June 29, 2007

IPhones and a Salem Socialist Perspective

I stopped at a local sandwich shop at a small strip mall to grab a quick bite as I tried to stay energized for my 11 hour workday. Just after I received my order three young men walked into the store to use the bathroom and order food for themselves. They had been camping out at a near by phone store for the last two days waiting to purchase a new iPhone.

My first reaction was to criticise the foolish exuberance of these young 20 somethings to the the worker behind the counter at the sandwich shop about these crazy these people were who were so impressionable that they had to be the first to have the latest cool new techno toy. They were going to spend several days waiting to be one of the first to pay 600.00 dollars to be one of the first on their block to have the new toy.

Their need to be the first to have new tech toys confounded me because it seems ridiculous to go to such great lengths to line up to pay a more expensive way to check your email and call your friends. To your friends you are going to sound identical to how you sounded before you committed to the 2 year 60 dollar a month contract.

But then I start to get it -- the iPhone is the latest installment in helping workers find more time to effectively watch video coverage track news that will help you feel connected to the pulse of the world. You will be able to get entertainment/news and UTube clips so that the IPhone user will be able to have up-to-the-minute information that is largely irrelevant to your daily life. With IPhones we will now be able to sit down and watch separate movies together with the ones we love?


Can this gizmo really improve my life by making information instantly available to me? Will this new connection take me to the “next level” both at work and in my social circles? Do I really need to be able to get connected to the Internet at a moments notice? How important are my reality shows? Can I wait to hear who survived the latest round of American Idol?

All sarcasms aside, the questions that I must ask myself are “Is the IPhone going to improve my life? Is it worth it? Do I really need to be “connected”, how many times do I really need instant access, and can I function without an IPhone without falling to far behind the technological curve?

For me personally, my conclusions are both firm and resolved. I can think of few reasons or occasions for myself that I need to be in contact with the latest news or pop culture. At this point in my life I am drawn to the calm of privacy and warmth of human contact. I feel like much of the information that I sort through daily is irrelevant to me and actually serves to disconnect me from the community around me. On top of that I find it hard to get unbiased information that is not connected to an agenda. I am entrenched in my perspective probably because I work at a job where I am around computers and phones through much of my day and long for uninterrupted time with my family.

The IPhone is a piece of technology that is a force to be recon with. The technology is new and exciting. I believe that the IPhone is a wonderful luxury that will allow those who can afford it to access whatever question or information that they need a little bit faster that someone like me. This sounds like an advantage for to some that makes a critical difference to some. My friends’ enthusiasm for the technology is helpful in reminding me how many different places and paths people are living in. I can see that some will certainly find productive ways to make the prohibitive cost and personal invasion well worth some folk’s time and money.

More power to those who have the discipline not to let the IPhone technology pressure them to be more productive beyond their paid work hours and more able to take work home.


Seems like keeping up with the Jones is going to be expensive this Christmas.

June 27, 2007

Dick Cheney and his Locust Friends

The dick cheney's of Americans current culture are hiding in plain sight around all of us. The powerful are living wildly beyond reasonable means, the laws, and limits that normal working people are forced to accept on a daily basis without option.

We live in a time of where America has little or no mainstream conscience, no commitment to community (unless you live in gated community) and very little accountability unless you are of average or below average financial means.

None of above statements are new or original observations.

When working people hit challenges or hard times; is it any wonder they look for someone or something to blame? The pressure and stakes are so high today for many individuals. Jobs and real wages are a good example. Look at how big the immigration issue is, yet we are not seriously studying the underlying causes to cure them. Instead we seem to want to hang onto our easy answers that give permission to blame someone and be a victim instead of working collectively to solve the underlying problems that our communities and friends are experiencing.

There are few examples of leadership that are currently breeding public confidence and inspiring hope. Think of the reality our children are hearing about: Global Warming which includes massive drought and disease and the war on "Global Terrorism" a strategic tactic just to name two daily issues that are equivalent to catastrophic biblical plagues.

I believe we live in a time where we must relearn to trust ourselves our minds and our own eyes and learn to ignore what we are being told daily about that group of "others that we must let take advantage of us."

