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Remembering the Slave Trade

[ 46 ] February 2, 2016 |


Above: Execution following New York City slave uprising, 1741

Too often, we discuss slavery as simply as southern phenomenon. This serves a number of functions, all of which are unfortunate. It allows northerners to demonize southerners specifically for slavery and for racism, when of course racism is nearly as bad in the rest of the country as it is in the South. It allows northerners to conveniently forget their own slavery history. It also has significant contemporary implications as America’s racial issues become uniquely southern in popular culture. But in early America, the northern industrial economy was deeply intertwined with the southern plantation economy. Southern cotton fueled northern mills. Northern shipowners brought slaves to southern ports. Northerners invested heavily in southern plantations. Slavery was central to the growth of American capitalism and slaves were the first large-scale good in the capitalist commodity markets. This latter point has been the subject of a number of vital recent books in the literature of slavery.

Luckily this push toward connecting the North to slavery has been gaining more attention in the North, with attempts to recognize the region’s slave history. A lot of this has been in Rhode Island, the home to a lot of the slave trading ships. So we have projects like this:

A project aimed at memorializing America’s slave-trade ports is moving to Rhode Island, where some 1,000 slave-trading voyages were launched.

The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project has been working to place markers at 40 ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts where slaves arrived or where ships were sent to be used in the trade. The Middle Passage refers to the forced migration across the Atlantic Ocean of more than 10 million Africans, many of whom died on the way.

“We’re just simply saying mark the place where it began,” said Ann Chinn, who founded the Middle Passage project. “In the same way, people marked Plymouth, they marked Jamestown, they marked St. Augustine. Well, in each of those places, Africans were there too.”

The project is rolling out as places around the country have been coming to grips with their roles in the slave trade, including the North, where the region’s history of fighting against slavery is more widely known than its less noble roots of trading and profiting from slavery.

A lot more of this please. Slavery and racism are not southern problems with southern histories. They are national problems with national histories. They need to be remembered and discussed way.


Cowboy Socialism

[ 57 ] February 1, 2016 |

John Wayne

While the Bundy boys and their band of idiots are mostly in jail or have left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there are still a few diehards holed up in there. I do worry about these people committing acts of violence, on their own and leadership and desperate. Hopefully this gets resolved very soon.

But the larger issues around Sagebrush Rebellion extremism have not gone away. At the core of the rural western discontent is an ideology of individualism that rolls through the region and its iconic mythical figures from Hank Stamper to John Wayne. The idea of individual white man (or sometimes woman) and hardscrabble families making it on their own from a hard land is deeply imbued in how ranchers and loggers and miners and western farmers think about themselves. What the Bundys and others are pushing is a rather extreme example of it, but the broader phenomena is real enough throughout the region.

The problem with it is that their foundational myth that places them at odds with the government also erases a government that subsidizes almost everything about their lives. Whether the government stealing the land from Native Americans, investing in water projects, handing out timber contracts, never revising a system that allows the government to collect almost no money from mining on the public lands, or allowing ranchers to graze on government land for incredibly below market prices, rural westerners are the ultimate welfare recipients. Our tax dollars are funding their lifestyles, which I don’t per se have a major problem with if said recipients didn’t then commit armed takeovers of federal buildings while ranting about government tyranny. But the government created the modern West so that people like the Bundys could have their lifestyle in the first place.

It’s hard going, and one reason is the cowboy political tradition represented by Ammon Bundy and his pack of revolutionary wannabes, who want to pay zero in federal grazing fees and end the federal ownership of land. Even reformist Western politicians still have to tiptoe around the fact that the federal government is simply an inextricable part of how the West functions and has been since the beginning. That Bundy has confused one of the primary spigots of rancher welfare with a rancher-smashing tyranny is only a wild exaggeration of a typical view, rooted in Western myth and broader American conservatism.

The issue of broader American conservatism is important as well because the oil companies and other natural resource industries are looking to destroy the past century of American environmental law. The same thing that is happening to labor and is happening to civil service exams–the destruction of a century of reform in order to return us to the Gilded Age–will almost certainly happen in the environmental realm if the Republican Party wins the presidency this fall. The Bundys could get their way, not through occupying the Malheur, but simply by having any bog-standard Republican win the presidency.

