Ben Sen's Blog

Politics, Culture and Religion Without Projections

Ben Sen

Ben Sen
New York, N.Y.,
December 31
I'd rather be judged on the basis of my posts than anything written in my bio. It's put down and gathered as a record of my experience and a response to what I see as the important issues in the world today. I don't pretend it's anything other than subjective. The purpose is to analyze, interpret, express opinions, challenge the status quo, open a few doors, and entertain. I heartily welcome ratings, comments and dialogue. That's what makes this media unique and valuable. It also keeps me honest and encouraged since I'm not getting paid. Take a risk and say something; it feels better. A "conversation" is essential for the growth of the individual and the collective. I have faith it extends beyond the confines of what is said here. "For it is necessary for awake people to be awake, or a breaking line may discourge us back to sleep, the signals we give--yes, no or maybe--should be clear: the darkness around us is deep." From A RITUAL TO READ TO EACH OTHER by William Stafford


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Editor’s Pick
MARCH 1, 2011 10:37AM

Labor Unions Waiting for Godot

Rate: 19 Flag

     The most salient feature of what I think about labor unions, and "union workers" comes from personal experience--not a theory of "socialism" or "capitalism" or any of the rest of the intellectual mumbo-jumbo that is so often the basis for opinion in the matter.  (The fact that I was once an activist for a public employees union in NYC is beside the point.) 

     My grandfather started the Irish-American Autoworkers Union in Detroit.  It was later absorbed into the United Auto Workers.  He didn't work in the factories himself--he was an attorney--bred in this country with an Irish surname.  That gave him some clout at a time when most of the autoworkers were Irish immigrants; he used to enlist them from a soapbox when they arrived at the train station.

     He helped organize the early strikes, especially the one in Flint that really kicked off the movement, and had the life-long distinction of having been beaten by Ford's "goons".  The story used to bring him great pleasure, though he was a man of few words.  It was a little hard to imagine anyone beating up Gramps without killing him.  Surely, if they knew him they understood that was the only way to stop him.

      The union was the way to put enough food on the table of the workers so they could feed their progeny--the same progeny who when they became "educated" went to work for the car companies and became anti-union.  If I hadn't seen it so many times, even in my own family I wouldn't believe it, or the fact that many of the old union men approved because it meant the kid had made it--and after all--that's the point when you've made all those sacrifices.

      It became apparent to me at an early age that an odd thing happens to a person when they put on their white shirt and go to work for a large corporate entity--as good and well meaning a person as they may be.  It's not that they exactly lose their minds, as much as their sense of history, propriety, and dignity.  Their social conscience become the corporate conscience, and that's often no conscience at all.  Since no one  is ultimately responsible for anything but their own paycheck, and any responsibility that can be measured is based on maximizing profit, nobody "knows nothin'." 

     Yeah, the apologists have great economic theories, plenty of straw dogs, and can quote the founding fathers on the benefits of man's profiting morally from the sweat of his own brow, but in a land where the billionaires rule the roost that's not much compensation--and yes--it keeps getting worse and nobody knows nothin'.

      The corporate boys point their fingers at the unions and the unions point their finger back in a never ending battle like the uroboros, the snake that keeps biting its own tail always going in circles.  The next thing you know there are neither profits nor jobs and the whole mess comes crashing to the ground like the city of Detroit itself.

       You actually think these bozos are capable of working in their own best long term interests or that of the nation as a whole?  I long ago gave up on that one as I suspect anybody has who witnessed and takes seriously what happened in Detroit.  Regulation of some sort or other seems inevitable either on a short term or long term basis--but don't tell the neo-conservatives that until it is their turn to have their towns and cities destroyed by their own greed and insufferable ideological ignorance.  You think GM learned from the latest crises?  I frankly doubt it.

     How did Japan manage to take over so much of the auto industry and the electronics industry after the war? 

