By Richita Anderson
In my job as a Labor Services Representative for the New York State Department of Labor for over 30 years, I witnessed the unending loss of decent paying jobs. I saw too what this loss does to people—their struggles to support a family, get medical care, their inability to afford a college education for their children. Many people today are stuck in a minimum wage job with no future and very little hope.
The poor job market manifests itself in a controversial and cruel situation. Numerous sectors of the economy, including large retail stores like Target and Urban Outfitters and many fast food chains, subject their employees to grueling on-call schedules. With these a worker doesn’t know how many days and hours he or she will be called to work in a given week, or whether they will work at all. This makes being able to pay one’s bills and arrange child care all but impossible. In a market where jobs are plentiful, employers would never be able to get away with such exploitative behavior.
Why Aren’t There More Good Jobs?
In an article in the New York Times this past July 2, 2015, there was this telling headline: “The New Jobs Numbers Are Weaker than They Look.” Author Neil Irwin writes:
“With revisions that wacked 60,000 jobs off the April and May numbers, there is a modest downward trend evident in job growth in the last few months.”
This revising of job growth numbers downward has continued, and as the article also notes wages are not going up. This crippling stagnation of wages comes from an enormous loss of jobs over these last few decades.
As a job interviewer, I saw firsthand the agonizing loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in every borough of New York City. There was, for instance, the A&P food packing plant staffed by United Food and Commercial Workers union members. The company left Brooklyn for upstate New York, where they got large tax breaks from Albany and paid wages considerably lower than in Brooklyn. Then, a few years later when the incentives expired, the company pulled out and relocated to a new area where persons were desperate for jobs. They received another round of government tax breaks which we, the taxpayers, paid for. As was described in an earlier post on this blog, A&P has declared bankruptcy. Today they are selling off their stores at auction, and the likelihood for its unionized workforce to get good paying jobs elsewhere is painfully uncertain.
The Cause of Unemployment & Economic Injustice
I’ve learned from the education Aesthetic Realism a clear explanation of this ongoing and massive loss of jobs and the resulting poverty wages now so current across the U.S. In an issue of the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, writes: (TRO 1826)
“We should be very clear. The cause of unemployment is the profit system: the fact that you’re able to work only if some individual can make profit from your labor….I have written often about what Eli Siegel, in the 1970’s, was the philosopher, educator, historian, and economist to show: economics based on seeing people contemptuously, in terms of how much money you can get out of them, no longer works….Today, in order for profit economics to continue at all, people have to be made poorer and poorer….
“The increasing poverty in America is caused by the desire of certain persons to keep the profit way going when it is a mortally ailing thing. The situation can be described quantitatively. The wealth generated when something is produced is of a certain amount. Today, in order for owners and stockholders to get a lot of that amount, they must make sure less and less goes to the workers. That is why various persons are on such a ferocious, lying campaign to destroy unions: because unions fight for what workers deserve.”
A Vivid Instance in Sparta, Tennessee
A shameful instance of making people poorer and poorer while corporate executives and shareholders rake in profits is told of in an article titled Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth Behind the Gospel of Productivity by Esther Kaplan, published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 2014. Ms. Kaplan writes about a profitable factory in Sparta, Tennessee, which made lighting fixtures, produced by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members, who were skilled and turned out quality products as they earned wages that enabled them to support families and live with some decency. The factory, however, was bought by Philips, a multinational corporation which began laying workers off and outsourced the jobs to Mexico. There, workers doing the same jobs are paid as little as $9 a day, an obscenely pitiful amount clearly insufficient for anyone to support a family—or themselves, for that matter. The jobs lost as a result of the brutal layoffs in the Philips plant have not been recovered and those workers in White County, Tennessee, are still unemployed, or working part-time in whatever work there is to be found—which is mostly close to or at minimum wage.
What happened in Sparta, including the ultimate destruction of the union there, made me—a proud union member with PEF (Professional Employees Federation) for 25 years—more determined than ever to fight for justice to the working people of our great nation. The people of Tennessee and every state of the union deserve to have productive, useful, and happy lives. I passionately believe the study of what Aesthetic Realism shows about the economy and unions is the path to that happening!
