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Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin’

A Less Perfect Union

Here’s an interesting story: Union members at private companies in Wisconsin share sentiments with the governor there that employees with state unions get too many benefits and something has to be done. It’s not fair, say private company employees, that they are suffering when public union members aren’t.

In other words, everybody ought to be equally harmed in a free market. Thank you for volunteering us to all go down together, guys!

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[Update, September 30, 2011: I recently updated this piece with some rigorous copy editing. I apologize to my readers. I have rarely been so proud of a piece I’ve written, only to see that pride eroded by copy errors that sometimes hid or sank my points.]

Have you ever thought of how great it would be if we could just get rid of unions altogether? Why, without collective bargaining rights, the real work of capitalism could be done–a mechanism for unlocking wealth that would make that wealth work far more efficiently, especially by paying workers what they’re really worth: at best, $3.50 an hour.  Such unlocked greatness would make America strong and proud in the way it was back when we had kids working 12 hour days and our food was full of extra human thumbs, earlobes and gizzards.

I’m sorry, does this sound stupid to you? Then I’m not sure why it’s even a debate in the state of Wisconsin, where a new Republican governor completely in the back pocket of a couple of anti-union billionaire industrialists, is working to curtail collective bargaining rights. As long as we’re throwing union people out the window, we ought to at least remember a time when the defenestration was much more literal: The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is coming up in March. In 1911, 146 employees of the Greenwich Village company were killed in a fire when their bosses had locked them inside to keep them from leaving early. Many had to jump to their deaths from the eighth, ninth and tenth stories. The fire galvanized the union movement and helped usher in modern building codes, labor practices and even the New Deal, depending on whom you ask.

This is when a lot of red staters start to nod that this was just one more in a long line of progressive mistakes going all the way back to our nation’s founding. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to mark the anniversary than by going back with a red marker and erasing all of the “progressive” nonsense that has come about since then.

A lot of people’s antipathy toward unions comes from a complete misunderstanding of their function. If you’re a conservative, you likely buy the argument that stronger unions have given Americans a sense of entitlement, pushed us toward decreased productivity, made our labor too expensive, and thus made American industry less nimble and less able to respond to crises. That’s an awful lot of big words, red staters! And yet, it’s a compelling and simple argument if you only look at one side of the ledger–and trust me conservatives are awfully good at both simple narratives and reading only one side of the ledger. What you won’t find when you blame unions for hobbling business is the increasing sham that corporate governance has become–how executive pay is far out of control compared with those of the lowest-paying salaries, and that executives often game the system. How? By withholding dividends–an increasingly popular corporate gambit since Reagan’s times; by creating excessive stock options, which dilute shares and funnel money away from shareholders; and by simply overpaying CEOs. (Does anybody remember Dick Grasso?) Meanwhile, it’s only the cruel market that decides what you’re worth if you’re a laborer. Unless you’ve got collective bargaining.

Here’s an argument for you conservatives, since you hate Hollywood: Imagine an Eddie Murphy movie that costs $50 million to make. As part of his deal, Eddie gets $40 million gross. The movie makes $90 million. How much did this movie make? Zero. After everyone grosses out (both financially and literally) on two hours of fart jokes, the studio can actually say they have a money loser. The people with net points in the movie get nothing. It was in this way that another film, the phenomenally popular Forrest Gump, was actually a money loser because Tom Hanks and the director got so much gross.

So now imagine, America, that you are getting net points and the richest 1% are getting the gross points. Meanwhile, the price of your labor, with your union bulwark weakening nearby, has been pushed down by the flood of flat earth labor into the market–the freed hordes of Chinese, Indian, Eastern European and South American labor.

And so now we come back to the standard conservative argument about Laffer curves and the idea fixe of Reaganism–which is that Reagan cut taxes and the economy took off for 30 years and that’s all there was to it. Listening to this bullshit after a while is a bit like hearing a schizophrenic compulsively repeat single lines of “Old Mother Leary.” Fire is a wonderful thing, conservatives, but it doesn’t mean you throw it on your roof. Likewise, tax breaks are nice quick incentives for a monetary system but keeping taxes low forever does not make your society or even your economy better. But most people who are insecure about their economics knowledge hold up the Laffer curve as if it’s the college degree they never had, and as if Glenn Beck were the Civics 101 course they slept through.

Speaking of Beck, onto the “Egypt” part of my story–which is exhibit 587 in an exhaustive case, “Glenn Beck Vs. Linear Thinking.”

If you can stomach this video, you’ll see Beck squaring off not only against Bill O’Reilly (Beck is perhaps the only person in the world who can make O’Reilly look like a genius) but against a purely democratic uprising in Egypt. The first thing I thought when the dominoes started to fall in the Arab world was that conservatives might claim a victory of sorts–and make a specious argument that the Iraq War fomented these pro-Democracy movements. So you can imagine my utter horror when a bunch of self-described individual liberties champions like Beck began knocking the Egyptian revolution. Beck’s argument is that it’s not a democracy movement since it could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists. What’s most galling about this video is two American conservatives arguing whether democracy is something America ought to confer on the Egyptians rather than something the Egyptians’ have a natural right to. In other words, Glenn, Egyptian liberty is not yours to give, and the fact that you would say so proves you’re no libertarian but another paleo-con American imperialist. It would be hard to explain to Beck or his spongie followers how even a revolution that was thoroughly Muslim in character is none of his fucking business, but instead the natural inclination of a people who ought to make their own decisions about when to be liberated (unlike the Iraqis whose liberation was forced on them, and so can only be called “liberated” by a morally bankrupt few). In a bizarre turn perhaps lost on everybody but the legions of hard-of-hearing people who listen to Beck, Glenn actually says (around minute 2:23) that American progressives (I would suppose that’s the people responsible for securing fire exits for the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.) are somehow responsible for both Hosni Mubarak and the Shah of Iran. Yes, friends liberal imperialism has built up Hosni Mubarak. Our support of him has nothing to do with conservatives and capitulation to the needs of Israel for a regional friend.

Even worse is the utterly loathsome former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who here makes the disgusting suggestion that Hosni Mubarak was an ally (read: Israeli ally) and therefore was owed our allegiance no matter what. His argument: we didn’t support an Iranian revolution with force, so we shouldn’t support an Egyptian one even with words–even if the two movements are based in the same democratic ideals. Again, of those of you conservatives unable to read between the lines: We cannot support even a Democratic movement that was anti-Israel. (I shudder to think that there’s a person left on this planet to listens to this homophobic, science-bashing, war fan, hate monger–a man who said that poor New Orleans Hurricane Katrina victims should simply have gotten out of town and who seems to be the only person on the planet to have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq).

This was a lot of stray comments, but I impress upon you, long-suffering Beauty is Imperfection reader, that they are motivated by the same idea–the democratic impulse rises naturally in nature, whether it be against union busters in Wisconsin or strongmen in Libya. But just as easily as it is created, it is confused, used, abused, assimilated and exploited by medicine salesmen, tiny generals, wee-brained Fox News employees and even by would-be rapists (my heart goes out to CBS news reporter Lara Logan, a woman so brave she makes me ashamed to call myself a journalist). Democracy is harder than it looks, and it is vulnerable not only money like the Koches’ and brute power like George W. Bush’s but most often simply to lots of lies, lies, lies.

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