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How Workers Can Win the Class War Being Waged Upon Them

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Organized labor led no mass opposition to Trump’s presidency or the December 2017 tax cut or the failed U.S. preparation for and management of COVID-19. Nor do we yet see a labor-led national protest against the worst mass firing since the 1930s Great Depression. All of these events, but especially the unemployment, mark an employers’ class war against employees. The U.S. government directs it, but the employers as a class inspire and benefit the most from it.

Before the 2020 crash, class war had been redistributing wealth for decades from middle-income people and the poor to the top 1 percent. That upward redistribution was U.S. employers’ response to the legacy of the New Deal. During the Great Depression and afterward, wealth had been redistributed downward. By the 1970s, that was reversed. The 2020 crash will accelerate upward wealth redistribution sharply.

With tens of millions now a “reserve army” of the unemployed, nearly every U.S. employer can cut wages, benefits, etc. Employees dissatisfied with these cuts are easily replaced. Vast numbers of unemployed, stressed by uncertain job prospects and unemployment benefits, disappearing savings, and rising household tensions, will take jobs despite reduced wages, benefits, and working conditions. As the unemployed return to work, most employees’ standards of consumption and living will drop.

Germany, France, and other European nations could not fire workers as the United States did. Strong labor movements and socialist parties with deep social influences preclude governments risking comparable mass unemployment; it would risk deposing them from office. Thus their antiviral lockdowns keep most at work with governments paying 70 percent or more of pre-virus wages and salaries.

Mass unemployment will bring the United States closer to less-developed economies. Very large regions of the poor will surround small enclaves of the rich. Narrow bands of “middle-income professionals,” etc., will separate rich from poor. Ever-more rigid social divisions enforced by strong police and military apparatuses are becoming the norm. Their outlines are already visible across the United States.

Only if workers understand and mobilize to fight this class war can the trends sketched above be stopped or reversed. U.S. workers did exactly that in the 1930s. They fought—in highly organized ways—the class war waged against them then. Millions joined labor unions, and many tens of thousands joined two socialist parties and one communist party. All four organizations worked together, in coalition, to mobilize and activate the U.S. working class.

Weekly, and sometimes daily, workers marched across the United States. They criticized President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies and capitalism itself by intermingling reformist and revolutionary demands. The coalition’s size and political reach forced politicians, including FDR, to listen and respond, often positively. An initially “centrist” FDR adapted to become a champion of Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and a huge federal jobs program. The coalition achieved those moderate socialist reforms—the New Deal—and paid for them by setting aside revolutionary change.

It proved to be a good deal, but only in the short run. Its benefits to workers included a downward redistribution of income and wealth (especially via homeownership), and thereby the emergence of a new “middle class.” Relatively well-paid employees were sufficient in number to sustain widespread notions of American exceptionalism, beliefs in ever-rising standards of working-class living across generations, and celebrations of capitalism as guaranteeing these social benefits. The reality was quite different. Not capitalists but rather their critics and victims had forced the New Deal against capitalists’ resistance. And those middle-class benefits bypassed most African Americans.

The good deal did not last because U.S. capitalists largely resented the New Deal and sought to undo it. With World War II’s end and FDR’s death in 1945, the undoing accelerated. An anti-Soviet Cold War plus anti-communist/socialist crusades at home gave patriotic cover for destroying the New Deal coalition. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act targeted organized labor. Senate and House committees spearheaded a unified effort (government, mass media, and academia) to demonize, silence, and socially exclude communists, socialists, leftists, etc. For decades after 1945—and still now in parts of the United States—a sustained hysteria defined all left-wing thought, policy, or movement as always and necessarily the worst imaginable social evil.

Over time, the New Deal coalition was destroyed and left-wing thinking was labeled “disloyal.” Even barely left-of-center labor and political organizations repeatedly denounced and distanced themselves from any sort of anti-capitalist impulse, any connection to socialism. Many New Deal reforms were evaded, amended, or repealed. Some simply vanished from politicians’ knowledge and vocabulary and then journalists’ too. Having witnessed the purges of leftist colleagues from 1945 through the 1950s, a largely docile academic community celebrated capitalism in general and U.S. capitalism in particular. The good in U.S. society was capitalism’s gift. The rest resulted from government or foreign or ideological interferences in capitalism’s wonderful invisible hand. Any person or group excluded from this American Dream had only themselves to blame for inadequate ability, insufficient effort, or ideological deviancy.

