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As the author of a biography of Wisconsin political giant Gaylord Nelson (pictured), I get daily Google alerts about articles and web postings that mention his name.  They usually peak around Earth Day, naturally, but there have been a spate of mentions lately because he was the Wisconsin governor in 1959 who signed into law the bill giving public employees collective bargaining rights.

Now, Christian Schneider of WPRI (We Promote Right-Wing Ideas), which poses as the "Wis. Policy Research Institute," has written a piece for National Review Online,  which tries to put the 1959 action into some historical context.

But he ends up trying to rewrite history, as the right often seems inclined to do.

Schneider tries to portray the decision to recognize public employee unions as some kind of "partisan favor" by the Democrats, to pay back unions for their financial support in campaigns.

He notes, correctly, that organized labor helped the resurgence of the state's Democratic Party, which had been almost non-existent for decades until Bill Proxmire won a US Senate seat in 1957 and Nelson won the governorship in 1958.  Nelson was only the second Democratic governor in the 20th century, and the first was a fluke caused by Franklin Roosevelt's tidal wave in 1932.

Schneider writes:

Shortly after Nelson took office came the law allowing collective bargaining for state (wrong - Xoff) and municipal employees. Soon, government unions flourished — and so did Democratic fundraising. Soon, Democrats became the dominant political party in Wisconsin.Nelson was always a supporter of public-employee unions — in 1946, his first job as a young attorney in Madison was working for a nascent labor organization known as AFSCME. Yet in today’s political world, such a nakedly obvious gift to a political constituency would crash Twitter. Nelson’s record of clean governing is the stuff of legend in Wisconsin — but public-sector collective bargaining clearly helped the fortunes of his Democratic party. To think he didn’t understand that is to insult the intelligence of a political legend
Political payoff? A smudge on Nelson's record for clean government? Hardly.

Schneider leaves out a highly relevant fact.

In the 1959 session of the legislature, Democrats held the majority in the Assembly and the governor's office for the first time since the 1933 session.

But Republicans still ruled the State Senate by a big 20-12 margin. The bill could not possibly have passed without strong bipartisan support.

The 1959 law applied to local government employees and teachers. In 1967, another law was passed to grant collective bargaining rights to state employees. And in 1967, Republicans controlled the Assembly 53-47 and the State Senate 21-12. The governor was Warren P. Knowles, a Republican.

If allowing state workers to bargain was some kind of partisan payoff, it was a Republican one.

One more thing, a lesson Scott Walker could learn from Gaylord Nelson: Nelson served two two-year terms as governor, and Republicans controlled one house of the legislature for his first term and both houses for the second. But he left office and won election to the US Senate with a long list of legislative accomplishments. How did he do it? From the biography:

After ten years in public office, he still expected elected officials to make decisions on the merits, based on rational arguments and what was best for the citizenry. He was not naïve about the nature of partisan politics and the posturing it often produced. But he still had faith in the political process and the desire of people in public life to do the right thing. If they disagreed about what was the right thing, or about how to accomplish it, he didn’t take it personally, and he didn’t expect them to personalize it either. He respected differences of opinion, but he admired open-mindedness and the willingness to consider a new idea or an opposing point of view. He was not dogmatic. He was a master at the art of political compromise. He understood that politics was often personal, that respect, civility and friendship could go a long way toward solving problems when intellectual arguments had failed. And he had an open door policy with legislators; any lawmaker from either party could see him immediately on request.

And now we have a governor who won't even talk to Democratic legislators, unless it is a trick meeting to try to put one over on them. That's not exactly the Wisconsin way.

Originally posted to xofferson on Thu Feb 24, 2011 at 07:13 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Community Spotlight, and In Support of Labor and Unions.

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