Monday, February 28, 2011

Many public workers heading for the door

It is becoming obvious that one of the immediate impacts of the Scott Walker power move against unions is that the state is about to lose the skills and experience of thousands of its most veteran public sector workers. Many of them face a decision to retire right now in order to get the full benefits of the pensions promised them over the course of their careers.  If they wait to see what happens to the budget debate over the next months, they could end up losing big money for their retirement.

But even this won't guarantee that pension funds won't be raided over time, as the Alternet article linked here indicates. And as Walker & Co. (like the groups funded by the Koch brothers who are stoking anti-union sentiments all across the country) continue their media assault on labor, the flames of resentment among private sector workers who have lost jobs or seen wages and benefits fall as a result of corporate power plays (you know, the take-it-or-leave-it approach to labor negotiations - take what we offer as we gut your livelihood or we'll move to Oklahoma or Mexico) are bound to rise. Folks like the Kochs and their Club for Growth buddies will be happy to fan those flames because it works so well... you can see today if you read the 'letters to the editors' page in the seemingly anti-union Journal Sentinel.

Doesn't matter if you say that these angry folks going on and on about communists and socialists (say what?!?!?) and privileged lazy public workers have got it all wrong, that they don't know who the real 'enemy' is or why, really, their standard of living is sinking into the burgeoning class of working poor. The corporate guys with all the money and power are very happy to see us turn on one another in a blame game that has no good outcome.

You know, you can let Walker try to rule like that - or not.

But my challenge to public sector workers and their unions is this: taxpayers do indeed pay your salaries and finance your benefits, and private sector workers, especially those without college degrees, are getting hurt in a global economy that has less and less room for them - and no concern for them at all. If you want to maintain and build support for the cause of worker rights, it is crucial that you begin active, persistent, constructive solidarity with private sector workers. They are not up against elected officials that we voters can turn out of office. They are up against companies that operate solely for the bottom line and have no democracy at all, only a commitment to quarterly profit reports for their stockholders.

It is time for a massive reeducation in this state in regard to labor history and the decades-long struggle for worker rights, of why collective bargaining is crucial in a democracy. What it does is balance the power of corporate money with the power of organized labor. Without that, each worker is at the mercy of these powerful bosses.

Solidarity is the only way out of this mess. Many of us who are not public sector workers have been out in support of the folks in the rotunda and on the streets of Madison. The support must go both ways, otherwise this struggle for worker rights cannot be won.

Photos: Margaret Swedish

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Madison yesterday

Snow, cold, homemade signs, families, workers of all kinds, religious folks, drums, and Peter Yarrow singin' 'Blowin' in the Wind' one more time, free pizza from donors around the world, free Equal Exchange coffee (unless you're Scott Walker, said the sign), union members handing out hot dogs and bottles of water - never seen anything like it. A combination of festive and fierce, angry people who are so, so nice, and so polite, so happy and so enraged.

At one point during the rally, they called from the stage for a singing of the national anthem, and everyone immediately grew quiet then sang altogether. Then they went right back to "kill the bill!"

Now is the time for the thing that never seems to happen in recent decades after inspirational uprisings - the left, the union leadership, the affluent progressives, the 'liberal elites,' the Democratic politicians, the DNC, all need to get humble and relearn solidarity with working, struggling folks. Now the public sector unions need to translate all this good will into a struggle to support the rights equally of workers in the private sector who have seen their wages and benefits and collective bargaining rights and membership decimated in recent decades.

Now is the time for all these groups to start seriously addressing something that never comes up in the political discourse anymore - poverty, the plight of the now-permanently unemployed, immigrant labor without any rights - we have to start crossing all sorts of political and cultural and economic chasms if we are really serious about not handing any more of our society, our politics, our precious Wisconsin, our resources all around the country to the corporate sector.

This is a time for a great coming-together, otherwise we will continue the course of the great tearing-apart. This article in today's Journal Sentinel again describes how what Walker is doing is surfacing long simmering, bitter divides among us. If we don't find a way to bridge that gap, the rancor will only get uglier. We all feel this among our relatives, friends, neighbors. The only way to heal this is to not play our part in creation of rancor but in the coming-together. I felt the potential for this in the streets of Madison. Now it's time to plant that garden, nurture it carefully, and let it grow.

Photos: Margaret Swedish

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Madison today

It was an inspiration!

All photos: Margaret Swedish

Walker is tearing the community apart

Scott, really, being elected to office in a democracy does not mean you get to impose rule; it means you are given the chance to govern - not just your Koch brother donors, not just the meanest part of the political culture, but governance of all the state.

