Thursday, February 24, 2011


      Q.  The big issue yesterday was Gov. Mitch Daniels’ decision not to take up full support of a bill in the Indiana House that would make Indiana a “right-to-work” state.  And as to whether this should remove him from consideration for the presidency.
      A.  I’ve criticized Daniels for suggesting social issues be “off the table” for the 2012 presidential campaign and subsequent next term—which I still believe.   But here Daniels is right. First, there is no doubt where Daniels stands on public sector unionism since on his first day in office with a stroke of a pen he decertified public sector unions—for which he has gained very little recognition, by the way which I find is strange. 
        Second, the issue of abuse by public sector unionism is far too important an issue for 2012 to have it gummed up by amateurish efforts like “right to work” which would disembowel legitimate union rights and would prove the Wisconsin demonstrators indisputably right—that the entire effort is a conspiracy by Republicans to delegitimize collective bargaining.  So Daniels is not just right but brilliant in refusing to go along with this dodge.
        There is a very good reason why the prospect of government shutdown is a very useful armament for Republican campaigns which is why in 1937 both Franklin Roosevelt and New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia inveighed against it.   FDR said in a letter to a voluntary association of federal workers: “A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations  of government until their demands are satisfied.  Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”
      He added that the idea both of collective bargaining and striking which would deprive the public of services obtained only through a governmental monopoly—police and fire protection, etc.—was unconscionable. LaGuardia followed suit.  And do you know why both were so concerned in that year of 1937?
       Q.  No but I have a sneaking hunch you’ll tell me.
       A.  Nineteen thirty-seven was only 19 years removed from 1919 when Calvin Coolidge, the Republican governor of Massachusetts scored big-time by sending in the National Guard to break up the Boston police strike which made him a national hero.  Samuel Gompers, the then head of the AFL said that the whole thing was the Boston mayor’s fault, that the mayor refused to let the cops organize.
       Coolidge said this was irrelevant.  The cops had no right to organize and so far as strikes were concerned, “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime.” You think Scott Walker’s in the news now?    Boston had been turned into a temporary ghost town as the cops vacated their duties.  Coolidge became a public hero.  FDR and LaGuardia were keenly aware of this.  They both saw public unionism and strikes were a tightly-wrapped package inset with a fuse that could blow at any time.
       In essence  every reasonable person sees this today—and recognizes politically that this is an unmatched weapon in the Republican arsenal for 2012.  But to add “right-to-work” to it would be to validate what the Wisconsin demonstrators are saying—that the public unionizing question is an artifice by Republicans to de-legitimatize the organized labor movement.  The memory of Boston being lawless for days stayed with Roosevelt and LaGuardia.
     Q.   How did the subject return to the table?
      A.  Not until 1958 when New York Mayor Robert Wagner was running for reelection.  His campaign was opposed by the presidents of all the New York boroughs.  He brilliantly circumvented them by supporting public unionism which triggered a new force and despite the opposition of the borough presidents he won reelection in 1961.   This so intrigued Bobby Kennedy who then was planning his brother’s reelection that he got JFK to issue an executive order approving federal workers’ rights to join unions.
       JFK won the support of two militant public unionists then in their salad days—Jerry Wurf of ASCME and Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers.   Wurf and Shanker were exhilarated by the deal.   Whereas in 1958 Wurf had led only 15 strikes which had been settled without fanfare, he was signing up 200,000 members a month and leading 254.  By 1975 ASCME was gaining a thousand (mostly female workers a week). 
         But then public unionization’s hubris frightened many.  In 1975 Wurf led a garbage collectors strike in New York and Mayor Abraham Beam closed the Manhattan gate of the Brooklyn bridge while striking public employees marched carrying signs “Cops Out!  Crime In!” and “Burn, city, burn!”  Not long later 76,000  Pennsylvania state workers struck as AFSCME’s boss Gerald Mcintee told the union, “let’s shut the state down!”
         Q.  So to summarize, you think renewal of the “right to work” issue could threaten to destroy the public unionism issue.
         A.  I do.   But there is also something within me…a residue of   Catholic social teachings, Leo XIII’s Rerum  Novarum in 1891, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate…that argues the worker is worthy of his hire.   The economy works best when two sides…capital and labor…have somewhat viable resources.    Remember I am a unionist myself, a member in good standing of AFRA [the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists AFL-CIO].   Also I remember the halcyon Goldwater-inspired days when Republicans tried to storm the country state-by-state with “right to work” and lost their shirts in state contests in the early `60s.

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