Solidarity Against Trump’s Austerity Death Trap

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Amidst the fear and pain of the Coronavirus pandemic, the one thing that has given me hope is how people have come together in response – meeting the needs of the moment with togetherness instead of panic. There are countless mutual aid efforts happening around the world and incredibly bravery from frontline medical staff. People sing out their windows together in Italy to give each other hope. People bang pots and pans together out their windows in Brazil to protest the inadequacy of the government’s response.

In the US, all signs point to the Trump calling people back to work next week in the face of all medical advice. Conservatives are lining up with takes that suggest the death of a few percent of the population – hundreds of thousands to millions of people here in America – are less bad than the collapse of the whole economy. Trump thinks a crashing economy is worse for his political future than mass graves. (Let’s leave aside the absurdity that an attempt to restart the economy would survive a million dead Americans, or that Trump even himself stopped the economy to begin with). Carl Beijer has called this Trump’s austerity death trap and I think that captures it well.

Already online there is talk that workers should go out on general strike if Trump tries to force people back to work. My fear is that while the labor movement may not be strong enough to support this, many people will make the hard individual choice that indeed their lives and their families lives are more important than their jobs. They will put some degree of faith in the government to provide direct aid and some faith that they can get by on charity, on credit, and on personal austerity. They will bravely do the thing that is obviously right, but their President (and surely soon, the conservative media and their bosses) is telling them is wrong.

It is critical that people who say no to Trump’s prioritization of the economy over human life feel supported. It is critical that people do not feel alone in this decision, that they not feel shame in their abstention from work. It is critical that space is created for not only people to refuse this demand to keep the gears of the US economy going with the lives of working people.

There is a critical opportunity to both support people and encourage them to make the right decision and create the tools to help spread this reaction – whether we call it a general strike, an abstention, a non-cooperation movement against Trump’s deadly self-interest. What we need is visual and cultural signifiers to share. Not just badges and memes on social networks, but something local and offline.

I’m not a visually creative person. My first thought of a white bedsheet out a window probably has the wrong connotations but is the sort of thing that could be done by almost anyone in the world. A white bedsheet with a painted green slash could provide a solution. The green ribbon is being used in southeast Asia alongside the hashtag #WeWillOvercome. And the color does tell the story of the sort of recovery we want (be it a green stimulus or a green new deal or both)!

I don’t know if Trump will press Americans back to work. I do know that if he does, it will likely result in the rapid spread of the coronavirus and a massive increase in human suffering here in the US, at minimum. This is a terrifying moment, the worst imaginable outcome of putting a selfish, stupid, incapable man in the White House.  But in the face of this stupidity, we are not alone. We have each other and we have common sense.

There never really was mass resistance to Trump’s presidency. If there ever will be, this feels like the moment where it will emerge – beyond twitter and across our communities. The irony is now it cannot be in the streets, but must be online and in socially distant ways offline, too. That’s why I see value in a finding a unifying visual meme to connect those who will together reject Trump’s attempt at mass murder at the alter of the economy.

Stoller on Wal-Mart Strikes

In recent weeks there have been a series of wildcat strikes and work disruptions at Wal-Marts and Wal-Mart warehouses around the country. Workers are threatening to strike on Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year. Read this post by Josh Eidelson for more background on the strikes. Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism notes that Wal-Mart represents 2.3% of the US GDP and has massive power in our political and economic space, making these strikes potential game changing. He writes:

The company at this point isn’t just a key purveyor of lower labor standards and a globalized and concentrated supply chain, it is a key tell for policymakers. Walmart data was used by the Federal Reserve’s FOMC to understand labor markets, inequality, health care costs, supply chains, and inflation. As the global recession began to come into view, one FOMC member noted, ”It’s certainly disconcerting to hear that one of the largest private institutions in the world – Wal-Mart – is missing its growth targets fairly significantly.” It is as if the new maxim had become, what’s good for Walmart is good for America.

In the 1950s, the so-called “Treaty of Detroit”, an agreement between government, business, and labor for ever increasing wages at automakers, set the tone for the next twenty years of political economy. From the 1970s onward, the new social contract was increasingly set, not just by companies like Walmart, but by Walmart itself. As a new social contract, let’s call it the “Treaty of Walmart”, emerged as a deal cut between the US government, the Chinese government, and global trading corporations, American society began to reflect a race to the bottom. This strike is thus worth watching – if Walmart loses some pricing pressure because of tactics that impact the company’s supply chain or ability to sell, we’ll be in uncharted territory.

