September 2017: The tyranny of the corporation
In her new book, Private Government, University of Michigan professor Elizabeth Anderson reports that audits by the Department of Labor have found “sweatshop-like conditions” in ninety-three per cent of the garment factories in Southern California. She also writes about how in the poultry industry employees are denied relief breaks and are required to wear adult diapers. In the food service industry ninety percent of employees report that they have been sexually harassed, and nation-wide millions of employees are subject to drug screening without cause.
How is this possible, you ask? The answer is that almost all employees in this country are at will and are seen as accepting these conditions as consenting adults who are free to seek other employment. So basically, because employees can quit at any time, management is free to treat them however they want.
This treatment includes terminating at will employees for any reason that is not discriminatory. Your boss doesn’t like your Bernie Sanders bumper sticker? You are fired. Put something on Facebook they don’t like? You are fired. So long as you are not terminated based on your race, gender, or religion there are virtually no restrictions on employers’ power to terminate.
Most American workers just live with this. Fortunately, those of us who are blessed to have Unions and collective bargaining have means to combat the power of the company. But, only a small percentage of private sector employees still work under that protection.
The most striking thing about this, to me, is that the one proven method of combating these sorts of conditions, Unions, are shunned and derided by the people they could help the most. This is especially true of the right-wing base of the Republican Party.
Oddly, these same groups will rail against government intervention and interference in their lives and decry their “freedoms” being taken away. Yet, they place themselves under the hegemony of a private company and allow the corporation to subject them to restrictions that would be unconstitutional if imposed by the government.
Wake up, people! This country has too long listened to the praises of unfettered capitalism and the corporations. The very freedoms the American Revolution sought to gain, the escape from tyranny, the right to representation within our government, and the freedom to pursue life as we saw fit are now ceded to the corporations with the acquiescence of a vast number of Americans.
We, the members of the UAW, have protections and freedoms hard won by those who came before us; but these freedoms still lie out of reach for most of our fellow citizens. It is time now, more than ever, to proselytize on the issues of the Labor Movement to those we live with, eat with, worship with, and work with. If people continue to march forward with eyes closed, what the founding fathers fought and died to wrest from the King will continue to be ceded to the Corporation.
May 2017: Overtime vs. comp time
Sometimes what seems on its face to be a good thing has hidden perils; and when I see groups like the Chamber of Commerce or the Society for Human Resource Management, two pro-business/anti-worker groups lining up to sing the praises of a new piece of legislation, I immediately become suspicious. Case in point is the latest from our friends in Congress.
The United States House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would let private sector employees choose either time-and-a-half overtime pay bill with the grandiose name of The Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 was—as has become commonplace—passed along party lines. The bill, on its face, allows eligible employees to choose comp time to be used at a later date instead of receiving immediate pay for overtime hours.
Supporters of the bill, which includes most pro-business groups, play up the flexibility the new rules will give to employees. But, to me, this is overshadowed by the fact that workers are required to give “reasonable notice” before being granted this time off and employers are not required to grant the comp time if it would “unduly disrupt” the workplace.
As a lawyer and someone who has worked as a Committeeperson, the language used in this bill—such as “reasonable” and “unduly”—is ripe for argument and conflict. The meaning of the term “reasonable notice” will certainly end up being defined by the courts, as will “unduly disrupt.” So in the meantime the employers will undoubtedly be putting restrictions on when comp time is used that harms workers and helps management. Management will bank on the fact that most workers will be unwilling or unable to fight a court battle to determine what the definition of “reasonable” is under this proposed law.
Now, if you are lucky enough to be working under a collective bargaining agreement, these issues can be solved through negotiations and the grievance procedure. But imagine if you were an at-will employee working on a low-wage job, or even a high wage job. Without the protections of a union, not many people will be willing to fight the company’s definition of “reasonable notice” or what “unduly disrupts” the workplace, when doing so will likely lead to their termination.
A similar problem would be the policing of the choice of overtime or comp time being up to the employee. The proposed law speaks to the choice being free from employer pressure or coercion, but without a union, who is there to make sure that these rules are followed? The courts? Again, the type of workers most affected by these rules will likely not have time or money to pursue action through the Federal Court system.
In the end, this bill reduces worker incomes in the long term and does not provide useable protections to the employees. But, with the Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce backing it I am not surprised that it is anti-worker.
March 2017: Experts
Oscar Wilde defined an expert as an ordinary man away from home giving advice. Wilde died in 1900, so this was well before the internet and the advent of social media. If he was alive today Wilde might define an expert as any human being with a smart phone and wifi.
This is the age we live in, one where a person without knowledge or thought can put their opinion out into the greater world as fact. There are plenty of examples, just one being the “Bowling Green Massacre,” an event that thankfully never happened but was put out to the nation as an actual event.
Unfortunately, these sorts of “stories” on a smaller and more personal scale happen every day. Anyone who has Facebook or twitter or any other form of social media sees it. Your “friends” and co-workers will provide you with Contractual, Constitutional, Legal, Medical, or personal relationship advice all day every day if that is what you are looking for. With their opinions seemingly holding as much weight as those who might actually have knowledge that would help.
The truly sad part is that we have never in human history had access to the vast range of actual knowledge that we do today. At the stroke of just a few more keys than it takes to get on social media a person can read articles and papers written by scholars and true experts on virtually any topic.
But, fake news and alternative facts seem to rule the day. Everyone is an expert, even on topics they have no background in or knowledge of; the trained and educated are lumped in with the posers and con artists. This makes for difficult times.
When facts are malleable and even scientific evidence is ignored as hogwash, we are going backwards as a society, not forward. We in the Labor Movement must strive to overcome the alternative facts that our opponents in both the state house and the White House put forth against us every day and take solace in fighting the good fight. We can only fight untruth with truth, and “alternative facts” with actual facts.
January 2017: Civility and discourse
Each of us knows, works with, maybe even loves people who hold a different political view than we ourselves hold. Sadly, it has become harder and harder in this country to find people of different viewpoints who are willing, or able, to have an actual discussion about the division in American politics. Instead of a discussion everything seems to be a rage-filled monologue.
The sides seem to have drifted further apart, the proverbial aisle getting across. This divide is driven, at least in part, by factors that have arisen relatively recently. The scariest being the profit that can be made on hate, incivility, and invective.
It used to be that if I was liberal and you were conservative maybe we read a different newspaper, the Washington Post or the Washington Times, the Detroit News or the Free Press, whatever. While the editorial boards of these opposing papers would endorse different candidates and have columnists of different parties and views, basically the news was the news.
Now, people watch different channels, listen to different talk radio, get their news from different internet sources, and in the process get totally different news. On top of that, what was once the purview of the editorial page, and avoidable, is now a nearly unavoidable 24-hour-a-day circus. And this circus drives ratings, and those ratings drive money. That is the politics of today.
The views of Murdoch’s Fox News are not just driven by a far-right political agenda, but also the greater agenda of profit. Sadly, intelligent discourse and objectivity in the middle don’t drive profit, you have to go hard to the fringes to create passion and fervor. These groups manipulate the foundation of our democracy for personal profit.
This type of media works to widen gaps and to emphasize the importance of certain values and deemphasize and demean others. Not unlike the way the party that controls both our state and federal governments demeans, even demonizes, many of the values for which the Labor movement stands.
In response we must find ways to have civil discourse, make politics a marketplace of ideas, and not a marketplace of fear and loathing. To engage in civility and reason, one will have to swim upstream against cable news, Facebook and Twitter, but for democracy to thrive its citizens must realize a common ground and be able to engage in civil discourse.
It comes down to the old cliché that I might disagree with everything a person says, but, I believe completely in their right to say it—unlike our new President who wants to change the libel laws so that you can’t say it. (Okay, that might be a touch uncivil of me but I’m tryin’ here.)
We have to keep in mind that a person’s political views are not the totality of that person. In many cases they work, worship, or live where you do.
There is common ground on which to stand, and that is where we must start. In the end it is about striving for a better America.
We in Labor must continue to fight the good fight and continue to beat the drum for a society based on legal and economic equality for everyone. What other choice do we have?
December 2016: Our new path
Those of you who have read my articles over the last few years shouldn’t have to guess at my level of disappointment at the outcome of the recent Presidential election. It is hard for me to swallow that a man who repeatedly spoke in ways that were full of misogyny and bigotry is now President of the United States.
But I have faith that America and the majority of the people living here have no desire to return to a time when a person’s gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation made them less of an American. Contrary to what many of the one-percenters believe, what makes America great is not free markets and unrestrained capitalism, but the market place of ideas that can only exist in an open and free society such as the U.S.
For now we are headed down a road, it might not be the road I would choose, but it is the road we are on. All we can do as Americans is speak our minds, debate ideas, try to combat hate with compassion and remember that as much as anything this country is founded on the idea that we have the right and privilege to speak our minds.
