Steve Early’s book “Refinery Town”, reviewed


For many non-residents, Richmond, CA was long an East Bay city that you drove through, fast, without stopping. It was close but far away, a place where bad things happened, seemingly, on a daily basis.

Most people knew Richmond for its steaming, menacing refinery or its gang killings. It was a muscular, hard-scrabble working class city, quite the counterpoint to more bohemian Berkeley or San Francisco. It was a corrupt place, a company town with all its mean trappings.

Sometimes, as a visitor from Berkeley, I would find my way to the old Baltic bar/restaurant in Pt. Richmond, to listen to blues. Yet the short drive over was, at night, almost mysterious. Richmond was an “exotic” place of “others’ and otherness compared to its immediate neighbors.

Steve Early’s new book on Richmond, called Refinery Town, is an important corrective for popular misconceptions about his new hometown, and mine. I moved there five years ago, after being a University of Michigan professor working to prevent youth violence in Flint, MI, often ranked as the most violent city in the US, now infamous for city water that poisoned the poor, a place, unlike Richmond today, of little promise or hope.

In Richmond, I have been continually impressed by the level of political and community engagement that you feel through your skin, like weather – a bracing alternative vision to the, by now, all too familiar sacrifice zones peppering the rust belt(s) of the US. Early’s book is a rich political biography of this much-changed city that takes into account class, race, local organizing and a delicious “David and Goliath” story pitting “Big Oil” against a small multi-cultural, working class city.

Steve Early writes about seeing the fire at the Chevron refinery in August, 2012 – I too was here when the Chevron Refinery exploded, driving towards the dark and insistent plume, I realized that, whether I wanted to be or not, I was “involved.” Since that pivotal event, I have become active in the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), helping with getting rent control on the ballot, debating for the proposal, as well as helping run swim programs at Richmond’s wonderful public indoor pool, the Natatorium. I’ve even gone so far as to become a poet laureate for Richmond, 2017-2019. As one can see, similar to Gayle McLaughlin, current city council member and former mayor, I could not help but want to be involved in Richmond’s affairs.

Refinery Town uses the refinery explosion to anchor the book and tells of an immediacy here that many do not often experience, let alone see. “Sheltering in place” becomes a pregnant term where shelter and place can be seen as home and community, (not just an emergency procedure) and where grass-roots community action can effectively counter large corporate interests. Early, as a labor organizer and journalist is perfectly situated to capture the history and politics of a very complex setting. Indeed, Richmond is a place where the sinew and bones of US society are readily seen – heavy industry cheek by jowl with compact middle class bungalows, superfund sites, and one of the largest oil refineries in the US. Mix in a heady brew of “company town” good ole boy politics, a plucky, multi-cultural, multi-class progressive movement – the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), and the table is set.

Refinery Town episodically examines the arc of the political battle waged between the RPA and entrenched, decades old interests. We are introduced to the slow, and fraught development of what eventually became the RPA through personal stories of strife and overcoming that allows the reader to understand how the personal can transition to the (effective) political. Thus we have Gayle McLaughlin, a relative newcomer rolling up her sleeves and diving into the maelstrom of Richmond politics, eventually and cheerfully becoming mayor as part of the RPA (none of whom accept corporate donations), or Chris Magnus, the controversial police chief who championed true community based policing and community engagement, reformed the management structure and staff of the department and helped to significantly lower violent crime in the face of entrenched department backlash (ultimately spurious and expensive civil lawsuits). The office of community safety, led by Devone Boggan, also was quite involved with this violence reduction effort. Refinery Town also describes the intricacies of the rent control fight and places this discussion within a broader CA tax and housing context. Indeed, Early, similar to his strategy of making the personal political, often gives extensive context far beyond Richmond, discussing CA, other cities and national trends, the micro informing the macro and vice-versa.

To be clear, as Early discusses, Richmond was your standard issue, post-industrial, capitalist free-fire zone where “joblessness and poverty, substandard schools and housing, drug trafficking, street crime, and gang violence all contributed to one of the highest homicide rates in the country.” This was abetted by city hall corruption with the concomitant near bankruptcy, cuts in city staff and services and terrible police-community relations and police violence. Much of this, so viscerally apparent in the early “aughts” has changed for the better. And Early details how this change was due to dedicated community involvement requiring huge amounts of “sweat equity,” as it should in a perfect world. In this regard, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the book for me has to do with recounting the 2014 election where an RPA coalition won against a massive ($3,000,000) attempt by Chevron to stack the city counsel with “the old guard” in order to go back to “business as usual.” As someone who, on a daily basis endured a mailbox stuffed by Chevron-backed candidate fliers, I was immensely proud to support and work for the RPA candidates, (long story very short, they all won!). Most importantly, Steve Early provides us with an inside look at a useful counter-example, a small city that self-organized based on community engagement, persistence/sheer cussedness and a strong self-reflexive understanding of class and race, to change itself for the better, in the face of titanic countervailing forces.


About the author

Rob Lipton

I have been extensively involved in obtaining funding from NIH, the CDC and other similar agencies to investigate alcohol and health as well as spatial research on a variety of topics, including violence, tobacco and health and health equity. In this regard, I have obtained, either as a PI, co-PI or co-I, over 25 million dollars in grant funding throughout my career. In general, I am very interested in doing research that has practical public health significance. I am a spatial epidemiologist and I am expert in dealing with large, complex data sets as well as multiple data sets simultaneously. I am very good at conceptualizing and implementing research in a variety of settings: medical, public health, community and government on a variety of substantive areas. Further, I have a great deal of experience working in multiple disciplines as well as with colleagues from a wide array of fields such as sociology, criminology, geography, statistics and epidemiology. My research has been used in the community to strengthen efforts to stem underage tobacco sales in LA as well as to help more effective violence reduction in Boston. View all posts by Rob Lipton →

Comment on Steve Early’s book “Refinery Town”, reviewed

Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check |

Can ‘Berniecrats’ win in Appalachia?


This story was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a collaborative project from West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder. It’s a great site and we encourage all to take a look.

Fiery socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t win all of Appalachia in his insurgent 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On Super Tuesday, March 1, Hillary Clinton rolled in southern Appalachia, winning every county in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, as well most of eastern Tennessee. Sanders lost Virginia but won most of its Appalachian counties. Two weeks later, Clinton won Ohio and North Carolina — although Sanders won a significant block in the latter’s western corner.

As March gave way to April and May, however, the Democratic primaries moved north to New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Sanders won significant chunks of Appalachia, including every county in West Virginia. Kentucky was particularly hard-fought, with Clinton winning by fewer than 2,000 votes statewide — with the Bluegrass state’s eastern counties checkerboarded between the two candidates. Clinton’s organizational and fundraising advantages eventually carried her to the Democratic Party nomination, where she suffered defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in November.

Sanders still serves in the U.S. Senate, and his 2016 primary loss has not stopped him from maintaining a national presence which has included Appalachia. In 2017, he has made several high-profile visits to the region, including a televised town hall in McDowell County, West Virginia in March and last weekend’s anti-Trumpcare campaign swing through Pittsburgh and Charleston.

“A truly great nation is judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable people amongst us,” Sanders told a crowd of about 2,000 people in Charleston at a late June rally against a Republican bill to replace and repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

Clearly, something in Appalachia resonates with Sanders and vice versa. His continued presence in the region raises the question of whether an emerging socialist movement, especially among young people, can make a dent in the political firewall that Republicans have built here over the last two decades. Is it possible that Democrats can win elections by running farther to the left?

Jack Deskins, a Charleston, West Virginia musician for whom the 2014 Freedom Industries spill on the Elk River was a crystallizing political moment, thinks so.

“I think that in the richest nation that’s ever lived, we should have healthcare for everybody, that people should not live in abject poverty, that people should have the right to organize in their workplaces, that we should have freedom of speech without any consequences from the government, and that we shouldn’t be sending our children off to fight wars that are really rich people’s wars,” Deskins said. “You say that and everyone calls you a radical, but I don’t think it’s anything outrageous. That appealed to people in West Virginia.”

Deskins worked on the Sanders campaign and joined the Democratic Socialists of America in May 2016. After the November election, he organized the Kanawha Valley Chapter, of which he is co-chair. Nine people attended the first meeting in January; the chapter now has 26 dues-paying members, and more who attend meetings. Since Sanders announced his candidacy in 2015, the DSA’s nationwide membership has doubled to more than 19,000 people. Besides Charleston, the organization has several other Appalachian chapters.

Deskins stresses that the Kanawha Valley DSA is part of a broader patchwork of organizations devoted to progressive causes, and that collaborative action has produced results beyond the reach of any single group. They helped organize the Charleston health care rally with a dozen other group — eventually attracting Sanders as a headliner and signal booster. Deskins said that he believes grassroots organizations contributed to the political pressure that led U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to come out against the current version of the Senate healthcare bill.

While the DSA and its partners in the West Virginia Progressive Alliance are currently focused on policy and legislation in Congress and at the state level, they’re also laying the groundwork to recruit and support candidates in future elections.

“We’re doing the grind work right now” to prepare for 2018 and beyond,” said Deskins. “Number one, we’re finding candidates who are going to organize around issues that actually matter in working families’ lives things like a livable wage, like childcare, like healthcare. Number two is about voters. There are 40-50 percent, 70 percent in some counties, of people who just don’t show up for elections. We have systematic disenfranchisement of working people, and the more marginal you are, the more that’s likely to occur. It’s harder and harder for you to go vote, and it’s hard for your vote to count.”

Once candidates are recruited, they face another challenge: Winning a primary.

“Bernie Democrats” aren’t a new phenomenon in 2017 — and the ones who ran last year didn’t find great success.

Jeff Kessler, a former state legislator from Moundsville, West Virginia ran as a self-proclaimed Bernie candidate who ran for the state’s Democratic nomination in the 2016 governor’s race. On the same day that Sanders won 51 percent of votes in the Democratic presidential primary — and in fact, with the exact same set of voters — Kessler finished third, with 23 percent of the vote to fine-and-tax-owing, coal running, Joe Manchin-endorsed Democrat Jim Justice’s 51 percent.

Kessler said he lost partly due to the candidacy of former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, with whom he split the progressive vote — and partly because he was tremendously outspent.

“I didn’t envision I’d be getting a billionaire Republican coal baron thrown into the race as a Democrat,” said Kessler. “At the end of the day, it’s tough to beat money. A lot of people, particularly in Appalachia, are not as well informed or get most of their information off the television. He clobbered me.”

Shane Assadzandi is a progressive trying to effect change from within the West Virginia Democratic Party. He says the party’s conservative wing, represented by standard bearers such as Justice and former governor and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has dominated its leadership and direction to the detriment of its progressives.

