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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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The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

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On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.


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Trump’s Justice Department Is Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Workers’ Rights 100 Years

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On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a trio of cases, captioned as NLRB v. Murphy Oil, that examined whether management commits an unfair labor practice when it requires employees to sign arbitration agreements that waive their right to wage class-action lawsuits. The question of whether an employee can give up her right to act in concert with other workers may seem technical, but it implicates the very core of collective action.

During the hearing, Trump’s Department of Justice clearly sided with employers, who are calling for significant cutbacks to workers’ rights to take collective action.

The significance of this case was evident throughout the oral arguments. On one side the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a University of Virginia Law Professor argued that the issue implicates the basic employment rights of tens of millions of U.S. workers. On the other side, the Principal Deputy U.S. Solicitor Jeff Wall (“Solicitor”) and an attorney for the companies argued that these are technical issues related to contract and civil procedure.

The case revolves around a key question: Do forced arbitration agreements that ban collective or class legal actions violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? That section permits employees “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The employers’ and Solicitor’s position is that Section 7 only protects workers’ rights to get to the “courthouse door.” According to the line of reasoning this side presented in the courtroom, the NLRA gives workers the right to act together at work, but the moment their workplace concerns get to a legal forum, they have no right to continue together. Once they enter the courtroom or arbitrator’s chambers, the argument went, all parties must abide by the rules of the forum, be it the NLRB, the federal courts or the arbitrator. They argued that this principle applies even if those rules require workers to proceed individually.

The problem, of course, is that there is a long history of employers using forced contracts to require employees to waive their rights as a condition of employment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg invoked this history when she asked the attorney for the employers whether forced arbitration agreements are simply “yellow dog” contracts by another name. This was a reference to contracts where employees agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. (“Yellow dog” contracts were made illegal in the 1932 Norris LaGuardia Act.)

Justice Stephen Breyer put an even finer point on the matter when he expressed his concern that the employers’ position “is overturning labor law that goes back to, for [Franklin D. Roosevelt] at least, the entire heart of the New Deal.”

Nonetheless, the arguments of the management-side attorneys appeared to gain traction with conservative Justices. This iss despite the fact that the employers’ side consistently failed to address a key problem: the rules of the forum that they said everyone has to follow are not made by some neutral third party. They are written by the employer, who then makes participation in the forum a condition of employment for the employee to sign the agreement. Research shows that almost 25 million non-union workers have been forced to sign such arbitration agreements.

Yet, some Justices bought the management-side argument. At one point, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who seemed to be the swing vote in this case, insisted that workers can still engage in collective action because they can simply go to the same attorney and ask her to represent them each individually.

Presumably, Justice Kennedy did not intend to imply that the attorney could share the details of each of the cases with each worker, because that would violate the confidentiality clause in many of these agreements. And presumably, he did not mean that the attorney could share confidential information, because then there would be no attorney-client privilege protection.

The employers’ counsel agreed with Justice Kennedy, and said that even though the confidentiality clause would prohibit the attorney from sharing information among the workers, it couldn’t “stop the same lawyer from thinking about the three cases in conjunction.” In Justice Kennedy’s words, “that is collective action.”

In reality, forced arbitration agreements that prohibit class or collective action have grown exponentially in recent years through a tactical decision by corporations to strip Americans of their rights to litigate their claims together. The NLRB responded in 2012 to the growing use of these forced arbitration agreements by finding that these agreements violate federal labor law.

The liberal Justices repeatedly demonstrated that this case is not about neutral rules of a forum, or technical issues of civil procedure, but about basic concepts of power.

Justice Ginsburg asked the Solicitor, “What about the reality? I think we have in one of these cases, in Ernst & Young, the individual claim is $1,800. To proceed alone in the arbitral forum will cost much more than any potential recovery for one. That’s why this is truly a situation where there is strength in numbers, and that was the core idea of the NLRA. There is strength in numbers. We have to protect the individual worker from being in a situation where he can’t protect his rights.”

Justice Ginsburg was making the point that if workers cannot bring class or collective actions, many who have low-dollar claims will be denied justice because it would be more expensive to bring their cases than they could possibly win.

