Be Careful About What You Wish for: Impeachment v Paralysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author

Robert J.S. Ross, PhD

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

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Class, race and political strategy in the rust belt

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“This used to be a thriving hillbilly town”

1. Elections in abnormal times

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

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

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

2. Pollster fail

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

3. Mistakes of the Clinton campaign

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

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

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

4. Trump’s victory

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

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

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

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

5. Keys to the rust belt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Wrenching adjustment

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

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

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

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

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

8. A different model of politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. An inside-outside orientation to the Democratic Party

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


10. What kind of organization?

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

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

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

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

•••

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author

Glenn Perusek

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

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Longtime Southwest Side activist leaves legacy of building people power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the State of The Union Prompted by the Los Angeles School Board Election

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In the absence of these “mediating institutions”, everyday people are disconnected from civic life as citizens.”

In the recent (5/16/17) Los Angeles Unified School District—second largest district in the nation—Board election, pro-private charter/voucher candidates defeated the incumbent school board president and a candidate who shares his basic views. Some $14 million was spent, most of it by the winners—which will no doubt be the reason given by many for their victory. I think it is more complicated than that.

Here is a framework for understanding the Los Angeles school board election (a framework that I think is also applicable to Trump’s victory and other electoral results with which most readers of these comments are not pleased). The framework has three parts: (1) the crippled programs syndrome; (2) the erosion of civil society, and; (3) the failure of organized labor to be much more than another interest group, and of broadly-based, multi-issue, community organizing to reach what I think is its potential.

1. The crippled programs syndrome

I wish I could claim this appellation as my own, but it comes from a paper with that title written in the early 1970s by Steven Waldhorn (a long-time friend of mine) when he was at Stanford University. The paper’s essential argument is that government programs for the poor are often inadequate because of crippling legislative, guideline and appropriations constraints imposed upon them at the outset by conservative legislators and administrators. Having crippled them, these conservatives then widely trumpet the failures of government programs.

Inner-city schools are among the crippled programs. (Imagine the difference in outcomes if teacher salaries were doubled, classroom size halved, breakfast and lunch provided for all students, and program monies were abundantly available for things like the Algebra Project.)

2. The erosion of civil society

This subject is at the core of what I do and think. We cannot have a vital democracy without vital voluntary associations, democratically constituted and funded by their members. It is these groups that are the underpinning of democratic politics. Without them, politicians are dependent upon media to reach voters, and media costs lots of money, which as few would deny, makes those politicians increasingly dependent upon those who fund their campaigns.

Without these associations there is nothing standing between individuals and families, on the one hand, and on the other mega-institutions like large corporations, government and large nonprofits (as in the health-care system). In the absence of these “mediating institutions”, everyday people are disconnected from civic life as citizens. Instead, they are “recipients” or “beneficiaries” of programs about which they have little voice. Their voicelessness makes them prey to demagogues who exploit it and promise to stand for “the people” against the mega-institutions that dominate society.

(Note that this framework excludes from civil society the typical nonprofit which—whatever its merits, and they are often many—is part of the problem, not the solution. In the low and moderate-income communities in which I worked during the years of the poverty program, model cities, and a number of other federal programs aimed at alleviating poverty, there emerged a plethora of “community-based non-profits”. In general, the purpose of each was good. And many of them did a good-to-excellent job implementing that purpose; others were simply part of a patronage machine. Whether excellent or worthless, their cumulative effect was to erode voluntary civic associations which had a “bottom-up” character and substitute for them the particular structure and character of most nonprofits: self-perpetuating boards of directors, no or non-voting membership, total dependency on external funding—all of which resulted in no participation and no community accountability.) Cumulatively, they are an example of the sum being less than its parts.

The self-identified “labor movement” has become another “interest group”

3. The labor “movement” and broadly based community organizing

When I was a boy my parents did not miss voting in elections. Their guide to how they cast their ballot was the west coast longshoremen’s union slate card. The International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) was a Communist influenced, left-wing union; it was expelled from the CIO during the post World War II red-scare period. My folks were part of that left-wing world. Even though not members of ILWU, they trusted it. They had personal relationships with members and leaders in it. They were part of a vibrant community in which politics was regularly discussed, social gatherings took place, educational activities were numerous, and action for social and economic justice was central. My parents voted for those slate card-recommended politicians no matter how much campaign money was spent by their opposition.

