Category Archives: Politics

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, 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.


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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.

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How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign

by Arun Gupta Counterpunch September 19, 2014

I’ve never been to a protest march that advertised in the New York City subway. That spent $220,000 on posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join a march to save the planet, according to one source. That claims you can change world history in an afternoon after walking the dog and eating brunch.

Welcome to the “People’s Climate March” set for Sunday, Sept. 21 in New York City. It’s timed to take place before world leaders hold a Climate Summit at the United Nations two days later. Organizers are billing it as the “biggest climate change demonstration ever” with similar marches around the world. The Nation describes the pre-organizing as following “a participatory, open-source model that recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests.” A leader of, one of the main organizing groups, explained, “Anyone can contribute, and many of our online organizing ‘hubs’ are led by volunteers who are often coordinating hundreds of other volunteers.”

I will join the march, as well as the Climate Convergence starting Friday, and most important the “Flood Wall Street” direct action on Monday, Sept. 22. I’ve had conversations with more than a dozen organizers including senior staff at the organizing groups. Many people are genuinely excited about the Sunday demonstration. The movement is radicalizing thousands of youth. Endorsers include some labor unions and many people-of-color community organizations that normally sit out environmental activism because the mainstream green movement has often done a poor job of talking about the impact on or solutions for workers and the Global South.

Nonetheless, to quote Han Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Environmental activist Anne Petermann and writer Quincy Saul describe how the People’s Climate March has no demands, no targets,and no enemy. Organizers admitted encouraging bankers to march was like saying Blackwater mercenaries should join an antiwar protest. There is no unity other than money. One veteran activist who was involved in Occupy Wall Street said it was made known there was plenty of money to hire her and others. There is no sense of history: decades of climate-justice activism are being erased by the incessant invocation of the “biggest climate change demonstration ever.” Investigative reporter Cory Morningstar has connected the dots between the organizing groups, and Avaaz, the global online activist outfit modeled on MoveOn, and institutions like the World Bank and Clinton Global Initiative. Morningstar claims the secret of Avaaz’s success is its “expertise in behavioral change.”

That is what I find most troubling. Having worked on Madison Avenue for nearly a decade, I can smell a P.R. and marketing campaign a mile away. That’s what the People’s Climate March looks to be. According to inside sources a push early on for a Seattle-style event—organizing thousands of people to nonviolently shut down the area around the United Nations—was thwarted by paid staff with the organizing groups.

One participant in the organizing meetings said, “In the beginning people were saying, ‘This is our Seattle,’” referring to the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial that was derailed by direct action. But the paid staff got the politics-free Climate March. Another source said, “You wouldn’t see Avaaz promoting an occupy-style action. The strategic decision was made to have a big march and get as many mainstream groups on board as possible.”

Nothing wrong with that. Not every tactic should be based on Occupy. But in an email about climate change that Avaaz sent out last December, which apparently raked in millions of dollars, it wrote, “It’s time for powerful, direct, non-violent action, to capture imagination, convey moral urgency, and inspire people to act. Think Occupy.”

Here’s what seems to be going on. Avaaz found a lucrative revenue stream by warning about climate catastrophe that can be solved with the click of a donate button. To convince people to donate it says we need Occupy-style actions. When the moment comes for such a protest, Avaaz and blocked it and then when it did get organized, they pushed it out of sight. If you go to People’s Climate March, you won’t find any mention of the Flood Wall Street action, which I fully support, but fear is being organized with too little time and resources. Nor have I seen it in an Avaaz email, nor has anyone else I’ve talked to. Bill McKibben of began promoting it this week, but that may be because there is discontent in the activist ranks about the march, which includes lots of Occupy Wall Street activists. One inside source said, “It’s a branding decision not to promote the Flood Wall Street action. These are not radical organizations.”

Branding. That’s how the climate crisis is going to be solved. We are in an era of postmodern social movements.

The image (not ideology) comes first and shapes the reality. The P.R. and marketing determines the tactics, the messaging, the organizing, and the strategy. Whether this can have a positive effect is a different question, and it’s why I encourage everyone to participate. The future is unknowable. But left to their own devices the organizers will lead the movement into the graveyard of the Democratic Party, just as happened with the movement against the Iraq War a decade ago. You remember that historic worldwide movement, right? It was so profound the New York Times dubbed global public opinion, “the second superpower.” Now Obama has launched an eighth war and there is no antiwar movement to speak of.

Sources say Avaaz and is footing most of the bill for the People’s Climate March with millions of dollars spent. Avaaz is said to have committed a dozen full-time staff, and hired dozens of other canvassers to collect petition signatures and hand out flyers. Nearly all of’s staff is working on climate marches around the country and there is an office in New York with thirty full-time workers organizing the march. That takes a lot of cheddar. While the grassroots are being mobilized, this is not a grassroots movement. That’s why it’s a mistake to condemn it. People are joining out of genuine concern and passion and hope for an equitable, sustainable world, but the control is top down and behind closed doors. Everyone I talked to described an undemocratic process. Even staffers were not sure who was making the decisions other than to tell me to follow the money. It’s also facile to say all groups are alike. Avaaz is more cautious than, and apparently the New York chapter of, which is more radical, is at odds with the national.

But when the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about P.R. and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator. The lack of politics is a political decision. One insider admitted despite all the overheated rhetoric about the future is on the line, “I don’t expect much out of this U.N. process.” The source added this is “a media moment, a mobilizing moment.” The goal is to have visuals of a diverse crowd, hence the old saw about a “family-friendly” march. Family friendly comes at a high cost, however. Everything is decided by the need for visuals, which means organizers will capitulate to anything the NYPD demands for fear of violence. The march is on a Sunday morning when the city is in hangover mode. The world leaders will not even be at the United Nations, and they are just the hired guns of the real climate criminals on Wall Street. The closest the march comes to the United Nations is almost a mile away. The march winds up on Eleventh Avenue, a no-man’s land far from subways. There is no closing rally or speakers.

An insider says the real goal was to create space for politicians: “If you can frame it as grandma and kids and immigrants and labor you could make it safer for politicians to come out and support. It’s all very liberal. I don’t have much faith in it.”

When I asked what the metrics for success for, the insider told me media coverage and long-term polling about public opinion. I was dumbfounded. That’s the exact same tools we would use in huge marketing campaigns. First we would estimate and tally media “impressions” across all digital, print, outdoor, and so on. Then a few months down the road we would conduct surveys to see if we changed the consumer’s opinion of the brand, their favorability, the qualities they associated with it, the likelihood they would try. That’s the same tools Avaaz is allegedly using.

Avaaz has pioneered clickbait activism. It gets people to sign petitions about dramatic but ultimately minor issues like, “Prevent the flogging of 15 year old rape victim in Maldives.” The operating method of Avaaz, which was established in 2007, is to create “actions” like these that generate emails for its fundraising operation. In other words, it’s a corporation with a business model to create products (the actions), that help it increase market share (emails), and ultimately revenue. The actions that get the most attention are ones that get the most petition signers, the most media coverage, and which help generate revenue.

Avaaz has turned social justice into a product to enhance the liberal do-gooding lifestyle, and it’s set its sights on the climate justice movement.

The more dramatic the emails the better the response. It’s like the supermarket. The bags and boxes don’t say, “Not bad,” or “kinda tasty.” They say “the cheesiest,” “the most delicious,” “an avalanche of flavor,” “utterly irresistible.” That’s why climate change polls so well for Avaaz. It’s really fucking dramatic. But it’s still not dramatic enough for marketing purposes.

One source said the December 2013 email from Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel about climate change was a goldmine. It was headlined, “24 Months to Save the World.” It begins, “This may be the most important email I’ve ever written to you,” and then says the climate crisis is “beyond our worst expectations” with storms and temperatures “off the charts.” Then comes the hook from Patel, “We CAN stop this, if we act very fast, and all together. And out of this extinction nightmare, we can pull one of the most inspiring futures for our children and grandchildren. A clean, green future in balance with the earth that gave birth to us.”

Telling people there is 24 months to save the world is odious, as is implying an online donation to Avaaz can save the planet.

The same overblown rhetoric is being used for the People’s Climate March: It’s the biggest ever. There is “unprecedented collaboration” with more than 1,400 “partner” groups in New York City. Everything comes down to this one day with the “future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history.”

Presumably the orderly marchers behind NYPD barricades will convince the governments of the world that will meet for the Climate Summit that won’t even meet for another two days that they need to pass UN Secretary­ General Ban Ki-­moon’s “ambitious global agreement to dramatically reduce global warming pollution.”

Moon is now joining the march. But it’s hard to find details, including on the Climate Summit website, as to what will actually be discussed there. The best account I could find is by Canadian journalist Nick Fillmore. He claims the main point will be a carbon pricing scheme. This is one of those corporate-designed scams that in the past has rewarded the worst polluters with the most credits to sell and creates perverse incentives to pollute, because then they can earn money to cut those emissions.

