The Dagger in the Heart of Labor

August 15, 2017

Last week I spoke about labor. Next week is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. I intended to connect the two. After hate intervened in Charlottesville, that’s even more urgent.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Progressive Movement was making great strides on behalf of American workers and farmers. Gradually, the political parties adopted parts of the Progressives platform and many of their proposals were eventually adopted. But in the South, white elites drove a stake through the heart of the Progressive Movement by dividing workers on race. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s to wake America up.

The March on Washington that many of us remember as Martin Luther King’s great triumph was actually called by a coalition of labor leaders. Labor understood that workers had to stand together or they would be trashed together. If you could underpay African-American workers you could underpay everyone. The AFL-CIO, clear about the ways our fates interrelate, was a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

But some politicians used racial prejudice to drive a wedge into support for progress, to prevent government from providing benefits and services for all of us, and then take the “savings” as tax breaks for themselves. Far more whites land on the public safety net but politicians want us to believe it’s just African-Americans. Far fewer African-Americans than whites depend on public schools but politicians want us to think money spent on schools is wasted because “they” get it. In area after area, politicians convinced many of us to starve public services. They want whites to think we would never need what African-Americans would get. They tell us we don’t want to spend anything on “them.” We should be allies, but the politics of race turns us into competitors.

Last time, I described how states and the Supreme Court have been undermining labor’s political role even as it augments management’s. So-called free market “conservatives” don’t want to do anything for the public, for you, your kids and your parents. They tell us that the market solves all problems for the deserving and only the undeserving need help, even while sanctimonious business men poison and defraud us. The real culprits want the freedom to take advantage of us while piling on more tax breaks for themselves. Racial prejudice just makes it easier for them to hide their own misbehavior.

So I want to make three points. First, racial prejudices do the greatest harm when politicians exploit them. I applaud those who condemn the violence and the perpetrators specifically. White supremacists don’t just object to policies – they hate everyone different from them. And no, Black Lives Matter is not a racist organization – objection to racism isn’t racism.

Second, the Supreme Court handed us heavily armed racists massing and marching to intimidate the rest of us. That must stop. Guns have no place in politics or public debate. Worse, white supremacists here admire Hitler, and study his path to power. Hitler’s Brown Shirts terrorized Germany. These folks are terrorists.

Third, Trump has done permanent damage to American politics. His close ties to groups which hate a large portion of America because they think we have the wrong parents is outrageous and highlights the danger of those hate groups. Trump has shown a path to power that every decent American must reject.

I was in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. I thrilled to his words. But the March on Washington which we remember for Dr. King’s words was called and organized by the labor leaders of America dreaming of unity for all the working men and women of America. It is still a dream. We have to make it come true.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 15, 2017.


Workers, the labor movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

August 7, 2017

I was driving home from the grocery store. The radio was tuned to this station. Wanda Fisher was playing a song that I hadn’t heard but I knew what the woman was singing about – it was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Hundreds of girls died because the doors were locked shut. They died from the fire, the smoke or jumping from windows like people did on 9-11.

You may or may not like unions. But no one who knows the history of the workers’ movement can doubt the need for regulation. Without regulations too many workers get treated like trash – locked in, poisoned and sickened by noxious toxins and cut down by unprotected machinery. My uncle was lucky – he just lost part of an ear.

Even worse, whatever profit one business can make by treating its workers like trash pushes other businesses to treat their workers like trash. That’s what business means by the need to stay competitive, skimping on what they have to do for their employees.

Regulation is pushback. That’s why we need it and that’s why those businesses that do most of the lobbying don’t – so they don’t have to spend money on the people they think of as nothing more than the means to make profit, essentially trash.

Politicians and courts have broken up the alliance among workers, white and black, by destroying the unions that united them. A large part of the decimation of unions was done through union finances. When all workers benefit from union bargaining but don’t have to contribute to the union treasuries, most people could save their dues and be free riders on the unions’ efforts – until the union becomes unable to help because its treasury is empty. So-called “right-to-work” laws have done that in many states. Those laws prohibited the union shop in which everyone paid for the unions’ services. The laws should have been called management’s-right-to-fleece-their-workers laws because they made the relation between management and labor one sided. The U.S. Supreme Court played a part in these developments, increasingly denying unions the right to charge for their services. Labor unions have lost the majority of their former strength and most workers have no organization to support them. Without labor unions creating common agendas, workers have been much easier to divide.

