"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Gillard on TWU Strike

UPDATE: Good op-ed from the Daily News, who's front-page was a total sham today.

Steve Gillard, two-fisted as they come, has a lot of interesting postings around the transit strike. The most recent one about inter-union politics between the TWU local and international casts a very different light on the whole "their parent union thinks its a fair deal" idea:

Toussaint won election by campaigning against the old guard which was personified by former TWU Local 100 president Sonny Hall who had gone on to head the national union. Toussaint decisively beat a Hall-backed candidate, claiming that the union had squandered both its finances and its clout by playing footsy with transit managers. Once in office, he sliced his own salary by $15,000. His slate of dissidents made similar cuts in their pay. He eliminated an extra pension that local officers had awarded themselves, and also dropped an expensive health plan for officers, putting them on the same plan as members...

In 2002, during the last round of contentious talks between the local and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Toussaint and his allies were haunted by the possibility that should they strike, they faced not just the legal sanctions by the state and the city, but the likelihood that Hall would place the local under trusteeship, firing the elected leaders.

The endorsement of the MTA's offer comes from Hall, who was apparently a prime example of a bad union leader: in bed with managment and lining up all sorts of perks for himself over and above what he got for workers. Reminds me of when Homer got to be the union boss of the power plant.

Homer: What's it pay?

Lenny: Nothin'... unless you're crooked.

Homer: Woohooo!

Also note that my own stuff in the lengthy below is just my analysis, or better yet my own sepctulation. I don't have any experience or connections with the TWU, and what I'm talking about is all based on my observations of other labor disputes. Steve's blog has a lot more news coverage.

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Labor Economics

So ya wanna live vicariously through some ideals? Ok, here you go:

I think those that say running things on a "free market" system is the most fair, most productive and generally best for society, are (consciously or not) espousing a kind of propaganda. Now, I like markets. Markets are very good at connecting supply and demand, and this is cool, but they must be closely regulated (e.g. non-free) to remain equitable, otherwise markets quickly become exploitative. Furthermore, supply and demand is an extremely limited way to look at human products such as labor, or human needs such as health care. The ideology that "free markets" are the best way to answer all our problems is false.

This ideology of "free markets uber alles" exists largely to justify behavior by corporations and their management which would otherwise be viewed as morally wrong, behavior like firing 150 US workers and employing children in China to work 12-hour shifts making the same products for pennies a day. What makes that right? Nothing but a leap of faith.

In a comment on the post below Sam says that he thinks the "free market" gives us the best chance we have. I think he's being ideological, and if he actually thought about it he would re-phrase his position. Current reality is current reality, and it's the only chance you have, and therefore the best. However, the system we use now to organize our economy is not as good as it gets. I personally think our current system is setting us up (via massive over-consumption, enormous personal and national debt, and a negligent attitude towards basic social and economic infrastructure) for a pretty big fall. I think we can do a hell of a lot better that the current ideology of the "free market."

All that being said, labor unions are far from perfect. I've been a huge trash-talker for political reasons, but they're also not a good fit for all workers. If you're uncomfortable working as part of a large group and abiding by that group's way of doing things, they're probably not for you. You might be told to slow down because the group has a certain pace of working to meet its contractual obligations with management. You might be told to use safety equipment that you think is unnecessary. You might be told that your work doesn't mean certain standards which the group has agreed upon. All that's the joy and pain of being part of a group, whether its your union or your family.

Also, much like corporations, governments, and other organizations, unions are prone to corruption, cronyism, nepotism, bureaucratic waste, and all the other usual ills of institutions which wield power. Still, for all this, group association of some sort by regular/working people remains the only way that average conditions will ever improve in America. It is the only way the middle class will ever grow.

If you're a highly skilled individual you might think you're better off going it alone. You might be right. Far be it from me to restrict anyone's entrepreneurial spirit. I think a fair market would be one which supports small/local/family business just as richly as massive corporations. But as long as you're working' for the man, its in your interest to try to equalize the power dynamic between you and the people who pay you.

Want an example? I'm a lucky ducky in the employment market, all things considered. I have portable, marketable skills that are in high demand. If anyone should love the "free market" for labor it should be me. Why, if I really applied myself, I could maximize my value quite well in the next few fiscal years. But you know what? I'm seriously thinking about trying to start a trade association or union.

Why? I already have colleagues who are shipping the exact same kind of work that I do to India and Poland. If I persist in the "free market" way of doing things -- looking out for only my own best interest, trying to get the best deal I can for myself -- and stay in my current line of work, in ten years I'll either be out of a job or managing a bunch of foreigners who are working for a fraction of what I earn.

I'd rather not be in that position, but there's nothing that I can do as an individual to prevent that reality from coming to pass. However, if there were a union of software engineers, that entity might be able to do something to help a more positive future emerge. I'll quickly note that this is a complex situation. I already work with a number of foreigners in a non-outsourced way, and so it's not a simple matter of protectionism for US jobs. But that's another story we'll have to get into later.

