Street art in Bethnal Green, East London, UK,
by artist Trust.iCON.
Photo by Trust.iCON.
The US economy grew at a rate of just 0.2 percent in the first quarter of this year, marking a sharp slowdown from the previous quarter, in which the growth rate was 2.2 percent.
The mounting signs of an economic slump in the US prompted the Federal Reserve to downgrade its view of the US economy in its latest policy statement, issued Wednesday. The Fed declared that economic growth had “slowed during the winter,” whereas its previous statement claimed that growth had “moderated somewhat.”
The first quarter gross domestic product figures, released Wednesday by the Commerce Department, were far lower than even the meager 1.0 percent growth rate predicted by economists. It was the slowest quarterly growth for the US economy in a year.
The fall-off in economic activity was led by a collapse in business fixed investment, which fell by 3.4 percent. Exports plunged by 7.2 percent, compared with an increase of 4.5 percent in the fourth quarter. On the whole, government spending shrank, led by a fall of 1.5 percent in state and local spending.
The collapse in investment takes place amid a speculative frenzy whipped up by the trillions of dollars injected into the financial system by the Federal Reserve and other central banks. Mergers and acquisitions are occurring at a near-record pace, while US corporations, sitting on a cash hoard of $1.4 trillion, have engaged in share buy-backs and dividend increases to further enrich their wealthy shareholders.
These record mergers, acquisitions, and share buy-backs have been accompanied by mass layoffs.
* On Tuesday, helicopter maker Bell Helicopter announced 1,100 layoffs at its facility in Lafayette, Indiana.
* On Friday, Pennsylvania-based software developer Unisys announced plans to slash 8 percent of its global workforce, including 1,800 workers in North America.
* On April 24, pharmaceutical company Procter & Gamble announced that it would eliminate up to 6,000 office jobs worldwide. Since 2012, the company has slashed more than 20,000 office and manufacturing jobs.
* On April 20, United States Steel Corp. issued layoffs to 1,404 employees, concentrated mostly in Texas. Since June, the company has announced plans to eliminate 7,800 US positions, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.
* That same day, oilfield services company Halliburton said it had cut 9,000 jobs, amounting to over ten percent of its workforce.
* On April 16, Halliburton’s rival Schlumberger announced another 11,000 job cuts, on top of the 9,000 it implemented in January.
The negative figures follow the announcement by the Labor Department earlier this month that the US economy added only 126,000 jobs in March, the smallest job growth since 2013. The March figure was half the number predicted by economists.
Since the beginning of the economic “recovery” in 2009, the US economy has grown at an average annual rate of only 2.2 percent, compared to an average growth rate of 3.2 percent during the 1990s.
Beyond the collapse in business investment, the negative growth figures for the first quarter were the result of a confluence of factors, each pointing to the precarious state of the US and global economy.
Worldwide demand for US goods remains stagnant amid a global slump, with the International Monetary Fund declaring this month that “potential growth in advanced economies is likely to remain below pre-crisis rates, while it is expected to decrease further in emerging market economies in the medium term.”
Weak demand from overseas has been compounded by the ongoing rise in the value of the dollar, shrinking demand for US manufacturing exports overseas.
Oil prices, meanwhile, have fallen by more than half over the past year, prompting tens of thousands of layoffs in the US, particularly in high-cost hydraulic fracturing operations.
US corporations in recent months stepped up their demands for the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero in order to lower the value of the dollar and prop up their profits through cheap credit.
Speaking in San Francisco earlier this month, US Fed Chair Janet Yellen stressed the need to be “patient” in raising rates, while Fed officials lowered their estimate for where the federal funds rate will be at the end of this year to 0.625 percent, sharply lower than their December estimate of 1.125 percent.
In its Wednesday statement, the Federal Reserve hinted at a further delay in rate increases this year by downgrading its view of the economy while eliminating any reference to a specific timetable for raising rates.
Last week, William C. Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, made clear that the Fed is seriously considering pushing back its plans to raise interest rates till next year, declaring that “hopefully” economic growth will pick up enough for the Fed to raise rates this year.
The continuation of near-zero interest rates will not bring about any meaningful increase in investment and hiring. Rather, it will sustain the massive run-up of stock prices, which have tripled since 2009, further enriching the financial oligarchy at the expense of the working class.