In this context, U.S. capitalism strode confidently toward the 21st century. The Soviet threat had imploded. A divided Europe threatened no U.S. interests. Its individual nations competed for U.S. favor (especially the UK). China’s poverty blocked its becoming an economic competitor. U.S. military and technological supremacy seemed insurmountable.

Amid success, internal contradictions surfaced. U.S. capitalism crashed three times. The first happened early in 2000 (triggered by dot-com share-price inflation); next came the big crash of 2008 (triggered by defaulting subprime mortgages); and the hugest crash hit in 2020 (triggered by COVID-19). Unprepared economically, politically, and ideologically for any of them, the Federal Reserve responded by creating vast sums of new money that it threw at/lent to (at historically low interest rates) banks, large corporations, etc. Three successive exercises in trickle-down economic policy saw little trickle down. No underlying economic problems (inequality, excess systemic debts, cyclical instability, etc.) have been solved. On the contrary, all worsened. In other words, class war has been intensified.

What then is to be done? First, we need to recognize the class war that is underway and commit to fighting it. On that basis, we must organize a mass base to put real political force behind social democratic policies, parties, and politicians. We need something like the New Deal coalition. The pandemic, economic crash, and gross official policy failures (including violent official scapegoating) draw many toward classical social democracy. The successes of the Democratic Socialists of America show this.

Second, we must face a major obstacle. Since 1945, capitalists and their supporters developed arguments and institutions to undo the New Deal and its leftist legacies. They silenced, deflected, co-opted, and/or demonized criticisms of capitalism. Strategic decisions made by both the U.S. New Deal and European social democracy contributed to their defeats. Both always left and still leave employers exclusively in positions to (1) receive and dispense their enterprises’ profits and (2) decide and direct what, how, and where their enterprises produce. Those positions gave capitalists the financial resources and power—politically, economically, and culturally—repeatedly to outmaneuver and repress labor and the left.

Third, to newly organized versions of a New Deal coalition or of social democracy, we must add a new element. We cannot again leave capitalists in the exclusive positions to receive enterprise profits and make major enterprise decisions. The new element is thus the demand to change enterprises producing goods and services. From hierarchical, capitalist organizations (where owners, boards of directors, etc., occupy the employer position) we need to transition to the altogether different democratic, worker co-op organizations. In the latter, no employer/employee split occurs. All workers have equal voice in deciding what gets produced, how, and where and how any profits get used. The collective of all employees is their own employer. As such an employer, the employees will finally protect and thus secure the reforms associated with the New Deal and social democracy.

We could describe the transition from capitalist to worker co-op enterprise organizations as a revolution. That would resolve the old debate of reform versus revolution. Revolution becomes the only way finally to secure progressive reforms. Capitalism’s reforms were generated by the system’s impacts on people and their resulting demands for change. Capitalism’s resistances to those reforms—and undoing them after they happened—spawned the revolution needed to secure them. In that revolution, society moves beyond capitalism itself. So it was in the French Revolution: demands for reform within feudal society could only finally be realized by a social transition from feudalism to capitalism.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info.


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Sorry to Bother You: Worker Wins

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Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with big victories for working people in the Minnesota legislature and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life.

Minnesota Legislative Session Yields Victories for Working People: As the legislature finished up its work for the current session, several bills that will benefit working people were passed. Among the bills pursued as part of Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Legislative Agenda of Dignity, Justice & Freedom for Working Minnesotans that passed are making wage theft a criminal felony offense, eliminating the sunset provision on the health care provider tax that funds care for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans and expanding the Working Families Tax Credit for unreimbursed work expenses. About the legislation, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy (UNITE HERE) said: “Despite being one of only two states with divided government, the 2019 legislative session yielded big wins for working Minnesotans, including the strongest law in the nation to combat wage theft. We applaud Governor Walz and the House majority for putting working people at the center of their legislative priorities this year.”

Inspired by Rapper and Filmmaker Boots Riley, Salt Lake Film Society Staff Unionize: Front-of-house staff at the Salt Lake Film Society were inspired by Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You” to reach out to the Utah AFL-CIO who connected them with an organizer from IATSE. After doing the hard work to organize the new unit, the staffers got more than 80% to sign cards in favor of unionizing. The drive got a boost from Riley himself when he sent the organizers a video message. Riley said: “So much of what you do is getting stories to people. And the thing about what happens when people come together and fight, especially when they do that on the job, is it starts to tell a story to other people…it’s about the story that is being told to millions of other people that will be finding out about what you are doing….What you’re doing is very important, and I’m inspired by you.”

Vox Media Staffers Secure First Collective Bargaining Agreement: After 14 months of negotiations and a one-day walkout, staffers at Vox Media have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. The bargaining committee tweeted: “We are thrilled to announce we have reached a tentative agreement with Vox Media for our first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Our unit still needs to ratify our contract, but we are proud of what we have won in this agreement and can’t wait to share the details.”

Nevada Governor Signs Bill Extending Collective Bargaining Rights to 20,000 Working People: Gov. Steve Sisolak recently signed S.B. 135 into law. The legislation expands collective bargaining rights to more than 20,000 Nevada state employees. About the legislation, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said: “This bill is about respect for state employees who make their communities stronger every day. By signing this bill, Governor Sisolak demonstrates his understanding of the importance of giving working people a seat at the table and the voice on the job they deserve. Americans are looking for an answer to a rigged economy that favors the wealthy, and it’s clear that they are turning to unions in growing numbers. It is time to make it easier all across the country for working people to join in strong unions.”

Fiesto Rancho Casino Workers Vote to Join Culinary Union: After 85% of the nearly 150 workers who voted said they were in favor of unionizing, the Fiesta Rancho Hotel & Casino becomes the sixth Station Casinos property in Las Vegas to unionize since 2016. Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, said: “Workers are standing up and fighting! Two Station Casinos’ properties have voted to unionize by a majority this week. We call on Station Casinos to immediately negotiate and settle a fair contract for the workers at Fiesta Rancho, Sunset Station, Palms, Green Valley Ranch, Palace Station and Boulder Station.”

Radio Station Employees at Santa Monica’s KCRW Join SAG-AFTRA: More than 90 public media professionals at radio station KCRW voted to be represented by SAG-AFTRA. The workers delivered a petition signed by more than 75% of staffers with a request to form a union. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said: “On behalf of SAG-AFTRA members, I am thrilled to welcome KCRW to our union family. KCRW is a one-of-a-kind radio station that produces some of Los Angeles’ most dynamic and diverse programming, and we’re excited to make sure everyone’s voice is heard through the collective bargaining process.”

Stagehands Ratify Collective Bargaining Event with DNC Venue: Stagehands working at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee have ratified a contract with the venue, which will host the Democratic National Convention in 2020. IATSE Vice President Craig Carlson said: “This agreement illustrates that both parties believe in the dignity of hard work, the honor it instills and the respect it commands. Our agreement rewards all workers with safe working conditions, fair wages and meaningful benefits. I commend Fiserv Forum’s Management and [IATSE] Local 18 for putting together an agreement which will lead to the future success of both workers and management. We look forward to a wonderful relationship.”

Working People at Ikea Distribution Centers in Illinois Vote to Join IAM: Nearly 200 distribution center workers employed at Ikea have voted to be represented by the Machinists (IAM). The organizing campaign is part of a larger IAM campaign to unionize workers at Ikea distribution and fulfillment centers throughout the world. Dennis Mendenhall, who led IAM’s campaign in Illinois, said: “These hardworking men and women are proud to work at Ikea and do tremendous work for this company. Yes, joining the IAM gives them the opportunity to negotiate on wages, benefits and work rules. But this campaign was mostly about fairness and a voice on the job, as well as ensuring that the profits they create also benefit their families and communities.”

AT&T Workers in the Midwest Reach Tentative Agreement on Contract: Technicians and Installers who work for AT&T and are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), reached two tentative agreements with the telecom giant. Some 8,000 employees are covered by the agreements, which have to be approved by the union’s membership. CWA District 4 Vice President Linda L. Hinton said: “I am incredibly proud of our AT&T Midwest bargaining teams and our members. We did not back down and our agreement reflects the priorities we brought to the bargaining table on jobs, health care and employment security.”

