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Is Our Democrats Learning, Part the Infinity

[ 94 ] April 10, 2017 |

charlie football

It’s a real wonder that the Democrats never actually kick the football.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) said Monday that, if Democrats regain control of the Senate and the White House, they will reverse Republicans’ change to the filibuster rules for Supreme Court nominees.

On Thursday, the Senate voted on party lines to change those rules so that votes to confirm high court nominees could proceed without what previously was the 60 votes necessary to end debate on the nominations.

In 2013, Democrats voted for the same rule change, but only for lower court and executive branch nominees.

“When the Democrats return to the majority and capture the presidency, which we will, that day is going to arrive, we will restore the 60-vote margin,” Markey told MSNBC’s Katy Tur. “We will ensure that, for the Supreme Court, there is that special margin that any candidate has to reach because that is essential to ensuring that our country has a confidence in those people that are nominated, rather than just someone who just passes a litmus test.”

Great idea! 60 votes for a Democratic nominee and 51 for a Republican is a sure ticket for success!!

The investment of liberals in process places them at a severe disadvantage in dealing with an extremist party like the modern Republicans.


Fishing with John

[ 11 ] April 10, 2017 |

If you are up late, you should watch John Lurie and Dennis Hopper fish for the giant squid. And Dennis telling stories and eating sugar.

How Fascism Becomes Entrenched

[ 110 ] April 10, 2017 |

From Lake County, Florida, this is pretty incredible.

Or as this guy says:

I’m sure Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III approves.

Partying Like It’s 1988!

[ 89 ] April 9, 2017 |


What kind of fun does Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III have lined up for us? Restarting the highway that leads black and brown people straight into prison for non-violent crimes!

Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.

Crime is near historic lows in the United States, but Sessions says that the spike in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, is a harbinger of a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response.

The guy Sessions has hired to make this happen seems nice:

Obama, the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, launched an ambitious clemency initiative to release certain drug offenders from prison early. And Holder told his prosecutors, in an effort to make punishments more fairly fit the crime, to stop charging low-level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that imposed severe mandatory sentences. He called his strategy, outlined in an August 2013 report, “Smart on Crime.”

Cook has called it “Soft on Crime” and said the Chattanooga case would have been much more difficult to make, “if possible at all,” in recent years.

“We were discouraged from using mandatory minimums,” Cook said about Holder’s 2013 charging and sentencing memo to prosecutors. “The charging memo handcuffed prosecutors. And it limited when enhancements can be used to increase penalties, an important leverage when you’re dealing with a career offender in getting them to cooperate.”

Cook has also dismissed the idea that there is such a thing as a nonviolent drug offender.

“Drug trafficking is inherently violent. Drug traffickers are dealing in a heavy cash business,” he said on the “O’Reilly Factor” last year. “They can’t resolve disputes in court. They resolve the disputes on the street, and they resolve them through violence.”

E-mails, etc.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 78

[ 84 ] April 9, 2017 |

This is the grave of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

2016-09-18 15.09.23

Born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin in 1825. He slowly made his name as a writer, although made very little money, publishing his first story collection in 1837. He finally received a real salary in 1839 when he was named to a patronage position at the Boston Custom House. In 1846, he went to work at the port of Salem. He only lasted until 1848, for Hawthorne was a Democrat and thus when Zachary Taylor was elected president, he lost his job. But he did begin having more success as a writer, most notably when The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 and in which he excoriated various people in Salem who he hated. The book sold well and brought Hawthorne a reasonable income at a time when the book market in Europe and the U.S. was not unlike the DVD market in China today: i.e., everything was pirated. The House of the Seven Gables followed in 1851 and The Blithedale Romance in 1852. All of this made Hawthorne a leader in the nation’s first major literary movement.

He then took his talents to a much lower place as he wrote the campaign biography of Franklin Pierce. Always a local Democrat, Hawthorne was politically a complete hack, who wrote a completely ridiculous book that claimed slavery would eventually disappear, left out Pierce’s rampant alcoholism, and claimed that the reason Pierce hadn’t done anything great was that he preferred to stay in the background and didn’t need to anyway. Said Horace Mann, “If he makes out Pierce to be a great man or a brave man, it will be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote.” Thanks to his hackwork, Pierce named Hawthorne as the American consul in Liverpool. He didn’t write much at this point, eventually coming out The Marble Faun in 1860, which I think only Hawthorne scholars actually read. He was sick and decided to go on a tour of New England with Pierce. Christ only knows how much alcohol was consumed on this trip. Anyway, on it, Hawthorne got sick and died on May 19, 1864.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.

This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1923

[ 25 ] April 9, 2017 |


On April 9, 1923, the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital that states or the federal government setting minimum wages for women was unconstitutional, as it violated the liberty of contract. This awful decision made clear just how powerful liberty of contract doctrine remained in the United States nearly a century after it developed and how the Supreme Court remained a major obstacle to even the most basic forms of workers’ rights through this era.

In 1918, Congress passed a minimum wage to cover women in the District of Columbia. This was a period when Progressives were fighting for progressive legislation to win rights for workers, especially women and children. The National Consumers’ League led the fight against child labor, while other Progressive organizations created the momentum for the victory in Muller v. Oregon in 1908, when the Court decided than an Oregon maximum hour law for women was constitutional. With growing middle-class support for labor struggles, such as the active support of Progressive organizations for the Uprising of the 20,000 and then the reforms people such as Frances Perkins led in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire, it did seem that the lives of workers would improve. The DC Children’s Hospital though, along with an elevator operator at a hotel, brought suit against Jesse Adkins, the chair of the Washington DC minimum wage board.

There was hope the Court would rule in favor of the minimum wage, as it had in a 1917 decision, even though it made a ruling against a child labor law in 1918. But in 1920, Warren Harding was elected to the presidency. And as usually happens when a Republican appoints justices to the Supreme Court, Harding was sure to give the positions to anti-labor conservatives. In 1922, the Court ruled against another child labor law. He appointed George Sutherland and former president William Howard Taft. Sutherland strongly believed in the idea of freedom of contract and Taft was seen to support this as well.

Freedom of contract went back to the beginnings of industrialization. The Farwell case in 1842 that ruled employers had no liability for workplace safety was an early iteration of this and as time went on after the Civil War, this hardened into ideology at the core of every employer opposition to unions, which they considered an unlawful restraint on trade because they violated the freedom of an individual worker to enter into a contract with an employer. This was the world that Warren Harding and George Sutherland still promoted, no matter the horrible lives of millions of workers.

Fighting this was Felix Frankfurter and his top assistant, Mary Dawson. They argued that the DC law was constitutional because it preserved living standards for working women and noted that it would increase business efficiency. Meanwhile, people like Alice Paul sided with the corporations, arguing that any protective laws for women made them second-class citizens, although Paul would later just go all in with corporations and oppose all labor legislation.

The court decided 5-3 in favor of Children’s Hospital. George Sutherland wrote the majority opinion, joined by Joseph McKenna, Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, and Pierce Butler. William Howard Taft wrote the dissent joined by Edward Sanford, while Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a separate dissent. Louis Brandeis did not participate in the case. In that decision Sutherland wrote that Lochner was still the rule of the land, despite Muller, noting that the minimum wage was completely different from maximum hours and thus the latter case was irrelevant. He also argued that if the states could set minimum wage laws, they could also set maximum wage laws, something that I don’t think has ever been seriously discussed in American history, but when did reality get in the way of conservative thought? He also noted that since women now had the right to vote, there was no reason to treat them any differently than men at the workplace, a sentiment which Alice Paul strongly approved.

Taft’s dissent was surprising, since he was usually a conservative on these matters. But he found Sutherland’s differentation between wage and hour laws ridiculous. He wrote:

Legislatures in limiting freedom of contract between employee and employer by a minimum wage proceed on the assumption that employees, in the class receiving least pay, are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer and in their necessitous circumstances are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer. The evils of the sweating system and of the long hours and low wages which are characteristic of it are well known. Now, I agree that it is a disputable question in the field of political economy how far a statutory requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be a useful remedy for these evils, and whether it may not make the case of the oppressed employee worse than it was before. But it is not the function of this court to hold congressional acts invalid simply because they are passed to carry out economic views which the court believes to be unwise or unsound.

Legislatures which adopt a requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be presumed to believe that when sweating employers are prevented from paying unduly low wages by positive law they will continue their business, abating that part of their profits, which were wrung from the necessities of their employees, and will concede the better terms required by the law, and that while in individual cases, hardship may result, the restriction will inure to the benefit of the general class of employees in whose interest the law is passed, and so to that of the community at large.

The right of the Legislature under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to limit the hours of employment on the score of the health of he employee, it seems to me, has been firmly established.

Holmes, reversing his previous anti-worker stance, wrote on much the same lines:

When so many intelligent persons, who have studied the matter more than any of us can, have thought that the means are effective and are worth the price it seems to me impossible to deny that the belief reasonably may be held by reasonable men. If the law encountered no other objection than that the means bore no relation to the end or that they cost too much I do not suppose that anyone would venture to say that it was bad. I agree, of course, that a law answering the foregoing requirements might be invalidated by specific provisions of the Constitution. For instance it might take private property without just compensation. But in the present instance the only objection that can be urged is found within the vague contours of the Fifth Amendment, prohibiting the depriving any person of liberty or property without due process of law. To that I turn.

The earlier decisions upon the same words in the Fourteenth Amendment began within our memory and went no farther than an unpretentious assertion of the liberty to follow the ordinary callings. Later that innocuous generality was expanded into the dogma, Liberty of Contract. Contract is not specially mentioned in the text that we have to construe. It is merely an example of doing what you want to do, embodied in the word liberty. But pretty much all law consists in forbidding men to do some things that they want to do, and contract is no more exempt from law than other acts. Without enumerating all the restrictive laws that have been upheld I will mention a few that seem to me to have interfered with liberty of contract quite as seriously and directly as the one before us. Usury laws prohibit contracts by which a man receives more than so much interest for the money that he lends. Statutes of frauds restrict many contracts to certain forms. Some Sunday laws prohibit practically all contracts during one-seventh of our whole life. Insurance rates may be regulated. …

I confess that I do not understand the principle on which the power to fix a minimum for the wages of women can be denied by those who admit the power to fix a maximum for their hours of work. I fully assent to the proposition that here as elsewhere the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree, but I perceive no difference in the kind or degree of interference with liberty, the only matter with which we have any concern, between the one case and the other. The bargain is equally affected whichever half you regulate. …

This statute does not compel anybody to pay anything. It simply forbids employment at rates below those fixed as the minimum requirement of health and right living. It is safe to assume that women will not be employed at even the lowest wages allowed unless they earn them, or unless the employer’s business can sustain the burden. In short the law in its character and operation is like hundreds of so-called police laws that have been upheld. I see no greater objection to using a Board to apply the standard fixed by the Act than there is to the other commissions with which we have become familiar or than there is to the requirement of a license in other cases. …

The criterion of constitutionality is not whether we believe the law to be for the public good. We certainly cannot be prepared to deny that a reasonable man reasonably might have that belief in view of the legislation of Great Britain, Victoria and a number of the States of this Union. The belief is fortified by a very remarkable collection of documents submitted on behalf of the appellants, material here, I conceive, only as showing that the belief reasonably may be held. In Australia the power to fix a minimum for wages in the case of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State was given to a Court, and its President wrote a most interesting account of its operation. 29 Harv. Law Rev. 13. If a legislature should adopt what he thinks the doctrine of modern economists of all schools, that ‘freedom of contract is a misnomer as applied to a contract between an employer and an ordinary individual employee,’ Ibid. 25, I could not pronounce an opinion with which I agree impossible to be entertained by reasonable men. If the same legislature should accept his further opinion that industrial peace was best attained by the device of a Court having the above powers, I should not feel myself able to contradict it, or to deny that the end justified restrictive legislation quite as adequately as beliefs concerning Sunday or exploded theories about usury. I should have my doubts, as I have them about this statute—but they would be whether the bill that has to be paid for every gain, although hidden as interstitial detriments, was not greater than the gain was worth: a matter that it is not for me to decide.

The Adkins decision devastated the Progressives struggling to remain relevant in the 1920s. Florence Kelley broke with Felix Frankfurter in the aftermath, as the two could not agree on what strategy to take going forward. Kelley and the Consumers League and hoped that carving out laws for women would be the first step toward creating labor rights for everyone and when the legal strategy didn’t work out, they didn’t know what to do. The entire 1920s was horrible for both organized labor and worker rights. It would take the shock of the Great Depression to change this. Of course, the minimum wage became a major goal of the workers’ movement of the 1930s and would finally be guaranteed nationally with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, even if there were enormous carveouts necessary to ensure that enough conservatives would vote for it to pass. The Court itself would reverse Adkins in 1937, with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which I will write about eventually.

This is the 217th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Music Notes

[ 106 ] April 8, 2017 |


Time for some music notes.

