Strangers Among Us

by Paul Garver

  • atkinsbookcoverimage

Some 200 million workers across the globe migrate across national borders searching for work.

At least 40 million migrants do not have documents allowing them to live or work in their host countries, while millions of others are “guest workers” bound to their employers and subject to expulsion if they are fired.

In the neoliberal global economic order, capital flows freely across the borders that constrain workers.   Whether “guest workers” or undocumented, migrants are among the most vulnerable and exploited people who do the indispensable tasks of feeding and caring for other people.

Like refugees, migrants are often blamed for a host of economic and social ills in the countries that depend on their agricultural, construction or domestic labor.  Politicians looking to score political points from their own xenophobic domestic constituencies find migrants and refugees tempting prey for vicious slanders. Donald Trump is a notorious perpetrator but is far from being the first chauvinist demagogue in the world.

Mexican native Diego Reyes, Sr. works the tobacco and vegetable fields in Sanford, NC.  He is a member of a relatively successful migrant worker organization, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee [FLOC].  As translated by his son Diego Reyes, Jr., a seminarian working for FLOC, he describes a reality all too often experienced by migrant workers in the USA and around the world.

It’s not only in Sanford [N.C.} but everywhere, all this propaganda against immigrants. People feel they’re stealing their jobs, that immigrants are bad people, drug mules, and criminals. It dehumanizes people. It’s not the stealing of jobs. The people came here because of the policies the U.S. implemented in the world.”

The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement documents the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers in Asia, Europe and North America.  Editor Joseph Atkins, a professor at the University of Mississippi, traveled with his wife to such far-flung locales as Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Buenos Aires, where he interviewed key activists supporting migrant worker organizing.  He also solicited contributing chapters from activists and scholars in the UK, Israel, China, Japan and India.  The result is a moving and kaleidoscopic survey of the social justice movements that are helping migrant workers organize throughout the world.

Here are a few examples of the innovative approaches taken by migrant workers and their supporters in various world regions illustrated in this compact and compelling book.
Continue reading

“Refinery Town”: A Model for Local Political Action

by Ryan Haney

steve_early_by_robert_gumpert-200x300

Steve Early, Photo by Robert Gumbert

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City will be available from Beacon Press on January 17th, 2017.

Steve Early’s Refinery Town is a compelling read on multiple levels. It paints an interesting portrait of Richmond, CA (pop. 110,000), a Bay Area city that is home to a massive Chevron refinery. It also works as a journalistic deep dive into contemporary municipal politics, with a cast of reformers and establishment actors clashing over approaches to problems in a city wracked by disinvestment, toxic waste, corruption, and crime.

In November 2016, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) won a majority on the City Council, overcoming massive campaign funding for their opponents by Chevron.

rpa

(Pictured, left to right: Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance who now serve on City Council. Photo by Tom Goulding, Richmond Confidential.)

Written before this success,  Refinery Town excels as a case study for activists looking to build power at the local level through grassroots organizing and independent electoral work. Early, a longtime labor activist and journalist who moved to Richmond five years ago, counts himself among the reformers. His book is an invaluable documentation of their journey and a testimony of what might be possible in other cities. Continue reading

Bernie Sanders’ Book Offers Roadmap

by Steve Early and Rand Wilson

Bernie 1981

Bernie Sanders’ segue from presidential candidate to barnstorming author was seamless. In between the Democratic National Convention in July and hitting the stump this fall to boost Hillary Clinton’s stock in battleground states, Sanders cranked out a 450-page book, which hit bookstores November 15. The author was not far behind, with sold-out appearances from Boston to San Francisco.

Often, quickie books from trade publishers hoping to capitalize on an author’s newly-achieved celebrity are nothing more than ghost-written schlock. Campaign memoirs—like the authorized biographies or ghosted autobiographies of presidential hopefuls—aren’t often memorable either, even when they display some evidence of real candidate involvement or reflection. But like Sanders’ 2016 campaign, his book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, greatly exceeds expectations.

In the first third of the book, we get an insider account of his plunge into presidential politics when few in the corporate media, the Democratic Party or the AFL-CIO took his democratic socialist “fringe” candidacy seriously. Sanders also recounts his early life in Brooklyn, his activism at the University of Chicago during the 1960s and his four-decade career in Vermont public life.

The author’s description of the grassroots struggle to transform municipal government during his eight years as Burlington mayor is particularly instructive for progressives thinking about running for local office. As Sanders proudly writes, the electoral coalition “formed in 1982, became the foundation for progressive third party politics in Vermont. Not only has it continued in Burlington to this day, electing two progressive mayors after me, it has spread statewide.”

