2011-03-18 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

I’ve heard that the styles of the 1970s are coming back this year. I remember the last year of that decade in vivid detail. I was just out of journalism school and making about $11,000. I was in love, so it didn’t matter! Just hearing the opening bars of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” is enough to bring memories of 1979 flooding back to me. But my favorite pop culture reference to that era came not from music or fashion, but from the film industry.

1979 was the year of “Norma Rae.” In the movie’s pivotal scene, a youthful Sally Field, portraying the title character about to be fired from her job at a Southern textile factory for attempting to organize her fellow workers, climbed on a table and raised high a crude, hand-written sign with one simple word: “UNION,” provoking a massive work stoppage at the plant, and landing herself in jail. The true story of how Crystal Lee Sutton fought the J.P. Stevens Company to improve working conditions for herself and her co-workers was so compelling that it was nominated for Best Picture, and won Field her first of two Best Actress Academy Awards.

I was inspired by Sutton’s story, coming as I do from working class roots. Digging to uncover my own family tree, I can’t seem to find an ancestor who was an intellectual, an entrepreneur, or a big landowner. Every census record I find yields yet another laborer, quarry, mill, or mine worker. Grandfathers, uncles, cousins — all immigrant, working class people.

1979 was the high-water mark for American labor unions. In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept into office and began the process of demonizing and dismantling them. Starting with the air-traffic controllers, Reagan forced unions into a defensive mode from which they’ve never recovered.

Sure, unions have never been perfect, but as the movie “Norma Rae” showed, they are a much-needed check on the powers of corporate America. Legendary Professor Joe Crowley of Fordham Law School used to ask students how they’d define the subject matter of his labor law course in simple terms. After it was suggested that strikes, working conditions, and higher wages defined the labor movement’s goals, Crowley dramatically hushed the class and said that it was about something much more basic – human dignity.

About half of my college tuition was paid by the foundations of American corporate giants Alcoa (which employed my father) and the Chicago Tribune. The first in my nuclear family to graduate from college, I then went on to Fordham Law.

When I saw that I needed to pay back my law school loans, I began working at a Wall Street law firm, Cahill Gordon. I started on October 19, 1987, the day the stock market crashed. I hoped that by joining Cahill, I might gain an entrĂ©e to the world of media law, a boutique practice at the firm for decades. Instead, I spent almost two years representing corporate America in some of the worst, most shameful chapters in legal history. Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham Lambert, American International Group, and Enron. They were our clients. We helped them make lots of money by dismantling everything they could of America’s industrial heartland, and provided protection when regulators dared to question their actions.

Nowadays, computer software can do much of what junior lawyers used to do. This kind of document production means more profit to the big firm’s partners and clients. Lately, I’ve been getting emails from agencies recruiting lawyers for projects at pay rates of $20 an hour. You can do inordinately better by training to be an electrician or plumber. Of course, the agencies that place these lawyers receive their large cut for making the placement, so the money’s still there. It’s just in a different pocket.

This type of thievery also occurs on low-wage jobs. For every home health aide making $7 an hour, there’s often a politically connected placement agency (many are not-for-profit), that receives a multiple of 2-3 times the hourly rate as a reward for making the placement. And the commentators wonder why it’s so hard to create jobs!

My apologies to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the “arc of the moral universe” is not bending toward justice these days. We can’t achieve it by merely hoping or praying. People have to be willing to take dramatic actions to assert their legal and moral rights, speaking truth to power.

Bullying is not exclusive to schools. It’s rampant in workplaces, where the lust for money and power shoves the quest for simple human dignity aside. Yet many people are uncomfortable if you draw attention to anything unpleasant or shake up the status quo. Let’s just look at the newest funny “You Tube” video together! LOL.

My working class background is my excuse. I didn’t know better. My dad learned electronics skills in the Air Force, which allowed him to do better than his parents. I was able to do better than my parents for a time, as well. That ended for me the day the towers fell in 2001. The mother of two young children, I never again wanted to work off the Rock. The Teaching Fellows program offered me a hope of making a living wage here in the peninsula’s schools. That hope was dashed within three years, when I got dragged down by the system. I was fortunate to be a member of a union, which contested how I was treated, but to no avail. No Norma Rae ending for me, with a heroic victory over corporate America. Even Alcoa, which helped put me through school, moved work from their union plants to their non-union plants over the years. Seasoned technicians like my Dad were replaced by younger workers who could be paid far less. He grudgingly accepted early retirement the year I graduated from law school.

My daughter is a hopeful and talented young artist with excellent grades. When she heads to college in two years, she won’t have access to scholarship programs like the ones that helped me. She’ll have to learn how to help herself, which isn’t such a bad thing. America’s paternalistic past is over. The gloves are off, too.

Filmmaker Michael Moore spoke to the protestors in Wisconsin, asserting that “America is not broke!

The money’s just not in your pocket anymore.” These days, you have no power to bargain for it. You have to beg.

Joe Crowley must be turning over in his grave.

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