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.

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Is Culture the Solution to the Campaign Finance Problem?

August 2, 2016

This is the fifth in a series on Money in Politics.

Americans love prohibitions rather than investments. That’s tragic because prohibitions often work poorly while investments pay off.

Antipathy toward investments grew in the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Politicians used crime as a wedge issue and the riots facilitated their strategy. While liberals talked about the causes of crime, and the things we could do to deal with it, conservatives had no patience for what they called “coddling criminals.”[1]

In the 60s we still invested in prevention,[2] afterschool activities, and treatment. But the War on Drugs substituted a focus on condemnation and mass incarceration.[3] Prohibitions were in and expenditures became “waste.” We’re turning back now because we have discovered it is expensive to warehouse people.

Reagan generalized, telling America that “Government is the problem.” His attack was designed to end the War on Poverty that President Johnson inaugurated. The war on taxes was a way to kill otherwise popular programs.[4] Reagan’s successors were trapped by the effectiveness of his anti-government and anti-expenditure rhetoric. G.H.W. Bush, forced into assuring the American public that he would not raise taxes, told the public, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Prevailing anti-expenditure sentiment forced President Clinton to reduce relatively successful federal programs. And George W. Bush, continued the same theme, telling the people repeatedly that you can use “your money” better.

Politicians are saddled with the curse of being part of a system of government the people came to despise. Revelations of the damage done by campaign funding deepened that feeling and curdled reactions to the one method of campaign funding that would not lead to more corruption – public funding of political campaigns. Public funding of presidential election campaigns, through small federal tax credits, came about partly in reaction to Watergate. But support for the program has declined steadily since.

Americans have not always been as hostile to government as they are now. Responsible and effective government were this country’s major contributions to civilization, coming out of the 1776-1783 revolutionary struggle and the birth of the Constitution in 1787. From the Eisenhower Administration, when people were first polled about confidence in government, and well into the 60s, three-quarters of the public trusted government most of the time. Only twenty-five percent of the public do now.

But now, Americans have decided that government and politicians are bad. People don’t want to give politicians anything – except for funding police and the armed services. Making public funding possible is intertwined with these larger questions of whether government can be trusted with anything. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been talking about smart investment. The public has little patience for failure, even though success, public or private, usually follows failed experiments.  So the future of public funding is linked to changing attitudes about government, politicians and the possibility that they can make smart investments. Many things could be done better, and ultimately more cheaply, if we were willing to invest.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 2, 2016.

[1] On wedge issues, see Christine Watkins, Gun Control: The Debate and Public Policy, quoting Eric Zorn, “Librarians Take a Risky Stand on Full Access to the Web,” Chicago Tribune (June 5, 1997).  On changed attitudes, see Michael J. Robinson,  Television and American politics: 1956-1976, Public Interest, Number 48, 3-39 (Summer 1977).

[2] See Nat’l Comm. on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Final Report: To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility (1969).

[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).

[4] David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (1986).


Public matching funding of election campaigns is crucial

July 26, 2016

This is the fourth in a series on Money in Politics. We’ve looked at the way that our present system of campaign finance results in our being fleeced by businesses that use laws and regulations to protect them from competition and from lawsuits. Think about the repeal of legislation that regulated the financial services industry, or the NRA which got legislation to prevent funding for studies of gun violence, the companies that blocked state laws defining duties in their industries, the loosening of federal antitrust law, or a plethora of tax breaks. All of that was facilitated by grateful lawmakers, grateful for campaign help, contributions or expenditures, which made their elections or reelections possible.

We’ve also looked at restoring limitations or prohibitions on those injections of money into politics, and the complexity of reinstating limitations without spilling over and damaging what should be protected speech, press and association.

There is another approach that doesn’t threaten the press or public interest associations and doesn’t hand judges or anyone else malleable discretion to decide who can and cannot speak and how much. The alternative is to provide the funds, either by matching small donations as is done in New York City or allocating public funds for campaigns to those candidates who agree not to raise their own funds.

Public funds relieve candidates from dependence on large donors. Matching small donations reconnects candidates to small donors gathered in house parties, barbeques and similar events. Instead of spending their time courting major donors, candidates seeking matching funds would have to spend time with their constituents – what a quaint concept!

