Plain Talk

Plain Talk

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 8:01 pm
By: Nicolle Gallagher, Guest Columnist

What was life like for the average human being in America 100 years ago? Coincidentally, the last remaining unidentified victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City were just identified this week, so we have a pretty good reminder of what every day life used to be like for  working people back then. 

A regular New Yorker, a guy who just loves his neighborhood and wanted to make sure everything that happened there was properly documented, ended up cracking the mystery of the last six unidentified victims of the fire. 

He discovered that one of the women who burned to death in the factory fire had lived in his building. 

As an amateur historian and genealogist, he set out to finish the work that was never started by our government.

They were just immigrants – Germans, Irish, Italians. They weren’t represented by the political system of the time – there was no reason for any government agency to properly identify the dead. Why waste the taxpayers’ money documenting dead immigrants who were so easily replaced? 

It’s impossible to think about what life was like then and not think about the labor attacks in Wisconsin, Ohio and here in Tennessee today. 

Look how much every day, working people have accomplished in a century, right? 

Contrast to the immigrants of 100 years ago who didn’t even speak a common language with the highly educated men and women who teach the children of Wisconsin and we have to congratulate ourselves as a people on how far we’ve come, right? 

Wrong. The actions of Wisconsin Governor Walker and of TN State Reps. Glen Casada and Debra Maggart of College Grove and Hendersonville are not about balanced budgets or fiscal responsibility or even improving the quality of education. Their actions are about power and who has access to it. 

There is no respect for balance of power between labor and capital. There are only the people who work for a living or the people who don’t. 

There are the people who get up and go to a job whether it be at a desk or a tire factory – and then there are the people who sit back collect dividends.

If you’re lucky enough to actually amass enough wealth through your job that someday you too, are able  to sit back and collect dividends for the rest of your life, you are an anomaly. Most middle-class Americans are unable to amass that kind of wealth – no matter how much they cut back on  groceries. 

The real wealth was amassed generations ago and now those same families and few new ones from the former Soviet Union and the sovereign Middle Eastern nations, are wielding all of their power to make sure they and only they – ever have access to significant wealth and power. 

They will carefully choose who gets to go to the best schools and who gets to compete in the marketplace and who gets the scraps. In essence – they are choosing their nobility.  

The right of teachers to bargain collectively is not the cause of our budget crisis and it is not the cause of the poor quality of education in Tennessee. The fact of the matter is – everyone is not paying their fair share. 

Hedge fund managers, bankers and the wealthiest investors – the people who just sit back and collect the money – they pay 15 percent in capital gains taxes. I get up every morning and sit at a desk in front of a computer and I pay 27 percent. 

BP and Exxon paid $0. They pollute our waters, destroy family fisheries and small town restaurants and does anyone really think that when the oil in the Gulf runs out that BP will be there to make sure the communities have what they need to transition to a new industry? If corporations have the same rights as individuals, then they should have to pay the same taxes. 

There is a balance between labor and capital that we, as a nation, have just barely hung onto for the past several decades and that balance is about to be crushed unless the people who actually work for a living set aside their differences, overcome their stereotypes and bigotry and recognize the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots.

Your rights as a worker to a 40 hour work week – to overtime to unemployment insurance to health benefits that actually cover your costs to a salary that  allows you to raise a family in a safe neighborhood and to safe working conditions that did not exist 100 years ago – are all at stake.

One by one, they will be peeled away in the name of “fiscal responsibility”. 

What we are being told, in no uncertain terms, is that the American standard of living is too high. That we are not deserving of the worker protections our grandparents and great-grandparents  fought for. 

That an educated teacher does not deserve a salary that affords him or her a modest middle-class home and that the middle-class students do not deserve a motivated and engaged educator. 

If you are willing to lower your standard of living so hedge fund managers can invest profits in China – that is your right. I am not. The next time  an oil rig explodes in the Gulf or miners are killed in West Virginia, ask yourself how you would feel if it took 100 years to even bother to find out their names. 

If you have any comments or would like to discuss this matter in further detail please email me at

wcp 2/22/11

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