Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are Unions The Right Wing Bogeymen?

In Steven Greenhouse’s article in today’s New York Times, he addresses the passage of Governor Walker’s budget bill in Wisconsin eliminating collective bargaining rights for state workers in terms of Indiana, where the Governor there, Mitch Daniels, eliminated collective bargaining 6 years ago.

This is instructive not only for Wisconsin’s future, but for the future of unions throughout America, because the politically driven agenda is that of the Tea Party. Those politicians are basically oxymorons; they get elected to government and all the perks it bestows in order to eliminate it. It argues for deficit reduction except when it comes to tax cuts. No pay as you go, just pay for play (see: Gov. Walker “prank” call).

Governor Daniels’ executive order has had far reaching consequences in Indiana. Some years state workers received no raises; seniority preferences were weakened (in other words, if you earned more money as a result of working more years and accruing more experience, that might not be taken into account; in fact that might work against you); and the freedom for the government to privatize and outsource state operations.

This works out well in theory for the state in terms of balancing the budget, which, as opposed to the federal budget, has a mandate to balance its budget yearly. We can get into a long shouting match as to whether privatizing state programs such as prisons saves money. But for the state workers in Indiana, things haven’t been so great:

[T]he end of collective bargaining also meant a pay freeze in 2009 and 2010 and higher health insurance payments.

Several state employees said they now paid $5,200 a year in premiums, $3,400 more than when Mr. Daniels took office, although there are cheaper plans available.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Daniels adopted a merit pay system, with some employees receiving no raises and those deemed to be top performers getting up to 10%,

You might well ask yourself, what’s wrong with “merit”? Well, in many cases the idea of “merit” is arbitrarily applied. In the case of Indiana, state workers say that more expensive workers were considered less meritorious.

Do we really want to go back to Dickens’ 19th century conditions, where management had all the power and labor had basically no protection except their word? Walker, Daniels and the others say that unions tie their hands, even though the Wisconsin state workers yielded on every cost sacrifice they were asked to make. Walker had no interest in balancing the budget. His interest was in destroying the unions.

Returning to Greenhouse’s article:

Union officials say that collective bargaining provides workers with important protections against retaliation, age discrimination and management decisions that sometimes change with the political winds.

“Layoffs may not be based on merit or effectiveness, but on anything management wants it to be,” said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents 98,000 public school employees.

Ms. Bell said that experienced, high-salary* teachers would have targets on their heads and that class sizes would grow bigger without union prodding. (*”High-salary” is a relative term.)

Sometimes I think that people stereotype the persons who educate their children as working short hours with three months off every summer. This kind of terminology is useful in ramming through a political agenda but is damaging to children, teachers and parents alike, and just is not true. Teachers spend time in the classroom, they spend hours preparing lesson plans, hours correcting homework, time spent with individuals as well as the class as a whole, and often have to compensate for major gaps because of instability in their students’ homes, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Some schools can pick and choose their students, but public schools must take all comers. They cannot game the system.

Blaming the public unions for wasting the taxpayers’ money is misdirection. It is really a power grab on the part of the politicians.

Wayne Barrett Leaves Village Voice: One Less Voice For Democracy

I've read Wayne Barrett since I was a tyke because I knew his facts were accurate and he was incorruptible. He covered the infighting and politics of New York City with a doggedness that would exhaust a younger man. I remember his work on former Mayor Giuiliani, exposing the strange bedfellows and alliances that can seduce even the most upstanding citizen.

It's a very sad day when someone like Barrett must leave a major institution like the Village Voice. It's one less watchdog who can make solid connections between the dirty nexus of politics and money. For our democracy and institutions which support the same, we need more men and women like Mr. Barrett.

He was also a great guest on NY1 who couldn't be shouted down by the most vociferous ranter.

We must never forget that there's more going on behind the scenes that must be exposed to the light of day. Great journalism is the oxygen that sustains a democracy. Without it, only a few voices can be heard.

