Thursday, July 16, 2015

Plus ça Change

It's not Christmas but this post from my old blog is not a seasonal memory. I came across it during a nighttime foray into the Web. I don't recall what I was looking for but when I came across this I knew it was something I wanted to keep. This is a re-blogging of something I put together ten years ago. I have not checked them all but a couple of the important outlinks are still working. 

MONDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2005
So many words, so little time...

Christmas and the end of the year are a time to lift your head from your work, look around and evaluate what you're doing and where you're headed. Maybe that's where the notion of "New Year's resolutions" comes from. There are a few people who seem never to reevaluate what they are doing or where they are going. Those are the sad ones whose journey through life eventually becomes a tired, plodding existence ending in a correspondingly boring era of "old age."

Being old represents a state of body and mind, and too often the two do not end together. After working for three years now in a retirement community I have been able to witness the decline and fall of a lot of people -- a good many more than the average person ever observes in the space of three years. I have decided that if I have any wish for my own old age it is that my mind and my body will play out at the same time. It is a painful thing to watch someone struggle physically when the mind is still active, and perhaps even more painful to see someone lose cognition long before their body quits functioning. In a few cases both functions phase out together, but at a pace measured in decades rather than months or years, and we can look into a mirror of us all in that protracted end, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

An essay by Joe Queenan in yesterday's New York Times captured a moment of truth for me which helped me come to terms with a preoccupation that has hobbled me all my life: the impulse to acquire and read books. Like a substance abuser or OCD patient coming to terms with a crippling, self-destructive behavior I was able to push past denial. I copied and printed the article, pinched the three pages at the corner with a little paper clamp, installed a hook right in the middle of my library and hung it there to remind me: I already have more books than I will ever read, so getting more is not about reading but ego: owning, displaying and sporting --but certainly not reading. In the same way that shopping in a mall for yet another pair of shoes, shirt or knick-knack for which I have no earthly use is a waste of time and money, getting yet another book must be something that I do with serious circumspection. No need to spend the money if I don't invest the time to read.
Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to "Le Colonel Chabert," with titles by authors as celebrated as Marcel Proust and as obscure as Marcel Aymé. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of genius, 500 oddities and 138 examples of high-class trash. Nowhere in this utopian future would there be time for [yet another obscure, uninteresting tome probably "re-gifted" from someone posing as a friend] 
True, I used to be one of those people who could never start a book without finishing it or introduce a volume to his library without eventually reading it. Familiarity with this glaring character flaw may have encouraged others to use me as a cultural guinea pig, heartlessly foisting books like "Damien the Leper" (written by Mia Farrow's father) or the letters of Flannery O'Connor upon me just to see if they were worth reading. (He wasn't; she was.)
I can truthfully say that blogging has become the pastime of choice where my reading is concerned. During the last four years (blogging really only took off in the aftermath of the WTC attack) I have allowed magazine subscriptions to lapse, quit looking so lustfully at bookstores and rarely buy a newspaper, except for local stories. It may be that like the substance abuser who substitutes coffee and chewing gum for another substance of choice I have only redirected a habit, but when I look at that habit in the shadow of impending old age, mentioned above, I think it is a move in the right direction. It has been my observation that the mind is as subject to exercise or neglect as the body. Like it or not, use it or lose it.

