Dennis Kucinich is a hero to all who want a truly progressive society in our country, and an infamous pain in the ass to everybody else. It's rare that someone familiar with the legendary congressman doesn't either love or hate him. He's made a career of standing firm in his convictions; from refusing to sell the publicly-owned Muny Light to a corrupt private firm when he was mayor of Cleveland, to not budging on his stance against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, to championing labor and environmental rights, Kucinich is one of those rare politicians that reminds you that our entire government isn't a den of thieves.
His steadfastness and fearlessness in fighting for what he believes has earned him loads of praise, as well as plenty of enemies...even in his own party. In 2008, when he was running for president, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were heard discussing how to get "a more serious and a smaller group" of candidates for them to run against, a clear stab at Kucinich, who would not budge on platforms that both Edwards and Clinton had happily watered down in hopes of getting the Democratic nomination.
Kucinich, who remains a staunch voice for The People in the House of Representatives, is consistently re-elected in a Northeast Ohio district with generations of blue-collar workers who know firsthand how important solid labor rights are in this country. He's also heavily admired by independent-thinking people for his stances against pollution and his struggles for a sustainable economy and truly universal healthcare...not to mention being one of the only congressmen with the fortitude to call for the impeachment of Dick Cheney and even George W Bush.
I caught up with Kucinich to talk about the battle raging in Ohio over the controversial Senate Bill 5 - which strips public employees of collective bargaining rights - and the dangers of privatization in modern society.
What is the big deal about collective bargaining?
Dennis Kucinich: Workers should have an inherent right in a democratic society to be able to negotiate the terms for their labor, the terms for their healthcare, for their retirement security, for their safety of the workplace, for all the conditions that attend to the offering of their labor.
Are unions still relevant, or can workers do this on their own now?
DK: Well, now, unless people have a union, their ability to bargain is somewhat limited. They have less protections; it's just a fact.
Let me give you an example: there's a group of nurses out in Washington, D.C. A couple years ago, they were directed - unilaterally - to take a pay cut. This is at the same time that the outgoing CEO was getting retirement benefits totaling $11.7 million. This kind of situation happens everywhere, where workers' wages are getting cut, and where management gets extraordinary benefits. If workers don't have representation to be able to plead their case en masse, collectively, they generally will get run over every time.
There's an inherent unequal relationship between management and labor. But collective bargaining - in a democratic society - is what provides some degree of balance.
Do teachers really get 70%-80% of their salary as a retirement, or is that an exaggeration?
DK: That could be an urban myth, I have no idea. I just know that teachers are not overpaid. The question is whether or not we have any self respect, and whether we have any respect for those who help to guide the intellectual development of our children.
The very fact that teachers are under attack shows you how upside-down our culture has been thrust.
Why do you think that is?
DK: I think it's because of the extraordinary corporate influence in our government. This is really an attempt to force corporate principles - which are inherently anti-democratic - upon a public governance. At its core, this is an attempt to substitute a plutocracy for democracy.
How do we fight against that? How do we prevent this from happening?
DK: Well you see, people are fighting back. They're fighting back in Columbus, in Madison, and in cities and states across the country. There is an understanding that what's at stake here is a fundamental principle, of whether working people have any rights at all in a democratic society, and whether or not they can reclaim those rights if they're taken away.
So what do you feel is the real cause of the Ohio - and national - budget crisis, if it's not the unions?
DK: Oh my God, even that you would ask that question implies that there's a significant body of thought out there that says, "well, the unions cause all of this!"
The problem in the national economy is a couple things. You have a trade deficit, which has come about because corporations drove the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), and a host of other trade agreements, without any provisions for the protection of workers' rights, human rights, or environmental quality principles. So, our trade agreements opened the door for a race to the bottom, and our industries could easily leave the United States and go in search of places where workers didn't have any rights, where they could pay and control the work force for next to nothing.
So, today, we're faced with nearly half a trillion dollar trade deficit, and about 40% of that with Japan, where workers do not have rights to collective bargaining, famously.
Next, you've got the wars. There's an extraordinary amount of resources being spent on two wars that are wrong. One that was based on a lie - Iraq - and one that was based on a misreading of history - Afghanistan. In total, we will spend, into the next few decades, trillions upon trillions of dollars for these wars. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the war in Iraq alone will exceed $3 trillion in costs, and the war in Afghanistan is already approaching half a trillion, with the administration committing more and more resources, and lengthening the time that they expect we'll be there.
