Saturday, February 26, 2011

Workers at Work

A rally of workers has a very different feeling than one populated by television viewers, for example. I didn’t see the same angry “get out of my way” crowd in today’s rallies that was so evident at many U.S. political rallies in the last couple of years. But you wouldn’t expect such a negative vibe from a rally populated by workers. Get a bunch of workers together, and they have the attitude and energy of finding a way around obstacles and getting things done. You can even see the difference in the body types of the protesters — not that obese people weren’t represented at all today, but the crowds I saw seemed to have about a 5 percent obesity rate, conspicuously below the national rate around 25 percent. The most reliable way to counter obesity, of course, is exercise — which, until a couple of generations ago, was known simply as work.

Perhaps a million people turned out for today’s hastily organized rallies in support of worker’s rights, held in about 100 cities around the United States — half union members, but virtually all, people who see themselves as workers. You look at them and you say, “This is a group that could really do something — that could build a nation, for example.”

The success of a nation does fundamentally depend on making good use of the energy of people who are eager to work. The United States has had a dismal record at this in recent years. Only about 3 out of 4 workers have real jobs because of the recession. People who do have jobs work in frequently stifling environments that often don’t encourage the direct, obvious solution to a work problem. Far from empowering workers, parts of the government seem intent on creating new obstacles for workers. That point, of course, was the subject of today’s rally, as people turned out to oppose a Wisconsin bill that would clamp down on collective bargaining in that state and add piles of unnecessary paperwork and red tape to any labor union that would still be allowed to exist under the new rules.

The corporate news media paid little attention to the rallies, but no matter — photos, video, and live accounts are pouring in from people on the street and are easily found online. The new citizen-based mass media represents, if you think about it, a kind of immediacy and productivity that the corporate world, with its committees, rules, layers of management, and often conflicting objectives, will never be able to match. Another example of this I witnessed today was a songwriter who, earlier this month, wrote a song that seemed like it was written for the problems in Wisconsin (though it was actually based on events elsewhere). The songwriter recorded the song this afternoon and put the record online, so that people were listening to it on their way home from the rallies. Compare that to the “rapid response” committees or “crisis teams” that, in the corporate world, hope to deliver their results within a couple of years. Part of the reason we were seeing so much vitality and energy at today’s rallies was that there were hundreds of thousands of workers let loose from the constraints of daily work and able to just do something of importance.

It is a rule of political economy that wherever productivity goes, power follows. The corporate world is meant to foster productivity, but it is rapidly becoming the opposite of this — it is becoming an obstacle to productivity. If we get to the point where workers find ways to become more productive by working outside of the corporate system, then the power that corporations currently enjoy will fade, and this transition might happen rather quickly — too fast for some of those “crisis teams” to write their reports on what the corporations need to do to respond.