Toward that end, this morning's reading starts off with a great new discovery. I have added yet another blog to the aggregator, Words Without Borders Blog: Literary Notes from Around the World. There isn't much of an archive yet. It seems to have started less than six months ago, but two snips I found this morning are enough to get me hooked.
The other day at a function, a woman I hadn't met before came and sat down beside me. She expressed great interest in getting to know me, and to make an acquaintance. Naturally, some conversation is required. She asked me a few questions, such as: [Insert here a tedious list of trivial questions, ed.] 
After nearly an hour and a half of my answering her various questions, she was satisfied that she was acquainted with me. But reader, believe me, I am not making up any of this--that woman asked me absolutely nothing. Who am I, where is my house, who are my parents, what work do I do, even what is my name! A woman who after a whole hour and a half of talking to me doesn't even know my name, but who feels quite content that she has fulfilled her duty of getting to know me.
That is, to coin a line, too good for words. It is a cultural snapshot comparable with that old adage that a picture being worth a thousand words.
Words, like the eyes, are a lens into the soul.
And here are two excerpts from another essay that tells me that what is being advertised as a war between two civilizations, a war that is being waged by conventional military means, is really a symbolic conflict that will be won or lost, not in the streets of some distant land, but in the minds of those taking part in the conflict. As I read these words I could not help wondering how well "our side" does at introspection and reevaluating values.
When I was a child, I experienced the two different rereadings of Islam firsthand. As the child of a single mother, there was a time when I grew up with two different grandmothers. At the first glance these two women were so alike: they were both Turkish, they came from similar class backgrounds, and both were Muslims. Yet, my father’s mother was a follower of the religion of fear. The Jalal side of Allah appealed to her more than anything else. She taught me about the patronizing, paternal, and celestial gaze always watching me from above to then make a note of all the sins I committed down here. I came back from her house slightly traumatized, unable to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen naked by Allah, ashamed of the body given to me. 
But shortly after, I moved to the house of my other grandmother and thus entered an iridescent universe replete with folk Islam and superstitions. This was an old woman who poured melted lead to ward off the evil eye, read the coffee cups and taught me not to step on the thresholds where the djinn danced at night. She was a follower of the religion of love. For her Allah wasn’t a God to be feared but a God to be loved. Indeed, the celestial gaze watched us constantly, she agreed, but it also blinked from time to time, just like any other eye would. Those times of blinking were the moments of freedom when we were invisible to God. “Sure, the religious authorities are rigid, and yes, some teachings are constraining, but do not worry,” she would say, “for they are bricks, you are water. They will stay put, you will flow.” She is the one who taught me all about water. Love and faith could be just like water, so fluidlike. I doubt if I have entirely managed to follow the path of the water in love and faith, but eventually, that was the model my fiction writing followed.
This woman, a Turkish writer, displays a great depth of cultural intelligence. She packs very important ideas into a very tight little space.
...the woman writer chooses to speed up the flow of time because it is easier to be respected as an old woman in a patriarchal society than as a young woman. Thus, we end up with women in their thirties acting as if they were in their sixties. In the Middle East women age quickly, leaping from the category of “virgins” to “old women,” as if there is nothing in between. The quicker the jump, the more esteem and authority a woman writer earns in the eyes of the society.
[...]
...I sometimes liken my fiction writing, both in language and content, to walking on a pile of rubble left behind after a catastrophe. I walk slowly so that I can hear if there is still someone or something breathing underneath. I listen attentively to the sounds coming from below to see if anyone, any story or cultural legacy from the past, is still alive under the rubble. If and when I come across signs of life, I dig deep and pull it up, above the ground, shake its dust, and put it in my novels so that it can survive. My fiction is a manifesto of remembrance against the collective amnesia prevalent in Turkey.
Two or three times in the last week I have heard the same theme from unrelated sources: our real enemy is not belief, but fundamentalism, whether it be ours or theirs -- Christians, Jews or Muslims. It is okay to know that you know that you know that yours is the only truth and the truth of others is badly, even sinfully incorrect. But to conclude that the only way to deal with that difference is to anihilate the other believer, is as mindless as that line from the Vietnam conflict that it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

Thanks again to 3QDaily for raising my consciousness.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Note of Thanks to Donald Trump


Donald Trump is like a kid in a candy store. Of all the ways a Republican candidate might attract attention, he picked the biggest cookie of all -- Mexican immigrants. Forget terrorism, Palestine, Russia, Greece, Confederate flags, guns, income disparity. taxes and The Economy Stupid. Building a wall between Mexico and the US is better than a holiday fireworks display.
The Trump Card in person

And about as long-lasting.

