Walmart’s Smartest Move Yet

American retailing giant Walmart, owners of ASDA in the UK, yesterday committed to paying their 500,000 workers at least $9 an hour by August, rising to $10 in 2016. This compares with a federal minimum wage of just $7.25, which President Obama has sought to raise to $10.10 (unfortunately blocked by Republican-controlled Congress). The move has been welcomed by America’s flourishing anti-low pay movement, despite it seeking a doubling of the federal minimum wage.

At the same time, Walmart going to give employees more ‘control’ over the hitherto erratic shift system that made life particularly difficult for employees with families to support and care for. To be sure, Walmart has taken significant steps away from its past as a bad employer.

I have conflicting views on this development. I certainly do not believe anybody should feel grateful to Walmart for finally living up to its most basic responsibilities as a highly profitable, multinational employer to pay more than the joke that is the federal minimum wage and give its workers a limited degree of security. When people are earning their income from you, you can’t leave them worrying if you’ll give them the hours they need to feed their children next week.

Retail lobbyists in the US have cited the move as proof that retailers do not need to be forced to pay higher wages. That is nonsense. There are tens of millions who languish on poverty pay still. A handful of chains, like Walmart and Ikea, raising their game barely dents that figure. Moreover, employers should not feel that they’re risking their competitive advantages by paying $9 or $10 an hour.

On the other hand, I would not dismiss the significance of the pay increase either. I doubt any commitment to guarantee pay above the minimum wage by the likes of Walmart would have been thought plausible ten or twenty years ago. Campaigning for a $15 minimum wage would have been thought nonsensical. It certainly would have been difficult to mobilise so many low-paid workers to that cause. The very fact that Walmart has made any concession to its employees at all represents a seismic social change.

Of course, Walmart might have calculated that this pay rise should be just enough to blunt the workers’ rights campaigns and alleviate pressure for future concessions. We don’t know. That calculation is wrong in any case: the same process is occurring in the American workforce as is beginning to occur in the UK’s: workers are beginning to organise and raise their aspirations in parts of the economy that never had trade unions. The supermarkets, the fast food restaurants, cleaning firms, industries where employees have rarely been a priority and are at last acting to improve their lot.

They won’t be waiting for Congress or the President to help them out, but they’ll get round to that in due course. (Who knows, they might even get the GOP on board… one day). Until employment regulations are improved, employees will have to fight for every dollar and every guaranteed hour.

Changing the law would be so much simpler.


This Is What Obamacare Is For

The controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) or ‘Obamacare’ has had most of its provisions in effect since the New Year, and the past months have seen a massive expansion in health insurance coverage across the American population. Although many Americans are suspicious of anything resembling ‘Big Government’ and the Republicans have made political capital out of the technical failures that affected the scheme, the benefits of Obamacare are beginning to be felt by the population. Soon, it will become politically impossible to return to the bad old days of the profiteering, shady and unregulated healthcare market.

Yes, the ACA is a pale reflection of the ‘ideal’ system (business should have no place at all in healthcare, for example) and its coverage is patchy, as individual states can vary the extent to which they implement it. However, one key provision is universal, namely the rule that health insurers can no longer charge higher premiums, or refuse coverage, to those with pre-existing medical conditions. The unjust situation in which those suffering from long-term illness were often financially crippled by bills they could not insure themselves against is pretty much a thing of the past. About time too. A rich society like the US which can afford to support the sick but chooses not to is not a healthy one as a whole.

In the news, we now hear heartwarming stories of low-paid and unemployed Americans being able to visit GPs (‘family doctors’) for the first time. Previously, the only occasion on which they ever saw a doctor would have followed life-threatening injury. As any medical professional or economist could tell you, there are enormous benefits to having diseases treated before they reach emergency stages, in terms of the patient’s wellbeing but also in that they can keep working and have less expensive treatment.

