The Attack on Ohio's Working People: What's the strategy to fight back and win?

Ohio’s working people—both those with jobs, the unemployed and their families—are under attack as they have not been for decades. And this is not just in Ohio. From Wisconsin to Florida, from California to New York, employers, the media and politicians are working 24/7 to lower our wages, reduce our benefits, postpone our retirement, cut social services such as health and education, and in many other ways large and small to take away hard-won gains from working people in order to increase profits for the corporations and dividends for the wealthy.

While the Republicans, urged on by the Tea Party, have been most aggressive in attacking labor unions, Democrats have joined them in state after state in cutting budgets and laying off public workers. The slogan everywhere is the same: austerity. Bosses, politicians and the media tell us: Learn to live with less. A lot less.

Working people aren’t accepting this prescription—and good for us: We shouldn’t. Since the election in November 2010 public employees have participated in massive demonstrations of more than 100,000 in Wisconsin and rallies as large as 25,000 in Columbus. In Madison, Wis., people of all sorts—unions, students and other community members—occupied the state capitol, preventing business as usual. Students by the thousands have walked out of high schools to protest education cuts and teacher layoffs in Wisconsin, New Jersey and California. In towns and cities throughout the country, working people and the unemployed have showed up at city council, county board and state legislative hearings to speak out against service cuts and layoffs; and, when that hasn’t been enough, they have rallied, protested, and demonstrated. And they have engaged in some of the largest popular political movements we’ve seen in years, circulating petitions to recall officials or to hold referendums on anti-worker laws.

All of this is good: from the occupation of the capitol in Madison and the massive demonstrations there and in Columbus, to the student strikes and citizen outrage over the attack on our standard of living. So, too, are the political movements to recall anti-worker politicians and overturn anti-worker legislation. We should all be involved in this, working to educate the public to defeat Issue 2 (the former SB5), Ohio’s anti-union law, and to stop HB 194, the voter suppression law.

While we’re involved in this political work, however, there’s a larger question: What is the strategy that can win and begin to turn the tide against these new, right-wing movements that threaten the livelihoods and way of life of millions upon millions? What will it take to turn the tide? For the last four decades unions have declined in members, in economic power and in political clout. Working people more broadly have lost power and consequently have lost their standard of living. What is it going to take to change things?

While stopping Issue 2, the anti-union law, and H.B.194, the voter suppression law, are important, we need to be building a movement that uses its economic power in the workplace, its social power in the streets, as well as its political power in elections. Real social change in America happens when millions act. The great industrial labor unions were originally organized through sit-down strikes occupying factories and mass picket lines that fought for unions against the employers’ security guards and police. The civil rights ended legal segregation in the South and won voting rights through mass protests and civil disobedience in which thousands went to jail. The women’s movement won equality over several generations by direct action, voting in violation of the law, chaining themselves to the White House fence in the 1910s and protest marches in the 1970s. The environmental movement and the gay and lesbian movement have used the same tactics of protest, civil disobedience and a willingness to challenge unjust laws by breaking them. Such movements are not built from the top down by bureaucracies; they are built from the ground up by ordinary people in movements that are democratic, participatory, confrontational and threatening to the powers-that-be. That’s what we need now. How do we get there?

Worker uprising

Last winter, immediately after the election of Republican Gov. John Kasich, he pressed for—and the Republican Party in the Ohio State Legislature passed—Senate Bill 5 (S.B. 5), a radical, right-wing law that took away many of the rights of Ohio workers. S.B. 5 reduced public employees’ bargaining rights, increased workers’ contributions to their health care to a mandatory 15 percent, took away police and fire rights to negotiate over safety equipment, threatened striking workers with stiff economic penalties and jail, denied teachers the right to negotiate over class size, tied teachers’ wages to test scores and threatened college teachers’ right to negotiate a contract. The law affected hundreds of thousands of public workers in Ohio, threatening to reduce their bargaining power and lower their standard of living.

Nor was that all. Shortly afterward, the Republican-dominated legislature passed Kasich’s budget, which cut $2 billion from local governments and school districts; some would have their budgets slashed by 50 percent. One report (“Innovation Ohio, Budget Job Loss Report”) suggests that Kasich’s budget would lead to the loss of 51,000 public service jobs. Something like a quarter of a million Ohioans in the families of those public workers will be directly affected. And, of course, as the public workers lose their jobs, they will be forced to stop eating out; buying food, clothing, TVs, cars and all the other usual stuff; leading to thousands more layoffs in the private sector. And this in the midst of the worst depression in our country since 1929.

Kasich has not alone his attack on working people. In Wisconsin last winter Gov. Scott Walker introduced his so-called Budget Repair bill, which contained provisions eliminating collective bargaining. That led thousands of workers—sometimes as many as 100,000—to demonstrate at the capitol building in Madison during February and March. The massive protests were accompanied by strikes by Wisconsin schoolteachers and by the day-and-night occupation of the capitol building by as many as 3,000 workers. Once the movement had begun, hundreds of workers from other states flew or drove in to join the protests. The United States had not seen such a massive worker uprising in years.

Walker had cleverly attempted to divide the public workers by excluding police and firefighters from his anti-union law, and the media have worked to divide public employees against private sector workers. Yet both firefighters and private-sector workers showed up at the Statehouse to join public workers of all sorts, and then students and local residents joined them until Madison became the site one of the largest workers’ demonstrations in the United States in decades. A roiling, roaring river of demonstrators, carrying signs and banners, some festooned in union regalia and others in the Wisconsin football fans’ cheese-head hats, marched down State Street, then into and around the capitol. Only California has seen demonstrations as large as these in recent years. This was the beginning of a new American workers movement.

The Wisconsin events gained an added significance because they happened to coincide with the beginning of the democratic revolution sweeping the Arab world. Many demonstrators in Madison, taking a clue from the rebellions against authoritarian and anti-worker governments in the Middle East, carried signs saying, “Let’s negotiate like they do in Egypt” and “Walk like an Egyptian.” Demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo responded by carrying signs in solidarity with Wisconsin workers. For a moment it seemed as if there were one revolutionary movement stretching from the Nile to Lake Michigan. While the situation in Madison was hardly comparable to the revolution in the Arab world, what we witnessed in Wisconsin was a working-class upheaval without precedent, at least not since the 1970s.

