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An attempted dialogue with persons at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis

by William McGaughey

From a local free-circulation newspaper, I learned that Netroots Nation, an online community associated with the Daily Kos, would be holding its annual conference at the Convention Center in Minneapolis. The conference would start on Thursday, June 16, 2011, and run through Saturday, June 18th.

Despite other pressing obligations, I decided this was too good an opportunity to pass by. The news media have largely ignored the shorter-workweek option for creating jobs even though the national unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.1 percent. Netroots Nation, a political community left of center, is the largest group of its kind. It is credited with mobilizing much popular support for Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign.

I created a sign on a three-foot by four-foot placard. The sign read: “A 4-day, 32-hour workweek = more real jobs for Americans” With this sign, I would picket the Minneapolis Convention Center hoping to engage conference participants in thought-provoking discussions.

I also produced half-page leaflets with this message:

“ Hello. I am Bill McGaughey, an advocate of shortening work time to bolster employment. Some of my writings are posted on http://www.shorterworkweek.com. (See # 34.) As a former accountant, my specialty is the economic effect of government regulations to reduce work time. There is much misinformation about the subject.

In 1981, I published a book titled “A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s”, which, of course, did not happen. Along with former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, I was coauthor of another book, “Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work”, published by Praeger in 1989.

Look, we’ve tried just about every kind of financial manipulation to “jump start” the economy after the Wall Street debacle of 2008. For obvious reasons, an insufficient number of jobs have been created. National unemployment stands at 9.1 percent. Misguided trade policy and failure to reduce work hours have largely caused the problem - and we don’t even discuss such things any more.

Will you help revive the discussion of our job-creation options? If the present approach is not working, it pays to keep an open mind regarding policies that the “experts” routinely dismiss.

A resident of Minneapolis, I can be reached at 2wmcg@earthlink.net or 612-374-xxxx.”

I was hoping that persons who received this leaflet would be motivated to visit www.shorterworkweek.com and especially item #34 which presented a quick-and-dirty way to create jobs. Basically, I proposed to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act by reducing the standard workweek to 32 hours, taxing away the half-time overtime premium instead of paying it to the overtime worker, using this money to compensate for any lost wages, and tightening the exemption for managerial and professional employees.

My plan was to rise early on Thursday morning to greet persons arriving at the Minneapolis convention center for the first event at 8:00 a.m. My former wife said she would meet me in front of the convention center to take a photograph. Unfortunately, I dragged my feet too long in the morning preparations and did not arrive until around 8:00 a.m. I stood with my sign on the sidewalk on the west side of the convention center and passed out fliers to all that would take them.

Most people were receptive. A woman even took a photograph of me. But then a female security guard came out of the building to inform me that I could not conduct a “protest event” on Convention Center property. I would have to move across the street. Two years earlier I had checked with the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office and been told that it was permitted to picket on public sidewalks in Minneapolis so long as one did not block the flow of traffic. I informed the guard of that fact. When she insisted that I leave the property, I said I wanted to speak with her supervisor. Meanwhile, I continued to pass out literature.

Five minutes later, the security guard said she had her supervisor on the phone. I agreed to come into the building to talk with him. He merely repeated what had previously been said. As it was getting late, I agreed to take my leafletting operation across the street. I stood on a concrete medium to catch persons who were arriving from downtown. All in all, I passed out about sixty leaflets Thursday morning. Then I walked back to my parked car in the Stevens community across I-94.

My former wife said she had been inside the convention center for a half hour starting 8:30 a.m. She had spoken with conference attendees and even attended an event. Mainly, people were complaining about the Tea Party. I made another 200 leaflets at a copy shop but otherwise called it a day.

Friday morning, I repeated my routine on the east side of the convention center. This day, it seemed to me that fewer people were willing to accept my literature. Even so, because I arrived at 7:30 a.m., I was able to pass out more pieces. I stood by the employees entrance catching people as they crossed the street from the parking lot on that side of the building.

At length, another security guard came out to request that I leave the property. Again, I repeated my legal right to picket on a public sidewalk in Minneapolis. This man admitted that I was not causing a disturbance or violating any law but he politely asked me to leave. Again, I consented. I walked back to my parked car to leave the picket sign and then returned to the convention center.

I was hoping to spend an hour or so at the convention itself as my former wife had done on the previous day. I checked at the registration desk hoping that some events would be free. However, one-day passes to the conference cost $160. I was thinking that maybe I could get into the Exhibitor’s room for free. No such luck. I needed a registration badge. Unwilling to pay $160, I left the convention center.

