Why We Need a Universal Basic Income

ECONOMY
America is in desperate need of both a universal basic income and a federal jobs guarantee.

WASHINGTON D.C. – OCTOBER 8: Protesters march through the Nations capitol during the 2011 Occupy movement on October 8, 2011 in Washington D.C. 
Photo Credit: Evan McCaffrey/Shutterstock

As Labor Day approached this year, I awaited the lip service of Republicans praising “job creators” and business owners. I knew full well there was no chance they’d honor the common laborer – the people who feed, house, and transport them; the workers who keep their cities clean and their towns sanitary; the men and women who have raised their children and taken care of their aging and dying parents.

I didn’t have to wait long to be proven right. Long devoid of any meaning to most American laborers, the holiday now serves as little more than a day for our current politicians to shamelessly adulate their donors – while people in the service industry are forced to work longer hours.

Yet as disheartening as the desecration of Labor Day is, the policies of the current administration are worse.

As Noam Scheiber recently wrote at The New York Times, amidst all the loud, sensationalist stories, the current administration quietly has worked to dismantle the few rights and protections the common American laborer once had. The Trump White House has “proposed a 40 percent cut for the government agency that conducts research into workplace hazards, undone Obama-era guidances on enforcement of employment laws and sought to eliminate a roughly $10.5 million program that helps some unions and nonprofit organizations…to educate workers on how to avoid injury and illness.”1

This assault on worker’s rights is only the beginning.

Wage theft has become one of the most widespread worker violations of our times. This illegal but ubiquitous practice includes making laborers work off the clock, whether through breaks or before or after shifts. It also includes not paying workers a higher overtime wage, and misclassifying laborers as contractors who are then unable to qualify for benefits or employee protections. Wage theft even encompasses the simple violation of minimum wage laws.

Like so many other labor problems, wage theft affects women and minority workers most severely. What’s more, enforcing wage and hours laws is largely left to the individual worker because the Department of Labor, especially under the current administration, has no interest in being proactive. Therefore, violations are prevalent as jaywalking and don’t get policed.

One study of low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York showed that two-thirds of laborers experienced wage theft at least once a week, averaging during the course of a year about $2600 per worker. If these three cities are representative of the rest of the country’s thirty million low-wage workers, wage theft effectively steals over $50 billion a year from hard-working men and women.2

But wage theft is only one of our many problems. As such scholars as Mark Paul and William Darity point out, while the government purports that unemployment is currently under 5 percent, broader measures of classifying unemployment – including “discouraged” and part-time laborers seeking full-time work – nearly double that number to 10 percent. Unemployment also is twice as high in the black community, where African American workers have never experienced rates below 7 percent.3

Still, the main reason for poverty in America is not necessarily the lack of jobs, but the lack of a living wage and a social safety net. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a full quarter of full-time workers still earn poverty-level wages. A living wage – the minimum pay needed for the basics of living – has become a rallying cry for workers all over America recently, as calls for an increase in the minimum wage, like Fight for Fifteen, have gained steam.

Full employment, therefore, is important: people need jobs that are year-round (as opposed to seasonal work), pay a living wage, and include benefits like health care, disability insurance and retirement funds.

Without these things, even people who work more than full time still can expect to spend years living below the poverty line. As technological innovation and the loss of American jobs overseas further threatens the plight of laborers, nothing short of drastic changes to the system will truly help alleviate hardship and suffering among the nation’s most impoverished.

In addition to standard social safety nets such as single-payer universal health care, America is in desperate need of both a universal basic income (UBI) and a federal and a federal jobs guarantee (FJG).

The UBI would be for those who truly needed it – those who could not endure traditional full-time employment, either because of age, illness, disability, care-taking or student-status. As baby boomers grow old and need care, as students struggle to earn an education without becoming hideously indebted, and as parents yearn to stay home with infants and very young children, a UBI would truly revolutionize society.

Proposals vary, with costs depending on whether or not UBI would be paired with other social programs, like universal health care. Karl Widerquist, a Georgetown professor of political philosophy, estimated that at $6000 per child and $12,000 per adult, the net cost of UBI would be $539 billion per year.

This number may sound astronomical, but to put it into perspective, Widerquist writes, a UBI would cost “less than 25 percent of the cost of current US entitlement spending, less than 15 percent of overall federal spending, and about 2.95 percent of Gross Domestic Product.” It would immediately lift more than 43 million people out of poverty, including 14.5 million children.4

But as basic income advocate Scott Santens points out, for the cost of UBI to truly be accurate, economists need to deduct the cost of all the social safety-net programs and tax credits that UBI would replace. Depending on the other choices that we, as a country, make, the total cost of UBI would be somewhere in the “hundreds of billions of dollars range.” The cost of not eliminating poverty? It’s over $3 trillion a year.5

UBI would work best if paired with a federal jobs guarantee. The vast majority of Americans want to work; they derive a sense of pride and fulfilment and identity from their jobs.

A FJG undoubtedly would transform the United States. Taking the best aspects of the New Deal (and learning lessons from the era about what not to do), a FJG would have the power to completely rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, modernizing the country and making it accessible to most non-car owners.

It would radicalize our choices in aging and end-of-life care, as more Americans could stay at home with loved ones and have medical professionals and caretakers come to them. Additionally, we might finally have enough qualified professionals to engage in mental health care, helping to alleviate some of the nation’s rampant drug and alcohol abuse.

A FJG would unquestionably help narrow the achievement gap in schools, as high-quality universal childcare could be offered from infancy. For many women with children, this fact alone would allow them to continue their own careers without worrying about earning less what their childcare costs.

Just as with UBI, costs associated with a FJG vary widely according to multiple factors. According to the Center for American Progress, a FJG could create 4 million jobs at $15 an hour plus benefits at a cost of “something like $158 billion a year,” a figure equaling only a quarter of the currently proposed tax cuts for the rich. On the higher end, Duke University economist William Darity estimates the cost at $750 billion a year, but this includes benefits and health insurance.6

Further, with at least one-third of workers in the private sector not getting paid sick leave, and a full quarter of Americans never enjoying paid vacation or holiday time, a federal jobs guarantee would offer benefits to every hard-working person who wants them.7

If private companies underpaid or abused their workers in other ways, laborers could always leave their jobs for government work. The FJG’s brilliance is perhaps most obvious here: it keeps private companies — who historically have shafted their workers at every turn to make a dime — as honest and humane as employers in a capitalist system can possibly be.

