Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Newest Golden Rule

Larry Sommers and the other big shot economists on Obama's team are expressing "foot stomping" rage that the Wall Street institutions that we have given Billions of dollars to have been using a good percentage of that money to pay bonuses to the same financial wizards that got us into this mess.

But they are powerless to do anything about it. They tell us we are a nation of laws. A contract is something that is sacrosanct. It can't be messed with or changed by a third party.

This will come as news to the hundreds of thousands of working people who have seen their pensions, healthcare and wages slashed. Just a matter of weeks ago, the government was threatening the jobs of tens of thousands of people whose jobs depend on the domestic auto industry. Given an ultimatum by the government, the auto workers were forced to accept wage cuts to put them more in line with what non-union workers receive.

What makes a contract between millionaires sacred and those between corporations and millions of workers profane?

Could it be the golden rule? He who has the gold makes the rule?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bailout: Bonus Bologna

by Cilla Sluga
Wait a minute! I learned today that AIG (American International Group), the same company that took more than $170 billion in taxpayer bailout money… my money; your money through our Federal Reserve System, now plans to give executive bonuses to the tune of $165 million. The same people that took AIG to the brink of collapse are rewarding themselves for their unimaginable mismanagement.

Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary pretended to be outraged on the Sunday morning talk show this weekend. He said he was foot-stomping mad and demanded that AIG not give the money. Unfortunately, he sighs forlornly, these bastards are going to get their money because lawyers said that AIG is contractually obligated to pay it.

Oh really? Contractually obligated, ey? Tell that to the auto worker in Detroit. Tell that to the retirees or those close to retirement, who paid into pension plans their entire work life, and had them guaranteed in their contracts, but will not receive them because the company claimed it could no longer afford it, and the courts backed them up.

What makes a contract between millionaires sacrosanct while contracts between corporations and their employees can be ripped into little pieces?

A political cartoon of a luxury liner going down. The Passengers are in the water. Above is a man in a helicopter with a megaphone shouting, “Attention! If you’re the Ship’s Captain, its investors or manufacturers, we’re here to rescue you.” Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Constitution.
A while back I heard a pundit say that this was a war between the people who showered before work and those who showered after. It is the absolute truth. And our “liberal” new administration has taken its stand with those who shower before work. Geithner can act and shout as loudly as he wants on television. However, unless the government does something about it, it’s hollow blather. AIG bigwigs should be worried about joining Bernie Madoff, rather than collecting their bonuses.

Crossposted at: Big Noise

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The First Few Steps

by Cilla Sluga & Mike Meiselman

It’s unusual to have such an in-depth conversation with a total stranger. But, we liked her almost immediately. She was tall, in her twenties and had a cute three cornered smile. She asked pointed questions and was not the least bit interested in chit-chat. Pretty remarkable since Jen was our server at a semi-fast food restaurant.

We’re not quite sure how the conversation started; however, within no time at all, Jen was asking us about our politics. She didn’t believe we were as lefty as we claimed. She asked if we knew any leftist anthems. Mike obliged her, there in the small restaurant dining room, by singing The Internationale, clenched fist in the air.

Eventually, she wanted to know what kind of activism we were currently involved in; when we told her we were disability rights activists, her eyes widened. Her sister had spina bifida.

Jen, was not just our server, it turns out she was the restaurant manager. She asked if our group needed money. What? Someone was offering to help our organization with cash. We tried to tell her we weren’t an official 501(3) C; that we probably weren’t eligible. However, she would not be deterred. She said, “If we can have a fundraiser for the local high school cheerleaders, surely we can have one for an organization that works for the rights of disenfranchised people.”

So, we promised to provide her with the information she required.

A week or so later, we took requisite documents to the restaurant and she sat down with us again. Her intensity and inquisitiveness had grown. She confessed she was not much of an activist, but was angry about a lot: School of the Americas, the wars, the budget crisis, poverty, racism, bigotry, and Rush Limbaugh to name a few.
She wanted to know what our group was doing right now. We told her about projects great and small. We talked about an accessible fishing pier at the lake. We told that the statue of Lincoln at the state capitol was still inaccessible, on this the bicentennial of “the great emancipator’s” birthday. When talked about involuntary sterilization act being debated in the state legislature; and other mutilations that children with disabilities have gone through, all at the hands of parents and guardians. She cried tears of anger and sadness.

She reminded us of others we know. They care, deeply, about the world and its people, but feel powerless to change it. She said she felt unable to change things… so rather than stay angry, she confessed, she put it out of her mind as much as she could.

We told her that anger was a good motivating force, and to use it; but it would not sustain her. The only real antidote to frustration and/or anger is activism. Jen said it was all so overwhelming; how could she just pick one or two things when so many things were wrong?

Both of us also remember feeling that way. The frustration Jen and others feels is like burning rubber off the tires; it makes a lot of smoke, just doesn’t get you anywhere. We found progressive groups of people and started working together to change things. We felt less angry because we were actually doing something. In fact, it was invigorating.

One thing you quickly learn once you start fighting back is that is that the enemies turn out to be the same entities. If you are fighting for a clean environment, you learn that the people behind the pollution are also responsible for derailing regulations on Wall Street. The same forces that profit from keeping institutions open are the same ones who profit from prescription drugs that are priced out of reach for people of poor and moderate means. They don’t want regulation either… they want profits. They don’t want equality, they want it all.

