Terrance Heath

Starving Out the Strikers

Filed By Terrance Heath | March 26, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: labor, movement, Republicans, strike

I admit sometimes I look at the GOP majority in the House and wonder where these people came from. (Their districts, I know.)

Defending the Defense of Marriage Act? Hearings on Muslim Americans? Emergency meetings to defund NPR?

All this while unemployment is at 10.2% (according to Gallup), 14 million Americans are unemployed, there are 8 unemployed workers for every job job opening, unemployment adds 9 million Americans to the uninsured, so many people have been unemployed for so long that we’ve changed how we measure long-term unemployment, 1.4 million have been out of work for 99 weeks or more, and  3.9 million long-term unemployed ran out of unemployment benefits in 2010?

You can see why I began to wonder if these people came from another planet. But their latest move makes it all perfectly clear. They’re straight out of Central Casting, the stereotypical villains division.

Tula Connell notes the GOP’s latest strike at unionized workers: You strike, you starve.

How low can Republicans go in their attacks on working families and their unions?

Think Progress reports today that "a group of House Republicans is launching a new stealth attack against union workers" by prohibiting the family of a worker on strike from receiving food stamps.

The stealth provision is buried in  H.R. 1135, a bill based designed to "provide information on total spending on means-tested welfare programs, to provide additional work requirements, and to provide an overall spending limit on means-tested welfare programs."

Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Tim Scott (S.C.), Scott Garrett (N.J.), Dan Burton (Ind.), and Louie Gohmert (Texas) introduced the bill, which also includes a provision that would exempt households from losing eligibility, "if the household was eligible immediately prior to such strike, however, such family unit shall not receive an increased allotment as the result of a decrease in the income of the striking member or members of the household."

Seriously, what’s missing here except for a black hat and cape, a stick of dynamite and a victim tied to railroad tracks. (Not high-speed rail, of course.)

And before anyone chimes in with, "You don’t work, you don’t eat," let’s get a couple of things straight. Striking workers do not belong in the same category as people who can work, but don’t work because they don’t want to.

Like the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, who burned to death 100 years ago today, workers who go on strike don’t do so because they simply don’t want to work. (If that were the case, they could call in sick, stay in and watch television instead of walking picket lines.

They’re hard working people who’ve been working, and are striking because they want to go back to work -- but for better wages and safer working conditions. They want to work, but for wages that will feed their families, and give their children a better start in life. They want to work hours that let them see their families. They want to work under conditions that don’t endanger their health and safety. Most of all they want to be treated fairly at work. And like the Triangle factory workers, they knew there’s only one way to accomplish that.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

It’s about fairness, not laziness. And last time I checked, starving out people who want to be treated fairly and to have a shot at the American Dream wasn’t part of American values.

The 146 workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago today went on strike, with those demands. And were met with ever strikebreaking tactic the factory owners could think of.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

(The clips are from the PBS American Experience documentary, Triangle Fire. You can watch the whole thing online here.)

That treatment of strikers wasn’t all that unusual. Violence was regularly meted out to workers who dared demand fair or even humane treatment. Then as now, there were people who mattered and people who didn’t. There were somebodies and nobodies, and the former would accept nothing from the latter but abject obedience.

It was the age of Social Darwinism after all, when there were haves who were better off because they were better people, and have-nots who had not because ... well ... because they weren’t better people. Their very status was evidence of that. For if they were better people they would’ve been better off.

It was an age when, as Robert Reich put it, people were forced to live with the consequences of whatever happened to them.

The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is to force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.

The emphasis here is on "force," with was applied quite heavily to workers, if they did otherwise.

And this is where the GOP’s latest move comes into clearer context. It goes all the way back to that history. Violence wasn’t the only tactic used against striking workers. Literally starving them out was a tactic, too.

Those are a couple of examples of actual "starve-outs," but starving out workers who tried to organize -- by shutting down mines and factories, fining workers for infractions, etc. -- carried same message: knuckle under, or your family will starve; your children won’t eat.

Stopping the delivery of food to striking workers needs to be put in context too. Who’s delivering food to striking workers? Well, there was a time when unions were strong enough to support workers and their families during strikes, by giving workers "strike pay" to assist them in meeting their needs during a strike. In some strike situations, union support committees mobilized to deliver food to the families of striking workers. So, factory and mine owners didn’t necessarily  have the leverage of a worker’s starving family.

This phenomenon has a modern-day parallel: Solidarity Pizza.

