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Vintage Kenney: The late labor leader takes on establishment

SEATTLE (May 29, 2013) — A public memorial service will be held for Larry Kenney, former President of the Washington State Labor Council, at 2 p.m. this Saturday, June 1 at the Mountaineers, 7700 Sand Point Way N.E., in Seattle. He passed away on May 14 after a lengthy illness.

In reviewing his distinguished career as the leader of the state’s largest labor organization, the entire staff of The Stand came across the following speech Kenney gave on April 16, 1990, before the Community Development Round Table, a private weekly meeting of business leaders and media executives organized by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. In this speech — which merited publication in its entirety in The Seattle Times — Kenney questions the propriety of conducting secret meetings where corporate executives discuss important civic issues off the record with media representatives.

It’s a no-nonsense speech in which he unabashedly takes on powerful interests and eloquently defends working families and organized labor, all while keeping his sense of humor on display. It’s vintage Larry Kenney.

And its criticism of the clubby relationship between journalists and corporate executives — as well as its discussion of corporate tax breaks, privatization, deregulation and union busting — maintains its relevance today. Enjoy.

Thank you for inviting me here today.

kenney-larry-obitLast fall, I criticized the Community Development Round Table. Many of you contacted me to express your opinions about my remarks. You pointed out that you discuss important issues that affect the welfare of the community. I’m sure you do.

You let me know that the meetings are interesting and the discussion is lively. I never doubted that.

You told me that CDRT is an organization of community leaders created to educate yourselves about the issues, that you have no specific agenda, that you were not formed for sinister purposes. I believe that those are your intentions.

My concern is not that you get together and break bread, although I do think this creates conflict-of-interest problems for the media representatives. Nor is the fact that you represent the business and professional elite in Seattle my major concern. And it does not trouble me that you discuss public issues.

I know many of you, some of you very well. With perhaps one exception, I don’t consider any of you to be evil or malevolent.

My concern is not who you are, but what this organization makes you appear to be. I am troubled when the business and media establishments meet on a regular basis to discuss public matters at secret meetings.

A major question I faced before coming here was to decide my approach. I didn’t know whether I should scold you or laugh and say, “Come on, guys, get serious.” But both you and the issues are too important to dismiss lightly.

I’m not here to make you angry. That wouldn’t accomplish much. I would like you to forget who I am for a minute and listen to what I say. I may not be your best friend, but I’m not your enemy. I’m as much a part of the establishment as you are; I just get treated differently. But that gives me a perspective and some freedom that none of you has.

I first learned about this organization when (then Boeing CEO) Frank Shrontz talked to you during the Machinists’ strike against Boeing. We responded with a meeting of our own, at the same time, and we invited the press. That gave us an opportunity to make organized labor aware of our concern and to see if labor leaders agreed with us. They do.

Since then, many of you have told me that Shrontz mentioned the strike only briefly. But your unsubstantiated statements would never convince any of the people I work for.

In your comments to me, it appeared that you believe I was objecting to Shrontz’s appearance during a strike. You assumed that I had no interest in the CDRT beyond that labor dispute. That assumption is wrong.

What I said is that the CDRT organization itself is cause for concern. I question why the bylaws tell you to hide your membership. I question why the weekly meetings are not publicly acknowledged. I don’t understand the need for secrecy.

Secrecy may puff you up and make you feel important. But you don’t need puffery. You are already important. What you do — and the people you know and work with — puts you among the city’s movers and shakers.

Individually and collectively, you play a major part in setting Seattle’s priorities. You play an important role in determining our city’s future. By your access to wealth and the levers of power, as well as by your positions in business and the media, you can make things happen. Not much of major importance will be done in Seattle without your support.

More important, your united opposition can kill any project.

Secrecy only prompts the question, “What have you got to hide?” The media representatives here should find that question uncomfortable.

Secrecy breeds public distrust. It may also breed an attitude that you are the real insiders and that all the rest of us are somehow less important.

I also question the “community” in your title. You are not what we normally consider a representative community.

You have the media honchos, but not working reporters. You don’t include unions, but you do include union busters. The Municipal League is here, but not the League of Women Voters. Some minorities and women are included, but no one whose reputation was built as an advocate for those groups.

But allow me to talk about something that’s more important to me — organized labor and the community.

I said that some of you may think you are the real insiders. By inference, that means the rest of us are “out of the loop.” And to a large extent, that’s how our community is run. Workers and their concerns are considered impediments to the free flow of goods and a smoothly functioning economy.

