THE DO-SOMETHING-BAD CONGRESS

Here’s ostensibly uber-media-savvy Chuck Schumer making the case that the problem with Republicans in Congress is that they don’t do anything:

“When they (Republicans) get up and read their litany, it’s things that only a few narrow special interests care about, like a bankruptcy bill or class-action reform,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Anything major that affects average Americans and makes their lives better, they haven’t been able to get done, and I think people know that.”

Granted, people like for Congress to do things. So when your opponents run the Congress, it makes sense to accuse them of not doing things. But with this Congress especially, which has done all kinds of no good very bad things, it’s worth actually pointing out how bad those things are.

Schumer is doing exactly the opposite. He’s taking two awful pieces of legislation passed by our right-wing Congress at the bidding of right-wing special interests and at the expense of everybody else and he’s suggesting that no one other than those special interests are affected. Conservatives have passed bills to make it harder for working Americans to lift themselves out of bankruptcy or to get just compensation for grievous corporate abuses, and Chuck Schumer doesn’t find it worthwhile to make the case to the American people that these laws are bad – rather than distracting – for all of us.

This is the same kind of silly rhetoric we hear all the time from national spokespeople for the Democratic party about how gay rights and women’s rights aren’t the kinds of issues that actually affect people. It’s not an approach that seems to have sold too many people on the principled vision of the Democratic Party as of yet.

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BROKEBACK BACKLASH?

Last week’s Oscar ceremonies brought a crescendo – at least for now – to the animus heaped upon Brokeback Mountain, and upon Hollywood, by the right. Judging by watching Tucker Carlson tonight, professionally outraged conservative cultural critics have moved on to V for Vendetta.

But it’s worth reflecting on the clever packaging of that supposed backlash by the main organs of the conservative movement. Tucker Carlson offered an emblematic shtick: He hasn’t seen the movie, he has nothing against gay people, but “at some point, Hollywood should give up its mission as a kind of, you know, evangelist for a political persuasion and just shut up and make the movie.” Such an argument ignores the ways in which politics shape and are shaped by any art that engages with power, identity, morality, desire – that is, pretty much any art out there (this is a position that’s gotten me in trouble before). But more importantly, it’s fundamentally mendacious, as Bryan Collingsworth noted for people who refuse to see a movie because of content they oppose (or, as some would protest too much, they simply “aren’t that interested in”) to claim that their objection is to the politicization of film. Conservative critics who boast that they won’t patronize a “gay movie” suggest the logical implication that they go to other movies because they’re heterosexual movies. In a context of sexual inequality, there’s nothing apolitical about that. Just a political position that dare not speak its name.

What we get instead is a perfunctory faux backlash whose dimensions are effectively presaged by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? One is the sight of blue-state urban media elites rising to defend the ostensible sensibilities of imagined heartland Americans. Needless to say, Bill O’Reilly and company aren’t doing them any favors by projecting their antipathy towards their imagined “gay cowboy movie” onto the imagined faceless cornfield-dwelling masses. But speaking for an imagined heartland, like speaking against an imagined “political correctness” regime (for extra credit, do both at once), provides conservatives an excuse to fulminate against unpopular minorities while touting their own tolerance. It’s not that their intolerant, it’s just that they take offense at the hated liberals’ supposed intolerance of other people’s supposed intolerance.

Such targeting, too, is laid out well in Frank’s book: The enemy isn’t people who are gay. It’s the liberal elites who think they know better than everyone else. Such anti-elite animus has a much broader constituency than naked anti-gay animus (even gay conservatives can – and do – sign on). The people who made Brokeback Mountain are the same ones, Coulter and company insist, who want to reach down and take away all the guns, who want to reach up and pull down the Ten Commandments, and who make an annual tradition of warring against Christmas. Despite its own contradictions (as Frank ably argues, the elite theory requires suspending the media from the principles of the free market in which good conservatives believe so fervently), the anti-elite animus serves to tap into the real class resentment of working Americans while giving those in the real elite a way to decry what the hated liberals produce without admitting to actual prejudice. It’s a colossal cop-out. But it’s also a brilliant way to broaden the supposed backlash and deepen its political cache.