I would ask that during this holiday season we remember those less fortunate than ourselves and take the time to enjoy the privilege of being Americans
September 2016: Thinking about the "other"
The “other” is an individual or group that is perceived as being different and not belonging. This otherness could be based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ideology, or social class. This year’s Presidential election, and really most elections since the rise of the Tea Party and other ultra-conservative groups, is largely about this idea of “otherness.” The far right believes in an America that is white and staunchly Christian, with no room for the “other” who don’t fit that demographic.
This November’s election gives a clear choice, on the one hand we have Hillary Clinton whose campaign motto is “stronger together” and on the other is Donald Trump who never misses an opportunity to place someone in that “other” category. Trump talks about making America great again by banning people due to their religion, which violates the Constitution, and by building walls.
He also wants to pit one region
of the country against another, by moving American auto jobs out of the unionized north to southern states with low wages, and then offer them back to places like Michigan for even lower wages once workers are hungry enough to agree.
Trump’s attack on the “other” was shown clearly in August when Trump chose Stephen Bannon to lead his campaign. Bannon is Chairman of Breitbart Media which has become the main platform for the “alt-right.” This is a once fringe political movement which even Bannon says attracts white supremacists and anti-Semitic groups. The “alt-right” is all about making people fear and mistrust the “other.”
Recently, Hillary Clinton made a statement that 50% of Trump supporters could fit into what she called the basket of deplorables, “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamo-phobic — you name it.” Clinton has received criticism from the right for this statement and from Trump who called her out for not uniting people.
Those critics are clearly missing the whole point of Clinton’s statement, which was about how those Americans who harbor hatreds based on the “otherness” of their fellow citizens have flocked to Trump’s banner.
The fringe elements of the right still rail about President Obama’s birth, and that the President is a secret Muslim, and that the LGBT community is somehow trying to recruit our children. And it is exactly those sorts of fringe actors and groups that Breitbart Media under Stephen Bannon has embraced.
I think it says a lot that Trump would put a man with connections to those groups in charge of his campaign. The idea of “otherness” goes directly against what the Labor Movement, and the UAW in particular, stands for.
Since the days of Walter Reuther the UAW has stood for racial equality, gender equality, and has espoused the ideal that we are all Brothers and Sisters within the movement.
Those groups that point fingers and try to get the working people to blame immigrants, minorities, and the “other” for the loss of jobs, power, or privilege do so to distract from the fact that this country is not divided so much along racial or religious lines but instead along economic lines.
The wealthy elites want the working class to blame the “other” instead of opening their eyes to the gross income and economic inequalities created by a system that more and more favors the wealthy elite.
Come November 8, please support those candidates who support working families and an America for everyone, even those different from you.
May 2016: Get out the vote
I was listening to NPR on the way home from work the other day and the results of the New York primaries came on. There was, of course, the usual discussion of the winners and losers, Ted Cruz spinning out some oily excuse of why losing to Trump in New York was okay and actually proved the people wanted him as their next president, and political commentary. But what I found most fascinating was the opinions about candidates gathered from the “man on the street” across the country.
One man in particular stuck out. He was a 69-year-old Trump supporter from Texas. A self-professed patriot and lover of America. A man who has been eligible to vote for about five decades. A man who admits he has never voted in his life. No, not admits, by the tone of his voice, is actually proud to never have voted. What fascinates me is how you call yourself a patriot and lover of America when you have never fulfilled the most important duty of a citizen of this country, the duty to vote.
The revolt against Britain and the founding of this country were largely based on the belief that the people should have the ability to form a government of the people and for the people. Central to that is the right to vote.
Unfortunately, this man is not alone in his failure to vote. Every election cycle, millions of eligible voters stay home and abandon their rights. Sadly, too many of the citizens who fail to exercise their voter rights represent those groups—women and minorities—who had to fight the longest and hardest battles to gain this precious right. It seems unconscionable that anyone who truly believes themselves to be a patriot and lover of this country would not vote.
I have heard many excuses for not voting. One of the most common is the idea that voting does not matter. Really? In 2008 a Senate race in Minnesota came down to less than 200 votes out of over three million. Right here locally a State Representative vote was almost as close. The 2000 presidential election came down to a tiny number of highly contested votes in Florida. So each vote matters, and this is especially important for progressives and Democrats, who in this state have a substantial majority of eligible voters and generally win and lose based completely on turnout.
Another excuse for not voting that I hear frequently is that all politicians are the same and that the system is rigged, or some other term. First of all, not all politicians are the same, and the parties are not the same either. If you cannot tell the difference between two candidates, you are not looking very damn hard. Even within parties, people have different views, backgrounds, and records; across party lines the gulf is huge. If you cannot tell the difference between what the Democrats and Republicans stand for, I weep for you.
As for the system being rigged and controlled by the moneyed interests, which too often it is, do you think this happened by accident? No, it was the election of right-wing pro-business Republicans, starting in the 1980’s, that caused this. Corporate America and its leaders supported and helped elect those who would wipe away limits on spending and regulation on business in all areas, but it was the misguided and apathetic electorate that allowed this to happen. Remember, no matter how many millions the DeVos family or Koch brothers spend on elections, every DeVos or Koch only gets one vote, same as you and me.
Want to change the direction of the state? Do away with right-to-work? Get rid of emergency managers and corporate tax cuts? If so, your vote, and those of your friends and family, do matter. The last four years have seen a concerted effort by Republicans across this country to make it more difficult to vote and to suppress voter turn-out. They know they are in the minority, they know that they represent the few against the many. Why else engage in systematic voter suppression?
So you want to show true patriotism? Use the rights brave men and women fought and died for and go to the polls and elect those candidates who support working families, our communities, and the power of the people, not the power of corporations.
January 2016: Another attack on working class
On January 6 of this year the Governor signed into law Public Act 269, which when introduced in October was an innocuous twelve-page bill on campaign finance reform. But when it was voted through in the last hours of the last day of the 2015 legislative session, it included 40 new pages of law.
Among the heinous things slipped into the new language of the bill were changes in accounting practices for PAC’s that effectively double the amount a PAC can donate in an election cycle and change the reporting date so that contributions will not be made public until after Election Day. The last-minute changes also made it illegal for companies to deduct union political contributions—VCAP for example—from employees who have requested that these deductions be made.
Sadly, many legislators voted yes on the bill without even reading the new language, urged to act quickly by the Republican leadership. Even some Republicans have since expressed outrage at some of the language put into the bill they voted for. One Republican representative, Dave Pagel, went so far as to write a letter to Governor Rick Snyder asking that he veto the bill, even though Pagel had himself voted for it.
This bill will allow the rich and their powerful PAC’s to contribute more to the causes and candidates they support while making it more difficult for unions and the working people who are their members to contribute at all.
With what justification, you ask. How did the anti-union forces spin the ban on payroll deduction of political funds for union members? Well, the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative, anti-union group with close ties to the DeVos family, claimed the provision would allow companies to focus on their core business and end the long-standing practice of labor unions getting companies to pay the administration cost of political contributions.
This leaves me with two questions. First, are the people speaking for the Michigan Freedom Fund really that out of touch with how payroll deduction actually works? Do they think there is a room full of clerks and scribes doing
this work, like a scene from a Dickens novel?
Because, these transactions are computerized and represent minimal expense or hassle for companies. The second question is do they actually believe the things they say?
I say no, these are devious people who justify their anti-union motives in the thinnest and most perfunctory way because the people they serve do not care about anything but harming the unions and impeding candidates who are supported by working people.
Keep in mind that when the Republicans did the same thing to teachers’ unions in 2012, the Senate Fiscal Agency, which is non-partisan, stated in its report that the ban on deduction of political contributions would not result in any savings to school districts.
So the people enacting, or at least drafting, these bills know they are nothing more than bald-faced attempts to weaken the political power of the working people and unions and are in no way a cost savings to companies.
In my December Labor News article I wrote about the ban on straight-ticket voting, which is designed to create longer lines in urban areas and suppress the vote. Now once again through this legislation the Republicans are making it harder for working people to elect their candidates, and easier for the rich to elect theirs.
Unfortunately, I have come to expect this sort of behavior from our current legislature. The leadership of the majority party is so firmly under the thumb of the rich donors and the threat of a well-funded primary challenge that they will do whatever it takes to protect themselves and their position at the expense of those they are supposed to represent.
This will be the legacy of our current legislature and what a shame that is.
December 2015: The second death of straight-ticket voting
First of all, happy holidays to all and here’s hoping everyone has a safe and prosperous new year. In the new year everyone, no doubt, will get their fill of politics and the enemies of labor and progressivism will be out in full force with their billions of dollars and the usual foot soldiers of the right. But if you wish to influence elections by means other than votes why wait till 2016? The Michigan legislature sure didn’t wait.
A few weeks ago the Michigan Legislature passed, and Governor Snyder signed, a bill eliminating straight ticket voting in Michigan. This may seem familiar as the Republican Party did the same thing in 2001. The current Attorney General and far-right true believer Bill Schuette co-sponsored the 2001 bill as a state senator.