Your job, especially in tough times, is not to appeal to personal grandiosity, proclaim yourself Reaganesque; it is to build bridges, bring people together at the table to figure out how we work together to solve big problems without hurting the most vulnerable among us even more than the times and the politics of the day harm them.

You want to be a leader? Quit ripping this community to shreds! Negotiations and compromise are the hallmarks of good governance. Without that, you are only a bully, merely stubborn. Those are characteristics of stalemate and bitterness, which will lead us nowhere.

Friends, don't let him do this to us!  I mean, this:

This guy could set the politics of our state back many, many years. Don't fall for it. We need to pull together now. Without that, this state is headed towards a very difficult future.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Walker may have violated laws and ethics rules

Before retiring for the evening, just wanted to point out that the Gov may well have violated labor laws and ethics rules in the way he attempted to ram through a budget repair bill full of radical policy changes that have little to do with the budget and a lot to do with destroying state government and handing the state over to corporate interests.

Here's the story on the legal and ethical issues sent to me by one of my alert brothers:

Then there's Nobel laureate Paul Krugman who compares what Walker is trying to do here to Iraq in 2003. I found the comparison far more apt than I thought it would be.

"...Baghdad in 2003, when the Bush administration put Iraq under the rule of officials chosen for loyalty and political reliability rather than experience and competence."

Right.  Here's the link: Shock Doctrine, USA

Heading to Madison on Saturday with a group of faith-based folks. They are answering the call from the Wisconsin Conference of Churches. Meanwhile, the US Catholic Bishops Conference sent a letter to Archbishop Jerome Listecki supporting his defense of worker rights in the state of Wisconsin.

“You and our brother bishops in Wisconsin are offering a timely reminder of what the Church teaches on the rights and duties of workers, including the right to form and belong to unions and other associations, and the obligation to address difficult problems with respect for the rights and needs of all. As you insist, ‘hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.’”

You can find the entire statement here:

Walker and state Repub legislators are not only losing the political battle, but they have lost the moral and ethical battle as well. They may get their legislative way in the end, but, oh, the sleeping giant that has awakened!

All together or all apart - which way will we go?

It's difficult for me not to think of the Wisconsin governor and Republican legislators as crossing over the threshold from merely damaging, ideologically rigid politics to cruelty. But when I read articles like this in the morning paper, the word cruelty bubbles up. When deficit hawks create or deepen deficits by offering government services and tax breaks to the wealthiest and to corporations, then insist they are 'broke,' cruelty is one result. (Note to Governor Walker: please get a dictionary and look up the word 'broke;' we are not broke! We have imbalances in revenue and spending, but we are not broke!!).

Cruelty towards human beings, towards students in public school systems who will be failed by these policies, towards public workers who provide services to all of us for very modest incomes (put the cuts to these workers up against the tax breaks for folks like the Koch brothers), towards those slipping rapidly from the ranks of what we once called the middle class while the wealthy become obscenely wealthier, towards the poor who are about to see BadgerCare 'reformed' by cruel policy by a governor attempting to legislate sole authority over the program - oh, we could go on.

This is class warfare in the extreme, brought to you by 20-30 years of the erosion of our democracy, an erosion caused by handing it over to corporations and financial institutions. They own the system. They can purchase politicians, hire lobbyists who help write the legislation that will serve their interests (I am not making this up. I learned this all too well in my 26 years working in Wash. DC), and if they get the right presidents, they can appoint Supreme Court justices who will defend corporate interests.

For decades now, the courts have recognized corporations as 'persons' with certain constitutional rights. This is completely made up and never intended by our Founding Fathers or anyone else until this past century. But it has served corporate interests well. And these are the folks that have money to buy cable news channels, to saturate the airwaves with paid ads from mystery organizations, and do things like move lobbying offices right into the heart of Madison to influence legislation.

So, the struggle here in Wisconsin really is about the soul of this nation, and what kind of nation we want to be. Will we allow those with power and wealth to tear us apart so that they can better control our lives and well-being, will we allow ourselves to be bullied or duped by their faux news outlets, paid ads, or politics of blame - blame of the marginalized, the public worker, the failing middle class, the urban poor, the immigrant? Or will we choose to resist those trends and create solidarity among our people, pull together across class and lines of 'competing' individualistic interests, and center our values on a sense of the common good and the good of the commons, a realization that we are all in this together, and that the path of mere self-interest and concentration of wealth and power is leading us towards a world most of us won't want to live in - mean, impoverished, cruel, heartless, and ecologically wrecked?

