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September 12, 2011

Rabble-rousing, Union-style

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week on Labor Day, James Riddle Hoffa, Jr., the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, finally started acting like the thug we all suspected he was harboring deep inside. His father was the lion of the modern American labor movement, the birthright genius of rousing a rabble to action.


Of course, in Jimmy Sr.'s day, the rabble were truckers, hard-driving guys who were forced to work in dangerous conditions, pushing their bodies well beyond the level that was either safe or sensible.


James, as the son would rather be known, has a different crowd to inspire. Instead of blue collar workers pushed beyond their breaking points by heartless megalomaniacs, James was speaking to a crowd of Democrats.


This was not a crowd walking a picket line, preparing to storm the gates of a locked-out manufacturing plant. This was a group of party regulars, awaiting a speech from the President of the United States.


To get the gathered Democrats in the proper state of mind for a presidential speech, Mr. Hoffa fell into full labor-leader mode, dropping his normally reserved, white collar, clean finger-nailed approach in order to channel his scab busting Pop.


When referring to the Tea Party movement, Hoffa felt compelled to offer this rallying cry: "Let's take these sons-a-bitches out, and give America back to America."


Context in political speech is always important, never more so when it involves a sitting president. Did Mr. Hoffa mean to imply that union members should go kill Tea Party members? Of course not. No more than Sarah Palin's political action committee meant to imply that the bulls-eye targets on disputed election districts on the PAC's webpage implied that her supporters should go shoot members of Congress.




Sometimes, crazy people actually act crazy.


It happened in Arizona, when a bi-polar schizophrenic shot Congressman Gabrielle Giffords (D., AZ) and several of her supporters. Was Sarah Palin responsible for this horrific act? Of course not.


It matters because of the media frenzy and hyperbolic political overreaction that accompanied the shooting. To hear it told, it was the rhetoric of the Tea Party and their chosen candidates that were responsible for this random shooting, not the aforementioned crazy, lone gunman.


For Mr. Hoffa's speech, all we get is apologists who suggest he was just acting like a labor leader, albeit sounding like a hood and thug. President Barack Obama and his spokespeople have been oddly silent on this rhetorical breach; they simply can't afford to alienate the labor movement.


In the wake of the Gifford shooting, the president himself called for a toning down of the language of our politics, a cooling-off period aimed specifically at his ideological detractors. For many months, he got what he wanted.


People were more measured and thoughtful when it came to describing their opponents. We heard a lot more about the ideas than the idea-maker. Representative Giffords has rightfully become a national symbol of bravery and perseverance; we all found comfort in her showing up to cast a vote (albeit relatively meaningless) in the debt debate.


So, now we have James Hoffa, Jr., and the president sharing a stage on Labor Day in Michigan. There is no more important place to make a speech about the importance of work than to a crowd of autoworkers, especially when so many of them no longer actually work building automobiles.


Big labor places all of the blame for this predicament on the Republican Party, big business and George W. Bush. Mr. Hoffa himself referred to former President Bush seven times during his presidential warm-up speech, reminding the crowd that they were out of work because the fat cats on Wall Street received President Bush's favor far more than America's working class.


There is undoubtedly some truth in the claim. De-regulation and trickle-down economics as theory has not yielded the promised fruits. Blaming Mr. Bush for the collapse of the manufacturing class ignores decades of economic reality, though.


In fact, James Hoffa's lineage has almost as much obligation for the shuttered state of factories and plants all across the nation. If the cost to manufacture any product is three times higher here than anywhere else in the world, why would anyone be shocked that companies would go elsewhere to build?


Unions have protected workers, but they have also added, and continue to add, substantial cost to process of manufacturing. In Mr. Hoffa's crowd last week, there were as many white-collar union workers as there were of the blue-collared variety. Government office workers account for the highest increase in union membership in the history of the labor movement. All that does is increase the cost of our government; it does not improve the service thereof.


Maybe Mr. Hoffa's sights were off. Maybe the SOB's he should be trying take out were on the stage, not in the Tea Party.


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