Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
The National Fair Housing Alliance filed a complaint on April 10 with the US Department of Housing against San Francisco–based Wells Fargo, accusing the nation’s largest mortgage lender of failing to maintain and market foreclosed properties in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The federal Fair Housing Act requires banks, investors, servicers and other parties to maintain and market homes without regard to race or ethnicity. Wells Fargo disputes the claim, saying in a statement that it conducts all lending practices in a fair and consistent manner without regard to race. The bank services one out of every six home loans in the United States.
But this is far from the first time that Wells Fargo has been accused of racism. Back in 2008, the city of Baltimore filed a federal suit, charging that Wells Fargo was unfairly targetting African-Americans for subprime loans. Several whistleblowers came forth, one of whom described a workplace in which blacks were referred as “mud people” and subprime lending as “ghetto loans.” Beth Jacobson, a former loan officer at Wells Fargo, came on GRITtv at the time to explain how she’d been encouraged to push customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages.
No regard to race at Wells Fargo? You tell me.
Joining us back in studio for this discussion in 2009 were Sarah Ludwig, co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project; Kai Wright, who wrote about the “Subprime Swindle” for The Nation magazine; Leah Fried, organizer with the United Electrical Union; and Beth Jacobson, who after leaving Wells Fargo was offering advice to homeowners facing foreclosure through her agency, Paralegal Services and Consulting.
It may not be the revolution’s dawn, but it’s certainly a glint in the darkness. On Monday, this country’s largest industrial labor union teamed up with the world’s largest worker-cooperative to present a plan that would put people to work in labor-driven enterprises that build worker power and communities, too.
Titled “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model,” the organizational proposal released at a press conference on March 26 in Pittsburgh, draws on the fifty-five year experience of the Basque-based Mondragon worker cooperatives. To quote the document:
“In contrast to a Machiavellian economic system in which the ends justify any means, the union co-op model embraces the idea that both the ends and means are equally important, meaning that treating workers well and with dignity and sustaining communities are just as important as business growth and profitability.”
It might not sound like big news to members of their local food coop but it’s revolutionary stuff in the context of industrial production. The United Steelworkers represents some 1.2 million members; the average steel plant requires millions of dollars of investment, and there’s history here when it comes to worker ownership—some of it painful.
Thirty-five years ago, when local steelworkers and a statewide religious coalition put forward a plan to transfer the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill to worker and community control, the USW’s attitude was very different. As recounted by Gar Alperovitz in his (recently updated) "America Beyond Capitalism:"
“In the late 1970s the union saw worker-ownership as a threat to organizing, and it opposed efforts by local steelworkers to explore employee-owned institution-building in cities like Youngstown.”
This Monday, Leo Gerard, forward-thinking president of a very new kind of international USW, had this to say:
“To survive the boom and bust, bubble-driven economic cycles fueled by Wall Street, we must look for new ways to create and sustain good jobs on Main Street…. Worker-ownership can provide the opportunity to figure out collective alternatives to layoffs, bankruptcies, and closings.”
“The union’s gone through a huge transition,” Alperovitz told me when I reached him at his office shortly after the press conference. “This is a real declaration of a new direction for labor.”
It’s been a few years since the USW first became curious about the Mondragon cooperatives after they had a good experience working with GAMESA, a co-op friendly Spanish wind turbine outfit that opened up three plants in Pennsylvania. In 2009, with their Spanish colleagues' help, Gerard sent a delegation to the Basque region of Spain to investigate Mondragon, now a $24 billion global operation. Since then, the USW has worked slowly with Mondragon and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) a university based coop-outreach center founded by one of the organizers of the Youngstown initiative, to fine tune the US version presented Monday.
For the details of the proposal, check out the model for yourself. The full text of the union co-op model is available at www.usw.coop or www.union.coop. The template is intended to be a living document, write the authors, “subject to continuous revision and improvement based on user feedback and applied experiences.”
The key elements of the plan are jobs trump profit margins; every worker has one vote, and worker–owners don't just "own," they are expected to participate in management. Also, social transformation: “A key part of the co-op’s mission is to support and invest in their communities by creating jobs, funding development projects, supporting education, and providing opportunity."
However the details are applied, the point is to get more experiments up and running. “The more we can do, the better,” says Alperovitz. “We'll learn and along the way legitimate the idea.”
There are political implications, says Carl Davidson, national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and a Pittsburgh local, who has studied Mondragon and attended the press conference Monday. “It’s a radical structural reform that produces not just a better contract but alters relationships of power.”
In an era of high unemployment, low levels of union membership and attacks from all sides on the political power of labor, US workers have less ability than ever to “check” corporate power through mass mobilization and traditional labor tactics. The worker-ownership model presents another way to exercise power. If workers can raise sufficient investment capital and find stable markets they can do better than “check” corporate power, they can (to use Alperovitz’s word) “displace” corporations.
