workers freedom

economics as if workers mattered

Barnes&Noble bought by vulture capitalists

The New York Times reports that an investment firm best known for buying up Argentine bonds after the country had defaulted and then pursuing the country in courts around the world until a new administration agreed to pay – Elliott Advisors made some $2 billion on the deal (three times what it paid) – has bought the U.S.’s largest book chain, Barnes & Noble.

Elliott will place B&N under the management of the CEO of British bookstore chain Waterstones, which it bought in June 2018. (Waterstones operate more than 280 stores; its total and per-store sales are dwarfed by B&N’s.)

Although it operates hundreds fewer stores than it did at its peak (having closed its B Dalton stores, and spun off its GameStop and B&N College divisions), B&N remains the country’s largest book chain with 627 stores. #2 Books-A-Million operates some 260 stores, primarily in the South. #3 Half-Price Books (a Midwestern and Southern chain specializing in discounted titles) operates about 125 stores. B&N sales have been falling in recent years (and it lost many hundreds of millions on its online operation and its efforts to move into ebooks); Amazon.com now has higher book revenues, though it is #5 in terms of the number of physical bookstores it operates.

Elliott is controlled by Paul Singer, a financier and major Republican donor who donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration.

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Most American Workers Own Less Than Nothing

Half of all Americans now own less than nothing, after you subtract their debts from their assets (homes, cars, bank accounts, etc.). It is, as the Trumpsters constantly remind us, the greatest economic boom in recorded history.

The Booming Economy That Isn’t

Americans’ net worth plummeted by $3.73 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve, the most dramatic decline since the Great Recession began in 2008.  Workers’ pay and benefits have been falling as a percentage of gross domestic income for years, down to 52 percent. It was 59% in 1970 and 57% in 2001; the difference has largely gone to corporate profits.

The incomes of the very rich have grown faster than the economy since 1980, skyrocketing by more than 400 percent for the top .01 percent. The top 1 percent aren’t hurting either, raking in about 180 percent more over the same period. The top 10 percent have held their own, with income gains that closely mirror GDP growth. (New York Times columnist David Leonhardt calls this – those making $120,000 to $425,000 a year after taxes – the “upper middle class.” Presumably, under this conception, the middle class includes everyone except the richest and poorest 1 percent.) And the bottom 90 percent are steadily losing ground.

A few weeks later another Times columnist, Neil Irwin, noted a string of economic problems: “economic growth has been slower than it used to be… Productivity growth has been weak. Inequality has risen. And the corporate world is more and more dominated by a handful of ‘superstar’ firms.” Others call this monopolization.

“What,” he asks, “if those megatrends are all the same problem?” Not capitalism, of course, but the effects of surging economic inequality, holding down economic growth because most people can’t afford to buy stuff, and holding down wages because the remaining companies face little competition for workers. Perhaps “we’ve been thinking about the world’s economic woes all wrong. It’s not a series of single strands, but a spider web of them.”

Leonhardt was back a few days later, conceding that economic pundits have been “exaggerating the strength of the economic expansion, because it makes for a good story. Here’s the truth: There is no boom. The economy has been mired in an extended funk since the financial crisis ended in 2010.” Indeed, he offered a chart showing that year after year, the economy has consistently underperformed the experts’ predictions. “And for most families, real-life experience has been more disappointing than the G.D.P. numbers, because much of the bounty of the economy’s growth has flowed to the affluent.”

Leonhardt blames this long stagnation on too much money sloshing around in the pockets of the rich (they long ago reached the point where there’s nothing more for them to buy, and so stash the wealth we create in bank accounts and stocks and such), and an investment slump resulting from the fact that most companies “have grown so large and monopoly-like that they don’t need to invest in new projects to make profits. Think about your internet provider: It may have terrible customer service, but you don’t have a lot of alternatives. The company doesn’t need to invest in new technology or employees to keep you as a customer.”

He suggests we stop funneling money to the rich, and instead put it into repairing infrastructure, improving the social safety net, and speeding the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy.

ASR 74

cover 74The new Anarcho-Syndicalist Review is on the way to the printer.

