Economic Update: Strikes Amid Reviving US Labor Movement

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This week on Economic Update, Prof. Wolff presents updates on Huawei vs Cisco, Europe's exploding energy prices falsely blamed on Covid, Robert Kuttner announces he has become a socialist, polls show big drop in religious affiliation and praying especially among Christians from 2007 to 2021 as secularism accelerates. In the second half of the show, Prof. Wolff is joined by Mike Elk of Payday Report to discuss the growing wave of US strikes since the pandemic began.
Transcript has been edited for clarity

DR. RICHARD WOLFF: Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives — jobs, debts, incomes, our own and those of our children. I'm your host Richard Wolff.

Let me begin today by talking to you about the future of the communications business in this world we live in, the communication of voice, data, and images. That future is in wireless communications, and there are five companies in the world that absolutely dominate the market for wireless communications and I'm going to give you their names because I want to talk to you briefly about them. These five companies in order of their importance, starting with the biggest one: Huawei —you’ve seen that in the news the last couple years —Nokia, Ericsson, ZTE, and Cisco.

The fifth one is the only American one in the running, and it is the fifth out of five. It accounts for roughly ten percent of the business. By far the largest is Huawei, which accounts for 30 percent of the business. That alone is information you ought to think about when you listen to what I'm about to tell you.

The three governments that are involved in the four larger companies,number one is the People's Republic of China, because both Huawei and ZTE are Chinese companies. And then Finland and Sweden, because those are the homes of Nokia and Erickson. Those three countries are referred to in most studies in economics as “socialist countries.” The one that isn't socialist ,that rejects that name and calls itself capitalist, is the United States ,and it comes in fifth out of five in this category.

What's going on here? The governments in all these countries help the companies involved. Absolutely China helps Huawei and ZTE. The Swedish and Finnish governments help these enormous companies, and the United States certainly helped Cisco, as well as everybody else in that business.
Let me add a little footnote, in case you're not familiar: The United States has been harassing the Huawei company in half a dozen different ways, including the arrest of their executives and the president's daughter, who’s an executive in that company. And the claim of the United States government has been that this is because Huawei is linked in some ways, never quite specified, to the military in China. Well, let me give you a piece of information: I went to the website of Cisco, and there I discovered, very proudly presented, all of the many ways Cisco is connected to, working with, co-sponsoring, half a dozen different projects with the United States military. The difference is the Chinese have never said anything about it, nor has anybody else.

Something is wrong with the American competitor. That competitor isn't competing very well. There’s something about the situation of American Capitalism that doesn't work real well in this absolutely crucial business for the future. This is part of what is called the decline of American Capitalism, and it deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

My next update has to do with an energy crisis in Europe. The cost of energy has gone crazy. There are serious conversations about people being unable to heat their homes this winter in Europe. Oil prices, gas prices, even coal prices are shooting up, way beyond what people can afford. All kinds of programs are being pushed through European governments to help subsidize people being able to operate their automobiles, and to heat their homes, etcetera.

What’s going on? Why are the prices crazy in this field? The major answer given by the oil companies and their supporters is, “Oh, it's all about COVID.” Really! “It's all about COVID!” And then we asked the question, “What about COVID?” “Well, when there was COVID we didn't produce as much energy, because our people were sick.” “Oh? But you didn't need as much, did you? Either because people weren't going to restaurants, and they weren't doing a lot of the things that use energy, including producing goods and services. So the demand went down, and the supply went down, and then there's the recovery.”

Yeah. You see, we’re told, ‘The recovery! The demand goes up, and there's not enough.” Uh, you knew there'd be a recovery. What you are telling us — without admitting it — is that the capitalist system, confronted with the pandemic, couldn't think its way to first base to understand, “Okay you lower the supply, because you don't need so much, and there will be less demand, and then the supply will be needed again, because you recover from it, and then —.” You didn't think that through? That's why we're paying through the nose?

