Thoughts on Unions and Recently Concluded Negotiations

The day before yesterday we ratified a new 2 year contract with the hospital.  This brings to a close a long and contentious period of negotiations.  We had been without a contract since November 2010.

In the end we took a few losses.  Our retirement contributions from the hospital took a hit and our premiums for family medical coverage will go up slightly – although by substantially less than what the hospital had initially proposed.

Back in February, the hospital had declared an impasse in negotiations and had unilaterally imposed a non-negotiated contract on us.  The Union’s response was to take the hospital in front of the state labor board.  Just minutes prior to the start of the hearing, the hospital agreed to return the negotiating table. After a year and a half of stonewalling, an agreement was hammered out in under a week. It was a tacit admission that they had been bargaining in bad faith all along.  At several points during the bargaining process, the hospital went backwards in their proposals.  It was apparent that the hospital had little interest in reaching an agreement and that their strategy all along had been to delay, declare an impasse, and then attempt to implement their own contract – presumably in an attempt to break the Union.

The funny thing is that the contract that we settled on still had takeaways and was only a slight improvement over the non-negotiated contract that was imposed on us in February. However, this goes beyond dollars and cents. This was about principle.

I am convinced that the hospital would gladly have spent far more money than they would have saved in paying reduced wages and benefits if, in the end, they could have broken the Union. They did, in fact, spend a considerable amount of money retaining lawyers and nurse staffing agencies.

I view unions as a vital check to corporate power.  Even if I do not agree with union positions 100% of the time, I still view them as an absolute necessary. To those who disagree, I would simply ask this…who is to represent labor if not the union?  Or do they simply believe that workers deserve no representation and that corporations should have unchecked power in setting wages and working conditions.

It is nice fantasy to believe that employers will provide good wages and benefits and humane working conditions because it is the moral thing to do.  Many companies do, in fact, value their employees and treat them fairly. However, experience has convinced me that just as often, they don’t. Too often an employer, when given a financial incentive to do so, will not hesitate to oppress the hireling in his wages and to grind upon the face of the poor. And even when employers desire to do right by their workers, having to compete against other businesses that screw their employees often means having to follow suit. It becomes a race to the bottom.

One does not have to dig far into the annals of history to find one sad example after another of precisely this. Modern-day efforts at union busting (which have been largely successful), child labor, the abuses of the gilded age, and the ultimate evil of slavery have all sadly demonstrated that there have always been those who would abuse and impoverish their brother in order to enrich themselves.

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Thoughts on Ayn Rand

I read The Fountainhead back in 2002. It was the first time that I had read a work of Ayn Rand. I was still a Republican at that time. I wanted some exposure to Rand since she is widely considered to be one of the major intellectual influences of the right-wing. I hated it. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was an early indication of my changing political affiliations.

I was truly amazed that anyone considered her to be a great writer. I quickly realized that Rand’s talents as a writer had been grossly exaggerated. The Fountainhead was little more than a polemic wrapped in a very thin and unbelievable plot.

It wasn’t merely a laughably bad story though. It was the underlying philosophy that bothered me much more. Rand’s rabidly anti-communist views had initially made me sympathetic to her. Neverless, her anti-collectivist feelings took her way off the deep end in the other direction. In a nutshell, Rand espouses the Gordon Gecko creed – “Greed…is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Hers is the philosophy of radical individualism. To the biblical question phrased by Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, her answer would be an emphatic “hell no!”

I guess what I find so perplexing is that there are so many on the “Religious Right” who profess admiration for Rand. Honestly, if I had to think of someone whose philosophies reflected the antithesis of Christian belief, Ayn Rand would be right up there near the top of my list. Rand is an apostle of Social Darwinism – and Social Darwinism is wholly incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand it.

Rand was a die-hard atheist. This is not merely some bit of biographical minutiae either. Atheism was a theme that she hit on time and again in her writings and in her speeches. The Fountainhead fully reflected her views in this regard. Any religious person who claims to agree with her either does not understand her or does not understand their religion.

The following is just one short excerpt from the climactic point of the novel where Howard Roark is defending himself in court.

The man who attemps to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality — the man who lives to serve others — is the slave…But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.

…Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the sufferings of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then man must wish to see others suffer — in order that he may be virtuous. Such is the nature of altruism. The creator is not concerned with disease, but with life. Yet the work of the creators has eliminated one form of disease after another, in man’s body and spirit, and brought more relief from suffering than any altruist could ever conceive.

…In all proper relationships there is no sacrifice of anyone to anyone.

Contrast that with this…

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. (Luke 9:24)

Given Rand’s guiding philosophies, it is not surprising that her protagonists are always young, healthy, and (mostly) single. Never is there any mention of family and child-rearing. Sex is non-committal. Dominique Francon marries and later leaves two men as she discovers the “ideal man”, Howard Roark (who just also happens to be her rapist…but that’s OK because women secretly desire powerful men to take control of them.)

