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Greg Pason: Socialists and the Living Wage Issue

From Greg Pason in The Socialist:

The current left and progressive labor movement’s call for a $15 minimum wage poses the need for immediate improvements in compensation of the lowest-paid workers. But it falls short in some ways, and I believe democratic socialists can both strengthen the campaign and use the current focus on a $15 and hour minimum wage to put forward a democratic socialist vision.

The Socialist Party’s Statement of Principles puts forward a vision on how we want to address both “reform” and “revolutionary” ideas: “While a minority, we fight for progressive changes compatible with a socialist future. When a majority we will rapidly introduce those changes, which constitute socialism, with priority to the elimination of the power of big business through public ownership and workers’ control … socialists can support movements of working people and make improvements that illustrate the potential of public ownership.”

When the Party advocates for issues like a living wage or an increased minimum wage, we do so with three objectives: 1) To fight for immediate improvements in the lives of working people; 2) To illustrate the need to break from a system which cannot satisfy human needs even in the best of conditions; 3) To put forward democratic socialist alternatives.

When we organize around wage and labor issues, we need to connect that work to a vision of the type of economy we are fighting for. The focus is not just to get a higher wage but also to challenge an economic model (i.e., capitalism) that takes power from the workers who provide the labor power and the communities affected by the decisions of business. We are clear in our principles that democratic socialism is not mass industrial plants run under a command economy. While that might be a type of “socialism” advocated by others, it is not a vision we share. We also need to be clear that democratic socialism is not welfare state capitalism, which allows capitalism to function but under stringent restrictive and directives.

We promote an egalitarian economy, which, while democratically planned, is owned and controlled by the workers and the communities they serve. We see a cooperative economy. As our principles state, “In a socialist system the people own and control the means of production and distribution through democratically controlled public agencies, cooperatives, or other collective groups.”

We see a democratic economy run from the ground up. As our principles state, “ … Public ownership becomes a fraud if decisions are made by distant bureaucrats or authoritarian managers.”

In a socialist society, power resides in worker-managed and cooperative enterprises. Community-based cooperatives help provide the flexibility and innovation required in a dynamic socialist economy, and we see an economy that operates in harmony with the environment: “A socialist society carefully plans its way of life and technology to be a harmonious part of our natural environment. This planning takes place on regional, national, and international levels and covers the production of energy, the use of scarce resources, land-use planning, the prevention of pollution and the preservation of wildlife.”

Contradictions in the Fight for $15

One major matter for discussion in the current fight for the $15 minimum wage is that it does not apply across the board. It applies primarily to “big business” and ignores many problems in the relationship between workers and employers in the kinds of “small business” liberals seem to idolize. It ignores small business, because those who motivate it understand that capitalism brings monopoly, and only by excusing small business can the “Main Street America” mirage continue in our economy.

When the call goes out to target Wal-Mart or McDonalds, it’s because those multinational corporations are targets of opportunity. The argument for $15 an hour can easily be made, and the unions organizing the drives see them as places their organizing model fits. If you can’t make an argument for a living wage from the largest/most powerful corporation on the planet (Wal-Mart), you probably cannot make the argument anywhere. And if you cannot connect the idea of a living wage to one of the largest employers in the US and connect it to a place where so many people have worked (if you haven’t, then someone in your family has), you will have a hard time increasing union density above 10 percent and outside the public sector.

But even for the most progressive of the liberal and labor movement, I have a question: Is that the sort of economy we want? Wal-Mart and McDonalds? Maybe they are easily identified targets, but do we want a Wal-Mart and McDonalds economy, or do we want to create a “Main Street America” that is owned and run by workers and the communities they serve?

LeBron James Seems to Get it

A recent article in Salon magazine titled “A specter is haunting the NBA — the specter of socialism,” describes a demand by new NBA Union Executive Director Michele Roberts: that NBA revenue be roughly split between players and owners. Salon comments, “If the NBA currently operates according to a sort of Keynesian, redistributive model, Roberts has provoked an imagination of a socialistic league, a revolutionary model that is, strictly speaking, non-capitalist.” (It is socialistic in the broad sense of the term, not in the way the word “socialism” is used to describe welfare-state models. These are mostly capitalist economies with socialistic salves to grease the gears, smooth out cyclical troughs and ward off unrest.)

“Why don’t we have the owners play half the games?” challenged Roberts when asked about the revenue-split issue. A Marxist truism now becomes a joke when considered in the case of the NBA: it’s the workers who create the value, not the owners. No one wants to hear “And starting at power forward … Donaaaald Sterrrrrliiiing!”

Roberts drives the point home: “There would be no money if not for the players … There. Would. Be. No. Money.” Owners are expendable, she suggests: “Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”

It’s sad when Salon Magazine does a better job describing socialism than some labor organizations do. Even the NBAPA gets it: Owners are expendable.

A Democratic Socialist Alternative

As socialists, we understand that for capitalism to function, it needs to exploit workers, create constant profit for shareholders and owners and monopolize industries. We challenge that model with one in which the means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by workers and communities and their function is not “profit” but the necessities of life, including food, shelter, health care, education, child care, cultural opportunities, and social services. As democratic socialists, we believe this alternative system needs to be one in which power resides in worker-managed and cooperative enterprises and where decisions are made by those most affected.

As we fight for a “living wage,” we demand a guaranteed income and a full-employment economy, and when the reality of capitalism not being able to deliver this demand, we provide an alternative: convert private ownership and corporate control to public ownership and worker and community control.

Main Street America as a Socialist Idea

Let’s not try to soft sell socialism. When we call for a living wage and the response is “businesses will close,” we offer an alternative. Give those businesses to unemployed workers to run and control in partnership with the communities they serve.

When we picket McDonalds for a living wage, let’s promote discussion on alternatives to fast food. If workers had their say, would they be working in high-pressure, grease-filled kitchens? Would communities actually choose to promote high-fat and unhealthy food options, when obesity and high blood pressure is so negatively affecting children and adults?

When we protest Wal-Mart’s low wage and sweatshop-based model, let’s talk about cooperatively-run and community-based alternatives.

So, yes, lets get out there and demand a living wage for all, but let’s also make sure the discussion doesn’t end there. We’re not organizing just for state intervention and a social safety net — we’re organizing for so much more, and the message should be that we’re fighting for a living wage, but we want social ownership and control.

Greg Pason is National Secretary of the Socialist Party USA. Greg is also a former Socialist Party candidate for Governor and U.S. Senate; former Co-Chair of the NJ Branch of the National Writers Union, former member of the Brandworkers International Board of Directors, former chair of the Coalition for Free and Open Election and ABC-No-Rio Collective member/volunteer.

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Jed Ziggler

Jed Ziggler is a Libertarian and alternative party activist from Pennsylvania. Email news tips to