I look at the "leaders" of our time and see the examples they are setting. I am motivated to push back against this vacuum of real leadership in any forum I can find.

I believe the dick cheney's of our time will gorge themselves of all of the resources they can liquidate until a formidable opponent denies them more resources. Only then will these locust type behaviors find themselves trapped and forced into a global hibernation.

Do these thoughts sound like radical thoughts or do you find yourself agreeing that corporate giants are devouring our communities? Are you willing to watch or are you willing to act in any small way to push back?

Practicing to think critically about my daily choices is just one strategy that is leading me to have more confidence in the world around me. I believe that the locust type leaders of today can and will be ushered into hibernation for another seventeen years and we do have the ability to resurrect community purpose that can lead to solving many of today's underlying ills.

What do you think?

June 17, 2007

Housing Prices In Salem--Socialism In Salem, Part 2

Signs advertising no-money-down mortgages and zero-down or rent-to-own homes seem to be everywhere in Salem, OR. these days. Development continues in South Salem and River Road is turning into McMansionville. A look through today's Salem newspaper tells me that $160,000 doesn't buy you much of a home in a county where government work predominates. All of this is taking place as banks get increasingly nervous about credit and refinancing and a crackdown on the worst kinds of home mortgage lending seems to be in the offing.

It's hard to believe, but it seems that home prices are actually declining somewhere between four and twelve percent. This decline has been happening slowly--so slowly that you may not be noticing it--but it is happening and it may be accelerating.

No one seems to know what a massive and quick decline in home prices means, except that we all know that it does not mean that more people will have nicer and more affordable homes and that homelessness will disappear.

If this decline in prices was being driven by new construction, we might understand the decline in prices better. More homes would mean more variety and more competition for buyers, and prices of existing homes would hold steady or drop. New home construction would compete with the prices for existing homes or reach the point that new home buyers and banks would bear. New homes would come with innovations or added services or more attractive mortgages in order to make purchasing a new home competitive. This is how the system is supposed to work.

But housing starts are in decline, even while building permit sales are up, so that we get a picture of an industry taking a short-term economic hit while waiting for the right moment to restart development with less competition. The banks, meanwhile, are caught between their need to extend credit and keep development moving and, on the other hand, having so many borrowers unable to meet their mortgage payments and so many homes and businesses to foreclose on. The banks have become, for a short time at least, lenders of last resort in a chaotic marketplace, but getting back their market share may mean restricting or putting other lending institutions out of business. The chaos of the banking marketplace has its roots in deregulation and in the housing crises of the 1980s and 1990s. The current struggle between the banks and other lenders for market share may mean some unknown number of people losing their homes and more need-to-be-sold-quickly homes on the market for a indeterminate period of time. The banks, other lenders and developers are fighting this out while the poor and working class homeowners feel the squeeze.

During the early years of the Depression (1929-1933) housing prices fell something over twenty per cent with massive foreclosures taking place. We saw something worse take place in the west and in the south in the 1980s. Parts of California also experienced a quick drop in housing costs during the mid-1990s. When prices rose again in California, I think that they did so at a rate which outstripped wage, welfare and pension cost-of-living adjustments upward. Oregon then experienced population growth at the expense of California while the regional economy here was experiencing a downturn. California and Oregon each experienced a crisis, but these were crises with differing causes and of differing depths. A key difference between past busts and now is that banks were not as dependent upon or as heavily invested in home refinancing, home equity and home remodeling loans as they are now. A failure in one area can lead to a disastrous domino effect which echoes through the banking system.

The Salem housing market is growing at an odd moment. It's hard to imagine that the banks can be trusted to safely manage this development. It's easier to imagine that a group of homeowners will get stuck with large mortgage payments which they will be unable to pay off over the long haul and that they will then find reselling their homes difficult as housing prices continue to fall and as this fall accelerates. Moreover, the banks and development corporations have paid extraordinarily high prices for land and have taken large parcels of farm land out of production. They will eventually have to develop or sell the land and either choice may mean that they take at least short-term losses. Farming and government--both in long-term decline here--have led the regional economy and no alternative industry seems likely to develop soon. We will get stuck with the bill, of course.

