When three-fourths of the Boston police department went on strike in 1919, leading to broken shop windows and looting, then-Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge called out the state militia and broke the strike. Coolidge declared, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."
His courage propelled him to the vice presidency and eventually to the presidency.
Fast forward to Aug. 3, 1981 when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) called a strike over better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour work week. In doing so, the union violated a law that banned strikes by government unions. Ronald Reagan declared the PATCO strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered them back to work under terms of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. Subsequently, Reagan demanded those remaining on strike to resume work within 48 hours, or forfeit their jobs. On Aug. 5, following the PATCO workers’ refusal to return to work, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order and banned them from federal service for life. Pro-labor Democratic president Bill Clinton rescinded this ban in 1993.
Now it’s the turn of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. So far, the 43-year-old governor, in office less than two months, has stood his ground against schoolteachers who called in sick (nice example for the kids) and other union members — many of them bussed into Madison from outside the state.
When the federal government runs out of money, it can print and borrow more. When states run out of money they must cut spending to balance their budgets, or raise taxes.
The days of constant increases in pay and benefits — including expanding pensions — are over, not only in Wisconsin, but also in many other states.
One pro-union demonstrator in Madison carried a sign: “This is what democracy looks like.” No, the last election is what democracy looks like. Gov. Walker and the new Republican state legislators ran on platforms to reduce the state’s debt. They are refreshingly living up to their promises. If voters decide they don’t like their methods for getting out of debt, they can vote Republicans out of office in the next election.
“We won” and “elections have consequences,” crowed President Barack Obama as he and his once-solid Democratic congressional majority pushed through legislation that polls show most Americans oppose. Republicans seem to be getting more support now in their quest to force us to live within our means.
This is the Republican Party’s moment. More Americans are coming to a “Prodigal Son” understanding of our financial predicament. In the biblical account, a young man leaves his father’s house and squanders his inheritance on riotous living. When he runs out of money, the son finds himself in a hog pen, eating pig food. It says, “He came to his senses.” Wisconsin residents and the nation are coming to our senses in the face of massive public debt.
If Wisconsin’s Democratic legislators stop playing political theater, come back to Madison from their hiding places in Illinois and fulfill their responsibilities as elected officials, perhaps a solution to the standoff can be worked out.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Walker said 10,000 to 12,000 of the state’s nearly 300,000 government workers would likely lose their jobs if changes weren’t made in benefit contributions paid by union members. The unions have said they are willing to make some concessions, but Walker has rejected their offer as insufficient.
Democrats in Wisconsin may be overplaying their hand, just as congressional Democrats may be overplaying their hand with threats to shut down the federal government if Republicans don’t see things their way.
Standing firm and having the courage of one’s convictions worked before. So far, Gov. Walker has stood firm and explained what he is doing and why. If he doesn’t cave, perhaps he might be the national leader Republicans have been looking for, either now, or in the near future. It worked for Coolidge and Reagan.
Cal Thomas, a columnist at Tribune Media Services, can be reached at email@example.com.