Monday, February 16, 2009

Where are the US economic protests?

Chinese factory workers protest.

Yesterday the New York Times ran the headline: "Job Losses Pose a Threat to Stability Worldwide." The article focuses on the pressures that the busted worldwide economic bubble places on nations to protect their economies from global capitalism. That is, the Times defines stability as governments resisting pressure to intervene to protect local jobs from foreign competition; workers interpret interpret the same facts a race to the bottom that screws them.

Preserving globalization is not the greatest danger most people worldwide see in the current economic implosion. They are getting hammered and they want the powers that be to fix things. Der Spiegel reports from Europe:
  • France: On January 29, schools were closed, and so were railroads, banks and stock markets. Theaters, radio stations and even ski lifts were shut down temporarily. Trash receptacles were set on fire in Paris once again, and a crowd gathered on the city's famed Place de l'Opéra to sing the Internationale, the anthem of revolution.
  • Britain: workers protested at a refinery near Immingham in Lincolnshire, triggering solidarity strikes in 19 other locations in the United Kingdom.
  • Russia: dismal labor statistics have driven Communists and anti-government protesters into the streets from Pskov to Volgograd in recent days, and in Moscow members of the left-wing opposition even ventured onto Red Square. They ripped up pictures of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, until police arrested and removed them.
Forbes warns that China is seeing waves of economic protest:

In 2007, China had over 80,000 "mass incidents", up from over 60,000 in 2006, according to sociologists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. That sounds like a lot. But many involve no more than dozens of participants, and are mostly peaceful. ...

China worries that crowds of disappointed job seekers could galvanise into protests or riots, especially if the economic slowdown gathers momentum. The government's biggest worries are the migrant workers moving from farms to find work in cities and industrial zones. Some 20 million of the country's 130 million migrant workers have recently lost their jobs, according to one official count.

The factory region of the far south and other industrial areas could see flare-ups of protests by unemployed workers. With idle job-seekers milling around, smaller clashes between officials or bosses and workers could escalate.

It's getting hot out there.

According to the same New York Times article, 3.6 million people in the United States have lost jobs in the last year. Where are the protests here? About the only one we heard of was Chicago workers who sat in their factory to demand severance benefits.

Some pretty random thoughts on why U.S. people aren't more vocal in demanding government help -- yet.
  • As a history professor says, protests "are rare because they violate the everyday laws of property, and for the most part American workers are law-abiding people. They occur only when workers feel morally aggrieved, when they sense that ownership has itself violated the law, when the boss has become the outlaw in their eyes and in that of the community as well." Note: we've made effective protest tactics illegal here. But should many former workers conclude that their former bosses were law-breaking scum ... watch out.
  • Maybe the laid off are protesting widely, but the media just doesn't cover them. There are damn few labor reporters left in the dying dead tree media. That trend is not limited to the States. Here's some British commentary on what is simply no longer known because of the demise of labor journalism.
  • Maybe so many U.S. workers have been suffering falling real wages for so long (since 1970), cushioned only by more two income households and unsustainable debts, that they have had the starch kicked out of them. Do they believe "resistance is futile"? Will there come a moment when they think instead "nothing left to lose"?
  • A huge fraction of the U.S. low wage work force consists of immigrants, with and without documents. Both sorts face harassment and even being simply snatched up, imprisoned, and deported, if they stick their heads up. On the other hand, our immigrant workforce often has a stronger belief in the dignity of their own labor than we see from longtime citizens these days.
  • Many of last year's layoffs hit the "FIRE" sector (finance, insurance and real estate) hardest -- these workers haven't thought of themselves as needing collective protest action and, compared to other unemployed folks, sometimes have some cushion to fall back on -- for awhile.
  • Folks are hoping in President Obama and giving him a chance. Their protest was to elect him to fix things. How long will they wait?
It's not as if the United States had no tradition of economic protest. The Depression of the 1930s saw sometimes violent
protests by veterans, farmers and factory workers. It is possible we ain't seen nothing yet.

U.S. veterans set up camp to demand benefits in the 1930s.


naomi dagen bloom said...

Your random thoughts seem on the mark. Also, we have a limited history of urban protest about working conditions. White collar workers, I believe, see themselves as "above" this sort of complaint.

Yes, it's going to get much worse economically in the days ahead. Also, media have focused on the way police have been empowered to get rough with anti-war and civil rights protesters. It was not pretty here in NYC during the 2004 Republican convention.

Kay Dennison said...

I'm too damned tired to protest. I give up!

rainsunrain said...

Methinks we dissipate our anger by blogging.

DougPoretz said...

The US public already did protest. Prior to the presidential election, the percentage of people from all eductaional, demographic and even political biases in the US were saying that they thought the country was going in the wrong direction. They changed it by electing a candidate who said he would lead in another direction. And he is doing just that, using the word "us" when referring to middle/working class and criticising "Wall Street" easily, harhly and frequently. At the same time, he is taking the country into very deep debt to use that money to address the immediate needs of his constituency. And, in the process, he is moving the country away from capitalism. I'm not saying whether these actions are good or bad, justified or not -- but they are the actions the electorate (apparently, at least more or less) wanted. So the protest in the US, for the time being at least, is done -- it's over -- the protestors won. In fact, protests in the US, unlike elsewhere around the world, are largely along "tea party" lines -- that is, the upper class protesting against the actions of the government in favor of the middle/working class. Anyhow, whatever way you cut it, the issue is class, isn't it? I'm not so certain class warfare is a positive. I've written a great deal about this and related matters (including wrap-ups of posts about protests around the world) at

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