Category Archives: 2012 Election

NSA Stands For Not Suckers Anymore: Americans Rally Against Smooth Talk and Cheap Theatrics

US media are obsessed with Tea Party Republican threats to crash the economy and Ted Cruz’s self-promoting talkathon about Obamacare, while more important news gets buried.  US Senate hearings into abuse of NSA surveillance powers, far from representing popular opposition to the spying, in practice demonstrated nothing but the security agencies’ regulatory capture of Congressional committees. Fuming at their exposure by Edward Snowden, officials said they were finding ways to “counter the popular narrative” in order to keep monitoring citizens’ phone calls. Only Senator Ron Wyden challenged this story: the NSA leadership, he said, “built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people.”

This is the defining feature of US politics today – the diverging trajectories of the public and the executive branch. While the administration is negotiating secret trade agreements that would lock in corporate hegemony over small nations and the US population (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP), there is growing domestic opposition to the administration’s plans for far-flung military interventions and its refusal to curb the excesses of big banks.

The lack of international and domestic support for these strategies is what constrains the Obama administration from continuing the course set by George W. Bush. Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday was a blunt assertion of neo-imperial ideology, while denying the label of empire.  He said: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. … We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”

His realpolitik made Bush look like a starry-eyed idealist, while giving his message a liberal tinge by warning that US disengagement from the Middle East would lead to chaos by “creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.” This tone-deaf (to other countries) remark seemed intended primarily to bring his Congressional critics into line. Journalist Jeremy Scahill was flabbergasted by the speech, pointing out that Obama “basically stakes out a neo-con vision of American foreign policy and owns it and kind of wraps it in this cloak of democratic legitimacy.”

On the one hand, public disillusion with the US imperial role stems from Americans’ experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is also connected to the revelations of NSA surveillance and growing economic impoverishment at home. Americans see themselves potentially caught in a vise of lost opportunity and lost rights. The administration is seeing pushback from several fronts: from the Occupy movement to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and even real congressional opposition within the Democratic party, to be distinguished from the sideshow theatrics of the Tea Party extreme right.

Take for instance the success of Democratic senators’ opposition to Obama’s pick for Federal Reserve chair, Larry Summers. Ezra Klein reported in the Washington Post: “Summers really fell because those Senate Democrats — and many other liberals — don’t trust the Obama administration’s entire approach to regulating Wall Street. … Liberals want to see the biggest banks broken apart so they’re easier to oversee and less of a threat to the financial system if they go bust. … The Obama administration simply disagrees that this concentration is, in and of itself, a problem.”

Harold Meyerson makes clear that these political divisions have their source in a profound social distrust of corporations and the financial sector. He explains that “the abject failures of the market economy” are creating a “growing conflict between those Democrats who have hitched their wagons to Wall Street [like Cory Booker and Rahm Emanuel]… and those … who believe government’s role is in advancing the interests of the middle class and protecting it from finance. … what Warren & Co. have going for them is millennials’ pervasive disenchantment with the market economics that have plunged them into a nightmare of unemployment and undercompensation.”

The same pervasive disenchantment with the results of neoliberal market economics that led to Occupy Wall Street’s rise two years ago continues to simmer. The campaign of the low-waged for a $15 minimum hourly rate taps into that same sensibility. Their argument is that they are forced to subsist on a pittance while the corporate owners make billions out of their labor. Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York mayor is also boosted by the same anti-inequality sentiment.

Before Occupy came on the scene, public criticism of the super-affluent was taboo. Media commentators and political figures felt obliged to portray them as a shining symbol of capitalism’s success. Occupy’s most lasting legacy is a shift in the national discourse that identifies the antagonism between the “one percent” and the American public, one that surfaced again clearly in the political reaction to Romney’s “47 percent” remarks during the 2012 election.

Many of Occupy’s activists had voted for Obama in 2008 and became disgusted with his administration’s refusal to curb bank predations or to prosecute a single banker. The wildfire spread of occupations – alarming the establishment – brought together many preexisting protest and community campaigns around a common focus. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed, that the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street was suddenly being openly discussed, that the suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing, or college debt was coming out of the shadows, that the Occupy encampments had become places where people could testify about the destruction of their hopes and lives.”

