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Archive for April 7th, 2009

Buy less art…

Shorten those guest lists…

And drink less wine (unless you’re American)…

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Apparently I’m blog-happy today. Perhaps it’s because my thesis is basically done, and I also just finished my last paper and test until the last week of classes. Anyways, when I saw this article on American workers and their relative timidity, I wanted to blog about it (because, you know, no labor article should go un-blogged here, and yes, that’s 3 instances of the word “blog” in this post- now 4-damn it stop).

The lede:

Two weeks earlier, more than a million workers in France demonstrated against layoffs and the government’s handling of the economic crisis, and in the last month alone, French workers took their bosses hostage four times in various labor disputes. When General Motors recently announced huge job cuts worldwide, 15,000 workers demonstrated at the company’s German headquarters.

But in the United States, where G.M. plans its biggest layoffs, union members have seemed passive in comparison. They may yell at the television news, but that’s about all. Unlike their European counterparts, American workers have largely stayed off the streets, even as unemployment soars and companies cut wages and benefits.

The country of Mother Jones, John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther certainly has had a rich and sometimes militant history of labor protest…But in recent decades, American workers have increasingly steered clear of such militancy.

The author cites a number of reasons for this phenomenon: better labor relations, fear, other outlets for anger (like the Internet), and of course, more belief in the political system. I didn’t blanch too much at this when I first read it, mainly because he did mention, albeit gloss over, my primary reason: fear of job loss. Upon further reflection, I think he does this main factor a disservice by choosing to elaborate more on the other reasons.

Over on his blog-like (that’s 5) website, Prof. Ruccio from Our Lady’s University posts a letter to the editor (yet to be published by NYT) written by Michael Hilliard of University of South Maine (scroll down to 6 April 2009). He hits the nail on the head, arguing that the fear is not merely from outside forces:

Stephen Greenhouse’s otherwise effective synopsis of the history of U.S. labor militancy (“In America, Labor Has and Unusually Long Fuse” April 5, 2009 Week in Review) suffers from a simple but profound omission. A key factor explaining the decline of labor militancy since the halcyon days of the 1930s and 1940s has been American employers’ virulent repression of labor militancy and unions per se that transformed the character of American labor as an institution as well as U.S. workers’ political culture, and made such basic tools of labor militancy as a legal strike a suicidal act…

Employers and employer associations financed a massive ideological campaign against unions that featured the hard sell that only a union-free “free enterprise” economy was consistent with the values of an anti-communist America at the height of the Cold War…

Finally and most importantly, U.S. employers have attacked and killed off militancy, especially legal strikes, through a virulent five-decade campaign to destroy private sector unions that has been an immense success. The cornerstones of this effort have been the transformation of the strike into management a tool to break a union…

We do not know if the one-time militancy of U.S. workers might have become an enduring tradition in the absence of decades of huge and unrivaled repression. More importantly, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act may both lead to a revival of unions, and also a legal framework in which labor militancy is no longer a sure act of self-destruction. Given the depths of the current recession and the historic role that labor played in shaping an effective recovery from the Great Depression, it would be an experiment worth waging.

Of course, belief in things like EFCA falls in line with Greenhouse’s statement about using the political system for change. The likely failure of this bill in the 111th Congress will probably put that notion to rest for a little while.

In general, I think the history that Hilliard lays out is not talked about enough. In America, unions are the enemy; I know from personal experience, working to organize the workers on this campus. This very morning, I was distributing union information (and cookies) at the workers’ check-in place. A few workers showed interest, most walked right by, but one woman stopped and said (I paraphrase), “Unions will hurt us-look at GM- they’ll raise our wages and the University will go under.” While this belief is entirely misguided, it shows what the media’s portrayal of unions has done to worker consciousness.

Obama has been no savior in this regard, as he has been silent on EFCA in his first 80 days. I think a big educational push on unions must precede any effort to get something like EFCA through, and then, we might see workers kidnapping their bosses in this country.

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A quick note on posting for the rest of the weeks:

I’ll have a post tomorrow about the Palley paper I linked over the weekend.

On Thursday, I’ll post about the situation on the ground in the Economics depts of Notre Dame, using some publicly available data to show what’s happening and try to explain its ramifications.

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This seems mundane, but it now strikes me every time I tag a post “financial crisis” (which I did below, about 10 seconds ago). One of the key comments from Prof. Wolff’s lecture is that this is NOT a financial crisis. Calling it a financial crisis implies that the class relations that were the ultimate root of the crisis are irrelevant, and we can simply blame MBS, CDS, corporate greed, Moody’s, etc. Nevertheless, this tag is also the most used on this blog, and it’s too late to change that. So, going forward, I will continue to tag things related to the crisis as “financial crisis,” but deep down, we can all sub in our favorite phrase (“general crisis” for the Marxists; “second depression” for the pessimists- you get the idea). And with that, I tag this post “financial crisis.”

