Category Archives: austerity measures

The “Many” Shake Off Their Chains to Defy Britain’s Parliamentary Elites


The stunning result of the British elections last week heralds a sea-change in the country’s politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energized a new layer of younger voters to enter into the political process, pushing up Labour’s vote to 40 percent of a greatly increased participation rate and winning 30 seats away from the Tories. He was visibly transformed in the course of his 90 election rallies, becoming more and more assured in his delivery as the response to his message snowballed.

Conventional political wisdom, expounded by the Labour rightwing and the media, had expected May to win with a 100-seat majority. The result showed that this narrative was completely disconnected from the social changes that had propelled youth and students into the election – the damning impact of the Brexit referendum and 10 years of tightening austerity policies that particularly impacted youth.

May is now limping into Brexit negotiations in an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. For American readers, this is like injecting a dose of fundamentalist Southern crazy into the staid corridors of Westminster: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, evolution-denying and global warming-denying. The DUP will demand more money to spend on schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland – something the Tories have denied to England and Wales – and the neoimperialist Tory hardliners will no doubt balk at that.

But the endemic corruption of the DUP and their past association with Protestant terror groups make them an untrustworthy partner. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is closely connected with the “cash for ash” scandal, a scheme to pay applicants for using renewable energy like wood pellets. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, meaning that users made profits simply by heating their properties – one farmer is in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Foster’s refusal to take responsibility for the lack of cost controls led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland (there is no government at all in the devolved Stormont parliament at the moment).

Corbyn is right to declare victory. He has consolidated his leadership of the Labour party and shattered the remnants of Blairite neoliberal philosophy with a dynamic campaign for an anti-austerity manifesto. Understandably, rightwing Labour MPs are angry. They had hoped for a massive Labour defeat they could have blamed on Corbyn and had plans to launch a new centrist party, now of course abandoned. While begrudgingly acknowledging his electoral success, they immediately began to badmouth his leadership, accusing him of missing an “open goal” by not winning an overall majority – even though the loss of Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015 made an outright Labour victory nearly impossible.

The result has also strengthened the hand of Momentum activists within the Labour party. While the Labour establishment channeled resources into defending the safe majorities of centrist MPs, Momentum mobilized its supporters for the hard work of campaigning in marginal constituencies, contributing to Labour wins in places like Bedford and Croydon. According to Skwawkbox, “Up in Bolton West, the Tories won the seat in 2015 by 801 votes. Labour’s Julie Hilling had an excellent chance of ousting Tory Chris Green. Ms Hilling received so little support that she had no funding even for Labour garden stakes. She did not even receive a campaign manager from Labour central – her campaign had to be run by volunteers with no experience. Ms Hilling fought a brave campaign but, on a night where Labour was making even astonishing gains like Canterbury, she lost by the narrow margin of 936 votes.”

Corbyn and Momentum have been vindicated, giving Momentum an advantage over Labour MPs who confined their election material to local issues and refused to even mention Corbyn or national Labour policies. However, the election was decided by the support generated around Labour’s manifesto, contrasting with Tory missteps over May’s “dementia tax” and her awkward U-turn. Even two terror attacks did not distract voters from the way austerity cuts had made citizens more vulnerable – Boris Johnson, former London mayor and bookies’ choice to replace May as Tory leader, famously removed barriers from London and Westminster bridges seven years ago because he didn’t like their aesthetic, which is why the terrorists were able to drive unhindered on the pavement to kill pedestrians.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones honourably made an admission that his assessment of Corbyn was wrong: “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable. It is now the party’s consensus. It cannot and will not be taken away. Those who claimed it could not win the support of millions were simply wrong. No, Labour didn’t win, but from where it started, that was never going to happen. That policy programme enabled the party to achieve one of the biggest shifts in support in British history – yes, eclipsing Tony Blair’s swing in 1997. Social democracy is in crisis across the western world. British Labour is now one of the most successful centre-left parties, many of which have been reduced to pitiful rumps under rightwing leaderships. And indeed, other parties in Europe and the United States should learn lessons from this experience.”

The French Socialist party is a prime example. Once the ruling party, its turn to austerity policies under former leader Francois Hollande cut its vote share down to just 9.5% in Sunday’s elections, setting it on course to lose 200 seats. The Labour party would have followed it into oblivion if the Blairites had succeeded in ousting Corbyn and running the party their way. However, under Corbyn it gained 150,000 new members after the election, raising party membership to around 800,000.

As well as calling for free tuition for university students, building thousands of new homes, and a stronger National Health Service, Labour’s manifesto revives the idea of the democratization of the economy: “In government, Labour would give more people a stake – and a say – in our economy by doubling the size of the co-operative sector and introducing a ‘right to own,’ making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services as preferred providers,” the manifesto says.

The most significant part of the manifesto is its plan to finance these measures by increased taxes on the top five percent and corporations. This highlights the inequality created by the Tories through the entire period of austerity by tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poorest. It showed that there was a “magic money tree” but only for the extremely wealthy; Labour called for this wealth to be used for the benefit of the rest of society.

Corbyn’s message of hope – “For the Many, Not the Few” – inspired popular comedian Steve Coogan at an election rally in Birmingham to support him with the words of  Romantic poet Percy Shelley, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819:

“Rise, like lions from the slumber
“In unvanquishable number!
“Shake loose your chains like morning dew
“Which in sleep were placed on you:
“Ye are many – they are few!”

Like Bernie Sanders in the US, politics have been impacted by the rise of a social movement opposed to neoliberal austerity and fighting for jobs, healthcare and education. The lions are rising to challenge the plutocratic few.

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Filed under austerity measures, Brexit, Britain, British elections, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, Uncategorized

Fighting for Their Lives vs. Parliamentary Fictions: Members Reclaim the Labour Party for the People


Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.

Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.

Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”

These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.

Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.

Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s  soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”

Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.

It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”

Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.

Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.

Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.

As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”

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Filed under austerity measures, Britain, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, Momentum, privatization, tony blair, Uncategorized

Take Note, Plutocrats: Populism is Not Just a Spectre – It’s Rule by the People, for the People.


A spectre is haunting the world’s plutocracy – the spectre of populism. According to Politico, “Economists, advisers to the wealthy and the wealthy themselves describe a deep-seated anxiety that the national – and even global – mood is turning against the super-rich in ways that ultimately could prove dangerous and hard to control.”

Their fears are well justified. The billionaire elite in the U.S. is virulently opposed to Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid, it is incensed by calls to increase the minimum wage, and through its proxies in Congress it has stopped an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Anything that retards its wholesale looting of society’s wealth is anathema to it, including the Obama administration’s attempts to alleviate the worst effects of the economic downturn.

The plutocrats can maintain their hold on power only through their ideological grip on a large section of the American public – and challenges to that grip make them increasingly nervous.

Venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who made his money from Hewlett-Packard defense contracts, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’.” He was echoed by real estate mogul Sam Zell: “The one percent are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” he said, adding that the one percent simply “work harder” than everyone else.

Juan Cole points out how their outlook and that of congressional Republicans is totally out of step with the U.S. public: “What is odd, and damning of the current American political system, is that the Republican Party’s major platform positions are roundly rejected by the American people. That is, they are ideologically a minority party. And yet they manage to win elections. … We are a center-left country and the majority of Americans takes the same stance as I on most controversial issues. It is the House of Representatives that is extreme, far more right wing than the country it says it represents.”

They are so far to the right that a Coca-Cola ad aired during the Superbowl featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages evoked howls of outrage from tea-party politicians who posted racist comments on Twitter.

Within the Republican party itself there are fractures over immigration that reveal tensions between this kind of xenophobic rhetoric and corporate interests; the party’s difficulties stem from its need to use racist messages to preserve a declining white electoral base that itself depends on state support, while advocating cuts in state spending that would benefit only the super-rich.

Popular resistance to cuts in education, healthcare, and benefits is what is worrying the plutocrats. Whether Republican or Democrat, the public is determined not to lose social security benefits or other entitlements, and the low-waged have embarked on a popular campaign to increase the minimum wage to a living wage.

This mood of resistance was reflected in Obama’s fifth State of the Union address. What was remarkable about it was the contrast between the grand themes of hope and change that characterized his election campaigns, and the limited nature of his proposals for executive action rather than legislation to address social issues. He maintained a difficult balancing act between corporate and public sentiment, acknowledging unsustainable inequality in America but advocating a neoliberal prescription for economic growth through the fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that can only lead to the loss of more jobs.

Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors clearly aimed to contain a vigorous movement within an electoral framework. However, his speech also serves to encourage a growing trend of lightning strikes and walkouts, inspired by the ideal of a $15 minimum that is closer to a living wage.Josh Eidelson has been reporting in Salon about the series of one-day strikes organized by the union-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign to force Obama’s hand on the issue. “As recently as this month, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who’ve rallied repeatedly with the strikers, told Salon the White House had been unresponsive to their pleas. ‘If we had never done this,’ said [Smithsonian McDonald’s worker] Alexis Vasquez, ‘we would have continued making $8.25 for the rest of our lives’. But the move announced today falls short of what Demos and Change to Win have urged. … Given that ‘the issues are still there,’ said Joseph Geevarghese [deputy director of the Change to Win union federation], including contractors’ alleged failure to follow the wage laws already on the books, ‘I think we’re going to see continued worker unrest going forward’.”