The experimental communities of occupiers were not able to withstand systematic state disruption and the difficulties of maintaining their camps in a hostile environment.  The movement returned to its diverse origins – transformed by the experience but unable to continue general assemblies without the imperatives of communal survival keeping the components of the movement together – leaving intact networks that re-emerged when state institutions failed the community, such as Occupy Sandy.

Writing in CounterPunch, Steven Sherman discusses Occupy’s inherent weaknesses. He writes: “Occupy encampments were already starting to suffer exhaustion when they were swept off the streets by the police after about two months … Movements have been known to meet in union halls, community centers and many other places. You don’t actually need a camp out to have a movement. And yet Occupy did go into a tailspin. … The sense that the movement was growing and growing, that a call for a radically different sort of politics had truly touched a nerve, that ‘we are unstoppable’ has utterly receded.”

But it did not simply fall apart. Author and journalist Nathan Schneider points out: “This was a movement that was systematically torn apart by the security state, by the militarized police forces in cities all across the country. …It was not only brute force. In meeting after meeting after meeting, there were clear infiltrators who were disrupting the discussions and making sure that no sustainable organizing practices could take hold.”

Clearly the movement did not pose a physical danger to society by taking over public spaces. The threat to the ruling elite was primarily ideological, it seems to me. Occupy captured the public imaginary in a way that had not happened since the 1970s, and broke through the structure of social control that had confined dissent to ineffective and contained protests and to the two-party system.

Obama’s public role was to divert resistance into his re-election, leveraging the sentiment Occupy channeled by adopting its rhetoric. It’s a testimony to his political skill that his own role in the 2008 TARP bailout is not more clearly remembered and that he is able to retain his appeal as a symbol of the social movement that elected him.

The suppression of Occupy didn’t destroy this social movement, which is making itself felt in a subterranean way through the political system. The unlikely alliances of Democrats and libertarian Republicans in Congress express, however mutedly, intense public discontent with the way the Obama administration is running the country on behalf of Wall Street and the business classes while the plight of the average American is glossed over with soothing rhetorical phrases.

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Filed under 2012 Election, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, National Security Agency, Obama, Occupy Sandy, occupy wall street, political analysis, Rahm Emanuel, US policy

Obama’s Second Term: The Real Promise of America

The inherent strength of the social movement that reelected Obama in November was perceptible in the spectacle of his second inauguration. The event was designed to be symbolic in a way that both coopted and validated social change in America.

Some of Obama’s liberal critics were surprised by its tone: immigration activist Sarah Uribe “was taken aback by the diversity displayed: an almost surreal portrait of progress and equality. I beamed while watching supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice-President Biden; I was thrilled to hear gay, Latino poet Richard Blanco’s ode to working-class people; and my jaw nearly dropped when I heard the Reverend Luis Leon partially recite the benediction in Spanish. And, of course, the historic significance of hearing our African-American president speak on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday was not lost.”

The rhetoric of his inaugural speech aligned Obama politically with this movement, making many references to “We, the people,” leveraging the language of the constitution, Lincoln, and the Civil Rights movement against the philosophy of radical individualism.  He defended the role of government, articulating popular frustration with legislative gridlock in order to undermine Reagan’s “welfare queen” ideology and send a message to Congressional Republicans that the balance of power between executive and legislature had changed.

But while Obama’s themes were squarely in line with popular sentiment, they didn’t include any major initiatives. Former Obama official  Kenneth Baer pointed out in the Washington Post that the speech sounded progressive only because the Republicans have moved political discourse so far to the right. “Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical,” writes Baer.

Obama’s commitment to maintaining Medicare and Social Security hinges on reducing the cost of health care and the size of the deficit. This is where the devil is in the details, for if a semblance of equality can be achieved by increasing taxes on the rich, Obama may well agree to cuts in social programs when negotiations resume over the debt ceiling in March.

This possibility is indicated by a major contradiction between Obama’s promises of equality of opportunity and reality. Although he declared: “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” major changes in the relation between state, banks and corporations are needed to stop middle-class jobs from disappearing because of the way the economy has been hollowed out through outsourcing. While more manufacturing jobs have been created in the last four years, they are non-union, low-wage jobs that won’t sustain a middle-class lifestyle.

According to the New York Times, “For millions of workers, wages have flatlined. Take Caterpillar, long a symbol of American industry: while it reported record profits last year, it insisted on a six-year wage freeze for many of its blue-collar workers. … Corporate America’s push to outsource jobs — whether call-center jobs to India or factory jobs to China — has fattened corporate earnings, while holding down wages at home. New technologies have raised productivity and profits, while enabling companies to shed workers and slice payroll. … From 1973 to 2011, worker productivity grew 80 percent, while median hourly compensation, after inflation, grew by just one-eighth that amount, according to the Economic Policy Institute …”

What was also notable in Obama’s speech was his omissions from its narrative. He invoked the images of Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall, but ignored present-day struggles for collective bargaining or for a living wage – let alone the contribution of the labor movement to the creation of a large middle class. This omission of any contemporary challenge to corporate America is a sign that, despite the appointment of a former prosecutor to the SEC, Obama is not serious about curbing the power of the financial industry. From Lehman Brothers to HBOS, major banks and their CEOs have gotten away with fraud and criminal conduct which Holder’s Justice Department refuses to prosecute. Changes at the SEC come too little, too late to put any well-heeled bank executives in jail.

Obama’s role is to rationalize the state on behalf of the political class, which means making sure opposition to cuts in entitlement spending is confined to pressure on Congress rather than riots in the street. That’s what he means by calling on citizens to “shape the debates of our time.” However, his validation of the ideal of equality carries the potential of extending it to the fight for economic as well as political equality.

This is why the movement of low-waged workers is more crucial than ever. It has spread from Walmart warehouse and store workers to subcontracted cleaners at Target who are filing charges that they were regularly locked into Minneapolis stores overnight. Walmart itself is trying to head off organizing efforts by introducing a monitoring system for working conditions in its warehouses – no different in principle from its monitoring of factories in Bangladesh, which did nothing to prevent the tragic fire killing over 100 garment workers. And in New York City, school bus drivers are in the tenth day of a strike against the loss of union protections for drivers on special education routes.

Although the Occupy movement is no longer highly visible, it made an indelible contribution to the popular notion of a pluralist society in America. The struggle of low-waged workers for union organization, GE factory workers against outsourcing, communities against evictions, and of the majority against cuts in social security, will mount a real challenge to  corporate privilege. And this is the promise of America as Obama’s second term begins.

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Filed under 2012 Election, austerity measures, bank foreclosures, inauguration, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, political analysis, Walmart, walmart strikes

Unlike Republicans Heading for their Imaginary Fiscal Cliff, American Workers Are Not Playing Chicken

Politicians of all stripes are talking about nothing but the so-called “fiscal cliff.” This debate, though, takes place within a Washington ideological bubble when what the rest of the country is worried about is the remorseless increase in food and gas prices while wages are frozen, squeezing the low pay of workers in service jobs. There is a major clash developing between the Republican party’s push for more cuts in social programs and those who depend on them to make ends meet.

The recent strikes at Walmart and in the fast food industry signify that people’s backs are to the wall and their need for a living wage is becoming urgent. The growing upsurge in worker resistance has three important features. The first is the spontaneous and worker-driven nature of the actions, which are targeted to their specific industry. The second is that the catalyst in many cases has been the support of union and community activists working to organize the low-paid. And the third is that each strike has had a ripple effect, encouraging others who were hesitating before taking action on their own behalf.

The fast food workers in New York, for instance, were given confidence by the Walmart Black Friday strikes. Pamela Waldron, who works for Kentucky Fried Chicken at Penn Station, told Democracy Now: “At my job, they are threatening us that if we do join the union, they could fire us. … What inspired me to do this is the Wal-Mart strike. Wal-Mart has been around too long for them not to have a union.” Raymond Lopez said: “I’ve been on strike since 5:30 a.m. I strongly believe that when the people on the bottom move, the people on the top fall. The reason—the reason you’re on the top, because we’re holding you up.”

In Chicago, according to In These Times, “a campaign to organize both retail and fast food workers in one dense, upscale commercial district started earlier this year, thanks to a similar coalition involving SEIU and two closely-aligned organizations, Stand Up, Chicago! and Action Now, a community organization focused primarily on issues of lower-income working people. On Nov. 15, about 150 workers from fast food and retail stores located in the North Michigan Avenue area formally convened the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago to organize and create a new independent union.”

Sarah Jaffe notes in The Atlantic: “What we’ve seen with Walmart and now with the fast food workers is [that] an independent organization, supported by traditional labor unions (in this case, the Service Employees International Union along with New York Communities for Change, United NY, and the Black Institute), can be more creative in its organizing tactics.”

Democracy Now co-host Juan Gonzalez was struck by the age of the workers involved in the strike. “But what’s happened as a result of the Great Recession and the continual downward push on wages is that you’re finding now a lot of middle-aged and elderly people who are in these jobs. … the reality is that as these older workers get pushed into these low-wage jobs, all of them have had, to some degree, union experience in the past. They understand the importance of unions, and they’re now becoming the catalyst in the fast-food industry to begin a—what could be, potentially, a huge unionization campaign.”

The continuity of these strikes with the Occupy movement can be seen in the fact that many strikers point to the huge disparity in the profits made by the companies they work for and their subsistence-level wages. Even without a direct organizational connection, the imaginary of the 99 versus the one percent has had a visceral resonance.

Some commentators, like In These Times writer Michelle Chen, have compared the current campaigns of the low-waged to early twentieth century syndicalist movements, like the Industrial Workers of the World. “The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals. … And while the heyday of syndicalism has faded, the food economy’s sheer mass and dynamism may prove fertile ground for its resurgence.”

However, conditions for immigrant workers today are very different from those of the early 1900s. Struggles since that time have established a structure of labor law and have solidified popular expectations of the social contract and state responsibility to ameliorate poverty. So direct action at the workplace is part of a broader front including legal and political battles, even though new worker organizations may not be closely tied politically to the Democrats like traditional unions. For example, as well as fighting Walmart’s subcontractors over wage theft and labor abuses, lawyers acting for the workers involved have recently succeeded in adding Walmart as a defendant, undercutting its denials of responsibility and increasing pressure on the company to change its labor practices.

The election manifested the country’s support for an increase in taxes on the rich and super-rich. But because Republicans (and the Democrats who give into the rhetoric) want to cut social programs while maintaining corporate welfare, the national debate has been expanded to the issue of a living wage for the working poor. A study by Demos finds that if retailers were to pay a minimum of $25,000 per year to their employees, it would raise more than 700,000 people out of poverty.

In addition, the report goes on, “The economy would grow and 100,000 or more new jobs would be created. Families living in or near poverty spend close to 100 percent of their income just to meet their basic needs, so when they receive an extra dollar in pay, they spend it on goods or services that were out of reach before. … Increased purchasing power of low-wage workers would generate $4 to $5 billion in additional annual sales for the sector. … If retailers pass half of the costs of a wage raise onto their customers, the average household would pay just 15 cents more per shopping trip—or $17.73 per year.”

Paul Krugman confirms this analysis in many of his columns, repeatedly expressing frustration at the ideological commitment of financiers and corporate flacks in the GOP to austerity, and pointing out that what is needed to jumpstart the economy are more jobs and higher wages.  Robert Reich comments: “Washington’s obsession with deficit reduction makes it all the more likely these workers will face continuing high unemployment – even higher if the nation succumbs to deficit hysteria. That’s because cutting government spending reduces overall demand, which hits low-wage workers hardest. They and their families are the biggest casualties of austerity economics.”

The “fiscal cliff” rhetoric takes place in this context. It’s really a Republican scam on behalf of the one percent to undo the election result and extort yet more sacrifices from the rest of society to jack up their incomes. Their dream of massive cuts in social entitlements will create a firestorm among the low-paid if they attempt to carry it out. A social collision is inevitable, and this will dominate the coming twists and turns in the political arena.


Filed under 2012 Election, austerity measures, debt limit impasse, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, political analysis, poverty, strikes, walmart strikes

Voting for the Dream of America: We Choose Fairness, Shared Opportunity, and Unity in Plurality

After Obama’s re-election, pundits of all persuasions are attributing his victory to Latino-American, African-American, women, and young voters responding to his differences from Romney on specific issues like immigration, reproductive rights, and health care. Conservative Bill O’Reilly claimed: “Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority. People want things.” Political blogger Josh Marshall described it as a powerful victory for “the country’s first broad and real multiracial political party.”

It’s true that important demographic and social changes were reflected in the Democrats’ electoral victories in swing states and in the senate elections. However, this is only part of the story. In choosing Barack Obama, the majority of Americans asserted government’s role in re-establishing a system of taxation to fund the social contract that is the basis of the American dream: shared opportunity through education, a safety net for those who need a leg up when disaster strikes, and a recognition that our strength as a country comes from embracing its plurality.

E.J. Dionne outlines a similar perspective in the Washington Post:  “By emphasizing Obama’s victory as a demographic and organizational triumph, conservatives have been laying the groundwork for renewing their sotto voce campaign suggesting that Obama is somehow ‘illegitimate’ or not ‘one of us.’ Yet the exit poll found that those who rallied to Obama represent a broad coalition of all of us.”

As Joel Benenson argues in a New York Times op-ed, the demographic changes were less important than voters’ perception of Obama as embodying the values that most Americans share. Obama, he writes, projected a vision of a stronger and more secure future “for average working-class and middle-class Americans who have believed for nearly a decade that the economic system in America had fallen out of balance for people like them, the president’s personal story and policies engendered trust because they connected with voters’ lives, aspirations, and beliefs about what it would take to create the future they wanted.”

What Benenson is describing is the imaginary that channeled people’s recognition of class divisions. UMass politics professor Thomas Ferguson noted that “the partisan split along income lines is huge. Obama’s vote percentage declines in straight line fashion as income rises. He got 63 percent of the votes of Americans making less than $30,000 and 57 percent of those making between $30,000 and $50,000. Above $50,000, the Other America kicks in. Romney won 53 percent of the votes of Americans making between $50 and a $100 thousand and 54 percent of the votes of Americans making above $100,000.”

These partisan class differences were not nearly so marked in 2008, but the change is testimony to the success of the Occupy movement in framing the political discourse of 2012.  Juan Cole sums it up like this: “What has changed is not that minorities are now half the electorate or that minorities plan to loot the government. What has changed is that the rest of the country is asserting itself against a small, patriarchal and oligarchic class that had unfairly dominated politics and business and received the lion’s share of government largesse. What has happened is that America is democratizing …”

Those who waited as long as seven hours to cast their vote expressed a purposeful determination to overcome machinations by Republican state officials to disenfranchise them and suppress their voices. This is not a cowed or apathetic electorate. The Miami Herald reported that some Florida voters remained in line at polling places until 1 a.m., hours after the polls were scheduled to close, defying the intervention of Republican governor Rick Scott to reduce the number of early voting days and early voting hours.

The Republican spin on this is that it was a close election, a return to the status quo, which doesn’t give Obama a mandate. This is simply a device to minimize the fact that the country as a whole wants a state that will support the elderly and the sick. Many Republican voters believed the propaganda that it was actually Obama who would undermine state support programs. However, Obamacare is now an established fact and a first step towards universal health care.

Commentator John Nichols said on Democracy Now:  “When all the votes are counted, President Obama will have won a popular vote margin of more than three million, probably quite a bit more than three million. And when Florida is finished—it’s a mess down there, but when it’s finally counted, probably to his column he will have roughly 332 electoral—it looks like 332 electoral votes. Those victories—more than three million popular vote, 332 electoral votes—are bigger than what John Kennedy came in with, bigger than what Richard Nixon came in with, bigger than what Jimmy Carter came in with, and bigger than what George Bush had in 2000 or what George Bush had in 2004. …

“What I want to emphasize here is, this president went before the American people, and the election was framed very much as a referendum on austerity, as a referendum on cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, to a real radical reshaping of the country, as pressured by, as emphasis by, as outlined by Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee. The important thing to understand is, American people understood that choice, and they voted for Barack Obama.”