Power turned off

Feeling a sense of power and at the same time a need for greater force if they were to defeat Walker and the Republicans, Madison’s South Central Federation of Labor put the issue of a general strike on the table. The Capitol Times asked, “Could a General Strike Happen Here?” and answered that it seemed possible. Yet, as became clear, the consciousness, sense of solidarity, organization and will to risk a fight were not there. Key groups like teachers and firefighters declined the challenge, and many private-sector workers had not yet come to see the public employees’ fight as their own. Nor had African-American workers and Latino immigrants come to see the public employees’ fight as their own. The raising of the slogan of a general strike itself, however, had affected the consciousness of the strike activists and leaders, leading them to explore just how far they could push the resistance.

Yet, within a week the AFL-CIO unions, the Service Employees International Union, the national leadership of AFSCME and the AFT were sending national leaders and staff to attempt to take control of the movement and channel it away from the building occupation and strikes and into political action and support for the Democratic Party. While some union officials in Madison, including local leaders of the AFL-CIO, talked about expanding the strike action of the teachers and even talked about the possibility of a “general strike,” most upper-level union officials worked to put the brakes on the movement. Union officials worked to get protesters out of the capitol building, while at the crucial moment the Wisconsin teachers union leader told teachers to get back to work.

At the same time, state union officials, working with the Democratic Party, began to channel the Wisconsin movement into a recall effort. Union leaders and Democratic Party operatives, uncomfortable with the building occupations, strikes and raucous protests by workers and their supporters, wanted to channel the movement into mainstream politics. Union members were quickly organized to circulate petitions to recall Republican state legislators in order to change the balance of power in the legislature by removing them and electing Democrats. The Democrats eventually succeeded in forcing six Republicans into recall elections and defeating them. At the same time, the Republicans forced two Democrats into recall elections, but those two succeeded in holding onto their seats. The Republicans held on to control of the Senate by a slim 17-16 majority, and both sides claimed victory. Clearly the Democrats had succeeded in improving their representation in the Senate through the recalls, but they did not achieve the result they had hoped for.

Similarly in Ohio, where there had been protests, but never the same kind of upheaval from below as in Wisconsin, labor officials and the Democratic Party worked to channel the movement into circulating referendum petitions to put Gov. Kasich’s even more draconian anti-union legislation on the ballot in November. The Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO and other unions succeeded in collecting almost 1.3 million signatures, a remarkable achievement and enough to put S.B. 5—now called Issue 2—on the ballot for November 2011. Never in my lifetime have I seen so many working people, thousands in Wisconsin and Ohio, going door to door to talk to workers about the need for workers’ rights and union power. We have a new American workers’ movement.

Since then the unions and other opponents of the law have been walking the precincts, talking to voters and handing out literature at events like Black Family Reunion in Cincinnati. While there is a lot of public sentiment against the law, especially among working people white and black, overturning it November will be no easy task. This is an off-year election with no presidential or congressional candidates, and voter turnout is usually low.

All of this has been complicated by the Republican attempt to make matters even more difficult by disenfranchising working people. Ohio’ Republicans passed H.B. 194, which will suppress the votes of workers, African Americans, the poor, the elderly, the homeless and other vulnerable populations through restrictive measures such as reducing in-person early voting from 15 to 12 days, reducing mail-in voting from 35 to 21 days, more aggressively purging voter lists and more demanding requirements such as full social-security numbers on absentee ballots. The law will also force election officials to throw out more ballots where simple errors still left a voter’s intent clear. Poll workers will not be allowed to direct voters to the right precinct or to help voters who request assistance in filling out forms. The state will not allow absentee-ballot requests to be mailed to all registered voters to shorten Election Day lines; but at the same time, poll cannot be opened early to accommodate those who would like to vote then. So the Democrats and the AFL-CIO have made H.B. 194 the subject of another petition, which would put a referendum on the ballot in November 2012.

Choosing our turf

There is no doubt that voters should take action to defeat Issue 2 (the former S.B. 5) and H.B.194. The problem is that defeating those bills will not in itself create the social power necessary to stop the attack on working people.

Think about it: If we succeed in defeating Issue 2—and we will—that simply takes us back to last year. How were we doing last year? Were our unions strong then? Were we beating back the corporate attack? Were we expanding workers’ power and winning higher wages and better benefits, improving society for all?

Going back to yesterday, to last year, or to two or three years ago won’t work because our problems didn’t begin with the most recent economic crisis or with the Tea Party. Our unions have been growing smaller, weaker and less influential since the 1980s. American workers’ wages have stagnated, our working conditions have gotten worse, and our voice on the job has been stifled.

Today the Democratic Party and its junior partners in the AFL-CIO unions are determining the strategy for fighting Kasich, Scott and the Republican agenda in the Midwestern states. The strategy has been to move away from protests, building occupations and strikes and to channel all efforts into recall and referendum efforts. The results have been impressive: Thousands have been trained first to collect petition signatures and then to walk precincts, knock and doors and make phone calls to voters. So far things have gone pretty well, recalling a few Republicans in Wisconsin and putting the referendum on the ballot in Ohio. So what’s the problem?

The problems are these.

First, when we decide to play politics, we are playing on their turf. The political system of the United States is dominated by corporate financing and by the corporate media. With the corporations and the media in control of the system, we have little chance for victory even though we have the numbers. We should not play on only their turf, but also on ours: the workplace and the streets.

The unions have, to their credit, summoned up an army of petition pushers and door knockers. They should turn those folks into an army of activists involved in union-organizing campaigns in the workplace and in social protests on the streets. Of the perhaps 10,000 union members who have worked to stop S.B. 5 would there be 1,000 willing to surround a non-union workplace, block a road, take over a public building at the risk of being arrested? We need to take the struggle to the streets—and most important, to work.

Second, while it has been impressive in its way, the Democratic Party and AFL-CIO union-mobilization campaign has been entirely top-down, an approach that limits the movement’s effectiveness. Much like regular Central Labor Council meetings, the state and regional AFL-CIO leadership tells the ranks what to do, and the ranks are expected to obey. Every meeting is a pep rally or training meeting. Discussion of the political strategy and of the methods has never been on the table. Debate apparently has no place in the official union movement. There are no mass meetings where the floor is open and speech is free.

The Democratic Party and AFL-CIO coalitions are entirely formalistic. Created from above by agreements between the leaderships of various groups, they do not make possible much engagement, and interaction among the ranks of the various organizations involved is not likely to take place. Unlike the first few weeks of protest in Wisconsin, which produced all sorts of activities, organization, opinions and strategies, since then in Wisconsin and since the beginning in Ohio, the creativity of working people has not been tapped. Nor do the leaders want it to be. The Democrats and the AFL-CIO share a fear that things might get out of hand—and who knows what would happen then?