Look, there's another explanation beside that one, which is no flattery to Capitalism in the first place, but here’s an even uglier thought — that this has nothing to do with COVID, that the only role of COVID is an excuse. COVID allows you to say, “Well, we wouldn’t want to raise the price of everything we sell. We’re not in it to make money!” What? “No no no! Uh, uh, it’s forced on us by this COVID!” Well, either you were incompetent to plan for COVID, or you're hustling us, and either way private enterprise energy is showing us how very costly it is.

My next update is a welcome. It’s a welcome to a man named Robert Kutner. He may not be known to you, but I'm sure some of you know him. He is a longtime spokesperson, you might say, for liberals and progressive liberals, and he announced in a recent magazine article — a bit shocking to some of his longtime supporters — that he has become, and I quote, a “socialist.” Wow. Here’s another sign of something, of the influence of Occupy, of Bernie, of AOC and all of that, for sure, and the horror that people like him feel about Trump, and everything that represents. This is part of the polarization going on in this country that we know of in many of its forms, but here's another form: Liberals becoming Socialists. And while I want to welcome him, and I want to say that I hope it's a long-term commitment, and not just a quick visit — I don't want to be mean here — I do want to inform Robert Kuttner that while he was away, that's most of his life, Socialism has evolved. There are lots of different kinds and norms. Do you tell us that you’ve now become a socialist, then we have to tell you, what does that mean? Do you mean Socialist like in Scandinavia, where you have a government providing lots of social services, but most enterprises are private? Do you mean like in Russia, in the Soviet Union, when most enterprises were public? Do you mean like the People's Republic of China, which is, again, a bit more like Scandinavia, because it has a mixed economy — a big government sector, with a big private? Or do you maybe mean something altogether different? That new kind of socialism that is growing, which isn't so interested in whether the government or the private is running the big business. They’re interested in whether the workers do or do not run the enterprise, whether they do it democratically or not, or whether they're excluded, the way they are in both private and state versions of what is capitalism. So what do you mean, Mr. Kutner? And we won’t want to be too applauding until it becomes clear that you understand that Socialism is a big, complex, diverse thing. You may not have thought that, but then again, you weren't part of it. Now that you've joined again, well, learn about all the particulars. You’re going to need to face a decision about where in all of that you stand, because you're entering a contested terrain. Socialism is not some simple, singular idea you can salute and everybody knows what you mean. They don’t.

The last update for today has to do with something I think may surprise you. I think it's fair to say that the last 15 years or so have been a time when evangelical Christians have entered the political arena, have become a big force in our society. Or so it would seem by the Trump administration's embrace of those folks, the articulation of their political preferences as governmental policy, and all the rest. You might have inferred, as some of those folks wanted us to believe, that there was an upsurge of commitment to religion in general, to Christianity in particular, and that it was really on the move upward.

Then came the Pew Charitable Trust investigations of religion and American life, and there was a remarkable report on their findings on the 15th of December issue of that very, very good British paper, The Guardian . And I would urge you to go find it. It's called “U.S. Religious Affiliation Study Results,” and I’m gonna give you just a few of them to see what they tell us. In 2007 — that's roughly 15 years ago — 16 percent of polled Americans said they had “no religious affiliation.” Sixteen percent. This year, 2021, that same number is 29 percent. From 16 to 29 percent of Americans answered, “I have no religious affiliation.” Christians outnumbered those who said “I have no religious affiliation” in 2007 by a five to one ratio; for every person who said “I had no affiliation” in 2007, there were five who said “I'm a Christian.” This year, for everyone who said he had no affiliation, he or she, the person who said “I'm a Christian” is two to one, down from five to one, to two to one. This is mostly among Protestants, not so much among Catholics within the Christians, but then again what exactly it means to be Catholic has changed dramatically, because of the pedophile scandals that rocked the church. And here's the last one: in 2007, 18 percent of people answered the poll they “have never prayed to God.” This year that number is 32 percent.

