Republicans, corporate interests intentionally destroying Post Office

Privatization is a polite word for corporate self-interest. When calls for privatization arise, it is always useful to see who’s interest is being served.

Take the United States Postal Service. The Republican Party is doing its best to destroy a national institution that provides hundreds of thousands of unionized jobs. (The Democratic Party is doing nothing, perhaps waiting for a signal from its corporate benefactors.) Merely reading “unionized” in front of “jobs” leads to the conclusion that ideology is behind this latest attack on working people, and surely a Right-wing desire to eliminate large unions and drive down wages further is a significant motivation.

Not the sole motivation, however. Privatizing the Postal Service would mean big new business for delivery services and companies that supply postal products. Advocates of privatization recently sought to inject more wind into their sails with the release of a study by a “think tank” with the bland-sounding name of National Academy of Public Administration. The “study” has yet to published in full, but its four authors, described as “postal industry thought leaders,” have published their conclusion — a call for a near total privatization.

Just who are these four “postal industry thought leaders”? With one exception, they are people who have a vested interest in privatization. Surprise! Here they are:

  • Ed Gleiman, a former member of the Postal Rate Commission, has since become a lobbyist for the Direct Marketing Association, a group representing large mailers.
  • John Nolan, a deputy postmaster general during the Bush II/Cheney administration, is currently a board member for Streamlite, a business-to-consumer lightweight package delivery service. He is also a senior advisor to The Western Union Co., another corporation that stands to benefit from dismantling the Postal Service.
  • Edward Hudgins is a director of the Atlas Society (“Atlas” as in Ayn Rand) and previously worked for the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation. The latter two organizations are manically dedicated to destroying all protections for employees, while the phantasmagorical absurdity of Ayn Rand’s novels bear as much relation to reality as an elephant that flies.
  • George Gould, a former political director for the National Association of Letter Carriers union, doesn’t appear to have an ideological axe to grind as do the other three “leaders” and perhaps is guilty of nothing more than absorbing neoliberal ideology. Critics of the NALC say that the union has failed to fight for its membership, and Mr. Gould’s participation in this “study” might provide those critics additional fuel.

Direct funding by a corporation that stands to benefit

To round out the picture, the major funder of the postal privatization “study” is Pitney Bowes Inc., which stands to directly benefit. Greg Bell, executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union, writes:

“Pitney Bowes, the company that is funding the review, stands to be a major beneficiary. The company is widely known as a provider of mailing equipment, but it is also a major mail ‘pre-sorter.’ The company takes advantage of generous pre-sort discounts offered by the Postal Service to provide outsourced services to high-volume mailers. In 2011, Pitney Bowes operated 41 mail processing facilities and generated $5.3 billion in revenue. Pitney Bowes would certainly snatch up a major portion of USPS revenue if it were given the chance.”

FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., the two largest U.S. private delivery services, also stand to benefit from the destruction of the Postal Service. FedEx is one of the heaviest spenders on political donations and lobbying, and employs several dozen lobbyists who formerly worked in government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. UPS is also a heavy spender on donations and lobbying, while employing its own team of lobbyists who formerly worked in government.

The National Academy of Public Administration “study” advocates a bizarre “hybrid” scheme in which all postal activities will be privatized, except for the “final mile” — a Postal Service worker would deliver mail and packages to mailboxes and other final destinations. The paper states:

“In the ‘final mile’ package strategy, private sector consolidators compete to pickup, process, and transport hundreds of millions of packages. Shippers pay the consolidators to prepare and transport the mail for ‘last mile’ delivery by USPS letter carriers. The consolidators pay USPS a delivery charge. Upstream competition among private sector providers promotes efficiencies that lead to better service and lower overall prices.”

Private oligopolies are not known for lowering prices, however, and the paper’s assertion that regulation counter excesses is refuted by the many industries in which regulation is toothless, and in which agency chiefs routinely cycle back to their primary roles as corporate executives. We need only look at vastly inflated pharmaceutical prices, runaway financial legerdemain and a lack of resolve in food safety to know that private delivery companies will easily evade any serious scrutiny, piling up profits while cutting jobs, wages and benefits. The only certainty is that large numbers of jobs will be lost.

Who can fund 75 years of pensions in 10 years?

A government institution painted as financially troubled is easier to be targeted for corporate plunder than one on firm footing, so, voilà, congressional Republicans cooked up a devastating scheme. A congressional bill signed into law in 2006 requires the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. This is unheard of; certainly no private business would or could do such a thing. This preposterous requirement — why do I keep seeing sneering villains twisting their mustaches like in those movies of a century ago? — has saddled the Postal Service with a $16 billion deficit.

Hoping to maintain corporate momentum, a leading congressional Republican, Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has pushed a bill that would allow an oversight committee to modify union contracts. Representative Issa’s bill, if passed, would allow unilateral cuts to previously bargained wages.

