Anyone who has ever flown into or out of Montana knows what a hassle it is to get here from virtually anywhere else in the continental United States. Yet Al Franken, progressive talk radio’s answer to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, went through the waiting, the frisking and the plane-changing to get here and tell the nation “live from Missoula” that progressive Montanans are alive and kicking and ready to rock such scoundrels as Conrad Burns right out of office.
If you happened to be in the fired-up and jam-packed audience at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts for Franken’s live radio show, you’ll undoubtedly understand why sending a little extra thanks Al’s way is warranted. As one attendee said, “It felt so good to be surrounded by people who moaned out loud over Conrad Burns’ perfidy and howled derision at Marc Racicot’s comments on how swell deregulation has been for Montanans.”
But what amazed me, what I took away from the show (on which I was a guest), was a vast appreciation for how hard Franken works to spread the truth to the nation about the corruption and lies of the Bush administration, an equally corrupt Congress, and their ruthless corporate cronies. For one man and his extremely capable production team to stand up to the combined might of the presidency, the Republican-dominated Congress, and their allies in the corporate-controlled media with little more than a microphone, a card table, and a great sense of humor is truly noble.
Take, for instance, the insights that Franken offered Montanans on the real deal behind Conrad Burns’ vote change to mollify Saipan clothing manufacturers. For most Montanans, the issue is embarrassing because we hate to see anyone who represents our great state degrade our public image. This is where people treat each other well, where we care about our fellow Montanans, and about the mountains, plains, rivers and forests of this place we call home.
What we learned about the affair through the good work of Lee Newspapers’ state reporter Jennifer McKee was that Burns had changed his vote on whether or not the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association could continue to slap “Made in USA” on their garments because they were produced on the fringe of the Mariana Islands primarily by Chinese immigrant workers at less than the U.S. minimum wage.
In 2000, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously for a bill that would have toughened the labor rules and given the federal government more oversight of immigration—but which obviously threatened to cost the garment makers more money to meet U.S. minimum wage standards. The bill passed the Senate, but died in the House—but an identical bill came up a year later, which is when the story gets interesting.
The garment manufacturers association hired now-disgraced D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a Saipan garment manufacturer tossed $5,000 to Burns’ political fund. Suddenly, Burns’ objections to Saipan’s labor conditions evaporated, and one month later he opposed the bill and took a roll count vote in his committee to put that opposition on record.
But it took Al Franken to come to Montana and tell us the rest of the story. Turns out those Chinese immigrants being hired for substandard wages to slave in garment production include young women who are being forced into prostitution as part of the job, and then forced to have abortions if they become pregnant.
As Franken pointed out, Burns voted to support the very things the Republican Party is supposed to adamantly oppose. It’s tough to see how “culture of life” Republicans could possibly support any form of abortion, let alone abortion forced by an employer. Nor is it conceivable that these supposed moral icons could ever support anyone who voted to ignore forced prostitution. Yet as human rights groups have long contended, that is exactly what is going on in the Mariana Islands and exactly what Conrad Burns voted to allow by voting against health and safety inspections and tighter regulation of the Mariana garment industry.
Had Al Franken not gone through the hassle of bringing his show to Montana and elaborating on the story behind the story, it is doubtful that we would know the horrendous details of worker abuse any time soon. But now that we do know, isn’t it time for Burns to tell us just what logic he used in deciding how to cast that vote? Isn’t it time that Burns tells Montanans why it’s okay to allow such subhuman treatment to continue—especially when the garments in question carry the “Made in USA” label?
Of course it is, but I wouldn’t expect any explanation coming out of Burns’ office very soon. After all, Sen. Burns said he “wished Jack Abramoff had never been born” for good reason—because of the slime that has been revealed as the cover is pulled back from Abramoff’s dealings with the supposedly morally superior Republicans who are now in control of this country. And at the very top of Abramoff’s list of Congressional recipients for his political donations sits none other than Montana’s Conrad Burns.
When I left the theater after the show, Franken was still working hard, furiously signing his latest books for a line of people that stretched back into the seats. Only a few short hours later, he would give a performance for the Human Rights Network, yet again rising to the need, meeting the challenge and doing it all in a way that made us laugh when we should have been crying.
We Montanans enjoy such a high quality of life that such a frantic work schedule is almost unimaginable. But Franken does this day in and day out, carrying the truth to the people. The least we can do is say “Thanks, Al” and “Keep up the good fight”—we need you now more than ever.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.