Thank you Wisconsin 14, thank you to my guy Chris Larson, thank you protesters, thank you public sector workers - for giving us all this time to find out what is really going on. The real victory here is knowledge, and the more we have about what is really going on, the more empowered we are to change this ugly course before things get worse - much worse - which is what Walker, the Koch brothers, and Repub state legislators sadly have in mind for our state.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Things we should know about what's going on in Madison

It is becoming clearer that Scott Walker's attack on government and the public sector is part of a coordinated strategy with some powerful business interests involved.  We have written about the Koch brothers, their investments in the state of Wisconsin, the dirty industries at the heart of the multi-billion personal empire.  Now this - Koch Industries has moved a lobbying office right into the heart of Madison:

Koch Brothers Quietly Open Lobbying Office in Downtown Madison

And then this: Notorious Pro-Corporate Group ALEC's Hidden Role in Stoking Class War in Wisconsin and the Rest of America.

The citizens of any democracy have got to be informed, they have to know who the power players are and what their agenda is, in order to make informed decisions. There are darkening shadows all around this Walker administration. The more deeply entrenched they become, the harder it will be to dig them back out of our democratic process. And if Walker intends to sell off public resources to them - well, don't you want to know about it? After all, they belong to you.

From the Cap Times article:

"It's curious that the Kochs have apparently expanded their lobbying presence just as Walker was sworn into office and immediately before a budget was unveiled that would allow the executive branch unilateral power to sell off public utilities in this state in no-bid contracts," says Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy.
People think I'm extreme when I say the intent of the right is to sell off our government and our resources to corporate America. But you see - I am not making it up.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Now Walker gets mean

Really, now the Gov is threatening to send layoff notices next week if the Senate Democrats don't bend, blink, become submissive and subservient to his agenda. This is democracy? To threaten workers with unemployment as retaliation for not getting his way on the budget bill? Then he'll say, "see, you made me do it."

Problem is, a lot of people will believe him. A lot of people watch Fox News and listen to Charlie Sykes and Rush Limbaugh. It's sad because this is all a charade, a feint - "Hey, look over there," while over here they are tearing to shreds the livelihoods of millions of US Americans, and thousands and thousands of Wisconsinites.

Why not use public workers as pawns in this struggle? Demonize them first, of course, that helps the cause. Then turn on them as if they are not educating our kids, plowing our streets, providing health care for the poor, picking up the garbage, taking care of our state parks, staffing offices where we go for state services of all kinds, etc., etc.

Hey, you can contract out that work to the private sector!!! Low wages, no benefits, lots of turnover, lots of abuse - but, hey, we'll save a few bucks and then we can lower taxes for the rich and for corporations even more!!  Good deal for the Koch brothers (this link takes you to an article every Wisconsin resident ought to read) and the Club for Growth.

Rachel Maddow did a great job of exposing Walker's woeful incompetence in the matter of privatizing public workers when he was Milwaukee County Executive (see video below). His attempt wasn't even legal. Cost the strapped county hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now the guy is governor.We see what we have in store.

This guy is becoming really destructive. He is ripping people apart, driving wedges among struggling working people, unemployed, and underemployed.  He's got a cushy job. He's got the backing of the Koch brothers  and Fox News. So what has he got to lose? What did Sarah Palin have to lose, or Michelle Bachman? They both became millionaires whether or not they ever win another elective office.

The right takes care of its own.

Now the question is - will we Wisconsinites take care of the people who work for us? But more, much more - will we refuse to be divided, private sector workers v. public sector workers, unemployed v. those with jobs, folks with health insurance v. those without? Instead of trying to take rights and well-being away from one group of workers, will we come together instead to restore those rights in the private sector? Instead of seeking to lower the floor for wages and working conditions, will we struggle to have the floor raised for all workers?

Bosses have always tried to control workers by strategies of divide and conquer. The Club for Growth ads on TV are doing exactly that - and we have to stop being duped by or ignorant about what is really going on. These guys, Walker and Senate Republicans, are the bosses trying to divide and conquer so that they can give our state's resources and tax money to the corporations that contribute to their campaigns. The community of those 'hard-working taxpayers' that Walker keeps talking about, as if this is what he really cares about, has to come together now across all those lines that seemingly divide. The quality of life in our state and nation is not being eroded by public sector workers. It is being eroded by the corporatization of government, by the ecological wreckage of our biosphere and atmosphere, by the takeover of our democracy by the power of corporate money.

There are other ways to balance the budget - like returning tax rates on wealth and on large corporations to where they once were - before Reagan, before the assault on the middle class, before the assault on worker rights and dignity, on government services and the public sector, on public education. One thing about this nation - though never perfect and always marred by inequality and injustice, it did create a very broad base for quality of life and democratic rights for a vast majority of its population. It ain't public workers that have eroded that. Nope, it is not them.

