Thursday, April 29, 2010

Show Me Your Papers: The Ability To Harass Workers At Will

Arizona's new immigration law requires immigrants to carry papers verifying their immigration status and allows police to stop and question a person if the police have a "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the country illegally. In practice, this will probably mean that police are given a green light stop and question any poor or working-class Latino they choose.

Others have pointed out that this makes Arizona a "show me your papers" state, with an eerie similarity to every movie about Nazi Germany you've ever seen.

To me, it harks back to the old vagrancy laws of the Depression Era. Corporate farms put out calls for migrant labor, and essentially every worker who came could be arrested simply for being poor and on the move. But since the big farms depended on the cheap migrant labor, the laws were applied selectively. Any worker that spoke up for a raise or for better conditions in the fields or, God forbid, organized with other workers for the same would probably be arrested for vagrancy.

So the cops and the corporate and political elite that controlled them claimed for themselves sweeping powers to harass working people whenever it suited them. An added bonus in this conservative feedback loop was that the laws implicitly made an entire class of workers, the migrants, seem like the enemy of another class of workers, the natives.

Wait, are we describing the American West in the 1930s or Arizona in 2010? If you're like me, you've lost track.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"It was early springtime and the strike was on..."

Today is the 96th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre.

It's a sad and moving story and one of the many stories that conservative activists are busy cleansing from American textbooks.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tea Parties, Gun Nuts, and Making Stuff Up

The Tea Parties are in a frenzy over taxes and socialism... even though a Democratic President just cut their taxes, income inequality is at 1920s levels, and income taxes for the richest Americans are less than half of what they were for most of the 20th century.

Militia and NRA members are yelling about the Second Amendment... even though a Democratic President expanded gun rights during his first year, the Supreme Court recently struck down a major gun control law, and today was the 15th anniversary of a militia member and NRA member killing 168 people in an attack on the federal government.

So America is not exactly taxing its way into socialism. If anything, we're tax-cutting our way toward a new Gilded Age where the middle class is a quaint memory and representative democracy is but a hollow shell that the money power just pushes aside. Nor is big government disarming the populous before instituting the next step in its evil plot. Gun sales are through the roof, and its becoming common for people to bring guns to major political events.

What we are witnessing is the right wing creating its own reality. It's a world where government is a foreign, oppressive power that looms over We the People. And it's a world where government is really the only power that looms over us, because conspicuously absent in this world is any discussion of big business. Unregulated Wall Street banks couldn't have had an important role in the economic crash--only "greedy government" taking "our money" and wasting it.

These are the unhinged movements that Bill Kristol has been calling, "the best thing that's happened to conservatives and the Republican Party in recent times." He's probably right.

I sometimes find myself thinking that even in our flawed system, with enough time, the Tea Party will be "out argued" and defeated in rhetoric and that even the TP-ers will fold up their signs and go home. But based on what I know of politics, that reckoning with truth never comes. Movement politics is more of a fight than a debate. If the Tea Party's lies win elections in 2010 and 2012, it will drastically change the country and the world, and that will be all that matters. In 2013, in President Palin's America, it won't matter much if we can utterly disprove the arguments that got her elected. What will matter is building a movement to defeat her agenda and her reelection.

What matters now is building a movement that defeats the Tea Party and the gun nuts before they take more of a hold than they already have. We need a progressive protest movement demanding more democracy, not less, demanding democratic oversight of Wall Street banks, not ignorance of them, and demanding a tax system that makes the rich pay their fair share. The nice thing is that we won't have to make stuff up to fuel our movement.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Can Progressives 'Divide and Conquer' Corporate Power?

One of the chief complaints from progressives about the health care law is that the White House cut a deal with the pharmaceutical industry to pass the bill. Basically, the industry's trade group, PhRMA, was guaranteed that the bill would not allow drug re-importation or allow the government to bargain for lower drug prices through Medicare. In exchange, PhRMA said it would offer up to $80 billion over 10 years in cost reductions to consumers and up to $150 million in TV ads supporting the bill. To some progressives, this was a craven sellout and a giveaway to the drug companies.

