Why Charlottesville?

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Note: During and after last weekend’s terrorist attack on Charlottesville, I received dozens of texts and emails from friends. They were immensely comforting in a difficult time. But besides offering words of love and sympathy, my friends wanted to know Why? Why was Charlottesville the target of this assault? Why did Heather Heyer have to die?

Here’s what I wrote to a South African friend a couple of days after the attack. I’ve edited the letter to remove personal details about my friend.

It’s been awful. Physically, I’m fine, but I’m battered emotionally — we all are, I think. This is a city full of people who are in mourning, people whose sadness is inexpressible, people whose anger is suffocating.

I’ve been on the verge of tears, off and on, for the last couple of days. When I read an open letter from black University of Virginia alumni to incoming first-year students, my eyes got wet again. The alums told the class of 2021 that although “each of us… has experienced or witnessed racism and prejudice [at UVA]… racism, prejudice, and discrimination are not values honored by the University of Virginia.” Platitudes, of course. Aspirations, not facts. But we cling to them and want them to be true of our city and our university, especially now.

We’ve been terrorized. It’s as simple and as awful as that. Well organized, well armed bands of white supremacists, eventually totaling in the hundreds, invaded our city and our university, intending to spread terror. And they did. Some wore military-style clothing and carried assault rifles (legal here if not concealed). Others, dressed in white shirts and khakis, marched through the university’s grounds, on that Friday night, carrying torches (tiki torches from Lowe’s). Downtown on Saturday, they strutted and menaced. They shouted racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and anti-semitic slogans. They attacked counter-protesters. They killed Heather Heyer, a young activist. And they seriously injured many others.

Meanwhile, the heavy, militarized police presence that was supposed to keep the peace and protect the city utterly failed to do so. Piling tragedy upon tragedy, two Virginia State Police officers, who had been working as aerial observers, died late in the day when their helicopter crashed.

I don’t mean to say that all of this has left us cowering. It has not. Even during the white supremacists’ rally, the counter-protesters never left the streets. Clergy members and ordinary citizens attended protest meetings, interfaith prayer services, and outdoor vigils for the victims. Local members of Black Lives Matter led chants of “Whose Streets? Our Streets.” Anti-fa activists protected the clergy from white supremacist thugs.

But, still, we were terrorized, even if most people don’t want to use the word. We were reeling — anxious, angry, distracted, disoriented, and impossibly sad. To some degree, we still are. Just as we think we’re doing better, the monster in the White House finds a way to pour salt on our wounds.

On Sunday, the day after, the streets were still eerily quiet. People largely stayed close to home, close to family, church, and friends. Things began to seem more normal on Monday. You had to go to work, after all. In the evening, several hundred people — black and white, young and old — packed the auditorium at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to talk about where the city should go from here. More importantly, we wanted to gather as a community to assure ourselves and the world that we’re still here, and we haven’t been defeated. Solidarity.

Journalists have been calling and emailing. They all want to know — Why Charlottesville?

Short answer. White supremacists capitalized on the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee from a park in the center of the city.

Longer answer. The presence of the statue in a park that’s downtown Charlottesville’s most important gathering place has been an issue off and on for years. When the controversy came to a head in 2016, city council appointed a commission to make recommendations about the fate of the statue and a statue of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. I was vice-chair. We were also charged with suggesting ways to tell a more inclusive and accurate public history of the city. That meant, in essence, finding ways to tell the story of people that public sculptures and markers ignored (or, in the case of Native Americans, depicted in defeat.)

Among other things, we recommended that the park in which the Lee statue stands should be renamed (it’s now Emancipation Park) and that the Lee statue should either be removed from the park or physically transformed to sap its visual power and open it up to reinterpretation. The statue, we said, was and is a symbol of both the myth of the Lost Cause, which glorifies the slaveholding South, and the triumphant white supremacy of the early-twentieth-century Jim Crow, when it was erected.

City council then voted to remove the damn thing. (The process has been delayed by a legal challenge, brought by people who want the statue to remain, untouched.)

I saw a headline the other day that said something like “Charlottesville Is Us.” Hell, yes. These last few days have held up a mirror to America.

