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In defense of working class power

Weekly roundup of rants, reactions and random musings from you, our readers.

The Eagles have opened training camp to prepare for the upcoming season. So how do you think the Birds will do this season? Any shot at the playoffs? Send your thoughts to voices@philadelphiaweekly.com.

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights….Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

Mark Mix (“Forced union dues fuel a culture of big labor corruption in Pennsylvania,” July 8 Voices) begins his anti-union tirade by focusing on the alleged actions of IBEW business agent John Dougherty and ends his piece asserting that Pennsylvania needs a “Right to Work” law to combat a “culture of corruption” led by union “bosses.” According to Mr. Mix, workers need to be saved from “compulsory unionism.” Contrary to Mr. Mix’s comments, there is no such thing as “compulsory unionism.” Unions are voluntary organizations. Unions aren’t run by “bosses.” Members elect their representatives. The same cannot be said for Big Business or the organization Mr. Mix heads. When was the last time workers got to vote on their bosses? 

Mr. Mix and Right to Work billionaire activists want to defund unions by inhibiting their ability to collect agency fees. This would render unions ineffective at representing workers on the job. The government has long ruled that unions must represent all workers at a workplace regardless of whether they are union members or not. In other words, non-members in a unionized workplace get to use the resources that dues-paying members provide. As unions are de-funded through “Right to Work” laws, unions will have to represent members with less resources, which means poorer quality representation, less means to enforce safety protections, and less resources to politically defend workers’ rights. Presumably, Right to Work activists hope that a less effective union would result in more intense exploitation of workers (i.e. more work and less wages). dissatisfaction with unions would grow, and more workers would drop their dues and membership which would further defund unions and eliminate the workers’ movement. 

Dues and agency fees allow workers to afford consistent contract and safety enforcement. Employers routinely violate collective bargaining agreements, OSHA rules, and safety rules putting workers and the general public in danger. This was the reason workers and members of the public died when the old Salvation Army building on 22nd and Market streets in 2013. That collapse killed six people, injured 14 and caused severe loss to many who lost loved ones. For that reason, workers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements owe to their co-workers to pay dues (if they are members) or contribute to the resources they use through agency fees (if they are not members).

Mr. Mix, ought to know that unlike the organization he works for, working-class people are not granted large sums of money from corporations in order for them to have their voices heard and their needs met. Rather, workers rely on each other to fund their common defense and generate collective power. In other words, we pay dues. We pay our share as a commitment to each other and our families. Mr. Mix wishes to isolate workers from each other and defund unions so that the dictatorship of the bosses and the dictatorship of corporate America can continue to go on unchecked. 

Since 1999 Mr. Mix’s organization has spent nearly $44 million to promote anti-unionism and millions more through ads to support anti-union politicians. Why would a historic big business-funded organization spend tens of millions of dollars to “help” workers isolate themselves? One has to suppose that they are doing it for the same reasons a lion tries to isolate a gazelle from the rest of the pack: the pack provides strength in numbers. Isolation mitigates that power. Working people are strong together and weak when divided. Right to Work has nothing to do with winning workers’ freedom or dignity. It is about stripping workers of the one tool they have to establish democracy. If Right to Work activists were really worried about the rights of workers, they would be outraged about the way multi-millionaires and billionaires abuse the wealth that workers generate. My guess is that workers at Amazon and elsewhere would not have voted for their hard-earned wealth to be spent on sending Jeff Bezos into orbit. 

Dr. Keon Liberato-Mercedes is a Philly native, resident, father, railroad track worker and president of local 3012 Teamsters Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division.

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Pennsylvania modernizes technology policies

With the recent passing of House Bill 1621, Pennsylvania now has modernized its policies and laid the foundations for accelerating innovation and technology in the state’s commercial hubs, including Philadelphia. Also known as the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, the bill will streamline the deployment of small cells across the Commonwealth. Small cells, small sized antennas that are located on structures like streetlights and utility poles, increase wireless coverage and capacity and are critical to the development of the next generation of wireless networks, known as 5G. 

Wireless carriers have already launched 5G networks here in Philadelphia, but now with a streamlined process for deploying small cells, more Philadelphians will experience the benefits of 5G with speeds up to 100 times faster and the ability to handle up to 100 times the number of connected devices compared to 4G. For innovators, 5G unlocks endless opportunities in digital health, public safety, manufacturing and many more sectors. And for the 23% of residents – disproportionately from underserved backgrounds – who lack reliable broadband at home, 5G means greater access to telehealth, remote learning and public services.

