Friends of Labor are proud to reprint a powerful letter by Bruce Blaustein about the heartbreaking, massive workplace deaths and injuries in Bangladesh. As we’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism—and this has been described often on Unions Matter!— since the thirst for profits rules work at factories and mines, the flesh-and-blood men and women who do the work are seen with contempt, as so much expendable material. It is the same contempt that is at the very basis of profit economics, and therefore made for the Bangladesh horror. Indeed, in 2013, the only way to make large profit is to make workers expendable. The absence of unions in Bangladesh and elsewhere has life-or-death consequences. In the U.S., where working conditions are safer, it is only because unions fought long and successfully for measures that mitigate hazards to life and limb.
We agree with Mr. Blaustein’s letter, which has been reprinted in the U.S. & internationally, including in the respected British newspaper, The Guardian:
“Shameful, monumentally shameful! As a worker in the garment centre for over 35 years in New York, I’m furious at the needless brutality to the workers at the Bangladesh textile factory, which killed more than 400 and injured 2,500 (Letters, 29 April). As building owners, manufacturers, stores – including some in America – point fingers and blame each other, everyone needs to look straight at themselves, deep into their own hearts.
They will see that this tragedy, like too many others before it, has to do with two words: “cheap labour” – putting their thirst for profits over the living, breathing people who do the work, paying the lowest wages possible and skimping on workplace safety. With working men and women – and even children – so systematically exploited worldwide, there is nothing more important than for us to ask and answer this essential question, first asked by educator and founder of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel: ‘What does a person deserve by being a person?’ ”
New York, USA
Introduction by John Stern, Aesthetic Realism consultant, Senior Planner with the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission in New York (ret.), for Unions Matter!
In keeping with the long, turbulent struggles in the history of labor—a history that includes farm workers, workers in mills, the men who built the railroads, and the women who stitched clothing in sweatshops—low income workers in NYC are fighting mad and fighting back against corporations who, ever greedy for greater and greater profits, pay miserable wages and sometimes impose unsafe working conditions. Last week, over 400 fast food workers, organized by a coalition of labor, religious, and community groups known as Fast Food Forward, went on strike demanding a living wage of $15.00 per hour and the right to unionize without fear of retaliation. This is the second walkout by these workers, and it coincided with the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis while he was supporting the rights of striking sanitation workers.
The protesters are demanding justice as they stand up to the fast food industry, companies that have raked in massive profit from the labor of their workers. According to CNBC‘s website, in an article dated January 28, 2013, they report that McDonald’s “revenue increased to $6.95 billion from $6.82 billion a year ago.” And meanwhile, the men and women who do the work are forced to live below the poverty line. It’s shameful that many of these people have to rely on food stamps, some must live in shelters, have no health benefits, and are forced to work a second job in order to keep their heads above water by adding to their grossly inadequate $7.25 minimum wage.
Tabitha Verges, a minimum-wage worker at a Burger King in Harlem, shows the inhumanity of the hourly wage she receives, as she is quoted in a New York Times article, April 4, 2013. “I’m behind on paying my bills,” she said, “I don’t think $15 an hour is asking too much. I do it all. I do three or four jobs. I take orders, I make the orders. I work the cash register. I say, ‘Have a good day.’ I do the inventory. I take out the trash. I get down and scrub the floor. I don’t think $7.25 is nearly enough.” She is so right!
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education. writes about the cause of the often brutal conditions facing workers:
The profit motive is the looking at a person in terms of how much money can you get from him or her? And profit economics is composed of the activities of that ugly motive. Centrally, it is the paying people as little as possible for their labor so that the wealth they produce can come not to them but to you…. Though it has been in operation for thousands of years, such a way of seeing one’s fellow humans is a barbaric thing for an economy and the lives of people to be based on. From it have come sweatshops, child labor, hunger, and ever so much poverty, with all that poverty makes for: suffering and stifled hopes and the monumental curtailment of people’s possibilities.
