"What is happening in the United States?" That's one of the enormous questions economist Richard Wolff asked independent journalist and GRITtv host Laura Flanders on his Economic Update program May 24th. In a conversation that ranged from the evils of "extreme capitalism" to the creative organizing potential of the 21st century workforce, these two Truthout contributors discussed everything from the worker-owned cooperatives to food and leisure in Greece. What follows is an edited transcript of this program.
Richard Wolff: Let me jump right in. I understand you have just come back from Virginia. Tell us about it
Laura Flanders:GRITtv.org about the brewing fight in the coalfields, which isn't actually taking place in the coalfields. It's taking place in a federal courthouse in St. Louis. That itself speaks volumes about everything you talk about [on this program], about how our world has changed for labor.
Twenty-four years ago there was a struggle in the coalfields that really was at the pit headgates of the Pittston Coal Company in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Miners were being threatened with losing their retirement benefits – the guaranteed, quality health care that the United Mine Workers of America had won for the guys who worked underground and a few women, over the many, many years of struggle of the last century. Pittston, the coal company, was trying to offload those retiree benefits. [The union went on strike and] people – miners, families, church leaders and communities – showed up in the thousands, as did the press, to fight back that attack.
They won more or less. It's a complicated story, but they won, in essence. All these years later, that very same attack is happening again and this time it's happening courtesy of a company that didn't even exist back then, called the Patriot Coal Corporation. The union says [that Patriot] was intentionally created by a couple of big coal companies [Peabody and Arch] to dump that pension liability and offload it by declaring bankruptcy. [Sure enough] Patriot declared bankruptcy last July. And a federal judge now has to decide whether the claim is legitimate.
If they got the bankruptcy they will effectively escape on making good on all those years of donations of the workers' money into that pension fund.
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In a sense, it's related. Here is a group of workers in Chicago, who happen to be in a union, the United Electrical Workers. For years, they've done what they've been told to do and signed contracts with their bosses, and they've watched two sets of owners walk out on their factory – each for a different reason. The first [Republic Windows and Doors] it seems like, were trying to reopen their business under non-union contracts and hire part-time workers just across town… The second [Serious Energy] stepped in in the beginning of 2009. They had never been in the window business before. It was a stretch and they didn't make it. The union workers looked around and said, as one put it to me, "Republic walked out on our jobs. Serious walked out on our jobs. We didn't walk out on our jobs. We're still here. We know this company can be successful. And we're going to take it over."
These are the people who physically occupied their plant in 2008… That is what got time for the second owner to come on board. When the second owner left in 2012, they said, we're going to take [the plant] over in a different kind of way. We're going to create a worker cooperative, which is what they did… We're going to raise the money to buy the equipment ourselves; move it to another location that is cheaper and better for us and see if we can't make a go of it. On May 9th they opened that factory.
May 9th of this yearnewerawindows.com. I wish them luck because they're keeping jobs in the community and they are saying there is a different way to go. And they've learned an enormous amount in this process. You've got real leaders there who are going to benefit that community forever.
Let me just add a thought in the time that we have [left]. This is something that could have and should have been done for the last 30 years. Every time an American capitalist enterprise shut down, whether it is an auto factory or a clothing factory or an appliance factory anywhere in America, in should have come teams of union people, government people, helping the workers there to have an option. Not simply to fold. Not simply to hold on to their job by giving concessions, giving away pensions, giving away their holidays, giving away their personal days or whatever there was to have another option. To say, "Hey, we will stay here. We will continue this job. We will continue this enterprise as a co-op. And we'll go to the American people and we'll give them a real choice. You can buy from your fellow Americans who held on to those jobs and created a co-op or you could save a few bucks and buy from that American company that's now ripping off workers in the rest of the world in order to save on the wages they used to pay to us." My guess is that the American people will vote real clearly and many a company that left the United States would never do that again.GRITtv.org you can see the interview I did with the workers a couple of weeks back, where they said, "We thought we were just window makers, but in the process we discovered we were much more. We were carpenters and plumbers. We could lay tile and do the accounts."
I'm going to group some things together. Are newspapers disappearing as part of our mechanisms of communication, number one? Number two, doesn't the Internet represent some kind of breakthrough for independent critical journalism to have a space and an audience in the United States other than working through the large corporations that otherwise dominate the mass media?
I think [that in] this conversation about "Ooh, we're losing the newspapers," we are treated to an enormous amount of hand-wringing and there is something we tend to forget, which is that newspapers have been doing a horrible job for most our lifetime. Not always. There are always great people trying to do a great job inside those institutions. We're talking about media. It's a plural noun, a multifaceted thing. But that institutions like [The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal] should lose a little power these days, I don't think that's anything you or I are going to cry about.
At the same time, there is no question that people who are coming up – who are coming out of journalism schools wondering where they are going to work – are finding themselves hard-pressed to answer [that question] and I would suggest that that, too, contains part of the problem. One of the passions that brings me to journalism is the story I want to tell. I will find, as you have found, pretty much any way I possibly can to tell, to get that story out. I see journalism students today coming out of journalism school wondering where their jobs are going to be, before they wonder what their story is going to be that they tell. Who are they wanting to talk to? Who are they wanting to hear from?
The new technology and the Internet is a very glorious place, because we can do things we couldn't do thirty years ago. We can have so many more options than the option to write an op-ed. We can get our story out, by hook or crook, if we team up with others, if we collaborate, if we get help… I just think sometimes we have to shift our way of thinking about it. Are our career prospects good? No, they're terrible. But are the possibilities that exist to get a story out? They're better than ever.
OK, let me push you a little bit. Do you think that the Internet has given us an audience that is sizable, that is significant, so that those of us who have a critical perspective can feel secure that the work we're doing is reaching people's brains? So that they think about it, so that it becomes part of how they understand the world. So they're not dependent on the big, conventional mainstream media?
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And what that means is, recreate in Cincinnati the conditions of Bangladesh, recreate in Chicago what you have in China. It really is a stark choice between these two directions, and everything will depend on whether the mass of the American people rise to this situation or they don't…
One little response to that – and you can again say that it's Pollyannaish – but I do think the US media terrifies Americans about everywhere else: the horror that is Greece, the horror that is Italy. Go to Italy, go to Greece; they're in economic crisis today. But they're in… a fight about expectations that we have yet to even embrace in this country.
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In the US one in four of us [24 percent] of us work at low paying jobs – in Greece it's 13.5 percent.
Thank you Laura, as always I appreciate it.