Friday, November 21, 2008

What Would the Sage of Fair Lane Think?

As the big boys from the big three pressed their case this week for a taxpayer funded bridge or bailout (pick your metaphor), the role of big labor in Mr. Obama’s coming administration is being seriously tested even before the guy gets to say “so help me God.”

Of course, at issue is the fact that he promised the proverbial moon to an interest group not really known in recent years for its capacity to pack too much of an electoral punch. Whether or not he will be able – or inclined – to actually keep his pledges is quite another thing.

It is likely that many months ago, when Barack Obama was assuring various union dense audiences of his support for them, he never anticipated having to really do anything about it so soon. But it will be on his plate on day one and the issue may just keep him up some nights until 3:00 a.m. – in case the phone rings in the wee hours.

The problems with the American automobile industry are legion, but likely the most glaring is the cost of labor and management. Bloated salaries in the boardroom and borderline outrageous wages on the assembly lines have pretty much brought the entire U.S. auto industry, once the envy of the world, to its knees - if not the brink of disaster.

Workers at a Toyota plant in Kentucky, a non-union shop, receive about $47.00 per hour in wages and benefits. That translates to about $98,000.00 per year (not counting overtime). Those doing essentially the same job at GM, Ford, or Chrysler – whose assembly line workers are members of the United Auto Workers union – receive roughly $71.00 per hour – or about $150,000.00 annually (again, minus any overtime).

Public school teachers across the country make, on the average, no more than a third of that.

Detroit has been losing money on every car sold for quite some time. The easy criticism is that they have been building “gas guzzlers.” But that dog won’t hunt because one of the reasons they have had difficulty shifting gears (so to speak) to smaller, cheaper, and more fuel efficient models is that they would lose more money per unit on them. They have not been competitive for a long time and there isn’t a bailout number big enough to fix the problem without changing management (getting rid of the guys who ran the place into the ground) and renegotiating labor contracts downward.

And there’s the rub. The United Auto Workers is a formidable foe with a new best friend moving into the White House.

The irony is that this union looks and acts these days more like the guys they fought against back in the 1930s and 1940s. It began as an advocate for hard working people who had been getting the shaft. Who’s holding said shaft now?

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit hearing the legendary stories about “sit down” strikes and an epic encounter called “the battle of the overpass” - where Ford Motor Company “muscle” beat up Walter Reuther, his brother, and other union organizers who were passing out leaflets.

My father was a long time member of the Teamsters (same local as Mr. James Riddle Hoffa) and all the kids on the block had dads who loved and depended on the unions. I know that back in the day the UAW did some good stuff for those who had no real influence or voice. The union effectively helped its members “to free them from the tyranny of arbitrary decision or discriminatory action in the work place,” as Neil Chamberlain wrote nearly half century ago. I get that.

But we have come along way since those days. This is an age of change – remember?

Ford Motor Company was the last of the big three to agree to let its employees organize after a lengthy and brutal battle. Led by Harry Bennett, a close confidante of old Mr. Ford (who later wrote a book about his boss entitled, We Never Called Him Henry), a “goon squad” spied on and intimidated workers for years, keeping them in line and out of the UAW.

In the spring of 1941, as the nation was reluctantly preparing for inevitable involvement in the growing global war, Bennett fired several employees unwittingly creating the catalyst for the first real strike (exclusive of episodic “wild cat” actions) the company ever experienced. For ten days, work at the massive River Rouge Plant was at a standstill and tension was in the air.

Through surrogates like Bennett, Henry Ford insisted that the strike was the work of communist agitators. He had been working closely on the sly with a key, though out of favor, labor leader - Homer Martin. The first president of the UAW, Martin was, in fact, on Ford’s payroll, retained ostensibly as an in-house liaison to the increasingly restless workers.

Homer Martin is now little more than a footnote in the story of the rise of the UAW, having been outmaneuvered by the Reuther brothers and largely written out of the “official” history of the movement. A former Baptist minister, he had been fired by his rural Missouri congregation for outspoken support of workers who were pro-union. He then went to work in a Kansas City automobile plant and soon rose to the top of the fledgling labor movement. Known as “an orator of the evangelical, stem-winding school,” he could “draw fire from an audience.”

Under Homer Martin’s leadership, union membership experienced exponential growth in its early years. A strong anti-communist in a movement rife with socialists, Martin is largely characterized today as an incompetent leader and erratic personality. The truth may actually be that he was bitterly opposed by the Reuther brothers because of his religious faith and the strong support he had from southern workers who connected with his “preacher” persona. Whatever the case, though out of power he continued to spend significant time and energy on the labor cause in the auto industry. And he played an ironic role in the Rouge Plant strike.

As the walkout continued during the first week of April in 1941, Martin – at the urging of Harry Bennett - used his rhetorical skills to try to persuade strikers to quit and get back to work. Meanwhile, the Reverend J. Frank Norris, a fiery fundamentalist Texas preacher who was also pastor of a mammoth Detroit congregation, preached a sermon that was broadcast on WJR radio and printed word for word in the Detroit Times. Norris called the Rouge Plant strike the work of “revolutionaries” and “Bolsheviks,” and suggested that anyone participating in it was not being patriotic in light of the war clouds looming on the international horizon.

But on April 10th, Michigan Governor Murray Van Wagoner intervened and the strike was suspended. Mr. Ford was beat. For a brief time he pouted and moped around his 1,300-acre Fair Lane Estate in Dearborn - even threatening to shut his whole company down. But his wife Clara disabused him of the notion. And in a secret ballot – emphasis on that word secret – Ford workers elected to go into the UAW by a 97 percent vote.

Now, fast-forward sixty-seven years to current day. There is a curious and ominous piece of legislation floating around Washington, D.C. called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which has been nicknamed the “card check” bill. In effect, it would eliminate the idea of using the sanctity of the secret ballot for elections when employees of a company vote on the issue of whether or not to join a union.

So imagine you are working one day – and a guy comes along and says, “sign this.” Would you feel the pressure and the potential for intimidation?

Sadly, the UAW has in some ways become what they used to fight against – autocratic, coercive, intimidating, and manipulative. If such a bill passes and is signed by our 44th president, Harry Bennett wannabes will be back on the job, only this time they will twist arms for the unions. Even someone whose liberal bona fides are as unimpeachable as George McGovern thinks this is a terrible idea.

President –Elect Obama supports the EFCA. I would hate to think that democracy in America might one day find itself on a slippery slope toward becoming a “thugocracy.”

We are now at a crossroads. Labor unions grew during the Great Depression and peaked just after the Second World War. They have been in decline for years, but now as the economy tanks they seem to be getting another lease on life. The current scenario with the auto companies asking for money in Washington with one hand, while in the grip of the UAW with other, is going to yield powerful and revealing clues as to what the future will look like for American businesses.

The corporatism that came out of the New Deal, and took decades to even begin to undo, is knocking at the American door once again. And the man who, after January 20th, will be in a position to let labor back into the economic living room has already given every indication that he has a pro-union welcome mat in the moving van.

Be prepared to hear much more talk about “fair” competition than “free” competition. They are both four-letter words, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Long after the 1941 strike was settled (by the way, the company offered more generous terms than those the union was seeking), Henry Ford met with UAW leader Walter Reuther to congratulate the man now representing his workers. During an odd exchange, he told Reuther, “It was one of the most sensible things Harry Bennett ever did when he got UAW into this plant.” Caught by surprise by the comment, he asked, “How do you figure it?”

Henry Ford then told the man who became for a generation - Mr. UAW: “Well, you’ve been fighting General Motors and the Wall Street crowd. Now you are here, and we have given you a union shop and more than you got out of them. That puts you on our side, doesn’t it? We fight General Motors and Wall Street together, eh?”

His analysis may have been flawed – but then again, maybe the old man was on to something. I wonder what Henry Ford would think about company executives jetting privately to Washington to beg for money to “save” an industry he invented in his little backyard shop?

Friday, November 7, 2008

1968: Lyndon, Dick, and Billy

1968: Lyndon, Dick, and Billy
By David R Stokes

Forty years ago, in the wake of the hard-fought 1968 presidential election, the nation faced what many assumed would be a turbulent transition. But it did not turn out that way. Whatever happened later, the country moved from what had been the one of the most divisive campaigns in our history, to a comparatively calm and remarkably orderly (considering the times) transfer of power.

This was due, in large part, to the combined and concerted efforts of two savvy politicians and a preacher.

President’s Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have long since passed to their rewards, but the preacher is still alive and kicking. His name is Billy Graham, and he was born 90 years ago this weekend on November 7, 1918, just four days before the guns fell silent ending what was then optimistically called the War to End All Wars.

In their book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy chronicle the evangelist’s journey from White House visitor, to presidential confidant. Beginning with a somewhat embarrassing Oval Office meeting with Harry Truman - one that brought out the president’s profane side - he went on to learn the ropes during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. By the time LBJ was in charge, Billy was a regular over-night guest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Presidents loved to pick his brain. Eisenhower once asked him, “How do I know if I’ll go to heaven?” Jack Kennedy inquired about the second coming of Christ and wondered, “Why doesn’t my church teach it.” When Graham indicated that the doctrine was written in Roman Catholic creeds, JFK complained, “They don’t tell us much about it, I’d like to know what you think.” Johnson wanted to know if he would see his parents in heaven.

It was well into the morning of Wednesday, November 6, 1968 before ABC projected Richard Nixon as the winner over Hubert Humphrey (and George Wallace). The president-elect watched the returns at New York’s Waldorf Hotel. He had invited Graham to spend the evening with him, but the evangelist declined, adding: “If you lose, I will be ready to come over and have prayer with you.”

