Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ronald Reagan on Unions and Collective Bargaining

Samuel Gompers believed with all his heart that if a worker was properly and fairly paid for his work, he could provide for himself without having to hold out this hand to a caseworker for government-provided benefits. He was a champion of collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining in the years since has played a major role in America’s economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere. Too often, discussion about the labor movement concentrates on disputes, corruption, and strikes. But while these things are headlines, there are thousands of good agreements reached and put into practice every year without a hitch.

Part of successful collective bargaining is honest, straightforward exchanges. A number of Presidents have observed that of all the meetings in the Oval Office, the most direct, productive, and useful have been with the leaders of organized labor. Straight talk has always been a feature of these exchanges, and that’s a tradition I want to continue here today. You and I may not always agree, as President Konyha said, on everything, but we should always remember how much we have in common.

I can guarantee you today that this administration will not fight inflation by attacking the sacred right of American workers to negotiate their wages. We propose to control government, not people. Now, today I want to express again my belief in our American system of collective bargaining and pledge that there will always be an open door to you in this administration.


Some people would have forgotten — except your president very graciously reminded you — that I am the first man to attain this high office who was formerly president of an AF of L - CIO union.
~ Ronald Reagan, 3 September 1981. Remarks in Chicago, Illinois, at the Annual Convention and Centennial Observance of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
It' important to note that Reagan gave this speech less than a month after firing striking air traffic controllers.

Walker claims he's acting as Reagan would, but the fact of the matter is that Walker does not fundamentally understand how unions fit into Reagan's worldview. Re-read the second to last paragraph quoted above:

I can guarantee you today that this administration will not fight inflation by attacking the sacred right of American workers to negotiate their wages. We propose to control government, not people. 
Scott Walker is proposing to do just the opposite: he's using the levers of government to deny people the right organize for their own economic well-being.

In many of Reagan's other writings, in particular those supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Gipper lays out that unions are a check against government power and abuse. He was incredibly eloquent about reserving a place at the table for unions and that's one of the reasons why there were so many Reagan Democrats, many from union households that supported him. Read the whole speech here.


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