My mother dropped me off at my Sunday School class in the basement of the cathedral and went upstairs to attend the church service. I’d been out with the chicken pox the week before, and, though not enamored of the Bible study that typically made up the hour, I was looking forward to seeing my church friends again. I walked into the classroom smiling, as the teacher handed me some blank sheets of lined paper, and asked me to take my seat.
She pointed to a handwritten sentence on the blackboard, “I will behave in church”, and demanded, “Start writing.”
What? I looked around the room. Everyone was begrudgingly but diligently writing the lines. My own smile quickly disappeared.
“We had some disruptive talkers when we took the class up to church last week,” the teacher explained dismissively. “Sit down and write.”
“Well, I wasn’t one of them,” I protested, showing her my pox scabs. Besides, I knew better than to make noise during the service.
“Doesn’t matter.” She turned her back to me and returned to her desk.
I stood struggling with my next move. I was only nine years old, and teachers still represented authority figures that I had been taught not to question. I debated running out and upstairs and sitting with my mother in church, but, as a teacher herself, she always sided with her colleagues, never bothering to hear my perspective or support me as helicopter parents do today.
Finally, unable to find the courage to leave, I sat down and started on the sentence. To this day, I still remember the fury, the rage, that washed over me as I remained a prisoner to collective punishment. I had not misbehaved, I had not done anything wrong, and yet, I was being forced to sit and accept this unjust penalty. When the class was over, and I’d run complaining to my mother, her response was no consolation: You are lucky you didn’t live through the German occupation when collective punishment meant the assassination of an entire village.
Well, yes. Naturally. But I did wonder if the collective acceptance of sadistic authority by those occupied contributed to a fatal passivity for all rather than a call to arms that might shake off the oppressors with a much lower victim toll. And I never forgot the injustice of being held responsible for the misdeeds of others. As I grew up, I swore that I would never accede to collective punishment again. Even in the military, protected by my professional status, did I ever face a repeat of the outrage of that day in Sunday School.
Resisting collective punishment often requires a collective response. Had all the non-miscreants in my class stood up together, our teacher would have likely backed down and sent naughty Dick and George to the principal’s office instead—as it should have been.
And, of course, as it should be now. I watch with anger the collective punishment of the poor, the disabled, the working class, and even the middle class, as the disrupters of our economy, and of our country, waltz away, hiding behind a morass of misdirected blame. Where are the organizations entrusted with the protection of the victims? No, I’m not talking about Federal watchdogs, but unions. They're doing a Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, dancing with the criminals rather than protecting the innocent. Why have the unions rolled over to make concessions to the auto industry and handed over their collective power to incompetent executives and corrupt officials? Why are the state employee unions in California acceding to the demands of an intransigent governor and accepting pay cutbacks and furloughs rather than calling for a general strike to preserve their meager salaries and benefits (for all but the very senior managers)? Reagan’s decimation of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union was only possible because the opposition did not work together effectively to push back—to engage pilots, mechanics, and other unions in siding with the controllers and shutting down the nation's air system. Instead, as miscreant Alan Greenspan related in 2003:
“Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The President invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs, an action that unsettled those who cynically believed no President would ever uphold that law. President Reagan prevailed, as you know, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”
Bully for him. Literally. Despite the fact that the controllers were Federal employees, and not in the private sector, Greenspin (sic) was right. Make an example of one group and silence the others. Unions since have been relegated to the role of agents, making deals with their buddies in an industry, rather than activists. When times get tough, these unions yield to the oppressors and support collective misery for their constituents.
One of my friends works for an institution of higher education in California. His salary is far less than he could make in the private sector, and his insurance benefits have been eroding rapidly as the institution opts to keep their contributions “affordable”. His pension plan is fairly reasonable, but less than that of a Federal or military employee. He comes to work every day, does an excellent job, lives frugally, and contributes to a 403b. In another ten years, at 63, he hopes to retire at 50% of his salary after 25 years of service.
His meta-boss, Governor Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, who instructs Jay Leno viewers that the way to succeed in life is to “marry a Kennedy”; abolishes a progressive car tax, supports regressive property tax restrictions, reduces corporate taxes, and allows the perpetrators of the Enron fraud that stole millions from California coffers to remain uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Seeing disaster on the horizon far too late from his private jet, he refuses to consider higher taxes for the top 1% of the state, but instead imposes a regressive sales tax that is the highest in the nation. Now that the knife is at the bone, he swishes his lightsaber and smites those who are the most vulnerable: the poor, the disabled, and the working class.
The middle class does not remain unscathed either—cuts to education impact teachers, students, and support personnel. My friend is facing a mandatory 5% pay cut, 10% mandatory furloughs, and unpaid holidays—even as his gas bills, grocery bills, and medical bills continue to rise. Meanwhile, to reach his office, he drives from his one bedroom stucco-walled apartment through a neighborhood of mega-mansions, and dodges Maseratis and Maybachs in his 2003 Toyota Corolla. Does his union call for the re-direction of the solutions to this economic crisis towards those who are culpable? No, they “roll over”, and, in the guise of protecting jobs and avoiding layoffs, encourage their members to accept the 25% reduction in their salary, even as the University’s leaders continue to make over $500,000/year plus perks—or much more.
Arnold’s joke on the Tonight Show was very telling. Not only has his performance as Governor revealed his elitism, his belief that those who have found financial success are somehow especially deserving of that reward, but that those who do not wish to prostitute themselves to gain entry to the ranks of the elite, deserve to pay for the crime of a modest life.
Hopefully, Arnold will soon return behind the gates of his palace and a more effective, if less charismatic, candidate will take his place in Sacramento. In the meantime, it is critical for the large majority of us who are not “royals” to take back our power and storm the gates. Unions representing “worker bees” need to avoid prostituting themselves to the inept husks that demand allegiance and instead use this opportunity to re-capture the potency and influence they had in their heyday. No, Leaders, we will not accept furloughs, pay reductions or layoffs. We didn’t create this mess and we will not be punished for it. Those who did must pay, and any attempt to force us to accept collective punishment will be met with infrastructure-crumbling strikes that demand true justice be done. We must not be afraid to call Dick and George, and Arnold, and all the disrupters to task. The middle, working, and poor classes can no longer be the whipping boys for your misbehavior. Without us, you are nothing—and we need to re-claim that power courageously—and act on it.