Category Archives: strikes

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

Fast-food workers demanding living wage challenge inflated salaries of executive “takers”

Question: What do the highest-paid American public university presidents and the highest-paid corporate CEOs have in common? Answer: They both employ workers at the lowest possible wages. University boards and corporate shareholders alike reward the exploitative behavior of top executives with lavish salaries.

The New York Times cites a study by the Institute for Policy Studies, which found that executive pay at the 25 state schools with the highest-paid presidents rose on average to nearly $1 million by 2012. Administrative expenditures outpaced spending on scholarships by more than two to one, while the proportion of permanent faculty declined and the hiring of adjunct (low-wage) faculty soared. According to the report, from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2012, “Ohio State paid [president E. Gordon] Gee a total of $5.9 million. During the same period … the university hired 670 new administrators, 498 contingent and part-time faculty — and 45 permanent faculty members. Student debt at Ohio State grew 23 percent faster than the national average during that time.”

Neoliberal ideology, which justifies this skewed allocation of resources, has become mainstream in the academic world as it already is in business. The pattern is repeated in America’s low-wage corporate economy as, despite Obama’s political rhetoric, inequality is actively created by corporate CEOs to further enrich billionaire shareholders.

Discussing CEOs’ high salaries in relation to last Thursday’s fast-food workers’ strike, policy analyst Catherine Ruetschlin told Democracy Now she discovered “fast food is a catalyst, with inequality that outstrips all the sectors of the economy. The CEO of a fast-food company in 2012 earned 1,200 times what the typical worker earned that year. … Firms like McDonald’s spend billions of dollars a year buying back their own shares of company stock on the market in order to consolidate ownership and bump up earnings per share and meet these short-term benchmarks. … at these firms that have benefited from economic growth, overall, the CEOs and top executives have been able to capture all of those gains. So, while the fast-food CEO pay grew by 470 percent since 2000, worker earnings only grew by 0.3 percent.”

Most CEOs’ compensation is tied to increasing share prices, which means holding down labor costs and keeping out unions. This leads them to maximize short-term return on capital while in effect eroding their own markets. Walmart, for example, puts in a great deal of effort to utilize capital as efficiently as possible and to accelerate its circulation through centralized “just-in-time” inventory and distribution control – which in turn drives absolute exploitation of labor in their stores, warehouses and supply chain.

This corporate incentive has created a market for anti-union consultants who will work outside of labor laws to suppress union activity. There is a ready demand for their services in low-wage based industries such as retail and restaurant chains. The Nation reports on a key player in this “rising cottage industry of lobbyists and consultants,” one Joseph Kefauver, a former Walmart executive and consultant for the restaurant industry. He warned a conference of executives that the “exponential growth of grassroots networks” could threaten their bottom lines and had established a “left-of-center beachhead in traditionally conservative areas.”

Kefauver’s target is the “worker center” movement, which brings together low-waged workers with community activists and religious groups in campaigns to fight for better wages and conditions in industries where it is difficult for unions to organize. One example is Arise Chicago, which helped win safety agreements for hotel workers, negotiated a city ordinance to crack down on wage theft, and mobilized Walmart employees for an unprecedented set of strikes aimed at increasing pay and benefits. In an underhanded tribute to the effectiveness of these groups, big businesses have financed political front groups such as the Workforce Fairness Institute, “a firm made up of Republican campaign staffers that include Katie Packard Gage, Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. The Workforce Fairness Institute maintains ties to the Association of Builders and Contractors, an anti-union lobby made up largely of engineering and construction firms, and serves as a clearinghouse for opposition research on worker centers,” according to The Nation’s report.

The network of anti-union consultants played a central role in swinging the vote at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant through the rapid production of videos smearing the UAW and unions generally. A front group created by an anti-union lawyer, Maury Nicely, set up a website pretending to represent rank-and-file Volkswagen workers while raising funds in the “low six figures” from “businesses and individuals” in Tennessee.” The group hired a leading out-of-state consultant firm, Projections, to produce three videos that featured testimonials from workers at previous UAW plants claiming that the UAW destroyed Detroit and led to the closure of a former Volkswagen auto plant in Pennsylvania. While the UAW focused its efforts inside the factory, the anti-union professionals waged a broader campaign in the community to influence the vote.

However, while the plutocracy musters its armies of lawyers and consultants, the strike movement of low-paid and fast-food workers for a $15 minimum wage and the right to join unions is spreading rapidly. The recent one-day strike of fast-food workers in over 150 US cities contributed a great deal to the increase of class-consciousness and workers’ confidence in their own strength. They have responded to Republican rhetoric by making clear who are the “makers” of wealth, and who are the “takers.”

Commenting on the 1200% pay differential between himself and his CEO, Kansas City striker Terrance Wise, who makes $9.40 an hour at Burger King after working there for nine years, said: “I know that workers like myself and my co-workers across the city, we go to work every day, and we’re the driving force behind his billions in profit he brings in. He’s buying new yachts and new boats and new cars, and I just want to put my kids through college. So, just to see the disparity that I’m making $9.50 an hour and he makes over $9,000, and just to get that out to the public and that information to be known, it’s eye-opening. And it calls for change.”

Rhonesha Victor skipped work at KFC/Taco Bell to join the strike, losing a day’s pay. Alternet reported she feared retaliation when she first joined the movement, but that vanished once she realized it would be illegal for her boss to fire her for organizing.  “I learned to not be afraid,” Victor said. “At first, I didn’t want to speak at all because I was afraid of what my boss would say. But all my fear has gone out of the window, and I realized that I do have power…. And today, at my store, half of the people came out to strike. So my boss was unable to make any money, and we were in the lobby and there were no customers. So for about an hour, he wasn’t making any money, and we had power, and he couldn’t do anything about it, and I love that feeling.”

Last week also saw protests at McDonald’s national headquarters near Chicago. Over 2,000 people, including 500 uniform-wearing McDonalds employees from 33 cities as well as local church groups, union activists and community groups took part. It came a day before the fast food company’s annual meeting when dissident shareholders intend to vote against CEO Donald Thompson’s $9.5 million pay package. 101 McDonald’s workers and 38 community supporters were arrested after crossing a police barricade, while workers chanted “Hey McDonald’s You Can’t Hide, We Can See Your Greedy Side,” and “No Big Macs, No Fries, Make our Wage Supersize,” as the arrests were made.

According to the Guardian, which had more detailed reports than any of the US national media, McDonald’s worker Ashona Osborne, who makes $7.25 an hour, travelled from Pittsburgh to protest. She told reporters Thompson’s salary worked out at about $6,600 an hour. “He makes more money than me on the way to work,” she said. “That’s ridiculous. They can afford to give me more money. If it weren’t for us workers there would be no McDonald’s, no Burger King, no Wendy’s.”

The forging of alliances between the low-paid and community activist groups has these corporations running scared: workers who have participated in one-day strikes have overcome fear of their managers and become immune to anti-union propaganda. The Occupy movement already changed the political dialog by dramatizing the inequality between the 99 and the one percent; as the movement for social and economic justice grows it challenges the close relation between big business and government.

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Filed under fast-food workers, low-waged, Neoliberalism, Obama, political analysis, strikes, UAW, Walmart

The Kochs Can’t Slam Dunk Even After Buying an Election

America’s purplest plutocrats, the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, stand to reap the fruits of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision this November in the US mid-term elections. They are determined to manipulate the democratic processand overturn the Democratic majority in the Senate, preparing to outspend both Republicans and Democrats to the tune of $125 million. But as the Kochs flaunt their power to buy airtime, fund think-tanks, and pocket pundits, they are coming up against a different reality. It turns out that buying an election doesn’t mean a slam dunk, and that Americans will fight for fair play and a fair society.

The brothers’ ideological work is cut out for them, since the electorate across both parties is overwhelmingly wedded to ideas like the state taking care of the sick and elderly. A memo issued by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity explained they needed to undermine the importance Americans place on “taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak.” They have funded a barrage of TV ads attacking Obamacare, featuring a mother talking directly to camera musing over its disadvantages, which has as its ultimate motive discrediting the idea of government as an agent of positive economic change for struggling Americans.

While targeted at unseating Democrats, much of their spending is also intended to consolidate their influence in the Republican party through the leverage of an intransigent minority of Tea-Party legislators. Espousing a libertarian ideology, the brothers have a deep, vested interest in preventing state regulation of their huge investments in energy, transportation, and manufacturing. Growth of green energy technologies like solar and wind threatens to devalue their capital, and they have been instrumental through ALEC in blocking state legislation favoring the new technology.

Although the declining white vote is being eclipsed by the multiracial reality of America today, the brothers’ political strategy is to arouse the Republican base and encourage the disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. The Obamacare ads are clearly targeted at married women at home with kids, who along with old white men, are reliably Republican voters.

The first result of the Kochs’ efforts was seen in the North Carolina Republican primary. Over $2 million poured into the primary to ensure the plutocrats’ candidate of choice, Thom Tillis, was selected to run against sitting Democrat Kay Hagan. According to Chris Kromm on Democracy Now, “We saw two big players coming into the primary. One, nationally, was [Koch-funded] Americans for Prosperity. …They have spent more money attacking Kay Hagan than any other candidate across the country. And that started last fall. I mean, they’ve just been blanketing, a carpet bombing of the state of these attack ads, kind of trying to soften up support for Kay Hagan. Then, on the other side, you saw millions of dollars’ worth of ads supporting Tillis to really make sure he could survive this primary challenge from the tea party right.”

Although the Republican establishment-backed candidate, Tillis himself is so far to the right he is indistinguishable from his tea party challengers. As speaker of the North Carolina House, he pushed through a tax bill that cut income taxes on the rich, shifting the tax burden to an increased sales tax that affected the majority of people. He passed a bill to prevent the state from accepting Medicaid expansion funds under Obamacare – preventing hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from access to health coverage and increasing their risk of death from illness. The legislature also passed a series of voter restriction changes that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.

Tillis was able to do this because North Carolina, like many other states in the South and some in the mid-West, saw a virtually complete takeover of the legislature by right-wing Republicans in 2010, followed by the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012. Since then, a state once known as one of the most moderate in the South has become a virtual laboratory for Tea Party-style policies.

Yet despite the Kochs’ propaganda onslaught and Tillis victory, there is mounting opposition to the legislature’s extremism. The growing “Moral Monday” movement has intercepted and directly challenged the Koch’s social Darwinism. One Monday in April 2013, a group of advocates for workers, civil rights and other issues entered the state capitol and refused to leave. Several members of the group, led by Rev. William Barber, head of North Carolina’s NAACP, were arrested that day, but each Monday since then the protesters returned. A rally in February this year drew more than 80,000 people, and public approval ratings for the governor and state assembly have tanked.

The protests in North Carolina have the advantage that the state house is located in Raleigh, at the apex of the “Triangle Area,” an urban and industrialized region that is considerably more moderate than the rural areas of the state. Significantly, however, the movement has spread rapidly from North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and some mid-Western states, becoming a rallying point for resistance to the Republican political elite. Although they have campaigned on a variety of issues, from voting rights to public education, events have created a focus on supporting Medicaid expansion in states where governors have refused the Obamacare provision for federal subsidy.

Atlanta, Georgia, is another site of resistance. Nearly 40 people were arrested protesting a bill that would bar the expansion of Medicaid. Rev. Raphael Warnock, who led the protests, told Democracy Now: “This was an effort to provide Medicaid, to provide health insurance, to some 650,000 Georgians. Georgia has the fifth-highest level of uninsured persons in the nation. We are witnessing, in this very moment, the closing of a number of rural hospitals. And so, while this issue is tragically and unfortunately racialized, often by those who are pushing against the Affordable Care Act, the fact is, it crosses racial lines. It moves from urban to rural issues. There are a lot of people who are suffering as a result of this.”

The South has been historically a bastion of reaction: Southern Democrats blocked the New Deal for African-Americans and resisted desegregation until federal intervention enforced Civil Rights Laws. As is well known, these led to a mass transfer of white Democratic voters to Republicans through Nixon’s Southern strategy. But in 2014 the American South is undergoing important changes. While Republicans have been able to leverage the deep strain of antigovernment sentiment, especially virulent in the South, and exploit racism, the growing fight over Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage is undermining its traditional conservatism and the racial divisions that have divided workers.

Not only did last Thursday’s one-day strike of workers in the fast-food industry mobilize workers in major cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Seattle for a $15 hourly wage and the right to form unions, but it also spread to towns in the deep South like Opelika, Alabama, West Memphis, Arkansas, and Southhaven, Mississippi, as well as cities in Florida, Texas, Missouri and the Carolinas. In all, workers in 158 US cities and 30 countries took part in the challenge to mega-corporations that are suffocating large swathes of the working population.

This growing movement defies the culture of intimidation and low-wage economics prevalent in the Southern states. No matter what the Kochs do, if the Democrats project a clear message of opposition to inequality, they can stem the Republican tide.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, fast-food workers, low-waged, Medicare, Obamacare, political analysis, strikes

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

Not In My House: Americans Put the Brakes on the Corporate Politics of The Military-Industrial Complex.

Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday attempted to justify plans for a missile strike on Syria, while at the same time accepting the face-saving compromise brokered by Russia. The contradictory message was intended to counter public opposition to military involvement in order to shore up his executive role.

The real story is that he has become increasingly estranged from the American public, and confronts an overwhelming sentiment not to get entangled in another Middle Eastern quagmire on the basis of hyped-up “intelligence.” He has no international support, and Congress, reflecting US opinion, would likely have voted against authorization for military action. A reassertion of popular sovereignty is coming into conflict with the expansion of executive power.

The public opposition to war emerged from a growing disenchantment with the administration’s record in dealing with domestic problems. Unemployment and poverty are on the rise, and even Americans with jobs are dealing with rising prices, stagnant wages, and intensified workloads. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are associated in the public mind with the financial collapse of 2008 and reduced living standards.

Obama constructed a narrative where the US is “the anchor of global security.” This formulation is aimed at persuading people to back him by projecting the ideal of stability at home, secured by the state, onto the executive’s international role. He framed a military strike with the imagery of “men, women, children, lying in rows killed by poison gas.” The US, he said, had an exceptional role and a moral duty to intervene. However, intervening would be limited and risk-free, involving “no American boots on the ground,” and thus entailed no permanent commitment. His appeal was met by scepticism from a public burned by the broken promises of hope.

The fact that he went to Congress for authorization and had to argue for executive support in this contradictory way signals the difference between the present historical moment and 2003, when Bush was able to count on the legislature to give him a free hand and the public to be saturated with media propaganda for war.

A New York Times poll “underscores a steady shift in public opinion about the proper American role in the world, as fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made people less open to intervening in the world’s trouble spots and more preoccupied with economic travails at home. … Sixty-two percent of the people polled said the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. In April 2003, a month after American troops marched into Iraq, 48 percent favored a leading role, while 43 percent opposed it.”

It’s hard therefore to accept veteran journalist John Pilger’s view that “a military coup has taken place in Washington.”  He writes: “As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration.”  What this argument fails to consider is that people still have a strong sense of their rights as Americans; military ascendancy cannot be achieved without coming into conflict with popular sovereignty.

This is the fault line in US politics today. While the government has protected billionaire bankers and is close to low-wage corporations like Walmart, low-waged workers are campaigning for a $15 minimum wage – which would require statutory action at the state level. Fast-food workers walked off the job in nearly 60 cities last month, spreading industrial action to towns like Tampa and Raleigh in the south, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west. “I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” said Julio Wilson, as he picketed a Little Caesars restaurant in North Carolina.

Unions in the AFL-CIO are having to adapt to a changed work environment, organizing in collaboration with immigrant rights activists and turning to community-based rather than industry-based organizing. Last week the federation decided to launch a major campaign to organize immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been recruited by unions.

In These Times writer Micah Uetricht commented that the fast-food workers’ strikes “seem to have legitimated walking off the job as a tactic for workers, even those without a union … And as anyone who attends these strikes and speaks with a striker can attest, the Fight for 15 campaign has tapped into a seething anger among low-wage workers over their precarious position in American society.”

Labor journalist Mike Elk noticed the same thing: the campaign “helped focus the conversation on the problems of the low minimum wage in this country and the conditions for low-wage workers. And two, this idea of non-union workers going out on strike in order to demand fair organizing conditions, organizing without fear of retaliation, I do think could spread to other industries and help unions in tough situations.”

It has also begun to affect politics at the local level. Voters in Long Beach, California, overwhelmingly enacted a measure to increase the hourly pay of the city’s hotel employees to $13. And in New York City, the difficulties of living on a low income and facing daily police harassment are finding a political expression as Bill de Blasio won a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for mayoral candidate. Democracy Now anchor Juan Gonzalez reported that de Blasio “really ran a very progressive race, focusing in on income inequality in New York City, the 47 percent of New Yorkers are at or near the poverty level, and talking about the need to rein in the—all the tax breaks to developers and the business community, and increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for better public education and expanded preschool. … his campaign really resonated with the reality that many New Yorkers are facing …”

At the same time, the government-encouraged corporatization of K-12 education is meeting resistance from teachers, and this in turn is reaching into Democratic party politics. After the Chicago Teachers Union failed to prevent school closures in the city, its president Karen Lewis declared: “If the mayor and his hand-picked corporate school board will not listen to us, we must find those who will.” In These Times reports that the CTU is working to intervene in the Democratic primaries next year to replace state legislators who voted for the closures and to stand their own candidates. Lewis told volunteers, “We must change the political landscape in Chicago.”

The executive is steadily losing its credibility with the American people as they rediscover their agency and become independent of the institutions that kept them tied to the corporate system of pumping out rents from their wages. Americans are saying “Enough” to the era of corporatist politics – Obama ran as a restorer of popular sovereignty, and the people want to ensure he keeps his word.


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No Nostalgia for Thatcher, but a Tribute to the Welfare State by Ken Loach

The muted protests at Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday gave the world a glimpse of the deeply-felt divisions in British society. She did not create this social cleavage, which at root is part of an international process: a shift of manufacturing out of Europe and the U.S., and a rapid expansion of speculation in financial centres like London and New York. What she is responsible for is ending the ruling elite’s Keynesian commitment to the mitigation of regional and social inequities.

Although her death evoked few tears in Britain’s industrial heartland, there was more than a little interest in showings of Ken Loach’s new documentary about the Attlee Labour government, “The Spirit of ‘45”. I was fortunate enough to see it while in the UK recently, and my own feelings were mixed: my childhood was spent under the wing of the welfare state, so I took state-provided health and education for granted, and share Loach’s affection for the cradle-to-grave policies that characterized the period.

The interviews with people who were children in the 1930s and 1940s were very moving. They remembered the harsh and degrading conditions of that time and the optimism for a better future after the 1945 election, articulating the general disaffection with prewar society and the determination that things were going to be different.

The interviewees vividly recounted the social impact of the Labour government’s nationalization and house-building program. The experience of state-directed industry during the war had established the feasibility of state intervention to achieve social goals. There was a huge sense of pride and ownership of the newly-nationalized industries, especially the National Health Service, which brought free health care to working-class families who had never been able to afford it. The government channeled state resources into solving the immediate problems of poverty, unemployment, and bad health. Housing for millions of families living in slums or private boarding houses was made a priority.

The weaker part of the film was the final segment, which showed participants urging a return to the collectivist spirit of the postwar era. While Thatcher was the clear villain of the piece, the discussion gave the impression that she imposed privatization and unemployment from above, an arbitrary political decision that could be reversed by a revived social-democratic party in Britain.

But the world has changed since Labour’s manifesto was written in 1945.  Globalization has made national forms of struggle increasingly ineffective in resisting corporate power. What troubled me was the message that the younger generation should look to the history of the Attlee government for an alternative to austerity, which amounts to advocating old solutions to qualitatively new problems.

The achievement of a welfare state after World War II was essentially a political compromise between an organized and homogeneous working class and a capitalist class that had survived the war and needed to restart capital accumulation. This cemented the priorities of the Labour leaders to the recovery of British-based capital within the economic boundaries of the old empire.

The Labour electoral landslide was not the result of some mass revolutionary wave, as some on the left like to think, but rather came from a popular determination to continue the state planning established during the war. State technocrats were more enthusiastic about nationalization than the government, which never intended to change the balance of power in industry, and obsolete production relations were kept intact along with antiquated machinery.

While making a huge difference in people’s lives by alleviating the prewar degradation of the working class, nationalization also released capital bound up in older industries with more than generous compensation to the former owners. Later Conservative governments continued the social compromise, while full employment and expanding markets gave shopfloor militancy leverage to gain a larger share of the surplus being produced. As production rapidly accelerated, the focus of capital accumulation shifted from the national arena to the global. The revival of the German and Japanese economies intensified competition in the world market, and the boom began to falter.

Signs of the erosion of the postwar political compromise were evident by the time of the Heath government, with a wave of inflation and industrial slowdown in 1973; national control of the economy dissolved with the IMF loan to the Callaghan government in 1976. As Michael Hudson explains it: “Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan made a token attempt to address [problems of the economy] by requesting an IMF loan in 1976 to finance tangible industrial re-investment as bridge financing until the UK’s North Sea oil could begin generating foreign exchange. But US Treasury Secretary Bill Simon read him the riot act. IMF and U.S. policy was to provide credit only to pay bondholders, not to build up the real economy. Britain would be advanced loans only if it reoriented its economy to let high finance do the planning.”

At the same time, industries based on new technology were expanding in the south of England, dividing the country socially and politically, and intensifying existing class divisions which had been left unchanged even after thirty years of the welfare state. This created the upwardly-mobile forces Thatcher was able to mobilize to champion populist capitalism against the Keynesian compromise. Her neoliberal agenda corresponded to the changes in international production and exchange that had weakened the unions and enabled her to change the ideological climate within the British ruling elite to toleration of the harsh monetarist doctrines shared by U.S. capital.

She did not set out to empower bankers, but that was the inevitable result of lifting restraints on capital as soon as she took office. As Hudson puts it: “Attacking central planning by government, she shifted it into much more centralized financial hands – the City of London, unopposed by any economic back bench of financial regulation and ‘free’ of meaningful anti-monopoly price regulation. … The Iron Lady was convinced she was rebuilding England’s economy, while in reality it was only getting richer from London’s outlaw banks.”  Her administration was the last to stridently claim an independent nationalism before later governments succumbed to the dictates of international finance – there is no pretense today that British foreign or economic policy is anything but dependent on the US and the City bankers.

Like the rest of Europe and the US, Britain has moved to a low-waged, service economy dominated by global corporations. The labour movement is faced with finding new ways of organizing and fighting in line with the realities of this globalized economy. That is why signs of international resistance to global capital are significant. US workers are flying to Europe to take on their Dutch supermarket owners. Striking immigrant McDonalds workers are returning to their homelands from the US determined to spread the campaign for a living wage. Bangladeshi survivors of the Tazreen factory fire and Nicaraguan victims of antiunion assaults are in New York to confront Walmart board members. And US unions are creating non-traditional ways to organize workers who have no recognized union at their workplace; the AFL-CIO affiliate, Working America, now claims 3.2 million members and is planning to establish chapters in every state in the USA.

I made this brief sketch of events in the years not covered by Ken Loach’s film to give some historical context to Thatcher’s administration, and to argue that the revival of a social-democratic perspective, necessarily limited to winning concessions from a nationally-based state, would not be productive. I believe that activists should focus on connecting with workers in the international supply chain feeding commodities into Western markets, which is corporate capital’s weakest point.

Nostalgia for the welfare state is understandable, but we need to learn from the creative solutions of the international labour movement in order to defend those reforms that remain from the past.