The only story I have about Chuck Berry is that he was the opening act for the only Grateful Dead show I ever saw. This was in Portland in 1995. The last tour. I was as excited or more so to see Chuck than the Dead. But the traffic was so terrible that by the time I got in, Berry had just finished. I was super bummed. But at least I got to wait an hour and a half until the Dead came on stage and that gave me time to watch people trip on acid in 95 degree heat.

Neil Young studio albums, ranked.

1) Tonight’s the Night
2) Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
3) On the Beach
4) After the Gold Rush
5) Zuma
6) Comes a Time
7) Harvest
8) Freedom
9) Harvest Moon
10) Ragged Glory

Interesting essay on the relationship between jazz and protest.

Ice-T continues to be a pretty interesting guy.

Here’s some cool color photos of Johnny Cash performing at the Grand Ole Opry in the 50s.

This is actually a really interesting piece on the disappearance of many Bob Seger albums from the market.

Jason Isbell has a new album coming out. The single is very good and very, very 2016.

Album Reviews:

Del McCoury, Del and Woody

Del McCoury may be the last great artist in a dying tradition of music. I am loathe to call any music dying, but it’s hard not to feel that way about bluegrass. And it’s really too bad. Basically created by Bill Monroe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, who combined traditional mountain music with jazz, western swing, and Tin Pan Alley, this was an inventive, commercial music, even if it was also primarily regional music. It continued to evolve through the more mainstream Flatt and Scruggs and more mountain music of the Stanley Brothers and then especially Ralph Stanley’s solo career. In the 1970s, it became a favored music of the counterculture and moved in a number of different ways from there, including John Hartford’s deep respect for tradition that he combine with goofing off in fun ways to the Newgrass stuff of people like David Grisman and Sam Bush to the neo-traditionalism of Old and In the Way, the Peter Rowan and Jerry Garcia fronted group that was the first introduction to the music for a lot of people.

As with many forms of music in the 1980s, bluegrass went into a real down phase, with people like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley (who both played in Ralph Stanley’s band as teenagers in the mid 70s) leaving for mainstream country. But when bluegrass was revived in the 1990s and especially after the release of O Brother Where Art Thou, it came back as an utterly ossified dinosaur of a genre that did not allow for experimentation or innovation. When Karl Shiflett decided to add a snare drum to his outfit in the early 2000s, which was not uncommon in bluegrass in the 1950s, there was such an angry backlash to it from traditionalists that he had to dump the idea. And since then, it’s remained just as mummified, with very tight but also bound bands playing pretty scripted numbers the norm. It’s a real shame. The music just doesn’t live and breathe on the stage or the album. It serves to fulfill the very narrow expectations of a decline number of consumers.

Del McCoury has been around forever and has lived through most of these changes. In the 1990s, his band that included his two sons became probably the best working bluegrass band, even if it also reinforced some of that stiff new music. He’s a fine guitarist with a good sense of fun. His album with Steve Earle was pretty great and it got him a lot of fame, even if the two men ended their collaboration on pretty bad terms (McCoury claimed it was that Earle swore too much on stage, Earle said Del wanted more money. Could have been both).

For 20 or so years now, Woody Guthrie’s family has been commissioning artists to record some of his many songs that he never recorded or left music for. Who knows what Woody would have thought, but this takes his words and allows musicians to play with them. There was the two albums that Wilco and Billy Bragg collaborated on and another done by The Klezmatics. Now there’s this with Del McCoury. It works pretty well. He largely avoids the political songs, which is so central to Woody’s worldview that it does undermine the album slightly, even as the politics are often overplayed in public discussions of the man. But it’s a worthy experiment and a nice late career move by McCoury.


Bonnie Prince Billy/Bitchin Bajas, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties

Will Oldham, aka, Bonnie Prince Billy, has had a long and varied career. At his best, some of his albums (Viva Last Blues, I See a Darkness, Superwolf) are among the finest of the last 25 years. At his worst, he is unlistenable. I respect him for continuing to experiment. And I am genuinely interested in his new Merle Haggard cover album that mostly covers obscure Hag songs. But this is awful. Bitchin Bajas is this sort of pointless post-rock sort of avant garde band that makes minimalist music. BPB mumbles some lyrics repetitively at low volume over this. Some friends of mine saw the tour of this album last year and said it was bad. So I was already a little skeptical. I should have taken their advice and not have given this a spin. Pitchfork called it a “jam session” created through “improvisational democracy.” Give me authoritarianism in the studio any day. Or if I can’t have that, at least make it loud.


