Thursday, February 24, 2011

Busting Chops

DI: I was hoping to bring you into a discussion on what’s happen in Wisconsin, or Madison’s Cairo moment, to paraphrase Paul Ryan. Oh, and to reward anyone who sits through this whole potentially stale policy conversation, I’m going to have you tell a story about punching people.

B: Well, I think to get the complete picture of my feelings you’d have to go back to my dad, and his strategy with the unions, because that’s informed a lot of how I approach them.

My dad was a strange guy. When most men in his class were out trying to undermine the unions working in their industries, he was participating in his. He actually funded the union up front- he paid his worker’s union dues for the first five years. He told his workers and the union, “I’m cutting a check right now, for the full five years- and it covers not just the employees we have now, but our expected growth. Because this is our company. I founded it, and I may steer it, but you are the engines that move it forward. And I want you all to have a say in where we go.”

He actually ended up cutting another check after only two years- because the company started growing at such a pace that they’d already burned through all five years of dues he paid. And we’ve continued that tradition forward.

DI: But doesn’t having a company-funded union undercut the union’s credibility? Don’t you become the hand that feeds it?

B: Not really; it isn’t a company union. We simply pay our employees’ union dues, as an additional perk. If you’d rather think about it this way, it’s about $35 that the employee would receive in addition to their base pay every month, that instead goes to pay for something for them. It’s no different really than the money we put towards our employees’ insurance, or the withholding for taxes. The actual costs of employees are a good deal higher than their wages alone.

DI: But overall, your father’s precedent of passive cooperation aside, how do you feel about unions?

B: Unions get a lousy rap. There are corrupt unions. There are lazy unions. But unions are basically the leadership of workers. You can look at it as an analog for our Congress, if you like. And for all intents and purposes, a business’s management are a foreign country. But they’re partners, too, just like England is an economic partner of ours. Management can’t function without the employees, and the employees require the infrastructure fostered by management. Having a union allows employees representation, a voice in the process they wouldn’t otherwise have.

And the reason unions get busted on so much is that they’re bad for business- but let me qualify that. A company’s goal, when you strip back all pretensions, is making money. Paying their workers more, providing benefits, creating a safe work environment- all of those things cost money, which cuts into a company’s bottom line. Some of those things can yield dividends, too; by offering higher wages and better benefits, we often get better quality employees, which can lead to higher and more efficient production, which can lead to a net gain.

But unions are representatives. They’ll fight bad change, but in my experience good unions are willing to take a hit for the team. Look at the UAW, which accepted pretty substantial cuts when the auto industry was failing. At the end of the day it was worth more to them to keep their members’ jobs than to keep hard-won benefits that might have cost those jobs or destroyed the industry. But having representation meant that the auto workers had a say in that process, and got to negotiate for the best position they could stake out.

DI: So what do you think about unions spending their members’ dues on political campaigning.

B: I don’t like the idea of anyone buying elections. So I’m against every kind of spending, even personal. I could buy myself a seat in the senate, maybe a governorship, because I have enough money to absolutely bury just about anyone I might run against. And I say that as someone who’s fairly liberal, who’s come out of the closet, and who spent years of his life breaking the law as a vigilante. I could probably beat Barack Obama in the democratic primary in 2012- not because I’m a better speaker, a better leader, or a better politician, or even a better man or better qualified, but simply because I could spend 100 times more money than he could ever raise. And that isn’t right.

But having said all that, I think a union’s function is acting as a check and a balance on business, for the workers. So with that caveat, I’d rather have unions spending to counter corporate spending, than have a world where business contribute to elections but unions can’t.

I’ll take a particularly loathsome example. Lex Luthor has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress specifically against OSHA standards. He wants to be able to make his workers less safe. His accountants and lawyers have crunched the numbers and discovered that even the small chance that he can get Congress to pass unsafe regulations, which would save him an order of magnitude more money, and that, to him, makes it worth spending millions of dollars.

Some of his workers are unionized, and I know that union spent a few hundred thousand dollars lobbying the opposite side of that issue. It’s a bad system, and I won’t defend it, but unions unilaterally disarming would be even more irresponsible. Because it would leave workers even more vulnerable to exploitation. And our laws shouldn’t be up for bid, they should be written in such a way to maximize the benefit to society.

