Thursday, July 12, 2012

Class War - news from the front line

By now, most visitors to SOYMB blog have read about the growing disparity between rich and poor — and most of us have felt the effects. One hallmark of the first 30 years after World War II was the 'countervailing power' of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table but in local, state, and national politics) and their ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike. The traditional strike has become almost an anachronism for America’s labor movement. In 1974, there were 424 major work stoppages, each involving at least 1,000 workers. By 2009, only five such stoppages occurred. It’s easy to see this trend as damning evidence of labor’s irrelevance and the need to find a fresh wellspring of social and economic change. It’s even easier to place the blame squarely at the feet of conservative union leaders. Labor unions face a legal framework stacked against them. Laws can’t be casually broken. Unions have an important responsibility to their members and the financial assets they safeguard. Yet it’s worth remembering that past labor leaders believed in industrial action on a scale that would seem revolutionary even to radicals in the movement today.

With 1.92 million members the SEIU is the second largest union in the United States.

“Our union has to unite with a broad 99 percent movement to tackle all forms of social inequality, and we need to take primary responsibility to lead on closing the gap between the rich and everyone else,”
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told the convention in 2010. “We can spark an organizing movement. What matters is that the 99 percent is ready to take on the power of the 1 percent,” she declared.

 “Even though we are very much for Obama to get re-elected, we need to elect real champions,” says Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina. “It’s not good enough for people to say ‘I feel your pain’ or ‘I agree with you.’ We want someone to get in there and fight and get something done. What that means is, if we know a Democrat who is not a champion, we’re going to be voting against that person and mobilizing against that person as much as we are mobilizing against a Republican or independent. We need an independent political force based on issues.” 

It is rather inconsistent to advocate a vote for Obama who has done very little for labor during his presidential term but no doubt stems from the fallacious "lesser evil" argument. Critics of SEIU leadership, from both inside and outside the union, however, caution that SEIU’s own track record—including charges of coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, excessive deference to Democratic party leaders and frequent clashes with other unions SEIU have clashed with the National Union of Healthcare. NUHW is a new, rival union formed in 2009 when SEIU put the big California UHW local under trusteeship for resisting its order to turn over thousands of members to another local against the members’ wishes. SEIU has surrendered basic worker rights to assure management neutrality during organizing. Not all of the newly organized have contracts or pay dues, and many jobs have been lost in the recession.

To be a champion of the 99 percent, SEIU needs to protect its own members’ rights, not compromise them to win employers’ favor. It will have to challenge politicians and corporations. And it will need to militantly campaign from workplace to community and ballot box with a clear sense of class interests. And it will have to open up the union to more democratic decision-making to reflect the values it advocates for society.

“How are we going to lead a popular economic movement where inequality is the issue of our time and we’ve got such income inequality in our union?”
asked convention delegate Larry Bradshaw, who wants the union to limit the salaries of local union officials, which can reach several hundred thousand dollars a year. Indeed, over the last 10 years the number of union officials making more than $100,000 a year has tripled as labor’s ranks have declined dramatically. The high salaries have turned unions away from being what former United Electrical workers union Director of Organization James Matles described–when justifying his unions decisions to cap staff salaries–as “an organization where your workers feel like members and not for the members.”
Wren Bradley says. “There’s a top-down mentality. It has to be bottom-up.”
Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley saidNo matter how much money we put into electoral politics,” said Hanley, “if we can’t change the attitudes of people…we’ll lose.  It’s just a matter of when and how hard...We have to – starting with our own members – make sure that people understand that we’re all in this together, we’re not all in this alone…it’s going to be a long process.” Hanley says conservatives have been successful at isolating public workers by “promoting jealousy over unity”  There’s this sweeping attack, saying those in the public sector aren’t entitled to pensions, aren’t entitled to healthcare, make too much money. The subtext is “those are benefits for other people, not for us.” The union message must be "You should have then too"

 Andrew Austin, the organization’s founding executive director, adds that, “The transit union can’t succeed if there’s not a grassroots movement for transit and transit riders and transit advocates across the country...Most drivers are working class or poor people, so I think there’s a natural solidarity there.”