The financial elite has made no effort to hide its appreciation for the Fed’s easy money policies. Earlier this month, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who funneled trillions of dollars in government funds to Wall Street in the post-2008 bank bailout, announced that he had been hired by Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel LLC. On Wednesday, bond trading firm Pimco announced that it had simultaneously hired Bernanke as an adviser.
Bernanke’s multi-million-dollar salary at these posts amount to a payoff for services rendered.
This Thursday, April 30, marks the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death but, like his birthday last Monday, it will understandably go unmarked. For many years the spot where he killed himself was also unmarked. The past can be an unwanted presence in Berlin.
It is, after all, only 25 years since a huge concrete wall separated east from west and communism from capitalism. At first, in an effort to reunify the divided city, the site of the demolished wall was so comprehensively built over that it was hard to know it had been there.
Tourists became so baffled that a cobblestone outline was laid down in the centre of town to show where the wall had stood.
Today there are also a couple of preserved sections of the wall, a Checkpoint Charlie display, a dedicated museum and even kitsch celebrations of the infamous East German car, the Trabant. After a period of determined “moving on”, the German capital has grown more at ease with the past that it was in such a rush to escape.
But less so in the case of the past that originally led to the city’s division – the Nazi era. There are few surviving buildings or monuments to testify to the period in which Berlin was the Nazi capital, when it was to become Welthauptstadt Germania – an Albert Speer-designed world capital of a massively expanded German nation.
The Olympic stadium, site of the 1936 Games, still exists, the disused Tempelhof airport and, most notably, the forbidding former ministry of aviation from which Hermann Göring boasted of dominating the European skies.
It is now the home of the ministry of finance, which many believe dominatesEurope in a far more effective manner than the Luftwaffe could ever have done.
The rest of Nazi Berlin was buried at the end of the war by a mixture of RAF and US bombing and Red Army artillery. The memory of what it had been was further interred on both sides of the wall by a concerted effort to wipe out the legend of the man who continues to cast his ominous shadow over Berlin: Hitler.
On 30 April 1945, with the Red Army only streets away, Hitler killed himself in the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery in the city centre. His body was then taken out into the open, doused in petrol and set alight in a bomb crater.
No one is sure what happened to his remains, although the Soviets believed that they had taken possession of them and kept them hidden in secret. But like some cursed relic, they were deemed too dangerous to conserve and in 1970 the Soviets had them dug up, incinerated and the ashes thrown into a river.
The Führerbunker itself was blown up and built over. But when the Berlin Wall was dismantled, it was discovered that much of the bombproof structure was still intact and it was reburied all over again.
Today it sits beneath the car park of a grey pebble-dash apartment block built during the East German era. Until nine years ago, there was no sign that identified its location, although interest in the place had been greatly increased by the filmDownfall (Der Untergang), which depicted Hitler’s demented last days.
The film proved to be a psychological breakthrough for Germans because it showed Hitler as a human being, albeit one riven by delusion, psychopathic rage and megalomaniacal dreams of violence.
When in 2006 Germany hosted the World Cup, there was concern that visiting football fans would go in search of the bunker and disturb local residents. So a discreet board was placed in the car park informing visitors of the history beneath their feet.
A couple of hundred yards from the spot is Peter Eisenman’s haunting memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. For all the Nazis’ brutality as an invading force, it is the industrial genocide perpetrated on six million Jews that singles Hitler out as uniquely evil.
As a result Hitler and the Nazis have come to occupy the extreme end of the moral spectrum, the immoral end. If you want to make a point about where racism, nationalism, militarism, flag-waving or almost any dubious behaviour might lead, you need only cite the Nazis. In fact there is a rule governing internet debate known as Godwin’s law that states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
It’s as if all wrong paths lead to Auschwitz. That can be a paralysing thought and in many ways it has inhibited Berlin’s and Germany’s ability to take stock of the past.
Living under the injunction never to forget hasn’t necessarily led Germans to remember more clearly. And the blurriest of issues remains why they allowed Hitler to do what he did.
There are whole libraries of books devoted to the subject, each applying different degrees of responsibility and knowledge. The historian Michael Stürmer made his reputation by arguing that Germans needed to develop a positive view of their history.
He says: “Germans knew and they didn’t know. The idea that all Germans knew what was going on is absurd, but there were no Germans who could not see people with the yellow star and should have asked themselves, ‘Where are they being sent to? Why are the trains coming back empty?’”
