Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thinking and Acting Like and Immigrant ...

One of my classes has read and now reporting on Tom Friedman's new book, That Used to be Us.  I highly recommend this book for a host of reasons for it does a wonderful job of holding up a mirror on our current culture and the root structure that brought us to that view into the mirror but more importantly, he takes us on a journey of what other countries have and are doing that would and could and should incorporate into our very American culture.  One of the elements he strongly postulates for Americans, especially young Americans, is to think and act like and immigrant!

I chose to let that conversation waft as discussion yesterday since I had, well, a class of immigrants called Americans but included were two wonderful young women, one from Romania and one from Mexico. So I posed the question to both ladies for the class to hear by asking unexpectedly, Eva and Larisa, tell us what thinking and acting like an immigrant means to you?

The discussion that followed was rich for I watched the faces of the rest of us, the Americans thus immigrants from past generations, listen intently to the comments of the two students.  Immigrants come here with no agenda other than to survive. They have no safety net.  They must decide they will do anything to be successful defined a survive.  Their primary aim for the journey as an immigrant is normally to secure income that can be sent back to the home / family of origin to assist in their survival.  There are no entitlement programs they can lean on. They are alone in a big, scary world and, oh by the way, they usually cannot speak the language thus another challenge on top of the others. THAT is thinking and acting like an immigrant!

Having lived outside this country on two occasions, I have somewhat of an idea of this new venture for it is always very strange and isolating to be in a totally new culture where you do not know the customs, the language, the norms, the rights and the wrongs, etc.  But you quickly realize it is for you to adapt and not wait for the culture to adapt to you. It can be frightening but always enlightening I can assure you.

The really sad thing for me today is that in our American cave, the term "immigrant" has become tainted and stereotyped which is very sad, frankly.  Yes, there are good, solid, contributing people that come here from other countries want a better life but also, the old 80/20 rule applies meaning that somewhere in the range of 20% come here illegally, for divergent reasons and for criminal intent thus the 80% that come here for the right reasons, and we need them, get painted the same hue as the bad actors; so sad but so true!

As a professor working with thousands of university students in the last almost decade of my life, I have also found a most interesting reality of first generation immigrants as students; they work harder and seek to understand the educational process more deeply than their American counterparts.  I like to tell my classes that I am going to hire a Chinese or South Korean student to just sit in my future classes so they can watch and experience the energy these students invest into the learning journey as example of what being "hungry" for education looks like and feels like. There is some humor about this but at the aggregate, it is so true.  Children of immigrants in a class environment excel for they work harder, dig deeper and expect more of themselves than the traditional American counterparts. If I have offended some Americans reading this, GOOD! Be offended but let the offense be internalized to develop a high degree of pondering what I am really saying in my message this morning.

We are ALL immigrants as Americans. My heritage is Irish and Welsh. But somewhere from the time my people left Wales or Ireland or Germany or Poland or Nigeria or you name it, as the generations have come and gone, the "hunger" and "drive" faded into expectation of someone else, safety nets and cushions on the hard part of this thing called life.  Ever since that discussion in class yesterday, I have found myself now going back into the syllabi's for my Fall semester and revising the Blocks of Work to facilitate more time for open class discussion on these topics that abound; subjects that will color this student generation as they prepare to bring in the next generation and the cultural adaptations they will induce.

So, in closing, I challenge each of you to take a few days and really think about what is means to be an immigrant in what you do, how you think, how you spend your money, your time and I will assure you that you will find some real opportunities to renew that once fresh "hunger" that propelled you at some point in your life. This nation is screaming for people to be hungry to compete, to stretch, to change and challenge, to see that next hilltop as an opportunity.  

My life and my viewpoint was changed dramatically yesterday with those few words in a book to think and act like and immigrant!  I provide you then that same challenge. Probe wide and deep. Your thoughts and feedback are sought as always!

Monday, March 26, 2012

$10 per gallon!

Having seen a sizeable piece of this world and having lived in locations where gasoline was double the cost of gasoline in the US, I have somewhat of an appreciation for the impact and implication of fuel prices and comparablity.  There have been economics classes I have taught where I would challenge my students to remove the paradigms of their world and assume that over night gasoline was fixed at $10 per gallon.

