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On the Day after Trump’s Inauguration

 

Yesterday (January 21, 2017) , an estimated 70,000 persons, mostly women, held a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, to protest the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He was inaugurated on the previous day. Similar rallies were held elsewhere in the United States and around the world. Millions of people were involved.

I was not one of the protesters. In fact, I voted for Trump. He gained a majority of voters from white-male voters like me while Hillary Clinton was heavily supported by women and racial minorities.

Opposition to NAFTA, the free-trade agreement with Mexico, was Donald Trump’s signature issue during the presidential campaign. This issue also resonated with me. I was deeply involved with trade issues a quarter century ago, publishing an anti-NAFTA book in early 1992.

The story of this involvement goes back to my association with Tom Laney, president of UAW local 879 at the Ford plant in St. Paul, Minnesota. I met Laney through my previous acquaintance with Paul Wellstone, later a U.S. Senator. We both worked in the American Center Building in downtown St Paul, near the river, in the mid 1980s, and had lunch together several times. Wellstone worked on the floor above me. He described Laney to me then as one of his closest friends.

I have written and published a book about this titled “A U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free-Trade Agreement: Do We Just Say No?” The appendix to this book gives the history of my brief involvement with trade issues during that time - now more than 25 years ago.

Tom Laney was generous in including me in activities of his local union related to trade. Early in 1991, Local 879 sponsored a major conference on this issue at Macalester College in St. Paul. People from the union travelled to Chicago and other places to testify about it before government agencies. I was part of the crowd. Most importantly, it developed a relationship with activists at the Cuautitlan Ford plant near Mexico City where a hotly contested union election was held.

The Ford Motor Company, like other automobile companies in the United States, was then in the process of outsourcing production to low-wage countries such as Mexico. Business and other interests were promoting a free-trade agreement that would allow products manufactured abroad less expensively to enter the United States for sale with minimal or no tariffs. This was an obvious threat to domestic manufacturing. Laney’s union recognized the threat.

At my own expense, I travelled to Mexico City in June 1991 to spend a day with union activists and supporters outside the Cuautitlan plant while the election was being held. I carried with me a letter from then Senator Paul Wellstone asking for a full written report on the election. Local 879 also sent a observer. As expected, the other side won. Even so, the experience was valuable in furthering my interest in trade issues. More significantly, it produced a book, one of the first on this topic.

Free trade with Mexico became an issue in the national election of 1992. I hung around after presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s speech in downtown Minneapolis, personally handing him a copy of my book. He sent an aide back to get my name and address and later sent me a letter of acknowledgment.

Amazingly, when Clinton was back in Minneapolis to campaign several months later, I wanted to give his running mate Al Gore a copy of this book but, instead, ran into Bill Clinton once again. When I again attempted to hand him my book, Clinton declined, saying that he already had a copy.

Alas, it was to no avail. If Bill Clinton ever read my book, he was evidently unconvinced of its arguments since he, as President, strongly supported NAFTA and gained its passage.

I myself moved on to other interests in the first part of the 1990s. I moved to Minneapolis in early 1990 after a fire destroyed my previous residence in St. Paul. Then, after a year of living in an apartment, I bought a house across the street. This led to other real-estate purchases and soon I was a landlord.

After my landlord activities aroused the ire of elected officials, I and others became target of politically inspired inspections. This led to the formation of a landlord group, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, which fought against city hall and eventually prevailed. (See landlordpolitics.com ) My interest in trade issues and trade-union activity languished and was replaced by a political struggle closer to home. I lost touch with Paul Wellstone and the union activists at UAW Local 879. He has since died.

To be honest, I was carrying a guilty secret during the time I was with them. The secret was that I did not have a union background. Despite my sympathies for what Tom Laney and others were doing, I did not have undivided loyalties to the union. My father had been vice president of an automobile company in Detroit. I myself was brought up with the sons and daughters of top automobile-company executives. I went to private school with some of them in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

My closest association was with a son of my father’s boss at American Motors, George Romney. I knew the elder son, Scott, better than his younger brother, Mitt, who later became Governor of Massachusetts and the 2012 Republican candidate for President. But I also knew other sons and daughters of executives associated with the Big Three automobile companies.

As an 8-year-old boy, I attended dancing classes in Grosse Pointe with other children of automobile-company executives including Charlotte and Ann Ford, Henry Ford II’s daughters. While a Yale drop-out in 1961, I was a guest at Ann Ford’s debutante party. I also knew and briefly dated Karen Vanderkloot, who was the granddaughter of a president of General Motors, William S. Knudsen. He is the one who, before heading GM, built up Chevrolet into a brand that could compete successfully with Ford. *

My classmates at Detroit University School (DUS) and at Cranbrook included other offspring of automobile-company executives. I caddied at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club for some of them including the president of Chrysler. I attended a private screening of “Splendor in the Grass” starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in the basement of John Bugas, a vice president of Ford who negotiated with the unions.

To add balance, I later met the union’s main leader, Walter Reuther, at the graduation ceremony for Putney school in Vermont in 1963. My younger brother, David, was a classmate of his daughter. We sat at a picnic table together as he tested my German.

None of this mattered when I left the Detroit area and the east coast to live in Minnesota. Though a Yale graduate, I never joined the college-educated aristocracy here. I lived long enough to see my father retire from the automobile industry and from the National Association of Manufacturers and move to my mother’s ancestral home in Milford, Pennsylvania, and finally to a nursing home in New Jersey.

Leaving both labor and corporate-management concerns behind, I myself became a landlord and a creator of web sites. You can see some of the results here.

So now we have moved into the Trump era. I helped pioneer opposition to NAFTA; he is bringing it to a successful political conclusion. I moved from the east coast before Donald Trump started to build a real-estate empire. I am now struggling to hold my much smaller group of buildings in Minnesota and Pennsylvania together. Labor and management issues mean little to me any more. Website production is more important. I want to share my various experiences before I am gone.

 

* Karen’s grandfather, William S. Knudsen, started with Ford but ended his automotive career as president of General Motors As general manager of Chevrolet, he is remembered for holding up a finger on each arm and, in a heavy Danish accent, telling his sales force “I vant von for von.” Translation: He wanted his people to sell one Chevrolet for each Ford sold. This came to pass. Chevrolet became the nation’s best-selling brand of car. Knudsen was promoted to become the president of General Motors in which position he served for three years until 1940.

Knudsen later became a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army. Asked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to head the nation’s war-production effort, he resigned his position at General Motors to become the Director of War Production for the nation. Under his skilled direction, automobile facilities in Detroit and elsewhere converted to producing air craft. Detroit became “the arsenal of democracy”. We won the war.

William S. Knudsen had a son, Semon or “Bunkie”, who also worked at General Motors. He became general manager of the Pontiac division in 1956. Henry Ford II hired Knudsen to become president of the Ford Motor Company but then, abruptly, he was fired, perhaps in a power struggle with Lee Iacocca in 1969. I remember seeing “Bunkie” Knudsen at Christ (Episcopal) Church in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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