economics as if workers mattered
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A golden age for workers?
The front page of the Sept. 20 New York Times Business Day section has headlines suggesting workers are doing well, but when you read the stories things look quite different.
Eduardo Porter’s column headline trumpets “Labor Shortage Gives Workers an Edge.” It takes him until the fourth graf to tell us that average hourly pay for production and nonsupervisory workers has almost reached 1973 levels (after adjusting for inflation). Less, of course, after 44 years of speed-up, but close. Of course, that doesn’t take account of lost benefits. We’re paying a lot more out of pocket for our health care. Time off is harder to get. Pension plans are but a distant memory. And right next door, “Cost of Employer-Based Plans Remains Stable, a Study Finds.”
Good news, right? Well, it’s good news for the bosses. Average premiums for family coverage are up 3 percent, to $18,764 a year. The cost is rising faster than wages, and far fewer small employers are offering health benefits at all. Out-of-pocket costs are higher, as employers switch to insurance companies that restrict access to doctors and hospitals. But “deductibles rose only slightly this year.” Why? “Companies are recognizing that they have reached the limits of what they can ask their workers to pay, said Michael Thompson, the chief executive of the National alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, which represents employers. ‘We’re running out of runway to keep cosh-shifting to employees,’ he said.”
But at least we’re seeing the promise of new jobs? Same page’s “A Manufacturing Model Tough to Export” notes that FoxConn, which is promising 13,000 new jobs in Wisconsin, has a history of breaking such promises once it gets its government hand-outs.
In Brazil, FoxConn promised nearly 100,000 jobs in exchange for billions in subsidies. Six years later, the plant site sits empty – only 2,800 jobs ever materialized. In Pennsylvania, FoxConn promised to hire 500 workers in a $30 million plant it has yet to break ground on.
Wisconsin officials have promised $3 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies. If FoxConn hires all the workers it promises, it would take until 2042 before the state could hope to recoup its money. (Of course, the deal would have run out by then, and so FoxConn would have long since demanded more payments.)
Back to the looming labor shortage. Employers profess to be worried that they’re going to run out of workers (though there are tens of millions of folks frozen out of the labor market – far more than the jobs employers say they can’t fill). The Times quote “experts” who suggest slashing disability benefits, expanding government assistance for workers paid so little they can’t afford childcare or rent, and holding down the minimum wage because higher wages “could price some workers out of jobs” even in the face of the “looming labor shortage” the column is fretting about.
Over in Arts, the same issue reviews a book, Nomadland, about tens of thousands of older workers forced to trade in their homes for vans and old school buses, traveling from part-time job to part-time job – sometimes working for little more than a place to park their vehicles. Their ranks include “retired” teachers and aged-out software engineers. Amazon hires lots of these desperate workers, getting federal tax credits for 25 to 40 percent of the paltry wages it pays them for working in dangerous sweatshops where the company distributes free painkills to keep them working as long, and as fast, as possible.
A member of the IWW was nearly killed in Seattle Jan. 20 by neo-fascist Elizabeth Hokoana, after she and her husband Marc infiltrated anti-inauguration and Milo Yiannopoulos protests at the University of Washington’s Red Square.
Video of the protests show Mark Hokoana warning his wife “don’t shoot anyone,” “they have to start it.” He then attacked protesters with pepper spray, sparking a confrontation which ended in the shooting of Industrial Workers of the World activist Joshua Dukes, who was trying to de-escalate the situation. The Wobbly, shot in the stomach, was hospitalized for a month, underwent emergency surgeries to save his life, and is now in physical therapy.
The day before the shooting, Marc Hokoana messaged a friend on Facebook, stating, “I’m going to wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.”
Remarkably, police released the couple without charges just hours after they surrendered. They claimed to be investigating the shooting, searching Marc Hoakana’s cell phone in February. Media reports say he erased its memory before turning it over to police. “I would describe [Marc and Elizabeth] as being very polite and cooperative,” said University of Washington Police Department Major Steve Rittereiser.
One need not speculate as to how the Wobbly would have been treated had he shot one of the neo-fascists. Scores of protestors arrested the same day for demonstrating without a permit or allegedly breaking windows were held for days and are now facing felony charges.
Yet the “investigation” dragged on for more than three months before prosecutors filed assault charges against the Hokoanas April 24. They offered no explanation of why they were not bringing attempted murder charges. During the investigation, Seattle authorities – including “socialist” city councilor Kshama Sawant, a member of a Trotskyist party – kept mum, taking no action to defend the rights of Wobblies and other activists to assemble without being assaulted or killed.