With representation in both houses of the Vermont legislature, the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) has, according to Sanders, become “one of the most successful and long-standing third parties in America.” Its singular status was further confirmed on November 8, when Sanders-backed David Zuckerman, a VPP state senator and working-class oriented organic farmer, got elected lieutenant governor—marking the first time a progressive, other than Sanders, has succeeded in a Vermont-wide race.

A post-campaign agenda

In the remaining two-thirds of Our Revolution, Sanders outlines his agenda for the country and talks about what it will take to achieve it. His substantive proposals will be familiar to the millions of people who voted for him, and include recommendations on everything from health care, criminal justice reform, trade, Wall Street regulation, bank restructuring and free public higher education to combatting climate change, creating clean energy jobs, overhauling “our broken immigration system” and getting big money out of politics.

Not surprisingly—for someone from a state with large rural areas and relatively few homicides—Sanders’ agenda does not emphasize gun control, although he does confess to having mishandled that issue on the national debate stage.

In a well-documented chapter called “Corporate Media and the Threat to Our Democracy,” Sanders updates his long-time critique of the handful of multinational corporations that own a lot of the media and have an outsized influence on what people see and hear. Sanders himself was, of course, a case study in hostile or non-existent coverage by major newspapers and TV networks for much of his campaign.

Both as a campaign history and progressive policy guide, Our Revolution brims with the same righteous indignation and relentless optimism that drew bigger and bigger crowds to Sanders’ rallies. It concludes with the author’s oft-repeated call for follow-up activity now at the local level:

“Run for the school board, city council, state legislature. Run for governor. Run for Congress. Run for the Senate. Run for president. Hold your elected officials accountable. Know what they’re doing and how they’re voting and tell your neighbors.”

Going local with “Our Revolution”

Sanders’ encouragement and support for like-minded candidates began during his own “testing the waters” tour of the country, as a not-yet-declared contender for the White House. He was invited to Richmond, California, in 2014 by Green mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other progressive city council candidates facing an avalanche of corporate spending against them by Chevron, the largest employer in town.

Sanders writes that his town hall meeting “turned out to be one of the largest and loudest audiences that I had spoken to since I began traveling around the country.” In Richmond, four candidates he backed two years ago won their elections, as did two more members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance this fall. This time, they were endorsed by Our Revolution, the post-campaign organization created by former campaign staff and Sanders volunteers. Richmond’s top vote getter was 26-year-old Melvin Willis, an African-American Bernie fan, rent control advocate and local organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. Elsewhere in Northern California, Our Revolution-assisted candidates won mayoral races in Berkeley and Stockton.

Nationwide, Our Revolution endorsed 106 local, state, and federal candidates and 34 ballot initiatives. Fifty-eight of those candidates were successful; twenty-three of the ballot measures succeeded, including several dealing with campaign finance reform. Among those backed by Our Revolution was Mike Connolly, a lawyer and community activist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Like Zuckerman in Vermont, Connolly competed in the Democratic primary to clear the field. He narrowly defeated a 12-term Democratic incumbent backed by most Bay State unions and nearly all his Beacon Hill colleagues. On November 8, Connolly won the seat, running unopposed in the general election. Three other Our Revolution-backed legislative candidates in Massachusetts, all incumbents, also won their primary battles and/or general election campaigns as well. They were state Sens. Pat Jehlen and Jamie Eldridge and state Rep. Mary Keefe.

Connolly is now working with Our Revolution supporters to build a new state structure that better links issue-oriented campaigns with electoral politics.

“We need to push the Democratic Party to once again be the party of the people,” he says. “We need to turn politics around so that it is movement-centered and driven by the grassroots.”

At a Boston book tour stop in late November, Sanders stressed similar goals in his talk to an estimated 1,000 people. Bernie’s mostly young fans paid $33 to attend and got a copy of Our Revolution. The author was in fine form, sharing clear, concise, and useful insights into the lessons of his campaign and the challenges under President-elect Donald Trump. During the question period, a young Latina woman who was thinking of running for office herself, asked for Sanders’ advice.

“It’s not good enough for someone to say: ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” he told her. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

The crowd chanted “Bernie, Bernie” but the future clearly belonged to Sanders-inspired candidates of the sort he described, following in his footsteps and getting involved in politics at the local, state and national levels.

This article appeared on the blog of the In These Times magazine  and is reposted here with the agreement of the authors. You can make a tax-deductible donation to fund reporting at In These Times.

It’s Time to Start Over on Trade

In a challenge to President-elect Donald Trump, EPI Distinguished Fellow Jeff Faux writes in U.S. trade policy—time to start over that Washington’s fixation with trade agreements has diverted attention from the more important question of how to put American workers back on the historic track of rising wages and opportunities.

Faux warns that, having declared the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership dead, Trump now says he intends to continue the pursuit of bilateral trade deals, on the grounds that he is a better negotiator. But even if he is, writes Faux, new deals will not solve the problems of off-shored jobs and depressed wages that Trump raised during the presidential campaigns. http://www.epi.org/publication/u-s-trade-policy-time-to-start-over/

Therefore, Faux calls on Trump to announce an indefinite freeze on any new trade negotiations, until his administration and the Congress commit to and implement a credible comprehensive agenda for making American workers competitive and balancing our trade with the rest of the world.

“For two decades Democratic and Republican leaders have had it backwards,” writes Faux. As the Economic Policy Institute has been reporting for decades, trade deals have systematically traded away the income and job security of American workers in exchange for promoting the interests of American international investors. The effect has been to “open up American workers and their communities to brutal global competition for which they have not been prepared. The result is that the costs to American workers of each cycle of expanded trade relentlessly exceed the benefits.” Continue reading

Labor Day Weekend Reading

by Paul Garver

Getman cover

If you are as tired as I am of inane electoral political commentary in the media, why not take some time over the Labor Day weekend to consider the deep roots of the growing economic and political inequality that underlies the superficial campaign rhetoric?
I would not normally recommend sources on labor law and labor economics for your holiday reading. But here goes.

The Economic Policy Institute [EPI] just released a new research report, “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers: The overlooked reason why wages are stuck and inequality is growing,” Access at http://www.epi.org/files/pdf/112811.pdf

The EPI Report analyzes how the decline of organized labor in the USA has contributed to wage stagnation and economic inequality. If good jobs in industry are increasingly scarce and pay for private sector workers has barely budged in the last four decades, a major cause is the catastrophic decline in private sector unionism from 35% to 5%. Building walls along the borders and expelling undocumented immigrants will not help alienated working-class voters. As Hamilton Nolan advises them in his analysis of the EPI Report: “Don’t get mad at foreigners. Unionize. It’s the only battle in the class war that lies entirely within your power to win.”

However a major contributing factor to the decline of union organization is the way the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted labor law over the same decades. Labor law professor and practitioner Julius Getman has written a concise and spritely study called The Supreme Court on Unions: Why Labor Law Is Failing American Workers (Cornell Univ. Press, 2016). In fewer than 200 pages, Getman demonstrates how a series of Supreme Court decisions on union organizing, collective bargaining, the right to strike, picketing, boycotts, the duty of fair representation, and the definition of “employee” have effectively gutted the ability of labor unions to organize new members and to bargain good contracts.

When over forty years ago I was hired by a local SEIU union to organize hospital workers (NLRB jurisdiction had recently been extended to the hospital sector), I was not prepared to confront the incredible number of tools the employer already could wield to frustrate the right of hospital workers to organize into a union. Despite several badly coordinated legislative efforts to improve union rights during the Carter and Clinton administrations, the legal framework for union organizing and bargaining has continued to deteriorate over the last half century. Getman shows how even many of the more liberal Supreme Court appointees do not comprehend or support interpretations of labor law that would reverse this trend.

Getman analyzes that it is unlikely that even better Court appointments and incremental legislative reform could overturn entrenched basic antiunion precedents After more than half a century of practicing and teaching labor law, Getman realizes that significant change will require a long hard struggle, would be bitterly opposed by wealthy political patrons of both Republican and Democratic parties, and would demand the election of a president willing to make strengthening union organization and collective bargaining as the highest political priority. “Significant labor law reform,” he reluctantly concludes’ “is more likely to follow from than to cause a resurgence of the labor movement.” That can only occur if the workers’ movement becomes part of a wider popular insurgency.

I recommend The Supreme Court on Unions: Why Labor Law is Failing American Workers as an indispensable resource not only for those active in the labor movement, but for all who are committed to building a wider movement for political revolution in the USA.

The Primary Route: Review of a Political Pamphlet

by Paul Garver

In December 2015 Tom Gallagher self published a pamphlet entitled The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex (Coast to Coast Publications).

Drawing on his own experiences as a Massachusetts legislator and as an elected delegate for a number of  progressive Democratic challengers in presidential primaries, long-time democratic socialist Tom Gallagher argued in considerable historical detail and humor that the American Left had to engage in Democratic primary races at the national level to be taken seriously as a political force.

Bernie Sanders had recently announced his Presidential candidacy, but his campaign had not yet demonstrated its capacity to rally millions of voters behind his progressive ideas.   The successes of Sanders’ campaign strongly supports the thrust of Gallagher’s argument, while simultaneously making his thesis  seem somewhat outdated and obvious.

