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More on the “Stop Hitting Yourself” Theory of Governance

[ 109 ] March 30, 2015 |


Josh Blackman raises the new theory that Democrats should pay the price for Republican obstructionism to a new level:

I trace much of the intractable gridlock in Washington, D.C. to this very moment in 2009 when the ACA was passed on a 60-line vote. In much the same way that Kim Kardashian “broke the internet,” I think Harry Reid ramming the ACA through “broke the Senate.” This is to say nothing of his later decision to trigger the nuclear option, and eliminate the filibuster altogether for judicial nominees other than the Supreme Court. The intransigent Republicans take virtually all of the blame for the gridlock over the last few years, but much of it should fall at the feet of Reid.

This has the same problem as all versions of the theory: namely, the idea that there’s something presumptively illegitimate about passing legislation with “only” a 60% or 59% majority in the Senate is absolutely absurd. I actually wouldn’t bet that a conference committee would have modified the currently contested language of the ACA — everyone understood perfectly well that subsidies would be available on the federally established exchanges at the time, after all — but whether this is true or not the fact that a minority of Republicans in the Senate wouldn’t allow a vote on a bill that went through a conference committee cannot be blamed in any way on the Democrats and is a feeble justification indeed for willfully misreading the law.

Some additional notes:

  • How many Senate votes are necessary before Democrats are actually permitted to govern after winning an election?  65?  70? 80?
  • I note, again, that Mitch McConnell had announced ex ante that he wanted to deny Republican support for anything.  So, in other words, the only way that the Democrats could have avoided “breaking the Senate” would be…to do nothing.  I can’t imagine why Reid did not take this deal.
  • I’m curious why a bill that passed with 60 votes is cited as the one that “broke the Senate.”  Why not Bush’s second round of upper-class tax cuts, which passed the Senate with 50 votes + the vice president?  What about Medicare Part D, which got 54 votes in the Senate after extraordinary procedures were necessary for it to squeak by a 3-vote margin in the House?  Is it only Democrats who aren’t permitted to govern without at least a 61-seat supermajority in the Senate?
  • The “nuclear option” argument is, if anything, even worse.  Again, it’s worth recalling the context.  Republicans did not merely filibuster individual nominees that they considered unacceptable.  They were simply blocking en masse anyone that Obama nominated to the D.C. Circuit once he was in the position to make Democratic nominees a majority.  Which led to rules changes in which a majority of the Senate can confirm presidential nominees to the federal courts.  Which I’m supposed to be upset about…why is that again exactly?
  • It’s also worth noting that the “nuclear option” was not a Democratic innovation.  It would have been invoked during the Bush administration, except that Democrats made a deal in which they allowed multiple judges including Janice Rogers Brown to be confirmed to the federal bench in exchange for utterly worthless promises about future behavior.  If Republicans had agreed to confirm Pamela Karlan, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Reva Siegel, and Mark Tushnet to the D.C. Circuit I’m very confident that the filibuster rule would not have been modified. 

In conclusion, I would have to say that I am not persuaded that Democrats are obligated not to try to pass any laws to preserve the comity of the Senate or to ensure that the statutes they do pass will be misread by the courts as to defeat their clear purpose.

Last Ditch Confederate Efforts

[ 161 ] March 29, 2015 |


150 years ago, the Confederacy was in its death spiral. Yet the fireeating newspaper editorialists were continuing to call for resistance to Yankee oppression, i.e., crushing treason to defend slavery:

But the most powerful motive of all is to be found in the terms which the enemy offer us. Nothing less than absolute submission will answer their terms. We must lay down our arms, disband our armies, and submit to such terms as they choose to prescribe.–What those terms will be, we are not left to conjecture. They have already passed a law abolishing slavery. They have already passed a law confiscating the entire territory covered by the Confederate States. They have already declared that the States shall, in future, be entitled to no rights greater than those possessed by the counties.

They have, in a word, inaugurated for our benefit one of the most stupendous systems of centralized despotism the world ever beheld, and it is to be inaugurated with the proper accompaniments of a general confiscation and an universal spoliation. A Confederate is to own nothing that he can call his own. He is to be judged by Yankee judges and tried by Yankee juries. He is to be the slave of his own negroes and of their Yankee associates. Such a let is offered him as even Katherine or Nicholas never thought of entailing upon the Poles, and such as makes that of the Irish people blessed in the comparison. If these are not motives for fighting on, then there can be none.