At the very least, the USW/Mondragon move puts a new idea on the table. Will it change the equation the next time the federal government is bailing out an auto company, for example? What if, instead of pumping public money into the same-old private enterprise, public money powered up a new worker-owned operation, run by new rules for different outcomes? (Labor and community welfare, say, instead of profits to be skimmed off by top-level shareholders?)
The opening up of that question to serious public dialogue is a major step, but Monday’s announcement introduced more than a concept. The organizers also introduced workers involved in a new industrial laundry they’re calling the Pittsburgh “Clean and Green Laundry Cooperative” modeled in part on similar projects in Cleveland. Plans are afoot for union co-ops in Cincinnati, too. The Pittsburgh laundry’s slated to open in the beginning of June.
Plans are afoot for a grand reawakening at Occupy Wall Street and with that comes a return to the main project. While confrontations with police have grabbed the media’s eye (there was another big police bust-up this weekend), for many, the encampments have always been as much about possibility as they are about protest.
In that spirit, and in the sprit of the conversation begun here last month about a possible worker co-op at the old Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, I’m posting the transcript of an interview I conducted last November with members of what was then a loosely defined group at Occupy Wall St who were studying “solidarity economics.”
In part two of this interview, you’ll hear from Mike Johnson of Solidarity NYC, who’s been deeply involved in cooperative live and work projects in the city since the 1970s. Part one features Jen Abrams and Caroline Woolard, co-founders of OurGoods.org, in a conversation about value, markets and surviving the money economy.
I want to hear from you. Post your comments and tales of alternative models you have been part of in the comments section below and keep your e-mails coming.
At a time when so many are so clear that the current system is not working—what might? Is it already happening? There’s more information about OurGoods.org at their website and you don’t have to be officially ordained as an “artist” to join it.
Let’s start with some introductions:
I’m Jen Abrams, I’m a choreographer and a co-founder of OurGoods .org. We are a barter network for creative people…
Which means what, exactly?
Caroline Woolard: Our Goods is a barter network for creative people that connects artists and designers and craftspeople and activists with each other so they can trade skills and spaces to get independent projects done.
What gave rise to OurGoods?
CW: We are all artists and designers as cofounders, and we’ve experienced forever that there’s’ no clear market value for what we do. Still, we want to continue to do it. We’re motivated by something other than profit. What we do feels valuable to us as a community, so we’ve always gotten things done by trading with other people whose projects we value. That reciprocal exchange feels satisfying; it also helps to get the project done, and we thought—why not make a larger network so more of us can connect across disciplines?
JA: Put another way, the market value (within the capitalist valuation system) for what we do is very low, but the market value for what we do within our circles, within the circles of people who appreciate art, is very different…
CW: it’s an alternative market.
How do you demonstrate value?
JA: In my case, people come see the work and most times they’ll have a lot to say afterwards, about their experience. They’ll have had thoughts, their own sense of their humanity, their connection to others may have changed; their perceptions may have been shifted in a particular way. All those are innate goods in the human experience, yet they are externalities in the capitalist market system. They are things that must happen for us to be fully human, but there isn’t a money market for these experiences. So [our question was] how can we create other kinds of valuation systems that support those things happening?
But many people would say there is a functioning market system for art. Some painters, designers and dance companies are super-successful in the money market system.
JA: I’m not saying there is no way to value any art in market system. I’m saying that the majority of what gets done in the creative sphere does not fit well within the capitalist system.
CW: Another way of looking at it is capitalism is founded on a model of scarcity, and creative work happens in abundance. Everyone is creative. When there is a scarce amount of dollars out there, there will never be enough money for everyone, so in order to meet our needs as creative people and as humans, if you work in a mutual aid model, where everyone helps one another, then the question of value is more about how to support one another than self-interested accumulation.
How does OurGoods.org work, exactly. Say I arrive on your site, then what?
CW: You log in, make a profile, and you list your needs and what you have, and what sort of projects you’re involved in. Then, people can search for what they need and find people who can fill those needs, as well as what projects they might have that you could help with. When two people have found a potentially good match, they have a conversation, and decide between them how to rate the exchange of labor.
JA: There’s so much value that comes from that conversation. First of all, the fact that we’re asking people to have a conversation about value is disruptive and valuable. You can tell its disruptive because people are confused by it. They don’t instinctively know how to have that conversation. It’s a skill we don’t have but one we need to nurture.
There are all sorts of possible metrics of exchange. One metric is hour per hour: right now I’m receiving an hour of yoga lessons in exchange for an hour of business plan consulting.… Other exchanges are less obvious: an object for a skill, say, or exchanges that involve people with more or less experience. Sometimes it makes sense to use money value—how much am I paid for what I do/how much are you paid—but without the money.
CW: What’s important is there is no answer. There’s no clear way to value people’s labor. It’s subjective and that’s the main thing. We step back and say as long as the framework is mutual respect, then the conversation can come out any way. There’s no right way in particular.