In past years the Supreme Court has whittled away which unions could charge what dues, and in which unions workers could opt out of paying the full union dues even though the union had been selected as the workers’ representative in negotiations.

This past term of Court, the Supreme Court was poised to block collection of a collective bargaining fee from government workers who took advantage of union bargaining but chose not to pay full union dues. Put that together with the Court’s decision in Citizens United and you get a much clearer picture of how this Court has reshaped American politics against the working man. Scalia’s death blocked the Court from reaching a decision on that issue. But the case will surely come back in some form now that Gorsuch is on the Court.

The Court has not finished playing with the relative strength of workers and bosses or of Democrats and Republicans. It has chosen a president, in Bush v. Gore. It has reshaped political finance in Citizens United. So far it has refused to touch gerrymandering, letting its Republican friends keep themselves in power like Maduro in Venezuela or Erdoğan [phonetically Erdowan] in Turkey. We are not getting the government we deserve; we are getting what the Court dictates.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 8, 2017.


Trump and the Swamp

June 6, 2017

Trump promised to drain the swamp. We can agree that the swamp is the predominance of special interests over Americans of ordinary means. Bernie Sanders won many hearts and minds by refusing to take big money. Trump claimed independence from big money because he had so much. Clinton lost many votes because she accepted large speaking fees and contributions. A large populist wave by financially ordinary Americans swept the country.

People credited Trump’s promise to drain the swamp. With Trump in power, we’re entitled to look at his actions. Indeed we should.

Most Democrats long tried to take big money out of political campaigns. With some exceptions, like John McCain, Republicans worked to protect the use of money in politics. In the McCain-Feingold Act, Congress managed to compromise between their positions. But the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, invalidated restrictions on campaign contributions, and held in Citizens United, that corporations could contribute funds straight from corporate treasuries. Heard anything lately from the White House about campaign finance regulation? I didn’t think so.

Trump wants to lower the tax and regulatory burdens on the wealthiest people and companies. He claims in justification that the extra costs harm American workers. I recognize the heated debates about those claims. I’ve repeatedly explained in this commentary that putting more money in the hands of the wealthiest people and corporations is unlikely to spur investment or improve the position of American workers. It won’t help American workers because corporations can and do spend extra money everywhere, including abroad. It won’t help American workers because extra wealth can be and is spent on nonproductive goods or investments. And it won’t improve the position of American workers because there is no shortage of capital in this country, so putting more in in wealthy or corporate pockets is like pouring mud into the Mississippi.

Eliminating regulations will also put money in wealthy and corporate hands but hurts everyone else. Unions have been big proponents of safety regulations because they protect the health and safety of workers, and, we should add, of consumers and citizens.

Trump’s proposed budget also pulls up the safety net and hands the savings to corporations and the wealthy. The safety net protects people when they fall on hard times, when illness drains their bank accounts and strains their budgets, when corporate decisions leave workers struggling to find new jobs and forced to feed families on minimum wage jobs. These have direct and indirect costs for all of us. Losing a job can be temporary but it can also be a fall into a rabbit hole that sucks out everything we’ve invested in our homes, our retirement, and stresses, even breaks up our families. In 2008 those factors spread and took a lot of us down. The safety net was intended in part to help slow or stop economic downturns. 2008 overwhelmed what was left of the safety net but Trump would make it worse.

And health care decisions don’t just affect the most vulnerable. None of us want people spreading serious or medicine-resistant strains of TB, Zika, MRSA and other communicable diseases. Effective strategies against communicable disease involve keeping the diseases out of the population to the extent possible.

In Trump’s budget, the savings from all these cuts go to the 1/10 of 1%, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the very people who should be giving back rather than sucking at the public til. Trump promised to drain the swamp. But Trump IS the swamp.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 6, 2017.


The Future of Jobs

April 18, 2017

Automation is changing the workforce. It creates some highly skilled jobs but eliminates many others, from service jobs like taxis to previously professional tasks like document review. Factory jobs are decimated by automation.

