Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK Would Not Be Pleased


MLK, Jr. was a man of conscience and a beacon to the freedom movement. His message of freedom, equality, justice and love is more important today than it ever was. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park, DC, USA. Photos: Ove Overmyer  ©10-19-2012 

By Ove Overmyer

Today, calendar watchers everywhere celebrate and honor the legacy of MLK. For many grassroots community activists like me who fight for social, economic and racial justice every waking moment, it’s really just another day fighting for the right to stay relevant in an often uncaring and turbulent world. And frankly speaking, I'm a little sick and tired of empty rhetoric coming from insincere politicians, corporations and unscrupulous nonprofits in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It might have taken a near-historic recession in 2008 for many Americans to notice our country's rapidly rising levels of racial unrest and income inequality, but the gap between rich and poor has finally gone mainstream, with bloggers, economists and policymakers of all stripes spouting theories on why we should or shouldn't care. And while the debate continues over cause and consequence, that central claim has proven unshakable: the void between the wealth of the world’s richest and poorest is widening, and few signs show any indication of it slowing down anytime soon. Any sane economist will tell you growing levels income inequality spell doom for any democratic nation or civil society.

You would also have to be living under a rock not to know the concept of “post-racial America” is a farce and non-existent. The concept is repugnant and offensive. As a matter of fact, I believe we have never been more racially polarized than we are right now.

To add insult to injury on MLK’s legacy, one of my favorite journalists, NYT’s Steven Greenhouse, shared a story today that revealed that the world's richest 1 percent will soon amass wealth that represents more than the entirety of that owned by the rest of the people on our planet.

In 2014, the 80 richest people had a collective wealth of $1.9 trillion — a rise of $600 billion, or 50 percent in four years, according to the report, Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More. The report used data taken from Forbes' billionaires list and also research conducted by Swiss financial services group Credit Suisse.

President Obama is also expected on Tuesday in his State of the Union address to unveil a series of proposals aimed at alleviating economic inequality in the United States. He will meet tremendous resistance. And for some, the status-quo is exactly how they want it. This is not just happenstance—this has been a calculated strategy and master plan all along. This is about greed, plain and simple.

Today’s observed holiday also comes on the heels of a GOP-lead Congress who voted in its first week of session to change the rules to make reallocation harder. This stealth attack on Social Security and the 11 million disabled persons who depend upon it was launched with full knowledge that the funds for Social Security disability will run dry early next year. A failure to reallocate would mean that disability benefits would have to be cut by 20 percent. A standard reallocation would keep both the old-age and disability programs solvent until 2033, meaning there is plenty of time to work out a long-term fix without launching a war on the disabled.

I personally believe the root cause of poverty and income inequality, viewed in the most general terms, is extreme human ingenuity, albeit of a perverse amoral kind. Most educated folks in the know would tell you based on data and facts not supposition or religious doctrine-- no economy will grow or survive without a strong middle-class.

Supporting working poor and the disabled is just good economic public policy, period. It’s also a moral responsibility of everyone to take care of those who cannot care for themselves. Ask yourself this question, what is the role of government in the first place? But here we are—January 19, 2015—and the values that persist in such times of unspeakable wealth for some exist at the same time there is immeasurable suffering for most. Individual materialism and wealth are now extolled as righteous American values and heavily outweigh any sense of civic self sacrifice or community understanding. 

Remembering MLK’s legacy

So, indulge me for a moment. Let me share my thoughts about MLK, the man I remember and honor.

I remember MLK as a fierce fighter for unions and working people. He died April 4, 1968 while helping AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

I remember the diplomat. I remember his ability to forge coalitions when the difference between a successful protest and a bust depends on mobilizing not just the members of one group, but also many disparate ones.

I honor the provocateur. King's willingness to confront, coerce and consequently enrage opponents has been downplayed, but I remember it being one of his best qualities. He was not a passive dreamer—he was much, much more.

I idolize the believer. He didn't lose sight of what was right because of expedience or politics — especially partisan politics, which many activists see as a trap. King's strength through many trials stemmed from "a calmness that was founded in rectitude."

I could never be as courageous as MLK, but let me try. Activists today know they could have been killed in King's day, and King himself was arrested about 30 times. He was all about action—despite the hate and uncertainty that confronted him on a daily basis.

I will always admire his independence. King refused to kowtow in the Oval Office. He ignored President Kennedy's opposition to the March on Washington in 1963, and broke with President Johnson in 1967 to oppose the Vietnam War.

