Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Under construction

The Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters has been picketing various construction sites downtown for the last week or so, and then today, easily the nicest day we've had so far in 2013, they were gone. Our local newspaper, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, has never reported on their presence, and nothing to say about their disappearance. Neither has the Council's own web site. I was thinking I should just ask one of the picketers, but then--poof!--they were gone. Just as well, perhaps, as I hate initiating conversations. I made a very poor journalist.

There certainly is a lot of construction sites around. On a brief walk around downtown today I saw:
the parking garage, taken across 2nd Av...
eventually it will be attached by a skywalk across 1st Av to:

to the downtown hotel and convention center 
(taken a few weeks ago; it's nearly complete now)

the downtown library, on 4th Av, scheduled to open August 24

something at 2nd St and 6th Av...
the new federal courthouse is in the background

the levee and amphitheater, which you can perhaps see across the river...
Here's a better view from a couple weeks ago:

Taken the same day:
This parking lot on 1st St will soon be the new CRST headquarters...

and, of course, there's the parking garage going in below the Armstrong Building...
No shots of the garage, but if you try to enter the public library by the old way,
you get into this empty triangular room, which some people find disconcerting

I didn't venture as far as the new fire station or the juvenile justice center, but you get the idea.

The news "blackout"--due, I'm sure, to the Gazette having shed too much staff, rather than ideological bias--means we don't know if the picketers are gone because the conflict was solved, a restraining order was issued, it was too nice out, or they were celebrating Tchaikovsky's birthday. I do know, from a 2011 Gazette story, that pickets in Iowa City that summer protested the use of nonunion labor at a University of Iowa construction site. I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't nonunion carpenters abounding on these various projects I saw today. Iowa is after all a "right-to-work" state--a cheesy euphemism if ever there was one--on top of which Governor Branstad forced the City of Cedar Rapids to abrogate its labor contracts in 2011.

American unions have a checkered history, with thuggery by the notorious Teamsters and featherbedding (requiring the hiring of unnecessary employees) by too many others. Milton Friedman famously charged them with causing inflation and distorting the labor market, though other economists question that. On the whole unions have been good for Americans--whether or not you're in a union, you can thank them for establishing traditions of weekends, safe working conditions, and health and retirement benefits--and their precipitous decline in the last 40 years has unsurprisingly coincided with declines in wages, job security, and working class standards of living in general. 

Less materialistically, the decline of unions coincides with a tilt in our society towards individualism. With cooperation for mutual benefit in disrepute, our lives are at the mercy of our employers and the government, because at their best unions were a check and balance on both.

I'm comfortably middle class, with an unusual degree of job security, and expect I'll enjoy or reap the benefits of most of the buildings currently under construction downtown. Coming around at last to the core question of this blog, we can't live together if some of us are prospering at the expense of others' well-being. And we can't live together if we're competing to see who works cheapest and longest, and everyone is sinking or swimming on their own.

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