Now that mainstream economists and the Obama administration declare the recession over and the economic stimulus package a growing success, business-as-usual is anxious for new action. Executive bonuses, positive corporate profit reports, re-inflated housing and commodity bubbles, gutted workforces, and government subsidies for private energy and health care industries all are injecting renewed glitters of glory into the eyes of Wall Street.
|Protest against American Bankers Association in Chicago. Photo: Labor Beat.|
Yet in many parts of the Americas, a different story unfolds. As if the old International Monetary Fund has risen from the dead, structural adjustment and austerity regimes are ripping apart the landscape from Seattle to San Juan and from Guadalajara to Gary. Rampant joblessness, continued home foreclosures, excessive consumer interest rates, decimated social services, and plain old gouging are tearing at the fabric of the working and middle classes.
In the United States, a massive fiscal crisis grinds away at the social bedrock. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 48 of 50 states collectively face budget deficits of at least $168 billion going into 2010. California is the most dramatic example of the crisis, but many other states, such as little New Mexico with its looming one billion dollar budget deficit, are likewise drowning in red.
To make up for shortfalls, Republican and Democratic leaders are reaching deeper into the pockets of the working classes, raising user fees on almost any service imaginable, jacking up fines for traffic violations, and allowing tuition hikes that make public colleges and universities increasingly unaffordable. The budget crisis is sowing fertile ground for privatization schemes like Arizona”s plan to peddle off state properties and outsource prison management.
In "liberal" San Francisco, controversy has even erupted over aggressive residential parking enforcement policies. "This is a class issue," read a statement from the ANSWER activist coalition. "The rich and the well-to-do don”t have to worry about where to park in this small and crowded city." Added Cristina Gutierrez of the Barrio Unido immigrant rights group: "What are we supposed to do, run out of our homes every hour at night to feed the meter?"
As always immigrants, especially those without papers, are among the chief victims of the economic crisis, and the current structural adjustment is no exception. Concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs and unable to collect whatever social assistance does exist, low-income immigrants pay dearly for regressive taxes, higher fuel and food prices, and cutbacks in public education—one of the few services available to the undocumented.
Almost relegated to sub-human status, many immigrants are so far restricted from the health insurance reform proposal under consideration by the United States Congress—warnings aside from medical professionals that leaving people out of the system invites a public health disaster.
The Obama administration”s stated determination to weed out the undocumented workforce, albeit in a less crude fashion than the Bush administration with its military-style raids on workplaces, drives workers deeper into the shadows and reinforces a parallel reserve army of labor force willing to work for low wages.
A trio of sacred cows remains untouched by all levels of government. They are Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Big Entertainment, in that order. Washington”s $680 billion defense budget prioritizes imperial imperatives abroad over human needs at home.
As the fiscal crisis loomed last year, University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith proposed that Congress rescue the states by reviving the general revenue-sharing system ended by the Reagan administration. But it”s hard to reallocate resources when trillions go to murky Wall Street bail-outs and billions flow to the military machine and its private contractors.
Bankrolled by wealthy campaign donors, many lawmakers from both parties steadfastly oppose taxing the rich. Amidst economic ruin, special interests retain their privileges. For its latest blockbusters and flops, Hollywood, for example, gets tax breaks and subsidies from a growing list of states. In New Mexico, the Lords of the Silver Screen have such sway that the state government recently blocked off an interstate for three hours to allow filming, snarling traffic and increasing carbon emissions.
Absurdly tragic in the United States, the crisis is mirrored and magnified in Washington”s remaining colonies and dependent states south of the border.
|Let the rich pay for the crisis! Photo: Kiko Carpio/indymediapr.org.|
Seized as United States war booty from Spain in 1898, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico is in the throes of a major crisis. A budget deficit of more than three billion dollars enticed the pro-statehood colonial administration to order the firing of more than 20,000 public sector workers and go after collective bargaining agreements. Even before the axe fell, unemployment had topped more than 15% of the workforce.
Migration to the United States (Puerto Ricans are United States citizens, though without the right of elected political representation in Washington), has long served as the escape valve for an underdeveloped colonial economy. Speaking on National Public Radio, Puerto Rican political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua predicted that if the present crisis deepens, a new wave of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland could be unleashed. As deportations of undocumented workers continue, Puerto Ricans could become a replacement workforce. Like Mexicans and other Latino immigrants, Puerto Ricans historically have been consigned to many of the lowest-paying, arduous jobs in the United States.
|Protesters marched in Mexico City to protest the LFC firings.|
When the economic meltdown got underway last year, the Calderon administration famously proclaimed that Mexico would escape the worst of the damage. But Mexico”s economic dependency on the United States guaranteed the opposite outcome. Massive lay-offs struck the maquiladora export sector, tourist revenues shrunk, and migrant remittances took a nose-dive. Dependent on shrinking oil export revenues, education and public spending took a big hit. By the third quarter of 2009, more than one million Mexicans had lost their jobs.