What constitutes a successful outcome. Want to share an OurGoods success story?
JA: In the case of an artist I admire, I may just want to help him—and that’s my end of the exchange. I get the experience. He gets the help. We’re asking people to engage with each other and with uncertainty and see how it changes their lives.
The fact that we’re having these conversations at all is a successful outcome. A lot of projects are getting done, some shifts are happening in people’s creative process, and then there are people who’ve gotten very practical things exchanged: video shooting in exchange for a website for a documentary maker, etc.
Gaia [an online think tank soliciting ‘third world” ideas for “first world” development] needed translators, but through the barter process, he ended up with collaborators who helped him spread his project to new countries.
It doesn’t have to be transactional, it can blur towards collaboration, gift giving or sharing. The bottom line is mutual aid, not self-interest.
JA: we’re not trying to say that people don’t have self interest. They do, but there are other motivations too, and we see them in action all the time, every day. This isn’t some story we’re making up in our minds or wishing to be true—we see it. When you offer a tool for people to offer assistance and surface those other motivations… Wikipedia is one obvious example, but ours is a real [not virtual] interaction.
Has OurGoods changed you?
JA: I’ve changed everything. My life had been all about navigating scarcity.
But how do you survive, make a living, pay your bills?
JA: How do I survive is very different from how do I get money.
I survive because I’m part of WOW [a thirty-year-old wonen’s theater collective in the East Village in New York]. If I weren’t in community I would kill myself.
How do I get money? [Before OurGoods] I was working at small non-profits as an administrator. The groups I worked for operated on a shoestring, with never enough money to do what they needed to do, and I was deeply entrenched in poverty. Health insurance was eating up 20–25 percent of my income. Now I have it through my partner who works for Time Warner/AOL. How do I pay bills now? I’ve reduced my expenses through exchange, a grant supports me at OurGoods.org and my partner has a middle class job.
But you said everything had changed. The material conditions of your life don’t seem to have changed much.
JA: My life has changed because if I want something I don’t have the money to buy, I have a way of getting it without money. But it’s really as an artist that the change is most profound. I’ve completely changed the way I work.
I used to make only the work that would fit within the very limited resources available. I couldn’t make work bigger than space that WOW provided. I couldn’t make work that called for skills that people at WOW weren’t able to offer. I could only work when WOW was open.
Our Goods has busted all that open. My network is now ten times larger and includes people from very different backgrounds with very different perspectives and very different skills, and instead of being a sole creator I’m involved in all these huge collaborative pieces. My mindset has completely changed.
I’m now very exploratory because I’m not worrying about what kind of work I can make given the constraints that I have. (And my constraints at WOW were much less than what most artists are dealing with: they’re mostly dealing what can I make in my living room. What can I do with the $50 I have left over from my day job at the end of the week?)
The project I’m making now is massive in scale, with at least five other generative artists working on it—and that’s just not a way that I could work before.
How long has OurGoods been around and was there a particular trigger for its beginning?
CW: The economic crisis led to a personal crisis…
JA: I’d been working on being presented at a particular venue for five years—and in 2008 they were finally interested in presenting me. And then the bottom fell out of market and the venue backed off my project. I thought, damn, I’m back to self-producing and everyone is back to self-producing—how is this going to work?
How old are you?
CW: I’m 27.
JA: I’m 40.
CW: For years, I’d done everything I could to stay out of the money economy because I find it makes me really depressed to work a job that doesn’t value my whole self. So I’ve done everything I can to reduce my needs, reduce my expenses, cut my rent.
I’ve done all sorts of things to not have rent be my main expense. I lived in backyard sheds that I retrofitted in Greeepoint.… Then I started living with a bunch of artists and built out a huge studio space. In 2008 we signed a five-year lease and made a commitment to each other, the place, New York, and just at that moment, I realized we could do things on a scale together that were impossible for me alone in a little shack trying to do all these small things. In the middle of the economic crash, we can buy our food in bulk and it’s really inexpensive.
For money, I was working at Cooper Union as a studio technician in the night shift. It gave me some benefits and paid pretty well, but slowly OurGoods has been able to pay me more out of grants, and most importantly— everything through the exchange is lower, and rent is cheaper because of the collective living space.
I’m now working for OurGoods more or less full time and I’m teaching a class on barter at the New School—and they pay me for it. [Jen points out that nonetheless, Caroline doesn’t have health insurance.] That’s right, but still, it’s a very strange turn-around.
CW: Ever since running a studio space with a group and trying to be transparent and explain why some people pay more rent than others based on how much labor they put in to it, I’ve been wracking my brain about the ethics of payment and what could be fair, given our current reality. In the studio and at OurGoods, the question became: How do we figure out what’s fair?
I was trying to learn about alternative systems that exists—and that led me to solidarity NYC and I started getting really excited about the idea that there are lots of people who meet their needs and have livelihoods that are completely outside of the economic system, or have the economic money mapped onto them, but the abundance of the economy they exist in is huge in contrast to that system and not clearly related to it. That led me to Solidarity NYC and a whole circle of people who value each other not the individual scarcity/accumulation thing.
