© 2010 Cameron Williams
The following is from a letter I wrote to President Barack Obama last year, but never sent. Names have been omitted to protect me, and the Woodstock Council for World Peace, from any potential liability. The views expressed are deeply personal, and my own; they do not represent the views of the Woodstock Council for World Peace.
23 April 2009
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
I originally wrote most of this very long letter on 9 February, 2009, but never sent it, assuming it would not be read, and Monday’s New York Times confirmed my suspicions; only ten letters per day make it to you. Nonetheless, I feel what I have to say is important enough to the country that you should read it; I haven’t seen these issues I raise addressed by the pundits, either, so with any luck, Mr. Kelleher will agree. I have what might be called a unique perspective in that I don’t truly belong to any part of our society, and have spent nearly my entire life falling through the cracks. That’s not self-pity, but cold reality.
[Omitted personal information.]
In any case, even though too much of this letter makes use of my experience, this letter is not on the whole about me; I only hope to use my experience to illuminate larger and more important issues.
I was pleased to see that you’ve solicited public opinion on your website and have every hope that your initiative will encourage Americans to take a more active role in our government. There are many excellent suggestions regarding policy and infrastructure, particularly regarding health care and transportation. I will repeat here that I believe that no single infrastructure investment would produce a higher rate of return to the American people than would massive investment in high-speed rail, both for freight and passengers. Trucks currently carry seventy-two percent* of our shipping, while rail accounts for only some of the remainder; those figures must be reversed if we are to achieve energy independence. (And the Acela is not high-speed rail; the Acela is a joke.)
*The American Trucking Association.
I was, however, saddened by the narrow focus of many of my fellow citizens. Questions such as “Will you allow gay marriage?”, “Will you legalize marijuana?”, “Will you get the money back from the banks?”, etc., ignore the underlying problems behind our present distress, and place too much emphasis on proximate causes.
Those, and the many other questions being asked are certainly legitimate, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise, but I ask that you consider the proposition that we already suffer from a surfeit of what I call “knee-jerk legislation”; well-meaning but silly laws (or the repeal of good laws) passed in reaction to an often singular occurrence of one thing or another, and not enough enforcement of existing laws, particularly in the area of legislation that seeks to guarantee the well-being of ordinary folks.
I sought to ask a broader, but more basic question, but because my question is seemingly nonsensical without being put in its proper context, I could not ask it in its entirety due to space restraints. The conservative columnist George Will once half-jestingly proposed that the five most important words in the Constitution are, “Congress shall make no law…”; while that contention is certainly amusing, I would have to say that four other words are far more important, they are, “…, promote the general welfare…”. While the words in the preamble are not legally binding, the preamble eloquently defines who we are, and speaks more profoundly of the “promise of America” than any other words contained in that rightly venerated document.
My question: Will you make the necessary changes to ensure that our government is fair, and at least enforces those laws that are important for the average person’s well-being (e.g., food and drug laws, environmental laws, labor laws), and provide a level playing field for all Americans?
While the question may strike you as naïve, (what does “fair” mean to a lawyer, after all?) it is not, for if we are to be a beacon of freedom to the world, we must uphold the basic standards my question addresses; if we do not uphold these standards, then what does “America” mean?
Our government, our institutions, and many of our businesses are demonstrably unfair now; here are several examples, most of which are local, yet I’d be willing to bet that the same conditions apply nationwide. I can attest that conditions in Florida, Wyoming, and Kentucky, where I’ve also lived, are worse than those in New York, where I now reside, and have spent most of my life.
Now, I see that hundreds—no, thousands—of items have been submitted to your website, and I’m also disturbed that many of them are the products of industry think tanks, liberal think tanks, conservative think tanks, etc.—organizations that already have too much access and input to our government. The items submitted are all undoubtably well-researched and filled with footnotes and addenda. I, on the other hand, have little time and no industry backing, and will have to dispense with footnotes and other academic niceties in favor of anecdotal evidence. I do assure you, though, that everything written here is absolutely true, and that every statement which purports to be factual has indeed been checked. Without further ado, the occurrences and reasons for my question follows.