The looks on the faces are worth the question and then the shaking of heads and the cacaphony of the why nots begin to drown out the one or two people sitting quietly processing the real precipice I am attempting to get the minds to ascend which is the societal impact of such an inordinate price hike.  They sit there quietly trying to ignore the escalating negatives, pounding of desks, clearing of the throats and the sure assurance I have finally lost my mind by asking such a question. 

So, this is my blog and I am sticking to it ... how would your world and our society change should gasoline prices be set at $10 per gallon?   What naturally floods and crashes against the seawall of our lives is we would drive less, smarter, then we would walk more, bicylces, buses, trains, fewer cars, more efficient and fewer factories, true and not political entrepreneurship of new ideas to move around with less to know carbon fuels and the noises turn to twinkles in the eyes.

Would establishing such a "nutcase" fuel level be, well, a nutcase outpouring or would it not begin or actually force a true shift in the way we view our society today and I believe the answer is yes and I further believe we need such a kickstart. I remember so well the OPEC embargo for it hit my wallet with gasoline at fifty cents per gallon on Friday night and was one dollar per gallon on Sunday afternoon in 1973. Talk about a significant emotional event; I thought the service station attendant was truly smoking rope or something.  But that doubling of prices for me caused me to immediately move from anger to new ideas and means to transport more efficiently and for less.

America is truly addicted to many things but petrochemicals ranks up close to the top of the list for we cannot begin to imagine the food chain of petrochemicals that surround us in our every step, every bite and every interaction. It is what it is so surely it cannot be wrong or changed, right?  I think ten bucks per gallon would quickly shift that paradigm, don't you?

Just thought I would jar your kickstand on your bike tonight! You jarred yet?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sowing for a Hopeful Harvest

Just in from a great morning of worship at Canton Baptist Temple; yet another blessing in so many ways.  The Pastor's sermon today was on the parable of sowing seeds, some of which landed on bad soil and some on good but only a few took root and bore a bounty. I have heard that parable about a million times but today the real message of the earthly story with a heavenly meaning, a parable, became especially personal to me. 

As I listened to Pastor Frazier deliver that message so eloquently, my mind began to really think about who had sown the seeds of God's Love on me that was then watered to allow a true touch of the Master Grower.  Many names raced through my mind and the special touch had on me but three stood out in my mind's eye as having really put a sense of direction into my life.  Those seeds at times did not come to me easily nor without frustration for the sowers but all were diligent in their respective gifts in how and when they cast their seed onto my soil.

Let me begin by stating that on August 15, 1960 at the Forrest Avenue Baptist Church in Gadsden, AL at the age of twelve, the seeds that had been sown in me were watered with that special water by an evangelist named Max Morris on very not night in an outside revival.  While there was much I did not understand, what I did know is that something very real changed in my life; it was called Salvation and I have never forgotten the swelling inside my heart that hot night. That night is as real to me as this being my daughter's birthday is today so it must have been very special to me now over fifty years later.

But let me talk about the sowers that led me to the harvest in that Summer of 1960.  There were three. All very unique. All very different. All very pure in their motives for wanting the best for me and from me. There were two women and a dear, sweet man.  Two were educated, one was not.  One was somewhat handicapped, two were filled with passion in their own regards and focus. All three were passionate about their church and their pastor and their Lord and all three were passionate about me!

Glen Avery, Ruth Epley and Zeddie Morton; a trio in a vast choir of voices the filled my memory band in so many ways but three very special voices that God used to move me toward that place that only He could lead me.  Mr. Avery was a kind, gentle man that I knew loved me even when I was a young very active little boy. Sitting in his Sunday School class making noise, leaning back in my chair, hands always active; I heard his stories of David, Samson, Jesus and Paul and many others.  He was a rural man that would use words in a very rural way but I knew from his gentleness and kindness toward me, he really loved me.  I realized years later just how much that amplification of love from an adult man was so important for that was never part of my life as I grew up.  I, like all I realize, yearn for that type of love even though we might not realize it at the time.  Mr. Avery fathered two wonderful, beautiful daughters, one of which is a great FB friend today.  Those girls were so blessed to have him as their dad but in a very special way, they have a brother in me for I considered Mr. Avery as that father I always wanted and needed. My only regret is that I did not have the opportunity to tell him all of this before he left this world. But because of him, I will have that chance one day; that I know! Mr. Avery, I love you for your Godly touch on my heart and my life. Whatever I have done in this world, you have great stake and contribution into that yield of this seed you sowed.

