Millennial Sanders Activists Give New Energy to Southern Organizing

by Mike Elk

CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE – Khristy Wilkinson, a 34-year-old, tattoo-adorned, stay-at-home mom, doesn’t look like your typical Eastern Tennessee politician. Before this year, she had never even considered running for public office, but says that she was inspired to run by the success of Bernie Sanders.

Until recently, Wilkinson was an adjunct philosophy professor teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She has been active in her community, Highland Park, for years, and has been disturbed by the changes gentrification has brought to her neighborhood.

Elk TN“I would invite some of my African American friends over and when they would leave, my neighbors would call the cops on them,” says Wilkinson. “It’s just outrageous what is happening to this neighborhood.”

Wilkinson represents a new wave of young Southern activists who have seen massive economic growth in the South – as the auto and tech industries relocate from the North – but have grown dissatisfied by the unequal distribution of those gains. While Sanders lost the Democratic primary by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Chattanooga, he did win voters under the age of 35, leading many to believe that the vote was an indication of much more progressive organizing to come. Across the South, activists say that the Sanders movement has given them energy to push against the issues of economic and racial inequality that plague even Democratic-leaning cities, such as Chattanooga.

The population of the town is taking off, growing at 5 percent per year, thanks in part to Chattanooga’s investment in the nation’s fastest municipal broadband and its new Volkswagen plant. The Southern Appalachian city, nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and dubbed the “Boulder of the South” by its Mayor Andy Berke, has attracted a massive influx of creative and tech types seeking cheap housing.

As a result of the population increase and urban redevelopment in Chattanooga, rents have risen at levels on par with cities like New York and San Francisco. Between 2007 and 2012, rent increased by 26%. However, income has not kept up with rent increases over the years. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, since 1980, rent has increased at nearly three times the rate of income in Chattanooga.

At the same time, much of the population remains poor. One in four Chattanoogans and approximately half of the city’s children now live in poverty.

Khristy Wilkinson grew up in poverty herself. Her mother was a school bus driver and her father was disabled. She says her family’s efforts to escape poverty were further hampered by their struggle with alcoholism.

“My life is a constant effort to break a cycle that has existed in my family for generations. It takes tremendous effort; you can’t break the cycle without that help,” says Wilkinson. “Unfortunately, what I have come to realize is that not everyone has access to break that cycle for their own families.”

Across Wilkinson’s chest is a large blue and gray tattoo with birds and a phrase inspired by her days studying philosophy at Wayne State. When translated, it reads, “From nothing, nothing comes.” Wilkinson says that in many ways it represents the dilemma facing many Sanders Democrats: “If we don’t do something, nothing will get done. I mean, who else is going to do it, but us?”

Bernie’s Political Revolution Grows in the South

This week, Senator Sanders has called on his supporters to back Hillary Clinton while separately continuing the “political revolution” that they had started. What the continuing political revolution looks like remains to be seen, but activists in the South are hopeful that the young millennials attracted to the Sanders campaign will continue to fight against economic and racial inequality.

In Chattanooga, Sanders activists have gotten engaged in everything from running for local offices, to fights over affordable housing, to the Black Lives Matter movement. One group is even trying to set up a nonprofit used car leasing service for people who can’t afford transportation to work.

“There is a movement that is not going away – this is just the first wave,” says Katie Cowley, who is running for state representative in a Republican-leaning suburban district, which runs along Tennessee’s border with Georgia. Cowley worked with Wilkinson on the local Sanders campaign and is serving as a Sanders delegate this week in Philadelphia.

Cowley has been fervently involved in the effort to expand Medicaid, fight for affordable housing, and push back against police brutality. She says she doubts she can win this time, but hopes that her long-shot campaign can help spur more organizing where she lives, and maybe even lay the groundwork for her own Sanders-like crusade up the food chain of local elected office in the future.

In many ways, Cowley’s and Wilkinson’s stories as progressive activists running for elected office mirror the path that Bernie Sanders took. Sanders was involved in community and civil rights activism before getting involved in electoral politics in the 1970s. He then ran four times unsuccessfully for local or state office before being elected Mayor of Burlington in 1981.

Once elected, Sanders focused on working with community groups that were previously apart and using the ability of municipal government to implement so-called “sewer socialism.” Sanders dug into local issues: focusing on efforts to build the first affordable housing trust in the country, raise wages for local workers, and end subsidies for major developments.