How’d that work out for you?

Siting the Nixon Library

[ 26 ] March 29, 2015 |


As I’ve mentioned before, the Nixon Library is Disneyland for cynical left-wing historians. It’s located in boring ol’Yorba Linda, Nixon’s birthplace. Turns out this was very disappointing for Nixon, who had incredibly grand ideas about what his library should look like. And that included stripping the western part of Camp Pendleton for it.

Obsessed with his place in history, Nixon needed to acquire a location that, in and of itself, would command respect – awe, even. He had the exact spot picked out, and it was spectacular: vast, open, California wilderness, miles of stunning beaches, and magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. Its setting alone would trump all past, and likely future, presidential libraries. The only thing preventing Nixon from realizing his vision was something that, in so many other parts of his political life, he never let stop him: it would not be legal.

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 prohibits the use of federal land for a presidential library, and that presented a problem: Nixon’s perfect site just happened to be on federal property. Worse, the exclusive parcel was, inconveniently for Nixon, in the western part of Camp Pendleton, one of the country’s largest Marine Corps bases.

Occupying eighteen miles along the Southern California coast and more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand acres between Los Angeles and San Diego, the camp was – and is – the main training base for all West Coast Marines. Vital to the mission and readiness of the Corps – particularly those then training to go to southeast Asia – the Marines did not want to give up a single acre or a foot of shoreline. The Department of Defense (DoD) protested that Nixon’s plan would “severely handicap” military functions at Camp Pendleton, pointing out that during 1970 alone, more than 77,000 Marines trained in the specific area of the base that he wanted.

To say the least, Nixon did not get his wish. But he and his henchmen sure tried:

When Congress got word that the president desired to transfer the land – but not that he wanted it for his library, only for a state park, the cover story – it prohibited the sale, lease, or transfer of Camp Pendleton without further congressional authorization.

Nixon, along with All the President’s Library Men – which included H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Nixon Library Foundation’s board of executive trustees), Donald Rumsfeld, Fred Fielding, and John Dean – went ahead anyway. They wrested thousands of acres and miles of beach away from the Corps, enlisting the National Archives and Records Service, the General Services Administration, and even the United States Secret Service in hiding the fact that he planned to build his library on the stolen land.

Like many of Nixon’s plans to circumvent the law, this one included a cover-up. Unlike many of his plans, though, the cover-up had been part of the strategy from the start. While Nixon’s plan wasn’t fully successful, the cover-up lasted for more than forty-five years – until I discovered hundreds of pages of evidence in what was then known as the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.

The whole story is pretty amazing. The actual library is insane enough. What this would have looked on a spread like Nixon envisioned, I can only imagine. I almost wish it happened, just so I could make fun of it.

Prioritizing Property Rights

[ 76 ] March 29, 2015 |


In America, property rights are king. The right to property is part of the national mythology. And I get that. But I am constantly curious as to how competing rights to property play out. In other words, like all rights, if conceived broadly enough anyway, they inevitably conflict with others who think their own, quite similar, rights take precedence. While we are most famously seeing this right now in the discriminatory bills passed by Indiana and soon probably by other states, this also plays out in the realm of property rights. If one wants to develop their property and it affects other people’s property, almost inevitably in the United States, the wealthy win. This goes back to the early 19th century, when upstream and downstream property owners were suing early corporations over the damage their dams, logging runs, and other industrial water uses were causing the property of farmers, fishers, and other water users. The courts consistently found for the capitalists. And while the rise of the government regulatory state eventually created the principle of the collective rights of Americans having some occasional precedence over private property rights (such as in the national forests), when multiple property owners battle, little has changed.

I thought of this when reading this story about fracking in Nebraska
. A drilling company wants to truck polluted water to land near some ranches. The likelihood of this water polluting the water supplies of nearby ranches is high. That led to a farmer challenging the board members of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation committee to drink the water. Of course they wouldn’t. Why should the rights of a drilling company negatively affect the property rights of entire communities.

