Category Archives: low-waged

Political Economy of Flexible Accumulation: Part Two – The Case of Amazon.com


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Fight for 15 protesters at Amazon’s fulfilment center in Baltimore. Photo: People’s World

The ideology of flexible accumulation is neoliberalism, which, David Harvey writes, “seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market. This requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace. … These technologies have compressed the rising density of market transactions in both space and time.” [Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford 2007:3] Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon are in the forefront of accelerating the density of market transactions as well as the “creative destruction” of obstacles like state regulations and taxation.

Amazon aims to dominate consumer access to internet retail through its massive investment in servers and fulfilment centers around the world. Even though it makes a minimal profit on each transaction, the sheer volume of exchanges it hosts generates a surplus. It has been able to accelerate the density of market transactions precisely by using massive databases to store information about consumers. Analysts have noted that “Amazon’s enormous investments in infrastructure and logistics have begun to pay off. The company keeps capturing a larger slice of American and even international purchases. It keeps attracting more users to its Prime fast-shipping subscription program, and, albeit slowly, it is beginning to scratch out higher profits from shoppers. Now that Amazon has hit this point, it’s difficult to see how any other retailer could catch up anytime soon.”

Harvey’s prescient analysis did not extend to how a workforce that is capable of dealing with accelerated rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation would be created. But, since he wrote, neoliberal management doctrines, intended to make workers more agile and “self-regulating” through the breaking down of traditional divisions of labor, have resulted in the combination of low-waged labor employed part-time through subcontractors with the promise of fulltime jobs for a few, forcing them all to work ever harder. The flexible workforce marks a new pattern of labor usage, most visible in retail and leading to downsizing and retrenchment; flexible workers have no rights of seniority or fulltime permanence.

Amazon has succeeded in creating a highly flexible workforce; the work conditions in its warehouses are well-known, but it has also pioneered ways to accelerate technical and marketing innovation through internal competition among its white-collar professionals, monitoring their activities in the same way as its consumers. By coercing his employees to voluntarily extend their working day to 80 or 100 hours per week, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has been able to extract the maximum effort from his marketers and software engineers.

Recently, the New York Times published an article detailing how “Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. … Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else. … To prod employees, Amazon has a powerful lever: more data than any retail operation in history. Its perpetual flow of real-time, ultradetailed metrics allows the company to measure nearly everything its customers do … It can also tell when engineers are not building pages that load quickly enough, or when a vendor manager does not have enough gardening gloves in stock.”

Many who are deemed “inflexible” are fired in annual cullings of the staff. According to the Times, “ ‘Amazon is O.K. with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars,’ said Vijay Ravindran, who worked at the retailer for seven years, the last two as the manager overseeing the checkout technology. ‘They keep the stars by offering a combination of incredible opportunities and incredible compensation. It’s like panning for gold’.”

Harvey notes that accelerated turnover time in production as a result of advances in technology requires a corresponding reduction of turnover time in consumption. To achieve this reduction in turnover time, Amazon directed its technical efforts into streamlining internet ordering and payment processing with features such as 1-click checkout, investing heavily in servers to handle heavy traffic. In addition to automated ordering, shorter delivery times help to increase the volume of commodities exchanged and create new needs for instant gratification.

The Times reported: “Last August, Stephenie Landry, an operations executive, joined in discussions about how to shorten delivery times and developed an idea for rushing goods to urban customers in an hour or less. … ‘A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes,’ said Ms. Landry … ‘We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need,’ Ms. Landry said, ‘in this way that feels really futuristic and magical’.”

Shortening delivery times is key to Amazon’s strategy: in some metropolitan centers it offers same-day service. Locating and packing products is achieved through a grueling 24-hour operation in its vast warehouses: “Through the engineering of its fulfillment centers, Amazon has built the world’s most nimble infrastructure for the transfer of things … The packing stations are a whirl of activity where algorithms test human endurance. … Workers whip through the folding, packing, and sealing of boxes at a speed that could only come through days, months, and years of practice. The pace cannot slow if Amazon wants to meet the demand the company itself has stoked through the speed and reliability of its fulfillment operation.”

Amazon aims to both step up the pace of consumption and, like Apple, lock in a captive customer base. After the launch of 2-day shipping through Amazon Prime, the company’s sales growth took off. Time magazine notes: “Early on, Amazon discovered that Prime subscribers overwhelmingly made their online purchases via Amazon, and therefore they stopped shopping elsewhere. Naturally, a customer’s Amazon purchases skyrocket once he or she is signed up for Prime.”

The New York Times reported: “Because Amazon is still expanding madly, its expenses remain enormous and its retail profits tiny. In its last quarter, its operating margin on the North American retail business was 3.5 percent, while Amazon Web Services’s margin was 25 percent.” But the growth in Prime subscriptions is the key to how Amazon intends to generate profits. “Analysts at Morgan Stanley reported recently that ‘retail gross profit dollars per customer’ — a fancy way of measuring how much Amazon makes from each shopper — has accelerated in each of the last four quarters, in part because of Prime. Amazon keeps winning ‘a larger share of customers’ wallets’.”

An ex-employee explains: “Amazon has boundless ambition. It wants to eat global retail. … Amazon has decided to continue to invest to arm itself for a much larger scale of business. … lowering its shipping costs and increasing the speed of shipping items to customers is like a shot of adrenaline to customer’s propensity to buy from them, and so it has doubled down on building more and more fulfillment centers around the world. … That is a gargantuan investment, billions of dollars worth, and it takes a significant bite out of Amazon’s free cash flow.”

Increasing the velocity of commodity capital turnover offsets Amazon’s lower margins, resulting in a relative advantage over competitors: as Bezos is reputed to have said, “your margin is my opportunity.” But faster delivery times depend on an increase of fixed capital tied up in warehouse facilities across the world, which soaks up the surplus. This makes the company more dependent on finance capital for expansion into new markets; according to analysts, the company is searching for “one or two winning bets to make it all worthwhile” – or rather, it is speculating on future gains in the unpredictable world of consumer tastes.

Amazon makes its profit from the redistribution of the surplus value realized from the exchange of large quantities of commodities, which means the labor involved in shipping and warehousing is essential for the process to be completed. This is the company’s weakness: it was able to beat back an attempt to unionize maintenance engineers in its Delaware warehouse, but as Wired.com noted: “… however sophisticated its ordering and distribution systems, Amazon still relies on a host of human hands to pull items off the shelves … And as demonstrated by several exposés on working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses, its algorithms can only be as efficient as the hands and feet executing their instructions. … Amazon can’t outsource its main business — online retail — to workers overseas. Getting more orders to more people more quickly depends on getting as geographically close to customers as possible. As a result, any conflicts and complaints involving the workers filling those orders will be more visible to American consumers, Amazon’s main customer base.”

Amazon’s eventual goal is to establish an absolute monopoly in internet-based exchange and distribution, so that value can be siphoned off by the retailer and enrich Jeff Bezos. However, its plans are built on the backs of a low-waged workforce, while workers have been moving to establish unions and push back against the intensity of algorithm-directed labor. In last Tuesday’s Fight for 15 day of action, hundreds of protesters picketed the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Baltimore, where most of the jobs are part time with no guarantee of full time employment.  Amazon cannot escape the movement of the low-paid for a living wage and decent benefits.

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Filed under amazon.com, david harvey, flexible accumulation, low-waged, Neoliberalism, political economy, Uncategorized

‘No justice, no peace’: Ferguson a microcosm of America’s alienation from government


The city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in anger on Monday after the grand jury’s decision that there were no grounds for indicting Michael Brown’s killer Darren Wilson. The verdict was widely anticipated, but the release of the evidence shows the way St. Louis prosecutors enabled Wilson to pose in front of the jury as the victim – allowing him to describe Brown in a four-hour testimony as a “demon” and that “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots.” As Josh Marshall notes, “Wilson portrays himself as almost literally in the hands of a monster and in a fight for his life.”

Wilson’s defense was based on the racist stereotype of African-American men as violent thugs terrorizing innocent suburbanites. It was in line with the earlier police release of video of Brown taking a pack of cigars from a shop, setting him up as a criminal to imply he deserved his violent end. This strategy “has not only persisted; it’s been extended to the protesters now taking to the streets of Ferguson.”

Washington Post correspondent Dana Milbank pointed out: “[St. Louis prosecutor Robert] McCulloch essentially acknowledged that his team was serving as Wilson’s defense lawyers, noting that prosecutors ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ witnesses by pointing out previous statements and evidence that discredited their accounts,” while passing over inconsistencies in Wilson’s own statements and his supporting witnesses.

Brown had become the symbol of aggressive police repression of black youth across America, and in refusing to indict Wilson the St. Louis prosecutors gave notice that the federal “ghetto” strategy of military containment of minority communities would be continued and intensified. But now more people facing unemployment and house repossession are being drawn into struggle and will face the same tactics.

Nowhere was the disconnect between the political elite and reality more apparent than Obama’s talk of “enormous progress in race relations,” shown on TV news in a split screen with live images of teenagers in Ferguson trying to overturn a police car. In this sense, Ferguson is America. It is a microcosm of America’s alienation from government.

The demonizing of protesters as rioters has been recast as the official justification of militarized policing. The roles of police and military have been conflated: The Guardian reported that National Guardsmen took at least one demonstrator into custody on Monday night. The legal system has reinforced the ideological justification for unpunished police killings in defiance of public sentiment.

In a typically insightful comment, Gary Younge writes: “when it comes to the lethal use of force the police do not just constitute a special category, but a protected and elevated one … police power and black life [are set] at opposite ends of a value system which is not only morally indefensible but, ultimately, socially unsustainable. … [Wilson operates] in a culture where armed white men can cite their fear of unarmed black men as a defence. A fear so intense that they have to shoot them.”

The confrontational fury released by the decision was heightened by the hope that had been sustained over the past 100 days that the legal system would give some modicum of justice over the killing of an unarmed black teenager. Those hopes were dashed and the message rubbed in by the lead prosecutor. Director of Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut Jelani Cobb told Democracy Now, over the past few months “There was some small scale skirmishes, but largely, people kind of withheld their anger in hopes that the actual system of legal recourse would grant them some relief in a situation of Michael Brown’s death. That did not happen.”

The protests in Ferguson itself and in most major cities across the country and abroad were multiracial and political in nature, and the preparations of the authorities in Ferguson no less political. Black-owned business areas were left unguarded while white areas were swamped with aggressive police. Tory Russell, one of the founders of the group Hands Up United and a member of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle, commented: “That lets you know not only does this country value property over people, they even put a special caveat on whose property. If you go to Clayton, you go to Kirkwood, you go to some of these affluent places in the city, National Guard … are already there, they’re stationed. You go to the black communities, you go on West Florissant, or the most black small businesses … Their dreams weren’t being protected. Meanwhile on South Florissant where the white property is, their dream was protected.”

The ongoing experiences of the protests and police reaction crystallized a political development among protesters, latent in a social movement that had had already been apparent in the responses to Trayvon Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s acquittal. At the same time that the Supreme Court and the right is chipping away at the civil rights won in the 1960s, African American youth want more than those achievements. With political and supposedly legal equality, they perceive the system denying their worth as human beings.

The Nation explained: “This new generation of protesters represents a marked break with the older generations of black leaders in the city. They disagreed with the tactics of the civic leaders and clergy members who, for example, urged protesters to obey police curfews widely viewed by the young people as disrespectful of the community’s legitimate outrage. Most of these older leaders already had a stake in the political process in St. Louis through nonprofits or as politicians.”

The Guardian reported on the broadening of the campaign: “A group of ad hoc organisations born out of alliances formed on the streets … used unrelenting, sometimes in-your-face protests to keep alive demands that the officer who shot the unarmed teenager, Darren Wilson, be put on trial. But as the campaign grew and gained momentum it shifted to a broader focus on racial profiling and the use of force by the police in Ferguson, St Louis and beyond. … [Ashley] Yates and other leading activists regard the tactics of an earlier generation as dated. She says what was right in pressing for specific goals such as ending segregation on buses or the right to vote is different from attempts to confront what she describes as a state of mind among many Americans that views black people ‘as a threat and savages’.”

St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe wrote in Time magazine of his disenchantment with Barack Obama’s disengagement from their fight: “We assumed that our beloved, black president would come to our defense and speak about the perils of police brutality, racial profiling, and Mike Brown’s unfortunate demise. Instead we felt as if he co-signed this unfair treatment and endorsed the brutal show of force the police displayed towards us. … The city is overflowing with civil unrest and we simply want answers for the many wrongdoings that have been committed against us. The officers of the Ferguson Police Department continue to stand in solidarity with their brother Darren Wilson. The entire system is corrupt from top to bottom.”

Obama’s presidency, despite his executive actions on immigration, is a spent force. In the midterm elections, when they were unable to mobilize their supporters to vote, Democrats proved themselves unable to answer voters’ sense of the political system’s corruption. A new politics is being born in the fight for justice and a living wage that will sweep aside politicians tied to corporate interests and Wall Street money.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, broken windows, Ferguson, low-waged, Obama, police presence, Trayvon Martin

Whatever It Takes in the Fight For 15: Workers Mobilize Against Poverty Level Wages in America



Fast food workers in Raleigh, N.C march along South Wilmington Street to protest outside a Burger King. Photo: MSNBC

The “Fight for 15” campaign has spread rapidly from its beginnings in New York City two years ago. Last Thursday’s civil disobedience strikes affected 150 cities throughout the U.S. – significantly, many of them were in the South, historically hostile to unions. As well as broadening their support, strikers faced jail as a way of showing their determination to achieve a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Obama referred to the movement at a speech on Labor Day in Milwaukee. He said: “There’s a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity. … If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”

As well all the major cities in the North, protesters were arrested in St. Louis, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Durham, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; Miami and Tampa, Florida; and Charleston, South Carolina. In Nashville, McDonald’s worker Jamar Black was at a protest outside of a Sonic restaurant. He told In These Times “We’ll do whatever it takes to get to $15. If we have to go to jail, we’re doing that.”

The Huffington Post reported that in Charleston around two dozen fast food workers blocked traffic at the entrance to a freeway, backing up traffic for miles. Police arrested 18 in what were deemed “non-custodial” arrests – but “the fact that it was happening at all in South Carolina took onlookers by surprise … Dave Crossley, a local who came out in support of the protest, marveled at the line of workers bottling up traffic for blocks on Spring Street, chanting for ‘$15 and a union.’ ‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Charleston,’ he said.”

Reports indicate that the police were much more careful in their treatment of protesters than in previous strikes, which reflects both public support for the movement and the condemnation of police over-reaction to the protests in Ferguson. For example, Durham police in union-unfriendly North Carolina “followed the city’s protest for upwards of three hours while making no arrests, even as workers sat in a series of increasingly busy intersections. Eventually, the protesters advanced to the corner of West Main Street and Great Jones Street, one of the busier intersections in downtown, where 23 workers wearing red armbands sat down in the middle of the street. The police blocked off traffic around the intersection but did not advance on the protesters for about an hour and a half.”

The LA Times reported that in New York City, “Hours after the morning protest in Manhattan, marchers gathered again on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and 56th Street, where several were swiftly arrested and taken away in a police van after they lay down on the pavement and blocked traffic. … Lunchtime diners at a nearby open-air bar watched the protest and arrests, which lasted no more than half an hour. ‘Good for them,’ one man in a business suit said who was weaving his way through protesters as they chanted and disrupted traffic. ‘Everyone deserves to make a living’.”

Ashona Osborne, who works at Wendy’s in Pittsburgh, told Democracy Now: “We volunteered that we were going to take a nonviolent civil disobedience and sit down, just to make the point to these CEOs and corporates that ‘We’re not playing.’ … This strike that we had, as opposed to our last strike, we had way more people walk off the job and way more people from the public and workers come and join us as we were striking. We started out with about 10 people at 5:00 in the morning. By the time they came about noon, we had over 200 people all striking together as one.”

There is a fusion between the fight for a living wage and other campaigns for social justice, such as the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights. The larger movement includes activists from Ferguson, Missouri, who decided to travel to New York City on Thursday to join the protests there. Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s employee in Ferguson, said she believes their fight against Michael Brown’s shooting will be on the minds of many striking fast food workers. “We’re fighting for the same thing, basically,” she said. Co-worker Carlos Robinson told the New York Times: “In Ferguson we needed to stand up for what’s right. Here we have to stand up for what’s right. It’s all about rights. … Ferguson gave us a boost because it helped us realize some people really don’t care about you. If you don’t care about yourself and take a stand for yourself you’ll always be at the bottom.”

The change in tactics to civil disobedience was combined with the addition of home healthcare workers to the campaign. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been a major backer of the fast-food strikes; its president Mary Kay Henry said: “Homecare workers … decided to join with fast-food workers yesterday in building the broadest, most powerful movement possible … We looked at [Obama’s speech] at 5:45 yesterday morning in Oakland. And workers who hadn’t had a chance [to see it], because they were working on Labor Day, were incredibly thrilled that the president of the United States is saying that what they’re doing makes complete sense.” She added: “There’s an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food workers’ movement. I saw it in Oakland yesterday. Many of the workers were Latino and had immigrated from Central America and Mexico. We’ve seen it across this country as the city organizations get built in local coalition with the immigrant justice movement.”

The strikes are not directed at obtaining concessions from one particular company or store, but are aimed at changing the political climate so as to make it unacceptable for corporations earning billions of dollars to keep wages at poverty levels. This includes challenging the legal strategies used by corporations to avoid liability for labor conditions. The movement achieved an important success in this respect by winning a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that McDonald’s could be treated as a joint employer with its franchise holders in labor complaints, opening the way for major pressure on the corporation’s practices.

Most new jobs created in the U.S. today are low-waged, but workers in these jobs are becoming more militant and political in their fight against multi-billion dollar corporations. Washington Post correspondent Harold Meyerson pointed out that: “even though the campaign has yet to win a union contract for a single worker, it already has to be judged a signal success. By highlighting the abysmal incomes of millions of hardworking Americans, it has prodded governments to phase in minimum wage increases in a growing number of cities and states. … The fast-food workers’ campaign, then, may be viewed … as the second act of a broader workers’ movement kicked off by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011. Occupy never developed a strategic focus that went beyond occupying, but it nonetheless focused the nation’s attention on the widening chasm separating the 1 percent from everybody else. The fast-food campaign … has staged enough high-profile actions, with a compelling economic and moral message, to win real gains for workers, whether those workers stand to ever become union members or not.”

The gains that have already been made have built workers’ confidence in their own ability to fight and their strength as a class. Alliances with community activists to build an inclusive movement are creating a new form of labor struggle, in the teeth of antagonistic courts and Republican-dominated state legislatures. Much greater conflicts are in store as the movement challenges the basis of corporate profits and their political and legal influence.

Ferguson McDonald’s worker Jeanina Jenkins said that Michael Brown’s shooting had made her think about the reasons why it had happened. “These corporations make billions of dollars each year,” she said, “and if it wasn’t for the workers they wouldn’t have a company to run. … I want to make a history that’s going to change not only us but change the world.”

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Filed under African Americans, fast-food workers, Ferguson, Fight for 15, immigration, low-waged, Obama, poverty, strikes, We are the 99 percent

Ferguson Protests Are Not the Revolution but Herald a Challenge to Plutocratic Supremacy


The protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting death of Michael Brown exposed for all to see how local police have been militarized and deployed to suppress social unrest and dissent. As the super-rich increasingly accumulate all society’s wealth and refuse to pay more taxes, thus defunding social services and benefits, their solution for poverty is to herd the poor into ghettoes patrolled by armored vehicles.

Aggressive policing of minority communities to segregate them from comparatively affluent middle-class communities is the strategy that has long been adopted by the U.S. state to absorb social and economic tensions exacerbated by globalization. As an African American in Ferguson succinctly explained: “It’s not a racial thing. It’s a police thing. It’s America against the police.”

The protests drew national attention to the way exaggerated “threats” to public order have been used to justify the use of extreme force against citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. The war zone-like images from an American city forced federal and state authorities to step in to defuse the situation in Ferguson and prevent the clashes from escalating.

Although Michael Brown’s funeral last Monday marked a pause in the protests, as a judicial investigation got under way, African American youth have shown they refuse to internalize the white power structure’s evaluation of their lives as worthless. Their defiance of police in riot gear, backed by snipers and armored trucks, brought Michael Brown’s death into the political spotlight.

Parallels with TV news portrayals of the Middle East became another subtext of the confrontations: the head of the St. Louis NAACP, Adolphus Pruitt, compared the militarized police response to Israeli treatment of Palestinians, for example, and a young girl held a sign at the protests that read “Negro Spring.” She told reporters: “The same as the Arabs fought for their rights, for their civil rights, to oust their corrupt government, we’re fighting for our civil rights, our human rights.”

The Guardian’s Gary Younge recounts an incident that shows how the aftermath of the clashes subverted fear of the police. “Just outside a mall in Ferguson, Missouri, shortly after 10 o’clock on Wednesday, a black man in his 30s was stopped and frisked by around eight white policemen. As he gingerly emptied his pockets, careful not to move too quickly, he yelled at them. … ‘Yes I’m angry,’ he shouted. ‘Four hundred years we been here. We built this place for free and y’all still hate us.’ A man filming the incident was told to move on but did not budge. When the police let the pedestrian go (whatever they were looking for he didn’t have), the man recording went too. ‘I’ve done my job,’ he said.”

This is a remarkable change, given the history and extent of police intimidation of the Ferguson community. The culture of militarism in the local police force is combined with a vicious racism encouraged by the town’s political structure, which finances itself by the extraction of fees and fines from the mostly African-American population.

The overwhelmingly white Ferguson police department attracts individuals seeking to perpetuate the inferior status of African Americans. Their supporters (including Fox News) channel a revival of segregationist fervor as some in the white communities fear the influence of a multi-racial majority on the political power structure. St. Louis Republicans were outraged when activists set up a voter-registration booth near Michael Brown’s memorial: the executive director of the state Republican Party was quoted as saying “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.” He described it as “injecting race” into the tragedy of Brown’s death.

As well as the shooter of Michael Brown, at least five other officers in the town’s 53-member department have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force. A 5-year veteran of the force, Dan Page, was suspended after video surfaced of him saying “I’m into diversity. I kill everybody, I don’t care” and describing Obama as “that illegal alien who claims to be our president.” Another officer posted on social media that he thought the Ferguson protesters should be “put down like rabid dogs.”

North of Delmar Boulevard, running east-west through St. Louis, the population is overwhelmingly black

North of Delmar Boulevard, running east-west through St. Louis, the population is overwhelmingly black

St. Louis itself is probably the most segregated city in the U.S. today. The Washington Post comments: “the break between races — and privilege — is particularly drastic, so defined that those on both sides speak often about a precise boundary. … St. Louis’s geographic divide stems from a legacy of segregation — legal and illegal — and more recent economic stratification that has had the effect of reinforcing racial separation. … Look at a map of St. Louis, color-coded by race, and majority-African American communities sit almost exclusively to the north — that is, above Delmar [Boulevard].”

Ferguson lies just outside the city’s boundary, in St. Louis county. When deindustrialization impoverished communities in the region, they lost their revenue base. The county’s infrastructure and police are now financed by court fines and fees imposed on the mainly African-American population for minor nonviolent offenses like traffic violations; if they can’t pay, they are arrested.

Despite having a population of just over 21,000, Ferguson issued 32,975 warrants for non-violent offenses – most of them driving violations – in 2013. African-Americans make up 67 percent of the town’s population, but 86 percent of drivers stopped by police are black. Jeff Smith, an assistant professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, says Ferguson “facilitates a debtors prison” because of the high number of arrest warrants that get issued when people don’t pay.

Bradley Rayford, an executive of student government at a local community college, told the Washington Post that youth feel “they are caught in a vise, with police harassment on one side and little economic opportunity on the other. ‘It’s a socioeconomic thing,’ he said. ‘It begins with getting a traffic ticket. You get pulled over and get this huge ticket. In some parts of the city, tickets actually double.’ Get a couple of those and soon ‘most people can’t afford their bills.’ … ‘If you don’t pay the ticket,’ Rayford said, ‘you get a court date. But you can’t go to court because you’re working two jobs. Now, warrants are out for your arrest. You can get arrested, then you can’t get a job. So many people are made criminals from traffic tickets’.”

While the Ferguson protests are not the revolution, the recognition of a common political enemy in the one percent has the potential to unite diverse communities in the fight against globalization. Bradley Harmon, local head of the Communication Workers of America, told The Nation labor is “probably the most racially integrated social force in St Louis. … I think if we’re going to reverse the decline of organized labor, we’re going to [have to] take on the systemic poverty and exclusion and withdrawal of public services that made Ferguson happen.” Lara Granich, director of the Missouri branch of Jobs with Justice, points out that “Getting rid of the idea that there has to be poverty jobs is a very important step. Economic inequality and racism are mutually reinforcing forces.”

The confluence of struggles against police intimidation and corporate exploitation is evidenced by the fact that members of the fast food workers group “Show Me $15” participated in the Ferguson demonstrations from the beginning. According to Labor Notes, “Shermale Humphrey used to work at the McDonald’s in Ferguson that sits right across from the scene of Brown’s shooting. ‘This [protesting] is something I had to do,’ she said. ‘I’m African American, and this could be anyone I know. I just can’t let it go on any longer.’ … Humphrey and her fellow Show Me $15 member Jeanina Jenkins were both arrested for trespassing when they protested at McDonald’s shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois, this May. Jenkins works at that same Ferguson McDonald’s but hasn’t been to work since the August 9 shooting, spending her days and nights at rallies instead.”

More and more Americans of every ethnicity will be drawn into political struggles against poverty wages and the apartheid-like policies that aim and often succeed in separating Americans. As Michael Brown’s tragic death shows, Americans of color in the United States continue to pay their most lethal costs. Yet these policies also blind those who benefit from white privilege to the costs they themselves will have to bear should they seriously try to assert their rights against the plutocratic order that now controls the state through laws like the Patriot Act, which has given us a militarized police, and decisions like Citizens United, which allows plutocrats and corporations to essentially buy Democratic and Republican candidates and unlimited legislative and political power.

The Ferguson protests and inclusive movements like the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, OUR Walmart, and activist groups fighting evictions to protect communities, fighting for We the People, herald the challenge that’s coming to plutocratic supremacy.

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Filed under African Americans, fast-food workers, Ferguson, low-waged, Obama, OUR Walmart, police presence, political analysis, poverty, Republicans

Gaza invasion shifts American attitudes to Palestinian resistance


In Europe, civil society has expressed its revulsion at Israel’s attacks on Gaza with mass protests across the continent. Ireland, historically pro-Palestinian, has whole towns that are boycotting Israeli products, and one British cabinet minister has resigned.

