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S.A.F.E. on HSBC

Originially posted by Stephen Price in a SAFE newsletter. SAFE (Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction) is a Seattle-based foreclosure fighting group: safeinseattle.org

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HSBC, a London-based bank, is huge. How huge? According to Forbes, it’s the 3rd largest bank (the NY Times rates it 5th), and the 6th largest public company in the world. Per Wikipedia, it was formed in 1991 when the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation decided to buy Midland Bank.

This week, HSBC agreed to a $1.92 billion settlement for laundering money from Mexican drug lords and “terrorist” groups in Saudi Arabia and around the world. The evidence was so damning that HSBC actually admitted guilt, a singular occurrence in the rarified world of finance capital. HSBC also is accused of Medicare fraud and supporting timber conglomerates who are deforesting the Malaysian state of Sarawak. As if this weren’t bad enough, they, along with 16 other banks, are being investigated for rate fixing (the LIBOR scandal).

In case you still have a glimmer of sympathy for this banking behemoth, consider this: HSBC’s laundering controls were so lax it allowed $60 trillion in transactions for 17,000 accounts that were flagged as suspicious to go forward without review. They also held 50,000 client accounts in 2008 with no review. Where were these accounts? At HSBC’s branch in the Cayman Islands.

In short HSBC is a paragon of probity and moral rectitude. If HSBC were a person, it’d be the kind of youngster you’d want your son or daughter to marry. Well, maybe not.

As usual, no one is going to jail. Nothing new here. Since the 2007 economic implosion, nobody important has ever gone to jail. This is the way the game is played on the yachts and in the mansions of the power elite. When you get caught, you have your corporation or bank fork over a seemingly hefty sum. Look, we simply can’t have members of the upper crust doing time.

With HSBC, the rationale for not pressing criminal charges is even more distorted than normal. According to the NY Times, if the US filed criminal charges against HSBC and won, it is possible that HSBC would be barred from doing business in the US. The result could be HSBC’s collapse. Since HSBC is so huge, its collapse could “destabilize the global financial system.”

The fine of $1.92 billion appears to be fairly stout, and it would be if you, I, and everyone we know had to pay it. But for HSBC $1.92 billion represents 1.2% of its market capitalization (it’s total value in stock) and 0.07% of its combined assets. Think of it like this. Say your assets total $100,000 (perhaps you have some equity in your home), and the government fines you 0.07% of your assets for money laundering and fraud; you’d have to pay them $70.

When the banks refuse to modify our loans, when they sell our homes at auction, and when they order the sheriff to evict us, we will resist. Without a second thought the sheriff will arrest us, because no matter how corrupt, how degenerate, how morally reprehensible these banks are, we live in a class society where money rules at the expense of the people. And when we are carted off to jail to uphold the sanctity of profit and private property, we will know our cause is just and no system that is so nakedly corrupt can survive.

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Propaganda- the Iran Threat

By Jane Powers

The December issue of Foreign Policy (FP) magazine lists the “100 top global thinkers of 2012.” Coming in at spot #13, after the Clintons (“America’s ultimate power couple”) and before the inventor of unmanned drones, are Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. These two distinguished war criminals merit the thirteenth spot for “forcing the world to confront Iran’s nuclear program.”

The article starts:  “Almost single-handedly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have wrenched the world’s attention toward the apocalyptic potential of a nuclear Iran.”  FP’s description of a nuclear Iran as “apocalyptic” is a great service to war planners. It is, however, a great disservice to those not interested in consuming vile war propaganda. The editors at FP might do well to read the Pentagon’s analysis, delivered to Congress in its 2012 “Annual Report on Military Power of Iran.” The Pentagon writes that “Iran’s military doctrine remains designed to slow an invasion,” and that, “Iran’s security strategy remains focused on deterring an attack.” A security strategy of deterrence will not bring about the apocalypse. It will, however, inconvenience those that need deterrence—aggressors like Netanyahu and Barak.

FP also omits another significant, yet inconvenient point: US intelligence agencies contend that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. As commentator John Glaser (one of the few that works to counter vile war propaganda) writes:

“In 2007, the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had halted  efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. The NIE is produced by 16 different intelligence agencies, and it is the most authoritative judgment on national security issues. A review of that report was published in 2011 and reaffirmed the same conclusions: Iran has no nuclear weapons program.”