The National Association of Letter Carriers, however, has already approved wage cuts. The latest contract increases the number of “temporary” mail carriers who have inferior wages and benefits, setting a up a two-tier system in which newer workers have lower pay, not fundamentally different than the new two-tier pay systems at General Motors — taxpayers loaned the money to GM to keep it afloat, and the reward is more austerity. These deals in turn serve to depress wages elsewhere by setting lower standards.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of Postal Service jobs have already been eliminated. A statement issued by Detroit Workers’ Voice, analyzing the attacks on postal unions, says:

“Postal workers are being run over time after time, and the strategy of the leadership of the postal unions has proved completely ineffective in stopping this. Yes, the union leaders sometimes have snappy criticisms against management. But they collaborate with management. Thus, when new contracts with management help the USPS decimate the workforce, the main union officials hide the setbacks or justify them. Insofar as there is struggle against the USPS bosses, it is within strict limits. Organizing the rank and file for struggles within the postal facilities is avoided. Public actions of any kind are rare. Militant action that would really press management is off limits.”

Postal Service unions, of course, are hardly unique in their timidity. Fightbacks are possible, as the Chicago teachers’ union demonstrated last year. The Chicago teachers spent months preparing parents and the city as a whole for a possible strike as neoliberal Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought to break the union and replace public schools accountable to the public with private, non-union charter schools under corporate control.

There were critics who complained that the teachers didn’t win many advances and ended the strike too quickly, but it is more realistic to analyze the strike in a fuller context — given the totality of the circumstances, the Chicago teachers won as much as they could have and would have begun to jeopardize the massive public support behind them, an indispensable force as the city’s other unions did nothing to help.

No union, no matter how militant, can win substantial gains without a movement that mobilizes sustained support from those unionized, non-unionized and unemployed — a movement that acts on the understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all. Unions aren’t making efforts to create that support, instead at most narrowly attempting to slightly slow down the defeats to their specific memberships. The structural causes of our present-day world of austerity are far larger than any union federation nor are they contained with any single geographical unit. The entire history of capitalism has led us to today’s world.

An injury to one, or to one group of employees, truly is an injury to all. Enormous power is concentrated into the hands of financiers and industrialists, and there are no limits to the injuries they and the politicians who serve them intend to inflict. Putting our heads in the sand and hoping it’s the other person who gets it only delays the injury to one’s self and makes it worse when they come for you.

Chicago pushes back against the war on teachers — and neoliberalism

The Chicago teachers returning to work today earned a victory — not for themselves, but for two important ideas. The first is that dignity and security are not unreasonable for those of us who have to go to work every day. The second is that the job of schools is to build the citizens of tomorrow, not line the pockets of corporate executives and investors.

We can’t understand the reasons behind the “war on teachers” without examining both of these ideas.

An additional message from the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike is that democracy and community involvement are indispensable. At almost every demonstration the chant “the people united will never be defeated” is heard, and here we have an example where a significant majority at least were united. The corporate executives salivating over their potential profits, the funders of the charter-school movement seeking more takeovers and, most of all, the willful mayor who expected to steamroll over the teachers each had their agenda stalled.

Not that those powerful people were defeated, nor that the teachers won a total victory. The new contract is a negotiated settlement, with both sides getting something. That is what a “negotiation” is — a compromise by two parties. A “negotiation” is not a dictation imposed by the more powerful party, which seems to be a point of confusion for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But the very concept of democracy seems to be not well understood by Mayor Emanuel.

Undoubtedly, there was much disappointment on the part of parents that teachers did not call off their strike and return to work on September 17, as was widely anticipated. There was considerable disappointment on the part of the teachers. The principal of democracy was deemed too important to dispense with, and the Chicago teachers’ union deserves praise on this point. The union delegates entrusted with ending the strike believed they should actually read the proposed contract before voting, and that they should discuss the contract with the rank-and-file teachers who will have to live with it. Quelle horreur!

A Chicago teacher, Rita Stephanie, who has contributed daily strike updates to the Kasama Project web site, stressed the democracy of the union:

“In a televised news conference at 6:05 p.m. [union leader Karen] Lewis said that the House of Delegates wanted to exercise their right to review the contract. She said that the union is a democratic organization and that she supported the right of members to review the language of the contract. Schools will not open Monday and members have overwhelmingly decided to continue the strike. When questioned by reporters she said that a key issue was TRUST. Union members do not trust the school board or the mayor to have their interests at heart. This would be an understatement! Union delegates say that their strength lies in the strike.”

The teachers’ union would not have been able to exercise this democratic process if they had not worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that they would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people have been with the teachers. The mayor’s response? Stamp his feet, attack, go to court to force an end to the strike. His reaction says much about the mayor and his complete adoption of corporate ideology. When you give an order, it is to be obeyed!

It wasn’t obeyed — schools are not corporations. Professional educators believe they should have a hand in shaping the education system. Imagine that. Teachers just might know something about education that the hedge-fund managers running television commercials in Chicago don’t. What if people in other professions start getting the idea that they, too, should have a hand in decision-making in the workplace?

Let’s back up here a moment. What do hedge-fund managers have to do with schools? Two hedge-fund managers (who have way more money than the teachers, or you, but likely pay a lower tax rate) run an outfit called “Education Reform Now.” This group, an advocate for charter schools, paid for a series of automated telephone calls to parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for television commercials attacking the teachers.