Soon after this recession began, but before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, both Pathmark and Wal-Mart ceased to sell USDA Choice-grade beef, and substituted Select-grade instead. With clever package design and logos, they actually made the substitution of an inferior (and tougher) grade look like a better product; “Select Angus Beef ON SALE!”; nowhere on the package is “USDA” mentioned. This move enabled these businesses to hold the line on rising prices, but only through deceiving the many customers who are either unaware of the USDA grading system, or who just trust the grocer. The modifier “Angus” (a supposedly “beefier” breed of cattle) was picked solely to deceive, and should be kept separate from the USDA grade, which should, by statute, be more prominently displayed, and kept away from packaging/branding gimmicks. Such subtle subterfuge is not necessary for doing business, but only for doing deceptive business.
Other markets (in New York City) no longer display any USDA grade at all; this is a violation of both state and federal law, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for this law to be enforced. I suspect that some supermarkets in New York City are even selling Standard, Commercial, and even Utility-grade* beef for a premium price.
* USDA grades are as follows, in descending order, from best to least-desirable: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner.
A recent New York State investigation found that chain pharmacies were selling relatively large amounts of OTC drugs past the expiration date; nominal fines were issued and agreements signed. But no equivalent investigation has been launched regarding expired foodstuffs; though I can personally testify that the practice is widespread. I’ve seen meat, eggs, yogurt and milk past their expiration dates sold in every single store within a one-mile radius of my home. Perhaps stores are reluctant to return these items; if they do, the amount given them on credit by their distributor will likely be reduced, and they may then be unable to maintain fully-stocked shelves; I don’t know the reason for this practice, though the above seems likely, only that it exists.
Perhaps more importantly, the very existence, on a significant scale (perhaps 6% to 10%, at my guesstimate) of people willing to sell expired/tainted products to other people speaks profoundly of a society in distress. Surely expecting one’s government to ensure food standards is a small thing, no? Or will we continue to let this sort of thing go? If we do, we may soon find melamine added to our domestically-produced foodstuffs. One could even make a case that the export of the American philosophy of “profit at any cost” (not one of our better traits, and if it’s at any cost, is it still profit?) contributed to that recent and still ongoing Chinese scandal.
Restaurants in New York City fall under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Health; temperatures and other conditions for food storage and handling are strictly enforced (I have a NYCDoH Food Protection certificate). Supermarkets and grocery stores where food is not prepared on-site, however, are subject to guidelines and enforcement only by the New York State Department of Agriculture; and there is effectively no enforcement at all. I know of one market, [omitted business name and location] in Brooklyn, where the temperature in the dairy case is 60° F (the required-by-law temperature is 41° or below)—ensuring that milk, cheese and yogurt spoil rather quickly. Many other stores have freezers and refrigerators that are plainly inadequate, yet regulations are almost never enforced. I am very careful where I buy food, and check case temperatures and other conditions, but most people are not so obsessive; how many cases of mild (and not so mild) illnesses have resulted?
The government agencies we entrust to ensure purity and safety in our food supply have a long record of inadequacy; they have proven time and again that they are not up to the task. The following two examples should suffice to illustrate the point.
It was known as early as the 1920s that lead was extremely harmful to our health, yet lead was not banned from paint until the late 1960s, not excluded as an ingredient from gasoline until the 1980s, but, most shockingly, was still permitted as solder in cans containing food into the 1990s.
