By Matthew D’Amico
With the school year underway and children getting ready to learn new things about the world, there is great worry as to the state of education in America today. As the father of an 8-year-old boy who attends public school, I know the concern parents have about their children doing well in school. And as a political coordinator for a labor union representing public employees throughout New York State, I’ve seen that working men and women are deeply troubled about our economy. Watching parents having to struggle to provide the basic necessities affects children, even while they are sitting in classrooms about to learn math or the history of the American Revolution. It is shameful that more than 16 million children live in poverty in America, which has such great wealth. And millions more are near poverty, with their parents living paycheck to paycheck—if they are lucky enough to have a job at all. With these agonizing worries—which no person, let alone a child, should have to go through—the ability of children to learn is made unnecessarily more difficult.
We should all be doing everything we can to make sure our public schools are well-funded, so that every child gets a good education. However, there are many people who are now attacking that great thing—free public education—wanting to privatize our nation’s schools as a source of profit for themselves. There are now more than 6,000 charter schools nationwide, double the number from just a decade ago. They’re publicly funded, but privately run. These charter schools are now part of the growing privatization of public education. Here is what I read on Forbes.com: “dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors…gathered to discuss…investing in for-profit education companies.” But according to the National Education Association, “Privatization is a threat to public education, and more broadly, to our democracy itself.”
Why this is happening now is clearly explained by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, in her commentary What Education & the Economy Are For. It is a must-read for all who are concerned with education, including the worry that the ‘public’ will be eliminated from public education. In it too is the explanation of why there are such ferocious attempts to do away with unions, and it is also what is behind the drive to privatize public schools. Ms. Reiss writes:
“Eli Siegel is the philosopher to explain: ‘The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.’ This idea is fundamental to the Aesthetic Realism method, which has been enabling children of all backgrounds to learn successfully—including children who had been thought incapable of doing so. To like the world through knowing it is why we should learn the alphabet, find out about numbers, continents, atoms, history. To like the world is the purpose of everyone’s life. Meanwhile, humanity has lived for centuries with a system of economics completely opposed to that purpose.
“The profit system has not been based on the fact that this world should belong rather equally to every child from birth so he or she can have a full chance to benefit from it. Profit economics has instead been based on contempt. The profit motive is the seeing of human beings in terms of: how much money can I get out of you?; how much labor can I squeeze from you while paying you as little as possible?; how much can I force a buyer to pay for my product, which she may need desperately?
Ethics, Unions, & America’s Children
“In 1970 Eli Siegel explained that this contemptuous way of economics had failed after thousands of years. The profit system might be made to stumble on awhile, but it would never recover. The fundamental cause of its failure, he said, was the force of ethics working in history. For example: 1) People on all the continents know more, can produce more things, and so ‘there is much more competition…with American industry than there used to be.’ 2) Unions, by the 1970s, had been so successful in their fight for decent wages—so successful in bringing people lives with dignity—that big profits for stockholders and bosses who don’t do the work could no longer be easily extracted from American workers.
“The persons trying to keep the profit system going cannot undo the first of those factors. So they have been trying ferociously to reverse the second: there has been a vicious, steady effort to have workers be paid less and less, be made poorer and poorer. And to achieve this, one has to undermine, even extinguish, unions—because unions are the power which prevents workers from being swindled, kicked around, humiliated, impoverished, robbed.
“Meanwhile, there are America’s children. They are literally abused day after day by those persons trying to impoverish the American people so as to maintain the profit system. Many children come to school hungry. Many don’t have warm coats for winter. Home (if a child has one) is often a place of economic deprivation—and the accompanying anger.
“Then, there are the schools themselves. In recent decades, as traditional venues for profit-making have fared ill, persons have looked for new ways to use their fellow humans for private gain. Behold—that huge ethical achievement in human history, public education! And the profit-seekers thought, ‘There’s a whole new industry for us here!’ The one reason for the enormous effort to privatize America’s public schools—and that includes through vouchers and through charter schools—is: to use the lives and minds of America’s children to make profit for a few individuals.
