Crash in Oil Prices Should Bury Peak Oil Once and For All

by Arun Gupta Telesur January 29, 2015

In 1977 Isaac Asimov wrote of “The Nightmare Life Without Fuel.” Writing in the wake of the first Middle East oil shock, Asimov imagined cars and air conditioning becoming distant memories, cities mined for valuable minerals and hardware, and the last barrels of oil hoarded for agricultural and military purposes. A future of scarcity seemed in the cards after the 1979 revolution in Iran followed disrupted global supplies, reviving gas lines and rationing in the United States, and sending oil prices to a stratospheric $117 a barrel in today’s U.S. dollars.

The U.S. economy plunged into recession for the second time in a decade. Inflation, food prices and unemployment all shot up. Energy-importing Third World nations were devastated as expensive crude depleted their treasuries even as the U.S. Federal Reserve jacked interest rates, triggering the debt crises that remain unresolved to this day.

But high prices didn’t last long as Saudi Arabia opened its spigots to replace Iran as the West’s top oil supplier, oil exploration boomed in Texas, and vast new fields in the Gulf of MexicoNorth Sea and Alaska ramped up. By the mid-1980s two-hour lines at the filling station were a hazy childhood memory as I’d zip up to the pump and fill my gas-sipping Nissan Sentra for $5.

We are now replaying that era of energy shocks radiating from the Middle East, tight energy markets, expensive oil and an oversupply and bust. The cyclical nature of the fossil-fuel industry disapproves a concept that’s gained wide support, especially on the left, even though it’s flawed in every way: “peak oil.”

Asimov never used the term peak oil in his essay, but that was the underlying idea. Shell Oil geologist Marion King Hubbert developed peak oil theory in the 1950s, predicting domestic U.S. oil production would peak by 1970 and decline steadily thereafter. In exploiting an individual oil field, Hubbert contended, production ramps up quickly and hits a peak at about which time about half the recoverable oil has been extracted. As the oil becomes increasingly difficult and costly to pump out, the field goes into decline. Think of the production as a bell-shaped curve. The top point means half is gone and half is left. But because population and the economy continue to grow, so do energy needs. Hubbert held that his theory about an individual field was applicable to the continental U.S. oil production and even the entire world, which he predicted would peak around 2000.

After that, as one website describes, comes the nightmare future. “Worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin … the price will skyrocket, oil dependent economies are liable to crumble, and resource wars are liable to explode.”

Except panics over looming shortages are as old as the oil industry itself. One snake-oil salesman in 1855 implored buyers to purchase his petroleum-based cure-all “before this wonderful product is depleted from Nature’s laboratory.” The U.S. government warned numerous times in the 20th century that oil supplies would be depleted in a decade or two. The infamous 1972 Limits to Growth projected that by 2013 the world should have run out of “aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc.” Peak-oil theorists like Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler have been declaring peak oil for more than twenty years but production keeps rising.

Despite this dismal track record many leftists embraced peak oil during the Bush era. It was a secular version of end times in the post-9/11 world. If movement building seems insurmountable, then it’s tempting to find solace in building post-carbon, do-it-yourself communities and wait for the wells to run dry at which point everything from the “war on terror” to climate change is resolved.

Fervent peak oilers are neo-Malthusians, believing the relentless growth of population and society on their own will outstrip natural resources. While Malthus’s ideas were discredited on scientific, historical, and economic grounds in the 19th century, they live on in peak oil, peak waterpeak mineralspeak soilpeak food and peak everything.

From a scientific perspective, peak oil posits geology as determining oil supplies. Of course oil is a finite and non-renewable resource, but the last decade of spiraling oil prices was caused by Middle East wars, Wall Street commodities speculation, and ecological disasters like Hurricane Katrina, not by natural limits. It’s the socio-economic system that determines how much oil, along with every other commodity, is produced, distributed, and consumed. Grasping why peak oil and its variants are flawed offers a deeper understanding of the global energy order, the politics of climate change, and capitalism itself.

Even the term peak oil is problematic, obscuring how the energy industry works. We may imagine oil as gushing out of a steel derrick in a barren desert, but energy companies are after hydrocarbons in any form. Cars on a highway could be powered by fuel derived from tar sands, natural-gas or its condensates, shale oil, biofuels, heavy oil, or coal-to-liquid. One scenario by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates such non-conventional sources could account for more than one-third of all oil produced by 2030.

Then there is the concept of a peak. Even though Hubbert was off by only one year—domestic production peaked in 1971—production looks nothing like his bell curve over time. It rose after each seventies shock, went into a twenty-year funk after the mid-eighties crash, and in the last five years it has soared to near its 1971 peak.

The inherent flaw of peak oil is that it naturalizes capitalism. Energy reserves are determined by price, investment and technology. The current oil boom, driven by innovations in fracking and drilling, tar-sands production, low-cost investment capital and persistently high oil prices, have smashed Hubbert’s theory to bits like brittle shale.

The inaccuracy of peak oil hasn’t stopped prominent figures like Paul Krugman and George Monbiot from flirting with the concept. Monbiot admitted his error in 2012, correctly noting the problem is not too little oil, but too much: “There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.” On the left, Michael Klare has pushed versions of peak oil in books like Resource Wars and The Race for What’s Left. In 2005 Klare declared that “the world is headed for a severe and prolonged energy crunch in the not-too-distant future.” In 2008 Klare wrote that “the current energy crisis is almost certain to be long-lasting.” In 2012 he asserted that “oil prices are destined to remain high for a long time to come.”

Like the hardcore peak oilers, Klare confuses the energy economy with oil reserves rather than analyzing how economic, political, and technological forces turn tight markets into gluts, and booms into busts. While Klare tends not to endorse peak oil outright, he often quotes the ideas favorably. In recent years he has shifted to peak oil-lite, proclaiming the end of “cheap oil” or “easy oil.” Most any gas station these days refutes the “cheap oil” notion. The U.S. average is currently $2.03 for a gallon of gas, close to the inflation-adjusted average in the 1950s.

As for “easy oil,” that’s relative. In 1947 when the first commercial oil well was built out of the sight of land in the Gulf of Mexico it was an engineering marvel and in all of 18 feet of water. Today, Brazil has committed $82 billion to develop a “pre-salt basin” of oil under 6,900 feet of water and additional 17,000 feet of seabed. Japan is in uncharted waters with a pilot project to exploit methane hydrates, a form of frozen hydrocarbon on ocean floors that may be twenty-five times the size of all potential natural gas reserves. While there are uncertainties about these projects, especially methane hydrates, they show huge sums of investment are readily available to an energy industry that can rapidly innovate to develop profitable resources.

Klare, however, dismisses new hydrocarbon sources. He claims shale and tar sands oil is “tough oil” that “will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers.” The energy industry, however, doesn’t give a hoot about the environment. As Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, puts it, “[Its] business model is fundamentally at war with life on earth.” And just as low gas prices refute the end of cheap oil, the output from Canada’s tar sands, more than 2.5 million barrels of synthetic crude a day, and U.S. shale formations, nearly 4 million barrels a day, proves tough oil is meaningless.

It’s the quest for hydrocarbons in general and geopolitical maneuvers that’s made the current oil crash rapid and steep. The last major crash was in the mid-eighties, and that taught Saudi Arabia to plan ahead. It’s amassed $750 billion in currency reserves and is pumping oil at full tilt rather than give up market share. The Saudis are willing to weather low prices to punish rivals like Iran and to force some unconventional black gold like shale and tar sands into the red. Conspiracy theorists see Washington’s hand because of the pain inflicted on Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, which all need high oil prices to meet their budgetary needs, but as the Socialist Worker points out, “Saudi Arabia’s decision not to prop up prices is the product of its rivalry with U.S. oil producers, not coordination with U.S. policymakers.” Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize, the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the oil industry, contends we may be entering a new oil era where the United States supplants Saudi Arabia as the “swing producer” that can exert direct control over oil markets.

Critics contend that given ever-increasing thirst for hydrocarbons historically, any assumption about future usage based on current supply is dicey. That’s true, but “proven reserves” of oil and natural gas, which is the most conservative category, keep rising. One figure that has remained consistent over decades is the “reserve-to-production” ratio. In 1995 the world had an estimated 51 years of oil supply based on consumption that year. After burning through half-a-trillion barrels of oil since then, the global reserve-to-production ratio in 2013 was at 53.3 years.