The Viable & Urgently Needed Solution to Joblessness
What is the alternative to our profit driven economy which has ruined countless lives? Mr. Siegel put the matter succinctly and resoundingly. He said: “Jobs for usefulness, not profit.” And in issue 1348 of The Right Of, “Unions and Beauty,” Ellen Reiss writes:
“The question Americans now have to answer is one I have asked here before: What should be sacrificed—decent jobs for millions of Americans; or profits of individuals who didn’t earn them, so that millions of people can have decent, dignified lives? There can no longer be both. Another question is: If no one were making personal profit from the work of others, and everyone were making a good living and feeling expressed—would that be good? Would that be beautiful? ethical? truly American? The answer is yes!”
Richita Anderson grew up in Horseheads, NY. She graduated from SUNY Cortland with a degree in history and served as past president of the New York City subchapter of District 1 of the International Association of Workforce Professionals. Today she is the Aesthetic Realism Class Registrar and a consultations coordinator at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City’s SoHo.
By Matthew D’Amico
In July, the supermarket chain A&P filed for bankruptcy—for the second time in the last five years. It operates more than 300 grocery stores, including Pathmark in the Northeast, employing in total about 30,000 men and women. According to an article on NJ.com, some 4,500 workers at A&P stores throughout NJ are being notified that they will be out of a job on Thanksgiving Day. Negotiations are underway with various chains including Key Food, which wants to buy A&P stores at bargain basement prices. As we can see from the following, posted on the blog of Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), there is a ferocious battle being waged between the union fighting for their members who work at A&P stores and Key Food, which wants to buy the stores by capitalizing on the A&P bankruptcy. The blog states:
“Key Food’s proposals are greedy, shortsighted and offensive to all of the hardworking men and women we represent. The company has been insistent in proposing that the new owner has the right to reduce the pay of all employees, the right to reduce your hours and the right to reduce your health coverage at their own discretion.
“Together, our unions have made it clear to Key Food that we will not accept any concessionary proposals that would result in diminishing the lifestyles of our members.
“We are not obligated in any way to accept their greedy terms….It is [our] position that if Key Food was allowed to reduce pay by $5 per hour, reduce hours from 40 to 35 hours per week, and reduce health coverage from family plans to single [person coverage] that the damage would be catastrophic. The proposed pay and hour cuts would equate to well over $250 per week in lost wages and the difference between a single and family medical plan could be as much as $600 to $700 per month. If that’s not enough, the company also has the arrogance to demand our members begin making a weekly contribution into this new inferior healthcare plan. These terms are simply unacceptable.”
I respect the passion in this writing. It’s shameful that men and women who have given many years of their working lives to A&P are forced to be in this situation at all. The last time A&P went bankrupt, in 2010, its employees gave up $625 million in concessions to help the company stay afloat. A&P is on the rocks again today largely due to strong competition by Walmart and by its own mismanagement—and, of course, the company is blaming its failure on the union contracts. This is a scenario which has played out many times throughout our country. A company such as A&P declares bankruptcy and looks for a buyer–in this instance, Key Food. To make the sale attractive and protect its assets, a bankrupt company will usually gut worker pay and benefits while making sure executives get their golden parachutes and shareholders, a return on their investment. For instance, last year a bankruptcy judge granted a request by Trump Entertainment Resorts to terminate its contract with Local 54 of the UNITE HERE union. The company and their investors said the casino couldn’t survive without shedding costly pension and health care obligations. This is a fake reason for robbing workers of their pensions and health benefits. The idea that an “investor” takes precedence over an employee—has no basis in fact. Workers earned the profits. Why should investors who did no work have a claim to the profits now? They don’t!
In an important issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, wrote about a situation that emerged during the recession of 2008—the restructuring of the auto industry. And it’s very pertinent to what is now occurring with A&P:
“There’s only one reason for suggesting that union contracts are hurting the auto industry. That reason is the assumption that we must protect the thing that’s the real blight on American economics: private profits for people who didn’t do the work….To blame union contracts for any of the auto industry’s financial trouble is disingenuous and an insult to the American people. The true feeling of Americans is: ‘All of us should be making at least what our brothers and sisters in the UAW are. Nothing should be taken away from them—the nation should make sure good salaries and healthcare and pensions are had by everyone! What we want is something fundamentally American. What we want is a profit-for-those-who-do-the-work system. What we want is a profit-for-all-Americans system.’”
As a political coordinator for a public sector union (CSEA, AFSCME, AFL-CIO), I have seen the same rhetoric attacking unionized public employees that is used against those in the private sector. We are attacked for having “generous” pensions and benefits. Our work can’t be shipped overseas but it can be outsourced and given over to companies that pay workers low wages with no benefits. I’ve learned that the only way profit economics can survive is by impoverishing the American people, having people be poorer. This is why, Ellen Reiss has explained, that “There has been a furious effort to safeguard profit economics by wiping out the long-fought-for achievements of unions, and if possible unions themselves.”
