Keeping retirement real. Domestic partners.

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I am addicted to reading the obits in the New York Times.

And not just because of the old joke about checking that I’m not there.

Besides, I am pretty sure that any death notice about me in the Times would have to be paid for.

Some of the Time’s obit writers are terrific. I miss Margalit Fox, who left the Times earlier this year after writing obits for 24 years. And I’m a fan of Douglas Martin’s obits.

Yesterday there was the story of Connie Kurtz. She died last week at the age of 81.

Ms Kurtz was notable for her work on LGBTQ rights, particularly for the rights of the Gay elderly.

Connie Kurtz was married to Ruth Berman. They both had been married to men before they married each other.

Ms. Kurtz worked as a bookkeeper, and Ms. Berman was a counselor at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. It was Ms. Berman’s career that led them in 1988 to become plaintiffs, along with two other gay couples, in a lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education seeking domestic-partner benefits. That suit helped lead the city to extend health benefits to domestic partners in 1994.

Reading about Ms Kurtz led me to recall the year many years ago when we tried to bargain for the right of teachers in our district to use a sick day as a bereavement day if a domestic partner died.

Looking back, that we even had to bargain this seems nuts.

This was way before marriage equality became the law of the land.

The contract had language covering the use of sick days for bereavement. But the language was very, very specific as to who had to die in order to claim a sick day for bereavement.

If we had a spouse who died? Okay? Our parents? Okay. Our kids? Okay? But no uncles or cousins.

If Uncle Ernie died and I wanted take a day to attend the funeral, I had to lie and say I had a cold, or take it as an unpaid day.

Our bargaining team offered language that said bereavement days could be used to cover the death of a domestic partner.

“Absolutely not,” said the board. They blamed their bias on community standards.

We went back and forth on this over several bargaining sessions. And then finally Mary Kay, one of the members of our team – and someone who I frankly never would have expected to hear be so outraged over the issue – stood up and spoke in a firm teacher voice.

“You mean to tell me that a teacher in our district, who lost someone who they shared a life with, someone who they loved and cared  for years and years, will not be permitted by this district to take time to attend their loved one’s funeral. Shame on you!”

The board quickly adjourned to another room.

When they came back they offered a counter proposal that included as the bereavement language, “those who shared a household.”

They just couldn’t bring themselves to agree to use the words, “domestic partners.”

It was the best we could do at the time.

It’s hard to believe it now.

 

Keeping retirement real. Six years out and remembering the teachers lounge.

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My first day teaching I pulled into a space in the school parking lot by the chain link fence that separated it from the playground.

Sitting alone in the teachers lounge a few minutes later as others chatted and drank bad coffee from the old coffee urn on a counter covered in floral contact paper, a woman walked in, put both hands on her hips and demanded to know who had parked in her parking spot.

Everyone turned and looked at me.

She was the third grade teacher, the senior teacher on staff, and that was how my teaching career began.

I recently re-connected with a teacher, also now retired, who insisted that when I started teaching with her at the middle school nobody liked me..

Micky told me, “I remember that you came into the teachers lounge acting like you knew everything!”

I still cannot convince her that I never taught with her in the middle school. That building was torn down long before I started teaching.

Which is not to say she is wrong about whether as a new teacher I was liked.

Although, believe it or not, I did keep my head down the first couple of years

It is not really accurate to call the room a teachers lounge. It is really a staff lounge, although over the years the various principals I worked for tended to stay out.

During a brief two-year period toward the end we had this really, really terrible principal. She would walk in just at the moment I or somebody else was talking stuff about her.  Colleagues were convinced that Marcy had turned the intercom into a listening device and could hear every word we said.

I doubted it. I just figured she was clueless about the school protocol that the lounge belonged to staff who actually worked with students and not to administration. As she was clueless about so much.

When a delegation of us went to the superintendent to talk to him about her, he angrily declared there was no chance of her being let go.

Two weeks later she was gone.

When I first started teaching, smoking was allowed in the lounges. After a while people put “smoking” and “non-smoking” signs on the tables, although the signs didn’t keep the entire room from filling up with smoke.

Peg Luby and I were among the smokers and shared a smoking table. A year after I started teaching, Peg retired. A year later she died of lung cancer.

I heard the news and quit.

I would head for the lounge after I felt a student teacher was ready to fly on their own. If I sat at my desk the students would tend to come to me and ask questions about the work. Since staying in the room tended to undercut the student teacher’s position, I would leave.

One year the social worker looked through the lounge door window and saw me bent over. I was checking email messages.

Rather than coming in, she walked all the way down the hall to tell Matthew that she thought I was dead.

Which I wasn’t.

Also, don’t reheat yesterday’s salmon in the lounge microwave oven.

The smell never goes away.

 

Keeping retirement real. My grandmother Esther wasn’t from Norway. She was an “Emma.”

 

Esther Wainer and Emma Lazarus.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s shithole remark there once again is attention to Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

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Emma Lazarus was not herself an immigrant. But her name and poem will always be connected to the welcoming of immigrants, a counter balance to the history of racial bias and quotas that is also part of our immigrant history.

My grandmother, Esther Wainer, was a Jewish socialist, feminist and member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Emma Lazarus Club.

She was not from Norway. She was born in Tsarist Russia.

Hearing Trump’s nativist, racist bile this past week brought back memories of Esther and her association with Emma Lazarus and the group that carried that name.

You can read about the Emma Lazarus Clubs here.

By the time I became aware of Esther’s activism, she and her Jewish women cohorts were well into their 80s.

Even at that age, I would see them at every Civil Rights and anti-war protest.

Emma-Lazarus-Fed.

Esther would have been Trump’s worst nightmare.

 

 

Keeping retirement real. Mom’s kugel recipe.

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We encourage listeners to send us text messages or tweet us while we broadcast Hitting Left with the Klonsky Brothers live on Friday morning’s at 11am on Chicago’s 105.5fm (lumpenradio.com).

Our Twitter hashtag was #HittingLeft17. Now it is #HittingLeft18.

It’s a new year.

My daughter, Jessica, not realizing the time difference between Brooklyn and Chicago sent me a text asking for my mother’s kugel recipe while we wered on the air. In the middle of a conversation with our friend Brandon Johnson about the issues facing working folks in Cook County – Brandon is running for Cook County Commissioner from the west side and western suburbs – I mentioned my mom’s kugel.

For those not familiar, kugel is a noodle pudding.

Sometimes potato.

Mom’s recipe is posted above from a 50-year old mimeographed collection of recipes put together by Ruth Drucker, one of my mother’s good friends and which I still use.

Recipes for kugel are varied. My Aunt Doris made her kugel with cottage cheese and corn flakes as a crusty topping.

I’m pretty sure corn flakes were not easy to come by in 1905 Minsk. So you can assume that my Aunt Doris’ recipe was not handed down from our Jewish Russian ancestors.

Neither was my mothers recipe. It more likely came from Redbook.

It was a magazine my mother bought at the supermarket checkout counter. Not the collection of quotations from Chairman Mao.

But Mom’s kugel was a favorite of mine when I was a kid.

A comfort food for me now.

Speaking of favorite foods as a kid, Gary Canter passed away last week at the young age of 58.

Gary was the latest generation of the Canter family to own Canter’s Deli on Fairfax in Los Angeles. Canter’s was one of the places in L.A. where I misspent my youth in the 60s.

Back then, Canter’s featured rude waitresses and good corned beef. You could sit at a back table for hours as long as you kept ordering coffee or a slice of cheese cake.

It would be a tradition that a Sunday meal at our house would frequently consist of corned beef or pastrami sandwiches on fresh Jewish rye, sold by ladies at Canter’s with concentration camp numbers tatooed on their arms. On the table there would also be coleslaw, (heavy on the mayonnaise), potato salad and hot tea.

Why hot tea with this particular meal? I have no idea. It is what mom served.

There was more than a few anti-war protest meetings planned at one of those back tables at Canter’s over a late night meal of a reuben dripping with Russian dressing or chopped liver sandwich with sliced raw onion.

A revolution and the people need nourishment.

“All labor,” Marx wrote in Capital, “is originally first directed towards the appropriation and production of food.”

 

 

Keeping retirement weird. Whose art have we missed?

We are in Brooklyn for the holiday weekend.

It is hard to gather all the family together at one time and in one place even though ours is not a huge family. If we play the averages, and since Anne and I are both retired, we get to be with everyone at least several times over the course of the year.

Thursday was Turkey. Yesterday was a movie. Today we go into Manhattan and see Art. This time it is at the MoMA.

We are going to see the exhibit of drawings and other works of Louise Bourgeois.

I have thought of Louise Bourgeois more than once these past few weeks in the wake of the scandals of sexual abuse.

I’ve read the hand-wringing of those who warn of what we will lose confusing the hateful acts of these men with their art, their other political work and careers or their whatever.

And then I think of Louise Bourgeois. I have no knowledge of whether Louise was sexually abused.

Her art and her stories suggest an anger that reveals more than what is explicit.

As a young art student in the sixties I didn’t even know her name even though she was already in her fifties and had been an artist her whole adult life.

I only first came to know of her because of Anne.