Indeed, the shooting has been followed by a series of threats against University of Washington campus activists. A self-identified white supremacist told a graduate student instructor he was going to shoot her and her class; campus authorities refused to take action even after her car windows were smashed a few days later. She subsequently quit the graduate program, explaining that, “a PhD isn’t worth getting shot for.” On Feb. 15, the theater where a Shakespeare play was being performed by leading actors who were people of color was glued over with posters proclaiming, “Yellow, Black and Brown. Look out! The Nazis have come to town!”
Neo-fascists are openly organizing armed groups to carry out such attacks. In Portland, Oregon, the head of the local Republican Party called for such a force in the wake of the murder of two people who tried to stop a neo-Nazi draped in an American flag from harassing Muslim women.
In Berkeley, Kyle Chapman, charged with assault with a deadly weapon against local activists March 4, has joined other neo-fascists to organize the “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.” “Our emphasis will be on street activism, preparation, defense and confrontation,” Chapman told The Root.
Too many still look to “national liberation” struggles (as if some unitary “nation” exists, rather than exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed) or reforms within the system. In South Africa we can see every day the folly of trusting those who would act in our behalf, or who seek to accommodate our urgent needs to the constraints of the system.
“The struggle of the black working class majority of Freedom Park, South Africa, is not just for land on which to build housing – although that is obviously a central issue and key demand; nor is it just against the accompanying political and police violence and intimidation. It is a struggle against the injustice, violence and corruption of a system that puts the power, privileges and profits of a few before the lives and wellbeing of the majority.” (click on the link below for the full report)
A short (24-minute) film chronicling the solidarity of farmers along the French-Italian border who are assisting refugees despite the persecution of the state. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2017/apr/28/the-valley-rebels-the-french-farmer-helping-refugees-cross-europe-video
May 1 is International Workers’ Day, probably the most widely celebrated holiday in the world. It’s a day to remember workers’ struggles, to commemorate our martyrs, and to rededicate ourselves to building a world free of bosses and exploiters. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate – a more urgent – time for this than today.
This year there will be many events across Philadelphia, including a large downtown rally focusing on immigrant workers rights and an evening rally in West Philadelphia. The Caucus of Working Educators (a reform caucus in the teachers’ union) is urging supporters of public schools and their workers (now almost 4 years without a contract or pay raise) to strike on May Day and join a day of protests demanding workers’ rights and support for our children and their schools.
These are the events that I know about:
7:30-8:30 am: Pickets at schools with staff, parents & community in solidarity
- Unite Here is organizing a rally at the Philadelphia International Airport in solidarity with airport workers fighting to receive what the city has designated as the minimum wage that can be paid to workers employed by government agencies and their contractors. 8:30 AM: gather at the UNITE HERE office (1415 N. Broad) to board the WE ARE HUMAN bus.
- 9:30 am: Speak Out and Press Conference at PHL International Arrivals Hall, Terminal A West. At 10:30 am they will join Juntos at Dickinson Square Park at 4th and Tasker for an immigrant justice March to City Hall.
10 am: Coalition of Working Educators demonstration, rally & press conference at 440 North Broad (School Reform Commission headquarters), followed by a March to City Hall, where CWE members will be meeting with City Council members and the mayor to demand action on education
- 2 pm: Unite Here will send a delegation at LSG Skychefs, 8401 Escort Ave., demanding that they pay the city minimum wage.
- 4 pm: Picket at the Hilton Penn’s Landing in solidarity with Hilton workers
4 pm: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Educator Exit Rally Lea Elementary, 4700 Locust St (West Philly)
March to Clark Park
5 pm: May Day Rally at Clark Park, 43rd and Baltimore. Speakers, Poets, Drill Teams, Live Music, BBQ, Recognition Awards, Kids Activities and More. Sponsored by PhilaPOSH and the PA Labor History Society, and supported by over 55 area Labor and Allied Organizations.
Years ago, Charlie King wrote a song by that title. The Feb. 6 Business Week has a chart illustrating just how little sense it makes to think of products having nationalities in this age of corporate globalism.
Consider the humble automatic seat-control unit installed in car seats made (in Texas, Ontario Canada, and elsewhere) for an unidentified auto maker. It starts with a capacitator imported from Asian plants (and which of course has its own long backstory), which is bought by a contractor in Centennial, Colorado. The contractor ships the capacitors to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where it is incorporated into a circuit board (along with other parts from around the world). The circuit board is then shipped across the border to a warehouse in neighboring El Paso, Texas; according to Business Week for the purpose of avoiding paying Mexico’s value-added tax. It’s then shipped to Matamoros, Mexico, where workers at a Norwegian-owned factory assemble the circuit board (along with other parts from around the world) into a seat actuator, the electrical device that adjusts the seat with the press of a button. The finished control unit is then shipped to seat assembly plants in Arlington, Texas, Mississauga, Ontario, and elsewhere, to be incorporated into car seats, which will then be installed in cars incorporating countless other parts that have been engaged in their own journeys around the world.
