Political Hay

Organizing the Leisure Class

Teamsters learn to kiss the ring at YearlyKos 2007.

By 8.6.07

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CHICAGO -- The three tractor trailer trucks were parked on the massive concrete terrace of Chicago's McCormick Place convention center in such a way as to form a mini-amphitheatre. Lake Michigan opened up as a backdrop. Slogans such as The Rights Which Labor Has Won, Labor Must Fight to Protect! adorn truck sides, but so too does the disclaimer, "Private Carrier Not for Hire." These, it seems, are the equivalent of a birthday party pony in our host's arsenal.

Around the outskirts of the amphitheatre, long lines of people slowly snake their way past four grilling stations. Free hamburgers, hotdogs and drinks abound. Light reggae mingles with the smoky scent of summer food. Let's start a union/Calling every human. Revelers spread far and wide until their host begins to badger. "We can't start the program until everyone moves over here," he says, but even when they come closer he isn't satisfied. "Come on, everybody, scoot in." He shoots a look back at the photographers and videographers lined up on a riser. He gets a thumb's up. He motions for a lackey to straighten the blue and yellow fabric draping hung along the podium platform. Finished, she jumps on stage to smooth out a doublewide column of union workers, rearranging some by height, turning others just so, putting American flags in the hands of still others.

"Wave it," she instructs, not unkindly.

The engine of a truck cordoned off to the side begins to rumble, and the host asks, with a mischievous grin, "Anybody seen Markos? Anybody seen Jimmy Hoffa?" Loudspeakers blare the opening strains of AC/DC's "Back in Black." The truck lurches forward. Photographers scramble for better angles. The truck rolls perhaps 50 feet and then off jumps DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas, with Teamsters president James P. Hoffa not far behind.

"Here I am, a skinny nerd on a computer, and I get to drive in on one of those," Moulitsas enthuses. "I'm 12 again."

Welcome to the Teamsters Cookout at YearlyKos 2007. The photographers and videographers in their embroidered Teamsters shirts follow Moulitsas' every move. The Teamsters arrayed behind him smile winningly. The crowd, as is its frequent wont, adores.

"It is critical to our people-powered movement that we reach people wherever they may be," Moulitsas, in dark jeans and a blazer, shouts. "Whether it's online or whether it's people who are working getting their hands dirty everyday. My hands are pretty clean but a lot of people get their hands dirty. They're not at a computer. We need those people!"

LABOR'S ATTEMPTED COURTSHIP of the netroots at YearlyKos 2006 was not nearly as successful as it was this past weekend. They've gone from behaving like awkward kissing cousins to impassioned newlyweds. Last year not more than 35 people showed to the "Labor and Power" panel. When one of the speakers asked the crowd who among them was involved with a union, virtually every hand shot up. "We can't win unless you win and you can't without us," Chris Chafe of Unite Here said, but everyone recognized the room was all "we"s and no "you"s. "I don't think most of the folks at this conference appreciate just how big [unionized labor] is," activist/professor Joel Rogers groused.

Not long after the conference In These Times quoted the panel's moderator Nathan Newman thusly, "The labor movement actually took YearlyKos very seriously, contributing money to help subsidize costs and sending top leaders to attend the sessions....I know that the labor leaders were a bit frustrated that their interest in the blogosphere was not reciprocated."

So where was the disconnect?

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 T-shirts reading Working Class Blogger? That's more like it. Gimmicky dog and pony show type stuff like Take Your Picture With A Teamsters Truck? Even better. Very popular. There is people power in a blogger's union? Get up and say "Amen!" Just don't mention 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 (to his credit, Meyerson called him on it), 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; he was just going to talk about abolishing the federal income tax and creating a national initiative system, whatever anyone said. Hoffa, seeming to understand where the real power was, mostly smirked at Gravel during his speech, even though when Gravel was a senator from Alaska 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.

"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. I could have said something to the "Revolution, baby!" guy about the eye of the beholder and all that jazz, but, really, why bother?

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