Economic Update: Unionization, Marxism and Education

[S13 E07] New

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In this week’s show, Prof. Wolff shares updates on Starbucks union growth; Texas journalists and Yale graduate students/employees unionize, strike, win; Western Mass Labor Federation denounces Biden's denial of railway workers' right to strike; two major kinds of US tax injustice: (1) exempting bonds and stocks from property tax when 10% richest own 80% of stocks and bonds, and (2) failing to levy excess profits tax on war profiteers as UK and Portugal have already done. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews Notre Dame Professor Emeritus David F. Ruccio on Marxian economics, its absence from US universities, and its social insights.


  • 00:00 - 00:48 - Introduction
  • 00:59 - 01:48 - Starbucks
  • 01:49 - 02:57 - Texas journalists unionize
  • 02:58 - 05:26 - Yale grad students 
  • 05:16 - 09:25 - Western Mass Labor Federation denounces Biden's denial of railway workers
  • 09:09 - 12:57 - tax injustices: property tax
  • 12:58 - 14:40 - UK and Portugal excess profit tax
  • 14:41 - 15:54 - Announcements
  • 15:55 - 31:29 - Interview with Dr. David F. Ruccio

Transcript has been edited for clarity

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.

In today's program, we're going to be talking about unionization, unions, labor actions across the country because they are heating up and changing the face of how we live our lives. I'm also going to be talking about tax injustice—two different kinds. Then, we're going to have an interview with a very important writer, Professor David Ruccio.

So, let's jump right in…the first little factoid to set the tone is what has happened to Starbucks workers across the United States. At the beginning of 2022, roughly a year ago, no Starbucks workers were unionized. As I'm speaking to you, the number has crossed 7,000. Across hundreds of Starbucks stores, workers who had needed and wanted a union for a long time but were unable to overcome the opposition of the company or their own anxieties and worries made the change. They became leaders of a unionization movement and a strike movement sweeping that corporation as indeed it is sweeping the whole country.

Let me give you another example. For the first time in the history of the state of Texas, a newspaper in Texas had its journalists—its workers—form a union. They did that two years ago. They struggled to get a contract with their employer. He didn't come across. They had a strike over recent weeks and guess what…that did it. The employer signed the contract and gave the workers an enormous wage increase. For those of you that are interested, I'm talking about the 117-year-old Fort Worth Star-Telegram which is now a unionized newspaper for the first time in the state of Texas. Right on its heels there are two more efforts pretty much going through the same experience—one in Dallas and one in Austin. So pretty soon the unionized workers in Fort Worth will have their fellow unionized journalists elsewhere in the state.

The third one I wanted to mention—choosing different parts of the country and different kinds of workers—is one I have a personal history with….Yale University's graduate students, roughly 2,000 of them, have been working for many, many decades. Why do I know that…because I was one. I was a graduate student some years ago and I worked at Yale and I worked for a ridiculously low amount of money for my professor who wanted me to do it and you don't say no to the professor who holds your future in his hands. I say his because there were very few hers at that time.

Well, those workers have been trying for decades to have a union so they get paid better…so that there's a little more care taken in providing them with the support they need to get their master's degree or their Ph.D. degree. Yale is a vicious—and long-standingly vicious—anti-union, anti-worker institution. It took a long time for the building and grounds workers to get a union which they have at Yale. It took an even longer time for the clerical and technical workers at Yale to struggle for and win and get a union and now it's the turn of the graduate students. Not only did the 2,000 vote for a union but I want to tell you what the vote was—1,860 in favor of the union…179 against it. A 91% landslide vote. The workers at Yale have come a long way and I know personally because I remember how hard the university worked to convince us we were graduate students…we were going to become professors…we weren't like truck drivers. We want nothing to do with a union and all of that and it persuaded a large number of students. It doesn't work anymore. The students understand when it comes time to pay your bills…tell people how much education you have…they still want the bill paid. You still have to earn a living. So there's remarkable things going on across the working class of the United States. We haven't seen anything like this for almost a century but I want to pick yet one more to close out this section of my talk this morning.

I want to make clear that there are other things going on in the labor movement and so I found something that struck me as very important. Thanks to some listeners and watchers of this program who sent this material to me. I'm talking about the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation (WMALF) that's a part of the AFL-CIO. It's the area of Western Massachusetts which has a federation of all the local unions across all industries…manufacturing services…all of it.