In part two: Meet Mike Johnson, SolidarityNYC and find out what Occupy has to do with any of this.
In a March 1 op-ed in the Washington Post Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs made his pitch to be the next president of the World Bank promising to “lead the bank into a new era of problem-solving.” John Cavanaugh and Robin Broad have laid out a raft of righteous concerns about Sachs’s candidacy. The “solutions” Sachs proposes to poverty, they point out, can be summed up in the not very-new words: “aid” and “trade.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s Sachs’s other favorite problem solver: population control. That’s taking us to a new era, alright: right back to the nineteenth century of Thomas Malthus.
Sachs presented five Reith lectures titled “Bursting at the Seams” in 2007 in which he hit on several of his proposed solutions, among them trade, aid, new technologies and "stabilizing population." “The evidence is overwhelming that it's possible and necessary to have a rapid demographic transition on a voluntary basis to greatly reduce fertility rates in poor countries." He reiterated that point more forcefully in an op-ed for CNN last October. “How can we enjoy sustainable development on a very crowded planet?” He asked.
Given the options, Sachs's same-old pro-privatization development policies will be greeted as enlightened, none so more than his position on “reducing fertility.” He’s not promoting mandatory sterilization, after all, and he’s in tune with a growing crowd that’s recycling old population myths for the new save-the-planet context. But while growing population in poor countries certainly has its environmental impacts, globally, high level consumption lifestyles in rich countries are doing much more damage. The average consumer worldwide eats up 22kg of resources each day. The average African consumes less than half that while the average American consumers almost ten times the global standard. Bill McKibben's called first world consumerism not third world population growth enemy number one. The problem is denial and Jeff Sachs' approach won't help.
At the Reith lectures, Sachs made clear that he won't be proposing problem solving that affects his own ilk’s consumption habits. Quizzed about Western greed, he shot back: “I do not believe that the solution to this problem is a massive cutback of our consumption levels or our living standards. “ So it’s back to poor women and their kids.
Around the world, high-level women leaders including former presidents Michelle Bachelet (of Chile) and Mary Robinson (of Ireland) have launched an initiative to focus global attention on women’s expertise and leadership as regards Climate Change and development. Sachs’s focus on women as the “problem” takes us in exactly the opposite direction.
The sad thing is, thousands of genuine development experts were in town the week that Jeff Sachs’s Washington Post piece appeared. As he was basking in the media glow, they were enjoying no money media attention at all at the United Nations’ fifty-sixth Commission on the Status of Women.
MADRE convened a panel of sister organizations—represented by women whom executive director Yifat Susskind introduced as the “world’s foremost rural development experts.” Decide for yourself.
I had a chance to talk with Fatima Ahmed, director of Zenab for Women and Development in Sudan and Rose Cunningham, director of Wangki Tangni, an indigenous women’s group in Nicaragua. (I really, really encourage you to watch this video.)
Asked about the challenges they face, Ahmed and Cunningham talked about climate change, but they talked much more about soil erosion and deforestation driven by rapacious corporations. Top of their list of concerns were war, discrimination and the destruction of indigenous knowledge. Population comes up only in discussion of their communities’ tendency to help and—shock— share with those in trouble. Afterall, development isn’t only about profits and resources, said Cunningham. “It’s also about people and animals.
Putting people first? Now that would really be a new era. How about a woman from the global South for World Bank president?
This post was been amended, 3/18/2012, with sincere apologies to Radhika Balakrishnan. The initial version drew way too heavily on a separate text by her. For more of Balakrishnan''s excellent work see Economic Policy and Human Rights: Holding Governments to Account
"Workers shouldn’t 'strike and go out and starve, but strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.'” So believed Lucy Gonzales Parsons, who died seventy years ago this week. In light of all the meanings the word “occupy” has come to gather in these times, William Loren Katz’s essay about Parsons seems particularly relevant. I post his essay here for International Working Women’s Day, with thanks.
On March 7, 1942, fire engulfed the simple home of 89-year-old Lucy Gonzales Parsons on Chicago’s North Troy Street, and ended a life dedicated to liberating working women and men of the world from capitalism and racial oppression. A dynamic, militant, self-educated public speaker and writer, she became the first American woman of color to carry her crusade for socialism across the country and overseas. Lucy Gonzales started life in Texas. She was of Mexican American, African-American and Native American descent and born into slavery. The path she chose after emancipation led to conflict with the Ku Klux Klan, hard work, painful personal losses and many nights in jail. In Albert Parsons, a white man whose Waco Spectator fought the Klan and demanded social and political equality for African-Americans, she found a handsome, committed soul mate. The white supremacy forces in Texas considered the couple dangerous and their marriage illegal, and soon drove them from the state.
Lucy E. Parsons, arrested for rioting during an unemployment protest in 1915 at Hull House in Chicago, Illinois. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Lucy and Albert reached Chicago, where they began a family and threw themselves into two new militant movements, one to build strong industrial unions and the other to agitate for socialism. Lucy concentrated on organizing working women and Albert became a famous radical organizer and speaker, one of the few important union leaders in Chicago who was not an immigrant.
In 1886, the couple and their two children stepped onto Michigan Avenue to lead 80,000 working people in the world’s first May Day parade and a demand for the eight-hour day. A new international holiday was born as more than 100,000 also marched in other US cities. By then, Chicago’s wealthy industrial and banking elite had targeted Albert and other radical figures for elimination—to decapitate the growing union movement. A protest rally called by Albert a few days after May Day became known as the Haymarket Riot when seven Chicago policemen died in a bomb blast. No evidence has ever been found pointing to those who made or detonated the bomb, but Parsons and seven immigrant union leaders were arrested. As the corporate media whipped up patriotic and law-and-order fervor, a rigged legal system rushed the eight to convictions and death sentences.
When Lucy led the campaign to win a new trial, one Chicago official called her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” When Albert and three other comrades were executed, and four others were sentenced to prison, the movement for industrial unions and the eight-hour day was beheaded. Lucy, far from discouraged, accelerated her actions. Though she had lost Albert—and two years later lost her young daughter to illness—Lucy continued her crusade against capitalism and war, and to exonerate “the Haymarket Martyrs.” She led poor women into rich neighborhoods “to confront the rich on their doorsteps,” challenged politicians at public meetings, marched on picket lines and continued to address and write political tracts for workers’ groups far beyond Chicago.
Though Lucy had justified direct action against those who used violence against workers, in 1905 she suggested a very different strategy. She was one of only two women delegates (the other was Mother Jones) among the 200 men at the founding convention of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the only woman to speak. First she advocated a measure close to her heart when she called women “the slaves of slaves” and urged IWW delegates to fight for equality and assess underpaid women lower union fees.
In a longer speech, she called for the use of nonviolence that would have broad meaning for the world’s protest movements. She told delegates workers shouldn’t “strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.” A year later Mahatma Gandhi, speaking to fellow Indians at the Johannesburg Empire Theater, advocated nonviolence to fight colonialism, but he was still twenty-five years away from leading fellow Indians in nonviolent marches against India’s British rulers. Eventually Lucy Parsons’s principle traveled to the US sit-down strikers of the 1930s, Dr. King and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the antiwar movements that followed and finally to today’s Arab Spring and the Occupy movements.
Lucy was an unrelenting agitator, leading picket lines and speaking to workers’ audiences in the United States, and then before trade union meetings in England. In February 1941, poor and living on a pension for the blind, the Farm Equipment Workers Union asked Lucy Parsons to give an inspirational speech to its workers, and a few months later she rode as the guest of honor on its May Day parade float. Federal and local lawmen arrived at the gutted Parsons home to make sure her legacy died with her. They poked through the wreckage, confiscated her vast library and personal writings, and never returned them.
Lucy Parsons’s determined effort to elevate and inspire the oppressed to take command remained alive among those who knew, heard and loved her. But few today are aware of her insights, courage and tenacity. Despite her fertile mind, writing and oratorical skills and striking beauty, Lucy Parsons has not found a place in school texts, social studies curricula, or Hollywood movies. Yet she has earned a prominent place in the long fight for a better life for working people, for women, for people of color, for her country and for her world.
William Loren Katz adapted this essay from his updated and expanded edition of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage (Atheneum, 2012). Website: williamlkatz.com. This essay also appears at the Zinn Education Project.
“Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” That’s not me. That’s UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking, declaring 2012 the Year of the Co-Op!
That’s right—with the theme of “Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World,” the UN is seeking to to encourage the growth and establishment of cooperatives all over the world. A billion people are members of co-ops around the world. Over 100 million jobs are in cooperatives. The top 300 have combined sales in excess of $1 trillion. That’s according to this handy video created by the ILO.
The United Nations is urging all states and stakeholders “to take advantage of the IYC to promote cooperatives and raise awareness of their contribution to social and economic development and promote the formation and growth of cooperatives.”
Have a sense that the United States might be lagging? Send them a reminder. The Proclamation of 2012 as International Year of Cooperatives is available in all six official UN languages.
Three years ago, a worker occupation in Chicago saved a factory and sent up a flare of resistance. Three years on, workers at the same factory are illuminating not only how workers might resist layoffs but also what they might do next.
“Last time it took six days. This time it took about eleven hours.” That’s union representative Leah Fried describing winning another reprieve last week for the factory formerly known as Republic Windows and Doors.
