Joe Kenehan Center

Friday, October 25, 2002
Remembering Paul

It’s been a gray and empty day ever since I first heard about Wellstone.

His loss is awful, even more so because it started to look like he was going to withstand the furious and well-funded campaign against him and win another six years.

My strongest memory of him is a wonderful speech he gave to health care workers in my union a few years ago in Pittsburgh. He talked about how often voters came up to him to ask why it’s so hard to get affordable health care. He was one of the few leaders willing to say how embarrassing it is that this country spends so much money for a health care system that is so inefficient and inadequate.

I’ve had the little “thanks for donating” postcard from Wellstone’s campaign magneted up on our refrigerator for months—it’s just a simple drawing of Paul standing next to the his green campaign bus.

I love that card. In the drawing, Wellstone looks welcoming, like he’s beckoning you aboard a campaign for a better country. The bus reminds me of how Woody Guthrie and Curtis Mayfield and Bruce Springsteen have written songs using trains as symbols of hope for change for the better.

Wellstone became one of my heroes because he was honest about our challenges and serious about finding solutions.

All Too Common

Sam Heldman deals with his grief by angrily recounting a depressingly familiar story about how feeble American labor law is.

Thursday, October 24, 2002
Eyman Hits The Wall?

Tim Eyman, Washington State’s slick young anti-tax crusader, might be losing momentum. After several years of successfully using the ballot initiative to limit taxes or cap public spending in various ways, his latest initiative is apparently not getting much traction.

A new Seattle Post-Intelligencer poll shows I-776 not even getting 50 percent support in fervently anti-tax Spokane.

I think people are just getting tired of Tim. There’s been little coverage of him or his initiative this election season, he’s out of money, and most of his traditional opponents are pretty much ignoring him.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Most Pathetic Statement of the Day

The Supreme Court -- to its credit -- didn’t act on a chance to put the powerful ahead of the people on Monday. It let stand a California law that guarantees public access to beaches along the Golden State’s coastline.

Various super-rich property owners who want to discourage the citizenry from actually enjoying our public lands have sought the right to privatize the beaches in front of their estates.

The Court’s decision not to hear a challenge to the law -- brought by wealthy beachfront estate owner Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press -- prompted McCaw to actually say that she is “disappointed about the court's nondecision. My hope is the U.S. Supreme Court will come around as it did with civil rights and stop the California Coastal Commission from expropriating private property.”

Apparently McCaw has found an early draft version of Thurgood Marshall's NAACP suit in Brown vs. Board of Education where he argued that the wrongs of racial discrimination in education could certainly never be righted until the rich had their own private beaches.

Monday, October 21, 2002
Reassessing the Fifties

Paul Krugman’s New York Times Magazine cover piece on the rise of the super rich and the decline of the middle class says a lot of things that need to be said, obviously.

What Krugman leaves out, unfortunately, in any mention of the role that unions played in these events. He looks back longingly at the middle part of the last century as a “interregnum” between two Gilded Ages, when the average working person didn‘t live in a completely different nation, economically, than the business elite. That period of time, of course, was also the high tide of the American labor movement.

Krugman’s acknowledgement of the better nature of those years reminds me a lot of a book that is one of better works of history I’ve read in the past few years -- Jack Metzgar’s Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered. Metzgar’s book is remarkable not just for the writing, which is dazzling, but also for the fresh look he takes at the years Krugman’s talking about.

Metzgar’s book is a memoir of his family’s climb up the economic ladder, framed around the events of a national strike by the United Steelworkers of America in 1959. That strike was the biggest in American history, but I’d never even heard of it until I’d read Metzgar’s book.

What’s striking about Metzgar’s book is how it clashes with the conventional liberal (and in many ways the mainstream) view of American history, by glorifying the ‘50s. Today, the ‘50s are often remembered by progressives mostly as a time to be mocked -- the stale gray Eisenhower times that were followed at last by the revolutionary Sixties. But Metzgar points out that a lot of people looked back fondly on those years not so much out of a Hilton Krameresque nostalgia for clean-cut, “upstanding” America but because their families gained so much ground economically during that time.

Union membership reached its zenith in 1953. During that decade, the average working family made significant, real improvements in its standard of living. (I wish I could quote from Metzgar’s book, but I loaned my copy to a scofflaw friend who’s still hoarding it. But take my word for it that he gathers a lot of impressive numbers to show how big the gains were.)

Obviously, for the hip and the hip-at-heart there’s a lot to scorn in pre-Elvis American culture, and pro-union folks also have reasons to glance back at the ‘50s with doubt. By 1959, the USWA was far removed from the dramatic organizing drives of the CIO-SWOC. The merger between the CIO and the AFL in 1955 was largely a victory for the more conservative, plodding vision of the AF of L. Calcification had set in and the unions were starting their long decline.

But again, Metzgar challenges that history. He remembers how committed his dad and his uncles were to the union and to winning the strike. To them, the union hadn't stopped being anything except a vibrant and life-changing force for good.

I’m not sure I agree with everything Metzgar writes, but believe me it’s a fantastic book.

Certainly, there were still a lot of people who didn't gain much ground in the ‘50s (See Harrington, Michael: The Other America), but Krugman and Metzgar both make important points about how strange, in a sense, the mid-1900s were for America. For some time at least American working people had a stronger voice in their democracy and their economy.

This Also Needed To Be Said

Props to the Post's Dana Milbank for noting how often and shamelessly Bush simply makes it up (and then sends Ari out to insist that 2+2 is indeed 47.)