The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Unions Got Too Greedy," They Say

People blame the unions whenever a company packs up its operation and moves it overseas. The classic Reagan-era excuse was that greedy and demanding unions got too big for their britches and forced otherwise benevolent companies to move away. But have you noticed that entire industries that have never had any experience with unions are also making a mad dash for the third world? Cases in point: the tech industry or the customer service call centers for any industry.

While the rank and file engage in a heated debate as to whether or not unions are justified, the CEOs have been running to the bank unabated. Regardless of which side you are on, if you are fighting that fight, then you (like me and many others) fell for the diversion tactic.

I propose another explanation: I believe companies packed up and moved overseas simply because they could. Advances in transportation, communication, as well as advances in the third world nations themselves, made it easier for multi-national corporations to set up shop in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. The businesses themselves also matured to the point where they were ready for such a change. A lot of industries started off as mom & pop shops, quickly growing to a larger operation, then multiple operations, etc.

Whether Americans are unionized or not, there is no way we can compete with people willing to work for mere cents a day. Even factoring in the large transportation expenses and set-up costs, businesses have been exuberantly clear that the savings in labor more than make up for any additional costs for having a split operation (management in America, manufacturing in the third world). I have no doubt that the demands of unions were a factor that irritated businesses—no question. But unions were not the foundational reason that prompted this seismic shift that has been going on the last 30 years. Industries that have no experience with unions are following the same trends.

You could argue that multi-national corporation are no strangers to the developing world: sugarcane plantations and diamond mines have been around for 500 years, if not more. In those cases, though, I would argue that they had to be there. The businesses themselves would invest in the nation’s infrastructure since there was nowhere else to harvest that produce or mine those minerals. There is more flexibility with a modern sweatshop. It is an employer’s market, if you will. They can set up their factory anywhere, so they can put more pressures on the local governments to put in that infrastructure for them. They can wait until conditions are favorable.

Statistics are clear that there is no less wealth in America. It is just concentrated among an increasingly smaller and smaller group of people. Real wages for the lower and middle class have been stagnant for 30 years. I know this from personal experience: A union factory worker could make $10-12 per hour in the early 80s. He could support a family on a single income and do it quite well. I have meandered around factories, warehouses and other industries, and even in the year 2011 one would be lucky to work for $10-12 per hour. What kind of lifestyle can you have today making $10 per hour (roughly 20 grand annually)? The price of everything has increased sharply, yet wages have not kept up with inflation. The result: the standard of living has gone down for most Americans. We are in a 30-year slow cook, and the boil is coming on just gradually enough for us to not realize it until it is too late. I have heard that frogs will leap out if thrown into a pot of hot water, but they are unable to respond if placed in a pot of cool water that heats up slowly.

Unions raised the standard of living for the lower and middle classes of America. There is no question about that: Advances that were won by the unions were directly the same advances that increased the standard of living for workers: Higher wages, better safety conditions, child safety laws, the 40-hour work week—these were the achievements that improved the standard of living of the lower and middle classes and they were fought for and won in large part by the unions. The existence of unions was not a mere correlation to advances in the standard of living in America. They were absolutely causational.

Most Americans today probably would not have liked living in the America of 100 years ago. The “home of the free” was not much different than a modern third world nation—our forefathers worked 16-hour days in often deadly conditions “for peanuts,” as they would say. They lived in tenements and shacks. Maternity leave consisted of an afternoon off, if you were lucky. Have we forgotten Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle? The increasing gap between rich and poor is not an empty political talking point. It is the grim reality of daily life. Businesses and politicians capitalize (literally) on the fact that most people either do not know or remember what it was like just 30 years ago.

All of this does not bode well for those of us in America. Our labor is competing with third world labor. It does not look promising to imagine where this will lead when followed to its logical conclusion. I have a sinking feeling that we are going to find out up close and personal where it leads, though.

I definitely urge America and especially Ohio (which is right now fighting for the life of collective bargaining in the public sector) not to vote against the interests of organized labor. Like any human operation, you can point to some faults and flaws among unions, but I would argue that it is dangerous to conclude that we would be better off without any unions. "The unions once served their purpose, but now they more problem than they are worth," you may hear. But just as the rise in the standard of living corresponds to the rise in organized labor, so too does the decline in that standard of living correspond to the decline in organized labor.

