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Third Act for a Bomb Thrower

He was one of the most polarizing political figures of the last half-century in Idaho, a union and gay rights basher who was part of the Tea Party before we called it that and before the Republican Party came to be too dominated by, well, guys like Gary Glenn.

GlennLong-time observers of Idaho’s politics – and now Michigan politics – will recognize his name and his tactics, including the brash one-liner, the scorched earth approach to every issue, the politics that reduce your opponent to a beast determined to ruin the culture. Those who long for a politics where opponents aren’t routinely demonized will not be surprised that Glenn, the one-time Idaho bomb thrower, is these days lobbing his grenades as a duly elected state representative in Michigan. You can be forgiven for thinking Idaho’s gain has become Michigan’s loss.

Wearing his religion on his sleeve, Glenn is in the forefront of efforts to deny marriage rights to gay couples in Michigan. Glenn’s American Family Association Michigan chapter – he’s the president – is widely described by human rights organizations as a “hate group.” As a legislator, Glenn is still advocating low taxes – or perhaps no taxes – and opposing a Republican governor’s plan to invest in Michigan infrastructure. And, of course, Glenn has ridden his “right-to-work” hobbyhorse for thirty years, all the way to Midland, Michigan, while preaching “freedom” for everyone but those unfortunate souls who happen to disagree with him.

At a state university in Saginaw, Michigan recently two dozen students showed up to protest an appearance by the former Idaho firebrand. According to the local newspaper the students, taking exception to Glenn’s harsh anti-gay rhetoric, chanted, “Hey, ho, Gary Glenn has got to go” and “2, 4, 6, 8, Gary Glenn is full of hate.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights group Saginawthat once had a hand in driving the Aryan Nations out of Idaho, reports on its website that Glenn offered these helpful comments about gays in 2001: “As with smoking, homosexual behavior’s ‘second hand’ effects threaten public health….Thus, individuals who choose to engage in homosexual behavior threaten not only their own lives, but the lives of the general population.” Some things never change.

The Hired Gun…

If you want to mark a date on the calendar when Idaho politics truly began to change for the worse you could start with the day in 1985, when the Idaho legislature, after a bruising political battle, passed anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation over the veto on then-Governor John V. Evans. When unions succeeded in getting the issue on the ballot in 1986 the resulting campaign was particularly ugly. Glenn, a fresh-faced newcomer to Idaho – some called him not incorrectly a “carpetbagger” – orchestrated that nasty battle utilizing the kind of over-the-top tactics of intimidation and exaggeration – union “thugs” where threatening western civilization – that have become the norm in politics.

Before Glenn and the National Right-to-Work Committee targeted Idaho with bundles of outside money and deployed the politics of “if you’re not for us, you are against us,” Idaho was an organized labor backwater. In modern times the state had little history of labor unrest, but the unionized miners, timber workers and electricians tended to support Democrats who advocated for better schools and better paying jobs. Labor’s foot soldiers and campaign money never – at least not since the early 1950’s – gave Democrats a majority in the Idaho Legislature, but they did help keep the party competitive and helped elect guys like Evans, Frank Church and my old boss Cecil Andrus.

There are endless debates about the economic impacts of right-to-work on wages, job creation and the quality of employment opportunities and you can find studies and experts to support almost any point of view, but it’s beyond denial that the passage of the law in Idaho dealt a big blow to the Democratic Party. This was, one suspects, a big factor in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent push to make that once labor friendly state the latest to put the state between union members and management.

It is also clear that Idaho’s ranking in one important economic category – personal income – is hardly an advertisement for the wonders of anti-labor public policy. According to Department of Labor statistics, “Idaho ranked dead last in 2013 with individual median income at $27,932 — likely aided by the fact it was at the bottom of all the states for the median income for women, $21,908. The Idaho median income for men was $33,623 — good for 48th place.”

If you like one-party government populated by a crop of legislators who now pass resolutions calling for the “impeachment” of federal judges who rule “incorrectly” on same sex marriage, oppose a Hindu prayer to open a legislative session, continue to defund education and deny basic human rights protections to the LGBT community then Gary Glenn deserves honorary Idaho citizenship. The do-almost-nothing Idaho legislature (remember, it wasn’t always so), is a monument to the lack of a political middle in the state and that too has roots in the long ago battles that Glenn and like minded allies stoked for maximum partisan mileage.

As an historical footnote, I remember some Idaho Republican legislators in the 1980’s who were dubious about right-to-work potatoes_0asking why it was OK to mandate that every Idaho hop or potato farmer pay an assessment to support a state-mandated commodity commission, but the principle of every union member paying dues to support has bargaining organization was “coercion” and “a denial of freedom.” One man’s freedom is another’s “compulsory” union dues or, if you prefer, mandatory, state-sanctioned assessments on pea and lentil growers. I’m still waiting for the Idaho “freedom” movement to outlaw mandatory assessments on farmers, which exist, of course, in order to market products and advocate political causes for a special interest group. Journeymen plumbers are obviously in a different class. Talk about a closed shop.