Third, the unions have adopted a rhetoric—”Save the Middle Class”—that narrows the movement’s goals and limits its appeal. Middle class? What does middle class mean? A home in the suburbs, a relatively new car, a big-screen TV, being able to afford to send kids to college? Middle class sounds all too comfortable —and all too white. If that’s the definition, then it excludes millions of working people, including millions of union members. I know union members who are working in union jobs as secretaries, teachers’ aids and in other positions, who qualify for food stamps. I know folks working at union factory or warehouse jobs at $9 an hour. Is that “middle class”? Many African-American and Latino workers have never entered the middle class if that means economic stability and real opportunity. We should not be talking about “saving the middle class” but rather about mobilizing the entire working class so that we can all lift ourselves and each other up out of poverty, insecurity, and in many cases out of exploitation and oppression.

Fourth, the entire purpose of the recall and referendum campaigns has been to get people out of militant protest and into the electoral arena, where we are being asked to vote for the Democrats. While by and large they might be better than the Republicans, the problem is that, just like their opponents, the Dems are committed to austerity, budget cuts and layoffs.

Time for a new party?

Look at this little round-up of the states:

  • New York: “To the soundtrack of chanting protesters who draped banners from staircases and banged on the doors of the legislative chambers, lawmakers finished approving (Democratic) Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget early Thursday morning, making for the state’s first on-time spending plan in five years. … Outside the entrance to the Senate gallery, hundreds of people chanted about Mr. Cuomo’s cuts to schools and his opposition to extending a tax surcharge on wealthy New Yorkers.” (New York Times)
  • Connecticut: “(Democratic) Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled one of the largest budget-cutting plans in recent history Friday, targeting more than 3,600 Executive Branch jobs for layoffs while eliminating funding for more than 6,500 jobs in total. The governor’s plan also carves deeply into social services and health care—an area Malloy pledged to protect during last fall’s campaign—(and) transportation, prisons and education while eliminating dozens of programs and closing numerous facilities. Those changes also likely mean a new asset test for certain Medicaid patients, increased bus, rail and other transit fares and a 1.5 percent cap on raises for unionized workers who weren’t laid off.” (The Connecticut Mirror)
  • Washington State: “House Democrats rolled out a budget plan Monday that closes a $5 billion-plus budget gap by slashing funds for public schools, colleges, hospitals and other pieces of the health-care safety net. The spending plan also eliminates 1,619 more jobs in state government and higher education after July 1, assumes a 3 percent pay cut for most state workers and ends automatic cost-of-living raises for some state pensioners.” (The News Tribune)
  • California: “(Democratic) Gov. Jerry Brown has released his proposal to close the state’s $25 billion budget gap, which makes up roughly a third of the state’s general fund budget. The plan includes $12.5 billion in spending cuts, primarily to entitlements and $12 billion from a five-year extension of the ‘temporary’ income- and sales-tax hikes that the legislature passed two years ago.” (Wall Street Journal.)

Just like the Republicans, in state after state the Democrats are cutting budgets, reducing public services and laying off public employees. While in addition to cutting budgets they have sometimes sought some new taxes as well, in general they have passed regressive taxes while declining to tax banks, corporations, their profits and the wealthy. We cannot win as long as we make our strategy is entirely dependent upon the Democratic Party. We have to have an open discussion about political alternatives. Since the Democrats so often vote for austerity, maybe unions need to nominate their own members in the primaries, with the understanding that, if they lose, they will not loyally support some corporate candidate. With the Republicans and the Democrats both supporting an austerity budget, perhaps it’s time for a working people’s party.

Perhaps the leaders of AFL-CIO themselves are beginning to understand that the Democratic Party doesn’t necessarily represent their interests. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently told reporters at a breakfast roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, “This is a moment that working people and quite frankly history will judge President Obama on his presidency. Will he commit all his energy and focus on bold solutions on the job crisis or will he continue to work with the Tea Party to offer cuts to middle-class programs like Social Security, all the while pretending the deficit is where our economic problems really lie?”

Maybe we can now think the unthinkable: working people organizing themselves to give leadership to the nation.

We in Ohio, in the Midwest, in America are facing the biggest challenge of our lives. We are foolish if we not to hold open free-for-all discussions of our vision, our principles and our strategy. The abolitionists, the suffragists, the civil-rights militants, the anti-war activists, the feminists, the gay and lesbian freedom fighters would never have succeeded had they allowed themselves to be limited in their discussions and their actions. When a real movement arises—and there is no doubt that it will—it will sweep aside political tradition, bureaucratic caution and phony rhetoric, and as has happened every few generations throughout our history, create a broad, open democratic movement for change. We can help make it happen.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati based teacher, writer and activist. This article was published in the Cincinnati-based independent non-profit newspaper, Article 25.

Blues on the Border: Javier Batiz plays for "My Beloved and Beautiful Tijuana"

By Dan La Botz

Javier Batiz, the great Mexican rock-and-roll guitarist, played and sang last week in a concert that embodied and gave voice to everything that is most wonderful about Tijuana and the U.S.-Mexico border region. Batiz, who since he was thirteen played in the bars and nightclubs of Tijuana, performed this time with the Baja California Orchestra (OBC) before a sell-out crowd of 1,100 in the auditorium of Tijuana’s Center of Musical Arts in a concert that sometimes contrasted, sometimes juxtaposed and occasionally synthesized the styles of blues, rock, jazz and classical music. This is the Tijuana that most Americans don’t know, the border—where I grew up—that represents not a political wall that divides peoples and cultures, but two-way cultural bridge that unites them.

Batiz’s concert exemplified the bicultural world of the border—or perhaps better tricultural, for in addition to the Mexican and the American, the border has its own culture as well. Batiz performed favorites from his repertoire of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, song both by others and of his own composition, from the traditional “House of the Rising Sun” (the Spanish version), to Otis Redding and Jerry Butler’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” to his own “Montañas.” Listening to Batiz run up and down the neck his electric guitar with the greatest virtuosity one could hear echoes of Jimmy Hendrix and B.B. King, but also infusing it all Batiz’s own highly personal and passionate style.

