Economy Politics

Could We Get Them to Work in Shirt Factories, Maybe?

The same state (Maine) whose governor wants to eliminate pro-labor images from the halls of the Department of Labor is also ginning up a new set of rules that significantly increases the amount of work a child in school is “able” to work:

The Maddow Blog – Maine pol: Put those kids to work.

Couple things jump out at me:

The bill starts a kid off at $5.25 an hour for the first 180 days of employment. Because that’s the “training period.” The state’s minimum wage for everybody else is $7.50. 180 days is six months. How many kids do you know that work for more than six months anywhere when they’re in school? The “training wage” is effectively a child-only labor rate that is a boon to businesses throughout the state on the backs of kids.

Eliminating the number of hours an employee “can work” is not a boon for the employee: those rules were set in place to prevent employers from mandating hours well in excess of what we consider (for now) to be normal. Eliminating this rule for kids means, again, introducing them to the world of slave labor… once again, for a discounted wage $2.25 less than their parents would have to work!

The bill also “allows” kids to work *during school hours*, up to four hours a day. School is generally only in session for about six.

Should anybody even need to be told why this bill needs to be killed?


Better to Cut Them Than Mess With Benefits

I had a litte fun with the silliness of this poll overall: what is the purpose of asking Americans if they are in favour of negative things without a relative choice to make? Taxes and service cuts do not live in bubbles, they’re a part of the whole. But I’ve gone over that one to death.

Americans’ Message to States: Cut, Don’t Tax and Borrow.

What is interesting in the poll is the reaction to the question of cutting state workers’ benefits, an idea which is roundly rejected by a solid eleven-point majority. It seems like the situation in Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere has stiffened Americans’ resolve on that count, which is nice to see.


Wisconsin State Senator Tackled on His Way Into the Capitol Building

Sometimes, the back-and-forth of politics is fun to watch. But this isn’t a game, as this video in Wisconsin demonstrates. A local television media posted video, linked to below at TPM, of a State Senator apparently getting tackled by cops on his way inside the building:

Video Apparently Shows Wisconsin Rep Getting Tackled By Officers VIDEO | TPMMuckraker.

Trouble with video is: its very visceral but often lacks context. In this case, we don’t see what happened before and we don’t see what happened after the event – which is very irritating inasmuch as this is a nominally professional news agency who was surely running the camera for longer than the clip they posted.

That Senator might have said something truly awful about that cop’s sister. Its also possible that the cop was possessed just moments before by the spirit of Bam Bam Bigelow. Unlikely, I grant you. But the point we don’t know just what did happen.

And everybody in the political realm will do their level best to make this video damning of their opposition.


Trade Unionism is a Failure

If the situations in Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere point to one big thing that should finally be addressed, its that trade unionism – the idea that unions are formed around specific trades and professions – is an abject failure.

True, trade unions have been the largest contributors to unionism in this country for the last fifty years, but what has that fifty years been marked by? A declining middle class, declining wages, declining manufacturing base, declining enrollment in unions and more and more, declining opinions of a slowly-alienated populace. This is not a record to hang your hat on, unless you are a Republican.

We can all certainly say that think tanks and the like of the Republican variety have contributed greatly to the negative opinions of Americans. But what is the answering rhetoric? None. In fact, as the debate rages, the Unions concerned in Wisconsin have gotten basically zero press coverage. Blame the media if that helps you sleep at night, but they’ll gladly run a good story if you give them one. So give them one.

But the real problem isn’t messaging, its the seemingly inherently myopic nature of a form of Unionism that says, “as long as our members are covered, we’ve done our job.” Even now in Wisconsin, Governor Walker is attempting to do through the budget process what has been done countless times by countless employers of Union workers: divide and conquer. By threatening teachers – one Trade Union – he drives a wedge through the coalition of Unions, or hopes to.

What is working in Wisconsin is not Trade Unionism. What is working in Wisconsin is the realization among all Unions and a majority of Americans that where goeth the Union goeth the working class. What is working is the fact that the police, teachers and all the Union folk are sticking together. What will work in the future is exactly this kind of Industrial Unionism: One Big Union, you might say. One big collective that fights – not for carpenters or teachers; not for Union members and those whose dues are current – but for all working people.

Its easy to forget in this era where some of us can still take sick days and vacation time for granted that it was Unions and the threat of Unionization that made our much less difficult lives what they are. It is especially easy to forget when Unions consistently fail to remind us and instead engage in petty arguments over parochial concerns.


The Two Bums (lyrics by Utah Philips)

Rather than mess around providing commentary for this, I thought I’d just let the words of an old folk song – as recorded by Utah Philips – say what should be said. I’ve had this song in my head for quite a while, now, and I think I’ll pick up my We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years album and listen to it again.

