Category Archives: Walmart

Dangerous Demagogues Are Not the Answer to Corporate Oligarchs

Walmart moms protest for a living wage

Walmart moms protest for a living wage

The unexpected defeat of House leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primaries shows that the Republican leadership has lost its grip on the populist forces encouraged by the party’s shift to the right. The pundits are characterizing Cantor’s unseating by tea-party challenger David Brat as the result of hardline opposition to immigration reform. More importantly, however, Brat leveraged a tectonic shift in the hostility of the Republican base to the ties of the Congressional leadership to big business and Wall Street.

Rightwing Brat supporter and radio commentator Laura Ingraham summed up this shift: “The American people are sitting by, seeing their wealth deteriorate, their prospects go under, their future dismal. Meanwhile politicians either throw up their hands or outright lie to them about the situation.” Conservative Bill Kristol called Brat’s campaign “a broad assault on GOP elites who put the interests of American corporations over American workers, of D.C. lobbyists over American families.”

Talking Points Memo notes that Cantor himself was chiefly responsible for “the loud, showy, total-war nature of Republican opposition — summoning up the forces that defeated him last night. From day one — literally, the night of President Obama’s first inauguration — Cantor was leading the charge to not just oppose Obama, but to delegitimize him … It was a deeply cynical maneuver, but a successful one. Cantor helped unite the Republican caucus around this scorched-earth strategy, and played a major role in the 2010 campaign that leveraged the grim results of that strategy into a new majority.”

Brat mobilized Republican activists not just by his intransigent opposition to immigration reform but also by connecting it with Cantor’s close alliances with corporate interests, channeling grassroots resentment of the Republican elite. During his campaign, he stated: “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”

His rhetoric merged xenophobia with hostility to corporate control of Congress. John Nichols comments in The Nation: “Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. ‘Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,’ the challenger argued.”

The New York Times reports that the impact of Cantor’s downfall was felt most strongly on the New York Stock Exchange. “The share price of Boeing tumbled, wiping out all the gains it had made this year, a drop analysts attributed to the startling defeat. … Mr. Cantor’s loss is much more than just symbolism. He has been one of Wall Street’s most reliable benefactors in Congress. And Mr. Brat used that fact to deride the majority leader as someone who had rigged the financial system. In one recent speech, he accused lawmakers like Mr. Cantor of favoring ‘special tax credits to billionaires instead of taking care of us, the normal folks’.”

But Brat’s demagogy frames the economic crisis in national terms. This rhetoric is a dangerous diversion from real opposition to corporate oligarchy. As an extreme libertarian, he opposes an increase in the minimum wage; in fact, he opposes any kind of legislated minimum wage at all. While Brat appealed to the anxiety of his Republican base over their loss of prospects, low-paid workers are responding to the same erosion of living standards by striking for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Reportedly Walmart and McDonald’s, unlike Republican ideologists, are in favor of a move that would increase the buying power of the poor and also their corporate bottom line, but even with a higher hourly wage, employees are often scheduled to work fewer hours than will give them enough to live on.

“Walmart Moms” supported by Our Walmart held strikes in a number of major cities the first week of June, including Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Taking a leaf from the Occupy movement, they also demonstrated outside the home of Walmart board chairman Rob Walton in Paradise Valley, Arizona, demanding annual wages of at least $25,000, more full-time openings and an end to retaliation against workers who speak out against their conditions.

According to the Guardian, mother of three Linda Haluska said she was striking in solidarity with others who earn less, and what she described as worsening conditions at the company. “I’ve seen things change: the erratic scheduling, the lack of flexibility. It’s hard to get a day off when you want. They make it very clear that Walmart comes first. Your job is always on the line.” Haluska said that some of her co-workers on the night shift who can’t afford cars have to wait outside for up to an hour for the bus to arrive – a situation some staff said was potentially dangerous.

