Saturday, October 25, 2008

Alan Greenspan admits he is an idiot...

OK, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. But I keep saying it and I will say it again - NEO-LIBERALISM IS DEAD! Dead! Dead! Dead! Now one of it’s main ideologues, it’s key architects, is practically admitting so. Check out this video clip of Alan Greenspan’s testimony before The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last Thursday (warning, you may want to just listen to the audio, Alan Greenspan and Henry Waxman are quite possibly the two ugliest men alive - actually alive might be questinable in Greenspan's case)…

Here is the New York Times report on the hearing…

Oh, I only wish Milton Friedman was still alive so he could similarly grovel before the American people and the world.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Will the Real ACORN please stand up…

The McCain campaign is reaching the heights of desperation. With the economy in free fall, the result of the neo-liberal economic agenda promoted by McCain and company for the last 30 years, they are grasping at straws to find one more avenue through which to bamboozle the American working class into giving them one more chance. Perhaps the ugliest attempt at this yet is their attack on ACORN. Who is ACORN? Well, according to the mainstream media, it seems as if they are an organization established to commit vote fraud on behalf on Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular. The accusations have quieted some in the past few days (replaced by the even more ridiculous “Joe the Plumber” campaign), but it was all the press was talking about last week.

I have a personal connection with ACORN as I worked in the Summer of 1990 as an organizer with Local 880 of SEIU. Local 880 was established by ACORN organizers who wanted a vehicle by which to empower the home health care workers they were meeting through their efforts to organize residents in the Englewood community, a very poor, African-American community on Chicago’s Southside. I was very young and very inexperienced at the time and I made a lousy organizer. It was a short stint, about 3 months long over my college Summer vacation. But the experience left an indelible impression on me and despite not being totally pleased with the way in which ACORN and Local 880 treated their staff, I left the experience with great respect for the important work of the organization. So I feel a strong obligation to set the record straight and to let the public know about the real ACORN.

Founded in the early 1970’s, ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has become the largest and must successful community organizing network in the nation. ACORN is active in 100 cities across the country and has in excess of 400,000 dues-paying members. They are organized at the neighborhood level and the national organization claims to have more than 850 neighborhood chapters. The work these neighborhood groups are engaged in varies. Some of the organizing is as local as demanding that a stop sign be erected at a dangerous neighborhood intersection. When I worked at Local 880, the ACORN organizers were working with residents in the Englewood community to establish more low income housing in their neighborhood. Communities like Englewood were rife with abandoned properties, which had become state property but were being left to rot, uninhabited. At the same time, thousands of people in these neighborhoods were in desperate need of affordable homes. The answer – those community members in need of houses, with the support of their neighbors, would take over (or “squat” on) these abandoned properties and turn them into habitable homes. Using various legal means, ACORN would then pressure public officials to turn these properties over to the squatters who had transformed them. It was a win for those in need of homes, for the communities in which abandon properties were magnets for illegal activity, and for cash-strapped municipalities in need of property tax revenue.

Some of ACORN’s campaigns have a more statewide, regional, or even national focus. Many ACORN branches have launched living wage campaigns in their municipalities in order to win city ordinances that would raise the wages of large numbers of low-paid workers. A few years ago I worked with a coalition, including ACORN, on a living wage campaign here in Chicago. Some chapters have fought for increased and more equitable public school funding in their town or state. One of ACORN’s most important issue campaigns around the country is their effort to end the practice of predatory lending by banks, mortgage companies, payday lenders, and tax preparation companies. ACORN has been on the frontlines of organizing at the grass roots level against the financial practices that are partly responsible for the current economic crisis. One of ACORN’s newest and most interesting national campaigns is their effort to pass laws establishing some sort of paid sick leave for all full time employees. Nearly half of all working Americans in the private sector are not provided paid sick days by their employers. We are the only industrialized nation not to have national paid sick leave laws. The result is millions in lost wages and exacerbated health problems for millions of American workers every year.

ACORN has also lead massive voter registration campaigns targeting low income, minority communities which have historically been poorly represented at election time. Almost all voter registration efforts result in some invalid registration forms. ACORN has acknowledged that a few of its hundreds of paid registration staff have turned in bogus registration forms, most of these have been flagged by ACORN’s quality control system, marked as problematic, but then passed on to state officials as required by law. That is worth re-stating – even invalid registration forms must be turned in to officials in most of the states in which ACORN has carried out voter registration drives. So even when ACORN has caught the mistake and flagged the registrations as invalid, the forms have to be turned over to state officials. ACORN claims that most of the much maligned cases you heard about in the press fall into this category. The staff who demonstrate a pattern of invalid registrations are dismissed. None of these invalid registrations have resulted in actual vote fraud, nor are they expected to (remember, these are registrations, not actually votes). What is more important than the invalid registrations is the fact that ACORN has registered hundreds of thousands of new poor and working class voters, and it is this potentially powerful new voting block that is the real cause for concern among right wing politicians and their lackeys in the mainstream press.

