Friday, August 30, 2013

Labor in America: Those were the Days - (A Repeat)

Note:  Labor Day weekend is here once again, and let's enjoy it while we can.  I have a feeling, if things keep going this way, anything that smacks of celebrating labor in this country will disappear. 

I guess you've heard that Michigan, my Michigan has become a Right-to-Work state?  Who would have dreamed it would ever happen to Michigan?  Are businesses flocking to our border now, wanting to take advantage of cheap, unprotected labor?  Do I even have to answer that?  (I'm throwing this in because I'm still so mad about the whole damned thing.  I may throw it in many more times in future posts. Because I'll never stop being mad about the whole damned thing.)

So, since I'm going to be busy all weekend helping our daughter move into her new digs, and since I feel the need every Labor Day to acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate our labor force, I hope you don't mind if I do a repeat here of a blog post I wrote in 2010.  Are things any better for labor three years down the road?  Not much.  Can we fix that?  I don't know, but there is a new awakening.  People are trying.  That's all we can ask. 

(By the way, just ignore that first sentence if you can.  It's a bit of hyperbole just to get your attention.  Of course I feel like celebrating Labor Day.  As long as there's a Labor Day I'll feel like celebrating it.)

Every year for the past two dozen or so, I've felt less and less like celebrating Labor Day and more and more like forgetting the whole damned thing.  It used to be that we actually set aside that day to acknowledge and pay tribute to our vast labor force.  We had parades and speeches and presentations all across the country, with union leaders sticking verbal pins in the Big Guys, and the Big Guys pretending not to notice as they got ready to hold their noses and gush over the workers who made their products and sold their products and fixed their products (and--it should be noted--bought their products).

Labor and management have always had a love-hate relationship but there was a window--a brief window in time--when nearly everybody was making money and spending money and for most Americans life was good.  Cheap goods were coming in from the slave-labor countries but we still  made enough to be self-sustaining and proud.

A chicken in every pot. 

"Made in America".

"Look for the Union Label".

Then came government-approved off-shoring and outsourcing, along with cheap labor and non-regulation, and suddenly the Big Guys saw gold in them thar hills and weren't even our pretend friends anymore. We stopped making things and became the poor step-satellite of industrialized nations like China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Macau (I'm reading labels here in my house).

And now here we are, looking at another Labor Day and wondering how the hell we got ourselves into this fix, considering the rich history of the labor movement and what those people put themselves through in order to make life fair for all of us.  I'm glad they're not here to see this.  On the other hand, we could use their fierce commitment to us right about now:

Cesar Chavez - Si Se Puede

There has never been a law at the state or national levels that has ever been enforced for farm workers and against growers: child labor, minimum wage and hour, occupational health and safety, agricultural labor relations.
Now will agribusiness protect farm workers from pesticides?
The agrichemical industry won't do it.
It's out to maximize profits. Using smaller amounts of safer chemicals more wisely is not in the interest of chemical companies and agribusiness groups like the Farm Bureau that have heavy financial stakes in maintaining pesticide use.
There is nothing is wrong with pesticides, they claim; the blame rests with abuse and misuse of pesticides.
It's like the N.R.A. saying, 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.'
Universities won't do it.
America's colleges and universities are the best research facilities in the world. But farm workers are of the wrong color; they don't speak the right language; and they're poor.
The University of California, and other land grant colleges spend millions of dollars developing agricultural mechanization and farm chemicals. Although we're all affected in the end, researchers won't deal with the inherent toxicity or chronic effects of their creations.
Protecting farm workers and consumers is not their concern.
Doctors won't do it.
Most physicians farm workers see won't even admit their patients' problems are caused by pesticides. They usually blame symptoms on skin rashes and heat stroke.
Doctors don't know much about pesticides; the signs and symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning are similar to other illnesses.
Doctors who work for growers or physicians with close ties to rural communities won't take a stand.
Two years ago in Tulare County, California 120 orange grove workers at LaBue ranch suffered the largest skin poisoning every reported. The grower had changed the formulation of a pesticide, Omite CR, to make it stick to the leaves better. It did.
It also stuck better to the workers. Later they discovered the reentry delay had to be extended from seven to 42 days.
After the poisoning, the company doctor said workers should just change clothes and return to work. When we demanded the workers be removed from exposure, the doctor replied, "Do you know how much that would cost?"
Workers endure skin irritations and rashes that none of us would tolerate. They continue to work because they desperately need the money. They don't complain out of fear of losing their jobs.
Farm workers aren't told when pesticides are used. They have no health insurance. They are cheated out of workers compensation benefits by disappearing labor contractors or foremen who intimidate people into not filing claims.
In the old days, miners would carry birds with them to warn against poison gas. Hopefully, the birds would die before the miners.
Farm workers are society's canaries.
Pacific Lutheran University
March 1989-Tacoma, Washington

