Tuesday Apr 07

Economic Democracy: EXCERPT FROM Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule

To forge a new hegemonic bloc that can challenge ethnic nationalism, progressives must do two things that they are not currently doing. First, they must offer a vision of society that is neither postracial neoliberalism nor ethnic nationalism. For too long, postracial neoliberalism has avoided the problem of social inequality in all its forms. Neoliberalism’s false promise has been that if everyone has individual rights on paper, then everyone should be able to prosper in the market so long as they work hard and take personal responsibility for their own lives. We know that to be patently untrue. Women have the right to vote, but they still earn a fraction of what men make despite having the same qualifications, and they still endure sexual harassment on the job. On paper, black people have the right to due process under the law, but their lives are all too often cut short by a criminal justice system that is stacked against them. There is no law barring queer people from working, but some employers do not offer domestic partner benefits and still others do not include gender identity in their nondiscrimination clauses. Workers have the right to join a union, but employers have broad leeway to intimidate workers into opposing the union, while “right to work” laws deprive workers of the dues money their unions need to rent office space, buy computers, pay staff, and represent their interests effectively.

Ethnic nationalism’s answer to the problem of inequality is just as problematic. Donald Trump promises, first, to cancel or modify trade deals like NAFTA that outsource American jobs abroad and, second, to deport undocumented workers who are supposedly stealing jobs from American citizens. The issue of borders and immigration is tied to the alleged influx of terrorists across the American border with Mexico. To the degree that there is a problem with crime, it is not with the police but with the disorder caused by people of color. Mr. Trump has also maintained the innocence of men, including himself, who have been accused of sexual harassment. And the only explicit course of action that Mr. Trump has recommended with respect to the LGBT community is the exclusion of transgendered persons from the military. The problem with these precepts is twofold: first, they promise to empower only straight white men to the exclusion of all others, and second, even working- and middle-class white men are unlikely to benefit in the longterm. Ethnic nationalism assumes that white men are much stronger as a force unto themselves than they would be by working in solidarity with everyone else. Together white men are strong, just as other unified groups can be, but mathematically, as a force for social justice, they are at a disadvantage in comparison to diverse coalitions of multiple groups working toward a common objective.

An alternative to postracial neoliberalism and ethnic nationalism is economic democracy. Economic democracy is the idea that none of us can be free unless all of us have power in the workplace and are key stakeholders in the economy. Today most workplaces are dictatorships: when you go to work, you serve at the will of your employer. Being an “at will” employee forces workers to make tough choices: put up with low wages, disrespect, harassment, homophobia, and racist jokes, or lose your job. More broadly, when workers do not have a seat at the table, the U.S. economy gets structured in such a way that the three richest men have more wealth than the entire bottom half of American society combined. This will only get worse under the new tax plan, which redistributes wealth to the rich in an already profoundly unequal society.

If we are serious about moving beyond neoliberalism and stopping ethnic nationalism in its tracks, then we have no choice but to build another mass movement. In this, the labor movement has an important role to play. The 2016 election turned partly on the disaffection of white and black working-class constituents in the Rust Belt: those who have felt left behind and taken for granted by a Democratic Party that long ago abandoned the idea of a stakeholder economy in favor of neoliberalism. The labor movement is in an unique position to regain the trust and loyalty of union members and join their struggle to that of other groups who are similarly exploited and marginalized. This is true for two reasons.

First, the labor movement has the authority to challenge Donald Trump for promising to bring back the blue-collar jobs that he and others like him have outsourced overseas. Corporate America will never agree to bring those jobs back, and even if they did, there is no guarantee that they would be good jobs. Indeed, those jobs were not “good,” because they were mining or manufacturing jobs. Those of us from blue-collar families know that those jobs were back-breaking and mindnumbing. Workers made those jobs good jobs by sticking together in their unions and striking for a better life. The only real path to economic democracy is the path of collective struggle. Workers should not wait for one-percenters to bring back their old jobs: they should turn the bad service-sector jobs that are here—and can’t easily be outsourced overseas—into the good jobs of the future. The labor movement can help workers organize their workplaces, negotiate contracts that improve their wages, and start them on the long road toward a more equal society.

Second, though the movement is down and out, the AFL-CIO remains the largest labor federation in the world in sheer numbers, and together with other unions like the Service Employees International Union they are even bigger. Organized labor still has the resources and time to channel its substantial resources toward mass mobilization: to unionize retail giants like Walmart and Amazon and to demand changes to the labor law such as the repeal of right-to-work laws.

But the labor movement cannot succeed alone, and it must deal with the racial and gender inequalities in its own ranks. For economic democracy is by definition an inclusive idea. When women and people of color endure daily microagressions on the job, we do not have economic democracy, because they are forced to choose between their jobs and their dignity. When someone or their partner is denied health benefits because they are queer or transgendered, we do not have economic democracy, because that person is effectively excluded from the workplace. Finally, when a supervisor hauls workers into his office and threatens to fire them if they join the union, we do not have economic democracy, because those workers must choose between feeding their families and having rights on the job. All of these struggles are connected, and unless the labor movement joins with other movements to improve the lives of all people, we can never truly have economic democracy.

People often ask, “Can Donald Trump win in 2020?” My answer is, “Of course he can.” He did it once; he can do it again. But the 2020 question assumes that only politicians can lead us to the promised land. The better question is whether we want something better than what either Mr. Trump or the establishment has to offer. There is an old adage that goes something like this: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Every step toward a more perfect union has come because of movements of abolitionists and African Americans, of women and workers, of immigrants and queer folk. That is also the progressive path out of our present crisis, and anyone who says differently is trying to take the easy way out.

Cedric de Leon is Director of the Labor Center and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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