All right, you can do whatever you want with these numbers, but here's one thing you can't do. These are not signs of an upturn in interest in religion. They are signs of the exact opposite. It makes you wonder why the GOP is lining up so heavily with a population that is shrinking so dramatically, and what does it mean? Maybe those “culture wars” we hear about are a resistance, but it's a resistance from the right wing. It’s a resistance of the folks who believe, who sense — and in this case they're right — that the community of those who share their beliefs is shrinking and, in historical terms, shrinking fast. Something to think about.

We've come to the end of the first part of today’s show and, as always, I want to thank all of you whose support makes the show possible. To learn more about the different ways you can support Economic Update, please go to Patreon.com, slash Economic Update. Or else visit our website, Democracy At Work, dot ,info. We’ve also recently released a new hardcover edition of “Understanding Marxism” that is available now. To get your copy ,again, visit our website, Democracy At Work, dot, info, slash “books.” Please stay with us. We’ll be right back with today's special guest, Mike Elk.

DR. RICHARD WOLFF: Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased to bring to our microphones and cameras Mike Elk. He’s a protege of the late Bill Grider. He's also an Emmy Award-winning labor reporter who covered the labor movement and drug wars in Brazil, and spent many years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016 he used a $70,000 NLRB settlement (that was from being fired for his political and union organizing work at Politico) to start his crowd-funded Payday Report, a publication I would urge all of you to take a good look at. He's the son of United Electrical Workers — that's the UE Director of Organization — Gene Elk, and he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So first off, Mike, thank you very much for joining us, and giving us the benefit of what you're doing, the really important work that we wanted to bring to our audience.

MIKE ELK: Well, thank you so much for having me on. I remember David Christensen Garu, my professor at Bucknell, taught us knowledge in class back in 2006, and that shaped my view of so much of what I do. And so I’m really excited to be able to have this dialogue after reminding your work for so many years.

WOLFF: Good. Thank you. That's very kind of you. All right. Let’s start with the question that comes to us these days, literally several times every day in one form or another. You are a person who monitors, studies, reports on, analyzes strikes in the United States. Payday Report is becoming famous because it does that. So let me ask you, from your vantage point, is there a wave of strikes going on in the United States today? Is there something big happening to the American working class these days? And if you think there is, what’s going on? Why is it happening?

ELK: Well, our strike tracker has shown that since March of 2020, the beginning of the pandemic, there's been more than 1,700 strikes that we’ve counted. Now this is, I think in my opinion, a pretty severe underestimation, since we're relying heavily on Google alerts, and news links, people sending in tips to us. So there's probably a lot going on that we don't know about. We know there have been at least 1,700 work stoppages, retail worker walkouts, and this is part of a bigger trend we're seeing nationwide. Since this year alone, 25 percent of all Americans have quit their jobs and changed jobs. Workers after the pandemic don't want to be treated the way that they used to be treated anymore. Things have changed. People built up their savings. They weren't going out to eat during the pandemic. People realized they were saving money on child care, and had the unemployment benefits. Having a good social welfare state for a while, at a certain point during the pandemic, helped certainly a lot. The American Prospect has a great piece everyone should read called “The Great Escape.” Historically speaking, after each pandemic in global history, workers wages have always gone up, because so many people during every pandemic keep things going. And then afterwards, they’ve help save someone's business, and they risk their lives, and they say, “You know, I want a little bit better than that. You know, you were telling me I was a hero for coming into work and, I want to be treated better.”

So just today, we saw there's a nationwide pharmacist walkout. Pharmacists have been on the front lines of the pandemic the entire time. Not just on the front lines, but being forced to do double work, now giving out so many vaccines, so many COVID tests, and having to fill higher script volumes, because of the complications of COVID, and we have people coming getting a lot of medicine. But because of the monopolization, we no longer have the small, independent pharmacies where pharmacists could go to graduate school for six or eight years, and hope to someday become a partner in the pharmacy. Now you have huge changes like CVS, that owns AETNA, that owns CareMark, or you have these huge chains, and at CVS the starting salary for a pharmacist is $45,000, after they’re graduating $200,000 in debt.