Maybe it was actually damn good strategy. After having just come through the health care debate, can you imagine if the pharmaceutical industry had been in the thick of the fight and on the other side? Beating the traditional conservative coalition plus a pissed-off health insurance industry was hard enough. Adding a pissed off pharmaceutical industry to the mix might have been trying to tackle too many giants at one time.

Instead, we came out of the fight with a better regulated insurance industry, an expansion of Medicaid, an expansion of public health clinics, and, overall, a patch-work system that for the first time covers nearly everybody. And it's not like the White House gave the pharmaceutical industry any goodies in this deal; they just said that this bill would not take away any of the goodies the industry already has. Remember how Democratic leaders continually used the words health insurance reform instead of health care reform? At the time, I thought that was just because the former sounded to the public less gargantuan and scary than the latter. Now I wonder if they were also meant as soothing words for the drug companies.

But if PhRMA was willing to make a deal at all, it must have meant they thought there would be risk involved in opposing any bill outright and fighting to keep the status quo. I doubt they offered the $80 billion + $150 million out of the goodness of their hearts. They must have thought they stood to lose more by fighting and possibly losing. Not to mention what they stood to gain from the bill: millions of newly insured and government subsidized customers.

I feel like progressives won a fight against the insurance industry and lived to fight another day against the pharmaceutical industry. Maybe I'm missing something, but to me this is no sellout. It's dividing and conquering. I think of it as playing one industry against another to win a strategic victory in a big sector of the economy. I also wonder to what extent the same strategy could be used in other areas. Could we unite with community banks and credit unions to rein in big banks? Could we unite with emerging alternative energy companies and green construction companies to shrink oil and coal companies?

The corporate establishment and the right wing have a long record of dividing ordinary people against one another to conquer democratic forces and progressive movements. Native workers against immigrant workers, straights against gays, middle class against poor, scabs against union workers. And the upper class has almost always been more class-conscious and in solidarity than the working class. But I think if the progressive movement is really doing its job and moving with force, it's possible to make one industry "scab" against another. After all, in 2009 the pharmaceutical industry looked at a popular new Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress and an activist base hungry for a big victory on its core issue, and they decided to run away from the health insurance industry and to the negotiating table of a so-called socialist White House.

If it's essentially a class war--and, on the biggest issues, it is--I think it's best to welcome deserters and turncoats when it suits us.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Many Awesome Things Can Be Combined?

My wife and I were on one of our periodic weekend road trips through Pennsylvania. In the hotel, I turned on the TV, which was set to the local public broadcasting network. The program was Pete Seeger's 90th birthday celebration concert from Madison Square Garden. Bruce Springsteen was on the stage. He was talking about Pete's legacy in the labor movement and civil rights movement and about singing "This Land Is Your Land," even the radical verses, alongside Pete at Obama's inaguration.

I remember that day on the National Mall. I remember thinking how profound it was that those verses were being sung in such a huge venue, by a man who was once blacklisted for his labor activism, at the inauguration of America's first black president. It felt like victory on so many levels, and it was.

Back on the TV, Springsteen called Tom Morello on to the stage to sing the next song with him. The song was "The Ghost of Tom Joad," based on a character from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a book that played an important role in my own political maturation. Tom walked out wearing a black hat with the emblem of the Industrial Workers of the World, the "Wobblies," who were organizing interracial unions (in the Deep South!) before anyone else, about 50 years before the Civil Rights Act.

So, to review: Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, public broadcasting, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, Obama's inauguration, The Grapes of Wrath, and the IWW. I suppose you could combine even more of my favorite things, but it would involve Jesus juggling.

Here's Springsteen talking about Pete Seeger...

And here's "The Ghost of Tom Joad"

This video is actually from a different concert, but it was the best I
could find. They did an acoustic version at Pete Seeger's birthday.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Want Safer Mines? Democratize Them

In Whitesville, West Virginia, they're still searching for four missing miners after an explosion killed at least 25 in the Massey Energy Co.'s "Upper Big Branch" coal mine. In Shanxi province, China, they're still searching for 26 missing miners after flooding killed at least 12 in the state-owned Huajin Coking Coal Company's Wangjialing mine.