The same factor holds true for trans-fats, also known as hydrogenated oils. We’ve known for many years now that these artificially-modified fats are far more dangerous than saturated fats in causing arterial inflammation, blockage and heart disease, yet they continue to be added to a wide range of foods, wholly for the convenience of manufacturers, and to the detriment of the public at large. Labeling regulations allow manufacturers to list serving sizes that bear no relation to the amount the typical consumer actually eats; any amount of hydrogenated oils under a gram per serving can be listed as zero, even though most consumers eat more than the recommended serving size and the detrimental effects of this substance are cumulative. Unfortunately, the same physical properties that render this substance dangerous also account for its stability, and therefore the long shelf life so desirable to manufacturers. A just government would regulate on behalf of citizens and the greater good, rather than solely for the benefit of manufacturers. Compare Australia’s labeling regulations, which actually put the needs of Australian citizens ahead of Australian manufacturers. Don’t conduct some expensive study, just purchase a dozen items from Australia (Asian markets in the U.S. are generally well-stocked with Australian products), and a dozen equivalent items from an American supermarket, and compare them. See what I mean? Some things should not be open to compromise. Basic health information is one of them.
All businesses in New York City and State are required to have a signed agreement with their carting service regarding recyclables and hazardous waste, particularly regarding used batteries and fluorescent bulbs, both of which contain mercury, one of the most toxic elements. I have never worked at any business that obeys these laws. These laws are enforced regarding restaurants, grocery stores, department stores and distributors; but most other businesses are exempt by default, though not by statute. I was probably fired from my last job because I had the audacity to try to bring my company into compliance. From first-hand experience, I can say with the utmost confidence that most American businessmen would sooner poison their workers, their own children and grandchildren than even make minimal efforts in this area; they simply cling to the outdated and disproved notion that the waste generated by their business does little or no harm to the larger world. In Miami, I regularly witnessed a father of four dump used toxic solvents (toluene and benzene) from his business into the ground. Our federal, state, and local governments, unfortunately, have often helped to reinforce these attitudes by not enforcing existing laws.
The smaller waste-carting companies, who handle the majority of this business, also encourage this by not offering these agreements as a matter of course, as is required, but rather only when asked; then the business is informed that the cost of recycling is too high to be practiced, blue “recycling” dumpsters are provided, a fraudulent agreement is proffered and signed, and all undifferentiated waste continues to head for landfills. I’ve witnessed this exact scenario first-hand. Tax credits to these carters, to compensate for the added expense of recycling, might do much to engender compliance; or not, perhaps greed is too powerful to counter.
At [Business Name], a gentleman named [name omitted] was (and still is) in charge of supervising the disposal of both hazardous and ordinary waste. [Name omitted] regularly instructed his helpers to smash the used fluorescent tubes and bag the shards to be disposed of in the regular trash, releasing 4 grams of mercury from each tube into the workplace atmosphere, not to mention the mercury still clinging to the solid waste, headed for landfills. Batteries were also disposed of as solid waste. Even HP toner cartridges, which come with free mailers from Hewlett-Packard to encourage recycling were thrown in the trash—placing them in the provided pre-paid mailer and bringing them to shipping was deemed to be too much effort. Obviously, businesses need incentives (or strong disincentives) to act properly.
After asking and receiving permission to do so from [Name omitted], the General Manager, and in my off hours, I began to collect batteries, toner cartridges, and drink containers, bringing them to Staples, Home Depot and to grocery stores for proper recycling. My argument was that it made no sense to leave ourselves open to liability when compliance was easily achievable. I instituted an agreement with Per Scholas (a non-profit organization benefitting inner-city youth) to properly dispose of our end-of-life electronics—printers, computers, monitors, etc., located a recycler for compact disks and DVDs (free), and got the purchasing officer to agree to order pre-paid mailers for used fluorescent tubes from EasyPak, a certified recycler. For these efforts, I was reviled, and had epithets such as “tree-hugger” hurled my way, and I was soon (within months) fired, with no reason given. I never even got to address the large amounts of solvents and photographic chemicals the company still disposes of improperly.
Of course, I had already ruffled feathers by demanding that all the company’s software be standardized, properly licensed and maintained, again, to protect the company from easily avoidable liability, (I was not going to install and maintain illegally-obtained software, conceivably rendering myself liable to prosecution) and that had embarrassed the people who had chosen to ignore these responsibilities. But if government could actually be relied upon to enforce the law, my job would not have been forfeit, and my efforts would have been appreciated and rewarded.