Regardless of how we vote, my worry is that organized labor may not be as effective as it once was in securing a more even distribution of the wealth. The tools and methods it has used historically are harder to apply in the modern marketplace. Workers acting as a group were able to control the supply of labor into an economy and make demands as a result. That was very effective when the supply of labor was limited to a small region. Now that advances in communications and transportation have made almost the entire 6 billion people of the world as potentially a part of the labor supply of many industries, the kind of global solidarity that would be required to use the same union methods as before seems far outside of the range of possibilities right now. Companies can pick up and move so easily now.

The industries that have been able to maintain their collective bargaining power have been those where outsourcing is simply not possible—such as teachers, for instance. Still, every industry that maintains collective bargaining provides a "bump" in the standard of living for all of us. There is a positive spillover effect as even non-union workers demand better terms in their employment. Likewise, every industry that loses that right will most likely also be knock to other industries, too.

Here is the bottom line, and it affects your bottom line: Whether lower and middle class workers act collectively or not, the results will be felt collectively.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Insurance Speakeasy

I have been complaining about medical insurance companies so much in recent posts, I figured I needed to come clean about how it all ended up.

Yes, I was truly rejected a couple of times when I applied for health insurance due to having "medical conditions." There did not seem to be any options, and I was rip-roaring mad (as you might have noticed from my writing of 4 blog posts on this subject in the course of a couple of days), but then I got a good tip from an insurance broker:

A little caveat most folks do not know about (and which insurance companies do not go out of their way to tell you) is a little thing called Open Enrollment. It turns out all companies are required by law to offer insurance to any applicant through Open Enrollment regardless of medical condition(s). The only catch is they have a quota, and once the slots are filled the window closes. But it's like a password at a speakeasy. The conversation goes like this:

Me: Hello, could I have some health insurance with your company given my medical history?
Customer Service: No, sorry that is not an option. Have a nice . . .
Me: I see. Well, can I have insurance through your open enrollment?
Customer Service: Yes, we can go ahead and get you set up.

They do not go out of your way to let you know about this option, but if you speak the magic word, they have to let you in.

At a cursory glance, it seems like decent insurance. It is a little expensive but not out of reach. After all my yipping and yapping about insurance companies, I figured I should probably post this note to inform others and to at least partially redeem the insurance companies, even though they are not exactly doing this from the kindness of their hearts.

After I had accepted an Open Enrollment policy, another application finally got accepted, after numerous long discussions with medical personnel on behalf of the insurance company.

The same company rejected me last year when I applied, but they accepted me this year. I suppose my cancer had gone enough years to where I was acceptable to them. Who knows.

Getting a regular policy does not seem too much different than what I would have gotten through the company's Open Enrollment. The premiums and maximums were very similar. A few of the other terms were different enough that I was able to make an easy decision. They both seem to cover catastrophic occurrences quite well, but it's the day-to-day expenses where you can get eaten alive.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Traditional and Non-Traditional at the Same Time

I was cooking today and noticed that the kitchen smelled like my grandparents' house . . . and I knew I must be doing something right!

This comment will make sense if you have seen a certain commercial on (the) Cooking Channel.

I have playfully made fun of that commercial before, but when it happens and you are transported, it is deeply meaningful. Suddenly, you are not just in your kitchen anymore but also in the kitchen of your childhood, and the smells bridge a gap between now and then. You are standing in two worlds as if you had stepped through some sci-fi time warp. It is an amazing thing.

Today, what I cooked was traditional and non-traditional at the same time, yet it still took me back. There was some whole-grain rice sitting in the fridge, slightly dry. I put it in the bottom of a casserole dish. I then browned up some fresh chorizo (made in a local shop) and lots of onions in a pan. I poured them on top of the rice with some additional olive oil and sea salt and threw it all in the oven, covered to seal in moisture. The hope was that the sausage and onions would moisten and flavor the rice, and it did. I served it with lots of fresh chopped parsley on top. It was good to have some fresh greens with this.

This was nothing like anything my grandparents would have done, yet it totally had the same spirit all at the same time!

My grandparents probably never ate whole-grain rice, and they would have opted for fresh kielbasi before chorizo. Yet this dish carried the essence of Slovak/Polish food even though the ingredients were off-center.

The fresh sausage and onions sizzling in a pan and the smell of chopped parsley on the counter took me right there. That is the essence of a Slovak-American kitchen.

It is amazing the way smells can not only remind you of something, but actually take you there.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Putting it all Together

If you haven't caught on by now, I like to approach problems in a strategic way. I focus on the overall systems and structures that affect our lives. Some people approach problems tactically; I'd opt for the bird's eye perspective. Many times a decision that seems very noble based on local issues may not be so wise when you take a step back and look at it from a strategic vantage point.

