Finally — the Minnesota Orchestra is playing again!

As I am about to head back to Minnesota for another visit, I was heartened by the news that the Minnesota Orchestra, after a 15 month long labor conflict, is set to play again, to break its long silence.  It’s about time!

The length of the conflict, as I wrote in an earlier posting on this blog, was not the Minnesota way of doing business, a state that prides itself in problem solving and pragmatism — “the state that works.”  But there are no winners, as Doug Grow correctly writes on MinnPost, after yesterday’s announcement of a three-year agreement, and, he continues, we won’t know for months, maybe years, if the damage done from the 474-day lockout of the Orchestra’s members can be repaired.

Yes, there are many question marks, the biggest one being whether the prominent Finnish director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned in frustration during the lockout, will return.   He masterminded the Minnesota Orchestra’s stellar reputation, but without him, what? His return is not part of the deal, so we will have to wait and see, but he is clearly needed.

The renovated Orchestra Hall, where the orchestra has never played, stands ready to receive the musicians as they go back to work on February 1 after the longest symphonic orchestra work stoppage in American history.  But will the public that this conflict has so badly failed show up? That’s another major question mark in this dark chapter for culture and music and labor relations in the state of Minnesota.


Lutheran latte, butter princesses, and lots of politics at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

Lutheran Latte at the Great Minnesota Get-Together — Swedish egg coffee with vanilla ice cream — how can you not love it!

Lutheran LatteBut if you for some reason don’t, you can have a Meatball Sundae, or one of Ole’s Candied Bacon Cannoli and a cup of Swedish coffee – that’s “The breakfast of State Fair champions” for those who don’t know it, or Norwegian lefse with lingonberry jam at Lynne’s, fried pickles, and anything on a stick: corndog, shrimp, chicken, turkey, long dog…Or you could drink Minnesota wine and any number of Minnesota microbrews.

And all this in almost one hundred degree heat this past weekend, when over one hundred thousand people visited the Minnesota State Fair, every day — all part of the twelve days of the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

It’s been like this for decades at the end of the summer in Minnesota. I’ve never seen anything like it, never imagining watching a sculpture of Princess Kay of the Milky Way as the winner of the Minnesota Dairy Princess Program is called, being carved in 90 pounds of the best Minnesota butter in a walk-in, glass-walled refrigerator with people surrounding and watching. Each of the twelve finalists gets her own butter sculpture made and she gets to take it home after the Fair. What a show!

Butter QueensAnd it seems that no one wants to miss it. Everyone is there. Every radio and TV station, the environmentalists in the Eco building, the art lovers in the big art exhibit, the friends of the state’s national parks, and, of course, the politicians, lots of politicians, almost all of them…

Al Franken at State FairIn one corner is the Minnesota Democrats’ tent, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party as it is called here, and it is buzzing with activity. DFL runs Minnesota, from Governor Mark Dayton to both houses of the State Legislature and both US senators, and with five of the eight members of the House of Representatives in Washington. And just across the street is the AFL/CIO plaza with numerous union representatives and a big banner calling for higher minimum wage.

Senator Al Franken, who is up for re-election in November 2014 also has his own booth, and so does the other Minnesota senator, Amy Klobuchar. Both are at the Fair, on separate days, this steamy weekend, working the crowd and talking to their constituents.

Franken says he loves coming here because he gets to meet people from all across Minnesota, and he asks for support from the trade unions as well as the faithful in the DFL tent, where voter registration forms in Somali, Hmong, and Spanish reflect the new immigrant groups in Minnesota. He loves to quote the former liberal Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, whose untimely death in an airplane crash in October 2002 in many ways still haunt Minnesota politics, who said, “we all do better when we all do better,” and Franken launches into a fierce defense of unions, of a higher minimum wage, of investments in infrastructure, of college affordability, of protecting social security and Medicare, and of the importance of the Affordable Care Act – he never used the term “Obamacare” – which brings so many good things to America’s citizens. He ends by asking for help in next year’s re-election, when he hopes to get more than the 312 votes by which he defeated Norm Coleman in 2008 – somewhere, he says, in between that number and what Amy Klobuchar got in 2012 when she was re-elected in a landslide, 58 percent to 38.

Amy KlobucharFor Amy Klobuchar in the brutal heat, it was the first time, she said and laughed, that she wore shorts to the Fair. No speeches. She is not up for re-election until 2018. But there were plenty of one-on-ones with the curious and the well-wishers, and at the end, judging a food contest.

The Republicans are at the State Fair, too, and so are the Minnesota Tea Party, the Libertarians, the Greens, and many others. But in these blue days for Minnesota, they fight a losing battle for attention at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

“Detropia” — a film about a city in tragic decline

“Capitalism is a great system, I love it, but it exploits the weak”, says one of the main characters in the stunning documentary “Detropia” currently playing at the premier documentary film festival “Silverdocs” in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.

The film, about the impact on an entire city and its inhabitants of the brutal side of American capitalism, is the grim tale of the decline of Detroit, from a glamorous city with nearly 2 million inhabitants and a thriving automotive industry, to a city in tragic decline that has lost over half its population and with a higher percentage of poor people than any other American city.