Americans You Should Know

[ 2 ] February 1, 2016 |


Louis Tikas, Greek immigrant, miner and organizer, leader of the workers in the Colorado coal fields leading up to the Ludlow Massacre, where he was murdered.

Are Strikes the Answer to Labor’s Woes?

[ 27 ] February 1, 2016 |


Shaun Richman thinks so.

Our challenge is to inspire even non-union workers to think about their power and how to exercise it using the tools we have on hand: a union movement with miniscule density in only a handful of service and public sector industries largely led by staff who have precious little personal experience with leading job actions. We should be clear about how deep this deficit is.

One of the most promising labor projects of the moment is Bargaining for the Common Good. This is an effort by public sector unions in Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio to align their bargaining demands with each other and with community demands around progressive taxation, affordable housing, youth incarceration and government transparency.

These community demands fall well outside a union’s scope of bargaining and are therefore technically illegal. But as long as the unions also have demands that are within their legal scope (not hard to do when employers refuse to pay people what they deserve), then the unions can press the community’s case. This is a brilliant way of getting community to see unions’ fights as their own and of building worker and community power—and the next Chicago teachers strike will likely be the highest profile test of the theory this side of the Mississppi.

What follows could be bigger. A number of public and private sector unions in Minnesota have contract expirations in 2016. Their bargaining demands for the common good are focused not just on their individual employers but also on the largest employers in the state: Target and Wells Fargo. This is the potential for the closest thing we’ve seen in a while to a general strike (something Minnesota has a history of doing).

Another promising project is the Fight for 15. Some have dismissed the series of rolling one-day strikes for increases in the minimum wage and organizing rights as mere P.R. stunts. But there is something deeply radical and significant at play here. Workers who don’t even technically have a union are proving their value—and their power—to their bosses by withholding their labor. And the response from the general public is, at worst, a sort of patronizing “Well, good for them” but more often something a bit closer to “Go get ‘em!”

As I write my new book for The New Press, No Retreat, No Surrender: American History in Ten Strikes (first draft due in June, yikes!), I am musing on these questions a lot. And, as any good historian would probably say, it depends. The real lesson of studying strikes is that they can serve as a great window into their time. Sometimes they are aspirational, demanding and winning real changes in the lives of workers. The Flint Sit-Down Strike is one of these moments, where a small group of workers taking radical action can inspire millions to improve their own lives. Some of the IWW strikes like at Lawrence or the timber strikes in the Northwest serve some of these functions as well. Other strikes can be more consumeristic in content, such as the Oakland General Strike of 1946, where workers shut down the city for no radical purpose. They just wanted more money for themselves. That really helps us understand the consumer republic of the postwar period. Other times though, what strikes really tell us is that workers are desperate. The strikes become last-ditch efforts to save what they once had, whether the Gilded Age strikes of workers losing control over their own labor or the strikes of the 1980s like at Hormel or Phelps-Dodge that companies used to crush unions entirely. These incidents are more sad than anything else.

So this leads us back to the question of whether strikes are part of the answer for labor’s woes. I don’t know. The CTU strike was pretty inspirational, in part because Rahm is such a villain and in part because they did some great things. But it’s not like the CTU has beaten back Emanuel in the years since. That strike was defensive and CTU remains in a defensive posture today, just trying to keep teachers’ jobs and schools open.

On the other hand, it’s true enough that in the New Gilded Age, organized labor is going to have all their long-used tactics rendered ineffective by the Supreme Court, the Koch Brothers, and hostile Republicans around the nation. Friedrichs is just the latest example. There may be a time when a strike or series of strikes becomes that spark that shows a newly aggressive American working class.

In any case, we really need people who are thinking hard about how to express worker power in an era where they are seeing power stripped from them. Things like the Fight for $15 are great examples of how that power can be reclaimed, although actually winning some victories does have to happen at some point. Certainly whatever does bring worker power back in the United States is going to take some new strategies in combination with some traditional strategies. More analysis of these new strategies is necessary, which is why articles like Richman’s are important.

