A correction to yesterday’s piece

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
Font Size:

I unintentionally was misleading in using a quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in support of collective bargaining in yesterday’s blog. The quote from FDR stood up for the fundamental principle that Americans have a fundamental right under our Constitution to freely associate, organize and to designate an individual to negotiate on their behalf. He said that was the distinction between our system of government and despotism — and that was my reason for choosing his quote. But the perils of Internet research are borne out here, especially when done quickly. In fact, as many readers of my blog have pointed out, FDR was against, in principle, the concept of government employee unions and their right to collective bargaining. He said “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” Then he added that “I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place” in the public sector. “A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government.”

So it is clear that what FDR objected to was the right to “strike” by public employees — and as I noted in my column, in virtually every state, public employee unions representing police, fire, and often teachers, are forbidden to strike; and it is not clear that FDR would oppose just collective bargaining and union rights under the law combined with the prohibition of the right to strike.

But the left blogosphere, as usually, engages in disingenuous spin just as the right blogosphere does. The fact is, I used FDR to support the proposition that government employee unions are justified and that there are no clear and obvious distinctions, to me at least, between them and private sector unions; and indeed, they can be seen as far weaker since they are often subject to a prohibition on the right to strike, which private sector unions are not. At the very least I disagree with the premise of FDR’s statement that there is a distinction between people who are in public service vis-à-vis the right to form a union, which after all is implicitly for the purpose of collective bargaining, and I should have done further research to add FDR’s full position — even if I wanted to argue that he was focused on the “right to strike” and it is unclear whether he would have supported state laws (in many but not all states) allowing public employees to form a union and collectively bargain, with arbitration of stalemate the alternative to the right to strike, which is at least universally denied to those in public safety positions.

I still have not been refuted by anyone that Governor Walker is not telling the truth when he keeps repeating that his position and the Wisconsin legislation is about money. The Wisconsin public employees have surrendered on all of Governor Walker’s money demands. This is about Governor Walker not having the guts to stand up to the unions in a collective bargaining session and say no. He wasn’t willing to do that when he served as Milwaukee County Executive, saying the prior collective bargaining agreement was too expensive. So why didn’t he wait for the contract to expire and stand up to the unions and demand through far and tough collective bargaining that they back down. In fact, in Wisconsin, he chooses to ignore his own unwillingness to stand up and say no to excessive union demands, because that would be conceding the right to unionize and collectively bargain. And that is the ideology that he is fighting for — not money. He has a right to his opinion and his ideology; not a right to mislead people on the facts.

Mr. Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).