Friday, February 22, 2013 10:21 AM
Faced with widespread
union busting and a feckless NLRB, a more aggressive labor movement is brewing.
The National Labor Relations Board has a long history of
dysfunction, but its job just got a lot harder. In January, a federal appeals
court ruled that Obama had illegally appointed three of the board’s members
while the Senate was in recess early last year. Now, recess appointments are a touchy
subject in Washington,
but Obama had good reason. Republicans in the Senate had threatened to block
any and all NLRB appointments, leaving the president with few options.
(Oddly, there’s no law against deliberately obstructing a vital government
If the decision stands, the
board is toast. With only one remaining member, the NLRB lacks a quorum,
and legally loses all decision-making power. The bedrock of labor law
enforcement would grind to a halt. What’s more, all decisions since the January
4 appointments last year could be nullified—that’s hundreds of rulings on
everything from workers using social media, to who handles union dues on a
This is bad news for organized labor, but not as bad as you
might think. While few doubt the board’s importance in protecting things the
right to organize, the NLRB also has a long history of institutionalizing the
bureaucracy and hierarchy that have plagued American labor for decades. The
board was born during an era of historic labor militancy, and reforms that
established basic workplace protections also went hand in hand with bans on
more militant actions like sit-downs, sympathy strikes, and wildcats. In their
place, the board set up channels like union elections and regulated
negotiations. The new system was more predictable for everyone, but also more
top-down, less democratic, and arguably much less effective for labor.
So, alienated by the rigidity and hierarchy of the NLRB
system, many workers and organizers have begun learning to live without it,
preferring to engage in struggles on their own terms. Indeed, with or without a
functioning labor board, many of the movement’s brightest flashpoints are operating
well outside the system.
One of the clearest of those flashpoints was certainly last
year’s unprecedented organizing effort at Walmart, a grassroots campaign that
united unions, labor groups, and activists across the country. The push began
in September, when workers at a Walmart-controlled warehouse in Mira Loma, California, walked
off the job and began a “Walmarch” to Los
Angeles to demand safer working conditions. Earning
well below a living wage, the Mira Loma workers had suffered 120-degree heat,
inadequate ventilation, and broken equipment—conditions that lead more than 80 percent
to experience on-the-job injuries. They were also mostly part-time workers, and
often relied on a “buddy system” during slower workweeks.
The symbolism of the 50-mile march, inspired by the 1966
United Farm Workers march to Sacramento,
was striking. Like the UFW, the warehouse workers found themselves excluded
from the protection of the NLRB system—the UFW because the board explicitly
excludes agricultural workers, the warehouse workers because of Walmart’s
notorious (not to mention illegal) union-busting. But also like the UFW, where
the warehouse workers lacked legal support, they found an outpouring of
community reinforcement. During some of the march’s hottest days (with temps
climbing above 100 degrees), volunteers set up impromptu clinics to provide
health care to the mostly uninsured workers. A few days later, the warehouse
workers were joined by more than 100 California
farm workers as well as activists from Students
Against Sweatshops, who marched alongside them in solidarity. By October 5,
the marchers returned to work with a guarantee of better conditions.
That extraordinary victory soon galvanized Walmart workers
in other states to more militant action. Within a couple of days of the Mira
Loma strike, workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois,
presented a petition for safer conditions, consistent schedules, and an end to
forced overtime. When supervisors began firing those who had signed, workers
walked out. On October 1, hundreds of community activists joined the striking
workers, where riot
police arrived and arrested 17 protesters for civil disobedience. But like the
workers in California,
the Elwood strikers quickly won victories on core demands. By October 15, increasingly
under the umbrella of the labor group OUR Walmart, actions had spread to a
dozen cities nationwide.
Such early success had a lot to do with strategy, writes
historian Staughton Lynd in December’s Industrial
Worker. Although they relied on support from recognized unions like the
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), their grievances, demands, tactics, and
victories were entirely their own. At every step of the way, including the climactic
Black Friday actions throughout the country, Walmart workers operated decidedly
outside the NLRB system of petition and arbitration. Instead of channeling time
and energy into the tedious process of requesting recognition and electing representatives
to negotiate, workers in Mira Loma and Elwood decided collectively to organize
and take action themselves. This direct action approach had a big impact.
For one thing, it meant a much quicker process. Workers in Illinois and California
organized, went public, and won concrete victories within a matter of weeks—an
unheard of timeline for unions sticking with official channels. Eschewing
official recognition also meant sidestepping legal restrictions like no-strike
clauses and bans on civil disobedience, sympathy actions, and boycotts. In California, Illinois, and
across the country, much of the campaign would’ve been difficult under the NLRB
umbrella—from the “Walmarch” in California
to the civil disobedience in Elwood, not to mention the spontaneous way it all took
But most importantly, workers took the company by surprise. For
decades, Walmart has remained union-free by exposing and undermining union
campaigns in whatever way it could. A 2007 Human Rights Watch report found that
the company routinely
breaks US labor law to snuff out labor actions, from spying on workers, to
banning discussions of unions on company property, to firing those who join.
The report added that because labor law in the US is so toothless, Walmart’s
illegal conduct usually results in little more than a “slap on the wrist.”
And if workers can somehow make it over these barriers and
go public with their demands, retaliation can be swift. When organizing workers
at a Quebec Walmart went public in 2005, the company pulled
up roots and left. When a handful of Walmart meat-cutters in Jacksonville voted to
join the UFCW in 2000, Walmart announced it was terminating
meat-cutting operations in 700 stores. And like many big-box companies,
Walmart’s managers have long been
trained to put a stop to organizing efforts before they get off the ground.
One “Manager’s Toolbox” from 1997 urges supervisors to be “constantly
alert for efforts by a union to organize your associates.” It also gives instructions
on curbing unionization at every step of the process, from initial organizing
to petitions to elections and bargaining. The handbook even provides a “Union
Hotline” to alert upper management at the first sign of trouble. Bottom line: Walmart
knows the NLRB process very well, and how to subvert it.
Which is what made last fall so exciting. If workers in Mira
Loma had circulated a petition, signed cards, or went public with demands,
management would’ve been all over it. But there’s nothing in the “Manager’s
Toolbox” about a Walmarch. This is what gives unofficial actions their power:
instead of working through a process stacked against them, workers in Mira
Loma, Elwood, and across the country took up the fight on their own terms. In
so doing, Staughton Lynd argues, Walmart workers revived the tactics and
strategy of the labor movement’s zenith—the heady decades before the NLRB put a
lid on labor militancy in during the Depression.
But as groundbreaking as these victories have been, they’ve
not been alone. Workers in Mina Loma and Elwood are part of a growing trend in
organized labor, one that relies more and more on decentralized, grassroots
action outside the NLRB system—what the American
Prospect’s Josh Eidelson calls “alt-labor.” It’s a method
more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World have been pushing
for a long time, and lately, it’s been catching on. Especially in big cities
like New York,
workers in traditionally unorganized sectors have started to organize in a
different kind of way, and it’s led to more than a few concrete victories. From
broad-based movements like Coalition to
Immokalee Workers to local restaurants like Hot and
Crusty, workers, particularly in food service, are winning critical
victories by taking a more militant and creative approach to demanding their
One of the most interesting approaches has been that of the Restaurant Opportunities
Center, a radical labor group based in
New York City. Like
OUR Walmart, the ROC is not a formal union and has no desire to become one. Their
strategy is a familiar one: direct action, unofficial strikes, and building
community support for campaigns. Not only that, with a cadre of lawyers and
worker advocates, the ROC helps educate workers on their rights, and when
necessary, provides legal support against the industry’s worst offenders. It’s
also adept at publicizing ongoing struggles. When food service workers win a
victory on, say, overtime violations, like they did at Mario Batali’s Del Posto
restaurant in Manhattan
in 2012, the ROC labels them a “high road” establishment. To date, the ROC has
won more than a dozen settlements against employers in New York City, along with millions of dollars
in workers’ back-pay.
The ROC has been active in the New York area for more than a decade, but
last year, they were joined by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of community
groups and unions including the SEIU. Unlike OUR Walmart and the ROC, Fast Food
Forward would eventually like to see their workers gain NLRB protection. But
instead of petitioning for recognition and then entering into negotiations with
employers, the group decided to take action in a more direct way. Less than a
week after Black Friday, the group organized a mass walkout in New York to demand
higher wages and greater labor protection. Workers pulled off the largest
strike in fast food history before anyone even signed a union card.
Now, at first glance, the fast food strike doesn’t make a
lot of sense. Historically, big unions like the SEIU have not been fans of acting
outside the NRLB system. Even during the Depression, when wildcat actions and unofficial
strikes broke out in hundreds of cities nationwide and labor’s power was at its
height, large, established unions like the AFL and CIO urged moderation. The
difference today, argues Labor Notes
reporter Jenny Brown, is that the moderate strategy hasn’t
worked. If labor was at its militant height in the 1930s, today it’s at an
historic low. Faced with employers like Walmart that regularly violate the law to
impede organization, and an NLRB system that offers few prospects for victory, some
labor leaders have started to rethink and retool. The result has been a labor
movement that is more grassroots, more democratic, and more about action.
And it seems to be working. The last few years have seen a
wave of unprecedented achievements, often in industries long thought impossible
to organize. Numbers are still small, but activists and strikers in New York, Mira Loma, and
across the country have shown an energy and creativity that’s been hard to
ignore. Whether supported by established unions or not, this new militant wing
of organized labor has in many ways brought the movement back to its roots—rank
and file workers, organizing themselves democratically to fight for their
rights in direct and meaningful ways. If the campaigns spearheaded by OUR
Walmart and the ROC can continue this trajectory, it will have much more to do
with their unique vision and spirit than whatever ends up happening at the
Above image, of a Fast Food Forward/Occupy/RiseUpNY day of action in July 2012, by Katie
Moore. Used with permission.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 2:32 PM
This post originally appeared at Waging
are standing up to live better,” say Walmart’s retail workers, playfully
twisting Walmart’s slogan of “live better” into a rallying
cry for better conditions and treatment. In a taste of what the nation’s
largest retailer can expect on Black Friday, frustrated Walmart workers have
again started walking off their jobs to protest their employer’s attempts to
silence outspoken workers.
from both the retail and warehouse sectors of Walmart’s supply chain have
called for nation-wide protests, strikes and actions on, and leading up to,
next Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year. In the past week, wildcat
strikes in Dallas, Seattle and the Bay Area saw dozens of retail workers — from
multiple store — walk away from their shifts, suggesting that the Black Friday
threats are to be taken seriously.
Dan Schlademan, Director of the Making Change at Walmart campaign,
said in a nation-wide conference call organized for media on Thursday that
Walmart can expect more than 1,000 different protests, including strikes and
rallies at Walmart stores between now and Black Friday.
to organizers working with the Walmart retail workers’ association, OUR Walmart, stores around the country —
including, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Washington D.C. and
others — can expect workers to go on strike. Specific dates have not been
announced yet out of concern to minimize chances for Walmart to preemptively
silence workers’ voices.
are expecting a wide variety of activity — strikers right in front of their
stores, demonstrations, flash mobs, rallies and people working to educate
customers — I think it’s going to be a very creative day.” said Schlademan.
“Brave strikers are seeing a huge amount of support from community allies.”
Waging Nonviolence has previously reported,
the historic wildcat strikes are invigorating a new form of labor organizing of
non-union labor. By drawing on the support of community allies — particularly
from religious and student groups — workers are finding it increasingly easier
to resist their employer’s abuses.
addition to joining striking workers at rallies at Walmart stores, supporters
are able to donate
to Making Change at Walmart to help the striking low-wage workers make up lost
wages. In the form of food gift cards, the community support organization
Making Change at Walmart is providing concrete ways for others to be in
solidarity with Walmart’s workers. Thus far, $25,000 has been raised.
this kind of grassroots support pales in comparison to the revenue and capital
at Walmart’s disposal. Some Walmart executives are making upwards of $10
million a year while full-time retail workers struggle to make ends meet. Sara
Gilbert, a customer service manager at a Seattle Walmart, makes only $14,000 a
year to support her family.
work full time for one of the richest companies in the world and yet my
children are on state healthcare and we get subsidized housing,” said Gilbert
who joined other OUR Walmart associates in Seattle’s walkout on Thursday. Walmart posted
almost $16 billion in profits last year and recently announced changes to
employee healthcare premiums that could raise the cost for workers as much as
back in the struggle against Walmart are its warehouse workers. On November 14,
the Inland Empire, Calif.,
warehouse workers — who are privately contracted through the logistics company
NFI but move 100 percent Walmart goods — resumed their strike due to
retaliations against outspoken workers. The workers were part of the 15-day
strike in mid-September that re-ignited workers’ efforts to change
Walmart’s treatment of its employees.
