How much disgrace can the Trump administration fit into its latest disgrace? A question worth asking, especially when the disgrace in question is the department of labor's induction of President Ronald Reagan (or Trump 1.0, as we may as well start calling him) into the department's Hall of Honor.
It's the first time I had ever heard that the Department of Labor had such a hall, but it really does, and has since 1989, first year of that noteworthy labor trailblazer George HW Bush (pause for mirthless laughter).
The idea is that the DoL "posthumously honors those Americans whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor have enhanced the quality of life of millions yesterday, today, and for generations to come," which is completely honorable.
Among the previous inductees are such titans as A. Philip Randolph, Samuel Gompers, and Eugene V. Debs—who between them founded three of the sturdiest and most significant labor unions in American history: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the American Federation of Labor, and the American Railway Union.
Let's see, who else? Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, Sidney Hillman, George Meany, Frances Perkins, David Dubinsky, Bayard Rustin, Rev. Addie Wyatt, Esther Peterson, Dolores Huerta, and other, less familiar names. There are also groups, including the Workers of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, 911 Rescue Workers, and The Chinese Railroad Workers.
This is clearly an auspicious hallway, marked by the names of people who put themselves at incalculable risk, many at time when there was no legal protection or even precedent for them to do so. But circumstances demanded that they do so.
Not all the names are super impressive like the ones above. Let's not forget who the president was between 2000 and 2008, during which time you see a lot of John Willard Marriott (of the Marriott Marriotts), Adolphus Busch, and Harley-Davidson.
And yet, relativity.
We've all talked about how the global embarrassment that was America under George W. Bush feels quaint by comparison with the incalculable shame of today. So, too, does the cringe of seeing a billionaire hotel magnate's name next to those of activists, socialists, and organizers feel like the miracle at Lourdes compared to the inclusion of Ronald Woodrow Wilson Reagan to a list of "Americans whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor have enhanced the quality of life of millions"
ENHANCED, it says. Not thwarted. Not stomped. Not enthusiastically disregarded for the direct financial benefit of a tiny subgroup of predatory monsters.
This is clearly a Donald Trump quicksand scenario, where the more you react the faster you get dragged down, right? Yesterday I didn't even know the Dept of Labor Hall of Honor existed. Now I'm going to spend a little time vomiting up reasons why this is not merely an inaccuracy, but an affront.
Not an affront to the Department of Labor. An affront to the word "labor." An affront to all language. An affront to meaning.
One is tempted to make a specious simile for dramatic emphasis, something along the lines of "it would be like putting Osama bin Laden's name on the 9/11 memorial," or, I don't know, like Emma González getting a tattoo of Wayne LaPierre on her forearm.
But analogies like those are useless for several reasons. One is that most Americans don't understand what an analogy, or any other kind of figurative language even is anymore because Reagan gutted public schools because why should property owners have to pay taxes so YOUR kid can learn how to read and reason with any depth or complexity?
More importantly, however, the whole hyperbolic analogy construction phenomenon has been devalued by the unembellishability of Trump's eternal now. Which is to say, you can't make satire out of self-satire, you can't exaggerate the infinite, and, finally, there are no words you can put to the right of the equals sign that will make "Ronald Reagan + labor hero" sound like anything less than "We have never been at war with Eastasia."
I can't improve upon this 2004 piece from Democracy Now, in which Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers of America, calls Reagan's presidency "one of the worst in history for organized labor."
But why limit this to his presidency? Reagan's contempt for working Americans who stand in the way of company profits predates his career in Washington by more than 30 years.
When Reagan became unable to secure even the middling acting roles he had been known-ish for in Hollywood, he switched gears and campaigned to become the President of the Screen Actors Guild, an office he held from 1947-1952 and 1959-'60.
On October 23, 1947, Reagan appeared as a "friendly witness" at a public hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, decrying the influence of Communism in Hollywood, but declining to name names. When asked whether he could identify any Communists in the film industry, Reagan answered: “No sir, I have no investigative force, or anything, and I do not know.”
In 1985, the San Jose Mercury News reported that six months earlier, on April 10, 1947, Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman had met secretly with the FBI, provided agents with names and details about a group called Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP) which he had come to believe was controlled by Communists.
Reagan had quit HICCASP after a meeting in July, 1946—a meeting that was under FBI surveillance, as it turned out.
According to the heavily redacted files obtained by the Mercury News, Reagan had served as an FBI informant as early as 1943. To protect his identity in reports, the FBI assigned him a code name: X-10.
Far more damning was the 1952 episode in which the talent agency MCA was granted a special waiver from the Screen Actors Guild entitling the company to unlimited production of television programming (then a new medium) employing SAG talent.