When Anne and I first met she was living in a second story apartment above a used furniture store in Roseland on Chicago’s far south side.

It was in Anne’s kitchen that I came to know about Louise Bourgeois. I had never met anyone before who had so many spices as Anne, all labeled in little jars. I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Anne told the story of her spices. How as a young girl her father, an art historian, and her mother would bring her to the New York apartment of Louis Bourgeois and her husband, Robert Goldwater, also an art historian.

Bourgeois, Anne explained, had a huge collection of spices in her kitchen and that the spice rack left a lasting impression on her.

I am so happy that my father-in-law took my youngest daughter, an artist, to meet Louise Bourgeois at her New York studio a few years before Bourgeois died in 2010.

Over the past several decades Louise Bourgeois’ work has received greater recognition. But because she was a woman artist the recognition came much later than it would have if she were a man.

As I followed the debate over whether a liberal politician should resign or if it is fair that Louis CK’s shows should be banned from HBO,  or what a loss not having Charlie Rose on PBS will be, I kept wondering how many women actors, artists, politicians – oh, hell. Name the field – we will never hear from because of the personal, systematic and institutional  abuse and violence directed at them and their gender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping retirement weird. Union troubles.

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I was trying to get to speak on the floor at a state union convention. I thought wearing the brightest, ugliest sweater possible might get the leadership to “recognize” me.

I didn’t start teaching in a public school until I was in my late 30s. Prior to that I mainly did factory work, but always as a union member.

Whether it was in steel or auto or what was once the United Rubber Workers as a tire builder at UniRoyal, I always carried a union card.

I often tell the story about how as a new teacher I had to go looking for our union building rep in order to join the local affiliate of the Illinois Education Association.

I had been hired mid-year.

“Might as well wait until next year,” the rep told me.

The first thing I did when I got into a leadership position in the local was to make sure we got time at the district’s new-teacher orientation to talk about the union and sign folks up.

This made it all the more ironic when state union officials, both elected and staff, would attack me as “anti-union” whenever I criticized or questioned deals and positions that seemed to me to be opposed to the interests of our members or workers in general.

In These Times has a column by Lois Weiner on the impact of the Janus case now before the Supreme Court.

Most observers concede that the Court will rule against public employee unions on the issue of agency fees when they rule on Janus. Agency fees are what is paid by all of the workers if they work in a place of employment with a union collective bargaining agreement.

Even if they choose not to join.

Without the right to collect this Fair Share, unions will be in deep stuff.

Lois Weiner writing for In These Times places the Janus case in the context of the right-wing corporate assault on unions.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

Weiner writes,

Labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

I find this description painfully accurate.

For those of us who have spent their working lives – not just as union members but as “shop floor” union member organizers – it is hard to see our organizations in full retreat.

So the questions I want to think and talk with you about is how should the unions respond to the new conditions that include things like Janus, but also how to respond to the changing nature of work?

And why is it that no matter how often we change the faces of those at the top of our unions, what Lois Weiner and others call “business unionism” continues to hold sway?

Keeping retirement weird. They don’t want to just end our defined benefit. They’re going after the defined contribution too. Shameless thieves.

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It doesn’t come as shocking news that the Republicans and Trump have plans to change the tax rules in order to benefit the wealthy.

It is ironic that those of us who fight for economic justice are attacked for advocating government enforced wealth redistribution.

The plan now being discussed in Congress does that in spades. Except the income redistribution plan is to take even more from the working class and give it to the rich and wealthy.

This is not a plan to cut taxes. It is a plan to raise taxes on those who are barely getting by as it is.

President Donald Trump and Republican leaders plan to release a tax framework this week that would dramatically cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, provide a measure of middle-class tax relief and punish some households in Democratic-leaning states like New York and New Jersey.

Let us now turn and see how the Republican plan impacts retirement savings and pensions.

With the elimination of most private employee pension plans, working families turned to personal savings plans offered at work, such as 401(k)s and, for those of us in the public sector, 403(b)s.

They call these savings plans “tax shelters.” But they don’t keep working people from paying taxes on their income. It just changes when that happens.

I didn’t pay taxes on money I sheltered at the time I earned it. I pay the taxes now as I draw down on my savings in retirement.

I also agreed to defer some of my salary into a public employee pension plan. Teachers in Illinois pay 9% of their salary pre-tax into the Teacher Retirement System instead of 6% into Social Security. As with a 401(k) the money is taxed by the federal government when I receive my monthly pension payment instead of when I earned it.

In Illinois Governor Rauner and some Democrats are trying to force us to hand over all our retirement savings into a 401(k). These are called defined contribution savings. My state pension is called a defined benefit plan because unlike playing the stock market, I can depend on exactly what my monthly pension will be.