That ILWU was part of the John L. Lewis led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the CIO of the 1930s was part of a broad “progressive” movement that spoke for the common good and general welfare. Whatever its weaknesses, and they were surely there, these unions cared about more than the narrow, though important, workplace interests of their members.

When Saul Alinsky organized “Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council” (BYNC), one of its principal activities was to support a strike of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC). And BYNC, whose members were for the most part eastern European “ethnics”, was an outspoken supporter of racial justice—for example, providing testimony for fair employment practices.

Sad to say, most parents don’t see teacher unions as outspoken supporters for the education of their kids. And for good reason. If it were otherwise, there would be no way in which the 25,000+ teachers (60,000+ total employees) in the LA school district couldn’t have been the base for a door-to-door/home visits/small house meetings face-to-face election campaign that would have convinced the number of voters needed to win: 31,000 for Zimmer, and 14,000 for Imelda Padilla (the union-supported, anti-voucher/private charter candidates). Nor would there have been a mere 11% (that’s not a typo!) voter turnout in the election. And that doesn’t even count unions with no direct relationship to public schools.

The self-identified “labor movement” (which isn’t moving very much, and sometimes moves backward rather than forward) has become another “interest group”. Its word doesn’t mean much to the general electorate, and in some cases not even to its own membership.

Broadly-based community organizing in what might broadly be defined as “the Alinsky tradition” is now almost 80 years old. The current veterans in the field have been engaged in the work for 50+ years. I count myself among them. For reasons that are beyond the scope of what I want to say here, we have not reached the people power capacity, nor broadly expressed the vision, that characterized the CIO at its best.

Without substantial change in these two arenas, the present situation in the country is likely to persist. Electoral victories by even the most “progressive” of candidates are not sufficient to turn the country around; they don’t have the power to combat things like capital strikes that are likely to follow any significant efforts at reform.

The Result

Combined these three factors – crippled programs syndrome, erosion of civil society, and failures/weaknesses of organized labor and community organizing – create the circumstances in which “neo-liberalism” is now the dominant ideology of the country (and the western world). While I think it rests on shaky foundations, this point of view is the underpinning of shrinking government (except for the security-military industry complex), charter schools and vouchers, market solutions to all human problems, rugged individualism and a consumer culture. The results are the present vast inequalities of income and wealth, the largely unrestrained power of corporate and Wall Street America, and growing hostility toward “The Other,” whomever she or he may be.

Fortunately, a majority of Americans do not agree with significant parts of this ideology, and they want something different from their politicians than they are getting. In poll after poll, voters express views that are far more consistent with a notion of the public welfare and common good, as well as unity in diversity, than they are with “watch out for number one” or any of the “isms”.

So I do not despair. But there sure is a lot of organizing work to be done.

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org View all posts by Mike Miller →

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For Home

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“What will you do for your hills, You mountain boy?”

Aunt Rita Mingo County WV.jpg – Roger May’s aunt, Rita Vanhoose, looks out over the valley below from the King Coal Highway in Mingo County Photo and copyright: Roger May

I moved back home at the end of January this year. It was a tumultuous time in my personal life, never mind the charged political landscape of both the nation and state. My last day of work in North Carolina was a Friday and I had my car loaded so I could leave and drive straight to West Virginia. Monday morning, I was first in line at the DMV in Princeton to get my drivers license.

Not just a driver’s license, but a West Virginia driver’s license. The woman at the desk told me she’d never seen anyone as excited as me to stand in line at the DMV.

Over the course of my first few weeks, I watched the president sign executive orders that repealed regulations designed to protect the coalfields of central Appalachia. I attended an ill-publicized town hall meeting with Senator Joe Manchin (who refers to West Virginia as the Extraction State rather than the Mountain State) in Peterstown.

When it was time for questions, I raised my hand first and asked him to look me in the eye and tell me, as a West Virginian, how he could vote to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. Although he did look me in the eye, the next seven minutes were dedicated to everything but answering my question.

So why come home now? I believe in West Virginia.

A person close to me once told me West Virginia was in my DNA. I know I’m not alone when it comes to this place being woven into the very fiber of my existence, of who I am. I have never encountered prouder people in all the places I’ve traveled in the world. And I mean the kind of pride a mother has for a son, not the kind of pride the Bible warns us about.

I believe in West Virginia despite being told at an early age that if I wanted to make something of myself I had to move away. I believe in West Virginia because we are more than extraction state. I believe in West Virginia because I owe to it my forebears and my children. I believe in West Virginia because my inheritance, our inheritance, is more than surface-mined mountains, valley fills, polluted streams, and being ranked at the bottom of too many lists. I came home to West Virginia to fight for the future.

Keystone McDowell County WV.jpg – Mike and Asia Brooks wait for a ride to church in Keystone, McDowell County. Photo and copyright: Roger May

Our young folk are tired of not being heard. They’re tired of being told what’s best for them, where they should go, why they should stay, and they’re tired of not having a place at the table. They’re tired of being talked at. My granddad, Richard Watson of Chattaroy, once told me that I have two ears and one mouth and that meant I should listen twice as much as I speak. I came home to West Virginia to listen to young folk.

Our forebears, whether they marched and organized or wrote songs and taught school and stood for what’s right, showed us a way forward. They created hope in times that were dark and sometimes bloody. I came home to West Virginia to honor my forebears.

In 2014, I photographed the aftermath of the Freedom Industries chemical spill in the Elk River for The Guardian. After working for three days, I got in my car and drove 300 miles back to North Carolina, to clean water, and to a place where hardly anyone knew about the spill. I struggled with leaving and with not doing more. I came home to West Virginia to do more.

I came home to West Virginia because I couldn’t not come back. Kentucky writer Bell Hooks wrote in her beautiful essay To Be Whole and Holy, “Hence we return to the unforgettable home places of our past with a vital sense of covenant and commitment.”

I now have the incredible opportunity to direct the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia. Founded by Don and Connie West in 1965, the ASFC was founded to educate young people about their mountain heritage and to focus on “the restoration of self-respect and human dignity lost as a consequence of the region’s colonial relationship with industrial America.”

We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t get out of this overnight. There is no quick fix, no easy button, no campaign promise to fix what is broken. What remains is you and me. What is possible is what we choose to do. In Don West’s poem Mountain Boy, he writes, “What will you do for your hills, You mountain boy?”

What will you do for home?

•••

Editor’s note – For a look at what greed and corporate dominance as done, specifically to West Virginia, watch “Blood on the Mountain” now streaming on Netflix.

“With an impressive historical scope, “Blood on the Mountain” is a documentary with information that rhymes, of workers who themselves become destroyed natural resources, often at the greed of political and industrial figures who render miners and their families as disposable..” Nick Allen at RogerEbert.com

It is a document of the greed and callousness of corporations and politicians that have exploited and then abandoned not just Appalachia but also the South in areas like Cancer Alley; the Southwest with contamination of the land of the Navajo Nation, Arizona, New Mexico by uranium and copper mining; and the destruction of Northern California’s forest lands, to name but a few.

A California Fix From Out of Old Massachusetts?

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A disreputable chapter of California legislative history, when consideration of single payer health insurance was banned, has ended with the filing of a single payer universal healthcare bill. The question now, can the legislature be prevented from similarly embarrassing itself by evading its responsibilities to conduct the people’s business on matters of substantial importance. Perhaps the nation’s largest state might consider an idea from one of the oldest states – the Massachusetts “right of free petition”.

Having twice passed single payer legislation, the Democratic controlled California legislature four years ago disappeared the bill. There is no record of the legislative leadership telling members they couldn’t file the bill, it’s just that none, in either branch, did even though a bill had been filed in each of the seven previous two-year sessions. The salient fact here is the legislature had actually put the bill on the governor’s desk when the governor was Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now it’s Democrat Jerry Brown and as one observer bluntly put it, “A Democratic legislature will pass single payer when there’s a Republican Governor but not when there’s a Democratic Governor — unless he wants it.” The legislative leadership’s previous support for single payer had been for show only.

Unless California’s current legislative leaders (who change rapidly due to term limits) have a better grasp on the question than the state’s chief executive – whose most recent take on state-level Medicare-for-all ideas was: “I don’t even get it. How do you do that? …,”, California is could be in for more flim-flam from the legislature. In Massachusetts the legislature could not even entertain foisting off such a travesty upon the populace because that state’s 1780 constitution guarantees its people the “right … to … give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.” This language is universally understood to grant Massachusetts citizens “the right of free petition,” that is, the right to file any bill they deem worthy. This situation is unique among the fifty states – but maybe it shouldn’t be.

This right does not work miracles. It’s just a part of a Massachusetts legislative culture, broader and more open than in many other states with as many as 8,000 bills considered in a legislative session. If an individual wants to file a piece of legislation widely considered beyond the pale, that A couple of couner-changes: bill is filed “by request,” indicating that the Senator or Representative sponsoring it does not actually support it, which renders its chances of passage nil. Nor can the right of free petition guarantee that a meritorious bill won’t be voted down, or shunted off to a study. It does, however, at least guarantee that important issues can get a hearing in the state capitol.

California ironically enjoys a national reputation for broad citizen access to the law-making process, due to its well utilized initiative and referendum mechanisms, adopted to counter corporate dominance of the legislature in 1911. But not only has the initiative process become an extremely expensive business, but its simple up or down vote precludes the possibility of refinement and improvement in the hearing and amendment process.

Doubtless California, a state of 39 million, will never adopt whole-cloth a right promulgated by a state whose populace numbered little more than a quarter million at the time – in 2017, any consideration of creating a new citizen right of free petition would likely involve a threshold number of supporters higher than one. But California’s recent suppression of normal democratic legislative procedure does suggest that the state’s voters would be well served by considering the concept in some form. Likewise, the growing national alienation from government suggests that more than one state might benefit from considering it.

About the author

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a delegate to the upcoming California Democratic State Convention who once represented Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex." He lives in San Francisco. View all posts by Tom Gallagher →

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Thinking Through “Resist Deportations”: What’s the End Game?

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1985: El Centro, CA. Undocumented workers waiting for deportation at the El Centro Immigration Detention Center. Photo: Robert Gumpert

Of course we should resist Trump (and Obama and all those who preceded him) in their efforts to deport “illegals”, most of whom came to this country because U.S. negotiated “free trade” agreements eliminated their jobs or farms in their home country. How are we to do this in a way that goes beyond symbolic protest?

In what follows I want to briefly outline what I think will be the likely sequence of events to the present course of action that seems to have the full attention of the resist movement, and consider a different course, or at least an additional course, that might have a different outcome.

Non-Cooperation and the Likely Trump Response

Across the country local, and now state, governments are adopting policies to refuse cooperation with ICE. In response, the Trump Administration is rattling swords and threatening dire consequences, the most likely of which will be cutting of federal funds to state and local governments that don’t back down from their non-cooperation positions.

Will Trump follow through? There is little reason to think he won’t. Will court challenges to what Trump does stick? Even if upheld in District and Circuit courts, there is little reason to think they will when they reach the Supreme Court new majority with Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch.

If I am right in that appraisal, who will get hurt when funds are cut? For the most part, poor people, and those public employees whose salaries are paid by the grants that will no longer be. Here’s the dilemma: if it were their decision to take the cuts—as, for example, it is the decision of workers who vote to strike to forego their wages and risk their jobs—that would be one thing. But it’s not. Those who are hurt are not those taking the action.

The local and state governments responsible for the loss of their programs and jobs are likely to fold under this pressure. And the argument against folding is not all that strong. We are talking about national policy. There is just so much that state and local governments can do to buck it. Even the once powerful Dixiecrats finally had to crumble in the face of federal intervention against legally sanctioned racial discrimination in the south. Further, if these governments don’t fold they are asking very vulnerable people to make a sacrifice in whose decision they played no part.

Could these governments make up the loss in revenues? Maybe. It would probably require adoption of new taxes, which would have to be substantial to compensate for hundreds of millions of lost federal income. Will they do it? And even more pertinent, will they do it with “progressive” rather than “regressive” tax measures? None of them have adopted in any substantial way that kind of tax reform thus far.

Conclusion: the end game doesn’t look very good in the present scenario.

Divide and Conquer From the Bottom Up: An Alternative Or At Least A Complementary Strategy?

Our side cannot win this fight or, for that matter, any major fight in the national political arena at the present time, and the picture isn’t a lot different in the states. The cards are stacked against us: conservative Republicans control all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of state houses where they are using their authority to devise ingenious measures to limit the franchise for historically Democratic Party voters—particularly African-Americans.

To use a pool analogy, if we don’t have a direct shot at the corner pocket, is there bank shot on the table? I think the possibility for other targets lies in the corporate sector, in particular in businesses or business associations that were public supporters of Trump, in general, and of his immigration policy, in particular.

What would be done in relation to such businesses? Call upon them to publicly demand that the Administration back off its family-breaking policy. What if they won’t go along? Boycott their products and/or services, and use non-violent direct action tactics to publicly shame their executive officers. (A symbolic “don’t buy” day might be used to supplement the “don’t work” day that is now to be engaged in on May 1 by immigrant workers and their allies.)

Could this work? I don’t know. Neither does anyone. But in the 1960s and 1970s when boycott activity seriously damaged the profits of California agribusiness, growers suddenly became friends of collective bargaining legislation. (Up to that time, farm workers were able to engage in secondary boycotts because New Deal legislation creating the national collective bargaining framework excluded them—the direct result of the Dixiecrats who were protecting the near-slave status of southern black plantation workers. But 30 years later, in California, the shoe was on the other foot. Governor Jerry Brown got an excellent collective bargaining law passed by the legislature. (In fact, Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers of America, initially opposed legislation. He had the power, via national boycotts, to directly force growers to the bargaining table; he didn’t want to give it up to a third party. History proved him right when a newly elected Republican governor appointed pro-grower votes to the Commission that implemented the law.)

If profits are the leverage, then a whole new set of demands on government is possible. Local and state governments or substantial purchasers of all kinds of goods and services from the private sector; they are depositors in banks; they invest in pension funds; they subsidize various businesses. More research would no doubt uncover more levers.

A General Point

On a broader front, I think those who are now fighting defensive battles over affordable housing, budget cuts in social programs, job losses to off-shoring and similar issues should consider direct action aimed at corporate targets—not symbolic action, like picketing a building where a corporation is located—but action that hurts the bottom line. To do that will require mobilizing on a level not yet reached by most protest action. Those who consider themselves the organizers of these actions need to look at how to add a zero to their numbers.

Government in the present time is not a likely arena for victories. Perhaps head-on confrontation with business is.

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org View all posts by Mike Miller →

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Regulatory Aversion

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Yazoo City, Mississippi. Photo: Earl Dotter

Scott Pruitt’s first few weeks at the EPA confirms most environmentalists’ worst fears: The Trump administration intends to dramatically scale back environmental regulations, along with the staff and resources needed for enforcement of what remains. Other federal agencies, it now seems clear, will also have foxes guarding their respective hen houses. Undergirded by Trump’s Executive Order requiring the elimination of two regulations for every new one proposed, we could well see a wholesale reduction in rules intended to protect public health, consumers, worker safety and the environment.

Millions of people – a strong majority of Americans, in fact – support stronger, not weaker regulations to protect the environment and public health. But that’s only part of the picture. A 2012 Pew Research Poll found that more than half the public believes that “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” My own experience suggests that this sentiment is considerably stronger and more widespread among farmers and in rural communities. So, why do so many of us dislike or distrust ‘regulations’?

A little more than four years ago I was speaking with a few dozen folks in a small town in southwestern Virginia. This was one of many community stops I made in my campaign for US Congress. Following my talk, folks were lingering and chatting, including a local businesswoman who owned a small grocery and retail shop. When I introduced myself to her and the others close at hand, she said, with great emphasis, “If you get elected, I only want one thing from you: Just leave me alone. I just want the government to leave me alone.” I told her that as a farmer, I understood some of how she felt, how the government sometimes imposed too many burdens on small farms and mom and pop businesses.

What’s the point of having regulations, and regulators, if the lives of miners or the livelihoods of rural residents are so dispensable?

As she and I had begun talking about government regulation, another conversation intruded. Apparently the owner of a now-closed filling station was allowing an underground tank to leak petroleum, some of which was seeping into the soil and a nearby creek. These neighbors, including the businesswoman with whom I’d been speaking, were all upset about this. “Something has got to be done”, she said. “Somebody has got to make him fix that!”

“But don’t you think “, I said, “that he just wants the government to leave him alone?”

From the liberal point of view, regulations are prudent, a necessary check on the powers of big corporations. Before the EPA, smog enveloped many major cities, industrial plants dumped toxins directly into rivers, and Lake Erie caught fire. Before we had labor laws, ten year olds worked in factories; before OSHA more than a hundred twenty women died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of many workplace disasters of that period. And in coal regions like Appalachia, miners died by the hundreds every year from explosions, roof falls, and other preventable accidents. Regulations protect us, our health, our safety, our environment. The big mystery for liberals is why so many people just don’t seem to get that, especially in coal country and most other rural places.

I think we’re long past due for an honest debate about government regulations, …”

In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild describes how so many people in rural Louisiana support the very politicians that fight regulation of the chemical and pesticide companies that they know to be poisoning their land, bayous and bodies. Why would they vote for people who want to weaken laws that prevent this death-dealing pollution? Paraphrasing one of the people she interviews, “It seems like if we spill a little oil from our boats, they’ll give us a fine. But when the big companies spill thousands of gallons of poisons into the creek, nothing happens.” One factor, then, is the belief that regulations have not worked, at least not to protect the average person. The families of twenty-nine miners killed in Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in April 2010 would surely agree. In spite of 57 citations for mine safety violations the month before the explosion, and 600 in the prior year and a half, nothing was done to protect the miners. What’s the point of having regulations, and regulators, if the lives of miners or the livelihoods of rural residents are so dispensable?

And then there are the community banks, still an important part of many small towns and rural regions. These banks, according to a study by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, do four times more small business lending, per dollar of asset, than do Wells Fargo and the other Wall Street Megabanks. In spite of their critical importance in rural communities, nearly two thousand of them have closed in the past eight years, in part at least due to the onerous requirements of the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulations. A big target for Trump and the Republican Party, this law was intended to rein in risky lending and keep financial institutions from once again becoming ‘too big to fail’. Whatever the intentions, six years out, the big banks are as big as ever; their portfolios filled with high risk financial speculations. But smaller community banks, like miners in West Virginia or fishermen in rural Louisiana, seem to be bearing the brunt of regulations while the big boys coast.

I think we’re long past due for an honest debate about government regulations, rather than continuing to simplistically call for deregulation at every turn, or on the other hand, defend the regulatory state without recognizing the downsides. We might begin that debate with three basic assertions: First, we all live downwind or downstream from others. While the owner of that abandoned service station might well consider regulations to be meddlesome and intrusive, his neighbors sought the action of government to protect their water, land and property. Fundamentally, regulations are about protecting private property and individual persons.

Second, wherever appropriate we should work to construct “scale appropriate” regulations, rather than one-size-fits-all rules and requirements. The 2014 Food Safety Modernization Act is a relatively successful example of this, providing a substantially less burdensome set of requirements for small farmers selling primarily direct to their customers, compared with large growers shipping product across many states. Small farmers still need to follow sensible procedures in how they harvest and handle food, but the monitoring, reporting and infrastructure requirements they must meet are scaled to the size and risk of their operations. More scale-appropriate regulating of family farms, small businesses, community banks and local investors would reduce the burden on these critical parts of our economy and encourage their innovation and growth.

Last, like most public policy, regulations should help level the playing field between the average person and the rich and powerful; between the worker and owner. When people go to jail for shoplifting or a few dollars of embezzlement, while the richest CEOs face no charges for defrauding millions of people, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are two different sets of rules. With that comes cynicism, and in the countryside at least, the belief that regulations hurt the little guy and further the interests of elites. That they’ll fine a fella for spilling a gallon of oil, but let the corporation get away with poisoning the whole bayou. Changing that belief is going to take a while, but focusing regulations on leveling the playing field for ordinary people would surely be a place to start.

With the U.S. Working Class Under Attack… Unions Can Reclaim May Day in Solidarity with Immigrant Workers

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1997: Farmworkers demonstrating, Salinas, CA. Photo: Robert Gumpert

The buzz about a Day without Immigrants on May 1, 2017 is growing. Spanish radio is already churning with calls for strikes, rallies and demonstrations on May 1. This movement recalls the giant mobilizations of May 1, 2006 that occurred in response to proposed draconian anti-immigrant federal legislation called the Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill.

May Day has its historic origins in the nineteenth century struggle for the eight-hour day. In many cities on May Day in 2006, the marches and rallies proved to be the largest in history. Industries that relied on immigrant labor were paralyzed as millions of workers responded to the call for a Day without Latinos (also called the Great American Boycott). Labor participated unevenly in these rallies and mostly in places where the membership in service unions was predominately Latino. This year, in the turmoil surrounding the Trump Presidency, May 1 could be a great opportunity for the labor movement to flex its muscles and build its future.

Labor’s participation is important to the future of American politics. For example, look at the history of politics in California. Turn back the clock 23 years to 1994 when then Republican Governor Pete Wilson faced a fierce re-election battle. He launched a “Trump-like” assault on “illegal” immigration replete with videos of masses of Mexicans streaming across the border and threatening California. It was a brazen racist ploy called Proposition 187, introduced to bolster his reelection bid. Union leaders in California faced a critical decision about whether to participate in the massive Los Angeles mobilization against Prop 187.

