Skip to content

The Grocery Clerk

July 15, 2019

In my previous post, I mentioned an encounter with a grocery clerk that helped me cope with my Parkinson’s diagnosis.  I was going to link the post I had previously written about the clerk, but then a search through my archives revealed something surprising–I had never written about her before!  I think I had told the story so many times, I had assumed I had written about it here.  But I hadn’t, so this post will rectify that oversight.

One of the hallmark’s of a Parkinson’s diagnosis is the tendency to feel sorry for oneself.  The diagnosis is usually a manifestation of some action that was once easy, and no longer is:  holding your hand steady, walking without the risk of falling, having control over basic motor skills without some limb freezing, being able to have a good night’s sleep.  All of this is difficult enough; however, the diagnosis is usually accompanied by the understanding that these changes will only get worse, not better.  The pity party that accompanies this realization can be quite the shindig.  Even today, this feeling can creep into me when I drop something–even though neurotypical people drop things all the time, I have to make a conscious effort to banish that thought before it gets a hold of me once again.

Whilst raving it up at a pity party, it can become difficult to have perspective on what you are enduring.  This is understandable, and to a degree, forgivable–most of us don’t have the experience to help us effectively manage such a circumstance, and most of our friends and loved ones are equally at a loss.  That’s why sometimes what you need is a total stranger to give you that perspective.

The Stop and Shop grocery store near my house used to be open 24 hours. In graduate school, I kept what would charitably be described as “Night Owl Hours.”  Thus, being able to purchase lettuce at 3a.m. was an appreciated convenience.  It was never an uninteresting visit; I used to refer to it as “outpatient night.”  The combination of insomniacs, graveyard workers, stock piled carelessly in the aisle ways, and the other customers who just seemed…well, unusual always made for an entertaining people watching experience.  It was also good for your motor skills; if you weren’t careful, you could turn a corner and walk right into a palette of Tide. After I became a full time teacher, those visits became severely curtailed.  There were times, however, I would stop in on the way to work because grocery shopping that early was quick and easy.

On one of those visits, I approached the cashier (there was always only one open this early in the morning) with my basket of cleaning supplies, canned goods, and a box or two of Barilla pasta.  She nodded at me, and begin scanning my purchases.  I noticed she took a bit longer than usual, but given the time of the morning, I was in no hurry.  Plus, she lacked any interest in engaging me with mindless small talk, and for that I was grateful.

After giving me my total, I reached into my wallet to pull out a couple of twenty dollar bills, but my tremors were acute that morning, so it was quite a struggle.  After an irritating couple of moments, I succeeded in finally clasping the money in my hands, and handed it to the cashier. I knew my hands were trembling, but not so much the cashier wouldn’t be able to collect them from my shaky grip.

It turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong about this.  She had just as much trouble collecting the money–because her hands were trembling as well.

At the moment, our eyes met, and we both had a simultaneous realization:  you, too?  After some effort, and the money finally extracted from my hand, and an equally tedious undertaking for me to collect my change, we began to talk about our malady.  When you get two people with Parkinson’s together, you can start counting.  By the time you get to ten, one of them will inevitably have asked the other about their medication.  She asked me about mine, and I gave her the rundown: the unpronounceable name, the dosage, the side effects.  When I asked about hers, she gave me a surprising response:

“I don’t take any.”

You don’t, I asked. Why not?

“Our medical insurance isn’t very good.  Only the first $1000 in drug expenses are covered.  After that, I have to pay full price.  I hit that amount in February.  So I do without.”

I’m so sorry, I replied.  That must be really hard.

She shrugged as best she could, and then told me “that’s why I work graveyard.  I don’t sleep anyway, and there’s so few customers, most aren’t going to complain if I’m a little slow.”

I nodded, silently wondering how many do complain. But before I could entertain that thought, she added:

“Plus…that’s a lot fewer people…well, staring at me.  Staring at my hands.  They don’t think I notice, but I do.”

At this point, she slid my bagged groceries over to me.

I checked her green vest for a name tag, but she didn’t wear one.  I stared at her, desperate to respond, but all I could muster was a weak, “I’m sorry.”  By then, though, she had turned her back to me, and began fiddling with her register.  I stood there another moment, convinced I should do something, or say something else, but I had no idea what.  Finally, I just picked up my groceries and left.

When I got back out to my car, I sat for a moment before starting the engine.  It was then that I decided to make a promise to myself:  I need to be more grateful.  I have a job that I love, with great health insurance, and people who care about me.  I feel alone, but I’m not.  I need to have more gratitude.

