Wisconsin Aftermath

I’ll be honest, after the labor-backed candidate for governor in Wisconsin lost the Democratic primary in a recall election that was happening because of an assault on workers’ rights and public sector unions, I paid significantly less attention to the race. And even before that, once the choice was made by labor unions and Democratic operatives to turn away from direct action and popular protest following the occupation of the capitol in Madison, and instead focus energy on Democratic electoral gains, I was turned off from this fight. Don’t get me wrong – I still wanted Walker to lose. Now I’m hoping that he gets indicted and soon.

But last night’s elections reveal a number of really big problems. Looking at the final results, with Walker winning by around 7%, there are incredibly disturbing numbers that pop out of the exit polling. 36% of union households voted for Walker.
17% of Obama supporters voted for Walker. Unions, despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, map fairly well onto the partisan divide and it isn’t shocking that over a third of union households voted for a Republican, though it is depressing. But Obama supporters voting for Walker? That’s pretty terrifying if you believe that Democrats support workers’ rights and labor should be allied with the Democratic Party.

Of course it also isn’t surprising that a President who hasn’t done anything to aid labor – no effort on Employee Free Choice, no meaningful effort to improve the NLRB or get good rules out of it – would attract people who vote for a union-busting Republican.

There’s a big problem when the biggest argument in an election is “Defeat the bad guy,” with no compelling vision for how the Democratic candidate is going to affect change. Even had Barrett won, he wouldn’t have been able to reverse Walker’s union-busting legislation, as the Republican still control the state Assembly. The only demonstrable gain that would have happened would have been a cessation of Walker’s union-busting agenda. Evidently that was not compelling enough for all Obama supporters or union households to vote for Barrett.

The volume of outside case also played a role in the outcome. Walker outspent Barrett by around 8:1 and there was tens of millions of dollars in outside spending benefiting Walker. That’s certainly a tough environment to win in, but I don’t think it was in itself determinative. The bad dynamics, the lack of a way for the election to change, the establishment candidate who wasn’t backed by labor, the fact that Barrett had lost to Walker less than two years ago…these all added to the reasoning for the loss. There will be many post-mortems today. I’m really sorry for the people of Wisconsin, especially those who worked for the last 18 months to stop Scott Walker. But perhaps trying to elect more Democrats wasn’t the answer needing to emerge from the occupation of the capitol in Madison.

OFA & Teachers’ Unions

Stephanie Cutter is OFA’s Deputy Campaign Manager. She tweeted:

@stefcutter FACT CHECK: Romney off on Obama’s relationship with teachers’ unions; it’s anything but cozy: //wapo.st/Lu0nYZ

The article she links to is an AP fact check that outlines how Mitt Romney is wrong to say Obama is cozy with teachers’ unions. From the article:

ROMNEY: “President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses — and unwilling to stand up for kids.”

THE FACTS: Several of the core tenets of the Obama administration’s signature education initiative, the Race to the Top competition, are policies first heralded by Republicans and are in opposition to the steadfast positions of teacher unions on topics like school choice and merit pay for teachers.

At its annual meeting last year, the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, sent a message to Obama that it was “appalled” with Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s practice of focusing heavily on charter schools, supporting decisions to fire all staff and using high-stakes standardized test scores for teacher evaluations, along with 10 other policies mentioned.

“Obama has taken on teachers unions unlike any previous Democratic president,” said Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. “Because of that his support among union members, although it is still there, is rather tepid.”

And again, this is an article that Cutter linked to approvingly.

Of course, Cutter is absolutely correct. Obama is not cozy to teachers’ unions. But the fact that the campaign is openly campaigning on the lack of support for workers shows they think unions are totally captured punks who won’t stop their support of Obama, even in the face of public humiliation like this. And, of course, OFA is right.

Following pressure by pro-worker progressives on Twitter, Cutter has responded with this:

Pres. fights for unions/teachers b/c he believes in them-Mitt dishonest about being beholden to them MT@nitalovesmiles LAME.Explain yourself

Well Cutter certainly did a poor job expressing this. The article Cutter linked to does a pretty good job of showing how the administration’s education policies demonstrate real differences with teachers’ unions. These are differences manifested in concrete policy choices and frameworks for how they think about education. President Obama may way make the occasional good speech to a union audience, but his administration’s actions, especially around teachers’ unions, don’t really come close to his rhetoric. As is so often the case with this President, you are forced to ask, “Who am I going to believe: him or my lying eyes?”

