Category Archives: Labor

The Journalism-Stock Ticker Combo

You may have seen it on business-related news programs, but the WSJ now appears to be integrating stock prices into their articles.  While reading this article on growing mine worker strikes in South Africa, I noticed that every time a company was mentioned it was followed by a small icon indicating the performance of its stock for that day.  You can scroll over these icons to see a somewhat more detailed graph of stock performance alongside a few more stats:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, this sort of thing has pernicious effects on journalism, especially labor-related journalism.  When you read an article about striking miners and see that their employees’ stock has dropped for the day, that’s probably going to filter your understanding of the events more narrowly through their market effects.  Some WSJ readers might already be more disposed to think in these terms anyway, but it’s still not a good trend.

Screenshots by Aaron Bekemeyer, 2012

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Wage Labor Update

Be sure to check out Sociological Images‘ post on “Low-Wage Work in the U.S.,” which aggregates some good statistics about that topic.

Perhaps the most interesting part:

Finally, over at the Economic Policy Institute blog, David Cooper posted a table that provides an overview of the demographics of those who would be affected if Congress passed Senator Tom Harkin’s proposed bill that would raised the minimum wage to $9.80/hour:

Any legislation in Congress that has even a snowball’s chance in hell of helping the working class economically is almost certainly not going to pass.  But a minimum wage hike looks to me to have a better chance than most bills, and if it helped almost 30 million individuals, even just a little bit, that could be a huge victory given the constraints of the current legislative climate.  Better yet would be a bill that indexed that minimum wage to inflation or the cost of living, but these days even that seems a bit too much to hope for.

A different type of union organizing

Sometimes unions can benefit from organizing consumers just as much as from organizing workers:

Following labor’s loss in Wisconsin’s recall, the leader of the nation’s largest transit union says building coalitions with riders, not organizing more drivers, is the top priority for his union’s future.  Interviewed at last month’s Netroots Nation conference, Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley said that Wisconsinites’ willingness to keep their union-busting governor in office demonstrates the urgent need to change the relationship between public workers and the American public.  “No matter how much money we put into electoral politics,” said Hanley, “if we can’t change the attitudes of people…we’ll lose.  It’s just a matter of when and how hard.”

[…]

Austin highlights his group’s success in getting a King County, WA Republican councilmember to back a tax increase in order to stave off a 20% service cut.  He says aggressive turnout efforts, including leafleting on buses, paid off when riders formed a line “almost a mile out the door” to attend the first hearing on the issue. “The story in all the major media switched from about King County Council wants to raise your $20 car tabs to pissed-off bus riders angry about losing service…the story never went back.”


Whether you like it or not

So what does it mean to be Socialist these days? Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, answers:

Not very much. Certainly nothing radical. In a sense, socialism was an ideology of the industrialized 19th century, a democratic Marxism, and it succeeded, even in (shh!) the United States. Socialism meant the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class; it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.

Center-right parties have embraced or absorbed many of the ideas of socialism: trade unions, generous welfare benefits, some form of nationalized health care, even restrictions on carbon emissions. The right argues that it can manage all these programs more efficiently than the left, and some want to shrink them, but only on the fringes is there talk of actually dismantling the welfare state.

[…]

So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the student revolt of May 1968, known then as “Dany the Red,” is now “Dany the Green,” co-leader of the ecologist group in the European Parliament. “The fight between private property and state property is over,” he says, and traditional class distinctions are blurred. “There was never a purely socialist working class,” he suggested. “Socialism and social democracy today are about a society with more solidarity, more protection of people, more egalitarianism.” In a way, he said, socialism is defined today mostly by its contrast to neo-liberalism — by more reliance on the state and higher taxes on the wealthy.

[…]

“Socialism here is very statist,” says Marc-Olivier Padis, editor of the quarterly journal Esprit. The leading figures in the Socialist government are more creatures of the French establishment — elite schools and careers — than those under Mr. Sarkozy, he explained, “a combination reproducing the profile of Hollande himself.” Mr. Sarkozy was more of an outlier than Mr. Hollande, and much closer to business.

Belief in the centrality of the state to run, regulate and innovate remains a core belief of French socialism, and the size of the state is hardly going to be reduced under Mr. Hollande, whose few concrete promises include hiring 60,000 more teachers over five years, raising the minimum wage (the highest in the European Union) and creating a state bank for innovation.

The important takeaway from Erlanger’s essay is that in Europe and even the U.S. there are many programs and aspects of society that are, in fact, Socialist, contrary to what your average  Commie-hating voter might think. And as more of these programs are improved or established, the disconnect between the perception of Socialism being a bad thing and the actual benefits of these programs and how they are exactly what early Socialists envisioned, will persist or even increase.