That thought took a while to take hold in my psyche.  It turned out it was very difficult to remember that, and there were some days where it felt easier to conjure Amelia Earhart out of thin air than remembering to be grateful  After a while, though, the aircraft carrier finally began to turn.  And the epiphany that came courtesy of that grocery store clerk was the beginning.

The sad thing is I never saw her again.  I would stop at the store early in the morning for some stress free shopping, but I was really hoping to see her.  But she was never there.  I even stopped in during regular hours to ask the customer service desk if she was still around, and how she was doing.  No one knew who I was talking about, nor recognized her description.  And, of course, I never found out her name.

So I am putting this out to there, knowing it is extremely unlikely she will ever read this.  But on the smallest of chances she does, I want to thank her, and let her know that I think of her often, and I worry about how things are going for her.

Advertisements

Learning to be “Brave”

June 30, 2019

When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I was very angry at the world.  I was frequently arguing with strangers whom I found irritating: someone at the grocery store who had left their cart in an inconvenient spot in the aisle; groups of people standing outside a movie theater chatting, blissfully unaware that they were blocking the entry way; an individual speaking loudly on their cell phone.  I wanted to be angry at someone, but with this kind of diagnosis, at whom can you be angry? No one, so I sought conflict with anyone with whom I could justify.

I also felt very sorry for myself. There was an interaction with a grocery story clerk that certainly made a difference.  A number of people who cared about me tried to send me positive messages. That was very kind, but it was doing nothing to help me confront the darkness inside of me.  The message you get from the world is that darkness is a problem; you need to exercise it by being “positive” and “strong”

Fuck that.  I was pissed off.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book “Bright Sided” wrote about a similar dynamic in the cancer survivor community after her cancer diagnosis.  You were only allowed to discuss survivors; if she mentioned anyone who had actually died from cancer, the group facilitators cut her off, and encouraged her to be positive.  Problem was, she was angry, and when you’re angry, you don’t feel like being positive. Certainly, succumbing to anger is not going to help anyone; yet, denying someone’s valid angry response is incredibly belittling.  It is certainly not a step towards developing mechanisms to cope. Without a good way to channel that anger, it manifests itself in hurtful ways–whether you are being rude to strangers, or harmful to your loved ones.

And that’s where the band Marillion and their “Brave” album enters the picture.  

If you’re like most people, you’ve never heard of Marillion.  They are a British progressive rock band who have been around since 1982.   They are a “cult” band; not hugely popular (although more so in the UK, Canada, Europe, and South America) yet a strong enough fan base to keep them financially and creatively viable.  They are also the band that invented crowdfunding (they are featured in Michael Lewis’ book “Next: The Future Just Happened”). In 1994, they released a concept album entitled “Brave.” Don’t let the title fool you; it’s not an uplifting album, designed to fill the listener with the strength to go face the world.  It’s about a woman who is found on the Severn Bridge with no identity or memory. The album tells the story of how she ended up in such a state. It includes her challenging home life, being a runaway, sexual assault by her stepfather, a descent into drugs and her inability to form a meaningful emotional connection with other human beings.  It’s also partly from the point of view of the police officer that tries to save her, who in many ways is just as lost as she is. The album is extremely powerful, with strong songwriting and poignant lyrics. It also displays superb musicianship. But it’s not a “fun” album; you wouldn’t put it on at a party, unless you wanted everyone to go home.  One critic dismissed it as “dark and impenetrable.” The album takes it’s listener on an emotional journey. It can be exhilarating, yet exhausting to experience.

To be fair, the album does end on a high note.  This is fortunate, because otherwise it would likely be too depressing to listen to with any regularity.    While I had owned the album a few years, listening to it in my dark, angry state, I began to hear it in a new way.  It started to resonate with me in ways it hadn’t before. Yes, it featured a lost protagonist, and I was certainly lost myself.  And while I hadn’t given up, I could certainly imagine myself doing so. That was part of the resonance, but not all of it. The fact is that the album did something that my friends were unwilling or afraid to do, and our “survivor” culture doesn’t like to discuss: it validated the darkness in me.  I could lose myself in this album for forty minutes and safely go to my frightening places. But by the time I got to the last song (the appropriately titled “Made Again,” the aforementioned positive note), I felt better. I stopped snapping at friends. I stopped cursing at strangers. I started to figure out how to live.

