Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan Associated Press file photo

The bitter fights over collective bargaining now playing out in Wisconsin highlight the determination of Republicans, when they gain “trifecta” power (control of the executive branch and both legislative chambers) to break unions.

This is a radical departure from the mainstream for a party that has been funded by champions of labor and that, until very recently, expressed high regard for the union movement.

Remember that Ronald Reagan (a former private-sector union leader who as governor of California eased the way for collective bargaining by public employees) ran for and won the presidency with the support of major unions and told the 100th anniversary celebration of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1981: “Collective bargaining … has played a major role in America’s economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere. Too often, discussion about the labor movement concentrates on disputes, corruption and strikes. But while these things are headlines, there are thousands of good agreements reached and put into practice every year without a hitch.”

“I can guarantee you today that this administration will not fight inflation by attacking the sacred right of American workers to negotiate their wages,” Reagan added. “I want to express again my belief in our American system of collective bargaining and pledge that there will always be an open door to you in this administration.”

Even after brutal clashes with unions during his first term (when he fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), Reagan ran for re-election in 1984 with the backing of one of the nation’s largest unions, the Teamsters, and his campaign publicized endorsements from individual union leaders in its aggressive outreach to blue-collar workers.

As recently as 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was highlighting the fact that he was endorsed in the Republican primaries by the Machinists union.

Now, however, Republican presidential contenders are stumbling over one another in a mad rush to bash unions.

Asked during last week’s second GOP presidential debate whether they would back an attempt to make New Hampshire the 23rd state to enact militantly anti-union “right-to-work” legislation, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty chirped: “We live in the United States of America and people shouldn’t be forced to belong or be a member in any organization. The government has no business telling people what group you have to be a member of or not. I support, strongly, right-to-work legislation.”

“I was in a union. I grew up in a blue-collar town,” added Pawlenty. “I understand these issues.”

Actually, he doesn’t. The government does not force workers to join unions. Workers vote on whether they want union representation. If a majority says “yes,” then, and only then, does a labor organization begin to bargain on behalf of the workers.

Unions operate on a classic American principle: majority rule. As such, unions have more legitimacy as representatives of workers than former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon had as representatives of the American people. (Bush, Clinton and Nixon were elected without popular-vote majorities; indeed, Bush trailed Al Gore by roughly 550,000 votes.)

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was, if anything, more bombastically anti-union in the debate than Pawlenty.

“One of the things the government should do immediately is defund the National Labor Relations Board,” announced Gingrich, who decried the board’s attempts to apply basic labor standards in Southern “right-to-work” states such as South Carolina.

“I hope that New Hampshire does adopt right to work,” said the former speaker, who suggested that it was “stupid” to protect the rights of workers to organize in the workplace and to make their voices heard — via strong unions — in state and national political debates.

Retired pizza company CEO Herman Cain was equally emphatic, saying, “I believe in right to work and I hope that New Hampshire can get it passed,” and attacking the NLRB for “killing our free-market system.”

That’s the national GOP echoing Wisconsin’s not-so-great Scotts — Gov. Walker and Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald — who have been scrambling to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of collective bargaining rights and (in Fitzgerald’s case) to generate interest in passing a “right-to-work” law in Wisconsin.

It is worth noting that the roots of the pro-labor sentiment in the Great Lakes states and the Upper Midwest are not found in the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt — although FDR’s embrace of unions helped swing millions of working-class voters to the Democrats. The roots extend to Abraham Lincoln, who declared in his first State of the Union address: “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves the much higher compensation.”

Those are the words of a Republican, a real Republican who campaigned as a champion of labor.

One of the speeches that launched Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign was delivered in September 1859 at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair. In it, he pledged allegiance to those who “hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.”

Contrast that with the lang-uage of Gov. Walker and the “right-to-work” campaigners for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and one truth is self-evident.

The Republican Party of 2012 is no longer the party of Lincoln.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times.