The industrial revolution was largely built on repetitive factory production lines, based on physical dexterity, repetition and obedience, not higher education. Automation handles repetitive tasks well. Eliminating them affects people very unequally.

How can we deal with that change? The historic Republican free-market approach, now pushed by Tea Party Republicans who control Congress, is that it’s none of our business.  For them, it’s every man, woman and child for him- or herself. Millions in breaks for big corporations and no security for the workers whose lives and livelihoods are the playthings of  markets, financial institutions and corporate interests. But woe to countries that forget their people, engulfed in power struggles and bloody civil wars with the fate of ordinary, hard-working and decent people as talking points and engines of recruitment.

Some jobs have been divided into a large class of “aids.” In Iran everyone from middle class up had a bagi, their term for servant. It’s a world of dependency, power, and deep social division, a world in which people can be taken advantage of. The market, so sacred to the ideologues, is pushing more and more people to join the service economy as maids, waiters, servants and sometimes as sex workers.  Notice the contrary pressures on the women’s movement, with some vying for the few high-end jobs and others being pressured into demeaning and dangerous activity.

We might share good jobs. Labor unions once looked toward a five-hour day. Or we might create jobs, keeping everyone busy and satisfying more of the community’s needs, from building and repairing bridges, roads, water systems and electric and internet grids, to watching over playgrounds. But actually we’re going the other way. Jobs that can create opportunities are being dropped. The pressures are all on workers to find or create ways to survive. We all feel the taxes but don’t notice the benefits.

I see our separation by wealth, color and origin blinding us to common problems. John Adrian Witt, a Yale historian speaking at Alumni House last week, sees organizational failure, like the 1920s before unions and public service organizations finally jelled, leading toward the New Deal reforms in the 1930s.

The New Deal gave us a powerful administrative state, capable of opposing and controlling corporate greed that demeaned and poisoned workers with dangerous equipment, noxious chemicals and contaminated foods. But that effective administrative state became the Republican target, stated theoretically as “regulation” – regulation everyone can be against unless broken down to the safety and honesty it is designed to protect.

There is also an ideological issue, especially when the unchecked power of the market is pushing the public to turn on each other and itself.

Workers are entitled to security. Graduates of high school, colleges, and universities are entitled to good jobs. Our job should not be to ask workers to justify their lives to the market; it should be to employ people to make a better America, much as the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt founded the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and many others. We can support each other, and make a better America for all of us. The market isn’t the answer; the market is the problem. When it doesn’t do what we need, we need to do what it screwed up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 18, 2017.


Trump and Jobs

March 14, 2017

Last week I commented that scholars of intolerance tell us that feeling threatened often leads to hate. That’s one reason the economic threat to some American workers matters to all of us.

Trump is clearly working with the free marketeers. The free market is not about your, or workers’ rights; it’s about your boss’s or your company’s right to close your plant, move, lower your wages, reject your union, or just skip protecting your safety.

Trump makes different noises when talking about your jobs and when writing rules and hiring his cabinet. But his Republican Senate will insist on a free market, and Trump is counting on it.

Trump told us he wants to eliminate 75% of regulations. Those regulations protect employees and consumers; in other words, you and me. They protect our wages, require safer working conditions, ban poisons from our food and water and require companies to give us what we paid for. That’s how Trump shows us his true colors.

Obama saved thousands of jobs by saving American auto makers and growing the economy by hundreds of thousands of jobs per month – but gets no credit. Trump may have saved a few hundred but people think he takes action. With victories like that we can all starve.

Trump’s focus on the optics of small victories keeps us looking the wrong way. U.S. factory output is growing. But the jobs have changed. Missing are factory jobs for poorly educated people. I don’t say that out of disrespect. My Uncle Hershel, a truly lovely man, was a factory worker. I remember him sitting by my bed when I was ill. What I’m talking about is how to get good jobs for people like him. If we expect jobs to show up the same way they did a century ago, we’re whistling in the wind. If we think Trump can trump marketplace change by jawboning a few companies, we’re spitting in the wind. He doesn’t have the time or tax cuts to do it that way.