Right-to-work legislation has never about “freedom,” as Glenn peddled the concept, but rather represented a cynical two-pronged strategy to weaken collective bargaining and erode support for Idaho Democrats. It worked like gangbusters and had the additional benefitunion of depressing wages.

After steamrolling the right-to-work effort in Idaho, Glenn was hired as the political operative for the state’s cattle ranchers and tried, with some success, to use that platform to create his own path to political power. The cattle lobby was a “voluntary” organization were members paid “dues,” but you won’t find many cowboys who don’t volunteer and ante up. More freedom, I guess.

Cece Andrus famously refused Glenn admission to the governor’s office in those days and did not, as Glenn’s partisans incorrectly claimed, “throw him out” of the big office on the second floor of the Idaho Statehouse. Andrus, with no use for completely partisan hired guns like Glenn, loved to say that he most certain did not “throw” Glenn out, which would have been impossible since the hired gun never got his brand new Tony Lamas across the door jamb.

Glenn next brought his polarizing brand of partisanship to the Ada County Commission and spent two contentious terms mostly preening for television cameras and fighting with other elected officials. Before long he lost a Republican primary for Congress and decamped for Michigan and, one might hope, obscurity. But not so fast. In 2012 Glenn unsuccessfully sought the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Michigan, but that run merely served to open his third act and he captured a seat in the state legislature in 2014. You have to give the guy credit; he is a political survivor.

The Third Act…

I believe Glenn when he says, as he did in an Idaho Statesman piece marking the 25th anniversary of right-to-work coming to Idaho, that he is a “true believer” in his brand of ultra-conservative politics, the kind of politics that gains him regular attention from civil liberties groups who monitor the hateful drivel of Glenn and other divisive personalities like Glenn Beck and the radio preacher Bryan Fisher, two more professional agitators with Idaho antecedents.

Glenn is a true believer, but also a first-class opportunist, one of those people in politics who live to divide and chide. He’s made a living pumping out his anti-gay, anti-union, anti-tax mumbo jumbo, but beyond being against people not like him you have to wonder what he has to show for a lifetime of agitation?

Gary Glenn reminds me all these years later of the great question Lyndon Johnson asked of another fear and hate monger, George Wallace, during the darkest days of the voting rights struggle in 1965. “George,” LBJ said to the blustering Alabama governor, “what do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a Great…Big…Marble monument that reads ‘George Wallace – He Built?’…or do you want a scrawny pine board laying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, ‘George Wallace – He Hated?’”

Glenn left a questionable and negative mark on Idaho and now builds a dubious mark, as successful opportunists tend to do, in a new venue where, one suspects, all his nasty history is little understood. Still, his long “career” begs the question of just what has he built and what has his disdain for those who think differently really accomplished? He has certainly succeeded in keeping himself in the public eye and, ironically for someone who has so consistently preached the anti-government gospel, Glenn has once again landed on the public payroll, a perfect place from which to lament all the evils of government. As the same time, and in the name of “liberty” and “freedom” he has long championed causes that deny rights to others, while helping breed the absurd levels of animosity that are at the center of what passes for politics these days.

Michigan must be proud. Hate has a new lease on life. Mr. Glenn has opened his third act.


A Bias for Action

His critics will probably say that once again Barack Obama has failed to exercise the kind of leadership that goes along with occupying the Oval Office. He’s waited too long, they’ll contend, to intervene on the West Coast port crisis and try to end the work slowdowns that have cargo backed up from San Diego to 101823174-451523212.530x298Seattle. The impact on the region’s economy is clear and the threat the U.S. economy is growing by the day.

Obama has now dispatched his Labor Secretary to engage the warring port operators and labor unions, but still seems reluctant to apply the full power he has under the still controversial law known since its passage in 1947 as Taft-Hartley.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, as Roll Call has noted, “the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.”

Obama undoubtedly knows his history and as such knows that a president can win big or sometimes lose large when he puts the prestige of the presidency on the line in a labor dispute. Still, the American public has usually rewarded decisive presidential action when it can be clearly shown to be in the broad national interest.

Wielding a Big Stick…

Theodore Roosevelt rarely – make that never – seemed to hesitate to throw himself into a fight. Teddy-Roosevelt-the-Anthracite-Coal-Strike-the-Railroad-and-Civil-Rights-_picture_-2When a national coal strike edged into its fifth month in 1902 and threatened a very cold winter for millions of Americans, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intercede in a labor-management dispute. Using typically Rooseveltian tactics, T.R. summoned the strikers and the coal operators to meet and urged them to work out their differences in the national interest. The workers agreed, management balked, and Roosevelt acted. He threatened to seize Pennsylvania coal fields and use soldiers to dig the coal and then he appointed a hand-picked commission to suggest a way out of the impasse.

“Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike.” The decisive action by Roosevelt, coming not long after he had assumed the presidency and long before Taft-Hartley, helped cement his well-deserved reputation for action and leadership.

