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July 13 - 17, 1998

July 15, 1998

Curtain time

Harvard privatization gun-for-hire Jeffrey Sachs sounded the preliminary temporizing note Monday night on the Charlie Rose Show. Sachs, who heads the Harvard Institute for International Development, pompously elided any blame for his organization's delivering Russia into the hands of its present criminal oligarchy. Sachs and crew had gotten the green light and funding in 1992 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and over the next four years would spend nearly $58 million helping to cement the collage of corruption nestling together former nomenklatura, mafiosi and outside investors.

Yesterday the temporizing became formally codified with the approval of a combined $17.1 billion loan to Russia from the IMF, the World Bank and Japan. As Princeton professor Stephen Cohen pointed out in the show's next segment, the loan has nothing to do with saving the Russian economy, and is little more than a political prop-up. Few in Russia believe in Yeltsin's reforms, Cohen said, and the fear he witnessed among the leadership in Moscow during his just-concluded visit was palpable.

As with the gallows, the fruits of globalism concentrate the mind. Yeltsin recently bestowed honors upon three of his internal security force generals, and has pointedly warned against possible coup attempts. You can attribute his alarm in large part to the response of Russian workers and trade unions to the sell off and abandonment of their industries and the failure of the government to pay back wages. The wage debt --- some $10 billion owed --- has generated massive worker direct action which has intermittently paralyzed much of the country for more than two years, shutting down railways and essential industries, and has progressed to workers' calling for Yeltsin's ouster. In April a Trade Union Day of Action brought out more than 14 million demonstrators and closed down 12,000 enterprises. The division between independent trade unions and those which had been supporting the government reforms has all but evaporated, and many unions, the miners in particular, are now advocating strong limits on foreign investment and calling for the renationalization of industry. Last summer the Kuzbass region miners set up soviet-style "committees of salvation" integrated with town councils and the trade unions.

In the face of such long-suffering economic resentment turning increasingly political, the IMF offers only more of its fabled austerity stipulations. For indigent workers, many of whom have not been paid in two years and who can look forward to a Russian winter without heat or electricity, Yeltsin and his claque's efforts to stabilize the ruble and protect the commercial banks holding the accumulated hoards of Moscow's elite will generate scant enthusiasm. Either way it goes, the forthcoming vote in the Duma on the mandated tax reforms and spending cuts will likely constitute Yeltsin's appointed hour. Should he lose, he has threatened to implement the measures by decree; if victorious in the parliament, he still confronts the reality of a mere 4 percent of the electorate supporting him, and the continuing piecemeal erosion of Russian economic sovereignty. Among Russian voters there is now little expectation that the year 2000 elections will even be held, and the election of Gen. Alexandr Lebed as Governor of the Krasnoyarsk territory is an augury of the voters'mood about the future and their assessment of the incumbent cabal running the country.

* * *

For the formerly pliant trade unions, once willingly subordinate to the political and economic apparat of the soviet system, the comparison of their past and present status with those of their counterparts in the West is significant. The Cold War engendered mutually beneficial joint-partnership "arrangements" between labor and industry in countries on both sides of the sphere-of-influence divide. Borderless globalism has clearly sundered those intranational arrangements, along with the vestiges of government-calibrated enmity between opposition-bloc trade union movements, and Western unionists have responded with surprising alacrity to the plight of Russian workers and their fight for back wages.

The AFL-CIO, at the risk of losing U.S.A.I.D. funding, has said it will continue to support Russian unions that refuse to bend to IMF reform demands. Union president John Sweeney  last year began emitting firebrand declarations about the fundamental shortcomings of the American neoliberal blueprint for the world. Other international labor leaders have been even more forthcoming about the destabilizing effects of transnational corporatization, to the point of questioning the legitimacy of the post--WWII consensus reached at Bretton Woods.

Yeltsin's fears are Clinton's fears, and vice versa. And the Russian workers Stephen Cohen predicts will surround Moscow in the fall and choke it closed might just as well be walking the line at the GM plant in Flint. The planet has a new Iron Curtain, and on one side of it are forces determined to subjugate the rest of the world. If you tote a lunch box and punch a time clock, it's a certainty you already know that, and a Harvard education wouldn't be of much use to you.

   --- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

July 17, 1998

In the running

Mr. Mayor:

I note with great interest your solicitation of the labor vote as you kick off your re-election campaign. It's a good place to begin, and it's a constituency whose concerns surely necessitate your getting an early start in the race. But such political acumen has been a staple of your long career.