“Conservative Democrats in this ‘West Virginia Democrat’ mindset have spent a lot of energy trying to suppress the progressive left-wing members of the party in the last 4-6 years,” said Assadzandi, “whether [it’s by] discouraging the voices of the activists or being selective in the candidates they back. The grassroots is definitely more progressive, without a doubt. The more conservative Democrats really don’t have a lot of the activist energy or movement behind them.”

Yet those conservative Democrats managed to win the fight in 2016’s primary elections, overtaking more progressive Sanders-esque candidates.

It wasn’t just in West Virginia. In southwest Virginia’s “Fighting 9th” congressional district, retired postal worker Bill Bunch of Tazewell County ran as the Bernie candidate but was defeated for the Democratic nomination by a conservative “Blue Dog,” who went on to get smoked 69-28 percent in November by the incumbent Republican. Undeterred, Bunch is running again this year for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

“If you put the name socialist on it, you do not have a chance,” Bunch said, “even though most of the things people really like are socialist: social security, public highways, public schools, a publicly controlled power grid. I’ve talked to people here in the party and said, ‘Listen, you don’t know how much of a socialist you really are,’ and they get all tore up over it. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Tom Perriello’s insurgent campaign to win the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor offers slightly more hope for those who identify with Sanders and the Democratic Socialists: Perriello lost statewide but he won Virginia’s Appalachian counties 60.2 percent to 39.8 percent. On the Republican side, Trump-like populist Corey Stewart also won Appalachia and fell just short of winning his party’s nomination.

Although Perriello was endorsed by Sanders, he’s not a precise gauge for that style of politics. Elected as a congressman in 2008, Perriello is as much an Obama Democrat as a Bernie Democrat. The insurgent nature of his campaign, however, as well as his populist rhetoric on class issues, made the Sanders comparison irresistible to national press following the election.

Roanoke political consultant Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who helped Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and Jim Webb attract rural voters to win statewide elections in 2001 and 2006, said Sanders appeals to voters as an angry anti-establishment populist, not as a socialist.

“I read a book called ‘Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.’ One of its components is that when times are darkest for the tribe, they will always gravitate to the meanest, toughest, loudest sonnuvabitch in the tribe,” Mudcat said. “That’s the Trump phenomenon. There’s a lot of anger out here right now, but I don’t think a socialist agenda in the long run will help Democrats — not in rural America or in Appalachia. We’re too proud. And there ain’t many voices that can preach with a loud tough voice like Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party.”

However, Scott Crichlow, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, suggests that Democrats might be wise to test some Sanders-style socialism, especially in smaller-scale legislative races.

“At the legislative level, where grassroots support can matter more easily, there is every reason to think that Berniecrats do well in several districts,” Crichlow said. “People usually vote retrospectively, not prospectively, and because of that the 2018 races are likely to be, in many places, a referendum on Trump. In that environment, with that kind of target, it may be a good year to put progressive candidates forward.”

One conundrum for Appalachian Democrats would be the question of how their platform beyond economic issues lines up with the national party and regional culture. Will candidates running on leftist economic populism run into trouble with the progressive coalition if he or she is squishy on any of the traditional social wedge issues — God, guns and gays — or on coal? Sanders caught heat for a vote on gun control, for example, while Perriello was criticized for a vote on abortion coverage. Is there a point where other issues — health care or a $15 minimum wage — trump those cultural considerations?

When the phrase “ideological purity” is used in a question during an interview with him, Mudcat scoffs.

“Politics aren’t about intellectual ideas, they’re about visceral feelings,” he said. “If the message is not in line with visceral concerns, it’s not going to work. Coal doesn’t account for all the jobs in West Virginia, but it’s the culture. Anybody attempting to attack coal or that they don’t feel is sympathetic to coal ain’t gonna make it.”

Deskins said he believes Democrats can turn healthcare and Medicaid into winning issues that will outweigh those other concerns.

“Democrats should be running on their own wedge issues and saying look, the Republicans want to take Medicaid away from your family, from your neighbors, from your friends,” Deskins said. “If you’re here in Appalachia and say you don’t know someone covered by Medicaid, that’s not true. Democrats should be using that issue like a damn cudgel and beating Republicans with it in 2018.”

Voters don’t always have coherent public policy views, and even when they do, they don’t always vote based on that. It’s not the details of public policy that win voters; it’s appealing to their gut.

“Frankly I think there’s less the Democrats could do to move the needle than there is that Republicans could do to help them move it,” said western Virginia Del. Greg Habeeb of Salem. “Let’s say we get eight years of Trump and it’s a total unmitigated disaster for western Virginia. At that point you’re not running saying, ‘I’ve got this complicated Democratic position on government services.’ You run saying, ‘They suck, vote for me.’”

That may give Sanders supporters a glimmer of hope.

“It’s a lot easier to win by simply being anti-establishment than it is to win on the basis of detailed left-leaning economic policy proposals,” Crichlow said. “Much of this country has a generations-long entrenched antipathy toward those. But that said, with the right candidate and the right message — maybe simply call for raising the minimum wage, versus a raise to $15 — and in the right environment…sure, why not? Ken Hechler politics was very popular here once. It could rise again.”


“They think we have no rights. They’re wrong.”


This piece originally ran in American Prospect Longform on June 26th 2017 and runs with permission of the author

15 June 2017: A worker votes to ratify the contract. Photo: David Bacon

Bob’s Burgers and Brew, a hamburger joint at the Cook Road freeway exit on Interstate 5, about two hours north of Seattle, doesn’t look like a place where Pacific Northwest farm workers can change their lives, much less make some history. But on June 16, a half-dozen men in work clothes pulled tables together in Bob’s outdoor seating area. Danny Weeden, general manager of Sakuma Brothers Farms, then joined them.

After exchanging polite greetings, Weeden opened four folders and handed around copies of a labor contract that had taken 16 sessions of negotiations to hammer out. As the signature pages were passed down the tables, each person signed. Weeden collected his copy and drove off; the workers remained long enough to cheer and take pictures with their fists in the air. Then they too left.

It was a quiet end to four years of strikes and boycotts, in which these workers had organized the first new farm-worker union in the United States in a quarter-century—Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ).

The union itself will not be like most others. At the ratification meeting held the previous night, many of the people packed into the hall of Mt. Vernon’s Unitarian Church spoke with each other in Mixteco. Members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia come originally from towns in Oaxaca and southern Mexico where people speak indigenous languages that were centuries old when the Spanish colonized the Americas.

“We are part of a movement of indigenous people,” says Felimon Pineda, FUJ vice president. An immigrant from Jicaral Cocoyan de las Flores in Oaxaca, he says organizing the union is part of a fight against the discrimination indigenous people face in both Mexico and the United States: “Sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. They’re wrong. The right to be human is the same.”

According to Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, an advocacy organization that helped the workers organize, “Indigenous culture plays a huge role, especially people’s collective decision-making process. The strong bonds of culture and language give the union a lot of its strength.”

Sakuma Brothers Farms hires about 450 workers every year to pick its strawberries and blueberries from June through October, in its fields in Burlington and Mt. Vernon, Washington. About half live in the local area, and half come north for the picking season from Santa Maria, Madera, Livingston, and other farm-worker towns in California. The migrants from the south live in the company’s labor camps for the duration of the work.

Almost all Sakuma workers arrived from Mexico years ago, and have been living in the United States ever since. They depend on this seasonal job picking berries for a large part of their yearly income.

In 2013, workers grew angry about a low piece rate and bad conditions in the labor camps, and protested to company managers. One was fired and told to leave the camp where his family was living. The rest of the company’s workers then stopped the harvest to get his job and housing back. In the weeks that followed they began negotiating with the farm’s owners, the Sakuma family. They elected a committee to speak for them, which became the nucleus of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

In the course of negotiations, the workers discovered that the company had recruited 78 laborers in Mexico, and brought them to the United States under the H2A visa program. These contracted workers could only work for the employer that recruits them, and could only stay for the duration of a work contract limited to several months, after which they had to return to Mexico.

“In 2013, the wages for the H2A workers were $12 an hour, and our wages were $9.37,” says Ramon Torres, one of the original strikers. “When we found that out, our first demand was that we get the same pay.”

Under the H2A program rules, employers have to show they can’t find workers in the United States before they can recruit contract workers abroad. After the 2013 picking season ended, Sakuma Farms sent letters to the workers involved in the work stoppages, saying they’d been terminated for missing work. The farm then applied to the Department of Labor for visas to bring in 479 workers—enough to replace its entire workforce.

Torres calls this a watershed moment for the workers, whose response to Sakuma’s visa request was brilliantly effective. “We wrote letters, to prove to the government that we were ready to work. When people heard that the company was saying that they couldn’t find any workers, everyone signed the letter. Everyone. We filled out 489 letters.”

After union members and supporters handed in the letters at Department of Labor offices in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the company withdrew its application. With no H2A workers to pick the berries, it was forced to rehire the strikers for the 2014 season. “That made our members even stronger in their support for the union,” Torres says. “Everyone understood then that the company wanted to replace us, and that we needed a union to protect ourselves. That made our struggle easier.”

When negotiations broke down in 2013, FUJ—resurrecting a tactic from Cesar Chavez’s efforts to organize California’s farm workers—organized a boycott of the company’s berries.

Because Torres, who hails from Guadalajara, speaks Spanish, his coworkers, many of whom only speak Mixteco, asked him to be their spokesperson during those first negotiations. Then they elected him president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Today they call him “Homie,” a joking way of saying he shares their life even if not their indigenous culture. When the company fired him in 2013, they remained fiercely loyal; Pineda even quit his own job in solidarity.

In those 2013 negotiations, Torres and the FUJ committee proposed a way to calculate the piece rate that was simpler than the company’s system, and that would produce an average wage of $12 an hour for most workers. The company began to use it. But when workers’ earnings jumped, the company discarded the new way. Over the next four years, workers then mounted work stoppages to force increases in the piece rate.

“Strikes were the easiest way for us to get the company’s attention,” Torres says. “We didn’t have any other way. And strikes helped develop people’s understanding that if we had a union contract, we’d be stronger. Even if we won an increase in the piece rate one day, the company could lower it again the next day. It was a way for us to win over the people.”

When negotiations broke down in 2013, FUJ—resurrecting a tactic from Cesar Chavez’s efforts to organize California’s farm workers—organized a boycott of the company’s berries. “At first the boycott was against Sakuma,” Torres recalls, “and we were able to get their berries taken off the shelves in the markets. Then we saw in the fields that the boxes of the berries didn’t have Sakuma’s label on them anymore. They had the Driscoll’s Berries label instead.”

As the union began boycotting Driscoll’s, it set up committees of supporters in cities in Washington, Oregon, and California. Some committees depended on students to picket stores, while others relied on support from other unions. Members and supporters of FUJ also organized a series of marches (invariably passing by Bob’s Burgers and Brew) to Sakuma’s offices, demanding that Driscoll’s acknowledge their right to better wages and a union contract.