They get together on a regular basis and they voted on January 9th of this year to condemn—I’m going to quote now because I want to get it right—“to condemn in the strongest possible terms, the Biden Administration's conduct of December 2nd, 2022.” Here the resolution was real clear and to make it clear to all of you—that's when Mr. Biden enforced the return of railway workers, thousands of them, that were on strike or threatening to go on strike—to deny them the right to strike. They'd been negotiating with the company. They'd been doing what those Fort Worth journalists have done…what the Starbucks workers have done…what the Yale grad students have done. They were doing the same thing—exercising the right to strike to improve their working conditions and their pay. The Biden Administration came in—didn't have to—came in and threatened them with being arrested and put in jail if they exercised the right to strike—which used to be thought of as a basic part of anything calling itself a democracy.

So, let me read to you the resolution that was passed, by the way unanimously, by the Western Mass Area Federation of Labor. “The right to strike is a fundamental human right. Any legislation that denies workers the right to strike, whether the bill that Biden signed on December 2nd, 2022, the Railway Labor Act of 1926 or section 9A of the Massachusetts Public Employee Collective Bargaining Law. Any abridgment of that right to strike, they go on to say, “serves the interests of the bosses over the interests of the working class and should be deemed illegitimate.”

They then ask their fellow workers to support the following four-point program: “One, the union should stand in solidarity via our voices and our union resources with the railway workers’ demand for the right to paid sick time.” That was a big issue for them and reasonable work schedules. “Two, we should organize our members to resolve problems by taking collective action in our workplaces. Number three, we should build a democratic union where workers’ desires and needs are immediately taken seriously and acted upon…and fourth and final, we should deepen labor's commitment to hold elected officials accountable, to represent the interests of working people, and if and when they don't we should withhold our labor and our donations.” Take heed, Democratic Party…your reliance on the labor movement with giving so little back is coming to an end and that's led by the folks in Western Massachusetts.

I want to talk to you also, as tax season approaches, about the tax system here in the United States which is so fundamentally unfair and unjust. The way to deal with that is to identify the unfairness and fix it. The way not to deal with it is to cut the number of Internal Revenue Service agents trying to find people who are cheating the government out of the taxes they owe. What do I mean by injustice?

Let's remember what taxes do. We have basically three kinds of taxes in the United States. Number one—we tax income. When you earn money (your wage, your salary, your rent, whatever you have that brings you in money) you are asked to pay a tax on the income. That's the first kind.

The second kind–you are also taxed when you spend the money you've earned. For example, you pay a sales tax when you go to the department store and buy a shirt for your friends or yourself. You’re also required to pay a tax when you spend money on alcohol—that's a federal tax. Cigarettes—that's a federal tax and motor fuel, gasoline, and so on. So those are taxes when you spend money. Then there's a third kind of tax—not on the money you earn, not on the money you spend, but on the wealth you own. It's a property tax.

Most of us pay more than one of them. Some of us pay all three of them. So, if you hear someone say, “I'm double taxed,” you should grin or sneer—most of us are. There's nothing special about being doubly taxed. That's how tax systems work but here's the injustice…when I said to you that there's a property tax, now I can explain to you the injustice. It's a tax on property in the form of land. If you own land, you pay a tax on the value of the land, on a building, if there is one on the land, a home, a store. You pay a tax on the value of that property. If you have an automobile, you pay a tax for that. So do you pay a tax on all property? No. There's one enormous category of property that pays no property tax at all. Let me be real clear. Stocks and bonds is what I'm talking about—if you're really rich, most of your wealth is in the form of stocks and bonds. Most Americans have no wealth at all. If they have something, they have a home, they have land, they have a house and they pay property tax on that but if you're rich enough to have not only a car and a home but stocks and bonds that make you really rich those stocks and bonds pay no property tax at all. The 10% richest people in this country own 80% of the stocks and bonds. You get the picture. They are tax-exempt. That's why the rich get richer and you and I don’t.