When I read the fact check, I didn’t say, “Wow this is bad reporting,” I said, “Yep, that’s about right.” Staying within the GOP frame is not bad politics here (though it may be that too), it’s that the administration doesn’t have the policy record supporting statements outside the GOP frame.

Occupy Oakland planning a general strike on Nov 2

Following last week’s violent police crackdown, the Occupy Oakland General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a general strike on November 2nd. You can watch a video of the Oakland General Assembly voting to pass the general strike here. While general strikes are rare and hard to enact, this one is gaining steam. The International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union has announced that they will stand in solidarity with this general strike. Occupy Oakland will march on the Port of Oakland and shut it down. Having support of the west coast longshoremen is clearly going to be helpful to the Occupy movement’s efforts. Here’s an excerpt from the resolution calling for the general strike:

We propose a city wide general strike and we propose we invite all students to walk out of school. Instead of workers going to work and students going to school, the people will converge on downtown Oakland to shut down the city.

All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.

While we are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more. People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable of.

Dana Goldstein on “Class Warfare”

In The Nation, Dana Goldstein has a really great review of Steven Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill has historically been a big supporter of Michelle Rhee and other education activists whose reforms always seem to center around busting teacher’s unions. Goldstein spends much of the review pointing out all of the hard evidence about the influence of outside factors like “family income, nutrition, health, English-language proficiency” that have a greater impact than the teacher they have in the classroom. Brill and people like Rhee tend to look at teachers as the sole factor in a child’s education and upbringing and have embraced a destructive frame of “teachers unions versus poor kids.”

While Goldstein does a good job fisking Brill’s arguments, she notices that as he spends more time evaluating problems beyond the “teachers unions versus poor kids,” he moves away from this polemical binary and accepts that the challenges to providing a good education to America’s children are deeper than Michelle Rhee has lead us all to believe. Goldstein writes:

Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them. [Emphasis added]

This is really great stuff from Goldstein, though it’s really just a savvy phenomenological bookend to an otherwise thorough review.

Striking Verizon Workers Speak Out

This is a great video of striking Verizon workers speaking about why they’re out on strike and what the strike means to them. It’s clear that these are smart, savvy, informed union members. The workers in this video are just a few of the 45,000+ Verizon workers of the CWA and IBEW who are out on strike now. Laura Clawson of Daily Kos gives more background as to what the strike is about:

A New York Times story by Steven Greenhouse is revealing, placing the workers’ view—that Verizon’s demands are an assault on middle-class jobs—against Verizon’s argument that that’s not the case because Verizon workers could take a pay cut and still be considered middle class. That’s the company’s argument: There shouldn’t be a problem driving down benefits and job security, because by some measures workers will still be in the middle class—just hanging on by their fingernails instead of solidly so.So to management, the idea that this is about middle-class jobs is just some kind of cynical talking point. And that’s probably the most revealing evidence of just how much this is about middle-class jobs, because it’s about the very definition of what it means to be in the middle class (always a nebulous term anyway). Verizon’s official position is that what used to be a middle-class job—that what Verizon negotiated in their last contract as a middle-class job—is now too good for regular working people and that big chunks of the job security and benefits it offered must now be removed for that same job to count as appropriately middle class. If that’s not an idea to fight back against, I don’t know what is.

Obviously AIG execs are more important than public workers

The New York Times has an outrageous story about how courts in Minnesota and Colorado have ruled it permissible for state governments to cut public worker pensions and retired workers have no recourse to sue to keep the benefits that they negotiated and have been promised for years. Dean Baker has a good response to the rulings. He writes:

In effect the courts were saying that contracts with workers do not have the same standing as other contracts. It is almost inconceivable that the courts would allow a state government to unilaterally cut its contracted payments to a supplier or other government contractor.

It is worth noting that government officials have openly pushed the sanctity of contracts in other contexts. For example, when he was head of President Obama’s National Economic Council Larry Summers argued for the importance of the sanctity of contract in the context of the bonuses going to AIG executives. Many of the top executives of the company, which was saved from bankruptcy by a massive government bailout, had bonuses that ran into the billions of dollars.