Natalie Hemby, Puxico

Do you like solid country music by a good singer who writes good songs? If you do, you will find the new album by Natalie Hemby enjoyable. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s good. And in the world of country music, there is something incredibly soothing and wonderful about a woman writing and singing heartfelt songs that don’t reek of the cheap nostalgia or cliched production of mainstream Nashville.


Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana

I feel in love with Foil Deer, one of the best albums of 2015. So I went back and listened to this 2013 album. It is a fine album, but not nearly to the quality of Foil Deer. The guitars are nice and loud and Sadie DuPuis has a great rock voice. But the songs aren’t quite there, as they would be on the second album. This is hardly surprising and this is certainly a good debut. “Plough” is a particularly excellent song. Hopefully the third album will come out soon.


Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day

I was ordered by a colleague to listen to Parker Millsap. Since my tenure decision doesn’t come for 6 days, what choice did I have? Millsap has a vibe pretty similar to Jason Isbell, although a bit more bluesy. A bit of Jimmy LaFave in this too, another Oklahoma songwriter you never have heard of. “Heaven Sent” is a particularly good song. And as a long-term believer in covers, I thought his version of “You Gotta Move,” the old Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell song of course made famous by the Stones on Sticky Fingers was pretty interesting. But I don’t love this. It’s completely fine, but then I am often a bit impatient with singer-songwriter material with a heavy blues tinge.


Beverly, The Blue Swell

Good quality indie dream pop on this 2016 album from this Brooklyn band. Drew Citron has an outstanding voice for this sort of music. Good lyrics, good guitars. I find myself listening to a lot of bands like this these days and I imagine Beverly will be the next.


Joey Purp, iiiDrops

This is a pretty fantastic piece of work. This Chicago rapper best known for his work with Chance the Rapper, he writes some great lyrics about the trauma of killing and about the social changes he sees in society. With lines like “Now up in the corners where killers used to inhabit/They built a row of new condos where they tore down project buildings” he sums up gentrification in cities like his own in about 2 seconds. As is all too common, his social observations don’t exactly extend to women. Alas. But great album nonetheless.


Angel Olsen, My Woman

The singing might be a touch melodramatic, but Angel Olsen certainly call pull it off. Ultimately an album about love and solitude and self-awareness, this also has consistently solid and interesting instrumental work. With a couple of long sounds telling big stories around tighter pieces and a stark piano tune at the end, this is a pretty good album.


Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

This is a classic rock album for the modern day. I was somewhat familiar with him from his work with Alejandro Escovedo, but then the latter’s albums over the last decade haven’t been very good. So I hadn’t ever really paid attention to Prophet before. But this new album got a lot of acclaim and I have to say that it is pretty impressive. It has a lot of classic rock influences in a way that I don’t listen to a whole lot anymore but which are enjoyable nonetheless and combines that with some really smart lyrics. The title track itself gives you a sense of what you are going to get here. This is primarily a rock album’s rock album, with songs about playing in crappy clubs, dead rock musicians, and Connie Britten, the actress who played the coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights. But it’s not apolitical either, closing with a paean to Alex Nieto, killed by San Francisco police, in a good rocker. A fine guitarist on top of it all.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music, or anything that is not politics.

Simplistic Solutions to Organized Labor’s Problems

[ 10 ] April 8, 2017 |


If you want to get published, a real good way is to write yet another version of “labor unions are doing it wrong. They should ORGANIZE and listen to REAL WORKERS instead of PLAYING POLITICS and DOING THE SAME OLD THINGS.” These articles come out all the time. Virtually all have some level of truth in them. Unions often do a lot of things wrong. But they inevitably make broad statements that erase all the complexity from the problems the labor movement faces while asserting a potential for working-class power that probably isn’t there in the way these writers want. There’s a new piece along these lines from Dan Schlademan, the co-director of a group called Organization United for Respect, a group made up of grocery store employees organizing in that industry. So you have to respect the work and I do not mean to say anything negative about that. But this is a good time to critique some of the arguments routinely made on the labor left, because a lot of them are really problematic.

Working people in this country can not and should not underestimate their power. History, as well as emerging movements and organizations, show that working people are not facing a question of life or death. Rather, they are facing the opportunity for renewal. The US labor movement has reinvented itself repeatedly in the past. These rebirths have been crucial to the evolution of the movement’s power. We are now at another historical moment of rebirth. But it’s important to understand how we arrived here, so to best take advantage of the opportunity ahead.