As the above story clearly shows, a condition of employment at many companies is that one needs to break laws in order for employment to continue. If one is not complicit in breaking those laws, then one must remain silent regarding any laws which are being broken.
Nowhere is the spirit of unfairness more evident than in the typical American workplace. Americans’ rights are continually and repeatedly violated, and the trend escalates year by year while government sits by, doing nothing except to hold down the minimum wage. The average worker’s benefits and rights have eroded to the point where they are almost non-existent, yet there is seemingly no end in sight. I work more hours than my parents did, but have lesser benefits.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” goes the conventional wisdom, yet it is the small stuff, in aggregate, that forms the whole. A more valid, yet contradictory convention states the “God is in the details”, and I would contend that is surely the more cogent observation. Horrible abuses have been well documented; the Hooker pipe series in The New York Times in 2006 (note: this article cannot be found on The New York Times’ website—curious) was particularly illuminating; this company’s actions were so egregious that employees died and suffered dismemberments, but exposés of that type do little to improve the lives of average men and women. The “small stuff” is broken, and needs to be fixed.
Why should I have been fired? I did my job, exceeded expectations, came to work on time every day, fulfilled all my responsibilities and more, and can document that I made vast improvements in operations and procedures and saved the company large amounts of money (at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars), so why should I be deprived of my livelihood when I committed no wrong-doing? That is fundamentally unfair, and perhaps actionable in civil court. Yet unless one has large amounts of cash, finding counsel for cases like mine is difficult, bordering on impossible—there’s not much money to be made by lawyers in pursuing justice.
Perhaps I was fired for an incident that happened in the spring of 2006. [Omitted company name], based at [omitted address], had bought [omitted company name], a company at [omitted address], and we were in the process of moving to the latter address. I was on the twelfth floor of our building at [omitted address], awaiting the movers with a few other co-workers; everyone else had gone to the new location. The air began to smell and the room began to fill with smoke; there were workers on the roof melting tar in buckets over an open flame. There was no permit to be seen. I called the Fire Department, who, when they arrived with the police, declined to cite the workers for a violation, even though such work requires permits to be conspicuously posted, and other precautions to be followed, and despite the fact that the work was being done without those permits. To those police and firemen, it was as though the Triangle Shirtwaist factory conflagration never happened, though that incident was the driving force behind all modern fire regulations. Even more alarming, it seemed they were unaware of the following incident which had only occurred a few days before:
From the New York Daily News:
Monday, May 11th 2006, 6:52AM
AN ILLEGAL VAT of boiling tar caught fire on the roof of a police station house and ignited four propane tanks yesterday – sending fireballs thundering 100 feet into the sky and shrouding downtown Brooklyn in an ominous cloud of inky smoke.
Two 100-gallon propane tanks rocketed off the roof of the 84th Precinct station house – with one shooting across four lanes of traffic near the Manhattan Bridge and landing on the exit ramp of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
“The tank went flying over my head and landed on Tillary St. It was spinning around like a firecracker,” said Firefighter Christopher Gunn, whose firehouse adjoins the station house.
In New York City, and throughout America, businesses are seen to be in the right, and code violations are seldom issued unless deaths occur. This assertion is borne out by the recent incidences of crane collapses here, the Deutsch Bank fire, excavation collapses that have claimed the lives of several immigrant workers, and many other recent incidents.
In any case, when I got to [omitted address], the president, [omitted name], had to physically restrain the owner, [omitted name]—[omitted name] wanted to fire me on the spot for having the nerve to call the fire department; I was told that I had no right to call the police or fire departments without upper management’s approval—quite a ridiculous assertion on his part; it was hard for me to not laugh in his face; perhaps I should have. You know why I didn’t? Because I was afraid; because I knew that even though I was in the right, the odds were that I would lose. But the truly incredible thing is that [omitted name] firmly believed that he was in the right; that he actually had the right to prevent me from contacting the civil authorities when I believed that my life, and the lives of my co-workers were endangered. I wish that [omitted name] had not prevented [omitted name] from his rash action; I would be very well off today had [omitted name] not intervened; for that I could have found a lawyer. This whole story is rather pathetic, given the close proximity in time to the World Trade Center attack.
