2.03.2011

'Deification of the Dead'

I have an acquaintance who is a very talented organist and is very much in demand to play at weddings and funerals. What he doesn’t like about being engaged to play at funerals, he once told me, is the “deification of the dead.” He said the deceased could have been the worst sort of scoundrel, but is always elevated to sainthood in the service.

In thinking about the “deification of the dead,” I would like to reflect on my early days in the workplace when employees were treated as an integral and worthy part of what made a business successful. It was a time when esprit de corps existed and workers were very proud of the company’s delivered products or services.

All that changed, and one can pinpoint when the change occurred. The balance shifted, employees became replaceable “cogs in the wheel” of production and, being so marginalized, began to lose heart – no longer taking pride in being a part of the whole and working only in weary anticipation of payday.

The change came hard and fast. When I was in management in 1983, I was initiated into “Management by Objectives,” one feature of which was “Attrition by Absorption.” One goal of management, I was told, was to make an employee so miserable he or she would resign, resulting in reduction of personnel. Management was taught ways to achieve this. Then, another employee could “absorb” the departing worker’s duties, with no increase in pay. My conscience rejected such dirty tricks.

I lived it. I know when the change began. But, let me share a well-written disclosure of the moment. And, when you have read it, I want you to think a lot in the days ahead about my friend’s “deification of the dead.”

Ronald Reagan, Enemy of the American Worker

by Dick Meister, t r u t h o u t
Op-Ed (LINK), 2 February 2011

The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth is coming up in February, and before the inevitable gushing over what a wonderful leader he was begins, let me get in a few words about what sort of a leader he really was.

Ronald Reagan was, above all, one of the most viciously anti-labor presidents in American history, one of the worst enemies the country's working people ever faced.

Republican presidents never have had much regard for unions, but until Reagan, no Republican president had dared challenge the firm legal standing labor gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930's.

Reagan's Republican predecessors treated union leaders much as they treated Democratic members of Congress - at times, as adversaries to be fought with, and, at others, as people to be bargained with. Reagan, however, engaged in precious little bargaining. He waged almost continuous war against organized labor and the country's workers from the time he assumed office in 1980 until leaving the presidency in 1988.

Reagan had little apparent reason to fear labor politically. Opinion polls at the time showed that unions were opposed by nearly half of all Americans, and that nearly half of those who belonged to unions had voted for Reagan in both of his presidential campaigns.

Reagan, at any rate, was a true ideologue of the anti-labor political right. Yes, he had been president of the Screen Actors Guild, but he was notoriously pro-management in that position. He led the way to a strike-ending agreement in 1959 that greatly weakened the union. Under heavy membership pressure, he finally resigned as union president before his term ended.

Reagan's war on labor as US president began in the summer of 1981, when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union.

As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted in 2004, the firing was "an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear - illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad."

Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were originally designed to protect and further the rights of workers and their unions. Most important was Reagan's appointment of three management representatives to the five- member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The appointees included NLRB Chairman Donald Dotson, who declared that "unionized labor relations have been the major contributors to the decline and failure of once healthy industries" and have caused "destruction of individual freedom."

A House committee found that under Dotson, the NLRB abandoned its legal obligation to promote collective bargaining, in what amounted to "a betrayal of American workers."

The NLRB settled only about half as many complaints about employers' illegal actions as it had during the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter. Most of the complaints were against employers who responded to organizing drives by illegally firing union supporters. The employers were well aware that, under Reagan, the NLRB was taking an average of three years to rule on complaints - and that, in any case, the board did no more than order that discharged unionists be reinstated with back pay, which was much cheaper than operating under a union contract.

The board stalled equally as long before acting on petitions from workers seeking union representation elections and generally stalled for another year or two after such votes before certifying winning unions as the workers' bargaining agents. Also, under Reagan employers were allowed to permanently replace workers who dared exercise their legal right to strike.

Reagan's Labor Department was as one-sided as the NLRB. It became an anti-Labor Department, virtually ignoring, for example, the union-busting consultants that many employers hired to help them fend off unionization.