As we are about to celebrate Labor Day and honor the sacrifices of those who fought and even died for working people to be treated with the fairness they deserve, it is imperative for the American people and unions to be clearer than ever about the justice unions fought for and stand for. This clearness includes an economy that is fair to people—where the profits go to the people who do the work—not to exorbitantly paid executives and shareholders who profit from the labor of others.
Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, asked a vital question which I’ve spoken about to the members of my union—to good effect: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” We should think of this question the next time we see someone working at a grocery store. What does the woman working at the deli counter deserve? What does the man stocking the shelves with cans of food deserve? What does the lady at the cash register scanning our purchases deserve? When these questions are answered honestly by Americans from coast to coast, we will be closer to having an economy that is both kind and efficient.
I also want my brothers and sisters to know about a great event: the repeat performance of “Ethics is a Force 2015!—Songs About Labor,” which will be presented by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company on Sunday, September 13th at 2:30 PM at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in NYC (SoHo). There is this from the announcement: “This show of songs and comment explains truly and thrillingly what’s really happening in the American economy today, and in the feelings of men and women!” I was at the first presentation, and I tell you, it was electrifying. It can strengthen the life of every union member, and I hope you will be there!
By Steven Weiner
As a union member who cares for the rights of working people, both here in the USA and abroad, I deplore the fact that the so-called “fast-track” bill was signed into law paving the way for approval of a new trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I was proud to join the many thousands of union members all across the nation who fought hard to defeat this anti-worker, anti-democratic legislation. Despite an initial victory, corporations that will profit massively from TPP spent millions to insure that the votes were there for the “fast-track” bill’s final passage.
TPP is an agreement that has been negotiated in secrecy; few of its details have been released to unions and to others who made repeated requests to review the documents. A statement by the AFL-CIO explains succinctly why there was such concealment:
“TPP…is about increasing opportunities for U.S. companies to invest offshore and then export back to the United States with favorable tariff rates. This model enriches global companies, but does little for the workers in the U.S. who were laid off or foreign workers who toil in sweatshop conditions, denied fundamental rights.”
Teamster General President James Hoffa said that TPP, like an earlier trade agreement NAFTA, “will only ship jobs overseas and lower wages in the U.S. Yet again, workers have been tossed aside by some lawmakers who are more interested in pleasing their corporate cronies than doing what’s best for their constituents.”
Meanwhile, in the struggle to defeat TPP something happened in the labor movement that I believe is new and has big meaning for the future of organized labor in America. There was a huge coming together of many unions and thousands of workers to defeat this terrible bill. Said Mark MacKenzie, NH AFL-CIO President: “This fight demonstrated that when we unite in a common purpose anything is possible.” I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, founded by educator and critic Eli Siegel, that the one purpose that strengthens us is impelled by ethics, by the conviction that: “Justice to all people is the same as justice to oneself. ”
An example of this “common purpose” is in the fact that private sector unions whose members are likely to be badly impacted—including by huge job losses—were joined by public sector unions, whose members’ jobs would not be at stake. In a New York Times article (6/13/15) entitled “Labor’s Might Seen in Failure of Trade Deal as Unions Allied to Thwart It,” Noam Scheiber writes:
“While a broad coalition of unions and liberal activists can claim credit for beating back the…legislation, the key to labor’s display of force in Congress, according to supporters and opponents of the trade deal, was the movement’s unusual cohesion across various sectors of the economy—including public employees and service workers not directly affected by foreign competition.”
As the article points out, unions not seemingly directly affected by TPP, saw its defeat as their fight. John Murphy, senior VP for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was quoted as saying “None of these workers are in any way negatively affected by competition with imports. Yet [they] will be there, showing solidarity.”
I am very encouraged that individual unions are seeing clearly that when one union is under attack and weakened, it’s easier to attack and weaken the next. I believe there’s a reinvigorated belief in the motto of the IWW: “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and it’s a cause for celebration!
Why There Are Increasing Attacks on Unions
In an important issue of the periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, describes what has gone on as to unions in these last years, resulting in incalculable harm to millions of Americans. She writes:
“In 1970 Eli Siegel explained that the profit system had reached the point at which it was no longer able to succeed. Though it might struggle on for a while, it would do so with increasing pain to humanity. And that is what has occurred. As production has been taking place in more and more nations, it has become harder and harder for US companies to haul in big profits for stockholders. They can do so now only by making the people who actually do the work become poorer and poorer—be paid less and less. That means crushing unions, because it is unions that have enabled working people to earn a dignified wage and be treated with respect.