Mrs. Ruth Epley was a tough love, frank, focused lover of music that loved to teach the kids in the Junior Department the songs from the green song book.  It was from this ministry and her stern approach to doing it right that I realized I have a love for music and for singing. Of course, I was mortally scared to death of her and justifiably so but she never turned her back on me, never acted like I was not important and taught me to love music.  Every time I sing today, there is that moment when Mrs. Epley will flash through my mind. I mowed her lawn for several years a few later after the Junior Department and learned how much she and her husband, both educators, cared for young people and yes, especially me. We would spend hours after the grass was cut singing, talking about the Bible and how much we loved our church.  So the sowing from Mrs. Epley has resulted in singing many songs to many, many people through years but not about the singing but about the message of Jesus in the music. So my prayer is that with each song, another person is being prepared for service to the Kingdom one day.  Thank you, Mrs. Epley. We will do some duets again one day; promise!

So the question then is what seeds are you sowing? I have come to realize with each semester that that is exactly what God has both gifted me to do and positioned me to be able to do which is to sow seeds of hope to the hopeless, joy to the hurting and water to the thirsty in my teaching and in my singing ministry.  Mr. Avery, Mrs. Epley and Mrs Morton all are stakeholders to my ministry. There are so many others names like Mr. Berry, Mr. & Mrs. Cowan, Mrs. Baker; the list is long but today God brought the essence of the three I have written about clearly to my heart and I wanted this to be written on my daughter's birthday for some special reason.

God is so good! God has a garden so full of blessings if you seek the harvest but that harvest begins with the seeds and the sowing.  Are you sowing seeds of goodness, caring, hope and love?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Springtime in Ohio ... in March?

Much is being said and written about the winter that wasn't here in NE Ohio. Mosquitoes are already out and finding their way to my wife as they always seem to do.  I actually saw buds on trees yesterday and apparently the critters usually dormant until summer are out and about.  Here is all I know; it is a beautiful period of time and I am enjoying it and with Spring Break next week and Kent State, my prayer is that my students will enjoy but be safe and respectful of themselves and others in that enjoyment.

This has been yet another treasure trove of events in our world. Gasoline prices are itching to surpass the $4 per gallon market and I believe we will near $5 by mid summer.  The still unsteadiness of the Iran / Israel duel looms and Syria is a massacre in progress that, well, nobody seems to really even care about! 

The Army soldier that has killed the 16 civilians has refocused the world in the atrocious, egregious nature of armed combat yet again.  With Mr. Karzai now howling for US troops to pull back to bases and out of the villages which is exactly what the enemy wants, I believe it time to do just that which is pull back to bases to airports to airplanes with destinations back at home in the US.  This mess has gotten beyond reason and with a weak Commander-in-Chief, there is no longer a sense of fear that accompanies the US military but more is a sense of disdain. 

The Russians found this out two decades ago so it really is history repeating is it not?  You want to really feel sorry for the soldier now that he is identified and personal accounts of him are coming forth.  Too many tours most of which in combat but the fact is, apparently, he got drunk and decided to kill him some Afghans; it seems pretty much that simple at this stage. Tragic, yes! Inexcusable, most certainly! Cold blooded, premeditated murders, yes! So I cannot find it in my heart to feel sorrow for such a dastardly act but that is what extended combat yields. That is the good news for we will never know the true number  and scale of events similar to this in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our world is a dangerous place. The tectonic forces that move and drive the winds of that world are even more frightening under the shadow of a presidential campaign, escalating fuel prices, mounting debts in the major and minor economies of the world with China sitting always singularly on a global perch with resources to take advantage of the fire sales before her on every continent.  Yes, the world is quite worrisome and for great, justifiable reason.

