Back to the Future With Scott Walker

New York City, 1915: Workers sew teddy bears in a sweat shop assembly line. (Photo via Shutterstock)Workers sew teddy bears in a sweat shop assembly line in New York City in 1915. (Photo: Sweat Shop via Shutterstock)

If you want to catch a glimpse of what the US would look like under President Scott Walker, you need to turn back the clock to one of the darkest periods in 20th century US history – the Lochner Era.

Here’s a little history lesson just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about.

In the early 1900s, a bakery owner named Joseph Lochner sued the state of New York over its Bakeshop Act, which limited the number of hours bakery employees could work to 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

Lochner lost in the case in the New York Court of Appeals, but when he took it to the Supreme Court in 1905, he got the result he wanted.

In a close 5-4 decision, the justices struck down the Bakeshop Act, citing Lochner’s right under the 14th Amendment to run his business without “state interference.”

Apparently, the Bakeshop Act violated that most fundamental of liberties – the right of employers to work their employees to death.

No one knew so at the time, but this ended being a big turning point in US history. From when the Lochner case was decided in 1905 until the mid-1930s, the Supreme Court would go on all-out rampage against workers’ rights.

Over the next few decades it struck down, among other things, child labor laws, minimum wage laws and laws banning “yellow dog contracts” – contracts that forced workers to say that they wouldn’t join a union.

The guiding principle in most or all of these decisions was the idea that the government’s power to protect workers was limited to protecting their “health and safety.”

Under this line of thinking, things like minimum wage laws were struck down because they went beyond protecting “health and safety” and tried to actually raise the living standards of US workers.

This, the Court said, was a violation of the constitutional “right to contract.”

The Lochner Era, as the period governed by this legal philosophy is called, lasted until 1937, when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish that the government did, in fact, have the power to do things like raise the minimum wage and ban child labor.

There is, by the way, no “right to contract” in the Constitution.

The Supreme Court made it up, just like it made up corporate personhood and money as speech.

Today, most legal scholars place the Lochner case, as well as the anti-worker decisions that followed it, among the worst decisions in Supreme Court history.

They’re basically in the same category as Dred Scott case.

Even Robert Bork called the Lochner case an “abomination” – and he was about as right-wing as it gets.

Everyone serious thinks the Lochner case was a big mistake.

Everyone that is, except for Scott Walker.

As Ian Milhiser has pointed out in a great piece for ThinkProgress, buried deep in Scott Walker’s speech announcing his run for president was a shout-out to the “health and safety” thinking of the Lochner era.

He said, “As long as you don’t violate the health and safety of your neighbors – go out and start your own career, build your own business, live your own life.”

Sounds harmless enough , right?

It does, until you remember that this line of thinking was used to strike down child labor laws, minimum wage laws and basically any kind of law that kept workers from becoming wage slaves.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Walker just spoke out of tune, but given his record as one of the most anti-labor governors around, it’s safe to say that he probably knew exactly what he was talking about.

And that’s just terrifying.

Walker is the strongest Republican candidate out there, and he’s backed by a boatload of billionaire money from the Kochs on down.

He could very well be our next president, and if he really is on board with this “health and safety” nonsense, then you can kiss the US middle-class goodbye.