Sunday, March 13, 2011

Scott Walker, the Non-Innovative Non-Progressive

Shortly after signing into law the hugely unpopular bill curtailing the collective bargaining abilities of his state's public employees, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) chose some interesting and unfortunate language to suggest that the bill will become more popular in time. In an interview this week with the Associated Press, Walker explained:
"What we're doing here, I think, is progressive. It's innovative. It's reform that leads the country, and we're showing there's a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government."
Let me stop you right there, Governor. Your anti-union, anti-middle class pet legislation is neither progressive nor innovative. In fact, your rollback of basic workers' rights is as regressive as it is antiquated, which in this case would be by about a century.

The Progressive Era, which existed in the United States from approximately the 1890s to the 1920s, heralded just the sort of vital labor reforms and regulations - the eight-hour work day, the living wage, improvements in the regulation of safety and health conditions in factories, child labor laws, workers' compensation laws, collective bargaining rights, and minimum wage laws for women - that now, a century later, conservatives like Scott Walker appear hell-bent on eliminating. Despite Walker's insistence that stripping workers of their collective bargaining rights is a matter of economic necessity, history seems to indicate quite the contrary, with healthy labor protections appearing directly linked to a healthy middle class. The labor reforms and increased regulation introduced during the Progressive Era ushered in an era of relative economic prosperity, with the rise of an industrial, urban middle class during this period arguably pulling the country out of the economic nosedive caused by the Panic of 1893.

But even beyond the economic impact of these reforms, the new laws and regulations protecting of workers' rights also represented a profound moral achievement for a nation struggling with the ethical implications of the rise of urban industrialization. Early industrial capitalism proved itself to be wholly inadequate to the task of moral self-regulation, with financiers and business elites willfully exploiting workers - especially women, children, and recent immigrants - who were left with no means of legal redress. Progressive labor reforms helped mitigate these exploitative excesses, and established the real possibility of a stable, middle-class lifestyle for generations of working Americans.

In addition to our concern for the well-being of the working people of Wisconsin, the Religious Left has a vested interest in setting the record straight on the inextricable bond between the progressive labor movement and progressive religion. Papal support for the labor movement in the 1890's, the Protestant Social Gospel movement, and the rise of the Jewish Labor Movement were all vital to the progressive victories listed above. The Religious Left was there, in the factories and on the picket lines, when working Americans won their hard-earned labor rights the first time around. And we are still here, ready to challenge the Scott Walker's of the world as they try to strip our nation's middle class of the rights that have protected it for the last century.

There is no moral or empirical justification for eliminating workers' rights, Governor. Try as you might to mask your rollback of workers' rights in the language of progressivism and innovation, the working people of Wisconsin know just what you've done. And fair warning, Governor: placing yourself between people and their rights is a surefire way to find yourself on the wrong side of history.