When we lost former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler we lost one of the last elected officials who seriously resisted the rush to privatize public services.
If the prospect of creeping privatization – in schools and social programs and statehouses and the military – doesn’t concern you, please consider how the late Mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler, felt about surrendering the responsibilities of a people’s democracy to private corporations.
The 100th anniversary of Zeidler’s birth was September 20, 2012. That means he lived and was politically active during the Great Depression, the New Deal and its dismantling, and witnessed “welfare reform” of the type touted by Bill Clinton and Tommy Thompson before Ziedler’s death in 2006 at age 93.
Zeidler was the last Socialist (SPUSA) mayor of a major U.S. city, in office from 1948-1960. In September 2002, I interviewed Mayor Zeidler in the living room of the house he shared with Agnes, his wife, on North Second Street, Milwaukee. The mayor sat in an easy chair in the living room, surrounded by filled bookshelves and willing to talk on the record. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of Wisconsin’s (and Tommy Thompson’s) W-2 “welfare to work” program. I audiotaped Zeidler’s comments and transcribed his words. Some will follow.
Fighting privatization is relevant right now as Scott Walker’s administration plans to fully privatize the W-2 program, administered by 20 counties and 11 multi-county agencies outside Milwaukee County. The Wisconsin State Journal reported this summer that the state plans to cut W-2 by 18 percent, and bids are quietly being accepted for four-year contracts to completely privatize the administration of W-2. Assistance to the jobless and job center services would suffer.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi challenges W-2 privatization, saying, “Let’s compare the results…with some counties where it’s been privatized, and you’ll find the results have not been great.” The privatization effort is designed to attract private operators. Human services will lose.
Mayor Zeidler saw many comings and goings in his long life.
He told me in 2002: “To get rid of the welfare system…was supported by the centrist Democrats like Clinton. The liberal Democrats didn’t want it. The Socialists didn’t want it. They wanted to work with the people in order to give them the education and skills that would be needed in urban life. The conservatives were also reinforced…by the influence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economists to the effect that the government can’t do anything good, and that the market should determine everything, and therefore government should get out of welfare, it should get out of education, it should get out of running utilities, it really had no role.”
Zeidler continued, “It was a libertarianism that said government can’t do anything…this sentiment grew.”
And then: “There was another factor that happened,” said the mayor. “I haven’t got a proper word yet that I can describe it, but an elevation in the minds of the skilled workers and workers that were organized, that they were rising out of the working class and coming into the level of middle income and middle class…many of the more skilled trade union workers really became wealthy. Some of them even reached the millionaire class by saving and investing in stocks and so on.
“The labor unions, therefore, lost their base and lost their militancy on many of these issues.”
Think tanks like the Hudson Foundation and the Bradley Foundation came along, parroting economist Friedman, and “busy getting government out of any kind of social support legislation,” Zeidler said. With socialism and resistance movements in decline, and labor militancy lacking, centrist Democrats were elected locally “who were in no way distinguishable in their social ideals from Republicans.” He praised then-state Senator Gwen Moore as one of few Democrats “effective on social issues.”
“The results [of W-2] are not well documented,” the mayor said. “While there is a great drop of people receiving aid for dependent children and welfare, nobody really knows where they are.” Dating from the Reagan administration, Zeidler listed damage done to dependent children, indigent and jobless people, single mothers, and county mental health institutions. “The alternative was to build a lot of jails,” he said, and support systems were thrust onto churches.
I asked Zeidler, 10 years ago, what should be done? “I don’t see any hope except maybe if labor does something. The churches are ineffective. Community organizations are now popping up all over and are getting money from politicians in return for which they seem to say, ‘We’ll deliver the votes,’ although they can’t. The whole system is very corrupt.” That’s the 1990s version of welfare privatization of which he spoke.
Much earlier, Zeidler saw the original inception of the welfare system. “I worked with a lot of the people,” he said. “It occurred during my lifetime…primarily in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression.” Farms for poor people and “Potter’s Grave” cemeteries, food and coal distribution, and, “Then when in 1935 Social Security came in, that made a great difference. The WPA (Works Projects Administration) and the PWA (Public Works Administration) and the National Youth Administration and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) provided jobs.”
World War II “knocked out the New Deal,” said Zeidler. “The U.S. government abandoned that.”
Viewing his Milwaukee County in a new century, Mayor Zeidler gave some pointers about government. “The county is not a municipality. It’s a division of the state government, and it, therefore, has the responsibility of carrying out the state mandate. The state mandate includes taking care of welfare, but the county doesn’t. However, the county board got itself into the position where it could run a professional baseball team, and it’s concentrated on glamour projects rather than taking care of people who need it.”
I wrote a story about W-2 after talking with Zeidler. In a meticulously typed letter a few weeks later thanking me for the story, Mayor Zeidler wrote: “The aspect about the attempt to make single mothers work that troubles me the most is the lack of parental care in the home for the young children. I wonder what kind of generation of children is growing up raised in day care centers from an early age. This is a problem also for families where both parents work to keep up the standard of living. I am much concerned by this new phenomenon.”
The mayor apologized for his “late response…that resulted from a combination of becoming ninety years of age and of still continuing major activities in a number of local groups. There seem to be too many causes, and one I focus on is trying to prevent a world war which may begin when the United States attacks Iraq in a pre-emptive war.”
“Keep in touch,” he wrote. “Frank Zeidler.”
We’re trying to keep in touch, Frank.
September 30, 2012
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David Giffey is a freelance journalist and FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Arena. He is the author of "Long Shadows: Veterans’ Paths to Peace" (Atwood Publishing), "Struggle for Justice: The Migrant Farm Worker Labor Movement in Wisconsin," and "The People’s Stories of South Madison."