“This use of public schools is related to the effort to privatize public sector work in various fields throughout America: to have public monies used—not for the American people, not to respectfully employ public sector workers—but to finance private enterprises. And through it all, again, a big aim is to undo unions so workers can be paid less and the money can go instead to some private-profit-maker.”
What Ms. Reiss is writing about is a national emergency. No child, whether in Alabama, rural Maine, or the South Bronx, should have to go to bed hungry, or have their basic right to an education be a means of profit for some corporation or individual. The time is now for our nation’s leaders to be courageous and answer with honesty this urgent ethical question asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?”
By Barbara Kestenbaum
As a retired union member, I was thrilled by the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to hold the McDonald’s corporation jointly liable for the choices made by its franchisees as to workers’ rights. These include the right to demand better pay and working conditions, and—most importantly—the guaranteed right to unionize without intimidation from an employer. This decision can change the dynamics for fast-food workers across the United States. For the first time, a fast-food corporate giant is made answerable for labor and wage violations by its individually owned and operated restaurants. No longer can McDonald’s hide behind a corporate shield, falsely claiming that their franchisees make all the employment decisions. Craig Becker, AFL-CIO’s general counsel, pointed to how important this is:
“The upstream companies—whether McDonald’s or the brand in the garment industry—may have to begin thinking not only of how big the hamburger or what the ‘golden arches’ looks like, but how workers are being treated and whether their rights are respected.”
Where it Began
In November 2012, an uprising began in New York City as over a hundred fast-food workers, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions, church leaders, and community organizations, courageously walked off the job. It was the beginning of five one-day strikes that gained momentum as thousands of fast-food workers demanded a minimum wage of $15 per hour and the right to unionize. I was proud to be among the protestors at these demonstrations. On May 15 of this year, workers took to the streets again, striking fast-food restaurants in 130 cities across the United States and in twenty foreign cities. The strikers had a monumental impact on McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other fast-food establishments as they closed down their restaurants or slowed their businesses almost to a standstill.
In 1970, in a series of lectures, Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, gave careful evidence showing that an economy based on profit, on the seeing of a person in terms of how much money can be extracted from their labor, could no longer succeed. These days, despite massive efforts by government officials and others to tout an “economic recovery,” including an upsurge in employment, the jobs being created mainly pay miserably low, unlivable wages. For millions of worried, struggling Americans the economy has not recovered.
What Workers Are Demanding
In an article titled “Wage Pressure” in Newsday (8/3/14), Julia Vasquez of Port Washington, NY represents the more than forty percent of workers over 25 years old who work at fast-food restaurants. She is the single mother of a two-year-old daughter, living with her own mother and paying $600 a month rent. Ms. Vasquez works forty hours a week standing on her feet behind the counter. Her paltry take-home pay is about $300 a week. She has to depend on food stamps, and has no sick time, vacations, or other benefits. Said Ms. Vasquez:
“I don’t have the luxury of taking a vacation. My daughter needs her clothes, her shoes. It’s a very tight budget. It’s very hard to manage, to provide for my daughter and pay the rent.”
Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, describes what needs to be seen as workers are demanding justice:
“Should Americans be able to make good wages, express themselves at their jobs, feel really useful to their fellow citizens, by eliminating profits to people who didn’t work for them?…People will see that having industry be based on somebody’s making profit from others’ work was completely unnecessary, un-American to begin with.”
As a result of the strikes, McDonald’s retaliated by firing workers or cutting their hours, imposing even greater hardships. But fast-food workers fought back. Employees filed claims with the NLRB citing labor law violations, including charges that they were punished for pro-union activities, and forty-three of the claims were found to have merit. I very much agree with what Ellen Reiss explains about the power of unions:
“Because of the failing of the profit system, most of the once mighty American industrial base is no more. Ours has become largely a service economy. Well, now service workers are beginning to get the idea—which is true—that our economy cannot function without them; therefore, they should be able to set the terms on which they work….The purpose of the Fast Food Forward movement 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.”
The historic ruling by the NLRB shows that this is happening, and it’s a big victory for ethics.