“… As big a fight as any going on in the world—indeed, as big a fight as any in the history of humanity—is the fight now taking place between the profit system and unions….The fight is really a sheer one: For the profit system to continue, unions must be defeated.”
At this pivotal time in America’s history, unions need to see clearly what they stand for and are fighting against so that the justice they represent as a united force will prevail! The means to this will be powerfully and delightfully shown on Sunday, July 12th in an upcoming production by the esteemed Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company “Ethics Is a Force–2015! Songs about Labor.”
Steven Weiner is a Ret. Executive Board member and Shop Steward of Local 2627, DC-37, AFSCME.
By Meryl Simon
As a person who loves Greece—its literature and magnificent works of art—and has studied its language and rich history, I’ve been tremendously affected by the intense suffering of its people as a result of actions by the Troika (the European Commission, the Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). In 2005, the Troika lent the newly elected conservative government desperately needed money on the condition that it carry out a harsh austerity program in order to pay back its lenders. Consequently, thousands of well-paying government jobs disappeared and the remaining workers were stripped of benefits fought for and gained by their public sector unions. Great numbers of jobs in the private sector have also been lost. The Greek government was forced to privatize what formerly belonged to all Greeks, including the Port of Piraeus and the oil and gas utilities.
The agony that followed is described by the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF) which represents 12 million workers in 125 countries:
“At the Troika’s insistence, the minimum wage was reduced by 22%, and 32% for workers under 25. Collective bargaining has been shredded, in blatant violation of international and European Union law. Public services have been gutted and there are shortages even of basic medicines. Economic output has declined by 25% compared with pre-crisis levels, a level of destruction normally associated with war. A quarter of the work force is jobless, with unemployment over 50% for young people. Malnutrition and infant mortality are on the rise….Austerity is…a conscious blueprint for expanding corporate power.”
As a retired teacher and member of the United Federation of Teachers, I’m profoundly grateful for the fact that unionized workers are able to live with decency, including in retirement. And I respect the IUF’s compassionate and exact description of the enormous pain and humiliation imposed on the people of Greece. I am glad that country got new hope from the recent election of the SYRIZA party, which has as its motto one word:“dignity.” In his first speech before the new parliament, the elected prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, promised “emergency measures to deal with the humanitarian disaster, [including] reinstatement of labour legislation, disbandment of unjust land taxes, fiscal reform to make the rich pay,…a rehiring of the sacked public sector workers, and a stop to the auctioning off of public assets…such as Greece’s ports and energy.” The new government has also begun to make a justifiable case for the revocation of the crippling debt to the Troika. International negotiations for this purpose are continuing.
The leadership of international trade unions, including in Germany, are supportive of the new government. I was very stirred to learn of a powerful statement linked to Labour Start, signed by seven of the nine presidents of the major German trade unions:
“We highlight once again the criticism already voiced on many occasions in the past by the trade unions: right from the outset, the key conditions under which Greece receives financial assistance did not deserve the label ‘reform’. The billions of euros that have flowed into Greece have been used primarily to stabilise the financial sector. At the same time, the country has been driven into deep recession by brutal cutbacks in government spending that have made Greece the most heavily indebted country in the entire EU.
“The rejection at the ballot box of those responsible for the previous policy in Greece is a democratic decision that must be respected….Anyone who now demands that the country simply continue along the previous, so-called ‘path to reform’ is in fact denying the Greek people the right to a democratically legitimised change of policy in their country.”
While conditions are different in the United States, there are some similarities. The destruction of Greek unions, massive job losses, and brutal impoverishment of its people has, to a lesser degree, happened here in America–and if some persons were to have their way, it would be entire. There are relentless efforts by corporate America, aided by some municipalities and states to weaken and ultimately destroy unions. This is being gone after by people who have a huge stake in ensuring that profits earned by American workers go not to the men and women who do the work, but instead to companies and their investors—who do not do the work.
The reason for this is explained by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism. Beginning in 1970, he showed with wide-ranging evidence that our economy—the profit system–had failed, and would never recover. He stated there would be efforts to keep this crippled economic system going by paying the American worker as little as possible—what, in effect, has been done in Greece: impoverishing people, making them desperate for jobs and willing to accept a pittance as pay. And for this to happen, labor unions have to be made powerless, even done away with. As Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has been showing in issues of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, this is continuing with ferocious determination. In a recent issue entitled “Shame, Pride, & Economics,” she writes with passion about one form the impoverishment of people has taken in Greece and Spain:
“Today, the word austerity is being used as a euphemism for making people homeless, impoverishing them, forcing children to be hungry and malnourished, making infants die of disease. That is: the word is being used to cover a desperate and vile attempt to keep the profit system going. This is one of the foulest instances of euphemism in any language.
