Working In These Times

Tuesday, Aug 8, 2017, 12:27 pm  ·  By Richard D. Wolff

Raising the Minimum Wage Is Not the End Goal—We Need to Challenge Capital Itself

Protestors march in a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington to push for a raise to the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, on July 22, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)  

This article first appeared on Truthout

Once more with feeling, the old debate rises into the headlines and the talk show circuit: Should governments — state, federal or local — raise the minimum wage or not? Employers of minimum-wage workers weigh in to say "no." But that raises a PR problem: It looks bad to advocate keeping workers' wages so low. So, they make a better-looking claim: that raising minimum wages causes some employers to fire low-paid workers rather than pay them more. Their opposition to raising minimum wages then morphs into an advocacy for low-paid workers to keep their jobs.

Workers and their allies mostly take the bait. They weigh in with counterarguments. These mostly respond directly, claiming that raising minimum wages does not lead to significant job losses.

Over the decades, professional economists and statisticians (increasingly overlapping sets) have entered the debate. Their entry resolved nothing. Every few years, the debate has flared up again. The economists write articles and books that enrich their resumes. Some score research grants from foundations, business lobbies and labor groups to prepare shiny new versions of the old arguments.

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Monday, Aug 7, 2017, 12:43 pm  ·  By Joe Allen

Making Sense of UAW’s Devastating Loss in Mississippi

Workers and civil rights organizers marched on the Canton, Miss. Nissan plant on March 4, 2017. (UAW)  

The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union has staggered from one defeat to the next for many years. Three years ago, the union got a punch in the gut when it was defeated in a recognition vote at Volkswagen (VW) in Tennessee. Friday’s defeat at Nissan was nothing less than a knockout punch ending for the foreseeable future any efforts by the UAW to organize the large, predominately foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the South.

News of the defeat trickled in on Friday night through friends who were present at the vote in Canton, Miss., where Nissan’s sprawling, nearly-mile-long assembly plant is located. More than 60 percent of Nissan’s approximately 3,500 eligible workers voted over a two-day period against the union. Most of us hoped to wake up on Saturday morning to better news, but Nissan—one of the world’s top automakers—beat the UAW hands down. It wasn’t even close.

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Friday, Aug 4, 2017, 5:04 pm  ·  By Joe Allen

20 Years On, What the UPS Strike Can Teach Us About Reviving a Dying Labor Movement

Teamsters at a UPS station in New York wave and cheer as supportive passing motorists honk their horns 19 August, 1997. The Teamsters union announced 18 August that it had reached a tentative deal with United Parcel Service. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)  

This article first appeared in Jacobin.

Twenty years ago, the Teamsters’ national strike against United Parcel Service (UPS) produced panic, if not outright hysteria, in the corporate boardrooms of the United States

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Thursday, Aug 3, 2017, 3:44 pm  ·  By David Moberg

The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

Hundreds of workers and civil rights leaders marched on the Canton, Miss. Nissan plant on March 4, 2017. (UAW)  

After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states. 

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Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017, 5:27 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Organizers Say Quaint Baltimore Seafood Business Masks Shocking Labor Abuses

Demonstration at the labor department offices in Lampung, Indonesia in 2015. (IUF)  

Phillips Seafood is a Baltimore-based company that trades on its historic connections to the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery. The signature dish at its restaurants is the famed Maryland-style crab cake, and its dining rooms feature models of antique fishing boats and romanticized images of the bay watermen culture that is fading fast. But organizers say it’s mostly fake—a cover story for a rapacious, globalized business that preys on poor Indonesian women to extract rich profits for its U.S. owners.

That’s the story being told by a multinational federation of labor organizations committed to helping those Indonesian workers, according to Hidayat Greenfield, the Asia-Pacific regional secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF). A loose alliance of unions in 129 countries around the world, the IUF is spreading the word to Phillips’ U.S. customers about the company’s human rights abuses in Indonesia. 

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Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017, 10:49 am  ·  By David Roediger

It’s Not Just Class: The Fight for Racial Justice Is Inseparable from Overcoming Capitalism

The Chicago Teachers Union has rooted their struggle in anti-white supremacy. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)  

On the surface, it would seem easy to think about race and class together. Not too long ago, I would have regarded a challenging formulation in C.L.R. James’s classic book The Black Jacobins as giving an elegant, if a little vague, solution to the question of how we do so: “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics,” James wrote, “and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous.” But, he immediately added, “to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”

The quote still resonates powerfully, but I now think of it as being more a statement illustrating how deeply our problems run than as a solution to them. James sees the two categories as distinct, separable, and needing to be ranked, in ways I no longer do. Nevertheless, his vantage provides a good basis for mutuality and common work among those with differing inflections.

As movements ebb and flow, existing struggles make one terrain seem more attractive at one moment, less at others. It ought, then, to be possible to differ about the specific emphases on race and class across time and place while not vilifying each other.

For a very long time it has been difficult to talk meaningfully about the ebb and flow of either struggles against class oppression or of those contesting racial injustice. For nearly half a century in the United States, we have overwhelmingly experienced ebbs and awaited flows.