The success of Bernie’s presidential campaign has encouraged many community activists to keep struggling.

“When I see him, I think, he’s not a politician – he’s like a comrade,” says Patricia Bazemore of Dalton, Georgia, right across the state line from Chattanooga.

More than this, the Sanders movement presented a roadmap for how people can organize. The campaign instilled in Cowley and Bazemore the importance of using digital media to connect with others and then to take that online organizing offline. (They also learned valuable lessons in crowdfunding, and raised more than $3,000 to attend the DNC in Philadelphia.)

Bazemore said that the trips that she and Cowley took to Iowa and other early primary states gave them a lot of encouragement to keep pushing the envelope.

“You walk into these places with all these volunteers and you know that they are all their on the same page with issues,” says Bazemore. “There is like an immediate feeling of family.”

“Nobody wanted to do it on their own,” says Cowley, “but when you feel like you are a part of the movement, it really empowers you and connects support.”

Building an Alternative Economy in Chattanooga

While these activists in the Chattanooga area focus on electoral politics and community organizing, others are helping to build alternative economic models in Eastern Tennessee.

Up until this past summer, 28-year-old Ryan Holmes worked as a car salesman at a Ford dealership in the small town of Cleveland, Tennessee. After two years, Holmes got upset with what he says was the manipulative pricing and sales tactics of car dealers.

“It just felt like I was ripping folks off,” says Holmes.

The frustration led Holmes to come up with a unique business plan, developing one of the first nonprofit used car dealerships in the country. Holmes theorizes that such an entity could provide a car and guaranteed lifetime warranty service at a fraction of the price that major car dealers charge.

“Big money has power over us as long as we are spending it with them,” says Holmes. “When we work for them and give them our money, we give them our power.”

In May, spurred on by the energy of the Sanders campaign, he quit his job and moved into a growing eco-village community in Sequatchie Valley, 30 miles north of Chattanooga.

Holmes recently acquired a dealership license and has used the networks of online Bernie supporters to help promote his ideas and generate support. He hopes eventually when he launches his nonprofit that he will be able to use the viral energy of Bernie’s still-existing online network to crowdfund for his project.

“There is a lot more we can do, regardless of the politicians,” says Holmes. “If we can organize better without them, it’s going to be the best way to do it.”

Spurred by his dream to help build a solidarity economy, Holmes and his business partner Tyler Short have already acquired a lease for 100 acres of land in the Sequatchie Valley. They’ve opened a sawmill and have plans to build a series of tiny homes. The group has already started selling fertilizer made from the runoff of fish farming and has begun work with a local community supported agriculture (CSA) project, Chi Farms.

The Beginnings of a New South

Chi Farms was founded by Bates Reed, a Chattanooga native and an openly gay pastor with the Unity Church. After graduating from college in the early 1980s, Bates moved away from Chattanooga as a result of the closed culture of the city. Four years ago, inspired by the more progressive cultural changes in the city, Bates decided to move back and came up with the idea of the Chi Farms system, which links community agriculture in the Chattanooga region.

This year, Reed was finally able to get the rights to farmland in Pikeville, Tennessee.

“It just amazes me how many people have wanted to get involved in the CSA,” says Reed. “Now, there’s just so much energy and folks are always showing up wanting to help.”

Reed says he is amazed by how much young activists have moved the conversation forward in Chattanooga. While it’s unclear what may happen with Bernie Sanders’s political revolution, activists in the South say that they don’t see it going away.

“What is most amazing to me is that these young folks now are just learning to lead,” says Reed. “Who knows what the future holds for the South? I’m excited.”

Mike Elk is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report and member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and at In These Times Magazine.   This article is reposted from Payday Report with the permission of the author.

 

Trump Promises Jobs in Anthracite Coal Industry That Collapsed in 1950s

by Martin Kich

 Donald Trump spoke in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and promised to restore the jobs of coal miners.

I grew up in Scranton, and he might just as well have promised to restore the jobs of telegraph operators or those in typewriter factories.

The population of Scranton peaked at more than 140,000 in 1930. By 1960, the population had decreased to just over 110,000, and today it is between 75,000 and 80,000. The population decline mirrored the decline of the coal industry, though the production of coal ultimately fell more dramatically than the population.

