Monday, November 28, 2016

Pension Promise? What Pension Promise?


There is a longstanding myth that the right wing, and the corporate interests they represent, abhor government waste and taxes. In the world they live in, behind every problem facing mankind is government spending, and the solution to every problem is another tax cut. At least, that is the perception they have managed to create to convince a large portion of the wage earning classes to support them.
 
Never mind that the family of four with household earnings of less than $40k probably isn't actually paying taxes anyways. And never mind that the social programs and government waste they complain about are probably going to numerous services and safety nets that actually benefit that same family. We want to get government out of our lives, and you know... Make America Great Again, right?
 
This morning I read two separate articles from two separate states about public employee pensions. In the Des Moines Register article, the republican governor is mulling the conversion of public employee pensions into 401k accounts. In the Detroit Free Press article, there is discussion about converting public employee pensions into... wait for it... 401k accounts. And both pieces make mention of the Koch Brothers funded group, Americans for Prosperity.
 
If you're wondering why so many billionaires like the Kochs and the Trumps are suddenly taking such a selfless interest in saving us all and turning the country around after spending their entire lives only looking out for their own greedy self-interests, you can rest assured that absolutely nothing has changed. I am left almost speechless when I hear people say things now like, "I'm glad that business people have control of our government, because now they can use their business experience to help this country."
 
In actuality, what we are about to witness is the wholesale redistribution of the remainder of the nation's wealth, to the already wealthiest individual families. It's not about reducing taxes, or cutting waste, or making our lives better. It's all about greed. Period.
 
The conversion of our pension benefits under the guise of saving the taxpayers, serves two purposes. First, it is union busting. These are only a small step in finishing off the labor movement by attacking their pensions funds. It will start with the public sector funds, converting them to individual 401k accounts. They will then move on to the federal sector pensions.
 
We should also expect to see an immediate change in the acceptable amount of unfunded liability for green light defined benefit (union Taft-Hartley) plans. Wait? What? I know... that's a lot of strange words all in one sentence. What it amounts to is that the Bush administration used a system of monitoring union pension plans in the private sector. Because they loved the use of color codes (remember the terrorism threat levels based on a color spectrum that nobody understood?), they set criteria for pension plans that said if you had a certain percentage of unfunded liability, the government could step in, take over your plan and hand the whole thing over to the pension benefit guarantee corporation (PBGC). Under the PBGC, workers and retirees can reasonably expect to get mere pennies on the dollar promised to them.
 
When Obama took office, the markets had tanked thanks to the housing market debacle, and so many plans were underfunded based on Bush's fuzzy, union busting math, that the PBGC would have itself been insolvent. So the new administration changed the acceptable levels for plans and gave them opportunities to merge, make improvement plans, etc.
 
We can reasonably expect that all of this will be subject to immediate change as a new Republican administration takes office. Because if there's one thing Republicans hate, it's unions, and these billion dollar pension plans being in union control just makes them crazy.
 
To understand the other aspect, you have to understand how the wealthy view the world. Everything to them is divided into two categories. There are the people and things they can use to profit from, and there is everything and everyone else, which are wasteful and devoid of meaning. No, really. It's true.
 
 
 
When Americans for Prosperity (the Koch Brothers) talk about government waste, they aren't talking about the billions in subsidies they get every year. They aren't railing about their own tax benefits. They aren't talking about the government contracts they themselves have procured. In fact, as I write this they are lobbying against tax extenders. They say these are wasteful extensions. Why are they wasteful? Because the tax extenders they are really talking about are actually alternative energy credits for things like wind and solar power and other things they don't profit from and are actually in competition with their dirty energy business interests.
 
Likewise, you will never hear them complain about the fact that each government contractor costs the taxpayers two to three times as much as each federal employee. Why? Because they don't care about wasting federal moneys if they can profit from it. It only becomes wasteful in their eyes when dedicated public and federal employees provide them with no means of direct exploitation.
 
Which brings us right back around to the pensions. Because they look at these huge funds representing the life savings of millions of Americans, and they see an opportunity. There is a reason that every scheme from the right wing involving pensions and social security always ends with 401k's. That reason has absolutely nothing to do with giving Americans more control of their own investments and destinies. It has everything to do with dumping billions of dollars into a market the super rich already control, and making them exponentially richer in the process. 
 
Do you know what happens to stock prices when millions of new investors start buying? Prices go up. Prices go way up, and an enterprising young man with a few hundred million dollars of his daddy's money in the market, can reasonably expect to grow that into a few billion dollars of our pension money and pull it all out right before the bubble pops. And isn't that what the American dream is all about?  
 
 
Someone asked me recently why I use 100 year old cartoons and pictures in my blog. First, I love history. Second, and most important, is because the cartoons, and the stories they tell, are still relevant today. With all of our advancements in time and technology, the struggle has never changed. Our enemies are still the same entitled fat cats as they have always been. Their goals are the same as they always were as they seek ever greater wealth and power over the world we all live in.
 
And, in 1929, right before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, more average Americans had money in the stock market than at any other time in history. Everything we have is at stake right now. Everything. And all of it has happened before. It isn't serendipity or coincidence either. It's the super rich taking pages from the playbooks their grandfathers wrote, and there are no happy fairytale endings for anyone except for them in their book.

I've been in this union business a good long while now and have witnessed the further erosion of the middle class in recent decades. For years as a union organizer I have dragged workers kicking and screaming into the betterment of themselves by forming and joining unions in their workplaces. I've watched as the most union hating member of bargaining units eventually 'get it' and come crawling into the union office begging for help because the bosses they so loved and the companies they so believed in, had screwed them over. And I helped them too, because that is what the union does.

We, the unions, for all of our warts and pimples and fucked up leadership, are the last best hope for workers and the wage earning classes in this society. We are the alternative to a government that does nothing for you, and employers who only want to exploit you. We will keep on being there too, in one form or another, just like we always have, but now, we need your help to survive and maintain the benefits that our forefathers (and mothers) have accrued for us all to enjoy.

For years we urged and begged and pleaded workers to join the union. For years we have begged and pleaded union members to vote and to call their congressmen when issues required it of them. Historically, men and women had to fight and strike and picket and protest and starve and go to jail to earn all of the hard won protections that we as a people have come to enjoy and take for granted. For our generation, we needed only to join the union. To pay a few dollars in dues. We only had to make a few phone calls a couple of times a year, and vote every two years for the lesser of two evils as it pertained to our wages and benefits and the rights we enjoy. For the most part, we have failed to do even that. And now, here we are.

Every labor protection, from the right to organize, to pensions and even child labor laws, are under scrutiny and attack. Our pensions and healthcare and wages are all suddenly up for debate by men who would seek only to destroy us, to exploit us, and to profit from us. Now, workers want to call their congressional representatives. Now, workers want to get more active. Now, workers want to join the union. All of this is a good sign. All of this is a tiny step in the right direction. And all of this is too little, too late.

It will take more than just paying dues and calling your legislators to win the upcoming battles now. It will require a renewed recognition that we are all in this together against a common foe that is at our gate. And it will require a collective will and courage beyond what has ever been expected of us in our lifetimes.

When asked recently by a worker what she should do in light of everything, I replied that she ought to have her congressional representatives on speed dial. When she gets a text or an email from the union, she better open it and read it immediately. If it calls for action, follow through with it. I told her to subscribe to an actual newspaper and read the thing every day and keep her co-workers informed about what the union is doing and what we are fighting and make sure everybody joins and goes to union meetings.

Then, after all of that has been done, buy a couple of good pairs of walking shoes, and just for good measure, have the card for a bail bondsman in her purse or wallet. Because if the powers that be have reverted to their old tricks, we already know what our response will eventually have to be. Action. Radical direct action. Get your walking shoes on, America. You're going to need them now. And, together, we just might come out of this thing with a renewed sense of purpose that really does make America great again... for all of us.


Almost a 100 years ago, George Milburn penned The Two Bums. The "rods" he is referring to are the steel supports beneath freight trains where hoboes used to ride to avoid detection...
 
The bum on the rods is hunted down
As the enemy of mankind;
The other is driven around to his club
And feted, wined and dined.

And they who curse the bum on the rods
As the essence of all that is bad,
Will greet the other with a winning smile
And extend him the hand so glad.

The bum on the rods is a social flea
Who gets an occasional bite;
The bum on the plush is a social leech,
Blood-sucking day and night.

The bum on the rods is a load so light
That his weight we scarcely feel,
But it takes the labor of dozens of men
To furnish the other a meal.

As long as you sanction the bum on the plush,
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.

Then make an intelligent, organized kick,
Get rid of the weights that crush;
Don’t worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush!

 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Capitalism, Trump, and the Deregulation Merry-Go-Round

“I will formulate a rule which says that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.”
   -President Elect Donald Trump, 11/22/16-
 

If Republicans had a ten commandments they lived by (no really, I said that they actually lived by), deregulation would be right at the very tippy top of that list. It is the dream of every capitalist to live in a world free of regulations and rules that seemingly stand in the way of profit and their coveted, beloved, free market system. For, the market, they believe (yes, really), is the cure to every ill, and the solution to every problem.
 
Deregulate, they say, and allow the market to sort it all out. Because of this, they believe that the minimum wage is an artificial inflation of wages that kills jobs and makes us all worse off in the long run somehow. They think that things like OSHA or the Food & Drug Administration, for all of the protections they afford, are mere burdensome obstructions placed in the way of the free market, and that the market, in its all-knowing infinite wisdom, will provide an answer for it all, eventually. We simply have to trust that it will work. We simply have to have faith, and believe.
 
The only problem with free market capitalism really, is that it does not work. Not only does it not work in theory, every historical example of deregulation and free market capitalism in American history has ended in an economic disaster, and we, the people, have paid the price. Every. Single. Time. In fact, there is really no example where completely unrestrained capitalism has come anywhere remotely close to working for anyone, save a few individuals at they very top rung of the economic ladder... you know, like Trump.  
 
And for all of you small business people out there who believe that deregulation will free you of all the crushing rules and laws and taxes in your life, rest assured, that the top 1% will not help you either. Because the regulations that are crushing you are, ironically, mostly put in place by big business to keep your small business small, and from growing to become a competitor with the big business leaders who are really running things.
 
Economists have expended entire careers arguing the causes of the market crash of 1929. Prior to that one, there were regularly occurring lesser crashes and depressions all throughout the era of the government's laissez-fair economic policy. Laissez-faire (hands off, or not to touch), by the way, is an economic system in which business is free from all restrictive government interference such as regulations. Aside from causing countless recessions and crises, the policy also led to the era of the trusts, where one or two individuals established control and monopoly dominance over entire industries, and the vast majority of the populace lived in crushing debt and poverty.

The crash of 1929 itself was caused by overextended speculation, and a bubble that could not have been made possible without deregulation. The depression that followed was amplified by a totally free agricultural market and the overproduction that resulted. Similarly, deregulation (and policies of self-regulation) led to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. And more recently, deregulation in banking gave us the housing bubble and the economic crisis that followed.

Common denominators for all of these examples are deregulation, followed by short, dramatic expansion, and then scandal and complete economic system failure, ended with taxpayers picking up the financial pieces and the profiteers running out the back door in armored trucks full of cash. What is most alarming about the next round of deregulation, and the inevitable results, is that our new president will be one of the guys driving the getaway trucks full of cash this time.
 

Deregulation only means less consumer protections, less worker protections, and ends with the bizarre belief that industries will regulate themselves and the free market will cure everything. It is like establishing a system whereby known kleptomaniacs are given a universal key to every store in town and then asked to pay for whatever they take by means of an honor jar placed just outside the door.  

Remember in the wake of the housing market crisis when we rounded up all of the perpetrators and threw them in prison? No? Oh yeah. That's because it didn't happen. Deregulation, and the lack of oversight and laws made all of that possible. The financial CEOs got richer selling bad mortgages. The stock jobbers got richer bundling them and selling those loans. And when it all came crashing down and everyone else lost jobs and homes and retirement 401k's, we paid to bail them all out, and guess what? They got even richer. Thanks deregulation!

More recently, the CEO of Wells Fargo oversaw the largest outright consumer theft by a financial institution in recent American history when 5,000 employees opened over 2 million accounts for people without their consent.  Guess what happened? While they were busy opening those accounts, the top brass got richer. And when the shit hit the fan, they fired all 5,000 of the low level employees who were doing what they were told to do. And the executive who oversaw it all retired with stock options estimated at $125 million, and $20 million in bonuses paid out while the fraud was going on. Thanks deregulation!

We already live under an economic system that works only to enrich those who need it the least. It is a system where a poor man can get thrown into county jail for stealing a loaf of bread and rot there for months for lack of bail money. It is a system where a rich man can rob billions of dollars from millions of people, and expect only to get richer as a result. Deregulation only serves to widen the already deep disparity within this capitalist chasm.


Before you start grumbling that the author of this blog is just a sore loser who is upset about the election result, know that it is my opinion that Hillary (with deep ties to Wall Street) would have only been slightly better on this front. The difference would be (as it has so often become with our two parties) the difference between a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a Pabst Blue Ribbon Light. While slightly more palatable and easier to drink, it is only a diluted sampling of the same shitty beverage.

As I write this, the Dow has closed at a record high above 19,000. The stock jobbers are giddy with anticipation of complete Republican control of government and all of the deregulation they will bring with them. Barring some unforeseen war caused by a foreign leader making fun of Trump's tiny little hands in a tweet, history tells us we can reasonably expect a market expansion of biblical proportions. 401ks will almost double and we will dance in the streets with exuberance, dizzy from champagne and fat investment portfolios.

In the midst of it all, there will be another push for private conversion of social security funds to individual accounts in the stock market. It will seem like not such a bad idea at the time because of all the money that is being made by everyone else. Then, sometime thereafter, in a few months, or a few years, the bubble will burst.

Retirements will be lost. Unemployment will skyrocket. Life savings will vanish. And Trump and Company will drive off into the sunset with all of it. This will happen again, and again, and again, until the working classes in this country stop believing it when billionaires pretend to be our saviors. It will only end when we, the people, begin placing as much faith in ourselves as we do in a failed economic system designed to keep us all in bondage.

Unbridled free market capitalism does not mean freedom. It is, in fact, the antithesis of freedom. Instead of creating equality, it breeds disparity. Instead of schools, it builds prisons. Instead of community, it builds walls. For it to survive it depends upon all of us, to keep doing what we've been doing, to simply vote and to trust, and most of all, to believe.


"Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That's the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system."    -Martin Luther King, Jr."- 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Guess Who Else is Gunning for Cops? Republicans.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Koch Puppet, Union Buster, and Village Idiot
Cops. Depending upon who you are, they are either the mindless arm of an unjust government, or working class heroes who selflessly dedicate their lives for the public good. Either way, in the grand scheme of things, a big part of their job is protecting capital, property, and the capitalists who own it all.
 
As we have seen in the Dakotas recently, cops are the first line of defense when the peasants are at the castle gate with pitch forks and torches. Even the union hating, Koch puppet, Scott Walker understood this, and in all of his anti-union legislative efforts, the bargaining rights of police and firefighters were largely untouched in the 2011 right wing coup in Wisconsin. It was probably a wise move on his part, what with 100,000 pissed off union members and their supporters just outside his office door.
 
Fast forward to 2016, and all of organized labor is wringing collective hands, waiting for the other legislative shoe to drop, wondering who will be targeted by Republicans first. Well, wait no more brothers and sisters, because here in the Iowa I call home, all of our questions have finally been answered, and unlike Walker, Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad doesn't discern between unions, or who they represent.    
 
It can be said that in the upcoming war between labor and capital, the first real shot heard round the world (or Iowa at least) was fired by the agents of capital. And they were aiming right at the heart of every state law enforcement officer in Iowa.
 
Recently, in contract negotiations for Iowa State Troopers and other law enforcement officers, management has proposed to remove language regarding insurance benefits from the contract based on... wait for it... legislation that the Republican Governor and Republican State Legislature might pass in the upcoming session. Never mind that it is a current subject of bargaining under existing law, and never mind that the state cops have been bargaining over these benefits for over 40 years. And all of this at a time when Iowa law enforcement are still reeling from the recent murder of two officers in Des Moines by a white supremacist.
 
According to the Des Moines Register article, "Janet Phipps, director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, said the proposal is based on the possibility that changes could be made in the state's collective bargaining law for public employees during the 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature, which convenes in January. Under the proposal, the state would still agree to provide health and dental benefits to all eligible bargaining unit members, but the contract would no longer specify the level of benefits, which would be determined by state officials."
 
 
As the pending war between labor and the far right plays out in coming months, opening shots like this one might just make the difference between a well aimed rubber bullet, tear gas canister, or water hose, and one that falls just short of their intended target, as all of the working classes come to a collective recognition of their shared interests in winning.
 
Republican governors like Branstad ought to take a better look at the state police who provide their personal security and think twice about gutting their rights and benefits. Then they should look at the rest of us and realize what IWW Organizer Joe Hill said over a hundred years ago:
 
 "If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill;
Fleets and armies of the nation, will at their command stand still."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Why Care About the US Department of Education?


"A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don't eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach," Donald Trump on the U.S. Department of Education.
 
As we in labor ponder the possibilities of a Trump administration and Republican led Congress, our thoughts are immediately drawn to the direct attacks on organized labor. While they are many and weighty in consequence, we must also not lose sight of indirect attacks on not only organized labor, but all of the things that we, as champions of equality and social justice, hold dear.
 
In the grand scheme of things, the US Department of Education, with its approximate 4,400 employees, appears to be a small and benign incision into the federal budget, and a cursory glance at Trump's expressed desire for more local control of education appeals to the knee-jerk populist bent of many who imagine only an overreaching, all too powerful federal machine.
 
But what does "local control" really mean to those on the far right? One of the things it means is inequitable funding for anyone not living in the most affluent communities. It has long been a source of ire amongst the privileged right that their tax dollars (if they actually pay any) might be going to support the education of some minority student in a poor rural or inner city school district. With the Department of Education out of the way, their dream of a public education system that only benefits upper middle class white kids would be much closer to reality.
 
While curriculum and who studies what are already largely locally controlled, the Education Department's testing and federal funding mechanisms has kept radical curriculum changes by local authorities largely at bay. With the Department of Education gone, we can look forward to state and district officials throughout red states to rid themselves of teaching such ridiculous notions as global warming, evolution, and science in general.  And wouldn't it be easier to simply rewrite the already skewed version of history than to keep answering difficult and unsightly questions about slavery, Native Americans, the Civil War, and the Holocaust?


 
It is not difficult, especially in the current political climate, to imagine red states working to establish a generational following through early indoctrination in public schools and rewriting the American narrative simply by the omission of half of the events of the 20th century. Already, we have seen many battles waged in states like Texas and Kansas over these issues. With no Department of Education oversight, all such decisions would be left to local officials and the religious flavor of the day.


 
The following are from the President's 2017 budget for the Department, and outline many of the programs that will be under immediate threat from the right, even before they begin to dismantle the Department itself:
 
Title I: $15.4 billion to promote educational success among disadvantaged students with targeted resources to help to turn around low-performing schools.
 
Early learning: A commitment to early learning as a path to opportunity through Preschool for All, a total increase of $80 million for IDEA Preschool and IDEA Grants for Infants and Families, and an increase of $100 million to HHS for the jointly 
administered Preschool Development Grants program.
 
Stronger Together: $120 million to develop and implement plans to increase socioeconomic diversity through voluntary, community-supported strategies.
 
Civil Rights Enforcement: $138 million, an increase of $31 million, to ensure equal access to education through more vigorous enforcement of our Nation’s civil rights laws.
 
 Increases for additional programs that advance opportunity, including Charter Schools Grants, Magnet Schools Assistance, Promise Neighborhoods, English Language Acquisition State grants, Native Youth Community Projects, and, with DOL, Connecting for Opportunities.
 
Support a streamlined and expanded initiative to provide up to
$25,000 in student loan forgiveness for teachers graduating from an effective preparation program who serve in low-income schools.
 
America’s  College  Promise : A $61 billion investment to make community college free and provide low-income students with up to 2 years of college at a 4-year HBCU or MSI at zero or reduced tuition.
 
Second Chance Pell: Restore eligibility for incarcerated individuals eligible for release to help them transition into jobs and communities.
 
While all of these programs will be under immediate attack from the right under Trump, stock prices in private educational enterprises similar to Trump University are reportedly soaring following the election. Many such corporations serve only to divert federal dollars to private enterprises, and deprive their participants of anything of value, including our veterans using GI Bill moneys.
 
That is what is most important for the working classes to recognize in all of this. When the far right complain about government spending, they are never talking about any government spending that gets funneled off to the private sector. They don't mind it if their corporate donors are receiving 2 or 3 times as much as the average federal worker for each contracted employee they provide to the government. They don't care if veterans are denied of anything even remotely resembling an education, because corporate educational donors are raking in billions by exploiting them. And any dollar spent to ensure fairness, or guarantee equality, or extend the American Dream to anyone who might not otherwise realize it, is, in their view, a waste of resources that could have gone to tax breaks for the wealthiest "job creating" classes.
 
We  in organized labor will all have our own private battles to fight in coming months, but in the midst of the smoke, we can ill afford to lose the war by allowing our enemies to claim an entire generation as casualties. Because if Trump and Company have their way with our education system, and use it to pander to their friends on the religious right and the alt-right, our current battles may well be our last.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Immigration Blame Game

IWW Organizer and Labor Folk Singer, Utah Phillips 1935-2008
"All of us assign blame in our own best interest -- blame is relative. So one of the most important functions in society is controlling the blame pattern. Why is it that [the working class] assign blame downward to some welfare chiselers down at the bottom, "Tryin' to get a little somethin' for nothin'" -- and they never assign blame upward to a handful of big-time chiselers who get a whole lot of something for doing nothing at all?"       -Utah Phillips-

Illegal immigration. It's apparently one of the key issues that moved the working class electorate to vote for Trump, so I feel compelled to offer my two cents on the subject based on my own thoughts and experiences.
 
It's not a terribly well kept secret to anyone who has ever travelled across Iowa and passed the heavy noxious air of a hog confinement along the interstate, that Iowa has more hogs than people. It's always been that way. The Midwest I call home has long been a bastion of all things agricultural; of corn and beans and hogs and cattle, and all of the industries that spawn from them.
 
In the 1970's, long before we had rounded up all of our free range pigs and chickens and crammed them into huge stinking corporate confinements, the Midwest was also home to much of the nation's meat packing industry.
 
The industry had come a long way from Upton Sinclair's eye opening account of it in The Jungle too. By the late 1970's the packing houses of the Midwest were almost exclusively unionized establishments, and as the old men used to say, you had to wait for somebody who worked there to die and inherit a job from them if you ever wanted to get in on those good union wages and benefits.
 
While by no means rich, the meatpackers of my youth were successful blue collar men and women. Their children went to college. If they fished they owned boats. And if they were wise with their money, they even had a little cabin down by a lake somewhere. And then Reagan happened, and PATCO.
 
It must seem to people outside of the labor movement like we hate Reagan just because he was a Republican, or we are overly sentimental about a relatively small group of 12,000 striking air traffic controllers being fired and replaced by him. But that isn't the case at all. In fact, the Teamsters and others actually endorsed the man and in the grand scheme of things, PATCO was small potatoes for organized labor. What happened in its wake however, sent seismic ripples throughout the land that led to an anti-union tsunami that labor has never fully recovered from.
 
There have always been strikes. Always. And there were always attempts by employers to break them. Labor history even tells us stories of times when employers would attempt to bring in strike breakers from the deep south. And there are uplifting accounts from those same annals of forward thinking organizers and organizations who organized them as well.
 