We have a tax system that grotesquely favors those who need the favor least while continuing to tax your average person barely able to afford a home and a car. The injustice of it is screaming and here's the second injustice–in Europe today, in England, and in Portugal, particularly, the government has what are called excess profits taxes sometimes called windfall profits tax. If you have extra profit not because of anything you've done, but because of catastrophes facing society, the idea is you should not be able to benefit from catastrophes that hurt other people. So your excess profit (not the ones you get anyway but the excess because of the catastrophe) should be taxed by the government to help the people that are suffering from the catastrophe. So, England taxes energy prices—oil and gas because they went up due to the Ukraine war and the policies of governments to punish Russia for that war. That has nothing to do with the company that's making a billion out of charging high prices. Same thing is happening to food companies because of the difficulties of fertilizer coming out of Russia and Ukraine. Food prices have gone up as everybody knows and this is making huge profits for the food companies but hurting all the people who have to pay the higher prices.

So you tax excess profits of the food companies to help the people that are suffering the high prices. Portugal just did it…Britain has done it. I want you to understand—not only has the United States not done it—nobody proposes it. Nobody discusses it. We’re all supposed to pretend that we don't know that that's happening which is why I have mentioned it to you now.

We’ve come to the end of the first part of today's show. Please stay with us—we will be right back with professor and author David Ruccio. Before we move on I want to remind everyone that Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work, a small donor-funded non-profit media organization celebrating 10 years of producing critical system analysis and visions of a more equitable and democratic world through a variety of media—like the podcast Capitalism Hits Home with Dr. Harriet Fraud that explores what's happening in the economic realm and its impact on our individual and social psychology. You can find her show and more on our website democracyatwork.info You can also learn there more about everything we produce, sign up for our mailing list, follow us on social media—specifically our fastest-growing platform Instagram where you can get involved and help us explain why we need democracy in the workplace.

Please stay with us. We will be right back.

Welcome back friends to the second half of today's Economic Update. It is with great pleasure and happiness that we have him with us today…that I want to introduce my guest, he is David Ruccio. He's a professor of Economics Emeritus—sort of like me but in his case, it's from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He's the author of over 90 journal articles and book chapters. He helped start the journal, Rethinking Marxism, and was its chief editor for 12 years. His latest book, Marxian Economics: An Introduction, was published last year by Polity Press. His blog, quite well known, is called Occasional Links and Commentary on Economics, Culture, and Society and his posts frequently appear on other blogs including the Real World Economics Review blog.

RDW: So first of all David since I’m going to call you that since we've known each other so so many years… thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to join us.

DR: Thanks, Rick…thanks for having me on.

RDW: Let’s jump right In and talk about your new book, really, literally, just off the press. you know I've been around long enough as you have to know that Marxism in its long history over the second half of the 19th century…the 20th century and into this century…has been pronounced over with, dead, gone…retired…disappeared, countless times…only to surprise everybody within 10 or 20 years to have a sudden resurgence.
Is your book part of a resurgence now? and if it is—is that part of why you wrote about it? So, how do you relate to this history of the interest in Marxism in general and Marxian economics in particular?

DR: Good question. In all honesty, yes and no. The no is…I didn't sit down to write it because things are going badly with capitalism and people are interested in alternatives. You and I have been doing this for many, many years through good times and bad, as I once told a group of students when they asked me to talk about the crises of 2007-2008. I walked in and I said, “I hate capitalism. I hate it when it's going poorly, as it is now and I hate it when it's going well as it has in other times.” So, this is what we do and we've been doing it for a long time. I think, however, it was part of the Polity Press invitation. I mean they're the ones who invited me—they wanted a book on Marxian economics and I put aside another project and decided to work on it so I would have done it at any time.

Now, I think, is a particularly interesting time. I think you know, I mean, we go back a long way…we can make the argument, I think, effectively, that capitalism has always had its critics and mainstream economics has always had its critics ever since they began. The way I do it in the book is capitalism brings forth its critical other and always has, but this time is a little bit different. After 2007-2008, right—what some people call the Great Recession, I call the Second Great Depression—after the pandemic, after the Black Lives Matter movement, after the concern about not only the environment but now climate crisis, I think people—and especially young people—are now, on one hand, more critical of capitalism and more interested in alternatives…what we call socialism…than at any other time in recent memory. I think there's a kind of new opening here.

RDW: I saw a poll just the other day that made me think about this again in agreement with your point. This is a Gallup poll and it showed that 28% of Americans identify politically with the Republicans and about 28% identify with the Democrats. Forty-one percent say they are opposed to both of them—they call themselves independent. My guess is, if you looked at the ages—the older you got they'd be in the first two groups and the younger you got they'd be in the third group which ought to make critics of the system sit up and take notice.

