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What the Labor Movement Needs to Learn from the UAW-Volkswagen Vote

March 10, 2014

As a political coordinator for a labor union that represents both public and private sector workers throughout New York State, I have seen how important union representation is for working men and women.  Our members do difficult work, such as taking care of the disabled and sick, or plowing our roads after a snowstorm.  Thanks to their union contracts, fought for over decades, they are treated with more of the dignity and compensation they deserve.  In recent years, however, there have been concerted efforts by big business and elected officials at the national and state levels to have unions not exist at all.   In the private sector, many good-paying union jobs in manufacturing have been outsourced to countries where labor is cheap and unions are almost non-existent.  And the assault on unions has continued with laws to make states “right to work” (which really means “we can force you to work for less”), and some states have passed or proposed laws taking away collective bargaining rights for public employees, as Wisconsin did.  This attempt to destroy unions and all that they have achieved—decent pay, safe working conditions, medical benefits, pensions–is more intense than ever because every dollar that goes to a union worker takes away from the profits that corporations insist are their due.

  • The Need for Unions and What Happened in Chattanooga

Clearly, the need for unions to grow is more obvious than ever.  That is why I, like many people, followed so closely the organizing campaign of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The importance of this effort was clear, because more foreign-owned auto companies have been opening up plants down South, since labor is cheaper there and most workers aren’t organized.  What was unique about this campaign was that Volkswagen and the union both signed a neutrality agreement.  Volkswagen, which is used to dealing with workers who have strong union representation in Germany, agreed not to pressure workers against joining the union.  Here in the United States, particularly in the South, trying to organize working people is extremely difficult.  Companies constantly break the law by threatening and intimidating workers against joining a union.  Untold numbers of men and women have been fired simply for supporting unionization efforts.  As someone who did organizing in the South, I saw this kind of intimidation firsthand.  I spoke to people working in nursing homes in Georgia, making poverty wages as they cared for the most vulnerable, terrified to talk about unions because they feared being fired.  I heard law enforcement tell us we couldn’t stand in front of work sites and talk to people about the union, threatening us with arrest if we didn’t leave.

Many believed that with VW not actively trying to dissuade its workers from joining the union, the UAW would have a fighting chance to organize its first auto plant in the South.  As the campaign began it was clear there was a good chance the employees at the VW Chattanooga plant would vote in favor of joining the union, since the overwhelming majority had previously signed cards signaling their support for union representation.  Then something shameful and downright evil occurred.  Local politicians from the governor to members of the legislature to a U.S. Senator all threatened that if the VW workers voted for the union, the company would not expand in Tennessee and it might also lose further state subsidies.  In addition, right wing, anti-union groups put up billboards throughout the area to discourage support for the UAW, insisting that if workers voted for the union what happened to Detroit—bankruptcy—would also happen in Chattanooga.  As a result, the UAW lost by a narrow margin.  What we saw in Tennessee has gone on all over the country for decades: a ferocious assault on the rights of workers, going to great lengths to cripple or destroy unions.

  • The Central Fight Is Described

In an important issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, describes the central fight between the economic justice that unions represent and what our current way of economics, the profit system, stands for.  It is the underlying cause of what led to the UAW loss:

As big a fight as any going on in the world—indeed, as big a fight as any in the history of humanity—is the fight now taking place between the profit system and unions….It is a fight that even most union leaders have not seen clearly. We need to see it clearly, because the fight is really a sheer one: For the profit system to continue, unions must be defeated.

And she continues, describing the chief reason that “the UAW–with all its historic grandeur, kindness and power,” narrowly lost the VW election:

 The furious meddling by government officials came because certain [anti-union] persons do see that if workers get paid well, the profit system won’t be able to go on. If unions prevail, profits will go to those who earn them—the workers—instead of persons who don’t do the work. And so those protectors of the profit way will fight against unions with every vicious weapon and sleazy trick they can. The UAW thought it had an amicable agreement with VW; it didn’t see that it was fighting the profit system as such, and so it was, perhaps, somewhat blindsided. (There’s VW itself. One can question how much it’s really for unions. You don’t set up a plant in a right-to-exploit state like Tennessee because you want a union.)