“Austerity, as we find it in the press and statements of economists and government officials (particularly European), is the cutting down on government expenditures, as a means of lessening government debt. And the expenditures to be slashed are for such things as school lunches, assistance to the unemployed, medical aid, pensions. Many of these expenditures are part of what has been called ‘the safety net.’ Now, ‘the safety net’ in itself is an admission that the profit system is a failure: that profit economics cannot provide the people of a nation with that which they need to live. So in an attempt to make up for some of the suffering inflicted by the profit system, various governments provided ways of having people get a bit of the money, food, housing they need….
“Aesthetic Realism explains that the source of all injustice is Contempt, the desire in every person to get an ‘addition to self through the lessening of something else.’ The use of human beings for someone’s private profit is a form of contempt. Eli Siegel was passionate about this matter, and his passion was at one with logic. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘was not made to be used by man for money.’
“And it is contempt that has a person cloak a hideous thing with pretty nomenclature. Once, child labor was described by some as a means of teaching young people responsibility. The present use of the word austerity is in the same tradition. No matter how smoothly government leaders and economists engage in that use, it is an insult to and a mockery of humanity.”
As someone who cares deeply about justice coming to all people, I believe humanity will be seen with the full respect it deserves only when this question, first asked by Eli Siegel, is answered honestly by people everywhere: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
Meryl Simon is an Aesthetic Realism consultant and anthropologist.
By Barbara Kestenbaum
On April 15, as I looked along 59th Street in Midtown Manhattan, there was electricity in the air. I saw thousands of union and non-union workers marching together in solidarity toward Columbus Circle, holding signs that read “Fight for $15 and a Union.” The demonstration was backed by many unions, including SEIU and the UFCW. These unions were there from the historic beginning of the Fast Food Forward movement in 2012, standing with men and women who had walked off their jobs for one day at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and other stores. I participated in this first demonstration and did so again on April 15. As I saw proud determination on the faces of the marchers, it reminded me of the line from James Sloan Gibbons’ Civil War poem about the enthusiastic response to Abraham Lincoln’s call for Union volunteers: “We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.”
As a DC37 union member (Ret.), it filled me with pride to march with my union brothers and sisters, members of the IBT, UAW, USW, CWA, CSEA and more. All were protesting the unlivable wages so many non-unionized workers are paid as they toil at backbreaking jobs in restaurants, car washes, laundries, and as home care attendants. The marchers also included adjunct professors at universities who also work long hours for shamefully low pay. People young and older were marching because they feel intensely that in this rich nation of ours, all working people should be able to afford good homes, nutritious food, adequate health care, and not be forced to work two or more jobs just to squeeze by. I very much agree with Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU who said about the demonstration:
“Workers proved that by joining together, they can improve their lives.” She emphasized that McDonald’s deciding to raise wages at the stores it owns “is not nearly enough….The overwhelming majority of McDonald’s workers [those at franchisee-owned stores] will still be paid wages so low that they can’t afford basics like rent and groceries.” She stated that SEIU remained “more committed than ever…” to securing for “all workers…the right to join together in a union to improve the lives of all working families.”
All Americans need to know what Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, explained about America’s profit economy in a series of landmark lectures beginning in 1970. I was fortunate to hear many of these talks, in which he provided solid evidence from history, economics, literature, and current events, showing that contempt—“the addition to self through the lessening of something else”—is at the basis of America’s economy, the profit system. Contempt includes the seeing of one’s fellow human beings in terms of how much profit can be made from their labor, while paying them as little as possible. Further, he showed that ethics, working throughout history, had culminated in the failure of profit economics. A current sign of this, among others, is that in February, 2015 McDonald’s sales fell “by a startling 4 percent in the United States and by 1.7 percent globally” (New York Times 3/9/15). And, according to a later article (NYT 5/05/15), the “sales slump”’ continues.
In recent years, as a result of our failed economy, there have been waves of fierce union-busting efforts by corporate America and some state governments, including taking away a union’s ability to sustain itself and its membership through dues. Every dollar paid to a union worker in wages diminishes an employer’s ability to line his own pockets. In fact, I’ve learned that the one way profit economics can continue at all is by making working people poorer. That is what’s behind the attacks on unions, and it explains the constant suffering by millions of families, including the shameful fact that one out of five children in America is not getting sufficient food.