In December 2008, days after receiving a $25 billion federal bailout, Bank of America cut off Republic’s credit, leading management to fire all 250 workers without pay or notice. With layoffs approaching 500,000 a month around the country, Republic’s workers and their union, the militant United Electrical Workers, voted to resist. They occupied the plant and stayed, winning the hearts of downcast Americans everywhere and inspiring even an incoming US president. Bank of America backed down, giving the factory time to find a new buyer, which it did, a company called Serious Energy.
Last Thursday morning, workers heard from Serious Energy that once again, the plant was to close at once with no notice and no severance. This time mobilization was speedy. As soon as word went out, allies started arriving. Former Republic employees, Occupy Chicago, ARISE, the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, Jobs with Justice and Stand Up Chicago showed up primed with pizzas and tents and created a supportive cordon as workers negotiated with police. No need to wait for media to catch on; a live stream fed video to the world from the start. As workers inside prepared to bed down for the night, Serious Energy backed down, announcing a ninety-day stay.
“It’s come full circle.” Says Fried. It’s not just that, three years after the occupation at Republic, “Occupy” has acquired a Twitter handle and a whole new frame of reference. “It’s that, in the last few years, there’s been a real shift in our movements towards direct-action tactics,” says Fried.
Now workers are back at work and they and the company have ninety days to find a solution that doesn’t bring them back, three years hence, to this same place. That picture too, is looking different.
In early 2009, Fried and Republic worker Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110, set out on a national speaking tour. I had a chance to speak with them on GRITtv, in the studio with Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. Looking back at that segment now, I’m reminded that at that time, workers were occupying plants in Ireland, England and France. Militant tactics were in evidence all across Europe, as they had been for years already in the global South. Lewis and Klein’s film, The Take, documents the Argentinean response to factory closures—not just occupations but, in some cases, worker-ownership of the plants.
US workers needed stronger organizations, the GRITtv panel agreed, also social movements capable of supporting worker struggles. (So far so good. We have more of both than we did in 2008.) They needed something else too: ways for workers to become owner-operators of their own plants.
Today the workers in Chicago are pursuing exactly that. As it happens, later the same day that they appeared on GRITtv, Klein and Lewis introduced Fried and Robles to The Working World, which helps start and maintain worker-cooperatives. They started talking, and the talks have never stopped, reports Fried. Now they’re talking with The Working World about potentially setting up a fund for donations such that workers could make a bid on the struggling windows and doors plant, and run it as a worker co-op.
They are on an exciting track. If we are going to create an economy of justice, we need not just new popular pressure and new politicians; we need new models of production, distribution, marketing and ownership. In 2009, weatherization money in the Democrats’ stimulus package helped Serious Energy keep Republic afloat. That was stimulus done right. But it wasn’t enough. Now business isn’t booming and Serious wants out. If the plant were operated without fat CEO salaries and with very differently invested shareholders, would the decisions now being made, be different?
Participants in the worker-owned co-op movement believe so. From the venerable Park Slope Food Coop to Madison’s Union Cab, thousands of cooperatives exist in the United States. They're relatively apolitical as yet. As Cheyenna Weber, a co-op activist with the New Economy working group at Occupy Wall Street, puts it:
“This kind of militancy is pretty outside the experience of the average American white worker, but that doesn't seem to be the case with workers with roots in the global South. (That's true here in NYC, too, where many of the Latina worker co-ops have experience in cooperative cultures prior to forming.)”
One small factory in Chicago could be ground zero not once but twice for a power shift. In 2008, the factory was saved by the workers’ own defiance, their organization and their ability to tell an effective story about bailout injustice at just the right political moment. President Obama had been elected but not yet inaugurated. Voters still loomed larger on his— and the nation’s—landscape than the bankers and bullies of the establishment. As a candidate, Barack Obama trod the picket line with striking hotel workers. President-elect Obama spoke out in support of Republic, but as Naomi Klein pointed out on GRITtv back then, “the Republic workers won without help from any president.”
In the run-up to another election, the same workers are summoning our attention. They’re prompting us this time to consider not just rebellion but rebuilding. If people want to sign up for action alerts they can do so at the UE union website. If they want to discuss worker cooperatives—let’s do it right here in this space. Stay tuned for news of that worker fund. The little factory that fought back just might be the factory that leaps forward. What’s happening where you are? Tell us. Laura@GRITtv.org. Let's talk about it.
The new “minority” channels from Comcast are well and good, but where are the women’s channels? This week’s news from Comcast reveals the saggy soft underbelly of our movements, the sad state of civil rights law and the weakness of our women’s organizations. Score one for Sean Combs but not much for the public interest.
The announcement came on Tuesday. Cable giant Comcast is to launch four new minority-owned channels; one channel each for rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, retired NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez. A fourth channel will go to toddlers. (BabyFirst Americas, owned and operated by Hispanic-Americans, will include brightly colored content for children under age 3.)
The new channels are the direct result of a private deal cut with civil rights organizations in exchange for those groups’ support of Comcast’s takeover of majority control over NBC Universal from General Electric last year.