But while he has everyone's attention, this is a good time to look more closely at the backstory of Mexican immigrants. We might start with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, but that's kinda like slavery. Nobody alive now had anything to do with that so what would be the point?
The Gadsden Purchase, or Treaty, was an agreement between the United States and Mexico, finalized in 1854, in which the United States agreed to pay Mexico $10 million for a 29,670 square mile portion of Mexico that later became part of Arizona and New Mexico. Gadsden’s Purchase provided the land necessary for a southern transcontinental railroad and attempted to resolve conflicts that lingered after the Mexican-American War.
Whole Spanish-speaking communities who thought they were Mexicans woke up one morning to learn they became Americans overnight with the stroke of a pen. At least they didn't change the names of their towns to the new mother tongue -- San Francisco would be Saint Francis...Los Angeles, The Angels...San Antonio, Saint Anthony...Sacramento, Most Holy Sacrament. You get the idea.

A more recent Mexican-American connection was established with the Bracero program lasting from about the Second World War to 1965.
The Bracero Program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. On August 4, 1942 the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms (officially referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Program), and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began. But the program lasted much longer than anticipated. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78. 
The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the United States worried that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages. In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers for example, guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer's expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. Between the 1940s and mid 1950s, farm wages dropped sharply as a percentage of manufacturing wages, a result in part of the use of braceros and undocumented laborers who lacked full rights in American society.
Any of that look familiar?

We're coming into a part of history now that some of us still remember. When I was one of those children of the Sixties boycotting table grapes in support of Caesar Chavez was more fashionable than avoiding plastic bags. Even then some of us knew Mexicans were being exploited. I guess that was the whole point of the Bracero program.

I'm not sure why the Bracero program ended. It should have morphed into a more manageable, rational arrangement  which allowed Mexicans to continue what was (and continues to be) a valuable contribution to the American economy.  But that's not what happened. Wikipedia offers as good an narrative as any explaining what happened next.
In 1964, the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican agricultural workers to work legally in the U.S. on a seasonal basis, came to an end. Less than a year after the end of the Bracero Program, the Mexican Government launched the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) or the Maquiladora Program, to solve the problem of rising unemployment along the border. The maquiladoras became attractive to the US firms due to availability of cheap labor, devaluations of peso and favorable changes in the US customs laws.[citation needed] In 1985, maquiladoras overtook tourism as the largest source of foreign exchange, and since 1996 they have been the second largest industry in Mexico behind the petroleum industry.
Following the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), the growth of maquila plants skyrocketed. During the five years before NAFTA, the maquila employment had grown at the rate of 47%; this figure increased to 86% in the next five years. The number of factories also increased dramatically. In the five years preceding NAFTA, 564 new plants opened; in the five years following, 1460 plants opened. However, the maquiladora growth is largely attributable to growth in US demand and not NAFTA itself. In the 1970s, most maquiladoras were located around the Mexico–United States border. By 1994, these were spread in the interior parts of the country, although the majority of the plants were still near the border. Recent research indicates that the maquiladora industry has an impact on U.S. border city employment in service sectors.
Does anyone else see what's happening?  Anybody catch that NAFTA reference?  Is it my imagination or do I smell a whiff of corporate profits taking precedence over those always annoying and expensive employee benefits?

Most readers are smart enough to see where this is going so I won't dwell on the obvious. Instead I want to speak about my personal experience during forty years in food service management.  I hired the first Mexican employees at the cafeteria where I worked in 1982, one of the busiest units in the company. We served over two thousand meals daily during the week and three thousand-plus on weekends, and staffing was a constant challenge. I remember one day perfectly. I was carrying a tray of dirty dishes to the dishroom window when someone said "You look like you need some help." I dropped down immediately and said "Do you need a job?"

That was the beginning of the end of all our problems in the dishroom. Within a week there were no more broken dishes, no missed schedules, no arguing or fighting and the few teens we had nights and weekends had adult role models who did worked quickly and efficiently. Washing dishes is not rocket science. Years passed, but to make a long story short, I learned to welcome and appreciate, not only Mexican workers but immigrants from all over the world. A few years later I had employed many immigrants from other Central American countries as well as Haiti, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana and the former Yugoslavia.

