economics as if workers mattered
Tag Archives: direct action
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.
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
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
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.
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.
More than a thousand low-wage textile workers were killed last year in Bangladesh, because their bosses were so fixated on maximizing production that they ordered workers back into a building they knew was on the verge of collapse. How different is this from the 1911 Triangle Fire in New York City, when low-wage textile workers were burned to death or died leaping from windows to escape the flames? Or the 25 chicken processing workers who died in North Carolina in a 1991 fire because the boss had chained the emergency exit doors shut in order to make sure no one snuck out with a couple of chickens?
Workers were dying by the thousands for profits a century ago, and we are dying by the hundreds of thousands around the world to this day. Sometimes we die quickly, in fires and other disasters; sometimes the deaths linger over months or years. (The International Labour Organization estimates more than 2 million workers die each year of work-related diseases and “accidents,” most of which are entirely preventable.)
One principle always holds: the lower the pay, the more dangerous the job. You don’t see the CEO who pulls in millions of dollars working in dilapidated buildings with no working fire escapes or sprinklers. The corporate farmer who sprays farm workers with toxic chemicals is not in the fields breathing the poisons himself. No fashion designer ever came down with brown lung. And Starbucks’ CEO is in no danger from the repetitive stress injuries that plague his workers.
As we are editing this year’s calendar, thousands of fast food workers are mounting strikes and other job actions in dozens of cities across the United States, demanding a living wage and decent working conditions. They don’t have union protections, they don’t have any meaningful protection from discrimination and abuse, they don’t have health insurance for them or their kids.
But the fast food bosses would have you know that they care. Realizing that it’s hard for its workers to live on the minimum wages and irregular schedules McDonald’s prefers, the company now makes financial planners available to help workers manage their money. Only it turns out not to be so easy, and so those financial planners had to resort to budgeting 80 hours of pay a week (at different jobs, of course, since McDonald’s has no intention of paying anyone overtime) in order to get enough income to survive.
That’s not surprising. The strikers have been demanding a $15 an hour wage from the fast food giants, recognizing that it takes that much just to get by. (Fifty years ago, the widely celebrated National March for Jobs and Justice demanded a $2-an-hour minimum wage – adjusted for inflation, that works out to more than $15 an hour today.) But employers refuse even to discuss the matter, and media pundits (who never worked a minimum wage job in their lives) have dismissed the demand as a utopian fantasy.
When the tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, began their long campaign for a living wage, they noted that it would cost the fast food joints and other customers only about a penny a pound to double their wages. It took years of picketing before a few companies agreed to pay that pittance; many still refuse. (In June 2013, Mexican authorities freed some 275 tomato workers in Jalisco from slave-like conditions; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ organizing in Florida has led to over 1,200 tomato pickers being freed from modern-day slavery in Florida, and a few years ago to an agreement by growers to no longer tolerate slavery in the fields.)
The harder the work, the lower the pay. And the lower the pay, the more likely the bosses are to turn to children and slavery to make their profits. The global chocolate industry, for example, depends upon child and slave labor to ensure rock-bottom prices for cocoa beans. The transnational corporations that profit off this abuse do not hire children or purchase slaves themselves, of course; they just keep demanding lower prices from producers, and then turn a blind eye to the consequences of their insatiable greed.
The international garment industry works the same way, as does the trade in computer components and other high-end gadgets. Everyone loses in this global race to the bottom, except for the bosses.
Millions of workers are losing ground every day, working harder to produce more to get less. And if we raise a peep of protest, they threaten to move the work somewhere else.
That’s true in the sweatshops of New York City, where the threat of replacement by low-wage workers in dismal firetraps in Bangladesh hangs over workers’ heads. It’s true in Bangladesh, where the bosses point out that they can always find someone even more desperately poor to exploit. It’s true in Haiti, where U.S. State Department officials demand that workers’ wages be held down so that corporate profits are not damaged.
Workers everywhere pay a heavy price for letting the bosses run the economy. It’s no different in the United States.
U.S. inflation-adjusted wages have fallen for the “bottom 70 percent” since 2002, even though productivity rose by 25 percent. (That’s a mighty big bottom; very few workers are making it in this economy. Things are of course very much worse at the lowest income levels.) And fewer of us are working, making the misery even worse.
But this is not just a product of the “Great Recession,” itself a global catastrophe brought on by the untrammeled greed of our economic masters. No, conditions for most workers have been getting steadily worse for decades. In 2011, 57 percent of U.S. households earned less than $60,000 – many much less. Given that the vast majority of those households were putting in at least 80 hours a week (two people holding down jobs; in many poorer households, of course, the adults have two or three jobs, and children are working too), the average wage is less than $15 an hour. Every living wage study has found that that’s barely enough to get by – which is why the fast food workers strikes have been demanding a $15 minimum.
Half of all American households are just barely getting by, living paycheck to paycheck with no cushion for survival if they lose one of their jobs or an emergency strikes.
Things really were better 50 years ago. Not for everyone, of course. Corporate executives had trouble affording third homes and personal shoppers and private jets. Now they’re rolling in so much cash they haven’t a clue what to do with it, and so they fling it at politicians and speculators with wild abandon.