It is likely that the vast majority of the public did not support giving bonuses to these executives. (Bankruptcy voids contracts.) However, these bonuses were paid.

The hypocrisy in terms of how both government officials and the judicial system look at the validity of contracts is staggering. Quite simply in the case of the banksters and Wall Street executives who destroyed their companies and the US economy, it was an unthinkable, unAmerican notion that the contracts governing their bonuses not be honored (even though as Baker points out, “bankruptcy voids contracts”). But in the case of public workers whose pensions have been around for years and were negotiated to cost tax payers less money in salary to public workers, it’s A-OK for state governments to welch on the money they owe these workers. Worse still, the only reason that there are pension shortfalls in the first place is because Wall Street wrecked the economy and wiped out twenty years of stock market growth. Value that had been in pensions was wiped out, making small underpayments look like massive shortfalls. But it’s not because of public workers, it’s because of the financial collapse. Now, for these workers to be punished a second time and have no recourse under the law to protest, it’s beyond disgusting. It’s as clear an example as any that there are two tiers of justice in America: one for the super rich and one for everyone else.

A willful desire to block the road to the future

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is giving a big speech today on the economy, the American Dream and labor’s independence from political parties. In it, he says:

From the beginning of this country, through our efforts and our ideas, working people have made the American Dream real. And what is that dream? It is the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules you will enjoy economic security and build a better future for your children. It is not that a few of us will be rich, but that all of us will be treated fairly, that we will look after each other, and that we will all have a share in the wealth we create together.

But this just isn’t true. Workers are being punished for playing by the rules, while banksters, mortgage servicers, robosigners, and Wall Street firms are making billions of dollars by breaking the rules with abandon. The great hoax is that our government – from federal regulators to state Attorneys General to the Department of Justice – has politely refused to do anything close to requiring Wall Street follow the law.

Trumka is overly optimistic about the health of the American Dream in America today, but much of the rest of his speech is spot on. I particularly liked this passage:

And not just meanness. Destructiveness. A willful desire to block the road to the future. How else can you explain governors of states with mass unemployment refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in their states? How else can you explain these same governors’ plans to defund higher education, close schools and fire teachers, when we know that without an educated America, we have no future?

Here in Washington, the Republicans in Congress have defunded housing counselors and fuel aid for the poor, and they are blocking worker training and transportation infrastructure.

But the final outrage of these budgets is hidden in the fine print. In state after state and here in Washington, these so called fiscal hawks are actually doing almost nothing to cut the deficit. The federal budget embraced by House Republicans, for example, cuts $4.3 trillion in spending, but gives out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. Florida is gutting aid for jobless workers and using the money saved to cut already-low business taxes. At the end of the day, our governments will be in no better fiscal shape than when we started – they are just being used as a pass-through to enrich the already rich – at a time when inequality stands at historic levels.

Think about the message these budgets send: Sacrifice is for the weak. The powerful and well-connected get tax cuts.

All these incredible events should be understood as part of a single challenge. It is not just a political challenge – it’s a moral challenge. Because these events signal a new and dangerous phase of a concerted effort to change the very nature of America – to turn this into an “I’ve got mine” nation and replace the land of liberty and justice for all with the land of the war of all against all.

It’s not even all against all. Instead what is being orchestrated is a war of the Other 98% versus the Other 98%, with the richest Americans safe and cozy and out of the line of fire.

The press has touted this speech as Trumka laying down a marker for the labor movement’s independence from either political party. To some extent he does this. But what’s much more interesting to me than the hard-to-believe claims of drawing hard lines against Democrats is Trumka’s analysis of the policies which are facilitating an escalating transfer of wealth from working people to the top 2%. That’s why this speech matters and it’s what will continue to be relevant beyond the 2012 election season.

Konczal on Homeowner Organizing

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb runs with some of Stephen Lerner’s ideas about homeowner organizing.

Collective bargaining is the cure to this kind of power differential – give consumers access to the same expertise that businesses would draw on in these circumstances. Explicit in unions are that a small fee up front gets you full representation later – an insurance fund against fraud and exploitation, something that Marine could have used when paying lawyer expenses by the hour out of pocket. It also creates organizations for putting political pressures on what are clearly political problems.

Because this is, at its core, a distributional issue. If we had let the banks fail then these mortgages could have been sold off for a fraction of what they were worth, and the principal writedowns could have happened efficiently. Instead we backstopped their losses, didn’t force writedowns, tried to push programs like PPIP which would have used FDIC money to inflate the value of these mortgage bonds, and in general have hoped the banks could become whole by recapitalizing through earnings. The only way to do that is to keep extensive pressure on homeowners and consumers.

To put it a different way, these losses have happened. They are here. It’s just a matter of how they get shared. We’ve done everything we can to protect the banks on this. Meanwhile, unnecessary foreclosures are running rampant across the country, putting balance-sheet pressures on neighborhoods, hurting municipality budgets and hitting investors and making residential and business investment difficult. And on the other side, one of the most durable pieces of the safety net created in the United States, the bankruptcy code, something that manages the distribution of losses when debts go horribly wrong, is broken when it comes to first mortgages. Bankruptcy court can temper moral hazard by making both sides take an upfront hit and share any appreciation later on, but Obama and the Treasury team have had no interest in making these adjustments.

Solnit on Revolutions & Tipping Points

At TomDispatch.com, Rebecca Solnit has an incredibly thoughtful essay on the nature of tipping points and revolutions, specifically through the change movements we’ve seen around the world in the last three months, as well as historical looks at revolutionary movements going back two hundred years in history. Along the way she connects movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Wisconsin to Wikileaks, the French Revolution, the civil rights movement, Charter 77  and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Solnit’s analysis is encouraging in a way that the technophobic rants of Malcolm Gladwell are not; actual realism involves taking a holistic view of what is happening and understanding individual pieces in concert, not looking at one piece of technology and blaming it for not being things it cannot be.

That the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas is a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché. But there are billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their wings. Why does one gesture matter more than another? Why this Facebook post, this girl with a drum?

Even to try to answer this you’d have to say that the butterfly is born aloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other small agents, inspirations, and role models, as well as outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.

It is remarkable how, in other countries, people will one day simply stop believing in the regime that had, until then, ruled them, as African-Americans did in the South here 50 years ago.  Stopping believing means no longer regarding those who rule you as legitimate, and so no longer fearing them. Or respecting them. And then, miraculously, they begin to crumble.

Revolution is also the action of people pushed to the brink. Rather than fall over, they push back. When he decided to push public employees hard and strip them of their collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a gamble. In response, union members, public employees, and then the public of Wisconsin began to gather on February 11th.  By February 15th, they had taken over the state’s capitol building as the revolution in Egypt was still at full boil. They are still gathering.  Last weekend, the biggest demonstration in Madison’s history was held, led by a “tractorcade” of farmers. The Wisconsin firefighters have revolted too.  And the librarians.  And the broad response has given encouragement to citizens in other states fighting similar cutbacks on essential services and rights.

Republicans like to charge the rest of us with “class war” when we talk about economic injustice, and that’s supposed to be a smear one should try to wriggle out of. But what’s going on in Wisconsin is a class war, in which billionaire-backed Walker is serving the interests of corporations and the super-rich, and this time no one seems afraid of the epithet. Jokes and newspaper political cartoons, as well as essays and talks, remark on the reality of our anti-trickle-down economy, where wealth is being pumped uphill to the palaces at a frantic rate, and on the reality that we’re not poor or broke, just crazy in how we distribute our resources.

What’s scary about the situation is that it is a test case for whether the party best serving big corporations can strip the rest of us of our rights and return us to a state of poverty and powerlessness. If the people who gathered in Madison don’t win, the war will continue and we’ll all lose.

Oppression often works — for a while. And then it backfires. Sometimes immediately, sometimes after several decades. Walker has been nicknamed the Mubarak of the Midwest. Much of the insurrection and the rage in the Middle East isn’t just about tyranny; it’s about economic injustice, about young people who can’t find work, can’t afford to get married or leave their parents’ homes, can’t start their lives. This is increasingly the story for young Americans as well, and here it’s clearly a response to the misallocation of resources, not absolute scarcity. It could just be tragic, or it could get interesting when the young realize they are being shafted, and that life could be different. Even that it could change, quite suddenly, and for the better. [Emphasis added]

Solnit’s whole piece is great, as well as inspiring.