I was born and raised in Wisconsin and had a lovely childhood. I attended Madison’s Robert M. La Follette high school but am embarrassed to admit that at the time, I had nary a clue as to who he was. I knew his nickname was “Fighting Bob” and maybe I could have told you he was a Senator, maybe, but that was it. Here's a refresher for those who need it.
In his fascinating article about Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, John Nichols paints a vivid picture of this man who he calls “the most courageous political leader this nation has ever produced.” He describes one of the most pivotal speeches in his bid for reelection in the 1921 U.S. Senate race:
The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918…
The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.
La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day... Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern…. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."
LaFollette won his reelection bid by an overwhelming margin. Nichols attributes it to his “militant faith in the people” – the same people who admired and respected this “man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position.”
So now it pains me to think that, almost 100 years after this great legacy La Follette left behind, we are today seeing the current Governor of Wisconsin sign into law one of the most destructive and divisive means to limit workers’ voices. I am confident La Follette would be loudly rolling over in his grave (and clenching his fist) to hear of this dismantling of the already-emaciated worker rights in his state.
This deceptively-named “right-to-work” law makes the payment of union dues optional for union-represented workers. It also means that if a non-paying union member is illegally fired, the union must use its time and money to defend that worker. It has been shown that workers in states with “right-to-work” laws have lower wages on average and are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance or pensions. These laws are not meant to grant workers any rights; on the contrary, they are written with the purpose of keeping workers divided and powerless, to weaken unions and thereby stifle the voice of working families.
Yes, it’s a sad day in Wisconsin when with the stroke of a pen, one governor instantly undoes the lifetime work of another governor, when corporate power trumps the voice of the people, and when one Wisconsin-born woman is now ashamed to call Wisconsin “home.”