Thursday, August 9, 2012

It Takes a Metropolis: Thoughts Inspired by the Workers Rising Day

Who isn’t familiar with the first four words of the title of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village..., in which she emphasizes the contribution of individuals and groups beyond the family to the growth and well-being of children?   Her title is attributed to an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Later in the year that it was published (1996), Bob Dole politicized the proverb at the Republican National Convention by stating, “it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.”  Once politics raised its (often) ugly head to besmirch the universal wisdom of this proverb, it was only a matter of time for some right-wing toady like Rick Santorum to seal the deal with his own book, It Takes a Family (2005).   Here he makes the ridiculous argument that “liberal social policies” and “radical feminists” have destroyed the structure of American families (as if, maybe, all liberals were brought up in communal orphanages, not families).   Even more ridiculous for a Tea Party-fearing conservative who usually favors smaller government, Santorum calls for an active use of federal power and tax codes to protect that defenseless, traditional family.

Certainly, the family and the village are both important in the cultivation of any truly socialized person; yet, I would like to take this concept a step farther, applying it to society as a whole rather than merely to our children:   It takes a metropolis to form a healthy and fully functioning citizenry.

The family is important, and it’s where our development begins. The village is important, and it’s where we learn to function within a larger venue and absorb values and attitudes that enable us to embrace people and ideas beyond the biases formed within our immediate family.  But just as the family may inculcate narrow, anti-social biases (think Hatfield-McCoy feuds), so the village may be unable to expand our attitudes beyond those who share our narrow, ethnic identity (think Serbs, Croats, Bosnians after 1990 in Yugoslavia, whence the words “ethnic cleansing”).

Only in the modern, urban metropolis can we encounter the conditions in which the wealthiest rub shoulders with the poorest, in which bankers in pin-stripes cross paths with ex-felons and gangsta rappers in sagging pants, in which disdain for “the other” is unsustainable because each city block offers up people of every color speaking different languages.  This diversity, this social heterogeneity provides the necessary condition for the cultivation of a society which embraces all of its citizens and seeks to enrich everyone.

As the great, contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei recently said, one must “let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society.”  Or, as that great writer, community activist and social analyst of urban planning, Jane Jacobs, put so succinctly, “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.”   Exposure to different interests promotes a healthy society.  We must desire and continually seek out interactions with people whose ideas and interests differ from ours.

Now, this is all a preamble to the subject of this week’s blog post, which essentially is a pictorial coverage of a gathering in Union Square that took place two weeks ago, Tuesday, July 24, 2012.  The gathering was designated as Workers Rising Day and was broadly sponsored, including by the OccupyWallStreet group.   OWS billed the day as a “fight for better jobs, better wages and the rights of all workers!”

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, General View

The gathering took place on the north side of Union Square, and a speaker’s stage (see next photograph) was set up in the middle. The crowd--black, white, Latino, Asian--embody the diversity of this great metropolis.

The pedimented, Colonial Revival building in the background was built in 1929 by the architectural firm of Thompson, Holmes, and Converse. They also designed the Hunter College Bronx Campus (now Lehman College) and Bellevue’s Psychopathic Hospital. This building, off the north-east corner of Union Square, began as the second headquarters for the Tammany Society until sold in 1943 to the Ladies Garment Workers Union and became among the most important centers of union activity in New York. It now houses the New York Film Academy.

Union Square, July 24, 2012 Workers Rising Day, Latino Band
Prior to the official speakers and the testimonials of low-wage workers and legal immigrants, this Latino band (I was unable to find out who they were) created a festive, up-beat atmosphere.

Many of us are painfully aware of recent demonizations of American workers, especially those in unions, and we have seen many Republican-dominated states take away workers rights to collective bargaining and organizing over the past year.  At the same time, increasing numbers of Republican politicians have taken to calling America’s unemployed such derogatory terms as “slackers,” “malingerers,” “freeloaders,” “drug addicts,” “lazy,” “people with poor work habits,” “people of poor personalities,” “hobos,” and “irresponsible,”    In other words, the Conservative political machine is characterizing some 27.5 million Americans (the nearly 12.8 million unemployed Americans + the 14.7 million unionized workers) in ways that demonize them and turn them into “the other.”

