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Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Triangle Fire, Maine's New Governor and Senator Mark Jansen

Okay, friends, bare with me.  I like to keep these posts short, but this could be a long one.  This week, particularly has seen many things converging at one time.

First, there was March 25, the hundred year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
146 people died within the space of 15 minutes that day, mostly the young teen-aged girls who worked in the factory.

Working conditions in that factory were terrible to start with -- long hours, low pay, no safety precautions.  Other similar factories had become unionized by this time.  But not the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Its owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris  led the opposition to union organizing.  So their workers continued in  sweatshop conditions without reasonable safety precautions.

Even worse, the young girls who worked in this factory were locked in every day.  Yes, the owners were so fearful of the workers stealing scraps of cloth that they locked them in; the young women were then searched before they left for the day.  In trial, it was revealed that the owners lost a mere $15. a season to theft.  That was why those young women were locked in that day.  That was why they died.

A young New York Social worker, Frances Perkins, was one of the horrified New Yorkers who witnessed this scene -- and the teen-aged girls who went up in flames or leapt to their deaths.  Instead of just saying tsk, tsk, she took action.  She pushed the New York State legislative leaders, assemblyman Al Smith and State Senator Robert Wagner, to head an investigative committee. The legislature then made sweeping changes.  New laws governed workplace safety, wages, hours, and working conditions.

A step forward for the workers in this country.

Francis Perkins later became the first woman on a presidential cabinet when FDR appointed her to be his Labor Secretary.  Together, they brought much-needed changes to America's working men and women.

Well, another thing happened this week.  Maine's Governor Paul LePage ordered the removal of a 36' mural in the Department of Labor. "The mural depicts the brave (and often bloody) struggles of Maine's workers in achieving living wages, establishing a 5-day work-week, and eliminating child labor." (Susan Fagin in a letter to the editor).  Seems this new Republican governor not only wants to metaphorically give hard working men and women a punch to the gut by removing a mural that honors them, he wants to change the names of the conference rooms as well.  One of those rooms was named after Francis Perkins.  Yes, the Francis Perkins who saw to it that those young women did not die in vain and that laws were put into place to protect workers.  He wants her name taken off that conference room.

And what happened back here in Michigan?  Senator Mark Jansen introduced legislation to eliminate MIOSHA,  the agency that monitors workplace safety.  He doesn't want to improve it.  He doesn't want to make it less onerous.  He wants to eliminate it.  Maybe this pro-life Republican Senator would be happy to see us return to the days young women lost their lives unnecessarily in tragic fires.  His callous attitude toward the lives of working men and women cheapens the very movement that claims to promote the sanctity of life.

So these three things converged this week:  anniversary of the New York Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Maine governor wanting to erase that part of history that gave meaning to those young women's lost lives, and a Michigan State Senator wanting to eliminate the department put in place to keep workers safe.  I believe these three taken together can serve as a warning to us.  If we don't stand up and fight for workers' rights, they will be gone before we know it.  Those who stood up for working men and women, instead of being honored as heroes, will be erased from history.  And we could go back to the days when owners locked their workers in, lest the owners lose a few cents.

If this coordinated attack on workers' rights doesn't get Americans to vote in the next election, I don't know what will.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I have noticed in recent years the Republicans in our state legislature have developed a new tradition.  Avoiding constituents.

I first noticed it shortly after I came into office.  A large corporation wanted to come in and take water from the headwaters of the Muskegon River.  People were wildly upset about this, so they called together a forum.  They invited 13 legislators from the area to talk about water.  Our precious, life-giving water.  I was the only legislator to show up.

Then, a few years later, when the legislature was about to make massive cuts in education, a group of citizens -- superintendents, principals and parents -- went to the capital to meet with their State Senator, Senator Mike Bishop.  He wouldn't come out to meet them.  So they sent notes in to him -- approximately 200 notes.  Usually legislators get one or two notes a week.  He received 200 of them within just a few moments.  Did he come out to meet with his constituents?  No.  He walked out the back door.

Last spring a citizen, Melissa, was determined to use the tools of our democracy to learn about the education budget.  She checked with the legislators to see what dates would work for them.  Representative Hansen, Senator VanWoerkom and myself -- and a few other Republican legislators -- were scheduled to meet with these constituents.  A crowd of about 80 people showed up that night.  But not the Republican legislators.  I talked with those constituents by myself that night.