Erratic scheduling means that incomes fluctuate from week to week, making it difficult if not impossible to budget for a family. Sarah Jaffe writes “Gail Todd, who works at the Walmart in Landover Hills, Maryland, knows this struggle all too well. A mother of three, she used to have an ‘open schedule’ – meaning she had to be available to work anytime, day or night – so childcare was a constant problem. But when Todd limited her work available to care for her children, her hours got cut back, sometimes to as few as 12 per seven days.”

The Real News reported: “The Demos report [on low-wage industries] found that women who make an average hourly wage of $10.58 are disproportionately represented in low-wage retail positions and face unstable and inconsistent work hours, even with full-time positions. The study found that a wage floor of $25,000 per year at major retailers would amount to a 27 percent pay raise and, quote, ‘would lift hundreds of thousands of women and their family members out of poverty, and hundreds of thousands more would emerge from near-poverty’.”

The stark disparity between the subsistence standard of living between Walmart’s workers and the Waltons, who next to the Koch brothers are Americas most prominent oligarchs is an obscene scandal in a society which holds as its core values fairness and equal opportunity. But when government actively abets the growing inequality, it opens the doors to demagogues like David Brat.

Walmart managed to obtain $104 million in federal subsidies over six years because of tax deductions for “performance-based” executive compensation. Eight top executives were given more than $298 million in “performance pay” that was fully tax-deductible, despite Walmart’s poor economic performance over this period. CEOs and billionaire company owners have every incentive to use their wealth to distort the democratic process and cement their control over Congress. But in doing so, they have destabilized the democratic process and unleashed a dangerous political backlash. This can be countered by the men and women who across the country are fighting for a living wage that is fair for all.

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Filed under fast-food workers, Neoliberalism, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, Tea Party movement, Uncategorized, Walmart, walmart strikes

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

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

Occupy Squared: With Progressive Victories, Voters Oppose the Republican and Democrat Transfer of Wealth to the 1%

Last Tuesday’s election results confirm a significant divergence between the American public and the political establishment. Voters voiced their resounding opposition to austerity politics and the corporatist policies followed by both the Republican right and the Obama administration. They gave enthusiastic support to social programs paid for by higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage, and a defense of public schools from privatization.

Obama’s “Grand Bargain” to rationalize healthcare, foreign policy, and the US deficit is foundering on the groundswell of resistance to neoliberal policies on one side, and a Republican party on the other determined to prevent any meaningful attempt to extend welfare benefits to those most in poverty.

E.J. Dionne comments: “To say that this election nudged the nation leftward is not to claim a sudden mandate for liberalism. But it is to insist that the center ground in American politics is a long way from where it was three years ago — and that if there is a new populism in the country, it is now speaking with a decidedly progressive accent.”

The most significant feature of Bill de Blasio’s crushing victory in the New York mayoral election was his support across demographic lines, from the working poor and middle class to much more affluent voters in Manhattan. What enabled him to overcome the opposition of the media, Wall Street, and a number of city union leaders was the receptiveness of New Yorkers to the growing plight of the low-waged and minorities in the world’s most income-segregated city. His call to tax the rich in order to provide much-needed services for the working poor resonated strongly with the public, as well as his pledge to end police stop-and-frisk policies directed against young people of color.

It was not an isolated success: the most progressive city council in many years was installed in New York, and across the country electoral victories for anti-austerity candidates in Boston, Virginia, and Washington state demonstrated the change in the public mood.

The New York Times reported that the political makeup of the City Council has been drastically changed. “The elected public advocate, Letitia James, a forceful liberal, has spoken emphatically for people seen as marginalized. … For decades, the City Council formed a culturally and fiscally conservative bulwark against the effusions of liberal mayors. It too has grown markedly liberal. This is because of assiduous organizing by the Working Families Party and to the reality of New York: From the hills of the central Bronx to the immigrant-rich flats of Queens and the lower middle-class neighborhoods of Staten Island, the incomes are static and the benefits few.”

