Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

(Bad) history in the making in Wisconsin? UPDATED

By Rosemary Joyce

Dramatic images from Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain inspire a sense of being part of history in the making.

For many of us, the same is true of the images from Madison, Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of protesters have massed for days refusing to accept a proposal by the state's governor Scott Walker, taking advantage of the current budget crisis, removing bargaining rights from public unions. Only here, it is difficult to tell if the history being made will be seen in retrospect as bad or good.

The Republican governor claims that in order to to balance the state budget he needs to limit the right of public employees' unions to bargain collectively. Even on issues related to salary, which his proposal would allow unions to negotiate, other aspects of his proposal would set preemptive limits. His proposal includes additional provisions that seem less than directly related to the current budget crisis.

Critics point to his actions as an acceleration of a wide-scale attack on public unions, which Robert Reich has argued is part of a strategy to split working class America by pitting workers against each other, distracting them from the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a narrow group.

While the protests continue, another statement by governor Walker has drawn fire and, for many people, invokes a long and dark history of repression of labor unions. The Chicago Tribune reported on February 11 that Walker had

briefed [the National Guard] and other state agencies in preparation of any problems that could result in a disruption of state services, like staffing at prisons.

By Monday, February 14, angry responses to Walker's comments were being reported in local Wisconsin media. Both anti-union and pro-union publications interpreted his statement to mean the Guard might be asked to intervene directly against the protesters.

Georgetown doctoral candidate Stephanie Taylor's commentary on Salon provides necessary historical perspective on the governor's move:

This would be the first time in nearly 80 years that the National Guard would be used to break a strike by Wisconsin workers, and the first time in over 40 years that the National Guard would be used against public workers anywhere in the country.

The National Guard, now viewed by most US citizens as benign forces most visible in disasters, once were abused in the service of anti-union campaigns:

National Guard soldiers clashed with strikers in Buffalo, N.Y., Birmingham, Ala., Coeur d’Alene, Idaho,  Salt Lake City and Telluride, Colo., at the turn of the 20th century. In just two years, between 1911 and 1913, the militia was mobilized against coal miners in West Virginia, textile workers in Massachusetts, textile workers in New Jersey, and copper miners in Michigan.

Another example cited by Taylor in her depressing litany of a history that should be long behind us is resonant for any contemporary archaeologist:

During an infamous bloodbath in 1914, soldiers killed striking coal miners and their families in Ludlow, Colo., including at least six men, two women and 12 children.

The Ludlow strikers, camped out in a "tent city" when they were attacked, included 1200 workers and family members. Archaeologists Randall McGuire, Dean Saitta, and colleagues conducted field survey and excavations on the site of the camp, finding unprecedented evidence of the lives of workers standing up for their right.

Results of their innovative project-- a deliberate attempt to use archaeology's power to document the lives of those whose voices are often missing from history books-- are posted on a public website. Their description of what they found in the campsite is evocative of the everyday lives interrupted and the disproportion between the force brought to bear against the workers and their ability to resist:

We are finding many objects that speak of people fleeing leaving valued possessions behind--toys, clothes, jewelry, religious medallions, etc. We have also found artifacts that shed light on the battle itself--expended bullets coming into the tent colony and fired cartridges, possibly from strikers within the colony firing back. From what we have seen so far, it appears the strikers were armed mainly with shotguns, which, while good for hunting small game, would not have been much use against machine-guns and high-powered rifles.

This is the history that echoes in governor Walker's all too easy threat to use the National Guard against Wisconsin's public unions.

It is not a history that any governor should lightly invoke.

Update: Polls taken in Wisconsin show that the governor's proposed moves are opposed by a large majority of the population:

large majorities agreeing with "public employees" (67%), "protestors at the state capitol" (62%) and "unions" (59%) but far fewer agreeing with "Republicans in the Legislature" (48%) or Scott Walker (43% agree and 53% disagree).

When read a plain description of the proposal-- including the parts of the proposal that would severely cut back the scope of bargaining-- "42% said they favor Walker's plan and 52% oppose it (24% say the favor it strongly, and 41% say they oppose it strongly)." A second poll run by a different organization yielded roughly the same numbers: 43% in favor of Walker's proposal, 52% opposed.

Those commentators claiming the will of Wisconsin's electorate is being carried out by the governor have facts to contend with here that do not support their view.