Guest Contributor Al Markowitz is a freelance writer, poet, publisher, activist and philosopher. This article is published in the latest Veer Magazine. He also publishes the Blue Collar Review, Journal of Progressive working Class Literature. More of Al’s writings can be seen on his blog. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Naro Cinema management or staff.
Not for the first time, I am proud of my congressional Representative, Bobby Scott. Last May he introduced the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act” to do away with the stultifying “Right to Work” laws which smother our rights to organize on the job. Like many laws, the name implies the opposite of the reality. It has more accurately been called the “right to work for less.” Virginia has long been a “right to work” state along with the added indignity of “At Will” laws. This is why pay is lower in our state and in other, mostly southern and rural states. “At will” means you can be fired anytime for any reason or none, with no right to challenge the decision, rendering the workplace a dictatorship of fear and mistrust. This is made worse in our state because our rules for unemployment compensation require being let go for no reason of your own. Companies pay into that compensation and thus have an incentive to fire rather than to lay off workers.
Laws like “Right to Work” are the same, word for word, in many states because they are written by corporate consortia like the National Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who also fund political campaigns. The purpose is to keep the costs of the most variable business expense down – and that expense is you. The lower the cost and the greater the disposability of workers, the greater the take at the top. Dumping workers raises the value of stocks rewarding investors which makes the business climate look great. Thus “business is booming” when more of us are struggling to make ends meet. This is nothing new and goes back to the rise of industry in the 17th century. It is essential to understanding the founding of our own country.
Let us not forget that our nation was established by a wealthy merchant and slave holding class to free itself from British dominance and to protect and maintain its wealth. In order to get the support of the population, most of whom were poor farmers and former indentured slaves who mistrusted the landed gentry as much as they did the British, they ensconced the new Constitution with the Bill of Rights. Though initially only men with land or wealth were citizens able to vote, the promise of equality and guaranteed rights were there. As Madison noted in the first decades of the 19th century, the door to popular democracy had been opened. He feared that the rabble would eventually demand entry and real equality. The entire history of our country since that time has been a struggle for inclusion and basic rights for the rest of us. This includes the struggles for emancipation, for women’s equality, and for civil rights which continues to this day.
The struggle against institutional bigotry and fair wages, workplace safety and basic economic security is inseparable from the history of our country. I would advise anyone interested in this history, our history, to read “Labors’ Untold Story” written, not by cloistered academics but by working class historians Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais. There has always been lucrative work for those defending business interests in keeping us poor and powerless. Trump’s appointees and partners, from Wlliam Barr and Rudi Giuliani to Bret Kavanaugh and Trump’s newest judicial appointee Steven J. Menashi are a prime examples. As a continuation of his agenda to demolish every public protection in sight and cozy up to corporations, Trump has chosen Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to run the Department of Labor. He is a longtime corporate lawyer whose client roster has included Goldman Sachs, Facebook and Walmart. Scalia now leads the federal agency tasked with overseeing employee rights and labor laws.
Though Trump is more extreme, the direction is nothing new. An example of this dating back to the 1950’s was Roy Cohn, a vicious opportunist and aggressive agent of corporate interests who joined with Senator Joseph McCarthy in a successful effort to cripple and break the considerable power of the labor movement at that time. Cohn partnered with the infamous Sen. McCarthy in his campaign to tar progressives, destroy lives and most importantly, break the labor movement. Notably, like many closeted Gays in politics, Cohn publicly railed against and targeted Gays in the army and those employed in federal jobs. This is how he and those like him cover and distance themselves from their own homosexuality. Cohn eventually died of complications from AIDS. Even today, you can count on the most viciously outspoken anti-Gay clergy and politicians likely being closeted Gays. A truth-telling documentary by filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer on Roy Cohn will be showing at the Naro Cinema on Wednesday, Dec 4 with discussion to follow. This documentary is titled “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” because Trump reportedly shouted this line in frustration when his attorney general Jeff Sessions dared to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He had to settle for the addlepated and deeply conflicted Rudi Giulliani for legal council even as he threatens armed insurrection should he be impeached. Ironically, the ghost he wished to summon built his career prosecuting many on the false charges of threatening to overthrow our democracy by force and violence and for promoting sedition.
As Peter Travers writes in a Rolling Stone review of the film, “Tyrnauer’s flashes of compassion for this self-hating Jew and homosexual — taught from childhood to feel ashamed of what he was and who he was — remind us that his subject’s toxic, insidious amorality did not go to the grave with him. It’s all around us, among opportunists still looking for their own Roy Cohn — just one of several reasons why Tyrnauer’s doc hits you like a punch in the gut.“
The “Red Scare” that McCarthy, Cohn and Richard Nixon made their names with was never about Russians or even about communists. It was about dis-empowering organize labor. The strongest labor leaders have always been socialists like John L. Lewis, William Z. Foster and Harry Bridges. This resulted in the highest standard of living working Americans ever had. As union leadership was replaced by corporate players and shady opportunists our wages and conditions diminished. They continue to do so as we are pitted against low-wage foreign sweatshop workers in a race to the bottom. The lasting legacy of that period include laws designed to cripple our ability as employees to organize in our own defense; laws like the Smith Act, Taft-Hartley and that ole’ “Right to Work” which still plague us today.
As for Trump and the ghost of Cohn, a famous political thinker once noted that everything in history happens twice; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This is not the 1930’s or the 1950s no matter how strongly some wish for their return. We are not the same society nor are most of us willing to return to the dark days of political and gender repression, lynching or segregation. We are not helpless nor can we afford to be passive players. As I wrote in the editorial of the recent issue of the Blue Collar Review: we often feel helpless and afraid for our own futures. We struggle to survive, to hold on to our jobs and to what little security we have from day to day. But that isn’t enough. We must continue to struggle together against an ecocidal corporate dictatorship. Fortunately we are not alone in doing so.
In our area and state there are experienced citizen groups working to defend and expand our hard-won legislative gains in the halls of power and to curb and resist the efforts of corporate fronts to limit our rights, exploit the desperate, and undermine our public safety. One such grassroots group with a strong record of success is Virginia Organizing. The local chapter has won protections for residents of a mobile home park, passed zoning restrictions on predatory lenders, lobbied for lower prescription drug prices and organized monthly vigils for immigration reform. They are currently working to address the problem of flooding caused by climate change in Norfolk, immigration reform, voting rights, problems in local public schools, and statewide and national issues of health care including expanding medicaid access. If you are interested in joining with them or learning more, you can contact local organizer Megan McNamara at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to their website. As the season of gift giving is upon us, donations to support these important efforts on our behalf can be sent to Virginia Organizing, 703 Concord Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22903.
It is vital to remember that we are all in this together, that we must have each other’s backs and that we are not alone in standing up to ugly hatreds and the venal, self-serving power of corporate greed.