In 1981, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), the national union representing air traffic controllers, went on strike. After talks collapsed, President Ronald Reagan permanently fired 11,000 of the union members.
The President of the United States of America intervened in a labor dispute in a heavy-handed move that, in many ways, defined Reagan's legacy and shaped the Republican Party and how it is perceived for decades to come. The labor turmoil in Wisconsin today is a direct result of Governor Scott Walker's desire (obsession?) to be viewed as the next coming of Ronald Reagan and busting unions fits quite nicely into the frame.
President Obama has chosen to use a far less heavy hand in this situation but I believe it is the right path.
In the last diary/blog I published at Daily Kos, I had a number commenters who said, in essence, "Obama doesn't care about the middle class!", "Obama is screwing the poor!" and "Obama is throwing union members under the bus and hanging them out to dry!" These are patently absurd statements about a Democrat who has spent his life helping the poor and the middle class and who has vigorously defended unions and their collective bargaining rights.
I highly doubt there is even one conservative in this country that believes Barack Obama doesn't support unions.
The labor unions themselves are praising the President for the role he has taken.
But there still appears to be a very small subset of the liberals in this country who believe that, because the president isn't walking around in front of the Capitol Building in Madison holding a sign or because he isn't on television regularly pounding the podium demanding the Governor of Wisconsin bend to his will, that he is somehow not supportive of unions and collective bargaining rights.
This is, again, patently absurd.
When President Obama (or any USA president) speaks, he does so with a mammoth megaphone. Even if he whispers, the entire country or even the entire world hears it. So it is no surprise that he chooses the words he speaks, the times he speaks them, the tone he uses when he speaks them and the frequency with which he speaks them very, very carefully. Every phrase, every utterance will be parsed ad nauseum but countless pundits for days afterward.
President Obama has made two pronouncements on the labor unrest in Wisconsin. A little over two weeks ago he said "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions." This week he said "I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon...We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service. These times demand it."
Some have described these as weak sauce; as tepid, overly-restrained responses to a situation that requires firm and decisive action, not mild phrases.
But if you watch the rest of the country, you realize that with these two pronouncements, President Obama has chosen sides. Everybody who is paying attention knows this. They know which side of the debate the President is on and they know who he is supporting.
The suggestion that President Obama should get somehow MORE involved in Wisconsin's labor unrest actually shows a rather astounding political naiveté. What good would it do?
Would it change Governor Walker's position? No. If anything it would harden his stance and galvanize his anti-union supporters even more.
Would it change the minds of the Republicans in the Wisconsin House or Senate? That's exceedingly unlikely. Any intercession by the President would simply force them into a more defensive position, just as it would Governor Walker.
Would it help the Democrats, particularly the exiled Senators, in Wisconsin win this battle? No, it wouldn't. I would suggest, in fact, the President involving himself would be a giant disadvantage to the Dems in Wisconsin. Like Dems across the country, they are reeling from major losses in the 2010 midterms. They need to regain political clout with their constituents and most people would agree that this fight has galvanized the Democrats and their base like nothing else has since the 2008 Obama candidacy. This can be a very important opportunity for them and, if President Obama gets involved, that impact would be lessened.
Would it strengthen the resolve or position of the protesting union members? This is arguable, I suppose, but my feeling is no. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and other labor leaders believe President Obama is taking the right path. The union members know which side President Obama is on. And there is nothing that the President can do to affect the legislative process that is in progress in Wisconsin right now.
President Obama has chosen a clear but measured response. Unlike Ronald Reagan who stomped down his elephant's foot on the PATCO union, the Obama approach is let things play out in their appropriate and organic way. He's being commended by the unions for it, he's allowing Wisconsin Democrats to gain credibility, power and clout from it, and he's giving his political opponents far less fodder to shoot him with.
He is choosing, appropriately, not to be the anti-Reagan.
I'm just sayin'...