DI: I’m a fan of hyperbole, so I’ll take that idea to its extreme: are you saying that you’re comfortable with re-legalizing slavery?

B: Slavery actually was a very maximizing system; parts of society were exploited so everyone else could prosper. But slavery also had the numbers wrong. The number of slaves in the south was greater than the number of slave owners- so what you actually had was more people suffering for the enrichment of the few.

We have, at least in principle, a similar system today. Wage growth has remained stagnant for a decade for most people, but the rich have only gotten richer, while the very rich have gotten richer even still. We’re getting to a point where most of society is being exploited, to at least some extent, to enrich the wealthy.

DI: Okay, but the real reason we brought this up is pretty simple: you have an interesting example.

B: That’s right. I don’t want to name names, because the prosecution is ongoing. But basically, several corporations in the city began hiring organized crime to undermine the unions in their companies. Everything from intimidation, subversion, to kidnapping, and murder.

DI: Of course, Gotham’s organized crime is a little more… colorful than say, New York’s.

B: Right. The most powerful crime figures in the city are Penguin, Two Face and Black Mask. A reporter put together a story detailing how all of the union agitation, and the subsequent intrigue, had happened at these three specific corporations that had various business ties to one another.

To hide that telling coincidence, they stirred up a rumor at some of my plants that we were planning on going back on agreements with the union, to slash benefits. There was a protest, and I insinuated myself into the midst of it. I caught out a man who was about to throw a brick at Lucius Fox, who, if you’ve ever met the man, is one of the least brickable people on the planet. Before that, he’d been shouting lots of very strange and inflammatory things, really riling up the crowd.

Well I carried him out of the crowd, and he’s quacking the whole way through. We’ve talked about my recall, and I didn’t recognize the man. There were a few policemen there, so I handed him over, explained that he’d attempted to assault someone, then went back to the protest. I told them who I was, and that I wasn’t afraid to stand amongst them and talk, because none of what they’d heard was true.

Meanwhile, the police checked the man’s fingerprints. He was one of the Penguin’s lackies, which explained the quacking. The larger scheme, which eventually unraveled, was about muscling out the unions to cut benefits and wages and increase profit margins. Penguin’s game in that was he planned on eventually pushing out the owners after he had gotten rid of the unions; he’s got a particular distate for unions, for reasons that have to do with a story I’ll tell in a minute.

DI: But Wisconsin’s a bit different. Because this isn’t shady businessmen dealing with shady criminals to break the law. This is about the governor of a state trying to pass a law.

B: That’s true. Wisconsin, like a lot of the states, isn’t bringing in enough money because of the weak economy. Reasonable people agree that this means everyone has to face potential cuts. But the Governor, Scott Walker, isn’t asking for concessions, which the union has voiced support for, he’s trying to cut the union off at the knees. There are two important issues here. One, is that state employees may, as part of a general belt-tightening, have to accept less compensation. And, while painful, I think they’re willing to do that. The second, and what this law is really trying to do, is end unionization.

The law doesn’t touch balancing the budget- which Walker, who just passed even greater tax cuts despite the state’s deficit, isn’t serious about anyway. It’s about forbidding unions from bargaining for benefits. Worse, it’s about keeping unions from bargaining for wages above the consumer price index- basically the union would have to fight for wages to stay even with inflation, and since that’s the maximum, it’s likely wages would stay below inflation. It is, de facto, ending the ability of unions to function, period. If this were a private company doing this, and not a state government, I have no doubt it would be illegal.

This kind of legislation, and even a lot of complaints about unions, is about putting political pressure on unions. The fact that people want to destroy unions shows how valuable they are. If unions were ineffective, if they didn’t win concessions for their employees, they wouldn’t exist. Because if they weren’t effective unionized workers would kick them out. But it should be the worker’s option to unionize or not. The absolute last thing we want is for government to take away our right to organize. And what we’re seeing is very much a step in that direction.

DI: Now that we’ve put a bowtie on that, your punching story.