So what do we do about it? Broaden the class depictions of gay men and women in politics and popular media. And build a progressive movement that can push the Democratic party to offer an agenda that speaks to this country’s real class divisions as compellingly as the Republican party speaks to imagined class aesthetics. For a start.

FROM CHICAGO TO WASHINGTON

One of the contentions which largely cuts across the AFL-CIO/ Change to Win divide is a recognition that the labor movement has yet to match the power of its Electon Day turnout operation with an effective mechanism for holding accountable the politicians it helps elect. Still more controversial is the recognition that a winning agenda for the movement demands a broad conception of the interests of working people and a more comprehensive social vision.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO followed progressive unions like SEIU in passing a strong anti-war resolution condemning the impact of the war on working families and urging that civil rights be strengthened in Iraq and that the troops be brought home “rapidly.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when they used to half-jokingly call it the AFL-CIA. We’re not in Kirkland-Land anymore…

And Monday, as SEIU and the Teamsters were leaving the federation, the two unions’ presidents joined the presidents of eighteen other unions, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition alike, in sending a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic leadership rightly condemning the party’s refusal to put its full force behind defeating CAFTA (David Sirota offers a good overview of the damage CAFTA could do if approved tonight by the House).

Good signs, in the wake of Monday’s split, for a more muscular movement. Here’s hoping John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who were re-elected without opposition this afternoon, will be driven further in this direction, and can find a way to facilitate – rather than block – the co-operation with the Change to Win folks necessary to make it happen.

Keith Urbahn makes an unpersuasive comparison between graduate student workers and allies fighting for the right to organize and flat-earthers:

Our lovable but deluded Flat-Earthers are the members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the self-proclaimed representatives of graduate students. GESO’s unremarkable history is marred by failure and distinct feelings of apathy and even opposition from many graduate students — both realities the organization continues to deny. Never mind the fact that the Yale administration has always refused to consider it a legitimate interest group, or that over the summer the National Labor Relations Board unequivocally struck down any right for students to organize as employees at private universities, or that GESO just might be the only group in history to lose its own rigged election, as it did in April 2003.

As I argued at the time, the vote by the Bush-appointed majority to overturn a unanimous decision and strip graduate student workers of their rights as employees is one of a constellation of anti-labor decisions pushed through by right-wing activist NLRB judges over the past three years. Other recent targets have included non-union workers, casual workers, and disabled workers. Hell, even the prophets of classlessness at The New Republic have taken notice. It wasn’t so long ago in this country when publice employees, or agricultural workers, or workers as a whole were denied a legal right to unionize. It’s hard to imagine that the same Yale administrators who blithely ignored the NLRB’s historic NYU decision now expect graduate student workers to roll over because lobbying by, inter alia, those administrators has yielded a new one.

As for the election Keith calls “rigged,” the date and time were well-publicized, the qualifications were clear and well-scrutinized, and the whole process was overseen by the League of Women Voters. Every graduate student who showed up, whether or not they were on the list of those who would be part of the bargaining unit, got to cast a provisional vote, and GESO chose not to contest any of them. Certainly, GESO should have done a better job of turning out their supporters, more of whom went out on strike with the union than made it out to vote for it. Unfortunately, Yale’s strategy of depressing pro-union turnout through publically describing it as “like getting your friends together to have an election,” while hiking anti-union turnout through intense pressure from advisors on advisees, particularly in the sciences, was more effective than many had predicted. Read more about Yale’s anti-union campaign here. Even under those circumstances, the result was a near tie. Nearly two years later, last month three out of five teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences declared they had signed union cards and demanded Yale recognize their union. But Keith is unfazed:

And indeed, a 12-week process of soliciting names from a predetermined list of eligible “voters” had finally created the results GESO organizers long desired. Sixty percent of 521 eligible TAs in the humanities, social science and language departments voted in favor of unionization. In a crude attempt to lend at least a veneer of legality to the sham of an election, GESO solicited the help of Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz to certify the “vote.” What Bysiewicz and giddy GESO supporters failed to mention at the Dec. 14 meeting was that the card count was hardly representative of the whole graduate student body. In an effort to exclude departments predominately opposed to unionization — most notably those in the natural sciences — GESO changed the eligibility requirements, denying the right to vote to hundreds who differed with the group’s agenda.

What the vote was representative of is a three-fifths consensus of those whose primary employment is teaching in the humanities and social sciences supporting a union of teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences. For years now, Yale has been claiming that GESO was illegitimate because its proposed bargaining unit included both students in the sciences and the humanities. Since the new NLRB decision, the union’s opponents have flipped their argument. Negotiations over the shape of a bargaining unit are a standard part of a unionization process. The problem is, Yale is still maintaining its dozen-year policy of refusing to negotiate – or meet – with GESO about anything. That includes the nature of a fair process for unionization, another issue on which Keith takes the administration’s side:

Furthermore, the method of a “card count,” a process in which GESO representatives solicited support for unionization by approaching eligible TAs, is hardly a fair way of gauging the graduate community’s interest in unionization. The card count allowed for the possibility of intimidation and coercion — both well-worn GESO tactics according to some graduate students.

Card count neutrality agreements provide workers a measure of protection against the employer intimidation made possible by the asymetrical power relationship in the workplace. As Kate Bronfenbrenner’s research demonstrated, majorities of workers during NLRB election processes strongly fear losing their jobs if they vote for the union, and a third who vote against the union themselves identify their vote as a response to employer pressure. That’s why politicians of both parties are pushing the Employee Free Choice Act in support of card check processes. That said, GESO’s demand for years was an agreement with Yale on a fair process whose results both sides would follow. But Levin, while with one breath telling GESO only an NLRB process was acceptable, that “democracy means elections,” with the other maintained that he would appeal the results of any election, leaving the ballots uncounted and impounded, as his allies in the Penn, Brown, and Columbia administrations have done in response to NLRB elections there. Democracy means following the results of elections. And as I’ve said before, I don’t think a graduate school in which students refrain from trying to win over students who might disagree with them on the issues they face is one living up to the values of liberal education. If you think it’s hard being an anti-union graduate student in a department where most of your peers are in the union, trying being a union member whose research funding depends on a supervisor who hates the union. Now imagine that situation if, say, losing your research funding means being deported out of the country. The plight of international students is, incidentally, one of many issues on which GESO’s lobbying has successfully brought change from the administration. But Keith isn’t too keen on GESO’s issue agenda either:

GESO has become increasingly involved with locals 34 and 35 on issues that are at best tangentially related to graduate student organization…Duped by that word “union” and the “Norma Rae” fantasies of some Yale graduate students — or more likely, attracted to the opportunity of political allies in the fight against the Yale administration — members of the real unions locals 34 and 35 attended the December meeting, dutifully holding up signs and chanting in support of the new “union” of graduate students.

This is the classic “narrow agenda/broader agenda line of argument Yale’s administration has been firing at its unions for at least as long as Keith and I have been at Yale: Either the unions are parochial institutions only narrowly concerned with their members’ wages and benefits who could care less about the greater good, or they’re shadowy, expansive conspiracies with designs to meddle everywhere they’re not wanted. The truth is, unions best protect the rights of their own workers and of all Americans when they have broad agendas. That’s why the trade union approach of the CIO did more for American labor, and for America, than the craft union approach of the AFL ever could. GESO is right to recognize that fighting for graduate student workers means fighting for their rights as immigrant workers against capricious deportation. And GESO is right to recognize that graduate student workers’ voices are most powerful, and their interests are best represented, when they stand together with other Yale employees on issues of common concern, like diversifying Yale’s workforce and supporting working mothers. And members of Locals 34 and 35, far from being the ignorant dupes Keith labels them, are right to recognize that their rights as workers are best protected and advanced by safeguarding the right to organize for all Yale employees and joining them in struggle over common challenges. That’s why, for so many in Yale’s service, maintenance, and clerical workforce, it rings hollow when Dan Koffler argues that:

The suggestion that Ph.Ds in waiting have a common class interest with lifelong wage-laborers, least of all Yale Ph.Ds in waiting, is an unfunny, borderline obscene joke. It is, moreover, a notion that can only hurt the cause of real workers.

As I argued here before, the salient question is not and should not be whether a teaching assistant or a secretary is more exploited or more sympathetic. The question is, do these workers face common challenges? And out of these common challenges, how do they find common cause and better effect progressive change in their own lives and in Yale as an institution? The argument that different kinds of workers should keep to themselves is not new. It was a hallmark of Yale’s anti-union campaign against clerical and technical workers before Local 34 was finally recognized in 1984. Unions are all well and good for the largely male, largely minority, blue-collar workforce of Local 35, Yale clerical and technical workers were told, but are they really the kind of institutions that Yale’s “pink-collar” clerical and technical workers should be associated with. Local 34 and Local 35 stood together, in the face of threats of reprisals against Local 35 by Yale’s administration, and after Local 34 won its ten-week strike and its first contract, Local 35’s new contract was settled quickly once Local 34 made clear its intention to stand in support of Local 35. That’s what winning looks like. And so it’s strangely appropriate how Keith chooses to end his article:

…we know whom they truly stand for: themselves.

Yes, graduate students signing union cards are standing for themselves, and for each other. And because many undergraduates see themselves as future graduate students, its understandable that those who believe in a comfortable dichotomy between service and self-interest have more trouble getting on board with GESO. But now more than ever, in the face of the growing casualization of the academy (a trend which makes Dan’s description of graduate students as “YalePh.D.s in waiting” more misleading), graduate students are right to organize for better working conditions and a better university, and others in the Yale community are right to stand with them.

Frequent readers (thanks, Dad) know that I’m an advocate of broad-based progressive moments as the only effective instrument of progressive change. In particular, I’ve used this space to argue that in support of moves within the labor movement towards a broader conception of what it means to sdvocate for the interests of workers, be it native and immigrant workers standing together in the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, partnership between healthcare workers and patients calling for universal coverage, or SEIU’s strong stance against the Federal Marriage Ammendment as an assault on the rights of its members. As was declared at the first union event I ever attended in New Haven, in response to President Levin’s intimations that Yale’s unions have a broader agenda, “You bet we have a broader agenda.” I’ve also criticized those movements locally and nationally when the broader agenda has proved not as broad as one would hope.

This is a debate that must take place in every progressive movement committed to winning over the next years. The environmentalist movement, as Randy Shaw argued compellingly in his Activist Handbook, is a prime example as well. Looks like former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach agrees:

For example, I’ve been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club and the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about — much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s a skirmish along the way that’s not strategic. It’s way off to the side.

Via Ralph Taylor at Nathan’s site, who also points back to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s “The Death of Environmentalism”:

The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections…Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time….The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.

…There is no better example of how environmental categories sabotage environmental politics than CAFE. When it was crafted in 1975, it was done so as a way to save the American auto industry, not to save the environment. That was the right framing then and has been the right framing ever since. Yet the environmental movement, in all of its literal-sclerosis, not only felt the need to brand CAFE as an “environmental” proposal, it failed to find a solution that also worked for industry and labor. By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don’t concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with “the environment.” The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies…Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren’t stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you’d likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, “Health care is not an environmental issue.”…Let’s go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest — make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let’s highlight the jobs and farmers behind it. But bring about this sea-change in the way the environmental movement thinks and operates isn’t going to be easy. For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.

We all have a lot of work to do.