The latest and most insidious of a string of same-sort media marriages, the Comcast/NBC merger had activists particularly riled up because it married a content producer (NBC) with a content distributor (Comcast), threatening not just the public interest but other media businesses’ ability to compete. The New York Observer estimated that the new media dynasty would control almost a quarter of all cable subscribers in the country and 12 percent of all television content.
More chilling for people concerned about the public interest is the track record after decades of media mergers like this. As far as diversity is concerned, media consolidation breeds contempt. Corie Wright, a lawyer with Free Press, put it to me this way: “Media consolidation is the number-one obstacle to women and minority ownership, as well as diverse viewpoints in the media.”
Its no accident Wright links gender and race. When they were handing out the first broadcast licenses, in the 1930s for example, neither women nor minorities were in that receiving line. As with many federal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission has been charged with righting that imbalance. Deep in the bowels of its bureaucracy is a commitment to ensuring diversity, including minority and female ownership of broadcast stations. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated the Commission distribute “licenses among a wide variety of applicants, including small businesses, rural telephone companies, and businesses owned by members of minority groups and women.”
It hasn’t happened. To the contrary, as the FCC has relaxed its ownership regulations, ownership by women and people of color has shrunk. In February 2010, Congressman Maurice Hinchey testified against the Comcast merger, arguing that media consolidation over the past twenty years had diminished independent and diverse ownership:
“Today, five companies own the broadcast networks, 90 percent of the top 50 cable networks, produce three-quarters of all prime time programming, and control 70 percent of the prime time television market share. These same companies own the nation’s most popular newspapers and networks also own over 85 percent of the top 20 Internet news sites. There has also been a severe decline in the number of minority-owned broadcast stations. In 2007, minorities owned just 3.2 percent of the U.S. television stations and 7 percent of the nation’s full power radio stations, despite making up more than 34 percent of the population.”
According to a 2007 Free Press Study, women, who comprise 51 percent of the US population, own a total of only sixty-seven stations, or 4.97 percent.
So why did civil rights groups support a big bad leap in the wrong direction? As I mentioned, they cut a deal. Or rather, some of them did. Reported saltily by Eric Deggens at the Tampa Bay Times, the NAACP, the National Urban League and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network supported the Comcast/NBC Universal merger in return for corporate “diversity-boosting” measures, among them, eight new independently owned and operated networks offering substantial participation by minorities, a $20 million venture capital fund for minority entrepreneurs in digital media, the creation of Diversity Advisory Councils and the increase of minority participation in news and public affairs programming.
Just in case you were wondering, Al Sharpton’s gig on MSNBC as host of his own nightly show has absolutely nothing to do with this. Nothing. Not a thing. (Neither did the award the National Action Network gave to Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, shortly before he was hired.)
Did women’s groups even try for such a deal? As far as I can uncover, they did not. Carol Jenkins, former director of the Women’s Media Center, doubts there was any comparable negotiation between Comcast and the heads of women’s groups. The current director of the Center, Julie Burton, knows of none. Gloria Steinem doesn’t know about it. Sadly it’s simply the case that, Planned Parenthood aside, there’s no women’s organization with the heft of the NAACP, and none that makes media power through ownership its issue. (There are plenty that deal with sexism, bigotry and lack of representation—but without power, you’re left with pleading.)
That’s why we need government. Oh I forgot. Affirmative Action is unconstitutional. (Even if the Fourteenth Amendment does mention a little something about “equal protection.”) If it wasn’t on the rocks already, the Supreme Court may be about to drive a stake through it.
What we’re left with is a win courtesy of corporate concession. To their credit, winning concessions from those in power is part of what civil rights groups are supposed to do. In a time of tight credit, there will be new venture capital money for minority media entrepreneurs and for a while there will be jobs at those new channels, including jobs for “minorities.” That’s all good. On the other hand, Coombs is already a music mogul; Johnson already owns a radio network. As Deggens wrote this week, Will channels for non-celebrities come next? There’s no guarantee of that. Worse, with this one corporate crumb, Comcast bought off a whole lot of public pressure that could have burnt beneath the FCC until they did what they’re supposed to which is regulate—not in Puffy’s but in the public interest.
It’s a huge blow to women’s rights and the broad tent of civil rights that—if the coverage of this deal is any indication—“diversity” as a concept has been shrunken to refer only to race. Carol Jenkins, who broke into TV thanks to movement pressure and lawsuits brought by the government against the networks, says, “It’s as true as it ever was, people have to be reminded that women are underrepresented and underserved.”
The majority of the population with nothing like a majority of media power, women do have a special page on the Comcast site—and to show how much they care, it’s pink. And it’s not impossible for women to find well paying jobs in the company. Take former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker. Just four months after she voted, along with three of the agency’s other FCC commissioners, to approve Comcast’s acquisition of NBC, Comcast hired her. That puts a whole new spin on affirmative action. And a channel that glues toddlers to TV sets? Women—and child minders everywhere—have got to be happy about that, right?