It’s premature to assume (as Glenn Greenwald does) that Obama will be able to pursue a “Grand Bargain” with the GOP and with them target entitlements without energizing mass resistance. While politicians may believe the rhetoric surrounding budget deficits, hitherto marginalized groups such as low-waged workers are showing an unprecedented determination to assert their rights to live a better life. As Democracy Corps found in their post-poll surveys, “While elites assume the fiscal cliff is about deficit reduction and avoiding a contraction in the economy, voters want progress to create jobs over the next five years.  Voters want growth, not austerity, and above all, do not see ‘entitlements’ as on the table.”

There remains a huge gulf between the demands of the banking elite for austerity and Americans’ commitment to defending the social contract. The coming together of new constituencies in the course of rejecting the plutocrats’ election agenda evokes the pluralism of the Occupy movement. The resistance to predatory debt, the Black Friday strike against Walmart – this is the real American spring.

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Filed under 2012 Election, African Americans, Medicare, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, Republicans, strikes

Hurricane Sandy Crashes Romney’s Party

The howling winds and torrential rain of Hurricane Sandy parallel the barrage of Republican propaganda sent through mail, radio, TV, newspapers, and internet, thanks to the money made available by super PACs and the Supreme Court. Humans are powerless to stop the flood of outrageous assertions swamping their homes.

When you look at what the Republicans are saying, though, it’s clear that the much-ballyhooed conservative swing of 2010 didn’t actually happen: a large majority of Americans, whether they vote Republican or Democratic, want to preserve government entitlements and disagree that they should be reduced to fund the deficit.  For that very reason, the Romney campaign is going to great lengths to project its own plans onto the Democrats, so now Republican-inclined voters believe that it is really Obama who is going to cut Medicare and Social Security.

E.J. Dionne asks pointedly:  “If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick, the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand, be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans?”

The hurricane has foregrounded the importance of the role of the federal state in disaster relief and brought global warming back into the political discourse, to the extent that Republican New Jersey governor and, until last week, Romney cheerleader Chris Christie has publicly praised Obama’s efforts, and New York mayor Bloomberg has endorsed Obama for president. Romney, meanwhile, is evading questions about his belief that FEMA responsibilities should be transferred to the states.

Even so, many Democratic party supporters are anxious that the polls indicate a tight result and even the possibility of a Romney victory.  Union members canvassing in Ohio told the Guardian they feared legislative destruction of union rights if Romney gets in.

But far from ending the class struggle, the election is going to exacerbate it. Although the presidential debates discussed little that was relevant to most people’s lives – like global warming or poverty – the effects of both are now starkly real in a way that campaign rhetoric cannot obscure.

According to the New York Times, “Many of the bedrock assumptions of American culture — about work, progress, fairness and optimism — are being shaken as successive generations worry about the prospect of declining living standards. … By last year, family income was 8 percent lower than it had been 11 years earlier, at its peak in 2000, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Census Bureau.” Poverty is being created by structural changes in the U.S. economy, in particular automation and part-time working practices.

Suppressing any mention of poverty in the debates hasn’t been able to hide the fact that hurricane-hit New York runs on low-waged labor, which relies on the now-flooded subway system to reach work. Retailers have appealed to their employees, many part-time, to come in, but for most it’s not worth the effort, since their wages are likely less than what it would cost them to get into the city.

The New York Times reports that: “While there have always been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more than before as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full-time, reducing their pay and benefits. … In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But workers’ schedules have become far less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand. ‘Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts,’ said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aéropostale and Pier One Imports.”

What is strange is that the states with the lowest incomes, the most precarious jobs, and taking the most government help – all in the South – are the most strongly Republican. The rhetoric of religious conviction and the value of families is something that resonates with the low-waged in the South, especially poor whites.

