Hurricane Sandy: Union Thugs At Work

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Robert E. Lee And The Romance Of Rebellion

Like a lot of newspapers I suppose, the Joplin Globe has been running a series of articles on the Civil War, in this the 150th anniversary year of the war to end slavery and secure the notion of an indissoluble United States.

Perhaps before too long, a story will appear that tells the truth about Robert E. Lee. 

Not being a Civil War romantic, I don’t share the fascination some people have with the war’s obscure battle sites or memorabilia, or with the vast body of literature out there about that tragic and nation-defining event.

But I have always wondered why it is that so many people considered Robert E. Lee a hero, this disloyal Union officer who betrayed his country, who owned slaves and led men into battle to preserve the right of white men to buy and sell black families like cattle. 

Suppose for a moment that Lee fought for the right to molest and maim children, out of some misplaced principle of “states’ rights.”  Would there be statues of him in state parks anywhere in America?

I suppose not being from the South, I don’t understand why it is okay to nearly worship such a man, around whom many myths have been constructed to hide the truth.  Thanks, though, to writers like Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who recently authored a piece about Lee for The New York Times, a clearer picture is emerging. 

One example:

…on April 18, presidential adviser Francis P. Blair unofficially offered Lee the command of the thousands of soldiers being called up to protect Washington. Fearing that such a post might require him to invade the South, Lee immediately turned down the job. Agitated, he went to tell his mentor, Gen. Winfield Scott, the Army’s commander in chief. Another dramatic scene followed. Scott, though a proud Virginian, had dismissed as an insult any hint that he himself would turn from the United States. When Lee offered to sit out the troubles at his home, Arlington, the general told him bluntly: “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” Greatly distressed, Lee returned to Arlington to contemplate his options.

Now, why is it a “proud Virginian” like Winfield Scott, who “dismissed as an insult any hint” that he would betray his country, could see the moral landscape very clearly, and Lee, “greatly distressed,” could not?  More important, why is a man with such poor moral vision a hero in the South?

The truth is that, in the words of Pryor and against the Lee-as-reluctant-secessionist myth, “Lee made his decision” to betray the United States “despite the feelings of his own wife and children,” not to mention others in his extended family. She wrote:

If even his wife, and most of his children, did not support his stand, Robert E. Lee must personally have wanted very much to take this path. This was not an answer he was compelled by home and heritage to make. It was a choice — and it was his alone.

Pryor also debunks the idea that Lee was some kind of abolitionist:

He complained to a son in December 1860 about new territories being closed to slaveholders, and supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have forbidden the abolition of slavery. “That deserves the support of every patriot,” he noted in a Jan. 29, 1861 letter to his daughter Agnes. Even at the moment he reportedly told Francis Blair that if “he owned all the negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up…to save the Union,” he was actually fighting a court case to keep the slaves under his control in bondage “indefinitely,” though they had been promised freedom in his father-in-law’s will.

That’s not the stuff heroes should be made of, especially one that, because of his military prowess, may have extended the war and increased the carnage. Richard Cohen summed up that aspect of Lee’s treason:

Lee was a brilliant field marshal whose genius was widely acknowledged — Lincoln wanted him to command the Union forces. In a way, that’s a pity. A commander of more modest talents might have been beaten sooner, might not have taken the war to the North (Gettysburg) and expended so many lives. Lee, in this regard, is an American Rommel, the German general who fought brilliantly, but for Hitler. Almost until Hitler compelled his suicide, Rommel, too, did his duty.

I don’t think you will find many statues of Erwin Rommel in Germany, or visit any Erwin Rommel High Schools, but in the American South, there are plenty of monuments to Robert E. Lee.

One has to wonder why that is.

Conservatism’s Big Shtick

George Will’s column in the Globe this morning once more scapegoats unions for the nation’s economic troubles, this time in California. He specifically singles out California teachers and their unions because they have committed the crime of being the highest paid in the nation. These overpaid teachers are, he wrote, “emblematic of the grip government employee unions have on the state, where 57% of government workers are unionized (the national average is 37 percent). Shame. Shame.

Because columnists like George Will and other conservative intellects have written such condemnatory pieces on unions over the years, and because right wingers on radio and television have followed suit with their anti-union rants, it is not surprising that conservatives are opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which among other things implements a “card-check” procedure for unionization.

But it is surprising that their opposition to the proposed change in labor law is based on a concern for workers’ rights.

George Will has written that the EFCA “would deny employees the choice of a secret ballot when voting on unionization of their workplace,” and the Heritage Foundation has charged that it “would strip workers of their fundamental rights and leave them more vulnerable to pressure than before.”