The self-sacrifice that is inherent to marriage and family and the rearing of children lies so completely at odds with Rand’s message that she has no conceivable way of incorporating them into her story lines. I do not know whether this omission was a conscious one or not. Regardless, it is a striking one.

Rand and her disciples view success as something that is purely derived from their own efforts (and not from blessing or good fortune or the sacrifices of others). So it then logically follows that they owe nothing to anybody but themselves and that those who would have the audacity to point out that they have an obligation to give back to the society in which they live are nothing more than parasites.

Despite what I have said though, I would strongly recommend reading at least one of her works. It is good to know the mindset of many of those who hold high positions in business and government. A lot of people really do buy into this stuff and imagine themselves to be modern-day John Galts.

This narcissism is perfectly captured in the mere title of the book in which Galt is one of the main characters. Atlas Shrugged. They really do see themselves as the modern-day Atlases holding up the entire world.

To them, I would quote the words of Charles De Gaulle. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

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Letter to the Editor

For those of you who expressed interest, this was my letter to the editor in last Sunday’s Peninsula Daily News…..

In a full page ad in Sunday’s paper, Olympic Medical Center made a number of statements that were misleading. Space will not allow for a full rebuttal.

OMC stated, “The average annual wage in Clallam County is $33,000. For an average full-time RN, OMC pays over $100,000 annually.” When they say this, they are including all benefits and taxes paid in addition to wages. The average nurse does not see anything even remotely close to $100,000 a year in their paycheck.

Per capita personal income for 2009 in Clallam County was $35,852. That is PER CAPITA – meaning every man, woman, and child in the county. Obviously a significant number of these people are not in the workforce and receive little or no income. If we look at the workforce of Clallam County (29,670) and not the overall population (71,021), suddenly RN wages are not out-of-line.

Survey of Current Business – see page 71

Given the amount of money going to capital expenditures, it is impossible not to view OMC’s actions as a cynical ploy to seize upon a weakened economy in order to squeeze concessions out of its staff. This fight is not about pay raises. It is about protecting one of the few sources of decent middle-class jobs left in this county and about patient safety. That is why we voted overwhelmingly (by a 19 to 1 margin) to approve a strike.

Clifton Brown, RN

Editorial guidelines limited me to less than 250 words. I could easily have written ten times that amount. Their statements ranged from the technically-true-but-misleading to the flat-out, bald-faced lies.

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Thoughts on the Civil War

The New York Times has been running a series titled DISUNION in their opinion pages since late last year. The series gives biographical information about a number of influential people from the Civil War era and often chronicles what was happening 150 years ago from the day each exerpt is published. It is fascinating reading.

Last week I watched the 9-part documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns. It is a masterpiece. Perhaps the most poignant part of the whole series came near the end. Newsreel footage from 1938 was shown of Union and Confederate soldiers shaking hands at a 75 year reunion at Gettysburg, PA. An oral account was given of an earlier Gettysburg reunion where Pickett’s charge was re-enacted. The men who participated charged as they had years before. However, this time, when the two armies met, they fell upon each other to embrace one another.

Isn’t it interesting how time and perspective can change the most hardened opinions and tame the most bitter hatred.

There has been much written lately about that period in our nation’s history. November 6 of last year marked the 150th anniversary of the election of President Abraham Lincoln. The next 4 years will see a number of other significant anniversaries.

The Civil War has been on my mind a lot lately – and not just because we are nearing its sesquecentenial. There are more than a few apt comparisons that can be made between then and now.

Paul Krugman – A Tale of Two Moralites

The article above makes no mention of the Civil War. Rather, it was written in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona earlier this month. That tragedy sparked a pretty fierce debate about the tone of our political discussion with accusations going back and forth of demagogery and political opportunism.

In the wake of that shooting, there has been a lot of talk about the need to restore civility to politics. That’s a praiseworthy sentiment. Nevertheless, politics has always been a pretty rough affair. In fact, one could easily argue that politics is far more civil, even now, than it was in the 1800’s. I can not think of any recent examples of politicians getting into physical altercations within the halls of Congress nor of any politicians dueling with pistols.

However, what we have been seeing more and more lately is a Congress that votes right down party lines on major issues. In that sense, we are more bitterly divided now that at any time in the last 150 years. During this past election cycle, I was alarmed to see Republicans, some of whom were considered pretty conservative, being tossed in favor of other Republican candidates who were even further to the political right. It was a conspicuous symptom of a growing ideological divide.

From Krugman’s article:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.

