David Graeber | The Baffler
What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.
At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be? For me, the person who has asked this most effectively is the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein. He argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) looks at one of the incidents that gave rise to International Workers Day–May 1 or Mayday.
Julfikar Ali Manik, Jim Yardley, Steven Greenhouse | The New York Times | 26 April 2013
AM Ahad / AP
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Thousands of garment workers rampaged through industrial areas of the capital of Bangladesh on Friday, smashing vehicles with bamboo poles and setting fire to at least two factories in violent protests ignited by a deadly building collapse this week that killed at least 340 workers.
. . . Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the arrests of the owner of Rana Plaza, as well as the owners of four garment factories that were operating on the upper floors of the eight-story building. Pressure also mounted on Western clothing brands that rely heavily on Bangladesh to manufacture their products; labor activists have found labels inside the wreckage for clothes being made for J. C. Penney, Cato Fashions, the British retailer Primark and other clothing brands.
. . . A special government committee has been appointed to investigate the accident, and questions are already arising about why more than 3,000 employees were working at Rana Plaza when it collapsed on Wednesday morning. Cracks had been discovered in the structure a day earlier, and police officials and industry leaders say they had asked the factory bosses to stop work until the building had been inspected.
“I wouldn’t call it an accident,” the government’s information minister, Hasanul Haque Inu, told Bangladeshi journalists. “I would say it’s a murder.”
Friday’s violent protests ricocheted among industrial sections of Dhaka as garment workers took to the streets to vent their fury. Many of the protesters demanded the death penalty for Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, as well as the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors. More than 150 vehicles were reported damaged, and some protesters burned two factories.
The American Experience (1999)
Harold Meyerson | The American Prospect | 25 April 2013
Yesterday—April 24th—was a red-letter day in the annals of worker mobilization in post-collective-bargaining America. In Chicago, hundreds of fast-food and retail employees who work in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile called a one-day strike and demonstrated for a raise to $15-an-hour and the right to form a union. At more than 150 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, workers and community activists called on the chain to regularize employees’ work schedules. And under pressure from an AFL-CIO-backed campaign of working-class voters who primarily aren’t union members, the county supervisors of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County voted to raise the local minimum wage.
. . . Though the Service Employees International Union aided in the New York and Chicago efforts, this is anything but a conventional union-organizing campaign. With collective bargaining in the private sector all but a dead letter—just 6.6 percent of private-sector employees are union members, and the legal obstacles to organizing new members grow steadily steeper—SEIU is one of several major unions shifting their focus to actions that publicize the economic and social costs of ever-growing low-wage employment.
With the backing of the United Food and Commercial Workers, thousands of Wal-Mart employees have formed an association—not a union seeking a contract—that works alongside community activists to pressure the company to make changes such as regularizing workers’ hours. The AFL-CIO is expanding its Working America program, which has successfully mobilized non-union working-class voters to back progressive candidates at election time, to all 50 states. The union is expanding the program’s reach beyond the ballot box too, experimenting with projects that would activate Working America members in workplace-related causes and wage-related legislation. Working America has 112,000 members in New Mexico, recruited, as is Working America’s custom, through a door-to-door canvass. It has lobbied successfully for minimum-wage hikes in both Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.
Erik Forman | In These Times
“Mate, what do you think of the ‘Organizing Model’? That’s an American thing, isn’t it?”
I was sorting my notes during a short break at an IWW training in London. The question took me off guard. “Umm… which organizing model?” I replied quizzically. There were multiple organizing models, right? Alinsky, ACORN, SEIU, member-to-member, staff-driven, Solidarity… and so on. I chalked it up to U.S.-UK cultural misunderstanding.
But a few weeks later, at another training in Cologne, Germany, someone asked–“Das ‘Organizing Model’ ist in den USA sehr beliebt, oder?” Here it was again. In German. I decided to do some digging.
As I got deeper in Google searches, academic journals, and labor movement archives, I realized that I was slowly unearthing a concept so foundational to the contemporary labor movement that most activists of my generation hardly realize it is there. It turns out the United States doesn’t only export Backstreet Boys and Big Macs, we also export the trends of our unions. Over the last 15 years, as American management practices cast a pall over the global economy, unions in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, and beyond have looked to the United States for survival strategies, and came back with ‘the Organizing Model.’
