Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Which Side Really Broke the Law?

New York's "Taylor Law," enacted after a subway strike in the 1960s, makes it illegal for unions to strike against public agencies. That's received a lot of press and is why a judge was able to fine the Transport Workers Union $1 million a day for striking. But, it's not the only part of the Taylor Law that's been violated.

I've been harping on the wage issue, mostly because it's a very simple, straight forward part of the debate, but the union is really riled up about MTA proposals to change the pension plan for new workers. Turns out, the MTA shouldn't have even brought this issue under the table. Under The Taylor Law, collective bargaining sessions are prohibited from including pension plan discussions. The only way to change pensions for public employees is to enact new laws at the state level, which is something that Governor Pataki doesn't want to do since it will make him look like a stingy, uncaring governor.

In any event, why hasn't a judge fined the MTA management for illegally forcing the pension issue onto the table in the first place. Perhaps a judge should fine thwe agency a million dollars a day until they bring a plan to the table that doesn't violate the Taylor Law?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Well, They Did Strike...

The Transit Workers Union did strike, shutting down the subways and busses, so I was wrong about that. But, Pataki and Bloomberg have persisted in their tantrums and it looks like the state supreme court in Brooklyn has joined in trying to break the union by imposing a million dollar a day fine on it.

Bloomberg called the workers "Selfish," which is guess is billionaire for a worker who wants a raise.

What's forgotten is that these workers haven't received a raise in years since the last contract they signed offered no wage increases.

No prominent member of the local government has even entertained the notion that these workers have a point. That's sad.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Labor, The Subway and NYC

Cross-posted from TPMCafe, apologies if you've already seen this:

Chances are, there won't be a strike of transit workers in New York City. One hasn't happened since 1980, after all, and it's always threatened around contract time, after all, and they always miss the contract deadline, after all, and there's that pesky judge who says workers can be fined $25,000 a day per striking and lose double pay, after all. So, it probably won't happen.

But, you won't believe the media here, and the local government. Nobody is standing up for these workers and, below the fold, I'd like to argue that their demands are not out of line, in the least.

Dec 17, 2005 -- 12:54:44 AM EST

Okay, they want 8% raises per year, for the next three years. But, they're willing to come down on that, just not down to the 3% they're being offered. Remember, also, that when they last received a contract, in 2002, they got no raises. So, if you look at it on a 5 year basis, the 8% demand might just catch them up with five years of inflation, maybe.

Beyond that, inflation in New York City is at about... 3%. So, if they accept the MTA's offer, they barely keep their ground and could lose ground if inflation increases over the next three years, which is very possible. Is it so much to ask, as a reward for working, for salaries that increase better than the rate of inflation? I thought that working is supposed to bring the reward of an improving lifestyle, not stagnation.

Here's what local elected officials that non-New Yorkers will know have to say: Hillary Clinton won't take sides. Why not? I don't know, she could if she wanted to and it'd be nice to see a Democrat side with labor. Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki say the MTA offer is fair and that the workers should accept it. So, there you go, among the national figures -- 2 against the workers and one neutral. Nice.

The media has been mostly concerned with what will happen to commuters. Makes sense, commuters consume most of the media. But, of course, a strike is bad for commuters by definition. It's meant to be. Problem is, most commuters will likely see the strikers as the enemy, not the MTA management.

In fact, I've already notices this. Even progressive friends have said to me that the workers "could hold the city hostage," and that it isn't fair. Well, it's odd that capitalism allows a job so important that the workers could take a city of 8 million hostage but that those workers can't get a raise, I think.

A lot of companies have insisted, and some of these are companies that I know from experience will close for snow, have told their workers to find a way in, if a strike happens. Bloomberg has said he'll walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and cheer on workers who hoof it from the boroughs to Manhattan. The emotional atmosphere is as if tough New Yorkers will stand up to Transit Workers the same way they stood up to bin Laden after 9-11.

