Talking Politics

Talking unions, organized labor and leadership in America

By Ian Donnis
Posted 10/24/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: Organized labor has made a lot of headlines of late, what with strikes by writers in Hollywood and auto workers in Michigan. The common thread is how technology is extending the …

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Talking Politics

Talking unions, organized labor and leadership in America


STORY OF THE WEEK: Organized labor has made a lot of headlines of late, what with strikes by writers in Hollywood and auto workers in Michigan. The common thread is how technology is extending the sense of economic anxiety felt by many Americans. Yet the number of people in the U.S. who belong to a union fell to a record low of 10.1% last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Big corporations like Amazon and Starbucks have been able to marginalize organizing efforts by their employees.

Is the sense of enhanced muscle being flexed by labor an illusion? Not If you ask Patrick Crowley, who will shift to a full-time role next year as secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and is on a path to succeed the iconic George Nee as union president. Crowley points to a young national generation of labor leaders and growing dissatisfaction among workers. “[T]hey see that the economy has been working for the 1% very well – the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay is now 350-to-one, when in 1965, it was 20-to-one,” Crowley said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “So I think workers are fed up with things that don't work for their favor.”

With his growing responsibility, Crowley said his vision includes organizing more workers in Rhode Island and changing some state laws that would allow more organizing. At the same time, he blames a federal law written in 1935 for giving the upper hand to corporations in some showdowns with unions. Crowley contends that a significant majority of Americans support the union cause, even if they don’t belong to unions. But the fate of laws affecting labor and its ability to make further gains rests in large part on which party controls Congress and the White House.


POLL: Into the vacuum of polling this (mostly) non-election year comes the University of Rhode Island with a new effort, the Rhode Island Survey Initiative. Among the findings: 42% of respondents are satisfied with public schools in their community, 41% are extremely or very concerned about “political indoctrination of students, 45% are very or somewhat satisfied with the overall quality of life in Rhode Island, and 86% support the legality of abortions under any or certain circumstances. On trust in state government, 3% have a great amount, 10% a lot, 40% a moderate amount and 30% a little.


MADHOUSE: Jim Jordan’s prospects for becoming U.S. House speaker appear fleeting, although that didn’t stop Rhode Island GOP Chairman Joe Powers from endorsing Jordan earlier this week. That brought a riposte from RI Democratic National Committeewoman Liz Beretta-Perik, who said recent Democratic victories for a ward council seat in Cranston and town council in Foster “demonstrated how his extreme Republican positions do not resonate with Rhode Island voters.” Powers fired back, lamenting what he called insipid talking points.


WAR IN ISRAEL: After the Hamas attack on Israel, the first thing I thought of was a news conference staged by then-U.S. Sen. John Chafee in response to the first Intifada. It was in late 1987 or early 1988, illustrating the seeming intractability of the cycle of conflict between Israel and its enemies. To bring things into the present, U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse this week issued this joint statement: “After the briefing we received, it is clear that the United States is standing fully with Israel. We must recognize Israel’s right to defend itself from murderous terrorists. We are also assured that President Biden has negotiated the flow of humanitarian aid to Gazans. We must minimize harm to innocent civilians in Gaza, even as Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields. The intelligence community has concluded that the tragic explosion at the hospital in Gaza was the result of an errant rocket launched by terrorists and not an Israeli airstrike. Those who are responsible for that horrific attack must be held accountable for the devastation they’ve caused.” Reed was headed to Israel as part of a congressional delegation. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss told Politico last weekend that an expected Israeli ground invasion of Gaza “is appropriate given the threat and nature” of Hamas.


GINAWORLD: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, or so the saying goes. How else to explain, then, the confluence last week between 1) General Treasurer James Diossa naming a panel to review the 2011 pension overhaul spearheaded by then-GT Gina Raimondo; 2) Raimondo making a foray through the Statehouse, with Lesley Stahl in tow, for a forthcoming profile on 60 Minutes. “She did not stop to chat,” reports Kathy Gregg in the ProJo; and 3) Raimondo manifesting a ‘special appearance’ during a Wednesday fundraiser at Bellini in Providence for CD1 Democrat Gabe Amo. The event raised between $70,000 and $75,000.


ENVIRONMENT: As my colleague Olivia Ebertz reports, the state Department of Environmental Management has adopted an environmental justice policy, something needed, advocates say, to counter the effect of siting polluting industries in the poor parts of communities like Providence.


HOUSING: Back in the day, Milton, Massachusetts, was the kind of place where young people (not to mention a former defense lawyer for Ed DiPrete, Buddy Cianci, and other RI characters) could buy a home. Now, though, as ProJo alum Mark Arsenault reports in The Boston Globe, Milton exemplifies how Massachusetts is choking off the kind of home ownership possibilities that are vital to the state’s future. Arsenault, who has penned a few novels, has long been a stellar writer, so enjoy tasty turns of phrase like this as he unpacks the story: “Expensive housing acts as a golden gate, and there is a price to be paid for living in a gated community.” Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey this week unveiled a $4 billion plan to confront the state’s housing crisis. Closer to home, the RI Association of Realtors reports a small increase in housing supply, even as the median cost of a home in RI climbed almost 10%, to $455,000.


