Rad Money w/ John Brill

One of Mikhaela Reid’s latest cartoons, besides being grimly funny, makes an excellent point about the financial-advice industry: it offers sensible advice for people who have the time, money, security, and leisure to take advantage of it, but nothing beyond moralistic hectoring for those who don’t. (Not that this is the fault of, say, Suze Orman; it’s the fault of the way that comfortable members of the middle and upper classes use the ideas they get from the financial advice industry as another way to bully people who make less than they do.) As Mikhaela glosses it on her website,

I am of course, referencing financial-advice programs like the Suze Orman Show and CNBC’s Mad Money w/ Jim Cramer (a popular show described by Businessweek as Louis Rukeyser meets televangelism meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse). Not that Suze Orman doesn’t have sound financial advice, because she does—budget, save, invest, take realistic vacations, etc. (Jim Cramer, on the other hand, just strikes me as off his rocker, telling people to invest in crazy random stocks, but hey, what do I know?)

All of that is all very well for middle-class people (although maybe not as well as it could be when you think about college tuition and other skyrocketing costs). But there’s only so much people can do personally when they’re in really, truly horrible money situations and the social safety net has been pulled out from under them (see How Tax Cuts for the Rich Can Help You!).

With cuts to federal student aid, health-care programs, child-care programs, retirement programs, etc., the burden falls more and more on individuals. We hear more and more about individual responsibility to save for health-care, for retirement, for college. But you know what? When you make barely enough to feed your family, that’s a goddamned cruel joke. Expecting people who can hardly pay their rent in the moment to put away for the future is just bizarre. The math just doesn’t add up. There’s only so far you can squeeze a penny.

And these same jerks in the Bush Administration and Congress who are cutting the social safety net (didn’t they learn ANYTHING about poverty from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?) are happy to spend billions on the Pentagon, which then uses the money that could have gone to education and sound investments in the future of our country to bomb the crap out of innocent civilians in Iraq.

— Mikhaela’s News Blog (2006-01-15): New Cartoon: $AD MONEY! w/ Susie Poorman!

All of that’s true, of course. And well taken. But of course it leaves open the question: now what do we do about it?

One option that’s always available is to despair and do nothing. This seems, in fact, to be one of the most popular plans among professional-class Progressives who don’t actually need to worry about these issues in their everyday lives. Actually, that’s not a bad plan for them to follow; I’d be quite happy if all the Progressives out there kept doing nothing, given what happened the last time Progressives got enthusiastic and active. But not everyone has that luxury, so let’s move on.

Another option is that you could get back into the lists and fight to recover the alleged government protections that have been lost: more social welfare programs, more regulations demanding that bosses give such-and-such benefits or such-and-such a wage to workers, repeal of free trade agreements, nationalized medicine, or whatever your bag is. But besides having any number of moral and economic objections to these ideas, I also just think that this is unworkable advice for people who don’t have the money, time, security, or leisure to get involved in politics. If the kind of advice that Suzy Orman has to offer isn’t going to get you very far in personal finance when you’re living on the minimum wage, it’s not going to get you very far in politics either, because politicians respond to political pull, and rich people have more resources for buying political pull than you do. The welfare programs that you do get out of a strategy like this typically amount to little more than the bait on the steel trap of social control (government schooling, to take one obvious example; the government-sponsored dead-end employment agency known as TANF to take another). And what politicians give, they can easily take away, as recent experience shows. The labor regulations that you get, when you get anything at all, are no less easily taken away, and also usually amount to yet another silver cord to bind workers to the bosses. (These days a lot is made of the fact that boss-provided medical coverage and pensions are in a state of crisis. That’s true. It might help demonstrate why the tax and regulatory structure that encouraged workers to depend on the bosses for their pensions and medical insurance was a bad idea to begin with.)

So, fellow workers, here’s my financial planning advice for you. Planning, investing, and saving is as important for folks working at or near the minimum wage as it is for the comfortable and the wealthy, but a different situation means different strategies. My suggestion is that you invest in membership dues for a fighting union, plan on firing your boss, and save yourself from depending on the milder sentiments of corporate or government bureaucrats for your money, your raise, your benefits, or your retirement. Let’s call it the John Brill Working-Class Rad Money Plan.

Like any other financial planning advice program, this one needs some Real Life Success Stories. Need a raise? Immokalee farm-workers joined a fighting union, and that’s what it got them. Need more money and a better benefits package? New York transit workers joined a fighting union, and that’s what they got.

But that’s not all, either. Here’s a couple of new stories. Neal Rysdahl joined a fighting union, and here’s what it did for him:

On January 14, 2005, members of the Chicago General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union (IWW) called for an informational picket to boycott the Ideal Hand Car Wash in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood after the managers and owners of the business refused to pay Neal Rysdahl, a longtime member of the IWW, the $227.50 he was owed for over 45 hours of work he preformed for them.

The highly visible protest began at 8 AM, with a small but dedicated group of picketers banging bucket drums, shaking noisemakers, passing out leaflets, and carrying signs reading, Ideal Car Wash Cheats Workers, and An Injury to One is an Injury to All! Notably, one picketer dressed in a clown costume held a sign reading, Ideal Bosses Are Bozos! to mock the clown Ideal usually uses to attract customers.

Humboldt Park Food Not Bombs showed up to serve bread, pastry, hummus, and coffee, and joined in the picket. I knew this was an important picket to support because it was an opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life through direct action, said Robert Clack, a member of Humboldt Park Food Not Bombs.

The picket effectively shut down business at the car wash for the morning, as most drivers who intended to patronize Ideal drove away after talking with picketers or seeing signs blasting the business for unfair labor practices.

After only three hours of picketing, Eduardo Eddie Amanero, a manager of the car wash, agreed to pay Rysdahl in full, in cash, on the spot, in order to bring an end to the picket.

The point of all this is, if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us, said Patrick Brenner, a members of the National Executive Board of the IWW. We stick up for our members.

… When asked what he was going to do with his back wages, Rysdahl said, I’m going to catch up on some debts. And, of course, I’m going to pay all of the back dues I owe to the IWW!

— Industrial Workers of the World (2006-01-15): Direct Action Gets the Goods! - IWW Chicago Victory for Unpaid Worker

And it’s important to remember that the success of the Brill Plan doesn’t depend on filling out the right set of forms. Of course a formalized union structure can help, but it isn’t necessary. The Brill Plan works from the bottom up; it begins when you get to know your fellow workers and agree to stand by each other. With no formal union and no government recognition, Wal-Mart employees in Florida still made a fighting union of their own, and here’s what it did for them:

In central Florida, Wal-Mart workers are fighting and sometimes winning campaigns using collective action to solve both shop floor and larger industry-wide problems.

In one rural Florida town, over 20 percent of workers in the local Wal-Mart had their hours cut. In response, workers went into their community with a petition to reinstate the workers’ lost hours, and collected 390 signatures in three days. Their hours were returned.

In South St. Petersburg, a popular third-shift employee was accused of theft and fired. The next day, half the day shift quit in protest. In another store, 20 workers marched on management after a 70-year-old workplace leader had her schedule changed. Her schedule was returned within days.

Several workers rode their bikes to work even though Wal-Mart didn’t provide a bike rack. With some co-workers, they demanded management buy a bike rack. When management refused, they bought a rack with their own money and demanded that management install it. Management gave in, and donated the cost of the rack to a local charity.

These actions were initiated and led by members of the Wal-Mart Workers Association (WWA), a growing group of 300 current and former Wal-Mart workers in over 40 stores.

This is a protest movement of Wal-Mart workers uniting to make their lives better at work and in their communities, said Rick Smith, WWA organizer and Florida director of the Wal-Mart Association for Reform Now (WARN), a coalition of labor, community, homeowner, and anti-poverty groups. It’s about Wal-Mart workers sticking together, honoring their work, arranging carpools, and providing child care for each other.

Non-majority unions such as the WWA don’t wait for a court to license workers’ use of collective action. They harness that anger and ingenuity to both win day-to-day victories and launch longer-term pressure campaigns. The strategy has roots in industries in which union recognition is rare: retail chain workers, state workers, and computer programmers and manufacturers.

We have the right to organization, regardless of what the boss or the state do, said Smith.

Infoshop News (2006-01-03): Even Without a Union, Florida Wal-Mart Workers Use Collective Action to Enforce Rights

There’s only so far you can squeeze a penny, but a fighting union means more dollars to squeeze or spend as you see fit. The Brill Plan works. When workers stand together, workers win. So if you’re working for a living and barely scraping by, the best financial advice that I can offer is: stop being sad and start getting rad.

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8 replies to Rad Money w/ John Brill Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Sheldon Richman

    “[T]he tax and regulatory structure that encouraged workers to depend on the bosses for their pensions and medical insurance was a bad idea to begin with.”

    You’ve spoken volumnes in that sentence. I wish the point got more attention.

  2. John T. Kennedy

    “After only three hours of picketing, Eduardo Eddie Amanero, a manager of the car wash, agreed to pay Rysdahl in full, in cash, on the spot, in order to bring an end to the picket.”

    That’s about $73/hr. Divide that by the number of participants to get the return per individual per hour.

    Oh wait, I forgot to subtract the refreshments.

  3. Rad Geek

    Kennedy:

    That’s about $73/hr. Divide that by the number of participants to get the return per individual per hour.

    The article is written in activist-speak and cagey about numbers, which probably means that less than 10 people were on the picket line, which would mean that it’s above the minimum wage for the same amount of time. In any case, though, the participants weren’t picketing for money to spread around amongst themselves. They were picketing for Rysdahl to get his money, which he did. The others did it from moral incentives and as a means of insuring support if they ever face a similar problem with their boss.

    Rysdahl’s marginal cost to recover a couple hundred bucks was three hours on the picket plus dues to the IWW ($6/month if you’re working part-time and/or at or near minimum wage). That’s not bad at all, and a couple hundred bucks can make a big difference if you’re precariously employed and in debt.

    Oh wait, I forgot to subtract the refreshments.

    Food Not Bombs gets its food donated, usually from supermarkets or restaurants, so the only costs would have been the labor and transportation for coffee and a bunch of cold, ready-to-eat food.

    Me:

    [T]he tax and regulatory structure that encouraged workers to depend on the bosses for their pensions and medical insurance was a bad idea to begin with.

    Sheldon:

    You’ve spoken volumnes in that sentence. I wish the point got more attention.

    It’s definitely important to make, especially in the context of unionism. (One of the natural and important things that a union might do in a free labor society is take over the kind of mutual aid provisions for medical care, retirement, etc. that the State and the bosses colonized for themselves during the New Deal and World War II. It’s astounding how much political dogmatism is tied up in boss-provided medical insurance in particular — which is nothing at all more than a 60 year old accident of wartime price ceilings, perpetuated by our byzantine tax policy.)

    Roderick has a good article he wrote back in 1993 on the related topic of fraternal lodges and the intervention of the healthcare cartel against them, How Government Solved the Health Care Crisis: Medical Insurance that Worked — Until Government “Fixed” It. I’d be interested to see the topic expanded further in the context of labor unions (which both borrowed from and modified many traditions from the lodges) and the consolidation of boss-and-bureaucrat health coverage down the line.

  4. Roderick T. Long

    A great source on this is David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State. Chapter 6 focuses on the healthcare case.

  5. Michael Enright

    Rad

    I think you are dismissing Kennedy’s point (or what I take to be Kennedy’s point) to easily. You state:

    “Rysdahl’s marginal cost to recover a couple hundred bucks was three hours on the picket plus dues to the IWW ($6/month if you’re working part-time and/or at or near minimum wage).”

    However, this is not correct. Rysdahl’s cost involves all of his union activity, including activity used to help other people in their own fight. The question to ask is whether all of his efforts in fights that he does not directly profit from are worth a couple of hundred dollars.

    You seem to be arguing that only the time of Rysdahl’s work should be counted and that all the other people’s work is done because it is the right thing. But if everyone is putting in all of this unpaid work, then so does Rysdahl on other people’s campaigns—and his work on all of their campaigns is important as well.

    This is especially important to consider because you are arguing for union work as an investment strategy. The question should be on an individual level is all of one’s union work work worth one’s individual profit.

  6. Sheldon Richman

    It is crucial that we publicize the forgotten history of the mutual-aid societies and medical lodge practice, and draw out the implications for workers. It is eye-opening stuff. (Thanks, David Beito!)

  7. Labyrus

    For an interesting (and effective) take on grassroots anti-poverty activism, see: Food Not Bombs and OCAP

    John T Kennedy and Micheal Enright, union activity is a long run Economic activity, and needs to be analysed as such.

    Roderick T Long, that article was quite interesting. From where I am, in Canada, healthcare is usually state-provided, and Insurance is regulated to keep it cheap. As far as I’m aware, fraternal societies here were never quite as prominent (with the notable exception of the Knights of Labour). State-directed Healthcare is, for all of the philosophical objections, a workable, efficient system, although not without it’s problems. I also think that a similar system could exist, unconnected to the state. I guess my question is: Is it better to have Fraternal Organisations providing Insurance buying Healthcare from private businesses, or to have membership in some sort of mutual aid healthcare system include collective ownership of the infrastructure?

    The advantage of public (ideally to be replaced with collective) ownership to me seems to be that research and development to deal with current and future problems can be dealt with keeping the big picture in mind, while a private system insured collectively would direct research and new infrastructure primarily to respond to immediate and projected demand, with maximising profit in mind. Healtcare is far more reliant on the development of new technology than most other industries, so I think the question is one that should be treated seriously.

— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-03-19 – Small enough to fail:

    […] for extorted charity to cover the gambling debts of predators, parasites, and fools. That way is dumping the bosses off your back—both economically and politically—and the way to move forward on it is to move toward […]

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