In recent years, there have been unrelenting efforts to turn back the clock, to keep workers in abject poverty; and with a surplus of labor in NYC, that has been the pattern. I want people to know that beginning in the 1970s Eli Siegel, educator and founder of Aesthetic Realism, showed that an economy based on profit could no longer succeed, had essentially failed. Despite the propaganda in the press, there is no economic recovery. What people are calling a recovery is fundamentally a “jobless recovery,” in which corporate profits rise while more and more work is wrung from the workforce.
In another issue of The Right Of, Ellen Reiss explained:
Most people have to become poorer so a small number of people can make large profits. And the question Americans now have to answer is one I have asked here before: What should be sacrificed—decent jobs for millions of Americans; or profits of individuals who didn’t earn them, so that millions of people can have decent, dignified lives? There can no longer be both. Another question is: If no one were making personal profit from the work of others, and everyone were making a good living and feeling expressed—would that be good? Would that be beautiful? Ethical? Truly American? The answer is yes!
Eli Siegel stated the most important question in economics: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” The courageous workers in the fast food industry—one of the few where someone can find a job today—are demanding to be seen and paid with dignity. The jobs of America need to be owned by the people who do the work, not corporations and shareholders. As a retired DC 37 union member who knows how crucial it is to have a union behind you, I am proud to stand in solidarity with these men and women and all working people fighting for the respect they deserve.
Post by Barbara Kestenbaum, for Friends of Labor
In celebration of Women’s History Month—and all the courageous women in the labor movement who have fought for justice to working men and women–we are proud to honor the life and work of Addie Wyatt, Chicago labor leader and lifelong activist for civil, human, and women’s rights. Here are excerpts from a paper by Steve Weiner during a recent public presentation of “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights,” the oral history project of the not-for-profit Alliance of Ethics & Art:
I’m glad to tell you about the Rev. Dr. Addie Wyatt, a founder of the national Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. She is among the 180 unsung pioneers interviewed by journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate Alice Bernstein for this project. Ms. Wyatt was born in 1924 in Mississippi. At age six her family moved to Chicago. In 1941 she began working for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, and was to become the first female local union president of the United Packinghouse Food and Allied Workers.
In a video clip, she tells about a job she applied for as a teenager and how she learned about the union. She also wrote:
I learned about the working conditions of other employees, and discovered the Union!!! Wages were paid according to skin color. Little did they know that my fight for the workers was about to begin!!!
And that fight would continue for over 40 years, especially to combat the discrimination women and non-whites experienced in the workforce.
She and her husband, Rev. Dr. Claude S. Wyatt Jr., worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1956 to 1968, participating in Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama and Washington, DC. I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism that the cause of racism and the cause of a brutal, unjust economy is the same: the universal human disposition for contempt—“the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
It’s so easy not to want to see the suffering of other people. But Addie Wyatt could not close her eyes to injustice. She fought against it courageously and passionately for workers here, and also for black labor leaders and workers in South Africa during its brutal apartheid years—and demanding US sanctions against that racist government. That is why she is one of the important women of the 20th century.
In her own quiet but powerful way, Addie Wyatt says that because the union fought for her rights as an individual, she had an obligation to join the union and to fight for justice to all workers. She illustrates richly and deeply these words of Ellen Reiss in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, “Unions and Beauty“:
There are millions of people in America grateful to unions, and many more should be. And there are persons, including in government, who have been trying to destroy unions. But Aesthetic Realism is that which shows that a union, a true union, is aesthetic: like a concerto, a novel, a painting, it is a oneness of opposites….It was unions — with their aesthetic oneness of many persons and each person, of solidarity and individuality — which, as the 20th century proceeded, ended sweatshops, made for salaries that could give people dignity, made for legislation insuring conditions under which people would not become diseased or lose limbs.
Knowing about Addie Wyatt’s passionate commitment to what all people deserve has enriched and strengthened my respect for women, and also my desire to have unions stronger than ever. I’m thankful to my union, District Council 37 (AFSCME), for enabling me to work with dignity for the City of New York for many years, earn a good salary, and now have a secure retirement.
The State of Working America, 12th edition, published by the Economic Policy Institute, presents a dismal picture of the American economy: something that millions of people—those working and those who can’t find a decent paying job—live with on a daily basis.
- A report published by the Huffington Post about the Mayors’ Conference last December stated, “Nearly all of the cities reported a rise in the number of people seeking emergency food for the first time.” What does that show about the state of our economy?
- A Community Survey published by the Alliance of Greater New York finds that “Working poverty in New York City remains high, with nearly one in ten full-and part-time workers living below the federal poverty line.” That threshold in 2013 is $11,900 for a single person, and $23,550 for a family of four. Over 46 million people in our wealthy nation still cannot find decent paying jobs three years after the much touted (and fake) “end” to the steep recession.
These shameful statistics concern real people—men, women, and children who are suffering every day. And all this is happening amid the greatest corporate—and even governmental—threats to unions and collective bargaining in America’s proud labor history. Friends of Labor, who have been publishing “Unions Matter!” for nearly two years, know there is a solid, verifiable explanation for what is happening in the economy, including the attempts to destroy unions. We also know there is a solution, the only one that will really work, and which Americans everywhere are hoping for.
In her commentary to The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, entitled “Jobs, Beauty, and the Two Freedoms,” first published in 2006 and mightily relevant today, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes about what unions and all Americans need to see:
The greater justice for which unions fought, and which they increasingly achieved, has helped to disable profit economics. That’s why there has been such a fierce effort these decades to do away with unions in America, and why so many companies are having their work done overseas by “cheap” labor. I said this some years ago, based on what I learned from Eli Siegel—-the present difficulty of unions is really a sign of their strength: by the 1970s, unions were able to accomplish so much, get such a better life for American workers, that employers have found themselves unable to come away with the profits they desired. Unions, making work more ethical, have weakened a way of economics based on bad ethics. Seeing this fact should bring pride and encouragement to the American labor movement.
As spring 2013 approaches, and in keeping with the stated goal of the AFL-CIO to “put America back to work,” we hope and urge labor officials everywhere to learn from what is explained in this powerful issue.
Americans, including labor leaders, need to look straight at the following question: Since the jobs of America cannot provide profits for non-working owners and also provide what the American people deserve, the wages, healthcare, security, pensions, and yes the leisure time–which of the two should be eliminated? Should the well-being of Americans be sacrificed so a few rich people can get richer? Or should the wealth that the American people create be theirs to give them good lives–and those completely unnecessary unearned profits be eliminated? The workers of America, with management included among the workers, can run and own the work of America, the workplaces of America, very efficiently. Having one’s life used to enrich somebody else was always wrong and ugly anyway. And non-profit jobs are ever so American. Firefighters do not work to supply some individual with profit. Nor do most teachers. Nor, even, do park rangers, who help us value and enjoy the American land.
Post by Carol Driscoll, for Friends of Labor
As many New Yorkers know, on January 16, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) called a strike of over 8,800 school bus drivers and matrons. The union is fighting to safeguard one of the most important elements in today’s uncertain economy: their members’ jobs. As a retired member of DC-37, who worked in the Department of Education as a placement officer for Hard of Hearing/Visually Impaired Students in Manhattan, I have much respect and appreciation for the work that Local 1181 members do. They are skilled, qualified men and women who are dedicated to the care and security of more than 152,000 students, including 52,000 with special needs. It is shameful that these workers, some with as much as 30 years’ experience, could lose their jobs because the city administration wants to invite bids for school bus service without including the Employee Protection Provision (EPP), which ensures job security for senior workers, and was fought for and won during the last strike more than 30 years ago.
Recently I marched in solidarity with hundreds of people, including members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees DC37, Local 32BJ SEIU, Communication Workers, Teamsters, Steelworkers Local 8751—which represents the school bus drivers and matrons in Boston—and parents throughout the city concerned for their children’s well-being. There were signs including “Stop Bullying the Middle Class!,” and a shout from a frustrated striker, “We’re treated like criminals because we get paid fairly decent wages!”
Talking with these men and women affected me very much. I learned that bus drivers earn $43,900 after three years and matrons $23,000. Their jobs are demanding and highly responsible, and they earn every penny of these wages. These are the hard-working people that the city administration wants to replace with minimum-wage workers with no benefits.
Luis Torres, who has worked for 16 years as a bus driver, said about the company he works for:
They just stopped our health insurance. The owners think we’re getting paid too much and they’re making too little profit. They want to get rid of the top paid workers, so they harass them into quitting. It takes a year to get certified and they are hiring replacements with only a day’s training.
Azucena Soto, who has worked as a matron for 18 years, said, “I love these kids and treat them as if they were my own. All we ask in return is fairness — job and pension security.” Of course, she wants this. Any person would, and it’s what’s deserved!
Reading an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, titled “Unions and Beauty,” I was struck by how much of what is happening in this strike is explained by Editor Ellen Reiss, who writes:
There has been a steady effort to undo all that unions achieved. There has been a bringing back of low wages, long hours, sweatshops. Increasingly, the jobs of America are miserably paying ones. When a person loses his $16-an-hour union job and must work instead for $7 an hour, he should know he’s doing so to help keep the profit system afloat, to have some rich persons continue getting money. That is why he is coming home bone-tired from working two jobs, while his children don’t get the kind of food he’d like to give them….
Most people have to become poorer so a small number of people can make large profits. And the question Americans now have to answer is one I have asked here before: What should be sacrificed—decent jobs for millions of Americans; or profits of individuals who didn’t earn them, so that millions of people can have decent, dignified lives? There can no longer be both. Another question is: If no one were making personal profit from the work of others, and everyone were making a good living and feeling expressed—would that be good? Would that be beautiful? ethical? truly American? The answer is yes!
I know personally and gratefully what it means to retire with dignity because one has a pension and healthcare. And this should be the right of everyone. These drivers and matrons are fighting for their rights, and the rights of all working men and women who want what they do to be valued and respected. I am proud to stand with them now, and however long it takes to bring about this simple justice!
By Barbara Kestenbaum
With the attacks on public sector unions being ramped up, Friends of Labor are proud to publish an article by Steve Weiner describing why this is happening and the one solution.
It has been reported that in the last four years nearly 700,000 public sector workers in America have lost their jobs. This makes it the worst time for public employment since World War II. Why is this occurring now? Yes, we’ve had a severe economic downturn, but we’ve had others before. I believe it’s because there are many people, in business and politics, who hate the whole idea of any kind of public service, and have been waiting for the opportunity to go after it with a hatchet –no matter how many men, women and children are hurt in the process. Why is there this great animus as to public employment? There are two reasons, which are definitely related. The first is that private individuals and companies can’t make profit from the labor of the persons who do the kinds of necessary public work—police, fire, sanitation, education, and more—that benefit our citizens and their communities. The second is that many public employees are members of labor unions, and therefore have benefits and security on the job that cannot be taken away indiscriminately.
As a public sector Computer Specialist for many years, I performed duties that benefitted the City of New York in a tangible way. I wrote computer programs that increased the reimbursements that the City received for the services to Special Education children in our schools. Because I was represented by a union, District Council 37, I was recompensed and treated fairly, and as a result, I was pleased to do my work. I have now retired with dignity and security. While all this seems so decent and modest, it is not what the vast majority of Americans who go to work nowadays experience. There is a myth, promulgated by right-wing “think tanks” and politicians, that the only way work can be done efficiently is through the use of profit-making companies. But the job I performed effectively for many years and the work of millions of other public employees belie that myth. Meanwhile, beginning in the 1980s, in my workplace and in many others, jobs that were done by public employees were “outsourced” to private companies in the name of efficiency and cost savings. But in many cases, the work done by these private contractors was shoddy and outrageously expensive.