“The Fight for $15 and a Union” movement has given a voice to millions of low-paid workers. In over 200 cities—New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and more—they are being heard loud and clear as they say “Hell No” to poverty wages. On April 15, there were mass demonstrations and sit-ins. Many fast food restaurants were unable to serve their customers and had to shut their doors. All this sent a powerful message to corporations such as McDonald’s and Walmart that workers will fight to end the abuses they are suffering at the hands of corporate America.
The people of America, including union officials, have a right to know what Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has been describing for many years about the failure of profit economics and the importance of unions. In a recent issue of the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, she writes with clarity and feeling about the huge meaning of the Fast Food Workers movement and how it’s been reported on by the major media. She presents four key points, three of which are quoted here:
“1) There has been an effort to indicate that the Fight for $15 movement is admirable—but to have it seen as apart from unions. In fact, the central slogan of the demonstrators is: “$15 an Hour and a Union.” But in so many media accounts, the second phrase is just left out.
“Unions—in particular the Service Employees International Union and United Food and Commercial Workers—have done much to have this movement exist; they, chiefly, have organized and funded it. Yet a lot of the media coverage gives the impression that low-wage workers somehow just got together in some vague grassroots way. And the reason is: if the reporting let Americans see how much unions are working to bring justice to these employees, and how much the employees know they need a union, Americans would love and value unions and want them–even more than many, many Americans now do.
“2) Then there are the persons, sometimes quoted in the media, who are blatantly against this new ‘Social-Justice Movement’: the persons who present a wage increase for fast-food workers as ruinous to business and therefore to America. They say: The demonstrations are taking place only because Big Bad unions are trying to get money into their coffers! The fast-food workers would be satisfied with their situation if unions didn’t stir them up (as slaves would have been satisfied in the 1850s, were it not for those awful abolitionists).
“4) Then, there are the media reports which admit that unions have been useful in the ‘Fight for $15’ movement—but which say that the unions are engaging in a new method: that unions have been dying off and had to come to something new to keep alive. This angle is ridiculous. Unions are doing what they have always done, what they created themselves to do: fighting for economic justice to workers; showing workers that in joining together, each person can take care of oneself by taking care that others get what they deserve. Unions have used different techniques over the years. But what they are doing in the ‘Fight for $15’ movement is utterly in keeping with their history: for instance, fighting for justice for garment workers in New York City; textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts; auto workers in Detroit, Michigan; coal miners in West Virginia; teachers in American classrooms; truck drivers on the many and long American roads. American unions are as American as our Declaration of Independence, and they stand for the same justice. ”
Ms. Reiss concludes: “Beginning as early as age 18, Eli Siegel wrote with passion and logic about the fact that economics should be based on the answer to this question: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” This is the question that must be answered if working men and women—and their families—are to get the economic and social justice that is rightfully theirs.”
By Matthew D’Amico
Recently there was an important victory for working people. After a six-weeks’ long strike, oil refinery workers at four plants, members of the United Steelworkers (USW), and Shell Oil came to an agreement on a potential contract. The union cited a number of reasons for striking. Of course wages and the cost of medical insurance were issues. But even more in dispute was the continuing practice by oil companies of reducing the number of men and women working at their refineries, which means that the remaining workers have to do the jobs of those let go and toil longer hours. This invariably leads to fatigue and jeopardizes the safety of both employees and the surrounding communities. In addition, the companies were also using some outside contractors who do not have the same training and skill levels of long-time union employees. All of this directly affects safety. While there continue to be strikes at some of the plants—including BP in Illinois, which has yet to meet the local union’s demands—the contract agreed to represents a major win for labor. Said USW International President Leo Gerard:
“We salute the solidarity exhibited by our membership. There was no way we would have won vast improvements in safety and staffing without it.”
Working at an oil refinery is difficult and frequently dangerous work. Persons work with heavy equipment and a natural resource, oil, which is volatile and highly flammable. An explosion at a BP refinery outside Houston in 2005 killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200. Regulators found BP responsible for knowingly violating safety protocols, and imposed millions in fines. Yet four years later, OSHA found 700 additional violations (NYT 10/30/09) and fined the company $87 million more for not correcting the violations that had caused the first explosion. In an article in Labor Notes by Stephanie Winslow there is this:
“‘We have a lot of forced overtime,’ said Dave Martin, vice president of the local striking the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. ‘That was one of the main issues in the Texas explosion: people working overtime and not making the right decisions.’”