In going to such a perennial and solid base of support first, you cushion your most vulnerable flank --- a challenge from the left --- where, by now, the affable curtseying toward you has ceased and you have nothing but enemies. That much you know, and it only bears repeating because as a pro you are rightly prudent to determine the current depth of labor's support and how it coincides with the parameters of your leftward opposition.

If in fact your entreaty of labor votes is more genuine than expedient --- and let's give you the benefit of the doubt that it is --- then San Francisco's reputation as a model of dynamic progressive politics on behalf of the nation and --- in these interdependent times --- the world, remains firmly intact. Tip O'Neill's maxim that all politics is local is one that you have always exercised to perfection; to that your opponents would add, "think globally." Labor's long-term allegiance, as we must grant that you have surmised, awaits the conjunction of those two axioms. Will they continue to combine along the lines of the neoliberal political model?  Or will working people demand a substantial input into the process, equating democracy with economic justice, and look to the new breed of trade union leadership instead of politicians? Among the latter, nationally, the distinctions available to the labor electorate are between Gore, Gephardt (a distinction, perhaps, without a difference), and Wellstone. In local elections, candidates would be understandably wise to be surefooted about which choice of coattails, but evidently you personally have a presaging sense about this and are off and running without pausing to blink.

* * *

I suspect that this weekend you'll be visiting the "Third Street Faire" in Bayview--Hunters Point, which should provide the perfect venue for you to address the concerns of working people. Mrs. Clinton's speech yesterday --- describing the plight of black kids who regard the brand labels on their footwear as more important than "what they think, how they feel or what they do" --- is an excellent lead-in to the issues of employment availability and job-creation. The vision which produced your stadium mall plan, criticized for how it would further marginalize an already economically depressed pocket of the city with the cheap baubles of chain-store consumerism and cineplex action-hero mayhem, is perhaps due for a reassessment. One obvious alternative, industrial parks tailored to service the UC campus expansion, and a tie-in to the community colleges and medical technician programs for Bayview--Hunters Point youths, would seem to be a quintessential pro-labor position. Such a proposal would necessarily require a reappraisal of SPUR's tentative plans to gut and redevelop the central waterfront industrial area. Uprooting existing labor-intensive small businesses and precluding the possibility of revitalizing that historic industrial zone in favor of upscale housing for 25,000 people adds another layer of economic blight to Bayview--Hunters Point.

And yet it's a pattern, Mr. Mayor, that has affected working people of all colors in recent years, and increasingly connotes to workers and unions that we have less a race problem, than a problem of class. Among working people, as Jesse Jackson has pointed out, when racial incidents occur, at root they can be traced to the false perception of favoritism and special consideration accorded one group over another. At present, in our politics, Mr. Clinton's call for " A vocabulary to describe the future," lacks the\ language to address this issue, as working people are fast realizing, nationally and in concert with their brothers and sisters globally. The president will be sending a representative, David Chai, from his initiative on race relations program to the Faire, and you can duly expect that the word "class" will not pass from his lips. Since you're the candidate, I'll leave it to you to decipher why.

Before you head out there this weekend, might I suggest an appropriate gesture on your part? Give a call to Leslie Chambers, the woman who was beaten in a racial attack on Third Street this week after rear-ending another driver's auto at an intersection. Ask if she'll accompany you there, walk the crowds with her at your side, have her stand behind you at the lectern. The point will be obvious: Working people don't beat up other working people. Moreover, they especially don't do it because the corporate class absolutely loves to witness that sort of behavior, and knows that every repetition buttresses their power.

You might find it rewarding to chance something else, as well. Call Harry Edwards at UC Berkeley and some pro athletes and have them attend. During your speech ask them if they'd be willing to work with the local kids in a "Don't Wanna Be Like Mike" campaign. Again, the point will be obvious, as working people have begun to learn of late: Michael Jordan and Nike's Phil Knight have no need to pummel one another. They are in complete agreement and have few qualms about the process which has shifted jobs out of the inner cities to offshore peonage compounds. Subsidize the project with some of our surplus money; it puts the city on record as a participant and, after all, that's what our labor-friendly tradition is all about, is it not?

As a photo-op, your weekend offers the perfect backdrop. Location, location, location, as they say. For those needing to ascertain such matters, it's a setting guaranteed to illumine the true divisions and strengths in our lives. You should excuse the didacticism, but there are those who have capital, on the one hand; and then there are those who are at the mercy of capital, on the other. Those to the left of you, Mr. Mayor, have figured that out. Your wager, it appears, is to figure out how many of us there are.


John Hutchison

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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