The Wars on Vietnam May 14, 2015Posted by rogerhollander in Capitalism, Grenada, History, Imperialism, Labor, Vietnam, War.
Tags: class warfare, Economic Crisis, education, financial crisis, grenada, grenada invasion, history, imperialism, labor, patco, rich gibson, robert kennedy, roger hollander, tom hayden, vietnam syndrome, Vietnam War, working class
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Roger’s note: here is a interesting, irreverent and penetrating analysis of US history post Vietnam War, which some may find — I’m trying to find the right word — uncomfortable (?). It’s thesis: “Class and empire’s wars define our times, as they did then” is, as far as I am concerned, incontrovertible.
A Better Recollection Than the Pentagon’s (and the Liberals’)
Following the victory of the Vietnamese people over the U.S. empire and its allies on April 29/30, 1975, elites in the U.S. those who operate within the armed weapon and executive committee of the ruling class that is government, moved quickly to (1) recapture the economy, wrecked by years of warfare; (2) exercise authority over the schools, often up in flames of fire and critique; (3) dominate the military, riddled with desertions, refusals, and shot-up, fragged, officers; (4) retake the culture–to eradicate the Vietnam Syndrome, the memory of the loss as well as the why, who, when, where, and what of the war: especially the Why? The “How’s” are gone too.
In the past month, the Pentagon, PBS, and the for-profit press took a three pronged approach to the Vietnam Wars: (1) praise the returned troops and promote the notion of a home-country stab in the back, (2) highlight the evacuees and the US heroes of the April ‘75 evacuations, and (3) focus on the post-war babylift and the Vietnamese babies now grown up.
In my searches, the journalists’ “W’s” are missing or frothed over. More on that later. Let’s turn to the high-water mark of liberal critique.
Tom Hayden, in his, “The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Protests,” (Counterpunch, May 3, 2015) does a fine job recreating many of the details of the wars on Vietnam–from the point of view of a liberal Democrat who spent years in the California legislature and who must have grown rich as well from his marriage to Jane Fonda, once anti-war prima donna, later Ted Turner’s wife and religious-“feminist” later still.1
Hayden’s standpoint does not serve his broader analysis well. Perhaps that explains why the words “capitalism,” and “imperialism,” never appear in his piece. Nor does Marx, so powerfully influential to the Vietnamese movement as well as the world’s anti-war movements.
Class and empire’s wars define our times, as they did then.
Vietnam was an imperialist war. Rubber, tin, rice, were all key to any empire’s designs (rubber, like oil, moves the military), while the other indicators of imperialist action (regional control, markets, cheap labor) easily come into view if we walk back the cat from Vietnam’s current state as a low-wage center.
Capitalism, early on the birthplace of what we know as racism today, created the conditions that Hayden rightly notes. It was, indeed, a working class war with troops of color on the US side using racist terms, “Gook, Slope, Dink, etc.” to describe, dehumanize and murder, Vietnamese.
As Nick Turse recently titled his book, the US side was taught to “kill anything that moves.” Frequently, they did, as the 1971Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier investigation in Detroit graphically demonstrated. Much of this is nicely covered in David Zieger’s film, “Sir, No Sir!,” less than an hour long–perfect for classroom use.2
Hayden’s suggestion, to kick a dead horse one more time, that Robert Kennedy might have ended the war is preposterous, but it is a nice set up for the next card likely to fall–vote your way out of capital and empire, a certain failure as a tactic and strategy.
As David Macaray noted in CounterPunch in 2011, Kennedy was a “shrieking anti-communist,” who originated the plot to kill Fidel Castro.
Kennedy, once Joe McCarthy’s pal, aide, and appointee, repeatedly saying he was “fond” of Tail-gunner Joe, was no dove, but an opportunist off-set to Eugene McCarthy’s somewhat more honest, if bumbling, campaign in 1968. Hayden’s “What if…?” is hollow.
The Vietnam war was no mistake, not the result of bad political decisions alone, but the logical and necessary working out of the ongoing policies of the American empire.
Like any watershed piece of history, it lay the ground for our current conditions.
Brown and Root Construction, profiteering from connections to Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and all that followed, became Haliburton: home to the war criminal Dick Cheney, still drawing down billions–untold as it’s secret–in Iraq, Afghanistan and black sites world-wide. .
Vietnam’s geological location was important then–and now. The region near the South China Sea could easily become the flashpoint for much broader wars.
As Chalmers Johnson wrote in 1962, well before Vietnam entered most American’s minds, what appeared to be a communist, or at least socialist, movement was “Peasant Nationalism.”3
As the Vietnam war wound down, Donald Rumsfield argued for an end to the draft, creating today’s reality of a “professional” military, economically drafted but self-defining as volunteering, patriotic, dedicated to the unit, and un-cracked after 14 years of wars lost to guerrillas who belong in the seventh century. The military today is almost completely separated from civilian life: about 1.2% actually serve–a praetorian guard.
The third goal, recapturing the military is so far achieved. The military sucks up more than one-half of the economy, dominates colleges and universities, yet few notice—perhaps because war means work.
The first goal, revitalizing and economy that was nearly demolished by 1975 was won, in a perverse sense, by a full scale government/capitalist attack on the working class.