I know the album isn’t the only thing that did help me cope. I know the support of my friends, my therapist, and interactions with others who had been diagnosed were all factors in helping improve my frame of mind. Regardless,  I listened to this album non-stop for months, and I know it was a key part of the whole process. I am not going to say I wouldn’t have been able to find a way to grow without the music. I do know for a fact that it would have been much, much harder without it.  

When I went to see the band in Montreal last month, they played several songs from the album–the first time I had heard them live.  I’ll be honest, I wept all the way through. It reminded me how grateful I was to have this music in my life. And how it helped me save it.   

 

King of Pain

February 12, 2019

It may seem a bit obvious to say, but living in chronic pain is incredibly difficult.  If you, like me, find yourself in this situation, you know whereof I speak. If you don’t, I think it is difficult for you to understand what it truly is like to live a life wherein each step one takes is a painful one.  

I think part of the perception comes from how those of us with chronic pain are perceived.  If we have a cane, or a walker, or other obvious signs of a life lived with discomfort, it is easy for others to have empathy. They see the struggle, they imagine how they would feel if that was them, and they understand on some level how hard it would be.  They may even be motivated to help, or feel gratitude for their own good health.

Image result for chronic pain

When the chronic pain is less obvious, when we don’t always show the overt signs of living in pain, such empathy seems harder to come by.  This is understandable–we don’t appear to be in pain. We aren’t groaning, moving slowly, straining so much tears pour out of our eyes. How much pain could we be in?

This is a reasonable question, and frankly has no simple answer.  It is complicated by the fact that people may not believe you are truly in pain; perhaps you’re a whiner, a big baby, a wimp.  Suck it up. Be a man(advice sometimes inexplicably offered to females)! Shake it off! Medical professionals may also doubt you are in the level of pain that you proclaim.  It is understandable why medical professionals may be skeptical–they certainly have their fair share of patients who may be craving attention, hoping for an opioid prescription, or just afflicted with Munchausen’s Syndrome.

Being aware of why someone may not take your chronic pain seriously doesn’t make it any easier when someone doesn’t.  This is why it is important to have an understanding as to why many of us in constant pain don’t seem to meet your presuppositions of what it is supposed to look like.  There is a simple reason for this disjunct between expectation and reality:

We’ve gotten used to it.

Before I continue, I want to unequivocally reject the term “Chronic Pain Warrior.”  I once used this term myself; I suppose there was a certain dignity in it. I don’t think warrior is a good metaphor for this type of condition.  First of all, wars are fought by choice. There is a moral argument made by both sides during a war–the reason a soldier is fighting in war is an ethical one.  For a good reason, perhaps, but most likely for a bad one. Either way, being a warrior is a role that one chooses for oneself. I never chose my pain, and never would have.  So I am not a warrior.

What I have become (and there are so many like me) is one who has figured out how to adapt.  Being in chronic pain forces this type of adaptation. You develop an ability to cope. First you start by ignoring the pain.  When that doesn’t work, you find ways to distract yourself from it. Then, when that no longer accomplishes what you need it to, you finally reach acceptance. I am in pain.  I am always going to be in pain. I need to make peace with this, or I will cease to live, and my life will be replaced instead by a melancholy existence.

When you reach this acceptance, something remarkable happens.  Your brain finally understands what you want it to do, and your synapses continue to function in spite of your pain.  It’s always there, and you always notice it. But it doesn’t stop you from climbing out of bed, from showering, from climbing in and out of your car, from doing your work.  From walking and exercising. Yes, all of it hurts, and maybe you still wince from time to time, but you realize much to your surprise that you can cope with it. Why? Because you have to.  You have no other choice.

My pain comes largely from Parkinson’s Disease (I have other neurological issues that contribute to the pain, but that is too much to discuss here).   The aches and pains in my joints and extremities on some days can feel intolerable. The strain of constantly coping with the discomfort of Parkinson’s on my nervous system and muscles adds to the pain.  Indeed, my body developed a largely inexplicable back and leg pain that was originally assumed to be a herniated disc. I was given three cortisone injections, a facet injection, sent to physical therapy, a chiropractor (who succeeded in making my pain worse, while his office manager hounded me for payment before ever sending me an invoice).  Nothing worked. I was convinced it would never improve, and struggled mightily to reach acceptance.