Although Harry Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947 as “a slave labor law” – harrystrumanTruman vetoed the legislation only to see his veto overturned by a strong bi-partisan vote in both houses of Congress – the no-nonsense Missourian channeled T.R. in 1946 when he came close to nationalizing the nation’s railroads to end another crippling strike. Truman was incensed that two of the twenty national rail unions refused to accept a wage agreement that he had personally helped broker and he went on the radio to blast union leaders by name. His words prophetically anticipated the passage of Taft-Hartley the next year.

“I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions,” Truman said, “should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.”

The year 1946 was a brutal year for Truman, the country and organized labor. A wave of strikes swept the country after the end of World War II and Republicans scored big wins in the mid-term elections allowing the GOP to recapture control of Congress for the first time since 1930. That historic election, coupled with the legislative cooperation that existed among conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, led to major changes in the labor friendly Wagner Act, a cornerstone accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that passed in 1935.

The Taft of Taft-Hartley…

Taft-Hartley is the best remembered legislative accomplishment of the man once known as “Mr. TaftRepublican” – Robert Alonso Taft of Ohio. Taft was a fixture in national politics and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination from 1940 until 1952. Taft died of cancer in 1953 having never won the Republican presidential nomination that might have allowed him to fulfill a dream to follow his father – William Howard Taft – into the White House.

What is less well remembered is that Taft – unlike the labor-hating Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Congressman who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee – was a highly respected, hugely powerful senator; a man of principle and a politician willing to compromise in order to pass important legislation. Taft was at the zenith of his legislative power in 1947.

Taft’s best biographer James T. Patterson has pointed out that the Ohio senator had “relatively little interest” in a Time - Taftprovision advanced by Hartley that would require union leaders to swear anti-communist oaths in exchange for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. Patterson says that Taft, while certainly aiming to trim the sails of organized labor, “insisted on the right of labor to strike and to bargain collectively with management.” Taft also opposed too much government scrutiny of internal union operations and true to his life-long convictions opposed “extensive government intervention in the economy.”

As West Coast Democrats and many Republicans now call for decisive presidential action to end the port crisis by invoking provisions of Taft-Hartley, it is interesting to note that the region’s members of Congress were all over the map in 1947 when it came time to consider Truman’s veto of Bob Taft’s famous legislation.

Oregon’s Wayne Morse, still a Republican in 1947, was one of only three Senate Republicans who voted to sustain Truman’s veto. Three liberals, the likes of whom don’t exist any longer, Warren Magnuson of Washington, Glen Taylor of Idaho and James Murray of Montana also voted to uphold Truman’s veto. Other Republicans in the Northwest delegation in 1947 – Zales Ecton of Montana, Henry Dworshak of Idaho, Harry Cain of Washington and Guy Cordon of Oregon – voted to override Truman and make Taft-Hartley law. Those were the days when Oregon and Washington had Republicans and Idaho had Democrats.

One could argue that organized labor in the United States has been in a long, steady decline since Taft-Hartley, which ironically makes it easier from a political standpoint for a president, even a Democrat, to intervene in a situation like that that now grips the West Coast ports.

The Gipper Strikes…

Obama might remember that it was a political no-brainer for Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even though the union had supported Reagan’s election. Reagan’s action in that 3384-20Acelebrated case allowed him to quote one of his favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait Reagan had placed in the Oval Office. When air traffic controllers violated the law by striking Reagan quoted the laconic Vermonter: “There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Reagan biographer Richard Reeves says telephone calls and telegrams buried the White House and “supported the President’s stand by more than ten to one.” Many historians contend that Reagan’s harsh action further diminished labor’s clout, but there is little doubt his actions enjoyed broad public support and enhanced his popularity.

It appears the West Coast port situation has entered the phase where everyone involved is unable – or unwilling – to take a step back and try to find a solution. With everything from imported automobile parts to exported grain backing up there is no downside for a politician to act decisively and in the broad public interest. There is ample precedent for such action dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and ample reason to believe that a president, particularly one in the final two years of his term, would enjoy widespread public support for rolling up his sleeves and pounding the table for a settlement. A Democratic president, who surely will want to lean in the direction of organized labor, might also succeed, as a labor-friendly Roosevelt did in 1902, in crafting a solution that amounted to an historic win for workers.

In any case, in instances such as as the West Coast port issue, there is a strong bias in favor of presidential action, and sooner rather than later.


What’s In a Name

Washington-RedskinsNow for something completely different…

While the nation dangles one foot over the fiscal cliff and while most of the federal government remains shut down, the epicenter of American politics has yet another crisis to confront – the name of its football team.

I knew the controversy swirling around the National Football League Redskins had reached crisis proportions when Lanny Davis, the slightly oily adviser to those in trouble, started issuing statements on behalf of the mostly tone deaf Redskins’ owner. Davis, you may remember, advised Bill Clinton in the Monica days and more recently helped out a charming fellow named Laurent Gbagbo who, before he was forced from power to face charges of torturing his political enemies, was quaintly described as the Ivory Coast’s strongman. Davis told the New York Times in 2010 “controversy is what I do for a living.” Welcome to the Redskins’ beat.