As a political coordinator for a public employee union, I have seen the urgent importance of ensuring workplace safety for employees. The members I represent work in hospitals, courts, parks, and there have been many instances of men and women being injured or even killed on the job. When accidents happen, union health and safety specialists investigate to make sure job sites are made safer. However, there is an important difference between employment in the public sector versus the private sector: the basis of work in the public sector isn’t to make a profit. In these years, however, some state governments have been privatizing public services in order to help private businesses. Why this union-busting practice—which affects safety—is on the increase is explained by Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by philosopher and critic Eli Siegel.
In the 1970s, he showed in a series of groundbreaking lectures that our economy—which is based on contemptuously seeing the labor of people as a means of profit for a few—had failed because it’s unethical and inefficient. The evidence of the last decades has confirmed what Mr. Siegel explained. I’ve learned that today the only way our profit-based economy can function is by having people poorer and more desperate for work, and by attacking unions and undermining the gains for which they’ve fought so hard. These gains include the right to safety on the job.
Historically, employers have not given a damn about safe working conditions. This brutal way of seeing is explained by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, in the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known. Discussing a deadly 2010 coal mining explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, Ms. Reiss writes: “According to the New York Times, the company (Massey Energy) had a history of ‘serious and significant’ safety violations.” Further, she explains:
“The company ‘failed to correct’ [safety] problems for only one reason: it would have had to spend money to do so. Every cent a company spends on behalf of workers’ safety is a cent that can’t go into the pockets of the stockholders. In the…New York Times a miner is quoted commenting on why owners ignore safety laws: ‘If you take 30 minutes out of the day doing it right, that takes a lot out of the tonnage of the mine’…The profit system encourages the desire to let people work in conditions that could sicken them and kill them, because that way oneself will have more money.
“The history of industry shows that owners left to themselves have paid workers in a way that made for agonizing poverty. Unions changed that; and also insisted, to the owners’ intense opposition and chagrin, that safety measures be instituted. The United Mine Workers of America is eminent in the history of unions. American men and women in West Virginia and elsewhere fought hard and long and bravely, even gave their lives, so that mines could be unionized—so miners would not be impoverished and hungry; so there would be measures preventing mine collapses and explosions, and measures lessening the extent to which miners took into their lungs the coal dust that had sickened and killed so many.
“The Upper Big Branch mine, where the deadly explosion occurred, was a non-union mine. And that disaster in itself should be enough to have America see how needed and deeply beautiful unions are.”
This safety is part of what the members of the United Steelworkers were fighting for as they went on strike at American oil refineries. The tentative contract agreed to stipulates that there will be a review of staffing and workload assignments, one of the main points the strikers were fighting for. Their very lives depend on their workplaces being safe.
Strikes, Unions, and the Victory of Ethics!
At one time strikes by organized labor were much more prevalent than today. However, in recent years, there have been increasing efforts to keep our profit economy going at the expense of working people. Unions today are under assault from big business working with state governments which provide huge tax breaks and other incentives to profit making corporations. A growing number of states are now “Right to Work,” which makes paying union dues voluntary. I agree with Ellen Reiss who, in issues of The Right Of, has been showing that we have come to a point in history where a profit economy can no longer function efficiently if workers are to be paid fairly, have health benefits, pensions, safe conditions—all things that unions stand for. People must be impoverished for profit economics to continue. The alternative is an economy, based not on selfishness, greed, and contempt, but on ethics, on giving people the justice they deserve.
The successful strike by the oil refinery workers is on behalf of that justice and shows that unions still have power. And that’s not all. There have been recent union victories which have gotten little media attention. At FairPoint Communications, members of CWA and IBEW who went on strike late last year in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, got a decent contract last month. Brooklyn Cablevision workers, members of CWA, after a three-year battle, signed a contract with the company—becoming the first employees there to have a union contract. And UAW, representing graduate students at New York University, reached a contract agreement this month. These victories illustrate the rightness of Eli Siegel’s statement: “Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.”
