Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another Empty Desk

The atmosphere where I work is tense. Over half the desks are empty and those empty desks speak volumes in their silence. They are the ghosts of employees past. Each desk whispers of better times when the economy was booming and we were fully staffed. They speak of a time when everyone wasn't carrying the load of two or three and holding their breath for fear it will be their desk to be vacated next.

Today, I got that call from HR. "Could you come to a short meeting in my office, please?" My stomach turned over. Was it my turn? I had survived four rounds of lay offs already but it was rumored another round was coming.

Steeling myself, I opened the door. Seeing my manager and department head sitting there looking glum did nothing to reassure me. I sat down and took a deep breath.

They were polite and sympathetic. They explained about the budget shortfall and how the gap was wider than they had expected and they were so sorry but...

I knew this could be coming. I felt the brush of fate each time those calls went out and I watched cherished co-workers head to HR looking scared and come out looking ashen. I have seen employees of twenty and thirty years get the boot. Each time I felt, 'There but for the grace of God go I'. And I silently thanked Him for our home not in jeopardy and my husband and I both still with our jobs.

Today, my luck ran out. I join the millions of unemployed in America. There are uncertain times ahead for all of us and too many empty desks. May our leaders find the wisdom to fill them again soon.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Assault on Unions is an Assault on the Middle Class

The year is 1910 and you are a working person in the US. The wages are low and the competition for jobs is fierce. There are no laws protecting workers from unsafe work environments, unfair pay or firing and no compensation if you are injured on the job. If you are unlucky enough to be killed at work, most companies will pay no more than funeral expenses. Children work long hours in dangerous conditions with no laws requiring them to go to school or even go outside. Miners die young in underground tunnels from accident or disease. The dreaded 'Black Lung' disease is rampant.

These were normal working conditions before unions became a real force in the workplace in the 30s and 40s. It took years of strikes and sacrifice, often bloody, to force business owners to adhere to a minimum standard for workers. Any concession in working conditions, pay, benefits or safety are seen as expensive for the employer without adding anything to the bottom line, so these have been vigorously opposed by business interests and their political proxies for a hundred years. All gains have been hard won and now the corporate bosses have launched a new assault on unions, who are already down to their lowest membership in years.

Unions raise the bar for everyone, not just union shops. They set wage and working condition standards which benefit all workers and force a better balance in the employee/employer relationship. As unions have lost membership and the power shifts to business, wages among working Americans has dropped dramatically. As the report by Karla Walter, Senior Policy Analyst, and David Madland, Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund showed in this report, that as union membership has dropped, so have the incomes of the middle class. The graph shows that relationship clearly. As unions 'raise all boats' for working peoples income, the decline of the unions leads to the collective 'sinking of all boats.' in worker income, as more and more wealth flows from the middle class to the top.

And this graph from the Wikipedia article, 'Wealth in in the United States' shows where all that money is going:

Some might believe the need for unions is over. Working conditions have improved and children are not expected to work instead of go to school anymore, right? No one gets killed on the job anymore due to safety problems, right? Who gets Black Lung anymore?

Tell that to the families of the non-union Massey Coal Mine disaster just last year that killed 29 miners. According to a report which was commissioned by West Virginia's former governor, the report concluded that the accident was a "total and catastrophic systemic failure” by the company. They followed a culture of profits over safety with multiple and repeated violations of basic safety practices. They were assured protection from regulators and prying eyes and, according to the report, “used the leverage of jobs it provided to attempt to control West Virginia’s political system.”

We used to think Black Lung was a disease of the past. A rare legacy from a time when workers were forced to work in dangerous, dust filled tunnels without ventilation or respirators. Autopsies of the miners killed at Masseys' mine showed most had Black Lung Disease. Even those who had worked there for as little as 10 years. The rate of Black Lung in miners nationally is 3.2%. Among those workers who died at Massey, the rate was a shocking 79%.

