workers freedom

economics as if workers mattered

Anarcho-Syndicalism Today

I will be speaking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Thursday, Jan. 12.

Anarcho-Syndicalism Today: a presentation by Jon Bekken
at the Democracy Center, 45 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge
Thursday, January 12, 2017 – 7:00 p.m.

Anarcho-syndicalism (also referred to as revolutionary syndicalism) is a theory of anarchism which views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of an economy and, with that control, influence broader society. Syndicalists consider their economic theories a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as an alternative co-operative economic system with democratic values and production centered on meeting human needs.

Sponsored by the Boston Labor Support Committee


ASR 69: Trumpocolypse

asr-69-coverAnarcho-Syndicalist Review 69 (Winter 2017) is on the press, and will ship to subscribers in early January.

This issue features a special section on anarchist responses to resisting the Trumpocolypse, as well as articles on fighting capitalism to save the planet, a special section looking back on the First International and the battle between the emerging anarchist and Marxist currents, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and reviews of new books on anarchism in Bulgaria and the United States, a biography of Frank Little, and more…

“Private Enterprise”

A giant mall is slowly being built by the Triple Five development group on a former wetlands across from New York City. Triple Five also built the Mall of America, in Minnesota. Recognizing that no one wants to go to a small city devoted entirely to shopping, they’re sprinkling in movie theaters, a waterpark and  year-round ski slope, and more. It is already very expensive, and several years behind schedule. Sevin Yildiz, who teaches urban studies at Barnard College and is working on a book on the fiasco, says it might never get done. “I don’t think the state believes the promises of the deelopers anymore, but it’s too huge to fail. … That’s what keeps it going.”

But while the developers will control this megalopolis and control the profits (if any), they are not putting up the money. The state of New Jersey has ponied up tax breaks and other incentives worth nearly $1 billion, and backed another $1.15 billion in municipal bonds. The developers are putting in $350 million of their own money. Triple Five hopes to raise another $1.5 billion from investors, Businessweek says. In exchange, they promise tens of thousands of jobs.

Leaving aside the question of whether humanity would be better served by preserving wetlands than by creating indoor ski slopes and temples to consumerism, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority estimates that the project will provide a net benefit (after the tax breaks and other expenses from public coffers) of just $730 million over two decades. And that assumes, unlike their other projects, that Triple Five doesn’t return for more hand-outs. The Authority does believe some 11,000 jobs will be created, but says most won’t pay enough to cover the rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the surrounding county. (Presumably food banks can put food on the table, if the workers can scrounge up enough money for a table and a place to put it.)

AFL-sponsored company unions

The current BusinessWeek reports yet another example of the “innovative” thinking that has led the American labor movement to its present, sorry, state: company unionism. The International Association of Machinists has signed a five-year deal with Uber to operate a company union called the Independent Drivers Guild. The operation’s website claims it’s a joint project of “independent drivers” and the IAM which will represent drivers in (mandatory – drivers are forced to sign away their rights to sue, and Uber prohibits them from unionizing) arbitration hearings, sell them low-cost insurance plans and other “benefits” (much like the Union Privilege credit cards and other scams the AFL was peddling under Lane Kirkland), and lobby government and regulators on the drivers’ behalf.

Uber pays for the entire operation, chooses its “union” partners, selects the arbitrators (in consultation with its hired union), and dictates the issues around which the “union” will “advocate” for its “members.”

The IAM-sponsored Independent Drivers Guild has been granted “representation” of Uber drivers in New York City, and has pledged to lobby the state for lower taxes on Uber rides. Uber says that if they win, it will share the savings with drivers in the form of a IDG-managed benefits scheme. Earlier, the IDG fronted for Uber in fighting regulators’ efforts to impose a 12-hour cap on drivers’ shifts. They lost that fight in July, but implementation of the 12-hour day (presently Uber drivers can work shifts that never end) has been delayed.

Uber hatched this scheme to fend off bona fide labor organizing efforts. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has been pursuing a class action lawsuit on behalf of Uber drivers seeking labor rights, while the Amalgamated Transit Union has gathered union authorization cards from thousands of Uber drivers, and has been pressing for a union representation election.