ASR 74 (Summer 2018) Contents:

Wobbles: Grand Theft Paycheck, Right to Work, Fare-Free Transit, World Bank Attacks Labor Rights …

International Labor News Compiled by Mike Hargis

Stephen Hawking (1940-2018) And Us  by Frank Mintz, translated by Maria Gil

Immokalee Workers Protest Wendy’s  by John Kalwaic

Israelis Protest for African Refugees by Raymond S. Solomon

ARTICLES: Teachers Rise Up  by Jon Bekken

Notes on Anarchist Economics by Iain McKay

Liberal Illusions & Delusions  by Wayne Price

‘It’s Like A Rainbow’: Australian Political Watermelons by Tony Sheather

Wobblies of the World  Review essay by Jon Bekken

Yours for Industrial Freedom Review by Jon Bekken

The Dead End of Electoralism by Wayne Price

Some libertarian insights on fascism  by Sarthak Tomar

REVIEWS: Overcoming the Politics of Division & Fear Review essay by Wayne Price

Anarchists Never Surrender Review by Iain McKay

The Anvil of War Review by Jeff Stein

Anarchists in the Bavarian Revolution Review by Thomas Klikauer

Bookchin’s Revolution Review by Iain McKay

Left of the Far Left Review by Raymond Solomon

Anarchism in Galicia  Review by Jeff Stein

The Limerick Brigadistas Film review by John Kalwaic

LETTERS: Fighting on Every Front

Happy Days Are Here Again, but for who?

Friday’s New York Times bears the ominous headline, “Fed Officials Worry Economy Is Too Good. Workers Still Feel Left Behind.” (4/27/18, B2)

Federal Reserve officials are beginning to worry about a possibility that seems remote to workers…. the danger of the economy’s running too hot, destabilizing financial markets and setting off a rapid escalation in wages…

“Destabilizing financial markets” is presumably the concern, as this “rapid escalation in wages” is nowhere to be seen. Wages have been rising very slightly of late, but only those at the very top and very bottom of the wage spread are seeing gains. Most of us are still losing ground, even before rising health care costs and other lost benefits are taken into account.

As a result the government is looking to push up interest rates, in order to make sure our wages don’t get too high. (You don’t seem them taking action around the multi-million paychecks the corporate fat cats are pulling in, but of course there aren’t any working stiffs on the Federal Reserve board.)

Deep in the story, the Times notes than 62 percent of respondents say prices are rising faster than their wages. But apparently we’re not losing ground fast enough, and so policymakers are on a crusade to hold wages down, working hours up, and the death rate rising (in order to hold down the cost of pensions and Social Security).

The Syrian bloodbath

Trump and Putin, Turkey and Iran, Assad and ISIS — all enemies of the Syrian people…

via The ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots

Clawing our way out of economic misery

In yesterday’s New York Times, economics columnist Eduardo Porter’s headline is “Pay Raises are back, but are they here to stay?” (Last week he was pondering what the U.S. will do when the next recession hits, sooner than we expect, given the massive deficits the Trump administration is running up during these times of “prosperity” [for the very few].) He acknowledges that hourly pay declined “mercilessly” since the early 1970s for many years, before bottoming out in 1995. Today, we are seeing pay hikes again, and inflation-adjusted wages are 3 percent higher than they were in 2000 (and almost back to 1973 levels, though many, many workers are still worse off than they were then). But he fears the good times are coming to an end. Economic growth is slow, investment is down – leading to slumping productivity. Workers have lost leverage to demand better pay (he blames globalization, automation, and ownership concentration). “For workers to reap a larger share of the spoils of growth, they must claw back the bargaining power they lost.” He cites studies suggesting that the unemployment rate would have to drop to 0 to enable workers in the bottom tenth of wages just to hold their own against rising prices. The Economic Policy Institute suggests sharp increases to the minimum wage, barring mandatory arbitration, limits on subcontracting, and stronger unions. Economists from the University of Chicago have pressed for more competitive labor markets, including an end to non-compete agreements and employer collusion to hold down wages. Rebalancing the labor market to enhance workers’ power, Porter concludes, “might not only improve the way the pie is shared but also make it bigger.”
Or we could organize at the point of production and use direct action and solidarity to make a change. It seems to be working for teachers in West Virginia…

Open letter to Sen. Toomey

Pat Toomey

U.S. Senator “for” Pennsylvania

https://www.toomey.senate.gov/?p=contact

I realize that, as a Philadelphian paid (substantially) less than $100,000 a year, I am not one of those you normally think of as your constituents. Nonetheless, I must implore you to consider the plight of the great majority of Pennsylvanians as you consider the proposal currently pending in the Senate to increase our taxes so that the government can redistribute our money to those your colleagues consider truly deserving: the corporations and the rich.