Moreover, I can’t imagine the relief that millions of newly insured Americans must feel now that they have a degree of security. When a person needs medical treatment, they should not have to worry about the cost. People were being scraped off of pavements by ambulances and worrying about the five-figure bill that would result, rather than than the painful injuries they had suffered. The fact that it only takes one accident to cost you, literally in many cases, everything you own isn’t something you can ever forget or ignore. It was just one more dimension to the emotional and mental drag that affects those living hand to mouth. That’s why Obamacare is one of the most progressive measures taken in the US for decades: it has lifted such a burden from so many people.

President Obama was open about his desire the ACA to be his defining act at the helm of the US government. For all its limitations, its a fine legacy to leave.

Invitation to Buy American Politic$

American political parties burn through campaign funds at an astounding rate. A nuclear arms race of rallies, aircraft and (above all) advertising between Republicans and Democrats and their associated political action committees has turned election campaigns into a multibillion dollar business. All that money has to come from somewhere, and it could hardly be raised from the general public. Corporations, lobby groups and the uber-rich are courted by both main parties as their money is essential to winning elections.

In the 1970s, Congress voted through legislation to curb the worst excesses of this system, which gives formidable political influence to a small group of people. The logic was, if both parties had to raise funds from a broad coalition of donors, they would be impossible to buy. I’m sure some of the organisations and individuals who write seven figure cheques to political parties have no ulterior motive. But most do not give that kind of money without expectation of some benefit in return. Why else would Democrats and Republicans alike be so feeble in their defence of the American people against corporate excesses?

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court struck down one of the last planks of the 1970s legislation. The overall cap on donations to political parties at $3,000,000 per year has gone, as judges voted 5-4 that the law breached the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. Following the Citizens United case, in which limits on spending by political action committees were lifted, this marks the descent of American politics into “one dollar, one vote”.

Freedom of speech is a noble idea, one that could not be further from the shady, corrupting nature of big money politics.

If the Establishment wanted to, they could impose a European-style party funding system tommorow. Tight limits on campaign expenditure and individual donations would be introduced, whilst political action committees would be regulated too. The multibillion race for advertising slots would be replaced with a balanced allocation of free party election broadcasts. Both parties would continue to have equal exposure, but with the difference that they both spend in the tens of millions rather than the billions. If the establishment were determined to clean up politics, they could do this. If the law violates some right-wing judges’ interpretation of the Constitution, then it could be amended- with cross party support, that can be done easily.

But the truth is, the parties do not sell themselves to the highest bidder reluctantly, as an unpleasant necessity of staying in the electoral game. The majority of America’s high level politicians are content with the status quo, and will allow their country to drift further under undemocratic influence if left unchecked. It’s not a plot, but it’s a trend that we’re all vaguely aware of.

Vague concern won’t solve it, though.

GOP Abandons Economic Blackmail

In an extraordinary turn of events in Washington DC yesterday, the House of Representatives passed an increase in the Federal debt ceiling without pushing America to the brink.

The Republican party has abandoned its policy of trying to blackmail the Democrat administration into approving savage budget cuts, using the threat of blocking any rise in the debt ceiling. After the events of last year, the American public has grown less tolerant of this form of blackmail that depends on the threat of bankrupting the federal government. Republican leaders realise that the public have looked into the eyes of the Tea Party congresspeople during the government shutdown and were terrified by the lack of limits they felt. Indeed, it almost seemed as if the rabid right wanted to drag the federal government to the abyss… and then throw it over. That doesn’t make for good election result for your party.

Accordingly, the Republican Party has conceded a bill that will allow government finances to run smoothly for a whole year. Well, I say “conceded”: over 200 of the 435 HoR members voted against the bill, so only a small section of the GOP actually backed its leadership’s moderate policy.

The Republican Speaker said:

Obama will n

ot engage in our long term spending problem. So let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that [Obama] wants.

