When Ronald Reagan was running for the presidency in 1980, he launched his fall campaign with a speech that used the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop and a reference point. Reagan was talking that day about the fundamentals of American freedom and of any just society.
As part of that speech, he focused on the importance of collective bargaining rights.
In the crudest dictatorships, workers are denied the right to organize labor unions that can speak for them in the workplace and in the political sphere.
At the time when Reagan, a former union president, was speaking, government employees in Poland were seeking to organize free trade unions. Their struggle inspired Reagan as he spoke about the necessity of defending the American dream.
“Restoring the American dream requires more than restoring a sound, productive economy, vitally important as that is. It requires a return to spiritual and moral values, values so deeply held by those who came here to build a new life. We need to restore those values in our daily life, in our neighborhoods and in our government’s dealings with the other nations of the world,” said the man who that fall would be elected president of the United States.
“These are the values inspiring those brave workers in Poland. The values that have inspired other dissidents under Communist domination. They remind us that where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost. They remind us that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. You and I must protect and preserve freedom here or it will not be passed on to our children. Today the workers in Poland are showing a new generation not how high is the price of freedom but how much it is worth that price.”
Reagan spoke true words on that September day in 1980 — words that crossed lines of partisanship and ideology.
Reagan was not outlining a conservative position. He was expressing a mainstream view, held by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.
There can be no question in the mind of any honest or serious political leader that “where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”
Yet last week Wisconsinites witnessed a new video advertising campaign — funded by billionaires from out of state — that attacked collective bargaining rights, and the right of public sector workers to freely associate with one another.
Speaking on her own behalf and that of Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch attacked collective bargaining rights and the principles that Reagan outlined more than 30 years ago.
Even more unsettling was the fact that she used lies and distortions to try to divide Wisconsinites against one another. Kleefisch’s actions provide a reminder of why recalling her is every bit as important as recalling Walker.
Defending the Walker/Kleefisch administration’s “budget repair bill,” which stripped collective bargaining rights from public employees, Kleefisch peddled precisely the sort of lies that were the weapons of the totalitarians Reagan decried.
“Here is how collective bargaining affects your checkbook,” Kleefisch began. “The government is constantly dipping into your wallet: sales tax, property tax, income tax. Those all go to fund government. Government employees get together in unions in order to ask for all kinds of things. They call that collective bargaining.”
To hear Kleefisch tell it, public employees just “ask for all kinds of things.” She does not even acknowledge that state, county and municipal workers and teachers provide services — protecting our air and water, teaching our children, caring for the sick, plowing our roads, policing our neighborhoods, and racing into burning buildings when fires break out — and that they have, again and again in recent years, accepted cuts or a freeze in wages and benefits in order to help balance local budgets.
But Kleefisch’s lie of omission was not the worst of her propagandistic statements.
She went on to claim that unions were making it harder to place volunteer crossing guards on busy street corners in Wausau and to remove snow in Racine County. In each case, she suggested that public sector labor organizations blocked rule changes because “they wanted a union employee to do the job.”
In both Wausau and Racine County, the disputes Kleefisch referenced revolved around public safety concerns. As is so often the case, while shortsighted officials wanted to diminish the quality of services, public sector unions battled to ensure that children were not placed in uncertain or dangerous circumstances and that rural roads were cleared so that school buses could roll, farmers could get to their fields, and workers could get to their jobs on cold winter mornings.
The issues involved have been well reported. Kleefisch had to know the truth. Yet she chose to peddle the big lie.
It is the lie that Reagan warned against — the fantasy that it is possible to have a free society without free and independent trade unions.
There are some folks who have asked why it is necessary to recall the lieutenant governor when Walker has so frequently been portrayed as the leader of the assault on public services, public education and public employees. In fact, Kleefisch is, if anything, more ideologically extreme than Walker.
Recalling Kleefisch is every bit as important as recalling Walker. They have, for reasons of ignorance or corruption, rejected the premise that “where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.” And Wisconsinites have a right and a responsibility to reject Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch.
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