With a statewide process for small cell installation, Philadelphia and the Commonwealth are now poised to realize the benefits of 5G.

St. Martin Torrence, Government Affairs Manager for Crown Castle.

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Biles offers a teaching moment      

For all parents and those of us living with mental illness, Simone Biles’ withdrawal from Olympic competition recently is a teaching moment. The problem is, what do we teach?

Biles had to withdraw. No doubt about it. The fact that her mind and body were not in sync as she stepped up to attempt moves that in many cases only she, no one else on the planet, has been able to complete, risked a terrible injury and a sure loss for her team. Had she competed she may have hurt herself badly enough to end her career. Had she competed her scores would have been so low that there’d be no chance her team could win. So she left the floor.

This is not unprecedented in sports. Zack Wheeler, the Phillies’ ace pitcher, could take the mound and pitch a no-hitter, only to come back five days later, not be able to keep his head in the game, and get shelled so badly that his coach pulls him out of the game early and replaces him.

In neither situation did the athlete quit. That’s the first distinction we have to make. If Biles or the pitcher were quitters they would not be competing in elite sports and we would never have heard of them. An elite athlete gives their life to their sport. They focus only on technique, fitness and competition. It’s when the focus blurs that trouble begins.

So we must keep in mind, and must teach our children, that Biles’ has never quit and neither should they. When things get tough you stick it out, you show up, you do your best. As of this writing, Biles was in Japan practicing so that she possibly could compete this week. If she gets her mind back into the state she, and her coach, need it to be she’ll take the floor. If not she won’t. She has spent a lifetime facing and overcoming adversity. She’ll know best. But she’ll try.

This is the lesson we must take away from this. It’s not OK to quit if you just don’t feel up to something or if things get too hard. But if an injury, physical or mental, makes it impossible to perform, you adjust as necessary. Maybe even withdraw. But then you get back at it and chase the goals you set for yourself.

Meaningful work is crucial to mental health and physical fitness. In every case we must continue to do the work. The lesson to never quit can be criticized. What, are we supposed to stay in a bad job or an abusive relationship? Of course not. But if we can do the work and accept that quitting is not an option we will withdraw from bad or dangerous situations and get back to being healthy. To surrender to fate and stay in a bad situation is to quit. To stay focused and to do the work required to excel enables us to continue to move toward our best.

Biles has the discipline to do this. We must develop it, too.

Then there’s the conversation about mental health that Biles’ and other athletes’ experience has intensified. In some sense this is a good thing. Any positive attention to mental health can help eliminate stigma, and most people place Biles’ example in a positive light. But her struggles are temporary and situational. A break in performance is not a mental illness. Biles, at least from her portrayal by USA Gymnastics, her coach and her interviews on NBC and other media, is not clinically ill. She can get up again and perform without severe medical intervention. She is not socially debilitated the way a person with severe bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is. We must not conflate attention to positive mental health with attention to severe mental illness. To do this pathologizes a problem athletes have faced as long as there has been sports. To do so minimizes severe mental illness to a condition one can just get over if they change their mindset. Neither is true.

Just as a person can have poor physical fitness without having a disease, a person can suffer poor mental health without suffering from a mental illness.

Let’s not lose sight of the people with true, serious, biologically-based mental illness through our efforts to normalize mental health challenges. In the broad scope of athletics and performance, in our efforts to teach the lesson “don’t quit,” we are normalizing what is normal. We must not lose sight of the people with mental illness whose troubles go far beyond losing a medal or getting pulled from a baseball game. Treatment for their conditions are much more difficult, and their lives are much more difficult, than anything Simone Biles faces.

Let’s reach out to Biles with acceptance and encouragement. But let’s not confuse her troubles with those faced by people with mental illness. It’s like equating the flu which keeps a person in bed for a few days with cancer, which can keep a person in bed and kill them.

Let’s keep a sense of perspective. Biles’ situation is unfortunate but she’ll get over it. A person with serious mental illness will not get over it. They may find meaningful work and good medication and manage their illness well, they may succeed in life. But they will deal with it for a lifetime, not the few years a person competes in sports or the few days of the Olympics.

George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.

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