So why, you may ask, were voters still able to vote a straight ticket for the last 14 years? This would be because the people of the state of Michigan passed a ballot proposal in November of 2002 and restored the straight ticket option. That’s right, a majority of Michigan citizens supported the straight ticket option. But that does not matter to our current legislative majority, and in fact they have made sure that the law cannot be overcome with a ballot proposal this time by attaching an appropriation to the bill, thus making a ballot proposal to overturn unconstitutional.
Republicans claim that the ban will lessen partisanship and encourage voter engagement in the political process. Of course the passage of the bill was completely along partisan party lines, and eliminates any chance of the public engaging in the process by voting to overturn the ban like they did in 2002.
This is the latest move by the Republicans to overcome the will of the voters and shows just how far the GOP have stooped since 2002. They no longer care how they get their agenda through, or keep their laws in place, and clearly are okay with the continuing use of this appropriations strategy to thwart the majority in this state.
In reality the elimination of straight ticket voting is designed to make voting take longer and lead to longer lines and waits, the hope being that long waits will suppress the vote in urban areas, where waits are traditionally longer and where there is a heavily Democratic majority. It is just another step in the Republican plan to rig elections in their favor through gerrymandering and unnecessarily making voting harder than ever. They oppose loosening rules for absentee voting, have gerrymandered our state so that regardless of how the majority of people vote they will control the legislature, and have opposed early voting and plans to allow vote by mail.
The amazing thing to me is that the Republicans feel no shame or embarrassment over their strategies, or over passing a law that was already overturned by the citizens of Michigan. And then taking steps to make sure the citizens cannot stop them. Apparently, they feel that their base will support them even if they work to thwart democracy. I hope they are wrong; nothing is a more basic right than the right to vote, and vote the way you wish.
September 2015: Labor Day
First of all, in honor of Labor Day I would just like to thank the many Union men and women who through their words and actions taught me the importance of Unions. My education started at home. My father was a committeeman, shop committeeman and apprentice committeeman during most of my youth and by example taught me many of the core values of the Labor Movement. I have also been lucky enough during my time at General Motors to have been represented by, and served with, many fantastic examples of upstanding and outstanding union leadership. The role of union steward, committeeman, bargainer, by whatever name you call it is not an easy job. It is often a thankless job, but it is an important one.
Labor Day celebrates the great works that the Labor Movement has undertaken in creating a middle class, and a society, that have been the envy of the world for decades. The role of Unions in creating and maintaining an open and democratic society is an important one. When you see the rich, the powerful, the Republican Party, opposing Unions keep in mind that Unions play an important role in a civil society, even outside of collective bargaining.
Authoritarian regimes, from Saudi Arabia, to Franco’s fascist Spain, to the Nazi government under Hitler all forbade, or in some cases still forbid the formation of Unions. This is because authoritarian regimes recognize the powers that Unions have to contest their authority and delegitimize authoritarian regimes by providing a collective voice for the working class, and providing an opposition to the moneyed, powerful elite. A prime example of this was the vital role that Polish Unions and Lech Walesa played in the democratization of Poland during the Soviet era.
Another reason that Union are important to a civil society it that they show a true model of democracy. The election of your representatives at your worksite are free from the kind of outside influence we now see in the American electoral system,; they are about personalities, performance, knowledge, and the things that elections should be about. Union members get used to voting and participating in a democratic system.
Also, unlike many constituency groups and movements, the Labor Movement is diverse. Unions are made up of a broad spectrum of races, colors, religions, and sexual orientation. The same cannot be said for grassroots groups on the right, like the Tea Party. In the end, to oppose unions is to oppose a civil and open society.
Like Samuel Gompers, the early Labor leader said, “What Labor wants are more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more opportunities to cultivate a better nature.” It makes one wonder why there are those who seek to demonize us all as union thugs and continue to work toward the death of the Labor movement. Are these people afraid of an open society?
May 2015: Unintended consequences
A few weeks ago I attended the 40th annual Labor and Employment Law institute in Plymouth, Michigan. In attendance were around 400 attorneys and human resource professionals. During this two-day event there were sessions on everything from the Family Medical Leave Act to Collective Bargaining tactics. The presenters were pretty much evenly split between attorneys who represent employees and unions and those who represent employers.
The difference in opinions and attitudes was striking; many employer-side attorneys are quite smug about the ways in which the Michigan Legislature has attacked Unions in attempts to weaken collective bargaining rights. Especially those working in the public sector, where there has been an all out war on public employees—from state workers to teachers, the public employees have lost an uncountable number of rights regarding bargaining and job security. These employees are especially vulnerable because they do not fall under the aegis of the National Labor Relations Act, but instead the Michigan Employee Relations Commission, which is controlled much more easily by the far-right Michigan legislature.
In many cases courts and the legislatures have turned a more and more hostile eye on workers and unions, largely at the behest of conservative donors and their minions in political office.
I don’t have to wonder what the rich donors and industrialists have to gain by the attack on good wages and benefits; clearly their goals are power over workers and greater profits and wealth for themselves.
I do, however, wonder what motivates the everyday person out there struggling to support their families and yet beats the drum for these anti-worker billionaires, helping to create the worst wealth disparity in this country in decades.
Why do people, including far too often our Union brothers and sisters, agree with the race to the bottom perpetrated on workers by the far right? I have no answer to that question.
The capstone of the anti-union program from the Mackinaw Center and other conservative groups is the so-called “right-to-work” legislation. Interestingly, I attended a panel discussion on trends in collective bargaining that was led by both employer-side and union-side attorneys, and one trend that both sides agreed vehemently on is an unintended consequence of right-to-work. Unions are coming into negotiations with a much more militant and hard-line attitude.
In many industries and worksites the Unions have agreed to concessionary or stagnant wages to allow companies to get through the economic downturn of the last decade. Now Unions are doubly motivated to recoup wages for their members. And, as employer attorneys made clear, many unions are in a place where they can’t and won’t take no for an answer.
According to the panel leading this discussion, many worksite bargaining committees must now follow the lead of the most radical, most militant members of the bargaining unit in order to keep the most members possible paying their dues.
The bottom line is that for most employers, and their attorneys, life at the collective bargaining table has gotten a lot harder since the Republicans forced right-to-work on the citizens of this state, and to that I say, “Good!”
The fact that the same folks who contribute to and support the anti-union agenda of the Republicans are now battling the unintended consequences of this agenda is to me a delicious irony. Reap what you sow, my friends, reap what you sow.
January 2015: Wage Stagnation Nation
Clearly, this is a bad time to be a working person. The economic recovery has largely skipped those of us who make an hourly wage. The Snyder administration and their cohorts in Washington have done all they can do to make sure that businesses have come back in the last few years. They have shown great empathy for corporations, partnerships, and business of all kinds. Their empathy for the plight of the working people of this country and state has been sorely missing.
For years, even as the economy recovered and the stock market soared, most American workers saw little evidence of better times in their paychecks. However, in November of 2014 overall wages increased 0.4, with the gain for lower-paid workers in production jobs increasing 0.2 percent. In a not shocking at all development, Representative Kevin P. Brady, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has called on the Federal Reserve to move quickly and raise interest rates to stave off inflation.
That’s right, a 0.2 wage increase has thrown the conservative ranks into a panic. Keep in mind that 0.2 percent for a worker making $25,000 a year equals $50 a year; but hey, on the bright side, if you are fortunate enough to make $50,000 a year that skyrockets to $100. God forbid. Those greedy workers might actual buy their kids new shoes, or coats, or school supplies with all that loose cash. The continued war on the working class by the conservatives brings two questions to mind.
First, how long will some workers believe that these pro-business politicians have the best interest of any worker in mind? Clearly, the wage stagnation, loss of pensions, benefits, MIOSHA, workers compensation changes, and higher taxes for workers and lower taxes for business hasn’t convinced them they have no friends in the right wing, so I fear nothing will. Though I continue to try to convince them.
The second question that runs through my mind is what these conservatives and their corporate fat-cat buddies are scared of; do they think a prosperous middle class would see through their hate mongering and their economic shell games? They might be right, it was a prosperous middle class that led to the social justice movements of the 1960’s as well as the legislation that makes sure our air and water are clean and our drugs and food are safe. But, they should remember that it was a put-upon and desperate working class that led to the sit-down strikes of the 1930’s, the gaining of legal rights for unions under the new deal, and other Depression-era legislation that led to the creation of the middle class in the 1950’s.
I struggle, and have for a long time, to understand what makes people worry more about a business’s health and prosperity than the prosperity of actual human beings. Having been to law school, I fully understand the need for the legal fiction that grants corporations legal rights on some scale, though taking it to the extremes found under the Citizen’s United ruling seems absurd. But, that said, companies who are unwilling to budge on worker wages in a time when they are making record profits are shameful, and in my mind immoral. And, for members of our government to put business first over people is wrong and unforgiveable.
I fear a time when unions are no longer around to fight the economic, political, and social battles that we as individuals cannot.