     A) 80 per cent of the population makes within 50 per cent of the income of the rest.  There is no need for unions or the ideological battle when you know the folks on top of the pile aren't walking away with most of the money and the benefits. 

    B) The government (yes, horror of horrors) the government controls the system, specifically, its bureaucrats, who turned it into the second largest economy in the world for the last 40ty years with half the population of the US.

     C) Since 1946 the American taxpayer has been paying for the costs of their military defense.  Tojo is dead.  Among other things, it has enabled the Japanese to have a health care system that allows them to live ten years longer than Americans on the average.

      I have sympathy for what is happening now in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, but I also have a question:  Where were they in the last election when the writing was on the wall?  Didn't they suspect right wing small minded reaction was on the march?  My God--the President is a black man--how could they miss it?  Didn't they sense danger then?  What kept them from the polls?  It's particularly disconcerting in Wisconsin with its liberal tradition.  The farmers and "wealth pretenders" can't control the state if the urban middle class votes in their best interests, and the same thing can certainly be said for Michigan, or what's left of it.

      I suspect part of the problem is the same everywhere with "unionists" and "faux liberals."  They're still waiting for Godot--the perfect candidate--the one who will launch their fantasy world--and by their withdrawal from the political process hand the country over to the right as they have done for the most part since Vietnam.  

     They have no loyalty to the only party where they have a fighting chance to have their interests represented and take it as an insult that anyone would suggest otherwise.  They confuse "independence" with political reality.  They'd rather live in their fairyland, twisted in knots by their own recalcitrance until they're stripped of what few rights have been won, such as collective bargaining.

     Some of these folks even voted for the party that's now trying to put them out of work when they made it clear that's exactly what they intended to do.  As Gramps would say, "the poor buggers gored themselves on their own pretensions."

       There's no question they're as perfidious as Godot, but I still back them on principle--just as Gramps taught me.    

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Ben, excellent essay! Your wisdom shines in this post as it does in all your posts. I think for the most part, this country is run by greed on one hand, and ignorance on the other. Among the ignorant is also apathy.
I so agree with Patricia below..
way way way too much greed.
rated with hugs
I love how nuanced and big-picture your posts are. This was just excellent.
A brilliant post! Please regale us with more stories of the early union days!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
There are very few people like yourself who are even aware. Most younger people today have no clue what unions even are at all.

I think that most human beings basically act only on their own self-interest, or their narrow family, friends etc.

Once in a while you get inspired leadership that can exert some influence. That seems to be missing in the union movement today, but desperately, desperately needed!!
Thanks for the post. You make a really great point, Ben! Here in Ohio, the union worked really hard to get Governor Strickland re-elected, but alas, the membership largely stayed home. They're not home today, though. They're protesting in Columbus many thousands strong. Here's to hoping that the opposition the unions face today lead them to grow stronger, and more aware, tomorrow. Rated.
Just found this joke on a Big Salon comments thread:

A public union employee, a tea party activist, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, "Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie."
With the best of the Mad Men manipulators fooling political constituencies with smoke and mirrors it's a wonder Obama hasn't been impeached yet. Great retrospective. Gramps sounds like a helluva guy.
You have got to be kidding me. Where were the unions in 2010? Let's see, they turned out big in 2008 and the democrats screwed them over.

Not only did they fail on EFCA, Obama made cutting union jobs a condition of the assistance to GM and then he put a tax on "cadillac" health plans that will diminish the value of their health care benefits. Now he's pushing for more free trade agreements to send more union jobs overseas and put Jeffrey "I'm a nut on China" Immelt in charge of his "competitiveness" council.

But the unions should have killed themselves to keep the democrats in office so they could ... do what exactly?

Its true the democrats have been their allies in the past but perhaps you should meet Ben Nelson and the rest of the Blue Dogs that are more than happy to the bidding of the corporations. It's time you updated your assumptions about the democratic party. You're a good 15 years, or more, out of date. These democrats aren't the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson anymore. They might even be to the right of Eisenhower, for that matter.