Made by young documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the film is currently shown in packed theaters at the festival on the premises of the American Film Institute. Their film creates the same heartbreaking impressions as the two young French photographers Yves Marchand’s and Romain Meffres’ book “The Ruins of Detroit”, which I wrote about last year.

And the conclusion is also the same: how could America let this happen?

After Wisconsin — the assaults on the unions will increase

Republican Governor Scott Walker’s easy victory in yesterday’s recall election in Wisconsin means that the conservative efforts to kill off the American labor movement will not only continue but likely increase in intensity.

It means that Walker is the only governor in three American recall elections that survived a recall effort.

It means that conservatives win recall elections, this time by successfully defending a conservative governor, while in the two previous recalls, 1921 and 2003, defeating sitting liberal governors.

It means that corporate money, allowed after the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, which came in from out-of-state in huge amounts to Governor Walker, does make a difference. Walker outspent his challenger Tom Barrett 8 to 1.

It means little for the general election in November in Wisconsin, where Barack Obama beat John McCain in 2008 by 14 per cent. The Democratic presidential candidate has won in Wisconsin in every election since 1988, albeit narrowly in 2000 and 2004, and the State seems a pretty safe for Barack Obama in the fall.

The exit polls in Wisconsin confirm this. They show Obama beating Mitt Romney 51 to 44, and that 18 per cent of those who voted for Walker support Obama. Writes Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast:

“Folks, if ever there was a day in the history of Wisconsin polling that should have shown Romney within spitting distance of Obama–or even ahead, given the obviously massive pro-Walker turnout–it should have been yesterday, which was the biggest and most enthusiastic day for Republican politics in recent state history. Yes, Romney should have been ahead, or at the very least tied. Instead, the same electorate that gave Walker this huge win said it would reelect the president handily.”

But the Republicans certainly hope that Walker’s victory will have national implications for the fall. And they will, not the least for American labor, which lost an important battle. As Jonathan Chait writes on his blog in New York Magazine:

“Walker’s win will certainly provide a blueprint for fellow Republicans. When they gain a majority, they can quickly move to not just wrest concessions from public sector unions but completely destroy them, which in turn eliminates one of the strongest sources of political organization for the Democratic Party. And whatever backlash develops, it’s probably not enough to outweigh the political benefit. Walker has pioneered a tactic that will likely become a staple of Republican governance. Fortune favors the bold.”

Wisconsin today: it’s do or die for the union movement

For the hard-pressed American trade union movement, with a membership of only 7 percent in the private sector while 36 per cent of public sector workers are union members, today’s recall election in Wisconsin is a moment of do or die.

Wisconsin’s voters will decide whether the Republican Governor Scott Walker, elected governor in November 2010, is fired or allowed to serve out his term after ramming through a new law revoking the collective bargaining rights of the State’s public employees.

The battle in Wisconsin has been going on for over a year and has mobilized all the political forces in the State, where in 1959 as the first State ever, the right to collective bargaining for public employees was established. In the process, Wisconsin has become the epicenter of the fierce ideological struggle in today’s American politics.

Only three times in history have American voters gone to the polls in so-called recall elections to decide on whether the State’s governor will be fired or get to continue to serve out the term.

The first recall election took place in North Dakota in 1921, when voters ousted Governor Lynn Frazier. Then followed California in 2003, when Democrat Gray Davis was voted out, paving the way for Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new governor. In both states, the recall elections were the result of angry conservative Republicans, while the Wisconsin election is the result of an angry union movement. All three elections resulted in fierce battles between the right and the left — in the first two, the right won.

The campaign has become the most expensive ever in Wisconsin. Over 63 million dollars have been spent in the fight between Walker and the challenger, Democrat Tom Barrett, Mayor of Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee. Lots of money has rolled in from across the country. Of Walker’s 30 million dollars, two-thirds come from wealthy conservative forces outside of Wisconsin, while Barrett is far behind with 4 million, a quarter of which from out of state.

Walker leads in the polls by an average of 6.7 percent, so he is favored to win, according to the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight. An unusually high turnout is expected, about 65 percent, which usually favors the Democrats. But in Wisconsin, voters on both sides so motivated that it is difficult to say who will benefit from voter mobilization.

A Walker victory will encourage the Republicans leading up to the presidential election in November, but President Obama’s victory in Wisconsin is probably not in danger. He currently leads over Mitt Romney in the polls by an average of 4.7 percent. Obama won there in 2008 and in Wisconsin, the Democratic candidate has won in every presidential election since 1988.

The Swede “who never died…”

A new book about one of the most famous Swedes in America, union organizer Joe Hill, or Joel Hägglund as he was called when he arrived in 1902, is soon out, according to today’s  New York Times .

The book is titled “The Man Who Never Died”and the author, William M. Adler, has found exciting new evidence, which seems to increase the likelihood that Hill was unjustly convicted and executed by a firing squad in Utah in 1915.

In Joe Hill’s memory, let’s play his song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” in a version by Joan Baez from a recent concert in Stockholm.