Echoes and Resonances

Germán “Tin Tan” Valdés

There were so many cultural resonances in Batiz’s performance from so many quarters, not only the great African American blues and rock musicians, but also the great Mexican performers. While the orchestra and the members of Batiz’s band who played with them were dressed in black, Batiz himself was dressed all in white and wearing a calf-length, sleeveless vest. One could not help but be reminded of the great northern border performer Tin Tan (Germán Valdés) of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, dressed in pachuco style with his zoot suit, an artist whose tremendous musical talent, sharp wit, and audacious in-your-face style first validated the border culture and its pocho Spanish in the 1940s.

While playing his guitar Batiz has all the authority and presence of a great artist, but between numbers he is the club entertainer who minces about the stage, bent over, shouting out challenges or making jokes sotto voce to the audience, and one cannot help but think for a moment of Cantínflas (Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes), the actor whose great films of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s portrayed the experiences of those millions of Mexican peasant migrants to Mexico City and the other growing cities of Mexico (including Tijuana) with all of their struggles, hopes, and anxieties. And, of course, once we have Cantínflas in our minds we cannot help but think of Charlie Chaplin. So, if you are an Anglo, imagine Charlie Chaplin on stage playing the guitar like Jimmy Hendrix and you will have an inkling of what this concert was like.

Then, in one of the marvelous juxtapositions of this concert Batiz paused and conductor Eduardo García Barrios and the OBC played Igor Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for Eleven Instruments” (1917-1918). Who better than the Russian-French-American Stravinsky to exemplify cross-cultural synthesis and what better piece than “Ragtime” with its combination of classical, jazz and the emerging new music of early twentieth century in the Europe of war and revolution. And then back to Batiz again, the vato of the border, sometimes playing with his own back-up band—José Villa on bass and Ramón Cortéz or wife Claudia Madrid on drums—or sometimes backed up by the 20-piece OBC, something like Ray Charles in those records of the 1960s. What a concert, and where else but Tijuana?


We might think of the diversity and multiculturalism of Tijuana as something particularly modern, the result of globalization, mass migration, and the communications revolution, but of course, multiculturalism as old as humanity itself. The Kumeyaay (Kumiai or as the Spaniards called them Digueño) people, descendants of the Asians who had migrated across the Bering straits thousands of years before, were living in Baja California when Cortéz crossed the gulf that bears his name to invade their territory. Later, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, most of Baja’s inhabitants migrated from the neighboring state of Sonora. Tijuana, the isolated little border town of a few hundred at the turn of the last century and virtually inaccessible from Central Mexico until the 1950s, grew up into a modern metropolis as an extension of the economic power of the United States. The U.S. Navy’s early decision in the 1910s to expand its facilities in San Diego, making it one of the important ports of the Pacific Fleet, led to the growth of San Diego and also therefore to the growth of Tijuana. Los Angeles area businessmen and racketeers first invested in Tijuana, constructing the racetracks, bars and bordellos that served American tourists. By 1928 work had begun on the great Agua Caliente Hotel and Casino and then shortly afterwards the Agua Caliente Race Track, attracting thousands of tourists from San Diego and Los Angeles.

Many of those who worked in the Tijuana clubs were Eastern European Jews who had migrated first to New York City where they worked in Vaudeville, then to Hollywood to get into the movies, and, when that failed, moved on to Tijuana where they became the singers, dancers, and comedians on the stages of the city’s clubs. Not surprising, then, that one of Tijuana’s oldest neighborhoods is the barrio Dinnerstein. Entertainers from England, France and Spain sometimes trod the boards in Tijuana too. In those early days Mexicans weren’t allowed to work in the city’s nightclubs and bars, except in the most menial positions. As historian Jorge Bustamante has noted, the musicians and other hotel and restaurant workers formed unions in the 1930s first to demand the right to perform on stage and then to fight for housing, leading to the construction of Colonia Libertad. Chinese immigrants, who had been in northern Mexico since the late nineteenth century, migrated from Chihuahua to set up their shop in Tijuana.

Spaniards, mestizos, the indigenous, Americans, Chinese, and Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the 1910s and 1920s formed Tijuana’s population until the 1930s. During that same period, millions of Mexicans had migrated to work in the United States, mostly in the fields of the Southwest, but also in the steel mills of Chicago and on the Pennsylvania Railroad. With the coming of the Great Depression, local police and social workers and ordinary Americans drove 500,000 Mexican immigrants from their homes and communities, sending them by railroad back to Mexico. Many of them, waiting for a change in the economy and in American attitudes, decided to stay on the border, in Tijuana. So the city was filled with Mexicans who had lived in the United States, many of whom spoke English.

The Condes of Tijuana

I was invited to the concert by my friend Lucila Conde, whose brother, Jorge Conde, would be singing with Batiz in the concert. The Condes grew up in the old downtown of Tijuana, where their family had a jewelry shop, the Central de Joyas. The parents, Jorge Guillermo Conde Otáñes and Laura Mabel Zambada Valdez, had met because of their common interest in music. Laura Mabel was a singer in the Follies Vergier and for the Mexico City radio station XEW, “The Voice of Latin America,” which in the 1930s, 40s and 50s presented the most talented musicians and singers to audiences in Mexico and beyond. Jorge, Sr. was a travel agent and musical composer, who followed his wife on her tours throughout Mexico as together they wrote music. Two of their most famous songs, “El sapito” recorded by the Hermanos Reyes and “El mahometano” recorded by Fernando Rosas, achieved national recognition. Not surprising then that some of their children would have an interest in music. Their daughter Rosina Conde, poet and novelist, often gives reading of her work where she also sings ballads and boleros, and Jorge Conde, Jr. has since he turned 50 begun to sing with Batiz.

My friend Jorge came on stage in the middle of the concert to sing, performing the Doc Pomus (Jerome Solon Felder) song “Lonely Avenue,” which became a great Ray Charles hit in 1956. Jorge was in his element, singing in the style of Charles’ soft and sexy blues, swaying and snapping his fingers to the heavy beat of the drum and base and backed up by a three young singers. Batiz meanwhile could not be kept on the stage but migrated toward his public. Ignoring the conductor, he wandered off stage, down the stairs, into the front row to get close to the customers, so to speak, the club entertainer in his element.

