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“A Partisan Morass”: Crippling The Right To Organize

Unless something changes in Washington, American workers will, on New Year’s Day, effectively lose their right to be represented by a union. Two of the five seats on the National Labor Relations Board, which protects collective bargaining, are vacant, and on Dec. 31, the term of Craig Becker, a labor lawyer whom President Obama named to the board last year through a recess appointment, will expire. Without a quorum, the Supreme Court ruled last year, the board cannot decide cases.

What would this mean?

Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.

If this nightmare comes to pass, it will represent the culmination of three decades of Republican resistance to the board — an unwillingness to recognize the fundamental right of workers to band together, if they wish, to seek better pay and working conditions. But Mr. Obama is also partly to blame; in trying to install partisan stalwarts on the board, as his predecessors did, he is all but guaranteeing that the impasse will continue. On Wednesday, he announced his intention to nominate two pro-union lawyers to the board, though there is no realistic chance that either can gain Senate confirmation anytime soon.

For decades after its creation in 1935, the board was a relatively fair arbiter between labor and capital. It has protected workers’ right to organize by, among other things, overseeing elections that decide on union representation. Employers may not engage in unfair labor practices, like intimidating organizers and discriminating against union members. Unions are prohibited, too, from doing things like improperly pressuring workers to join.

The system began to run into trouble in the 1970s. Employers found loopholes that enabled them to delay the board’s administrative proceedings, sometimes for years. Reforms intended to speed up the board’s resolution of disputes have repeatedly foundered in Congress.

The precipitous decline of organized labor — principally a result of economic forces, not legal ones — cemented unions’ dependence on the board, despite its imperfections. Meanwhile, business interests, represented by an increasingly conservative Republican Party, became more assertive in fighting unions.

The board became dysfunctional. Traditionally, members were career civil servants or distinguished lawyers and academics from across the country. But starting in the Reagan era, the board’s composition began to tilt toward Washington insiders like former Congressional staff members and former lobbyists.

Starting with a compromise that allowed my confirmation in 1994, the board’s members and general counsel have been nominated in groups. In contrast to the old system, the new “batching” meant that nominees were named as a package acceptable to both parties. As a result, the board came to be filled with rigid ideologues. Some didn’t even have a background in labor law.

Under President George W. Bush, the board all but stopped using its discretion to obtain court orders against employers before the board’s own, convoluted, administrative process was completed — a power that, used fairly, is a crucial protection for workers. In 2007, in what has been called the September Massacre, the board issued rulings that made it easier for employers to block union organizing and harder for illegally fired employees to collect back pay. Democratic senators then blocked Mr. Bush from making recess appointments to the board, as President Bill Clinton had done. For 27 months, until March 2010, the board operated with only two members; in June 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that it needed at least three to issue decisions.

Under Mr. Obama, the board has begun to take enforcement more seriously, by pursuing the court orders that the board under Mr. Bush had abandoned. Sadly, though, the board has also been plagued by unnecessary controversy. In April, the acting general counsel issued a complaint over Boeing’s decision to build airplanes at a nonunion plant in South Carolina, following a dispute with Boeing machinists in Washington State. Although the complaint was dropped last week after the machinists reached a new contract agreement with Boeing, the controversy reignited Republican threats to cut financing for the board.

In my view, the complaint against Boeing was legally flawed, but the threats to cut the board’s budget represent unacceptable political interference. The shenanigans continue: last month, before the board tentatively approved new proposals that would expedite unionization elections, the sole Republican member threatened to resign, which would have again deprived the board of a quorum.

Mr. Obama needs to make this an election-year issue; if the board goes dark in January, he should draw attention to Congressional obstructionism during the campaign and defend the board’s role in protecting employees and employers. A new vision for labor-management cooperation must include not only a more powerful board, but also a less partisan one, with members who are independent and neutral experts. Otherwise, the partisan morass will continue, and American workers will suffer.

 

By: William B. Gould, Op_Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 16, 2011

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Election 2012 | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Inconvenient Income Inequality

Is income inequality becoming the new global warming? In other words, is this another case where the facts of an existential threat lose traction among a weary American public as deniers attempt to reduce them to partisan opinions?

It’s beginning to seem so.

A Gallup poll released on Thursday found that, after rising rather steadily for the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who said that the country is divided into “haves” and “have-nots” took the largest drop since the question was asked.

This happened even as the percentage of Americans who grouped themselves under either label stayed relatively constant. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans still see themselves as the haves, while only about a third see themselves as the have-nots. The numbers have been in that range for a decade.

This is the new American delusion. The facts point to a very different reality.

An Associated Press report this week on census data found that “a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.” The report said that the data “depict a middle class that’s shrinking.”

An October report from the Congressional Budget Office found that, from 1979 to 2007, the average real after-tax household income for the 1 percent of the population with the highest incomes rose 275 percent. For the rest of the top 20 percent of earners, it rose 65 percent. But it rose just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.

And a report released in May by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that “the gap between rich and poor in O.E.C.D. countries has reached its highest level for over 30 years.” In the United States, the average income of the richest 10 percent of the population had risen to around 14 times that of the poorest 10 percent.

Our growing income inequality is a fact. So is the possibility that it could prove economically disastrous.

An April report from the International Monetary Fund found that growing income inequality has a negative effect on economic expansion. The report said that long periods of high growth, which were called “growth spells,” were “much more likely to end in countries with less equal income distributions. The effect is large.” It continued: “Inequality seemed to make a big difference almost no matter what other variables were in the model or exactly how we defined a ‘growth spell.’ ”

Our income inequality could jeopardize our recovery.

Yet another Gallup report issued Friday found that most Americans now say that the fact that some people in the U.S. are rich and others are poor does not represent a problem but is an acceptable part of our economic system.

If denial is a river, it runs through doomed societies.

 

By: Charlets Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 16, 2011

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Wealthy | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Plus-Size One”: Self-Adoration Reaches Newt Heights

Marveling over a presidential candidate’s arrogance is like noting that a hockey player wears skates. It states not just the obvious but the necessary. You can’t zip across the ice in Crocs, and you can’t thrash your way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if your confidence doesn’t bleed into something gaudier. Arrogance is the grist, and arrogance is the given.

But what flavor? And what measure?

That’s where candidates — and the presidents that some of them become — differ, in ways that shape the sorts of messes they’re likely to make. And that’s where Newt Gingrich provokes real concern. You have to take another politician’s ego, double it, and add cheese and a side of fries to get to Gingrich. An especially heaping, unhealthy diet of self-regard slogs through his veins.

His 1990s nemesis Bill Clinton had (and surely still has) no small amount of his own vanity, and it lay largely in his conviction that his charm and cunning enabled him to wriggle out of jams and get away with indulgences that would doom a lesser mortal. He fancied himself an escape artist extraordinaire.

That partly explains the risk he took with Monica Lewinsky, along with his verbal gymnastics upon the discovery of the affair. The scandal’s diminution of his presidency was the price he and we paid for his particular arrogance.

George W. Bush was in love with his own gut instinct, which he valued far above actual erudition. By heeding it, he believed, he could exceed the expectations and even surpass the accomplishments of less visceral leaders, namely his father. It’s not hard to draw a direct line from that brand of arrogance to the Iraq war, which came to an official end last week, after nearly nine years, hundreds of billions of dollars and too many lives lost.

Barack Obama’s arrogance resides in his eloquence — as a writer, thinker, symbol and story. He’s in thrall to the lyric poem of himself, and that accounts for his aloofness and disinclination to engage as deeply as some of his predecessors did in the muck of legislative politics.

Yes, we live in a grotesquely partisan moment, the main reason for gridlock, brinkmanship and super-committee ignominy on Capitol Hill. But would Clinton have stood at so far a remove from that committee? Isn’t it possible that a glad-hander more aggressive and warmer than Obama would be making a smidgen of headway?

Gingrich isn’t the answer: he’s hot-headed and truculent. And while Obama sees himself (with justification) as historic, Gingrich sees himself as epic. If Obama is The One, Gingrich is The Plus-Size One.

Lately he has been on less bloated behavior, and by lately I mean the few weeks since he emerged as the Republican frontrunner du jour. If you watched the debate Thursday, you could sense, from the clench of his jaw, that he wasn’t merely biting his tongue but making an unhappy meal of it.

Still, Gingrich the Grandiloquent sneaked through. Asked about his stated resolve to rein in federal courts, he said that “just like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and F.D.R., I would be prepared to take on the judiciary.” The company he keeps!

Over the years he has directly or indirectly compared himself to Moses, William Wallace (a k a “Braveheart,” thanks to Mel Gibson), the Duke of Wellington, Charles de Gaulle and, repeatedly, Ronald Reagan, as when he recently said, “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I’m such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate.”

All the way back in 1985, when he was just a foot soldier in the House, he told The Washington Post, “I want to shift the entire planet,” adding, “This is just the beginning of a 20- or 30-year movement. I’ll get credit for it.”

As Maureen Dowd recalled in The Times last year, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1994, “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz.” In a Vanity Fair profile in 1995, he referred to himself as “a mythical person” and was quoted saying, “I had a period of thinking that I would have been called ‘Newt the McPherson,’ as in ‘Robert the Bruce.’ ” His biological father’s surname was McPherson, and Robert the Bruce was a Scottish warrior of William Wallace’s era and ilk.

Gingrich also considered himself a “definer of civilization” and “teacher of the rules of civilization,” phrases he scribbled in House office notes that came to light in 1997.

He thinks a lot about himself and thinks of himself a lot. In 2007, talking about climate change, which he still believed in then, he singled out polar bears for concern, explaining that his name, Newt, “comes from the Danish ‘Knut,’ and there’s been a major crisis in Germany over a polar bear named Knut.’ ”

One of the great spectator sports of this political season has been watching one observer after another strive to trace the full contours of his ego, an arm’s race of arrogance assessments. “Modern-day Narcissus,” wrote Kirsten Powers in The Daily Beast. “Intellectual hubris distilled,” contributed George F. Will in The Washington Post. “A lead zeppelin with more baggage than the Hindenburg,” said Mark Steyn in The National Review, and while that’s not precisely about arrogance, it’s too funny to pass up.

A grandiose man, Gingrich speaks in grandiose ways, always characterizing situations too broadly and with too much needless heat, then losing chunks of valuable time, along with precious credibility, to the inevitable damage control.

He didn’t simply register disagreement with Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform proposals. He called them radical “right-wing social engineering.” He didn’t simply raise questions about child labor laws. He called them “truly stupid.” He didn’t simply contest the Palestinians’ claim to disputed land. He called the Palestinians an “invented” people.

That’s an intellectually intriguing, attention-commanding expression: Gingrich no doubt loved the nasty music of it tumbling from his lips. But it’s also gratuitously inflammatory. Mitt the Romney was right to call it that and call him out for it.

Romney has utter, exaggerated faith in his managerial know-how, his technocratic mettle. That’s the flavor of his arrogance.

Gingrich’s is sourer — and scarier. People who have worked with him say that he can’t do justice to any one initiative because he can’t hold any one thought. There are too many others rushing along, and he must pay each proper reverence, because no matter how eccentric it is, it’s his.

That self-adoration made him an infuriating House speaker. It would make him a dangerous president.

 

By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 17, 2011

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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