America is a place where elections are bought and paid for by huge money, where the lifetime-appointed judiciary spends much of its time helping Big Business tilt the law against the population, and where the major parties resemble each other on most policies. The Democrats and the Republicans are fundamentally corporate parties. Barack Obama has adopted so many of the positions of George W. Bush and in fact gone beyond him, it's hard to discern the impact of one party over the other.The way Obama has run his administration has been detrimental to our class—deadly—and the unions have got to say that. Will we be in any better position in 2012 after the election than in 2008?  Every four years, the election season finds the unions agonizing over whether to make a pragmatic choice and vote for the better of the two major candidates or to vote for the person that most closely matches their political principles—regardless of that campaign's relevancy. People have repeatedly been in a trap of every four years, people as individuals—sometimes as organizations—start an electoral campaign, get people engaged in it, and at the end of the campaign, nothing changes. People, who are always the engine of real change and the engine of social movements, have really been left behind by all parties in the political establishment. They have a very bleak future right now and they are hungry for a vehicle that is really principled and has a broad and comprehensive vision, agenda and game plan. That answer necessitates strategy. It's not just a reflection of people's outrage and disgust with the political establishment. It involves an analysis of the way the economic system works. And what that means in terms of how people organize. Socialists don't buy into the idea that the worse it gets, the better for labor.


According to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News: "Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals. Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today."

VVP, Voluntary Protection Program, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has granted many companies a pass on government oversight. Big-name companies like Coca Cola and ExxonMobil, the OSHA believed were capable of regulating themselves. many companies granted this status can basically enjoy years of relief from regular federal evaluation.

This may seem like a fox guarding a hen house. When protection is “voluntary” on the part of bosses, employees have little reason to volunteer to report a workplace violation if it might get them fired.

From the employer’s standpoint, Wrightson noted, “If there's fewer injuries on the job then the workers’ comp rates don't rise. Your health insurance costs do not rise and your liability insurance does not rise."

Keith Wrightson, a Worker Safety and Health Advocate with Public Citizen "The idea of VPP is a free market, where nobody should regulate, nobody should look, it's laissez faire, and it's not good."

Steinzor sees a blatant imbalance in the way the government weighs health and safety needs against the profits of its corporate partners. “I think this is a class issue,” she said. “And it's shameful that the content and implementation of the nation's laws on occupational safety and the environment show systematic neglect of working-class people's lives in heavy industrial jobs, and far more concern for the well-being of yuppies in the exurbs." In a system that tends to make the law comply with corporations rather than the other way around, “voluntary protection” seems to do exactly what the phrase implies: to make workers’ rights optional.
A policy analysis released by the Cato Institute in April shows that despite nearly $15 trillion in total welfare spending since President Lyndon Johnson began the "war on poverty" in 1964, the poverty rate in the United States has remained relatively constant. In 1964, the national poverty rate was around 19 percent and falling, while the current poverty rate is expected to be around 15.1 percent and climbing. It is now at the highest level in nearly a decade.

The federal government will spend more than $668 billion to fight poverty in 2012. State and local governments will spend an additional $284 billion, amounting to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.Federal money for fighting poverty is divided amongst 126 separate anti-poverty programs. The programs include 33 housing programs, 21 food or food-purchasing assistance programs, 8 different health care programs and 27 cash or general assistance programs. Seven different cabinet agencies and six independent agencies administer at least one anti-poverty program. The largest federal welfare program is Medicaid, with spending topping $228 billion in 2011, excluding funding for nursing home or long-term care for the elderly. Other programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Federal Pell Grants, the National School Lunch Program, Head Start, Work Investment Act Youth Activities, Summer Food Service Program for Children, TRIO Upward Bound, Weatherization Assistance for Low Income Persons, WIC Grants to States, Rural Rental Housing Loans and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Outreach and Participation.

Add to this all this national and local state spending the charitable contributions from philanthropists and religious foundations and we can see that reforms are no solution to inherent flaws within the capitalist system.


 The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report Tuesday on the economic mobility of Americans across generations. It contains a wealth of data on the state of the American Dream, defined as the ability to go from rags to riches, or from a log cabin to the White House. However, the current state of that dream looks a bit like a nightmare.

Our ability to move up and down the rungs of society's income ladder is severely limited. If you define the American dream as the ability to pull yourself up through hard work alone, you'll have trouble getting to sleep. Only 4 percent of those in this generation who were raised in the bottom income quintile(20%) were able to rise to the very top as adults. That the trip isn't that far. The upper quintile begins at $81,700 per year. Black Americans have an even tougher time moving up, and have much larger chance of moving down.

The report confirms what many see in their daily lives: if you're born rich or born poor, you'll probably stay that way for the rest of your life. Right now, the American Dream seems to be just that—a myth with little relation to the reality.


 The eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever. Mr. Putnam's data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.

Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children's futures while less affluent parents have not. They've invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading "Goodnight Moon," talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child care time, but only slightly.

A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important. Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids' enrichment activities, like tutoring and extracurriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it's a chasm. Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services. It's not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since.

As Mr. Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: "It's perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them -- family, friends, church, school and community." As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children. Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

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