But I digress. This post is about Mexicans. It's no surprise by now that many of the lowest-paid workers in America come from other countries, but mostly Mexico. And it's also no surprise that many of them are not documented. The number tossed around is about eleven million. And anyone who thinks that those eleven million people might simply vanish without being noticed is living in a fool's paradise.

Moreover, that population of eleven million might once have been made up of all-undocumented immigrants, but it a blended population which includes natural born American citizens as well as a whole generation of young people brought here as children, even babies, about the time the Bracero Program (remember that?) was ended, and closing the border became a priority.

When crossing the border was easier, Mexican men and boys came to America for work and lived humbly, returning to the Mexican economy to live quite well on what they had earned. But when the border became harder to cross they started remitting the money by other means while remaining in America. But that is a lonely existence, so it was natural that they would eventually be joined by girlfriends and wives so their families could stay together.

The senior employee in my last dishroom was a middle-aged man who was something of a foreman, instructing newcomers what to do and basically keeping the place running smoothly. I was told that when he took vacation he returned to Mexico to check on several pieces of business real estate which provided him and his family enough income for a comfortable lifestyle. I don't know about that, but I know his wife sure made some killer tamales which they sometimes shared with me at lunch,

Just as we have an informal economy outside the "real" economy (baby-sitters, yard sales, flea markets, illegal drugs, cigarettes and liquor across state or county lines -- you know the drill -- not to mention bribes, kickbacks and political wheeling and dealing) there has always been a fairly steady level of undocumented immigrants (or illegal aliens, as many like to say) that are essential to the stability of our economy.

Here is a good place to mention the Dreamers, a generation of young people now ready for college, comprising the biggest population of non-citizens in our lifetime who are ready, willing and able to become working, tax-paying members of society.
Over three million students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Most get the opportunity to test their dreams and live their American story. However, a group of approximately 65,000 youth do not get this opportunity; they are smeared with an inherited title, an illegal immigrant. These youth have lived in the United States for most of their lives and want nothing more than to be recognized for what they are, Americans. 
The DREAM Act is a bipartisan legislation ‒ pioneered by Sen. Orin Hatch [R-UT] and Sen. Richard Durbin [D-IL] ‒ that can solve this hemorrhaging injustice in our society. Under the rigorous provisions of the DREAM Act, qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service.
It should be mentioned that many of these young people have younger siblings who are Americans by birth. I need not point out how damaging to family structure citizenship and other legal issues can be.

Getting back to The Donald, we need to thank him for bringing this issue into the spotlight. When campaigning for the next election gets under way the matter of immigration will morph into something different as Republicans work hard to retain the xenophobic votes and Democrats, if they're smart, will stay our of the GOP circular firing squad. Meantime, thanks to anyone who plowed through my notes. I hope they are helpful. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Syria -- Looking at the Future

Obaida Fares was born on April 19, 1978, in Aleppo, Syria and relocated to Jordan at a young age. He completed a Bachelor in Economics at Al al-Bayt University in Jordan, where he currently resides. Over the past several years, he has attended approximately 120 classes in the fields of human rights, democracy and youth work.

Mr. Fares worked as a consultant for The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) (2001-2003) in the field of early childhood and youth. He was subsequently employed in a similar role the British Council in the field of family protection.

Presently, Mr. Fares serves as the bureau chief of the regional office of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) headquartered in Washington, DC. He is an author and an editor (individually and collectively) of several books in the fields of human rights, democracy, and family protection.

