LONGSHORE WORKERS SOLIDARITY STRIKE SETTLEMENT RAISES QUESTIONS FOR FUTURE UNION ACTIONS

At Alternet, I break the news of a settlement between PMA and ILWU Local 10 over the latter’s industrial solidarity action – and describe the controversy that settlement has created among the membership:

Four months ago, longshore workers shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland in solidarity with workers in Wisconsin and across the country whose collective bargaining rights have come under attack. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which is made up of longshore employers, responded with a federal court lawsuit against the workers’ union, International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) Local 10. In an interview yesterday, Local 10’s president publicly acknowledged for the first time that PMA and Local 10 have agreed to a settlement. Workers will be discussing it at a membership meeting tonight – and some will be questioning whether the union gave away too much, and why they didn’t get to vote on it.

Check it out. And here’s my May story on the lawsuit for In These Times.

WHAT COULD A TELECOM MERGER MEAN FOR ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY?


I have a new post up on Dissent asking what an AT&T merger could mean for economic democracy:

If you’re on the left and you buy groceries, chances are at some point you’ve been faced with a choice between a neighborhood corner store and a unionized chain supermarket. That choice exposes a tension between two long-held progressive goals: anti-monopolism and workers’ industrial power.

The progressive puzzle I’m analyzing here reminds me of sociologist Albert Hirschman’s discussion of two ways people deal with inadequate institutions: exit and voice. It plays out in this case as a tension between improving customers’ chances of dumping an unjust company for another one and improving workers’ chances – together with consumers – of transforming their company.

Check it out.

Update (7/3): Alek Felstiner offers some interesting thoughts in response:
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WHY SHOULD THEY GET WHAT WE TOOK AWAY FROM YOU?

Was recently listening to the journalists on Slate’s Political Gabfest pondering why union density is so much higher amongst public sector workers than the private sector. None of them mentioned the most important difference: It’s harder for a government to get away with running a terror campaign against the union.

There’s more oversight and accountability to restrain public sector management from threatening workers for union activity, implying benefits to keeping out the union or danger with it, holding captive audience meetings against the union, or just firing union leaders. Only some of these tactics are even illegal. And bosses get away with those all the time. (Check out this reportfrom Human Rights Watch, or this one from Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner). Consultants get very wealthy guiding companies on how to run fear campaigns against employees trying to organize. It’s a lot harder for the TSA to cut anti-union consultants a check than it is for Wal-Mart. When it comes to organizing, the fundamental difference between public sector and private sector workers is that public sector workers have a better chance at organizing free from fear. So lots and lots of public sector workers do.

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HISTORY: NOT OVER YET

I was surprised to see Ross Douthat, in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, invoke Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a post-Cold War tract whose star has fallen somewhat since 9/11. Fukuyama argued that whereas the 20th century was marked by intellectual crisis between liberal democracy and its ideological competitors, fascism and communism, once the Soviet Union fell, only liberal democracy was left standing. Now, Fukuyama argued, there is no viable, transnational ideology remaining to compete with liberal democracy, which satisfies a human aspiration for freedom that the Cold War proved to be universal. Thus: the end of history. Liberal democracy is here to stay, and things will not get too much better or worse from here on out. Since his book came out, of course, Fukuyama has gotten slammed by critics on the right convinced that with the Islamist Menace, what we’re actually in is not the End of History a la Fukuyama, but the Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington.

The stronger critique of Huntington, I’d say, comes from the left. Fukuyama describes, in Douthat’s words,

the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Like Huntington, Douthat places “liberal democracy” and “free market capitalism” in the same breath. Like two syllables on Sesame Street that inch closer together until they become a single word. On a global scale, the ideological competitor to democracy – to one person, one vote, people’s meaningful exercise of voice over the decisions that impact their lives – is laissez-faire capitalism.

Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God offers a great (and very funny) exploration of how acts of consumerism get rebranded by elites as the new acts of citizenship and the market is christened as democratic. But markets are not democratic. And as Michael Moore reminds us with a confidential CitiGroup memo in his new movie, the people who the markets award the most power know this (as he says, the bottom 99% of the population “have 99% of the votes”).