December 2014: On the horizon
First off I would like to wish all the Lansing Labor News’ readers happy holidays and a joyous and prosperous new year. Unfortunately, the chances of working folk having a prosperous new year was lessened considerably by the recent election results, both in Michigan and across this nation. We are poised to lose rights and privileges as working people that our predecessors in the Labor Movement fought and in some cases died for. Programs that will be swept away by the ever more conservative and anti-worker Republicans are too numerous to list. But, a few will affect our members immediately and profoundly.
First, on a state level the Republican legislature and Governor have already stripped most bargaining rights from public employees, putting the power over State employees in the hands of bureaucrats and political appointees. The cry from the far right is always about limiting government, which they accomplish by outsourcing good jobs to private entities, like Aramark. (Do I even need to go into the litany of criminal and immoral behavior that company has engaged in since the Republicans privatized the food service in our prisons?) True, these outsourced jobs don’t go away, they just go to low-paid poorly vetted employees who end up working with our children in schools, driving their buses, preparing their school lunches, and a host of other interactions.
Another State law protection that the Republicans have virtually done away with is the Workers Compensation system. A system that was set up so that employees had a no-fault benefit for work-related injuries and which protected employers from liability for negligence in the workplace. The Republicans have changed the system so that it is harder and harder for workers to receive any lost wage benefits, but, not surprisingly, have not made it easier for employees to seek legal action for injuries due to negligence by their employers. In the time before Workers Compensation statutes the law of the land was that if you were hurt at work by any known hazard you were considered to have assumed the risk of your job. If you worked in a factory and a machine malfunctioned and injured you, well, everyone knows machines malfunction so you assumed the risk of working with that hazard. If you cut yourself horribly on sharp sheet metal, well, everyone knows sheet metal can be sharp.
Thankfully, on the Federal level we still have President Obama and the power of veto to protect us from the far right, pro-corporation forces at work within our government. If not, laws like the National Labor Relations Act—which is what requires companies to recognize Unions and forces them to bargain in good faith with them—might well be stripped away by an ever more conservative Republican party which is beholden to their rich corporate over-lords like Dick DeVos and the Koch brothers. Right-to-Work is bad enough, but imagine a world where unions had no legal standing at all, a world where every strike would be illegal and workers had no bargaining power at all. Those of you who either lived through, heard stories of, or have been educated about what life was like in industry before the Unions no doubt cringe as I do when contemplating the destruction the far right may do if they gain control of both the Congress and the Presidency.
Within Michigan our legislature has stripped away the protection of MIOSHA; what if we were to have OSHA stripped away as well? Workers could end up toiling in workplaces akin to those in Upton Sinclair’s famous book The Jungle.
The litany of protections on the verge of being stripped away from workers is long. Yet many, many, people with the most to lose once again stayed home on Election Day. This cannot happen again, either in two years, four years, or ever. It is imperative we begin to fill our legislatures, our governor’s mansions, and the White House with men and women of progressive beliefs who will fight for and protect the middle class and the workers of this country and this state. To do this, people—working people in particular—cannot stay home on Election Day. The rich, the corporations, the dark money super PAC’s will have their voices heard on our airways, but we the workers can trump all that by making our voices heard in the voting booth.
September 2014: Things do not go better with Koch
As election time comes near, once again I write today to warn against believing the smears and lies put forward by the PAC’s and super-PAC’s supported by the corporations and the rich; especially that two-headed monster of anti-worker evil, the Koch brothers. In the last election cycle, 2012, the Koch brothers spent an estimated $400 million on hardcore right-wing initiatives and candidates. Now they are spending large amounts to get the outcome they want in this year’s elections in Michigan. They support Terry Lynn Land for Senate and Rick Snyder for Governor. Here are a few things you should know about the Koch brothers.
The vast fortune they use to corrupt the political process is largely based on a massive network of oil and gas pipelines, and was largely inherited from their father Fred Koch who made his fortune building pipelines for the Soviet despot Joseph Stalin. Fred Koch was also a supporter of racial segregation and groups like the John Birch society.
Following that lead the brothers have invested millions in more than 85 right-wing organizations. Most prominent of these is Americans for Prosperity, their PAC that invests heavily in the Tea Party candidates and has close ties to, among others, Supreme Court Justices Anton Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who the Koch’s brought in as speakers for a group of industrialists shortly before the infamous Citizens United decision.
Among the things that the Koch brothers vehemently oppose and spend their vast fortune to eradicate are the following: minimum wage laws, labor unions, public education, and Social
Security. In other words, all of the reforms that helped to create a large and vibrant middle class are on the chopping block if these brothers get their way.
You may ask yourself, how did our society evolve to a point where any of this is allowed to happen? And how can we stop it?
Well, this isn’t a new situation. In fact it was just these sorts of abuses by the wealthy industrialists at the turn of the 20th century that the Progressives and President Theodore Roosevelt fought against. During his presidency the robber barons of the oil, steel, and railroad industries were incrementally pushed back from total and limitless control of our institutions.
Unfortunately, within months of Roosevelt leaving office, moneyed interests began the push to regain their hold on government. By the 1920’s they were once again in the driver’s seat. Only the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s and 40’s chiseled away some of this power.
In the decades since, the rich and their corporations have once again gotten astride our institutions and begun to steer them in directions conducive to them and not the average citizen. Why do we have to re-fight this battle again and again? Because the wealthy are relentless and too often the working class are lulled into a sense of powerlessness or apathy; and even more frightening is the ability through the media for the rich to convince the workers of this country that groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers are looking out for them.
We must remember that our government is supposed to be for the people and by the people, not a government for the corporation and by the corporation or for the rich, by the rich.
If we allow outside groups funded by the likes of the Koch brothers to influence our elections, a day rapidly approaches where we the working people will have no voice at all. On Election Day, remember to support those who support the workers of this state and not those who support the corporations of this country.
May, 2014: Raising the minimum wage
As some of you may be aware, a coalition of labor and civil rights groups called Raise Michigan is gathering signatures for a ballot proposal to raise the minimum wage in Michigan to $10.10. The conservatives in the state legislature, of course, have a big issue with this. Their response, which on its face looks like a compromise, invalidates the petition that citizens are signing.
The bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville would gradually raise the minimum wage over the next few years until it would top out at $9.20 an hour for most employees. The underhanded part of this bill is that it makes the change in minimum wage by rescinding the current minimum wage law and enacting a new one. This would invalidate the ballot initiative that proposes to amend the current minimum wage law.
While I agree completely with Democratic candidate for Governor Mark Schauer that, as he said, “This is a meaningful raise for one million people in Michigan,” the problem is the way in which the Republican majority put forward this bill only in response to the petition and only to block the possibility of the petition getting on the ballot. Additionally, just because the Senate passed this bill does not by any means guarantee that the Michigan House will.
When our current minimum wage is factored into the ways in which the Republican majority have attacked our most vulnerable citizens through changes in the earned income tax exemption and other bills that make it harder for the poorest citizens to survive, the need for an increase in the minimum wage is crucial.
A full-time worker, even at the proposed $10.10 an hour, would still make only a little over $20,000 a year. Raising a family on that amount of money in today’s world is nearly impossible. Even with both parents working full-time the economics barely work for two people, much less a family.
But Republican Sen. Patrick Colbeck opposes a minimum wage hike because he claims it would have a negative effect on the state’s economy. “Every time you jack up the minimum wage, you decrease the rate of employment,” he said. “This is bad news for the state of Michigan.”
Well, Senator, I ask you, what good to anyone is a job that even worked full-time won’t support my family? Or maybe you think people should have multiple full-time jobs? What Michigan needs is more good paying jobs, not more jobs that pay so little that they make it impossible to support a family. This is where I disconnect with the self-proclaimed “pro-family” conservatives. They decry the loss of “family values” while at the same time supporting an economic plan that ensures that parents must spend more and more time away from their family just to keep them clothed, fed, and housed.
In the end, raising the minimum wage is good for Michigan, because it is good for the working people of Michigan. If a person is willing to work hard to support their family, they should be paid a living wage that enables them to do so.
March 2014: VW, the NLRB, and our next governor
There are those who have been unhappy with my views on politics and what I see as the importance of the UAW’s involvement in that arena. But if there was ever better evidence of how much the right-wing politicians hate Unions, and the UAW in particular, than the VW NLRB vote in Tennessee, I don’t know what it would be.
The usual suspects, Bob Corker, the Koch brothers, and others spent large sums of money and large amounts of time fighting the UAW in Tennessee, even though the company itself seemed more than happy to see the UAW organize their plant.
The same politicians who claim that right-to-work is all about worker freedom (as opposed to worker freeloading) injected themselves into the NLRB’s democratic process that has been in place for almost 80 years. Elected officials threatened VW and its workers with the loss of tax incentives and claimed to have knowledge that future product would not be allocated to the Tennessee plant if it was organized. Clearly these threats were meant to discourage employees from voting in the Union.