In 2012 the top 1 percent received 19 percent of U.S. household incomes (about the same level as in 1929), Moreover, when you add in the next 9 percent’s ill-gotten gains, 10 percent of U.S. households have 30 percent or more of household incomes. To make this possible, it is necessary for at least 50 percent of American households to have a wage rate of less than $15.00 per hour. (Wealth, of course, is even more concentrated, as the rich do not need to spend most of their income on living.)
Low wages are not an accident. They are tied to the sky-high “wages” of the top 10 percent. And those who receive these low wages can only buy cheap stuff; buying that cheap stuff made and sold by other low-wage workers keeps the vicious cycle going. If workers did not earn such low wages, companies like WalMart could not exist.
No one’s work is free from the danger of becoming low-wage work. The wage we receive, just like the hours we work, is in no way a reflection of our skill level, nor of the importance of the work. Many workers do not earn even enough to sustain life, and so are forced to take multiple jobs or scrounge from dumps or turn to soup kitchens for survival.
Often, people doing the same work on the same job site receive radically different pay. This is true of warehouse workers (many are employed through subcontractors and so work by the day for a fraction of the pay, while a small core has higher pay and steady work), of retail workers (full-time staff typically earn far more than the part-timers, whose “flexibility” is so essential to allowing the bosses to extract maximum profits), of auto workers (the subcontracting never stops, and the further down the line of precarity one is, the more dangerous the work and the lower the pay), of teachers (many of whom are now forced into part-time positions paying a fourth or less per course of the full-time rates)…
In many countries, forming a union – or at least a union under the control of workers, rather than of the employers or the government – is illegal. In others, a combination of anti-labor laws and a complete lack of enforcement of the minimal protections that workers are supposed to enjoy, make forming an officially recognized union nearly impossible. As a result (and also because too many unions have limited their vision to what the law countenances), less than 1 in 14 private sector workers in the U.S. has union protection, even though half of all workers say they’d like to be in a union.
But a union is simply workers acting together to defend their interests. And because all wealth is created by labor, even “unorganized” workers have substantial power on the job which means that many workplace struggles can be won. Having won even modest gains, we have built the foundations – including the realization of our own nascent power – to take on bigger fights.
Workers at businesses from car washes to Wal-Mart are winning wage hikes and other improvements by acting union, by taking action even when there is little to no immediate prospect of union recognition.
We are often told that in this race-to-the-bottom economy, the best we can hope for is to hold on to the few scraps we have. But it isn’t true. Our wages have been stagnating (and for many falling) even as productivity has continued to increase. The bosses are moving production overseas (and sometimes moving it back again, having concluded that our fellow workers overseas are getting too uppity), slashing wages and benefits, and speeding up our work not because they’re going broke. No, they just want even more profits, and to hire even more parasites to supervise and market and generally live off the wealth we produce. In a great many workplaces, the bosses could easily afford to double wages – but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it unless they’re forced to.
Some critics seem to suggest that capitalism would be fine if the bosses could only be made to pay higher wages. But why should the bosses care how workers live so long as the capitalists and their lackies live well? Capitalism has no interest in the welfare of workers. While fighting for higher wages is a good thing, and fighting for safer working conditions even better; the only way to really improve workers’ conditions is to get rid of capitalism – since it is an economic system that has at its core the immiseration of workers for the benefit of the capitalists.
UPDATE: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the demolition continued even though the building’s owner had written city officials warning that “This nonsense must end before someone is seriously injured or worse: those are headlines none of us want to see or read.” STB Investments was upset because the Salvation Army, which owned the adjacent property, had rejected its efforts to purchase and demolish the building and was insisting on protections for its store and its contents during the demolition process. When the Salvation Army would not agree to STB’s terms, it evidently proceeded to proceed in what it itself had warned was a highly dangerous manner, with the result that several people were killed. Neither the city nor the Salvation Army stepped in to force a halt to this reckless behavior, though the demolition site was visited by city and federal safety inspectors.
Last week, in Central Philadelphia, a building in the process of demolition by a low-bid, non-union contractor collapsed, killing six people in an adjacent thrift store and injuring many more. It appears that the collapse was caused by a failure to follow standard procedures including bracing the walls, and by using heavy equipment to knock down the structure without regard for the safety of those nearby.
Working In These Times has a report that OSHA was called in to the pre-collapse building site by union workers (at a nearby job) concerned by what they saw, but the Agency failed to shut down the job despite unsafe conditions that were obvious to the union workers (and now to all of us). Relying on government agencies to protect us against the bosses is a dangerous game — the responsible thing (and it would have saved lives, but been roundly condemned by the boss press) would have been for the union to organize a flying squad to go in and shut the job down: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/15122/osha_visited_philly_building_collapse_site_but_did_not_shut_it_down/
This is what comes of relying on government regulators to protect our lives. It would have been far better if the union members, having noticed the unsafe conditions, had marched on the job site and shut it down through direct action. Then six of our fellow workers would still be alive, though of course the boss press would have screamed about union thuggery and the gumpets would have demanded that we work through “proper channels.” But our fellow workers would still be alive, and the bosses would have been taught a valuable lesson — that there are limits to their callous disregard for our lives and our planet.