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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Another Ugly Wisconsin Experience to Avoid

April 01, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Just when you thought that Wisconsin’s ugly, protracted assault on workers’ rights, disguised as state budget deficit balancing, couldn’t get any uglier, it got uglier. Wisconsin’s Republican Party is suing the University of Wisconsin for a professor’s email exchanges. This action suggests that balancing the state budget is the furthest thing from conservative policymakers’ minds. It’s hard to see how any of this helps Wisconsin move forward. On the other hand, it provides a clear lesson for Minnesota’s political and policy leaders on what not to do.

Earlier this month, the New York Times’ editorial staff asked historian William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for an Op-Ed article about Wisconsin’s labor climate. Cronon agreed.

Wisconsin has a rich labor history. And by “rich,” I mean contentious. AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the major non-federal public sector workers’ union, started in Wisconsin. So did the John Birch Society, the 20th century’s major post-World War II right-wing advocacy organization. Organized labor has fought for every inch of ground it holds in the campaign for workers’ rights. Wisconsin’s labor past contains distinct elements but, really, it’s not exceptionally different from the experience of its regional neighbors.

In other words, there’s a lot to write about and Cronon was an excellent choice. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s conservative leaders didn’t however care for what Cronon had to say. Wisconsin Republican Party filed a freedom-of-information request seeking Cronon’s emails. Cronon’s offense? He wrote an op-ed about the historical context of Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting efforts, drawing parallels with red-baiting Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. Earlier, on his personal blog, Cronon wrote about the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative advocacy group. That post got the ball rolling, prompting the email disclosure request.

The state GOP isn’t openly alleging wrong-doing. They just want to, you know, see what a highly-regarded tenured history professor might be writing when he uses the terms “labor,” “Scott Walker,” and “Joe McCarthy.” Since conservative policy advocates have ready access to both Professor Cronon’s blog and the New York Times op-ed page, they know Cronon’s mind. Something else must be at work then in their email disclosure request.

That something is called intimidation and it’s the oldest trick in the conservative playbook. In years past, as any labor history student knows, intimidation was physical. It involved hired thugs roughing up the opposition or, in some cases, shooting workers. Over the past fifty years, there’s been a lot less shooting and lot more legal and procedural intimidation. In every case, though, the message is clear: stop what you’re doing or worse harm will befall you.

Remember, the Wisconsin situation is supposed to be about balancing a state budget deficit, creating jobs and getting Wisconsin’s economy moving. Yet, none of those things appear to be conservative leaders’ priorities. Instead, they’re waging war on Wisconsin’s labor unions.

During my sophomore year of college, I took a class, “Utopias and Utopian Thought,” with retired University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Mulford Q. Sibley. He was filling in that semester for a professor on sabbatical. I vaguely knew Sibley’s reputation and decided that whatever Sibley might be teaching, I wanted to take the class.

He was a tall, elderly, distinguished man who regularly mesmerized us with his seemingly off-the-cuff introduction’s to the week’s assigned book. Then, we had to discuss and debate the work while he listened and smiled. It was an exhilarating if occasionally terrifying experience. Sibley was completely engaged by the ideas in Plato’s “Laws,” Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” and all of the others we read. It was only later, during the following year, when I invited him back to campus to chat, that we talked about the times that conservative groups had tried to have him fired from his tenured faculty position at the University because those groups disagreed with Sibley’s thinking.

Sibley expressed some small hope that his experience wouldn’t be repeated in the future but he couldn’t muster much enthusiasm. This month, twenty-two years after Sibley’s death, conservative activists in Wisconsin and now also Michigan are working the same conservative intimidation strategy. The experience should teach Minnesotans and Minnesota’s state public policy leaders what not to do.

Suing for faculty emails won’t create stronger schools, expand affordable healthcare, grow jobs or bolster crumbling transportation infrastructure. Here in Minnesota, we have a $5.2 billion budget deficit to balance and a biennial budget to negotiate. Minnesota’s future growth and prosperity hangs in the balance. Lawmakers’ task, while difficult, is best addressed in the most straightforward fashion. Focus on the job at hand, don’t yield to distraction, and don’t try to settle old scores. A prosperous, growing Minnesota is reward enough.


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