A little over a month into his first term and just days before he introduced a bill in the Wisconsin state legislature that would strip most public-sector employees of their collective bargaining rights, Governor Scott Walker stood up from the table at a dinner with his cabinet and held up a photograph of President Ronald Reagan. "Thirty years ago," Walker told the group, "Reagan ... had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers." Referring to the upcoming bill, Walker said that "this may not have as broad of world applications, but in Wisconsin's history ... this is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history" (Schultze 2011). (1) Governor Walker was reminding his audience of President Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers that ended the 1981 strike and broke the back of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union. Inspired by Reagan's success, Walker ignored his many critics and successfully pushed his antiunion bill through the Republican-controlled legislature. In crippling government unions in the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker helped to announce himself as a national figure.
Just as Governor Walker looked to President Reagan for inspiration, so Reagan looked back in history for a role model of his own. Upon taking up residence in the White House, Reagan had a portrait of Thomas Jefferson in the Cabinet Room replaced with a portrait of Calvin Coolidge (Reagan 1990, 244). At the time, many asked, Why Coolidge? Why would Reagan choose as a role model a president whom historians typically rated as well below average? (Graff 1981). The explanation for the Great Communicator's admiration for Silent Cal becomes clearer when we remember that in firing and replacing the PATCO union members, Reagan was inspired by the then-governor of Massachusetts's response to the 1919 Boston police strike. To break the strike, Governor Coolidge sent in the National Guard to enforce order in the city and backed the use of permanent replacement workers. Coolidge's confrontation with public-sector workers helped propel him onto the national stage, creating the opportunity for him to be nominated as the Republican candidate for vice president in 1920.
Governor Walker's showdown with public-sector unions similarly garnered widespread media coverage and national conservative support, which enabled Walker to launch his presidential bid in 2015. Critics have argued that Walker was unnecessarily divisive and sure to spark a public backlash to his governorship (Bouie 2015; Daily Kos 2013; Gonyea 2015). But perhaps Governor Walker had a better appreciation of how past presidents and presidential hopefuls have successfully leveraged taking a hard line against organized labor. Presidential hopefuls' anti-labor actions have often thrust them into the national spotlight, positioning them for a run for the presidency. And once in the White House, presidents who have successfully challenged labor have often been applauded for their decisive, forceful leadership and tough, uncompromising position on law and order.
In this article, I chronicle the robust tradition of presidents and presidential hopefuls using union busting to advance their political careers. First, I discuss Rutherford Hayes's actions as governor of Ohio during a coal strike and then as president during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Second, I explore William McKinley and Grover Cleveland's actions during the 1894 Pullman Strike. Third, I take a closer look at Coolidge's actions during the 1919 Boston Police Strike. Fourth, I examine in greater detail Reagan's firing of the PATCO strikers in 1981. Finally, I analyze how Scott Walker's actions compare to those of these past presidents and presidential hopefuls. Drawing connections between these disparate moments in U.S. labor history, I affirm a central lesson: ever since the 1870s, union busting has provided a platform for presidents and presidential hopefuls to display career-defining leadership, garner media attention, and rally public support to their side--often at the expense of a struggling, fledgling labor movement.
Hayes and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877
In response to growing industrialization and economic volatility in the latter half of the nineteenth century, labor unrest was all too common. Between 1891 and 1900, there were almost 23,000 strikes across the United States (Robertson 2000, 38). Organized labor was increasing in size and prominence, but judges and state and federal officials were loath to approve of unionization and were hostile to labor strikes.
Rutherford B. Hayes first responded to labor unrest when he was governor of Ohio, ordering the state militia to Massillon to halt a coal miners' strike. After successfully breaking the strike, Hayes wrote to Congressman John A. Garfield that "[w]e shall crush out the lawbreakers if the courts and juries do not fail" (Foner 1977, 41). Hayes was praised for showing "spunk" by sending troops to respond to the "state of war" brought on by the strikers (Somerset Press 1876). (2) In biographical sketches of the governor written after he received the Republican presidential nomination, Hayes's success in crushing the strike was included in the list of attributes that qualified him for the presidency (New York Times 1876). (3) It also helped earn him the approval of political boss Marcus A. Hanna, who would support Hayes for the presidency and prove even more influential in union buster William McKinkley's bid in 1896. Hanna explained that Hayes deserved to be president in part because he "took the position ... during our recent mining troubles at Massillon and by such action maintained the supremacy of the law giving us again control of our property" (Foner 1977, 41). Hanna's depiction of Hayes as the law and order candidate was and remains a powerful characterization, evoking traits, such as firm leadership and willpower, that are often seen as positive attributes for winning and successfully serving as president. As governor and then as president, Hayes benefited from union busting. In a very public and dramatic fashion, his actions demonstrated that he was uncompromising in upholding the law and thus presidential material.
Prior to Hayes's presidency, most strikebreaking had been done directly by companies, by courts, or by the state militias under the orders of state governors. This localized approach was put under pressure during Hayes's term as president when the railroad strike of 1877 spread nationwide. Incensed by a string of wage cuts, railroad workers initially engaged in small walkouts in Baltimore, Maryland, and Martinsburg, West Virginia, but more railway workers quickly joined the conflict. Strikes rapidly spread west to places like San Francisco and Galveston, Texas. Mayors and governors dispatched the police and state militias, but they could not contain the unrest. Taken together, "more than 100,000 railroad workers--about half the total, and affecting about two-thirds of the nation's lines--had gone on strike," bringing the nation's rail lines to a standstill (Murold and Chitty 2001, 107).
Responding to urgent calls for help from governors and anxious businessmen, President Hayes ordered the deployment of several thousand federal troops. The troops were dispatched to tamp down unrest across the East and Midwest, including in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Buffalo. The presence of federal troops brought an end to the strike, while preserving the wage cuts. Hayes explained that he sent in troops because the federal government had a responsibility to maintain order and protect private property against the "domestic violence," "insurrection," and "obstruction of the laws" committed by the "insurgents" (The President's Proclamation 1877). It was the first time in U.S. history that the army was deployed to deal with a nationwide strike (Foner 1977, 40), setting the precedent for future presidential actions.
Hayes was widely applauded for his use of force to halt the strike and maintain "law and order" (Hoogenboom 1995, 334-35). The New York Times, for instance, commended the president for his "firmness and vigor beyond all praise." Hayes's willingness to deploy troops was seen as "a potent influence on the side of order" (New York Times 1877, 4). Similarly, the Philadelphia Press noted that the president "suppressed the most formidable insurrection against the rights of labor and capital this country has ever seen, reestablished peace, and put down anarchy. As a peace-maker he is eminently successful" (as quoted in Chicago Daily Tribune 1877, 2). Only within the ranks of the labor movement were there criticisms of the president's use of force. In the eyes of the broader press and the public, Hayes's dispatching troops to end the largest national strike to date was a vivid demonstration that the president did not just occupy the presidential office but embodied what it meant to be presidential.
McKinley, Cleveland, and the Pullman Strike of 1894
Railroad workers' discontent continued to simmer after the Great Strike of 1877. The next major railroad strike originated at the Pullman Palace Car Company complex in Pullman, Illinois. Most Pullman employees lived in owner George Pullman's company town. Grievances erupted into conflict when Pullman reduced wages again while demanding the same amount in rent from the company town...