That began with Nixon’s declaration that the 1970 postal strike was an illegal, “criminal,” act, although a wildcat led by many Vietnam veterans continued in several cities.
The 1970 United Auto Workers strike against General Motors was a sham, as William Serrin described in “The Company and the Union.” Serrin went further: “The Inside Story of the Civilized Relationship that has transformed a natural antagonism into a socially destructive partnership and the GM strike of 1970, the most expensive work stoppage in US history.”
At the end of the book, Serrin quotes a UAW member, sold out by the labor tops: “The union and the company, they’re more or less business partners.”4
The unity of labor bosses, top government leaders, and corporate heads was finalized long before this strike, indeed, early in the formative days of the American Federation of Labor, but it grew more and more apparent in an era when every labor head backed the racist, anti-working class, war in Vietnam: Labor Imperialism–the bribe Lenin warned about 100 years ago in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a payoff to the “home country” to back the empire. It’s a move that backfired for exploited workers in the rank and file over time, but few noticed.5
In 1972, Richard Nixon’s puppeteer, Henry Kissinger, cut a deal with Mao and China, not only counteracting Chinese support for the Vietnamese, but upending plenty of American Maoists who, in 1969, witnessed the destruction of the largest and most radical student movement in U.S. history, weeks before the biggest outpouring of student activism ever: 1970’s mass demonstrations against the bombings of Cambodia and Laos; the murders at Kent State and Jackson state.
By 1969, Tom Hayden had no influence on SDS whatsoever, the organization abandoned his liberalism and turned to a variety of forms of Marxism.
SDS was wrecked by the rich, red-diaper Weathermen, once terrorists who sought to replace a mass class conscious movement with bombs, now repeating their effort as grant-sucking professors.
The 1969 SDS split meeting, which I attended, was riven with idiot chants of “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse Tung!,” shall we say, contradicted by “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!” a nearly unfathomable mess.
The Weathermen, according to one of the few living honest people among them, Mark Rudd, destroyed the SDS mailing list.
The student movement never really revived.
In 1975, Americans learned about COINTELPRO, thanks to the heroic break-in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, an operation kept secret until 2014, and described in the book, “The Burglary,” by Betty Medsger. The COINTELPRO revelations, a broad and systematic spy-agency scheme to attack, disrupt, and assassinate when necessary, radical groups led most of us to grasp the extent of NSA spying long before Edward Snowden stole the next batch of Family Jewels and turned them loose.6
As war’s end, American schools often were hot-beds of critique and action as students, who learned from the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement too, that what they thought and did mattered.
In the early 1980’s came, “Nation at Risk,” and unvarnished plan projecting years of effort to regain control of the not-so-public but fully-segregated-by-class-and-race school system by regulating curricula, promoting high stakes exams, and in the future, linking that to merit pay.
Taylorism had existed in schools since the advent of textbooks, and most teachers were always missionaries for capital and empire, but this was a more regulated, national effort.7
“Nation at Risk” was followed by the Bush II era No Child Left Behind Act which extended a militaristic component, and then thrown into hyper-speed by the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” which drives home merit pay, the next step the abolition of tenure, and drives home the militaristic aims, turning most schools into what a top General demanded in WWI, “human munition factories,” and illusion mills where children are sorted by fake science, along the predictable lines of parental income—always promoting obedience to the nation, loyalty (the ethics of slaves), while tamping down expectations for a better future.
Most school workers, who are not professionals as they so often dream, refuse to recognize that the education agenda is a war agenda: class and empire’s wars.8
The largest school-based union, the National Education Association, repeatedly votes in convention assembled to “Not Discuss,” the wars as the body may find it unsettling.
And the struggle for rule in the economy?
That was settled by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union who, having helped elected him, foolishly struck, believing a union composed of lots of Vietnam vets, like VP Dennis Riordan, would garner a lot of sympathy. Reagan declared the strike illegal, scabs replaced them (the word “Scab” is out of US lexicon), they never got their jobs back, and the AFL-CIO let them swing in the wind. Solidarity Forever had long ago become every person for him or herself.
From another angle, while finance capital dominated industrial capital since the early 1900’s, the relentless needs of imperialism and the falling rate of industrial profits underpinned a massive move to de-industrialize the US, auto for example moving first to Mexico, then to China, and now to Vietnam.
The industrial working class evaporated, bit by bit, then a torrent. Surely, they exist, but they have been minimized.
The epitome of the rule of capital came in the Fall of 2008, what John Bellamy Foster’s book calls, “The Great Financial Crisis.” 9
The upshot: over a weekend the biggest banker in the western world gathered to face a complete collapse of the world’s economies, the likelihood of riots, bank rushes, even revolutions as capitalism in decay became capitalism in ruins.
They quickly did what no free-marketeer would ever do. They demanded government intervention.
They got it. Inside their executive committee (and remember, armed weapon) industrialists and financiers fought it out.
Big Fish ate Little Fish. So long Bear Stearns. Lehman is lunch.
Jamie Dimon demonstrated his patriotism when a begging treasury secretary, Hank Paulson arrived asking for J.P. Morgan help. Dimon replied, “Hank, I would do anything for the United States, but not at the expense of J.P Morgan.”10
Finance capital won to the tune of $12.9 Trillion from the surely-no-longer free market treasury.11
Industrial capital, like auto, picked up hundreds of billions and officially became the small fries.