For example, I used to have all sorts of coping strategies to help myself write college papers at night. I took breaks, tried to give myself little rewards, limited social time and did all the things people recommend to do when you are struck. I hated all those ideas and they rarely worked, but they were the wisest things to do given the circumstances. But that's just it: Your ears should perk up at the word "given." Always check your givens and assumptions.

It turns out that the even wiser thing to do was to change the circumstances. Once I realized that I write better in the mornings without a belly full of carbohydrates then suddenly I didn't need those coping strategies anymore. All those little tricks to coax myself would at best help me gain inches (when they worked at all), while changing my overall work schedule helped me gain miles without much friction.

The previous four posts have revolved around goal-setting. I often focus on artistic goals, but these same themes apply to any goal, whether it is for fitness, personal growth or any professional aspiration. Try those ideas on and see if they fit! Each post addresses the topic of goal-setting with an eye for the larger framework that we operate in:

1. Time of Day and the Creative Process. Know yourself. Know your peaks and troughs. Maybe you write better at certain times of the day or seasons of the year. You might be a people-person at night or need a long hibernation in the winter. Build your schedule around that.

2. Artistic Formation through the Public Forum. Have a public outlet for your goal. Get feedback from the larger community. The presentation of art is as big of a task as the creation itself and that takes time to unfold. Get started! Even if your goals are not artistic, having that give-and-take with the wider community makes a huge difference.

3. Goals: How to Achieve Them. Think of any other environmental factors that support you. Don't make a spectacle of your personal self-discipline, but rather find the easiest environment to work in. The task itself is where the difficulty should lie. Don't burn yourself out just getting yourself to the drawing board.

4. Follow-Through. Have concrete goals, performances or other calendar items to force you to finish your work and get 'r done! Deadlines are a blessing.

So, what is the point of this post in particular? It wouldn't make sense to write about strategic goal-setting without having a larger, encapsulating post that covers it all!

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This is part 5/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."


I enjoy writing liturgical music. I often will wake up in the morning and work out a new tune. I have been doing this for years even though I didn't have a direct outlet for that music. I always figured I'd do something with it at some point in my life, but for the time being it was enough just to create it and save it to my computer.

I mention this only to say that thankfully I haven't had a shortage of motivation on this front for a while. Creative inspiration does have its ebbs and flows, but overall I haven't had a problem applying myself to the task, at least when it comes to the initial song creation (I have had a problem with follow-through and finishing pieces, though).

Still, my recent job has caused a spike in this creativity, even though I didn't think I needed it. In the last 6 months, I wrote at least 40 Responsorials Psalm settings and co-authored about a dozen more. I also put the foundations down for several stand-alone songs. On top of that, I have made a number of new arrangements--especially for guitar but also for piano and voice--of contemporary and traditional hymns.

The reasons for this spike are simple and obvious, when I think about it:

1. I have had a direct occasion to play them. Even though I love writing with no goal in mind, it is so much easier to write when there is a concrete, direct application. Very little of this material would have been created if I didn't have a job where I would directly use this material.

2. The job also helps with follow-through. The Psalms simply have to be ready by the appropriate Mass if they are going to be sung at all. I knew if a didn't get a particular Responsorial together it might have to wait as much as a couple years before it rotates back in the liturgical calendar (Responsorials can be done outside of their designated weeks, but we prefer to stick with the liturgical calendar at my church).

2. I have had a supportive team to work with. The choir has been great with editing out unnecessary fluff. I've also worked with a couple of cantors to co-author pieces. We just generally encourage each other. There have been a couple of weeks where left to my own motivation I wouldn't have done any original music, but the prodding of one of the cantors gave me the necessary push. I've often provided the same push for her, as well.

3. I started writing in 4-part harmony. Why? Because I have a choir that needs it, that's why! In the past, I'd usually sculpt a melody line then pepper in with flutes, clarinets, or whatever. Having a choir that will sing these pieces has forced me to write for the choir, and I had to develop those skills. For some tunes, I simply wouldn't have written a harmony if I couldn't think of one off-hand, but having a choir has forced me to do it even when it isn't easy. On a related note, I haven't written anything for the flute in a while, because we don't have a flautist.
In short, I did these things simply because they needed doing.

A couple of my friends have reported similar findings: They love to write prose and poetry, but after being involved in a local poetry group their creativity has positively spiked--and it didn't take a lot of painful self-discipline to apply themselves to the task. It was a fun environment that was conducive to their creativity.

