CFL News
April 24, 2012

What would Abe think about Gov. Scott Walker?

Larry Spivack, President of the Illinois Labor History Society, wonders what Abraham Lincoln would think about the Wisconsin Governor

Source: Springfield Journal-Register

By Larry Spivack

Others have noted the oddity of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce bringing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Springfield even as the controversial Republican faces a recall election and a criminal investigation while dragging the nation’s worst job-creation record along like a ball and chain. But let’s pull back and consider a historical angle: In the run-up to Walker’s visit to the Land of Lincoln, what would Honest Abe say?

History suggests the capital city’s most famous son might be tumbling in his tomb. After all, Abraham Lincoln believed that a robust working class was the engine that could drive American prosperity. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,” President Lincoln told Congress in 1861. “Labor is the superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” In contrast, Scott Walker gave tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to big corporations in the name of creating jobs.

Contrary to Walker’s assault on the basic rights of working people to join together and bargain for a better life, Lincoln consistently invoked the notion that all workers should be treated with dignity and respect. That belief was reflected most dramatically in the Great Emancipator’s quest to end the system of slavery, which he abhorred not only in the name of freedom but also because he believed the exploitation of unpaid labor was unjust.

Lincoln also believed that all workers should have the power to strike as a means of ensuring fair treatment. While seeking the GOP presidential nomination in Connecticut in 1860, he praised a work stoppage by local shoemakers, saying, “I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to … and wish it might prevail everywhere.”

Today, as corporate and political forces conspire to divide workers against one another, it is instructive to note that Lincoln prized solidarity. “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relationship, should be one uniting all working people,” he wrote in 1864. Yet 150 years later, Walker and his ilk encourage and thrive on discord and division, setting workers in the private sector against those in the public service, or those who have a union versus those not organized yet.

In fact, the story of struggle by working people to win basic rights, protections and benefits is richer in Illinois than in any other state. The fight for the eight-hour day and the related Haymarket tragedy, the story of the stockyards told in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” that inspired landmark workplace safety regulations, the efforts of Mother Jones and Jane Addams to end child labor and other abuses, and the dignified struggle for justice by the Pullman porters, all took place in the Land of Lincoln.

Wisconsin, too, is rich in labor history. Milwaukee was home to the nation’s first modern trade union, formed in Lincoln’s day. Workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance both originated in Wisconsin. And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was formed in Madison in 1935.

Scott Walker has flouted the progressive and populist tradition of his own state, choosing instead to court confrontation with working people by attempting to silence them and strip them of their rights. If only Lincoln, not Walker, could appear in Springfield this week, history tells us he would advise a different path.

Larry Spivack is president of the Illinois Labor History Society ( and a regional director of the AFSCME Council 31.