Think of it. This means that today’s conservative American Republican demeans almost 12% of the total population of our country. If we add this to the 11% of eligible American voters who do not have photo IDs (this is the low-ball number) and are likely to be turned away from the polls in November because of a rash of recent Republican-sponsored voter ID laws, we have a situation in which one of our two major parties is treating a bit over 1-in-5 American citizens as a member of some pariah class.  And excluded from this number are all those so-called “illegal aliens.”

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Wall Street Bull Effigy

Accompanying the marchers from Herald Square to Union Square was this golden effigy of the Wall Street Bull sculpture, characterized by the labels “GREED” and “FALSE IDOL” painted on its supporting platform. It was prominently displayed right in front of the speaker’s stage. Wall Street’s greed, “corporate extortion,” and disdainful treatment of the American worker was exposed by Ed Schultz in this segment of his show from August, 2010.

The Barnes and Noble building seen in the background is an example of the Queen Anne style of the later 19th century. It was built in 1880-81, designed by the German-American architect, William Schickel. It was first was known as The Century Building and housed the offices of the popular literary journal, The Century Magazine (also publishers of the St. Nicholas Magazine for children).

For the reasons mentioned in my “preamble,” the villainizing of a significant portion of our citizenry is unlikely to be witnessed much in a large urban metropolis like New York City.  Therefore, when I went to the Workers Rising Day, I encountered a healthy representation of workers of all skills and levels.  What follows are photographs I took of some of them and of the event.  In my brief comments on these photos, you will find that I don't always agree with the position of a particular workers’ organization,  even though I am a progressive and liberal.  That, of course, is precisely the benefit of living in a metropolis: it not only keeps one stimulated, but it also makes one more considerate, open to others, and hopefully, even humble.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Banner
This demonstration was not only about unionized workers. As Michelle Chen noted in her excellent coverage of this event, the strongest presence may well have been “a cross-section of the city’s more precarious, non-unionized sectors, in which many work off the books, often without benefits, sometimes without breaks.”

United NY, which coordinated this event, has shown that four out of ten workers in New York City are low-wage workers, based on the federal definition, and nearly one-third of New York workers earn below $25,000 a year.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Melissa & Ann
Melissa (L), from Manhattan and Ann (R), from Coney Island, were part of a large group protesting WEP. Do not confuse this with the network standard (Wired Equivalent Privacy), the trajectory of a falling particle in physics (Weak Equivalence Principle), a journal of comparative politics (West European Politics), the Social Security Title II provision (Windfall Elimination Provision), or the War Emergency Power for fighter aircraft, to cite some of the other possible examples of “WEP.”

This WEP stands for the Work Experience Program. It is a work program that coordinates work assignments for individuals within New York’s schools. Its goal is to provide opportunities for these workers to improve skills and develop new abilities at no cost to the school or its administrative office. On the surface, this sounds like a win-win proposition: unemployed with educational skills can get some temporary work relief, while schools receive extra help without encumbering their budgets.

The reality is quite different and gives meaning to such ubiquitous signs as “WEP is slavery.”  In 1996, Republicans gutted the welfare reform movements of the 1960s and passed the Welfare Reform Act.  WEP (or “workfare”) came from this Act.   It required welfare recipients to “pay off” their welfare benefits by working menial jobs below minimum wage.   Participants receive no wages but are allowed to continue receiving their welfare benefits.   It may not be “slavery,” but it sure sounds like a return to the old southern plantation system.  Here are statements by two participants: Brenda Steward and Sandra White.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Chris from Brooklyn
Chris (far R) is the executive director of Advocates for Justice and has set up a table at this demonstration. Advocates for Justice defines itself as “a voice for ‘the Other America,’ the vast majority of the American people who work hard, live righteous lives, but have to struggle for survival.” They fight for a broad scope of civil liberties, stating that they “make a special cause out of representing those who organize poor and working people – community groups, community organizers, unions, workplace activists – and who often do so against immense odds and with great self-sacrifice.”