Davis was engaged – controversy is what he does after all – after President Obama weighed in on whether the Washington, D.C. team should change its name. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told The Associated Press.

“These things,” of course, would be names and mascots for sports teams that at least some Native Americans (and others) find offensive. Now you might think with all that the president has on his plate from Syria to Ted Cruz, from a debt ceiling to tanking approval numbers that he would have deftly sidestepped the question of the Redskins’ name. But to his credit, even while giving half the country another reason to dislike him, Mr. Obama answered the question and a million dinner table conversations were launched.

Maureen Dowd began her column on the controversy with this: “Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder once said he would “never” change the name, but in post-Lanny Davis mode he struck a quieter, if no less certain, tone. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote to the Washington Post. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. . . . We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”

Here’s my guess: sooner of later, given a hard push by the ever image conscious NFL leadership and with what will surely be mounting pressure from political and business folks, the Redskins will take a new name. Gover, the Native American head of the Smithsonian museum, suggested a novel name – the Washington Americans. That may catch on and actually could be a tribute to the real Americans. But in the meantime Lanny Davis and others are left to defend the Redskins by pointing out that it’s not just the D.C. football team that has a potentially offensive name. There are the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Edmonton Eskimos. Not to mention the Utah Utes, the Florida State Seminoles and the Orofino Maniacs.

Orofino, Idaho, of course, is home not only to the high school Maniacs, but an Idaho state mental hospital. There is disagreement about which came first, the nickname or the facility, but the monicker has stuck through the years and helped create some memorable headlines. My personal favorite – “Maniacs Run Wild, Kill Kamiah.” Efforts to change the name have be labeled, well, crazy. Don’t mess with my Maniacs or my Redskins. No offense intended, of course.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are no long either fighting or Sioux. After prolonged controversy the school dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 and currently has no name. State law actually prohibits the university from renaming its sports teams until 2015. Let me get a jump on that and suggest the North Dakota “Damn Cold Winters.”

While we’re on the subject, I don’t generally like sports teams named after animals. Too many Lions and Tigers, Badgers and Eagles. The best sports names are unique and help tell a story. The Packers, for example, or the 49ers. I like the name, but have never been a fan of the Dodgers. The Minnesota Twins make sense to me. Also the Montreal Canadiens. Not so much the transplanted from New Orleans Utah Jazz. I’m not sure jazz is even legal in Utah.

Mr. Controversy-Is-My-Business Lanny Davis says in defense of the Redskins that the name is 80 years old and, of course, is used with no disrespect. Really. I grew up near the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and no white guy, at least one in his right mind, would call a member of the tribe what the Washington teams calls itself. The Confederate battle flag has been around for more than 150 years, but it is now widely recognized as a symbol of white supremacy. The Ole Miss Rebels banned the stars and bars from football games for just that reason. Atlanta was once home to the minor league baseball “Crackers,” but that slang put down of poor whites wouldn’t fly today.

“Come to our reservation,” says Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Tribe that is leading the effort to change the D.C. team name, and “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer according to Joe Flood who has written at Buzzfeed about Native American reaction to the name controversy.

Yes, the Redskins will eventually change their name. The only real question is how much turmoil will be created and how long it will take. After all, as Maureen Dowd says, “All you have to do is watch a Western. The term ‘redskin’ is never a compliment.”


Politics, War and Death

image028_w200When labor organizer Frank Little came to Butte, Montana in the summer of 1917 he had to have known that he was stepping, even on his one good leg, into the middle of a political powder keg. But going from frying pan to fire was fairly typical for Little. He’d been in Bisbee, Arizona earlier in 1917, another hot bed of labor and political upheaval, and along with a thousand others had been deported out of town and out of the state.

Trouble had a way of following Frank Little.

Ninety-six years ago on August 1, 1917 Frank Little was kidnapped at 3:00 am by a half dozen armed men. Having suffered a broken leg while in Arizona, Little hobbled out of the boarding house where he was living and into the street. His kidnappers tied him to the rear bumper of a big touring car and savagely pulled him through the dark streets of Butte. On the outskirts of town a rope was fastened to a railroad trestle and Little’s kidnappers and torturers became his murderers. When his body was cut down the next morning the IWW “radical,” who had come to Montana to recruit union members, agitate for better working conditions and oppose the United States’ involvement in The Great War in Europe, had a note affixed to his clothing. The note warned other “radicals” of a similar fate.

No one was ever charged with Little’s murder. It was a gruesome crime, a milestone in American and international labor history and remains to this day a near century old “cold case.” Newspaper editorials at the time essentially said Little had it coming. He was unpatriotic, the power structure contended, because he had openly challenged the war and should have been arrested for preaching sedition and attacking President Woodrow Wilson. In other words he was acting out his First Amendment rights.