Obama’s plan for a “grand bargain” to rationalize state expenditure in which he could trade cuts in social security for token increased taxes on the rich was stymied by the grip of the tea-party Republicans on Congress. As the Washington Post reported, his address attempted to restore confidence in his presidency, as he faced “a tricky task: winning over a nation that has grown less trustful of his leadership after a year in which the federal government was partially shuttered for 16 days and the administration botched the rollout of Obama’s health-care law.”

Juan Cole assessed his presidency as politically passive, accepting the international role bequeathed him by the Bush administration and the Pentagon. “In the end, Obama seems to see himself as primarily a domestic president. That position is remarkable because the Tea Party Congress won’t actually let him do much domestically. … He says the right things about conventional uses of the military, but in his actions he is a Covert War hawk.” He said little about NSA spying apart from a throwaway statement about reform – and even that was forced on him by Edward Snowden’s revelations.

While Snowden is undoubtedly the person who changed the political dialog in 2013, this year’s heroes will be those like 22-year-old fast food worker Naquasia LeGrand who are fighting to change the lives of those at the cutting edge of poverty wages. She gave a spirited interview to comedian Stephen Colbert where she voiced the determination of the low-waged to get a better deal from the billionaires: “It’s not just me who is going through this. It’s all of us going through this. That’s what makes a union. Americans coming together to make a difference and have a voice together. … there is no reason why I should have a second job when these multi-billion dollar companies have the money to pay me in the work that I do.”

This is the kind of talk that has the plutocracy losing sleep at night. It is fueling more and more campaigns at the state level, such as in Oakland, CA, where a union-community coalition aims to put a measure on the ballot in November 2014 that would increase Oakland’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $12.25, with future increases tied to inflation, and at least five annual sick days for all workers.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, National Security Agency, Neoliberalism, Obama, Obamacare, populism, Republicans, Tea Party movement

Confronting corporate Goliaths with Occupy tactics as fast-food and Walmart workers protest low pay


Walmart protesters at Hadley, Mass, on Black Friday last week

Walmart protesters at Hadley, Mass, on Black Friday last week

A one-day strike of fast-food workers in over 100 U.S. cities on Thursday, together with protests at 1,500 Walmart stores on “Black Friday” last week, marks a significant escalation of the campaign for a higher minimum wage. Low pay has become a focus for activist groups around the country, bringing them together and creating political pressure on Democrats.

NBC reports: “In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums while marching into a McDonald’s at around 6:30 a.m.; one startled customer grabbed his food and fled as they flooded the restaurant, while another didn’t look up from eating and reading amid their chants of ‘We can’t survive on $7.25!’ ”

The fast-food strikes, demanding a $15 minimum hourly wage, began in Manhattan eight months ago and have spread to locations as far apart as Chicago, Washington D.C, Boston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Detroit, as well as Memphis and Raleigh, N.C., in the traditionally union-resistant South. The recent elections in New York resulted in the city’s three top positions — mayor, public advocate and comptroller — all being filled by supporters of the campaign.

Jonathan Westin, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, told the New York Times that the tactic of the roaming one-day strike was influenced by Occupy Wall Street’s success in inserting the theme of the 1 percent into the national conversation. “Confronting power more openly and publicly and directly,” he said, “that came straight from Occupy.”

The influence of Occupy is also clear from the “mic-check” protocol followed by protesters flooding the New York McDonald’s. Camille Rivera of United New York explained to Democracy Now how the protests were organized by coalitions of community organizations. She told Amy Goodman: “we have been, for the past year and a half, working with other, you know, organizations, clergy, etc., to create a support network for these workers.” When workers faced employer intimidation, “we’ve had community and clergy go there and do delegations and talk to the owners, demanding—from the communities themselves, saying, ‘You will not do this in my community. You will not intimidate workers’.”

Rivera said: “people are actually organizing on the ground on their own, as well … we get information online where workers say, ‘I’m in … Kansas, and I’m actually going to strike my store today.’… And it’s because what they’ve seen in New York and what they’ve seen across the country.”

A comparatively small number of Walmart employees took part in the Black Friday protests because of the company’s threats and firings of employees who joined protest actions last year. However, as with the fast-food strikers, they were backed up by large numbers of labor and community activists, over 100 of whom were arrested as they carried out civil disobedience actions. More than one participant made the comparison to the civil rights movement.

