Who are these people? Why are they so angry? What do they want? How can we make them go away?

2016-04_HightowerLowdown-SherwinAlumna

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

This is the perplexed wail of America’s entrenched corporate/politico establishment that has long had both major parties comfortably in hand. Indeed, the old-line clique of political funders, officials, and operators had arranged a politics-as-usual Hillary-Jeb! presidential matchup. The candidates would reflect the usual Repub v. Dem policy differences, but neither would generate excitement, much less ruffle the feathers of the corporate order.

But–whoa! The Royal Caretakers of the Status Quo have been discombobulated by a sudden rush of impassioned, tumultuous multitudes into the anti-establishment campaigns of Donnie Trump and Bernie Sanders. The entrenched Powers That Be are dismayed that these campaigns, which they dismissed as jokes, have tapped into a seething public fury and drawn fervent support from a baffling menagerie of outsiders. Astonished, the comfortable classes ask: Where did this raucous and rowdy riffraff come from?

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Oh, the irony

Jack Nicholson dryly noted that his mother once called him a son of a bitch–and didn’t comprehend the irony.

Likewise, the aloof corporate and political powers frantically trying to block the unruly malcontents who’ve stormed this year’s election are oblivious to irony: They are the ones who gave birth to the mass anger that now confronts them. During the past four decades, this small and controlling group of corporate chieftains and political leaders has shoved our nation’s guiding ethic of the common good ever deeper into the closet, substituting “me” for “we.” Year after year, they’ve used their domination of corporate and public decision making to rig the rules to their own advantage–even as each twist of their wrenches further disadvantaged one group or another of regular folks. Their effort has steadily–sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes brazenly– moved money and power from the many to the few: themselves. Today’s “unAmerica” of glaring inequality and mass downward mobility is the direct product of their wrenching the system with such power tools as “free” trade agreements union busting defunding public services downsizing offshoring price gouging Citizens United privatization the Wall Street bail- out student debt tax dodging criminalization of poverty militarization of police … and so god-awful much more.

So today’s clueless ruling class of corporate and governmental elites should not have to wonder where “those” people came from, or why their smoldering anger has exploded into a fiery new politics that’s reshaping both political parties. The answers are right there in those policy dots. Each one represents another intentional hollowing out of America’s middle class and the evisceration of our nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all. Hello–that’s enough to make you mad (in both meanings of the word)!

Those who’ve entrenched themselves atop the politics-as-usual system have become so aloof from working-class reality that they’ve lost sight of the people who’re paying the price. But those exploited by the policies are now clearly seeing the elites for who they are and what they’re doing. And that’s why they’re crashing the party, using Sanders and Trump as their battering rams.

The establishment lashes back

Instead of comprehending the public rage, the established powers lash out at the intruders. Their conventional wisdom (endlessly parroted by the conventional media) is that the hordes of blue-collar voters, young people, independents, and others surging into the two outsider presidential campaigns are either naive, unrealistic, selfish, stupid, ignorant, racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, fascist, or some combination of the above. Of course, such characteristics can be found among every campaign’s supporters, but smearing an insurgency of millions as nothing but airheads and haters only reveals the desperation of the smearers.

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Take Trump’s campaign. Yes, he has recklessly fanned the embers of hate, belittling Muslims, the disabled, Latino immigrants, women, Spanish-language reporters, and his catchall category of “losers”–all while reveling in the role of outlandish, boorish autocrat. Therefore, pundits and the GOP’s big shots conclude, his appeal and his supporters are racism personified. End of discussion. Yet in addition to railing about walling off Mexico and banning Muslim refugees, Trump speaks about NAFTA, runaway corporations, and our “stoopid” leaders who’ve turned their backs on American manufacturing and the struggling families who count on those good jobs–and that’s what many of his working-class supporters say they’re responding to.

Sanders, too, is winning phenomenal support from a similar constituency, and he’s winning an amazing 70-85 percent of 17 to-30-year-old voters. Like Trump, he’s hammering the pampered rich who disdain and discard the working class, but in a very different way: He’s also offering a renewed, uplifting, Rooseveltian vision of an “America for All,” not just for billionaires.