ACORN’s effort to build labor unions for some of our society’s most marginalized workers is perhaps their greatest achievement. It started with the organizing of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans in 1980, a union of housekeepers and other hotel staff working for Hyatt. The local has since expanded to cover homecare, hospital and school employees in Louisiana, Texas & Arkansas. It is now one of the largest unions in the mostly un-organized south and has won living wages and basic benefits for some of the lowest paid, most exploited workers. Local 100 has also sought to raise the living standards for all low wage workers in the cities in which they have members by working with ACORN chapters and other organizations to pursue citywide living wage ordinances. The same is true of Local 880, the union for which I worked in 1990. Founded in the mid-1980’s, Local 880’s focus was on home healthcare workers, the individuals whose job it is to care for the sick and elderly in their homes. Despite the obvious importance of this work, home care workers usually earned minimum wages, received no benefits and paid for their own transportation. Many worked long hours without receiving overtime or were required to service multiple clients in separate locations in order to try to maintain full-time pay. The income of many home care workers was so low that they lived in Chicago’s notorious public housing complexes. When I worked for 880, my job consisted of visiting workers in their homes and talking to them about joining the union. I visited Robert Taylor, Stateway Gardens, Harold Ickes Homes, Ida B. Wells, Cabrini Green and numerous other projects across the city. With the possible exception of one time in the Austin neighborhood when some street corner gang bangers were convinced I was an undercover cop, I really never felt unsafe or all that uncomfortable. The hardest part was making my way up 20 flights of stairs in the high rises as the elevators rarely seemed to be working. It was the tenants themselves who upon witnessing this 20-year-old college white boy knocking on their door to talk to them about the union, seemed to immediately want to take me under their protection and would express deep concern for my safety. These women (and they were nearly all women), many of whom were either middle age themselves and/or had multiple elderly family members to take care of already, took their work very seriously and were quite proud of their profession as a care taker. Unfortunately, our society seemed to have a different view. It was these most exploited of the working class that local 880 sought to empower.

This is no easy organizing. With no central place of work, the traditional shop floor organizing and solidarity that is central to building a union is not possible. It requires visiting workers in their homes, as I did when I worked there, and creating opportunities for these very isolated workers to gather and get to know each other. Despite these obstacles, in the years since my short stint with the union, they went on to organize over 35,000 home care workers statewide. Then the union began to organize home childcare providers, a similarly marginalized group. 880 now represents roughly 34,000 home childcare workers across the state of Illinois as well. All of this growth came during the 1980’s, 90’s and 2000’s, a time when most unions were rapidly losing members. 880 is now one of the largest SEIU locals in the country. What is most important, though, is the concrete gains that workers have made as union members – a 35% pay raise across the board, health insurance, a grievance system, and host of other benefits and job protections. Home healthcare and childcare workers are no longer isolated individuals from poor disempowered communities across the state, who are easily exploited and largely ignored. Now they speak with a voice tens of thousands strong and their demands echo loudly in the halls of the state capitol building.

This is the real ACORN, an organization devoted to building power for poor and working class communities. And it is for this reason that they are under attack by the right. We already witnessed the Republican party’s antipathy toward community organizers at the Republican national convention. So it should come as little surprise that ACORN has become a favorite bogeyman of the Republicans mouthpieces in the media. But it is organizations like ACORN that will become more essential than ever in the coming months and years as the collapse of our economic system requires renewed working class activism so that we can fundamentally transform our nation in favor of the working class.

For my interview on last Sunday’s Labor Express Radio program with the National Director of the ACORN Financial Justice Center, Austin King, Click here…

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What the hell does “middle class” mean?...