Today many American workers are demanding an economy that is just to every man, woman, and child, and I am proud to stand with them. I believe that future generations will be thankful to Aesthetic Realism, as I am, for seeing what working people want and deserve—for the profits they earn to come to them.
On July 10, more than one million firefighters, teachers, civil servants, sanitation workers, and other public sector workers, representing six major unions in the UK, held a one day strike, closing hundreds of schools, libraries, and museums, reducing activities at many government buildings and airports, and disrupting sanitation collection.
I grew up in England, and reading about this massive strike, I felt like cheering!
Explaining why the strike was necessary, Public and Commercial Services Union Industrial Officer Darren Williams said: “Food and energy prices have been going through the roof and for the first two years of this (coalition) Government most of our members have had no pay increase at all.”
And a health and safety worker on a picket line said, “We have got members of staff who are going to food banks now. Our workloads have been increased as we lost staff as a result of cuts and everyone is picking up more work….It is hard to make ends meet now. MPs [Members of Parliament] are having an 11 percent pay rise, and why are low-paid workers having just 1 percent?”
In fact, according to the website “Left Futures,” while public sector workers have had their salaries frozen since 2010, there has been a 16% increase in the cost of food, 22% in the average electricity bill, and 57% in the average gas bill.
Learning this affected me very much. I remember when essential services such as electricity, gas, the railways, telephone exchanges, and more were nationalized, run by the government on a non-profit basis. No more. Now these utilities that everyone depends on and needs in order to live, to light and heat their homes, are privately owned and run for the profit of a few.
Moreover, the government has simply refused to negotiate over pay, pensions, and spending cuts, and people are increasingly worried about what the future may bring. A firefighter from Manchester protested, “Every three years we have to do a fitness test. Now I will face the same test at 57, and if I don’t pass I could lose three quarters of my pension.” And in schools, primary teachers are now expected to work till age 68!
MP Peter Hain, speaking to striking workers in London, said:
“Government austerity policies have created a rise in zero-hour contracts” (i.e., a job that has no guaranteed weekly hours or income), “ ‘hire-and-fire’ work culture” (in which a worker can be fired with no notice), “and the slow erosion of workers’ rights, which are often taken for granted, but were earned through over a century of campaigning and work by ordinary people who wanted a better future.”
Mr. Hain is right. And the question is, why has there been this “slow erosion of workers’ rights”?—which today has escalated into an intense effort to destroy all unions, public and private.
This is What I Learned
In the early 1970s, historian and critic Eli Siegel, who founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, gave evidence in a series of lectures that economics based on profit had failed. The profit motive, I’ve learned, is based on contempt and ill will—on using the labor of a person to reap as much profit as one can, while paying that person as little as one can get away with. Eli Siegel saw that labor unions were a powerful force working for the rights of working people, and showed that union power—that is, the ability of unions to obtain ever-increasing wages and benefits–has been a major reason why employers can no longer count on ever-growing profits for themselves. Clearly, the more a worker is paid, the less goes into the pockets of owners or shareholders. This is why in recent years there have been such concerted and ferocious efforts to destroy unions. And it is why there have also been attempts to save the profit system by outsourcing work and services done by the public sector to private companies. Thus public dollars are given to private industry, where profit is the driving purpose.
The response of the British government to this massive strike has been telling. Instead of asking why one million moderate-to-low-income people are willing to forfeit a needed day’s pay in order to try to be heard, they are now threatening to impose laws making it harder to call a strike, through restrictive balloting legislation!
But from Trafalgar Square, that home of protest from the very birth of the British trades union movement, the call by union leaders for justice was strong. There were passionate statements of solidarity with working people all over Europe. Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, told the crowd, “What we see today is just an inkling of the power that rests in the hands of working people if we only realize it.”
What can unleash the full power of unions today? As a union activist myself I felt elated—and sobered—to know what Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss described recently in “The Sheer Fight“:
“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 between contempt (the profit system) and respect for humanity (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 if unions and the economic justice they represent succeed, the profit way will be done in, finished, kaput. When that happens…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?’”
I’m proud of my countrymen and the British unions for fighting for the rights of all people. And I want them and everyone to know what Aesthetic Realism explains–why their fight is so tremendously important.