He agrees that for a long time after the war Germans suppressed the truth, partly through shame, partly because many members of the Nazi state had been redeployed in the state apparatus of both West and East Germany, and partly because the division of the country enabled each side to blame the other for the Nazis. To the communists, Nazism sprang out of capitalism, and to the democrats of the west it was the totalitarian twin of Stalinism. “It was not so much that people openly lied,” says Stürmer. “But between not lying and speaking the horrible truth there was a vast gap.”
Soon though, no one who was an active Nazi will be alive and direct responsibility will cease to be a live moral issue but solely a vexed academic one. The current trial of Oskar Gröning, an SS guard at Auschwitz, is probably the last of its kind. Once again it unearths horrific details that few have the appetite to take in.
“There is a very widespread wish to avoid the topic unless you are an author who can make some money out of it.”
Before the war there were 170,000 Jewish Berliners. Fifty-five thousand of them lost their lives in the Holocaust and most of the rest fled abroad. By the 1980s the affiliated Jewish community was down to 3,800, but an influx of Russian Jews since 1990 has taken the numbers up to 10,500, although there could be significantly more who are non-affiliated.
Alter, whose father survived Auschwitz and whose grandparents died in the Holocaust, says it has been a struggle to identify himself as German but, having sought help for his “personal traumas”, he has come to terms with his nationality. That said, he would leave tomorrow if he felt the position of Jews was under increased threat.
The security checks and metal detectors that are standard at Jewish institutions and schools are things he has learned to live with. What frustrates him is a lack of openness about the past. “I’m 55 and I’ve never met someone who was an adult in the 1930s and 1940s who said, ‘I was a Nazi and made a mistake’ or even ‘I was a Nazi and don’t regret it’. No, they all had no knowledge, were against it, their parents were in the Socialist party, they hid a Jew in the attic. I’ve never met anyone who had the courage to say, ‘I believed in it.’ If there is not an admission of guilt, then you can’t forgive.”
History can exert a tenacious hold on even the most reluctant captives, but Berlin has slowly established a normalised identity at the heart of Europe. More secure in its future, it can also be more open about its past.
There are strong rumours of plans to make the Führerbunker accessible to the public. The fear has been that the site could be used to glorify him, but what is there to glorify?
Hitler went to his death vowing to destroy Germany. It would be a measure of his failure if a secure Germany is now able to expose where that pathetic death took place.
Hitler, presiding over a rapidly disintegrating Third Reich, retreats to his Führerbunker in Berlin on 16 January 1945.
As Soviet forces converge on Berlin on 22 April, Hitler suffers a nervous collapse after being told that forces led by SS General Felix Steiner will not rescue Berlin.
By 27 April, Berlin is cut off from the rest of Germany. Hitler receives reports that Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, has offered to surrender to the western allies.
On 29 April, Hitler marries Eva Braun in a civil ceremony held in the Führerbunker.
Later that day Hitler, sceptical about the potency of the cyanide capsules he has received from the SS, tests one on his dog, Blondi, which dies.
At 1am on 30 April Hitler is informed by officers that all forces he had been hoping would come to the rescue of Berlin had either been encircled or forced onto the defensive.
Later on 30 April Hitler commits suicide, shooting himself in the mouth. Braun takes a fatal overdose of cyanide. Hitler’s remains, as he had requested, are doused in petrol and set alight in the Reich Chancellery garden outside.
On the morning of 1 May, Stalin is informed of Hitler’s suicide, but three days pass before his body is found.
Germany officially surrenders on 7 May in the French city of Reims. Fighting ends at 11.01pm on 8 May, which is declared VE Day.
Last week, 295,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Economists called it good news, as the number was less than 300,000; that’s the line they say separates good news from bad. But it isn’t much less, and other news seems very bad. In February, housing starts plunged 17 percent. Inventories are high. Demand is low. Job growth is anemic. Still, economists say things are going so well we can raise interest rates. They call that good news — though they don’t say for whom.
Some call Obama’s and Clinton’s economic worldview ‘neoliberal.’ Like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ it’s an imprecise word meant to signify a cluster of opinions; among them that globalization is inevitable and benign and that the revolution in information technology is fast democratizing commerce and politics. Neoliberals love fiscal austerity and free trade and are suckers for privatization, deregulation and ‘education reform,’ which they say will keep us competitive.
Like the neoconservatives with whom they often ally on military matters, neoliberals seem to regard our present political and economic arrangements as civilization’s final flowering, as close to perfect as one can get in a fallen world. It’s the faith that made Bush think Iraqis would greet us as liberators–who wouldn’t want to be us– and why Obama bet his presidency on economic recovery rather than reform. It’s our establishment orthodoxy, the ‘bipartisan consensus’ we’re forever chasing. It’s killing us.
In the neoliberal narrative, geniuses reinvent the world in their garages; risk takers invest in innovation; technology and trade spawns endless opportunity. It’s a land without ideology; a true meritocracy where anyone with pluck and grit is sure to rise. (So long as they’re really, really smart.) Above all it’s an engine of prosperity, the only sure means by which to broaden and strengthen the middle class.
If the story of our not-so-bold investors disappoints, it may matter less than you think, in that technology and trade never really lived up to their billing. In 2005, Tom Friedman, the Candide of globalization, said “the world is flat”; meaning technology was a great leveling force that would soon topple the old political and economic oligarchies and give everyone a chance to be an entrepreneur, or at least work in a call center. America has since grown more economically stratified and politically corrupt and has fewer jobs than it did eight years ago.
Early critics who said the new information technology would lay waste to labor were dismissed as Luddites. Twenty years on it still kills more jobs than it creates; even ‘serious people’ now say this could be the first new technology wave to result in a net job loss. As for trade, the tide let in by NAFTA sank more middle-class boats than it lifted, which accounts for the resistance to Obama’s fast track scheme.
In real life, we’re a nation of middle men and corporate toll collectors, where health insurers get 20 cents on the dollar for services done everywhere else for a nickel or less; where big banks shun small business while raking in merger fees and taking a cut of every purchase charged to a credit card; where Comcast’s pipeline is worth more than NBC’s oil; where Google gorges on ad revenues that once supported world-class journalism. We’re about cartels, not startups, not bound to the future but mortgaged to the past.
In real life, the middle class is in limbo. In the seven years since Wall Street’s crash, stocks, profits and CEO pay are at historic highs, but wages haven’t budged and we’re still years away from adding back all the jobs we lost. Millions of older Americans who lost their pensions and the equity in their homes will retire broke. Millions of younger Americans fear they’ll never have their parents’ opportunities. They all know it will take more than a bailout or a stimulus to get our economy, or their lives, back on track. You can’t prime a broken pump. We need real reform and everybody knows it; everybody, that is, except those in charge.*
The gap between elite and popular opinion on these issues is wide. Tension boiled over on the right long ago, but Democrats have mostly kept mum. It reflects their fear of Republicans, and the fact that Obama and Clinton are staunch neoliberals. Bill Clinton, more than anyone, made the consensus bipartisan. Hillary’s rhetoric has a more populist hue now, but changing her actual views won’t be easy for her.
The backlash against neoliberalism cuts across all political categories. If the Democrats resist debating it, progressives must force a debate. But they too may be reluctant, not because of any risk—there’s greater risk in silence—but because they don’t know what to say. Many progressive critics of neoliberalism are just like Republican critics of Obamacare; they hate it, but can offer no alternative.
It’s understandable. The very purpose of a political debate is to test our ideas. We progressives knock Democrats who duck debates but it’s been a while since we’ve had one of our own. I don’t mean the daily squabbles we all seem to enjoy, but a big debate that draws our whole community and eventually the nation in. We know we’d raise the minimum wage and tax the rich. But do we know our bottom line? We reject soulless, mindless globalization, but can we picture a more just and humane order? If so, we can start to frame policies to support it. I’ve only a few fragments of a vision, but hoping to extend the conversation, I’ll describe them.
Right now, before our eyes, a new economy struggles to be born. It’s more democratic than the one we have. It prizes smallness, permanence and community. It favors cooperatives and other collaborative forms of ownership and production. It reclaims the commons we own in trust for future generations. It’s local and sustainable. It both needs and fosters civic renewal. It’s growing now despite great resistance, but its final success or failure is up to us. I’ll offer some examples, first a less exotic one. It’s of an old familiar institution readapting to changing times.
I speak of independent bookstores. By 2009 the big chains had nearly wiped them out. They hit rock bottom: 1,651 stores. Then to everyone’s surprise, they revived. The number of stores has since grown to 2,094, a 25 percent increase in six years. Sales are up, and at a brisk 8 percent annual rate. It turns out that in the age of information overload, thoughtful curation means more, not less. The Internet that nearly killed them also provided a cheap way to advertise. And by expanding their activities, they built community and played to their great strength, their customers’ love of books and bookstores. To many the future of small-scaled enterprises looks bleak, but the independent booksellers’ story is one of many that suggests that in the new economy, small is beautiful.
The new economy favors forms of ownership and production that foster democracy and collaboration. You may recall George W. Bush’s blather about an ‘ownership society,’ a greedy scam to privatize Social Security and Medicare. For many years real reformers have been building a real ownership society. A familiar tool is the employee stock ownership plan. (ESOP) Often underestimated, today 11,000 ESOPs now employ nearly 11 million workers. Benefits range from higher job satisfaction and wages to improved productivity and in hard times, fewer layoffs.
ESOPs are most typically born via conversion of an established business on its owner’s retirement. Chris Mackin, a leader in the field, says coming retirements of so many baby boomers offer a chance for rapid growth. Mackin also urges use of other forms of employee ownership and seeks new government policies, including possible set asides for employee owned businesses. Having worked in the field for thirty years, he feels its best days are not only ahead of it, but imminent.
Some very innovative thinking concerns the public commons. The phrase has always meant y resource owned and used by the public but it applies in new ways to new things, from public lands to the internet and the airwaves. One goal is to preserve priceless public assets; another is to compensate the public for private use of its resources.
Peter Barnes, a journalist, activist and public spirited entrepreneur, has called for a dividend fund patterned after the Alaskan fund that distributes state oil revenue to all citizens on a pro rata basis. He’d first target companies that pollute the air and says the government could collect enough money from all sources to write every American a check every year for $5,000.
The commons may refer to peer to peer production, a process by which people collaborate as equals to produce things of value, often with little or no pay. It may sound arcane but examples include Linux, Mozilla Firefox, and Wikipedia. David Bollier, a brilliant strategist of the commons, says the challenge is to protect such work from rapacious monetization by corporate actors. Another challenge for all cooperatives is to preserve an ethos of public spiritedness as enterprises scale up.
In their different ways, independent booksellers, ESOP owner/ employees and open source programmers are helping to engineer our next economy our next new economy. The 11million who work in ESOPs enjoy good wages, benefits and job security. The booksellers are among the 14 million Americans who work for very small businesses. The programmers may be among the 6 million Americans who work from home or the 10 million who are independent contractors. For income and benefits, most of them are pretty much on their own.
All have these things in common: Their government doesn’t think much about them. They don’t think much of it. Their needs are ill-served by current economic policies or by having both major so closely tied to the old order. You can count them different ways and never with confidence, but it’s likely they comprise as much as 15 percent of the workforce — and they grow by the hour. They haven’t a sense of themselves as a political force but one party or the other soon will. When that happens, I hope they hold out for real answers.
Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.
Photo by Bülent Kılıç.
On May 13, 2014 an explosion occurred in a coal mine in Soma, a small town in western Turkey. The ensuing fire trapped hundreds of miners underground, eventually causing the death of 301 of them, while injuring 162 others. Almost one year later, on April 13, the trial against the director of Soma Holding – the company in charge of exploiting the mine – and 44 company employees and engineers has started, but few of the survivors and relatives of the deceased miners cherish any hopes that the ones responsible for the disaster will be brought to justice.
Whereas the individuals currently on trial have undoubtedly played an important role in what many have come to view as a massacre rather than a disaster, the government officials who failed to protect the workers’ rights at the national level are the ones bearing final responsibility for the senseless and preventable loss of so many lives.
“The Soma trial of mine company employees offers victims a chance to get some measure of justice,” stated Emma Sinclair-Webb in a highly critical Human Rights Watch report, “but the trial does not address the responsibility of state agents who failed in their duty to protect mine workers’ lives.”
The working conditions in the mine were dire. While the miners were pressured to maximize production and overseers structurally neglected health and safety standards the head of Soma Holding boasted in a 2012 interview that his company had brought down the costs of coal from $130 to $24 per ton. The reduction in production costs was paralleled by a similar reduction in safe working conditions. According to survivors’ accounts included in the HRW report “state authorities charged with oversight and inspection were fully aware of the situation but ignored it.”
Just two weeks before the disaster a proposal by opposition parties in parliament that called for an investigation into previous accidents at the mines in Soma was rejected by the AKP government. The director and employees of Soma Holding are now on trial, but the officials in charge of inspection of the mines remain shielded from prosecution by their political superiors. Demands are made by the public that the government takes responsibility for its failure to protect the miners.
Unfortunately, whereas the deaths of so many workers in a single disaster is a rare event, fatal workplace accidents are all too common. In the first three months of 2015 alone, a total of 351 workers died as a result of work-related accidents. Labor unions in Turkey – in the mid-20th century still a force to be reckoned with – have seen their influence decline significantly over the past three decades ever since the introduction of neoliberal policies in the early 1980s.
With the labor unions sidelined and the current government pursuing an aggressive strategy of privatization and weakening labor rights and freedoms, the time has come to explore alternative ways to organize labor and empower the workers.
In the years since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 Turkey underwent an economic boom. Over the same period that the country saw an average annual GDP growth of 5,2 percent between 2002 and 2011 its citizens saw their income grow by 43 percent. But while many Turkish citizens have profited from the country’s economic prosperity, many more have suffered from the severe repressions of labor rights that came with it.
During its time in power, the AKP has restricted worker’s rights to organize and strike, intensified neoliberal employment policies, encouraged the practice of subcontracting and part-time work agreements and allowed for the structural violation of worker rights.
Workers in Turkey were once again reminded of their precarious position when at the end of January 15,000 metal workers planned to go on strike. After failing to reach an agreement with the employer’s union about better wages and the length of collective bargaining periods the workers announced that in 22 factories in ten different cities across the country they would lay down their tools and walk off the job.
However, the next day the strike was “suspended” when the government issued a Cabinet Decree deeming it a “threat to national security”. The suspension of the strike is in fact a strike ban in action. In order to prevent the workers from walking off the job, the government recalled a controversial law – approved in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup – which was designed to curtail the powers of the influential labor unions at the time.
The suspension of the strike came as no surprise, as it was in fact the third time in the last twelve months the government had used this tactic to undermine the workers’ right to strike, which is protected by ILO conventions 87 and 98, both of which have been ratified by Turkey. “The right to strike no longer exists in Turkey,” states Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL Global Union Assistant General Secretary. “This fundamental right, guaranteed by the Constitution of the country and international norms ratified by the government, exists only on paper, not in reality.
The effective ban on all major strikes is exemplary of the limited means available to workers in Turkey to stand up for their rights and fight for better working conditions. The statistics speak for themselves regarding the urgent need for better safety regulations. Workers in Turkey are almost six times more likely to have a fatal accident at the workplace than their colleagues in the European Union. In 2014 alone, 1,886 people died in work-related accidents, bringing the total of worker deaths up to 15,396 since the AKP came to power.
Labor union membership– some would argue a worker’s most effective bulwark against exploitation – has enervated drastically in the past years. In the last decade union membership has fallen more in Turkey than in any other OECD country, with the latest statistics showing labor union density at 4,5 percent in 2012, down from 10,6 percent in 1999.
This decline in trade union membership follows a global trend of decreasing organized labor, but the active opposition to unionization by Turkish employers has significantly sped up the process. A range of tactics is deployed by employers to discourage their employees from joining a union on the one hand, and marginalize those who have done so already on the other. Union activists are often fired, demoted or simply denied promotions while employers are rarely punished for unjustly dismissing their workers for union activities.
“Dismissals during union organizing is everyday practice in Turkey,” explains Selcuk Goktas, General Secretary of Birleşik Metal-Iş, the trade union which called for the recent strike. “When an employer learns about organizing efforts at their workplace, their first response is to dismiss active union members and to hold meetings at the workplace in order to intimidate workers.”
Another obstacle Turkish workers face in organizing effectively is the widespread existence of so-called “yellow unions” – unions under the direct influence of employers. These yellow unions often undermine the bargaining power of independent unions by signing weak collective agreements that fall short of meeting worker demands. The agreement between the metal worker unions Turk Metal and Celik-Iş and the employers’ union MESS – while Birleşik Metal-Iş failed to reach an agreement and called for a strike – is a case in point which illustrates how yellow unions agree to terms that independent unions do not support.
After the Soma disaster many miners renounced their membership of the local union, which they believed had been collaborating with the mining company and had failed to protect the safety and rights of the workers. “Many miners call Maden-Iş a yellow union, but the problem is the officials, who are not chosen by the workers, but appointed from above,” one miner was quoted as saying after the disaster, adding that the union leaders are “in bed with the company”. By addressing the lack of democracy and the easy co-option of (yellow) union leaders by the employers and the political powers that protect them, the miner’s statement gets at the heart of the matter.
The lack of real democracy and bottom-up organization in many labor unions and the complicity of some union leaders with the exploitation of workers by their employers in combination with a pro-labor rights legislation which is in place but is structurally ignored, circumvented and overruled have led some workers to give up hope that any improvements in the current situation can be won in the same arena where they already have been defeated many times before.
Instead of demanding their rights, these workers have taken them; instead of hoping for the right leadership they have abolished hierarchy altogether; and instead of striking for better wages, they have occupied their workplace, recuperated the machines and started producing for themselves.
When in January 2013 the 94 workers of the Kazova Textile factory in Istanbul’s central Sisli neighborhood were collectively fired under false pretenses after their bosses had neglected to pay their salaries for four consecutive months, a small group of workers decided to resist. They organized regular protest marches and set up of a tent in front of the factory to prevent their former bosses from stripping the factory of anything of value.
Emboldened by the nationwide Gezi protests which rocked the country in the summer that year, the Kazova workers prepared for the next step and occupied their former workplace.
What followed was almost two years of struggles in which the resisting workers were beaten by hired thugs, tear gassed by the police and were caught up in an exhausting legal case in an attempt to claim legal ownership over the textile machinery that would allow them to provide in their own livelihoods.
Inspired by the many solidarity visits they received and the stories of other worker struggles such as the National Movement of Recuperated Businesses in Argentina and the occupied Vio.Me factory in Greece the Kazova workers adopted the slogan of the Landless Movement in Brazil ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce!’ and started organizing themselves as a cooperative.
Currently the Free Kazova workers’ cooperative is in its third month of autonomous production. The cooperative is still faced with many hardships, but the boss-less life is something that fills the members of the cooperative with great satisfaction. Their only fear is that the state might eventually turn against them.
“The Turkish state is pro-bosses, it just wants them to make profit,” argues Aynur Aydemir, one of the members of the cooperative. “Therefore it would never agree upon a workers’ cooperative of production. They want slaves, new slaves, young slaves. That’s why they promote the women to sit at home and to have three, four, five children so that they will have new slaves for the bosses.”
The Free Kazova cooperative is but one single oasis in a very large desert, but nonetheless it has the power and the potential to guide and inspire others. The Kazova workers’ history of exploitation, repression and injustice is one that is all too familiar for the millions of workers caught up in a cycle of daily recurring struggles to make ends meet. However, where so many of these struggles only end to see the next one starting the Kazova workers have managed to break the cycle by taking matters into their own hands. As such, their story can fulfill the role of a beacon of hope that another way of organizing labor is possible.
Even if the state agents responsible for the life-threatening working conditions in the Soma mine will be brought to justice, and even if the metal workers strike is allowed to continue, any possible outcome will only serve to patch up an already broken system.
A government that does not adhere to its own laws will rarely listen to the demands of its subordinates. For workers the only option left to bring about real change is to take matters into their own hands. As the Free Kazova cooperative has shown, the path they’ve chosen might not be easy and success is far from guaranteed, but at the end of the day theirs might be the only true alternative.
The eruption of mass anger in Baltimore, Maryland over the police murder of Freddie Gray, and the subsequent military-police takeover of the city, have once again revealed the reality of social life in America. The United States is a seething cauldron of social discontent, over which a frightened and isolated ruling class rules ever more nakedly through the methods of violence and repression.
Two thousand National Guard troops, many of whom were previously deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, have poured into one of America’s largest cities, only 40 miles from the nation’s capital. A curfew has been imposed, and anyone found after dark without a driver’s license and a document from their employer attesting to the fact that they work after hours will be arrested.