What are these politicians afraid of? Do they fear that if VW organizes, some of their citizens might have better pay, better benefits, or a safer work environment? Egad! Who could ever support that? If there is anything that the situation in Tennessee and the ongoing attacks on Unions in Michigan has proven, it is that who we support and who supports us as workers has never been more important.
That being said, I had the privilege of hearing Mark Schauer, Democratic candidate for Governor, speak this week. I must say that I was highly impressed. Many times in the past I have listened to candidates who were seeking the support of the UAW and other Labor groups. Sometimes, you can tell the speaker has studied up on what to say, or is searching for the right answer for the crowd they are speaking to; not Mark Schauer.
It was clear to me that Mr. Schauer’s beliefs are those that the Labor Movement holds dear. He spoke about the ways in which our current governor has attacked our retirees through taxes on their pensions and all the laws Snyder has signed limiting the rights of Unions and union members. Schauer also said that his first priority would be to get right-to-work (for less) repealed. Amen to that. It will be a brighter day for Michigan when Mark Schauer is Governor.
January 2014: The Legislature, supporting the rich ... again
In December of last year the Republican-controlled State House and Senate passed legislation which was signed into law by Governor Snyder that doubled—that’s right, doubled—the limits on what an individual or PAC can contribute to a candidate for state office. This legislation passed without garnering a single vote from a Democrat in either chamber.
Statistics show that a very small percentage of donors ever reached the existing cap for individual donations. So then why raise the limits? I would say because the wealthy donors who did reach the cap can now give twice as much. These donors were almost exclusively Republican. Additionally, now the Republicans’ corporate bagmen can also give twice as much per candidate.
Our political system could do with less money, not more. On top of this, the legislature passed a new law on so-called “issue” ads. The Secretary of State had proposed rules that would have required donor disclosure for ads that were candidate-based if they ran within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of the general election. The Republican legislature shot down these rules and instead required only a disclaimer stating who endorsed the ad. There are no limits on what groups can spend on “issue” ads, and the people who pay for them can remain anonymous.
The Republicans claim this is a free speech issue. Well, no one is trying to limit groups’ ability to express an opinion, but the Republicans don’t seem to think we even deserve to know whose opinion ads are expressing.
The kind of groups that can now stay hidden by sticking to “issue” ads, meaning ads that do not directly endorse or oppose a candidate, are largely well-funded conservative groups. Probably the most anti-union, pro-business, pro-free market of these conservative groups is the Mackinaw Center for Policy Research, the largest conservative state-level policy think tank in the nation. It was established in 1987. largely with funding from the shadowy Cornerstone Foundation whose board included John Engler and a number of insurance industry executives. Its original focus was tort reform, driven by the liability of Dow Corning from faulty silicone implants.
According to its current president, some of the Center’s policy goals include modernizing labor laws, aligning state spending to its core priorities, protecting property rights, repealing counterproductive regulations and ending economic development programs. They want to attack workers’ rights, stop protecting worker safety and the environment, and stop funding programs for low-income areas.
Most alarming for the Labor Movement and Unionists should be the Center’s Publication of its “Collective Bargaining Primer” in which it makes the following assertion. That Unions do not necessarily represent the best interests of their rank-and-file members, nor do they act according to the wishes of their members. It went so far as to call for making public sector unions illegal in Michigan. But don’t think that means private sector unions are not on their radar. They were firmly behind right-to-work with the president emeritus and former economics professor stating, “We have got to do something bold, something dramatic. [Right-to-work] is the one best thing that can break the perception around the country that Michigan does not have a friendly work environment. Nothing would do that better than a right-to-work initiative.”
They spout their conservative propaganda through various media, with the vast majority of the funding for their publication being secret. Until the Supreme Court overturns its Citizens United ruling, this is the world we live in—one where deep-pocketed conservatives are spending money to shape the world to their vision.
What it comes down to for me is this. There are two reasons that groups hide behind anonymity and the current laws on disclosure. First, they think that if people knew who paid for the ads they could see the self-serving economic interest behind the millions of dollars spent each year; or second, they are cowards who do not have the courage of their convictions.
December 2013: Thoughts on the new year
This Holiday season I hope you and yours stay safe in your travels and take time to enjoy the fellowship of friends and family. Take some time to give thought to the year that was 2013, what was accomplished, what wasn’t accomplished, and then give some thought to 2014 because this coming year will be an important one for the UAW and the Labor Movement.
2014 will be a time of transition in our UAW leadership. At the international UAW, leaders who have dedicated years of their lives to our great union—men like Bob King, Joe Ashton, and General Holyfield—will be stepping aside and handing the mantle over to a new group of leaders at the 36th Constitutional Convention. At the Local level, memberships will be deciding if their leaders have provided them with good stewardship and service over the last three years as they hold general elections. In these difficult times the choices we make as to who will lead the UAW carry great weight.
Additionally, the coming year will be a time for the voters of Michigan to decide if they want to continue with the pro-corporation, pro-financial elite, anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-family policies of Governor Rick Snyder and his deep-pocket allies like Dick DeVos. Or choose a governor who supports working people and working families, like Mark Schauer. The damage done to the middle class in Snyder’s first term is horrific; what would he destroy in a second term?
Yes, 2014 will be a time for Unionists throughout the state to give of themselves, body and soul, in the hopes of making a better tomorrow for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and beyond. There will be hard work and hard times, times when tempers will flare and we will not be our best selves. That being said, I have a few things I will be trying to keep in mind for the new year. Not resolutions so much as aspirations.
First, I will ask myself why I am doing something, before I do it. Am I putting that post on Facebook to be informative or am I more concerned with the “look at me, I knew this first” mentality that pervades the social media? Am I volunteering my time or money through a genuine attempt to help, or because of the recognition and accolades I will receive? Am I running for that Union position so I can say I am committeeperson, or trustee, or president, or whichever position because I want to serve the membership, or because I want to be able to say I hold this position or that position within my Union?
Second, I won’t limit myself to Facebook activism. I will put boots on the ground, knock on doors, talk to my friends and family about the issues that face working people of this state, not just click on the “like” button; because, when the voices of Labor are found only on-line and not at rallies, protests, fund-raisers, or most importantly at the voting booth, we are all weakened.
Third, I will practice face-to-face honesty. If I have an issue with a fellow worker, a fellow Union official, or a family member I will talk to them about it. I won’t go behind their back, or spend time wondering why a particular action was taken or decision made. If I have a question or concern I will address it with that person in an adult manner. Maybe, just maybe, through this I will find some common ground with this person, or come to understand why they did what they did. Hell, I might even learn something.
Fourth, I will have the courage of my convictions. I will strive to do what is right, not what is easy. This can be difficult, we will not always agree, even with those we consider friends. I was lucky enough to hear Vice-President of the United States Joe Biden speak at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Detroit last year and he spoke about something that I think each of us must find for ourselves. He was speaking of politics and running for office, but I think what he said applies not just to running for office, or running for a Union office, but to life in general. He said you had to find an issue you were willing to lose over. I think what he meant by this is that you have to believe in some things so much that you are unwilling to compromise even if the costs are dear. For some that cost might be a friendship, or an election, or a promotion, but whatever the cost everyone must find that issue they are willing to lose over.
Fifth, it costs us nothing to be nice, and so, in the coming year I will try to be kind, to be the bigger person. I will aspire to understand things from others’ points of view. I won’t immediately assume anyone who has a problem is just trying to shirk their responsibility or get out of work. Even with those people I dislike I will acknowledge their accomplishments and try to lift them up when they fail. I will be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat.
Lastly, I will try to recognize my own faults and weaknesses. I will try to restrain myself from seeing people as I want them to be, not as they are. And the same goes for me, I will see myself for who I am, not who I want to be.
Certainly, there will be times that I will fail to live up to these goals, but there is, I think, value in the attempt.
September, 2013: Real solidarity
The word solidarity is thrown around frequently in Labor circles and in the UAW in particular. Unfortunately, many people do not have a clear concept of what the term solidarity means to the Labor movement. The early Union activist Eugene V. Debs defined solidarity as having the following elements: identity of interest, clarity of vision, honesty of intent, and oneness of purpose. Debs believed that lacking any of these, efforts to achieve the goals of the Labor movement would be barren of results.
Another famous activist, Mother Jones, put it this way, “We must be together: our masters are joined together and we must do the same thing.” People don’t talk like that anymore; to some people such sentiments might seem over the top. Maybe people are embarrassed to feel that strongly about Unions. Perhaps they are afraid of ridicule in this time of anti-union bias in the media and the hateful anti-labor propaganda put out by groups like Americans For Prosperity and the Chamber of Commerce.
Keep in mind that these groups are exactly who Mother Jones was talking about when she said, “Our Masters.” They are organized, and what they are organized to do is keep workers’ rights, wages, and benefits suppressed—along with trying to limit the political power of Labor Unions. If you question this assertion, let me offer a couple of examples to illustrate this.