The story is not over in Chattanooga or the rest of the South, where many working people are demanding justice for themselves and their communities.  In fact there is a UAW organizing campaign going on at the Nissan plant in Oxford, Mississippi.  And it is clear that workers are ready to fight for their rights to be in a union.  For example, Chip Wells, an 11-year veteran working there said, “People think that [the Volkswagen vote] derailed us, but we think it made us stronger…. Here labor rights are civil rights, actually human rights.” (Labor South blog Feb. 28th by Joseph B. Atkins)

Millions of Americans who are suffering—unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, worried about their future—are depending on a strong and vibrant labor movement.  So now is the time for union officials, activists, and rank and file members to be clear about what we are fighting for, and fighting against.  I’ve seen firsthand that  Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that makes for that much needed understanding and meets the hopes of people, including every member of a union.  Ellen Reiss writes:

And if unions and the economic justice they represent succeed, the profit way will be done in, finished, kaput. When that happens it will be (as the idiom goes) good riddance to bad rubbish. There will be a way of economics different from any that has been. It will be based, neither on profit for a few nor on “collectivism,” but on an honest answer to the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

By Matthew D’Amicophoto

Unions, Norma Rae, & the Victory of Ethics!

January 30, 2014


By Steven Weiner

As Friends of Labor has described before on this blog, the unrelenting efforts by corporations (backed by some state governments) to decimate collective bargaining agreements and destroy unions have arisen because the successes of the American labor movement have cut into companies’ profits.   Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, describes this victory in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known:

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…

And she continues:

[T]he 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.

I, Steve Weiner, am thankful that my family was a direct beneficiary of that “greater justice” unions achieved for American workers and their families.  My father worked hard, holding down two consecutive union jobs.  As my brothers and I were growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘50s & ‘60s, our family was able to live comfortably on my father’s salary.  Since his death, my mother receives his monthly pension.

And I, as a computer specialist (now retired) for a New York City agency, earned a decent salary, and today my retirement is secure—something that every working person has a right to have.  However, vast numbers of America’s workers today have no such security, as the awful phrase “food insecurity” makes horribly and painfully clear.  Working long hours for low pay—what often amounts to “starvation wages”—means that breadwinners cannot provide enough for their families, and all too many households feel they are one paycheck away from homelessness.

Meanwhile, the hardships inflicted on working men and women in recent years have made for something that has been brewing for a long time: people are more conscious and more outspoken, objecting fiercely to their labor being used to make profit for a few corporate executives and shareholders. The demonstrations by fast food workers clearly showed this.  I despise profit economics and feel passionately that all workers should own their own jobs.  “Labor,” Eli Siegel stated, “is the only source of wealth; there is no other source except land, the raw material.”  It’s the labor of millions of working people that has made this country the richest in the world, and the wealth this nation produces rightfully belongs to the people who create it.

Recently, I was vividly reminded of how important unions are as I attended a cinema lecture given by the Emmy award- winning filmmaker Ken Kimmelman.  He has produced important, groundbreaking films for social justice: against racism, prejudice, and homelessness, including “The Heart Knows Better,” and “What Does a Person Deserve?”  In a class entitled “Films Criticize the Profit Motive—or, Good Will vs. Ill Will,” Ken Kimmelman discussed the ethics of several films important in the field of social justice, including one many people respect, learned from, and love: “Norma Rae.”

Based on a true story, “Norma Rae” takes place in North Carolina in the 1960s and ‘70s. Crystal Lee Jordan, the inspiration for the title character, worked for a major textile manufacturer, the J.P. Stevens Company.  From the time the textile industry began moving out of the North in the 1880s into the deep South, it was notorious for having some of the worst working conditions.  As the movie begins, we witness some of the awful environment that Norma Rae and her fellow employees are forced to endure, resulting, for example, in her mother’s deafness from the screaming blare of the textile machinery.  She objects, but to no avail.  Alone, she is powerless.  But then she hears a union organizer describe the benefits of unionization; she listens intently, and works courageously to unionize her fellow factory workers, meeting intense and frightening opposition from management, including being jailed and later fired.  In his talk, Ken Kimmelman quoted Sally Fields, the actress who superbly portrayed Norma Rae: “You live there and you become one of them…. You learn to appreciate how difficult their lives are—and chances are you’re never getting out.”

In the end, after an intense and determined campaign, the union drive prevails, and the highlight of the movie, the final scene, is one of the most dramatic and iconic in American cinema.  As Norma Rae is being escorted out of the mill, she quickly writes out the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard, stands on a work table, and slowly turns around for all her co-workers to see.  One by one, each worker stops their machine!  I remembered this image, and was glad to know more why I was so moved.  Ken Kimmelman explained, “The way the scene goes from motion and the ear-deafening whirr of the machinery to silence represents the power and unity of the workers.  And during most of the scene, we look up at Norma Rae, which represents the admiration her co-workers—and we—have for her.”