Serious people might question the merit of “wrench[ing] the world’s attention” towards an non-existent threat, and the wisdom of designating those who do so as “Top thinkers.”

FP continues: “The effects of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities remain unknown, but the result of [Netanyahu and Barak’s] rhetorical offensive have been impressive.”  Although it is true that no one knows just how terrible the effects of a strike on Iran would be, since it hasn’t happened yet, there are estimates that are worth some attention. A report written by a group of former US government officials and national security professionals, published by the Wilson Center, concludes that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would only delay its ability to make a bomb by a few years and would actually increase its motivation to develop nuclear weapons. Such an attack could escalate into an “all-out regional war” and, “enhance the recruiting ability of radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda.”

Also worth noting is the potential for mass death.  A report published by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics concludes that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will immediately result in thousands of civilian deaths. But more ominously, “The secondary civilian casualties as a result of exposure to the release of toxic and radioactive materials could increase this number to over 80,000.”

With these catastrophic predictions in mind, which FP dismissingly groups in the “unknown” category, the later part of the above sentence seems particularly grotesque. Israel’s “impressive” rhetorical offensive no doubt includes its numerous threats of attack on Iran. Such an attack would certainly be a war crime, but even the threats are illegal. The UN Charter specifically bars the “threats of force.”  FP therefore considers breaches of international law impressive.

FP doesn’t even hesitate to repeat the exact same mistakes made by the press in the months before the Iraq war. This article, however, suggests that it would be giving too much credit to FP by labeling its commentary a mistake. There is nothing mistaken about it. FP is working to instill its values of nationalism and intentional ignorance in its readers so as to justify state violence. It is fulfilling its function perfectly, as propaganda.

SeaSol and the Sanctity of Small Businesses

By Guest Contributor howwefight.com

Small businesses in America are holy things, like motherhood and apple pie. Obama and Romney alike sing their praises on the campaign trail because to do anything else would be to spit in Uncle Sam’s face. Small businesses supposedly bring us innovations, jobs, and most importantly hope that anyone can succeed if they are only willing to milk enough sweat from their own brow. Small business owners are at least heroes, if not saints. These ideas about small businesses are so dominant in popular culture that it feels downright blasphemous to say otherwise.

Even many on the Left who are critical of “big” business reserve a special place in their hearts for “small” businesses.* They would never deny the fundamental goodness of this sort of old-timey capitalism where everyone knows each other’s name and the owner works too, or at least has an office right upstairs. Some even make a special effort to shop locally for precisely these reasons. They seem to think that it is only massive corporations that are the problem in this county and that if we could only rein them in while privileging smaller enterprises instead then everything would be ok. In fact, these were exactly the sorts of sentiments that were expressed by many of the Occupy movement’s liberal supporters last year.

The problem with all of these popular ideas surrounding small businesses is that they completely fall apart if you spend any time with the workers whose hard work actually allows them to succeed. If my time in SeaSol has taught me anything, it is that the only meaningful difference between the horrible exploitation and other crimes of big business around the world and those of the small businesses right down my street is scale. The fact of the matter is there is no inherent difference between big business and my own neighborhood bakery: Borracchini’s.

Borracchini’s is a historic Italian bakery at the bottom of Beacon Hill that opened in 1922. It is a small family-owned business and a Seattle institution. It is located in a pretty old building right on Rainier Avenue South and on most days you can spot old man Remo Borracchini (whose father founded the bakery) himself hobbling around. People are crazy about Borracchini’s cakes and it’s old-fashioned feel. It’s the kind of place that gives some people those warm feelings about small businesses. Some SeaSol members had similar feelings about Borracchini’s themselves and had been going there for years, that is until they found out what it’s like to work there from a member named Gladys and other former workers earlier this year. SeaSol has now been in a conflict with Borracchini’s surrounding Gladys and Borracchini’s break policy for over four months (take the time to learn the whole story and view video testimonials from former workers at nobreaksnocakes.com).

It turns out Remo flaunts the law and refuses to give his workers their legally mandated ten-minute breaks. If a worker ever tries to make a phone call, run to the bathroom, or just wants to take a break from being on their feet for hours running around the shop floor they have to risk being screamed at and disciplined. Even the immigrant bakers upstairs who work ten hour shifts in the hot kitchen actually producing the cakes that make Borracchini famous don’t get all of their breaks. Worse than that, the wages at Borracchini’s bakery are low and stagnant. Gladys worked there for nine years not only without breaks, but also without a raise. Hispanic workers like Gladys also have to put up with racist verbal abuse from some of their managers, especially from Remo Borracchini’s right hand man, Danny Ulrich, who is known for mocking them in his faux Spanish accent. At SeaSol’s first picket outside of Borracchini’s Bakery members of the Borracchini family and their supporters screamed racist, sexist, and homophobic hate in our faces. One member of the Borracchini family actually sucker punched a woman of color a quarter of his size in the eye knocking her to the ground and sending her to the hospital. The list of abuses goes on and on, and even extends to the substandard housing the Borracchini family rents out next door to the bakery. Borracchini’s Bakery may be a small family-run operation, but that doesn’t make it good.

In practice in SeaSol, we have actually gotten far more contacts from people living in properties owned by small time landlords or working for smaller businesses. Admittedly, I did not have any affection for small businesses before I became involved in SeaSol, but now I have been directly exposed to the misery they put people through. I know their names. It’s a funny thing how almost everyone knows about Nike’s sweatshops on the other side of the world but so few people in Seattle know about the sorts of things that go on at Borracchini’s Bakery, Pegasus Pizza, Thriffty Janitorial Services, Chesterfield Healthcare Services, the Delridge Cottages, Lorig Associates, and too many other small businesses to list here now. The fact of the matter is Remo Borracchini was born into owning a bakery that makes him a small fortune from other people’s hard work. Even if he treated his workers well there is nothing about this situation that should inspire reverence and much that might inspire disgust.

The problem with small businesses is the same as the problem with big businesses: the incredible power the owner has to exploit his workers. If an owner loses a worker, then the worker can generally be readily replaced from the growing mass of desperate and unemployed people out there. But if a worker loses his job, then his livelihood, his very means of survival, and (in America) even his family’s health are in jeopardy. The difference between small and large businesses is simply how many lives they hold in their hands. Nike can ruin hundreds of thousands while Remo Borracchini can only ruin hundreds. Both can hypothetically treat their workers like family, but there is little to stop them and much to motivate them like dogs instead. There can be no justice when there is a power differential of this magnitude between owners and workers. No matter how large or small the business may be, the fundamental nature of the relationship between workers and owners remains the same. Small businesses are not part of the solution to America’s problems. They are part of the problem.

* It is very telling that people refer to “big business” in the singular and “small businesses” in the plural. The language here clearly demonstrates that in our culture it is acceptable to treat “big business” as one homogenous mass that acts in a consistent manner while “small businesses” cannot have their basic uniqueness/humanity revoked in the same way.

Organization?

By guest contributor Carlos Patrick.

I think it is fair to say that the Occupy moment has passed us, by which I mean that the historical moment where masses of people will spontaneously mobilize to support and participate in “Occupy Wall St.” is no longer here. We can discuss the reasons for this over and over (indeed, many have been solely obsessed with talking about why the movement seems to have fizzled in most places). The more important question, in my opinion, is what do we do now? Despite the disappointment that some may feel toward the Occupy movement, it is undeniable that it has led to some great advancements on the left in general, specifically a renewed emphasis on direct action around economic and class issues, such as foreclosures, student debt, and workplace exploitation. Furthermore, many Occupy groups indeed still exist (Santa Rosa is a great example) and have spent the last nine or ten months trying to funnel the energy from the encampments into a positive political program. In some place, Occupy might be a total lost cause. But in many other places, it is very much worth engaging in. I believe the Occupy movement still contains an opportunity, especially for those on the revolutionary left, to lay the groundwork for powerful, organized movements, rooted in the masses of oppressed people in our communities.

However, there is still a desire to retain the spontaneous character that defined our encampments last year; there is a tendency all around the country to identify Occupy Wall St. as a protest movement which mobilizes our forces for any given political issue; and there is above all a ton of skepticism toward any proposal of solidifying our Occupy groups as organizations. I believe that the hostility toward transforming our Occupy groups into”organizations” is historically misguided and detrimental to our growth as we move forward strategically into our second year.