Democracy Now reports: “In St. Paul, Minnesota, 26 protesters were arrested when they blocked traffic while demanding better wages for janitors and retail employees. In Illinois, 10 people were issued citations at a protest near a Wal-Mart in Chicago. Video posted online showed nine people being arrested at a protest outside a Wal-Mart store in Alexandria, Virginia. At Wal-Mart protests in California, 15 people were arrested in Roseville, 10 arrested in Ontario, and five arrested in San Leandro.”

In Hadley, Mass, a crowd of around 200 coordinated by Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice braved frigid weather to support two Walmart employees who recently went on a one-day strike for better treatment. Shoppers and passers-by were clearly aware of the low-wage campaign: some showed displeasure but many showed their support by honking their horns – in 2012, shoppers had no idea what was going on and were confused by the protests.

Elaine Rozier, who has worked at a Miami, Florida, Walmart for eight years, told supporters in Seacaucus, New Jersey: “I’ve come today to represent all the silent Wal-Mart workers that are afraid to stand up for their rights. I’m here to represent the nation, to let the Walmart corporation know that we’re not standing back.” She had traveled to the New Jersey store with Mark Bowers and Colby Harris, two Walmart workers from Texas. Harris told In These Times: “I’m getting arrested because Wal-Mart has continued to retaliate against the associates who’ve been speaking up,” before sitting down in the middle of the street.

The rapidly-growing grassroots movement against low pay has been reflected in Washington, as Obama picked up the rhetoric about growing inequality. While his speech impressed Paul Krugman, Obama’s call for Congress to increase the federal minimum wage was an empty one. Washington is so mired in partisan deadlock it is unlikely to ever implement such a policy; Obama himself refuses to even reply to a call by congressional Democrats to take presidential executive action to raise the wages of workers employed through federal government contracts.

Because of the congressional stalemate, the political momentum of the issue has bypassed Washington and gone local. As well as the vote for a $15 minimum wage at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, according to the Washington Post, “The California legislature, which is dominated by Democrats, passed a law over Republican objections this year to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016. Massachusetts lawmakers also are considering a $10 wage. New Jersey voters endorsed an $8.25 wage this month, even while voting overwhelmingly to reelect Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed it.”

This is an indicator that politics in America is being reshaped. The schemes of Wall Street hedge funds, backed by billionaire-funded conservative groups, to plunder the remaining wealth of the middle class will unite more sections of society in the struggle for a fair wage. The struggle against corporate Goliaths like Walmart and McDonald’s asserts the dignity of the lives of workers and their families against those who have degraded it for too long.

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Filed under austerity measures, fast-food workers, low-waged, Obama, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, Paul Krugman, poverty, strikes, Walmart, walmart strikes

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

Forget the Faustian Cliff Deal: Fight for a Living Wage


The last-minute deal to end the “fiscal cliff” settles very little. Congressional Republicans agreed to a small increase in taxes on individuals making more than $400k, while Democrats were able to extend the protections of the social safety net, like unemployment benefits, for two more months. Come February, the American electorate will have to go through another round of this perverse game of chicken with the “debt ceiling” debate.

According to Talking Points Memo, “a key provision of the fiscal cliff deal only buys down the sequester for two months, meaning deep cuts to domestic and defense spending will take effect at the end of February, right when the debt limit will have to be increased.”

It’s easy to see that the deal doesn’t defuse the Republican strategy of preventing the normal functioning of government in order to exert leverage on state policy. Another battle is looming in which Republicans will have a stronger hand politically. Paul Krugman’s take is that Obama’s “evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling.”

Had we gone over the cliff, taxes would have been restored to Clinton-era levels. But why should there be any popular objection to restoring taxes to the level everybody was paying in the 1990s? The reason is that legislators have masked the real decline in wages over the last 10 years by cutting taxes, and rising prices have squeezed the middle class to the point that a small tax increase would have a major effect on their ability to make ends meet.

Michael Hudson points out the deception behind the political rhetoric over taxes: “The emerging financial oligarchy seeks to shift taxes off banks and their major customers (real estate, natural resources and monopolies) onto labor. Given the need to win voter acquiescence, this aim is best achieved by rolling back everyone’s taxes. The easiest way to do this is to shrink government spending, headed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Yet these are the programs that enjoy the strongest voter support. This fact has inspired what may be called the Big Lie of our epoch: the pretense that governments can only create money to pay the financial sector, and that the beneficiaries of social programs should be entirely responsible for paying for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the wealthy. … The raison d’être for taxing the 99% for Social Security and Medicare is simply to avoid taxing wealth, by falling on low wage income at a much higher rate than that of the wealthy.”