At many of those marches, Jeff Johnson, secretary of the Washington State Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, spoke in support of the farm workers. Other unions helped. “One day the longshore union even refused to load Driscoll’s fruit onto a ship, and left it sitting on the dock,” Torres remembers.

Driscoll’s became a target of farm workers in Mexico as well. In 2015, thousands struck fields in Baja California, where a Driscoll’s subsidiary, BerryMex, is the largest berry grower. Those workers also come from indigenous towns in Oaxaca. Many Sakuma workers have family members working in Baja’s San Quintin Valley, and worked there themselves before coming to the United States. The boycotters demanded higher wages and better conditions for workers in both countries.

The alliances supporting the workers also included an organization of indigenous migrants with chapters in Oaxaca, Baja California, and California—the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB in its Spanish initials). As soon as the strike started in 2013, FIOB’s binational coordinator, Bernardo Ramirez, flew in from Oaxaca to help. His presence dramatized the strike’s importance in Mixteco and Triqui communities. After a meeting at the FIOB office in Fresno, California, the organization helped collect letters from those Sakuma workers who live in California, and travel to Washington for the harvest every year. That helped thwart the farm’s attempt to bring in H2A replacements.

In the fall of 2016, Sakuma Brothers Farms finally announced it was willing to sit down with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, if workers showed they supported the union in an election. There is no law in Washington state like that in California, establishing a process for union elections for farm workers. FUJ and its lawyers had to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with Sakuma, laying out a process for voting.

Torres and Guillen are sure that the reason why Sakuma decided to negotiate was pressure from Driscoll’s.

On September 12, 195 workers voted for the union and 58 against. The company refused to allow the votes to be counted on its property because Torres was present, and the tally was made instead on the bed of a pickup truck in a nearby schoolyard. Commenting on the scope of the communities that supported the workers’ efforts, the AFL-CIO’s Johnson called it “as much a public victory as a union victory.”

Contract negotiations then started between FUJ and Sakuma managers. The new union relied on another labor supporter, Jason Holland of the Washington Public Employees Association, a local unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers. “We’d never done this and didn’t know how to negotiate a contract,” Torres says. “But our members learned who we really were in relation to the company. And in the end we got a lot of what we wanted.”

“… if we make a little more, our children will have other possibilities. It’s not that we want to take them out of the fields, but we want them to have opportunities other children have.” Ramon Torres

Primary among the union’s gains in this new contract is the re-establishment, in effect, of the piece-rate system Torres designed four years earlier. Three workers chosen by the union will go into a field to make a “test pick” before the work starts. Depending on the amount of fruit and field conditions, a piece-rate price is then set so that an average worker can make the equivalent of at least $15 per hour. All workers are guaranteed a $12 hourly minimum.

When the system was explained at the meeting before the ratification vote, there were many questions. “It’s a complicated system and I want to understand it better,” said picker Josefina Ortiz. “I’m a slow picker, and I don’t make much. We always want the company to pay more, and the company is always trying to lower the price to make us work hard. We hope we’ll make better [wages] with this new system.”

“The most important thing for us was the wages,” Torres responded. “Our main vision for the contract was to achieve a fair wage of $15 that you could earn without killing yourself. And that was what we won.”

The implementation of any new contract is a difficult process, requiring the company to change old methods, and to recognize the authority of the union. After the first test pick following the signing of the agreement, the union had to file its first grievance, saying the process wasn’t being implemented fairly. Now, however, there is a grievance procedure in place, supplanting the workers’ previous practice of striking over rates they didn’t like.

In addition, the contract contains other protections for workers. One provision requires a just cause for any discipline—a sensitive issue given the firings that took place during the four-year campaign. Eight union representatives will be able to represent members in grievances. A seniority system will ensure that workers doing the work this year will be able to return in following years. The contract will last two years, and a labor-management committee will try to draft a retirement plan for workers by the end of that period.

FUJ members, meanwhile, are filled with ideals, starting with their own organization. Its principles for organization sound like those of radical unions throughout U.S. history. Union leaders should be workers, and the rank and file should make all decisions. No leader or staff member should have a salary higher than a worker in the fields. The union shouldn’t accumulate property and large bank accounts. “If there’s money in the union bank account after ten years, it will be given back to the members,” Torres promises. “We don’t want rich unions and poor workers.”

FUJ members’ vision extends beyond the limits of their contract and the structure of their union. They also are planning to acquire land and set up a cooperative farm. They see their union as part of a larger community, and while its members are immigrants, they are not just temporary residents. Over the past four years, Guillen especially has fought the stereotype of immigrant farm workers as transient, unskilled labor. “We’ve always felt that we are invisible people. We’re treated as disposable, and it’s time to end that,” she asserts. “We’re human beings and we’re part of the community.”

From the beginning, workers on other farms on Washington’s Pacific coast with the same dissatisfaction with low wages have talked quietly with Sakuma workers. Many share the indigenous culture of FUJ members. Sakuma Brothers Farms will now have a wage level substantially above the surrounding growers, and FUJ plans to use that to inspire other workers to set up their own independent unions, Torres says.

“That’s the priority—to raise our living standards. We know the contract will change our lives. Now, if we make a little more, our children will have other possibilities. It’s not that we want to take them out of the fields, but we want them to have opportunities other children have.”

Predicted Tomas Ramon, a member of the union negotiating committee: “Things won’t be the same as they were before. We’re a recognized union now, and everything will be different.” To make that difference real, over the next two years FUJ will have to train workers to enforce their own contract at Sakuma Brothers Farms. And to survive, the union will have to help workers organize on other ranches as well. That will require confronting the growing use of H2A workers in Washington state, whose numbers have increased from 2,000 to more than 13,000 in the last five years.

Fifty years ago, the United Farm Workers was built by thousands of farm workers in fields across California, who believed the union spoke for their needs, whether or not they were working under a union contract. Today on the Washington coast, a growing number of field laborers look at FUJ in the same way. It is a small union, with very limited resources. But if it speaks for the needs of Washington farm workers, and those who migrate north from California every season, FUJ, too, may inspire a movement far beyond its own numbers.


About the author

David Bacon

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California.He is the author of several books about migration and globalization:/The Children of NAFTA/ (University of California Press, 2004), /Communities Without Borders/ (ILR/Cornell University Press, 2006), /Illegal People –/ /How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants/ (Beacon Press, 2008), and /The Right to Stay Home/ (Beacon Press, 2013). He was a factory worker and union organizer for two decades, including several years with the United Farm Workers, the UE, the ILGWU and other unions. Today he documents the changing conditions in the workforce, the impact of the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. He belongs to the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA. View all posts by David Bacon →

Comment on “They think we have no rights. They’re wrong.”

Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check | Tagged: , , , ,

BIG SHOTS IN HAMBURG: Berlin Bulletin No. 129, July 6, 2017


Years ago the 35th US president made a speech in Germany, four words of which, in American-accented German, remain famous: “Ich bin ein Berliner!”- “I am a Berliner!” That was John F. Kennedy. Will the 45th president, soon to visit Germany’s second city, emulate him and tweet “I am a Hamburger! Wow!” Whatever he tweets, Donald Trump’s encounter with Vladimir Putin on Friday, their first ever, can have immense importance for the world, no matter what it thinks of either of them.

The giant port, known for its gales and floods, is already facing storms which have little to do with North Sea winds or waves. All kinds of important people are gathering there this week for the G-20 meeting of heads of state, and although it has no statute or mandate from any organization but itself, a lot of waves may be created.

Its hostess, Angela Merkel, has been in Berlin until now, welcoming the Chinese president and two youthful giant pandas, to be lent to the Berlin Zoo (for $1 million a year). She hopes they may help her and her Christian Democratic party win the elections in September. The pandas can’t vote, but maybe their charm will rub off on the party, overcoming the not so charming vote of nearly all Christian delegates against same-gender marriage, while all other parties voted successfully “Ja” – also for the right of adoption.

When Merkel arrives in her home town – she was born there in 1954, a genuine Hamburger – she will find a dish of mixed pickles far less charming than bamboo chewing Meng Meng and JiaoQing. It will mean a “bon jour” to the worrisome new French president, Emmanuel Macron, with his big majority in the Assemblée nationale, who seems to be copying Napoleon or Louis XVI. We may recall their fates! And maybe a sarcastic “how do you do?” to a worried Theresa May, who forfeited her majority in Parliament and hopes no one recalls the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots. Also present will be Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, whose party was swamped in a Tokyo state election; his corruption record is winning him the nickname “Dis-Honest Abe”. Erdogan of Turkey will be there too; his recent referendum victory was a sure thing after he threw thousands of people – the kind who might vote mistakenly – judges, generals, policemen, journalists and writers – out of their jobs and often into prison. Other charming guests will include Michel Temer, king of corruption in Brazil, Enrique Peña Nieto from Mexico, a rival in that race, and the equally gifted Jacob Zuma.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia decided against appearing in person, perhaps due to recent British details for a tale almost rivaling the Arabian Nights; how for decades his super-rich kingdom was the major purveyor of the most vicious distortions of Islam, whose spread of hatred is a major factor in terrorism. It has also been a top customer for British, American, German, French and other bombers, tanks or other weapons, to be used most tellingly against the children of Yemen. His presence in Hamburg might embarrass almost everyone, so it is better if he keeps to his home palaces with his entourage and harem.

Two far more numerous groups will be in Hamburg; many are already there: those coming to protest the gathering and those to protect it.

The protesters are engaged in a whole week of activities; an evening dance event, a regatta of canoes, rowboats, kayaks and rafts to temporarily block off the harbor, a series of rallies, dozens of meetings and symposia, a march of symbolically gray-clad figures, and a giant protest on Saturday, with a hoped-for attendance of somewhere near 100,000.

A broad spectrum of organizations has been planning counterdemonstrations to G-20 since it was first announced. Big protest groups like Attac, Campact and Blockupy are backing it, also the strong local LINKE party, the northern region of the German Labor Federation, some churches, agricultural groups opposed to gene manipulation and monopoly seed control, ecology groups like Greenpeace and various opponents of globalization and the deportation of refugees. Also present will be the so-called “autonomous” group, an estimated 5000 from all over Europe, noted for masked conflicts with the police, for shattered windows, overturned and burned-out squad cars, luxury vehicles and dumpsters, just the “left-wing terrorist” stuff the mass media love to report. They plan to defy police “red lines” around “no go zones” but want no violence, they say, “unless the cops start it”. They will be featured at one event on the evening before the official Saturday meetings, titled “Welcome to Hell!” Their announced intention is to entirely disrupt the whole G-20 event, a meeting of the top exploiters of the world, to be opposed tooth and nail, dumpster for dumpster.

The city and government officials are officially committed to permitting organized peaceful dissent, and the Hamburg government is run by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. Even the courts, after many to’s and fro’s, OK’d the presence of the demonstrators. But black blocs are black blocs – and cops are cops, nearly 10,000 from Hamburg, nearly 20,000 from other states. There has already been trouble. First, a group of Berlin cops, preparing for their protective actions, held a fine orgy in their temporary HQ, with enough public intoxication, fornication, urination and a naked dance (with her side weapon as ornament) to get them sent home in disgrace.

Perhaps to compensate for such human failings, three police units invaded the tent sleeping quarters of one protest group, waking them up after midnight and confiscating their tents – despite court orders. Yes it may turn out to be a hot weekend!

But one basic question looms behind all of it; the meeting between Trump and Putin, a matter fraught with confusion, distortion and deception. I fear my findings in the matter may anger some readers, but here they are. In an attempt to explain away the shady methods used to beat Bernie Sanders for the nomination and the following misguided election campaign, aimed more at rich money-givers than the urgent, vital needs of working people, Hillary Clinton and most of her party’s leaders cooked up a fragile scenario blaming Putin and Russia. No matter what may be uncovered (and I have yet to see a single bit of convincing evidence), she and her backers bear the blame for the November defeat.

But that is water over the dam. What is still relevant; this flimsy structure is being used to create an alarmingly belligerent atmosphere, part of the long effort of a small, powerful group in Washington and environs to break any resistance to their will to expansion. As General Wesley Clarke described it, the effort has gone ahead, country by country, most recently in North Africa and the Near East. Yet Russia, since Yeltsin dropped out, is a main obstacle. Over the years it has been possible to surround European Russia with an iron ring, whose military installation and missile bases extend from Norway and the Baltic countries down to Georgia and Azerbaijan, including Russian exits to world waterways in the Baltic and Black Sea. The undisguised attempt to close this ring completely, blocking off the Black Sea and moving even closer to Moscow, was quite openly pursued by people like Victoria Nuland, Deputy Secretary of State, and was only barely stopped, in desperation against total, hostile encirclement, by Putin in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. The current policy is to suffocate Russia economically, blocking its vital oil and gas export routes to western Europe and ruining the economy with sanctions. A few candid politicos have tattled their end goal; regime change in Moscow, perhaps with a Maidan Square episode in Red Square.

These matters are of vital importance this weekend. With NATO troops in full battle array less than 150 kilometers from Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, with US forces shooting down Russian-allied aircraft in Syria, with NATO ships and planes maneuvering in hailing distance in the Baltic and the Black Sea, not to mention Ukraine – the dangers recall Europe in 1939. It seemed at first that Trump, loony as he seemed, was at least ready to negotiate with Putin about peace. These hopes have dimmed, partly because he felt he must prove his distance from Putin, partly because of the pressure from decoration-hungry generals and sales-hungry armaments giants. He has already launched a frightening bombing raid in Syria, dropped a gigantic bomb in Afghanistan, increased frightening threats to North Korea (for doing, after all, nothing worse than the military testing by ten other atomic-armed countries). It seems clear that Trump knows little more of the outside world than hotels and business deals. Both he and his backers are dangerous. Hamburg offers a thin chance that Putin and Trump can somehow take a few steps away from the precipice.

Can we afford to abandon such hopes – and such pressures? Some of the protesters, maybe taking cues from some op-ed writers at the Washington Post, or whoever their backers seem to be trying to turn protest against many bad things – climate destruction, globalization, oppression, exploitation – into a jolly but mindless attack on Trump, Putin, Erdogan, and Merkel, without a word of analysis.

We need not love Putin any more than Trump, Erdogan or Merkel, we can hate them all as capitalist villains, but we must look at the facts: 761 US military bases spotting the earth like a bad case of measles, with provisional bases bringing it close to 1000, and Russia, except for a few remnants in one-time USSR republics, has two, in Syria, its only bases in the Mediterranean (those of NATO are in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, Morocco and the adjoining Red Sea. The USA spends yearly over $680 billion on its military, NATO an additional $273 billion – and Trump insists both raise this sharply. Russia spends $93.7 billion. Russia has one aircraft carrier, the USA has ten. A look at the map clinches the matter; who endangers who here? If we count aggressive words as well – US Senators talking of the Russian “foe”, words Putin never uses, it seems difficult to explain how the threats can be called equal.

The meeting in Hamburg, whatever else is achieved or obstructed, should be used to pressure Trump and the NATO countries to negotiate with Russia and join in safeguarding a peaceful world. There is then more than enough repression and deforestation, and a dozen other things, which must be fought against. But first of all, I am convinced, against confrontation, which can all too easily mean atomic war!


About the author

Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman was born 1928 in New York, NY as Steve Wechsler. Growing up in the leftist NYC atmosphere of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s he was politically active at Harvard (1945-1949). His political convictions led him to work in two factories in Buffalo (USWA) until getting drafted in 1951. Luckily sent to Germany not Korea, but unluckily having his leftist past discovered (concealed out of fear of the McCarran Act) and facing up to five years in military prison, he deserted – swimming across the Danube from the US Zone to the Soviet Zone in Austria. The Soviets sent him to the East German Democratic Republic, where he took on the new name (to protect his parents), worked briefly in a factory, became a journeyman lathe-operator, studied journalism for four years, married and moved to East Berlin, where he became first director of a Paul Robeson Archive, then a freelance journalist, lecturer, film subtexter and author, mostly about US history (in German) but, in English, his autobiography (Crossing the River, U. of Mass. Press). He is now completing a new book in English. His very wonderful wife for 54 years died in 2009; he has two sons and three grandchildren. View all posts by Victor Grossman →

Comment on BIG SHOTS IN HAMBURG: Berlin Bulletin No. 129, July 6, 2017

Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check | Tagged:

Clinical Need, Not Ability To Pay


London, England 1992: An NHS Midwife in the East London home of a new mother. NHS midwife’s provide help, care and instruction from prenatal, through birth, and on for several weeks there after. This midwife clients included immigrants, working class whites and several affluent families who had begun to move into her Docklands service area. Photo copyright: Robert Gumpert 1992

The pressures on the NHS’s resources are enormous and at the same time the austerity imposed by the Conservative Government means that staff have had a pay freeze that has seen the value of their salaries drop by 10% over a decade. And further, Brexit puts into doubt the position of 130,000 European doctors, nurses and technical staff who work in the NHS. Morale is at a pretty low ebb.

The British love their NHS, it offers fundamental peace of mind; security in the face of the worst-case scenario and no one has to worry about the cost, it’s free at the point of use. While naturally enough some Hospital Trusts are better managed than others and some doctors are better than others, everyone is, in theory at least; able to choose where they want to receive their treatment and care.

It’s first two founding principles where and are:

1. The NHS provides a comprehensive service available to all.
2. Access to NHS services is based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay.

These principles established by the Labour Government of 1945, are still held onto and are doggedly maintained. The NHS is paid for out of general taxation and at the time of writing the annual budget was around $150 billion making average costs for a family of four in the UK around $10,000 per year compared to $25,000 per year for a family of four in the USA (Forbes May 15th 2015).

So what do you actually get? Knowing some of the issues that have affected American friends and their families here is a far from complete list: all maternity care, pre and post natal, hospital or home deliveries, ‘c’ sections, neo-natal care and after care are provided free. All childhood vaccinations, dental plan to 18 years old, eye tests and glasses are provided free. Everyone has a right to join a General Practitioners surgery and receive free examinations and consultations and referrals; these practices are pro-active and call patients for examinations and assessment at key life points, which get more often as one gets older; for example regular smear tests and mammograms, tests for bowel cancer, cardiovascular revues, flu shots, all this is free. If you, or any member of your family or anyone, has an accident, whatever it costs: ICU, surgery, nursing care and rehabilitation, the NHS pays. If you have a long-term illness, preexisting congenital defect, or you’re struck by lightening, the NHS will aim to give you the best treatment and care available, and yes it’s free.

It’s true that some areas are limited, or that you’ll need to show special need to get in a programme, but fertility treatments, some cosmetic surgery procedures and gender reassignment treatment are all available on the NHS; yes for free.

Ten years ago a friend of mine in the US was diagnosed with liver cancer. He had a number of major operations paid for by the medical plan at his place of work. After a year or so and close to a million dollars worth of health care, his insurers decided there was a problem with his insurance and withdrew his care. There was still a lot of treatment needed. When he threatened to sue they said go ahead, knowing full well he’d be dead before the case was settled. Luckily he was an UK citizen though he hadn’t lived here for decades. He returned to the UK and the NHS took up his care. He lived a further 5 years. I asked once what the difference between the US system and the UK system was? He pondered a moment and replied, “The American doctors’ waiting rooms are nicer.”

Come to the UK, open any newspaper, any day of the week and you’ll almost certainly come across a horror story about the NHS. Over crowding, long waiting times, mad or bad doctors, or shortages of trained staff. Of course, 99% of people, or more, are perfectly happy with their treatment from the NHS, but in an organisation that employs 1.5 million people and treats 65 million, there are always going to be horror stories.

However generous you want to be there are practical limits of a nationalized health service and defining those limits is a complex ethical as well as financial problem. A few years ago an American Republican nominee made some remarks about the terrible healthcare in the UK, that the NHS had ‘death panels’ groups of people who would decide if you lived or died. He was picking up on an organisation with the rather ironic acronym N.I.C.E, that is, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. In the NHS, someone has to decide on the efficacy of treatments and drugs, against their costs. Stories involving NICE often revolve around a person with a terminal illness who has read on the internet that a new drug might give them another six months of life, unfortunately the treatment costs thirty grand a month and is effective in less than 40% of cases. Of course if it was you, you’d want the chance, but what is an NHS supposed to do? It’s tough, but of course some arbiter has to exist; you can check out NICE here. It’s a highly ethical, transparent organization that does a hell of a job, but do they make mistakes? Well, probably, but would I rather they or an insurance company decided the need for an expensive drug or procedure? What do you think?

There is no denying the strain being felt on the NHS at the moment. Supporters point out that if we increased our per capita spending to just the average of other main European states’ public health services, it would solve many of the outstanding problems. John Appleby, Chief Economist with the Kind’s Fund estimates that the UK would need to invest another £16 billion, about 10%, just to keep pace with growth and an increase of 30 % or £43 billion just to achieve the average spending of the top 14 European countries.

In Britain at the moment there is a movement towards the position that austerity is not the only way to balance the budget as has been suggested by the Tories; that taxing the richest in society can help bring stability and growth to the economy. People are realizing that the world class health service they were told they had, doesn’t quite measure up. The only way to achieve it will be through further taxing and spending and even the Tories are beginning to realize that is going to have to happen.


