Sunday, July 8, 2012

Getting Their Attention

My old friend, the Reverend Earwhigger, considers my proposal of an international worker's action to be some sort of romantic pipe dream. As an alternative he's proposed a consumer boycott, which in his view would be much more likely to succeed. He writes, in part, as follows:
An organized consumer boycott? Difficult, improbable, but not exactly pie-in-the-sky. More and more consumers are beginning to understand that they are being exploited. The significance of the fact that 1% control the 99% is beginning to sink in. Unlike global warming, the 1:99 ratio is a "fact" that is accepted by both political camps. People are angry. They might be convinced that withholding their purchasing power could be a way to express it.
Perhaps, just as the labor unions organized one industry after another, consumer boycotts could – at least at first – be targeted. For example, a boycott on buying music. Relatively painless, but effective. A boycott on clicking on internet ads. Again, painless – but imagine what it would do to the Nasdaq numbers. Or a boycott on brand-name cereals in favor of super-market brands. Pretty painless, if somehow the narcissistic brats to whom the stuff is marketed could be induced to come aboard, but effective. . .
Though I'm in agreement with my friend on many points, I have problems with his consumer boycott proposal, because I seriously doubt that many consumers would be willing to participate, at least for very long. What he is recommending would be, at best, a very gradual process through which the 1% would hopefully get progressively worn down over time, as their profits on certain items, such as music, gradually eroded. But their profits are already eroding. And their solution would be the same as before: squeeze the workers, downsize, cut benefits, hire temps or "independent contractors," etc. In their minds there is no other alternative.

On the other hand, as I see it, a call for a general work stoppage could go out very quickly, and if effectively organized could shut large sectors of the economy down for enough time as to make a clear statement that workers are not being fooled and are unwilling to cooperate in their own exploitation. My friend isn't buying it, however:
Sorry, Doc G. Reviving the labor movement? Just a nostalgic pipe dream. Neo-romantic economics. The plutogarchs need workers. Well, yes, but there's no danger of running out of workers. There are billions of potential workers, and they are constantly spawning. Besides, technology actually has diminished the need for labor. What they also need, and what there is a danger of them running out of, is consumers: workers who not only are able to, but are willing to, pass back to them the fruit of their labor.
Yes, this may sound romantic, but it has in fact been done in the past and has in fact worked, very effectively. Worker organization was at its height during the last depression, when there were a great many unemployed workers and when automation in the form of the assembly line was also enabling many companies to cut down on their work forces. It was not a pleasant process, because many employers would hire "scab" replacements, which was why the picket line was invented.

I'm not proposing anything so drastic as unionization, however, at least not at first. A work stoppage of a day or even a week wouldn't give employers a chance to hire -- and train -- replacements, but it would put them on notice that their workers are no longer willing to suffer passively in the face of all these wonderful "austerity" plans that are supposed to solve all problems. I agree that the participation of many US workers would be questionable, given the resentment that's been fomented by movements such as the Tea Party, to which many working class people subscribe.

But there is a whole new generation of younger, more educated workers in this country, the type of people we see every day slaving away in businesses such as Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods, Apple stores, etc., not to mention literally all of our Universities and Colleges, earning maybe if they are lucky, $10 an hour, or $2,000 per class, who might very well understand the situation and be willing to get involved in a movement of this sort. And I think a great many consumers, including students, would be more than willing to support them by boycotting such institutions during such an action. In such a context a consumer boycott would, I think, be effective, but only as a supplement to a worker-based action.

As far as Europe is concerned, I would think the degree of social and economic awareness of most workers on that continent is much higher than in the States, and there have already in fact been several work stoppages and other such actions in Europe -- only they've been limited to individual businesses and/or countries, with no attempt at international coordination.

Just think how utopian the Occupy Wall St. movement sounded prior to its first stunning successes. The key, of course, is organization. But if OWS could get organized, I don't see why a similarly "utopian" labor movement couldn't also get organized. Why not? The difference would be that instead of demonstrations having no immediate effect on the ruling class, we would have labor actions having a very real and immediate effect on their bottom line, something they cannot so easily ignore.

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