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 more: what we deserve is a living wage! That is why they are out in the streets demonstrating, and we hail them!
By Barbara Kestenbaum
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I am a retired city employee who worked in the Department of Education for twenty-three years as a Senior School Neighborhood Worker. In my job, which gave me great pride, I was responsible for making sure that the children of Manhattan who were visually impaired or had hearing problems were given the services they needed—including access to speech teachers and occupational and physical therapy. It matters very much to me that children are able to get an education and to participate in the classroom. The work I did was and is representative of the thousands of city workers who take care of the needs of New York City’s children.
That is why I strongly object to the city’s demands for givebacks from the 300,000 public sector union workers: the women and men who do so much for New York and its people. They have been working under expired contracts for five years now. Yet the city insists it will sign new contracts only if the unions agree to the givebacks!
Public Sector workers—teachers, firefighters, police officers, traffic guards, lunchroom workers, sanitation workers—keep our great city working efficiently. When Super Storm Sandy devastated the city, it was public sector union workers including these who were at the forefront, working day and night to return vital services to the people of New York. Hospital employees evacuated hundreds of patients without a single casualty, and sanitation workers labored tirelessly removing debris from our streets. Teachers made sure their students continued to learn, even while some schools were badly damaged. Union workers sheltered the homeless, keeping them out of harm’s way, and union members protected animals at the Coney Island Aquarium, making sure they were properly cared for. These facts matter!
As a former city worker, I know how important regular wage increases and health benefits are to a person whose salary is not substantial to begin with—especially for women and men raising families. However, the city claims that if it signs a new contract with public sector unions, it will be without any retroactive raises. And this administration wants public sector workers to pay more for their health care insurance. Meanwhile, the city has spent immense sums of taxpayers’ dollars on corporate tax breaks, especially for real estate, and for outsourcing city services.
At a June rally in front of City Hall, Althea Appleton, Local 371 of District Council 37, expressed the frustration and anger of working without a new contract: “ I have nothing left at the end of the month, no money to even eat! The cost of living is rising, but my paycheck has stayed the same for the last four years.”
And Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, writes (NY Daily News 6/24/13): “Since fiscal year 2005, the city has had annual budget surpluses ranging from $2 billion to well over $4 billion.” What does the city do with this surplus? Does it go to its dedicated hard-working employees? No, instead Mulgrew points to the “$200 million annual carried interest [tax] break that goes to hedge funds [and the] hundreds of millions in property tax benefits granted through the city’s Industrial and Commercial Abatement and 421-a programs.” “These tax breaks,” he stated, “are now worth almost $3 billion.” And Mulgrew reminded us about cost over-runs citing CityTime, a project that “started out with a projected cost of $68 million, ballooned to a $750 million project” and at the end of the day, “still requires [more] outside contactors to finish the job.”
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, titled “Our Economy: The Failure of Ill Will,” Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, explains why there are fierce and continuing attacks on public sector unions:
Today we have an America in which thousands of businesses simply are no more …[and] remaining businesses trying to make profit by using “cheap” foreign labor, or by paying Americans less and less (and attempting to kill unions in order to do so).
Because of this failure…there has been a huge effort in the last decade 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. 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…1) to provide new means for private profits to be made—which is necessary if profit economics is to continue at all; and 2) 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!
For the same purpose, we have municipalities giving tax breaks and subsidies to private companies, and handing over public jobs to private firms, while also trying to slash the hard-earned pensions of public employees.
We believe that this clear explanation of what is happening now can hearten unions to oppose these actions even more effectively, because they are so hurtful to unions and therefore to Americans everywhere.
By Barbara Kestenbaum
“Wherever there’s a fight for decent wages, for education for children, for retirement security for all, for fairness and freedom in the workplace, you will find a union member in the thick of it.”
This was said on a Teamster Nation blog, and its truth is being ratified across the nation as union members support other workers in their struggles for a livable wage, efforts that won’t end until working men and women are paid fairly! For instance, this past spring Chicago’s low-paid workers in fast food chains and big box retailers joined in solidarity with their brothers and sisters working similar jobs in New York City and went out on strike. This is what they posted on their website:
“Employers like McDonalds, Whole Foods and Sears are raking in enormous profits, while workers like us, mostly adults with families, don’t get paid enough to cover basic needs like food, rent, health care and transportation. We are risking our jobs as we continue to stand up and say ENOUGH. And we need everyone who supports us to join us.”
We can’t stand the brutal conditions under which all too many people are forced to work. We applaud their bravery and wholeheartedly support their struggles. We see this as a new phase of the labor movement in the United States, one that can take shape, strengthen, and grow.
As reported in an article on our Unions Matter! blog by union activist Barbara Kestenbaum, the courageous Chicago workers, known as “The Fight for Fifteen,” are demanding a minimum wage of $15.00 an hour. The current hourly wage is a shamefully unlivable $8.75 an hour. According to the Chicago Crain’s, “the majority of Illinoisans say the minimum wage should be raised.” And “the average merchant or restaurant would have to raise prices or cut into profits less than a nickel on the dollar” to pay their workers decently. Although the cost to the owner is negligible, it’s unlikely this is going to happen. To an employer, the most important thing is increasing profits for himself and his shareholders, and the way to make sure this happens is to pay working people as little as possible.