I ask the same question about outsourcing. Why should the property rights of a corporation be allowed to destroy the property values of thousands of people by moving to a new location? What about their property rights? Allow me to quote from the manuscript version of Out of Sight on this issue:

In the mid-twentieth century, GE was the prime economic engine for its hometown of Schenectady, New York and the surrounding region. It made Schenectady a home of good jobs for researchers and scientists, mechanics and assembly line workers. GE located its electrical capacitor plant in Fort Edward, New York, about forty miles northeast of Schenectady. For decades, the plant used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to make the capacitors safe and reliable. Unfortunately, PCBs also cause cancer, fetal disorders, and cognitive dysfunctions. Industry knew of the effects of PCB exposure after workers in a New York factory died of liver failure after exposure in 1936, but for decades GE dumped the PCBs into the Hudson River watershed. By the time the federal government banned PCBs in 1976, 1.3 million pounds polluted the Hudson River and 7 million pounds poisoned local landfills. PCBs entered the bodies of fish and birds, and then the bodies of the people who defied the ban on Hudson River fishing to feed their families. In 1983, the EPA declared 200 miles of the Hudson a Superfund site. Workers in Fort Edward and people throughout the Hudson watershed had to live with the consequences of PCB exposure. They also needed jobs in a place with limited potential for new economic development thanks to GE poisoning the land.

In 2013, GE announced it was moving capacitor production to the now ironically named Clearwater, Florida, where it can enjoy a non-union workforce, a favorable regulatory climate, and, because of this, higher profits. The United Electrical Workers (UE) represents the Fort Edward workers. UE political director Chris Townsend said, “It shouldn’t be easy to close a plant. The General Electric corporation has been shown every imaginable consideration. Our members have worked with the company to keep this plant profitable. Now the company decides to walk off, leave hundreds of people stranded with no jobs, no income.” You might argue, “This is America and corporations have property rights to move their operations wherever someone agrees to host them.” But what happens to the property values of Fort Edward homeowners, left with no hope for jobs and a polluted landscape? What happened to the homeowners of Detroit, Cleveland, and Scranton as jobs disappeared? Why do we allow corporate property rights to trump the rights of everyday citizens to jobs, good schools, safe neighborhoods, and the investment in their homes and communities? Why should a corporation be able move anywhere it wants for any reason it chooses? We do not really ask these questions but we should. We might bemoan corporate mobility but we rarely challenge the fundamental right of corporations to move.

Why do we never use the idea of property rights to protect the collective property of individual property owners against the wealthy? It’s not even a question we ask ourselves. But we should, whether against polluters lowering the property values of their workers through their actions or against the same corporations decided to decimate a community by moving all the jobs away.

But the ACA REALLY WAS the Heritage Plan, Amirite? (SPOILER: No.)

[ 61 ] March 29, 2015 |


Not pictured: the many Republican supporters of the ACA, Mrs. Eisenhower

A commenter believes that he has a GOTCHA!

The other day, Obama was touting the successes of Ocare and needling the Rs for not accepting a healthcare reform plan (the ACA) that was basically their (the Rs) proposal as put forth by Heritage.

I’ve been waiting with bated breath Lemieux’s excoriation of the President. Apparently, dumb ol’ Obama thinks his health reform was the conservative approach. What a moron, amirite?

The assertion about Obama’s rhetoric is, as far as it goes, accurate-ish:

I mean, we have been promised a lot of things these past five years that didn’t turn out to be the case: death panels, doom. (Laughter.) A serious alternative from Republicans in Congress. (Laughter.)

The budget they introduced last week would literally double the number of the uninsured in America. And in their defense, there are two reasons why coming up with their own alternative has proven to be difficult.

First, it’s because the Affordable Care Act pretty much was their plan before I adopted it — (laughter) — based on conservative, market-based principles developed by the Heritage Foundation and supported by Republicans in Congress, and deployed by a guy named Mitt Romney in Massachusetts to great effect. If they want to take credit for this law, they can. I’m happy to share it. (Laughter.)

And second, it’s because health reform is really hard and the people here who are in the trenches know that. Good people from both parties have tried and failed to get it done for 100 years, because every public policy has some trade-offs, especially when it affects one-sixth of the American economy and applies to the very personal needs of every individual American.

