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Bold Expansion of Fight for $15 Campaign as it Challenges Presidential Hopefuls


Fight for 15 protesters outside the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday

Fight for 15 protesters outside the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday

The political process in America has become dominated by a clash between the power of big money in elections on one hand, and a deep-seated public hostility to the sway that corporations and the rich wield over government on the other, a clash intensified by the rampant growth of inequality while wages remain stagnant.

At the same time, the racial hierarchy is challenged by minority youth who are no longer prepared to accept being treated as second-class citizens by the authorities and the police. In the universities, the self-assertion of a new generation of students is an important reflection of this social change. African American students at the University of Missouri this week forced two top officials to resign over their lack of response to racist incidents on campus, and the dean of Claremont McKenna College in California also resigned amid similar protests. At Ithaca College in New York State, thousands of students, faculty and staff walked out demanding the sacking of the college president. The protesters accuse him of responding inadequately to racist incidents, including one where an African-American graduate was repeatedly called a “savage” by two white male alumni.

Meanwhile the Fight for $15 campaign is having an impact on the political dialog as it expresses growing discontent over low wages across the racial divide. Its under-reported day of action on Tuesday mobilized thousands of fast food workers who struck their jobs in 270 cities, joining many thousands more who marched on local city halls to demand that political candidates support an increase in the minimum wage if they want the workers’ votes.

Developments like this disconcert white Republicans, whose anger is driven by resentment at the loss of white privilege as well as distrust of government. But the rise of populism in the electorate coincides with skepticism that the leaders of either party can do anything to halt the slide in living standards or jobs. This is why the Republican rank and file is paradoxically supporting outlier candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the presidential primaries rather than the establishment contenders. Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz noted that “a sense of anger” at the decline of the American middle class is common to both Republicans and Democrats, but “the problem is that on the Republican side there’s anger, but it’s basically inchoate.”

Whether or not Trump continues to lead the polls, he has brought to the fore a major gulf between the Republican establishment’s policies and its ageing constituency. His slogans and demeanor resonate with voters like Steve Trivett, a newspaper editor in Florida. who told the Washington Post: “When America was great, our economy was strong. Our economy’s been shipped off to other countries. Can Donald Trump solve that? Hell, I don’t know. Somebody not as flamboyant or egomaniacal might be more effective, but I’m not sure anybody can bring us back. At least Trump gets things done.”

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was surprised to find that many Tea Partiers and Republicans he met on a recent book tour of the Southern states agreed with his critique of capitalism. “Most condemned what they called ‘crony capitalism,’ by which they mean big corporations getting sweetheart deals from the government because of lobbying and campaign contributions,” he said. “They see Trump as someone who’ll stand up for them – a countervailing power against the perceived conspiracy of big corporations, Wall Street, and big government.” While conservative leaders want to cut Social Security and Medicare, a majority of Republican voters, along with the rest of the public, wants to keep them funded or even expanded.

Ironically, this is a major plank of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ platform, along with opposition to corporate control of the political process, but while he has succeeded in pushing Hillary Clinton into a more populist position, his message of defending middle class living standards is not reaching many African Americans and Latinos who in the main have historically been excluded from the middle class and instinctively turn to a stronger federal government for protection, which they identify with the Clinton dynasty.

In support of the Fight for 15 day of action, Sanders joined employees of federal contractors who gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday instead of reporting for work and then staged sit-ins at government building cafeterias. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton tweeted that low-wage workers’ actions are “changing our country for the better.” Predictably, when Republican politicians were asked if they supported a higher minimum wage during Tuesday’s televised debate, they all replied no. But the fact the question was asked at all was due to the presence of hundreds of Fight for 15 protesters outside the Milwaukee venue. After the debate, the Fight for $15 sent out a text message to supporters: “BREAKING: Donald Trump just said: ‘Wages are too high.’ #Fightfor15 response: See you in Nov 2016.”

The core of the Fight for 15 movement is fast food workers who are overwhelmingly black and Latino, but on Tuesday they were joined by FedEx freight handlers, T-Mobile retail employees, Price Rite retail employees, auto part workers and farm workers, as well as employees of federal contractors, home-care and child-care workers and other low-wage workers.

