The final phase of the Wisconsin putsch will take place today in Madison, as the Republican-dominated Assembly joins the state Senate in deep-sixing 5 decades of public employee collective bargaining rights. Any pretense that this was ever about fixing the state budget has now evaporated. In order to work their will without a quorum, Senate Republicans stripped out all references to state finances and converted their bill into a straightforward anti-union smackdown.
I don’t know how many commentators will observe that this is about violence to workers’ rights and livelihoods. It doesn’t matter that it takes place in Wisconsin’s very graceful Capitol building (I loved its elegance and its distinctive sounds and smells when I would visit Madison as a wide-eyed kid).
Kate Zernike had a very good piece in last Sunday’s New York Times about the deeper-level antagonism between capital and labor that lies beneath the seemingly placid soil of the Upper Midwest—America’s industrial heartland. Zernike cited the Allis-Chalmers dispute of 1946 outside of Milwaukee. In the history of the mighty Auto Workers, Allis-Chalmers was a notable skirmish.
But I grew up less than ten miles from ground zero in a much longer and much bitterer war (there’s no other name for it): the Kohler strike of 1954 to 1961 (not resolved until 1965). Magnate Herbert Kohler and his minions attempted to paint UAW Local 833’s striking members as vandals and thugs, but in fact it was the company that hired vigilantes, corrupted the county sheriffs, and bent political leaders to join its relentless campaign to destroy the union. All this is well-documented.
UAW chief Walter Reuther, every bit as tough as old man Kohler, poured still more resources into the fight—ultimately paying a relatively small number of strikers the then-unheard-of sum of $12 million in union strike benefits. The union had won an overwhelming victory. But within a decade Kohler was shipping the work to new non-union facilities in the South. Just last year the current magnate—yet another Herbert Kohler—pushed through a greatly weakened contract for the small number of Local 833 members still employed in Wisconsin.
I say all this to make the point that American business and its “business-friendly” sock puppets like Gov. Scott Walker will stop at nothing—nothing—to roll back worker rights and worker security. So it is simply wrong to view the current Wisconsin putsch with the eyes of “on the one hand… and on the other hand.” It’s not that kind of situation. It is simple class violence, waged (as always) by the powerful against the vulnerable. It’s nice, I guess, that Scott Walker loves Jesus. He’s clearly not acquainted with the Jesus who lifts up the lowly and pulls down the powerful from their thrones.