But 1981 changed the rules of the game, and when meat packing houses had strikes soon thereafter, some CEO or company president got the bright idea of recruiting strike breakers from the poor Mexican countryside. It wasn't a particularly novel idea for any era, but the difference is that in the 1980's under a Reagan administration, nobody said a word. Even the employers were surprised. Over the course of the next decade, the entire industry followed suit and a pattern occurred that you could set your watch by.
 
Contract time would come up and the company would demand huge concessions they knew the workers would never accept. The union would go on strike. The company would send recruiting agents to the Mexican countryside, and right out of the pages of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, if they needed 500 workers, they would advertise for 5,000.
 
Overnight, Midwest communities would be overrun with hundreds of Mexican replacement workers. And just for good measure, to make sure that no claims for old pension promises hung over their heads, the company would shutter their entire operation and reopen either across the street, or under another name in a corporate shell game. And nobody in the era of deregulation and Laissez-faire economics ever said a word about any of it or did anything to stop it. Fast forward another decade and they began calling them jobs that Americans wouldn't do anyways.
 
Then, they started showing up in other industries. When I came onto the scene as a construction worker in 1990, my Laborers Union Hall in Des Moines, Iowa had become the quintessential model of historical irony, with Blacks, Irish, and Italians all standing arm in arm chanting about Hispanics that "we don't want those fucking people in our union!"

I saw them from a distance. I eyed them on jobs across the street from mine with suspicion and contempt. We could feel the noose tightening on our ability to protect our work, and I could see the workers on surrounding jobsites who were obviously to blame for it.
 
A number of years later I had my first real eye opening experience when two Spanish speakers came into the union hall pointing at a piece of paper. I called a Mexican staffer I knew and he translated over the speaker phone. The paperwork they were showing me were check stubs. There was a line for their pay of $7.00 per hour (union scale at the time was around $18). There was a line item for a deduction for tools they were being charged to use they had never received. And there was a line item for union dues being deducted. Their pay after deductions was around $4 per hour, less than the minimum wage. A co-worker had just fell and been seriously injured and the company owner dropped him off outside the emergency room, returned to the jobsite and fired the other two.
 
They had believed that they were union members because they were being charged union dues. They had believed that the union could help them. They had believed that a nation as great as ours would help them. We could not help them. There were few protections for them under the law, and where the law had been violated, no government agencies would pursue it.
 
This played itself out a million times around the country. Wherever illegal immigrants can be found working, there are employers who use them to skirt every labor protection. Female employees are raped. Workers are cheated. And workers are routinely injured and killed. And no one ever talks about any of it. There is never a thought given to actually punishing the people who employ them. Ever.
 
Trump can build his wall, but so long as there are employers seeking to profit, illegal immigration from all nations will continue to be a problem. We, as Americans, blame immigrants for taking our jobs. We blame them for using benefits that come out of our tax dollars (even if social programs are only a tiny budgetary sliver, and even if the majority of them pay into social security for benefits they will never be able to collect AND pay more in payroll taxes than Donald Trump has in the last twenty years). And we even blame them for the rising cost of healthcare for those times their employers dump them off at the emergency rooms.
 
But no one on the right or even the left ever talks about the one thing that could really end the problem. Imprison the employers who import, hire and exploit these workers, and all of it would end. You wouldn't need to build walls (and good luck building a wall in Southern Texas without using immigrants to build the thing anyways). You wouldn't need an army of ICE agents sweeping into homes and businesses to round up and detain immigrants. You wouldn't need any of it. Lock a handful of employers up, and all the rest would fall in line. The border crossings would fizzle out and many of the people would leave on their own.
 
Drug dealers do cross the border every day. "Bad hombres" come too. But the vast majority of the millions who have made the dangerous and costly journey come in search of opportunities. Often promised opportunities. And I can honestly say that if my own family suffered for the want of the basic needs of life and my children and grandchildren went to bed hungry each night, and there were no opportunities for me here and someone promised me a job with a good wage in Montreal, that no wall would be high enough, no desert would be wide or deadly enough, to keep me from the other side and the promise of something better for them.
 
Want to make America really great again? Stop blaming the people who have no control over the system and start looking at people who really do.
 
In the paraphrased words of Utah Phillips, "The world (as we know it) is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses."

Friday, November 11, 2016

Labor and the Law

 
Once upon a time, in the back of almost every smoke filled union hall, a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt would usually be found hanging on the wall beside one of John F. Kennedy, and whoever their own national union president was. Roosevelt was revered by labor largely for his passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. While the Act itself was later found to be unconstitutional, a portion of that law (section 7), would be expanded, transformed and passed as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Also known as the Wagner Act, the NLRA established that...
 
 Sec. 7. [§ 157.] Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.
 

