Memorial Day – 2016

Memorial Day – 2016

Clam Lake WI – We awoke this morning with blue, nearly cloudless skies, a warm sun working to take off the chill of the night in the forest.  Peering through the trees from our cabin, the water below is as blue as the sky it reflects.  Earlier, the lake had been calm, its reflections from the trees from the other side so precisely mirroring the view; now a slight DSCN1439ripple on the water distorts the reflection.

Later this morning, the small band of area veterans will gather in our small Northwoods hamlet to march to the acre-sized local cemetery where there will be a brief speech or two, a nondenominational reflection by the priest who serves our mission chapel and a 21-gun salute, followed by taps – two trumpet players with one located at the outer side of the park to echo the notes of the nearest player.

The small gathering, old, fragile men holding canes (some wearing baseball caps, noting their Navy ship or Army and Marine units), well-fed middle-aged men and woman and impatient toddlers, will stand in silence for a few moments to honor the dead of past wars.

We will think of Rich, our dear friend of nearly 50 years, who died several years ago at age 93 and is buried here.  As skilled and finicky a carpenter that ever was, Rich lived his entire life in this backwoods area, except for the time in the Army during World War II.  Only in the later years of his life did he relate to me the horrors of participating in four landings on South Pacific islands during World War II.  Of his own fear and his killing of Japanese soldiers while the chief of the machine gun crew he led.  While others would brag of their own service the bar of the resort he and his wife once owned, he would walk away, never disclosing his own true heroism.  (It was only after his death that we learned he received a top medal for bravery.)

The scene at the Clam Lake cemetery, of course, will be replicated in every town, city and hamlet throughout the land.

This day should provide us with meaning, not mere pomp and circumstance.  It’s not enough to puff up our chests and proclaim how great our nation is.  Let’s not be sunshine patriots.

Mostly, this day should remind us of how widely devastating war is.  The impact of our 20th and 21st century wars is shown by the fact that nearly every community has a War Memorial listing the young men and women who were killed in those conflicts.  And, we in the United States have never had to face death in any numbers as terrible as those suffered by the peoples in Europe in World War II, by the Vietnamese, Laotians and others in the Vietnam Conflict and more recently by the Iraqis and Afghans in the current continuing fighting in the Mideast.

This is not a plea for “peace at any cost;” sometimes conflict may be needed, but the lesson must be that war comes “as a last resort.”  Conflicts that begin small have a tendency to escalate into terrible long-lasting and devastating events that go on and on.  (Witness that World War I began over the assassination of a minor monarch in Sarajevo in 1914.)

Today we have a major Presidential candidate promising to “make America great again” by means not quite outlined.  He wins great huzzahs when he intones how he’d take care of our world-wide crises.  We must not blindly succumb to such bombast.  If such boastful declarations mean dropping bombs or unleashing our military might, the consequences could be too terrible to imagine.

We will celebrate Memorial Day in this peaceful forest hopeful that the memory of our dead soldiers, sailors, marines and others will provide us with the knowledge to look for peaceful means to resolve our conflicts.  Ken Germanson – May 30, 2016

Hiroshima: A memory persists for 70 years

Perhaps no date stands out more in my long life than August 6, 1945.  It was two days before my 16th birthday and it had been a warm summer day.  I had biked home, carrying my ragtag golf clubs on my back after playing 27 holes of golf.  It was six o’clock and my parents sat in the living room listening to a news report on radio. They had shocked expressions.

I heard the radio announcer state in somber words, describing “a bomb equivalent in size to 100 blockbusters.” What was that all about? I asked my parents.

My dad said that we (meaning the U.S.) had dropped something called an atomic bomb on a Japanese city called Hiroshima.  “It may mean the end of the war,” he added.

The relief I might have felt by the possible ending of World War II was blunted by my realization that our country had caused terrible devastation, even though at that time I th-2believed, along with just about everyone else that “the Japs deserved it.”  Hadn’t we sung — and hadn’t I plunked out the song on the piano — “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap?”   (I feel shamed today to write “Jap,” but feel it’s needed here to show the tenor of the times.)

