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Kennedy’s Sins Against Labor

I was raised, like most Irish-Catholics, not to speak ill of the dead—at least while the wake is still underway. Of course, the affliction known as “Irish Alzheimers” exerts a powerful tug in the opposite direction. Forgetting everything except the grudges keeps you focused on those parts of a departed politician’s legacy that won’t be highlighted from the pulpit or, in Ted Kennedy’s case, in fulsome obituaries run as front-page news stories, op-ed pieces, editorials, and internet encomia throughout the nation.

Here’s my own view of the senator. I was not a fan of Ted when he was alive and expressed this dissenting opinion, on several occasions, in our local rag, The Boston Globe, after Kennedy’s reccurring lapses as a friend of the working class became too painful to ignore. Ted Kennedy was not on labor’s side when key public policy shifts were engineered that disastrously weakened and marginalized American unions. After helping to deliver these legislative hammer blows, Ted was quick to offer his hand to a labor movement now lying flat on its back. But forms of assistance like boosting the minimum wage, helping immigrants, securing local defense plant jobs, or co-sponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act have hardly compensated for the ravages of “neoliberalism” that Kennedy aided and abetted. In the case of EFCA, any fundamental repair of federal labor law gets more unlikely every day, even if our vacant Senate seat gets filled sooner, rather than later.

Of course, all who speak officially for “labor” would strongly disagree with this assessment. They are busy heaping praise on our fallen champion, as labor’s best friend ever. Compared to centrist Democrats who are quick to abandon workers at the drop of a campaign donation, Ted did appear to be the true “liberal lion” and patron of union causes everywhere. But here’s what I remember about the same Ted Kennedy, who sided with corporate America in its late 1970s drive for deregulation, who was MIA during the biggest anti-concession battle of the 1980s, who pushed trade liberalization in the 1990s, and who settled short on health care reform for the last several decades. (By the usual count at Fenway Park, it’s three strikes and you’re out. Being a Kennedy, Ted always got an extra pitch—so, in the box score below, the strikes against him number four.)

An Architect of Deregulation

In several key industries—trucking, the airlines, and telecom–nothing has undermined union membership and bargaining power  more than de-regulation. Kennedy embraced de-regulation with gusto and, despite his other differences with Jimmy Carter thirty years ago, helped ram through industry restructuring harmful to hundreds of thousands of workers and their union contracts. By 1985, as Kim Moody describes in U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, the number of workers covered by the Teamsters’ biggest trucking contract had been halved. Today, fewer than 100,000 work under the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA)—down from 450,000 before Carter and Kennedy transformed the role of the Interstate Commerce Commission and codified that regulatory change via the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. The business-backed policy agenda “that would become known as ‘Reaganomics’ or more generally as neoliberalism,” had its roots in the Carter Administration, Moody points out. Two of its key objectives were deregulation and free trade; the first having been accomplished under Carter, the second was pursued with equal fervor and further Kennedy legislative vigor after Clinton became president.

A No-Show At NYNEX

Twenty years ago this month, 60,000 telephone workers in New York and New England began a bruising tussle with our regional phone company, then known as NYNEX. Two workers died, directly or indirectly, as a result of this strike. Hundreds were arrested, fired, or suspended (discipline that was, in some cases, later modified or reversed). Rallies of up to 15,000 people filled the streets of Boston, as IBEW and CWA members demanded “Health Care For All, Not Health Cuts At NYNEX,” and explicitly tied their fight against give-backs to political agitation for national health insurance. To break the strike, management cut off medical coverage for all strikers and their families.

Everyone involved in this struggle assumed, initially, that Ted Kennedy’s long-standing advocacy of health care reform would make him a logical ally. Yet, despite repeated union overtures and invitations, Kennedy failed to make a single picket-line appearance or speak out on the strikers’ behalf in any way. Kennedy’s no-show role became so obvious mid-way through the walk-out that union members booed the very mention of his name at one mass rally in Boston. Finally, after four months, the strikers prevailed. To this day in the northeast, at the company now known as Verizon, workers make no premium contributions for health care, for either individual or family coverage. Although he was more supportive of labor at Verizon recently, Kennedy did nothing to “hold the line in ’89”—or help us use that strike to build the movement for national health insurance.

