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.


Should We Just “Get Over it”?

May 11, 2017

Trump’s supporters claim liberals should “get over it.” Trump was elected so we should “get over it.” Really? What should we “get over”? We should certainly “get over” losing a popularity contest – a high school election or selection of a beauty queen. But getting over real damage is shallow and heartless. It may be our privilege to “get over” our own losses, but we don’t have the moral privilege of “getting over” impending death, damage and destruction to others that we could have stopped?

Trump’s opposition to environmental rules will poison the air and water. Should we get over it before or after people sicken and die? Before or after children are poisoned, injured or permanently damaged?

Trump’s abandonment of green power and his promotion of fossil fuels and fracking will boil our world, flood our coasts, smash our homes with violent storms, unleash new infections on us, and parch our lands and lips with drought. Should we get over it or try to prevent it? Should we celebrate while we’re spared or should we cry for family, friends, and neighbors?

Vive la France! But Trump’s attack on European unity emboldens the world’s dictators and masks his own desire to join them. Should we celebrate unraveling the European union that put a stop to the most deadly wars in the earth’s history and nearly destroyed our closest allies? Or should we try to keep it strong?

Trump’s attacks on regulation threaten to crush the vulnerable. Should we celebrate their misfortune? Trump removed brokers’ obligations to protect their clients’ interests. Shall we thank him for encouraging fraud? For trumping decency.

Perhaps we can get over our own losses, but should we “get over” the consequences to other hard-working and decent people all over the country? Should we get over the decency in our own hearts? Is it weakness to care about others? Or are we strong enough to care?

Trump keeps talking about making the country great again, while selling it out and most of it’s people for the selfishness of a few. Should we reward him for it?

What should we respect in ourselves and each other? That our so-called “Second Amendment rights” threaten others’ lives whenever anyone loses their tempers, becomes frustrated or jumps to conclusions? Are we on the way to becoming a nation of barroom brawlers congratulating whoever is strong or fast enough to kill everyone else? Is that the great new America?

Trump has called off investigations into police killings. Should we respect people we call “lawmen” who are so scared of a man putting his key in his door that they have to shoot him instantly? Do America’s “bravest” shoot men in the back, on the ground or with their hands up? Or is cowardice the new bravery? Is Trump encouraging chaos so that he can step in with dictatorial powers claiming that it’s necessary for our own safety to shoot men in the back?

There is nothing in the White House to get over. There is everything to stop, control, limit, prevent. The imposter-president is a threat to meet, not a bet to get over.

Trumpistas have saddled us all with a doozy. Let them “get over it.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 9, 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.


Looming Catastrophe and Stubborn People

March 22, 2016

Help. Two major problems have the same structure – it doesn’t look like people will deal with the problem until it is too late. Too late means the survivors will be refugees. Everyone else will be dead. And yet getting people to deal with the threat except at the fringes has been impossible.

One of those problems is global climate change. I’m told people will come around. Great but time is not on our side. I’m told people don’t want to make any sacrifices.  Great. Life is a sacrifice. We sacrifice for everything we want. How about life? For us? Our kids and grandchildren? Isn’t that worth a few pennies? What’s the matter?

We could deal with this. It’s not rocket science. Changes to the tax system would push carbon out of the air. And some regulation would clean up other parts of the problem. Is life itself, for everybody we love, not worth some sacrifice? Can’t we make it clear to everybody in this election season that anything less than a full-court, all-out press to call a halt to global warming is the sine qua non of our support, the one overriding issue, and they’d better do everything they can?

Time might have been on our side when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, Barry Commoner called attention to environmental threat of global pollution in the late 1960s, and we held the first Earth Day in 1970. That was 46 years ago. Time is not on our side now. Action is crucial now; we need to do everything possible to make the system move. Corporations that hide behind the bad-for-business apologias deserve boycotts. Everybody’s shoulders need to go to all the wheels – now.

The same dynamic underlies Israel’s miscalculation of its own position. It has now lost or is in the process of  losing all its allies. The majority there has been stubborn and stupid in denying that they needed to make any changes. But it’s become obvious to many more than those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness for years. I know I’ll get hate mail – people cover up their own blindness by refusing to see and blaming everyone else around. Sorry. That won’t help. The problem isn’t me; it’s that the world has lost patience and it doesn’t particularly matter now if the world is right or wrong. Israel never had a future without allies and Israel has been squandering its erstwhile friends. It’s bet on the Republicans has only revealed the loss of support across the American political spectrum. So will Israel go the way of the Crusades? It will take a lot of far-sighted savvy to stave that off and I doubt their politics will permit it.

Two very different problems and yet two problems that are very similar. Meanwhile, I sit down to write some commentary, and here, two problems close to my heart are looking intractable and I don’t really know what to say. Help. Let’s get this done.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 22, 2016.


Environmental Time Wasted

July 28, 2015

A news director at this station, about a decade ago, wanted me to engage in what some call pack journalism, to talk about whatever was occupying the press’s attention. I understood his point; people’s interest was already peaked. Plus the more people talk about the same things, the more it tends to sink in. But I’ve never liked piling on. If you heard it elsewhere, I feel no need to restate it. I like to bring up something else, or a different perspective. I feel more useful that way.

This week I’d like to bring up a case much less talked about than the Supreme Court term’s blockbusters on same-sex marriage and medical care. Those are very important decisions. But here’s another worth examining. On June 29, the Supreme Court decided Michigan v. EPA. According to Justice Scalia and the conservative majority, the case was about whether the EPA needed to consider the costs of regulation. According to Justice Kagan and the liberal dissenters, the case was about whether the EPA needed to consider costs separately before considering specific regulations.

Sometimes court decisions lead one down the rabbit hole with Lewis Carroll. According to Justice Kagan, the EPA did consider costs. It took costs into account in the specific regulations for each type of power plant. It considered costs by adopting ways to mitigate the cost of the required measures to catch up with up-to-date emissions control systems. It decided against more stringent controls because it decided they would not be cost-effective. And it elaborately examined the quantifiable costs and benefits. The problem: it did all that in the wrong order. The result – the rule is on hold now; the agency will have to do some work to show it studied cost the way the Court wants it done before it can reimpose regulation.

That’s one of the main purposes of taking administrative agencies to court – delay can be worth a lot of money to business and industry even if they will eventually have to comply. In other words, regulations can protect the public, but courts can delay them.

Barely mentioned was how much mercury and other toxic pollutants coal fired power plants could send into the air we breathe. Scalia and the industry said there were merely several million dollars damage to the public per year. Kagan and the EPA said the damage was in the tens of billions. Of course much of the damage cannot be measured in dollars anyway – it is about lives damaged and destroyed by mercury and other toxic pollutants.

Republicans have been fighting for years against regulation of mercury emissions. Democrats just as long have been fighting to clean the air of the kinds of things that could damage our health and our ability to lead productive lives. But consistency is the hob-goblin of little minds: Republicans would do everything possible to control addictive drugs that damage our lives, health and minds – they are used by bad people. But Republicans would not control pollutants that damage our lives, health and minds – they are emitted by good people. Democrats, of course, the reverse.

So which congressman, and which justice, is in whose pocket? Some of them apparently define good and bad people by the money in their pockets instead of the things they do to others. Whatever happened to equal justice?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.


Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.


%d bloggers like this: