Showing posts with label occupy movement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label occupy movement. Show all posts

1.16.2019

what i'm reading: occupy nation by todd gitlin

Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street is a history and ethnography of Occupy Wall Street, and the Occupy movement. Author, sociologist, and longtime leftist activist Todd Gitlin has written an account of how a social movement was born, grew, and died. After reading it, I felt utter despair at our ability to create a more democratic political system, and a more just economic system. I'm pretty sure that's not what Gitlin was going for!

It's easy to forget how present the Occupy movement became -- how quickly it spread, the attention it drew, how it forced a change in the terms of the debate. Hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 1,000 cities around the globe took part in Occupy demonstrations. The expression "the 99%" entered a common vocabulary. Occupy focused public and media attention on income inequality in a way I had not seen in my lifetime. Together with the Fight for 15, Occupy made labour and economic issues truly visible for the first time in many decades.

Gitlin does a good job of situating Occupy within the context of other progressive movements in the US, and to some extent, globally. I was most interested in his analysis of Occupy's inner workings. How did the movement grow? How was it governed? How were ideas put forward, how were actions chosen, who created the strategy, and how was it carried out? That's what I found so depressing. Occupy was strangled by its own ideals.

Occupy organizers wanted to create a participatory (as opposed to representative) democracy; they had a strong commitment to a leaderless structure where all voices were equal. It was meant to be a "prefigurative" movement -- a movement that reflects the world it wants to build.

Occupy's commitment to participatory democracy helped it quickly spread and grow, as people felt included and heard. But movements need goals, agendas, strategies. Movements need mechanisms to build consensus, to break bottlenecks, to ensure participation while still moving forward. And movements need leaders. Leaders arise very naturally in all situations; processes are needed to allow those leaders to lead, while still ensuring constant communication and participation at every level.

The "interminable meetings of fractious and dogmatic Occupiers" (as a Kirkus review puts it) eventually became unsustainable. There was no direction or plan for moving forward. There were too many ideas for forward movement, but no road taken.

None of this means Occupy was useless or accomplished nothing. I've written a lot about that and I don't want to repeat it all here. Occupy was an incredibly positive phenomenon. But it was unsustainable.

It's easy to create change from the top down -- to impose a strong will on others -- at least for a short period of time. But change from the ground up, a true grassroots movement, is infinitely more time-consuming and exponentially more difficult to build. It's also incredibly fragile, especially if the movement insists on being democratic and inclusive.

After reading this book, I felt, and certainly not for the first time, that building a new social system is all but impossible.

Of course, reform is possible. We can force reforms onto the present system, tiny bits of social democracy grafted onto a grossly capitalist system -- social security, public education, minimum labour standards. Everything that comprises the social safety net is such a reform. But reform is always too weak. Reforms leave too many people out, and they prop up a corrupt and unjust system. And as we know, those reforms can be withdrawn, or weakened so badly that they might as well not exist.

Moving from a nominally representative democracy to authoritarianism of any stripe is so easy. The playbook perfected in the 20th century has never gone out of fashion. Lies, propaganda, scapegoating -- create and sustain fear -- suppress the opposition -- repeat repeat repeat. The recipe is so effective, because it asks so little -- follow me blindly -- and apparently is very satisfying to large numbers of people.

Moving from that nominally representative democracy to something truly democratic and responsive to the needs of the people can never be accomplished through reforms. But is reform all we can get?

I know how almost everyone reading this answers that question. And I hate when I answer it the same way. Gitlin's book reinforced that dreaded answer for me. The answer I (try so hard to) refuse to believe.

1.05.2018

required reading for revolutionaries: jane mcalevey and micah white

I've wanted to write about these two books for a long time, but adequately summarizing them is a daunting task. I just want to say to every activist and organizer: READ THESE BOOKS. I don't want to represent the authors' ideas, I want you to read them yourself.

No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey and The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White are both aimed at activists and organizers -- people who already believe in the need for social change and are trying to influence the world in a progressive direction. Both books identify pitfalls and shortcomings in the current ways we approach our activism, and they offer concrete ideas for change, along with theory and philosophy to guide our decisions. Both are beautifully written, powerful, and essential.

No Shortcuts focuses on the labour movement, but McAlevey's analysis could apply to any movement. The labour movement is an excellent lens through which to view activism generally, since, if practiced well, it activates people across the political spectrum, and has a direct impact on the everyday reality of people's lives.

Advocacy vs. Mobilizing vs. Organizing

McAlevey, a long-time organizer and labour educator, identifies three systems of organizing, distinguished by the extent to which the workers themselves create a new reality, that is, worker agency.

The Advocacy model, where paid union staff, professional lobbyists, and lawyers work alongside the employer to dictate the terms of employment, is the least effective. Indeed, this model is not only ineffective, it is downright dangerous. It often results in concessions and wage freezes, and even more damaging long-term results. It poisons the very concept of union, teaching workers that unions are just another powerful force benefiting an elite few at the expense of the many. It's the perfect scenario for employers, and unfortunately is the norm in many unions.

Turning to the more positive approaches, McAlevey differentiates between Mobilizing and Organizing. In Mobilizing, a group of leaders make decisions and activate the workers to support them. All campaigns depend on some amount of mobilizing, but if the entire campaign is based on a mobilization model, a great potential is lost. The campaign may make some material gains, but it will fail to change the workers' relationship to their employer and their work; it will have failed to challenge the power structure. Any gains made will be superficial and short-term.

McAlevey shows that only the Organizing model builds worker agency to make significant, potentially long-term progress. McAlevey didn't invent this method, of course, but she's illuminating it and analyzing it for us -- showing us how it's done and why it works.

In Organizing, workers themselves create their own change. Workers make the decisions, learn from their own experiences, and build strength together. Organizing creates massive pressure on the employer, builds allies in the community, and -- most importantly -- creates confident leaders who can then organize others.

Given this analysis, it's no surprise that McAlevey champions the most powerful of all workers' tools: the strike. Strikes not only demonstrate and leverage workers' greatest value, by withholding their contributions, they demonstrate to the workers themselves how powerful they can be. A successful strike is a transformative event, as the confidence it builds becomes deeply embedded in the workers' consciousness. Successful strikes lead, McAlevey writes,
to the ability of the workers to win for themselves the kinds of contract standards that are life-changing, such as control of their hours and schedules, the right to a quick response to workplace health and safety issues, the right to increased staffing and decreased workload, and the right to meaningful paid sick leave and vacation time.
To wage a successful strike, workers must be both organized and active. So the very tools needed to create the strike build the potential for success, in both the short-term and the long-term.

Case studies: the book's greatest strength and contribution to our movements

McAlevey offers many practical examples of the process of Organizing, such as transparency in bargaining and identifying leaders. These examples are beyond useful -- they are essential. But where No Shortcuts shines brightest, where it is the most useful and the most inspiring, is in the case studies.

McAlevey tells five stories -- four successes and one horrible shame. As a union activist, I found the stories of the Chicago Teachers' Union and the lesser-known campaign by workers at Smithfield Foods thrilling. Reading about them, I was filled with that sense of pride and joy that only the people's power can bring.
King County, Washington, has a population of two million. Ninety-three percent of its people are city dwellers; most of them live in Seattle. At the time I am writing this, the median household income is $71,175, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $1,123 per month. In 2014, there was a successful campaign to increase Seattle's minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2022 (by which time, incidentally, that $15 will not be $15; it will be worth less, since Seattle didn't index it to inflation). The story was banner news worldwide in print and broadcast media, and a cause celebre for many liberals.

Meanwhile, without the fanfare of a single national headline, another kind of contract in a very different region also introduced a wage of $15 an hour. Bladen County, in southeastern North Carolina, has a population of 35,843. Ninety-one percent of those people live in the countryside; the rest are in the county's few small towns. Thirty-five percent are African American. At the time of writing, the median income is $30,031, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $637 per month.