American Postal Workers Union | May/June 2008
By the time he started painting pictures at age 31, Ralph Fasanella had developed a strong disdain for the social and economic injustices he witnessed every day in the streets of New York City. Over the rest of his life, the self-taught artist created hundreds of paintings, most of which spread the union gospel and celebrated the dignity of the working people around him.
Shift workers at their stations in a factory workshop. Fasanella said he depicted himself in the figure on the right, drilling holes in sheet metal.
Like the workers around him, Fasanella labored in obscurity for many years. But he eventually was recognized as a great American artist, and one who spoke for workers everywhere. “He was a true artist of the people,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, “in the tradition of Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie.”
. . . Despite the acclaim, Fasanella spent a few years living at a YMCA in Massachusetts while completing some of his most notable work, including several famous scenes of the 1912 “Bread and Roses” textile workers’ strike in Lawrence. He ultimately returned to New York, where for two decades he continued to portray urban settings and labor unrest. He died, in 1997, at age 83.
Sara Jaffe | Jacobin
Just after Thomas Frank declared Occupy dead, killed by its own fascination with process and language, I walked into St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park Friday and saw so many familiar faces from Zuccotti, not sitting around debating how to talk about the revolution, but doing hard, necessary, practical work to feed and clothe and support swathes of the city reeling from the Superstorm. The obituaries of Occupy had never seemed so completely wrong; not on May Day or September 17th when the streets again rang with protest.
The church basement was filled with volunteers standing around tables, some preparing food, some sorting donations and putting together boxes, like the Kitchen and Comfort stations from the best days at the park. All would be fed. All would be clothed. Except instead of waiting for those in need to arrive, curious, at the park and make their way past the cardboard protest signs to the heart of the occupation, these volunteers now were loading cars filled with precious gasoline to drive to Coney Island, to the Rockaways, to anywhere that people weren’t being cared for.
“It’s amazing how organized we are, it’s amazing how much so many people involved with the social movement have learned about themselves, about each other, about all of how, how to put these values into practice,” Michael Premo, one of the Occupy organizers in Sunset Park, told me.
HISTORY | SLAVERY
Last month, researchers at University College London made public a database that describes in illuminating detail one of the largest government bailouts in modern history. In 1833, Britain paid 20 million pounds to compensate 3,000 Caribbean slaveholders for the emancipation of their slaves. The payments constituted about 40 percent of total governmental expenditures that year. Conversation about the database in Britain centered on the recipients of these reparations for slaveholders, among them the ancestors of George Orwell, Graham Greene and David Cameron.
. . . According to Abraham Lincoln, at least, the cost of emancipation in the United States was to be reckoned in blood. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said he feared God would will the war to continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
This reckoning of the value of slaves in blood and treasure raises an important, though too frequently overlooked, question. What was the role of slavery in American economic development?
The most familiar answer to that question is: not much. By most accounts, the triumph of freedom and the birth of capitalism are seen as the same thing. The victory of the North over the South in the Civil War represents the victory of capitalism over slavery, of the future over the past, of the factory over the plantation. In actual fact, however, in the years before the Civil War, there was no capitalism without slavery. The two were, in many ways, one and the same.
. . . When the cotton crop came in short and sales failed to meet advanced payments, planters found themselves indebted to merchants and bankers. Slaves were sold to make up the difference. The mobility and salability of slaves meant they functioned as the primary form of collateral in the credit-and-cotton economy of the 19th century.
It is not simply that the labor of enslaved people underwrote 19th-century capitalism. Enslaved people were the capital: four million people worth at least $3 billion in 1860, which was more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories in the United States combined. Seen in this light, the conventional distinction between slavery and capitalism fades into meaninglessness.
We are accustomed to reckoning the legacy of slavery in the United States in terms of black disadvantage. The centrality of slavery to the nation’s economic development, however, suggests that any calculation of the nation’s unpaid debt for slavery must include a measure of the wealth it produced, of advantage as well as disadvantage. The United States, as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, was “built upon a groan.”
