When he was still President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now mayor-elect of Chicago, famously quipped: "Never allow a crisis to go to waste."
Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and other states have certainly taken that advice to heart. By emphasizing, and in some cases manipulating, the red ink flowing through so many state budgets, they have leveraged the crisis to strike a body blow at the public-sector unions that represent so many teachers, professors, social workers, and municipal employees. The collective-bargaining rights of the police and firefighters, often a privileged caste, are also being threatened in some states.
Unionists and Democrats denounce this as opportunism, and in Wisconsin they have made the case that there is hardly a fiscal crisis at all, that public-employee wages and pensions are not out of line with those in the private sector, and that collective bargaining works pretty well. Neither the Wisconsin Counties Association nor the League of Wisconsin Municipalities was consulted by Gov. Scott Walker when he drew up the anti-union legislation that he claims is necessary for the solvency of his state's counties, towns, and cities. Nor do officials of either group support the governor's initiative.
But it would be a mistake to see the contemporary GOP offensive against the unions as some kind of hasty and ill-planned gambit. Walker's rhetoric and his legislative program reflect and refract a multidecade barrage by conservatives—in politics, academe, think tanks, and corporate management—designed to eviscerate trade unionism so that it will, in effect, simply wither away. Their assault, both ideological and political, has depended neither upon the presence or absence of a fiscal crisis at the state level nor, for that matter, upon the profitability or competitiveness of those American companies threatened by global competition. The collective organization of workers, private or public, stands athwart their vision of how markets should work and the polity should function.
This right-wing critique of trade unionism has often been contradictory and inconsistent. At the turn of the 20th century, many establishment figures in the news media and politics saw the unionism of their era as but a manifestation of immigrant radicalism, often violent and subversive. After World War I, the business offensive against the unions went by the name of "The American Plan," with the American Legion and other patriotic groups often serving as the antilabor militants who broke picket lines and physically manhandled union activists.
At the very same moment, a quite contradictory discourse, which portrayed the unions as retrograde rather than radical, was emergent. Progressives, as well as conservatives, often denounced unions as self-serving job trusts, corrupt and parasitic enterprises linked to ethnic politicians and underworld figures. As early as 1903, the celebrated journalist Ray Stannard Baker saw unions as "a close monopoly in which all health-giving competition is completely shut out." Of one "labor boss," Baker wrote: "Ignorant, a bully, a swaggerer, a criminal in his instincts ... he yet possesses those curious Irish faculties of leadership, that strange force of personality, that certain loyalty to his immediate henchmen familiar among ward politicians." This discourse has its contemporary echo in the rhetoric of conservative politicians like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has labeled public-employee unions "special interests" who exploit the "overburdened taxpayers of New Jersey," thereby creating "two classes of citizens."
The New Deal pushed aside that kind of faux populism and gave to the trade-union movement both a legal and ethical legitimacy, endorsed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a counterweight to the concentrated power of corporations and as the embodiment of the industrial democracy necessary to revitalize a larger American democracy. In the process, union membership grew from less than three million in 1933 to more than 14 million by the end of the 1940s. By the 1950s, unions enrolled one in three nonfarm workers.
Social scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset and historians like Robert Zieger once thought that the era from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s constituted a sort of golden age in which business management and a good slice of the Republican Party came to coexist with unions—and perhaps even see their value as a source of economic stability and social conservatism. A.H. Raskin, the veteran labor reporter for The New York Times, wrote that labor and management were engaged in a "live-and-let-live relationship rather than endless confrontations." After all, unions had purged themselves of Communists, endorsed the cold war, and moderated their bargaining demands.
But the "labor-management accord" of those years was at best a brittle truce in which each side probed for weakness and division on the other side. Businessmen denounced "monopoly unionism," i.e. industrywide bargaining in auto, steel, and trucking; and Southern and Rocky Mountain state politicians took advantage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to pass state "right-to-work" laws that undercut the organizational strength of labor by proscribing any collective-bargaining contract that made union membership a requirement for employment in any given workplace. By the late 1950s, a corporate-financed National Right to Work Committee was sponsoring referenda to enact such laws in many of the big industrial states, arguing that compulsory union dues were an immoral power grab and an economic burden on unwilling workers. Wisconsin's Walker echoes that kind of right-wing sentiment when he suggests that teachers and other state employees could save upward of a $1,000 a year, if only they kept their dues for themselves.
Although conservatives lost most "right to work" referenda, the Republican Party's anti-union wing was growing. As the journalist and historian Rick Perlstein has shown in his 2001 biography of Sen. Barry Goldwater—Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus—the Arizonan's candidacy was fueled by the anti-union passion of a heretofore invisible corps of small-town businessmen and midsize manufacturers who disdained both the unions and the big corporations that bargained with them. In Wisconsin the politically influential Kohler family, who waged a decade-long battle against the United Automobile Workers to keep their porcelain works nonunion, were among Goldwater's key backers. Goldwater, in fact, devoted far more print and energy to a denunciation of domestic unions than homegrown Communists in his 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, which launched his presidential quest.
The rise of the right within the Republican Party coincided with the spectacular growth of public-sector unionism in the 1960s and 1970s. To conservatives, that brand of unionism soon became linked to, and responsible for, all the urban ills and fiscal maladies that befell American cities during the years of slow growth and high inflation of the 1970s. As the historians Joseph A. McCartin and Jean-Christian Vinel show in a forthcoming biography, a key ideological figure here was the Wake Forest legal scholar Sylvester Petro, who developed a critique of public-sector unionism that amounted to a modern-day abolitionism, startling and extreme in an era when municipal unionism was linked, as in Memphis and New York, to the rise of the civil-rights movement.
Drawing upon the same kind of libertarian analysis that Friedrich A. von Hayek had deployed in his The Road to Serfdom (1944), Petro foresaw public-sector unionism as "a fatal threat to popular sovereignty" and, therefore, a slippery slope leading to governmental tyranny. In the 1970s, he warned that an effort by Democrats to pass a bill ensuring collective bargaining for all public employees would create a threat to the Republic, forcing Americans "to take to the hills and the fields and the caves once more, as our ancestors have frequently had to do when integral—sovereign—government has broken down." Petro's alarmist views soon became mainstream on the political right. Elements of them can be found in the rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan when he broke the strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. And still more can be found in contemporary conservative denunciations of the political influence wielded by public-sector unions that are said to sit on both sides of the bargaining table, thereby rendering any settlement over wages, pensions, or conditions of employment illegitimate and corrupt. That is a point of view forcefully advanced by the Manhattan Institute's Steven Malanga in his 2010 book Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer.
Today trade unions represent only 12 percent of all working Americans, a signal testament to the decline of labor and its liberal allies. But if the opponents of public-sector unionism win their fight in the Rust Belt states, the victory will be more than just another organizational defeat for the unions. It will constitute an ideological triumph for a generation of conservative thinkers and activists who are now too often forgotten.