And just for kicks, let's ignore reality and assume you're right: Obama and the rest of the DLC democrats are really ardent unionists. What makes you think they could have made a difference? Regardless of the right wing noise machine, this election, like most, was about economics - specifically, 9.5% unemployment. Obama practically locked in these results when he delivered a stimulus package that was less than half what was needed. The bank bail out and a POS HCR reform bill didn't help.

This wasn't the union's fault. It was the democrat's. It is disingenuous in the extreme to argue otherwise. If the democrats want union support, they need to start stand for something besides cutting any deal they think will please the "middle".
Read with great interest and rated. Thank you.
Congratulations on the EP. Deserved!
Excellent post, Ben. Congrats on the EP too.l
HAD to steal your joke, Froggy!
True, true, true.
Without the labor movement, the American middle class would comprise only about 10 percent of the population. The rest of us would be living in poverty. That describes what America looked like in the late 1800s and early 1900s before the the Progressive Movement began making inroads in government, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt and others. It was only when TR's cousin Franklin pushed legislation through making labor organizing a right that the middle class grew and America became "the land of opportunity." Since Ronald Reagan and the Republicans declared war on unions in the 1980s -- and Reagan's removal of import tariffs that allows corporations to send US jobs overseas -- American wages have declined 30 percent. What would you do with roughly a third more money each year? Why can't Americans understand that?
Re: TMH813's Comment: Recently I heard a political reporter from Wisconsin being interviewed on NPR. He said that one sixth of union households who voted last November, voted Republican. These people are so clueless they vote to commit political suicide.
This goes to confirm Ben Sen's observation that the current generation of children of old school unionists and even current members are anti-union. I live in MN. I knocked on doors and did phone banking, so I know what people are thinking. Both my DFL state rep and senator were defeated. Republicans now control both houses of the legislature. The only reason Senator Dayton is governor is because we had the usual third party candidate who sucked away more Republican than Democratic votes. It doesn't matter that we have a DFL governor. He can't do anything so we have government paralysis for the next two years.
Re: Martin Hills' Comment: Do some research on this. You will find that the dismanteling of the New Deal began with Jimmy Carter. Both the airlines and the trucking industry were deregulated under Carter just to mention two of the many things he did to return America to pre-1932 days. Nixon, evil and psychotic as he was, did nothing to get rid of the New Deal.
This is a pretty dumb commentary. For one thing, the unions don't have such great numbers that they can dominate an election. Another factor is that the "Republicans" receive vast amounts of money from the Koch brothers and other corporate, "right-wing," religious, and gun-nut interests. The biggest spender is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. They wage vicious negative campaigns, using tried and true methods such as slander, lies, distortion, and character assassination.

The unions, especially Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and AFSCME, campaign vigorously, but they don't have the resources the "Republicans" do.

Unfortunately, largely due to the Internet, we have become a nation of opinion-makers rather than truth-tellers. In order to tell truth you need facts. All of the projections about "unionists" and "faux liberals" are pure flight of imagination. North of Madison and Milwaukee the state of Wisconsin is pretty "conservative," with plenty of gun nuts and religious fundamentalists. Many union members, especially prison guards, police, and county workers like snow plow drivers voted for Walker, falling for the propaganda. Now of course, they have buyer's remorse.

It is easy to fall into this trap when you glorify the past in comparison to the present. I prefer a more Zen approach, living in the present moment. We go from where we are, right now. Right now we are overthrowing a reactionary governor. It will take time, but this is the beginning of a new awareness and a new energy. Unions are a big part of it, but they are not all of it.

