“The Choices Are Stark”: Richard Wolff Interviews Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders.Laura Flanders.“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: I just posted a story at 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.

Twenty-three thousand miners and their families stand to lose their retirement benefits. And some other seventeen hundred active miners stand to lose on-the-job benefits and [existing agreements on working] conditions. It’s a huge struggle – where is the media? They’re barely blinking. And it speaks to how far what I call the “extreme capitalism” of our era has come, that they are now targeting a bastion of 20th century labor organizing, the United Mine Workers. If the United Mine Workers and what has been built over the years as good union jobs, maybe not glamorous, maybe horrible for your health, but good union jobs – if the company can beat UMWA and walk out on those agreements, heaven help the fast-food workers.

Let me play my role as an economist and remind everyone…that a pension is not something your company gives you. It is not something that is a lovely benefit falling from the sky that someone else has to pay for. That’s not what a pension is. Pensions have always been things established over the objections of an employer by the struggles of the workers who needed to have something to rely on when they cross age 65 or whenever they retire. And the way it worked was, when the workers got it, the employer said, “All right, now we’ll put money in, but it’s your money. Its money we’re not going to give you in a wage increase.” And in countless bargaining for contracts, the union would accept little or no wage increase – instead accepting, as part of the gains they get – for their extra productivity, from their extra hard work – they would get more of a contribution into their pension. So this is coming out of the workers’ own pockets. So for it to be taken away means that the company is taking away the benefit that the workers put the money into. It’s a kind of thievery.

The economic story is devastating and the human story is devastating. Because the human story of what you just described is generations of miners agreeing to do a job that [produces the energy that] keeps [our] lights on; that fueled our industrial revolution; that runs factories coast to coast, but which also kills people. In [partial compensation] for that, the miners get guaranteed health care.

The agreements the unions have won from the companies have fueled not just individual health care plans, but clinics in communities that have been entirely abandoned by our health service. These are, as the miners would say, the “Cadillac” of health care plans. They’re very proud of it. That’s what they’ve gotten in exchange for all that life-threatening work and bringing disease home to their families.

That that should be turned back now is tantamount to rolling up Appalachia and throwing it away.

Let’s change it around. Tell us another story that you have been interested in about a group of workers in Chicago…who faced the shutting of their enterprise as a capitalist enterprise. But instead of accepting it, instead of resigning themselves, instead of walking away in a bad job market looking for a different thing, they did something else. Tell us who they are and what they did.

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 year

They’re open for business. You can get more information at newerawindows.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.

I know you are the economist here, but the economic overhead on a cooperative company is a world of difference from the overhead on a company having to pay shareholders. So if all you are doing is redistributing your profits to the workers, and maybe investing in your business, in bringing on another line of machines and not paying off lots of different people that have invested and are expecting a 20 percent return, you can actually make a go at it in a climate like ours, or in any climate. In fact co-ops around the country are – people like Gar Alperovitz report that they are doing very well in this downturn.

The irony is, American folk law would support that. Just ask yourself the question, how many corporations – in the typical capitalist way – discovered that their workers are resentful of the top-down hierarchy that they live under; resentful from being excluded from all kinds of rights; resentful of the bad air that’s in there and the bad human relationships, so the company has to respond by putting layer after layer of supervisors. All these people that are getting money that don’t help produce anything but are trying to cope with the tensions between those who make the decisions and those who don’t. Brilliant you don’t have to be to understand that if you got rid of all of that, that is, if the workers were themselves the owners and operators of their enterprise, then they care a lot more. Then they would have a piece of that action [that] would make them much more likely to help each other rather than feel bitter around each other. It’s not hard to see why co-ops can be, as they have been, just as efficient, just as competitive and often more so than their capitalist counterparts.

If you go to 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?

Well, think about it. I think it’s a trade-off. I mean I’ve worked in both. I’ve worked in commercial and non-commercial media. I worked at Air America Radio and at Pacifica Radio. I’ve worked online and I’ve worked on TV. And I think about that kind of questions all of the time. These days when I go off to be a guest on a show like Melissa Harris-Perry’s or Chris Hayes’ shows, I stop and think: They’re doing good stories. They’re doing pretty good reporting. But they have to do it between those commercial breaks! That format, – “Now we go to commercial break,” “Oh now we just came back from commercial break,” “And now we’re going back to break again” – inhibits most kinds of intelligent conversation. You can have the best guests in the world, but how much can you say between those breaks with the clock running to get to the next ad? (Because the ad is what the broadcaster is really about.) So yes, we can say they have thousands of viewers – they no longer have millions, they have hundreds of thousands and that’s a lot, but it’s not like the old days of network TV. And we have thousands of viewers, maybe tens of thousands of viewers, not hundreds of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands over a few good days.

But I do feel that the work that we do on the Internet…the context and format itself gives us more choices and frankly gives audiences more choices. They can watch a small part and turn it off. They can watch the whole thing. They can get more information from the links you can provide. I mean this is very basic stuff, but the ability to share, to interact, to communicate, again it’s a different planet from sitting at home throwing your shoe at the television screen or writing a letter to the editor that you find out three weeks later just hit the heap.

I think it’s a fascinating world. Do we have the same audience as corporate media? No, obviously not, otherwise they would give us TV and take the Internet. Do we have more tools? I think sure.

