John Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Scott Walker

By Martin Halpern

Submitted to portside by the author

May 28, 2012

As voters go to the polls in Wisconsin in June and
across the country in November, three related aspects
of President John F. Kennedy's legacy are worth
recalling: his response to peace and justice movements;
his view of government's role; and his attitudes toward
unionized public workers and labor unions.  A focus on
Kennedy's legacy in these three areas may bring to the
fore key issues that are central to whether Wisconsin -
and the country - go forward or backward in the years
to come.

Although his early actions as president disappointed
peace and civil rights activists, Kennedy later took
forthright initiative in both areas.  An aggressive
cold warrior at the beginning of his presidency,
Kennedy was nevertheless an independent thinker who
learned from his mistakes.  In June 1963, he called for
reexamining the cold war and for "making the world safe
for diversity."  He listened to pleas from those who
protested the harmful effects of atmospheric nuclear
weapons testing and, with the Soviet Union and Great
Britain, negotiated the Test Ban Treaty, the first
major cold war arms agreement.  Similarly, Kennedy in
June 1963 shifted from hesitancy, caused by the power
of racial conservatives in Congress, to strong support
for the civil rights upsurge.  He characterized civil
rights as a moral issue, called on citizens to take
action to end racial discrimination against black
Americans, and proposed a Civil Rights bill enacted
into law the next year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

How have Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and
President Barack Obama responded to today's peace and
justice movements -- for ending the war in Afghanistan,
the occupy movement, the movement to defend public
employees' collective bargaining rights, and the
movements of students against tuition increases and aid
cutbacks?  Are they listening to movements of protest
or do they reject those protests in the name of a
default agenda of service to corporate backers?

Like Kennedy, Obama is a pragmatic person who has
disappointed activists for peace and social justice,
but he also appears to be listening and responding to
those movements in articulating his vision of society
and in his policy planning.  Walker, on the other hand,
seems committed to rule from above, expressing
unvarnished loyalty to his well-to-do funders.

There is a sharp philosophical divide between
presidents Kennedy and Obama, on the one hand, and
Governor Walker on the other.  Kennedy's view and
Obama's view today is that government should play
positive roles in promoting economic growth for the
benefit of all and in aiding the neediest.  To Walker,
the role of government is two-fold: policing and
assisting business.  About the federal government,
Walker pronounced:  "To me, in its essence, the role of
the federal government should be fairly limited to
protecting our shores in terms of our military,
handling disputes in terms of interstate commerce."  If
it were up to Walker, any government social service
program - Social Security, school lunch, public health,
unemployment compensation, Medicare, safety regulations
- would be at an end.  Why put in charge of government
an individual who in principle opposes government
serving the people?

Perhaps of greatest importance is the example of
President Kennedy's policies toward labor unions and
public workers.  Walker appeals to voters as atomized,
envious individualists: I'll lower your taxes; why
should those working for government be better off than
you are?  Why should public workers have collective
bargaining rights?  By contrast, in Milwaukee on April
3, 1960, Kennedy opposed "so-called 'right-to-work'
laws," delays in NLRB certification proceedings, and
"legislation designed to repress labor." Directly
challenging a central theme of the anti-labor campaign
of the 1950s, Kennedy remarked: "There are those in
America today who say that labor is too big - that it
has grown too strong.  But I say that the size of
organized labor is a blessing - and its strength is a
powerful force for the good of all America."

Kennedy's support for workers' rights was more than
rhetorical.  In 1962, fifty years ago this year,
Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, granting for the
first time limited collective bargaining rights to most
civilian employees of the federal government.  Kennedy
and his Task Force on Employee-Management Relations in
the Federal Service predicted that providing
recognition of employee organizations would lead to
more cooperation between federal workers and managers
and better service to the public.  Kennedy was also
responding to a growing demand for participation in
their work lives and collective bargaining rights by
hundreds of thousands of local, state, and federal
employees across the country.  Indeed, Wisconsin was
the first state to respond to these movements,
establishing a "declaration of rights" for public
workers in 1959 and machinery for conducting elections
and authorizing collective bargaining in 1961.

Initiating a key reform at the federal level, Kennedy
helped public worker unions move from the margin to the
center of the labor movement in the United States. 
Significantly less likely to be union members than
their counterparts in private employment prior to the
1960s, public workers in the space of a few years
achieved a unionization rate comparable to that of
private sector workers.  With the erosion and decline
of unionism in the private sector since the mid-1970s,
due to a coordinated assault by multinational
employers, public sector workers in the year 2010 were
more than five times as likely to be union members as
were private sector workers, 36.2 percent as compared
with 6.9 percent.  A relatively weak and marginal
component of organized labor in January 1962 when
Kennedy took his supportive action, fifty years later
public workers' unions were a central component of the
movement, encompassing over seven million members and
51.2 percent of total union membership.

The attitudes of President Barack Obama and Governor
Scott Walker to labor unions are well known, but
unfortunately corporate mainstream media attention to
the issue has receded; there is no more important issue
for our future as a democracy in which each of us cares
for and wishes well to the other.  Unions provide
workers with an opportunity to participate in the
decisions that shape their work lives.  Equally
important, unions play crucial roles in our politics as
advocates for social justice and the needs of the
poorest among us.

If less successful than Kennedy in assisting unions,
Obama nevertheless supports unions and has appointed
pro-union individuals as Secretary of Labor and as
members of the National Labor Relations Board.  Walker,
on the other hand, is committed to an anti-union agenda
and right-to-work legislation.  The passage of
legislation abrogating public employees' collective
bargaining rights was the most important action of his
first year as governor and aroused a vast movement of
opposition among unionists and members of the public
receiving government services.  If Walker remains in
office, Wisconsin's pioneering role in supporting
public worker collective bargaining rights may remain
an honorable past but become a distant memory.

Scholars of labor unions wonder today whether the labor
movement will be able to survive in our country given
the decline in unions in the private sector and the
recent assault on collective bargaining rights in the
public sector.  Should Wisconsin voters June 5 retire
Scott Walker for his anti-democratic actions, they will
contribute to the movement to rescue our country from
the domination by the one percent.  Likewise, by voting
for Barack Obama in November, voters across the country
will express their optimism that the president will
continue to move in the direction of listening to the
movements for peace and justice and support efforts for
democratic workplaces.  It is a good time to honor the
legacy of John Kennedy: to listen to social and
economic protest movements, respect unions for the good
they do, and to promote the idea that government serves
the people.

Martin Halpern is a professor of history at Henderson
State University in Arkansas.  He is the author of two
books, UAW Politics in the Cold War Era (1988) and
Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents: Seeking
Social Change in the Twentieth Century (2003).  His
most recent publication is a review article on "Labor,"
in William Pederson, The Blackwell Companion to
Franklin D. Roosevelt (2011).


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