Megan Erickson | Jacobin
. . . But the bus drivers’ strike was not merely a reaction to the removal of the job security clause from workers’ contracts. By fighting against budget cuts and the negotiation of cheaper contracts, the bus drivers were implicitly standing in opposition to the broader neoliberal ideology of privatization, competition, “lean” production, and relentless expropriation of workers’ personal time as a cure for society’s ills. That connection was willfully obscured by Bloomberg and Walcott — fluent in anti-labor language — and never clearly articulated by the union.
Compare this to the strategy of rank-and-file workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union who, in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street activists, opened gates at four subway stations around the city during a March 2012 morning rush hour. The union members posted signs around the city apologizing to subway riders for service cuts and fare hikes which, they explained, were the result of the MTA’s determination to make the highest profit off of commuters.
The signs were formatted in the font used for MTA service announcements and urged riders to enter the station for free through the service entrance, making the public collaborators in a collective action against austerity measures. That service cuts meant layoffs for transit workers wasn’t even mentioned. “Be prepared for expanded free service until the resolution of contract negotiations in favor of TWU Local 100,” they advertised. A press release located the wildcat action in the context of the global political climate, connecting it to the interests of the class as a whole in a time of mass austerity. The tactic had international precedent — the Spanish indignados had been running their own fare strike, Yo No Pago, since January of that year.
The failure of the bus drivers’ union strike underscores the necessity of building national and international coalitions between unionized and non-unionized labor, workers and non-workers of all kinds, with the explicit aim of transforming the structure of institutions. After the surprise success of the September 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike —
the first in the city since 1987 — the question was: what city’s next?
It’s the wrong question. Located in one of only eleven states in the US where public sector employees have the right to strike, Chicago is exceptional. America’s dogged adherence to local politics means that each district, city, and state is subject to its own labor law regimes. Anti-austerity strategy, in turn, will differ in different regions. What we should be asking is: how do we transition from a localized and evanescent series of collective actions to a national movement with a unified agenda that could ignite a shift in public policy? How do we move from home-grown resistance to victory?
Dustin Cohen | Vimeo
Made in Brooklyn: The Shoemaker
Frank Catalfumo is a 91 year old shoemaker and repairer in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He first opened the doors to F&C Shoes in 1945 and continues to work five days a week alongside his son Michael. If you’re ever in the area, make sure to stop by the shop and listen to one of Frank’s amazing stories about life in Brooklyn back in the day.
Rebecca Burns | In These Times | 25 April 2013
What has 18 owners, no bosses and high hopes for fostering workplace democracy in America? New Era Windows LLC, a worker-owned cooperative formed last year by members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110.
After occupying their factory to save their jobs—twice—workers at a closing Chicago windows plant decided last year to try a new tack: running the business themselves. They purchased equipment from their former bosses and are now setting up a new factory they believe will create good jobs in the city’s depressed economy.
New Era is one of a growing number of union-backed cooperatives nationwide that could herald a new strategy for labor. In his survey of existing cooperatives, economist Gar Alperovitz has calculated that the number of workers in partly or wholly employee-owned companies now exceeds those who belong to private-sector unions—a statistic that speaks both to the perilous state of the labor movement and the promise of reviving it through new structures.
Kevin Slaten & Xue Chao | In These Times
Last year, The New York Times told us that these workers are “cheap no more,” and just this February, the Heritage Foundation, touting the virtues of global free trade, claimed that Chinese factory wages have risen 20 percent per year since 2005. Foxconn, Apple’s major supplier and the manufacturer of approximately 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics, says it will hold free union elections every five years.
. . . Skepticism and caveats aside, the reality is that the lot of formal production workers in China is indeed advancing, however slowly and painfully. But that is true only for formal workers. What many consumers and observers fail to note are the perilous conditions of China’s temporary production workers and the increased tendency among Chinese factories to use such workers to manufacture the brand-name products that fill your home.
Factories supplying Apple and Samsung, for example, make heavy use of temp workers. According to official statistics, temp workers make up 20 percent of China’s urban workforce of 300 million, though the proportion in individual factories often tops 50 percent. As China turns into a land of short-term workers, there are grave implications for labor, companies, and Chinese society.