For an entertaining example from a post I wrote in 2007 of how dirty tricks can influence politics and perhaps the course of history if they're not exposed to the light of day, here's a post from 2007 about a major Republican operative, Roger Stone, practicing family values with his wife, who managed to influence the Florida recount in 2000 AND disturb then-attorney General Eliot Spitzer's aged father. Imagine how much less we'll know about the goings-on in the corridors of power without people like Wayne Barrett.

I believe he will be working for Newsweek and for Tina Brown's latest venture. We haven't heard the last of him. Citizens United! Er, I mean citizens unite!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Closing Credits (Not Saul Bass)

Beth Israel Hospital rocks!!!

My surgeon is a genius and so are the doctors, nurses and hospital staff who assisted him

I'd like to thank the City of New York and all its hard working men and women who put up with me*

*Disclaimer: it wasn’t all my fault; sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to react to such a situation (or how others will react, for that matter)

L’Chaim and God Bless.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Story of the New York Post Flyers

My Mother suggested I write this down: 2/23/11

On either October 21 or 22, 2010, I was sitting in the Starbucks on 33rd Street & Park Avenue feeling very low. I had been given a diagnosis of possibly cancerous ovarian masses in San Diego and flew back to NY to be with my support system and the best doctors in the world. As I scoured the horizon, I saw a NY Post with the headline, “To Teachers’ Union: What Are You So Afraid Of?” Like a bolt from the blue (I’m not kidding, it was an inspiration from outside myself) I thought I could compose an art piece that would release me from fear. Almost like a talisman.

I crossed the street to Duane Reade and bought a Trapper Keeper folder, some scotch tape and a kid’s scissors and built a template for a flyer. But first I cut out the piece that said, “To Teacher’s Union.” As a Jewish person, I actually thought this was an inspiration from God and that the rabbis would be able to interpret it in the greatest Jewish city in the world. The headline was huge. I don’t know what font size, but it filled up the entire Trapper Keeper.


Of course, as I said above, I was afraid of everything, especially dying of cancer. The headline seemed to jeer at me. I cut out the Post logo and stripped it horizontally across the bottom of the notebook. I still have the original and many copies.

I had to meet my mother at her eye doctor’s on East 79th Street, so I went to the Kinko’s on 78th to make copies. Everyone there seemed to be very glum, except for a hearty big man who came up to me and said, “What are you doing?” I answered, “Getting rid of fear!” He laughed.

I made about 100 copies. Then I went to the doctor’s office to meet my mom and left some flyers there. I decided to distribute them up Madison Avenue (as many have distributed flyers before) by taping them to lamp posts and free paper boxes. I walked the streets of the wealthy with my mother in tow as she balanced herself with her shopping cart. I made it to the 92nd Street Y, one of the pinnacle places of Jewish culture and learning, where she is a member of the 60+ Club.

After that I went to one of my favorite Barnes & Noble’s, the one on 86th Street between Lexington & Third, where they have a wonderful cafĂ© area on the bottom floor. You can buy ½ sandwich & soup for not too much money and have a nice meal while reading the latest. I was carrying a book I was reading, “Freud for Beginners”, a graphic piece of non-fiction. I decided on another impulse of inspiration to distribute the flyers in displays that contained glossy magazines. Finally, when a sheepish security guard walked towards me, I left nonchalantly.

It would be ridiculous to think that creating and distributing that flyer would be responsible for any of the grief, misery and torment I’ve absorbed since then even while trying to get treatment.

I only wanted the rabbis to see it and interpret it, especially the missing piece about the teacher’s union. I thought it was prophetic but only in the way that the jeering headline collided with my dark fears.

That’s all.


Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rage at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Though wise men at the end know dark is right
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight
And learned, too late, they grieved it on its way
Do not go gentle into that dark night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless me now, with your fierce tears I pray
Do not go gentle into that dark night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Teacher's Guide in How to Kill Union Organizing Without Leaving A Mark

Okay, class, let’s critique the following paragraph from an article in the 2/19/11 New York Times by Nick Bunkley, “Hyundai Lifts Alabama” to see if it suggests more than it seems to. Examine each sentence, its meaning and placement in the paragraph to determine what the writer is trying to say. See how an “objective” news story can subtly convey a point of view:

“For more than a year, workers at the Hyundai plant have been putting in 10 hours of overtime a week as part of their regular schedule, plus occasional Saturdays. With an average regular wage of about $20 an hour, the additional overtime hours mean workers here are earning more than many workers at the unionized plants up north. The United Automobile Workers union has long tried to organize plants in the United States operated by foreign carmakers, most of which are in the South, but has yet to succeed anywhere.”

There is a contradiction in the first sentence of the paragraph from the writer:

“For more than a year, workers at the Hyundai plant have been putting in 10 hours of overtime a week as part of their regular schedule.” If that’s true, then their regular schedule is 50 hours a week.

“With an average regular wage of about $20 an hour, the additional overtime hours mean workers here are earning more than many workers at the unionized plants up north.”

Is that true? Not according to the General Motors hourly pay scale
website. GM received a loan from the U.S. and paid it back with profits to spare. It's sharing those profits with its union workers who have conceded so much in the past and have worked so hard to make the company profitable again. GM didn't receive a bailout, it received a loan. (I'm reiterating this point because it seems to get muddled in the retelling).

The writer goes on to say:

“The United Automobile Workers union has long tried to organize plants in the United States operated by foreign carmakers, most of which are in the South, but has yet to succeed anywhere.”

The implication is that the workers are so happy that the UAW cannot make inroads. It raises questions such as: what kind of worker protections are there? What if there is a dispute with management? Are conditions hazardous? And so forth.

This article can stand as an example of how to diminish expectations in the labor market when times are tough and people are scrambling for jobs; in actuality they are not competing against each other, they are competing against cheaper labor in the global economy

What's at Stake in Madison: Only the Future

All of a sudden, just as I prepare to reactivate my Facebook page in order to netblog a Where Is Cassandra? post, my IP doesn’t connect with all the computers in my house. That’s very odd. It hasn’t happened since I’ve been here.

That reminds me of what is going on all over the world, a disruption or shutdown of Internet service.

UPDATE: I’m watching NBC waiting for Meet The Press (maybe it’s not on at 11am EST) as I see the anchorwoman and her correspondents also mouth code phrases such as “anti-budget people” versus “pro-budget people”, then cutting immediately to the turmoil in Bahrain.

If anyone knows anything about editing (Eisenstein) they know that the intention is to create a connection between hard working middle class Americans such as firefighters, policemen, nurses, teachers and many other people gathered in Madison, Wisconsin to fight for the right of collective bargaining, to keep within the middle class so that they, too, have the right to send their children to college, not just those who can afford it, with the turmoil in the Middle East. Comcast and General Electric are making that connection. We are getting selective information from the major media. Perhaps that is true also for the Internet. I’m talking about America, folks. Not some far off autocracy. This is corporate authoritarianism. I could link you to any one of my previous blog posts regarding this, with primary sources and fact checking, if I could get on the Internet.

NBC. Not Fox News.

UPDATE: Sorry, I was just informed by my significant other that Meet The Press and the other Washington Sunday morning talk fests are on Sunday (duh) and today is Saturday. Remember, the rhetoric on the media is all to create a narrative that disguises the truth. To sway millions sitting on their couches watching the TV machine. They see groups of people rallying with signs then a cut to tumult in the Middle East so the major media can force a false connection.

I’m an older person, smack in the middle of the Baby Boom, and I remember rallies in America. For civil rights, where the media showed security forces hosing down innocent people, black and white, who fought for the right for equality. I remember Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman (forgive me if I misspell names; I have no access to the only source of “facts”, the Internet) who were murdered fighting for that right.

