Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Wisconsin's Unions MUST Prevail!

The Wisconsin showdown continues: there's more at stake here than most Americans realize.

As defined by its inventor (Benito Mussolini) fascism is "corporate control of the state." We already have had a marginal version since the Supreme Court's 'Citizens United' ruling allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of cash in any campaign. We saw the effect it had in the 2010-midterms, with millions of folks brainwashed by the media's and Tea Party's clarion calls for "fiscal rectitude" to vote against the Dems, and we've seen the results in Wisconsin and other states (Florida, Ohio et al.).

The SC ruling also left the unions enabled to spend what they needed to as well, and since union power is critical to Dem success then any abatement of it means the Ds lose. Now, with Wisconsin's governor Scott Walker forcing retrenchment of union collective bargaining power, this may be only the beginning. This is because part of Walker's agenda is also to eviscerate Wisconsin unions of their dues which means limiting their money to put toward campaigns. In effect, corporations will then be able to outspend unions to their hearts' content.

If other states then follow, say if the Walker legislation is finally passed (and the quorum reached) we will be well on our way to the "Corporate Slave States of Amerikka" with virtually no worker rights at all, and the corporations able to do anything they want: Limit workers to one bathroom trip per day? Not a problem! Make workers work overtime for five hours each day with no extra pay (time and a half)? Not a frickin' problem. Make workers submit to drug and alcohol tests every day or week? Not a problem! Make workers take benefit cuts or work on weekends with zero effective pay increases? Not a problem!

Think this is a fantasy? Think again! All one need do in order to get a reality check is to vet past history and how workers' rights have been retrenched over the past 50 years, and how this accelerated after Ronnie Reagan broke the back of the air traffic controllers.

In case some have short memories, I enumerate a number of the major losses to workers, or what I call "worker marginalization", below:

1) Cutting employee benefits, i.e. health plans - even after employees have retired with them.

2) Cutting wages either de facto, or through making employees pay for their own health insurance plans, etc.

3) Firing/downsizing workers just before their retirement dates, so the company is free not to have to pay full (or any) retirement plan benefits, as per contract clauses.

4) Firing - downsizing workers after mergers (often dictated by Wall Street interests, investment banks) in order to enhance a company' profits through higher Wall Street share prices.

5) Identifying older (over 40) workers as 'surplus' so that they can be replaced with younger workers for whom half the wages (or less) can be paid, with fewer benefits. (A 1997 California Appellate ruling stated that companies are allowed to do this 'for economic reasons', setting a devastating and diabolical precedent).

6) Eliminating nearly all permanent jobs which carry health, pension benefits, in favor of using 'temping', 'outsourcing' or some other device not requiring benefits. On the academic (university) front, using 'adjunct' professors, hired on a per hour, per course basis, without benefits. And with no possibility of 'tenure'.

7) Eliminating all defined pension plans and replacing them with "401ks" with workers required to save their own money for retirement rather than depend on a company.

The general effect of these incremental moves has been to create a vast disaffected and marginalized worker population - not only among those who've been the target of the above actions- but for those left behind entirely. In other words, a disastrous residual climate, along with a demolished morale, provides a fertile seed ground for intimidation, economic terror by corporations, and weakening of democracy overall.

Even as this dismemberment was ongoing, reducing the average corporate or private worker to the level of an indentured servant or serf (see: ‘The Judas Economy- The Triumph of Capital and The Betrayal of Work’, 1997, Addison-Wesley) the lone light shining in an otherwise dim tunnel were the public unions. At least THEIR workers, although they often had to make concessions in pay hikes and benefits, retained their basic health care and pensions, as well as collective bargaining power.

The hope at the time, around 1990-91, was that the public unions might serve as a spur and incentive to leverage back benefits and pay for the private workers, and re-unionize as many as poossible. Thus, the impetus was to RAISE the foundering private workers to the benefits levels of the Public workers. It was not to demolish the public unions and reduce them to the level of corporate serfs.

So what the hell happened?

A number of factors (including enhanced mobile capital), but mainly two:

1) The rise of Wall Street Investment Banks and with them a yen to cut workers and either do with fewer (for the same job) or move operations to another cheaper nation, such as Mexico.