As Gallagher recently stated with his characteristic humor, there was either going to be a good book or a good campaign, and would not be both.

As I read Gallagher’s pamphlet today, its relevance to 2016 feels limited.  Gallagher himself, as a Sanders delegate from the 12th Congressional District of California, will be using his persuasive skills at the DNC in Philadelphia.

Yet I strongly suspect that when 2019 rolls around, the pamphlet should be reissued.  Already the spin doctors of several sectarian socialist groups are making use of the “failure” of Sanders to become the Democratic presidential candidate as an argument for retreating back to the safe and sheltered sanctuary of the Green Party.  In 2019 much of the U.S. Left may be spinning its wheels once again as it did in this electoral cycle, rehashing the same old arguments about the inevitable doom the Left faces if we engage in Democratic primaries.

The Primary Route will be useful reading then.

Tom Gallagher is a member of the United Educators in San Francisco.  You can view his other writings and buy this pamphlet at https://tomgallagherwrites.com/

Kent State: Review of a New History by a Participant in the Struggle

by Paul Garver

grace on kent state

Thomas Grace.  Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.  Univ. of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston, 2016, 384pp.

Tom Grace was one of the nine Kent State University students seriously wounded by a fusillade of gunshots from the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, when he joined a student rally after leaving his university classroom.

Four other students were killed, two of whom were not even attending the protest rally.

In the aftermath of the shooting, numerous student leaders were prosecuted and imprisoned.  None of the officers who had issued order for the guardsmen to fire and even themselves joined in the shooting were ever prosecuted for their arguably criminal actions.

More than forty years later Tom Grace authored this temperate, well considered, and thoroughly researched history of the Kent State struggle.  It is  much more than a personal memoir.   A succinct account of how he came to be shot on that day is included in a prologue and in sidebars to the description of the day of the shootings, but this is not why he wrote this history.

Grace writes with commitment or passion, but with remarkable equanimity.  Neither he nor his fellow student activists appear as victims, but rather as combatants in a desperate struggle.  Their adversaries are not portrayed as villains, but as combatants on the other side with their own views and goals.

Tom Grace conducted interviews with some 47 Ohio student activists, meticulously scoured the campus and local newspapers, and placed their stories in the context of the national student antiwar movement.   He also compiled portraits of dozens of individual national guardsmen and officers involved in the shooting, drawing on records of their testimony before various investigative panels and tribunals.

Eighty pages of endnotes show how thoroughly Grace pored over the decades of local activist struggle and repression, while firmly situating it in the history of the national antiwar movement and its organizational structures.

The result of Grace’s study is a systematic deconstruction of many media-generated myths that were immediately projected onto the Kent State shootings and persist as a battle over the memory and meaning of May 4 that continues to the present day.  The events were not a tragic anomaly but were grounded in a tradition of student political activism that extended back to Ohio’s labor battles of the 1950s and to a decade of antiwar and black liberation struggles in the nation and on the campus itself.

As a public university in the American heartland, far from the coastal epicenters often associated with the 1960s movement,  Kent State proves in Grace’s account to be a microcosm of the national student antiwar movement of the “long sixties.”

The expansion of the university after World War II brought in growing numbers of working-class students from the industrial centers of northeast Ohio. Most of the Kent State activists  retained many of the core labor and New Deal values of their parents, despite disagreements about the Vietnam War.  They came from the same generational cohort as the American combat forces in Vietnam and the Ohio national guardsmen.

As the war’s rising costs came to be felt acutely in the home communities of Kent’s students, the growing antiwar movement on campus faced repression from the university administration and the political conservatives who dominated Portage County and the Ohio state government.

The deadly effort to suppress antiwar activism by gunfire on the campus was a logical stage of the cycle of radicalization and repression that began earlier in the 1960s and continued  well into the 1970s at Kent State. In the years that followed the shootings, contrary to myth, the antiwar movement continued to strengthen on campus, bolstered by an influx of returning Vietnam veterans.

One of the most original and useful features of this history  Grace provides us are updates on the life histories of the Kent State activists he studied. The vast majority of Kent State New Left activists remained actively committed to the social causes of their movement and incorporated these into their future life paths and careers.

Being somewhat older member of the same New Left generation as Thomas Grace, I appreciate how his detailed history focused on Kent State brings alive our shared history while demolishing many of the distortions perpetrated upon it.  It is no accident that many from our activist generation are helping to organize the Sanders democratic socialist candidacy that is proving attractive to  young people today.

Thomas M. Grace is adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College. A 1972 graduate of Kent State University, he earned a PhD in history from SUNY Buffalo after many years as a social worker and union representative.