At the turn of the last century, the “Wisconsin Experiment” led the nation as a way to develop government policies that would promote the greatest good for the most people. Gov. Robert La Follette brought together government officials, university professors and business leaders to hash out intelligent state policies.
On its face, today’s Wisconsin story appears to be about budgets and entitlement. Citing the need to save money, the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature at the end of May voted 12-4 to cut $250 million from the university’s budget and eliminate tenure from state law, enabling the governor-appointed Board of Regents to fire professors whenever they declared it time to “redirect” a program. Opponents are focusing on the end of tenure, but there is a larger story here about money, politics and ownership of the national government.
Significantly, Walker has referred to the measure as “Act 10 for higher education.” Act 10 was the 2011 Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, passed by the Republican Legislature at Walker’s urging. It was the measure that created such furor in early 2011, as tens of thousands of protesters converged on the Wisconsin Capitol, Democratic senators fled to Illinois to stop a vote on the bill, and Republicans finally found a loophole in the quorum rules that enabled them to pass the measure without their Democratic colleagues.
At stake in this bitter fight was the nature of American government. Should workers have the right to bargain as a unit, joining together as a political bloc to influence both their contracts and government policies? Or should they be forced to compete for national power as individuals equal to the wealthiest men in America?
FDR and a Democratic Congress first established workers’ right to political organization in 1935 with the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act). They saw collective bargaining as a way to guarantee that the government served everyone, rather than the very wealthy who had led the nation into the Great Depression. Collective bargaining would level the playing field between workers and employers in politics, guaranteeing that government policies would benefit everyone.
But from the moment of its passage, Movement Conservatives insisted that the Wagner Act perverted the government by giving workers too much power. They must not be able to work as a unit; they must stand alone as individuals, just as wealthy men did. If workers could join together, they would influence workplace conditions and government policies. Undoubtedly, government regulations would establish minimum wages and maximum hours, and require costly safety measures. These would inhibit the ability of employers to make money and therefore, Movement Conservatives insisted, amount to a redistribution of wealth. The ability of unions to exercise political power was a fast track to communism.
As soon as Republicans regained control of Congress, they curtailed the Wagner Act with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, limiting workers’ ability to strike, preventing unions from donating to national political campaigns, and requiring labor leaders to swear they were not communists. When President Truman vetoed the measure, they passed it over his veto.