Scranton remains the largest city in what is known as Pennsylvania’s “Coal Region.” Four substantial deposits of anthracite coal extend throughout a spur of the Appalachians in east central and northeastern Pennsylvania.

From the late nineteenth century through World War II, anthracite coal became the primary heating fuel for homes in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. Production peaked in 1917 at more than 100 million tons annually.

By 1950, annual production had dropped to 46 million tons. By 1970, it had dropped to 9.2 million tons, and by 1987, to 5.2 million tons.

Today, 7.9 million tons are produced annually. But that increase is very misleading if one believes that it can be equated with employment.

Through World War II, anthracite mining was a labor-intensive and dangerous enterprise and almost all of the anthracite produced was deep-mined. These conditions combined to produce much labor unrest, most famously in the violence perpetrated by the Molly Maguires, and by the 1930s, the “Coal Region” was a union stronghold.

But today, only about 235,000 tons of anthracite are produced by deep mining, about 2,316,000 by open-pit mining, and, most notably, about 5,444,000 tons by processing coal refuse.

Coal refuse accumulated near coal “breakers,” where the anthracite was separated from slate, slag, and other materials and then separated by size for use in various types of furnaces. The piles of coal refuse were known as culm dumps, and when I was a boy, Scranton tried to lure tourists by inviting them to come and witness the “”burning mountains.” In the summer, the coal in the culm dumps would ignite in orange bands that sometimes resembled lava. The sulphurous smell was just God-awful.

These culm dumps were often hundreds of feet high, and when Interstate 81 was constructed between Scranton and Binghampton, New York, several dozen of these “burning mountains” still stood along the southbound lanes of the new interstate. Most of the material in those and other culm dumps would be trucked to Scranton’s east and west sides, where the culm was flushed into mine tunnels that were starting to collapse under streets and homes.

In any case, the decline of the anthracite coal industry can be attributed to four factors: (1) the shift to oil and natural gas as home heating fuels following World War II; (2) the increased attention to the environmental damage produced both by mining and by burning coal (illustrated not just by the culm dumps but also by the Centralia mine fire, which is still burning decades after the town was largely abandoned); (3) the increased concern about on-the-job fatalities and disabling injuries and conditions, most notably “black lung”; and (4) the fact that the anthracite mines, especially in the northern part of the “Coal Region,” had reached the water table, making the coal much more expensive to extract.

In 1959, 16 miners died in the Knox Mine Disaster. The mine was located near Port Griffith, between Scranton and Wilkes Barre. The Susquehanna River broke through the ceiling of a mine shaft and eventually flooded most of the anthracite mine tunnels in Luzerne County. Historians find it a convenient marker for the demise of anthracite mining as a major industry, but they generally acknowledge that the industry suffered a long and sometimes agonizing death, rather than succumbing to a sudden catastrophe.

I have not been able to find out how many people are still employed in anthracite mining, but in 2010, only 8,724 people were employed directly in coal mining in Pennsylvania, which is still the nation’s sixth most populous state. Indeed, about four times that number of people in the state–32,853–are employed in manufacturing mining equipment. That number likely reflects not only  the increased automation of coal mining but also the rapid growth of the natural-gas fracking industry in Pennsylvania.

This article is reposted from the Academe Blog with the permission of the author.

[Ed. note:  As a Catholic high schooler in Harrisburg, PA in the 1950s, I admired the grittiness of the Coal Region football teams I played against.  But their families were already streaming out of the collapsing region to look for employment elsewhere.  Nothing “Berns” me more about Trump than his cynical and ignorant disregard for the suffering of actual working families – Paul Garver]

Continuing the Political Revolution

by Larry Cohen

Bernie Sanders has announced his support for Hillary Clinton for Democratic presidential nominee. It’s a moment both to take stock of our gains and to think ahead. Sanders’ insurgent campaign has made a remarkable impact, but the political revolution it started is far from over.

This past weekend, the 187-member Democratic Platform Committee cleaned up some sections of the draft platform, but there is no mistaking the results for the political revolution.

The clean-up was significant, improving language on climate change, trade policy and healthcare reform. Most significantly, the demands now include Sanders’ calls for a public option, a $15 minimum wage, and free tuition at public universities for families with incomes under $125,000 a year.

Not that the initial version, produced by the 15-member Platform Drafting Committee on June 25, lacked good points. It included planks on ensuring voting rights and getting money out of politics, expanding the post office to check cashing and other financial services, and passing a modern Glass-Steagall Act to separate investment and commercial banking. The drafters also called for significant investment in infrastructure and renewable energy, the abolition of the death penalty, and expanding rather than cutting Social Security benefits (though they were vague on how to pay for that).

After a year on the road with Bernie’s campaign, I am proud of all of this, but yearn for what may have been: not just a better platform but the political revolution writ large as Sanders vs. Trump, a working-class candidate versus a billionaire.

While the platform is likely the most progressive ever, with enormous thanks to Bernie and his supporters, it will likely stop short of satisfying the tens of thousands who campaigned for him and the 12 million who voted for him.  There is no proposal to end fracking; Medicare for all was voted down; and the platform does not support an end to new Israeli settlements in Gaza or the West Bank.

The section on trade is in many ways the most disappointing. Unlike the other platform goals, which require a progressive Congress—at best years away—trade is initiated by the president. Right now, that president is a Democrat who is counting on the Republicans to provide most of the votes for his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which will cost millions of American jobs and accelerate the global race to the bottom.

Increasingly it seems that President Obama, determined to pass TPP as part of his legacy despite overwhelming opposition from Democrats and skepticism from the American public, sees the post-election lame duck session of Congress as his best chance. Fast-track for the TPP, passed a year ago by the Republican Congress, allows President Obama discretion to send it to Congress and then requires an up or down vote in the Senate and the House within 90 days. That gives Obama two options: If he sends the TPP to Congress in early September, Congress will be required to vote before adjournment at the end of the year. If he waits until November, it will be up to the Republican leaders to bring it to a vote in lame duck or let the clock run out.

At this critical time, Bernie Sanders and his platform committee appointees, were determined that the Democratic Party platform explicitly express opposition to the TPP. As it turned out, the Clinton campaign honored the demands of the White House and vigorously pressured its platform committee appointees to support the president and avoid outright opposition to the TPP.  Public employee union leaders led that effort despite universal labor opposition to the TPP including that of their own unions.

While the trade language adopted on Saturday is far better than that in the initial platform draft, including general opposition to corporate-oriented trade, the failure to explicitly oppose the TPP means the president will be able to lobby Democrats to vote for the TPP without violating his own party’s platform. Since some Republicans oppose the TPP, those Democratic votes could be decisive in securing lame duck passage. Meanwhile Donald Trump can claim that his opposition to the TPP is clear and that Hillary Clinton is only talking about opposing the deal and not acting when it counts.

The Sanders delegation will now pivot from the platform to the Democratic Party rules—issues like eliminating the nominating power of “super” delegates.  The Rules Committee meets next week, and once again the debate will be about change vs. continuity and the populist moment vs. the party establishment.

The future of the political revolution, however, goes far beyond the platform, rules, convention or even the 2016 election.  In the next two weeks, Bernie Sanders will begin to describe how his massive organization of millions can function beyond this moment and help build a movement for social and economic change.  Bernie’s revolution has brought us much further than anyone expected. Who would have ever believed the stated objectives of the Democratic Party would include a public option or free tuition? The question for millions of Bernie supporters is how to keep this going both inside and outside of the party, in the Congress and state legislatures, but also in the streets.

 

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/

Sanders delegates and supporters meet in Boston to make plans for Democratic convention and beyond

by Rand Wilson

Rand and zakiyyah

Sanders delegates from MA CD 7 Zakiyyah Sutton and Rand Wilson
photo by Sandy Eaton

Over 100 Bernie Sanders’ supporters attended a meeting on June 28 at the Ironworkers Local 7 union hall in South Boston to make plans for activities at the national Democratic convention and begin a discussion about continuing the political revolution in Massachusetts.  A few photos from the meeting are posted here and many others are on Facebook.

The meeting was attended by 23 of the 45 Congressional District and At-Large delegates from Massachusetts who were elected this year to support Bernie Sanders at the 2016 National Democratic Convention in Philadelphia from July 25 to 28.  Nearly everyone in attendance had door knocked, phone banked and rallied for Bernie over the last year.

Jared Hicks, a delegate from Congressional District 7 who lives in Dorchester said that he hoped to win a Democratic platform that reflected Bernie’s values and change the party’s rules so that participation in the primaries is easier for voters.

“We need a progressive platform that includes Medicare for All, $15 minimum wage, expanded Social Security and a tax on Wall Street,” said Hicks. “And if Democrats want to defeat Trump, we must have strong language in opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.”

