workers freedom

economics as if workers mattered

“Pro-labor” politricksters attack rail workers

The Biden administration has called on Congress to ram the bosses’ contract terms down the throats of the U.S. rail workers who have voted to reject them. Under the Rail Labor Act, the federal government has the right to ban strikes for a cooling-off period, force workers into arbitration [both have already happen] and them impose a new “agreement” on transportation workers if they refuse to knuckle under. South Korea’s president similarly just ordered striking truck drivers to abandon their strike, but South Korean workers have real unions and have refused — and other unions have threatened a national general strike if the government proceeds with its threats to jail union officers.

The “agreement” the rail union officials signed off on under government pressure, but which a majority of rank-and-file workers rejected in contract ratification votes even after one union forced its members to vote again (narrowly winning on the revote) after they rejected it, includes what media reports misrepresent as a large wage though it falls far short of inflation. However, wages were not workers’ primary concern. Rather, they have been fighting to gain the right to a say over their work schedules and to block the rail carriers’ plans to endanger their safety through imposition of one-person train crews on many freight runs. After laying off thousands of workers to save costs, rail lines have now essentially placed workers on permanent on-call station, requiring them to report for work on short notice or face discipline. As a result, many workers find themselves unable to make doctors’ appointments, spend time with their children, or schedule vacations. The proposed “agreement” would allow workers up to three days a year for sick time or medical appointments.

House Democrats have promised swift action to impose the “agreement,” though it may face challenges in the Senate where many Republicans (at least some of whom would have to agree to allow a bill to proceed to a vote) would prefer to outlaw unions altogether. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Pelosi conceeded that “railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers,” even as she pledged to do their bidding and block rail workers from striking to obtain better working conditions.

Rail workers are divided across a dozen unions, though most bargain jointly in one of two rail labor coalitions. Their last major strike, in 1992, ended after Congress voted to order workers back under a management-dictated labor “agreement.”

Rail Workers United, a cross-union rank-and-file group which has been trying to build worker solidarity among rail workers, has been fighting against one-person crews, just-in-time work schedules, and union complacency. It recently called for placing the freight rail tracks under public control — recalling the Plumb Plan of the 1920s, which brought the major rail unions together to demand public ownership of the rail companies.


Scabbing is bad for workers

Social Science History (2022, #2) has published a not-very-surprising article examining the success of U.S. strikes where there was massive scabbing, or conversely widespread community solidarity including sympathy strikes. The study, drawing on government data from the 1880s, compares single-firm strikes and community-wide ones, strikes with scabs (either from the community or imported), and the impact of police scab-herding (a term the authors do not use).

“We find that while strike solidarity at the point of production (at the firm level) is necessary, it is not sufficient for success. … Scabs have a dramatic negative impact in reducing strike success, one that has the potential to basically negate the positive influence of shop floor solidarity. … Furthermore, our data also indicate that workers not only lost their jobs to permanent replacement strikebreakers, wage rates were affected as well. Scabbed strikes depress wages for workers (both original and replacements) on average in our data by about 19 percent, an enormous wage loss for many workers already operating at the margins of subsistence. …

“Intraclass struggle for solidarity is necessary for the execution of interclass struggle (as in the case of strike outcomes), but workplace solidarity requires extension into the local community and beyond the site of the strike. Our evidence suggests that the probability of strike success can be greatly increased if solidarity with striking workers is strongly entrenched in the local community and beyond to the social factory—or wider society.”

So solidarity is good for workers, and scabbery bad. The Knights of Labor – back in the 1880s, which is the period this study covers – recognized this, adopting the slogan “An injury to one is the concern of all.” Two decades later, the IWW updated it, condemning union scabbing and demanding industrial solidarity based on the recognition that “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The Health Care Profiteers

It is hard to imagine anything more insane than trusting people’s health to the tender mercies of the profit system. U.S. workers pay far more each year in health care insurance premiums than the total income of workers in most of the world. And what do we get for it? Co-pays, high deductibles, lifetime caps on coverage, skyrocketing out-of-network costs, and an enormous bureaucracy maintained for the sole purpose of standing between us and the health care we need. It can take months to penetrate these bureaucratic barriers; some are so impenetrable that people either give up or turn to emergency rooms to deal with crises that could have been dealt with much more sanely if we actually had a health care system.

Here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, we are seeing two hospital systems collapse precisely because they got involved with the profiteers. Four Delaware County hospitals operated by Crozier Health (part of the Prospect Medical Holdings behemoth) are on the verge of closing after the profiteers pulled hundreds of millions of dollars out for their executives and investors through a 2019 private equity deal. The private equity firm that had owned the hospital chain (and sucked out $645 million in profits) sold it to the CEO and his partners for $12 million, but only after spinning off the real estate the hospitals stood on and saddling the new firm with $1.3 billion in lease obligations.