The Working Families Party’s executive director Danny Cantor explained on Democracy Now that “the lesson of the de Blasio and the council victories, is that people actually like what we’re talking about when we say, wages ought to be higher, people’s lives ought to be a bit more secure, transportation ought to be a massive investment, so on and so forth. … We are living … in the world Occupy made, for sure … we are the beneficiaries of what they did in terms of making this inequality … the core issue of our time.” The party is based on community activists and labor leaders, he said. “It’s a party of labor, but not a labor party; a party of blacks, not a black party; party of greens, not a green party. You can’t do any of those things in America. It’s too complicated of a country to just be one constituency.”

He referred to the success of another initiative in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an anti-privatization slate took over the school board: “parents and working families and teachers sort of rebelled against the, you know, ‘no child left untested’ crowd that really wanted to privatize, and they won. … I think it’s going to reverberate in … the school reform wars around the country.”

In Boston, too, former union leader Marty Walsh was elected mayor, despite strong attacks from the media. John Nichols pointed out: “They created a video up there that showed him at a rally protesting Scott Walker’s policies in Wisconsin, and said, ‘Do you want this kind of person as your mayor?’ Well, Boston decided they did want that kind of person as their mayor.”

In SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle, voters supported a mandate for a $15 an hour minimum wage for airport, hotel, and restaurant workers. The local economy is based on the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was hard hit by outsourcing. Union leader David Rolf explained: “These airport jobs, like baggage handlers, ramp workers, jet fuelers, concessionaires, these are jobs that paid $16, $18 an hour back in the 1970s and the 1980s. They used to be living-wage jobs. … That’s all changed. The major airlines outsourced those jobs and turned them into minimum-wage jobs, which impoverished a whole community. So SeaTac saw its grocery store become a Goodwill and its video store become a pawnshop because the impoverishment of those jobs hurt the whole community.” Voters took the opportunity “to say to CEOs and to Congress that they’re impatient with waiting for them to do the right thing for American workers and it’s time we took matters into our own hands.”

The close result in the Virginia governor’s election was a referendum on the hold of the Tea Party on Republican legislators. Political commentator Ronald Brownstein writes: “[Democratic candidate] McAuliffe essentially replicated the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ that allowed President Obama to carry the state twice. Like Obama, McAuliffe triumphed by combining just enough socially liberal college-educated whites with an overwhelming margin among minorities to overcome a cavernous deficit among blue-collar whites. … According to the exit poll, [Tea Party Republican] Cuccinelli carried Virginia’s white voters without a college degree by 69 percent to 25 … McAuliffe captured nearly four-fifths of nonwhite Virginia voters.”

The Southern white working class does not figure in official Democratic party strategy, but this is challenged by progressives who aim to articulate the frustrations of the working poor. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to win over workers who currently vote against their class interests. He believes they will respond to an uncompromising socialist message; speaking to an In These Times reporter, he said: “These are people who are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, these are people who want Social Security defended, they want to raise the minimum wage, they want changes in our trade policy. And to basically concede significant parts of America, including the South, to the right-wing is to me not only stupid politics, but even worse than that—you just do not turn your backs on millions and millions of working people.”

The escalating campaigns for a higher minimum wage and recognition of worker rights at companies like Walmart are also showing signs of impatience with the stranglehold of corporate Democrats on the Obama administration. The public is demanding more fundamental change than the government can deliver. It’s time for a rebirth of the socialist tradition in America.

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Filed under health care, low-waged, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, poverty, public schools, Republicans, Walmart

Executive Overreach and Its Season of Discontent: Judge Scheindlin Rebukes Stop-and-Frisk

In a landmark ruling on Monday, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin found that the stop-and-frisk tactics of New York police violated the constitutional rights of minority youth. According to the New York Times, she said the NYPD had “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling” and that the city was responsible for a battery of constitutional violations. While not ordering an end to the practice, she said the stops had to be carried out in a manner that “protects the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers.”

She found that the NYPD’s practices violated not only 4th Amendment rights but also the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, ruling that “Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates bedrock principles of equality.”