This summary of the Syrian tragedy is a Google translation from Pier 22 blog. 
~~~~~
A generation of illiterate Syrians is now growing up. 
Obeida Fares
07/08/2015
huge challenges facing Syria and the future caused by the war produced five sets


Since the beginning of 2014, the Syrian humanitarian crisis has become the biggest in the world. This was reflected in the disastrous effects on the Syrian community in Syria, and the refugee community abroad, and the host communities.

International organizations can no longer believes that the necessary financial resources to deal with these crises, prompting her to pursue a policy of extinguishing fires to secure the basic requirements, and minimum limits. With exhausted relief Syrian, regional and humanitarian institutions, and drained its resources in food, housing insurance for millions of people in need.

Under such circumstances, the thinking about the future is a kind of luxury for the social domain specialists, due to the depletion of inventory of all the resources in the immediate effects of the difficult conditions experienced by the Syrians.

But a study of similar cases in other countries indicate that the recovery of the society from the effects of similar crises will not be easy, even if it had secured political conditions that restore the living conditions to its natural state, and that it may take decades until the community is recovering from the effects of the current crisis, especially for some groups that it is not the facilitator returned to normal life. We will address five sets here Stotr heavily on the future of Syria.

First: Education

It exposed the educational process major damage , especially in the off-system control areas, either because of the destruction of schools, or because of the support from the interruption of the educational process, or because of child labor, a key factor in the interruption of 75% of students for education.

And estimated the number of children who do not have access to education at the beginning of 2014 by about 3 million children. At the beginning of 2015 it was estimated by the United Nations that half of school-age children are not in regular educational process.

In addition to the interruption of school students about education, all students who are in the age of the system beyond the control of the university study areas, did not go to university over the past years. This means certainly that Syria will witness the emergence of a generation of illiterate, will be a burden on the development process, and will not be able to integrate with their peers from learners.

The Higher Education outages in certain areas (often in rural towns), in parallel with the children a break in the same areas for basic education, means focused economic and social burden to city centers to rural areas account, and perhaps more than the image that had this superiority at the beginning of the twentieth century .

Second: Displaced people and displaced

Forced more than half of the Syrians to leave their homes as refugees and refugees. The number of refugees Syrians today about 4 million, and this figure includes non-registered in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and who are still waiting for their registration.

Many of these left their country nearly four years ago, it is no longer for many of them as possible to return to it, having lost their homes or their shops. As most of them they did not engage in any work during these years, and depend entirely on aid.

It will not be easy to re-integrate all of these in the job market again, and they will need special training programs to return to their normal lives, away from humanitarian assistance, total dependence on others.

Third: the owners of the destroyed houses

There are no accurate data at any point on the scale of the devastation that hit the private and public facilities during the last years of the conflict, but it is estimated that 1.0002 million A home at least has been destroyed.

With the continuation of the war and the bombing of the system, the more homes will be destroyed on a daily basis, until it became certain neighborhoods that were crowded in the past is viable, such as Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo and neighborhoods of the old city of Homs.

Even if it could any future government after the stability of bringing international aid, the rebuilding of this number of houses will need to budget at least $ 60 billion, a figure that will not be easy to secure, especially with the presence of other needs not less urgent. There are 5,000 schools at least suffered total or partial demolition of what leads them out of service, also destroyed 36% of the hospitals as well as roads, bridges and sewage networks and water and electricity networks.

Residents of these houses crisis is not limited to demolish their homes and wait for reconstruction, the junction of the real value of homes in need of specialized committees lacked a long time until the end of its work, and the owners and tenants will find themselves in front of a legal dilemma to prove the nature of the contracts that were bound together by demolishing their homes, as well as to lose a lot of ownership decades, as a result of the targeting of the Land Registry in more than one city, and the most important of the Land Registry in Homs, which targeted missile system in 01/07/2013, to burn all the records.

Fourth generation fighters

It is working with a military battalions doors Limited available to young people to get a job in the off-system control areas. It is not known how many fighters in all the opposition factions, but the number is not less than all estimates for a hundred thousand. This at a time when shares of thousands of supporters of the regime engaged in ongoing battles in military militias.