But, industrialists did make gains. The Obama administration demanded that the United Auto Workers union make another concession: New hires would make half what senior workers would make and the union would not strike for five years.
The UAW bosses agreed, again, to exchange labor peace for dues income, the last definition of “collective bargaining,” while their own pensions remain solid.
In sum, on the economy, elites gathered together, struggled with one another within the confines of the all-on-all war that is capitalism, which runs them–not vice versa–and they then turned on the poor and working people, cut off their legs, got them to spit on the gains their grandparents won in bloody struggle, while the labor leadership collaborated.
To Chalmers Johnson, in his “Nemesis Trilogy,” which predicts the end of the US empire through over-reach and economic collapse, fascism came to the US before 2008.12
To me, it was finalized with the bailouts; the imperfect but real unity of labor bosses, government, and the corporate world to preserve nationalism and empire. That move cannot be reversed, while wars could be ended.
Add it up:
*parliamentary institutions debased and made nearly meaningless by the direct rule of the rich who tyrannize the economy and wars.
*Racism built into every aspect of daily life from school segregation to geographical segregation to cruel immigration policies and police violence.
*Incessant calls for the unity of all classes in the “national interest, within a nation whose own government is at war with most of the citizens and the world as well.
*The Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act nullify whatever the Bill of Rights represented.
*The President’s private army (armies), the CIA, conducting war at his whim, killing Americans without trial or warrant.
*Massive constant surveillance: Snowden.
*One dangled spectacle after the next: Bruce Jenner to a boxing match to the Princess’ baby.
*More and more reliance on violence and threats of violence: Ferguson, Michael Brown, Baltimore, etc.
*The unity of corporations, government and labor bosses, “in the national interest,” as witnessed with the bailouts but also with the union leaders support for the wars and their physical presence on CIA front groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, The Meany Center, Education International, and many others.
*Celebrations of misogyny: the Porn industry.
*A culture of mysticism, religion, the ideology of death, trapping US presidents who cannot say, “People make gods, gods do not make people,” as part of a grand strategy to counter religious fanatics. Add, according to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans are creationists.
*Farcical billion dollar elections corrupt whatever hints of democracy may have existed.
*Dynastic tyranny, the bane of the American Revolution: Bush III vs Hillary. 13
Fascism, in brief, emerges in the US, and the world, as a rising and popular movement. The victory of the Vietnamese was one of several turning points.
The eradication of the Vietnam Syndrome began right after the end of the wars, first with stab-in-the back lies about the anti-war movement abusing returned vets. Jesse Lembcke hit back with his book, “The Spitting Image,” showing that the main lie, girls spit on them, was groundless.14
The next step was Ronald Reagan’s double edged stroke to both wipe out the memory of the death of nearly 300 marines in Lebanon and, simultaneously, destroy a “Communist threat,” the tiny island of Grenada with a population about the same size as Kalamazoo.
A massive force invaded Grenada in October, 1983–bungled a bit, yet won! Medals all around.
A victory for US troops! 15
On to Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Iraq, IS, and the world!
Then, the Vietnam Wars were eradicated from the US history curriculum. In 25 years of teaching college at all levels, from grad students to freshman, as an emeritus professor and community college adjunct, I have had less than two dozen students arrive with sophisticated knowledge about Vietnam. Granted, the processes of history itself are now erased too, but the Vietnam war is a gaping hole.
The failures of socialism, little more than capitalism with a benevolent party at the top, restored gross inequalities in various ways in the aftermath of revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, and Vietnam. This, then, led to a considerable degree to today’s IS, AQ and the other religious often-educated savages who rejected distorted forms of Marxism, on the one hand, and Western imperialism on the other.
Seventh century Sharia law will not prevail in societies which can escape neither class war nor empire, but they have already done terrible damage.
In what is not popularly called the “Homeland,” de-industrialization–that is–imperialism–coupled with financilization–created a consumerist society: the root of two-thirds of the US economy.
I assert this has a psychological impact.
The methods of industrial work, as nearly anyone who worked in a factory, like Fords, knows, creates a sense of solidarity. Everyone recognizes that it takes everyone else to create a product, and one-for-all unity to gain control of the processes of making that product, and the gains that are made from its sale.
A consumerist society pits all vs all: “I wish to sell as dear as possible while you wish to purchase as cheap as can be.”
That, I believe, explains in some part why it is there has been so little reasoned resistance in the US since Vietnam.
Inequality, a prime concern of elites, has not created a large, unified, sustained social movement.
Inequality, which had grown since the Vietnam war, boomed from 2000-2013, but especially so after the financial collapse of 2008. It’s so bad, the French worry about it for us.16
An authoritative recent report says: “From 2009 to 2012, average real income per family grew modestly by 6.0% (Table 1). Most of the gains happened in the last year when average
incomes grew by 4.6% from 2011 to 2012. However, the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 31.4% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.4% from 2009 to 2012. Hence, the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery. From 2009 to 2010, top 1% grew fast and then stagnated from 2010 to 2011. Bottom 99% stagnated both from 2009 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, top 1% incomes increased sharply by 19.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 1.0%. In sum, top 1% incomes are close to full recovery while bottom 99% incomes have hardly started to recover.17
The Pentagon/PBS take on the anniversary of the war was an extension of the efforts to erase the Vietnam Syndrome.