This film stands for the courage, determination, and pride that’s in people today who are fighting for their right to live decently, and who see their cause as the cause of all workers.

Ellen Reiss explains in The Right Of:

What the American people need to be told clearly is who, or what, is really to blame for America’s economic suffering, job losses, government deficits. They’re being told unions are to blame, because unions have been able to negotiate for their members some of what all people deserve, including pensions and health care. If unions thrive, all Americans can have these, and more. Unions stand for all of us.



December 27, 2013


At the end of 2013, Friends of Labor has been very much stirred about a matter widely talked about these days—income inequality: the inability of  men and women to earn enough to provide for themselves and their families because the wealth they produce goes mainly to persons (and corporations) who are already exceedingly wealthy.  The alarming rise in income inequality means that while a few people are getting steadily richer, most of the rest of us are getting poorer.

While the stock market goes up and corporations continue to show profits—sometimes massive—on their balance sheets; and while these corporations give their officers bloated bonuses, and pay dividends to their shareholders, the ability of working people to pay for the necessities of life such as food, shelter, clothing, is steadily and ruinously eroding.  Millions of people—our brothers and sisters—are struggling just to make ends meet, put food on the table, and pay for shelter and clothing, and many are no longer succeeding.  Representative of what one out of five New Yorkers are made to endure is Betty, who frequents the New York Food Bank.   She says:

I have a college education….I work for a health care agency, but it’s not enough. And I’m getting too old to work. I go grocery shopping about once a month. I buy the essentials I need for nutrients. What I need to survive.  I come [to the Food Bank] twice a week.  I couldn’t get by without this.

The Attacks on America’s Unions–Why They Are Taking Place

As union members well know—despite efforts to mask the facts—the cost of living has outstripped wage increases for years.   And there’s also been a relentless effort by corporate America and some state governments to cripple the ability of unions to negotiate contracts that include better wages and benefits.  Millions of good-paying, full-time jobs have disappeared, replaced by part-time work, often paying minimum wage and no benefits.  And the one reason for the unrelenting efforts to destroy unions is because of their great success in getting better wages and benefits for their members.  Clearly, every dollar paid to a person working is that much less for corporate America and its shareholders.

The expanding divide between the wealthiest 1% and everyone else has aroused concerns that we believe are new in America.  For example, Janet Yellen, the nominee for the Federal Reserve, recently said about rising income inequality: it’s a “very serious problem….For many, many years, the middle and those below the middle [have been] actually losing absolutely.”  Nobel economist Robert Shiller described income inequality as  “the most important problem that we are facing today.”  And, in his courageous Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis stated unequivocally that income inequality kills, and asked: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

The Central Cause of Rising Income Inequality

What has caused the rise in inequality of income?  Globalization and its shipping of American jobs overseas, slashing taxes for the very wealthy, deregulation, the decline of unions: each of these is a factor.  But we believe the underlying cause is described by Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by Eli Siegel.  Income inequality is the inevitable by-product, the direct result of an economic system based on profit, in which a person is seen solely in terms of how much money can be extracted from his or her labor.  To see a human being this way, we’ve learned, is contempt: it denies a person’s fundamental humanity, robs them of their right to be seen with respect—which includes being paid well and treated with dignity.

In the 1970s Mr. Siegel gave a series of lectures in which he showed that an economic system based on contempt had irrevocably failed.  In the years since, we’ve seen all kinds of tricks to prop it up, mostly by callously firing millions of workers.  They are seen as disposable commodities, while profits are zealously pursued at the expense of these hardworking men and women.  Despite these efforts, we’ve learned that annual sales are nevertheless flat or down for such huge companies as Kelloggs, FedEx, Best Buy, and McDonalds.

 The Hoped For Solution

In the periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes:

 Aesthetic Realism makes clear the big, underlying question of economics.  It is hidden by various elaborate economic terms, though present in some fashion in all of them.  It is: Should our economy be based on contempt, on the seeing of people’s labor and needs as means for someone else’s profit, or should it be based on good will, on having the people of our nation get what they deserve?