The entire political and media establishment has seized on the rioting and unrest following the funeral of Gray to declare their support for the paramilitary occupation of the city. The gamut of opinion represented on the television news ranges from full support for the crackdown to criticism of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for not having called in the National Guard earlier.
On Tuesday, President Obama, who has fully backed the crackdown in Baltimore, weighed in with his own remarks, delivered at a press conference announcing a new military agreement with Japan. Obama took the occasion to denounce youth in Baltimore as “criminals and thugs” and said that there is “no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday.” He added that the violence “robs jobs and opportunity from people in that area.”
To say that there is no excuse is to say that there is no reason, that the social eruption in Baltimore is simply the product of “thugs”—a term used ubiquitously by the political and media establishment over the past several days. In fact, the cause of the unrest in Baltimore is not hard to locate. It is the product of intense anger over poverty, unemployment, social decay and the unending reign of police violence and murder in Baltimore and cities throughout the United States.
For the youth targeted by the police crackdown, there are no “excuses,” but for Obama, and the corporate aristocracy and the military-intelligence apparatus that he represents, excuses abound. The United States government is built on a mass of excuses for all the crimes of the ruling class.
Just last week, Obama excused the fact that a drone strike he ordered in January killed two hostages, with the bland declaration, “During the fog of war mistakes happen.” There is no shortage of excuses for the hundreds of thousands killed as a result of US military operations.
And there are plenty of excuses for the real criminals in Baltimore: the police, armed to the teeth with military gear provided by the Obama administration. The killing of Gray—an act that has yet to result in any arrests or charges—is only the latest in a long string of daily harassment, brutality and abuse, in Baltimore and throughout the country. Those responsible are almost never held accountable. Following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year, the Obama administration worked closely with local and state officials and prosecutors to ensure that his killer was exonerated.
As for Obama’s claims that the actions of youth in Baltimore “robs jobs and opportunity,” this comes from the chief representative of a financial aristocracy that has laid havoc to Baltimore and countless other cities.
For decades, the ruling class in America has carried out a policy of deindustrialization, shutting down entire sectors of the economy. Obama himself has presided over the largest transfer of wealth into the pockets of the rich in US history, even as he has overseen the destruction of wages and the decimation of social services. Since Obama came to office, Baltimore has lost 80 percent of its manufacturing jobs, and thousands of children are homeless and tens of thousands live in poverty.
The events in Baltimore reveal starkly the fraud of identity politics, based on the claim that race, not class, is the fundamental social category in America. Obama’s denunciation of young people in Baltimore mirrors that of the entire African-American political apparatus in the city, which has responded to the protests with a combination of hatred, rage and fear.
In her press conference Tuesday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake repeatedly referred to young people expressing their anger over police violence as “thugs” in announcing the imposition of a curfew and the calling in of the National Guard. She was flanked by Patrol Chief Darryl De Sousa, the City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, and City Council member Brandon M. Scott, all of whom were black, with the latter two also calling the demonstrators “thugs.”
This coming August will mark the 50th Anniversary of the Watts rebellion, a wave of social unrest that engulfed the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965. The Watts rebellion, sparked by an incident of police brutality, was followed in the coming years by a series of uprisings in urban centers throughout the country, including Baltimore.
Two social phenomena characterize the subsequent decades. First, the extraordinary growth of social inequality. The conditions of workers and working-class youth, including African Americans, are worse today than they were a half century ago. Second, the ruling class has integrated into positions of power and privilege a layer of the black upper middle class, which has presided over an economic and cultural catastrophe in city after city.
In its response to the eruption of police violence over the murder of Freddie Gray, the black political establishment, headed by the first African-American president, has shown itself exactly for what it is: corrupt, self-interested and utterly hostile to the interests and aspirations of the poor and workers, black and white.
The fight against police violence is fundamentally a class question. In the methods deployed on the streets of Baltimore, the ruling class is demonstrating what it is prepared to do in response to all opposition to its policies of war and social counterrevolution.
The eruption of anger in Baltimore, however, is the expression of these sentiments in a form that lacks political direction. Police violence, inequality, poverty and unemployment cannot be ended in this way. This requires a political movement of the entire working class, which must come to the defense of the workers and youth of Baltimore.
The fight against police brutality and murder must be connected to a conscious political mobilization of the working class, independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties, and aimed at the overthrow of capitalism and the reorganization of society on a socialist basis.
Andre Damon and Joseph Kishore