Tag Archives: occupy wall street

Political Economy of Flexible Accumulation: Part Three – Finance Capital

The flexible accumulation strategies of companies like Amazon and Apple don’t solve the overall problem of capital accumulation – a superabundance of capital chasing opportunities for valorization. They are only a temporary fix to the reduction of the rate of profit in manufacturing, as technology reduces the socially-necessary labor time involved in the production of commodities.

The specific nature of these strategies is not an inevitable result of fundamental laws of capitalism, which could have taken many other forms of development, but depends on contingent historical and geopolitical factors that created the conditions for distributed production and accelerated consumption, together with the opening up of low wage areas of the world to capital. The end result, however, has been the consolidation of the centrality of finance capital in the circulation process.

From the end of the 1970s, writes Canadian Marxist Gary Teeple, the post-Fordist, computer based “new economy” “created the basis for a massive increase in productivity and consequently a relative decline in demand for labour. Increased productivity, in turn, lowered the cost or cheapened the world’s supply of goods and services and created an ever-greater impetus for global chains of production and distribution.” [Teeple and McBride, eds, Relations of Global Power: Neoliberal Order and Disorder, Toronto 2011:233]

The preconditions for corporations in the developed nations to outsource production to developing countries included technological and logistical advances like shipping containerization, control of inventory with barcoding, deskilling of labor processes, the proliferation of electronics component production in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and the availability of a large disciplined semiskilled labor force in China. However the decisive factor was the ability of financial capital to freely cross borders, achieved by a sustained campaign by US capitalism to deregulate capital flows dating back to 1945, which consolidated its strategic role in world capitalism and restructured foreign companies to do business in dollars and along American lines.

“By the 1980s and 1990s the greater mobility of financial capital across sectors, space, and time … greatly intensified domestic and international competition at the same time as it brought a much greater degree of financial volatility. … The networks of transnational production as well as finance that characterized [globalization] more than ever linked other capitalist states and economies to American capitalism’s central place in global capitalism. This was seen in the extent to which other countries’ exports depended on access to the US consumer market, and in the increasingly integrated production networks that emanated from US [multinational corporations’] foreign direct investment, on the one hand, and the flow of global investment into the US itself on the other.” [Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Empire: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso 2012:20, 311]

Financial capital and the development of new financial instruments such as complex derivatives functioned in this scenario to smooth out and accelerate capital flows between the developing countries and metropolitan markets, eventually driving the integration of global economies. At the same time it made them vulnerable to possible interruptions of the flow of capital in the form of a crisis.

Panitch and Gindin comment: “The development of derivative markets provided risk insurance in a complex global economy without which the internationalization of capital via trade and FDI would otherwise have been significantly restricted. … By the 1980s and 1990s the greater mobility of financial capital across sectors, space, and time (especially via derivatives—that is, financial capital’s quality as general or ‘abstract’ capital) —greatly intensified domestic and international competition at the same time as it brought a much greater degree of financial volatility. … [This] was accepted because financial markets had become so crucial to the domestic and global expansion of capitalism in general.” [2012:14, 20]

Because of the centrality of finance to capitalist production and accumulation, financial capitalists are able to cream off and concentrate the surplus value generated by the system, shifting power away from production. Derivatives and bond funds soon became the target of hedge funds and venture capitalists seeking higher profits through the exponential expansion of debt. Their insistence on austerity to repay bond loans has collapsed the economies of Puerto Rico and Greece, and looks likely to soon bankrupt Europe.

These structural changes in capitalism are permanent: this is what the left has to grasp and confront. But the extension of global capitalism has also globalized resistance: in China, for example, strikes and worker protests have increased noticeably over the 1,400 strikes recorded in 2014. In the US, although unions face declining membership and hostile laws, strikes and battles over factory recognition continue.