The conference program included a “Fight Back for Good Jobs Rally at the Stone Arch Bridge” crossing the Mississippi river on the north edge of downtown Minneapolis between 1:15 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. No admission fee would be charged here. I parked my car at a meter at the foot of Fifth Street near the Crown Roller mill and made my way to the rally. I had exactly forty-five minutes. Having been ticketed for a parking violation in front of my house earlier that day, I knew I could not be late for even five minutes.

Loud recorded music greeted me as I entered the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. There was a gathering of persons wearing orange shirts in the middle of the bridge. Again, I handed out literature as I made my way toward the middle of the crowd. Soon a series of speakers including Mayor R.T. Rybak and Congressman Keith Ellison addressed the crowd.

I spoke with a middle-aged woman standing nearby who seemed interested in my message. She told me that she did abstract pictures of individuals. Her boy friend was able to discern specific features of the person by looking at the picture. Her asked me to decide which of four possible descriptions best described her technique. I picked “interior visionary”. I asked this woman if she would take a photograph of me carrying the sign. She did. This photograph graces the opening page of ShorterWorkWeek.com.

It seemed to me that most of the speakers were recommending expanded public-works programs to create jobs. The Stone Arch bridge had a good view of the I-35W bridge to the east which replaced one that fell into the river in August 2006. Speakers were suggesting that our nation has much infrastructure that needs repair. This is true. Had I been at the podium, I might have asked Mayor Rybak when the city intended to fix the gaping pot holes in Minneapolis streets. Winter freezing caused them but the pot holes remain in mid June.

Realizing that my forty-five minutes of time was expiring, I headed back to my car. On the way, I attempted to give my literature to an agent of the union which was sponsoring this rally - it might have been the Laborers’ International Union of North America - who manned a table near the entrance to the bridge. This man refused to accept literature from me because my hand-made sign lacked a union bug. He also said that his union was not in favor of a 4-day, 32-hour workweek. Instead, workers wanted more 5-day, 40-hour weeks - all the hours they could get. I told him that the economic implications in shortening work hours were widely misunderstood.

The Netroots Nation events calendar mentioned an event to be held in the Convention Center plaza park between 6:00 and 10:00 p.m., sponsored by the Made in America Party. It assume this organization opposes outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries. As I made my way to the plaza park, I had a friendly discussion with a young African American couple who agreed with the shorter workweek proposal. The woman, it turned out, had grown up on the east side of Detroit, as had I many years earlier.

There was a sign on the plaza park notifying people that, because of possible rain, the event had been moved to room 200 on the second floor of the Convention Center. That precluded my demonstration with a sign. I passed out a few more pieces of literature and then left the area.

On my way back to the car, I passed Peavy Plaza on Nicollet Avenue. A group was playing music to a crowd of 100 to 200 persons seated on steps surrounding the amphitheater. I decided to sit on some steps across from this group, displaying my sign. I stayed there for about twenty minutes, leaving when a woman wanted to remove her bicycle.

Back home, I had a bite to eat and then turned on television to the C-SPAN channel. Congressman Ron Paul was speaking to a Republican group at the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans. I agreed with much of his message but not everything. Rep. Paul would never support a government-induced shorter workweek. (I learned this when I contacted his Congressional office two years ago.) Even so, Paul made more sense to me than some of the other Republican candidates, especially in his criticisms of the Afghanistan war and the American empire. It was certainly true that the United States cannot afford such luxuries any more.

To my surprise, the event following the Republican forum was a recorded session of an interview that had taken place inside the Minneapolis Convention Center at the Netroots Nation conference earlier on Friday. Daily Kos associate editor, Kaili Joy Gray, was interviewing the White House Director of Communications, Dan Pfeiffer.

The very first question, submitted by a woman in Seattle, was to ask if the Obama administration had a jobs program for someone like her. She was well educated and had extensive work experience but was now destitute and unable to find work. Mr. Pfeiffer put up a good front but it was clear that the Obama administration had run out of ideas of what to do. I was hoping that some conference attendees would remember the recommendation that they might have seen on my sign - a 4-day, 32-hour workweek. This program would create lots of good jobs fast although some of our entrenched long-hours job-holders might be miffed.

In my opinion, the hour-long interview was a disaster for the Obama administration. Kaili Joy Gray was a sharp and largely unsympathetic interviewer who repeated questions when Pfeiffer attempted to ignore them. The administration’s policies regarding gay people were a particular bone of contention. The subject of jobs - arguably, the most important issue in the forthcoming 2012 election campaign - did not surface again.

