Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Putting the assault on faculty in context

Today's (Jan. 4) New York Times has an article about the plans by state legislators to curb the rights of state workers (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/business/04labor.html?ref=global). Illinois is among the states prepared essentially to eliminate teachers' right to strike; Illinois legislation would also tie pay to measures of student performance.

First a little background. Currently only about 12% of U.S. workers are in unions; in private industry unionization is about 7%. So public employees are unionized at a rate at least double that of employees of private firms. Unionization has been as high as 23% but over the past thirty years unions have been decimated in auto, steel, aerospace and other basic industries while jobs are outsourced to non-union plants. Where possible bosses ship jobs overseas, exporting either the physical plant or just the job itself (airline reservations, computer help-desk, etc.). In auto the parts plants have become increasingly non-union shops (with complicity of UAW leadership).

Racial injustice has been transformed. Race used to work directly through judgment about physical appearance, and it still does. But in "post-racial" America the state is central to the new racism. It takes at least three major forms.
1. Clinton's "welfare reform" forces people on aid to work for their checks at sub-minimum wages, eliminating higher paid workers.
2. Changes in immigration laws drastically cut the number who may legally enter the U.S. from Mexico and elsewhere; at the same time internationally-imposed restructuring of the Mexican economy (by IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S.) impoverishes Mexican workers while U.S. dumping of cheap grain in Mexico makes it impossible for many small farmers there to continue farming. So traditional migration of Mexican workers to the U.S. expands, but now they are classified as "illegal," becoming workers without rights.
3. The War on Drugs spearheads a 400% increase in the rate of incarceration in the U.S. since the early 1970s. This has the consequence that over ten million people are either in prison or jail, on probation or parole, or enter the labor market as convicted felons (I can't get the exact number, but all the categories but the last are seven million, and there are many whose probation or parole has ended). Nearly half of this group is black (two-thirds are either black or latino); black people are incarcerated at a rate six to seven times the rate for white people.

So we have folks on workfare, twelve million undocumented immigrants, and over ten million under the control of or stigmatized by the criminal justice system. These are workers without rights or with very limited rights. Racial injustice has been transformed, now working largely through the actions of the state. Workers without rights have been used to break strikes and weaken other workers. An attack on one workers leads to attacks on all of us.

Now the assault on labor--which has initially targeted the most vulnerable--is reaching to public employees in transportation, health care, and education. We are next in their sights. They are targeting not only the right to strike and our pay; they also target pensions.

Two points: When we ignore the injustices done to those more vulnerable than us, we set ourselves up for attacks later; racism is the leading edge of an attack on all of us. We need to fight these attacks and link them to the attacks on workers even more vulnerable than ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Paul,

    I think your essay is timely and on target. The conservatives, in light of the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, have made a concerted effort to not only stem the tide of radical politics but to turn back the clock to pre-New Deal United States.

    The Democrats have largely acquiesced to the right, in-turn, turning their back on labor, the middle-class, and African-Americans. It seems that since the phenomenon of Reagan, the Democrats have sought to run away from the liberal base, only throwing a bone when necessary or expedient.