But you know, I have this unending great hope that the sun will come up in a few minutes on a new day which will be a day of challenge and opportunity. I believe there is a greater Hand out there guiding and controlling what appears to be the craziness of the world. I know there is a Being out there what knows me, knows my heart and wants the best for me. I know that blessed assurance that can bring and does bring hope in the midst of chaos and calm in the throws of fear. I do not know about tomorrow but I DO KNOW who holds my hand!

Wow, now putting those words together has just eased my soul yet again so let the Saturday and the beautiful gift of weather and the knowledge that there is God that loves me and my family  co-joined and how could this be a bad day, right? By the way, that will preach so can I get a witness?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

March and 65 Degrees .... WOW

Sitting here on Sunday evening after a great and very pretty weekend just makes you take a deep breath of thanks for health, life, family, friends and feeling like you just might be making a difference in some lives.  Tonight I know friends that are hurting from the passing of a loved one, friends that are worried about the next house payment, family concerned for a child's health, worries of nuclear holocaust in the Iran / Israel ping pong match and the world just keeps spinning on its axis!

Today has been an especially great day at church where Jesus is preached and taught and sung from the rafters in love and preparation.  Tonight we got to hear our pastor lead the congregation in that great old song we do not hear enough I realized all over again:

Jesus is the sweetest name I know
And He's just the same as His lovely Name
And that's the reason why I love Him so
For Jesus is the sweetest Name I know!

Assessing just this moment of a great weekend that health is good, my wife is reading, my grandchildren have parents that love them more than life itself, we attend a church that we love, heard some great Southern Gospel music at church tonight, learning a great new song, PLACE CALLED HOME by the Gaither Vocal Band, and really enjoyed a day and one-half in Amish country and excited to get back into the rhythm of teaching tomorrow; I am blessed!  Wow, think about that to be able to honestly say, I AM BLESSED!

So with all the craziness of the world, campaigning, concerns about the tomorrows, it just feels so warm and cushy to look at my home, my wife, my family, my life and exhale a slow breath to the tune of a whisper of joy about this walk on Earth, wow, guess I am waxing eloquent on feeling the warmth of the Father's Love on and in my life. 

Guess I felt the need to share that with you tonight!  We cannot know what the week will bring.  I know I will be singing at a funeral of a dear lady later in the week and pray now that whatever is selected to be sung will blessed and ease the burden of loss to whoever is present for the funeral.  That has become a phenomenal ministry for me for even in feeling the loss fseparation of these dear people, it is made bearable in knowing where they now reside and that I get to be part of the home going celebration for that is what death is for the Christian; a celebration of a life lived and the beginning of a life eternal!

So on this Sunday evening, my prayer for each of you is that you will find solace in whatever is put before you in the days before you, If it is good; rejoice. If it is hard; seek the comfort of a God that loves you.  I honestly do not know how people that do not know the Lord as their Savior make it through a day on this earth.

Nothing heavy tonight but if you have someone near you that you love; get up, walk over to them and gently kiss them on the lips and whisper how much you love them! It could be your last chance to accomplish that task of love! I wish I could kiss my mother just like that right now.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


As my students will attest, I am a strong believer that progress only begins in any walk when three components are firmly integrated into one's life or business.  There must be a simple yet compelling Mission that defines our reason to exist.  I use the analogy of mission being an automobile we can get inside, seat belt on, radio off, adjust the mirrors and start the engine. We are ready to go! 

I remember very hot day in 1970 doing my one millionth push up of the day at Fort Bragg, NC, thinking I was about to depart for Heaven when I looked up and saw a sign on the outside of my barrack that read: THE MISSION OF ARMOR IS TO CLOSE WITH AND DESTROY THE ENEMY THROUGH FIRE, MANEUVER AND SHOCK EFFECT!  Wow, I got it and it has stayed with me from that moment but what has truly remained in me is the compelling nature of a Mission. So the question, for you, right now, what is your Mission, your reason to exist?

But the challenge of a perfectly tuned, well fueled, ready to go vehicle is that it must be going somewhere, right?  So it is determining our destination and describing in very compelling terms that destination which I prefer to call the Vision. Vision must electrify, illuminate, compel, empower those about to embark on the destination of our Mission / our ready to rumble vehicle. See how Mission and Vision must intersect for one drives the other?