Who will decide what happens to natural resources or public sector jobs in a third world country? The majority of the people who live there, or international elites with structural adjustment plans and threats of turmoil? Who will decide whether a group workers for a union? The majority of the people who work there, or managers that wield the power to harass and fire them?

Those questions will make history.

HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

Consider this a pointed non-endorsement of endorsements politicians make of each other on the grounds that they’re friends. Even when the endorser is John Lewis, one of the only people out there I could honestly describe both as a personal hero and as a member of Congress.

The argument that you should vote for someone because he’s my friend is up there with the argument that you should vote for someone because he’s principled – and the two questionable arguments tend to travel together. One substitutes motivation for worldview as the determinative qualification for office. The other substitutes the judgment of someone you know you like for your own judgment about how much you should like a candidate. To be sure, citizens in a democracy defer to each other’s judgment all the time (what makes it democratic is that we each get to choose when and whether and to whom to defer, rather than having the franchise yanked from us by elitists). But it’s one thing to make an electoral choice by turning to those who know the issues in most depth. It’s another to make it by turning to those who know the candidate personally. The latter is reminiscent of Jon Stewart’s quip that Bill O’Reilly was “the kind of swing voter who doesn’t make a decision until both candidates come and talk to you.”

Politicians in Washington only encourage a cynical view of our representatives when they trade endorsements on the grounds of having looked into each other’s hearts like Bush did to Putin. The irony here is that politicians, with a huge assist from the media, actually use the friendship rationale to escape critical reviews of their endorsements.

If you’re going to weigh in publically on someone else’s campaign – and by all means do – then it should be in terms that can be popularly evaluated and critiqued. It shouldn’t rest entirely on personal one-on-one experience any more than it should on personal religious conviction.

FROM RECOUNTS TO RUN-OFFS

The latest turn in the Mexican election drama only confirms that it’s too soon to tell who will lead the country into the next decade. But barring a demonstration of truly massive fraud, it’s safe to say that Mexico will be led by a man who little more than a third of Mexican voters marked on their ballots on Sunday. The next President of Mexico will be the winner of what was ultimately a contest between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon, a contest which a third of Mexico’s voters gave up the chance to weigh in on when they chose to vote for one of the three other candidates instead.

Some will no doubt respond that democratic elections are full of tough choices, and it’s on each voter to weigh whether it’s more important to pull the result towards one of the two foreseeable results (the first face of power, if you will), or to shift the sense of the politically feasible (the second face). But it’s worth asking whether that sort of calculation, scintillating as it may be – the same sort of calculation many Connecticut Democrats will have to make if faced with a three-way ticket come November – is good for democracy in the broader sense of how much control individuals have over the decisions that determine the conditions of their lives (a greater problem, by that standard – David Held’s – is the long shadow global capital casts over contests like this week’s).

Because it isn’t necessary that that sort of calculation be necessary.

Mexicans have far less cause than Americans to worry about throwing their votes away in congressional elections because Mexico has proportional representation. Both countries could take a further step towards reducing the centrality of cynical calculation from presidential voting by implementing instant run-off voting.

Instant run-off voting forces politicians to pitch themselves as ideal elected officials if they hope to be viewed in victory as something other than everyone’s second choice. And in elections like the one in Connecticut, and the one in Mexico, where critical, ideological choices are laid out more starkly than we ususally get to see them, it facilitates voters following Paul Wellstone’s imperative to vote for what you believe in – and observers judging better from the results what kind of leadership those voters want.

ABRA-MATHON

On today’s YDN opinion page, Eli Luberoff writes a letter responding to the statement in my Tuesday column that

While Abramoff made strategic donations to members of both parties, it was Republicans with whom he collaborated to break the law and the trust of the American people.

Eli agrees with the second part of the sentence, but he disputes the first part – that Abramoff made “strategic donations to members of both parties.” In retrospect, my wording was needlessly imprecise. Literally, Abramoff did make “strategic donations to member of both parties,” in that he made in-kind donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. More important, though, are the donations Abramoff directed through his clients to Democrats as well as Republicans, which were more substantial. Better wording here would have more clearly encompassed those contributions, which while heavily skewed towards Republicans, didn’t go exclusively to them. But as my column made clear, I agree with Eli that this is a Republican scandal through and through.

My Tuesday piece also comes up in Roger Low’s column today. Roger notes that Democrats do corrupt things sometimes too, which I think we can all acknowledge without losing sight of the underlying ideological edge of the Abramoff scandal: this is a story about concentrated economic power trumping popular majorities in setting policy and distributing resources. Roger rightfully calls the Democrats on their failure to champion a more aggressive reform agenda, and then veers off into an encomium to John McCain, who – besides being a staunch conservative except for his opposition to torture, global warming, and soft money (talk about defining deviancy down) – hasn’t championed any of those reforms either.

DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

WHAT IS BARACK OBAMA SAYING?

Friday, Barack Obama wrote a response to blogospheric criticism of his criticism from the Senate floor of advocacy groups which were condemning Senators who voted to confirm Roberts (Obama himself voted against confirmation). He makes some points I agree with, and some I don’t. Most frustrating, though – and all the more so given his gift as a writer – are the arguments which sound nice but whose meanings are difficult to tease out at all. Like this one:

My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully – and voted against – the Iraqi invasion. He isn’t somehow transformed into a “war supporter” – as I’ve heard some anti-war activists suggest – just because he hasn’t called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn’t become anti-choice because he or she isn’t absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn’t become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn’t become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.

There are several ways to read this argument:

One is that what matters is a politician’s values, and not individual votes, and so it’s wrong to call a politician “anti-civil rights” for casting votes which hurt the cause of civil rights. The problem with this argument is that we elect representatives to cast good votes, not to personally sympathize with us and our values.

Another is that none of us has the right to decide what these labels mean – that it’s arrogant and inappropriate for pro-choice activists to tell politicians what it should mean to be pro-choice. The problem with this argument is that there’s no point in working to advance the cause of “choice” in general if that excludes advancing a particular understanding of what is and is not pro-choice policy. While it’s arguable whether or not the movement would be served by more politicians claiming the pro-choice mantle without changing their policy positions, but it certainly be insufficient.

Another argument which could Obama could be making here is that is that immediate troop withdrawl from Iraq, opposition to parental notification laws, defense of affirmative action from “questioning,” and opposition to CAFTA are not in fact serving the goals of the anti-war, pro-choice, civil rights, and labor movements, respectively. In other words, he could argue against the positions he thinks Democratic senators are wrongly being held to on the merits. But if there’s any such criticism here, it’s only implicit (Obama, for the record, voted against CAFTA in the Senate, voted against parental notification in the Illinois Senate, and is not calling for an immediate withdrawl of all US troops).

Given that Obama seems not to be articulating that argument, he could be arguing that these particular issues are just not important enough to make a big deal of. But it’s hard to imagine the groups he names not putting up a fight over these issues, and it would be hard to believe that Obama would expect them not to. CAFTA was the first comprehensive trade deal to come before the Congress under Bush, crafted to erode worker protections which accelerating the race to the bottom. Parental notification policies are, along with denial of government funding, one of the major policy impediments to women’s substantive exercise of their right to choose.

A more spurious argument which Obama seems implicitly to be making through questionable word choice is that the problem with these left-wing advocacy groups is that they’re out to restrict elected officials’ freedom of expression by punishing them for not being “absolutely convinced” on parental notification or “making a determination” they don’t like on CAFTA. To the extent that advocacy groups criticize elected officials for critical public statements, they’re not chilling speech – they’re responding to it, and I’d say there are some criticisms which are deserved and others which aren’t. But phrases like Obama’s here aren’t really about speech – they’re about votes. To describe a pro-choice group as punishing a legislator for not being convinced of something conjures up Orwellian images, but what pro-choice groups are taking legislators to task for isn’t private thoughts – it’s how they legislate.