And she describes what needs to replace contempt-driven profit economics:   

 …a way of seeing people, products, work, finance, earth, that is different from anything which has been before.  The economics people are hoping for, the only kind that will work, is aesthetics: the oneness of opposites—including the opposites of freedom and justice; the expression of each individual and fairness to all people.  This way of economics will also be ethics: it will be based on a true answer to the question, articulated by Mr. Siegel, “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

So we conclude this post with our fervent hope that in answering this question in 2014, our economy becomes ethical, is based on good will as Aesthetic Realism describes it.   When the jobs of America, from fast food chains to the automotive industry, are owned by the people doing the work, our nation will have an economy that is at last fair to all people!

by Carol Driscoll for Friends of Labor


December 5, 2013
photo by B. Kestenbaum

photo by B. Kestenbaum

As a person who wants justice to come to the American worker, I was proud to stand with Walmart employees in Secaucus, NJ, on November 29, one of 1500 “Black Friday” protests held across the country.  The solidarity of  labor backing the Walmart workers was expressed by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka:

The AFL-CIO has committed the full weight of the labor movement to support these brave, determined Walmart workers.

In actions that are unprecedented in Walmart history, its low-wage earners are showing their justified outrage at being made to work for pay that no person can survive on.  For example, Elaine Roizer, one of the protesters, told me:

I have a family to support.  I could barely make ends meet.  Fifteen dollars an hour is not asking for too much.  I went on strike for a day. So they fired me.  It’s hard.  It’s very hard.  I’m out here protesting not just for myself.  I’m here for all the people who come after me.

I respect Ms. Roizer’s courage, and her showing that she has true fellow feeling is admirable.   She speaks for a growing number of women and men in America who, this past year, have taken part in demonstrations and strikes against the titans of the fast food industry including Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell.  These huge corporations have made billions from the very people who are paid wages below the poverty level, forcing them often to take second jobs and resort to food stamps to feed their families.   Recently,  on their company website, McDonalds had this chilling advice for their underpaid workers:  “Breaking [your food] into small pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.”  It was recommended that their employees find a second  job if they are unable to live on their salaries. And in a Canton, Ohio Walmart, there was a bin with a sign for its own employees, inviting them to “Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”

Men and women, rightly furious at their miserable pay, represent a long history of protests by American workers.  They include miners who toiled twelve hours a day underground digging coal, farm workers bent over from tilling and harvesting in the sweltering sun, men who did the back-breaking labor building our nation’s railroads, and women in sweatshops who slaved  for pennies a day.   As industries in America were unionized, workers in America were able to earn more than subsistence wages; in fact, unions gave rise to a prosperous middle class.

What the Walmart workers are now insisting on is in keeping with what every human being deserves: a chance to earn a decent, livable wage; to put nourishing food on the table for one’s children; to educate and clothe them; to pay for medicine; and to provide a comfortable home.

Walmart, McDonalds and other fast food chains will not willingly raise the pay scales of their employees because every additional nickel they pay a worker takes away from their profits.  These companies are in the business of making money for their top executives and shareholders, not making sure they pay their workers well.

I’ve learned that the thirst for profits is the driving force behind every corporation in America, and it has made for massive injustices.  In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss explains:

Eli Siegel showed that the profit motive—the seeing of a hoping, feeling human being in terms of how much you can get out of him and how little you can give him—is contempt.

People’s discontent about work includes, along with the sheer pain of not making enough money, a terrific anger at being seen with contempt.  People hate being seen as mechanisms to squeeze as much profit as possible from and to eliminate if the squeezing doesn’t fare so well.   There is this feeling across America, “I am more than that, for God’s sake! A human being is more than that!”

Mr. Siegel showed that the most important question in economics—one which must be answered with thorough honesty—is this: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”   Workers at Walmart, in fast food, and elsewhere are saying, no morewhat we deserve is a living wage!  That is why they are out in the streets demonstrating, and we hail them!

By Barbara Kestenbaum

The Solution to America’s Job Crisis; or, What Is Real Job Creation?

November 8, 2013

Persons in line waiting to be interviewed

In America today this question is insisting: at a time of record profits, why are so few jobs being created by the so-called “job creators”?  Many progressive politicians are calling on our federal government to do more to get people working by bringing back manufacturing jobs.  In previous decades, unions in the building trades, the auto industry, steel, mining, and more, negotiated—and, when needed, struck—for good wages with steady increases, in addition to health benefits and pensions.  Their achievements made for a security that was new.  Union families were able to buy homes, send their children to college, and greatly expanded America’s middle class.  Today, as we all know, unions are being brutally attacked, with states taking away collective bargaining rights, pensions, and benefits.  Hardly anyone can be sure they’ll have a job next month, let alone next year.

