A Shift Toward Worker Power?

The Time is Ripe to Tip the System, Now

In bad situations, people lower their standards for what it is that constitutes good news.

There’s a very sick man with a withered arm, but it hasn’t been amputated, contrary to what a garbled and panic-inducing report had indicated.

Similarly, a boy has been coughing for three months, but a TB test says it isn’t TB.

Saying this, the parent, on a cell phone from the Burma border can be heard shivering in the rare cold, even though the family has just invested in a blanket — their second, which is now handy, since for three nights they’ve been sleeping in the forest to dodge police who (in a case of bad good news) aren’t seeking bribes, but are instead seeking to catch people and — word has it — ship them to Naypyidaw (the capital) for one year’s bondage labor.

The question always is, bad compared to what? One person’s dump is another’s home hearth.

And that can be said literally, since, not far from that coughing family, there is a garbage dump where others live in slime. But they live there not as bottom-dwellers, but as relatively speaking, rich aunts and uncles — economic migrants — who periodically transfer money back home, since by picking (and living in) trash they make more cash than do their relatives on, or off, the farm in Burma.

There are dump cities around the world.

In Guatemala, they feature vultures (the bird kind). In the Philippines there are frequent dump-slides, killing people.

And in Cambodia, The New York Times just visited a dump city and used the existence of this particular hell to argue against labor standards on the grounds that if people would only work more cheaply, that would create more jobs for, say, dump dwellers, on the neoliberal assumption that capitalists don’t currently have enough desperate, oppressed, potential workers to choose from (See Nicholas D. Kristof, “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream,” The New York Times, January 14, 2009).

Very poor people can indeed be delighted when what we call a sweatshop comes to town (see my posting of Nov. 8, 2007, “Duduk — Duduk, Ngobrol – Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia.”), but what the Times misses is that they would be even more delighted if it paid them better wages, didn’t rape and fondle the female workers, didn’t spray them with toxics, etc.

Whether or not that happens and whether or not enough jobs get created depends crucially on the balance of power.

When workers are weak, it is indeed true that cutting labor standards can get more factories built. But by that Times/Davos/Burma-junta logic of job creation, you should also abolish the minimum wage, permit prostitution, even permit human bondage/ slavery, since each of those steps would indeed — under weak-worker conditions — induce the creation of new jobs. (Inconsistently, the Times editorially does support the minimum wage, and that Times writer has, as it happens, crusaded against poor-country prostitution.)

A better job-creation solution is to change the power balance and make workers strong, in which case capital is the one that has to take bad news as good, adjust their expectations downward, and realize that if they want to put their capital to work they’ll have to pay people enough to, say, eat well.

It’s true that, depending on what kind of historical moment one is in, such a job solution may not always be pragmatic.

If say, for example, interest rates were high, capital could say: ‘Screw these workers, who needs a factory? For now, we’ll just put our money in Citibank!’

Or if capital were riding higher than usual in political leverage, it could just say to a government bent on imposing laws to strengthen workers: ‘Screw you, government. What do we businesses need from you? What are you going to do, bribe us?’

But of course, those are not the conditions that exist today.

Today, in what’s called the financial crisis (though for those hungry, life has always been “crisis”, even when rich people were calling it “prosperity”), interest rates are very low and business needs a lot from government.

Workers (or unemployed) are, of course, today still more vulnerable than bosses, but the key changeable variable now is government: it has leverage, perhaps unprecedented leverage, as businesses pant for government’s bailout trillions.

And vis-a-vis worker-staffed production, businesses need to get that revivified, since stashing cash in banks is not now hugely rewarding.

Which is to say, this could be a moment for a power shift — from workers being weak to being strong — but only if people force government to kick in on the workers’ side to, for one thing, use its leverage and condition bailouts on deep, thoroughgoing reforms that hugely elevate labor standards, not cut them, and that alter how capital is owned and controlled so that the crisis-induced power shift stays permanent and maybe even opens the door to a more rational, less-killing, system that, at the least, does not starve people.

That’s not current rich-world government policy, and angry workers aren’t currently mobilized.

But they could be, if some see without illusion that this strange moment could be their opening.

It could be if they make it so, without waiting for team Obama.

