Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stephanie Taylor: What Wisconsin's governor is really threatening

What Wisconsin's governor is really threatening: When Scott Walker talks of unleashing the National Guard on public employees, he conjures an ugly history
By Stephanie Taylor

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has declared war on state workers, almost literally.

First, he proposed a state budget that would cut retirement and healthcare for workers like teachers and nurses, and strip away nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. But even more significantly, he announced last Friday that he had alerted the National Guard to be ready for state workers to strike or protest, an unprecedented step in modern times.

This would be the first time in nearly 80 years that the National Guard would be used to break a strike by Wisconsin workers, and the first time in over 40 years that the National Guard would be used against public workers anywhere in the country. The last time was the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The outrage was immediate across labor message boards, Twitter and Facebook pages. Over the last two days, tens of thousands have protested in front of the capitol building in Madison in defiance of the governor, some even camping overnight.

To understand the visceral, emotional nature of this outcry, you have to understand the history of the National Guard and the labor movement -- and what this means for the relationship between labor and the state today.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, governors often mobilized the National Guard during strikes. Sometimes the Guard was genuinely neutral, assigned to buffer the dangerous zone between strikers and their employers. Other times, the Guard was explicitly charged with breaking the strike. During these instances, violence often erupted between strikers and soldiers with terrible, bloody results.

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