Democratic Convention 2012

Dems Manhandle ABC News Crew, AFSCME Chief Beats Up Chair as Laborgeddon Begins


ABC News correspondent Brian Ross got threatened with arrest in Charlotte yesterday, and an ABC camera crew got slapped down by an important Obama fundraiser. Meanwhile, a government employee union president lost his marbles and assaulted an empty chair.

And despite costly efforts to bus in activists, labor rallies have been notably small around the Democratic National Convention.

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones says labor has been shafted by the DNC's organizers, while the Los Angeles Times' Alana Semuels says unions have been reduced to trying to make nice with their Democratic patrons in the right-to-work state of North Carolina. 

This year's DNC is as clear a picture as we're likely to get of the death throes of organized labor in the United States. Last year's rumble in Wisconsin ended in a complete route for government employee unions. Small but telling votes in California's off-season elections also demonstrated the public's desire to roll back union power in the only sector of the economy where it's still growing: government employment.

Here's the video of Ross and his crew getting the kibosh from Rajiv Fernando, an Obama bundler whose lack of credentials Ross highlighted a while back when Fernando was serving on something called the International Security Advisory Board. Fernando is not a labor figure, but he's an old Chicago hand comfortable with union-style use of force in exchanging ideas. To get a sense of the contrast, stick around after the DNC video ends to see Ross doing the same thing with big Romney donors last week. They're no more cooperative but a damn sight more peaceful. Ross has been chasing around plenty of labor figures at the DNC as well. 

Meanwhile, Lee Saunders, who was recently elected president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), did what any good speaker does when the audience starts to tune out: He got violent.

Descriptions of Saunders' antics differ, but all sources seem to agree he went ape on an empty chair. From JD Journal

The public worker's union AFSCME's newly elected president, Lee Saunders, led the event with some risqué humor, addressing an empty chair as if it were Clint Eastwood — an allusion to Eastwood addressing an empty chair as if it were Obama — and then grew irate and violent with the chair.

"He's been sitting here listening to all the speaker before me, he's been listening to me, I want you to give Clint Eastwood a round of applause," said Saunders. "I brought him with me to learn some things, OK? To teach him, to educate him."

After interrogating the chair, he said, "He doesn't have anything to say."

"Mitt Romney doesn't have anything to say, Paul Ryan doesn't have anything to say."

Things took a dark turn when he then kicked and threw the chair, yelling "Dirty Harry, make my day! We're gonna kick ass in November!" The crowd nevertheless, cheered him on.

The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker says it was meant to be a joke

"I've got a couple of questions .?.?. I want to ask Clint Eastwood. But first, buddy, what do you have to say for yourself? I didn't hear you. .?.?. Clint's been sitting here for the past hour. He doesn't have anything to say for himself. Mitt Romney has nothing to say for himself. Paul Ryan has nothing to say for himself. We've got to make our voices heard. .?.?. If we do that, we will win in November. So I say to you, Dirty Harry: 'Dirty Harry, make my day!'?"

Whereupon Saunders knocked the empty chair off the stage. The ensuing thud was commentary. As they say, it isn't so much the joke; it's how you tell it.

And BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray conveys even more menace

Suddenly, the tone changed: Saunders, finishing his speech, began to kick the chair, threw it, and yelled "Dirty Harry, make my day! We're gonna kick ass in November!"

The crowd was cheering, and the humor had gained a palpable edge.

I can't find a video of Saunders' performance, but this sounds like the frustration of a man rendered impotent by events: 


JD Journal sheds more light on the particulars of union leaders' frustration: 

Perhaps not all the aggression was inspired by Eastwood, however. After all, Democrats stuck them out in the middle of North Carolina, a state that has right-to-work laws and therefore a weak union presence

"Charlotte wouldn't have been our choice as a city," Saunders said. "It's in the right to work state, it's tough to organize down here for private and public sector unions.

I lived in California too long to believe the Great Divorce between unions and their Democratic patrons is imminent, but clearly something has shifted. Even the selection of L.A.'s unimpressive Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as the convention's chairman is not a straightforward win for government employees. (Except in the sense that Antonio Ramón Villar, Jr. is of course a government employee.) Although he organized mobs for United Teachers Los Angeles way back when, Villaraigosa has steered a course away from his old comrades while serving as mayor, at one point trying to manage a tranche of schools directly without union work rules, at other times encouraging charter schools, and finally denouncing the teachers union during one of his failed effort to become a statewide power. 

We're in the twelfth year of the 21st century, and this union shrinkage is long overdue. But don't expect labor honchos to go gently. They never have before. Also public safety unions are in most states the most powerful labor organizations. (Even in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker let discretion have the better part of valor when it was time to confront cops and firefighters.) So it's only a slight exaggeration to say they have all the guns.