Charter schools are the key here. An increasingly stressed component of the neoliberal agenda is privatization of public schools. Public schools are shuttered, and replaced by private charter schools. Sometimes the charter schools are given part of the facilities of a still-existing public school, which is given second-class treatment in its own building. Unionized teachers are fired, and nonunion teachers paid much less are hired in the charter schools. The charter schools are given money diverted from the public schools but without the accountability or requirement to follow existing contracts. Some of the money goes to pay huge salaries to the executives of the charter-school companies and for profits.

The movement for charter schools is not a movement for reforming education, as promoters claim, but rather is naked union-busting. It is a bold attempt to force down wages, parallel with the decline of wages in the private sector.

The hedge-fund managers attacking Chicago teachers used the standard neoliberal line of attack: Those people have something you don’t! That’s unfair! Let’s take it away from them! Chicago teachers are mostly African-American and mostly women. Perhaps Mayor Emanuel and his millionaire backers thought they would be likely to fold. Surely the mayor and his backers, believing their own propaganda, believed they would be easy targets. Down to the similarity of the tactics, their agenda is a straight continuation of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s offensive to take away collective-bargaining rights from government workers and to demonize them.

If some workers earn a good wage and can look forward to a reasonable pension, shouldn’t the question to be asked be “Why shouldn’t I have that, too?” Shouldn’t the answer be to organize to gain it rather than seek to take something away from somebody else?

The charter-school movement has its eyes set on many cities other than Chicago. In New York, where a billionaire from the financial industry stepped directly into the mayor’s office thanks to his lavish spending, charter schools are heavily promoted. These are promoted as alternatives that spend less and get better results, but that is not so.

Brooke Parker, writing in the Brooklyn community newspaper WG, reports:

“While charter schools receive slightly less per pupil from the city than public schools, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that when you factor in that they don’t pay for their use of space, utilities, janitorial services, or school safety agents, charter schools generally spend over $700 more per pupil in public funds each year, and that’s not including the substantial private money they receive. And all those public dollars are spent while charter schools, in general, don’t perform any better than public schools. So much for the idea that charter schools are less wasteful.”

Kicking out experienced teachers and replacing them with freshly minted teachers also doesn’t seem the best strategy for improving classroom performance. But often this is what charter schools do — because they can pay new teachers less than experienced teachers. This is one of the “innovations” adopted from the private sector.

Three sets of billionaires are the primary forces behind charter schools: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, businessman Eli Broad and Wal-Mart heirs the Walton family. Gates become fabulously wealthy through exploiting something he had no hand in creating, the computer, which took off thanks to the government invention of the Internet. Broad first became rich building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs. The Waltons benefit from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China to meet the company’s standards for low costs.

A Dissent article by Joanne Barkan explained who funds the charter-school movement, then exploded the myth that they perform better:

“Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools—the most comprehensive ever done—concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.”

The rate of poverty, as numerous studies have shown, is the leading indicator of student performance. Gaps in social development and cognitive functions begin before children are old enough to go to school. But to confront the vast inequalities of capitalist societies is verboten — better to blame everything on teachers. And so we come to another component of the corporate charter-school agenda: Judging teachers almost exclusively on standardized tests. Doing so deflects attention from underlying social issues (issues that are much bigger than schools by themselves) and enforces a specific agenda in education: To mold children to be proficient in narrow technical skills without the ability to think originally.

A world of corporate drones. Such a world might be fine for corporate elites wishing for a compliant future workforce, but is no benefit to the students themselves. Teachers in Chicago and elsewhere who push back against heavy reliance on test scores are reasonably protecting themselves against a rigid system that takes no account of social and other issues that are intertwined with student performance, but they are also striking a blow for a more complete, more rounded education — one in which the liberal arts and other topics are employed to teach students how to think rather than imposing a narrow education in which pre-selected answers are simply regurgitated.

It is unconscionable to claim that teachers, or teacher unions, don’t care about students or education. Surely there are scattered individuals who should not be in the classroom — but there is no profession or human endeavor without some people who are poor performers. Such people can be weeded out without tarring entire groups. As Rita Stephanie, the Chicago teacher quoted above, wrote:

“The interests are complex and if the problems of education were easily solved it would have been done already. All morning on the picket line we talked about the problems of poverty. The teachers on my picket line wanted to talk about the big problem of poverty. We still need to teach our babies, but society needs to take responsibility for the problem of poverty.”

Chicago teachers were on the front lines this month: Holding the line against the attacks on public education and the need for a holistic approach on the one hand, and holding the line against the attacks on working people and their ability to earn a good wage and pension on the other hand. A strike, particularly one that is defensive as this one, can’t succeed without significant community support. Even then the odds are often long: industrialists, financiers and the governments over which they have decisive influence possess huge power and a willingness to use it.

There is no choice but to struggle, for there is no other route to a better world. Wars on teachers, wars on women or wars on working people promoted by elite interests should no longer be tolerated. Instead, let’s learn from the experience of the Chicago teachers’ strike to build communities. Democracy is hard work but it is better than bowing and scraping.

