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Bits & Pieces- September, 2022



A quick monthly recap of a few current issues…


Death of the Queen- Why Give a Shit?


In early September I was driving with my people down to Islamorada in the Florida Keys for the Annual Swim to Alligator Lighthouse. At some point, from the backseat, Josiah Devine said, “the Queen is dead”. A split second later “God Save the Queen” entered my brain from the Sex Pistols in the ether. Then I remembered a headline about her being ill…


Queen Elizabeth was the second longest reigning monarch in history, serving for over 70 of her 96 years on the planet. The accolades and tributes flowed incessantly over the week, with mourners around the globe, as if the world had lost a benevolent force of righteousness and good will. As my friend Chris LaTray points out (https://chrislatray.substack.com/p/a-subterranean-and-vanquishing-good?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email), how do you think Indigenous peoples around the world view the British Empire and it’s figurehead?


As an American, I am not in a perfect position to cast judgment about England, particularly since the U.S. has sowed genocide since its inception. But it is burying one’s head in the sand to pretend that the monarchy stood for honor and righteousness while it spread empire around the globe, killing countless people along the way.


On top of that is the grotesque wealth controlled by the throne while working class folks struggle to make ends meet. Prince Charles, now King Charles, has developed a conglomerate of property ownership worth approximately $1.5 billion, which is just a fraction of the royal family’s estimated $28 billion. Where did that money come from? Industry and hard work? Or from the backs of labor, some paid, much not, all subservient to ‘the chosen family’. My recent guest, Jason Williamson of the English band Sleaford Mods, put it this way: “here, we just have a lazy aristocracy, which the working classes are happy to follow”. So there very well might be some cultural aspect of living with a monarchy that I don’t fully understand, but that does not gloss over the history of colonialism the crown was, and still is, responsible for.


Count me among those who are not mourning the death of the “Queen”.


Railroad Workers [Almost] Strike


After 2 years of mostly fruitless negotiations, railroad workers in the United States planned a general work stoppage to go into effect on Friday, September 16, 2022. About a dozen different unions were involved, and all but two came to an agreement with the railroad companies; the two largest unions, representing the engineers and the conductors, rejected the settlement proposed by an emergency board President Biden created in July.


As the date grew closer, panic rose nationwide and globally to a degree, since the potential ramifications of railways completely stopping would be felt worldwide. Unique to the railroad industry, Congress could actually step in and force both sides to accept the settlement proposed by the emergency board and avert a work stoppage. Republicans called on Congress to force the unionized workers to accept the terms of the proposal and keep working, but Democrats were not showing any indication they would do so.


At the 11th hour a settlement was reached, with President Biden addressing the two sides during their marathon bargaining session. It’s unclear how much Biden’s urging contributed to the settlement, but an agreement was eventually reached.


The key sticking point was not specifically wage-related but was actually about quality of life. Engineers and conductors would be penalized, through an arcane point system, for not being available to work at any time, sometimes 7 days a week. This penalty applied even for doctor and hospital visits. Senior railway engineers get 30-45 days off a year, completely off without being on-call. Most folks get 2 days off a week, for 52 weeks, plus vacation, at least 100 days off a year.


The settlement deal provides one additional paid day off a year as well as protections against discipline if they need time off to attend to routine and preventative medical care, as well as exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgical procedures. To me, it’s shocking that these protections were not already in place, but the Biden administration trumpeted it by saying, “this agreement is validation…of what I’ve always believed: Unions and management can work together…for the benefit of everyone.”


I find this a good example of how skewed American values are regarding work, labor, and humanity. The default assumption for many is to blame labor, as if they are troublemakers rebelling against generous owners and managers. The New York Times, for example, stated, “the talks have become bogged down over the unions’ complaints about the working conditions faced by employees who power the nation’s second-largest mode of freight transport — including long shifts scheduled on short notice and penalties for calling in sick or going to the doctor.” This implies it is the unions’ fault for slowing down negotiations, since they have the gall to want to visit a doctor without a penalty…


News outlets predominately have quotes and statements from “business leaders”, “economists”, and the Chamber of Commerce. They have also been quick to point out the high salaries (relative to many workers in the country) of the engineers, and how much damage to the economy would result from the protestations of labor. They are far less quick to point out that the top 7 rail companies in the U.S. are currently enjoying record profits- not just record revenue, but record profits.


U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh said “A strike doesn’t help anybody. A strike doesn’t help the workers. A strike doesn’t help the general public. A strike certainly doesn’t help the supply chain.”


Perhaps he has forgotten the gains workers have made from strikes? Labor laws, paid vacations, child labor restrictions, overtime rules, on and on, have come to be because of labor strife. Owners don’t just randomly choose to extend some generosity; all improvements have come from strikes, the threat of strikes, or other union activity. And this quote comes from the Labor Secretary of someone who has called himself the “most pro-union president in history”. Shame.

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