It is easy, perhaps, to look at historical ruptures merely as “spontaneous” moments which were loosely connected, vaguely defined, and “purely democratic.”. This analysis, however, does not stand up to any careful analysis. The highlights of the civil rights movement, while often sparked by relatively spontaneous acts of rebellion, were only successful after the movement established its organizations, or utilized existing ones. In the famous bus boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association formed to coordinate the campaign and carry it through. In 1960, after the wave of sit-ins swept through the south, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed to give shape to the emerging youth-led drive for liberation. It was SNCC (with help from other large organizations: CORE, SCLC, NAACP, etc.) that managed to fan out through the South and challenge the white supremacist state there, and organize the historic Freedom Summer.

The anti-Vietnam War movement, springing up several years later, was also largely made possible by organizations, such as SDS, and other powerful organizations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not loosely-affiliated movements that rejected organization. They were massive efforts, which brought millions of people in unions and revolutionary or progressive organizations. The IWW, the Socialist and Communist Parties, the Catholic Workers groups, the Share the Wealth clubs, Unemployed Councils, Southern Tenant Farmers Union, these were the engines that drove the movement of millions that led to the creation of unemployment insurance, social security, minimum wage laws, and brought regular working people, by the millions, into common cause with one another to destroy the system that oppressed them.

Every major movement that the originators of Occupy celebrated last year, and told us that we should follow, were successful precisely because they had organizations, which were able to take advantage of the political and historical moment. Gandhi headed the Indian National Congress. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the United Farm Workers. MLK was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (as a man in his early 20’s) and then was a leader of the SCLC. Occupiers have long been taught the lessons of massive nonviolent movements, and this was very much the principal that Occupy Santa Rosa was founded on. And whether or not you still agree with nonviolence as a central principle, it is undeniable that the mass nonviolent movements that we are modeled after were defined by their organizations and the leadership that their members exhibited.

There are countless other examples. The bottom-line is that if Occupy Santa Rosa were to continue to shun the formation of an organization, it would be a historical anomaly. It would also be taking a major gamble, hoping that somehow we have figured something out that people in struggle for hundreds of years have been unable to. The question should not be whether or not we form ourselves as an organization, but what kind of organization? This is where we have the potential to transcend our spontaneous “movement” period while holding on to our radically democratic values and direct action spirit. As we tackle the question of what is the most proper kind of organization, we can demonstrate the power of direct democracy and rank-and-file organizations. We can challenge the assumption that social movements ought to be organized by the professional staff of non-profit organizations. We can intentionally grow an organizational model that is rooted in consensus and de-centralization, while also emphasizing effectiveness and transparency. It will also give us a chance to put forth an alternative to collaborationist methods of organizing (“dialoguing” with our opponents as opposed to directly confronting them), in a way that forces people to actually take us seriously and not just look at us like a bunch of naive idealists, which is very much how many on the left currently think of us (while they shake hands with representatives of the State who are decimating our communities).

Recent Occupy anniversary events ought to show us all that our ability to mobilize thousands of people simply by announcing an action and passing out flyers is virtually nonexistent at this point. This is because we have passed the point where random people will spontaneously mobilize to this cause. There is too much baggage, and still too little definition in peoples minds to sacrifice much of anything for “the movement.” What will grow our ranks and increase our relevance is by putting forth a clear program for resistance to the dominance of the 1% and for improving regular peoples’ lives in our community.Winning victories for poor and working people will develop our reputation beyond the leftist/activist milieu, which is crucial if we are to survive another year. If Occupy becomes defined as a group that will actively confront the source of our peoples’ misery, and do so in a way that is participatory and effective, we will see much larger swaths of our population join this movement and identify with it. The one thing I hear more than almost anything is that regular folks wish the Occupy movement had some leadership. Because our experience and our values tell us that having top-down structures are both ineffective in the long-run, and morally unjustifiable, we will have to put forth leadership that is de-centralized and horizontal. But it is crucial, at this point, to show people that we are the ones willing to take leadership and move forward.