First, as some of our members are aware, those who contribute to V-CAP have to fill out a slip each year in order for any of those dollars to be used in in-state elections. Why is that? Because the chief counsel of the Chamber of Commerce convinced the Michigan Attorney General to enforce an ambiguous part of Michigan Election law in just that manner; and a Republican-controlled Michigan Supreme Court went along with their interpretation.
Another example of the anti-labor “masters” actions is the Right-to-Work law passed by the Michigan Legislature. This proposal, and the campaign to make it law, was financed largely by anti-union groups like Americans For Prosperity and the Chamber of Commerce.
The point I am trying to make is that we should not be afraid to feel, or even speak, of the Labor Movement in the same terms as the Fathers and Mothers of the Labor movement. Nor should we be afraid to feel as strongly as they felt about the forces working against us. In our work places, and in our lives, there are many forces that divide us. As members of the Labor Movement we do not have be political and ideological clones. But, we must remember what those before us believed, lived, and in some cases died for; that only through solidarity and common purpose can the workers of America prosper and make a better world for themselves, their children, and for all those who would be politically and economically oppressed.
May 2013: Auto transplants and the right-to-work for less
This month I have some topics I would like to discuss and make an attempt to show how they are irrevocably linked. These topics are: transplant auto manufacturers, organizing, and the so called Right-to-Work (which is more accurately called the Right-to Freeload or the Right-to-Work for less).
As some of you may know, the UAW is currently trying to organize a number of automotive transplants. These facilities are largely located in the American south. The companies involved include Nissan, Mercedes, and Volkswagen, among others. Airbus, the European based manufacturer of aircraft, is also opening a plant in Alabama.
In their home countries most of these manufacturers are not only unionized, but pay wages such that workers have a standard of living comparable to traditional American autoworkers. In these transplant factories they are paying low wages, often to “temporary” workers who have no benefits or retirement plan, and have no way to ever gain such.
This leads one to a stunning conclusion: our southern states are becoming Europe’s and Japan’s Mexico. That’s right, the uproar and gnashing of teeth by American workers over the last decades as we saw jobs stream across our southern border to plants built by American manufacturers in Mexico can now be heard by workers all over the world. Only now our own fellow citizens are the lowest common denominator when it comes to wages.
It is a perfect storm for the foreign companies; they get to build cars in a country with a stable government, which more and more takes the side of corporations over their own citizens. As an added bonus they get to set up shop in states that have been, and largely remain, hostile to organized labor. This virtually guarantees that they can keep paying low wages, with scanty benefits, indefinitely. Parts of our own country are becoming the third world to manufacturers. Unless these transplants are organized, it will only be a matter of time before no manufacturing job in the United States is paying a living wage.
This is why the UAW supports
organizers (such as Local 652’s Lena Wyeth) who work with the employees of these companies in gathering support for the UAW and to force the company to accept the union through NLRB elections or other means. Of course, this is just another reason why conservative politicians and corporate interests are so hungry for Right-to-Work laws.
Every dollar lost by unions due to these laws, under which unions are still required by law to represent the non-dues-paying freeloaders, is one less it can spend on organizing workers; or on legal challenges to employment discrimination; or on lobbying for greater safety and ergonomic protections; or on training for union representatives; or other important programs and good works too numerous to list.
So, when our Republican Governor and the rest of Dick DeVos’ henchmen tell you that Right-to-Work is about worker freedom, don’t believe it for even a second. Of course they are well aware that participation in the union has never been mandatory. You aren’t required to attend meetings, or even vote in elections. Traditionally, all you had to do to get the full benefits of the agreement the union negotiated is work in a unionized facility and pay your dues. Now you only have to do the former and not the latter. This is so patently unfair as to seem un-American.
If the Republicans and their corporate interests really are interested in “freedom” why hasn’t the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in Washington introduced legislation to amend the National Labor Relations Act? The removal of just a handful of words would make it so that only dues-paying members get the rights under collective bargaining agreements. This would create a true marketplace of ideas, where you had the choice to join the union or not, and where there would be consequences to making that choice.
If a worker thought they could do better going it alone, they would have that right. But they would not have the right to freeload on other people’s dues money and still receive the benefit of a union contract. This is a service most people should be willing pay for. Especially when they do the math and find that the difference in what union and non-union workers make for the same job is far more each year than the cost of the dues people pay.
Unions provide a great service to the working people we represent, and to society as a whole. One that is worth every penny in dues we collect. The minute that people can no longer shelter under the umbrella of security and protection that unions provide without paying for that right—and it then makes a difference in their paycheck, their benefits, and the quality of life for themselves and their families—the truth of the labor movement will be brought home to them. On that day the death of Right-to-Work and the beginning of a new and better world for all workers will be at hand.
January 2013: Lessons from our history
Seventy-Six years ago today (January 11, 2013) during the Flint Sit-down strikes what was later to be known as the “Battle of Running Bulls” took place. The violence was sparked when General Motors’ security personnel at Fisher Body #2 shut off the heat, locked the gate to the plant, and tore down the ladder that was being used to supply food to the sit-downers.
In response the strikers forced open the plant gates. The company called in the Flint police. The police responded with tear gas and bullets. Picketers and supporters outside Fisher 2 turned over county Sheriff Thomas Wolcott’s police car and took it apart piece by piece. A report on the battle in The Flint Journal on Jan. 12, 1937, included a list of those seriously hurt in the fighting with injuries ranging from “shot in left leg” to “gassed” to “heart attack.” In all 28 people were injured.
The reaction to the violence was swift; Michigan Governor Frank Murphy vehemently stated, “Law and order will be maintained in Michigan.” By the next day 1,200 armed and helmeted National Guardsmen began to arrive in Flint by bus and train. The Governor himself arrived in Flint around 1:00 a.m. January 12 and was given a hand-written note from the mayor of Flint and Genessee County Sheriff Wolcott stating that there had been rioting and bloodshed and more was expected.
To Labor leaders this had to seem terrifyingly familiar. Private security and government troops had been killing strikers for decades in the coal mines and other industries. In fact, less than five years earlier the Army had been ordered to clear out thousands of WWI veterans protesting in Washington D.C. and had done so with infantry, cavalry, and tanks.
Violence toward its own citizens was certainly not a foreign concept for the American government of that era. It certainly seemed that the situation in Flint was headed in the same direction. But, instead of turning the Guard on the strikers and clearing the plant of the sit-downers, the Governor ordered the National Guardsmen to train their guns on both sides of the conflict. This gave the strikers, for the first time, a power and position equal to that of the company, and greatly contributed to the eventual agreement between the UAW and General Motors.
My purpose in recounting this story is three-fold. First, to honor and remember those who sacrificed so much for the rights we as workers have today. Second, to encourage and comfort those who may have to re-fight these battles if the course of our state is not corrected. And third, and perhaps most important, as a reminder of just how much it matters who we elect to government office.
Frank Murphy had defeated Republican Governor Frank Fitzgerald just two short months before the “Battle of Running Bulls” and had been sworn in only days before taking his stance with the National Guard. Yet in the short two years he served as Governor, Murphy did two specific things—the intervention in the sit-down strikes and the passage of a Workers Compensation statute—which helped make possible a better life for working people in this state. Both of these actions were vehemently opposed by the wealthy corporate interests of the time, and as a result Murphy lost in 1938 to Frank Fitzgerald, the man he had defeated just two short years earlier.
What a contrast between Frank Murphy and our current Governor, one standing for workers and the people and thumbing his nose at the wealthy corporate interests, and the other thumbing
his nose at the working people of his
state and bowing down to the interests of the Chamber of Commerce and wealthy special interests like the Koch brothers.
In closing I would ask that you remember what the great Walter Reuther famously said, “There’s a direct relationship between the bread box and the ballot box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.”
December 2012: The widening gap
Before I launch into my topic for this month I would first like to wish all of you a safe and happy holiday season. During this season of giving please take a moment to think of those less fortunate than ourselves, and to remember just how lucky we are to live in the United States of America.
During the last couple of years, and during the campaign, there has been an ongoing discussion about the wealthiest 1% of our fellow citizens, and their economic stranglehold on the other 99% of the American people.
But you do not even have to break it down to 1% and 99% to see an increasing problem with income inequality. A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that in the United States today the top 20% of earners had an average income eight times greater than the average income of the bottom 20% of earners. As recently as the late 1970’s not one state had a ratio that great.
When the top 5% of incomes were compared to the bottom fifth that ratio climbs to 13.3 to 1. Some states exceeded a ratio of 15 to 1. In the 1990’s and 2000’s income for the bottom fifth of households actually fell an average of 6% while the top fifth’s income grew by 8.6% and the top 5%’s income grew by 14%. While for the middle-class, or in this study the middle fifth of incomes, our incomes increased just 1.2% or between one-sixth and one-seventh as fast as the top fifth of earners.
The growing income inequality, if unchecked, is a threat to our nation’s economy and even perhaps our political system. How long before we are suffering under an economic feudalism, where the wealthiest Americans have control of the courts, the government, and every aspect of our lives.