Central New York was once a manufacturing powerhouse. What’s left are mostly small towns far from traditional jobs. Yet one can now work thousands of miles from where things have to be made or done. We could be linked in to the world IF we invested in and rebuilt the economy, instead of jawboning the owners of obsolete factories.

And education must be available and affordable for everyone who wants a good job. Education sounds like elitism to many workers. But what made America an economic powerhouse was our system of mass education. And that’s part of why those who think we can go back to a prior era of American greatness are spitting in the wind – the rest of the world has caught up. To provide jobs, we need to provide retraining for mid-career workers on top of excellent schools, pre-school and after-school programs – all of which provide jobs.

Yes education will have to change. I’m a dinosaur, standing up in front of a class of students, even though the alternatives, so far, are not working very well. But when people figure out better methods, education will take off again – here or elsewhere. That’s where we need evidence-based experimentation – science. We rely on science from morning till night for the things we touch and use. Denying science is the height of idiocy, not a mark of greatness.

Trump yells about foreigners and markets. It’s our job to address reality.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 14, 2017.


The March in Albany

January 25, 2017

This weekend was busy. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and others trained people in nonviolence and to serve as observers for the Women’s March on Washington, including a couple of training sessions at Albany Law.

Saturday I joined the Inaugurate Resistance March here in Albany. People joined the crowd from every direction, walking toward the planned start of the march. With so many people it was long before I saw anyone I knew. State Senator Neil Breslin commented to me that a march of this size had never happened in Albany. The only numbers I’ve heard seemed much too conservative – this was really big.

I saw speakers and marchers from women’s groups, Citizen Action, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, the Coalition Against Islamophobia, labor unions, religious leaders, community service groups, gay rights groups, and many others.

Eventually I ran into friends who’d served in the Peace Corps, or been mainstays of activism in this area. I got close enough to the rear of the platform to see the back of speakers’ heads.

A common theme was solidarity across all the causes we each primarily work on. United we stand and can protect each other. Divided we fall; we’re all vulnerable separately. All for one and one for all.

When John Dunne wrote the immortal lines, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” he wasn’t whistling dixie. Our welfare is bound to each others’:

  • Slavery to northern workers was both morally indefensible and a threat to their own livelihoods.
  • Sweatshops bring down everyone’s paychecks and safety.
  • Minimum wages affect everybody’s wages. It’s about whether some people can take advantage of other people, and us.
  • Abuse of women threatens our families and our children – do I have to count the ways?
  • Abuse of any of us – racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and the trans-gendered, any of us – threatens all of us.

Treating people like trash threatens us all – by example, not to mention their business, their support for us, and the damage to all of us of making some people desperate – desperate for jobs at any price, desperate for food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families, at any price. Desperation threatens everything and everyone.

The folks at the Inaugurate Resistance March got it. We celebrated our inter-dependence and we cared about each other. I like to quote the ancient Rabbi Hillel who asked the people, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” In that crowd I enjoyed the reaffirmation of our mutual concern. Need I point out for the doubters that a major reason for our country’s success was our ability to work with each other – it matters that we see each others’ humanity, brotherhood and sisterhood.

But that cannot be enough to deal with the blowhard in Chief. The Tea Party’s example was its organizing. Their targets were primaries to take over the Republican party and publicity to take over the public agenda. Obviously it worked. And it will work for liberals too.

It must. Obama’s election was a major step toward a just, decent world. The blowhard-in-Chief is poised to take the brotherhood of mankind apart. It’s our job to make that fail, never to be resurrected, and drive its proponents out of American politics. It’s our job to keep in touch, stay united, publicly push for a decent America until the racist blowhards are sobbing in their caves. We’re the majority and we’ll make OUR muscle felt.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 24, 2017.


The Anti-Union Court

July 1, 2014

The Court decided yesterday in Harris v. Quinn that at least some of the employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement don’t have to share in the costs of negotiating that agreement. The Court says it violated their First Amendment rights. How many unions and employees it will apply to is still unclear but this is not the first move the Roberts Court has made in that direction.[i] Sometimes the patterns matter much more than the individual decisions, whether good or bad. Read the rest of this entry »


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