I promise you, this road on which Walker wants to take this state will not end well for the vast majority of us. There is more at stake here than a balanced budget.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Here it is - and thank you, Sir Charles.  You are a champion on the field - and off.


Last week I was proud when many of my current and former teammates announced their support for the working families fighting for their rights in Wisconsin. Today I am honored to join with them. Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. These hard working people are under an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights to have a voice and collectively bargain at work.

It is an honor for me to play for the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and be a part of the Green Bay and Wisconsin communities. I am also honored as a member of the NFL Players Association to stand together with working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against this attempt to hurt them by targeting unions. I hope those leading the attack will sit down with Wisconsin’s public workers and discuss the problems Wisconsin faces, so that together they can truly move Wisconsin forward.

"'s not about the budget, it's about the power"

This is what Paul Krugman writes in his very astute column today, Wisconsin's Power Play. He is exactly right. What is going on here in Wisconsin is not a battle over the budget but rather who will control political decision-making - the Koch brothers whose industries benefit from deregulation, tax credits, union-busting, and environmental destruction, and who also donated generously to Scott Walker's campaign for governor, or workers and their families, unemployed people and the urban poor?

Will it be industrial agribusiness or family and organic farmers, producers of food to burn in our cars as fuel or producers of healthy food to eat, polluters of our air, soil and water, or those working to create a clean environment for our families, our kids? Will it be those willing to throw away a decent future on this planet and in this country for the sake of profits, or those who want to ensure abundance and quality of life for future generations?

This struggle also reveals a sharpening clash of values, a clash embedded in all of these divides. Will we be a society of fierce individualists who fly into a rage at any suggestion that there is such a thing as social responsibility - since we all share the same air, food, water, economy, polity, government - or of those who welcome these interconnections as de facto reality and work to make them healthy, joyful, respectful, and sound?

George Lakoff wrote about this clash for Alternet in an article dedicated to Wisconsin's peaceful protesters struggling for their place in our democracy. Recommended reading. Let us know what you think.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Walker funded by Koch brothers

The Koch brothers are out to purchase government at all sorts of levels. They are out to bust unions all across the country, are major funders of Tea Party groups, even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hangs out with them. Remember the Supreme Court? the group that gutted campaign finance laws in a way that benefits the Kochs by allowing them to shield campaign contributions?

The Koch brothers were among the largest donors to Scott Walker's campaign. We need to know this in order to fully appreciate what he is trying to do now, and what he intends to do in the governor's office over the next four years.

Only the organized voice of the citizens of this state can counter the power of money at such a grand scale. Many people who voted for Walker and Tea Party Republicans did not know what the real agenda was.  It gets clearer by the day.

Read about the Koch brothers here and then here. Defend your democracy!

"Wisconsin is fine" - Maddow uncovers the budget cover-up

Last night, Rachel Maddow brought the Scott Walker scam to light on her show [see below]. Wisconsin has no budget crisis. The state is not bankrupt. The budget shortfall was made into a crisis by the amount of tax breaks given to business interests. What we have here is a trade-off. To balance the budget, public money is being taken from workers, children, public school kids, elderly, unemployed and given to companies with the argument that, magically, good-paying jobs will be created which, magically, will make all those workers' and kids' and seniors' lives better - how?

250,000 jobs, Walker promised. In your dreams, Scott. It ain't real, and the jobs you're trying to create will not help if they come with poverty wages and no way for a family to support itself. Gut public sector workers' income and benefits? Right, or fire them. That's what Harley-Davidson, Kohler, and Mercury Marine offered, and we saw the result. Now this union-busting strategy has come to the capitol in Madison, and one result will be more and more workers falling into poverty just as these same folks shred the social safety net.

A major structural shift is happening to the US economy right now, being played out here in Wisconsin. It is no longer in the financial interests of corporations to have a large middle class, to have a core of high-skilled, well-paid workers manufacturing things and making enough money to buy them.  Now fortunes are made in financial investment, and if you are still making things (like Harley-Davidson motorcycles), the best way to increase your financial return is to cut labor costs - fewer workers at far lower wages and little or no benefits - certainly no collective bargaining rights.

Now this era has come to the public sector big time.  The only way to resist such a massive shift in power is through precisely what is being attacked by the Walker government right now - collective action, strong people-based organizations, including unions, with a commitment to an enduring solidarity across various sectors of workers, the poor, community organizations defending rights and dignity of those under attack by these corporate interests and the politicians they put in office with lavish campaign funding.

