Wednesday, March 04, 2009


After reading a Huffington Post article my wife directed me to, I find myself deeply shocked, a little puzzled but nonetheless euphoric. When is the last time an American president openly — publicly and in unambiguous language — defended the right of workers to organize? Yet shortly after taking office Obama publicly insisted:
We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.
This must be some sort of cruel joke, a let-them-eat-cake remark, a statement launched into the world for ironic effect. But the joke — one unbelievably hard to swallow after the last thirty years of unrelenting antiunion rhetoric — is that this isn't a joke. While I remain deeply skeptical of the Obama administration's strong ties to Chicago School economics and corporate interests (i.e. Obama's National Security Adviser James Jones, like Condoleeza Rice, also has deep connections to Chevron) it's difficult not to be pleasantly stunned and — after the shock — deeply grateful to hear such a statement. Although the conversation around labor and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is grounded in the homogenizing rhetoric of an American middle class, any insistence by an American president that workers have a right to organize after the destructive outcome of the 1981 Airtraffic Controllers strike is momentous.

The call for a strong labor movement from federal government, a force otherwise openly antagonistic to labor — in conjunction with memory of the corruption of the past eight years and the collapse of the economy — may if nothing else signal the emergence of new forms of consciousness in the US that can create the conditions for an order of change that refuses the destructive myth of a middle class and the principles of a market system rooted in the absurd logic of endless accumulation. Wow. A red letter moment.

ADDENDUM: Spoke too quickly — foolishly seduced by the unacknowledged possibilities embedded in Obama's call for a strong labor movement. Earlier today Obama endorsed merging teachers' pay with a merit system measured by student performance — a system that would place the burden for success on teachers, effectively holding individuals rather than systemic crises accountable for the succes of students. The call for a merit-based system suggests that the conditions of poverty are in no way connected to the cognitive performance and academic success of students. A by-the-bootstraps Chicago School approach to education.

Obama also expressed a desire to further support and ease restrictions on charter schools — and here it's important to recall the centrality of the charter school system (the privatization of public education) to Milton Friedman's vision of education in a successful market-based economy. Here too Obama's loyalty to the fundamental principles of Chicago School economics pierces through the strategically deployed messianic rhetoric of hope, struggle and patience. Disappointing but not surprising.