More recently, a group of us went to a lobby day in Lansing.  When we went to see Senator Hansen, he was "in caucus all day long."  When a group from Muskegon went down to visit with their legislators, they sent a note in to see Holly Hughes.  She left by the back door.  We wanted to talk to Representative Ray Franz.  He was scheduled with "back-to-back" meetings all day.  I know enough about the system to know that there is no meeting more important than the meetings with your constituents.  We are the boss, after all,  the ones who pay them.  But this year, with all the tough legislation they are cramming through the legislature, they don't want to hear what we have to say.

I recently heard another example of that grand old Republican tradition of avoiding the people you represent.  A group of citizens wanted to meet with Representative Holly Hughes about the legislation that is essentially being crammed through the legislature at lightning speed -- and into law.  They wanted to meet with her before all of this legislation has already been voted on.

So they set up two meetings with her.  When the guy setting them up called back to verify, she heard there would be a group of citizens there, rather than just one.  Suddenly, she was too wrapped up with March is Reading Month and family obligations  to meet with her constituents.  This gentleman tried several times to get her agree to those meetings.  She refused.  Instead, she made up a story about how those meetings had never been set up in the first place.  It would have only taken a few hours out of her busy schedule to perform the duties she is being paid for.

You may have seen the flier he has posted around the district, asking the following question.  Where is Holly Hughes?  This flier further comments that Senator Hansen has already held two public meetings with his constituents.  Representative Marcia Hovey-Wright has met publicly with hers six times and has another meeting planned.  It is a very good question.  Where is State Representative Holly Hughes? 

I hope the representative will answer that question by scheduling a meeting with her constituents right now -- before all the voting has been completed. That, after all, is her job and how she earns her paycheck.  And that is what our democracy is all about.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


A few weeks ago John DeWolf and Steve Kegolovitz just decided we needed a protest rally right here in Muskegon to stand with working families -- both here and in Wisconsin.  So they threw one together.  The event happened a few hours ago.  Five hundred people came out of their homes for the rally and march.  I think people are finally getting mad.  500 people.

Several people spoke. 

Whitehall High School teacher Norm Kittleson gave a thorough history of how we got into this mess.  It is more than just a few bad decisions in Michigan over recent years.  It has been a consistent effort across the country on the part of our wealthiest citizens for the past thirty years -- to put the money in the hands of just a few people.  It began on August 4, 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers.  It was intensified when the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to anonymous donations from corporations.  Today, we are actually at risk of losing our democracy.

Jill Bott, retired teacher, shared her experiences with a health problem.  Due to health concerns, her American dream that she has worked for all her life has vanished into thin air.  And what does our governor want to do about it?  Tax her retirement.  So he can give more money to Wall Street Millionaires.

Charles Nash did a great job of explaining the new Emergency Financial Manager legislation that recently passed through the legislature.  It could put complete control of local governments in the hands of an Emergency Financial Manager, no checks or balances.  They could fire elected officials, override local ordinances, and nullify labor contracts.  Every single Republican voted for this bill -- in both Chambers.  Their talking point is that Emergency Financial Managers will only be used in the most dire situations.  Tell me, then, why they are training 50 of these EFMs.  (Please see the previous post on this blog for more information about this bill).

During the campaign, all they talked about was how we needed to cut taxes.  Our working families just could not handle more taxes right now.  So what is the first thing they want to do when they take power?  They want to tax working families -- so they can give more money to the Wall Street Milionaires.

We talked about the demise of the film industry and the devastating blows to education and public safety.

Steve Markel reminded us of our unity and the only way out of this mess is for us is to stick together.  "We Are One," we chanted over and over again.

This event was not advertised in the Chronicle.  They wouldn't give that coverage.  In spite of them, though, 500 people in attendance.  Seems like our greatest tools to protect the middle class are social media, person-to-person contact, and the internet.  We simply cannot count on the corporate media.  But we can do this without them!

Last year, the Tea Party had front page coverage and a nice article because they had a  group of about 80 people.  It will be interesting to see how The Chronicle  will cover this rally of 500 people -- right across the street from them.

But to be effective this has to be only a beginning, not an end. We must have a sustained, consistent effort to inform our citizens and let our legislators know we will not stand by while they ruin our state.

  So stay tuned.  There is more to come.