In the US, by contrast, popular sentiment is divided. Once monolithic, cracks are appearing in the post-Nixon ideological consensus that justified its pro-Israel foreign policy. While up until now most criticism of Israel has been met with  denunciations and sanctions, vehemently equating it with anti-Semitism, individuals and groups have begun to speak out against the occupation.

On Sunday August 3, an estimated 10,000 people protested outside the White House in Washington, D.C., calling on Obama to end military aid for Israel. One demonstrator told reporters: “My reason for being here today is that my tax dollar is paying for 1,600 people dead in Gaza today, many of whom civilians, many of whom are children. And I regret that my tax dollar is paying for them.” At the demonstration, Professor Cornel West described Obama as a “war criminal” for facilitating “the killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The Washington Post reported: “Many Jewish Americans were among the crowd, said Shelley Cohen Fudge, 57, of Silver Spring, Md. She is the D.C. metropolitan chapter coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace. ‘We have Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, people from Pakistan, people from all walks of life here,’ she said. ‘There are many Jewish Americans who are very upset by the very disproportionate situation — it’s not a war, it’s an assault and an invasion’.”

Smaller solidarity demonstrations have been taking place in major cities over the last two weeks, but have been ignored by the mainstream media. In New York City on Friday, several thousand braved driving rain to protest one-sided media reporting. “The US media is absolutely biased. All we hear is pro-Israel [stuff]. All the leaders we hear from on television are Israelis,” Palestinian-American Mohammed Hamad told Press TV.

In Washington, D.C., young Jewish-Americans protested outside the national office of the Jewish Federations of North America, calling on the organization to condemn the killing of Palestinian civilians and the bombing of UN schools. Huffington Post commented: “The protest is a reflection of broader trends among young Jewish Americans … while 70 percent of American Jews aged 18-29 believe there is a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, just 26 percent of people in that age group believe the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to reach that goal.” This is in line with national polling, which has found that American millennials were more likely to blame Israel for the current wave of violence than Hamas.

Most politicians – not just the born-again right, but the entire House and Senate, including Democratic progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – have proclaimed their unqualified support for Israel. Obama, while expressing distress at the plight of Gaza’s civilians, repeated and legitimized the Israeli rhetoric that it has an absolute right to defend its citizens from missile attacks.

In reply, Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress as well as the Synagogue Council of America, wrote in Politico that “Israel’s assault on Gaza … was not triggered by Hamas’ rockets directed at Israel but by Israel’s determination to bring down the Palestinian unity government that was formed in early June.” He asked on Democracy Now: “Couldn’t Israel be doing something in preventing this disaster that is playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human lives? … And the answer is: Sure, that they could have ended the occupation.”

According to the Guardian, the bombing “has emboldened diverse [Hollywood] figures to speak out – only in some cases to swiftly retreat. The actors Mark Ruffalo and Wallace Shawn, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and the director Jonathan Demme, have experienced jeers since taking a stand. … Two weeks ago Rihanna tweeted the hashtag #FreePalestine to her 36 million followers only to delete it eight minutes later, amid a surge of critical responses … Passions are running so high, however, that even silence from the likes of Spielberg, Streisand and Katzenberg is now considered a statement of sorts.” Pro-Israeli comedienne Joan Rivers yelled at reporters that Palestinians “deserve to be dead.”

One factor that explains American attitudes is the overwhelming partiality of the news media (with Diane Sawyer of ABC News showing footage of the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on a devastated Palestinian family, which she then misidentified as an Israeli family), featuring Netanyahu prominently in newscasts and virtually nothing about Palestinians. However, reporters are beginning to question the official narrative.

At a State Department briefing, the spokesperson was challenged on the US resupply of weapons to Israel after the shelling of a school designated by the UN as a shelter. Alternet reported: “Matt Lee of the Associated Press dared to wonder about ‘consequences’ if the U.S. ever were to determine that Israel hit the U.N. school, and another reporter asked about U.S. munitions involved in these assaults on civilians.”

The Nation commented: “Already, there are anecdotal signs that conventional New York opinion, which tends to be liberal on everything except Palestine, is starting to shift. ‘If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them,’ wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells in a piece on New York magazine’s website last week, a sentiment that would have been hard to imagine coming from that publication a few years ago.”

Americans in general are not aware of the connection of Israel with European settler colonialism, and propaganda about Muslim terrorists after 9/11 has had a cumulative effect. Furthermore, the Israeli narrative meshes with the American founding myth. An op-ed in the New York Times pointed out: “… the story of a nation of immigrants escaping persecution and rising from nowhere in the Holy Land resonates. The Israeli saga — of courage and will — echoes in American mythology …”

What should not be overlooked is that from the mid-1970s the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC had secured great influence in Congress by building on a narrative that linked the ideological justification of Israel with the Holocaust to make criticism of Israel taboo. Since Jewish people in the US benefited greatly from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed, their votes became a pawn in AIPAC’s attacks on politicians who made even the mildest criticism of Israel’s actions.

What has changed is that politically significant sections of American society, especially the young, no longer believe the mainstream media and the spokesmen of their own government. While this may seem to be a minor change at the present time, growing struggles over the minimum wage and student debt will merge with this shift in attitudes to create potent new forms of resistance.

