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Striking New England Workers and the American Economy

November 18, 2014
By Carol Driscoll

As a person who grew up in New England in a union household, I was very stirred to learn that on October 17 nearly 2,000 New England telecommunication workers—members of the IBEW and CWA—walked off their jobs in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in a protest against unfair labor practices.

They struck against FairPoint Communications, based in North Carolina and owned by five Wall Street hedge funds. At the expiration of their union contracts this past August, the company adamantly refused to sit down and negotiate, despite the unions’ willingness to do so. According to the Kennebec Journal, FairPoint “…asked the unions for $700 million in concessions, mostly by freezing pensions, eliminating health coverage for retirees and asking employees to contribute…20 percent to their health care costs.”

 Why They Went on Strike

The company’s demands are patently ridiculous. This unionized workforce are skilled, productive men and women who perform some of the most grueling and dangerous work—telephone line repairs and installations—including in all kinds of weather. They have a sense of their value, and refused to accept the company’s offensive “offers.” The fact that FairPoint did not want to continue negotiations is telling. In recent years slashing labor costs by eliminating union workers is a prime function of hedge funds, and to achieve this they must kill the unions’ collective bargaining agreements. Peter Keefe, the unions’ bargaining chair, explained: “The money they’re trying to cut out of our contracts will go right back to the hedge funds. This is a Main Street versus Wall Street fight. It’s not just telecommunications and FairPoint. This is what’s going on in America today.”

Another big issue in the negotiations is job security. The company wants to outsource the jobs of these workers to out-of-state and foreign contractors. “The main reason we are standing out here,” said Randall Curtis on a picket line, “is because we are trying to keep good jobs in Maine. The company wants the ability to outsource all of our work…and we’re fighting to keep those jobs here, to keep them local.”

What’s Going On in America Today?

It’s heartening to me that union officials are aligning their struggles with those of Main Street Americans. However, what the fight is really about needs to be seen more clearly. I say this as a person who worked nearly 25 years for unions on the international and local levels. I love what they represent: their large meaning for the life of every American. I’m deeply grateful for what I’ve been learning these years about unions and the American economy from my study of Aesthetic Realism, the comprehensive education founded in 1941 by Eli Siegel. I learned, for example, that profit economics is based on contempt: on using the labor of working men and women to enrich owners and shareholders—who do not do the work—at the expense of these workers. In the instance of FairPoint, the majority of profits from the labor of nearly 2,000 individuals goes to five Wall Street investors, and when profits go down, the people who do the work are asked to give concessions. To hell with this! Why should these workers have to forfeit their hard-won benefits that they earned day in and day out, year after year?

I’ve learned that unions, from their very beginning, have been a force for ethics and against this contempt. Union workers fought for—and sometimes died for—­ an honest seeing of what people deserve, and their struggles courageously go on. As a union member in Waterville put it, “You have to fight for what’s right, and it isn’t always easy…but it’s absolutely worth it.”

One of my most ardent wishes is that every union official study what Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has explained about our economy, the role of unions, and the fierce efforts to destroy them. For instance, in her commentary to The Battle of Insistences she writes:

Beginning in 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that an economy based on the profit motive—on seeing people in terms of how much financial gain one can extract from them—was no longer able to carry on successfully. The profit system would never recover, though it might be made to limp along at the cost of enormous pain to people. Profit economics is a form of contempt. It arises from this assumption, which is also an insistence: certain people should own much more of the world than others, and can use those others to aggrandize themselves.

However, by the 1970s, another insistence had, as Mr. Siegel said come to a tangibility. He called it the force of ethics. And this ethical insistence, working through history, had made it so that by the end of the 20th century private profits were much more difficult to obtain….In the last years, I have been describing the following fact: those who insist that the profit way must be the basis of our economy have been trying to do the one thing that can now keep it going. That one thing is: make Americans work for less and less pay, so more and more of the money they earn with their labor can go into the pockets of the owners, who don’t do the work. Only by increasingly impoverishing the American people can the profit system now go on. Of course, to pay people less and less, to impoverish them successfully, one must try to annihilate unions. Unions—which have fought for and won better economic lives for people over the decades, are one of the biggest embodiments of ethics as a force.

A personal note: It very much affects me that some of the strong actions on behalf of ethics are taking place in Maine. My husband, photographer Harvey Spears and I spend time there every year.  I love its vastness, its beautiful landscapes, and its rocky coastlines. But I’ve also seen firsthand the hurtful effects of profit economics, showing in low wages, which make food pantries shamefully necessary in places both urban and rural.

Eli Siegel asked this kind, crucial question about economics: What does a person deserve by being a person? When this is answered honestly, the folks in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and everywhere else in the U.S. will have a new economy, one that is based on ethics—and one they rightly deserve.

November 17, 2014

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