There is nothing like a deadline to foster creativity. It also helps to be with others who are creative and doing the same things. Even though most artists market themselves as individuals, if you did research on them you would probably find that any artist out there who has had success in their field also has had a team of supportive people around them and an environment that brings out the best in them.

I could opt not do my original pieces at church. However, once that choice is made, there is a natural structure that helps keep me on task. There is a deadline and a certain level of complexity is requiest as there is need for parts for a choir and at least one accompanist. Yes, I need enough self-discipline to commit myself to the task. But once I have committed myself, there is a natural structure and demand for follow-through that keeps me moving along.

* * *

This is part 4/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Goals: How to Acheive Them

Maybe it's that grid-iron football mentality that many of us were taught at a young age: If you have a problem, you just tuck your head down, double your efforts, and plow through it, inch-by-painstaking inch. Goals shouldn't be easy, after all. If they are easy, something's wrong. Yet, we all successfully do things all the time that are easy. We just don't pay as much attention to them, because, well, they're easy.

I know folks with all sorts of goals--fitness goals, professional goals, emotional health goals, artistic goals. I often hear the same things: I just gotta push myself harder, I just gotta make myself do it. And then when they inevitably fall off the wagon, therein starts the cycle of self-flagellation and mea culpas. Unless guilt and shame are your true goals, this method usually doesn't produce the desired results.

There's no question that self-discipline is a vital characteristic of anyone who achieves their goals. It's important to have an underlying current of self-discipline at all times, at least in the background somewhere. You need to kick it in when times are tough and to be able to muscle through a problem when all else fails. But that's exactly it: You need the "all else." If you continually find yourself going against the grain, maybe there is a way to change the grain.

Are there strategic decisions you can make with your life to put yourself in environments, cultures and conditions that are more favorable to your personal style and thus more conducive to your goals?

Goals are hard enough just by themselves. There is no sense reaping on yourself additional burdens (and the guilt that comes when you fail) by making such an issue of your own self-discipline. I think some folks need to prove something to themselves, perhaps they feel they need to earn something in order to have it. I also suspect that all this talk about self-discipline may just be another method of avoidance. In true tragic irony, focusing so much on the process may just be a distraction from the true goal.

It really doesn't matter if Mozart wrote his pieces effortlessly or in gruelling agony & ecstasy. The important thing is that they got written.

It's a good exercise in being human to acknowledge that we have limitations and weaknesses. That is actually a moment of true empowerment. I can say to myself, "I really want to work out every day, but I know there is no way in hell I'm going to muster up the self-discipline every single day to do it consistently." I know that about myself. I also know that I will work out in a different environment. I'm much more likely to work out if I join a gym, have workout buddies, or change other factors in my life that bring working out closer to the regular infrastructure of my day. I could also think beyond the gym, and realize that I will work harder every day in my backyard vegetable garden than I ever would in a gym. Knowing this I can make some changes to accommodate.

Admitting limitations can be a moment of depression, but it can also be a moment of opportunity. Once you identify a problem, you can more easily identify a solution.

My roommate and I walked every day when we lived for a semester in Spain. Walking was just about the only way to get anywhere. Due to cost, the bus was only for emergencies. We lived on the outskirts of town, so that meant there was at least a mile to and from class, to and from the internet cafes, to and from restaurants, clubs and shopping. We walked 2-5 miles every day. When we did break down to occasionally take the bus, we noticed we didn't feel as good that day. We walked and we loved it--rain, sleet, or shine. We loved it so much and enjoyed such tremendous health benefits for mind, body and spirit from doing it that we said we would continue walking even after we returned to America. Guess what? We probably walked once or twice then let it slide. No matter how good it felt, no matter how convinced we were of its importance, once it was so far removed from the daily routine it quickly fell away.

Walking was hard enough. We had blisters, blistery weather, and some late mornings trying to hoof it to class. But at least we weren't fighting ourselves. When left to my own devices, I can't tell you how much time I would spend trying to convince myself to take a day off, quit or rationalize my way in or out of any other excuse. Being in an environment where walking was essentially the only option took that whole debate right out of the equation. We could spend our energy working through whatever problems arose rather than wasting all that energy deciding whether to get on the horse at all.

Daily, rigorous self-discipline is not what it's cracked up to be. It is also important--and perhaps essential--and perhaps easier and smarter--to put yourself into an environment that is conducive to your goals. It doesn't necessarily get any easier at that point--but at least you can apply yourself to achieving the goal itself rather than spend all your energy just getting yourself to show up.

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This is part 3/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."