A Free Trade Recidivist

Kennedy’s disconnection from local concerns, whether labor-oriented or not, became a political liability when he ran for re-election a few years later. Early in his 1994 campaign against businessman Mitt Romney, Ted was not doing well in the polls. It began to look like Newt Gingrich’s mid-term Republican surge might take Kennedy out too. Massachusetts unions had good reason for further disenchantment with their senior senator; over labor’s strenuous objections, he had just helped Bill Clinton get the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ratified on Capitol Hill, while labor law reform was being buried in presidential study commission. Nevertheless, trade unionists rallied around the incumbent and helped torpedo Romney’s campaign, by exposing the union-busting record of Bain Capital, his private equity firm.

After Kennedy was returned to office with only 58 per cent of the vote (his smallest margin ever), I pointed out in a Globe op-ed piece that Ted now had a chance to “repay his debt to labor.” He could do this by bucking President Clinton and voting against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) during the lame-duck session of Congress about to begin. As a post-election concession to his labor supporters, Kennedy convened a one-man Senate hearing in Boston so local manufacturing unions could air their objections to GATT. As one of many labor witnesses, I trooped up to Beacon Hill to inform Ted that GATT, like the already approved NAFTA, “will mean more plant closings, downward pressure on wages, health benefit cuts, and loss of union rights.” Kennedy seemed irritated about having to be there at all. He interrupted and strongly objected to my insistence that GATT restrictions on “non-tariff barriers to trade” would lead to weaker protections for workers, particularly child laborers in the Third World. A Boston central labor council leader made the angriest and most memorable speech of the day. He told Kennedy that NAFTA was like “a knife you have stuck into the back of organized labor–and now you can either pull it out or plunge it in further.”

Kennedy returned to Washington and, one week later, stuck the dagger in deeper. He voted for GATT, which created the World Trade Organization, and accelerated the trend toward “corporate globalization” already underway regionally, thanks to NAFTA. Running for president last year, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton expressed belated concern about the fate of workers’ rights and environmental safeguards in various free trade deals. Kennedy, however, had no remorse, regrets, or doubts about trade liberalization–despite its negative impact on labor, here and abroad.

A Single-Payer Defector

In a cover piece for Newsweek last month, entitled “The Cause of My Life,” Kennedy proudly recalled his backing for Medicare in 1965. After that vote, he continued to advocate expanded public health insurance coverage for another decade or so. But just as more Americans—like the NYNEX strikers in 1989—began to gravitate toward his “Medicare for all” position, Kennedy abandoned it. As he explained in Newsweek, “I came to believe that we’d have to give up on the idea of a government run, single-payer system if we wanted to get universal care.”

Kennedy’s badly-timed surrender had the effect of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how many more recruits the single-payer movement generated, political insiders deemed it “off the table.” And what better evidence was there that national health insurance was “unachievable” than its one-time champion finally seeing the light and settling for less, in Massachusetts and nationally.  Meanwhile, opportunities to build a stronger movement for real reform—like major strikes against health care cost shifting—were ignored, even in Kennedy’s own backyard.

In 1993, for example, Kennedy embraced Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated “managed competition” plan, helping to deflate grassroots organizing for social insurance instead. He did lend his name to a 2006 bill to expand Medicare coverage but devoted most of his time, lately to promoting the Massachusetts model of subsidized private insurance coverage, which utilizes individual and employer mandates to prop up our dysfunctional system of job-based benefits. Cooked up as a bi-partisan solution with Republican governor Mitt Romney (who now criticizes the Massachusetts plan), this budget-busting scheme is the current inspiration for “Obamacare.”

Despite all of the above, Ted Kennedy’s legacy will continue to shine in the eyes of many. The bar for determining what constitutes a “friend of labor” these days is only inches off the ground. In this period of mourning, let’s remember that political sins are better forgiven than forgotten. The act of forgetting just sets the stage for future failures by labor to hold other allies—including those far less revered — accountable either.

STEVE EARLY was a Boston-area Kennedy constituent from 1980 to 2009. During that time, he was also a New England telecom strike organizer, national health insurance advocate, and union campaigner against free trade. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor,
from Monthly Review Press, and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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