Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 23, 2007

Two items have dominated American attention recently–the Imus episode and the killings at Virginia Tech. Though these are somewhat off our usual beat I’m going to throw in my two bits on both, starting with VT this week, coming back to the Imus affair next week.

Staying Sane After VT
I was greatly impressed as a teenager by a ground breaking book by maverick psychiatrist Erich Fromm,
The Sane Society. After taking a look at war,.especially the idea of peace between nuclear powers being maintained through the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD); examining an economic market place where an exceptionally good crop can mean ruin for farmers; and reviewing a mass culture primarily used to disseminate cheap trash and sadistic fantasies; Fromm concluded that if any individual showed such traits we would surely consider them insane. Rather than solely relying on the psychiatric tradition of trying to get the individual to conform to social expectations Fromm advocated also working toward profound social changes as indispensable to achieving genuine “mental health.”

While I didn’t care much for Fromm’s specific ideas for social change I found his general outlook helpful. At an early age I became involved in the union and other mass movements for social change. These “support groups” have been crucial to my surviving as a constructive nonconformist, while maintaining what I believe to be at least a functional degree of sanity.

But too often social pathology--which has become even more advanced in the half-century since Fromm presented his analysis--leads disoriented, rebellious individuals unable to find such support to well publicized tragic acts--such as Seung-Hui Cho’s gunning down of 32 students and faculty at VT before taking his own life, or the recent murder/suicide by a NASA contract engineer smarting over a perceived workplace injustice.

Of course, there are dozens of such killings every day in American cities by workers who “snap,” or disaffected youth, that don’t seem to rate the sensationalism bestowed by the media on Virginia. They get a few seconds of coverage on the Six O’clock News–if it’s a slow news day. They form a background that we’ve come to accept as a normal, routine occurrence in our society.

Collectively, we have become even more numb to even greater levels of daily violence in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan--pathological mass killing by both official armed forces and individual suicide bombers dying with prayers on their lips while blowing up kids.

Reinforcing this acceptance of violence in the real world is its glorification in film, television and song. There are more kids on any given day playing computer video games with 64-bit blood and gore than there are playing baseball.

The real question shouldn’t be how did a “nut job” like Seung-Hui Cho get access to killing our best and brightest. It should be how much longer are we going to allow social insanity to steadily break down the fragile promise of civilized society?

This problem will not be satisfactorily resolved by more cops, harsher judges, bigger jails, or preventive detention of those suspected of mental problems. The recent action of a Missouri school administration to suspend a student for a year for bringing an unloaded BB gun to school doesn’t seem the indicated direction. Nor, in my opinion, can we rely on prayer--or not leaving home without a Glock.

First we have to work to eradicate the superstitious stigma attached to those with “mental problems.” This category is as diverse as “physical” problems. Indeed many are physically based and can be relieved through medication. Others can benefit by talking and listening in therapy. Some need more than Newhart’s Dr Hartley. None deserve Fletcher’s Nurse Ratchet. Most struggling with individual alienation and/or anger can be helped enough to at least be able hold down a steady job and avoid incarceration while working to develop further potential.

Of course, to be effectively applied, mental health needs to be an integral part of universal health care. While we are still fighting for single-payer health care the labor movement needs to insist that present health insurance covers such treatment now.

Our unions should also be on the lookout for workers having problems. More than that, the solidarity of healthy unionism should be the inspiration for the kind of human solidarity that can reach out to all in our society when they need help.

There are millions in society today, feeling individual alienation and despair, who are being lost not only to “mental problems” but drug addiction and violent crime. Their injury is our injury. The best chance for salvaging their lives is to give them hope for the future through collective action against the pathology of our insane society.

Rage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s tragic when it takes the form of senseless violence, such as on the VT campus. But as fuel for mass action against the irrational injustices of war, racism, economic exploitation, and environmental destruction rage is sane, appropriate–and long overdue.

Come to think of it, this isn’t so far off of our usual beat after all.

A Lot Of No Vacancies
The St Paul Housing Agency was “shocked” when they got 11,000 applications for perhaps as few as 5,000 available low income, Section 8 rental housing units. They shouldn’t have been so surprised. Not only was this the first opportunity to sign up in five years. The St Paul Pioneer Press reports,

“Not only have Minnesota incomes been falling and rents rising, but developers during the go-go home construction period of recent years backed away from building rental housing, shifting instead to building more-profitable condominiums, said one local affordable housing expert.

“Still other builders were busy converting existing apartment stock into condos. As for incentives for private builders, existing low-income tax credits aren't enough to profitably build apartments and charge rents low enough for the Section 8 market, said Howard Goldman, director of multifamily housing locally for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “

Reality TV
The California Nurses Association, as part of their campaign for single-payer health care, is presenting video interviews with real people about their real problems with our present market based system. So far four episodes are up and there’s more to come. You can check them out

Exporting To Japan
American bosses have profited from adapting Japanese shop floor practices. They now seek to return the favor by exporting sections of American labor law to Japan. With the help of the Chamber of Commerce, the Japanese government is hoping to take away overtime pay and other benefits by creating for the first time “exempt” workers.

The Japanese workers are fighting back and looking for allies in the American labor movement. Our old friend, UE legislative director Chris Townsend, has written a good article about the visit of a delegation from the Japanese union federation, Zenroren, meeting with UAW, Teamsters, SEIU, and UE, as well as a stop at Labor Notes.

The Market Knows Best
When Victoria Hampshire, a whistle blower in the FDA, first raised concerns about a dangerous veterinary drug she was tracking in 2004 her bosses considered her alarmist. One counseled she shouldn’t worry, “When enough dogs die, this product will take care of itself.” This is the culture of the agency responsible for the current pet food disaster. Fresh exposures also reveal this agency knew early on about contamination problems with peanut butter and spinach that led to at least three deaths and hundreds of illnesses–and did nothing to warn us.

That’s all for this week.

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