Columns » Max Brantley

Arkansas Republicans labor baiting lives

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Asa Hutchinson image
  • Brian Chilson

Arkansas Republicans think if they say Obama often enough they'll sweep the November election ballot.

But you can't be too careful. So the GOP presses all the other hot buttons, too, from God and gays to guns. And, of course, unions.

Union representation is withering nationally and it never amounted to much in Arkansas.

We're a Right to Work for Less state. Still, it's the rare Republican who will miss an opportunity to beat up on organized labor.

The latest: Asa Hutchinson, the likely Republican nominee for governor. The former D.C. lobbyist hopes his fourth race for statewide office will be the charm, though it's the same old Asa — tax cuts conquer all.

And, boy, does he enjoy labor baiting. He sought the endorsement of the Arkansas Education Association knowing he wouldn't get it. That set the stage for a headline-stealing news release in advance of the AEA's endorsement of Democrat Mike Ross that said Ross put the interests of liberals, Obama, Nancy Pelosi and "labor bosses" ahead of children.

He doubled down in a TV interview last week saying the AEA was nothing but a bunch of Democratic leftists. He's for teachers, Hutchinson said, just not those of the AEA.

There are a couple of things wrong with what Hutchinson said: AEA teachers are for kids, too. And "labor bosses" are well-intentioned humans, too. Somebody's kids, even.

Hutchinson ignores the AEA that fought for equal rights under the law for black children. The AEA that fought for teaching science, not religion, in Arkansas classrooms. The AEA that fought for preschool education, smaller class sizes, a certified workforce, more efficient school districts. If he's attended, he's paid little attention to AEA conventions devoted to better teaching and other ways to serve children.

Hutchinson wants the public to think of the AEA as a newsreel of arm-breaking goons. The AEA is a voluntary membership organization of professionals. It doesn't bargain for its members. A single school district, Little Rock, has an affiliate that operates like a union. The AEA doesn't strike or enter state contracts. It works for its members and kids, to the benefit of both.

Then there are those "union bosses." The phrase is Pavlovian Republican rhetoric. It carries no positive connotation. It's shorthand for thugs interested only in squeezing maximum pay for minimum work.

Asa Hutchinson knows it's unfair to broadly apply such a caricature to all in the labor movement. His own son, Seth, is a lead organizer for the Texas state employees union. He's been a progressive since college days. Hutchinson told me once, in acknowledging his son's different political bent, that he was proud of him. He should be.

Seth Hutchinson wrote a perceptive piece in 2010, when unions were backing Bill Halter for U.S. Senate and getting cold receptions from Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. He said:

"... the South really must be organized if the United States is to reverse its decade's long trend of fleecing the working and middle classes. And speaking as a union organizer working in Texas, I absolutely know that it is at least possible to build the labor movement in the South if only the resources are there to do it. It must be a long-term project though, or else unions will be continually portrayed as something removed from the interests of voters instead of the voice of American workers. "

Four years later, the portrayal continues.

In Congress, Asa Hutchinson voted against increases in spending for special education, after-school centers, Head Start and smaller classes. He's a captive, you might say, of George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich and the conservative "boardroom bosses."

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