Pompous journals that you should read

Like a good action movie or one of my sports teams winning the World Series/Stanley Cup/Rosebowl I’m giddy about the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Here’s an item by David Frum* on the future of the GOP. Yeah, that’s right, David Frum:

Already, polls show that Republican voters (as opposed to activists) prefer tax increases on upper-income earners to Medicare cuts. So long as the choice between taxes and Medicare cuts remains latent, the preferences of rank-and-file Republicans may not matter much. But as budget gaps widen, that tension will surely come to the fore.

The trend, as they say, is the trend only till it bends. Yet it’s also true that 12 years is not so very far away. Let’s hazard two plausible scenarios.

1) Reactionary Democrats. Democrats depend hugely on public-sector unions for votes and money. Suppose the party decides to make a priority of protecting their interests and those of their retirees. Democrats may call for higher taxes on the rich to pay for these benefits, but that math does not suffice. The non-rich young will also have to pay.

But the young of the 2020s will not only be poorer than the elderly. They will be ethnically different. Whereas public-sector retirees will be whiter and blacker than the total population, the young of the 2020s will be more Hispanic and Asian. Age competition will also be ethnic competition. Continue reading

Plus ça change…

Last week I found and was enthralled by Willie Osterweil’s piece at TNI on “mystery shoppers.”  The basic idea:

Mystery shoppers spy in retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, banks, hospitals, bars, supermarkets, churches, doctors’ offices, public transit systems, gas stations, mechanics shops, gyms, funeral homes, universities — in short, anywhere the public is treated as a “customer.” Marketing firms hire “mystery worshippers” who pose as first-time congregants to evaluate church cleanliness, friendliness, and godliness. Mentally healthy people complain to psychiatrists of fake symptoms while carefully comparing the doctor’s behavior against a checklist. Last summer, a congressional scuffle over the federal government’s plan to send out elderly mystery patients made headlines, and while the measure ultimately failed, the U.S. has helped Pakistan deploy mystery shoppers in order to combat tax evasion.

The firms who hire these shoppers use their follow-up reports to assess the performance of employees or client companies, making sure they’re doing their jobs exactly as they’re supposed to.  What these firms do with this information varies: some use it to create incentive programs to encourage better performance, and others use it as grounds for firing low-performing employees.  But there’s not really any data about exactly how these data are put to use by mystery shopping companies.

The overall effect this has, as Osterweil astutely notes, is to increase general feelings of surveillance and paranoia in a way that ruins class solidarity, dividing working-class individuals (often women) against working-class people in the service sector. This passage sums up his point well and is probably my favorite of the piece:

Producing identification with the bosses; smashing labor; and making solidarity difficult through contract labor, precarity, and remote working are key features of neoliberal workplace organization. But central to this vision, too, is workplace surveillance. Jay Gould, ninth richest man in American history, railroad speculator, and widely despised robber baron, famously remarked upon the hiring of strikebreakers, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” Neoliberalism allows for the return of the robber barons by producing the technologies and techniques to replace Gould’s “kill” with “watch.” Heightened workplace surveillance helps build a workplace where no time is wasted, where all effort is put directly into the production of the bosses’ product. But it transforms more than just the bottom line.

It’s this that really drives home the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Capital has always had the means to pay off strike-breakers, fake protestors, and others to secure their interests on the ground.  Solidarity and large-scale coordinated action by labor is hard enough on its own, and when capital actively works to dissolve these alliances, it can seem almost impossible.  I hear that the most difficult thing about labor organizing is building solidarity that’s so strong it can, at times, overcome that sense of fear and paranoia.  Mystery shopping is one of many practices that both spoils the quality of service workers’ lives and makes labor organizing more difficult.

In that vein, I want to recommend three good pieces I’ve read lately:

(1) Corey Robin’s Challenge to the Left, which alerts left-leaning intellectuals to the enormous difficulties of organizing;

(2) A response to Robin’s piece by Jay Driskell, which puts some meat on his observations;

(3) This post by Doug Henwood on the recent recall election in Wisconsin, the end of which argues that once a strong labor movement is on its feet, its primary goal should not be better contracts in the workplace (though these are important) but increased public benefits, provided by the state, that benefit everyone.

Pro- or Anti-Labor?

Via Doug Henwood, I’ve just found out about Bob Fitch and his book Solidarity for Sale, which discusses the decline (if there ever was a peak) of the US labor movement.  I know next to nothing about this guy and his arguments, but I found the contrast between this Amazon review…

The book can make you think, and it could potentially serve as a tool to get more workers OUT of unions.

…and this excerpt from an interview with Fitch:

It’s the lack of countervailing union power that best explains the widest income inequality in the advanced industrialized world, the most limited workers’ rights, and what is easily the meanest and the crummiest welfare state.

[…]

But because our unions are ineffective doesn’t mean that unions, as an institution, are irrelevant.  The class struggle is not a product of Marxist metaphysics.  As long as capital sees labor — as it must — as a cost to be cut, there will be a need for working-class institutions of resistance.

Misinterpretation abounds.