Before the concert, Lucila and I, and her two daughters, Maya and Marlies, went by Jorge’s house, a modern little apartment at the foot of Cerro Colorado in the outskirts of Tijuana. Jorge had cut his hand while trimming a bougainvillea in the backyard and was trying to staunch the bleeding while his wife Jitka ironed her dress and Jorge’s shirt, and supervised the dressing of their daughters Tamara and Laura in preparation for the concert. Once the ironing was done, amidst the domestic hubbub, Lucila, Jorge, Jitka and I sipped becherovka, the Czech liqueur. Jorge met his wife, Jitka Crhová, when they were both working as interpreters at a political meeting in Europe. In 1992 Jitka, a polyglot who speaks her native Czech, Spanish, English, Russian fluently and has studied several other languages as well (and holds a Ph.D. in linguistics) took a position as a professor of modern languages at the University of Baja California. Together, Jorge, Jitka and their children may be said to represent one part of that Tijuana that most Americans don’t know, a highly educated and cultured middle class that arose in the late twentieth century as a result of the growth of commerce and industry on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Batiz’s Tijuana

When in 1965 the United States ended the Bracero Program that had brought millions of workers to labor in American fields since the 1940s, Mexico and the United States agreed to create a tax-free industrial zone along the border. U.S. corporations saw an opportunity for cheap labor and Mexico the opportunity for economic development and jobs for its burgeoning population. By the 1970s construction began on what would eventually be hundreds of industrial plants called maquiladoras that stretched along the Mexican border from the Gulf to the Pacific, employing over one million workers. The creation of the maquiladora zone would lead to an influx of hundreds of thousands of people to the border region, swelling its cities, and above all Tijuana. The growth in population and the economic importance of the border transformed it as infrastructure was created: not only highways and industrial parks, but also colleges and universities. Tijuana became not only a magnet for peasants seeking better paying jobs in factories in the city, but also for managers, technicians, and professionals working either in industry or for the government. Together the mangers and industrial laborers, the professionals and the new service workers transformed the little border town of Tijuana into a modern city.

Batiz grew up with Tijuana, playing for its expanding and youthful population. In 1954, when Batiz began playing, Tijuana had about 75,000 inhabitants, while today it has almost two million with five million in the metropolitan area stretching from Tijuana to Mexicali to Ensenada. The centers of Tijuana then, back in the 1940s and 60s, were the tourist strip of bars and trinket shops on Avenida Revolución and the Mexican business shopping district on Avenida Constitución. The American middle class and working families who shopped by day on Revolución never wandered over to the next block where the Mexicans worked or into the neighborhoods where they lived. Wealthier Americans made it to the Agua Caliente Race Track and to the nightclubs and better restaurants, but theirs too was a quite limited picture of Tijuana. The U.S. sailors and marines who frequented the bars and brothels stumbled drunk back across the border, and then back to the base. They never knew another Mexico. All of those groups at different moments formed parts of Javier Batiz’s audiences, they and Tijuana’s cosmopolitan population of mestizo and indigenous immigrants from all over the country as well as immigrants from China, the United States, and Europe. (My favorite example of cultural and linguistic synthesis in that era was the Nuevo Kentucky Chinese Restaurant on Avenida Revolución.) Like rock and roll everywhere, Batiz’s was the music of youth, working class and middle class youth, alienated from the old music and the old values of their parents, the youth who came of age with it, and are now Batiz’s age (and mine), or who grew up into it and now, underage, sneak into the clubs to hear it.

Batiz’s town, Tijuana, has not had an easy time of it. For years, Tijuana’s residents lived with the stigma that their city was the vice-district for the U.S. servicemen. Tijuana was beleaguered. Americans simultaneously exploited Tijuana and condemned it as an open city where anything goes. Mexicans from Mexico City and Central Mexico denigrated the North of Mexico as the place where culture ends and the barbecues begin (Donde termina la cultura y empieza la carne azada.) The border was held in especially low esteem by Mexicans as region of crime and corruption, moral decay and social degradation. Americans ridiculed border residents for speaking Spanglish and Mexicans condemned them for speaking pocho.

For decades Tijuana was the stepping off point for undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States until the border walls drove them further East into Arizona’s dangerous deserts. More recently, Tijuana, like other border cities, has suffered both from the powerful drug lords and from President Felipe Calderón’s war against them in which 40,000 have died, dozens of those in Tijuana. No wonder then that when in the midst of the concert Batiz paused to tell the audience how proud he was to play before “my beloved and beautiful Tijuana,” for which he had written the song “Montañas,” the audience, pleased for once to hear their beleaguered city spoke of in such tender loving words by one of its great cultural icons, cheered and applauded.

What a presence, what an entertainer Batiz is, with his great head of kinky black hair at shoulder length, his thick Zapata mustache and scraggly beard, his great toothy smile, alternately the proud artist and the self-deprecating comic. At one point during the concert Batiz paused and said that this a great time for him, “I am 67 years old, and,” gesturing to his wife, Claudia Madrid, “married for 30 years, and have been performing on stage for 54 years.” At the age of 16, in 1957 Batiz created his first rock-and-roll band, “Los TJ’s con Javier,” founding Mexico’s rock-and-roll movement. By 1968 Batiz was playing in the Terraza Casino in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa, which during those same years hosted other stars such as Jim Morrison of the Doors. Batiz served as teacher and example to players such as Carlos Santana and Fito de la Parra of Canned Heat. Most recently he was honored with the Creador Emerito 2011 by the Mexican National Council for Culture and the Arts. He is the subject of a forth-coming documentary by Francisco Javier Padilla with the title “El Brujo,” (the Black Magician), so-called because of Batiz’s magical playing style.

The concert, which had been punctuated throughout by applause, culminated in an uproarious standing ovation and cries of “¡Bravo!” and “¡Otra!” Like the others, I felt proud when Batiz spoke about his “beautiful and beloved” Tijuana, proud to have grown up on this border, even if a mile or two north of it. With all of the reports of the violent drug wars, the killings and kidnapping, the Mexican Army’s violation of human rights, and the rest of it, it was wonderful to experience this concert, an apotheosis of the border’s great musical culture.

Cincinnati: A Decade since the Rebellion of 2001 – What Have We Learned, Where Are We Now?

Ten years ago, after the police killing of a teenager named Timothy Thomas, Cincinnati erupted in what some called vicious riots and others a righteous rebellion. The uprising over a string of police killings of black men made Cincinnati the subject of a national discussion that took place from the pages of the NAACP’s The Crisis and The New York Times to NPR and Nightline. Cincinnati became synonymous in the public mind with racism and bigotry and the reputation lived on for years. Living down that reputation became the goal of City Hall and local business interests who worked to put the matter behind them, burying both the racism and the violence under the magnificent façade of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and drowning out the lingering shouts of pain and protest with jazz, blues and country musical festivals on the riverfront. For the African American community and for many other Cincinnati residents, the real issue has been to confront racism, to challenge the ruling elite’s power, to raise consciousness, transform structures, and shift power. We are still working at it.