He did not lose, but he called Billy anyway and asked him to come over and pray before he went downstairs to meet with the press and talk to the nation. Entering the suite on the hotel’s thirty-fifth floor, the preacher met the president-elect, his wife Pat, and their daughters. They all joined hands as Graham prayed. The preacher specifically offered thanks for the vital spiritual influence of Nixon’s mother, who had passed away a little more than a year before. Hannah Nixon was the first to tell her son about Billy Graham after hearing him speak in Los Angeles in 1949. The evangelist had conducted her funeral.

The 1968 morning-after scene was very different from the one six years earlier when, after losing the race for governor in California, Nixon gave what he called his “last press conference.” There is no evidence that there was a hotel-suite prayer meeting that morning.

Soon after Graham’s prayer, Richard M. Nixon faced the nation for the first time as president-elect. Most memorable, and appropriate for the moment, was his reference to a sign he saw “at the end of a long day of whistle-stopping” in diminutive Deshler, Ohio. It said: “Bring us together.” He then indicated that this would be the great goal of his administration.

I am sure some reading this now may find such words to be cynical, ironic, - even sappy. But they were words “fitly spoken” and uttered in good faith. The American political reflex is to run from rancor to graciousness after a fierce battle – like weary boxers managing the arm-strength to embrace each other following the final bell.

This is something the country needs. Sure, it all eventually gives way to our default position of partisanship, but such “warm fuzzy” moments should be seized, whether “our” candidate won or lost. They are good for us – and for our children.

Not to mention our blood pressure.

I find myself sad that President-Elect Obama’s grandmother did not live to see him win. I also enjoy the “cute” moments as the Obama family begins to find a place in all of our hearts and prayers. I even like the whole “new puppy” thing. And I know that the young African-Americans in my congregation have a new reference point for achievement and success. I know also that their parents and grandparents are very proud that we have come so far as a nation. A dream has come true. This is historic and important. Let us all stop and smell the roses – it is definitely quite something to behold. I really like this stuff.

I am a conservative, just not a grinch about it.

I am sure there will be issues and policies that prompt me to speak out – but that does not take anything away from how fascinating this political moment is. Mr. Obama has my support – but more importantly – he has my prayers. I may be part of an eventual loyal opposition, but the accent will be on loyal.

But back to 1968, interestingly - though Billy Graham was a friend of the president-elect forty years ago, the man who was still president did not seem to mind sharing the preacher. In fact, Lyndon Johnson invited Billy Graham to spend his last weekend in the White House with him January 18-19, 1969. One evening he watched a movie with LBJ and his family, The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn. When the president dozed off mid-film, Billy quietly went to the projectionist and asked him to keep the reels around, thinking Nixon would like it.

The president and the evangelist went to church together on Sunday, January 19th. The next day, during the inauguration of the 37th president, Billy Graham delivered the invocation. Then, following Nixon’s address – as the Johnson’s quietly left the stage – the now ex-president’s daughters kissed the preacher. And Billy went back to the White House and spent the night with the Nixons on January 20th – completing a sleepover hat trick.

The following Sunday, President Nixon began a custom of holding worship services in the White House. The first clergyman to officiate was, of course, Billy Graham.

It seems to me that Billy Graham found the balance. He managed to stay faithful to the simple gospel message, even when surrounded by the seductive trappings of power. The man of God found a way to connect with politicians in a way that earned their respect and opened doors for personal ministry.

Maybe, just maybe, this is something Christian leaders should reflect on right now. The so-called Religious Right is a thing of the past. It was once a well-defined movement. Now it appears to be dissipating like a weakening storm somewhere over America’s heartland.

Some are sad about this. Some are very discouraged. I am not. My views have not changed. I am ardently pro-life, fiercely pro-American, and passionate about limited government. And I will stand for what I believe and work for causes I consider worthwhile and just.

I have never been comfortable with the politicization of church. In fact, some who read my columns might find it hard to believe, but I actually do not preach politics at church. The closest I come is to talk about the pro-life issue – which I do with passion, but not as a partisan thing. I never endorse candidates. I vote for Jesus every Sunday.

I think this election is a wake up call to many Christians – one that reminds us that, in the final analysis, our mandate is not to reform society via the ballot box, state house, or White House, but rather to proclaim the ultimate narrative, the one that really changes lives. In other words: “It’s the gospel, stupid.” We can’t get everything we want, all the time, at the ballot box, but we can always find comfort in the fact that the mercy and grace of God are sufficient.

Billy Graham has been a faithful servant of God and citizen of America. In a very Kipling-esque sense, he has walked with presidents, but he never lost his “common touch.”

Happy Birthday, Billy!