Mark Gaffney: Worried About the Workers

Sep 30, 2011

On Monday, Mark Gaffney, who has been president of the state AFL-CIO for a dozen years, will turn over the job to Karla Swift, a longtime staffer for the United Auto Workers union.

It‘s no secret that Gaffney would have liked to have stayed. But Democrats, who are joined at the hip with the labor federation, were wiped out at the polls last November. Hundreds of thousands of their voters didn‘t show up. Blaming Gaffney for this is a little like blaming a baseball manager saddled with a really bad team. But such managers tend to get fired, and so it goes. “Several unions felt there had to be a switch,” Gaffney told me over lunch in Detroit yesterday.

“I don’t take it personally,” he added. And then he added that after the initial shock, the thought of being free from the constant stress and anxiety didn’t seem so bad.

“It’s sort of like what John Adams said he felt George Washington was feeling when he turned over the presidency,” Gaffney said. America’s second president felt his predecessor was inwardly grinning, “I am fairly out and you fairly in; see which of us will be the happiest.” Not many labor leaders quote John Adams these days, which reflects why I’ve always found Gaffney an intriguing man. He looks the part of a labor leader, a stocky man in his mid-50s. He’s union to the core. He was a Teamsters organizer in his thirties, and before that, worked on Great Lakes freighters.

But he is also a thoughtful labor intellectual with a bachelor’s in philosophy and a master’s in labor relations from Michigan State. He knows nineteen thirty-six is never coming back, and for that matter, neither is the world of nineteen eighty-six.

Yet he’s convinced workers and society need unions more than ever, to preserve the balance necessary for  democracy. Doing that is getting harder and harder. Gaffney told me that during the recession of the early 1980s, he stood in line to apply for unemployment at a converted supermarket in Saginaw with hundreds of other guys. They compared notes, bucked each other up. The state had workers who treated them like people.

“You know what you do nowadays?” he said. “You apply for unemployment by phone, with an automated program. You never see a person. You are isolated and alone. It makes it easier to feel that being unemployed is somehow your fault.”

What worries Gaffney most is not losing his job, but America’s fourteen million already unemployed. Many had good-paying manufacturing jobs that have vanished forever.

The labor leader is appalled that nobody seems to be speaking up for them. He’s also seen a sea change in the way politics work in this state.“Disagreements are fine, and you work with whoever wins,” he said. “But the purpose of our legislature should not be to reduce the living standards of working people.” I have little doubt that Mark Gaffney will land on his feet. Personally, I think any of our major  universities would do well to make him a visiting professor for a year.

I worry more about the people he worries about, and hope wherever he lands, he’ll still prod us to keep thinking about them.