Let’s Get Rid of Those Unions!!!

February 28, 2011 at 10:54 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I begin by telling you about my grandfather, Jim Dodds, and my father, Joe Ronan. “Poppy,” as we called my grandfather, was as a young man a weaver in the textile industry in Chester, Pennsylvania. At a certain point, however, the textile industry “went South,” as they say, to avoid paying union wages in Pennsylvania. In the American South, they had (and still have) something called “Right to Work” laws, so unions couldn’t organize, and the owners of the textile mills could get away with paying the workers less money. Eventually the textile industry moved from the South to Mexico, and after that, to China, where, one assumes, they don’t pay union wages. After he lost his job as a weaver Poppy became a security guard. He died of a heart attack at the age of 59. He wasn’t awfully motivated to eat right, as I recall. Since he had no pension and no savings, my grandmother, Dommie, had to move in with us and had only a tiny little Social Security check with which to pay her doctor bills and buy the occasional pair of shoes, etc.

My Dad had dropped out of high school during the Depression to join the Civilian Conservation Corps so as to be able to eat (so much for the evils of Big Government). But after World War II he went to work for the Philadelphia Electric Company, which was unionized. And it wasn’t possible to move generating stations to the South in those days. Under the contract the union negotiated each year, he got “time-and-a-half” for working two shifts, and double-time for working three shifts, something he did fairly often, if memory serves me. My brother is now a partner in a law firm and I have a Ph.D. And when our mother died, thirteen years after Daddy, she left my brother and me more than $100,000.

Now you can argue that things had gotten a lot better after World War II, and that my parents were so traumatized by growing up during the Depression that they saved money like a pair of lunatics. (Even when she was in an assisted living facility, my mother still put money into her savings account from her Social Security and Daddy’s pension every month).

Be that as it may, the gap between working people and the rich in this country has gotten steadily wider in the last 30 years. Now things are so bad that Republican governors–elected by working people–are trying to deprive the government employees’ unions, the only unions that still have much power, of the right to collectively bargain. Government employees are doing too well (Teachers making $80,000!! The scandal of it!) while others are poor. What a lot of people don’t seem to grasp is that the wages of non-union employees are yoked to the higher wages union members are able to negotiate. Abolish the right to bargain and the people at the bottom are going to drop even further down the income scale, hard as that is to imagine.

Meanwhile the same governors, and their mirror-image mayors and Congresspeople, are trying as hard as they can to eviscerate the public schools.  Pretty soon the average American will be so badly educated, sh/e won’t be able to grasp the notion that their wages and benefits (should they have any) are yoked to the wages and benefits negotiated by unions.Workers will then all share equally in the right to go line up at the food pantry.


Many Children Left Behind

February 18, 2011 at 11:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Well, the economic crisis is really coming home, especially for poor children and the elderly.

In his new budget, for example, Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, proposes to rid the city of 6100 teachers. Now admittedly, New York is a big place; 6100 teachers isn’t as many here as it would be in other places. But still.

To orient you a bit on how I’m thinking about this, I should say that in the beginning of my career, I taught the fourth grade. It was the hardest job I ever had. After a few years I gave up. But during the years that I did teach, I did so in several different schools. The classes I taught in those schools varied in size from 44 children to 12 children. Please may I tell you, the smaller classes were a whole lot easier to teach than the larger ones, and I know the kids in the smaller classes learned more. You won’t be surprised to hear, I suspect, that the largest class I ever taught was comprised entirely of African-American kids.

So now Mikey is laying off 6100 teachers. It’s inefficient to have so many teachers, some will say. They’re mostly new so they’re inexperienced so who cares. Or we just can’t afford it. Similarly, the new Republican governor of Wisconsin is trying to stop teachers there from being able to bargain collectively for their contracts. The state must save money, we are told. It’s going broke.