Very few consultants and very few of those who hired them were asked for the financial disclosure statements that the law demands, yet all unions were required to file the statements that the law required of them, and that imbalance could be used to advantage by their opponents. Although the Labor Department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for such union-busting activities by almost 40 percent.

Among Reagan's many other outrages, there were his attempts to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, weaken the child labor and anti-sweatshop laws, tax fringe benefits and cut back programs to train unemployed workers for available jobs. He also tried to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not have civil service or union protection.

Reagan all but dismantled programs that required affirmative action and other steps against discrimination by federal contractors, and he seriously undermined job safety programs. He closed one-third of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) field offices, trimmed the agency's staff by more than one-fourth and decreased the number of penalties assessed against offending employers by almost three-fourths.

Rather than enforce the laws, Reagan appointees sought "voluntary compliance" from employers on safety matters - and generally didn't get or expect it. Reagan had so tilted the safety laws in favor of employers that safety experts declared them virtually useless.

The same could have been said of all other labor laws in the Reagan era. A statement issued at the time by the leaders of several major unions concluded that it would have been more advantageous for those who worked for a living to ignore the laws and return to "the law of the jungle" that prevailed a half-century before.

The suggestion came a little late. Ronald Reagan had already plunged the nation's labor-management relations deep into the jungle.

Yet Reagan will nevertheless be honored in centennial celebrations throughout the United States, in Europe and elsewhere in coming days. He's become a much beloved mythical figure, and nothing will change that - certainly not the unheard or unacknowledged facts of his presidency and its disastrous effects on America's working people, many of whom, ironically, will be among the celebrants.

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. You can contact him through his website, http://www.dickmeister.com/.

***

POSTSCRIPT (EMPHASIS MINE)

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, speaking in 1983 on the legacy of Ronald Reagan, noted (LINK):

“Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The president invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs, an action that unsettled those who cynically believed no president would ever uphold that law. President Reagan prevailed, as you know, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”

6 comments:

Jerry Critter said...

Hi BJ,
I agree. I saw the change in management attitude towards employees also change in the early '80's. The change coincided with not only Reagan, but also the beginning of the corporate takeover of privately owned companies and smaller corporate companies. As upper management moved farther and farther away from the worker, money and growth became more important than worker benefits and support. The teamwork that existed between management and worker was destroyed in the process.

But, what the hell, after all it made a few people very wealthy and very powerful, and isn't that what we all want?

What?!?

I also agree Reagan was an asshole, and I had to live with him as Governor before having to put up with him as President.

Ahab said...

Glad to see you posting again!

tnlib said...

Fantastic piece, Ms BJ - and I totally agree. I remember those days well. I've always wondered how companies can expect loyalty from their employees when they demonstrate absolutely no layalty toward the employees. My last boss was a one-woman eat 'em up and spit 'em out machine. No respect for her employees or acknowlegement of their value and contributions.

Reagan is dead but he was dead long before he died. We should let his memory rest in peace - and forgotten.

tnlib said...

PS: I'm glad I left DemWit on my blogroll. ; )

Frodo, hair of the dog, said...

Frodo has previously commented about the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. There has never been an employee fired. There has never even been a discussion about the presence of a union. The company is the pride of a county in which one cannot even purchase alcohol for human consumption (a "dry" county). His point is, not unlike the fact that Brown-Forman, Ltd. has acquired Jack Daniels, the existence of the "company town" is what we mourn. It once was ours, but now it's owned by investment bankers on Wall Street who package up the mortgages and sell them to other investment bankers who never even heard of Lynchburg.
Is it all bad? Things change, and that is good.
Frodo still misses taking the tour with Garland Duesenberry, and sitting in Lem Motlow's chair.

Damn good thing you came back, Merry. Frodo hates to drink alone.

Papamoka said...

I think you hit the nail on the head as far as workers relationships go with their employers nowadays. The attitude from employers is such that everyone working for them knows that they are replaceable and that is sad. Then again, the attitude from employees is that its just a paycheck. In another respect, you have new companies that sprout up that love their employees, respect them, and do everything possible to keep them. I like to think of it as the opposite effect of Reaganomics. Look at Google, free food at work, use of electric cars, dry cleaning and laundry at work, benefits up the waaaazooo. And then they go and make millionaires out of thousands of employees when they went public.