Monday, March 14, 2011


 The article below was posted to my Face Book page by Dianna Jancek, manager of Sweetwater Market, who has spent a great deal of time in Benton Harbor.  The story is chilling -- for both Benton Harbor and our state.  Editorial comments on the bottom are my own.

The story of Benton Harbor is  complex.   But one fact is simple: Benton Harbor is a black majority community with most folks living at the poverty level or very modest means.

The elected City Commission is an all black commission. Wealthy white developers from St. Joseph, fueled with Whirlpool corporate cash, formed several development schemes and  decided that what the City of Benton Harbor REALLY needed was to give up their beautiful Jean Klock Park on Lake Michigan in order that they (the developers) might build a Jack Nicklaus golf course.  Bit by bit they have taken that property.

No one seems to have noticed who introduced this EFM Emergency Financial Manager bill. It was Rep Al Pscholka, who represents the cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Please keep these dates in mind: 

--April of 2010. Governor Granholm assigns an EFM to Benton Harbor. The EFM draws up a plan that, if followed, would have eliminated the City Manager and elected officials.

--January 4, 2011. The City Commission of Benton Harbor votes to "take back the power given to them by the voters" and passes a resolution stripping the EFM of his authority.

--January 5, 2011. Rep Al Pscholka sends a letter to now Governor Snyder requesting that the EFM be restored to Benton Harbor, saying the elected officials had no authority to do what they did. Apparently, it was realized that the regulations governing how and what an EFM can do were not sufficient, because 

--on February 8, 2011, Rep Al Pscholka introduced the new EFM legislation, which was passed quickly through the Michigan House and Senate, with all the Republicans supporting it. When signed by the governor,  it gives the EFM the authority to dissolve elected commissions. 

Yes, you read that correctly.  The EFM can now come back, get rid of the city council, and take what rightfully belongs to Benton Harbor.  

The fight now is over what's left of Jean Klock Park and what it is sitting on it: a very valuable artesian water system owned by the city of Benton Harbor. Who will get to decide the fate of Benton Harbor?  Its rightful owners -- or Governor Snyder?

As alarming as this story is, it is simply an illustration of what this bill can lead to.  Any one of our cities could lose a valuable piece of property to the state.  Please spread this story just as far and wide as you can.  People need to understand what is at stake here.  The citizens of Benton Harbor acted responsibly and according to the law; they rallied around and elected people who would stand up for them.  When this bill passes into law, it appears as though the state will just be able to come in and take what rightfully belongs to the citizens of Benton Harbor.  Republicans run on the principle of local control, then vote to take property away from local communities.  Chilling.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Okay, friends, buckle up.  I am plunging into the driest topic known to man. The most dreaded of topics.  Tax policy.

But the truth is that in Michigan, tax policy is at the bottom of all of our problems. And by the way.  News flash.   School teachers, social workers, and snow plow drivers are not the root of our problem.  It is our regressive tax policy.  That's why we've got to talk about it.  It
's not surprising we're in trouble.  Our most pressing problem, and no one will talk about it.

The main problem?  Michigan's tax policy is regressive.  That means that the less money you make, the bigger your tax burden is.   The less you make, the higher percentage of your income goes to taxes.  The reverse is true as well.  The more you make, the less percentage of your income goes to taxes.  There it is; our backwards, grossly unfair tax policy.

Our governor spends a lot of time talking about shared sacrifice.  I love the concept of shared sacrifice, we are all in this together.  This is a wonderful idea, and I would love to believe that is what Gov. Snyder really wants.  But until he suggests turning our regressive tax policy into a fair policy, all talk of shared sacrifice is purely hypocritical nonsense.

The solution is simple, fair and would probably be quite popular if our Republican friends could bring themselves to speak truthfully about the issue at hand.  A graduated income tax, which 35 other states have, would go a long way toward solving our problem.  Most taxpayers would pay less than they are presently paying, and those who have higher incomes would pay their fair share, as they do in most other states.

