While this month’s employment report again showed more jobs being created and a falling unemployment rate, wages dropped. According to past trends, wages should go up as labor becomes scarcer and companies want to retain productive employees. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich analyzes this situation in a recent blog post. Reich points to factors that can hold wages down even as unemployment shrinks. Two main culprits are the global economy and automation. Companies can offshore cheaper labor, and they can find new ways to let technology replace humans. Reich scoffs at those who call these factors “efficiency.” Reich concludes by blaming both large corporations and Wall Street for holding down wages. I’d agree with him and add one more culprit: spineless politicians who serve Wall Street and large corporations. Nothing will change until our politicians and laws provide some protection for American workers. Or, to put it another way, nothing will change until American voters elected politicians who represent the interests of working people.
Detroit is broke. That’s what the media and the politicians like Governor Snyder tell us. It’s an easy story to tell given the way the city looks. It’s also easy to tell when the politicians and their banker allies only give one alternative. What they don’t say is that unions tried to work out a deal that would have prevented the bankruptcy. The governor and his Emergency Manager (Appointed Dictator) would not talk to them. A cynical person might even think that the governor had some reason for wanting the city to declare bankruptcy.
Common Dreams has reprinted an article by the Nation’s John Nichols that examines how democracy is not working in Michigan’s largest city. Michigan and Detroit voters both rejected Snyder’s Emergency Manager program, only to have the governor revive the program during a lame duck session of the legislature. Nichols interviews experts who point out that several American cities have problems similar to Detroit. As the nation’s industrial base broke down, the federal and state governments responded by cutting funds sent to big cities. Rather than blame local officials as the governor does, Nichols suggests that we look at state government as part of a complex problem.
John Cassidy of the New Yorker looks at the story from the perspective how the city came to the bankruptcy “solution.” He asks the often unasked question: Was this move necessary? Were there alternatives? He points to gentrification in parts of the city. The Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr seems only interested in giving pensioners as little as possible (as little as 20%) while offering bank creditors (as much as 75%). Cassidy ends ominously by quoting a municipal bankruptcy lawyer who calls Detroit, “a test case.”
The same day Detroit declared bankruptcy, Chicago bond rating was hit with a big downgrade. A couple of weeks later, the city’s school system had its bond rating slashed. Do you see a pattern? The same politicians who failed to fund pensions are now using that action to say pensions need to be cut. They robbed Peter (workers) to pay Paul (bankers). And now they’re asking Peter to pay the bill.
What happens in Detroit will be a test case. If working people don’t wake up, they will pay the bill of the bankers while city workers, including those who have already retired, will have to live on a fraction of the pension they should have received as part of their compensation. Pensions are not welfare. Retired workers are not takers. If Americans don’t wake up to this new make-the-rich-richer scheme, we will all lose.
[“Sabbath” is the blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond career to broader issues that affect our lives.]
Good People and a Bad Fight
I took a great walking tour of the Six Corners neighborhood today. It was hosted by Forgotten Chicago, a group of young people who are passionate about the city, its history, and neighborhoods. That’s what I wanted to write about today until I got home and learned the Chicago teachers strike was not settled, until I read comments on Facebook that first made me mad and then frustrated.
One of my friends blasted the union. Another said no charter school teacher is qualified. Both of these positions are wrong. Yes, the union might be faulted for some things, but the Mayor’s team must be put into the equation (something Chicago’s corporate media usually fails to do). On the other hand, some charter school teachers are as qualified as anyone in CPS. The problem is that the charter system pays teacher less and provides them no protection. If teachers aren’t treated as professionals and paid a good wage, what qualified person will want all of challenges that go with the job? How can we have good schools if we don’t have qualified teachers?
Both of the people I cite above are parents, good people frustrated with a situation that is very complicated. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents to scramble to find day care for their children. Add to that problem the cost, and there is cause for some parents to be very anti-union. It’s important to remember that the Chicago Teachers Union is not acting in a vacuum. The mayor and his school board have not shown a true sense of urgency in solving this problem. They blame the teacher and call the strike a “choice.” However, their actions are also driven by choices. As Ben Joravsky of the Reader outlines in his latest column, the mayor and others in the system have not treated the teachers with respect.
I went to public schools in Cleveland for six years. Most of my teachers were highly dedicated and taught us lessons that went beyond testable facts: how to think, how to act morally, and how to respect other people and ourselves. Good public schools are essential to real democracy because they are the place where young people from all backgrounds learn to live together and gain the skills that will enable them to compete in the world, which is the essence of democracy.
No one wants bad schools or incapable teachers. That’s not what this bad fight in Chicago or national education “reform” is about. Some people – powerful people – want to bust unions and replace public schools with charter schools and vouchers. They claim the system is broken and only they can fix it – like the Wizard of Oz. I’ll put my faith in dedicated educators like the public school teachers of Chicago. They are fighting for their professional rights. More importantly, they are fighting to preserve the kind of education we need to maintain our values of equal opportunity and democracy.
P.S. David Sirota poses 4 questions that should be considered in evaluating the strike.