Friday, August 28, 2009

Senator Ted Kennedy

Here is a nice farewell to Senator Ted Kennedy by Senator Bernie Sanders.
"His passion was that every single American has health care as a right of citizenship. He understood that there was something lacking in our country today when we remained the only nation in the industrialized world that does not provide health care to all people."

"At the end of the day, his view was that nobody should be left behind, whether it was in health care, whether it was education, whether it was poverty in America. He felt very strongly about that."
I say that when a major health care reform bill passes in Congress this Fall, it should be named after Kennedy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Centennial Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" at McKees Rocks

Yesterday was the centennial of the most violent day in a strike of immigrant workers in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. In the Summer of 1909, about 6,000 workers struck against the Pressed Steel Car Company, an affiliate of Andrew Carnegie's U.S. Steel Company. The workers were mostly from southern and eastern Europe and spoke 16 different languages. The strike was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the wobblies, who were just making their presence felt in the east, after growing up in Washington, Oregon, and Nevada.

(Strikers meeting at McKees Rocks, PA, August 5th, 1909)
The strike looked like a lot of other strikes of the era. The workers faced dangerous conditions and arbitrarily changing wages. They lived in the company's houses and owed money to the company's store. So when they walked off the job, they were kicked out of their homes. Then the workers faced not just the company's hired guns and scabs, but also the mounted Pennsylvania State Constabulary, "the Cossacks," who had strike busting down to a skull-cracking science.

(Pennsylvania "Cossacks")
But a couple of things made this strike unique. First, the wobblies fought back when they were attacked. When the first worker was shot and killed by a Cossack, the strike committee sent a message to the Constabulary commander, saying that they would take a life for a life, that they would kill one Cossack for every murdered striker. And indeed after a couple months of low-level violence, the Cossacks and workers clashed in a pitched battle that left about a dozen men dead on both sides. That was August 22nd, 1909,"Bloody Sunday." The fact that the strikers fought back meant that the Cossacks were pushed from the streets, where they could raid gatherings of workers, to the factory yard, where they were limited in their movement. This meant that striking workers could freely assemble. And according to labor historian Louis Adamic, this was a major factor leading to the strike's victory a few days later.

Another interesting thing about this strike was the diversity of the workers. The capitalists of the day were experts at pitting one ethnic group against another. (Has much changed?) If Irish workers struck, the owners brought in Black workers to scab. If the Black workers struck, they brought the now hungry Irish back at a lower wage. And so on, and so on. The prejudice between the two (or more) ethnic groups meant they would rarely unite to improve their jobs. But at McKees Rock, working class solidarity trumped racism. Strike organizers translated the meetings and speeches into 16 languages, and the strike held together.

This is one of the under-acknowledged accomplishments of the early radical labor movement in general and the IWW in particular. Left-wing unionists recognized that workers of all colors had more in common with each other than any of them had with the big capitalists. They also recognized that the capitalists exploited ethnic fault lines to keep workers unorganized. So, 45 years before Brown vs. Board of Education and 55 years before the Civil Rights Act, at a time when many other unions were explicitly appealing to white working-class racism, the wobblies were building interracial unions and winning strikes.

Radical unionists were pioneers of racial equality, while big business sought to fan the flames of racism. The same is true today, 100 years later, although the Left's many victories have shifted the battle lines. I'll give just one example. Right now in California about 95% of farm workers for the big agricultural companies are immigrants, almost all from Mexico, and the vast majority are "illegal" immigrants. Since the workers are off the books, the corporate farms have almost complete control over the workers. It's a free-market dream come true. Many big farms don't even bother providing water for their workers on the hottest days, which means farm workers often die of heat. Meanwhile, news media companies and conservative think tanks stoke white working-class resentment of "the illegals" who are "stealing" our jobs and draining money from our public services. As long as the white working class views the Mexican immigrant workers as enemies, the big farms can continue to treat them like slaves. And once again the Left, including the United Farm Workers union, is calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would recognize the rights of immigrant workers and provide a path to citizenship. It's the same story in 2009 as it was in 1909, just with different actors on a different stage. Now as then, we could use some of that wobbly spirit.

Back at McKees Rocks, a historical marker was unveiled yesterday, the centennial of "Bloody Sunday," commemorating the workers of the Pressed Steel Car Company and their company town of Presston. An ecumenical service at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church honored those who died in the workers' struggle. Then there was a march from the church, past the old factory site, to the marker unveiling. The march was joined by members of the Pittsburgh IWW.
Sources for this post:
Blood on the Rocks, by Charles McCollester

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If you can spend 6 minutes...

putting health insurance companies in perspective, watch this video. It comes from Sick for Profit, a project by Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films. This video exposes the bare bones of the health care debate: We can either pay for more medical coverage for more people, or we can pay for mansions and yachts for insurance company executives. It's a question of social priorities. We can have a health system that guarantees quality care for everyone, or we can have a health system that guarantees a few people will grow very wealthy denying quality care to many.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thinkers vs. Screamers and the Shifting Balance on Health Care

Has the media coverage of the health care debate left you feeling dizzy?
  • First it was, "Hey, look at these crazy people opposed to health care reform screaming at town hall meetings."
  • Then it was, "These screaming people are representative of the overwhelming, grassroots opposition to the Democratic health care proposals."
  • Next, "Oh wait, the screamers are largely funded and organized by health insurance companies and the big business lobby." And, "Wow, did Sarah Palin really just say something about a death panel'?"
  • Then back to, "Hmm, death panels. Those sound scary. Maybe there are death panels in England or something."
  • Next it was, "Well, we looked into it and there are no death panels--not in any proposed health care bill and not in England."
I have to say, I think the death panel crap was a turning point. Once the shock and creepiness of that phrase wore off, reporters and thinking people realized that the anti-reform crowd had absolutely nothing to go on. The former Republican nominee for Vice President and a senior Republican senator were just making s#*% up to try defeat health reform that most people support. And it wasn't even creative s#*%. It wasn't even s#*% that would take very long to verify as s#*%. That kind of s#*% requires some real moral and mental bankruptcy.

So now, just a day after the media was reporting (or hoping?) that the Obama Administration may have been backing away from the public option, here comes news that progressives--and that pesky public option--haven't gone anywhere. The House Democratic caucus is solidly behind the public option and not falling for the watered down co-ops. Major unions are warning conservative Democrats that if they do not support the public option, they risk losing labor's support in the next elections. Progressives across the Internet are warning that Democrats who don't support the public option will face progressive primary challengers. And supporters of health insurance reform are now outnumbering the tea-bag types at the town halls.

I think the Right overplayed its position. This is a loooong Congressional recess, and we're seeing that there's plenty of time for people to realize how ridiculous the death-panel fear tactics are before any votes are cast on any bills. And there's plenty of time for Obama's sometimes painfully laid-back, cool-headed style to win out, since the deathers are probably already suffering from burnout. The swastika signs and guns brought to health care discussions get old pretty quick.

I'm hopeful that what we're about to see is first a defining moment for the Democratic Party, when labor/progressives will assert some leadership over the business-oriented Blue Dogs, and then a defining moment for the country, when we all begin to treat health care as a right and not a privilege.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Day Standing With Retail Workers

I spent a couple of hours today in an "informational picket" outside a retail company that is slashing health benefits for its employees despite the enormous profits the company is making. (For now I'm withholding the name and location of the store for operational security, but pretty soon I'll bare all!) There were several of us on the sidewalk in front of the store holding signs, passing out fliers, and talking with passersby. We were there to support the workers' fledgling union and their fight against the arbitrary cut in benefits.

Rather than getting into the specifics of this particular dispute, I want to tell you briefly about the conversations we had on the sidewalk. Two things surprised me about the interactions I had: the overwhelming public support for these workers' fight and the confused anger of the few who opposed it.

First of all, it was inspiring to see the little pieces of democracy coming together on that sidewalk. Several folks approached me and asked how people who did not work at this company could support the workers. A few others walked up and talked about their membership in other unions, the similar situations they faced with their employers, and the common struggle they therefore shared with the workers at this store. Others wanted to point out that it wasn't just this company's greed and power that was to blame for these health benefit cuts, it was also the health insurance companies themselves and the power wielded by corporations in general. Amen! I can attest that the grassroots people-power movement was alive and well on this Monday morning sidewalk. If just a third of the people who asked for information decide to get involved, then we will really have something going with this retail giant.

But something else was alive out there too: a small and angry conservative opposition that was out of touch with reality. Interestingly, each of the few encounters with conservatives involved people yelling from vehicles and speeding off. They certainly didn't want to stick around and discuss. And they mostly wanted to yell about President Obama. Maybe they just saw the words "health care" on my sign and thought it was one of those tea-bag town hall meetings.

Here is one encounter that sticks out in my mind and is fairly representative of the few conservative reactions we got:

I was standing on the corner in front of the store, holding a sign that said: "[Company X] is doubling workers' health care costs... while its PROFITS SOAR."

A middle-aged White man pulled up in a truck, rolled down his window, and yelled, "You voted for Obama, so that's what you get!"

I responded, "No, we're talking about [Company X]. See. They're doing this."

He yelled back in a mocking tone, "Oh but Obama's supposed to fix it, ain't he?! He's supposed to fix everything!"

I answered, "I don't know about him, but the workers could fix this. With a union. A strong, fighting union!"

He choked on several curse words as he rolled up his window and drove off, with a look on his face like he was chewing a battery. Apparently he wanted to argue against the fairy-tale notion that everyone on the Left thinks President Obama is our savior on a white horse. The fact that working people can unite and do things for ourselves seemed to be a novel idea to him--and one that hurt his feelings. I didn't know why. Maybe he owns a big corporation, I thought. But as he pulled through the intersection, I saw the navy blue McCain-Palin sticker on his rusty back bumper and realized that he doesn't own or manage, he just defends big corporations.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Open Discussion Thread

On that fateful day, when it is your turn to stand before Obama's death panel, what will you have to say for yourself?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

We cashed in our clunker.

Last weekend my wife and I drove our 1999 Ford Explorer to a local Honda dealer and drove away in a 2009 Honda Fit, thanks to the Cars Allowance Rebate System, a.k.a the "Cash for Clunkers" program. The program gives people rebates on purchases of new fuel-efficient cars when they trade in old gas guzzlers. Basically, the government gave us $4,500 to get rid of this...

(But picture it with 200,000 miles on it, the front bumper falling off, and no A/C)

and buy this...

I have to say it's pretty cool driving the same distances around town on half the gas it took before.

A couple of days ago the Senate voted to extend the program with $2 billion more in funding, after the first billion was used up pretty quickly. Before the vote there were threats from some Republicans, including Senator John McCain, that they would filibuster the program into oblivion. But in the end there were 60 votes for and 37 against. Some Republicans criticized the government "meddling" unnecessarily in the economy and asked why the auto industry should get a stimulus when other industries don't. But they ignored the main point of the program: fuel efficiency. According to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the average "cash for clunkers" trade-in results in a fuel economy increase of 61%. It turns out "government meddling" can mean reducing our use of fossil fuels and improving our air quality.

Maybe that's why some Republicans were so annoyed with this program. It's another example of government (i.e. large-scale social cooperation) doing good work. People might get the wrong idea! If it can be done on a relatively small scale--a $3 billion program--then people might be more favorable to trying it on larger scales. The whole essence of the thing is counter to fend-for-yourself conservative philosophy.

In fact, there was a concerted effort by conservatives to spin this popular program in the opposite direction, to say, "See, cooperation can't do anything good here. Why should we try it elsewhere?" The Drudge Report's headline last week screamed, "CHAOS FOR CLUNKERS." (But the article it linked to simply described crowded showroom floors and excited dealers.) And Rep. John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives asked, "If they can't handle something as simple as this, how would we handle health care?"

I'm not sure what happened to the stiff Republican opposition when the vote actually came up? Where was John McCain's valiant filibuster? Maybe they took a look and saw how popular the program was and realized the only real constituency opposed to it were people like them who are ideologically opposed to government and social cooperation in almost any form. That's a pretty small group.

