Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Let’s Kill the Unions

It’s been a bit more than 100 days since Republican Bruce Rauner became Governor of Illinois. Despite the enormous financial problems facing our state, he has yet to propose specific methods of dealing with our deficit and our debt. He has yet to propose any tax reform. But he has been very active on one of his pet projects – killing unions.

Rauner claims that union-negotiated salaries have caused our state’s financial crisis. He accused unions that represent public employees, such as firefighters, police and teachers, of manipulating elections by contributing to campaigns of elected officials. In his State of the State speech in February, Rauner said the state should ban political contributions by public employee unions.

His most significant action thus far has been to stop the payment of union dues by workers who are not members, but who benefit from union contracts, so-called “fair share” payments. Rauner’s anti-union policies may not get very far. His proposal that communities be allowed to create local “right-to-work zones” conflicts with federal labor laws, which only allow states to pass such laws. Unions have sued Rauner to prevent his “fair share” order, and the Republican comptroller has refused to put these fees into an escrow account pending a final decision.

Unions have been gradually losing public support as they have lost membership. From the 1930s through the 1960s, about two-thirds of Americans approved of labor unions in Gallup polls. That proportion has gradually fallen to barely over half in 2014. Since the 1960s, the proportion of workers in unions has fallen from one quarter to one tenth.

To those who believe that unions have too much power to influence government, here is a surprising statistic. For every dollar that labor unions and other public-interest groups spend on lobbying, large corporations and their associations spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 represent business. The largest companies now have upwards of 100 lobbyists representing them. Lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals are besieged daily by lobbyists representing the interests of corporate America, not by union members.

The gains won by unions in wages and benefits over many decades raised the standard of living of all Americans. These gains also can raise costs. When teachers’ salaries go up, so do the costs of public schools. But paying teachers good salaries benefits our whole society by making this most important profession more attractive to the best students and by strengthening the middle class. Paying factory workers good salaries can raise the cost of automobiles and other goods, but the 20th-century gains in factory wages contributed to the strong American economy. As unions declined, workers’ wages stagnated, and the share of total income in the US that goes to the middle class has fallen from 53% to 46%. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas is one of the causes of our economic problems.

Unions are democracy in action, created by the working poor to speak with their voice. Capitalists and governments fought them everywhere they grew. If threats of jail and loss of job were not enough, armed violence with the overwhelming power of the state was employed. The celebration of labor that happens across the world every year on May 1 came about due to the Haymarket incident in Chicago in 1886, itself the result of police shooting of striking workers. Every dictatorship of the left or right seeks to destroy the power of unions. Unions are much more democratic organizations than corporations, representing average Americans rather than wealthy stockholders and CEOs.

What is often said about democracy should also be said about unions: they are not the best we could imagine, but they are the best we have. For those who can’t afford to buy a seat at a party fundraiser, who can’t pay for a lobbyist, who can’t invite politicians out to eat or to play golf or fly a jet, no other form of collective power is more successful and more democratic.

The struggle between unions and business is about money and power: the boardroom or the workers. The essence of a democratic system, and its challenge, is to allow this struggle to take place peacefully, to insure that both sides follow the laws, to allow corporations and unions the freedom to compete.

That’s not good enough for conservatives like Rauner, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and every other Republican Party prominence. They don’t want a fair competition. They see nothing positive about unions and never discuss a fair fight. Their desire to destroy unions has not diminished as unions have declined in power – it has grown.

The wages of a typical Walmart worker qualify them for welfare. Walmart has fought unions for control of its workers with every legal and illegal tactic: billions are at stake. Walmart funds Republican politicians to support the fight against unions and to stall any raise in the minimum wage.

Listen to Bruce Rauner. He has not positioned himself at the Republican extreme, like Walker, Cruz, and many others. He must live with a Democratic legislature. But he hates unions like the CEO he used to be, who doesn’t want to hear what workers have to say and who is fighting them every day for money and power. If he has his way, our whole democracy will suffer.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 28, 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

“What Aaron Schock should have said”

That was the Chicago Sun-Times headline after Schock gave his farewell speech in Congress. Until a few days ago, Aaron Schock was my representative to Congress. I’ve been reading superlatives about Schock for years. His biography is filled with amazing firsts: youngest person serving on a school board in Illinois at age 19; youngest school board president in Illinois history; youngest representative to the Illinois legislature at 23; youngest person in Congress at 27. Not much more was told about what he had accomplished in these offices, although he had been in the public spotlight for years.

