Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What happened to the great blue collar bulldog?

I’m a little late on this piece. I wanted to write it yesterday, but I am battling a head cold and therefore my entire brain is clogged. Not to mention, I spend the whole day fighting off the toxic effects of the Nyquil that I took to sleep the night before. That stuff is evil. It wrangles your brain much like a cowboy hog-tying a calf.

I have been thinking a lot over the last week about the future of organized labor. As many of you know, the AFL-CIO has been holding their national convention in Chicago this week. It was to be a grand celebration of their 50th anniversary of the reunification of the old American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The grand union, which until days ago had 13 million members, dubbed the event a celebration “Building New Strength & Good Jobs for Working Families”.

I think it is fair to say that the event hit a few snags. I splinter group calling itself the Change to Win Coalition has decided to split off from the umbrella organization. This coalition includes the Teamsters, the SEIU, the UFCW, the Laborers, UNITE HERE, the Carpenters, and the UFW. I case you have not noticed yet, labor organizers love alphabet soup. The Teamsters and SEIU are two of the AFL-CIO larger unions. All combined they hold 35% of the total membership so this is a fairly major shockwave that has hit organized labor.

Some say there is political infighting and the splinter group has split because they failed to remove John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO from power. I am not a labor insider so I will not speculate on internal power struggles. What they are saying is that they are splitting over a difference in ideology and focus. These differences include how the organization should focus its resources. The AFL-CIO wants to use dues to increase political advocacy efforts. This includes lobbying efforts and campaign contributions.

The Change to Win Coalition would prefer to focus on union development. They are strongly advocating going out and recruiting new membership. Union membership has consistently dropped over the last thirty years. In 1973, 24% of all workers were members of a labor union. In 2004 that number had fallen to to 12.5% (according to a Trinity University study, 2005). The Coalition seeks to reverse that trend.

This is obviously not the time, nor the place to solve the problems of protecting American workers (or workers everywhere for that matter). I am, quite simply, not qualified for the job. The point I hope to get across is that many labor unions have lost focus on their rather clear mission. Adam Smith, in his famous treatise, The Wealth of Nations succinctly posited why labor organizations are inevitably. He stated:

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate…

“[When workers combine,] masters… never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen.”

In essense, the role of the labor union is to unite workers the way Chambers of Commerce, like many other organizations, unite business leaders. I live in Hawaii. Calling Hawaii a pro-labor state is an gigantic understatement. I do not have a problem with that per say, but I do have a problem with union leaders on the cover of Hawaii business magazines in suits looking rather, well, corporate, for lack of a better word. I do not doubt that these organization do sincerely want to help workers, but they need to take a step back a consider if this approach is an effective long-term strategy. I am not a union member, but if I was, I would look at these leaders in suits try to appease and pacify business critics and wonder; “what do these suits know of my concerns”.

Why should labor want to appease or make themselves more pallatable to business? In my opinion, labor should be the rock, the counter-weight to big business. They should be the great blue collar force that is in businesses face making it clear that mistreating employees will hurt the bottom line.

I believe the Change to Win Coalition has it absolutely right. They want more members. I think labor morale is at an all time low when the environment for workers is at its worst point in the post-World War II era. This is a recipe for disaster. There are so many challenges that are being faced. Rising health care costs, globalization and cheap foreign labor (particularly in China and India), increased technology and worker efficiency translating to fewer jobs, and many others are direct challenges that labor needs to focus on.

These challenges require a new paradigm of thinking, but unions are stuck in a plantation philosophy (to borrow a term from Hawaii). This notion will be greatly offensive to many labor advocates and decendents of plantation workers, as if I am belittling the challenges faced by migrant workers in Hawaii and California and many other states. I intend only to point out that the challenges are new and very, very different. They require new thinking. Unions have not yet adapted. They need to move to make changes or risk total and utter irrelevancy.

Perhaps there are lessons to be derived from how unions in other countries address challenges. In France, for instance, when fishermen are unhappy they dump several tuns of fish on the streets of Paris (aided by unionized truckers), blocking intersections. This in turn snarls Parisian traffic, bringing to city to a stand still. If this happened in the United States sympathy for the fishermen would evaporate. But in France, they have not forgotten the ideals of the French Revolution, “liberte, egalite, and fraternite”. It is fraternite that unites the French people behind the strikers.

That solidarity does not exist in the United States. It is something that we need to resurrect (did it ever exist here?) or the gap between the owners and the workers will continue to widen until we will have a hostile environment and angry workers seeking what Mao called “permanent revolution”. I would rather not live in a communist nation, I believe a true capitalist society with corporate social responsibility is preferable, but that is up to labor and business. I am just an innocent bystander, observing the wheels in motion.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Public Confidentiality? Oxymoron or just plain morons?