The whole process is enormously wasteful, of course. Workers’ time and natural resources are exhausted moving billions of items in an endless circuit of the world, for one or two minor processes before they are shipped somewhere else. It’s done to seek out the cheapest labor, to avoid taxes and pesky environmental regulations, and to weaken the power of unions.
The New York Times’ resident liberal economics columnist, Paul Krugman, illustrated in his Monday column why the Democrats have little hope of persuading the Trump voters – and, more importantly, the tens of millions who refused to vote for either candidate – that they have any understanding of the lives of working people, let alone any ideas of how to improve them.
Krugman takes understandable exception to the Trumpster’s long litany of lies, about the empty stands at his inauguration, the epidemic of crime allegedly sweeping our country (Trump is of course not referring to his refusal to pay his workers, his fraudulent University, and the like), etc. Then Krugman gets to the point:
Listening to Mr. Trump, you might have thought America was in the midst of a full-scale depression, with ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.’ Manufacturing employment is indeed down since 2000, but overall employment is way up, and the unemployment rate is low…
And it’s not just one number that looks pretty good. Rising wages and the growing number of Americans confident enough to quit their jobs suggest an economy close to full employment…
And perhaps they do, to an economist so mired in mainstream thinking that he can not look out the window at the real lives of working people.
The unemployment rate is indeed down (officially 4.7%, which economists – who draw healthy pay checks opining about such things – consider full employment, even though it means tens of millions are deprived of access to the necessities of life); but primarily because the job market is so dismal that huge numbers of people have given up looking for work. This is particularly the case in industrial and mining regions, where finding work often means scrambling for part-time hours in a minimum wage job that won’t bring in enough to put food on the table (not that these workers can afford a table, or a house to put it in).
Employers claim they’re having trouble finding “qualified” workers. This is partly a reflection of computer screening programs that reject people with too much experience, but also those with not enough; if a resume’s language doesn’t exactly match the criteria some coder who never worked the job put in, into the discard pile it goes. And of course anyone accustomed to earning a living wage with benefits won’t get a second look. But it also reflects a fundamental shift in how employers hire. A few decades ago, they figured they’d hold onto workers for several years, and so were willing to invest a few days or a few weeks training them to do the work. But now, workers are disposable; hired by the gig, or the shift, or the week. So the bosses want them to be ready to be 100% productive the instant they step on the shop floor (and, of course, to squeeze extra productivity out of them by making them work off the clock, do the work of 3 or 4 people, etc.)
If there were jobs on offer at which it was possible to earn a living, there are millions and millions of workers who would jump at them. Ironically, offering such jobs would cause the unemployment rate to skyrocket. More people would have jobs, of course, but this hint of prosperity would encourage others to look for work, like the former student I bumped in today who graduated college eight months ago but figures there’s no point looking for work – in part because he (not incorrectly) believes there’s no good jobs out there, and in part because he’s trying to get a criminal conviction off his record so that he has a shot of getting past the application screening to an interview.
Krugman says things are likely to get worse – much worse – before they get better, and absent a lot of organization and struggle he’s probably right. But things are plenty bad already, and when these liberal pundits try and sell their Pollyanna stories about how great things are they only remind people how out of touch those at the top really are.
Things are going well for those at the top. Not only the infamous 1 percenters. The 5 percenters are doing pretty well too. But half the population is struggling to hold on to the standard of living they “enjoyed” back in the mid-1970s (it wasn’t that enjoyable; there were lots of strikes by workers demanding to be treated like human beings), and a fairly large number of our fellow workers are substantially worse off than they were five decades ago. Telling them that things have never been better (for those at the top) just won’t cut it.
It’s official. 2016 was the hottest year on record. Average global temperatures broke the record set in 2015 (which broke the record set in 2014).
Three years in a row of record rising temperatures. The New York Times reports:
the Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.
One can not accuse the polytricksters of ignoring the situation. No, they are doing their level best to speed the process of super-heating our atmosphere with hot air, subsidies to the petroleum and coal industries, and a host of other policies that endanger not only the long-term survival of our ecosystem and our species, but even the mid-range prospects for millions of our fellow human beings.