So the war is another part of it. It's also the expansion of the Pentagon to have a greater amount of discretionary spending. Now keep in mind that we borrowed money for this war. We went into debt to prosecute a war based on lies. We went into debt to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. We went into debt to give tax cuts to the top 1%.
The debt has been exacerbated by our trade imbalance, and then you go to Wall Street's speculation of manipulation, and that's been very injurious to the American economy, in more ways than we have time to talk about.
Another reason is, the destruction of the family farm, which has had a compounding negative effect on our economy. Farms are our future. Let me give you an example: farms are like miniature economic engines, every family farm. They buy seed, farm implements, chemicals, supplies, stock. And when these farms close down, the entire series of transactions they make in the economy stops; the multiplier effect which they add to the economy stops. So the destruction of family farms has had a tremendous adverse effect, but it doesn't get that much discussion.
It's not just the trade, it's the loss of our industrial base that went with that.
So, you look at all this...and they turn around and blame workers for this?! Are you kidding? Wall Street has profited MIGHTILY, from the tax cuts, from the war, from the trade. Anyone who could, with a straight face, try to put this on workers, needs to be called to an accounting in an election.
What are going to be the ramifications if Senate Bill 5 actually becomes a law?
DK: Well, what it does is it's effectively interposed the power of the state government in every local and county government situation. It strips the inherent right of home rule of cities. It sets the stage for broad privatization of public assets, which I think is really what's at the core of all of this. I mean, if you look at the Ohio law, it says that workers don't have a right to organize, and they have no right to strike. If they do strike, they can be replaced. And it also has provisions for privatization.
So, the privatization is really the hidden threat to the public, behind all these machinations, because what this is about is trying to take what inherently belongs to the public - services which belong to the public, services that make up the government itself - and just auctioning them off to the highest bidder...or to no bidder at all, and just giving it away. Giving away freeways, the lottery, streets, bridges, sewer, water, you name it. There's nothing that will be safe from the privatizers.
And the ones protecting the taxpayers' interests are the public employee unions, because they understand that privatization really strips the taxpayers of assets that are then liquidated, and the taxpayers then have to buy those assets back a second time! Check this out: they have to pay for the assets a second time, in terms of higher rates, and often less-effective service. And the workers who are left to work for the privatized companies end up getting paid less.
I know about this, because I fought privatization when I was Mayor of Cleveland, and was successful in stopping one, saved the Municipal Electric System.
It's really important for people to understand that there are countless billions of dollars in public assets which will be on the line, that corporations are using their political power right now not just to crush collective bargaining, but to steal public assets.
People need to wake up about this; this isn't even a closed question, by the way. The bill opens the door for it, literally, specifically opens the door.
Is Kasich trying to be the CEO of Ohio, as opposed to the Governor?
DK: That is a very interesting, perceptive question, because the corporate model is a CEO who makes top-down decisions, who cannot be questioned, and the motto is "do as I say." The Governor is someone who has to work cooperatively, understands it's a democratic process, and he is subject to question, and the approach isn't "do as I say," it's "let's figure out a way to do this together."
So, one is a CEO model, who's accountable to his stockholders...or contributors. And the other is the model of a governor, who is accountable to the people.
Really, this corporate model, and this democratic model, are opposed to each other. The interests of corporations and the government are not the same. Government's there to provide a service; corporations are there to make a profit. And if they can take the assets of government and turn it into profit-making, they'll do it.
It's a whole new area for investment speculation.
Do you think we'll ever see a single-payer healthcare system?
DK: Yes, because the present system is not sustainable. They keep charging more for healthcare and less people are covered. And I don't know if President Obama's system will ever fully take hold. What it offered was reform only in the context of a for-profit system. Well, that's better than nothing, but when you look at the contours of it, it could go much farther if we had a public system, which is what I advocate.
Do you think we're going to have to bottom out with this system before we transfer to a public plan?
DK: I hope not, but that could happen...but there's also the opening that states could pursue their own rights, which is what places like Vermont and Pennsylvania and other states are beginning to look at what their options are, to create a single-payer system.
But again, let's tie that back into our discussion, and that is that healthcare right now is owned by corporations, insurance companies. Insurance companies take about one out of ever three dollars, and it goes to corporate profit, stock options, executive salaries, advertising, marketing, the cost of paperwork. So they're making money hand-over-fist; they make money not providing healthcare. And we're stuck with a system where more and more people are at risk because healthcare's about profit and not about people.
So, inevitably, we'll have a single-payer system, it's just too bad so many people will have to suffer with the current system we have now.