Writing before the verdict was announced, Guardian writer Gary Younge commented that the stop-and-frisk investigation, together with the trials of Bradley Manning and George Zimmerman, “raises fundamental questions about the function and purpose of the American state, the moral underpinnings of the legal system in which it is grounded, and the degree to which the law is designed to work for or against the people in whose name it operates … while [the state] has aggregated power, it has failed to garner the influence to sustain or justify it.” His implication is that the executive’s overreach has undermined the social consensus needed to maintain the state’s legitimacy.

Judge Scheindlin’s decision answered Younge’s questions by demonstrating that the U.S. state is not a monolithic entity but rather a complex of competing bureaucracies, in which sections of the judiciary as well as legislators who believe the law must work for the people coexist in an antagonistic relation with executive power. Judge Scheindlin is as much a part of the state as the Supreme Court and the National Security Agency, as are whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden; the state as a whole is a battleground between competing interests, and its history is one of both repression and resistance, just as U.S. society embodies the history of savage racial discrimination and courageous movements for civil rights.

Instead of an informed and engaged public, as envisioned by the Constitution’s drafters, the national security state has a different objective.  Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch argues that its goal “is to turn the American people into so much absorbable, controllable intelligence data, our identities sliced, diced, and passed around the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the surveillance world.” He adds: “thanks to our ‘spies’ [Manning and Snowden], we know a great deal more about how our American world, our government, really works, but we still don’t know what this thing that’s being built really is. … We lack words for what is happening to us.  We still have to name it.”

One feature of what has happened to us is the exponential growth of the security apparatus in relation to other state agencies. Juan Cole points out: “It is one of the problems with having a standing army and a huge intelligence-industrial complex, which the founding generation warned against – it becomes a lobby within the government for militarism and against civil liberties.” The excesses of the executive under Bush that have been continued by the Obama administration trace their roots to the military role of the U.S. state in policing the world. Since the late 1970s, the capture of government agencies by corporate and plutocratic interests has exacerbated anti-democratic tendencies, turning policing against Americans and their resistance to the social disruption and unemployment created by globalized production.

Even though Americans are divided culturally, most share a commitment to ideals of freedom and equality that originate with the American Revolution. That is why Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA surveillance produced a visceral reaction of support that cut across party and ideological ties. He showed in detail how the security agencies cooperated closely with high-tech companies not only to carry out electronic surveillance but also to conceal and control the information available to the public.

After founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, Amy Goodman asked author Bob McChesney about the time Amazon shut down the servers it was renting to WIkileaks. McChesney replied: “I consulted people I knew fairly high up in the State Department off the record, and they said that they did not have to put pressure on … Amazon for that to happen, that Amazon was more than willing to cooperate. It was not a difficult sell, and there was no real pressure on them. … the large Internet giant monopolies, starting with, at the top of the list, Amazon, but really including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, right on down the list, they all have an extraordinarily cozy relationship with the national security state, with the military, the intelligence community. … we’ve created this military-digital complex of sorts.”

McChesney argues that the corporations have the dominant role in this relationship, adding: “How much power is in unaccountable monopolies? And these companies are really unaccountable to the government. You look at Obama running around trying to be on good terms with the companies. And now they control the news media directly, some of them, like Bezos.”

Glenn Greenwald, on the other hand, thinks that it was the government that initiated “the vast public-private surveillance partnership … as our reporting has demonstrated, most US-based tech and telecom companies (though not all) meekly submit to the US government’s dictates and cooperative extensively and enthusiastically with the NSA to ensure access to your communications.”

Whoever took the lead in forming the partnership, it would seem to me that both the tech corporations and security state have a joint dependency: the tech companies need state legislative sanction and government subsidies to operate, and the security forces need tech companies’ expertise in gathering data on individuals. There is a convergence of interests where economic exploitation of consumers and political surveillance of citizens come together.