Wal-Mart’s workers are not unionized. The company has viciously fought off small-scale organizing efforts of the years, firing workers who attend to organize their shops and cutting hours of sympathetic workers. The work culture at Wal-Mart is one which is profoundly anti-worker and, as Stoller notes, they have driven a race to the bottom in terms of low-pay and non-existent benefits.

But Wal-Mart is a huge beast in the economy. And if workers are able to force them to concede better working conditions, pay, and benefits, it could have a massive ripple effect outward in the economy. The value would not be merely an economic one, though the prospect of tens or hundreds of thousands of workers getting significant pay raises would fire off potentially massive new economic growth. Rather the real value would be the highly visible statement of some of the lowest hourly wage earners in the country forcing the largest retail business to its knees would prove that any group of workers at any employer in the country can organize their shop.

People get inspired when they see people just like them achieving amazing things that were previously thought impossible. That’s how Occupy Wall Street spread from an encampment in lower Manhattan to thousands of town squares around America – regular people saw that other regular people were taking over public spaces and felt compelled to go out and do it themselves. The same goes when workers try to organize themselves and succeed – the organizing can spread like wild fire.

While the Wal-Mart strikes are happening in a handful of cities around the country, be sure that the company is pouring millions into anti-union “education” in their stores, likely forcing workers to watch videos vilifying such things as higher wages, job security, and health benefits unions. But that won’t matter if these strikes spread and workers win concessions from Wal-Mart. As Stoller says, victories here would put us in uncharted territory and the organizing opportunities could be revolutionary for workers.

Someone tell Michelle Rhee that Dan Malloy just isn’t that into her

Disgraced former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee is on a quixotic search to pretend she’s a Democrat in good standing, despite her pursuit of taking away workers’ rights and helping Republican governors bust teachers unions. In her Washington Post op-ed on how real Democrats support her education prioritization strategy, which reads like a Joe Lieberman op-ed arguing that real Democrats support endless war, Rhee offers up an example of how Democratic governors have worked with her on education issues.

Increasingly, those who staunchly side with unions at any cost appear to be in the minority, while more Democrats are saying we have to look at education differently. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) pushed through a law bringing more accountability into schools over early and strong union objections.

Gee Michelle, that sounds really impressive! Except, oh um, this statement from Malloy’s Senior Communications Adviser Roy Occhiogrosso:

“As much as the governor respects people’s rights to be a part of the education dialogue, Ms. Rhee has at times been a divisive figure. And the governor is determined to try and have this discussion about education reform in a way that’s not divisive.”

Governor Malloy actually worked with the teachers’ unions on education reform, not Rhee, who as you can see above, from whom he has publicly distanced himself.

There’s certainly a question about where the Democratic Party stands when it comes to supporting workers’ rights. There are certainly some elected officials like Rahm Emanuel, Andrew Cuomo and Arne Duncan who support Rhee’s brand of union busting. But there are also a lot of Democrats who still stand up for workers’ rights, including the rights of public teachers. For Rhee to say that the Democratic Party is squarely in her camp is an overstatement. But to say Dan Malloy is with her is an outright lie.

What the lockout is all about

Chuckling, a commenter at Alicublog:

One would hope the NFL referee lockout helps wake more people to the realization that plutocracy is ugly and getting uglier. The issue isn’t about money. The retirement contributions in question aren’t even pocket change for the billionaire NFL owners. No, they don’t feel their employees deserve a good retirement. They don’t feel their workers efforts are worth even a smidgen of their enormous net worth. They want it all not because it buys them anything extra, but in order to punish the lesser folk for their failings. It’s a bizarro meritocratic thing for people that don’t have a lot of merit.

This sounds spot-on to me.

The cost of the what the refs want and the owners refuse to agree with is about $3 million per year. That’s around $62,000 per team or less than $13,000 per individual game played. It could likely be covered by the sale of literal peanuts at each game, or perhaps foam fingers. This is not a lockout about money. It’s a lockout about breaking organized labor and taking away benefits from people who do high quality work and help make the owners billions of dollars.

Sports labor disputes & doing what’s right

There’s a ton of talk of how bad the NFL’s scab refs have been, especially after last night’s complete debacle between Seattle and Green Bay. It’s received less attention, but the NHL owners have locked out the players as well and as of now, there is no hockey this year. Sarah Jaffe has a great piece on both NFL and NHL lockouts, in which she gives a good rundown of why we should care about these two efforts by management to squeeze more revenue out of their workers (big or small).