Sad but true, US economic policy is now shaped by the man, Prof. Lawrence Summers, who wrote the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics entry on “Unemployment” and observed — to the great pleasure of Bush Jr.’s advisers – that: “If unemployment insurance were eliminated, the unemployment rate would drop . . . Another cause of long-term unemployment is unionization . . .” (Lawrence H. Summers, “Unemployment,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, 2008).

These Summers quotations were highlighted on the blog of Bush’s old economics chief, Gregory Mankiw, of Harvard, who told neoliberals not to worry too much about the orientation of Obama Democrats.

Mankiw wrote: “What would you call a group of economists who are skeptical of regulating mortgage markets, who think unemployment insurance and unions increase unemployment, who say that tax hikes retard economic growth, and who believe that the recovery from the Great Depression was a monetary phenomenon rather than the result of New Deal fiscal policy? No, it is not a right-wing cabal. It’s Team Obama . . .” (“The Next Team,” Greg Mankiw’s Blog, Nov. 30, 2008. Mankiw followed with extensive quotations from Summers and other Obama economists).

Again, such neoliberal thinking only works in a politically weak-worker environment.

But that doesn’t have to be the environment now — and for the future, unless workers decide, by inaction, to politically amputate their own arms.

Allan Nairn is an award-winning U.S. investigative journalist whose writings have focused on US foreign policy in such countries as Indonesia, East Timor, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti. Vist his blog.Allan Nairn is an award-winning U.S. investigative journalist whose writings have focused on US foreign policy in such countries as Indonesia, East Timor, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti. Vist his blog. Read other articles by Allan, or visit Allan's website.

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  1. Don Hawkins said on January 31st, 2009 at 4:12pm #

    In the United States over the last 20 years business and government became one and the games being played by only a few that is best described as greed has now brought us all to this point. This is not a Worldwide recession but depression and very tuff times ahead. Right now in the States the fight is on to bring back the system to normal. The talk on the right is to not use the money for research into clean energy or build the systems we now have and will work but they want more tax cuts for the very people who caused this problem and more money for the banks that people is called insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So far this is not going to workout well. Steven Hawking when asked about climate change said we human’s need to use reason to overcome our instincts. What we see now in the States is the other way around. Of course there is nothing wrong with conservation and will have to be done on a grand scale and the big one the one many are having a problem with keeping as much as possible fossil fuels in the ground that over hundreds of thousands of years the Earth did that for a reason. We are all in big trouble and will take focus and imagination and hard work to solve. It looks like in 5 to 7 years it will be ice free in the summer in the Arctic well that is where the weather not the climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere and just draw a line around the Earth at about 48 degrees and think crops. It’s the rate that we are putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere it is big very big compared to the past and for a start go back about 800,000 years. Like George Monbiot James Hansen is one of the best at connecting the dots and I will put his math at the end of my comment. The time to act is now we are out of time to try and slow this down. Here in the States the have and have more are fighting reason it’s about the money and control I guess but the next two summers should be an eye opener a little thing called El Nino and record temperatures again. There is still time if we can use reason to overcome our instinct.

    This yields an empirical climate sensitivity. It is ¾ C per W/m2 or 3 C for doubled CO2.
    This climate sensitivity includes all fast feedback processes: water vapor, clouds, sea ice, snow, and aerosols.
    The physics is exact, it is not modeled. All of the feedbacks operate correctly.
    Two conclusions should be emphasized. First the natural imbalance between geologic sources and sinks of CO2 is of the order of one ten-thousands of a ppm per year. In a million years that can cause a change of 100 ppm.
    But the human-made rate of change is today about 2 ppm per year, about ten thousand times greater than the natural rate.
    So the assertion that we should not be concerned about human-made climate change, because there have been much larger natural climate changes is nonsense. There have been larger changes, but on very long time scales. On any time scale of interest to humanity, humans will be in charge of the climate change. James Hansen

    Ten thousand times greater than the natural rate. That is almost the same rate Wall Street used to bring down the World economy’s I think they called it leveraged up. The time is now.

  2. anthony innes said on January 31st, 2009 at 8:31pm #

    FIRE economy (Finance,Insurance,Real Estate) holds sway.I do not want in way to denigrate James Hansen’s message that the enviromment is in peril. The tyrany of money imposed by the Bank of International Settlements in Basel Switzerland and its cartel has a stranglehold on MSM and any appeal to Politics and Business as usual is futile while this central bank to the central banks is not challenged in internationally transparent Commissions .Those who care for this Planet and Individual sovereignty this is the enemy.