As a nation, we need to work out a list of national priorities.  We need to sharpen our vision and we need to rededicate ourselves to the basic human and democratic values that we believe in, and we need to put first things first.  We need to overcome the serious deficit in education, which is denying millions of our children their rightful opportunity to maximum growth.  The American labor movement can be proud that it was among those who pioneered for free public education.  American labor shares the belief that every child made in the image of God is entitled to an educational opportunity that will facilitate the maximum intellectual, cultural and spiritual growth.  We need to wipe out our slums and build decent, wholesome neighborhoods.  We need to provide more adequate medical care available to all groups.  We need to improve social security so that our aged citizens can live out their lives with a fuller measure of security and dignity.  We need to provide all of our citizens, without regard to race, creed, or color, equal opportunity in every phase of our national life.  We need to develop more fully our natural resources so that continued neglect will not put in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

Walter Reuther, Labor Day speech, September 1, 1958

No tin-hat brigade of goose-stepping vigilantes or bibble-babbling mob of blackguarding and corporation paid scoundrels will prevent the onward march of labor, or divert its purpose to play its natural and rational part in the development of the economic, political and social life of our nation.
Unionization, as opposed to communism, presupposes the relation of employment; it is based upon the wage system and it recognizes fully and unreservedly the institution of private property and the right to investment profit. It is upon the fuller development of collective bargaining, the wider expansion of the labor movement, the increased influence of labor in our national councils, that the perpetuity of our democratic institutions must largely depend.
The organized workers of America, free in their industrial life, conscious partners in production, secure in their homes and enjoying a decent standard of living, will prove the finest bulwark against the intrusion of alien doctrines of government

John L. Lewis
, United Mine Workers of America, Labor Day speech, 1937

Now, my boys, you are mine; we have fought together, we have hungered together, we have marched together, but I can see victory in the Heavens for you. I can see the hand above you guiding and inspiring you to move onward and upward. No white flag — we can not raise it; we must not raise it. We must redeem the world!
Go into our factories, see how the conditions are there, see how women are ground up for the merciless money pirates, see how many of the poor wretches go to work with crippled bodies.
I talked with a mother who had her small children working. She said to me, "Mother, they are not of age, but I had to say they were; I had to tell them they were of age so they could get a chance to help me to get something to eat." She said after they were there for a little while, "I have saved $40, the first I ever saw. I put that into a cow and we had some milk for the little ones." In all the years her husband had put in the earth digging out wealth, he never got a glimpse of $40 until he had to take his infant boys, that ought to go to school, and sacrifice them.
If there was no other reason that should stimulate every man and woman to fight this damnable system of commercial pirates. That alone should do it, my friends.