While peak oilers snipe that Middle East producers overstate their supply, the opposite is the case. Officially, Saudi Arabia has 267 billion barrels of oil, but in twenty years, Saudi Aramco estimates it will have 630 billion barrels of recoverable reserves. That’s on top of current production rates of 4 billion barrels annually. The same is true for the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq. They can potentially produce far more oil than what’s listed in their reserves. One study of U.S. oil fields found the actual production was more than seven times the initial reserves reported. Conservative estimates of Brazil’s pre-salt oil fields put it at 14 billion barrels, which means they would eventually produce more than 100 billion barrels.

State companies like Saudi Aramco, known as “nationals,” often resist U.S. pressure to pump more oil because that could lead to a price crash. The nationals control 90 percent of global reserves, so many large fields remain untapped. The “majors”—corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron—are left to grab what they can, such as shale oiltar sands, or search in extreme environments like the Arctic Ocean. This tendency only reflects the market imperative to maintain profitability, not a harbinger of the end of oil. But since Klare focuses mainly on the majors, his view is one in which oil is rapidly dwindling. In 2005 he wrote that “in the absence of major new discoveries, we face a gradual contraction in the global supply of petroleum” because “major private oil companies are failing to discover promising new sources of petroleum.” Yet since 2003 global proved reserves have increased by more than 350 billion barrels, and that is in addition to over 300 billion barrels consumed in the same period.

Shortfalls in supply often stem from U.S. policy to control the global spigot of oil. Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013 that because “a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy,” he was prepared to use military force to “ensure the free flow of energy from the [Middle East] to the world.”

Since the 1990s, Washington has disrupted many major oil producers. This includes the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, sanctions on Iran, and dirty tricks against Venezuela. Ironically these actions tightened the oil market such that domestic fracking and tar sands became profitable. But the world is not about some free for all scramble for oil as in Klare’s “resource wars.” He contends that “unsettled resource deposits—contested oil and gas fields, shared water systems, embattled diamond mines—provides a guide to likely conflict zones in the twenty-first century.”

Other than those countries Washington designates as rogue states—like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—every state accepts, even if grudgingly, the U.S.-managed global oil order. Even countries on the out are looking for an in. The drop in oil prices helped create the conditions for a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and it may be pushing Iran to reach a deal with the White House over its nuclear energy program.

A more accurate view of the global oil order is provided by physicist and geopolitical analyst Tom O’Donnell who terms it “one global barrel.” He argues that the pre-1973 oil system had no meaningful open market, making it a form of mercantilism. Back then the majors backed by Western states controlled the production of oil-rich countries. Supply disruptions to one company could affect an entire consuming country. The new system developed after Third World states nationalized oil companies. The global oil order now works through the market, mainly the London and New York commodities exchange, and is dominated by U.S.-protected Gulf States in OPEC and managed by international institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Energy Agency. Above it all is the U.S. government.

Klare implies national interests still reign supreme and nations are constantly on the brink of war over shrinking energy supplies. While China may chafe at U.S. control and Russia and the United States are at odds, the global oil order is marked by conflict, competition and cooperation at the same time and often in the same place. In Russia, Western oil companies continue to do business despite sanctions. In Iraq some opponents of the war crowed that Russian and Chinese oil companies that won concessions there marked the “declining influence of American capitalism.” But the scope of revamping Iraq’s oil infrastructure is so large that much of the lucrative drilling and exploration work is going to U.S. oil services firms. More important, Washington policymakers are generally indifferent to who is producing Iraq’s oil as long as it flows freely into the global market and U.S. influence holds over the Iraqi state.

If we could fast forward through time to find when oil production and consumption peaks, that would tell us nothing about the social impact. The 1980s crash was due to an increase in supply and drop in demand. Oil consumption may seem to march in lockstep with population and economic growth, but it is elastic. A barrel of oil today generates three times as much economic activity as it did in 1976. Unbelievably, U.S. oil consumption was lower in the first half of 2014 than the high point in 1989. Factors include lower car usage and increasing fuel efficiency that hit a record of 23.6 miles per gallon in 2012. Yet most European economies produce 50 to 60 percent more economic activity per unit of energy as does the United States. We could slash our oil consumption in half in a decade with a concerted effort. It could keep going down until oil is reserved for far more valuable uses such as road building, metal making and specialized lubricants, chemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

Oil consumption needs to drop dramatically because of the dangerous planetary effects. But that has nothing to do with peak oil. It’s a matter of how we reorganize our society and economy on the surface of the earth so we stop using the stuff that’s under it.

2 Comments

Filed under Climate Change, Corporations, Economy, Energy, Environment

Is the Anti-Police Violence Movement a New Chapter in the Black Freedom Struggle?

#BlackLivesMatter

Child at Portland, OR, protest against police brutality. (Photo credit: Michelle Fawcett)

by Arun Gupta Telesur December 30, 2014

It was inevitable there would a push back against the dynamic movement against police violence. It is unfortunate opponents are using the murder of two cops in Brooklyn on December 20 to try to suppress peaceful protests. Nonetheless, the reaction is also a necessary obstacle this new social movement has to navigate.

After Officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, anti-police violence protests became a regular occurrence there. The militarized police response made Ferguson an international story as well as a magnet for more protests. The movement spread across the United States a few months later following the decision by grand juries not to indict Wilson or NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed choking to death an unarmed Eric Garner on Staten Island in July.

It’s a remarkable movement for the scope of protests, range of participants, and militancy, with activists staging die-ins and blockading streets, bridges, schools, police departments, and shopping malls. The organizing is influenced by the low-wage workers movements that have mobilized many working-class African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly those in the fast-food, retail, and domestic work sectors. There are similarities to Occupy Wall Street movement, with savvy use of social media, such as the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and relentless in-the-streets activism. Most important, it’s the latest chapter in the centuries-long Black freedom struggle in the United States and beyond.

A Movement Propelled by Frustration with Racism

It is no accident that the movement arose at this moment. It is propelled by frustration with institutional racism that remains pervasive and deadly, but which is evidenced more by cold statistics than burning crosses. It’s also a consequence of hopes raised by Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president.

That was a profound achievement, but Obama has offered little shelter from the economic storm that’s pummeled Black America during his tenure, whether from unemploymenthome foreclosures, or the destruction of Black wealth. The crisis has compounded the decimation of social welfare, the decline of organized labor, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex from Reagan to Clinton, as well as the recent attack on public-sector unions, often at the hands of Democrats.

The Obama years end the latest chapter of the Black freedom struggle that culminated in the dismantling of legal segregation during the sixties. The prominence of figures like Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Joycelyn Elders, and Colin Powell was hard to imagine fifty years ago, but the U.S. political system has proven incapable of creating the conditions where all African-Americans can act as full political and social agents.

This is why the bullets that killed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner bite so deep. The state-sanctioned killing of unarmed blacks by police and vigilantes underscores the reality that Black lives do matter less in America. Black life expectancy lags nearly four years behind that of whites, a result of a society where housing and schools, remain segregated, access to healthcare and medical care is unequalchildhood poverty is at epidemic levels, Blacks are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated, and white household median income is 68 percent greater than that of Blacks.

What these numbers can’t capture is how the social practices of racism have fused with market relations, making racism rational, effortless, and invisible. It’s the decision to buy a house in a good neighborhood, send the children to the right school, work with people who are deemed trustworthy, patronize a business that’s a known quantity. Market imperatives favor the most conservative course. Anything that is truly different is risky, suspicious, a danger, or a threat to the self or to property.

The notion Blacks are a threat is embedded so deep in the American psyche that a jury found it was not criminal for George Zimmerman to stalk and kill Trayvon Martin, a child, in his own neighborhood. Michael Brown died after Wilson challenged him for walking in a residential street, an utterly banal practice. Eric Garner was a threat to private enterprise and state revenue because sometimes he sold loose cigarettes, a policy allegedly decided at the highest level of the NYPD. Their deaths point to the basic unresolved contradiction in U.S. society: are Blacks citizens or are they a threat?

Garner’s death is one of many that have resulted from the NYPD’s obsession with “quality-of-life” violations, but it’s also a result of de Blasio’s confused politics. He won the mayoralty by harnessing the widespread anger against a stop-and-frisk policy akin to “loitering laws” used to control Blacks, Natives, and Mexicans during the Jim Crow era. In 2011, the NYPD recorded more than 685,000 stops and made more stops of young Black men than the entire population of young Black men in New York City. But de Blasio replaced stop and frisk with “broken-windows” policing by selecting Bill Bratton as police commissioner. In the nineties Bratton introduced broken windows in New York, claiming that policing minor quality-of-life infractions committed by graffiti artists, pot smokers, street vendors, “squeegee men,” and panhandlers would prevent more serious crimes. The evidence that stop and frisk or broken windows reduce crime is nonexistent.

Both policies work to regulate where and how black and brown people can exist in the public sphere. There is no lack of stories of Blacks being accosted by cops for making a purchase in a high-end store or walking in a white neighborhood. These stories can’t capture statistics like the 43,000 Blacks and Hispanics in New York City who were stopped, frisked and arrested in 2010 for low-level marijuana offenses. Untold numbers wound up with prison time and records, which devastate housing, employment and educational opportunities.

New York Mayor Tangles with a Vicious Police Union

De Blasio vowed to end this system when he ran for mayor, but he is in a bind. He’s tangling with a police union that was vicious even before Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down and he’s trying to placate a rank and file that in staging public disavowals of his authority are signaling they are the real power in the city not someone who won 73 percent of the vote, including 96 percent of African Americans and 87 percent of Hispanics.

The cop revolt has exposed the deep state that exists at the municipal level around the country. Police union head Patrick Lynch overplayed his hand by blasting de Blasio for having “blood on [his] hands.” But the mainstream media and politicians have rallied to the police, with thuggish comments coming not just from Republicans but Democrats like New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo who declared, “75,000 police officers and National Guardsmen statewide have [the police’s] back every step of the way.” But politicians like Cuomo know the pro-cop rhetoric plays well at home. The majority of whites, many Asians and Hispanics and more than a few Blacks fully support the unequal social order cops protect because they benefit from it. The danger for militants is they became angrier and isolate themselves rather than rethink how to build a more inclusive movement.

De Blasio knows his power comes not from the oppressed communities whose hopes he raised, but from the moneyed elite who filled his campaign coffers. They run New York, and they are whom the NYPD serve and protect above all. The police and their defenders want to protect their unaccountability and lack of meaningful oversight. The anti-protester reaction also reinforces the image of police under siege, stoking what philosopher Samir Chopra’s terms cops’ “deadly self-pity.” The push-back began before the killings with de Blasio calling for people protesting police violence to denounce violence. After the killings he showed contempt for popular democracy by attacking demonstrators for continuing to protest. Others, including Bratton, tried to link the cops’ deaths to the protests. The aim is to create a false equivalence, as exemplified by the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag.

Yet, there is no comparing the agents of state violence, who enjoy perks and prestige unavailable for nearly any other working-class vocation, to the subjects of that violence. Black trumps blue in terms of danger to one’s life. Reuters interviewed twenty-five current or former NYPD officers who are African-American males. All but one said that out of uniform they were subject to racial profiling or violence at the hands of their fellow officers.

While this new movement is perhaps the most widespread, diverse and radical in decades, it’s at a crossroads. The counterattack is not aimed at getting militants off the street but getting liberals and progressives who provide broader social support to stay at home. Like Occupy Wall Street, this movement has brought in legions of new activists and politicized areas of life that are usually not explicitly political, like shopping malls, sports games and holiday celebrations. Organizers have to consciously develop strategies that retain militancy while enabling widespread participation.

The NYPD Has Been on a Vendetta

The state hopes to divide “legitimate” and “illegitimate” protesters. The NYPD has been on a vendetta after protesters scuffled with two NYPD detectives on the Brooklyn Bridge, slapping organizers with felony charges. Chicago police are apparently spying on the phone conversations of protesters. In Portland, the police appear to be singling out known activists for arrests. The city of Bloomington, Minnesota, is looking to bankrupt and imprison organizers of a large die-in at the Mall of America, with the city attorney stating, “You want to get at the ringleaders” after detailing numerous charges against protesters as well as demands for “staggering” fines to cover policing costs.

Hopefully, this will mark a new stage in the Black freedom struggle, one that goes beyond Black and white and sloganeering. Native people within the reservation system live under the harshest conditions, but the violence is more a product of federal than local police forces. For Hispanics, the social geography of policing includes the immigration detention system. While there is crossover organizing between Hispanics and Blacks in low-wage worker movements, the unions involved are reluctant to prioritize contentious issues outside the workplace like police violence. Additionally, many Blacks are cool to immigration reform because of perceived competition for jobs, and 62 percent of African-Americans say there is “strong conflict” between immigrants and the native born. Plus, fetishizing a group as inherently revolutionary ignores the reality that Black anger stems more from not having access to the social advantages whites enjoy rather than a desire to overthrow the system. One poll from 2010 found 81 percent of Blacks described themselves as “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be an American, only five points lower than whites.

New York Police Would Remain a Racist Institution

The movement also needs to progress beyond racial reductionism. While it is rooted in history of state violence against Blacks, Native people and Hispanics, racial identity doesn’t confer an advantage in organizing. Succumbing to slogans that “Black or Brown people must lead the struggle” opens the door for opportunists. Organizers need to be immersed in existing struggles, but identity matters less than knowing how to organize and build unity without abandoning key principles or goals. Already a few groups with little connection to the anti-police violence struggle are positioning themselves as mediators between City Hall and the streets. Some other organizations now in the spotlight are more about personal power than collective transformation. Racial reductionism is also used against the left. Defenders of the NYPD point out it is only 51 percent white, but in its present form it would remain a racist institution if it were 100 percent people of color.

The anti-police brutality movement looks to have staying power if for no other reason than inequality and segregation will continue to intensify in the United States and the police will enforce that order. But to be successful it will have to shift from a focus on the police to the social system that demands the violence the police mete out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anti-Police Brutality, Occupy Movement, Protest, Race

Spaces of Hope: Radical Movements Need Radical Spaces

checafemural.jpg_1718483346

One of the murals on the Ché Café in San Diego (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To build radical movements, you need radical spaces, argues Arun Gupta, who looks at the important roles San Diego’s Ché Café and Brooklyn’s Mayday Space play in their communities.

by Arun Gupta Telesur December 2, 2014

Standing outside the Ché Café, wedged in a hillside on the University of California San Diego campus, David Morales says “the radicals there terrified me” the first time he visited in 1987.

Just 18 years old, Morales was bewildered by the political and music scene there. It was alien to his experience growing up in conservative San Diego, a major port for the U.S. navy sandwiched between the massive Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to the north and the militarized border with Mexico to the south.

Morales quickly warmed to the “incredible mix of cultural expression from students and youth,” and fell in love with the Ché Café’s eclectic music shows that spanned reggae to punk rock. He met his future wife at the shed-like cafe and it is a place infused with their familiy’s memories.

After graduating from UCSD in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, the 45-year-old Morales’ focus shifted to his family, and he would only “show up now and then to an event” at the space.

Now he’s a fixture once more at the Ché Café, along with other old-timers and a slew of youths, because the UCSD administration is on the verge of booting out the collective, which has been running the cafe for 34 years.

Claiming there are safety concerns about the condition of the buildings, the administration is close to securing a five-day notice to vacate, after months of maneuvering to squeeze both funding and student support.

Café supporters dispute the claims, pointing out that in April the university’s own facility inspector concluded that that the space “is looking good in terms of safety” other than one minor item of concern next to the main building.

Monty Kroopkin, who started at UCSD in 1970, is the in-house expert on the collective’s decades-long battles with the administration. He says the three-building facility was established in 1966 and originally known as the Coffee House Express, or C.H.E. for short. In 1979, after the administration tried to turn it into a faculty club, the students gained control and established the Ché Café, changing the meaning of the acronym to “Cheap Healthy Eats.”

Since then, the collective has been fending off attempts by the administration to shut the cafe. UCSD officials have invoked health and safety issues repeatedly, going so far as to change the cafe’s locks in 2000, before supporters occupied it, forcing the administration to back down. That’s why Kroopkin, Morales and others are concerned about the looming eviction order, but are not yet hitting the panic button.

The threat of closure has generated an influx of supporters. Ché Café recently delivered a petition with 14,000 signatures asking the administration to halt the eviction and negotiate a new lease.

While the administration claims the facility is used mainly by outsiders (which is true of the high-profile and independently-operated La Jolla Playhouse on the UCSD campus), students occupied an academic hall on November 24 in support of the Ché Café. They were also opposing planned tuition increases of 28 percent over in the next five in the entire University of California system.

The Ché collective is growing, and members meet regularly to formulate responses to the administration’s moves.

When I popped by on a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-November, they were discussing a university decree that they halt the cafe’s programming; its cultural lifeblood and business model. Before the meeting a handful of us gathered outside, as Morales’ youngest daughter and two friends raced around the patio, past a stenciled painting of an AK-47 emblazoned with the slogan, “No Gods No Masters.”

To those who’ve found a home in the Ché Café, it represents radical possibilities. In 2003 Trevor Stutzman found in the Ché an all-age venue steeped in San Diego’s “rich music history.” He says at age 15 he was “exposed to a real alternative, a non-hierarchical worker collective. It affects you the rest of your life and how you see the world.”

While Stutzman attended college elsewhere, he has been a regular at the cafe that is “a bridge between the community and university.” The others nod in agreement. Kroopkin adds that the cafe’s existence raises the question, “Is the university’s role to serve its ‘clientele’ or is it to serve the broader community?”

The single-story wooden buildings are splashed with radical-history murals by painters like Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero, whose works are also found in San Diego’s famed (and contested) Chicano Park.

Morales guides me through the eucalyptus grove on the far reaches of the cafe grounds.He reminisces that it’s a place where he’s “watched owls make love,” to the organic vegetable garden in back. It’s also the place he and his wife buried our eldest son’s placenta.

There I meet Jeanine Webb, studying toward a doctorate in poetics at UCSD, who has been a collective member for three months.

Webb laments, “There are so few radical spaces left on University of California campuses.” She argues the administration’s plan is to remove “student spaces that provide a place where free thought and culture can exist because they don’t support the neoliberal profit motive and have ‘uncontrollable’ aspects inherent to them.”

Kroopkin says over the years the university has been hostile to the Ché Café and the three other student-run cooperatives on campus: the General Store Co-op, Groundwork Books, and the Food Co-op. He explains that they are the only student-run and cooperatively-organized entities at the university with their own revenue streams, bank accounts, payroll and insurance. “They are legally autonomous,” Kroopkin says. “Not even the UCSD student government is autonomous, unlike the UCLA or Berkeley bodies.”

That is the heart of the conflict, says Webb. Spaces like the Ché Café do not fit into the corporate university, which is why she says the administration wants to “sanitize” them.

It’s hard to disagree. What’s happening in the University of California system and the Ché Café is a microcosm of U.S. society.

Radical spaces

Over time, as the market has extended its tendrils into all parts of daily life, radical spaces have disappeared in much of U.S. society.

In the late 19th century, agrarian grange halls and entire utopian communities were commonplace. Decades later, labor temples, radical coffeehouses, theaters, publishers, bars and bookstores had their heyday along with socialist and communist halls and camps.

While you can still find radical spaces in many college campuses, union halls and cultural spaces, they are all under siege, save perhaps those hosted by progressive religious outfits.

Radical spaces in workplaces, public squares, churches, schools, and neighborhoods are breeding grounds for social movements of every stripe.

Factories have been a primary site of struggle since the industrial era began. Karl Marx argued capitalists would be their undoing, by bringing together laborers under one roof they would realize their common interests as a working class and overthrown the capitalist system.

While that prediction of solely a worker-led revolution seems unlikely to come to pass in an era when production has been outsourced through technology and fragmented around the globe, movements are unmoored without space to incubate, grow and survive.

Occupy Wall Street would never have existed without holding common space in dozens of cities, and it never recovered once it lost those spaces no matter how much activists told themselves, “You can’t evict an idea.”

Taking over public space enables everyday life to be reimagined. After Occupy took root in the fall of 2011, I would stand on the steps overlooking Zuccotti Park, just a stone’s throw from the New York Stock Exchange, and watch as hundreds of people clumped in knots exchanged ideas, food, books, technology, art, media, medical care, counseling, clothing, shelter, emotions and more. Not one exchange was mediated by money, which was in sharp contrast to the fevered consumption all around in Manhattan.

Different political and social forms were fermenting, especially ones where the market held far less sway than is normal in daily life.

As powerful and widespread as the protests have been against the failure to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed Black teen Michael Brown, outbursts in the street can’t replace spaces where community and trust is built, leadership and organization developed, and vision and strategy debated and implemented.

The reason so many radical spaces have closed down is the same reason Ché Café is imperiled: money.

Recently one of the most storied alternative spaces in the country, New York City’s Brecht Forum, shut down. A popular education institute and theater, the Brecht cited financial difficulties as the reason for packing it in after nearly 40 years, but some sources within the organization indicated there was a political decision to turn down substantial funding that could have saved it because it would have likely meant shifting its organizational form or vision.

An activist space in Brooklyn known as The Commons is filling some of the needs met by a radical space, by providing classes in leftist history and politics. Its funding model is based on the investing savvy of its politically-minded owner, who purchased the building years ago in a depressed area that has gentrified, like much of the city. There’s nothing wrong with politically-minded philanthropy as the radical left needs all the help it can get.

Another space taking shape elsewhere in Brooklyn aims to be a comprehensive community resource while adapting to market realities. Ana Nogueira and McNair Scott are the principals behind the Mayday Community Space. I worked with the two for years at the New York City Indymedia Center, which got off to a roaring start in 2000, when a left-leaning hactivist donated a midtown office space to the group of media makers.

Noguiera is a former producer at Democracy Now!, and half of the team that made the award-winning film about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Roadmap to Apartheid. She says her inspiration for Mayday comes from one of her formative experiences as a teenager, “seeing a show at the Wetlands Preserve and discovering a whole world of environmental activism.” During its 12-year run, Wetlands was located in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan and fused live concerts with environmental activism, but was steamrollered by gentrification in 2001.

Nogueira says she hopes Mayday Space “plays a similar role, drawing people to music shows and introducing them to movements,” while facilitating “affordable space for people to use in a city where rents are super high.”

To do that they’ve formed two separate entities: a for-profit bar, “where you come in, put down money, and get a drink,” and a separate nonprofit community space. The bar has investors who will receive a share of profits. Nogueira says up to 25 percent of the profits will go “to front-line activist groups who need quick infusions of cash.” She explains it’s meant for groups that don’t have the time to apply for grants, offering as possibilities they batted around a protest called on short notice or support needed after a nonviolent direct action.

“Our investors support this vision and mission of sustaining a community space in Bushwick and a rapid-response activist fund,” Nogueira says. The bar will also subsidize the community space. It got a test run this summer before the People’s Climate March after Avaaz and 350.org paid Mayday’s landlord $20,000 for three months use of the space.

Nogueira says, “It was amazing to see the place come to life. We couldn’t have picked a better inaugural event. People from across the city saw there was a space that could be a resource and it introduced us to the Bushwick community where we’re located. It introduced the space to movements we want to be connected to, and they got to see what the space could be. And it was a dry run on how to manage a dozen volunteers, create a safe space for everyone, and keep it open for 20 hours a day.”

They already have a well-known tenant in the form of Make The Road, an immigrant-focused workers center that has successfully agitated for workplace rights and against wage theft in many cases. Nogueira says, “Make The Road is going to host workshops on adult literacy, English classes, and citizenship education in the Mayday Space. We are going to complement that with Spanish classes, tenants’ rights workshops, and legal workshops such as workplace rights and know your rights workshops.”

The five-member Mayday collective is serious about serving the community, mainly comprised of low-income Puerto Rican and Mexican families. Tenants’ rights is one of the best tools to slow down the maelstrom of gentrification that’s been unleashed on Bushwick by the HBO show, Girls, which is set there.

Nogueira says local groups planning to do workshops in the space include Bushwick Copwatch and Families Against Police Violence. Other projects in the works include starting a rooftop farm with youth in the community and cooking classes

Nogueira says the project holds unknown potential, “We hope it will facilitate movement building across issues and be a neutral ground to meet where people can cross pollinate. We’ve seen that happen already through the climate organizing where people also ended up discussing police brutality, what’s happening in Ferguson, and NSA spying.”

That’s precisely the kind of role Ché Café has played through its history, says Monty Kroopkin. Its crowning achievement was serving as an organizing hub for the student campaign in the eighties that pressured the University of California to divest more than $3 billion of investments from companies doing business in South Africa. Nelson Mandela singled out the UC students’ role in helping topple apartheid when he visited Berkley, California, in 1990 after gianing freedom.

No one knows what the future holds for spaces like the Ché Café and Mayday, but their mere existence is a beacon of hope for new movements and activists alike.

To support the Ché Café and for the latest updates, go to checafe.ucsd.edu.The Mayday Space is holding a fundraising campaign to help them open successfully next year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Occupy Movement, Culture, Education, Public Space, Political Organizing

Two Arrested On Gun Charges In FBI “Sting”

by Arun Gupta Dissent NewsWire November 24, 2014

As people across the United States anxiously await the announcement of whether a grand jury will indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on criminal charges for the August 9 killing of an unarmed Michael Brown, the FBI appears to be stoking fears of violence. It arrested two men alleged to be members of the St. Louis chapter of the New Black Panther Party on gun charges, amid anonymous insinuations that they were also involved in bomb plots.

Reuters reported Nov. 19 that an “unsealed federal indictment [charged] Brandon Orlando Baldwin and Olajuwon Davis with purchasing two pistols from a firearms dealer under false pretenses. The news service said an unnamed “law enforcement source” claimed the two were “reputed members of a militant group called the New Black Panther Party,” and they “were arrested in the St. Louis area in an FBI sting operation.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch added that the “arrests were part of an ongoing investigation that has spanned several months,” while ABC News reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had played a part in the arrest.

The Post-Dispatch also quoted unnamed “police sources” alleging that Baldwin and Davis were members of the New Black Panther Party.

The two were arraigned in a federal court Nov. 21. Baldwin was charged with intentionally misleading a licensed gun dealer at Cabela’s Retail, a sporting-goods store in the St. Louis suburb Hazelwood, about who was the intended recipient of two 45-caliber handguns he purchased. The brief indictment noted Baldwin and Davis had conspired to purchase the handguns earlier in the month and that “Baldwin a/k/a Brandon Muhammed was acquiring said firearms on behalf of another person.”

Other charges are allegedly pending, according to NBC News, based on allegations from two “federal law enforcement officials” that the pair was “trying to acquire pipe bombs with the intent of using them during protests in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Here’s where the picture starts to get murky. NBC reported investigators “heard” the two men were “trying to acquire guns and explosives” and placed them under surveillance. “We wanted to see where this might go,” one official told NBC.

This seemingly does not match up with the reports the arrests were part an FBI sting. If the FBI operation has really spanned “several months,” that would mean it likely began before the 18-year-old Brown was shot and killed by Wilson—or at the latest a week or so afterwards.

If that timeline is accurate, it’s curious the FBI choose to investigate protesters even as the Ferguson police were so heavy-handed that they appeared to be violating numerous constitutional principles such as freedom of assembly and the right not to be the victim of excessive force or unreasonable search and seizure.

Raising further suspicions, on August 13, according to KTVI-TV, the FBI’s St. Louis office issued a warning that “members of the New Black Panther Party are in Ferguson, Missouri and advocating violence against police.”

Additionally, federal prosecution of gun buyers submitting false applications is almost unheard of.  According to politifact.com, gun-buyer applications that the FBI rejects “are typically denied because the applicant failed to acknowledge” a prior criminal conviction, a restraining order, or something else that would have disqualified them. “In almost every case, these people can be prosecuted,” Politifact states. But of 72,659 applications the FBI turned down in 2010, only 44 were actively prosecuted. That’s about one out of every 1,600 people.

It appears the FBI had its eye on political activists the moment Ferguson erupted in protest, and after months came up with evidence, however thin thus far, that some were itching for violence.

Given the FBI’s history of political repression from its origins during the World War I Red Scare to the systematic targeting of Muslim-Americans after the September 11 attacks, its motives in Ferguson should be seen as questionable at best. The many reports linking Baldwin and Davis to the New Black Panther Party dangle a convenient bogeyman in front of the public.

Further, the indictment came two days after Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency for 30 days throughout Missouri. Nixon also called up the National Guard and created a unified police command with “operational authority” in Ferguson and “in such other jurisdictions it deems necessary to protect civil rights and ensure public safety.”

In effect, Nixon has lifted any meaningful checks on militarized repression against protests.

Even more troubling, ABC News reported on Nov. 17, the day Nixon signed his order, that the FBI issued a bulletin “warning law enforcement agencies across the country that the [grand jury] decision ‘will likely’ lead some extremist protesters to threaten and even attack police officers or federal agents.” The FBI warning allegedly stated that “critical infrastructure” like electrical facilities or water treatment plants were potential targets.

The threat was supposedly extended “to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities.”

The notion that some demonstrators are planning to use a high-profile profile event to launch what amounts to warfare is ludicrous. A premeditated, organized attack on police or public infrastructure during a demonstration is virtually unprecedented in modern U.S. history.

But the FBI warnings and the arrests do fit a different pattern: that of fueling fears of violence in advance of a heated but peaceful national protest. Before the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, FBI informant Brandon Darby, described by some as an “agent provocateur,” reportedly egged on two young Texas activists to plot to commit violence at the convention. The two pleaded guilty to felonies and were imprisoned

The FBI’s bulletin and sting operation also fit a pattern of disrupting peaceful protest activity. Arresting black radicals for planning to bomb protests may cause many demonstrators to think twice about openly opposing state repression. Then, by invoking defense of civil liberties, the FBI tries to present itself as a neutral watchdog of the public interest when it has actively disrupted the work of environmental, antiwar, and animal-rights activists in recent years.

On May 1, 2012, the day Occupy Wall Street organized nationwide protests and strikes that it hoped would reignite the movement, the FBI announced the arrest of five Occupy activists in Cleveland for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge. As I later reported, the five men, most barely out of their teens, were jobless and from broken homes. The FBI informant in the case played “father figure to the lost men, providing them with jobs, housing, beer, and drugs. Every time the scheme threatened to collapse into gutterpunk chaos, he kept it on track.”

A couple of weeks after that the Chicago Police Department with support from the FBI ensnared three hapless youths in an alleged terrorist plot on the eve of a demonstration that drew tens of thousands protesting against a NATO summit in Chicago.

Over the coming days, more information should filter out about the arrests of Baldwin and Davis, any further charges, and how extensively the government was involved in the alleged plot. While they of course should be presumed innocent, the damage has been done. Not just to two more men who are probably more clueless bumblers than nefarious bomb-throwers, but to the broader movement against police violence in Ferguson and nationwide. That may very well be the FBI’s intention.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anti-Police Brutality, Politics, Protest, Race

How the Democrats Became The Party of Neoliberalism

by Arun Gupta Telesur October 31, 2014

There is a standard critique of the U.S. political system that seemingly explains why right-wing ideas drive the national agenda even when Democrats control the White House: the Democratic Party does not stand for anything and the Republicans are the party of ideologues.

The six years of Obama’s presidency are exhibit A in the case. During his winning campaign in 2008, Obama presented himself as a blank slate promising amorphous “hope and change.” His campaign encouraged voters to see Obama as a transformational candidate who would wind down bloody U.S. wars, revive the economy with a Green New Deal, open space for labor organizing, resolve the immigration crisis, and take bold steps to alleviate climate change.

Instead, Obama has bombed seven countries (more than Bush), deported record numbers of immigrants, killed immigration reform through neglect, undermined climate change accords in Copenhagen in 2009, attacked teachers unions, abandoned “card-check” legislation that would aid union drives, and offered little more than rhetoric on raising wages.

Obama, however, spared no effort to rescue the sinking yachts. In October 2009 the New York Times noted that the bailouts begun a year earlier were fueling a “new era of Wall Street wealth.”

That will shape his legacy: the real unemployment rate is still at 12 percent, and since 2008, 5.5 million more Americans live in poverty and the median household income has declined 4.6 percent. Corporate profits are at their highest level since record-keeping began in 1929, the effective corporate tax rate is lower than any point since Hoover was president, and workers are taking home the smallest share of national income in 65 years.

Obama and Democratic Party leaders have passed up few opportunities to kick their voting base in the face. They abandon supporters the instant an issue becomes contentious, such as capping carbon emissions, federal funding of reproductive healthcare, or anti-union legislation. In contrast, the Republicans stick to their guns in pursuing an ideological agenda of upward redistribution of wealth, increased police and military force, and reactionary social policies.

This is why Republicans are poised to secure a majority in the U.S. Senate in congressional elections next month. They stand for something and mobilize their base. Obama, however, has done little for working Americans after healthcare reform passed in early 2010.

But it’s time to rethink this notion that Democrats lack principles. They have a clear agenda and are actually more ideological than Republicans. Democrats like Obama are willing to lose power to carry out the neoliberal agenda. Since the Clinton era, Democrats have been the most effective architects of policies that increase the wealth and power of those on the top of the economic pyramid. Now, neoliberalism is often thought of as synonymous with privatization, deregulation, and trade and capital liberalization, but the state will discard these policies for corporate handouts the instant elites get into a self-inflicted mess, as with the Wall Street crash.

This has left the Democratic Party in a bind. It relies on votes from social groups like women, union members, Blacks, Latinos, and environmentalists who favor redistributive policies like gender equity in income, a higher minimum wage, lower healthcare costs, more environmental protection, and stronger immigrant rights. At the same time, Democrats need billions of dollars to run elections and their party machinery. They go hat in hand to corporations and promise more tax breaks and corporate welfare in return. But Democrats can never be as committed to the free-market ideology as Republicans. Democrats need to satisfy some needs of their social base while Republicans can move the goalposts further right and wait for the Democrats to play catch up.

To resolve the contradiction, Democrats like Obama and likely 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton say we will manage trickle-down economics more efficiently. This will increase taxes for modest market-based redistribution in the form of healthcare, housing and higher education subsidies, and tax breaks for the working poor. It’s the same role many traditional left parties play in other countries. Democrats offer a bit more funding, miniscule compared to military spending and corporate welfare, for food stamps, homelessness, and energy assistance. But the commitment to neoliberalism leaves the programs vulnerable. Obama readily cut tens of billions of dollars in social welfare to appease Republicans complaining about a $17.9 billion national debt. Obamacare is part of this framework. While it did extend coverage to uninsured millions, the goal was to reduce costs through intensified neoliberal restructuring, which is reducing overall quality of healthcare.

The Republicans opt for naked class warfare as with huge tax breaks to the wealthy under Reagan and Bush Jr. But the breed of hard-right Republicans that came into Congress in 1994 will play chicken with the economy if that serves their power interests, as they did by repeatedly shutting down the government and damaging the U.S. credit rating.

Lacking a progressive vision, Democrats follow the GOP on economic policy, pushing the center rightward. Most media outlets have little interest in unpacking historical conditions that shape politics, preferring gossip about the personality, values, tastes and lineages of candidates. Yet it’s the historical contradiction Democrats are trapped in that explains how and why Bill Clinton and Obama pursued a neoliberal agenda that dashed the hopes of their supporters, resulting in the biggest midterm losses in Congress of any president in the modern era. It also explains why the Democrats will likely lose the U.S. Senate in November 2014.

Bill Clinton campaigned as a “New Democrat”: tough on crime, fiscally responsible, and stern with welfare recipients. Clinton effectively fulfilled the Reagan Revolution by gutting welfare, passing NAFTA, deregulating telecommunications and the finance sector, and ramping up government spying, policing, and immigrant detention. Clinton could grant the right-wing’s wish list because the Democratic base was conditioned to supporting any deal no matter how bad because the Republicans would supposedly be worse. Yet Clinton needed Republicans to pass NAFTA because the Democrats controlled Congress. He threw millions of poor women and children off welfare to shore up his right flank in advance of the 1996 election. But that cynical calculation was unnecessary Clinton trounced the feeble Republican nominee, Bob Dole in a race that was never in doubt. And deregulation happened in Clinton’s second term when he was freed from election concerns.

Obama has repeated the same pattern. He is more aggressive on foreign policy than Bush. In 2011, before the explosive revelations about NSA spying and Obama’s newest wars in Syria and Iraq, Glenn Greenwald noted, “Obama has continued Bush/Cheney terrorism policies—once viciously denounced by Democrats—of indefinite detention, renditions, secret prisons by proxy, and sweeping secrecy doctrines. He has gone further than his predecessor by waging an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, seizing the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process far from any battlefield, massively escalating drone attacks in multiple nations, and asserting the authority to unilaterally prosecute a war (in Libya) even in defiance of a Congressional vote against authorizing the war.”

Because Obama is facing a hostile GOP that comes across as mentally unhinged at times, most of the Democratic base is complacent. The rest are demoralized, leaving little opposition to his right-wing policies, just like the Clinton era. Remarkably, Obama has been less aggressive than Bush on prosecuting Wall Street crime. More significant, in January 2009, days before his inauguration, Obama told the Washington Post he would convene a “fiscal responsibility summit” to “reform” Social Security and Medicare. Rather than using his historic victory and Democratic majority in Congress to push for progressive redistribution, Obama was saying he wanted to decimate the two bedrock programs of retirement to pay for Wall Street’s epic corruption. If Obama succeeded, and the only reason he hasn’t so far is because the right has been so extreme, it would have destroyed what remains of social welfare and the Democratic Party’s base. (Clinton also tried to weaken retirement programs in the nineties.)

Additionally, numerous observers, including myself, pointed out in December 2008 that it was no secret the stimulus would fail. The $800 billion plan that passed amounted to barely 2 percent of GDP through 2011, while the gap due to the economic depression hit 7 percent at one point. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the stimulus produced 500,000 to 3.3 million full-time jobs, but more than 8 million full-time jobs were lost and overall more than 13 million workers lost jobs, dropped out of the labor force or downgraded to part-time work involuntarily.

The stimulus may have prevented a repeat of the Great Depression, but by applying bandages to gaping wounds Obama enabled the right to portray it as a failure and government as the problem. Passing New Deal-style programs would have been tough, but Obama capitulated before he began, losing the chance for stronger stimulus and redistribution.

With Obama entering the twilight of his powers and relevancy, the focus will shift by the New Year to the 2016 horse race. The Democrats will remain devoted to managing the state for the interests of wealthy and powerful. It’s why the Democrats are the true ideologues. Hillary may win office by talking left, but once in the White House she will readily sacrifice the Democrat power base to stay true to the neoliberal project.

The silver lining is this “extreme center,” as Tariq Ali describes it, has opened up space in countries like Spain, Iceland, and Greece that left parties have used for mass mobilization. There are flickers of hope in the United States with Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant beating Democrats in Seattle and Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins giving New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo headaches in the upcoming election. But it’s a long row to hoe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austerity, Democratic Party, Economy, Neoliberalism, U.S. Foreign Policy

Debut of Politico’s ‘Morning Shift’ Raises Ethical Questions Around IFA Sponsorship

by Arun Gupta In These Times October 14, 2014

I was pleased to learn in late September of Politico’s plans to launch a labor reporting desk—I am of a “more the merrier” mindset when it comes to journalism, especially on a topic so underreported as labor.

Politico apparently sees money to be made in labor journalism, even as this vital beat fades in newsrooms across the country. According to the Huffington Post, “Politico’s market research suggested that stakeholders in government, lobbying and Fortune 500 companies were looking for the ‘nitty-gritty’ details of labor policy.” “Labor and Workplace Policy” will join Politico’s portfolio of 13 other “Pro Verticals,” paywall-protected sections that cover single topics like education, transportation, technology and the military. Subscriptions to the verticals can run into the thousands of dollars, the HuffPost says.

It’s an important service, even if Politico’s focus sounds less like traditional labor reporting (on topics like organizing campaigns and contract negotiations) and more business-oriented: The site promises to cover “developments at [the] Department of Labor and NRLB [sic], as well as intelligence on unions, immigration, minimum wage, unemployment, retirement, pensions and pay, health care and ACA implementation, workforce training and court cases.”

Politico has retained top-notch talent in veteran reporter and editor Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence, and outstanding labor reporter Mike Elk, who wrote for In These Times from 2010 to 2014. (Elk was involved in a successful unionizing effort at In These Times with the Communications Workers of America and fought the layoffs of staff writers, including himself, whose yearlong positions were funded by a one-year grant that was not renewed.)

However, the Politico labor vertical made a curious decision in its first week. Its newsletter, “Morning Shift,” debuted October 7 with the tagline, “Your daily speed read on labor and employment policy” and a sponsorship from the International Franchise Association—a trade group representing franchised businesses like McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza, as well as their franchise owners . Two days later, Morning Shift covered a labor issue of enormous importance to the IFA— whether McDonald’s has a legal responsibility for working conditions in franchises—but never mentioned the sponsor’s stake in the story, and editorialized in a way that could give the appearance of favoring the IFA’s position.

The subject line of the October 9 email edition began, “Morning Shift, presented by The International Franchise Association.” After an exclusive about a possible new president of the Communications Workers of America and a dig at Grover Norquist about plans for his “next union-busting ground game,” an ad appeared in the middle of the text, as is commonplace for IFA verticals. This one read: 

A message from The International Franchise Association. The franchising industry includes more than 770,000 establishments and employ 8.5 million workers in the United States. Learn how the franchise business model works and the positive impact franchising has on America’s economy by visiting www.franchisefacts.org.

I clicked on the IFA link. The website says, “Small franchise businesses are the key to the American economy.” After a video touting the benefits of franchising like “picking your staff and choosing which benefits to provide at your location” as health, vision and dental icons pop up, the site unleashes a thinly veiled attack on the effort by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to organize low-wage fast-food workers.

America’s 770,000 franchise small businesses are under attack by labor special interest groups—hurting workers, small business owners, communities, and our nation’s economy.

FIGHT FOR WORKERS AND SMALL FRANCHISE BUSINESSES

That a labor report would be sponsored by a trade association for a sector where unions and workplace rights are virtually nonexistent and wage theft and poverty is rampant gave me pause. The Morning Shift is supposed to be nonpartisan, according to the Huffington Post. That’s possible, given that law firms, unions, lobbyists and Fortune 500 companies will be among the likely subscribers, and they might see a partisan bias as compromising the accuracy of the information and analysis.

Still, a sponsor with a vested interest in how information is reported can create serious conflicts of interest. Politico could be more transparent about the possibility of such a conflict if it noted IFA’s involvement in the McDonald’s story—which it never does. Further, at times, the Morning Shift appears to slant its reporting toward IFA in the October 9 Morning Shift report.

The item in question is a three-paragraph “NLRB Update.” Since November 2012, when SEIU unveiled its fast-food organizing campaign, 181 complaints by workers involving unfair labor practice charges such as wage theft have been filed with the NLRB Office of the General Counsel against McDonald’s. Another seven class-action suits covering tens of thousands of workers have been filed in federal courts claiming McDonald’s Corporation conspires with its franchisees to engage in systematic wage theft. SEIU wants the NLRB to rule McDonald’s and its franchises have “joint responsibility” for employees.

As I’ve reported, 90 percent of McDonald’s 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises. Franchisees usually sign a “master contract” with the corporate parent, which, as I wrote, “micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. At the same time, McDonald’s takes pains to spell out in contracts that it has ‘no implied employment relationship’ with a franchisee or their workers. SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.” A joint-employer ruling could allow SEIU to unionize workers or improve wages, benefits and conditions across thousands of stores at once instead of fighting one franchisee at a time.

SEIU scored a major victory in July when the NLRB general counsel ruled in favor of McDonald’s workers in 43 cases and “authorized complaints on alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act.” The general counsel explained that if the parties cannot reach a settlement, “complaints will issue and McDonald’s, USA, LLC will be named as a joint employer respondent.”

The International Franchise Association makes no bones about the fact that this is a doomsday scenario. At an IFA-sponsored conference, Aziz Hashim, President and CEO of NRD Holdings, which owns numerous franchises such as Popeye’s and Dominos, said the ruling “threatens the basic foundation of franchising.” If a joint-employer ruling forces McDonald’s to assume legal responsibility for employees in franchises, it could negate the rationale for franchising and become a watershed in low-wage worker organizing. The parent company would have nothing to gain from outsourcing its workforce.

Morning Shift mentioned McDonald’s liability if it lost a joint-employer ruling, but it failed to mention this downside for franchises.

The Morning Shift account also contained wording that seems slanted toward the IFA. Morning Shift stated, “If the NLRB rules against McDonald’s, the corporation could be on the hook for infractions committed by its (seldom deep-pocketed) franchisees.”

Why tell the reader franchisees are “seldom deep-pocketed”? That’s in line with IFA talking points implying franchisees are struggling small businesses. I’m sure if I asked the IFA to speak to a franchisee, it could quickly trot out a scrappy immigrant family who’s saved every tarnished penny to buy a struggling franchise they devote every waking hour to for their slice of the American Dream, but that’s arguably not the norm.

It’s true that 64 percent of franchise owners are single-outlet operators, but they do not make up the bulk of the business: Of some 60,000 fast-food franchise outlets, 75 percent are owned by “the big players,” as the the Wall Street Journal puts it. The Journal adds that the average McDonald’s franchise “owns more than six locations.” In the fast-food industry, the biggest franchisees are holding companies with hundreds of outlets and half-a-billion dollars a year in revenue—and it’s these mega franchisers who stand to gain the most if the NLRB eventually decides against the workers. As the Journal further explains, corporate parents tend to pass over unknown entrepreneurs—even those that can pony up the $750,000 “minimum” generally required for a McDonald’s franchise. The parent prefers mammoth franchisees because,  “They often have readier access to capital and can prop up underperforming restaurants with stronger sales elsewhere in the chain. They’re also seen as less risky by franchisers, because they have a track record with a brand.”

Thus, for many fast food franchises, owners’ pockets are plenty deep. It’s spin for the IFA to portray itself as the defender of workers and small business owners. It’s a questionable assertion for Morning Shift to make, and one that indicates a certain slant.

Politico also editorializes by describing the NLRB’s ruling as “controversial,” writing, “NLRB general counsel Richard F. Griffin issued a controversial finding in July naming McDonald’s a joint employer in 43 cases before the NLRB.” But legal cases are, by definition, controversial—one side disagrees with the other. For whom was the NLRB ruling controversial? Certainly for parties with a stake, such as McDonald’s, the IFA, the franchisees, and their allies in Congress. But it would be a stretch to say it was a topic of significant national debate.

In addition to slant, a major question here is disclosure. Typically sponsorship disclosures are necessary when a sponsor is mentioned in a story. In this case, since the IFA’s sponsorship is already prominently highlighted, the question is reversed: Is the sponsor’s role in the story significant enough that it deserves a mention?

The IFA has emerged as a major player in the NLRB fight over franchising. An Associated Press report from July 30 published on Politico singled out the IFA as an opponent of the NLRB ruling: “The International Franchise Association, which represents franchisees, has opposed the identification of McDonald’s as a joint employer.” On September 16, The Hill reported the IFA was spearheading the “strategy to overturn a preliminary NLRB decision that corporations like McDonald’s share joint employer status with their franchisees.” The industry group’s plan included dispatching hundreds of franchisees and franchisors “to flood lawmakers’ offices, pressing them to oppose the NLRB’s finding.” In mid-September, IFA held its annual conference in Washington, D.C., attended by some 360 franchise industry representatives, “to make sure the model stays intact,” according to Entrepreneur magazine. One conference attendee said, “This joint employee-employer thing, if that goes through, that’s a hand grenade in the middle of the [franchising] business model.”

There is no inkling of this organized campaign in the October 9 report. What makes the omission even more puzzling is that the same Morning Shift mentions the IFA in relation to its lawsuit trying to overturn Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage law that was approved by the City Council in June.

It’s important to point out there is no evidence the news was intentionally slanted. Politico’s labor desk is best able to say if there was any coercion or signals from higher ups at Politico to favor the IFA. At the very least, it raises a number of questions about Politico’s sponsorship and disclosure policies.

Politico is not alone in facing these questions. Journalists have long been wary of being pressured into writing “advertiser-friendly” copy; to protect the integrity and independence of their reporting, many outlets, such as the New York Times, have an ethics policy that keeps the advertising and news departments “strictly separate.” But the decline of print-media business models combined with the explosion of data-rich digital media is erasing those lines. Last year, The Atlantic was lambasted for sticking “sponsor content” from the Church of Scientology in its center news column. More recently, former Vice Media editor Charles Davis went public with evidence that the wildly successful website has killed stories out of fear it may potentially affect a “business deal” with a powerful brand, the NFL.

Having run several media outlets with different funding models, I know well the pressure and conflicts involved with taking advertising money. That’s why even the appearance of favoritism needs to be guarded against. Ultimately, the most valuable asset any reputable media outlet ultimately has is not its market value, but the trust with its readership. As a reader of In These Times, I know it receives sponsorship for its labor coverage from unions, including the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers However, In These Times has published numerous critical reports by Elk on the UAW’s failed attempt to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee earlier this year, as well as a recent piece by David Moberg critical of the union’s claims to have eliminated two-tier contracts at an Indiana auto plant.

In this second Gilded Age, when corporate influence is everywhere, including journalism, much rides on providing proper context and analysis, and nowhere more than the fight over who controls the economy.

The CWA, UAW and IAM are sponsors of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Corporations, Labor

To Fight the Unpredictable Effects of Climate Change, We Need an Unpredictable Movement

Report on the Flood Wall Street Direct Action 

by Arun Gupta Counterpunch September 23, 2014

In April 1990 I helped organize the Earth Day Wall Street Action. More than 1,500 activists from the United States and Canada traveled to New York on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day with the goal of halting the New York Stock Exchange for a day. We got close, with hundreds of protesters and cops clashing in front of the exchange doors. We wanted to expose corporations wrapping themselves in the façade of environmentalism and identify them as criminals responsible for scorched-earth business practices.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return, and on  Monday, September 22, I ventured down to the financial district for the Flood Wall Street Direct Action. The following are impressions of what happened today, not the back story to the organizing. And they are more tactical than strategic observations.

Foremost, the turnout exceeded everyone’s expectation. Many thought a thousand people or less would show up. By the time the march left Battery Park in Southern Manhattan the count was 2,500. There seemed to be a lack of coordination on the part of direct action organizers, while the NYPD took a surprisingly hands-off approach. It still lined the streets with interlocking metal barricades, so the protest only made it as far as Broadway, around the iconic bull sculpture, before settling in for the day. Activists trickled in all day and the consensus was 3,000 people took over the streets at the peak.

However, there was no organized system like a spokescouncil or general assembly to encourage them to stay put and decide the next steps. Nor were there resources like food, blankets, and water to enable a large enough number of people to hunker down, which would make the cops hesitant to arrest them all.

There was a large media presence, including many mainstream media outlets. Flood Wall Street drew in more participants thanks to the Sunday march that drew an estimated three hundred thousand. The march was timed to influence the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23. The international nature of the summit and the media pack helped limit the NYPD’s notorious aggression.

There was a world of creative art, but not much affinity group organizing. Some artists were hired to coordinate the art. Paying them to produce quality art was part of the media and image strategy for the Sunday march. That’s perfectly fine. Movements should pay people for their labor, although there has to be limits to avoid professionalizing. This was the most money-rich protest I have ever seen. There were three Jumbotrons on the Sunday route, and one organizer said they usually cost $10,000 a pop. Art making was also central to Flood Wall Street. I would speculate focus on visual symbols led the art to be overdeveloped and may have compounded the underdevelopment of strategic organizing for the direct action. The Monday protest was fun. There were huge banners, parachutes, giant balls of carbon, bands, costumes, and performers. But the strategy was little more than a mass sit down in the streets.

The NYPD strategy was to outlast the protesters, and it worked. Cops were blasé about activists disassembling metal barriers. They would not rush to fight them, like they always used to. Often they didn’t notice because there were so few cops on the lines. They would come over after ten minutes or so, retrieve the metal sections and reassemble them. All day long there were scattered gaps in the barricade line, enabling a free flow of people in and out of the area. Thus, there was no kettling, which is highly unusual for a mass direct action.

The cops had red lines, but otherwise were willing to cede more physical and tactical ground than normal. They let the crowd have Broadway around the bull for nearly four hours. Around 3:45 p.m., before the Stock Exchange closing bell, everyone marched up to Wall St. They tried to push east to the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, where the George Washington Statue is located. There were only a few police at the first line of barricades. A little organization and the protesters could have easily pushed through. Getting through the second line and into Wall Street would have been much tougher, but not impossible.

I watched as protesters momentarily breached the barricade, cops grabbed one guy, and pulled him through. Normally that’s the moment when cops pile on and injure the protester. Instead, they just tossed him into the crowd on the sidewalk. No arrest and no beat down.

As the shoving matched intensified, the NYPD white shirts deployed their fists and a few blasts of a chemical irritant, probably pepper spray. It’s easy to tell how much of a threat the NYPD considers a protest by how many commanders, who wear the white shirts, it deploys. At the Wall Street barricade I counted nearly twenty white shirts at one point. They are notorious for pounding on people with their bare fists; they don’t need any surplus military gear to punish and intimidate. For a few seconds, during the height of shoving, two white shirts slammed their fists on the hands of protesters to loosen their grip on the metal barricades. Seconds later chemical spray wafted through the air, instantly forcing the protesters back. It had an unusual floral smell.

The combination of police waiting out activists and the lack of organization and support meant by 6:30 p.m. about 75 percent of people in the streets had drifted away. I did so as well at this time. Less than an hour later at a close-by bar, where many Flood Wall Street organizers had decamped, I got word arrests were happening. There was apparently a decision to engage in orchestrated civil disobedience. I told numerous people at the bar the arrests were happening, but most everyone already seemed to know and they did not seem overly concerned about returning right away. One well-respected organizer was not pleased that many of the main Flood Wall Street organizers left the streets to go to the bar.

During the whole day multiple squadrons of fifty to a hundred burly cops, whose mission is to squelch protesters quickly, were stationed at different points a block or so away from the action. There was not the overwhelming force of past protests with thousands of cops. One activist told me he heard two cops talking in the bathroom at a restaurant. They said 90 percent of cops were at the U.N. I talked to one community affairs cop who claimed they were taking a “calmer” approach. He said it was more effective compared to aggressive policing that is the norm, but it seemed like he was parroting the official line. He acknowledged this strategy was determined from on high.

Why was the NYPD so hands off? I haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of protest in New York. There are the factors like the U.N. Climate Summit, the heavy media presence, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street, and space created by the large parade on Sunday. (Calling that event a protest is inaccurate.) Post-Ferguson many police departments probably realize over-reaction can backfire. The NYPD learned that with the Union Square pepper spray incident in September 2011 that catalyzed city-wide support for the Zuccotti Park occupation, and then the Brooklyn Bridge arrests a week later that turned the movement into a nationwide phenomenon.

Additionally, there are New York City specific factors like the cops who killed Eric Garner in July on Staten Island and Mayor Bill de Blasio rehiring Bill Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton, of course, instituted the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing in the nineties in New York that de Blasio opposed in his surprise election victory last year. Bratton favors “Broken Windows” policing. It’s a smaller net than stop and frisk, but it’s still racially biased in practice without being based on any evidence that arresting pan handlers, graffiti artists, and turnstile jumpers reduces violent crime. Taking a light hand against Flood Wall Street enables de Blasio to score points with the public and media, while insulating his administration from criticism that it’s making only cosmetic changes to biased policing policies. To be fair, de Blasio may even be serious about curbing the NYPD’s penchant for violence.

Since the burden is on the NYPD to prove it has reformed its heavy-handed ways, the light police response should be seen as what it is: a one-off event. Additionally, while there was a more enthusiastic spirit at the end of the direct action today among veteran activists, there is a consistently lower level of organization over the last fifteen years of direct actions since Seattle.

One activist, Laurie Arbiter, summed up the feeling of many activists why actions like Flood Wall Street are on the frontlines of the climate justice fight. “It was unpredictable,” she said, unlike the Sunday march that felt scripted to many. “Climate change is unpredictable as well.” In other words, while marches are important and necessary, mass organized political chaos in the streets is more likely to destabilize the status quo, bringing forth a new social equilibrium.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. It’s almost the same exact amount of time since James Hanson warned Congress in 1988 that there was near certain proof that carbon dioxide emissions were the prime culprit in global warming. The Monday action was only the first phase of what will have to be an ever-more powerful movement to flood Wall Street once and for all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate Change, Politics