So, Mr. Boehner, if we can handle this--and by all accounts we have--then can we also get a national health insurance plan?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It's always in the fine print.

Corporations! Posters

In conservative health care mythology, an educated health consumer chooses the best policy for his or her personal situation, and if the insurance company does something disagreeable, the consumer simply takes her business to another company--punishing bad the corporate behavior and rewarding the good. This way, so the theory goes, the insurance companies are always improving in a survival-of-the-fittest competition for the American consumer.

But the "free market" fairy tale ignores some major problems. Here are just two.

First, choosing a health insurance policy is not the same thing as shopping for consumer goods. Whether you're shopping around for a new TV or trying on different shirts, you can make informed comparisons and pretty much know what you're going to get when you make your purchase. With a health insurance policy, at best you have a general idea of the way your policy works. But the nuances--which have a way of jumping up and biting you--are coded in lawyer-speak and hidden in an "explanation of benefits" booklet that changes every year. Or they're in the fine print in one of the many documents you signed to buy your policy in the first place.

Also, chances are that when you learn some sordid detail of your policy, it will be at a time when you or a loved one is sick or in a lot of pain and you are under stress. You may be under financial stress too from the premiums, co-pays, and deductibles you've already paid and maybe from being out of work. You can't exactly jump into a new policy at this point. And you're in a pretty weak position to argue with the company you're stuck with. You are anything but a highly-mobile, educated consumer in a free market. You are caught in a scheme to enrich few at the expense of many.

These are just two reasons why it makes no sense for coverage of our medical expenses to be left up to organizations that exist primarily to increase their own quarterly profits and shareholder value.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Health Insurance Industry: National Parasite


How does America spend more money per capita on health care than any other nation in the world and still not even cover everyone? In part because we rely on an incredibly wasteful health insurance industry to deliver our care. Our enormous national wealth, which could guarantee quality medical care for every American, is instead wasted maintaining an inefficient and immoral system.

Where are our health care dollars going?
  • Health insurance company profits. (I'm having a very hard time finding estimates of total profit margins for the industry as a whole. Tell me if you know where to look.)
  • Health insurance company executive salaries.
  • Duplicative administrative costs throughout the industry... which is enough money to cover all uninsured.
  • Health insurance company advertising.
  • Political donations and lobbying against a system that puts people before profits.
  • Blimps 'n stuff!

Monday, August 3, 2009

General Electric and News Corp to Rein in TV Talking Heads

On Saturday, a front-page story in the New York Times reported that the ongoing battle between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly has been ordered to an end by their corporate parents. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of MSNBC's parent company General Electric, and Rupert Murdoch, CEO of Fox's parent company News Corporation, reportedly met in mid-May and discussed a truce between their respective cable TV talking heads. The problem wasn't so much that the Big O's were being harsh with one another--conflict sells after all--it was that each was directing much of his ire at the other's parent company. Olbermann regularly ripped into Murdoch and News Corp, and O'Reilly attacked Immelt and G.E. And that was apparently too far for the corporate titans, so with a handshake they promised to reign in their boys and end the feud.

This is what President Obama might call a "teachable moment." As much as we like to think of Fox and MSNBC as polar opposites, they share a fundamental common ground: They are both corporations. Specifically, they are both subsidiaries of giant corporate conglomerations. The products they sell are news and opinion--and in Fox's case pornography--but they exist to produce profit for G.E. and Rupert Murdoch. General Electric and News Corporation (like all corporations) have a lot in common: they want profits as large as possible, tax policies that are favorable to large corporations, less government regulation, and low-wage unorganized workers, to name a few. And this is why the mainstream media is inherently of a conservative bent. It is tied to the corporate status quo. The incentive, at least, will always be to bend the news and opinion to support the interests of their particular corporations, their major sponsors, and corporations in general.

I'm not saying ignore everything you hear from for-profit media. I'm saying the next time someone claims that the mainstream media is "liberal," remember that the media is corporate first and foremost.