And so people that are on the front lines, like pharmacists, hospital workers, and even iron workers are on strike. These workers have been declared “essential workers,” and they changed things. My friend Boots Riley, the filmmaker, once said to me that “the worst mistake the ruling class ever made was coming up with the term essential worker, because it made people realize how valuable they are.” And now people are asking for more, and I don't see that ending anytime soon. I think in 2022 we’re going to see even more strikes. And it’s interesting to see these strikes at a time when Build Back Better and other legislation is having difficulty overcoming obstacles like Joe Manchin. Workers are going out ,and they’re demanding more on their own outside of the political process.

WOLFF: All right. That’s very, very important for us to hear ,and particularly from you. Let me take a step back. Tell us a little bit about your own experience. What made you decide to start this particular kind of publication? And what effects can you already see it is having, that there is someone like you going out, collecting all this information? What’s going on here? Tell us a little bit about your own particular project.

ELK: Well I started off in the early 2000s as a high school kid at the independent media center movement. We used to have a movement, particularly at the WTO, that we were going to build our own independent media centers in each town, and report on things. At Bucknell I studied with David Christian School. I worked at The Nation. I've worked at a bunch of other places, and I always thought independent media is so essential to hold corporate media accountable. I’ve worked at places like Politico, or MSNBC, and those places operate in a different function. They’re not there to fulfill a goal of an organization. They're not there, to use a phrase that I learned when I was studying journalism in Brazil, that we really should look at journalism as community therapy, right? Journalism is how communities work out their issues. It's how they talk, it's how they sort out issues, and we're not seeing much community therapy in the digital media space these days. We’re seeing click bait. And often in labor coverage, we're seeing poverty porn, which is “look how terrible these conditions are! Look!” It pains the pain cells. I think what's shifted during the pandemic is that stories of organizing have become very exciting. The John Deere strike certainly captured the imagination of the country. The Kellogg strike certainly did as well, and I think President Joe Biden made a pretty remarkable statement denouncing Kellogg's for using scabs, and calling for permanent legislation to ban the use of scabs during strikes. That was pretty landmark, and that was a real shot in the arm. And you're also seeing at the same time as workers striking, workers pushing back against their own union structures, and demanding more democracy, demanding more internal democracy, because unions can often be top down. Sometimes unions can operate like insurance companies that come out and help somebody when they get in trouble, but don’t really provide any political training or political education.

So we saw at John Deere that the workers voted against two different contracts there before finally accepting a third. Two different ones recommended by the union the UAW. Right now all of the UAW’s leadership got in trouble for taking bribes, and so the UAW is in this period of transition. It's actually quite interesting. Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect had a piece saying 25 percent of all UAW members now are grad students, which is quite interesting given how much the auto industry shrunk. And there was just a movement in the UAW to have “one member, one vote” when voting for president, as opposed to using a delegate system that can be more rigged by the powers that be. We also saw at Kellogg's that they voted down the contract. So we're seeing this over and over again, that just not our workers demanding more from their employers. They're demanding more from their unions.

We've also seen a huge spike in retail worker walkouts that are driven by online viral culture where workers will make fun videos particularly black teenagers on TikTok. Everybody just rolling out of the Establishment, and these go viral, and so you know these are places that unions aren't even getting involved in.

Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post —we collaborated with them on a front page cover story about a group of workers at the Bradford PA MacDonald's who all walked out, and they all found better jobs shortly.

So you know, we're at a point where we're asking ourselves new questions, and we really need media because, as you can see, half of the walkouts we track — more than half — don't even involve a union. And sometimes — and I know this has been controversial — but I do think there's some organizing out of it. And I know there's been these workers walking out over vaccine mandates, right? And I tend to look at these workers as the unorganized. I was meeting with some pretty sharp union organizers in East LA that were Chicano, that were saying, “Well, if these workers are concerned about the vaccine mandate, then unions should be stepping in and saying, “Hey, well, make sure that you give everyone health care! That way, if anybody gets sick taking the vaccine…”

I think there's a lot of space that we're not exploring right now, that we’ve struggled even to understand. You know, Cornell has their own labor action tracker, and they refused to count retail worker walkouts. Meanwhile, you had something like 4 million workers quit their job in October.