Was Little murdered by agents of the mine owners of Butte? That’s my guess, but others have pointed to rival labor leaders or even citizen-vigilantes who were worried about what a prolonged period of labor unrest would mean for business and the profits flowing from a fully mobilized war economy. Maybe the killers were local law enforcement agents acting on orders from anti-union political leaders. I spent a day some months back digging in vain in the recently opened archives of the once-powerful Anaconda Mining Company, in its day one of the largest mining companies in the world, for any clue that “the Company” ordered Frank Little’s murder. Whomever did Little in covered their tracks pretty well.

Butte in 1917 must have been a hell of a place. One historian has called the one-time copper mining capitol of the world the only mining camp in the country that became an industrial center. Butte was home to vast, almost unimaginable wealth, but also desperate and unrelenting poverty.

One-time Butte Pinkerton detective turned detective writer Dashiell Hammett set his classic novel Red Harvest in a town that sounds a lot like Butte. “The city wasn’t pretty,” Hammett wrote, “an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in a ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter’s stacks.” I imagine that to be a pretty good description of Butte in 1917.

 The mines operated, at least when miners weren’t striking, 24/7 and the taverns and whore houses did, as well. The “company” men – the shorthand for the swells who ran the Anaconda Mining Company – generally lived on the west side of Montana Avenue in grand houses. The Silver Bow Club – J.P. Morgan was a member – was as fancy as any New York “gentlemen’s club.” Caruso and dozens of other great acts played the theaters of Butte.

The miners came from Cornwall and County Cork, Finland and Serbia. The “no smoking” signs in the mines were printed in a dozen languages. If you needed to campaign for the state legislature or the city council you could best reach the voters in one of the dozens of bars in Butte where buying a round for the house constituted a wise campaign expenditure.

In June of 1917, just before Frank Little showed up to pour IWW gasoline on the already raging labor-management fires of Butte, 163 miners had died under awful circumstances at a mine in north Butte – The Speculator. A cable being lowered into the deep mine came in contact with a miner’s lamp and quickly flamed into a torch that  ignited timbers in the mine. Most of the miners died quickly from the smoke although some struggled for days to breath and live while waiting for the rescue that never came. The disaster still ranks as the worst in American hard rock mining history.

The Speculator fire and all the death outraged the miners of Butte and set off strikes and protests that were seen by Frank Little and others as an opportunity. Little paid for seizing that opportunity with his life. His funeral procession through the streets of Butte was recalled years later by those who saw it as one of the great labor protests in American history.

Montana native Michael Punke’s marvelous 2006 book Fire and Brimstone tells the Speculator and related stories is vivid and tragic detail. Punke notes that “in 1930, a Justice Department official who studied the fire and its aftermath declared that ‘the story of Butte in 1917 was altogether normal for its time. Indeed, in that very normality lies the stories significance. What took place in Butte took place elsewhere as well. When we know the Butte story we know the others.'”

It is easy for us to forget as union membership in the United States continues to decline – down from nearly 18 million workers 30 years ago to just over 14 million today – that workers have long fought brutal battles in an effort to improve their lot. As labor historian Philip Dray has written, “the freedoms and protections we take for granted – reasonable hours, on-the-job safety, benefits, and the bedrock notion that employees have the right to bargain for the value of their labor…were not handed down by anyone or distributed ready-made, but were organized around, demanded, and won by workers themselves.”

The next time you hear a politician attack a labor union – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example – or move to restrict worker rights pause and consider our history. A good part of the battle for the life of the modern American worker was fought in places like Butte, Montana and not so long ago.



Perils of the Nanny State

Why is the state of Idaho in the liquor business and why does the Mayor of New York want to ban super-sized sugary drinks?  It’s a matter of history, tradition, politics and the fact that all politics is local. Both jurisdictions are responding to the direction of long prevailing political winds, but Idaho’s dust up over a sexy vodka label and New York’s determination to do something about obesity is also a telling tale that offers proof that neither conservatives or liberals can resist the temptation to invoke the power of government regulation in an attempt to direct human behavior.

Michael Bloomberg, the adroit and successful mayor of New York City, and Jeff Anderson, the adroit and successful Idahoan who runs the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary, normally might not have much in common. But as Hizzoner tries to crack down on sugary drinks that help fuel the American proclivity for, well, overweight citizens and Anderson polices the shelves of Idaho’s state run liquor stores to make sure state government stays on the right side of the line that defines politically correct behavior for a state-owned monopoly, both men find themselves uncomfortably straddling the fence of what my conservative friends like to call “the nanny state.”

And both men, undoubtedly well intentioned in their intentions, find themselves the subject of national media coverage for using the power of the state to regulate personal behavior. There was a pointed and funny full-page ad in the New York Times on Saturday, paid for by restaurants and food service interests and featuring a screaming headline – The Nanny – that depicted Bloomberg is a not very flattering blue dress. The Mayor, looking like an unkindly, hectoring Mrs. Doubtfire, was looming King Kong-like over the Big Apple directing the Big Government drink police.

