Thursday, January 29, 2009

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) 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 News and Comment 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.

Its 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, but 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 political 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.

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