Feature:Opinion

Principled leadership will beat public union bullying

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Ray Hartwell
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      Ray Hartwell

      Ray Hartwell is a partner in the Washington office of a major law firm, where he specializes in competition law and white collar criminal matters. Over the past decade he has also served as a trustee of his alma mater, a leading liberal arts college. He is a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, having served as antisubmarine warfare and nuclear weapons officer aboard a guided missile destroyer. His opinion articles have appeared in various publications, including The Washington Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The views he expresses are his alone. He can be reached at rayhartwell@rocketmail.com.

As we follow events in Wisconsin, a history lesson is appropriate. History has a message for Governor Scott Walker and the people of Wisconsin whose electoral mandate he seeks to implement. It is, very simply, that Mr. Walker should not compromise. Principled leadership will prevail over the orchestrated thuggery of the public unions, notwithstanding the unions’ conspicuous support from our nation’s most aggressive “community organizers.”

Turn back the clock to Boston in the year 1919. The country’s labor movement was increasingly powerful. There was widespread concern as strikes caused chaos in a number of industries. Having made great strides in the private sector, national labor organizations began attempting to organize municipal employees in selected cities. Among their targets was the Boston police force.

In August 1919, the Boston policeman’s “club” sought affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. The police commissioner promptly issued an order prohibiting any police officer from joining a labor union. The AFL immediately recognized the Boston Police Union. The battle lines were drawn, and the police union called a strike on September 9th.

After consulting with his attorney general, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge backed the police commissioner, called in the state guard to maintain order, and announced that the striking police would not be rehired. AFL leader Samuel Gompers demanded that Coolidge dismiss the police commissioner and reinstate the striking policemen.

Coolidge refused to capitulate to the demands of the union and its national labor allies. And he made clear the principled basis for his decision, saying: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere.” He later wrote that he acted with “faith that the people would respond to the truth.”

The people did respond, and their response was overwhelmingly favorable both in Massachusetts and across the country. Coolidge swiftly became a nationally prominent political figure. Ultimately he became a popular and successful president, whose policies of reduced federal spending and lower taxes fostered sustained economic growth and prosperity.

Six decades later, another president confronted a strike by public employees, and consciously followed Coolidge’s example. President Ronald Reagan was elected with the support of a number of unions, including the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). During the 1980 campaign, candidate Reagan was sympathetic to PATCO’s quest for improved working conditions.

In August 1981, PATCO declared a nationwide strike, seeking a pay increase of $10,000 per worker (roughly 20 to 50% of then-current controller salaries) and a simultaneous cut in work hours from 40 to 32 each week. About 75% of the nation’s 17,000 controllers went on strike, precipitating a meltdown of the nation’s air transportation network.

With the backing of his transportation secretary, President Reagan correctly declared the strike illegal, saying he would fire controllers who did not return to work within 48 hours. PATCO’s leaders thought the government would have to compromise; they were wrong. Reagan fired 11,345 controllers who disobeyed his ultimatum, and banned them from federal employment for life.

Reagan acted without consulting any opinion polls. Yet, as one biographer noted, he “proved that the right thing to do can also be politically advantageous.” In his memoirs, Reagan said his decision “convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.” The American people strongly supported Reagan’s action, confirming that principle matters, particularly in responding to threats and attempts at intimidation.