In the annals of historical amnesia few cases can compete with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent comments, and few cases of historical error have been so immediately linked to an historic policy decision. In his now famous phone call with a blogger posing as conservative industrialist David Koch, the governor offers an extraordinary window into the operation of his administration and the ideological reading of history that drives it. Here is the money quote:
“Monday night I had all my cabinet over to the residence for dinner, talked about what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, we'd already kind of built plans up but it was kind of the last hurrah before we dropped the bomb. And I stood up and I pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan, and I said, you know, this may seem a little melodramatic, but 30 years ago Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday we just celebrated the day before, had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers. And I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations or even the federal budget. That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall in the fall of Communism because from that point forward the Soviets and the Communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn't a pushover.”
Have you ever read anything like it? Whole books could be written about the significance of these words and the historical realities that lay behind these thoughts. For now, here are three things worth noting:
1. This quote clearly puts to rest the idea that the Governor saw himself doing something just to “balance the budget.” Anyone who still believed that Walker was motivated by a simple desire to avert a financial crisis needs to read this quote again and do a reality check. It is clear as a bell that Walker and his entire cabinet were completely aware that they were embarking on an historic effort at union busting in Wisconsin and beyond. “The bomb” being dropped was not pension cuts, but the evisceration of collective bargaining, and the sense that this was part of a broader strategy with national implications is completely backed up by the Reagan analogy.
2. By evoking the history of the “first crack in the Berlin Wall” Walker has gone where right wing union-busters dare not tread, for the true history of the fatal weakening of the Soviet Union runs right through the true history of unions and their power. Not to put to fine a point on it, but anyone with even a shred of awareness of the true nature of the Cold War knows that the first fissure in the Iron Curtain happened in Poland, before and then during Reagan’s presidency, and because of the power of unions. Surely Walker is old enough to remember Gdansk, Walesa, Solidarity, Jaruzelski—the people and places that were on the lips of every freedom loving person around the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Poland was the proving ground of a radical idea—that communism was a fraud at its core because precisely the working people who communism claimed to most deeply represent were the ones seeking to protest communist policies. The working men and women of Poland spoke truth to power by doing what? By demanding the right to form free and independent unions!! The communist pretension to moral authority was stripped of the thin veil of legitimacy when they busted the union that represented the true aspirations of workers. It was the willingness of simple Polish workers like Lech Walesa to suffer, and in some cases die, for the right to collectively bargain that provoked the crisis in legitimacy within the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and eventually within Russia herself. And guess which group of Americans gave covert support to the burgeoning Solidarity movement in Poland? Which group secretly shipped money and personnel to help nurture this strike at the heart of communism? The great unions of America’s working men and women, that is who. In fact, they worked in coordination with President Carter and President Reagan so that the union movement in Poland would know that they were not alone—that their struggle for rights as workers was linked to the unions of the free world. Lane Kirkland, who was the president of the AFLCIO from 1979-1995, was a member of the leading anticommunist group of the Cold War, the Committee on the Present Danger. Because of his extraordinary support for Solidarity, a free Poland awarded Kirkland their highest national honor, the Order of the White Eagle. Republicans used to understand the central role of the labor movement to the collapse of communism. George H. W. Bush awarded Kirkland the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989 and, with Lech Walesa in attendance at the White House, President Bush said these words:
“For over a decade, under your leadership, you and the union have been path breakers for freedom, continuing the support for free trade unions around the world…And you were there--you personally were there, in the hour of greatest need, helping to keep alive the dream of freedom in Poland.”
3. Ronald Reagan did manage to convince many union Democrats that the Democratic Party was out of touch with them, that it had fallen captive to a cultural elite who did not share the values of common people. Whether that was true or not, those words can truly now be spoken of the Republican Party under the leadership of the likes of Governor Walker. They are ideologically committed to a view of unions deeply at odds with both the historical record and the values of common people, be they in unions or not. Walker has misread history and misread the present. Thirty years after the busting of PATCO, Walker’s attempt to launch a national crusade against unions has instead reawakened in the Labor movement and the Democratic Party the fight and passion and determination worthy of the man who made the first crack in the Berlin Wall, Lech Walesa.