The Rory Kennedy PBS “Last Days in Vietnam,” film focused on “heroic” low level US officers and spies who sought to get Vietnamese out of the country as the Vietnamese forces approached. Those heroes worked for the empire, killing two to three million Vietnamese in their dishonorable wars.
Let us concentrate on the South Vietnamese helicopter pilots who risked their own lives and their families’ flying to US ships on the sea, tossing all overboard and waiting for rescue. For years, they willingly took orders, surcease, and privilege from men like General Ky, a US puppet and Hitler admirer.
Kennedy’s centerpiece “Baby-lift” was problematic as it’s likely nothing harmful would have come to those babies–and the baby-lift killed at least 150 of them when the first flight out crashed.
Last, to the US veterans: Who abused them? Like before, the Veterans’ Administration was the prime abuser. Vets were denied benefits, medical care, and worst of all, coverage for Agent Orange poisoning until it was far too late for many of them.
What defeats men with guns? Ideas!
Those of us who taught, agitated, organized, and fought against the unjust wars on Vietnam saw things change–those of us lived, largely undamaged. The civil rights movement overcame the most obvious forms of political discrimination. Economic and social discrimination remained powerful.
As Tom Hayden rightly details, without the civil rights movements, its practical, moral, and intellectual contributions, the antiwar movement would have been without a compass–hence the lessons that can be learned from those who are most oppressed, who may have the best understanding of things.
The war ended because of:
*The Vietnamese who fought for decades, making enormous sacrifices.
*The GI’s who returned, knowing they had been sent to be cannon fodder, children of the poor ordered, drafted, to fight other children of the poor, on behalf of the rich in their homelands.
*The students who over time learned what imperialism and capitalism are, and who they are in its midst–and importantly, what to do.
*The workers who over time learned what “working class war,” meant, a war at home, and who struck against the war.
*The movements led by people of color, Chicanos, Latinos, Black people, who saw they were hit, as usual, first and worst, and often resisted first and hardest.
*The women’s movement which revealed the problems of male supremacy inside the resistance movements.
*Marxists, from anarchists to all kinds of communists, who taught others exactly what imperialism is, why the war was not a mistake but a logical working out of US foreign policy, and the it was/is the system, capital, itself which must be unmasked, attacked, and transcended.
We witnessed quantity (leaflet after leaflet, teach-in after teach-in, small meetings and mass meetings, march after march, one bigger than the last) turn into quality—a huge change of mind, a massive anti-war movement.
We saw what appeared to be become what it really was: the vast, technologically mighty, nationalist, American empire was defeated by ideas, weapons, and courageous commitment.
We took responsibility for our own education, recognizing that the public education system was designed to serve capital and its empire. Our study groups were typically much better than the vast majority of university or k12 classrooms in part because we knew that our ideas set up our actions: both mattered.
We made serious mistakes. Too many of us failed to keep the close personal ties, built across race, sex, and class lines, that could sustain a movement beyond the end of the war. Too many of us got scared off when we saw others attacked, or for that matter, ourselves beaten. And far too many of us simply got bought by the empire’s bribe, settled into comfortable jobs and lost track of what we once were.
Our mistakes negated a good deal of what we had done and, thus: a world offering youth perpetual war, bad jobs, no jobs, and escalating racism. But that world is met by the potential, again, of a mass, class conscious, integrated activist movement that grasps what capital, the corporate (fascist) state, and empire means, and how direct action in solidarity with workers, students, educators, and troops can win.
Perhaps our worst mistake was to fail to recognize the central roles of capitalism and imperialism as the US empire organized its own decay following the defeat in Vietnam: in consumerism, spectacles, new masks for intensified racism, the rebirth of support for militarism in schools and in the armies, the divide and rule tactical attacks on differing parts of the working class, and the restructuring of sexism in newer, even more exploitative forms.
Nothing in our social context happens outside the bounds of capitalism and imperialism. But many of us sought to make our peace–by not noticing or even attacking those who pointed the finger.
Again, the core issue of our time is the reality of the promise of perpetual war and booming color-coded inequality met by the potential of a mass, activist, integrated class conscious movement. In the absence of that; barbarism. If you seek a barbarized region, look around you–wherever you may be.
Rich Gibson is emeritus professor, San Diego State University. He is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum, an organization of students, professors, teachers, and community people that recognizes social class and imperialism are important. He was repeatedly jailed for refusing the draft during the Vietnam wars. RG@Richgibson.com
How the McEconomy Bombed the American Worker May 9, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
Tags: andy kroll, Economic Crisis, economy, fast food workers, gas prices, housing market, jobs, labor, labor history, labour, mcdonalds, mceconomy, mcjobs, roger hollander, unemployment, unions, wages, workers, working class
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www.tomdispatch.com, May 8, 2011
While President Obama has seen a sizeable jump in his approval ratings in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, scratch beneath the surface of those polls and you’ll find another story entirely. Check out his figures when it comes to the economy, and there, Osama bin Laden and all those “USA! USA!” chanting crowds aside, his approval rating just hit a new low.
