A Lesson in Power, Courtesy of the Bangladesh Garment Industry

The bodies have been placed in coffins. The mourners have draped themselves in black.

It was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in history. Over 100 people died in that clothing factory.

It made headline news all across the world. Surely you’ve read about it by now.

When they tried to escape, the factory workers found the doors locked. It was standard practice at the sweatshop. The managers didn’t want the workers to take unauthorized breaks.

So they burned alive.

Louis Waldman happened to be nearby when the fire started. He followed the sound of pandemonium until he reached the blazing factory. He told the New York Times what he saw: “Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street.”

You probably think I’m talking about the garment factory in Bangladesh, where 112 people died last weekend. But I’m not.

I’m talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York.

The date was March 25, 1911. One hundred forty-six people died that day.

New York City wouldn’t experience another disaster of that magnitude for another ninety years. That date would be September 11, 2001.

It’s hard to believe that such an atrocity happened right here in our own backyard. We’ve become so accustomed to workplace regulations and civil negotiations that we’ve forgotten what factory life was like before the Great Depression.

Back then, labor unions were even rarer than they are today. Most strikes ended at the barrel of a gun. The company would call the governor, and the state militia would send soldiers to force the strikers back to work. It wouldn’t be uncommon for them to kill and imprison dozens who stood in their way.

The history of our great nation is littered with epic labor battles. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Americans died defending their right to negotiate as one union rather than as helpless individuals.

It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to see that an individual worker doesn’t stand a chance of a fair negotiation with a $237 billion corporation like Wal-Mart, especially when unemployment is high. The corporation has so many applicants to choose from. It has all the power.

It’s that kind of power that allowed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to lock the doors and trap its workers.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen in America anymore, but it’s not because corporations had a change of heart. It’s because the Great Depression motivated Congress to stand behind workers who wish to form labor unions. It’s because the federal government stopped sending soldiers and started sending election supervisors. It’s because they investigated factory conditions and created laws to prevent the loss of innocent life.

This is what our government does. It’s what sets us apart from the destitute places of the world, where good, hard-working people have no protection from the warlords and factory bosses.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Americans watched the Congressional investigation of Wall Street with horror, as the wretched abuses of unregulated banks came to light. The great columnist Walter Lippmann summed up the national mood when he wrote, “No set of men, however honorable they may be, and however good their traditions, can be trusted with so much private power.”

Something to remember when the One Percent refuses to pay the taxes they paid in the booming 1990s, or when they blame the demise of the Twinkie on unions who took pay cuts while executive compensation was soaring.

The 99 Percent isn’t asking for a lot. An hourly wage that doesn’t leave their family in poverty would be nice. A guarantee that Social Security and Medicare will still be there when it’s their turn to retire. Maybe a few public schools that aren’t crumbling to the ground.

You know, the things that separate us from the Bangladesh’s of the world.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

I Once Visited Third Base

by Norman Horowitz

Barry Switzer was a famous football coach. A Chicago Tribune article once opened with a quote from Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

To me, this fits Mitt Romney perfectly.

I write this out of a sense of frustration in that Romney comes from “the landed gentry” and cannot “pull off” his portrayal of being an “everyman.”

I was not raised in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, as Mitt was.

I was raised in the Bronx.

I did not attend Stanford for a year, as Mitt did.

I was not in France for 2 1/2 years as a Mormon missionary.

I entered the United States Air Force during the Korean War.

I did not earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Brigham Young University or a joint JD and MBA from Harvard University in 1975 as a Baker Scholar.

I attended the RCA Institute studying electronics and worked at a minimum wage job to be able to support myself.

I did not enter the management consulting business, which led Mitt to a position at Bain & Company.

I got a clerical job at Screen Gems International.

I did not serve as CEO of the company.

Maybe that’s why I do not oppose mandatory carbon caps known as “cap and trade”…

And why I do not favor increased domestic oil drilling…

And why I do not support a managed bankruptcy of the American automobile industry…

And why I do not favor getting tougher with China on trade issues…

And why I get annoyed when Romney says:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.

The dignity of work? Really? How would he know?

You Haven’t Heard the Last of the Buffett Rule

A battle is coming. A battle for America’s future. A battle for her soul.

The opening salvo came earlier this week when the Buffett Rule died in the Senate at the hands of a corrupt minority who refused to even let it come to a vote.

The Buffett Rule was advertised as a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for households earning more than $1 million a year, but that’s not quite right. The minimum rate actually started much lower for those earning $1 million and gradually increased to 30 percent for those earning at least $2 million.

The Buffett Rule would have raised $16 billion per year over the next decade — a measly 1.2 percent of this year’s budget deficit.

Thus it was not a solution. It was a shot across the bow, a warm up for the decision we will face in November, a test run for the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in December. It was the beginning of a battle to reclaim this country as a democracy for the 100 percent, rather than a plutocracy for the 1 percent. A beginning, not an end.

For if there’s one thing the government desperately needs, it’s tax revenue.

Relative to the size of the economy, the federal government is collecting less tax revenue than it has since the Great Depression, less than any of the other wealthy “G-7” countries, and way below the average for so-called industrialized countries.

The average family of four is paying less of its income in taxes than at any time from 1955 to 2006. The richest 1 percent have seen their average tax rates fall even farther, from 58 percent in the 1950s, to 35 percent in the 1970s, to 29 percent in the 1990s, to 23 percent today. Corporations, which are supposed to pay a top statutory tax rate of 35 percent, actually pay only 12.1 percent of their profits in taxes, the lowest since 1972.

Any way you measure it, taxes are low. (And, let’s not forget, the economy performed better when they were higher.)

So it should not come as a surprise that the federal government will only receive $2.5 trillion in tax revenue to pay for $3.8 trillion in spending this year, leaving a deficit of $1.3 trillion.

If this is a major problem — and the majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that it is — then, as a matter of simple arithmetic, we must raise taxes or face draconian spending cuts. Since Republicans are so insistent on cutting taxes and thus increasing the deficit, they have chosen the latter course of action.

A couple weeks ago, I pointed out that it was unfair, unwise, and unusually cruel to force this kind of pain on low-income Americans, who would bear 62 percent of the burden under Paul Ryan’s latest budget proposal. Several readers replied that it’s unfortunate but necessary.

Is it necessary to slash taxes drastically for the rich? Is it necessary to leave the capital gains exemption intact? Is it necessary to increase defense spending? Is it necessary to foist hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies on American corporations and the richest 1 percent?

None of these things are necessary. In fact, they are all counterproductive and quite dangerous if it is necessary to reduce the budget deficit. Yet we can find them all in the House Republicans’ budget.

What we don’t find in that budget is more tax revenue.

It is a mathematical fact that we can reduce the budget deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars simply by returning to the tax code that we used to have two or three decades ago — when, by the way, the economy was growing faster, wages were rising faster, and income inequality was lower.

It is also a mathematical fact that the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the income gains in 2010. The recession has done all that the recession can do. The plutocracy is back.

It is up to us to wrest control of this country back from the grips of concentrated wealth and corruption. It will take time. It will take guts. But mark my words: The Buffett Rule will be back. And next time, it will be a heck of a lot bigger than $16 billion.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.