July 19, 2015 § 4 Comments
I keep thinking about Thomas Piketty and the relentlessly increasing degree of wealth and income inequality he describes. Every month when a new report comes out and news anchors talk about the state of our economy, the story is, “Our economy is doing better, but wage rates are lagging.” The working class is going back to work, but they’re not being paid as much for their work. As the Chicanos say, “Mucho trabajo. Poco dinero.” [Actually the rest of this old toast, which I will edit, goes “Ching**** tu madre. Viva Madero!” LIke most gringos, I learned to curse in Spanish before I learned anything else.]
I’ve been thinking about what governments should do to reverse this process. I now believe my reasoning has been flawed. Government policies are based on political power. A tiny percentage of our voting population exercises giant influence on government policy. Their influence results from control of money contributed to candidates and so-called “PACs”. In other words, their money translates to political power.
Our state and federal capitols are brokerage houses where political power shapes bargains between the interests of the wealthy and interests of the working class. There is a growing imbalance of that power. So, the solution to the inequality described by Piketty must focus on that imbalance.
The Private Sector
There is another component to Piketty’s inequality: In our capitalist system most bargains are struck in the private sector, between workers and employers. There, again, is a glaring imbalance of power. When I look and listen to the political rhetoric leading toward the 2015 election season, I hear and see nothing about this private sector power imbalance. I don’t believe redistribution of wealth through reform of the tax system will occur unless it is accompanied by a re-balancing of bargaining power in the private sector.
That private sector re-balancing can be accomplished only if workers are allowed to use their power the same way that employers use theirs: By making strategic choices of how and where they use their power. Employers control where and how to invest their money. Workers must be allowed to control where and how they invest their work.
How can workers empower that control? There are three ways. First, workers have the power to control where and how they and their supporters consume goods and services. That power is called boycott. Second, workers have the power to control where and how they work. That power is called the power to strike. Third, workers have the power to use social media, mass media and the internet to recruit and persuade their families and supporters to join them in their struggles and bargains with owners and managers.
Politicians who seek support of working class Americans should support workers’ rights to exercise all three of those powers. Union organizing should be facilitated and encouraged. Campaign rhetoric should feature lifting legal restrictions on secondary boycotts. Politicians who rely on the votes of workers should show up on the picket lines of labor disputes and worker demonstrations seeking workplace justice.
The problem with “Occupy Wall Street” was its focus on a workplace where the working class could not exercise power. Fast food chains and retail shopping chains are appropriate targets for worker power, not Wall Street. The labor movement needs to broaden its focus and labor’s political allies need to join in that effort.
Making Political Parties Relevant
It is absurd that Scott Walker is basing a strong political challenge in Wisconsin on his union busting credentials. Every Democratic candidate should spend time in Wisconsin denouncing him as an enemy of worker justice.
The deafening silence of Democratic Party leaders concerning issues discussed here threatens to render the Party irrelevant to the most pressing issues of our time. We cannot correct unjust distribution of power in our country as long as every mention of Bernie Sanders by the TV talking heads includes dismissive comments comparing him to Hillary Clinton. We have intelligent, experienced attractive political leaders. Our problem is: They fear to speak the truth about wealth inequality. That injustice will not be solved by government hand-outs. It will be solved by empowering the working class and re-balancing bargaining between workers and employers.
How Can Low Wage Employees be Organized?
We need new models for strikes. It is unrealistic to expect workers earning minimum wage incomes to walk off jobs and stay off until employment contracts are negotiated. Social media could be used to direct carefully planned one-day strikes. The workers in a particular location can be recruited and given a coded direction and asked to keep it secret. When all, or a majority, of the staff at a particular location have agreed, they wait for an email or twitter message with the code phrase. The next day, they fail to show up for work. The next day they return to work. If this works, the pattern of low-wage targets could be like the bumpers in a pinball machine.
Of course, the chain could fire all of them, but that would compound the disruption of its business. If the recruitment process occurs in multiple locations, a retaliatory one-day shut-down at another location would discourage the mass discharge strategy. Also, the present labor laws have protection for “concerted activity” and there might be a remedy for management’s retaliatory discharge.
