Andrew Sullivan and Clive Crook have brought Franklin D. Roosevelt into the Wisconsin governor's battle with the state's government employees.
FDR is perhaps the most venerated saint in the labor movement's heaven. Surely, then, the far right will try to make capital of his 1937 letter, cited on the Sullivan blog, to Luther C. Steward, president of the National Federation of Federal employees, particularly these passages:
All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.
Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees.
Blest though he may be, FDR's private opinions of 74 years ago are utterly irrelevant to what's happening in Wisconsin and spreading to other states with Tea Pot governors. Introducing his Steward letter to the Wisconsin debate would be comparable to introducing into the 1964 Civil Rights deliberations the words Lincoln spoke at Charleston, IL, in the debate with Douglas:
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
Such beliefs, held by most white people at the time, did not diminish Lincoln's hatred of the institution of slavery, nor his determination that it must face "ultimate extinction" in this country.
FDR's remarks about federal government employees, set in the context of 1937, were tempered by a preface:
The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical.
It would be decades before both federal and state governments began to acknowledge that if public workers' "desire" is basically no different from that of employees in private industry, then their rights under the laws governing labor relations should be no different, either.
The historical context of FDR's letter is important. It was written just weeks after American labor had been revolutionized by the auto industry's acceptance of the UAW as bargaining agent for its workers. It was written just months after passage of the National Labor Relations Act (the so-called Wagner Act) paved the way for not just auto workers, but millions of other American wage-earners to lift themselves up by the bootstraps into lives of dignity, able ultimately to afford better health care, pensions and win government oversight of workplace safety. New and radical stuff! It came even as the richest Americans, the barons of business and finance, were villifying "that man" in the White House for the communist folly called Social Security. FDR's personal view about public employees was shaped by that political climate, by the times in which he governed, just as Lincoln's personal views on race were shaped by the times in which he operated.
America's labor laws are a swiss cheese of often discordant federal and state laws, so that what's legal in the 22 right to work states, for example, doesn't apply in states like Wisconsin that have for half a century recognized public employees' right to collective bargaining. That is a right democratically won under rules virtually identical to those spelled out in the NLRA, and thus, I contend, absolutely irrevocable by unilateral action of either signatory. It would be for the Wisconsin courts to decide, but I submit that neither the legislature nor the governor can repeal that right without the consent of the unions and their members.
I will not even attempt to conceal my contempt for Wisconsin's governor and Republican legislators, for the rapacious Koch brothers who put them in office, or for their supporters in other states seeking to solve budget problems by breaking the backs of labor and cutting taxes on corporations.
I hold in particular contempt such supporters as Deputy Attorney General Jeff Cox of Indiana, who twittered recently that Wisconsin officials should "use live ammunition" against the Madison protesters. Asked if he meant that literally, he replied, "You're damned right I advocate deadly force."
Mr. Cox, my granddaughter, Brittany, is one of those protesters and has been from the outset. She's a social worker, who worked three jobs to get through college and earn her master's degree. She works countless unpaid hours and often spends her own limited resources to provide her clients with things they need. Her program has reduced Wisconsin's infant mortality rate among racial minorities from one of the highest to one of the lowest in the nation.
Mr. Cox, you scum, you are unworthy to lick the dirt off Brittany's shoe soles. I invite you, you miserable coward, to come to New Mexico and tell me to my face that you want to "use live ammunition" against Brittany.