Sunday, March 6, 2011

Big Government and Big Tea

Tea Partiers would like us to see them as implacable foes of Big Government. But this they are not, as the ongoing showdown in Madison, Wisconsin, makes clear. This showdown pits Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Tea Party against teachers and other ordinary citizens. The governor’s aim is to strip these citizens of their right to defend themselves through collective bargaining. He is so fanatically devoted to this goal that offers by the teachers and other public employees to yield to him on key budgetary issues have not softened his attack on collective bargaining.

The Tea Party backed Governor Scott during his campaign, as did the Koch Brothers who pumped all the cash the law allows into his coffers. In a sense the Tea Party and the Koch Brothers are the same thing, given that these Kansas billionaires have poured millions into the Tea Party and have worked to make its actions helpful to their own corporate bottom line. On this point, refer to the revealing article by Jane Mayer in last August’s New Yorker.

This "governor & fat cats vs. teachers" showdown calls to mind a similar clash: the Colorado coalminers’ strike of 1913-14. The Colorado struggle was triggered by the murder of a labor organizer in September 1913. The miners immediately went on strike for higher pay and safer working conditions, but were promptly kicked out of their homes by the company they worked for: the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company or CF&I.

CF&I belonged to the Rockefellers, and the shacks that were the miners' homes belonged to CF&I. Suddenly made homeless by the Rockefellers, the workers responded by setting up tent cities in the vicinity of the mines and continued their strike, despite the oncoming Colorado winter and the aggressive moves made against them.

The Rockefellers hired professional gunmen (the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency) to subdue them, but the miners fought back, suffering casualties as they did so. Finally Colorado Governor Elias Ammons called up the National Guard and, with the Guards’ pay covered by the Rockefellers, the Guardsmen continued the harassment of the miners’ tent camps. This harassment came to a horrifying climax in April of 1914 when the Guard assaulted the main tent city in Ludlow, Colorado, and burned it to the ground. This assault, known to history as the Ludlow Massacre, resulted in the deaths of two of the miners’ wives and eleven of their children.

The coalminers’ strike ultimately failed to attain its goals, but it did bring to national attention the feudalistic conditions under which some Americans were forced to live. The incident was also memorialized by a monument constructed by the United Mineworkers of America which still stands today. Woody Guthrie composed a song about the massacre which is now on youtube.

Monument Commemorating the Ludlow Massacre of April 1914

At this point, I think it’s appropriate to pause and thank Governor Walker and the Koch Brothers for their restraint. Though many of their actions are reminiscent of those surrounding the Ludlow Massacre, they have not, at least, hired gunmen or called up the National Guard to physically assault the teachers and other Wisconsin employees. So far, they have merely threatened to deprive these citizens of their livelihood.

We might also pause to consider the essential role that organized labor has played as a bulwark of democracy here and around the world. For example, when the American occupiers of Japan attempted to construct a democratic society there following World War II, they insisted on a law guaranteeing the right of employees to unionize and forbidding Japanese corporations to refuse collective bargaining with said unions.

It is particularly important, given the steady erosion of our public elections by private corporate money, to remember that votes alone do not a democracy make. The capacity of people to organize and resist exploitation by the rich and powerful is also an elemental democratic right, though it is one that Governor Walker seems determined to suppress. Notice, that as he does so, he portrays himself as an advocate of small government. But the only thing "small" about Wisconsin’s government today is its regard for the democratic rights and well-being of its public employees.

(My account of the Ludlow Massacre comes from a variety of sources, including a visit I made to the site when I lived in Colorado some 30 years ago. A good, compact published account appears in Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States.)

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