Calling unemployment a “national crisis,” the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor organization, writes about the dismal job outlook: 

photo by Getty

photo by Getty

Years into the recession, millions of America’s workers remain unemployed or underemployed, even as U.S. corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, refusing to create jobs. The share of unemployed workers who have been jobless for more than six months shot up from 17.6 percent in the first half of 2007 to more than 45.6 percent by spring 2010, and it remains near that percentage today.

Friends of Labor fervently believe the answer to why so few jobs have been created was given with clear logic by Eli Siegel, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism.  He asked this crucial question:  “What does a person deserve by being a person?”  It follows that if a person, a worker, does get what he or she deserves, then that cuts into profits.  In a commentary published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, explains:  

 Every one of the checks on profit economics [mostly brought about by unions] was a check on bosses’ and stockholders’ freedom to pocket the wealth that workers produced.  After all, as Mr. Siegel put it, it’s mathematical: each penny that people’s labor brings in, beyond the money needed to have production continue, will go either to those whose work creates the wealth or to owners who don’t work for it.  Every curb on the profit system’s injustice—from mandated ventilation to an employer-paid pension plan negotiated by a union—interfered with the profit system itself.  It was money used in behalf of what workers deserve, and thus cut in on how much profit could go to persons who did not do the work….

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 a person who had the good fortune for more than 20 years to work for unions, and retired with a good pension from I.B.T. Local 1205 on Long Island, I’m forever indebted to the union movement for enabling my husband and myself to have a secure retirement.  I firmly believe that when the jobs of America are owned by the people doing the work, and the profits are coming to them—not to some shareholder—we’ll have a thriving, ethical economy in which everyone benefits.

Carol Driscoll

Fast Food Workers Demand $15 an Hour and a Union!

September 11, 2013

Credit: Reuters

By Barbara Kestenbaum

Last November, 200 fast-food workers in New York City went out on strike. It was a bold move! Organized by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of community groups, they demanded $15.00 an hour and the right to unionize without retaliation. On August 29th, bolstered by the outpouring of support by unions including SEIU, other low wage workers, and religious leaders, the strike spread like wildfire across our nation as more than 1,000 restaurants were targeted in over 50 cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Detroit, Durham, and New Orleans.

The strike, by far the most extensive ever in this industry, brought out thousands of men and women who, up to this point, seemed to have little or no say about what they were paid or their conditions of work. Here they were, up against a 200-billion-dollar fast-food industry—which includes McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Taco Bell. The walkout, including mass sit-ins throughout the country, has had a powerful impact—interrupting business for hours and even shutting down some restaurants.

As a retired union member, I was proud to march in downtown Manhattan alongside these enthusiastic and determined striking workers, who were demanding justice as they chanted “We are not dispensable. We know our rights. We want the right to organize.” And “We are the workers, the mighty, mighty workers, who can’t survive on $7.25.”

There were strikers who told me they had not received a raise in years. Some of them are single women raising families; others are senior citizens who have to work at McDonalds and Burger King to supplement their Social Security. It is shameful that while fast-food corporations steadily rack up profits, their workers’ wages are so low that many of them live below the poverty line and need Medicaid and food stamps to survive.


Credit: Steve Weiner

In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education explains the determination of these workers to fight back:

[The purpose of] “Fast Food Forward” is to show the very tangible, dollars-and-cents power of the workers over the persons who are robbing them: employers, stockholders. And as soon as people working see that they have power, a great deal can happen.

Tionnie Cross, who works for McDonalds, showed the power of one worker representing millions when she said to me:

“I do the frying. I clean the floor. I do the register. I make the frappes.” And there was such pride in her voice as she explained, “I am here not just for myself but for all the workers that will follow me.”

I was moved too by T. Williams, 69 years old. It ‘s criminal that he, who’s worked for a fast-food restaurant in Brooklyn as a janitor for over 5 years, makes only $7.25 an hour and can’t afford to retire. He said, “I still have to work. I need money to support my family. I’m tired. I want a union.” How different my experience has been because, though we’re the same age, I was in a union and had the good fortune to receive a decent salary, a pension, and healthcare benefits so I could retire with dignity.

It was Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, who explained the basis of the profit system as contempt: the seeing of one’s fellow human beings solely in terms of how much labor can be gotten from them, while paying them as little as possible. This contempt has made for historical horrors that still occur today: child labor, unsafe working conditions, poverty for life, and much more.

Ms. Reiss explains the brutal mindset behind the exploitation of workers like Mr. Williams:

In the profit system an employer thinks this way: “How little can I get away with paying you and spending on your working conditions, and how much labor can I squeeze from you? I’m not interested in your feelings, who you really are, what you deserve: that would stop me from aggrandizing myself through you. It would interfere with using you for profit!”