The socialist alternative looks something like this: get rid of the kicker, raise the corporate minimum tax, restrict banking services and cancel or restructure debts owed by workers to financial institutions, create a state-run bank with low-interest loans going to workers and small farmers growing indigenous and organic crops and herds, create maximum and minimum square-footage requirements for residential buildings with code requirements for energy efficiency, rebuild downtown Salem with low-priced cooperative apartments, stop all new suburban housing development, diversify agriculture with native or indigenous crops, stop further golf course development, curtail the tree and plant nursery industry, stop licensing bars and porno stores, create regional cooperatively held markets for locally grown produce and meat products, provide daycare and mass transit services to make living in surrounding communities while working in Salem feasible, shut down car dealerships not selling high mileage and minimally polluting vehicles, create massive public works projects with built-in affirmative action hiring and promtion to clean up the Willamette and reforest surrounding areas, extend credit and housing and union membership to the workers involved in cleaning up the river and reforestation automatically and take unused industrial and farming tracts through eminent domain and lease these out in smaller tracts for planned cooperative housing, educational, recreational and gardening efforts.

June 6, 2007

Paris Hilton and Andrew Speaker: The Privilege Of Disease

Does anyone else find it ironic that Andrew Speaker, the globetrotting TB patient, got waved across the US-Canadian border in a rented car?

Let's start the rumor that the "undisclosed illness" which got Paris Hilton her walk from prison after three days is a strain of Mr. Speaker's tuberculosis. She contracted it when she and Mr. Speaker found themselves stuck on an island while auditioning for a popular reality tv show. The lesson? Don't share your Kettel One with just anyone. This may be the only opportunity we have to see something like a class analysis in the daily news.

Let's think about this for a minute. All attention to borders in the US is focused on the border between the US and Mexico and the brown-skinned folks who cross it with the temerity to hope for work which will allow them to support their families. Scores of these immigrants die trying to cross the desert for a minimum wage (or less) job in the US on a regular basis.

And then there are those Haitians periodically washing up on the Florida resort beaches or drowning at sea when their boats go under. Besides being poor and Black, they also show some audacity in hoping for something better and a distinct lack of gratitude for all that the US has already done for them by washing up dead on privately-owned beaches.

Of course, Cubans who prefer McDonald's to Fidel Castro are always welcome, often regardless of complexion until they need work. We even send boats to pick them up and ferry them to the US in order to ease their transition. See--we're not really racist.

So no one is really worried about people slipping across the northern border. And you can bet that no one is worried about a white guy slipping across. And this white guy came with a blond wife, newlywed, and a rental car so he must have some money or, at least, a working credit card. That he was carrying a dreaded disease doesn't balance the scales in the US. He looked okay because, well, because he was white and newlywed and his wife is blond and he had that car and everything behind that. The perfect couple engaged in a twenty-first century romantic comedy. "Remember that time we slipped across the border and you were really sick?" we can easily imagine them reminiscing in their McMansion years from now over fondue and laughter as Dick and Jane chase Scooter the puppy through the tastefully-appointed living room copied from a Martha Stewart magazine.

That's really bad.

It keeps coming to my mind that an Arab newlywed couple (for instance) in perfect health and with a rented car would not have made it across the border without significant trouble. "Help me understand again," I can hear some officious border guard saying, "why you and, uh, Mrs. Nasser here thought you could enter the US in a rented car?" as Mr. Nasser moves uncomfortably with his hands cuffed behind his back and Mrs. Nasser is silent and appears forever lost in her fear. You see this drama regularly at airports and immigration offices but there is no reality tv show yet for the poor (unless you counts "Cops" and shows like it). There will be no McMansion, no fondue and no laughter for them about these incidents years from now.

Okay, take the rental car out of it. The healthy Nassers could not even fly into the US without significant trouble, even with a credit card.