Significantly, workers involved in the supply chain in shipping, transport and warehousing have begun to challenge the employment agencies that supply labor to large corporations like Walmart. Their essentiality to the process of realization of surplus value gives them more leverage than they realize. Moreover, struggles of the lowpaid are merging with the Black Lives Matter fight: the Fight for 15 campaign called for boycotts and protests against shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, but the largest demonstration targeting Black Friday shopping was in Chicago protesting the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Many elite stores in the high-end North Michigan Avenue were shut down, including Nieman Marcus and the Apple Store.

The anti-Wall Street message of the Occupy movement continues to resonate in the 2016 US presidential elections, with the leading Democratic candidates calling for strengthening of regulations on the financial industry. While none of their measures will reverse the structural changes in capitalism that have led to the dominance of big finance, they anticipate the mobilization of the public against the monopolization and commodification of all human needs.

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Filed under Fight for 15, finance capital, marxism, political economy, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Occupy Sandy: Lessons in American Solidarity

Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern seaboard of the United States, government has been unable to restore normal living conditions to the worst-hit areas, all located a few miles from the financial center of Manhattan. It is incredible that a country which is spending untold billions to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan does not have the resources to get relief to people living in the nation’s symbolic center. Those who are suffering most are, as always, the poor and underprivileged.

Hurricane Sandy was just one of a series of extreme weather events this year, the kind of events which are likely to become much more frequent as a result of global warming. It hit the headlines primarily because it affected a highly populated area of the U.S., but its aftermath highlighted the fact that the municipal infrastructure in parts of New York City has for years been allowed to disintegrate. As a result, three weeks after the storm thousands living in the housing projects of Red Hook in Brooklyn, as well as the Rockaways in Queens and Staten Island (where many first responders also live) are still without electricity, heat, hot water, and medical support.

Photographer Matt Richter has been documenting relief efforts in the area’s public housing. He told Gothamist last week: “The sick and elderly are trapped on the top floors of high-rise buildings in cold, pitch-black apartments without anyone to check on them or anyone to talk to. Mothers cannot feed their children because all of the local storefronts have been destroyed by flooding and looted. Diabetics and asthmatics have run out of medicine. Residents are heating their homes using gas stovetops and poisoning themselves.”

Many have observed that FEMA and the Red Cross were slow and ineffective in getting relief to these communities, while members of the Occupy movement were able to mobilize and coordinate volunteers almost immediately. Individuals who had been active in the Zuccotti Park occupation acted the day after the storm to find out what people needed, then set up distribution centers at church premises in Brooklyn, from where volunteers have been taking supplies to Red Hook and the Rockaways. Occupy’s horizontal structure appears to have facilitated an inclusive and flexible response to the disaster.

In the Rockaways, according to Gothamist, “volunteer manpower—a precious resource in the Hurricane Sandy recovery—continues to be misdirected or squandered by those in charge of official relief efforts. ‘The city hasn’t reached out to us at all,’ said Matt Calender, a Rockaway resident who helps direct a bustling relief effort from a house on Beach 96th Street. ‘The Red Cross gave us 500 blankets the other day. FEMA talked to us. But that’s it. We station volunteers here, but we also send people downtown, where there is immense need’.”

Slate reported: “Unlike other shelters that had stopped collecting donations or were looking for volunteers with special skills such as medical training, Occupy Sandy was ready to take anyone willing to help. … Ethan Murphy, who was helping organize the food at St. Jacobi’s and had been cooking for the occupy movement over the past year, explained there wasn’t any kind of official decision or declaration that occupiers would now try to help with the hurricane aftermath.  ‘This is what we do already,’ he explained: Build community, help neighbors, and create a world without the help of finance.”

John Knefel writes in Truthout: “One of Occupy’s defining features is horizontalism, or non-hierarchical organization, which replaces traditional methods of control with, in theory, mutual affinity and respect. The media often refers to this as “leaderlessness” and calls it a weakness, and when trying to interpret Occupy through the narrow lens of corporate-captured electoral politics that may be a fair criticism. But the premise is completely incorrect. … The fact that volunteers can be trained and assigned to tasks quickly – tasks they aren’t compelled by any strict authority to do and so therefore take ownership of almost immediately – is a virtue rather than a fatal flaw.”

