Commentary Magazine


Topic: May Day

A May Day Reminder of OWS’s Failure

Last year, May Day was a cause for celebration for members of the group Occupy Wall Street. Even though they had been evicted from their home in Zuccotti Park several months prior, the movement that was created there had spread nationwide. Liberals hoped that OWS would become their version of the Tea Party. They were willing to look over the squalid conditions at OWS camps in New York and nationwide, the rampant vandalism, and most troubling, the rapes and sexual assaults that took place there while fellow liberals were simultaneously fear mongering over Republicans’ imagined “war on women.” On the second May Day since its formation, the movement, which portrayed itself as the voice of support for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, has fractured over some members’ desire to translate that vague declaration of support into disaster assistance for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

The aftermath of Sandy left unprecedented destruction in the New York area, and to its credit, the Occupy movement stepped in to provide much-needed coordination and relief with the formation of Occupy Sandy. In November I spoke to a local rabbi who had been coordinating relief for elderly residents trapped inside a high-rise apartment complex that wouldn’t end up meeting someone in a FEMA jacket for a full ten days after the storm. The response from government officials was shockingly meager and private organizations like Occupy Sandy were left trying to provide food, water and medical attention to those hardest hit by the storm. 

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Last year, May Day was a cause for celebration for members of the group Occupy Wall Street. Even though they had been evicted from their home in Zuccotti Park several months prior, the movement that was created there had spread nationwide. Liberals hoped that OWS would become their version of the Tea Party. They were willing to look over the squalid conditions at OWS camps in New York and nationwide, the rampant vandalism, and most troubling, the rapes and sexual assaults that took place there while fellow liberals were simultaneously fear mongering over Republicans’ imagined “war on women.” On the second May Day since its formation, the movement, which portrayed itself as the voice of support for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, has fractured over some members’ desire to translate that vague declaration of support into disaster assistance for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

The aftermath of Sandy left unprecedented destruction in the New York area, and to its credit, the Occupy movement stepped in to provide much-needed coordination and relief with the formation of Occupy Sandy. In November I spoke to a local rabbi who had been coordinating relief for elderly residents trapped inside a high-rise apartment complex that wouldn’t end up meeting someone in a FEMA jacket for a full ten days after the storm. The response from government officials was shockingly meager and private organizations like Occupy Sandy were left trying to provide food, water and medical attention to those hardest hit by the storm. 

Occupy Sandy was soon consumed with the same problems that plagued the movement that was full of catch-phrases but little in the form of tangible plans or organization. This hilarious segment on The Daily Show about class divisions at Zuccotti Park illustrates just how hypocritically ineffective the movement was at extinguishing inequality even within its own ranks. In the face of reality, many Occupiers learned just how impossible it would be to translate their ideals into reality. The New York Times reports:

The original Occupiers who remain have not just mellowed, they have abandoned some of the hallmarks of the organization, given up as unwieldy in a disaster situation. Occupy Sandy’s “free store” on Staten Island was closed in part because people took advantage of it, said Howie Ray, who runs a volunteer hot line for the group. The nightly roundup e-mails of their work, part of a commitment to transparency, have halted because they were impractical and time-consuming, Mr. Ray said.

Many of those initial divisions were exacerbated by the efforts of those behind Occupy Sandy. According to the Times, many in the original Occupy movement were troubled by their Occupy Sandy counterparts’ “deals with the devil” in the form of working with and accepting donations from corporations like Home Depot and governmental agencies to provide relief to those most desperately in need. Some in OWS were willing to sacrifice their idealism for the sake of the greater good while others in the group, called the “core” of OWS by a member quoted by the Times, would much rather spend their time participating in drum circles at protests.

While the tragic fate of the 94 million victims of Communism were remembered yesterday, conservatives should take heart that here in the United States, the closest thing to Communism in decades, Occupy Wall Street, has destroyed itself over divisions over just how much they’re willing to help those in need. If that’s not a better representation of the true face of Communism, what is?

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Iran’s Oppressed Workers

Today, progressives across the world mark the international labor movement’s official holiday. As trade unions celebrate their remarkable conquests with parades, demonstrations, and speeches, their Iranian comrades languished in jail, guilty of having sought similar working conditions from their government. As for those labor activists who are still free, the mere attempt to join street demonstrations on May Day is inviting a ruthless response by the Islamic Republic.

