Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Violates Reagan's Legacy

In his attack on workers' right to bargain collectively, Scott Walker is diametrically opposing the legacy of former President Ronald Reagan -- the same conservative figure Walker idolized in his prank phone call with a blogger posing as "David Koch."

Reagan understood the importance of unions intimately. He served seven terms as president of a labor union -- the Screen Actors Guild -- during tumultuous years from 1947 to 1952, and again from 1959-1960. Under his tenure, the union became one of the first to require a loyalty oath from its members. As president of SAG, Reagan fought for and won many payment rights for actors during at the time when the popularity of big-screen movies waned due to the advent of television. Under Reagan's presidency, SAG members also won pension and health plans.

In 1982, the Polish government outlawed Solidarity, a national labor union to which the overwhelming majority of Polish workers and farmers belonged. The Polish government tried to substitute a new, powerless labor union that Reagan openly called "a sham." Reagan responded to the events in Poland with harsh steps. On October 9, 1982, he gave an speech to Americans condemning the events in that country. Reagan suspended Poland's most-favored-nation trade status, condemned the Polish military for "trampling on the hopes and aspirations of Polish workers," called repression of the union an "outrage," and pressured the regime to participate in "the arduous but real process of dialogue and reconciliation" with Solidarity. Reagan told Americans that the Polish government's repression of that country's labor union was "a matter of profound concern to all the American people and to the free world."

Now, 29 years later, Scott Walker pursuing a path in Wisconsin not unlike the path the Polish government pursued against its workers in 1982. In trying to eliminate collective bargaining, Walker is seeking very the same ends that the Polish military sought against the union in that country -- outlawing real union organizing by civil servants.

For Scott Walker, though -- as demonstrated by his actions and made crystal clear in his statements captured on audio tape today -- there is no dialogue. There is no reconciliation. He has refused every entreaty to meet and negotiate in good faith, and he has demonstrated utter disdain for the rights of over a 100,000 Americans in Wisconsin and millions across the nation.

He also has a distorted understanding of the full legacy of Ronald Reagan, who applauded the right of people to organize unions in a free society even though he fired American air traffic controllers, creating a blot on this record. Walker drew the wrong lessons for the wrong reasons from the Reagan era, and he is taking the wrong actions today.

[Updated February 24, 2011, 9:30 a.m. MST]


I think it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that Reagan's support of the Solidarity union in Poland and time as head of the Screen Actor's Guild were evidence of a belief in the labor movement in general. Reagan and his cabinet were all too happy to support independent unionism in the Warsaw Pact nations - the administration was full of ideologues devoted to "free market" capitalism and its war on communism abroad and the labor movement at home. And you've dramatically understated the significance of Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981. The Reagan Admin intended to send a very loud and clear message to its clients and the rest of us that there was indeed a new sheriff in town. It not only destroyed PATCO, it marked a very significant turn in the war on the labor movement. It was a historic moment for corporate capitalism. This wasn't just a "blot" on RR's record, it WAS his record on labor. It appears to me that Walker and others want to tread the same path and have been surprised to find that the wonderful folks of Wisconsin believe in the practice of democracy! I'm hoping we Californians can learn some lessons here. Regards from Petaluma, Chris