Monday, October 9, 2006

Why it matters

When the world was young, we all had fires in our bellies: we knew who the enemy was, and why it all mattered. There were books, for Malcolm notably little blue ones published by Victor Gollancz to keep us straight. The books had definitive titles like Guilty Men and Why Not Trust the Tories. Their authors were people like Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan.

Tories hated them, because of the truths they contained. Indeed, Tories held these little monographs, along with the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, responsible for the 1945 Election.

Malcolm keeps those little books on his shelves, even though the years have faded the blue covers, and foxed the war-emergency paper on which they were printed.

Just when we are relapsing into our comfortable bourgeois lifestyles, before our plasma TVs, a reminder comes through of what drove us in the first place, why we felt there were battles to be won, dragons to be slain, and why we sang along with Joan about seeing Joe Hill last night.

Last Friday, 6th October, Paul Krugman’s op-ed column in The New York Times sent out such a signal. And this message has as much relevance in the UK as to its original audience in the US. Particularly so when, behind the plastic P.R. grin of Cameron hides an unsmiling Redwood-Vulcan, unreconstructed voodoo economics, and unlimited privatisation. [Perhaps it is relevant that Malcolm’s rhetoric is presently pontificating from seven miles high, on a flight to Seattle.]

Paul Krugman started by noting the “new record” of the Dow. At this point Brits might need to be reminded that the Dow is based on the New York Stock Exchange’s valuation of just 30 blue-chip companies. Krugman observed that the reason for this record was not because the US economy had seen “exceptional” performance in recent years:
The Dow is doing well largely because American employers are waging a successful war against wages … after-tax corporate profits have more than doubled, because workers’ productivity ism up, but their wages aren’t – and because companies have dealt with rising health insurance premiums by denying insurance to ever more workers.
To re-read that in the UK context, substitute:
  1. corporate success in exporting profits,
  2. using EU legislation to diddle UK regulations, and – of course –
  3. rewriting pension commitments.
Krugman’s illustrates this with Wal-Mart, a company which:
already has a well-deserved reputation for paying low-wages and offering few benefits … last year, an internal Wal-Mart memo conceded that 46 percent of its workers’ children were either on Medicaid or lacked health insurance. Nonetheless, the memo expressed concern that wages and benefits were rising, in part, “because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases”.
The solution:
  • have 40% (up from 20%) part-time workers,
  • cap wages, and
  • making life (literally) uncomfortable for older employees: “managers have suddenly barred older employees with back or leg problems from sitting on stools” (that, in the article, originally in quotes, and “according to workers”).
Krugman describes this as
… a brutal strategy. Once upon a time a company that treated that treated its employees this badly would have made itself a prime-target for union organizers. But Wal-Mart doesn’t have to worry about that, because it knows in these days the people who are supposed to enforce labor laws are on the side of the employers, not the workers.
This is because the Republican hegemony has neutered one of the last monuments of the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act:
… political appointees are seeking to remove whatever protection for workers’ rights the labor relations law still provides.
The latest attack on employee rights is a declaration that anyone giving (even occasional) direction to other workers (for example, by co-ordinating rosters) is a supervisor, and has no right to be unionised. The National Labor Relations Board, with Democrats opposed, made this decision on nurses, but the implications are obvious. Malcolm notes that the New York Times saw this as sufficiently significant to return to the point in an editorial on Saturday.

Such a decision is as momentous as was, say, the Taff Vale Judgement; and it will have to be corrected if unionism is to survive in the American work-place. Otherwise the Unions are reduced to a pressure group defending the minimum wage for the lowest tier of workers.

Malcolm hopes that the message will not be lost “back home”. The right to organise in Britain increasingly is one that is observed only in the public sector. Private sector employers are demolished the achievement of generations of employees in gaining welfare and pension rights. Worse still, the right-wing media denounce continuing these rights in the public sector as “greed” and “privilege”.

So Malcolm’s devout wish is that:
Where working folk defend their rights,
That’s where you’ll find Joe Hill.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is one of those posts that hits home and hits hard. Recommended reading.

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