workers freedom

economics as if workers mattered

The arrogance of the economic elite

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.

asr64 coverThe 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.


Destroying the planet for profit

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: (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.


Studying Inequality

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.


On the death of Fidel…

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: David Fernández-Barrial translated it into English; the full text can be found at

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…


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.