Wisconsin’s recall election proves no substitute for a social movement

By Pete Dolack

Walking home on election night in 2008, my partner and I waded into a street celebration. Young people, primarily, had taken over an entire block to joyously celebrate Barack Obama’s trouncing of John McCain. Veteran activists that we are, we talked to many of the celebrants, cautioning them that the work of progressive change had only begun: If there is no strong pressure from President Obama’s supporters, he would be taken off the hook and feel himself free to not do what he said he would do.

Neither of us believed the president-elect would follow through on most of his campaign platform, and the fact that the strong anti-war movement that mushroomed during the Bush II administration had been silenced by United for Peace and Justice’s deft channeling of it into the John Kerry presidential campaign and its unwillingness to work with any coalitions to its Left should not have been far from activist minds. The hopes of Obama voters for an end to wars waged for imperialist plunder and for meaningful “change” soon met the traditional graveyard of U.S. social movements, the Democratic Party.

And so it was in Wisconsin last week. Yet again, an energetic, grassroots movement, motivated by a sense of urgency, was diluted, rendered “respectable” and converted by political and union leaders into an election campaign. And thereby lost their biggest battle. Are they to lose the war, too?

Before we tackle that question, let’s analyze the battle. Given the legitimate questioning of electronic voting machines that do not print records that can confirm the results, it is understandable that some question who really won the Wisconsin recall vote. But it is necessary to point out that the 53 to 47 percent victory of Scott Walker over Tom Barrett, although wider than expected, does fall within the margin of error of the many polls that consistently had Walker ahead. We should accept the result as legitimate, and analyze seriously a bitter defeat for all working people.

Union leaders’ fear of Madison’s energetic resistance

One of the groups critical to the uprising in Madison, the Wisconsin state capital, were graduate students organized into the Teachers Assistants’ Association. The TAA is centered on the University of Wisconsin’s main campus, located blocks from the Wisconsin capitol building. Already anticipating cuts to the university system, the TAA had begun mobilizing for a February 2011 protest. When details of Governor Walker’s draconian program of deep cuts to education and social programs coupled with union-busting measures became known, the sense of urgency increased.

Mike Ludwig, writing in Truthout, has described the birth of a movement that quickly had the world’s eyes on it:

“A public hearing on the legislation was scheduled the next day and the TAA organized a massive turnout. At such hearings, each member of the public is given up to two minutes to speak, and thanks to the tireless TAA and allied groups, a continuous stream of testimonies prevented the bill from going up to a vote. It was the birth of an occupation that would take over the Capitol and stall Walker’s union-busting bill for more than three weeks.”

Teaching assistants and teachers came to that first legislative hearing prepared to stay overnight. An early attempt to evict the Capitol occupiers backfired, solidifying their public support. Demonstrations in numbers that sometimes exceeded 100,000 outside the capitol building were regular occurrences. Support for the capitol occupiers was exemplified in a continual stream of well-wishers from outside Madison phoning in pizza orders to be delivered to the occupiers. Crowds lined the streets of Madison when a procession of farmers riding tractors drove down one of the city’s main streets to the capitol. African-American and Hispanic high school students from Wisconsin’s biggest city, Milwaukee, and people from small towns across the state were on board.

Sadly — but not surprisingly — union leaders saw this inspiring solidarity as a threat to be contained.

Talk of a general strike was in the air — something that has not happened in the United States since the 1930s. Although some organizers believed that there was too little infrastructure in place for a general strike to be realistic at the time, there were other steps that could have been taken to ratchet up the pressure on Governor Walker and his Big Business funders.

Matthew Rothschild of the Madison-based monthly magazine The Progressive, who participated in many of these events, said the co-optation of the movement began early:

“Actually, it began to disintegrate the moment the leaders (and who were they, exactly?) decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party channels rather than explore the full potential of the power that was latent but present in the streets back in February and March of 2011. … Procedurally, decisions were made (again, who made them?) in a very undemocratic way. Here we had 100,000 people storming the square but there was no effort to include them in any meaningful — or even symbolic — decision-making process. … We gathered at noon every day, we gathered every night, and we massed on the weekends, but then the decision was made (by whom?) to stop marching and essentially to go back to our home districts and throw all our energies into recalling state senators. I remember being at a protest and being told to do so from the podium.”

Local activist Allen Ruff, quoted in a Truthout analysis written by Arun Gupta and Steve Horn, confirmed that state-level Democrats actively demobilized the movement:

“One got up in the middle of the [capitol building’s] Rotunda when there were a few thousand people present and asked them to walk out to show we are willing to compromise and around 1,200 people left the Capitol with him. At the last big rally in March, with more than 200,000 people present, Democratic [state] Senator Jon Erpenbach, said ‘I don’t want to see you people back here. Go back to your home communities and work on the recall.’ ”

Briefly, the intensity of the movement had driven Wisconsin Democrats to take their lead from the masses of people in the streets; the party’s state senators fled the state in an ultimately failed attempt to block a vote on Governor Walker’s bills. But soon enough, Democratic Party and union leaders asserted leadership, and steered the movement’s energy into the usual directions. People deferred to those party and union leaders, who were afraid of the power of people on display, afraid of a movement that had blossomed out of their control and afraid that they would not look “respectable” in the eyes of establishment power brokers and the corporate mass media. Union leaders, once again, mobilized their memberships to elect Democrats without asking for anything ahead of time.