This fundamental restructuring of our society would also usher in a cultural and spiritual renaissance of sorts, as we connect labor – any kind of labor – back to dignity. No matter the job, we must learn to see the intrinsic value of our fellow human beings. We must learn to honor all work – not just work that turns a profit.

My lamentations for a Labor Day that honors laborers, I fear, have only just begun. Unless and until all non-elite American workers band together across racial and social and educational lines, our money-hungry politicians will continue to serve the interests of people just like themselves: the rich and already-powerful.

[1] Noam Scheiber, “Trump Shifts Labor Policy Focus From Worker to Entrepreneur,” The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2017.
[2] See UCLA Labor Center, “What is Wage Theft?,” online, http://www.labor.ucla.edu/wage-theft/; Brady Meixell and Ross Eisenbray, “An Epidemic of Wage Theft Is Costing Workers Hundreds of Millions of Dollars a Year,” Economic Policy Institute, Sept. 11, 2004.
[3] Mark Paul, “A Job for Everyone: A federal job guarantee is a good All-American policy,” US News and World Report, Oct. 7, 2016.
[4] Karl Widerquist, “How Much Does UBI Cost?,” Basic Income Network, May 26, 2017.
[5] Scott Santens, “The Cost of Universal Basic Income is the Net Transfer Amount, Not the Gross Price,” Huffington Post, July 10, 2017.
[6] Annie Lowrey, “Should the Government Guarantee Everyone a Job?,” The Atlantic, May 18, 2017; Paul, “A Job for Everyone.”
[7] Bryce Covert, “Back to Work,” New Republic, July 18, 2017.

 

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The State of Labor on Labor Day

 

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation | CC BY 2.0

The state of labor on Labor Day, 2017, is precarious, and can only be rectified by a Left, that reasserts class politics and takes its lead from a “universalizing” anti-stystemic labor movement.

Severe problems began with the Reagan revolution, which enshrined a ruthless global capitalism and sought to destroy unions. While the GOP and their corporate allies were destroying New Deal worker protections, the Democrats were doing little to stop them. The Clintons’ centrist Third Way took the Democrats out of a New Deal frame and into an embrace of Wall Street and the corporations, cementing the US as the only advanced Western nation with no party of labor.

Outsourcing and robotics, as well as deep cultural divides among workers, have intensified the problem, but they also have political solutions.

Trump, while elected because of the real crisis among workers, has not offered a solution for his white working class base; his extreme anti-union, austerity, and deregulatory policies will hurt them more.

This opens the door to what we call a “universalizing” strategy in which progressives in unions, the Democratic Party and social justice movements – as well as much of the general public that has turned fiercely anti-Establishment –come together to fight the ruling system and create a new New Deal, one that involves new kinds of unions and political policies –and a new labor focus on the Left – through four key new approaches.

1) Union leaders, working with their political allies, must connect better with their own members’ core interests. This means intensely challenging the global corporate power that is hollowing out the working class here, and requires labor working with political allies to rein in corporate power, build public infrastructure and expand social welfare protecting all Americans. If white workers’ core economic interests are protected, they are far more likely to unite across racial and cultural differences for a better standard of life. European unions, even where they represent less than ten percentage of the labor force, as in France, have succeeded for decades in winning support among culturally conservative workers by winning political power and preventing corporate oligarchy. Bernie Sanders attracted many white working class votes, proving that progressive populism here can draw culturally conservative workers, but not enough unions supported him in 2016.

2) As workers are increasingly people of color and female, the labor movement must connect better with other social justice movements, such as civil rights and feminist movements, as well as environmental and peace movements. These movements are all fighting the same systemic nexus of power and can only succeed together. The United Steelworkers has set a model of this by building vigorous alliances between labor and civil rights organizations, showing how to unite racially around shared interests.

3) The Left must move away from its current form of identity politics. We need a strong identity politics – especially in the Trump era where women, people of color, immigrants and other Left “identity communities” are under threat. But since the 1960s, the Left has largely abandoned its focus on labor and class politics, leaving an identity politics stripped of class alliances and awareness. This is a devastating situation for the Left; by giving up on changing capitalism, Left identity politics becomes a strategy for doing better within the capitalist regime, thereby reinforcing it. Only a new strong alliance between identity politics and class politics can create a viable Left; this Labor Day is a crucial moment for the Left to recognize its abandonment of class politics, allowing Trump to capture more and more white workers.

4) Labor must help transform the Democratic Party, especially by connecting with the progressive Sanders wing of the Party and allied social justice movements as well as with the broader population not in unions. Joining with the Sanders “revolution” in politics and on the street, labor can reach a majority of the angry and scared working population by being as systemically disruptive as Trump, but with very different politics, The new politics would make a genuine commitment to creatings good jobs and social protections in healthcare, education, and retirement now being dismantled by Trump and the GOP. Unions need to support a new assertive public sector and universalize its aims toward comprehensive social welfare and universal human rights, as seen in European nations. In the US, service unions such as nurses and teachers, as well as traditional industrial unions like the USW, are moving this way.

This is not utopian but urgent and realistic. Labor is already beginning to take these steps as inequality grows, economic conditions decline, and a new anti-Establishment American majority demands major change. Labor Day is now a pivotal political moment for labor and the entire nation and world.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/04/the-state-of-labor-on-labor-day/

This Labor Day, Remember That Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign Was for Workers’ Rights

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Sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968. (Photo Credit: Richard L. Copley)

Most Americans today know that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, but few know why he was there. King went to Memphis to support African American garbage workers, who were on strike to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages — and to gain recognition for their union. Their picket signs relayed a simple but profound message: “I Am A Man.”

Today we view King as something of a saint, his birthday a national holiday, and his name adorning schools and street signs. But in his day, the establishment considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. He began his activism in Montgomery, Alabama, as a crusader against the nation’s racial caste system, but the struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice.

As we celebrate Labor Day on Monday, let’s remember that King was committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements.

Invited to address the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, King observed:

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

He added:

“The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

Several major unions reciprocated King’s support. When he was jailed in Birmingham for participating in civil disobedience, it was Walter Reuther, the charismatic leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, who paid his $165,000 bail.

Several major unions, especially the UAW and the International Ladies Garment Workers, had donated money to civil rights groups, supported the sit-ins and freedom rides, and helped organize the massive 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

We often forget that its official name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and that its manifesto called on Congress not only to pass a civil rights bill but also “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” The manifesto pointed out that “anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.”

In 1963, the minimum wage was $1.25 — the equivalent of $9.83 in today’s dollars. A $2 minimum wage in 1963 would be $15.73 an hour today.