The building in the background seen between the trees with the convex-curving lintel is the Decker Building, built in 1892 for the Decker brothers piano company.   From 1968-1973, Andy Warhol had his studio on the sixth floor of this building.  The architect of the Decker Building, John H. Edelmann, had worked in Chicago before coming to New York and apparently was credited by Louis Sullivan with that concept of early modernism: Form follows Function.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Leslie from New Jersey
Communities for Change is one of many groups whose volunteers and members contribute in so many unspoken ways to the betterment of communities and our society.   It and its ilk were the targets of all those silly attacks on “community organizers” that began when Barack Obama first ran for the office of President.  Essentially, they help the poor, the oppressed, or to paraphrase Emma Lazarus, “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...the wretched refuse...the homeless....” 

Why and when, one wonders, did our Conservative right become so heartless?

Anyway, the web site for NY Communities for Change says it “is a coalition of working families in low and moderate income communities fighting for social and economic justice throughout New York State.  By using direct action, legislative advocacy, and community organizing....we are working to ensure that every family throughout New York has access to quality schools, affordable housing, and good jobs.”

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Make The Road
Make the Road New York is another group of community organizers, this one focused on Latino working class communities. They cast a wide net, the ambitious and laudable goals of which entail expanding civil rights and civic engagement, promoting community health, improving housing and “environmental justice,” seeking justice in the workplace, promoting educational opportunities, and empowering youth.

Its name originates from a line in a poem by Antonio Machado: “Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking.”

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Utility Workers
The Utility Workers of America now number 50,000 in about half the states in the country and they work in the electric, gas, water and nuclear industries. Their T-shirts, “if we go out, the lights go out,” refer to the fact that Con Ed chose to lock them out on July 1 of this year. Fortunately for everyone,on July 27, 2012, three days after this demonstration in Union Square, New York Governor Cuomo brokered an agreement between management and the union for an overall solution to the lockout. As the office to the Governor wrote in a letter to all “Fellow New Yorkers.... by bringing together the labor unions and management in a partnership to move this state forward, the Governor has once again shown that by working together, we can ensure that government is working for the people.”

What a shame that the governor of Wisconsin and several other newly elected Republican state governors lack the will and interest shown by Governor Cuomo to encourage the cooperation of management and worker and to coordinate a resolution of their differences.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Henry from Brooklyn
No, no, Henry’s sign has nothing to do with a dislike of a certain Irish fiddler named Kevin Burke, nor with a certain improv actor, best known for Defending the Caveman. It refers to the CEO of Con Ed and the lockout referred to in the previous photograph.

With four degrees, including a juris doctor from Fordham, Kevin Burke hardly can be called a “jerk,” but he seems to have shown little interest in resolving the labor disputes with union workers. As local union president, Harry J. Farrell pointed out (in a pdf document), ”The men and women of Local 1-2 are currently working 16 hour shifts to keep the system operating, but if Kevin Burke forces a work stoppage at midnight Saturday, June 30, all that work will come to a halt.”   He also made note of Burke’s “excessive compensation at more than $10 million a year, his guaranteed pension of $18 million, and the riches he lavishes on his Board of Directors with 20% raises and bountiful stock options. Meanwhile the men and women who keep the lights on cost less than 5% of a customer’s bill.”

Burke may not be a jerk. However, he may just be another of those many, greedy, inconsiderate, corporate CEOs.