But that was then. Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

A couple of things made me think of Krugman’s article in the context of the Civil War. For one thing, the arguments going back and forth today bear an eery resemblance to many of the same arguments of 150 years ago. We hear a lot of talk these days about the supposed tyranny of the federal government. We even hear talk of seccession on occasion – by elected leaders, not just a few isolated wingnuts.

What really made me connect Krugman’s article to the Civil War was his description of an ideological division without middle ground. There really haven’t been that many issues in our history where the division was so intractable that some sort of compromise could not be reached. It made me think of the slavery debate. That was one such issue – and the opinions ran so strong on either side that it ultimately took a war to resolve it.

I agree with Krugman’s thesis – the issue here is less about civility and more about a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of the federal government. Perhaps the heart of this disagreement goes to the very definition of liberty itself. To a southerner in the mid-1800’s, the idea that the federal government might have the audacity to deny him his right to own another human being and do with him as he pleased was a moral outrage. It was the very epitome of tyranny. The South seceeded because it simply could not countenance the idea of living under a democratically elected government that would not let them have their way.

Of course it is almost universally recognized today that the argument that liberty somehow equates to the freedom to hold slaves is absurd. Nevertheless, there were several million people at that time that believed precisely that and were willing to undergo the privations of the bloodiest war in U.S. history in order to defend that idea.

Far too many people equate liberty with the absence of government dictates. That is not freedom. That is anarchy. Anarchy is not freedom.

It would be nearly impossible for me to overstate the contempt I have for all that the Confederacy represented. Had I been alive in the 1860’s, I would have been an ardent supporter of the Union. In the present day, I am an ardent supporter of the Union.

It is a paradox that so many who so emphatically extol their own patriotism are the very same people who are the quickest to rail against our government when they can’t have it their own way.

Those who advocated secession in 1860-61 were traitors, plain and simple. Anyone who advocates it today is as well.

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I find that libertarians tend to create this false dichotomy between socialism and capitalism. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the entire philosophical foundation of libertarianism rests on this false dichotomy.

Despite what Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck might have you believe, most liberals are not completely ignorant of history. Not too many liberals that I have ever known considers the Soviet Union to be a model of economic efficiency.

Personally, I have no difficulty at all accepting the concept that overregulation, punitive tax rates, absence of property rights, etc. can suffocate economic growth.

The problem with libertarianism is that it never gets too far past that point. Their logic goes something like, “if socialism is bad, then laissez-faire capitalism must be ideal.” It is that logic that I find to be so fatally flawed.

In life, there are a number of important principles where we have to strike some sort of balance. “Faith versus reason” is one possible example. Most would agree that only a fool would rely totally on faith and completely exclude the use of reason to get through life. By the same token, someone who relies solely on his own reasoning is likely to believe that he knows things that he doesn’t really know and to close himself off to any further light and knowledge. There are a number of other examples of where two competing principles must be balanced. We could consider the conflict between justice and mercy. Risk versus reward is another possible example of what I am trying to describe here.

I view the socialism versus capitalism debate the same way that I view some of the competing principles that I just mentioned – as two ideals to balanced rather than be practiced completely to the exclusion of the other one. I think the pure statist and the pure libertarian are both fools.

Are there examples in history of where experiments in socialism have failed? Of course there are! History is replete with examples of failed utopian experiments. Indeed, the institution of Soviet-style communism, in all likelihood, amounted to the greatest waste of life and resources in all of human history.

However, we should turn the question around and view it from the other side.

Is there any example anywhere of a country with an advanced economy that fails to educate its citizens, provide public health services in one form or another, or to provide some form of social security? I defy anyone to name a country that does not provide these things and where the majority of its citizens do not live in poverty.

If limited government is so wonderful, why has Somalia not transformed itself into a utopia?

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The Nutiness of Politics

The New York Times – The Nuttiness of Politics

I really liked this interchange between Gail Collins and David Brooks. They refer to a recent quote by Newt Gingrich that was WAY over the top. I really don’t have too much to add to it. I will just say that I find it very sad and deeply concerning that there are so many whose opposition to our president goes so far that they will believe anything that is said or printed about him – so long as it is negative. They have surrendered their critical thinking skills. They allow Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox news to do all of their thinking for them.

If more conservatives were like David Brooks or David Frum, I would not view them with such contempt. Todays conservatives are ideologues. Ideologues don’t give a damn about the truth. Ideologues have no ability to revise their thoughts and opinions when the facts contradict their ideas.

I would like to quote the best passage from the article (from David Brooks).

Something about politics these days untethers many people from reality. It makes them feel heroic if the person they are opposing is uniquely evil and alien. Then in their little information cocoons these bizarre misconceptions get internalized. To keep up there, it is necessary to invent newer and graver examples of villainy. Take a look at Christine O’Donnell’s victory speech last night in which she embraced the idea that freedoms in America are uniquely under threat. It’s all ugly narcissism, not reality.

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