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Did Scott Walker Really Go and Compare Himself to Franklin Roosevelt? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Did Scott Walker Really Go and Compare Himself to Franklin Roosevelt?


In this January 3, 2011, photo, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Much of this progress (for working Americans) has been due, I like to think, to the one thing that this Administration from the very beginning has insisted upon: the assurance to labor of the untrammeled right, not privilege, but right to organize and bargain collectively with its employers.
         —Franklin Delano Roosevelt, September 11, 1940

Scott Walker is not averse to flights of fantasy.

But the governor of Wisconsin—who began August by hosting the annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Milwaukee and then planned to jet off to South Carolina and other key states to promote a 2016 presidential bid—filled his imagination quota last week when he compared himself with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

No one with the slightest sense of history could confuse the governor, who has yet to encounter a Wall Street dictate he didn’t honor, with the president who said when he sought re-election in 1936, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.… Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

But, of course, Scott Walker does not have the slightest sense of history.

That was painfully obvious when last week, in an appearance before a Governmental Research Association conference, the governor asserted, “The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt—not exactly a conservative—pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining. He felt that there wasn’t a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we’ve done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them.”

Walker was referencing a popular fantasy among anti-labor fabulists.

Unfortunately, the theory loses something in translation.

Back in 1937, Roosevelt did write that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

The comment came in a letter from the president to the National Federation of Federal Employees, in which he did, indeed, express his conviction that “upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities.”

But Roosevelt’s letter was not an anti-labor diatribe like one of Walker’s rants about “big union-sponsored mercenaries” and “bare-knuckle union attacks.”

Roosevelt began his letter celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the federal employees union with a declaration that “organizations of government employees have a logical place in Government affairs.”

“The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry,” continued Roosevelt, who expressed the view that organization on the part of public employees “to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical.”

It was Roosevelt’s respect for government—and his understanding of “the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government”—that led him to focus on what he understood as the distinct nature of labor relations at the federal level. But to suggest that the thirty-second president—who signed the National Labor Relations Act into law and famously declared, “It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic modern nation that it have free and independent labor unions”—set the stage for Walker’s anti-union politics is absurd.

Roosevelt did not want strikes to disrupt public safety and public service. But he recognized the “logical place” of public employee unions as representatives of federal workers. And it was in no small measure because of his pro-labor sentiment that the National Federation of Federal Employees exists to this day—as the representative of 110,000 federal workers at forty agencies and departments.

When the current president of the federation heard the comparison of Walker and Roosevelt, he wrote a column for the Federal Times in order to “correct the misinformation” about the letter—the original of which hangs outside his office at the union headquarters.

“It is clear that this letter was written to federal employees about the importance of not having strikes in federal agencies because of national security concerns. Nothing more,” explained William Dougan. “To suggest this is evidence that Roosevelt—the father of workers’ rights to form and join unions—shares an ideological lineage with Walker’s union-busting tactics is outrageous and disingenuous. A voice in the workplace for teachers, firefighters and other public employees is not a matter of national security, it is a matter of dignity for workers.”

Scott Walker is not the twenty-first-century embodiment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Scott Walker is the twenty-first-century embodiment of Julius Heil, the right-wing Republican governor of Wisconsin who, after his election in 1938, sought to undo the job-creation initiatives of Phil La Follette, the great Progressive Party governor of the 1930s. Heil had no taste for Roosevelt, and the feeling was mutual. The governor clashed with unions, and his repeated assaults on the rights of Wisconsin workers would eventually be his undoing. As The New York Times noted, “[Heil] lost in 1942, largely because of his unpopular labor record.”

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Heil would never have suggested that he was “not unlike” FDR. It would have been absurd for the anti-labor governor to compare himself with the man who declared during the 1936 campaign, “Of course we will continue every effort to end monopoly in business, to support collective bargaining, to stop unfair competition, to abolish dishonorable trade practices. For all these we have only just begun to fight.” If Heil had the audacity to make a comparison, FDR would have corrected him.

FDR is not around to correct Scott Walker. But the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees is around. “I can say with conviction and history firmly on my side that if Roosevelt was around today,” says William Dougan, “he would lead the charge for workers’ rights to unionize—public and private.”

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Basic Books/Nation Books). Author and radio host Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible.”

How far will Scott Walker go to eliminate dissent as he kicks off his presidential campaign?

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