In the 1960s, the sit-ins (a tactic adopted from workers’ sit-down strikes in the 1930s), Freedom Rides, mass marches, and voter registration drives eventually led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King was proud of the civil rights movement’s success in winning the passage of those important laws. But he realized that neither law did much to provide better jobs or housing for the large numbers of low-income African Americans in the cities and rural areas. He recognized the limits of breaking down legal segregation.

“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” King asked.

King observed: “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.” To achieve economic justice, King said, “there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American whether he [or she] is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer,” said King.

In a speech to the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1965, King said:

“The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous. We have not used a fraction of it for our own good or for the needs of society as a whole. If we make the war on poverty a total war; if we seek higher standards for all workers for an enriched life, we have the ability to accomplish it, and our nation has the ability to provide it. lf our two movements unite their social pioneering initiative, thirty years from now people will look back on this day and honor those who had the vision to see the full possibilities of modern society and the courage to fight for their realization. On that day, the brotherhood of man, undergirded by economic security, will be a thrilling and creative reality.”

A half-century before Occupy Wall Street, King warned about the “gulf between the haves and the have-nots” and insisted that America needed a “better distribution of wealth.”

Thus, it was not surprising that Memphis’ civil rights and union leaders invited King to their city to help draw national attention to the garbage strike.

The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968, and were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, they continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay. The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck.

These two incidents epitomized the workers’ long-standing grievances. Wages averaged about $1.70 per hour. Forty percent of the workers qualified for welfare to supplement their poverty-level salaries. They had almost no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations. They worked in filthy conditions, and lacked basic amenities like a place to eat and shower. They were required to haul leaky garbage tubs that spilled maggots and debris on them. White supervisors called them “boy” and arbitrarily sent them home without pay for minor infractions that they overlooked when white workers did the same thing. The workers asked Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the City Council to improve their working conditions, but they refused to do so.

On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off their jobs, demanding that the city recognize their union (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME) and negotiate to resolve their grievances. They also demanded a pay increase to $2.35 an hour, overtime pay, and merit promotions without regard to race.

For the next several months, city officials refused to negotiate with the union. In private, Mayor Loeb reportedly told associates, “I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union.”

The city used non-union workers and supervisors to pick up garbage downtown, from hospitals, and in residential areas. Even so, thousands of tons of garbage piled up. Community support for the strikers grew steadily. The NAACP endorsed the strike and sponsored all-night vigils and pickets at City Hall. On February 23, 1,500 people — strikers and their supporters — packed City Hall chambers, but the all-white City Council voted to back the mayor’s refusal to recognize the union.

Local ministers (led by Rev. James Lawson) formed a citywide group to support the strikers. They called on their congregants to participate in rallies and marches, donate to the strike fund, and boycott downtown stores in order to get business leaders to pressure city officials to negotiate with the union. On Sunday, March 3, an eight-hour gospel singing marathon at Mason Temple raised money for strikers. The next day, the beginning of the fourth week of the strike, 500 white labor unionists from Memphis and other Tennessee cities joined black ministers and sanitation workers in their daily downtown march.

On several occasions, the police attacked the strikers with clubs and mace. They harassed protestors and even arrested strike leaders for jaywalking. On March 5, 117 strikers and supporters were arrested for sitting in at city hall. Six days later, hundreds of students skipped high school to participate in a march led by black ministers. Two students were arrested.

At the rallies, ministers and union activists linked the workers’ grievances with the black community’s long-standing anger over police abuse, slum housing, segregated and inadequate schools, and the concentration of blacks in the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs.

Despite the escalating protest, the city establishment dug in its heals, refusing to compromise and demanding that the strikers return to work or risk losing their jobs. The local daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, consistently opposed the strikers. “Memphis garbage strikers have turned an illegal walk out into anarchy,” it wrote in one editorial, “and Mayor Henry Loeb is exactly right when he says, ‘We can’t submit to this sort of thing!’”

Mayor Loeb and City Attorney Frank B. Gianotti persuaded a local judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the strike and picketing. The union and its allies refused to end their protests. Several union leaders — AFSCME’s international president Jerry Wurf, Local 1733 President T.O. Jones, and national staffers William Lucy and P. J. Ciampa — were cited for contempt, sentenced to 10 days in jail, fined $50, and freed pending appeal.

With tensions rising and no compromise in sight, local ministers and AFSCME invited King to Memphis to re-energize the local movement, lift the strikers’ flagging spirits, and encourage them to remain nonviolent. On Monday, March 18, King spoke at a rally attended by 17,000 people and called for a citywide march. He said:

“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

His speech triggered national media attention, and catalyzed the rest of the labor movement to expand its support for the strikers.

King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead a march. The police moved into crowds with night sticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire. The police arrested 280 people. 60 were injured. A 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot to death. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in. The next day, 300 sanitation workers and supporters marched peacefully and silently to City Hall — escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three large military trucks, and dozens of Guardsmen with bayonets fixed. President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany offered their help in resolving the dispute, but Mayor Loeb turned them down.

King came back to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3 to address a rally to pressure city officials to negotiate a compromise solution to the strike. That night, at the Mason Temple — packed with over 10,000 black workers and residents, ministers, white union members, white liberals, and students — King delivered what would turn out to be his last speech. He emphasized the linked fate of the civil rights and labor movements:

“Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

The next day, James Earl Ray assassinated King as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel.

As Time magazine noted at the time: “Ironically, it was the violence of Martin Luther King’s death rather than the nonviolence of his methods that ultimately broke the city’s resistance” and led to the strike settlement.

President Johnson ordered federal troops to Memphis and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike. The following week, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and dozens of national figures led a peaceful memorial march through downtown Memphis in tribute to King and in support of the strike. Local business leaders, tired of the boycott and the downtown demonstrations, urged Loeb to come to terms with the strikers.

On April 16, union leaders and city officials reached an agreement. The City Council passed a resolution recognizing the union. The 14-month contract included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases of 10 cents per hour May 1 and another five cents in September. Members of AFSCME Local 1733 approved the agreement unanimously and ended their strike.

The settlement wasn’t only a victory for the sanitation workers. The strike had mobilized the African American community, which subsequently became increasingly involved in local politics and school and jobs issues, and which developed new allies in the white community.

Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there is a growing movement in the United States today protesting the nation’s widening economic inequality and persistent poverty.

One of the most vibrant crusades is the ongoing battle to raise the minimum wage. In the past 40 years, the federal minimum wage — stuck at $7.25 since 2009 because Republicans in Congress have refused to act — has lost 30% of its value.

As a result, low-wage workers for fast-food chains and big box retailers, janitors, security guards, day laborers, and others have forged a grassroots movement to pressure their employers (like Walmart and McDonalds) to raise starting salaries and benefits. These workers and their allies have engaged in civil disobedience and strikes to galvanize public opinion.

Coalitions of unions, community organizations, faith-based and immigrant rights groups have also successfully pushed cities and states to adopt minimum wage laws that will pay families enough to meet basic needs. A growing number of cities — including Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Pasadena, and many others — have passed minimum wage laws that will gradually reach between $13 and $15 an hour, typically with an annual cost-of-living increase. Los Angeles County — the nation’s largest county — adopted a law that will raise the minimum wage to $15 in unincorporated cities. Earlier this year California and New York adopted state laws to bring the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Massachusetts adopted a $15 minimum wage for home care workers.

In recent years, New York, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii have adopted different versions of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that provides new protections for nannies, babysitters, senior care aides, housekeepers and others — primarily women and many of them immigrants — who are excluded from federal labor protections.

A growing number of cities (including Philadelphia, Austin, Seattle, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C), counties (including Missoula County in Montana, Pima County in Arizona, and Kings County in Washington), and states (including California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have adopted laws providing government employees, and in some places all employees, with paid family leave — a right that workers in most other countries already take for granted. These laws require employers to pay workers’ salaries if they take time off from work to care for a new child following birth, adoption, or foster placement, to recover from a pregnancy or childbirth-related disability, and/or to take care of sick family members. As the number of cities and states with such laws continues to grow, Congress will be under increasing pressure to adopt similar policies at the federal level.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Just as King helped build bridges between the labor and civil rights movements, today’s union activists are forging closer ties to the immigrant rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements, as well as to struggles to reform Wall Street and to challenge the proliferation of guns and the mass incarceration of people of color.

In his final speech at Memphis’ Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, King, only 39 at the time, told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism.

“I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

We haven’t gotten there yet. But King is still with us in spirit. The best way to honor his memory this Labor Day and every day is to continue the struggle for human dignity, workers’ rights, living wages, and social justice.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City(University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

Uber may be a bum deal for drivers and cabbies alike, threatening the future of full-time work

How Uber’s Efforts to Squeeze Drivers Have Compelled Them to Fight Back

Last week in Long Island City, a waterfront neighborhood in western Queens, over 1,000 Uber drivers went on strike, protesting against several recent policy changes that directly cut into their wages. LIC is cab country, home to countless car service companies, and it can sometimes feel like every passing vehicle is a taxi of some sort: a classic yellow cab, a town car, a green taxi or, more likely than not, a ridesharing car. So it came as no surprise that drivers who work for Uber—a smartphone app that connects drivers with people looking for a ride—chose the company’s Long Island City headquarters to protest their labor practices.

One driver grievance was the decision to extend a summer discount, where the base price for standard rides was slashed from $12 to $8, into the fall, requiring drivers to work more hours to make the same money. The other is slightly more complex, but just as damaging to workers’ earning potential. There are several distinct tiers of Uber service (UberX and Uber XL, the cheapest services offered in New York City, and UberBlack and UberSUV, the higher-end black car services), and drivers for the higher-end versions earn more, in part to compensate for the higher costs of their vehicles, which they must supply themselves. Without any advance warning, the company told drivers for “Black” and “SUV” that they would now be sent cheaper fares as well, and that declining those fares could lead to their deactivation from the service.

The coordinated outcry from their workers got Uber’s attention, and, in an abrupt turnaround late on Friday morning, the company sent a mass email to their New York drivers giving them permission to decide if and when to receive UberX requests. Though this conflict may seem like a minor technical issue, it speaks to the increasingly fraught dynamic between the San Francisco-based company and its international network of independently contracted drivers.

Uber has built its reputation on providing reliable, safe rides at any time and at any location in the urban centers where it operates. In 205 cities in 45 countries across the world, it is now possible to take out your phone, select a car from a map showing nearby Uber vehicles, and have a cab waiting at your doorstep in under five minutes. Because customers’ accounts are linked to their debit or credit cards, payment is seamless. The convenience and usability of the app have inspired devoted fans, and few would argue against the practicality of Uber and its ever-expanding list of peers, including Sidecar, Lyft, SheTaxis and Halo. But in their focus on customer service, ridesharing companies have pushed the concerns of their workers aside.

* * * * *

Since it’s founding in 2009, Uber has become the poster child for the sharing economy, a nebulous concept that basically boils down to companies taking on the role of middlemen. Companies like Uber, Airbnb and Snapgoods use technology to connect people to various goods and services (apartments, cars, ball gowns, bikes) that they can rent temporarily. The sharing economy has been heralded as a resource-saving, efficient, collaborative system that allows people to make a profit from items they wouldn’t otherwise be using. In another light, it can be seen as a sign of our economically insecure times. People who don’t make enough at their day jobs can try to cover expenses by renting out an extra room of their apartments, or driving strangers around a few afternoons per week. It is evidence of the fragile finances of people who are underpaid for minimum wage work or cobbling together full-time schedules from an assortment of temporary and seasonal gigs.

Investors love this economic model, for obvious reasons. Because these service providers are tech companies first and foremost and do not own the products being rented, much of the business risk, from upkeep to scheduling, is shifted to the workers. Companies like Uber—which received a valuation of $18.2 billion back in June—can make enormous profits while washing their hands of any responsibility to their employees.

Uber has exploited their position as middleman in two principal ways, both of which have a serious impact on people who drive cabs for a living. One, they claim that they are “disrupting” the overly regulated, outmoded taxi industry in the name of competition and the free market. What goes unmentioned are the thousands of full-time taxi drivers, many of whom belong to associations that help them fight for decent wages and other benefits, being put out of work by the rise of ridesharing companies. Furthermore, for a company that so values competition, Uber has systematically worked to quash their rivals in cities across the country, engaging in underhanded tactics to poach drivers from other car services.

The other way Uber takes advantage of their middleman status is in their treatment of workers. Uber drivers are not technically considered employees. Instead, they are “independent contractors,” meaning that they don’t receive any of the benefits or protections employers are typically expected to provide. The company tries to play this both ways. On the one hand, they claim that Uber drivers—or “partners,” as they’re known—typically work part-time, and drive as a way to make some extra cash. Yet the company also markets itself as a job creator and promises drivers the opportunity to make up to $90,000 a year in places like New York—no one’s idea of pocket change, if it is in fact true.

The contractor model has been tested by a number of corporations that want to do away with the inconvenience of having to be accountable to their labor force. In one recent example, FedEx Ground lost a landmark court case for misclassifying their drivers as “contractors,” saddling them with the burden of providing their own healthcare, FedEx-brand equipment, gas, insurance and much more. FedEx may now have to pay hundreds of millions in backpay. By shifting much of the risk and cost of operations onto the workers, companies like FedEx and Uber are relieved of the responsibility of dealing with the day-to-day hazards of running a business. In a blog post about the downsides of the sharing economy, Maureen Conway of the Aspen Institute, a centrist think tank, writes:

“If someone gets sick in the car and that driver has to spend the rest of the day cleaning the car, that’s not Uber’s problem….The risks associated with illness, injury or just the ups and downs of customer demand are largely borne by workers.”

Uber drivers use their own vehicles, pay for their own gas, parking and repairs, receive no benefits or worker’s compensation, and, once they are hired, have hardly any interaction with the company for which they work. Taken together, these additional costs make a significant dent in what workers bring home at the end of the day. Yet the company and its acolytes promote Uber as a source of well-compensated, stable employment. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced last week that they are adding 50,000 new “driver jobs” each month, and they have hundreds of thousands of drivers in their network. In promotional materials, Uber brags that their drivers can make salaries in the upper five figures in particularly busy markets like New York and San Francisco, and that they earn far more on average than taxi drivers. This would all seem to imply that the company acknowledges that drivers operate vehicles for Uber as their primary source of income. As the recent protests in New York City (and Los Angeles, and Santa Monica) suggest, many of the people who work for Uber consider driving their full-time job and are struggling to make ends meet.

Yet the company also markets itself as a form of part-time employment, a stopgap measure between full-time jobs or a way for grad students or stay-at-home moms to make a few extra bucks. This is certainly the case for some drivers, who enjoy the ability to create their own schedules and serve as their own employers. Nina Beck, a sunny 26-year-old from the Bay Area, told me in a phone interview that she started working for Uber because she was getting married and needed a job with flexible hours. Maria Vargas, an Uber driver who lives in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, began working for the company when her kids moved out and she no longer needed to work at her full time job sewing for a garment factory.

“I love it,” she said. “You can go on vacations. They don’t care if you’re working or not. The money is never enough, but for me, it is.”

For many others, it is not. Haroon, a Pakistani immigrant who has been working for Uber for two years, told me that he works 12-hour shifts six days per week in order to support his wife and two young sons. Most of the drivers who he knows from Uber, and from a previous stint working for Lyft, work full-time, often clocking far more than 40 hours per week. Anyone hoping to earn a decent income as a ridesharing driver should expect to treat it as a full-time job, whether or not the company admits it. Though Uber is surely aware that casual part-time workers aren’t the reason the company has been able to move into scores of new markets at a blistering pace. No corporation would function with a labor force of individuals who only worked for an hour or two a day. Uber’s popularity is based on its reliability and availability, and the company needs knowledgeable, friendly drivers working on a steady basis to ensure that they maintain it.

Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, NYC’s union for yellow taxicab drivers, put it to me this way: “Ridesharing companies like Uber are informalizing driver labor. Throughout the world, whenever workers’ labor is deprofessionalized, they lose protections and rights…As much as Uber supporters talk about their model being something modern, I really think it seems quite backwards as far as workers’ rights are concerned.”

* * * * *

The ability to make “enough” as a ridesharing driver depends largely on where Uber drivers are located geographically. They can earn much more in cities with high customer demand, like San Francisco and DC, but the issue has become more complicated by Uber’s recent fare cuts. As a means of boosting ridership and offering customers the cheapest possible rates, Uber has drastically cut fares in many states, including New York and New Jersey. Customers are understandably thrilled by the cheaper prices, but a lower fare translates to a pay cut for drivers, who earn 80% of the cost of each Uber ride. The company says that drivers will benefit from this system since they will get many more trips as a result of the spike in rider interest. Drivers don’t seem so sure.

“You can’t keep cutting people’s rates in half and telling them, ‘Oh, you’re going to get twice as many customers!’” Jonathan Cousar, a part-time Uber driver who runs the website Uber Driver Diaries, told me in a phone interview. “There are only so many people that you can physically drive around in one hour. It basically translates to drivers doing more work for more time while making a smaller profit.”

Another barrier to earning a decent wage is the surplus of drivers. Because Uber is desperate to prevent other ridesharing services from hiring new drivers, and because their business model relies on providing people with cab rides anywhere and at any time, the company has far more drivers than Uber workers say they actually need. This cuts into business both for traditional cab drivers and for ridesharing drivers. The Uber driver thread on Reddit is flooded with posts by drivers upset about their lack of trips. “I haven’t had a single fare this weekend (sixteen hours online),” user ImagineFreedom, who is based in San Antonio, fumed in a posting. “All of a sudden it seems like driver numbers have quadrupled and ads are still being posted for drivers.” On a recent afternoon, my Uber app showed six available cars in a two-block vicinity on a quiet corner in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

Cousar, who operates in northern New Jersey, told me that when he first joined the company, he easily made his goal of $500 per week to supplement the income he made from his web hosting business. But now it’s impossible to make that much thanks to the combination of fare cuts and the surplus of drivers on the road.

“It makes me wonder how reliable this is as a future full-time or even part-time income. They’ve already brought in far more drivers than the market can support, and they’re still recruiting so aggressively.”

This is where the lack of accountability comes in. Uber doesn’t care if drivers are only getting one fare an hour, as long as all of their customers are getting picked up on time. It’s not their problem if drivers have to work longer hours to make the same money, or to waste hours waiting around for a trip that never comes. Uber’s concerns are customer satisfaction and profit, and in those regards, they’re doing as well as any company could hope to.

* * * * *

If Uber drivers are fed up with this lack of consideration, traditional taxi drivers are in despair. The highly regulated industry has strict requirements that determine standards for licensing, rates and training. Uber isn’t subject to these regulations, meaning its drivers have a significant advantage over taxi drivers who have to comply with county and state regulations that specify when and how a for-hire car can be booked. Kalanick, the CEO, has scoffed at the taxi industry as a “protectionist scheme,” and blames excessive regulation for strangling competition in the field.

There is certainly some merit to his claims, and customers have plenty of legitimate complaints about the traditional cab industry (the difficulty of finding a ride at odd hours, high prices, a lack of options). Ask why people use Uber and they’ll respond with complaints about cabbies talking on the phone while driving, taking unnecessarily long routes to jack up the fare, or subjecting them to unwanted flirtations.

Beck, the San Francisco-based Uber driver, told me, “Personally I’m not really concerned about taxi drivers losing their jobs. I can’t tell you how many creepy cab drivers I’ve had in my life; it’s just like ‘good riddance.’ They never innovate. I guess that’s not the fault of individual cab drivers but the industry itself.”

This last line is key. Why are we blaming individual taxi drivers for the effects of strict regulations they had no part in creating? And isn’t it a bit unfair for people to write off an entire industry based on a few negative experiences? Imagine passing judgment on the food service industry based on the one time a waiter happened to be rude to you. Moreover, most of the regulations that “encumber” the taxi industry are designed to protect consumers. Taxi commissions exist to control fares, enforce training, licensing and safety standards for drivers, and to provide a platform for customers to file complaints or report lost property. Most of the negative press about Uber has involved customer complaints: female riders being sexually harassed by drivers or passengers being charged exorbitant rates under the surge pricing system, where fares go up, sometimes dramatically, during times of increased demand. In August, Uber riders in San Francisco took to social media to rail against the $400-plus fees they were being charged to get to and from a popular local music festival. Clearly, consumers expect some degree of liability and oversight from the companies with which they do business.

So who are the people who are so vigorously applauding Uber’s fight against industry requirements? A March Daily Beast article, which recounts a visit from Republican Senator Marco Rubio to Uber’s DC office, gives us some indication.

“Regulation,” Rubio told the gathered group of Uber employees, “should never be a weapon used by connected and established industry to crowd out innovation and competition, and this is a real world example.”

* * * * *

Uber’s cutthroat tactics are not restricted to the taxi industry. In a remarkable scoop at The Verge, Casey Newton details the underhanded methods the company uses to hurt the business of other ridesharing services. The anecdotes read like the pages of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except instead of sending spies to steal recipes from rival candy manufacturers, Uber sends undercover “brand ambassadors” to convince drivers from Lyft and Sidecar to switch companies. Their campaign against Lyft, their main competitor, is particularly underhanded and systematic. CNN reported in August that the company had employees around the country order and then cancel 5,560 Lyft rides, disrupting the company’s operations and causing Lyft drivers to lose business.

Cousar, the Jersey-based driver and blogger, expressed his discomfort with these aggressive tactics. “I think they’ve done some terrible things. From a moral standpoint they make me cringe, and they make me less proud and more leery about working with them.”

For now, at least, the legality of Uber’s tactics hasn’t been seriously questioned. As any defender of the company will tell you, all competing companies try to hire each other’s workers and undercut each other’s business. But Uber is already the colossus of the ridesharing industry, with a budget and international presence that far surpass any of its rivals. Though Kalanick and other Uber reps constantly preach the gospel of competition to reporters, their methods are as anti-competitive as they come. As Andrew Leonard at Salon puts it, “There’s little doubt that Uber is the closest thing we’ve got today to the living, breathing essence of unrestrained capitalism….This is how robber barons play.”

After all, wasn’t the whole reason that Uber came into being to shake up the taxi industry monopoly and open it up to new ideas and innovations? Basic economics tells us that competition is essential to provide companies with an incentive to keep prices reasonable, ensure quality and moderate supply. So do we really want Uber to be our only option?

People lover Uber because it’s reasonably priced, it’s reliable and it’s easy to use. But we love plenty of products and services that depend upon the exploitation of workers: disposable fashion from H&M and Forever 21, fast food from Wendy’s, discount furniture ordered on Amazon. The traditional taxi industry may suffer from an excess of regulation, but regulations exist for a reason. If we want workers to be protected from exploitation, have stable, full-time jobs, and benefit from decent working conditions, we need to treat them like the employees that they are. If Uber turns out to be the industry-transforming technology it claims to be and becomes the new universal model for hiring taxis, we need to seriously consider some of these questions. Because if the sharing economy is the way of the future, the future of full-time, permanent work is at stake.

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet’s associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Inc., Daily Serving and the Nation.

http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/how-ubers-efforts-squeeze-drivers-have-compelled-them-fight?akid=12245.265072.efeL2-&rd=1&src=newsletter1019485&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Wages Dropped for Almost All American Workers in First Half of 2014

 


The last year has been a bad one for people who work for a living.

Think your money’s not going very far this year? It’s not your imagination. According to new research by the Economic Policy Institute, real hourly wages declined for almost everybody in the U.S. workforce in the first half of 2014. Thanks, so-called recovery.

Economist Elise Gould pored over data from the government’s Current Population Survey and determined that workers at the 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th, 80th, 90th, and 95th percentiles all saw declines in their real wages in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period last year. This was true whether you had no high school degree, a high school diploma, some college, a college degree, or an advanced degree. In fact, people with advanced degrees saw the biggest drop (2.7 percent).

EPI reveals this isn’t just a blip. Real wages dropped 4.9 percent for workers with a high school degree and 2.5 percent for workers with a college degree from the first half of 2007 to the first half of this year.

Gould explains in the report that “the last year has been a poor one for American workers’ wages.” She states that “on the whole, the broad wage trends by education level over the last decade and a half make clear that wage inequality cannot be readily explained by stories about educational credentials and technology; wage inequality has increased steadily, yet even those with a college diploma or advanced degree have experienced lackluster wage growth.”

Gould adds, “It’s an indication of the fact that no one — not even educated workers — is able to bargain for anything.” Employers have the power and they are using it to pay their workers less.

The only workers who saw real wages go up over the past year were workers at the10th percentile of income, but only two cents an hour, from $8.36 an hour to $8.38. Two pennies! Don’t spend it all in one place. That paltry increase happened because of minimum wage increases in 13 states. The lack of wage growth harms society and the economy in a whole host of ways. When workers don’t have enough money in their pockets to spend on goods and services, businesses can’t hire and they fail, which increases unemployment. Unable to keep up with the growing expenses of things like healthcare and college tuition, the middle class shrinks. For those less well off, life becomes a daily struggle for survival. The increasing gap between the very rich and everyone else produces a wide range of social ills, from mental illness to addiction to chronic diseases. The social fabric becomes unraveled.

Not a very promising reflection for Labor Day, is it?

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

http://www.alternet.org/labor/awful-wages-dropped-almost-all-american-workers-first-half-2014?akid=12191.265072.iyDaGX&rd=1&src=newsletter1017648&t=4

Who talks like FDR but acts like Ayn Rand? Easy: Silicon Valley’s wealthiest and most powerful people

Tech’s toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs

Tech's toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs
Ayn Rand, Marc Andreessen, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Credit: AP/Reuters/Fred Prouser/Salon)

Marc Andreessen is a major architect of our current technologically mediated reality. As the leader of the team that created the Mosaic Web browser in the early ’90s and as co-founder of Netscape, Andreessen, possibly more than any single other person, helped make the Internet accessible to the masses.

In his second act as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Andreessen has hardly slackened the pace. The portfolio of companies with investments from his VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is a roll-call for tech “disruption.” (Included on the list: Airbnb, Lyft, Box, Oculus VR, Imgur, Pinterest, RapGenius, Skype and, of course, Twitter and Facebook.) Social media, the “sharing” economy, Bitcoin — Andreessen’s dollars are fueling all of it.

So when the man tweets, people listen.

And, good grief, right now the man is tweeting. Since Jan. 1, when Andreessen decided to aggressively reengage with Twitter after staying mostly silent for years, @pmarca has been pumping out so many tweets that one wonders how he finds time to attend to his normal business.

On June 1, Andreessen took his game to a new level. In what seems to be a major bid to establish himself as Silicon Valley’s premier public intellectual, Andreessen has deployed Twitter to deliver a unified theory of tech utopia.

In seven different multi-part tweet streams, adding up to a total of almost 100 tweets, Andreessen argues that we shouldn’t bother our heads about the prospect that robots will steal all our jobs.  Technological innovation will end poverty, solve bottlenecks in education and healthcare, and usher in an era of ubiquitous affluence in which all our basic needs are taken care of. We will occupy our time engaged in the creative pursuits of our heart’s desire.



So how do we get there? Easy! All we have to do is just get out of Silicon Valley’s way. (Andreessen is never specific about exactly what he means by this, but it’s easy to guess: Don’t burden tech’s disruptive firms with the safety, health and insurance regulations that the old economy must abide by.)

Oh, and one other little thing: Make sure that we have a social welfare safety net robust enough to take care of the people who fall though the cracks (or are eaten by robots).

The full collection of tweets marks an impressive achievement — a manifesto, you might even call it, although Andreessen has been quick to distinguish his techno-capitalist-created utopia from any kind of Marxist paradise. But there’s a hole in his argument big enough to steer a $500 million round of Series A financing right through. Getting out of the way of Silicon Valley and ensuring a strong safety net add up to a political paradox. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t want to pay for the safety net.

* * *

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/06/techs_toxic_political_culture_the_stealth_libertarianism_of_silicon_valley_bigwigs/

Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!

by Stefania Barca on June 3, 2014

Post image for Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!

The conflict between labor and the environment is a neoliberal construct. What we need is a broad coalition that can fundamentally transform production.

Nowadays it sounds so familiar, almost natural: the mutually exclusive demands and apparently opposing agendas of labor and the environmentalist movement. But in fact, this artificial division is nothing more than a crucial neoliberal strategy to divide two of the most powerful social movements of the industrial era, whose alliance could be a dangerous liaison with the capacity to call into question the very essence of the capitalist “treadmill of production.” It is thus essential that labor and environmental/public health organizations gain a historical perspective on their current state of conflict and become aware of the revolutionary potential of a common political project.

One place where this fact has become much clearer in recent years is the Italian city of Taranto, Apulia, where a number of citizens’ organizations and “committees” emerged in response to one of the most serious occupational, environmental and public health crises of the last decade. These organizations and committees have now begun mobilizing different resources and forms of action — from cyber-activism and film-making to street demonstrations and campaigning — to fight against the occupational blackmail of a local employer. At the last May Day celebrations, they managed to gather more than 100,000 people for a self-organized, crowd-sourced mass concert, held in open competition with the one traditionally organized in Rome by the trade unions confederation and RAI, the national public television.

Liberate Taranto!

As the biggest and one of the oldest steel factories in Europe, counting about 20,000 employees in 2012 and belonging to the formerly state-owned ILVA group (now controlled by the Riva family), the Taranto plant rose to national attention in 2011. A court decision found the company guilty of outrageous violations of environmental regulations and ordered its immediate closure until a thorough technical renovation and the environmental clean-up of damaged areas would be put into place.

The company’s response consisted in arrogantly restating the incompatibility of environmental regulation with its economic plans, thus re-enacting the occupational blackmail strategy which has traditionally functioned as way to structurally block any actions against business interests. The management even went so far as to actively organize workers’ demonstrations against the court decision, gaining ample and complicit media coverage, in order to convince public opinion that there was in fact real opposition in the city of Taranto — in which ILVA is by far the largest employer — against the public prosecutors and local environmentalist organizations.

Taranto is just one striking manifestation of the unbearable contradiction forced upon people of what Allan Schnaiberg has called the “treadmill of production” (and consumption and waste): the contradiction between production and reproduction. This can be imagined as a Hydra-like monster with many heads: occupational illnesses, job accidents, environmental contamination and ecocide, public health disasters, the annihilation of possibilities for alternative/autonomous forms of local economy, and so on. For the past 50 years, this monster has provoked an unbearable concentration of cancer, malformations and other health disorders in the Taranto bay area, something rendered even more unbearable by the weakness of public health infrastructure and the lack of adequate healthcare. Like the Alien of the science-fiction movie, the Hydra-like monster has now entered the local space and people’s bodies, taking possession of them from within.

In important ways, Taranto’s May Day concert was therefore a manifestation of discontent with what the organizers (and much of the city’s inhabitants) perceive to be the politics of the main trade unions in matters of ecology: 1) they are seen to be largely complacent with corporate occupational blackmail; 2) they are insensitive to the threats to public health that come with environmental contamination; and 3) they often strongly oppose grassroots environmental mobilization at the local level.

The truth, however, is that it is simply impossible to separate or to alienate life from work — as the industrial economy and society have tried to do for so long. Another type of economy must be built; one that makes work the human activity that sustains life and that all members of a community share in its different forms across space (the city, its sea, its hinterland, and the local ecosystem), and even across species, in respect for the daily work made by non-human nature in sustaining life in the local environment.

Another type of economy is undeniably, urgently needed. All the rage, the frustration, the pain and the conflict that working-class communities of industrial areas have embodied and carried in their lives must now lead towards a new horizon of struggle, a new and better dream than those fabricated by the market and the neoliberal state, and by the unions and political parties associated with them. A dream that can finally liberate local people from the unbearable contradictions of the “treadmill of production”; of the Alien within. The slogan Taranto libera! (“liberate Taranto!”) which was screamed again and again during the concert, spoke to just that.

Instruments of liberation

But for another world to become possible, it has to be imagined first, not only by individuals or activist groups, but also at the political level. Imagining a new world becomes essential for the struggle not to close in on itself and reproduce the contradictions of the old world, but to become constructive and hopeful. Here it is that political memory becomes essential, as a project of activist knowledge-production which engages with the world’s transformation as an instrument to usher in new possibilities for politicization. By becoming aware of what has already been done by other people, past and present, with their struggles and movements, either in our own communities or elsewhere, we will immediately get a much clearer perception of the possibility of not just one but many other worlds.

Seeing those possibilities in their reality, with their dreams and their challenges, with their victories and their contradictions, will help us envision our own possibilities here and now and better organize our own struggles. This is the contribution that this article aims to give to all those who are struggling for self-liberation from the straitjacket of occupational blackmail. In the following part, I will “unearth” a few stories, in the hope that they may become (figurative) axes of war, as the Wu Ming writers’ collective would put it: instruments of liberation operating through the political imagination.

Worker/environmentalist coalitions operating on common platforms of labor and political struggle are not uncommon in the history of the post-war world. When truck drivers and eco-activists marched together in the streets of Seattle during anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999 under the banner of “Teamsters and turtles”, this was nothing new, but simply the resurgence of a political strategy that had already been successfully experimented with during the Fordist era, leading to important legislative reform in occupational and public health as well as in environmental protection. It was the active collaboration between labor, environmental, student and feminist movements that allowed the passage of the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts (1972) in the USA, strongly supported by the most powerful trade-union confederation of the time, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW).

In Italy, the very institution of the Public Health System (Sistema Sanitario Nazionale) in 1978 was the result of a decade of intensive  struggles and two general strikes, promoted by what was known as the “environmental club” within the unions’ confederation: a coalition of labor physicians, sociologists and union leaders who had previously produced revolutionary changes in the regulation of the work environment, promoting the principle of direct workers’ control (articles 4 and 9 of the Labor Statute, passed in 1970).

Other relevant examples of such strategic coalitions can be drawn from very different places and economic sectors, such as the successful struggle against pesticide use that was conducted in the mid-1960s by the United Farm Workers union, organizing the Latino wage laborers of the orange fields and vineyards of California to obtain decent working and living conditions and the recognition of labor rights. A struggle centered on the serious health threats that agro-chemicals posed not only to the farmers and their families, but to the American consumer and environment at large.

But perhaps the most striking example of workers’ environmentalism can be found in the deep of the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, where, in the mid-1980s, a union of rubber tappers — the seringueirossuccessfully organized to defend the forest from the attack of powerful lumber companies and ranchers, while at the same time defending their right to live and work in the forest, forming cooperatives for the management of sustainable extractive activities, such as rubber and nut collection or fisheries. Despite the violent opposition raised by powerful local interests, leading to numerous assassinations of trade unionists and environmentalists, the rubber tappers’ struggle did succeed in obtaining the creation of a number of “extractive reserves”, where landless local people are legally recognized and supported by the state as the legitimate “owners” and safeguards of the forest.

What the above stories tell us is that it is indeed possible to build social struggles that are, at the same time, environmental struggles, even though they emerge from a working-class experience, and vision, of what ecology is.

More solid premises

However, the renewed alliance between labor and environmental movements must be rebuilt on more solid premises than in the past. The ideology of economic growth as a panacea for all social problems and the only way to produce social welfare must be thoroughly questioned and ultimately abandoned by the labor movement, because growth imperatives are powerful justifications for the most shameless disregard for the well-being of people and of non-human nature. The same applies to the illusion of greening the economy (i.e., capitalism) through eco-efficient technologies and market mechanisms; an illusion embraced by large parts of both the labor and the environmental movement, with support from governments and financial institutions.

The process of de-industrialization in “developed” countries in the last 20 years shows how the greening of the economy has led to the simple transmigration of industrial hazards and their death toll to less developed countries, acting through the ferocious logic of the “double standard” regime, by which multinationals can shift abroad those productions/technologies which are banned or heavily regulated in their countries of origin. This same mechanism makes working-class communities in the first world more and more vulnerable to occupational blackmail, threatening them with the shifting of industrial activities elsewhere.

Moreover, many of today’s so-called “green” technologies actually have a very negative impact on the environment, on labor conditions, and on public health as well, especially when implemented on a large scale — a fact that has been demonstrated by grassroots struggles (and engaged research) on a number of such “green economy” projects over the last decade. Windmill parks, for instance, have been strongly opposed by local communities in Greece and Spain due to the impact they have had on extended rural areas, altering local climates and landscapes, as well as heavily conditioning land use patterns.

Even greater impacts on soil, local climate and ecosystems are associated with large solar power plants — also an object of contestation and a cause of serious occupational hazard. But the most striking example comes from the biofuel business in Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America), where extensive monoculture plantations of sugarcane have replaced millions of hectares of forest, and are often run through semi-slave laborers working in conditions of horrible toil and health risk.

Clearly, the point is not to cynically dismiss any form of alternative energy production as equally threatening to environmental and public health. There is no doubt that renewable and non-fossil energy sources must be developed as the only possible way out of the current climate crisis. But the issue of dimension and scale is of fundamental importance: alternative energy can and should be developed on the small scale, aiming at autonomous and decentralized forms of self-provision for households and local communities. Renewable energy technologies can be really sustainable only if implemented at such a de-centralized and locally-controlled level, even if this is not the scale at which huge concentrations of profit (and political power) can be made. But this would imply a thorough transformation not only of the form and structure of urban life, but of the social organization of work itself.

Breaking out of the multiple crises that afflict the world today — both in the domains of the economy and work as well as in the domain of ecology and public health — requires no lesser effort than completely abandoning the “treadmill of production”, including the politics, economics and ideology of unlimited growth. This requires an ecological revolution as theorized by Carolyn Merchant: a complete shift in the social organization of production, reproduction and consciousness. Another way of working and living, of producing and distributing wealth, rooted in non-alienated work, in respect for life and in commonality, must be the political platform on which to build this new alliance. Workers and environmentalists of the world, unite!

Stefania Barca is an environmental historian and political ecologist working at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. She has published extensively on the history of the commons and on working-class environmentalism.