In a meeting of labor leadership, some union leaders argued that it was important not to participate in the Los Angeles’ May 1 march so as not to alienate “Encino Man” — the Reagan Democrats of the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere. In the midst of a heated discussion, AFL-CIO Regional Director David Sickler made a dramatic plea to Los Angeles’ trade unionists:

“If we don’t march with these Latin workers, we will lose the confidence and trust of whole generation of Latinos.”

Sickler’s argument won the day, and Los Angeles’ labor turned out for the march. That action, and many others, solidified the labor/Latino nexus. In one generation, California went from “Reagan-land” to solid Blue Democratic.

Again the same challenge faces labor, however now it’s on a national scale. And the opportunity for the labor movement is equally huge. Supporting the upcoming May 1 protests, strikes and other actions will clearly demonstrate that unions are ready to be a champion of the rising Latino demographic. Conversely, sitting on the sidelines will mark us as bystanders to racist repression.

Recently building trades labor leaders blindly and naively embraced Trump’s agenda by meeting with him at the White House just days after his inauguration and lauding his commitment to build infrastructure and oil pipelines — but with no commitment to pro-labor codes like prevailing wage or project labor agreements. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka — usually a strong voice for racial justice — recently embraced Trump’s talk of immigration reform after his speech to a joint session of Congress. Again, a major labor leader is blindly and naively playing into Trump’s racist rhetoric. These actions by the building trades and the leader of the AFL-CIO undermine the U.S. labor movement’s need to squarely be on the side of immigrants battling Trump’s racist rhetoric, executive orders and travel bans.

There are many possible levels of participation for labor and unions on May 1. Each union must determine what’s the most appropriate way to participate based on its members needs and consciousness. In California, SEIU’s United Service Workers West, representing over 60,000 janitors, security guards and airport service workers has announced on Facebook its support for a May 1 strike. The United Food and Commercial Workers, representing supermarket workers in Southern California and the hotel workers union (UNITE HERE) are both assessing their actions in California. California is fertile ground for these protests with a sympathetic and supportive political infrastructure and a demographic tidal wave that means that Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the state — out numbering Anglos 39 to 38 percent.

These calls for strikes may snowball. On the hastily organized February 17 “Day without Immigrants,” tens of thousands of mostly Latin service workers in many cities and towns stayed home (in many cases with the support of their employers). Earlier in February, Comcast employees at the company’s headquarters walked out to march and rally against Trump’s immigration policies. There is no reason not to expect similar dramatic actions on May Day. The social fervor is such that strikes in certain sectors and workplaces are very possible and possible with relative impunity.

With the prospect of large rallies and marches on May 1, some other unions are talking about participating in an organized way — even if it means after work or on off shifts. Just visibly marching with banners and signs in support of immigrant rights would be important and impactful to the thousands of immigrants who will brave deportation to hit the streets. Unions at the national and local level have an opportunity to speak with one voice in defense of immigrants. In specific locations like Los Angeles, these unions and others may hold joint press conferences and public events. Equally important will be actions in the “heartland” where immigrants may feel more politically and organizationally isolated than on the coasts.

Some unions have already begun “Know Your Rights” solidarity trainings to prepare workers for Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) raids that could take place in the community and the workplace. Union halls could become “Sanctuary Sites” for the undocumented. And now is a timely moment for always appreciated contributions of money, materials and office space to immigrant rights groups.

In addition to SEIU’s United Service Workers West, several national political and immigrants’ rights groups are organizing for the May 1 Day Without Immigrants including: Solid (an open-source project offered by Brandworkers), Strike Core, Cosecha, and the Beyond the Moment March.

May 1 is the traditional international day of working class solidarity, a holiday born of the U.S. struggle for the eight-hour day. It can be reclaimed with gusto this year as a focused attack on the anti-immigrant policies of Trump. But more than that, it is a day to cement the alliance between labor and the immigrant working class.

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About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

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THE NEW WAY TO LOS PINOS

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On March 20 Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Here and Here) visited San Francisco and appeared at a theater in the Mission District. His candidacy for the Mexican Presidency is gathering steam, and he is presently polling ahead of all other candidates. The Mexican election is in 2018 and retired IAM Organizer and immigrant rights activist Joel Ochoa comments on Mexican politics in the age of Trump. (Peter Olney)

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The election of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. President has affected, among many other things, the way Mexicans will elect their next President. All appearances indicate that the way to the official residence of Los Pinos, now runs thru the barrios where Mexicans reside in the United States.