I began to form an impression of the people who belong to Netroots Nation. Today’s political left is devoid of positive policy proposals. A proposal such as amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is simple and straightforward, gets nowhere with them. Instead, the focus is on demonizing the Republican opposition. It’s clear that the Tea Party arouses particular ire because these right-wingers are opposed to government spending and soaring budget deficits. The only way the political left knows to create jobs is for government to create them with borrowed money.

In this case, it seemed that the Obama administration was dealing with disgruntled constituencies who had helped elect the President in 2008 but now felt that their efforts had not been repaid. The political left ceased to have a positive vision of the future but had become a collection of aggressive constituencies each demanding payoffs from government officials whom they had helped to elect. Both on the political left and on the political right, there seems to be a lack of capacity for fundamental policy change.

The bottom line is that, for all this effort, perhaps 200 persons now had my half-page flier. Some might be tempted to visit ShorterWorkWeek.com. On the other hand, I had no extended, substantial conversations about the shorter-workweek proposal in my brief exchanges with persons entering the Convention Center. True, I might not have been in the best mood to make new friends, given the personal problems that I was meanwhile having to address.

Today, someone carrying a picket sign to support a proposed government policy comes across as a weirdo who must be told to leave the premises before he can embarrass himself and disturb others any more. That was a price I was willing to pay for the chance that someone at the conference might take the policy seriously and even write about it in his or her political blog.

My last event at the Netroots Nation conference took place on Saturday afternoon, June 18th. There was a light rain as I walked from my parking space on 3rd Avenue to Wesley church on Grant street. As I passed by the Convention Center on the east side, I encountered a young man who might have been with the AFL-CIO or, perhaps, Working America. He was sympathetic to the message on my sign.

As we discussed the proposal further, this man said that a particular problem with the Fair Labor Standards Act was that employers were hiring attorneys to find loopholes in the law that allowed them to reclassify an employee from nonexempt to exempt status. They would rewrite the person’s job description using just the right language to make it appear that he was doing managerial work. Then they would work this employee as many hours as they wished without paying overtime for work after forty hours. We both agreed that the law should be tightened in this regard.

I wish I had had more time for this discussion but the man had to go inside to attend a conference session. I then walked through the light rain to what I thought was Wesley church but was not. The church was actually just west of the Convention Center. I arrived too late to pass out leaflets but in time for the 2:00 p.m. event. The event organizers let me bring my sign inside. I placed it against the wall in back of the church.

The event was billed as “SPEAKOUT for good jobs now”. U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, my own Congressman, was leading the discussion along with two other current members of Congress, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, and two former members defeated in the 2010 election, Alan Grayson of Florida and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio.

Ellison and Grijalva were cochairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I shook hands with Ellison; he was not interested in talking. I had a chance to give Grijalva my half-page flier which he immediately put his pocket. Grijalva acknowledged that Congress was not considering amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act to shorten work time. I then sat in a pew immediately in front of Lynn Hinkle, a union member at the Ford plant in St. Paul whom I had known twenty years earlier.

An organization called ProgressiveCongress.org was sponsoring this event. The purpose was to kick off a nationwide tour to promote Jobs legislation in Congress. Attendees were asked to take “the pledge for economic opportunity”. In particular, they would agree that (1) “in America, every good worker deserves a good American job”, (2) “America should again work for people who work for a living”, and (3) We will use our strength in numbers to counter corporate dollars.”

After the five current or former members of Congress had spoken, members of the audience were invited to give testimony at microphones on either side of the church. Most told of personal hardships that they had endured while looking for a job. I told the Congressmen that today’s unemployment was due primarily to mistaken trade policy and to the failure to reduce work hours in the seventy years since the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect. Congress could act in this regard but had not yet done so. My sign in the back of the room suggested one step that might be taken. *

My testimony was received with interest by panel members but nothing further was said along those lines. I passed out a few more leaflets as people left the church. On the way out, I also spoke briefly with former Rep. Grayson, venturing the opinion that the shorter-workweek proposal might be economically but not politically feasible. Maybe it's feasible in France, he remarked. (Yes, we Americans are a hard-working, successful people, unlike those lazy French - That may not have been Rep. Grayson's meaning, but the opinion is certainly out there.)

This may have been my most productive event at the Netroots Nations conference. I was no longer a gate crasher but a legitimate participant. Then I returned home to add a few more paragraphs to this narrative.

 

* This experience gave rise to mixed feelings. On one hand, I did have a chance to present my proposals directly to members of Congress in the two to three minutes allowed. On the other hand, it struck me as odd that I was the only one suggesting solutions for joblessness. Most witnesses complained of their personal situation. It seemed that the purpose of such events was not to find solutions but to build a movement of aggrieved persons who would put the spotlight of public attention on the unemployment problem and carry the Democrats to victory in the next election.

      

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