User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

"Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Defend."

Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

Sarah Bernhardt was already a famous actress when she lived in Paris in the latter half of the 19th century.  It was in Paris where she bought a coffin, brought it home and began sleeping in it.  Throughout her life she kept her coffin with her and didn't mind letting the public know.  Here is a famous publicity shot of her posed in the coffin.  It would be a good 40 years after this shot was taken that she would actually be dead.  She moved to Hollywood in the early 20th century and was one of the first generation of movie stars.  Her peculiar habits helped put the "crazy" into Hollywood folklore.

And you thought Michael Jackson was the first one to come up with sleeping in a long, narrow tube for recreation.  I don't know if it was actually true and didn't bother to research it but, it was rumored in the early 1980s that Michael Jackson bought an iron lung like those used to keep polio patients alive and slept in it.  According to the rumor, he believed that sleeping in a pressurized iron lung would keep him young.

There's nothing new about crazy celebrities.  From Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton all the way back as far as you want to go, actors and musicians have always been noted for hard partying and eccentric behavior.  This is equally true for other things we associate with modern life.  For instance, Virgil once said that wild youth will be the ruination of civilization.  The world didn't end with the Roman Empire and we still have boisterous youths and middle-aged people still complain about them.  The same goes for crooked or incompetent politicians.  We have Tony Mack right here in Trenton who is a good example of a mayor who is probably both corrupt and incompetent.

The same can be said about labor relations.  As long as there were businesses, management has tried to get the most out of its workers at the least cost, and the workers have countered by banding together to obtain better working conditions.

On July 1 of next year, the contracts for state workers will expire, and we can no doubt expect Governor Christie to demand drastic concessions on wages, pensions, health benefits and layoff rights.  We can also expect our unions to attempt to counter these moves.

Unfortunately I believe Christie will probably prevail this contract cycle, and we are going to get stuck with a bunch of givebacks.  He is already at it with his toolkit.  He would rather have the terms and conditions of employment determined by legislation rather than by negotiations with the unions.  What's the matter?  Is he afraid of sitting down and talking with the unions.  Personally, I think the time he spent as a prosecutor has gotten to his head.  He became so used to dictating to the other party and getting his way that he does not want to bother with give and take.  Although the Democrats control both houses of the legislature, they act as though they are afraid of the governor and give him pretty much what he wants.  Only with medical marijuana did the legislature develop a backbone and stand up effectively to Christie.

I could only wish they could show some spine and demand that Christie live with existing the existing limits of Civil Service law.  Our pension is broke, not because it is excessive, the average retiree receives less than $30,000 per year.  It is broke because every governor since Florio has treated pension contributions as something voluntary and have chosen to spend the money that should have gone into the fund on other things.
The same with health benefits.  Under Governor Hughes, at the start of his administration there was no sales or income tax or lottery or casino gambling.  Yet, public employees had a better health plan than we have no, and it was offered at no cost to the employee.  So, if Hughes could provide us with Blue Cross Blue Shield Traditional Plan insurance for free, why does Christie want to give us an inferior managed care plan at 20 percent cost to the employee.  The answer is because he would rather spend your money elsewhere, namely on corporate welfare.  He believes tax concessions to companies are necessary to lure businesses to the state.  Poppycock!  Past experience has shown that once the period of grants and tax abatements expire, the companies that come for them leave the state and go elsewhere to some other state that is stupid enough to offer them more concessions.

And what about our union?  They have shown themselves to be unimaginative and lack the muscle to compel cooperation from the politicians.  What can we expect from our wimpy union?  Probably a few rallies in front of the state house and days when we wear red t-shirts.  However don't expect them to endorse candidates to run against union-baiting Democrats like Sweeney in the primaries this June.  I can assure you if we could take down Sweeney and Buono in the primaries with union-backed candidates running as such, the rest of the Democratic legislators would be terrified of us, and will begin to aggressively challenge the governor at every turn.  By the way, why stop at Democrats.  It wouldn't be a bad idea to follow the Pat Robertson strategy and run union-backed candidates in the Republican primaries as well.  Take out Lonegan and the rest of the tax cut guys would shit their pants.

And what does this have to do with history repeating itself.  The previous article about my times in Iowa was not just about me, it was about the meatcutters union as it existed at Iowa Beef Processors in the 1970s as it was about the socialist Industrial Workers of the World union that was strong in Sioux City and the rest of the country in the first quarter of the 20th century.