2) The increased ease of moving whole companies to countries without labor protections, or unions - such as India and China - and then paying those workers at one tenth or less the rates of U.S. workers

As an example of (1) we had the dozens of employees downsized in 1996 by 'Chainsaw' Al Dunlap at Sunbeam, while their jobs were moved to Mexico. Rather than keep paying the Sunbeam workers a decent wage (of about $12 /hour) and benefits, Chainsaw Al opted to have the work done in Mexico - based in impoverished favelas with barely any running, potable water, for less than $1 an hour. Wall Street loved it, and market shares soared.

As an example of (2) we've now seen more than 42 major companies move their operations to India and China. Both Cisco and GE, for example, have installed billion dollar central facilities in India to lure workers. Meanwhile, U.S. labor is left empty-handed as major corporations continue to sit on more than $1 trillion in cash rather than create more jobs ni the U.S.

Into this dispiriting situation, we then saw injected the GOP yen to lacerate labor even more, somewhat like kicking a man when he's down.

The rest, as they say, has been history, culminating in the news that now barely 17% of the American population belongs to unions, and the negative perception of public union workers has nearly exceeded those of the bankers that brought on the sub-prime mortgage mess. This alone is nothing sort of astounding! The Bankers and credit insurers (e.g. AIG) got nearly $1 trillion in bailout money to keep on keeping on and all the unions have are a few precious benefits in their pensions and healthcare!

But it shows how the wealthy and especially the corporate media empires like Rupert Murdoch's FOX, have managed to brainwash so many into believing what they want them to believe.

Here's the skinny that most FOX watchers may not relish: Unless you are one of the top 2% in wealth, being anti-union is just shooting yourself in the foot. Corporations with non-union workers can push all of them and all Americans, into a race to the bottom. No job security, no wage protection, no benefits, and no safety regulations so if you happen to get maimed on the job, you are the one having to pay the costs!

In other words, force you to work at the level of your primary competition: some Indian in Bangalore, or a Chinese worker in Beijing! What's not to love? The corporations make profits hand over fist while tossing a few sops to the workers, mainly just enough so they don't starve to death or keel over. Ever heard of Mauthausen Concentration Camp?

Well, what the corporations want - in a world without unions - is damned near the equivalent! Without unions, you see, they needn't worry over paying out any of their profits for pensions or healthcare. They needn't worry about ensuring new workers have "benevolent" conditions that include regular bathroom breaks or even trips to the water cooler. (In one Maryland case, a corporation limited its workers to one four ounce glass of water per 8 hours to limit bathroom trips! Just like the Nazis, eh! But minus any rights or bargaining power for workers, this sort of dictate is a fait accompli!)

Of course, you can always move to Malaysia if you want to join a Third World work force or you can help to create one in America, if you don't join in to support labor unions. Because if unions disappear, it's open season on the job rights on all Americans, union or not. Sadly, most Americans are way too dumb to get this.

Let's also get this through people's heads that Walker's intended mischief is NOT about money! The Wisconsin Unions have already compromised on that score and agreed to pay more for benefits' and hence accept wage cuts. But Walker still isn't satisfied! He wants the union collective bargaining scaled down to nearly trivial standards (maybe applying for a pay raise just less than inflation, and that must be approved by state referendum).

So no, Walker is about destroying the unions as they exist, not mending economic or budget fences- also stupid considering he passed a $140 million tax cut to the state's richest! State employees in Wisconsin have already taken UNPAID furloughs for the last two years. They have been aware that the present general emergency would require them to contribute more in terms of pensions and health care.

THAT'S NOT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT. It's about Walker attempting to strip unions of their right to negotiate working conditions, to negotiate anything except "wages." Which can then be taken away as "benefits" are reduced even further whenever the Reep party guv wants.

The un-American Right, as always, is attempting to lie and distort the truth about what's happening in Wisconsin. Why? Because they know that the Right can't win based on the truth. Public-sector unions arose after private sector unions had won large gains in wages and benefits for the private sector workforce. People with crappy government jobs were never going to have the pay and benefits of workers for major corporations like General Motors or AT&T, but at least they could count on private sector support to form their own unions, and try to get some facsimile of prosperity.