The concept of 100 blockbusters blew my mind. That would mean 100 blocks were destroyed by one bomb; the United States had instituted the use of blockbuster bombs on German cities late in the war and it was not until many years later that I learned of the terrible devastation Allied bombers had done to cities like Dresden.

President Obama has announced that he will be visiting Hiroshima at the end of May, the first US president to make such a visit since the tragic bombing more than seventy years ago. A debate has arisen over whether the President should apologize for the devastation.  Whether such an apology is necessary or not, it’s not mine to answer.

There are lessons we should learn from Hiroshima. I remember seeing early news photos from the bombing and noting there was but one relatively tall, slender building still standing among the devastation.

One year later, one of our next-door neighbor’s sons showed snapshots he had taken while in Hiroshima as a member of an army occupational force.  Even though his black-th-3and-white photos were of the tiny-size typical of the era, the impact couldn’t have been more striking.  There, standing like a lone sentinel was the same singular building amid the rubble, a tragic symbol of the bombing that cost some 200,000 lives.

More than anything else the killing of those Japanese citizens, including many women and children, dramatized the terrible losses that are foisted upon all of us by war.  A scene from Erich Maria Remarque’s famous book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has further pointed toward the terrible foolishness of war.  That book, written from a German soldier’s point of view during the First World War, has the hero seeking shelter in a bomb crater and finding a dying French soldier in the same shelter.  After a few tense moments, the French soldier dies.  Guiltily, the German soldier searches the dead man’s pockets, finding a wallet, containing a small picture of a smiling woman and a young child.  It was obviously the man’s family, a family not much unlike his own.  The German solder cries.

Some of us hoped immediately after World War II that we could take steps to end the terrible nationalism that brought about the wars of that Century; why not form a federal world government — modeled after the U.S. Constitution that in 1787 developed a process to bring together our disparate states into a central government that could ensure peace between the states?  The dream failed, though a hamstrung United Nations emerged.

Wars haven’t ended; in fact today’s world is spawning an epidemic of violence.  Now, however, added to the fear of one nation fighting another, we have tribes and terror groups that know no borders engaged in hateful killing sprees.

Those of us who preach peace and urge restraint on “revenge” and “retribution” are castigated as being “weak” and “dreamers.”  Let’s reject that: we recognize the need to sometimes bear arms to enforce peace, but we must resist the inclinations — so often stirred by ambition politicians — to act first in starting a fight, to use a pledge of “making America great again” as an excuse to start bombing again — and killing many innocents along the way.  Ken Germanson, May 15, 2016.

Historic Wisconsin Primary again in spotlight

This year, for the first time in 24 years, Wisconsin voters find themselves in the spotlight as the nation watches the presidential primaries of both parties.  Many pundits say Tuesday’s primary may be a change-making primary election.

Until the 1980s, the Wisconsin primary was always one of the first in the country, being held in April, ahead of most other states.  As early as 1912 when the Republican Party was engaged in a truly revolutionary primary campaign, the Wisconsin primary was in a key decision-making role nationally. In that 1912 election, Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette shook up the Republican presidential nomination by throwing hit hat in the ring for the Republican nomination, in opposition to his long-time political friend, Teddy

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Fighting Bob La Follette

Roosevelt, who was running on the so-called “Bull Moose” ticket for the Republican nomination. Also of the ballot was William Howard Taft who had been Teddy’s original pick to succeed him as president in 1908. So here we had in Wisconsin a fight going on between two progressive Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bob La Follette, against a moderately progressive Republican, the incumbent President Taft.

Wisconsin at that time was one of about six states to have presidential primaries.  It was a new process having been established first in 1905 in the state of Oregon.  Wisconsin followed soon after.  Wisconsin’s role as one of the first truly consequential primary states in each election year didn’t change until the 1980s when other states started jockeying to hold elections “first.”  Thus it was that Iowa became the first caucus state and New  Hampshire the first state to hold a direct presidential primary.

