Sunday, August 25, 2019

Happy Labor Day

Labor Day weekend will be celebrated by many Americans as an occasion for picnics and end-of-summer cook-outs.  But who invented the weekend, or the vacation, for that matter?  Before the holiday honoring workers was created, back in 1882, most wage-earners toiled twelve hours a day, seven days a week in sweatshops, mills and mines that were dangerous, dirty and that paid a subsistence income.  Many of the early labor organizers had names like Saco and Vanzetti: they were Italians, Slavs, Jews, or other recent immigrants, considered “un-American” and almost subhuman.  But the fight for an eight-hour day, for a minimum wage, for an end to child labor, for sick leave and safe working conditions were all their achievements.

But those wins are in jeopardy.  Recently ICE raids at Koch Foods in MIssissippi rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers at chicken factories where workers had joined the United Food and Commercial Workers and won multi-million dollar lawsuits against the owners for racial and sexual harassment in the workplace.  The company’s owners faced no criminal charges for illegal hiring.  Instead, the bosses phoned the feds to retaliate against their own employees.  At Peco Food, also targeted by ICE, workers had suffered amputations as the number of federal inspectors dropped and the speed of the slaughter-line increased.  One Peco plant in Mississippi dis-assembles and packages approximately 17 tons of poultry weekly.  These detentions, the largest single-state ICE enforcements in history, were timed for the first day of school, so that children (many citizens born in the U.S.) came home from class to find their parents missing, behind bars.  Their crime?  Seeking better working conditions in jobs that nobody else wanted.

That same weekend, a shooter who posted a racist screed warning of a Latino “invasion” of our country murdered 22 shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, the youngest victim just fifteen years old.  Oh, Walmart still sell guns and ammo.  Americans have a right to bear arms, in their view, just not a right to collective bargaining.  The Walton family now owns $191 billion, more money than the bottom 43 percent of Americans combined.  But they will not allow unions to organize in their stores, where starting workers recently received a raise to $11 per hour.  Try supporting a family on that.  And compare $11 to the $4 million per hour the Walton heirs “earn.”  But when meat-cutters at another Walmart store in Texas formed a union, the Waltons announced within a week that they would fire all their butchers and sell only pre-packaged meat at 700 other Walmart super-store outlets.  

No doubt much of that pre-packaged meat is coming from places like Koch and Peco Foods.  Walmart advertises “Koch Farms Chicken Cravers Parmesan”, along with “Koch Foods Oven Cravers Pepper Jack, Swiss Cheese & Bacon Stuffed Chicken” in their grocery department. Peco Foods lists Walmart among its top customers.  

Please, as you enjoy your backyard barbecue on Labor Day, ask yourself where that meat came from.  Ask yourself why, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, so many meat-packers earn as little as  $10 per hour.  Ask yourself who would wade through a killing floor of blood, guts and grease, risking life and limb, for that kind of money.  Remember the undocumented workers who are exploited, victimized by wage theft, often underage, bullied by bosses and unable to complain for fear of deportation.  Then remember the people with funny-sounding “foreign” names who fought like heck so you could enjoy a weekend.

Happy Labor Day.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Cinco de Mayo?

Between now and now,
Between I am and you are,
The word: Bridge  (Octavio Paz)

Traveling between the U.S. and Mexico, you may cross the Lincoln-Juarez bridge.  These two names are linked not just in steel and concrete but in also in history, culture, conflict and collaboration, worth remembering on Cinco de Mayo.

Congressman Lincoln from Illinois was one of the few in Washington to oppose the Mexican War of 1848, which was mainly a pretext for extending slavery into Texas and beyond.  He voted against the Treaty of Hildago-Guadalupe, which grabbed New Mexico, Arizona, California and parts of Colorado and Wyoming from our southern neighbor at bargain basement prices.  Fifteen million dollars for the great American southwest.

About the time of our own Civil War, Mexico was experiencing its own ferocious War of Reform, and Lincoln’s counterpart was Benito Juarez.  Both were born to poverty (Juarez was a full blooded Zapotec Indian).  Lincoln was log cabin born.  Juarez was born in a bamboo hut.  But both became attorneys and were inaugurated to the Presidency of their respective nations in January of 1861.  Both were known for their complete integrity.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory of Juarez’s forces over a French battalion twice its size in the small town of la Puebla in 1862.  The French were trying to impose a monarchy on the Mexican people, who had already elected President Juarez, representing a new popular Constitution that guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of religion and association, along with an end to debtor’s prison which kept many peons in mortgaged bondage to rich landowners. This affected our own Civil War, here in the United States.

