Stop Dumping All the Risks on Blue Collar Workers

June 5, 2018

I have been thinking about all the blue-collar workers who believed that Donald Trump would do a great deal for them.

We often talk about the risks that entrepreneurs face but capitalism does its best to outsource risk to blue-collar workers. If there are environmental problems, poisons in the air or water, blue-collar workers and their children will be the first to become sick – they are the canaries in the coal mines. But the irony is that they are also the first to be affected by any attempt to remedy the situation. Prohibitions may force their workplaces to shut down or lay them off.

Liberals often respond by saying that new methods will create jobs. But blue-collar workers have good reason to assume that any jobs created will probably be for other people. Liberals also argue that the proper method for creating jobs is with public works, renovating American infrastructure, etc. But who’ll get the infrastructure jobs? And even more important, no one has been able to promise those jobs. Obama tried but Congress blocked much of what he wanted to do. Trump promised a huge infrastructure program but he put it in the budgets of the states, not his own budget. In effect American politics has not been able to deliver on that jobs promise for the people whose jobs are at risk.

Other relief programs are more automatic: Except for Puerto Rico, we regularly protect people flooded by major storms even when they should have known better than to build on flood plains. The farm program, whatever its shortcomings, protects farmers with formulas that can be calculated in advance. Unemployment insurance is statutory but often grossly inadequate. Social security and Medicare have been reliable though they have become political footballs. Obamacare still exists despite Republican attempts to kill it. But you can’t feed and house a family on medical care. The earned income tax credit comes annually after April 15.

All of this suggests political winners and losers – we like some folks and we don’t trust others with whatever we might do for them. Government has not been willing to become the employer of last resort, so that there are always jobs and wages, although some candidates are urging it now. A negative income tax has been deemed too expensive. And Trump has spent huge tax dollars on enriching the super rich instead of reducing or eliminating the payroll tax in order to encourage hiring more workers for jobs that pay well. There’s lots that could be done if we have the will.

The result is that our political system has not been willing to care for workers. They are not the only ones our politics has left to hang in the breeze. Our unwillingness to insist on decent, honest and ethical behavior for everything from payday lending to mortgage loans, from manufacturing to toxic waste, leaves masses of people at risk, unable to protect themselves or their families.

We need statutes that protect all workers when employers reduce their workforce. Protections need to be reliable so that people don’t have to fear for their jobs when they demand safe working conditions and decent contractual terms that don’t shift all the risks to the people who are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. We need reliable worker protection so that people needn’t fear for their jobs when we demand safe products and safe byproducts of business activity. We need to rethink how we protect American workers so that they don’t become the losers whenever we try to improve the American environment and working conditions for everyone.

— This commentary posted by WAMC on their website on June 5, 2018 but the audio was pre-empted by the Pledge Drive. It was broadcast in its usual spot the following week on WAMC Northeast Report, June 12, 2018.

Advertisements

Politics Can Be Fun – Some Encouragement for Earth Day

April 17, 2018

Some people tell me it’s hard to deal with global dangers and dangers to our health that aren’t fun to think about and that feel out of our control as well. How can we deal with it?

Compare those to how we protect our families in other situations. I often feel better thinking about dangers than ignoring them, like when we talked with our children about dangers they faced on their way to school. I remember a colleague asking me to baby sit for his children when I was abroad. They were a British couple and Alistair was explicit – there were people around who snatched and sold children. That was painful to think about. That’s why they had to.

I’m a husband, parent and grandparent. It is my job to think about what could destroy my family and embitter our lives. We all take pride in protecting our families and helping them protect themselves. Part of being a grown-up is to stare danger in the face and deal with it.

Lots of things are well within our ability to advocate for the environment. My wife and I have supported the Union of Concerned Scientists for decades. Joe Donahue introduced us to Bill McKibben’s 360.org. I’m not sure why many people are reluctant to go outside and demonstrate. Years ago, we participated in the first Earth Day, a lovely event we shared with friends in St. Louis – I think we were in Forest Park but my wife remembers it as at Washington University, closer to our place.

Perhaps you participated in the Women’s March, or heard Martin Luther King describe his dream in front of the Lincoln Memorial after the country’s greatest folk singers serenaded us and we linked arms for the march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. A demonstration can literally be a walk in the park with friends.

Some of us have professional options – I’ve handled some environmental lawsuits, for example. All of us can speak with our Congresspersons as well as local office-holders. They actually want to know what we’re thinking – we’re not burdening them by letting them know in a civil way. Mary Poppins was right, of course, “a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But we have a mutual interest in telling them. My point is that politics can be fun.  It is NOT all about money. It’s about votes, voters and people.

And there is the pleasure of taking responsibility. Many of us were inspired when President Kennedy bid us to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy followed immediately with the wider implication, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Survival in the face of potential environmental catastrophe needs all our help. The environmental movement is global, neither black nor white, upper, lower or middle class. People are involved from every corner of American life. Let our numbers and power inspire us to solve these problems and protect this world for all our children.

Let’s take those walks in the park with friends for the environment, and make visits to our representatives with friends for the environment. And let’s feel really good about it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 17, 2018.

 


%d bloggers like this: