By Steven Weiner
In recent years throughout America, there have been massive attacks on public employees and the unions that represent them. A number of states have enacted “right to work” laws and more are in the offing, including in New Hampshire. 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!
By Carol Driscoll
What is the meaning of the alarming growth in income inequality throughout the world? According to a recent report issued by the charity organization Oxfam, “by next year, the world’s wealthiest 1% will control as much of the planet’s assets as the other 99%.” About this, Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director, asks…
“Do we really want to live in a world where the 1% own more than the rest of us combined? The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering, and… the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”
The stark human costs of increasing income inequality include millions of people in the U.S. forced to work two or even three low-paying jobs just to stay afloat, and often still not able to afford sufficient food and medical care. As the New York Times reports (Jan. 26), “Since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom.” Today wages are stagnant for most people lucky enough to have a job. Meanwhile, the so-called drop in our unemployment rate is, according to Forbes Magazine, “simply misleading….Despite the significant decrease in the official U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment rate (6.2%), the real rate is over double that at 12.6%.” This statistic is mirrored in the shameful fact that 48 million Americans—more than one in seven—were living in poverty in 2014 (U.S. Census Bureau). Union jobs were once an entry into the middle class, enabling men and women to live with economic security: to buy a home, educate their children, take a vacation. Many of these jobs have been eliminated as corporate America has moved much of manufacturing overseas, and as some states and cities are privatizing public services that are essential for the well-being of millions, including children and the elderly.
Income Inequality and Profit Economics—the Link
In an earlier post for Unions Matter! I wrote: “Income inequality is the inevitable by-product, the direct result of an economic system based on profit….” What I didn’t say then is something I’ve seen since: that this inequality is not a “by-product” of profit economics, but is essential to its very existence! In our profit economy, wealth coming from the labor of many persons doesn’t go to the workers who created this wealth, but instead to corporate executives and shareholders, who do no work at all for their dividends. In her commentary to an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, describes the basis of the profit system, which both creates and depends upon growing income inequality:
“In the last years, I have been describing the following fact: those who insist that the profit way must be the basis of our economy have been trying to do the one thing that can now keep it going. That one thing is: make Americans work for less and less pay, so more and more of the money they earn with their labor can go into the pockets of the owners, who don’t do the work. Only by increasingly impoverishing the American people can the profit system now go on. Of course, to pay people less and less, to impoverish them successfully, one must try to annihilate unions. Unions—which have fought for and won better economic lives for people over the decades, are one of the biggest embodiments of ethics as a force.”
Ellen Reiss is right and what she’s describing is compelling evidence that income inequality is needed for the profit system to continue.
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “17 Things We Learned about Income Inequality in 2014,” states:
“Inequality could also impair growth if those in the middle and at the bottom have no money to spend…. Research by the International Monetary Fund argues that high inequality is correlated with low economic growth.”
Clearly, for economic activity to continue and grow, the daily labor of men and women is indispensable. It is their ability to provide services, to produce and transport the goods we all need—and to have the money to pay for them—that drives our economy. After all, as Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, once pointed out with humor the central role of labor in economics: “You can bring $100,000 to a tree, but it won’t grow toothpicks.” Mr. Siegel used literature, history, economic data, and current events to document his statement below, which I see as indisputably true—and I’m proud it’s the motto of this blog:
“The most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry, which is the worker. That…never can change. Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material….Every bit of capital that exists was made by labor, just as everything that is consumed is.’’
This is why unions are so important: they have persistently and courageously fought for respect, for dignity, for workplace safety, for decent wages in the pockets of working men and women. Related to this is the vitally important question, asked by Eli Siegel, which must be answered for people’s lives to fare well: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” The answer is, every person deserves—as a beginning point—these things: a roof over one’s head, nutritious food, guaranteed medical care, an education, a good paying job, and—not least—the right to join a union.
What Do the American People Hope for in 2015?