Except that these workers ARE New Yorkers. They have more in common with most New Yorkers than most New Yorkers have in common with their employers or their mayor.

It's really sad, I think, that we can't find New Yorkers, especially not in the media or among the elected, who will stand up and say that, at the very least, when the workers want an 8% raise that an offer of 3% is so far from a compromise that 5% would be reasonable.

I know, it's about more than just wages. The Transit Workers Union isn't right about everything, either. But just looking at the wage issue, especially in light of local inflation, it's hard for me to see the workers as the bad guys here. Or has the entire city just been conditioned to accept wages and benefits offered, without complaint or action?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Pinter's Nobel Acceptance

Here's a link to the Times' very good account of Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. If you're not registered, use for a password.

He veered, as the story says, into the realm of international politics. One poignant observation he made was that the US has often supported dictators. At the moment, we're doing that in Pakistan where the presiding president, Pervez Musharraf, is in power not by election but by coup. He's hardly the worst, but I bring him up because we support him out of convenience, since he deftly chose to aid us in our good old "War on Terror." Worse is that we support him now because, before 9-11, and for years and through administrations from both parties, we supported the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Foreign policy is complicated enough that supporting odious regimes is probably necessary, from time to time, and the global landscape changes often enough that allies will often become enemies for various reasons. But, the lesson we haven't learned, is that when we do support the odious, it's possible, and even likely, that those dictators, governments or movements, will someday turn on us.

So, in light of that lesson, rather clearly given by our support of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, I have to ask a question that I've asked before -- what will be the ramifcations of our training and equipping an army in Iraq? From what I've seen, the notion of training Iraq's military has always been spun in a positive light because, when Iraq can defend itself and maintain order within it's borders, we'll be able to draw down forces. That point of view makes a lot of sense and has its merits. But, I can't help but wonder what will happen 15 or 20 years from now. Are we training and funding and arming people and organizations who will one day become our enemies? We've earned a lot of ill will in Iraq, after all. We weren't greeted as liberators and, in dealing with the guerilla climate that followed our invasion, our forces have had to take actions, like busting into the homes of suspected insurgents during holy days, or taking military actions that lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, that will leave lasting wounds and grievances. Beyond that, there's the behavior of our forces at Abu Grhaib and the completed collapse, in the face of the facts, of our motives for invading Iraq in the first place.

I keep hearing that we can't pull out because, if we leave Iraq in chaos, it will turn into a haven for terrorists, as Afghanistan did under the Taliban. That's a good point and it's one I believe is true, since it stands to reason that any region or country left in a state of anarchy will devolve, as has been shown many times before (Somalia, for example) into a region where warlords maintain unsteady environments and unjust laws where criminal organizations can flourish. Heck, we even saw that in Russia, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It's true enough that those who would act outside of the global system will congregate in frontier regions where law is imposed by force, if at all. But, good as that argument is, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Terrorism, or even more organized and traditional (ie "state sponsored") threats can also grow out of stable countries. Throughout history, after all, most US conflicts that turn violent have been against other recognized governments with competing interests. Why assume that the government we create in Iraq will always be a reliable and useful client? Also, on the subject of terrorism, isn't it naive to assume that all of the soldiers we're training and arming there now, some of whom lost family members, loved ones, property or their place in Iraq's old society due to our intervention, won't eventually act against us on their own accord, using the weapons and knowledge we gave them?

Pinter focused on the US's sad history of supporting ignoble characters and immoral regimes. He was right to do so. Too often, what we've supported has turned into what we find ourselves opposing. Leaving Iraq in chaos is a real risk we face now, but it's not the only risk. We might also find, in the years that follow this experiment in democratizing by force, that even if we leave a stable government behind, it will become a threat. Or, that even if that government never becomes a threat, that the people who've been left to deal with our dramatic and undeniable rewriting of their environment, will become the very threat of terrorism that this war was purportedly waged to stop.