For the past decade, businesses and its allies have pretty much had their own way. You’ve gotten some great tax breaks. There’s been a tremendous reduction in government oversight. Deregulation and privatization have untied your hands. And, wisely perhaps, you’ve taken advantage of the opportunities presented to you.

On the labor front, business has had a green light to bust unions. Labor laws have been virtually unenforced. The National Labor Relations Board was packed with anti-labor zealots. So was the Department of Labor.

For the past couple of decades, many media pundits and popular conservatives have discounted organized labor and predicted our early demise. But we’re still here. We are not going to go away.

The decline in union membership has stopped, and some small gains are being made. It’s likely that we are starting another period of growth. If it doesn’t happen this year, it will happen sometime in the near future.

Business has to understand that organized labor, and I don’t mean just the AFL-CIO and unions, is a permanent part of our society. Sometimes we are more effective than at other times. But we’re a presence, and we have an impact — like it or not.

When civility is ignored and organized labor is subjected to relentless attack, survival becomes an issue — mainly at the local level. Every time a plant closes or a company decides to make war on its union, the issue of survival for that local union becomes real.

Sometimes it seems that every contract renewal requires the union to validate its right to exist. So no one should be surprised if unions react defensively.

Sometimes I compare local unions to the state of Israel — surrounded by enemies, fighting back as hard as they can, and overly defensive at even the smallest threat. Sometimes that reaction is unwarranted. But all too often, it is more than warranted.

Take the case of Eastern Airlines. When Frank Lorenzo took over Eastern, he deliberately provoked a strike. A few days later he ran to bankruptcy court, where he got the support he needed to follow a prearranged union-busting plan. He sold Eastern assets at bargain prices to subsidiaries for the purpose of getting rid of the unions.

But now, even Eastern’s creditors have lost patience with Lorenzo. They are forcing a plan that we suggested a year ago — appointing a trustee to manage the airline.

A trustee won’t help us much. Things have gone much too far. Lorenzo will probably succeed in getting rid of, or seriously weakening, the unions. But Eastern will go under, too.

So there’s one fewer carrier, less competition, fewer travel alternatives, and some good jobs down the tube. How do the rest of us, labor and business, benefit from that?

Closer to home, Nordstrom decided it wanted to eliminate union representation in its stores. The Nordstrom management is clearly anti-union.

The opening shot was to suggest that union membership be voluntary. Even though Nordstrom treats customers well, it would never let them “volunteer” to pay for their clothes. But that’s the deal it wants the union to take.

As you know, federal law requires unions to represent every person in the bargaining unit, dues-payer or not. By insisting on voluntary membership, the company is trying to set up the union’s demise.

Jim Nordstrom shouldn’t have been surprised when labor took offense. When survival is the issue, the stakes get high. Is it any surprise that the tactics get rough? What does the union have to lose?

That’s not good for business, it’s not good for society.

I get amused when someone — usually a reporter or a talk-show host — asks me about labor-management cooperation. It’s customarily phrased, “Why doesn’t labor cooperate more? Why are you always so adversarial?” Which of the media gurus has asked Jim Nordstrom that question?

When Jim Nordstrom decided to get even with the local papers by pulling his advertising, he was told that it was the wrong thing to do. An op-ed “think piece” in The Times said that Nordy should hire a better public-relations firm. The writer didn’t suggest that Nordstrom solve the problem by treating his employees or the union fairly.

It’s more than public-relations wars. We are dealing with real jobs held by real people at companies that have significant positions in their industries.

Back in the 1920s, the National Association of Manufacturers thought unions had been bashed into oblivion. Today, the same delusion seems to have afflicted some businesses and media types.

You may prefer a homogenous world where everyone is a business tycoon or corporate lawyer. You might not want to acknowledge that working people still build the planes you fly on and the skyscrapers you inhabit during the day.

But unless there’s a way to make a world where nothing is built or served or disposed of, you are going to have to rely on working people. And a lot of working people believe that they have a better chance of prospering if they organize and defend their interests collectively in a union.

And as events overseas have demonstrated, workers will overcome tremendous odds to accomplish their goals.

No union sets out to destroy a good company that treats its employees with respect and fairness. Neither workers nor their unions can survive without employers. But there are scores of employers that set out to get rid of unions or to make sure no union taints their company property.

If we must have business owners, media executives, and corporate lawyers, then let them see that their own self-interest is served by working together for the common good and the public welfare.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!