Swiss and NWRO Have Right Ideas for Ending Poverty in Income Guarantees

tnmRy24New Orleans    In an assessment of the “war on poverty” almost 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson sounded the battle cry, Eduardo Porter in the Times noted that the real progress has only been to move the enemy lines from 19% of the American people to 16% of the population.   Part of the problem is that too many of the USA’s poverty reduction programs are ideologically welded to jobs and increased support of workers with any kind of jobs whatsoever.  As the structure of the labor market has changed dramatically, such programs can’t catch up to the real problems of poverty or inequality, assuming that the country and its politicians wanted to do something real in this area.

            In short we either have to have a different labor market, and good luck with that, or a new wage structure for the labor market we have, which is no small bit of what the $15/hr drive for fast food and other lower waged workers is all about, or perhaps the most extreme is that we actually guarantee people a basic income that provides a bottom level of citizen wealth or income security for everyone.

            Right now the Swiss are leading the way in this direct.   An election is likely next year that could establish just such a basic income in that country.  Recently…

A grassroots committee is calling for all adults in Switzerland to receive an unconditional income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,800) per month from the state, with the aim of providing a financial safety net for the population.  Organizers submitted more than the 100,000 signatures needed to call a referendum on Friday and tipped a truckload of 8 million five-rappen coins outside the parliament building in Berne, one for each person living in Switzerland.

            Organizing with the National Welfare Rights Organization 45 years ago, we used to call for a guaranteed annual income, which unfortunately got ground up in songs about welfare Cadillacs and whatever, but even President Richard Nixon and his brain trust led by then Professor Moynihan were in favor of $1800 per year then for a family of four.  Yeah, that’s small potatoes, but now it would be $12,191.20 per year, and that figure is very scarily close to what fulltime minimum wage workers bring home to try to carry the same weight at $15,600 per year.   Think about it.  Of course if NWRO had won our demand of $5500 for a family of four then, that would mean these families would be making $37,250.89 now, and we would all be living in as much, much different world.  And, a better one!

            It’s also not as radical a concept as some might claim.  Tom Paine, one of our revolutionary heroes called for it, so take that Tea people, and citizens of the great state of Alaska, thanks to their oil revenue, have enjoyed a basic income for decades.  

            This is the kind of strategy it takes to significantly reduce poverty, if we had the will and whatever to be willing to do something besides talk about poverty and inequality.  Until then, here’s a hip, hip, hooray and a lot of hope for a victory for the Swiss!

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Weapons of the Weak

978-0-300-03641-1-frontcoverRock Creek   Reading a short book on revisiting the practice of anarchism by James C. Scott during the last year I became aware of his earlier work, Weapons of the Weak:  Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, which I was sure was even more up my alley.   The book, published in 1985, is based on anthropological observation and field work undertaken by Scott in a rural, farming community in Malaysia where he and his family lived for more than a year.

            Scott was in Malaysia as the so-called green revolution took hold so was able to see the impact of the transition of the farming community as tractors became dominant and “double-paddy” production took hold under larger landlords altering the work relationships that had been common in peasant society for centuries.  I’ll save the theoretical arguments for another day, but Scott fascinatingly documents the myriad ways, not easily visible to many, that the poor resisted with what tools they had, which was often their labor, cooperation, and consent.  The “weapons” were not mass actions, strikes, or new organizations so much as seemingly passive resistance including foot dragging, tardiness, unpredictability, lack of communication, and so forth to refuse to submit to power and even change.  The examples included the concerted lowering of a landlord’s reputation in the community and access to labor when finally needed based on the constant “grading” of the rumor mill from the workers to avoid labor on power’s paddy or rice crops. 

            One of my favorite was the way a community erected a toll gate of sorts on a village road to keep trucks from rutting the road especially during the monsoon season and making travel difficult, if not impossible.  With a simple log and a lock attached, a truck was required to pay a fee to travel the road at these times and to stop and be unloaded by the peasants so that the trucker’s load could be transported by their bicycles or motorcycles, allowing many to make needed income.  Another was the subtle, skilled negotiations between tenants and landlords, during the period when many landlords in the area where trying to wrest higher rents and advance payments from tenants. 

            Part of why this is so interesting to me is what it says about the prospects for new tactics for workers in this period of diminishing union power.  Certainly, during the wave of concession demands in the 80’s the use of “work to rule” particularly in some industrial settings was often effective.  More commonly, I have argued to our union organizers that no matter what the work setting there is always a history of worker action and resistance to their employers way before the union emerged on the scene, if we are only willing to ask often and listen deeply for what the history of “organization” has been, so that we can build on it.  This is not to say that the history will always have been a situation where workers won and in fact it is as likely that the response to the resistance was harsh and the leaders may have been fired or disciplined.   A critical organizing tool in any work situation is realizing that you are just another stage in an endless battle so that you have to take the time as an organizer to find out what has gone before you in terms of direct active or passive resistance and build from that history and culture of struggle to find success.  It’s always there, but it has to be found in the conversations with workers on these job-sites.

Management often bends this history over time to their purposes.  Sometimes it is anything but subtle.   At the large Avondale Shipyards outside of New Orleans on the yard’s water tower in the late 1960’s, the results of the last union election and how badly the steelworkers were defeated were painted in giant numbers looming over the workforce.  In hotels in New Orleans like the Hilton, the boss-legend of our organizing there in the early 1980’s was so twisted twenty years later that there were supposedly scores of Hilton workers fired for organizing a union, which was a total fiction.   

A secondary rule of organizing might be that when we are arrogant and don’t search out the history of struggle we may find that our ignorance of the ancient history of workers in these workplaces may also doom our contemporary efforts to failure, lacking an antidote to the fear that has been deeply embedded.   As Scott argues that the weak have weapons in peasant society, we have to find and build those weapons in contemporary society to have a shot a winning.

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