Killing bin Laden, Libya’s Gaddafi, and Iran’s Ahmedinejad, for that matter, isn’t likely to win an election for an American president these days. As in Bill Clinton’s famed 1992 election campaign against George H.W. Bush (who also garnered headlines for foreign policy “successes”), the mantra is still: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The job market (or lack of it), rising food and gas prices, a housing market that remains in a state of collapse — you know the story. Right now, it looks as if someone had flown a hijacked plane directly into the economy. For example, among young people, a key Obama demographic, more than four million Americans ages 16 to 24 are out of work.
And if you think that the usual numbers are dismal, just wait until you dig under them with TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll and consider the way the American economy and its workers are being Third-World-ized. This remains a wealthy country with significant resources, which makes it all the eerier that it’s beginning to feel as if the phrase “banana republic” might one of these days apply. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Kroll discusses what grim news lurks under the monthly unemployment figures, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
How the McEconomy Bombed the American Worker
The Hollowing Out of the Middle Class
By Andy Kroll
Think of it as a parable for these grim economic times. On April 19th, McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2% acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a million souls flocked to McDonald’s hoping for a steady paycheck, when nearly 14 million Americans are out of work and nearly a million more are too discouraged even to look for a job. At this point, it apparently made no difference to them that the fast-food industry pays some of the lowest wages around: on average, $8.89 an hour, or barely half the $15.95 hourly average across all American industries.
On an annual basis, the average fast-food worker takes home $20,800, less than half the national average of $43,400. McDonald’s appears to pay even worse, at least with its newest hires. In the press release for its national hiring day, the multi-billion-dollar company said it would spend $518 million on the newest round of hires, or $8,354 a head. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “McJob” as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”
Of course, if you read only the headlines, you might think that the jobs picture was improving. The economy added 1.3 million private-sector jobs between February 2010 and January 2011, and the headline unemployment rate edged downward, from 9.8% to 8.8%, between November of last year and March. It inched upward in April, to 9%, but tempering that increase was the news that the economy added 244,000 jobs last month (not including those 62,000 McJobs), beating economists’ expectations.
Under this somewhat sunnier news, however, runs a far darker undercurrent. Yes, jobs are being created, but what kinds of jobs paying what kinds of wages? Can those jobs sustain a modest lifestyle and pay the bills? Or are we living through a McJobs recovery?
The Rise of the McWorker
The evidence points to the latter. According to a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the biggest growth in private-sector job creation in the past year occurred in positions in the low-wage retail, administrative, and food service sectors of the economy. While 23% of the jobs lost in the Great Recession that followed the economic meltdown of 2008 were “low-wage” (those paying $9-$13 an hour), 49% of new jobs added in the sluggish “recovery” are in those same low-wage industries. On the other end of the spectrum, 40% of the jobs lost paid high wages ($19-$31 an hour), while a mere 14% of new jobs pay similarly high wages.
As a point of comparison, that’s much worse than in the recession of 2001 after the high-tech bubble burst. Then, higher wage jobs made up almost a third of all new jobs in the first year after the crisis.
The hardest hit industries in terms of employment now are finance, manufacturing, and especially construction, which was decimated when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and has yet to recover. Meanwhile, NELP found that hiring for temporary administrative and waste-management jobs, health-care jobs, and of course those fast-food restaurants has surged.
Indeed in 2010, one in four jobs added by private employers was a temporary job, which usually provides workers with few benefits and even less job security. It’s not surprising that employers would first rely on temporary hires as they regained their footing after a colossal financial crisis. But this time around, companies have taken on temp workers in far greater numbers than after previous downturns. Where 26% of hires in 2010 were temporary, the figure was 11% after the early-1990s recession and only 7% after the downturn of 2001.
As many labor economists have begun to point out, we’re witnessing an increasing polarization of the U.S. economy over the past three decades. More and more, we’re seeing labor growth largely at opposite ends of the skills-and-wages spectrum — among, that is, the best and the worst kinds of jobs.
At one end of job growth, you have increasing numbers of people flipping burgers, answering telephones, engaged in child care, mopping hallways, and in other low-wage lines of work. At the other end, you have increasing numbers of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and people in high-wage “creative” careers. What’s disappearing is the middle, the decent-paying jobs that helped expand the American middle class in the mid-twentieth century and that, if the present lopsided recovery is any indication, are now going the way of typewriters and landline telephones.
Because the shape of the workforce increasingly looks fat on both ends and thin in the middle, economists have begun to speak of “the barbell effect,” which for those clinging to a middle-class existence in bad times means a nightmare life. For one thing, the shape of the workforce now hinders America’s once vaunted upward mobility. It’s the downhill slope that’s largely available these days.
The barbell effect has also created staggering levels of income inequality of a sort not known since the decades before the Great Depression. From 1979 to 2007, for the middle class, average household income (after taxes) nudged upward from $44,100 to $55,300; by contrast, for the top 1%, average household income soared from $346,600 in 1979 to nearly $1.3 million in 2007. That is, super-rich families saw their earnings increase 11 times faster than middle-class families.
