Waking Up and Smelling the Coffee: Americans Organize Collectively to Defend Themselves against the Plutocratic 1%


While pundits may debate Obama’s lackluster performance and Romney’s zingers, when it comes down to it, the presidential debate will not change people’s minds. What will decide the election will be demographics:  Latino voters have increased their support for Obama to 70%. Women perceive Romney as dismissive of their issues. And a Reuters poll finds Obama to be better representative of America by 48 to 39 percent – despite the billions spent by Republicans trying to portray him as alien.

Focus groups found that blue-collar voters lowered their opinion of Romney in response to quotes from his campaign, but were more forgiving of quotes from Obama; many suggested that Obama needed more time to fix the economy given the extent of the 2008 collapse.  “And while Obama didn’t seem to get too much credit from any group for his individual jobs policies or for his health care law, voters were bullish on the auto bailout — not only in auto-heavy Ohio, but northern Virginia as well. … In another disturbing trend for Romney, women’s health issues cut against him hard among the Virginia groups, especially college educated women, for whom they generated as much attention as the economy.”

Romney’s clandestinely videoed remarks describing half the population as parasitic have had a discernible effect on the electorate, strengthening the perception of him as the candidate for the plutocracy. This attests to the persistence of the Occupy theme of the 99 percent, a form of populist class awareness. A further social change is the turn to unionization among the low-waged. The threat of unemployment has become a two-edged sword: while employers have used the fear of joblessness to drive down wages and conditions, a point has been reached where workers’ backs are against the wall and they have nothing to lose by fighting back.

In the Midwest, two important strikes are currently taking place that bear this out. Warehouse workers at a giant Walmart warehouse outside of Chicago are on strike over illegal retaliation against workers who filed a lawsuit over wage theft, supported by Warehouse Workers For Justice, an organization launched by the United Electrical Workers union to raise standards for the industry. Although Walmart owns the warehouse, which handles 70% of all the goods it imports into the U.S., it has a pyramid organization of companies that contracts and subcontracts out its labor supply, in order to avoid responsibility for workers’ welfare.

In These Times reports that the dispute began after a small group of workers walked out of the facility when management first fired, then backtracked and suspended, some key workers’ leaders, including one of the four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Following this, another group of workers took a petition to management complaining about unsafe equipment, extreme heat, and a reduction in breaks during long shifts. Managers again fired the petitioners, then changed their minds and suspended them. The number of workers now on strike over unfair labor practices has reached 38.

Despite the high turnover rate in the warehouse, which makes it difficult to organize, a group of workers who had managed to endure the conditions for a number of months began the protest action. “What we have in common is we’re pretty marginalized and desperate,” plaintiff Philip Bailey told David Moberg of In These Times. “The prospect of working these low-paying jobs for long hours became scarier than risking losing the job to improve it. People realized we won’t get anything until we stand together.”

On Monday, several hundred supporters converged on the warehouse, effectively shutting it down. Riot police equipped with a Humvee-mounted sonic weapon were on hand to arrest 15 protesters who had nonviolently sat down outside the main gate. Support came from groups like Chicago Jobs With Justice and Chicago teachers, who have a common enemy in the privatization-crazed Walton family. Also joining the picket were workers from Sensata Technologies Inc., a company owned by Bain Capital and now in the final stages of moving its production to China.

The strike movement has now spread to Walmart stores in Los Angeles, whose “associates” staged a one-day protest on Thursday. Like the warehouse workers, the retail store employees are responding to escalating cases of retaliation by managers against workers who speak out against low pay, inadequate health insurance, short or unpredictable work weeks, understaffing, and lack of appreciation and respect.

In Detroit, as in the Chicago teachers strike, union members are striking against privatization, which they know will result in the loss of jobs and the rapid erosion of their control over conditions of work. Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant workers came out against a plan to cut 81% of their jobs under a $46 million no-bid contract signed with the EMA Group.  The suburban-dominated Detroit Water Board approved the contract in early September with the aim of replacing most of the unionized workforce. According to the union, the EMA Group was responsible for massive flooding in Toronto after revamping the city’s sewage system and laying off the majority of the workers.

Declaring they were fighting for the future of Detroit, 34 workers walked out in a wildcat action early Sunday, in order to preempt an order barring a strike. They were joined by the rest of the 450-strong workforce the following day, when, as anticipated, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox issued a no-strike order on the union. Defying the order, the strike continued, and on Tuesday water department officials suspended the original 34 strikers. At the picket line, Tanya Glover told the Detroit Free Press she was concerned about wage cuts and outsourcing: “I’m out here because I need to feed my family,” she said. “They’re telling me I don’t have a job in five years anyway. It’s either fight, or let them give my job away.”

Workers from other unions came out to support the water workers as word of the walk-out spread. “This strike is happening in the wake of the victory of the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Martha Grevatt, of UAW Local 869. “It’s another example of workers standing up, not only for their jobs, but against the banks and corporations. Whether you work for a private company or in the public sector, your bosses are part of the 1 percent.”

The union district-level Michigan AFSCME Council told union members on Tuesday to return to work and comply with the judicial order. The confusion this created meant that many of Wednesday’s afternoon shift followed this directive, after being informed that the department had promised not to discipline them. However, the leaders of the water workers’ Local 207 rejected the order, voting late on Wednesday to continue the strike until all suspended workers were given amnesty. It issued a statement that said: “The power of our strike is based on the support of Detroit’s Black community and the surrounding communities of Michigan, including unions and churches, and is being expressed more and more each day. … Unless our members are all returned to work, there is no deal, and the strike is still on.”

The strike ended Thursday in victory. Management agreed to reinstate all the fired workers and to continue discussions on union rights and job security. Michael Mulholland, Local 207 Secretary Treasurer, said, “This victory is a measure of the strength of Detroit as a whole. If Judge Cox had not feared what the public response would have been if he had taken action against our union, this victory would never have been possible.” Union attorney Shanta Driver added: “If the people of Detroit draw the correct conclusion that we have the power to control the destiny of our City and its resources even when just a few of us stand up and fight to win, this struggle will have achieved a great deal. … we are building a new movement that can change the balance of power in this city forever.”

The power of the community was also realized in the Chicago teachers’ strike, and the Occupy movement. As different groups of workers’ struggles begin to converge, this movement poses a challenge to bureaucracy within the unions. A new form of leadership is being created, close to the grassroots, which is turning outwards to unorganized low-waged workers and is building alliances within the community across ethnic and class divides – to paraphrase the leaders of Local 207, launching a new civil rights movement and era of mass struggle.

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Filed under 2012 Election, African Americans, chicago teachers, financiers, occupy wall street, police presence, political analysis, poverty, strikes

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