The Machinists are trying to expand the IDG into Pennsylvania, and Uber is seeking similar deals around the country. In California, the Teamsters are launching a similar company union scheme. “Unlike some other unions that have to continue putting up a fight just to look relevant to their members, we don’t necessarily have to,” Teamsters vice president Rome Aloise told BusinessWeek.


Clinton’s murder of Ricky Ray Rector

On January 24, 1992, I joined a few dozen civil rights and peace activists outside Bill Clinton’s home to protest his decision to promote his political career by murdering Ricky Ray Rector. Clinton, then Arkansas’ governor, had flown home from the campaign trail for a day specifically for the execution — hoping this judicial murder of a mentally retarded African-American man would bolster his political fortunes by demonstrating that he was “tough on crime.” (It was one of several Clinton “triangulation” moves during the campaign, and during his presidency, in which he abused African-Americans in order to curry favor with conservatives.)

Ricky Ray Rector was not innocent. He had shot a man in a fit of anger, fled, and then shot and killed the police officer who came to arrest him. Smart enough to recognize that there was no future in Arkansas for a black man who killed a police officer, Rector turned his gun on himself, blowing out a good chunk of his brain. Police rushed him to the hospital, where he was patched up and sent to jail. Basically lobotomized, with an IQ measured at 63, Rector could not recall his murders or assist his attorneys at trial. Before his grisly execution (it took nearly an hour of poking at his veins to administer the lethal injection), Rector ate his last dinner. He set aside his slice of pecan pie; when the guards asked why he said that he would eat it after the execution.

Ricky Ray Rector never got to eat that piece of pie. Bill Clinton had him killed because he thought it would get him some votes. He went on to give us the crime bill, welfare “reform,” “don’t ask don’t tell,” and an economic bonanza for the richest among us. On Friday he’s speaking at Albright College, where I teach, in support of his wife’s candidacy. I won’t be there, but I can’t help wondering where she was while her husband was killing Ricky Ray Rector. I know she wasn’t out there with us, on the picket line.

A rigged system

In “The Labor Party Illusion,” Sam Dolgoff notes the enormous practical difficulties facing any effort to reshape the government in the interests of the majority through electoral action. The system is quite literally rigged, through artful drawing of electoral districts, restrictions on the franchise (even today, millions of Americans are denied the “right” to vote based on lack of a drivers’ license, legal status, lack of a fixed address, or past criminal convictions), a governmental structure deliberately designed to restrain the majority (the Federalist Papers are quite clear about this), and of course the role of money. (He also points out that even were it practical to place workers’ “representatives” in charge, this would neither bring about a democratic society nor result in fundamental social transformation — the state is an organ for controlling the majority, and as long as a few control society’s wealth, the politicians will do their bidding.)

Lest anyone think this is a historical problem, the Sept. 26 Business Week notes that were presidents elected the same way Congressional representatives are, Mitt Romney would have won the White House in a landslide in 2012 (instead of losing by 3.5 million votes). Congressional districts have been carefully drawn to minimize the influence of workers and racial minorities. Although both houses of Congress are firmly in Republican hands, Democrats (not that they’re much better) routinely receive far more votes for their candidates.

Although it seems she’s doing her level best to lose (like Al Gore before her), it still seems likely that Hillary Clinton will be elected president. This will mean a larger military budget, more bombs dropped on the heads of our fellow workers around the world, more people in prison, and a continuation of the all-out assault on the tattered remains of our social safety net. (Trump offers a more reckless version of the same, flavored with lightly veiled promises to reinforce white supremacy.) But there is practically no chance of the Democrats taking over the House, and so the political struggles of the next four years will be between Hillary’s ruthless conservatism and the even-more-violent reactionaries in Congress.

Unless, of course, we organize a real movement in our workplaces and communities, and use direct action to get the goods.

New ASR Available

ASR 68 (Fall 2016)

Forced into the “gig economy”

Last year, one of my daughter’s teachers worked as a waitress on the side, in order to keep up with the bills and student loan payments. When the administrators pushed her around one time too many (they closed our neighborhood school so the state could sell the building, so we’re in a charter and the teachers aren’t in the union, which has gone years working under an expired contract with no pay raises), she quit, figuring she could make as much waiting tables as teaching, and with a lot less aggravation.