B: Since we brought up the Penguin’s union busting, we’ll talk about him. He’s always had a flair for the dramatic that’s unmatched really in Gotham’s underworld. Two Face has his obsession with duality, and the Joker with… gaggery, but Penguin took it to an art form. Or maybe, he’s just had more opportunities with bird and fish related businesses and imagery in the city.

This was several years ago, before the earthquake. The Penguin made a power play for the city docks. Operating out of there are a lot of lucrative shipping and fishing businesses, but specifically there was a company called Silverfish Shipping and Cannery. The Antarctic silverfish make up the bulk of the Emperor Penguin’s diet, so of course he couldn’t keep his flippers off.

But Silverfish was an employee-owned cooperative. Years before, during a period of economic distress, several of the companies on the dock were having trouble paying the bills. The employees worked out a trade, whereby they were given a controlling interest in a new umbrella company if they agreed to work for decreased pay.

The Penguin’s been involved in organized crime most of his life, so shaking down the owner/operator’s was right up his alley. He bought their share for a song- no pun intended. But he didn’t have a controlling interest- to be able to do anything he needed the approval of the voting employees. He tried to get there by intimidating the dockworkers, but if you’ve ever tried to intimidate a longshoreman you know it isn’t an easy task- particularly for an overweight, five foot man in a top hat with a compulsive quacking tic.

DI: Sorry to interrupt, but you called it a quacking “tic.” Are you saying Penguin has Tourette’s?

B: Not Tourette’s specifically, because that involves motor as well as phonic tics, but a tic disorder, a chronic one.

But by buying out the owner operators he had the opposite of what he actually wanted: he had all the responsibility of running the businesses, but none of the decision-making authority, and because of the profit-sharing scheme, a minority of the profits, as well. So he devised a scheme to scare them, or at first, to terrorize those who were dependent upon the fishing trades; I can only assume he had a phase 2 to handle the shipping side of things.

I talked to several ornithologists who he consulted in the area, only to be told that no breed of Penguin could survive in Gotham long-term. So his plan B was to import several top predators, including different species of shark and barracuda, to decimate the local fish populations. I’m not entirely sure what his plan actually was, because it would have killed the fishing trade out of Gotham Harbor and maybe further up and down the coast, maybe permanently. I suspect it was largely a plan grown out of a tantrum. Oswald Cobblepot doesn’t appreciate being laughed at, which does make you wonder why he’d go by “Penguin” in the first place.

But I tracked him, and his collection of invasive species, to the cannery owned by Silverfish. He had most of the predators in separate tanks, lest they feast on one another. He had a couple of his goons he was goading into feeding the barracuda, whose tank was open. I kicked them into the open tank and closed the lid, which left breathing room, behind them.

DI: Wasn’t that dangerous?

B: Well… barracudas don’t really kill people. There’s a death attributed to them once a decade, maybe, but they don’t even predate upon humans. When they do attack, it’s usually because there’s a watch, or a ring, that catches a glint of light and makes the fish think they’re attacking prey. And even when they do it’s usually a few lacerations. If I recall correctly they might have needed some stitches afterwards- but that’s hardly a first for me.

But that left the Penguin. He made a waddling run for it, but it was half-hearted. I think the entire operation hadn’t gone to plan, and he was a little relieved to have an out, honestly. But for anyone who hasn’t seen it, he has a supremely punchable face. You want to hit him. And what’s more, it’s the perfect face to hit. A little bit of padding from the fat, but it’s almost perfectly contoured to a fist. I hit him, once, and he was out. I’d planned on dangling him over the shark tank, but I heard sirens approaching, and he was unconscious anyway so there didn’t seem to be much point.

But his face swelled up really good. I suspect I broke his jaw, but never had any proof of it. He turned bright purple, and bloated up like a puffer fish- quite a feat, since he’s naturally so round already.

He had violated all kinds of laws bringing the various predators into the state, not to mention running afoul some exotic animal cruelty regulations. And in the ensuing investigation, all of the Penguin’s illegal activities and intimidation came to light, and he was forced to surrender his portion of the company.

DI: (snickering) Afowl?

B: Really? Just as I was starting to like you.

DI: Really?

B: No. Not really.

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