Given the Trump OSHA and EPA though, workers are literally facing a question of life or death. The Trump administration is not an opportunity for renewal. There’s no silver lining here. Yes, the labor movement writ large is not going away. Workers will always fight to improve their lives, or at least some workers will. But I really struggle calling the likelihood of Friedrichs II and right to work laws sweeping any state Republicans take over an “opportunity.”

Today, too many people—inside the labor movement and out—wax nostalgic about mid-1950s movements that are still dominant in 2017. It’s understandable: union membership was over 30% of the workforce, GM workers were able to buy the cars they built, and the modern American Dream—where working hard meant getting ahead—emerged. In this period, unions played a huge role building the middle class and making America strong. But changes to global trade policies, technology, and the rise of other forces, like automation, mean that the organizations that thrived in 1955 are not necessarily equipped to build power for working people today.

This is true.

Emerging worker movements are winning hard fought victories with the painful recognition that the same methods for organizing don’t work inside America’s broken system of laws and traditions. New, emergent forms of organizing are gaining power despite the fact that corporations have unprecedented control over workplaces, politics, laws, and the economy. From OUR Walmart to the Fight for $15, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Better Banks Campaign, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Freelancers Union, new forms of worker organizations are winning better pay and scheduling practices at major corporations. They’re providing access to benefits and services by using economies of scale. And they’re securing stronger public policy, winning paid sick days and higher minimum wages for entire communities.

I would call all of this exceptions to the horrible things happening to American workers rather than a new model that is gaining power. Are these workers gaining power? Are they really winning? These movements have put the minimum wage back on the table and shown that raising it is a popular move, even in conservative states. All of these groups do really good and important work, but there’s little evidence that this is a model of the future per se.

These models show that organizers must not be afraid of being catalysts that help workers build independent organizations and experiment. The decision about forming an organization can’t be left up to the government or employers. The presence of workers ready to initiate organization building should be the only prerequisite necessary for an organization to exist.

Workers and organizers must also remember that who gets elected, and what they do in once in office, is a reflection of their power; until they build independent power, they will continue to lose. Some of the resources currently focused on politics needs to be focused instead on building organizations that give working people a voice, community, and vision for change, first.

So this is a really common refrain on the labor left. Unions should stop with the politics and organize. The problem with this is that it’s totally disconnected from the reality of when and why unions succeed in this country. No, the decision on forming an organization can’t be left up to employers or the government, but giving up on the National Labor Relations Act is hardly a strategy, as limited as the NLRA is today. And it certainly may be that we need worker organizations that are not really unions so that they can operate outside the NLRA. But ultimately, those organizations are hard to run, they face enormous challenges that range from a lack of resources to the need for constant leadership building given the reliance on local people to do all the work. In reality, these are big tasks. Moreover, to give workers a voice, they need to have political power.

The most important factor in the success or failure of the American labor movement is something that the labor left hates to hear. It’s not about organizing. It’s not about militancy. It’s not about worker activism. It’s not about radical union leadership. Through the whole history of American labor, the key deciding factor has been the position government takes in a strike or to labor’s demands. There has simply been very few strikes or other victories in American history where labor has succeeded in the face of the complete opposition of government. The Gilded Age provides the most prominent examples of this, not so much because of Pullman and Homestead and the Great Railroad Strike, but because the two big victories of the period–the Anthracite Strike and Cripple Creek–happened precisely because the government made exceptions to their usual anti-labor politics, with Theodore Roosevelt mediating the former and a Populist governor openly taking the side of the miners in the latter. Yes, the Memphis sanitation strike won in 1968 with the Memphis government in total opposition, but that required the death of Martin Luther King and AFSCME couldn’t even build on that in Atlanta less than a decade later when Maynard Jackson decided to side with the city’s business elites over the workers. Moreover, unions’ success not only required unprecedented interventions from the federal government (which would not have happened had workers not struck across the nation in the early 1930s) but their decline coincides with a newly hostile federal government that is most associated with Reagan destroying the air traffic controllers, but really began during the Carter administration.

Unions do need to do more than just play the political game. But the political game is absolutely vital to any union victories. There is no way around this. We have well more than a century’s worth of evidence on this point.

United for Respect @ Walmart (OUR Walmart) has been working on these issues since 2010. Worker-leaders choose not to wait for the government or Walmart to decide if it had the right to exist. The organization exists because Walmart workers decided to build it into a network of more than 100,000, who, in coalition with communities and allies, created pressure on Walmart sufficient to raise minimum pay, change national policies, and win thousands of store-level victories. By necessity, the organization has focused on developing new forms of building power. While the results may look unfamiliar to traditional labor unions, to date OUR Walmart is both resilient and on the route to building long-term sustainability.