What’s causing this polarization? An obvious culprit is technology. As MIT economist David Autor notes, the tasks of “organizing, storing, retrieving, and manipulating information” that humans once performed are now computerized. And when computers can’t handle more basic clerical work, employers ship those jobs overseas where labor is cheaper and benefits nonexistent.
Another factor is education. In today’s barbell economy, degrees and diplomas have never mattered more, which means that those with just a high school education increasingly find themselves locked into the low-wage end of the labor market with little hope for better. Worse yet, the pay gap between the well-educated and not-so-educated continues to widen: in 1979, the hourly wage of a typical college graduate was 1.5 times higher than that of a typical high-school graduate; by 2009, it was almost two times higher.
Considering, then, that the percentage of men ages 25 to 34 who have gone to college is actually decreasing, it’s not surprising that wage inequality has gotten worse in the U.S. As Autor writes, advanced economies like ours “depend on their best-educated workers to develop and commercialize the innovative ideas that drive economic growth.”
The distorting effects of the barbell economy aren’t lost on ordinary Americans. In a recent Gallup poll, a majority of people agreed that the country was still in either a depression (29%) or a recession (26%). When sorted out by income, however, those making $75,000 or more a year are, not surprisingly, most likely to believe the economy is in neither a recession nor a depression, but growing. After all, they’re the ones most likely to have benefited from a soaring stock market and the return to profitability of both corporate America and Wall Street. In Gallup’s middle-income group, by contrast, 55% of respondents claim the economy is in trouble. They’re still waiting for their recovery to arrive.
The Slow Fade of Big Labor
The big-picture economic changes described by Autor and others, however, don’t tell the entire story. There’s a significant political component to the hollowing out of the American labor force and the impoverishment of the middle class: the slow fade of organized labor. Since the 1950s, the clout of unions in the public and private sectors has waned, their membership has dwindled, and their political influence has weakened considerably. Long gone are the days when powerful union bosses — the AFL-CIO’s George Meany or the UAW’s Walter Reuther — had the ear of just about any president.
As Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum has written, in the 1960s and 1970s a rift developed between big labor and the Democratic Party. Unions recoiled in disgust at what they perceived to be the “motley collection of shaggy kids, newly assertive women, and goo-goo academics” who had begun to supplant organized labor in the Party. In 1972, the influential AFL-CIO symbolically distanced itself from the Democrats by refusing to endorse their nominee for president, George McGovern.
All the while, big business was mobilizing, banding together to form massive advocacy groups such as the Business Roundtable and shaping the staid U.S. Chamber of Commerce into a ferocious lobbying machine. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Democratic Party drifted rightward and toward an increasingly powerful and financially focused business community, creating the Democratic Leadership Council, an olive branch of sorts to corporate America. “It’s not that the working class [had] abandoned Democrats,” Drum wrote. “It’s just the opposite: The Democratic Party [had] largely abandoned the working class.”
The GOP, of course, has a long history of battling organized labor, and nowhere has that been clearer than in the party’s recent assault on workers’ rights. Swept in by a tide of Republican support in 2010, new GOP majorities in state legislatures from Wisconsin to Tennessee to New Hampshire have introduced bills meant to roll back decades’ worth of collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, the last bastion of organized labor still standing (somewhat) strong.
The political calculus behind the war on public-sector unions is obvious: kneecap them and you knock out a major pillar of support for the Democratic Party. In the 2010 midterm elections, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent nearly $90 million on TV ads, phone banking, mailings, and other support for Democratic candidates. The anti-union legislation being pushed by Republicans would inflict serious damage on AFSCME and other public-sector unions by making it harder for them to retain members and weakening their clout at the bargaining table.
And as shown by the latest state to join the anti-union fray, it’s not just Republicans chipping away at workers’ rights anymore. In Massachusetts, a staunchly liberal state, the Democratic-led State Assembly recently voted to curb collective bargaining rights on heath-care benefits for teachers, firefighters, and a host of other public-sector employees.
Bargaining-table clout is crucial for unions, since it directly affects the wages their members take home every month. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers pocket on average $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts, a 28% percent difference. The benefits of union representation are even greater for women and people of color: women in unions make 34% more than their non-unionized counterparts, and Latino workers nearly 51% more.
In other words, at precisely the moment when middle-class workers need strong bargaining rights so they can fight to preserve a living wage in a barbell economy, unions around the country face the grim prospect of losing those rights.
All of which raises the questions: Is there any way to revive the American middle class and reshape income distribution in our barbell nation? Or will this warped recovery of ours pave the way for an even more warped McEconomy, with the have-nots at one end, the have-it-alls at the other end, and increasingly less of us in between?
Andy Kroll is a reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine and an associate editor at TomDispatch. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a firmly — and happily — middle-class household. His email is andykroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Kroll discusses what grim news lurks under the monthly unemployment figures, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 Andy Kroll
The Underlying Divisions in the Health Care Debate December 18, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Democracy, Health, Political Commentary.
