Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Right-To-Work

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I hate the labels politicians slap on hot-button issues to make them more palatable, because it’s propaganda of the most base kind, and I hate even more that such painfully obvious maneuvers are done mostly because they work. ‘Pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice,’ for instance, instead of ‘pro-abortion rights’ and ‘anti-abortion rights.’ ‘Sanctity of marriage,’ instead of ‘anti-gay marriage.’ Each label is bathed in assumptions about the in-defensibility of its opposite.

Among these is ‘right-to-work,’ as opposed to, I suppose ‘forced-unionism.’ At least, as far as libertarians wish they were called. There was a Daily Show rerun on with Ron Paul espousing the “strength” of the Southern economy thanks to its right-to-work laws, backed up by such statistical mindfucks as the fact that the South has gained jobs and its average wages have risen faster than the North. The only problem is… the South had fewer jobs and a much lower wage rate to begin with. It has more to gain. As pointed out in my last blog, average wages nationwide have gone down and national job growth has been anemic for a decade. This sort of business tomfoolery has been instrumental in depressing wages in this country overall, much like casinos only work when there’s a larger neighboring economy to mooch off of.

But most of all, I’m sick of the freakin’ label. ‘Right-to-work’ just means that workers that receive benefits from collective work bargains don’t have to pay into the unions who got them those benefits. Here’s the thing: Does anybody really give a shit about the piddling union dues? I have lots of stuff taken out of my paycheck – or did, at any rate – and union dues were one of the smallest parts of it. I can’t imagine that workers are fighting so hard to get rid of that charge. I can see why businesses would want to get rid of them – because they starve unions – but, honestly, what in the fuck?

See, here’s the thing: If my job sucks and pays shit and all that, and I’m pissed off that I’m paying $22 every paycheck for the union, my preferred solution is not that I stop paying $22 every paycheck. My preferred solution is that the union do something to stop my job from sucking and paying shit. This sort of proposed solution in right-to-work is the exact opposite of rational sense. I want better unions, not dead unions. And that’s the crux of the issue: This ‘right-to-work’ premise was invented not by workers, but by businesses, who do not have workers’ best interests in mind.

But, then, I’m one of those guys who thinks the only social worth of private business in this country is to provide the highest living standards possible for the most people possible. Y’know, the latter half of that Henry Ford quote. Instead, we seem to be getting Alabama as an ersatz Mexico of the North.

Actually, No

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Two interesting things happened in the last week concerning the #occupywallstreet protest, which is that the traditional unions came in to join and, on the national stage, counter-protests such as #iamthe53 have emerged. I found them interesting because they may yet, in their wrongness, provide cohesion to what is as yet growing as a bona fide grassroots – if woefully inarticulate – movement.

The unions that joined in the protests downtown last Wednesday, for instance, soon discovered that they don’t look very much like the protestors at all. Namely, the protestors are young and the union guys are… not.

“The labor movement needs to tap into the energy and learn from them,” Mr. Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said. “They are reaching a lot of people and exciting a lot of people that the labor movement has been struggling to reach for years.”

I was laid off two weeks ago – my last day was this previous Friday – from a union position. Now, DC37 is not a particularly strong union, as it’s spread a mile wide and an inch deep, but it also suffers from the problems that stronger unions like the UFT and TWU local 100 suffer from. To quote one commenter on the NYTimes article,

I’ve been in a teacher’s union for the last ten years and I can tell you why the unions haven’t been able to get young people excited – because the leaders at the unions are making deals that sell the younger generations out in order to keep their privileges.

Pensions, benefits guarantees and job security for older union members despite universal cuts (the NYCDoE had to eat a 2.5% budget cut – or around $150 million) came on the shoulders of the lower ranked staff, who do not get those same benefits and, according to contracts in place, never will. When the debates with the city forces public unions to make concessions, all the concessions are felt solely by the younger staff. That means that, for someone starting out, the unions – which are ostensibly in place to defend workers – have effectively become yet another layer of management. Personally, I’ve paid union dues for three and a half years and have explicitly received no representation, nor, thanks to their current system, have I been able to accrue seniority.

