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Labor’s primary problem last year was that it attempted to arrive on its own terms. Look at all we’ve done and how indispensable we are, labor tried to say. This is not a message Kossacks have the slightest interest in. Show up, kiss the ring, look deep into their eyes longingly, and tell them you’ve never met anyone like them. Snuggle up to their collective electronic ear and whisper how ecstatic you are they’re running the show now. This is what they want. And Hoffa? He turned out to be a real crowd pleaser.
“A lot of you don’t know anybody in the labor movement,” Jimmy Hoffa told Kossacks. “But that is why we’re meeting today, so we can start getting to know each other…. You are the voice that has come up and risen out of nowhere. The new voice of America.”
Hey, if Democratic presidential candidates are groveling, why shouldn’t the ever-weakening heads of Big Labor? Forget puffing out your union chests and trying to regale computer kids with tales of union glory you yourself can barely recall. Hoffa’s crew and the other unions, like the Democrats, have learned their lesson. Sorry, Teamsters, Kossacks don’t want a flash drive with downloadable union stats on it. But Working Class Blogger T-shirts? That’s more like it. The YearlyKos program this year included a painting of bloggers on a long electronic bridge in hardhats. It’s so noble, so gritty, so… fake. If it weren’t fake, Kossacks would not be lined up for gimmicky dog and pony show type stuff like Take Your Picture With A Teamsters Truck. Even better. There is people power in a blogger’s union? Get up and say “Amen!” Just don’t mention Teamsters’ steadfast support for drilling in ANWR or you’ll get growled at like Hillary Clinton incarnate.
“You guys are tough on everybody and you know what?” Hoffa continued. “Good for you. Keep being tough. They don’t like you out there because you make their life uncomfortable. Well, you’re doing something right when you make their life uncomfortable…. Does anyone here think the system is working right?”
“No!” the crowd shouts.
“Hell no!” Hoffa roars back.
Yet, if the unions have time and cash to fete the leisure class, the idea of a working class in jeopardy becomes more difficult to buy into. Did the late James Hoffa Sr. ever have a gig so easy?
CONSIDERING THE COMPANY he was keeping at YearlyKos, it probably comes as no surprise that Hoffa was not the worst panderer on hand. “Let’s hear it for the working men and women of the Teamsters!” Bill Richardson shouted. “Let’s hear it for the new major force in the Democratic Party — the bloggers!” Must we even note the audience applauded more loudly for themselves? Yawn. “This is a natural alliance: The new Democratic Party — the Internet and the bloggers — combining with the great old Democratic Party of labor unions. This will be a grand coalition.”
The “natural alliance” line was a familiar one. A woman from the NEA had used the same words while introducing columnist Harold Meyerson (“one of the most poignant critics of the Bush regime,” she assured us) and Andy Stern for a lunchtime conversation. The Service Employees International Union clearly learned the lesson of YearlyKos 2006. Last year its reps were focused on describing the tough physical conditions of service employees. This time Stern, its president, spent much of his time cramming union jargon into the mold of netroots’ philosophical proclivities and prejudices. He praised the Chinese government for its progressive unionization policies (“Our multi-national, pro-democracy, pro-freedom corporations go over and fight democracy in China and workers rights the same way they fight it in the United States”), took the requisite dig at Rupert Murdoch, (jokingly) suggested a voting moratorium for white males (“the worst progressive voters around”), and, ultimately, claimed to cheers that unions are “just a way to redistribute wealth.”
Back at the BBQ, Hoffa’s repeated praise of John Edwards — who wasn’t on hand — during his introduction of Bill Richardson seemed to stick in the New Mexico governor’s craw. “Mr. Hoffa and Teamsters,” Richardson said. “Ask John Edwards if he’d do this: I will have a union member as Secretary of Labor.” Big cheers. “If you behave yourself it might be one of you here.” Even bigger cheers. “I will be a president who will push for the unionization of the American workforce and the federal government.”
Mike Gravel, on the other hand, didn’t care; even in a space where all he had to do was invoke Bill O’Reilly’s name to get applause, Gravel demurred. He was just going to talk about abolishing the federal income tax and creating a national initiative system, whatever anyone said. “Revolution, baby!” a Kossack on the press riser next to me snickered as Gravel spoke about the national initiative. Through sputtering laughter he added, “Power to the people!” It might be better treatment than Hillary got, yet it is nevertheless a bit disheartening to watch a crowd of self-proclaimed revolutionaries, so fervent in the belief that they are bucking the system, dismiss the one person who shows up and actually does say buck the system in a fundamental/foundational way. Not vote for him, mind you. Just hear him out. Oh, well. Eye of the beholder and all that jazz.
Hoffa mostly smirked at Gravel during his speech, even though when Gravel was a senator from Alaska the Teamsters had few better friends than he. (Two very profitable words for the Teamsters you probably couldn’t say without Mike Gravel: Alaska Pipeline.) Sorry, old friend, it’s a new day. Hoffa — like the candidates, panelists, and the myriad interest group representatives — was looking for a ticket to KosWorld, whatever the price. According to those in-the-know, after all, it’s sexy, it’s savvy, it’s the future.
Like so much else at YearlyKos, this “grand alliance” was all artifice. Philosophical kinship is not in the Kossacks’ DNA. The entire platform of this supposed shadow convention was a celebration of Kossacks’ historic importance and an unmitigated rage at any and all who may discount their importance. How such navel-gazing self-adulation can sustain a movement over the longterm is anyone’s guess.
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