The US does have a financial problem. It is running a budget deficit of $512 (£310) billion and a national debt of $17.2 (£10.4) trillion. However, it is uniquely placed, as the issuer of the world’s reserve currency, and the richest country (in terms of GDP and GNP) to be able to comfortably sustain a much larger debt than other countries. However, it is only prudent for a growing economy to look to balance taxation and public spending, and ideally pay down its debts. But one cannot eliminate a half-trillion deficit quickly in an economy still dependent on monetary stimulus. But most importantly, it’s a revenue, not a spending, problem that the US government has. Reagan, Clinton and the Bush presidents have all been complicit in the reduction of taxation to unsustainably low levels. By contrast, I think there are few parts of the federal government, other than the military, that are guilty of overspending. There is little to cut. Imagine how much the deficit could be reduced by if the top rate of income tax was increased from 35% to 45% in a country with the largest number of millionaires?

The Republicans genuinely don’t want to see the consequences of proper engagement with deficit reduction.

The World This Week: Buses, Food Stamps and Polls

Opposition-leaning news channel “shut down”

TV Dozhd is to be dropped by the last of Russia’s major satellite broadcasters after it ran a controversial poll that prompted a boycott. The poll, ran two weeks ago, asked Russians if they thought that Leningrad- as it was then known- should have been surrendered to the Nazis to prevent the casualties that occurred during the blockade of the city. Following the public outcry, the anti-Kremlin channel was removed by all major TV services from their listings, despite an apology from the channel. TV Dozhd has said that it will attempt to keep broadcasting over cable and its website, though it admits that a small audience would render it financially unviable.

US cuts food stamps to raise farming subsidies

The US Senate has approved a bill that will fund enhanced subsidies for agriculture at the expense of 850,000 families who will have their food stamp eligibility (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme- SNAP) cut. This follows a $5 billion cut to the value of SNAP payments in November. Both Republicans and Democrats argue that the bill will reduce fraud by both SNAP claimants and farmers by altering the eligibility criteria for federal assistance. However, some 32 senators from left and right rebelled against party leaders, dissatisfied with either the reduction in support for poor Americans or a further rise in massive farm payments.

Cambodia reintroduces buses

Residents of Phnom Penh are benefiting from a one month trial of air-conditioned public buses in an attempt by authorities at reducing traffic in the capital. The city, which has as many motorcycles as people, says that it hopes to expand its 1,500 riel (23p) per ride bus service, provided that they can create sufficient demand for it. A previous attempt at introducing buses failed in 2001 due to a lack of passengers, though issues of congestion have become much more chronic in the intervening years. The current trial is being funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Turkey introduces tight Internet restrictions

Turkey’s parliament has approved legislation branded as a “threat to democracy” by opposition leaders. The legislation does bear alarming similarity to plans previously drawn up by UK authorities, with Internet Service Providers obliged to keep a record of their users Internet activities for two years and the granting of the power to the state telecommunications authority to block any website without court approval. At present, the Turkish government has banned over 40,500 websites, and the rate at which they are blocked is increasing even without the new legislation. Turkish PM Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has adopted a hardline approach to the Internet after Twitter shaped anti-government protests last year- he called the microblogging website a “menace to society”.

Vision for regenerated Caracas unveiled

A £700 million project for a new university, upgraded bus infrastructure, sports stadia, and a large public park is to be undertaken over the next 5 years in honour of the late socialist President, Hugo Chavez, it has been announced. The project is part of a drive to restore the fortunes of the Venezuelan capital. The fortunes of Caracas have mirrored that of the rest of the country in recent years, with surges in corruption and dilapidation of communities undermining the “Bolivarian” political and economic system that originally raised living standards and quality of life.

Egypt’s military chief to run for Presidency

Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the general who overthrew Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government, has said that he will be a candidate in the upcoming Presidential election. Al-Sisi has been running Egypt since the coup last July, and is responsible for the crackdown on independent media and opposition groups of recent months, including the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it is unclear if this has damaged his standing with the Egyptian people, who ratified his proposed new constitution with 98% of votes out of a 36% referendum turnout. Al-Sisi reportedly said in an interview: “Yes, it has been decided [for me to run] , I have no choice but to meet the demands of the Egyptian people. I will not refuse this request.”

Obama is in an Impossible Position

Barack Obama gave his 6th State of the Union (SOTU) address to the people of the United States yesterday. He gave the speech in the knowledge that he is about as unpopular as he has ever been, and that he has precious little time to change his country any further before he enters the “lame duck” phase of two term presidencies.

Of course, Mr Obama cannot win, for the American electorate is a cruel creature. It swept Mr Obama to power under the weight of undeliverable expectations, then two years later it deprived the Democrats of the House of Representatives majority that they needed to pass the legislation for reform. Not only that, but voters have spent the four years since complaining that the moderate politician (to whom they denied a legislative majority) has failed to transform the United States. But note the suspicion and hostility that greeted Obama’s most important reform, Obamacare, even from Democrat voters.

It is tempting to think that Barack Obama is powerless to make the American public happy. Certainly, there is very little he could plausibly do unless he builds a majority in both houses of Congress. If he does, he can cut through the paralysis that plagues his administration in what should be its prime years of activity.

But that’s not the message that Obama wanted to send us yesterday. He was stressing that he is still alert to the problems that are affecting the United States, in particular that of the chronic inequality that continues to grow across the West. Obama says he’ll do what he can by bypassing Congress, such as by imposing a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour for all new federal employees. It is roughly equivalent to the UK National Minimum Wage- not a liveable rate, but a lot closer to it. Indeed, the whole policy is very limited in scope, but in all fairness it is a good start, about as much as Obama can do without Congress. Another thing that he can do, and plans to do by the next SOTU speech, is to close the authoritarian and disturbing scar on America’s libertarian ideals that is Guantanamo Bay.

Does that sound familiar? That’s because the same thing was said 5 years ago. So you’ll excuse my scepticism.

I make no secret of the fact that my politics are hardly a match for Obama’s. But I do wish him success in his aims, and hope he will get the powers he needs to implement long overdue “change we can believe in”.

State Legislatures Finish Where Obama Left Off

Britain is one of the most centralised nations in the world. Though we’ve embraced a form of quasi-federalism with devolution to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures, the idea of strong regional government, as exists in the United States, is one that we’re not used to. It doesn’t help that there is plentiful coverage of federal affairs in the world news pages of our newspapers, but virtually nothing on the states, despite the huge power that they wield.

Consequently, we read of the Tea Party, the paralysis of Congress and the blandness of Democratic politics and conclude that the United States is letting itself down with a stale political system that is bound by crushing economic and social conservatism. To whatever extent that is true of Washington DC, you cannot say that of all the states, some of which are pioneers in tolerance and social development. I’ve discussed some of this in America’s New Social Liberalism. However, since I wrote that article a year and a half ago I’ve heard of Colorado and Washington adopting a no-nonsense, rational policy on drug legalisation, Washington (again) instituting a minimum wage that is above the Living Wage. I’ve read about Alaska- Sarah Palin’s political playground- and it’s long running citizen’s dividend scheme.

Admittedly the latter is a modest bribe for Alaskans to accept the destruction of one of the most beautiful environments on Earth in order to to drill oil, but I’m impressed with the progressiveness (if that is a word!) of the measure, which could easily be replicated with general taxation.

There’s more: In a very exciting move, the state of Verm0nt is introducing a single-payer system for healthcare, something that goes much further than Obamacare and much closer to what is actually needed. If it is a success, pressure for a single-payer system accross the United States will grow.

Just as in the UK, we are using Labour, nationalist, Independent and (supposedly) Green councils as our immediate line of defence against the most brutal policies of the Coalition government, it is within the power of Democratic, and even moderate GOP state legislatures to defend their people even as right-wing extremism poisons Congressional politics. 

In both countries, we know that such successes are vastly outnumbered by councils and states moving in the wrong direction. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way, provided that movements can be mobilised in the pursuit of radical and meaningful social change. That means being prepared to “think the unthinkable”, and occasionally finding oneself out of the mainstream. In local and regional politics, the mainstream is a whole lot easier to shape than it appears.

FLASHBACK: Good Luck to the Walmart Strikers!

Originally published on 23rd November 2013.

In the United States today, there is a large group of ordinary workers is standing up to world’s largest, and probably most prolific, corporate giant. Walmart represents some of the worst excesses of globalised capitalism; it has depressed wages, introduced draconian working conditions, forced governments into offering subsidies, moved thousands of jobs to the developing world where they can behave in an even worse manner, shirked its responsibilities as an employer, destroyed local businesses, and driven down the quality of the products it sells.

Today, a large number of American Walmart employees are striking for wages higher than $8 (£5), working weeks of 30 hours and not 27.5 (In the US, employers need to provide health cover to employees who work 30 hours or longer) and to generally be treated as human beings rather than units to be exploited. Today is Black Friday, when shopping will be at its maximum after Thanksgiving, so this strike will be short and sharp.

Walmart has up until now been relatively successful at marginalising trade unions, which present a major block to the corporation swelling its profits in yet another way. Many people have grumbled at how Walmart employees are forced to work reduced hours for miniscule pay, but the threat of being cast into the privatised disaster that represents the American social security system has been enough for the supermarket giant to divide and rule. Even now, when unions have dodged the legal barriers to their existence and industrial action, Walmart is alleged to have illegally lent on employees to not take part in the strike.

Globalisation all too often works against the people. Bankers and manufacturers, amongst others, constantly demand deregulation, tax cuts, dilution of the workforce’s rights and representation, and seemingly the world on a silver platter, or, we are told, they will cheerfully relocate to dodgy tax havens or shady developing countries. And until we make our governments get their acts together, that is going to be a major barrier to social justice. Is it not time we tried broadening protests to the globalised world in which our problems exist?

Walmart is a prime example. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’re in the UK, the US or Canada, in all of which Walmart operates. (In the UK, it trades as ASDA) As with Barclays colluding with the apartheid regime in South Africa, pressure on subsidiaries, and not just the parent company, is key.

It is not acceptable for working people in the world’s most prosperous country to find themselves without affordable healthcare, to be on poverty wages, and for this to be sustained by a highly profitable and influential business which contributes so little to society. I have therefore donated sponsored a striker (search “Our Walmart” for more information) and will write to ASDA informing them that I will try to divert as much custom away from them as possible until Walmart delivers a fair deal to all of its workers around the world.

If the likes of Walmart won’t deliver justice now, then it’s only a matter of time until the people make them via the ballot box.

FLASHBACK: How Many More Massacres Until Action is Taken?

Originally published on 15th December 2012.

The world was shaken by yesterday’s news that yet another school massacre has taken place in the United States- this time a 20 year old man who shot 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school (which does not match the Columbine tragedy in which it was teenagers shooting their classmates). The tragedy as attracted sympathy from people worldwide, and President Obama was clearly emotional when delivering a short statement to the press on the matter yesterday evening.

Whilst such mass, indiscriminate shootings are not exclusive to the United States, it is apparent that the US suffers from these on a regular basis compared with the rest of the world. Gun crime is astronomically high by international standards, and gun ownership is tolerated to a much greater extent in American society. In a country in which bullets can be picked up at the local supermarket- and a quick look on Walmart‘s website (have a look on, and search for guns) indicates that the same is true of guns themselves- the normalisation of fatal weaponry must have some affect on the psyche of some individuals within it. That is why I will join with what I think is the silent majority of Americans in wanting major reform of gun ownership laws.

Every time there is a massacre like the one that the world saw yesterday, many on the liberal wing of political opinion will call for restrictions on gun ownership. Unfortunately, they lack the influence or indeed the financial firepower of the creepy National Rifle Association and associated gun lobby, and so the matter is forgotten about within a few weeks. This is a pattern which cannot continue, for the human cost is too great. True, not everybody who owns firearms is a mass-murderer. But why give so many people the means to do so?