By Steven Weiner
In recent years throughout America, there have been massive attacks on public employees and the unions that represent them. While I’m heartened by the news that New Hampshire defeated a “Right to Work Bill” in the State Senate, a number of states have enacted “right to work” laws and more are in the offing. The latest salvo has come from the newly elected governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, who, in the name of “fiscal austerity,” issued an executive order that bars public sector unions from requiring workers they represent to pay fees (often called “fair share payments”) to the union. This means that a worker can benefit from a union’s collective bargaining with respect to wages, health insurance, pensions and job protections, while not financially supporting the union by paying their fair share. The purpose behind this measure is described by Roberta Lynch, Executive Director of AFSCME Council 31:
“I was shocked by the breadth of his assault on labor….It’s not limited to public sector unions. He’s targeting the private sector unions too….It is crystal clear by this action that the governor’s supposed concern for balancing the state budget is a paper-thin excuse that can’t hide his real agenda: silencing working people and their unions who stand up for the middle class.”
Right here in New York teachers are being blamed by various politicians for the state of our education system. In response New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee said:
“New York has one of the strongest public education systems in the nation and a professional, highly dedicated teaching force….The truth is, there’s no epidemic of failing schools or bad teachers. There is an epidemic of poverty and under-funding that Albany has failed to adequately address for decades. Nearly one million New York schoolchildren—including more than one-third of African-American and Latino students–live in poverty. The state’s systemic failure to provide enough resources for all of its students and to do so equitably—while giving all teachers the tools and support they need—is the real crisis and the one our governor is trying to sweep under the rug.”
And in an open letter in the Albany Times Union, seven retired “Teachers of the Year” added more compelling evidence, writing: “Classes are larger and support services are fewer, particularly for our neediest students….Students with an achievement gap also have an income gap, a health-care gap, a housing gap, a family gap, and a safety gap.”
The stepped-up, increasingly ferocious efforts to extinguish public sector unions are alarming. The persons most affected are children, the elderly, and those on very limited incomes. These individuals have few resources, and depend for their well-being on the services provided by those who work in the public sector—in health care, education, libraries, the maintenance of our bridges, roads, parks, and more. To effectively oppose these attacks, their source must be fully understood.
Beginning in 1970 Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, gave a series of lectures in which he showed definitively that America’s economic system—the profit system–had failed, and would never work successfully again. He also said that there would be a huge attempt to keep it going, regardless of the cost to the lives of millions of people. Since then Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has been giving detailed evidence showing that the only way to keep profit economics going is by impoverishing the American people. That is why in these past years millions of workers have lost their jobs, union-busting is rampant, and increasing numbers of Americans are struggling in desperate poverty.
In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss explains:
“Because of the failure of business based on private profit, there has been a huge effort in the last decade to privatize publicly run institutions. The technique is to disseminate massive propaganda against the public institutions, and also do what one can to make them fail, including through withholding funding from them. Eminent among such institutions are the public schools and the post office. The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that the American people can fare well—but to keep profit economics going. The purpose of privatizing what the American people as a whole own is 1) to provide new means for private profits to be made—which is necessary if profit economics is to continue at all; and 2) to have people feel that the non-profit or public way of owning and employing does not work and that the only way things can possibly be run is through the profit system!
“For the same purpose, we have municipalities giving tax breaks and subsidies to private companies, and handing over public jobs to private firms, while also trying to slash the hard-earned pensions of public employees.”
Ellen Reiss is right. I saw this go on firsthand. In my opinion, the chief objection by some (and really the only objection) to public employees is that the work they do does not provide profit to a few individuals and corporations. For example, as a computer specialist for New York City’s Department of Education for more than three decades I took great pride in my work. One of my most satisfying assignments was to take a substantial role in rewriting the computer programs that calculated how much New York State reimbursed the city for the services provided to Special Needs students. The city and its children depended on getting this money, and I’m glad to say that as a result of my own and other programmers’ efforts, New York received $50 million more per year in reimbursements. However, by the 1980s, jobs that were being done efficiently by public employees were outsourced to private companies in the name of “efficiency and cost savings”—not so different from what the governors of Illinois and New York are trying to do now. I also saw that often the work performed by profit-making contractors was shoddy and outrageously expensive. As far as I’m concerned, the people of New York City and its students were massively rooked by this outsourcing business. And as Ms. Reiss has explained: “The purpose of privatizing what the American people as a whole own is to provide new means for private profits to be made—which is necessary if profit economics is to continue at all.”
As a passionate, committed union activist, I am convinced that there will be no end to this thirst to privatize the work of public sector employees, and thereby extinguish unions, until the following question asked by Ms. Reiss is answered by union officials and the American people as a whole:
“Should our economy be based on contempt, on the seeing of people’s labor and needs as means for someone else’s profit; or should it be based on good will, on having the people of our nation get what they deserve?”
It is definitely the second!