There are many programs using matching funds in place now in states like Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia and cities like New York and Los Angeles.[1] Some states matched large expenditures by opponents before the Court rejected that.[2] New York City provides $6 for each $1 contributed in small amounts, resulting in the vast majority of funds deriving from small donations. The match makes each small donor that much more valuable to the candidate. And the formula can be designed to match inflation so that the majority of candidates keep choosing the public matching system.

The research so far reveals that matching programs increase candidate efforts to reach out to constituents, and minimize the role of large donations, although plan details create significant differences in effectiveness.

The Court long ago agreed that public funds can come with strings – if a candidate takes public funds, the candidate may have to agree to an expenditure limit or a restriction on the donations it can accept.

The public funding approach doesn’t create the major problems, distinctions and discretion that prohibitions do. Savings to the public can be huge. The cost of American political campaigning is much less than the largesse which politicians can make available to contributors and supporters. That means that we could fully fund American political campaigns for much less than those campaigns cost us in legislation and regulations that bilk us of vast amounts of money. It should be a no-brainer.

Next week, why it hasn’t been.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 26, 2016.

[1] See generally the Brennan Center for material on public financing.

[2] Arizona Free Enterprise Fund v. Bennett (2011) and McComish v. Bennett (2011).


Proposed Amendments to Overcome Citizens United

July 19, 2016

This is the third in a series on Money in Politics. Last time we discussed the difficulty of getting the Court to overrule Citizens United. Because of that, several constitutional amendments have been proposed as joint resolutions and introduced in Congress in order to undo Citizens United and overrule the idea that a corporation is a legal person. After studying them, however, it became clear they have been so sloppily drafted that no one could tell you what they would do.

None that I’ve seen addresses the associations we join. Political, civil liberties, civil rights, and environmental organizations, and professional associations, all take stands on candidates or political issues. The ACLU went to court years ago to protect its ability to take out an ad over the impeachment of President Nixon.[1]

All except the smallest are incorporated and are protected by the right of association. The First Amendment protects speech, press, assembly and petition. In combination, that’s what our associations do to influence public attitudes about major issues. They incorporate to outlast their founders, use the courts, open bank accounts, organize membership and leadership, seek tax-exempt status and protect members from liability for any mistakes the organizations make.

Those associations matter. The lasting impact that people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had on the Civil Rights Movement depended on the organizations that did the advance work, and drove home the meaning of what they and other great leaders of the Movement did. That’s true of most successful political movements. Yet the proposed Amendments stop after denying that corporations have constitutional rights and authorizing legislatures to regulate them.

A literalist could read the Amendments as superseding and repealing all previous protections for the organizations we rely on to reform politics, the environment, civil rights and just about everything we care about. Nothing in the proposals protects them.

Sometimes courts hang on to interpretations of older text and neuter newer language, as the Supreme Court has with language in the amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the absence of any language about associations, it is impossible to say what the courts would do to the proposals regarding associations.

One proposal denies that it limits the people’s rights, but it is attached to text which limits what the Court defines as part of the people’s First Amendment rights. The meaning of that exception is mysterious, just authorizing courts to figure it out.

Only two amendments mention a free press. They merely say they “shall [not] be construed to alter the freedom of the press.” That’s nice but the exceptions swallow the proposals because much of political campaigns is in or can be done by the press. Whoever controls the distinction controls the result, whether authorities can squelch the press or the press becomes the next form of improper power.

Corporations often set up subsidiaries for otherwise regulated functions, such as associations or media companies, like what Murdock did with Fox. Some media companies are owned by conglomerates. Many associations set up separate organizations for tax purposes. The NAACP set up Thurgood Marshall’s organization around 1940 to separate its legal work from other organizational work. Lawyers fashion ways to live with rules. So what would a press exception do?

Nor should media companies and political associations have a monopoly on political speech. The law should be neutral and should not protect the speech of some while shackling the speech of others.

Whatever you think of the Roberts Court, and I’m no fan, these are serious issues and no proposal addresses them. Instead they provide feel good language covering sloppy and dangerous clauses.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 19, 2016.

[1] Amer. Civil Liberties Union, Inc. v. Jennings, 366 F. Supp. 1041 (D.D.C. 1973).


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