What I am suggesting is a strategy requiring months of preliminary planning and education. An online campaign to identify employees of a specific chain in a specific area should precede “one-day pinball strikes”. Google has a program called “Google Groups” available for this kind of organizing. I assume it would attract “fink” members who would rat out the workers, but unions have been surviving finks forever. There are risks in any strategy.
Suppose a campaign to organize MacDonald employees: Justice At McDonalds “JAM”. A JAM Google Group would be created. Some cheap radio advertising would invite McDonalds employees to sign on the JAM group. Joiners would be identified by email addresses. Some pamphlets would be handed to some McDonalds employees at shift change times. When the recruitment campaign has progressed far enough, a meeting would be scheduled at a community center or a church.
After most or all of the employees at a particular McDonalds were identified, the above “pinball one-day strike” procedure would be implemented.
This kind of organizing would be initiated by one or more of our established unions. The Teamsters or SEIU (Service Employees International Union) are likely candidates. They would not be trying to organize the fast food workers into their union. This would follow the model of the Mine Workers launching the Steelworkers in the ’30’s. Minimum wage workers at McDonalds would not be able to pay the dues of a major international union and their needs differ from those of the sponsoring union. The JAM members would elect their own leaders.
The established unions could offer training, money and advice, but not domination and incorporation. This would have to be done carefully because established unions have assets and are vulnerable to damage suits. The kind of JAM union I am suggesting should take care to operate without assets. It should operate like an AA organization. No dues, some hat-passing at meetings, no buildings, no vehicles. Some friendly groups might contribute funds for particular projects. This “business model” would discourage creative corporate lawyers from filing law suits complaining about boycotts, trespassing, trade libel etc. Judgement proof is handy insulation from damage suits.
I can’t anticipate the goals of a JAM union. I would suggest a simplified contract with a “just cause” requirement for discipline or discharge, a grievance procedure and some small increase in the wage scales.
80% of McDonalds restaurants are owned by franchisees. This would complicate collective bargaining but this could be overcome by targeting a few of the most popular locations in an area, posting a prominent sign at those with JAM contracts and waging a boycott campaign against those who refuse the JAM effort. This would follow the model of the New Deal’s “Blue Eagle” campaign. That was ruled unconstitutional by a recalcitrant Supreme Court. Because JAM boycotts would not be sponsored by the government, constitutional issues would not apply.
These Sunday afternoon musings are born of frustration. I have small confidence that a political system dependent on billion dollar contributors will ever redistribute the wealth necessary to save America’s working class from wage slavery and global exploitation. Nibbling around the edges of the problem will not work. The descamisados must be organized because they are numerous enough to counter the money-driven forces of wealth.
May 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last Thursday evening I read three articles. two new and one old, that, for me, were like being in the woods at night, lost and lonely, stumbling over fallen tree branches, feeling fear that began in the pit of my stomach and ended in my throat, then emerging on to a clearing where, a half mile away, a coal oil lamp cast a pale yellow glow from a window. Sometimes the future and the past loom so dark that the friendly light of intelligent hope is more comforting than stimulating.
One of the articles was a biographical character study of Bernie Sanders, the man with a distinctive accent and usually unkempt hair; the socialist candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination to become president of the United States. Here is a link: Sanders . It was easy for me to identify with him, not only because of his political beliefs but also because of his personal history. He spent the early years of his adult life engaged in futile political efforts. He wrote articles advocating policies that were generally ignored by his fellow citizens of Vermont. He lost four statewide races, two for state senate and two for governor. He was finally elected mayor of Burlington, his first job with a salary sufficient to finance a middle class life style.
I can identify with that history, although, instead of losing statewide races as a candidate, I worked on the staff of candidates who lost statewide races. My record was 0-6.
I found the title for this essay in a vignette from Bernie’s early life. When he was without a job, which was often, his friends took him in. One was Richard Sugarman, who shared many of Bernie’s beliefs. Every morning Bernie would greet his friend, not with “Good Morning”, but with “We’re. Not. Crazy.”
Albert Einstein’s Gentle Socialism
The Bernie Sanders article included an embedded link to a 1949 essay written by Albert Einstein entitled “Why Socialism”. Here is a link: Einstein Like the Bernie Sanders story, Einstein’s essay was a beckoning lamplight seen from a dark place. It is the only reasoned argument for abandoning capitalism I have read that did not assume violent revolution would be necessary.
