February 25, 2011

Gov. Walker: About That National Guard Thing...

I was greatly jazzed to read the new statement from Iraq Veterans Against the War which declares: “We Are Public Workers Too!” and opens:

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) calls on all U.S. military service members to refuse and resist any mobilization against workers organizing to protect their basic rights. IVAW stands in solidarity with the multitude gathered in Madison, Wisconsin and many other cities to defend their unions. IVAW members across the Midwest are mobilizing to take part in the mass demonstration in Madison on Saturday in defense of unions and the right of public sector workers to collective bargaining.
It is, of course, Governor Scott Walker’s threat to deploy the Wisconsin National Guard to quell the storm of protest against his union-busting drive that makes the IVAW stance so important.

Those who thought this was probably idle bluster are probably reconsidering in light of the declaration today by the head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association that the union supports the demonstrators and opposes any attempt to clear the Capitol building of its peaceful occupiers. Union executive director Jim Palmer added a call to members to join the occupation:
Law enforcement officers know the difference between right and wrong, and Governor Walker’s attempt to eliminate the collective voice of Wisconsin’s devoted public employees is wrong. That is why we have stood with our fellow employees each day and why we will be sleeping among them tonight.
The Wisconsin National Guard has been mobilized for strikebreaking duty in the past, notably in the bitter 1934 strike at the Kohler Company, one of the state’s largest industrial firms. 400 gunthugs were hired to break an AFL strike for union recognition and when their initial attacks killed two workers and injured scores more, they were met by militant and sometimes armed self-defense. As a former governor of Wisconsin, company president Walter J. Kohler, Sr. had no trouble getting a National Guard company deployed to “restore order”--resulting in the strike’s defeat.

But, as a retired postal worker, let me counter that bit of history with a more recent clash that Walker should contemplate before he makes good on his threat.

In 1970, employees of the United States Post Office Department were among the country’s poorer workers, paid so little that in large cities postal workers with families often applied for, and got, welfare to survive. Their unions were little more than fraternal organizations, with no right to bargain collectively or sign contracts.

At 12:01 on March 19 of that year, members of the Letter Carriers, following a vote in their local which rolled over objections from the longtime leadership, set up picket lines at facilities in the Bronx and Manhattan. Within a couple of days the strike had spread to other crafts, notably the clerks and mailhandlers, and to other major hubs, especially in the Northeast. The nation’s postal system started to grind to a halt.

In those pre-Internet, pre-direct deposit days, this had a massive impact on the economy. President Nixon got on teevee and ordered the strikers back to work. Some obeyed. Others walked out for the first time.

On March 25, Nixon took to the airwaves again to announce that he was mobilizing 25,000 National Guard (and even some elements of the Army and Marine Corps) in Operation Graphic Hand to get the mail flowing again. This turned out to be a massive failure.

In NYC, the epicenter of the strike, young troops--many deeply opposed to the war and part of the ‘60s “youthquake” (as Fortune Magazine termed it)--did show up at the designated postal facilities. Some of those mobilized were postal workers themselves, and they told the strikers what was going on inside--almost nothing. Better yet, when some officer came around to try and squeeze some work out of the Guardsmen, a sack of mail destined for, say, Huntsville, Alabama, would get a Juneau, Alaska destination tag slipped in its metal clip and be sent on its merry way.

Within days, things were even more fucked up than before. The government caved, and the US Postal Service was set up under the Postal Reorganization Act which recognized postal unions and permitted collective bargaining about wages, benefits, working conditions, health and safety and so on.

These are different times than 1970, to be sure, but Governor Walker might do well to reflect on the old saying: Be careful what you wish for--you just might get it!

1 comment:

Felix Dzerzhinsky said...

In all seriousness, it could really backfire on him if he announces layoffs, too. It would mean thousands of public-sector workers out of work with nothing to do . . .