Globalization has transformed states insofar as the executive is drawn closer to a corporate view of society as abstract consumers whose behavior needs to be monitored. This has led to a paranoid drive for secrecy and vindictive punishing of whistleblowers – because the security agencies require citizens to remain passive while they are being “protected,” and fear public reaction to what they are really up to.

Should we then call the U.S. state a plutocratic dictatorship, some kind of police state or “corporate totalitarianism,” as Chris Hedges believes? That would be jumping the gun, in my opinion, because the state is divided internally as a reflection of potential resistance from the public and of its own democratic traditions. Americans are energized today not just by outrage at government surveillance, but also by economic hardship. Since unions and strikes have been virtually legislated out of existence, the low-waged are driven to strike actions aimed at leveraging public opinion – such as the campaign for a $15 minimum wage – which inevitably turn towards political action, like the Washington DC City Council decision to mandate a $12.50 hourly wage for projected Walmart stores in the area.

So I would venture to characterize the U.S. as a transitional state in which there is a growing tension between democracy and the security forces, between the remaining institutions of the New Deal and neoliberal dispossession of the public estate. Its exact nature has still to be fought out, but thanks to courageous individuals within the state itself, the struggle is one in which the public is increasingly engaged.

UPDATE: Google has argued in court that users of its gmail service should expect to have their correspondence scanned for delivery of targeted ads.  There’s no technical difference between mining email content for ads and scanning it for dissent.

UPDATE 2: The Washington Post has reported that the NSA broke privacy rules on US citizens’ communications thousands of times since 2008. “One team of analysts in Hawaii, for example, asked a system called DISHFIRE to find any communications that mentioned both the Swedish manufacturer Ericsson and ‘radio’ or ‘radar’ — a query that could just as easily have collected on people in the United States as on their Pakistani military target.”

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Filed under Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, low-waged, National Security Agency, Neoliberalism, political analysis, Supreme Court, Walmart

Supreme Court voting rights decision buried by hoopla over gay marriage

The euphoria over the striking down of the Defence of Marriage Act, asserting the constitutionality of gay marriage at the state level, has diverted attention from the Supreme Court’s much more significant gutting of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the landmark achievements of the Civil Rights movement.

It was a signal to Republican-controlled legislatures to immediately implement new forms of voter discrimination, such as redistricting and purging of voter rolls. Texas governor Rick Perry has already signed a new congressional district into law to secure electoral advantage for Republicans.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Ginsburg pointed out that the Court majority, in deciding that voter discrimination was no longer a problem, was usurping the judgment of Congress, which had renewed the Act as recently as 2006 after months of deliberations. A key role was played by Justice Roberts, who introduced a hitherto unknown principle of “equal sovereignty” among the states, arguing that so much has changed since 1965 that it is discriminatory toward the southern states for the federal government to proactively defend the rights of minorities.

E.J. Dionne pointed out: “Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion involved little constitutional analysis. He simply substituted the court’s judgment for Congress’s in deciding which states should be covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required voting rules in states with a history of discrimination to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department.The court instructed Congress to rewrite the law, even though these sophisticated conservatives certainly know how difficult this will be in the current political climate.”

Ari Berman writes in The Nation: “[Roberts’s] sweeping and radical decision yesterday was more about ideology than the law, constitutional principles or congressional deference be damned.”

A story in the New York Times drew attention to Roberts’s methodical and systematic assault on the law. “Roberts has proved adept at persuading the court’s more liberal justices to join compromise opinions, allowing him to cite their concessions years later as the basis for closely divided and deeply polarizing conservative victories … On Tuesday, when the court struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Roberts harvested seeds he had planted four years before. In his 2009 opinion, writing for eight justices, he allowed the Voting Rights Act to stand. But the price he exacted from the court’s liberal wing was language quoted in Tuesday’s decision …”

By invalidating the requirement for preclearance with the federal government for any changes in voting arrangements by states with a history of discrimination, the decision forces victims of discrimination to later sue in court, where challenges will be expensive and time-consuming.

