Category Archives: occupy wall street

Waking Up to the Minority Vote, the New, Decisive Force in Post-Obama Politics


The South Carolina Democratic primary voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton as presidential candidate, by a margin of 50 percent over Bernie Sanders. Rather than analyzing the meaning of this vote, the media and the campaign professionals immediately turned to the candidates’ prospects on Super Tuesday, when a large number of states hold their primaries.

However, there are some important messages here which are obscured by a narrow focus on the political process. African Americans in South Carolina turned out in unprecedented numbers to participate in the primary – 6 out of 10 voters were black. And of those, 83 percent voted for Clinton. The Associated Press reported that in exit polls about 7 in 10 voters said they wanted the next president to continue Obama’s policies, indicating ideological agreement with Clinton’s strategy of building on his legacy.

The first thing to note is that the result should be seen as a class vote against the possibility of a Republican president. The relentless media reporting of Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda, together with the pronounced right-wing rhetoric of the Republican debates, are perceived rightly as a threat to black workers. Trump has succeeded in making abundantly explicit the racist basis of the Republican party, empowering extreme white supremacists, and making the Republican brand anathema among minorities. This goes a long way to undermining the Republican strategy of delegitimizing Democratic presidents and may lose them the Senate.

African Americans voted pragmatically for what they saw as the best candidate to defeat a Republican, and specifically, Trump.  Janell Ross commented in the Washington Post: “Black voters in South Carolina cast 6 in every 10 Democratic primary votes, according to CNN’s exit poll data. That ratio is huge — and sets a record-high in South Carolina black voter participation rate. The previous high was 55 percent, set in 2008, when the first black president was on his way to being elected. … these are its outcomes when black voters are convinced of their ability and authority to fundamentally shape American democracy. It is a result that should begin to crush the popular and often repeated myth that black political behavior in 2008 and 2012 was nothing more than a blip, a fleeting kind of emotion-only engagement inspired by a singular and history-making black candidate.”

Second, although a number of prominent black intellectuals like Michelle Alexander and Cornel West are highly critical of the Clintons’ record of legislation in the 1990s that led to mass incarceration of African American men and the dismantling of poverty programs, that message hasn’t reached the black working class. The history that black people remember is the vilification of Bill Clinton by the Republican Congress over the Monica Lewinsky affair, and, as Toni Morrison indicated by calling him the “first black president,” identified with his being hounded by the establishment.

Third, most black workers get their politics from their local churches and mainstream Democratic party leadership. And that was pro-Clinton and anti-Sanders. “A host of well-known, influential and well-connected black elected officials and leaders of civic and religious institutions have made their support for Clinton quite clear. And they have done everything possible to identify themselves as people opposed to a Sanders candidacy. … And, almost as if to say that the shooting death of an unarmed black person is the modern uber-black experience, the Clinton campaign has collected endorsements from several grieving black relatives. The mother of Trayvon Martin has even stumped for Clinton and explained her pro-Clinton voting rather logically in some detail. … Clinton [frames] issues like childcare and the gender wage gap, voting rights and criminal justice and gun policy reforms in ways that make their importance to black voters clear.”

Her political positioning as a champion of African American workers was prefigured in the Nevada primary. Clinton’s victory there was mainly due to the votes of casino workers in Las Vegas, who thanks to the efforts of Nevada senator Harry Reid were given time and opportunity to caucus at their places of work. In These Times contributor Steven Rosenfeld reported from one of the casinos: “Calvin Brooks, a Louisiana native, has been a bellman for 19 years in this hotel. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he explained why Clinton was his choice. ‘This is a union state. This is a union city. The president that we need today is somebody that will stand with us, to keep us together as a whole,’ he said. ‘My mind is made up for Hillary, someone who has been in the White House, not around it’.” Erlinda Falconer, an African-American women and blackjack dealer at the casino for 18 years, told Rosenfeld: “The majority of us realize how serious this election is and the impact it will have on our country and state. This is very, very important. There’s a lot on the line This isn’t a popularity contest. This is trying to get back on track.”

While earlier in the campaign Sanders took on board the criticisms of Black Lives Matter activists, he was too late to the party. Radicalized black youth may have challenged Clinton over her role in the 1990s, but they haven’t influenced the older majority. On Wednesday she was confronted at a fundraiser in Charleston by Ashley Williams, a Black Lives Matter protester, who demanded she apologize for the consequences of her husband’s 1994 crime bill and for having called black youth “super-predators” in a 1996 speech on crime.

Moreover, white progressives have difficulty dealing with race. Sanders’ attempt to reduce racial issues to economics are in line with his social-democratic outlook. But this perspective is inadequate to deal with the complex interrelations of class and race in America. The Washington Post commented: “Clinton doesn’t shy away from race. Sanders talks about race, too, of course. But he seems to do so at a remove, and his attempts to make a convincing link between his economic message and race continue to fall short. … Clinton openly talks about the necessary role that whites must play in healing and bridging the racial divide.” This has resonated with African Americans who resent being told that they are responsible for dealing with white resistance to acknowledging the role of slavery and the defeat of Reconstruction in American society.

Whoever wins the nomination and presidency, the social, cultural and demographic changes in the US are asserting themselves in the elections. The narrative of an “anti-establishment” vote is being superseded by a class consciousness that empowers African American and Latino voters. The realities of class struggle in America today require tackling racism head-on, something that the left has not attempted since the 1930s when the American Communist party sent members into the South to organize black and white workers into unions, risking their lives in the process.

Rather than tying the fortunes of the left to Sanders’ coat-tails, it needs to address the movements that have built up around this election and build an inclusive and pluralist movement that takes the heritage of the Occupy movement into new territory.

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Filed under 2016 Election, African Americans, Bernie Sanders, Democratic primaries, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, Obama, occupy wall street, Republicans, Uncategorized

Eric Holder’s Legacy – Justice For All Except For Bankers


Eric Holder announced Thursday his decision to resign as Attorney General of Obama’s administration. His tenure has left a contradictory legacy, which in many ways mirrors that of Obama’s presidency. Both men believe in a strong federal state that will enforce civil rights. However, the corollary of this belief is that the state has to be kept strong by purging dissidents – whistleblowers like Edward Snowden from within and “terrorists” from without.

After Holder’s announcement, the NAACP called him “one of the finest attorneys general in the nation’s history,” while the ACLU on the other hand cited his record of approving the legality of drone killings of US citizens, approving the NSA’s mass surveillance program, failing to prosecute any Bush administration officials for torture, instead prosecuting whistleblowers and journalists.

His main achievements have been in the field of criminal justice policy: reforming federal drug law sentencing minimums, which disproportionately impacted African Americans, finding ways to sue states for passing discriminatory voter-ID laws even after the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, and criticizing “stand your ground” laws after Trayvon Martin’s killing. He met personally with Ferguson residents and activists to talk about racial profiling, and pressured the police department to stop officers wearing bracelets bearing the message “I am Darren Wilson,” the officer who shot Michael Brown.

Holder earned the enmity of Republican politicians for reinvigorating the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. He challenged them soon after Obama’s inauguration: “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” he said. His bête noire, Republican congressman Darrell Issa, who had Congress declare him to be in contempt over the ill-fated “Operation Fast and Furious,” described Holder as the “most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history … needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement.” Surely there must be a market for t-shirts with the slogan: “I am in contempt of Darell Issa.”

The two radically different sides of his record were discussed in an important debate on Democracy Now: Robert Weissman of Public Citizen criticized his failure to prosecute any of the Wall Street executives responsible for the banking crash of 2008 and subsequent recession. The Justice Department “decided not to criminally prosecute them, on the grounds that they were too big to fail, or, as it became known, too big to jail. Essentially, a decision was taken that if you are a financial institution and you become big enough and powerful enough, you are above the criminal law.”

Sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson responded that Holder’s reforms of the justice system far outweighed his failure to prosecute bank criminals, because of the disproportionate imprisonment of the poor and minorities. He accused the left of neglecting “what is important to the masses and millions of people who were never under the purview even of the white left to be concerned about some of the issues that African-American people and Latino people … have been concerned about.”

Dyson argued that the left also underestimated the importance of racial politics in impeding black people in government taking an aggressive posture toward the banks. Since there had been uproar when Obama mildly criticized police who arrested Harvard professor Skip Gates, “in its real political context,” he said, “what do you think will happen then if Eric Holder, as the first African-American attorney general, is seen to be going after mostly white CEOs and other corporate titans within the economic infrastructure? … To ask him to … overcome an entire history of structural and perceptual inequalities that exist, I think is just asking too much.”

The flaw in Dyson’s argument is that he, like Obama and Holden, identifies power with the political establishment and not popular sovereignty. The uproar over the Skip Gates affair came entirely from within this establishment and its attendant media, not from the social movement that elected Obama precisely in order to settle accounts with the banks that defunded thousands of minority communities with subprime loans. It was Obama’s belief that banks are the “lifeblood of the economy” that led him to support the bank bailout, not his aversion to the headline “Nation’s First Black President Allows Financial Institutions to Fail.” Both he and Holder share an ideology that holds the rich must be allowed to continue enriching themselves for the poor to have equal rights – if not equal wealth.

The Occupy movement was in many ways a continuation of the movement that elected Obama, and far from having vanished, has splintered into a thousand community-based activist groups which are actively fighting on issues of concern to African Americans and Latinos, from housing to cancellation of subprime loans to low wages and lack of jobs.

