By Jerry Waxman
The real drama being played out in Wisconsin and Indiana, and several states to come has been in the planning stages for decades. As long as the economy had the illusion of being healthy and politics had not yet degenerated to the radical ends it now occupies, we were not aware of it being more than just a loony fringe faction. FDR had the luxury that President Obama has never enjoyed; he had more than three years of the Great Depression to welcome him into the White House, which made passage of his economic reforms easier in a country in much more desperate shape. Many of those reforms formed the safety net we still enjoy that kept us from similar devastation. That era also marked the rise of the labor unions and the Great American Middle Class.
Many wealthy and powerful people tried to overthrow the Roosevelt Administration, Including Prescott Bush (father of GHWB and Grandfather of GWB), the Du Ponts and others. It is possible that they could have succeeded but their plans were thwarted by Marine Corps General Smedley Butler who had actually been approached to lead the rebellion. Butler blew the whistle and took a lot of ridicule for it, yet a congressional committee accepted Butler’s report and claimed the charges to be accurate however, no action was ever taken.
World War II brought almost full employment either in uniform or in defense plants and after the war the greatest period of expansion and prosperity in American history went forward well into the 1980’s. People like the Du Pont and Bush families were always against New Deal Politics and never forgot what happened in 1934, and along the way gathered other wealthy and powerful allies. The conservatives in congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 (over President Truman’s veto) which limited the unions’ striking power. The first signs of social unrest happened with Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice. President Eisenhower appointed him in 1953 and shortly afterward the Warren Court handed down a series of progressive decisions that no one expected from Earl Warren. Most notable was the groundbreaking Brown v Board of Education in 1954 which ended segregation in the public schools, but was also the launching pad for the ultra conservative movement.
Within one year Professor Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago was not only espousing his supply side economic theories, he was also advocating school choice and school vouchers. Historically, the John Birch Society was founded in 1958, but founder Robert Welch and another founding member, Fred Koch had been fighting against the kind of social justice and commercial regulation that was happening in this country as we enjoyed our great prosperity. Once the John Birch Society was formed it immediately went to work against our participation in the UN, fighting communism, working against civil rights as well as asking the congress to impeach Earl Warren. Both Welch and Koch were successful businessmen with highly conservative views. Welch made his money in the candy business, his greatest marketing success being the “Sugar Daddy”. Koch was a chemical engineer who had the entrepreneurial spirit to build his own refineries. Because of certain domestic conflicts Koch decided to work in Russia and several other countries during the 1930’s. When he returned to the US his company finally became Koch Industries. His experiences with Russia and Stalin made him a staunch anti-communist.
The John Birch Society was considered way too radical for mainstream Republicans of the time, and they were denounced regularly by top conservatives led by William Buckley. They worked mainly under the radar for many years but the next opportunity came in 1964 when Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” speech gave them the impetus to set up a framework for establishing “Think Tanks” which would foster the conservative point of view to a place of prominence. These men had the money and the resolve and the patience necessary to grow the movement, in small incremental steps. Along the way they picked up other allies like Richard Mellon Scaife and Joe Coors who likewise funded their share of conservative think tanks. At this point in history David Koch became president of Koch Industries following the retirement of his father in 1966. Koch and his brother Charles were raised on the principles which they still espouse.
Add to this mixture a Virginia tobacco lawyer named Lewis Powell. Although he personally was not involved in Brown v Board of Education, his firm represented some Virginia districts that came under the umbrella of the Brown case. Being essentially a tobacco lobbyist Powell was very familiar with the workings of the legal system dealing with governments and their regulating agencies. Two months prior to Richard Nixon nominating him to the Supreme Court in 1971 he issued what has become known as the “Powell Memorandum” (also known as the Powell Manifesto) which is the founding document for the current conservative movement, to the US Chamber of Commerce. The Memorandum attacked recent government regulations and showed how to lobby against them. It called for corporations to get active politically to fight for lower taxes, less regulation as well as attacking public education and union involvement in politics. The Powell memorandum showed the Chamber what steps it could take in shaping public opinion.
It didn’t happen overnight, but by 1980 all the elements were in place for Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency. Many of Milton Friedman’s radical economic policies were starting to take hold. Jimmy Carter gave the impression of being weak and the Iranian hostage crisis was not going well. It was Carter’s undoing. Once Reagan became president he started putting much of Powell’s suggestions to work, as well as giving Friedman’s destructive policies legitimacy. Reagan, citing Carter’s weaker points drove home the idea that Government was too big and didn’t work well. The statements were untrue but Reagan framed his argument well and nobody on the left did anything serious to challenge him.
Reagan had had a checkered career, actually starting out as a staunch supporter of FDR and the New Deal. That started to change, however, after WW II and especially after his being elected as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Lew Wasserman, president of MCA and Hollywood’s biggest power broker, saw something in Reagan other than his mediocre acting talents because he became Reagan’s personal agent and kept him alive during his declining acting years. Wasserman basically engineered the SAG election because he needed a compliant accomplice in building his entertainment empire. During the Red Scare Reagan testified in front of HUAC, named names and as SAG president never lifted a finger to defend any of his members. He also as president of SAG sold out his members on several occasions, most notably the “Great Giveaway” which denied residuals to actors on any films produced before 1960. Reagan also sold out his union when AFTRA was formed resulting in a much weaker union, a real benefit to MCA which owned Revue Productions, a major TV producer of series and sitcoms. Wasserman rewarded him by making him host of The General Electric Theater at a base salary of $125,000.00 per year plus other perks. During his tenure as SAG president he bent and stretched the rules blatantly in favor of his corporate masters. Sag was named a co-conspirator in the 1962 Justice Dept investigation of MCA due to Reagan’s rules violations. When the Federal Government forced the MCA breakup Reagan avoided prosecution as part of the deal, but the experience changed him to become a small government Republican, mentored by ex MCA and GE executives. Reagan’s complete capitulation to Wasserman served him well in his political career and helped him win his bid for Governor of California in 1966. Once he became president it was time for his real trickery. By now all of the right wing think tankers and funders had gotten his ear and he took full advantage of it. The time line between the relative wealth of the middle class now and then starts with his election. His firing of the PATCO air traffic controllers set the stage for the coming assault on unions over the next 30 years.