You will never hear Republicans support a fair tax like that, though, because their wealthy benefactors -- the few who are making most of the money -- don't like it.  The Republican excuse is that the wealthy would make a beeline out of this state if we put a graduated income tax in place.  This is simply not true.  States with a graduated income tax are doing just fine --  much better than we are, as a matter of fact.
For those of you who love facts, here are some.  According to the Tax Foundation, 35 states have graduated income taxes.  Seven states have no income tax at all.  And nine states have flat taxes, such as Michigan has. (I'm including Washington, D.C. here) The only state with a lower flat tax than Michigan is Pennsylvania.  Somehow, they make up for that low flat tax, because their tax freedom day is April 21, 18th in the nation.  Michigan's is April 16, 31st in the nation.  That information comes from the 2009 Facts and Figures book, put out by the Tax Foundation.
So the Republicans are unequivocally opposed to a graduated income tax, such as 35 other states have, even very conservative states, at that.  So what do Michigan Republicans want to do instead of creating a tax that would be fair for all of our residents?  They want the less well off to carry an even larger  burden by eliminating the Michigan Earned Income Tax Creidt (EITC), taxing retirees, and cutting  funding for school children and college students.

Michigan needs true shared sacrifice.  I am a proponent of that.  But until shared sacrifice is spread across all incomes,  as soon as our tax policy reflects true shared sacrifice,  I think our governor should go back to the drawing board.  And we should stand together to get Michigan back on a track to true prosperity.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


 This is a letter written to our senator from Eric Justian, outlining the problems our governor is causing small businesses.  This is just another in a series of hurting every day people to make the rich richer.

Senator Hansen,

My wife owns a successful jewelry store in Norton Shores. She employs herself and another employee, she's about to hire a third person AND she 1099s her bench jeweler as a contractor. She has generated and collected tens of thousands of dollars in sales tax for the State of Michigan in the past three years. That store that she started from the ground, up after she lost her job while she was six months pregnant during the worst recession in most of a century...that keeps our family afloat and alive. She's a tough woman.

But for some reason I can't exactly figure out, our Republican leadership is about to RAISE her business taxes.

And the worst part of it...her tax INCREASE isn't even going to keep our son's elementary school from closing. Oh no...instead, her tax INCREASE is going to blow an additional one billion dollar hole in the State budget.

You see...under the current Michigan Business Tax that our leadership loves to hate, VERY SMALL businesses get a chance to get rooted and start hiring and collecting sales tax revenue for the state before they start paying income and tax on profits.

Snyder's replacement with the 6% flat tax is going to start taxing Very Small businesses where they were not being taxed before.

It's a tax INCREASE on mom and pop shops that doesn't even go toward fixing our budget shortfall. In's a tax increase for mom and pop shops that ends up making our budget shortfall WORSE...and that shortfall for the tax INCREASE on mom and pop shops is going to be plugged by taxing pensions of retirees.

This is not a business friendly solution. This is not a solution that fosters NEW business and start-ups in Michigan.

I'm not sure when Republicans started to stand for fleecing small businesses and hard working middle class Americans in this country in order to very literally hand our money to the large businesses. I'm not sure when you started to stand for that, Mr. Hansen. And maybe you don't. 

But this new tax code is punitive to start-ups and mom and pop businesses. It's going to shut down mom and pop shops across the state...shops that have been generating revenue for Michigan and creating local jobs for years.

This is a bad tax code. 

Eric Justian

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Bill Moyers recently gave a speech in which he outlined clearly how we are becoming a plutcracy, a government run by just the wealthy, not the ordinary people.  This is a summary of that speech.  The parts in bold italics are direct quotes.

Executive Summary -- Welcome to the Plutocracy

We all know something is wrong.  We just don't what it is, nor do we know how to fix it.  Ordinary, hard-working people are hurting.  Wages are falling; an unprecedented number of people are losing their homes; health care is costing lives or savings accounts.  Yes, something is wrong. 

Bill Moyers wrote a an excellent piece about what that is and what we can do to help our country recover, so that ordinary people like us can live our lives to the fullest once again.

Basically, for thirty years, some of the wealthiest citizens of our country have been selling us a bill of goods under the guise of working for us.  They get richer, we get poorer.  They don't even try to disguise it any more.  
In 2005  the Wall Street giant Citigroup, set forth an “Equity Strategy” under the title (I’m not making this up) “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.”

. . . . from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent.  The average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income.  But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefited. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.
That’s wage repression.

Moyers goes on to show that this wage repression began with the Reagan presidency and has continued unabated ever since, due to a long series of legislative initiatives that have been systematically passed into law.  We often hear leaders sneeringly criticize our president because he is trying to "redistribute  wealth."  Well, the wealth has already been redistributed -- and it is not to the everyday people like us.  This has been going on for many years, but only now has it become more clear and obvious.   Only now are people having to live with the consequences of those decisions.

