As the Main Street Movement of students, workers, and other middle class Americans erupts across America, many conservatives have invoked the legacy of former president Ronald Reagan to demand that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) not back down from his push to end collective bargaining for his state’s public employees. In a prank call with the Buffalo Beast’s Ian Murphy, where Murphy pretended to be right-wing billionare David Koch, Walker himself even fantasized about being just like Reagan.
Yet conservatives may be shocked to learn that their idol Reagan was once a union boss himself. Reagan was the only president in American history to have belonged to a union, the AFL-CIO affiliated Screen Actors Guild. And he even served six terms as president of the organized labor group. Additionally, Reagan was a staunch advocate for the collective bargaining rights of one of the world’s most famous and most influential trade unions, Poland’s Solidarity movement.
Founded in September 1980, Solidarity was formed in Soviet-occupied Poland as the USSR’s first free and independent trade union. By 1981, the union had grown to 10 million people and became a powerful force for demanding economic and political reforms within the Soviet Union. Solidarity began to use strikes to demand these reforms, and the Soviets responded by jailing their leaders and cracking down on their right to organize. During his Christmas address to the nation on December 23, 1981, President Reagan condemned the Soviet-backed Polish crackdowns on labor unions, promoting the “basic right of free trade unions and to strike”:
REAGAN: The Polish government has trampled underfoot to the UN Charter and Helsinki accords. It has even broken the Gdańsk Agreement of 1980 by which the Polish government recognized the basic right of free trade unions and to strike.
In a radio address given the following October, the former president escalated his rhetoric. Reagan condemned the Polish government’s outlawing of Solidarity, and attacked it for making it “clear they never had any intention of restoring one of the most elemental human rights — the right to belong to a free trade union”:
REAGAN: Ever since martial law was brutally imposed last December, Polish authorities have been assuring the world that they’re interested in a genuine reconciliation with the Polish people. But the Polish regime’s action yesterday reveals the hollowness of its promises. By outlawing Solidarity, a free trade organization to which an overwhelming majority of Polish workers and farmers belong, they have made it clear that they never had any intention of restoring one of the most elemental human rights—the right to belong to a free trade union.
Although Solidarity was not an American union, it is important to understand that much of its political program at the time was much farther to the left than any comparable U.S.-based unions. Solidarity’s economic platform in 1981 called for worker-owned businesses, social control of the food supply so as to ensure that everyone was fed, and for workers to decide what days of the week businesses would be able to declare holidays, among other things.
As conservatives, including Walker himself, continue to fashion themselves as clones of Reagan as they face off with a new progressive populist movement across the country, Americans should know that Reagan’s views and actions may not have always perfectly aligned with those on the far right.