The Confederacy, under Jefferson Davis, wanted French help to end the naval blockade of southern ports, in exchange for raw cotton.  The French under Napoleon III hoped to regain the territory they had bartered away under Napoleon I in the Louisiana Purchase, along with access to California’s gold.  The Church wanted a Catholic monarch on a restored throne of Mexico to protect its ancient privileges.  Maxillian von Habsburg, the proposed would-be monarch of Mexico, would reign in glory and enlightened benevolence over his grateful subjects.

None of it happened.  Mexico already had an enlightened and wise leader, legitimate and popular, Benito Juarez.  The French withdrew their troops after Appomattox, realizing they were supporting a losing cause, throwing good money after bad.  Some Dixie regiments, refusing to accept Lee's surrender, retreated south, offering their support to the Royal Line, who promised to accept their slaves as long as they were called indentured servants or some such.  (Nod, nod, wink, wink.)  It was futile.  Prince Max was eventually hunted down, given a fair trial, and shot.

The battle of la Puebla was a small victory, but important.  Had Juarez lost on Cinco de Mayo, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado might today be slave states.  History would have been different, and not for the better.

Cinco de Mayo is more celebrated north of the Rio Grande than in Mexico, not only because of advertising from beer companies, but because it helped to win the Civil War.  More than the Battle of Glorieta Pass (sometimes called “the Gettysburg of the West”), Juarez’s triumph stopped the spread of slavery and established democratic reforms both in Mexico and the United States.    

Like Lincoln, who in his Second Inaugural, extended charity to all and malice to none, seeking to reconcile and heal his nation after the terrible conflict between north and south, Juarez was generous to the vanquished.  “Neither in the past nor much less in the hour of total triumph for the Republic, has the government desired--nor should it desire--to be moved by any feeling of passion against those with whom it waged war  … Let the people and the government respect the rights of all, because among individuals, as among nations, peace is respect for the rights of others.” 

So pop a cerveza today: Corona, Dos Equis or Pacifico.  It’s a free country, and you can choose.  But know why you’re drinking and to whom.  This is a Mexican holiday.  It’s an American holiday.  It’s a deeply democratic holiday.  Happy Cinco de Mayo.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Citizen Democracy

Here in New Mexico, a new legislature is in session. With half a dozen other members of my congregation, I went to speak with our Senator from Taos, Carlos Cisneros. We talked mostly about renewable energy and how to shift our economy from nuclear and fossil fuels to more sustainable model. 

 There’s a proposal afoot to create a permanent nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad, in the southern part of our state. Unfortunately, the Senator told us, this is a federal matter under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy and people who actually live on this land have very little leverage. But he worried aloud that the private corporations profiting from these operations would eventually go bankrupt, reaping their short term profits and then leaving local taxpayers to pick up the long term costs of clean up when the inevitable “accidents” occur. 

 Isn’t it interesting that no private insurance firms (all of whom specialize in managing risk) will insure a nuclear power plant or the repositories for radioactive waste? Maybe they know something we don’t! 

 We also talked about establishing a tax credit for installing solar. The problem, Senator Cisernos explained, is that tax credits reduce revenue that might be available for other worthy causes like education and children’s health. But how do you really measure the cost of a policy initiative like this? I noticed a framed certificate on the Senator’s wall honoring his long service as a volunteer firefighter in the town of Angel Fire. I’m also a firefighter. So I commented to the Senator that fire seasons are becoming longer and more intense here in the Southwest, largely due to global warming. How do we offset the short term costs of offering tax credits for solar against the long term price of devastating fires and loss of life to residents and first responders in woodland communities? The price tag for California’s recent Camp Fire is likely to top $19 billion with thirty-one dead. But costs like these get externalized, never recorded on the balance books. 

 What’s the answer? I don’t have it. But go talk to your own local legislators about the issues that concern you. The conversations are the only way to restore our democracy and find a common way forward.