Sebastião Salgado is possibly the most famous and eminent photojournalist working today. He embarks on great photographic projects, seeking out places that are untouched by modern humanity and exposing the inhumanities it left behind. If there is one Salgado picture that will stand the test of time, it is this picture of a dispute between Serra Pelada gold mine worker and military police taken in Brazil in 1986. It is the classic picture of tension with a twist–the authority is in the hands of the police on the right, but he earns much less than the miners thus infusing that facet of tension into the picture too.
The tale of Serra Pelada was straight out of the great 19th century gold rushes of Australia and the American west. A 6g nugget of gold, found by a local bathing his child on the banks of a remote river, started an uncontrolled gold rush that turned the place into a modern day Inferno. In five years, tens of thousands of men swarmed the site in a huge goldstrike worth more than the annual output of all Australian gold mines combined. Salgado not only documented a lengthy photoessay about Serra Pelada but also the nearby town of “stores and whores”, where tens of thousands of girls under the age of 16 sold their bodies for a few grains of gold. It is also said there are 60-80 unsolved murders in the town every month.
RAISING THE FEDERAL MINIMUM WAGE WOULD GIVE WORKING FAMILIES AND THE OVERALL ECONOMY A MUCH NEEDED BOOST
David Cooper and Doug Hall | The Economic Policy Institute | 13 March 2013
Following the president’s expression of support for a $9.00 minimum wage, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) indicated their support for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 (this proposal follows their 2012 effort to pass legislation supporting a $9.80 minimum wage). Their proposal—now formalized as S.460, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013—would increase the minimum wage via three incremental increases of $0.95, and then index it to inflation, so that as prices rise, so would the minimum wage. Also, the tipped minimum wage (the minimum wage paid to workers who earn a portion of their wages in tips) would be increased in $0.85 increments from its current value of $2.13 per hour, where it has languished since 1991, until it reaches 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.
Raising the minimum wage would help reverse the ongoing erosion of wages that has contributed significantly to growing income inequality. At the same time, it would provide a modest stimulus to the entire economy, as increased wages would lead to increased consumer spending, which would contribute to GDP growth and modest employment gains.
This paper begins by examining the minimum wage in context, noting where the minimum wage would be today had it grown at the same rate as other important benchmarks over the last few decades. It then provides a demographic overview of the workers who would benefit from the proposed minimum-wage increase, examining characteristics such as their gender, age, race and ethnicity, educational attainment, work hours, family income, and family composition. Next, it details the estimated GDP and job creation impacts that would result from increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
Key findings include:
Increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by July 1, 2015, would raise the wages of about 30 million workers, who would receive over $51 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period.1 Across the phase-in period of the minimum-wage increase, GDP would increase by roughly $32.6 billion, resulting in the creation of approximately 140,000 net new jobs (and 284,000 job years) over that period. Those who would see wage increases do not fit some of the stereotypes of minimum-wage workers.
Women would be disproportionately affected, comprising 56 percent of those who would benefit. Over 88 percent of workers who would benefit are at least 20 years old. Although workers of all races and ethnicities would benefit from the increase, non-Hispanic white workers comprise the largest share (about 54 percent) of those who would be affected. About 44 percent of affected workers have at least some college education. Around 55 percent of affected workers work full time, 70 percent are in families with incomes of less than $60,000, more than a quarter are parents, and over a third are married. The average affected worker earns about half of his or her family’s total income.
Supposedly, there are three things you never talk about in polite company: sex, religion, and politics.
It would seem no one passed that memo on to local “punkgrass” band Haymarket Squares, who formed in 2009 and immediately became a fixture on the downtown arts scene, playing in coffeehouses, bars, and at activist events. Their second album, 2010’s Dancing in the Street, explicitly nails at least two of those taboos.
The trio, comprising guitarist and banjo player John Luther Norris, Marc Oxborrow on bass, and Mark Sunman on mandolin, accordion, and guitar (all three members sing), laugh when I share the axiom about screwing, God, and the democratic process with them.
“We need to write more sex songs,” Sunman says with a smile.