In the Northwest, Idaho’s decision not to carry Five Wives vodka in state stores went viral. The suggestive brand is ironically distilled and sold in the Land of Zion, but won’t be sold in Idaho due to worries about the distiller’s marketing approach. The stated reason for the ban was that the product could be both offensive to women and Mormons, while doing little to drive sales because, as state officials explained, the Five Wives would be  joining dozens of other not terribly quality brands of vodka on the state’s shelves. The national press, of course, played up the Mormon angle. The vodka may never sell legally in Idaho, but the PR windfall for the Ogden, Utah booze maker has been substantial. Not so much for the Idaho liquor dispensary.

When Prohibition ended in 1933 one of the grand compromises made by Congress was to reserve to the individual states the responsibility of controlling distilled spirits. Deciding where, when, how and whether to sell hard liquor would be left to state legislators, which explains why we have 50 different approaches to liquor law in the country and why Idaho, arguably the most libertarian state in the nation, still maintains a state monopoly on the sale and distribution of  the hard stuff.

Post-prohibition Idaho opted for a high level of state control over booze. Hard liquor would be sold in state owned and operated stores during hours that, originally at least, were designed to limit sales and provide a politically sensitive nod to the state’s large LDS population. Relatively steep tax rates on distilled spirits would further help drive down consumption. Other states, Arizona for instance, opted for as little state regulation as possible. In Phoenix you can buy your hooch at Costco or at Big Bill’s Bargain Booze. (I made that up, but there are liquor warehouse stores that merchandise booze the way Home Depot sells toilet fixtures.) Some of the latest “big box” stores offer a vast selection of liquor at what often seems like discount prices compared to a “controlled” state like Idaho or, until very recently, Washington.

Because of Idaho’s historic controls over liquor, it falls ultimately to Jeff Anderson and his staff to play the role of middle man in the marketplace and make many of the decisions about the product mix and pricing available to Idahoans who are in the market for a cocktail. In Arizona and other non-controlled states that job belongs to the free market.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s nanny-isms are of a little different texture. His proposal to ban many extra large, sugary, calorie heavy soft drinks is of a piece with the Big City’s long effort at rent control and the ban on smoking in Central Park. (Wait, Boise and many other cities have the same smoking bans, but that’s another story). Bloomberg’s well-intentioned effort to do something about the epidemic of obseity in the culture – the statistics are striking – has received decidedly mixed reviews. I’m guessing the big soda ban is instinctively understood by most New Yorkers. They get the idea that too much human weight is the canary in the emergency room when it comes to diabetes, heart diesease, stroke and other bad stuff, but they just don’t want the government nanny telling them they can only chug 16 ounces at a time. It’s a freedom thing. The right to be silly and fat without the government sticking its nose into the size of your Big Glup.

You actually need to have some limited sympathy with both of these situations. In libertarian Idaho the state liquor monopoly has been, as they might say at the Supreme Court, settled law since the 1930’s. We change slowly here, if at all. Wine couldn’t be sold in grocery stores until the 1970’s and the practice of other vices – slot machines were smashed up in the 1950’s, for example – get little sympathy in the state where Hemingway once wasted his evenings at a gaming/drink joint in Ketchum called the Casino Club. Jeff Anderson does double duty for Idaho and also runs the state lottery, which only came to be because voters demanded it at the ballot box in 1986.

In libertarian Idaho few legislators have ever lost an election by voting to deny the citizens a easier path to drink or gambling. Some folks apparently just can’t be trusted with too much freedom.

And as for New Yorkers, they seem accustomed to the occasional lecture from the nanny in office who tells them you must do this for your own good because you simply can’t be trusted to police your own behavior. Conservatives do it, liberals do it, even educated…well, you get the idea.

The nanny state is far removed from notions of political consistency. A libertarian in deep red Idaho can champion the state’s tight control of booze and a liberal in deep blue Manhattan can lead a crack down on a 7-11’s soda aisle.

Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and politically speaking one man’s sexy vodka label is another man’s fat generating soft drink. I don’t drink vodka or Big Gulps, but I do enjoy the sweet, contradictory taste of a public policy that can only explain itself by wagging a finger in your face.

So, some suggestions: how about a Five Wives/Five Guys Burgers promotion. “Eat and drink politically incorrect.” Or, MacDonald’s could offer half off the big drinks for anyone who can prove their body mass index is within the safe range. Think of the possibilities for the free market. 


Stupid Times Three

Ozzie, Commies and Stay at Home Moms

Bad luck like stupid comments seems to come in threes.

Ozzie Guillen, the mouth-running, currently suspended manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team is at once the most politically incorrect man in America and the luckiest. He desperately needed to get off the front pages after taking Miami’s re-branded team, cozy in its new stadium, and running his mouth straight into south Florida’s visceral hatred of Fidel Castro.

Ozzie says his comments in Spanish praising Fidel lost something in translation, but what Guillen really mangled with his ill-considered comments about the country’s least favorite commie was an old and simple rule. Loud mouth baseball managers really should never comment on anything other than what happens between the lines. Danger lurks out there beyond the friendly confines – remember Marge Schott – where men play the boys game.

