in Walker’s approach to worker rights

Milwaukee Labor Press: 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.

Scholar Will Jones explores collective bargaing rights during the Zeidler lecture

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. Read more at the Milwaukee Labor Press

By Dominique Paul Noth, Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press

Posted March 31