In 2008, in the county's tiny town of Tar Heel, 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork factory voted to form a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). It was the single largest private-sector union victory of the new millennium, and it happened in the South, in the state with the lowest rate of union membership in the entire country: 3 percent. The new, ratified contract not only guaranteed a $15-an-hour wage but also paid sick leave, paid vacation, health care, retirement benefits, overtime pay, guaranteed minimum work hours, job security through a "just cause" provision, and tools to remedy dangerous working conditions. The wage alone far outranks Washington's: given the dollar's buying power in Bladen County, King County workers would have to earn $26.40 an hour to equal it.
The story of how these workers organized themselves and achieved these gains is one of the most exciting labour stories I've ever read. It will astonish you.

In "Make the Road New York", McAlevey tells the story of serious, strong, and sustained community organizing, not only for labour, but for an improved quality of life for the entire community.

Finally, McAlevey tells two stories about private-sector nursing homes. Incredibly, the examples stem from two locals in the same parent union -- one working within an Organizing model of true worker agency, the other run by a cadre of professionals who maintain comfortable conditions for the employer. What these so-called union leaders are is downright criminal. The expression "selling out" is too mild. They are every employer's and anti-union politician's dream. (Curious? Read the book!)

For several years now, we've been witnessing the re-emergence of organized labour as a vital force in our society. Inspired by the Fight For 15 fast-food workers, working people are fighting back, gaining public support, and activating themselves in great numbers. McAlevey's book is a road map to more of those victories -- which means it's a road map to a better world.

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution takes a broader view through a very wide lens.

Micah White is a creative thinker, an excellent writer, a social theorist, and an activist. He is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street (although this was not revealed at the time) and the originator of the idea that became the Rolling Jubilee debt forgiveness. He has been a human shield in the West Bank and an astute critic of clicktivism. He was named one of the most influential young thinkers alive today by Esquire magazine. He's a visionary, and you should read his book.

Is this thing on?

The premise of The End of Protest resonated deeply with me. Ever since February 15, 2003 -- the largest public demonstration in human history, which was ignored by mainstream media, and failed to prevent the US invasion of Iraq -- I have been frustrated and dissatisfied with the standard methods of public protest. The disastrous G20 demonstrations in Toronto in 2010 further confirmed my discontent.

Holding pens, free-speech zones, kettling, pre-emptive arrests, paid provocateurs, violent infiltrators, mass surveillence -- the ruling class has learned how to effectively neuter public demonstrations. The demos and the responses are predictable. They are theatre. They have symbolic value, they may build solidarity, and they may make us feel good. But they don't sustain movements and they don't create change.

There is value in being in the streets, especially when public protest occurs spontaneously. But many activists and organizations seem obsessed with how many people attend any given demonstration, as if a larger head-count somehow correlates with a greater likelihood of change. I've been involved in planning large-scale demos, so I've seen the vast amount of resources they consume. For what? Again, I'm not saying there is no value. But... can't we do better?

The End of Protest argues that our methods of protest are outdated, and that in order to be truly effective, we need to "break the script" of protest. We need to create fresh tools.

A framework for revolution

In the first part of the book -- "Today" -- White analyzes Occupy Wall Street, which he calls "a constructive failure". He beautifully articulates what was great about OWS, where it was successful, where and why it failed, and what lessons we can draw from it. He explores why dissent is necessary, and expands into a unified theory of revolution.

White creates a matrix -- or a Cartesian coordinate system (a term that was new to me) -- as a framework for analyzing different methods of protest, using four descriptors: voluntarism, structuralism, subjectivism, and theurgism. He describes each one in detail with very useful real-world examples. (A one-sentence definition cannot do justice to these ideas, hence I am refraining from doing so.)

In the book's second part -- "Yesterday" -- White analyzes protests from the recent past and the very distant past, situating each in his framework. The historic examples past are fascinating -- the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), the Nika Revolt (532 CE), the Conversion of Constantine (312 CE), and the victory of Arminius (9 CE). In the modern examples, White trains his analysis on Palestinian solidarity, democracy movements in Greece and Spain, and the Rolling Jubilee.

In the final section -- "Tomorrow" -- White riffs on what is and may be possible. Very briefly, he offers a vision of a dystopian future, "an eco-fascist nightmare" that is all too easy to imagine. In fact, I found it much easier to visualize that potential reality than White's predictions of a unified, global, progressive revolution -- and it breaks my heart to realize that.

But White also reminds us that the future has not been written, and the path to that revolution is unknown. In fact, in White's view, it must be unknown, because we need to invent entirely new tools: "Innovation that breaks the fundamental paradigms of the protest model is the only way forward." White offers eight principles of revolution, realizing there are probably many more, but these eight were derived from his own lived experience.

What doesn't work

In case you are concerned, White eschews violence, believing that political terrorism is a dead end. He doesn't make a big deal about this, doesn't harp on and on about peaceful protest and a commitment to nonviolence -- a performance leftist activists are expected to make for the mainstream. He merely states, deep into the book, that political terrorism doesn't advance our goals, and we must look elsewhere for solutions. But although we reject militarism and terrorism, the far greater enemy is inertia.

Two bits from The End of Protest that I really appreciated are repudiations of both clicktivism and the so-called ladder of engagement. Clicktivism, White writes, encourages people to believe that "political reality can be altered by clicking, sharing, and signing petitions". It creates a false theory of social change, and deepens entrenched complacency.

About the ladder of engagement, White writes:
The dominant paradigm of activism is the voluntarist's ladder of engagement. In this model, there are a series of rungs leading from the most insignificant actions to the most revolutionary, and the goal of organizers is to lead people upward through these escalating rungs. This strategy appears to make common sense, but it has a nasty unintended consequence. When taken to its logical conclusion, the ladder of engagement encourages activists to pitch their asks to the lowest rung on the assumption that the majority will feel more comfortable starting at the bottom of the protest ladder, with clicking a link or signing a virtual petition. This is fatal. The majority can sniff out the difference between an authentic ask that is truly dangerous and might get their voices heard and an inauthentic ask that is safe and meaningless. The ladder of engagement is upside down. Activists are judged by what we ask of people. Thus, we must only ask the people to do actions that would genuinely improve the world despite the risks. Rather than pursuing the idea of the ladder of engagement, I live by the minoritarian principle that the edge leads the pack.
I've learned a lot about the edge leading the pack through my leadership role with my own local union. Many people told me our members weren't ready to strike. But how would they ever be ready if no one led them to the barricades? Would there be a magical moment when members woke up suddenly organized and ready to walk? And how would we recognize that moment when it came? Our leadership evaluated the situation, assessed the risks, and articulated both risks and potential rewards to our members. After that, democracy ensured that our members were ready, with a 98.7% vote to strike. As our parent says, "Be Bold. Be Brave." Those of us who have a fervor to be bold, brave revolutionaries have an obligation to lead from that edge.

Never be afraid of ideas

I fear that the lessons of The End of Protest may dismissed by the people who most need to contemplate them. White challenges several core beliefs of modern-day activism, and many of us cannot tolerate that kind of challenge. Organizers and activists may read this book, consider, and then reject all or some of White's ideas. But dismissing or ignoring those ideas would be a grave error. If our goal is to create revolutionary change, we owe it to ourselves and the world to read this book and engage with its ideas.

9.21.2013

hedges: "when harper passes right-to-work, you must go on a massive general strike, or you're finished"

Last night, I heard author, journalist, and activist Chris Hedges speak at the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, sponsored by the excellent Canadian Dimension.

Hedges is a radical intellectual, in the Chomsky vein, also compassionate and fearless, in the mode of Howard Zinn. He touched on many subjects - and credited the work and thoughts of many others. I can only hope to impart a few snippets of the many threads Hedges wove.

"A seismic moment"

Hedges called the recent US debate on Syria a "seismic moment". The Obama administration pulled out all the familiar mechanisms used to sell wars to the public: the ruthless dictator, the weapons of mass destruction, the atrocities. It invoked the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Europe. It did the usual war dance... but none of it worked. The ploys, usually so effective, failed both internationally and domestically, blindsiding the Obama administration.

Hedges compared the distaste for war on Syria to the turning-point in the US's war on Vietnam. Remember, he said, that war enjoyed majority support for 10 years. Only after 10 years - the "quagmire", the middle-class draft - did the narrative shift from myths about war to the brutal facts. And once the myth falls away, the country wakes up from its drunken reverie and sees the war for what it is. Hedges says that shift has occurred in the United States today.

Hedges linked the total invisibility of the underclass in the US to the terror we should all feel about climate change: both are the products of uncontrolled corporate capitalism. At this moment, he said, we either transform our relationship to the natural world, or we die. And he pointed out that Harper has shifted Canada to that same relationship: a government dominated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

He spoke of how, after September 11, 2001, the United States "drunk deep of the intoxicating elixir of nationalism," along with heavy doses of nationalism's constant partner, racism. He spoke of the "plague of nationalism" - something I was very moved by in one of Hedges' books, which I wrote about here and here - and how the "virus that gripped the United States after 9/11" was finally broken by the debate on war on Syria. And with that debate, he feels the US may have woken up from its "long drunken revelry of war".

Hedges also noted that the US's plans for Syria would have dropped incredibly huge numbers of bombs, inflicting untold numbers of deaths. As he was a war correspondent for many years and has seen the devastation of war firsthand, Hedges always includes not only the dead, but the permanently wounded, the traumatized, the brain-injured, and the famine, the destruction.

The collapse of the liberal establishment...

Hedges spoke on several points from his book Death of the Liberal Class. The liberal establishment - the media, the church, government regulation, the social safety net - has been destroyed or has been rendered completely ineffectual.

Hedges - whose father was a Presbyterian minister, and who studied at Harvard Divinity School - lambasted the church (as an institution) for not denouncing the radical Christian right as heretics. He noted that one needn't have studied at Harvard Divinity School to know that Jesus didn't preach about how to get wealthy, and never talked about abortion, and that the gospel wasn't about "how to make everything good for me".

The media has been destroyed by corporate ownership and conglomeration, a consequence of deregulation.

The effectiveness of the US labour movement was destroyed by the purposeful purging of radicals from its leadership. And the same is coming any minute now in Canada. Hedges said, "It's amazing. We do everything wrong in the United States, and 10 years later, Canada copies us."

The US, Hedges pointed out, had the most radical labour movement in the world. The birth of organized labour in the US is the bloodiest in modern history. (I love US labour history, so this was exciting for me.) It was through radical politics that the US labour movement pushed back against the robber barons, and through those same movements, always opposed war. Compare organized labour's fierce opposition to the US entering World War I with its stance on the Vietnam War: "these colours don't run" and get the hippies out of the streets.

Hedges touched briefly - quickly, and a bit confusingly, tossing out a long ribbon of names and influences - on the roots of "manufactured consent" (Walter Lippman, Dwight Macdonald, Macdonald's work radicalizing Chomsky), and the "psychosis of permanent war", the state keeping the populace always on edge, always in fear, and the constant need to ferret out enemies both external and internal. There was no popular support in the US for World War I; Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts in order to squelch dissent and make room for the war propaganda.

The liberal class, Hedges notes, is a safety valve. When pressured by radical movements, the liberal class can adjust the system to prevent further suffering of the underclass... and so, they save capitalism. (Think Franklin D. Roosevelt. Think New Deal. That was the closest the US had ever come to revolution... and FDR himself said his greatest achievement was preserving capitalism.)

Hedges said that the greatest difference between Canada and the US - universal health care - exists because in the US, the labour movement is divorced from its radical politics. From the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, up through the McCarthy era of the 1950s, radicals and leftists were systematically purged from the United States. The Hollywood purges are perhaps the most famous, but leftist intellectuals were rooted out and destroyed from every field and facet of American life.

And that, says Hedges, is how you get "freaks like the Clintons," supposedly liberal politicians who laid the groundwork for everything from which we now suffer. NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements. (Goodbye economy, labour laws, and environmental laws.) The explosion of the prison population. (2.2 million, or 7 million if you count everyone on probation or suspension.) Deregulation of the FCC. (Media conglomeration.) Deregulation of the banking industry. (Robber barons gambling with citizens' money, and everything that led to.) The end of the federal guarantee of welfare. (Seventy percent of those thrown off welfare rolls were children.)

You want freaks? Hedges detailed how Obama, supposedly a liberal, has mounted "a far more grievous assault on civil liberties than George W. Bush did": the NDAA, the kill lists, the indefinite detentions, the unprecedented resurrection of the Espionage Act, the persecution of whistleblowers, the insane sentence for Chelsea Manning. About Manning, Hedges said, "When the true account of the country is written, she will be remembered as one of the most heroic figures in United States history."

Hedges, who covered the revolution in Eastern Europe for many years, said the current surveillance state dwarfs anything dreamed of by the infamous Stasi.

...not be confused with radical movements for change

The collapse of the liberal establishment should not be confused with a dearth of radical people's movements. Hedges noted that Howard Zinn always taught that radical movements never achieve formal positions of power, nor should that be their aim.

He talked about the need to recapture and rebuild the strength of radical movements, rather than put our faith in the political system. (Obama voters, please take note.) Hedges quoted Karl Popper (paraphrased here): The question should not be how to get good people in power, but how to make those in power afraid of the people.

Hedges related an anecdote from Henry Kissinger's biography (with a warning that we shouldn't waste our time reading it!) that sees Nixon in the White House, utterly terrified of the protests going on outside. And that is what we want.

Power, Hedges noted, is the problem. It's not what we should be after. We who care about social justice must accept that our goal is not to put one of our own in power, but to push power from the outside.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Hedges had an opportunity to expand on this. He said he always votes for a radical party, but "voting is a small part of what I do," quoting Emma Goldman: "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."

To my delight, Hedges talked a bit about how the Democrat party furiously tried to shut down Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and dismissed the ridiculous myth that Nader gave the 2000 election to Bush, mentioning briefly what really happened in Florida. He noted surprise at how many people actually believe that nonsense. Like me, Hedges is unable to say that George W. Bush was elected. He is not afraid of facts.

Mount a resistance

While talking about the differences between Canada and the US, and the relative strength of organized labour in each country, Hedges asked, "Do you have 'right-to-work' laws here yet?" The audience answered that we do not. And Hedges replied: "The minute Harper passes those laws, if you guys don't have a massive general strike, you're finished." He said, "You still have enough organized labour in Canada to mount a resistance."

When asked about the general strike during the Q&A, Hedges said that any and all civil disobedience is important. He mentioned the organizing fast-food workers as an important piece of resistance. "Anything that messes them up is good," he said. "Anything that interrupts the mechanisms of how they make money."

Again invoking the image of a terrified Nixon, Hedges wondered, what would happen if the French government announced that university tuition was now $50,000 per year? We don't have to look all the way to France for the answer: look at Quebec.

"At least they tried"

Hedges spoke a little about the Hedges vs. Obama lawsuit (Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg are also plaintiffs in the case), and spoke about despair. Climate change. Corporate capitalism. The largest surveillance state in history. Humankind on the cusp of the most catastrophic moment of its history. Hedges, who has four children, could only say that it is incumbent on all of us, especially elders, to stand up, so at least the next generation can say, "At least they tried."

"I CAN'T"

Hedges related some amusing anecdotes about road trips with Cornel West. He noted how we must destroy the Harper Government before it destroys Canada. And he closed with the People's Trial of Goldman Sachs, and linked uncontrolled corporate capitalism to the famine and death he has witnessed around the globe. He ended with a painful memory - he was too choked up to speak - of dying children, corporate capitalism's most vulnerable victims.

But for me, and perhaps for my friends from the War Resisters Support Campaign with whom I was sitting, the most piercing moment came a bit earlier. Hedges said: "Courage is not about saying 'This is wrong,' or 'We shouldn't do this'. The most courageous words we can say are: I can't."

1.17.2013

are we seeing the beginning of a global people's revolution?

"There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear..."

This week, I attended a talk put on by the International Socialists, featuring an organizer with OUR Walmart, by Skype from Texas, and a Toronto-based union activist. Both speakers were terrific and so inspiring, but although I took copious notes, I'm not posting a summary of the talk.

It was similar to the talk I blogged about here - from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity - and an extension to an article I wrote recently: workers doing it for themselves: fighting the austerity agenda in north america. The themes are the same. In a unionized workplace, rank-and-file membership need to challenge the complacency of the official union (so-called) leadership, and apply pressure to be more militant.

In a non-unionized workplace, workers need to meet, discuss their issues, work out their demands. They need to link up with other workers, possibly contact established unions for support, and think of ways to challenge their employers.

It's not easy. It's scary, and it can be costly. But there are examples to follow, people who can give support and advice based on experience. And above all, there is no other way. Without worker action, conditions will never change. No one can liberate the working class but the working class.

But that's not want I want to write about today. Here's what's on my mind.

The Occupy movement

The uprising in Wisconsin

The Arab Spring: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries

The Quebec student strikes and demonstrations

Walmart workers organizing and striking

Fast-food workers in New York City organizing and striking

Ongoing mass demonstrations and general strikes throughout Europe

Miners in South Africa on a wildcat strike

100 million people striking in India

The Chicago teachers' strike

The global environmental movement

Idle No More

And hundreds of smaller struggles that we may never hear about, all around the globe

These movements are all inextricably related.
Think of how powerful we would be if we all came together.
Think of how we might achieve that.

12.11.2012

more signs of life in the labour movement: non-union workers rising

Of all the reasons for hope that we've seen in recent times - Wisconsin, the Occupy Movement, the Quebec students' actions, the Chicago teachers' strike - this trend gives me the most joy and the most hope. Here are three stories of non-unionized workers organizing themselves to change conditions in their own workplaces.

In September, New York City restaurant workers walked off the job and won a historic victory against their oppressive and vindictive employer.
The restaurant workers who were fired and locked out of their store for organizing a union have won after a week of escalating protests outside the Manhattan cafe. Saturday afternoon, the owner declared that he had bowed to the workers demands to reopen the store, rehire all the workers and recognize their newly formed union, an inspiring labor victory at a time when many are attacking the power of unions.

The 23 workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, which is one of a string of 24-hour cafes in New York City, have been organizing against the chain's exploitative boss for nearly a year. After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions.

Two weeks ago, however, the workers learned that the owner, private equity investor Mark Samson, planned to close the restaurant and fire all the workers. . . .
Read more here. Go, read more! It's great.

More recently in New York City, 200 fast-food employees walked off their jobs, demanding a $15/hour minimum pay. (You try to live in New York City on $7.25/hour. It can't be done.)
Two hundred workers from dozens of fast food outlets in New York City—including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Domino's, and Taco Bell—walked off their jobs Thursday morning to demand $15 an hour in pay and the right to form their own independent union, according to the organizers of Fast Food Forward.

It is the largest strike ever in the United States against the $200-billion-a-year fast food industry and represents the latest in a wave of collective actions by low-wage workers to change conditions in their industries and, in many cases, to form unions. . . . .

Bill Young, 26, went on strike from a McDonald's near 40th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. "It's kind of hard dealing with things on a low income," he said. He makes $7.25 an hour, and unlike many fast food workers he typically works 40 hours a week, even though his work hours are erratic and can be spread over six or seven days of part-time work. "If you think about it," he said, "it's still not enough" to pay rent ($550 a month, nearly half his pre-tax income), help support his two children (one of whom lives with him), and meet other basic expenses.

"It's the money," he said, explaining why he is striking and wants a union, "but it's also the favoritism, no benefits, the schedules — our schedules change every week. It's hard for me to go back to school or get my daughter." A high school drop-out, he wants to go to culinary school, but he can't due to McDonald's erratic scheduling. Young also says his manager makes employees do many tasks "off the clock," illegally forcing them to work without pay before or after punching in. (According to a second employee, the manager has been fired.)

Fast Food Forward started organizing among the 50,000 fast food workers in New York City at the start of the year. Its sponsors are community, labor, clergy and other groups, including United New York (a coalition), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and New York Communities for Change, a successor to the defunct community organization ACORN and the main organizing force for Fast Food Forward and in the formation of unions to lift up standards for the burgeoning low-wage economy. "We can't wait for the economy to produce better jobs," said Jonathan Westin, the lead organizer on Communities for Change's fast food worker campaign. "The economy won't grow as long as people's paychecks are so low. It's that simple." . . . .

In New York, Raymond Lopez, 21, a shift manager after 2.5 years at a McDonald's in Midtown, also has to work a part-time job to supplement the $8.75 he makes at McDonald's. Still, "that's not enough to make ends meet," he said, especially when he's paying $600 a month in rent for his single room. "These companies could pay more, a reasonable wage, and still make money."

Although he was off work today, he still considered himself one of the 14 or so strikers from his McDonald's, which has about 40 total employees. More workers support the idea of a union, he said, but they're afraid of losing their jobs. "I still am a little nervous," Lopez acknowledged in a phone interview from a picket line, but the Walmart strike helped. "We were still going to do it anyway, but it shows it can be done....I'm going to work tomorrow, but there's so much attention to this strike, it would be smart for them not to fire us."

"I know things are not going to change overnight," he said. "One strike is not enough. But we'll go with the flow."
The fast-food industry is maintained by underpaid workers all through the supply chain (as well as exploited and abused animals). Michelle Chen of in these times reports on food supply chain workers adopting the tactics of the radical labour group IWW. (Yes, it's another Wobblies reference at wmtc! Just wait til I read this book!)
Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes — immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers — under a broad banner of class struggle.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.

Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.

Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.

Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group—an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.”

“The business model,” he says, “is exploitation of recent immigrants.”

But in New York, the workers at these companies—some of which cater to high-end natural gourmet markets—are tied into the local food system as consumers as well. So groups such as Brandworkers envision empowering working-class communities holistically, with well-paying jobs that ensure families’ access to the literal fruits of their labor. In the long term, Gross says, FOFC aims to “transform this sector to provide the good manufacturing jobs that we want to see and to create a sustainable food system that provides fresh local food.”

That vision is far from fulfilled, but workplace-based campaigns have yielded victories. In Brandworkers’ lawsuit against the Queens-based distributor Beverage Plus, a federal court awarded $950,000 in damages to Latino warehouse workers and drivers who complained of wage theft and harsh working conditions, including up-to-12-hour days. FOFC also challenged local kosher foods producer Flaum Appetizing, a company notorious for underpaying and abusing immigrant employees. In a two-pronged strategy, FOFC launched a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board for discriminatory retaliation against immigrant workers, and also worked with an Orthodox community activist group to pressure some 120 grocery stores to stop doing business with Flaum until it met workers’ demands. The disputes ended earlier this year, with workers winning a $577,000 settlement.

On a national scale, advocacy and
 community groups (including Brandworkers) have organized the Food
Chain Workers Alliance, promoting economically and ecologically sustainable ways of eating. Member groups have campaigned for the rights of restaurant staff and of child farmworkers, and have established “fair food procurement” principles to pressure employers for solid wages, better working conditions and the use of local food.
Read more here.

from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity

Working my way backwards, this the second of four talks I attended that I'll be reporting on.

* * * *

The most important internationalist event in decades

In November, I heard Nikos Loudos of the Socialist Workers Party in Greece (by Skype) and Canadian activist and organizer Carolyn Egan speak about the recent general strike in Europe, and the fight against austerity at home and abroad.

It was after 1:00 a.m. in Greece, but Nikos was full of energy. He reminded us, "I cannot complain, there are people who have bigger problems". In Brussels, the Eurogroup was staying up all night discussing "the Greek problem". Greece was supposed to get $30 billion in aid - "which all goes to the bankers," Nikos reminded us - but the money was still not forthcoming, because Germany, the Eurogroup, and the IMF were not able to come to terms.