Tags: bailout, capitalsim, change, corporatism, democratic party, democrats, glenn greenwald, health, health care debate, health care reform, health insurance, healthcare, insurance industry, left, Lobbyists, obama administration, private contractors, private sector, progressive, revolution, right wing, roger hollander, Wall Street, working class
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There are many reasons for the progressive division on the health care bill. There are differences over the narrow question of health care policy, with some believing the bill does more harm than good just on that ground alone. Some of it has to do with broader questions of political power: if progressives always announce that they are willing to accept whatever miniscule benefits are tossed at them (on the ground that it’s better than nothing) and unfailingly support Democratic initiatives (on the ground that the GOP is worse), then they will (and should) always be ignored when it comes time to negotiate; nobody takes seriously the demands of those who announce they’ll go along with whatever the final outcome is. But the most significant underlying division identified by Kilgore is the divergent views over the rapidly growing corporatism that defines our political system.
Kilgore doesn’t call it “corporatism” — the virtually complete dominance of government by large corporations, even a merger between the two — but that’s what he’s talking about. He puts it in slightly more palatable terms:
To put it simply, and perhaps over-simply, on a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, “New Democrat” movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as “the Third Way,” which often defended the use of private means for public ends.
As I’ve written for quite some time, I’ve honestly never understood how anyone could think that Obama was going to bring about some sort of “new” political approach or governing method when, as Kilgore notes, what he practices — politically and substantively — is the Third Way, DLC, triangulating corporatism of the Clinton era, just re-packaged with some sleeker and more updated marketing. At its core, it seeks to use government power not to regulate, but to benefit and even merge with, large corporate interests, both for political power (those corporate interests, in return, then fund the Party and its campaigns) and for policy ends. It’s devoted to empowering large corporations, letting them always get what they want from government, and extracting, at best, some very modest concessions in return. This is the same point Taibbi made about the Democratic Party in the context of economic policy:
The significance of all of these appointments isn’t that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It’s that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants.
One finds this in far more than just economic policy, and it’s about more than just letting corporations do what they want. It’s about affirmatively harnessing government power in order to benefit and strengthen those corporate interests and even merging government and the private sector. In the intelligence and surveillance realms, for instance, the line between government agencies and private corporations barely exists. Military policy is carried out almost as much by private contractors as by our state’s armed forces. Corporate executives and lobbyists can shuffle between the public and private sectors so seamlessly because the divisions have been so eroded. Our laws are written not by elected representatives but, literally, by the largest and richest corporations. At the level of the most concentrated power, large corporate interests and government actions are basically inseparable.
The health care bill is one of the most flagrant advancements of this corporatism yet, as it bizarrely forces millions of people to buy extremely inadequate products from the private health insurance industry — regardless of whether they want it or, worse, whether they can afford it (even with some subsidies). In other words, it uses the power of government, the force of law, to give the greatest gift imaginable to this industry — tens of millions of coerced customers, many of whom will be truly burdened by having to turn their money over to these corporations — and is thus a truly extreme advancement of this corporatist model. It’s undeniably true that the bill will also do some genuine good, as it will help many people who can’t get coverage now to get it (though it will also severely burden many people with compelled, uncontrolled premiums and will potentially weaken coverage for millions as well). If one judges the bill purely from the narrow perspective of coverage, a rational and reasonable (though by no means conclusive) case can be made in its favor. But if one finds this creeping corporatism to be a truly disturbing and nefarious trend, then the bill will seem far less benign.
As I’ve noted before, this growing opposition to corporatism — to the virtually absolute domination of our political process by large corporations — is one of the many issues that transcend the trite left/right drama endlessly used as a distraction. The anger among both the left and right towards the bank bailout, and towards lobbyist influence in general, illustrates that. Kilgore says that anger among the left and right over corporatism is irreconcilable, and this is the point I think he has mostly wrong:
To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama’s critics to the right say he’s engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can’t both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.
This supposedly irreconcilable difference Kilgore identifies is more semantics than substance. It’s certainly true that health care opponents on the left want more a expansive plan while opponents on the right want the opposite. But the objections over the mandate are largely identical — it’s a coerced gift to the private health insurance industry that underwrites the Democratic Party. The same was true over opposition to the bailout, objections to lobbying influence over Washington, and most of all, the growing anger that Washington serves the interests of financial elites at the expense of the working class.
Whether you call it “a government takeover of the private sector” or a “private sector takeover of government,” it’s the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else’s expense. Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s. It’s true that the people who are angry enough to attend tea parties are being exploited and misled by GOP operatives and right-wing polemicists, but many of their grievences about how Washington is ignoring their interests are valid, and the Democratic Party has no answers for them because it’s dependent upon and supportive of that corporatist model. That’s why they turn to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh; what could a Democratic Party dependent upon corporate funding and subservient to its interests possibly have to say to populist anger?
Even if one grants the arguments made by proponents of the health care bill about increased coverage, what the bill does is reinforces and bolsters a radically corrupt and flawed insurance model and and an even more corrupt and destructive model of “governing.” It is a major step forward for the corporatist model, even a new innovation in propping it up. How one weighs those benefits and costs — both in the health care debate and with regard to many of Obama’s other policies — depends largely upon how devoted one is to undermining and weakening this corporatist framework (as opposed to exploiting it for political gain and some policy aims). That’s one of the primary underlying divisions Kilgore identifies, and he’s right to call for greater examination and debate over the role it is playing.