Holder oversaw and encouraged the militarization of the nation’s police forces, which became concrete and visible in Ferguson. Security and constitutional rights issues may seem removed from the daily problems of the poor and minorities, but the build-up of resources in the name of Homeland Security is creating a force to suppress domestic resistance and preventing it from getting traction in poor communities.

Holder’s role model as Attorney General was Robert Kennedy – and in this lies the key to the contradictions in his record. He sees civil rights as something administered to the poor by an enlightened elite, relying on the federal state rather than social movements to enforce rights and ameliorate the excesses of a capitalist economy. But to be able to successfully do that, from this point of view, the elite and state must be protected by suppressing opponents and whistleblowers who could uncover the inner deliberations of the political class.

It was the determined protests by Ferguson residents that brought Holder to the city and made him push for federal intervention to reform the police department. That fight is by no means over, and looks set to continue until officer Darren Wilson is charged with Michael Brown’s killing. Justice under the law is one thing, but real social justice needs a much bigger movement to achieve it. The good news is that signs of such an inclusive and pluralist movement are present in the Fight for 15 and other struggles in America today.

[UPDATE] Anticipating Holder’s retirement, Cornel West told Salon in August that Obama sent Holder to Ferguson because he was “on his way out.” “He’s concerned about his legacy as if he’s somehow been swinging for black folk ever since he’s been in there,” he said. “That’s a lie … He’s made a couple of gestures in regards to the New Jim Crow and the prison-industrial complex, but that’s just lately, on his way out. He was there for six years and didn’t do nothing.” When Ferguson residents reacted to arbitrary police power, “what happens is you got Eric Holder going in trying to create the calm. But you also got Al Sharpton. And when you say the name Al Sharpton, the word integrity does not come to mind. So you got low-quality black leadership. Al Sharpton is who? He’s a cheerleader for Obama.”

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Filed under African Americans, Eric Holder, fast-food workers, Ferguson, Fight for 15, financiers, Obama, occupy wall street, Trayvon Martin

Dangerous Demagogues Are Not the Answer to Corporate Oligarchs


Walmart moms protest for a living wage

Walmart moms protest for a living wage

The unexpected defeat of House leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primaries shows that the Republican leadership has lost its grip on the populist forces encouraged by the party’s shift to the right. The pundits are characterizing Cantor’s unseating by tea-party challenger David Brat as the result of hardline opposition to immigration reform. More importantly, however, Brat leveraged a tectonic shift in the hostility of the Republican base to the ties of the Congressional leadership to big business and Wall Street.

Rightwing Brat supporter and radio commentator Laura Ingraham summed up this shift: “The American people are sitting by, seeing their wealth deteriorate, their prospects go under, their future dismal. Meanwhile politicians either throw up their hands or outright lie to them about the situation.” Conservative Bill Kristol called Brat’s campaign “a broad assault on GOP elites who put the interests of American corporations over American workers, of D.C. lobbyists over American families.”

Talking Points Memo notes that Cantor himself was chiefly responsible for “the loud, showy, total-war nature of Republican opposition — summoning up the forces that defeated him last night. From day one — literally, the night of President Obama’s first inauguration — Cantor was leading the charge to not just oppose Obama, but to delegitimize him … It was a deeply cynical maneuver, but a successful one. Cantor helped unite the Republican caucus around this scorched-earth strategy, and played a major role in the 2010 campaign that leveraged the grim results of that strategy into a new majority.”

Brat mobilized Republican activists not just by his intransigent opposition to immigration reform but also by connecting it with Cantor’s close alliances with corporate interests, channeling grassroots resentment of the Republican elite. During his campaign, he stated: “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”

His rhetoric merged xenophobia with hostility to corporate control of Congress. John Nichols comments in The Nation: “Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. ‘Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,’ the challenger argued.”

The New York Times reports that the impact of Cantor’s downfall was felt most strongly on the New York Stock Exchange. “The share price of Boeing tumbled, wiping out all the gains it had made this year, a drop analysts attributed to the startling defeat. … Mr. Cantor’s loss is much more than just symbolism. He has been one of Wall Street’s most reliable benefactors in Congress. And Mr. Brat used that fact to deride the majority leader as someone who had rigged the financial system. In one recent speech, he accused lawmakers like Mr. Cantor of favoring ‘special tax credits to billionaires instead of taking care of us, the normal folks’.”

But Brat’s demagogy frames the economic crisis in national terms. This rhetoric is a dangerous diversion from real opposition to corporate oligarchy. As an extreme libertarian, he opposes an increase in the minimum wage; in fact, he opposes any kind of legislated minimum wage at all. While Brat appealed to the anxiety of his Republican base over their loss of prospects, low-paid workers are responding to the same erosion of living standards by striking for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Reportedly Walmart and McDonald’s, unlike Republican ideologists, are in favor of a move that would increase the buying power of the poor and also their corporate bottom line, but even with a higher hourly wage, employees are often scheduled to work fewer hours than will give them enough to live on.