Even laws protecting children are not sacred in this anti-worker political environment. Wisconsin is set to eliminate laws which regulate how many hours a school-age teen can work. Current law limits them to 26 hours per week during school and 50 hours per week in the summer. The new proposed law will eliminate that requirement. There is no limit on the number of hours these should-be students can work. Watch the graduation rate fall even further as employers force students to choose between their job and school.

Nevada is considering a bill to abolish the minimum wage. New Hampshire just passed such a law, but thankfully, it was vetoed by the governor. The pressure continues downward on wages and benefits as unions loose political clout in the right-wing statehouses.

The Republican attack on unions is an attack on the Middle class. It is a continuation of the fight to move ever more money and power to the corporations and wealthy. The unions are the last bastion of political and worker power and the Republicans, as proxies for their corporate bosses, are eager to finish them off. Hopefully, the American people will wake up in time.

The Republican Medicare Plan: Bad Medicine for Americans

The Republican Budget Plan includes big changes to Medicare. The debate rages on between the left and the right but the implications for those who are not quite to retirement age are huge.

This group, including myself, have worked and paid into this system our entire working lives. We have accepted this ever-present deduction in our paychecks as assurance of adequate health care in our old age. Health care that left our great-grandparents penniless as they spent and sold a lifetime of savings to pay for increasingly expensive, life saving care.

The Republican proposal assures current seniors that their benefits will not change. They offer no such assurances to workers like myself. Our investments and savings which were supposed to make retirement possible are a fraction of their pre-recession value. We now are wondering if we can ever afford to retire. The Republican plan adds to that uncertainty. We would have to worry about having enough income to cover costly health insurance increases for the rest of our lives. The Republican plan assures the insurance companies a steady income stream and cuts federal spending on health care costs by shifting those costs to the elderly without any attempt to limit the long term increase in health care costs.

There is no question that something needs to be done about Medicare spending. The question is really should we continue to allow insurance and pharmaceutical companies to drain our pocketbooks, paychecks and national coffers forever, without limit?

Again, the Republicans oppose any regulation which would 'interfere with free enterprise'. This is a political euphemism which really means these powerful companies are free to continue to demand any price as they are protected from competition and bleed seniors dry and answer only to shareholders.

Massive savings are possible in the system without turning the system into a pseudo-voucher scheme. The republicans are correct, it is not a voucher. If it were, they would send you a coupon to be used toward the purchase of coverage. The 'premium support' system actually removes you as the 'middle man' and will just pay those premiums directly to the insurance companies. No wonder these companies are big supporters of this plan.

Medicare has huge bargaining power. It is the single largest purchaser of health care in the country. One of the budget busting provisions of Bush's Medicare prescription drug program was to outlaw negotiating on costs and agree to pay whatever the companies demanded. This has been a huge gain for the pharmaceutical companies and a huge burden to taxpayers.

Drugs could be purchased abroad, manufactured to the highest specifications and safety standards, or even US made drugs could be re-imported into this country. However, current law prohibits the importing of drugs into the US. Republican lawmakers have fought all attempts to change this law. It seems regulations are fine if they protect the profits of US drug makers as they soak the American taxpayer for the highest drug prices in the world.

Standing up to the insurance companies is possible, as evidenced by the passage of the Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act of 2010 which, after 65 years, repealed a law which allowed insurance companies to collude to fix prices.

Much can be done to cut the costs of Medicare without turning it into a insurance company give-away which robs soon-to-be seniors of the security of quality health care in our retirement years.

Now we hear that Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, has introduced a bill in Congress to privatize Social Security. This fell flat when Bush tried it and it continues to be unpopular with the working people of this country who have paid into a good system our whole working lives and don't wish to see it become gambling money for Wall Street.

Both these plans will shift more of the wealth from the middle class to the big corporations and further widen the gulf between the rich and the poor in this nation.

We are looking to the President and Democratic Senate to hold their ground against this right-wing corporate money grab of taxpayer funds. We ask them to stand firm against the privatization of Medicare or Social Security and protect a lifetime of investment in these programs by millions of working Americans like me.