That channeling involved not only tactics, but message. The early message of linking fightbacks against the entire panoply of neoliberal attacks became narrowed into messages tailored to appear “safe” to Wisconsin’s suburban middle class.

Bruce A. Dixon, writing for the Black Agenda Report, wrote:

“When would-be movements sideline the youthful risk-taking initiative and egalitarian core values that might have sustained them to become political campaigns, they generally don’t even run good campaigns. The crowds on the sidewalks and parking lots in Madison were conducting anti-racism seminars and study groups. But the electoral campaign the whole thing was turned into, even though they had a whole year to plan, neglected to do the labor-intensive ground game of massive voter registration in poor and minority communities. They spent their relatively scarce dollars on media instead, and pursued the easy consultant-class strategy of pursuing the “frequent voters” alone. They didn’t talk about the poor and renters, of which there are many in Milwaukee. They only talked about the middle class. They didn’t talk much about mass incarceration either, even though Wisconsin and Milwaukee consistently have the highest rates of Black imprisonment in the U.S. … They came up with a black candidate for lieutenant governor. But mostly they went from hundreds of thousands of people shivering in the cold, standing outside the people-proof, democracy-proof cages of elite consensus and two-party politics and beginning to feel their own power to decide what to do next to folks campaigning for the candidate and the slate that sucked less.”

The slate that “sucked less” and its union backers may have been eager to “compromise,” but the billionaire funders opposed to them were not.

A money deficit, yes, but an uninspired recall campaign

As a matter of strategy, organizers of the signature-gathering campaign to get the recall vote on to the ballot intentionally avoided naming a candidate. Brendan Fischer, writing in AlterNet a month before the election, reported:

“Their strategy was to make it clear that signing a petition was a choice to recall the governor, rather than a vote in favor of any particular challenger. But that move left Walker opponents without a candidate when signatures were handed in on January 16.”

That decision gave Governor Walker a huge head start. The unions’ preferred candidate lost in a primary to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom the governor defeated in 2010. By the time Mayor Barrett began raising money, Governor Walker had already spent 20 million dollars, according to Mr. Fischer. The challenger had only a month to make his case, but although the recall election inevitably was based on the personality of the governor, Mayor Barrett had not only already been defeated a year and a half earlier, he stood for “austerity lite” instead of providing a clean alternative.

During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the centerpiece of Mayor Barrett’s campaign was a 67-page document called “Put Madison on a Diet.” He advocated layoffs, cuts to benefits and cuts to wages as the main routes to trimming more than one billion dollars in state spending per year. This time around, he avoided drawing attention to such plans, but also avoided saying anything of substance. In a June 2, 2012, commentary published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he offered platitudes but no concrete programs. Instead he offered a general critique of Governor Walker and issued bland declarations such as “My priority is Wisconsin.” Had somebody though his priority Saskatchewan?

He did, however, offer a hint of his previous program in a debate when he said, “The real test of leadership is whether you can say no to your friends.” That, perhaps, was less than inspiring to those whom he needed to get to the voting booth.

Whatever else can be said of the Republican Party, it does not boast of “standing up” against its base. But nor does the Democratic Party wish to offend its corporate benefactors, without whom it could not survive. We square the circle here: Mass movements are the only possible alternative to corporate power and money (especially as that money and power holds a tight grip on both major parties), but such movements are precisely what Democrats fear most. Union leaderships have become so removed from their rank-and-file members and so entangled with party politics that they are unable to critique the dead end of giving support to Democrats with no demands, hoping that some crumbs will fall their way.

When you guarantee unconditional support, when you keep your mouth shut when you are forgotten after the election, when you desperately suppress any independent mass movement, when you are so comfortable in your bubble that you can’t conceive of doing anything different, when you are unable to differentiate between a crumb and a loaf, you will lose. And you will keep losing.

Union households who voted for attacks on themselves

An analysis of the recall vote is not complete without examining the eyebrow-raising exit-poll finding that 38 percent of union-household members voted for Governor Walker. In 2010, he earned 37 percent of that vote — no substantial change.

More than one-third endorsed a direct assault on their ability to maintain their standard of living. How do we account for that?

In part, answering that question is partly dependent on knowing the breakdown of those voters between public-sector and private-sector union households, a breakdown that does not appear in the results of the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Governor Walker generally directed his anti-union rhetoric at government workers, although the fierce attack on public-sector unions are an opening gambit — corporate antipathy toward unions does not differentiate. Such attacks are the tip of a well-honed spear aimed at breaking down solidarity among working people.

Capitalist ideology furiously promotes individuality in an effort to atomize society and to justify extraordinary disparities in wealth. We are constantly bombarded with messages that declare you, too, could be rich if only you worked as hard as the chief executive officer does. Many CEOs undoubtedly work hard, but 340 times harder than the average worker? The reality is that only a handful can be rich, because being rich means accumulating money and capital through paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. Therefore, most people are going to struggle economically. How can that be if you work hard every day?