In her commentary, Ellen Reiss explains:
“The thing needed to replace the profit system is….an economy based on ethics and aesthetics: an economy based on seeing that the way to be truly selfish, the way to express yourself, be yourself, is to be just to people, things, the world into which we were all born.”
As a person who worked for, benefitted from, and loves unions, I believe that only an economy based on ethics and aesthetics will eradicate income inequality, and meet the hopes of people. It is necessary for every union official to study what this means to be an effective force for economic justice for everyone.
SHOULD HEALTH CARE BE FOR PROFIT OR FOR PEOPLE? — THE FIGHT TO SAVE BRITAIN’S NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE!
By Christopher Balchin
Ferocious onslaughts against unions are taking place not only in the United States, but also elsewhere. For example, since 1948 people living in Britain have had the inestimable good fortune of having a free, government-run, not-for-profit health care system: the National Health Service (NHS), staffed by unionized doctors, nurses and technicians. Since then countless Britons owe their health, and in some cases their lives, to the NHS. It was NHS doctors, nurses, physical therapists, clinicians, and social workers who saved my father’s leg when he had a life-threatening aneurism, and who healed and nurtured my mother when she broke her wrist and leg simultaneously. There were no bills, no insurance companies to deal with, no staggering, life-ruining debt. My family represents millions.
Assaults on the NHS, Unions and the People of England
This kind approach to health care for all is being threatened. Under the guise of “efficiency,” “streamlining,” “cost-management,” the UK government is working to chop up, privatize and essentially kill the NHS, as moneys are diverted to for-profit companies. In England the results have already been devastating. According to the Daily Telegraph (10/26/2014), a total of 66 Accident & Emergency, and maternity units have either been cut or closed, with “dozens more now under threat.” The Guardian reports that since the Social Care Act of 2012, 35,000 people have been axed from the NHS, including 5,600 nurses, and half the ambulance stations (600) have been closed. Dr. Steve Taylor of Birmingham Heartlands Hospital said:
“privatization is taking doctors and nurses away from frontline care…and potentially jeopardizing the fantastic services that we have spent years trying to build.” (Huffington Post UK)
Following a two-year pay freeze, NHS workers were denied an increase in pay. The scorn with which the government and its business allies see them, and the prospect of losing pension benefits and overtime pay, are terrific insults to the important work they do, and to their dignity. For the first time in 32 years, NHS employees have taken to work stoppages and other strike actions.
It’s crucial for people in the UK and elsewhere to know this: their enemy is not just any one particularly scurrilous government; the enemy is inherent in profit economics itself. Unions, I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism—the education founded by the American philosopher, poet, and critic Eli Siegel—have been the greatest force fighting for justice on behalf of working people: sick pay, decent pensions, reasonable hours, safety laws, and respect! As the government contracts out more and more pieces of the NHS, the hundreds of thousands of unionized employees in the NHS belonging to Unison, Unite the Union, Royal College of Nursing, and others, stand between big corporations and private equity funds, and the taxpayers’ money these organizations are thirsting for. Every pound earned by members, every improvement in safety or working conditions won and protected by health care unions, is a huge interference with private profit. Consequently, along with the attacks on the NHS there have been assaults on unions.
Why Is This Happening? And Why Now?
It’s pretty clear to many in the UK that some of the loudest voices calling for cuts belong to people who stand to profit from privatization, including at least 70 MPs—some high in government. According to Hajera Blagg of the union UNITE:
“MPs have benefited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations, share options, and other deal-sweeteners from the private health care industry.”
Some previous governments have wanted to privatize the NHS, but have never dared–until now. What is happening to the NHS in Britain corresponds to the vigorous attempts to privatize public services in the US—including the postal service and education system.
In 1970 Eli Siegel—providing much historical and economic evidence—explained that the world’s profit-driven economies could no longer flourish because they are based on the ugliest thing in man: contempt. Contempt is the feeling that you will be more by making less of another person. It is what had factory owners in the 19th century demand 14-hour days from workers while paying them as little as they could, even as their families were starving. Contempt is the reason someone today can even think that profits for oneself are more important than whether another person lives or dies.