The ruling class wants us to fight with one another for limited resources so we don’t focus on them and their system of wealth for the rich and crumbs for the rest of us. We must continually fight, not just for the daily needs of our people, but also to knock chunks of power out of their hands and put it in ours.
She still wasn’t sure. We believe there are a lot of people in the same position. For them the most difficult step of a journey isn’t the first one. It’s more like the second or third step. Once you stick your toe into an issue, you can feel the power on the other side. What usually happens after that; people get scared, put blinders on and refuse to look at injustice any longer. It also requires us to examine our system of equality, wealth distribution and privilege. Once you start doing that, you get called names, like “red” and “socialist”. It is enough to scare most people away.

We want to say do not be deterred. Take Barack Obama’s story about grassroots organizing in Chicago. He saw the poverty; he knew the issues; he spoke to the people; yet at his first meeting, no one showed up. That’s pretty devastating. He was disheartened and thought about quitting. Then he thought that quitting and realized that wasn’t going to improve anything for the people he cared about. He felt he had no choice to but to try and try again. He succeeded in building leadership from the community where little existed before. That enabled him to go on to create or sustain other social movements.

Find your passion. Bring about change in your neighborhood, or city. Fight for women’s rights, or cleaning up the superfund site down the road, or racism, or disability equal rights. Change a neighbor, or local council’s idea about how to deal with people who are disfranchised and you are changing the world.

Crossposted at Big Noise.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Does White Skin Give You Privilege?

More than a few years ago, I relocated to Baltimore MD and went out looking for a job. I found one in a small factory on the west side of the city. They made pretend fireplaces out of concrete. The plant was filthy; there was concrete dust everywhere, but I was going to be making $2.00/hr. Beside the plant manager, I was the only white face there.

I went to introduce myself to my new co-workers. This is a hard working group of guys, I thought, as I watched them labor. The first guy I introduced myself to grunted and asked how much money I was making.

“Two bucks an hour,” I replied.

“Boys, we got a problem. This white boy is making two dollars an hour.” All I heard was angry laughter. The men gathered themselves together and walked in the direction I was coming from, the manager’s office. They opened the door and entered.

“How could you pay this kid 20 cents more than you are paying us. You cannot do that. He doesn’t have the faintest idea of what we do or how we do it… and you’re paying him more than you’re paying us!”

“OK, I’ll cut his pay. He will make what you are making.”

“WAIT A MINUTE,” I protested as my own self-interest was on the line. My co-workers joined me in protesting.

“You’re not gonna to cut his pay--you are gonna raise ours!” the workers insisted.

The manager disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with the news that every worker would now receive $2.00/hr.

After my first day’s work, my coworkers took me out for all the diet sodas I wanted, “on the house.”

The question is, why did the manager offer me an extra twenty cents an hour? Some of my coworkers had worked there for a year or more without a pay raise. They knew what they were doing. I was off the street. The management saw me as becoming the crew chief or supervisor. They did not think that any of their current employees would be able to do that job. Based on my white skin, they saw that I was “executive talent.” Apparently, white guys cannot judge talent.

The same thing happened to me when I went to work at a plating factory. Plating is filthy, corrosive, poisonous, dangerous, unhealthy, and as unpleasant a work environment can be.

The plant manager warmly received me. He expressed concern about being able to hold on to “talented workers.” He immediately told me I had a future if I stayed. He offered me considerably more an hour than what he was paying the 100% black workforce. He assured me that in no time he would move me into management.

When I was an organizer for the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, they sent me to be part of a team organizing the workers at a luxury resort in the mountains of Virginia, the Homestead. Opened in the 1800s, it represents the epitome of southern hospitality. Guests are still expected to “dress” for dinner.

The Homestead featured an all black wait staff and annual events, such as, the watermelon carrying races, etc. Since there had not been black people living in the county since the 1960s. The hotel imported Jamaicans every year to pretend to be “ole black Joe.” The wait staff lived on the grounds in an old run-down dormitory with three toilets and three showers for about 150 people.

Old postcard of rich white folk being entertained by tray races at the Homestead where black waiters carry trays on their heads and run.

Poverty is pervasive in this part of the mountains. Imagine houses with roofs caved in, but still inhabited.

It was a very difficult place to organize. More than one organizer had been chased out of town by a local shooting buckshot. Besides the coalmines, the hotel provided most of the employment in the area. People were glad to have any job.

My teenage daughter came to visit me in the middle of the campaign. She joined me on my rounds as I talked to people about the union. As my daughter saw the poor conditions the workers lived in, she said, “These people are certainly going to vote for a union. They have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”

We lost the election for union representation 5 to 1. Why? In the words of more than one worker, “At least we have it better than the blacks.” And, they were right. They did not have much, but at least they were regarded by the local power structure as being “better than Black.” In an area where white people had very little, that meant a lot.

Our new Attorney General, Eric Holder, called us a nation of “cowards” for not having honest discussions about race in America. He is right. Stories like mine happen far more often than can be imagined. Black people know it; white people do not want to admit it, but white skin privilege exists.

Try renting an apartment. Statistics show that white people on a waiting list get housing before Black people. If you are white, you can go into a jewelry or clothing store worrying about security following you around.

Part of having an honest dialogue is to accept the reality that white people enjoy privilege based on their color and nothing else.