Now I’ve had to take a job for far less money; my income has been reduced by one-third (after ten months of fruitless searching and an unsuccessful attempt to open a business), and I must say that if I’m required to pay income taxes on the meager unemployment benefits I received (and I was required to, due to the stingy provisions regarding the average citizen of the stimulus bill, as passed) I may not be able to recover from this blow. The conditions under which I work are worse. There is no potable water on site; I just have to be thirsty, or buy water, which I can’t really afford, as I’ve learned that whether or not a company obeys the law is of no consequence whatsoever; a complaining employee, no matter how right, will be fired, and no government entity will come to his assistance. I also am allowed by law to have fifteen minutes to cash my paycheck; do you actually think that I am allowed this time? If I take the time, my pay is docked; if I complain, I’m fired—to whom may I turn, Mr. President?
I’ve worked on-site for companies, where I was required to report on time and work a full shift, using their equipment, was paid no more (and often, less) than a staff employee, but had no taxes deducted and received no benefits, as I was illegally declared a “freelancer”. I often had to wait up to six-weeks to be paid, so I remained continually in debt and at a disadvantage. The state labor department refuses to pursue such cases, even though they violate state labor laws. When the IRS demanded taxes, they agreed that the employer had improperly declared my employment as freelance, but issued no penalties to the employer; though I was not an independent contractor, the fines were only mine.
That’s why Freelancers Union was founded, by a lawyer. Imagine that, a union that attempts to negotiate better treatment for “freelancers” on whose behalf existing laws have traditionally not been enforced. I say “attempts” because Freelancers Union’s raison d’être is to sell medical insurance to these effectively abandoned workers; anything else is secondary. Only in America.
But enough of me. I have a friend who worked for Big Apple Circus when they were in New York. He contracted pneumonia there while working outdoors in the rain; they provided no rain gear, and would not get him medical help (Big Apple employees live on-site in trailers, 4 to a trailer, work twelve-hour days and receive no overtime—the value of the “accommodations” is deemed sufficient for them to not receive any additional pay above the $300 offered weekly). Then, continuing to work while sick, he broke a rib while dismantling a tent. Finally, he could take the pain no more and quit, unable to bear any longer the angry exhortations of a foreman (who knew that he was hurt) to work harder. Calls to the state department of labor revealed that the Big Apple Circus was a labor department “partner”, and the labor department declined to offer any help.
Big Apple denied any knowledge of [omitted name]‘s injury, so my friend was denied workers compensation benefits and denied Medicaid; I paid to get him treatment from my doctor.
He then got a job with a local Snapple distributor, loading cases by pallet jack and/or forklift onto delivery trucks. His pay-rate depended upon the number of cases loaded per hour (which ought to be seen as a violation of prohibitions against piece-work), so competition among the workers was fierce. [Omitted name] was physically threatened with a forklift, a potentially deadly situation, but when he reported the incident to his foreman, he was told that the attacker had seniority, and that he’d best watch his step.
I have another friend who rarely gets to take a vacation. She asks for the time off, but her supervisor always claims that the company is too busy. As the company’s handbook states that vacation must be taken within the calendar year in which it is given, and may not be carried over from year to year, she must forfeit the vacation time for which she has worked, on average, four years out of five. How can a just government allow such abuses to be perpetrated upon its citizens? It cannot; our government is essentially unjust.
These are the conditions under which most Americans work; many of our fellow citizens endure conditions that are much worse. All things considered, many of us are not that much better off than those third-world workers who mine junk heaps for salvage.
I’ll leave you with an account of my introduction to the workforce, 39 years ago, because the narrative so succinctly and accurately illustrates much of what is wrong with attitudes towards work in America.
