The telephone call from the “Koch brother” was a prank, but the governor for certain was all too serious. Union-bashing and union-busting always have been high on Walker’s agenda, just as they have been for the Koch brothers. The Kochs have contributed substantially to his campaigns. Their front groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, have flooded state television stations with ads on his behalf, and they are sponsoring a statewide bus tour to bring out his supporters. Walker assuredly did not need encouragement for his anti-union posture, but Tim Phillips, who heads up one of the Koch front groups, told The New York Times that he had encouraged Walker to move against the public employee unions.
The brothers’ spokesmen insisted they are not in the market for the purchase of what promises to be newly emancipated and privatized state powered heating plants. Spokespeople do denials. (Like Mike Huckabee’s flack who said Huckabee “misspoke” when he claimed President Barack Obama had grown up in Kenya and had undergone Mau Mau indoctrinations.) Two weeks before the election, the Kochs’ state lobbyists opened a Madison office, and then recently increased their group from three to seven. As the governor gleefully said upon taking office, “Wisconsin is open for business.”
Wisconsin prides itself on its triumphal progressive tradition, but there are dark trails as well. Sen. Joseph McCarthy left a strong legacy for the denial of civil liberties. But more pertinent to the moment is the memorable Kohler strike, which lasted from 1946 until the early 1960s. For decades, labor strife had marred the idyllic town of Kohler and the adjoining community of Sheboygan, home to one of the world’s largest producers of plumbing supplies. Labor unrest accelerated during the Depression and World War II, and in 1946 the UAW won an election to represent the workers. When company President Herbert V. Kohler Sr. rejected the outcome, more than 2,800 of the company’s 3,300 employees joined the picket lines, but he insisted that “his” workers loved their company union.
As the strike continued, Kohler carried his anti-union views to like-minded audiences across the nation. “Who runs this country?” he asked. “That is the basic issue at Kohler. That is the potential question for all industry. We must meet this issue fighting.”
Fight he did until he succumbed to retirement and the rulings of the National Labor Relations Board. Surviving workers were reinstated and received $3 million in back pay and $1.5 million restored to their pension fund. His sons and heirs repudiated Kohler’s labor views, and today Kohler’s labor policies are among the most progressive in the nation. But make no mistake: The 1930s Kohler laid down the anti-union gospel, framing its dispute in terms of power, power not to be shared but to be imposed.
The Koch brothers have assumed that very mantle and that fight, and Walker is their willing, useful instrument. He has not crossed the Rubicon to some new land, as Charles Krauthammer has lamely argued; instead, Walker is solidly tethered to an old, tattered, repudiated page of his state’s history.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.