When Jason Kessler, a local white nationalist blogger, called for a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park to protest the decision to remove the statue, he understood that many of the white supremacists know fuck-all about Lee and the Civil War. But he also saw that the statue was a symbol of white male supremacy around which a diverse constellation of racist, neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, and white nationalist groups could coalesce. It was a clever ploy and an effective one.

Kessler is small potatoes. But his plans received a boost when Richard Spencer, a UVA graduate, who’s a celebrity in the world of white nationalism, joined the campaign. And it struck a chord nationwide.

The fact that Charlottesville is a small city with and even smaller black population also matters. After all, it’s hard to imagine similar terrorist attack happening in, say, New Orleans, which very publically got rid of its Confederate memorials last spring.

But there’s a second question that that’s even more to the point. Why Not Charlottesville?

I saw a headline the other day that said something like “Charlottesville Is Us.” Hell, yes. These last few days have held up a mirror to America. We’re a nation still defined by white male supremacy. In 2016, a majority of white voters — male and female — elected someone to the presidency who they knew is deeply and unapologetically racist and sexist, someone who demonstrated those truths time and again in the most grotesque ways imaginable. During his campaign and in office he has surrounded himself with people just like him.

Those people, and his enablers in Congress, help us see through the comfortable illusion that white supremacists are only the folks who burn crosses or carry tiki torches. Jeff Sessions and Paul Ryan might never have worn Klan hoods or shopped for torches at Lowe’s, but they’re doing the work of white supremacy every day of the year.

Fact is, Trump isn’t the aberration. Obama was.

•••

DSA National Convention 25,000 and Counting

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“We will not achieve a democratic socialist society in the immediate future. We will not uproot sexism, nor will we achieve a full employment economy. Neither will we experience the creation of a viable black “nation within a nation.” What we all can dare hope for, and work for, are the beginnings of the process of change, Gramsci’s “war of position,” which will advance the material and social interests of the oppressed of all ethnic groups, sexes, races and cultures. We can change the world, only if we find the courage to challenge ourselves. We can change the world, only if we begin to overturn the patterns of our own history.” Manning Marable, 1981

”The challenge that faces the Left in the future – if it is to have a future – is to base itself on the knowledge of what collective action by human beings can mean, rather than on faith in the infallibility of either its dogma or its leaders. If I were allowed just one piece of advice to give a new generation as to how to sustain a life-long commitment, I would suggest the cultivation of those two essential virtues of a revolutionary, patience and irony.” Dorothy Healy, 1990

DSA’s phenomenal growth – from 6,000 to 25,000 in less than a year – was registered at the just concluded National Convention in Chicago. Over 700 Delegates took part in debates and discussions, August 5-7, that led to political resolutions and bylaw changes reflecting the perspectives of those newly joined. And it is not just membership growth – it is growth in political credibility and influence, growth as part of something much bigger. A sign of the seriousness of the change may be noted by the fact that there was no large outreach event with well-known speakers – a staple of past Conventions. The reason is, in part, because there was no need as DSA’s Convention was a public event in and of itself.

But rapid growth is no guarantee of long-term success and stability. SDS is the obvious example of an organization that experienced a massive increase in members at a pace that it could not assimilate and so soon collapsed in division and acrimony leaving a vacuum that was left unfilled. Other organizations suffered a similar fate, notably SNCC, the Black Panther Party, La Raza Unida. Drawing a slightly longer arc of rise and decline, we can note the same phenomena with the pre-World War 1 Socialist Party, with the Communist Party during the New Deal era – both of which faced repression shortly after reaching a peak of influence followed by losses from which neither ever fully recovered. Repression, however, is never the only, or even most significant, reason for decline or collapse. We live in a repressive system; a challenge to its power is bound to result in reaction. Rather more fundamental is finding a way to function politically on a larger stage of society, of maintaining and solidifying roots within working-class communities, acting within society’s institutions while maintaining a radical politics that contests for power. It is the challenge inherent in asserting what Michael Harrington referred to as “the left-wing of the possible,” bearing in mind that defining left-wing and ascertaining what is possible is never something fixed and is always subject to debate.

