By Steven Weiner
I am a labor activist who loves unions, and was proud to be a Local 2627, DC 37, AFSCME Executive Board member and Shop Steward. My union fought for the benefits we now enjoy from the New York City Department of Education, which now include for me, a measure of economic security in retirement that never would have been otherwise.
As I study Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the great American philosopher and critic, Eli Siegel, I’ve been learning about the tremendous meaning of unions and how much they have done for the American worker. It was Mr. Siegel who explained with compelling evidence: “Labor is the only source of wealth; there is no other source except land, the raw material.” I love this statement, and have seen its truth and its value! I’ve also learned that because of the success of unions over decades, enabling workers to earn increased pay and benefits, there has been a determined effort by corporate America and some state governments to weaken unions and even crush them. The reason: Every additional dollar earned by a union man or woman is that much less in the pockets of shareholders.
My studies include learning about individual men and women who had to do with the rise of the union movement. One such person is Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997), union organizer and painter, whom I admire very much. He fought for economic justice and depicted the struggle of working people in his paintings. He was called “Friend of the Worker, Artist of the People.” In a public seminar titled “A Man’s Dissatisfaction: What Makes It Right or Wrong?” presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York, I spoke about the meaning of his life and what he did. His deep-seated dissatisfaction with the conditions under which people were forced to work is part of the true meaning of Labor Day. That holiday recognizes the sacrifices millions of men and women made—some with their very lives—to have unions succeed.
Ralph Fasanella was born to Italian immigrant parents who had to work very hard to support their large family. Witnessing their valiant efforts to survive on meager wages and under brutal working conditions, he became keenly aware of what all workers had to endure. After returning from fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, he became part of the American labor movement because, as he said, unions were:
“the beginning of the working man getting a break in this country. For the first time he had a right. He had a right to a holiday, forty-hour week. Vacations with pay. Pension plans. Job security.”
As a United Electrical Workers union representative in the early 1940s, Ralph Fasanella spoke passionately to firefighters, elevator operators, and hospital workers; and he led successful organizing drives at General Electric, Sperry Gyroscope, and AT&T. His life was rich and useful, and I’m glad to have learned about him.
I think Ralph Fasanella would have cared for and benefitted from what Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has shown about the tremendous importance of unions. For instance, in No. 1348 of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, titled “Unions and Beauty,” she quotes this central principle of Aesthetic Realism, as stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Continuing, she writes:
“There are millions of people in America grateful to unions, and many more should be. And there are persons, including in government, who have been trying to destroy unions. But Aesthetic Realism is that which shows that a union, a true union, is aesthetic: like a concerto, a novel, a painting, it is a oneness of opposites. And its aesthetics is its power.”
And about opposites crucial in every labor union—oneness and manyness—she explains that in a union:
“many people become powerful by working as one, in behalf of justice…. A union is based on each single person saying, My well-being depends on trying to have all these other people get what they deserve. It’s based on all people saying, Together we’ll try to have each individual get what he or she deserves.”
I believe oneness and manyness are opposites that Fasanella put together well in much of his work. For instance, here is a detail from one of his numerous paintings about the textile workers strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
We can see how the artist took multiple elements: buildings, churches, smokestacks, railroad cars, many and varied windows, striking workers, and so much more, and arranged them into a coherent, stirring composition. There are many people showing they have power, working together for one proud purpose: to have their strike succeed!
To read the entire issue of Unions and Beauty:
By Steven Weiner
As a long-time supporter of unions, who was a member of Local 2627’s Executive Board, part of District Council 37 in NYC, I want to say how proud I am of my union brothers and sisters who went out on strike recently. Nearly 40,000 women and men, represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, withstood an onslaught by one of the largest US corporations, Verizon. Yet after nearly six weeks on the picket lines, they emerged victorious! A big reason for their success was expressed by Verizon worker Pamela Galpern in the midst of the strike: “What we’ve seen has really been tremendous resolve on the part of the strikers…to show that working people are prepared to stand up and to fight to protect our jobs and our families’ future.”
I believe that the powerful and hopeful meaning of this victory is explained in the issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known titled “The Fight in Each of Us–& in Economics.” In it, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, explains the relation among three things: 1) the failure of our profit-driven economy; 2) the ethical battle that goes on in every person; and 3) what motivated these unionized workers that resulted in such a clear and resounding victory over Verizon. For the good of America’s working men and women, I can’t think of anything more useful and needed at this time than what is said here. For example, Ms. Reiss writes, with passion and clarity:
“Decade after decade men and women in unions fought hard for and got better wages and working conditions—lives of greater dignity and ease—for millions of working people. Because of the courage of unions, bosses were forced to lessen their robbery of those who worked for them. And that is why, as I have described in this journal, there has been such a fierce effort to kill unions, including through hideous propaganda and legislation: if unions are able to continue their beautiful work, having those who truly earn the wealth get more and more of it, the profit way will be finished.”
I urge union officials across the nation to read this issue and have others know about it. Click here for the link.
By Matthew D’Amico
A fact I’m very proud of is that for most of my adult life I’ve been part of the labor movement, including in my current position as a political coordinator for the Civil Service Employees Association in NYC. I have a passion about unions because of what I’ve been learning from Aesthetic Realism, the mighty education founded by Eli Siegel. And my study continues today in professional classes taught with great scholarship by the Chairman of Education, Ellen Reiss. It was through this study that I met Timothy Lynch, whom I see as one of the most important and valuable labor leaders of all time. On January 30th, Timothy Lynch tragically died.