How Free Trade Killed the American Working Class

[ 192 ] February 1, 2016 |


Noah Smith bluntly states that free trade with China has devastated the American working class. Moreover, he attacks economists for being unwilling to question their assumptions that free trade is always good. He starts by citing a new study showing just how devastating free trade with China has been to American workers:

But look at actual economics research, and you will find a very different picture. The most recent example is a paper by celebrated labor economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, titled “The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade.” The study shows that increased trade with China caused severe and permanent harm to many American workers:

Adjustment in local labor markets is remarkably slow, with wages and labor-force participation rates remaining depressed and unemployment rates remaining elevated for at least a full decade after the China trade shock commences. Exposed workers experience greater job churning and reduced lifetime income. At the national level, employment has fallen in U.S. industries more exposed to import competition…but offsetting employment gains in other industries have yet to materialize.

What is the impact upon American workers?

Autor, et al. show powerful evidence that industries and regions that have been more exposed to Chinese import competition since 2000 — the year China joined the World Trade Organization — have been hit hard and have not recovered. Workers in these industries and regions don’t go on to better jobs, or even similar jobs in different industries. Instead, they shuffle from low-paid job to low-paid job, never recovering the prosperity they had before Chinese competition hit. Many of them end up on welfare. This is very different from earlier decades, when workers who lost their jobs to import competition usually went into higher-productivity industries, to the benefit of almost everyone.

In other words, the public might have been wrong about free trade in the 1980s and 1990s, but things have changed. Popular opinion seems to be exactly right about the effect of trade with China — it has killed jobs and damaged the lives of many, many Americans. Economists may blithely declare that free trade is wonderful, but our best researchers have now shown that public misgivings about these smooth assurances have been completely justified.

So what’s the deal with economists?

Why are economists so willing to declare to the world that free trade is good, even after reading papers like the one by Autor et al.? Part of the problem is the definition of “good.” According to most models of trade, reducing trade barriers raises efficiency — which is to say, total gross domestic product. But efficiency says nothing about fairness, and almost any model of trade will show that some people, industries and regions lose out. If most Americans experience slight gains from lower import prices, and a few lose their livelihoods and have to go on welfare, economists call that a “good” outcome, because they are so focused on the concept of efficiency. But because the public cares about a lot more than efficiency, the job losses in industries and regions knocked out by China since 2000 have made economists seem increasingly callous and out of touch.

But this is only part of the problem. Economists are also stubbornly unwilling to question their benchmark theories, even when the evidence presents a challenge to these theories. The fact that Autor et al. find total national employment declining in response to trade with China should be cause for concern. Standard trade models, especially the simple ones taught in Econ 101, predict that this shouldn’t have happened. Autor et al. sternly rebuke the economics profession for relying too much on theory, and not enough on evidence, when it comes to the issue of trade:

We argue that having failed to anticipate how significant the dislocations from trade might be, it is incumbent on the economics literature to more convincingly estimate gains from trade, such that the case for free trade is not based on theory alone, but on a foundation of evidence.

In other words, economists love their theories but struggle to understand or to care about the actual effect of those theories in practice upon living, breathing human beings. Economists do often make their own version of moral arguments–that raising living standards in China and Bangladesh are worth lowering living standards in the United States. There are of course several problems with this argument. First, why do economists get to decide who has jobs and who does not have jobs? What higher authority do these people think they are? Second, it’s entirely unclear whether these arguments are even correct. It’s certain that the global trade regime has created a class of wealthy people in every affected nation. But the evidence is mixed otherwise. Yes, standards of living have risen in China. But for all the talk about this, defenders of this system have absolutely no answer to how free trade has destabilized Latin America, an area of the world they prefer to forget about entirely. It’s also less than clear that creating working conditions where over 1100 people die in a factory collapse is somehow helping the people of Bangladesh and it’s pretty bloody horrendous that this system leads to the slaves in the global fish trade with our Asian trading partners that feeds ourselves and our pets. Third, what is clear is that long-term economic instability in the United States is having enormous implications for governance and social policy, including the erasure of working class voices from politics, the rise of corporate cash to replace those voices, right-wing populism up to the point of fascism (and to a lesser extent the Sanders campaign on the left), and the subcontracted, franchised, outsourced, temp economy. None of this is good for Americans, unless you are rich. Like a lot of economists.

A lot of economists are the academic version of H.A. Goodman and Walker Bragman. They can foist their theories on the public without worrying too much about it because they aren’t going to be affected by the outcome. If a future of low-paid work in the U.S. is in the offing, what do they care? Their positions are secure. This is always the problem with making policy from 30,000 feet. If you don’t care to understand how your policies will actually affect the people in your community, you probably don’t care about those people in the first place.