Certainly, the notion of the left and the sense of what is possible have been radicalized – as seen by Convention resolutions some of which speak to continuity with the past and some of which speak to substantive change. Examining Convention resolutions from the standpoint of what went before, can give a clue whether DSA will continue its growth in membership and influence.

Resolutions

Medicare for all – DSA reaffirmed a position supported by a majority who responded to a pre-Convention national survey by making a commitment to prioritize the demand: Medicare for All – with the specific inclusion of full access to women’s reproductive rights and to meet the needs of transgendered people. This reflected continuity; DSA had played a major role in organizing for single payer during the Clinton Administration health care debates and in the immediate aftermath of that initiative’s defeat. It was a commitment that grew out of traditional socialist values; failure to establish a national health care system in the aftermath of World War II was amongst the early signs that the forward progress of New Deal legislation had stopped – thereafter, support for national health remained a goal for progressives and labor. It also grew out of the role of socialist feminism in DSA for focus on health was not simply as a matter of national legislation, but was also about organizing to create women’s health centers, to defend abortion clinics, to act in solidarity with AIDS activists.

Yet, over time, the potential of the early 90s was lost. A divide grew within the social justice movement (mirrored in DSA) between local activism which dealt with the range of health justice issues in their immediate impact on individuals and advocates focused more on seeking an overall solution to the health care crisis. In consequence, left wing alternatives were politically marginalized despite having popular support, as was demonstrated during debates around Obama’s health reform proposals. The situation has now changed: the Republican attack on health care, in its very extremity, is emblematic of the dangers of the moment, the successful movement to defend Obama Care a sign of the possibilities if we act. At the same time, the demand for Health Care for all and defense of abortion rights draws a clear line of demarcation within the Democratic Party – and so enables DSA to put forward a distinctive independent perspective within the broader campaign, flowing naturally as a continuation of the politics around Sanders campaign.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) endorsement – in the midst of national and state legislative initiatives by both Republicans and Democrats to ban BDS compliance, this resolution came at a politically important time. In the past, defining a position around Israel and the Palestinians was a point of internal division, including during the negotiations between Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement that led to the formation of DSA. The fact that the BDS resolution passed overwhelmingly is a sign of how much the organization has changed, and a sign of how much the political environment has changed. Israel’s repressive policies toward the Palestinians has become ever harsher and less constrained, while Israeli use of its “counter-terrorism” expertise to train and supply US police departments has made the domestic connection all the sharper.

The challenge for DSA is to concretize awareness of that connection into more general opposition to US overseas policy. Solidarity with Palestinians – and others who suffer from US-backed military power – is also a means of defending civil liberties at home, and a critical part any meaningful program to redirect resources away from war and toward meeting domestic needs. If the purpose of the statement was simply to establish a litmus test of radicalism, it will have no political meaning. If, however, it is integrated with DSA’s overall work and serve as a challenge to what was arguably the weakest aspect of Sanders campaign it will prove significant. That is the challenge still to be met.

Withdrawal from the Socialist International – The question to remain a member (observer) or withdraw was debated in locals throughout DSA in the months before the Convention. The level of interest on this was due to DSA’s longstanding SI membership, going back to the Socialist Party’s origins. Membership had been internally challenged in the past due to the SI’s anti-communism, complicity in the Cold War, and unambiguous support for Israel. But at the same time, positive reasons existed to remain. DSA served as a counterpoint to the late unlamented SDUSA (Social Democrats USA) another SI affiliate with Socialist Party roots. With close ties to the George Meany and Lane Kirkland leaderships of the AFL-CIO, SDUSA argued that their support for the war in Vietnam, the subversion of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and CIA inspired coups there and elsewhere had the support of US workers and socialists; a position DSA always contested. Furthermore, Michael Manley in Jamaica, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, were amongst several Third World leaders active in the SI as a vehicle to build support for progressive development policies (concretized in the Brandt-Manley Report). And finally, around the time of DSA’s formation, SI affiliates in Spain, Greece, just emerging from dictatorships, were developing policies that went beyond the limits of traditional Social Democracy. SI Women, in particular played an important role in advancing global women’s rights and DSA was part of that work.