OUR Walmart was largely put together and funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers, even though that union has mostly pulled out of it. The Fight for $15 is a project of SEIU. Its not an either/or here. The problem though, as evinced by the UFCW turn away from it, is that these projects are incredibly expensive and there is very little chance of a pay off in terms of union dues. SEIU is facing this now with the fast food workers. When will this pay off? You might say that organizing should happen without worrying about this. But these organizations not only owe their current members proper representation, but if you have a declining membership, you need to focus on keeping your organization alive. Moreover, this supposedly alternative model required traditional unions already doing things that were nontraditional to get off the ground. Without UFCW support, Our Walmart has basically done nothing. Maybe it is resilient in the sense that a few people are still trying. And that’s great! But neither is Our Walmart some sort of alternative to unions that demonstrates that if unions QUIT PLAYING POLITICS AND ORGANIZE!!! that a new labor movement will flower.

The essay concludes with an odd point:

We live in an era where the opportunity to bring people together is in transformation, thanks to continued technological developments that allow for the democratization of connection, information, and media. We also live in a time when poverty and inequality are destroying the fabric of America and the world. We know that the labor movement won’t survive in its current state—a state that allowed for the election of Donald Trump. The question for those of us invested in the future of labor is this: Are we bold enough to build something different, and better, than what has come before?

Social media is a great thing. But social media is not going to organize the working class. Period. If capitalist technologies that are easily monitored by the bosses and where infiltrators and provocateurs can easily screw up these campaigns is the great alternative to stodgy unions, we have a long ways to go to recreate the labor movement.

The people struggling to fight for the rights of themselves and their fellow workers are heroes. The people keeping Our Walmart going are doing necessary and incredibly difficult work. But that doesn’t mean we can allow for simplistic narratives about the future of the labor movement or the problems of the contemporary labor movement to dominate our thoughts about working class movements. I know we all like a clear narrative that diagnoses problems and suggests solutions without muddying the waters too much. This is how you get published and these are the books that sell. But not facing the problems with our own narratives doesn’t help us overcome the huge obstacles anyone fighting for working class power faces.

The Canadian Exploitation of the World’s Indigenous People Continues

[ 43 ] April 8, 2017 |


Americans often look at Canada as some sort of liberal paradise. And in some ways, obviously the domestic politics are less toxic than that of the United States. But Canada’s natural resource corporations are among the world’s worst in terms of both exploiting the natural world and exploiting the people who are unfortunate enough to live where they want to mine or log. Within the vast lightly populated areas of Canada, companies ravage stands of ancient forests, mine the tar sands, and create huge strip mines wherever there are valuable materials. They do the same in the Global South, especially in Latin America, where they have been involved in some of the most terrible exploitation of largely indigenous populations throughout the region over the last half-century. We are seeing this again in Brazil, where a emphasis on modernism and development coming from Brasilia (whether Lula, Dilma, or the coup leaders) combines with the possibly for mining profits to destroy forests, pollute water supplies, and dispossess indigenous people from control over their lands.

A Canadian company is planning to build the soon-to-be largest open-pit gold mine in Brazil, located in the heart of the Amazon forest on the banks of the Xingu river. Brazilian activists, NGOs and advocacy groups, however, are waging a legal battle over the land.

Belo Sun Mining Corp., which is headquartered in Toronto, is behind the Volta Grande Gold Project, which plans to extract 600 tons of gold over the course of 12 years. The mine will generate toxic waste two-fold the volume of Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf mountain. A community of 300 families, who live off the land in Vila da Ressaca, Galo and Ouro Verde villages, will have to be relocated should the project go forward.

The indigenous communities directly affected by the Volta Grande Gold Project have not been consulted as is provided for in the 169 Convention of the International Labor Organization, of which Brazil is a signatory.

Six days after the issuing of the construction permit in early February, the mining company published on its website, only in English, a detailed exploration plan that encompasses 120 kilometres throughout the Xingu River. If the company were to implement the plan, at least four officially designated Indigenous Lands (Terras Indígenas) would be affected: Paquiçamba, of the Juruna people; Ituna/Itata, where isolated indigenous peoples live; Arara da Volta Grande, of the Arara; and Trincheira Bacajá, of the Xicrin peoples. Brazilian legislation states that constructions permits in this area should be done at the federal level (rather than by Pará state government) because it directly affects indigenous lands.