Einstein, instead, describes a dichotomy of needs and influences that shape our lives: The drive for individuality, what Abraham Maslow later called “self actualization”, and an equally competitive identification with and support for the needs of society. He contends that those different forces can be accommodated and acknowledged without sacrificing either one. The secret is awareness of and respect for those forces in others and willingness to mobilize government’s power to support them.
This essay captivated me. Einstein acknowledges his limited background in social science but he insists that the same rigorous discipline required by physics and astronomy can be applied to social and economic issues. He charmed me with evidence that he had studied Thorstein Veblen and relied on Veblen’s evolutionary analysis of our progress, or not, from what Veblen called the “predatory phase” of human development. Einstein contends that the democratic socialism he advocates would facilitate emerging from that “predatory phase” to one less brutal, more intelligent and more capable of satisfying our need for security and contentment.
Einstein also, having observed the results of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, acknowledged the problem it poses. Here is the somewhat sad and plaintiff penultimate paragraph of his essay:
“Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”
How indeed. I know the answer. We have it in our hands. It is our Constitution. It may require an amendment or two but the concept has been left to us by our forefathers. With two amendments and commitment to rigorous enforcement our Constitution would be an adequate response to Einstein’s question.
The two amendments? First, “The words ‘person’ and “people’ in this Constitution apply to living natural persons. They do not apply to any legally created entity. Neither do they apply to a person not yet born.” Second, “In this Constitution the protection of freedom of expression does not apply to the spending or investment of money.”
With those two amendments, our Constitution is, I believe, entirely adequate to prevent government bureaucracy from becoming a threat to individual freedom. Political vigilance and common sense would be required and an independent federal judiciary would, as always, be essential but those requirements apply to any government scheme. Soviet Russia had an admirable constitution but it was useless because the judiciary was powerless to enforce it and the police were allowed to ignore it.
Dean Baker’s Demolition of TTP
The third article that illuminated my dark feelings was a critical analysis of the arguments for the Trans Pacific Partnership by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, a Washington DC think tank. I have expressed my own hostility toward this “Partnership” in a previous essay posted here. Dean Baker adds authority and devastating contradictory data to support his identification of this proposal as a threat to the fair distribution of international trade benefits. Here is link: Baker
The House of Representatives will vote on “fast tracking” this abomination within the next couple of weeks. The Senate has failed to kill it. We can only hope that the Democrats in the House will save Obama from being responsible for burdening our working class with this unjust agreement for the next two or three decades. If he succeeds, he will join Bill Clinton on the list of presidents who betrayed the hope and promise that motivated those who voted for them.
Conclusion and a Personal Note
I feel I owe an apology for the emotional language in this effort. I have been affected by the bombardment of hopelessness that has pelted me recently. Netanyahu’s re-election followed by his empowering the most passionate politicians determined to convert Israel into a theocratic bully was a disappointment. David Cameron’s Conservative Party wipe-out of the British Labour Party in the recent election was another. The growing strength of ISIS and the apparent unwillingness of Iraq’s military forces to effectively oppose it is another. The dismemberment of Syria accompanied by the threat of ISIS involvement there is another.
My real nightmare is the probable symbolic terrorist attack in the United States or a mass beheading of Americans broadcast in living color. Other countries, Britain, Spain, Holland – bear such attacks and react with mourning and redoubled efforts at prevention. In America our leaders choose endless war and thousands of needless deaths as the appropriate response. I’m sure ISIS is aware of this grotesque fact. I fear they will use it to their advantage.
All this bad news comes at the beginning of what promises to be an extravaganza of hateful stupidity from a jackass choir of Republicans eager to compete for the allegiance of the lowest common denominator tranche of the American right wing. And who will be our St. Jeanne d’Arc? Why Hillary from the House of Clinton of course! Her head is already bloody but unbowed and her baggage, packed in a truckload of trunks just waiting to be unpacked by reporters, political archivists and GOP flacks, follows her everywhere. But, having spent a billion dollars, she may become our next president. And if not, we will be led by Jeb the Timid or Brash Young Rubio or, worst of all, by the union scalp hunter, the Bible thumper from Wisconsin, Scott “Bring ’em On” Walker.
I plan to stay sober for the next seventeen or eighteen months but only by many repetitions of the Serenity Prayer.