Public workers represent the state’s best traditions

By John Nichols

I was born and raised in Wisconsin. So were my mother and father. So were my grandparents on both sides. In fact, both sides of my family were settled in Wisconsin before statehood. I was taught to see Wisconsin as a superior state. We managed our affairs properly. We paid more into the federal treasury than we got back. But that was because our state was more responsible, more capable than the rest.
Wisconsin was different. And Wisconsin was better.

For those of us who value Wisconsin as more than a stepping stone to national office, Gov. Scot Walker’s attack on our unions and our civil-service system was understood for what it was: an assault on the whole idea of Wisconsin.

What brought tens of thousands of Wisconsinites into the streets last winter was not the work of the “out-of-state agitators” or “Madison liberals” of right-wing talking points. What got my mom’s friends from Burlington and Union Grove to make their own signs and drive, repeatedly, to demonstrations in Madison, Racine and elsewhere was not a call from the labor movement. It was a deeper sense that something fundamental about our state was under attack.

My friend Scott Walker does not understand this. Unlike Tommy Thompson and other Republican governors before him, Walker is not a Wisconsin conservative. He is a K-Street conservative who takes his signals from the lobbyists and think tanks of Washington, not the people of Wausau or West Bend. Walker actually bought into the fantasy that the only thing that made unions strong was their political money. But Wisconsinites knew better. They have historically valued public service even if their governor does not.

That is why, long after Walker is gone, the public employee unions and the values he attacked will remain. Indeed, they may well come out of the fight Walker picked stronger. Our history explains why.

Maybe it was the character of the people who placed such a powerful imprint on Wisconsin: the German ’48ers, the Norwegians, the Swedes, the Finns. Maybe it was the experience of the Progressive Era, when Wisconsin became America’s “laboratory of democracy.” Maybe it was the success of the Milwaukee Socialists, who governed for the better part of 50 years with such skill that Milwaukee regularly earned marks as the nation’s best-run big city.

But something caused Wisconsinites to have a dramatically higher regard for government, and for the people who are employed by government, than the long-suffering residents of states that will never be dubbed laboratories of democracy.

What tied the traditions of the German ’48ers, the La Follette Progressives and the Milwaukee Socialists together was a measure of rectitude not found elsewhere. The men and women who took positions of public trust felt that they were doing so as a service to their communities. They took their jobs with a sense of duty and mission.

And they maintained ethical standards that were the envy of the nation.

Wisconsinites grew up proud of the fact that “Chicago-style politics” did not cross the state line from Illinois. Our government was more open, more responsive and more responsible.

Why? We did have a better class of politicians: Robert M. La Follette, John Blaine, Phil La Follette, Dan Hoan, Tom Fairchild, Ruth Doyle, Gaylord Nelson, Mel Laird, Lloyd Barbee, Warren Knowles, Lee Dreyfus. But we also had stronger traditions of civil-service protection and public-employee organizing.

Wisconsin’s state, county and municipal employees were protected from the political pressures and demands that were commonplace in other states. As my old friend Frank Zeidler explained: “Wisconsin was one of the first states to treat public employees with respect, and that respect was repaid with honest and efficient service.”

The longtime mayor of Milwaukee was an expert on state and local governance, and he well recognized the fundamental reality of why Wisconsin and its communities were better governed: “We did away with the spoils system, we embraced civil-service protections and we worked with unions,” he explained.

“That gave public employees protections and a voice in the workplace. Our public employees were willing to push back against the pressures to cut corners, to cut services, to do less for a poor neighborhood than a wealthy neighborhood. It made Milwaukee and Wisconsin more equitable, more fair and, ultimately, more prosperous.”

On paper, these commitments seemed to cost a bit more. Our taxes were high, but we got more in return. Our services were superior. Our schools were exceptional. The gap between rich and poor was narrower than in other states. Wisconsinites grumbled about the cost of government but generally recognized the benefits that came with the arrangement: consistent local services, good roads (and no tolls), high test scores, low dropout rates, a cleaner environment that sustained tourism, a healthier rural economy, and small towns that remained vibrant at a time when similar towns in lower-tax, lower-service states were drying up and disappearing.

Walker won the first fight he picked. State, county and municipal employees, along with teachers, lost collective bargaining rights, and their unions lost structural benefits such as the dues checkoff. But they were not destroyed. By late summer, union members were renewing their membership at higher than expected rates.
So where does this leave us? In uncharted territory. Walker has changed some labor laws, but he has also inspired a more militant and broadly supported labor movement than Wisconsin has seen since the 1930s. There is no question that public employee unions will remain a presence in Wisconsin, nor is there much question that their presence will be strengthened over time.

The federal courts will chip away at the labor-law changes initiated by the governor and his legislative allies, especially with regard to their creation of separate-but-unequal standards of “protection” for different classes of public employees. The political battles of 2012, 2013 and 2014 will define the rate at which the unions claw back basic protections.       

Those elections may test and strain our resolve. But Wisconsin is a stronger state than most, and our unions are more deeply rooted. We are a patient and principled people. We saw off Julius Heil and Joe McCarthy, and after the exits of those conservative icons, unions made their greatest advances under Walter Goodland and Gaylord Nelson, an aging Republican and a young Democrat who shared a regard for working people and the organizations that represent them.

We have experienced what Jefferson referred to as “the reign of witches” before. We know that their spells dissolve and that true principles prevail.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison and the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.