Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!

Article By Lloyd Agte, Preface by Dan Perin

For some time I have been concerned about the way in which the political picture is turning away from the middle class in America and toward the wealthiest members of the populace.  There is a natural philosophical difference between Republicans and Democrats.  That is why we have two parties.  Typically, the Republicans favor legislation that supports the needs of the business community, mainly BIG business.  The Democrats have typically represented the needs of the working man and woman.  In the past both parties found many ways to share their differences in dialogue and then bring about conclusions that they felt would benefit the country as a whole.

I don’t think there is any doubt that times have changed.  The divisions are sharper and more damaging to society as a whole.  Unfortunately, much of this is due to the election of our first black President.  I am amazed at the latent bigotry and racism that has surfaced.  That attitude has led to a “sink the Democratic agenda and this President at all costs.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me and that led to the development of this blog in cooperation with my long-time friend, Lloyd Agte, was the effort of Wisconsin Governor Walker to abolish collective bargaining agreements for the public sector workers, this after they had already agreed to concessions.  In our email exchanges we felt that we could add voice to the debate and, hopefully, provide suggestions for actions that we might take to bring about positive change.

Please take a few minutes to read Lloyd’s personal account of his union/employer interactions. 

Ich Bin Ein Wisconsinite

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Plunge right through that line
Run the ball clear down the field,
A touchdown sure this time. (U rah rah)

The right wing attack on the middle-class and on labor continues apace, apparently on plan.  The unchecked corporate greed that busted the world economy in 2008 resulted in record deficits. In order to prevent a World Depression, the federal government borrowed money from present and future taxpayers to rescue the banks and corporations floundering in the mud of their own creation.  And how do they show their gratitude?  By coming to the rescue and helping to bail the U.S. out of debt?  By spreading some of their miraculously retained wealth around to the taxpayers who saved them?  Of course not.  They show their gratitude by attempting to squeeze from the middle-class what little wealth it still owns and by squeezing more energy from workers, in this case public workers. Of course this will have a trickle-down effect, so private labor will soon suffer too. Sally Kohn (on Fox News website, of all places) notes "the top five big banks on Wall Street set aside $89.54 billion for bonuses last year."  Well there you go Republican deficit hawks, there is 90 billion of the 100 billion you are trying to throw into the deficit bucket.  Now throw in the bonuses for bank #6 and you've got the whole salami.

The Real Wage Picture
The wacko pundits and politicians attacking the Wisconsin teachers as spoiled, highly paid and with too many benefits, have a distorted view of what high wages are and apparently are clueless that without decent health insurance and a solid retirement, teachers will become demoralized and the quality of education will decline even more rapidly than it already has in the past two decades.   (In the first week of May, Jon Stewart showed a half-dozen clips of pundits on Fox from last fall saying--in their support of eliminating taxes for the rich-- that $250,000 was not a lot of money, yet now they (or their ilk) are saying that a $57,000/yr. salary for a teacher makes them too rich.)    In addition, the right wing haters of worker rights seem deliberately clueless about a) how much time (about five years) to get a degree AND get certified, and b) how much money it takes to pay for five years of college now (multiply a year's cost by five and you will be staggered), c) how much debt most future teachers have when they graduate ($35,000 for a relative of mine who can only get substitute teaching in this economic downturn), and d) how much energy it takes to cope with a public education institution filled with functional, dysfunctional, disturbed, special needs and disabled students every day.  I spent much of my life in higher education, not in public schools, though I was certified to teach high school when I graduated from the University of Idaho, and I even had a job offer in Red Bluff, California. But my high school student teaching experience in Coeur d'Alene convinced me I was a bit lacking in the coping skills necessary to be effective in a high school environment.  At that point I entered graduate school, got a teaching assistantship to pay my way on the Master's degree and began a long and mostly satisfactory career in college teaching, getting a PhD in English at Kent State University in 1980.  But I never earned enough money to buy a new house or a new car.

My Own Experience With and Without the Union
But I was a union member too, once upon a time, in the Aircraft Machinists Union at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle for over two years, starting in 1957, after I got out of high school.  And the union was not much--one of those "company unions" that the company forms to keep a "real union" out.  (Hollywood tried the same thing in the late 30s with the writer's union, but the Writer's Guild would not buy into it.  Finally, the Hollywood bosses and some right wing politicians and right wing newscasters resorted to the Communist Witch Hunt in the late '40s and early '50s and got the union busting job done--which just illustrates that the ruling elite like the Koch Brothers, who bankrolled Scott Walker's campaign, will stop at nothing short of a brick wall, which apparently the labor movement has to become.) The dues were not much in the Machinists Union, but then neither were the benefits.   I was a Final Assembly Inspector, and not only did I not do any machining, doing any work on a plane with any tool was strictly forbidden.