But thanks to cable television, just as it looked like Ozzie might still pay for his Fidel praising with his job, two other stupid comments make Ozzie seem so last season.

Enter Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida – what is it with Florida, anyway – and Democratic political operative and CNN talking head Hilary Rosen. Consider them the duo with the crazy opinions today. Ozzie Guillen must be smiling as he sits out his suspension somewhere. Nothing spikes a stupid political comment like another stupid political comment.

In West’s case it was the astounding contention that a majority of the Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives – West said 78 to 81 members to be imprecise – are communists or socialists. And Rosen popped off on cable to the effect that Mitt Romney’s obviously smart and appealing wife had never worked a day in her life.

Two things, I think, are at play from Guillen to West to Rosen, and no that is not a double play combination. The first is the modern media age’s unrelenting pursuit of opinion as opposed to fact. Everyone is expected to have an opinion on absolutely everyone and everything and be prepared to offer it up at the drop of a question. It has become socially unacceptable to say, “Geez, I don’t know that I have anything to say about that subject.” Or even this: “You know, that’s really a silly question and I chose not to respond to silly questions.”

The other problem is a growing inability on the part of many in public life to tell one of their friends that they are just flat wrong. This has become a particular problem for politicians. Congressman West made his silly comment – opinion devoid of fact really – at some type of a friendly town hall meeting. The question that prompted his opinion came from the audience and, I’m guessing here, he wanted to play to the crowd so he answered in a way that he thought the crowd would appreciate. Maybe West believes what he said, too, but he was clearly playing to the crowd. He might have simply said in response to a silly question, “That is a silly question” and moved on. Rather he offered the alternative, an ill-considered opinion that helped move Ozzie off the front page.

Same with Rosen. She was trying to make the point that the Romney’s aren’t like most Americans who worry about mortgage payments and buying groceries, but she couldn’t stop there. Opinions being the coin of the talking head realm, she couldn’t resist offering a further opinion about Ann Romney. Not having a “real job” would, by the way, be news to any woman who has raised five sons and been a partner to a corporate CEO and a governor. The comment was, well, stupid, but Rosen was behaving the way a partisan TV talking head is expected to behave. She has to have a million of them, opinions that is.

So, as author Steve Rushin has pointed out, I am myself dangerously close to failing to practice what I preach against since – hold on – I’m having an opinion. Rushin calls such behavior a sequel to the movie Blowhard, which I confess I have never had the pleasure of seeing. The sequel, however, would be called Blowhard 2 – Blow Harder.

I long for the moment when some talking head or politician or sports figure just doesn’t go there. And it’s not about political correctness or free speech. My mother would have called it good manners. I can almost hear her, “You don’t have to comment on everything,” she would say. “Did it ever occur to you that other people may not care what you have to say.”

I’ll bet Ozzie’s mom told him something similar and he just forgot. And that’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it, while searching for that movie sequel on DVD – Blow Harder.


PC Run Wild

NY Health Department Bans…a Cat?

I am a sucker for old, historic hotels and among the many I love is the Algonquin in New York City. Not because the rooms are great – they aren’t. Not because the restaurant is fabulous – it isn’t. I love the place for the atmosphere, the history, for the famed Algonquin Roundtable.

In the 1920’s, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood, among others, lunched every day at the round table in the Algonquin lobby and cracked wise about politics, matters literary and popular culture. Great one liners have survived and many are displayed in the hotel.

Benchley, all but forgotten by many today, was an actor and writer and edited Vanity Fair. He famously said after returning home in a driving rain storm, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”

Eighty years ago, a sorry looking cat sauntered into the hotel lobby from West 44th Street and stayed as stray cats who are fed and find a warm place to sleep are wont to do. Ever since the Algonquin lobby has had a cat – always named Matilda – who has pretty much had the run of the place – until last week.

The New York City Health Department says Matilda is in violation of the portion of the city’s health regulations that require animals be kept away from places where food is served. No, seriously. This is not news of the weird. It is the end, potentially, of a sweet and old tradition. This is also in the category of a solution in search of a problem.

I’ve always kind of liked the big city’s well-heeled mayor, Mike Bloomberg. Never met the guy, but like that he seems to have an independent streak and doesn’t appear to suffer fools easily. One day he is telling off President Obama for punting on the Super Committee and the next evicting the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He’s still regularly mentioned – I’m sure he likes it – as a credible third party candidate in 2012. This cat story is going to test his leadership skills to the max. There is – believe me – a very strong cat lobby in these United States.

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post broke the Algonquin cat story – under the headline “Meow’trage at Algonquin” – and has been all over these developments like cat hair on a black sweater. One column blared: “In Bloombergistan, government lackeys have gone mad.” The columnist didn’t like the city’s cat edict, apparently.

Others have been having fun, as well. “Nanny Bloomberg Bans Cat,” says FOX News. And my personal favorite: “Hotel Leashes Pussy.”