Why Shouldn’t Gun Controls Be Tightened?

  • The majority of gun owners have no intention of breaking the law, so they are entitled to their freedom

True. But those who own a gun clearly have the capability of hurting or killing somebody or some animal for some reason. If hundreds of dead children and thousands of murder victims every year is the cost of providing false peace of mind to people who don’t use the guns in the first place (and if they are, that presents an issue in itself) then it’s time we struck a balance between people’s freedom to own lethal weaponry and others’ freedom to not be slaughtered.

  • It isn’t fair to punish the majority for a small minority abusing their rights

That principle is generally a sound one. But it isn’t a punishment; it’s always been a bad idea to make devastating lethal weaponry freely available to the general public. If gun owners are genuinely responsible in their actions, then we are taking nothing away from them. They didn’t shoot people before and they would now lack the ability to.

  •  Gun controls would take away a crucial means of self-defence

Nonsense. Firstly, when the police have manpower freed up from having to deal with gun crime, they will provide a more effective response to crime and crime prevention in the first place. Secondly, self-defence should be non-lethal in almost all circumstances. And what is the greater threat to the public: a high number of firearms acting as a catalyst for violence, or an environment in which the weaponry available does not enable long-range injury?

  •  Our liberty would be threatened if the government controlled gun ownership

Frankly, the idea that a 21st century western superpower could be allowed to become a dictatorship, and that an armed  militia could restore democracy, is laughable. Besides, who’s liberty is threatened? That of the general public, or the gun-owning minority? The dangers of vigilantism are greater in the US than those of a dictatorship.

  •  Britain has tight firearms regulation, but criminals still get hold of guns                                                                                                       
  • This is true, but gun crime is very low by international standards. The general public can feel a lot safer in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be affected by gun crime.                    

Peace In Iran

The world is saved! Iran has been talked out of its diabolical plot to develop nuclear weaponry by stealth!

Well, sort of. The efforts of negotiators in Geneva seem to have yielded a handsome dividend, with Iran agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment technology to render the production of weapons grade radioactivity impossible. In exchange, many of the sanctions which have isolated the country- except those on oil and the financial sectors- will be lifted. Both sides claim success in the negotiations, but it is really a classic compromise. Iran can retain its nuclear energy projects (though goodness knows why!) whilst the West can say that they’ve prevented Iran becoming a nuclear power.

Of course, there is a high element of trust needed to make the agreement work. International sanctions can be reestablished within days, so Iran will be very wary of the West. On the other hand, Iran has a long history of misleading UN weapons inspectors, and there is little to stop the government secretly breaking its promise to the world. Neither side is pointing their gun at the other any more, but they haven’t put the guns away either. It’s a dodgy situation, but it’s a thousand times better than the alternatives.

The “War on Terror” brigade was agitating for another war in the Middle East. When Tony Blair says that somewhere should be invaded before they acquire weapons of mass destruction, it should set alarm bells ringing in the non-warmonger, international law observers amongst us. Similarly, that the government of Israel has attacked the deal strikes me as a good sign, in a way. Given the state of relations between the hardline Israeli government and its similarly hardline Arab neighbours, I favour a more delicate approach. I’m still at a loss as to the justification for Israel’s nuclear arsenal, but then I speak as a British citizen, albeit a unilateralist one.

There is some concern that the Iranian deal was reached in parallel with the official negotiations in Geneva, between the President of Iran and the US’ Deputy Secretary of State (i.e. deputy foreign minister). It’s unclear to what extent that’s true, but I think that it’s an irrelevance. That’s exactly the kind of ‘malarkey’ that happens at these grand conferences and summits. It’s just a fact of diplomatic life. However irritating it may be, can we not be glad that there is one less risk to the safety and prosperity of the Middle East today?