Mother Jones to striking W. Virginia coal miners, 8/15/1912


We want eight hours and nothing less. We have been accused of being selfish, and it has been said that we will want more; that last year we got an advance of ten cents and now we want more. We do want more. You will find that a man generally wants more. Go and ask a tramp what he wants, and if he doesn’t want a drink he will want a good, square meal. You ask a workingman, who is getting two dollars a day, and he will say that he wants ten cents more. Ask a man who gets five dollars a day and he will want fifty cents more. The man who receives five thousand dollars a year wants six thousand a year, and the man who owns eight or nine hundred thousand dollars will want a hundred thousand dollars more to make it a million, while the man who has his millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day. We live in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the age of electricity and steam that has produced wealth a hundred fold, we insist that it has been brought about by the intelligence and energy of the workingmen, and while we find that it is now easier to produce it is harder to live. We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more. And we shall never cease to demand more until we have received the results of our labor.

Samuel Gompers, Address to workers, Louisville, KY 1890

President Obama talked about the needs of workers and the declining middle class in his Weekly Address.  If he lets us down this time, I'm going to go out and find me my own bibble-babbling mob and take action.

And maybe I missed it, but whatever happened to the Employee Free Choice Act?

(Oh, and did you catch "Sunday Morning" on CBS yesterday?  Did you see their tribute to Labor?  It was about German workers in a BMW factory.  Management came up with the idea to put older, more experienced workers in one section on one shift and let them come up with ways to improve productivity.  At their suggestion the company put in wooden floors, gave them more comfortable shoes, gave them hairdressers chairs to sit in, increased the size of the computer fonts, and fixed up places for them to stretch.  Over time productivity went up 7%, absenteeism went down, and the assembly line defect rate was non-existent.  Damned Socialists. . .)

Enjoy our day. Keep the light shining.  Solidarity.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

RIP Elmore Leonard

Sadly, Elmore Leonard, has died.  He was Detroit's foremost novelist and cheerleader.  I wrote about him at Constant Commoner today in a piece called "I called Elmore Leonard 'Dutch' Once".

You can find it here.

Friday, August 9, 2013

George Will ruminating on Detroit: About like Howdy Doody ruminating on the Moon

So George Will, highly renowned municipal analyst and wicked good judge of character, has once again set his sights on Detroit. Somehow--don't ask me how--I knew this would happen.  I knew it would happen because the decline of Detroit, our allegedly foremost black and poor city, is in the spotlight, and it's beyond George Will's ability to say no to such delicious news .

Behold!  An entire city has fallen to such lows there is nothing left but to declare them bankrupt--financially, morally, culturally, and--sigh--intellectually.  The city is beyond hope, reduced now to gasping its last breath.

As the pack of jackals awaiting nearby begins to close in; begins to circle, no surprise that one George F. Will, tightass extraordinaire, is right up front.  Will is not one to not have an opinion, even when he knows next to nothing about the subject--especially if the subject is one he believes is beneath him.

Will has a snooty gene that tends to surface whenever les miserables are shown to be more miserable than usual.  It is his duty to explain to the miserables just how culpable they are in their own undoing.  Because if he didn't explain it to them, they might not know to feel both miserable and guilty.  Guilt is the twist of the knife.  There is no redemption without the twist of the knife.   

You've been bad, Detroit.  And worse, you've been ordinary. You must repent.  You must take your licks.

In December, 2012, he wrote:
If you seek a monument to Michigan's unions, look, if you can without wincing, at Detroit, where the amount of vacant land is approaching the size of Paris. And where the United Auto Workers, which once had more than 1 million members and now has about 380,000, won contracts that crippled the local industry — and prompted the growth of the non-unionized auto industry that is thriving elsewhere. Detroit's rapacious and oblivious government employees unions are parasitic off a near-corpse of a city that has lost 25 percent of its population just since 2000. The Wall Street Journal reports that because some government workers with defined-benefit pensions can retire in their 40s, "many retirees living into their 80s are drawing benefits for nearly twice as long as they work." 
Union contracts didn't cripple Detroit's auto industry, corporate greed did.  They were bad at sharing, even though without the workers in Detroit that industry would never have grown as it did.  Once they figured out that they could outsource or robotize much of the manufacturing, they were off to the races.  Why give living wages when you can get by on giving slave wages somewhere else?