Scapegoats are provided as the answer — not that the is system stacked against you and always will be, nor is the answer that the capitalism system is undergoing a serious structural crisis that is the logical outcome of its highly competitive nature and need for ever more accumulation. A favorite scapegoat are always a society’s minorities or immigrants, and when that line loses effectiveness, the scapegoat becomes public-sector workers. Thus we have the sad spectacle of the current Big Business-led war on teachers, waged across the United States. Government workers in general are demonized as lazy and the recipients of unwarranted largesse.

Another critical strand of capitalist ideology is to foster jealousy. This is a crucial piece of ideological campaigns, in part to create atomization of society (crucial to blocking ideas of solidarity and common economic interests from taking root) but also to facilitate the scapegoating. Carefully targeted, the jealousy is never against the executive or speculator who makes millions of dollars off other people’s hard work, but rather the jealousy is carefully fanned against other working people who have something somebody else does not.

Because government workers — and unions — were the designated scapegoats, their pensions became easy targets. Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do. Mike McCabe, the executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, argues that Wisconsin Republicans have forged a “rich-poor alliance” of suburban and rural areas:

“Republicans ask people in places like [rural] Clark County if they have pensions, and the answer is invariably no. ‘Well, you are paying for theirs,’ they tell them. ‘Do you have health insurance? No. Well, you are paying for theirs. Are you getting pay raises? No. Well, you are paying for theirs.’ For years now Democrats have not plausibly made the case that they will deliver better health or retirement security or higher pay to all. Only the state’s few government workers have so benefited from the Democrats’ toil.”

Exit polling seems to back up these claims. Residents of cities with at least 50,000 people voted by a close to 2-to-1 margin in favor of Mayor Barrett, but all other areas voted by wide margins for Governor Walker.

Notice, however, how the question is framed by conservatives: “Why does someone have something you don’t have” (a pension), instead of “Why do you not have something that you should be entitled to but don’t have.” Once the question is framed that way, and anti-government rhetoric is wrapped around it, then it is a short path to making pensions indistinguishable from excessive government spending.

An analysis in the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper contained a noteworthy quotation from the district attorney and Republican Party chairman (the same person holds both posts) of another rural county, Green County. This official had his district-attorney pay cut but, considering his other post, not surprisingly backed Governor Walker. “I was also able to see the other side of the equation. Taxpayers, businesspeople and retired citizens had just as strong feelings about the necessity to control state spending and require state employees to ‘pay their fair share,’ ” the official said.

Once again: Why do those people have something I don’t when I work hard? Nor can such sentiments simply be waved off by virtue of party — one-sixth of Governor Walker’s voters intend to vote for President Obama, according to the exit poll.

Capitalist ideology permeates every every institution. Not simply the corporate mass media, but churches, schools, think tanks, militaries and a host of others incessantly carry similar messages: We “deserve” what we get. The generally unspoken but nonetheless inferred coda to that message is that if what we “deserve”  is not as much as we need in a time of scarcity and cutbacks, then then someone else must not be deserving, either, so we should take away from them. Take it away from them, not have it for ourselves and our neighbors, too.

If you’ve heard this before, you are not hallucinating

There is nothing unique about Wisconsin. Or about the United States. Government workers are the brunt of attacks in Greece. If it is true (I don’t know myself) that the Greek government is over-staffed, government workers there nonetheless have to pay their taxes because their employer certainly isn’t going to fail to collect them, while it is Greek corporations, the wealthy and even some middle class private-sector workers who don’t pay taxes, a significant factor in Greece’s financial crisis.

Voters in two California cities, San Diego and San Jose, one a conservative military town and the other a liberal Silicon Valley town, voted last week by 2-to-1 margins to cut the pensions of public workers despite the fact that those pensions are subject to collective bargaining. In New York, there has been the odd revelation that leaders of a group of construction-worker unions donated half a million dollars to the “Committee to Save New York.” That is odd, because the committee has been bankrolled by millions of dollars by corporate donors and is the leading ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s drive to impose layoffs, pay cuts and pension reductions on government workers. That drive continues despite the government workers already agreeing to cuts.

The capitalists pushing the anti-union agenda must be delighted to have unions of private-sector workers joining their attacks on public-sector workers. Talk about short-sighted: Private-sector unions will become targets if public-sector unions are disabled, and construction unions are already routinely scapegoated as responsible for high construction costs. Never mind that real estate is a fantastically profitable business for developers and landlords in and around New York City, where most of the population of New York state resides. Non-union labor has become a more common sight on city construction jobs, but you should not hold your breath waiting for rents or sale prices to be reduced on account of resulting lower labor costs.

All these agendas do not fall from the sky. A handful of billionaires bankrolled Governor Walker’s victories in Wisconsin, and there are plenty of other capitalists who are happy to free-ride on their largesse. Austerity may come in several flavors, but, ultimately, from one source. If so-called leadership offers only austerity-lite “me, too,” the alternative is to become our own leaders.