The proposal passed by the Finance Committee would leave my base tax rate the same (although people paid far more than I would see significant savings, as their tax brackets are eliminated and their rates fall), while eliminating the dependent deduction for my daughter, eliminating or significantly limiting my deductions for local and state income and real estate taxes, further limiting my ability to deduct thousands of dollars in work-related expenses, and eliminating the childcare tax credit. So under this legislation my taxes would increase significantly next year, and apparently might go up even more in  few years’ time when provisions sunset.

It would be one thing to raise my taxes in order to fund some worthy goal, such as universal health care or accelerating the conversion to a green economy and so averting the worst consequences of global warming. But to raise my taxes (and those of the vast majority, who must work for a living) in order to hand the money over to the wealthiest among us strikes me as quite outrageous. The United States already suffers economic inequality unparalleled since the eve of the Great Depression. I would hope that the prospect of exacerbating this problem through regressive changes to the tax code would disturb even someone such as yourself, who has built his entire political career around advocating for the interests of the rich and powerful.

The state as an instrument of emancipation?

In a lengthy review of James Scott’s new book, Against the Grain (The Nation, Oct. 23, pp 27-32), Samuel Moyn makes a rather startling assertion (I do not call it an argument as he presents no evidence to support it, though he does repeat himself):

Both anarchists and neoliberals have combined in our time to obscure the fact that, to date, the state has been the most successful technology known to history for imagining and institutionalizing liberty and equality, even though it has often failed… (do tell) Scott only rarely mentions the forms of social justice that only modernity and its states have permitted and put into practice…

And he calls on us to recognize “the fact that modern states could strive not simply for civilizational splendor, but also for the freedom of equality of all.” He tempers (but I’m not sure he realizes that’s what he’s doing) this claim in the very next paragraph, where he asserts that “modern (and not only modern, jb) humans have attempted to make [the state] serve their emancipation rather than their oppression.”

And indeed they have, from the guillotine to the Marxists and their ilk who imagined a people’s state, to the Civil Rights Movement who demanded equal rights and an end to oppression, and now the Black Lives Matter movement which asks mainly that the state just stop killing them. But an unsuccessful history of trying to make the state serve as an instrument of emancipation is quite a different matter from establishing that the state is capable of, let alone ever has, serving to imagine and institutionalize liberty and equality.

I have not read Scott’s book, and so can not judge whether the criticisms raised against it are fair. But the reviewer clearly suffers from a very advanced stage of state worship – one that has progressed to the point where he is suffering visions of philosopher kings and benevolent dictatorships.

Building a culture of solidarity against fascism and bigotry

As I write, Spanish riot police are attacking Catalan firefighters as they attempt to protect voters from brutal assaults – hundreds have been seriously injured in a level of state violence against Spain’s citizens not seen since the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Across the planet, openly fascist and racist politicians are entering government, assaults on immigrants are becoming routine, and workers and their unions are under full-scale attack.

In the United States, armed fascists recently paraded in the streets of Charlottesville, chanting Nazi slogans, threatening Jewish worshippers in a synagogue, attacking African-American clergy, and murdering Heather Heyer, one of thousands who took to the streets to challenge the fascist hordes. In Portland, a fascist murdered two people who intervened when he began shouting racist and anti-Muslim insults at two young women riding a streetcar. In Seattle, on the same day that Trump took office, a fascist shot and nearly killed an IWW member trying to de-escalate a conflict that erupted when her husband began assaulting protesters with pepper spray after warning her not to start shooting until things escalated, so that they could claim self-defense. (Police released the shooter and her accomplice within hours, only bringing assault charges three months later.)

After 50 years of stagnating wages, speed-ups, unprecedented joblessness, and rising despair, people are understandably angry. But rather than focusing that anger on our exploiters and organizing to dump the bosses off our backs, too many are listening to demagogues who urge us to blame workers in other countries, women, and racial or religious minorities. In these dark times, bigots of all sorts are slithering into the open, spewing hatred and fomenting division and fear.