But the moment passed, the parties of the Second International embraced wholeheartedly the politics of neoliberalism identified with Tony Blair in the UK, moving away from traditional support for universal social insurance and full employment. SI parties have given up the pretense of being parts of political movement, concerned instead with office holding and little else. So DSA’s membership had become an anachronism. What is lacking, however, is a clear sense of what a meaningful international policy might look like. Rather than identifying with the specificity of any single stream of left thinking abroad, DSA needs to find a way to develop more formal ties with the European Left Party, the Sao Paulo Forum in Latin America and other regional/global left bodies which in their respective attempts to build unity while embracing ideological heterogeneity are more akin to DSA’s multi-tendency nature.

Afro-Socialist Caucus formed and Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda endorsed – no weakness has proved to be a more critical in inhibiting DSA’s growth than its weakness in black, Latino and Asian communities. In particular, the lack of a base of African American members has undermined any attempt to root DSA amongst working people, given the centrality of racism and slavery to the development of US capitalism and to the formation of the working class. The creation of the Afro-Socialist Caucus is a hopeful sign that with the new spurt of membership, the possibility of overcoming that weakness may be at hand. The endorsement of the Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda, the support for reparations, the call for an end to mass incarceration, for prison abolition speaks to the understanding that change will not happen of itself. DSA’s program around universal demands for social and economic justice must be joined to demands that address the specific needs of dispossessed communities.

More though is required. An Afro-American Commission was established at DSA’s formation, together with the Asian-Pacific American, Latino and Native American Commissions, which jointly put out a journal, Third World Socialists. A small core of African-American activists (including Cornel West), together with the Anti-Racism Commission spurred the internal push within DSA to participate in the Rainbow Coalition and to support Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Yet although some outstanding local and national leaders continued to play a role in DSA’s organizational life, identified themselves with or joined DSA, DSA never came close to being sufficiently multi-racial in its membership or activist core. Part of the reason is that program and coalition building is insufficient – DSA must become more rooted in communities and workplaces if it is to develop an internal life that reflects the working-class in its full diversity. The steps taken in Chicago point in a positive direction; much more needs to be done.

Democratic Socialist Labor Commission created – The creation of the DSLC was the product of the initiative of mainly younger labor activists. As always, the challenge has been to engage in several arenas simultaneously: – to defend unions from attacks by business and government; to democratize unions and strengthen membership participation; to support development of a union agenda that connects workplace bargaining with a wider social justice agenda. Potential tensions exist in every aspect of doing so, because emphasis on one arena may come in conflict with emphasis on another arena. DSA’s success or failure in doing all three will go a long way toward informing how successful DSA is in its work overall.

Here too, a good deal can be learned from the experience of DSA’s Labor Commission in the 1980- 90s. The organization played a significant part in Central America/South Africa solidarity fights, in union reform movements including those of the Steelworkers and Teamsters, developed wide ranging strike support networks and took part in efforts within labor to develop progressive industrial policy with a focus on conversion from military to infrastructure production. DSA labor activism was part of the discontent that came to a head with John Sweeney’s successful reform candidacy for AFL-CIO President in 1995. The results were mixed: the AFL-CIO did change and change for the better – but the changes did not go far enough. The “organizing model of unionism” became dominant and while it opened up some pathways to activism, it closed others – especially as it evolved to be ever more staff-driven. Lack of attention to the inner-life of union locals undermined the independent base of the labor left. The half-victory, half defeat outcome made DSA’s future role unclear. The DSLC represents a positive step toward a new beginning. Future success will depend on remembering that networks of left union activists cannot replace those networks being fully a part of union life; without membership roots in workplaces, gains made will be fleeting.

What next?

Discussion took place at the Convention around other areas of engagement – immigrant rights, environmental justice, gentrification, and student debt amongst them. The socialist feminist commission with a national framework and local committees has been building a network to both change DSA’s internal dynamics and public program. Education and training programs to develop skills and understanding took place at the Convention – and are slated to continue. For all that DSA has changed with growth that is consistent – members work on national priorities, but locals develop their own focus based on assessment of local conditions. Doing so is a strength and, at the moment, crucial to build a sense of stability and trust.

