Thursday, October 18, 2007

Clog Dancing With the GOP

By now, everyone has seen the latest Mitt Romney ad on television. You can’t miss it – it runs every 10 minutes. Mitt with his chiseled jaw and greased down hair (complete with comb tracks) telling us that “when Republicans act like Democrats, America loses.” He focuses on spending, immigration, and ethics in the ad. Romney wisely avoids any mention of family values. After all of the sex scandals this past year, who would trust their family with a Republican?

In July, State Representative Bob Allen of Florida was arrested in a men’s room. It seems Allen offered to pay an undercover officer to allow Allen to perform a sexual act upon the officer. Allen later claimed that he only made the offer because the officer was black and he “didn’t want to become a statistic.” Is offering to pay for the privilege of performing oral sex a common reaction when one is afraid? I’ve never experienced that kind of fear myself. What is clear is that in the GOP it’s better to admit to being a racist than a homosexual.

Last week in Wisconsin, Brown County GOP Chair Donald Fleischman was arrested for enticement and fondling an underage boy. The boy was a runaway who was staying at Fleischman’s house, where he allegedly plied the lad with beer and marijuana, and then fondled him. Mr. Fleischman has resigned from his post.

St. Bernard Parish Councilman Joey DiFatta, who was a candidate for the Louisiana State Senate, withdrew from the race, after reports came to light that he’d been picked up for lewd conduct in men’s rooms on two occasions. In 1996, he was arrested for peeping in a men’s room stall, while a man was using the bathroom. The second time involved foot tapping and hand signals recently made famous by Idaho Senator Larry Craig. DiFatta claims he was withdrawing from the race before the reports were made public, for health reasons. He’s been having chest pains. Apparently it gets hard to breathe in the closet.

Larry Craig, Mark Foley – the list goes on and on. It’s tempting to make snide political hay with all of this, and I confess to succumbing to that impulse from time to time. The sad reality, however, is that the GOP has a real problem – one that needs to be tackled honestly. Since the Republican Party was high jacked by right wing religious ideologues in the 90’s, they’ve gone out of their way to piously claim to be the party of family values. It’s easy to cite thousands of cases that prove otherwise. From Newt Gingrich to Larry Craig – we know better, now. The GOP has based their claims of family values on a 1950’s clean scrubbed nuclear family image, the kind of family that seldom, if ever, really existed.

That mean spirited ideology pushed a lot of Republicans into hiding, into a degree of sexual repression that may have caused some of the aberrant behavior we’ve seen in the last year. If Republicans were free to be openly gay, would they be caught trying to solicit sex in men’s rooms? Would they disavow their own gay children – like Alan Keyes did? Many Republicans have gay children – and these same staunch fellows legislate against the rights of their own family. How can we believe them when they tell us they support family values? Look what they do to their own kids.

In NH in 2006, the GOP lost control of the entire state of NH. One reason for that loss was the complacent attitude of the NH Republican Party. They believed that rattling the spectre of an income tax was enough to keep the GOP in power. After all, it had worked for over 100 years. They weren’t smart enough to realize that the world is changing, and so is our state. No longer can they run on yesterday’s platform. No longer can they run by whipping the faithful into a frenzy over yesterday’s fears.

VT has had civil unions for a few years now. The sky did not fall. Vermont did not suffer a plague of locusts. The heterosexual couples have not raced to divorce court. In Massachusetts, gay couples can marry. The state did not spontaneously combust. No floods, famines, or pestilence have struck our neighbors to the south. In both cases, nothing much changed, except that some couples who love each other could make a legal commitment to one another. They have legal standing they weren’t able to experience before. New families have come into being. Contrast that with the 10,000 soldiers who have been kicked out of the military for being gay, since the odious “don’t ask, don’t tell” was initiated.

If the GOP wants to survive, they’re going to have to rethink their position on homosexuality. If the GOP wants to survive, they’re going to have to develop a message that goes beyond lip service to an outdated notion of family, and focuses on more than hate and taxes. In our corner of NH, we know that climate change is real. We see it. This country faces real problems that require real solutions. Mouthing the platitudes of the past isn’t enough any more. It’s time for the GOP to move into the present, and acknowledge the fact that they’ve overplayed the hatred, and it’s turning on them. The party hierarchy should also consider the very real possibility that the men’s rooms at the next GOP convention could be mistaken for a clog dancing demonstration, if they aren’t careful. It’s time for the GOP to widen its narrow stance on homosexuality.