He was the President of Teamsters Local 1205. He was also an actor and singer with the esteemed Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. He was my dear friend and colleague, who encouraged my life in many ways. That included his encouraging me to see the beauty and power of ethics in the world, in people, in history, and very much as to unions.
In the current issue of the international journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, a section of which is reprinted here, there is powerful writing about the life and meaning of Timothy Lynch, by Ellen Reiss, his wife. And I am personally grateful to Ms. Reiss for what I have learned from her—in classes and in her commentaries to The Right Of—on many subjects, including very much the importance of unions throughout America’s history and today, and the reason behind the ugly desire in some persons to have them not exist at all. What is in this issue is urgent. It will strengthen every union official, every union member, and every person who cares for justice in this world. I am proud that part of the publication is a statement of my own, which I read to hundreds of people at a memorial for Timothy Lynch.
The issue is entitled “Timothy Lynch Represents America.” And Ellen Reiss’s introduction to it begins:
Dear Unknown Friends:
“On February 21, at the Huntington Hilton on Long Island, there took place a Memorial Event in honor of the life of Timothy Lynch: American labor leader, President of Teamsters Local 1205, and actor and singer with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. Over five hundred people attended, mostly men and women of the New York area labor movement, including union officials and union members.
“Timothy Lynch, I am immensely grateful to say, was my husband. What he stood for and fought for—in relation to both unions and Aesthetic Realism—is what America needs most, needs desperately. And so there is the title of this issue: Timothy Lynch Represents America. Here, the word represents has two meanings, which are connected: Timothy’s work as a union leader was to represent people, speak and fight for them, and he did that greatly. Further, what he saw in his study of Aesthetic Realism—about economics, art, history, and his own life—is what can bring to the people of our land the justice and happiness they’re thirsting for. That means he represents Americans’, and all people’s, biggest hopes.
“In this issue are two statements from the Memorial Event: my own and that of Matthew D’Amico, a political coordinator for the Civil Service Employees Association. The other speakers were Dan DeCrotie and Nelson Nuñez, officers of Teamsters Local 1205; the president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, John Durso, representing both himself and the Federation’s executive director, Roger Clayman, whose statement he read; Daniel Kane Sr., an international vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy; and Carrie Wilson, actor and singer with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company.
“Roger Clayman, writing historically, said that there have been ‘a select few people…who can inspire by their words, lead with their intelligence, and convey a sense of worth to the people around them. Timothy did all these things.‘ He was, wrote Clayman, ‘a leader… who teaches us….We think that this labor movement on Long Island may have been designed with Timothy Lynch in mind.’
“Dan Kane said, ‘From Teamsters, to American workers, to the labor movement, he did affect multitudes. He had passion for the union, passion for Aesthetic Realism. He combined both in a way that took courage, took conviction….And people learned.’
“The 40-minute video of Timothy Lynch that was part of the Memorial Event is now on YouTube: http://bit.ly/Timothy-Lynch. In it we see and hear him, forever, Timothy himself, deep, funny, beautiful, ardent, as labor leader, performer, person.”
By Friends of Labor
By the early 1970s labor unions were seen with great respect by the American people. They had prestige and power and had succeeded in changing the course of American labor by securing for their members and families decent wages and many benefits, including health insurance and pensions! Every union victory was a victory for ethics, for fairness to people, and against the contempt and ill will at the basis of a profit-driven economy that uses the labor of millions of men and women to enrich corporations and their shareholders.
In the 1970s, Eli Siegel, the noted American critic and founder of Aesthetic Realism, explained that unions were so successful in getting good contracts for their members that the ability of corporations to rake in increasing profits was curtailed. The logic is: the more money that goes to workers in the form of salary increases, benefits, and safety measures, the less there is for owners and shareholders. That is why in recent years businesses and right-wing officials in state governments have intensified their efforts to weaken and disable unions, to have them not exist. Today, American corporations are cutting corners with fierce determination. They are outsourcing jobs, forcing people to work longer hours without compensation, or reducing employee hours so they won’t have to provide crucial benefits like health insurance.
The ability of a union to strike is a right that was guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Many of labor’s victories were good not only for union members but for the American people as such, providing goods and services the public needed. The 40‑hour workweek, paid vacations and sick leave were won by unionized workers striking for fairness. No union wants to strike; however, it is a power that every union holds dear and will employ when necessary. This idea is in an important letter by Matthew D’Amico, recently published in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan Press, telling about the strike by members of the United Auto Workers against the Kohler Company, a manufacturer of plumbing equipment.
“Keeping up the good work of union members”
As a resident of New York, I have been following closely the strike by workers at the Kohler plant in Sheboygan.
I respect and am proud of the union men and women standing in the rain and cold who are fighting not just for themselves, but for new and future employees.
We have reached a point where more and more Americans who are fortunate enough to have a job are struggling to make ends meet. And today, the only way large corporations can make the large profits they desire for themselves and shareholders — who don’t do the work — is by paying workers as little as possible. The one force against this has been unions, and it is why there has been a horrible desire by those in power to have unions not exist at all in America.
In the periodical “The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known,” Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes about the important meaning of unions:
“The objection at the very basis of unions is: a human being deserves to be seen and treated with respect, deserves to live with dignity, deserves to get what has been called the fruits of one’s labor—a person should not have those fruits robbed from him or her by a boss or corporation; a person’s ability to work, a person’s wages and safety, should not depend on the wishes of someone who wants to make money from that person’s body, mind, and life.”
This is what the Kohler workers are fighting for and I am proud to stand with them in their fight.
New York, New York
And to celebrate the true power of unions, here is a link to a wonderfully engaging and important union song presented by performers in the renowned Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company.
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!