By Steve Lawton
We must first take a cold hard look at how things really are in our society before we begin to confront the economic issues we currently face. While the “experts’ are declaring a “recovery” the majority of Americans are experiencing a deterioration in their economic conditions. In 2010 1% percent of all households owned 35% of the national wealth. Americans are working longer hours and being paid less.
The cost of healthcare has continued to rise while employer sponsored health insurance has continued to decline. Unemployment has hovered around 8% for two years. The cost of transportation, food and the other neccessaties of life are putting a heavy burden on the wallets of working people. The rate of those living below poverty is growing by the day. For the working poor the situation is grim. In 2010 we witnessed the highest number of American household considered food insecure ever recorded. Yes it is true; we have children in this country going without three square meals.
Organized Labor, the only sizable power that could challenge the corporate movement seems to be all but defeated. Extreme inequality has made opportunities for education, healthcare and job security a dying American dream. This is what we are experiencing today. Meanwhile the corporate elite have built vast fortunes and great political power off of record corporate profits and a new stock market bubble. The worker to CEO pay ratio has now reached 354 to 1. How can we accept a world where we have people going hungry, working full time, living unhealthy, and finding it harder to make ends meet while a handful of Americans live a life of extreme extravagance and surplus?
These conditions were not created by accident. What we have witnessed over the last 30 years is an organized strategic shift in power taken from the people and handed over to the American Corporate elite. The rise of the organized greed movement can be traced back to the early 1970s. In the free market manifesto written in 1971 titled, The Attack on the Free Enterprise System, former Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell outlined a program to build corporate political power to “protect” the free market system. He encouraged organized cooperation amongst corporate leaders by empowering the US Chamber of Commerce.
He advocated for Business leaders to utilize their power to influence the media and academia in order to rewrite the National narrative. Corporation should consider creating corporate political action committees. It would be the courts, Powell explained, that would play an important role in protecting the markets from the “radical left”.
Now take a look at how things are today and compare it to Powell’s vision in 1971. Almost every powerful Corporation is a member of the s of the US Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is the leading lobbyist behind National as well as state level right to work laws, deregulation, and the weakening of the NLRB. Free market conservatives have taken over the media through corporate control of the networks and the newspapers. “Business” schools can be found at every major college with millions of our kids going to school to obtain MBAs rather than going into science and technology fields. Remember it was the US Supreme Court who made Corporations equivalent to citizens in the Citizens United case.
I think it quite ironic that Powell begins his blueprint with this statement, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under attack”, yet it is he who that set off an unwavering attack on our system.
Every day I witness the power of the corporate movement as a representative and organizer for a small union Local on Staten Island. We represent workers at two major corporations, Verizon and Xerox. At Verizon we lead a group of workers who were hired into an established and powerful union which was organized over many generations. This particular group of workers is fighting to maintain a standard of living they were lucky enough to inherit from the past generations of workers. They are also the first to experience their benefits, wages and power diminish. At Xerox we lead a group of workers who are trying to bring a union to their workplace. To these workers the union is foreign and new. Workers here work full time for piece pay while under stressful work conditions. Xerox management has fired harassed, threatened, and bribed workers to stop workers from building their union.
These two different causes are, in my mind, connected. Both Verizon and Xerox have executives on the US Chamber of Commerce. Through the Chamber both entities support each other by joint lobbying against workers’ rights to organize and Right to Work legislation. They both, through their roles in the Chamber, are financing employers defenses of NLRA charges. The decline in union membership and weakening labor laws has led to lost strikes and more givebacks in existing contracts. The inability of unions to obtain any real gains has further dampened the Labor movement’s ability to organize new members. This cycle connects the organized worker with the unorganized workers. Both corporations win when each individual corporation wins.
What can we do?
Develop leaders at the ground level to become organizers for our unions. Corporations have scrambled to reinvent their internal structures over the last decade. They aim to become more efficient and less top down. It is the natural top down culture of the corporation that is their greatest weakness.
One big group of workers being exploited and mistreated in today’s economy is lower management. . They are discouraged and in constant fear of losing their jobs. Higher management is slowly taking over many of the shop level roles, but they are not in tune with the realities of the workplace as much as a front line manager. The discouraged front liners are realizing they are doomed and no longer feel any loyalty from their higher ups. We can exploit this weakness only if there is a culture of organizing within the union structure to create power at ground level. But somehow we allowed it top down structures to become our greatest weakness also. To turn this around we need true leaders need to emerge.
These new leaders will be challenged by the status quo and will need the character necessary to withstand massive political attacks. So it is important that a movement is built and the leaders come from within the movement. The general rule I when identifying leaders is to look for someone who leads by example, who is generally respected for their straight forwards honesty, and their ability to stay out of the daily drama. Leaders aren’t always the loudest and aren’t always the most obvious. They may be in the background waiting to be asked to join the movement. This is the crucial step to rebuilding our economic justice movement.
Create new tactics or share tactics. For example, worker delegations are popular tactics in organizing campaigns. It is a protected activity for represented and non- represented workers and it usually ends with the employer acting inappropriately. There is nothing more managers hate then when their power is challenged publicly.
This action allows workers to feel the power of their action. To cite the great organizer Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, our real action is our target’s reaction. So when deciding on a tactic we should not be thinking so much about our action, but rather how can we control the reaction of the corporate machine. Whenever we can get them to out themselves for what they really stand for, we win. Take the Wisconsin state house occupation, the tactic of occupying the State house worked to garnish support for the workers because the Governor had to consider two moves.
Either break up the protest and look like a tyrant inciting a serious confrontation or police brutality and further stoking the movement and the national media, or do nothing which empowered the movement and pulled in National attention. Either way the movement wins from Governor Walker’s reaction. This is why occupy tactics have been so successful. On the other hand, a strike by workers has become a losing tactic for workers. The companies have adapted to this and have changed the laws so much into their favor that a strike is almost impossible to win, unless of course newer and more militant tactics are used during the strike.
Many will warn against these types of tactics because of public opinion. I say the public opinion is already made and the polarization of our Nation has everyone taking ideological sides. But we have learned through the occupy movements that we can organize new support when we challenge the status quo, not as a union, but as a wide range of disenfranchised people. Coalition building has to be on the minds of all progressive movements in America right now. Environmental, Civil rights, community Organization and Labor are all connected through the growing inequality of wealth and the cuts in government budgets as the economy continues to slump.
Organizers should also consider local political action as part of the program. The change that is needed to empower the people and protect them from organized greed will begin in small local elections. These will be the officials most responsible for the local economic and political sphere and if they are progressive we can utilize their power to help organize locally. Support immigration reform to allow for the organization of the most oppressed workers in our society. The best way to protect the people from economic inequality is if we build progressive cultures within our communities.
Everything written here is widely known and understood by leaders throughout today’s Labor movement. There are many theories about how to defend ourselves from organized greed and there is only one hard cold truth, there is no easy way out. At the root of the corporate movement’s success is the corporate world’s ability to come together above their own individual business needs to pool resources and collectively defend free market principles. This is something Labor has not been able to do as effectively. We must look for ways to empower our collective action and to build strong alliances.
We must build a culture of organizing within our established unions and connect the broader fight to the workers everyday experience. Union members should receive training on organizing power at the workplace. Politically we cannot out lobby the corporate movement. But we can out organize voters. We always could. It’s just that we lost way; it’s time to get back to the grassroots.