Getting back to the specifics of the NYC transit strike, here's some new information from today's Times:

Negotiations did not have to end when they did. There was no impasse. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state entity that runs the system, had compromised on several major points at the negotiating table. When Roger Toussaint, the union chief, walked away, his members were being offered a chance to continue to retire with full pensions at age 55. New hires would have to pay into that pension, but workers would continue to pay nothing toward their health benefits. That's a deal that many riders, including those who struggle to pay the $2 fare, would gladly take.

The Times has a point. The TU could have gone on working without a contract, which is what the teachers and cops and firefighters usually do when there's a lack of consensus. It's clear that this strike is a show of force, especially coming at a time (xmas shopping) when it's poised to do maximum economic damage to the luxury businesses in Manhattan. The reason for that show of force is the insistence on tiered benefits, which is the current tactic of choice for management in the war against unions.

Here's how it works. Basically management creates the public perception that union workers -- because they've had the grit to stick together and demand good wages -- are somehow overpaid (e.g. "That's a deal that many riders, including those who struggle to pay the $2 fare, would gladly take"), they then structure their finances such that the long-term costs of pensions and health care appear to cut deeply into profits. They play on the perception that no-one should get this kind of deal in the 21st century. Workers just need to be content to work for less. But we'll be reasonable, they say. Existing workers keep the same (or similar) benefits, but new hires are brought in under a different set of expectations.

Once a tier is in place, management does everything possible to drive the old-school out (harassment, changing their hours, reassignment, lotsa drug testing, etc) so that they can refresh their workforce with new workers under the new terms. Lather, rinse, repeat and in a generation you have an end to the union as an effective advocate for workers' interests. This has been going on quite well in a number of industries around the country, and it's one of the main reasons that union membership has declined so steadily over the past 40 years.

The most clear-cut example of this tactic is the so-called "right to work" laws that have been enacted in a number of states, which allows management to bring in new hires who agree not to join the union (essentially, they discriminate based on whether or not you want to exercise your rights), but tiering benefits is the same sort of tactic aimed at the same strategic goal. Essentially the TU is trying to reverse this trend by showing that the tiered-benefit tactic can be beaten.

Unions have been doing a terrible job at public relations since as long as I've been alive. They tend to be insular, fracticious, secretarian. Many don't understand the need to reach out to non-members. As a result they're now largely politically impotent, which only serves to increase the downward spiral. In other words, they've got a long way to go in order to be be effective organizations again.

But the bottom line is that if they can't survive, they can't improve. I'm not ready to write off unions yet, just like I'm not ready to write off the Democratic party. They're both full of problems, but their intended purpose is sound, and reforming existing institutions seems much more plausible to me than starting over from scratch.

And that's why I support the Transit Union strike. Frankly, given the state of public opinion I don't think it will work out for them, but I still support their right to demand a unified contract for all workers.

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More On Transit Strike

This is a good article on the issues surrounding the transit strike.

I apreciate everyone's comments. It's a strong indicator as to how far right-wing/free-market ideology has permiated our culture that people assume the transit union is being somehow unreasonable by refusing to make concessions on health care and pensions. Let's be clear. That's what's being proposed: work seven more years before you can get a pension, accept teired-benefits which will drive management to increase turnover, and pay more money in for healthcare. In return you get a 3% raise for three years. This is ridiculous.

These jobs are break-even positions if you're trying to raise a family. $55k a year isn't a lot after taxes and two kids, especially in New York City. I can't ask someone in that position to swallow a cut in benefits and pensions. And why should they? I find it hard to believe the MTA can't afford to continue to pay their workers well and maintain benefits. They currently have a one-billion dollar surplus. They claim this is from selling assets, but the MTA's word on it's finances is known to be suspect. Do you think the $1B just might have something to do with the fare hike that raised their income by 33%? Oh just maybe.

Now, the reason people think these TU jobs are so damn "great" (as in, "why don't you shut up and take a cut and get your job automated out of existence in 5 years... you've got it pretty good right now and you should be thankful for that") is becuase unions and workers have been systematically broken down and disempowered over the past 40 years. Transit Union work looks good by comparison only because the state of employment for most Americans is steadily getting worse.

There's a vast and growing income differential in America, and it didn't happen by accident. The middle class is being eroded with maybe 10% of those people "winning" and moving up to McMansions at the expense of the other 90%. The reality is most Americans work too hard for too little compensation, and there's no good reason why executives should, on average, recieve 475x as much money as workers. That's a real statistic. In the heyday of the middle class in America that ratio was around 20x, partly because there were fewer "rockstar CEOs" with truly outlandish compensation, but mosly because so most workers who made it beyond an entry-level position earned a decent family-supporting wage.

Also, the Taylor act gives provisions for workers to be fined two-days pay for each day not worked. The MTA took the initiative to get a court-order to bump those fines up to bankrupcy-inducing levels. I think if you're happy about the idea of a working family going into financial ruin just because you had to walk to work you should check yrself.