“You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.” Barry Goldwater

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wooden Nickels

On September 26, there was a presidential debate in the town of Hanover, NH. Unlike the relatively subdued event at St. Anselms College in June, this was a full fledged circus. Dartmouth College is right in the middle of downtown Hanover, and everyone was there, including me. The reporting of the debate was just about what one might expect it to be. There were other stories to report on, however, and sadly they received almost no attention.

A group of young African American Dartmouth students held banners in front of the auditorium where the debate was to take place, calling on the media to pay more attention to the events in Jena, Louisiana. They stood quietly, watching Chris Matthews across the street, as he interviewed Joe Biden, and ignored them completely. They told me that of all the media outlets present, only NBC had spoken with them.

Also ignored was the rally/protest held by SEIU in solidarity with the tipped employees of the Hanover Inn. In 2004 the workers at the Hanover Inn voted to gain collective bargaining rights. The staff is represented by SEIU Local 560.The Hanover Inn is one of the only union hotels in the state. One aspect of the 2005 contract that is still under negotiation is compensation for tipped employees while on vacation time, sick days, personal days, and retirement. The wait staff at the Hanover Inn are paid $3.50 an hour for their vacation days, and that’s also how their pensions are configured – at a rate below minimum wage. In other words, a loyal employee who stays for years and reaches retirement gets a stick in the eye when it comes to their pension.

Wait staff have long been on the short end of the financial stick. Whenever talk turns to increasing the minimum wage, the restaurant industry lobbyists come out of the woodwork to fight any suggestion that tipped employees should receive an increase in their already below minimum hourly wage. Historically, the tipped worker minimum wage was half of whatever the national minimum wage was. In 1996, tipped workers minimum wage was permanently frozen at $2.13. Next time you pick up that pitiable paycheck, be sure to thank the Republican controlled legislature of 1996. Housing costs, medical costs, and transportation costs have continued to increase – but not the wages of tipped workers. This forces them to rely almost completely on tips to make ends meet. As anyone who has ever been a tipped employee knows – there ain’t no guarantees. There are never any guarantees about tips. One can spend hours giving perfect service, only to get stiffed by a patron. On a slow night, a waitperson might be sent home. Some customers are offended by the idea of tipping, and choose to take their frustration with the system out on the wait people. Bureau of Labor statistics show that the average waiter/waitress in the US makes just over $17,000 a year, including tips. That is not enough to support a family on, never mind save for retirement.

The US has a very provincial attitude about waiters – and let me point out that I am using the term waiter as a generic term to cover men and women. We don’t call female teachers teacheresses or teacherettes, we don’t call female police officers copettes, so we needn’t use the sexist diminutive waitress, either. In many European countries the job of waiter is an honorable one, a job that may be handed down from within a family. In the US, there are some widely held beliefs about waiters – mostly that they are dumb. If they were smart, they’d get better paying jobs. Waiting on tables requires memory, discretion, mind reading, and good organizational skills – hardly a job for the stupid. There are people waiting on tables in this area who have advanced degrees – and no place to use them. A waiter job can be a real gift to a single mother, who can manage to arrange a schedule that is flexible and workable so that she has time with her kids. That doesn’t mean that she should be paid substandard wages, or receive substandard retirement. People from other countries are horrified by our tipped employee system. I’d love to see a national discussion on changing it – but the restaurant lobby will have screaming hysterics at the mere thought of it. I’d also love to see more restaurants and hotels unionize. Our once proud manufacturing economy has been allowed to flee overseas, leaving us with increasing numbers of low paying service jobs. The service sector should be organizing, organizing to make sure they don’t continue to get the proverbial wooden nickel.

Thirty-one states have established a minimum wage for tipped employees that his higher than $2.13 an hour. Seven states require tipped employees to be paid full minimum wage. None of these states have found that paying a fair wage has hurt their business. The Hanover Inn pays more than the $2.13, which is certainly a good start – but sick leave and retirement should be calculated in a way that helps workers. Having a stable staff is an asset to any hotel or restaurant. Our working families deserve better than this.

“A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” Dave Barry