Wisconsin Then and Now

Please check out these two wonderful pieces about the current labor struggles in Wisconsin by Leon Fink, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, JRC member, and a member of our recent trip to Israel/Palestine. (You may recall he posted about his experiences on our tour for this very blog.)

In a piece he wrote for the News & Observer last month, Leon offers a profoundly important history lesson about The Wisconsin Idea – “a forward-looking set of policies developed under four Republican governors (most notably Robert M. La Follette and Francis McGovern) that proved a blueprint for a nationwide Progressive Era.”

(The Wisconsin Idea) helped lift Wisconsinites from the doldrums of the great depression of the 1890s into a prosperous “mixed” economy combining the resources of farm and factory with science, engineering and human welfare expertise rooted in a state university system centered in Madison.

The policy initiatives were legion. After years of retrenchment, Wisconsinites turned to “tax fairness” as a way of redistributing the burden for vital government services, inaugurating an inheritance tax on the rich and raising rates for railroads, insurance companies and utilities. The wage-earners of the state – recognized as suffering under “unequal conditions of contract” – were rewarded with pioneering statutes in worker’s compensation, health and safety regulations and extension schools for adult education…

It was a formula that soon made Wisconsin the envy of the nation on questions ranging from taxation to industrial relations to land use policy. All told, the Wisconsin Idea suggested that through a close working relationship among major stakeholders, as pioneer labor economist John R. Commons put it, “order, intelligence, care, and thought could be exercised by the state.”

(What else is there to say except the times they have a’changed?)

The second piece is an op-ed from today’s Chicago Trib. The title really says it all: “Et Tu Barack? The President Takes a Powder on Workers’ Plight.”

Leon begins by noting Obama’s visible absence amidst legions of Democrats (and even some Republicans) who showed up at a mass protest against WI Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Madison last Saturday.

For those who had such high hopes that Obama would truly fight for the working men and women of this country (see clip above) the answers are not pretty. As Leon sadly concludes:

People in the streets in Madison recognize the need for shared sacrifice. All they see is the rich and powerful taking their pound of flesh from the poor and weak. For Democrats and workers, Gov. Walker has become the poster child for the raid on their democratic rights and standard of living. However, one wonders how long it will be until the attention is turned to that man behind the curtain.

1 thought on “Wisconsin Then and Now

  1. Nancy Bruski

    Fabulous post, Brant! It’s so sad, my heart has been breaking for months over our president. I took him off my refrigerator after he caved in on tax breaks for millionaires. I bought the concept that getting involved in the worker issues in WI might not be so wise strategically as this thing was unfolding.
    Now that it is clearly an established grassroots movement, however, it seems like it would be very wise and decent for the president to actually say SOMETHING that indicates he supports workers’ rights to organize and he stands with the little guys. That he consistently refuses to stand on Democratic (or even small “d” democratic) principles is beyond heartbreaking, it is enraging. And then to read that the administration is looking for ways to “drum up his base” is almost laughable, if it doesn’t make one weep!


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