Scott Walker, Mahlon Mitchell
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 14, 2011, before the House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Committee on balancing state budgets in a tough economy. At right is Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin President Mahlon Mitchell of Madison.

Gov. Scott Walker appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and claimed that his assault on public employees and public school teachers, public services and public education was a “progressive” policy.

“In Wisconsin, we are doing something truly progressive,” Walker told the committee, during a remarkable session that lasted the better part of four hours. “In addition to holding the line on spending and finding efficiencies in state government, we are implementing long-term budget reforms focused on protecting middle-class jobs and middle-class taxpayers.”

What sort of “progressive” reforms? Stripping Wisconsin state, county and municipal employees and teachers of basic rights in the workplace. Rendering public employee and teacher unions dysfunctional by ending basic protections for their existence in the workplace and political sphere. Undermining local democracy at the town, school district and municipal level. Restructuring state government in a manner that allows the governor to limit access to health care and sell off public properties in no-bid deals with campaign donors.

Every one of those initiatives is at odds with the Wisconsin progressive tradition as outlined by its initiator, former Wisconsin Gov. and Sen. Robert M. La Follette, and as understood by every child who has finished the fourth-grade state history curriculum.

La Follette and the progressives were champions of labor rights. As a senator, he was the nation’s leading proponent of establishing protections for workers in the public and private sectors. When he sought the presidency in 1924, La Follette ran as the endorsed candidate of the American Federation of Labor and the powerful railroad unions of the day.

La Follette’s son, Robert M. La Follette Jr., became a U.S. senator and chaired what came to be the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee. Its primary purpose was to expose techniques used by employers to prevent workers from joining private- and public-sector unions. That committee became a primary congressional platform for advancing the rights of workers to organize and exercise collective bargaining rights.

The younger La Follette shared the view of his father that strong unions were needed to ensure that “the tremendous wealth of this country should be more equitably shared for a more abundant life for the masses of people.”

Robert M. La Follette Jr.’s brother, Phil, served as governor of Wisconsin in the 1930s during a period when the predecessor of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union was established and forged here. La Follette worked closely with unions in the private and public sectors and encouraged their growth. Unions of the AFL and the CIO were core supporters of the independent Progressive Party, which governed the state in much of the 1930s and 1940s.

When the Progressive Party quit the political field, campaigners from its ranks formed the modern Democratic Party in the state. One of them, Gaylord Nelson, became the first Democratic governor of Wisconsin in a generation in 1958. In 1959, with the support of Democratic and Republican legislators, he led the successful drive to enact the first broad collective bargaining law for public employees in the nation.

It is that law, that progressive law, that is now under attack in Wisconsin — not because it has failed to serve the purpose of establishing labor peace and providing for effective delivery of public services and the education of Wisconsin children. And not because stripping state, county and municipal employees and teachers of collective bargaining rights is a fiscal necessity.

That was established during Thursday’s hearing when a progressive congressman who serves in the La Follette tradition, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, asked Walker how much money would be saved by requiring unions to hold annual votes to continue representing their members.

“It doesn’t save any,” Walker admitted.

Kucinich represents Cleveland, the largest American city to vote for Robert M. La Follette for president. And Kucinich has frequently appeared at Fighting Bob Fest and Progressive magazine events that celebrate that tradition. (Walker’s been invited to BobFest but has yet to make it.)

Kucinich sounded a lot more like a Wisconsin progressive than did Walker when the Ohioan said: “The attack on collective bargaining rights is a choice, not a budget issue.”

Walker’s plan is not progressive in any sense La Follette would have understood. It is, as Kucinich suggested, a scheme in which “government (is) going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

That’s exactly what the La Follettes feared and what Wisconsin progressives still fear.

Progressivism, as understood by Wisconsinites and a lot of other Americans, has always been about putting government on the side of working people, farmers and small business owners, not the out-of-state corporations and CEOs (like the billionaire Koch brothers and political operations that have donated so mightily not just to Walker but to all the Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform).

The governor who spoke the language of progressivism Thursday was not Scott Walker of Wisconsin — who pointedly avoided being sworn in near the bust of Robert M. La Follette, where past governors, Democrats and Republicans, took their oaths. It was Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Shumlin told the committee members that he respected public employees, teachers and their unions and believed that they were valued allies in the work of balancing state budgets while maintaining public services. And he repeatedly expressed the view that “collective bargaining is a right.”

Robert M. La Follette and the Wisconsin progressives would have agreed. Indeed, they argued in their time just as progressives do today that the constitutional protections of the rights to speak, to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances provide a clear and unequivocal outline for the collective bargaining rights of working Americans. It is not “progressive” to attack those rights. It is progressive to defend them.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.

Sign up for Cap Times newsletters: