I was raised, like most Irish-Catholics, not to speak ill of the dead—at least while the wake is still underway. Of course, the affliction known as “Irish Alzheimers” exerts a powerful tug in the opposite direction. Forgetting everything except the grudges keeps you focused on those parts of a departed politician’s legacy that won’t be highlighted from the pulpit or, in Ted Kennedy’s case, in fulsome obituaries run as front-page news stories, op-ed pieces, editorials, and internet encomia throughout the nation.
Here’s my own view of the senator. I was not a fan of Ted when he was alive and expressed this dissenting opinion, on several occasions, in our local rag, The Boston Globe, after Kennedy’s reccurring lapses as a friend of the working class became too painful to ignore. Ted Kennedy was not on labor’s side when key public policy shifts were engineered that disastrously weakened and marginalized American unions. After helping to deliver these legislative hammer blows, Ted was quick to offer his hand to a labor movement now lying flat on its back. But forms of assistance like boosting the minimum wage, helping immigrants, securing local defense plant jobs, or co-sponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act have hardly compensated for the ravages of “neoliberalism” that Kennedy aided and abetted. In the case of EFCA, any fundamental repair of federal labor law becomes more unlikely every day, even if our vacant Senate seat gets filled sooner, rather than later.
Of course, all who speak officially for “labor” would strongly disagree with this assessment. They are busy heaping praise on our fallen champion, as labor’s best friend ever. Compared to centrist Democrats who are quick to abandon workers at the drop of a campaign donation, Ted did appear to be the true “liberal lion” and patron of union causes everywhere. But here’s what I remember about the same Ted Kennedy, who sided with corporate
An Architect of Deregulation
In several key industries—trucking, the airlines, and telecom–nothing has undermined union membership and bargaining power more than de-regulation. Kennedy embraced de-regulation with gusto and, despite his other differences with Jimmy Carter thirty years ago, helped ram through industry restructuring harmful to hundreds of thousands of workers and their union contracts. By 1985, as Kim Moody describes in U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, the number of workers covered by the Teamsters’ biggest trucking contract had been halved. Today, fewer than 100,000 work under the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA)—down from 450,000 before Carter and Kennedy transformed the role of the Interstate Commerce Commission and codified that regulatory change via the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. The business-backed policy agenda “that would become known as ‘Reaganomics’ or more generally as neoliberalism,” had its roots in the Carter Administration, Moody points out. Two of its key objectives were deregulation and free trade; the first having been accomplished under Carter, the second was pursued with equal fervor and Kennedy vigor after
A No-Show At NYNEX
Twenty years ago this month, 60,000 telephone workers in
Everyone involved in this struggle assumed, initially, that Ted Kennedy’s long-standing advocacy of health care reform would make him a logical ally. Yet, despite repeated union overtures and invitations, Kennedy failed to make a single picket-line appearance or speak out on the strikers’ behalf in any way. Kennedy’s no-show role became so obvious mid-way through the walk-out that union members booed the very mention of his name at one mass rally in
A Free Trade Recidivist
Kennedy’s disconnection from local concerns, whether labor-oriented or not, became a political liability when he ran for re-election a few years later. Early in his 1994 campaign against businessman Mitt Romney, Ted was not doing well in the polls. It began to look like Newt Gingrich’s mid-term Republican surge might take Kennedy out too.
After Kennedy was returned to office with only 58 per cent of the vote (his smallest margin ever), I pointed out in a Globe op-ed piece that Ted now had a chance to “repay his debt to labor.” He could do this by bucking President Clinton and voting against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) during the lame-duck session of Congress about to begin. As a post-election concession to his labor supporters, Kennedy convened a one-man Senate hearing in
Kennedy returned to
A Single-Payer Defector
In a cover piece for Newsweek last month, entitled “The Cause of My Life,” Kennedy proudly recalled his backing for
Kennedy’s badly-timed surrender had the effect of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how many more recruits the single-payer movement generated, political insiders deemed it “off the table.” And what better evidence was there that national health insurance was “unachievable” than its one-time champion finally seeing the light and settling for less, in
In 1993, Kennedy embraced Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated “managed competition” plan, helping to deflate grassroots organizing for social insurance instead. He did lend his name to a 2006 bill to expand
Despite all of the above, Ted Kennedy’s legacy will continue to shine in the eyes of many. The bar for determining what constitutes a “friend of labor” these days is only inches off the ground. In this period of mourning, let’s remember that political sins are better forgiven than forgotten. The act of forgetting just sets the stage for future failures by labor to hold other allies—including those far less revered — accountable either.
Steve Early was a Boston-area Kennedy constituent from 1980 to 2009. During that time, he was also a