By Alan Grayson, Open Mike Blog
03 December 11
uring my two years in Congress, I heard an awful lot of speeches. Some of them were delivered by some of the finest public speakers in America today – like Barack Obama, Neil Abercrombie, John Lewis, Anthony Weiner and Alcee Hastings. But none of them was as profound and poignant as the one that I’m about to share with you. It was delivered to a Joint Session of Congress by President Abraham Lincoln, exactly 150 years ago today. The focus of the President’s speech was, of course, the Civil War. But President Lincoln took a short detour, and with a few bare sentences, he summed up an issue that remains with us to this day.
This is what President Lincoln said to Congress, to America, and to us:
“It is not needed, nor fitting here [in discussing the Civil War] that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effect to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded thus far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
“Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.”
If I were still in Congress, I would have repeated President Lincoln’s speech on the Floor of the House this week, in the same spot where he rendered it 150 years ago. “Labor is the superior of capital.” And we must not “place capital . . . above labor in the structure of government.” Thank you, Mr. Lincoln. If I had to sum up my job as a Congressman in 25 words or less, that would do it.
I realize that for a statement as profound as this one, it is “far beyond [my] poor power to add or detract” (as Lincoln himself said, two years later, at Gettysburg). But I’ll try anyway, recognizing that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say.
I find it startling to read something like this, and realize how timeless these battles are. As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”) In fact, you can hear echoes of Lincoln’s words in what Elizabeth Warren said just ten weeks ago: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”
Now, admittedly, capital is wealthier, better organized, and far more powerful today than it was in Lincoln’s time. Capital gorges on Republican tax cuts for the rich, on bailouts, on government contracts and corporate welfare, on free money from the Fed, and on monopoly profit. Capital treats politicians and whole political parties like puppets. Capital creates and perpetuates a system where Labor is unemployed, where Labor is in debt up to its eyeballs, where Labor cannot see a doctor when ill, where Labor is pitted against Labor. There probably are plenty of well-meaning people who realize this, throw up their hands, and say, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
And then there are us. People with a head, and a heart. People who want to occupy Wall Street, occupy K Street, and occupy America with the simple concept of justice for all. People who understand that the very fact that this fight has been going on for 150 years or more, and will continue after you and I are gone – that very fact – makes this a fight that is worth fighting for.
And gradually, things do get better. I know, I know – two steps forward, one step back. But then two more steps forward.
Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming.
When Lincoln spoke, 150 years ago today, his time was the twilight’s last gleaming. And today, you can see the dawn’s early light.
Can you see it?
“I don’t remember Mike Cox being so overty partisan, which means that all huffing and puffing aside, Bill Schuette is establishing a pattern that would make him the most partisan attorney general in Michigan history.
Allowing University of Michigan graduate student research assistants to unionize would “significantly damage” U-M and harm all Michigan residents, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a brief filed this week to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
Schuette wants MERC to uphold a 1981 ruling that the GSRAs are students, not employees, and shouldn’t be allowed to form a union when the commission decides on the issue later this month.
Let’s break this down, okay.
First off, contrary to the tenor expressed in this morning’s Detroit News editorial, there are lots of graduate assistant unions across the country. And, there are even a bunch of them in the state of Michigan. CMU’s graduate assistants organized themselves a couple of years back while the university’s temporary faculty (adjuncts, to all of you over the age of 30), for example. And, graduate assistants overall on U of M’s campus are themselves organized.
Second, the fact that U of M’s president objects to the formation of yet another bargaining unit is neither novel nor a compelling argument in opposition to letting these people organize. Despite lofty rhetoric about valuing their employees, university administrations have the same long history in opposing the formation of new unions as everyone else. They just don’t call in the Pinkertons or turn loose private security with fire hoses.
Third, the attorney general’s office isn’t representing the interests of the state of Michigan here. The state has no compelling interest to get involve. This involves 2,200 people, many of whom probably get pay and benefits from research that is ultimately privately funded. Because U of M is much more research intensive a place than most of the state’s universities (U of M is constitutionally one of three research universities with Stinking Cow College and Wayne State), the odds that you’re going to have new bargaining units pop up all over the place are incredibly remote.
Fourth, what the attorney general’s office is trying to stop here isn’t actually the formation of the union, but an election. Why? Because the numbers are pretty clear … given a shot at self-determination, U of M’s research graduate assistants would form a union. To stop the union, you have to stop the vote. So, they filed a brief with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to prevent self-determination.
Fifth, thanks to declining state support for its university system (and for this you can thank forty years of misplaced legislative priorities that cut appropriations for the state’s public universities), university administrations have increasingly relied on temporary faculty and graduate assistants to do grunt work. They get paid slave wages, slave benefits, and are expected to do the work of tenured and tenured-track faculty. That very clearly makes them employees, and since it is a trend that has increased since the MERC last decided on this means that the MERC would be well within the bounds of reality to define graduate student research assistants as employees.
In short, the News’ editorial headline “Leave U-M lab assitants alone” is correct. The problem is that the News is ordering U of M’s lab assistants to leave themselves alone, while providing cover for the attorney general’s office to pre-empt their right to self-determination in the workplace. The News we can laugh at. Schuette, well he’s doing that on your dime.
62 workers, all members of the Turkish metal union, Birlesik Metal-IS, have been locked-out since July at a Turkish subsidiary of German-owned GEA Group located in Gebze, Turkey. The company, which professes to respect fundamental labour rights and freedom of association and has an International Framework Agreement with the International Metalworkers’ Federation, is claiming that workers took illegal strike action during 10:00-10:15; 12:00-12:30; and 15:00-15:15, which are also designated times for tea breaks and lunch. A collective bargaining agreement, hard won by workers three years ago, will be up for renegotiation on December 31. An expert’s report petitioned by GEA found there was no strike action taken. A separate investigation petitioned by Birlesik Metal found that workers were denied access to the workplace. In late November the Gebze court ruled that four workers dismissed on May 31 must be reinstated, a clear indication that the Turkish courts have found GEA to be acting unlawfully. There is a heavy police presence inside of the company yet GEA continues to refuse to meet with Birlesik Metal. The IMF, ITUC, IUF, ITF, ICEM and its global partners in partnership with LabourStart are calling on GEA to immediately meet with the union, end the lockout and reinstate all of the workers.