The Red Cross and FEMA are hamstrung by bureaucracy and turf issues. FEMA field official Katherine Ordway told Time magazine: “It’s dark in those apartments and people are cold …They’re coming here wanting us to fix the problem in their homes, but we can’t. Restoring power and heat is not a FEMA issue. And that’s very frustrating.”

Occupy Wall Street framed their actions as the community self-adjusting to the crisis. What it also shows is that when communities are faced with rebuilding after a disaster, the philosophy of Occupy coincides with their modes of recreating social order. People who are protesting the control of banks and corrupt politicians over their lives can relate to those who have lost it all. One of the organizers of the relief effort, PhD student Pamela Brown, told Democracy Now: “organically, Occupy was able to organize very quickly on the ground and provide real relief to people, provide food and clothing. People were donating all of these things. And the Red Cross wasn’t really able to reach out to people in the way that was necessary to distribute those goods. … One of the things that Occupy has been amazing at with Sandy has been actually going to people, talking to them and saying, ‘What is it that you actually need?’ and providing that.”

While Occupy could not move large quantities of equipment and materiel to large areas, it can mobilize volunteers and concerned citizens in a way that the government cannot. A Time article considered: “Being among the first to move made Occupy a vital part of the city’s hurricane relief infrastructure. As a result, this radical nonstate movement finds itself in the unlikely position of coordinating with government institutions it might otherwise be in conflict with. … Ultimately, Occupy Sandy is an ethos, a grassroots, on-the-fly approach to disaster relief that, in certain areas of the city, has filled a void left by overwhelmed bureaucracies. It’s an approach adopted by numerous local groups and individuals throughout the city, and Occupy is in large part an attempt to link volunteers and donations to those efforts.”

The New York Times ran a story that contrasted the middle-class values of the volunteers with those of the working poor who are the recipients of aid. Naturally, any social interactions will not be free of class antagonisms. However, the fact that these interactions are taking place at all is a step to finding solutions to the daily struggles that project-dwellers face. What is needed is the inclusive and pluralistic ideology of the Occupy movement to facilitate equality and mutual respect.

As in New Orleans after Katrina, relations of power get rebuilt after disasters. But with Occupy Sandy, there is an opening for them to be challenged. The Occupiers are right to prepare for resistance against the opportunist interventions of financiers who seek to capitalize on crises by encouraging debt dependency, like the 2-year disaster loans small businesses are being advised to take or people’s borrowing against their retirement savings. Against the faceless world of finance capital and a government that serves it, Occupy Sandy is mobilizing the power of human and American solidarity—the recognition that, as Lincoln put it, united we stand.

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Filed under bank foreclosures, credit creation, financiers, Occupy Sandy, occupy wall street, poverty, We are the 99 percent

Waking Up and Smelling the Coffee: Americans Organize Collectively to Defend Themselves against the Plutocratic 1%

While pundits may debate Obama’s lackluster performance and Romney’s zingers, when it comes down to it, the presidential debate will not change people’s minds. What will decide the election will be demographics:  Latino voters have increased their support for Obama to 70%. Women perceive Romney as dismissive of their issues. And a Reuters poll finds Obama to be better representative of America by 48 to 39 percent – despite the billions spent by Republicans trying to portray him as alien.

Focus groups found that blue-collar voters lowered their opinion of Romney in response to quotes from his campaign, but were more forgiving of quotes from Obama; many suggested that Obama needed more time to fix the economy given the extent of the 2008 collapse.  “And while Obama didn’t seem to get too much credit from any group for his individual jobs policies or for his health care law, voters were bullish on the auto bailout — not only in auto-heavy Ohio, but northern Virginia as well. … In another disturbing trend for Romney, women’s health issues cut against him hard among the Virginia groups, especially college educated women, for whom they generated as much attention as the economy.”