The immediate cause of the rebellion was a police shooting of an African American man; for the black community it was the last straw after a series of such killings and after years and even decades of police racism and violence. The injustice of the criminal justice system, however, represented only one aspect of the African American community’s experience of racism which also extended to social segregation, economic exclusion, and widespread alienation from the political system. Out of anger and indignation young African Americans rose up in an angry ghetto uprising, while other black and white activists joined together in political protests and a boycott of the city. Altogether the movements and protests of that year would change the city, result in a new political culture of criticism, dissent, and protest. And Cincinnati would be better for it.

Other recent accounts of the last decade on television and in the local newspaper have discussed the “riots” but have largely ignored or downplayed the role of the Black United Front, the March for Justice and the boycott of the city. Most of the major media have tended to self-congratulation on progress made rather than on a serious examination of the state of the city. This account is meant to challenge and correct those accounts.

Returning to these issues today raises many questions. Where are we today, a decade later? What did we learn from the events that led to the rebellion of 2001? What did we learn from the rebellion, the protests, and the boycott that followed? What was the political upshot of all of those events? And how has Cincinnati changed? Have police-community relations improved? Are Cincinnatians better off—or worse off—today than they were then? Have relations between whites, African Americans and other ethnicities improved? Is our city making progress? What can we do to make it a better place?

Before even turning to the events that took place in that period, it should be noted that the Black United Front represented the most important force for change in Cincinnati in this period. Rev. Damon Lynch III, the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine, founded the Front and served as its president at the time. While Lynch himself might be described politically as a liberal, many of the Front’s members were admirers of Marcus Garvey and his black nationalist politics inspired the group. With the NAACP failing to provide leadership on race issues at that time, the Front fulfilled the role usually played by that organization and other traditional civil rights groups. It was the Front that picketed restaurants downtown for their racist exclusion of African American diners in 2000, returning to the tactics that had been used in Cincinnati in the 1940s and 1960s. It was the Front and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which brought the lawsuit against the city before Timothy Thomas was killed that later resulted in the Collaborative Agreement. It was the Front and Lynch who a year before the uprising spread the word throughout the black community that the Cincinnati Police’s killing of black men was wrong and had to stop. Lynch’s New Prospect church held the funeral for Thomas. Lynch became the face and voice of the black community both in Cincinnati newspapers and on ABC’s Nightline. A few Front activists, overcoming the opposition of the more militant black nationalists in the group, became the link between the Front and the March for Justice.[1] And it was the Front and the March which sparked the boycott of Cincinnati. At every crucial moment of the struggle in 2000 and 2001, the Black United Front was in the lead.


Cincinnati exploded in protest and rebellion in April and May of 2001 following the April 7 police killing of 19-year old Timothy Thomas, the fifteenth African American man under the age of 50 to be killed by the police between 1995 and 2001.[2] While several of those killed had drawn guns and shot at or shot civilians or police, others did not have fire arms or were killed while in police custody. Thomas, who had committed many misdemeanors and had several warrants for his arrest (but who had no record of violence) was nevertheless chased into an alley, shot and killed by a police officer. Thomas’s mother Angela Leisure showed up at City Hall accompanied by 200 other community members, almost all of them black, to demand that city and police officials explain why her son had been killed, but police and politicians dealt with her contemptuously.

Furious with the killing and the contempt, an angry crowd left City Hall and went across the street to the First District Police Station where they demonstrated and held impromptu interviews with the media. As night fell they marched into Over-the-Rhine, the inner city ghetto since made famous by the film Traffic, there word spread and the neighborhood seethed. When on the following day peaceful protestors attempted to march out of Over-the-Rhine and into the downtown district carrying signs with slogans such as “Stop Killing Us,” police prevented them, frustrations grew, and violence followed.

During the four days of rioting in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that followed, windows of businesses were broken, stores were looted, fires were set, and people simply passing through the area were attacked.[3] Mayor Charlie Luken issued a curfew order that lasted two days, but it was generally only enforced in the inner city African American communities and downtown, while Mt. Adams entertainment district catering to well-heeled whites stayed open. The riots caused an estimated $3.6 million in property damage, much of it on the Main Street entertainment district, and 63 of those arrested were indicted on felony charges. Most of those charged with looting were not from Cincinnati. The Cincinnati rebellion of 2001 was the largest disturbance in the city since the ghetto rebellion of 1967 and the largest in the United States since Los Angeles riots of 1992 which began with the police beating of an African American man named Rodney King.

Police Shoot Mourners at Funeral

Many white Cincinnatians and suburbanites expressed surprise at the events. African Americans living in the city wondered why things had not blown up sooner. In workplaces and restaurants around the city there was a common conversation: White folks asked, “Why didn’t he stop?” when a policeman told him to, while black folks told stories of how they had stopped and been insulted and roughed up, and sometimes beaten and falsely charged, arrested and jailed.[4] For black Cincinnatians, the killing of Thomas and the other 14 black men represented only the most recent events in a decades-long history of police racism and violence. The Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had been working together for some time before Thomas’ killing to find the legal means to restrain the Cincinnati police. Yet even African Americans, cynical as they were about the city, were shocked by the string of killings ending in Thomas’ death.

Thousands turned out for Timothy Thomas’s funeral, filling and then surrounding the New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine. Kweisi Mfume, national president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), flew in to speak at the funeral, calling Cincinnati “ground zero” for race relations in America.[5] As the hundreds of mourners, mostly African American, left the memorial service and wandered through the streets, some weeping, a squad car of Cincinnati police pulled up, pulled out shotguns, and shot at mourners, including one child with so-called “bean bags.” It was the ultimate insult and indignity.

