By Ruth Conniff on Aug 2, 2013
As Scott Walker gets ready to host the National Governors Association meeting in Milwaukee this weekend, he set off a media storm with a preview of his speech that invoked FDR to justify attacks on public employee unions.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, Walker told a group of government researchers: "The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt — not exactly a conservative — pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining. He felt that there wasn't a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we've done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them."
Leave aside, for a moment, Walker’s peculiar assertion that cutting benefits and stripping collective bargaining rights is a way to “empower” and “affirm” public employees.
This is not the first time Walker has invoked FDR. Perhaps it's part of his effort to sound Presidential. Maybe it's a way of tweaking progressives (Walker also described himself as a "progressive" when I caught up with him at the Republican National Convention last year). Maybe it's just a way of muddying the waters to disguise his extreme rightwing moves.
Whatever his motivations, Scott Walker clearly has a habit of comparing himself to FDR.
Here are three ways the two men are actually alike:
1. Both Walker and FDR broadcast "Fireside Chats"
While FDR used his famous weekly radio addresses to calm the citizenry and announce new government relief programs during the height of the Great Depression, Walker used a so-called "Fireside Chat" to sow resentment among non-union private sector workers and to press his case for reducing public employees' benefits and busting their unions.
The contrast between FDR, who reached out to offer aid to struggling workers, with Walker, who used the bully pulpit to tell workers he fully intended to take away their benefits and their right to bargain, no matter how divisive the issue might be with citizens, was so stark, the use of the title "Fireside Chat" could only be seen as a thumb in the eye.
2. Both Walker and FDR talked about public employee unions and took a position against public employees' right to strike.
In his recent speech in Milwaukee, Walker quoted from a 1937 letter FDR wrote to the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, in which he took a position opposing strikes in the Federal service.
"The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions . . . fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives . . . is basically no different from that of employees in private industry," FDR wrote.
But "meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government."
In particular, FDR emphasized that he opposed strikes by public employees, adding:
"The paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable." (The letter ends with his congratulations to the federal employees for the provision in their constitution that commits them to a no-strike policy.)
Presidential historian David Greenberg provides some important context: public employees' right to collective bargaining really began during John F. Kennedy's administration,” Greenberg says. "It is not surprising that FDR -- as head of the government - would be against it. He was management as far as they were concerned."
Labor historian David Moberg adds that, in the 1930s, “in response to an upsurge of organizing, strikes, and protests, the Federal Government had finally not only recognized by also encouraged unionization and collective bargaining only two years before FDR wrote his letter.”
“Historical context is important,” Moberg adds.
“In the thirties some union leaders opposed some New Deal relief programs, but they eventually embraced the new role of government. Even in the fifties some private sector union leaders opposed public sector unions. But public workers’ struggles to organize and demand rights changed their private sector colleagues’ minds.”
“One thing seems certain: despite the special perspective towards workers that almost any government executive has as boss, FDR would almost certainly be adamantly opposed to Governor Walker if he were alive today.”
3. Both were governors who went on to run for President
FDR ran in opposition to the theory "that if we make the rich richer, somehow they will let a part of their prosperity trickle down to the rest of us" and endorsed, instead, "the theory that if we make the average of mankind comfortable and secure, their prosperity will rise upward through the ranks.”
Walker, on the other hand, is one of a handful of governors who turned aside Federal health care money to help the working poor. He is planning to share his views with his fellow governors this weekend that the way to prosperity is through helping "the job creators" (as he had done in Wisconsin, giving away millions of tax dollars to his campaign donors, with no strings attached, on the theory that they might create more jobs.)
Walker plans to kick off the National Governor's Association astride a motorcycle at Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson Museum. "We'll come roaring down . . . kind of like our own little version of the Harley parade," he told Fox News.
Hard to imagine FDR doing that.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "The Poison in Scott Walker’s “Awesomesauce”."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter