Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

"The Fibre of Which Presidents Ought to Be Made": Union Busting from Rutherford Hayes to Scott Walker

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

"The Fibre of Which Presidents Ought to Be Made": Union Busting from Rutherford Hayes to Scott Walker

Article excerpt

A little over a month into his first term and just days before he introduced a bill in the Wisconsin state legislature that would strip most public-sector employees of their collective bargaining rights, Governor Scott Walker stood up from the table at a dinner with his cabinet and held up a photograph of President Ronald Reagan. "Thirty years ago," Walker told the group, "Reagan ... had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers." Referring to the upcoming bill, Walker said that "this may not have as broad of world applications, but in Wisconsin's history ... this is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history" (Schultze 2011). (1) Governor Walker was reminding his audience of President Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers that ended the 1981 strike and broke the back of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union. Inspired by Reagan's success, Walker ignored his many critics and successfully pushed his antiunion bill through the Republican-controlled legislature. In crippling government unions in the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker helped to announce himself as a national figure.

Just as Governor Walker looked to President Reagan for inspiration, so Reagan looked back in history for a role model of his own. Upon taking up residence in the White House, Reagan had a portrait of Thomas Jefferson in the Cabinet Room replaced with a portrait of Calvin Coolidge (Reagan 1990, 244). At the time, many asked, Why Coolidge? Why would Reagan choose as a role model a president whom historians typically rated as well below average? (Graff 1981). The explanation for the Great Communicator's admiration for Silent Cal becomes clearer when we remember that in firing and replacing the PATCO union members, Reagan was inspired by the then-governor of Massachusetts's response to the 1919 Boston police strike. To break the strike, Governor Coolidge sent in the National Guard to enforce order in the city and backed the use of permanent replacement workers. Coolidge's confrontation with public-sector workers helped propel him onto the national stage, creating the opportunity for him to be nominated as the Republican candidate for vice president in 1920.

Governor Walker's showdown with public-sector unions similarly garnered widespread media coverage and national conservative support, which enabled Walker to launch his presidential bid in 2015. Critics have argued that Walker was unnecessarily divisive and sure to spark a public backlash to his governorship (Bouie 2015; Daily Kos 2013; Gonyea 2015). But perhaps Governor Walker had a better appreciation of how past presidents and presidential hopefuls have successfully leveraged taking a hard line against organized labor. Presidential hopefuls' anti-labor actions have often thrust them into the national spotlight, positioning them for a run for the presidency. And once in the White House, presidents who have successfully challenged labor have often been applauded for their decisive, forceful leadership and tough, uncompromising position on law and order.

In this article, I chronicle the robust tradition of presidents and presidential hopefuls using union busting to advance their political careers. First, I discuss Rutherford Hayes's actions as governor of Ohio during a coal strike and then as president during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Second, I explore William McKinley and Grover Cleveland's actions during the 1894 Pullman Strike. Third, I take a closer look at Coolidge's actions during the 1919 Boston Police Strike. Fourth, I examine in greater detail Reagan's firing of the PATCO strikers in 1981. Finally, I analyze how Scott Walker's actions compare to those of these past presidents and presidential hopefuls. Drawing connections between these disparate moments in U.S. labor history, I affirm a central lesson: ever since the 1870s, union busting has provided a platform for presidents and presidential hopefuls to display career-defining leadership, garner media attention, and rally public support to their side--often at the expense of a struggling, fledgling labor movement. …

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