Watchdogs warned that the deal would inevitably lead to hospital closings and health care deserts. Under pressure from the nurses’ union, Rhode Island required that reserve funds be set aside to buffer PMH hospitals in their state, but Pennsylvania’s attorney general ignored the warnings and now says it has no authority to protect consumers or patients from health care profiteers.

Meanwhile, “nonprofit” Tower Health has closed hospitals in the Philadelphia suburbs as it struggles to manage hundreds of millions in debts it took on in a failed effort to transform itself from a successful Reading PA hospital into a regional health care powerhouse. In 2017, investment bankers persuaded Reading Hospital executives to buy five hospitals in the Philly suburbs from Community Health Systems (a Tennessee-based for-profit operation) and transform the profitable community hospital into debt-ridded Tower Health. That Reading hospital remains profitable, but Tower as a whole lost $243.5 million in FY 2021, and its debt has been reduced to junk bond status. (That loss was down from $415.3 million the year before, as a result of hospital closings and other cutbacks.)

Wages Fall as Profits Surge

The Federal Reserve is warning that the bosses need to hold the line on workers’ wages in order to control surging inflation, even though inflation has been running two to three times the rate of wage hikes. (At my job, we got an inflation adjustment of 0.5 to 1% this year, offset by a 4% hike in health insurance premiums. It’s the first cost of living adjustment in years, and does nothing to offset rising prices.) But new research shows that higher wages (not that they are actually higher) have almost nothing to do with rising prices. More than half of price hikes (53.9%) are going straight to corporate profits, with labor costs accounting for only 8%. So if prices were being hiked to keep up with higher wages, inflation would be well under the 2% to Fed claims it’s aiming for, and real wages would actually be creeping up (if very slowly).

It is unlikely that either the extent of corporate greed or even the power of corporations generally has increased during the past two years. Instead, the already-excessive power of corporations has been channeled into raising prices rather than the more traditional form it has taken in recent decades: suppressing wages…

Josh Bivens, Working Economics Blog

Whacked by prosperity

All that prosperity swinging around is likely to you a concussion.

The stock market has been falling for the last week — according to the pundits, because too many people have jobs, and those jobs pay too well. (Never mind that millions of people who lost work at the outset of the pandemic are still looking for work, that wages are falling relative to inflation, that millions are set to lose their health care coverage in the coming months, that evictions are skyrocketing as landlords boost rents into the stratosphere…)

That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

They believe that we’re drowning in prosperity because the rich — and the pundits are mostly from the top 10% or so — are swimming in money. Corporate profits reached record levels during the pandemic, even as many people struggled to survive (and a great many of us didn’t make it — about a million are known to have died from Covid, and many others were forced onto the streets). Gas companies are raking in monopoly profits. CEO pay is up. The wealth of the wealthy just keeps on growing.

So there’s plenty of prosperity, but you’ve got to be careful as it goes around because those wielding it are likely to knock you in the head, and stomp on you once you’re down.

One Way to Fire Your Boss

Amazon has fired several managers at the Staten Island warehouse which voted to unionize last month, even as it continues its efforts to persuade the National (anti-)Labor Relations Board to throw out the union’s victory on the grounds that the NLRB’s ineffectual, meager efforts to protect workers’ rights during the election campaign (workers fired for supporting the union have yet to get their jobs back despite NLRB orders and court rulings).

No doubt, this is intended to scare other managers across the country — dozens of Amazon facilities face unionization efforts — into scorched-earth campaigns against any organizing efforts, by making it clear that the company will not retain any manager who attempts to follow labor laws officially intended to allow workers to make a free, uncoerced, choice as to whether they want union efforts or not.

But it might well encourage some workers to organize. I remember one meeting I had where workers’ core concerns all revolved around their managers’ ceaseless harassment, some petty and some fairly major. I promised them that if they signed up with the IWW we would get their boss fired — and we did, though it took a bit longer than I expected. We also got a very big back pay settlement for one worker who was being paid overtime hours from another checking account (management took the view that if they funneled the funds through a special fund it didn’t count as overtime; their attorney was very insulting as she explained this to me, but once the worker agreed to make a formal complaint to the state a check for several thousand dollars was cut in a matter of hours), even if we only held the shop for a couple of years before our majority was killed by turn-over, very slow negotiations, our inability to organize the other facilities in the area, and a new manager who had worked the job and so had a much better understanding of workers’ needs.