By Christopher Balchin
By Steven Weiner
I wholeheartedly applaud the members of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) who recently took to the streets in 27 U.S. cities amidst shouts of “The US mail is not for sale!” They were vigorously protesting the latest attempt to privatize the United States Postal Service (USPS).
It began as a backroom deal with the office supply chain store Staples. Overriding the union, USPS management agreed to allow Staples, a private, for-profit company, to handle mail at “mini post offices”inside their stores, staffed by their poorly paid employees who have high turnover rates. To date, there are USPS counters in over 80 stores, with plans to put these outlets in over 1500 as early as the coming fall.
As the APWU president, Mark Dimondstein pointed out, “This is a direct assault…on public postal services.” And referring to responsibility for and safety of the mail, he explained: “If we’re going to have mini-Post Offices in Staples stores, they should be operated by uniformed postal employees, who have taken an oath and are accountable to the American people.” I totally agree with Mark Dimondstein.
It’s worth noting many news reports about the postal service’s large deficits, seeming to say that it doesn’t work efficiently. But what these accounts rarely report is the fact that the USPS is required—as no other public or private institution is—to prepay its employee benefits 75 years in advance (even for those employees not yet even hired) at a cost of 5 billion dollars a year! The irony of this is something to see: the same politicians who forced this bill through Congress would happily get rid of the pensions for millions of other unionized government employees if they could.
My own experience illustrates the extent and perils of outsourcing the work of public employees to private firms. I worked as a Computer Specialist for the NYC Department of Education (DOE) and witnessed firsthand the privatization of jobs. These tasks, performed by skilled, unionized workers were outsourced to non-union employees. Consulting firms were paid huge sums to bring in hundreds of workers who most often had no experience in the field of education. Some were so unqualified that much of their work was slipshod and had to be done over; and the DOE, not the consultant firm, was charged for their training! So, money that should have gone to an experienced, unionized work force was instead siphoned off to enrich outside companies.
Now there are escalating and intensive efforts to increase corporate profits by privatizing more and more public services. These include measures intended to weaken, demoralize, and ultimately destroy the unions that represent public employees.
The Success of Unions
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the reason for the continuing, increasingly virulent attacks on unions, including the postal workers, arises from their success in raising the standard of living for millions of workers and their families, thereby cutting into companies’ profits. Unions rose to power in a profit economy, where the profits from a person’s labor went to the owner (or shareholders), not to the person doing the work. In the 1950s and ‘60s, unions were a powerful force in American life; strikes were an effective tool for betterment, and unions achieved new prestige and economic gains. Although employers were never for unions, they were reluctantly tolerated because most companies were still able to profit. That is no longer true. Most companies cannot make profits to the extent they once did and at the same time still pay their employees decent wages and benefits. The only way that our profit-driven economy can stumble along is by impoverishing the American worker, forcing persons to work longer hours while paying them as little as they can get away with. As a result, the New York Times reports (June 15th) that America’s middle class has been steadily declining. Aesthetic Realism taught me that the very success of unions, along with ever-growing competition with U.S. products, have been major factors weakening profit economics.
Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, explains that the profit system depends:
“…on seeing a person in terms of how much money you can get from him; on a boss and stockholders, who don’t do the work, taking the profits that workers have produced with the labor of their thought and bodies.”
In these last years there have been massive attempts to save the profit system. One large way is the present assault on public services in America, including our postal system—which belongs to each and every one of 320 million Americans. Explains Ellen Reiss in The Right Of #1789:
“Because of …[the] failure of business based on private profit, there has been a huge effort…to privatize publicly run institutions. The technique is to disseminate massive propaganda against the public institutions, and also do what one can to make them fail, including through withholding funding from them. Eminent among such institutions are the public schools and the post office. The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that the American people can fare well—but to keep profit economics going… and to have people feel that the non-profit or public way of owning and employing does not work and that the only way things can possibly be run is through the profit system!”
The Post Office is a proud American public institution, going back well over two centuries to Benjamin Franklin. We should cherish it, improve it, support it, and not yield it to the privatizers and their misleading propaganda.