The final argument that I think could reasonably be read from this paragraph, is that advocacy groups shouldn’t expect politicians to vote the way they want all of the time. But why not? Certainly, it would be a poor tactical choice for such groups to predict that everyone they want will vote however they want all of the time. But given the premise that their positions are the right ones (and with the exception of immediate and total withdrawl, I believe they are, and Obama seems to as well), shouldn’t support of all of their positions be the standard against which they judge elected officials? Does Obama really expect the National Council of La Raza to make public statements like, “Sadly, the Senator is only 85% of the way to casting votes to extend rather than restrict civil rights at least 60% of the time”? Elected officials, locally as well as nationally, often revel in disparaging “activists” for failure to understand the necessity of compromise. The first problem with that critique is that too often, the compromises are bad ones. The second is that the way we get good compromises is by having leaders on our side who are willing to take strong stands in the face of opposition. Obviously, writing a politician off as not worth working with in the future because of a vote on a particular issue is just bad politics – if you’re not organizing them, someone else is. But there’s a difference between writing off politicians who cast bad votes and being willing to publicly point out that those votes are bad. Voting for CAFTA may not make an otherwise pro-union legislator anti-union for good, but those of us who believe voting against CAFTA is the right vote and the pro-union vote to cast are, it seems to me, obligated to regard a politician who votes for CAFTA as less pro-union than if she hadn’t. Otherwise, we might as well pack up and go home.

Or maybe all Obama was trying to say was that left advocates should soften their rhetoric. I don’t think describing a Senator who votes to confirm a nominee for Chief Justice as in some way “complicit” in particularly aggregious decisions that Justice makes on the court is in any way out of bounds (and yes, that means Russ Feingold, of whom I remain a big fan, bears some degree of responsibility for what Justice Roberts does on the court). And I don’t think the left or the country are well-served when advocacy groups whose fundamental mission is an ideological one, not a partisan one, hold their fire in taking politicians of one party to task for actions for which they would condemn members of the other. Is there some exaggerated, over-the-top, nastily personal rhetoric out there? Of course. But if that’s what Obama takes issue with, he could have found a clearer way to say it.

LOOK WHO’S UNREPRESENTATIVE NOW

The great thing about legislative civil rights victories like the civil unions bill passed last spring here in Connecticut and the even more historic equal marriage rights legislation passed yesterday by California’s legislature is that it deprives the opponents of civil equality under the law of their judicial tyranny arguments and leaves them stuck opposing equal rights for all couples on the merits. One of the most squeamish about having to take sides on the substantive issue here is Governor Schwarzenegger, who in the LA Times today is grasping desperately for any “unrepresentative elites” argument he can get his hands on. Schwarzenegger’s gambit to have his centrist image and eat it too? Pinning the “unrepresentative elite” argument on the legislature. I expect we’ll see more of this in the future: Republicans rising to disparage the republican system of government in favor of direct democracy through ballot initiatives on the grounds the marriage issue strikes so deep that legislatures, like courts, can’t be trusted with it. That means deliciously ironic statements like this one from Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman:

The people spoke when they passed Proposition 22. The issue subsequently went to the courts. The governor believes the courts are the correct venue for this decision to be made. He will uphold whatever decision the court renders.

PROGRESSIVE POPULISM

Having suggested what I think are some of the very different concepts in play in the dominant discussion of populism, and argued that one that’s ubiquitous in those discussions – prejudice – is out of place, it’s only fair that I take a stab at setting forth what the concept of populism is that’s in play when I call myself a populist and urge the Democrats to take on the mantle and meaning of populism. I won’t bother to argue that the conception of populism I’ll put forth here is somehow more real or historically accurate than the others floating around. What I feel strongest about when it comes to how use the word itself is simply, as I said yesterday, that the conflation of populism and prejudice by economic elites is deeply disingenuous, reflects a deeply entrenched class bias, and underpins a long-term campaign to mark the majority unfit to govern and its criticism of corporate power rank demagoguery.

That said, here are a few of the contentions which I think underpin a progressive populism:

The contention that a healthy economy is one in which the benefits of growth and prosperity should be shared and spread across society.

The contention that a just economy is one in which working people exercise a meaningful voice in the conditions and rewards of their work and in economic policy within and between nations.

The contention that basic human freedoms and opportunities are universal rights, across lines of race, sex, class, and nation, and not provisional privileges.

The contention that the ability of individuals to connect the conditions and challenges of their own lives to those of others, and to their political ideals, has the potential to propel progress.

The contention that policy and democracy both suffer when certain sets of experience are driven out of public discourse.

The contention that for a politician to seek out and fight for more votes is not the moral equivalent of seeking out and fighting for more dollars.

The contention that a willful compact to preserve individual rights by entrusting certain decisions to more insulated institutions is different from and preferable to the unauthorized handover of decisions to enfranchised elites and experts.

The contention that the political victories which last are the ones with popular mandates.