This meant MCA would be allowed to employ actors while also serving as their agents, which is to say negotiators—an essential anti-trust red flag, and a clear indication that the best interests of the company are being favored over those of the employee.
The thing about this waiver is that in 1952, Reagan was the president of SAG and a client of MCA.
A year after the waiver was signed, Reagan became the host, "program supervisor," occasional star, and most importantly, part owner of GE Theater, an early, very successful drama anthology program produced for television by... duh, MCA, and sponsored by General Electric, which would, many years later, acquire a majority share of NBC Universal, a company that included the asset library of MCA Universal, which... yeah.
But before that, GE would become the parent company of Reagan himself.
From 1954-'61 (and probably a lot longer), Reagan's main job was as a shill for GE, hosting its TV show and touring the country giving speeches on behalf of the company and its products, speeches with a none-too-subtle message that the corporation—far more than any government—was an essential ingredient in the narrative of American prosperity and success. Having had great success with its foray into nuclear power, GE spent the '60s branching out into aerospace and computers. Though the latter was a failure for them, the former department proved instrumental to the success of the moon landing.
In 1960, though still technically a democrat, Reagan campaigned for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign against John Kennedy.
In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy subpoenaed Reagan's tax returns from 1952-'55, as part of a yearlong antitrust investigation against MCA, during which Reagan testified before a grand jury. The Justice Department could not, or chose not to bring further charges against MCA, but it did insist that the company close down its talent division before acquiring the majority interest in Universal Studios that same year, as all that company's biggest names were their clients, too.
MCA complied, but its chairman, Lew Wasserman, remained a loyal partisan of Reagan's political career in years to come.
One other big thing happened in 1962: Reagan switched parties and registered as a republican.
Reagan was Governor of California from 1967-'75, during which time he "fought the efforts of migrant farm workers to win union contracts, vetoing the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a bill granting farm workers collective bargaining rights. In one well-publicized episode, then-Governor Reagan appeared on television eating grapes in defiance of a union-sponsored boycott against miserable working conditions in California’s vineyards."
His hostility to workers only mounted when he moved into the White House.
In August of 1981, the 13,000-strong Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) were engaged in an aggressive contract renegotiation with the FAA, now led by Reagan appointee Lynn Helms, a former Marine and President of Piper Aircraft Corporation. Reagan had courted, and won, PATCO's endorsement for his run against Carter in 1980.
His courtship letter to them read, in part: "I have been briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation's air traffic control system. They have told me that too few people working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment has placed the nation's air travelers in unwarranted danger. In an area so clearly related to public policy the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly.
You can rest assured that if I am elected president, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety..."
Now he was president and his justice department was preparing a list of PATCO workers who should be fired first in the event of a walkout.
The union's negotiating position was hampered by a crucial legal distinction: PATCO was designated a civil service union, and therefore legally prohibited from striking. A strike, however, would be the only way to get this status, along with their increasingly intolerable working conditions, changed. The FAA would only go so far in the negotiations, and no further.
On August 3rd, 1981, at 7am, roughly 12,000 members of the union walked off the job.
That same day, President Reagan ordered the striking controllers back to work:
“Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees. I am not participating in any strike against the government of the United States or any agency thereof. It is for this reason that I must tell those that fail to report to duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they will be terminated.”
About 1,000 strikers complied. The rest stood firm.
By August 4, FAA supervisors and military personnel had been called in to replace the strikers, and air traffic was mostly back under control.
On August 5, President Reagan followed through, personally firing more than 11,000 air traffic controllers, and banning them from federal service for life. He also authorized the arrest of the strike's organizers, and ultimately broke the union.
That's what you get for trying to squeeze a fair wage from Ronald Reagan. Unless that's what he meant by "adjusting staff levels."
In a 2011 NY Times editorial, Joseph McCartin assessed the effects of Ronald Reagan's federal unionbusting zeal:
"By firing those who refused to heed his warning, and breaking their union, Reagan took a considerable risk. Even his closest advisors worried that a major air disaster might result from the wholesale replacement of striking controllers. Air travel was significantly curtailed, and it took several years and billions of dollars (much more than PATCO had demanded) to return the system to its pre-strike levels.
But the risk paid off for Reagan in the short run. He showed federal workers and Soviet leaders alike how tough he could be. Although there were 39 illegal work stoppages against the federal government between 1962 and 1981, no significant federal job actions followed Reagan's firing of the PATCO strikers. His forceful handling of the walkout, meanwhile, impressed the Soviets, strengthening his hand in the talks he later pursued with Mikhail Gorbachev."