Garcia, a warehouse worker from Southern California who took part in the first
strike, was recently terminated for speaking out against unsafe working conditions
and broken equipment. According to Elizabeth Brennan, an organizer with
Warehouse Workers United with whom the NFI workers are affiliated, about three
dozen workers have had their hours cut while others have been demoted and
suspended in retaliatory efforts from Walmart’s contractor to curb organizing
been tough,” said
Garcia. “My kids need food, school supplies and an apartment to sleep in at
night, but right now it is difficult to provide them these basic things.”
Thursday, six community supporters were arrested for blocking a major
thoroughfare to the Walmart-contracted warehouse. The two dozen striking
warehouse workers returned to work on November 16.
Inland Empire strike, which still demands an
end to unsafe working conditions, retaliatory practices and poor wages, comes
during a crucial time when much of Walmart’s supply chain is moving into high
gear. It remains unclear whether the strikes and walkouts will generate enough
pressure to force Walmart to systematically change how it treats its 1.4
million employees, but the Walmart workers movement seems to be spreading and
Action Network is hosting online activism for supporters as well as
publicizing some of the events planned at Walmart stores for Black Friday.
While some activists for workers’ rights and just wages advocate boycotting
Walmart and shopping on Black Friday in general, Making Change at Walmart has
not called for boycotts but affirms all efforts that support workers’ rights to
assemble and speak out.
Fletcher, a Walmart employee in California
plans to go on strike to emphasize her message that Walmart is not listening to
its workers. Fletcher and her husband both have to work Thanksgiving Day for
Walmart and will miss spending the holiday with their two young children.
Complaints have alleged that Walmart’s scheduling practices have made it very
difficult for families to spend time with each other on holidays like Thanksgiving
when Walmart plans to open its doors to shoppers that evening. Fletcher wants
Walmart executives to know that Walmart’s employees are just as important as
are going to make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Fletcher who is also a part of
OUR Walmart. “By going on strike on the busiest shopping day of the year, we
hope to send a message out to Walmart that we are not a small percentage of
workers who are struggling and that we mean business.”
Image by Walmart Corporate, licensed under Creative Commons.
And check out this video from OUR Walmart, "Why Are We Standing Up to Live Better?"
Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:22 AM
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
In ancient China,
the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by “the rectification of names,” a
ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place
under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects
correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than
This was part of what made Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign so
electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if
not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity,
once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe
language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since.
Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about
everything in our world -- a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of
“legitimate rape,” “the apology tour,” and “job creators.” Meanwhile,
their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there
should be a rectification of numbers, too.)
Let’s rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of
so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You
can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the
attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor,
the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on
Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft"
and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until
truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political
activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and
aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it’s misogyny or
racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises,
circumlocutions, and euphemisms -- “enhanced interrogation techniques” for
torture, “collateral damage” for killing civilians, “the war on terror” for the
war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.
Change the language and you’ve begun to change the reality or at least to
open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of
“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what
is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this
remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the
people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no
arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”
So let’s start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed,
I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of
the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of
Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet,
each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton
founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and
the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who
routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton
Family welfare -- a taxpayers' subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested
working conditions of astonishing barbarity -- warehouses that reach 120
degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to
pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or
You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton
family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people
-- the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as
well as the employees of the stores -- only to add to piles of wealth already
obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion
machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty
behind) no matter what.
They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to
wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in
euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives
never really have to know what’s being done in their names. And yet it is their
job to know -- just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and
exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to
rectify the names for all these things.
The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s gripping book
A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is not about his
time in Vietnam,
or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It’s about a
1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific
Palisades, California. It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his
colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for
immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg’s
host said, “If I were willing to give up all this... if I were willing to
renege on... my commitment to send my son to Groton... I would have signed the
In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to
prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the
upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen
the latter. The man who opted for Groton
was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having
painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our
They could send tens of thousands to Groton,
buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the
environment, but they’re as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often
celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts. But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich
through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying
the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes
and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the
gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming
the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.
A Storm Surge of Selfishness
Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing
over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present
catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel
portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for
why we did so little -- that the rich and powerful with ties to the
carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent
action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular,
they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and
punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone
through four “debates” and nearly a full election cycle with climate change
unmentioned and unmentionable.
These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It’s as
though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the
tundra is thawing and Greenland’s ice shield
is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from
the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves,
and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate
is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the
future is here, now.
You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations --
Chevron’s John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in
“compensation”) in 2011 -- or their major shareholders. They can want for
nothing. They’re so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes
to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the
fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come,
the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and
they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy
people the world has ever seen.
Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all
over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because
he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely
to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we
shout loud enough, rectify a few names. Under pressure, he might even
listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such
problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in
tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).
Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California’s
Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil
companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a
landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in
spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can
count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference
with free enterprise). This year they’re backing a California
initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of
corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another
kind of war, and consider the early casualties.
As the Irish Timesput it in an editorial this summer:
"Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the
last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa,
and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa
face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the
Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi
Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300
million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate
change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600
This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food
prices from crop failures, including this summer’s in the U.S. Midwest after a
scorching drought in which the Mississippi River
nearly ran dry and crops withered.
We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the
poor (especially the poor of Africa), and
against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is
destruction, and it’s all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we’re
at it, take back the term “pro-life” to talk about those who are trying to save
the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex
systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other
The complex array of effects from climate change and their global
distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it
harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk
about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more,
but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much
invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the
energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who
benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always
the least willing to change.
The Doublespeak on Taxes
I’m a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early.
Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly
impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years
former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed.
Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an
affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of
the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through
graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to
our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on
earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.
What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to
the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they’re allocated -- though
few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right
has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures -- from that president’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird and
PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).
As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about
where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression,
and what boons tax cuts were to bring us. They then delivered the biggest
tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren’t
going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were
saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public
sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and
over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.
Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as
if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to
feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn’t
monetary: it’s moral and emotional. Let’s rectify some more language: even at
this moment, the United States
remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California
-- with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech
boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley -- is
loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in
abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.
Really, there’s more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every
sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt,
to support the arts, to protect the environment -- to produce, in short, a
glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of
changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation
without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives -- richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community,
power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is,
to call it by its true name, destruction.
Occupy the Names
One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this
rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the
greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt
and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street’s
crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the “1%,” those who have made a
profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different
kind of tax). It was a label that made instant sense across much of the
political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there’s so much more to do.
Naming is only part of the work, but it’s a crucial first step. A doctor
initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by
describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by
their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful
enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches.
After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your
dream of something better.
Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the
mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except
distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets,
and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we
can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by David Shankbone,
licensed under Creative
Monday, March 22, 2010 2:42 PM
Not everyone would champion the arrival of a Walmart Supercenter in their town, but Joe R. Lansdale boldly argues in The Texas Observer that the mega-retailer isn’t all that bad. He tells the story of how his Texas town of Nacogdoches was revitalized when the regular Walmart was transformed into a Walmart Supercenter. Lansdale’s not advocating for child labor, unethical work practices, unfair wages, or outsourcing—he’s just in favor of convenience and practicality when it comes to small-town life. Here’s his take:
Let me tell you, the late downtowns in East Texas burgs were usually small stores run by locals. They generally priced things three times more than they were worth. Maybe they had to, but I don’t care. I don’t want to pay $30 for a hammer and a fistful of nails. If I wanted a banana, I had to go to another store. If I wanted to pick up a pair of shoes, another store.
If you worked, by the time you got off work, many of the stores were closed. Saturday, they might be open, but Sunday they were closed again. So for the working individual, the mother or father who had a kid wake up in the night with aching gums from teething, and you wanted something to make it all better, you had to wait until the next day.
With Walmart in town, lots of people can be put to work, far more than downtown ever employed. Someone has to run a 24-hour store, check people out, sack groceries, push carts, place stock, work at the McDonald’s sequestered in the back. The workers have all skin colors, not something I saw a lot of downtown, except for immigrants unloading trucks.
If you’re poor and barely making it, or even if your income is middle-of-the-road, it’s good to get what you need at slashed prices, anytime of the day, seven days a week, in a big, ugly, over-lit store that closes only on Christmas and half a day on Christmas Eve….now in our downtown are specialty stores that provide things we can’t get at Walmart, like maybe a stuffed deer head for that special place over the mantle.
Source: The Texas Observer
Image by jason.mundy, licensed under Creative Commons.
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