If you check the rise of the corporate oligarchy in this country this is where it also begins. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s there was still a vibrant textile and garment industry in this country. Garment manufacturers were major employers in the large cities and since the Triangle Fire in 1911 they were for the most part unionized by either the Amalgamated Clothing Workers or the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In cities like Philadelphia the garment industry was the second largest employer in the city. As manufacturers looked for cheaper labor they moved south taking advantage of local communities tax breaks. The unions followed and there was a large participation although not as complete as in the north. For many years ownership management and labor got along, working out their problems together. The proliferation of the automobile fostered the UAW and as an off-shoot the Teamsters. The Longshoremen, Steelworkers Railroad Workers and lots of other unions proliferated. Of course, there were also problems with certain unions and their organized crime affiliations. Jimmy Hoffa became a household name as a symbol of union corruption. The United Mine Workers were also plagued with corruption. United Mine Workers President, W.A.”Tony” Boyle, was eventually convicted of the 1969 murder of his arch rival Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter during a bitter campaign. For all the good the UMW did in its history this was a terrible black mark. Union membership is at an all time low because of all the job losses in these industries due to the lack of an industrial base. Careers that used to be in this country are now in emerging third world countries, careers that used to raise families here.
Public employee unions gained prominence starting in the late 50’s when Mayor Wagner of New York allowed them to organize. JFK expanded that to federal employees and today public employee unions outnumber their private counterparts. Conservatives in general would love to see the end of unions altogether but specifically the end of public employee unions. Their arguments always state that government can’t afford them and it is always about the money they cost. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, since all unions ask for is a negotiated fair share. Unions have no say in any management decisions. They do not create or implement policy. Basically public employee union members do what they are told to do. In many cases they sacrifice money that they could make in the private sector for the job and pension security of working for the people. Retirement pension is actually deferred compensation for that which they have already earned. If there is a financial crisis it was caused by their employers, the politicians who passed bad financial laws, or didn’t invest in infrastructure, or used public money to finance private sports complexes, or lowered taxes on people who don’t deserve those breaks, or put us into two financially draining meaningless wars, or didn’t prosecute Wall Street thieves, etc….etc…..etc. Another bad argument is that public unions are unnecessary since those employees work for the public. They may be public employees, but so are their bosses and elected officials who in an ideal world may treat them fairly, but this is not an ideal world. Who protects a teacher from a bad principal or school administrator? Who protects any employee from unfair discrimination by a superior? No one in that chain of command would dare. Only a union can protect a rank and file employee from administrative abuse.
So, this brings us to the present. The title of this essay is actually a pun of the very successful 1963 slogan for Coca Cola. When we refer to the Kochs from here on we’re referring to all the conservative billionaires (including Rupert Murdoch) the same way we would refer to Kleenex as all tissues. We’re all well aware that the purpose of Scott Walker’s initiative is to break the power of and neutralize public employee unions, and that this would also be the beginning of the end of any union’s ability to spend money on Democratic candidates. It would also allow the systematic rape of the state’s assets for the benefit of people like the Kochs, who could purchase at bargain prices any utility and charge dearly for the service.The kind of money that the Kochs have through their various PACs, foundations and such is so enormous that there’s no way the average citizen or combined strength of all the unions can come even close, so how do we counter?
It is happening in Madison right now. It’s not an infection; it’s a spirit and it needs to embrace every one of us. If we all don’t stand up for Wisconsin’s brave senators and public employees now there may never be another time. Pastor Martin Niemoller spoke of it in his famous “First They Came” statement about Nazi Germany where because he failed to act and speak out about the persecution of Communists, Trade Unionists and Jews there was no one left to speak out when they came for him. This is the time to break Scott Walker and absolutely no mercy should be shown. The twelve senators, whom Walker is vilifying for not doing their jobs, are doing precisely that. They owe him nothing. They represent constituents in their individual districts who so far have supported them. They must stand firm and not give an inch and we must support them in this.
Another way to support them is to boycott any products made by Georgia Pacific, a flagship industry of Koch Industries. GP markets paper products in every supermarket under brands Brawny, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, Dixie Cups, Sparkle, Vanity Fair and Mardi Gras. GP papers are in ever office supply store, but there are other brands you can buy. At Home Depot and Lowe’s GP is a major supplier of plywoods, but you can tell the store managers that you would prefer someone else’s products. If we do that with enough supermarkets and home improvement stores they might make some changes. We can’t possibly put GP out of business but it is one way we can voice our displeasure, and if enough of us do it their P&L statements will reflect that.
We must be as staunch and resolute in our opposition to these policies, to these tactics and strategies as they are in promoting them. There are many millions of us against relatively few of them. If we stand together and back the people of Wisconsin we will win this first battle in breaking the power of their money. There will be other battles in other states and we must be ready to fight them, but if we beat them in Wisconsin we’ll win everywhere. If there is to be a bitter pill to be taken, then it’s time for the Kochs to take it.