Of course, following the trends and dynamics I noted earlier ((1) and (2)), unionism is a dead letter in the private sector now. The working class has become the working poor, and the middle class is becoming intimately familiar with economic insecurities and anxieties that were once foreign to them. Meanwhile, instead of turning on the corporations and lawmakers (as well as Supreme Court) that incepted this, the private sector workers turn on their fellow public sector workers like rabid rats turn on their own and cannibalize them.

What the fuck's wrong with this picture?

Well, ask the poor, marginalized private workers who now have to beg for bathroom breaks or just to get a refill of water! From their vantage point, those crappy government jobs don't look so bad anymore. A secure job where you can actually get up to 2 weeks sick leave and 10 holiday weeks a year, with health insurance and a pension plan now appears to be an outlier compared with the commonly-available employment of the former middle class. The public employees say, "Hey, I'm not gettin' rich down at the schoolhouse/police station/sewage treatment plant," but their steady 3-5% raises times 30 years have their private sector counterparts sucking wind.

But whose fault is that? It's not the public sector's! Rather the private workers ought to have actively organized more to preserve their own unions! They ought to have been energized to demonstrate like the public workers and even go on strike. Your enemies are the politicians and corporations who denuded you of your private sector unions, not the few remaining unionized employees. Your enemies are the folks who shipped your manufacturing and even high tech jobs overseas looking for cheaper labor. The solution to this horrid situation is not to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator, but to dethrone the big fat elephant laughing at all the warring ant tribes under his foot. Get it? Or don't you see that rich corporate banker laughing his ass off at you while you go after the very sector that might have a hand in saving your miserable hide?

Meanwhile, whenever I do tune in to FOX (O'Reilly, Hannity) or Rush Limbaugh (to see what they're saying) it strikes me how much hate and venom exist for state workers and teachers. It's just an echo of what you hear every day, as on Limbaugh's radio show: right wing talkers selling fear and hate. Meanwhile, the entire state of Wisconsin is dominated by right wing corporate media and that's where people get their ideas and information, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they hate unions and government in general.

Meanwhile, private sector workers continue to be pissed at anyone who has it better than they do, but they fail to go after the true culprits. After all, they had their pensions stolen and converted to 401K's for a fraction of their original worth. Then they wonder why they need to pay increased taxes to make up for past abuses by elected officials who decided they didn't need to continue to pay into retirement funds. The problem isn't the Unions. They bargained in good faith. The problem is the elected officials (like Walker) who aren't held accountable either for under-funding public pensions for years, including spending pension money, or who invested it instead in the risky sub-prime mortgages that nearly brought the whole country down.

To show how far off the beam some brainjacked idiots are, we have this comment from "JaaZee' on salon.com:

"The average teacher in Wisconsin makes 134% of the salary of the average worker in Wisconsin

The average teacher in Wisconsin receives 15 weeks of vacation per year

After 3 years of teaching a teacher is eligible for tenure!
How many people in the private sector would jump at the opportunity to be a teacher in Wisconsin? In what industry does a worker get lifetime "tenure" after three years on the job

But again, this is like me blaming my neighbor because he kept his home in good shape while I let mine go to shit. It isn't HIS fault that my home is in shit shape: it's mine for sitting on my butt and not doing anything to maintain it! In the same way, private sector workers have only themselves to blame for allowing all their rights, wages, benefits to be scaled back instead of fighting for them like the public union teachers did! And, speaking as a former teacher, our illustrious idiot commentator forgets that once teachers get home their work doesn't end like his. They then have to mark homework and other papers which may take the better part of a night! As for those holiday breaks, you can toss in educational seminars and special subject study sessions, or working as outside examiners. My typical summer break barely lasted one week of total free time, if that. Often I'd conduct teacher workshops in physics, math and astronomy.

When will Americans pull their heads out of their asses on this? Maybe never, but we can still hope the attention to this Wisconsin showdown will be a start! And in the aftermath at least our sane citizens (and those with IQs over room temperature) will finally appreciate the value of trade unions to any hope of a future American democracy - as opposed to a serf-based Corporatocracy.

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