So we have a corporate-designed protest march to support a corporate-dominated world body to implement a corporate policy to counter climate change caused by the corporations of the world, which are located just a few miles away but which will never feel the wrath of the People’s Climate March.

Rather than moaning on the sidelines and venting on Facebook, radicals need to be in the streets. Join the marches and more important the direct actions. Radicals need to ask the difficult questions as to why for the second time in fifteen years has a militant uprising, first Seattle and then Occupy, given way to liberal cooptation. What good is your radical analysis if the NGO sector and Democratic Party fronts kept out-organizing you?

Naomi Klein says we need to end business as usual because climate change is going to change everything. She’s right. Unfortunately the organizers of the People’s Climate March didn’t get the memo. Because they are continuing on with business as usual that won’t change anything.

One prominent environmental organizer says that after the march ends, “The U.N. leaders are going to be in there Monday and Tuesday and do whatever the fuck they want. And everyone will go back to their lives, walking the dog and eating brunch.”

The future is unwritten. It’s not about what happens on Sunday. It’s what happens after that.

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How Seattle Passed the Highest Minimum Wage In America

by Arun Gupta VICE June 4, 2014

The bill signed into law by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 is historic. It will more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 — something no local government has ever done.

An estimated 46 percent of Seattle’s 100,000 workers who make under $15 an hour will earn that by 2018. The measure could pump $3 billion into the local economy over the next decade, cutting poverty by 30 percent. It is already resonating, as $15-an-hour campaigns are underway in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just endorsed a plan that could raise the minimum wage in New York City to $13 an hour.

Seattle’s new law has downsides, however, including a seven-year timeline, a lower training wage aimed at teenagers, weak enforcement provisions that encourage wage theft, and allowances for businesses with fewer than 500 employees to count tips and healthcare benefits reflected on pay stubs as wages up to $3 an hour.

But workers elsewhere who flip burgers, fold sweaters, and pull shots of espresso for a living wonder if the victory in Seattle can be replicated. That depends on understanding how it was won. There was no guarantee a year ago that the “$15 an hour” slogan would become law.

The driving force was Kshama Sawant, an avowed socialist who voters elected to the City Council last November on a platform to raise the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy. She and her political party, Socialist Alternative, mobilized pressure for a wage bill. They fought opponents for months, parrying attempts to block the increase.

Given the obstacles they faced, a bill might have never materialized. Seattle is home to corporate titans like Starbucks and Amazon that have built their profit models on poverty-wage jobs, and during Sawant’s campaign the Seattle Times dismissed her as “too hard-left for Seattle.”

She and her partners made the most of a limited hand nevertheless. Sawant pursued a broad platform, but Socialist Alternative soon realized that $15 an hour should be the banner issue because of the amount of support it generated. The momentum became unstoppable after local newsweekly The Stranger gave Sawant a full-throated endorsement in September. Murray, who was running for mayor at the time, quickly endorsed the measure as well.

After taking office, Murray appointed a business-heavy Income Inequality Advisory Committee to devise a proposal. Sawant and Socialist Alternative countered by establishing 15 Now, a group that organized public marches and rallies, set up chapters in 11 neighborhoods, and canvassed widely.

Meanwhile, some Seattle restaurant owners pushed their staffs to oppose the $15-an-hour increase. Jess Spear, 15 Now’s organizing director, told VICE News that two prominent restaurateurs told their staff that prices would increase and that they would lose tips and even their jobs.

A group composed of servers and bartenders called Tips ARE Wages threatened to turn a key group of workers against the proposal. But Spear said that 15 Now met with the group and won them to their side after leaked documents revealed that restaurant owners were orchestrating the anti-$15 campaign.

But rallies and meetings are little match for billion-dollar corporations, which put small-business owners out front, moaning that jobs and business would be lost if $15 an hour became law. In March, Sawant and 15 Now made a strategic retreat by conceding that small businesses should have a longer phase-in period for the increase. At the same time, they deftly argued that businesses like McDonald’s, which amassed $5.5 billion in profit last year, could afford a much quicker timetable.

Meanwhile, 15 Now launched a ballot initiative to remind councilmembers that if they failed to pass a strong bill, voters could decide the issue for themselves. On April 26 it held a national conference in Seattle where attendees approved a plan that established a $15 an hour increase by 2017, with no tip credit or training wage. The conference was timed to anticipate the unveiling of Murray’s proposal on May 1. The Stranger noted that Murray’s plan was “so complicated reporters can’t understand it,” but it did take the wind out of 15 Now’s sails because it gave the impression that the battle had been won.

Labor leaders quickly closed ranks behind Murray.

“It’s a very delicately constructed deal and my advice to council would be to change nothing,” David Rolf, the president of the 40,000-member Service Employees International Union 775, told me in early May. He said that a ballot initiative would result if the measure were watered down — but that’s exactly what happened. The bill introduced on May 15 was weakened with a training wage, the tip/healthcare allowance, a three-month delay, and slap-on-the-wrist enforcement measures. Rolf still reversed course. “We fully support the ordinance,” he later said.

Socialist Alternative’s leaders privately conceded that they couldn’t win a ballot initiative without full support from organized labor, but they pushed one forward anyway to keep up the pressure on the council as it considered the ordinance. The City Council approved the bill on Monday afternoon, sending it to Murray’s desk for his signature.

Though the push for a $15 minimum wage is expected to go national, it’s unclear whether 15 Now will find similar success in other big cities. Sawant was aided by unusual factors like a non-partisan election and The Stranger’s backing. Even so, the proposal’s success in Seattle demonstrates a new model of grassroots resourcefulness that has the potential to widely advance a pivotal social agenda.

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Filed under Economy, Inequality, Labor, Politics

Learning from a Socialist in Seattle

A city councilwoman’s nuanced minimum wage battle has national potential

by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera May 21, 2014

When Kshama Sawant ran for a Seattle City Council seat in 2013, she campaigned as a candidate of the Socialist Alternative party on a platform of a $15 minimum hourly wage. Many observers scoffed that her politics and wage demand made the likelihood of victory scant. Sawant went on to win her seat — and on May 5, it was her turn to scoff.

When Sawant and her fellow Seattle council members were reviewing Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all private-sector workers, she wanted to give credit where it was due. Sawant told the hundreds packed into the council chambers that the plan materialized not because “business and politicians came from on high and delivered this but because workers demanded this.” Her supporters wore red T-shirts reading “15 Now.”

Just a slogan a year ago, it is now a plan of action in the nation’s 12th-biggest economic engine (PDF). On May 15, Murray unveiled a bill to make a $15 hourly minimum wage a reality. If it is passed, Seattle’s private-sector workers will eventually earn more than double the current federal minimum wage; an estimated 102,000 workers currently making less than $15 an hour will see their incomes jump in 2015, and many households will be lifted out of poverty.

Sawant and her party, instrumental in putting the issue on Seattle’s agenda, are now engaging in realpolitik, decrying the bill’s limits even as they call it a victory for the movement. Philip Locker, Sawant’s campaign manager, pointed to “serious weaknesses as a result of the political establishment catering to business” — such as allowing companies with billion-dollar annual profits such as Starbucks three to four years before they must start paying $15 an hour. But he maintained the movement “forced business to accept the highest minimum wage in the country.”

Sawant’s ascendancy has shown that being a socialist is no longer a liability in running for public office. More important, the $15-an-hour campaign has nurtured a model of grass-roots democracy that challenges the corporate-controlled political process. Observers expect the bill to pass by the end of May. If it passes, the win — though imperfect — will validate Socialist Alternative’s approach, swell its ranks and crack open more space for socialist politics in the United States.

A wage plan weakened

Grass-roots pressure for a wage bill gained momentum once Sawant helped found 15 Now in January. The organization established 11 neighborhood action groups throughout the city that mass-distributed leaflets, organized rallies and engaged citizens in one-on-one conversations. The efforts included quick parries to Big Business arguments about the harmful effects of raising the wage. Such tactics, says Locker, “transformed the political climate.”

The skirmishing continues as Sawant and 15 Now try to close pro-business loopholes in the bill.

Murray’s proposal gives large businesses, defined as more than 500 employees, up to four years before they must begin to pay $15 an hour. Smaller businesses have until 2021 to hit $15 an hour and an 11-year window to pay some wages in tips and health care credits under a guaranteed minimum compensation clause. Because the wage schedules are complex, with four categories and annual timetables determined by the size of business, benefits and cost-of-living adjustments, the bill creates an enforcement nightmare.