Someone in Egypt has been paying attention to what's happening in Madison and wanted to send a message of solidarity from across the globe -- so they ordered a pizza.

It might seem like a small gesture, but it's overwhelming to the staff at Ian's on State Street -- a campus staple mere blocks from the Capitol -- where in the last few days, they've fielded calls from concerned citizens of 14 countries, and all 50 states and the District of Columbia looking to donate money to provide free pizza to the Wisconsinites who have congregated here.

On Saturday alone, Ian's gave away 1,057 free slices in their store and delivered more than 300 pizzas to the Capitol itself.

By 2 p.m. local time Sunday, they'd given away 351 slices and sent countless other full pies to the rotunda, where protesters have been gathering since well before noon. As a few locals stood waiting for their slices, an Ian's staffer went to the chalkboard hanging behind the register and wrote, "Turkey" in big block letters and co-workers expressed a sense of disbelief.

The reason we work under very different conditions thane workers did 100 years ago -- the reason I can look up and see evidence of a sprinkler system, and the reason I’m leaving the office after 8 hours, and going to home to spend the entire weekend with my family -- is because some people didn’t knuckle under long ago. They stood up for themselves and each other, changing their circumstances and ours for the better.

That’s what I’m guessing the GOP wants to fix -- people standing together and demanding living wages and better working conditions -- because it’s high time we got back to the way things used to be .... 100 years or so ago.

Not that there was any doubt, at least the GOP is letting us know which side of history their on.

crossposted at Republic of T

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Leigh Anne | March 26, 2011 2:38 PM

Pining over what unions have done for us over the past 100 years -- do you have some examples more recent than the 1930s? -- does not address the issue. We have to stop the black-and-white, employer vs worker rhetoric and the talk about what unions "represent," and address what unions are actually doing today. And by and large, they're doing some good things!

Unions took it in the chin when they gave up real wages and benefits for vague future promises, like unfunded retirement benefits. Union workers have been on the losing side of "employee buyouts" using retirement and pension funds -- basically giving the owners the funds, and getting failing companies in return.

Retirement and pension funds for MOST workers were raided by employers when stock prices were going up, using the lie that those funds were "excess" -- and the government agency set up to protect those assets let it happen!

Yes, unions still have a place in today's world, not because of what they've done in the distant past, or because union dues are used to support liberal causes -- but because workers still need collective bargaining, to protect themselves!

Christopher Hedges talks about this in his most recent book, how union reps became execs at the same table as business leaders so long as they stopped really advocating for their workers.

Plus you're totally right about the change over to defined-contribution retirement plans. What a total crock.

Agreed with the previous poster.

The average pay and benefits package to school teachers in Madison, Wisconsin was over $100K. The unions have created their own class warfare in trying to portray themselves as the 1930s workers fighting the Rockefellers while bringing in salaries and benefits private sector workers could only dream of, while also helping fund a good portion of the Democratic party.

Also, perhaps if Democrats had taken their 4 years of Congressional control and turned it into job creation or anything other than rewarding political opponents and implementing failed leftist social engineering projects, perhaps they would still have power.

In an age where the American worker is now competing with the Indian, Chinese, South American, Mexican etc. worker for their job, your history lesson and want for union sympathy is going to fall on deaf ears...

The average pay and benefits package to school teachers in Madison, Wisconsin was over $100K.

That's just plain not true. Not even conservative teacher-haters made up numbers that high.

while bringing in salaries and benefits private sector workers could only dream of

Public sector employees usually make less than comparable jobs in the private sector, across the board.


while also helping fund a good portion of the Democratic party

We wish. The Dems have been bought out by the same people the Republicans sold out too, and it's not unions.

perhaps if Democrats had taken their 4 years of Congressional control and turned it into job creation

We all agree they didn't try hard enough, but the GOP was blocking most job creating legislation. If we're going to blame a party, there's one that's more at fault than the other. But I choose to blame both.

implementing failed leftist social engineering projects, perhaps they would still have power

Like what? DADT repeal?

In an age where the American worker is now competing with the Indian, Chinese, South American, Mexican etc. worker for their job

You're right - they all should be organizing too. The fact that we're all being played against each other is why we're losing out to the wealthy elite.

And I forgot this one:

Agreed with the previous poster.

No, your comment contradicts hers entirely.

The average pay and benefits package to school teachers in Madison, Wisconsin was over $100K.