Much like the Soviet Union boasted of being “workers’ paradise,” Iran claims to stand for the “oppressed of the earth.” Yet, much like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic engages in a great deal of oppression. Iranians suffer on account of their views, their faith, or their ethnicity. They are also targeted by the regime if they seek to organize themselves independently. This applies especially to trade unions, a thorn in the side of the regime and among its most vulnerable victims. Iran’s labor market is stagnant, and it remains relatively competitive by exploiting its workers, who are treated, in effect, as slave labor. Iranian workers often do not get paid. When they do, high inflation significantly erodes the purchasing power of their earnings.

Social legislation permits companies to hire workers on short-term, three-month contracts. Under these conditions, wages are usually below the poverty line, and employers are not obliged to contribute to any social benefits. To avoid giving the social payments, Iranian companies regularly fire workers within the three-month period and then re-hire them. This lamentable state of affairs is compounded by the fact that workers, without independent unions, have no recourse. Their sole means of representation are so-called Islamic unions. These unions, in fact, represent the interests of the regime and its state-owned companies, not the working people.

In the past, workers defied the state through strikes and the establishment of independent unions, much like Solidarity did in Poland in 1980. In 2008, workers struck (in spite of government threats) at the Khodro car factory and at the Haft Tapeh sugar mills. To the Western ear, their demands are far from extravagant. They sought the right to establish independent unions, forbid security forces from storming the plants, halt compulsory overtime, receive benefits linked to productivity, and have their wages linked to the cost of living. They also demanded an end to the iniquitous three-month contract, combined with an end to the practice of running employees through revolving doors to avoid having to make social-welfare payments. In addition, workers sought basic social benefits, including a salary above the poverty line, a reduction of pressures on workers through the expansion of the work force, worker participation in factory committees, and improved measures to protect them from work accidents.

The regime’s response was further repression. Ali Nejati, the leader of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Trade Union, was arrested and kept incommunicado for months. Mansour Osanloo, the leader of the bus drivers’ union, was repeatedly arrested and abused in prison. Jailed on the eve of a delicate eye surgery, he was allowed to go to the hospital after considerable pressure from international organizations but was denied the time needed to recover and immediately sent back to jail. After a prolonged period of detention at Evin, he was transferred, along with a colleague, Ebrahim Madadi, to a common criminals’ ward. They are still there, both being denied basic health care – though Osanloo suffers from a heart condition and Madadi is diabetic. They are frequently held in solitary confinement and denied the right to see their families and their lawyers. Osanloo and Madadi are not the only victims – this week, to discourage May Day demonstrations, the regime rounded up more trade unionists and jailed them as a warning. Their predicament reveals that, even in the field of social justice, repression remains the prevailing theme of the Islamic Revolutionary Republic.

Caring for them should be a foregone conclusion for the European left and America’s labor unions. Promoting their cause should be part of the agenda of those who seek to undermine Iran’s regime and help its fledgling opposition gain strength.

What could be done to help Iran’s unionists?

Though much has been done already, labor unions could seek to further isolate Iran by highlighting the plight of their comrades in international forums like the International Trade Union Federation and its branches. Governments – especially Western governments led by social-democratic parties – should use the International Labor Organization and other international forums to isolate and expel Iran on account of its dismal record. Imprisoned activists such as Osanloo and Madadi should become household names in the struggle for freedom – the European parliament, for example, should consider awarding them with the prestigious Sakharov prize this year.

Iran’s unionists are paying with their freedom, health, and life to demand rights that the Socialist International has considered sacrosanct for over a century. For any decent progressive, this should be a call to action – especially on May 1.

Today, progressives across the world mark the international labor movement’s official holiday. As trade unions celebrate their remarkable conquests with parades, demonstrations, and speeches, their Iranian comrades languished in jail, guilty of having sought similar working conditions from their government. As for those labor activists who are still free, the mere attempt to join street demonstrations on May Day is inviting a ruthless response by the Islamic Republic.

Much like the Soviet Union boasted of being “workers’ paradise,” Iran claims to stand for the “oppressed of the earth.” Yet, much like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic engages in a great deal of oppression. Iranians suffer on account of their views, their faith, or their ethnicity. They are also targeted by the regime if they seek to organize themselves independently. This applies especially to trade unions, a thorn in the side of the regime and among its most vulnerable victims. Iran’s labor market is stagnant, and it remains relatively competitive by exploiting its workers, who are treated, in effect, as slave labor. Iranian workers often do not get paid. When they do, high inflation significantly erodes the purchasing power of their earnings.