All right let me put the same question to you slightly differently. Who do you want to read this book…who are you trying to reach…what is it you hope this book will do or be for the potential reader?

DR: Listen, like every author in the world I want to reach everybody. I want everyone to read the book but you know, you’ve written many many books. You have an audience in mind and the particular audience I had in mind were my students. I'm retired now and I'm not in the classroom but I saw them as I wrote and partly based upon my lecture notes plus lots of new stuff and it's for all of those students who are forced in one way or another to take their Introduction to Economics. You taught Introduction to Economics…I did it for many decades…students never learn about alternatives so when they get Introduction to Economics they get a celebration of capitalism and they get a very narrowly defined mainstream economics. They don't get anything else.

This book, hopefully, is one of those other things. In fact, you know, I was contacted literally a week ago by a student at the University of Notre Dame, where I used to teach, who’s interested in Marxian economics and said he went to the department and no one could help him…not only are they not Marxists, they're not even read, they’re not even… they're not even literate in the tradition, so he's got nowhere to turn. So, what does he do? He heard from some of my former colleagues in philosophy and literature and there's this retired guy who might be able to help you out. So they keep contacting me and being who I am, I said okay, so we're literally this coming Sunday doing a zoom session on this book.

RDW: Wonderful, wonderful. I want to pick up on your mentioning your place of teaching for all those years—Notre Dame and I have kind of two connected questions. What was it like? How were you treated? This is one of the major Catholic universities in the United States… probably the best known. It's a place that is trying to be taken seriously as a university and I want you at the same time to answer the question that so many conservative politicians in this country like to say that somehow American universities are “full of Marxists.” I want you, because you actually worked in one, to tell me whether there's any sense to what they're saying and also—beyond what you've already told us in the story of that student—What was it like to be a professor in an American university like Notre Dame with the interests and the scholarship that you've devoted to being a critic of capitalism?

DR: You know it's a tale of two periods for me at Notre Dame. In terms of your second question—would but that it were the case—that American colleges and universities were full of Marxists—they are not—they weren’t at Notre Dame—they are not at all the colleges and universities that I know of in the United States and in many places around the world. Liberals of a kind of…I mean, American traditional liberal thinking—they are in many ways critical of what exists out there right now. Maybe that’s, you know, certainly more liberal than the general population but they’re not Marxist in any way shape, or form. They are not and they have not read Marx and when I would raise questions they would look at me like…what, what are you talking about?…they hadn't gotten it in their own education. Notre Dame hired me as a Marxist—got my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, right, where you taught. They knew exactly what my background was and what my research was on which was at the time on socialist planning, various forms of socialism around the world and that's why they hired me. It was interesting because this was one of the few economics departments in the country—still majority mainstream economists—that prided itself on being an eclectic department. They wanted a little bit of everything. They wanted neoclassical economists and Keynesian economists but they also wanted post-Keynesian and structuralist pro-labor and in my case, a Marxist economist. They thought that I kind of identified with the Catholic Social Tradition and so we did for a couple of decades have a thriving economics department in which faculty could conduct their research and teach their courses and students would get all kinds of different stories or narratives about what capitalism was about, different criticisms of capitalism…different criticisms of mainstream economics and some of the alternatives and then things changed—and what changed was not just at Notre Dame…what things changed was American universities—what I call the new corporate university and Notre Dame was certainly part of that. It is interesting for us in economics because economics is taken to be one of those key disciplines. They don’t really care about literature. They don’t really care about any anthropology…they really care about economics and the administration—not the faculty and not the students—at Notre Dame decided they wanted a mainstream department. They wanted to get rid of all that eclecticism. They wanted to get rid of all that variety. They wanted just neoclassical and they stated this openly—neoclassical economists. As you know that makes them like lots…most economics departments around the country where students don't learn economic history. They don't learn the history of economic thought. They certainly don't learn Marxian economics or many of the other alternatives. They learn just one way of doing and thinking about economics. It's a shame and it means that we end up with—in terms of economics—a kind of illiterate population.

RDW: You know, the double irony—the same period of time in which they got rid of all of the Marxists, among others—is the time when the conservatives began their rhythmic repetition that the university is full of what it had just gotten rid of—the contrast between reality and what the politicians say. Why it’s so extreme it kind of suggests the Ukraine war but I won't go there because that's going to be a problem.

