In her book “Workers’ Paradox: the Republican origins of new deal labor policy, 1886-1935,” Ruth O’Brien examines the complex political and ideological environments of the American labour struggle and the debate concerning organized labour’s status under the law. She begins the analysis with a consideration of American Exceptionalism, in particular the notion of new-world exemption from the business of class struggle.
I begin here because the Republicans have of late reinvigorated the exceptionalism fetish, a foremost example being the pernicious Representative from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann. Many however have forgotten, or choose not to recall, the “Republican origins” referred to above, and so on the topic of class warfare it may do well to restore Lincoln to the Party of Lincoln:
Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
When the President wrote this letter in 1864, the endowment of corporations with the rights of persons was in its infancy. This business began in the eighteenth century with the “combine” and assumed its contemporary character when the Reconstructionist Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 was applied to the private corporation in the Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific.
The contradiction of state activism which on the one side confers human rights protections to corporations and which simultaneously on the other seeks to deprive labour of the same protection is doubtless familiar. One might fairly say it is the alpha and the omega, or the entire point of the labour struggle. In the case of Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have been exposed as agitators on both sides of the matter. Can it be any coincidence that they put their money behind Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and at the same time behind union busting politicians? In their efforts they are enthusiastically supported by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, just as in a previous era the Hearst newspapers actively sought to undermine the unions, earning for their owner the title American Menace No. 1. The Republican-Fox-Koch agenda, which has nothing to do with the balancing of state budgets and everything to do with enhancing corporate political power, is so transparent that one must actively choose not to notice it.
The nation-wide importance of the Wisconsin labour struggle is widely acknowledged. Indeed, as Christopher Hitchens indicates in a recent article, the state is of extraordinary significance to the political radical. Is it conspiratorial to speculate that it was selected at least partly for this reason to be the battlefield in this opening volley of the latest Koch class war? The right of collective bargaining, which is simply the right of employees to designate representation in disputes with employers, was first introduced in Wisconsin. Other Wisconsin innovations in the advancement of workers’ rights followed. How fitting it would be, from the Republican point of view, to set History in the opposite direction on a track departing from Madison.
This I am hopeful they cannot do. It happens, whether to our detriment or benefit, that history does not operate in such linear manner. Allusion to the track will recall among the historically literate the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Robert M. La Follette Sr., whose opposition to the railway trust, and to the corrupting influence of the big bosses in general, led to historian R. David Myers description of him as “arguably the most important and recognized leader of the opposition to the growing dominance of corporations over the Government.” In our current era, in which “Republican” invariably indicates captivity to moneyed interests, it is necessary to revive the political traditions of corporate responsibility and attention to the public interest which animated both Robert M. La Follette Senior and Junior, and which thereby led in Wisconsin — under the Republican, later the Wisconsin Progressive Party, mind you — to the advancement of labour and to the generalized improvement of the lives of American citizens. The people of Wisconsin have a proud tradition of upholding the rights of labour. Now that an open-air class war has been declared against them, may this tradition prevail.