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Why Unions Matter, Part Two

August 9, 2018

It’s unclear how many at the time took Lewis Powell’s memorandum seriously.  What is not in dispute, however, is that what occurred in the subsequent decades makes it clear that business and corporate leadership began to behave as if they were following Powell’s suggestions.

Between 1970 and 2014, the United States lost over eight million manufacturing jobs–five million of those since 2000.  The vast majority of these jobs, or course, were union jobs.  This would make sense if this decline of manufacturing was coupled with a decline in consumer spending and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but the opposite is true.  What happened?

Many argue that the issue is automation–the replacement of industrial laborers with robots and other improved technologies.  Economist Dean Baker, though, makes the case in his book “Rigged” that there is no evidence for that assertion.  Simply put, automation does not account for the amount of job loss coupled with the increase in GDP (which now stands at over $19 trillion).  What would account for it, then?

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The answer is simple: globalization.  Most of those manufacturing jobs have been lost to overseas firms in the developing world, wherein wages, benefits and regulations are significantly less expensive.  American workers earning cost-of-living wages simply cannot compete with the poverty wages of a teenager from El Salvador.

Thus, the process becomes two-pronged:  first, you ask high wage union workers to accept wage freezes, reduction in benefits, shorter shifts, etc. to keep costs down.  If the union doesn’t accept the terms, then the factory is moved, and all workers are out of a job (not to mention all of the service workers in the factory towns who will be thrown out of work due to a decrease in economic activity).  So, the unions accept the pay cuts in hopes of keeping their jobs, only to lose them anyway when the factory closes a few years later.

This is the thing to keep in mind: the auto, textile, steel factories, etc.  that shuttered their doors to move their operations to cheaper developing world outposts were all turning profits at the times of the plant closings.  Most in the hundreds of millions, a few in the billions.  But stockholders have to be satiated, so the plants were closed, profits rose–and wages fell.

Part two: the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.  Service jobs tend to be low skilled, highly compartmentalized, and easily replaceable.  As a result, service jobs are usually low wage.  The combination, then, of globalization and the expansion of the service economy has pushed wages down to the extent that a minimum wage worker today earns less than 3/4 the wage value as a minimum wage worker in 1968.  Of course, that statistic wouldn’t be troubling if today’s cost of living was 3/4 what it was in 1968.  But it’s much higher. That drastic change cannot all be attributed to some assembly line robots.

This is why the idea of a minimum wage set at $15 is not unreasonable: what is being requested is the equivalent of a five dollar increase spanning the last fifty years.  To put it another way–one dollar per decade.  By that standard, a $15 minimum wage request nearly qualifies as conservative.

Lower wages have also produced this consequence: many Americans who are employed full-time at low wage service jobs still qualify for public assistance.  The federal government last year spent $6.2 billion providing welfare benefits just to gainfully employed citizens.  This amounts to a subsidy to multi-billion dollar multinationals who can’t be bothered to pay their employees a living wage.

This is the legacy of Neoliberalism.  It is important to remember that theses are policies not limited to Republicans, as the presidencies of Carter, Clinton, and Obama can attest.

With the destruction of private sector unions and a reduction in the real value of wages, there was still one target left for Powell’s disciples: the unions of the public sector.  Undermining these collective bargaining units would prove to be more complicated.

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Why Unions Matter, Part One

August 6, 2018

The recent supreme court ruling in the Janus v AFSCME decision has dealt a serious blow to both public and private sector unions.  The ruling appears only limited to public sector unions, but rest assured, it will have an effect on private sector unions as well.

Over the last few decades, public and private sector unions have been under attack by a number of forces: politicians (not all right-wing; some are moderate Democrats), wealthy organizations like Americans for Prosperity (funded by the libertarian Koch Brothers), the American Legislative Exchange Council, not to mention the entire neoliberal economic process.  Unions for years have been the path for working class Americans to enter the middle class.  Unions have worked to raise wages and the standard of living not just for their members but for all workers.  Protections we sometimes take for granted such as overtime pay, workman’s compensation, laws regulating child labor all exist because of unions.

