This is not the first time that Wisconsin has been at the center of national agitation over the role of unions.

The earlier battle was staged in Sheboygan at Kohler, the legendary manufacturer of kitchen, bath and furniture products. The employees at Kohler had voted to join the United Auto Workers union, and a strike that began in April 1954 was not settled until the early 1960s.

In taking on the unions — as the historian Kim Phillips-Fein recounts in “Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal” — Herbert Kohler, the president of the family company, became a hero to small manufacturers around the country.

“Who runs this country?” Kohler would ask appreciative anti-union audiences. “That is the basic issue at Kohler. That is the potential question for ALL industry. We must meet this issue fighting.”

There is an interesting coda to this story. This past December, as the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported, the members of UAW Local 833 voted 1,152 to 717 to endorse a contract at Kohler that included a five-year wage freeze, higher health care premiums and the creation of a two-tiered wage and benefit system.

UAW leaders opposed the deal, but were not surprised by the result. “People are under duress,” Dave Bergene, the local UAW president, told the Press-Gazette. “The economy is really bad, and I’m sure that played into part of it.”

That is the background for the confrontation going on now between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s public-employee unions. Private-sector workers are taking it on the chin, and conservatives now see a chance to cripple organized labor altogether by killing off public-sector unions, the most vibrant part of the movement. The underlying argument is actually insidious: If workers in the private sector have it bad, shouldn’t workers in the public sector have it bad, too?

“The game goes like this,” as one pro-union political consultant I spoke with put it. “Destroy private-sector unions, reduce private-sector health and retirement benefits, then say ‘Hey, how come those public employees get such (relatively) good benefits? That’s not fair.’ ” He scoffed at those now insisting that they like private but not public-sector unions: “Private-sector unions are only ‘OK’ once they are completely emasculated.”

Indeed, the new attack follows years of efforts to undermine unions in the private economy by advancing “paycheck protection” schemes (to prevent unions from collecting dues from workers’ paychecks) and by blocking labor law reforms that would enhance the ability of workers to organize.

Nobody denies the recession has tanked state revenues. That’s why even progressive governors have been making budget cuts — and why Wisconsin’s state unions conceded to Walker’s demands for higher pension and health care contributions. What the unions are rightly resisting is a shift in the long-term balance of political power that undercutting collective bargaining would represent.

How do we know this is about power, not budgets? Even as they go after the unions, Walker and his Republican legislative allies are also trying to change the makeup of future Wisconsin electorates in their favor. They are pushing to end same-day voter registration (which currently empowers younger voters, who are more liberal than their elders and move around more) and to pass onerous voter ID laws that would especially burden lower-income voters.

And last week, Walker also signed into law a bill that will require a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature, or a statewide referendum, to raise income, sales or corporate franchise taxes. Imagine if President Obama had insisted that a two-thirds majority be required to repeal his health care law? This is an anti-democratic effort to lock in the policies of what could prove to be a temporary conservative majority.

It’s said that this fight is all about partisanship — and it’s true that Walker’s proposal is tougher on the most Democratic-leaning public-employee unions than on the ones more sympathetic to Republicans.

But this goes beyond partisanship. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which swept away decades of restrictions on corporate spending to influence elections, has already tilted the political playing field toward the country’s most formidable business interests. Eviscerating the power of the unions would make Republicans and Democrats alike more dependent than ever on rich and powerful interests and undercut the countervailing strength of working people who, as those Kohler workers know, already have enough problems.

Even critics of public-employee unions should be able to recognize a power grab when they see one.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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