These problems from the other side, the ruling class, are behind the general strike of November 14, which Nikos called "the most important internationalist event in decades". It was the first time that organizers in four countries acted together: Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. It also marked the first time ever that workers in Spain and Portugal, countries that are very differently politically, were able to coordinate actions. You should not be surprised to learn the short version of how this happened: rank and file organizing - ordinary workers pushing union leadership to act.

In all, there were actions and events in 23 countries. Some were one-day strikes, some were partial strikes in specific sectors, some were demonstrations and rallies. The greatest participation was in Spain, were there were massive strikes and demos.

You can keep the lights on, but we all know no one is home

Nikos noted that local governments kept the lights on in their (empty) buildings, so it would appear that people were working, and they could claim the strike was less successful than it was. The conservative media said the strike was a disaster, of course, but the media could report on nothing else - and therefore, the strike was a success.

Events in Italy were also very important. Unions there were under pressure for months to call a general strike, with union "leadership" avoided it. But under pressure from the European-wide event, the largest union in Italy called a four-hour strike, and more militant unions went on 24-hour strike. There were occupations of railway stations, tram and metro stations, and huge contingents of students organized blockades and pickets. (What's that you say? You didn't read about this in the Canadian media?)

Even in countries where there weren't general strikes, there were still actions on November 14. In Belgium, there were railroad strikes. In France, there were 130 demonstrations nationwide. France's newly elected government said it would not impose the neoliberal austerity agenda, and many people who believed their lies now feel betrayed. The Europe-wide event gave them hope, gave them confidence to get out in the streets and demonstrate against austerity.

Workers were able to use the General Strike as a way to highlight their specific, local battles. For example, Turkish transit workers have been fighting huge cuts. The European General Strike gave them the confidence to go on a 24-hour strike.

Betrayal, anger, action

Many people thought November 14 might not be success. Then, one week earlier, there was a 48-hour strike. So many people participated, it was such a success, that it gave the workers so much confidence, and people threw themselves into organizing - even without union leadership.

That first 48-hour strike was borne of yet more betrayal. The Greek government had said that if the draconian austerity measures don't pass, Greece will not get EU aid. The austerity measures did pass - albeit barely - yet Greece still did not get aid.

The austerity measures were written up in a 700-page document, which lawmakers were given two days to read, and which had to be voted in an all-or-nothing, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, vote. The yes votes formed a very limited majority: 153 out of 300 votes. And with that the Greek people are plunged into even higher unemployment and the complete destruction of whatever social safety net remained after the last austerity cuts.

Nikos said, "It was a disgrace and the people felt it." That disgrace led to the 48-hour strike... which led to mass participation in the November 14 General Strike. Referring to that 153-member majority, Nikos asked, "What is the real majority here? The majority is outside, on strike, organizing. Inside, 153 people are passing this, saying, 'We must pass it, or tomorrow we won't have food.' Then the money didn't come, and the people were left with nothing."

Workers occupied 200 city halls around Greece. Mass meetings were held everywhere. The federal government demanded mayors make a list of workers who would be laid off immediately. Only 30 mayors provided a list. The rest said: "None."

Even with this excellent resistance from municipal governments, the workers didn't rely on the town elected leaders. Instead, they occupied town halls - especially the offices tasked providing the lists!

Despite how the government tried to frame this as a "battle with Brussels for Greece," the reality is that the government is very weak in parliamentary terms and even weaker in true political terms of leading the people.

"Yes, we just occupied, and you should do the same!"

Nikos told stories of administrative employees occupying a central building in their university. Again (and again and again) union leadership wanted to do nothing, but rank-and-file held mass meetings and led the way. This spread to other universities, other workers, with students striking in solidarity. Nikos recalled with amusement overhearing a nicely-dressed woman on her mobile saying, "Yes, we just occupied, and you should do the same."

Nikos told us that the November 14 date of the General Strike had great resonance in Greece, as November 17 is the anniversary of the uprising that brought down a dictatorship in 1973. Some Greek activists have suggested that they should stop marking this anniversary, as it's been almost 40 years. But, Nikos said, every year more young people participate, and people find new ways to connect that anniversary with present-day concerns. They usually march to the US embassy, because in 1973, the US (of course) supported the dictatorship. This year, they went beyond that, marching to the Israeli embassy to protest the massacre in Gaza. This is a sign of the austerity struggles generating more a general politicization, and a sign of solidarity across countries and across struggles.

On the other side, the governments' approach also leads to more political radicalization - on the right. The government uses the language of anti-immigrant racism and fascism to scare workers. Police have murdered migrant workers coming from Turkey, by damaging their boats. Nazi gangs try to control neighbourhoods, and the government warns that "this the alternative": it's us or fascism.

Fascism, racism, and the austerity agenda: resistance to all

Nikos said, despite the publicity the Greek Nazi party garners in mainstream press, the truth is, they have not succeeded in organizing a public presence anywhere, even in the neighbourhoods they claim to control. Trade unions are kicking out Nazi organizers in factories and from the unions. The fascists had gone into factories, trying to stir hatred and resentment towards migrant workers. Nikos said with a smile, "I won't give you the details, but I assure you, they won't try to do that again."

More people, he said, understand that the fight against fascism and racism cannot be separated from the fight against austerity, and the fight for workers.

An organizer in the room mentioned that Canadians fear the Greek fascist group Golden Dawn - which recently opened a chapter in Montreal. "It's heartening," he said, "to hear that people are fighting the growing threat of fascism along with the fight against austerity."

Nikos said that in Greece, all polls show that if an election was held now, the left would form the government. This, he said, is an ideological victory - a reflection of the struggle. The biggest political parties in Greece used to represent 40% of the political vote. Now they are taking 5% or less. Hundreds of thousands of people who used to vote for the neoliberal centrist parties have abandoned those parties for more grassroots, people-powered parties. Some have gone to the right, some to the left. So the Nazis may have gotten some votes. But they don't dare go into the streets.

* * * *

People on the local level, taking steps

Carolyn Egan thanked Nikos for his first-hand reports, noting that in North America, we don't get reports of these workers movements. That absence feeds people's pessimism about the prospect of fighting back. It also feeds the "North American exceptionalism" that we labour under.

Carolyn noted that what happened in Greece and throughout Europe was not an event, it was a process. There was no "big night of the barricades". There were, and are, workers building rank-and-file consciousness, smaller actions even in smaller unions, making strides forward, and pushing leadership to move forward.

It comes down to the actions of people on the local level, people taking steps in their own workplaces, bringing fellow workers out to actions. This puts pressure on leadership.

Carolyn ticked off the depressing series of setbacks labour has endured - the terrible, protracted Vale Inco strike in Sudbury, where workers were finally forced to go back, the Caterpillar lockout in London, Ontario, the Illinois Caterpillar strike where the union caved and settled, among others.

But, Carolyn reminded us, there have been many signs of hope: the Occupy Movement, the organizing in Wisconsin, and the ongoing struggle of the Quebec students, which has been massive and sustained.

There were potential strikes in Toronto as the city and workers faced municipal cuts, and both CUPE unions settled. This is demoralizing to workers, as people ask themselves, if our unions won't strike, what can we do?

What went right?

For an answer, we can look at areas where there's been forward movement. In Toronto, library workers didn't settle; their strike lasted 2-1/2 weeks. They didn't win everything, but they succeeded in pushing back the worst of the concessions. The library workers' union worked hard to build connections with other library workers and especially with the community who uses the library. Those links gave the workers confidence that a strike would have public. It gave them the strength and confidence to fight back.

Steelworkers in Alma, Quebec - a small Northern community, isolated from the political struggles of Montreal and Toronto - were locked out last December 31 when the mining giant Rio Tinto demanded huge concessions. Union members felt that union "leadership" was not providing enough support. They demanded the union give them energy and resources, and thet self-organized through the rank-and-file.

Steelworkers from Ontario traveled by bus to Alma to show solidarity - twice. Big solidarity rallies gave the Alma workers the confidence to stand strong and mount fightbacks. Other Rio Tinto workers followed suit, pushed back extreme concessions, and won good contracts - actually winning increases in salaries and benefits. (Don't cry for Rio Tinto, they're the third largest multinational corporation on the planet.) This all happened because workers took control, launching their own strike and demanding leadership follow.

In Wisconsin, labour had been battered. Unon "leadership" was aligned with the Democrats and partisan politics. But new leadership - real leadership without the quotes - came up through the rank-and-file. It started with the teachers' wildcat walkout, built through the firefighters union and the construction trades.

Typically, when people run for union office, they leave the workplace for a union office, and become separated from their sister and brother workers, beginning the symbolic and eventually political divide. In Wisconsin, one man broke that pattern, continuing to work in the workplace, determined to remain part of the rank-and-file. It worked. Pockets of resistance developed - and when things came to a head, they pushed it.

Rank-and-file, leading the way

Time and again, Carolyn showed, when workers are able to win lockouts and strikes, it's when rank-and-file were organized, and militant, and had the confidence to override complacent union leadership.

The best recent example of this must be the Chicago teachers' strike. Against all leadership advice, against the advice of Democrats who said it "the wrong time," that it would "hurt the election", the Chicago teachers fought back against public schools being closed and replaced with privatized, for-profit schools (so-called "charter" schools).

Rank-and-file educators linked up with the people they taught and their parents. The struggle wasn't framed and viewed as teachers fighting for their jobs. It was about teachers fighting for good education for their communities.

Rank-and-file in each school formed "contract action committees," then these real leaders ran for union leadership. They swept. And they brought this militancy to their workplace: 90% showed up for the strike vote and gave a full 97% strike mandate. On the picket lines, there were huge turnouts of students, parents, and other members of the community.

Time and again, Carolyn reminded us, we see the same thing. Union leadership tries to mute the struggle and get concessions. Only rank-and-file pressure will push them, then they'll run to the front to try to get ahead of it.

Right now we're seeing the slow return of rank-and-file militancy. Here in Canada and the US, we're not at the same same stage of struggle as our sisters and brothers in Greece and Spain. But we have opportunities, you never know when things will erupt.

* * * *

A related piece by Carolyn Egan: How workers can win.

* * * *

During the discussion period, we talked about the (then upcoming) Walmart actions on the day after US Thanksgiving. Stay tuned for a future post on other non-union workers organizing against oppressive conditions.

11.04.2012

rtod: i ain't marching (to the u.s. polls) anymore

I spent the summer and fall of 2004 working on a Get Out The Vote campaign for the Democrats, not because they were my party of choice, but because I was angry at the prospect of another stolen election, and I wanted to make a difference in the popular vote numbers. After that election was stolen, too, I stopped voting in the US.

Now, in 2012, voter suppression has reached new depths. If I still lived in the US, I don't know if I'd vote Green or not at all. Voting Green can be seen as a protest against the duopoly, and it shows support for a progressive agenda. Voting for any candidate can be seen as an endorsement of the rigged system.

I am entitled to vote in the US election by absentee ballot, but I choose not to engage in that pointless bit of theatre.

One problem with voting is the widely held assumption, seldom questioned, that voting is engagement with the political system - that it's a form of activism. Voting (when the system is fair and not rigged) is certainly very important. But it is also insufficient. For me, the heartbreak of the Obama era is not his capitulation to corporate and military interests, as I never expected anything else, but the terrible squandering of political engagement.

Vast amounts of time and energy were put into electing Obama, then most US progressives sat back and waited for change. Had even half of that effort been put into building a truly progressive movement, it might have made a difference. Change doesn't come from the top down. There has never been and never will be a progressive change in law that did not emanate from a sustained people's movement, one that finally succeeds in dragging along the elected so-called leaders. John F. Kennedy is known as the civil rights President, because the movement that began after World War II, struggled throughout the 1950s, and was finally noticed by the white media in the early 1960s, managed to overcome Kennedy's dread of alienating the white Southern vote.

When I put my recent post about abortion rights in the US on Facebook, an old friend became very angry at me. No pro-choice person can vote for Romney, she said, "so Obama is our choice". (The post doesn't suggest not voting for Obama; it says abortion rights at the federal level are a lost cause.) In response, my friend and comrade John Bell replied:
Go ahead an vote for him on Tuesday, but if on Wednesday you aren't building a movement in the street to kick his ass to the left, you are missing the point. The Chicago teachers beat the Democratic machine in that city by doing just that and frankly I find that more politically significant than this whole, sad election campaign. Women in Canada and their male allies defeated the laws against abortion by building a movement that wouldn't back down, that set up and defended clinics in defiance of the law, and that refused to bow to any party. That is the kind of movement that fueled the Roe victory in the first place, but that movement then stifled itself for a generation for fear of alienating the Democratic Party.
We're seeing great signs of hope in the Occupy movement, especially as it begins to reach beyond its original base and explore ways to broaden and sustain itself.

In keeping with these thoughts, today's Revolutionary Thought of the Day is brought to us by คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019Sharp Pencils, the non-baseball blog of my partner Allan Wood: The Choice Is Theirs.

8.18.2012

why is "entitled" a dirty word? some thoughts on what we are all entitled to.


When did "entitled" become a dirty word? Why do we hear "entitled" being used as catch-all slur, a derogatory description to be thrown at progressive people working for change? And why should we permit this word to retain such a heavily negative connotation?

Here are some people I have seen called entitled in this negative sense by bloggers and commenters. Brigette DePape. Occupy protesters. Refugee claimants. Quebec student protesters. People opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. Voters who believe they were defrauded by the Conservative Party of Canada.

Here is a synonym for entitled: deserve.

Here is another synonym for entitlements: rights.

Some of our entitlements are specified in national documents, such as the US Constitution or the more comprehensive and inclusive Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Other entitlements are specified in international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are rights that most people in the world lack. Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that these rights - these entitlements - should exist for all human beings, regardless of where they were born, what they look like, and their individual beliefs.

Other entitlements are those of custom, part of the aspirations and traditions of the so-called developed word, rights and privileges which many in our society already enjoy, and that many of us believe should be available to all.

Here are some of the things all human beings are entitled to.

Democracy. Human beings are entitled to self-governance. In countries claiming to be democracies, citizens are entitled to vote without encountering undue obstructions or restrictions. They are entitled to the assurance that their vote will be counted fairly and meaningfully, and that no system exists that negates the concept of "one person, one vote".

Dissent. Human beings are entitled to voice their grievances against governments without fear of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, or abuse. Humans are entitled to access mechanisms by which we can meaningfully affect government policies and practices.

Clean air and water. Human beings are entitled to breathe air and drink water that is not toxic at no substantial cost and without generating private profit for others.

Healthcare. Period.

Affordable housing. Same.

Bodily integrity. Human beings are entitled to be free from torture, forced or coerced military service, forced or coerced reproduction or sterilization, state-sponsored death, and the fear of any of these. Human beings are entitled to express their sexuality in any way they choose with any other consenting adults.

Education. As formal education is often a requirement of meaningful participation in society, all people in society are entitled to participate in that education, without being unreasonably burdened by debt for years or decades to come. This right has been established by custom and tradition by previous generations, many members of whom now deny the right to younger generations.

A means of support. We are entitled to jobs by which we can support ourselves and our families, without fear of hunger, homelessness, or poverty. If we are unable to work or if no such work exists, we are entitled to an alternate means of support.

Expression. Human beings are entitled to express their thoughts through discussion, debate, writing, music, art, and any available media without fear of intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, or other reprisals.

Spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions, and the expression of those. This includes the right to wear what we choose.

Protesters who are engaged in struggles to retain these human rights, or to make meaningful rights that exist only in theory, are not entitled in some new negative use of the word. They are entitled because they are human beings and they have rights - rights that their detractors should also enjoy and exercise.

Fighting these struggles does not make us whiners, or spoiled, or lazy, or selfish. Indeed, if detractors and critics would put aside their preconceived notions and join us, however experimentally, even for one day, I believe they'd find it's exactly the opposite.

6.05.2012

viral video too good to be true: the frankfurt police did not join the demo

The photo is real. The interpretation, unfortunately, was not.

Police in Frankfurt, Germany, did indeed remove their helmets, and they were walking ahead of Occupy protesters. However, they were not escorting, they were using a blocking technique similar to kettling. They also arrested hundreds of people who were peacefully demonstrating, and bashed a few heads in the bargain. A discussion is here, with links to more info.

Organizers in Germany are upset that the photo was misinterpreted as the police identifying with and demonstrating with the 99%, and I can understand that. But we were given a brief glimpse of a possible future.

6.03.2012

german police recognize that they are part of the 99%, take off helmets, escort protesters


This is one of the most beautiful things I've seen in a very long time.

The German police took off their helmets and marched with the protest clearing the way for them.

. . . . German police officers escort an anti-capitalism protest march with some 20,000 people in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, May 19, 2012. Protesters peacefully filled the city center of continental Europe’s biggest financial hub in their protest against the dominance of banks and what they perceive to be untamed capitalism, Frankfurt police spokesman Ruediger Regis said. The protest group calling itself Blockupy has called for blocking the access to the European Central Bank, which is located in Frankfurt’s business district.

At the 2012 Marxism conference, one theme was heard again and again: how the ruling class seeks to divide us. Nonunion workers against union workers. Queers against straights. Men against women. Brown against white. Christian against Muslim. Native-born against immigrants. Police against policed.

But we recognize that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. Our job is to help others understand that all the working people of the world have more in common with each other than we do with the powerful corporations and governments that shape our lives, and we can only build resistance when we work together.

Here, the police in Frankfort, Germany, made that connection, and acted on it. Solidarity!

5.17.2012

the whole world is watching: veterans to return medals in nato/poverty protests this weekend

All eyes will be on Chicago this weekend, as thousands of protesters from all over North American converge on the the NATO summit. The symbolism could not be more trenchant, as Chicago was the scene of protests and rebellion against an earlier US war, and famously out-of-control police violence.

Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and other veterans' and peace groups will march under the banner of Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda, co-sponsored by a long list of peace and social justice organizations, including ADAPT, a radical disability-rights organization (people I love), Michael Moore, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), Military Families Speak Out, and Occupy Chicago, among others. At the end of the march, veterans will ceremoniously return their NATO service medals to denounce the disastrous 11-year war in Afghanistan.

In Toronto, US war resisters and their supporters will hold a solidarity demonstration in conjunction with Afghans For Peace and the Canadian Peace Alliance.

The IVAW statement:
We, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, from around the country have united with CANG8 Coalition against NATO/G8 war and poverty agenda to converge in Chicago on May 20th for a unity march to the NATO summit and ceremoniously return our service medals to NATO generals. We were awarded these medals for serving in the Global War on Terror, a war based on lies and failed polices. This endless war has killed hundreds of thousands, stripped the humanity of all involved, and drained our communities of trillions of dollars, diverting funds from schools, clinics, libraries, and other public goods.

Iraq Veterans Against the War calls on fellow service members, veterans, Chicagoans, and everyone who believes in justice, dignity, and respect for all peoples to join us in the streets on May 20th. On this day, we will hold a nonviolent march to the site of the NATO summit where we will ceremoniously return our military service medals. We will demand that NATO immediately end the occupation of Afghanistan and relating economic and social injustices, bring U.S. war dollars home to fund our communities, and acknowledge the rights and humanity of all who are affected by these wars. We wish to begin a process of justice and reconciliation with the people of Afghanistan and other affected nations, fellow service members, veterans, and the American people.

The city of Chicago will host the NATO summit from May 20th-21st. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is an organization of western military superpowers whose combined military might is the world's largest and most powerful military force. The NATO mission in Afghanistan has dragged on for over a decade, to the detriment of the people of Afghanistan, military service members and their families, and our communities.

The recent news that the G8 summit, originally set to take place in Chicago this May, has been moved to Camp David shows that the world's large economies fear the mass mobilization and collective organizing of the people of Chicago. NATO should also be advised that the world's military superpowers, responsible for unjust wars, occupations, and militarism, are also not welcome in our hometown. We are emboldened by the knowledge that Chicagoans' call for popular mobilizations was enough to move the G8 out of our city. We must now harness this same people power to send the message loud and clear to NATO that they too will be met with resistance. Furthermore, even though the G8 and NATO will now be held apart from each other, we know that these two summits, and the interests they represent, are linked. War, austerity, poverty, and economic exploitation by the 1% go hand in hand.

It is time for us to take a stand and make our voices heard. We stand in international solidarity with the people of Afghanistan and all the people of the world who are demanding their right to self-determination, their human rights, and economic justice.
Afghan peace and justice activist Malalai Joya writes in Rabble about this weekend's demonstrations.
Unfortunately, I will be unable to travel to attend the protests against NATO. But from here in Kabul, I can tell you that the whole world will indeed be watching Chicago this weekend.

The protesters remind us all that the government of the United States is not representative of the people of the United States. It's encouraging to see so many people willing to take action and stand up against this unjust and disastrous war.

Recently U.S. President Obama travelled to Kabul to meet Afghanistan's so-called President Hamid Karzai. Both leaders used this meeting to pretend that they are ending this war when they are really trying to continue it even longer.

Obama knows that the U.S. people are turning against the war, and both men know that the Afghan people are against this war and reject the foreign occupation of their country. So on one hand they claim the war will end in 2014, while on the other hand they say that U.S. troops will remain in some capacity until 2024.

When 2024 comes closer they will probably say they plan to remain in Afghanistan until 2034. The reality is that the U.S. and their NATO allies plan to dominate Afghanistan and the larger region militarily for the next generation. They need this for geostrategic reasons. They want to control the energy and mineral resources of our countries, and they want to maintain military superiority against China and other competitors.

No one can believe the words of Obama and others who say they are working for peace even while they continue to make war and to kill our people in bombings, night raids and now more and more drone attacks that kill civilians every week and sometimes every day in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.

This weekend's protests will likely face repression. But it's vital that people take to the streets to raise their voices. Here in Afghanistan, many peace and women's rights activists literally risk their lives to hold protests against the occupation and against the fundamentalist warlords.

I know Chicago is something like President Obama's "hometown," because he lived there many years and it was in the state of Illinois that he was first elected. My hometown is in Afghanistan's remote Farah Province. I was elected in 2005, when I was only 26 years old, to represent Farah in Afghanistan's Parliament. Because I spoke out and denounced the occupation, the warlords and the Taliban, I faced threats, assassination attempts -- and then they even kicked me out of Parliament in 2007. [Read more here.]

5.14.2012

healthy eating costs more. fact or fiction?

Conventional wisdom has it that healthy foods cost more than junk food, that buying and preparing nutritious food is more expensive than eating processed food. How many people bemoan the supposed fact that low-income people cannot afford to eat healthfully: "When carrots are less expensive than chips, then everyone will have access to a healthy diet."

There's only one problem with that. It's wrong. Carrots are less expensive than chips. Brown rice and lentils is way cheaper than McDonald's. I'm not talking about the difference between organic and conventionally grown produce, just the difference between processed foods or fast-food and buying basic ingredients and cooking them yourself. It's almost always cheaper to shop, cook, and eat at home than it is to buy processed food.

So why don't more people do it?

In September of last year, Mark Bittman asked, "Is junk food really cheaper?"
The “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli ...” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)

Besides, that argument, even if we all needed to gain weight, is not always true. A meal of real food cooked at home can easily contain more calories, most of them of the “healthy” variety. (Olive oil accounts for many of the calories in the roast chicken meal, for example.) In comparing prices of real food and junk food, I used supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal. But food choices are not black and white; the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux.

The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.

“Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all,” says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and author of “What to Eat” [and author of the excellent Food Politics blog]. “It’s the same argument as exercise: more is better than less and some is a lot better than none.”

The fact is that most people can afford real food.
This an excellent article that I highly recommend saving and reading. Bittman acknowledges and addresses several other factors of why so many people, particularly low-income people, don't eat healthfully. He addresses those factors - but in my opinion, he minimizes or even dismisses the issues that exert great pressures on people's lives. For example:

** Food deserts. Imagine having to take multiple forms of public transit to shop in a supermarket. Such is the insanity of a profit-driven food system, when a community is seen as a marketing opportunity, rather than a collection of people who need access to nutritious food. Living in a food desert is an enormous obstacle to healthy eating, and for some people, an insurmountable one.

** Who's doing the shopping and cooking? Although many couples and working families share domestic work equitably, a shockingly high percentage of women still pull the "second shift," working all day, then coming home to 100% of the home care and child care. A recent CBC story about the inequities women face both in the workplace and in the home cites women spending more than twice the time doing unpaid child care than men, and "even when government supports exist to encourage men to do their share, they don't always do so".

In Canada in 2009, women spent an average of 13.8 hours a week on domestic chores, while their male counterparts spent 8.3 hours. (Soon none of these facts will be available, thanks to Stephen Harper killing the mandatory long-form census. Then we won't have to trouble ourselves with bothersome reality.) Michael Pollan frequently acknowledges that it is unfair to admonish families to cook more if the burden for healthy eating is thrown on one already overburdened person: mom.

** Cultural norms and generational habits. Habits we are born into and raised with can be very difficult to break. We must first recognize these habits as contributing negatively to our lives, and then be powerfully motivated to learn new ones. When I taught inner-city teenagers, the teenage moms gave their kids the same snack: soda and chips. In their world, a snack meant soda and chips. That's what their own young moms gave them when they were hungry, that's what they eat, and that's what their kids eat. Once in a great while I'd meet a young woman who gave her child a snack of raisins or cheese, and I immediately recognized her as a world apart. How do you educate that young mom and break that cycle?

** Exhaustion. I saw this recently in an essay called "Black Women and Fat".
When the biologist Daniel Lieberman suggested in a public lecture at Harvard this past February that exercise for everyone should be mandated by law, the audience applauded, the Harvard Gazette reported.

A room full of thin affluent people applauding the idea of forcing fatties, many of whom are dark, poor and exhausted, to exercise appalls me. Government mandated exercise is a vicious concept. But I get where Mr. Lieberman is coming from. The cost of too many people getting too fat is too high.
What jumped out at me was the word "exhausted". Exhaustion from the stress of never having enough, from worrying about how you will stretch your food budget to the end of the month. Exhaustion from working two jobs and having full responsibility for unpaid domestic work. Exhaustion because your health is poor, from (in the US) a lifetime of inadequate or nonexistent health care. Exhaustion because whatever work you can find is hard on the body and numbing to the mind. Exhaustion from doing everything the hard way.

Because if you are low-income, you cannot afford any of life's little conveniences; none of the time-vs-money tradeoffs that many of us make without a second thought are available to you. You do your laundry in a laundromat, rather than dropping it off or doing at home while you accomplish other tasks. You wash clothes by hand rather than have them drycleaned. You use public transportation in areas designed for the car, so you spend a lot of time waiting and riding on buses. In many areas, you live farther from your workplace than middle-class families. And when it comes to cooking and eating, you can't afford shortcuts, such as pre-washed lettuce, ready-to-cook vegetables, or salad bars.

Preparing healthy meals may cost less money, but it might cost more energy than we have in the bank. Perhaps shopping and cooking is just too exhausting to consider. That may seem like a poor excuse... to someone with enough money and energy to make better choices.

Bittman highlights two other factors that make junk food a difficult habit to break: its constant presence in our cultural landscape, and its built-in addictive quality.
The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: there are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

This addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry. For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. They created a food carnival, and that’s where we live. And if you’re used to self-stimulation every 15 minutes, well, you can’t run into the kitchen to satisfy that urge.”

Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.

As with any addictive behavior, this one is most easily countered by educating children about the better way. Children, after all, are born without bad habits. And yet it’s adults who must begin to tear down the food carnival.

The question is how? Efforts are everywhere.
This article mentions a few, like The People’s Grocery in Oakland, zoning laws in Los Angeles that restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods, and FoodCorps, a farm and food education program. They seem like tiny, isolated examples - but how else does a movement start?

On the other side of the spectrum, some people focus on reforming the present system. That may seem like sleeping with the enemy, but reforms can have an immediate and large impact, as when McDonald's was pressured into changing its frying oil, or when Whole Foods stopped selling live lobsters.

Almost one-third of the food sales in the US is controlled by - guess who - Walmart. This excellent article at Grist reports on an event where Michael Pollan interviewed Jack Sinclair, the executive vice president of grocery merchandise for Walmart. Believe it or not, Pollan sees an upside to the Food Inc. found at Walmart.
“I’m actually of two minds on this question,” Pollan said: sure, he’s excited by the tremendous energy behind food alternatives like organic farming, food co-ops, and farmers’ markets — but he also believes we’ll need larger changes to make good, healthy food accessible to everyone.

“The upside — if there is an upside — to having a highly concentrated food economy where a very small number of corporations exert tremendous power is that when they move, everything changes,” he said. He pointed to McDonald’s decision, following years of complaints from customers and animal rights groups, to stop tolerating inhumane livestock slaughter. “The way the whole industry slaughtered animals changed overnight,” he said. “You don’t have to love McDonald’s to see that engaging with them might actually produce some positive results.”

Of course, the downside — and there is a downside — to engaging in conversations with representatives of powerful corporations is that they will spend the bulk of the time telling you what their company is doing right. And later, if they do make changes based on external pressure, they’ll frame it as if they’ve simply discovered a new way to be right.

The key, then (and I’m sure Pollan could teach a course in this, too, by now) is to watch your opponent as you would a dangerous animal in the wild. Let him move around at will. Let him feel proud of those talking points. But keep watch for the smallest fissures in his argument, the cracks that illustrate when he has heard your opposition and might just be forced to agree in retrospect.
This doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. We can - we should, and we must - pressure Walmart and McDonald's to adopt better practices, so that people who depend on their products can poison themselves and the environment less. And we can - we should, and we must - create alternatives to the industrial food chain, so that more people can actively withdraw from it.

Peter Rothberg of The Nation highlighted the Occupy Movement's connection to the Food Movement.


Joining Food Democracy Now! is an excellent way to stay informed about the movement against industrial food.
Food Democracy Now! is a grassroots community dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects our natural environment, sustains farmers and nourishes families.

Our food system is fundamentally broken. A few companies dominate the market, prioritizing profits over people and our planet. Government policies put the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families. Farm workers toil in unsafe conditions for minimal wages. School children lack access to healthy foods--as do millions of Americans living in poverty. From rising childhood and adult obesity to issues of food safety, air and water pollution, worker's rights and global warming, our current food system is leading our nation to an unsustainable future.

Food Democracy Now! members have a different vision. We know we can build a food system that gives our communities equal access to healthy food, and respects the dignity of the farmers who produce it. We believe in recreating regional food systems, supporting the growth of humane, natural and organic farms, and protecting the environment. We value our children's health, worker's rights, conservation, and animal welfare over corporate profits. And we believe that working together, we can make this vision a reality in our lifetimes.
The industrial food chain poisons our water with pesticides and antibiotics, it poisons our bodies with E. coli and carcinogens, it impoverishes farmers, it sickens and kills workers, it causes massive and unnecessary suffering to animals, it keeps us unhealthy and obese but undernourished - and it makes corporations and their shareholders stinking rich. Many of us will never be completely free of it, but any small break is meaningful.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure that all people can afford healthy and nutritious food is to eliminate poverty - which means dismantling capitalism. You didn't think I'd miss an opportunity to say that, did you?