AFL-CIO SECRETARY TREASURER: “YOUTH FACE AN ABYSS NOW”

Here’s my Nation interview with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler on the challenges facing youth and the labor movement:

Do you see the attack on public workers as a consequence of the decline in private sector unionization?

Definitely. The density question is the biggest and most important challenge we have in front of us. How do we grow? And we’re basically in a defensive posture in every state. It’s not only attacks on the public sector and collective bargaining – it’s prevailing wage laws, it’s voting rights, it’s everything you can think of being thrown at us.

Check it out.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR IRAN?

My interview with Iranian labor leader Homayoun Pourzad is now up on Dissent, just in time for tomorrow’s two-year anniversary of Iran’s contested election:

JE: How do you see the role of religion in terms of mobilizing people in the movement or suppressing the movement?


HP: For millions of people, including some workers, religion is the only language that they know in terms of culture and politics. Religious language and symbolism were used masterfully to mobilize people against the Shah. And the regime has been able to keep the mobilization going, even deepening it, with Ahmadinejad, with the same language and the same worldview. There is no reason why the democratic movement and even the labor movement shouldn’t use the same language. After all, many workers are devout religious people and most Iranians are believers, maybe over 80 percent. So this is not an opportunistic deployment of the other side’s tactics or language. It belongs as much to us as it belongs to them. So when in defiance of the regime people go on the rooftops and say, “God is great,” it really shakes the regime. Because that is exactly the language that they have used, and they have been able to dupe people with. And now it’s being hijacked. The same thing is going on in other Middle Eastern countries. And so I think religion could play a huge role in that sense.

We also talk about the evolving relationship between the labor movement and the Green movement, the challenges each faces, and what the US government should do. Check it out.

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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A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

FUN WITH COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

Kay Steiger, guest-blogging (with Alyssa) at Matt Yglesias’ site, considers sexism in “trade professions” and after pointing out that jobs like hair dressing aren’t counted as such precisely because women do them, suggests that

What would help is first what these truck mechanics Harding points to are already doing, mentoring young women in non-traditional fields. Secondly, unions that represent those industries need to not only be free of sexism themselves, but aggressively pursue lawsuits that would discourage sexual harassment. This is happening with some larger trade unions already, but it’s not as wide as it should be.

I think this really sells short the potential for trade unions to take on discrimination. Any kind of organization with the resources can file a lawsuit – or individuals or groups can do it with no organization at all. In some cases, like the Dukes suit against Wal-Mart (largest class action suit ever in this country), that can contribute greatly to leveraging pressure on a company. But workers with a union can change the behavior of their employer in a slew of other ways. That includes negotiating with them.

Union workers can and do win binding contracts obligating companies to take on unequal opportunity by creating training programs, by collaborating with community leaders and/ or non-profits, by submitting to oversight by workers, clergy, politicians, or whoever else to judge progress, to change work rules or job descriptions that create needless barriers for people who could otherwise do the job – and in any number of other ways. And these workers can enforce these commitments, as well as the company’s legal obligation not to discriminate, through collective action and through a grievance process that moves faster, cheaper, and more accessibly than a lawsuit. The limits are defined by power on the shop floor and nationally or internationally in the industry.

As Thomas Geoghegan wrote last year in his book See You in Court,

a big change has been the way we have moved from contract to tort. For most working Americans, the kind of people I represent, this accounts for the biggest change in the way the law now impacts their lives. In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 35 percent of workers, especially men, were covered by collective bargaining agreements…In the last thirty years, there has been a loss of contract rights – to a job, a pension, or even health care – unlike that in any other developed country. It is really a new legal regime that many Americans experience as infuriating, without being able to express that fury in an appropriate way.

Now the missed opportunities within substantial chunks of the labor movement to link arms as part of movements for sexual and racial inequality in the twentieth century is not unrelated to the steep decline in union power and union membership. But those workers Kay is talking about, who have unions, have an arsenal at their disposal to attack discrimination in the workplace – not only through contract language of course, but also through the kinds of action, client pressure, media strategies, and such that play part in winning recognition and winning contracts – without depending on the prospects of a lawsuit.

SOCIAL CAPITAL

This past week, TPMCafe brought together some smart folks to talk about whether there’s a resurgence of organizing and what to make of it. One of the more interesting contributions was from the woefully-under-appreciated Chris Hayes, who wrote:

The entire Industrial Areas Foundation method (utilized by a young community organizer named Barack Obama while organizing on Chicago’s far south side) involved leveraging the social capital of parishes towards achieving the interests of the community members. That’s an oversimplification, but it gets at something essential about Alinsky’s approach: you find the sources of pre-existing power in a neighborhood and you try to build on them. The $64,000 question is to what degree the internet can instantiate social capital in the very real and immediate way that neighborhood parishes did in the Back of the Yards. Much of the post 1970s decline in organizing (and indeed the fate of the Democratic party and progressives) can be tied, I think, to the unraveling of much of the social capital our constituencies used to have. This process has been documented quite famously by Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol. So can the internet reverse the trend?

POSITIVE PEACE

In a discussion thread at the New Haven Independent, one of the anti-union posters is invoking Martin Luther King and calling for “a peaceful solution.”

Fortunately, there’s a peaceful solution the Yale – New Haven Hospital could agree to tomorrow: card-check neutrality. Let’s keep in mind it was MLK who warned us against seeking “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” rather than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also said: “You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages…if you’re getting a good wage, as I know that through some unions they’ve brought it up…that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.”

He wrote the first quote in jail in Birmingham. He said the second one at a rally for SEIU 1199 – his “favorite union” – in 1968.

STOP STEPPING ON MY BREAKTHROUGH

Doing his best to sweet-talk electorally-ascendent liberals into hitching their wagon to the libertarian rickshaw, Brink Lindsey offers a list of shared victories in which liberals and libertarians can revel together:

an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.

If these are victories for libertarians, then this is a better argument for why libertarians should support liberals and leftists – the people who actually won each of these victories – than for why the left should turn libertarian. But it’s worth asking whether these markers of social progress even qualify as “libertarian breakthroughs” or “libertarian ends.”

The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by the elimination of the poll tax, a nasty law which restricts access to a government function to those able to pay for it and rewards those with more money to spend on their politics with more voice in them. What about undoing those laws qualifies as libertarian? The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by anti-discrimination laws that empower government to use regulation to limit the freedom of employers to employ a workforce that looks like themselves. Inflicting government intervention on market transactions is not exactly the libertarian m.o. Neither is government-mandated busing to integrate a public school system that if libertarians had their way wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Many libertarians no doubt break with Barry Goldwater and support the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. But their support for good progressive law doesn’t demonstrate a fundamental affinity between liberalism and libertarianism. It simply demonstrates that even its devotees sometimes reject the maxim that “the government is best which governs least” when faced with the liberty-denying consequences of the “free market” whose “relentless dynamism” Lindsey urges liberals to recognize.

Libertarians may support freedom of the press from censorship, but they’re more likely to fret over how to sell off our publically-owned airwaves than how to ensure airtime for grassroots candidates. They may support a woman’s right to choose, but I wouldn’t count on their assistance in ensuring that women have the economic means to choose abortion or childbirth, or the educational resources to make informed choices. They may support the rights of the accused to a trial, but they’re not the first to line up to be taxed to pay for decent lawyers to represent them (then there are the ones who would like to replace the criminal justice system with a system of private torts). They may support allowing more immigrants into this country, but if you expect them to face down employers who exploit the fear of deportation to suppress the right to organize, you’ve got another think coming.

And though the Cato Institute won’t be joining Rick Santorum’s crusade against no-fault divorce any time soon, there’s no need for an earnest Ayn Rand devotee to support a right to divorce at all. After all, isn’t marriage a binding contract that the parties should know better than to get into lightly? Aside from the reality that it presides over marriage in the first place, why should government have any more right to stop consenting adults from entering contracts for lifelong marriage than it does to bar contracts for human organ sales or pennies-an-hour employment?

EIDELSON AND THE UNNECESSARY EXEGESIS

That’s what Alek and I recently decided my band would be called, given my penchant for, well, unnecessary exegesis (take these seven paragraphs analyzing one from Barack Obama). If that didn’t satiate you, here’s some more:

Last month, I argued that there was only room in media discourse for one “Un-Hillary,” and that the lack of consensus about Hillary Clinton’s political profile creates the potential for that “Un-Hillary” to emerge from the left or from the right. Over at TNR, Ryan Lizza suggests, I think rightly, that John Edwards’ star as a candidate for the Un-Hillary mantle is rising at the moment. There’s plenty to agree with in his analysis. And then his piece ends with a peculiar turn of phrase:

A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination.

Why “moderate”?

Now, opposing our invasion of Iraq and the President’s plan to “stay the course” there is a majority position in this country, as is support for the right to organize a union free of intimidation and the negotiation of trade deals that don’t accelerate the race to the bottom. These are both areas where, at least for now, a majority of Americans are on the left. As Paul Waldman argues, there are more of them than one would think from listening to talking heads. And as David Sirota argued in a series of pieces after the 2004 election, “centrism” in the dominant media discourse has been warped to describe a set of policies with much greater support among the elite than the electorate. That said, the fact that most people in this country take a progressive position doesn’t in and of itself make that position moderate, at least in the short term.

Sure, in the long term social change depends on pulling the center towards your end, as the right has done much better than the left over the past few decades. And the most effective political leaders we have are the ones who can communicate progressive positions in ways which resonate with fundamental shared values even amongst people who don’t see themselves as on the left. But I still think it’s worth questioning what, especially in the pages of the New Republic, qualifies Edwards as a representative of moderation – other than the fact that he’s popular, and if you believe moderation to be popular with the American people, you’re inclined to look at someone as popular as him to be moderate as well (remember the DLC essay right when it looked like Kerry was going to beat Bush that celebrated how Trumanesque he was?)

Otherwise, what is it that makes Edwards moderate in Lizza’s eyes? His voting record when he last held office (by which standard the likes of Howard Dean and Ned Lamont – neither likely to win any popularity awards from TNR – are at least as moderate)? His support for the death penalty? His equivocation on civil unions? Or is it just the fact that he’s from the South, and liberalism in some pundit’s minds is a cultural affectation and not an ideological vision, and thus not something a southerner could or would want to take part in?

Look, Edwards is no uber-leftist by any means, and there are certainly issues on which he could be more progressive and deserves criticism for not being. But it’s hard to escape the sense that he wins the moderate label here and elsewhere because he comes off as likable and electable, and it’s assumed that any likable electable politician must be a moderate.

ONE SIDE OF THE DEAL

An American worker who works at the current federal minimum wage – $5.15/ hour – for forty hours a week for fifty-two weeks, without interruption, would make $10,712.

The 2006 federal poverty line for the continental United States for a two-person family is $13,200 a year.

That means a family of one child and one parent who works full-time at the federal minimum wage is living at least $2,500 below the poverty line.

The reality faced by the working poor in America is somewhat different. People struggle to find consistent full-time work. People take multiple jobs adding up to well over forty hours without receiving the benefits of full-time work from any of them. People get sick.

A decade ago, conservatives in Congress – with a good many ostensible liberals in tow – inflicted a harsh revision of the American social contract, tearing away the safety net from those who utilized its support for more than three or five years of their lives – even if they were using that time to gain the skills for a better shot at living-wage work. Under the regime of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the uncompromising message sent to every low-income woman and man in this country by our congress is that your first and immediate responsibility is to find a way into the minimum-wage workforce.

But the same leaders who have most loudly pushed that message on marginalized Americans have fought fiercely against either requiring that work pay by raising the minimum wage or facilitating workers’ freedom to demand that work pay by protecting their organizing rights.

This week, some of them floated an insulting proposal – intended to fail – which would ease the minimum wage higher for some workers while both leaving tipped workers out to dry and depleting the federal government’s resources for empowering working Americans by lavishing cash on this country’s wealthiest families.

We deserve better.

BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.