Whether or not we even keep the name “Occupy” is of little relevance in my opinion. We have developed a fairly sophisticated organization with more infrastructure than your average progressive or radical community organization. Our consensus process, while messy, still seems to work and is appealing to enough people to allow us to maintain a functioning democratic group. We have the potential, in Santa Rosa, to put forth a meaningful program for nonviolent struggle with working-class and poor people, but only if we move in the direction of building a mass organization, led by our rank-and-file (membership), without paid staff and foundation funding, without moving to the political “center” in order to appeal to the liberal-bourgeois machine of the North bay, and without ditching our commitment to a democratic organization. This move, I believe, is historically justified and is the best choice for moving forward in a strategic way to build a mass movement.

Aside

On Mindful Violence

By Frank AscasoImage

Speaking at the United Nations two weeks ago, President Obama lectured the world on the importance of respecting free speech and not resorting to violence in reaction to offensive words and ideas.  In his usual moving rhetoric Obama intoned that “there is no speech that justifies mindless violence” and, “no words that excuse the killing of innocents.”  Nice words, belied by the President’s record on free speech and the use of violence.

In fact, the US routinely blocks, thwarts and interrupts free speech when convenient, raiding and jailing those whose speech the government doesn’t appreciate, even going so far as to kill, as in the case of US citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al Awlaki.

Awlaki’s case is illustrative.  In September of 2011 President Obama sent drones to assassinate Awlaki after placing him on the terror list a year before, and failed attempts to kill him in previous months.    The US claimed that Alwaki had provided operational support for terror campaigns against Americans, including the 2009 attempted Christmas day bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.  However, the US provided no direct evidence, except for a possible meeting between Abdulmutallab and Awlaki in Yemen in the weeks before the attack.  Awlaki professed support for these and other attacks, but claimed he had no direct role in any planning or operations of attacks on the United States.

Media reports in the wake of the attack said that there was “no indication Mr. Awlaki played a direct role in any of the attacks,” adding that “he has never been indicted in the U.S,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal.   The US government soon claimed otherwise.

ImageIn January of 2010 the US Treasury department placed Awlaki on its terrorism list.  Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Stuart Levey, said that Awlaki  had “involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism – fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.”  All without any evidence.

Instead, Awlaki was well known as the paramount English language propagandist for so-called “jihadist” strikes against the United States.  A charismatic and compelling speaker and writer, Awlaki was proficient in 21st century media communications, including the use of blogs, Facebook, Youtube and other internet platforms.   Demonstrating its commitment to the principles of free speech, the US routinely removed Awlaki’s internet presence, shutting down his blog and compelling Google to remove his video postings on Youtube. ( It should be noted the lengths to which the US went to limit Awlaki’s hateful speech, in contrast to Obama’s claims in his UN speech that US belief in the principles of free speech prevented them from acting to limit the hateful speech of the “Innocence of Muslims” viral video.)

When these efforts failed to thwart Awlaki’s influence, the US moved to assassinate the man who was now designated “the bin Laden of the internet,” a significant move for a number of reasons.

For one, with no direct proof of terrorist activity, Awlaki was killed for his speech.  Even though the Yemeni government was seeking to try him in domestic criminal procedures, the US resorted to an extrajudicial killing of the cleric.  For another, Awlaki was an US citizen, marking the first time the US intentionally targeted one of its own in a drone attack (New York born Ahmed Hijazi was killed as “collateral damage” in a 2002 drone attack in Yemen).

As shocking as the assassination was, it was peanuts compared to the moral depravity of attack on Awlaki’s teenage son, also a US citizen, just a month later.  For that attack the US had no justification, other than the teen’s relation to his propagandist father.

In contrast to the kinds of embassy attacks and protests in the wake of the “Innocence of Muslim” video controversy, characterized as “mindless violence” by Obama, the Awlaki attacks represent American “mindful violence” – forced justified by our offense at individual speech.

In these and other actions the US demonstrated its commitment to the principles of free speech.  Currently, two anarchist activists in the Pacific Northwest are in a federal detention facility for refusing to testify to a grand jury in what has been characterized as a government “witch hunt” against young anarchists.  Prior to that FBI agents raided homes in Portland, Olympia and Seattle, with a federal warrant that included anarchist literature, among other things – again demonstrating the government’s position on freedom of speech and thought.

The point is not the content of the speech, which, especially in Awlaki’s case, is morally reprehensible.  The point is that the US, and Obama’s, position on free speech is demonstrated in their actions, over their rhetoric.  As the Awlaki case and others mentioned here indicate, US rhetoric and use of force unquestionably point to a double standard for US actions and those of others.

With the Presidential debate staged tonight these and other crucial foreign policy issues will not be addressed.  It’s a shame that the most humane of the two positions provided by the mainstream parties is represented by the mindful violence of President Obama.

Striking From the Bottom: The Walmart Wildcats

By guest contributor Michael Reagan via war-times.org

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the events of the last two months for the labor movement. From walkouts, lockouts, strikes, petitions, mobilizations, slowdowns and many other kinds of resistance, workers are taking the initiative – and winning.

With the Chicago teachers strike, the NFL referee lockout, and now the Walmart wildcat actions, labor and workers have a string of victories behind their back that could mark the beginning of a new direction for working people in the United States.

Most important are the Walmart strikes –actions in a dozen states involving hundreds of workers –a remarkable turn of events against a firm notorious for its hardline anti-unionism and harsh and inhuman working conditions.

This couldn’t be a starker contrast from the kinds of hand wringing that followed the Wisconsin recall failure just a few months ago, where union and progressive Democrat mobilizations failed to oust Wisconsin governor and class warrior, Scott Walker.

So what’s the difference?  What’s happened in the last four months to shift the momentum of the movement, and the narrative in the press, from one of decline and defeat to one of resurgence?

The Walmart wildcats represent a fundamentally different type of organizing from that utilized in Wisconsin and traditional unionization efforts. In the Walmart strikes, workers are taking action for themselves, at the point where they are strongest: their ability to withhold and leverage their labor against the short-term needs of their employer.

OUR model / Solidarity Unionism

Behind the string of recent actions at Walmart is an organizing effort of years, called OUR Walmart, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, that has worked in conjunction with other community support organizations like the UFCW’s Making Change at Walmart campaign, and the coalition group Warehouse Workers United. Organizers from these groups have had to take a nontraditional approach to the Walmart organizing effort.

Walmart is a notorious anti-union firm. Only two stores have even come close to unionizing, both in Canada, where labor laws are much stronger. The first store, an outlet in Jonquiere, Quebec, was closed after workers voted to join the UFCW. The message to the workers from Walmart was clear: vote for a union, lose your job. After the Jonquiere closure a second store in Canada voted to disaffiliate. These rather dramatic actions came on top of Walmart’s normal union busting activity, a strategy called TIPS – a program to “threaten, intimidate, promise and spy” on any worker suspected of union activity.  

Such hostility meant that in the United States, organizers would have had to unionize a significant portion of the company – a majority of the 1.4 million Walmart employees – at the same time if they hoped to win. Only the U.S. and Chinese governments employ more people than the retail corporation. The odds 

Solidarity unionism  offers a dramatically different vision from the type of top-down organizing typical for contemporary mainstream unions
 

seemed overwhelming. A majority of Walmart employees, hundreds of thousands of people, would have had to vote yes in the face of staunch employer opposition.

So organizers turned to a “non-majority” strategy. Rather trying to win representation elections and gain legal recognition, organizers sought to build worker power through small organized groups taking direct action. This model, called “solidarity unionism,” offers a dramatically different vision from the type of top-down organizing typical for contemporary mainstream unions; indeed, only movement offshoots like the radical IWW routinely practice it. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein calls the model a “return to labor formations of the 1930s . . . [more like] an association–they aren’t looking for legal certification, they don’t claim to represent everyone.”

Instead solidarity unionism seeks to empower workers through immediate actions they can take for themselves. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Mike Compton, a worker at the Elwood, Illinois warehouse explains how the model works and the strike wave developed:

We first started organizing [around] sexual discrimination. Our managers tried to send one of the girls home because she wasn’t throwing like a man, or she wasn’t keeping up with the men, is what she was told. And that’s what really brought us all together. We kind of marched onto management and told them that, you know, if she goes, we go. After that, somebody came up with the idea for the petition, you know, and it just kind of grew from there. We started out with just a couple signatures. By the end of it, I think we had the majority of the temps had signed the petition. And like I said earlier, when management refused to take our petition, that was it. There were about, I think, just under 30 of us when we walked out, and it just kind of grew from there. Every couple days, we’d get a couple more, couple more people joining our picket line.

Importantly, workers themselves are at the forefront of this fight. Workers like Mike Compton collectively pick the issues, pick the tactics, organize, and mobilize their co-workers. From Compton’s perspective, the unions have played a supportive role, but the leadership is in the hands of the workers.

With small groups like these organized around the country, the strike spread quickly. Nearly all Walmart warehouses and stores face similar deplorable working conditions, with quota rates that drain workers, unsafe conditions that lead to frequent injuries, extreme temperatures, irregular

employment, unpaid wages, threats from management, frequent retaliation, and wages so low workers often rely on public assistance to meet their needs. When a small handful of workers in California and Illinois walked out, work committees in states like Florida, Washington, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, quickly went out with them, sparking the first strike in Walmart’s 50 year history.

Coalition groups like Making Change at Walmart and Warehouse Workers United provided crucial support at this stage. With only a small minority of workers 

Winning small victories are part of the solidarity model: tangible gains attract more workers, more workers means greater strength, and victory begets victory  
 

turning out at each store or warehouse, coalition groups could mobilize outside support for the picket lines. In Elwood they blockaded the warehouse, preventing containers from moving, prompting Walmart to call in private police to arrest demonstrators.

This combined strength of worker and community activists forced Walmart to back down. Workers at the Elwood warehouse were brought back and substantial gains were made, like new ceiling fans, improved safety equipment, and back pay for workers – including for the time they were on strike. All this was unthinkable against a behemoth like Walmart just a few months before. Winning small victories like these are part of the solidarity model: tangible gains attract more workers, more workers means greater strength, and victory begets victory.  

While things look good for the Walmart workers right now, it’s going to get tough in the coming months. Walmart will likely retaliate against those most heavily involved in the actions through firings, reductions in hours, or changes in work routines. How workers are able to defend themselves and fight back at that stage will be crucial for the course of the campaign.

Wildcat Politics

The strikes are also politically significant. They represent a turn toward bottom up organizing and away from the traditional kinds of union work, top-down models and electoral mobilizations that have been the bread and butter of mainstream unions for the last several decades. Behind that turn is widespread disaffection with the Democrats and a series of Democratic failures including Obama’s refusal to support the Employee Free Choice Act, the Wisconsin recall vote failure, and Rahm Emanuel’s attack on Chicago teachers.

Particularly significant is the Wisconsin failure. Unions turned from direct action at the beginning of the Wisconsin uprising – like the capitol occupation, walkouts, sick-ins and strikes (where workers are strongest) – to electoral organizing where dollars largely determine outcomes. When Walker outspent his opponent by a factor of 25 to 1, with most donations coming from outside the state made possible by the Citizen’s United ruling, a union failure wasn’t secured, but the prospects for success became much less probable, even with the “ground campaign” run by unions, building on the upsurge of popular outrage over Walker from the year before.

Additionally, the recent strike actions should be seen in light of the presidential election looming just around the corner. The Chicago Teacher Union strike last month couldn’t have come at worse time for the Democrats. Typically unions are reluctant to strike before an election. For one, in the lead up to elections, strikes 

This year the Democrats modified their party platform to remove their support for the EFCA and other specific legislation that would benefit workers.
 

make incumbent Democratic allies look bad. And in the crucial few months before a vote, strikes divert attention, staff time, and resources from supporting preferred candidates. In Chicago, both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan expressed support for union busting Rahm Emanuel. The CTU, with a left-inspired leadership, fewer ties to the Democrats, and a community outreach and organizing model in place for a couple years, could take action that other unions might not have.

And while still small, disaffection with the Democrats only seems to increase. This year the Democrats modified their party platform to remove their support for the EFCA and other specific legislation that would benefit workers. Increasingly union rank and filers, staffers, and even leadership are supportive of the kinds of actions taken by the Walmart workers and Chicago Teachers Union.

Turing point for unions?

The coming fight will be long and hard, and trends discussed in this article are still very small, but the Walmart wildcats are a very good development. The organizations that support them have now promised to continue the fight by taking action on Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year. They also have the legal resources to help protect workers who may be retaliated against.

Most importantly, they can help support and sustain the direct actions of workers themselves to shift the balance of power. That shift, striking from the bottom, at the largest employer and retail outlet in nation, can have reverberations throughout the working class and labor movement. As Walmart workers empower themselves and improve their conditions, others take notice. Their success diminishes the appeal of more traditional approaches, as the old paths offered by union leaders and Democratic politicians look less and less promising in the face of a direct action campaign that is getting the goods.

US Interests in the Syrian Civil War

By Jane Powers

For months, the United States has been directly aiding the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. This aid includes tens of millions of dollars in funding and CIA facilitation of arms delivery from countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebels. This is worrisome given that it’s been known for months that many of the rebel factions are radical Jihadists. Some even have ties to Al-Qaeda. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said months ago that up to a quarter of the 300 rebel factions fighting Assad could have ties to Al-Qaeda.

Although the US claims to have a vetting process by which it determines which rebel factions receive its aid, in July the Washington Post cited a US official saying that because of intelligence gaps “it’s hard to know exactly who they are.”  By mid-October, the NY Times reported that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists…Some with ties or affiliations with Al Qaeda.”

The UN has said that both the Assad regime and the rebels have committed atrocities. The rebels are accused of kidnapping for ransom, torture, and execution. As predicted by many, US support for these rebels has only increased violence, marginalized more peaceful factions, and worked to destabilize the region. For example, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its terror has been increasing as a result of the prolonged civil war. AQI now has an estimated 2,500 fighters, up from 1,000 last year. AQI has set up training camps along the Syrian border, and has been sending in fighters to join the US-backed rebels.

The obvious question is: why would the US fund jihadists? Why would we work to bolster Al-Qaeda? Don’t we hate them? Don’t they “hate our freedoms?” Didn’t they carry out the September 11th attacks? Didn’t we just fight two wars because of these guys?  

The truth is that the US is not concerned about ending jihadist terror, or any kind of terror. Not only does US aggression and militarism inspire hatred and jihad around the globe, but the US regularly supports jihadist terrorists when it suits its interests (as it does now in Syria).  

The most glaring example of this is when the CIA funded the Afghanistan mujahedeen in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation. This was the most expensive operation in CIA history. This operation included funneling billions of dollars into Pakistan to build and train a fundamentalist Afghan rebel force, as well as to recruit jihadists from other countries in the region, many from Saudi Arabia. This operation created a climate of fundamentalism and jihad in the entire region that worked to radicalize an unknown amount of people. It was out of this climate that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden emerged.

In the Cold War, supporting Afghan jihadists was seen as beneficial to a main US interest, weakening the competing super power. So what are the US interests in Syria that make supporting jihadist groups a good idea? US interests in Syria generally reflect the US’ broader regional interest, namely maintaining obedient client states and eliminating states that challenge US hegemony. This order is necessary in order to ensure control of the regions oil resources.

More specifically, the US has an interest in ending the Assad regime. This is because Syria is part of the “Iranian sphere of influence.” This sphere includes Syria, Lebanon, to an extent Iraq, and a number of insurgent groups. Iran competes for influence with the US which has its own sphere of influence in the region, headed by Saudi Arabia and Israel. The US will not tolerate states that challenge its hegemony in a region as vital as the Middle East; therefore, the US is interested in chipping away at Iran’s sphere of influence.

These interests have been noted by many, as the NY Times reported in March on the “positive effect of the unrest” in Syria, namely that “it could deprive Iran of a reliable ally in extending its influence over Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”

George Friedman, chief intelligence officer of Stratfor, wrote that with the end of the Assad regime “Iran will rapidly move from being an ascendant power to a power on the defensive.” This is good as it will degrade Iran’s “wide-reaching sphere of influence” and will relieve the US’ “burden of containing Iran.” Friedman also notes the dangers of the survival of the Assad regime, as it would be “isolated from the West,” and “would be primarily dependent on Iran, its main patron” during the civil war.   

Iran is a threat to US interests, that is, total domination of the region. It must be degraded. Ending the Assad regime will be a major blow to Iran’s influence. This is a top priority for the US, and in the twisted logic of power, enough reason to support any forces that are working towards this objective, even if these forces include Al-Qaeda.

For good reporting on this subject, see John Glaser’s work.