Confidentiality has its intrinsic worth in many areas of the government’s business, but there are limits to this right and they grow thin when the business involves considering monumental national policies decisions such as the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. These decisions have implications that affect us all. I believe that the privilege of confidentiality should be reserved only to those cases where a national security threat can be shown. Even then, that threshold should be crossed to the satisfaction of a federal judge, not the executive branch’s legal advisors. Of course, these advisors will want to keep such information confidential. Someday it may be them in the hot seat, and they will want to keep some of what they wrote confidential so they cannot be judged on the merits of this writing.

I am, of course, talking about the announcement by the White House this evening that they no intention of turning over records regarding or authored by John Roberts from the time he served as Solicitor General. Judge Roberts is the President’s choice for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. One would think that if the Senate is to take the serious step of considering him, the administration would want to make a good faith effort to make sure that they have all the information they need to accomplish this in a competent and thorough manner.

This administration, however, doesn’t ever use that sort of harsh tone on the record (unless their hand is forced). No, the public front of the Bush administration, Press Secretary Scott McClellan stated in his briefing today that the White House wants “to work with the members of the Senate to make sure that they have the appropriate information so that they can do their job…" but off the record, administration sources are saying that they have no intention of turning over records from when Judge Roberts served as deputy Solicitor General (from 1989-1993).

Briefly, for those of you that don’t know, the Solicitor General is a position at the Justice Department that is tasked with arguing on behalf of the United States government before, you guessed it, the Supreme Court. Having held this position makes Judge Roberts, in my opinion, a very qualified candidate for a justice on the high court. He certainly knows the inner workings, the procedure and traditions of the court. It also means that he has probably used that position to forward at least some positions that he holds or he would not have been appointed to that position to begin with. This is a political appointment, and it is certain that Presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, choose their Solicitors General based on ideological compatibility with their own views.

The usual cadre of GOP mental midgets has come forth to support this line of thinking. They include Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas who said; "I don't think it is appropriate for a lawyer to release documents they've produced for their clients." Of course Senator Brownback is a lawyer as are most of the nincompoops inside the Beltway. If these so-called lawyers are anywhere near the caliber in their trade as Dr. Frist is in his, then we are doomed to painful ignorance across the board. But I digress!

These minions argue that as Solicitor General, John Roberts was serving as the President’s lawyer and therefore these papers are protected by attorney-client privilege. I am not a lawyer, but I am very confident in saying, regardless of legal precedent, the Solicitor General is not the President’s lawyer. He is the American people’s lawyer, and therefore the Senate (as the people direct legislative representatives in this process) have every right to see every single document from decisions and opinions down to doodle pads if they so please.

This is not the first time this administration and others have tried to claim executive privilege. Some may remember the battle between the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) and the Vice President’s office over the release of documents pertaining to meetings held with energy industry officials while the administration was formulating their national energy policy. They claimed that they should not be required to give up this information because it is the stated right of the executive branch to meet with whoever they want to develop policy alternatives. This is, of course, absolutely correct. They do have the right to meet with anyone they want about any subject. What they are wrong about, however, is that they have the right to keep that information a secret from the American people (in this case represented by the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a number of other environmental organizations). They claimed that executive privilege exists in these cases.

It is funny that they should take that stand after the GOP took the opinion that the Clinton administration should release the names of all the people that they consulted on Hillary Clinton’s now infamous health care policy overhaul debacle. For the record, the GOP was right then, and now that it does not suit their needs they have switched teams. Seems like typical beltway “flip-flopping” to me!

I don’t want to get off on a tangent. The point I hope I have made is that our government does not have the right to keep secrets from us unless there are legitimate national security concerns. Even then, as I have stated, I would favor reforms to the law so that these national security concerns are overseen and audited by the judicial branch, though a good deal of discretion should be granted to the administration with regards to national security matters. I often think that they tell us far too much on this subject.

What I cannot abide is the belief that policy is best made in secret. I believe that the best policy formulation comes about as a part of a great national conversation about what the American people need and what role they want their government to play. Some will say that this is fulfilled when American’s vote. I say that is not enough, I believe that it works best when we are involved in every step of the process, voicing our opinions loudly, even angrily if necessary. Had it been left to our leaders, independence would never have happened. The Boston Tea Party would never have happened. The abolition of slavery would never have happened. The labor movement, women’s suffrage or the civil rights movement would never have happened. All great leaps forward have been the result of citizen involvement in the policy process. Perhaps restoring this will bring the people’s interest back to public affairs of state.