TAKES OF THE WEEK – various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders

RI House GOP Leader MIKE CHIPPENDALE of Foster: “Housing, conservation and energy modernization don’t need to be at odds with one another. These three issues, in contemporary times, have never been simultaneously in the ‘policy spotlight’ to the extent that they are now. Housing inventory -- and not just affordable housing -- is extremely low in Rhode Island and the leadership of the House has placed this issue at the focal forefront of our efforts. Conservation of forested lands, farms and our public watersheds has always been under the ‘policy microscope’, as we truly understand and respect the importance of conservation and have legislated for decades in a manner that reflects these values. The new kid on the block, energy modernization, came into a state – in fact a nation – that was not quite prepared for it. By this I mean that we had a large degree of statutory silence on the development of renewable energy projects.

“Consequently, forested lands were stripped of their carbon-sequestering trees, farms had to ‘peel off’ acres of their valuable and shrinking land to add renewable development to help keep their operations solvent, and our forested tracts of land began to be fragmented and abused by those rushing to procure as many federal and state subsidized dollars as possible to grow these development empires. I urge my colleagues and partners focused on housing and energy modernization to join me and all the amazing conservation-focused entities in R.I. to craft plans and policies that are respectful and complementary to the goals within these three different areas – as they can absolutely co-exist harmoniously. Many U.S. states have already demonstrated this to be true, and while we try to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in Rhode Island, I don’t believe the silos currently existing around the three policy areas are positioning us for mutual existence and success with these extremely important issues.”


DANTE BELLINI: “‘Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.’” These Tom Wolfe words written 55 years ago are as true today as ever. All you have to do is be an observer on X, or Twitter, as the old kids remember, to see the usual suspects, plus a growing new crop of alleged ‘influencers’ who relentlessly pose for photos, pound their chests and then take their bows shamelessly upon each utterance. Delusionists who are consumed with the notion that somehow their self-serving posts will gain them popularity. And from there, who knows!

“I’m hoping that somehow, some way, we can find a way back to a place where honest intent, humility and civility are the pillars by which we conduct ourselves. There is so much manure in our social media ecosystem that I fear we are at the precipice of disaster. Having even some of our so-called leaders, political and otherwise, contribute to this with a barrage of egotistical and indulgent crap, day after day, creeps us closer to that edge. So, before the next scene, tweet or post, take this piece of advice from the famous Hollywood acting coach, from Cranston, Howard Fine: ‘Every role you’re going to play is already inside you.’ In other words, there’s no need to make one up.”


JULIE OWENS, CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, a leading business-support organization: “October is National Women’s Small Business Month. While it’s encouraging in a state like Rhode Island to see some of our state’s largest employers run by women, an enormous pile of data shows the barriers that women-owned businesses face. Women-led startups are less likely to be funded than male-led ventures. The average bank loan awarded to women-led small businesses is less than $50,000, while small businesses led by men, on average, receive over $80,000. You’d think that women-led businesses would be a more attractive investment, considering data also shows that women-led companies perform more than 60 percent better than male-led companies.

“The barriers that women entrepreneurs – and more acutely, Black and Brown women entrepreneurs – face are alarming. As a state, we need our policymakers and business leaders to pay more attention to the social determinants of business. Just like with health outcomes, there are non-business and structural conditions that have an impact on economic opportunity and the vibrancy of our entrepreneurial economy. These include access to capital, networks, mentorship, and technical assistance – all things that our team at Social Enterprise Greenhouse aim to support through our programs and initiatives. By putting a more concentrated emphasis on building a more inclusive environment for underserved and underrepresented entrepreneurs, we can level the playing field so they can compete more successfully with businesses that have more traditional advantages.”


SOCCER CONFIDENTIAL: The good news is that Rhode Island FC, the new soccer team, has found a deep-pocketed financial backer to guarantee construction of its forthcoming home in Pawtucket. The not-so-hot news from a transparency perspective (this project is getting public money, after all) is how, as Patrick Anderson reports in the ProJo, the benefactor will remain unidentified.


BOOK CORNER: South Kingstown-raised Jhumpa Lahiri has a new collection of stories, set in Rome. Here’s an excerpt from an NPR interview: “I think I became a writer because I needed to be in dialogue with this very complex theme, if you will, of being an other or feeling on the outside of something, never finding one's way into the center of things, always being questioned and always questioning oneself. So I think it's both things. I mean, I always questioned who I was and where I belonged if I belonged anywhere.”


KICKER: Opposition from Hope Street merchants is being cited as a factor for why Providence Mayor Brett Smiley is not continuing a pilot bike lane initiated by his predecessor, cycling enthusiast Jorge Elorza. They doth protest too much. As a regular visitor to the retail district near Hope and Rochambeau, I have never had difficulty finding parking on a nearby side street. But automobiles still rule in our car-dependent culture, meaning that cyclists need to keep both eyes open and their head on a swivel to lessen chances of a mishap or worse.


Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.