Up Against the Wall

In the song Talkin' New York, Bob Dylan sings..."a very great man once said, that some people rob you with a fountain pen."

I was thinking about this while watching an episode of the Dave Chappelle Show. This sketch was about the difference between how a white collar crook surrounded by a legal swat team is treated, and how a coke trafficker with a court appointed attorney is mistreated. Only in this sketch, Chappelle reversed the criminals. He put the Black coke dealer with the high priced lawyers, the Club Fed sentence, and the option of "turning himself in" when it was convenient, and he put the White white collar crook in the county jail with a court appointed lawyer, and violent cops serving up instant justice. Like a lot of Chappelle's comedy routines, this one mixed in some social and cultural commentary, as viewed through Chappelle's wicked, off the wall sense of humor.

It's something to think about. Cocaine addiction robs people. It kills people. It destroys relationships, tears up lives. Drug dealers sell cocaine because there's a demand for it: a market. As long as the market exists, and the potential for profit exists, somebody will sell cocaine. There's no doubt that, when necessary, drug traffickers will use violence to protect those profits. Real violence--guns, bombs, assassinations. Bang, bang. As a teaching missionary who lived and worked in Peru said to me once: "Drug dealers are the ultimate capitalists." (See "Scarface")

White collar crime deals get done with a pen stroke---or a computer keystroke. It's not drug trafficking, but it is trafficking of a different kind. It also robs people; sometimes it even kills people. Millions in profits are made every day by white collar criminals in suits who decide to ignore workplace safety rules that might slow their profits, who lobby to weaken them, who cut and restrict health care coverage for their workers---or price it beyond workers' financial means. Millions in profits are made when corporate executives decide to close their operations and throw thousands of workers into unemployment because bigger profits can be made by operating in other countries where labor is cheaper. Forget patriotism. The flag of profit is red, white, and green.

Companies make decisions about wages and benefits and pensions that throw thousands, if not millions of workers into poverty. In negotiations with their unions, Companies offer workers a "choice" between accepting lowered wages and more expensive benefits-- or layoffs. Sometimes, these companies appeal to federal judges to enforce these conditions. And sometimes judges back them up. And unfortunately, sometimes the union officials back them up too. We have to get back to the roots of unionism. A union movement based on solidarity, and workers united by their common interests. Too many unions have evolved into something that too closely resembles a corporation.

Catherine, a Katrina survivor I met in a New York City homeless shelter, used to talk about being put "over a barrel." Said she didn't like it when she was over a barrel. Everyone knew what she was talking about. To be put over a barrel is not unlike having the barrel of a gun pointed at your head. It's maybe less bloody-- sometimes.

About a year ago, I met a guy I'll call Rafael who was married, with a five year old daughter. He had worked for a major airline for something like ten or fifteen years. He was a union guy, but for all his involvement in the union he couldn't even name it. Said there were several different unions covering all the airline employees, and therein lies the heart of the problem.

Employees of this airline had already accepted one concession--the first time the airline filed bankruptcy. At that time Rafael's pay had dropped from $24 an hour to $15. Now a year later, the company was again "holding a gun" to the workers' heads. The airline was telling them if they didn't accept another pay cut, down to about $8 an hour, people would start getting laid off, and pay cuts would probably be imposed by a judge anyway. So here he was, working a second job on the graveyard shift in some retail sweatshop, trying to hang on to his house, and provide for his family. Nobody was literally pointing a gun at this guy's head, but what this airline was proposing threatened the foundation of his life; his ability to earn a living and keep the roof over his family's head. Stories like his are all too common.

A lot of us are up against the wall these days, with housing costs blowing the roofs off our homes--literally and figuratively. And fuel-- for heating, for transportation. If you depend on a car to get to work, as most Americans do, you're over a barrel. An oil barrel.

There's got to be better way to live in this world. Too many people are up against the wall. If you can't fly, there's nowhere to go. Do you close your eyes and hope for the best, or do you open your eyes and ears, face your oppressors, both within and without-- and fight?

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