Social legislation permits companies to hire workers on short-term, three-month contracts. Under these conditions, wages are usually below the poverty line, and employers are not obliged to contribute to any social benefits. To avoid giving the social payments, Iranian companies regularly fire workers within the three-month period and then re-hire them. This lamentable state of affairs is compounded by the fact that workers, without independent unions, have no recourse. Their sole means of representation are so-called Islamic unions. These unions, in fact, represent the interests of the regime and its state-owned companies, not the working people.

In the past, workers defied the state through strikes and the establishment of independent unions, much like Solidarity did in Poland in 1980. In 2008, workers struck (in spite of government threats) at the Khodro car factory and at the Haft Tapeh sugar mills. To the Western ear, their demands are far from extravagant. They sought the right to establish independent unions, forbid security forces from storming the plants, halt compulsory overtime, receive benefits linked to productivity, and have their wages linked to the cost of living. They also demanded an end to the iniquitous three-month contract, combined with an end to the practice of running employees through revolving doors to avoid having to make social-welfare payments. In addition, workers sought basic social benefits, including a salary above the poverty line, a reduction of pressures on workers through the expansion of the work force, worker participation in factory committees, and improved measures to protect them from work accidents.

The regime’s response was further repression. Ali Nejati, the leader of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Trade Union, was arrested and kept incommunicado for months. Mansour Osanloo, the leader of the bus drivers’ union, was repeatedly arrested and abused in prison. Jailed on the eve of a delicate eye surgery, he was allowed to go to the hospital after considerable pressure from international organizations but was denied the time needed to recover and immediately sent back to jail. After a prolonged period of detention at Evin, he was transferred, along with a colleague, Ebrahim Madadi, to a common criminals’ ward. They are still there, both being denied basic health care – though Osanloo suffers from a heart condition and Madadi is diabetic. They are frequently held in solitary confinement and denied the right to see their families and their lawyers. Osanloo and Madadi are not the only victims – this week, to discourage May Day demonstrations, the regime rounded up more trade unionists and jailed them as a warning. Their predicament reveals that, even in the field of social justice, repression remains the prevailing theme of the Islamic Revolutionary Republic.

Caring for them should be a foregone conclusion for the European left and America’s labor unions. Promoting their cause should be part of the agenda of those who seek to undermine Iran’s regime and help its fledgling opposition gain strength.

What could be done to help Iran’s unionists?

Though much has been done already, labor unions could seek to further isolate Iran by highlighting the plight of their comrades in international forums like the International Trade Union Federation and its branches. Governments – especially Western governments led by social-democratic parties – should use the International Labor Organization and other international forums to isolate and expel Iran on account of its dismal record. Imprisoned activists such as Osanloo and Madadi should become household names in the struggle for freedom – the European parliament, for example, should consider awarding them with the prestigious Sakharov prize this year.

Iran’s unionists are paying with their freedom, health, and life to demand rights that the Socialist International has considered sacrosanct for over a century. For any decent progressive, this should be a call to action – especially on May 1.

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A Crack in the College Cartel?

Say one thing for recessions: they force companies, governments, and institutions (not to mention individuals) to look for ways to be more efficient and to decrease costs. That’s why productivity always soars in a recession.

Today’s New York Times reports that people are increasingly fed up with the high costs and high-handed ways of American colleges. It’s about time. As the Times reports: “‘One of the really disturbing things about this, for those of us who work in higher education,’ said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, ‘is the vote of no confidence we’re getting from the public. They think college is important, but they’re really losing trust in the management and leadership.’”

College tuition has risen far faster than inflation. In the 1960s, I paid $2,200 a year to attend a first-rate university. From the month I graduated to December 2009, there was an inflation of slightly over 550 percent. So tuition today, net of inflation, should be on the order of $12,500. It’s $37,005, almost three times higher. Why?

Well, high-prestige colleges have market power and can charge more. But even second- and third-tier institutions in terms of prestige have been able to jack up their tuition far beyond inflation because there is a cartel in operation. Entrance into the marketplace by new competitors is very restricted, and colleges and universities are not subject to antitrust laws, so they are free to conspire to set prices. In effect, they do. But all cartels require an enforcement mechanism, and in this case, it is the accrediting agencies that often prevent colleges from competing by means of price. They often require ever more elaborate plants and facilities, like a large library even if the institution is located in a city with a large, easily accessible municipal library. Unnecessary courses are often required, even if the student can demonstrate competence in the subject. Colleges often cannot fully use the new communications technologies that would greatly lower costs, and they often cannot employ great ideas like the wonderful college-level courses offered by, for example, The Teaching Company.