Not so with a defined contribution plan. There is a major stock market crash every ten years or so. There is nothing dependable about the returns on a 401(k).

If you read this column regularly and for a while you know that we have been in a major fight to save our public employee pension in Illinois. Thanks to a decision by the Illinois Supreme Court, we current retirees and those currently in the system have won, at least for the time being.

Governor Rauner is still trying to shift public pensions to private investors.

And he wants Congress to usurp state law and overturn the pension protection clause of our state Constitution.

As a candidate and as governor, Rauner had proposed cutting pension costs by transitioning workers to less generous benefit packages or 401(k)-style retirement plans. But past attempts to cut retirement costs have run up against legal problems. The Illinois Constitution stipulates that benefits cannot be “diminished or impaired” once they are bestowed to workers, and the state Supreme Court has stood by those words.

The governor thinks Congress can release the state from that restriction by passing a law that would give states permission to come up with cost-saving changes to their pension programs. The option would be available to states only after they had established that spending money on workers’ retirement plans is hampering other essential services.

Plus, now the Republicans want to reduce the amount workers can save in their 401(k).

The proposals under discussion would potentially cap the annual amount workers can set aside to as low as $2,400 for 401(k) accounts, several lobbyists and consultants said on Friday. Workers may currently put up to $18,000 a year in 401(k) accounts without paying taxes upfront on that money; that figure rises to $24,000 for workers over 50. When workers retire and begin to draw income from those accounts, they pay taxes on the benefits.

These people not only want to do away with our defined benefit savings accounts, they want to do away with the defined contribution accounts as well.

Shameless thieves.

Join veteran reporter Charles Thomas in a lively discussion with Mike and Fred on Hitting Left with the Klonsky Brothers. Here is the download for the podcast.

Letter from Block Island. Art and context.

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This week I am with my family for our annual end of summer week on Block Island.

Today we are in Brooklyn to gather provisions at Fairway. Tomorrow we drive north to catch the Point Judith Ferry.

The New York Times reports that some artists and art historians are concerned about the removal of Confederate statues in the wake of Charlottesville.

The headline reads:

Trump Aside, Artists and Preservationists Debate the Rush to Topple Statues

As is often the case, the headline tends to remove nuance from the reality of the situation and is simply untrue about the rest.

For example:

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that the dismantled statues be grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.

I think that’s a great idea and doesn’t stand in opposition to taking the monuments down.

But as for the rush?

I haven’t seen a rush.

Some of this crap has been standing there for a long time.

“They also were the work of artists,” said Hollis Robbins, a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute. She cited Laura Gardin Fraser, whose double equestrian statue of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson was one of those removed overnight in Baltimore this week. Ms. Robbins said that artwork should not necessarily be discarded because the subject matter or the artists’ personal history is offensive. “Do we teach T. S. Eliot, who was anti-Semitic, or the films of Roman Polanski, who was charged with rape?” she said. “Should we play Wagner in Israel?”

“While I am personally in favor of these sculptures’ going away, I think it’s important to understand that many of these artists did not have a political motivation,” Ms. Robbins added. “They had an aesthetic motivation.”

I’m sorry. But that is just total and utter bullshit.

If an artist makes a statue of Jefferson Davis for a town square then they either have a political agenda or a financial one. Or both.

As for context, I’m for it.

But where have these people been for a hundred years? Where has there been the demand for context all this time?

If you don’t teach that T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, why haven’t you been doing it?

Want context?

Put a sculpture up in Charlottesville exhibiting the thousands of lynchings of African Americans in the decades after slavery.

Surround the monument to Italian fascism that sits on Chicago’s lakefront with graphic images of the slaughter of millions.

If it is context you want, why aren’t you providing it?

Keeping retirement weird. Our talk with Senator Daniel Biss. “Stop doing this!”

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State Senator Daniel Biss prepares for our radio show and podcast.

Yesterday, Senator Daniel Biss came on our Hitting Left with the Klonsky Brothers radio show and podcast.

On the issue of his role as a leading advocate for pension theft and the unconstitutional bill he got passed in the Illinois legislature to do that, he repeated his “I made a mistake.”

As mistakes go, it was a whopper.

I was more interested in his analysis of the mistake. Biss has an interesting one. He said that his mistake was that he fell into the “culture of Springfield” that says we couldn’t fix the revenue problem until we made cuts to pension benefits. “I accepted that status quo thinking much too fast,” he told my brother and me.

Let me say that I appreciate Biss’ candor and in no way is this an endorsement of any other Democrat running, and certainly not an endorsement of Bruce Rauner.