Yet perhaps the most important element of our car / destination analogy is being all dressed up and ready to go, we know where we are going, Vision, but what is lacking is the pathway from the Mission to the Vision, right? Right!  That pathways determined to arrive at the Vision are the strategies.  These strategies should be profound, focused, easy to comprehend and well articulated for the more people you can get to hang their hat on the door knobs of the strategies, the more successful and adrenalin provoking progress will be experienced. 

The speed bumps of progress on the strategic pathways are what I call the Goals and a Goal is not a goal unless it is SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-driven.  Tell a five foot person they will arrive at the gym tomorrow at 0730 with a regulation basketball and slam dunk a basketball on a regulation basketball goal which is ten feet high is, well, you are only going to frustrate and disappoint, right? It is right for while the goal is Specific and certainly Measurable, it is not Attainable nor Realistic but yes it is Time-driven. 

Here is what I have learned as the difference between managers and Leaders: managers give goals and expect them to be accomplished whether they can in reality be done or not.  Leaders negotiate goals around the framework of the Mission / Vision / Strategy house and then invests in a very personal Partnership with the led to be a success for it is the wins that drive accomplishment.

To make my point if I at 6 ft 4 assign the slam dunk goal to the five footer, then for the five footer to be a success, I should meet with him at the gym at 0730 and put him on my shoulders, let them stand on by back or whatever I can do to ensure the five footer accomplishes the slam dunk goal ... is thus a winner for I provide the Partnership. Leadership is about Partnership I have come to realize more clearly in my teaching.  Everybody wants to be a winner but it is leaders that invest in the led to support, encourage, embrace, drive, cheer lead, discipline, push; whatever is required for the five footer to be a successful slam dunker!  This I believe and this I teach!

So the question .... what is your mission, what is your vision, what are your strategies to reach that hallowed place called Vision? But the real question, Leader, is, are you willing to take enough of yourself to invest in those you are leading to meet them half way to the journey of Success?  If the answer is no, please, spare us the words of ambition for they are only hollow statements of utterance and there is far too much of that in our world.

Inherent in all of this is the model Jesus taught us that you will never learn to lead until you learn to serve. Leadership is about serving.  Find a way to serve someone in a very special, unexpected, unplanned way this day! Try it, you will love it, Leader!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My World at Sixty-four!

Have just awakened, three hours later than normal, to the smell of coffee and breakfast in my warm home and have read many dozens of FB and email birthday wishes. I know in a few minutes my children and grandchildren will call telling me Happy Birthday and how much they love me. I awoke with my wife whispering that and hearing I did not snore all night.  You smile but each of those are tiny ingredients to a sense of real blessing this morning. So today I am sixty-four years of age and I have to say it feels really strange but good.  This week I have tended to read the obituaries more carefully, have thought about so many friends and relatives that have left me and all with this deep sense of just wanting to thank God for another year on this Great Creation called Earth and Life!

This week has been one of some great moments and some really not great moments with some concerning developments and issues with some of my students which I take far too personally my wife tells me but still, I do!  I do for once more, each of those young minds and lives are part of the tapestry of our tomorrow and I never short sight that God has placed here, now, doing what I do that has a brush of color on each of those lives in my words, my actions, my hopes and my drive to lift them from their current state. This is very serious business for me and when the headwinds of disappointment and yes, anger, pound me, I look past that to the tomorrows for these young minds put into my care for a semester or two.  This, my teaching, I realize daily, is what God has gifted and called me to do and thus it is the great blessing of all the blessings I have yet experienced on this earth.

The world is seemingly an endless cauldron of fears and doubst, disappoints and worries but then the world has always been that way as I recall my young life, my studies and experiences around this globe.  The walk of Man is not easy, not supposed to be nor will it ever be.  But here is the one thing I know ... 