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Filed under Gaza, Israel, low-waged, Obama, political analysis, US policy

Harris vs. Quinn: a Line in the Sand Against the Rights of American Workers


The majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a series of reactionary decisions, theoretically narrowly-demarcated but in fact capable of being extended broadly. In each case the justices had to bend the law to the extent of legislating from the bench. As well as their highly-publicized verdicts restricting access to contraception for women, their ruling in Harris vs. Quinn hammered another nail into the legal status of unions, laying the ground for further attacks on collective bargaining.

The decision undermines the way unions are financed from “fair share” provisions that mandate contributions from non-union members covered by collective bargaining agreements. According to the Guardian, the majority ruled that only “fully fledged” state employees should pay these fees. “The ruling split off a whole class of workers – in this case homecare aides who are paid by the state but, in the court’s view, still essentially employed by the individuals they care for – and ordered that in these cases, compulsory union dues were a violation of free speech rights.”

The justices thus created a whole new category of “partial public employee,” who in their view were not represented by a union in collective bargaining nor deserving of workplace protections. Justice Alito, who gave the decision, reportedly wanted to go further and eliminate the requirement that all government workers contribute to the cost of collective bargaining; the scathing language he used indicates support for future legal challenges to the rule.

In These Times correspondent Moshe Marvit explains that the suit was originally restricted to whether unionized home healthcare workers could be subject to the “fair share” contribution. “However, once the case arrived at the Supreme Court in 2013, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation raised the stakes and argued that anything short of a right-to-work model—under which any employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement could forego paying any dues—for all public employees violated the First Amendment.  In the Court’s decision, a five-Justice majority held that fair share provisions for home healthcare workers were unconstitutional, and indicated repeatedly that the 1977 case that allows such provisions for all public sector employees is on shaky ground.”

The Legal Defense Foundation is funded by the National Right to Work Committee, formed in 1955 by Southern businessmen connected to the John Birch Society with the express purpose of undermining unions and applying to all public sector workers the so-called “right to work” laws that bar workers from obligating co-workers to join a union or pay dues, even in workplaces where a large majority vote to form a union. The Committee’s aim of de-funding unions to limit their strength has lately been coopted and financed by extremist billionaires (including the ubiquitous Kochs) and now been given the imprimatur of the Supreme Court majority.

However, this strategy of the one per cent is likely to blow back in their faces. Union bureaucracies have functioned historically as a way of controlling and diminishing labor unrest, and while the administration of unions will be hard hit by the elimination of part of their finances, the grassroots resistance to the plutocracy is growing irrespective of unions’ legal status. Workers and community activists are finding creative ways to organize despite legal restrictions, with groups like OUR Walmart and the campaign for a living minimum wage uniting activists with the low-paid to challenge the status quo.

Public sector workers already face legal constraints on union activity, such as laws making it illegal to strike. For example, New York City transit workers who struck in 2005 were fined a day’s pay for each day of the strike and their union fined $2.5 million. The leadership capitulated, but the members reorganized, elected a new leadership, rebuilt their strength and campaigned in the community they served for support, especially after they got the city moving again after Hurricane Sandy. They were able to generate enough political pressure on the state governor to gain a more favorable contract than other state unions were able to achieve.

Legal attacks are forcing a turn to a new pattern of trade unionism that turns outwards to connect with the community, like the Chicago Teachers Union, rather than the sectional pattern of industry-specific organizing that dominated the years after World War II.

In a parallel development, the two-party political system is being subverted by the successes of the Working Families party, the election of self-proclaimed socialists in Seattle, and moves by African Americans in the South to mobilize independently of the national Democratic party leadership. In Mississippi, African-Americans intervened in the Republican primaries to prevent an overtly racist and segregationist tea-partier from becoming their representative.

Political science professor Daniel Franklin comments: “The narrow re-nomination victory of six-term Republican Senator Thad Cochran in the Mississippi primary run-off may well mark a watershed moment in politics in the South. In his desperation to overtake Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel, who beat him in the first round of the primary, Cochran hit upon a novel idea: to invite the black community into the final stage of the Republican Party nomination battle. … Mississippi’s black leaders recognized and took advantage of this historic opportunity, by urging their compatriots to vote in the GOP contest to gain a measure of meaningful clout in Mississippi politics.” While turnout increased everywhere in the primary, it jumped highest in Cochran’s strongest counties, which have the highest concentration of African Americans in the state.

Whatever Cochran’s character, the assertion of political clout by African Americans in America’s most racist state is significant. But it upset the national Democratic party leadership, who had been hoping for an extreme Republican candidate in order to potentially elect a Democrat as senator (albeit one with politics marginally less racist than Cochran’s). Their outlook was reflected in Donna Ladd’s Guardian comment: “the GOP cannot suddenly welcome a bunch of black Democrats to their tent. They voted almost exclusively for the federal money Cochran brings home – not for the party that abandoned African Americans back in the 1960s.” Franklin points out an alternative perspective: “At the very least, Cochran will now have to be cognizant of who kept him in office – and if he keeps the pivotal support of African American constituents in mind, he may well moderate his politics to inoculate himself against pressure from the far right.”

African Americans’ insistence on basic rights in Mississippi is also reflected in the state NAACP’s launch of four new efforts: a ballot initiative to better fund public education, a push for voter rights, funding community health centers, and defending workers’ rights. It organized a march on Nissan’s auto plant in Jackson, where nearly 75 percent of the workforce is black, during celebrations commemorating the passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago. Nissan has resisted the efforts of the UAW to organize the plant in the right-to-work state, where full-time workers get $24 an hour, but over a thousand temporary contract workers are employed at just $12 an hour.

