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Spring 2014 Edition

The Business Lobby and the Tea Party

By Kim Phillips-Fein

David Cote is the CEO of Honeywell, a technology conglomerate and defense contractor that also dabbles in energy. In 2012, he clocked in at number five on the Forbes list of the highest paid CEOs, with an annual compensation in the ballpark of $55 million. Named CEO of the year last year by a publication called Chief Executive, he would seem to be doing quite well. Yet Cote these days is an anxious man, concerned about the future of American politics. What troubles Cote is the Tea Party - specifically, the Congressional caucus associated with the Tea Party which was able to shut down the government and bring the country to the edge of default last fall. In the past, Honeywell's political action committee (PAC) - the seventh-most generous corporate PAC in the nation - had been a prominent funder of conservative Republicans. But in the midst of the fall crisis, Cote was one of a number of executives and business lobbyists to publicly denounce the intransigent Republicans in the New York Times, saying it was "clearly this faction" that was to blame for the impasse. Earlier in the year, he told the Times that he stood squarely behind President Barack Obama: "You should not be using the debt limit as a bargaining chip when it comes to how you run the country. You don't put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk.' One can see why Cote might be uncomfortable. Even beyond the debt limit crisis, the Tea Party Republicans seem to take pleasure in taunting the corporate lobby. Texas Senator Ted Cruz - famed for reading Dr. Seuss to Congress during his autumn filibuster - told the Wall Street Journal during his 2012 election campaign,

One of the biggest lies in politics is the lie that Republicans are the party of big business. Big business does great with big government. Big business is very happy to climb in bed with big government. Republicans are and should be the party of small business and of entrepreneurs.

In turn, the organized business lobby - including the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Federation of Independent Business - is starting to express increasingly vocal skepticism toward Tea Party Republicans. They have been joined most recently by other parts of the Republican establishment, including Speaker of the House John Boehner. Still, undeterred by the forces massing against them, the conservatives seem to greet each condemnation as a badge of honor, proclaiming their independence from corporate America and insisting they speak for the entrepreneurs and independent businesspeople - the market visionaries, not the men in gray suits. As one writer for the Weekly Standard put it in fall 2012, "While big business cozies up to Obama once again, Republicans have an opportunity to enhance their reputation as the party of Main Street."

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on the contrary
  • Should Labor Boycott Israel?

    Whose Side Are You On?

    By Andrew Ross

    The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign is shaping up as one of these historical moments when everyone has to choose which side they are on. Trade unionists have good reason to know what this feels like. Labor history is punctuated with similar contests, when nuanced views on strategy have run their course and we are left with a stark moral choice. For too long, the debate about how best to oppose the occupation of Palestine has been clouded, often intentionally, by strenuous deliberations over tactics. As for those in official positions, the formidable sway of pro-Zionist lobbying has been disturbingly effective. Elected politicians have AIPAC watching their every move, and high officialdom within the AFL-CIO has the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) to placate. As Richard Trumka put it plainly at a JLC dinner gathering in 2009: "Tonight, let me tell you that, so long as I'm president, you will never have a stronger ally than the AFL-CIO. That's why we're proud to stand with the JLC to oppose boycotting Israel."

    Engage, Don't Divest from Israel

    By Jo Ann Mort

    Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its continued control of movement in Gaza is unjust and inhumane. It must be ended as quickly as possible. Israel and Palestine must exist as two states side by side. How can this be achieved? I don't believe that boycotting Israel, or the overall BDS prescription for change, is the correct response—not for the labor movement, nor for other movements or individuals.

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Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: How Corporate Power Shaped the Affordable Care Act

By Kevin Young and Michael Schwartz

Among the many promises of Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign was a thorough reform of U.S. healthcare. The radical inefficiency of the existing system was obvious: although per-capita healthcare costs were about twice as high as in other industrialized countries, at least forty-six million people still lacked health insurance and forty-five thousand died each year as a result.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") will not solve these problems. The reform does contain some positive elements, most notably its subsidies to low-income individuals, the extension of children's insurance to age twenty-six (assuming their parents are already insured), and the ban on insurance companies denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. But these improvements are embedded in a structure that preserves and consolidates a fundamentally flawed system administered by private insurance corporations and populated by virtually unregulated for-profit providers. The crux of the reform is the "individual mandate" requiring everyone to purchase insurance from private companies or pay a fine, a model that is far removed from a system of genuine universal healthcare in which progressive taxation funds a government administered, single-payer insurance plan. This latter option, often called "Medicare for All," was never even considered by Congress or the administration, despite being far more efficient and humane than the alternatives. Even a non-compulsory government-run insurance program (the "public option") was never seriously entertained in the Senate.

Here we analyze the healthcare reform as an illustration of the embeddedness of large corporations in U.S. policymaking. The affected industries were centrally involved in the process from the start, guaranteeing that their interests would receive priority, while public opinion and human rights considerations mattered little. The creation of Obamacare offers a lens through which to understand how and why the government embraces the class interests of the corporate elite. Yet the state is not just an instrument of domination; it is also a site of struggle. After reviewing the reform process, we offer some strategic propositions for the Medicare for All movement.