And, in recent years Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has been documenting the efforts of corporate America (with the help of some state governments) to keep a dying thing—the profit system—going. Writing about the American economy in her commentary in an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, she explains:
“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. The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that …people can fare well—but to keep profit economics going.
“The purpose of privatizing what…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!”
This is why the NHS is lied about and made to seem inefficient and too expensive. One health care worker taking part in a recent protest commented, “We have been vilified for the last four years and our jobs have been made more difficult by the unnecessary restructuring of the NHS which wasted millions…” There is also coming to be a passionate resistance. The reason is embodied in something that Dr. Richard Taylor of the newly formed National Health Action Party, said:
“The marvelous thing about working in the NHS…was that one could treat everyone in exactly the same way, regardless of wealth, social status or location…All people are equal in their health care needs and in the respect they deserve.”
The Fight to Save Britain’s Not-For-Profit Health Care
Many people are willing to fight for the NHS. All over the UK, hundreds of national, regional, and local organizations in support of the NHS have been springing up. There is a beautiful musical tribute to NHS workers by “Protect Our NHS,” performed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
This past summer the “People’s March for the NHS,” marched 250 miles from Jarrow to Trafalgar Square, and I was so proud to join them on the last ten miles. I loved shouting these kind and passionate words, “Whose NHS? YOUR NHS! Whose NHS? MY NHS!l Whose NHS? OUR NHS!” with thousands of other marchers.
In the Islington Tribune Leo Garib wrote about what he witnessed on the march (some of which I saw, too):
In Edmonton, Tottenham, and Stoke Newington people stopped to cheer, mums held up babies sporting “Born in the NHS” badges, buses and cars honked in support…they began pressing beautiful bouquets of flowers on the marchers as they passed…”It was like a dream, like something from a film,” said a train driver who had been marching since Northampton. “We never imagined this kind of support,” said Joanna Adams (one of the “Darlo Mums” organizers). “I suppose we were speaking for millions of people who love the NHS and want to stop its privatization. But this was bigger and more emotional than we ever imagined.”
And it will be bigger still. As Eli Siegel explained in 1970: “Ethics is a force, like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way…The world is saying: We don’t want ill will to hurt and poison our lives any more …. That sense of justice, which is a name for good will, is tremendously powerful…” The NHS represents that good will, and I passionately want it to prevail. I am sure, personally and gratefully, that the study of Aesthetic Realism can help have this come to be.
By Carol Driscoll
As a person who grew up in New England in a union household, I was very stirred to learn that on October 17 nearly 2,000 New England telecommunication workers—members of the IBEW and CWA—walked off their jobs in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in a protest against unfair labor practices. They struck against FairPoint Communications, based in North Carolina and owned by five Wall Street hedge funds. At the expiration of their union contracts this past August, the company adamantly refused to sit down and negotiate, despite the unions’ willingness to do so. According to the Kennebec Journal, FairPoint “…asked the unions for $700 million in concessions, mostly by freezing pensions, eliminating health coverage for retirees and asking employees to contribute…20 percent to their health care costs.”
Why They Went on Strike
The company’s demands are patently ridiculous. The persons in this unionized workforce are skilled, productive men and women who perform some of the most grueling and dangerous work—telephone line repairs and installations—including in all kinds of weather. They have a sense of their value, and refused to accept the company’s offensive “offers.” The fact that FairPoint did not want to continue negotiations is telling. In recent years slashing labor costs by eliminating union workers is a prime function of hedge funds, and to achieve this they must kill the unions’ collective bargaining agreements. Peter Keefe, the unions’ bargaining chair, explained: “The money they’re trying to cut out of our contracts will go right back to the hedge funds. This is a Main Street versus Wall Street fight. It’s not just telecommunications and FairPoint. This is what’s going on in America today.”
Another big issue in the negotiations is job security. The company wants to outsource the jobs of these workers to out-of-state and foreign contractors. “The main reason we are standing out here,” said Randall Curtis on a picket line, “is because we are trying to keep good jobs in Maine. The company wants the ability to outsource all of our work…and we’re fighting to keep those jobs here, to keep them local.”
