Thursday, June 10, 2004

Frankness about "the Democrats' labor problem"

Joan Vennochi’s column in today’s Globe is a classic of Democratic intra-party whining. The best part about such whining in public (and this is true for any group) is the very uncharacteristic frankness with which the whiner will address their problems and the resulting liabilities.

I thought that we might have to wait until November to read such a column in the Globe, until after the election. After election losses these wails come in such a wave that you simply cannot savor them all the way they really should be enjoyed. So let’s consider this an appetizer to slowly and carefully consume for maximum enjoyment. Begin please, Joan:
JOHN KERRY has a plan for health care, the economy, and the war in Iraq. How about announcing a plan to stand up to organized labor when it acts like a spoiled bully?

"It's like the Mafia," said Thomas J. Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association.

Nee was standing in front of the Fleet Center yesterday morning as he offered this description of what he contends it is like to deal with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino in ongoing labor negotiations. A short time later, if anyone shared a resemblance to the Mafia, it was union members who blocked a crane driver from entering Fleet Center property.
Exasperation leads to name-calling. Yes, their behavior was thuggish. This is a picket line, not a Back Bay luncheon. What do you expect?
"Game's on," said Nee, as the driver started down Causeway Street then stopped before turning into the Fleet Center. A theatrical entreaty from Nee to the driver -- "Listen to your heart" -- quickly descended into expletives and threats from the rest of the pack. It all played out against the constant chant of "Do not cross, do not cross."

The crane driver looked at the surging line of picketers, listened to what they shouted, shook his head and turned away. Victory for the union.

That is the picture beamed from Boston. It is more than the picture of a showdown between one city mayor and unhappy union members. It is also the picture of the Democratic Party held hostage by organized labor.

The picture is not pretty.
Nobody would argue that it is a pretty picture, but is it typical? I don’t mean to bash the patrolmen in particular, because this is the nature of a picket line. Probably the Teamsters’ behavior on a picket line would make the patrolmen look like choirboys by comparison.

But what does this behavior have to do with growing the economy, or “making the pie bigger” or improving the standard of living and the quality of life for the citizens of Boston? Nothing at all. There is no give and take here. No organizational evolution. No irresistible external economic forces which force a restructuring. No flexibility in terms of change, only an argument about money which is how the unions keep score. It is a classic zero-sum argument, in which the public sector unions are almost always engaged.
I believe in unions, indeed belong to one. But belief in the organized power of many to negotiate fair wages and benefits for all workers does not go hand in hand with condoning the scene at the Fleet Center.
I would say this sounds like white-collar snobbery. I grew up in Detroit during the 1960s. After a UAW strike, the auto companies would quickly grant white-collar employees an equivalent or better package of any new benefits and raises that the UAW members had won through striking. Union members would ask their non-union colleagues (only half in jest) if they appreciated whose sacrifice had bought their new wages and benefits.
That's a personal reaction. However, looking at the bigger picture, it's hard to understand how a scene like this benefits the Democratic Party and Democratic presidential nominee Kerry.
Not hard. It is impossible. Most especially in some of the swing states where unions do not hold clout and appeal the way they do in urban areas of the Northeast.
It is a scene out of old Boston, old labor, old politics. You can smell the cigar smoke, even though no one is actually smoking one. You can imagine the leg-breaking, even if none actually takes place. It is the kind of old-fashioned, old-style labor politics that turns off young and independent voters. Could the timing be worse? At the very moment the nation is celebrating the memory of a president who stared down labor in the form of air traffic controllers, Democrats are celebrating union thugs?
Perfectly stated. Exactly right. I couldn’t have said it as well myself, Joan. You have captured the scene in its essence. I can also envision as part of the scene the English tongue being abused by both sides, and not an “r” to be found anywhere. The only thing lacking is an appearance by Honey Fitz or Mayor Curley.

I am a newcomer by Boston standards, having been here just under 25 years. It is not unfair, I think, to say that scenes such as these are very much a part of Boston. They are part and parcel of its 1-party, ultra-ethnic-aware, patronage-laced heritage. Natives argue that this is part of Boston’s charm. I do not. But it is certainly a big part of what comes to mind when I think of Boston. What about you?
The stand-off between the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association and the City of Boston is not just a problem for Menino. It is a microcosm of a larger problem for Democrats. It showcases their longstanding genuflection to labor, no matter how bad labor makes the party look.
Today it is a public sector labor union, because they had no contract and a golden opportunity. Waiting in line to receive their genuflections between now and the end of the convention are teachers unions, radical feminists, leftist gays and lesbians, the Clintons, Ralph Nader, Ted Kennedy and all the boomer Kennedys, the NAACP, George Soros, Jesse Jackson, and of course “the Rev” Al Sharpton. If you think a bunch of cops can make the Party look bad, wait until these folks have all had their turn abusing it. It will really look unpretty then.
Menino is standing up to the unions. It isn't easy, given his history of appeasement and recent past generosity to Boston firefighters. Rather than isolate this as a Menino problem, this is where party leaders and Kerry should stand behind him.

They are in campaign mode. Their only desire is for this to blow over quickly before it does any more damage and hurts the convention or the fall campaign. Nothing else matters to them, especially not future fiscal problems for the City of Boston. What makes this worse is the evolution of “the permanent campaign” by the Clinton team. Some people never get out of campaign mode, and the marathon primary and election cycle does not help matters either.

Menino has an offer on the table – 11.9 percent. “What is the problem with going to arbitration?” asks Menino. “I’m above board . . . I’ve always been upfront.”

Asked to respond to Nee’s “Mafia” description, Menino said: “I’m not into soundbites. I’m not into grandstanding. I’m into getting a contract done.”

What about the party that Menino is hosting for the Democratic National Convention? Shouldn’t the party and the party nominee stand up, too? Said Menino: “Mayors stand up and take heat. We’re used to it. We are on the front lines every day. Other people, will they stand up? I don’t know.” He says the response from taxpayers, directly and via e-mail is “stand your ground . . . stand your ground.”

You can argue Menino created the problem, and to some degree he did. But he was just following standard operating procedure for Democrats. To change the big picture, standard operating procedure must change, from the top down.

What if Kerry stood up to the picket line and asked them to let crane drivers and others in to do the work needed for the convention? How many votes would he pick up with a stand like that?
You need superb people skills, a thick skin, steady nerve, and strong kojones to settle this kind of mess, much less to do something dramatic and high-risk like that. You also need to be respected by all parties involved.

Joan, does that explain enough why Kerry would do no such thing?
Nee said he would “walk John Kerry in to be nominated.” He says that “nothing going on in Washington serves working class people.” If he believes Kerry is the nominee who can do something for working people, why stage photos that will undercut Kerry’s cause? According to Nee, it is necessary to convey “a sense of urgency"

There's a bigger urgency at stake: not just showcasing Boston, but the Democratic party.

Show some collective courage, Democrats. If you can't stand up to Tom Nee, how do you stand up to Jacques Chirac, Yasser Arafat or Al Qaeda?
A good question, Joan. Judging by how McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore did in their elections, I am not the only one who figures that they just can’t. Not even to a Chirac.

Here is the column in original form.

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