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The transcript for the videos below is here. I want to highlight a few things Harvey said in it.

On the leadup and the bailout:

The fundamentals have to do with the incredible increase in consolidation, if you like, of class power. I mean, since the 1970s, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in inequality, not just simply in this country, but worldwide. And in effect, the assets of the world have been accumulated more and more and more in few hands. And I think when you look at the nature of the bailout programs, the stimulus programs and all the rest of it, what it really does is to, in effect, try to keep those assets intact while making the rest of us pay. And so, I think it’s time we stopped that and kind of said, well, actually, we should actually be getting more of the assets and, you know, much greater equality.

On the myth of home ownership:

I mean, we have a myth in this country that homeownership is the gospel, as it were. But for a lot of people, homeownership is not a good idea. And I think, actually, it’s not a good idea in general…For two reasons. One is, it makes you actually very vulnerable if you’re a heavily debt-encumbered homeowner. And actually, the initial legislation was kind of interesting, the debate around it back in the 1930s, when it kind of said debt-encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike, and because it’s—you know, you’ve got to pay your mortgage. And so, this becomes, as it were, a millstone around your neck. And that then makes you very vulnerable to fluctuations in the market like we’re seeing right now, particularly if you have variable rate mortgages, things of that kind, and you can really easily get caught out. So, in effect, what we’ve seen in the housing market is a tremendous plundering of the assets of some of the most vulnerable people in the country. I mean, this has been the biggest loss of asset wealth to the African American population that there’s ever been.

On the “right to the city”:

What I mean by the right to the city is that we have, I think, a real need right now to democratize decisions as to how a city shall be and what it should be about, so that we can actually have, if you like, a collective project about reshaping urban—the urban world. I mean, here in this city, effectively, the right to the city has been held by the mayor and the Development Office and the developers and the financiers. Most of us don’t really have a very strong say.

On the future of capitalism:

You know, crises are terribly important in the history of capitalism. They are what I would call the kind of irrational rationalizers of the system. What happens is that capitalism develops in a certain way, has real problems, then it goes into crisis, and it comes phoenix-like out of it in another form. We went through a long crisis in the 1970s. There was a long crisis in the 1930s. So a crisis, then, is a moment of reconfiguration of what capitalism is going to be about. And right now, as I’ve said, the powers that be are more about trying to reconstruct the pre-existing power structure or save the pre-existing power structure without intervening in it in any way…

Now, there are limits, if you like, and I think we’re hitting those limits environmentally, socially, politically. And I think it’s time we started really thinking about an alternative. In other words, we have to think about a zero-growth economy…

It means that instead of growing at three percent per year, you just keep it constant…

And that means a completely—it means it has to be non-capitalist, because that means there’s not going to be any profit around for anybody to have. In effect, you’re going to have to have a nonprofit economy. And how you do that, of course, is a big, big question. I’m not—I don’t have the blueprint for it. But I think that this is one of the key questions we should be thinking about right now. And what disturbs me is we’re going through this crisis right now, and we’re not asking those kinds of big questions that we should be asking.

On social movements:

And I think more and more people are beginning to say this is an illegitimate system, and therefore we have to think about doing something different.

Out of that, likely to come, all kinds of different social movements. We have this movement, which is a relatively new movement, called the Right to the City movement. It’s here in New York City, and it’s several other cities in the United States. There’s a national coalition. It’s small right now, and it’s getting its act together. But these kinds of things can grow very fast, very quickly. So there is likely to be many movements of that kind.

In other countries, there are already quite massive social movements. This country is a little bit behind on that trajectory…

I think [Obama] needs a really, really strong, powerful social movement behind him to do the things he really needs to do…

So. I don’t know exactly where Obama would like to go, but certainly he can’t go against Wall Street, unless a whole bunch of people really force him to.

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Not So Super Sweet

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Hat tip: JP

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From Salon:

In all catastrophes, there are always winners among the host of losers and victims. Bad times, like good ones, generate profits for someone. In the case of the present global economic meltdown, with our world at the brink and up to 50 million people potentially losing their jobs by the end of this year, one winner is likely to be criminal activity and crime syndicates. From Mexico to Africa, Russia to China, the pool of the desperate and the bribable is expanding exponentially, pointing to a sharp upturn in global crime. As illicit profits rise, so will violence in the turf wars among competing crime syndicates and in the desperate efforts by panicked governments to put a clamp on criminal activity.

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