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Given that unions have managed to create a system wherein working and middle class Americans benefit financially from the country’s prosperity, it’s not difficult to see why they would become a target.  If you run a corporation, your primary function is to maximize wealth for your shareholders.  One of the ways you do that is by cutting labor costs.  If there are organizations of workers who collectively bargain for a fair share of the pie, that’s less money for the shareholders.  That’s how a corporation functions.  That’s why only 7 percent of workers in the private sector are organized into a union. To understand why these same organizations who don’t want private sector unions also turn their attention to public sector ones, we need to go back to the beginning.

The Birth of Neoliberalism

From the post war era through the late 1960’s, the United States had become the wealthiest nation in world history. Thanks to unions, workers shared in that prosperity: over 28% of the workforce was unionized.  To many business and political leaders, this was intolerable.  This concern was characterized by corporate lawyer and soon to be supreme court justice Lawrence Powell.  In 1971, Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations. ”

In short, ordinary people were becoming too powerful, and that had to stop. What’s one of the ways you stop them?  Attack the organizations that give them power.

Get rid of their unions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Check In

August 6, 2018

I had planned to write a blog post about the writing I had managed to complete, but it occurred to me that my summer has been so much more.  Thus, invoking the spirit of the Harper’s Index, I present my Summer So Far:

Number of scripts completed: 4

Number of books read: 4

Number of turtles rescued from the road: 4 (It might actually be three–I think I rescued the same one twice.  Hard to know with turtles.)

Number of concerts attended: 2 (Michael Franti and Brianna Thomas with Wycliffe Gordon)

Number of times running into Michael Franti in line at a food truck: 1

Trips to the New York Botanical Garden: 1

Number of plays I have written staged by an acting company that failed to invite me to their performance: 1

Trips to Rochester, NY to celebrate my girlfriend’s mother’s birthday: 1

Number of household organizing projects completed: 7

Number of end tables assembled: 1

Number of framed pictures hung: 2

Number of terrifying documentaries (“Three Identical Strangers”) seen about a social experiment to separate twins at birth: 1 (that’s plenty)

Number of kayak trips on Lake Taghkanic: 1 (that’s not enough)

Kayak

Number of pounds lost: 8

Number of attended midnight showings of “The Room,” possibly the worst film ever made: 1

Number of spoons thrown during screening of “The Room:”  Too many to count

Number of classic TV Series binge watched:  1 (“The Prisoner”)

Number of blog posts written: 2

Number of girlfriend’s granddaughters: 2

Number of girlfriend’s granddaughters who are awesome and so much fun to spend time with: 2

Number of camping trips I had to back out of due to poor health: 1

Number of Parkinson’s clinical trials participated in: 1

Number of gardens planted in girlfriend’s back yard: 1

Number of sumac trees cut down in girlfriend’s front yard: 14

Number of experiences of sumac poisoning: 1

Number of accidental compost fires: 1

Number of therapeutic massages: 5

Number of doctor’s appointments: 5

Number of yoga stretches, boxing punches thrown, acupuncture needles received, underwater exercises, great meals, cups of tea, hugs, kisses, doggie cuddles: Too many to count.

Times I felt loved like I never have before: every second that passed.

 

 

 

 

 

Armed, and In Charge of a Classroom

February 27, 2018

Many have asked me about President Trump’s recent suggestion to arm school teachers as a method of deterring and responding to school shootings.  My intuition is that it’s a terrible idea, but I decided to listen and consider all of the arguments being put forth in support of this proposal. To paraphrase a philosophy professor I once had: I have considered what you have to say, and I’ve decided I’m still right.

British thinker W.K. Clifford was a proponent of an idea called Epistemic Responsibility: in short, one should not hold a belief if there is no evidence to support it.  Bertrand Russell echoed this sentiment when he observed that  “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it to be true.”  So what does the evidence tell us?

In a piece headlined “Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows,” Scientific American quoted physician and gun researcher Garen Wintemute’s summary of the state of the evidence: “There are a few studies that suggest that liberalizing access to concealed firearms has, on balance, beneficial effects. There are a far larger number of studies that suggest that it has, on balance, detrimental effects.”  Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that “The more guns are readily available, the more shootings occur. That’s what the latest research shows. When states make it more easy for people to carry guns, the number of incidents of aggravated assault grows.”   University of Washington epidemiologist Fred Rivara observed “There is no data supporting [the] argument that the further arming of citizens will lessen the death toll in massacres like [Newtown]. Mother Jones magazine, which maintains a database of mass shootings, pointed out that despite a 50 percent increase in the number of private guns since 1995 and numerous laws making it easier to carry a concealed weapon, there are virtually no cases of an armed civilian stopping a shooting spree. (Thanks to Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for compiling this data).