But the big question that has yet to be defined has to do with electoral strategy. Over the past several months DSA has formed an electoral committee that has been engaged in supporting candidates – either DSA members or progressives open about DSA’s endorsement. Most of these have been running in Democratic primaries, challenging incumbent Democrats, and in that sense have been acting in a manner consistent with Our Revolution and other formations connected with of Sanders’ presidential campaigns – working to build an anti-corporate majority within the Democratic Party. This is in line with DSA’s orientation since its origins; nonetheless divisions exist as they always have between those who seek political realignment and a mass progressive movement through the Democratic Party, those who see progress as possible only through electoral action independent of the Democratic Party, and those who want to emphasis social movement activism over and above electoral work.

Though by no means co-extensive, these reflect underlying strategic differences. One approach is toward building coalitions – this was the traditional approach laid out by Michael Harrington in “Toward a Democratic Left”, and has the strength of seeking points of common ground across a wide spectrum of viewpoints. It has, however, the weakness of creating stop points which allows one perspective or another to be dropped for the “good” of the whole. Another perspective privileges independence: setting out a demand or group of demands and defining support or opposition to that as the basis of alliance. It is a perspective that allows for a clear enunciation of principles – “Medicare for All,” “No Concessions” – but suffers by drawing too sharp a line against potential allies. And both outlooks also tend to inhibit local action for fear in the one instance of disrupting a coalition, or in the other, of weakening the clear position being articulated. A third approach tends to favor local activism in which a variety of perspectives and approaches reinforce each other in a program that doesn’t require full agreement on any one point. The collective becomes the glue that might work with a union in one spot, a housing group in another, and local elected officials in a third. This allows maximum flexibility and integration in local movements, but it is typically unable to develop a sustained program able to overcome limitations or unpalatable compromises of local political power.

There is no iron wall between these and, at best, they are mutually reinforcing. When made absolute, however, they undermine each other. With growth comes greater visibility and influence – which makes maintaining this multiplicity of approaches all the more important and all the more difficult. It is a difficulty that will intensify over the coming years particularly as elections approach where the need to declare and engage will only grow. The divides over these perspectives are by no means generational – rather they reflect the imbalance of power between popular movements and the ruling circles of society and so constantly re-emerge and have to be constantly re-evaluated.

But a generational divide does exist in DSA and that has to do with a change of internal culture and language – smaller organizations with long histories develop informal procedures and a level of trust even within disagreement that comes out of people knowing each other. Newer members don’t participate in that, but have their own networks, their own modes of communication, their own frames of reference – and so between the two a lack of mutual understanding can emerge. The ability of DSA to build upon its successful conclusion, to resolve controversial questions, depends on being able to overcome that gap.

And that, in turn, depends upon using a broader measure to gauge internal divides. Such a measure would look at ideas and movements from outside DSA’s ranks that can help center internal discussion. From all accounts, this was somewhat lacking at the Convention. The focus on ideas generated from within is, of course, the whole purpose of a national convention and that purpose gains added meaning when rapid growth means finding new ways to cohere. Nonetheless, a more expansive view can sometimes help find a path forward when disagreement seems to block all roads. And here, it might be useful to look at the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina led by Rev. William Barber II for the concept of a “moral, fusion coalition,” which, in essence, provides a framework that can bring together the various lines of divide expressed within DSA, strengthening unity in difference in the direction of social justice.

Establishing Roots

“The original idea of feminism as I first encountered it, in about 1969, was twofold: that nothing short of equality will do and that in a society marred by injustice and cruelty, equality will never be good enough.” Barbara Ehrenreich, 1986

“Worker rights mean civil rights, minority rights, women’s rights outside in our work-a-day world and inside in our workplace world. Worker rights mean economic rights on the job and in the community. Worker rights mean jobs with justice.” William Winpisinger, 1983

