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The transit strike, Dec. 20, 2005

New York City transit workers walked off the job a few hours ago, threatening to plunge the city into chaos by forcing about 7 million daily riders to find other ways to get around.

The strike comes during the height of the holiday shopping and tourism season, compounding the problem and costing the city as much as $400 million a day.

I know it’s not chic these days, but I’m pulling for the transit workers. I don’t even know what their complaint is. It’s irrelevant.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up in the heavily unionized coalfields of West Virginia, but I can’t help but be sympathetic to the workers.

I know what you’re thinking, &uot;There’s that bleeding heart liberal again,&uot; but it’s not that simple. It’s an issue on which I’ve come full circle.

As coal jobs left West Virginia in the late 1970s and 1980s, things got literally depressing people lost jobs by the droves, me among them. The little weekly newspaper I worked for in the early 80s was basically supported by the coal industry and when that funding dried up, so did the need for me. Many others and I blamed the unions for strangling the industry with high wages and benefits. In addition, my father was in management with a coal company and there were countless times during violent strikes when union thugs would beat the bejeezus out of him when he was trying to get to work. They once totaled his truck with baseball bats. So there was no love lost between the UMWA and me.

As far as I was concerned, they were a bunch of toothless, ignorant rednecks who got what they deserved. It was too bad they had to take the rest of us down with them.

The unions were once a powerful force in this country. And while its leadership was often corrupt, they nevertheless accomplished a lot and helped make this nation what it is.

In fact, I’d argue the labor movement was responsible for building the middle class in this country. Steel, coal, automobile and meat packing plants offered good wages and benefits (often enough for one bread winner to be able to take care of his family, allowing mothers to stay home and raise their children – that &uot;values&uot; thing everyone seems to be so concerned about) and provided retirement income.

Those are things virtually none of us enjoy today.

We seem to no longer care whether we have a middle class in this country and it appears it won’t be long before we don’t. Those high-paying industrial jobs have gone overseas and they’re likely never coming back. There was a time when the meat packing industry had the most highly skilled and highly paid work force in industrial America. Today, it’s almost entirely the province of Mexican-American workers and illegal aliens who don’t make squat. A friend of mine runs a weekly paper in Austin, Minn., the home of Hormel and Spam. Within the past couple years, he had to start a Spanish language edition because of the high number of Latinos…in Austin, Minn.!

In addition to crushing unions, we’ve also undertaken a crusade to strip consumers of their power. Packaged as &uot;tort reform,&uot; slick marketers have been hired to convince us that &uot;frivolous lawsuits&uot; are ruining our economy and driving up everyone’s healthcare and other costs.&uot; The fact is that with unions virtually non-existent and a feckless federal government, the threat of those lawsuits is the last remaining safeguard consumers have against avariciousness and downright criminal activity by corporations. When that threat is gone, and it soon will be, get ready for a lot more news about drugs that cause heart attacks and cars whose tires blowout at certain speeds. If it’s cheaper for corporations to make them that way, and there’s no threat of retribution if they do it and get caught, that is what they will do.

I know I’m not painting a pretty picture, but I don’t think it’s a pretty place we’re headed to. Certainly corporations need freedom to operate, but workers and consumers need protection as well. It’s a system of checks and balances that moves us all forward together. When the playing field gets tilted too far in any particular direction, it’s a recipe for bad things to happen.

So that’s why I hope New York City’s transit workers are able to make some gains. The likely outcome, however, is that they will all be fired and replaced by Mexicans. Hey, but at least we’ll be saving money.