2005-05-20 / Columnists

The Progressive

By John Paul Culotta

When I was a youngster, I attended a lecture, appropriate for my age, regarding the life of Andrew Carnegie. The lecturer concentrated on the man’s philanthropic activity. My local library was built with funds from the Carnegie Foundation. Libraries all across this nation are a result of the man’s generosity. His effort towards world peace is evident at The Hague in the Netherlands. Cultural life in this great city would be poorer without Carnegie Hall. As the lecturer spoke, a man who I knew seemed disturbed. He was an Italian immigrant now elderly who once worked in a Carnegie steel mill. After the lecture, he told me all the good works of Carnegie were not possible without the blood, sweat, and tears of the workers in his mills. Starvation wages were the norm in the mills. Organizing of unions with the help of the courts, elected officials, and military force, conservative journalists, and paid off clergy was vigorously opposed by Carnegie. Men could work an entire life without a raise in pay. Working conditions were dangerous and unpleasant. Immigrants were a source of cheap labor. Ethnic group identification was used as a wedge to disunite workers who had common interests and weaken worker solidarity. Most major employers operated in a similar manner.

Another American icon, Henry Ford, albeit anti-Semitic and anti-union, decided to pay his workers a salary that would allow his workers to be able to buy the cars his company produced. After the Second World War, major corporations and government decided to give fringe benefits such as medical insurance and a defined pension as a part of the social contract between workers and the corporation. Unfortunately, it would appear this nation is returning to the bad old days of the industrial barons. Most workers at Wal-Mart earn less than $19,000 per annum. Employers often do not offer health insurance. Defined pensions for a lifetime of work are almost unheard of. Not even government workers are guaranteed lifetime work. Major corporations are constantly downsizing and offering early retirements.

Many people think of civil service work as a parvenu of sinecure. Images of long coffee breaks and nasty, inefficient workers are prevalent in our society. Politicians, knowing of this popular conception of civil servants, have in recent years been deliberately dismantling the civil service protections the civil servants were privileged to have. All workers in this nation should enjoy secured employment, adequate health care, and a decent defined pension for diligent labor. Corporations avoid hiring permanent employees and use temporary workers to satisfy their labor needs, while government hires hourly workers when needed. Often these hourly employees work for many years, some for as much as twenty years, without civil service protection, and are led to believe that their employment is permanent in everything but status. I have worked along side these employees when I worked for the New York State Department of Labor and knew many to be employees that any employer would desire. A few weeks ago, these hourlies were told that their office, the Telephone Claims Center, would be closed in New York City. This office services the unemployed in the filing and servicing of unemployment claims. After the September 11th attack on our nation the employees who are now slated for dismissal did yeoman’s work serving the unemployment emergency the attack caused. Many worked considerable amounts of overtime. These hourlies, no longer service unemployment insurance recipients but are now claimants for unemployment insurance. Permanent employees of the office can accept unemployment or relocate to Glendale or Troy. $3,000 would be given for relocation expenses. It is interesting to note that the Troy office is in the district of Senator Bruno and will remain open. The closing of the office in New York City is disgraceful. Lower Manhattan needs government presence and resources after September 11th. Demographics in this state render the majority of the workers for the department in New York City to be minority African American, Latino and Asian women and the closing of this office will have a disparate impact on these minority workers. Many of the workers are only a year or two away from retiring. When the office opened a few years ago, the department gave verbal commitments that employment in this division would be secure. Now, seniority is discounted if an employee desires to transfer to another division within the department downstate. None of this should be a surprise to students of labor relations in this country and state. New York State Department of Labor is not employee friendly. It enforces regulations regarding safety and health for other employers. However, when the union asked for the facts regarding accidents the department’s own offices, the state refused to provide the information to the union representatives. The union sued and prevailed in court. Can this nation survive when corporations and government treat their employees as discarded material after its utility has been depleted?

It is not just corporations and government that are responsible for this trend. The “House of Labor” is also downsizing. A recent New York Sun article titled “AFL-CIO Workers Find They’re Not Immune to Pink Slips” reported that in a reorganization effort, the AFL-CIO is terminating about 100 employees.

This would be about a quarter of the AFL-CIO staff. Five large unions feel that the union movement should be concentrating on organizing the unorganized, for example Wal-Mart workers. This means a pruning of the bureaucracy. The question to ponder is: Why can’t the AFL-CIO employees be retrained and not be terminated? It is disturbing that unions are using corporate models in order to grow and even to exist. Once a social and economic movement unions have become big business that I believe should return to the high moral standards upon which they were found.

While American workers are finding it difficult to obtain employment that pays a living wage, provides medical insurance benefits and some semblance of security, military recruiters are finding it difficult to recruit. I often see recruiters in shopping areas telling young men and women who work as cashiers of the economic benefits of military life. On May 3, 2005 the New York Times reported that Army recruiters were pressured to bringing in applications. In order to meet the goal, rules regarding enlistment have been consistently broken. People with bipolar disorder were enlisted. Many of the enlistees have difficulty with the English language. The accident when an Italian officer was killed by US troops in Iraq may have been caused by this difficulty with English by one of our soldiers. While Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney wish to make the world safe for hypocrisy, it is a disturbing trend that for many Americans the only resolution for a living wage, secured employment and health benefits is to volunteer for military service. Military service is honorable but it should not be the only choice for our young people who may not be privileged enough to be able to attend a university.

Not all the trends are discouraging. The NY Times recently reported “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and a select group of Justice Department prosecutors has been forged to identify and single out for prosecution the nation’s most flagrant workplace safety violators.” I applaud this effort.

Conservatives across this nation are objecting to universities across the nation having controversial speakers speak on campuses. I deplore racists, anti Semites, and talk that can only give comfort to terrorists; it is deplorable that this trend is so popular. I agree with the Irregular that Ward Churchill’s viewpoints are unacceptable, but universities should not bar him from speaking or teaching. I recently was on a college campus. As I normally do, I checked the bulletin boards and saw advertisements for the college production of the Vagina Monologues, an announcement for a National Day of Prayer, a poster of Arlo Guthrie, a seminar on the Dead Sea Scrolls announcement, a poster for a talk by Chinese scholars and a date for an African American Gospel Concert. This diversity is what a university needs.  

My 14-year-old daughter is Goth. I admit some aspects of this trend among our teenagers are disturbing. Her imagination and creativity though tell me she is basically a romantic. Her favorite musical on Broadway and movie is the Phantom of the Opera. This romance has a Gothic feel. Although movie critics have panned the movie, it has the elegance of the old MGM musicals and is praiseworthy as. If you love Broadway musicals, the trend of movie musicals like Chicago and the Phantom, is a trend I support. My daughter would add for my female readers, that Gerald Butler who plays the Phantom, is hot.   

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