Only in Boston

On this day in 1846, Dr. Thomas Morton first used ether as an anesthetic, at Mass. General. This act is memorialized in the Public Garden by the Monument to Ether, reportedly the only monument to a drug in the United States.

Honor Labor

I have never belonged to a union, and I’m not from a union family. But in February, when Governor Scott Walker declared war on the unions in Wisconsin, I felt a strong need to be there when Massachusetts residents, both union members and others, rallied in solidarity. Unions are under attack in this country right now, which makes sense if you feel, as I do, that the middle class, which they built, is fighting for its life.

Have I ever seen unions behave badly? Of course. Event load-ins at the Hynes are always a blast, with the union rep scaring the crap out of a bunch of young performers as they bully our production people into paying massive fines we can’t afford for using a non-union audio company we can barely afford. I’ve seen a member of the musician’s union eat three helpings from an opulent spread of salads, pâté, artisan breads and expensive Italian cold cuts and then later complain to his union rep that he didn’t get the hot meal in the contract. I’ve seen an Equity rep screw actors out of front page news coverage by not accepting 23 ½ instead of 24 hours media notice. But the rules are the rules, and they’re in place for a reason, and I can dismiss the rigidity when so much is at stake, and so much has been sacrificed to put them in place.

Are there patronage hacks in municipal unions?* You bet there are. But for every one of those there are thousands of hardworking men and women who work for every penny they earn, which they use to support their families and fuel our economy. And with all the ire of late about their pensions, I wonder if people know that in Massachusetts, as well as several other states, workers do not participate in Social Security. So that pension is it.

Have I worked on campaigns, standing side by side with union rank and file for a pro-union Democratic candidate, knowing full well that the people I’m standing with will vote for the other candidate, against the union and against their own interest? Yes, more than once. But I understand it. I know this will sound condescending, but the other side has a brilliant way of making it seem like things are being taken away by other people who have little, as opposed to giant corporate interests who have almost everything. It’s their stock in trade, and they’re exceedingly good at it.

These indignities and abuses aren’t important in the scheme of things. What’s important is that unions be kept strong, to counteract the forces of a purely capitalist society. The examples I listed above are simply small acts of bad manners and self-destructive behavior. When corporations behave badly, they can and do destroy lives. Big difference.

When politicians with business experience (mostly Republicans) run for office, they often employ that tired and inaccurate analogy that says the government is like a business, and try to sell themselves as the CEO. This is bullshit. The government is NOT a corporation, and should never, ever be run like one. In fact, I would argue that a union leader is more qualified than a businessperson to run the country. Unions often do what governments should: stand for each other. Labor unions keep corporate greed in check. They wouldn’t be needed if Christ Himself ran businesses, and if corporations had consciences instead of shareholders. But He doesn’t and they don’t.

In an era when income inequality is outrageous, those of us who earn a wage can’t afford not to support unions. They really ARE responsible for weekends, and paid sick leave and vacations, and all the other things those cute bumper stickers proudly assert, in addition to safe working conditions and living wages where they still exist. They made capitalism work for the middle class, and in turn made our economy work, but because of those forces that propel and enable corporate interests in our system, they’ve gradually diminished in stature, and have in the past year, been cut off at the knees. This isn’t right, and I pray it can be reversed. My hope is that events in Wisconsin have shifted the tide, since many regular people seemed to sympathize with the protestors. I hope that Governor Walker’s political career goes down in flames, and serves as a reminder to others who would launch such attacks on the middle class.

*Anyone who knows the actual story is dead now, but my maternal grandfather was a patronage hire for the Turnpike. My father was an elected official. When my grandfather was laid off by Ford after 20 years there, he couldn’t find another job. His English wasn’t great, and he wasn’t the most personable or educated guy, but he was a hard worker. My father got him a job taking tolls. He worked there until he retired, and lest you think he was a hack: as the story goes, when Dad drove out to tell Papa that my brother was born, Papa made him pay the toll.



Elizabeth Warren Came to My House Tonight to Talk to My Friends and Me

What a night. It was my honor to host one of the first house parties for Elizabeth Warren, as she talks to Democrats about whether she will run for the United States Senate. She came to my house in Dorchester, and stood in my living room talking to about 60 of my friends, who shared their stories and frustrations, and asked brilliant questions, which she fielded with charm, charisma, and thoughtful, plain-spoken answers. It was fantastic and inspiring. I’m one of the loudmouths with a laptop and an internet connection who has been urging her from afar to run for a couple of months now. Before, it was more about thinking that she, unlike the current Democratic field, could beat Scott Brown. Now, for me, and I think for most who came to my house tonight, it’s about much more than that. It’s about choosing the kind of America we want to live in, and then working for it. I want to live in the kind of America that has Elizabeth Warren in the United States Senate, because her vision of America is one that uplifts all of us.

She talked about the squeezing of the middle class, and the damage it’s done to our country. She said that we have to invest in infrastructure and education, but most importantly, we have to invest in our people. She talked about reframing our message, as Democrats, to make people understand that we should want to realize the potential of all other Americans. She spoke at length about her work to build the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and said that it is strong, and will protect Americans in very real ways. (She also gave full and emphatic credit to the President for this.) More importantly, though, she listened. My friends told her about the challenges they see at non-profits they run, and facing the at-risk kids they work with; the underfunding at the public universities at which they teach and the suffering that they see out there every day on the streets. We talked about people who are out of work and in trouble. There were particulars, but there will be time for that later. Right now she is exchanging ideas with those of us who would have to do much of the work to get her elected. She listened and responded, and what began to emerge was the start of a powerful campaign message, planted by the grassroots and articulated by Professor Warren, that will develop into something vibrant and compelling should she decide to move forward. But most importantly, what was plain to anyone in the room was the passion, conviction, empathy and logic she’ll bring to any job she decides to take on.

I have no idea if she can soften the acrimony. Much of this Congress seems hell-bent on destroying the President and the country along with him. But I know that I want her down there, at least trying to talk some sense into them. And if the Democrats control the White House, Senate and Congress in 2013, as I hope, they'll need people with vision, like her, to create groundbreaking programs.

As my friends filed out of my house tonight, they offered to host fundraisers and plan benefit concerts, knock on doors and call friends. One by one they said, “Let me know what to do. I’m in.”  Boy, I hope she’s in too!


Photos by Mike Ritter - Use without permission makes you a bad person.

Pet blog

This is turning into a pet blog isn't it? Sorry, but he makes it so easy.

Here's Charlie Ashmont, and he's thinking "Look at my winkie! Look at my winkie! Look at it while I rub myself in something that died in the grass here. Are you looking?"