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The One Percent Scrambles to Maintain Profits – and Order

“The next few months will be crucial for avoiding a dramatic downturn in employment and a further significant aggravation of social unrest.”

That’s is the first sentence in a report released this week by the International Labor Organization studying the effects of the economic crisis and its impact on global labor markets. On the one hand, it sounds like common sense: as working and poor people see their livelihoods wracked by joblessness and social cuts while the rich enjoy lavish wealth, low taxes and increased profits, popular anger begins to boil over.

But sometimes it takes an agency of the United Nations to spell out logic that is more elusive for the ruling one percent – that class of CEOs and policymakers which persists on cutting costs and expanding profits while sitting on mountains of capital.

As a share of GDP, corporate profits in the U.S. are at their highest levels since 1950. Last week the Congressional Budget Office reported that between 1979 and 2007 the income for the top 1 percent rose 275 percent while income for the bottom 20 percent rose only 18 percent. And that data, which predates the record unemployment, home foreclosures and rising poverty brought on by the Great Recession, dramatically understates where economic inequality stands today. At the same time, a report this week revealed that 30 of some of the largest corporations in the country paid no income taxes between 2008 and 2010.

The extreme class disparities in the U.S. are rooted in the outright theft of the poor by the rich, an exploitative relationship written into the DNA of capitalism. But the situation has left many to wonder if the U.S. is on the path to becoming a “third-world” nation.

Under the dictates of international financial institutions, decades of debt and austerity imposed on poor countries in the Global South produced widespread social unrest in the form of civil wars and other conflicts throughout Latin American, Africa and Asia. Today, policies that were so economically unjust that they needed to be forcibly implemented by autocratic regimes are being introduced in the North.

The financial crisis of 2008 has led to a merciless reign of austerity that is being forced on workers and the poor in Europe and North America. Decades of stagnant wages and falling living standards have been compounded by the costs of a crisis that the one percent dumped onto the 99 percent, who are now fighting back like never before.

Lit from the dried tinder of class anger piled up in the world’s financial capital, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread like a prairie fire, engulfing hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. and beyond. In Manhattan, Boston, Chicago, Oakland, Atlanta and elsewhere, authorities have only fanned the flames in their attempts to crack down on the movement.

But weeks of evictions, mass arrests and police brutality meted out against protesters came to a head in Oakland last week where plumes of tear gas, stun grenades and other projectiles produced chaos and left one Iraq War veteran, Scott Olsen, in critical condition. The ensuing outrage in turn sparked calls for a general strike, organized on short notice and supported by local unions throughout the Bay Area. On Wednesday thousands marched on the Port of Oakland, effectively shutting down the fifth busiest port in the country. A banner that hung outside City Hall read “Occupy Everything. Death to Capitalism.”

Scenes like these seem less remarkable nowadays in cities like Athens, where general strikes and riots against harsh austerity have shaken the Greek government close to the point of total collapse. A debt crisis in Greece that can also be traced back to Wall Street has plunged the eurozone into a financial maelstrom. The attendant onslaught of painful austerity measures in Europe has led to a surge of class struggle – or what the ILO more academically refers to as “social unrest.”

Youth unemployment has been one of the major factors behind class anger and its expression in the streets. In Spain, a stunning 48 percent of young people are jobless. This summer Spain became a focal point of struggle with the movement of the “Indignados” who occupied public squares in Madrid and other cities.



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In turbulent Greece, where youth unemployment officially stands at 43 percent, general strikes, marches and riots have been an ongoing reality in a country where punishing austerity is being pushed by the European Central Bank in order to rescue the Greek economy from bankruptcy. Greece’s sovereign debt crisis has for weeks left Europe teetering on the precipice of a full-blown financial meltdown.

The latest bailout deal, which includes more cuts and promises to exacerbate unemployment, is being pushed hard by Germany, France and the U.S. as President Obama and European leaders met this week for the G20 summit. Meanwhile, the turmoil in Greece has Prime Minister Papandreou’s government hanging on by a thread.   

Youth unemployment and discrimination of marginalized groups were also the fuel behind huge riots that rocked London and other parts of the U.K. this summer.

In the U.S., unemployment and low wages is compounded by soaring student debt, which averaged $25,250 for recent graduates in 2010. Young people in the U.S. have been moved to fight back in various ways over the past year, joining the labor movement’s fight against union-busting legislation in Wisconsin last winter, organizing flash mob actions targeting tax-dodging corporations, and now occupying parks and squares all over the country.

But workers and the poor of all ages have been drawn into the Occupy struggle. The new movement against corporate greed and economic inequality has been strengthened by the involvement of organized labor, which has successfully thwarted police evictions of Occupy encampments in New York and San Francisco as unions called on rank-and-file members to defend the occupations. This fact alone is eloquent testimony for why the Occupy movement needs labor at its side.

Likewise, the Occupy movement has reinvigorated the labor movement. Not only has the movement’s rhetoric about the 99 percent entered the lexicon of labor leaders, but Occupy activists have bolstered labor struggles as well, including the fight among locked out art handlers in New York and thousands of Verizon workers still fighting for a fair contract.

There are fears among some Occupy activists about the danger of being co-opted by labor and its dead-end electoral allegiance to the Democratic Party. But so far, labor leaders appear to recognize that unions need the Occupy movement as much as the Occupy movement needs labor. That alliance would be shattered if labor officials were to push an electoral agenda within the movement because most occupiers have come to reject – or at least become extremely suspicious of – both of the ruling political parties in this country.

Now, with the general strike in Oakland this week, workplace action has been added to the arsenal of the 99 percent in this new struggle. And, as the Occupy movement plans for colder weather, there are serious discussions happening about possibly taking over vacant buildings and foreclosed homes.   

This week, as Bank of America backed off from plans to charge a hugely unpopular $5 debit card fee, there were signs that the ruling one percent is beginning to understand some of the reasoning behind the ILO’s observations about social unrest.

There is a profound sentiment beginning to pulse through the veins of working-class consciousness. It’s a sense that not only have we paid enough for a crisis produced by the rich and their spokespersons in Washington, but it’s time for us to take back what has been stolen from us.

After decades of unbridled class warfare against the 99 percent, soaring profits and relative calm in the streets, workers and the poor are saying something to the one percent: you can’t have it all.

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Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.

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