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Of course, there are some anecdotes about shooters stopping a home invasion, and that’s certainly not to be dismissed. However, there is a difference between using a weapon to stop someone entering your home and having the presence of mind to stop a mass shooter in a public place with people screaming, scrambling for safety, and AR-15s blazing away.  Training someone to use a gun does not automatically suggest they are going to be grace under pressure. We’d all like to think that we will be cool and calm, but the fact is, not everyone is going to be.  Consider that the New York City Police Department–arguably the best trained police force in the country–only has an 18% success rate when discharging their weapon.  It’s hard to imagine the Math Department doing any better–and easy to imagine them doing much worse.  

This also raises the issue of police entering a school in an active shooter situation.  They will have a split second to decide who is the “good guy with the gun” and the “bad guy with the gun.”  It may not always be obvious, and there will undoubtedly not be time to carefully weigh the evidence.   The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper explored this in a piece a couple of years ago. It’s worth watching here: Good Guy With a Gun.

There is also, as President Trump has said, the issue of deterrence.  He insists that shooters are attracted to the fact that schools are gun free zones–never mind that night clubs, country music concerts, malls, and movie theaters are not gun free zones.  The other issue is that the vast majority of school shootings have ended with the shooter’s suicide.  Someone suicidal is unlikely to be deterred by the increased likelihood of their own death.

The entire notion of guns as a deterrent is suspect as it is.  We are told by Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch that we will feel safer with armed civilians in our schools, coffee shops, baseball games, etc.  I certainly didn’t feel safer on a tour of Mesa Verde with the guy next to me wearing a sidearm and a KKK tattoo–and I imagine the Navajo tour guide wouldn’t have felt any safer if he had known.  Furthermore, if large numbers of African-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, and South Asians begin going through their days armed, one can be certain the NRA narrative would change almost instantaneously.

Of course what this comes down to is money.  If the percentage of armed teachers President Trump has suggested were to come to fruition, that would be 700,000 more guns. This would be a spike in gun sales that would make the gun manufacturers–the NRA’s largest source of financial support–ecstatic.  The gun manufacturers are already worried: since Trump was elected, the Second Amendment crowd is no longer afraid their weapons will be confiscated and gun sales are way down.  This is the reason that the NRA has tried desperately to play up the violent threat of Black Lives Matter and Antifa.  A new enemy must be found.  

And if they can’t be sold as credible threats, then I suppose my students will just have to do.     

 

Landing an Agent

August 15, 2017

To many authors, the search for an agent or manager begins to resemble the quest to locate a mythical creature.  One may come to think they have a better chance of locating a Roc in its natural habitat.

Certainly, this was my case for many years.  And like many success stories of this genre, it came about due to the confluence of hard work and good fortune.

First, the hard work:  Over the last fourteen years, I have completed five screenplays, one teleplay, three one-act plays, and one two act play.  And two novels.  Plus, nearly 100 poems.  That’s a lot of writing.  It may not be Alexander Hamilton (or L. Ron Hubbard) prolific, but given I have worked as a teacher each of those fourteen years whilst battling Parkinson’s, I’ll take it.  Most of my dramatic writing I have brought to the playwright’s lab at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in New York City.

The woman who runs the lab is a superb screenwriter and playwright—Ms. Lezley Steele.  She is also an excellent teacher.  When you workshop a script with her lab, you always get superb feedback. Plenty of criticism, of course, but it always comes with ideas on how to fix the problems, and praise for what does work in your script.  I always left the lab feeling that no matter how much revision I had to do, I was capable of doing it.  Most of the playwrights I’ve met who know Lezley agree—no one gives better feedback.

