In Wisconsin, Shades of the Thirties

By now, there's can be no doubting it: What's happening in Wisconsin is one of the most important labor developments in decades. It's of major importance to unions and their members, of major importance to working people generally ­ of major importance to us all.

In many ways, it's the 1930s again. Just as then, workers and their political allies and other supporters are demonstrating, picketing, marching, striking and otherwise forcefully demanding the basic civil right of collective bargaining ­ the unfettered right for workers' representatives to negotiate with employers on setting their wages, hours and working conditions.

Eventually, workers and their millions of supporters won the 1930s struggle.

Congress, acting closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, granted the legal right of collective bargaining to most workers. Farm workers, domestics and a few other groups were excluded from the law, but all others finally had that vital right.

The 1930s struggle arose primarily because of the economic pressures of the Great Depression that led to massive protests, just as today's struggle can be traced to the pressures of the Great Recession that also have led to massive protests.

There are key differences between then and now, however. In the thirties, the struggle was to win union rights for workers in the face of strong opposition from large financial interests, powerful conservative politicians and other anti-labor forces. Today, the struggle is to keep union rights from being taken away from workers by today's anti-union forces. Their main targets are public employees and the pensions and other benefits they won in past bargaining with their government employers.

The governments' aim, of course, is to use the savings from that to make up for budget shortfalls resulting from the recession and, in many cases, from poor government management.

But there's another important reason: Public employees have become the vanguard of the labor movement. Their numbers and the percentage of them belonging to unions have been growing steadily, while the number and percentage of unionized workers in private employment have been shrinking.

That's caused anti-union forces to shift their major efforts into attempting to curb the escalating spread of unionization among public employees.

Which explains what's happening in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker has moved to all but eliminate the bargaining rights of most state employees.

Walker is pushing bills through the GOP-controlled Legislature that would bar state employees from bargaining on anything except their pay, and limit any pay increases to the level of Consumer Price Index increases.

Employees would have no say in determining their benefits or working conditions, although most would have to increase their contributions to pension and health care funds by up to 50 percent. What's more, their contracts would have to be re-negotiated yearly, and union dues could no longer be deducted from employee paychecks. It's hard to imagine a union surviving under such restraints.

The pay and benefits of Wisconsin state workers may be too high, or too low, depending on who's measuring. But that could be addressed through negotiations between Gov. Walker and union representatives. But like some petty dictator, Walker insists, “I don't have anything to negotiate.”

Peaceful negotiations are how it's done in civil societies, but that's not the style of union-busting Walker and his cohorts. And if anyone doesn't like Walker's approach, look out! He's alerted the National Guard to be armed and ready should Wisconsin state workers strike, disrupt state services or otherwise rise in protest.

Shades, again, of the 1930s. In fact, the last time the Guard was called out to quell a labor dispute in Wisconsin was during a United Auto Workers strike in 1934.

Workers eventually won that and many other struggles of the thirties, thanks to their courage and fierce determination and the broad public support they inspired. And that's precisely what it will take to overcome today's anti-worker onslaught by Walker and others like him.

The good news ­ and it's very good news ­ is that such help is here and growing fast. Crowds of as many as 70,000 labor supporters have been gathering daily outside the Wisconsin State Capital in Madison to demand that Walker and his fellow reactionaries return to the 21st century.

But give Walker this: Like the anti-labor politicians of the 1930s, he has aroused public outrage that has brought important new strength and solidarity to the cause of working people and their unions nationwide.

Certainly they'll need all the strength they can muster, with major efforts similar to Walker's in Wisconsin underway in at least 17 other states. In more than a dozen. , Republican anger over labor's strong support for Democrats in last year's elections have led directly to measures curbing union political activities.

President Obama is correct. There is indeed a nationwide “assault on unions.” But as the assaults increase, so will the public outrage that's winning unions the broad support they so badly need ­ and so richly deserve.