“Walmart Moms” supported by Our Walmart held strikes in a number of major cities the first week of June, including Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Taking a leaf from the Occupy movement, they also demonstrated outside the home of Walmart board chairman Rob Walton in Paradise Valley, Arizona, demanding annual wages of at least $25,000, more full-time openings and an end to retaliation against workers who speak out against their conditions.

According to the Guardian, mother of three Linda Haluska said she was striking in solidarity with others who earn less, and what she described as worsening conditions at the company. “I’ve seen things change: the erratic scheduling, the lack of flexibility. It’s hard to get a day off when you want. They make it very clear that Walmart comes first. Your job is always on the line.” Haluska said that some of her co-workers on the night shift who can’t afford cars have to wait outside for up to an hour for the bus to arrive – a situation some staff said was potentially dangerous.

Erratic scheduling means that incomes fluctuate from week to week, making it difficult if not impossible to budget for a family. Sarah Jaffe writes “Gail Todd, who works at the Walmart in Landover Hills, Maryland, knows this struggle all too well. A mother of three, she used to have an ‘open schedule’ – meaning she had to be available to work anytime, day or night – so childcare was a constant problem. But when Todd limited her work available to care for her children, her hours got cut back, sometimes to as few as 12 per seven days.”

The Real News reported: “The Demos report [on low-wage industries] found that women who make an average hourly wage of $10.58 are disproportionately represented in low-wage retail positions and face unstable and inconsistent work hours, even with full-time positions. The study found that a wage floor of $25,000 per year at major retailers would amount to a 27 percent pay raise and, quote, ‘would lift hundreds of thousands of women and their family members out of poverty, and hundreds of thousands more would emerge from near-poverty’.”

The stark disparity between the subsistence standard of living between Walmart’s workers and the Waltons, who next to the Koch brothers are Americas most prominent oligarchs is an obscene scandal in a society which holds as its core values fairness and equal opportunity. But when government actively abets the growing inequality, it opens the doors to demagogues like David Brat.

Walmart managed to obtain $104 million in federal subsidies over six years because of tax deductions for “performance-based” executive compensation. Eight top executives were given more than $298 million in “performance pay” that was fully tax-deductible, despite Walmart’s poor economic performance over this period. CEOs and billionaire company owners have every incentive to use their wealth to distort the democratic process and cement their control over Congress. But in doing so, they have destabilized the democratic process and unleashed a dangerous political backlash. This can be countered by the men and women who across the country are fighting for a living wage that is fair for all.

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Filed under fast-food workers, Neoliberalism, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, Tea Party movement, Uncategorized, Walmart, walmart strikes

Revive the spirit of Occupy to defeat re-segregation


Gary Younge raises the awkward truth that, on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation in the U.S., the country is far from showing progress toward racial equality in education and is in fact going backwards.

As white suburban dwellers secede from the problems of inner city school districts, setting up charter schools or carving out their own academic enclaves, race and class disadvantages are concentrated in systems with dwindling resources. Younge writes in the Nation: “Schools are re-segregating, legislation is being gutted, it’s getting harder to vote, large numbers are being deprived of their basic rights through incarceration, and the economic disparities between black and white are growing. In many areas, America is becoming more separate and less equal.”

Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguing the case for reparations for slavery in the Atlantic magazine, has described how the physical fact of inner city racial segregation was a result of government policy. He told Democracy Now: “In the 1930’s and the 1940’s, we set up the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], we set up the Home Owners Loan Corporation. We set up specific bureaus to make our communities look the way they look. In 1995, I took a trip to Chicago, my first time as an adult and I was writing down the Dan Ryan Expressway, and at that time there was the longest row of projects, public housing I think in North America along that corridor. And it struck me as a moral disaster. What I did not understand at that time was that this was actually planned, that African-Americans had been cut out of any sort of legitimate housing program during the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s. Instead we got was public housing built on a segregated basis at that point — in that particular case, on the Southside of Chicago. There’s no way to understand housing as it exists today without federal policy. Black people, as was the thinking at the time, could not be responsible home-loaners.”

Coates gives more detail of how African Americans were excluded from the suburbs in his Atlantic article. “It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation,” he says, “not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites.” He concludes: “The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”

The political consequences of these racist presumptions is spelled out by Paul Kantor of Fordham University: “By the 1970s … the population movement to the suburbs and Sunbelt, together with national partisan electoral realignments, diminished the importance of central city electorates in national party coalitions. This triggered almost continuous political marginalization of the cities during succeeding years. Fueled by a powerful conservative tide and a new Republican political majority, the last decades of the century witnessed almost continuous withdrawal of the federal government from the cities and the elimination or diminution of national urban programs.”

