Michigan today, perhaps in your town tomorrow
Why should you care about Michigan? Because the economic earthquake battering Michigan is headed our way. Michigan is our early warning system of how the 1% intend to keep the 99% in line as they keep raking in huge profits while workers continue to be thrown out of good jobs by the exploding laborless production of the electronic revolution.
The big question is WHY? WHY are workers scrambling all over the U.S. while corporate profits soar to new record highs every quarter? WHY does the small number of good jobs left continue to shrink? WHY do elected officials preach austerity to us while they give away billions in public dollars to help private corporations profit? If the economy is in recovery, WHY are all the profits going to corporate executives while workers actually lose ground? Do elected officials really believe private business can do everything better?
It’s NO ACCIDENT that the pressures on workers keep growing. There is an agenda behind the profoundly unfair combination of rising wealth and deepening poverty. It’s an agenda for complete corporate control of the economy, so it can be shaped for maximum profits as workers drop like flies. The key is that with laborless electronic production corporations don’t need workers like they used to. But they do still need profits.
The history of labor shows that companies ruthlessly throw workers on the scrap heap whenever they don’t need them anymore. Now the labor-replacing microchip has dramatically changed the landscape for all workers. The old industrial-age social contract of lots of good jobs with good benefits in exchange for a good day’s work is gone forever. Workers have to play by new and much harsher rules.
Why isn’t this obvious to us? Partly because we usually don’t notice the national narratives that help shape our thinking. As one of the fighters in Michigan has said, there had to be a national narrative about the worthlessness of Native Americans to allow us to slaughter and displace so many of them. There had to be a national narrative about African Americans being subhuman in order for us to enslave and torture so many of them. There had to be a national narrative about the inferiority of women in order for us to treat them as less than equal to men for so long. National narratives are extremely useful tools for social control because we tend to accept them so easily.
Today’s national narrative is the need for austerity, and it’s being pushed most strongly by global corporations. The same corporations that are racking up the largest profits and cash reserves in history. When multi-billion dollar corporations and their millionaire and billionaire executives push austerity, they really mean continued maximum profits for themselves and austerity for the rest of us.
Michigan is important because the corporate agenda of doing away with anything that interferes with maximum profits is more advanced there, and more easily seen. But in fact, that corporate agenda is pushing forward everywhere. Let’s look at 4 examples – threats to democracy, water, pensions and privatization.
Threats To Democracy
In 2012 Michigan voters threw out a state law that disenfranchised citizens by allowing appointed Emergency Managers to strip all power and duties from public elected officials. Then the legislature and the governor, pushed by strong business interests, wrote an even more powerful Emergency Manager proposal and made it law. Appointed Emergency Managers now run 17 places in Michigan, including Detroit, leaving public elected officials there powerless.
In the Bay Area, the equivalent of Michigan’s Emergency Manager system runs San Francisco City College, once the state’s largest community college. Its original 85,000 enrollment has shrunk dramatically in the 15 months since an accrediting commission threatened to yank its accreditation. The threat had nothing to do with its quality of education and everything to do with shaping its curriculum to fit the corporate agenda. Financial strategies, including pension and health care costs, were big issues.
The needs of corporations have won the battle for the attention of American public elected officials of both major parties. The few elected officials who still fight for working people find themselves isolated and defanged in their arenas of power.
The right to water, the giver of life, is under attack. In Michigan, under Detroit’s Emergency Manager, the city cut off water to 100,000 mostly poor households that had fallen behind as little as $150 on their water bills. But Detroit didn’t shut off water to corporations that were as much as $400,000 behind. A United Nations committee was outraged, calling Detroit’s tactics a violation of the human right to water.
In California the worst drought in memory is making the right to water a huge issue. Farmers are already in trouble in the state that grows half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts used in the U.S. Big city residents, who haven’t felt the impact yet, soon will. Farmers use 80% of California’s water, much of it subsidized by taxpayers. It now costs them up to 10 times more than before the drought, up to $1,100 per acre foot. An acre foot is enough to supply an average Southern California family with water for 18 months. If the drought continues, is it people or corporations, including the vast corporate farms of California agribusiness, who will get priority for the water they need? And what will families do when they can’t afford the higher water bills?
Right now the oil companies that use enormous amounts of water to force oil and natural gas from deep underground, are suspected of pushing for scarce California water to be privatized and sold to the highest bidder. Oil companies are reported to be willing to pay up to $3,300 per acre-foot, and the huge Westlands Water District, which supplies water to almost 10% of California’s farmland, has been accused of making money by selling some of its publicly subsidized scarce water to oil companies.
In Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has said wage, benefit and pension obligations to workers represent “a national problem” because elected officials in financially troubled cities “were not successfully managing their cities.” That means corporations have the right to maximize their profits, but public officials don’t have the right to meet the basic needs of their citizens, especially lower income citizens who populate financially troubled cities.
In California financially troubled Stockton and San Bernardino, the state’s largest bankrupt cities, tried at first to protect the pensions of their workers when they filed for bankruptcy. But as pressure from business interests mounted and Detroit retirees reluctantly accepted a 4.5% cut, both California cities backed away from trying to honor their pension obligations.
Stockton now proposes converting $544 million in lifetime retiree health benefits into a $5.1 million one-time payment. That gives workers just under a penny for every dollar promised them. And a judge’s ruling due any time now could declare Stockton’s workers no more worthy of protection than any of its corporate debtors. Such a ruling could encourage other California cities with large pension debts to file for bankruptcy to cut worker pension payments.
For about a year San Bernardino stopped paying into California’s public worker pension fund, called CalPERS. While it is once again making payments, it has refused to make up $13.5 million worth of back payments. A court-imposed gag order prevents a proposed settlement from being publicly disclosed.
In Benton Harbor The Rev. Edward Pinkney has been leading a 20-year fight to keep the Whirlpool Corp. from gentrifying the city and privatizing a public waterfront park. His tactics include recall petitions against local officials who side with Whirlpool’s agenda. Now officials have filed phony vote fraud charges against him for the second time. It is a clear attempt to silence an effective critic.
In California, Silicon Valley millionaires are driving an expanding gentrification that is turning Silicon Valley into Silicon Bay Area. Gentrification is an important part of the corporate agenda because it drives the poor out of sight, and raises neighborhood incomes to the point where they can afford privatized services like security and education. Yet corporations are fighting against a livable minimum wage. Business lobby pressure watered down minimum wage proposals in Berkeley and Richmond, and killed a state legislature proposal to raise the state minimum wage.
Workers in California are also under particular attack from employers trying to lower wages and benefits and even break public employee unions, which are some of the strongest in the nation. A weakening of unions would allow more public services to be privatized.
Successfully fighting the corporate agenda requires new tactics, because of the way electronic laborless production has changed the employment game. In Michigan it was a coalition of grassroots organizers, labor unions and community groups that put together the referendum which overturned the first Michigan Emergency Manager law in 2012. People from different stratas of the working class came together to fight for something in all of their interests. This was an example of a working class response to what is clearly an ongoing ruling class attack.
In Ferguson, MO, the uprising against the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown showed that to be effective, such coalitions have to be in place long before an emergency comes up where you need them. Building them means working to build mutual support for other people’s issues, as long as the goal is a better deal for working people.
The military-style crackdown against peaceful protesters that police mounted in Ferguson is another example of a battle plan that serves the corporate agenda. Poverty has increased dramatically in Ferguson over the past decade and law enforcement has been searching for ways to keep dissatisfaction and unrest from exploding in ways that would be bad for business. We have seen this played out in various ways in Bay Area protest demonstrations, including the crackdowns against Occupy and against the shutting down of the Oakland Port.