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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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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Fight For 15 Confidential

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On August 29, fast-food workers and supporters gather outside a Los Angeles McDonald’s to take part in a nationwide strike. (Photo courtesy of Frederic J. Brown)

How did the biggest-ever mobilization of fast-food workers come about, and what is its endgame?

by Arun Gupta In These Times November 11, 2013

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-backed campaign to organize fast-food workers nationwide is on a roll. It’s entering its second year in the public eye, having staged four one-day strikes, culminating in a 60-city walkout on August 29. It’s a bold move by one of the nation’s largest unions to organize an unorganized private-sector workforce numbering in the millions.

The movement has no official name, though each city-level campaign has one: Fast Food Forward in New York, Raise Up MKE in Milwaukee, We Can’t Survive on $7.35 in St. Louis, Stand Up KC in Kansas City, and, in Chicago, Fight for 15 (which refers to a $15 minimum wage and has become the name most commonly used for the national campaign). The campaign has revived the use of the strike to build worker solidarity and employs a strategy of minority unionism, which aims to build a core of militant workers who can sidestep labor law that nowadays hinders worker organizing more than abuses by management. Most importantly, the fast-food organizing campaign has set in motion thousands of working poor, mainly African Americans and Latinos, who are acting collectively to better their lives. The campaign is generating excitement that a popular movement can finally go on the offensive against corporate power.

As the fast-food organizing campaign continues to build, Marco (not his real name), an SEIU organizer in the Midwest, says, “Workers are getting empowered, standing up to their bosses, and they’re not taking shit anymore. If managers do try to clamp down, they’re going to have 60 people march into their shop and disrupt their business. The creation of solidarity that’s happening is exciting.”

Why fast food, and why now? Simply put, it’s where a dying labor movement sees the most opportunity. Private-sector union density has plunged from its peak of 35 percent in the 1950s to only 6.6 percent now. One of the key factors in labor’s decline has been the growth of the non-unionized service sector, where low wages have become the norm and workers who try to organize often face retaliation. Workers in the fast-food industry, which employs more than 4 million Americans, earned an average of $8.72 an hour in 2010.

The fast-food organizing campaign is one of many efforts to organize the low-wage sector, along with OUR Walmart, warehouse worker and university adjunct campaigns, and the spread of worker centers. But it’s the one that has generated considerable media buzz and excitement among organized labor and progressives.

SEIU says its role has been more servant than shepherd. “It’s really a privilege for us to support” fast-food workers, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told Salon’s Josh Eidelson in August. Henry portrayed the campaign as a surprise: “We don’t yet understand the scale of it,” she said, adding that she was “amazed at the degree to which it spread.”

So what exactly did set the movement off? And could its development serve as a model for future campaigns? To discover exactly how Fight for 15 began and grew and whether we can expect similar upsurges among other groups of workers, In These Times talked to 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, reporters, historians, union officials and media strategists. All of the more than 20 organizers and workers who discussed their involvement requested to speak on background or be identified by pseudonyms, expressing fear of damaging either job prospects or relationships with others involved in the campaign. Based on these interviews and hundreds of pages of internal documents from the campaign, In These Times can offer the most detailed examination to date of how Fight for 15 originated, what its goals are, where it might be headed and who is making the decisions.

Nearly all of the low-wage workers and organizers involved in the campaign who spoke with In These Times expressed concerns about the campaign’s direction. They made clear they do support Fight for 15—often enthusiastically—for providing space for workers to build relationships, share knowledge and, in some cases, embark on shop-floor organizing. But many questioned whether Fight for 15 is fundamentally a worker organizing campaign or a “march on the media,” and many believe the endgame will be determined by an SEIU leadership that is not in contact with the daily realities of the campaign.

How the fight began

The tale being told in the media is one of a spontaneous, worker-led uprising. In New York and Chicago, the story goes, the movement was born in early 2012 after advocacy groups organizing in low-income communities kept hearing complaints about the difficulty of surviving on fast-food industry wages. According to Bloomberg News, “The advocacy group New York Communities for Change” (NYCC)—an offshoot of the now-defunct ACORN—“originally was trying to halt planned school closings in low-income neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Organizers shifted focus after hearing fast-food jobs were keeping local residents poor.”

The official story in Chicago is virtually the same as in New York. In April, Salon reported that Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a local organizing group also formerly affiliated with ACORN, said the Chicago-based group “took a leadership role in organizing fast-food workers after discovering on door-to-door canvasses about [bus] fare hikes that ‘people were more concerned with their jobs.’”

But three former organizers in Chicago who joined the campaign in late 2011, and two former organizers with NYCC who began petitioning in March 2012, all dispute this story. All say that from the get-go, the stated goal was to organize low-wage or fast-food workers. All say they were told within weeks or months that SEIU was funding the organizing, and all say that it became increasingly clear that SEIU was directing the campaign.

Sidney (not his real name) says that when Action Now hired him in November 2011, it was to join a campaign to raise the minimum wage. For the first few weeks, organizers armed with postcards calling for a $10-an-hour state minimum wage prowled fast-food and retail joints in the Loop in downtown Chicago and gathered names, phone numbers, emails and home addresses to meet daily quotas. But when managers started kicking the organizers out of establishments because they were talking to workers about low wages, Action Now changed tactics, according to Sidney and Maria (not her real name). Maria, who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says she and other organizers “started to brainstorm what can attract people’s attention … and everybody said, ‘Well you know a lot of these workers take public transportation.’ So we made it about public transportation and stopping the fare hikes.” There was some media speculation around hikes at the time, but no specific proposal on the table. According to Sidney, he and Action Now organizers came up with “a scenario where the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] was raising the prices. … From then on, we started going around to the same establishments in the Loop and telling them the CTA was going to raise the prices two, three bucks.” The tactic worked, the organizers say: The petition met with less opposition from managers than the minimum-wage postcards.

Brooke (not his real name), who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says that despite close supervision, organizing leaders denied they were in charge: “I was told, ‘It’s all about the workers. We have to leave it up to the workers.’ Then [SEIU leadership] tells the media, ‘It’s spontaneous; the workers came to us.’ It’s duplicitous. It’s to get people to stop asking questions.”

Maria, Brooke and Sidney say they soon learned that SEIU was bankrolling the project. Sidney says that early in the campaign, Action Now leaders were meeting with SEIU officials and saying they were trying to secure money. In December 2011, SEIU’s Washington, D.C. headquarters disbursed about $36,000 to Action Now for “Support for Organizing.” Sidney says that in January, Action Now leaders told them, “SEIU is funding this, they’re happy with the work you guys are doing, so we’re going to continue for at least six months.” On January 19, 2012, SEIU headquarters contributed $191,797 to Action Now, the first in a series of donations that would total more than $3 million by year’s end.

An SEIU staffer with knowledge of union politics in Chicago explains, “Action Now here is very closely connected to the largest SEIU local in the region—SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana. They have a history of cooperative, overlapping campaigns.” Starting in its first full year of operation in 2008, Action Now has received $100,000 or more annually from the healthcare local.

As for who’s calling the shots, Carter Wright, a communications organizer with SEIU, describes a bottom-up process of a movement that “emerged after organizers in those groups found that there were way too many fast-food workers making way too little money in the areas they were canvassing. They worked with SEIU to develop a campaign to build a movement so those workers could fight for better pay.” He notes. “Members of SEIU have supported groups like NYCC, Action Now and their predecessors for a long time.”

In contrast, all three Chicago organizers say that by February, SEIU personnel were coming to their offices specifically to train them in union organizing. In other words, while SEIU maintains that Fight for 15 is a bottom-up project, the organizers who did the legwork concluded that SEIU funded and directed it from early on.

Full steam ahead

By early April 2012, organizers had gathered 20,000 contacts. Then, on June 6, the day after the anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker handily won a recall election, a supervisor walked into the Action Now office and told them it was full steam ahead with the fast-food campaign. In the previous week, SEIU headquarters had transferred more than $300,000 to Action Now. Brooke says organizers were given a rap sheet (also obtained by In These Times) and told to call petition signers and say, “We were successful in stopping the fare raise. When we were talking to you and other workers downtown we found a lot of other workers were talking about wages or lack of healthcare or lack of respect of managers. Do you have any problems like that? Would you like to meet and talk about it?”

Because of delays, the lists had grown stale. “It was hard to track down workers and talk to them, and when we did there was a lot of hesitation and fear,” Brooke says. “A lot of workers didn’t even remember signing the petition.”

In July, the first citywide meeting was held. After nearly eight months of work by more than a dozen organizers, at least $1.7 million spent by SEIU, and 20,000 contacts, Brooke says the meeting brought together “about six workers, who were all very afraid.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, SEIU headquarters started pouring money into NYCC in February 2012, outlaying more than $2.5 million by year’s end. Chris (not his real name) was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and was dispatched to Manhattan to gather a daily quota of signatures on low-income-housing petitions. Similarly, another organizer, Carlos (not his real name), also says he was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and spent months gathering names on petitions in favor of low-income housing and against police “stop and frisks.” Both were told SEIU was paying the bills behind the scenes. Carlos believes that “[SEIU’s] name has a lot of baggage, so they don’t want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort.”

In the summer, when organizers shifted to phoning workers about unionizing, Chris says he conducted a dozen one-on-one meetings with workers and “typically most workers were fearful. Most of them were not happy with their work situation, but they did not want to lose what they had.” He recalls that the first meeting in lower Manhattan in late August 2012 attracted about 30 workers, and at least two more meetings drew similar crowds before Nov. 29, 2012—the campaign’s first big strike.

Who’s calling the shots?

By early 2013, the second year of the organizing effort, the Chicago campaign was finally gaining momentum. Sam (not his real name), a cashier at a health-food store who was part of an informal committee organizing at two stores in his chain, says the Chicago Teachers Union strike in September 2012 opened space to discuss work-related issues with his coworkers, as did a strike the next month by warehouse workers just west of Chicago and the nationwide Black Friday strikes at Wal-Mart stores staged by the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed OUR Walmart campaign. These events, says Sam, “dramatically transformed” his conversations with coworkers from “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get something going?” to “If it could happen at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, then it could happen here.”

Looking for assistance in early 2013, Sam and co-organizers started attending meetings of the Worker Organizing Committee of Chicago, which was formed in November 2012 to lead the Fight for 15 campaign.

Sam and his co-worker Jason (not his real name) say they initially found some tactics off-putting. The decision to stage the first low-wage worker walkout in Chicago on April 24, was made a few weeks in advance, at a meeting where New York workers were flown in to talk to the Chicago workers. After a rousing description of the New Yorkers’ experience walking off their jobs, Jason says, the Fight for 15 organizers asked, “‘Who wants to go on strike?’ Everyone cheered, and of course we want to go on strike after you just hear what they said. They called it a strike vote, but it wasn’t a vote in any meaningful way. They didn’t count [votes]; they didn’t say who is opposed to going on strike; there was no discussion.”

Sam says, “If it’s been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.” Marco describes a similar process in his city: “The organizers say, ‘All the other cities have decided to go on strike on this date, do you want to join them?’ And the workers are like, ‘Yeah!’ Do I think it’s ideal? No. But do I have any better ideas? No, and that’s the problem.”

The decision to conduct a nationwide strike on August 29 was made in a similar manner, at an SEIU-led convention in Detroit on August 15 to 16 that brought together about 700 low-wage workers, organizers and staff from around the country. Sam says that on the second day, an SEIU organizer got in front of the crowd and said,“We have this idea to do a national day of action, Chicago, what say you?” According to Sam, someone preselected by SEIU stood up and replied, “We in Chicago are ready to do a national day of action.” Sam says the process was repeated with the other cities.“There had been no discussion on it previously in any meaningful sense. The first time most people [from Chicago] had heard about it was on the bus to Detroit.” Two other workers confirm they had little say in the decision other than being asked to rubberstamp a prepared statement when they showed up in Detroit.

Media frenzy

By the spring, strikes were staged in a different city every week, rolling through New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Flint, Mich., and generating a national media buzz.

To help get out the word, SEIU is employing several communications consultants. Journalist Peter Rugh, who has been tracking the fast-food campaign since 2012, says that according to employees of New York-based company Purpose, which specializes in “21st-century movements,” the firm is helping with branding. In Washington, D.C., SEIU worked with M+R Strategic Services to coordinate an extensive social media effort around a May 2013 fast-food and low-wage worker strike.

Nationwide, sources say, SEIU has retained the aid of BerlinRosen. The communications firm declined to comment on the record, but Charles (not his real name), a Detroit organizer with knowledge of SEIU strategy, says his impression is that BerlinRosen is “helping in every spot” around the nation, and its work included “local communications, teamwork … advising on communication strategy, generating coverage.” He adds that, in addition to “showing strength to the workers [and] getting the community behind it,” the purpose of the campaign is generating a media buzz. In 2012, combined payments to BerlinRosen from SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana and SEIU headquarters soared to $1.2 million, doubling from 2011 and tripling from 2010.

Why SEIU’s role is problematic

A few SEIU organizers voiced concerns to In These Times that airing criticisms of Fight for 15 would aid right-wing and anti-union forces trying to undermine the campaign. That may be true. But the criticisms are coming from workers and field organizers across the country who say they’re concerned that the top-down organizing may benefit SEIU leaders at the expense of the workers.

For instance, some workers say that while they welcome the spotlight, the glare can be damaging. Media generates public support, but also more pressure on organizers to turn out workers for high-profile actions. Some organizers worry that a lack of time for proper back-up or training may put workers at risk of employer retaliation.

In many instances, the fast-food campaign has vigorously defended workers against retaliatory firings by picketing the employer or filing unfair labor practices. But Jason criticizes Fight for 15 in Chicago for mounting strong defenses after a firing, but not helping workers develop skills to prevent retaliation in the first place. “The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it’s easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.” He believes that in general, the media emphasis undercuts shop floor organizing.

In Marco’s eyes, an SEIU action at a recent fast-food corporation shareholder meeting revealed another way that the media focus can disempower workers. He says, “I don’t like the fact that these people, the workers, are being used like pawns. Shuffle them in, shuffle them out, tell them what to say, what makes the best story for the media.”

Workers say developing solidarity and organizing and leadership skills would be more effective, as they would be able to act quickly when bosses retaliate at the job. “You can’t just call the union office and wait for someone to do something,” Jason says. “You have to be able to respond immediately and in a way that actually has power at work, and you have to have networks built with your coworkers to be able to do that.”

Chicago is one city where worker-led organizing is thriving. Sam says, “At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers.” Following the April 24 strike, workers demanded a greater say in meetings. The next decision to strike, in mid-July, was a vote with a 30-minute discussion and a count of those for, against and abstaining. It passed overwhelmingly. “It represented a very big step forward in terms of the actual practices within the union,” says Jason. Now, up to 200 workers attend meetings in Chicago every other week. They have been given resources to publish a newsletter for workers to help “tighten organization between the stores.” There’s a women’s caucus where women can strategize about “sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don’t want them to be involved,” and workers can also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.

Outside of Chicago, however, there’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.

Victor (not his real name) in Seattle says the campaign is faltering because workers are “babied at the meetings.” He says the process involves workers getting “amped-up” and “rubber-stamping some decisions that are already made,” which wears thin after the first meeting.

While optimistic about the campaign, one long-time SEIU staffer expresses reservations as well. “SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative ‘media moment’ approach that ignores the voices and the democracy/development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry.”

That retreat is a reference to SEIU’s troubled history, especially under the 1996-2010 presidency of Andy Stern. Many workers are wary of SEIU’s track record of “coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders,” as In These Times staff writer David Moberg wrote in July 2012. Workers also fret about SEIU’s tendency to sign neutrality pacts that “surrendered basic worker rights” in return for new members, Moberg noted.

The endgame

Sam speculates that when SEIU sees “a win, they’re going to focus on it narrowly.” He says, “Then the concern becomes: What about all the other workers who are now mobilized, who have organized themselves, but don’t necessarily fit into SEIU’s focus for a win?”

And what will that win be?

SEIU appears to be pursuing several strategies simultaneously. Campaigns in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have pushed for living-wage ordinances. SEIU seems also to be interested in supporting fast-food worker centers—workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions. Two sources say SEIU is helping to start a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle and is considering supporting ROC chapters in other cities.

But conversations with various SEIU sources—as well as statements from the leadership and developments in fast-food organizing around the country—indicate SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan in the works, centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members.

The first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald’s: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. At the same time, McDonald’s takes pains to spell out in contracts that it has “no implied employment relationship” with a franchisee or their workers. SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.

Second, SEIU is pouring resources into compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: “If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us.” In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.

The third planned step, organizers say, is for SEIU to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting “neutrality agreements” that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Fourth, SEIU plans to mount an international campaign by enlisting unions in other countries to pressure fast-food chains with global operations.

Though several SEIU insiders confirmed on background that this is SEIU’s overarching plan, SEIU spokesperson Carter Wright would not do so, saying that “community organizations that are part of the coalition and workers continue to brainstorm and expect to experiment with a variety of actions and strategies.”

But in the interview with Salon in August, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and her assistant Scott Courtney hinted this is the path being pursued, saying that options include a “political or legal challenge” to the fast food industry’s franchising.

2014 or Bust

The coming year could make or break Fight for 15. According to one SEIU official, “The money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren’t paying dues; they’re not financing this right now. Definitely over the next two years we’re going to have to take a look at this and see where we’re going.”

Despite the uneasiness some organizers have about SEIU’s role, others doubt that a truly spontaneous, worker-led uprising would have been possible without SEIU leadership.

“Without SEIU this shit would not have happened,” Marco says. “Fast-food workers are not going to self-organize. They’ve been so beat down for so long by circumstances and an anti-labor environment. You look at the Civil Rights Movement—a lot of that was top-down, orchestrated movement.”

But this attitude can also foster paternalism. Speaking in September, Jason says some organizers “really do think we’re stupid and we need to have our hands held and things like that.”

Still, Sam credits SEIU for “pushing people out into the struggle. It’s very easy to be critical of an organization like SEIU for its behind-closed-doors activities and top-down organizing,” he says.“This is an instance when the labor bureaucracy is encouraging people to demonstrate, to go on strike, to take action in the workplace. And I’m excited about that.”

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Bitcoin Activism: How Michelle Malkin And Suey Park Found Common Cause In Hashtag Movements

by Arun K. Gupta Huffington Post April 17, 2014

Suey Park is the Bitcoin of activism. Her hashtag movements are a digital phenomenon. Her value is determined by how much others buy into her. The lack of institutional backing allows her to disrupt the status quo. And just like digital currencies, hashtag activism is vulnerable to shadowy intrigues and corrupting influences.

When Park sent out a 115-character tweet at 7:55 p.m. on March 27, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it,” she ignited a media firestorm. She was playing on a skit by The Colbert Report mocking the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, accusing the faux news show of racism.

The #CancelColbert was all spectacle with colorful characters, outrageous conduct, and lessons in the power and peril of new media. Pundits needed only to generate a new round of controversy to propel the outrage machine, thereby allowing them to ruminate on three of their favorite topics at once: the news, television and Twitter. Park was engulfed by controversy and vitriol, and many people flocked to defend her, supporting her position that the media mocks Asians because they are an easy target and opposing the loathsome death and rape threats aimed at Park.

Park, a 23-year-old “activist and writer,” became a Twitter star in December 2013 with #NotYourAsianSidekick, which encouraged Asian-American youth to use social media to tell empowering stories and challenge stifling stereotypes. Park rapidly built a powerful following, but the site also facilitated the aggression against her. The ability to mask oneself on Twitter has spawned a bestiary of trolls, hackers,doppelgangers, bots, pranksters, and real-life sociopaths who punch down outspoken women of color because that’s how America works.

The openness of platforms like Bitcoin and Twitter is also their weakness, allowing dark recesses to be carved out for malevolent ends. Digital money entices crooks who pilfer strings of code that comprise the currency as a path to fabulous riches, while social media attracts those looking for a shortcut to power and prestige. It’s what led Park into the orbit of Michelle Malkin, the radical right’s Asian sidekick.

Hashtag activism is ancient history for the web, but Malkin, a new-media controversialist, has adopted Park’s language, tactics, and social media skills, and it appears she is influencing Park to target “liberal racists.” Malkin hybridized hashtag activism with reactionary politics by creating #MyRightWingBiracialFamily in January 2014. Accusing MSNBC of racism, her campaign swiftly went viral and elicited an apology from the news network. Evidence shows Malkin came into contact with Park at this point. So when Park started #CancelColbert, Malkin charged in with her huge network and ample resources primed to skewer liberal racism.

Park did not respond to requests for an interview, but sources in contact with Park say she opposes Malkin’s extremism. Malkin’s writings are published on a white supremacist website, and she minimizes torture at Guantanamo, is anti-gay, deals in Orientalist stereotypes of Muslims, and cuts down women based on their appearance. Her book on internment was so flawed the Historians’ Committee for Fairness denounced it as “a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness.”

Less than two hours after Park initiated #CancelColbert, Malkin enthusiastically backed it. Park was immediately bombarded with tweets warning of the dangers of allying with Malkin, but she said very little despite Malkin writing an Islamophobic defense of Park that used #CancelColbert to argue liberals were the real racists, not conservatives. Park has also been silent about the fact Malkin wrote a book justifying the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, called Asian campaign donors to Hillary Clinton “limited-English-proficient and smellier than stinky tofu,” and once dismissed campaigns against anti-Asian racism as “self-pitying and grievance-mongering.”

Park has become a sensation with just 23,000 Twitter followers, a scattering compared with Malkin’s 693,000 fans. What sets Park apart is her savvy use of Twitter, flowing from her metaphysical vision that “Digital lives will shape history.” Park and her followers float in digital ether where avatars, buzzwords and representations are terra firma. It’s similar to Bitcoin enthusiasts who proselytize that monetary algorithms, online wallets and virtual keys will reshape the global economy, but fall prey to classic con-man scams. It’s a shame because Park is right that liberal racism is real. Democrats are as complicit as the right in locking up brown people at home and blowing up brown people abroad. But when a young anti-racist activist who writes about “imperial timelines,” anti-capitalism and decolonization finds herself in cahoots with an extremist like Malkin, it reveals Twitter is more useful for political manipulation than collective revolution.

EARLY WARNINGS

The #NotYourAsianSidekick landed Park on The Guardian’s list of “Top 30 young people in digital media.” One detail left out of the story is that the movement was shepherded collectively by Park and by co-creator and feminist Juliet Shen, facilitators for specific topics, and organizations like 18 Million Rising. In January, Park took sole credit in a bit of humblebragging, writing, “The viral success of #NotYourAsianSidekick after I first tweeted the tag on December 15, 2013, wasn’t about me, but all of us.” By February, Shen and 18 Million Rising had fallen out with Park.

Park’s next triumph came on Jan. 14 when she scorched the CBS sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” accusing it of yellowface in an episode satirizing Kung Fu movies.Tweeting “My race is not a costume,”with the hashtag #HowIMetYourRacism, Park elicited an apology from the show’s co-creator after the controversy was covered by CNN, Time magazine, and Cosmopolitan.

It seems Malkin was watching. Sounding like an activist immersed in cultural theory, Malkin tweeted on Jan. 20, “Great thing about Twitter is that it allows those excluded from official MSM narratives to break down the barriers.”

Then, on Jan. 29, Malkin came into her own as a hashtag activist. MSNBC tweaked the right by tweeting, “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family. http://on.msnbc.com/1dPgQEU.”

A first responder in fabricating outrage, Malkin linked the Cheerios tweet to an incident a month earlier when an MSNBC panel belittled Mitt Romney’s extended family, which includes an adopted black grandchild. Then Malkin tweeted, “Hey @msnbc jerks: This is #MyRightwingBiracialFamily. We love #cheerios. Enough with your race card crap==> pic.twitter.com/DZikmrD0PK.” The crowds went wild, retweeting the hashtag and accompanying photo of Malkin’s two biracial children more than 500 times.

Two minutes later Malkin exhorted her followers to make it a movement, tweeting “Counter the Left’s evil narrative. Use social media to expose & crush it. Flood @msnbc w/YOUR pics ==> #MyRightWingBiracialFamily.”

As more than 100 photos of right-wing biracial families poured in, Malkin gushed, “Gorgeous!”, “BEAUTIFUL!”, “LOVE!!!” She played empowerment coach and bare-knuckled brawler, tweeting, “‘Rightwing’ families responded to @msnbc w/love, pride & joy. This, ultimately, is how we will end poisonous, libelous race-card smears.” Her fans played victims of a bigoted liberal media and basked in the Instagram glow of diversity, family and tolerance.

Twitchy, a Twitter aggregation and curation website founded by Malkin in March 2012 (and sold to a Christian media company last December), churned out posts to keep the outrage fresh. The next day, Jan. 30, Twitchy crowed, “Michelle Malkin leads crushing social media win against MSNBC smear,” after the news network apologized and reportedly fired the tweeter responsible.

What’s this have to do with Suey Park? Well, on Jan. 30, Park weighed in on a Twitter discussion that included Malkin. After Park derided another woman as “hysterical,” “unreasonable,” and “immature,” she declared Malkin was “reasonable.”

Why would Park call Malkin reasonable given her noxious politics?

Perhaps Park was enthused by Malkin’s victorious hashtag campaign that mimicked her own, celebrating diversity against racist media depictions. Given the fact they were familiar with each other, it’s distinctly possible they were talking in the internet’s dark alleys, and Malkin was trying to convince Park they had the same enemy. Park’s fixation on the digital world over the material may have led her to conclude that Twitter Malkin was reasonable.

On March 17, Park published a hashtag manifesto with her frequent collaborator, Eunsong Kim, a PhD candidate in literature. The two imagine Twitter as the new vanguard party uniting revolutionaries. Twitter is subversive, a tool to “defy the limitations of time and space,” a means to build intentional communities, and “part of a collective struggle … to end capitalism and abandon the replication of oppressive exclusionary tactics within ethnic confines.” This reveals a disconnect with reality. That the revolution is riding in on a $25 billion company gentrifying a patch of earth called the Bay Area and displacing people of color in the process goes unmentioned in the manifesto. If you can think Twitter is making a revolution possible, then you can believe Malkin is on your side.

A few days later, on Feb. 2, Park smacked “Saturday Night Live” with charges of yellowface. Her complaints were retweeted only by a few dozen people, but Jeff Yang, whom one source said was a mentor of Park, criticized SNL as well in his Wall Street Journal column and linked it to the “How I Met Your Mother” episode.

In neither episode did Park raise the issue of liberal racism. Certainly Colbert, with his bloviating right-wing alter ego, delights liberals and displeases conservatives. But one can easily make the argument that Park’s initial campaigns exposed the racism of liberal Hollywood as well. It was with #CancelColbert that liberal racism suddenly became Park’s target.

THE STORM

The supercells of Park and Malkin collided the night of Thursday, March 27, 2014, generating a perfect media storm. Park fired off at least three tweets in four minutes. The first was a “Fuck you” Colbert. The second was the infamous “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation,” which was retweeted a respectable 144 times, a mild breeze compared to a Twittersphere hurricane like Justin Bieber, whose feckless grunts are retweeted 100,000 times or more. In the third tweet, Park accused white liberals of being “just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines.” Presumably she meant as complicit as conservatives.

In the next two hours, Park rained directives, exhortations, jargon, and rebukes on her followers while skirmishing with others on the side. Park was Asian-America: “there are 19 million of us,” “We are waiting for an apology and explanation,” and “we aren’t amused.”

Park commanded, “White people–please keep #CancelColbert trending until there’s an apology. This is NOT the burden of people of color. Fix it. Do something,” ordered those who aren’t “structurally subordinated [to] please shut up and help #CancelColbert,” and sneered, “Still waiting for white allies to make themselves useful, but they probably enjoy the show too much.” (She changed her opinion about the utility of white people the following week, telling Salon, “I don’t want them on our side.”)

Park later claimed #CancelColbert was a provocative way to expose liberal racism, but that night she chided, “White people … I know y’all are used to having structural power, but losing one show isn’t oppression #CancelColbert.” Additionally, the headline for her and Eunsong Kim’s article for Time magazine read, “We Want to #CancelColbert.”

An hour into the campaign, at 8:52 p.m., Twitchy swung into action. In February, I felt the heat from a Twitchy-led mob, including a thinly veiled death threat, after sarcastically tweeting that Republicans were guilty of economic terrorism by threatening to cut aid to a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee if workers there unionized. But for #CancelColbert, Twitchy became as earnest as an Occupy Wall Street general assembly, curating Tweets about racist “othering,” transphobia, fat shaming, cis privilege, bullying, and triggering. Garnering more than 1,200 mentions on Facebook and Twitter, the Twitchy post praised Park’s persistence, framed the issue as one of liberal racism, and noted the campaign was going viral fast.

MALKIN IT FOR ALL IT’S WORTH

At 9:34 p.m. Park announced the first victory. The Colbert Report deleted the original offending tweet that had gone out at 6:02 p.m.: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Malkin piled on seven minutes later by tweeting, “Coward just deleted the tweet!” She also referred to the tweet from Twitchy the previous hour.

By 9:44 p.m. the tweets were flying furiously. Park tweeted, “I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin retweeted it instantly, “Co-sign! RT @suey_park I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin was retweeted 152 times, nosing past the first Cancel Colbert tweet.

Also at 9:44 p.m. Malkin tweeted at Park, “@suey_park I know we don’t agree on much, but you are TENACIOUS & I respect that greatly. Hats off to you. #cancelcolbert.” Given their contact in January, the tweets suggest the two had been in communication. At minimum the two were now joined in battle against the specter of liberal racism. Park does not comment on Malkin, but she retweeted or favorited all three of her tweets.

Others alerted Park she was making common cause with someone who commits every political sin Park preaches against. At 9:48 p.m. on March 27, only four minutes after Malkin backed Park, noted anti-racist and feminist blogger Mia McKenzie, aka Black Girl Dangerous, expressed her displeasure, tweeting “@suey_park ew michelle malkin, though? ew.” Park didn’t respond, but she favorited this tweet soon after.

At 9:54 p.m., two hours after #CancelColbert was born, Malkin explained the goal was not to cancel Colbert, it was to “#ExposeColbert & it’s working very effectively. Luv the smell of hypocrisy toast.” Park favorited the tweet.

Cancel Colbert rapidly went stratospheric. At 10:33 p.m. Park tweeted, “Fun! We are the #1 trending hashtag in the US right now … Keep it up! Park’s mood understandably soured a few hours later as Twitter interactions hit 200 per minute, many of them oozing racist and sexist vitriol, including rape and death threats.

The next morning Twitchy published another post defending Park that made it seem as if she and Malkin were united on the issue. At no point did Park publicly distance herself from Malkin, reject her politics, or at least express concern that Malkin’s vicious real-world racism might harm the campaign to address racism in the fictional world. Park’s only comment the night of March 27 to Malkin was to declare, “I’m Christian, too,” at 8:56 p.m.

While Malkin and Twitchy supported Park, Park concluded that Colbert fans were behind the torrent of abuse directed at her. Park tweeted that night to Colbert’s personal account, “Dear @StephenAtHome–your years of satire have failed when your fans send rape/death threats to an asian woman for critiquing your work.” From the Twitter feeds of abusers calling her “chink” and “rice nigger,” nearly all look to be rightwing trolls.

LEFT-RIGHT INTERSECTIONALITY

By March 28, #CancelColbert burned through the media. Park’s article in Time indicated that Cancel Colbert was the goal. But in an interview with The New Yorker the same day, Park sounded like Malkin, saying she didn’t really want to cancel Colbert, despite the hashtag. Park said of Colbert’s sketch, “That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.” Malkin completed the Freaky Friday switch, sounding like Park when she tweeted that afternoon, “For all you CLWM’s [clueless white males] lecturing brown & yellow women about how we don’t get the ‘satire’ …”

Park obviously is not responsible for Malkin trying to co-opt her message. But given the number of times she retweets or favorites Malkin, and acknowledges criticism but is silent about it, this suggests she is keeping quiet about Malkin’s politics so as to benefit from her support.

Three anti-racist feminists who have been in touch with Park say “she might be in over her head” in tangoing with Malkin. Juliet Shen, who calls Park a “former friend,” says she was “shocked” to see Malkin and Park “were talking to each other, and in a way supporting each other.” Another source says Malkin “doesn’t support Park, she is just eager to use her to slam liberals.”

Shen thinks Malkin is using Park to “change people’s opinions about her, and in that way help loop Asian-Americans into right-wing politics.” She suggests both Park and Malkin may be “using each other for an opportunity to get more visibility in communities neither of them had a lot of presence in.”

Shen says, “It is confusing to see why Park wouldn’t denounce Malkin of all people,” especially when Park is quick to fling around insults such as “anti-blackness, racism, sexism, homophobia [against]other organizers in the Asian-American community.” She says Park might be afraid “if she did publicly criticize Malkin, she has this huge following that could easily turn on Suey.”

One source who asked Park about Malkin’s support for Cancel Colbert claimed Park expressed her distaste for Malkin but then did not respond when asked if she would repudiate Malkin publicly.

Park’s first comment about Malkin came on March 30. The previous day Jeff Yang slammed #CancelColbert and the limits of Twitter as a social justice tool in the Wall Street Journal. Park broke with Yang that evening, calling him “a gaslighting self-promoting patriarch.” Shen wrote in a blog post that it’s common practice among Park’s followers to accuse others of gaslighting, that is, trying to deliberately twist someone’s memory. At 3:42 a.m. Park tweeted at Yang, “@michellemalkin has been a better friend than you.”

On April 1, Malkin threw down in support of Park, making no bones of her intention to use Park to sanitize right-wing racism.
“Question: Who are the most prominent, public purveyors of Asian stereotypes and ethnic language-mocking in America?
“The right answer is liberal Hollywood and Democrats.
“The wrong and slanderous answer is conservatives…”

After denigrating Colbert as an “illegal alien amnesty lobbyist,” Malkin applauded Park for leading a group of “diehard liberals” to “tenaciously” question Colbert and his defenders as “race-baiting liberals who hid behind their self-professed progressivism.” Malkin also took the opportunity to bash Muslims and defend her internment book.

Finally on April 1 Park offered some ambiguous criticism, tweeting, “Michelle Malkin cosigning my work means my message sucks, but white supremacists threatening rape cosigning Angry Asian Man means…what?”

DIGITAL DESTRUCTION

Just as Park has shied away from criticizing a demagogue who boosted her, Park’s defenders have ignored how she and her supporters engage in abusive behavior, outrageous claims, and odious alliances. This is not equivalent to the threats of violence directed at Park, who has shown real courage to face down internet predators.

But Park and her followers use the digital medium as a cudgel to silence opposition and to erase histories, which serves to promote her brand. Park says the revolution involves building bridges “across difference in our Twitter neighborhoods” to understand “how slavery, genocide, and orientalism are the three pillars of white supremacy.” Twitter’s 140-character limit, however, also selects for cliques that build gated ideologies out of code words. The medium is hostile to analyzing the quality of an idea, the logic of an argument, or the nuance of history.

If you are an ally, your social genotype takes precedence as long as you can correctly assemble the jargon: decolonial, intersectional, queer, anti-racist, imperial timelines, trans, white supremacy, heteropatriarchical. If you are a critic, which is a polite term for enemy, then your phenotype is all that matters.

Thus, if you are an Asian-American man Park disagrees with, that’s because “Asian men [throw] women of color under the bus.” If you are an Asian woman critic, you sound like “a white feminist.” If you are a white feminist, that really means “White (Supremacy) Feminism.” And if you are a hetero cis white male, nothing more needs be said.

There is no institutional memory on Twitter, just a stream of directives and pronouncements that wash away the past. If Twitter is the revolution, then Park can actually believe “my tweet” of #NotYourAsianSidekick was “the point of origin for Asian American feminism.” That’s right. Suey Park invented Asian-American feminism. Additionally, Park can simultaneously speak for 19 million Asian Americans, tell them to “decenter” their identity, and berate them for “gaslighting,” “sidekicking” whites, and ignoring their internalized racism.

Her enablers include the swarm of leftists on Twitter so intoxicated by identity politic buzzwords they couldn’t walk the line between defending someone against vile threats, and challenging the conduct and ideas of Park and her supporters. The media is even more complicit as it made her into a national figure, but is so incurious about Asian-America that Park can act as its voice and the founder of Asian-American feminism without raising an eyebrow.

Then there’s the matter of how #CancelColbert “Drowned out the Native Voice,” as Indian Country Today Media Network bluntly stated. Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler criticized Park for shifting discussion away from the Redskins name, and for not promoting hashtags to protest racist sports team names. Keeler claims, “We kept Suey Park in the loop regarding our hashtag #Not4Sale, she was just not moved to act on it.” Native activist Jennie Stockle, who works with Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, wrote: “… like a tornado, Suey Park’s tweet calling to cancel Colbert Report came through and pushed all of our efforts into a storm shelter.”

Park admitted the adverse effect of #CancelColbert the next day, “The almighty@andrea366 has reminded me of an important point–can’t ignore anti-Native racism–let’s address issues simultaneously.”

Ironically, Park is right that digital lives do bleed into reality, just as drug traffickers and the IRS alike realize Bitcoin is more than fictitious capital. Park and her allies sparked a national controversy and sent the media all atwitter. They proved a point that Asians are an easy punchline for television comedy, even as their claim Asian-Americans is one monolithic marginalized community is as fictional as the shows they critique.

But in the offline world, says Shen, they’ve “burned bridges, hurt many people in our community, and by throwing buzzwords around they’ve diminished real organizing against sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry.”

Shen adds Park’s appropriation of grand roles and achievements shows a lack of “recognition for those who’ve done so much before us. … This is not the origin for Asian-American feminism. This is one blip in the long timeline of fighting for racial, sexual and gender justice.”

The only one who gained from the dust-up is Colbert with more attention and a show’s worth of material. Park built a national platform out of hashtags, but her standing has likely peaked. After Colbert was tapped for the coveted spot of host on “The Late Show,” Park and Kim took to Time magazine once more to vow they’re not going to stop “until it ends.” It, presumably, is how the “entertainment industry has perfected the development of white, cis, straight, male characters,” and marginalized “other voices.” It’s a worthy goal, but they are trying to empty an ocean with a thimble by using Twitter to change historical consciousness.

Bitcoin paved the way for a slew of digital currencies, and #CancelColbert will inspire others to replicate Park. There will be more hashtag activists inventing history 140 characters at time, erasing allies and achievements, positioning themselves at the head of movements and communities, and influencing national conversations. Lurking in Twitter’s shadows will be other opportunists like Malkin ready to divert that energy for twisted ends. But 140-character harangues in the dark won’t change anything. Real change happens in the real world.

Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the order in which Suey Park and Michelle Malkin were tweeting or retweeting each other in one exchange.

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Arun Gupta on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Click the image below to watch the interview.

Arun Gupta appears on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC

Arun Gupta appears on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show to talk about pensions

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Filed under Austerity, Economy, Labor

How Education Reform Drives Gentrification

A Portland teachers’ contract negotiation debunks the myth of school choice, which leaves a swath of the city behind

Emma Christ, center, a Cleveland High School senior, at a rally organized by the Portland Student Union and the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign. The rally attracted students, parents and other unions in support of teachers during contract negotiations. Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian/Landov

Emma Christ, center, a Cleveland High School senior, at a rally organized by the Portland Student Union and the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign. The rally attracted students, parents and other unions in support of teachers during contract negotiations.
Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian/Landov

by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera America March 7, 2014

Public school teachers in Portland, Ore., and their students are doing a victory lap. Nearly a year after unveiling a contract proposal that would have put the squeeze on the 2,900-member Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), the Portland School Board on March 3 approved a contract that acceded to virtually every demand from the teachers’ union.

The board was acting as a stalking horse for corporate attacks on unions and public education nationwide. It initially wanted to saddle teachers with higher health care costs, fewer retirement benefits, more students and a greater workload in a city where 40 percent of teachers already work more than 50 hours a week (PDF). The board also demanded expansive management rights (PDF) and allegedly wished to link teacher evaluation more closely to standardized testing. The PAT opposed the board, arguing that low-income and minority students would pay the heaviest price as their classes grew larger, more time was devoted to testing and resources for curriculum preparation and teacher development got slashed.

Only after 98 percent of the PAT voted to strike starting Feb. 20 — and students vowed to join the picket line — did the board blink. Alexia Garcia, an organizer with the Portland Student Union who graduated last year, says students held walkouts and rallies at many of the city’s high schools in support of teachers’ demands because “teachers’ working conditions are our learning conditions.”

The deal is a big victory for the teachers’ union in a state where business interests, led by the Portland Business Alliance, call the shots on education policy. The school board had brought out the big guns, authorizing payments of up to $360,000 to a consultant for contract negotiations and $800,000 to a law firm, despite already having a full-time lawyer on its payroll. But, emulating Chicago teachers who prevailed in an eight-day strike in 2012, the PAT went beyond contract numbers, winning community support by focusing on student needs and rallying to stop school closures in underserved communities.

Most significant, the teachers helped expose the role of education reform in gentrifying the city, making it nearly impossible for every neighborhood to have a strong school. This is a process playing out nationwide, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. But it is particularly striking in Portland, so noted for quirkiness and tolerance it has spawned a hit television show, “Portlandia,” During a public forum on the contract negotiations, one teacher observed that the show was a reflection of how “we march to our own beat in Portland.” This has held true for the teachers’ approach to education.

Test scores by ZIP code

The current fight over public schools began in January 2013 when teachers, parents and students successfully blocked the board from closing or merging half a dozen schools, mainly in the historically African-American neighborhood of Northeast Portland, which had already seen two schools shut down the previous year. This helped to mobilize community support behind a vision of public education that contrasted starkly with the Portland School Board’s ideas.

The tussle over teacher contracts has underscored how cozy the board is with corporate interests that promote school ratings, standardized testing and school choice, which allows students to freely transfer to other public schools. Touted as a way to use market forces to improve schools, school choice instead creates a two-tier system.

The racial effect of school choice is stark in Northeast Portland, where more than 40 percent of the black population has been pushed out since 2000, and which is 70 percent white today. City documents reveal that more white children in the area opt for charter, magnet and public schools in other parts of the city than attend their assigned neighborhood school. For African-American children, barely one-fourth access those choices.

Sekai Edwards is a sophomore at Jefferson High School in Northeast Portland, the only African-American-majority school in the city. It’s ranked in the bottom 15 percent of the state’s schools. Edwards says Jefferson is “portrayed as failing, as having a lot of violence and gang activity, so fewer kids want to come here.” Jefferson has about 500 students, a third of the size of some other high schools in the city. Since funding is tied to enrollment, Edwards says the only foreign language offered is Spanish, and her anatomy and physiology class has 43 students in it. She says, “I just want to focus on schooling,” but with constant fears of her school being shut down, she adds, “I don’t think I’ll get that at Jefferson.”

History of displacement

What’s happening in Portland is white flight in reverse. Middle-class families eye Northeast Portland for its undervalued homes but choose different schools because neighborhood ones are pegged as bad. Declining enrollment bleeds money from already underfunded schools, making them less attractive and creating a downward spiral in which the schools are rated as failing, subsequently closed and eventually replaced by charter schools that can cherry-pick students.

School choice is layered atop a racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools.

As public schools in Northeast Portland shutter, black households are displaced as redevelopment pushes rents upward. Karen Gibson, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, analyzes how government policies, banks and developers ghettoized Portland’s blacks. The history of black Portland is one of high unemployment and incarceration rates, toxic land and shoddy housing, institutionalized segregation and redlining practices, poor schools, minimal social services and overpolicing. Gibson wrote that for 40 years blacks were subjected to “predatory and exploitative lending practices by speculators, slumlords, bankers and real estate agents,” being denied routine mortgage and rehab loans or the ability to move to other neighborhoods. When Northeast Portland was slated for rehabilitation in the ’90s, government assistance, bank mortgages and business opportunities flowed to whites, while black homeowners, often not realizing how much their homes had appreciated, took below-market cash offers from speculators. For the two-thirds of black households who don’t own homes (as opposed to the 57 percent of white households who do), rising rents hit harder, as their per capita income is barely $16,000, half that of whites.

Despite decades of promises to address such displacement, the city has pushed ahead with policies that intensify racial disparities. Most recently it offered a $2.6 million parcel of land for a mere $500,000 to the billionaire-owned Majestic Realty to develop a Trader Joe’s outlet. The deal would have increased displacement without any guarantees for community hiring or affordable housing. After an outcry from the African-American community, Trader Joe’s withdrew from the deal.

Ironically, the same cultural wave that has brought “Portlandia” to young audiences has also encouraged more gentrification. The show trades on residents’ obsessive tendencies about food, facial hair, bicycling, dumpster diving — any activity untainted by mass consumer culture. But the quirky authenticity attracts new residents to the city, driving up rents and spreading the hipster culture that has colonized much of New York City, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and other places. In its wake it leaves its own form of homogenization: new residents who are largely white and wealthy.

Beyond cold numbers

School choice is layered atop this racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools. It’s the existing residents who foot the bill. Elizabeth Thiel, an educator who has taught in five Portland public schools over the past 11 years, lives in Northeast Portland. She says the white middle-class families moving into black neighborhoods are genuinely concerned about “trying to find the best education for their kid.” But according to Thiel, the education-reform movement, with its focus on standardized testing, has legitimized the naming of schools as failures. Families thus feel justified in saying, “Well, I live in that neighborhood, but I would never send my kid to that school.” Thiel says, “People stop thinking about what a school really is. It’s a community, and community is defined by the people who participate in it.”

In fact, standardized test scores mainly measure income and race. Students from wealthier and whiter neighborhoods score higher on the tests than students in low-income black areas. Portland schools use parent-led foundations to fundraise. In wealthier neighborhoods those efforts can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay for support staff, technology, arts classes and electives lacking at schools like Jefferson.

Looking ahead

By the time the two sides struck a deal on Feb. 18, the school board had conceded (PDF) nearly every demand of the PAT, agreeing to hire more than 150 teachers to reduce class size, minimize changes to health care and bump pay by a modest 2.3 percent per year. Many of the concessions directly affect the learning process: The board backtracked on demands to lift the cap on how many students a teacher can have at one time and decrease the amount of time for lesson planning in elementary schools, and it agreed to allow teachers more leeway in tailoring instruction methods to the needs of students.

The success of Portland teachers in fighting off misguided educational policies could help counter the swelling inequality that is pulverizing the city’s neighborhoods. More important, by advocating for high-quality public education for all children as the building block of stable communities, the teachers have shown how to fight corporate-driven gentrification and education reform at the same time, regardless of the city.

Arun Gupta is a regular contributor to The Progressive, In These Times and The Guardian. He is writing a book on the social construction of taste. Follow him on Twitter: @arunindy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.

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Filed under Austerity, Education, Inequality, Labor, Race

Forget the Food Industry: Rediscover the Pleasure of Buying, Cooking and Eating Real Food

Junk food may have captured the American palate, but a few simple ingredients and techniques can win it back.

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! magazine

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! magazine

By Arun Gupta YES!magazine Winter Issue

As a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute and former chef, I’m obsessed with great food. I can remember the first time I tasted chocolate mousse, pine nuts, and avocados. Years, even decades later, I can recall the succulence of fresh prawns on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and the fiery savoriness of street food in India. All these moments were shared with family or friends, which made them especially memorable. Breaking bread with others is part of what it means to be human, and the act is wrapped up in emotional well-being, especially love.

Some of my most cherished moments include my mom greeting me on Christmas morning with oven-warm chocolate-chip cookies, or learning at her elbow how to make a proper chicken curry, or watching contentment spread across my partner Michelle Fawcett’s face when I whip up her nostalgia food in the form of salmon teriyaki and rice.

But it’s increasingly uncommon for Americans to eat meals home-cooked from scratch. Instead, 19 percent of us eat fast food several times a week and fully 80 percent eat it once a month or more. The food we eat at home is mostly a matter of heating up food from a factory.

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And that’s true even though 76 percent of us say that fast food is unhealthy—testimony to the effect of writers like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and Frances Moore Lappé, who have shown how industrial food is laced with toxins, designed to be as addictive as crack, and chock-full of worker exploitation, animal cruelty, and climate change.

So why do we keep eating junk? The conventional wisdom is that we’re all pressed for time and money, and industrial food is quick and cheap. At least when it comes to cost, that’s not necessarily true. Feeding a family of four at McDonald’s can set you back $25. If you went shopping and cooked at home you could feed four people a hearty, healthy meal at half the price.

And time is not really a problem. Americans on average watch television five hours a day, plus surf the web, play with smart phones, and update Facebook. And if you eat out, not only is it much more expensive than cooking at home, it’s just as time-consuming.

The real issue is pleasure. The food industry spends billions a year on gleaming research centers staffed with white-coated scientists who concoct foods that electrify our brains like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Their tricks range from the simple—add bacon and cheese to everything—to the sophisticated: U.S. Army scientists discovered years ago that we prefer flavor medleys, which is why colas, which are symphonies for the mouth, far outsell one-note orange sodas. Food science tells corporations precisely how to manipulate our inborn fondness for fat, salt and sugar, smoky flavors, and umami, the savoriness found in foods like mushrooms, aged cheese, meat, and shellfish. If food companies can convince us they’re the only practical source of the pleasures and sensuality of the table, then we’ll be hooked on their products.

The path to modern food

Now, the idea that everyone can eat for pleasure is relatively new. In the past eating for pleasure was the province of the upper crust, who equated it with refined French food. The rest of us had simple country fare, but we worked hard for it and shared it.

The Great Depression and World War II provoked a sea change. Starting in the 1930s, farmers got subsidies and price supports, which boosted production and lowered consumer prices.

Wartime explosives chemistry led to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and quickly made their way into the food chain. Americans welcomed the postwar cornucopia of cheap food. The high-tech field rations that fed the GIs were reengineered by food scientists and hyped by Madison Avenue as the liberators of housewives from scullery work.

Arun and Michelle tasting their work.

Arun and Michelle tasting their work.

 

The price of that freedom was food stripped of flavor and nutrients. By the ’60s, low cost and convenience weren’t enough. This produced a new food revolution heavily influenced by Julia Child’s democratization of sophisticated food in her PBS show, The French Chef, and Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse championing local, seasonal food sourced directly from farmers. At the same time, Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring of the perils of industrial science. The contours of our current food culture took form during the ’70s: the local, organic and artisanal food movements arose, but at the same time fast-food outlets more than quadrupled in number.

Real food, real simple

For those who care about food, it’s a dilemma: We want fare that’s good for us and good for the planet, but we also want bliss on a plate. The good news is we can beat the junk-food engineers at their own game. With a bit of time, fresh ingredients, and a simple tool kit, we can make food that’s tastier and cheaper than commercial food. Home-cooked food is also associated with better health, if for no other reason than that you eat 50 percent more calories and fat when you eat out. The foods we cook at home are more likely to include dishes largely absent from restaurant menus, such as fresh vegetables, salads not buried in meat and cheese, grains, beans, and fruit, which have more nutrients and fewer calories than engineered food. Plus, through the acts of creating and sharing, the pleasure we derive is far greater than bellying up for another round of “unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks” at Olive Garden.

If we saw cooking as rewarding, as a craft, as a way to bring people together, then it would be less of a chore. The first step is to devote care and attention to it. That doesn’t mean spending all night in the kitchen. In fact, the simplest food is often the best.

Next, the responsibility has to be shared. American men pitch in with housework more than ever, but they spend only 17 minutes a day on food prep and cleanup as opposed to 45 minutes for women. Cooking and cleaning for someone close to you forges bonds based on kindness, compassion, and love.

In the late ’90s I interned at New York’s Savoy restaurant, which brought to New York the locavore aesthetic in fine dining the way Waters did in California a generation earlier. Under chef-owner Peter Hoffman I learned the power of simplicity. A few basic principles make cooking much easier.

First, nearly all cuisines are about concentrating flavor. Most start with a base of ingredients that create deep flavor. In French cuisine, the mix is carrot, celery, and onion; in Latin America it’s sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro; in North India it’s usually ginger, onions, tomatoes, and fresh-ground spices.

To transform quality ingredients into delicious home-cooked food, all you need is sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper; extra-virgin olive oil and butter; fresh herbs; onions and their relatives; liquid like white wine, chicken stock, and citrus; a little smoked meat; and mushrooms, fresh and dried. Those basics cost about $20, and you can add to the pantry as you go—beans, grains, spices, chile peppers, oils, vinegars, nuts, cheeses, eggs, pickles—but learning the basics opens up a world of possibilities.

Much of cuisine is about balance. So another way to beat the junk-food dealers at their own game is to use these elements of flavor judiciously instead of excessively. Combining those flavors with fresh, seasonal ingredients puts you far ahead of processed food, which has been dead for months or even years. Farmers markets tend to have exceptional ingredients, even more than pricey gourmet supermarkets, but a good greengrocer or ethnic market can be a treasure mine of inexpensive quality fruits and vegetables.

Road test

Last summer I decided to put these concepts to the test. I was planning to take a month to drive from New York City to Portland, Ore., stopping and spending time with friends along the way. It was an opportunity to visit different farmers markets, pick from their abundant offerings, and cook it all up as the weeks ticked off and the harvest progressed.

My first stop was near Ithaca, N.Y., to visit Michael Burns and Kelly Dietz, who help run the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute at their 38-acre homestead. Their pastured chickens spend their days outside, scratching the ground for seeds, insects, and plants and lay eggs with marvelous sunset orange yolks. Scrambled with butter, adding only salt and minced chives, they’re incomparable to any other eggs I’ve ever had. From the nearby Farmer Ground Flour, I purchased polenta ground from heirloom corn that I cooked with butter, extra-virgin olive oil, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Served with sautéed mushrooms and squash from the garden it was a perfect meal.

Next was a farmers market dinner in Chicago at the home of Peter Holderness and Jinah Kim. I roasted a pastured chicken from TJ’s Free Range Poultry with slices of lemon and garlic, made brioche bread and served it toasted with gorgonzola and fig jam, assembled a kale salad, pan-roasted forest mushrooms with thyme, shallots, butter, and white wine and tossed them with handmade pasta. Dessert was a fresh peach-raspberry cobbler dusted with sugar, fresh-ground cinnamon and a crumble topping.

Everything was purchased and cooked the same day. I was striving for simplicity, apart from one complex course: a carefully constructed tower of slices of oven-dried and fresh heirloom tomatoes over roasted poblano chiles draped on a chunky black-bean mash in cilantro “water” made by pureeing the herb and straining it through cheesecloth, and garnished with avocados, tomatillos, and black-eyed peas. The recipe was from Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, and a demonstration that vegan food can be elegant and sublime. That night carnivores and herbivores alike declared this dish to be their favorite.

Finally, the Portland dinner in August showcased the outrageous bounty of the Pacific Northwest. I shopped at the Saturday market at Portland State University, which has more than 150 vendors. Unlike many farmers markets, there are few prepared food stalls and no crafts, so there is a tremendous selection of raw and artisanal foods to choose from.

Truth be told, I went wild. Being able to talk to vendors about their products, how they are produced, and ideas for preparation unleashed my imagination.

Simon Sampson, who’s been running a boat on the Yakima and Columbia rivers since 1976, sold me a chunk of salmon and salmon roe “caught the night before.” Erik Olson, manager of Pono Farm, described the Berkshire/Red Wattle-cross hogs he raises, showing off a ruby-red tenderloin. Nearby, Liz Alviz of the two-year-old Portland Creamery suggested I serve peaches with her goat cheese, drizzled with goat-milk caramel. It sounded like an ideal companion to pork.

I spent hours talking to vendors, sampling wares, gathering ideas, and choosing the best ingredients. I picked up a bushel of fruit and produce, as well as blue cheese and butter from Jacobs Creamery, a 5-year-old business run by law-school dropout Lisa Jacobs.

Dinner was in the garden of the home of Anne and Chris Prescott. I met them through Tom Kiessling, a friend from New York who happens to be a food scientist. Juan Ordoñez, a buddy from college, joined us.

Michelle and I spent about six hours making a feast. There was cubed watermelon and heirloom tomatoes with crumbled feta and mint; potato latkes crowned with salmon caviar, sour cream, and chives; kale massaged with salt and tossed with green apples, blue cheese, red onions, currants, and sunflower seeds; multicolored carrots roasted with cardamom; mushrooms sautéed with garlic, shallots, olive oil, and thyme and finished with a little chicken stock, mushroom powder, and butter; Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon; a berry-peach cobbler with crème Chantilly.

The salmon needed only a brief sauté; a beet-yogurt salad cut its richness. Silky cod and poached clams melded with potatoes and mushrooms like a pine forest rolling down to the sea. The clarity of the pork resonated with a Chinese five-spice rub in a symphony with the peaches, goat cheese, and caramel. Tartly sweet pie, mounded with five pounds of Granny Smith apples, formed a straw-colored hill of tender flaky crust.

In all, we pulled off a grandiose, 11-course meal in one day for about $25 a head with just the tool kit of basic ingredients, a few added herbs and spices, and no fancy kitchen tools. As the evening wound down, Chris, slumped in a chair, said, “I’ll remember this dinner for the rest of my life.”

To be fair, no one can cook, or would want to eat, like this regularly. There were nearly three separate meals in one. But it would be easy for a couple of people to whip up a few of these dishes in an hour of prep work for less than half the cost. I limited expenses to what a meal might cost at a popular chain like Applebee’s, although you wouldn’t get 11 courses of fresh-off-the-farm food there.

Changing food culture

It is true that artisanal products cost more than industrial foods. That’s because they don’t dump costs on the rest of society like agribusiness does through pesticides, animal waste, and ill health—and they don’t get the subsidies that make industrial food so cheap.

There are some policy moves in the right direction. Kinga, a guest at the Chicago dinner, had gone to the farmers market earlier that same day. There, her food stamps were doubled, as part of a program in Illinois and other states to provide low-income households with more access to healthy food. Cutting the price in half makes local food from small farmers competitive with industrial food.

Farmers markets are spreading as well—there are more than 8,100 nationwide, nearly triple the number in 2000. In 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 107,000 farms sold $4.8 billion worth of products, with less than 20 percent of sales taking place at farmers markets. But the market for local food is dominated by 5,300 large producers that account for 70 percent of all local food sales and outsell small vendors by a factor of 98 to one.

Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says that we don’t pay for the “real cost” of food, and to do so, “We need a social wage, need a living wage.” The next phase of the food movement has to be changing “the institutions and the rules of the food system by building a strong food movement in order to force these reforms onto the government,” Holt-Giménez says. Organizing for social solutions like new farmers markets, food co-ops, and farm-to-school programs will allow us to think bigger and tackle national solutions—like using our tax dollars to subsidize small producers and community-supported agriculture instead of funding industrial corn and feedlots crammed with 50,000 cattle.

Ultimately food is about the bonds we create. In Chicago, Kinga declared she hated mushrooms, but her distaste was no match for the earthy-meaty aroma of frying creminis and portabellas. When pasta buried in mushrooms hit the table, she dug in and exclaimed that not only did she like them, but she couldn’t wait to tell her family she ate mushrooms willingly. In the Finger Lakes, Kelly and Michael were intrigued at how I slowly scrambled eggs over low heat with the butter thrown in cold. “Wow,” was their reaction upon tasting it. While they introduced me to pastured eggs, I showed them how a simple technique could coax out the eggs’ flavor with ingredients readily at hand. In both instances we created a shared experience that in the future we’ll talk and laugh and think about.

It’s why I believe good food should be a right. Eating great-tasting food regularly makes you realize processed food hits our pocketbooks hard but shortchanges us on pleasure. The best way to build a popular movement is not by being scolds, but by being fun and exciting. And we can do that by starting a food revolution that meets people where they eat.

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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 Alternet.org 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 truth-out.org 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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Charlie Trotter’s Complicated Legacy

As we mourn a great chef, we shouldn’t sugarcoat the way he treated workers.

Charlie Trotter. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Charlie Trotter. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

by Arun Gupta In These Times November 8, 2013

I met Charlie Trotter once, when he popped by the French Culinary Institute for an impromptu demonstration when I was a student there. It was 1996, and Trotter was rising fast in the pantheon of chefs. From the head of a kitchen classroom he fielded questions and described the harmony of flavors and textures he was creating as he carved cucumber cups, stuffed them with julienned apples, plunked them in a bowl of cucumber “water” shimmering with dill oil, and garnished them with jewel-cut melon, jicama and avocado.

He was only in his 30s, but it was classic Trotter: riffing on culinary standards with modern flavor notes and unconventional arrangements. It also represented the paradoxical nature of Trotter, who died on Tuesday in his Chicago home at age 54.

He was a self-taught chef appearing before students forking over dough to learn how to cook. He was in the domain of French food, but his palette of vegetable and fruit reductions, extractions and oils ran counter to the meat/butter/stock building blocks of haute cuisine. He melded imagination and refinement with hospitality and elegance, collecting awards for best chef and best restaurant in the nation at his peak, but was by most accounts a tyrant in the kitchen.

I got a taste of his anger when I asked him if he thought the flavor of wild salmon was superior to farmed. Smiling, he said there was no discernible difference. Surprised, I asked again, and his bonhomie evaporated. His eyes locked on me, his face scrunched slightly. “None,” he spat out.

It did not diminish my admiration for Trotter. His stellar cuisine was approachable for home chefs—an impossibility today, given the industrial laboratory required for modernist food. It did take a properly equipped kitchen and knowledge of basic techniques, but a passion for detail and precision mattered above all else. In my Manhattan tenement kitchen, I’ve recreated many of his dishes that soared with flavor, and a few that looked worthy of his sumptuously photographed cookbooks.

But as much as I idolized Trotter, I would not have wanted to work at his eponymous Chicago restaurant. Stories of his temper flowed freely, and he lapped it up, expressing irritation one year that he had been beat out by Michael Jordan for the number one spot on Chicago Magazine’s list of the meanest people in the city. One chef who interned with him told me of times when Trotter reduced grown cooks to tears or paralyzed them with fear.

That’s why allusions to Shakespearean tragedy keep bubbling up through the praise being heaped on Trotter since his death. One writer wonders whether “the same mysterious edge that made Charlie Trotter a genius also ended up killing him.”

Duh.

As hard as he drove his cooks, who worked 70-80 hour weeks, scrubbed their own pots and sometimes snuck produce home to prep it before the next day’s madness, Trotter was hardest on himself. In the end, his family told the Associated Press, Trotter was taking medication for seizures, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He still had steely determination, but his gymnast build had grown bloated. The weekend before his death, he reportedly defied orders from his doctor against boarding a plane to attend a culinary conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

But rather than pore over flaws that paled next to Trotter’s virtuosity, it’s time to admit that the real culprit is a restaurant culture that dishes out abuse. Michelin-starred chefs are often known for their prowess in screaming as much as for their cuisine. Few underlings will openly admit it, lest crossing a celebrity chef consign them to also-ran kitchens, but get a few seasoned cooks together and they’ll swap accounts of star chefs who hurl insults, torment weaklings, throw pots, or perhaps even a punch. As Donald Trump is to real estate, Gordon Ramsay is to the kitchen, building his public persona on being a flaming asshole.

During my brief forays into professional kitchens, I was challenged to a fistfight, worked with a line cook who broke someone’s jaw, and was told about a famed chef who would throw spice into the eyes of hung-over waiters during brunch service. While the stories are entertaining, they also suggest that many chefs believe that high pressure and hard work excuse bad behavior.

Charlie Trotter’s tragedy is that his life was both a testament to and indictment of the restaurant industry. He has an outsized legacy in the chefs he mentored, the Chicago dining scene that he made world-class, and the cuisine he crafted, which defied convention while delighting the senses. But tributes to his work would be elevated by acknowledging that great food shouldn’t be accompanied by abusive working conditions.

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