Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
What a difference five years make! In 2008, when a few hundred union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago voted to occupy their plant instead of submitting meekly to being laid off, theirs was a rare act of courage in a cold winter of crisis for organized labor. Five years on, as some of those same workers cut the ribbon on their own cooperatively run business last week, it was yet another bold step by innovative workers in a season of daring by labor.
It’s no easy thing to sign a lease, buy equipment and open a business with a group. Starting a coop is risky, just like walking off a low-wage job. Asked why he and his fellows had decided to start a co-op, veteran window maker “Ricky” Maclin told me it was because they were tired of their lives being in someone else’s hands. In the last five years, two different owners for two different sets of reasons had tried to lay them off. Now Maclin and his partners are owner/operators of a cooperative company called New Era and a similar sort of determination and defiance is being seen in city after city, from fed up workers who are taking to the streets.
There’s plenty to be fed up about. The same people slashing services are talking about an economic recovery, but if this is the economy in recovery, workers seem to have no place in it. Politicians and pundits are doing OK—in fact, for anyone with a stock portfolio, the economy’s in the pink. But that old supposed pact between Big Labor and the Democrats is clearly broken. Labor unions invested millions in helping Democrats win the last election but they’re getting nothing back—at least nothing that helps working people live and rear families and eat.
Wages remain rock-bottom, millions are more or less permanently out of work and those who are working are working harder, for more bosses, in less secure workplaces, with nothing in the way of benefits.
No wonder people are embracing new tactics. And surprise, surprise, those tactics work.
By occupying their plant the first time (in December 2008), the New Era workers won back-pay—and time for a new owner to be found. By occupying a second time (in February 2012, when those new owners threatened to liquidate), they won a chance to form a cooperative and make a bid on equipment.
Now their company’s name is seeming especially apt: New Era Windows. Are we, in fact, entering a new era for labor? The last time the labor movement embraced sit-down strikes and worker occupations, it was the 1930s. For most of the last century, industrial unions viewed autonomous worker co-ops as a threat. Today the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America will be representing the New Era workers, and the United Steelworkers of America is working with the Basque co-ops of Mondragon to open industrial co-ops in the US.
Likewise, until recently, trade unions refused to support ambitious strikes by low-wage workers in predominantly non-union industries, especially strikes led by women, immigrants and community organizations. The one-day stoppages around the country by retail and fast food workers this season are targeting non-union chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and TJ Maxx. Community groups are leading the way (although many are funded by the SEIU). They’re demanding a meaningful raise—to $15 and hour—and the right to organize a union without attack. So far, they’re succeeding in staging one-day walkouts without dire reprisals from management. That’s a jaw-dropping thing, with visible support. Milwaukee’s strikers returned to work Thursday, flanked by elected officials and clergy.
While the one-day strikes may be involving only a minority of workers so far, they are clearly building support as the wave of actions shows. What happens next? Strikes and co-ops are two different ways to respond to the finance-driven crisis of job losses and low wages. The first aims to build power at the bargaining table, the second to compete in the market. The outcome’s unsure, but just like that first occupation at Republic, the experiments themselves have unleashed new potential.
It just goes to show what can happen when workers lead the way, and when, as Jim Hightower would say, those who say it can’t be done get out of the way of those who are doing it.
In this video from Raise MKE and Wisconsin Jobs Now! workers describe what it’s like living on a low wage and why they’ve had enough. Today’s low wage buys only about 70 percent of what it bought in 1968. The majority of jobs created in this so-called “recovery” have been low-wage jobs. What’s that like to live on? As one woman puts it simply, “Living on minimum wage sucks!”
New York fast food joints may be in trouble for rampant wage theft. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
According to New York’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, some 120 co-op buildings, with 13,000 apartments, and 368 condominiums, with 7,000 units, sustained flooding and damage after Hurricane Sandy blew through town.
Many now need extensive repairs, but people who live in housing co-ops are considered small businesses under federal law and, as such, they’re ineligible for federal hurricane relief. Instead of relief, they’re being advised to apply for a “small business” loan even though they are essentially nonprofit entities set up by property owners.
That’s what many New Yorkers have been discovering to their surprise, as they’ve been turned down for FEMA aid. Even though assistance is finally coming through, people who live in co-ops just can’t get it. And according to the executive director of an organization that helps low-income New Yorkers turn distressed city properties into cooperatively owned and operated homes, that hits low income co-op households especially hard.
“Co-op owners aren’t considered homeowners,” explains Andy Reicher of Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB).
Maybe it’s time we overhaul our notion of ownership and “home” just as we’re updating our notion of “family.”
Area lawmakers are trying to change the law. This is certainly no time to be discouraging cooperative home-owning, says Reicher. It’s the one sort of home ownership that came out of the mortgage crisis mostly unscathed. Having weathered the financial storm thanks to low rates of foreclosure and arrears, it would be a shame if storm Sandy hurt co-ops now.
This week, climate activists are taking direct action off-shore. Read Wen Stephenson’s report on the Henry David T. versus big coal.
Meet the takers: They took over their factory, they took on their bosses, they took the initiative to form a worker cooperative and today they’re taking the wraps off a brand-new worker-owned company: New Era Windows. It opened May 9 in Chicago.
The workers in this story are members of the same workforce who, when they received word that their plant was about to be closed with no notice at what was then the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008, occupied their plant and became a cause célèbre in a grim winter of mass layoffs. When they were laid off again in early 2012, by a second owner, they decided, as Apple would say, to “think different.” With encouragement from their union, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), and The Working World, a progressive investment group that helps co-operative start-ups internationally, they formed a company, “New Era LLC.” New Era is 100 percent owned by workers and now, at last, open for business.
“We decided to make a co-op because we were tired of our life being in someone else’s hands,” window maker Melvin “Ricky” Macklin told GRITtv the day before the opening.
“When [Republic] closed we felt like it was the end of our lives…but we realized, we’re not nobody,” added co-worker/owner Armando Robles, president of the union local, UE 1110.
It hasn’t been easy. Last year the New Era team had to fight for several months even to be allowed to bid on the factory. After that came contract negotiations and a move to a cheaper new location. To save on expensive moving costs, workers shifted the equipment from their old plant, themselves, in eighty tractor trailer loads.
“There have been times that we weren’t sure that we were going to be able to get New Era off the ground,” recalled Macklin. “You need investors. Well, we didn’t have a lot of people knocking on the door to give us money.”
That’s where The Working World stepped in.
“We have to remember, it still has a long way to go,” says The Working World’s Brendan Martin. But the only way the company has been able to get launched in less than a year, he says, is because of the potential unleashed in the process of launching a cooperative. “If this were looked at by normal investment institutions, they’d have assumed it would cost $2-5 million to open a business like this. It’s been less than a million and the only reason for that is because that other $2-3 million of value has been brought by the workers.”
A day before the opening, workers were putting the final touches on the plant, showing the fire inspector around and thinking about the work ahead of them. With just twenty worker-owners currently employed, the factory space looks large. Will they get enough orders to fill it? They are confident (and they passed the fire code inspection).
The former owner of Republic Windows and Doors didn’t go bankrupt. He’s still operating a factory in town. New Era is small by comparison. As Martin put it, “They don’t have all the inside connections; they don’t have all the backroom buddies.”
On the other hand, they don’t need a massive profit margin to be viable, and they live in a community that needs good, modern windows.
“Now more than ever they need support,” says Martin. Among other clients, they’re hoping that housing cooperatives and other cooperative businesses will choose to buy their windows from New Era in solidarity. “It’s not just about financial support, but it is about customers,” he says.
Becoming owners brings with it new responsibilities and work. GRITtv asked the workers if they’re nervous:
“In opening up this plant we have learned we are so much more than what we thought we were,” Macklin said. “In opening up this plant we’ve done our own electrical work, we’ve done the plumbing work. And all we thought was we were just window makers.”
You can read more about the journey to New Era here, here and here and watch GRITtv’s 2009 discussion of worker takeovers with Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis and UE organizer Leah Fried here. For more information on New Era, go to newerawindows.com.
Why did fast food and retail workers strike yesterday in St. Louis? Read Annie Shields’s report.
Investigators are blaming ammonium nitrate for the massive explosion that devastated most of the town of West, Texas, on April 17. The chemical, which was stored in large amounts at the West Fertilizer Co., is used to make fertilizer. It’s also used by coal companies to blow up mountains.
Ammonium nitrate poses a threat to human and environmental health not only when it catalyzes fatally in a dangerous stockpile but also when particles of the stuff shatter into the air and seep into groundwater from strip mining, say residents of mining communities. Opponents of so-called “mountaintop removal” are in DC this week, taking that message to the Obama administration in a week of action culminating May 8 with a delivery of toxic water to the Environmental Protection Agency.
GRITtv was in Central Appalachia the week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Texas, fire. While terrorism of the bomb-plots sort seemed far away, explosions there were a daily occurance. Vernon Haltom of Coal Mountain River Watch, who showed us around, cited estimates that more than a million acres and tens of thousands of streams have been affected since so-called mountain top removal began. Having depleted the area’s rich underground seams, in the late 1970s coal companies in Central Appalachia began blasting the tops of the mountains to get at coal just beneath the surface.
Since then, more than twenty peer-reviewed studies have raised alarms, some linking trace amounts of ammonium nitrate, benzine and silica to health problems, including low birth weights and elevated death rates in mining areas of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
People living near mountaintop mining have cancer rates of 14.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent for people elsewhere in Appalachia, studies by the West Virginia University, among others, show. “Birth defects are over twice as high than if the mother smokes during pregnancy,” says Vernon Haltom, who served in the US military as an explosives expert.
But just like giant agribusiness, Big Coal would rather keep ammonium nitrate unregulated. Activists are hoping that the explosion in West and the homemade bomb blasts in Boston will turn up the heat on regulators.
Mining companies aren’t the only ones who know ammonium nitrate’s blasting power. Readily available and easy to assemble, it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building and it’s what improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, are usually packed with.
In 2011, Obama’s EPA vetoed the largest single mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, slowing production but issuing no binding regulations. Democrats have introduced an Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, H.R. 526) which would effectively impose a moratorium. The current week of Appalachia Rising action is calling for the EPA to step in. There’s no earthly reason why the agency isn’t charged with monitoring ammonium nitrate. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is mandated to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals.
Why isn’t ammonium nitrate already on the EPA’s list? That was one of Senator Barbara Boxer’s questions to the agency in the wake of the Texas fertilizer plant disaster. Informed fingers have pointed at lobbying by the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute but up to now, Big Coal has avoided tough questions. No industry uses more ammonium nitrate for underground and above-ground explosions.
The last and, so far, the only time a federal agency proposed monitoring the chemical, the National Mining Association lobbied against it. After the Department of Homeland Security proposed regulating the of the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate for security reasons, the National Mining Association requested an exemption, citing the “undue burden on the mining industry.”
Texans and Appalachians don’t need another tragedy to know it’s long past time the “undue burden” on human life received priority. In West Virginia, GRITtv spoke with Vernon Haltom and Vernon “Hoot” Gibson, uncle of famed mountain defender Larry Gibson, whose family’s cabins sit on some of the last surviving peaks of the Kayford Mountain.
Occupy the Pipeline activists are working to prevent a New York City fracking nightmare. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.
Bob Edgar died suddenly from a heart attack last week at age 69. In Congress from 1975–87, as general secretary of the National Council of Churches and as the CEO of Common Cause, Edgar worked to hold those in power accountable to the public.
Whether it’.s for requesting that the Justice Department investigate Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas for a conflict of interest in the Citizens United ruling, or for bringing aid to the Palestinian town of Jenin after the 2002 Israeli bombardment, Edgar is remembered for his lifelong commitment to social justice and his opposition to the insidious influence of money in politics. As New Yorkers, among others, push forward on bills to change campaign financing across the country, it’s worth remembering his words: “We the people have to stand up, take ownership of our government, reduce the impact of money, reduce the impact of corporate interests. People have to recognize that they are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
I had the luck to talk with Edgar for the Free Speech for People project in the spring of 2011. What follows is a part of that conversation. Watch a longer interview with Edgar about democracy, myths and realities, here.
Bob Edgar: When I served in Congress, special interests groups brought their talking points first. They watched how you voted and the people who didn’t like the way you voted, they didn’t bother you very much, they weren’t out trying to get you defeated. In those days it used to be talking points first, now it’s money first.
We used to have smoked-filled rooms, now we have money-filled rooms. Over the last few years, particularly with the Citizens United decision where the Supreme Court voted five to four to give corporations and labor unions the ability to dip into their corporate treasury, there’s just been an exponential, a huge increase in the amount of money, and I believe that money is corroding our system.
The Koch brothers, for ten years they have been having semi-secret meetings with the Glenn Becks and the O’Reillys of this world, and we discovered they have also been bringing Supreme Court Justices twice a year to their events to think about changing the way people perceive global warming. They have actually set up organizations to put false science together to get reports out that counter basic science on what’s happening to the environment. They can do it because the two brothers have a combined wealth of more than $40 billion.
We don’t have the opportunity to have all of that false information playing itself out there; we have got to make some tough decisions on global warming and the environment. I think we are living in a very dangerous moment. My hope is that we recognize that we live on a fragile planet.
When I was born in 1943 there were about 2 billion people on planet earth, this year we will pass 7 billion people on planet Earth. More than half of all the people who ever lived on planet Earth are alive today, so I would hope that we could lessen the impact of our spending on military and focus that on peacemaking, that we would be stewards of a fragile planet and work on environmental cleanup and that we would not just talk about the upper class or the middle class but that we would recognize that the working class, the working poor also need to be helped.
We are working hard to spread a good virus across the country called public financing. We installed it in Arizona, in Connecticut and in Maine. In Connecticut in 2008, 74 percent of the candidates running for the state legislature used our voluntary public financing system, took no special interest money. Eighty-one percent of them got elected, and for the last two years we’ve had probably the best legislature in Connecticut than they’ve had in the past. Special interests could still lobby, but they had to lobby with their talking points and not with their checkbooks. We the people have to stand up, take ownership of our government, reduce the impact of money, reduce the impact of corporate interests. People have to recognize that they are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.
In a massive, covert experiment, corporate interests are destroying your health. Read David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s take.
A year ago this week, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) hosted four leading scientists for Senate and House briefings on the environmental and health impacts of mountain top removal (MTR) mining in Appalachia.
The scientists’ peer reviewed research was damning: mountain top removal, the practice of clearing mountaintops of trees and topsoil and then blasting them with explosives to reveal the coal seams underneath, is polluting the Appalachian watershed decreasing organism diversity, increasing flooding and contaminating ground water. The air’s in trouble too, leading to high rates of cancer, heart and respiratory disease:
Preliminary laboratory tests, using air samples from areas where people are living in Appalachia, show mountain top removal mining dust kills heart cells and impairs vascular function.
Mortality rates in the affected areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia are rising:
From 1999 to 2005, there were 4,432 “excess deaths” in Appalachia. It has also been found that babies born to mothers who live in areas with mountain top removal mining have a 26% higher rate of birth defects. That compares to babies born to mothers who smoke during pregnancy who only have an 18% higher risk of birth defects.
Right now, members of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign are back on Capitol Hill preparing to brief House staffers on the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, H.R. 526), which an impressive group of Democrats has introduced to protect Appalachian families and communities from mountain top removal, what many call “extreme mining.”
The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act’s leading sponsors are Representatives John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY). They’re joined by original cosponsors Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), John Sarbanes (D-MD), Jim Moran (D-VA), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Judy Chu (D-CA), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Michael Honda (D-CA), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Janice Schakowksy (D-IL), Jim McDermott (D-WA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Jared Polis (D-CO).
This Earth Day why not give your Representative a call and urge them to support the bill. For more information, here’s a compilation of the health studies, with summaries, much of it from the University of West Virginia. And here’s a documentary on the topic by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, On Coal River:
What is climate debt? Watch Aura Bogado’s speech from this spring’s Power Up! student convergence.
Tax day is here, and activist-artist Paolo Cirio invites you to a protest tax evasion by availing yourself of an "offshore tax haven"—just as the biggest businesses do. Eighty percent of hedge funds have their companies registered anonymously in the Cayman Islands, he says. That's how they avoid the taxes they'd pay at home. Cirio has not only hacked the Cayman's registry site but created certificates of authentication for the rest of us—using the information he has uncovered.
A service to democratize offshore business for people who don't want to pay for their riches. It empowers everyone to evade taxes, hide money and debt, and get away with anything by stealing the identities of real offshore companies.
Is it legal? PayPal doesn't think so. PayPal suspended the account of Loophole4All.com, freezing the $700 raised in one month through selling the identities of Caymans companies. The reason: "PayPal may not be used to send or receive payments for items that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity."
Cirio is sticking to his art—claiming he's promoting a form of civil disobedience and subverting corrupt and unjust laws through facilitating collective performance. PayPal, he points out, is a company based in Luxembourg, an offshore country, which generates some $145 billion that is not taxed by any home country.
If President Obama sticks with the "chained-CPI," John Nichols writes, it's good news for the Republican Party.
Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative Party Conference on October 13, 1989. (Reuters/Stringer)
Margaret Thatcher’s fancy funeral will be held this coming Wednesday. Along with the deceased prime minister, can we bury TINA, too?
For thirty years we’ve lived with TINA: “There is No Alternative.” Thatcher deployed her most famous slogan to mean that certain debates were over, especially debates over capitalism. Globalized capitalism, so called free-markets and free trade were the best ways to build wealth, distribute services and grow a society’s economy. Deregulation’s good, if not God.
This week, as the canonization of Margaret Thatcher has played out, it’s clear that while Maggie may be gone, TINA lives.
Both the other guests and pretty much all the callers on a public radio show I was part of embraced TINA, arguing in effect that economic change comes with pain and change was necessary. From each came some version of “Thatcher turned the UK economy around.”
Left activist and author Tariq Ali said on Democracy Now! “The fact that no one has come up with an alternative to the Wall Street crash of 2008 does indicate that there’s some truth to her most famous statement.”
Is that what we really believe?
Looking at the data from the British Office of National Statistics compiled by The Guardian, here’s what I see: in the Thatcher years, unemployment shot up, manufacturing spiraled down and poverty grew. Scratch that—poverty almost doubled, from 13.4 percent to 22.2 percent. Inequality rose.
No alternative? Even Thatcher’s quip “the lady’s not for turning” should remind us there were other routes we could have traveled. Thatcher wasn’t just stubborn, she was specific. She dragged the nation down a defiantly neo-liberal path.
One of her first moves on coming into office was to liberalize capital markets—think NAFTA a decade earlier. Governed by the belief that free capital provided the answer to the economic difficulties experienced in the 1970s, Thatcher, like Reagan, tore down tariffs. Money roamed free and went where it was wont to go—offshore, where profits were bigger because wages were lower—and to tax havens, where big money could evade the taxes it would otherwise (like the rest of us) have to pay.
In a damning new documentary from Dutch national TV, former McKinsey-researcher-turned-journalist James S. Henry estimates that some 21 to 32 trillion dollars are parked in no-tax tax havens today—only a third of it from the developing world. British accountant and author Richard Murphy credits Thatcher with starting the trend.
TINA would call the practice delicately “tax minimization” or “neutralization.” Murphy calls it breaking the law. It’s not just “the way it is,” it’s the way liberalizing capital markets made it. Public coffers from London to the Potomac are trillions of dollars poorer as a result.
Globalize capital, “neutralize” taxation on the biggest money and where’s a government to go for cash? To little-guy-consumers via the sales tax. While much has been made of the changes Thatcher made to income tax—lowering the rates on the rich and raising rates below—the most effective way her government shifted tax burdens from top to bottom was by nearly doubling the value added or sales tax (from 8 to 15 percent). While big businesses could park money abroad in tax havens, everyday consumers were taxed at the checkout, every time we bought bread or lettuce or socks.
Was there really no alternative? Some squealed against the onslaught, but it was hard to hear what they had to say, because with the turn in the economy came a shift in the democracy and the media. In TINA’s world, dissenters were what Thatcher called the mineworkers: “the enemy within.” Unions may have needed reform; but working people needed a voice. Under Thatcher they lost the loudest one they had.
Union membership by Britons in the Thatcher years shrank from one in four to one in eight. Part of the decline was a consequence of all that competition with low-wage workers in non-union countries and foreign bosses living too far away to shame. Part of it was due to the brutal “brass knuckle” tactics of security forces in response to strikes. Union mineworkers were bashed on the head by mounted police on picket lines; their wives and children were stopped at police checkpoints when they tried to take their message South; their communities vilified in the news; their supporters were red-baited in debates. In TINA times, who was left to even speak about an alternative?
Union towns and poor and immigrant neighborhoods saw unprecedented levels of police. Financiers saw less. In the city of London, the “Big Bang” delivered “deregulation.” Clamping down on critics, Thatcher freed up finance. Again, it was a choice. A sort of Glass Steagall years ahead of Clinton's, the Thatcher administration’s decision to put growth first, regardless of the cost to people or the planet, meant doing away with boring, cautious banking, removing regulation, permitting integration, encouraging financialization and demonizing scrutiny by “red tape” bureaucrats. London, like Wall Street, loved all that and shared the love with politicians. Influence scandals, corruption and the crash economy grew. And where the money went, so went the media and the press.
Twenty years on, Thatcher’s celebrated as the one who turned around the UK economy. But turned it where? To a less united place, for sure. As BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders (my sister) put it in a report shortly before Thatcher’s demise:
Going to London these days, sometimes feels like going to a different planet… The ten richest boroughs of London are now worth in real estate terms the same as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales added together... A third of the population was born in another country.
Belgravia is exclusive and also mostly devoid of living and breathing people. The streets have become prestigious property parks for (non-tax-paying) foreign wealth.
Was there really no alternative? To name but one, Thatcher inherited a North Sea Oil boom that turned the UK into a net exporter of oil, generating trillions of dollars of revenue, more oil than Iraq, Kuwait and Nigeria, and more gas than Saudi Arabia by the end of the 1990s.
Norway used their oil profits to plan for the future and an aging population by building up a soveriegn wealth fund. Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez, used theirs to help the poor.
Britain, let’s just say, did neither of those things; the lion’s share went to pay unemployment benefits. Now, with no national investment bank and no plan, the oil has almost gone. The country’s importing once more.
Could there have been an alternative? What do you think? C'mon. At Thatcher’s funeral, let’s bury TINA, too.
Chileans living under the Pinochet dictatorship know Thatcherism all too well. Read Dave Zirin's take.
This article was first published at TheNation.com on January 4, 2012.
The Iron Lady just opened in London where, let’s hope, it generates some serious critique. The critical silence in the United States has been astounding, only made worse by the praise, not just for the film but for its subject, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played in the movie by Meryl Streep.
Newsweek’s holiday double issue slapped Streep as Thatcher on its cover, hailing “The New Thatcher Era.” The feature story in summary reads: “Margaret Thatcher was the infamous Iron Lady the Brits love to hate. This month’s bio starring Meryl Streep proves she was right all along.”
Streep’s already winning awards and accolades, and Oscars are probably on the way. People are saying the film’s no whitewash because it shows the former Prime Minister in her dotage, fighting dementia—three decades after she came to power. Director Phyllida Lloyd has described the treatment as operatic. Streep’s called it revealing. The two collaborated before on the musical Mamma Mia! The truth is, in Lloyd’s hands Thatcher’s iron isn’t just rusty, it’s melted down and depoliticized, made feminist enough to root for and ultimately sad enough for some to sniffle at. The Iron Lady is Thatcher—The ABBA Version. It’s the last thing we need, ever, and especially at this point.
Think of Thatcher and I think of hungry people. Irish hunger strikers, first of all, ten of whom starved to death for status as political prisoners on her watch. Thatcher insisted anti-government rebels in Afghanistan were “resistance fighters,” not terrorists, but it was a different story for the Irish. Indeed, in Thatcher’s time, there was to be no story, no effort to understand the reasons for the conflict in Northern Ireland; certainly there was to be no discussion or consideration in public of why anyone might pick up a gun, or place a bomb or starve themselves to death.
Long before the USA Patriot Act and the 9/11 demonization of asking “why,” Britons were starved of information about the so-called “troubles.” Under an ever-expanding Prevention of Terrorism Act, British journalists were forced to report to police any contact with any “known or suspected terrorist.” Irish parties to the conflict were banned from speaking on radio and TV, yet Thatcher’s government could tell the public any lie it liked. When British secret service snipers shot and killed three unarmed IRA members (two men and a woman, Mairead Farrell) on the island of Gibraltar in 1988, Thatcher’s government released an official story about crossfire and a gun fight and a bomb planted near an old people’s home. Video footage of an impressive little military robot supposedly defusing an incendiary device played on the evening news. It was all a crock. Lloyd’s film shows the IRA’s bombings and bloodshed but not the denial and the deadly government tactics, which likely delayed peace talks for a decade.
Think of Thatcher and I think of the hungry people who started showing up in villages in Yorkshire and Scotland and Wales where work was scarce because Thatcher’s experts decided nuclear power was a better energy source than unionized coalfields. Miners went on strike—for a year. Their wives and children collected soup-kitchen money from their churches and their neighbors and when they ran out, they went down to London where they tried to tell their story of helmeted horsemen charging the ranks of union strikers and police bashing men’s heads in. But Londoners didn’t believe them. They’d heard the miners were greedy and dangerous and a threat to their jobs. After all, “trade union power is the true cause of unemployment,” said Thatcher. The 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers gets a couple of seconds on screen in Lloyd’s film, but there’s no explanation, no follow-up and no consideration: does anyone wish now that they’d listened to the miners then?
“There is no such thing as society. Only individuals,” Thatcher also said. With more spending by successive Thatcher governments on police (so-called “law and order”) and less on just about everything else, “no society” became true soon enough. The Iron Lady shows Prime Minister Thatcher overruling her “wet” male colleagues over waging war with Argentina. A few hundred far-off Falkland Islanders were worth fighting for, she famously decided. A take-control feminist? The film ignores the families in Toxteth (inner-city Liverpool) and Brixton (a largely black neighborhood in London) whom Thatcher found it quite acceptable to sacrifice. Cabinet papers released by the National Archives just now under a thirty-year rule reveal Thatcher’s closest advisers told her that the “concentration of hopelessness” on Merseyside was “very largely self-inflicted” and not worth government repair.
Thatcher didn’t—actually—evacuate Liverpool in the aftermath of the 1981 inner-city riots. She led something more insidious. With her professionally crafted “grocer’s daughter” image, Thatcher gave class-conscious Britons permission to dismiss real human difficulties with a blow-dried bourgeois smirk: Unemployed? Get on yer bike! Said her administration. Got a problem? You’re the problem! In Maggie’s world, deprivation is your own damn fault.
Nor did Thatcher give people permission only to look away. Under Thatcher and egged on by her, those who could leave troubled towns and troubled people did, and so did government. We’d “mind the gap” (between the train and the platform) on the London Underground, but we came not to mind the gap between the rich and the rest, the north and the south; the possibilities people had if they needed things to be public and the possibilities they had if they could pay for the private stuff—the private healthcare, the private school, the private house. Today, in a new time of budget wars, The Iron Lady’s depiction of draconian cuts as feminist guts is chilling. What Thatcher called “harsh medicine” meant one thing for the poor and another for the very powerful then, and it still does. In both instances, there is hell to pay in social fabric.
I don’t remember if Lloyd’s Lady quotes the real lady’s most famous phrase: “There is No Alternative.” Certainly TINA deserves star billing. Thatcher’s quip about globalized capitalism has defined our epoch. People can debate the successes and failures of “the Thatcher era” all they like. One thing’s for certain: we don’t need a new one, because the old one’s still here. The consequences of the politicies Thatcher pioneered and made respectable—deregulation, privatization and globalization—can be measured in public costs and private profits on both sides of the Atlantic. More damning, even, is the enduring cultural habit of denial (looking away) and the political practice of silence—shutting the problem people up.
Grow the gap between government and the governed and you get what we have: a burnt-out world driven by the super-super-rich where some are stealing others blind and billions are alienated or angry, sure that government has nothing to offer but a bash on the head.
Lloyd’s soft-pop version deals with none of this. Ironically, the “deeds matter” Thatcher herself would probably be the first to dislike this shrunken, personal-over-political fantasy of her inner life. Lucky for us, we don’t need to worry about her. We need to worry about us. We are not demented. There are alternatives. There always have been. What we need (among other things) are more movies about the women—and maybe a few of the men—bringing those to life.
Margaret Thatcher inspired a generation of musicians. Read Peter Rothberg's take.
A family celebrates as the Iowa Supreme Court rules in favor of legalizing gay marriage, April 3, 2009. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Christopher Gannon)
It’s inevitable. I’m thinking about marriage.
Not only because of what’s been happening down in Washington, where the Supreme Court’s been hearing arguments on two marriage related cases. I’m thinking about marriage from up closer.
A month ago, a couple close to my partner and me, asked us to serve as witnesses to their marriage down at City Hall in Manhattan. The news came as a surprise. By any possible definition, our friends are radical lesbian feminists, public critics of marriage. We all are. Our two long-term relationships add up to almost fifty years of partnering with no marriage in sight, until now. With just a few hours to think and many questions unasked, we headed down to City Hall with love on our minds, a taxi cab full of contradictions.
Not sure what else to do, I brought a bucket of roses.
Two hours later, there we were at the Manhattan marriage bureau, waiting for the cheeriest public worker I’ve ever seen, James Mitchell, to conduct the ceremony,
Waiting outside the chapel, we took lots of pictures and handed out roses. Our friends, it turns out, thought the red and white buds were just too cheesy to hold, so mostly we gave them away, to the clerks, the cops, the guards, the clean up crews, to the other couples. By the time Clerk Mitchell showed up to officiate, he had a rose of his own, as did just about every one else walking around the marriage bureau.
Mitchell began: “Do you take… to be your spouse?”
Even as my mind chewed over my usual critique, my eyes teared up. Mind is thinking: “marriage is a patriarchal plot, a way to replicate the capitalist status quo, an institution deeply rooted in creepy conservative values and an obsession with control and property…” But my eyes are becoming teary.
Two minutes later, it was over. Our friends “took” one another. They said “I do.” We handed over the rings. They kissed. We witnessed. We all stood there, happy, bemused and misty. Ever since, I’ve been thinking, what is it exactly that’s so moving about a marriage?
Just for the record, I’m for equality of marriage and everything else. Rights are rights and equal protection is in the Constitution, right there in the Fourteenth Amendment. I’m for everyone having free and equal choices and chances and taxes and health benefits, regardless of marital status.
So I’m for marriage equality and I also still think marriage is a patriarchal plot, a way to replicate the capitalist status quo, deeply rooted in creepy conservative values and an obsession with control and property…
It doesn’t help that I’ve been reading about early socialism. At City Hall, I had Robert Owen’s words running through my mind. An early critic of capitalism dating back to the start of the 1800s, Owen added marriage to religion and private property in his trinity of “monstrous evils” driving our competitive capitalist society. After marriage he said,
With these persons it is my house, my wife, my estate, my children, my husband, my property. No arrangement could be better calculated to produce division and disunion in society.*
Owen believed in cooperation over competition and created experimental communities here and in the UK. As one of his followers wrote, the problem with capitalism is that “the present system of competition is founded upon the predominance of the selfish principles of our nature; each is left to take care of himself and if he cannot do that then the world has no place for him.”
Sound familiar? Owen was prescient about many things. He had a word or two to say about women too: in marriage, suffice to say, he thought they were “property in bondage.”
Fast forward, and my friends are hardly property in bondage to one another. (Although if they’re into that sort of thing, that’s their business.) Many things have changed. Two hundred years on, Owen’s communities are long gone; capitalism has yet to croak and marriage is all the rage among men and men and women and women and all the other variations. Who knows what Owen would make of it all?
I’m still trying to figure out what, to a critic of marriage, makes the ceremony itself tear-worthy. Part of it was all the love at City Hall: our dear friends’ love for each other, our love for them, and ours for each other, and all the other couples waiting to wed: old, young, gay straight, immigrant, affluent and the opposite. The place was brimming with emotion.
But a handful of words were what turned on my tears. In the short civil ceremony they went something like this: “Do you… take… to be your lawfully wedded spouse, to love, honor, comfort and cherish, from this day forward for as long as you both shall live?”
It seems to me it’s the pledging that’s powerful. Pledging faith to someone else. That being the case, maybe selfish isn’t the only possible principle of our human nature.
Thinking about it now, I can hear Robert Owen’s ghost: if we care so much about loving and honoring and comforting and cherishing someone else, what if, as a society, we took that oath to one another?
“I take you neighbor, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live…?”
It sure felt good to stand there with our friends. And just as good to hand out those roses—to everybody.
As the Supreme Court takes up marriage equality for the first time, read Nan Hunter's coverage.
*Robert Owen, Lectures on the Marriages of the Priesthood in the Old Immoral World, quoted in Barbara Taylor’s “Eve and The New Jerusalem, Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, ” Virago Press, 1983, London.