What’s Going On in America Today?
It’s heartening to me that union officials are aligning their struggles with those of Main Street Americans. However, what the fight is really about needs to be seen more clearly. I say this as a person who worked nearly 25 years for unions on the international and local levels. I love what they represent: their large meaning for the life of every American. I’m deeply grateful for what I’ve been learning these years about unions and the American economy from my study of Aesthetic Realism, the comprehensive education founded in 1941 by Eli Siegel. I learned, for example, that profit economics is based on contempt: on using the labor of working men and women to enrich owners and shareholders—who do not do the work—at the expense of these workers. In the instance of FairPoint, the majority of profits from the labor of nearly 2,000 individuals goes to five Wall Street investors, and when profits go down, the people who do the work are asked to give concessions. To hell with this! Why should these workers have to forfeit their hard-won benefits that they earned day in and day out, year after year?
I’ve learned that unions, from their very beginning, have been a force for ethics and against this contempt. Union workers fought for—and sometimes died for–an honest seeing of what people deserve, and their struggles courageously go on. As a union member in Waterville put it, “You have to fight for what’s right, and it isn’t always easy…but it’s absolutely worth it.”
One of my most ardent wishes is that every union official study what Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has explained about our economy, the role of unions, and the fierce efforts to destroy them. For instance, in her commentary to The Battle of Insistences she writes:
“Beginning in 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that an economy based on the profit motive—on seeing people in terms of how much financial gain one can extract from them—was no longer able to carry on successfully. The profit system would never recover, though it might be made to limp along at the cost of enormous pain to people. Profit economics is a form of contempt. It arises from this assumption, which is also an insistence: certain people should own much more of the world than others, and can use those others to aggrandize themselves.
“However, by the 1970s, another insistence had, as Mr. Siegel said ‘come to a tangibility.’ He called it the force of ethics. And this ethical insistence, working through history, had made it so that by the end of the 20th century private profits were much more difficult to obtain….In the last years, I have been describing the following fact: those who insist that the profit way must be the basis of our economy have been trying to do the one thing that can now keep it going. That one thing is: make Americans work for less and less pay, so more and more of the money they earn with their labor can go into the pockets of the owners, who don’t do the work. Only by increasingly impoverishing the American people can the profit system now go on. Of course, to pay people less and less, to impoverish them successfully, one must try to annihilate unions. Unions—which have fought for and won better economic lives for people over the decades, are one of the biggest embodiments of ethics as a force.”
A personal note: It very much affects me that some of the strong actions on behalf of ethics are taking place in Maine. My husband, photographer Harvey Spears and I spend time there every year. I love its vastness, its beautiful landscapes, and its rocky coastlines. But I’ve also seen firsthand the hurtful effects of profit economics, showing in low wages, which make food pantries shamefully necessary in places both urban and rural.
Eli Siegel asked this kind, crucial question about economics: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” When this is answered honestly, the folks in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and everywhere else in the U.S. will have a new economy, one that is based on ethics—and one they rightly deserve.
By Matthew D’Amico
With the school year underway and children getting ready to learn new things about the world, there is great worry as to the state of education in America today. As the father of an 8-year-old boy who attends public school, I know the concern parents have about their children doing well in school. And as a political coordinator for a labor union representing public employees throughout New York State, I’ve seen that working men and women are deeply troubled about our economy. Watching parents having to struggle to provide the basic necessities affects children, even while they are sitting in classrooms about to learn math or the history of the American Revolution. It is shameful that more than 16 million children live in poverty in America, which has such great wealth. And millions more are near poverty, with their parents living paycheck to paycheck—if they are lucky enough to have a job at all. With these agonizing worries—which no person, let alone a child, should have to go through—the ability of children to learn is made unnecessarily more difficult.