And we’ve made our share of mistakes since we passed this law. But we also know beyond a shred of a doubt that the policy has worked. Coverage is up. Cost growth is at a historic low. Deficits have been slashed. Lives have been saved. So if anybody wants to join us in the spirit of the people who have put aside differences to come here today and help make the law work even better, come on board.

The context here is important. His invocation of the Heritage Plan is preceded by a description of the actually existing contemporary Republican alternative — i.e. a policy framework substantially worse than the status quo ante that would double the number of uninsured. To call the ACA a “Republican plan” in these circumstances would be pretty dumb. Still and all, Obama did indeed use the “ACA was a Republican plan” line. The question remains: what, precisely, is this supposed to prove?

The most important question here is an empirical one — does the ACA resemble the Heritage Plan? The answer to this question is unambiguous: the plans are radically dissimilar. Nothing Obama says can change this basic fact.

Obama gets around this in part with the familiar technique of conflating the Heritage “mandate to buy nearly unregulated catastrophic insurance while destroying Medicare and Medicaid” plan with the Massachusetts health care reform plan. This argument has the advantage that the Massachusetts plan does bear a real resemblance to the ACA. But it has the fatal disadvantage that what laws a Republican governor will sign (significant parts of) when facing veto-proof supermajorities of Massachusetts Democrats is about as relevant to national Republican health care policy as the views of Thaddeus Stevens and John Bingham are to Republican civil rights policy in 2015.

So, on this issue what Obama is saying is wrong. But his Heritage Plan comments should be seen as having a strategic, not descriptive, purpose. The point of the argument — which is abundantly clear in context — is to preempt Republican assertions that the ACA a radical threat to freedom itself while also painting the GOP as obstructionist and intransigent. It would be silly to take the comments at face value as some kind of wonky policy analysis, and for that reason it would also be silly to “excoriate” Obama as an ignoramus (or, alternatively, to cite his comments as evidence that the ACA really was the Heritage Plan, which seems to be the thrust of the comment.)

This is not to defend the rhetorical strategy, which I continue to think is deeply misguided, particularly with the constitutionality of the individual mandate no longer being a live issue. As Shelley Levene observed, if you’re gonna make something up, make sure that it helps. At this late date, it’s pretty clear that the preemption strategy is a failure, and I think a more accurate description of Republican health care policy — their offer to the uninsured is nothing to more people and their offer to many of the insured is to make things worse — is also the better rhetorical approach. But since only a tiny minority of people were paying attention to Obama’s comments and 0% of that group are persuadable on health care policy, I also don’t think that it particularly matters.

Is There a Way to Talk about Design that is Not Completely Obnoxious?

[ 61 ] March 29, 2015 |

Erik’s post below got me thinking–again–about this question: Is it possible to discuss architecture and interior design without it being Olympic-level obnoxious? Is there a way to talk about design that does not make it sound as if authors are performing the most obscene sex acts in service of the extraordinarily privileged?

I love looking at interior design magazines, but it’s gotten the point where I have to remind myself–FORCEFULLY–not to read the accompanying text, because it tends to make me want to jab forks into my eyes.

I always thought it would be neat to have a magazine that showed an interior, then gave readers three options for recreating the look: one on a “just graduated college” budget (in other words, frankly, on the cheap), one on a middle to upper-middle class budget, and one that’s more in the “sky’s the limit” range. I’d love to read an interiors magazine that gave even a curt nod to the idea that not everyone who likes design is obscenely wealthy.

Seriously, what’s the answer here?

A Third Reconstruction

[ 165 ] March 29, 2015 |


Eric Foner on why the Reconstruction era is still vitally important today. He gives us the short history we need for the most basic understanding of the issues at play and why historians changed their views on the period over time, from lauding the racist white Democrats to noting the horrors they committed against African-Americans. For many readers here, this is a history they know well enough, even if it never hurts to become reacquainted with the argument. But I think the real key is just this single paragraph.

Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.

Indeed, given how Republicans are seeking to strip voting rights from African-Americans and how the Supreme Court has overturned the most important part of the Voting Rights Act, that key legislative victory of the Second Reconstruction, and how Republicans are seeking to move power away from the federal government and give it to the states so that corporations, homophobes, and white supremacists can dominate American life rather than a national state that protects the rights of all.