Those folks coming up from Mexico and Haiti, most of them healthy if also hungry, don't get the credit card deal, the rental car, the sympathy or the nod in. And a Mexican guy caught with a beer on the front seat of his car is not going to get the Paris walk after three days in jail.

The Italian and Greek governments could not be notified in a timely way about Mr. Speaker's illness and situation. Mr. Speaker explains some of this confusion away by saying that he was misinformed by some doctor relative or county health department who apparently saw nothing wrong with possibly infecting lots of people and provoking an international incident. I'm trying to picture an undocumented worker from Mexico or Haiti or an Arab person who has overstayed his visa making a similar argument and getting away with it and I just can't tune that picture in. And you know that the whackos on the right will turn this into an argument for privatization. "See, with a privately-owned border and no public health system we could have stopped this in its tracks." It's just as logical to say that we should get rid of doctors or, for that matter, irresponsible white people and porno stars.

Mr. Speaker and his wife get graduation-style photographs in the news, Mrs. Speaker wearing an appropriately tailored white mask over her mouth while confusion over all of this publicity makes the happy couple's eyes wide with wonder. "So this is how it feels to be famous! Um, when do we get paid for our story?" Mrs. Speaker might have done better wearing a hijab during her courtship, although that might have curtailed her travel plans. If she falls in love with the cameras, as so many of the frivolously famous do, we can expect to see her showing up at clubs without her underwear and with a bottle of Kettel One clutched tightly in her bejewelled hands in a few months.

The undocumented immigrant workers being led out of a meatpacking plant by immigration officials, on the other hand, don't have that look of barely-suppressed glee on their faces after also having bent the rules a bit and having gotten caught. Their mistake was in not being rich, famous and white. And there's a certain downside to having hope, contributing to the economy and paying taxes.

I haven't heard yet when the Minutemen will deploy their forces northward to guard this great country against disease-carrying newlywed white males sneaking across the border in rented cars. Perhaps they're too busy picketing DMVs for having granted licenses to infectious white guys or drunk young porno starlets to head north.

The Italian government had to call the Atlanta CDC on their dime to get the correct info on Mr. Speaker, which turned out to be not quite completely correct after all. Meanwhile, the US government has the Mexican voter lists and seems to be able to find an uncanny number of brown-skinned people pretty much anywhere in the world and get them a one-way ticket through Europe to Guantanamo when they think its necessary. The Speakers, of course, were on vacation and we don't want to spoil their fun by providing them with a similar benefit.

It's strange that the technology used for directing the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, pinpointing Palestinian kids throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, spotting guerrillas in jungles, finding lost wealthy mountain climbers in snowstorms, making ordinary traveler's lives miserable at airports, busting Imams trying to pray on airplanes and tapping phones anywhere in the world can't locate two latter-day Ozzie and Harriets out on the town with a special case of TB to share with the world.

That's really, really bad.

June 4, 2007

Socialism in Salem: Part 1

Labor Pains

Anonymous State Hospital Worker: "Thanks to you, I have a job that pays so bad that I live in a garage, have no T.V., and have to feed my kids crap junk food just to put something in their
stomach."

Governor Ted Kulongoski: "Thanks to me, at least you have a job!"

The above exchange really happened… At the 2004 Oregon AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic I do believe. The words are not exact because I wasn't involved in the conversation. But I know the
conversation happened and I knew it happened within 15 minutes of its actual occurrence. After all, it was pretty hot gossip at the picnic that some lowly SEIU Local 503 state hospital worker
actually had the gall to rip the "gov" a new one….

The above exchange highlights efforts made by the unions and the left to move towards the concept of a living wage in bargaining and through political efforts.

The above also highlights the uneven and often unsuccessful results in achieving a living wage.
Finally, the above unfortunately highlights the intransigence of those who are elected to political office as worker-friendly, in resisting all efforts towards achieving a living wage for real flesh-and-blood workers.

What Is a "Living Wage?"

It's not a difficult concept, the notion of a living wage. The idea being that everybody who works should make a wage that allows for a minimum defined decent standard of living. Us socialists, and most trade unionists I know, believe work should provide a base minimum which includes, at least, decent housing (including paying all the utility bills), accessible health care, a reasonable diet that includes real food on a daily basis, decent clothes, and a night out at the movies or dinner every so often… Or maybe every day!

