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.


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.

Wisconsin Democrats came close

Close, but no cigar. How disappointing!

The Democrats won two, but had needed to win three of the six recall elections in Wisconsin yesterday to capture the majority in the State’s Senate.

The Republican majority is now diminished, 17-16, but could be widened if the two Democrats, who the Republicans seek unseat, lose in the two remaining recall elections next Tuesday.

A new Democratic majority in the Senate would have meant not only a severe rebuke of, but also possibly an end to Republican Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting policies. Instead, the failure of the Democrats to capture the Senate makes it less likely that Walker himself will be the target of a recall election next January.

What has just happend in Wisconsin, with the governor’s clearly stated plan to disarm the unions and reduce their power and influence by abolishing the right to collective bargaining for public employees, is difficult to imagine having its equal anywhere in Europe today, where the trade union movement remains strong and is an accepted and integral partner in society.  So it is not only the outcome of yesterday’s recall elections that is disappointing, so is the fact that they had to take place at all.

For more detailed accounts of what happened check out RealClearPolitics and Talking Points Memo or John Nichols’ blog at The Nation.

Unions energized after Wisconsin defeat

The three-week long and bitter battle in Wisconsin is over, at least for now. Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues in the state legislature got their way in the end. Wisconsin’s public employees no longer have the right to collective bargaining.
A clever parliamentary maneuver, which outraged the Democrats, paved the way for their victory. In a hastily called evening meeting, without debate and without the participation of the 14 Democratic state senators still in exile in Illinois to prevent a vote on the budget, the Republican majority stripped public employees of the right to collective bargaining, which has been a fact in Wisconsin since 1959 — the first state to give public employees such a right.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne reported the other day on a nationwide poll in which a clear majority supports the unions and while the governor is supported by only 31 percent of the respondents. Dionne points to that numbers and draws the conclusion that these could have serious political implications for the Republican Party in next year’s election.
The governor did not give in. A ban is necessary, he said, to overcome Wisconsin’s budget crisis. But the New York Times says it “was always about politics.”
It is hard to imagine that something similar could happen in Scandinavia or Western Europe today, where the unions are not only stronger but also a more acceptable part of the social machinery than here in America. Still today, in nearly half of the States, public employees have no right to collective bargaining.
However, Wisconsin governor’s victory may be short-lived. The trade unions – having faced headwinds for many years – have new and strong winds in their backs. They believe that Walker, who was elected last fall with 52 percent of the vote, may have gone too far. Donations to the unions are up, so is recruiting. The union leaders, who admit that they lost this battle, now see that loss in as a clear political advantage for next year’s election. It remains to be seen. But there is new energy and new hope in the air.

The trade unions’ uncertain future

This week’s positive news must be that a deal is on its way to prevent the federal government’s shutdown on 4 March. The settlement, however, is temporary and only postpones the decision for two weeks before a new decision is necessary to raise the debt ceiling, thereby allowing the government to borrow more money.
The expected compromise includes budget cuts of four billion dollars, about which there are now intensive negotiations between the White House and both political parties in Congress.
This week’s negative news must be that the battle about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s proposal to scrap the public employee unions’ right to collective bargaining continues unabated. The governor is not giving in and is now threatening to lay off thousands of public employees. The demonstrations in Madison continue as does the 14 Democratic senators’ exile to avoid a vote on the governor’s proposal in the Senate.
In other states like Ohio and Indiana, also with Republican governors, similar attempts – “union-busting,” according to many – are under way to limit the public sector trade union power, and the debate on the future of American union movement has now spread way beyond the battleground in Wisconsin.
In a commentary in the new issue of the New Yorker called “Union Blues,” Hendrik Hertzberg laments the decline of the American labor movement. Today, he writes, the public employee unions are the only ones which have retained, and even increased, their influence and membership, while the unions in the private sector have steadily declined in influence since the golden days in the 1950s and 60’s.
And in yesterday’s New York Times, Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized attempts in Wisconsin and other states to kill the trade union movement. The unions are needed in the public sector, although some imbalance has been created in the system. Instead of declaring war on the unions, he wrote, should we negotiate new agreements with them, which would better reflect today’s realities in the economy and the workplace. 20bloomberg & st = cse