Nearly fifty years ago, when I first encountered the words quoted from C.L.R. James, U.S. labor strikes of over 1,000 workers averaged 300 per year, sometimes reaching well over 400. In 2009, five such strikes occurred; in 2014 eleven; in 2015 twelve. Today when the words “strike” and “U.S.” are paired we tend to think of military drones.

Union density, the traditional measure of labor’s decline, has also taken a hit, with a third of workers organized in the mid 1960s and a tenth—far less than that in the private sector—in 2015. I still wear a faded old T-shirt opposing a “generation of givebacks” in union contracts, but the unions that do still exist are now in the third generation of defensive struggles.

That same period witnessed the end to the great advances of the Black freedom movement and a turn toward struggles to keep 1960s measures in force. Since the 1980s, racial justice activists have played defense by attempting to slow the timetable of the dismantling of affirmative action and by preserving voting rights.

When I wrote the introduction to How Race Survived US History just a decade ago, I did so with a post-it note near my computer with “7x” twice written on it, reminding me of the facts that young African-American men were imprisoned seven times as often as whites and that white wealth outpaced African-American wealth sevenfold. Today that latter figure is a factor of sixteen.

The disorienting impact of such a long period of defeat can hardly be overstated. In the 1950s and 1960s, a period of intense and constant struggle for gains by workers and by the civil rights movement, the permeability of the categories of race and class emerged in sharp relief.

The expanding horizons created by the movements against racial oppression made all workers think more sharply about new tactics, new possibilities and new freedoms. The spread of wildcat strikes across color lines is one example. The high hopes Martin Luther King Jr. invested in both the Poor People’s Campaign and the strike of Black sanitation workers in Memphis remind us of a period that could test ideas in practice and could experience, if not always appreciate, the tendency for self-activity among people of color to generate possibilities for broader working-class mobilizations.

Optimistic thinking proclaims that things have recently turned around. It Started in Wisconsin is a fine book on the 2011 mass demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation, but those struggles were defensive, ultimately electoral and soundly defeated. Or perhaps “it started” with the 2008 sit-in at the Goose Island facility of Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors, but that was a defensive struggle against a plant closure, involving 200 workers, and the plant closed. Or, how we hoped, Occupy “started it” again in 2011.

“It started” is interestingly most often applied to movements seen as presenting class demands, but the quality of such movements remains very far from turning into quantity. Spectacular workers’ protests have occurred, especially those of the immigrant rights marches and strikes of 2006 and of the recent mobilizations of Black Lives Matter.

 These struggles have won gains in some instances, but they are too easily considered non-class mobilizations based simply on identity. Meanwhile the labor struggle most able to sustain itself, that of the Chicago Teachers Union, has also been the one with the most sophisticated and energetic anti-white supremacy politics.

One result of living inside of difficult circumstances not of our own choosing is that it has been too easy for some to suppose that our difficulties have been caused by paying too much attention to race, to gender, or to sexuality (where mass movements have also effected some significant reforms), and not enough attention to class.

When these arguments press furthest and most simplistically—for example, in the writings of the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels—we are presented with the view that neoliberal elites countenance demands based on race, gender, and sexuality in order to divert attention from the real inequalities of class.

Such a conspiracy theory trades on the kernel of truth that elites, bureaucracies, and the judiciary do persistently attempt to shift the terms of struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia/transphobia into soporific vagaries regarding “diversity” and “multiculturalism.”

Corporate embraces of the “value of diversity” are, it is true, not antiracist. Multiculturalism does instead regularly mask desires for the surplus value produced by diversity. But this hardly makes popular antiracist struggles irrelevant or inimical to addressing class oppression.

Benn Michaels’s analysis courts at least three major problems.

First, it loses track of the extent to which working-class people participate in and shape initiatives such as immigrant rights, trans rights, and antiracist mobilizations and therefore misses working-class victories as momentous as those won in the 2006 mass actions by immigrant workers.

Second, it substitutes denunciation for attempts to build coalitions encouraging those oppressed in differing ways to come together and deepen the demands of all.

Last, it locates the failures of organized labor outside and inside the Democratic Party as exogenous to those movements themselves, imagining that doing more of the same will work out fine, or would if multiculturalism were only defeated. The recent failures of organized labor are much better understood as failures of the labor leadership than the result of being outfoxed by multiculturalists.

Benn Michaels argues that demands for racial justice now function as mere covers for maintaining class inequalities. As proof he claims antiracists allow that in their ideal society poverty and inequality would continue and merely be evenly distributed across racial lines.

The evidence that this is in fact a widely expressed position among antiracists is very scant. But, to be clear, the achievement of the equality amidst oppression so ridiculed by Benn Michaels is—though impossible without a broader social transformation—not a goal that anti-capitalists should sneer at as merely providing “victories for neoliberalism.”

Again and again, contemporary debates on race and class involve characterizations of the existing discourse and policies as hopelessly tilted towards race at the expense of class. We need to bend the stick in one direction, it is said, because everyone else, or perhaps just liberals and neoliberals, so bend it in the other.