To cope with the crisis, the Calderon administration and its political allies hauled out regressive taxing schemes. Despite the budget crunch, President Calderon”s Interior Ministry had no problem with proposing to spend $230 million over a four-year period to fingerprint and photograph every Mexican for a national identification card.
Enhanced labor discipline is an important consequence of the Mexican crisis. The Calderon administration”s mass firing of 44,000 LFC utility company workers at the point of a gun last month was rationalized as a necessary cost-saving move that will lead to revived economic growth. Similar to the Reagan administration”s sacking of air traffic controllers in 1981, it also was a stern online casino warning to independent unions.
The recession has accelerated a trend toward temporary employment as the work norm. Jorge Barajas, coordinator for Cereal Labor Advocacy Group in Guadalajara, said in an interview that more companies in the regional electronics industry are stepping up their use of temp employees and speeding up production on the assembly line. "Businesses have taken advantage of the situation to lay off personnel and dump the work on those that remain," Barajas said. "This is a frequent complaint we”ve heard at Cereal."
A Fight Back Emerges
Largely glossed over in the mainstream media, citizen resistance is erupting in the three nations. In California, thousands of students and university workers have rallied in recent weeks to oppose budget cuts and tuition hikes. Featuring several occupations of university buildings, the movement is the biggest to visit state campuses since the anti-apartheid solidarity struggles of the 1980s. In New Mexico, youth were prominent among a crowd of nearly 1,000 that recently protested public education cuts. In Chicago, thousands protested outside American Bankers Association in October, while sit-ins at insurance companies by health reform activists escalated in different cities.
Inching beyond single-issue protests, messages that strike at the very heart of corporate capitalism are penetrating popular culture. Witness, for example, Michael Moore”s film Capitalism: A Love Story, or the saga of Californian Ann "Rockerchic" Minch, who launched a debtor”s revolt this year when she posted a video on You Tube that railed against Bank of America for hiking her credit card interest rate.
After publicly referring to bank executives as "evil, thieving bastards," Minch won a reduction in her interest rate. Minch”s You Tube uprising, which has received hundreds of thousands of views and inspired other anti-bank videos, could be the first shot of what the new activist calls "The American Debtor”s Revolution." To keep the movement going, Minch maintains a website and posts follow-up videos.
Broadly, Minch”s Internet war against the big banks is part of the growing phenomenon of "gripe sites" that skewer Bank of America, Starbucks, and other corporations.
In Puerto Rico masses of people are in motion. An October 15 general strike called by public sector unions to protest mass lay-offs turned into the largest protest the island has seen in decades, drawing as many as 250,000 people, according to some participants. Trade unionists, religious activists, students, and pro-independence forces joined together to shut down business as usual.
"It was packed with people for miles," Southwest Workers Union organizer and Puerto Rican solidarity movement activist Ruben Solis, said of the October 15 march in San Juan. "It was an unbelievable display of unity."
According to Solis, official threats of repression hang over the movement.
On the same day of the Puerto Rican strike, another 300,000 people marched and rallied in Mexico City to protest the LFC firings and government economic policies. "No solution equals revolution!" chanted part of the crowd. Smaller protests were staged simultaneously in at least 10 other Mexican cities. Coming as Mexico prepares to celebrate the anniversaries of the 1810 War of Independence and the 1910 Revolution, mass mobilizations contain special overtones these days.
The Long Road Ahead
Until now, resurgent movements in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico have mainly been defensive responses to attacks on peoples” rights and standards of living. Here and there, popular protests are making headway and shifting the terms of debate. Perhaps fearful of being known as the Grinch who Stole the Christmas of 2009, even Mexican President Felipe Calderon has lately taken to scolding the rich for not paying their fair share of taxes.
Of necessity, popular movements in all three nations will have to go on the offensive soon. This means challenging regressive taxation systems, reexamining international trade agreements, guaranteeing and extending labor rights, safeguarding environmental standards, and finally addressing the migrant question in a way that protects human rights and promotes sustainable economic development in sending communities.
Locally, different movements are taking on structural inequalities. The anti-budget cut Better Choices New Mexico coalition, for instance, is organizing to reverse Bush-like state income tax cuts and plug loopholes that allow outside corporations like Wal-Mart to avoid paying New Mexico income taxes. But even if successful, such reforms can only go so far.
Although grassroots movements in the three countries will understandably evolve according to their own particular historical circumstances and necessities, it is increasingly impossible for structural changes in the globalized neo-liberal status quo to be achieved strictly within national borders. In numerous ways, the destinies of Mexico, the United States, and Puerto Rico are intertwined, and it behooves the movements in the three countries to enhance dialogue and cooperation with the goal of formulating hemisphere-wide alternatives to the existing economic order.