The Two Bums

The bum on the rods is hunted down
As the enemy of mankind;
The other is driven around to his club
Is feted, wined and dined.

And they who curse the bum on the rods
As the essence of all that is bad,
Will greet the other with a winning smile
And extend him the hand so glad.

The bum on the rods is a social flea
Who gets an occasional bite;
The bum on the plush is a social leech,
Blood-sucking day and night.

The bum on the rods is a load so light
That his weight we scarcely feel,
But it takes the labor of dozens of men
To furnish the other a meal.

As long as you sanction the bum on the plush,
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.

Then make an intelligent, organized kick,
Get rid of the weights that crush;
Don’t worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush!

Union Fight Heating Up In Ohio | TPMDC.


Protest at the Public Safety Building


On my lunch break, I passed by the public safety building where at least three dozen people are currently protesting. I have no idea what they’re protesting, because I couldn’t stop, but the signs look like a wage fight. I haven’t seen anything on the news, but the 13WHAM truck was definitely there, so I’m looking at them for an update. . .


Benefits Denied

NOW has an interesting article up about freelancers/temporary workers/contractors and the role they (eh-hem, we) play in our current economy.  I have long believed that the rise of the service economy has been used by Corporate America to break down the relationship between workers and the benefits that unions have worked so long and so hard to give us.

Things like holidays and weekends become “floating holidays” and a couple of arbitrarily arranged days off during a week in the face of the “24/7 Help Desk.”  Benefits become something you get at “good jobs” and don’t expect to be able to pay for at your current job.  And those “floating holidays” always seem to float away before you’ve used them, over the “use them or lose them” horizon for another year.

Many of us who work as non-staff employees like or even love our jobs.  For those in IT or other “knowledge industry” professions, working contract jobs is a matter of course, anyway.  Like the woman in the NOW piece, we have nothing personal against our employers.   But we are perfectly capable of becoming sick somewhere during our time at our jobs, and when that happens, who will pay for the health care we need?  How can we maintain our health if we cannot get days off like normal people?  I only barely was able to get a mortgage because of my status as a contractor, even though my status is no less stable than your average manufacturing worker and perhaps more so.

This is of course one more argument for universal coverage.  In other countries, such as Holland, most people work in as informal arrangements as us temps here in the states.  The difference is that their government provides the benefits instead of the employer.  With this one rather imperative duty lifted from both workers and employers, the system works much better and allows both parties more freedom.

Such an arrangement here would do incredible things for all of us, but especially small businesses and start ups.  Imagine not having to worry about providing benefits for your family, only concentrating on working at the best gig you can find and doing your best work.


Celebrities, Scones and Solidarity

When we think of unions, we must remember that their purpose is to support the working men and women who make up the bodies of those unions. It’s about getting a fair deal for the work that you do. It’s about the boss man with his billions being forced, when necessary, to relinquish a few morsels for those on whose backs those billions were made.

Having said all that, unionism has come a long way from those old Wobbly days. Not all picket lines are populated by gruff longshoremen and work-weary steel men. That doesn’t make their cause any less legitimate, however silly it may occasionally look. I’ve never seen a picket line of pasty-white IT guys like myself, but I’m sure I will soon enough. Meanwhile, have a look at this free-for-all:

A Jovial Air on Picket Lines for Hollywood Writers – New York Times

There have been other attractions for striking writers. A special theme day, Picket With the Stars, drew celebrities like Ben Stiller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Ray Romano in Los Angeles. Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams turned up in New York.. . . Pickets have been well fed. The longshoremen’s union sent turkey baskets, and stars have played caterer roles. Justine Bateman brought tacos, Jay Leno chipped in doughnuts, and Jimmy Kimmel contributed burritos. Eva Longoria handed out slices of pizza.


Upstate Opportunity Region? This is a Democrat?!?!?!?

Like most New Yorkers, I think, I’ve been woefully unobservant when it comes to the New York State Legislature.  I am paying much, much more attention these days, and promise to pass the benefits to the blogosphere, . . . such as they are.

But in reading an article on Spitzer’s newly-forming Upstate strategy, I was blown away by the following comment from a (nominal, at least) Democratic Assemblyman from Tonawanda:

Jobs at stake in state divide || Democrat & Chronicle: Business

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Tonawanda, called last week for the creation of an “upstate opportunity region.” The goal: to direct state aid to parts of the region that fall below a series of predetermined economic indicators, such as job growth.

He believes that the Legislature should look at ways of easing the burden of certain laws on upstate businesses, such as one that imposes liability on employers for work-site falls from ladders or other lifts, regardless of circumstance.

