An Outrage Against Brooklyn Workers
By Arnold Perey, Ph.D.
Almost a year ago workers at Rode & Horn Lumber, 90 Waterbury Street, Williamsburg, were deprived of their jobs--locked out--arrogantly and illegally, by the owners, Joshua and Lazer Sternhell. Why? Because these lumber-handlers and truck drivers, all members of Teamsters Local 1205, dared to stand up and ask for more than their unjustly low wages--wages that are 50% below what hundreds of workers doing the same jobs are making in other New York lumberyards!
I heard some of these courageous men speak at a large rally, attended by neighbors, community leaders, and representatives of many different unions. I respect these workers for how they spoke about their struggle, and about the gratitude they feel toward their union and their many supporters.
The owners of this lumberyard are despicable--after squeezing profit out of the hard work of their employees, kicking them out when they want nothing more than a decent share of the wealth they created with their own labor!
Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant clergy have spoken out against this company. And many organizations--including El Puente and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice--appalled by this inhumanity, have pledged their support to the men.
The Sternhells exemplify intensely the contempt for people which Eli Siegel, with whom I had the good fortune to study, is at the very basis of our profit-driven economy. Mr. Siegel, who founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, was the only social scientist to see the place of ethics in economics. He explained that it is unethical--it is contempt--for one person to take the wealth another created. It is labor that has produced wealth in America, not owners who enrich themselves by robbing the laborers!
The Rode & Horn workers are our fellow New Yorkers. "Many," writes Tom Robbins in the New York Daily News, "spent their entire working lives at the lumberyard" (4/3/00). Jeffrey Green, for example, "worked at the firm for 27 years," and "his father, before him, put in 40 years at the yard."
How did this lockout happen? The union was negotiating in good faith with Rode & Horn, but the Sternhells, after dragging negotiations on for many months, in an attempt to break the men made a final offer which the company knew could not be accepted. It was "an offer," continues the Daily News, "which would have added a solitary dime to [the] average hourly wages." "The move," writes Robbins, "was a shock to the workers."
But they did not give in. They refused the offer, and after that, they were locked out! Scab labor was hired to fill the jobs they’d had for years and which their families depended on.
"It’s terrible," said lumber-handler Luis Prado, "that they have people robbing our jobs because we asked for a raise!"
As an anthropologist, I did field work with a cannibalistic people in the mountains of New Guinea. I often saw more fellow-feeling in them than the Sternhells have for the working people of Brooklyn.
The method by which the Sternhells laid off the men is a violation of federal labor law. Says the New York Times, "In March, the National Labor Relations Board issued unfair-labor charges against the company" (5/7/00).
Timothy Lynch, President of Teamsters Local 1205, described the cause of this brutality: "The owners of Rode & Horn do not want to see these workers as flesh-and-blood human beings with feelings every bit as real as their own--who deserve to live with the same dignity that they, the owners, want for themselves."
He continued: "Everyone in New York should be very proud of these workers and give them our full support. They are making vivid with their very lives the most urgent question for our nations, which was stated by America’s greatest friend to labor, Eli Siegel: ‘What does a person deserve by being a person?’"
I agree completely! That question must be answered now by everyone--it is the only way to stop the economic injustice and anguish in America. And I say, every person who works deserves the wealth his or her labor created!
The Rode & Horn workers are urging everyone: "Boycott Rode & Horn Lumber--support our fight for justice!" That is what I and many others are proud to be doing. I think everyone should join us!
Arnold Perey was born in Brooklyn and taught at Brooklyn College. His doctoral degree is from Columbia University. He is now a consultant on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, teaching anthropology and education.
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