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, as Ellen Reiss asks questions about New York City, we can see in her answers that she is explaining what is occurring all across the US right now, including the firing of hundreds of thousands of public employees:
The big fight raging in New York right now is about the question: Does New York exist to have a good effect on the people living in it, or does it exist to be used for the financial profit of some persons while others struggle? The fight is mostly unstated, but it is taking place in hundreds of ways.
As part of the ongoing failure of the profit system—which Mr. Siegel described in the 1970s—industries once vibrant in New York exist here no longer. In the last years there has been an effort, as there has been elsewhere in America, to use public monies—billions of dollars of them—to enrich various private companies and individuals. There has been the “outsourcing” of public work into private hands, so that decent-paying public sector jobs can be done away with and replaced by miserable-paying non-union jobs at private companies.
When the people of America, including our politicians, really ask how our nation can have a “good effect” on its citizens, we’ll have a land that is truly kind and sane.
Tuesday, December 11 marks an event shameful in recent American history: without any debate, legislation was signed into law by the governor of Michigan, making that state a “Right-to-Work” state—or as some call it, the “Right-to-Work-for-less.” Backed by corporations and wealthy individuals, this law was rammed through by the Republican-controlled legislature with no discussion, no presentation of facts. On the morning of the vote, tens of thousands of union members and others marched on the Capitol building in Lansing demanding that the lame-duck legislature not pass this anti-worker, anti-union law. In one of the most un-democratic actions at the state level in the history of our country, “Right-to-Work” became a law with lightning speed. This is why Valerie Constance, a reading instructor for the Wayne County Community College District and a member of the American Federation of Teachers, sat on the steps of the Capitol with a sign in the shape of a tombstone that read: “Here lies democracy.”
The many benefits that unions have negotiated—including wage increases, health insurance, pensions, the ability to file a grievance, and safety in the work place—have enabled men and women to work and live with more ease and security. In a “Right-to-Work” state, employees can refuse to pay dues, while still getting the benefits of union representation—including in their paychecks! The sole purpose of laws such as these is to weaken unions, strip them of their power, and ultimately have them no longer exist.
It is a historically verifiable fact that unionized workers earn better pay and benefits than those doing the same jobs that are non-union. Union workers have rights on the job, including a say in how things are run. The proponents of “Right-to-Work” want workers to be silenced, to work for whatever pay the bosses want to grant, and not complain about matters like safety conditions. As the important civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights….Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.
He is right, and the power of the vote was mightily illustrated by the 2012 presidential election. In a landmark analysis of the historical meaning of this election, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, explains in an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known why this election was so important:
In the 1970s, Mr. Siegel explained that a point in history had been reached: the profit system could no longer succeed. He gave the reasons in a series of lectures titled Goodbye Profit System. Economics based on using human lives for some individual’s profit, he said, might grind on, with difficulty, for quite a few years, but it was a moribund thing. It would never recover. And now, as I’ve described in other issues of this journal, the one way profit economics can continue at all is by making more and more people poorer and poorer.
Which brings us to the 2012 presidential election. I speak of it here not in terms of politics, but in terms of ethics and history. I consider it to be one of the most important elections America has had.
Americans have been suffering economically—which means suffering. Millions are jobless. Millions of children go to bed hungry. People are scared. They want something different from what has been these four years—oh, do they ever. But they do not want the alternative offered by Messrs. Romney and Ryan. There was a huge attempt to make that alternative look considerate and practical, but enough Americans didn’t buy it. They saw, whether they articulated it or not, that more complete profit economics meant even more failure and pain.
What Americans are looking for, the alternative that they do want, is an economic basis new in history. They want an economy based on ethics and aesthetics: on a oneness of those opposites justice to all people and the affirmation of every individual person. The economy America wants, the only economy that will now work, is one based on an honest answer to the question asked by Mr. Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
As a political coordinator for a New York State labor union, I am proud to agree, and I see as true what Ms. Reiss explained. The fight in Michigan is not over, just as the many battles going on right now all over America in behalf of greater justice for working people are not over. The election, demonstrations, strikes, protests are all a sign of what Eli Siegel showed: “Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.”
By Matthew D’Amico