I serve a risen Saviour,
He's in the world today;
I know that He is living,
Whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy,
I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him
He's always near.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life's narrow way.
He lives, He live, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

So as I close My World at Sixty-four!, I could not be happier with the components of my life nor the compilation of all those elements into this daily walk. I realize there are more days behind me than in front of me but the great news is that it is perfectly alright for each day is a blessing to get to do what I love to do be it teaching, singing praises to a Loving God, or encouraging people that need lifted from the mire of fear and doubt. 

Well, have heard from both of my wonderful children and had Happy Birthday sung to me by three little ones, will gets hugs from all of them this day, great breakfast plus a chocolate muffin and a wife that loves and respects me .... Blessed? Ah yup!!!!!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Voted out of the Union club

I will no doubt be voted out of the Club with this article selection and my commentary. I think this article's thesis flawed and truly unworkable in a 21st century global economy, frankly. I want to highlight paragraph two in my rebuttal for the very reason that article resounds negatively to me resides in two statements in the paragraph; one very true and one very misguided:
Corporations will tell you that the American labor movement has declined so significantly — to around 7 percent of the private-sector work force today, from 35 percent of the private sector in the mid-1950s — because unions are obsolete in a global economy, where American workers have to compete against low-wage nonunion workers in other countries. But many vibrant industrial democracies, including Germany, have strong unions despite facing the same pressures from globalization.
Unionization has dropped since WWII for exactly the reasons the writer states and that number will continue to move downward truly because it is a global economy where consumers have more choice, higher expectations and expect to pay less for both; that is a good thing for that is the very principle upon which the Free Enterprise was espoused in the mid 1770s by Adam Smith. The force of the Invisible Hand drives the machinery for the betterment of the consumer.
Having worked in Europe for many years and especially in Germany in German tire plants, I find the use of Germany as an example of how unions flourish facing the same global pressures as America as an apple & orange argument. When WWII ended and Germany, the vanquished, was in rubble, America, as the victor, was faced with reconstruction. In that reconstruction, the American architects of the manufacturing rebirth were astute enough to conjure up what is called today, the Works Council.
Remembering that the objective after WWII for America and the UK was to install a political and work process that would neuter Germany's penchant for rising from the ruins of defeat by rebuilding its war machine to again seek to control and conquer the world. So neutering Germany was the overarching strategy and thus putting a control in place to manage equitably the strong German unions was at the forefront. The Works Council is a level above the worker unions at the industrial and sector level of manufacturing. It is a government mandated mix of executives and union officials and government representatives that set strategic policy, direction and oversight of the more tactical union day-to-day thus tamping down issues that historically could lead to slow downs, strikes, etc.
Germany is an export-based economy so if they cannot maintain the production of exportable goods and services produced in Germany, the entire economy is paralyzed quickly. So the Works Council is a barometer and a mechanism to head off this scenario of bad or hostile labor relations. IT WORKS and works well. America would do well to consider such a configuration since it was an American innovation to begin with. By the way, another vanquished nation, Japan, is configured much the same engineered by American reconstruction after WWII. IT WORKS and works well!
This article pines and hearkens for America to be strong and vibrant again therefore needs a strong union movement in America; this is so off base in my humble opinion. There are myriad examples in America today, the auto industry in the SE United States and the increasing foreign transplants locating into Right-to-Work states of Alabama, Mississipp, Tennessee, etc, etc. These states and regions and communities are surging and flourishing and will continue to and they pay excellent, competitive wages and very good benefits much to the consternation and propaganda of unionists in Washington and in the Rust Belt; the once mighty corridor from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, etc. Those states are still bastions of unionism in Union Shop states but the term "Rust Belt" depicts clearly the drumbeat of reality and implication of ever thickening rule books and higher costs from these states and plants thus eating away at their current and future competitiveness.
I wish to restate that I am not anti-union but rather a very strong Pro-Consumer advocate so anything that impedes the consumer via higher price, lower quality and less selection will remain in my cross-hair. Some of the Rust Belt state leaders such as Ohio and Gov Kasich, are attempting to implement Right-to-Work state law but are facing the headwinds of strong unions funneling billions of dollars in dues collected from their members to combat this move to make their states more attractive to domestic and foreign direct investment. The unions, therefore, are basically winning the battle but I believe, and hope the war will be won with the sunlight of a person having a right to select if they want to be in a union or not; it really is just that simple.
So my union friends, and I have many or at least did, will vote me out of the club no doubt but this article was just too slanted and off kilter to just let it slide by. America HAS TO BE flexible, agile and cost down driven and, well, we are NOT and the forces of unions will, by their very nature, seek to defeat any force that will turn those consumer-improving initiates away. America deserves more but America more importantly deserves better!