One of the most politically divided states is Wisconsin, where there is an extreme concentration of Democratic voters in urban Milwaukee, and conservative Republican voters in the outer suburbs. White flight has made the city of Milwaukee majority nonwhite, while the surrounding suburbs of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee are less than 2% African-American and less than 5% Hispanic. A recent in-depth article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that distance from urban centers, rather than income or education, is the best barometer of a community’s political orientation: whites in less densely populated outer suburbs are more Republican than whites closer in. In metro areas with concentrated urban poverty and crime, racial and political polarization is high. According to Wisconsin state legislator Mandela Barnes, concentration of poverty in Milwaukee feeds “this perception (outside Milwaukee) that there’s a ‘culture of takers.’ And that can become political fodder.”

Social divisions – between urban and rural, urban and suburban, even different parts of the same city – underlie today’s political polarization, but do not completely explain it. While the Sentinel article argues that racial segregation is driving political segregation, the antagonism is the result of the creation of an ideological myth that state welfare benefits a dependent urban (black) class at the expense of tax-paying suburbanites. White flight gave the myth a social basis, but ideological work had to be done to create the imaginary of the “welfare queen.”

Republicans from the time of Nixon and Reagan have leveraged this social estrangement to justify cutting social spending and to conceal business-subsidizing legislation behind “cultural” diversions. The super-rich have succeeded in pushing the Republican party even further to the right by sharpening the same ideological differences to an extreme through a barrage of propaganda and skewed cable news.

Although partisan polarization has created a political impasse in Congress, the American public is in remarkable agreement on class issues despite their partisan allegiances: preserving the remaining social safety net and the need for a living wage for the low-paid. Seattle city council has already passed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage, the California Senate passed a bill pushing the state’s minimum wage to $13 by 2017, and in Chicago, nearly half of the city council has signed on to a $15 minimum wage law.

It also was public pressure that took cuts to social security off the table, forced the government to make at least token reforms to the NSA, and forestalled military intervention in Syria.

There needs to be an ideological struggle against neoliberal tea-party ideas that the poor and socially deprived are the “takers” in society. It was because the Occupy movement so effectively dramatized the inequality that gives the top tenth of the top one percent all the increase in social wealth that it was so determinedly stamped out by the Obama administration. The left should change its focus from party political differences to campaign on issues that unite the American public.

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Filed under African Americans, low-waged, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, poverty, public schools, Republicans

Confronting corporate Goliaths with Occupy tactics as fast-food and Walmart workers protest low pay


Walmart protesters at Hadley, Mass, on Black Friday last week

Walmart protesters at Hadley, Mass, on Black Friday last week

A one-day strike of fast-food workers in over 100 U.S. cities on Thursday, together with protests at 1,500 Walmart stores on “Black Friday” last week, marks a significant escalation of the campaign for a higher minimum wage. Low pay has become a focus for activist groups around the country, bringing them together and creating political pressure on Democrats.

NBC reports: “In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums while marching into a McDonald’s at around 6:30 a.m.; one startled customer grabbed his food and fled as they flooded the restaurant, while another didn’t look up from eating and reading amid their chants of ‘We can’t survive on $7.25!’ ”

The fast-food strikes, demanding a $15 minimum hourly wage, began in Manhattan eight months ago and have spread to locations as far apart as Chicago, Washington D.C, Boston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Detroit, as well as Memphis and Raleigh, N.C., in the traditionally union-resistant South. The recent elections in New York resulted in the city’s three top positions — mayor, public advocate and comptroller — all being filled by supporters of the campaign.

Jonathan Westin, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, told the New York Times that the tactic of the roaming one-day strike was influenced by Occupy Wall Street’s success in inserting the theme of the 1 percent into the national conversation. “Confronting power more openly and publicly and directly,” he said, “that came straight from Occupy.”

The influence of Occupy is also clear from the “mic-check” protocol followed by protesters flooding the New York McDonald’s. Camille Rivera of United New York explained to Democracy Now how the protests were organized by coalitions of community organizations. She told Amy Goodman: “we have been, for the past year and a half, working with other, you know, organizations, clergy, etc., to create a support network for these workers.” When workers faced employer intimidation, “we’ve had community and clergy go there and do delegations and talk to the owners, demanding—from the communities themselves, saying, ‘You will not do this in my community. You will not intimidate workers’.”

Rivera said: “people are actually organizing on the ground on their own, as well … we get information online where workers say, ‘I’m in … Kansas, and I’m actually going to strike my store today.’… And it’s because what they’ve seen in New York and what they’ve seen across the country.”

A comparatively small number of Walmart employees took part in the Black Friday protests because of the company’s threats and firings of employees who joined protest actions last year. However, as with the fast-food strikers, they were backed up by large numbers of labor and community activists, over 100 of whom were arrested as they carried out civil disobedience actions. More than one participant made the comparison to the civil rights movement.

Democracy Now reports: “In St. Paul, Minnesota, 26 protesters were arrested when they blocked traffic while demanding better wages for janitors and retail employees. In Illinois, 10 people were issued citations at a protest near a Wal-Mart in Chicago. Video posted online showed nine people being arrested at a protest outside a Wal-Mart store in Alexandria, Virginia. At Wal-Mart protests in California, 15 people were arrested in Roseville, 10 arrested in Ontario, and five arrested in San Leandro.”

In Hadley, Mass, a crowd of around 200 coordinated by Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice braved frigid weather to support two Walmart employees who recently went on a one-day strike for better treatment. Shoppers and passers-by were clearly aware of the low-wage campaign: some showed displeasure but many showed their support by honking their horns – in 2012, shoppers had no idea what was going on and were confused by the protests.

Elaine Rozier, who has worked at a Miami, Florida, Walmart for eight years, told supporters in Seacaucus, New Jersey: “I’ve come today to represent all the silent Wal-Mart workers that are afraid to stand up for their rights. I’m here to represent the nation, to let the Walmart corporation know that we’re not standing back.” She had traveled to the New Jersey store with Mark Bowers and Colby Harris, two Walmart workers from Texas. Harris told In These Times: “I’m getting arrested because Wal-Mart has continued to retaliate against the associates who’ve been speaking up,” before sitting down in the middle of the street.

The rapidly-growing grassroots movement against low pay has been reflected in Washington, as Obama picked up the rhetoric about growing inequality. While his speech impressed Paul Krugman, Obama’s call for Congress to increase the federal minimum wage was an empty one. Washington is so mired in partisan deadlock it is unlikely to ever implement such a policy; Obama himself refuses to even reply to a call by congressional Democrats to take presidential executive action to raise the wages of workers employed through federal government contracts.

Because of the congressional stalemate, the political momentum of the issue has bypassed Washington and gone local. As well as the vote for a $15 minimum wage at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, according to the Washington Post, “The California legislature, which is dominated by Democrats, passed a law over Republican objections this year to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016. Massachusetts lawmakers also are considering a $10 wage. New Jersey voters endorsed an $8.25 wage this month, even while voting overwhelmingly to reelect Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed it.”

This is an indicator that politics in America is being reshaped. The schemes of Wall Street hedge funds, backed by billionaire-funded conservative groups, to plunder the remaining wealth of the middle class will unite more sections of society in the struggle for a fair wage. The struggle against corporate Goliaths like Walmart and McDonald’s asserts the dignity of the lives of workers and their families against those who have degraded it for too long.

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Filed under austerity measures, fast-food workers, low-waged, Obama, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, Paul Krugman, poverty, strikes, Walmart, walmart strikes

Occupy Squared: With Progressive Victories, Voters Oppose the Republican and Democrat Transfer of Wealth to the 1%


Last Tuesday’s election results confirm a significant divergence between the American public and the political establishment. Voters voiced their resounding opposition to austerity politics and the corporatist policies followed by both the Republican right and the Obama administration. They gave enthusiastic support to social programs paid for by higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage, and a defense of public schools from privatization.

Obama’s “Grand Bargain” to rationalize healthcare, foreign policy, and the US deficit is foundering on the groundswell of resistance to neoliberal policies on one side, and a Republican party on the other determined to prevent any meaningful attempt to extend welfare benefits to those most in poverty.

E.J. Dionne comments: “To say that this election nudged the nation leftward is not to claim a sudden mandate for liberalism. But it is to insist that the center ground in American politics is a long way from where it was three years ago — and that if there is a new populism in the country, it is now speaking with a decidedly progressive accent.”

The most significant feature of Bill de Blasio’s crushing victory in the New York mayoral election was his support across demographic lines, from the working poor and middle class to much more affluent voters in Manhattan. What enabled him to overcome the opposition of the media, Wall Street, and a number of city union leaders was the receptiveness of New Yorkers to the growing plight of the low-waged and minorities in the world’s most income-segregated city. His call to tax the rich in order to provide much-needed services for the working poor resonated strongly with the public, as well as his pledge to end police stop-and-frisk policies directed against young people of color.

It was not an isolated success: the most progressive city council in many years was installed in New York, and across the country electoral victories for anti-austerity candidates in Boston, Virginia, and Washington state demonstrated the change in the public mood.