Back in mid-2015 when Donald Trump announced he was seeking the nomination of the Republican Party to run for the presidency of the United States, he identified Mexico and Mexicans as the root of the moral and economic evils that, in his view, were causing the demise of American society. An extraordinary moment, it was Mexicans first; everybody else came later.

The message caught most everyone by surprise and the prediction of a short-lived campaign dominated the political discourse. However the message resonated among certain groups of voters who Trump was able to identify and target relentlessly with vicious attacks an enemy of convenience, Mexico and Mexicans, that at the end carried him to the Presidency.

Mexican leaders reacted with a nonchalance and naive attitude, giving Trump chief of state treatment in a visit to Mexico where he outshone President Pena Nieto. Once they realized Trump had painted them as incompetent and corrupt, that he was not backing down on his demand for payment of the infamous wall, and that he intended to renegotiate, or end, the terms of the North America Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, they panicked.

On November 9, 2016 Mexico woke up to the realization that a game changer had occurred and the country was not ready to deal with it. Officially the cornerstone of the Mexican economy, NAFTA, was on Trumps “hit list” and remittances, about 28 billion annually, became a point of concern to Mexican finances.

Historically, people migrating to the north have served Mexico politically and economically. It alleviates social pressure created by lack of employment opportunities and is a source of tremendous quantities of income. Remittances, monies sent by Mexican immigrants to their families back home, are recognized by the government as a key source of income; clean money that is directly injected into the Mexican economy for which Mexico currently pays almost nothing. That is only a part of the money flowing to Mexico as a result of the hard earned income of millions of immigrants. At least that is the part that can be quantified. The other part has to do with services generated in Mexico and other countries; such as television programs, sports, publications and more. Immigrants also send money by less traditional methods utilizing a network of couriers that are expensive and not always reliable. Immigrants are part of an industry that has benefited both countries. As someone called it: “an industry with no furnaces.”

To put into perspective what kind of purchasing power the above represents, Mexican immigrants could buy, in one year, all the teams from the NBA. The entire league! And that is only the official part. We shouldn’t be surprised if there was more money available, that is sent thru non-traditional ways in addition to what is charged for services. Mexicans could probably buy up a ton of MLB or NFL franchises also!

The Mexican rich and political classes are fighting to keep the status quo created with the implementation of NAFTA. They are not ready to sacrifice and look for other markets. Their sense of patriotism doesn’t go that far. They would rather take the insult in order to keep, and sustain, what they have.

In that context, to keep their privileges, Mexican elites are projecting a more benevolent attitude towards the millions of Mexican living in the U. S. The view remains paternalistic in the sense that they still talk about “defending our paisanos” instead of recognizing how vital we are, and have been for a long time, to the Mexican way of life. Bottom line, they fear the loss of that source of revenue.

Since the election of Trump, or perhaps because of his policies, the pilgrimage of Mexican politicians to cities in the U. S. has become a constant. Governors, presidential aspirants and other functionaries are coming to “defend or protect” immigrants. The common denominator among those Mexican politicians is the lack of knowledge of what our real problems are. For most, this is no more than a photo op, something new to add to their resume.

Perhaps the exception is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) because he has surrounded himself with people knowledgeable of the problem. Jose Jacques Medina, a long time Los Angeles community and labor organizer is one such supporter. Lopez Obrador has been touring cities in the U. S. (his Los Angeles speech is here) but more importantly his followers have built a network of committees to facilitate civic participation.

But much more is needed. Mexicans escaped their country because of violence and the lack of opportunities. Going back to a nation in deterioration is not an option, at least not now, because there are no jobs, no special schools to train adults nor to integrate children, no security and on top of all this Mexico has to defend the very same policies of NAFTA that created the conditions that forced Mexicans to migrate.

Trump is a challenge because his policies could change the dynamics of how Mexico operates in the international market. With more than 500 billion dollars in trade flowing between both countries, the U.S. represents Mexico’s main trading partner (to the U. S. Mexico represents its third).

Mexico could opt for opening other markets; but it will be more costly and will imply losing access, at least for some time, to the most important market in the world. It will require a great deal of sacrifice and the patriotism of Mexican elites won’t go that far. My sense is that they, the rich and most of the political class, will take the insults, rather than sacrifice the privileges.

For as long as they can get a U.S. visa the parade of Mexican politicians will continue. Mexicans residing here can’t stop it or prevent it. However, we can demand respect and ask for tangible solutions. Mexican immigrants have the right to that and more. 28 billion dollars plus annually gives us that right.