Guggenheim Museum Staffers Join Local 30 of the Operating Engineers: Art handlers and facilities staff at the Guggenheim Museum in New York have voted to join the Operating Engineers (IUOE). The union will represent about 90 workers at the museum. An anonymous art handler, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s incredibly exciting. Workers were able to unite behind a movement despite extensive attempts to exploit divisions by Guggenheim management. It signals a future ability to create a strong contract that benefits all of us equally.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on July 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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Despite Violence, Cambodian Workers Vow To Continue Their Fight

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Michelle ChenThough Cambodia’s days of colonialization, war and genocide may be over, the country is still wrestling with political turmoil. At the start of the new year, when workers massed in Phnom Penh to demand a fair minimum wage, the government responded with a spray of bullets.

A major garment worker strike in December capped a recent groundswell of protest in the country’s capital. After deeming insufficient the government’s proposed hike of the minimum wage to $95, labor leaders aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to shutter factories and bring large crowds into the streets, concluding a year of labor agitation that saw more than 130 strikes.

Newly reelected Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge official whose legitimacy has been questioned amid accusations of rigging last summer’s election—took the protests as an opportunity to suppress both the pro-democracy and labor movements with one fierce blow. On January 3, police responded to protesters’ bottles and petrol bombs with live ammunition, killing five and injuring dozens. More than twenty were detained, and some are reportedly still being held incommunicado.

On January 4, the government then forcibly cleared a major protest encampment in the city center; many workers have since returned to their jobs. Factories have also started to reopen after temporarily shutting down out of safety concerns. In the wake of the unrest, a coalition of rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum, has called for an “immediate end to all violence and intimidation against workers and their representatives,” release of detained protesters and no charges against the strikers. Meanwhile, activists are continuing to push for the minimum wage to be raised to $160 a month.

Cambodian garment and shoe producers employ roughly 600,000 people in about 800 factories, and their business is eased by neoliberal trade policies with Western nations, particularly the United States. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay workers a pittance—generally as low as about $80 a month—compared to the profits they reap.

David Welsh, a Phnom Penh-based organizer with AFL-CIO’s international arm, the Solidarity Center, says the $160 minimum wage demand is the very least the garment industry could offer, especially considering some advocacy groups estimate that a living wage would be more than triple workers’ current pay. The Solidarity Center has been facilitating talks with the Labor Ministry and campaigning with local civil society groups for the detained activists. Along with other labor groups, the Solidarity Center has also raised concerns about a trend toward placing workers on so-called fixed-duration or short-term contracts, which tend to restrict job security for workers who came to factories seeking steady livelihoods.

According to Welsh, big retail brands foster a common media narrative that claims labor costs must be kept low to meet market demand. He explains that companies use the threat of pulling out of Cambodia if unions demand too much as a way to “discourage workers, to sort of say, ‘Do this or you’ll be out of the job.'”

Realistically, though, Welsh says, “The amount of work that is being put into creating an incredible supply chain internationally … with foreign investors that are getting off like bandits, frankly, off the backs of impoverished Cambodian workers—the dynamic cannot continue.”

In addition to low wages and precarious employment, activists have also recently highlighted the Cambodian garment sector’s abysmal working conditions. A recent report by the U.K.-based Labour Behind the Label campaign revealed that many garment workers are clinically malnourished from being unable to afford adequate food (which costs roughly US $2.50 per day). Labour Behind the Label also reported a mysterious phenomenon of workers fainting en masse on the job—perhaps due to chemical fumes at workplaces, perhaps due to overall poor health or psychological distress. One worker quoted in the report explained, “We are constantly at the point of fainting. We are tired and we are weak. It takes only a few small things to make us faint.”

After tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year, the public has started heavily urging companies to advocate for workers in their overseas supply chains. In Cambodia, the suppression of protesters has heightened that pressure even further. Joining the global chorus of condemnation from unions and the UN, several Western brands, including Gap and Adidas, have publicly criticized the government crackdown and expressed support for minimum-wage reforms “based on international good practices.” H&M also recently announced a plan to negotiate a “fair living wage” for Cambodian and Bangladeshi workers—but with the caveat that the company would first pilot the pay system in just three “model factories” and work toward full implementation by 2018.