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein points out in his book Retail Revolution that “regardless of their religion or their cultural values, lower-income individuals live in a much more unstable society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle-class people whose income and lifestyle they covet. … in states that constitute the Wal-Mart heartland—Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana—divorce rates are 50 percent above the national average and twice as high as in more affluent New England.”

Even though the notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart pays the lowest wages in the country, and many of its workers need Medicaid and food stamps to survive, it has been able to command a certain loyalty among many employees until now.

“Wal-Mart’s identification with family, community, and the supposedly traditional values of a bygone era attracts many customers and employees whose own lives are far removed from the stability they crave. … The result is an imagined community where economic and moral lives are interconnected and virtuous. … the low pay, high turnover, awkward shifts, and general precariousness that have become the norm for so many American workers create a longing for community and stability that the ethos of the company seeks to fulfill.” [Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, New York 2009:71]

Although the electoral divide in the U.S. approximates that between the Union and the Confederacy, what we have now is not a civil war but a battle for power between two factions of the ruling elite: one which wants to rationalize the state in a way which preserves the wealth of bankers and corporations, heading off dissent with minor reforms; and the other which wants to overturn all federal regulation and impose Southern labor conditions on the country, removing the social safety net, all the while using the language of  morality and family values to obscure their true aim.

However, the mood of resistance among low-waged workers is rising, as evidenced by the strikes of Walmart employees in California spreading to shopworkers in the company’s heartland: recently “… three workers at a store in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, left their shifts to protest outside with homemade placards. They were apparently encouraged by news coverage of the other strikes – the difference being that the Sapulpa employees worked independently of the national group that’s been coordinating the actions, OUR Walmart … ‘I saw what was happening at stores in Dallas and around the country, and I did my research,’ Jeffrey Landry, 34, told the press.”

The huge gap between political discourse and sober reality means that any moves by Republicans to rapidly cut entitlements would have a catastrophic effect on their voting base. Whatever the election result, the Walmart strikes on Black Friday after Thanksgiving will usher in a new era of intense labor resistance.

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Filed under 2012 Election, Medicare, Obama, political analysis, poverty, Republicans, Walmart, walmart strikes

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

Even if Obama Wins, There’s Homework: The Teachers Remind Us That Only the Public Education of the People Can Preserve Liberty

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asks if November’s election will decide anything? He frames his question in terms of a continued Congressional stalemate if Obama regains the presidency. However, Republican legislative obstructionism and Romney’s disastrous candidacy is losing the party support among independent voters and some sections of the corporate and financial elites. It seems that now even Wall Street bankers are abandoning Romney.

What the billionaires who support Obama share with him is a sense that change must be initiated and controlled from above, rhetorically to alleviate the plight of the working poor but without disturbing the relations of power that made them poor in the first place. As Paul Street points out: “The problem has not been that ‘the economy’ has been broken by the supposed ‘invisible hand of the market’ or other forces allegedly beyond human control. The real difficulty is that the ‘human-made’ U.S. economic system has been working precisely as designed to distribute wealth and power upward.”

If the relations of power are unchanged, does this mean that the election results are unimportant? No. An Obama electoral victory, even with no change in the House or Senate, will confirm the social fact of a multiracial America, where women have a major voice. It will also call into question the effectiveness of the Republican strategy of splitting the working class on racist grounds.  And most crucially, it will give more time for ordinary Americans to organize resistance against the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich independently of the two-party political straitjacket.

Education is one of the battlegrounds where the power of community in solidarity has reasserted the principles of popular sovereignty—government of the people by the people—and significantly checked the power and seemingly unstoppable influence of the American plutocracy.  Corporate billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Wall Street hedge fund managers have decided that schools should be remodeled on corporate lines and that teachers’ unions are obstructing their plans. Steve Jobs reportedly told Obama that the American education system was “crippled” by teachers’ unions that had to be broken.The objectives of this oligarchy are facilitated by Obama’s Race to the Top program which, like Bush’s No Child Left Behind, is a top-down, technocratic solution to the problems of education, to be imposed on state education systems over the voices of the teachers and parents who deal with the problems daily.

The key elements of the program, summarized by NYU professor Diane Ravitch, were drawn from the strategy of the Chicago school board:  “Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.”