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Ernest Thompson

I am also proud to call Lezley my friend.  Our friendship has allowed us to stay in touch and encourage each other through both our creative endeavors, and the roadblocks life sends our way.  When I had completed my two act play, “Invincible Summer,” Lezley was kind enough to read it. She has actually read multiple drafts, always providing me with her high level of advice.  After one of the revisions, she announced much to my surprise that she would like to send my play to her agent.

I was flattered, but also cautious. Even if he agreed to read it—which he may not—there was no guarantee he was going to want to represent me.  Soon thereafter, Lezley informed me that she had contacted her agent and he was willing to read it. Thus, I sent off my play to Mr. Earl Graham.

And then I waited.

One day in March, I walked outside my school building and noticed a voicemail on my phone. A number I didn’t recognize.  A New York exchange.  I played it back: it was Earl, wanting to talk to me.  As my dear friend Darlene put it: “He’s not calling to tell you he hates it.”

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Jason Miller

Indeed, he called to tell me he loved it and wanted to help get it placed in a theatre. He also wanted to meet me for lunch soon.  So, during my April vacation, I took the train down to the city and had lunch with my agent.  I’ll be honest—I love that I get to say that.

Earl is an incredibly warm man, who told great stories about his career in theatre, his life in New York, and the fascinating people he’s known. I learned that he has represented some impressive clients, such as Ernest Thompson (“On Golden Pond”) and Jason Miller (“That Championship Season”—also Oscar nominated for playing father Damien Karras in “The Exorcist”)  He reiterated how much he loved my play, how much his assistant loved it , and how much his partner did.  He was also clear—it is very hard to get a new play in a theatre.  It would likely take a while, and it may not happen at all.  I need to be patient and have realistic expectations.  But if he could get someone to read the first twenty pages, he felt strongly they would be hooked–like he was. I understood the challenges he laid out, but I am still grateful to have this man in my corner.

After Earl agreed to take on my play, I had planned on contacting Lezley to tell her.  It appears though, Earl beat me to it.  I opened my in-box to find this message from her:

Earl called me today with the wonderful news that he is going to work on getting your play done.  He thanked me for sending him a beautiful play.  He said he cried when he read it.  I am so pleased.  I’ve given him other playwright’s plays before (just a few) and he has had no interest in them.  So I had my fingers crossed.

And even though it annoys her when I tell her so, I will always be grateful to Lezley.

On the Passing of Robert Hardy (1925-2017)

August 15, 2017

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the name Robert Hardy.  Some Harry Potter fans will recognize him as the actor who portrayed Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, in several Potter films.  My familiarity with him goes back much further.

When I was in junior high school, I became an enthusiast of the “All Creatures Great and Small” book series by James Herriot. I was equally enthralled by the BBC television adaptation which ran for seven seasons, spread out over thirteen years.  Robert Hardy played the relentlessly memorable character of Siegfried Farnon.  Siegfried was a superb veterinarian, highly skilled and competent at his job, but was also plagued with a poor memory.  He could be stubborn and self-righteous, yet kind, generous and charming.  He was always unwilling to accept blame for his mistakes, yet was an incredibly patient and effective teacher and mentor.  In short, he was a complex and multidimensional character. Hardy sank his teeth into this splendid role, and put on what my father would describe as a “clinic in acting.”

“Watch carefully,” my father directed as we watched an episode. “Notice the shifts in his facial expressions, the changes of tone in his voice.  The subtle adjustments in body language.” My father went on to explain that these were not an actor’s choices, but instincts—they couldn’t be taught.  All the great actors had them, and the best part was the audience was usually unaware of these actions; they just knew the actor was good.  I developed an affection for Hardy, the character he played, and the series itself. It is the only television series of which I posses each and every episode.

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Hardy, flanked by his “All Creatures” castmates Christopher Timothy and Peter Davison

But Hardy was so much more than that.  He made a name for himself as a young man playing “Henry V” on stage.  His research into Henry became so extensive Hardy ended up writing a book about the Battle of Agincourt.   He also became so fascinated with the longbow–a key to British victory in that battle—that he became one of the United Kingdom’s leading experts on the weapon.  While a young student at Oxford, he had the good fortune to study with both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  He also befriended a drama student named Richard Burton. They would remain close friends until Burton’s death.  One of Sir Richard’s biographers described Hardy as Burton’s “sane friend.”  Lord knows the man needed one.