And this returns us to our beginning. One reason for the rapid rise and fall of US left organizations has been lack of roots. When a movement or organization has such, it is able to survive repression, defeat and political mistakes, because its members are known for who they are by neighbors and co-workers. Moreover, political decisions and actions taken with reference to a community give context to organizational initiatives otherwise absent. Any group can make decisions based on sitting around and discussing it – it takes on a whole different dimension when that discussion goes back to thinking what people in a given neighborhood, school or place of employment think. DSA’s new membership clearly is part of the broader stratum of the population emboldened by Sanders, angered by Trump, political positions and decisions which reflect a relationship to that community – a genuine strength. But, by the same token, the new membership does not, for the most part, come to socialism after participation in a strike, or because of a defeated organizing drive, or after going through an eviction. That too was evident in how issues were discussed and how decisions were made – this is a weakness that must be overcome to reinforce the source of strength.

To underscore that point, it is critical to keep in mind the reasons for DSA’s growth. The obvious answer, Sanders/Trump doesn’t say much – for the next question is why they had such impact in 2015-2016. Behind the upheavals during the elections lies something deeper – the general crisis in a system no longer able to paper over the lack of solutions for capital as Reagan did in one form in the 1980s and Bill Clinton did in another form in the 1990s. The ongoing war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, the revelation of government incapacity, environmental crisis and the human face of racist induced poverty revealed by Katrina and then the 2008 financial collapse are the outward signs of a system incapable of solving its own problems, let alone addressing (even inadequately) public need. This crisis is the cause of political instability in the US and abroad, it is an instability that will only be addressed by transformational politics, by a socialism that challenges existing power. If DSA is able to remain focused on that crisis and its manifestation in racist violence, mass insecurity, inequality, and a society wide sense of loss of hope, it ought to be able to consolidate its strength, build strong locals engaged in numerous arenas, maintain an open, self-critical spirit. In other words, be part of the needed response to a country drifting toward barbarism. The Convention was a step toward that end – the future will tell where further steps will lie.

•••

In conversation Stansbury Forum co-editor Peter Olney asked the following questions:

1. Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? In other words is there unity of action for the 25,000 that can impact society?

2. You mention the lack of experience in “running a strike” etc. Should the DSA privilege or encourage such experience as we did in the 70’s?

Kurt:
Hi Peter – and thanks for wanting to run the article. Your first question is the cardinal one and I really don’t have an answer yet. But my tentative answer at the moment is no the whole is not yet greater than the sum of its part. The potential is there, but whether it is realized or not is another matter. Part of the problem is an old one – people think that they have an answer because growth seems constant, yet they are riding a wave without realizing it. And with that comes a narrow focus that sees victory in the size of an action rather than in whether it moved the process forward. DSA was very much part of the action at Charlottseville, if I was 40 years younger I would have wanted to join them – but still nobody is asking the question of whether the counter protests could have been better organized, with a more massive turnout. I don’t have an answer, what is bothersome is not asking the question. That said, the jury is still out; people are streaming into DSA who are serious, dedicated, looking for a way forward – I just hope our leadership is up to the task. Part of the challenge is for those of us who have been around to not be impatient – remembering how out of touch older radicals once seemed to us. I always recall the Phil Ochs line, “I know you were younger once, because you sure are older now,” and am determined not to fall into that trap (Dorothy, by the way, was incredible in that respect for she had one other necessary quality in a revolutionary: she knew how to listen.

As to your second question – it is amazing to me how little people coming into DSA know about unions – which is really a reflection of how much unions have declined in size and influence. In DC, and I don’t say this critically, we have a number of people in federal jobs, in a union for the first time, who have no context in which to put their union activity. But the other side of the problem is that so many people in union leadership these days have never worked in industry or for an employer other than on campus or for the movement. Unlike our generation that felt a necessity to “join the working-class,” this just isn’t part of the consciousness. One of my favorite Winpisinger anecdotes was his explaining that in a proposed labor-management industrial planning board he inserted the provision that the union reps should have “hand on production experience.” That way, he explained, Kirkland (then President of the AFL-CIO) couldn’t serve. His fundamental point – union leaders should come from the rank-and-file. It will take a long struggle for the labor movement to regain that understanding.

•••

About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project. View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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U.S. coal production rose in 2016. Now it’s falling again

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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.