Of course because nothing was working, medical professionals I consulted seemed to doubt I was in the pain I claimed.  The disc was not sufficiently herniated; and if it were, one of the treatments would have certainly worked. My orthopedist–who was perhaps the most empathetic of all of my doctors–suggested I take an EMG to ascertain the levels of which my nerves appeared disrupted by the pain.  The EMG was unpleasant, but the results were clear; I was in a great deal of pain. With no other option, a neurosurgeon got the brainstorm to treat my symptoms, and not continue to search for an underlying cause. I was prescribed a nerve pain medication, which worked remarkably well.   This meant I had damaged nerves in my lower back and legs, but from what? The only answer appeared to be the strain on my body from Parkinson’s.

Even though the nerve pain has receded, my good ol’ Parkinson’s pain remains.  This is a truth of chronic pain–you are never pain-free, there are just levels which are easier to tolerate than others.  This can be complicated and frustrating, because a medical professional will ask me whether something hurts–yes, of course it does.  It always hurts, whether you do what you’re doing or not. It just hurts more or less. The other strange side effect of being in constant pain is you don’t realize immediately if you hurt yourself.  You are constantly trying to figure out where any cuts and bruises originate, because you didn’t realize what you had done. Why is my elbow bleeding? Where did that bruise on my knee come from? Sometimes you can figure it out, but otherwise, you throw a band-aid on it and get on with your day. (By the way, the person who finally invents a band-aid you can open one-handed will become a billionaire.)

I know many with chronic pain can no longer function well, and have lost the ability to cope.  They tend to live very sedentary, probably unhappy, lives. I understand this completely–it takes a great deal of energy to be in chronic pain.  There are days when I don’t want to get up and face it. One of these days, I may become like them.

I don’t know when that day will come.  For now, I cope. But please, don’t call me a warrior, or some other New Age trope.  I’m in pain, and I’m alive. And if you aren’t able to see it or understand, I’m afraid my life is under no obligation to make sense to you.  It just has to make sense to me.

A Twenty Year Retreat

January 30, 2019

For nearly two decades, I have been attending the annual Martin Luther King weekend writers’ retreat at Mercy-by-the-Sea (a Catholic retreat center) in Madison, Connecticut. The retreat was originally organized by the members of Still River Writers, the writers group I have been with since April of 1998.  Despite the fact that the retreat moved from Madison to Enders Island (another Catholic retreat center on Long Island Sound) for a few years and has occasionally shifted to President’s Day weekend, this retreat has been a constant in my life over the last twenty years.

The building we occupy at Mercy is called Seascape.  It is different from the rest of the buildings on the campus, partly because it is newer than the other structures, which tend to be dark and monastic.  Seascape is brighter, painted in pastels, with several large windows to view the sea and welcome the sun.  It also feels more like a private residence, because unlike the rest of Mercy, it was–Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas once called it home.  When they decided to relocate from Madison, they donated the building to Mercy.

Due to my proximity to Mercy and my work schedule, I am usually the first to arrive.  After I settle in and unpack, I make myself a cup of tea and enjoy the views.  I like to pretend it’s my own personal beach house until someone inevitably arrives to shatter the illusion.  It is always fun while it lasts…

Over the years, I have forged a number of wonderful, enduring relationships which have helped me grow both as an author, but most importantly, as a person. The exposure to all of the poets, prose poets, novelists, short story authors, non-fiction chroniclers, memoirists, playwrights, screenwriters, and songwriters over the years have influenced me in ways I am only just beginning to understand.

In that time, I have written five screenplays, one teleplay, four stage plays, a few dozen poems and a handful of essays. I have won thirteen awards, was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, published some of the poems and essays, and began blogging. I have also optioned two of my screenplays, seen three of my one acts produced, held a staged reading for my full length play in New York, and found an agent. I sincerely believe that none of that would have occurred without the annual retreat providing me with lengthy blocks of time to write, helpful feedback from peers, and a confidence that has increased with each passing year.

And I tend not to waste those blocks of time.  A few years ago, a wrote the first draft of a 95 screenplay over one of these weekends; my roommate had to excuse himself and write elsewhere because he found it exhausting to be in the presence of such mania.  I can’t really say I blame  him.  I also wrote the first draft of my full length stage play “Invincible Summer” at Seascape, and this year wrote 40 pages of my new play–and I am quite happy how it’s turning out.

Of course, the retreat is also where I met the woman I love–fifteen years ago! To say that our lives have changed since that first meeting is to significantly understate the matter…

We can at times look back over the years and reflect upon a decision that radically shaped the trajectory of our life.  My decision to attend my very first writers retreat during the waning months of the Clinton Administration unequivocally falls into that category.

Why Unions Matter, Part Four

November 6, 2018

To finish up this series, I am going to address many of the most common objections about unions, and show why these either don’t hold water, or are based upon misconceptions.  There are many; I am going to focus on the five most common I encounter in opinion pieces, views expressed to me in person, and social media posts.