Motley Fool writer Alex Planes puts it more concisely: "The modern labor community has its own method of dating history. There's "Before Reagan," which covers much of the history of labor rights in the 20th century, and then there's "After Reagan," which begins on Aug. 5, 1981."
Irony 1: In 1960, as SAG President for the second time, Reagan led his union to its first ever strike, over the issue of residuals (payments that accrue to actors when their work is rebroadcast or released). After nearly six weeks, the studios they were negotiating with relented and the actors went back to work. Every actor who has ever gotten a job is grateful to Ronald Reagan for this, and rightfully so.
Irony 2 (the much larger irony): In 1982, a year after the PATCO disgrace, in response to Soviet-occupied Polish government's crackdown on the 10 million-strong Polish Solidarity union, Reagan issued a public address that must have really stung the 11,000 American union members he had just terminated for the infraction of exercising one of any union's fundamental tools, before busting the union out of existence while the world watched.
"By outlawing Solidarity, a free trade organization to which an overwhelming majority of Polish workers and farmers belong," Reagan said, the Polish government has "made it clear that they never had any intention of restoring one of the most elemental human rights — the right to belong to a free trade union."
It's a curious accident of history that he wound up being on the right side of something, despite his reasons.
Joe Carl's excellent DailyKos post from last year entitled "Whatever Happened to Unions? Ronald Reagan," elaborated on the Reagan administration's systemic antagonism toward workers:
"He made a string of anti-union appointments at the Department of Labor. The National Labor Relations Board eventually would be controlled by Reagan appointees. Policies shifted dramatically in favor of business. “By the end of Reagan’s first term,” enforcement of labor laws was so lax as to provide “virtually no deterrent” to violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Reagan had effectively “gutted much existing law through biased application of it.”
In 1952, When Reagan led SAG, union membership constituted close to one-third of the American workforce. By the time he won the presidency it had fallen to roughly a quarter, and is now slightly higher than a tenth. A 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that with a brief exception during the Clinton administration, "wages for the bottom 70 percent of earners have been essentially stagnant" since the late '70s.
It goes on to reveal that a "significant portion of the rise of wage inequality between high earners and middle earners is clearly associated with the ongoing erosion of unionization—which leads not just to reduced union bargaining power, but also weakens unions’ ability to set norms and wage standards that raise the wages of comparable nonunion workers."
And lest we forget, Thor Benson of In These Times reminds us that "Reagan’s economic agenda was focused on pursuing policies that increased the wealth of the rich, including reducing the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, while increasing the tax burden on the working and middle classes."
The most chilling lines in Carl's piece are of course, the ones that could be cut-and-pasted into some future history of the early 21st century. How, schoolchildren will ask (if there are still schools, or children to fill them with), did these monsters get into power to begin with? And maybe this paragraph will be beamed onto their robot unconscious memory storage drive:
"...business had no incentive to bolt from Republicans when Democrats offered no alternative economic message. Reagan fell back on his (and Nixon’s) go-to fear-mongering about crime, and, in the end, Democrats posted modest mid-term gains in the House, which they already controlled, and could not cut into the Republican hold on the Senate. It was a stunning failure of leadership."
Nowhere NEAR as stunning as the gesture of Reagan, of ALL presidents, being honored by the Department of Labor, of ALL departments, in 2018. Of course it's a little disingenuous to claim to be even mildly surprised by the actions of the Trump government. But if you are alive and your brain hasn't totally capitulated to the constant barrage, you know that it's possible, even easy, to be shocked without being surprised.
You don't even have to agree to the proposition that he was a monstrous villain whose legacy is still alive in every crisis of American governance that's making us all into psychotic zombies (though he was and you should) to agree that the gesture of this honor is a very pointed statement by the Trump administration. That statement communicates two things: We stand against American workers and we stand against our own existence.
Put another way: "Hi, are you a CEO? No? Fuck you. Signed, Your Government."
It's political nihilism that enshrines the perspective that the government's role is not to protect the well-being and opportunities of its citizens but to aid in the process of generating wealth. You needn't be a cynic to know that perspective has been guiding the vision of the US government since at least the end of WWII, with a short four-year blip for the Carter administration—and listen to how indignant people get when they talk about him now.
But that doesn't make this Department of Labor honor an act of honesty, or even of nihilistic trolling. It's just one more contemptible lie designed to make truth more relative and reality more horrible.
Nice work, fellas.
Carl again: "No man ever hurt working men and women more than did Ronald Reagan."
Maybe this will be where the current president makes his mark at last.