In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes about the way of mind that underlies this ugly injustice:
The profit motive has been glamorized, but it happens to be ugly. It’s the motive to extract as much from somebody as possible—as much of the person’s labor if you’re the employer, or as much of the person’s money if you’re the seller—while giving that person as little as possible. This motive had men who considered themselves good fathers think it right to employ other people’s children in factories—paying, as Carl Sandburg wrote, “how many cents a day? / How many cents for the sleepy eyes and fingers?”
Seeing a person in terms of how much profit one can squeeze from him or her is, Mr. Siegel explained, a phase of contempt. And contempt—the desire to make ourselves more through lessening what’s not us—is the most hurtful thing in everyone. In every aspect of our lives it is at war with our deepest desire: to like the world, to be ourselves through valuing truly people and things outside us.
One contemptuous tactic that owners employ to take advantage of the terrible job market and make sure wages remain at poverty levels, is to hire more workers for shorter shifts. It’s a way of having a ready supply of persons who are so desperate for a job—any job—they won’t make “outrageous” demands like a livable wage! One such worker, Tanesha, a graduate of the Illinois College of Broadcast who works for Nike, said she makes $8.52 an hour. She has student loans to pay off and helps support her mother and, like most workers, she desperately needs her job. She also feels—and for this she should be very much respected—that she has to speak out, not only for herself but for others. But because she’s now working shorter shifts five days a week, her out-of-pocket transportation costs are greater than for her former longer shifts of more hours but fewer days. Tanesha said it almost doesn’t pay to go to work, but she has no choice.
As we described in earlier Unions Matter! blogs, a core demand of these workers is the right to unionize and have their union recognized by their employers. We’ve described how–because of their ability to negotiate increased wages, benefits and safer working conditions–unions have centrally contributed to the failing of profit economics in our time. This makes us, and should make all union members surer of themselves and prouder than ever of the rightness of what unions stand for!
By Carol Driscoll for Friends of Labor
As the death toll from the appalling garment factory building collapse in Bangladesh rose to more than 1,000 women and men, and as outrage grows throughout the world over the slaughter, the questions on everyone’s mind are: How could this happen? And how can massive brutality like this be prevented?
It’s more necessary than ever to see that the beginning cause has to do with the basis of the profit system itself—contempt for the very lives of feeling, hoping human beings. There has been an attempt by garment factory owners, and the name-brand corporations who contract the work to them, to hide behind the fact that they provide jobs for impoverished and desperate workers.
Described as the “worst tragedy in the history of the global garment industry,” the thousands of workers who were ordered to return to the doomed building—even after cracks in its structure had been reported to factory owners and government officials—did so because their jobs were at stake, and they would have lost their only means of making a livelihood—as obscenely miserable as their wages are, about $30 a month. But even with paying these wages, corporations cannot make the kinds of profits they once did.
In a commentary Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education and editor of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, explains some history:
It was 43 years ago…that Eli Siegel gave the first of his landmark Goodbye Profit System lectures. In them he described a huge, irreversible occurrence in economic history…that an economy based on contempt—on seeing human beings in terms of how much profit you can make from them—could no longer continue successfully. He wrote:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
There is a movement now to get the companies whose garments are made in Bangladeshi factories to sign agreements pledging to make sure that the structures in which people work are “safe.” Some of the world’s large retailers have agreed to sign on, while some American retailers—Walmart and The Gap, for example—have refused. They deny any responsibility for the lives of these low-wage workers, whom they see as “expendable,” because their precious profits will be at risk if their “low wage formula” is interfered with!
Ms. Reiss continues:
With all the horror (and, really, murderousness) of what occurred, the factories in that building are emblematic of the one way the profit system can now go on. The happening, the deaths, the maimings are real; but they are also symbolic of what is needed for profit economics to be at all in 2013.
She presents with clarity the connection between the unfeeling demands of the profit system and tragedies such as that in Bangladesh. People throughout the world need to know this relationship of cause and effect.
The building collapse arose from a fidelity to the profit system all the way down the line. 1) The “Western firms,” impelled by the profit motive, want to pay workers as little as possible. That’s why they’re producing in Bangladesh (via foreign factory owners), and not in America—or Italy. 2) The Bangladeshi factory owners also want to make profit, so they pay workers as little as possible and don’t waste money on safety measures. It costs money to make workplaces safe, and every penny an owner spends on safety lessens his profits. 3) The builders of that factory edifice built sleazily because doing so is cheaper, which means more profitable.
We, Miriam Mondlin and Carol Driscoll, worked many years for unions that represent workers in the garment industry. We know it is only because unions fought hard and courageously to improve safety and wages in this and other countries, that any laws exist to protect workers. That is why the resistance to unions has been so fierce, and even deadly.
We’ve seen that there is only one way that tragedies like that in Bangladesh can be prevented: That will be when their cause is clearly understood and something else, strongly ethical, takes their place. This issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known makes that fact clear. It has the knowledge that every person concerned with economic justice, including U.S. union officials, is desperate for. Therefore, it is with heartfelt appreciation and pride that we have published a section of it here. You can click on the link for the full commentary.