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Conservative icon and much-hated politician Margaret Thatcher is dead

The demise of Margaret Thatcher, for 11 years prime minister of Britain, has attracted eulogies from the conservative right and condemnation from the left. She is not entirely deserving of either.

Although credited with destroying the welfare state, her role was much smaller than her public persona made it appear. The “Iron Lady” was a carefully cultivated media image of single-minded ruthlessness for a woman who in actuality limited herself to the politically possible. Obama is mistaken when he says that she was able to shape history with her “moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”

The social consensus of postwar Britain had already been eroded in the 1970s by changes in the economy deriving from technological innovations like automation and the emergence of international capital markets. When Thatcher took on the miners’ union in 1984, the labour movement had been weakened both by economic decline and the removal of legal immunity for damages resulting from strikes. She unleashed the forces of the state to crush the political opposition of miners fighting to keep their jobs in the pits: however, their union was isolated by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and faced a legal and physical onslaught against their pickets. The miners were unable to counter the state’s strategic build-up of coal reserves imported from Poland in preparation for the conflict.

What Thatcher really did was to dispense with the role of the TUC in government. Since 1945 the union leaders had worked to keep disputes within a legal framework, while workers in shop floor organizations had become increasingly militant, in effect bringing down the Heath government in 1971 and undermining the Callaghan government after 1974. She abrogated this arrangement and took on the most militant union for political effect, similar to the way she attacked Argentina in 1982 – sending a naval task force to retake an old coaling station off the South American coast – and to when she allowed Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands to die rather than concede political status for IRA prisoners.

She hardly deserved to be a world figure. Her outlook was distinctly parochial and small-minded. What gave her international influence was her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who recognized in her an ideological kinship. Thatcher later wrote: “I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did, not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature.”

Although she claimed the mantle of Churchill, her politics were closer to those of Neville Chamberlain: she appeased dictators and was viciously hostile to unions. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out: “She played a key role not only in bringing about the first Gulf War but also using her influence to publicly advocate for the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and his ANC as ‘terrorists’, something even David Cameron ultimately admitted was wrong. She was a steadfast friend to brutal tyrants such as Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Indonesian dictator General Suharto…”

Author John Mortimer described Thatcher’s political achievement as snatching the Conservative party from “the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and giv[ing] it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us.’ ” Historian Kenneth O. Morgan elaborates: “The Thatcher background was one of entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile, self-sufficient, middle-class neoliberalism. … The roots of Thatcherism lay in acquisition rather than in production. It sought to create a business, perhaps a rentier culture.” [The People’s Peace, Oxford 1990:443]

What Thatcher gave to many parts of Britain, especially in the formerly industrialized north, was mass unemployment, collapsing public services, and urban decay. But decline in manufacturing coincided with a boom in technologically sophisticated smaller industries located mainly in the south, and this more than anything else sustained her base.

She was able to get public support for the privatization of nationalized industries and council houses by doing so in a way that seemed to advantage workers who bought shares in the initial offerings. Later, of course, the real profits accrued to the banks and businessmen who were able to buy these assets at prices considerably lower than their valuations.

Her political legacy has to be seen as that of a neoliberal transition from the consensus politics of the postwar years to a country dominated by financial institutions. She spearheaded a state assault on unions, the public sector, and local government from an ideological free-market position, and met her political end after attempting to impose a “poll tax” which would have hit the poor the hardest. The monetarist philosophies that had apparently revived the economy were failing, and by 1990 Thatcher’s belligerent but idiosyncratic style was rejected by the Conservative party itself and she was booted out of office.

Thatcher’s agenda was a counterpart to the globalization of production and exchange that had weakened and undermined the national compromise embodied in the welfare state. So to regard her as destroying it single-handedly, as some on the left imply, is mistaken. Movements of resistance now have to take on international capital, and are no longer confined to what was possible within a relatively closed national economy. Although many in places like Merseyside and Tyneside will be drinking extra pints tonight, Thatcher merely pushed over an edifice whose foundations had already decayed.

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