I arrived in the Twin Cities on Sunday on a 6 am flight. I know it’s the hoariest of clichés for the reporter in town to relay his conversation with a cab driver for some local color. But what the hey, it was a legitimately fascinating conversation. My cab driver from the airport grew up in rural Minnesota, and is father of two successful lawyers, both Democrats. He lowered the volume on Rush Limbaugh when I entered the cab and we got to talking. He praised Sarah Palin. “She’s an outstanding woman. And she reminds of the people I grew up with.” And Obama? “It’s a scary time in politics for this country. I’m scared of Obama.” Why? “He’s an extremist. If you want socialism? Well, some people want that.”
Just as I was chalking up my friend’s views to the propaganda of right-wing talk radio, he told me about his eight years as a meatpacker in the union. “I like unions. I was a union steward. That’s one thing I don’t agree with the Republicans about. Unions have done a lot for the middle class in this country. You know, I was a meatpacker for eight years and do you know the history of meatpacking?” I said I did. “Well, before there was a union those jobs were dangerous jobs, still are, but they paid minimum wage! When I was a meatpacker I made twenty bucks an hour. If you don’t have a union then you got no way to fight for yourself.”
I asked him why, given what he’d just said, he was still a Republican. He told me it was “all the other issues.”
It was like Thomas Frank had conjured a real life voter to drive me to the airport.
Monday was Labor Day. American Labor Day, like the American labor movement, is a bit different from labor’s holiday in the rest of the world. Across the globe, Labor Day is celebrated on May 1, or May Day, which commemorates the largest general strike in the history of the United States, and is generally celebrated with full-throated demonstrations of working-class power. Here, we barbecue. And since the Republican Party has set itself firmly and vociferously against the agenda of the labor movement, I was curious to see how the holiday was celebrated at the RNC.
As far I could tell, there was only one labor event on the schedule (that could be because of Hurricane Gustav, but I doubt it). The National Education Association (along with the firefighters and painters union) hosted a lunch for “pro-labor Republicans.” I headed over to the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis to find a room filled with live jazz, passed hors d’oeuvres and an open bar, but alas, very few pro-labor Republicans. In fact, near as I could tell there wasn’t a single elected Republican there above the level of state legislator.
But I did talk to Duane Sand, the Republican running against Earl Pomeroy for the at-large Congressional seat in North Dakota. Sand introduced himself as proudly pro-labor. I asked him if he supported the Employee Free Choice Act. (That’s the bill that would reform the NLRB election process, which is demonstrably broken, and could make large-scale organizing once again a possibility in this country). “Absolutely not,” he said without hesitation. “I’m 100 percent opposed to it.”
This news seemed to concern the several union folks who were chatting Sand up. “Why?” asked Kevin Flynn from the bricklayers. “Because I believe in the secret ballot,” Sand said. “Have you ever served in the armed forces?” (Sand is a navy veteran who served in Iraq) “Why would I—-” Flynn started.