Copyright ©2009 Salon Media Group, Inc.
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy.
Tags: labor, labour, unions, roger hollander, working class, workers, bank of america, benjamin dangl, republic window, plant occupation, worker run cooperative, mike meinster, united electrical workers, argentina workers, venezuela workers, landless brazil, canadian auto workers, caw, latin america labor, armando robles
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Armando Robles, president of Local 1110 of the United Electrical Workers union, speaks about the action against Republic Windows and Doors. (Photo: Justin Goh / ChiTown Daily News)
www.truthout.org , January 16, 2009
Benjamin Dangl, t r u t h o u t | Interview
On December 5, 2008, over 200 recently fired workers at the Republic Window and Doors factory in Chicago occupied their plant, demanding they be paid their vacation and severance checks. The occupation ended victoriously six days later when the Bank of America and other lenders to Republic agreed to pay the workers the approximately $2 million owed to them.
But the workers didn’t stop there. They are now seeking ways to restart the factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative. The workers are also filing charges against their former employer for failing to give the workers sufficient notice of plans to shut the factory down; the workers were only given three days’ notice, and the management refused to negotiate with the workers’ union about the closure.
In this interview, Mark Meinster, the International Representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE) – the union the Republic workers belong to – talks about his role as the coordinator for the plant occupation, connections between the struggle of the Republic workers and workers’ struggles and tactics in South America, the fight to reopen the plant and what the Republic workers’ strategies say about social change in an economic downturn.
Benjamin Dangl: First, please briefly describe your role in the union, in the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory, and the ongoing struggle of the Republic workers.
Mark Meinster: I’m an International Representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE). My primary responsibility is to oversee the union’s organizing work and staff in Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was the lead organizer on the effort to organize the Republic workers into UE in 2004 and led negotiations for a first contract in 2005. Since then, I and UE Field Organizer Leah Fried have worked with the local on leadership and steward training, grievance handling and contract negotiations. I coordinated the plant occupation at Republic Windows and Doors and participated in negotiations with the employer and the financial institutions involved and continue to work on efforts to reopen the plant.
BD: Could you please talk about some of the connections you see between the Republic workers’ struggle and actions and the strategies and experiences of similar workers’ groups in Argentina and Venezuela and the landless farmers in Brazil? How did you learn about these struggles and come to apply them in Chicago as a union organizer?
MM: Obviously there is a long history of workers taking actions of this type, both within the US and in other countries. Because there have been very few plant occupations in the US since the 1930s, we needed to look to workers’ struggles in other countries for recent guidance. For example, the Canadian Auto Workers, who have engaged in similar actions over the past 20 years to protest plant closings and win severance benefits, provided us with invaluable technical advice.
But in many respects, workers’ struggles in Latin America were the biggest inspiration for the Republic occupation. I had read about the land occupations carried out by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in an interview with Joao Pedro Stedile in 2002. I was struck by the MST’s focus on popular education and leadership development, and especially the way they placed the occupation tactic within the context of the right to unused land enshrined in the Brazilian constitution. The occupation, although technically an illegal tactic, was used to enforce a legal right. This gives workers confidence and places the struggle on a moral plane, allowing for more significant community and political support. We drew on this concept in planning the Republic occupation.
Current UE Local 1110 President Armando Robles attended the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2006. There, he heard from workers from Inveval, a “recovered” factory in Venezuela. They had inspired a movement of workers occupying and running factories, with the help of the government, that had been abandoned by bosses who had fled the country. Armando returned from that experience politicized and inspired. I visited Venezuela in 2007 and spent time visiting worker-run co-ops. I was struck by the workers’ investment in the revolutionary process and their ability to run production without management.
We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options. Militant action can win public support during a downturn in ways that would have been impossible before. In fact, the film “The Take” was screened in the factory during the occupation in a makeshift movie theater set up in the locker room.
BD: Is there a plan to transform the Republic factory into a worker-run cooperative? If so, how did the decision to do this come about? At this point, how is the process going of setting this up?
MM: At this point we are working to find a buyer for the factory, focusing on firms specializing in energy-efficient windows. Though, we are also exploring the idea of a cooperative enterprise; the fact that no real movement of worker-run enterprises exists in the US makes this option much more difficult at this point. The workers have set up an entity called the “Windows of Opportunity Fund,” to help provide technical assistance and study this and other possibilities for restarting production.
BD: Could you comment on the role the Republic workers’ struggle in inspiring workers across the US to take up similar tactics to confront unemployment and problems related to the current US economic downturn?
MM: I think the Republic struggle shows we can win support for bold tactics, especially when we think carefully about how we project the struggle to the public. Time will tell whether the Republic struggle will be viewed as a bell-weather event or a flash in the pan. On the one hand, the occupation led to a huge outpouring of support – from solidarity rallies all across the country to donations of money, food and essential supplies. That this support was on a scale unthinkable only a year ago is proof that this action spoke to the desire of working-class people to seek ways to resist the current economic onslaught. On the other hand, for this event to be a spark, others will have to pick up the baton. That means organized labor will have to take some measure of risk, embracing militant tactics when necessary and abandoning its reliance on political maneuvering as the primary means for the advancement of a working class agenda.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a web site on activism and politics in Latin America.