The Republican Party loved him. While still a candidate in his first Congressional election in 2008, he was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, a unique honor. The National Republican Congressional Committee chose Schock to chair their biggest fundraising event of 2014, their annual dinner in March. In June of last year, Schock was named senior deputy whip in the House.

But his behavior in Congress should have raised some questions about his maturity. From the beginning, Schock was entranced with his own appearance. You can see many of the photographs he had taken of himself without a shirt on Google. He was proud of his abs, displayed prominently on the cover of Men’s Health in June 2011.

Like most Republicans in Congress, Schock decries big spending by government. But Schock himself is a big spender. Although he has faced only token opposition since his first Congressional election, winning three-quarters of the vote against no-name Democrats in 2012 and 2014, he spent more on his campaign than the average Representative. In 2014, he spent $1.5 million, against $24,000 by his opponent.

Some of this lavish spending and the fundraising that supported it began to raise questions in 2014. His hometown newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, reported earlier this year about a number of surprising Schock campaign expenses: about $126,000 in food and drinks (that’s $345 per day); $2600 on campaign cufflinks; $1440 on “fundraising event entertainment” at a Baltimore massage parlor. His campaign bought a new Chevy Tahoe last year for $73,000 and another car, too. This is a rare practice among members of Congress, and the cars were registered in his own name.

Another way that Schock stood out was his penchant for flying on private aircraft. He, that is his campaign or his office, spent over $70,000 over the past six years on private planes, more than the rest of the Illinois congressional delegation combined. But he pretended otherwise. Eighteen months after President Obama invited him aboard Air Force One in 2009, he told a political rally, “I have to tell you that Air Force One is pretty nice. But I’ve been flying commercial ever since.” Yet USA Today reports that he had already spent $18,000 of taxpayer funds on private flights.

Everyone knows now about his lavishly decorated office. While his taste has been criticized, much more important was his neglect to pay for it. Until it became the stuff of headlines, of course, when he claimed an oversight and blamed his staff. It was only the most recent example of Schock’s flaunting the rule that he was not allowed to accept any gift, including food and beverage, exceeding $50 from any source. But Schock mainly used public funds to create his nest: according to USA Today, they “discovered more than $100,000 worth of renovations and furniture expenses Schock has billed to taxpayers in prior years, including hardwood floors, marble counters and high-end furniture.”

Schock appears to believe that he is special. When questions were raised about his office makeover, he said, “Well, I've never been an old crusty white guy. I’m different.” His comings and goings were so important that taxpayers and donors had to pay for his own personal photographer to record his high living.

His busy social schedule got in the way of doing his job. During his 6 years in office, Schock missed more than twice as many votes as the average representative.

In fact, Schock’s flamboyant lifestyle, paid with public funds, attracted attention long ago. He was on the “Most Corrupt Members of Congress Report” by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and Washington report for 2012 and 2013.

Oversights? Accounting mistakes? According to the Chicago Tribune, Schock requested reimbursement for driving 171,000 miles in his own car. But when he traded it up for the Chevy Tahoe, it only had 81,000 miles on the odometer. Right from the beginning of his Congressional career, in 2010 and 2011 he already claimed to have driven 96,000 miles.

In his final speech in Congress, Schock still saw himself as someone special. He compared his life to Abraham Lincoln’s, who also “faced as many defeats in his personal, business and public life . . . . His continual perseverance in the face of these trials, never giving up is something all of us Americans should be inspired by, especially when going through a valley in life.” As the Peoria Journal Star wrote, Schock was a “caviar congressman in a meat-and-potatoes district, a poster child for political excess”.