Romney’s clandestinely videoed remarks describing half the population as parasitic have had a discernible effect on the electorate, strengthening the perception of him as the candidate for the plutocracy. This attests to the persistence of the Occupy theme of the 99 percent, a form of populist class awareness. A further social change is the turn to unionization among the low-waged. The threat of unemployment has become a two-edged sword: while employers have used the fear of joblessness to drive down wages and conditions, a point has been reached where workers’ backs are against the wall and they have nothing to lose by fighting back.

In the Midwest, two important strikes are currently taking place that bear this out. Warehouse workers at a giant Walmart warehouse outside of Chicago are on strike over illegal retaliation against workers who filed a lawsuit over wage theft, supported by Warehouse Workers For Justice, an organization launched by the United Electrical Workers union to raise standards for the industry. Although Walmart owns the warehouse, which handles 70% of all the goods it imports into the U.S., it has a pyramid organization of companies that contracts and subcontracts out its labor supply, in order to avoid responsibility for workers’ welfare.

In These Times reports that the dispute began after a small group of workers walked out of the facility when management first fired, then backtracked and suspended, some key workers’ leaders, including one of the four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Following this, another group of workers took a petition to management complaining about unsafe equipment, extreme heat, and a reduction in breaks during long shifts. Managers again fired the petitioners, then changed their minds and suspended them. The number of workers now on strike over unfair labor practices has reached 38.

Despite the high turnover rate in the warehouse, which makes it difficult to organize, a group of workers who had managed to endure the conditions for a number of months began the protest action. “What we have in common is we’re pretty marginalized and desperate,” plaintiff Philip Bailey told David Moberg of In These Times. “The prospect of working these low-paying jobs for long hours became scarier than risking losing the job to improve it. People realized we won’t get anything until we stand together.”

On Monday, several hundred supporters converged on the warehouse, effectively shutting it down. Riot police equipped with a Humvee-mounted sonic weapon were on hand to arrest 15 protesters who had nonviolently sat down outside the main gate. Support came from groups like Chicago Jobs With Justice and Chicago teachers, who have a common enemy in the privatization-crazed Walton family. Also joining the picket were workers from Sensata Technologies Inc., a company owned by Bain Capital and now in the final stages of moving its production to China.

The strike movement has now spread to Walmart stores in Los Angeles, whose “associates” staged a one-day protest on Thursday. Like the warehouse workers, the retail store employees are responding to escalating cases of retaliation by managers against workers who speak out against low pay, inadequate health insurance, short or unpredictable work weeks, understaffing, and lack of appreciation and respect.

In Detroit, as in the Chicago teachers strike, union members are striking against privatization, which they know will result in the loss of jobs and the rapid erosion of their control over conditions of work. Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant workers came out against a plan to cut 81% of their jobs under a $46 million no-bid contract signed with the EMA Group.  The suburban-dominated Detroit Water Board approved the contract in early September with the aim of replacing most of the unionized workforce. According to the union, the EMA Group was responsible for massive flooding in Toronto after revamping the city’s sewage system and laying off the majority of the workers.

Declaring they were fighting for the future of Detroit, 34 workers walked out in a wildcat action early Sunday, in order to preempt an order barring a strike. They were joined by the rest of the 450-strong workforce the following day, when, as anticipated, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox issued a no-strike order on the union. Defying the order, the strike continued, and on Tuesday water department officials suspended the original 34 strikers. At the picket line, Tanya Glover told the Detroit Free Press she was concerned about wage cuts and outsourcing: “I’m out here because I need to feed my family,” she said. “They’re telling me I don’t have a job in five years anyway. It’s either fight, or let them give my job away.”

Workers from other unions came out to support the water workers as word of the walk-out spread. “This strike is happening in the wake of the victory of the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Martha Grevatt, of UAW Local 869. “It’s another example of workers standing up, not only for their jobs, but against the banks and corporations. Whether you work for a private company or in the public sector, your bosses are part of the 1 percent.”