Civil rights leaders and writers have long called for a Third Reconstruction
that would help solve the problems the first two did not. Unfortunately, that Third Reconstruction may be necessary simply to restore the rights stripped during this dark era of American history.

The Legend of the Avro Arrow

[ 50 ] March 28, 2015 |

On Thursday I gave a presentation at University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies. After the talk, we visited the Canadian War Museum, which combines one of the most effective and minimalist war memorials I’ve ever seen with an outstanding collection of tanks and other vehicles. While at the museum, I had the opportunity to visit the museum store, where I found these:

Yes, those are CF-105 Avro Arrows. Canadians apparently love the ill-fated Arrow as much as they love hockey, poutine, and milk-in-a-bag.

The next day, I’m making my way through security, the Arrows safely in my carry-on. As it goes through the x-ray machine, I hear an audible gasp, and a few seconds later the whatever-Canada-calls-its-TSA-people staffer came up to me and said “We approve of your choice of toy airplane.” Because, of course, they had identified the two die-cast Arrows from their silhouettes alone.

The Arrows are now in good hands.

Onward to Revolution!

[ 143 ] March 28, 2015 |


I’m never quite sure why the New York Times writes about real estate and the lives of the rich in the way it does. Is it about sucking up to the 1 percent? Or are these writers actually secret Marxists seeking to spur class warfare against the rich by writing these articles? I know it’s the former but it sure seems like the latter sometimes.

I first read this article because it’s summary described how the wealthy buying houses in the Hamptons was a sign of an improving economy. Well OK then. But it is really so, so much worse than that. An excerpt:

It was that word “special” that doubled the project’s time for one room in his 8,000-square-foot home, taking more time to finish than the spa with the Turkish marble floors or the wine cellar.

“What most people call screening rooms are glorified dens, with a big television and leather chairs, maybe some stadium seating,” he said. “I wanted mine to have a vision. I feel it’s one of the most impressive screening rooms in the country.”

The screening room, which is oval, has a hand-painted ceiling that mixes silver and gold leaf with Swarovski crystals.


“It’s very hard for someone who is not trained to get all the subtle nuances of the houses right,” said Campion Platt, an architect and interior designer, who worked with Mr. Seltzer on his home. “It’s about scale and proportion. Until they see it all assembled, they can be surprised.”

The toughest spaces are not screening rooms, he said, but great rooms, those vast open spaces meant to be the convening spot of a home. “It has to do with the scale and placement of the furniture,” he said.

But people make seemingly smaller mistakes that have larger ramifications. They skimp on lighting and tile, said Shane Inman, an interior designer who specializes in kitchens and baths.

And just as bad as having too much furniture in the great room, people don’t allow enough space for a kitchen to be functional. “They don’t know how many inches they need to walk past something,” Mr. Inman said.

To minimize those gaffes that detract from a dream home, many people with means hire a team to help them, such as architects, contractors, craftsmen and landscapers. Finding them is not easy. One option is the famous architect route, picking a Richard Meier or Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. But that is out of reach of all but the wealthiest people, and even those who can afford them need to want a house that matches the architect’s style. Another option is to seek referrals from friends.

It’s so declasse not have Rem Koolhaas or Richard Rogers design your home. Really, if you don’t hire a Pritzker Prize winner, you end up with Swarovski crystals in your ceiling. And who wants that? Nouveau money, that’s who.

Seriously, Upton Sinclair or Leon Trotsky could not write a more effective tract to convert people to socialism.

The Stupidity of Pre-Draft Quarterback Analysis

[ 59 ] March 28, 2015 |

Washington Oregon Football

Following the NFL before the draft is always an exercise in stupidity, but never more so than when discussing quarterbacks. I admit I have a rooting interest this year since Marcus Mariota is the greatest Oregon player of my lifetime. And I have no idea how he will translate to the NFL. He’s an incredible athlete and very smart but he does miss some open receivers at times and fumbles a bit. I personally don’t think that he’s never huddled is a real issue. But you know what, it probably depends on the team who drafts him. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the coverage of quarterbacks every year is really stupid. Last year, it was Teddy Bridgewater for all sorts of really stupid reasons. And it turns out he looks like a very solid quarterback. This year it is Mariota for many of the same stupid reasons. What’s crazy is how much so many coaches want their QBs to be “leaders” of a very particular type, which is mostly yelling a lot. They want Brett Favre. And if a QB reminds them of him, they’ll raise him in the draft.