February 29, 2012

A Civil Right to Unionize

FROM the 1940s to the 1970s, organized labor helped build a middle-class democracy in the United States. The postwar period was as successful as it was because of unions, which helped enact progressive social legislation from the Civil Rights Act to Medicare. Since then, union representation of American workers has fallen, in tandem with the percentage of income going to the middle class. Broadly shared prosperity has been replaced by winner-take-all plutocracy.
Corporations will tell you that the American labor movement has declined so significantly — to around 7 percent of the private-sector work force today, from 35 percent of the private sector in the mid-1950s — because unions are obsolete in a global economy, where American workers have to compete against low-wage nonunion workers in other countries. But many vibrant industrial democracies, including Germany, have strong unions despite facing the same pressures from globalization.
Other skeptics suggest that because laws now exist providing for worker safety and overtime pay, American employees no longer feel the need to join unions. But polling has shown that a majority of nonunion workers would like to join a union if they could.
In fact, the greatest impediment to unions is weak and anachronistic labor laws. It’s time to add the right to organize a labor union, without employer discrimination, to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because that right is as fundamental as freedom from discrimination in employment and education. This would enshrine what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1961 at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention: “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together, we can be architects of democracy.”
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” The First Amendment has been read to protect freedom of association, and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act recognized the “right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations,” but in reality, the opportunity to organize is a right without a remedy.
Firing someone for trying to organize a union is technically illegal under the 1935 act, but there are powerful incentives for corporations to violate this right, in part because the penalties — mitigated back pay after extended hearings — are so weak.
It is noteworthy that American workers in the airline and railway industries, which are governed not by the 1935 law but by a stronger statute, the Railway Labor Act, have much higher rates of unionization.
Past efforts to strengthen labor laws over four decades have gotten bogged down: Congress cannot pass reforms until labor’s political clout increases, but that won’t happen without labor law reform.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, has much stronger penalties and procedures than labor laws. Under our proposal, complaints about wrongful terminations for union organizing could still go through the National Labor Relations Board, which has expertise in this field. But the board would employ the procedures currently used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which provide that after 180 days, a plaintiff can move his or her case from the administrative agency to federal court. There, plaintiffs alleging that they were unfairly dismissed for trying to organize could sue for compensatory and punitive damages and lawyers’ fees, have the opportunity to engage in pretrial legal discovery and have access to a jury — none of which are available under current law.
Our proposal would make disciplining or firing an employee “on the basis of seeking union membership” illegal just as it now is on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin. It would expand the fundamental right of association encapsulated in the First Amendment and apply it to the private workplace just as the rights of equality articulated in the 14th Amendment have been so applied.
The labor and civil rights movements have shared values (advancing human dignity), shared interests (people of color are disproportionately working-class), shared historic enemies (the Jim Crow South was also a bastion of right-to-work laws) and shared tactics (sit-ins, strikes and other forms of nonviolent protest). King, it should be remembered, was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, where he was supporting striking black sanitation workers who marched carrying posters with the message “I Am a Man.” Conceiving of labor organizing as a civil right, moreover, would recast the complexity of labor law reform in clear moral terms.
Some might argue that the Civil Rights Act should be limited to discrimination based on immutable characteristics like race or national origin, not acts of volition. But the act already protects against religious discrimination. Some local civil rights statutes even cover marital status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, source of income, or place of residence or business.
Should organizing at work for “mutual aid and protection” not also be covered?
While there are many factors that help explain why the nation has progressed on King’s vision for civil rights while it has moved backward on his goal of economic equality, among the most important is the substantial difference between the strength of our laws on civil rights and labor. It is time to write protections for labor into the Civil Rights Act itself.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a labor and job discrimination lawyer, are the authors of “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice.”