No easy answers here. We are where we are. We waged the war and toppled our former buddy Saddam. Leaving anarchy behind clearly compromises our future saftey and security. But, the alternative by no means assures the safety and security we were supposedly after.

One of Pinter's points, and it's a good one, is that we need to devise a foreign policy that avoids these no-win situations in the first place. I wrote earlier that in a complex world, we'll be bound to have to support the odious, from time to time, in the favor of our own interests. But, supporting such types always seems to lead to unanticipated consequences. Given that no foreign policy based purely on morality and idealism will work, I still say that we've compromised far too often and that, with far too much regularity, we've backed governments that are morally incompatible with our own. Unintended consequences should be expected, whenever we're dealing with a complicated situation. World politics is complicated enough that anybody working on the issues within should learn to expect the unexpected.

Pinter's speech wasn't a diatribe against America. It should be taken to remind us that the moral compromises that we make for short-term advantages have long term consequences. To take World War II as an admittedly extreme example, you sometimes have to choose sides between Stalin and Hitler. We did. We made the right choice, I think. But it had consequences. Half a decade of facing off with another power, where both sides could destroy the entire population of the planet many times over, was such an intense consequence that it defined most of global society for more than half a century.

The current debate about what the US should do in Iraq has become too simple. It's not "pull out and leave chaos or stay, perservere, and create a democratic republic in the Middle East that will serve as an example to the entire region." That's just not the debate. We should now be discussing, whatever course we choose, how we'll deal with the decades to follow and the ramifications of our war, which are frankly unpredictable.

The neocon vision that brought us to this point is a vision that creates a world, rather than one that deals with the world as is. That's what the whole kerfuffle about "the reality based community," was all about. In a way that I'd call "inspired by Nietzsche without really reading him," the minds behind this war believe that they're creating history, rather than dealing with it. This war was architecture except that nobody, not the people who supported it and not the people who oppose it, know what the building will look like.

We've plunged ourselves into an uncertainty that will confound us well past the point that Bush leaves office to build a library in Crawford, Texas. We have to deal with that uncertainty now. So... no pat answers from either side. But, arguments, please. A whole lot of arguments. Because we're right smack dab in ambiguity now and our supposedly "principled" policies, enacted over the last century by governments controlled by both of our major parties, has put us right to the point where none of us know what's going on.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Capital Move, Old Chap

So, a few weeks ago the military government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) decided to up and move its capital city. Despite its developed infrastructure, Yangon (formerly Rangoon) will no longer be the capital city. Instead, the Myanmarese government will build whole new capital, Pyinmana, in an undeveloped mountainous area in the middle of the country. Why, you might ask, would a poor country go to the huge expense of building a brand new capital when the old one works just fine?

Nobody knows. The Myanmarese often find the ruling military junta (the State Peace and Development Council) as odd and inexplicable as outsiders do. And the BBC reports that this is one of those times. Outside experts are having a good time guessing. Some experts believe that Pyinmana's more central location is designed to give the SPDC a better chance of controlling the populace. Some think the move has military motivation--an inland loaction would be easier to defend than coastal Yangon, and the SPDC is always claiming that the US is about to invade Myanmar. Some say the military government wants to be able to operate in greater secrecy, both from its own people and from foreigners. (Foreign embassies, apparently, will remain in Yangon.) Some say that the government, as it often does, is acting on the advice of fortunetellers.

See, this is more proof that foreigners are crazy. In America, we don't pour billions of dollars into some lunatic project just because our paranoid military regime consults fortunetellers and discovers that we need to move the capital city in order to avoid an imaginary attack on it.

Because, you see, Americans are normal. And normal people pour hundreds of billions of dollars into a lunatic invasion and occupation of some other country's capital because our paranoid military regime consulted neocon oracles and his "heavenly father" and discovered that we had to invade Iraq in order to avoid an imaginary attack on our capital.