Photo: Tracy Woodward, Washington Post
A bold and innovative street artist with the simple name "JR" has transformed an unoccupied building at 14th and T Streets in Northwest Washington, DC. JR has given the nation's capital a new and inspiring mural, an enormous version of the iconic "I Am A Man" photograph of AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., during their 1968 strike. This project could not be more timely, as it provides a powerful reminder that the struggle for respect the workers in Memphis undertook nearly 50 years ago is an ongoing battle.
The struggle continues, and not just in states such as Wisconsin where Gov. Scott Walker was able to strip public employees of their rights to collective bargaining. No, the struggle is nationwide, especially in this election season as Gov. Mitt Romney and his allies work to spread the attacks on public service workers to every state in the nation. Romney speaks out regularly against the right of sanitation workers and other public service workers to have a voice on the job. He opposes their right to organize or to have collective bargaining rights. Paul Ryan shares his view. In their America, the men and women who collect trash, plow streets, guard prisoners, care for children and heal the sick should simply do as they're told.
Their contempt for workers and the right to have a voice in the workplace is not limited to public service workers. Romney and Ryan want to eliminate the ability of unions in both the private and public sector to effectively raise funds, recruit members and have the freedom to negotiate for better wages, working conditions and benefits.
They support transforming every state - including places like Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where unions have a long history - into new versions of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and other so-called "right to work" states where wages are low, benefits are few and workers are given little or no respect on the job. They want governments to be run for and by businesses, with little attention paid to the vulnerable, seniors, the poor and the unemployed. In their brave new world, workers are a cost center on a balance sheet, not partners in building profitable businesses, strong communities and an economy that benefits everyone.
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson made this point in a column he wrote on Romney and Ryan's disdain for the working class. "Workers are not mere cogs in a machine designed to service those who make more money," he wrote. "They are part of a community. The same is true of teachers, police officers, firefighters and others whom Romney and Ryan dismiss as minions of 'big government' rather than public servants."
This mindless rush to belittle the worth of workers pervades the elitists who fund and support the Romney-Ryan ticket.
Consider a CEO like David Siegel of Westgate Resorts, who sends his employees a whining, self-serving email telling them that they will lose their jobs if President Obama raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans:
"If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company," he wrote to employees. "Rather than grow this company I will be forced to cut back. This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone."
Siegel also notes that he has suffered in the Great Recession: He's had to stop construction on his 90,000 square foot home. He's a billionaire who thinks it's perfectly alright to blackmail his employees into voting against their economic interest and for his.
The billionaire Koch brothers are also doing their part to politicize the workplace and turn employees into right-wing voters. In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars they are using to corrupt our democracy, now they are sending letters to employees at Koch-owned companies urging them to support Mitt Romney and other right-wing candidates.
We see it in the attitudes expressed earlier this month by FOX News performers Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly as they belittled working men and women like Richard Hayes, Temo Fuentes and Joan Raymond. These three AFSCME members in San Diego appear in videos describing the work they do that benefits Mitt Romney at his vacation home in La Jolla, Calif.
Rivera says the sanitation workers represent all "the people whose pensions are bankrupting cities and have been, you know, in the crosshairs of Mitt Romney and the Republicans for this entire election cycle." He ignores the fact that the average pension for an AFSCME retiree is less than $20,000 and is funded largely by investments made by the retirees themselves during their working careers.
O'Reilly says Richard Hayes' video is "bogus" and shares Rivera's view that it is "a low blow" for working men and women to speak up about Mitt Romney. "They are appealing to just ignorant voters," said the millionaire O'Reilly, as millionaire Rivera smiled in agreement.
This kind of condescending attitude is much too pervasive among the well-heeled in America. It's repulsive and ugly. Mitt Romney and his crass remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who feel "entitled" only makes it worse.
How much worse? Well, Rivera and O'Reilly's parent company, announced plans earlier this month to begin production of a degrading and dehumanizing entertainment to rival the extremes of "The Hunger Games" and "Lord of the Flies." According to the latest issues of Entertainment Weekly, Fox is finalizing a deal for a new show called Does Someone Have To Go? The repulsive "hook" of the new show: Real employees at real companies will decide which other real employee will be fired at the end of the hour.
Fox executives think stripping workers of their livelihoods is a creative and entertaining idea. In reality it is another sign that workers need their voices heard in the struggle to maintain their dignity. It's a reminder that the struggle for respect that the Memphis sanitation workers fought to win continues to this day. Workers must raise their voices and cast their votes against corporate-backed politicians and policies that would deny them the respect and rights that each of us deserve.