I’m not sure what the way out for the NFL is. Right now the league is trying to take away the refs’ pensions. The amount of difference between the league’s position and the refs’ position amounts to a measly $62,000 per team per year – probably as much a team sells in pretzel concessions in a given home game. The NFL is purely in this for greed and an exertion of power of owners over some of their workers – there is no legitimate financial justification for a difference of $62,000 in a multi-billion industry. But as long as fans keep watching NFL games – something that is certainly going to happen – there’s little financial incentive for the NFL to end their lockout of the regular refs.

Daniel Hanson, an economist from the conservative think tank AEI, has called on the NFL Players Association to walk off the job given the dangerous playing conditions the NFL has created with the scab refs:

The ref situation constitutes what the U.S. government calls “an undue hazard to the health and safety of [an employee].” Accordingly, under the regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the situation must be remedied to the satisfaction of a representative “selected by a trade union representing the worker.” The NFLPA has the right to review the ref situation and refuse to work until it is fixed.

Indeed, the law protects unionized employees from reprisal in the event that a risk hinders their ability to work safely. The National Labor Relations Act, to which the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is subject, contains a provision regarding “abnormally dangerous conditions” and makes it clear that workers are under no obligation to work if their employers aren’t competent enough to fix these dangers.

And again, this is coming from a guy who works at a conservative think tank.

The NFL has to end the lockout of the real refs by Thursday night’s game. The scab refs have now cost a team a victory by making the absolutely wrong call on the final play of the game. There have been multiple injuries that went unpenalized. Barring a full on bench clearing brawl, I don’t know how much worse the scab refs impact on the game can be before the NFL has to cave. I mean, what else does Roger Gododell need to see to recognize that the integrity of this sport is worth more than $62,000?

Teachers are underpaid in Chicago, the US

A lot of the contrived outrage around the Chicago Teachers Union strike is around the critics’ false belief that the teachers are overpaid and greedy. You’ve probably heard that CTU teachers are paid an average of $70,000 and the union rejected a 16% pay raise.

Zaid Jilani has reported that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for a Chicago teacher is only $56,720. And about rejecting that big raise, in fact “The district offered a cost-of-living raise of 2 percent a year for four years, which the union said was unacceptable — especially after Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent raise.”

Jilani also reports that the teachers are fighting against generally bad conditions, including huge class size, crumbling schools with no libraries, no air conditioning, and limited access to the arts and music for students.

So in the midst of a lot of conservative misinformation about Chicago’s overpaid teachers, it’s worth noting, as Dean Baker does, that until very recently, we’d been lead to believe that salaries of $250,000 or even up to a million dollars a year were considered working class.

Since the Chicago school teachers went out on strike Monday, many political figures have tried to convince the public that their $70,000 average annual pay [sic] is excessive. This is peculiar, since many of the same people had been arguing that the families earning over $250,000, who would be subject to higher tax rates under President Obama’s tax proposal, are actually part of the struggling middle class. They now want to convince us that a household with two Chicago public school teachers, who together earn less than 60 percent of President Obama’s cutoff, have more money than they should.

Baker also gets specific, noting that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made over $274,000 at an apparent no show job at Freddie Mac after he left the White House, while noted austerian Erskine Bowles made $335,000 at Morgan Stanley the year his investment bank had to be bailed out to prevent its failure.

While Chicago’s teachers are obviously underpaid in comparison to Freddie Mac’s Emanuel and Morgan Stanley’s Bowles, a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows American teachers are also very underpaid compared to their peers in the developed world.

The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of a average college-educated worker in the United States. The comparable figure is 82 percent across the overall O.E.C.D. For teachers in lower secondary school (roughly the years Americans would call middle school), the ratio in the United States is 69 percent, compared to 85 percent across the O.E.C.D. The average upper secondary teacher earns 72 percent of the salary for the average college-educated worker in the United States, compared to 90 percent for the overall O.E.C.D.

American teachers, by the way, spend a lot more time teaching than do their counterparts in most other developed countries

One would think that if we wanted the US to be competitive with other countries in the developed world, we would want to have the best teachers, paid competitively with other countries’ teachers.

The experience for Chicago’s school children is not a good one, given the poor conditions they are asked to attempt to learn in. The Chicago Teachers Union is on strike to try to get guarantees from the school system to address these concerns and to make sure teachers have pay worthy of the important job of securing the future generations of American leaders.

Compared to the destructive economic actions of highly paid individuals like Rahm Emanuel and Erskine Bowles, it hardly seems controversial for Chicago’s teachers to be paid a fair wage, under a fair contract.