The real story, however, is not about the two maverick candidates, but about the waves of ordinary people who’ve created and lifted their campaigns. They embody and give voice to the millions wrecked by Wall Street greed in the 2008 crash, who were left out of the widely ballyhooed “recovery,” and who now realize that they’re not included in the elite’s laissez-faire schemes of future American prosperity. These voters are hurting today, distressed about tomorrow, and fed up with the two-party indifference to “people like us.” They are the reason the Bernie and Donnie phenomena are not just 2016 flare-ups, but– in the words of Sanders’ clarion call–“a political revolution.” Even though Republican elites are scrambling to block Trump’s voters with a brokered convention this summer, and even though the Democrats’ elites are counting the 700-plus unelected “superdelegates” (handpicked by the party hierarchy) to give Sanders the bum’s rush, their ploys will only stoke the fires of the newly politicized outsiders. No matter what happens this year to Sanders and Trump, the people are not going away.

There are three big reasons the working class rebellion is likely to keep building:

(1) The two parties are clear that they will not significantly change their corporate-controlled structures and policies, so the only choice for millions of disrespected and disenfranchised Americans is either to accept having no voice over policies that are crushing them or to keep growing the democracy movement.

(2) The remarkable strength Sanders and Trump supporters have quickly amassed shows that outsiders actually can barge in, be heard, and make a difference even at the presidential level, inspiring them and others to keep coming.

(3) And far from slacking off . . . the corporate assault on decent jobs, democratic rights, and middle-class opportunities is being escalated and globalized, hitting more and more families with a new level of devastation (much of it from far-removed, foreign-based multinational corporations) that can only be countered by organizing and mobilizing grassroots political power.

Introducing Glencore, rapacious global lord

Giant corporate entities have become so far-flung and impersonal that “human relations” departments have been created within the soulless structures to cloak the fact that there’s really nothing human about them. “HR” is mostly known for sending the corporate rank and file peppy motivational memos that boil down to: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

The beatings of American workers (wage slashing, axed benefits, union busting, mass firings, offshored factories, and brutish abuse of worker rights) have been increasing in frequency, intensity, and scope–mostly ordered by CEOs in the posh, faraway headquarters of multi-tentacled global empires. These detached autocrats are wrecking the lives of hardworking people for no reasons but institutional greed, calculated self-interest … and because our corporate-coddling government lets them get away with it. Let’s meet one of the most powerful of these lords of rapacious global capitalism–Glencore.

Never heard of Glencore? Neither had I until February, when I visited some members of the United Steelworkers Union (USW) outside a Glencore-owned aluminum plant on the Texas Gulf Coast. More about these workers later, but first let’s travel some 5,500 miles to Baar, Switzerland. There you’ll find the sleek global headquarters of “the biggest company you never heard of,” as Reuters once dubbed Glencore.

Not merely big, it’s colossal–the tenth largest corporation in the world–with $175 billion in revenues last year, more than $2 billion in profits, and 160,000 employees in more than 50 countries on six continents. It produces and trades coal, oil, gas, metals, minerals, foodstuffs, and other commodities. Indeed, its nondescript name is an acronym for GLobal ENergy COmmodity REsources, and it owns a huge chunk of the world market for many internationally traded resources, including zinc, copper, nickel, aluminum, grain, and oil. Uniquely, Glencore combines the production and shipping of more than 90 different commodities with the entirely different, corporate culture of high-speed computer trading of commodities.

Now, let’s hail the chief, the uber-competitive and ravenous corporate dealmaker, CEO Ivan Glasenberg, whose $2.3 billion in personal wealth ranked him #301 last year on the Forbes list of the world’s 500 richest people. Since joining Glencore in 1984 as a base-level coal marketer, Glasenberg moved swiftly up the executive ladder to become “the savviest trader on the planet” (Globe and Mail). He dines with prime ministers and hobnobs with oligarchs, relentlessly pushing acquisitions, devising opaque partnerships, and gaining government favors that have made the conglomerate a dominating behemoth. But attaining, using, and holding such power in so many parts of the world can be, well, “untidy,” and both the conglomerate and its chief are smudged with such uglies as these:

Corruption of officials and severe human rights violations by executives of Cerrejon, an open-pit coal mining operation partly owned by Glencore. Charges include Cerrejon security forces expropriating entire villages to expand mines and, with Columbian paramilitary units, driving a Wayuu tribe off its land in what the native people called a “massacre.”

