By Scott Marshall
Getting carried away with your own rhetoric is rarely a good thing. Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists' union (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers), did just that in a “warm-up” speech for Hillary Clinton the night of the Wisconsin primary win by Barack Obama. (Necessary disclaimer: I have great respect for the Machinists' union and president Buffenbarger, a tough industrial union that goes up against some of the biggest multinationals. So this incident is all the more worrisome from a seasoned labor leader.)
Ironically Buffenbarger’s main point was to ridicule Obama’s oratory. John McCain made a nasty attack on Obama’s speech-making that same night, but Buffenbarger’s was even more mean-spirited.
In the first place it’s ironic that a labor leader should ridicule good oratory. The history of the labor movement is replete with labor leaders who inspired and moved workers to action with their ability to put into words the hopes, aspirations and demands of those who dream of a better life and a better world for working people.
Eugene Debs spoke eloquently of an industrial union for rail workers. One of his most famous speeches called for an end to workers dying in WWI as cannon fodder for the narrow interests of the industrialists and capitalists. He brought millions into the labor movement and got millions of votes on the Socialist Party ticket with his inspiring speeches.
The soaring street corner oratory of A. Phillip Randolph inspired thousands of African American rail workers to join the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and fight for their dreams. His words inspired millions to fight for civil rights and to link civil and labor rights together in one struggle for all working people.
And then there was John L. Lewis with his fiery call for organizing the Committee of Industrial Organizations, the CIO.
Besides the unfairness and shallowness of this attack on Obama, Buffenbarger’s speech also rudely, and with rightwing stereotypes, attacked Obama’s supporters. Ridiculing supporters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies” ignores the large number of union members and their families, of all races and nationalities, who are supporting Obama. Not to mention that I know lots of steelworkers who appreciate a good latte now and again, and who would like to drive a hybrid car to save gas and the environment.
Working people sorely need to defeat John McCain in November. That can only be done with the full support and unity of all the labor movement. No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, there will be millions of labor households who were once supporting the other candidate.
Contrast Buffenbarger’s speech to what the AFL-CIO is saying about the elections. The AFL-CIO plans to spend $54 million, $6 million more than in the 2004 election, in support of the Democratic candidate for president, no matter who wins the nomination, and in dozens of congressional races. In the meantime, the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win federation, and most of labor are busy exposing the anti-labor, anti-working people record of John McCain. They are building an army of labor activists for the general election.
Most of those in the labor movement, both AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, who have endorsed a candidate for the Democratic nomination are campaigning positively on the strengths of their chosen candidate. Most recognize that all of both Clinton's and Obama's supporters in labor are vital sections of the democratic coalition that it will take to end corporate, rightwing domination of our political life.
Buffenbarger should wonder why his speech got picked up far and wide in the media.