Recently New Yorkers were subjected to a media blitz of deceptive TV ads touting the “excellence” of charter schools. These costly commercials, along with the support of some state government officials, resulted in the passage of the 2014-2015 New York State budget which:
would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools….Under the budget agreement, charter schools would receive more money per student. The schools, previously barred from operating early education programs, would also be eligible for grants for prekindergarten….Charter schools in New York City will now enjoy some of the greatest protections in the country.
Parent activist Leonie Haimson described this new measure as “the most onerous charter school law in the nation.”
In the TV ads, charter schools were represented as an alternative to public education. Meanwhile, what these ads failed to disclose is that despite their “not-for-profit” status, charter schools are run by CEOs who are getting paid huge salaries, some as much as $485,000/year. In an article entitled “Big Profits in Not-for-Profit Charter Schools,” on the online journal, Portside, Alan Singer wrote that “operating non-profit charter schools can be very profitable for charter school executives.”
Further, most charter schools are non-union, so their teachers have no collective bargaining, no say about their work rules, no job security. This is what the backers of the TV ads are aiming for—to privatize education and enrich the companies running these schools. To achieve this, they are shutting out unions and paying teachers as little as possible in compensation and benefits.
The stakes are very high, and go beyond New York. Recently, the Kansas legislature, in a midnight vote with little discussion, passed a bill that robs members of the Kansas Teachers Union of their right to due process, to job protection and tenure, allowing teachers to be fired at will. If unions can be whittled down so much that they are virtually ineffective, then those individuals profiting from education will pay teachers as little as they can get away with. It’s vitally important for educators, parents, everyone interested in safeguarding education for America’s children to be clear about the relentless zeal to privatize education and bust unions. So we publish statements by New York City teachers about what they’ve seen. Each is a proud member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT); each has seen and documented the success of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method in their own classrooms (more about this later). And each adamantly opposes the privatization of public education because they are so much for the education of all children.
Who Paid for the TV Commercials and What Do They Leave out?
Sally Ross, retired NYC science teacher, writes that the TV ads were:
sponsored by Families for Excellent Schools—a pro-charter group of hedge fund managers and wealthy financiers, like the Walton Family Foundation (read Walmart) and cost $3.6 million dollars to run. This pro-charter group is furious because Mayor de Blasio initially blocked the charters of three schools in the Success Academy network. What the ads don’t tell you is that these schools are trying to expand into space already occupied by existing public schools, including one elementary school for students with severe disabilities. With this co-location plan in effect, the school will be operating at 130% capacity—forcing students to have their speech and physical therapy sessions in overcrowded classrooms and hallways. Further, there is a selective admission process, and there are fewer ELL students—English Language Learners—and special needs students in NYC’s charter schools. I feel passionately that EVERY child deserves a quality public education.
Why the Big Push for Charter Schools Now?
In an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, wrote:
There’s a huge effort now to privatize public education in America—the public education that Horace Mann and others rightly saw as inseparable from a nation’s being ethical and civilized. It’s a phase of the effort to privatize everything in America. And Eli Siegel explained the reason behind it when he showed, in the 1970s, that economics based on profit—on seeing people and the world in terms of how much money you can get out of them—had failed and would never recover. Today, the profit system can stagger on only by turning everything people need, everything children need, into a means of lining some individuals’ pockets.
However disguised, the viewpoint of the school privatizers is the following: “The chief purpose of schools is not for children to learn—it’s to supply us with money!” And of course we have to break the teachers union, so we can pay teachers very little and treat them any way we please. Why should educators be respected—why should anyone who works? They, like the children, are just profit-fodder for us!
This purpose is one of contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” which is the most hurtful thing in every person. We’ve learned it is the basis of our profit-driven economy, and therefore behind the new surge in the efforts to privatize education, including through charter schools.
What Happens to the Children Who are Not in the Charter Schools?