However, working my way through college, I became a hod carrier in the early 1960s. I was paid $3.50 an hour until I joined the Hod Carriers and Longshoremen Union, at which time I received $4.50/hr (it took a couple weeks to acquire the capital for dues).  It was a brutal, eight-hour day, entirely physical throughout the day.  But it was fair and predictable.  At the high wage (at the time--as entry wage at Boeing then was just over $2.00/hr--bottom starting wage at a Boeing factory being $1.60/hr when I hired on in 1957.  We started on time, and we ended on time.  One could gauge one's energy reserves appropriately.  Though I worked for a range of contractors all over Seattle, as building jobs are usually short-lived, from a few days to a few weeks, there never was a question about hours, pay, and so forth.  You showed up on time and did your work, mixing concrete, wheeling barrows of concrete along a plank 11 inches wide two, three stories up sometimes, stocked up scaffold with blocks, bricks, etc. kept the brick and block layers happy with fresh or tempered mortar, and so on.  A bricklayer's slave, but it was good and fair slave wages.  I had no complaints.  Union reps were on call and they often visited the work sight. Though sometimes I think someone had called one to check on me. Being just 22, I think sometimes it was suspected that that I was not a member. So the rep would check my card, sometimes call it in, and that was it. That was fine.  He was doing a job I was paying him to do.

At the end of my junior year in college, since I had broken up with my Seattle girlfriend, I decided instead to seek summer work in Spokane, a hundred miles from the University at Moscow and 50 miles from my parents' home.  I had a lead on a sidewalk- construction labor job, where streets were being widened and new sidewalks were being laid.  That was a federally granted project (or a lion's share of it) and part of the stipulation for the contractor was that he was to pay union wages.  I can't remember the figure, not as much as the Seattle hod carrier wage, but certainly better than the $2.00 an hour I had been earning part-time as a service station attendant at a Texaco station in Moscow that necessity had forced me to hold during the previous school year.  The project kept getting delayed, so in the interim I hustled what jobs I could. I worked for a spell for one bricklayer with his own small company, a man who was even less organized than I.  We would start at 8:00 one day, then he would move that up to 6:00 the next.  Then we would stop at 5:00 one day and the next work until 7:00 (no overtime pay, of course).  Then one Friday night, after I had my meager weekend planned, he said, "Well, let's work tomorrow" (straight hourly wages, of course).  Okay, I said, and did not say anything, showed up on time on Saturday and we worked for about two hours, not accomplishing much at all.  At which time he said, "Oh, let's call it good for the day."  That's what you get without a union.   And when Federal Income Tax time rolled around, it seems that he had not turned in the withholding he had taken from me.  Luckily, I still had the check stubs, so I guess the IRS got it straightened out.   Again, that's what you get without a union.

Unions In Name Only
Finally, the sidewalk job started, and I went to work.  There was some random manipulation of hours, but it was mostly a regular 6:00 a.m. start.   And to be fair, concrete has its own sweet time that it takes to cure, thus quitting time is dictated by a varying chemical reaction rather than the time clock.  But with the early starts the crew got to hear the angry ranting of residents when they came out to get in their cars and drive to work and found blocking their exit to the street a fresh river of concrete which had just been poured for the new sidewalk.  The contractor did not give a damn.  He just wanted to milk what fortune he could from the government contract.  At the end of the week I received my first paycheck.  And it was short.  The wage per hour was a dollar and a half or so (don't remember exactly) short of what the union wage rate was.  I jumped the boss about it and asked what was going on, that I understood this was a government-sponsored project and that he was to pay a union wage.  Well, "Yes," he said, apparently responding to my charge hat this government-sponsored job was to pay union wages. Then he said, "But no, this is not a union job," thus implying that the low wage was a take-it-or-leave-it choice of mine. The next week some workers were kneeling down setting sidewalk forms and grousing about something, hours and working conditions, and I said that if you had a union in here you probably could do something about it, and I complained about the boss cheating on the government contract.  Again I brought up the need for a union and one of the workers, one whom I think had worked for the boss for a while, looked up and said, "But if you had a union in here, you might end up working beside some colored guy."  I was so flabbergasted that I could not even answer.  To choose poverty and misery and work-place abuse over racial tolerance!  Needless to say, I did not last long after that. I think a "union agitator" was ratted out.  I was let go after my next Friday paycheck.  That's what you get without a union.  (Note: to be fair, the Aircraft Machinists Union may have improved, as the word from Seattle after the new AF tanker contract was awarded to Seattle was that it went there because of the highly skilled union employees, as opposed to going South where the Boeing plant is non-union.)

Public Vs Private Sector Workers
"There are more public workers in unions than in private sector" the anti-democracy, free-market coyotes howl.  But of course, since the corporations have shut down factories and shipped the jobs off to China, or wherever they earn an extra nickel that can go into an offshore account. What do you expect?  The public sector has stayed stronger than the private because it is not so easy to outsource public workers to a foreign country.  (I probably should not bring this up or some Republican will put a bill before congress to privatize and outsource the IRS to India.  Or maybe Afghanistan, since they are in more desperate need of economic help.)  And why not outsource the collection of corporate taxes to Sicily.  Would we not be collecting more money than we are now?  Mama Mia, all the broken kneecaps of those corporate managers, I would hope so.

Clearly torpedoing the unions will just exacerbate the income disparity in the country, without doing anything to reduce the deficit.  In 1976 the top 1 percent of total income earners stood at 8.9 percent of the total earners.  Today it is 25%.  That is, the top 1 percent of income earners hog a quarter of the total income earned in the United States.  During this time the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.   There is a protest in Wisconsin because the corporate money flowing into the political system is designed to make the rich richer and the politicians are working for them to make that happen.  They are working to make it a winner-take-all economy.  That's what you get without a union.

What Can WE Do About This Issue?
There is a "Shame on You, Gov. Walker" petition offered by  Care2 that you can sign at:

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