About the author

Neil Burgess

Neil Burgess has worked as an agent, editor, curator, and publisher within the field of contemporary photography for more than 30 years. He was the founding director of Magnum Photos London and bureau chief of Magnum New York. Since founding *nbpictures, an international photographer's agency based in London, he has represented the work of some of the world’s leading photographers, including Sebastiao Salgado, Annie Leibovitz, and Don McCullin. View all posts by Neil Burgess →

Comment on Clinical Need, Not Ability To Pay

Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check | Tagged: , ,



Photo: Alvaro Ramirez

If you follow the strange, magical realist politics of Mexico, you probably have noticed that lately the press has focused on members of the new millionaire club comprised of former governors of many states. This club is the result of a Mexican Lotto game in which only select politicians get to play and usually win big, really big jackpots. The downside is that afterward, the winners have to leave the country and play a game of hide-and-seek around the world. The governors lie low in places such as Italy, Guatemala, and the USA, not to avoid relatives begging for a piece of the jackpot or people urging them to invest their newfound money. Instead, they hide from the agents of Interpol who go chasing after them to force them to return El Gordo, o sea, the Lotto cash, the millions of dollars they actually stole from the coffers of the states in which they governed, needless to say, badly and left a long trail of financial shock.

Although the latest and most infamous Lotto winners belong to the PRI, a party synonymous with corruption, nowadays members from all political sides—including PAN, PRD, and Morena—are playing this lucrative game in Mexico. If you want proof of this, all you have to do is watch videos of the recent debates in the elections for the governorship of the state of Mexico, where the candidates spent most of their interventions accusing each other of some form of corruption.

These charges are common in Mexico, a country that is on anyone’s list of most corrupt in the world. Much has been made about the roots of this evil that seems to lurk everywhere, even in la sacristía of the church. One root is said to be deep in the pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations and another stretches back into the medieval institutions, which the Spanish transplanted with them to this continent. We inherited from these two worlds, el Mal Mexicano: the corruption that we all have to experience, that we cannot escape from, like catching a common cold. Everyone living in Mexico knows they will come in contact with some type of corruption, sooner or later, all through their life.

Maybe this is one reason why we like to say, los mexicanos aguantan. Yes, we do. Mexicans have learned to endure corruption and to see it as a part of their life. In the U.S. people have a famous saying: you cannot escape death and taxes. Well, in Mexico, you cannot escape death and corruption. Taxes can be dispensed with, as anyone working in the massive informal economy (such as taquerías and mom and pop tienditas) knows. La corrupción siempre está ahí, it is part of the landscape, like the Popocatépetl volcano, always looming in the background, ready to erupt at any moment. We just learn to live with this menace.

Photo: Alvaro Ramirez

Corruption is the Mexican people’s burden, institutionalized along with the Partido Revolucionario. We always knew that politicians were like pigs at the trough, but they kept a certain amount of decorum; they stole from the nation in, let’s say, a polite way, not making much noise. Bajita la mano and not over the top. This is no longer the case. In the new millennium, el Mal Mexicano has gone viral; it is out of control. As the governors’ millionaire club shows, nowadays politicians of every ilk take as many millions as they want. They openly display their ill-gotten wealth and, without the slightest consideration, rub it in the face of the nation. Which explains why in 2009 they dedicated in Mexico City, “La Plaza de la Transparencia.” Corruption is now as transparent as can be.

Let’s talk of crime and punishment. In Mexico there’s only crime, seldom is there punishment, that is reserved for the nacos of the popular class who populate the prison system. Politicians are aware of this and have revved up corruption to the max. They know the consequences they’ll suffer for enriching themselves illegally are negligible. Most people in Mexico don’t seem to care since they’re on survival mode, busy trying to get past the war against the cartels and a weak economy. Politicians are quick to realize they will only get a bit of blowback from some opinion writers in the press and television. The funny thing is that because of the absence of the rule of law in Mexico, politicians have become shameless to the extent that they’re willing to go on television to discuss the need to pass anti-corruption laws! Afterward, they probably go back to their offices and laugh their ass off, as they transfer millions of dollars into bank accounts in Switzerland and the Bahamas, or buy million-dollar houses in Miami.

So, in view of this phenomenon of the Mexican Lotto, what should we expect of the upcoming presidential elections of 2018? As I reflect on the corruption running rampant in Mexico today, I can’t help but to think of a story told about President Álvaro Obregón, who lost an arm in a battle of the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but it goes something like this. It is said that in the midst of his presidential campaign, Obregón encountered many people unhappy because of the widespread corruption in government. After giving one of his speeches, he was confronted by an angry voter who accused him, and the other presidential candidate, of enriching themselves at the expense of the government, a charge he had probably heard many times. Obregón is said to have jokingly answered: “Ok, it’s true. Everyone will steal from the government. But tell me, who is likely to steal more, my opponent who has two arms or I who have only one!”

That is the choice Mexicans will have to make when they go to the polls next summer. They will have to decide for whom to cast their vote not based on the merits of the presidential candidates, but on which of the candidates will steal less from the fast-fading nation that is Mexico.


This piece appeared originally on the blog “POSTCARDS FROM A POSTMEXICAN”

About the author

Álvaro Ramírez

Professor Álvaro Ramírez is from Michoacán, México. He has taught at various institutions including the University of Southern California, Occidental College, and California State University, Long Beach. Since 1993, he has taught at Saint Mary’s College of California where he is a Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures and Director of the Ethnic Studies Program. He teaches courses on Spanish Golden Age and Latin American Literature as well as Mexican and Latino Cultural Studies. He also serves as Resident Director for the Saint Mary’s College Semester Program in Cuernavaca, México. Prof. Ramírez recently published a collection of short stories, Los norteados, which portrays the transnational experience of Mexican immigrants. He has also published articles on Don Quixote, Mexican film and Chicano Studies in several academic journals. You can find other of his socio-cultural and political musings on his blog, View all posts by Álvaro Ramírez →


Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check |

The UK Election: The End of May came on June 9th.


British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “A week is a long time in politics.” Never has that statement seemed truer than right now in the UK. Barely more than a week ago most commentators, journalists, pollsters, politicians and public thought we were headed for an increased Tory majority, the disintegration of the Labour Party and the end of their leader Jeremy Corbyn (HERE and HERE). Today the Conservative Government has lost its majority, Labour MP’s are uniting around a triumphant Jeremy Corbyn and the only reason Mrs May is still in place as Prime Minister is because nobody in their right minds would want to be leader of a minority Government dependent on the support of the ultra conservative Democratic Unionist Party.

Theresa May had warned that in a hung Parliament we could be in danger of being governed by a ‘coalition of chaos’, and one with connections to terrorist groups; she just didn’t mention that it was going to be led by her.

The UK introduced fixed term Parliaments of five years in 2010. Elections can only be held before the completion of term if two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons agree. With the Tories 20% ahead in the polls, Mrs May 60% ahead of Corbyn in approval ratings, the PM and her cabinet decided to call a snap election which would give them a landslide majority, with a solid mandate to dictate their policy of a hard Brexit from Europe and wipe out the Labour Party at the same time. When Jeremy Corbyn instructed the Labour Party to vote for it, we thought, here is the turkey voting for Christmas.

Mrs May and her advisers thought all they had to do was stay out of any shit storm public debates and present her as a “strong and stable” leader while attacking an incompetent Leader of the Opposition. It was a miscalculation of epic proportions, not least in that May was completely unsuited to being cast as the Churchillian figure they tried to make her out as; the “strong and stable” mantra soon had to be dropped for fear of ridicule, as she conducted policy u-turns. Mrs May seemed more weak and wobbly.

With the public sector pay freeze brought in, in 2010, limiting pay rises to 1%, and with inflation running at more than double that, large numbers of people have seen a very real decline in their living standards. Meanwhile top private-sector executives have seen a 50% increase in salaries in the same period. At a public meeting a nurse told Mrs May she hadn’t had a pay rise since 2009, her reply, “There isn’t a magic money tree.” didn’t go down well with the public.

Since the banking crisis, public sector and low paid workers have seen their standard of living steadily undermined: pay freezes, welfare cuts, bedroom tax, reductions in funding for the ’Sure Start’ programme for young children. The Tory manifesto seemed to offer just more of the same, but now taking away free school meals for school children, means testing pensioners’ universal benefits, and revising the amount of money people would be expected to contribute towards their own care in the case of long term care, the so called ‘Dementia Tax’.

In Britain the National Health Service is almost universally admired and loved. Through a slight of hand the Conservatives since 2010 have continued to increase funding directly to the NHS, but slashed funding to local authorities who were responsible for social care. So that, especially older people, who say, had had an operation, once ready for discharge, might not find a care-home or home support to help them convalesce and so have to remain in the hospital. What became known as ‘bed-blocking’ is one of the NHS’s major issues and has thrown many hospitals into crisis. The Tory manifesto sought to deal with this problem by making people with assets responsible for their own care costs, forcing them to effectively mortgage their homes to pay for their home care. The elderly home owners, the bedrock of Tory support went ape, and Mrs May stumbled through an interview insisting nothing had changed in her policy, clearly changed in direction by 180 degrees.

All the way through this debacle the cartel of the right-wing national press in the UK, kept insisting that Mrs May was the only leader capable of running the country and getting a good deal from the negotiations with the EU for Brexit. At the same time Corbyn’s long history as a peace and anti war campaigner, someone who insisted it was better to talk than to fight, was portrayed as consorting or even colluding with terrorists. The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express, The Times and The Telegraph, amounting to about 75% of the national press sales took this line. It’s worth noting that none of the proprietors of these publications, that also strongly advised people to vote Brexit from the EU, actually lives or pays tax in the UK.

While the UK press can be as partisan as it’s proprietors like, there are very strict rules around broadcast media reporting on elections and referendum. They must follow strict rules on impartiality and accuracy. In these arenas and on social media Jeremy Corbyn started to make an impact; even UKIP leader Nigel Farage praised his commitment, passion and that he was standing up for something.

When the Labour manifesto was leaked to the Tory press who gleefully attacked it as irresponsible fancy with no basis in reality, a lot of Labour supporters held their head in their hands and cried. But then, slowly, as people read the manifesto in detail and the careful costing for the programmes was released, they began to see that actually it was a manifesto that dealt with the real issues facing ordinary people and that it offered hope.

Labour would raise taxes but only for people earning over £80,000 per year, about 5%, and they would raise Corporation taxes, which the Tories were cutting to 16% back to 2010 levels of 28%. They would increase spending on education and on the NHS. They would re-nationalize the rail transport system and other privatized utilities: Thatcher had promised better services and cheaper prices from privatized industries and it hadn’t happened. All people saw were the huge salaries and bonuses that executives were getting for running essential services which bled the customers. And Labour would borrow money at historically low rates of interest to invest in housing and other capital infrastructure projects. It slowly dawned on people that here was an unapologetic, socialist manifesto that ordinary people were supporting and getting behind.

