Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Urgent Call To Support Kobanê From KCD-E

The Revolution now taking place in Rojava is not covered by US media. Even the left is silent here as the Rojava Revolution progresses against tremendous odds. Women have a leading role in this Revolution. What is happening in Rojava marks a path for peace and justice across Syria and the entire region. If you wish to receive a monthly hardcopy newsletter covering Rojava, North Kurdistan and Turkey please send a contribution to PO Box 2766, Salem, OR.97308 USA.

(ANF/BRUSSELS) The Kurdish Democratic Society Congress in Europe (KCD-E) has released an urgent call to progressive and revolutionary forces to support the Kobanê canton, now under continued attack from the ISIS and other armed gangs. The statement also saluted the revolution in Rojava and the resistance that was being shown in the face of such attacks, and emphasized that the people of Kurdistan in Europe and Kurdish organizations on the continent would not abandon the people of Rojava.

The call began: “The attacks being made against the Kurdish people who struggling for a democratic life and their freedom is not only the concern of these forces. Because it is an attack against one of the most downtrodden people in the Middle East, and an attack against a people who have shown no animosity for any other people or political force. For this reason an attack on this level is without a doubt of foreign origins. The Syrian regime – together with the states of Turkey and Iran which cannot bring themselves to solve the Kurdish issue and the issue of democratization and which cannot tolerate the national democratic gains of the Kurdish people and the other peoples in Rojava – are behind these attacks.The Turkish state, which is a principal enemy of the Kurds, is provoking these attacks. By now it has become very clear that the assailants are subcontractors of Turkey. It has been revealed how people have been brought from all over, how weapons and supplies have been sent, how Turkey’s borders cities and towns have been used as camps for armed groups and rest and recovery facilities, and how at its base this conflict has been started by Turkey. Its aim is to completely destroy the self-government and free life that has been established by the Kurds together with other peoples on their own lands. The attitude of Turkish State, which despite all the right circumstances and all the positive efforts on the part of the Kurdish side has taken no steps for a solution in North Kurdistan as in Rojava, is clearly evident again in Kobanê.”

The Future of Rojava, Kurdistan and the Middle East
The statement then stressed the gains of the revolution in Rojava and its importance for a democratic future in the Middle East, saying “the revolution in Rojava, and the status and gains achieved there, is a gain for the four parts of Kurdistan. At the same time it is a concrete model for a democratic Syria and the future of a democratic Middle East. If Kobanê and Rojava loses, all the parts of Kurdistan, all of Syria and the entire Middle East will have lost. For this reason all true patriots, democrats and revolutionaries must today stand concretely shoulder to shoulder with Rojava and take urgent against the attacks against Kobanê. And for this reason we, together with all the peoples from the four parts of Kurdistan of all faiths, as well as the peace-loving, democratic, progressive, emancipatory, egalitarian and revolutionary forces, are calling on our friends and public opinion in Europe to urgent protest.”

‘We will show that Kobanê is not alone’
The statement then called for large demonstrations in support of Kobanê and the people of Rojava, reading: “the inhumane acts of the gangs supported by Turkey in Rojava are causing the conscience to rebel. All Kurds should immediately rise up against the savagery in Kobanê, and should form a ring of defense around Kobanê and the people of Rojava. They should mobilize in solidarity with the people of Rojava. They should show that the people of Rojava are not alone.All the Muslims of the Middle East, and foremost among them Kurdish Muslims, should proclaim that these attacks have nothing to do with Islam, are against the Islamic faith and its values, and should tell the assailants to stop. They should openly disown them and provide no further opportunity for these ugliness and monstrosity to employ Islam.”

A call to international opinion
The KCD-E’s statement then called on international public opinion, the EU, the Council of Europe and the UN, as well as human rights organizations to condemn these crimes against humanity and to take action against attacks which aim at a Kurdish genocide. The statement concluded by saying “we once more remind the gangs that are committing these criminal massacres against the Kurds and the forces behind them that abandoning this belligerence would be for their own good. Because attacking the oppressed Kurdish people who are struggling for their freedom and their existence will bring no benefit to anyone…the consciousness of rights, justice and equality will certainly break these attacks. The revolution of democracy and freedom taking place in Rojava will defeat all such attacks and possess a strength that will overcome any obstacle. No power will destroy this great revolution and in the end Syria, the Middle East and humanity will be win together with the peoples of Rojava.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

WFTU present at International Peace Conference in Belgrade, Serbia

The World Peace Council and the “Belgrade Forum for a World of Equals” organized on March 22-23 2014, in Belgrade- Serbia an international Conference on the subject “Global Peace vs. Global Interventionism and Imperialism”. The event was commemorating the 15th anniversary of the NATO aggression against the peoples of Yugoslavia in 1999, an aggression that opened the door for later imperialist interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, the threats against Syria today, etc.

The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was present at the Conference, represented by cde Ilias Baltas, who delivered the following intervention:

“Dear friends and comrades,

Let me first of all thank the World Peace Council and the “Belgrade Forum for the World of Equals” for organizing and inviting the WFTU to this very important conference on the occasion of the 15 years since the NATO aggression against the peoples of Yugoslavia in 1999 that paved the way for later imperialist aggressions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and the threats today against the Syrian people. The imperialist aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and its detrimental impact on the peoples in the region and on world peace is a crime that should neither be forgiven, nor forgotten.

Let me start with an assessment expressed during the latest session of the WFTU Presidential Council of the WFTU, held in Rome, Italy last month. Today, when the capitalist financial crisis that hit all developed capitalist countries has dramatically worsened the situation for the working class in all aspects of their lives. In all countries and continents, the capitalists the monopolies, taking advantage of the world capitalist crisis, accelerate the anti-workers measures they had elaborated long before with the aim to extort bigger surplus value. In all continents and regions, the policies aiming to an “exit from the crisis” elaborated by capitalist governments, no matter the name or the composition of the parties governing, and the international imperialist mechanisms (IMF, World Bank, European Central Bank etc.) have as a main prerequisite very low wages and salaries, their constant decrease, less workers and union rights, unemployment, state and employer sponsored terrorism, oppression and increase of the exploitation rate for the youth, especially of the children of the working class

On the international arena, the financial crisis generates big overturns and shakings of the imperialist system. It intensifies international rivalries and creates a shift in the correlations of economic power. As the global capitalism is getting deeper into the international capitalist crisis, facing its own contradictions, the competition of life and death among the large monopoly groups is intensifying. This means that the imperialist aggressiveness, aiming at the exploitation of natural and economic resources and energy transfer routes becomes more ruthless. This means new wars and imperialist aggression against the people. The imperialist interventions against the people of Syria, in Mali, Libya, Central African Republic, Ukraine, confirm the assessment that there are risks of generalized warfare.

The imperialists try to fool the people, hiding their real goals under the hypocritical covers of lies, misinformation, numerous appeals for “freedom”, “democracy”, “justice”, “fight against terrorism” etc.

Their pretexts are totally hypocritical. The NATO and the EU countries bombed Libya, now they threaten Syria, under the pretext of “democracy”, while on the same time the US and its allies have excellent relations with the oppressive regimes of the Gulf Monarchies, while they try to destabilize democratically elected governments –like in Venezuela- or supporting coups d’ etat (see Honduras), even creating alliances with nazi and fascist forces like in the recent case of Ukraine. The US and the NATO led the “war against terror”, while still keeping in prison Cuban patriots for fighting against terrorism. Here in Serbia, the imperialist aggression led to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, the illegal secession of Kosovo, in the name of “freedom”. At the same time in Palestine, the USA with their unbridled support for Israel, which occupies most of the Palestinian territory, deprive Palestinians of their freedom and independence, of the right to be sovereign nation, a fact that has cost thousands of lives to the Palestinian brothers and sisters and with the consequent destruction of almost all the national territory.

International law is –in these cases- flexible and relevant. Today, international law is shaped, interpreted and applied according to the needs of the powerful, according to the plans and alliances of the imperialists and the international monopolies. UN Resolutions, international conventions and international laws have no meaning when they are inconvenient for the plans of the imperialists. Their violation by the imperialist governments bears no consequences. For example, the UN has voted various and repeated resolutions on Palestine, on Cyprus, for the end of the criminal US blockade against the people of Cuba. But up to today, the imperialists attitude has not changed.

Imperialist wars, imperialist aggression and interventions of every kind are always against the workers and the peoples, generating new suffering for them. Millions of people are fleeing as migrants and thousands get killed, among them children and non combatant civilians. The workers have no common interests with the imperialists or the bourgeoisie of their countries. So, they have nothing to gain from their wars and rivalries.

The WFTU takes sides. It takes the side of the working class and simple people in every country. It is the duty of the WFTU, of the international class oriented trade union movement to inform workers, tell them the truth about who’s to blame for this dire situation.

The WFTU is a class oriented, anti-imperialist, internationalist organization, which fights for the interests of the working class, for peace and friendship -not between social classes- but among the workers and the peoples of the world, against imperialist wars. We strongly defend the right of every people to decide for themselves on their present and future.

In this framework, the WFTU, along with its affiliates in the 5 continents, representing more than 86 million unionized workers, organize various activities (protests, conferences, international campaigns) to raise awareness within the workers and the trade union movement and express our solidarity with the people who suffer because of imperialism, against imperialist interventions of any kind. These events are spread all over the world, in America, Asia, Africa, even in Europe where our forces are still smaller.