It's an old tried and true refrain - united we stand, divided we fall. The other side has endless resources to buy elections, to buy and/or influence votes, with paid professional lobbyists and money for TV ads and more. What we have is our organized collective voice. If we don't have that, they can continue to pick us apart.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now we see the great divide

Gov Walker and Republican state legislators have certainly helped to do one important thing - to surface the great cultural divide in my state.

* Solidarity v. fierce individualism

* Workers v. corporate powers

* Cutting taxes as an ideology v. a strong social safety net based on a sense of shared responsibility

* Government as outside monster v. government as a service to its people

* Government as guarantor of private business and wealth generation v. government as guarantor of rights and fairness

* Leave me alone! v. we are all in this together

It doesn't have to be this way. What we are seeing now in the public sector in this state we saw in recent years in the private sector - a divide-and-conquer strategy. Threaten to move a plant out of the state to force workers into huge wage and benefits concessions. Threaten massive layoffs of public workers if they don't accept being stripped of collective bargaining rights. Worse, there is a calculated campaign to drive a wedge between the unemployed or workers seeing their wages fall and benefits disappear, and public sector workers who still have jobs and benefits.

It's an old, tired, anti-people strategy - breakdown solidarity among workers, make them feel like the unions are the enemy, rather than the bosses who are trying to remake the workforce to their benefit.

What in the world happened to our once-inspiring pro-labor culture here, to our sense of pride in what workers built here?  This city was built on the labor of my ancestors, my uncles, my cousins, musicians who worked for my father - all of whom had access to decent well-paid work and benefits because of unions, who had clout in setting work rules (like the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, safe factories, grievance procedures, and more) and from all of that were able to own a house, raise their kids, send them to good public schools, etc., etc. - because of unions, because of organized labor fighting for their rights.

The powers-that-be say we can't afford this anymore, but before we rush to that judgment, take a look at what is happening to the earnings of the already wealthy, to the soaring Wall Street companies. Read articles in the business news about how many corporations are awash in cash but not hiring - because they don't need to do that to make money anymore.

Then check out how many of the wealthy pay little or no state taxes at all (Chris Abele being among them) because tax rules are stacked in their favor. And here, while you're at it, study this document and its many graphs indicating how the top 1% in the US own 34.6% of all privately held wealth while the bottom 80% owns just 15% of all wealth.  This is a staggering divide and something to keep in mind when the anti-tax rhetoric is soaring across the airwaves.

One thing you won't hear our governor talk about is how revenue could be raised to help meet the needs of our people. That actually could be done. But if you think public service is a cancer on the body politic rather than a service - educating our kids, answering the phone when you call 911, plowing snow during and after a blizzard, picking up the garbage, processing marriage certificates and birth records, staffing courtrooms and public health centers - if you think all these public sector workers are sitting with their feet up on desks raking in the dough and not working very hard, then you think Scott Walker a hero.

He is not. And if he gets to run the show here, this state is headed for real trouble.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hard times coming

Did you see NBC Nightly News last night (the 15th)? I want to put this story (see below) in the context of our current Wisconsin political situation.  In recent years, we have seen more and more companies and politicians gut the welfare and rights of workers. In a time of high unemployment and weakened unions, it has made business sense to do this - to increase profit margins by lowering the costs of labor. With the economy weakened by recession and unemployed folks desperate for any job they can get - especially as unemployment benefits run out - leverage for salaried workers has plummeted.

A sad reality of the global economy is that wages have been stagnant or even on the decrease in the past couple of decades while corporate profits are up, bonuses for executives of financial institutions have reached record levels, the stock market is roaring back from the lows of 2008, and the gap between rich and poor in this country has widened, now one of the highest in the world.

Great time for the powers-that-be to wage a divide-and-conquer campaign against organized labor, even now pitting struggling private sector workers against public sector workers - as if workers don't have much more in common with each other than they do with their bosses. But people are scared and labor solidarity is probably not high on the list of priorities for frightened people who don't really understand what is happening to them and why.

It's an old tactic, and an effective one, until workers begin to realize once again that only as a collective do they have any bargaining rights against corporate bosses or libertarian, anti-government, anti-tax politicians.

Now get ready for the next big whammy - which is what this story is about. Just at a time when politicians are bent on balancing budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable of our community, we are about to be clobbered with sharply rising prices for what we eat, what we wear, and how we get around.

The cultural discourse on this looming crisis is barely to be heard. No one wants to prepare us for this. No one really wants to talk about it much. Because there is only one way to deal with a crisis like this - for the wealthy to pay more, much more, in taxes to support the needs of those who are being dumped into the margins of the economy, or left out altogether.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

15,000 protest Gov Walker's anti-labor legislation

Enjoy! I did. Maybe this assault on workers rights, the most important of them being the right to collective bargaining, can help wake up a slumbering labor constituency. If ever there was a time for solidarity among workers and all of us served by them, the time is now.