We should all be doing everything we can to make sure our public schools are well-funded, so that every child gets a good education. However, there are many people who are now attacking that great thing—free public education—wanting to privatize our nation’s schools as a source of profit for themselves. There are now more than 6,000 charter schools nationwide, double the number from just a decade ago. They’re publicly funded, but privately run. These charter schools are now part of the growing privatization of public education. Here is what I read on Forbes.com: “dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors…gathered to discuss…investing in for-profit education companies.” But according to the National Education Association, “Privatization is a threat to public education, and more broadly, to our democracy itself.”
Why this is happening now is clearly explained by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, in her commentary What Education & the Economy Are For. It is a must-read for all who are concerned with education, including the worry that the ‘public’ will be eliminated from public education. In it too is the explanation of why there are such ferocious attempts to do away with unions, and it is also what is behind the drive to privatize public schools. Ms. Reiss writes:
“Eli Siegel is the philosopher to explain: ‘The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.’ This idea is fundamental to the Aesthetic Realism method, which has been enabling children of all backgrounds to learn successfully—including children who had been thought incapable of doing so. To like the world through knowing it is why we should learn the alphabet, find out about numbers, continents, atoms, history. To like the world is the purpose of everyone’s life. Meanwhile, humanity has lived for centuries with a system of economics completely opposed to that purpose.
“The profit system has not been based on the fact that this world should belong rather equally to every child from birth so he or she can have a full chance to benefit from it. Profit economics has instead been based on contempt. The profit motive is the seeing of human beings in terms of: how much money can I get out of you?; how much labor can I squeeze from you while paying you as little as possible?; how much can I force a buyer to pay for my product, which she may need desperately?
Ethics, Unions, & America’s Children
“In 1970 Eli Siegel explained that this contemptuous way of economics had failed after thousands of years. The profit system might be made to stumble on awhile, but it would never recover. The fundamental cause of its failure, he said, was the force of ethics working in history. For example: 1) People on all the continents know more, can produce more things, and so ‘there is much more competition…with American industry than there used to be.’ 2) Unions, by the 1970s, had been so successful in their fight for decent wages—so successful in bringing people lives with dignity—that big profits for stockholders and bosses who don’t do the work could no longer be easily extracted from American workers.
“The persons trying to keep the profit system going cannot undo the first of those factors. So they have been trying ferociously to reverse the second: there has been a vicious, steady effort to have workers be paid less and less, be made poorer and poorer. And to achieve this, one has to undermine, even extinguish, unions—because unions are the power which prevents workers from being swindled, kicked around, humiliated, impoverished, robbed.
“Meanwhile, there are America’s children. They are literally abused day after day by those persons trying to impoverish the American people so as to maintain the profit system. Many children come to school hungry. Many don’t have warm coats for winter. Home (if a child has one) is often a place of economic deprivation—and the accompanying anger.
“Then, there are the schools themselves. In recent decades, as traditional venues for profit-making have fared ill, persons have looked for new ways to use their fellow humans for private gain. Behold—that huge ethical achievement in human history, public education! And the profit-seekers thought, ‘There’s a whole new industry for us here!’ The one reason for the enormous effort to privatize America’s public schools—and that includes through vouchers and through charter schools—is: to use the lives and minds of America’s children to make profit for a few individuals.
“This use of public schools is related to the effort to privatize public sector work in various fields throughout America: to have public monies used—not for the American people, not to respectfully employ public sector workers—but to finance private enterprises. And through it all, again, a big aim is to undo unions so workers can be paid less and the money can go instead to some private-profit-maker.”
What Ms. Reiss is writing about is a national emergency. No child, whether in Alabama, rural Maine, or the South Bronx, should have to go to bed hungry, or have their basic right to an education be a means of profit for some corporation or individual. The time is now for our nation’s leaders to be courageous and answer with honesty this urgent ethical question asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?”
