Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Summer of Market Basket

Just in time for Labor Day the book We Are Market Basket: The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business arrived in the mail (the official release date was August 12th). A documentary film is supposed to come out soon, also.

In some ways I think of last summer, the summer of 2014, as the summer of Market Basket (or, Demoulas, as we still call it in our household). The Market Basket workers' strike, which began as a protest rally at the Chelsea store on June 24, 2014, and ended on August 28, 2014, (the Thursday before the Labor Day 2014), was on everyone's lips that summer. We nearly lost friends over the issue of whether to continue to shop there or support the strikers (Mary and I joined the boycott). Here we are, a year later, the strike is part of history, recorded in book and movie, and we are at another long Labor Day weekend.

Labor Day honors every working man and woman in America, but we all know that its origin lies in the recognition of the advances in employer-employee laws and practices wrought by organized labor, that is to say, labor unions. And, therein, lies two ironies. The summer of 2014 witnessed a successful organized labor action on a scale we haven't seen in decades. Organized? Yes. Unionized? No.

With their livelihoods at stake, how, went conventional wisdom, could semi-skilled workers have any chance of prevailing over management without a union? Throughout the protests employees were quoted in the press saying, "We don't need a union, we have something stronger, we are a family." It's truly an inspiring story. But, also, an unusual, almost unique, story. Who needs a union when you have a boss, Arthur T., who gives you better pay, benefits, and sense of being stakeholders in the company than you are likely to get under a union contract?

1. Don't discount how past union activity benefited the Market Basket employees. When the employees walked off, the new management threatened to fire them. Now, from a practical standpoint the board would have been sore pressed, even in a weak labor market, to quickly find qualified replacements for the entire workforce, Nevertheless, the threat of losing your job surely would have forced many protesting workers back to the job, at least one would expect. But they did not return. Why? Because you cannot fire workers for striking. Its a federal law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (commonly called the "Wagner Act"), guarantees the right to unionize and to strike without retaliation. When management threatened to fire the workers, the workers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, using that pro-union law for protection.

2. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (commonly known as the Taft-Hartley Act) modified the Wagner Act. Specifically it placed some restrictions on striking, among other things, requiring an 80-day notice period before a union strike. Taft-Hartley placed no such restriction on non-unionized workforces. Therein lies the second irony. These non-unionized workers successfully used a pro-union law, but had they been unionized, the strike would have been illegal, at least as it was conducted.

From the summer of Market Basket I take two lessons. (1) Labor still has power when organized, and when the laws protecting the rights of working women and men are enforced. (2) That labor laws written 70 or 80 years ago may not always reflect the realities of the current labor market, and to question whether they may need revision is not to be anti-union or anti-labor.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

From Hiroshima to Tehran

Seventy years ago tomorrow, on August 6,1945, the U.S. Army Air Forces detonated an atomic bomb, code named "Little Boy," over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on 9 August, the U.S. Army Air Forces detonated a second atom bomb, code named "Fat Man," over the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

Seven decades later the strategic value and the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan continue to be subjects of debate, with strong opinions on both sides. In a sense, the decision to use the A-bomb was perhaps the logical outcome of another controversial decision made by the Allies. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, President Roosevelt said that the Allies' goal was unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. The Conference adopted that goal, thus assuring that victory would be complete, but also messy, as no terms of surrender would be entertained.

After defeating Germany (Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945, the Allied occupation began, and the final peace treaty was not signed until September 12, 1990) the Allies met at the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam (not far from Berlin, today it is an historic site well worth visiting). The Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945, stated:

"We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction."

Eleven days later we dropped the first atom bomb. On May 8 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and on May 9 we dropped the second bomb. Even after the events of the 8th and 9th, Japan was still seeking surrender under certain conditions. After days of internal dissension within the government of Japan, including an attempted coup d'état, the Japanese authorities reluctantly accepted the reality that the Allies would accept nothing short of unconditional surrender.

On August 15th, the Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally to the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the other Allies. Victory Over Japan was widely celebrated throughout the U.S. until 1975. Rhode Island only retains that holiday, renamed "Victory Day," moved to the second Monday in August.