The union district-level Michigan AFSCME Council told union members on Tuesday to return to work and comply with the judicial order. The confusion this created meant that many of Wednesday’s afternoon shift followed this directive, after being informed that the department had promised not to discipline them. However, the leaders of the water workers’ Local 207 rejected the order, voting late on Wednesday to continue the strike until all suspended workers were given amnesty. It issued a statement that said: “The power of our strike is based on the support of Detroit’s Black community and the surrounding communities of Michigan, including unions and churches, and is being expressed more and more each day. … Unless our members are all returned to work, there is no deal, and the strike is still on.”

The strike ended Thursday in victory. Management agreed to reinstate all the fired workers and to continue discussions on union rights and job security. Michael Mulholland, Local 207 Secretary Treasurer, said, “This victory is a measure of the strength of Detroit as a whole. If Judge Cox had not feared what the public response would have been if he had taken action against our union, this victory would never have been possible.” Union attorney Shanta Driver added: “If the people of Detroit draw the correct conclusion that we have the power to control the destiny of our City and its resources even when just a few of us stand up and fight to win, this struggle will have achieved a great deal. … we are building a new movement that can change the balance of power in this city forever.”

The power of the community was also realized in the Chicago teachers’ strike, and the Occupy movement. As different groups of workers’ struggles begin to converge, this movement poses a challenge to bureaucracy within the unions. A new form of leadership is being created, close to the grassroots, which is turning outwards to unorganized low-waged workers and is building alliances within the community across ethnic and class divides – to paraphrase the leaders of Local 207, launching a new civil rights movement and era of mass struggle.

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Filed under 2012 Election, African Americans, chicago teachers, financiers, occupy wall street, police presence, political analysis, poverty, strikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Not the Same People Any More: After One Year of Occupy Wall Street, Chicago Teachers Give Lessons in Justice and Unions are Born in New York

The Chicago teachers have returned to work with renewed confidence in their fight against Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to force restructuring on the Chicago Public Schools. They have achieved significant concessions from management, and have done so against the full weight of ideological marginalization by the media, who blamed teachers for the stand-off that left 350,000 students out of school.

The struggle is by no means over. The big elephant in the room, as teachers’ leader Karen Lewis said, is the school board’s strategy of closing 200 public schools while planning to open 60 new charter schools in the next few years.

The decision to strike was an expression of teachers’ anger at the board’s arrogant top-down management tactics, and the delay in returning to work after the agreement was negotiated indicates teachers’ fear of school closures and their distrust of the board.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported: “At Bond Elementary, which is on academic probation, teachers on the picket line Monday wanted more time to think about what they should recommend to delegate Jacqueline Ward. … Teachers wanted to know more about what job protections union leaders had secured for laid-off teachers, and how the new teacher evaluation system would work … ‘If evaluations determine your livelihood, that’s important,’ Ward said. ‘Just treat it fairly. How are we going to ensure this is the way it’s going to be? [Teachers] have zero trust in [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education’.”

Significantly, the threat of unemployment, which has been used by neoliberals to discipline and intimidate the workforce, is now contributing to a determination to safeguard jobs against layoffs and to a spirit of solidarity in teachers’ fight for  better classroom conditions.

The course of the strike is very instructive. First of all, it was a grassroots struggle against school closures that elected its own leadership as head of the union. Teachers felt themselves to be and were an integral part of the communities they taught in, so they began by building support from the general public. They tapped into communities already engaged in struggles on evictions and labor abuses, so the strike is part of that same struggle.

Low-paid warehouse workers at Wal-Mart’s largest distribution center in Chicago went on strike at the same time as the teachers to protest illegal retaliation and other labor abuses, just days after workers at the California warehouse that supplies Wal-Mart stores walked off the job to protest illegal retaliation and poor working conditions.

In a discussion about the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, journalist Laura Gottesdiener told Democracy Now: “We’re seeing that [direct action] especially in Chicago and especially because of the teachers’ strike in Chicago. I think that’s one of these hotbeds of direct action. We’re seeing incredible work by the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and other sorts of homeless communities saying, We don’t recognize the bank’s ownership of these abandoned—or these vacant houses. … So they’re actually going in, rehabbing these houses that are destroying their neighborhoods and taking them over.”

