Today’s post is a call to arms of sorts.
Earlier this year, the newly minted tea party Republican governors began their assault on unions … not even waiting for the ink to dry on the checks their supporters wrote at their inauguration balls.
Labor has always been the whipping boy of the conservative movement. You couldn’t swing a bag of money in a room full of conservatives without hitting one whose stated goal is to destroy the labor movement. Karl Rove laid out the plan over 15 years ago as the best hope for a permanent Republican majority. In the 2010 mid-term election, labor unions provided the manpower, the infrastructure and the energy to keep a shellacking from becoming a tsunami.
The latest attack by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is not surprising except perhaps for the rhetoric. The threat (promise?) to bring out the National Guard harkened back to the “good old days” when it labor and working people were fair game for not only rhetorical bullets but real ones.
Wisconsin is the state where this happened in 1886:
[There were] four days of massive worker demonstrations throughout Milwaukee on behalf of the creation of eight-hour day laws. As some 1,500 workers marched toward the Bay View Rolling Mills (then the area’s biggest manufacturer) urging the workers thereto join the marches, the State Militia lined up on a hill, guns poised. The marchers were ordered t o stop form some 200 yards away; when they didn’t, the militiamen fired into the crowd, killing seven persons.
Death was the penalty for demonstrating for the 8-hour work day, now an assumed right for most American workers.
To be fair, Gov. Walker did not say he was going to bring out the Wisconsin National Guard to shoot government employees who went on strike or who demonstrated. He said he would utilize the National Guard to fill in for workers at “critical” jobs if employees did not show up for work.
But even with that concession, there are two problems with conjuring up the image of the National Guard rescuing big business or government from those dastardly unions.
The first comes from Vote Vets :
“Maybe the new governor doesn’t understand yet – but the National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force to be mobilized to quash political dissent,” said Robin Eckstein, a former Wisconsin National Guard member, Iraq War Veteran from Appleton, WI, and member of VoteVets.org. “The Guard is to be used in case of true emergencies and disasters, to help the people of Wisconsin, not to bully political opponents. Considering many veterans and Guard members are union members, it’s even more inappropriate to use the Guard in this way. This is a very dangerous line the Governor is about to cross.”
The second is his use of the term “critical workers”. His assault on the unions creates an exemption for law enforcement and fire departments which he deems “essential”. This is the Republican view of government. In their mind the only essential government services are those two, maybe because they can picture themselves needing police or fire protection or to have a paramedic come to their house if they require medical attention.
There are many other essential government services. For example, the guys who plow the streets after a storm or lay down salt before a storm. Or the people who work in the water departments who keep our drinking water safe and who repair broken water mains. Or the folks at the social services agencies who processes a request for food stamps or heating assistance or to help someone find a place to live. Or those who staff the unemployment agencies to help people find jobs.
In Republican-speak these are non-essential because they personally do not need them. Or think they don’t.
As progressives we need to not only work to preserve the labor movement but we also need to constantly remind people about what Good Government does for everyone. The assault on government workers can serve as a wakeup call to us that government is essential to many of us and most certainly to the least among us.
Labor, and the delicate progress we forged over the last two years, is under fire. But we can use that to light a different kind of fire under us to work harder every day to remind people that two steps forward and one step back will keep happening until we all figure out that every single election is important.
(A version of this was originally posted on 02/15/2011 at BPI Campus)