Nuclear weapons are back in the news, now in the context of President Obama "deal" with Iran that will result in that deadly regime joining the nuclear club. Had the U.S. not used the atom bomb in 1945, some other nation probably would have used it in some other conflict. As horrific as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were, at least they showed the world that this is something we don't want to have to do again. I'm not so confident at Iran can be trusted to exercise the restraint that the over nuclear powers have.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Not Machiavellian At All

Res Publica
Not Machiavellian At All
by David Trumbull -- May 15, 2015

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June, 21 1527) was an Italian historian, politician, diplomat and philosopher. He was a high official in the government of the Republic of Florence during the times when the Medici family governed the republic.

He wrote several books and it is from the content of one of his books, The Prince, that we get the adjective Machiavellian, which describes as "characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty." For example --

In Chapter 5, he advises the conquering prince that a conquered republic must be utterly reduced, because history shows that more clement treatment fails to hold the territory.

In Chapter 7, rather than condemning, he cites the notorious Cesare Borgia as one to be imitated.

In Chapter 8 he says that a prince who rises through wickedness may, nevertheless, hold his principality securely if injuries are inflicted all together and not spread out over time.

In Chapter 15 Machiavelli advices the prince to follow vice if so doing brings security and virtue would bring ruin.

In Chapter 17 he says it is better to be clement than cruel, however, some cruelty is necessary and justified to maintain order and to withstand the violence that will break forth when there is not firm leadership.

In Chapter 20 he says that sometimes it's a good idea to pick a fight with another prince, just so you can look good when you defeat him.

If the only thing from Machiavelli you read is The Prince, then you might well conclude that his political philosophy is diabolical. That would be unfortunate, for Machiavelli's writings in support of republics and of freedom are much more extensive than his one, thin volume on how a prince may conquer and hold territory.

The key to understanding Machiavelli's The Prince is in the final chapter. It's a call for a reunited Italy, free of oppression by foreign occupiers. Italy was cut up into several city-states that were constantly at war with each other. The French and the Spaniards seeing opportunity invaded and ruled extensive tracks of the peninsula. Machiavelli dedicated the book to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici (September 12, 1492 – May 4, 1519) the ruler of Florence, and exhorted Lorenzo to raise an army, drive out the foreigners, even if that meant crushing some of the independent republics and principalities. To Machiavelli, the choice was clear, either the nominally independent states would be forever in peril from each other and from foreign invaders, or they could lose their independence but gain freedom. Lorenzo did not take up Machiavelli's cause of a united Italy, and Italian reunification had to wait until the 19th century.

Charter of Liberty

Res Publica
Charter of Liberty
by David Trumbull -- May 8, 2015

"We hold here that the right to a speedy trial is as fundamental as any of the rights secured by the Sixth Amendment. That right has its roots at the very foundation of our English law heritage. Its first articulation in modern jurisprudence appears to have been made in Magna Carta..." -- Chief Justice Earl Warren delivering the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the matter of Klopper v. North Carolina, March 13, 1967.

Magna Carta (or, in English, "the Great Charter") was signed by King John (best remembered in the popular mind as "Bad King John" of the Robin Hood tales) on June 15, 1215. The document, which marks its 800th anniversary next month, is, in important ways, the foundation of the liberties of English and American law. The origin was a dispute between the king and the barons, and neither was wholly satisfied with the compromises contained in the Charter. At the request of John, Pope Innocent III annulled it. But the genie of liberty was out of the bottle and the Charter was amended and reaffirmed through the next few yeas and, in 1225, took the final form that makes it a foundational document in the English system of government and in every nation whose legal system owes something to English law.

Magna Carta did not create trial by jury, but it did enshrine it as a right, as well as the concept of due process.

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

Even though England, to this day, has a State Church, Magna Carta laid down the law that even the king must respect certain ancient liberties of the Church. In America this became the religious establishment and free exercise clauses of the Constitution.

"The English Church shall be free, and that men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and all places for ever."

President Ronald Reagan summed it up well in his April 16, 1986, Law Day Proclamation --

"The foundations of freedom upon which our Nation was built included the Magna Carta of 1215, English common law, the Mayflower Compact, the Act of Parliament abolishing the Court of the Star Chamber, and numerous colonial charters."