The Taft-Hartley Act: ‘Neutrality’ as a weapon

By Pete Dolack

One of the primary tools long used to suppress labor in the United States is the Taft-Hartley Act, which became law 65 years ago next month. Specifically written to reduce the organizing power of working people to the maximum extent reasonably possible, it is sometimes overlooked that the law was passed with Democratic Party as well as Republican support.

Working people had won for themselves powerful gains during the dramatic upsurge of union organizing during the latter years of the Great Depression, and after agreeing to not conduct strikes during World War II, unions were again flexing their muscles so that their members could make up some of what was lost from the war’s pay freezes. In response, U.S. Big Business interests saw their first opportunity to begin the dismantling of the New Deal, implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to massive unrest that threatened to topple the capitalist system.

Prior to the New Deal, employees had virtually no recognized rights; the struggle of workers to unionize to defend themselves against powerful corporate interests had raged for decades. Strikes would be met with mass firings and shootings by law enforcement authorities and private security forces. New Deal labor law was codified in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. A historian at Missouri Southern State University, Steven Wagner, in an article posted on the George Mason University History News Network, emphasizes the importance of the act:

“The Wagner Act was the most important labor law in American history. It gave a major impetus to labor organizations and earned the nickname “labor’s bill of rights.” … It gave workers the right to organize and join labor unions, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to strike. It also set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency with three members appointed by the president, to administer the act and gave it the power to certify that a union represented a particular group of employees.

The Wagner Act also forbade employers from engaging in five types of labor practices: interfering with or restraining employees exercising their right to organize and bargain collectively; attempting to dominate or influence a labor union; refusing to bargain collectively and in “good faith” with unions representing their employees; and, finally, encouraging or discouraging union membership through any special conditions of employment or through discrimination against union or non-union members in hiring. This last provision, in effect, permitted closed and union shops (a closed shop is when an employer agrees to hire only union members and a union shop is when an employer agrees to require anyone hired to join the union).”

Following the conclusion of World War II, a wave of strikes commenced. The U.S. government’s Department of Labor history page notes that, in contrast to fears that massive unemployment would result from the millions of veterans returning from the war,

“[T]he real labor problem of the time was a massive if peaceful wave of strikes. Unions sought to make what they considered well-deserved gains after enduring wage freezes imposed during the war. Workers were also prodded by the sharp inflation, fueled by pent-up consumer demand, that followed the lifting of wartime price restrictions. Strike followed upon strike in such important sectors as railroads, coal, steel, autos and oil.”

A combination of the Red Scare, whipped-up anti-union sentiment, and a desire by capitalists to reverse the gains of the New Deal and to purge the unions of communists and socialists, who often were the most militant union leaders, led to the introduction of numerous anti-union bills in Congress. The effort came to center on a pair of bills, one for each congressional house. According to a history of Taft-Hartley on the Labor Party USA web site:

“The anti-labor drive in Congress came to focus on two bills: The House bill was introduced by Representative Fred Hartley (R-New Jersey), a right-winger who had been friendly to Hitler Germany and imperial Japan right up to the eve of World War 2. A roughly similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Senator Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), the ultraconservative, wealthy son of a U.S. president who had political ambitions of his own. But both bills were written by lobbyists for corporations like General Electric, Allis-Chalmers, Inland Steel, J.I. Case, and Chrysler, and the Rockefeller interests.”

Representative Hartley had a long association with the Bund, German-American organizations in Northern New Jersey that promoted Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Senator Taft distinguished himself by opposing unemployment insurance and Social Security, and joining with conservatives aligned with Herbert Hoover who made wild charges that the New Deal constituted an attempt to substitute “totalitarian tyranny” for constitutional government.

Ultimately combined into a single bill, the anti-union legislation passed both houses. Majorities of both parties voted in favor of the bill in the House of Representatives, while in the Senate, according to the Labor Party account, Republicans were unanimously in favor with Democrats evenly split, 21-21. President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, but Congress had the required two-thirds majority in both houses to override the veto and enact Taft-Hartley into law.

Despite President Truman’s need to shore up his credentials with organized labor, a desire to protect the rights of working people was not the motivation for his veto. On the contrary, he believed that Taft-Hartley would unnecessarily introduce government control into the economy. In his veto message,* Truman wrote:

“The bill taken as a whole would reverse the basic direction of our national labor policy, inject the Government into private economic affairs on an unprecedented scale, and conflict with important principles of our democratic society. Its provisions would cause more strikes, not fewer. It would contribute neither to industrial peace nor to economic stability and progress. It would be a dangerous stride in the direction of a totally managed economy. It contains seeds of discord which would plague this Nation for years to come.

At a time when we are determined to remove, as rapidly as practicable, Federal controls established during the war, this bill would involve the Government in the free processes of our economic system to a degree unprecedented in peacetime. This is a long step toward the settlement of economic issues by government dictation. It is an indication that industrial relations are to be determined in the halls of Congress, and that political power is to supplant economic power as the critical factor in labor relations.”