Why? It’s not because they hate us. It’s because the solutions to climate change require actions that would undermine profits and reduce the power of the billionaires who actually rule. If they saw a way to save the planet while increasing their profits, they’d do it. But anything that would reduce their wealth and their power is, quite literally, unthinkable.
If we care about climate change, if we care about our planet, the only realistic – the only practical – option is to organize a massive anti-capitalist movement, in our workplaces and in our communities, to rid ourselves of the parasites who are endangering all of us with their reckless greed.
The Times has an explainer piece for those who want some background: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/science/earth/2016-hottest-year-on-record.html (It has a neat chart tracking the steady rise in average temperatures) ASR has published several pieces on the fight against climate change, including one in our Winter 2017 issue.
At American Historical Association conference right now — tomorrow am part of a panel on a long-lived Polish weekly whose editor was once a Knights of Labor editor but when he became successful busted the Typographers in his print shop and informed on Polish radicals to the FBI. But that is not the point of this post…
This year the AHA Presidential Address by Patrick Manning focussed on the need for a global research project into inequality, much like the 30 years of research into climate change. The climate change research, he noted, started with inadequate data of rising CO2 levels from a single observation site, but over the years researchers developed a systematic program of research such that today the dimensions of this crisis are pretty well understood and all that remains is to act on that knowledge in order to save humanity and the ecosystem.
Similarly, he suggests, the work of Piketty and others has put inequality on the table, but these studies look only at a few comparatively wealthy societies across a relatively short span of time. He wants to see historians, economists and others systematically gather data on various aspects of inequality so that we can documents its extent, historic trends, and speak authoritatively about its effects. (He repeatedly referred to inequality as a crisis, so it’s clear that he has a pretty good idea of the effects, but would like more empirical support.) Such a research agenda (and he is working with a center that has established an open source online repository for research data) could, he believes, lay the foundation for action.
During his speech (I am sure the AHA ultimately publishes its presidential addresses, but I am working off memory here), he noted that society has traditionally dealt with the inequality problem either through redistribution (taxes, social welfare and the like), or by pursuing economic growth policies that, economists would have us believe (and this is an area where he would like more data), will lift the poor out of poverty without inconveniencing the rich. I didn’t hear the connection made explicit, but it seems clear that there can not be unlimited economic growth, and that not all growth (for example, in weapons production or in production of luxury homes) is desirable. And that this is linked to the crisis of climate change.
It would be nice, of course, if data resolved matters. We know, beyond any doubt, that climate change is an urgent crisis. But that does not mean the politicians or those who run industry have the slightest interest in doing anything about it if such action might disrupt their profits or business as usual. Quite the contrary, and so while the compilation and dissemination of this information performs a vital social function, organizing and direct action in defense of our interests (and the interests of the entire ecosystem) is even more vital. The question of income inequality is similar. We know it is growing rapidly, and long ago reached obscene levels. But there is certainly a great deal of useful information that could be gathered, and analysis that could be done. It is interesting that the head of the largest organization of academic historians recognized global economic inequality as one of the major issues of the day, and apparently the research project he intends to pursue for the next several years. I hope the project is successful, but ultimately inequality will not be resolved through better data, but through better organization and more determined action. The rich already know they’re filthy rich, and they damn well want to keep it that way.
Cuban anarchist Gustavo Rodríguez penned the following in response to the wave of idolatry sweeping the internet; several social media sites posted and then removed it. “Y se fue Fidel” in the original Spanish is available online at: http://periodicoellibertario.blogspot.fr/2016/12/y-se-fue-fidel-vision-de-un-exiliado.html David Fernández-Barrial translated it into English; the full text can be found at http://ideasandaction.info/2017/01/fidel-left/
Fidel did not die last night. He’s been a corpse for a decade. It was fitting that regular Cubans on the street baptized him with the name “the unburied.” His death occurred at the moment when he was already demoted to being an insular Caesar and had passed the scepter and absolute power to his younger brother… From then on he was bent behind the scenes, limiting his performances to sporadic public appearances where his fulminating decrepitude became more and more evident…
At last, the great gravedigger of the Cuban Revolution has left. The sad undertaker of all the dreams of freedom and autonomy long cherished by generations of tireless revolutionaries. … The megalomaniac and self-centered Caribbean Duce has departed. …
Finally, the dictator is dead. Now we have to kill the Fidel that we all have inside us. Sadly, thousands of puppets still swarm along the two shores ready to embody that spirit. The snake is dead but the egg survives. Fidel has disappeared from the face of the earth, however, fidelismo still persists. That sad joke, that putrid jumble of rapacious opportunism, of galloping nationalism, paralyzing populism, and backwoods fascism, still lingers, obscuring the present and threatening the future…