The task at hand includes changing from an infinite growth, planet destroying economic system to a sustainable, ecologically supportive system, and one that distributes reward equitably. One that taxes fairly (progressive taxation), and one that guarantees employment for anyone willing to work. It is a huge task, and requires a massive effort. The effort is starting with the democracy movement worldwide, and the unions are playing a lead role. They need our encouragement and support, not our condemnation.
Cheerful Cynic

Let me help you with why 1/6 th of the union households voted Republican. WI is not a right to work state, yet. So if you work for a union shop you are in regardless of what you think of their ideas.
Unions need an upgrade. A new avatar won't cut it. If they could just come up with an integrated political-network/worker based collective/army of hackers/ anarchist militias they'd have something.

Until then Unions are so yesterday.

Cool article though!
Society is really crumbling when teachers have to worry about their jobs. My question to the unions, and I am a recently retired educator, is why was there no protestation against the No Child Left Behind legislation when it was introduced and why have there been no major calls for significant reform? They rolled over belly up and accepted a government-run business/accountability model that most people now agree is ruining our schools. Race to the Top is no better.
Ben = You're not saying anything that many of us, with great shame, are questioning right now in WI. In fact, I cringe as I read it, because I know you're right. Like Obama's victory became the finish line, and people didn't realize it was only the beginning of the race.

I also wonder this:

It seems history tells us that just before something dies or is defeated, it fights the hardest. I wonder if we're not seeing the last thrashes of the conservative right grabbing what is slipping away. Just by sheer number, the changing demagraphics of this country, conservative ideology and their hold on power is slipping away. If they don't change their message to incorporate more of those they're now blaming for the problem, they're doomed.

Now is when we should be fighting the hardest. I'm ashamed we didn't. It's not too late.
Whoa. This stopped me dead in my tracks this AM. So glad you got the EP; hopefully, expanded readership will follow.
Unions are so yesterday, that being said, I support this current protest to save them. Our system, messed up as it is, was built on their backs. Who shall protect the youth, the unaware, the dumb, the poor, the issue here has again been twisted from it's greedy origin. It's not the unions or workers that need to bleed, they didn't cause this problem. The money handlers, ah yes, are the cause. The have no conscience or blood only dark empty reality that more fuels more. How misguided the American voter is.
Solid post. I think your chastisement of the voters is not entirely appropriate, though. I think it is most appropriate within elections for state representatives, but inappropriate in terms of national elections. The Dems in Congress have squandered opportunity after opportunity since 2006; perfidious, indeed.

And in some states, even the Dems have to be "republican-light" just to get elected, so what's the point? The system by which we hire/appoint these "representatives" is so broken that we're just spinning our wheels until it changes. Perhaps the events in Wisconsin will ignite a movement toward that particular change, but I doubt it.

I didn't intend to repeatedly make comments to this post, but found this snotty little offering from this author at the bottom of one of my posts:

"now that i've seen your work i understand why you called my post "dumb." I get you as a sweet guy who lives in his fantasies and wants everybody else to do so. it's lovely, but you can't tell friend from foe. i was a friend and you blew me away by not thinking before you wrote. now that's dumb."

Maybe the Irishman could enlighten me as to what fantasies I live in, and what evidence there is that I want everybody else to live in as well. Projections from the unknowing are always interesting. They reveal more about the projector than the projectee. As for being a friend that I blew away, I beg to differ. I never heard of Ben Sen before, and only read this post because it was an editor's pic, and the intro suggested it was worth checking out.

To repeat, I find this to be a dumb commentary. The Main reason I say this is because a knowledge was assumed about the situation in Wisconsin that the essay showed does not exist. I explained why, by describing those circumstances.

The other reason I say this is a dumb commentary is that it takes past glories and present inglories out of context. Every era or mini era in history has its own unique context, and to compare one to the other unfavorably without any sense of the cultural, political and economic circumstances is both arrogant and ignorant. This is further verified by the bragging about one's Irish ancestors. My predecessors also came from Ireland, mostly, and Scotland. They had their own many accomplishments, but I haven't seen fit to trade on their contributions to bolster an argument, however weak.

So, have at it. You seem to have a following. Maybe you could come to Madison and gain some first hand information and write about it. I suspect it would be a tad different from what appears above. Maybe you could do a piece about protesters of Irish ancestry.

Fine essay. There are no easy answer to the problems. I will say this, you can only let a bully hit you so many times before you realize you must act. That being said, if someone tells you that you must act, seldom will that move you to act. You must get fed up. You must get uncomfortable to the point you are willing to place yourself in jeopardy. Bankruptcy, denial of medical claims, shifting our industries to countries that didn't build them, keeping minimum wage below the poverty line, electing national leaders without the sense God gave an ant or the honor God gave a male penguin, if that didn't motivate people to stand up to the machine, what will?

Mr. Hamilton:

Before a conversation is possible, let me make sure about something. Who did you vote for in the midterms?

Your lack of comprehension on what I've actually written and your interpretation are two different matters. There is no response to what I actually said in your reply.

I'd gladly acknowledge your contribution if I knew you weren't exactly who I am speaking of as the short-sighted members of Wis. "liberal" community who didn't see this coming. If you actually comprehend my post, you would see that I am on your side--only not quite so in the grips of it.
Oh and please, Mr. Hamilton:

If you want to be taken seriously, and not as a dolt, leave out the "dummy" stuff. I'm simply not going to engage any longer with you if you use it again. I shouldn't even be doing this, but since I am on your side, and the problem is you can't see it, I am trying again.
I also don't intend to go on with this indefinitely. But for now, it's getting to be fun. First, I am not a one of the "short-sighted members of Wis. "liberal" community." I'm not sure who those members are. Maybe you could name a few. Which, again, is why I say your screed, and subsequent paranoid responses are dumb. You haven't been here. You don't know what you are talking about.

I voted for Tom Barrett for governor. I always vote. I don't particularly like "Democrats" in general, but usually vote for them as the least harmful. Barrett was a weak candidate. Walker won for the same reason "Republicans" won throughout the country last year: the economy, weak "Democratic" performance, massive amounts of corporate money, negative campaigning, the "Tea Party," and "right wing" punditocracy. As I said before, based on first hand knowledge from living here, unions are not very strong here. The most influential union voice is the Wisconsin Education Assistance Council, which in the past has helped many "Democrats" get elected.

I don't have a "side," so you can't be on my "side." I write from my own experience and perspective. I believe our economic system is doomed, and our species is threatened. If we don't switch to a steady-state economic system, which we won't until the present one collapses, future generations, if there are any, will have a very difficult time finding their next meal. No "Democrat" would dare support such a change, just as none of them is supporting anything meaningful about climate change. Still, I vote for them, because that's the reality we live in. They are still better than "Republicans."

I know this will make future projections a bit more challenging, but it likely won't slow you down a bit. Still, I repeat my previous suggestion and show up in Wisconsin, where you can find out by getting some actual facts about the situation here. Or, you can just make it up, like you did in this post. The choice is yours. I think I know what it will continue to be.
Mr. Hamilton:

Well thank you so much for returning. I thought you ran away in a huff. Some of my oldest and dearest friends live in Wi., and are active there in politics and have been for many years. I'm also familiar with the politics of Northern Ca., who share many traits with the "liberal" tradition in your state--depending on how you define the term.

It's good to know you're a "practicing Democrat" though a classic cynic of our "system." That means you aren't simply rationalizing a failure to participate in our political system as it is. I was rather hoping someone like you would emerge to add to the discussion.

That was the point of my piece--to draw a distinction between the old time "radicals" who have wised up and those who still live in never-never land. If more of them had grown up sooner and voted for the viable candidate who most closely approximated their views, I don't think we'd be in the mess that we are. I applaud your efforts on behalf of unionism--especially in the state that first enacted collective bargaining.

I don't even care that basically you've chosen to throw me the bird--your actions are what matter--not your and lack of civility and perspective. Many are with you, and in the upheavals to come I wish you well.

God speed,
This is a great take on an important subject. rated