The New York Times reported that the political makeup of the City Council has been drastically changed. “The elected public advocate, Letitia James, a forceful liberal, has spoken emphatically for people seen as marginalized. … For decades, the City Council formed a culturally and fiscally conservative bulwark against the effusions of liberal mayors. It too has grown markedly liberal. This is because of assiduous organizing by the Working Families Party and to the reality of New York: From the hills of the central Bronx to the immigrant-rich flats of Queens and the lower middle-class neighborhoods of Staten Island, the incomes are static and the benefits few.”

The Working Families Party’s executive director Danny Cantor explained on Democracy Now that “the lesson of the de Blasio and the council victories, is that people actually like what we’re talking about when we say, wages ought to be higher, people’s lives ought to be a bit more secure, transportation ought to be a massive investment, so on and so forth. … We are living … in the world Occupy made, for sure … we are the beneficiaries of what they did in terms of making this inequality … the core issue of our time.” The party is based on community activists and labor leaders, he said. “It’s a party of labor, but not a labor party; a party of blacks, not a black party; party of greens, not a green party. You can’t do any of those things in America. It’s too complicated of a country to just be one constituency.”

He referred to the success of another initiative in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an anti-privatization slate took over the school board: “parents and working families and teachers sort of rebelled against the, you know, ‘no child left untested’ crowd that really wanted to privatize, and they won. … I think it’s going to reverberate in … the school reform wars around the country.”

In Boston, too, former union leader Marty Walsh was elected mayor, despite strong attacks from the media. John Nichols pointed out: “They created a video up there that showed him at a rally protesting Scott Walker’s policies in Wisconsin, and said, ‘Do you want this kind of person as your mayor?’ Well, Boston decided they did want that kind of person as their mayor.”

In SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle, voters supported a mandate for a $15 an hour minimum wage for airport, hotel, and restaurant workers. The local economy is based on the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was hard hit by outsourcing. Union leader David Rolf explained: “These airport jobs, like baggage handlers, ramp workers, jet fuelers, concessionaires, these are jobs that paid $16, $18 an hour back in the 1970s and the 1980s. They used to be living-wage jobs. … That’s all changed. The major airlines outsourced those jobs and turned them into minimum-wage jobs, which impoverished a whole community. So SeaTac saw its grocery store become a Goodwill and its video store become a pawnshop because the impoverishment of those jobs hurt the whole community.” Voters took the opportunity “to say to CEOs and to Congress that they’re impatient with waiting for them to do the right thing for American workers and it’s time we took matters into our own hands.”

The close result in the Virginia governor’s election was a referendum on the hold of the Tea Party on Republican legislators. Political commentator Ronald Brownstein writes: “[Democratic candidate] McAuliffe essentially replicated the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ that allowed President Obama to carry the state twice. Like Obama, McAuliffe triumphed by combining just enough socially liberal college-educated whites with an overwhelming margin among minorities to overcome a cavernous deficit among blue-collar whites. … According to the exit poll, [Tea Party Republican] Cuccinelli carried Virginia’s white voters without a college degree by 69 percent to 25 … McAuliffe captured nearly four-fifths of nonwhite Virginia voters.”

The Southern white working class does not figure in official Democratic party strategy, but this is challenged by progressives who aim to articulate the frustrations of the working poor. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to win over workers who currently vote against their class interests. He believes they will respond to an uncompromising socialist message; speaking to an In These Times reporter, he said: “These are people who are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, these are people who want Social Security defended, they want to raise the minimum wage, they want changes in our trade policy. And to basically concede significant parts of America, including the South, to the right-wing is to me not only stupid politics, but even worse than that—you just do not turn your backs on millions and millions of working people.”

The escalating campaigns for a higher minimum wage and recognition of worker rights at companies like Walmart are also showing signs of impatience with the stranglehold of corporate Democrats on the Obama administration. The public is demanding more fundamental change than the government can deliver. It’s time for a rebirth of the socialist tradition in America.

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Filed under health care, low-waged, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, poverty, public schools, Republicans, Walmart

Uniting to Resist the Squeeze of the Plutocratic State: Fighting the NSA, Unfair Wages, and the Destruction of the Social Safety Net


Thousands demonstrated in Washington and across the US yesterday to protest NSA spying on citizens’ phone calls and electronic communications. A very broad coalition crossed political lines, reflecting a genuine popular movement. Although the “Stop Watching Us” rally was ignored by the mass media, an excellent account of it was carried by Russia Today.

The protest united organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Green Party, Color of Change and Daily Kos to the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as individuals like Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei and journalist Glenn Greenwald; a punk band, YACHT, performed their song “Party at the NSA/Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours a day!”