So I think the notion of what is the traditional labor movement is being spun on its head. And this happens after every mass loss of American life. After the Civil War — that was the founding of the eight hour work day movement. After 1946, you had all these major, huge strikes right after World War II. And so now, I think, we're coming into a period of increased activity. The question, I think, is whether the Left is really prepared to organize.

WOLFF: Wow. That takes me exactly to my next question. You know, some of us who study American history know that in the aftermath of the Great Depression, once Roosevelt takes power and so on, that there was a massive upsurge, the likes of which we've never seen before or since. The alliance of the CIO with Socialist and Communist parties in this country produced a wave of unionization. Now, it took four or five years into the Depression before that ball got rolling. Is it reasonable, or is it a mistake, to imagine that we're beginning to see now a kind of delayed response, in the working class? Not just to the pandemic, but to the crash. We've had two crucial crashes of American capitalism, one in 2008 and 2009, and now another one in 2020-2021. Is that a fanciful parallel historically, or do you think there's something to it?

ELK: I think there is somewhat of a parallel, but I think , unlike the Great Depression, you had so many workers risk their lives, and that’s similar to the way that a lot of guys came home from World War II. Men like my grandfather came home, and they organized on the job. They felt that they were owed that, after being in combat in France, as my grandfather was. I was out with like some UPMC workers that were describing having mental health breakdowns and that. You know, these were folks were cleaning hospital rooms, and bringing food to people, and describing having to go to mental health clinics because of the severe anxiety of COVID. A friend of mine is a child care worker, and lived with her mother, and lived in constant fear of bringing it home to her mother. We have a generation that's traumatized, and out of trauma, like out of the Civil War, I think people want to build back a better. I know that seems like a cheesy slogan, but it was actually quite interesting. I was on a picket line in Huntington, West Virginia, at the hospital there. A thousand workers on strike there, and the workers found these “Build Back Better” signs that SEIU had. This was in Huntington, West Virginia, where Joe Manchin is the Senator. I went and I asked him, “This is the strike? Over Build Back Better?” And they said, “Oh no, no. We just found these signs in the union hall, and thought it was a nice slogan about about how we want to build back a better society.” I think it's a nice slogan, but I think there is something to be said there; it’s that people have gone through this severe trauma. I was immunocompromised, I lived alone, I was single. It was not fun, you know, spending months at home alone here, and I don't think anyone ever wants to return to that kind of fear that we felt. I mean certainly, there are some elements that are very anti-vaccine, but even even that is waning.

There was a good article today in the New York Times by Ben Smith about a Nascar driver who didn't want to be associated with anti-vaccine people because it would hurt his brand. This is a Southern Republican who just didn't want “let's go Brandon” (his name had become a chant) and he said, “I just want to drive race cars. I think using my name as some sort of anti-vaccine thing is pretty counterproductive.”

So I do think there's a political realignment that’s going to occur, too, at one point in some of these states, some of these places, because you're looking at the South, right? You’re looking at Raleigh, you're looking at all these school districts in the South where they have school bus drivers sick outs and strikes, and they're demanding more money through the Care Act for that. And so we're seeing bus drivers in places like Raleigh get thirty seven hundred dollars a year retention bonuses, and get raises, and they don't have collective bargaining rights. We just saw the teachers in Richmond became the first teachers in the state of Virginia to get collective bargaining rights. I’ve spent a lot of years in the South and the South is changing. The labor market is particularly short there. So I think we're going to see political realignment based on some of the growing workers movement .

WOLFF: Well, it couldn't be a better prognosis for our audience for 2022 than thinking about, and taking heart, from what you've said, Mike. Thank you very, very much for joining us.

And to all of you, let me remind you that I look forward to speaking with you in the new year, and again next week.

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About our guest: Mike Elk is a protege of the late Bill Greider, Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter who covered the labor movement & the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

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