I had to smile this weekend at news reports of how Ted Cruz and John Kasich showed up at Milwaukee’s American Serb Memorial Hall for its legendary Friday fish fry, where the candidates go table-to-table to greet voters, most of whom are more dedicated to their fried fish than a candidate’s handshake.  It reminded me of the time in 1972 when they were four major candidates vying for the Democratic nomination that year. At that time I was the Milwaukee county chairman for Senator Hubert Humphrey.  His campaign staff had asked me to advise them on where to have the candidate show up during the weekend before the Wisconsin election, which was also Easter weekend.  We knew it very would be hard to find venues where anybody would show up to hear their words.  As I was the so-called resident expert on local politics, I suggested that the Friday fish fry at Serb Hall would be a natural. And so it happened all of the other candidates also showed up for the Friday fish fry.  Then the question came what shall we do for Easter Sunday and I suggested that we go to the zoo. It was a popular place for families after all.

Lo and behold what do you think happened?  All four presidential candidates in the Democratic Party showed at the zoo, hoping to gain a little bit of a soundbite on the local news channels.  It was a frigid day and unfortunately it appeared the media outnumbered the families.

So much for my campaign expertise.

In the 1960 election of President Kennedy, the Wisconsin primary played a critical role.  He narrowly won here, but the win showed he could beat a man who had been called “Wisconsin’s third senator.”  Hubert Humphrey was senator from neighboring Minnesota and a frequent visitor to the state; he had many friends among the Democratic party leadership.  Kennedy’s win led him to the eventual nomination and election as President.

John Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, as his campaign manager, literally lived in the state during the 30 days before the April primary.  In Theodore White’s outstanding history, “The Making of the President – 1960,” he describes how Kennedy began his campaign on a chilly March day in the old logging town of Mellen, standing alone and hatless on a windblown street.

The Wisconsin primaries in 1968 and 1972 helped to bring reforms to the Democratic Party.  In 1968, another Minnesota Senator, Eugene McCarthy easily won here as the “so-called” peace candidate who openly opposed US involvement in Vietnam.  Since the primary was held just days after incumbent President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from his re-election campaign and before Bobby Kennedy was on the ballot, the McCarthy win was not consequential in the eventual nomination.  Vice President Humphrey entered the

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Campaign flyer for Eugene McCarthy candidacy in 1968

race, but declined to participate in primaries; he was content to accept establishment delegates.  Yet, the primary was important to show the strength of the more liberal, anti-war wing of the State’s Democrats.  A Gene McCarthy supporter, Don Peterson of Chippewa Falls, took over leadership of the State Democratic Party.  Humphrey, however, went on to win the nomination, but the disaffection of many anti-war voters may have resulted in the win by Richard Nixon.

Four years later, another leading critic of the War, Sen. George McGovern won the primary, beating out Hubert Humphrey, the candidate favored by most of labor at the time, Washington Sen. Henry Jackson and New York Mayor John Lindsay.  The turmoil of the primaries and the Democratic conventions prompted the party to reform itself, but taking away much of the power of the establishment Democrats.

The eventual nominations of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who narrowly beat out labor-endorsed Arizona Sen. Morris Udall, and Bill Clinton in 1992, who narrowly won over California Gov. Jerry Brown, all were made possible by the early wins in the Wisconsin primary.

This year, after a generation of being an “also ran” among the states holding primaries, Wisconsin voters again finding themselves in a key decision-making role.  While two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, though heavy leaders for their parties’ nominations, are still seeking to solidity their delegate totals.  Each of them, with their rivals, are said to be “make-or-break” positions.

The State’s labor movement, however, is no longer playing as strong a role in the primary process as it did in the past.  Nonetheless, in a situation where a few votes can sway a nomination, the role of working people and their unions can be critical.  – Ken Germanson, April 3, 2016

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It’s time to raise my taxes — and maybe even yours, too!