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The Case for Debt Resistance

By Ann Larson

Since the birth of the Occupy movement, debt has resurfaced as a grounds for political activism and analysis on the Left. Some left commentators have lamented the emerging debt resistance movement. In this vein, Doug Henwood writes that, since "finance gets most of its money from corporations and workers engaged in the real world of production," activists should end their pre-occupation with debt and focus on the circulation and redistribution of wealth. Richard Wolff has advised activists to help student debtors apply for government forbearance programs, rather than organizing debt resistance. Julia Ott and Louis Hyman argue that campaigns such as Strike Debt's Rolling Jubilee are too limited to make a difference considering the size and scope of the problem. Ott and Hyman are correct in one respect. Almost three-quarters of Americans are in debt, and one in seven is being pursued by a debt collector.

Yet, these criticisms of the debt movement illustrate an all-too-common response from those who position themselves as advisors to others referred to as "activists." My work in the debt movement over the last two years has taught me to question the relevance of that distinction. It has also taught me that connecting efforts to redistribute wealth (such as campaigns for higher wages for workers) with the struggle against debt may be a key to generating collective power.

Moreover, objections like those cited earlier are sometimes framed as marking a dividing line between intellectuals (who know that debt must be understood in a broader economic context) and activists (who supposedly do not). The purpose of insisting on such a distinction is unclear, especially as public outrage over insurmountable personal debt grows. As Andrew Ross writes, "the debt relation and the wage relation are fundamentally entwined and always have been." This statement is especially applicable when it comes to student debt, a type of indebtedness that is inseparable from the system of precarious and low-wage labor that many people attend college to escape.

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What Type of Public Transit for What Type of Public

By Kafui A. Attoh

In 2013, striking transit workers twice paralyzed the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Observers from around the country were thus - on two separate occasions - presented with the image of a sagging and traffic-snarled Bay Bridge lined with the idled cars of frustrated mass transit riders. Aside from the extraordinary image, in many ways, the cause of the strike itself was rather unremarkable. After months of unsuccessful negotiations, transit workers - represented by both the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555 and the SEIU Local 1021 - had reached the end of their contract still at loggerheads with management. The sticking points were familiar: workplace safety concerns, pension and healthcare contributions, and, most importantly, wages. While both strikes ultimately proved short-lived, the debate over their meaning has continued. Much of that debate has broken along equally familiar lines - with labor movement stalwarts and antiunion forces migrating to their respective corners. There has, however, also been an element of the debate both more specific to the Bay Area and more novel in its implications - namely, the reaction from Silicon Valley. That reaction was best summed up in comments like those of Sarah Lacy, a technology writer and founder of the tech news site PandoDaily. To wit, "People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of like the opposite of a union." According to Lacy, unions like those representing BART workers were not only anathema to the entire ethos of Silicon Valley - an ethos of innovation and entrepreneurialism - but they were also an unconscionable drag on the regional economy.

In an article written for the Daily Beast, Gregory Ferenstein offered more of the same: "The very existence of unions threatens the kind of unpredictable disruption that fuels the knowledge economy." Even more nakedly contemptuous were comments like those of Richard White, the CEO of the San Francisco tech company UserVoice: "Get'em back to work, pay them whatever you want and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn't happen again." Silicon Valley's answer to the transit strikes was simple: automate transit workers and their union out of existence.

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Yelp and Labor Discipline: How the Internet Works for Capitalism

By Joshua Sperber

Notwithstanding the optimism surrounding the progressive potential of the Internet, that medium has helped sustain, and even intensify, prevailing inequalities. The Internet, especially following the 1996 Telecommunications Act, has been effectively dominated by the media oligopolies that rule the networks, newspapers, and airwaves. In addition, the Internet has helped sustain the political status quo; whereas the two political parties have certainly made strategic adjustments to conform to and use the Internet, the Internet has not opened more meaningful space for, say, third-party alternatives. Further, and what has received less scholarly attention, the Internet has dramatically intensified labor productivity. Workers, via their Smartphones, are now accessible - and frequently expected to be so - at all hours, whether they are at home, shopping, or on vacation. But the story of the Internet and increased labor productivity is not limited to formal employment. Indeed, the Internet - rather than merely enabling profit via advertising, as with traditional media - generates enormous profit through online social production. Numerous websites are based, either partly or entirely, on user generated content. For instance, networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn as well as dating sites are composed almost entirely of users' content, constituting untold hours of users' thinking, writing, editing, and photography that are freely provided to site owners. Yelp - featuring user reviews of restaurants, stores, services, and more - is paradigmatic. Perhaps best known for its user written restaurant reviews, Yelp's owners profit via users unpaid work. Simultaneously, Yelp reviews are frequently read by restaurant owners and have been invoked to discipline, and even fire, restaurant employees who have been criticized on the site. In this way, Yelp contributors not only enrich Yelp but function as unpaid managers, or "secret shoppers," for the restaurant industry. This novel form of labor exploitation has implications for both the Internet and contemporary capitalism.

While critics such as Matthew Hindman and Robert McChesney are accurate in claiming that the Internet fails to democratize the public sphere merely by providing a voice to everyone with access, there is one particular arena in which the Internet does just this: consumer feedback. While posting a blog or other political content, as Hindman observes, impacts the writer's internal world but not necessarily the external world, posting consumer feedback most certainly has objective external consequences.

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