It will not be possible for any future government to integrate all these people in the state army, will not be easy for these fighters to give up power which Taudoha in previous years, or even a return to normal civilian life.

Note that these fighters were involved, or at least viewed on a daily basis, much of the violence, so the return to civilian life without appropriate qualification will be a source of social violence and even family.

Fifth: the disabled

There are no reliable figures for the number of wounded and disabled in Syria, but estimates indicate that 5-10% of the population in the inflamed areas are suffering from injuries, and the rights to draw estimates that every barrel of explosive falling in a residential area leads, at least, to the injury of five people of different physical disabilities, note that in 2014 alone witnessed a fall of more than 11,000 barrels. And international estimates confirm the existence of three disabled children for every child killed during the war.

These persons will suffer from the difficult economic conditions, as a result of the link known between disability and poverty , with less possibility of these get suitable jobs, and less access to training and education opportunities compared to other members of the community, especially in developing countries, which have passed civil wars.

It will increase the economic burden on the families of these people, because of health and daily care they need, especially if the state did not provide physical care for them, which is not available in Syria before 2011, is not expected getting in Syria's future Tee considerable material burdens.

As expected exposure of these persons to the violence, in addition to the high probability of exposure to secondhand discrimination in society, especially in the absence of friendly facilities for the disabled, and the weakness of the culture of dealing with persons with disabilities in the community.

Syria: What future?

Stersh any future government in Syria under a huge physical burdens, start of reconstruction costs, and will not end applications for compensation to the victims and detainees and missing persons, and in parallel with the political and social crises resulting from the remnants of years of crisis that does not know to the day when it will end and how.

It will not be local resources, economic and human, meet and unusual huge needs at all levels can, and therefore in need of international Marshall Plan to help them return to the path of development, albeit slowly.

Except that the future needs require now a change in the donor institutions, policies, international and domestic, to move to meet the immediate needs of food, medicine and non-food assistance, to development assistance that encourage the target on access to the labor market, instead of getting used to the culture of receiving aid, and support projects small development inside and outside Syria to provide job opportunities for young people, and support education projects in particular.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Should Bernie Form a Third Party?

Bernie Sanders for the well-intentioned, 
semi-informed layperson
This link via Facebook set me to thinking...

Those of us who have followed politics for years know that third party and write-in candidates typically split the votes for whichever of the other two candidates is closest. In Bernie's case he's currently running for the Democrat nomination, but a real threat will be if he fails and decides to launch a third party campaign for president in 2016, instead of throwing his support behind the presumptive winner (Hillary).

As a third party candidate (assuming his numbers continue to climb) he would more likely split the Democrat ticket, in effect tossing the election for the GOP. If my presumptions are accurate, anyone voting for Bernie in the general election would not see much difference between the other two main party candidates. In other words, there wouldn't be enough daylight separating them to make any difference which of them won -- so voting for the long shot would be better than not voting at all.


I hate to admit it, but when I think about it -- I'm getting there...

Those of us from Georgia remember well how Lester Maddox became our governor. He was not elected by an electoral majority, but by the Democrat-controlled Georgia legislature, in accordance with the Georgia constitution which stipulated that in the event no candidate got a majority there would not be a run-off, but the election would be decided by the legislature. And since Lester was the official Democrat and Ellis Arnall was the popular third party candidate, a write-in who failed to receive the necessary majority, the outcome was fait accompli.

I was out of the country at the time and didn't bother to send an absentee ballot. (I actually used it instead to show my Korean high school students how Americans could still vote by mail, even though not able to vote in person. They were quite impressed, never having thought about such a thing before. My absentee ballot was better used as a visual aid for teaching anyway.) A friend who was voting at the time said the alternative was between a sophisticated bigot and an unsophisticated bigot anyway. A vote for Arnall was a long shot, but Bo Callaway, the Republican and former Congressman, had been so negative in his former job he was nicknamed "No" Callaway.

If the 2016 presidential election is between Hillary and Jeb, I will need a lot more energy to be more than a lackadaisical Democrat, especially if Bernie is also on the ticket.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Right to work" Reflections

I woke up this morning thinking about "right to work" laws. My earliest memory hearing the term "right to work" was when I was about twelve or thirteen. My father mentioned it in conversation with my mother soon after we had moved from Kentucky to Georgia. I had no idea what it meant but it sounded like a good thing. After all, any "right" must be a good right -- cuz when you don't have a right to do something that can't be a good thing. And everybody needs a right to earn a living.