The average? Over 100K? I don't know any teachers who make over $100K, but it's worth pointing out that maybe the average isn't the best measure to consider. After all, it may be that some teachers do make over $100K, but how many of them are there, and where/what are they teaching? Is that salary commensurate with the degree of education required for their position? Some teachers do receive salary increases for continuing their education and earning advanced degrees. (My younger sister is a teacher, for example, and earned a Master's degree because it made her eligible for better paying positions.)

Politicact looked into one claim that Wisconsin Teachers were paid $89,000 in salary and benefits compared to teachers in other states, and rated it "Barely True." They found that the claim was way off in terms of benefit, and placed the average salary for WI teachers at $51,000 and benefits at about $25,000 a year. However, they also found reports that pointed out exactly what I did above.

But many statisticians have a more fundamental issue with Bolling's comparison. In order to be a teacher in Wisconsin, you've got to have a 4-year college degree. And 52 percent of Wisconsin teachers also have a master's degree. That's much, much higher than the average education level for workers in the private sector. People with higher degrees in education typically get paid more.

We found two studies that factored in such things as education level, years of experience, race, gender, etc. and found that public employees tend to make a little less than people with similar backgrounds in the private sector.

A report titled "Out of Balance" by two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors for the National Institute of Retirement Security, whose board is largely composed of representatives of public employee pensions, found that when "comparable earning determinants," such as education, are considered, state employees typically earn salaries 11 percent lower than their private sector counterparts. When you consider total compensation -- salary plus benefits -- the deficit dropped to 6.8 percent (because public employees generally get better benefits packages than those in the private sector).

One of the study authors, Keith A. Bender, an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, said that message has largely been lost in the Wisconsin debate.

As for Bollings' comparison, Bender said, "I guess you can do that if you don't want to compare like with like. But you are comparing less educated people with more educated people."

The numbers Politifact used puts the low teacher salary in Madison at $33,242, the high teacher salary at $79,196, and the average at $52,022. Add in the benefits, and you get $58,242 low salary, $104,196 high salary, and $77,022 for the average. The average experience of Madison teachers is about  14.21 years. So, the $100,00 figure might be true for the highest paid teachers in Madison, who may also be among the most educated and most experienced teachers in Madison. But it doesn't hold true for all the teachers in Madison, and even when the benefits are folded in, the average doesn't rise to $100,000.

So unless we're changing the standard the people with more education and more experience are better compensated, there are some important things that must be taken in to consideration with those numbers. They've got to be placed in context. For example, the percentage of WI teacher with advanced degrees, etc., have to be considered when looking at the average salary. (It's also worth noting that salaries may differ from one county to the next, for any number of reasons. The cost of living in state capitols or large cities might be a factor.) Now, if we no longer want to incentivize pursuit of advanced education and training, well that's another thing....

My point is that there probably are some highly paid teachers, but that averaging their salaries in with those of everyone else might not accurately show how much most teacher are paid. When people hear "the average salary," they may assume that what the "average" teacher makes. I think a better statistic to consider might be the median teacher salary. I've been unable to find that number from an independent source.

But do we really think teachers are too highly paid? Admittedly, I'm biased. I have a teacher in my family, plus Parker's second grade teacher — a first-year teacher — has been wonderful this year. It's obvious she really cares about her students, and Parker has flourished in her class. Now, if you ask me whether I think she's too highly paid, you can probably guess what Id' say.

I think what's happened is that over the last 30 years, we've seen productivity increase in the private sector while at the same time wages were stagnating. That coincides with the decline in union membership in the private sector, which recently fell to its lowest point in 70 year, so that now the union membership is highest in the public sector. What comes with union membership — the ability to bargain collectively for better wages, working conditions, etc. — also goes with union membership when it's gone.

The result? In the private sector we work harder and longer for less in terms of salary and benefits. And it's only getting worse as the new jobs created in this recession are low wage jobs with few benefits. In the private sector, that is.

The odd thing is the result that many of us look at public sector unions and employees and ask "How come they have it so good?" instead of asking "How come we don't?"

From a political point of view, it's brilliant on the part of the GOP.

Thank you Alex. Well done.

Thanks, Alex. And Tim, is it possible that those spreading lies about the compensation of public sector employees are themselves guilty of class warfare?

Seriously, what’s missing here except for a black hat and cape, a stick of dynamite and a victim tied to railroad tracks. (Not high-speed rail, of course.)

I almost lost my coffee on this line, I giggled so hard.