Similarly, in 1962, John F. Kennedy would sign Executive Order 10988, formally recognizing collective bargaining rights of federal employees.
 
At passing glance, it appears as though these men, these laws, and other similar legislative efforts, made the labor movement possible. Some even live under the notion that prior to 1935, there was no labor movement at all and that Roosevelt had eagerly made it all possible. And while I have no desire to detract from the greatness of Roosevelt or Kennedy, a closer look reveals an entirely different narrative.
 
For example, in 1932, when FDR rammed through the National Industrial Recovery Act, he was not thinking of how he could most benefit Labor. Rather, he was succumbing to tremendous pressure and attempting to rescue capitalism from its own greedy self.
 
In 1932, the Ford Hunger March, attended by thousands of laid off Ford employees under the banner of the UAW and the Unemployed Councils, would result in Ford goons and local police shooting into the crowd and killing or wounding more than 50 peaceful protestors who were demanding some form of unemployment from Ford and coal for the winter, among other things.
 
In Kentucky, striking coal miners (where massive unemployment led to constant depression in wages by employers) began to part ways with the United Mine Workers and affiliate with the American Communist Party's National Miner's Union. The Communists, dismayed by the conservative nature of many other labor unions, had made the move recently to forming unions of their own to capitalize upon the suffering and  far more readily radicalized workforce. 
 
But perhaps most apparent to Roosevelt, trumping (no pun intended) even the violent wars raging on between labor and capital, unemployment, and the rise of communism in America's heartlands, must have been the Bonus Army.
 


 
In 1924, the World War Adjusted Compensation Act had awarded bonus certificates to WWI veterans. The certificates were supposed to have been payable in 1945, but with massive unemployment among veterans, tens of thousands of veterans marched upon Washington in the summers of 1932 and 1933 to demand jobs and payment, and camped within sight of the White House, threatening to seize power if their demands were not met. 
 
The point of all of this is that when Roosevelt and Congress passed the right to organize into law, it came as a result of massive unrest and direct action. The Bonus Army and other civil disobedient movements by the jobless led to the enactment of works programs and unemployment insurance.
 
Similarly, in the federal sector, black workers, invigorated from the recent victories of the civil rights movement, launched the postal strike of 1970. That, and similar movements, compelled Congress to introduce the Rhodes-Johnson Union Recognition Bill. This bill, if enacted into law, could have ultimately led to a closed, union shop environment in the entire federal sector. It was only to prevent passage of that piece of legislation, that Kennedy hurriedly passed Executive Order 10988.
 
In Labor's historical contest between the chicken and the egg, the law has ALWAYS been secondary to the movement. If the federal worker had no legal right to union affiliation, then how did federal workers have unions going back as far as the 1800's? And if private sector employees had no legal right to organize prior to 1935, then how did so many workers form unions and agitate for fewer hours and improved conditions in America since even before our nation was an actual nation?
 
The answer is, of course, that no major gain has ever historically been won strictly by our success within the confines of the legal or political systems. By their very nature, these systems are designed solely for the protection of capital and the status quo and even our supposed political heroes were less motivated by votes and campaign contributions from labor than they were by a sense of dread of the peasants threatening to storm the castle, or gain too much.
 
Somewhere along the line, most of organized labor has forgotten its roots. We have funneled all of our energies into a political process that is designed to protect the enemies of Labor. We have laid down our progressive, radical, direct action arms that won us our victories, and resigned ourselves to whatever fate that contract and labor law bestows upon us.
 
But historically, labor was prior to, and independent of, the laws of the land. And while we must continue to work to lobby and vote, it is more important now than ever to recognize that these are not our only, nor our most effective tools and weapons.
 
A new world order is about to be unleashed upon all of labor by republicans salivating from the opportunity to finish us off and count coup on our bloodied collective corpse. Laws that are meant to destroy us must serve as a catalyst to move us to more direct action. If we continue to rely solely upon the political process, then we will be picked off, one worker and one union at a time until nothing remains, save the ashes.
 
In 1981, when Reagan broke the PATCO strike and fired all of the air traffic controllers, the rest of labor had an opportunity to rally. They opted instead to protect their own individual interests and looked to the next election cycle for salvation. In Wisconsin, when 100,000 workers held the capital complex, labor leaders came and told their respective members to go home and vote. The recall election failed, and unionized public sector employees were left to fend for themselves.
 
Organized labor must begin to look beyond their own immediate selfish interests. When the law of the land threatens to violate the rights of any group or individual, we must ban together like never before and say if their contract is no good, then neither is ours (and nor are our no strike clauses). If their rights are not protected, then neither are mine. If they have no justice, then neither do I. In the oft revered words of Martin Niemöller:
 
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

We must begin yesterday to train union members throughout the land how to be activists, not lobbyists. Our ability to fight each attack with direct, grassroots action using more traditional non-violent tactics, and civil disobedience could actually lead to the coming onslaught marking the beginning of the revitalization of the entire movement.
 