Perhaps the most nauseating aspect of last Thursday’s debate between Vice-Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin was Palin’s repeated assertion that unlike Biden, she was “one of us,” just an average “middle class” American living on “main street.” I think I found Palin’s “folksy” everyman rhetoric especially disturbing after the most conservative elements of the Republican party spent the whole week spinning pseudo-populist sophistry in regards to their opposition to the Paulson/Bush Wall Street bailout plan. Only in America can the elite, the ruling class, in the midst of a crisis of their own making, turn around and present themselves as working class heroes combating greed and corruption on Wall Street and in Washington. The wolf is so well practiced at slipping on the sheep’s clothing in a hurry, it seems no one questions that bushy tail protruding from the back. Of course after 8 years of listening to an oil man from Texas tell us that he is “one of us” I guess it is a lot easier for the American public to swallow anything.

The reason that the economic elite find it so easy to pull the wool over the eyes of so many of our fellow citizens is deeply rooted in our national history. We all know that the original sins of U.S. history are slavery and racism. Race is the great fault line – the uniter and divider in our culture. But racial politics are closely tied to another feature of the American psyche. Something called American Exceptionalism. No, this isn’t related to some a-historical conviction that we embrace “freedom” more tightly than anyone else on the planet. Nor is it an excuse for “Manifest Destiny” and America’s imperial ambitions. No, the term arose from various social scientists’ explanations of why a socialist or social democratic movement never took hold in the United States. The U.S. stands alone among Western industrialized nations (with the possible exception of Canada) in regards to having a political system in which the working class never organized a political party to represent their specific interests. The reasons give for this are numerous. One of the first to tackle this topic, albeit somewhat indirectly, was Frederick Jackson Turner whose “frontier thesis” argued that the “American character” is a product of the endless possibilities offered by the boundless American frontier and westward expansion. The idea here is that the ability to “go west young man” allowed for a level of social mobility not possible in Europe for much of our history. Later historians would argue that with the closing of the frontier in the 20th century, the high level of home ownership in the United States served a similar purpose. This might be true and certainly plays some role in the unique American social psychology; but what is certainly far more important is that from our earliest origins, way back before the American Revolution, race was used by the nation’s elite to disguise class divisions. The old divide and conquer game, American style. You may be poor and disempowered but at least you’re “white” and therefore “one of us.” The construction of “whiteness” in American culture is the most ingenious method utilized by the ruling class to disguise the reality of class divisions in our society.

As a result, everyone in the United States (and since the civil rights movement this distinction has been reluctantly and slowly extended across racial lines) is officially middle class. The CEO of a trans-national corporation, the owner of a corner grocery store and the resident of a Chicago housing project are all likely to self-identify as middle class. No one wants to associate themselves with the privileged or the poor, despite their actual material reality. According to research conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago over the past few decades, the vast majority of Americans see themselves as middle class, whether they earn 20,000 a year or 100,000, whether they are self-employed or work for someone else. It is perhaps the least descriptive social category ever devised.

Given this reality, it is quite easy for Palin to describe herself as middle class and no one calls her on it. But what is the reality? Ironically enough, Palin’s tax returns were released yesterday. They show the Palins earned about $166,000 in 2007 and that their net worth amounts to somewhere between 1 and 2 million dollars. Let’s see how this compares to the “average American”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Median Family Income in 2007 was $50,233. So Palin’s family earned three times the national average. The average income was even lower in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla Alaska according to the 2000 census figures, about $43,000. In a true working class neighborhood, such as Pilsen, the average is even lower. Pilsen’s average household income from the 2000 census was just over $30,000. That means Palin’s family has an annual income five times higher than the average family in Pilsen. How about net worth? Net worth is a person’s or family’s total combined assets, minus any debt they owe. For many families, their home is their primary asset. Many social scientists have described net worth as the greatest indicator of a person’s social and class status, as well as the greatest predictor of general life outcomes because it has a high correlation to educational opportunities, the quality of life where one lives, and a whole host of other social phenomenon. It is a major indicator of the ability of a family to deal with both personal and societal economic problems, such as a catastrophic illness or the world wide financial crisis now upon us. According to the Federal Reserve’s 2004 figures (the most current I could find) the net worth of the average American family is just under $100,000. So the Palin’s also exceed the average net worth by at minimum 10 times, and perhaps as much as 20 times. What is ironic is that Palin seemed to imply that she was “Middle Class”, while her opponent Joe Biden was not. Joe Biden, to his credit, referred to himself as more comfortable than most Americans. Yet Joe Biden’s net worth, estimated to be around $500,000 is much closer to the average Americans than Sarah Palin’s. Of course if you bring the presidential candidates into the picture, the situation becomes even starker. Compare McCain’s estimated net worth of over 40 million, to Obama’s net worth of just over 1 million. And most of Obama’s wealth was earned in the past few years from his autobiography. He has lived most of his life squarely within “middle class” America.

