When 43-year-old Wisconsin governor Gaylord Nelson signed the first collective-bargaining law for public employees in 1959, he did so with little fanfare. There were no sign-holding people dressed as gorillas ululating on the capitol grounds; the capitol rotunda didn’t smell like microwaved feet from a week of college students sleeping there; legislators from the opposition party did not flee to Illinois to prevent the law’s enactment.
That law is the one that 43-year-old Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is now trying to substantially amend, which has turned the statehouse into a cacophonous hostel and left public-sector-union leaders waxing nostalgic for the Nelson era. “Gutting law that was put into place in 1959, signed by the great Gaylord Nelson, granting public employees the right to collectively bargain, is ludicrous,” said Mike Lipp, president of Madison Teachers, Inc.
Yet passage of the 1959 Municipal Employees Relations Act (MERA) wasn’t exactly free of controversy. As it turns out, the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to permit public-employee collective bargaining may have had just as much to do with the unique and perilous position of the Democratic party in the state as it did “workers’ rights.” Fifty years ago, collective bargaining looked less like a right and more like a partisan favor.
Due to the Progressives’ takeover of the state Republican party in the early 20th century, elected Democrats in Wisconsin were scarce. By 1958, it had been 26 years since a Democrat had won the Wisconsin governorship. Democrats had been in the minority in the state senate and assembly since 1893. For four straight legislative sessions (1923–1929), there were no Democrats in the Senate.
Yet in the 1950s, Democrats began to emerge as a serious party in Wisconsin, in large part due to the money they raised from labor unions. When Democrat William Proxmire ran for governor in 1954, 55 percent of the money he raised was from organized labor. Labor also offered Democrats vote mobilization, phone banks, Election Day transportation, and independent expenditures. Republicans still outspent Democrats two to one, but organized labor was able to close the gap considerably.
Republicans, sensing the threat, in 1955 passed the Caitlin Act, which prohibited labor unions from contributing to political parties, committees, or candidates for state or local office. After passage of the act, union donations to Democrats plummeted.
But Democrats quickly adapted, and soon the state stopped enforcing the Caitlin Act altogether. In Nelson’s successful gubernatorial race in 1958, 21.7 percent of his money was raised from labor.
Shortly after Nelson took office came the law allowing collective bargaining for state and municipal employees. Soon, government unions flourished — and so did Democratic fundraising. Soon, Democrats became the dominant political party in Wisconsin.
Nelson was always a supporter of public-employee unions — in 1946, his first job as a young attorney in Madison was working for a nascent labor organization known as AFSCME. Yet in today’s political world, such a nakedly obvious gift to a political constituency would crash Twitter. Nelson’s record of clean governing is the stuff of legend in Wisconsin — but public-sector collective bargaining clearly helped the fortunes of his Democratic party. To think he didn’t understand that is to insult the intelligence of a political legend.
At his inauguration in 1959, Nelson quoted Abraham Lincoln: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. We must think anew and act anew.”
Sounds like good advice for Gov. Scott Walker.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.