It’s time to rethink the entire trade system, ensuring it helps the American working class while also using the tools we have at our disposal to demand justice for workers around the world when American companies relocate there. Otherwise, we are destroying ourselves and often killing Asian and Latin American workers.

What is the Midwest?

[ 144 ] January 31, 2016 |


What states do you say belong in the Midwest? Take the quiz here.

I said North Dakota south to Oklahoma, Minnesota south to Missouri, and then Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Really state borders don’t fit this that well. The western parts of the Plains states are the West. And western Pennsylvania really is the Midwest but you can’t say the state belongs to it culturally.

I suppose Oklahoma is the one people might take the most exception to, but it’s not really the South and only part of it is really the West. I don’t know.

Recording the Workplace

[ 75 ] January 31, 2016 |


As I have noted in posts here and in Out of Sight, the greatest threat of ag-gag laws, which criminalize knowledge of what happens inside agricultural operations to fight against animal rights activists getting hired to work so they can record and publicize the mistreatment of farm animals, is that if knowledge of one workplace is criminalized, why wouldn’t the law criminalize all public knowledge of what happens inside all workplaces? It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. It’s one that corporations are well of and have tried to implement. Luckily, Obama’s National Labor Relations Board is there to stop them, at least for now. It may not surprise that the corporation in discussion here is Whole Foods, whose interest in the lives of poor people largely extend to photos in their stores of happy brown farmers to provide an sheen of authenticity to their high prices and cultural appropriation and perhaps to their employees which they won’t allow to join a union.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in a 2-1 decision, ruled against blanket employer policies banning employees from taking photos or recordings in the workplace. Such policies would, in the view of the NLRB, having a chilling effect on employee’s ability to record or photograph workplace safety violations or actions that were discriminatory.

Whole Foods’ unsuccessful argument to the NLRB was that its policy allowed for a free and open discussion in the workplace, without concerns of statements appearing on the Internet. But the NLRB found that a blanket ban went too far, as it was “essential” in many cases to have a photo or video in order to prove a violation of an employee’s rights.

This is somewhat different of course than an ag-gag bill because the NLRB has no authority unless the images are recording workplace safety violations. But the principle is very important.

This case also is another reminder that we can demonize the other Democratic Party candidate all we want to, but the election in November is far, far more important than who wins the nomination.

How the Wagner Act Laid the Groundwork for Affirmative Action

[ 5 ] January 31, 2016 |


Very interesting Touré Reed analysis at Jacobin:

The case for affirmative action — like unionization before it — proceeded from the view that anti-discrimination policy was in the public interest. Though the history of federal workplace anti-discrimination initiatives dates back to the New Deal, President Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925 — which authorized the federal government to cancel contracts with vendors who failed to take “affirmative action” to redress employment disparities — is generally understood as the start of the modern era of anti-discrimination policy.

The Kennedy and later the Johnson administrations argued that workplace discrimination was a drag on the national economy, viewing racism as an irrational encumbrance on productivity. The Kennedy administration’s case for a fair employment practices bill — what would eventually become Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — thus centered on the Commerce Clause, placing workplace discrimination in the purview of the federal government.

Those who imagine that market-oriented programs offer the best route to racial equality today should recall that opponents of Title VII, like Republican senator Barry Goldwater, argued that fair employment practices legislation violated “freedom of contract.”

But while anti-discrimination legislation necessarily infringed on an employer’s right to hire, fire, promote, or demote whomever they wished, the Wagner Act had already abridged this right — as proponents of anti-discrimination law understood at the time — thus establishing a precedent for affirmative action.

In fact, the phrase “affirmative action” first appeared in a Wagner Act provision that directed judges to impose financial penalties on employers who discriminated against union organizers.

The eventual implementation of affirmative action in the workplace likewise drew on precedent stemming from the Wagner Act. As study after study has shown, few if any employers use quotas — which are not mandated by Title VII. Instead, employers hoping to avoid costly lawsuits established offices of equal employment to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination law.

These new equal employment offices were modeled on the labor relations departments union and non-union firms established in the wake of the Wagner Act. Moreover, many of the policies implemented by equal employment offices to ensure fair employment practices — including in-house grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, published guidelines for promotion and termination, salary classifications, and open bidding— were already in use by labor relations departments partly because unions had demanded them.