That’s my experience as well. I am amazed by those of you listening to this program, how you write to me, how you email me from literally all over the world. There clearly is a kind of diffusion of what we’re doing that is wonderfully gratifying even if we can’t quantify exactly what it means.

I will say that not being about to quantify is very hard for fundraising and in that area we still face tremendous challenges. In what I do that’s the big problem. Again, you can have really grim days where you are worrying about it or you can have days where you think, eh, if I go out in a blaze of glory, at least we did a great report this week.

The fundraising is daunting. I am certainly learning that. I want to go back to something you said at the beginning, as we opened the interview because we’re coming to the end of it. You commented, when you were talking about the mineworkers and the situation that they were in, about how things are changing in the United States. Journalists like you are in a particularly good position. You’re moving around all the time. You’re shifting your attention from this to that. You’re like a scanner looking across the society watching all the things that blow up. And over time, you get a sense of what’s happening that isn’t easily replicated by anybody else. So I want our listeners and viewers to get the benefit. Tell us – and I know this is an enormous question – what is happening in the United States? How do you see, given your years of covering so much in this country, and don’t gloss over and don’t sugarcoat it. Tell us, what do you think is happening from your perspective.

Well first off, it’s that extraordinary opportunity to do the kind of work that you just described that makes what I do so great, fundraising notwithstanding. It has been an extraordinary privilege to be able to cover the Pittston strike that happened in 1989 as I did when I was 20-something and go back all these years later and follow up. I think something really interesting is happening, and your work points at this. We’ve had US economy 1.0. You can say the craft economy people doing their local craft and hands-on work, people producing a shoe, a gatepost [things]. And then we had industrial capitalism. US economy 2.0, if you like: industry…workers signed up with a boss and expected to be with that boss ’til [they reached age] 66.

We now live in an economy where workers can work on a Monday for a retail store, on a Wednesday for a restaurant and on a Friday, maybe, I don’t know, picking through waste metal at a recycling dump. That worker, in the course of a week, can work for three different employers or none and maybe on the side have a little Internet business or a barter business doing braiding and baby-sitting for their family or their neighbors’ kids.

Workers, in a sense as I’m telling this story, are returning to the kind of individual life experience that the old crafts person had in the 1760s, but this time with a very different context. And there is good and bad to it in the same way there is good and bad to the Internet. Sure we don’t have the [mass, daily] water-cooler conversations prompted by [primetime] network television. Instead we have a superfluity of media outlets. Nobody is talking about the same stuff. So, too, at work, we are losing the power of the big union; we’re losing the security that comes with that kind of institution. We’re having to look at one another and having to decide how we can get together to cooperate to preserve some rights and to secure some place on this planet.

I think that’s what we’re seeing with the growth of these new worker organizations – the restaurant workers, the domestic workers, the fast-food workers, car-wash workers – I think the old unions are going to be looking around and saying, “What is it here that we have yet to understand. What do we have to learn?” And that speaks to the diversity that exists in this country, because, let’s face it, everybody did not have those “secure” jobs. Everybody did not have that security. Even in the craft era, craft [guilds and unions] viciously maintained their exclusivity (keeping out the Irish, the woman, the enslaved person or the immigrant.) Today more and more of us are in that immigrant boat as we migrate from job to job day after day. Maybe there is help there as well as desperation. I certainly think we’re going to see change on some basic things. No longer can your health insurance be attached to your job, for example; it makes no sense.

So I think it’s like a crisis and opportunity like that famous Chinese character.

I would add that – just because you provoked it, in the best sense of the term – that we have to face the fact that there are two options. There might be a reconstitution of a new labor movement that sees these new conditions just as you described them, as a challenge that can mobilize new forms of organization that can provide people with decent livelihoods, decent job situations; education for their children and so on. That’s one option that may happen and I sure hope so. But the other one is that the old industrial world – North America, Europe, Japan – is simply being abandoned by the capitalists [who are] moving production to where it is cheap, where there isn’t any environmental control, where they are freer to do what they want and saying to the old parts of the world (including the United States) “Make it worth our while not to leave.”

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.

Or imagine.

[Namely] The expectation of a vacation; the expectation of a workday that ends; and expectation of time to eat, at leisure with your friends and family, food that actually has a flavor that you can taste.

The lifestyle of many of these places – even the poor communities that we’re told are so terrifying – is something I think a lot of Americans kind of miss. The hours Americans are working far outpace anything that’s typical in the countries that I just mentioned… The hours Americans work are in a league of their own and it’s killing us.

I think a massive transition is incredibly uncomfortable and there isn’t a hunky-dory, rosy, local solution out there. But could we do with a reconsidering of the lifestyle that has been sold to us by consumerism and corporate pressure? I think so, and we might find things we like in the mess.

I think so. I think that’s a good response, but those issues are coming to a head in this society. The statistic I sometimes mention, but it’s the OECD, the same institution, indicates that the American people work, do more hours of paid labor per year than any other working class than any other country on this planet. So there is the proof. We are working 26 jobs. Everyone in a household is working. We barely have households left. Twenty years ago, the standard sitcom had a family with father with a tie and a jacket coming home from work, the mother at the home taking care of the kids and cooking. All of that’s gone. Now we have sitcoms in which everybody is working and nobody gets along with anybody else and we all think it’s funny because it gives us relief from our own situation.

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.