Student activists joined actor Danny Glover and Nissan workers to demand Nissan allow a fair union election and respect the civil and labor rights of workers by stopping anti-union intimidation and threats of workers who want to form a union. Activist Monica Atkins said: “Our rally showed that as long as Nissan workers can’t exercise their fundamental labor right to form a union, which is a civil right, then the civil rights struggles of 50 years ago will continue. And young people, again, will lead the way in that fight.”

The Supreme Court’s majority ruling in Harris is the latest line in the sand in that fight, but American men and women will not accept a loss of natural and civil rights by legislative fiat. In Seattle, in Chicago, and especially in the South, new social coalitions are forming that will revitalize American democracy beyond political ideology and defend Americans’ rights to organize and fight.

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Filed under African Americans, chicago teachers, low-waged, OUR Walmart, political analysis, Republicans, Supreme Court, Tea Party movement, UAW, walmart strikes

Teachers Prepare to Fight for Public Schools and Students Against Plutocratic De-funders


A Los Angeles judge has declared California’s teacher tenure laws to be unconstitutional because, he alleged, they harm low-income students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom. In the case of Vergara vs. California, purportedly brought by a group of minority students but in fact initiated by a billionaire-funded organization called “Students First,” Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”

It was a well-aimed blow against teachers’ unions, and in his summation the judge made it clear he was perfectly aware of its political implications. Within an hour of the verdict, Michelle Rhee, head of the StudentsFirst lobbying group, had announced a new website to put pressure on lawmakers in other states to abolish or weaken tenure and other teacher job protections.

Education is a multi-billion dollar public enterprise, and the plutocracy are anxious to privatize it by creating charter schools that will siphon off more affluent students, leaving low-income students to rot in defunded school systems, and to monetize the testing process. The rich intend to run education more “efficiently” by applying corporate methods of social control, such as the “value-added” metric, to teachers; tenure – which means teachers cannot be fired without due process – and union strength are primary obstacles to their strategy.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Treu’s ruling consistently echoed the arguments of the corporate legal team hired to bring the suit, crucially accepting that teachers can be evaluated fairly through a statistical analysis based on student test scores, despite testimony that empirical research shows little correlation between teachers’ effectiveness in class and students’ scores.

Even opponents of tenure found the judge’s opinion to be flawed. Law professor Orin Kerr commented in the Washington Post that it “would seem to require evidence of a causal connection between the laws challenged and the quality of teachers. But we don’t hear about that evidence. Instead, the judge notes that there are a lot of bad teachers in California. He then says that ‘on the evidence presented at trial’ the laws led to the bad teachers and therefore trigger strict scrutiny. But the judge doesn’t say what that evidence is. … I would think that a constitutional challenge here requires evidence, not ideology.”

Although he had scant evidence to support his opinion, the judge threw his legal authority behind the corporate narrative blaming teachers for failing schools, conspicuously comparing his ruling to the seminal desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Politico noted: “In adopting the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement, Treu gave a major boost to school reformers from both parties who have long argued that the current system dooms poor and minority students to inferior educations.”

There is an ideological campaign going on here to cloak attacks on public sector unions in the language of liberalism, appropriating terms like “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” to convince the public that the interests of teachers and students are opposed. Educator Adam Bessie points out: “In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure. …

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, ‘activist judge’ – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that ‘bad teachers’ are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.”

The significance of Vergara is that Silicon Valley billionaires have now successfully used litigation to push through political changes they could not achieve through the democratic process. Cal Poly history professor Ralph Shaffer explains that it is the culmination of a sustained campaign against California’s teacher tenure law. He writes: “In 2005 the anti-public education forces unsuccessfully attacked tenure with Proposition 74 under the slogan ‘Put the Kids First.’ This year the lawsuit masqueraded under the banner ‘Students Matter.’ If students really matter, the ‘reformers’ would attack genuine problems. But their real goal is to purge teachers whom they consider a threat to their reactionary view of American education. Prop. 74 was defeated by a sizable margin in 2005. This time the so-called reformers have achieved an even greater goal, wiping out entirely the tenure law. They didn’t have to face the possibility of voter rejection, they won their victory by the decision of a single judge.”

In 2008 the $16 billion budget shortfall California experienced as a result of the banking crisis led to thousands of teachers being laid off, many of them in low-income school districts. But plutocrats who want to reform education do not propose getting more resources into the schools. As teacher David Cohen notes, despite the huge sums spent on legal action, “Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor.”

The founder of “Students Matter” is David F. Welch, who in 2013 made $2.39 million in the fiber optics communications industry and lives in one of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive areas. But he is not the only billionaire to take an interest in the California education system. A heterogeneous group of rich individuals – including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio, and the widow of Steve Jobs – broke all records for spending by outside groups last year in the Los Angeles Board of Education elections.

The LA Times reported that “this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.”

Teacher’s resistance to these corporate strategies is growing in school districts across America: in Portland, Oregon, teachers came within days of a strike before reaching an agreement that includes the hiring of 150 new teachers and cutting back the extent that teacher evaluations depend on test scores; in Chicago teachers in some schools refused to administrate the Illinois Standard Achievement Test, preferring to teach instead; and in Massachusetts teachers elected a new union president pledged to roll back high-stakes testing, field testing, and teacher evaluations.

In California, teachers are preparing for a struggle modeled after the successful Chicago Teachers Union’s campaign for community support. Adam Bessie reaches this conclusion: “The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.”

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Filed under chicago teachers, low-waged, Michelle Rhee, Neoliberalism, public higher education, public schools, state unions