The Wagner Act and the labor movement it helped spawn are perhaps the clearest expression of the social-democratic impulses informing the old New Deal Democratic coalition. As such, the links between the right to collective bargaining and anti-discrimination legislation draw attention to the historic importance of social democracy to so-called civil rights issues.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine on what basis black civil rights leaders — who lobbied on behalf of a group that accounted for just 10 percent of the nation’s population — would have demanded a fair employment practices act in the 1960s, if the Wagner Act had not already established a precedent, in the name of the public good, for abridging the right to freedom of contract.

Simply put, the civil rights movement’s victories required an interventionist state — as was understood by all of the principal players, on both sides, at the time. And while the New Deal had significant limitations, its efforts to enhance the purchasing power of working people — centered on fostering a more stable form of capitalism — established a framework for a rights discourse that would prove indispensable to African-American civil rights.

Cursing and Labor Law

[ 12 ] January 31, 2016 |


Does labor law protect cussing at your bosses? It depends. And that’s the subject of this story about how Murray Energy, a horrible coal mining company, has fired a couple of workers for swearing at bosses in what the workers call a labor action. Now, for context, coal miners work blue. So do their bosses. This is not a conversation for those who find swearing a mortal sin. For example:

The coarse language, according to workers, extended all the way up to the company’s CEO — Mr. Bob Murray himself.

After Murray Energy took over the mine in late 2014, Bob Murray laid out his company’s rules in a meeting with workers. “These are my f—— rules, and if you don’t like it, there’s the f—— door,” he said, according to workers who testified before the NLRB.

So, in this atmosphere, this is what the workers did:

Richard Harrison and Jesse Stolzenfels used to work at the West Virginia mine. In late 2013, Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal companies, took the mine over from a previous owner. Shortly thereafter, the company tried to implement a controversial production-based bonus program.

Workers at the mine, who are represented by the United Mine Workers of America union, voted it down. But the company went ahead and adopted the plan anyway — in violation of its labor contract, according to the union. Murray Energy disagrees and maintains it followed the agreement.

Under the program, workers received bonuses based on the amount of coal they extracted. Many opposed it on safety grounds, including Stolzenfels and Harrison, according to court filings. The latter, in particular, had a history of a speaking out over safety. Meanwhile, the company told miners who disagreed with the plan that they could opt out of it by writing “void” on their checks and returning them.

In February 2015, Harrison and Stolzenfels took this route — but not before adding some profanity-laced flair. Harrison’s check, for $11.58, read, “Void Void Kiss My Ass Bob.” Stolzenfels’ check, for $3.22, read “Void Eat S— Bob.” The company responded by suspending both of them with “intent to discharge,” citing the employee handbook’s policy against profanity.

For this, they were suspended and canned. So is this a labor issue? What legal protections might these workers have?

“Certainly there are many people who would feel uncomfortable or disapprove of the [workers’] conduct,” said Angela Cornell, director of the labor law clinic at the Cornell University Law School. Ultimately, though, that’s not what matters.

The National Labor Relations Act, the federal bedrock of American labor law, gives workers the right to engage in “protected concerted activity” — to join together with one or more co-workers and speak out over pay and working conditions without facing retaliation. “In this context, workers have more rights than they would otherwise,” Cornell said.

For example, an angry worker who comes into the office and fires off an expletive at his or her boss is unlikely to be protected by the National Labor Relations Act. But if that worker drops an f-bomb or two while she’s complaining with co-workers about say, long hours or unsafe working conditions, her speech is more likely to be protected.

A separate federal law that covers mining safety offers comparable protections.

Cornell University’s Angela Cornell said the angrily worded missives from Harrison and Stolzenfels don’t appear to be isolated or individual incidents. Instead, they seem to be part of a broader workplace dispute — one that involved tense disagreements over workplace safety and the miners’ collective bargaining agreement.

Of course, workers can lose protections if their conduct is especially reckless or egregious — for example, by making a violent threat to a supervisor, or by trying to sabotage their employer’s business. Indeed, that’s precisely what Murray Energy is arguing.

The company maintains the voided checks did not amount to “protected concerted activity” in the first place. But even if they did, the company argued in its post-hearing brief, the miners forfeited their protections by engaging in “indefensible or abusive misconduct.”

The board’s general counsel disagrees. It also noted in its post-hearing brief that employees have used “far more biting and insulting profane language” toward management and not lost their protections. In previous cases, for instance, workers have legally confronted their supervisors with such epithets as “egotistical f—–,” “stupid f—— moron” and “f—— liar.”

Cynthia Estlund, a labor law professor at the New York University School of Law, said the labor board tends to give workers a fair amount of leeway when they express grievances. “It’s not that profanity is protected as such,” she said. But “from the beginning, the board has given employees some breathing room when they’re engaging in protected, concerted activity,” she added.

Right now, the two workers are being paid by their employer to stay at home.

Interesting case.

How Unions Screw Each Other

[ 27 ] January 30, 2016 |


Above: Members of UNITE-HERE Local 217

I know the Rhode Island story everyone wants to discuss is the death of Providence’s ex-scumbag mayor Buddy Cianci. Who will teach our children how to ride of wave of rape, kidnapping, and graft to national fame now? He will be laying in state at the Providence City Hall next week if you want to go pay your respects and drop a bag of cash in the coffin for old time’s sake.

But a detail in this story of our governor securing a Providence tax break for a hotel development brings up to me a more interesting and useful issue: how most unions really suck at solidarity with each other.

The tax-stabilization agreement languished in the City Council for several months as private labor unions publicly sparred over the terms of the deal. On one side, the construction trades painted the hotel project as a significant job creator that will pour millions of dollars into the local economy. On the other side was Unite Here Local 217, the local hotel workers’ union, which wanted the Procaccianti Group to commit to staffing their hotel with union members.

Raimondo confirmed what was widely whispered in City Hall circles over the last few months: she helped nudge the project along.

She said she made a personal phone call to Council President Luis Aponte. Others on her staff called members of the City Council Finance Committee on the day they voted to send the deal to the full council. (Three of the Finance Committee’s five members work in state government; another works for the hotel workers’ union.)

Guess which union lost? That’s right, it was UNITE-HERE. The back story here is that the Laborers union really wanted the hotel because it wanted the construction jobs. UNITE-HERE wanted the hotel too, but it wanted union jobs and it wanted a $14.25 minimum wage tied to inflation. Now, you’d think that the two unions could come together here. But the company said it wouldn’t build the hotel with that wage. And it wouldn’t build it without the tax break. So LIUNA stuck the shiv into UNITE-HERE. It gave the its support for the tax break. It also, behind the scenes, gave its support to the Rhode Island law banning municipalities from setting their own minimum wages, a law Rhode Island saw fit to borrow from Oklahoma. LIUNA and most of the Rhode Island building trades are mostly made up of white people. UNITE-HERE is heavily Latino and African-American. You can make the connections as to one big reason why solidarity does not exist here.

Bernie Skepticism

[ 558 ] January 30, 2016 |


If you had told me a year ago that I was going to be cited in Vox as a Bernie skeptic, I would have said there’s no way such a weird event could happen. But something unexpected things happen. Look, I support basically every single Sanders platform position, except for his bad positions, like on guns and Israel. And I will probably vote for him if it is still a race when the Rhode Island primary comes around, which it won’t because RI is a late voting state. But maybe I just can’t put aside thinking about politics structurally for rhetoric anymore. Because I just see a lot of problems. I still completely believe that Sanders’ core supporters (and I am probably overstating the power of internet leftists as some suggested in the original comment on this) will turn on him with a fury as the next sellout once he takes power and has to compromise. But on top of this, I don’t believe that Sanders can create a political revolution. In fact, I think there is essentially no chance of it. It seems that Sanders supporters think there is going to be a wave of left-populist candidates swept into office with him. But where are those candidates in current House races? Where are the open Bernie acolytes either challenging moderate Democrats in primaries or running in conservative House districts that are heavily gerrymandered? Because while there are probably a few, I sure don’t see some broader platform of leftist candidates here, nor has anyone told me how they are going to win a 60-40 Romney seat.