The truth is, the United States has been intent on gutting public education since the 1970s. When Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, the public schools there were third in the nation in quality; today they’re 48th. It really doesn’t matter if lower-class kids learn to read and write; they’re not going to get jobs anyhow. The children of the professional-managerial class can just go to private schools, where they’ll begin working on their Mandarin and Arabic. You can be sure they’re not going to become school teachers because the salaries of school teachers are going to decline steadily if collective bargaining rights are abrogated.  If we play our cards right, we can establish a perpetual underclass, where one generation of badly educated people educates the next generation badly, ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

Meanwhile, the folks in Madison are gathering to protest. I wonder when the rest of us are going to join them.


Climate Change Goes to the Movies

February 17, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Sister Grail member Joy Garland and I went to the IFC, the film center on lower Sixth Avenue in Manhattan yesterday, to see three short documentaries that have been nominated for an Academy Award this year. I’m  really glad we did.

The first of the films, KILLING IN THE NAME, is the story of a Muslim man, Ashraf Al-Khaled  whose wedding ceremony in a hotel used by Westerners was blown up by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of 27 members of his family, including his and new wife’s fathers. The film follows Ashraf’s efforts to convince Muslims around the world that killing other Muslims does not qualify as Jihad. I was particularly moved by the segment in which he debates with teenage boys in a Muslim school in (I believe) Indonesia. It’s not clear that he convinces them, but clearly, this is the kind of courage the world needs if we’re to stop killing one another.

But I was much more taken with the other two films, which address the pressing and linked issues of the world water shortage and climate change. I am greatly encouraged that such films are up for an Academy Award. May we all be showing them in our church basements and community centers soon!

The first is the exquisitely beautiful SUN COMES UP, which follows the relocation of a group of indigenous people in the south Pacific from their island home to the nearby Bougainville section of Papua New Guinea. The Carterets may be the first climate refugees most Americans will ever meet—their islands are being washed away by rising sea water—though they surely won’t be the last; estimates have it that various aspects of climate change—rising tides, the desertification and salination of fields, and floods—will produce as many as 100 million climate refugees by 2050. Viewers learn about the particular effects of climate change that are driving the Carterets off their island home. But the primary value of the film, I think, is that it presents us with some real and deeply inspiring human beings as they confront this horrific situation. The shots of faces, of people dancing, of the residents of Papua New Guinea welcoming the Carterets into their community, all of this brings home to us what will be lost if, by ignoring the reality of climate change,  we allow millions of human beings to be washed away or die of starvation or thirst.

If SUN COMES UP fights climate change with its sheer beauty, THE WARRIORS OF QIUGANG attacks the world water shortage and related environmental harm head on, documenting the refusal of the residents of a Chinese village to let a chemical company continue to destroy their land and water. The film focuses on a deeply appealing farmer, Zhang Gongli. When Zhang’s fields become so poisoned he can no longer farm them, he teaches himself enough law to sue the chemical company that has caused the pollution, not once, but twice, losing both times. Eventually, though, he organizes the villagers and they force the government to close the factory. If you need to find some hope for the struggle, watch this movie. If you need to be reminded of the horrific impact of chemical contaminants on earth, water, and people, watch this movie.

As with all films, a few quibbles trail along behind. For one thing, in the case of the Carteret Islanders, it’s hard not to wonder what the survival expectations are for the section of  Papua New Guinea to which they are relocating. At least it’s inland, but it’s hard to imagine that that’s the last we’ll be hearing about climate refugees in Papua New Guinea. And toward the end, THE WARRIORS OF QIUGANG raises its own question: will the government prevent the chemical company from doing the same harm to the area where it has moved (5 miles away) as it did to Quigang? Maybe Zhong Gongli will ride over there and fill the neighboring villagers in.

Prudence or Terror?

February 16, 2011 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A while back I read a book about climate change by the journalist Gwynne Dyer. It’s scared the be-Jesus out of me. Here’s the review I wrote, which was originally published in Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York, the local branch of the international Catholic peace movement:

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, by Gwynne Dyer. Oneworld Publications, 2010. 288 pp. $24.99.

