Targeting public unions is unwise, rash and retrograde. That's the take in some quarters on Republican Governor Scott Walker's plan to curtail collective bargaining for public-sector unions in his state, Wisconsin.
In a tone reminiscent of a Madison professor pouring cold water over an ill-judged dissertation, President Barack Obama recently admonished: "It's important not to vilify them or suggest somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees." On Salon.com, contributor Stephanie Taylor described Walker's effort to strip away long-standing public-sector bargaining rights as "a step backward, not forward, in the march of American progress."
Such analysis has it backward. Walker's decision to reduce public-union powers isn't rash. It is overdue. Teacher pensions do weigh down state budgets, both in Wisconsin and the other 49 states. And Walker's move won't necessarily hurt his career. It may catapult him to the national stage, or even the presidency.
As for the gubernatorial campaign to end collective bargaining for his own employees, it may benefit the average worker across the country. That's what happened in 1919 when another unknown Republican governor, Calvin Coolidge, stood firm in Massachusetts against a strong union representing government workers.
The similarities start with the indispensability of the group at issue. Teachers and prison guards are two classes that are crucial to Wisconsin's functioning. In their day, the Boston police, Coolidge's target, were even more crucial. As World War I closed, many Americans, especially in rough port cities, wondered if revolutions in Russia and Europe might inspire Americans to rise up as well. Industrialization was new enough that people believed it may require another political format.
In February 1919, the city of Seattle had moved close to anarchy in a general strike. Returning veterans were cash-short and angry. In Boston, the police were public insurance against the city morphing into another Petrograd.
And just as Wisconsin's teachers do now, the police of Boston made a compelling case. Their pay raises had lagged behind inflation. Vermin populated their police stations; rats were known to make meals of the leather in police helmets. Yet the police commissioner seemed indifferent, arrogant in his knowledge that police contracts prohibited unionization.
Off the Job
In the summer of 1919, the patrolmen and officers determined to protest. In August, they announced plans to unionize. Members of the Boston Social Club, the policemen's euphemistically named proto-union, then affiliated publicly with the American Federation of Labor. This choice, too, was made carefully: the convivial Sam Gompers was known for his ability to get along with public officials. Then, on Sept. 9 at 5:45 p.m., about 1,000 patrolmen walked off the job.
The sound of breaking glass filled the city within hours. Riots ensued in South Boston and West End. Groceries were looted. Crowds sabotaged a rail track so that a trolley derailed. In Roxbury, the New York Times correspondent reported, a conductor was shot in the leg by a youngster with a rifle. With Coolidge's backing, the police commissioner, Edwin Curtis, fired the police for breach of contract.
Like Walker, Curtis, with Coolidge in the background, chose not to grant the police their concessions. The state government got the blame for leaving Boston unprotected. On Sept. 11, inexcusably late in the view of many, Governor Coolidge called out the state guard. Commissioner Curtis, for his part, made it clear there would be no compromise in Massachusetts.
The police were fired. Instead of melting into conciliation, Coolidge plowed ahead, in mid-September sending the astonished Gompers a decidedly cold and categorical letter. There was, Coolidge wrote, "no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."
It was an election year in 1919 for the Bay State. Democrats expected the statement would hurt Coolidge's re-election campaign, especially in combination with his failure to keep Boston streets safe in those crucial September days. The party included an explicit line reflecting that in their platform: "we condemn Governor Coolidge for his inaction and failing to protect the lives and property of the people of Boston."
Richard H. Long, Coolidge's opponent, sided with the strikers. The former policemen campaigned across the state against Coolidge. Coolidge, a career politician, is said to have told a colleague: "I do not care whether I am re-elected or not."
But Coolidge was re-elected. And his suddenly became a national name. In 1920, the Republicans made Coolidge the vice presidential candidate. Three years later, when President Warren Harding died and Coolidge became president, "Boston Police" remained American code for the principle that union causes do not trump others. The concern that the U.S. might succumb to European-style revolutions lifted. Strikes abated. Wages rose without unions in Motor City. Private-sector union membership declined. Joblessness dropped. Companies poured cash, which they otherwise would have spent on union relations, into innovation.
Walker isn't identical to Coolidge. Walker actually exempted many law-enforcement officials from his new restrictions on bargaining: an error. Walker isn't staving off progressivism, as Coolidge was. He is staving off bankruptcy.
But he may yet crystallize consensus, as Coolidge did. In 1919, as in 2011, the country suddenly realized that someone has to stop those excesses, and began to tell itself that that someone might as well be a governor.
(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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