I also flat out don’t believe that there is a “silent majority” (and good god, can this term die in a fire when it comes to describing contemporary politics–I’ve heard Sanders, Trump, and David freaking Brooks talk about it to describe their own positions in the last week alone) ready to embrace Sanders’ economic populism–unless it is a racialized populism. And those voters are Trump voters. This goes back to my earlier post on the AFL-CIO and the South. Race matters more than anything else in American life. Now, perhaps there is an argument to be made that an economically populist message could inspire huge voter turnout in black and Latino communities. I don’t know. I’d like to see some evidence for it. And perhaps such an agenda would inspire white union members to not vote for Trump, as they might over Hillary. This is all possible. Sanders is doing well among white working-class Democrats after all. But in the end, I am just skeptical that this is a movement that is going to sweep corporations out of power like Sanders says. There are too many structural limitations in the way. It would take a long time. It would require Sanders to win in 2016 and then again in 2020. It would then require the usual midterm defeats of the ruling party to not happen and quite left candidates to run and win in those gerrymandered seats. And then it would take new laws and court decisions to overturn Citizens United and other terrible recent rulings, not to mention the impending Friedrichs ruling. This is a years-long process. It’s like the Progressive Era, where it will probably take 20-25 years of consistent wins just to beat back the last 20-25 years. Krugman is right that there’s a lot of delusion right now among primary voters in both parties about how change works.

And to be frank, my own study of American history suggests basically nothing that would allow me to believe in what I just described. It really would have to take a whole new politics. Given that the possible presidential candidates are a self-described socialist and Donald Trump, a whole new politics may in fact be happening. So who knows. But 238 years of American history is a lot of precedent to believe in over a good rhetorical message.

I get the appeal of rhetoric, even if I am immune to it personally. And this doesn’t mean I think Hillary is a better candidate than Sanders. Nor does it mean I think she would be a better president. But I think there’s a lot of delusion going on right now about what happens if Bernie wins. I just have very limited expectations of what a Bernie presidency would be able to accomplish. I disagree with Chait’s assertion that Sanders’ rhetoric shows the left’s frustration with shared power because I think what it actually shows is a reaction to right-wing extremism threatening the country’s future. Sanders supporters are reacting to real problems afflicting the United States. Given the human psychological need for charismatic leadership, it’s hardly surprising that people would put their hopes in Sanders here. The Sanders campaign, whatever happens, is a solid first step along a long road to retaking the country for everyday Americans. But it is only a first step–even if he wins. Understanding more about what that road looks like and understanding the limitations of what Sanders or any other president can do given the structures of American governance I think is really important to stave off disillusionment.

And healthy but friendly skepticism now is better than disillusionment later.

Labor’s Southern Strategy

[ 5 ] January 30, 2016 |


Justin Miller reviews labor’s latest southern strategy. Articles like these come out every few years, talking about the latest way the AFL-CIO is going to organize the South. And of course it never happens. Will it happen this time? No, probably not. However, it is still useful both to get at what the AFL-CIO is doing in the South and what its potentials and problems are. Basically, the unions are targeting particular cities with diverse populations to fight locally for change, both the unionization of workplaces but also at the municipal level to pass politically progressive legislation like wage theft bills and higher minimum wages and for public transportation systems that would get its members to their jobs. These are good things. On the other hand, we can look at the Chattanooga disaster, where even with technical Volkswagen support (although a lot of opposition from VW bosses on the ground), the UAW could not win an election to organize that plant. That was an embarrassing and awful loss. And the reason the UAW lost the election was racism. Grover Norquist and the like funded ads playing up that unions equal Detroit and we all know what Detroit really means.

Meanwhile, if you look at what the AFL-CIO is doing here, it’s about mobilizing black and Latino workers. This is a smart, but limited strategy. Unions simply are never going to organize white southerners in any large numbers. It flat will never happen. Racism is ultimately what undermined Operation Dixie in the 1940s and it is what continues to undermine southern unionism. There are related issues as well like evangelical Christianity and paternalistic traditions here too, but race is the fundamental problem. In 1946, it was African-Americans who wanted unions and it’s the same, along with Latinos, in 2016. So focusing (increasingly scarce and soon to be more so after Friedrichs) resources where they are going to pay off. And practically, especially in cities like Dallas and Houston where you have huge non-white populations that are not politically mobilized, this could help lead to increases in voting that would begin to find turn Texas purple. That’s all good. But at the same time, municipal government is a very limited place to make change when you have hostile state governments. And with white supremacy the order of the day last four centuries, voters in most if not all southern states are going to continue electing racist and anti-worker governors and state reps. And even if the numbers of non-whites grow in the South to look like Texas, gerrymandering means that the mountain to climb is even steeper.

So the AFL-CIO efforts in the South are interesting and have value. But they have a limited upside.

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