It’s doubtful anyone will be reading this column.  Who wants to be told they need to pay higher taxes, especially in mid-March, as income tax season is upon us?

Yet, buried in the news of this ludicrous Presidential election campaign is the troubling realization that our country is falling apart — literally.

The DC Metro in Washington shutdown on March 16, throwing that city into turmoil.

Electrical maintenance issues were blamed for creating safety issues that could have maimed or killed passengers.  In Congress, there was the usual pointless finger-pointing; the states of Maryland and Virginia blamed each other and the DC metro authority.  But the real issue was simply: lack of funds to keep up with needed repairs.

The DC Metro was just a symbol of maintenance issues plaguing nearly every major transit

Subway Shutdown

Metro trains arrive in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Washington. The head of the rail system that serves the nation’s capital and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs says the system will shut down for a full day Wednesday after a fire near one of the system’s tunnels. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

system in the U.S., estimated to equal $86 billions in repair backlog, according to a recent report on National Public Radio.  The Chicago Transit Authority claims it faces a $13 billion backlog in repairs, even though it recently spend $5 billion in upgrades, while much of  San Francisco’s famed BART system is in “end-of-life” status.

In Milwaukee County, it’s time to replace many of the buses in our system.  Perhaps, too, we should be increasing the number of routes and bus frequency — while keeping fares from being increased — to encourage more use of public transit.

Transit is just one of the many infrastructure burdens facing our nations.  A 2013 report from Transportation for America said that one in nine bridges in the U.S. are structurally deficient. Here in Wisconsin, we’re finally nearing the end of the long repairs to the Hoan Bridge following a partial collapse in 2000.  Repairs too were needed after the 2013 Lee Frigo Bridge sag over Green Bay Harbor.  No one was injured, fortunately, in those incidents; yet, should we ever forget the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 and injured 145 others?

There’s so much work to be done!  Here in Milwaukee, our county government is facing a

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Milwaukee’s iconic Mitchell Park Domes need costly repair, or face demolition.

decision as to what to be done with the now-closed Mitchell Park Domes, our iconic geodesic structures that bring us warmth and greenery in the depths of our long Wisconsin winters.  It’s been estimated that the cost of repairing the existing domes would cost between $65 and $75 million.

The Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research group, found that the capital needs of Milwaukee County’s arts and cultural facilities and parks totaled $246 million over the next five years. The forum noted that, since 2001, tax dollars for county-owned cultural facilities have been cut by more than 40% in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Consider, too, the constant road repairs and upgrades that are needed.  Our extreme weather changes from hot summers to frigid winters reeks havoc on our streets and now as spring approaches we’re dodging gaping potholes on our city streets.  (How well I know, having just spent good money on front end repairs to my car!)

Yes, we have lots of work to do in our country.

Meanwhile, we still need to pay for a military and intelligence network to protect us, to keep a competent police force, to maintain our fire departments, to provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves, to ensure a clean environment, to pay the interest on our national debt, and on and on.

There’s no question that many of us can and should pay more in taxes.  It’s also true that the poorest among us must not be hit with hidden taxes or forced to reach into their meager pockets for increased taxes.

Sadly, given the current political climate, there’ll be few politicians who will say taxes should go up.

The need to change the public dialogue on taxes is critical.  Those of us who can pay more, should.  It’s all part of being part of our society.  Alas, in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.”

Please, let’s continue this dialogue.  What do you think?  — Ken Germanson, March 19, 2016.

Historical Look at How Wisconsin Lost Its Progressivism

(Following is an executive summary of a paper presented by Ken Germanson on Oct. 24 at the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit.  The full document is available here.)

It was tragically ironic: the year 2011 marked the 100th Anniversary of the passage in Wisconsin of pioneering, progressive, pro-worker legislation; it also became the year in which one of the most regressive, anti-labor laws would be passed – the infamous Act 10 that virtually ended the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Four years later, in March of 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the so-called right-to-work law, followed by cutting back on the protections of the state’s David-Bacon Act covering construction trades unions.