The WFTU has always expressed its solidarity with the peoples that were affected by imperialism, denouncing the imperialist wars in Lybia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic, while, other so called workers representatives –like the International Trade Union Confederation ITUC- have even expressed their support, like in the cases of Mali, Libya, siding with the imperialists arguments for “democracy” and “international law”… The WFTU has, also, been a stable friend and ally of the Palestinian people, in their cause for an independent viable state, a stable supporter of the Cuban people in their fight against imperialist aggression of the US, who maintains the criminal blockade against Cuba and imprisoned the 5 Cuban patriots. We solidarize with the people of Cyprus, the people of Venezuela and their respective struggles against imperialism. We have undertaken various initiatives to support all those causes.

Dear friends, dear comrades,

There is no reason why the workers and our peoples should live in poverty, experience imperialist wars, destruction, torment, capitalist exploitation, lack of proper public healthcare and education. The WFTU calls for the unity of the workers on the world for their own class interests, their alliance with the poor farmers, the self-employed, the women, the youth and their fight for social justice, against imperialism and war and against the causes that generate these wars and the suffering for the peoples.

Because, the workers, the working class has to be -also- in the first line of the struggle for peace in the world. And there won’t be a lasting and socially just peace, without the overturning of the last exploitation system of the human history, the capitalist system, if we don’t end the exploitation of man by man.”

The Present, Past, and Future of Collective Bargaining

Author: Peter Rachleff
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Twin Cities Daily Planet
Collective bargaining is under attack from right-wing, anti-union politicians. But union members are fighting back - pushing new boundaries in what unions do and challenging the notion of "management prerogatives." The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers’ recent contract campaign is an impressive example of this new direction in collective bargaining. 
GM Strike 1946
Photo permission from Grand Rapids History and Special Collections (GRHSCD), Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Recent experiences suggest that the generations-old practice of collective bargaining as the normal, if not dominant, method of negotiating the terms of unionized employment is losing its legitimacy. Notoriously, upon taking office in January 2010, Wisconsin’s Governor Walker introduced a bill to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Despite a massive upheaval and a series of electoral and legal challenges, Act 10 is now the law of the Badger State. And last year in Seattle, when 30,000 workers, represented by the International Association of Machinists, rejected Boeing’s insistence on a restructuring of their pensions and an unprecedented eight year extension, Boeing blackmailed them into a revote by threatening to move their work to another state. Management’s demand just squeaked by in the second vote. In Chattanooga last month, when Volkswagen management announced it would remain neutral in the face of a United Auto Workers’ organizing drive, Republican office-holders launched their own anti-union campaign, threatening that state financial support for the plant would be withheld if the workers unionized. The vote for a union narrowly failed.

While these pressures for change have come from anti-worker forces, some workers and unions are also putting forward new issues, practices, and strategies which represent another vector in the transformation of collective bargaining. Led by professionals, such as nurses and teachers, these unions have challenged their managers’ efforts to control their conditions of employment. In so doing, they have questioned the sanctity of what labor relations experts call “management prerogatives.”

The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers’ recent contract campaign is an impressive example of this new vector. As SPFT Local 59 began to prepare their campaign a year before the contract’s expiration, they organized internally by creating a “Contract Action Team” to survey rank-and-file teachers and encourage them to attend bargaining sessions. Externally, SPFT 59 brought parents, community members, and teachers together at house parties, book discussions and focus groups. Union officers and staff held listening sessions to hear the range of ideas generated by this multi-part process. The union then produced a detailed pamphlet, The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve, which was unveiled at a public meeting where the Union pledged to bring the primary recommendations of both teachers and community members to the negotiating table. They also invited parents and community members to witness bargaining sessions and, on occasion, to speak on specific issues. SPFT 59’s reliance on rank-and-file teachers, parents, and community members expressed a new approach to the very process of collective bargaining.

The recommendations in The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve similarly pushed the boundaries of traditional collective bargaining. The union distilled, structured, and articulated the concerns they collected into key themes:
  • Educating the Whole Child, via the addition of nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians to the district’s workforce;
  • Family Engagement, via the creation of more time for communications with parents, including the extension of the home visit program and the restructuring of parent-teacher conferences;
  • Smaller Classes, particularly for schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged students;
  • Teaching, Not Testing, re-allocating time from test-prep and test-taking with pedagogy teachers would have more freedom to shape;
  • Culturally Relevant Education, which emphasizes the recruitment and retention of more teachers of color, on the one hand, and the development of curricula which engages the district’s diverse student population;
  • High-Quality Professional Development, which supports Educational Assistants on the path to gaining licensure and adds support for new teachers and peer-to-peer mentorship; and
  • Access to Preschool, which expands access to high quality early childhood education.
SPFT 59 justified placing these issues on the negotiating table on two grounds: 1) These issues are central to the working conditions within which teachers do their jobs; and 2) Given their personal values and their professional education, teachers are the logical point people for the advancement of the interests of students, parents, and the community.

While no one on either side of the negotiating table denied for a moment that these issues would cost substantial money to address, it is important to note that the union had not placed a formal demand for wages and benefits on the table. SPFT 59’s leadership was quite explicit that teachers’ compensation would be the last issue they would address.
This really was a new approach to collective bargaining.

Formal collective bargaining is a relatively recent development in U.S. labor relations, dating from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1937). This Great Depression/New Deal measure, called “Labor’s Magna Carta” by some, established key ground rules:
  1. government oversight via the National Labor Relations Board and the federal courts;
  2. an expectation of relatively decentralized bargaining, with much left to the negotiations of employers and unions; and
  3. exclusive representation, in which only one union has the legal authority to represent a group of workers.
The law specifically excluded farm workers, domestic workers, and all levels of public employees. Individual states have adjusted some of these ground rules, and in 1961, President Kennedy issued an executive order granting federal employees a “limited right to collective bargaining.”

Seven-plus decades of collective bargaining practices have established a set of behaviors as “normal,” “conventional,” or “typical.” These include: the grounds on which bargaining units are determined, such as the exclusion of foremen from membership in the same union as the women and men they supervise on the job; a machinery for the resolution of disputes and discipline, including grievance procedures, mediation, arbitration, and the right to strike; ground rules for unions’ use of the strike and management’s use of the lock-out; and the scope of bargaining itself and the claim of management rights. While none of these practices is dictated by the law, there are labor lawyers, management consultants, scholars, and journalists who talk about them as if they are non-negotiable.

It is the claim of management “prerogatives” which is being most energetically contested by the new union strategy manifested by the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers. The hiring of librarians, nurses, social workers, and counselors has always been the purview of administrators. So, too, have been class size and requiring students to take standardized tests; the expansion of pre-K programs has been a matter for the School Board itself. But the union was determined to bring these issues to the negotiating table with the intent of making them part of the collective bargaining agreement, the educators’ very contract. As Nick Faber, an elementary science specialist and SPFT secretary, explained in an October 2013 article in Labor Notes: “That’s how union teachers in St. Paul feel about our contract: it’s the most important legal document – and social justice document – for ensuring a quality education for our students.”

The notion of “management prerogatives” did not gain traction until the U.S. collective bargaining system was more than a decade old. The mid-to-late 1930s power struggle between corporate management and the new industrial unions of the CIO lurched back and forth, pushed to and fro by slowdowns, sitdown strikes, and mass picket lines, from one side, and company thugs, militia, and national guardsmen, from the other. Government intervention during World War II led unions to trade the right to strike for institutional security, while offering employers guaranteed profits in exchange for allowing the government to impose price controls.

When the war ended, the struggle for control over workplaces began anew. In 1945-1946, 4.6 million workers struck nationwide. The battle between General Motors and the United Auto Workers took center stage. Under Walter Reuther’s leadership, the UAW demanded not only a 30% raise in wages but also that GM not pass that wage increase along to the public by raising prices on its cars. As the strike wore on month after month, the union, amid much public fanfare, called for GM to “open the books” and reveal just how much money it was making and how much it could afford to pay its workers. GM’s executives C.E. Wilson and Alfred Sloan responded with a forceful defense of their “right to manage” based on their and their stockholders’ property rights, their ownership of capital. After five months, GM offered Reuther the compromise of a 15% raise with no concession on management’s right to set prices. Although many strikers expressed their willingness to hold on longer, the UAW leadership encouraged the acceptance of the offer, and the strike ended.

With the benefit of hindsight – that is, from the vantage point of our own moment – we can see the consequences of the union decisions of those fateful years. GM would raise its prices along with many other U.S. corporations, and by the end of 1946 inflation would eat up the UAW strikers’ raises and those which had by won by workers in other industries. Two years later, the UAW negotiated a contract with GM which specifically ceded claims to consultation on workplace technological change in exchange for productivity-based wage increases and job security. Not only had the UAW significantly weakened its power at the bargaining table but it had also yielded its presence in the workplace. Given the UAW’s pace-setting role for the U.S. labor movement in the late 1940s-early 1950s, this compromise set a pattern which would shape collective bargaining agreements throughout the United States. Throughout the private sector the line demarcating unions’ authority became circumscribed by the notion of management prerogatives.

When significant numbers of public sector workers began to organize in the later 1960s and early 1970s, the government officials, lawyers, judges, scholars, labor relations experts, and even the leaders of the new unions who would shape public sector unions and labor practices would take for granted the ground rules that had taken shape in the private sector workplaces of the post-WWII years. But there is no capital in the public sector, and if there is any property in the public sector, it belongs to taxpayers and citizens. But public sector labor relations emerged with a respect for the concept of management prerogatives which had been developed in the private sector, in the world of property, the world of capital.