As of now, there hasn’t been any consultation of the peoples that could be impacted if the project moves forward. “From the way it is on the map, it looks like there are no indigenous peoples there. For Belo Sun there is no one there,” says Mukuka Xicrin, a leader of the Xincrin people.

The permit granted by Pará state in February also bypassed a motion issued by Brazil’s public authority on indigenous matters (the National Indigenous Foundation, or FUNAI), which demands reassessment of the impact on indigenous peoples and considers a study presented by Belo Sun to be insufficient.

Both federal and state public defender’s offices filed a suit to halt the permit, with the latter’s suit being upheld by the state court. The federal prosecutor’s office also filed a motion directed at Pará’s environmental agency recommending against the permit. The prosecutor’s office had already filed two other suits against the project in the past.

We’ll see what happens, but it’s hard to be confident that the mine won’t go forward. Ultimately, Canadians need to demand their corporations live up to ethical standards when they operate abroad. As I have argued repeatedly, this is one of he only ways to tame the worst parts of global capitalism. We must take responsibility for how our corporations treat people in other parts of the world. Sadly, it is not really a major part of the progressive agenda anywhere.

“You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

[ 309 ] April 7, 2017 |


I know we are surrounded by low information voters and said voters are not too bright or interested. Alas, such is the majority of the population. But this story of a woman who voted for Trump despite being married to an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and whose husband has now been deported is just so beyond anything I can handle right now. What does one even do with this story?

Clean Energy Advances, Despite Our Idiot in the Oval Office

[ 79 ] April 7, 2017 |


Obviously the Trump administration is doing whatever it can to reinforce dirty energy and the monstrous global corporations that support it. But despite his bluster, he ain’t bringing back coal jobs in West Virginia. Everybody knows that, even people in West Virginia. Well, everyone but Trump. Anyway, the news on clean energy advances is actually pretty good.

Global investment in clean energy fell in 2016 — and that’s largely a good thing.

The world spent less money to build even higher amounts of renewable electricity compared to 2015, according to a report released Thursday. That means wind, solar, and other technologies are becoming cheaper, and in many places they’re now cost-competitive with coal and natural gas.

Companies and governments added a record 138,500 megawatts of new wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-energy, geothermal, small hydro and marine sources in 2016, the report found. That’s up 8 percent from the 127,500 megawatts added the previous year.

If it is costing less to produce more renewable energy, this is a very, very good sign for all of us. Even those who hate hippie energy. Clean energy, not counting enormous hydropower dams, now make up 11.3% of the world’s electricity, up from 10.3% a year ago.

The Trump Child Labor Agenda

[ 32 ] April 7, 2017 |


Trump’s EPA is making the lives of the children who labor on our farms, which is in itself a legacy of Jim Crow and the inability to get the Fair Labor Standards Act through Congress without excluding typically black work in 1938, far less safe. Which is of course a benefit for these psychopaths.

“Luz” started picking strawberries in Florida when she was just nine years old. Her wages helped her mother buy groceries and school supplies, but the work was hard and she often missed class. Exposure to pesticides also made her sick: “When I was in the fields, I took in the chemicals they put on the plants . . . My stomach was always heaving. Every single day.”

Hundreds of thousands of children work on US farms because of child labor laws that allow kids as young as 12 to work as many as 50 or 60 hours a week in agriculture. Since 2000, Human Rights Watch has documented the dangers of this work, including pesticide poisoning, injuries from sharp tools and heavy machines, and fatality rates that are four times higher for child farmworkers than youth working in any other sector. Will the Trump administration take seriously its duty to protect these children from harm? The early signs are not good.

The Trump Administration’s choice of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) triggered widespread alarm, and with good reason. Pruitt has a long record of strident opposition to the EPA’s efforts to protect people from environmental hazards. Last week, he announced the EPA would allow continued use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, despite conclusions from EPA scientists that the chemical is particularly hazardous to children. Research studies have found exposure can cause learning deficits, impacts on brain development, reproductive health problems, and increased rates of cancer. Children are particularly at risk because their bodies and nervous systems are still developing.

According to the New York Times, chlorpyrifos is currently used on about 50 different types of crops and on about 40,000 farms. Research has found that health risks from the chemical can persist for up to 18 days after application to crops. Many child farmworkers have told Human Rights Watch about working in fields that were still wet with pesticides or breathing in pesticide drift while nearby fields were being sprayed.

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