Wages have fallen as capital has creamed off a greater proportion of the national income at labor’s expense.  The key to employers’ ability to hold down wages is the decline of unions. They were able to organize effectively when the mass of Americans worked in factory jobs while the economy was expanding after World War 2. But unions have faced a war of attrition over the last 30 years as structural changes in the economy were accompanied by corporate-friendly legislative restrictions on their bargaining strength. These were political decisions that were aimed at destroying the gains of the New Deal.

Harold Meyerson notes in the Washington Post “how central the collapse of collective bargaining is to American workers’ inability to win themselves a raise. Yes, globalizing and mechanizing jobs has cut into the livelihoods of millions of U.S. workers, but that is far from the whole story. Roughly 100 million of the nation’s 143 million employed workers have jobs that can’t be shipped abroad, that aren’t in competition with steel workers in Sao Paolo or iPod assemblers in Shenzhen. Sales clerks, waiters, librarians and carpenters all utilize technology in their jobs, but not to the point that they’ve become dispensable. Yet while they can’t be dispensed with, neither can they bargain for a raise.”

Outsourcing undermined the unions’ base and this, while facilitated by new technology, resulted from decisions of the US government to open up the domestic economy to world trade. The consequence was a withdrawal of capital from direct manufacturing in the US in favor of the higher-profit areas of marketing and distribution. As manufacturing declined, corporations became increasingly financialized, facilitating the growth of monopolies.

Steve Fraser spells it out in TomDispatch: “Rates of U.S. investment in new plants, technology, and research and development began declining during the 1970s, a fall-off that only accelerated in the gilded 1980s.  Manufacturing, which accounted for nearly 30% of the economy after the Second World War, had dropped to just over 10% by 2011. … The ascendancy of high finance didn’t just replace an industrial heartland in the process of being gutted; it initiated that gutting and then lived off it, particularly during its formative decades.  The FIRE sector, that is, not only supplanted industry, but grew at its expense – and at the expense of the high wages it used to pay and the capital that used to flow into it.”

As well as being weakened by structural changes in the economy, unions have faced an ideological assault. As more and more workers found themselves on temporary assignment, without contracts or benefits, their resentment was leveraged electorally against organized labor by billionaire-funded campaigns aimed at dividing unionized employees from other workers.

Walmart is a model for this turn to absolute exploitation of workers. The company, according to In These Times writer David Moberg, “heavily influences standards for vast swaths of the American economy, from retail to logistics to manufacturing. Over the past few decades, Walmart’s competitive power—a combination of size, technology and cut-throat personnel policies—has played a role in dramatically reducing American retail workers’ average income and unionization level (from 8.6 percent in 1983 to 4.9 percent in 2011).” Walmart now pays less than what a worker needs to reproduce his or her labor-power, offloading the costs of healthcare, housing etc. onto the rest of society. It is a strategy that results in destroying a generation of workers – a form of destruction of capital – devaluing labor.

Low wages and opposition to unions are more than just a means of gaining market share. They are also a way of establishing power over the workforce. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein explains: “Wal-Mart’s hostility to a better-paid and healthier workforce is as much an issue of power as it is a question of prices and profits. High wages reduce turnover and awaken employee expectations, transforming the internal culture of the workplace. Decent wages lead to real career and the expectation of fair treatment over a lifetime of employment. That in turn might well lead to demands for a steady work shift, an equitable chance at promotion, retirement pay, and even the opportunity to make one’s voice heard in a collective fashion.” [Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, New York 2009:250]

In 2012, union struggles for a living wage challenged not only the business strategy of companies like Walmart, but also the political strategy of the plutocracy to weaken and destroy unions and dump responsibility for social welfare onto the individual. Moberg notes: “OUR Walmart joins a host of smaller campaigns by workers in other precarious and penurious industries, like logistics, fast food and domestic work. With enough density of membership, service-sector unions can raise standards in local, and ultimately national, markets. For example, in San Francisco and New York, where 90 percent of hotel housekeepers are unionized, average hotel housekeeper wages are $19 to $26 an hour, compared to a national average of $10.10.”

Across the country, low-waged workers in various industries are empowering themselves by fighting back. The Occupy movement’s achievement to raise consciousness of inequality, new approaches to union organizing, and outpourings of solidarity such as the support for victims of Hurricane Sandy, point the way forward for 2013.

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Filed under austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Medicare, Obama, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, political analysis, Walmart, We are the 99 percent

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.

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