He also played Winston Churchill countless times on television and stage (including a one man show in Paris—in French).  Many accomplished actors have given great performances as Churchill.  None of them were better than Hardy.  None of them.

Perhaps more important than any of that, Hardy was a kind man, generous with his time. I know this personally.  Last year, I read on the BBC website that Hardy would soon turn 90.  I had always wanted to write him a letter, and express to him my appreciation, and I thought—if I’m going to do it, I should do it soon.  I located his representative on IMDB, and mailed the letter.

A few months later, I received a reply. That was surprising enough, but the letter he sent me was hand written.  A few excerpts, subject to handwriting interpretation:

“My Dear Fellow,

Thank you so much for your letter.  I am always delighted to hear from my American friends, and surprised when they fail to mention Harry Potter! I am thrilled my work on “All Creatures” meant so much to you.  It was a brilliant show, and I am very proud of my association with it. I especially enjoyed your description of what your father said about my acting. How wonderful it must have been to have a father who enjoyed and knew the arts.  While I am very sorry he passed away so young, always be grateful his last words to you were an expression of pride.  Most of us are not so fortunate…

Given what you describe as his great love of words, I imagine your father was a reason you became a poet and a playwright.  I therefore have no doubt he is still very proud of his son…”

Very truly yours,

Timothy Sidney Robert Hardy.”

Adieu, Siegfried.  Rest in peace.

Staging an “Invincible Summer”

January 24, 2017

And now for some good news.  This happened back in October, but I seemed to have difficulty finding the time to write about it.  The wait is over…

On October 9, 2016, at the DeSotelle Theater in Manhattan, I experienced the very first staged reading of my play “Invincible Summer.”  It was a great to have a play that had been rattling around in my head for a year and half finally performed on stage by actors, under the tutelage of a veteran New York theater director.  I learned a great deal from the process, and I am so grateful to have gone through it.

It all started last January, when a friend of mine named Larry Leinoff (who is also an excellent playwright) expressed admiration for my play and encouraged me to stage a reading.  He felt it was ready, and it also happened that Larry runs a company (Stage Dot Org) that puts on staged readings!  We talked back and forth for months while I worked on the play, received feedback from Larry and others (including a dear friend and another great playwright, Lezley Steele).  By early summer, I was happy with the play and ready to begin organizing my reading.

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Larry recommended a director that he knew and thought highly of:  Tom Herman.  We met for lunch in August, and I was grateful that Tom liked my play and was very interested in directing the project.  After some discussion, we agreed upon a date, and worked hard on making the reading happen.

One of the first things I learned was that staging a reading is a complicated process.  It takes time to find the right performance space, the right actors, and to agree on rehearsal times, all within the budget you have chosen to work with.  Of course, whenever you have smart individuals with strong opinions working together, you are going to have disagreements.  That is inevitable.  There were times when it looked like the reading might not happen; there were times when it seemed as smooth and as effortless as painting a polar bear in a snowstorm.

By late September, we had a venue, a cast (Rob Skolits, Marca Leigh, Brian Henry, Adrian Naccari, and Tamara Daley–I also recruited my colleague Emily Blanchard to come and play piano), and an official program designed by Melissa Nosal, a former student.  We had a reading!

Happily, it went very well.  The cast worked extremely hard, and put on an entertaining and professional performance.  It was exhilarating to discover how much of my play worked and also to get a sense of what didn’t work.  There were about 25 people in the audience, 15-20 of whom had come down from Connecticut to see the reading.  I was very grateful to all of my friends who were willing to make that trip.  They all gave me great feedback–much of it positive, but also some very helpful critical feedback that I know has made the play better.

Lezley is now helping me get the play into the hands of other professionals who can get it produced.  When I expressed my gratitude to Lezley, she wrote this in an email:

You don’t have to be grateful to me.  I believe in your play. Not just that it is a well written play but also because it is topical, and dare I say,  commercial.  I also believe in you.   Having a play produced is a nightmare.  You have to have the right personality to get through the process.  I believe you do….I forgot to mention that I was moved to tears twice while reading the script.

It appears I have reason to be hopeful.

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