Eddie and I were runaways, determined to make our way to California. As I had a relative, and a place to stay in Woodstock, New York, we planned to find work, and a ride to the coast from there. We needed money for food and to share gas expenses, so, on our arrival, we immediately began to walk around town, looking for work. We were not disappointed; within half an hour, Ronnie, the owner of Joyous Lake restaurant, had offered both of us one-day jobs. Eddie was to wash dishes from noon until closing. After closing, I was to sweep, mop the floors, clean the tables and chairs, and then wax the floors. We were each to be paid fifty dollars for our efforts. Eddie finished his shift, and I began mine.
I expended considerable effort to make sure that the restaurant was spic and span, and made sure that not a single dust bunny was to be seen, no matter how remote and hidden the crevasse. Then I mopped until the water wrung clean. At this point (about 4:00 AM), I began to wax the maple floors, and did a great job; one could literally see one’s reflection, and at 6:00 AM, I was satisfied. Then the heavens opened, and the thunderstorm began.
Joyous Lake fronted on Route 212, Woodstock’s main street, but the parking lot wasn’t paved; it was all just dirt, so when customers began to enter for breakfast at 7:00 AM, they began to track in prodigious quantities of mud from the parking lot. When Ronnie arrived at 9:00 AM, the floors looked as though they had never been mopped, much less waxed. I pointed out to Ronnie the gleaming finish apparent in those few places where customers had not trodden, and he called me into his office.
“I understand that you worked all night, but it’s time you learn something about business”, he began. “In business, we pay for outcomes and results, not for effort.”
He then informed me that he would not pay me, even though he was aware that I had done the job. If I wanted to be paid, I would have to wash dishes until 6:00 PM that evening.
Then, as now, I needed the money; I didn’t have much choice, so I spent the day washing dishes and plunging my hands into 160° rinse water. Ronnie had indeed taught me a lesson, though perhaps not the one he wished. The lesson I came away with is that the majority of businessmen are lying, thieving scoundrels who will commit just about any act in order to further their own interests; I have witnessed nothing in the intervening years that might refute this assertion.
Now, you, your advisors, and all the esteemed “experts” out there may not understand that the courts are a wholly-inadequate venue in which to address these injustices for many reasons, among them that most of us “little people”, as Leona Helmsley so charmingly put it, are unable to find counsel to represent us unless we’re able to pony up exorbitant amounts of cash; justice has become a commodity, too often available only to the well-off or to the criminal. Standard court procedures are complex, byzantine, and not well-understood by the citizenry, so that even bad lawyers have an unfair advantage over the poor citizen who must represent himself (and yes, I’m well aware of the famous caveat). As state labor boards will not enforce the laws except in the most egregious of cases, that leaves us alone, exploited and disenfranchised—although the letter of the law is still occasionally honored, its spirit has been violated, emphatically and repeatedly. Nor can the country afford the expense of every wrong being addressed in a court of law; many of these wrongs can only be eliminated through self-censure; the majority of people must possess sufficient character to reject the temptation of easy gain in favor of the country’s well-being. The jingoists will wave the flag, but then advocate paying workers much less than what it costs to live. We have many laws, but little justice, and that’s the real problem.
Justice can never reside solely in the courts, nor can it emanate from them; it must first and foremost reside in the character of the people whom it serves. I fear that we as a people have become inured to wrong; that our national sense of character is so damaged that we now expect injustice to be the rule, rather than the exception. If justice no longer lives in the heart of every American, there will be no justice.
I wish you only the best in bringing “change” to America; I voted for you and Vice-President Biden, but I think my letter makes it clear that I have my doubts; the enormousness of the task is daunting, to say the least, and the battle will not be won or lost in the courts and legislatures, but in the hearts and minds of the people. Despite my continuing education, and even with vastly-increased workloads and responsibilities, I’ve experienced a continually-declining standard of living for the past twenty years, a downward mobility; I’ve lost all my savings twice since the attack of 9/11, but at least I’m still standing, so I write this for all the people who’ve been beaten down so badly, and for so long, that they’ve given up all hope that this government will ever again be “our” government. I beg you, Mr. President, please do everything possible to restore a sense of fairness to the American scene, a sense that’s been missing for too long.