In my post yesterday on the optics of the Wisconsin union battle, I noted in passing that FDR was quite vocally opposed to the creation of public sector unions. Roosevelt was an ardent supporter of unionism generally, but even he thought the idea of using collective bargaining against taxpayers was transparently problematic.

This is a potent talking point, so I'm glad to see that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Patrick McIlheran has a column fleshing out the history here:

Somewhere, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is grinning past his cigarette holder at Wisconsin's governor. They are on the same page regarding government unions.

Except that Scott Walker -- Republican cheapskate, his visage Hitlerized on signs waved by beet-faced union crowds besieging the Capitol -- is kind of a liberal squish compared to FDR. He's OK with some collective bargaining.


Roosevelt's reign certainly was the bright dawn of modern unionism. The legal and administrative paths that led to 35% of the nation's workforce eventually unionizing by a mid-1950s peak were laid by Roosevelt.

But only for the private sector. Roosevelt openly opposed bargaining rights for government unions.

"The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place" in the public sector. "A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government."

And if you're the kind of guy who capitalizes "government," woe betide such obstructionists.

Roosevelt wasn't alone. It was orthodoxy among Democrats through the '50s that unions didn't belong in government work.

Go ahead and read the whole thing. It's somewhat amazing given all the attention has been paid to the problems of public sector unions in the last year or two that there has been comparatively little written about the history of public sector unions. Understanding the relatively quick evolution of government unions is likely to make you realize that they're even more problematic and nakedly political than you thought.

So for even more detail on how we got into this public sector union mess, I highly recommend this National Affairs article on the subject by Daniel DiSalvo, "The Trouble with Public Sector Unions." It makes for great weekend reading and provides great context for understanding events in Wisconsin.

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