A national bump in coal production that started in mid-2016 may be pausing or even coming to an end, although overall job growth and production in Central Appalachia continues to grow.

The downtick in production figures was reported Thursday by SNL Energy, a publication produced by S&P Global Market Intelligence. SNL analyzed major producers reporting second-quarter figures to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The decline in production from the first quarter was felt across most regions but especially in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, which produces by far the most coal in the country.

Appalachia produces only about a quarter of the coal in the U.S., but fetches substantially higher prices.

Even with the drop from quarter to quarter, however, coal production is up substantially from the same quarter one year ago. The second quarter of 2016 marked the bottom of a sharp if short-term decline in coal production from 2015.

Both steam coal, used for generating electricity, and metallurgical coal, used in making steel, saw growth over the past year, driven largely by a growing export market. Coal exports grew by more than 50 percent from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017.

“The increase in production from Central Appalachia mines paired with increased overall employment suggests coal companies may be going after more labor-intensive production as international pricing for metallurgical coal has improved,” wrote SNL reporter Taylor Kuykendall.


Industry associations remain optimistic despite the quarter-to-quarter decline in production.

Luke Popovich, the National Mining Association’s vice president of external communications, noted in an email that China restricted its metallurgical coal production last year, which increased prices and led to more demand for U.S.-mined coal. Steam coal benefited from international demand as well.

“The export picture has really picked up,” Popovich wrote. “Met coal exports through May of this year are up 27 percent [according to commerce department data]. Meanwhile, steam coal exports have nearly tripled this year—and like met coal they’re up in all regions. And surprisingly, our steam coal exports to Europe have risen 120 percent through May.”

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president at the West Virginia Coal Association, said he sees potential for more exports with President Donald Trump attempting to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said he hoped that increased demand paired with a loosening of regulations should spur the industry.

“We have to take full advantage of that to get more people back to work and try to return to the levels of production and employment where we were seven or eight years ago,” Hamilton said. “That’s a challenge but we’ve seen on the ground some of the increases in production and employment are the direct result of President Trump’s actions.”

The increases in production and employment started with the second quarter of 2016, before November’s presidential election.

Trump has paid lip service to the coal sector, but he’s also encouraging increased production of natural gas and oil, which are competitors of steam coal. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bills this week to streamline permitting for natural gas pipelines, and the Senate looks likely to approve Trump’s nominees for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would allow for the approval of a backlog of energy infrastructure projects, opening the door for natural gas to become an even more powerful player in the energy market.

Neither Hamilton nor Popovich said they were worried by that prospect. Trump’s loosening of regulations has already flattened the playing field and given coal a better chance to compete against its energy rivals in the future, they said.

“When the playing field is uneven, as it was, tilted against Central Appalachia, then I think you see the decline that we experienced,” Hamilton said. “When some of those restrictions are removed and mine permits are issued in a timely manner, and the regulatory climate is even, some of the other pressures against utilities are backed off, then I think Central Appalachia holds its own.”

You might also find “The coal industry is fighting a bipartisan effort to create jobs from abandoned mine land” by Lindsey Gilpin, also in 100 Days in Appalachia, also of interest

•••

Steve Early’s book “Refinery Town”, reviewed

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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

Robert Lipton has been a long time east bay resident and a Richmond resident for 6 years. He is a poet laureate of Richmond, (2017-2019), he helps run the swim program at the Richmond Plunge and is an energetic member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, working on rent control and related issues. (he formally debated this issue in several venues during the campaign.) He has a day job as a spatial epidemiologist studying violence and social disorganization, having been on faculty at the Harvard Medical School and a professor at the University of Michigan. He was the LA director of fairness and accuracy in reporting (FAIR) during the first gulf war and has been a long time member of a Jewish Voice for Peace. View all posts by Rob Lipton →

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Can ‘Berniecrats’ win in Appalachia?

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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.”

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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 →

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

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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 →

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Clinical Need, Not Ability To Pay

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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 →

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THE MEXICAN LOTTO

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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, postcardsfromapostmexican.wordpress.com. View all posts by Álvaro Ramírez →

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

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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 →

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