Post Columnist Kyle Smith noted, as I have every time I’ve been at the Algonquin, that the cat is typically, day and night, asleep under an wing chair in the lobby bar, far from food. The lobby bar, by the way, is ground zero for old money New York. Some duffer in a bow tie sips a cocktail, while talking with some ancient woman drowning in pearls about the art gallery he had just visited or the charity dinner they are soon to attend.

As I said earlier, people don’t come here for the food. They come because the place feels classy and old. The drinks aren’t bad, either.

The real story here, big surprise, is that the Algonquin cats I’ve observed never – never – come near anyone. Few self respecting cats do that sort of thing. Matilda obviously knows that old money is so yesterday, so, well boring. Why cozy up to an wrinkled old New Yorker working on his third Manhattan when you can sleep under a wing chair?

I’ll be disappointed if Mayor B doesn’t find a way to make this ill-fated cat decision go away. The guy was, after all, able to finesse the one-time limitation on a New York Mayor seeking a third term. He ought to be able to talk to someone over in the health department about this little 80-year tradition at the Algonquin. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I have plumbed the great and witty depths of Dorothy Parkerisms for a suitable quote to illustrate what, I suspect, most folks will see as a silly case of political correctness run wild.

Before I get to the punchline, however, a quick reminder of what the very witty Ms. Parker was capable of:

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy,” she said.

And, of Katherine Hepburn as an actress, Parker said: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

And this: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

What might Ms. Parker have said about the New York Health Department’s banning of the Algonquin cat?

How about this: “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

Mayor Bloomberg, fix this outrage. There must be an historic preservation exception. If not, create one. Some things simply need to be maintained, including the Algonquin Hotel cat.


The Union Way

SolidarityThe Great Battle

When the shipyard electrician Lech Walesa led the trade union movement in Poland in the 1980’s, he and his movement – Solidarity – were the toast of the West. The Polish Pope received him, Ronald Reagan praised him, the Nobel Committee awarded him. Imagine. Such tributes for a union movement and its leader that, not incidentally, brought down a Communist government.

When young people took to the streets of Cairo recently, commentators noted that Egypt lacks many of the institutions that contribute to a stable democratic society, including having no tradition of unions to represent workers, advocate for better working conditions and, by definition, create a middle class that works. Ironically, the very conservative National Review – usually no friend of unions in the United States – celebrates the impact of new “freedom” for trade unions in the Arab world.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and that state’s GOP majority hav yet to explain why ending collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, particularly teachers, helps improve classroom learning or delivery of public services in the land of the Packers. Same goes for Idaho’s leaders who have gone down the same path, ending collective bargaining for educators.

All this begs a question: Why do we believe a union movement that helps foster true democracy in eastern Europe or the Middle East somehow cuts against the American way here at home? The answer is pretty simply: politics.

You can date the demise of the Democratic Party in Idaho, for example, to the legislature’s passage, after years of trying, of right to work legislation in 1986. The Idaho AFL-CIO, never huge in numbers, had nonetheless traditionally been a force in the state’s politics helping fuel the rise of successful political careers for guys like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus. Right to work started the decline of labor involvement and effectiveness in the state’s politics that continues to this day.

While recent polling indicates that most Americans reject the kind of efforts aimed at organized public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, there is little doubt that organized labor has failed to find a message and articulate an appeal that begins to explain to millions of non-union American workers why unions are important in Warsaw, as well as in Madison and Boise.

The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg may have identified one line of argument. He wrote recently: “Organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled—and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated—an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich—the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth—have been the biggest winners of all.”

I’m not sure I understand all the reasons, but it also cannot be denied that while organized labor has lost membership year-by-year since the 1950’s, America’s basic manufacturing infrastructure has also declined at the same time and at a worrying pace. Sadly, I think, the kind of jobs that once employed blue collar guys who carried a lunch bucket to work are not nearly as important to the American economy as they once, and not that long ago, were.

The history of organized labor in America is in the main a story of building a sustainable middle class; jobs for moms and dads with wages that can support a family, pay a mortgage and save a few bucks to send the kids to college.

Have there been excesses during the up and down American labor story, of course. Violence was once a routine part of the unavoidable tensions between management and workers. But where unions remain a force today, as in the rehabilitation of Michigan’s automobile industry, hard headed negotiations – and big concessions – have replaced the sit down strikes that crippled the auto industry in the 1930’s.

The challenge to organized labor now, as it faces fresh assaults across the board, is to convince more Americans that banding together and advocating a position with your employer isn’t un-American, but actually a vital part of a sustainable democracy.

Andy Stern, one of the more forward-looking labor leaders in the country before his retirement, recently gave a fascinating interview to the Washington Post.

Here is one line from Stern’s interview that pretty well sums up the challenge organize labor faces: “We [organized labor] need an ideology based around working with employers to build skills in our workers, to train them for success. That message and approach can attract different people than the ‘we need to stand up for the working class!’ approach. That approach is about conflict, and a lot of people don’t want more conflict.”

True, but Americans do want good, middle class jobs. If a vital, constructive union movement is good enough for democratic Poland or for the democratic aspirations of Egypt, maybe it could work again here.