If colleges were able to compete freely in terms of prices — still better, if they were required to compete, like profit-seeking corporations — those prices would come down wondrously. In fact, today’s New York Times has a perfect example of that near the article on the public’s growing resistance to college costs. It’s a full-page advertisement by Fidelity, the huge brokerage and mutual fund company, offering stock trades for $7.95 each and bragging that that’s cheaper than the prices charged by its largest competitors.

From the first beginnings of what would become the New York Stock Exchange, in 1792, members were required to charge the same fees, no competing by means of price. In the 1970s, trading 100 shares could easily cost you $70.00. Trading 1,000 shares cost 10 times as much, even though the cost to the firm of executing the trade was the same. But May 1, 1975, (May Day in Wall Street history) was the day the SEC required the NYSE to stop fixing prices. They immediately declined drastically and, despite inflation, have been declining ever since. That is by far the most important reason behind the huge increase in stock exchange volume in the last 35 years and the ever-higher percentage of American families owning securities in their own right. The brokers had to undergo an agonizing restructuring, and many did not survive. But I notice few tears being shed for Wall Street these days.

It will take a lot of pressure to kill the higher-education cartel, but it will do a lot of good if the effort succeeds.

Say one thing for recessions: they force companies, governments, and institutions (not to mention individuals) to look for ways to be more efficient and to decrease costs. That’s why productivity always soars in a recession.

Today’s New York Times reports that people are increasingly fed up with the high costs and high-handed ways of American colleges. It’s about time. As the Times reports: “‘One of the really disturbing things about this, for those of us who work in higher education,’ said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, ‘is the vote of no confidence we’re getting from the public. They think college is important, but they’re really losing trust in the management and leadership.’”

College tuition has risen far faster than inflation. In the 1960s, I paid $2,200 a year to attend a first-rate university. From the month I graduated to December 2009, there was an inflation of slightly over 550 percent. So tuition today, net of inflation, should be on the order of $12,500. It’s $37,005, almost three times higher. Why?

Well, high-prestige colleges have market power and can charge more. But even second- and third-tier institutions in terms of prestige have been able to jack up their tuition far beyond inflation because there is a cartel in operation. Entrance into the marketplace by new competitors is very restricted, and colleges and universities are not subject to antitrust laws, so they are free to conspire to set prices. In effect, they do. But all cartels require an enforcement mechanism, and in this case, it is the accrediting agencies that often prevent colleges from competing by means of price. They often require ever more elaborate plants and facilities, like a large library even if the institution is located in a city with a large, easily accessible municipal library. Unnecessary courses are often required, even if the student can demonstrate competence in the subject. Colleges often cannot fully use the new communications technologies that would greatly lower costs, and they often cannot employ great ideas like the wonderful college-level courses offered by, for example, The Teaching Company.

If colleges were able to compete freely in terms of prices — still better, if they were required to compete, like profit-seeking corporations — those prices would come down wondrously. In fact, today’s New York Times has a perfect example of that near the article on the public’s growing resistance to college costs. It’s a full-page advertisement by Fidelity, the huge brokerage and mutual fund company, offering stock trades for $7.95 each and bragging that that’s cheaper than the prices charged by its largest competitors.

From the first beginnings of what would become the New York Stock Exchange, in 1792, members were required to charge the same fees, no competing by means of price. In the 1970s, trading 100 shares could easily cost you $70.00. Trading 1,000 shares cost 10 times as much, even though the cost to the firm of executing the trade was the same. But May 1, 1975, (May Day in Wall Street history) was the day the SEC required the NYSE to stop fixing prices. They immediately declined drastically and, despite inflation, have been declining ever since. That is by far the most important reason behind the huge increase in stock exchange volume in the last 35 years and the ever-higher percentage of American families owning securities in their own right. The brokers had to undergo an agonizing restructuring, and many did not survive. But I notice few tears being shed for Wall Street these days.

It will take a lot of pressure to kill the higher-education cartel, but it will do a lot of good if the effort succeeds.

Read Less




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