The socialist parties rose and fell in this country for the same reason why the unions first rose and are now falling apart.  They succeeded when the people were enthusiastic about them and stood behind them.  Once they lost touch with the people, the lost influence and became irrelevant.  That's why the once-powerful Wobblies have been reduced to trying to organize Starbucks.

Like I said previously, I couldn't care less for most of the ideas behind socialism.  I talk about it so much because unknown to most people, socialism was closely tied to the labor movement in its formative years, and it failed to thrive for much the same reasons the unions have fallen out of favor..

In the early days, socialist politicians in the US pushed for things like the 8-hour work day, social security and unemployment insurance.  After the Red Scare in the late teens and early twenties, much of the socialist party migrated to the Democratic party, where they were no longer harassed by the police and were considered electable by the public.  These socialists turned Democrats got their agenda through in the 1930s.  They increased the scope of federal law so we could have national labor laws that would not be held unconstitutional.  They got us social security, unemployment insurance, the right to form unions as enshrined in the Wagner Act as well as workplace safety legislation.

After the death of Roosevelt, the Democrats grew soft in the 1950s.  Nothing like prosperity to kill a good idea.  The fact is, they achieved the basic reforms most workers desired and this led to increased wealth among the working class, now called the "middle class".  Never mind, that in every history book I have seen, for the time periods from the Victorian Era back to ancient times, the middle class refers to priests, doctors, lawyers, large farmers and small businessmen, not to workers.  We would call these people upper middle or lower upper class today.

Then the 1960s came along and the Democrats moved on to less popular agendas such as civil rights for minorities, environmental regulation, open immigration, etc.  They lost touch with the people.  The Republicans promised "normalcy" or a freeze on social legislation and also tax cuts.  Americans went for it because we are suckers for a bargain.

Likewise unions were initially successful, because like the union at IBP, the workers were willing to stand behind the union and go to the wall for them.  In the early days, as well as at IBP, strikes were often violent.  Scabs got beaten, the factories got burned, etc.  Through worker solidarity and raw street power, results were obtained.

Starting with the Taft-Hartley act, union power began to wane in this country.  What Taft Hartley did besides banning Communists from taking leadership positions in unions (a provision latter found unconstitutional), was ban secondary strikes, and this greatly reduced the power of unions to organize non-union shops.  A secondary strike is a strike against a third-party employer that provides some product or service needed for the target employer to remain open.  For instance, to shut down a newspaper, you could get the drivers that deliver the newsprint to the paper's presses to strike.  You could also strike the paper mills and shut down all the newspapers.  A modern example would be to unionize Wal-Mart by having the Longshoreman's Union refuse to unload imported cargo destined to Wal-Mart.

Another thing happened.  Workers became disconnected from their union leadership.  They did what the union told them, but half-hearted.  At the state, where strikes are illegal, people don't even try to strike.  There once was a strike in the 1980s, that sprung up as a series of wildcat actions at various worksites.  The union leadership insisted there was no strike until a complete shutdown occurred, then they got behind it.

What we need to beat the state in labor negotiations is more spirit and a more aggressive union leadership.
We need to electrify the workforce, to convince them to get behind job actions, to show up in mass to defeat candidates that are unfriendly to us, and if necessary go on strike.  If there is a strike, we should not shrink from using violence to accomplish our objectives.

In fact I would like to see an old Wobblie tactic be used.  Let's have a  general strike like they do in Europe.   Let every state office, every municipal office, every school, every police force, every paid fire department, in fact let all state, county and municipal employees strike simultaneously.  Have the unions order members that are police officers, firefighters or prison guards to not report to National Guard duty when the governor calls up the National Guard.  Most guard members are public safety workers, so if they don't report, the guard will be ineffective as a tool for restoring order.  The whole state would shut down, and chaos would break out.  There would be nothing the governor could do but capitulate to the unions.

Most likely a general strike won't happen, at least not in my lifetime.  The unions are just too weak and the workers have conditioned by management to be too compliant.  However, a little revolutionary fervor and workplace solidarity on the part of the rank and file would go a long way toward getting us what we want if the leadership would just get behind the idea.

It worked in the first half of the 20th century and it could work again if we just get behind the program.

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