A number of participants expressed concern over the failure of the Sanders campaign to capture significant support in communities of color. They challenged the group to make overcoming racism a top priority if it seeks to build a broader movement.

Michael Gilbreath, a District 5 delegate from Wayland, highlighted some of the many activities that groups like Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of America and many others were planning in support of the Sanders’ platform outside of the convention.

More than half of the meeting’s attendees indicated they planned to travel to Philadelphia during the convention to participate in activities there.

The most passionate part of the evening’s discussion regarded continuing the political revolution in Massachusetts and support for several down ballot “Bernie-crat” candidates.  Jed Hresko, who coordinated many successful volunteer phone banks for Bernie in Boston, suggested that similar efforts could be mobilized for local candidates.

With the strong possibility of a Clinton candidacy, some participants voiced support for the Green Party, while others cautioned that the priority should be on defeating the presumptive Republican nominee. There is clearly no consensus among Sanders’ supporters about whom to support for President!

All too often, incipient “political revolutions” fall prey to self-appointed leaders who lack either a following and/or the necessary skills to hold a group together.  Looking to the future, the diverse, statewide group of 45 elected representatives tested in the campaign and committed to the Sanders’ platform could provide a powerful foundation dedicated to continuing our revolution in Massachusetts.

Rand Wilson is an elected Sanders delegate from the 7th Congressional District.  He works for SEIU Local 888 and has volunteered with the Labor for Bernie network.

The Democratic Party’s Draft Platform Doesn’t Oppose the TPP—That’s Bad Policy and Bad Politics

By Larry Cohen

Sorcher TPP sinking ship

Working-class Americans have had enough of trade policies that accelerate the race to the bottom.

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Worse Is Not Better

by Gene Grabiner

Member, FFECC, (NYSUT, AFL-CIO)

Delegate, WNY Area Labor Federation

genegrabiner

To all My “Bernie or Bust” Friends:

I support Bernie, and would, by far, prefer to see him as the Democratic Party nominee to run against Donald Trump. I collected signatures for Bernie on nominating petitions. I made phone calls and distributed literature for him. And I have contributed money to Bernie’s campaign.

More discussion about Bernie follows. But first, let’s look back in history at another decisive presidential campaign and election.

In 1932 in Germany, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party would not unite. We know the result.

Together, the Social Democrats and Communists won 37.29% of the popular vote. The Nazis won 33.09%. Had the Social Democrats and Communists united, things might have turned out very differently.

Our situation today is not identical in terms of the players or conditions. But in terms of ideology and outlook in the current political scene, things seem significantly similar.

This 2016 election is a decisive one. It may determine whether or not democratic forms even continue to exist within the United States.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, is the crystalized  expression of the American fascist movement. And I think, or at least hope, we all understand what that means.

But just in case, here are some elements of fascism: union busting and the destruction of the independent union movement, a right-to-work agenda, the crushing of progressive political organizations and parties, suppression of the media, misogyny, scapegoating, racism and demonization of the LGBTQ community as social policy, attacks on the poor, the weak, and the disabled. And there may be worse, including an intensified culture of militarism, and the push toward war.

Fascism does not always appear as it was in Italy, Germany, and Japan. But it always cloaks itself in a distorted version of the culture and history of whatever society in which it emerges. Sinclair Lewis was said to have remarked that “ if fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Fascism tries to split the memberships of our unions, attempting to weaken our overall solidarity. Sadly, a number of our union brothers and sisters find themselves supporting Trump. In this, they are actually breaking labor solidarity. They should reject Trump because it is imperative that we stop fascism cold and protect our independent union movement.

Now what about Bernie, and what about Hillary?

Bernie Sanders is a social democrat. And Hillary Clinton is a centrist who has become more progressive only due to Bernie’s campaign. And she has done this by accepting elements of his program.

Due to Bernie, she now opposes the TPP.  And due to Bernie, she came out in favor of offering a Medicare buy-in for folks, ages 50-55. This “Medicare for Some“ goes beyond the Affordable Care Act, though it falls short of Bernie’s proposal of “Medicare for All.”

If Bernie is not nominated, he still will strongly shape the Democratic Party program. And Hillary has said as much. Hillary and Bernie together have been effective enough to ensure that the Democratic Party Platform Committee will have a progressive majority.

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