Arguably, one of the most successful proposals was the abolition of college fees. It would be expensive, it would be paid for by taxes on corporations and the rich, but it was massively popular amongst young voters and their families. One Tory MP admitted that all of her children and their friends were voting for Labour. Alongside the positive policies Corbyn has a young leftist support group called Momentum. Established only two years ago, it boasts 25,000 members all of whom it seems are adroit and experienced with social media. While the perceived wisdom is that older citizens read newspapers and get out and vote while the younger ones don’t read newspapers and stay in bed, Corbyn and his Momentum supporters seem to have turned that on its’ head. Latest estimates are that a million new 18-24 year old voters registered to vote in the run up to the election and an estimated 72% of the group actually voted. There main concerns: education, housing, jobs and a fair world; all issues Corbyn was addressing.

So. A massive step forward for the Labour left and Jeremy Corbyn. A humiliating defeat for Theresa May and the Conservative Party. But, Labour did not win and Theresa May will lead the next Government. There is little doubt that at the right time the Tories will replace May; they are famously unsentimental about their leaders. It’s unlikely that their minority Government will see out a five year term. Already there are signs that a softer Brexit will result and perhaps even a cross-party committee to negotiate, but will this election have fundamentally changed anything? As Chairman Mao answered when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied, “It’s far too early to say.”


Editor’s note for transparency: Neil Burgess was my agent for about 20 years.

About the author

Neil Burgess

Neil Burgess has worked as an agent, editor, curator, and publisher within the field of contemporary photography for more than 30 years. He was the founding director of Magnum Photos London and bureau chief of Magnum New York. Since founding *nbpictures, an international photographer's agency based in London, he has represented the work of some of the world’s leading photographers, including Sebastiao Salgado, Annie Leibovitz, and Don McCullin. View all posts by Neil Burgess →

Comment on The UK Election: The End of May came on June 9th.

Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check | Tagged: ,

Be Careful About What You Wish for: Impeachment v Paralysis


So be careful what you wish for
‘Cause you just might get it
And if you get it then you just might not know
What to do wit’ it, ’cause it might just
Come back on you ten-fold

Liberal cyberspace is in a frenzy of impeachment fever. NPR, though its commentators keep saying it won’t happen, keeps talking about what kinds of considerations would lead to impeachment. Metropolitan newspapers could not avoid comparing the firing of Comey to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. For those who aspire to a more just, equal and peaceful world, now is a time to be careful about what we wish and act for. Before you sign that petition consider its consequence.

Given the gerrymandered nature of Congressional districts, there is but slim hope of changing the House of Representatives in 2018. While many commentators focus on the 23 seats held by Republicans in Congressional Districts Clinton won, these are mainly Republican suburbs that couldn’t swallow Trump. It is unlikely Democrats could take all or even most of these in 2018; but if Trump were impeached, and the Democrats could not run against Republicans claiming they are his proxies, this seems almost impossible.

The hope for a more progressive and representative House of Representatives after 2020 rests in the ways state governments process the results of the 2020 census. In the meantime, in the presidential race of 2020 the Democrats’ biggest single resource will be Trump’s unpopularity.

Impeaching Trump before November 2018 makes unlikely the already difficult task of nudging the House of Representatives to a more progressive (or anyhow less reactionary) complexion. Having him in office through the election season of 2020 gives the Democrats a big fat target they have a good chance of beating.

Impeaching Trump sooner rather than later puts Mike Pence in the Presidency. His policies are arguably worse than Trump’s – he is consistently reactionary – on everything, women’s rights, civil rights, labor law, social security, health care – in places where Trump is occasionally ambiguous and confused. That said, Pence is an experienced politician, a former governor, in sync with Congressional Republicans. His White House would most probably be a far cry from the whacky Comedy Central to which we are now subject. The Congress might actually get some work done. Would that be good for the country?

Repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare)? A good thing for whom? Tax cuts for the rich? More inequality? If and when things “calm down” in Washington these things could come to pass and more. By contrast, a long drawn out siege in which Trump suffers a “death of a thousand cuts” lasting into 2020 might reduce the list of disasters on whose brink we are now perched.

A Boston NPR talk show host, the esteemed and former liberal activist Jim Braude, observed on Thursday, May 18, that the appointment of an independent counsel might enable the actors in Washington to “get over it” and cooperate, and do some work. His otherwise more centrist co-host, Margery Eagan pointed out that paralysis might be better for the country. One is reminded of the principle to which medical doctors try to adhere: “First do no harm.” Margery wins on points.

About the author

Robert J.S. Ross, PhD

Dr. Ross received a B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1963, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1966 and 1975, respectively. He has been at Clark since 1972. He was a Director of the International Studies Stream at Clark, and is currently an officer of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium ( and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Labor Rights Forum ( He now teaches on a part-time basis. View all posts by Robert J.S. Ross, PhD →

Comment on Be Careful About What You Wish for: Impeachment v Paralysis

Share your opinion, leave a reply.

Posted in Mic check | Tagged:

Class, race and political strategy in the rust belt


“This used to be a thriving hillbilly town”

1. Elections in abnormal times

Elections are complicated Rorschach tests for voters, particularly in abnormal times. We like to reduce them to a single issue; we use locutions like “this election was about X,” as if there were a single factor determining which candidate voters selected. But in political analysis too-quick generalizations can be misleading.

One doesn’t have to be especially sophisticated about politics to see that candidate Trump was a crude, bombastic, least-common-denominator showman. When candidate Trump’s negatives piled up—to his jaw-jutting hubris; openly delusory prevarications; venomous xenophobia concerning immigrants was added in early October “grab ’em by the pu**y” misogyny, many commentators believed that Clinton’s victory was assured.

But voters had other things on their minds. How else do we account for the significant number of Obama voters who swung to Trump? Were they cosmopolitan globalists in 2008 and 2012, only to turn reactionary white nationalist in 2016? Or is a better account this: For a significant slice of voters in key swing states, 2016, like 2008, was a referendum on the status quo. The status quo wasn’t working for them in 2008; nor was it working in 2016. When voters in the rust belt said in 2016 that “the Clintons had their chance,” they were referring to two terms in the 1990s that brought NAFTA which, plausibly, accelerated deindustrialization.

2. Pollster fail

The pollsters didn’t help: Failing to measure intensity of support, they predicted a more than 80 percent chance of Clinton’s victory. Better polling, in principle, could have shown a closer race. Those without access to expensive large-N methodology but who had their finger on the pulse in the rust belt were generally unsurprised by the outcome.

3. Mistakes of the Clinton campaign

The Clinton campaign failed to excite and mobilize (and in some cases even speak to the concerns of) hundreds of thousands of voters in the traditional Democratic base. It is arguable that the campaign had—and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party has—little to offer voters in the rust belt. The Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor’s key legislative ask, has not even come to the floor for a vote, even in the 111th Congress (2009-2011)—with strong majorities in both houses and a Democratic supporter of the measure in the White House. Elements of President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, such as the pre-existing conditions and age 26 provisions, are popular. But by permitting insurance companies to write a bill that failed to cap costs, the bill can arguably be portrayed as burdening working families without solving the most important problem. No wonder working and middle-class voters are suspicious of corporate Democrats!

The Clinton campaign failed to focus on a ground game—mobilizing voters in crucial cities and towns in key states. They were certainly warned of the danger of neglecting this work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the campaign was so convinced of an overwhelming victory that they did not believe such a mobilization was necessary. Anecdotally: Apparently one major union that offered full-throated support for Clinton sent seven buses full of volunteers to Detroit on the eve of the election for GOTV (get out the vote—that is, eleventh hour mobilization). The Clinton campaign diverted the activists to Iowa, as a feint, to force the Trump campaign to devote resources to the Hawkeye State. Knowing as we do now that Clinton lost Michigan by just 11,000 votes, was this a miscalculation? Did it stem from overconfidence?

After her defeat, Clinton suggested that the campaign had no response to FBI director Comey’s announcement of the revival of the email investigation at the end of the campaign. If this is true—and there is no reason to doubt it—it is an indictment of a professionally run presidential campaign, which should have had solid and well-developed contingency plans for half a dozen potential “October surprises.”

4. Trump’s victory

Certainly candidate Trump’s xenophobia appealed to a hard core of far-right white nationalist supporters. But his victory by mostly razor thin margins in key swing states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin—resulted from a broader combination of factors.

First, traditional Republican voters did not boycott him in the general election. Romney voters from 2012 for the most part came out for Trump. Noted historian Mike Davis is right to emphasize the importance of the fact that the predicted aversion of “normal” Republican voters to the candidate at the top of their ticket never materialized. (1) One way to interpret this would be to say that they voted for Trump’s xenophobia and misogyny.

Second, the Clinton campaign failed to run up necessary majorities among traditional supporters of the party. There was not a significant gender gap in the outcome.
Third, a small but significant slice of working class rust belt voters voted against business as usual. Again, as Davis points out, “several hundred thousand white, blue-collar Obama voters, at most, voted for Trump’s vision of fair trade and reindustrialization, not the millions usually invoked.” In a narrow race, that provided the margin of defeat.

Top row, L-R: Youngstown, OH 1976. Foundry worker. Youngstown, OH. 1976. Foundry worker. Bottom row: Youngstown, OH. 1976. Foundry worker. All copyright Robert Gumpert

5. Keys to the rust belt

The rust belt—the Upper Midwest—remains of vital political importance. As demographic and political patterns presently hold, a handful of crucial states (actually, a handful of vital counties inside those states) hold the keys to presidential electoral success. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Allegheny County in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh); Cuyahoga and Lorain Counties in Ohio (metropolitan Cleveland); Wayne County in Michigan (Detroit); and Milwaukee County in Wisconsin now determine the outcome in close presidential elections in America.

Through much of the United States, Washington is viewed with deep suspicion. When unconnected with a higher purpose, said Augustine, the state is nothing more than highway robbery on a larger scale. (2) When was the last time the American state seemed connected to higher purpose? This sensibility is acute in the rust belt, with our towering hulks of shuttered steel mills, machine shops, auto assembly plants and so on. (3)

What, indeed, is rust belt experience of their national state? The US Postal Service: cool efficiency. Social security? Ditto. The military? “Thank god it is there because since the plants and mills closed, it is one of the few decent tickets out of this dying town.” But for the rest—the expensive machinery of the federal state is a distant, inefficient, unresponsive bureaucracy. You cannot control it; you cannot even get a response from it.