This paper will seek to put some perspective on how that change occurred; it will seek to explain how a state that passed the nation’s first, lasting workers compensation law in 1911 and also passed the first full-fledged public employee collective bargaining law in 1959 would in 2011 and 2015 take away basic worker rights that would likely result in robbing them of much hope for a rewarding life of work.

Wisconsin had been viewed as a beacon of progressive laws, such as being one of the first to provide for election-day voter registration. National pundits have declared it a so-called Blue State that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.   We will look at how Wisconsin has joined the once-union-strong Rust Belt states like Michigan to become “open shop” states.

There are five basic reasons for the State’s abrupt turn against workers and unions:

  1. The state has a split political personality; historically most of the counties in the state have voted Republican while the more urban, industrial areas have been Democratic. The split has always been there, even though the nature of the two parties has changed through the years.
  2. The flight of industry to the South and later out of the country took away the state’s heavy concentrations of manufacturing bringing about the loss of union membership.
  3. The mobilization of antiunion efforts by big business has grown more intense and effective in recent years, both in their handling of workers and in public education campaigns.
  4. The stealth campaign waged by Governor Walker hid his true anti-worker agenda, making it possible to spring the damaging legislation on an unsuspecting public and labor movement.
  5. Finally, the failure of the state’s labor unions throughout the years to mount an effective campaign to counter the growing antiunionism.

Wisconsin labor, however, is more determined than ever to rebound; its leaders are open to new ideas to make it happen. As one said, “We are awakened. We are like roaches: we will come back.”

(See full document here.)

LABOR DAY 2015: Reflections

President Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935, with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins looking on.

President Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act into law on July 5, 1935, with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins looking on.

It’s with a somewhat heavy heart that we’ll be enjoying the camaraderie of our brother and sister union members at Milwaukee’s Laborfest on the lakefront this year.

As has been the case in recent Labor Day celebrations, it’s expected the marchers in the Annual Labor Day parade will be fewer in number and the crowd coming to Summerfest grounds afterwards may be somewhat reduced. That will be the disheartening reality of the current state of unionism in this once strong Union town.

The will be some hopeful signs, however, in the enthusiasm shown by the brothers and sisters in the 2015 marches.  What has been remarkable during this downturn in union membership is the increase in the determination and solidarity among those union members who still are active.  They will be joined by many who are not union members, including a large number of retired unionists or current workers in nonunion plants who once labored in union shops that closed up in the flight of industry from our city during the last 35 years.

The year 2015 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Wagner Act (or National Labor Relations Act – NLRA) that brought about the right for workers to organize and bargain collectively; it also required employers to bargain in “good faith” with the union.  It was an historic piece of legislation, often called “Labor’s Magna Charta,” and it brought about a sudden growth in unionism.  In Milwaukee, every major manufacturer – except one – became union shops.  Similar levels of union growth were duplicated in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.  Union strength grew, and few politicians could get elected without labor’s support.

Through the years, new anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin acts of 1947 and 1959 respectively diluted the Wagner Act.  Courts chipped away at the Wagner Act, as well, weakening enforcement by the NLRB, making it almost impossible to organize any employer who was determined to remain non-union.  Efforts to bring about positive  labor law reform got lip-service from friendly politicians, but little else.

Add into the mix the growing tendency of employers to pull out all stops to block unionism and to challenge the existence of what unions remained.  Furthermore, enemy politicians helped to fuel arguments that put unions into an unfavorable light.  Witness the lies heaped upon unionists in Wisconsin as they fought to resist Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union Act 10 in 2011: Walker portrayed teachers as overpaid and underworked and wrongly claimed the more than 100,000 demonstrators who filled Madison streets during the frigid winter of 2011 were “thugs and outsiders.”

As we watched the once-strong labor movement grow more powerless, we found it easy to become disheartened.

Yet, there are signs that there’s a light shining in this dark tunnel of working class despair.  The increased determination in the few unionists remaining may show that there are seeds for growth.  The efforts to organize fast food places and retail establishments show promise, even with slow progress.  There’s an openness among labor leaders – and just ordinary dues-payers – to exploring new ways to do things.