Further, President Truman predicated that the bill’s power to force an end to strikes or lockouts would be a dead letter:

“There is little point in putting laws on the books unless they can be executed. I have concluded that this bill would prove to be unworkable. The so-called “emergency procedure” for critical nation-wide strikes would require an immense amount of government effort but would result almost inevitably in failure. The National Labor Relations Board would be given many new tasks, and hobbled at every turn in attempting to carry them out. Unique restrictions on the Board’s procedures would so greatly increase the backlog of unsettled cases that the parties might be driven to turn in despair from peaceful procedures to economic force.”

The president’s concerns were apparently short-lived, as he would invoke Taft-Hartley’s emergency powers ten times, more than any subsequent president.

The scope of Taft-Hartley was (and remains) sweeping. It prohibited jurisdictional, wildcat, solidarity or political strikes; restricted political contributions by unions; outlawed welfare funds not jointly controlled by management; authorized employer interference in organizing; outlawed the closed shop; authorized states to pass laws outlawing union shops; and ramped up the Red Scare by requiring union officials to sign affidavits that they were not communists.

The practical effect of the Taft-Hartley Act contradicts its loftily claimed neutrality, as for instance in its second paragraph:

“It is the purpose and policy of this Act, in order to promote the full flow of commerce, to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce, to provide orderly and peaceful procedures for preventing the interference by either with the legitimate rights of the other, to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with labor organizations whose activities affect commerce … and to protect the rights of the public in connection with labor disputes affecting commerce.”

All the new rules put into place by the act were directed against employees, despite the neutral-sounding language. Proponents of the act claimed it was a response to the Wagner Act primarily circumscribing management, but such circumscription was the point: Employees had possessed no rights, and the 1935 act was intended as rectification. Taft-Hartley was an attempt to take back as many of those hard-won rights as possible.

Under the impact of the law, union membership has declined from about 35 percent in 1954 to less than 12 percent today. Frequently, attention is drawn to the fact that union membership was highest during the post-war boom period that extended through the 1950s and 1960s, a time when working people enjoyed more prosperity than before or since. The lowest levels of union membership since the early days of the Great Depression have coincided with the greatest inequality and the worst economic crisis since then. These basic facts are inseparable — as more capital is accumulated by fewer capitalists, more power to affect all aspects of society is accumulated.

Working people don’t have the organizational strength to combat the control over the economy, the tight grip over the legislative process and the domination of the mass media possessed by capitalists and their top-down corporations. Without a doubt, abolishing Taft-Hartley and ending the draconian roadblocks put in front of union drives would be of significant benefit to working people in the United States.

The one-sidedness of union-certification elections was summarized well by an organizer (I regret I can recall neither name nor specific circumstance) imagining a political election being conducted under the same rules: Imagine a congressional election in which the incumbent could require voters to listen to his or her speeches, could ban any material promoting the challenger, and in which the challenger could not set foot in the election district but instead had to stand on the border handing out fliers to people passing by.

Yet, as desirable as much increased employee organization and fair labor laws would be, ultimately that would only ameliorate the exploitation of working people, and newly won gains would soon come under attack, again forcing working people into defensive postures. There are parallels here with Keynesian economic theory.

Keynesianism, simply put, is the belief that capitalism is unstable and requires government intervention in the economy when private enterprise is unable or unwilling to spend enough to lift it out of a slump. To be fair, government spending — the New Deal, the immense effort to win World War II, the Marshall Plan and a significant state sector in European economies — did indeed lift living standards in the advanced capitalist countries of the North. That economic theory, and the much higher union membership, tend to be intertwined with a certain nostalgia for the quarter-century boom following World War II. But, as I have previously argued, we are in different times.

The U.S. post-war boom was predicated on the country having a strong industrial base and for there being large areas of the planet into which the capitalist system could expand. Neither is the case today. For the first time since the Great Depression, we are enduring a structural crisis of capitalism, and the conditions that led the world out of it simply don’t exist today. There are no mass anti-capitalist movements remotely comparable to those of the 1930s, the advanced capitalist countries have largely hollowed-out industrial bases, there are very few places not already integrated into the world capitalist system, the power of capitalists is stronger and far more globalized, and those capitalists have set in motion an all-out race to the bottom.

Then add to that list the environmental crisis, looming shortages of natural resources as they are madly plundered, and increasing disruptions to agriculture from global warming. Moreover, there is the massive public and private debt piled up that can’t possibly be paid back (which didn’t exist in the 1930s). That structural debt is the leverage for capitalists, in particularly financiers, to impose austerity. Ever more for them, less for us. If more pain and more austerity is all that is coming to us, then a change of system, rather than an amelioration of that system, should be on the agenda.

In President Truman’s message to Congress when he vetoed Taft-Hartley, he gave as a crucial reason for his opposition that, under the act, “political power is to supplant economic power as the critical factor in labor relations.” Note that Truman wished “economic power” to remain decisive in labor relations. Truman had nothing to fear; economic power remained firmly in the seat. “Political power” continued to be wielded as a source of force on behalf of dominant “economic power,” as it does today.

That economic power, needless to say, is held tightly by capitalists. It can not be otherwise. Better labor laws would be of enormous benefit for working people, but gains are always temporary and taken back. Economic power is always wielded by those with the biggest piles of capital in a capitalist system and always will be, no matter what ameliorative laws are passed.

* Text posted on the University of California at Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.