    1. People needed unions in the past, but not today.  I think my discussion of the costs of neoliberal economic policy has debunked this, but just to sum up:  wages are in decline, the cost of living has increased, profits are at record highs, both of which can be directly attributable to the decline of unions beginning in the 1970s.  If it were true that unions were no longer necessary, then the decline in union membership would lead to an increase in wages and quality of life. In fact, the opposite has occurred. 
    2. Unions obtain benefits for themselves other workers lack.  Why should they get special treatment? My usual response to this is: if you work in an industry where some of the workers are unionized, and others are not, and you find yourself in the latter category, then… why aren’t you unionized? Chances are that union you resent would be very happy to have you as members. Furthermore, the assumption that unions get “special treatment” is not a valid one; unions get fair treatment for their employees.  If you find yourself resenting union benefits, it’s likely because you are not being treated fairly. Lastly, even if you are non-union in a heavily unionized industry, you do benefit, because that union tends to drive the wages and benefits up.  A nonunion employer still has to compete the union employer. I knew someone who was a non-union ER nurse, and her wages and benefits were very strong because most of the nurses in her town were unionized.
    3. I’m a non union salaried professional who has to work with union employees.  Their contract lets them go home before me and my assistant makes more than me.  How is that fair?  Simply put, it’s not fair. But the problem may not be the union contract, it might be yours.  If you are expected to work more than a forty hour work week, and your are not paid more than your assistant, then I don’t think you received a fair deal.  I think the problem is your employer taking advantage of you. Too bad you are not in a union…Additionally, as a salaried professional, you probably think of your job as a career.  To many blue-collar union employees, they have a job. They aren’t doing it because of their dedication to whatever industry you happen to be in.  They want to put in their 40 hours and go home to their families. That, frankly, sounds much healthier than working 60 hours a week and collapsing onto  your bed for a restless night sleep. And if that’s the only way you can get the job done…then the problem is your employer.Image result for teacher strikes
    4. Unions protect incompetent workers.   There is some validity to this.   As a teacher, we often hear this common objection  We are told it’s impossible to fire union teachers, or state employees.  And yes, just cause clauses and due process procedures do make it harder to dismiss contracted employees.  But it is hardly impossible. If an administrator or supervisor feels that an employee is not doing their job, they can follow the process and have them dismissed.  They just have to be able to document the problems. An attentive, competent leader should be able to do that–and usually they succeed. Many supervisors, however, don’t want to bother.  Or those that do fail to follow procedure. If that’s so, the issue isn’t the bargaining unit–the issue is leadership. School reformers spend a great deal of time discussing the problem of teachers in schools, but rarely discuss administrators.  Any teacher will tell you that there is a dearth of good leadership in schools. Administrators are often failed teachers, who by definition, tend to be poor leaders, or individuals with business backgrounds and no educational experience. As a result, they are largely ineffectual.  A few years ago, I worked with a teacher close to retirement who ceased to read the work handed in to him. He would assign a grade based largely on how he felt about the student, but never read their work. Students would intentionally put silly messages in the work to see if he noticed; he never did.  This was common knowledge at the school, and students complained about it. The school leadership could have done something about it, but they chose to ignore it. And while certainly the teacher’s behavior was on him, it wasn’t his union contract that protected him. It was poor leadership.
    5. Why do you need due process, anyway?  The era of sweatshops is over in the United States.  First of all, I’m not sure I’d say that to a fast food employee.  Or, someone working in a garment district…in a sweatshop. Aside from that, though, due process protects employees from personal vendettas and incompetence. If you think neither are a real problem in the workplace, then I suspect you are not actually employed.  I have had colleagues had their lives turned into a living hell due to the personal vendetta of a superintendent. I have also had many female colleagues made uncomfortable by a sexually inappropriate male colleague who held power in the district. A colleague in another district was falsely accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student, and another was disciplined for the poor performance of students she didn’t actually have in class.  Whether these incidents were the result of vendetta or incompetence is not always clear. Regardless, due process offers union employees a level of protection. Keep in mind: I work in a school. I am supposedly surrounded by intelligent, educated people. So if it happens there, it can happen anywhere. All workers should be entitled to some level of due process. If most employees do not have this protection, the solution is not to eliminate it for those that do have it.  Of course, there are some laws that can protect non-union employees from some of these situations. How, then, did those laws get on the books? Union organizing.