The Court’s highly-politicized conservative majority has kept southern white supremacy intact for the short term. For Republicans, it’s important to defend it because it’s the basis of their dominance of the House. At the same time, it confines their party to its white, southern base, when to gain the White House means winning over a more racially-diverse nation.

Berman told Democracy Now that the strongest political tendency in the southern states “is the tension between demographic change and voter suppression. A third of the country lives in the South right now. One of the consequences of the Voting Rights Act was that it turned the South from Democratic to Republican. It’s shifting back now Democratic. If you look at Barack Obama, he won three states of the old Confederacy. Republicans are aware of that. That’s why they’ve redistricted so aggressively since the 2010 election, and that’s why states like North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, etc., are rushing to pass new voting restrictions now.”

At the same time, Southern business models are extending into much of America through low-paid retail and anti-union business strategies. The Southern economy was always based on low wages, and from the time of the New Deal the Southern business elite has been virulently anti-union.

Washington Post writer Harold Meyerson notes: “Its anti-unionism was rooted in more than right-wing antipathy toward worker rights; it was also underpinned by fear that industrial unions would be racially integrated and become vehicles for African American power, as they were in the North. Today, Jim Crow laws are long gone, but the Southern suppression of worker rights and incomes — no matter workers’ race — continues. … Meanwhile, the transformation of the Republican Party into an organization based in and dominated by the white South has turned Northern Republicans more anti-union [as in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana].”

However, as Walmart extends its reach into the North, it also encounters traditions of unionization and self-respect that are causing it major problems. The company is now victimizing those who went on strike recently and stood up to its intimidation, but this is further extending the protests and drawing in support from Congressional Democrats.

Josh Eidelson reports in The Nation: “OUR Walmart is alleging a new wave of retaliation against Walmart worker-activists, with terminations or other discipline targeting at least twenty-six of the hundred-some employees who traveled to Arkansas to protest the retail giant’s June 7 shareholder meeting. Congressmen Keith Ellison (DFL-MN) and Alan Grayson both condemned the firings in Saturday comments to The Nation; Ellison, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called Walmart’s actions ‘completely unjust and illegal’.”

The effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in the short term is to help Republicans shore up their dwindling electoral support. It gives further opportunities for the plutocracy to assert outsized influence over elections and state-level legislation. In the longer term, it will galvanize and focus a new civil rights campaign of litigation, organization, mobilization, and coalition, bypassing Obama’s tepid appeal to a polarized Congress to repair the situation.

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Filed under Obama, political analysis, Republicans, Supreme Court, Walmart, walmart strikes

Obama called to pay his political debts by the low-waged

Obama made a major speech at the National Defense University last Thursday, in which he stated that the United States cannot continue waging an endless global war on terror, and called on Congress to allow Guantanamo to be closed. “A perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said.

Although the speech called for a return to American values and the rule of law, appearing to make concessions to liberal critics, Obama’s rhetoric repeated Bush’s claim of a just war of self-defense, and appeared to broaden the scope of drone strikes. It contained no commitment to any practical limits on executive power to target individuals for extra-judicial killing.

Glenn Greenwald explains in detail how the purpose of the speech “was to comfort progressives who are growing progressively more uncomfortable with his extreme secrecy, wars on press freedom, seemingly endless militarism and the like … to see Barack Obama as they have always wanted to see him, his policies notwithstanding: as a deeply thoughtful, moral, complex leader who is doing his level best, despite often insurmountable obstacles …”

Obama wants to retain the support of the liberal left while continuing the militarization of the state he inherited from Bush. Essentially, he was arguing for the rationalization of the legacy of Bush’s war on terror, by closing Guantanamo and bringing the detainees into the US justice system.

Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes commented: “It was an effort to align himself as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility. To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.”