A  fraction of one percent of Americans  now earn as much as the bottom 120 million Americans.  Let me repeat that a different way.  If you add up all the salaries of the bottom 120 million Americans, it equals the salaries of a fraction of one percent of the wealthiest Americans.  Yes.  Something is clearly wrong.

Although there has been a gradual decrease in income to ordinary Americans for decades, the results are only evident now.  That's why everyone knows that something is wrong but we don't know what it is.  The changes have come slowly, so it is difficult to pin the change to the changes in the law.  But there is a clear connection.  And unfortunately, it is getting worse.

Due to the supreme court decision of last year, corporations can now give indefinite amounts of money to political candidates anonymously.  We saw the result of that decision in the last election.  Across the country, corporations gave anonymously in unprecedented amounts to candidates who would support their agenda.  Now those who constitute Citigroup’s “plutonomy” are buying our democracy.  Alan Grayson says lobbyists have walked into his office and said "I've got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against you."  Like I said, they are no longer even trying to hide it. (Alan Grayson, incidentally, did not go along to get along.  He stood up for us ordinary citizens.  He lost his election).

They ran elections void of truth and won massively in the last election. In Michigan the Republican party is now in charge of of the governorship, both chambers of the legislature, Attorney General, Secretary of State, and the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly,  according to Gov. Rick Snyder's inaugural address, the first item on the agenda is a further a attack on the middle class -- a pay cut for public employees, a direct decrease in money coming into our communities.

Part of the reason for this massive take-over is that many did not vote.  People have become so discouraged and lacking in hope, they did not bother to go to the polls.  They are not armed with facts and don't know who to believe, so they stay home from the polls.

And until we get clean, responsible elections, we can kiss goodbye  to our government of, by, and for the people.  Welcome to the plutocracy.

Historically, when a government becomes a  plutocracy, its chances of continuing as a democracy diminish.   In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond outlines how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late.  Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure, Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions, separated from the common life of the country.

" . . . the answer to the question: “Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?” is as stark as it is ominous: Many don’t. As they form their own financial culture increasingly separated from the fate of everyone else, it is hardly surprising that so many of them should be so hostile to paying taxes to support the infrastructure and the social programs that help the majority of the American people.”

Basically, they know ordinary citizens are suffering.  But they don't care.  They are so insulated from the rest of us our general welfare isn't relative to their daily lives.  Now they are in charge of the government -- at least in Michigan.

We have been here before as a country, in the gilded age of the 1890s.  We recovered then and we can recover now.  But to do that, we cannot simply look the other way and pretend all is well.  We must inform ourselves and others so that when the lies begin, ordinary people will not believe them.  And we must give people hope once again so they will vote in leaders who want a democracy of, by and for the people.

The legendary community organizer Ernesto Cortes talks about the “power to preserve what we value.” That’s what we want  – the power to preserve what we value, both for ourselves and on behalf of our democracy.  But let’s be clear: Even with most Americans on our side, the odds are long. We learned long ago that power and privilege never give up anything without a struggle. Money fights hard, and it fights dirty.  We may lose. It all may be impossible. But it’s OK if it’s impossible.   The object is to do the right and good thing. If you decide not to do anything, because it’s too hard or too impossible, then nothing will be done, and when you’re on your death bed, you’re gonna say, “I wish I had done something."  But if you go and do the right thing NOW, and you do it long enough, good things will happen—something’s gonna happen.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


This post was written by Steve Markel, Muskegon County Democratic Party Chair,  He read it at the Take Back the American Dream rally which was held on the steps of the capital last Saturday.  The crowd loved it and chanted with him:  
We Are One.
If we are to reclaim our middle class we must set aside our differences and remember that


This country's Freedoms have been built by  American soldiers’ sacrifices.

This country's economy has been built by the American hardworking middleclass' abilities.

This country's intellect has been built by our American public educational system.

 Where would this country be if it weren’t for the American solider?

Where would Henry Ford be if it weren’t for labor?

Where would Bill Gates be if it weren’t for educators?

Let the terrorist that threaten our freedoms know, we are one.

Let the greedy that threaten to destroy the middle class know, we are one.

Let the uninformed that threaten to rob our children of an education know, we are one.
Stand up and be seen that we are one.

Shout out and be heard that we are one.

And never stop believing we are one.