I respect his fortitude. King persisted despite death threats, jailing, FBI wiretaps and delays — the civil rights bill sat in Congress for years.  His faith told him time was on his side-- he knew he was right.

In summary, the easiest way to destroy MLK’s dream, and the American Dream for that matter, is to support any notion that racially divides us as a nation and take away a worker's opportunity of bettering their station in life. This has become the new normal and the common conundrum for every unemployed, low-wage, involuntary part time worker in America. This is not what Dr. King would have wanted. I know this firsthand—because I am one of those workers.

Overmyer is CSEA President, City of Rochester Library Workers Local 828 Unit 7420

Photo: Ove Overmyer, ©2012

Friday, January 9, 2015

Libraries Build Strong Communities; Fund them Properly

By Ove Overmyer

For several years now, the NYS Governor's office and the Executive Branch continue to ignore state mandated levels for NYS Library Aid, underfunding library systems by more than $20 Million. This is pretty shameful considering annual budgetary expenditures that total nearly $133 Billion. That means total library funding for all New York residents is less than one-tenth of one percent. Aren't libraries worth more to us?

Every budget year, the state legislature has to step in to increase the paltry sum proposed by the Governor and its never enough. Libraries have been doing more with less for too long. While some say that library funding is small potatoes in the big scheme of things, library advocates disagree. We know we have to educate legislators to the idea that libraries are no longer "dusty depositories." We are often the cultural and informational center of every local community in this state. This chronic budget conundrum means a great deal to local economies and to the communities we serve. We can do better. After all, we are the Empire State, aren't we?

Library systems are New York State’s information infrastructure

New York State has 74 library systems. They serve as the backbone of our state’s information infrastructure. In other words, library systems are cost effective delivery systems of information and data that are large enough to permit economies of scale in purchasing materials and services that smaller, rural libraries could never do on their own. There are public library systems, school library systems and systems known as the 3 R’s, or regional library systems.

When you poorly fund libraries, New York’s leading industries might as well kiss “Research & Development” goodbye. NYS library systems provide us with shared products and services and collaborative approaches that save municipal governments, hospitals, corporations, small businesses and taxpayers money. Library systems are the intellectual lubrication that keeps New York’s economic engine moving in the right direction.

Why are library systems so important?

Cuts in NYS Library Aid fall heaviest upon library systems. The state is responsible for wherever books or information travel across local boundaries. So, for statewide services, we need targeted state funding to address the increasing demand for shared databases, catalogs and interlibrary loan of information, data and materials. Since most corporate libraries are now defunct, our economy has turned to resources and information provided by library systems.

A brief history of NYS Library Aid funding

When state revenues disappeared during the great recession around 2008, libraries and library systems were the first to receive cuts. Library Aid has been cut eight times in the last five years, from $102 million in 2008 to $84 million in the last fiscal year.

NYS Library Aid is administered through NYS Department of Education. Unfortunately, libraries continue to receive less funding than other educational institutions. NYS libraries are chartered by the same Board of Regents that oversees school, colleges and BOCES funding. What library advocates are requesting is to be treated with same consideration as these other institutions. Libraries are the people’s university-- places where people of all ages can go for lifelong learning and improve their station in life. However, under current funding trends, libraries and our library systems are having a difficult time keeping pace with demand for programs, products and services.

Restore Library Aid to mandated levels

New York State Education law mandates the state fund libraries according to census and population statistics, which means the Executive and Legislative branches of New York State government have been consistently and knowingly violating existing statutes for several years. If NYS library systems were funded correctly by present formulas, funding would be near $102 Million. That number is still totally unacceptable. When the formula was created over a decade ago, it did not account for the explosion and rising costs of new technology transformations we have experienced these past few years.

Not fully funding library systems is extremely counterproductive. The library community has long been a champion and role model for regional cooperation, resource sharing and providing services in a cost-effective and efficient manner. According to the NYS Education Department, for every dollar invested in libraries, patrons receive seven dollars worth of services. That is a pretty good ROI, don’t you agree? Give library systems the financial resources necessary to continue to deliver the high quality of library services New Yorkers have come to know, love and respect.

Let’s be clear-- libraries and library systems are part of the solution to what ails our local communities. Properly funding our libraries would be a good start on our road to recovery. We need everyone to become a library champion. Together—we can build a better New York.

Overmyer is President, CSEA City of Rochester, NY Library Workers Local 828 Unit 7420.