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Glencore’s Luilu cobalt and copper refinery unleashing a three-year-long uncontrolled waterfall of acid waste into a river.

Refusing to rehire former union employees at Glencore’s Collinsville coal mine in Australia, then evicting the union families from company housing, with devastating impacts on the community.

Cooking the books to evade taxes that its partially owned Mopani Copper Mines owed the people of Zambia, and letting pollution flow uncontrolled from the same mines, causing health problems for five million neighboring people.

Permanently shuttering Glencore’s Columbia Falls aluminum plant in Montana last year after 1,500 laid-off workers and local officials had, at the urging of the corporation, produced a viable plan to reopen it. Then refusing to reach a fair severance deal with USW members, some of whom had been with the plant for three decades. Also, opposing EPA’s designation of the contaminated factory site for a Superfund cleanup, claiming that this would devalue its property–even though a Superfund project would create jobs and benefit the community. Brian Doyle, president of the local steelworkers union in Columbia Falls, summed up the corporation’s attitude: “To Glencore, we’re just a number. They don’t know who we are, and they don’t care.”

Global greed meets Steelworker steel

Down on the Gulf Coast, just across the bay from Corpus Christi, you can pick up State Highway 361 in Gregory, Texas, and take it to the Sherwin Alumina plant, where union workers have processed bauxite ore into aluminum products (used in everything from airplanes and carpets to deodorant and antacids) since 1953. At the plant entrance, a corporate billboard proudly proclaims Sherwin’s “Core Values,” including Integrity and Teamwork.

"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower


Longtime workers told me that those virtues once bore some relationship to Sherwin’s actual labor practices. Reynolds Metals built and operated the plant from 1953 to 2001, when Alcoa Aluminum took it over and then spun off Sherwin into a private consortium called BPU Reynolds. In 2007, Glencore bought Sherwin from BPU and promptly installed one of its employees as de facto CEO. He reported directly to the Swiss hierarchy, literally distancing the “new” Sherwin from both its workforce and the community.

Sure enough, Teamwork and Integrity were soon escorted out of the building, and workers quickly sensed that bosses in Baar viewed them as an accounting cost, not an asset. During the first Glencore contract with USW’s Local 235A (2011-2014), the 5.6 percent wage increase was devoured by 7.8 percent inflation. Facing expiration of the contract at the end of September 2014, the two parties had been bargaining since July. On October 1, however, bargaining was abruptly shoved aside by a corporate dictate: Glencore executives threw a take-it-or-leave-it stink bomb on the table that (1) froze wages for 80 percent of workers for 5 years; (2) eliminated a key part of overtime pay; (3) tripled the employee share of healthcare premiums and raised out-of-pocket costs; (4) harshly cut medical and drug coverage for early retirees; and (5) eliminated pensions for new hires, leaving all future Sherwin workers with no retirement benefits, no disability protections, and nothing for surviving spouses when a worker/retiree dies.

Welcome to the new Global Corporate Order, imposed in this case by an arrogant, rich, Swiss-based profiteer reaching across one ocean and half a continent to sledgehammer a small group of proudly productive, middle-class Texas steelworkers. At the time, Glencore had just banked a $4.6 billion profit, and Sherwin itself was profitable; it’s production costs were among the lowest of global aluminum producers, and its workforce was skilled and efficient. Yet, from out of the blue, Swiss sky came this lightning bolt.

“No!” declared Local 235A. On October 10, a whopping 98 percent of the union’s 455 members rejected Glencore’s kiss-off while offering to keep working under the existing contract if bargaining continued. But the global giant responded–BAM!–by slamming the factory door, locking out the Steelworkers, and replacing them with “independent contractors.”

Sherwin Alumina is an infinitesimal bit of Glencore’s worldwide portfolio, and treating these workers right (or even generously rewarding their proficiency), would not cause a blip on the conglomerate’s bottom line. Rather, this was a bellowing of the bull to show who was boss. Glencore and CEO Glasenberg were asserting global corporate hegemony over tiny Gregory, Texas, to prove that it can bully and dominate American workers, a major American union, and the sovereign people of an American town, forcing them to accept whatever raw deal the conglomerate dictates.

But the bullies were unprepared for the rebellious and determined spirit of the Americans. Even though the national media are oblivious to what’s happening in Gregory, and even though state officials, Congress critters, and national government have done nothing to stand up for the workers, the local people and the USW union are making a remarkable stand for themselves.