So many well-positioned writers imagine that an increased emphasis on class can only come by toning down the race and gender talk that it is hard to see how they maintain the stance that they are lonely figures sacrificing to tell the truth. Academic emphases and those of NGOs are said to structure race-first distortions. Injecting a word about class becomes an act of extraordinary freethinking courage, defying a deck stacked against any such mention. No matter how repeatedly such mentions occur they get to count as speaking truth to power—itself perhaps an overrated practice.

On one level, as a Marxist who began writing in the 1970s when it was somewhat easier to be one, I get it. But we are hardly without platforms. Moreover, perceiving such a tilted-towards-race status quo sometimes creates too easy an alliance between those who wish to combine emphases on race and class and those who would rather see race off the agenda altogether on the theory that the poverty of people of color means that they can benefit from class-based reforms without the need for specific antiracist demands.

Capital’s continued dominance limits progress towards eliminating racial inequality. By the same token, inroads toward that goal do challenge the logic and limit the room for maneuver of capitalist management. As the London-based socialist thinker Sivanandan has observed, “in recovering a sense of oppression,” white workers must confront their “alienation [from] a white- oriented culture” and “arrive at a consciousness of racial oppression.”

Struggles for racial justice are sites of learning for white workers, of self-activity by workers of color, and of placing limits on capital’s ability to divide workers. 

This piece has been excerpted from the introduction to David Roediger's new book Class, Race, and Marxism, available now from Verso.

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Monday, Jul 31, 2017, 12:15 pm  ·  By Economic Policy Institute

Black Women Have to Work 7 Months Longer Than White Men to Receive the Same Pay

Fast food workers rally in New York City in July 2013 (Annette Bernhardt/Flickr)  

Valerie Wilson, Janelle Jones, Kayla Blado and Elise Gould wrote this article, which was first published by the Working Economics Blog of the Economic Policy Institute.

July 31st is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the day that marks how long into 2017 an African American woman would have to work in order to be paid the same wages as her white male counterpart was paid last year. Black women are uniquely positioned to be subjected to both a racial pay gap and a gender pay gap. In fact, on average, black women workers are paid only 67 cents on the dollar relative to white non-Hispanic men, even after controlling for education, years of experience, and location.

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Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 12:03 pm  ·  By Stephen Franklin

One Taxi Driver’s Story of Trying to Survive in the Age of Uber

Nnamdi Uwazie sits in his taxi cab. (Stephen Franklin)  

It’s 4 p.m. and Nnamdi Uwazie has taken in only $122, which means he has another five hours to drive to just cover his daily costs. Another 15-hour day in the cab and maybe nothing for him.

But this is how life has been lately for the 53-year-old taxi driver.

Since Uber and other ride-share businesses have crowded Chicago’s streets, his customers have become ghosts, and a livelihood that once sustained his family of five has virtually disappeared.

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Thursday, Jul 27, 2017, 5:04 pm  ·  By Julianne Tveten

We Shouldn’t Trust Tech Industry Billionaires to Lead the Way on Immigrants’ Rights

Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg delivers his keynote conference on the opening day of the World Mobile Congress at the Fira Gran Via Complex on February 22, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)  

Earlier this month, the administration of Donald Trump postponed the enactment of the International Entrepreneur Rule, a program that would grant foreign businesspeople the temporary ability to found companies in the United States. The ultimate goal, the administration announced, is to rescind the rule.

The move rankled the tech industry, which owes much of its plenitude to the work of enterprising immigrants. “Steve Jobs might never have been born,” many doting technocrats have ruminated, if his father hadn’t been able to come to the United States from Syria. AOL co-founder Steve Case lambasted the decision as a “big mistake,” and venture capitalist Bobby Franklin told the Los Angeles Times the development stems from “a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical role immigrant entrepreneurs play in growing the next generation of American companies.”

This sentiment is hardly new. Silicon Valley has a history of lobbying for immigration rights, which has culminated in a number of technocratic Obama-era bills, including the Immigration Innovation Act and the Startup Act.

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Monday, Jul 24, 2017, 7:05 pm  ·  By Michael Arria

NPR Workers Just Showed Us Why Journalists Need to Organize

Former National Security Advisor Steve Hadley (L) speaks during an interview with Robert Siegel of National Public Radio 24 October 2006 during an event for radio talk shows at the White House in Washington, D.C. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)  

NPR workers just proved that collective action works, and—in today’s media landscape—staff unions are more important than ever.

The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and National Public Radio (NPR) reached a tentative, three-year agreement shortly after midnight on July 15, preventing more than 400 NPR employees from going on strike.

On July 14, almost 300 of these employees voted to request strike authorization from the SAG-AFTRA national board. Despite soaring public radio ratings in the wake of Trump’s election, the union said that NPR was instituting a two-tier salary system, in which one group of workers would receive lower pay than the other. Historically, the establishment of two-tier union contracts have dealt major blows to worker solidarity. “My greatest concern is for the new hires who come in behind me,” tweeted NPR reporter Sarah McCammon on July 14.

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