Whatever his original intentions, he has accepted and articulated the ideology of the security state. Washington Post correspondent Greg Sargent noted that “Obama defined his own role — that of commander in chief — as one that requires him to ultimately compromise core values and principles if he deems it necessary to maintain security. … ‘These decisions must be made, given my responsibility to protect the American people,’ he said — implicitly prioritizing security in the end above all as necessary to his role.”

Significantly, Obama was repeatedly challenged from the floor by CodePink activist Medea Benjamin, who called on him to use his presidential power to close Guantanamo immediately. She was eventually removed by security personnel while shouting several further questions, including: “Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners.” Clearly discomfited, Obama was applauded by a section of the audience when he said: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to” (although he did nothing to prevent her being removed).

Benjamin told Democracy Now: “What you didn’t see [on the event’s video] is what was happening behind the scenes, of the Secret Service, the FBI, the people from the base coming over and saying, ‘You must come with us immediately, or you’ll be under arrest,’ and trying to grab me. And I was saying, ‘Don’t touch me. I’ll scream. You don’t want to make a scene in front of the president. You will regret this if you do it.’ And they were really confused about what to do.”

Their confusion reflected Obama’s reaction to being publicly challenged from the liberal left.  Increasingly, his failure to use his presidential power on behalf of the Democratic party’s traditional constituency is coming under fire from his frustrated supporters and he risks more vocal public opposition from the constituency that got him elected.

In the legislative branch, the government is hamstrung by the tea-party dominated Congress. But that doesn’t stop Obama from exercising executive privilege in favor of military control of global resources and enforcing government secrecy by prosecuting whistle-blowers and hackers. He uses the powers of his office to shield corporations and law enforcement, but appears paralyzed when it comes to altering the trajectory of the security state or assisting the struggles of the 99 percent.

The Washington Post recently pointed out: “Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars. But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates … Obama has forced changes in state-level education policy in a way past presidents have not. His Race to the Top program awarded billions of dollars in federal grants to select states that agreed to seek reforms based on administration standards.”

The marked contrast between Obama’s rhetoric and what he is prepared to use executive power for is straining his supporters’ credibility. After Thursday’s speech, Juan Cole commented: “He will continue to target journalists for intrusive surveillance until, he said, Congress passes a shield law (why can’t he just issue an executive order that journalists are not to be targeted)? … Obama could unilaterally put enormous pressure on Israel to change its policy of stealing Palestinian land and resources simply by declining to use his veto at the UN …”

Now the movement of the low-waged for a $15 minimum wage and an end to wage theft has intensified and is also making demands on the president they elected. Hundreds of non-union workers employed at the Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station in Washington, DC, went on strike Tuesday to draw attention to their low pay, demanding that Obama take executive action to improve labor standards for workers who are employed by private companies to do jobs backed by public spending.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus had earlier pledged support for their campaign, after hearing that the federal government indirectly employs nearly 2 million “low-wage” workers, defined as those making less than $12 an hour or $24,000 a year. A study by the labor-funded think tank Demos concluded that the federal government employs more low-wage workers than Walmart and McDonalds combined.

A minimum wage is set by the Service Contract Act for workers employed by government contractors in certain low-wage positions, such as janitors, food service workers and security guards. But those who work in concession spaces leased in federal buildings or museums are not covered. At the hearing, advocates called on President Obama to issue an executive order raising the act’s minimums and expanding it to cover more workers.

However, In These Times reports DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton told workers at the hearing that Obama could change the system immediately by adjusting the point system used to award federal contracts, giving extra points to companies that pay better wages.

A convergence of Obama’s liberal critics and the movement of the low-waged, calling on him to honor his political debts, signifies that he cannot for long maintain his balancing act between the plutocracy for whom he acts and his social support. That means it will be harder for him to put a liberal face on the cuts in entitlements he proposes in order to strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans, creating a political space for concerted opposition to the plan from within the Democratic party itself; this in turn will legitimize other movements of resistance.

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Filed under African Americans, health care, low-waged, Obama, political analysis, poverty, US policy, Walmart, We are the 99 percent