The boundary against which SPFT 59 (elaborated here) and several creative teachers’ and nurses’ unions have been struggling has no legal or principled right to exist. The expertise is held by the workers themselves, and it is this expertise which should prevail in breaking that boundary. Teachers themselves and the parents whose children they teach know best how children can succeed in challenging, and creative, school settings. One can credibly argue that the managers of non-profit hospitals and other institutions have no reasonable grounds on which to challenge nurses’ and other healthcare workers’ efforts to bargain about patient staffing, the delivery of care, and other workplace issues about which they truly know little. As these teachers and nurses and other creative unionized workers stand up for their students’, patients’, and constituents’ needs, it is no wonder that they find our long-standing system of collective bargaining to be in need of substantial transformation.

SPFT 59, without a strike, won many of their demands: caps on class size which take into account the socio-economic status of students; reduced time for testing and more time for teaching; support for Education Assistants to become teachers, for new teachers to receive mentoring from experienced teachers, and for increased peer mentoring for all teachers; a restructuring of parent-teacher conferences; extension of the union-initiated home visit program. They also gained wage increases for all Saint Paul teachers. The union also won commitments from the administration and the School Board to hire 42 additional librarians, nurses, counselors, and social workers, and to expand funding for the pre-K program. These latter items were not included in the contract per se, but they are certainly the outcome of a collective bargaining process.

It is possible that these new vectors, these new approaches to collective bargaining, will lead other workers and their organizations, in the private as well as the public sector, to question the seemingly sacrosanct shibboleth notion of management prerogatives. These new tactics and new visions will prove crucial in reshaping a labor movement committed to advancing all working peoples’ interests in the decades ahead.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fast Food Workers: Giving Juice to a Revived Living Wage Movement

A perspective from the South

Fight For Fifteen - Workers rally in the rain in MemphisOn the morning of December 5th, 15 fast food workers and 30 supporters gathered outside the McDonald’s on Highland in Memphis, Tennessee. After some picket-line discussion of tactics and their risks, one worker, Reese, said “I didn’t come here to stand around outside, we’re taking over that store!”1 In the blink of an eye, 45 people, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, mostly African American men and women, piled into the McDonalds. Another worker, Lee, jumped onto a table, joined by others, to the swinging bass rhythm of chanting: “We can’t survive! On seven twenty five!” Then, riffing on Drake’s hit, we switched to something new:
We started from the bottom, now we’re here
Seven twenty five, just ain’t fair!
Workers on the clock bobbed their head and put hands in the air while we danced on tables and in between the aisles. After 5 minutes we rolled out and headed to another McDonalds on Elvis Presley Blvd where the same thing happened again. We added exterior signs and an adjacent highway to our temporarily occupied territory, and rocked even harder: after all, it was Elvis Presely Blvd.
Photo by Daniel Arauz -
We in Memphis were part of a much broader day of action, the “Fight For Fifteen,” focused for the most part in cities across the Midwest and Northeast. The Memphis workers, along with workers from Nashville, TN, Columbus, Missouri, St. Louis, MO, and Lexington, Kentucky, had voted on the strike two days before at a regional meeting in St. Louis. Community supporters from Organization for Black Struggle, Jobs with Justice, and other groups took the stage, one after the other, to pledge support to a movement that was “picking up where MLK left off when he was struck down.” When Memphis workers took the stage they did it in a bumping group of two dozen people. From the lectern they broke into a spontaneous chant: “What do we want? More money!” while Carlos, a leading Memphis striker, bellowed “This is history in the making! History in the making.” The decision to strike was passed unanimously, 96 – 0.

Low Wage Workers and Non-Majority Organizing

The strike was a big step forward for living wage work in this country, and low wage workers in Memphis in particular. Living wage fights have dotted the US for 20 years, usually as a demand on city or county governments (or sometimes on universities) to require that direct and contract employees are paid at least the cost of living. But for the last few decades, even when they were won, these fights happened within a broader tide of workplace defeat, and rarely received lasting attention, from the media or organized labor. In the south what few living wage fights there were faced sharp local opposition and hostile state governments. In Memphis, for example, a municipal living wage ordinance passed in 2006 was outlawed last year from the capitol in Nashville, where the gerrymandered representatives of white rural Tennessee are gathered in force.
Today, however, it seems the tide is turning. The spirit that was given voice across the country in the occupy slogan “We are the 99%” has taken hold of this concrete demand for living wages. Historically, US labor has had about as much success in the south as Napoleon did with the Russian winter, but with a living wage demand the fast food strikes have made vibrant inroads into Memphis, Durham, and Atlanta. A month before the Dec 5th strike, Obama strongly broke from his weak and nonspecific position on the minimum wage announcing he would support bringing the pay floor up to $10.10. Many other democrats, looking for something to campaign on this cycle and wanting to ride the tide, are making the wealth and income inequality their hot button issue. As more forces and people jump on the bandwagon the public presence of the Living Wage struggle will likely reach new heights, possibly surpassing the initial burst of activity 20 years ago. (Hopefully this wave of living wage struggle will be distinguished by its rootedness among workers in the shop, rather than community groups and advocates). What we as radicals have to figure out is how we utilize this moment to build class struggle and not simply electoral scaffolding for the Dems.
In Tennessee, this upsurge in non-majority low-wage fight back intersects with a long history of struggle by workers who face similar conditions. For 13 years TN public higher education workers, thousands of whom are paid less than the cost of living, and none of whom have a right to collectively bargain, have been fighting for living wages and growing their union, United Campus Workers (UCW). UCW itself has its origins in a strong living wage campaign dating back to 1999. Since its inception the union has grown to 1500 members, despite the nationwide decline in density, and in the last three years won more than $10 million in raises from the state of TN for low wage higher ed workers. Bearing with them this history of struggle, UCW leaders immediately recognized the important potential of the Fight For Fifteen (FFF). When the fast food strikes came to Memphis, UCW made up the overwhelming majority of organized labor solidarity; nearly every other union was conspicuously absent. The local United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) chapter, which does a lot of work to support UCW, made up the majority of student supporters. Community solidarity came in its greatest strength from Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and Workers Interfaith Network.
Photo by Jeffrey Lichtenstein
Having actively supported UCW for several years, and having been fortunate enough to be involved in the FFF since it came to Memphis, I have a vantage point that I hope can contribute to the lively discussion that has developed around its character and direction.

Who’s in Charge? The Staff-Worker Two-Way Street

In his article Opportunities Present for “Labor Left” in Walmart and Fast Food, Ryan Hill echoed some concerns that had been raised about the FFF events being staff-saturated and staff-directed to the point of depriving workers of leadership. Whether or not this is true of some Northeastern and Midwestern cities, where staff resources have been focused, I can’t say. But those initial strikes in the north catalyzed something here in the south which is markedly not staff-driven. Workers here caught wind of what was going on elsewhere and jumped at the chance to get involved. Staff organizers are scarce in Memphis, Nashville, Durham, and as best I can tell, in all the southern cities the FFF has taken root. In Memphis, workers are asked to take on a lot of leadership, including deep group building and strike planning, in addition to the more common public speaking and co-worker organizing roles. With minimal staff support, the Memphis Fight For Fifteen has established an extensive list of interested workers, a very strong core of worker leaders meeting regularly, and a vibrant network of community support. It wouldn’t be a surprise if folks in other cities around the south, who face economic and social conditions similar to those in Memphis, also leapt at the chance to join the fight. If it’s true that SEIU has saturated some northern cities with organizers, they wouldn’t regret switching some of those assignments to unorganized southern cities.
Ryan Hill also named some concern for the ability of these exciting upsurges to be transformed into the less sexy and more protracted work of long-term organization building. From afar, it seems like this has begun happening in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis. In Memphis, too, our fast food workers have begun taking strides to build themselves into a sustainable organization, and, coming from my experience with UCW, I find this extremely exciting. Hopefully it indicates a vision of long-term power building for the industry (or even the class!) rather than a plan for controlled mobilization followed by controlled de-mobilization aimed at winning specific legislation (Alinskyism!). If indeed it does, folks will find, if they haven’t already, that building new organization from scratch ain’t no cake-walk. Reflecting on our experience with UCW, a handful of challenges come into focus that it would perhaps be worth these emerging organizing projects keeping an eye on.

Challenges of Organization Building: Lessons from the Front

  1. Tackling union myths. People bring with them preconceived notions about what a union is, and what it’s supposed to do for them. The reality is that neither in the fast food industry, nor in public higher education, are we situated to act like a business union, nor should wish to be. We’ve worked to meet this challenge by balancing the struggle to transform folks’ ideas about what a union is, with acting like the kind of organization folks expect (offering legal resource or other services, using Robert’s Rules, etc.) where possible.At the early stages of an organization’s growth, before it gets to the point of identifiably representing multiple social or economic constituencies, it can get type cast as something significantly smaller than it could become, as an organization for just one shop or just one type of person.
  2. Building united fronts when we are weak. Folks in social and economic justice movements, conscious of being weak and poorly resourced, can frequently be jealous of their turf. When they see new organizing projects, it can show up as a threat to their particular little zone of power, rather than as an opportunity to grow the power of the whole class. But we’re too weak to exclude potential allies. Building united fronts with these folks without sacrificing your sharp political line can be very hard, but it needs doing.
  3. Preventing burn out. It’s really hard to develop and sustain worker leaders in a way that doesn’t burn them out. The fight is hard and long, and often without much in the way of immediate material return. We have found that it really helps to have a long-term vision of deep social change to help push past the short term drain. That can look like building movement history and political education into the leadership development process and internal life of the organization. And it can also look like radicals with a long-term commitment to struggle choosing to rank and file jobs in the industry.Photo by Daniel Arauz - folks who have a long-term vision of change see organizing as something only done by paid staff. In reality there is no shortage of folks willing to make a career out of social justice work. There isn’t enough money, especially in new organizing projects, especially in the south, to pay them all; nor should wish there to be. There is a host of limitations and contradictions that attend efforts to offer a radical strategy and politics from a staff vantage. What’s missing are folks with that long-range vision for massive social change who are willing to make their home among the working class; to get a rank-and-file position and organize shoulder-to-shoulder with workers.
  4. Understanding the South to Organize the South! Ryan Hill, like others who have been writing about the fast food strikes, did not focus his comments on the potential of these strikes to be a spark in the much needed effort to organize the south, that region which has long been the Achilles heel of the labor movement. Unlike the north, the economy of the south was completely developed around the control and super-exploitation of enslaved African labor. The legacy of the plantation economy, despite the passing of time, legislation, and cultural and migration changes, still defines the region. The south is the place where the two necessary movements for transformation in this country, the movement of the working class, and the movement for Black liberation, can come together. While these strikes are an opportunity for movement building in the south, it will be no cake-walk.Again I hope it can be instructive to share some of the difficulties and lessons we have accumulated in the work with UCW.
A. Police and Vigilantism. If you have developed your sense of police responsiveness doing political work in the north or west, your intuition is going to be way off pitch. The police will come after you a lot quicker, and a lot more harshly down here than in the north, where democratic rights are protected. (For example: During the entire Wisconsin uprising there were fewer than 5 people arrested, for doing things that included yanking cordage from the back of a TV van. In the following month seven protestors in Nashville were arrested for chanting in a Senate chamber.) The police are also more likely to just out and out kill Black people, or let vigilantes get away with doing it for them. This has, after all, been an A1 strategy of rich southerners to keep folks from organizing for the longest. (The Memphis Police Department alone has killed over 24 African American people since last February.)
The thorough dismantling and erasure of prior generations of organization and fightback, combined with abject destitution, can make people damn skeptical about building new organization. When folks are hanging on by a thread, and don’t see a slew of examples of how collective action is going to improve their lives, they can be understandably leery. The flip side, though, is that folks have little to lose (but their figurative chains!), and just a few examples of successful fightback can spark a wild chain-reaction. It happened when
the CP prioritized the Black belt south in the ‘30s, and when SNCC and others did the same in the ‘60s.
B. White chauvinism still runs deep. You’re going to need to ally with northern labor, and white southern liberals, but once the situation reaches a point where those other folks are positioned to get what they want, they they are probably going to try to sell your ass down the river. White chauvinism continues to be the single greatest obstacle to working class power in this country, and it ain’t no different today just because our president is Black. What to do about it, I don’t know, cause if we had that figured out we’d be living in a very different world. But what we try to do is keep from holding back struggle for the sake of white folks’ comfort level and struggle against white chauvinism and privilege; respect the rights of Black folks to have their own organization and at least equal access to leadership in multi-racial organization, and preach the power of a united working class movement built on the honest basis of real justice and equality.
C. This is church country. During slavery the church was the only place where masses of Black folks could meet, socialize, communicate (social, political), get educated (learn to read) plan and strategize without the prying eyes of whites. Before and after slavery, violent political repression forced some of the energy and spirit of resistance against white-supremacy into new forms of culture, both in and out of the church. This legacy is key today. So, you gotta get down with the church. And singing. And dancing. And guns. And lots of those things that get lampooned about the south. Your organizational culture isn’t going to look like it would up north. Its going to take its cues from that submerged history of resistance we call southern culture.
D. All the south is low wage! Getting paid minimum wage isn’t going to shock or get the sympathy of many folks. Thanks to the legacy of Jim Crow in the form of anti-worker law, the historic abandonment of the south by the rest of the labor movement, and a capital’s shameless strategy of locating low-wage industry here, hardly anyone has a union, and nearly everyone is broke. “You are fighting for $15? Shit, least you have a job.” It’s true this sentiment is increasingly common in the rest of the country as well. As workers lose pensions and health care, the most common response is, “If I don’t have it, why should you?” Even so, the universality of low wages in the south has the potential to resonate widely with all workers, not just fast food folks. The the Fight For Fifteen and for a union could unite hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers across sectors, link with new organizing at VW, Nissan, and Mercedes, and spark widespread worker fightback throughout the south. Honest.

E. Electoral work. There aren’t going to be quick electoral wins in the South. We don’t have progressive era ballot initiatives that make it possible to win many legislative victories. Our state legislatures, based heavily in the white rural zones, have taken to undermining progressive municipal legislation. The flip side is that struggle here could mean something really different than anywhere else. It could mean a chance for new organizational forms and initiatives: extending to union fights, but also linking up with the anger and outrage that erupted in response to the 21st century lynchings of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin, and connect with exciting new projects like the people’s assemblies and the mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS.
A labor movement that hopes to overcome its current morass, and become the weapon it can be, with a shot at breaking the back of neoliberalism and white-supremacy, needs to do plenty of things. Among them are:
  1. Organize the unorganized, but especially that growing segment of workers that must rely on mass mobilization and creative pressure tactics rather than NLRB elections and legal bargaining strategies.
  2. Build integrated strategies with the many organizations that make up the civic lives of workers outside the shop, as well as with the folks who consume that value produced by workers’ labor in the shop.
  3. Fight for demands that generate concrete improvements in the lives of working people and, because they are not immediately winnable, call into question basic concepts of the economy.
A campaign that builds militant non-majority organization, and surrounds itself with communities of solidarity, to fight for living wages and a union, does all these things. The Fight For Fifteen is building this kind of campaign. And in Memphis and St Louis it seems also to be taking up further tasks that are likewise indispensable for a renewed labor movement: developing deep worker leadership, looking to link with the independent struggles for Black liberation, and, in the case of Memphis, organizing the south. We need 2, 3, many campaigns of this nature across the country, in and out of fast food. With heat of this long moment, combined with the patient committed support of leftists, we might could see it.
Jeffrey Lichtenstein is a union activist in Memphis, Tennessee.

1 The names of workers in this stories were changed to protect their anonymity.
- See more at:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Obama Administration Tries Again With Regulations Targeted at For-Profit Colleges

The well-intended regulations don’t do enough to protect students who are easy prey for for-profit universities. 

From ColorLines via Portside

by Julianne Hing, Friday, March 14 2014

After courts blocked the Obama administration’s prior attempts to rein in the for-profit college system, the Education Department is back again this week. Late Thursday the Education Department released a revised “gainful employment rule,” which judges schools based on the debt load they leave students with and seeks to crack down on schools that send students and graduates away with tens of thousands of dollars of debt they’re ill-equipped to repay.

“We want to protect students from enrolling in poorly performing programs that leave them with debt they cannot pay and a degree they cannot use,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, Politico reported.

Under the new proposed rules, the Education Department would cut off colleges’ federal student aid eligibility—which often serves as the backbone of revenue for for-profit schools that target low-income students and students of color—if schools fail to meet a certain threshold. Programs would fail if students leave schools with debt loads higher than 12 percent of their incomes and 30 percent of their discretionary incomes. If students have debt-to-income ratios between 8 and 12 percent, schools would be labeled as in “the zone,” and would be required to inform students that they could lose their aid at that particular school. If programs fail these tests two times in a three-year period or stay in “the zone” without moving out of it for four consecutive years their students would become ineligible for federal student aid, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The proposed rule will be open to public comment for 60 days.

As it is, for-profit colleges enroll just 13 percent of the nation’s higher education students, but are responsible for a whopping 46 percent of the nation’s student loan defaults, according to The Institute on College Access and Success (TICAS) (PDF). They enroll a disproportionately high number of students of color. As it is, in the 2010 to 2011 school year, the for-profit college University of Phoenix was the nation’s top producer of black baccalaureates.

The well-intended regulations don’t do enough to protect students who are easy prey for for-profit universities. “Rather than requiring failing programs to limit enrollment until they improve, the draft rule gives bad programs every opportunity to put more students at risk,” TICAS Vice President Pauline Abernathy said in a statement. “And it does not require schools to provide any relief to students who took on debt to enroll in programs that lose eligibility for federal funds.”

Toward the Development of Left Labor Strategy

Portside Date: March 16, 2014
Author: Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Date of Source: Monday, March 10, 2014

Organizing Upgrade

Preface: The following is what used to be termed a "struggle paper," i.e., a paper presented as an argument for a position. It is not presented as a final position, however. It is, instead, inspired by the content of the February Left Strategies web discussion on the labor movement. This paper does not try to present the ideal tactics or all elements of strategy. It does, however, attempt to identify--for purposes of discussion--issues and concepts for consideration in the development of a full-blown left labor strategy. Feedback is welcomed.

(1) The era of neo-liberal globalization has unsettled the labor/capital relationship in the capitalist world, particularly in the advanced capitalist world. It has brought to an end the period of the Welfare State and has replaced it with an all-out war of capital against labor. To put it another way, it has introduced into the global North much of what has been transpiring in the global South since the days of colonialism.

(2) Within global capitalism there are some major changes that have been underway. The dominant forces are represented by what Egyptian theorist Samir Amin has entitled the "Triad," that is, the USA, European Union and Japan. The principal enforcement arm of the Triad is that of the USA, sometimes acting in concert with other imperial powers. The Triad finds itself sometimes at odds with and other times in sync with the countries associated with the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Yet even where there is contention, it does not match that which was a major feature of the international picture in the first half of the 20th century when the world was divided into distinct empires based in Europe, Japan and the United States.

(3) There are indications of the development of a transnational capitalist class, but such a class, though at this point largely limited regionally, has no state apparatus through which it is operating. There is, however, an immense level of cooperation between and among the global capitalist classes, particularly with regard to their relationship to global labor and efforts at limiting national sovereignty. [Note: By "national sovereignty" we are not referencing independence struggles of the past, but rather efforts by existing independent nation-states to actually operate outside of a neo-colonial and neo-liberal framework.]

(4) There have been major shifts in the nature of work and the nature of the working class over the last 40+ years. This has been the result of several factors, including, new technologies, global migration patterns, and the ideology and practices that accompanies neo-liberalism. With the breakdown of the Welfare State, there has also been the slow but steady demise of "eternal employment" within the global North, whereby a worker could assume that a job existed for all or most of their life. Companies have cut workforces to a core segment and the process of "contingent labor" has been introduced. This has meant that the periphery of most workforces are part-time, temporary and contract labor which largely corresponds to the notion of "just-in-time" production. It has also meant the growth of the structurally unemployed and a proletarianization of many professions.

(5) An additional feature of work and the working class has been the forcing down or back to the worker the various tasks and responsibilities that had, hitherto, been handled by the State or by full-time labor in the private sector (e.g., bank tellers). By way of example, people are expected to pump their own fuel, package their own groceries, etc., usually at their own expense or with the possibility of minor contributions from the State (or minor reductions in certain costs when it comes to the private sector).

(6) The reorganization of work has been accompanied by and frequently carried out through an attack on organized labor. In the USA organized labor was completely unprepared for this assault, largely because it believed that through purging the Left in the 1940s, that they had secured a place at the table of mainstream society. That turned out to be a fallacy.

(7) As the living standard has declined and organized labor has been attacked, the political Right has worked to enhance right-wing populism as an expression of popular discontent aimed, however, at segments of the working class and/or specific ethnic groups and women. Right-wing populism has come to be associated with acceptance of the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor/working class/etc., all of which acts as a racial code in order to neutralize white opposition to the assault on the Welfare State.

(8) In the absence of a coherent, visionary and 21st century approach to strategy, tactics and organization on the part of organized Labor, different forms of organization have emerged in various segments of the working class. This has especially included the advent of worker centers and what is sometimes referenced as "alt-labor" among immigrants and other excluded or marginalized sectors of the working class.

(9) The pauperization of much of the working class has resulted in fights around survival. This can include housing, jobs, healthcare, education, etc., which means that the targets of such struggles - when led by progressives - are frequently the State.[1] Yet, as the State cries 'poor', i.e., that it is out of money, much of the population has found itself believing that their demands cannot be met by the State. This has resulted in various responses, some of which are very reactionary, e.g., crime, some very individual focused, e.g., informal economy, and some collective, e.g., mass struggle, cooperatives. It has also presented a major strategic and organizational challenge to organized labor which, while having historically placed various demands on the State, has rarely found itself at odds with the State (on fundamentals).

(10) The net result of this situation is that progressive and left organizing within the working class finds itself operating on two separate, though related, battlefields. There are community-based struggles that range from efforts against the State to various self-help (cooperative) efforts. In those struggles there is a survival or social service side that must be considered, reminiscent of the "survival programs" that the Black Panther Party promoted in the late 1960s/early 1970s [e.g., free breakfast programs; sickle cell testing]. There are dangers and opportunities associated with this work. Survival programs can become an end in themselves, rather than a means to both service and reach a broad, popular base. On the other hand, as seen in the work of groups such as Sinn Fein (in Northern Ireland), such programs can be a component of the actual base-building that the Left needs to conduct, e.g., the anti-heroin efforts led by Sinn Fein in Dublin in the late 1980s.

(11) The other battlefield is in the context of the world of work. Work, however, is not to be understood as only formal and full-time. It includes those efforts, both formal and informal, to survive and in which individuals sell their labor power. In some cases, individuals may be offering services for compensation through the informal sector in order to survive. As a result, such individuals may not see themselves as workers but may, instead, see themselves as aspiring petty bourgeois. In other cases, they may see themselves as simply trying to survive. Nevertheless, the struggle in the world of work revolves largely around the struggle with the employer, whether that employer is the State or the employer is a private or semi-private entity. In this environment different forms of organization have emerged over time and will continue to do so. This includes traditional trade unions, but also workers associations. Where, as a result of neo-liberal policies, workers have been 'transitioned' into the status of 'contractors,' they may not legally have the right to unionize, but--as demonstrated by the NY Taxi Workers Alliance--they can form de facto unions that, in many respects, can operate much like a union even if they are not permitted to engage in collective bargaining.

(12) The structure of worker organization follows (a) function, (b) the nature of the industry, (c) ideological orientation and objectives. In other words, there is not one or other structure of worker organization that is 'ideal.' Rather, the structure must be determined by a combination of an assessment of the actual situation as well as a clarification of the goals of the organization of that specific sector of workers. It is in this latter sense that ideology is very important. The nature of the industry, it should be added, can have a profound impact on the consciousness of workers. If a set of workers have an identity as nurses, for instance, that may override the fact that they exist in a larger healthcare industry. This identity, therefore, becomes a site for ideological struggle, including the specific resolution of the objective of said organizing.

(13) Community-based workers struggles are as legitimate as any other form of worker struggles. They may be directly aimed at the State, but they can also be aimed at private capital (or both). In community struggles, however, class identity may be submerged by neighborhood, racial/ethnic, or gender identity. This means that a specific population engaged in struggles that are objectively worker struggles against capital (or against the capital-dominated State) may not see themselves as being involved in a "worker's struggle" since the prevailing definition of "worker struggles" are those struggles that relate directly to employment. This is a challenge for the Left, a challenge frequently ignored.

(14) The right to collective bargaining is under severe attack throughout the capitalist world, but particularly in the USA. Any suggestion that workers should turn away from collective bargaining because it is lost, is misplaced. The challenge is that the forms of collective bargaining must change, recognizing that certain sectors of the workforce are not legally permitted to engage in such efforts. Thus, collective bargaining may have to take more informal channels. The fast food strikes, for instance, regardless of certain conceptual weaknesses, are an intriguing way to engage in city-wide 'bargaining' that goes beyond any one particular employer. In other words, city-wide standards can be established. The Taxi Workers in NYC have worked to build up a framework along such lines.

(15) In the South, and increasingly everything south of the Canadian border, workers have been falling victim to attacks on collective bargaining and the right to organization in the public sector. Responding to these attacks must be centered first and foremost on the essential need for a public sector in a civilized society, followed by the right of workers to have collective bargaining in the public sector. The message of organized workers in the public sector must be a message that focuses on saving and changing the public sector in order to serve the public. When the unions are seen as champions of pro-people reforms in the public sector, they will tend to gain popular support (e.g., the Chicago Teacher's strike).

(16) The entire process of organizing has encountered significant challenges over the last twenty years. The atomization of life along with the growth of electronic communications processes has led to more indirect interaction between human beings. This tendency is toxic and anti-social. Nevertheless it has meant that it is often difficult to have face to face meetings and difficult to encourage 1:1 organizing and activism. Ironically the political Right seems to be far better at this than the progressives and Left. That said, the process of organizing must appeal to what Gapasin and others reference as "cultures of solidarity." There must be efforts to build community. This is true whether one is organizing workers in communities or workplaces. Labor organizations need to create cultural wings (note: actually re-create since this was frequently done in the past), reading groups, sports clubs, food cooperatives and other means for human beings to see one another and interact. It is in this process that creative tactics for mobilization and pressure will more than likely arise from among the workers themselves. Labor organizations need to be learning centers, i.e., they need to be loci of education where workers share their knowledge and gain new knowledge. They need to also be centers for the learning of democracy. Democracy is not only the formality of elected leadership but the process of making decisions and building power.

(17) Outside of the labor organizations themselves, building power involves the creation of strategic alliances that share a common goal in power. Organized labor in the USA has largely accepted that it is not only on the defensive but must remain on the defensive. This is a sure way to enter oblivion. Instead, a theory of the counter-offensive must be advanced. This necessitates the creation of a new 'identity' for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and taking the lead in the work towards such an identity is a critical task for the political Left. We must recognize that in building this 'new identity,' not all segments of the oppressed will accept this direction. There will be tugs and pulls towards narrow self-interest and other reactionary approaches.

(18) A discussion of labor is not complete without examining the question of the unemployed and underemployed. Changes in the process of work, with technology and neo-liberal reorganization, has meant that there has been an uneven but actual growth in the structural unemployed. This references the 'redundant' sections of the workforce. Entire cities fall into this category, e.g., East St. Louis, and segments of cities and counties. In the major cities, however, we are witnessing a racial and class cleansing. Thus, sections of cities that were at one point 'reserved' for the poor are now being cleansed and the poor are being driven to outer regions. While there has been some work among the unemployed and underemployed over the years, e.g., the work of the Philadelphia Unemployed Project, and more recently, some organizations associated with the Right to the City Alliance, organized labor has all but abandoned the unemployed and underemployed, except most recently with some of the retail organizing (e.g., UFCW's work around Walmart and the SEIU work around fast food). There are some creative efforts among the unemployed in Northeast Indiana, but this is the exception that proves the rule. It has been very difficult to gain foundation support for unemployed/underemployed organizing. This sector is largely written off an impossible to organize. Yet the key to organizing the unemployed is a combination of social service delivery, mass action, a vision of where and how jobs can be found (or created), and a cadre of dedicated activists who will anchor this work. The unemployed organizing of the 1930s, for instance, was not the result of spontaneous efforts but was rooted in the work of the CPUSA, socialists, Musteites and Trotskyists. In each case, cadre were dedicated to this work. This is an essential lesson. Given the nature of the sector, there will be tremendous turnover within the mass base.

(19) There is a special an essential role for the Left in this work. While there remain significant unanswered questions, e.g., the form and nature of national Left organization in the USA, it is the case that the niche that the Left must fill is at least partially clear. This includes:
  • Worldview: More than a vision of the future, offering and teaching a worldview or framework through which workers can understand and, thereby, change reality is essential. Too many efforts rely on mobilization and inspiration as a means of sustaining our efforts. Worldview and framework are really at the core of sustaining and building our work. This means helping people to understand the nature of the system, the nature of the enemy, the nature and scope of our allies and potential allies, and the possible directions we can pursue towards victory (or victories).
  • Social justice objectives: Labor organization, whether community-based or workplace based, must seek to establish objectives that are rooted in a conception of social and economic justice. Alinskyism in both community-based and workplace-based organizing, along with Gompersism in organized labor, has downplayed the broader notion of social justice, except in an abstract rhetorical sense. The objectives of our work must be transformational in two senses. First, the aim of the steady transformation of society. For those of us on the Left, that means ultimately confronting the Gorgon of capitalism. Second, the transformation of the masses who are involved in the larger struggle. In both cases this means establishing genuine class consciousness that is beyond a consciousness of trade unionism or even economic justice alone. It is, to borrow from the old man, the notion of the workers recognizing that they need to be the advocates for all of the oppressed, dispossessed, disenfranchised, etc. In the current era the matter of social justice must include the challenge of the environment and the survival of life on this planet. This challenge, we should note, will frequently pit the matter of jobs against the environment. The Left cannot fear this challenge and must recognize that this contradiction must be addressed directly. Addressing it is integrally linked to articulating the need for a different economy, i.e., that in the last instance, capitalism is antithetical to the future of humanity.
  • The Left must lead in struggling against sectorial exclusivity. In the context of organized labor this can include the struggle against narrow trade or craft mentality. But this can also be a geographic matter where we are confronted with regional tensions frequently played upon by right-wing populists.
(20) The evolution of the US working class has also involved a significant shift racially, ethnically and gender-wise over the last 50 years. The response within organized labor, community-based organizations, and the Left has been uneven. Organized labor has increasingly recognized the strategic significance of Latino and Asian migrants and, in some cases, has entered into special efforts to organize and support such populations. At the same time, organized labor refuses to recognize the continued significance of the Black working class and African Americans generally. Organized labor has no strategy that is particularly focused on the Black working class. To some extent elements of this have also arisen in community-based organizing efforts. Many of the efforts to organize immigrants, for instance, have paid little to no attention to the construction of alliances with African Americans. The result has been an increase in tension as the Black working class has been economically marginalized and opportunities for economic growth denied. The workforce has additionally shifted dramatically at the level of gender. This has largely not translated into labor organizations--be they workplace-based or community-based--that are either majority female or have a significant female constituency, becoming "women's organizations." The 'voice' of women continues to be largely organizations and individuals rooted in the middle strata. In the cases of race, ethnicity and gender it is the Left and only the Left that has the historic responsibility to engage in efforts that can be understood as rooted in transformation and the battle for consistent democracy. This is not a struggle by a sector or for an interest group. It is a battle that is linked to the creation of a new identity among/within the oppressed. Alinskyists and Gompersists attempt to create such an identity by denying the significance of racist oppression, national oppression, gender oppression, homophobia, etc., and seeking, instead, some sort of idealistic unity at the level of economics or common demands. The Left must shatter such a framework and insist on a transformational approach aimed not only at the destruction of these various forms of oppression, but the construction of a popular, democratic bloc that can win and hold power. A bloc, by the way, that will ultimately need to take on the question of empire, but we shall leave that subject for a future paper.

[1] Such struggles are not always led by progressives, however. When led by the Right they can sometimes take on the State, but with the objective of eliminating another segment of the population or privileging one segment over another. An example of this is the notion of "not in my backyard" when it comes to environmental issues, whereby on neighborhood seeks to take action to protect itself at the cost of another neighborhood.

[Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for [1] and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.
Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice [2] (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.
Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.]

Organizing Against Multiple Oppression in Our Time

How does class exploitation intersect with racism and hetero-patriarchy to sustain and reproduce capitalist rule? Are forms of oppression predicated upon race or gender necessary to capitalist social relations? How does our analysis influence our organizing? What type of organizing projects do we need to develop in 2014 that can take into account these insights?
Chaired by John Sharkey. Presentations by:
  • Steven Tufts is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Geography at York University and a member of the Workers' Assembly. His publishing and research are focused on labour union organizing and renewal
  • Winnie Ng is the CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University with a life-long commitment to anti-racism, the Canadian labour movement and to building broad social justice alliances across different sectors
  • Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D. is an active community and labour organizer with over twenty years of working experience. He is currently an organizer with the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity and the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence
Organized by the Education Committee of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly.

Below is the first of four videos.

View the other three videos in this series here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Bernie Sanders: Save the Postal Service

Save the Postal Service

By:  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

The U.S. Postal Service is one of our most popular and important government agencies. It provides universal service six days a week to every corner of America, no matter how small or remote. It supports millions of jobs in virtually every other sector of our economy. It provides decent-paying union jobs to some 500,000 Americans, and it is the largest employer of veterans.

Whether you are a low-income elderly woman living at the end of a dirt road in Vermont or a wealthy CEO living on Park Avenue, you get your mail six days a week. And you pay for this service at a cost far less than anywhere else in the industrialized world.

Yet the Postal Service is under constant and vicious attack. Why? The answer is simple. There are very powerful and wealthy special interests who want to privatize or dismember virtually every function that government now performs, whether it is Social Security, Medicare, public education or the Postal Service. They see an opportunity for Wall Street and corporate America to make billions in profits out of these services, and couldn't care less how privatization or a degradation of services affects ordinary Americans.
US Postal Service CarrierFor years, antigovernment forces have been telling us that there is a financial crisis at the Postal Service and that it is going broke. That is not true. The crisis is manufactured.

At the insistence of the Bush administration, Congress in 2006 passed legislation that required the Postal Service to prefund, over a 10-year period, 75 years of future retiree health benefits. This onerous and unprecedented burden—$5.5 billion a year—is responsible for all of the financial losses posted by the Postal Service since October 2012.

Without prefunding, the Postal Service would have made a $623 million profit last year. Excluding the prefunding mandate, the Postal Service estimates it will make more than $1 billion in profits this year. This is not surprising, since the Postal Service made a combined profit of $9 billion from 2003-06, before the prefunding mandate took effect.

The mandate allows the antigovernment crowd to proclaim that the Postal Service "is going bankrupt." Their solution is to slash hundreds of thousands of jobs, close thousands of post offices, eliminate hundreds of mail processing plants, end Saturday mail, and substantially slow down mail delivery.

In the House, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) passed a bill through his committee that would do all of these things. The bill would drive more customers to seek other options and will lead to a death spiral—lower-quality service, fewer customers, more cuts, less revenue and eventually the destruction of the Postal Service.

In the Senate, Sens. Tom Carper (D., Del.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) also passed a postal reform bill through the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. While not as destructive as the House proposal, the Carper-Coburn bill could lead to the loss of about 100,000 jobs, allow the Postal Service to eliminate six-day mail delivery, substantially slow down the delivery of mail, and lead to the loss of more mail processing plants and post offices within the next few years.

There are much better ideas that would strengthen, not destroy the Postal Service, and they are in the Postal Service Protection Act that has been introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) in the House and by me in the Senate. The House bill has 174 co-sponsors. The Senate bill has 27 co-sponsors.

First, prefunding must end. The future retiree health fund now has some $50 billion in it. That is enough. This step alone will restore the Postal Service to profitability.

Second, the Postal Service should have the flexibility to provide new consumer products and services—a flexibility that was banned by Congress in 2006. It is now against the law for workers in post offices to notarize or make copies of documents; to cash checks; to deliver wine or beer; or to engage in e-commerce activities (like scanning physical mail into a PDF and sending it through e-mail, selling non-postal products on the Internet or offering a non-commercial version of Gmail).

A recent report from the Postal Service Inspector General suggests that almost $9 billion a year could be generated by providing financial services. At a time when more than 80 million lower-income Americans have no bank accounts or are forced to rely on rip-off check-cashing storefronts and payday lenders, these kinds of financial services would be of huge social benefit.

It is time for Congress to save the Postal Service, not dismantle it.

Mr. Sanders is an independent senator from Vermont.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

100,000 Oregonians get continued help from "Heat and Eat" program

Statement from Department of Human Services (DHS), March 11, 2014:

Today, Governor Kitzhaber directed the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department (OHCS) and DHS to continue the “Heat and Eat” program to prevent a cut in food benefits for the approximately 100,000 Oregon households that participate in the program.  

Recent media coverage about changes coming to SNAP as part of the new Farm Bill passed last month have focused on the Heat and Eat program. This week many states begin implementation of the Heat and Eat program changes called for in the Farm Bill. As you know, Oregon has a Heat and Eat program and for the past several weeks, we have been reviewing options and reviewing comments from stakeholders.  

Currently, DHS can qualify a SNAP applicant whose utilities are included in their rent for the energy assistance program known as Heat and Eat.  Participation in Heat and Eat program enables Oregon to give the SNAP applicant the full Standard Utility Allowance (SUA), which increases the amount of food benefits received each month.

Heat and Eat is funded by OHCS and is administered by DHS. Moving forward, the two agencies will develop a plan, with Community Action Partnership of Oregon, to implement the Governor’s decision.  That plan will be shared with you at the earliest opportunity. 

Thank you for all your hard work to connect people with the food benefits they need to be healthy.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bridging the Chasm between Environmental and Economic Justice: A Conversation with Bill Fletcher and Bill Gallegos

Interviewed by Anne Lewis | The Rag Blog | February 11, 2014

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said about the choice between a clean environment and good jobs, “You can have both, or you have neither.”A rift exists between those good trade unionists who fight for decent jobs and a just economy, and those good environmentalists who fight for a planet where all human beings can be healthy.
In the Appalachian coalfields, the same corporations who deliberately keep non-coal jobs out of the region and blast the mountains apart for greater profits lie to mining communities that the reason for layoffs is the Environmental Protection Agency’s so-called “War on Coal.” An eastern Kentucky retired miner writes, “I prefer dirty coal over ‘Christmas in Appalachia’ pity,” not recognizing greater options.
And so three activists decided to have a conversation about jobs and the environment. Bill Fletcher is committed to economic justice and working class solidarity. Bill Gallegos is dedicated to the environmental justice and climate justice movements. Anne Lewis is a documentary filmmaker with deep interests in labor and environmental justice.
We decided not to hold back from material and political divisions, or from the imagination that has built concrete experiments for unity.

Anne Lewis: You’re coming at this from different angles than the usual talk about jobs and environment. Bill Gallegos, describe the difference between environmental justice and mainstream environmental groups.

Bill Gallegos: The environmental justice movement emerged from the struggle for equality and self-determination of oppressed communities of color. Our focus is on addressing the disproportionate pollution burden borne by communities of color and poorer white communities. Native Americans, African Americans, Latina/os, Asian Pacific Islanders, and working class whites often live near freeways, power plants, toxic waste sites, oil refineries, rail yards, chemical plants and other major sources of pollution. So our base is among working class people of color and working class white folk (in coal country especially). The strength of the environmental justice community is very close to the ground and at the local and regional level where they have achieved many victories over the last several years – closing down coal fired power plants, stopping oil refinery expansion projects and the build out of natural gas power plants, creating local clean energy projects, developing urban organic farms, and so on.
Many of the major big green groups like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund have a conservation history, seeking to preserve or develop parks and natural spaces. Their base is largely white and middle class, and their orientation has mostly been legal advocacy and lobbying especially at the federal level. The green groups recently invested huge amounts of resources in an unsuccessful effort to pass federal climate and energy legislation. One of the central features of this legislation was a pollution-trading scheme that would have allowed industrial polluters to avoid reductions at the source if they purchased pollution permits or created offset projects, for example planting trees in Mexico or some other place. The idea is that the trees would eventually absorb enough carbon to “offset” the emissions from, say an oil refinery in California. The environmental justice community is strongly opposed to pollution trading because it had failed in Europe (levels of emission actually increased); would do nothing to stop the harm to people in communities near the source; and often displaced local peoples in the Global South from their land. The environmental justice community reached out to the green groups to discuss our concerns around pollution trading and other problems with the proposed federal legislation. The green groups dismissed our concerns with little serious consideration of the evidence we presented or our proposals for alternative ideas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While there are examples of local collaboration between environmental justice and green groups, major problems continue to characterize this relationship. The green groups receive more than 95% of all foundation monies allocated for environmental work. They tend to pursue top-down lobbying and legal strategies, which leads them to unacceptable compromises because they do not want to jeopardize their “relationship” with elected officials or agency regulators. And most green groups continue to support problematic climate policies such as pollution trading, natural gas as a replacement for coal, and offset programs. The environmental justice community unanimously opposes these policies.
At this point everyone agrees that there is no real chance of achieving federal climate and energy legislation because of opposition from the Republican right wing. This means that the game is now local and regional, which is the strength of the environmental justice community. This creates a new opportunity for the environmental justice movement and the green groups to collaborate, but this collaboration will require the green groups to recognize and accept environmental justice leadership, work with the philanthropic community to address the problem of funding inequality, and re-think their failed policies like cap and trade. There are efforts to build this type of collaboration and I am optimistic that real change could happen.

AL: Bill Fletcher, is there a comparison in the relationship between big labor and economic justice with the relationship between big green and environmental justice?

Bill Fletcher: First, I don’t think that one’s approach or attitude towards economic justice necessarily leads one to a progressive position on the environment. There are a lot of trade unionists who are very good fighters, are into class struggle, but are weak or silent on the environment. So I don’t think there’s a one-to-one correspondence.
When you look at what we know as organized labor, you have institutions much like the big greens that Bill Gallegos described, that were constructed as a result of decades of struggle. They reached a certain pinnacle and then feared they’d lose their legitimacy if they didn’t, among other things, jettison the left – which they did in the 1940′s.
1 Since then organized labor has retreated in the vision of its role in society. At the same time union membership has fallen precipitously. A metaphor that I frequently use is that of the man who jumped off the Empire State Building and as he was passing the 40th floor he was overheard saying, “So far, so good.” That’s essentially organized labor.
Every percentage point that we drop in membership, most of the leadership says, “We’re still standing, we’re still here.” Even when they let out the cry, “Well the ground is coming up fast,” it doesn’t translate into the sort of transformation that’s necessary. And a large part of that transformation has to do with the relationship of the union movement to other social movements including but not limited to the environmental movement.

AL: Bill Gallegos, as someone who’s involved in ecological justice how do you view economic justice?

BG: The environmental justice community sees itself as part of a broader movement for social justice and recognizes that economics underlies a lot of the problems in our communities – environmental problems, problems with the educational system, problems with housing, with health care, persistent and widespread poverty, under employment, unemployment, and the lack of real economic opportunity. Economic justice is easily the number one issue in our communities. There’s an understanding that we need to address this problem even as we’re trying to address the problem of environmental racism.
Awareness of the climate crisis has stimulated alternatives – what people call the green economy. It’s a very loose term and means a lot of things to different people, but the idea is there’s a new emerging economy with the potential to address this systemic problem of poverty and inequality. Some in the movement have said that we need to look at the whole continuum of an economy and make sure that every element of that continuum benefits our communities. An emerging economy needs an educational infrastructure, research and development, a business infrastructure, an employee infrastructure, the whole range of professionals and engineers and blue-collar workers. Since a lot will be publicly supported and funded, we have to fight so that the educational infrastructure doesn’t end up in the suburbs with wealthier white kids learning all there is about state of the art ecological economy, so that we’re not limited to solar panel installation or energy efficiency audits, so that our community has the opportunity to become environmental engineers and environmental architects, our small businesses are included, and alternatives like worker-owned cooperatives are based in our communities.
Who is going to benefit from this emerging economy? Is it going to look like the Silicon Valley where the 1% benefitted and a lot of low wage women of color received very few benefits and a lot of environmental harm? We don’t want to see this green economy be a sweatshop economy. We’d like to see it be a unionized economy, a high wage economy, a high benefit economy, one with strong health and safety regulations and environmental controls. We can only do that if we can build a partnership with our sisters and brothers in labor.

AL: Bill Fletcher, the term just transition has been thrown around a lot. What does it mean and how do we begin to get there?

BF: I think that the challenge is to talk aboutalternative economic strategies. So if you’re in a mining region for example, what happens if you close the mines, what happens to the miners? We need to win people over to an alternative economic strategy. Now this is really difficult. It’s much easier to have reactionary responses – anti-climate justice or right wing nostalgia. It’s a community organizing challenge in the broad sense of community organizing. Let’s look at the state of West Virginia. What kind of an economy are we going to try to build in the State? What does it mean in terms of the sorts of industries introduced? What does it mean in terms of job training?
There are very few unions who are prepared to engage in that discussion. The United
Steelworkers of America’s alliance with the Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain is an example of an alternative economic development strategy. I’ve heard discussions about taking over abandoned plants. But this has to go much broader.

AL: You mention the steelworkers. What else seems to be offering hope in terms of modeling, particularly in this country?

The Amalgamated Transit Union is under new progressive leadership and they are attempting to build alliances with community based organizations. A key environmental struggle is around public transportation and they want to engage in that. That’s not the way the leaders or the members have tended to look at the union and so ATU President Larry Hanley is calling on them to think differently about their role.
At the same time, as we see in Keystone Pipeline debate, the problem is being defined as jobs versus the environment. Traditional union people often feel that the environmental movement is insensitive to the jobs crisis. There is some truth to that but, as I’ve said to people in the union movement, “You’ve got to breathe.”
Just the other day, I was in a planning session with some unions that were talking about the construction of an incinerator that was a polluter. The main focus of attention was whether the incinerator was going to be built with union labor or non-union labor. And I posed a question, “What difference does that make if it could have devastating environmental consequences for people living there.” They nearly ran me out of the room, “ Fletcher, how dare you say what difference does it make. We want union labor.” I was saying in response, “Yeah, yeah we want union labor but I’m asking this other question. What are the ramifications of building this incinerator right in the middle of poor communities?” Few people wanted to respond to that question.

AL: How are you going to move that one forward?

BF: Ultimately there are decisions that can’t be made by staff people or well-intentioned outsiders. Elected leaders are going to have to make decisions and it’s not an easy answer, it’s a discussion. There needs to be discussion about the consequences. If there was union labor to build concentration camps would that be okay? Let’s talk about what’s being built in the case of this incinerator. What are the social consequences and doesn’t the union have an obligation to speak up about that?

AL: It seems like there’s a big split between unions as well.
The National Nurses Union takes a very different position from the building trades.

BF: Well in part it’s easier for them. That’s why I don’t make light of this difference. The building trades, by definition, are workers that build things or knock things down in order for things to be built. That’s not the role that nurses have.
If nothing is being built, then you have thousands of people who are sitting around. It’s one thing for a leader of nurses, public sector workers, and so on to say that the union must speak out on these incinerators, but it’s another when you are leading the laborers’ union or the carpenters’ union or the electricians. Things become very complicated and we cannot make light of that. Think about it for a second. We are saying that we need leaders in the building trades to speak out against construction projects—such as the incinerator—that, by the way, could actually put a significant portion of their members to work if it’s built.
My point is not that this should be avoided but that we should understand the stakes. We need to think through how to not only win over leaders, but how to win over members of unions that are directly affected by environmental decisions.

AL: Bill Gallegos, how would you respond? How would you begin talking to people in labor who are directly impacted in terms of jobs?

BG: It’s going to take quite a long time because at the national level labor does not fully understand the climate crisis and is not ready for its political consequences. The possibilities that exist now are on the local and regional level. I’ll give you some examples.
In Los Angeles there’s an organization called the
L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). It’s not an environmental justice organization; it works around jobs and the economy. But they developed two significant projects with the Teamsters Union. One is called the Clean and Safe Ports Campaign.
The Port of Los Angeles, which adopted the
LA Clean Truck Program in 2008, has:

  • Banned more than 10,000 late-model, heavier polluting trucks;
  • Provided nearly $200 million in port subsidies and leveraged more than $600 million in private investment of 10,000 clean diesel and natural gas fuel trucks; and,
  • Reduced diesel pollution by approximately 80%.
The L.A./ Long Beach port complex is the busiest in the United States and handles 80% of the trade from the Pacific Rim within the U.S. The port is expanding – it’s going to double in size – and the expansion of diesel truck traffic will primarily affect poor black and brown communities along the Alameda Corridor. The Teamsters and LAANE formed a campaign to help these (independent contractor) truckers clean up their vehicles, placing the cost of greater energy efficiency on the shipping companies, and allowing the truckers to become employees of the companies. It was an enormous environmental benefit. There was a benefit for the truckers because they had been responsible for everything – the trucks, the upkeep, the insurance, fuel costs – while the shippers got a free pass. But as employees of the shipping companies, they could join the Teamsters Union.
This is an example of how a social justice organization and the labor movement came together and found common interests. For the Teamsters it was unionizing these truckers; for LAANE it was creating good jobs and helping the environment.
Then LAANE began a second campaign with the Teamsters to restructure the waste disposal industry in Los Angeles, which creates enormous environmental impacts primarily in poor communities of color, and is largely a sweatshop industry. The Teamsters and LAANE launched the campaign “Don’t Waste LA” that will result in the consolidation, unionization, and environmental cleanup of this industry.
This is how change is going to come. It’s going to come from local efforts, grassroots efforts that become a model. So we don’t just talk about just transition. We can actually say, “Here in the ports of Los Angeles, this transition is happening. Here’s the impact and the benefits. It’s not a concept anymore. In the waste industry in Los Angeles, this just transition from dirty horrible polluting industry to a much cleaner industry and a union industry is happening.” We need to draw lessons from best practices and think about how we can spread those efforts throughout the country – even as we work at the top to have a good conversation with the AFL-CIO leadership.

AL: Bill Fletcher, why do you think the conversation at the top is so difficult?

BF: I actually think that a lot of the problem is directly related to the elimination of the left in organized labor. I don’t mean that the Left has always been good on environmental issues. We have had plenty of economic determinism and climate avoidance in the Left. But I think that the failure of organized labor to consider options outside of traditional paths has made it especially difficult for mainstream labor to embrace the messages from the environmental movement and climate justice.

AL: I can see that cutting both ways. It’s true of labor. It’s also true that in the mainstream environmental movement that the lack of a Left has made it difficult for people who were working class. In other words, it’s hard for coal miners to think friendly towards the mainstream environmental movement because there’s the question of class base.

BF: Well I think that that’s true but I think at the same time the number of coal jobs, miners’ jobs, have been steadily dropping for the last 50 years. That’s not because of the environmental movement. Instead, the environmental movement has served as a convenient target for reactionaries and right wing populists to explain away the use of new technologies in mining that have lessened the need for miners. So the question in West Virginia really calls upon people to look very differently, in fact very radically (although it doesn’t seem that radical anymore) at forms of alternative economic development.

AL: Bill Gallegos, do you see these alternative economic models as a way to deal with climate justice? Are they going to get us there?

BG: It’s going to be tough. The Climate Justice Alliance had a labor organization that joined and then pulled back because they got pressure (I think around Keystone). So there were folks who wanted to be part of this, wanted to engage, were very progressive, had great ideas and little by little they started to pull back.
We need to get into this with our eyes open. Twenty years ago we would have been able to talk to a whole range of folks who had caucuses and leadership – folks on the left who were in the steelworkers, who were in the autoworkers, who were in a number of other industries. We don’t have that now.
We’re going to have to look at creating alternative economic models even as we’re working for a larger social transformation. We need to say, “Look, here in northern Arizona, the Navajo Nation, there is a model of cooperative economic development that’s working,” even as we’re building up our forces to take this to scale. What I hope is that the brothers and sisters inside of labor who are fighting for the perspective of social justice unionism can make some headway, and within the climate justice movement those of us who recognize the strategic importance of this relationship with labor can confront some of the understandable pessimism that exists in the movement about whether this is doable.
I’ll give you one example. When we were trying to stop Chevron from expanding its refinery in order to refine dirtier grades of crude oil in Richmond, which would have had huge greenhouse gas emissions and also would have added to the poisoning of the black, brown, and Laotian folks who live near that refinery, the building trades tried to physically intimidate our members. They raised a really nasty campaign – nasty enough that Chevron didn’t have to do it. So this is a bitter experience for folks. But as much as we need to stand up to that and criticize that kind of behavior, we still have to look at the long term. We need to support the folks in labor like Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin and others who are ready to fight for transformation on the inside.

AL: Can you tell us more about what’s going on in the Navajo Nation?

BG: The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian nation in the U.S. and it’s a very poor economy. Unemployment rates are 70%. A lot of the small towns and villages on the reservation don’t even have access to water because it’s piped to Phoenix and Scottsdale for golf courses and resorts. But the Navajo Nation does have 10,000 jobs related to the coal industry – mining production, transport, and a large coal fired power plant that provides energy, among others, to the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles.
There has been a big campaign to get the LADWP to end its coal contracts and to convert to clean energy. And they’ve agreed to do that. They’ve said, “We’re going to end our coal contracts with the power plant in the Navajo Nation in Arizona by 2025 and also with one in Utah.” The plan is instead of replacing that coal with clean energy, with solar, to replace it with natural gas. The Black Mesa Water Coalition , which organizes in the Navajo Nation is saying, “No! This should be a clean energy project and this project should reflect the way we get off dependence on the coal industry. We should become a solar, wind center for Arizona and for the country. Let’s replace this coal-fired power plant with a solar project. We’ll keep the contract with the LADWP so we keep people working.”
The Navajo Nation has identified three other areas for creating a viable people-centered economy. One is the wool industry – spinning, creating textiles and rugs. Others are agriculture and what’s called ecotourism. So they see clean energy, wool, agriculture, and ecotourism as the pillars of a viable economic infrastructure in the Navajo Nation – so it won’t be dependent on coal or casinos.
They’ve worked out an idea for just transition. They’ll need large investments – where do you get the investments for this kind of infrastructure without compromising and without selling your soul to Wall Street. There are a lot of problems that they’ll need to solve. But I think this small group of people in the Navajo Nation are doing outstanding, pioneering work addressing the ecological crisis, the economic crisis, and looking towards creating a democratic local economy – and mostly women in leadership of that project.

AL: How does this connect to economic transformation, to socialism? How does it begin to address the vast environmental problems that this capitalist economy has created?

BF: Bill Gallegos and I were talking several months ago about the right wing and climate denial. There are different sources of climate denial. One form is that of bizarre religious explanations. Another is a feeling of being so overwhelmed by the extent of the crisis that it’s easier to simply deny that it exists – much like other things that people deny. And a third is that many on the Right truly understand that in order to address climate, you have to address the economy. That’s not what many mainstream environmentalists accept, but the right does understand. And given that large swath of the right wing is prepared to be genocidal and make millions of people redundant, they can afford to be in denial. They’re not prepared to address what really needs to happen in terms of changing the economy – the solution really does come down to some kind of fundamental socioeconomic transformation.
The problem with some folks on the left though is that they describe the extent of the catastrophe and then they jump to, “Well therefore we need socialism.” And while the conclusion is correct, I think we have to understand that getting there—to socialism—is a process of ongoing struggle through various stages. Some of those stages are going to involve battles for structural reforms that address or attempt to address the environmental crisis even while capitalism continues to exist.

BG: Every environmental justice organization talks about helping communities understand the systemic roots of environmental racism. They talk about it but it’s very difficult to do in practice. You get so caught up in the demands of your immediate campaigns that people have had a difficult time integrating political education. There really is a need to understand the lived realities of working people of different cultures and nationalities for the environmental justice community and for other movements as well.
The environmental justice community needs to make a very intentional effort to link the economic and ecological crisis, to reveal the root causes of those crises, and to stimulate a conversation about is there a better way, is there a better way that we can live in this country.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an internationally known racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of “Solidarity Divided,” and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.”
Bill Gallegos is a long time activist with roots in the Chicano Liberation Struggle and a leader in the environmental justice movement. He is the author of two major articles on Chicano Liberation: ”The Sunbelt Strategy and Chicano Liberation” and “The Struggle for Chicano Liberation” He is a member of the Climate Justice Alliance.
Anne Lewis is a documentary filmmaker whose films include: On Our Own Land (DuPont-Columbia award), Justice in the Coalfields (Gold Plaque, Intercom), and Morristown: in the air and sun about factory job loss and the rights of immigrants. She serves on the executive board of the Texas State Employees Union TSEU-CWA 6186.

1 The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 let loose a wave of repression of trade unionists. This was part of the Cold War as conducted in the USA.
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