Is Your Pay Too High?

Economists and Federal Reserve officials were blathering today about the need to cool down the overheated job market, lest it touch off a wage-price spiral. We all know that prices have been going up, but wages not so much. And employers continue slashing away at health and retirement benefits like they were weeds threatening to engulf the bosses and their ill-gotten pandemic profits.

A very few workers at the bottom of the pay scale have been able to get pay hikes that outstrip the official inflation rate – though of course that official rate undercounts housing and food prices, at least for lower-income households. (Richer folks typically own their homes, and so if they’re not buying a fifth mansion at the moment the costs are relatively stable. Their food budgets are much larger than ours, but make up a much smaller proportion of their income.) Most are losing ground as the price gougers rake in record profits, raise prices as fast as their monopoly power allows, and hold the line on wages. And of course millions of workers continue to be frozen out of jobs altogether…

15 million to lose health care

Some 15 million Americans will be dropped from expanded Medicaid coverage once the Covid-19 health emergency is declared over — something the federal government says could happen any day now, though the polytricksters promise they will give 60 days notice before actually cutting off people’s health coverage. The state of emergency bars states from kicking people off Medicaid while the pandemic raged, but its funding has expired and the Senate has blocked proposals to extend coverage. So we are reverting to current law, which requires states to regularly conduct reviews to make sure those ineligible for the government-funded health care scheme are kicked off. Some states, of course, are far more aggressive in looking for excuses to cut off health care.

Some people will have become ineligible because their income has risen above the cut-off point, even though they still don’t make enough to afford health care. Some moved without letting the bureaucrats know. And many – perhaps most – haven’t returned the complicated paperwork to demonstrate their continued eligibility. Many, many people have long gone without coverage because they were unable to navigate the bureaucracy.

This is the inevitable result of a health care system organized around profits. In such a system, the services available to poor people will always be inferior and harder to access – the more difficult the better. And even for those who have health coverage, the system is organized around erecting as many barriers as possible between workers and the health care we need.

Russian oil tanker wanders from port to port

Amsterdam dock workers are refusing to work a Russian tanker hauling diesel fuel, after workers in Rotterdam and in Swedish ports earlier refused. “Russia is financing the war in Ukraine with the cargo,” the FNV union said in a statement thanking Swedish workers for turning the ship away.

Dutch government officials say the ship is allowed into port to unload its cargo, but the tugboat firms that bring ships to the docks have expressed concern that it might not be safe given the likelihood that protesters would surround the vessel if it enters the port.

Direct action gets the goods. If Russian oil and maritime workers took similar action, this war would be over in a matter of hours.

Conferences commemorate the centenary of Kropotkin’s death

I will be speaking at this event next week. Why not join us?

An international conference will be held Feb. 5 – 7, 2021, to commemorate the anarchist thinker and geographer Peter Kropotkin, a century since his death.

While some events will have limited local audiences, the conference is being held online. To register for a free or by donation ticket to the event please visit: You must register to receive the conference links.

“The main problem of modern realistic ethics is … to determine, first of all, the moral end in view. But this end or ends, however ideal they may be, and however remote their full realization, must belong to the world of realities.  The end of morals cannot be “transcendental,” as the idealists desire it to be: it must be real.”

—Kropotkin, from Ethics: Origin and Development

Black Rose Books, in global collaboration with other organisations, scholars, activists and university departments, is organizing this conference to celebrate Peter Kropotkin’s life and work. This conference would commemorate 100 years since his death on February 8th, 1921. Kropotkin is undoubtedly one of the most important anarchist thinkers to understand the vision, and action, needed for positive transformative change. His legacy is critically important and needs to be shared so that others can know about his values and what he dedicated his life to.

As a multi-disciplinary scholar, he argued that the centralized bureaucratic state and capitalism are antithetical to a sustainable and just society.

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Keep up with the conference website

Conference Programme:

An International Colloquium “Pëtr Kropotkin – Activism and Scholarship”, is being organized by the Geography Department of the University of São Paulo, Brazil, July 19 to 23, 2021.

Museum of P. A. Kropotkin – We are proud to be working with the Virtual Museum of P.A. Kropotkin. To virtually explore Kropotkin’s life as well as his scientific and revolutionary activities, visit their website (available in multiple languages):

Also of interest is a website about the scientific and ideological heritage of P.A. Kropotkin. The site presents a bibliography and many of the works of the Russian scientist and revolutionary Pyotr Alekseevich Kropotkin as well as literature about him and his legacy.