Let me ask you a different, although obviously related question.

DR: Sure sure.

RDW: Some people, typically those who don't know much about Marxian economics imagine that it is some sort of rationale for the government taking everything over that the government should own and operate and regulate industries…that the government should plan the distribution of resources and products—not the market. In other words, that Marxian economics is a kind of gloss on the state becoming the replacement for the private. How do you respond to that?…and we're running out of time, so this is a very difficult question and I'm giving you no time…no time at all to answer.

DR: Listen, I mean, historically I think we have to own the idea that’s what socialism was defined as—the state taking over. There's nothing in the Marxian tradition…there’s certainly nothing in the texts of Marx and Engels that said that's the way it should go…so that there have been some cases in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere where that has been the case…absolutely…but we live in 2023 and we live in the United States and there's not a lot of interest in the state taking over everything. So, when people are critical of capitalism and want an alternative, they're the ones who are going to invent it. You’re not going to invent it. I'm not going to invent it. People wanting concrete changes in their lives…people who are critical of—and say there's something wrong with this narrative—this silly little choice we have between conservatives and liberals. There’s got to be an alternative to that and one of those alternatives springs from the Marxian tradition. Here's a way of saying, “You want to redistribute goods and services well, Marx has come in and said that doesn't work so well.” We still got a lot of poverty. We still have a lot of inequality. what about the initial distribution? What may be wrong with the fact that the employers get to take home all the profits and do what they will and workers are still forced to have the freedom to go to work something may be wrong with that and that's I mean, just as a start, a kind of basic question that the Marxist could oppose.

RDW: David because we're running out of time I want you quickly to tell us what's on your agenda. What's happening, what's going to be your work in the immediate future?

DR: More of the same…continue to work on the blog, continue to work in this area. As I mentioned before, I was working on a book and put it on hold when Polity’s invitation came along. I said all right now's the time to write this book, so I'm working on another book called Utopia and Critique, that builds on some of the themes of the book. So the idea is: so what is Marxian economics? It's a critique of the existing common sense. It was a critique of the common sense in Marx's day and it is a critique of the common sense today. I'm interested in what does that mean in terms of utopia? How do we think about utopia as a form of critique? So that’s the next writing project on my table.

RDW: David, it's wonderful reconnecting with you. It's wonderful to hear your comments. I hope the rest of my audience is as intrigued as I am. I would urge you all to take a look at David Ruccio’s blog—it’s an ongoing commentary on what's going on. First rate in the insights you will not find elsewhere. To all of you, I will conclude today, as I always do, that I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Barbara Bartlett

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About our guest: Dr. David F. Ruccio is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of over 90 journal articles and book chapters. His latest book is Marxian Economics: An Introduction, published last year by Polity Press.

 Dr. Ruccio was a founding member of the journal Rethinking Marxism, and he served as its chief editor for twelve years. A frequent speaker in interdisciplinary programs and conferences around the world, Dr. Ruccio has appeared on the BBC World News Service and has been interviewed by a wide range of national and international media. His blog is Occasional Links & Commentary on Economics, Culture, and Society, and his posts frequently appear on other blogs, including the Real-World Economics Review blog.

Links:  https://rwer.wordpress.com/author/dfruccio/

Twitter: @Dfruccio

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  1. Yale grad students unionize: https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2023/01/09/graduate-and-professional-student-workers-vote-to-unionize-in-landslide-election/
  2. Texas journalist union: https://www.texasobserver.org/striking-does-work-fort-worth-journalists-win-only-newspaper-union-contract-in-texas/

Showing 3 comments

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  • Philip Wood
    commented 2023-02-24 12:19:54 -0500
    Scott Burns, a noted eeconomist, made the observation that pensions are dinosaurs and the plasticine era has ended. Pensions in reality are much like ponzi schemes in that far too many (maybe most) government and private funds were never properly funded. A few years ago the government changed what they called fully funded and companies pulled out millions of dollars over and above that amount and when the market went down they did not have money to put back in to cover that and never did.Accepted accounting practice indiicated that Government fully funded is in reality only 65%nto 70% funded. Actually, 401 type pensions would give workeres more money except for the fact that the top half rolls them over when changing jobs and the bottom half typically takes the money out and spends it when they change jobs. I never touched my funds and had an investment fund that I added to each month. The only retirement crisis is a crisis of planning. Your employeer is not your nanny.

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