Washington is suddenly debating whether James Hoffa Jr., leader of the powerful Teamsters union, crossed a line in his Labor Day comments — comments that preceded a speech by President Obama himself.
"We got to keep an eye on the battle that we face," Hoffa said in a fiery speech in Detroit on Monday. "The war on workers. And you see it everywhere, it is the Tea Party. And you know, there is only one way to beat and win that war. The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what? They've got a war, they got a war with us, and there's only going to be one winner. It's going to be the workers of Michigan, and America. We're going to win that war."
"President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. And President Obama, we want one thing: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. That's what we're going to tell him. He's going to be — and when he sees what we're doing here he will be inspired. But he needs help, and you know what? Everybody here's got to vote. If we go back and keep the eye on the prize, let's take these sons of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong!"
If James Hoffa were to say that he intended to take me out, I'd up my insurance coverage.
Did these words rise to the level of incitement, as Tea Party activists complain? Or were they merely democracy in action, as some Democrats insist?
Maybe a little context will help.
The Teamsters have a reputation as one of America's less delicate unions. Some say that reputation is outdated — an artifact of a ruder time. Then you come across something like the following: A 2003 National Labor Relations Board settlement between the Teamsters union and a picketed employer.
Here's the first full page of the text, unedited. Just imagine the events that might have led to such a statement.
"We [the Teamsters local] will not engage in mass picketing or otherwise impede the ingress or egress of COMPANY employees or employees of any other employer to or from any COMPANY service center or any facility of any neutral person doing business with COMPANY or patrol or walk across the entrance of any COMPANY service center or a facility of any neutral person doing business with COMPANY in such a manner as to impede or delay the ingress or egress of any individual.
"We will not batter, assault, spit on, blow whistles loudly near a person's ear, throw any liquid or solid object at, or attempt to assault any non-striking employee of COMPANY or any member of his or her family or any employee of a neutral employee doing business with COMPANY, or any security guard or supervisor or manager of a neutral empoyee doing business with COMPANY in the presence of employees.
"We will not threaten to kill or inflict bodily harm, make throat slashing motions, make gun pointing motions, challenge or threaten to fight or assault employees, threaten to sexually assault non-striking employees or their family members, threaten to follow non-striking employees to their homes, use racial epithets or obscene gestures at non-striking employees doing business with COMPANY, or on any security guard, supervisor, or manager of COMPANY or neutral employers doing business with COMPANY in the presence of employees.
"We will not videotape or photograph any non-striking employees of COMPANY, or vehicles of COMPANY or its non-striking employees while engaging in coercive activity observed or known by those being videotaped or threaten to release the photographs, names, addresses, or photographs of non-striking employees.
"We will not prevent any non-striking employee from accessing a COMPANY vehicle or COMPANY vehicles or the personal vehicles of non-striking COMPANY employees.
"WE will not threaten to fine or cause the discharge of non-member employees because they cross a picket line or refuse to go on strike.
"We will not threaten to cause any employee's discharge if they do not engage in strike or picketing of COMPANY or any neutral person doing business with company.
"We will not attempt to harass or intimidate employees or security guards on COMPANY property by using mirrors to reflect sunlight into the eyes of COMPANY drivers or use mirrors or laser pointers to shine light into the eyes or video cameras of security guards."
And that's just page one!
So, if Hoffa were to say that he intended to take me out, I'd up my insurance coverage.
This severe recession has imposed extreme pain on millions of working people — and formerly working people. Desperate times lead to angry talk. Most often, angry talk is just a way for people to vent emotions.
Yet it's also worth remembering that the United States has not only a long and bloody history of political violence but also a nearly equally long and even bloodier history of labor strife. In the recent past, labor strife has receded as unions have become more professional. But there's no guarantee that the future will look like the past, especially as the pain of this recession extends and deepens.
The job of keeping the social peace does not fall upon only one faction or another. Nor is social peace only a function of what people say. The best guarantor of social peace is prosperity, shared on terms that seem fair to most social actors. That guarantee has not been honored these past four years, and all with a stake in society have reason to feel apprehension about the events that may lie ahead.