The March for Justice

Throughout the rest of April and May groups met throughout the city in community centers and churches to discuss the killing of Thomas, the long string of killings of African American men, and as they did other issues came to the fore. Politicians’, business peoples’ and religious leaders’ attempts to foster reconciliation and a return to social peace as rapidly as possible led many to ask questions about economic and political power in the city. Things were not returning quickly enough to the status quo ante. Mayor Charlie Luken announced the creation of a privately funded organization, the Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN) commission, “to help improve racial equity, opportunity and inclusion.”[6] Like all such “blue ribbon” panels, it was meant to present the appearance of concern and relieve the public conscience while leaving the essentials of the system intact. Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of the New Prospect Baptist Church and the man seen as the voice of the Over-the-Rhine community, accepted appointment to the commission, though he was later removed by Mayor Luken for his support of the boycott of the city.[7]

A few months earlier a new grass roots group had formed to challenge national, state and local economic policies—the Coalition for a Humane Economy (CHE). While not primarily concerned with race issue, when Thomas was killed, CHE activists immediately turned to organizing a response. The group involved community organizers such as Susan Knight and Steve Shoemacher, but also veteran black activists such as boxing coach Jackie Shropshire and his friend Henderson Kirkland, both members of the Black United Front. Some Stonewall activists as well as other LGBT activists also joined this new movement in solidarity with the black community. Out of this came the organizing committee for The March for Justice.

The March for Justice became the place that scores of activists—black and white, gay and straight—meeting each week in different churches around the city could work together to plan a protest as well as to develop a strategy to fight for justice. In planning meetings that sometimes attracted as many as 150 people, organizers projected a massive, legal and peaceful protest meant to challenge the city’s ruling elite, the business community, City Hall, and the police. As the 25-member steering committee planned for the march, the Cincinnati Police Department attempted to intimidate them, announcing that police with live ammunition would be prepared to deal with the protestors.

The March for Justice went ahead despite the threats and on June 2, 2001 attracted about 2,500—black and white, young and old, people from all walks of life—who marched in protest around and through the center of the city and passed in respectful silence the place where Thomas had been killed.[8] Finally the marchers gathered on Fountain Square, intermittently opening and closing their umbrellas in the spring rain, and shouted for Police Chief Tom Streicher, Jr. to resign.

Looking for a Lever: The Boycott

The March for Justice, where perhaps 80 percent of the marchers had been white, had impressed some leaders of the African American community who were looking to build the numbers and power to change Cincinnati. A group of black ministers led by longtime civil rights activist Rev. J.W. Jones asked for a meeting with March for Justice organizers to discuss strategies for pressuring the city’s establishment.[9] A coalition between the mostly white organizers of the March and the black ministers resulted in a new justice movement that began to look for some lever that would make it possible to force change. Soon activists from that coalition and other groups hit upon the idea of a boycott of Cincinnati as a way of pressuring the City’s economic and political decision makers.

Cincinnati as a whole was already being boycotted because of its record of discrimination against gay and lesbian groups. The LGBT community reacted in indignation and anger against Article XII, a city law which made it illegal to protect sexual orientation. In 1992 Cincinnati City Council passed a human rights ordinance which included sexual orientation, which in turn led conservatives on the Council to engineer a City Charter amendment to repeal protection for sexual orientation. Voters approved that amendment in 1993. The gay and lesbian community and its allies then organized a boycott of the city which led almost immediately to the cancellation of conventions and cost hotels and other tourist industries an estimated $40 million or more in contracts. [10]

In addition to the gay boycott of the city, the Black United Front had begun picketing and boycotting restaurants in September 2000 because 14 of 34 downtown restaurants had closed during the Coors Light Festival in July of that year to avoid serving black customers. The call for the picketing and boycott of the restaurants led the Justice Department to come to town to mediate the issue.[11] The following year when the Ujima Cinci-Bration and Coors Light Festival took place, as a result of the Front’s protest, there were no such problems; restaurants stayed open and served African American diners.[12]

Rev. J.W. Jones, the African American ministers, and the mostly white civil rights activists of the March created the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati (CJC) which initiated the new boycott campaign. Jones and the original CJC accepted the fact that African American and gay and lesbian citizens were both fighting injustice and discrimination, and accepted the idea of tacit alliance between the two groups. Others such as those in the Black United Front were uncomfortable both with the idea of black and white unity around the boycott and particularly with acknowledging any commonality with the gay and lesbian community. Stonewall Cincinnati was equally uncomfortable with entering into an alliance with the Front. Three leaders—two white and one black—who called for active solidarity with the African American community’s struggle were voted off the Stonewall board.[13]

These tensions—black/white and gay/straight—would lead to the fragmentation of the civil rights movement of 2001, though they did not completely paralyze it. The Cincinnati boycott of the early 2000s combined the tactics of the Front, boycotting the downtown restaurants and hotels, with the gay strategy of calling for convention and festival boycotts. The CJC took this one step further by calling for a boycott of the city by performers and entertainers – the “performers of conscience” campaign. Together these approaches would cost the city millions.

Cincinnati: Economic Apartheid

The boycott was not simply about police racism and violence. It was also about economics. Those involved in the March for Justice and the Black United Front argued that Cincinnati had not only a criminal justice problem but an economic and social justice problem. Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood where Thomas had been killed, was a blighted community in every sense of the word. Back in 1950 it had been home to 30,000 people, 99 percent of them white, many descendants of the original German inhabitants who had come in the 19th century. During the 1960s African Americans from the West End had moved into the neighborhood together with whites migrating out of the Appalachian mining communities of Southeast Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Still the turnover in the community continued and by 2000 there were only 7,600 of whom 80 percent were black. Unemployment was high and median family income was only $8,000 per year. Many of the 5,200 habitable units in Over-the-Rhine could not meet the building code and were in dilapidated conditions. Among those buildings were another 500 standing vacant.[14]

While Over-the-Rhine was much poorer than most African American communities, still in many black neighborhoods in Cincinnati, such as Avondale for example, there were high levels of unemployment and too much poverty. Various federal, state and local development programs intended to help struggling communities failed to do so, with millions of dollars going to downtown development meant to attract suburban shoppers or to wealthier Cincinnati communities such as Hyde Park. These conditions led activists infuriated by the killing of Thomas and the others to link the criminal justice issues to an agenda of economic and social justice. The slogan became: “End the economic apartheid in Cincinnati.”

Several groups were eventually involved in the boycott of the city resulting from Thomas’s killling—Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, Cincinnati Black United Front, Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Justice, and the LGBT group Stonewall Cincinnati. Though they failed to unite, still the boycott had an impact, costing the city $10 million in its first year and turning away celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Barbara Ehrenreich, Whoopi Goldberg, Wynton Marsalis, Wyclef Jean, the O’Jays, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson.[15] The boycott was so effective that in 2001 the Cincinnati Arts Association, the group which organized local concerts, sued boycott organizers for over $500,000 dollars.[16] The boycott organizers were ably defended by local attorney Lucian Bernard with national support from two attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). The activists responded by suing the city, claiming that the government was infringing on their rights, and the matter was settled out of court. Some activists also received death threats for their involvement in support of gay rights.[17] The African American boycott continued for several years before finally petering out sometime in the mid-2000s.

