Ron Kaye: Welcome to the China Century

Longtime Los Angeles Teachers Union leader A.J. Duffy has changed his mind. He’s fought against charter schools, but now he’s starting his own; he’s protected tenure but now wants it easier to fire bad teachers, even to limit the prolonged dismissal process to just 10 days.

The times they really are a-changin’ — something that is long overdue.

Labor Day weekend — the traditional end of summer, the start of the fall football season, a time for at least a moment’s reflection on America’s working men and women, and those who are desperate to find work.

The bedrock foundation of the modern labor movement was the demand for “more” — and not just more money.

“What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails. More books and less guns. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. We want more opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

That was the philosophy that Samuel Gompers built the American Federation of Labor on more than a century ago, a movement that reached its peak shortly after the end of World War II when more than one in three workers was a member of a union.

Today, it’s barely one in 10, one in 15 in the private sector, and public sector unions have become a battleground over the cost of pensions and salaries gained from the coziness between unions and the politicians they help elect, relationships that could never exist between labor and management in the business world.

From our city halls to Sacramento, to Washington, the political cry is the same. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” our elected leaders of every stripe chant in unison, even as they are in a stalemate over whether raising taxes for public works projects or cutting taxes to free up capital for investment will do more to create new jobs.

The truth is nearly $1 trillion in federal stimulus money did not generate jobs as fast as they were disappearing, in great part because government agencies swallowed up much of the money to protect their jobs.

Even when they do invest in America and job-creating businesses, they make a mess of it. Just last week, the $527 million in government-backed loans to Solyndra, a solar power company in Silicon Valley, went up in smoke when the firm ceased operations and fired its 1,000 workers — a serious blow to our hopes for a clean-energy industry that occurred because the company couldn’t compete successfully against the Chinese.

For its part, corporate America is flush with cash, but lacks confidence that putting its capital to work will generate profits. The banks that brought down the economy with their loose-lending practices and mortgage security schemes are treating just about everyone as a credit risk.

It’s not like the big corporations are over-taxed when 25 of the highest-paid chief executive officers earned more last year personally than their companies paid in federal income taxes, as the Institute for Policy Studies reported last week. Of the 25 companies — including General Electric, Ebay, Verizon, Boeing and Dow Chemical — 18 mocked our tax laws by using offshore tax havens to hide their profits.

We are at an impasse where unions look after themselves — not the 90% of workers who aren’t in unions — and where corporations with their tax avoidance schemes ship jobs overseas without any consideration of the impact on this country.

When business and labor do come together, it’s usually in a vain effort to preserve their control over the political system, not to join the conversation about a new American economy that helps us fulfill Gompers’ call for “more schoolhouses…books...learning…leisure...justice…and opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

We are consumers, not generators, of wealth these days. The American Century is over. Like it or not, this is China’s Century and we have to deal with it.

It’s time to give up our addiction to materialistic toys and get back to basics, to working together for healthier communities, to figuring out how everyone willing to work can find a job and have a decent life.

We need to change, to stop clinging to the way things were and see how they are today. If a labor leader like A.J. Duffy can do it, so can the rest of us.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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