By Barbara Kestenbaum
As a retired union member, I was thrilled by the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to hold the McDonald’s corporation jointly liable for the choices made by its franchisees as to workers’ rights. These include the right to demand better pay and working conditions, and—most importantly—the guaranteed right to unionize without intimidation from an employer. This decision can change the dynamics for fast-food workers across the United States. For the first time, a fast-food corporate giant is made answerable for labor and wage violations by its individually owned and operated restaurants. No longer can McDonald’s hide behind a corporate shield, falsely claiming that their franchisees make all the employment decisions. Craig Becker, AFL-CIO’s general counsel, pointed to how important this is:
“The upstream companies—whether McDonald’s or the brand in the garment industry—may have to begin thinking not only of how big the hamburger or what the ‘golden arches’ looks like, but how workers are being treated and whether their rights are respected.”
Where it Began
In November 2012, an uprising began in New York City as over a hundred fast-food workers, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions, church leaders, and community organizations, courageously walked off the job. It was the beginning of five one-day strikes that gained momentum as thousands of fast-food workers demanded a minimum wage of $15 per hour and the right to unionize. I was proud to be among the protestors at these demonstrations. On May 15 of this year, workers took to the streets again, striking fast-food restaurants in 130 cities across the United States and in twenty foreign cities. The strikers had a monumental impact on McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other fast-food establishments as they closed down their restaurants or slowed their businesses almost to a standstill.
In 1970, in a series of lectures, Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, gave careful evidence showing that an economy based on profit, on the seeing of a person in terms of how much money can be extracted from their labor, could no longer succeed. These days, despite massive efforts by government officials and others to tout an “economic recovery,” including an upsurge in employment, the jobs being created mainly pay miserably low, unlivable wages. For millions of worried, struggling Americans the economy has not recovered.
What Workers Are Demanding
In an article titled “Wage Pressure” in Newsday (8/3/14), Julia Vasquez of Port Washington, NY represents the more than forty percent of workers over 25 years old who work at fast-food restaurants. She is the single mother of a two-year-old daughter, living with her own mother and paying $600 a month rent. Ms. Vasquez works forty hours a week standing on her feet behind the counter. Her paltry take-home pay is about $300 a week. She has to depend on food stamps, and has no sick time, vacations, or other benefits. Said Ms. Vasquez:
“I don’t have the luxury of taking a vacation. My daughter needs her clothes, her shoes. It’s a very tight budget. It’s very hard to manage, to provide for my daughter and pay the rent.”
Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, describes what needs to be seen as workers are demanding justice:
“Should Americans be able to make good wages, express themselves at their jobs, feel really useful to their fellow citizens, by eliminating profits to people who didn’t work for them?…People will see that having industry be based on somebody’s making profit from others’ work was completely unnecessary, un-American to begin with.”
As a result of the strikes, McDonald’s retaliated by firing workers or cutting their hours, imposing even greater hardships. But fast-food workers fought back. Employees filed claims with the NLRB citing labor law violations, including charges that they were punished for pro-union activities, and forty-three of the claims were found to have merit. I very much agree with what Ellen Reiss explains about the power of unions:
“Because of the failing of the profit system, most of the once mighty American industrial base is no more. Ours has become largely a service economy. Well, now service workers are beginning to get the idea—which is true—that our economy cannot function without them; therefore, they should be able to set the terms on which they work….The purpose of the Fast Food Forward movement is to show the very tangible, dollars-and-cents power of the workers over the persons who are robbing them: employers, stockholders. And as soon as people working see that they have power, a great deal can happen.”
The historic ruling by the NLRB shows that this is happening, and it’s a big victory for ethics.
Today many American workers are demanding an economy that is just to every man, woman, and child, and I am proud to stand with them. I believe that future generations will be thankful to Aesthetic Realism, as I am, for seeing what working people want and deserve—for the profits they earn to come to them.
On July 10, more than one million firefighters, teachers, civil servants, sanitation workers, and other public sector workers, representing six major unions in the UK, held a one day strike, closing hundreds of schools, libraries, and museums, reducing activities at many government buildings and airports, and disrupting sanitation collection.
I grew up in England, and reading about this massive strike, I felt like cheering!