I have heard more than one labor leader in recent days talking about total republican control being the end of the world. That is, of course, ridiculous. Labor has weathered much worse storms in much smaller ships. But certainly, as appointments and legislation begin to flow out of Washington, and old questions are revisited by a new Supreme Court, it will most assuredly be the end of the world as we have known it.
 
But if the leadership of organized labor recognizes the threats as well as the opportunities, begin to train our rank-and-file how to fight, and have structural contingency plans in place for the worst case legal scenarios, labor might come out of this leaner, meaner, revitalized, and provide the working class in this country with something genuinely worthy of truly believing in again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Trumped


Many years ago, I spoke to a group of labor leaders. I talked about labor history, and how we all love and revere the movement of yesteryear. I talked about how we worship and adore the era of workers rising up against the machinery of the status quo and the heroes who emerged as leaders of those movements. And then I told them that if we are not cautious, that the next worker uprising will be against us. I warned them of the dangers of becoming so intertwined into the fabric of the establishment that the working class may not readily be able to discern the difference between the two.

For the record, my speech that day was not well received. In fact, come to think of it, a pretty long period of time elapsed before they ever asked me to say anything to a group again. But that doesn't make it any less true, even if they didn't want to hear it.

Last night's election win, in my mind, is a sign of such an uprising. There is no need to try and dissect the entire election. There are enough "experts" doing that today already. And time will tell soon enough what it means for organized labor to live under the new all Republican regime. But there has been a lot of talk about white America, and that is something I know a little something about.

Yes, a small segment of Trump's supporters are bigots. And some are racists. But the vast majority are neither. Living here in Iowa in a rural white community in a mostly white state, I know these people. Most are neither of those things. And when the pickup truck with a Trump sticker pulled up at my polling place, it wasn't a gun toting angry immigrant hating redneck who emerged, but rather, a union man wearing an AFSCME PAC contributor jacket.

More than anything, this election (in my mind) was about people who are disgusted with the status quo. People who have little or no interest in ever voting before came out and voted because their healthcare premiums have skyrocketed (they blame Obamacare), or they remember losing their factory jobs when Bill Clinton's NAFTA took effect. Many of them were Democrats once (or still are). They voted in overwhelming numbers, not for Trump, so much as against what they perceive to be the preordained establishment candidate being crammed down their throats.

Even among union members, the disgust for this cycle was palpable. And despite populist movements in both anti-establishment directions (Trump and Bernie), most union leadership inside the beltway seemingly further embraced the establishment candidates, further alienating membership on both sides of the aisle. There is a tenet of union organizing that says you identify individuals who are vehemently opposed to you, and then you don't ever contact them to avoid angering them into voting against you. Labor pushed forward and we sent the usual mailers, knocked on the usual doors, and made the usual phone calls. The result was...well... Trump.

And while those of us who have been in union leadership recognize the importance of being involved in the political process, and the damage the right intends to inflict upon us at the first opportunity, our membership has largely come to view the machinery of organized labor as little more than a funding arm of the Democratic Party. I mean, truly, where else can you find a business model where you can invest ten or twenty million dollars in a cycle, get absolutely nothing out of it, and then think it wise to try and double your investment the following cycle?

While we may agree or disagree on the wisdom, the membership, and the people of this country, have come to yearn for something else... almost anything else. And in a world where perception is reality, and where populism is now king, to be content to allow the perception to exist that our entire future as a movement is hinged upon every election cycle, and that our only hope is to elect ever more Democrats, is an all too apparent recipe for disaster.

Our future as organized labor, most likely, will now depend upon our ability to genuinely mobilize and fight like hell for our survival on every front. Wisconsin is here and now for us all. If we cannot change, and quickly, from just servicing members and putting all of our collective political energy into the electoral process, then I fear there will be precious little left to fight for when the dust settles.

Historically, this populist movement is not unprecedented. And historically, organized labor has always been running from behind to catch up to such movements when they occur. Our action, or lack thereof, in coming months, will determine the fate of the movement our children and grandchildren will ultimately inherit. I only hope that the leadership inside the beltway recognize it before it is too late, and start contingency planning today, instead of focusing solely upon the next cycle in two years, because today, people are more valuable to us than PAC dollars, and our ability to form an actual movement to respond to attacks is more urgent than wondering which Democrat we will run for office in two years.

Where will we be when Trump appoints a Scott Walker to head up the Department of Labor? Or when official time is taken away in the federal sector? Or when all of us have to hold annual elections to recertify our contracts? All of these things will ultimately move to turn the tide in some future election cycle, but in the here and now, it is far too high a price to be paid for a Democratic victory that will merely serve to stop the hemorrhaging. It's truly organize or die time, and that doesn't mean simply signing up new members, it means moving all of them to action around their issues, NOT OURS, because clearly, there must be a difference between the two that we have missed along the way.