Will's notion that the city's union employees were "rapacious and oblivious" to the dying Detroit and it was the out-of-control pension funds that dealt the final deathblow is just farcical.

This, according to the Free Press last week:
The battle over the health of the City of Detroit pension funds flared again Friday when the Bond Buyer, a Wall Street publication, reported on a new analysis showing that the pension funds’ optimistic assessments “fall mostly within accepted industry standards.”
Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, has estimated the underfunding of the city’s two pension funds at $3.5 billion. The pension fund managers disagree, saying the funds are more than 90% funded, meaning that there are adequate resources to pay almost all future liabilities.
H/T for the above to Chris Savage over at Eclectablog, who gives further voice to what a lot of us have been thinking:
Look, I get it that Detroit is in a major crisis. I do. I get that. But there isn’t any reason for Kevyn Orr to jump on the ruin porn train to make things look worse than they are unless he’s afraid that Detroit will be found not to actually be insolvent, which puts his plan to take the city through bankruptcy in peril. There’s also the fact that wealthy, opportunistic vultures waiting in the wings to swoop in and exploit Detroit’s situation for their own financial gain. That means snapping up city assets at bargain basement prices and getting lucrative contracts when anything not nailed down gets privatized to for-profits corporations.
Nobody questions the fact that Detroit has been in a steady decline for decades.  Corruption was rampant there for longer than any of us want to remember.  Dependence on one significant but fleeting industry for almost a century was pure folly.  There are ghettos and drug wars and crime statistics that place Detroit too often at the top of the list.  But the workers in Detroit are tired of taking the blame.  The city may never rise to its former glory, but it can and will survive only if it can feel worthy again.  The George Wills don't help:
"Detroit...has suffered not just economic setbacks but also a cultural collapse that precludes a rapid recovery. Despite some people’s facile talk about “rebooting” Detroit, as though it is a balky gadget, this is a place where dangerous packs of feral dogs roam. No city can succeed without a large middle class, and in spite of cheery talk about a downtown sprinkling of “hipsters and artisans,” a significant minority of Detroit’s residents are functionally illiterate and only 12 percent have college degrees (in Seattle, 56 percent do). Families are the primary transmitters of social capital, and 79 percent of children here are born to unmarried women. What middle-class family would send children into a school system where 3 percent of fourth-graders meet national math standards?"
Will precedes his indictment of an entire city with this cheery shout-out to Rick Snyder, Michigan's Koch-fueled dictator-in-residence (Emphasis mine):
Snyder is neither surprised nor dismayed by the Obama administration’s prompt refusal to consider bailing out the city: “I had made it clear I wasn’t going to ask them” for a bailout. One example of Washington’s previous costly caring is Detroit’s People Mover, the ghost train that circulates mostly empty. Snyder dismisses this slab of someone else’s pork as “part of the 60 years of failure.” He has largely forsworn attracting businesses to the city by offering tax credits, which he calls “the heroin drip of government.” He speaks not of “fixing” but of “reinventing” Detroit, by which he means a new “culture of how to behave and act.
 Well, isn't that the all-time limit?  Snyder, the nerdy number-cruncher-cum-plantation-boss, now sets his sights on culture and manners.  (Anything else, massa?)  And George Will apparently thinks that's cool. 

So the next time George wants to talk about Detroit I've got a soapbox I'll set up for him. Right here in Grand Circus Park, where the hipsters and artisans and other clueless undesirables can come and hear what he has to say about their city.  (Fear not, George, it's nowhere near where feral dogs might lurk.)

Grand Circus Park, Detroit

Be sure and wear your bow tie, George, and bring your wife.  She might want to talk about her activities in both Rick Perry's and Michele Bachmann's campaigns.  That'll be a real ice-breaker.  A few laughs can't hurt.

But remember where you are and nix the happy talk about Snyder.  I mean, really.  Listen to me.  I know what I'm talking about.

(Featured today on Mike's Blog Roundup at Crooks and Liars.  Welcome, new visitors!   Cross-posted, as always, at dagblog)