In these last four posts, I have attempted to make it clear why unions are still important today–arguably, as important today as they have ever been.  As human institutions, they are by definition imperfect, but I think the historical and economic evidence make it clear that they have done more to benefit working and middle class people than just about any other force in history.  And that, more than ever, is why individuals with power and wealth have worked so hard to discredit and dispose of them.

The truth is, they have nearly succeeded. The only thing that can stop them is us.  

Why Unions Matter, Part Three

September 16, 2018

I think its easy to see how neoliberalism would put a giant stake through the heart of private sector unions.   But what would be the advantage of breaking public sector unions, if they were not affecting the profit margins of a private enterprise?  Why such economic (and actual) hostility?

There is no one answer this question.  The answer is as complicated as it is multifaceted.  I will do my best to break it down as follows:

  1. The Libertarian Objection:  Many conservatives have accepted the libertarian/Randian perspective that there is no such thing as the collective good.  There are only individuals.  If you accept that as axiomatic, then collective bargaining is hostile to your view of economics and liberty.   You already think of tax collection as theft.  The idea that tax money would therefore go to pay unionized workers is unthinkable.  As former Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson described it, “all services should follow the Uber model.”
  2. The Taxation Objection:  The bastard child of the Libertarian Objection, this is the idea that government should be smaller, deliver fewer services, and charge little or no taxes.  Unionized workers bargaining for contracts that include cost of living increases and health insurance make it difficult to keep those precious taxes lower.  So, eliminate unions and their contracts, and you can, as Grover Norquist put it, “Cut government…down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”  It is this philosophy that has motivated the likes of Scott Walker and Rick Snyder to help crush collective bargaining in their pro-labor states.  You cannot cut taxes for the wealthiest residents of your state and balance your budget without cutting spending.  You can cut spending if your public sector workers have their salaries and benefits cuts.  That can’t really occur until you either dispose of (or signifantly hamper) collective bargaining.
  3. Fear of Solidarity:  As the Powell memorandum makes clear, businesses, multinational corporations, and the wealthy believe it to be a moral imperative to concentrate their power.  The biggest threat to that concentration is unionism.  Public sector workers have, by and large, been popular and provide services many citizens depend upon.  Becoming a unionized public sector worker has also been a common path for working class Americans–especially people of color–to join the middle class.  If being in a union is aspirational, that makes it a threat to wealth and power, public or private sector.  You remove that opportunity, it ceases to be an aspiration.  Wages are down, taxes are down–and profits are at record highs.  This is not an accident, or the result of the “Invisible Hand” of the market place.  This is engineered through legislation and litigation.

Another factor at play here is the distinctions between public sector employees.  Many public workers will be attacked and devalued by corporate media, with two notable exceptions:  police and fire departments.  The Janus v AFSCME decision affects these unions as well, but there is far less anxiety expressed from those bargaining units.  Part of the reason is that many police and fire departments tend to donate funds to Republican candidates, whereas other unions tend to support Democrats (for reasons I will get into in part four).  The other reason is that police and fire provide a service that the wealthy value over all the others:  they protect property.

It’s easy for corporate media to trash teachers, bus drivers, public health care workers, and public college professors, because those with wealth and power will never use their services.  If they are of no use, why pay for them?  But they have use for police officers and firefighters, so their collective bargaining units are tolerated.

Former journalist and current charlatan Campbell Brown for years has worked to try to privatize education–which cannot happen until the unions are gone.  Ms. Brown has sadly, run out of valid arguments to make her case, so she usually defaults to the charge that teachers unions “protect child molesters.”  What she is referring to is the due process rights public sector employees (and some private sector union members) have if if they are accused of misbehavior.  Police officers also have these due process rights, but Ms. Brown has yet to accuse police unions of “protecting child murderers.”  It would seem there is a double standard at work here.

Economists Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Pikkety have made it clear in their research that the higher standard of living brought about union contracts not only created the middle class, but the investment in public sector unions has injected billions of dollars into the economy.  Simply put, people with economic security spend more, which stimulates all of the other economic sectors.  These sectors function as a tax base, so the state’s investment pays itself back countless times over.  As a result, the economy grows and wealth is generated.  There is a problem, though–the wealth is not concentrated into the hands of the few.   It is those hands that have worked so hard to reverse the tide–and Janus is their most recent victory.

In part four, I will refute some of the most common objections to the existence of public sector unions.

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?

Hospira-to-lay-off-100-following-closure-of-Clayton-NC-plant_wrbm_small

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. That’s ten cents a year.  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.

%d bloggers like this: