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Chapter Seven: My Involvement with Labor Issues


I first became interested in issues of work time while attending a summer camp for high-school students in Deep Springs, California, in the summer of 1957. A camper named Robert Mogielnicki and I were discussing employment questions. At that time, robots were of interest. Automation was threatening to destroy factory jobs. The unions were advocating reduced work time to save those jobs. I remember arguing with my friend about this concept. If robots allowed production to be handled with fewer workers, what would happen if their work hours were cut? Even with the help of robots, these workers would not finish their work in time and the employer would have to hire more people. Then, of course, the employer would install even more robots so that this smaller crew could get the work done. What if the employer automated his plant so completely that the entire process could be handled by machines? Even in that case, my friend replied, it would still be necessary to hire a human employee to push the button. The employee might do thirty seconds of work and still be paid a full salary. Such an arrangement might save jobs.

I always remembered that conversation when, years later, I began doing informal research on employment questions. While Mogielnicki’s argument made sense to me, academics disagreed with the shorter-workweek solution to employment problems. I tried to find out what was wrong with the idea. I wrote economists or questioned them in person. None could give me a straight answer. There was something about a “lump of labor” theory suggesting that shorter-workweek proponents were stupid people who thought there was only a fixed amount of work to be done in an economy. But that was a “straw-man argument”. We, of course, recognized that structures of production would change with changing technologies.

When I went to work as a cost accountant at American Hoist & Derrick Company in 1974, my new focus on facts and figures led me to do research relating to work time. I discovered the Handbook of Labor Statistics and Monthly Labor Review in the library. Studying the methodologies, I compiled my own tables of employment and hours information. Notwithstanding the fact that my father was then a top official of the National Association of Manufacturers, I became a committed supporter of the shorter-workweek proposal. I established my own advocacy organization, “General Committee for a Shorter Workweek”, and then an affiliated organization, “Free Time Research Group”, which obtained Section 501(c)3 status. However, none of the corporate or other local foundations would give it money to do research into the question of work hours.

My first break came when a national group called the All Union Committee to Shorten the Work Week was formed to promote this cause. These union activists persuaded U.S. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan to introduce legislation which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to reduce the standard workweek to 35 hours, raise the overtime rate to double time, and prohibit mandatory overtime. I met Conyers and his legislative assistant, Neil Kotler, at a labor gathering in St. Paul.

Since I was able to write cogent articles supporting the shorter workweek, my writings were used to advance the proposed legislation. Congressman Conyers introduced some into the Congressional Record. The New York Times published one of my articles as an Op-Ed piece. I self-published a paperback book titled A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s for which Rep. Conyers contributed a foreword. This book presented a discussion of economic questions pertaining to shorter hours. The Conyers bill received hearings in the House Education and Labor Committee in October 1979 but went no further. The Congressman later had more success as chief author of the Martin Luther King holiday bill. My action committee also languished. However, I did meet some interesting people through these activities including a former and a future U.S. Senator.

The former Senator was Eugene McCarthy. In the summer of 1982, he was back in Minnesota campaigning for his old job in the DFL primary. When I contacted the McCarthy campaign, I learned that the Senator wanted to have lunch with me. He had run across my New York Times article which identified me as a White Bear Lake, Minnesota resident. I organized a campaign event for Senator McCarthy at the labor center in St. Paul which drew a good-sized crowd. After the election, the Senator and I collaborated on a book project arising from discussions we had about shorter hours in a Washington D.C. restaurant. The result was Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work, published by Praeger in 1989. This book had a moral focus. We saw leisure as a means of minimizing economic waste.

I met the future Senator, Paul Wellstone, at a labor conference in Minneapolis in the spring of 1983. After his defeat for State Auditor, Wellstone took a job with the state energy agency which had offices in the same building in downtown St. Paul as the one where my employer, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, was then located. We had lunch together once or twice. I attended one of Wellstone’s first coffee parties at the home of Tom Laney, a past president of UAW Local 879, in February 1990. I told the candidate about the recently published book which Senator McCarthy and I had coauthored. Wellstone would be the man, I hoped, who would give the shorter-workweek proposal a voice in the U.S. Senate. After he was elected, however, I received a letter from the new Senator noting that Nonfinancial Economics had admitted on page such-and-such that the shorter-workweek proposal enjoyed little or no political support. It seemed that he was in no mood for a suicide run.

As a shorter-workweek proponent, I once attended a conference on work time at Adelphi University on Long Island which Israeli social-work professor David Macarov organized. Professor John Neulinger of City College of New York gave me a ride back to New York City. Macarov founded an organization called the International Society for the Reduction of Human Labor. Neulinger became the first editor of its journal. He died after about a year in that position. After John Neulinger’s death, Macarov approached me about taking over editorship of the journal. I have never been one to take on journalistic assignments, so I contacted University of Iowa Professor Benjamin K. Hunnicutt whom I knew from conferences in Iowa City. He and I were officially co-editors of the journal of the International Society for the Reduction of Human Labor (ISRHL). Hunnicutt was, in fact, the editor; and I, his assistant.

My most notable enterprise during this period was to call for a meeting of top U.S. business leaders to discuss how the business community might introduce shorter work hours. I wrote a letter to these leaders which announced that the meeting would be held in a certain hotel in New York City on a certain day in June, 1989. Would they please attend or send a representative? A number of prominent executives including Dwayne Andreas, Ted Turner, and Walter Annenberg sent their regrets. More pungent comments were received from other business leaders including the Chicago-area CEO who wrote: “My view of the world ... is diametrically opposite of yours. I cannot imagine a shorter work week. I can imagine a longer one both in school and at work if America is to be competitive in the first half of the next century.” This quotation gained a second life when it was repeated by Juliet Schor, a subscriber to the I.S.R.H.L. journal, in her book, The Overworked American, and then in the Wall Street Journal’s review of Schor’s book. It was clear that the U.S. business community would not be providing leadership on this issue.

Through Tom Laney, I became involved in a set of issues of greater importance to organized labor than reductions in work time: international trade. Rumblings of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began to be heard in the early ‘90s. Laney belonged to New Directions, a militant group within the United Automobile Workers which had made contact with auto workers at the Cuautitlan Ford plant near Mexico City. A shooting had occurred at this plant the year before when a group of dissident workers challenged the government-run union.

Laney and his associates at UAW Local 879 in St. Paul organized a conference on free trade at Macalester College in late January 1991. Three Mexican workers from the Cuautitlan plant, labor activists from Winnipeg (Canada), and local experts including David Morris and Mark Ritchie were among those who made presentations. I took copious notes and obtained videotapes of the conference. A Mexican-American working at the St. Paul Ford plant, Jose Quintana, had previously filled me in on Mexican political history. From these and other materials came a paperback book, A U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement: Do We Just Say No? , written later in the year. It was self-published in the spring of 1992 being one of the first anti-NAFTA books on the market. This book aspired to present a positive alternative to free trade. It proposed that the international community cooperate to shorten work hours as a developmental tool.

The year 1991 was packed with trade-related activities. Besides the St. Paul conference in January, a group of us took a van down to Chicago in April to testify at hearings on NAFTA held by the U.S. International Trade Commission. Some of the same people took a rented van to Detroit, my old hometown, to attend the Labor Notes conference several weeks later. NAFTA was a hot topic at that year’s conference. Laney, Quintana, and I filed a formal challenge to Mexico’s continued status as a beneficiary under the Generalized System of Preferences, citing violations of worker rights at the Cuautitlan Ford plant and other places. Our petition was rejected.

I was an early program chair of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, before this organization became a federation of labor, environmental, and other groups affiliated with the Citizens Trade Watch in Washington, D.C. On behalf of the Fair Trade Coalition, three of us organized a day-long conference at Hamline University in St. Paul, at which notable speakers including the Minnesota Commissioner of Trade and Development debated the pros and cons of free trade. We also met with Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey who was about to visit Mexico for the first time.

In June, an urgent request came from Mexico to send international observers to a union election at the Cuautitlan Ford plant. I was one of two who answered the call. I flew to Mexico City joining up with Mexican human-rights and labor activists. For an exhausting but exhilarating 20-hour period, I waited outside the plant gates with a group of workers aligned with the democratically elected union that was challenging the government union, CTM. Hundreds of shielded Mexican police protected the Ford complex from our small group. My English-speaking guide was a free-lance labor reporter, Matt Witt, who later became communications director of the Teamsters. He fed me tidbits of information which I jotted down in a notebook for my report. I also met a left-leaning deputy in the Mexican Congress, Gilberto Lopez, who told me that he had once been an anthropology instructor at the University of Minnesota. He was later revealed to have spied for the Soviet Union. The results of the election were announced at 4 a.m. The government union had won. Yes, my written report said that the results seemed coerced.

Bill Clinton came to Minneapolis in April 1992 to campaign for the Presidency. While he was shaking hands with people in the crowd, I handed him a copy of my book. The Presidential candidate reacted as if he had been served legal papers, but then sent an aide back to get my name and address. A letter arrived a short time later in which Clinton promised to read my book in the White House. I have sometimes wondered if this book had anything to do with candidate Clinton’s speech in North Carolina which pledged to seek “side agreements” relating to labor and environmental protection in connection with any free-trade deal. I do know that Clinton was familiar with the book because, when I attempted to give him another copy two months later, he declined the offer saying that he already had a copy. Like a true politician, he said it was a “good book”. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Clinton Administration became a strong supporter of NAFTA, engaging in flagrant pork-barrel deals with members of Congress to gain its approval. The side agreements produced less-than-effective protection.

My level of involvement with trade issues peaked in 1992. In July of that year, Tom Laney, some other labor activists and writers, and I, including reporters from Labor Notes, toured the border region between Mexico and Texas to gather information about maquiladoras. I posed as an expert on this subject on Barbara Carlson’s morning radio show on KSTP-AM. In February 1993, I was a presenter at a conference on trade organized by the Canadian Labor Congress in Welland, Ontario. The U.S. Congress approved NAFTA later that year.

Personally, I was paying more attention to an apartment building which I purchased in August, 1993. My schizophrenic brother, Andrew, who had lived in Washington, D.C., came to Minneapolis for a short visit. He was hospitalized from an asthma attack, recuperated, and spent the remaining six years of his life in Minnesota. Crime problems at the apartment building were demanding immediate attention. I formed an alliance, later a relationship, with a woman in the apartment who was addicted to cocaine. She helped me deal with the troublesome tenants and their friends. Several years later, after regaining sobriety, she became my second wife. So it was both a turbulent and interesting period in my life.

Ben Hunnicutt invited Eugene McCarthy and me to make presentations at a conference on issues of leisure and work in Iowa City in late 1993. This became an opportunity to bring elements from my recent experience with trade into the discussion. I continued to champion shorter-workweek legislation at gatherings sponsored by New Directions and Labor Notes, along with Barbara Brandt of the Shorter Work-Time Group in Boston. At a New Directions conference in St. Louis, I had an opportunity to meet Victor Reuther, last surviving of the three brothers who had brought the United Automobile Workers to national prominence. He cheered my appeal for shorter work hours from the floor.

Brandt, Ben Hunnicutt and his son, McCarthy’s friend Jeff Platt, and several others decided to create an international umbrella group which would support shorter work hours. We called it North American Network for Shorter Hours of Work - NANSHOW, for short. Our immediate aim was to present a proposal to the United Nations Social Summit which called for international cooperation in reducing work time. Ben Hunnicutt Jr., Tom Kehoe from St. Paul, and I represented this newly formed organization at the third prepcom held at UN headquarters in New York in January 1995. Eugene McCarthy joined us to put on a workshop in a basement conference room. Despite help from a representative of the Canadian Labor Congress and others, our efforts were “too little too late.” To the best of my knowledge, none of our suggestions appeared in the language of the draft document, either at the New York prepcom or the summit itself in Copenhagen.

I was acting globally when I should have been thinking locally. Having left my new wife and family in Minneapolis, I returned to learn that several disturbing events had taken place at the apartment building during the week of my absence. Police had been summoned to look for a gun. There was a growing problem with cockroaches, probably linked to tenants who were in the process of being evicted. This led to problems with the neighborhood group, the city’s condemnation of my building, and my association with a group of Minneapolis landlords who became Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee.

In March 1996, Ben Hunnicutt organized another conference at the University of Iowa called “Our Time Famine.” Several well-known persons attended including Eugene McCarthy, Betty Friedan, Jerry Tucker, Juliet Schor, and the Canadian Bruce O’Hara. I proposed, and the group agreed, that the conference issue a formal statement supporting the adoption of a 32-hour workweek by 2000. We called this the “Iowa City Declaration”. Back in Minnesota, I did a bulk mailing to 5,000 persons seeking individual endorsements of this statement. Because Labor Notes declined to rent me its membership list, I had turned to Commonweal subscribers in hopes of injecting religious energy into our movement. But the mailing was expensive and the returns disappointing. Meanwhile, I was becoming more deeply involved in landlord politics. My marriage was breaking up. I lost my job of sixteen years. My rental-property business was under siege. Between 1996 and 2002, my interest in the shorter-workweek issue and in issues related to international trade went onto the back burner.

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