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

As the plan was hammered into a bill, it was weakened further. Franchises of fast food giants such as McDonald’s, Subway and KFC may now qualify as small businesses. There is a subminimum training wage for learners, apprentices, messengers and the disabled — a legal trick that allows fast food chains to hire and fire teenagers in an industry with 90 percent annual turnover in its workforce. The bill also encourages wage theft: Businesses need pay back wages only the first time they are caught underpaying workers and a $250 fine for the second violation.

At the May 5 hearing, Sawant read an email from a Domino’s Pizza driver lamenting the lengthy implementation timeline. He wrote, “We need an immediate hike to at least $12 hourly … Most of us are one paycheck away from financial tragedy. Living paycheck to pawn shop is no way to live when you’re working full time.”

To counter the effects of Big Business on the bill, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now are returning to grass-roots politics. On May 15, they announced they would seek to place a ballot before Seattle voters in the fall to amend the city charter. If approved, the measure, which would trump the city council’s, would raise the wages of all workers to $15 an hour more quickly. There would be no subminimum training wage and no tip or health care credit window, and all for-profit companies with more than 250 employees would have to pay $15 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2015.

Presaging a national shift?

Sawant and her party must tread carefully with what they consider an imperfect bill, not least because organized labor, a powerful force in Seattle, supports the bill and has ties to the rival Democratic Party.

David Rolf, who co-chaired the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which drafted the initial plan, and is the president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW, told me he stood by the “delicately constructed” deal but would support a ballot initiative if the current bill were “watered down further.” However, even after the latest changes — the training wage, weakened enforcement and loophole for franchises — Rolf responded in an email, “We fully support the ordinance submitted by Mayor Murray to the city council and encourage the council to pass the ordinance as is.”

Beyond the dance with labor, Sawant and the 15 Now movement are aware that outside parties that specialize in fighting pro-worker measures — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform — could easily rumble into Seattle or the state capital, Olympia, with bundles of cash to try to overturn the measure.

Despite the flaws, Sawant offered her support for a bill that she said represented “a phenomenal shift that has happened in the city,” one that “shows leadership for the rest of the country.”

Already, politicians in Chicago and Portland are running for city posts on $15-an-hour platforms with grass-roots backing. In New York state, a socialist on the Green Party ticket is running for lieutenant governor. On May 16, Jess Spear, a member of Socialist Alternative and a climate scientist, filed to run in November’s election against Democrat Frank Chopp, speaker of the Washington state House. Said Sawant, “We want many more left challenges to the Democratic Party.”

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

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Why the Infatuation with Bullies Like Chris Christie?

Christie reveals a dark side of our society — a public enchanted by his tough guy antics and the press who encourages his sadism.

Chris Christie. Photo: AFP

Chris Christie. Photo: AFP

By Arun Gupta January 11, 2014
     If the media had even a trace of independence, the instant Chris Christie declared like a dainty blossom trampled roughly, “I am not a bully,” the throng of reporters would have screamed, “Liar” in a single voice and hurled their cameras, pens, notepads, recorders, iPhones and shoes at him, burying his political career.
     Then they would have exited the farce and switched to the tape for those at home, showing not the highlight reel of bullying moments compiled by his own staff to promote the Governor Smackdown brand, but the warm-up at a Jersey town-hall meeting in 2010 where he announced to the audience, with the salivating glee of a hound dog cornering a lame rabbit, that a bullying moment “could happen right here, ladies and gentlemen! … Get ready! If you have your own cameras, start rolling!”
     No, Christie would vanish without the browbeating and thuggery that are as indelibly linked to his tenure as the Shore is to Jersey. The real question is not why the press is so sycophantic. It’s why does the public revere a bully as savior? Why do we no longer pine for the knight-in-shining-armor, itself a fairytale version of democracy, but the leather-masked Quasimodo executing justice with cracking bones and spurting blood, or in Christie’s case, cracking insults and spurting bile at those swept up in his spectacle of torment?
     It’s because these days Americans have as much familiarity with democracy as they do with homesteading on the frontier. We like to imagine ourselves as pioneering statesmen, hewing a sturdy nation from the simple tools democracy has bequeathed us – messaging, voting, debates, elections, law-making – but we are lost in the wilderness when it comes to discovering the essence of democracy.
     Democracy is not the same as the perpetual-motion electoral machine. It’s both a means and end built on dialogue, respect, relationships and reason, and it’s everything Christie pummels into submission. But don’t blame the public for this sorry state of affairs. Our lives are bereft of democracy. Virtually all schools are authoritarian, as are churches. Families teeter between parental authority and youthful insubordination. Few believe consumerism is democratic (but our democracy is consumeristic). Say “workplace democracy” to anyone at the office and blank stares is the best reaction you can hope for.
     Few people know how to engage in democratic discussion and dialogue. I’ve heard the same story from food-justice organizers in Brooklyn, anti-fracking activists in Ohio, warehouse workers in Chicago, and home-foreclosure defenders in Oakland. It’s back to basics. Organizing now means first building community through socializing such as potlucks, block parties and softball games, and teaching people how to collectively listen to and discuss ideas with mutual respect.
     We’re at ground zero when it comes to democracy. We feel powerless to stop oil companies from frying the planet, nuke plants radiating countries, stripping oceans of life and dumping them full of garbage, and are unable to help the homeless lying beside foreclosed housing, the sick dying in the shadow of world-class hospitals, and unemployed millions desperate for jobs, even shit ones. With government hijacked by the wealthy, it’s easier to hope an iron-fisted leader can wipe the slate clean. One who scapegoats teachers as the cause of high taxes and low-achieving children, and enjoys humiliating them publicly.
     The harsh reality of Christie is not his vile political persona, but the public enchanted by his bullying and the press who encourages his sadism by casting him as “a tough-talking, problem-solving pragmatist.” Christie may have muscled Democratic politicians into supporting his re-election bid last fall, but he won strong backing from Democratic voters, allowing him to pursue policies attacking the poor and public education, and coddling the wealthy and corporations.
     Christie taps into something dark in the American political soul – a desire not just for order or efficiency, but pleasure in humiliating the weak. Is it surprising women are a frequent target of his abuse, who are pathologized in our society as weak?
     Like every bully, Christie crossed the line, or a bridge in his instance. The silver lining is his presidential ambitions may drown in the brewing scandal so the whole nation doesn’t have to suffer him degrading women with blow-job jokes. But others like Christie will follow in his wake until we realize our society does not suffer from a lack of authoritarian bullies but a deficit of grassroots democracy.


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Make New York City Ungovernable: Lessons from the Anti-Apartheid Struggle in the Age of Bill de Blasio

If liberals drew the unambiguous conclusion that real power lies in the markets, with the corporate-owned media, and think tanks and universities endowed by the wealthy, then they would be calling for massive street protests to counter the full-court press Wall Street is placing on new Mayor Bill de Blasio, says Gupta.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

by Arun Gupta December 31, 2013

Saints make the worst role models. How precisely can one emulate Nelson Mandela, a “supernatural human” who moved mountains of injustice, except by becoming him, which is impossible because he was a saint?

Saints stand above history, making choices based on internal moral struggles and exhibiting unimpeachable fortitude, faith and grace. This implies events were ordained and could not have been otherwise. We are afraid to see Mandela as captive of history because it may tarnish his memory. But that’s a mistake. The bitter history of post-liberation South Africa does not diminish the heroic and costly struggle to end apartheid.

The Afrikaner elite negotiated the end of apartheid after mass movements made South Africa ungovernable in the ’80s, and its military was defeated in a regional war. Mandela and the ANC (African National Conress) made a fatal miscalculation, however. They decided that political liberation for all people meant economic liberalization for corporations that propped up and profited off the racist system.

Consequently, argues political analyst and author Patrick Bond, “South Africa’s democratization was profoundly compromised by an intra-elite economic deal that, for most people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

In short, racial apartheid was replaced with class apartheid. In 1993 a transitional government that included the ANC endorsed an IMF (International Monetary Fund) structural adjustment package. The roots of this policy were planted a decade earlier when leaders of the United Democratic Front, which coordinated the antiapartheid resistance, gambled that democratic rights should be secured before economic rights. Critics presciently argued that socialism delayed would be socialism denied. Because the defeat of liberation forces by capital happened rapidly in South Africa under a revered leader like Mandela and with the majority thirsting for economic and social justice, there are important lessons for our time. South Africa’s shift to class apartheid parallels US history in which Jim Crow was dismantled but eventually replaced by Reaganomics class warfare.

One lesson is to keep up the street heat. After being elected in 2008, Obama ditched progressive rhetoric for austerity policies: protecting banks, dithering on the home foreclosure crisis, calling for Social Security and Medicaid cuts and deficit reduction. It was only thanks to Occupy Wall Street that the national debate was flipped from austerity to economic inequality. Occupy has faded but its impact is still felt in low-wage worker organizing, minimum-wage initiatives, climate-justice organizing, and the elections of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council and Bill de Blasio, who will be inaugurated on January 1, 2014, as the 109th mayor of New York City.

The 99% Mayor, de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” has resonated across the country because most Americans are locked out of gilded communities zoned by race and class. De Blasio is no Mandela, but his candidacy was propelled by low-wage worker movements, the grassroots coalition against stop-and-frisk policing, and anger over economic inequality. Rather than lead the charge against this soft apartheid, however, de Blasio will be another liberal enforcer for the 1%. Once victory was in hand, De Blasio moved to appease the markets by calling himself a fiscal conservative, tapping stop-and-frisk architect Bill Bratton as police chief and a Goldman Sachs exec to fight inequality, and signaling that mega-real-estate projects would be approved, if with less public aid. He and his officials will now move in a world of boardrooms, penthouses, Michelin-starred restaurants, and galas where they will hear the woes of the oligarchy. At least he won’t be as cartoonish as Bloomberg, who fantasized about every Russian billionaire moving to the city, police profiling minorities more, and poor neighborhoods hosting waste incinerators. But his policy-making will involve horse-trading with liberal bigwigs and union leaders who will agree to toss crumbs to millions of struggling New Yorkers and call it progress.

There is another option: Strive to make the city ungovernable.

Let me explain. What made Occupy potent was that it was a continuous, populist protest that rattled Wall Street and paved the way for de Blasio. His victory has raised hopes, but he will not address inequality unless movements from below disrupt the status quo, like the anti-apartheid movement did in South Africa. If movements can learn from Occupy’s failures and organize strategic protests and strikes that mobilize the public to confront de Blasio’s proposals as inadequate, which they will be, then there’s a chance to redistribute some wealth and power in meaningful ways to the 99%.

Learning From South Africa

The modern history of the antiapartheid movement begins with the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. The killing of 69 peaceful anti-pass law protestors and subsequent repression left the public traumatized and led to the jailing of Mandela and other leaders, the banning of the ANC, and its turn to armed struggle. Organized resistance did not resurface until 1973 when about 100,000 workers in Durban went on strike, reviving politicized trade unionism. The 1976 Soweto Uprising by students opposing Afrikaner-language education baptized a new generation with “bullets and tear gas.” This was the coming of age for the Black Consciousness movement (influenced by Amílcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and the Black Panthers), which promoted an ideology of racial assertiveness and psychological liberation over racial inferiority. Anthony Marx points out in Lessons of Struggle that Black Consciousness was the main game in town as young activists saw the ANC and other foreign-based groups as “not only irrelevant, but wasteful.” (Much of the analysis that follows is based on Marx’s excellent history of South Africa’s internal resistance from 1960 to 1990.)

Despite months of organizing, a quarter-million students joining walkouts, and workers’ sympathy strikes, the state crushed the uprising, leaving hundreds dead and thousands jailed and tortured. The Black Consciousness movement’s emphasis on ideas as prior to physical liberation appealed mainly to students, especially those in universities, instead of the black working class it needed to win over. This limited organizational development and the chance to keep up the momentum from Soweto. The breadth of the uprising also showed the movement had achieved its aim of changing consciousness. This spurred a turn in the movement overall from a racial analysis to class and nonracial organizing. Additionally, events in mid-70s South Africa were influenced by liberation struggles that freed Angola and Mozambique from racist European rule similar to apartheid. Many youth gravitated to ANC politics after serving time in prison with senior leaders. Thousands of others fled the country and were recruited by the ANC, which alone had the resources, discipline, and organization to house, educate and train, allowing it to rebuild its internal network and popular stature.

Obviously there are huge differences with the here and now, but there are intriguing similarities as well. For example, Occupy Wall Street was also influenced by international events, such as the Arab Spring, learned the hard way that the movement behind the ideas can crumble, and succeeded in changing consciousness by popularizing the terms 99% and 1%. But after the state counterattacked in late 2011, Occupy groups failed to develop strategies beyond attempted re-occupations, solidarity campaigns and service work. Additionally, while Occupy’s power lay in its elegantly simple class critique, internal fissures erupted across the country between radical and liberals and over identity politics. The former led to splits over whether to work within the political system or build utopian models outside of it. Debates over identity politics often led to internal struggles that alienated many participants. These self-inflicted blows were compounded by Occupy’s disregard for strategy or even organization. Not surprisingly, liberal outfits, unions, community groups and workers centers picked up the banner of inequality. One exception is climate-justice organizing, which has attracted post-Occupy activists to its radical grassroots bent. But it’s also sundered by a class analysis, similar to what happened in South Africa. Radicals argue for an anti-capitalist strategy as it’s the main culprit in global warming, while those who call themselves realists contend system change is a luxury as the collapse of civilization is nigh, so we should pursue green solutions compatible with capitalism.

Marx notes Black Consciousness adopted a class analysis after Soweto to provide common values of resistance, and it could help build mass organization by overcoming an individualistic approach to fighting oppression. Many Occupiers went the other way, from collective politics to individualism by fixating on the abstractions of identity – fighting “privilege” – rather than the material effects of oppression linked to identity. Consequently, Occupy, as a movement, missed an opportunity to organize low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color and female. Just like the ANC attracted youth after the anarchic Soweto Uprising was quashed, unions have used their resources and organizational structure to attract Occupy activists looking to continue the fight against the 1%. Members of socialist and anarchist organizations have joined the campaigns as well, enabling them to collectively analyze strategies and debate and implement plans to radicalize the low-wage worker movement. But Occupiers rarely join as part of a group engaging in collective strategizing. Additionally, liberals and unions use dumbed-down class analysis for partisan or instrumental ends, instead of wielding class as a strategic tool to forge different social relations. During the 2012 election, they stole Occupy’s thunder by tarring Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percenter, playing a big role in the re-election of Obama, who has dutifully managed the interests of the 1%.

In South Africa, movements learn from history and their mistakes. When a brutal crackdown in the mid-’80s cooled mass rebellion that was destabilizing South Africa, activists did not blame the state. They took repression as a given, and instead criticized the United Democratic Front for what they saw as a lack of militancy. With Occupy, however, many still cling to the myth that police ended the movement despite copious evidence it disintegrated because of internal conflicts and strategic missteps like futile re-occupations. More recently, South Africa’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers, announced it was cutting funding to the ANC and would not back it in the 2014 elections. Outlining a strategy that would be unimaginable coming from an American labor leader, NUMSA plans to form a “new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the United Democratic Front of the 1980s,” and launch a new labor party by 2015.

The South Africa of today was forged in the 1980s. Compromises made by the UDF, such as delaying economic restructuring and enforcing top-down leadership and the dominance of the ANC, left the liberation movement ill-prepared to counter the coming neoliberal regime. The ANC lost nerve on the international stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ronnie Kasrils, a storied leader of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party, is one of many who argues signing on to the IMF’s neoliberal program was a “Faustian Pact.” Kasrils says “the balance of power was with the ANC, and conditions were favorable for more radical change at the negotiating table than we ultimately accepted.”

The 99% Mayor in 1% Clothing

Under de Blasio, modest reforms are possible including strengthening a flawed paid sick leave act, boosting the minimum wage for those employed in city-subsidized projects and extending it to more than 600 workers a year covered by a 2012 bill, and creating a municipal ID to help undocumented immigrants access services. But this is tinkering at the edges, and wish lists are barely more ambitious. The Nation calls for implementing de Blasio’s proposal to tax the wealthy to fund universal pre-K. It’s a fine idea, which requires the approval of the state legislature, but it won’t begin to “reverse” the dramatic widening of the income gap, unless one has a timeline of 20 years to evaluate results.

Tellingly, de Blasio has steered clear of proposals to redistribute wealth downward instead of up. He’s been silent on the plan by his primary opponent, City Comptroller John Liu, to increase the citywide minimum wage to $11.50 an hour, raise $15 billion in new revenue through progressive fiscal and tax policy, and build 100,000 units of affordable housing in four years. De Blasio’s strategy is to be a better manager of neoliberalism to generate a little more tax revenue that can be spread around. He will replay the Obama era on a smaller stage. As soon as he surrenders to the rich and powerful, his liberal defenders will attack critics for being naïve about the power of the markets and the reality of governing a city with 448,000 government employees and a budget of $50 billion, which is greater than the GDP of 110 nations. However, the argument that his hands are tied contradicts declarations that “just about everything [is] at stake in de Blasio’s mayoralty.”

Supporters assume de Blasio can wrest concessions from the rich without any leverage over them. He won’t challenge the class apartheid suffocating most New Yorkers. He won’t be a reverse Bloomberg, re-engineering the city to make it the playground of workers instead of the gilded elite. Even if the overt racial profiling is rolled back, it will be replaced with class profiling of the homeless, panhandlers and street vendors that is defined by race, which is what Bratton did as Los Angeles police chief a decade ago. If de Blasio installs Bratton with minimal opposition progressives will embolden him to pursue Wall Street’s agenda, which is why it’s positive that opposition has emerged to Bratton, led by parents whose children were killed by the NYPD during his previous tenure as police chief.

Without organized opposition, De Blasio’s policies will not alter the 46 percent of city residents in or on the cusp of poverty or alleviate the extreme housing crisis that ranges from hedge funds and investors buying 70 percent of homes in Brooklyn to extended families of a dozen or more stuffed into two-bedroom apartments in my tenement building to the Lower Manhattan “human kennel,” where men pay $300 a month to live in squalid “chicken-wire cages” smaller than a jail cell. Any more social welfare is welcome, of course, but if de Blasio won’t commit to even an $11.50 an hour minimum wage, how will he address inequality? The wealth divide in the city is so extreme a household with two full-time workers earning $15 an hour would find its entire pre-tax income consumed by the average rent of $3,800 in Manhattan. And Brooklyn’s not far behind, with an average rent of more than $3,000.

If liberals drew the unambiguous conclusion from their arguments that real power lies in the markets, with the corporate-owned media, with think tanks and universities endowed by the wealthy, then they would be calling for massive street protests to counter the full-court press Wall Street is placing on de Blasio.

Now, nurturing an uprising is far from simple or even likely, but we do live an era where they are increasingly common because the political center is so slavishly devoted to capital. In the United States alone, since 1999, there’s been the global justice movement, the anti-Iraq War movement, the immigrant May Day general strike and Occupy Wall Street. If there are any illusions, it’s among the liberals who expect dramatic change from a de Blasio administration while they tell the left and workers to be quiet.

They would do well to remember the words of O.R. Tiro, who was killed by a letter bomb in 1974, two years after telling his fellow South African university students, “The price of freedom is blood, toil and tears . . . History has taught us that a group in power has never voluntarily relinquished its position. It has always been forced to do so.”

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Filed under Economy, Inequality, Occupy Movement, Politics

Don’t Let Obama Cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security

The Progressive
November 15, 2012
by Arun Gupta

If you voted this election, whether for Barack Obama, Jill Stein or even Mitt Romney, you did not vote for austerity. But that’s of little consequence to Obama and the Republicans. The two parties are currently drafting measures that will undermine Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare as the economy approaches the “fiscal cliff” at the end of this year when more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts will kick in absent a new budget deal.

They hope to strike a “grand bargain,” but are bickering over how much to increase taxes and cut spending. The spotlight has been on the Bush tax cuts, which Obama campaigned on repealing for the rich, but this issue is a sleight of hand that distracts the public from the bipartisan plotting against your retirement income and healthcare.

Surely, you say, Obama will thwart the Republicans’ scheme to dismantle social welfare. After all, it’s well known that retirement programs are healthy. Social Security is solvent through 2033 and Medicare is solvent through 2024. Both can be strengthened for decades to come with relative tweaking.

Trusting a Democratic president with protecting the general welfare is ill-advised when the last one gave us NAFTA, welfare “reform” and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Not only has Obama been gunning for retirement programs since 2008 (I’ll explain), he’s so hell-bent on reducing deficits that he’s willing to damage the economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates if the economy plunges over the cliff, recession will hit in 2013. Interestingly, the CBO calculates that if all the tax cuts are left in place and no spending cuts are enacted the economy will grow by 4.4 percent next year and add 2.3 million full-time equivalent jobs. This would be the highest rate of growth since the late 1990s.

Now, it’s a stone-cold fact that the Democrats are willing to gut social welfare. Listen to New York Times chief political correspondent Matt Bai: “Mr. Obama, during his ‘grand bargain’ negotiations with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, in the summer of 2011, had already signed off on painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.” Bai says there was “near unanimity” among Obama’s advisers and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi said “they would get behind it.” Paul Krugman’s assessment is harsher, saying Obama was “willing to sign on to … draconian cuts in key social programs.”

During the summer of 2011 the Obama White House and the Republican House played chicken over raising the federal debt ceiling. Bai says the two sides were haggling over the amount of cuts, not the question of bleeding retirement programs. Obama was willing to sacrifice $1 trillion in Medicare cuts over two decades, $110 billion in short-term Medicaid cuts, and acquiesced to “changing the Social Security formula so that benefits would grow at a slower rate.”

Mind you, the Budget Control Act Obama and Boehner eventually inked not only put the fiscal cliff in place, it cut spending for a second time in 2011. Over the next decade this will chop $900 billion in non-defense discretionary spending.” This is wonk-speak for social programs, which will shrink to pre-1962 levels by 2021. Simply put, Washington already plans to roll back the Great Society – even before the fiscal cliff is reached.

But wasn’t Obama at the mercy of a Tea Party Congress threatening default unless he forked over $2 trillion in spending cuts? That’s what Bai argued last April: “Not only was [Obama] bent on avoiding a catastrophic debt default, but he needed to get out from under the debt issue, to demonstrate that he cared about reducing deficits before public concerns about government spending, stoked by rhetoric on the right, overwhelmed his presidency.”

There are more things wrong about this than a penguin in the desert. Allowing Republicans to use economic blackmail only emboldens them. The fiscal cliff is the third time the right is using mafia tactics – “Nice country you got here. Shame if something were to happen to it” – as Krugman describes it. The only way to call the right’s bluff is to allow the economy to go wobbly so Wall Street, the GOP’s masters, will bring their attack dogs to heel.

Also, notice that Bai thinks allowing a default is unthinkable, but pilfering food, medicine and money from more than 100 million Americans is perfectly fine. As for Bai’s contention that “public concerns about government spending” stoked by the right would overwhelm Obama’s presidency, it’s utter bullshit.

Take a look at this site, which covers 25 polls on public priorities going back to June 2010. When pollsters list options, which skew responses, the economy and jobs poll close to 50 percent as the top priority, trouncing the deficit, which averages in the low twenties. The latter figure, incidentally, is similar to the percentage of voters in the 2010 mid-term elections who said they supported the Tea Party. In six polls, the response was open-ended, which better reflects what the public thinks. Economy and jobs still notched 49 percent on average. The deficit and national debt was barely a blip, averaging 4 percent.

No matter how the data is sliced then, the deficit is an inside-the-Beltway obsession that at most inflames right-wing firebrands who are never going to support the Democrats.

Nate Silver crunched the numbers on the debt deal in July 2011 – if there’s only one lesson from this election, it’s that Silver’s number-crunching is unparalleled – and found House Republicans to be “extremely conservative on fiscal matters and … significantly out of step with the public as a whole.” As for the mix of spending cuts and tax increases Obama put on the table, it was “quite close to, or perhaps even a little to the right of, what the average Republican voter wants, let alone the average American.”

So why didn’t Obama tune out the chattering classes and stare down the Tea Party? It would have strengthened his standing with the public going into the 2012 election. From this evidence, it’s impossible to claim Obama is hostage to the right. The truth that remains, even if it seems improbable, is that Obama is a right-wing politician who has had the welfare state in his sights from day one.

Don’t take my word for it. Obama said it on January 15, 2009, in a “wide-ranging” interview with the Washington Post five days before his inauguration. The article was headlined: “Obama Pledges Entitlement Reform; President-Elect Says He’ll Reshape Social Security, Medicare Programs.” Obama said this was part of his legacy, declaring that he was “willing to spend some political capital” so that the “the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”

This was not idle chatter. Here is a sampling of what Obama said and did the next two years.

In February 2009 Obama held a “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” at the White House, in which he issued dire warnings of future generations being “saddled with our debts.”

In his 2010 State of the Union Address he proclaimed, “Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t,” and called for a three-year spending freeze that fell heavily on social programs.

On February 18, 2010, Obama signed an executive order creating the “Simpson-Bowles Commission” tasked with making “recommendations that put the budget in primary balance.” In November 2010, right before the midterm elections, it proposed reducing corporate tax rates by 20 percent and on the wealthy by 30 percent while raising rates on middle incomes and the retirement age to 69. Remember, this was in the name of cutting the deficit.

This is before the Tea Party swept into Congress, so there was no pressure on Obama to appease the right. By adopting Tea Party talking points on spending and comparing government to a family – what family do you know that has 8,100 tons of gold reserves, a space program and embassies in some 200 countries? – Obama legitimized debt as a major concern going into the 2010 election.

A little more history. Obama ran in 2008 on repealing the Bush tax cuts. But he reneged on his promise just one month into his presidency even though he was gushing with political capital, the right was in disarray and the Democratic-controlled Congress was ready to pass it. (After campaigning in 2012 on abolishing tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000, Obama indicated he was willing to renege once more days after being re-elected.)

For his first term Obama followed the script penned by Larry Summers, his chief economic adviser in 2008 and the Clinton-era architect of the financial bubble that exploded four years ago. Writing on September 28, 2008 in the Financial Times, Summers outlined the Rosetta Stone for Obama’s presidency.

Summers’ article was published right after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, the financial Pearl Harbor that threatened the global economy. It was a classic case of The Shock Doctrine: using the meltdown to go after social welfare. He argued for a stimulus, while taking pains to mention, “We still must address issues of entitlements and fiscal sustainability.” He also said no “new entitlement programs or exploding tax measures,” which included “healthcare restructuring,” but not single-payer healthcare. Summers’ silences were notable: nothing about regulating finance, strengthening labor organizing or addressing the home foreclosure crisis.

Fiscal sustainability is simply a euphemism for cutting social spending to pay for deficit reduction. Economists like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have demolished every rationale for deficit reduction under present circumstances: with interest rates below the rate of inflation, bondholders are paying the U.S. government to hold their money; reducing the deficit would strangle growth; the best way to reduce the deficit is through growth and inflation; and the plan to hack away $4 trillion in a decade will not reduce the national debt meaningfully.

Even if the deficit does need to be reduced, then the reasonable course is to have the Pentagon and wealthy pay for the two unfunded wars, Bush tax cuts and Wall Street crash that blew up the national debt. Which is why Obama’s song and dance about “shared sacrifice” is so grating – and probably music to granny-starver Paul Ryan’s ears. Obama and Boehner are wrangling over whether or not the Gulfstream set has to part ways with a 4.6 percent nudge in income tax, but they agree that grandma must skimp on food, heat and her meds. “Hey, we’re all in this together.”

Whatever your politics, you’ve probably been savoring the humiliation of “the biggest loser” Karl Rove, cackling over Bill O’Reilly’s lament that “the white establishment is now the minority” and sharing “White People Mourning Romney.” 

Well it’s time to wipe the gloating off our faces and get to work stopping Obama from stealing our healthcare and retirement income, otherwise it will be Wall Street’s turn to gloat. Yet again.


Filed under Austerity, Economy, Politics

What Happened to the Green New Deal?

by Arun Gupta

Out of the ashes of Obama’s green-collar vision, a worker-run business may point the way to the economy of the future.

Last election, Obama had an economic plan and wasn’t afraid to embrace government as a primary creator of jobs. With markets melting down, almost half a million people being fired a month, and automakers and banks emitting a death rattle, Obama presented a sweeping vision of tackling health care, global warming, a rogue Wall Street and reshaping the decaying industrial economy with a green-collar one. Liberals dubbed it a Green New Deal and fantasized about the land blossoming with solar panels, electric cars and high-speed trains as new regulations cut corporations down to size.

Obama botched the plan, however. He inflated hopes in 2008 that his policies would create 5 million green-collar jobs in a decade. He then skimped by allocating only $90 billion in stimulus money for clean energy, producing a measly 225,000 jobs after 18 months by the White House’s own estimates.

Republicans blasted Obama’s green economy as failed central planning imported from Europe. They believe the government that’s best is the one that governs the least. Its purpose is to spur the private sector, but how it does so is mysterious. This was Romney’s position, but it seems to have become Obama’s, as well. During the election campaign, the two mouthed the same invisible-hand mumbo-jumbo, offering little chance of reviving an ailing economy.

In the real world, corporations clasp onto the public teat like squealing piglets. Big business would starve if deprived of state-organized central banking, transport, electricity, water, sewage, courts, zoning, police, environmental remediation, customs and labor regulation. Pick an industry and you’ll find tailored public aid. Banks and car makers get bailouts; energy and forestry companies mine, drill and log public lands; the health care industry thrives thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Medicare and Medicaid; agribusiness soaks up crop insurance and subsidies; home construction is built on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve; and perhaps the largest part of the economy – the military-surveillance-police-and-prison sector – is assembled piece by piece by government.

Clearly, government policies create many millions of jobs. (That’s not counting 22 million government employees and an estimated 14 million other jobs created by government contracting and consumer spending by public-sector workers.) This is known as industrial policy. Every country does it, and the United States is no exception. We just tend to do it worse because it is heresy to question the god of the free market. If the public realized how much big business depended on public support, then there might be a loud clamor for more activist government.

The lesson is not that the Obama administration did too much to spur a green economy; it did too little. Answers to why the green-collar economy withered and where its future may lie can be found in the story of Serious Energy and workers from the former Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago.

A New Era

Obama’s green jobs plan had one missing element – labor. A healthy economy requires plenty of good-paying, stable jobs with benefits. However, the titans of Wall Street aren’t going to voluntarily give up profits so the proles can get better wages and social programs; the proles have to fight for it.

As if on cue, a glimmer of labor’s revival emerged after Obama’s election. On December 5, 2008, 240 workers at Republic Windows and Doors staged a sit-down strike after receiving notice that their factory would be mothballed. The workers, members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, raised expectations that a wave of labor militancy could turn the tide against runaway corporate power.

Soon, all the elements came together. Serious Materials, a clean-technology firm, purchased the bankrupt Republic plant, which specialized in manufacturing high-energy-efficiency windows. Serious Materials (since renamed Serious Energy) billed itself as a green-economy pioneer ready to revolutionize manufacturing with green products. Obama’s stimulus would open up the market for its goods. And Serious was intent on showing profits, sustainability and social responsibility were compatible by keeping the unionized workforce in place.

Serious was one of many companies that hitched its wagon to Obama’s plans to green old markets and catalyze new ones. Despite shifting business models, Serious flailed along with the green economy. Now, Serious is no Solyndra, the solar-panel manufacturer that defaulted on a $535 million taxpayer-backed loan. The Republicans successfully saddled Obama with Solyndra’s bankruptcy, turning it into “a case study of what can go wrong when a rigid government bureaucracy tries to play venture capitalist and jump-start a nascent, fast-changing market,” as he Washington Post called it. Serious shows the private sector can be just as wrong. Ten venture capital firms poured more than $140 million into Serious and have little to show for it.

But rising out of the ashes are the Republic workers. They’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase machine tools and lease factory space to open the New Era Windows Cooperative. Modeling themselves on cooperatives in Argentina’s recovered factory movement and Spain’s Mondragon, the New Era workers will collectively decide how to manage the business, what products to manufacture and what to do with the profits. While they make green windows, they hope to inspire other self-managed enterprises across the United States and could provide an alternative to free-market capitalism.

Ironically, if New Era succeeds, it will do so with zero government support. One might have expected both presidential candidates to heap praise on the cooperative. Romney could have touted the workers’ entrepreneurial initiative, while Obama could have pointed to it as a new model for domestic green manufacturing.

In terms of Serious and Solyndra, their breakdowns are par for the course. The clean-tech sector is littered with so many casualties it looks like a Civil War battlefield. It is an unavoidable part of the process, and the Obama administration made a big mistake in shrinking away from failures.

Josh Whitford, a professor of sociology at Columbia University who studies industrial policy, says, “Novel technologies are areas in which the rewards are very uncertain and where a lot of things will not pan out. Venture capitalists deal with this by funding lots and lots of companies in the hopes of hitting a winner. They expect a lot of their investments to fail. In fact, if none failed, they’d think they were too far from the ‘possibilities frontier.'”

Government’s goal, says Whitford, “is not to hit a big financial winner, but to promote policies judged to be socially beneficial. He explains, “In the case of industrial policy, the purpose is often to push a technological direction,” such as cutting-edge clean energy that benefits society by curbing greenhouse gasses. Government is up against the same constraints as venture capitalists, however. Whitford says it does not know which projects will succeed. “So, government should, like venture capitalists, be spreading resources around and betting on multiple horses in the hopes that some do win. If the government has no failures, it’s being too conservative.”

Windows of Opportunity

The story of Serious and the Republic workers begins in 2007. Serious Material was planning to market EcoRock, which it touted as requiring only 10 percent of the energy used to make standard drywall. It raised $50 million to build factories in the United States that could crank out 400 million square feet of EcoRock a year. It’s the type of project that excites wonks: Serious Materials would reinvent the archaic drywall industry, which spews out more than 20 billion pounds of carbon dioxide annually, with a stateside 100-kilowatt solar-power plant that would create hundreds of good-paying manufacturing jobs while eliminating nearly all greenhouse gas emissions.

To make the product viable, Serious was counting on Obama enacting a cap-and-refund carbon tax. As small-batch production of EcoRock costs nearly twice as much as regular gypsum drywall, it needed a carbon tax to entice contractors to use it. But the carbon-tax bill died in Congress, so EcoRock was doomed to the green-building niche. This added to Serious’ woes because it jumped into the building market just as the economy collapsed in 2008. Furthermore, EcoRock may be great for the environment, but not for the bottom line. As one report noted, it “does not insulate or curb power consumption in buildings.” In 2010, CEO Kevin Surace explained to Greentech media that Serious “never pulled the trigger” on constructing a full-scale factory because “Gypsum (drywall) plants are 75 vacant.”

“New construction is down 80 percent from the peak,” said Surace.

Flush with cash to build factories, Serious Materials pivoted to plan B: manufacture windows that slash heating and cooling by 40 percent. Even though home building was in the dumps, Serious calculated that it would “ramp up production [in 2009] by tenfold” because of anticipated demand. It had been in the windows business for a few years, and in 2008, it purchased Alpen Windows in Colorado. In 2009, it added the defunct Kensington Windows factory in Pennsylvania, where 150 workers had been booted out of work the previous year.

The real prize was the Republic factory. The workers there won $1.75 million in wages and benefits after a six-day-long sit-down strike. They were unemployed, however, joining more than 600,000 workers who lost their jobs in December 2008. With 4,000 news articles published on their fight, Serious was paying attention. At Serious’ headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, CEO Suracewatched the drama unfold and pondered riding to the rescue of the beleaguered facility.

An engineer and entrepreneur, Surace first considered the downside. He told Inc. magazine: “The workers were up in arms. The equipment had been pillaged. The computers were destroyed. The customers didn’t want to buy. The records weren’t accurate. There was no management team. No one but the craziest person on earth would take over that.”

At Serious Materials’ holiday party that December, co-founder Marc Porat pushed Surace to consider the upside: “Think what can happen! We’re creating green-collar jobs. We’re creating an energy-efficient product. We’re hitting climate change. And it’s Chicago!”

“It will come to the White House’s attention,” said Porat. “It’s a perfect expression of their policy.” According to a detailed account in Inc., which named Surace “Entrepreneur of the Year” for 2009, the board of Serious Materials approved the acquisition of the idle factory based on “owning one of the largest window-glass facilities in the country, with a seasoned work force and a fabulous location.”

Not lost on anyone was the “public relations potential” of aligning with the Obama administration’s plan for a green-collar economy. The stimulus included $5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program. Much of this was for tax credits for energy-efficient retrofits that included windows. Serious was eager to cash in because its windows exceeded Energy Star ratings by up to 400 percent.

Surace became a rock star in the clean tech field, hit the TED circuit and shared stages with politicians. He gave Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) a tour of Serious Energy’s Boulder facility, wielded scissors with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell for a “green ribbon-cutting ceremony” at the Kensington plant, and basked in the limelight with Joe Biden as the vice president heaped praise on the re-opened Chicago factory. Surace was on a mission to save the world from climate change with green windows and drywall that would generate serious greenbacks for Serious Materials’ investors.

Despite the grim economy, Serious hauled in $60 million from investors in 2009, one of the largest venture capital deals of the year, and its backers were salivating. In a newsletter from 2009, the Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, which pumped $15 million into Serious that year, wrote glowingly of how its “private equity investors” would benefit because $10.5 billion of stimulus money was in the pipeline “for home weatherization and federal building efficiency retrofits.”

Everything was going according to plan. As Serious collected factories, it boasted of “creating green collar jobs in plants across the country including … the President’s home town of Chicago,” wrote an Inc. editor. Inc. noted: “The Republic rescue has paid off handsomely in publicity … Aspiring vendors, curious dealers, and assorted well-wishers began stopping by the plant after its reopening. These days, salespeople rarely need to introduce Serious Materials to their prospects; the White House has already done that for them.” Revenue in 2009 reportedly increased by 50 percent; the company was employing more than 300 people, and in March 2010, Serious landed a coveted contract to upgrade the Empire State Building’s 6,514 windows.

Best-Laid Plans

Cracks were appearing in the façade, however. By the end of 2009, only 20 workers had been hired back at the old Republic plant, and Serious was spending $100,000 a week to keep the space open, which could hold 600 workers. Surace admitted the company had erred in thinking “we’d be hot and heavy into weatherization of thousands of homes in the Chicago area.”

Serious put its chips on weatherization, but the recession weakened its hand. The Department of Energy inspector general found that by December 2009, only 8 percent of the money had been spent “and few homes had actually been weatherized.” Because the $4.73 billion in the pipeline was divided into 58 spigots to cover every US state and territory, “State hiring freezes, problems with resolving significant local budget shortfalls, and state-wide planned furloughs delayed various aspects of the program.” On top of that, little money was being spent on windows like those built by Serious because weatherization also covered furnaces, insulation, water heaters, weather stripping, cooling systems and storm doors.

By the summer of 2010, Serious was back on the PowerPoint circuit, imploring funders for $56 million to become a player in the building management market. Its new model – the third in three years – was software “for monitoring and lowering energy consumption in commercial buildings.” Serious was acquiring more companies – software firms like Valence Energy and Agilewaves. It boasted of 60 customers in the wings and products that could deliver “immediate energy savings of 10 to 15 percent with payback in one to two years.”

But Serious was trying to muscle in on the turf of heavyweights like Siemens, Honeywell and General Electric, so it was back to the drawing board. After changing its name, Serious Energy unveiled a new division and plan number four in November 2011. A spokesperson announced Serious Capital would finance energy efficiency retrofits of buildings for free: “We install, at no cost to customers, energy conservation measures that will save energy,” they said, “and we become the agent for utility bill payments.” Serious Energy figured the revenue stream would allow it to pay the bills and lenders and leave enough for a tidy profit. For the third time, it was eyeing a government angle, committing to perform $100 million in retrofits as part of Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.

The initiative is one of those so-called “public-private partnerships” that are economic quackery. The Better Building Initiative promises to cure every ill – “creating jobs, growing our industries, improving businesses’ bottom lines, reducing our energy bills and consumption, and preserving our planet for future generations” – with no pain in the form of taxpayer financing or altering business as usual. For Serious, the initiative made little difference. As Greentech Media pointed out, it was unclear how it was going to “get the backing to meet its stated goal of $2 billion in potential project financing.” Plus it would need to buy insurance as a hedge in case the savings did not materialize.

Once exalted as the poster child for exemplifying Obama’s vision of “green-collar jobs at the hands of a resurgence in American innovation,” Serious Energy shriveled into a new economy shell reminiscent of Enron, chucking aside manufacturing for software, finance and hedging. The venture capital taps were also running dry. Serious raised less than $20 million of its 2010 goal of $56 million, and less than $3 million of a $33 million round in 2011.

The free retrofit plan unraveled in weeks. In February 2012, Surace was canned, and Serious announced it was closing the Chicago factory. On February 23, it summoned the 38 remaining workers to “the offices of the notorious union-busting law firm Seyfarth and Shaw,” as Labor Notes put it. The workers were told they would get their 60 days pay under the law, but the factory would be cannibalized and the machines shipped to Serious’ plants in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Not given to taking things lying down, the workers sat down once more. Less than 12 hours later, they emerged victorious with a written agreement that the factory would operate for 90 days longer while Serious Energy looked for a buyer. As for Serious Energy, Porat says it is returning to its roots of producing soundproof drywall, a business he admits has very little to do with clean tech.

Working World

UE Local 1110 had no illusions that a white knight was in the wings, however. During a visit last May to the headquarters in Chicago, local President Armando Robles confided: “Nobody is going to buy the factory after two occupations. They don’t want troublemakers there.” Having shown themselves to be innovative risk-takers by winning two sit-down strikes that were technically illegal, the workers decided they would run the factory themselves. They joined forces with The Working World, which provides “investment capital and technical support for worker cooperatives,” and raised the money to buy the window-making equipment and establish the worker-run and -owned business.

The cooperative is still in the works. The big question is, can it blaze a path for labor to revive manufacturing? Small, worker-run cooperatives can’t replace an advanced industrial base, but they could democratize the US economy and employ millions in stable, living-wage jobs.

Networks of cooperatives could also provide a model to supplant the warmed-over Keynesianism beloved by liberals. Stimulating demand or creating public-works programs would still be effective today; Obama has done far too little of it. Trying to reshape the industrial base as happened under FDR (and that’s mainly because of World War II) is far more difficult because back then, US capital had limited options beyond the domestic market for consumers, factories and workers. That’s not the case in the globalized economy. The biggest US employer, Walmart, pays poverty-level wages to most of its 1.4 million workers. The most valuable corporation in the world, Apple, has only 13,000 US-based employees outside of its retail stores. And both source most of their goods from China.

The free-market solution is to subsidize corporations, a point upon which Romney and Obama agreed. For instance, states like Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi already gift $300 million or more to automakers opening plants they were planning to build. Imagine if instead of padding the profits of Fortune 500 companies, the public sector funded tens of thousands of worker-run cooperatives. Many would go bankrupt, but that’s the price of innovation. The upside would be successful worker-run cooperatives rooted in communities. Such enterprises would be unable to move operations to Mexico or Malaysia, while abuse of employees that is far too common here would be almost impossible in democratic workplaces.