Even in an Occupy world, most Americans don’t know exactly how the 1 percent does what it does. The money media haven’t explained it, and the 1 percent likes things that way.
That’s how Robert Greenwald explained why he and the Brave New Foundation created a new video series. Each short video—one minute apiece—lays out the truth about a different one-percenter. They let their audience choose the subjects. They solicited suggestions on nominees, narrowed them down to thirty, and let their audience vote. The new videos represent five of the top vote-getters, with more videos on the way. Here’s the first:
Call it part two of last week’s report. No sooner had the blood cooled from the “he-covery” than in came more stark news from the world of women’s work. This time, it’s not just discriminatory employers at fault; it’s the federal government.
“In most industries, the gender wage gap is due to employer discrimination. In the restaurant industry, it’s also a matter of policy,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the workers’ group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).
Virtually alone among employers, in the restaurant industry predominately male positions have a different minimum wage than predominately female positions. Since 2007, non-tipped workers (52 percent male) have a federal minimum wage of $7.25. Tipped workers (66 percent female) have a federal subminimum wage of $2.13.
Congress established that sub-generous subminimum for tipped workers back in 1991. Thanks to active lobbying by the National Restaurant Owners Association (one of the top twenty-five lobby groups in the United States), it has stayed at $2.13 ever since.
“The outcome is that servers, 71 percent of whom are female, are suffering a gender gap that doesn’t just mean inequity, it means the difference between living below or above poverty line,” says Jayaraman. (The federal poverty line is $18,000 for a family of three.) Food servers, it turns out, are twice as likely as the general population to use food stamps.
“The millions of workers who serve our food can’t afford to eat,” says Jayaraman.
Think about that as you sit down for your next meal. If Valentine’s Day 2012 is anything like last year, some 70 million lovey-dovey eaters will be served. According to a new report from ROC and a dozen partner organizations, within servers, the industry’s largest occupational category, full-time, year-round female servers are paid 68 percent of what their male colleagues earn ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually). Black female servers are paid 8 percent less than that, costing them a deficit of more than $400,000 over a lifetime.
Mayaba Liebenthal, an African-American server at Stanley restaurant in New Orleans, has been in the business for fifteen years and sees no chance that she’ll ever move into a management post or to a better-paying “fine dining” establishment. “As a worker, I’m not able to access healthcare; I have to work when I’m sick and [I’m dependent on tips that vary every week]. I can’t save money, I can’t afford time to go to school.”
As for those tips? While managers generally decide whether tips are gathered into a pool, workers themselves determine how tips are distributed. So pay rests on subjective interpersonal relations, says Liebenthal. “It’s not fair, and it’s painful always to be wondering if this person going to pay me what I’m worth as a server or what he or she thinks I’m worth as a person?”
The law says that employers are supposed to ensure that tips make up the difference between the tip minimum wage and the regular minimum wage, yet the researchers behind the new report say they’ve heard from many workers that not only does that not happen but employers also tell workers to report that they are earning minimum wage. This means that workers end up getting taxed on income they don’t have. As a matter of law, taxes—levied on wages and tips—are deducted from wages. Workers making a good deal in tips (cash) have to remember to put money aside to cover the taxes they owe that their wages weren’t sufficient to pay.
“Diners may be aware that they are subsidizing their server’s wages; the thing that people don’t know is they’re subsidizing the wages of runners and busers and all the tipped workers” says Saru. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association is forecasting a record-breaking $635 billion in revenue in 2012.
ROC is equipping interested diners with information-packed palm cards to hand out to managers and servers. “It’s going to take customers speaking up and showing they care to make things change,” says Jayaraman. “Twenty years ago, customers started asking about organics and locally produced food, and the industry responded.”
ROC has also issued a 2012 directory of restaurants that take the high road and pay their tipped workers the same or close to the same as the federal minimum wage. Seven states have already done away with the subminimum, including California, the number-one restaurant state in the country.
“Running a restaurant is hard. Running it right is profitable,” says Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, New York City. Sibley says she spends more on wages, but far less on waste and retraining.
Real change, however, needs to come from Congress. Maryland Democrat, Donna Edwards, showed restaurant workers some love this week by calling for Congressional action in an op-ed co-authored by Jayaraman for the Hill:
“There is no reason that the women who cook, prepare, and serve our meals should trade their health for wages and face limited opportunities for career mobility. America’s working women cannot live off the status quo and we must show them the economic respect they are long overdue—in the form of living wages, paid sick days and health coverage, and an end to discrimination and harassment.”
President Barack Obama pledged to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an Hour by 2011. It hasn’t happened. If he put some muscle into the push for that (indexing it to inflation as he promised) and into raising the subminimum too, he just might be forgiven. As he said back in 2008, “people who work full-time should not live in poverty.” Raise a glass to that this week—and leave a tip—at a high-road restaurant where the workers don’t starve.