That law “is an affordable luxury in downstate but it is a project killer upstate,” said Schimminger, who leads the Assembly’s committee on economic development. He says he believes the Legislature has the authority to write laws to apply in one part of the state over another, as it has done in the past with legislation affecting only cities of 1 million or more.

“We should treat upstate, however it is defined, differently from downstate,” Schimminger said.

Where do I even begin?  Have we not had enough of being Corporate America’s dirty little run-down tax shelter, already?  COMIDA has not convinced us of the need to find better ways to reform the state economy?  And how is forcing employers to take heed of safety concerns “an affordable luxury” of downstate?

Grrr. . .  Having spent much of my early adulthood working in factories, that last one really burns me up.  It’s the kind of thing where public ignorance is corporate bliss.

The fact of the matter is, safety is rarely a thing that can be legislated, rarely a thing in which a definable set of rules can be universally applied to all factories and all industries.  For this reason, Worker’s Comp cases can get quite complex and nasty, devolving into a “he said/they said” kind of situation.  There’s no “right way,” to have done whatever caused the accident.  There’s no “wrong way,” upon which to rest one’s case against the worker, and even if there is, there is always employer pressure compelling workers to do things they know are unsafe because “it needs to get done.”

Don’t believe me?  You’ve not worked in a factory.  Period.  Don’t bother to argue with me.

In that situation, the person who comes out best is the one with the better set of lawyers, and guess who that tends to be?  The worker?  Not unless they’re Union.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is an altruistic law, either: litigating Workers Comp claims is expensive for the state, and paying out on claims is even more expensive, so this is their way of making sure that employers feel some of that sting, too.

So, one way or another, these types of laws force employers to be more aware of safety concerns.  Or more sensitive, to speak accurately.  They’re the kind of thing that allows us as workers to say, “hell, no.  I’m not climbing that f*ing ladder, dumb ass.  You do it, if its that important.”  They keep us safe and give us leverage to try to improve our work environments as individuals, affecting change where no law can reach us.

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Eat Union! Roncone’s Has Organized

Say congradulations to the workers at Roncone’s Restaurant: they’ve just joined a union and they’re adding to the roles of a very important bloc of our nation’s workers.  Union membership has steadily decreased over the decades, and in the last ten years, plummeted.  But there’s a few more in Rochester, and that’s a good thing:

R News: As It Happens, Where It Happens

Labor leaders hope it will be the beginning of a trend to support workers and ultimately Rochester’s economy.

Restaurant and hotel workers in Rochester really didn’t have an opportunity to organize until just over a year ago. That’s when the industrial union UNITE merged with HERE, the union that represents hotel and restaurant workers. Roncone?s is the first in Rochester to unionize. If labor leaders have their way, it won’t be the last.

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If You Can’t Have a Union, You Can At Least Have a Parade

Today’s Labor Day Parade through Rochester is in honour of a worker’s right to Unionize. Huh! Well, nice to know that some people do still see that as a right:

Parade theme is ‘right to unionize’ | Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rochester’s 21st annual Labor Day Parade is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. and will end when the last participant reaches Andrews Street. This year’s theme is Workers Right to Organize, according to the Rochester and Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and other local elected officials are expected to lead the parade. Employees of the Crowne Plaza Hotel on State Street in downtown Rochester will be in the forefront of the event this year, in recognition of their efforts to form a new union.

I’m not a member of a union, primarily because my industry is sorely lacking of unions. It can feel a bit strange to talk about such things as industry and unions when I don’t belong to a union and I left my industry job five years ago to work in IT. Nevertheless, in some respects my story is a decent analogy of what’s going on all across the country. I was told when I got laid off from my last machinist job that the New York State Department of Labor considered me a “displaced worker,” meaning that they didn’t expect to get me another job in my current field for at least a year.  Imagine that!  These are the people responsible for paying my unenjoyment check every week, and even they have no faith in my future employment.

That’s what has happened to industry in this state, this city and this country.  Industry is drying up in favour of finance and services.  And before you go buying into the whole “outsourcing,” lower-cost-labour, keeping-up-with-the-Jones-Corporation rag, keep in mind that both German and Japan are producing more hard goods per capita than the United States with comparable and even higher labour costs.

But there are good reasons to keep certain facets of industry in this country, reasons for which there has not been greater egress of jobs in the last ten years, even if the corporations nominally considered American might wish otherwise.  As much as the rhetoric of the Bush Administration and Conservatives is that unions are a threat to those remaining jobs, the truth is that those jobs can’t go anywhere else in the first place, and unions are the only hope of protecting workers rights in a system so completely bought out by corporations.

So, this Labor Day, be proud of those in the streets who unionize with pride.  Without the unions, without protections for hard industries in this country, our Middle Class and our entire way of being Americans will crumble.  And this October, consider which candidates have been friendly and which have been unfriendly to the cause of unionization.

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