Ochenski: To spite their face 

Explaining labor's hissy-fit

Like so many announcements from Montana’s dwindling and divided labor unions, last week’s rampage against successful Democratic candidates by AFL-CIO Executive Director Jerry Driscoll didn’t make front page news. It barely made the news at all, but the little story offered significant insight into the sorry state of affairs at Montana’s largest union, where petty, adolescent squabbling has apparently replaced long-term vision and grassroots organizing.

The problem, if you could call it that, for these candidates is that they either happened to beat the AFL-CIO’s chosen candidates in the primary, or they don’t subscribe to the AFL-CIO’s current agenda—namely, that Montana’s future lies in the ashes of its past. One of the prime targets of Driscoll’s expletive-laced invective was incumbent Helena Senator Ken Toole. A few weeks back, this column took a look at Toole’s role in the defeat of former Anaconda state Senator Bea McCarthy (see “Dereg detritus,” June 24, 2004). According to both McCarthy and Driscoll, a letter Toole sent to Anaconda-area voters reminding them of McCarthy’s support for deregulation was a significant factor in her defeat by 21-year-old challenger Dan Villa. As I wrote then, it would have been the first time in history that someone from Helena had any effect whatsoever on Anaconda’s voters. But that’s not the way Driscoll sees it.

“You think it’s OK to sneak around and pick out your favorite little Democrats,” Driscoll was quoted as telling reporters. “It’s OK for you, but it isn’t OK for us. And I’m sick of it.” Driscoll says the union’s refusal to endorse was not only intended to send a message to Toole, but “probably the whole Democratic party.”

Driscoll’s dubious logic on this issue is as full of holes as a cyanide heap leach pad—and they all leak like sieves. For one thing, the AFL-CIO does the exact same thing with their primary election endorsements. That Toole can be castigated for “sneak[ing] around” to “pick out your favorite little Democrats” basically contradicts the sole purpose of the primary elections, whereby Democrat voters (not the political machines) “pick their favorite little Democrats” to send to the general election.

A more truthful explanation for Driscoll’s rant is that Toole was a central figure in the Buy Back the Dams initiative that would have put Montana’s hydroelectric generation facilities under state ownership. For some reason, the same twisted reasoning that pilloried Toole for being involved in a primary election race also condemned him for the initiative because it would have made the 50 or so workers who run the dams state employees. Considering that state employees are the single largest constituency for labor unions these days, Toole’s support for controlling Montana’s cheapest and most stable existing source of electric energy could hardly be seen as a threat to the workers, their jobs, or the labor movement.

Nor was Toole the sole recipient of the AFL-CIO’s snubs. Legislative veteran Sen. Dan Harrington (D-Butte) was also passed over. His grave error, as far as the AFL-CIO is concerned, is that he served as vice-president of the Montana Progressive Labor Caucus, a group that formed as an alternative to the AFL-CIO after Driscoll became executive director. According to Darrell Holzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, Harrington got the boot because the Progressive Labor Caucus “continually attacks the AFL-CIO.”

The same reason was used to deny the AFL-CIO’s endorsement to Mary Caferro, a Helena Democrat who happened to defeat AFL-CIO-endorsed candidate Galen Hollenbaugh in the primary race for the House of Representatives.

While Driscoll may want to take out his electoral frustrations by blaming Caferro’s involvement in the progressive labor group, the reality is that Caferro likely won because Helena voters are still angry about the Legislature overturning the city’s smoking ban. While both candidates ran good campaigns, when it was revealed that Hollenbaugh had made a contribution to the group that lobbied to overturn the ban, some part of the 60 percent of Helenans who voted for the smoking ban decided to vote against Hollenbaugh.

The AFL-CIO also decided not to endorse Livingston Democrat Bob Raney for the Public Service Commission. Raney, in a very tight race, defeated the AFL-CIO’s candidate, Debbie Shea, primarily by taking 40 percent of the vote in Butte, Shea’s home town. In refusing to endorse Raney, Driscoll spluttered: “Except maybe for linemen, there’s not a hell of a lot of interaction between most unions and the PSC…it’s important for individual members and their [utility] bills, [but] they don’t have a hell of a lot to do with us.”

What is most striking (and stinking) is that the candidates the AFL-CIO refused to endorse are all tremendous, long-time supporters of labor. Bob Raney was a railroad union member for 25 years—and a union griever to boot. In his 16-year legislative career, he received an overall union rating of 91 percent.

Dan Harrington is a teacher, the chair of the Butte-Silverbow County Democrats, and a 27-year veteran legislator. In all that time, Harrington has supported labor without fail and has been the leading proponent of raising Montana’s minimum wage to a livable standard. Mary Caferro has been the fiery lobbyist for WEEL, a group that fights for families, health care, women’s issues and quality education. Every session, it is Mary Caferro who stands before the committees and puts forth articulate arguments for the very basics upon which the labor movement was founded. Yet she was deemed unworthy of AFL-CIO’s support.

And finally there is Ken Toole. In his own words, Toole said: “I’m sorry they feel the way they do. I have a good labor record. I’ve always supported workers and their right to organize in the state of Montana and I’ll continue to do so.”

Say what you will, but the AFL-CIO’s refusal to endorse these candidates looks like a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. And given what’s left of the AFL-CIO these days, there ain’t much face left to spite.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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