David Stokes

I grew up in the downriver suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. Most of that time in a community (first a township, then a city) called Taylor—a place in the news recently for having closed its public schools in the wake of a massive wave of teachers calling in “sick.” However, these “educators” apparently made a nothing-short-of-miraculous group recovery immediately after their illness laden phone calls and quickly made their way en masse to the state capital in Lansing to join the angry mob protesting the recent legislative move to successfully make Michigan the nation’s 24th “right to work” state. This was, to sort of borrow a cliché from Vice President Biden, a big deal.

By their participation in this particular protest, these Michigan educators acted like bullies—hardly their best moment. It seems that the whole union thing brings out the worst in some people—even those with enough education to presumably know better.

How will it be possible for some of these same teachers to, in the next few days after returning to the classroom, break up a fight involving one kid bullying another? You just know that some wise guy kid, who’d fit in the cast with Ralphie in The Christmas Story, will talk back to the teacher, saying something like: “Yeah, well I saw some of you teachers do worse stuff up in Lansing than I’m doing to Billy! Besides, he deserves to be pushed around, it’s the only way I can intimidate him.” The teacher on the receiving end might then smile—missing the irony of the situation—and feel proud that this student knew how to use the word “intimidate” correctly, then wonder if the kid knew how to spell it.

“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children,” so said the late Albert Shanker, a labor union leader who for more than 30 years organized public school teachers. And the recent near-riot in Michigan makes it clear that his DNA is still very much a part of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—a union he presided over as president from 1974 until his death in 1997.

I wish the collectivist left would make up its mind. On the one hand, we have been bombarded for the past few years with the emergent doctrine that the government is the answer to just about everything. On the other hand, the people who work directly for the government (including public school teachers) organize themselves into unions—the very need for which implies that the workers need a measure of protection from their employer—the government.

It seems like a case of wanting things both ways. As we the people are called upon to cede more and more control of everything that matters to the government, we are also bearing witness to the odd spectacle of the very workers who form the delivery mechanism for various government services and benefits presenting themselves as victims of abuse by the very same government.

What the?

The history of labor organization in the United States is an interesting study, dating back to what happened in Lowell, Massachusetts several decades before the Civil War. It is a story of conflict, creativity, charisma, and constructive change. That’s right, even a diehard “right-to-worker” can recognize that the development of unions in America was a good thing, in spite of excesses and difficulties along the way. Our national narrative is punctuated with fascinating people who, in the name of American workers, sought to improve conditions and correct abuse and injustice. Names like Eugene Debs, John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Homer Martin (the actual first president of the UAW, but largely written out of the history by the Reuther brothers), George Meany, Mother Jones—even Jimmy Hoffa—remind us of days gone by. In many cases, we might rightly find their politics and methods very far from being our cup of tea today, but things like an eight-hour day, vacation time, sick leave, and other benefits humanized brute capitalism.

The story of unions in America is a real David versus Goliath tale, with underdogs banding together in solidarity to make a better life for all. It is also a tale of a pendulum swing as the underdog eventually came to a place of parity, then superiority. Then it all changed as the victim became a bit of a bully. That’s always ugly.

And what we all saw the other day in Michigan was a mob of bullies who didn’t get their way.

There is no doubt that in the private sector, where the issue was corporate profit and even greed, organized labor once performed a vital function, raising the standard of living for many American families. My father was a Teamster and I am sure I benefited from his union affiliation. I grew up hearing stories about Henry Ford’s thugs, led by Harry Bennett, and episodes like “The Battle of the Overpass” at the Rouge plant.

But what do public employees (including teachers) really have in common with all that? Have school administrators ever hired muscle to beat up teachers?

President Kennedy signed an executive order in 1962 effectively lifting a long-standing ban against government employees organizing to bargain collectively. This, in fact, ushered in an era of unprecedented government growth at taxpayer expense. Some now view his move in purely cynical terms—because even then, organized labor was strongly in the camp of the Democrats.

Classic organized labor—the kind that really helped people in coal mines, auto factories, and steel mills—pitted the workers against business dynamics arrayed for the benefit of owners and elites. Why do people who work for the government (at any level and in any way) need to protect themselves from the very government that is the last resort for recourse and protection in the first place?

Maybe Americans should revisit a story from more than 90 years ago to put things in perspective. In 1919, Calvin Coolidge was the Governor of Massachusetts and by all accounts a pretty contented fellow—not a man of burning ambition. He had been a city mayor, state senator, and Lt. Governor en route to the state’s executive mansion.

Then came a strike by public workers—particularly the Boston Police Department. The nation was being torn apart by labor unrest in the immediate aftermath of The Great War and a deadly flu epidemic. In fact, one in five American workers went on strike that year.

In response to the walk out by Boston cops, Coolidge stepped up and fired the whole lot, calling in the state guard to help. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) begged Coolidge to reinstate the workers. In reply, Calvin Coolidge famously said: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

It’s a pretty well known story. Not as well known, however, is the fact that Coolidge had misgivings about what he had done after the fact. He was a politician after all and feared that his actions would cost him the next election in the largely pro-labor (even then) Bay State. He remarked to someone, “I have just committed political suicide.”

Of course, he actually became a nationally known political leader. Michigan’s Governor, Richard Snyder, should be encouraged. One of Coolidge’s biographers said that he was “a hero to the mass of private citizens who, alienated by postwar strikes, felt that labor was becoming contemptuous of public interests.”

Contemptuous. This word describes the spirit of the angry mob in Lansing recently—that and bullying.


David Stokes

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, pastor, columnist, and broadcaster. His latest book is a novel: CAPITOL LIMITED: A Story about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Based on a true story, it's about a unique moment in 1947, when Kennedy and Nixon shared