And to those who cynically question if we are willing to pay more for a hamburger so these workers can get a fair wage, I am proud to agree with Ms. Reiss:

The real question is: who should receive the money brought in by a fast-food restaurant (or other business)—the people who have worked for that income, with their hours of mental and physical labor; or some stockholders who didn’t do the work? The answer is, of course: the first.

Detroit Bankruptcy-What’s Really Behind it?

August 5, 2013

Photo by rawstory

Photo by raw story

In recent years, there have been huge attempts by corporate America and some state governments to blame the country’s economic woes on what they deceitfully describe as the “outrageous” demands by workers—especially public employees—for decent wages, health insurance, and pensions.

The latest effort is in Detroit, a city that has suffered greatly in recent decades.  There is a conscious purpose to have people believe that the painful state of the once prosperous “Motor City”’s finances is chiefly due to the greediness of its municipal employees, including having to pay its retirees the pensions they earned by a lifetime of work.

These are two facts that are not generally reported:

  •  1) There are about 21,000 retirees, whose average annual payment is about $19,000 (approximately $30,000 for retired police officers and firefighters, who do not get Social Security benefits).
  • 2) Detroit’s pension shortfall accounts for only 15% of its $18 billion debt.

These retired employees of the city went to work every day making hospital beds, teaching school children, repairing streets, and putting out fires.  They rightly feel that the effort to make significant cuts to their pensions is a betrayal of their years of faithful service.

In an interview with a local radio station, retired Detroit firefighter Dave Parnell expressed his outrage:

When is enough enough? I’ve given 34 years. I’ve given you two ankles, a shoulder and a back.  I’m not even sure about my lungs.  What else do you need?

I worked for the City of New York for over thirty years, and  retired with a fair pension, thanks to my union, District Council 37 AFSCME.  In my position as a Computer Specialist, I wrote programs that substantially increased the revenues for my agency.  If I were told that my hard-earned pension was going to be cut, perhaps by as much as 50%, I’d be furious.

Michigan’s Constitution states that civil service pensions are a contractual obligation that “shall not be diminished or impaired.”  Yet City Emergency Manager Kevin D. Orr, appointed by the governor, decided to file for bankruptcy, claiming he could not reach agreement with the unions.  However, AFSCME President Lee Saunders revealed that despite repeated requests, Orr’s legal representatives refused to meet with AFSCME.  In my opinion, the state government engineered this bankruptcy proceeding, which was what it wanted all along.

The case will be decided in the Federal US Bankruptcy Court, where it is expected that the judge will be generous in reimbursing the city’s bondholders.  However retirees, dependent on their pensions to pay their bills, likely will have to endure substantial cuts.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty

I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism: that America’s economy—and the economies of most of the world—is based on the contemptuous use of the work of many people to make profit for a few.  I’ve also learned that if all working people are paid fairly, profit economics cannot go on.  Labor unions, historically and today more than ever, represent that life-giving economic fairness.  That is why there are these relentless efforts to destroy unions, including those in the public sector.

Our state and city governments are not profit-driven.  However, more and more of the work they do is being outsourced to private companies, which take our tax dollars and use their employees to make profit for themselves.  These jobs, which used to be performed by civil service workers, are now being done for lower wages and with far fewer benefits.

In the periodical The Right Of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, describes what is behind not only the Detroit bankruptcy, but also what is going on in countries all over the world:

These “sacrifices” and “austerity measures” principally involve the cutting of pensions and welfare benefits to millions of people, the lowering of wages—the impoverishing of most of the population.  They are presented as the only means to stop the nations concerned from going bankrupt. What they really are is the one means of having the profit system there grind on a bit longer.

The dire warnings about the need for “sacrifice”—both in Europe and here—are part of an effort to make the profit system seem inevitable: to make it seem that economics based on anything other than using earth and humanity for some individuals’ private aggrandizement is unthinkable. And therefore, senior citizens, robbed of pensions, must go hungry to save the profit system.  Children must go without medical care and with insufficient clothing and food to save it.  Yet people feel increasingly that another basis for an economy is not unthinkable.  And such a basis is not Marxism, etc. The needed basis is ethics.

So far in history there has been a shameful lack of ethics in the way economics has been conducted, and that, as I have learned, is the chief cause of vast suffering by so many people in the world today.  It is time to try something new as described by Aesthetic Realism: We need an economy based on ethics, beginning with the honest answering of this kind, urgent question first asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

By Steven Weiner


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