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Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Wisconsin’s labor fight is crucial

By Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College, Brooklyn. He is the author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life (Encounter Books)

Gov. Walker is in the national vanguard fighting to reverse destructive union gains.

When tens of thousands of angry, energized demonstrators gathered in Madison in early February to protest newly elected Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation to roll back the power of public sector unions, the national reaction was surprise at the intensity of the conflict.

But the hostilities had been building in Wisconsin ever since Walker was elected as Milwaukee County executive in 2002 in the wake of the county’s pension scandal, and nationally at least since the mid-1990s, when John Sweeney, leader of the Service Employees International Union, became the president of the AFL-CIO. That was the first time that the national labor federation was led by someone who largely represented government workers and not those in the private sector.

It was a momentous development yet was barely covered in the press. Sweeney’s ascendency transformed not only the labor movement and, through it, the Democratic Party, but in 2008, with the election of Barak Obama as president, it reshaped the very nature of American politics. The confrontation in Madison was the distillation of those changes.

The public’s surprise wasn’t due to inattentive citizens failing in their civic duties. In the past 20 years, the political power of unions has expanded as the number of American union members declined. That’s, in part, because the rising force of public sector unions has been somewhat obscured by the decline in private sector unionists, who are now a minority of organized labor.

The power of government unions raised a new set of issues that, until Madison, were rarely debated. Rather, these momentous changes had been virtually ignored by academics and journalists. And when they might have come to public awareness during the 2008 presidential campaign, the press was too enamored of candidate Obama and too hostile to outgoing President George W. Bush to treat with import the Illinois senator’s deep connections to SEIU.

When Sweeney assumed the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, it closed the breach in left liberal ranks opened in 1972 when organized labor, then led by George Meany, a former plumber, refused to back the presidential candidacy of George McGovern. Meany and McGovern were at odds over everything from cultural issues to the Cold War.

But Jerry Wurf, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had its origins in Wisconsin, seized the opening to become a key player in McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Public employees have had a growing role in Democratic Party politics ever since. McGovern was trounced by Nixon, but the McGovernites and their public sector allies came to dominate the Democratic Party.

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