Labor, too, is finding new allies, such as the fledgling Wisconsin Jobs Now campaign that embraces dramatic ways to organize law-wage workers.  Success with such efforts, however, may require labor unions to search out new forms of structure, including finding the ways and means to provide representation for workers even where there is no formal labor contract.

President Obama has failed labor several times during his tenure; consider his lukewarm response to labor law reform and his decision not to show up to support Wisconsin workers in the 2011 uprising.  Yet, he’s been responsive in other ways that fail to get much press; his appointment of new members of the National Labor Relations Board has already paid off with a recent ruling that may take away the right of employers to use temporary employment services to avoid unionization.

Also, he has spoken out for increasing the minimum wage, but with Republican control of Congress, that doesn’t seem to be gaining much steam.

The reality is that workers can’t depend upon the politicians to bring about the changes that are needed to bring about living wages and safe and decent workplaces.  Working people must get together to organize to “force” change.  Even the Wagner Act wouldn’t have passed in 1935 without the many strikes and job actions that occurred in the early 1930s.

As we join our friends and allies on Monday at Laborfest, we hope our heavy hearts will be lifted as we see that there’s a new spirit of working class collectivism rising.  Let’s hope that’s the case.  Ken Germanson, Sept. 5,  2015

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Sen. Johnson: Have you the courage?

An Open Letter to Sen. Ron Johnson:

Every so often a legislator gets a chance to take a courageous step forward.  Now is YOUR time to make that act of fortitude.

Please remove the shackles of conformity that have linked you to the current Republican Party’s view that it must scuttle President Obama’s nuclear arms agreement between our allies and Iran.

We know you may feel that your political future calls upon you to join in the cacophony of outlandish comments from many of your colleagues and claim that the agreement is a betrayal of Israel or a surrender similar to that occurring in Munich in 1938.  We believe that you as a successful businessman certainly know that it’s important to make decisions based upon facts and evidence, rather than upon wild rantings.

As a retired labor negotiator, I know that the “perfect deal” is never possible, but that a deal that offers both sides hope for a better future is good for both sides.  This deal provides just that.

The Iranian citizens, according to reports, are dancing in the streets knowing that crippling economic sanctions will be lifted; as a people, they are eager to embrace Western cultures.  Certainly, the U.S. business community may benefit in the long run by opening up new markets.  It’s possible that through such economic interchange that the Iranian aggressive nature will be blunted.

For the U.S. and its allies, it means greater assurances that Iranian nuclear arms development will not only be reversed, but held off for at least ten years; by then it’s highly possible that Iran’s desire to continue a costly nuclear arms program may be greatly weakened.

Of course, you must look at the negatives of the deal:  Will the International arms inspectors miss some secretive nuclear arms location?  Can we trust Iran?  The Obama Administration and our allies are convinced that these concerns can be met.   You’re right to study these questions.

I urge you to examine the terms closely and hope you will come to the same conclusion that I have:  on balance, the Iran deal offers a chance for longterm peace and for decreased chances of nuclear war.

My personal political hero is Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld who in 1892 pardoned the three remaining prisoners who were awaiting execution on framed-up charges of participating in the bombing deaths of eight persons in the Haymarket Event of May 4, 1886.  Even as a stanch pro-business governor, he acted to pardon the three “leftists” because he was convinced they were unfairly charged and convicted.  He acted, even though he was aware the action might cost him re-election.  It did.

I doubt your action in defying conventional Republican orthodoxy in approving the Iran deal will cost you re-election; polls show wide support for the deal.  Yet, I know the pressures from your Republican colleagues will be great to follow the party-line.

Please put aside any temptation to engage in political, divisive rhetoric; study the bill and we hope you’ll agree with us that “yes” is best and have the courage to say so to your constituents in Wisconsin.

Thank you.

Kenneth A. Germanson, Aug. 3, 2015