What do these comparisons mean? Not too much, other than the fact that Palin’s claims to be, in her words, an average “Joe six pack” are blatant fabrications. All of the candidates have net worth and annual earnings that place them above 95% of their “fellow Americans”. However, McCain stands alone among the candidates as being in the top 1% of Americans who most social scientists refer to as the “ruling class” – those who own and control the majority of wealth in our nation and consequently have much greater influence over our political and economic life than the average citizen. No, the Palin types are not really a part of that class, but when they claim to be one of us, which they clearly are not, they are doing the bidding of that top 1%, by obfuscating the truth about the American class structure.

Of course the right wing calls discussion of these facts, “class war”. In the debate, Palin referred to Obama’s plan to “re-distribute” the nation’s wealth, which is merely a code word for the same thing. The transformation of the terms class war and re-distribution of wealth into pejorative concepts is another aspect of the middle class myth in American society and politics. The goal is to disarm the working class, by making even the thought of challenging the ruling class’ power and massive accumulation of wealth unthinkable. Let’s get something straight here. There is one group in our society that has embraced fully and without misgivings the tactics of class warfare. Every time a corporation shifts a high paying union job in the U.S. to a starvation wage job in Asia, that is class warfare. Every time a corporation undermines environmental and workplace regulations through a “free trade agreement”, that is class warfare. Every time a corporation takes away the rights of workers to organize by abusing our country’s very weak labor laws, that is class warfare. Every time Wal-Mart spends millions of dollars to force a city to allow a Wal-Mart to be built in a town over the objections of a town’s residents, that is class warfare. Every time a billion dollar business threatens a municipality that they are going to close a manufacturing facility if the municipality does not offer them millions in tax breaks, that is class warfare. Every time corporate America’s lackeys in Congress fight a rise in the minimum wage, that is class warfare. The ruling class has absolutely no intention of calling a cease fire, so why should the working class continue to accept retreat and defeat.

So let’s bring this back to my initial focus in this article. This amorphous, slippery, non-descriptive concept – the middle class – is a myth. It serves no purpose beyond disguising the reality of our nation’s class divide. If you do not own the means of production, if you need to work for someone else in order to ensure your basic survival, you are a member of the Working Class. If you cannot survive for more than a few months or perhaps a year on your savings alone, you are Working Class. If to eat and cloth yourself, you need to sell your manual or mental labor to someone else, you are a part of the Working Class. Or in the case of a retired person, if your survival depends on your social security check and the pension you earned through many years of hard work, than you are also Working Class. Sure you can divide the working class into various different segments, like blue collar, white collar and pink collar – indeed these descriptions have much more to say about an individual’s life conditions than saying they are all middle class. You can divide the working class into skilled and unskilled, a distinction that has held major significance for income and life opportunities since the early days of the industrial revolution. Sarah Palin and family could survive a good long time on the assets of their businesses, investments and accumulated wealth, even with the loss of Sarah’s paycheck as Alaska’s governor, though they may have to adopt a lifestyle closer to that of our own and they could slip into the working class over a period of time. John McCain’s family could live in luxury and no one would have to work another day in their entire lives. In either case, they are not one of us. They do not share the same daily fears of what will become of their family if they lose their job tomorrow. On the other hand, the relatively well paid steelworker or auto plant employee shares these fears with the checkout clerk at Target. Indeed, one of the cleverest aspects of the use of the term “middle class” is that it divides better paid workers from their unemployed or poorly paid brothers and sisters. The interest of an unemployed black youth in inner city Chicago is much more closely aligned with that of a relatively well paid, more-likely-than-not white, striking IAM member at Boeing in the Pacific Northwest; but the middle class myth teaches that striker that he should identify with Palin and family and not the unemployed teen in Chicago. Indeed even the rhetoric often employed by the labor movement is that the IAM member is striving to be Sarah Palin, to avoid becoming that member of the “underclass” in Chicago. The “poor” – another rarely defined, amorphous social category, latent with a host of unspoken value judgments – are always the frightening “other” in the grand American middle class myth.

So let’s drop this whole middle class B.S. I hope I never again hear a labor leader, a union activist, a community organizer, refer to us as “middle class”. Please no more speeches in which we decry the loss of the “middle class in America.” We are workers and we should be damn proud of it. We are the working class and for too long we have allowed the class war to be a one-way battle. It is time to fight back. And the first step in that fight is to acknowledge who we really are and who they really are.