I remember rallies against the Vietnam War. I remember rallies for woman’s liberation, to give women the right to work as equals alongside men as opposed to being limited to secretaries (nothing wrong with secretaries, mind you, but it’s also nice to have options that pay more so you can raise your children without worrying about where the next dollar is coming from). Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to start as a secretary while her male law school colleagues were given a leg up the ladder.

Do we want to go backwards into the dark ages? Or do we want to move forward to preserve our culture and civilization?

We are Americans, not consumers. We are a land of laws, not of men.

(By the way, I’m writing all of this without the benefit of the Internet and its magical algorithms. Elementary, my dear Watson.)

Unfortunately, a sad fact is that millionaires and billionaires have more in common with each other than with ordinary Americans struggling to pay their bills. Rush Limbaugh, with his millions of dittoheads, is worth something like $300 million and makes about $35 million per year.

Do not be dazzled by stoking fear and racism. Think about what’s best for you and your children and your children’s children. The fight in Madison, Wisconsin is about the future. But it’s happening now.

Pay attention. Politicians live off taxpayer money. That’s how they are paid. They have lavish, lifetime health care and pensions. They are welfare kings. Do not be fooled.

As those fighting for their rights and their fair share are saying, there’s enough for all of us. This is not a zero sum game, which means that someone has to lose for someone else to gain.

We can all gain. We can have a win-win solution. Unless, of course, we are crushed in our efforts.

I guess you can survive without the Internet. Maybe even flourish. Unless dusty old “dead tree” books are all destroyed (Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451) and the only information available will come from a few sources. Then we only have a short time to maintain the illusion of credible objective information. What kind of knowledge will come from that? 1984. George Orwell.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Dad

My father was named Roy Berkowitz. He changed his name in the 1950s because he thought it would be difficult to become a writer with a name like that. He became Roy Berke, and rose to be the Managing Director of UPI-TN (also known as United Press International Television News). He died in 1987 of leukemia two weeks after diagnosis, just as I got into law school.

He was a good friend of Reese Schoenfeld's, also in the news business. He grew up in Brooklyn, in Crown Heights on Montgomery Street. He met most of his friends when he was in kindergarten and they stayed friends throughout his life.

During World War II he was a first lieutenant in the Air Force, a pilot (not a bombardier like Yossarian in Catch-22). He was too young (17) when he enlisted so he lied about his age. He also didn't have the requisite eye sight but he managed to get through the eye exam. He saw a lot of action in the Pacific theater. I still have his letters and papers. I wrote his eulogy.

He passed away much too young. I wish my dad could have been around as a sounding board and a loving father.

I miss him.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hysteria and Group Dynamics

"Eventually you build no karma," sayeth the soothsayer. The implication of that questionable sentence is that's when the discarded outcast is finally destroyed (or destroys him/herself) for the sake of the community. She serves a vital purpose, to draw the ire and inchoate hatreds of the group upon herself. This is seen starkly in the short story, "The Lottery", by Shirley Jackson, which depicts a wholesome farming town (I believe it's in the northeast), that depends on the community to gather together for the ritual of harvest day.

It's tantamount to sexual hysteria and can be whipped up in several ways. We saw this occur during the McCarthy era, when Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin, seized upon the idea of Communists lurking among the American population, stoking the notions that ordinary citizens were infiltrating society in order to bring it down. The fear that spread like a virus through the country tore apart lives but helped put notches on the belt of Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon, who later became President. It also occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, when accusations of witchcraft ended the lives of several women. The hysteria whipped up serves several functions: bind the group against a common enemy and project internal hostility and rage upon an outsider.

Unfortunately, it is probably difficult to actually be the outsider, the target on whose destruction the group depends. There are many methods utilized against the target: threats, attempts to discredit, or even driving her to the brink of sanity. On a continuous basis, day in and day out, the perpetrator cannot help but succeed, particularly if the group does not step in for fear of becoming tainted themselves.

[Not Netblogged]