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The Grey Lady, The Gay Menace, And Bush Is A Liar

Well, I think this should just about do it as far as the NYT's "special relationship with power" is concerned:

The New York Times first debated publishing a story about secret eavesdropping on Americans as early as last fall, before the 2004 presidential election.

So the times had a story about what lawyers are widely interpereting as a criminal act by the president, committed while president (so it's not some old-ass DUI we're talking about here), an offense which people like John Dean -- Richard Nixon's Attorny General -- are calling impeachable, and they decided not to run with it prior to the election.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the liberal media. This is really pretty ridiculous.

And as for our government and its spying agenda? What terrible threat is in the crosshairs now? Oh yeah, of course! The Gays.

A February protest at NYU was also listed, along with the law school's LGBT advocacy group OUTlaw, which was classified as "possibly violent" by the Pentagon. A UC-Santa Cruz "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" protest, which included a gay kiss-in, was labeled as a "credible threat" of terrorism.

Thank god the Pentagon is on top of that. The gay conspiracy has always supported Al-Qaeda, who promise to promote their "homosexual agenda" throughout the middle east. Oh wait, what? Where is the truth?

Certainly not in the mouth of the President:

Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.

These wiretaps must be approved by a judge, and they have been used for years to catch drug dealers and other criminals. Yet, before the Patriot Act, agents investigating terrorists had to get a separate authorization for each phone they wanted to tap.

For those just joining us, this is pretty much the exact opposite of what Bush said the other day. He knew these were lies when he said them. He personally authorized the program for warrantless wiretaps.

All this is sort of sad too, because in real terms all this does is fuel the crisis of confidence. Bush isn't going to resign, and the NYT won't really change, but both will take hits to their credibility. Who can you trust?

Maybe there's a silver lining. Maybe after this we'll really get some transparency in government. It seems clear that the 4th estate isn't fulfilling its role here, and maintaining a democracy requires more than just a vote every couple of years. Maybe we have to hit rock bottom before we can admit we have a problem here and turn it around.

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Transit Strike

FWIW I'm with the transit union. It's an easy position for me to take, not relying too much on the bus or subway, but I still think that workers have a right to do what they have to do when their bosses try to take away (or render unafordable/impractical) their health coverage and/or retirement.

While it's true that most transit jobs are "good" jobs, especially in comparison to most of the modern service industry, that's also what makes those good conditions worth protecting. I don't see why the people who make the critical infrastructure for the life of the city run shouldn't be very well compensated.

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Been watching the TV show Lost off Bittorrent. It's really something of a step up for the network television apparatus, must cost a fortune to make. I believe it's quite successful though, so that's good. That means more people will try to do things that are of the same level of quality. Perhaps an upmarket analogue for a lot of the same trends that are driving reality tv? Well, at the very least a evolutionary step in terms of format (rigidly serial), production values (the lush settings and intelligent plot), and business plan (the decision to release DVDs immediately).

One thing I think that will come out soon will be TV shows of this nature ceeding the rights to syndication in favor of releasing DVDs right away, perhaps even breaking down the traditional year-long "season" into smaller "chapters". For instance I got Lost Episodes 1 - 7 in one torrent, a summary of sorts, and if it had stopped at #5, which had a cliff-hanger ending, it would have made a great end-point for a DVD collection. If one of those came out every other month it could serve both to sustain interest, but grow popularity by allowing people to more easily join the show in-progress.

Of course, the mother of all distribution methods is on-demand, which is essentially the corporate version of what I do right now. It looks like the cable giants are going to have the early market locked up, and they're going to keep charging way too much money to actually compete with their main markets. On the other hand, it's going to be increasingly feasible for independent or maverick producers to control how their content is released, which should eventually put on pressure to lower prices, or even create "premium television" subscriptions. The really interesting questions is what advertisers do?

Oh, and I think the budding love-quadrangle between the Doctor and the cop and the criminal and the con-man is pretty exciting.

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It would really suck if this secret spying shit was COINTELPRO all over again. Because we've done the whole "lets make a secret list of national security threats and spy on them" thing before.

You know who ended up on that list? Dr. King, John Lennon, and Abbie Hoffman, among a lot of other people who were trying to do the American thing and mobilize people. You know, that "democracy" angle?

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SNL The Chronic of Narnia

You may have heard of this but I thought it was very well done: The Chronic of Narnia Rap.

I heard something about this before, about one of these guys getting started posting comedy on the internet. Anyway, it's hillarious.

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SNL The Chronic of Narnia

You may have heard of this but I thought it was very well done: The Chronic of Narnia Rap.

I heard something about this before, about one of these guys getting started posting comedy on the internet. Anyway, it's hillarious.

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If All Goes Wrong

If it all goes wrong, the State of Jefferson is the official back-up plan. If that proves infeasible, New Zeland.

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