The Solicitor’s response was telling. He claimed that the different arbitration agreements have different clauses, which deal with issues of costs and fees. In essence, he insisted, the contract takes care of those concerns. And, in the final analysis, the employers’ attorney and Solicitor explained that the contract—even if it is a forced contract—should trump any possible rights workers may have to bring their actions collectively.

In a sense, this position answered Justice Breyer’s initial question: Yes, this case does bring us back to a pre-New Deal framework, and the employers and Trump administration are comfortable with that.

This case is poised to have a far-reaching impact. When the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting consumer arbitration agreements that waive consumers’ rights to file a class action, such arbitration agreements ballooned. If the Court similarly holds that workers do not have a substantive right under the NLRA to vindicate their labor and employment rights collectively, then it is likely that soon almost every non-union worker will face even more limitations to real justice.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.


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The Next New Deal

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In 1932, at the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt swept into office with the promise of bold economic reforms. Although conservative critics of the day said that it wouldn’t work–the same ones that watched the economy collapse and did nothing–policies implemented in The New Deal stabilized the banking system, cut skyrocketing unemployment, paid farmers and workers fair wages, and created a foundation for a generation of economic growth.

A few years later, World War II strengthened America’s economy, resulting in twenty years of prosperity. The standard of living of the American worker rose steadily, with the majority of workers making more and more money each year. Plants were hiring, homes were being built, parents were sending their children off to college, and each generation expected to do better than their parents.

Sounds like fantasy-land, right?

No, that was our reality for two generations–until businesses became greedy. Big business came up with a plan to force workers to do with less so that they could have more. Their strategy included: force wage concessions from their workers, restrict government regulation, lower taxes on corporations and the rich and move as many high-wage jobs overseas as possible.

This has been the Republican mantra for the past 30 years. And although this message of corporate elitism seems to resonate with the general public, you have to ask yourself: Who are these policies benefiting? Are they helping big business – who are now counting their profits in the trillions? CEOs – whose compensation now averages 400 TIMES their average worker? Or are they benefiting everyday, average citizens who are now making less and less while corporate executive make more and more?

Our government, whose constitution was based on “Of the people, by the people and for the people” have corrupted their morals and sold out to big business. Our Founding Fathers shed blood to keep this country from being controlled by an elite group of the super-rich. They wanted to make sure that the common man was being heard, rights were being respected and interests represented in their government.

Who are the real patriots, now?

No one expects to go back to the 1950’s. What we do expect, however, is for this country to get back to our democratic principles of economic fairness and concern for the commonwealth. This country is only as good as its people. For America to become great again, we have to get back to the days of American ingenuity, research, innovation and a strong, vibrant, highly educated and highly trained workforce.

We need to invest in our nation’s future and rebuild our middle class; creating good paying jobs instead of shipping them all overseas. No more race to the bottom, we need to begin our race to the top! It’s time to Invest in America’s Future.

For more information, please visit www.nextnewdeal.org.

About the Author: Jeff Blum is the Executive Director of USAction & USAction Education Fund. Blum’s experience in grassroots organizing is extensive. He founded and directed Pennsylvania Citizen Action, where he helped lead successful campaigns to reform the state’s public utility law, create a toxics right-to-know law and expand access to generic drugs for senior citizens. He has also worked for the Peoples’ Coalition for Peace and Justice, Massachusetts Fair Share, People for the American Way (where he co-coordinated the campaign to establish AmeriCorps) and was Transportation Policy Director for Citizen Action. Blum also served as President of Maryland Citizen Action, founder and member of the Advisory Board of the Jewish Fund for Justice and as a member of the board of Citizens for Tax Justice. He is on the executive committee of America Votes and is an advisor to Progress Now. In Pennsylvania, he ran for state Senate in 1990 and was the Northeast Pennsylvania Regional Director of the Clinton/Gore Campaign in 1992. He has a BSN from Boston University and attended the University of Chicago and the University of Warwick, England. He and his wife, Ellen Cassedy, reside in Takoma Park, Maryland, and have two children.


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