Joseph Sabino Mistick: Misplaced trust
Last week marked the anniversary of the 1889 Johnstown flood, when the poorly designed and neglected Lake Conemaugh dam failed, sending 20 million tons of water into a steep valley and killing 2,209 people. At that time, it was the worst disaster in American history.
Much of the blame was put on the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which owned the lake and dam, for not investing even a tiny bit of their massive fortunes to make it safe for the regular folks who lived downstream. The club was an exclusive retreat for Pittsburgh’s most powerful families.
Members had even installed fish guards to keep their prize fish from escaping, putting more pressure on the dam, weakening it further — all so they could catch some fancy fish. That was their priority.
Historian David McCullough, in his book “The Johnstown Flood,” quotes an 1889 article by Maj. John Wesley Powell, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who said, “Modern industries are handling the forces of nature on a stupendous scale. … Woe to the people who trust these powers to the hands of fools.”
In the decades after Johnstown, labor unions did not rely on trust and were able to compel management to do the right thing for the people in the industrial valleys. Otherwise, there would be no 8-hour workdays, weekends and holidays, health benefits, paid sick days, workers compensation or pensions.
And, today, we have been reminded that trust is still not good enough. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was supposed to result in higher wages and new jobs. Workers were expected to trust that the corporations receiving massive tax cuts would do the right thing by them.
But, as CNN Money has reported, “just 13 percent of companies’ tax cut savings will go to pay raises, bonuses and employee benefits. 43 percent will reward investors with stock buybacks and dividends.” You can score that $171 billion for corporate shareholders and $6 billion for workers, spread across the nation.
“Our worst nightmare is coming true. We predicted that the lion’s share of the benefits of this tax cut would go to already wealthy shareholders and CEOs, not to a company’s workers,” according to Frank Clemente of Americans for Tax Fairness. Workers across the country have heard that Harley-Davidson will close a Kansas City plant and eliminate 350 jobs overall. The company has also been planning to open a factory in Thailand, shipping their jobs overseas, as one machinist realized. Trust again has been misplaced.
The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Harley-Davidson paid an increased dividend to shareholders and bought back up to 15 million shares, while planning the plant closing. So much for reinvesting in workers.
Some things are so clear that they are self-evident. As the old-timers would say, “I don’t need a safe to fall on my head.”
If you believe that the welfare of American workers should be left to trust, and not guaranteed by law or hard-fought labor agreements, you either do not care about the American worker or you are living in fantasyland.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).