Clearly, this is the goal of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Matty Moroun, who individually spent tens of millions of dollars in an attempt to buy our most recent election. (And before any of you out there start blathering on about unions spending millions as well, that money was voluntarily donated by individual wage earners a few dollars a month through programs like UAW V-CA—not by the obscenely rich who accumulated that wealth on the backs of the American worker.)
Now, anyone who is working today realizes they aren’t working any less hard, so what exactly has caused this ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots? There is the obvious of course, stagnation of wages for hourly earners, at the same time as executive pay increased enormously. A less obvious reason found through the study was the inequity in wages paid by gender.
In the last 30 years more and more households have been headed by female wage earners. The fact that they are, on average, paid less than their male counterparts for the same work has been reflected in the lowering of the average wage.
Another reason for this increasing gap is that income from things like dividends, collection of rent, collection of interest, and capital gains—which largely accrue to the wealthiest Americans—has been rising exponentially faster than actual wages earned.
Another reason for the widening gap is the declining real value of the minimum wage, the purchasing power of which has declined 13% in the last 30 years.
The study suggests a number of moves that our government could take to begin closing the income gap. One example is an immediate increase in the minimum wage, which has a lifting effect on all wages at the lower end of the scale. Additionally, index this wage to ensure continued growth in the future.
Second, restore the deep cuts many states have made to their unemployment insurance systems. The unemployment system keeps families from immediately falling down the rabbit hole of poverty when wage earners lose their jobs.
The final strategy the study suggested for raising wages was to protect workers’ right to bargain collectively, to strengthen laws that prevent abusive employer practices that deprive workers of wages that they are legally owed.
So what can we, as members of the labor movement, do? First of all, organize as many workers as possible. The states with the highest percentage of unionized workers tend to have less income inequality than those with few unionized workers.
Second, let our wallets do our talking for us by boycotting businesses that regularly undermine the working people of America in the name of greater profit, CEO pay, and political statements. Companies, for example, like Papa John’s, which is cutting workers’ hours to avoid paying healthcare, which according to their founder would raise the cost of each pizza 14 cents. (I suppose it could have just lowered his profit 14 cents a pizza instead, but that probably never entered his mind.) Or the great and powerful Wal-Mart, which has followed this strategy for years by closely monitoring employee hours so that they don’t qualify for the company’s health insurance plan. I for one never step foot inside of Wal-Mart and you can be damn sure I will never buy a Papa John’s pizza either.
September 2012: Election time
Those of you who regularly read the Lansing Labor News might recall that last year I wrote an article entitled “Why Republicans Hate Unions,” every word of which I stand by.
I received a lot of feedback on this article, most of it positive, some of it negative, including a demand that I be removed as Recording Secretary of Local 652.
I have to say I found that particular suggestion undemocratic. I mean removing a duly elected official from office without the consent of those who elected him. But then I realized that maybe the letter writer was Governor Snyder. After all, this is exactly what his emergency manager law does. So if that letter came from you Mr. Snyder, thanks for reading.
Election time is upon us once again and as such this article will be political in nature. That being the case, for those of you who did not appreciate my opinions in that article, or those that have followed, I warn you now that I am once again going to encourage people to vote in a particular way.
On November 6 the citizens of this great country will have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote. While it is a given that many people won’t exercise this right, I would beg that everyone reading this do so.
When you do go to vote there are some very important ballot initiatives. Some of these initiatives will help working families and some will not. I would ask that you take the following recommendations under consideration.
First as to Proposal 1, I would strongly urge people to vote against the emergency manager law. Under this law an appointed official can tear up contracts, get rid of employees, and sell property owned by the municipality or school district, without voter approval. That’s right, a person who was not elected could sell property paid for by the taxpayers without a vote of any kind. The best part is that your community gets the privilege of paying for this financial dictator. The whole program goes against the very idea of democratic government. So, please, vote NO on Proposal 1.
On the other hand I would encourage you to please vote YES on Proposal 2. This is the proposal that would make collective bargaining a right under the Michigan Constitution. Many of the people reading this are among the approximately 700,000 Michiganders who signed petitions to place this proposal on the ballot in November. Unfortunately, the collection of all those signatures was only the first hurdle that needed to be cleared before the citizens of Michigan were allowed to vote on this proposal. It then had to win at the Michigan Court of Appeals, and finally at the Michigan Supreme Court. Now that those hurdles are behind us, the highest, and most important hurdle remains—which is to pass this proposal on November 6. Please vote, and help clear this hurdle, guaranteeing the right to a voice in the workplace for all of us, as well as for our children and grandchildren.
I would also suggest that you vote YES on Proposal 3, the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs proposal. This initiative requires that 25 percent of Michigan’s electricity be generated through the use of wind, solar, biomass, or hydropower processes by 2025. Neighboring states, including Ohio and Minnesota, have already adopted similar initiatives. In all, 30 states have passed laws akin to this proposal. One of the reasons that the UAW has endorsed this proposal was laid out by UAW President Bob King when he stated, “Michigan has the most skilled workers in the world, and Proposal 3 can create thousands of new manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced. Proposal 3 will help put our state’s manufacturing talent to work, and will help to preserve a healthy environment for Michigan citizens while reining in rising energy costs for businesses.” For these and other reasons I would urge you to vote yes on Proposal 3.
The UAW has also come out in favor of Proposal 4 which would establish the Michigan Quality Home Care Council and provide collective bargaining rights for in-home care workers. Among the things this law would do is to provide training for in-home care workers, create a registry of workers who have undergone background checks, and provide financial services to patients to manage the cost of in-home care.
The UAW has also stated a position on Proposal 5. It would require a 2/3 majority vote of the State House and the State Senate, or a statewide vote of the people at a November election, in order for the state to impose new or additional taxes, or to expand the base of taxation or increase the rate of the taxation. This might actually sound pretty good on the surface; the problem is that so long as 1/3 of either the State House or State Senate voted against a proposal it could not pass. So, for example, if every member of the House voted for it as well as 25 of the 38 State Senators it would not become law, because 13 State Senators voted no. I for one believe that this goes against the idea of majority rule. It also bothers me that Washington D.C. Lobbyist Grover Norquist is bankrolling this initiative; our Government and our laws should not be for sale to some Super-PAC. I would urge you to vote NO on Proposal 5.
Also, please remember not to leave the voting booth until you have filled out the nonpartisan section of your ballot. I would ask that you vote for Judge Connie Marie Kelley, Judge Shelia Johnson, and Professor Bridget Mary McCormack for Michigan Supreme Court.
All three of these highly accomplished women have been lifelong advocates for working families. These votes are extremely important—what we win at the bargaining table, or even at the ballot box, can be taken away at by our Michigan Supreme Court.
May 2012: Health care, the Supreme Court, and you
The last few months have provided more discussion and analysis of the United States Constitution and the United States Supreme Court than we have seen in decades. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare as it is often called, has been the catalyst for this discussion. The United States Supreme Court listened to oral arguments on the constitutionality of this act during the last week of March. They are expected to rule some time in June.
What stands in the balance is the only comprehensive healthcare program passed by Congress that attempts to rein in the enormous, ever-expanding burden the price of medical care places on the economy, and more importantly, the working people of this country. The provision of the Act that has been most controversial, and has led to the challenges in Federal Court, is the individual mandate. This is the requirement that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Critics claim that this mandate is an unconstitutional overreach by the United States Congress.
As most people realize, many States mandate the purchasing of insurance, such as Michigan’s auto insurance law, and in fact Massachusetts requires the purchase of health insurance. The controversy lies in the Federal government mandating the purchase of health insurance from private providers. In order for Congress to pass a law such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act they have to find a power source in the United States Constitution. The source that they used in this case was the “como regulate commerce among the states.
Since the 1940’s, this clause has been broadly interpreted by the Supreme Court. The Court has used a test that has allowed the regulation of activities that substantially impact interstate commerce, even when that being regulated is not strictly commerce, or strictly interstate. It was through the “commerce power” that laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act—which created minimum wages and overtime for hours worked over 40 each week—were passed on a national level.
The National Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the right to organize and protected Union activists from retaliation from employers, is another law passed under the broad view the Supreme Court has taken toward the Commerce Clause.
In addition to destroying health care reform, if the current court tightens their view on what powers the Congress possesses under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, it could send us spiraling back to a time when the Federal Government could not regulate industries’ treatment of workers at all.
Unfortunately, it is likely that the Court will strike down the individual mandate. If this happens the parts of the act that are widely popular—healthcare for dependents until 26, or not being turned down due to preexisting conditions—cannot stand. They are predicated on the widening of the pool of those insured to lower the cost of these programs. The loss of the individual mandate could well make the continuance of health care reform impossible.
As yet, those opposing health care reform have not come forth with a plan to fix the cost of health care in this country. The Right opposes a single-payer system like many European countries have; they oppose an individual mandate that requires people to be insured. They rant against the burden that giving employees benefits puts on corporations. What they don’t do is offer a solution.
