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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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.


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.


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