Scott Walker at the service of corporations, not you and me

Really, one can hardly keep up with the pace at which Gov. Scott Walker is prepared to turn over the state of Wisconsin to private for-profit corporations, to let business ruin more and more of what belonged to the people - government, public services, the natural beauty and resources of the state, our once-clean air and once-clean water, etc.

One can hardly keep pace with his initiatives to strengthen business at the cost of human beings and the quality of life in this state.

You remember how he rejected federal money to build high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison, part of a longer term plan to have efficient high-speed rail connections from Chicago to Minneapolis? The rail project would have created jobs, help the state get off oil in advance of higher prices and looming shortages in decades to come, get more people out of their cars, and help spark economic development along the path of the train.

Next up - returning federal stimulus money intended to get small towns and rural communities hooked up to high-speed internet connections. Prez Obama has made a high priority of this program and the state was given $23 million for this purpose. More and more internet content requires high speed connections, and the program was targeted towards schools, libraries, and government agencies.  The intent was also to improve communications among fire and police departments in rural areas.

Walker will have none of it.  Why? Because it is federal government at the service of people and this conflicts with his libertarian politics. Oh, wait, something else, too. AT&T Inc., the company that owns the infrastructure through which the BadgerNet Converged Network currently runs, by an odd coincidence contributed more than $20,000 to Walker's campaign, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, compared to $7,600 for Democrat Tom Barrett's campaign.

The Journal Sentinel reported earlier that Walker also received substantial contributions from the road-building interests. I am certain there is no connection between that and his opposition to high-speed rail.

Cynicism is hard to avoid here, isn't it?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Unions, taxes on wealth - that's what brought you the middle class

Can we no longer afford a middle class? And why has the middle class turned on the very means that brought them the ability to be middle class? Good wages and benefits, a strong social safety net, workers rights (like the 40-hr work week, paid vacation, grievance mediation, and more), all these things brought to you by organized labor and collective bargaining.

In another era, particularly that which emerged from World War II, unions organized to defend the rights and dignity of workers. My uncles worked in factories here, like Allis Chalmers, or in construction. Back in that day, they earned enough to buy houses, their taxes supported decent public schools, they had cars, went hunting on their vacations, and more.

Now we have the most anti-labor culture in decades. First, corporate America began sending jobs overseas. This was called 'free trade.' It was anything but. And this was a weapon they could later use as leverage to get workers here to accept the gutting of their wages and benefits in exchange for low-paying jobs, with the threat of moving factories if they did not submit. Now the public sector is at it, no better manifested right now than in our new Gov. Walker and the Republican legislature.

Workers no longer seem to realize that hostility towards unions and the right to collective bargaining is an assault on their own ability to have a decent job at decent pay. Without organized labor, each worker is an isolated individual up against the very organized, socialized, corporate sector, holding all the power, all the leverage.

Meanwhile, the rich pay the lowest tax rates in modern times. Once upon a time, wealth was taxed at 50, 60, even 80 percent, and those folks did just fine, thank you.

Workers and the middle class have been sold a bill of goods. But given the results from what they have bought, why are they still buying it? One of the results is that the US can now boast one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world.

And then they accuse us of waging a class war.  Could it get anymore cynical than this?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sen. Johnson wants freedom - for private business, not for you and me

Really, this CPAC gathering is a good thing to avoid if you want to keep your food down. Lots of rightist egos trying to out-conservative each other. Our new Sen. Johnson made his debut going on about 'freedom' and how government is bad, bad, bad, and how we ought to gut every kind of government program that assists those left on the margins of the economy, but give people like him lots of tax breaks.

He says that liberals are fostering entitlement and dependency. I think of stuff like Social Security. I pay into it all my life, how then is it an entitlement? It is actually a well-funded trust that gives me back in my retirement years something of what I paid into it.  I'm not 'entitled:' it's my own money! But by this language they try to wrest SS from the public sector in an attempt to get it into the hands of financial/investment institutions like Goldman Sachs - and we see how well that went - pensions replaced by 401ks that went bust in the great financial meltdown of 2008. Wouldn't you rather have a pension? Who do you want in control of your future savings?

Johnson also earned some fame during his campaign by expressing his disdain for climate science. I love that - when non-scientists with a personal stake in the outcome of research criticize decades worth of studies by real scientists. Anyway, he says the globe is probably warming because of solar activity.