Explaining why the strike was necessary, Public and Commercial Services Union Industrial Officer Darren Williams said: “Food and energy prices have been going through the roof and for the first two years of this (coalition) Government most of our members have had no pay increase at all.”
And a health and safety worker on a picket line said, “We have got members of staff who are going to food banks now. Our workloads have been increased as we lost staff as a result of cuts and everyone is picking up more work….It is hard to make ends meet now. MPs [Members of Parliament] are having an 11 percent pay rise, and why are low-paid workers having just 1 percent?”
In fact, according to the website “Left Futures,” while public sector workers have had their salaries frozen since 2010, there has been a 16% increase in the cost of food, 22% in the average electricity bill, and 57% in the average gas bill.
Learning this affected me very much. I remember when essential services such as electricity, gas, the railways, telephone exchanges, and more were nationalized, run by the government on a non-profit basis. No more. Now these utilities that everyone depends on and needs in order to live, to light and heat their homes, are privately owned and run for the profit of a few.
Moreover, the government has simply refused to negotiate over pay, pensions, and spending cuts, and people are increasingly worried about what the future may bring. A firefighter from Manchester protested, “Every three years we have to do a fitness test. Now I will face the same test at 57, and if I don’t pass I could lose three quarters of my pension.” And in schools, primary teachers are now expected to work till age 68!
MP Peter Hain, speaking to striking workers in London, said:
“Government austerity policies have created a rise in zero-hour contracts” (i.e., a job that has no guaranteed weekly hours or income), “ ‘hire-and-fire’ work culture” (in which a worker can be fired with no notice), “and the slow erosion of workers’ rights, which are often taken for granted, but were earned through over a century of campaigning and work by ordinary people who wanted a better future.”
Mr. Hain is right. And the question is, why has there been this “slow erosion of workers’ rights”?—which today has escalated into an intense effort to destroy all unions, public and private.
This is What I Learned
In the early 1970s, historian and critic Eli Siegel, who founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, gave evidence in a series of lectures that economics based on profit had failed. The profit motive, I’ve learned, is based on contempt and ill will—on using the labor of a person to reap as much profit as one can, while paying that person as little as one can get away with. Eli Siegel saw that labor unions were a powerful force working for the rights of working people, and showed that union power—that is, the ability of unions to obtain ever-increasing wages and benefits–has been a major reason why employers can no longer count on ever-growing profits for themselves. Clearly, the more a worker is paid, the less goes into the pockets of owners or shareholders. This is why in recent years there have been such concerted and ferocious efforts to destroy unions. And it is why there have also been attempts to save the profit system by outsourcing work and services done by the public sector to private companies. Thus public dollars are given to private industry, where profit is the driving purpose.
The response of the British government to this massive strike has been telling. Instead of asking why one million moderate-to-low-income people are willing to forfeit a needed day’s pay in order to try to be heard, they are now threatening to impose laws making it harder to call a strike, through restrictive balloting legislation!
But from Trafalgar Square, that home of protest from the very birth of the British trades union movement, the call by union leaders for justice was strong. There were passionate statements of solidarity with working people all over Europe. Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, told the crowd, “What we see today is just an inkling of the power that rests in the hands of working people if we only realize it.”
What can unleash the full power of unions today? As a union activist myself I felt elated—and sobered—to know what Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss described recently in “The Sheer Fight“:
“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….It is a fight between contempt (the profit system) and respect for humanity (unions). It is a fight that even most union leaders have not seen clearly. We need to see it clearly, because the fight is really a sheer one: For the profit system to continue, unions must be defeated. And if unions and the economic justice they represent succeed, the profit way will be done in, finished, kaput. When that happens…there will be a way of economics different from any that has been. It will be based, neither on profit for a few nor on ‘collectivism,’ but on an honest answer to the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: ‘What does a person deserve by being a person?’”
I’m proud of my countrymen and the British unions for fighting for the rights of all people. And I want them and everyone to know what Aesthetic Realism explains–why their fight is so tremendously important.
By Christopher Balchin