6. Rust Belt Anger: A Moment or a Secular Shift?

What are these “Trump Democrats” angry about? I am asked this question time and again, by serious people, activists and analysts and academics, based in Brooklyn, Washington, Paris. What were white, working and middle-class rust belt voters thinking?

A dramatic transformation of the economic landscape has been underway for a generation. The American economy emerged from World War II in a distinctive position. Productive plants in Europe and Japan was devastated by wartime bombing; meanwhile the “arsenal of democracy” meant that American industry was built up during the war. The United States held a dramatic hegemony in industrial production for a generation after the war. Meanwhile, CIO-led organizing, which accomplished the organization of basic industry only on the eve of the war, gave distinctive bargaining strength to U.S. workers. Consequently, from the 1940s to the 1970s—with up to about 35 percent of the workforce unionized—workers’ real (inflation adjusted) wages overall doubled or tripled.

But U.S. economic hegemony could not last; by the 1970s key industries such as steel and automobiles were being challenged by European and Japanese rivals. U.S.-based manufactures spread out to recovering and developing global markets. Global trade in general increased—from about 10 percent of U.S. economic activity in 1960 to about one-third by the turn of the century. Relatively higher wages in American industry put firms, now exposed to global competition, at a disadvantage. The openness of U.S. industry to intense international competition was one factor that led to the broad front attack on unionization; union density has declined to below 7 percent in the private sector. One consequence was that the real wage peaks achieved in the 1970s have been eroded in the decades since, overall by about ten percent.

Top row L-R: Detroit, MICH 1982. Shift change at the Firestone plant. Steelworker picket line, Braddock, PA. 1986
Bottom row L-R: Detroit, MICH 1992. In the shaddow of the old GM world headquarters. All Photos: copyright Robert Gumpert

Still, as late as 2000, there were still more than 17 million manufacturing jobs in the United States. Both before and after the Great Recession (2007-2009), these jobs disappeared at an astonishing rate. 30 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000. Of course, there was a long-run trend away from agricultural jobs and manufacturing jobs, toward what is termed the service sector. But the 17 million job plateau, achieved during the Vietnam War, was not “permanently” lost until 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks.

The dominant narrative is that globalization and “rotten trade deals” were the culprits. The notion is that “politics” is responsible for globalization and that a different political orientation could protect or even return manufacturing jobs to the United States. This dominant narrative has been pressed by the old-line manufacturing unions in auto, steel and related industries and was of course vital to the message of candidate Trump.
A counter-narrative is that technological change is responsible. (4) The soundbite (ITALICS)du jour is that new technology is responsible for 85 percent of manufacturing jobs lost in the United States since 2000.

In fact, it is not easy to ascribe job loss to (BOLD)either the richer articulation of the economy on a global scale (BOLD)or technological change. Changes in transportation and communication technology—such as containerization; computerized inventory control; and ever-more-efficient supply chains—were necessary preconditions for rapid-paced globalization. It isn’t “globalization” or “technology” but both. (5)

Nevertheless, Trump’s effective message on trade resonated with enough voters in the old industrial heartlands of the United States to help swing a close electoral college victory away from Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s name is associated with NAFTA, the 1994 trade agreement. Clinton = NAFTA = devastation of our communities is etched-in-granite common wisdom in the rust belt.

Note that the devastation of whole swaths of the rust belt does not hit white workers or a white “aristocracy of labor” alone. It affects whole communities. When a car plant, steel mill or shipyard is boarded up, all workers in the community—white, black, Latino; men and women—are affected. So are small businesses. Isn’t this one reason why so many blacks and Latinos in the rust belt voted for Trump?

Top row L-R) Detroit, MICH. 1992. 1986: Duquesne, PA. 2nd row: Braddock, PA 1986. US Steel ET works in the background, left. Duquesne, PA., 1986 The Duquesne Steel Works, closed. 3rd row: Braddock, PA. 1986. Detroit, MICH. 1992. Chyrsler plant. All Photos: copyright Robert Gumpert

7. Wrenching adjustment

The wrenching adjustment to global competition has proved difficult throughout the United States. But in the rust belt, the adjustment has been acute. The closure of one or two major plants can devastate a rust belt community.

As a friend who commutes past Ford’s shuttered Lorain Assembly plant on the west side of a quintessentially rust belt community said to me recently, “This used to be a thriving hillbilly town.” The plant, which opened in 1958, attracted thousands of workers, many from the rural south. Some eight million vehicles rolled off its assembly lines before it was shuttered in 2005. Everything in the local economy was buoyed by the presence of the plant and its relatively decently paid unionized workforce. But the next generation faces a stark reality.

Joining a branch of the military is one ticket out of economic despair. Sports scholarships to college are prized because the high cost of education means that individuals and families who have to pay typically take on onerous debt. While a college degree opens some professional opportunities—work for big health insurance companies or banks or mortgage firms, or in high tech—it is hardly the all-but-guaranteed ticket it was a generation ago. Plenty of college graduates languish for years, now, in a string of part-time jobs, often defaulting on loans. Those who remain economically active often work multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet. In Lorain, a bartender at Scorchers, a sports bar—one of the few going concerns on Broadway (the main street downtown)—told me she works four part-time jobs to make ends meet.

For the generation before the advent of the CIO, it was common to work 60 or 70 hours/week in the steel mills of towns like Lorain or Youngstown or Canton. (6) Now, with the demise of auto and steel, the political economy has come full circle: The grandchildren of those who formed the CIO unions now work, once again, 60 or 70 hours/week to make ends meet.

And those are the lucky ones: Every neighborhood knows people who have dropped out of the regular economy. (7) When the jobs on offer are for minimum wage without health or pension benefits, is it any wonder that a portion of the population turns to the illegitimate economy (drugs; prostitution; illegal gambling; small-time robbery, etc.)? Or that another slice self-medicates with drugs or alcohol to deaden the pain of failed dreams? In Ohio, even stable communities have witnessed a rise in drug use. It is common for high school students to know people who have died of drug overdoses. Ohio, the bellwether state, leads the nation in overdose deaths. (8)

8. A different model of politics

Beltway insiders in the Democratic Party are ready to throw over the traditional Democratic base in the rust belt. (9) They can dismiss working class Trump supporters as inveterate racists, as “deplorables.” (10) Their road to victory in 2020 is to mobilize women and African Americans and Latinos. They have the idea that the white working class—or the rust belt segment of the class—is beyond hope, beyond reaching. This dovetails with their GOTV view of “doing politics,” a view that I believe we must reject.

Beltway insiders see voters in general merely as a means to getting themselves elected. Business as usual politically has entailed bombarding citizens with slogans—a kind of least common denominator politics that, in the United States, is particularly personalistic. This works fine for the Democrats as long as they have a personally appealing candidate, such as Obama. But a candidate with baggage such as Clinton could not overcome the anger and disgust that many ordinary Americans have toward Washington (and Wall Street).

We need a different model of doing politics—an organizers’ approach. (11)

Analysis matters. If you believe Trump’s working class base voted for him (BOLD)because of his racist appeals, and all you are interested in is electoral victory, then looking away from this fraction of the working class makes sense.

This is certainly true of a portion of them but it is our contention that a significant element of that base voted against Clinton, against Washington, against business as usual. They were, in fact, so disaffected with Washington that they were willing to overlook Trump’s racism and misogyny: They voted Trump in spite of his crass scapegoating and hubris, not because of them.

But the ordinary Democratic Party, interested solely in winning electoral power, may well decide to look away from Trump voters. They reason that U.S. elections are merely about turnout. We can look forward to a strong argument for getting “back to basics” in 2020—a robust GOTV operation.

But the GOTV orientation is insufficient for changing the political culture, which is what we must do if we are to build a social democratic current in American politics. For a whole generation, Democrats and labor organizations have come to working class America, on politics, only during GOTV. As long as Democrats and labor treat ordinary workers as walk-ons in a drama that has politicians and a handful of labor leaders or interest group heads at center stage, workers will feel alienated from the party, from their organizations and from the national state it self.

The different model would be an organizers’ approach to working class communities. Organizations such as the Progressive Caucus in Cleveland, a successor to the grassroots Sanders campaign in 2016, are involved in neighborhood-by-neighborhood organizing of a democratic membership formation, animated by broadly social-democratic politics. Such groupings can combine electoral aspirations with activist, direct action and civil disobedience style tactics. There is no reason that such formations cannot—once they become strong enough—establish workplace or industry-wide groupings based on the militant minority who are ready, today, to become organized and active.

9. An inside-outside orientation to the Democratic Party

No matter how disaffected with Washington, U.S. workers are not prepared to break with the two-party system. This system will for the foreseeable future necessitate that even radical reformers run campaigns within the broad arenas of the Republican and Democratic parties. This has hardly hindered the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus wing of the Republican Party; it certainly shouldn’t hinder the Sandersist wing of the Democrats. (12)

10. What kind of organization?

We should resist the blandishments of any leaders who contend that the be-all and end-all of our organizing should be re-electing ordinary Democrats (or even Sanders-style social democrats). To push back against global corporate power, the building of strong grassroots organizations is needed everywhere. (13) Whether they are activist unions or community organizations or proto-party style groupings like Progressive Caucuses, these grassroots groups need to be characterized by:

a. Regular meetings aimed at regular action (on issue campaigns such as the Fight for Fifteen or against environmental degradation);
b. Self-funding;
c. An educational component;
d. Maintenance of a proper perspective on electoralism.

In short, we are advocating the creation of an organized social democratic (broadly progressive) force, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. This force should certainly participate in elections. But if it has one foot in Democratic Party electoral politics, it must have another foot firmly planted in movement-style activism: civil disobedience, direct action, workplace organization, etc. This stems from our theory of change—that significant political, social or economic reform does not come from elections but from direct action. Is this not the lesson of the CIO and the Civil Rights Movement?

One danger is that the Democratic Party and organized labor, even if they adopt some of Sanders’ rhetoric going forward, will not alter their approach to “politics.” We need to challenge this. We need to stop treating workers as means (to getting elected) and start treating them as ends. We need to be organizing all the time; and building active involvement from a significant minority of members and their families. This means that the center of gravity of our work will not be inside electoral campaigns–it will be going on all the time. We can and should be building organizations that meet regularly to determine a course of action—be it strengthening union locals or engaging in external organizing or supporting other groups of workers. Both union locals and the incipient Sandersist organizations need to be doing this.



1) “The ‘miracle’ of the mogul’s campaign…was capturing the entirety of the Romney vote, without any of the major defections (college-educated Republican women, conservative Latinos, Catholics) that the polls had predicted and Clinton had counted upon.” Mike Davis, “The great God Trump and the white working class,” Jacobin, February 7, 2017 (acc. April 22, 2017).

2) Augustine, The City of God, Books I-VII (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1950), Book IV, ch. 4. Augustine was the most influential of the western (Roman) church fathers.

3) Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Bob Wing, “Fighting back against the white revolt of 2016,” Verso Press, November 28, 2016, (acc. May 17, 2017), is a generally strong, insightful article, which should be required reading for anyone who cares about the progressive movement. In my view, it is, however, incorrect on this point: Fletcher and Wing contend that candidate Trump did not play to “legitimate concerns of the masses.” “Trump did not address the concerns of most voters. He addressed the fears of many white voters. Those fears…are both economic and racial. The economic fears focus largely on the potential for economic disaster.” As the following section contends, the fear of economic devastation is grounded in the rust belt reality of the past generation. The mills have been closing or radically downsizing since the late 1970s, a trend that accelerated after 2000.

See also Peter Olney, “Go red! Thoughts on the labor movement in the age of Trump,” Stansbury Forum, December 27, 2016, (acc. January 14, 2017), which takes issue with Fletcher/Wing’s use of wages as proxy for class and which advocates constructive engagement with a segment of the white “populist” working class as a task for the labor left.

4) Michael J. Hicks and Srikant Devaraj, “The myth and the reality of manufacturing in America,” Ball State University, Center for Business and Economic Research, June 2015, (acc. April 23, 2017); Federica Cocco, “Most US manufacturing jobs lost to technology, not trade,” Financial Times, December 2, 2016.

5) I owe thanks to Peter Olney for this insight concerning the logistics supply chain. See also Glenn Perusek, “Cleveland: City of Tomorrow?” Belt Magazine, March 2015, (acc. September 10, 2015) on the social consequences of the ongoing development of technologically-based unemployment.

6) In 1919, half of all workers in the steel industry in the United States worked 72 hours per week. See U.S. Senate, Report Investigating Strike in Steel Industries, 66th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Reports, vol. A, no. 289 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1919), p. 14, cited in Samuel Yellen, American Labor Struggles, 1877-1934 (New York: Monad Press, 1974), 254.

7) Alarming statistics on the decline in workforce participation, particularly among men, are an indicator.

8) “Ohio leads nation in overdose deaths,” Columbus Dispatch, November 29, 2016, (acc. May 16, 2017). The broader case concerning “deaths of despair,” the stunning rise in mortality for white working class men, is put by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century,” Brookings, April 10, 2017, (acc. April 13, 2017).

9) I mean this term “Beltway insiders” to apply to the broad swath of Democratic staffers and those who share their worldview: the corporate wing of the party. Of course not all loyal Democratic staffers, whether or not they literally work in Washington, deserve the following characterization.

10) A strong statement of the position: Mehdi Hasan, “Top Democrats are wrong: Trump supporters were more motivated by racism than economic issues,” The Intercept, April 6, 2017, (acc. April 8, 2017).

11) GOTV is frenetic grassroots “get out the vote” efforts by rank-and-file activists and volunteers in the stretch-run of campaigns—knocking on doors, handing out flyers at workplaces, and making calls from phone banks to critical voters and districts. The premium is on talking to as many people as possible, having the thinnest, most superficial discussions possible (“don’t get into it with anybody”). Is it any wonder that ordinary workers feel abused by such a system?

12) A side point is the issue of naming things. I myself am convinced that “Labor for Our Revolution” won’t fly in the heartland. It is an ultra-left slogan. Yes, workers are angry. Yes, they want dramatic change. But they are not ready to vote for a left alternative outside of the two major parties. We have ample demonstrations of this—in, for instance, Green Party candidacies. Today we have a chance to build mass-based social democratic organization. We will squander this opportunity with ultra-left slogans and organizational names.

The adoption of “Our Revolution” and the talk about a political revolution in America is woefully naïve—ahistorical. Does it mean a political revolution like 1776? Is the rewriting of the U.S. Constitution hinted at? Of course not. Sandersism is an effort to revive American style social democracy.

In a blush of enthusiasm for Sanders’ success in the 2016 primaries, let us not forget decades of anti-communism. This has had an effect, and not only among those who came of political age before 1989. We cannot defend “Labor for Our [Socialist] Revolution.”

13) There is of course a tendency of long-standing that insists on remaining outside the Democratic Party on principle. The Democratic Party is the “graveyard of social movements” and the pull of electoralism is inexorable. To change a system dominated by the titans at the head of the firms that dominate global capital, the ultra-lefts contend that a new party must be built (or that protest politics are all that is possible). This is noble purism, honorable but wrong, predicated on a refusal to take responsibility for overall policy. I believe we can hold ourselves to a higher standard. We should be able to do better than merely to decry “corporate welfare” or environmental degradation. We should be able to offer both an immediate program of policy reforms and advance a vision—a maximum program—of a decent social-democratic society. Those who would build a labor or left party outside of the Democratic Party (that is, reducing a tactical question to the level of principle) commit an error of orientation. It is a tactical matter to establish a pole of attraction inside a wing of the Democratic Party. In contrast, purist abstentionists want to stand on the sidelines. See Glenn Perusek, “Between Abstention and Accommodation: Progressives and the Democratic Party in the General Election and Beyond,” Stansbury Forum, July 2016.

About the author

Glenn Perusek

Glenn Perusek, born in Akron, Ohio, has worked for many years conducting and teaching strategic research and campaign planning for international labor unions, community groups and political campaigns. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago and was a member of the International Typographical Union (today part of the Communication Workers of America). He can be reached at View all posts by Glenn Perusek →

Comment on Class, race and political strategy in the rust belt

Share your opinion, currently 1 reply.

Posted in Mic check | Tagged: , , , ,

Longtime Southwest Side activist leaves legacy of building people power


Editor’s note: This piece is reprinted from the Chicago Reporter, 25 May 2017, with the kind permission of Curtis Black. Bill was one of the Stansbury Forum’s “contributors”.

Bill Drew and his wife Gloria. Photo courtesy of the Drew family

My old friend Bill Drew died on May 14, and I’ve been reflecting on the impact he had on his community – in particular on the movement for political independence on the Southwest Side – as well as the impact he had on my life.

In many ways he reminded me of Milt Cohen, the political organizer who helped elect Harold Washington as mayor (and who also recruited me to journalism), whom I wrote about in my first column in this space. Both Bill and Milt were old radicals who immersed themselves in neighborhood issues. Both were white activists who devoted themselves to the empowerment of people of color. Both had a remarkable tenacity, both had constantly searching, questioning minds, and both dedicated themselves to energizing and inspiring people to get involved.

Bill left a record of his quest, a memoir he published online after he learned he had cancer shortly before his 66th birthday. It’s a testament to his rigorous self-honesty and realism, and it’s a redemption tale – the story of a pugnacious kid from an Irish Catholic family in Waukegan who got swept up in the anti-war movement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and who spent a decade in Milwaukee organizing support for factory strikers, victims of police brutality, and everyone from farmers to local Native Americans. He spent a year in prison after jumping a police lieutenant who had a young demonstrator in a chokehold.

Only after his memoir was published did I learn how Bill had first touched my life. As editor of a left-wing paper, he had learned about and publicized the campaign of the United League of Mississippi, which was boycotting businesses in Tupelo to protest police brutality and demand jobs for blacks. It was 1978, and I was a college student and joined a campus group that travelled to Tupelo for a solidarity march.

It was definitely educational. I still remember the huge church meeting that greeted us, the haunting melody sung by a contingent of striking poultry workers – “Walking that picket line a mighty long time, I’m not tired yet” – and the confrontation with a column of about 40 masked Ku Klux Klan members who tried (and failed) to force United League marchers off the road. And at a rally in front of city hall, I remember seeing Klansmen in full regalia stepping out of the police station to observe and menace.

Bill had moved to Chicago by then, and I met him around that time. He was a jovial, enthusiastic, salt-of-the-earth type guy. But after the movement that he’d thrown himself into began to falter in the 1980s, Bill descended into a downward spiral of drinking and drugs. His memoir gives an unsparing account of that descent, of hitting bottom and digging himself out. He taught himself computer programming and built a successful career. He married Gloria, a hospitality worker whose emergence as a leader of Chicago Public Schools lunchroom attendants he recounts with pride. He raised two excellent sons.

I heard from Bill again in 2009, when he began organizing support for a local art student who’d been charged with murder after he defended himself – with the Exacto knife he carried for the purpose of sharpening pencils – when he was jumped by a carload of kids. At Bill’s urging, I attended the student’s sentencing hearing, where his teacher and minister were joined by neighbors including a former cop and a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant speaking on his behalf. Bill also organized a block party to raise funds for the young man’s legal defense and promote positive activities for youth.
His memoir says this event represented “activist Bill reborn.” The next year, he was organizing precinct workers for the campaigns of Rudy Lozano Jr. for state representative and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for Cook County Board. He put his computer skills to use building the database for the TIF Illumination Project. That project, which has schooled thousands of people across the city in how tax increment financing works, wouldn’t have been possible without Bill, according to Tom Tresser of Civic Lab.

A couple of years later, Bill was diagnosed with inoperative pancreatic cancer. He faced the news with incredible courage – he would tell me that he viewed it as an opportunity, a spur to double down on his political efforts and deepen his appreciation for his family. At a 66th birthday party after the news, scores of old comrades travelled from Milwaukee and elsewhere to pay him tribute.

He fought the cancer with the same determination he’d fought the powers that be over the years, and he won five additional years of a purposeful life. His main focus was on building the McKinley Park Progressive Alliance and expanding that into the 12th Ward Independent Political Organization. He was proud that in the 2015 election, that group had full contingents of volunteers staffing every polling place – and that, unlike many progressive campaigns, the volunteers were folks who lived there.

Here’s part of his clear-eyed assessment of the 2015 election, in which Garcia forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff: “When all the votes were counted, we were not the kind of movement that could that could topple Rahm Emanuel’s coterie of global power brokers. We are a populace fragmented by the cunning of the One Percent. We rose up to fight back. We lost. And yet we gained a lot.”

Bill had a vision – and it is slowly coming to fruition – of a network of IPOs across the Southwest Side. The organizational form harks back to the small-d democratic political organizations that emerged to fight the Democratic machine in the 1970s, under independent aldermen on the North, West, and Southwest Sides. (The only IPO continuously operating since then is in Garcia’s 22nd Ward.) It was necessary to remain active between elections, he maintained, and his groups held educational forums year-round. One issue he highlighted was the questionable practices of the national charter school network run by the Turkish Gulen movement, whose Concept chain opened a school in McKinley Park in 2013.

That’s what was special about Bill Drew. He looked beyond the daily grind that bogs down progressive activists. He asked how we could take things to the next level – and he was a consummate master of figuring out the next step, and the step after that, and inspiring people to move forward together.
I am among many people who will miss him. But he left a strong legacy – and many people in place to continue his work.