Important to note that his company, the one that makes him a millionaire, is a plastics and polyester manufacturing company, called Pacur LLC. Of course, plastics and polyester use lots of oil. So you can imagine that Johnson would not favor things like carbon taxes or ending tax-payer subsidies to oil companies. That would raise his costs of doing business. Better for his company to debunk climate change science.

Well, there are fewer and fewer jobs in the future of a planet approaching a climate tipping point that will result in catastrophic economic disruptions and collapses. Wise it would be for us to create jobs by planning for a future that moves us off fossil fuels, corn ethanol, and other ecologically damaging industries that are altering the chemical makeup of the atmosphere and biosphere.

We have a hard time learning this lesson, that freedom for business is not the same as freedom for people - like those who work for these companies, or folks trying to create a decent life for themselves and their families. The role of government is not to create the environment for unfettered business, it's to help keep the economic rules fair for everyone, not just CEOs. We have to stop confusing 'open for business' with protecting the well-being of workers, youth, those living in poverty, our elderly relying on the SS into which they paid all their lives. One businessman's 'freedom' can become someone else's unemployment, lower wages, lack of health insurance, environmental damage, and more.

Anyway, Johnson asserted that he wanted to make the Obama agenda disappear. Well, Senator, just a reminder - that's not how democracy works. You don't just get your way.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Journal Sentinel's Scott Walker contradictions

In last year's election, the Journal Sentinel editorial board endorsed Scott Walker. The reason why was as dismaying as the endorsement itself: " a time of economic peril and at a time when government must be reformed, it's time to throw away the this election, we're looking for a kind of fiscal tenacity that this state has, perhaps, never seen. Talk that Barrett isn't 'tough enough' is a bum rap. But, on fiscal matters, there is tough and then there is the right kind of experience. Walker has both, and that makes him the better choice."

Now today you are all upset because Walker is about to declare himself our supreme leader by granting to himself the right to veto all state rule-making.  What is it about all these rightist conservative constitutionalists who hate democracy and the Constitution, who when they get into office, are ready to throw out things like separation of powers? Neither the feds nor the states created a governing system that allows the executive to simply overturn work that belongs to the legislature. There's another word for that, and it ain't 'democracy.'

Now you guys knew exactly who Walker is. He derides government and the public sector. He loathes public sector unions. He is a 'business above all other interests' kind of guy. He hates high-speed rail as he takes large campaign contributions from road-building interests.  Business trumps worker rights, including decent wages and benefits as dignified compensation for the labor workers provide to those business interests, whose CEOs are very wealthy.

Over the past 3 decades, wages in the US have been stagnant or in decline. The public sector was one of the few where one could still work for a good wage and benefits. Now politicians like Walker are trying to undermine those workers, too, in part by creating resentment towards those workers among those losing good-paying jobs and benefits in the private sector. For decades we have seen a relentless assault on unions and on worker rights by business interests in league with anti-labor politicians.

As Kohler, Mercury Marine, and Harley Davidson made clear (and I worked on issues like these for many years in DC before returning to my hometown), corporations have been intent on bringing the costs of labor in this country down to the scale of developing countries. With little effect, some US-based unions had the forethought to try to create international labor solidarity to move things in the opposite direction, to bring global wage scales up closer to the West. But corporate lobbyists simply have more resources to get their guys in office. Now watch what happens to labor conditions, environmental policies, quality of life for the working poor, the already vast gap between rich and poor in this state and around the country, as Walker's time in office unfolds, with no push-back from the legislature.

So, good job JS Editorial Board! You endorsed the guy and he turned out to be exactly who we thought he would be. I look forward to your continuing upset over the way in which he does exactly what he set out to do - a power grab intent on gutting the public sector and favoring business interests over those of the people who voted him into office.

From your endorsement: "...there is tough and then there is the right kind of experience. Walker has both, and that makes him the better choice."  Good luck explaining that away!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

WEAC, MTEA, school board, MPS, local politicians - avoiding the heart of the matter

It is just so tired by now, this idea that if we just improve student test scores, if we can just get teachers to improve those scores, if we try racing to the top, competing for funds, create more incentives for performing well on standardized tests - everything will turn out okay!

Here's what a friend who is a social worker in the MPS system tells me she deals with every day - kids with brain damage from lead poisoning, kids suffering from malnutrition because of poverty, kids who didn't have breakfast and are hungry because there's no food in the house, kids traumatized by violence in their neighborhoods or because maybe their mom or other caretaker was beaten up the night before.

Now they're supposed to sit quietly in school and memorize for testing, learn for performance on tests, absorb lessons in math and science so that they can compete favorably on tests with folks in countries in Asia.

Who are we kidding? A lot of teachers whose students have problems with testing, and therefore can't show improvement in 'performance,' are dealing every day with the problems of gross neglect in this community that has put Milwaukee among the highest in poverty, in de facto racial segregation (racism - deep roots here), in income disparities between whites and blacks, between rich and poor, in health indicators among children, of any city in the United States.

And then we get mad at teachers when their students don't perform well.

Not all teachers are heroic or even compassionate, of course. I hear of teachers who actually don't like their kids, are uninspired, just going through the motions, who are also demoralized. But teacher 'performance' based on improved test scores will continue to get us nowhere. Neither will all these grand schemes for 'reform' or restructuring the system if the focus remains there alone.

But what this focus does do is continue to deflect our attention from the real issue - the deep roots of poverty, violence, trauma, racism, and neglect of city neighborhoods over decades. Until those things are addressed, and WE address them as a community that ought to care about one another and about the quality of life throughout our city, we will continue to be frustrated and demoralized that our kids in the MPS system don't do better.

Easy to shove it off on the shoulders of teachers, but teachers, the school board, churches, affluent folks, businesses, community groups, and political leaders all need to shoulder this responsibility. We need to change an entire culture that surrounds the MPS system.

You can't learn unless there is an atmosphere for learning, unless kids feel good about themselves, have stable relationships, a sense of dignity, worth and purpose. Test all you want, without this, our schools will continue to fail our kids.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Electing climate change skeptics as climate changes

Just as climate science becomes more and more irrefutable and precise, this state managed to put a confessed climate change skeptic into the Senate, and more than a few into various state and federal offices. This morning, the impacts of climate change on this state are on the front page of the Journal Sentinel.  A new study shows that temperatures across the state will rise by 6-7 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of the century. The economic impacts will be huge and very disruptive.

Of course, they are reporting on actual scientific studies rather than politics or the economics of industrial growth, so who will we believe? Indications are not favorable to science.

How did we ever manage to create a culture in which scientific knowledge would he held in such doubt? What happened to us? What happened to the era in which I grew up, and in my case in Catholic schools with nuns who really cared about whether or not we learned, an era of such wonder and horror, from the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions to the nuclear bomb? Where is the Hubble Space Telescope's vast fan base - and was there ever a more wonderful scientific instrument than this marvel - when it comes to asserting the primacy of knowledge and careful research over politics and the corporate bottom line?

Cladophora algae bloom, Lk. Michigan beach
Many of us do not want to believe that the individual things we do, the choices we make, are actually weighted with something as large as climate change or the breakdown of key ecosystems, threatening our very survival. It is interesting to me that we rage on and on about how fiscal deficits threaten the future of our children but get all upset when science suggests a far greater threat to their future than anything on the fiscal or economic agenda.

A deep-seated culture of leave-me-alone, I'm-not-responsible-for-anyone-else, individualism has not served us well. And it is certainly not preparing us for the future - not a far off future, but imminent, the middle age of our children growing up today - that is described in the study by UW-Madison scientists.

Problem is, once the experience of climate chaos becomes overwhelmingly obvious, washing over the arguments of the skeptics, it will be too late to avoid catastrophe. We will be adapting under great duress. If you think jobs and a future economy are being threatened by those who want to address climate change and other extreme environmental threats, wait till you see what happens to our employment prospects as this climate scenario unfolds.

We need a politics that matches the real world of this planet, not the ideologues whose only program is to cut taxes. Okay, and then what?

Photo credit: Milwaukee Riverkeeper

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Wisconsin needs some reflection

I was born in Milwaukee, grew up in Wauwatosa. Like many of my generation, I went off to college, came back to Wisconsin, went off again.  I have lived in Boulder CO, Montreal, and then the D.C. area for 24 years. Always, always, I kept coming back - for baseball games, to visit my parents, for family reunions, to enjoy my hometown, to get fed from the geography of Wisconsin.

My state, my city, has problems. They are deep-seated and rooted in a kind of rugged individualism that is no longer appropriate for the urgent times in which we live.  Seems to me that we are headed into a backwater now.  'Open for business' is a slogan that veils a troubling agenda, one nurturing an anti-solidarity, a 'me for myself only' ethics, a politics of fear and resentment.

Our problems will not be addressed in a meaningful way by this anti-spirit.

The world is changing all around us - ecologically, socially, demographically, economically, culturally. We can continue to fight change and hope for some reversion to a past that no longer exists, or we can be courageous and carve out new paths for this region.

I love my city and state. I come from ancestors that helped build it, that helped forge its culture. We face enormous challenges. I want to reflect on them here. Hope you will join me.