The non-union Whitesville mine had a long record of safety violations before the explosion, including violations just last month for repeatedly failing to develop and implement a ventilation plan for explosive gases. The Massey Energy Company also had a long record of paying civil and criminal fines for endangering mine workers, which Massey apparently treated as just another operating cost to pay and forget about. And surely Massey executives knew that if they waited long enough, the political winds in Washington would shift and the federal government's Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) would once again be staffed by representatives of the mining industry--basically coal companies policing coal companies. All the while, worker safety was just another cost to cut.

The Wangjialing mine is part of China's most deadly mining industry in the world. Even the Chinese government's official numbers of annual mine fatalities are at war-like levels. In 2003, at least 6,700 workers died in Chinese mines, but many suspect the actual number of deaths per year is closer to 20,000. Simply put, the Chinese government is racing to "modernize" the country--workers (and environment) be damned. In China, there are 7.29 deaths per million tons of coal produced, compared to 0.04 deaths in the United States.

Whether we're talking about West Virginia or Shanxi province, America's fourth largest coal company or the authoritarian Chinese government, mine workers are treated as pawns by the powerful interests that own and control the mines. A worker who speaks up about safety issues in a non-union mine in West Virginia will very likely be fired and also blacklisted by other mining companies. In China, that worker is likely to get prison or worse.

Others in the progressive blogosphere are right to say that if we want safer mines we should unionize them. Unionized mines in America are safer than non-union mines for a number of reasons. Union workers get better training, union workers are less afraid of company reprisals when they speak up with safety concerns, and union workers can accompany MSHA inspectors to make sure the regulators aren't just whistling through the inspections. In China on the other hand, independent unions (not controlled by the CCP or the government) of mine workers would be a societal game changer. Not only would independent unions improve the lot of China's 5 million coal miners--a big and strategic part of the economy--but they would also expose as a sham the Communist Party's claim that it represents China's working class. Independent unions are the bane of any authoritarian state but especially of authoritarian states that claim to be socialist.

So yes, we should unionize the mines. Unionize the mines everywhere. That ought to be a given. That ought to be the conservative approach to mine safety.

Why not take it a step further? Imagine if the workers at any given coal mine in Appalachia were also the owners of the mine. Of course they would be better off financially and so would their communities. But it would also mean that safety decisions are made by the very people whose safety is at stake. The workers would make sure they're as safe as possible while also controlling costs and running a profitable mine. Who better to find that balance than the workers themselves? No more tug-of-war between coal companies and Washington-based safety regulators. The worker-owners would have every incentive to regulate themselves.

Coal mine cooperatives. It's been done before, and it's been done well. In 1994, 239 miners in south Wales pooled together and bought their coal mine after British Coal decided to close it. They ran Tower Colliery profitably, maintaining hundreds of good jobs, for 13 years. They gave themselves good pay, a good pension system, 38 days holiday a year, and they put profits back into local community projects. And no boss ever put them in danger to make an extra buck. The mine was closed in 2008, when the coal deposit was finally exhausted, with a community celebration that was similar to the parade in 1994 when workers marched behind their union banner up to the mine they had just taken over.

It is the end of an era for many of the Tower miners who have come to the surface for the final time
Miners at the worker-owned Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, South Wales, 2008. (BBC)

The victory at Tower Colliery could be a model for coal mines everywhere. Right now miners' families are grieving in West Virginia and Shanxi and the world is grieving with them. But at some point we've got to ask, Who needs the bosses anyway? At some point there's got to be a movement to put all the power in the mines in the hands of the miners.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Resurrection Day: Killing Death Itself

Jesus preached a message that could not be tolerated by the entrenched powers of his day. He was therefore publicly tortured and executed by imperial soldiers at the behest of local clerics. They laid him in the grave. Today we celebrate that Jesus did not stay in the grave. He rose up, came out, and appeared to his followers and many others, launching a movement that became Christianity.

The One who said blessed are the poor and hungry and weeping and persecuted and woe to the rich and well fed and laughing and well thought of, now had really turned things upside down. A lot of what Jesus said and did was radical and revolutionary. But on Easter Sunday he launched the revolution against death itself. The ultimate tyrant is exposed as a paper tiger and, by extension, so is every tyrant.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?