Significantly, the campaign has expanded further into the anti-union deep South and has taken on board the police killing of African Americans and immigration rights. For the first time, protesters in Selma, Alabama and in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Florida, joined the walkouts, together with workers in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Letisha Irby, who works at a factory making car seats for Hyundai in Selma, Alabama, drove 76 miles after her shift to join a protest in Tuscaloosa. She only makes $12 an hour after working at the plant for 10 years. Irby is a supporter of the United Auto Workers, who have been trying to organize her plant in Selma and have so far not succeeded.

In Chicago, Fight for 15 protesters marched to police headquarters calling for the firing of Dante Servin, the officer who shot and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd three years ago. And in Manhattan, Juan Sanchez reported that “leaders of the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements joined ranks in a united front with Fight for 15. Their placards proclaimed the new alliance’s slogan: ‘Economic Justice = Racial Justice = Immigrant Justice.’ ‘Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 should be united because in both cases it’s largely about minority people,’ Shawnette Richardson, 43, said.” Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, linked the campaign against police abuse to the Fight for 15, noting it was time to “make the politicians pay attention.”

The convergence of the campaign against low wages with the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements has provoked a rethink of the relation between economic and political struggles. In These Times editor David Moberg commented: “Although SEIU, which has helped to finance the Fight for $15, has been a strong advocate of immigrant and black workers’ causes, it has also—like most unions—seen economic issues as a route to solidarity among workers of all racial or ethnic heritages. But the explosion of concern in black communities over police practices—from profiling to abuse of force—has produced pressure on a group like Fight for $15 to take on a broader agenda. It is also prompting SEIU to examine more deeply how to win white workers’ support for these hot-button issues for its black members, whether it’s crime in their neighborhoods or police misconduct.”

Such a project marks a major expansion of the campaign’s horizons. It could form the nucleus of a new political movement that transcends existing racial and cultural divisions.

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Filed under Black Lives Matter, donald trump, Fight for 15, republican primaries, seiu

The Kochs Can’t Slam Dunk Even After Buying an Election


America’s purplest plutocrats, the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, stand to reap the fruits of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision this November in the US mid-term elections. They are determined to manipulate the democratic processand overturn the Democratic majority in the Senate, preparing to outspend both Republicans and Democrats to the tune of $125 million. But as the Kochs flaunt their power to buy airtime, fund think-tanks, and pocket pundits, they are coming up against a different reality. It turns out that buying an election doesn’t mean a slam dunk, and that Americans will fight for fair play and a fair society.

The brothers’ ideological work is cut out for them, since the electorate across both parties is overwhelmingly wedded to ideas like the state taking care of the sick and elderly. A memo issued by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity explained they needed to undermine the importance Americans place on “taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak.” They have funded a barrage of TV ads attacking Obamacare, featuring a mother talking directly to camera musing over its disadvantages, which has as its ultimate motive discrediting the idea of government as an agent of positive economic change for struggling Americans.

While targeted at unseating Democrats, much of their spending is also intended to consolidate their influence in the Republican party through the leverage of an intransigent minority of Tea-Party legislators. Espousing a libertarian ideology, the brothers have a deep, vested interest in preventing state regulation of their huge investments in energy, transportation, and manufacturing. Growth of green energy technologies like solar and wind threatens to devalue their capital, and they have been instrumental through ALEC in blocking state legislation favoring the new technology.

Although the declining white vote is being eclipsed by the multiracial reality of America today, the brothers’ political strategy is to arouse the Republican base and encourage the disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. The Obamacare ads are clearly targeted at married women at home with kids, who along with old white men, are reliably Republican voters.