Aaron, you may have added another record to your list: youngest ever to resign in scandal at 33. In your last speech, you should have said you’re sorry. You’re no Honest Abe.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 21, 2015

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Trial By Jury

Jury trials have recently become national public spectacles. The trials of Jody Arias for killing her boyfriend, of former Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez for killing an acquaintance, of wealthy real estate developer Robert Durst for a second murder after he escaped judgment in the first, are just some of the spectacular court cases currently being covered by national media.

It wasn’t always that way. The media circus around the trial of O.J. Simpson for murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman was still unusual in 1995. O.J. was already a national spectacle himself, but newspaper and TV coverage was unprecedented. The L.A. Times put the trial on its front page every day for a year, and network news devoted more time to it than to the Oklahoma City bombing and the Bosnian War combined.

That wasn’t the first trial with national coverage. The trial of John Scopes in 1925 for violating Tennessee’s ban on teaching evolution in public schools attracted reporters from all over the country to tiny Dayton, Tennessee, and the proceedings were reported every day on the radio. That trial concerned an issue of national significance, whose outcome could influence people’s lives across the US.

Although there were jury trials, sometimes with enormous numbers of jurors, in ancient Greece and Rome, juries gained constitutional force as a democratic practice in the Magna Carta of 1215. Article 39 says, “No free man shall be captured, and or imprisoned, . . . or be outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, . . . but by the lawful judgment of his peers, and or by the law of the land.” Its mirror image was the Star Chamber, a court of the ruler’s men, or the ruler himself.

Our founders attached great importance to jury trials as integral to a free democratic system. In Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, among the charges made against the King of England was “depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury”. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed”.

Jury trials for nearly all of their history have been private and local. Jurors knew each other, they knew the accused and accusers, they knew the lawyers and the judge. No juror had to worry that millions of people were observing the case, that TV commentators were picking sides and making accusations of their own, that reporters were following them as they left the courthouse. Nor were publishers and agents waiting for the verdict with big bonuses for telling all. Deliberating jurors could hear each other better without all that noise outside. They could make up their own minds. I think that was good for justice.

Sometimes a whole community believes so strongly in justice that they act through a jury to defy their rulers. That was the case in Russia when Mikhail Beilis was falsely accused of Jewish ritual murder in a 1913 trial in Kiev. Despite dishonest prosecutors, fabricated evidence, lying witnesses, an antisemitic judge and government pressure reaching to the Tsar himself, the jury acquitted Beilis.

Sometimes a society is committed to systematic injustice and uses jury trials to enforce inequality. Racially skewed verdicts were normal in the US, not just in the South, for most of our history. Harper Lee, who happens to be in the news these days for her decision to publish a second novel written long ago, became famous with “To Kill a Mockingbird” about a white jury trial in Alabama of an innocent black man that ends in his death, based on a real case from 1936. By the time that novel was published to acclaim in 1960, and a film version won the Oscar in 1962, jury trials in America were at the tipping point when the racial injustice of the whole legal system could no longer be ignored.

The level of justice provided by jury trials may ebb and flow. The gradual retreat of racial and ethnic prejudice from distorting verdicts is accompanied by the increase of outside intrusion, seeking the thrills of snap judgment, but rarely justice.

Who knows what social transformation will affect the future of jury trials? They’ll still be better than any alternative. Every dictatorship destroys trial by jury for cases which threaten its power. When a jury failed to convict most of the accused of setting the fire that burned the German Reichstag in 1933, Hitler created a new court system, the Volksgerichtshof, where the Nazi judge acted as jury for all political offenses. Jury trials were abolished in the Soviet Union, reinstituted in 1993 after the Communists were overthrown, and then limited again by Vladimir Putin, as he gradually dismantled elements of Russian democracy.

Juries are just part of the trial system and share the flaws of the larger society. The ability of the rich to buy better verdicts through extensive and expensive use of every complication of our legal system is no secret. Even juries’ fairest collective judgments cannot make up for unequal policing or for the increasing pressures of plea bargaining.

Jury duty may seem like an inconvenient burden, although most employers offer paid leave for jury service. We are lucky to live in a society where our guilt or innocence is judged by free women and men. But if we want to be tried by a well-functioning jury of our peers, we must be willing to serve.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 14, 2015