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.
This brings us to the present, which is not the age of sweatshops and Sinclair Lewis. Public employee unions have become a key source of funds for Democratic Party politicians, who in turn have awarded them irresponsibly rich compensation and benefits. These commitments now seriously threaten the financial stability of numerous state and local governments.
The taxpayers have noticed. In numerous states, Republican governors and legislators clearly were elected to rein in reckless spending, especially (but not only) unsustainable compensation and benefit packages for public employees. Already, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has won national acclaim for his direct and forceful — and scrupulously civil — straight talk to teachers, firefighters, and others on economic issues. Christie is tough but principled, telling the hard truth. As a result, he is more popular than ever.
And now, following sweeping Republican victories in state legislative and other elections last November, Governor Scott Walker seeks to carry out his campaign pledge to bring some sanity to Wisconsin’s state budget. He is asking public employees — who enjoy far higher salaries and much richer benefits than their private-sector counterparts — to make modest contributions to their health care coverage and retirement funds. He also proposes curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions.
In response, public employees and their supporters have taken to the streets; Democratic legislators have fled the state to deny the Republicans a legislative quorum. Thousands of Wisconsin teachers, barred by law from going on strike, have made false claims of illness, deserting their students to join in the demonstrations. Citizens across the country have seen from televised reports both the lack of civility and the lack of respect for the democratic process displayed by these illegally striking public employees.
History lights the path for Governor Walker and the Wisconsin legislative majority. They should not compromise. They should stay the course on fiscal responsibility. When they do so, the people who elected them — and millions of others around the country — will applaud their integrity and principled leadership.
Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article first appeared in The Washington Times on February 22.