The labor movement has a pivotal role to play in this struggle. The bosses have always tried to divide us, to pit workers against each other to keep us weak. To their shame, some unions have fallen for this. But there is a long tradition of labor solidarity, as well. Before the Civil War, labor reform societies demanded emancipation and the right of all workers to organize. In the 1880s the Knights of Labor welcomed African-American members even in the former Confederacy, though it organized them into segregated assemblies. Even in Richmond, Virginia, the Knights supported African-American workers in their labor struggles. When the Knights held their national General Assembly there, many delegates refused to stay in segregated hotels and Knights officials reaffirmed their commitment to racial equality. (In the aftermath of the Assembly, local membership in the Knights plummeted, whether as a result of backlash against the integrated ceremonies, employer intimidation, or the widespread attack against unions in the wake of the 8-hour day movement and the attack on workers at Haymarket Square.)

Even radical unionists had mixed records. The American Railway Union, while open to workers of every craft, joined the Railroad Brotherhoods in barring membership to African-Americans. The United Mine Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World, however, actively organized African-American workers, recognizing that there could be no progress without industrial solidarity. On the West Coast, IWW organizers challenged longstanding discrimination against Chinese and Japanese workers. In Louisiana and Texas, the IWW-affiliated Brotherhood of Timber Workers organized integrated locals and defied Jim Crow legislation. In Philadelphia, the IWW organized the country’s first integrated longshore union, responding to the bosses’ long history of pitting workers against each other with integrated work gangs and direct action on the job. And when KKK vigilantes tried to break up IWW organizing in the Maine forests in 1924, 200 IWW members patrolled the streets of Greenville to prevent the Klan from carrying out its threats.

As IWW organizer Ben Fletcher noted, writing in The Messenger in 1923,

“the employing class are the beneficiaries of these policies of Negro Labor exclusion and segregation… No genuine attempt by Organized Labor to wrest and worthwhile and lasting concessions from the Employing Class can succeed as long as Organized Labor for the most part is indifferent and in opposition to the fate of Negro Labor.

“Organized Labor can bring about a different situation – one that will speed the dawn of Industrial Freedom. First by excising their Race exclusion clauses. Second, by enrolling ALL workers in their Industrial or Craft jurisdictions… Collective dealing with the Employing Class is the only way by which Labor can procure any concessions from them… It is the only way in which to establish industrial stability … and finally Industrial freedom.”

The Congress of Industrial Organizations heeded this lesson, actively confronting bigotry as it organized workers across ethnic and racial lines, including in the South where Jim Crow laws still prevailed. Despite continuing discrimination in some unions, labor unions offered substantial support to the Civil Rights movement, and to struggles by African-American workers for better conditions. When AFSCME-organized sanitation workers struck in Memphis in 1968, the city hired white scabs in an attempt to break the strike. But local and national unions came to the workers’ defense, as did civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated while in Memphis to support the striking workers. The strike was settled after a silent march of 42,000 through the streets of Memphis, though shorter strikes were needed to force the city to honor its agreement.

Today the American labor movement is in crisis. Laws restrict unions from engaging in solidarity actions, employing direct action to enforce decent conditions, or even from representing their members at all. Immigration agents seize workers who dare to complain about unpaid wages, and judges allow employers to fire workers for the “disloyalty” of disseminating information about the conditions under which they work. When workers strike, police serve as scabherders – often receiving bonus pay from the employers for their service. Police allow armed fascists to march in the streets, but herd workers into protest pens far removed from the facilities they are picketing.

Many workers are fighting back. In August ILWU Local 10 voted to strike to join protests against a planned San Francisco fascist rally, prompting the fascists to scurry for cover. Following the deportation of a 26-year Teamster member (a Guatemalan refugee arrested during his annual check-in with immigration officials), New York City-based 120,000-member Teamsters Joint Council 16 declared itself a “sanctuary union.” Several unions joined May Day demonstrations across the country in solidarity with their immigrant members, and many unions are providing legal and other assistance to immigrant members.

These are important steps to building a culture of solidarity, and toward acting in our collective self-defense against these attacks not only on our economic well-being, but against our very survival. Bigots, fascists and union-busters have been emboldened by recent events; only our solidarity and our determination can turn them back.