I met about 50 of them in late February when five of us political and union activists drove three hours from Austin to the plant to learn about the lockout and show support for Local 235A. Since October 2014, the members, their families, and area backers have maintained a protest picket, ironically situated right across from that billboard expressing Sherwin’s core corporate values.

The tenacity and feistiness of the union members are impressive. Under our country’s anti-labor labor laws, the picket site has to be occupied by USW members 24 hours a day, every day of the week, or the workers lose it. Remarkably, these out-of-work Texas Steelworkers have stood their ground, keeping their picket going for more than a year and a half!

This is an inspiring bunch. They’ve been locked out at their jobs and replaced, yet they’re still battling for justice with union actions and lawsuits. And spirits are high. The day of our visit, we were offered helpings from a big pot of local-catch seafood gumbo, another pot of spicy beans, and a smoker of chicken as we listened to their stories, enjoyed hearty laughs about Glencore’s absurd greed, and did some upbeat speechifying and old-time labor bonding. I can tell you this good news: The attempt by the haughty executives of this multinational conglomerate to break the morale of Local 235A is not working. In fact, the corporation’s abusive ploys have backfired, intensifying the Steelworkers’ resolve to reject the rank unfairness and authoritarianism of would-be corporate conquerors.

What began as a local labor conflict has become a symbolic stand against all global corporate elites who adopt oligarchic rule and anti-worker thuggishness as corporate rights. This gutsy group of 455 steelworkers and their families is not going away, for they’re standing up for fundamental democratic principles, not only for themselves but also for you, me, and workaday people everywhere.

The storm builds

What’s happening to USW and the community of Gregory is now considered normal in the boardrooms of multinational powerhouses. Hundreds of people here, thousands more over there, and untold numbers elsewhere are finding themselves knocked down and shoved out, without getting honest explanations.

There’s nothing like experience, however, to bring clarity to the who, what, and why of inequality and injustice. From NAFTA forward, the corporate, political, media, and academic elites have assured us that “globalization” and “free trade” are miraculous elixirs, economic theories that magically produce win-wins for everyone. But Glencore is not theory–it’s the brutish face of corporate globalization’s reality.

So the question has moved from “What’s happening” to “Where the hell are our political leaders, and why aren’t they acting to protect the people from these feral, multinational invaders?”

Of course we know the answer: money. In our country, deep-pocketed corporatists have taken such tight ownership over government that our so-called leaders don’t even pay attention when this Swiss conglomerate rampages over people in Texas, Montana, and elsewhere. Far from rallying to the people’s side, our president and mainline Republican lawmakers have been scheming to permanently strengthen the rapaciousness of the Glencores by passing that plutocratic wet dream called the Trans-Pacific Partnership!

That’s why the rebellion is on. Sanders and Trump are only the current messengers. The message itself is that We, the Grassroots People, now see that we’re being sold out to the Glencores by our own leaders. Like the distant rumble of thunder, the boisterous uprising of outsiders in this year’s presidential election signals the approach of a historic storm.

COMING SOON:

Glencore/Sherwin is far from the only corporation stomping on American workers. The air conditioner maker, Carrier, and the giant processed-food peddler, Nabisco, are both in the process of closing American plants and moving jobs to Mexico, where wages are much lower. We’ll be covering those underreported stories in a future issue of the Lowdown. Look for it!


DO SOMETHING!

THE ASSAULT ON AMERICA’S MIDDLE-CLASS JOBS IS ONGOING. If the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership is ratified, we’ll see more middle-class jobs shipped overseas. See the Tufts University study of how the TPP will hurt even the lowest paid workers in our global economy: www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/policy_research/TPP_simulations.html).

Though protecting America’s middle-class and working-class jobs is not an easy task, several good groups are working on it. Among them, the Steelworkers union (www.usw.org) is cited in the story above. Workers who are not unionized can look to Working America (www.workingamerica.org) as a resource. Working America helps provide a voice for working people on “commonsense issues of economic justice,” challenging “the corporate agenda across the nation.”

The Alliance for American Manufacturing (www.americanmanufacturing.org) focuses on implementing policies that could strengthen American manufacturing in America. It provide excellent reports on the state of US manufacturing jobs.

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