As Christians, we strive to consider the burgeoning environmental crisis in the light of God’s gracious gift of creation and in the hope of redemption.  This is not the approach Gwynne Dyer adopts in Climate Wars. Instead, Dyer, an internationally-known  geopolitical analyst, deploys ten grim scenarios likely to play out over the next fifty years as a result of climate change.  As one on-line reviewer observes, if you woke up this morning wanting to read a book that will “scare the living  #$! out of you,” Climate Change is it.

Included among Dyer’s scenarios are the death of three-and-half million Bangladeshis from cyclones between 2022 and 2025; the installation in 2025 of a fence armed with land-mines and remote-controlled machine guns along the entire US/Mexican border to keep out  millions of “climate refugees” fleeing unremitting drought and famine;  the cessation of agricultural production in California’s Central Valley and the high plains of the American West by  the mid-2030s; and in 2036, a six-day nuclear war between India and Pakistan over the water in the parched Indus River.

Following each scenario is an analysis of the climate change factors that make it likely. Dyer begins by explaining the “feedback mechanisms”–the melting of polar sea ice, methane release from thawing permafrost, the disappearance of heat-reflective glaciers–that make it likely that by 2050 the CO level will actually be higher than is currently predicted. Next we learn that biofuels are no solution to global warming because their production has already massively reduced world grain reserves; soon, according to Dyer, millions of people will face starvation so that some of us can have eco-friendly fuel for our cars, with wars inevitably following (55).  Neither will cap-and-trade alone solve our problems, for reversal of the levels of carbon emissions we have already reached demand at least a concomitant massive restoration of the rainforests .  Finally Dyer details the obstacle to carbon reduction posed by the conflicts between developed, developing, and almost permanently impoverished nations. Only a colossal assumption of responsibility (and cost) on the part of the developed nations can possibly resolve them.

Christians may object to the cynicism of Dyer’s world-view, as when he asserts, early on, that “the (climate change) crisis was foreordained from the moment that the first woman planted a seed” (44).  And many environmentalists will loathe his advocacy of geo-engineering solutions to the climate change crisis–spraying droplets of seawater into the air to make clouds more reflective of sunlight, fertilizing the oceans with trace elements to foster growth of CO2 -eating phytoplankton, or  in the worst  case, shooting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block solar radiation (232).

In one way, however, Dyer’s argument sounds almost Catholic.  In 2001 the US  bishops issued a letter, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.” In it, they  acknowledge what most scientists say: that the earth is warming and human activity is causing it.  Our response to climate change, then, must be  “rooted in the virtue of prudence.” Despite some remaining uncertainty about the extent of climate change, according to the bishops, “it seems prudent to take steps now to mitigate possible negative effects in the future.”

Gwynne Dyer does not speak of prudence, but of something similar. Confronting climate change now, he writes, is like taking out insurance. Few homeowners reject buying insurance because there’s no proof that their home is going to burn down. They buy insurance because their house could burn down, and without insurance, such a fire would ruin them.  In Climate Wars, Gwynne Dyer demonstrates that our planet may very well burn up, and sooner than we thought.  Like sensible homeowners, we need to determine the coverage we need and write that check quickly.

The Story that Goes with the Picture (Sort of)

February 9, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Well, since I never put a photo on my blog before, you may be wondering what the one that appeared yesterday is about. It’s a picture of some Christians in Egypt protecting Muslims while they are praying. The congregation to which my friend Sister Celia Deutsch belongs, the Sisters of Sion, are dedicated to inter-religious peace, especially between Christians and Jews, and some of their members are in Egypt. So Celia has been following what’s happening there very closely. When she came across this very moving photo, she forwarded it to me, and I forwarded it to you, so to speak.

And now, the reverse picture has appeared in, of all places, the New York Daily News, with an accompanying story: Muslims protecting Christians–in this case, Coptic Christians–while they are at Mass. In a world that seems to lurch from one act of violence to another, we can for a moment, at least, observe some of us doing genuine good to others of us. And Muslims and Christians no less! Thanks be to God.

Christians Defend Muslims in Egypt

February 8, 2011 at 9:14 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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