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.
“Why would you serve in the armed forces?” Sand snapped.
“No,” said Flynn, containing himself. “I’m a member of the reserves of the same service as you.” Sand then offered Flynn a handshake. He never did get around to explaining what his naval service had to do with opposing EFCA, but it struck me as a novel permutation of the Giuliani Method, whereby the politician answers all questions with a reference to national security.
Since I wasn’t drinking (it was midday!), I couldn’t quite bear to stay too long at the event, and to buck up my spirits headed over to the Take Back Labor Day concert on Harriet Island sponsored by SEIU. On my way over, I passed by a confrontation (one of many) between a few dozen protesters blocking an intersection and a brigade of police on horseback and riot gear. It’s a funny thing about this election: in his campaign speeches, Barack Obama often includes a riff that steps through the great progressive social movements of the last few centuries–union organizing, women who reached for the ballot box and civil rights marchers who faced down dogs and firehoses. Watching the scene unfold in the intersection, where the young protesters danced to an instrumental version of Like a Virgin while being charged by increasingly angry police officers on horseback, it occurred to me that everyone likes protesters when they’ve been dead for a hundred years, and their radical agenda (like, say, the eight-hour work day, or women having the right to vote) has become normal and moderate. But when the protests are actually happening, not so much. (My colleagues John Nichols and Ari Bermanhave reported much more extensively on the protests.)
The mood at the Take Back Labor Day concert was festive. Thousands of labor members and locals had come out watch the line-up, which included Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Atmosphere and Mos Def. Bragg closed his set with the song, There Is Power in a Union, the most haunting lines of which go: “Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own/Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?”
In between Tom Morello and the local rap act Atmosphere, Andy Stern did his best to fire up the crowd. “Is labor in the house !?!” he rasped. “Is healthcare in the house !?!” I chatted with him when he got off the stage and told him I’d been at the pro-labor Republican lunch. “Which Republicans were there?” he asked. “Not really any.” I said. He shook his head. He’d been traveling with SEIU’s Republican outreach committee.
At the local level, particularly in liberal states like California and New York, pro-labor Republicans can, actually, be found. We talked about the election, and the post-November strategy should Obama be elected. I asked whether he wanted to see healthcare as the first legislative priority or EFCA. “It has to be healthcare first. The Employee Free Choice Act is about power. Healthcare is for everybody.” And he had no illusions about the sheer magnitude of opposition there would be to EFCA, which would amount to the biggest change to the NLRA since Taft-Hartley crippled the labor movement by banning a vast array of union activity. “It’s going to be World War III.”
My day ended back the hotel, where a number of SEIU members were staying. They were part of United Health Care Workers, a California local that has had a very public and nasty clash with Stern and the international. They’d been at the concert and confronted Stern over the international’s decision to merge one local with 35,000 members into another, despite the fact the members had voted against it. They were frustrated. “It feels like a boss,” one of the members said to me of Stern and his decision-making. From a union guy, that’s about as strong an insult as you can offer.
The more I talked to the UHW members and heard their grievances, the more I thought about the fact that organized labor has two goals that can often come into tension: power and dignity. We tend to focus on the power aspect in politics: the power to collectively bargain, to make sure labor captures a fair share of profits, to demand higher wages–all of which have been in sharp decline. That’s the objective nature of unionization. The subjective nature of unionization, though, is dignity. It is the process by which working people come to believe that their views and their ideas and their demands are important. That they should be listened to. These two values can be in tension, as I suspect might be the case in California. Sometimes maximizing power might (I stress might, because the UHW-SEIU situation is very, very complicated) require people to fall in line, but the prerogative of dignity is to speak out and stand up.
People like me, lucky enough to go to fancy schools, get taught that from a very early age that we can do anything, and that whenever we have an idea, people are going to want to listen to it. But there are millions of people in this country who go through life with people–their bosses, or spouses or parents–saying “Who cares what you think?” And one of the most profound effects of union organizing is to help people believe that others should care what they think.
In Denver last week, I spent some time with a San Francisco lawyer who started as one of the first crop of organizers that Bruce Raynor sent into the Southeast to organize textile workers. Steve, the organizer, still had fond memories of those days, and he told me something that’s stuck with me. “We didn’t win a whole lot, but even when we didn’t win we helped those people find dignity. Working people who their entire lives had never been told they could stand up discovered they could. And they took that with them, even when we lost.”
American capitalism has been good at a lot of things–creating wealth, pushing forward technological innovation–but it doesn’t have a very strong record of providing dignity. We need a labor movement in this country because people deserve a living wage and healthcare, but we also need it more than ever because people have a right to feel like they matter.