Donald Trump And Organized Labor’s Death Wish

Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi makes note of a distinctive and troubling feature of modern American political life, the seeming death wish of American organized labor:

Every four years, some Democrat who’s been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.

It’s called “transactional politics,” and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.

This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders….Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by “transactional politics.” He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches….

Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That’s true even when it comes from Donald Trump….You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump’s speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump….

Indeed. Never mind that the candidates unions would consider endorsing would then want to distance themselves as much as possible from organized labor. (As Taibbi also notes, Trump thinks Michigan autoworkers are paid too much and that in general, “wages are too high.”)

I have written before on this blog about the self-destructive, seemingly self-hating antipathy that American workers have to organized labor. The phenomenon Taibbi points to is another matter altogether. Here, unions themselves are engaged in behavior which is willfully, inexplicably self-destructive.  Perhaps this behavior reveals a particularly virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome (it is very hard, after all, to leave abusive relationships and seek help); perhaps it’s a manifestation of the thing Freud called a ‘todestrieb.’

Consider for instance, the news that Jeff Johnson, the head of the Washington State Labor Council–affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has not yet endorsed anyone for president–was allegedly pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to not speak at a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event. The AFSCME, one of the largest public-sector unions in the U.S. and a member of the AFL-CIO, endorsed Clinton for president in October. As the article linked to above notes, the AFSCME is perfectly within its rights to slap down on a state labor federation pending approval from national AFL-CIO. Still, it might be asked, why endorse candidates who send union jobs overseas to non-unionized workplaces?

Desperate political times call for desperate actions. Unions are under assault everywhere; membership is shrinking nation-wide. One might ask though, of all the actions available to organized labor, why would it endorse candidates so damaging to its members’ short-term and long-term interests, both economic and political? Especially when the decline of unionization in the American workplace has so extensively been identified as a primary cause of falling wages and rising economic inequality?

Susan Sontag’s Paragraphed Interview Answers

In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview, Jonathan Cott writes:

In one of her journal entries from 1965, Susan avowed: To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” ….as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed…Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning”…with which she framed and and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings wit h parenthetical remarks and qualifying words…the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours–an inebriation with the spoken word.

I saw Sontag interviewed once, at the 92nd Street YMCA, sometime in 1991 or 1992. Her interviewer was, I think, if memory serves me correctly, the then editor of Vanity Fair Graydon Carter. (The interview was held shortly after the release of her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.) My reaction to hearing and seeing her speak–at some length, for the interview was no mere bagatelle–was similar to Cott’s: for years afterwards, whenever I described the interview, I would say, “She doesn’t just speak in complete, well-formed sentences; she speaks in paragraphs.” Sontag clearly had a great deal to call upon and invoke in her answers; her ability to quickly organize her thoughts into the aural form in which she presented them to her listeners was luminously on display.

It was the first time I had seen Sontag speak; I would see her once again, possibly at a book reading of some sort. She signed my copy of AIDS and its Metaphors on that occasion. Then, she did not speak as much so I did not get a chance to revisit my earlier impression of her. But I think it has remained indelible over the years.

I remember one remark in particular, from her 92nd Street Y appearance, one that made me chuckle then, and often still does so: that the right time and place to write an autobiography was after death, from beyond the grave. Everything else was premature, a too-quick reckoning of finality when the possibility for change was still at hand. (Sontag was quite obsessed by reinvention and moving on to newer selves so such a statement should not be too surprising, but it was her manner of framing it that made it distinctive.)

If only she supply us with her authoritative, clear, and direct autobiography now. I bet it’d be an interesting read.

Note: Around that time, as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign kicked off, a campaign trail reporter for the New York Times made note of how the Arkansas governor was  “that modern rarity, a candidate who spoke in complete sentences.” Clearly, that was a good time for the spoken word.