So, right now, this very instant in Salem, I'm thinking of two "living wage" fights. The first of these tangles is the contract negotiations between The Salem-Keizer School District and the union for the District's classified workers, OEA-SKACE.

The second are the negotiations between The State of Oregon/State University system and SEIU Local 503, where SEIU's negotiating teams have identified the below living-wage classifications and have targeted these classifications to get them up to living wage standards.

Well, actually, I lied. There is really just one living wage fight going on in Salem now… That's the SEIU/State of Oregon negotiations.

My union, SKACE/OEA folded a couple of weeks ago. The negotiations aren't finished, but SKACE has backed off of its keystone proposal to upgrade the entire bargaining unit by two ranges, or roughly 10% over the life of the contract.

The surrender comes in spite of the fact roughly 25% of the bargaining unit live below the poverty line and receive some kind of public assistance. Employer provided healthcare is offered -- if you can pay for it -- and with the rest of the bargaining unit existing through spousal income and/or a second job.

The Union Culture

Please note: I'm not disparaging my union, SKACE/OEA! The union's surrender at the bargaining table was for some pretty compelling reasons. The most compelling is a number of competing realities within the culture of the union.

The first reality is the reality of members who say, "$40 a month! All the damned union does is suck up to the administration. This union can't get shit for me!" The second reality is that of "the realist." This is the union officer who really knows! "Well, its impossible anyhow (grumble, grumble)." With the closely following third reality of the staff organizers and responsible elected leaders who say, "God, the membership is totally passive…. There's no campaign here!"

The truth of the matter is all three realities are right. The pissed off member will pay his $40 and really won't get much. The responsible leaders and staff are right too; the membership really is totally passive. I spent weeks trying to organize worksite meetings. I was successful in scheduling three, and in two cases the meetings were "no shows" -- including the building reps I set the meetings up with. And "the realist" will turn out to be right too… It really was all, err, well "impossible".

Yet, on the other hand, all three realities are getting exactly what they expect, and they deserve.

The pissed off guy figures, "Hey, damn it! $40 a month and I get nothing…. I mean I pay you!" And that is all he is willing to do -- pay you! The responsible leaders and staff will get the headaches and angst they want (everybody in this category has a streak of masochism). And "the realist" officials will get what they want, which is the opportunity to rub shoulders with the big boys and be, well, "realistic."

My union has surrendered, and I really don't know if SEIU will do any better with its living wage fight.

So far, I've seen State of Oregon custodians do a pretty respectable unity break in front DAS
headquarters, and I've seen photos of some pretty upbeat member actions in other parts of the state. But then, a few good pieces of theater can't win contract fights alone… Ask the SKACE/OEA bus drivers who were quite active with their living wage campaign; all by themselves.

If however, SEIU ends up surrendering too, it is my guess is that it will be for a lot of the same reasons SKACE surrendered….

Conclusion

I was going to write a couple of thousand more words about the failures of unions in Salem, in spite of objectively high union density figures. Stuff about culture and how it relates to Salem's class structure; like the built-in "white privilege" assumptions of native white workers and how this stunts union activity; like the growing economic importance of the immigrant community and their relegation to third class social status….

But hell, and thank goodness for you, I won't!

About Salem's unions and workers, I can only say this: Unions and workers will be weak in this town until two very important things happen.

First, union leaders need to spend a lot of time listening to their members. This means actively listening and then engaging members based on what they're hearing members say. As, for instance, opposed to excuse making and "spinning" the blame.

Second, union members need to start taking some responsibility for their unions and their workplaces. By this I do not mean that union members need to start doing what their leaders tell them to do. Instead, I mean that union members better start thinking and acting like what they think and do really does matter. Because it does matter. It matters a whole lot what members really think and then do!

Second, I mean by "responsibility" that union members had better start paying attention to reality as it really is (as opposed to demanding the impossible because they pay x% dues per month).

So, if these things could happen?????