Banners and speeches thanked Edward Snowden for revealing the extent of government surveillance, and a statement from him was read to the crowd by Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project: “Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands.” He denied that surveillance was anything to do with countering terrorism:  “It is about power, control, and trust in government; about whether you have a voice in our democracy or decisions are made for you rather than with you. We’re here to remind our government officials that they are public servants, not private investigators,” he said.

Snowden’s revelation that the US is also spying on foreign leaders’ personal phone calls has created more than diplomatic embarrassment. The international relations of the US have been weakened and its Anglophone accomplices in surveillance (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) isolated at a time when these connections are central to the institution of new trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which gives transnational powers to US corporations. These negotiations are now unlikely to be completed before the end of the year deadline because other states in Southeast Asia and the Americas are pushing back against the terms of the agreement that undermine their national sovereignty. In addition, the government shutdown and impending debt ceiling standoff has called into question the dollar’s facilitation of world trade.

In Congress, Tea Party ideologues have done more than split the Republican party; they have also disrupted Obama’s efforts to rationalize the US state while containing domestic dissent within the established political system. Despite the acquiescence of the political elite, Obama has been unable to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans that trades minor tax increases on the rich for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Robert Reich comments that Washington’s political discourse has been framed entirely “around the size of government and the budget deficit – thereby diverting attention from what’s really going on:  the increasing concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top, while most Americans fall further and further behind.”

The plutocratic campaign to avoid taxes, defund the state, and minimize regulation has jeopardized the US’s role in maintaining the conditions for international capital accumulation. But this crisis pales in comparison to its impact on the domestic situation. As Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer pointed out, “Deep in the politics of the shutdown lies another truth: that it was all about taxes — about, to be more specific, the unwillingness of the Republicans to raise a penny of new tax revenue, even by closing egregious loopholes that give billions away to the richest Americans.  Simply shutting down the tax break on capital gains and dividends (at $83 billion annually) would be more than enough to triple funding for Head Start, domestic violence protection, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, and cancer care at the NIH.”

The media obsession with the Tea Party has masked the fact that real poverty has increased, especially in the South and West. The middle class has been hit by job cuts and mortgage defaults and is sinking into the ranks of the poor.  Millenials are jobless or low-waged and unable to pay back huge student loans. Meanwhile, CEOs’ compensation is skyrocketing while the average wage has plateaued. According to a new study, based on a federal meals program as a proxy for poverty, a majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades. “Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011,” reported the Washington Post. “A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools. But by 2011, almost half of the nation’s 50 million public-school students — 48 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In some states, such as Mississippi, that proportion rose as high as 71 percent.”

Resistance doesn’t make the headlines, but is building in different forms. The low-waged campaign for a $15 minimum wage is, of necessity, not an economic strike struggle, but is aimed at mobilizing public opinion against highly-paid CEOs, leveraging the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. The overwhelming support for Bill DeBlasio in the New York mayoral election is a sign of the popular reception of politicians who – at least rhetorically – address the actual problems faced by voters and oppose the enrichment of the one percent. Unrepentant Marxists like Louis Proyect have questioned his character, but this focus misses the significance of the support he is getting for an openly left populist platform. No doubt he will make compromises with the financial class, as anyone with connections to the Clintons would, but his support for fast-food workers in New York City does more than burnish his populist credentials. It also gives major legislative encouragement to the broadening of their campaign.

The Nation comments: “… de Blasio’s appearance Wednesday outside a downtown Burger King signaled a potentially new moment for both city politics and Fast Food Forward, the coalition behind New Yorkers fast-food worker campaign. As the mayor-apparent of New York City, de Blasio is not just some scrappy, local pol offering a thumbs up to a worthy cause; he is a rising political power with a broad mandate and potentially national platform (indeed, de Blasio is now one of the highest-ranking elected officials to embrace the fast-food workers’ movement).”

Another signal of the popular mood is the viral internet response to comedian Russell Brand’s BBC interview, not only because of his articulation of the estrangement the public feels from the parliamentary process, but also because of his spirited deconstruction of the arguments of the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Brand insisted that voting had not stopped the corruption of politicians or the jeopardy of the planet and that the political system had created a disenfranchised public that it failed to serve. “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he said. He placed the blame for voter apathy on a system that no longer heard or addressed the vast majority of people, suggesting that politicians were only interested in “serving the needs of corporations” and that an administrative system based on the “massive redistribution of wealth” should replace the status quo.

The indications are that the corporate-led squeeze on workers and the push of the wealthiest to destroy the social safety net has created the possibility of a renewal of protests along the lines of the Occupy movement, but on a vastly broader scale. The tactics of the old Occupy confined direct participation to those able to spend nights away from home or work. A more extensive and diverse challenge to the plutocratic hijacking of the political system may well appear in the next few months, with the restoration of popular sovereignty at its heart.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, low-waged, Medicare, National Security Agency, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, poverty, Tea Party movement