In the same discussion, Amy Goodman outlined a case study of how the Occupy movement has spread into communities and taken root. “For the past two years, residents of the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn have refused to pay rent on their apartments in three buildings where the same landlord has refused to ensure safe living conditions. …This summer, members of Occupy Sunset Park got word of the rent strike when they saw banners that residents hung on the outside of their buildings. They contacted the residents, have since tried to assist them as they resolve many of the concerns themselves. Now there’s even talk of the tenants taking ownership of their buildings by forming a tenants’ associations or an affordable housing corporation.”

Dennis Flores, an activist with Occupy Sunset Park, explained how after the start of Occupy Wall Street a small group got together and decided that this movement had to be brought into their community. “Our issues that we’ve been dealing with, whether it’s gentrification, low-income housing, police brutality, stop and frisk, we needed that to be part of this conversation of the Occupy movement.” They met up with tenant association organizer Sara Lopez, who said: “When Occupy Sunset Park knocked on our building, because we knocked on so many elected people to help us, and we didn’t get the help, what we expect from them—when they knocked on our door to answer what we need, they really helped us. … I feel more stronger, because I know I have them to push us, to help us to do a lot of things. So this Occupy, I’m glad they’re still around.”

Those who have written off the movement have confused the political form of the movement with the social basis of its support in opposition to debt, low wages and homelessness. That form, the tactic of occupation, was systematically destroyed by the Obama administration to prevent a catalyst for protest from growing. There is still much sympathy with the movement – whose members are mostly young and educated – among the general population.

But there is also a clear groundswell of resistance to exploitation among low-paid workers in America – the neoliberal project of reducing wages and living standards is now encountering a limit to how far it can squeeze labor-power out of workers before they rebel.

For example, in New York City, for the first time ever, workers at a car wash have voted to join a union. There are nearly 200 car washes in the city employing at least 1,600 workers to clean up thousands of cars and taxis by hand. According to the New York Times, “many of the workers are illegal immigrants hesitant or unwilling to join a public campaign, for fear that it might cost them their jobs or somehow expose them to a greater possibility of deportation.” But they were no longer willing to being paid less than minimum wage with no overtime payments.

Their victory was achieved with the help of advocacy groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. In a similar way, deli workers at the Hot & Crusty bagel café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side won official recognition for a brand-new, independent union. In These Times reported: “This virtually unprecedented victory in a hard-to-organize sector was accomplished in just a few months, on a shoestring budget. Along with leadership training from the innovative non-profit Laundry Workers’ Center, the campaign received crucial support from the Immigrant Worker Justice working group (IWJ) of Occupy Wall Street.”

After a series of actions targeting owner Mark Samson’s private equity firm, he has since sold the store to investors prepared to recognize the union. Jacobin magazine tells more of the role Occupy was able to play: “A campaign to organize immigrant restaurant workers – some of whom are undocumented – might have had a profoundly different outcome without the Occupy movement. … Fed up with long hours, abuse and sub-minimum wages, some of the workers eventually ended up at Zucotti Park after starting a free eight week organizing crash course at the Laundry Workers Center (another grassroots institution about to celebrate its first birthday). Some of the employees then joined the Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group, an OWS committee formed to address the lack of immigrant voices in Occupy. Through that milieu, the workers complemented their grassroots campaign by plugging in to New York’s mushrooming activist network.”

The arrests of protesters and photojournalists on Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary on September 17 signify only the state’s sensitivity to the symbolic power of its actions targeting the banks. Despite the dismantling of the highly-visible occupations, the movement has become a catalyst for alliances between labor, political and community organizations around concrete, local issues.

For workers like Mahoma López , a Hot & Crusty deli worker, Occupy Wall Street has become a social network that has helped transform his political consciousness. “We’re not the same people we used to be,” he says of himself and his co-workers. “Our eyes aren’t closed anymore.”

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Filed under austerity measures, chicago teachers, Neoliberalism, new york stock exchange, occupy wall street, political analysis, public higher education, We are the 99 percent