Strangely, while the Right has long railed against “judicial activism” they don’t seem to be creating a hue and cry over the prospect of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court overturning 75 years of precedent when it comes to the Commerce Clause. If this is not “judicial activism” exactly what else could you call it? What’s the word I am looking for … oh yeah … Hypocrisy?
If we, as workers, learn nothing else from this fight we should once again realize that it is important to elect the right people. To support those who support our rights, as workers, as the middle class, as the backbone of this country’s economy. I shudder to think what sort of justices a man like Mitt Romney, a rich corporate raider, would nominate to the Supreme Court. Suffice to say that they probably wouldn’t have the best interest of workers at heart.
January 2012: Allies for justice
February is Black History Month, as well as being the 75th anniversary of the sit-down strikes that led General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers. It is appropriate that these two events coincide. The struggle for workers’ rights and the struggle for racial equality have a long history together. This is particularly true for the UAW, which from its earliest days sought the participation of people of all races.
When Walter Reuther became president of the UAW, the relationship between the union and the civil rights movement, and other movements for social justice, grew even closer. In fact, Reuther and Martin Luther King, the great civil rights activist, were close allies. These two great men spent their lives working toward social and economic equality and held each other in great respect. Fifty years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the great sit-down strikes, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a congratulatory letter to Walter Reuther, observing that, “More than anyone else in America, you stand out as the shining symbol of democratic trade unionism.”
Walter Reuther believed that the labor movement, and the UAW in particular, could be a force not just for workers’ rights but for social justice and racial equality. Reuther sat on the national advisory board for the NAACP and as far back as 1957 was calling for protests against South Africa’s system of apartheid. Both he and King believed in the power of non-violent protest, with the sit-down strikes of 1937 foreshadowing the sit-ins and non-violent marches of the 1960’s. In fact, in March 1965 Reuther was with King during the march on Selma, Alabama.
That was not the first time that Reuther had been at Dr. King’s side. Walter Reuther was there beside King in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when King gave his seminal “I have a Dream” speech. Reuther had, in fact, marshaled the UAW and other unions in support of Dr. King’s march on Washington. In the crowd that day were signs stating that the “UAW says segregation disunites America.” Walter Reuther spoke later in the day, saying that the event “proves beyond doubt … that free men despite their different points of view, despite their racial and religious differences, can unite on a great moral question like civil rights and the quest for equal opportunity and full citizenship rights.”
Then in 1968 on April 8, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Dr. King was in Memphis for a march in support of the peaceful resolution of the sanitation workers’ strike. After the tragic events of April 8, Walter Reuther marched with Dr. King’s widow Coretta Scott King in the scheduled march. Just two years later, Coretta Scott King was eulogizing Walter Reuther after both he and his wife had died in a tragic plane crash. On that day Coretta Scott King said of Reuther, “He was there in person when the storm clouds were thick.”
Walter Reuther had spent all of his adult life pulling workers out from under the oppression of the corporate interests of America, but he didn’t just stop there. He saw others being oppressed and sought to fight that oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King had also spent his adult life fighting oppression and trying to build a society where all people were looked at as equal.
This February I would ask that you remember the struggle that American workers underwent to secure the rights and benefits we all enjoy; and to remember the struggle of a people to overcome oppression, segregation, and injustice.
December 2011: On my mind
A few things are on my mind. Maybe they should be on yours, too. For example, “Right-to-Work.” Ohio voters just overturned public sector “Right-to Work” laws in a blow against the wealthy industrialists and financiers who have driven the “Right-to-Work” scam for the last 50 years. Unfortunately, the push toward making Michigan a “Right-to-Work” state is getting stronger.
Even more unfortunate is that most people, including our fellow Union members, really don’t understand what “Right-to-Work” laws do. The propaganda from the right claims that “Right-to-Work” is about freedom of choice for workers to join Unions or not. But workers already have that freedom under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
A worker cannot be forced to participate in the Union, even if they work in a Union Shop. All that is required of them is to pay their fair share of dues, that portion that goes directly toward bargaining. “Right-to-Work” laws allow the employee to completely withdraw support from the Union and pay no dues at all. “Right-to-Work” does not, however, allow the Union to withdraw its support of the employee. The Union is still obligated under these laws to provide representation to these freeloaders.
That’s right, the non-member still has the same representation as a dues-paying member. Why, you might ask, would those supporting right-to-work draft the law in such a way? Well, it is quite simple, they aren’t interested in the employee’s rights to be in a Union or not, they are interested in burdening the Union financially, with the end goal of destroying Unions completely.
About the Occupy movement
Another topic in the news is the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and reactions to it. This movement is in protest of the power the financial sector holds over our political process and the gap in economic opportunity between the top 1% of the citizens and the other 99% of the people.
This movement has spread out from Wall Street to many other cities; in fact, we have a branch of that movement occupying a park on Capitol Avenue in Lansing, just three blocks south of the Capitol itself.
The movement is trying to bring to light and bring change to the economic disparity that currently exists in America. This swiftly increasing distance between the haves and the have nots, and the horrible inequity between executive pay and worker pay, is a problem the UAW has been railing against for decades.
Now there has been much wringing of hands by the media and among members of the right wing. But what troubles me is not the protests, but the reaction to them in some cities. Mayor Bloomberg of New York, for example, after using force to evict peaceful occupiers from a park made statements saying that public health and safety were more important than free speech.
Without even getting into the truth or fiction of that statement, what health or safety concerns were there? None until the police started dragging protestors out of the park. But even for the right wing of the political spectrum, to actually state that you are sweeping aside a right guaranteed under the Bill of Rights for dubious health and safety reasons seems a bridge too far. Of course the fabulously wealthy Bloomberg is firmly entrenched in that top 1%.
On free speech
Finally, I’ve been thinking about having an opinion and speaking your mind. I’ve decided that it’s a good thing. Some might disagree. Everyone has a right to their personal beliefs, and regardless of whether they coincide with my personal views it is their right as an American citizen to express that belief. Some might disagree. So as I wrote in an earlier article, stand up and make your views heard. We are the Labor Movement and we need to raise our voices against the tyranny of those who would take our rights away and destroy everything the Unions have built. Some might disagree.
September 2011: Why Republicans hate unions
A large percentage of our own members, as well as members of other Unions in this state, voted Republican in last year’s gubernatorial election. Considering the animosity that the Right has shown toward Union members and workers in general this is misguided at best and masochistic at worst. The Republican Party hates Unions. They hate us for our support of causes they have opposed. The UAW has been on the side of civil rights protesters in the sixties and seventies, women’s rights in the 70’s and 80’s, and most recently taking up cause with our public employees in the fight to retain their rights to Union representation.
They fear our support of their opponents, both financially and politically. They hate us for our belief that all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or economic class have the same rights to prosperity. They hate that Unions stand for the belief that the blue collar should be as powerful as the white collar. That being rich should not give someone greater access to the political system. That corporations are not “people too.” That the middle class is what made America the greatest country in the world and that as long as the working people have a voice it will remain the greatest country in the world.
All of these beliefs are the antithesis of what the conservative right believes. They believe that the rich are the only important people and that it is the corporation that makes America great, that even though you might be working at a backbreaking, mind numbing job, you should just smile and go along. After all, you are helping the company make money and that is what is important. Ask for your fair share? Unthinkable. Band together to ask for your fair share? Un-American. Unfortunately, the Republicans have been able to convince large numbers of American workers that this is the case. They have convinced them that Unions are their enemy. The very people who have the most to gain from collective action have taken up sides with their oppressors. All the while the Republicans have blamed financial woes and State budget crises on the cost of Unionized employees. Even as states without large public employee unions suffer the same fate. They blame the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors on the high cost of Union labor. Not on corporate greed, failed trade policy, or the disastrous economic conditions under George W. Bush.
We Union members need to wake up. If we do not, we will be re-fighting the battles that our parents and grandparents already fought. It starts with winning the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow workers. So when your co-worker, or friend, or family member starts to regurgitate the lies the political Right puts out regarding Unions show them where they are wrong. Tell them how Unions have blazed the path that led to the birth of this nation’s great middle class. Get up on your soapbox; bring the good works of the Unions to their attention.
Talk to them about how the very existence of Union jobs and their better wages and benefits pulls all workers forward. Tell them how the Labor Movement is a social movement and wants prosperity not just for their members but for all the working people, even those who oppose us.
Explain to them that as a lone voice they are easy to ignore, but as part of a movement, the Labor Movement, they have power. Explain that if we do not exercise that power now, and make ourselves heard, we may have that power taken away by the Conservative Right Wing of our political system.
Real wages continue to fall; benefits are lost, all in the name of corporate profit. But, corporations do not have children to feed, or kids to put through college and so long as Republicans continue to shill for these corporation we the Unionists need to stand in the breach and fight the good fight, for our members, and all hard working people in this country, who deserve fair pay, fair benefits and fair treatment by the corporations of this nation.