The building in the background, 41 Union Square, was known as the Hartford Building.  It was built in 1895.  It was once the home of the periodical, The Partisan Review and Alan Ginsberg.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Association of Machinists
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers was formed in 1888 in Atlanta, Georgia.    It now represents a bit under 650,000 workers in some 200 industries.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Airport Workers
One-quarter of the New York Airport Workers earn wages below the federal poverty line for a family of four, and this includes some who have jobs in security. Area airports employ about 67,000 people, but the majority of their lowest-paid quarter are merely paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Doesn’t this make you wonder why our airports work as smoothly as they do and why we don’t have much more lost luggage? Even though they are paid demeaning wages, they apparently still take pride in their work.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Hotel Workers
The New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council represents about 30,000 non-managerial employees and it serves approximately 75% of the hotel industry in the five boroughs. They recently agreed to a new, long-term contract. This contract contains one, new provision: personal panic buttons, so hotel staff can summon help if it encounters danger--a result of the Dominique-Strauss Kahn incident at the Sofitel New York last year.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, LiUNA
The Laborers’ International Union of North America is one of several unions which represent the construction industry. It boasts about a half-million members within this industry of 12 million workers which, it claims is responsible for 5% of our county’s economic output.

All the unions we have seen so far are really essential to the smooth running of a metropolis like New York.  These unions and their workers deserve our respect and support.  Strong labor unions are and always have been good for the American economy.  They are the main reason that we enjoyed such a large and strong middle class in America in the 1950s--the period in which union membership peaked in this country.  The relative suffering of our middle class today is related to the decline in union membership, and Harvard economist, Richard Freeman, connects the decline of unions to our growing income gap.

The wholesale attack of unions taking place today,  particularly by Republican state governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin,  are indefensible and based on thoughtless adherence to certain conservative ideologies.  As Kevin Drum has observed, unions are “the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power.  They're the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

That said, I can understand why some people form a dislike to the idea of unions when they associate that idea with the aggressive language that historically emerged out of the Communist Revolution in the first decades of the twentieth century.
And this brings me to the next two photographs.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Jeff from Manhattan
Jeff is handing out literature for LRP-COFI: League for the Revolutioonary Party, Communist Organization for the Fourth International. The LRP claims to be “dedicated to the restoration of authentic Marxism and the political independence of the working class everywhere.” It calls for the overthrow of capitalism, and even rejects the middle-class in its call for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Of course, we certainly don’t need a dictatorship of anything by anyone, whether proletarian (aka, worker) or corporate CEO (aka, 1%er). The LRP-COFI is futilely trying to resurrect the dead--the dead ideologies of the Communist Revolution and its dying, stilted language. It’s a language that speaks to almost nobody today.

This is not about supporting the cause of American workers nor of bettering their condition; no self-respecting American worker would have anything to do with this organization. It is simply the Ghost of Communism Past, rattling its chains and giving conservative Republicans more stupid reasons to destroy labor unions and, along with them, our middle-class.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, IWW Banner
The Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies) was founded in 1905 in Chicago as an opposition force to the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It was--and still is--a democratic, member-run union and a union of full inclusion, in that it membership crosses all gender, ethnic and racial lines. Also, on the positive side, is its intent to “live in harmony with the earth.”

So, in its adherence to its original Constitution of 1905, it manages to promote such important American principles as a true democratic form of governance and ecological conservation. However, it still promotes and embraces its original Constitution which contains ideas that, realistically, seem untenable today. Among these are the call for the overthrow of capitalism and the employing class, the abolition of the wage system, the pooling of all workers into a single union (IWW), and assuming control of the means of production. From its peak membership in 1923, the IWW had about 5,000 members in its 100th anniversary year of 2005.

Union Square, July 24, 2012, Workers Rising Day, Billy from Occupy Tucson
Billy came to New York from Tucson to temporarily join with the New York OWS.  What his sign refers to is a proposal that could become an antidote to the disastrous take-over of the landscape of campaign finance by the new SuperPACs, other secret sources of political money, and their enabling due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That 1% tax on Wall Street has been estimated to generate $350,000,000,000 a year--enough to fund every election in the country.

Billy, of course, is not demonstrating for the rights of workers, but he makes a fitting conclusion to this blog post because he reminds us that there is something even more important than supporting the rights of workers, and that is finding a way to rescue our democratic system by insuring fair elections and providing equal time and access to all candidates.

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