But I told Biss on the show that he and his Democratic colleagues in the state legislature were making the same mistake again on school funding.

Biss and Senator Andy Manar have been speaking around the state for three years in favor on one version or another of the current education funding bill that the governor has vetoed.

Even the governor’s education advisor, Beth Purvis, says Rauner supports 90% of the bill he vetoed.

The governor’s veto is based on his political calculation, which is a fundamentally racist calculation, that bashing Chicago gets downstate votes.

To be clear, the legislature should vote to override this veto as they voted to override the governor’s budget veto.

No $100 million voucher programs should be added to it to get Republican votes. Senator Biss agreed and called vouchers a red line that Democrats could not cross.

Schools need to open and stay open.

However, for three years Democrats, including Daniel Biss, have been focused on changing the formula of how inadequate money should be divided among school districts when they should have been fighting for adequate funding.

When Senator Biss and retirees crossed swords on pension theft we said at the time that instead of wasting all these years going after our pensions while the unfunded liability continued to grow by billions of dollars, address revenue.

Nobody listened to us then. They are not listening now.

It is a continuation of an acceptance of the culture of Springfield, of accepting the status quo.

Writes Phil Kadner in this morning’s Sun-Times:

To quote from the final school funding commission report:

“At the time of writing this report, the amount of additional state money needed for all districts in Illinois to be at or above their adequacy target is estimated to be a minimum of $3.5 billion over the next decade.”

In fact, the report continues, for the state to do its fair share and fund 51 percent of the cost of education, it would need to come up with an addition $2.5 billion beyond that $3.5 billion, for a total of $6 billion.

No one in Springfield has a plan to do that.

Without a massive infusion of state dollars, the inequities inherent in school funding cannot be addressed long term and property taxes will continue to increase, causing a public backlash.

Poor children in Illinois get gimmicks, word games and double-talk from legislators, not a quality education. Rauner could have said that, but instead undermined his own flawed reform plan because, like all the other politicians, he simply doesn’t intend to spend the money needed to get the job done right.

Stop doing this Senator Biss.

 

 

Keeping retirement weird. Mr. Tunney.

I’m on a listserv of former friends from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. I graduated from there 51 years ago.

Recently a thread started about our principal from back in the day: Mr. Jim Tunney.

Mr. Tunney has had four careers that I’m aware of. Before he was our principal I assume he was a teacher. After being our principal he became a leading National Football League official for 31 years. You may have seen him on TV.

Since then he has been a motivational speaker.

I still don’t understand how that is a career, but apparently it is.

My time with Mr. Tunney was relatively brief. It lasted just three years. I met him exactly two times.

The first time was in 1965. I was a junior. In those days we had to participate in what were called drop drills. The purpose of these drills was to…

Really?

There was no purpose to these drills.

They were part of our preparation for what we all thought was the inevitability of world-wide global nuclear war with the Russians.

Our teacher would suddenly say, “drop,”  and we were to crawl under our desks and put our hands over our neck in case of flying glass.

It seemed to many of us at the time that in the case of global nuclear war with the Russians, flying glass would be the least of our problems. And it seemed that whether we were sitting on or under our desks would not matter all that much.

As critical thinker even then, I expressed my reservations about the value of these drop drills. Since I also believed, even then, that thought should lead to action, one day I refused to drop.

This led to my first meeting with Mr. Tunney.

I sat across the desk from him in his office as he explained his responsibility as a principal to attend to the safety of all his students.

I talked about my belief in peace and nuclear disarmament and how schools should be preparing students for a world with no war instead of promoting fear and national hatred.

It was the Sixties, and I was seventeen.

Mr. Tunney looked at me as if he had no clue what I was talking about. So he sent me back to class and I never had contact with him again until I graduated in June of 1966.

On that warm June day, on the football field of Fairfax High School, I stood in line to receive an empty folder that was a stand in for the actual diploma I would receive later in the mail. I handed Mr. Tunney a slip with my name on it. He read it aloud and shook my hand with the same expression he had on that day in his office after I gave my peace speech.

He clearly had no clue who I was.

That was it. My total experience with Mr. Tunney.

That is why I was so impressed with the thread that broke out on my high school listserv. One of my fellow alums reported that Mr. Tunney had received some award and for the next three weeks people have been writing their impressions of him.

From 50 years ago!

Some of my fellow alums loved him. Some respected him. Some hated him.

This has gone one for three solid weeks.

About a principal from 50 years ago! He is now over 80 years old.

I shared on the list what I just shared with you. But added this:

May we all have a thread about us that lasts this long when we are over 80.