Such progress would not be unprecedented. As we reported last year, workers at the Kingsland factory in Phnom Penh revolted after their factory was suddenly shut down without paying owed back wages. Workers partnered with the Solidarity Center and local activists to broker a $200,000 settlement with the owners and their multinational clients—demonstrating that there is a labor infrastructure in place that could serve as an model for organizing and collective bargaining in Asia’s garment workforce.

Ultimately, however, labor advocates argue that piecemeal reforms will not satisfy demands for justice across a global manufacturing chain: All foreign investors must stop chasing profit margins in places with low wages and few safety regulations. Instead of this “race to the bottom”, Welsh says, brands should commit to “remaining in an industry where trade unions are allowed to operate … without reprisal, without legal suits, without detention.”

Today, he says, modern international investment still clusters in countries “where the rule of law is incredibly weak, and where people are in such dire economic straits that they find themselves forced to work under [almost] any conditions.”

This oppressive environment doesn’t just erode labor rights; it also dissolves civil society as a whole. Although December’s protests were focused on the exploitation of garment workers, Cambodians were simultaneously revolting against the multiple social injustices they have endured under authoritarian rule. Consequently, the protest rallies brought out activists representing various social sectors: trade unionists, factory laborers, sex workers, various pro-democracy demonstrators, housing rights advocates and even radical monks. Using social media to spread messages via mobile networks, these activists stirred public support for the emerging populist movement.

As Kun Sothary of the Messenger Band, a collective of women garment workers representing workers across many industries, told Asian Correspondent, “We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits … poverty, exploitation and human right violations … We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical.”

Overall, reorienting the ethics of Cambodia’s economy will be key to ensuring the liberty of its citizens. Though Cambodia’s strikes may be subdued for now, the turnout in the streets has shown that the driving force behind the country’s industry is people power—not brand names.

This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on January 14, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.


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This Week in the War on Workers: Supreme Court Case Could Sharply Restrict Union Organizing

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Laura ClawsonUnion organizing campaigns run up against the fact that labor law enforcement, wealth, and power in the workplace are all stacked against workers, and if bosses fight a union with everything at their disposal, it is damn hard for workers to win. That environment could get a lot worse, though, with the Supreme Court hearing a case this week that challenged the legality of a key organizing tool.

As Labor Notes’ Jenny Brown explains:

Neutrality agreements create rules for union and employer behavior during organizing drives. Often an employer signs such an agreement only after years of targeted union pressure. The employer promises not to try to sway workers’ opinions, allowing them some breathing room when labor law is mostly on management’s side.

For their part, unions may offer the employer some promises—for instance, that they will avoid strikes. But in the case the Supreme Court heard this week, a federal appeals court ruled that neutrality agreements may violate a provision of the Taft-Hartley Act prohibiting employers from giving unions “anything of value.” According to the appeals court, the fact that Mardi Gras gaming gave UNITE HERE access to its facilities and the names and addresses of employees could count as something of value.

The paragraph is designed to keep employers from bribing unions with money, jobs, loans, or other inducements, said Massachusetts labor lawyer Robert Schwartz.“No employer would think to bribe a union by making it easier for the union to organize,” noted UNITE HERE in a press release.

The Supreme Court hearing a case that could seriously limit union organizing efforts is a terrifying prospect. There were some promising moments during questioning:

Justice Elena Kagan said that the argument from Mulhall’s lawyer, William L. Messenger, could mean that employers would never be able to do simple things like invite union representatives on their property to talk to their employees without running afoul of the law.”So this is to say that the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from providing access to their premises, from granting a union a list of employees, or from declaring itself neutral as to a union election?” Kagan said.

Messenger agreed, prompting a reaction from Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Do you acknowledge that your answer to Justice Kagan is contrary to years of settled practices and understandings?” Kennedy said.

But still. This is not a pro-worker Court, and it’s going to be a nervous wait for the decision.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on November 16, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos.


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