The first result of the Kochs’ efforts was seen in the North Carolina Republican primary. Over $2 million poured into the primary to ensure the plutocrats’ candidate of choice, Thom Tillis, was selected to run against sitting Democrat Kay Hagan. According to Chris Kromm on Democracy Now, “We saw two big players coming into the primary. One, nationally, was [Koch-funded] Americans for Prosperity. …They have spent more money attacking Kay Hagan than any other candidate across the country. And that started last fall. I mean, they’ve just been blanketing, a carpet bombing of the state of these attack ads, kind of trying to soften up support for Kay Hagan. Then, on the other side, you saw millions of dollars’ worth of ads supporting Tillis to really make sure he could survive this primary challenge from the tea party right.”

Although the Republican establishment-backed candidate, Tillis himself is so far to the right he is indistinguishable from his tea party challengers. As speaker of the North Carolina House, he pushed through a tax bill that cut income taxes on the rich, shifting the tax burden to an increased sales tax that affected the majority of people. He passed a bill to prevent the state from accepting Medicaid expansion funds under Obamacare – preventing hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from access to health coverage and increasing their risk of death from illness. The legislature also passed a series of voter restriction changes that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.

Tillis was able to do this because North Carolina, like many other states in the South and some in the mid-West, saw a virtually complete takeover of the legislature by right-wing Republicans in 2010, followed by the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012. Since then, a state once known as one of the most moderate in the South has become a virtual laboratory for Tea Party-style policies.

Yet despite the Kochs’ propaganda onslaught and Tillis victory, there is mounting opposition to the legislature’s extremism. The growing “Moral Monday” movement has intercepted and directly challenged the Koch’s social Darwinism. One Monday in April 2013, a group of advocates for workers, civil rights and other issues entered the state capitol and refused to leave. Several members of the group, led by Rev. William Barber, head of North Carolina’s NAACP, were arrested that day, but each Monday since then the protesters returned. A rally in February this year drew more than 80,000 people, and public approval ratings for the governor and state assembly have tanked.

The protests in North Carolina have the advantage that the state house is located in Raleigh, at the apex of the “Triangle Area,” an urban and industrialized region that is considerably more moderate than the rural areas of the state. Significantly, however, the movement has spread rapidly from North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and some mid-Western states, becoming a rallying point for resistance to the Republican political elite. Although they have campaigned on a variety of issues, from voting rights to public education, events have created a focus on supporting Medicaid expansion in states where governors have refused the Obamacare provision for federal subsidy.

Atlanta, Georgia, is another site of resistance. Nearly 40 people were arrested protesting a bill that would bar the expansion of Medicaid. Rev. Raphael Warnock, who led the protests, told Democracy Now: “This was an effort to provide Medicaid, to provide health insurance, to some 650,000 Georgians. Georgia has the fifth-highest level of uninsured persons in the nation. We are witnessing, in this very moment, the closing of a number of rural hospitals. And so, while this issue is tragically and unfortunately racialized, often by those who are pushing against the Affordable Care Act, the fact is, it crosses racial lines. It moves from urban to rural issues. There are a lot of people who are suffering as a result of this.”

The South has been historically a bastion of reaction: Southern Democrats blocked the New Deal for African-Americans and resisted desegregation until federal intervention enforced Civil Rights Laws. As is well known, these led to a mass transfer of white Democratic voters to Republicans through Nixon’s Southern strategy. But in 2014 the American South is undergoing important changes. While Republicans have been able to leverage the deep strain of antigovernment sentiment, especially virulent in the South, and exploit racism, the growing fight over Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage is undermining its traditional conservatism and the racial divisions that have divided workers.

Not only did last Thursday’s one-day strike of workers in the fast-food industry mobilize workers in major cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Seattle for a $15 hourly wage and the right to form unions, but it also spread to towns in the deep South like Opelika, Alabama, West Memphis, Arkansas, and Southhaven, Mississippi, as well as cities in Florida, Texas, Missouri and the Carolinas. In all, workers in 158 US cities and 30 countries took part in the challenge to mega-corporations that are suffocating large swathes of the working population.

This growing movement defies the culture of intimidation and low-wage economics prevalent in the Southern states. No matter what the Kochs do, if the Democrats project a clear message of opposition to inequality, they can stem the Republican tide.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, fast-food workers, low-waged, Medicare, Obamacare, political analysis, 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