“Just because a guy doesn’t yell and scream at a guy when he doesn’t run the right route, ask any of those guys if they’d take Eli Manning. I don’t see Eli Manning screaming and yelling at anybody,” said Chip Kelly, Mariota’s coach at Oregon before Kelly went to the Eagles. “But you talk about a stone-cold killer in the fourth quarter, look how many fourth-quarter comebacks Eli’s had.

“It’s the silly season. I’ve said it before. The NFL draft hype is the craziest thing in the world. Guys are going to go up, guys are going to go down. Cam Newton couldn’t play. There’s no reason to draft him in the first round. All of a sudden, he goes No. 1. It’s crazy.”

Zimmer, who had been known as a smart and cocky defensive coordinator before getting his shot with the Vikings, admitted he was one of those guys that wanted to see some swagger out of his quarterback. Zimmer might not have been as adamant about it as other coaches, but he certainly considered that factor a plus.

Bridgewater has made him a believer.

“Well, I did learn a lot about that, to be honest with you,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy that leads by how hard he works, by the improvement that he makes in practice every day, the way he wanted to learn how to annunciate the plays, just all the extra effort that they guy put in. … He’s not one of those guys that is going to get in your face, this or that, but the players all gravitate towards this guy. He’s always got a smile, he’s confident but not cocky. It’s never about him, so it’s always about, How can I help this guy do this better or the team.

“Maybe it’s not your leadership style that everybody is thinking about, but it was really effective this year. So I learned quite a bit.”

So nice of an NFL head coach to learn that, hey, maybe a QB doesn’t have to be brash to be effective. I’m glad that basic logic has entered the NFL finally, at least in places. See also Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. Jameis Winston might be a great NFL QB. I don’t know. I do know that he throws A LOT of interceptions. A 25:18 TD:INT ratio is not going to fly in the NFL. Not to mention that it’s not like FSU had terrible receivers or played great defenses all year. Again, I don’t know. But Winston’s brashness and cockiness is serving him well with the troglodytes who staff so much of the NFL. And some of this is a combination of the NFL’s toxic masculinity and racism. If the QB doesn’t play those super manly games, then he’s not their man. And if he is a quiet Hawaiian dude (and Mariota is nothing if not a quiet Hawaiian dude) then there’s a problem with him. Forget what you’ve seen on the field and what you’ve seen in the interviews. How did he do in his pro day and at the combine and how loud is he? That’s true leadership!

Of course, none of this matches the all-time stupidest pre-draft fall of a QB, which was Aaron Rodgers, who fell partially because previous QBs coached in college by Jeff Tedford like Kyle Boller and Akili Smith had not done well in the NFL. I’m glad the science behind that proved so solid!

…I will also note that a) of all the Oregon uniforms, those are the best by far and b) this was the game when Oregon beat Washington for merely the 11th consecutive year.

Useful Idiots

[ 381 ] March 28, 2015 |

Welp, I’m glad the National Review finds our old friend Freddie DeBoer useful in making arguments about how the real McCarthyism is on the college campus today. Because Freddie is the real leftist after all. Perhaps we should take odds on when he will show up here to accuse me of being part of this McCarthyist mob silencing dissent.

This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1977

[ 11 ] March 28, 2015 |

On March 28, 1977, AFSCME Local 1644, a union primarily made of African-American sanitation workers, went on strike in Atlanta, hoping to force mayor Maynard Jackson to grant them a much needed pay raise. Jackson’s anti-union positions would deeply disappoint organized labor who believed that labor rights were civil rights. It would also demonstrated the willingness of many civil rights leaders to turn their backs on the needs of the poorest workers when they reached positions of authority. Finally, the failure of this strike showed that just electing supposedly progressive people to positions for power would not be a panacea for working class people.

The background for the AFSCME action in Atlanta goes back to its successful 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike that served as the background for the assassination of Martin Luther King. Building on that, AFSCME continued trying to organize black workers in southern cities. Labor rights were civil rights and the martyrdom of King while supporting their cause was proof enough of this to black public workers around the South. The union became heavily involved in southern urban politics, seeking to elect blacks to power that would, presumably, use that power to increase the wages and working conditions of black workers.

