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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Union as a Positive Force

Unions are a positive force for good in American society.  They have been largely responsible for important initiatives that perhaps the ordinary citizen sometimes takes for granted.

Progressive reforms which unions have consistently advocated include safe working conditions, increasing the minimum wage (known also as the “living wage”), a limitation on hours, the elimination of sweatshops, employer paid health care in case of accident or injury, paid time off for maternity and profit sharing.  They also exist as a necessary reminder to an increasingly hostile management structure which otherwise would have little problem keeping for itself all the profits of labor’s sweat.

One of our national political parties (i.e. - Democrats) in our two-party system remains decidedly pro-union.  Those who seek reminder need merely reference the recent bailout of the Detroit auto industry in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008.  Roots trace to passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), one of the twin pillars of FDR’s New Deal social safety net, which delivered the right of every worker to join a union of his or her own choosing and the corresponding obligation of employers to bargain collectively with that union in good faith.

Through the idea of bargaining collectively, a union is able to obtain benefits for its workers which an individual worker would simply be unable to obtain for himself.  It’s what unions do.  It’s why they exist.  An ordinary citizen need look back no further than to see that life was not very pretty for the individual worker prior to collective bargaining.  And it’s why a majority of ordinary citizens seem to prefer a world which contains unions as opposed to one which does not.  With collective bargaining removed under the equation, also removed presumably under the new law is the state’s corresponding obligation to act and bargain reasonably and in good faith.

The other of our national political parties (i.e. - Republicans) seeks to do away with a union’s right to collective bargaining, the friend of the middle class for more than 75 years, especially in the public employee sector.  It does this under the facade of a smaller, “cuts only” government approach which exposes an underlying agenda to dismantle the social safety net.  Ironically, as one new component of the social safety net (the popular Obamacare) begins to take hold and gain traction, another (collective bargaining) stands to be eviscerated.  Most recently, Wisconsin became the 25th state to pass so called “right-to-work” legislation, achieving a half way point among the 50 states on rolling over once powerful union foes.

Of ominous note, while popular “individual” rights may have asserted themselves on the federal union shop floor, statistics show that wealth disparity between rich and poor has increased to a record level --- as union membership has decreased.  And so it may come as little surprise to some that income inequality has worsened at a time when union membership has fallen to levels not seen since the 1920s --- immediately preceding the Great Depression.

Bill Kraus, a moderate who worked on his first Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and later ran the campaign and office of GOP Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, called the right-to-work shift the deepest change in state politics since Progressive leader “Fighting Bob” La Follette rose to prominence during the Progressive Era nearly a century ago.

Kraus describes himself now as a politically “homeless” man without the shelter of his former partisan affiliation. “A lot of settled things have become unsettled,” he said.  “It's very radical and the question we don't know is whether it's a reflection of a changed Wisconsin or a group in power that have misread their mandate and are more lucky and blessed than right.”

Blessed by whom?  The dark image is of the purchased politician, a Theodore Roosevelt hot button, whose advocacy reflects neither morality nor ethics but rather a symmetry with money flow and the oligarchs who empower him.  The blessing of a benign creator is merely self-serving --- but necessary --- propaganda.  “Blessed is he,” it is said by so called Republican Jesus, “who lets the market decide for him what is moral.”

Human welfare --- the constitutional delegation of federal power to the general welfare to promote sustainable capitalism and environmental stewardship in the pursuit of happiness --- be damned.

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Elizabeth Warren: "The Game Is Rigged"

“The game is rigged.”  To the student of US History, the ring of this provocative statement should sound more than just vaguely familiar.  We should permit a digression before returning to this theme.

Does the statement sound more authoritative, echoing as it does from the US Senate floor of the nation’s capitol?  Its present day author is US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), progressive champion and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau architect.  If one did not know better, one would think she’s itching for a fight.  She wouldn’t be the first.

Sen. Warren, populist advocate, laments that consumers, families and the poor have been “chipped, squeezed and hammered."  At the 2012 Democratic National Convention she states that “Republicans say they don't believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends.”  She continues: “After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people.” Republican Mitt Romney would reinforce that rigged system, she said, while President Obama would continue his work to dismantle it.  Warren adds “No, Gov. Romney, corporations are not people.  People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance.  They live, they love, and they die.  And that matters.”

Sen. Warren’s new book is called A Fighting Chance (Metropolitan Books, 2014).  It spells out in detail how the game is rigged.  A typical passage follows:

“Here’s what I see out of this.  Washington works --- for those who can hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers.  It just doesn’t work so well for families.  I saw it with the big banks.  They cheated American families, crashed the economy, got bailed out, and now the five biggest financial institutions in America are 38% bigger than they were during the crash.  They still swagger through Washington blocking reforms and pushing around agencies.  They break the law.  And no banker even faces the inconvenience of a trial, much less a little jail time.  The game is rigged.”

In July 2014 Sen. Warren travels to Detroit, speaking out in support of her book’s ideas:

“Today, many powerful companies look for every possible way they can to boost their profits and to boost their CEO bonuses.  They try to run more efficient companies.  They try to grow faster.  They try to beat out the competition.  But many of them have another plan.  They use their money and their connections to try to capture Washington and rig the rules in their favor.  From tax policy to retirement security, those with power fight to make sure that every rule tilts in their favor.  Everyone else just gets left behind.  That’s what we’re up against.  That’s what democracy is up against.”

And for the grand finale: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail.  But a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested.  The game is rigged.  And it isn’t right.  It’s rigged.”

There’s an awful lot of substance weaved in here.  A former Harvard professor, Sen. Warren is by all accounts an extremely intelligent woman.  The War on Drugs swallows up the ideal if not the cause of the War on Poverty --- and just beneath the surface there lies the continued control and subjugation of the black race and people of color more generally.  And today, poverty is not restricted to people of color --- many whites share the tattered cloak.

The catchphrase ‘The game is rigged’ is, of course, bespoken of frustration.  But here’s the interesting part.  Sen. Warren knows that the game has been planned this way all along.  The frustration dates back more than 200 years.  It is Thomas Jefferson’s frustration, as well.

The new constitution for the young country with the fledgling democracy does not endorse a particular economic system.  Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposes the economic system of capitalism on the successful British model. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson objects.  As with most issues he faces down, President Washington is unable to fall back on precedent. 

Jefferson says that Hamilton’s system flows “from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.”  It does this by creating an artificial class of wealth with certain inherent privileges to certain of its benefactors, which were not the privileges of all citizens.  These benefactors, not by coincidence, are the system’s creators and protectors --- they are members of the US Congress.  Hamilton’s plan, a class system favoring money, would violate the unfettered freedom of the individual to pursue happiness.  It sounds as if Jefferson’s saying that the game is rigged.

Taking Jefferson's arguments into account, before ultimately rejecting them, President Washington’s fateful decision in favor of Hamilton’s plan envisions the greatest good for the greatest number.  Its success by almost any reasonable measure is beyond question.  And so, when Sen. Warren says ‘the game is rigged’ and this is what democracy is up against, isn’t she asking ordinary citizens to question the wisdom of George Washington?

On any legitimate scorecard, it’s a mighty tall order. 

-Michael D’Angelo