But conservatives don’t fear the EFCA because they are worried about the principle of the “secret ballot,” or are concerned that democracy in the workplace is endangered. They are worried because they know what unions know: It will help to level the playing field between workers and their employers. And in any interaction between labor and management, conservatives and most Republicans will always side with management, since they do not appreciate the value of collective bargaining, the value of relatively powerless individuals joining together to improve their negotiating position with their employers.

In Will’s words, the EFCA would allow union organizers (whom conservatives usually call “bosses”) to “pick the voters they want: Once a majority of workers — exposed one at a time to face-to-face pressure from union organizers — sign a union card, the union is automatically certified as the bargaining agent for all the workers.” In other words, union thugs will force you to vote for a union.

But such claims ignore the inequities in the present system. Employers are virtually free to threaten, coerce, and intimidate employees, if unionism is in the air. While such bullying is illegal, the penalties are negligible and most employers will incur them to defend against the greater evil of having to bargain with a union.

According to Gallup, 53% of Americans favor “a new law that would make it easier for labor unions to organize workers,” and polling last year indicated that labor unions enjoyed a 59% approval rating. And for good reason. On average, union workers earn more money, have better benefits, and are four times more likely to have pensions, than non-union workers.

But in so many workplaces, joining a union is just not possible. Non-union employers routinely fire union activists, hire union-busting consultants, require supervisors to deliver anti-union propaganda, and threaten to close down and relocate, if a union is organized.

I once worked for a non-union garment manufacturer in the 1970s. The owner of the company put in the employee handbook a warning that any attempt to organize a union would be met with the closure of the plant, because, he implied, he had nothing to lose. He had little money tied up in the building, he could sell the machinery and inventory, and he could take his toys and go home, if his workers wanted union representation.

It worked. The company was never unionized.

Now, it is fair to ask: Were these workers “free” to vote (secretly or otherwise) for a union?

Of course not. They all needed their jobs, and a very real threat to close down the factory in a small town with a depressed economy was enough to intimidate anyone seeking to organize a union.

This kind of freedom—the freedom to say “no” but not “yes” to unionism—is what passes for “democracy in the workplace” for conservatives. Under current law, the employer completely controls the process of union certification, either through a card check procedure or through elections sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Even if 100% of employees sign cards authorizing a union to represent them, the employer can still demand a secret ballot election, and the gap between the announcement of the election and the actual election gives the employer valuable time to work its intimidation magic.

Under the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, if a union collects cards from more than 50% of employees, the NLRB must certify that union as the exclusive representative for those employees without an election; the employer loses its ability to intimidate at that point.

Oddly, given their anxiety over the end of democracy in the workplace, I haven’t read one column by a conservative or heard one right winger on the radio or television demand a change to the current decertification process, which gives the employer the right to boot out a union—without a secret ballot election—if a majority of employees signs a card indicating it no longer wants union representation. Of course, consistency can’t be an obstacle when your purpose is not to defend democracy, but to attack and undermine unions.

The phony concern over workers’ democratic rights is just conservative shtick to hide the real reason the right wing opposes the EFCA: It will enhance the ability of individual workers to pool their resources—capitalize their labor—and seek better wages and working conditions from their employers through union representation.

And union representation means that employers will not enjoy complete dominance over their employees. Workers can speak loudly, and management must listen, which is what real democracy in the workplace is all about.

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COMMENTS: 

From: Andy American
Monday, May 4, 2009, 04:26 PM
 
I don’t know much about all that, but the real problem is that theirs no prayer in schools. These young people today are not grounded in morels and go around with their bell bottoms dungarees and free love. Next thing you know they are burning flags while hopped up on the pot. I saw some street toughs the other day by the high school that were part of some gang, both had shirts that said ‘Monarchs’ which is probably one of those south of the border gangs. You write like your an educated man, but book learnin isnt everything. Maybe you’d like to see those gangs unionize too. Also, I’m an AMERICAN, not a spam robot- whatever that is.
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From: Anson

Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 09:46 AM
 
Duane,

“Workers can speak loudly, and management must listen, which is what real democracy in the workplace is all about.”

I always thought that the purpose of a business was to develop and produce a product that could be sold for a profit. Is that now subordinate to “democracy in the workplace?

Anson
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From: Duane
Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 02:24 PM

Anson,

I’m sure you don’t think that the “profit motive” of a business justifies mistreatment of its workers. While businesses exist to sell or serve, they can do so while still treating their workers with dignity and respect. Profitable companies and unions are not mutually exclusive. General Motors, for instance, made a googol of money over the years in partnership with the UAW.

RDG

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