This week’s Nation has an interesting article about teachers spending their evenings and weekends driving for Uber and Lyft, so they can make their rent and car payments. (Alissa Quart, “Driven to Extremes,” Sept. 26, pp. 22-25) Many are veteran teachers unable to make ends meet in some of the country’s wealthiest cities. They grade papers and prep classes while waiting for calls.

Uber has a division focused on reaching out to underpaid teachers, allegedly as an act of “civic altruism.” Teachers can’t make ends meet, and so Uber offers them a chance to work longer hours at even less pay! A teacher on Uber’s website puts it this way:

Every day teachers are asked to do more with less, constantly faced with new challenges and limited resources. Uber opens the door for more possibilities and delivers a meaningful impact to the communities we serve.

And as Uber cuts payments to drivers, they can always give up the apartment, move their stuff into the car trunk, and keep taking fares all night long. For the bosses, it’s a win-win situation. For the rest of us, it’s a sign of the times…

Economy Booming – For the Top 5%

U.S. Census data released in mid-September shows that 2015 wages rose significantly for the well-off; a result newspapers heralded as strong wage increases that were pulling millions out of poverty. Although wages for the top 5 percent are up 3 percent since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, those in the bottom fifth are still down 5.2 percent in inflation-adjusted income. (Workers in the bottom 80 percent have lost ground across the board, but the poorest workers were hit the hardest.) And while women workers are now making more than they were in 1973, though still significantly less than their male counterparts, men’s wages are $2,152 less, after inflation, than in 1973. (The Economic Policy Institute has an unduly optimistic take here.)

The growth in 2015 income is mostly attributed to workers taking on more hours, often in the form of second jobs, and partly to what the government claims was 0% inflation (though those having to pay rent, go to the hospital, or buy groceries will likely have had a different experience).

Trusting Hillary

The current issue of Business Week includes an interview with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in which he says he trusts Hillary Clinton:

I’ve talked to her. I’ve looked into her eyes. I think I know people pretty well… I don’t have any concern that she’s going to double back on us after the election…

It’s this kind of discernment and judgment and respect for authority that’s gotten the American labor movement where it is today. (A chart accompanying the interview notes that U.S. union membership has dropped from 29% of the U.S. workforce to 11% over the past 50 years — which masks a much steeper drop in private sector union membership, offset to some extent by greater organization of government workers.)

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party platform doesn’t even promise to block the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade sell-out, which Trumka trusts Hillary to jettison (not that such pledges mean anything; I remember when the Dems used to promise to repeal Taft-Hartley, but even when they controlled all branches of government they lifted not a finger to do so – indeed, I remember “friend of labor” Jimmy Carter Taft-Harleying the coal miners, for all the good it did [they ignored the injunction, wielded their industrial power, and won their strike, proving once again that direct action gets the goods]). Since both Hillary and Bernie claimed to oppose the TPP, the fact that the platform is mum on the issue says something about who really runs the Democratic Party…

We’re also promised immigration reform, a higher minimum wage, environmental protections, and a host of other things that, if delivered, might actually incrementally improve people’s lives. But anyone who holds their breath waiting had better hope they keel over unconscious before irreversible brain damage sets in. Case in point: the deporter in chief (who during his first run for president pledged that he would put on a comfy pair of shoes and walk the picketline, should workers face attack, but somehow hasn’t managed to find even a single strike worth supporting since taking up residence in the White House his wife aptly notes was built, in part, by slaves) continues imprisoning women and children at record rates, and deporting our undocumented fellow workers at rates that make the Bushes look downright friendly. It’s gotten so ugly that even crazed xenophobe Glenn Beck organized a convoy to deliver teddy bears and toys to the imprisoned toddlers.

But Trumka trusts the Democrats. Perhaps he trusts the bosses as well (after all, they own the Democratic Party lock, stock and barrel). Nothing worth winning was ever accomplished by groveling before the polytricksters, or listening to their lies. Direct action gets the goods.