The AFSCME-affiliated sanitation workers in Atlanta worked hard to elect who they thought was one of their own to the mayor. The Maynard Jackson campaign was an extension of the labor rights as civil rights theme. Jackson became a force in Atlanta politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jackson was the first black attorney to work for the National Labor Relations Board office in Atlanta. As vice-mayor Jackson supported organized labor, breaking with mayor Sam Massell over a 1970 sanitation strike. In 1973, Jackson was elected mayor and it was a moment of rejoicing for African-Americans across the United States, as the rise of black political power seemed a confirmation of the civil rights movement, especially in the South. At first, Jackson did work to fight for the rights of the black poor, firing the racist white police chief in 1974. But the racial tensions this built and Jackson’s desire to be reelected in difficult economic times began to win out over racial and class equality concerns.

To say the least, Jackson did not repay the sanitation workers for their help. In his first three years as mayor, the workers received no raises and salaries remained stuck at an average of $7500 a year ($29,000 today). This placed a full-time worker supporting a family of four below the poverty line. Worker anger began to grow. Jackson would not give any ground. Instead, he embraced the city’s powerful white business community. They were concerned about the growing inflation of the 1970s and so Jackson decided to alleviate their concerns and drive workers deeper into poverty without raises to match that inflation. The workers demanded a 50-cent an hour raise. He refused to negotiate with AFSCME on the pay raises. Instead, Jackson became an austerity politician, stating “There will no deficit while I am mayor.” Jackson wouldn’t even return AFSCME’s phone calls by 1975. Over the next two years, smaller labor actions began popping up such as a one day strike in July 1976 and a wildcat strike in February 1977.

Finally, on March 28, 1977, the workers marched to City Hall to demand a meeting with Jackson. While Jackson did come out, he completely dismissed them. They were shocked that their own man, a hero of the civil rights movement, would treat them so shabbily. Basically there was no meaningful difference between Jackson and the white mayors of the past when it came to their work. At this point, the workers decided to strike. The next morning, 1300 workers went on strike.

Jackson quickly moved to isolate the workers by claiming AFSCME was attacking black political power. AFSCME president Jerry Wurf, the man who brought Martin Luther King into Memphis, was called a “racist manipulator” for for wanting to see black political power in Atlanta die, which really meant siding with the black workers over the black mayor. This is particularly ironic since the 1977 strike started without Wurf’s knowledge. It came completely from the rank and file and local staffers angry over Jackson’s betrayal. Jackson accused AFSCME of seeking to eliminate black political leadership throughout the South, saying “I see myself as only the first domino in [labor’s] Southern domino theory. If organized labor makes the move on black political leadership, I think it’s going to have severe consequences for labor Southwise, particularly AFSCME.” This was a cynical attempt to undermine community support for the strikers, an open race-baiting move by Jackson.


Meeting between Maynard Jackson and striking workers

Jackson then fired all the striking workers on April 2. The black middle class fully supported this move. Sadly, so did the civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Sr. said Jackson should “fire the hell” out of the sanitation workers. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also came out against the strikers. James Farmer was an important exception to this, appearing at rallies with AFSCME. The union also took out advertisements in the New York Times to highlight Jackson’s betrayal.

It didn’t work. Jackson simply crushed the union. By the end of April, half of the strikers had already given up and applied to get their old jobs back. Leamon Hood, the AFSCME staffer in charge of the strike, recommended on April 26 that workers end the strike. AFSCME itself cut off funding for the strike on April 29. Over the next year, the workers who wanted their jobs back did eventually return to work. Somewhat ironically, the most militant workers accused Hood and Wurf of selling out but there was simply no way to win this strike in the face of overwhelming opposition from the heroes of the civil rights movement.

In the end, the strike showed that electing supposedly progressive leadership was not a panacea for worker power. Electing the right politicians is a necessary part of what unions have to do to get their members’ better lives, but it is often difficult to hold them to their promises, even when they come out of something as transformative as the civil rights movement.

I relied on Joseph McCartin, “Managing Discontent: The Life and Career of Leamon Hood, Black Public Employee Union Activist,” in Eric Arnesen, ed., The Black Worker: A Reader and Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America to write this post.

This is the 140th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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