The consequences of school closings in practice were pointed out by Chicago teachers’ leader Karen Lewis. “[When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school.  They were choosing not to go to school…. [The school board] had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community.”

The seven appointed members of Chicago’s Board of Education have little knowledge of the school system.  The Occupied Chicago Tribune reported: “As anyone who has ever witnessed a board hearing knows, members like Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker and former Northwestern President Henry Bienen, when they bother to show up at all, nod indifferently to public testimony, toy with their smart phones, and reliably vote in the interests of their boss. This past winter, after the board voted unanimously to close or turnaround 17 schools, frustrated parents burst into tears, and community members chanted ‘Rubber Stamp’ until CPS security escorted them out of the room.”

The board is responsible only to mayor Rahm Emanuel, not to the public. But the solidarity of Chicago teachers and their supporters in the communities succeeded in establishing limits on its plans for privatization. The strike also challenged ideological supporters of the system, who created a narrative that the conflict between teachers and the board was disrupting the welfare of the students. In the guise of impartiality, they implicitly blame teachers for putting their own interests above that of the children.

Writing in The Nation, Obama apologist Melissa Harris-Perry relates the story of Rolisa, whose younger children attend a small public school on the South Side. “Her kids are pretty happy there. Or at least they were, until the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel transformed them into students of Rolisa’s makeshift kitchen table school. …This generation of children may become hard-working, courageous adults who nonetheless are relegated to life sentences of poverty and underachievement. They are stuck because they were born in a time of war—not just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not just the heavily armed wars in their own streets, but the wars between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”

Evoking the images of war, in which innocents suffer more than armies, she misreads the strike as a selfish act by teachers willing to make victims of children, when in reality it was a struggle of the whole community against high-handed school closings in working-class areas and for better conditions for pupils to learn in the classroom.

Michelle Rhee, the former head of D.C.’s schools and now advocate for charter schools through her misnamed StudentsFirst organization, adopts the same argument in order to attack teachers’ unions. The Washington Post published an opinion piece in which she writes: “Chicago’s children lost roughly  18 million collective hours of learning time; moms and dads across the city lost wages, and possibly risked jobs, so they could care for their kids; and some children went without the hot meals they reliably get at school. It was frustrating to hear Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis say toward the end of the dispute that the strike would continue to see whether there is ‘anything else they can get.’ But at least that was clear evidence that, for union leaders, this strike was never about what was best for kids….”

Rhee claims the support of corporate Democrats when she characterizes the teachers’ union as a self-serving group not interested in improving children’s education. But what was it that teachers wanted more of? A broader, well-rounded curriculum – and, above all, to be given the support they needed as professionals in the field and not be dictated to by someone in an air-conditioned office working off a spreadsheet, while their students wilted in the Chicago heat. The union mobilized teachers, custodians, parents, and pupils themselves in defense of their right to a proper education, which in fact continued an ongoing struggle by communities against school closings and so-called “turnarounds,” in which teachers and principals are completely replaced.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune reports on some of these earlier battles: two years ago parents occupied an elementary school building that officials decided would be demolished in order to build a soccer field for a neighboring private school. The sit-in lasted for more than a month before it was agreed to keep the building open as a community space. And when, this year, the school board designated Piccolo Elementary for turnaround, “parents and students decided to draw from the lessons of the Occupy movement. Surrounded by police, Occupy Chicago demonstrators complete with tents, and other allies, about a dozen parents and supporters stayed in the building overnight and won a meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. But in the end, the board voted to close the school anyway.”

The relations of power are not fixed and immutable, but are fought out daily on the organizational level and the ideological. The Chicago teachers have achieved a victory that has encouraged low-waged workers throughout the city – from car wash workers who are organizing against wage abuses, to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony. The teachers’ strike gave the best lesson of all: solidarity in struggle will push back the billionaires and trillionaires who want to overturn democracy in America.

If Obama wins the election, let’s use the time gained to spread this lesson around. And there are many willing to learn.

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Filed under 2012 Election, chicago teachers, financiers, Hedge Fund managers, Michelle Rhee, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, poverty, public schools, strikes