Christopher Balchin, Chapter Leader at Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment writes:
Eli Siegel saw unions as one of the greatest forces on behalf of respect for people, and I’ve seen this is true. I thank my union, the UFT, that we teachers have health care, pensions, work rules that limit the hours in the classroom – things every person has a right to, and which charter schools would like to do away with in the name of “increased flexibility.” Teachers’ unions are also vital safeguards against the abuse of power by administrators.
We teachers have a mission to educate, but also to protect our students, and we need the freedom and the security to be able to speak up without fear of being fired for doing our professional and moral duty. This is what a union guarantees. One of the things you lose when you don’t have a union—and most charter school teachers don’t—is the power to stand up against ill-advised policies and decisions that affect the most vulnerable members of our society—the children who can’t defend themselves. Who should be trusted with the welfare of children: ‘experts,’ some of whom never spent a day in front of a class and stand to reap vast financial benefits from the success of this or that pilot program, or teachers with literally thousands of hours of experience in the classroom?
The Attack on Unions by Corporate Special Interests
Alan Shapiro, a NYC high school teacher for over 26 years, writes:
While millions of dollars in public education funds are being diverted to charter schools, public schools have seen their budgets slashed. The school I teach at, one of the largest high schools in the city, has at least 30% more students enrolled than the building was designed for, and has seen our annual budget cut 25% in the last 6 years. These are numbers, but what they represent affects real children who are forced to attend understaffed, overcrowded schools in buildings sorely in need of repair.
By design, charter school teachers are not covered by a union contract, and that is exactly how the various groups who are behind the push for charters would like to keep it. They want to undo decades of hard-fought labor victories so they can pay teachers less and have them work longer hours without job security. That way, more public money can go into the pockets of private investors in charter school companies and those supplying non-union support services for these schools—such as cafeteria, custodial, and accounting services that once were supplied by unionized, public-sector employees.
What Do We Owe All the Children of New York?
Barbara McClung, Chapter Leader and science teacher in a NYC elementary school on the Lower East Side, writes:
For years, teachers and administrators have been required to meet standards that made relentless testing and data collection a priority over student welfare.
Charter schools can pick and choose the students they want, and let students go who aren’t making the grade. Public schools can’t—they serve every child that walks through the doors. Every student has the right to the best possible education!
Education Is Completely Opposed to Profit Economics
The teachers quoted in this blog represent many others who have seen that even with the intolerable conditions under which many children are forced to live, the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method succeeds as nothing else has. They have documented this and have spoken at numerous education conferences over the years. What Barbara McClung writes about is needed in education today—not charter schools, not new pilot programs that enrich the designers at the expense of educating children, nor new batteries of testing. She writes:
I’m so grateful that for almost 30 years I have taught in NYC classrooms—from the Lower East Side to East Harlem—knowing the great principle about education, stated by Eli Siegel: ‘The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.’ The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method enables students in every grade and from every background to see through the subjects in the curriculum—science, math, history, reading, and more—how the structure of the world makes sense and is well made. As a result I’ve had the pleasure of watching my students learn successfully, and as they see their relation to other things and people, they become kinder. This is the true, democratic purpose of education that every educator, administrator, legislator needs to know!
We’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism that we have reached a point in history when we will either have economics and education fair to every person in America, or have profit economics maintained a little longer, with increased suffering for most Americans, including our school children. We feel it is crucial for people across our nation to be clear about this choice.
For further reading about this teaching method, you may go to:
By Matthew D’Amico
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 intensified 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. The attempt to destroy unions and all that they have achieved—decent pay, safe working conditions, medical benefits, pensions–exists 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
The need for unions to grow is larger 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 foreign-owned 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 describes the underlying cause of what led to the UAW loss:
In 1970 Eli Siegel [the founder of Aesthetic Realism] explained that the profit system had reached the point at which it was no longer able to succeed. Though it might struggle on for a while, it would do so with increasing pain to humanity. And that is what has occurred. As production has been taking place in more and more nations, it has become harder and harder for US companies to haul in big profits for stockholders. They can do so now only by making the people who actually do the work become poorer and poorer—be paid less and less. That means crushing unions, because it is unions that have enabled working people to earn a dignified wage and be treated with respect.
. . . 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.
Ms. Reiss, who is the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, 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 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.