Only later did I learn that it is about unions and union-busting -- and "right to work" actually means "right to get fired" if you think being in a union is a good thing. It's one of the tools in the union-busting collection.

My dad was a tight-fisted guy. He put a price tag on everything. And anything that cost money could always be got for less if you shopped hard enough or bargained forcefully enough. I think it was his experience in the car business that made him that way. The automobile business, after all, is the modern version of horse trading. And horse trading is synonymous with wheeling and dealing. (Get that? "Wheeling?")

Regarding unions, the idea of bargaining with big-shot bosses appealed to my dad. But he knew that union big shots are usually compensated (or were) as well as those bosses, and the only way they got paid was by collecting dues from union members. And this is where "right to work" comes into play. He liked the idea of bargaining for better working conditions and more pay, but the idea of paying some big union organization a bunch of money was a sticking point. It was like tithing at church. Everybody knew you're supposed to do it, but when the preacher sounds like a broken record always talking about it, it's time to look around to find another preacher (or another church).

Union-organized workplaces are "union shops" and if you work in one your wages have a deduction for union dues and you will be a member of that union. That's the difference between a union shop and a non-union shop. Written rules spell out the rights and responsibilities of workers and the company and any problems are handled through the union, not the person (or persons) involved.

"Right to work" laws make union shops impossible by allowing employees to opt out of union membership (and dues) and continue to keep their job. In short, non-union employees enjoy union benefits without paying for them, What a deal! But that is also why companies and bosses love them. Right to work laws cripple unions.

This is why my dad was not a union man. He didn't feel the need to have anyone speaking for him. Over time I learned to appreciate him as a one-man union. During a career of hard work lasting thirty-five or forty years he only had to tell a boss where to get off three or four times, but when he did, they always listened. He had a way of letting you know -- in a nice way, of course -- that you were about to cross a line he could not tolerate. And you didn't want to find out what would happen if you did. In his work environment he had the respect that only comes to those who are unquestionably good at their job. He was an automatic transmission specialist. What he did every day was work that few people could do. Consequently he was paid well, was never discharged and only had three employers in his entire working life -- even though the dealerships where he worked may have changed ownership a dozen times or more.

Back to "right to work." My dad, like most of his generation growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression, was simply too tight-fisted for his own good. Living and growing up at the edge of poverty shapes one's attitude about money. Those who are careful can live from check to check, and over time they might even save a little for a rainy day. After a few years it becomes a lifestyle. You learn to "do without." If you have enough to eat, are blessed with good health and always have a job -- what more could anyone want? And that is the razor's edge on which most of the working poor live.

One feature of union contracts links the minimum wage of members with the official minimum wages, state or federal, wherever the union operates. Increases in the minimum wage automatically trigger comparable increases in union wages. Otherwise, what's the value of union membership? This is the sticking point for most opposition to increasing the minimum wage -- it increases wages up the scale, driving up "labor costs" which is never, ever good for profits.

It's no accident, then, that "right to work" states have the lowest wages which is the definition of poverty. Wages are subject to the same laws of supply and demand as prices. And if there is no legal safety net for minimum wages, periods of unemployment drive the minimum downward in a feedback loop that only stops when working becomes more costly than being unemployed.

This, in short, is why Bernie Sanders' talking points are receiving such a widespread good response from ordinary people. At some level they recognize that his easy to understand remarks about wealth and wages perfectly describe the American work and business landscape. Listen to what he says and it's all correct. Unfortunately he will not make it into the finals because he doesn't have the backing of seriously big money. At this point in the cycle, most people are not even paying attention. I have spoken with several people who have never heard of Bernie Sanders and probably never will. I could inform them (which I do, of course) but that's just John rattling on about something in the news. He's always jabbering about something. So without an avalanche of advertisements (How do you say "Super Bowl" or "blockbuster movie" or "reality TV" or "March madness"?) there is no way he will be among the finalists.

But Bernie is leaving his mark. He's raising the consciousness of lots of people. He's not as eccentric as Ross Perot and he sure doesn't have that much money. But hopefully as the season progresses, his message (and that of the unions) will reach enough people to pressure their elected representatives to do the right thing and increase minimum wages.