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Lesbians for Hillary? Teamsters for Hillary?

“A true friend stabs you in the front”

–Oscar Wilde

Candidates who receive endorsements from gay/lesbian groups risk losing support from mainstream voters. This is the finding of an August, 2007, Quinnipiac University poll, which prompts the question: Given organized labor’s negative image, even among college-educated voters in Blue states, could the same “kiss of death” apply to the AFL-CIO? Could those labor endorsements being so eagerly courted by Clinton, Obama and Edwards come back to haunt them?

Ask Dick Gephardt. Going into the ’04 Iowa primary as a favorite, with 16 unions endorsing him (including the Steelworkers, Teamsters, Machinists, Longshoremen, Aerospace workers, etc.), he finished a distant fourth. A disinformation campaign, claiming that Gephardt (who won in Iowa in ’88) was not only “in labor’s pocket,” but had promised to raise tariffs, dismantle NAFTA, revoke Taft-Hartley, and hike the federal minimum wage to $11 per hour, effectively sank him.

This raises another question: Given the trifecta of Gephardt’s defeat, labor’s notoriety, and the birds-of-a-feather mentality suggested by the Quinnipiac poll, why would a “Teamsters For Hillary” bumper-sticker be expected to attract any more votes than, say, a “Lesbians For Hillary” sticker? As polarizing agents, are they not close to equal in potency?

Arguably, since 1981, when President Reagan fired 11,000 air-traffic controllers, no institution (excluding the KKK and CPUSA-the Communist Party of the United States of America) has fallen further, lost more credibility, or had more “friends” run for cover than organized labor. Though the decline was gradual rather than sudden-more like the dodo bird than the dinosaur or leisure suit-union popularity appears to have collapsed under the weight of its own irrelevance.

But things weren’t always this way. Indeed, there was a time when union members were admired, when Labor Day parades and picnics drew tens of thousands of flag-waving, patriotic citizens, when the names of Walter Reuther, George Meany and John L. Lewis were proudly featured in civics textbooks, right along side Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie.

So what happened? Who pulled the plug? Let’s revisit organized labor’s traditional “Five Pillars,” and see where the love went.

Democrats: In 1935, FDR famously said, “If I worked in a factory, the first thing I’d do is join a union.” Compare this sentiment with John Kerry’s performance at the 2004 presidential debates, where he mentioned unions a grand total of one time-in a sheepish reference to (of all things) the inevitability of losing American jobs to globalization.

After 50 years as labor’s chief ally and benefactor the Democrats are now reluctant to sponsor anything resembling pro-labor legislation, fearing they’ll be labeled “anti-business.” While still accepting AFL-CIO donations, the Democrats have tacitly informed the unions that they are, more or less, on their own. And it cuts both ways. Ask the rank-and-file to name the last favor a Democrat did for them, and they won’t have an answer.

The Public: During the 1950s, when 35 per cent of the workforce was organized (vs. 12 per cent today), the Movement was viewed as progressive, a symbol of emerging blue-collar vitality and respectability. Moreover, by striking (there used to be, literally, thousands of strikes a year) for wages, pensions, and medical insurance, organized labor helped launch America’s post-WWII prosperity binge.

Today, unions are generally scorned by a smug, discerning public, cast out with the cigarette-smokers and gas-guzzling muscle cars. Apparently, people have forgotten that every one of those 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center was a dues-paying member of the International Association of Firefighters (Locals 94 and 854).

Academics and Intellectuals: While left-wing academics once had a sweet, schoolyard crush on the proletariat, they’ve outgrown it. Alas, today’s intellectuals are more apt to embrace Acapulco cliff-divers than striking meat-cutters. Call it progress. And although Michael Moore is more “celebrity” than intellectual, in his book, Downsize This-in Chapter 16, titled, “Why Are Union Leaders So [Bleeping] Stupid?”-he ridicules labor for being unable to stop the onslaught of company layoffs. (Gee, Mike, if it were that easy, you should’ve shown us how.)

Immigrants: Compared to Europeans who emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th century from cultures with vigorous socialist, collectivist and anarchist traditions-and who immediately joined the burgeoning labor movement-today’s Latin American and Asian immigrants are, broadly speaking, more politically conservative or apathetic. That’s not a slur; it’s a demographic reality.

The Mob: It’s true. Organized labor and organized crime once had an arrangement of sorts. Three developments combined to end it: unions grew self-sufficient and democratic; membership shifted from masculine, “mob-friendly” industries to the service sector; and FBI harassment and government snitches crippled the syndicate. Arguably, there are now more wiseguys in the witness protection program than in union halls.

So, who’s left?

In truth, the only friends labor has-no surprise-are its own members. Despite a quarter-century of defeat, usurpation and disillusionment, union solidarity has remained stubbornly intact. And there’s irony here.

Even with those mandatory team-building seminars, can anyone imagine a group of managers going three months without a paycheck-walking a picket line and living off government cheese-to ensure that new-hires to their “team” got the same benefits they got? They’ll find Jimmy Hoffa’s body before that ever happens.

Nope, only a union member would be “dumb” enough to do something that loyal.

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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