A new economy demands new answers, not the failed free market or nostalgia for a past that no longer exists. The New Era Windows Cooperative might just provide some of those answers.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


Filed under Economy, Environment, Labor, Politics

Romney Appeals to White Tribalism in Ohio

By Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett, The Progressive, October 15, 2012

SIDNEY, OHIO—At the Shelby county fairgrounds in Sidney, Ohio, on Oct. 10, a jumbotron showed a bus approaching. Image became reality as Mitt Romney’s bulbous white chariot glided into the rally of thousands. It was an impressive entrance, for those who are impressed by RVs.

Bounding up to a podium, Romney was ready to proselytize. Thousands of faces turned toward him in the chilly evening air. Word was that Romney’s conquest of Obama in the first debate had infused his robotic demeanor with passion. It was hard to see much evidence of that.

To polite applause, Romney blandly declared, “That’s an Ohio welcome. Thank you guys.” He tried to rouse the audience with a counter to Obama campaign chants of “Four more years,” and the crowd hesitantly recited “Four more weeks,” their tone as flat as the surrounding farmland.

No matter. Romney dove into his stump speech. It was the gospel of lower taxes, freer trade, stronger military, and drill, baby, drill, and the audience was receptive. He hit all the buttons, “jobs,” “small business,” “compete,” and “opportunities.” Some specifics drew hearty cheers: “Get rid of the death tax,” “get that pipeline in from Canada,” and “our military must be second to none.”

The crowd responded favorably because the ideas are presented simply and clearly. People are hurting, and Romney says he’ll create more jobs and put more money in your pocket. His message is he won’t do it through welfare, like Obama, but by encouraging American values like entrepreneurialism, strength, and self-sufficiency.

Author Thomas Frank calls this brand of politics “Pity the Billionaire … a revival crusade preaching the old-time religion of the free market.” Frank argues the post-Obama resurgence of the right is not about racism or culture wars, but a populist politics of resentment. The right, he explains, has effectively defined the economic crisis as “a conspiracy of the big guys against the little,” and their solution is “to work even more energetically for the laissez-faire utopia.”

It’s not either-or as Frank contends, however. The right is invoking “producerism,” telling Americans bruised by the downturn that your pain is due to social factors, which are presented as coded racial categories.

Political Research Associates, a group of scholars who study right-wing movements, defines producerism as a call to “rally the virtuous ‘producing classes’ against evil ‘parasites’ at both the top and bottom of society.” The concept stretches back to the Andrew Jackson era, and weaves “together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class whites’ double-edged resentments.” Today, the parasites at the top are liberals, bureaucrats, bankers, and union “bosses”; the ones below are “welfare queens,” teachers, Muslims, and “illegal aliens.” They are all taking money from the hard-working Americans in the middle.

By historical standards Romney should be a Walter Mondale, a candidate who has lost even before the race begins. But he is effectively utilizing the politics of white resentment because of Obama’s dismal economic record. Tens of millions of low-wage workers feel their world is coming apart and they don’t know whom to blame. To them, change may mean lower wages, fewer hours, no health care, or a lost home. Romney plays on fear by linking it to Obama. In Sidney he said, “The president seems to be changing America in ways we don’t recognize,” which elicited chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

It’s not that the United States is inherently right wing, as many commentators claim. In Ohio, autoworkers say there is almost universal support among their co-workers for Obama because the auto bailout saved their jobs. But the bailout affected less than 1 percent of all U.S. jobs. In a recent poll the president has the support of only 35 percent of white working-class voters compared to Romney’s 48 percent.

The Romney rally was stunningly white. Among the estimated 9,000 people, it was hard to find more than a handful who looked to be Black, Latino or Asian. Attendees complained about welfare and high taxes destroying the country. Romney fed the resentment by claiming Obama was going to “raise the tax on savings,” “put in place a more expensive death tax,” and raise taxes on “a million” small businesses.

Democrats dismiss Romney as a snake-oil salesman. Joe Biden pointed out in the debate against Paul Ryan that the GOP counts billion-dollar hedge funds as small businesses. That’s true, but it doesn’t account for the popularity of their ideas. You see, the Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way “working class” once served that function for the left.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the number of self-employed and employer firms – those with employees other than the owner – numbered 15.7 million in 2009. It’s likely that most are kitchen table, garage or laptop operations, but that’s beside the point. Republicans are courting millions of Americans whose livelihood depends on unswerving faith in the market.

Of the five people we talked to who told us their profession, four said they were a small-business owner. They did not seem to think of themselves as workers, but as frustrated entrepreneurs. When Romney says he’s going to help small business expand and stop Obama from increasing taxes on small businesses they think he’s speaking to them. They hope Romney will return the nation to its natural free-market state – free from regulations, bureaucrats and welfare – in which hard-working Americans like them achieve the success they deserve.

Why shouldn’t they believe this rhetoric? The Democrats mimic the right even when they control all of Washington. Obama says he will make business more competitive, cut taxes, sign trade deals, bomb the world into democracy and drill, frack and mine for energy. The Democrats’ dilemma is they are in the pocket of Wall Street, but need votes from groups that want the economic pie to be sliced more evenly. The result is liberals worship the same free-market god as conservatives, but have no conviction about it.

Absent an alternative, many voters veer right because they are reaching for the only lifeline they see. “Energy independence” and “a military second to none” are not just catch phrases. They provide millions of decent-paying jobs for the white working class.

This is not to say Romney voters always understand what they are voting for. Talking to some was like walking Through the Looking Glass, where backwards is forwards. Supporters repeatedly ascribed to Romney positions that are the exact opposite of what he advocates. Or they swallow lies about Obama that contradict their own experience. This suggests that racial identity often outweighs rational self-interest. Romney again made this a direct appeal, capping his speech by saying, “We’re taking back America.”

Ron Elmore, a small businessman who sells education supplies, preferred Romney because he would “get America going in the right direction again.” Elmore said he was struggling to get by and believed Romney would help his business by increasing education funding.

Two 16-year-olds, Jennifer Poling and Caitie Johnson, called themselves Romney backers. Johnson said, “There’s too many people today who depend on the government.” Poling said her mother is a “hardcore Obama” supporter because Romney is against women’s rights. Poling, though, shrugged off the right’s explicit anti-abortion politics, saying, “I don’t think they [Congress] will let Romney pass any laws against abortion.”

Jeff Doresch, who owns a small business detailing cars, was angry. “Obama is shutting us all down. He’s destroying us with tax increases.” When asked how his taxes had fared under Obama, Doresch responded, “They’ve stayed the same.”

Eighteen-year-old Andy Egbert and 16-year-old cousin Troy Kloeppel’s family owns 5,000 head of beef cattle. Egbert said, “Romney is going to make more jobs for the middle class instead of sending them overseas to China.” Kloeppel supported Romney because he was opposed to welfare fraud: “It’s a great system if it’s not abused.” Egbert chimed in, “A lot of people are lazy and are paid to do nothing.”

Jason, a local soybean farmer, said, “I like everything about Romney.” Why didn’t he like about Obama? “No Obamacare,” he said before quickly departing.

A businessman worth a couple hundred million dollars was telling a white audience that a president who is changing the country “in ways we don’t recognize” was stealing their money for job-killing programs like Obamacare. In a warm-up talk, Ohio Gov. John Kasich railed against “bureaucrats” and “California rules.”

The audience knew what they meant. “We” – white America – are besieged by liberals using our tax dollars on undeserving poor, dark people. This attitude is often expressed as a crude or violent desire to eliminate the other, such as with the spate of “chair lynchings.” At the rally one vendor hawked toilet paper with Obama’s face on each sheet. Another sold buttons that read, “Forget your cats and dogs, spay and neuter your liberal.” Jeff Doresch said, “With Obama, if there’s another four years, it will be like when Hitler was here.” A few hours west of Sidney, near Fort Wayne, Indiana, a highway billboard showed a picture of armed commandos with text that read, “The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America … The voters must remove the other.”

But it’s not just about aggression. In his one effective moment, Romney painted a vision of a beloved, exclusionist community. He told a story about an American flag that went up in the Challenger, which was recovered intact after the shuttle exploded and that “was like electricity … running through my arms” when he touched it. He turned the secular symbol into a holy one that embodies “who we are.” Romney said, “We’re a people given to great causes. We live our lives for things bigger than ourselves.” That “who,” was people in the military, “a single mom,” “a dad taking on multiple jobs.” Finally, he said, “We’re taking America back.”

There’s little doubt that Romney will double down on decades of bipartisan policies that benefit plutocrats. But that’s not what the audience in Sidney heard. Romney offered an easy-to-grasp explanation that spoke to their years of suffering, their unease with the present state of affairs and their anxiety about the future.

An election or two down the road the appeal to white tribalism may no longer work due to shifting demographics, but it could triumph this November.

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Filed under Economy, Politics, Presidential Election 2012, Race