So it’s with a bit of sour grapes that I watched the unions join the festivities with less than total camaraderie. With that friction, perhaps, will come by necessity a specific message, as this movement grows and coalesces.

The other bit is the backlash against the “we are the 99%” message, which has been this “we are the 53%,” which is the percentage of Americans whose incomes are enough to warrant federal income taxes. Basically, their message is “yeah, my life may be hard, but through hard work I’ve managed to make a living, so quit your bitching.”

Here’s the problem, though: Yes, the protestors are having trouble embodying their plight, and have not been especially great at explaining their views, but they’re kinda right. However much the protests now look like a circus, and however much the Tea Partiers of the mid-term elections looked like, well, idiots, that doesn’t stop the fact that things aren’t as they’re supposed to be, and the anger and frustration expressed by these people is quite real.

Specifically, We’ve now had a decade where median incomes have dropped. Not “dropped” adjusted for inflation, but dropped. That hasn’t happened since the Great Depression. Further, the only folks whose incomes have gone up are all in the top 5%. We have double-digit unemployment in a time when we’re seeing world record corporate profits, the jobs available actually pay less than they used to, and while the incomes of the top 5% have gone up, their tax burden has actually gone down. This is the new Gilded Age.

These working- and middle-class people are still making do? Congratulations: Good for them. That’s not easy to do. But, quite frankly, it should never have been as hard as it’s been made to be, and a lot of people – despite their hard work and good decisions – are simply not making it. It took me six years of being flat broke to pay off college, I’ve had to switch my career twice because the first two industries have effectively collapsed, and I’ve been laid off twice in the last four years during wholesale workforce reductions. This “lost decade” has been my twenties, and I want them back. Even then, I know that I’ll still muddle through, and I’m in a better position than a lot of people. It ain’t easy at all – in fact, it’s pretty fucking hard – which is why I’m shocked that such folks, being in and out of poverty themselves, still insist on blaming poverty on the poor.

This insipid and short-sighted “I got mine; fuck you” backlash is exactly what I expected when the protestors downtown couldn’t stay on message. That being said, their opposing argument may yet force a more finely honed set of demands from the protestors downtown and their compatriots around the country.

Capitalism, in a nutshell

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Dr Pepper Snapple Group posted record profits from its Motts processing plant in Rochester, NY. At the same time it’s seeking to cut wages and benefits from its employees, citing, among other things, that the job market is depressed, that other blue-collar employees are paid less, and because,

“as a public company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”

ie: We are bound by our investors to maximize profits, no matter what.

None of this is exactly new – treating employees like a commodity, paying scabs to undermine strikes, using any excuse to cut labor, basically doing whatever the company thinks it can get away with – but the openness by which Dr Pepper Snapple Group is going about it brings pause.

Perhaps they forgot that the only public good private business offers is in tax money and wages. Without which it’s just a drain on society: A leech not unlike any other feudal aristocrat. Profit for its own sake – especially the faceless legal necessity for greed; the convenient inhuman source for corporate inhumanity – is a destructive, disastrous affair, and even the most cynical economist would first frame his argument by how private greed can benefit society overall.

Either way I hope Andrew Cuomo throws his support behind the union strikers and– I’d use the word “shame” but you cannot shame a corporation (look at BP), rather, uses his candidacy to remind the public just what it means when you let corporations run free.

I am thankful for…

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…my students, whose friend had been shot on the way to school, destroying any faith in the system they possibly had.
…my co-workers, for teaching me what happens to campus liberals when they enthusiastically take on the real world.
…my superiors, for driving me to drink more than I did in college by administrating punitively to mask a lack of pedagogical experience.
…my union, for accepting my dues without representing me when I needed them most.
…my employers, for laying me and six others off at the beginning of the school year.
…my representatives, for running on an education platform while cutting education funds, and winning.
…my health, so that I could stay alive through this without getting bitter.

Y’know, it’s almost as sad as how GM and Ford destroyed the American cityscape to be entirely car-oriented so they’d have a massive permanent market for automobiles and STILL MANAGED TO GO BANKRUPT YOU BASTARDS YOU RUINED EVERYTHING

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