The Legal Avenue: the Collaborative Agreement

Shortly before the killing of Timothy Thomas, the Black United Front and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had brought a federal suit against the Cincinnati Police. The plaintiffs and the city reached an agreement—called the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement—which, without blaming anyone, would attempt to change the police-community relations.[18] Thousands of Cincinnatians participated in focus groups and discussions which helped to inform the Collaborative Agreement.

Within a year, the U.S. Justice Department, which had been reviewing the Cincinnati Police Department, became involved in the Collaborative Agreement. Together the various parties agreed that the agreement would promote: “community-police oriented policing” to promote improved police-community relations; changes in the Police Department’s use of force policies; creation of an independent citizen’s complaint process. The final agreement was signed by President George W. Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft.

In response to the suit’s attempt to restrain them, the criticism they had received in the media, and the hostility of the African American community, police engaged in a several months slowdown that lead to a decline in arrests and a rise in violent crime.[19] Simultaneously, the establishment leadership resisted the Collaborative Agreement and the Justice Department’s intervention. While Mayor Charlie Luken initially attempted to thwart the process by refusing to pay attorneys, Police Chief Streicher resisted the monitoring of his force, and Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) union head Keith Fangman did his best to sabotage any plans for reform. The Police Department’s refusal to cooperate with the monitors finally led Judge Susan Dlott to suggest that she was ready to charge the obstructionists with contempt and jail them. The combined weight of Judge Dlott, the Justice Department, the ACLU and continuing pressure from the black community through the Black United Front and the NAACP which had also joined the suit kept the process going forward. The agreement served to inhibit the Cincinnati Police Department’s racist and trigger-happy practices and to end the string of killings of black men.

The Cincinnati National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

In the midst of this struggle over racial justice, on August 23, 2004, corporate Cincinnati opened the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, celebrating past struggles against racism even as it ignored or attempted to stifle the contemporary fight for freedom. Jim Borgman, cartoonist at The Enquirer, captured the moment in his cartoon which depicted a wealthy white man shouting “Free at last!” as Cincinnati sloughed off its racist reputation by opening the magnificent National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Some African Americans were not so thrilled. Activists from the Black United Front and the March for Justice responded to the opening of the center by setting up on that same date on Fountain Square their own “People’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center,” a display of photos African American and white abolitionists, civil rights activists, and radicals and manifestoes of anti-racist movements. Some of those activists would for years afterwards boycott the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.[20]

One interesting aside in all of this was consternation, bewilderment and amusement at learning that among others the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center celebrated Carl Lindner, owner of American Financial Group and the city’s richest man as a hero. He was listed as a local freedom fighter for supposedly for having integrated his Masonic Lodge. Many Cincinnatians remembered that Lindner was a former owner of Chiquita Brands International (the successor to the United Fruit Company) whose company had been accused in the Cincinnati Enquirer in May of 1998 of a string of abuses, including mistreating workers and violating their right to unionize, contaminating the environment, bribing foreign government officials, and permitting cocaine smuggling by the company’s ships. Chiquita denied the accusations and won a reported $14 million and other concessions for not suing the newspaper. [21] Chiquita might have won that legal battle, but United Fruit/Chiquita’s long history of skullduggery in Latin America could not be cleansed from the public memory. Carl Lindner’s name appeared on the list of heroes not because he had fought for freedom, but because he paid a lot of the bills, and everyone knew it.

As Damon Lynch III put it in 2003, the boycott organizers had never asked for a museum on the river, they had demanded jobs and housing in the neighborhood.[22]


What was the resolution of the police killings and the uprising against them? In 2003 the City of Cincinnati paid $4.5 million to 16 plaintiffs in what was the largest legal settlement in the city’s history. “The fact is, my son is never coming back,” said Angela Leisure, the mother of Thomas. “But my son isn’t the only son in Cincinnati.” The money could not relieve the pain of the families who grieved for their dead, but it could serve as a warning to the City and the Police Department that racist and violent behavior would be expensive. [23]

The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement which resulted from the law suit brought by the Black United Front and the ACLU and later joined by the NAACP, and which led to Justice Department intervention, continued in effect for eight years (including a one year transitional period in 2008).[24] While almost everyone is in agreement that the Agreement led to improvement in police practices and in police/community relations, almost no changes were made in local laws and ordinances. Police Chief Tom Streicher, on whose watch the killings took place, was never fired. The city never created an independent police review board with subpoena power, a point considered by many to be the touchstone of healthy police/community relations.

Such progress as was made was not a result of the wisdom coming down from City Hall and the Police Department, nor from Proctor & Gamble, Krogers, Chiquita, Western Southern Life, and the other corporations headquartered in Cincinnati. Change came from the bottom up from the Black United Front and the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and their boycott.[25] That is one of the most important lessons of the whole experience.

What Happened to the Movement of the Early 2000s?

When we look back, we can see that for two or three years, in response to the killing of Thomas, activists in Cincinnati had created a number of social and political organizations and built a large social movement. Hundreds of activists were involved and could sometimes move thousands. Why did that movement decline?

Damon Lynch, who had been appointed to and then canned by the CAN Commission in 2001 and later ran and lost a campaign for City Council in 2003, gave up leadership of the Black United Front.[26] Dwight Patton, who succeeded him as president in 2004, was a more ideological black nationalist and not a leader capable of working with white activists, rejected alliances with the gay and lesbian community, and was not capable of moving in the city’s elite and liberal circles as Lynch had. Subsequently the Black United Front gradually ceased to play the leadership role that it had in 2000 to 2002.

By 2002 Rev. J.W. Jones became too sick to continue to hold the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati together and then died, leaving the organization without a personality who could bridge the differences among the members. A power struggle over the leadership of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati which had become the driving force of the boycott ensued. That split was followed by a second fracture eight months later over one CJC member’s participation in a demonstration with an anti-Semitic character. When the dust cleared, a group of the former CJC activists still committed to a black with white, gay with straight human rights perspective created Cincinnati Progressive Action (CPA), a mostly white activist group with a couple members of color.

The most important factor, however, was the desire of City Hall and local business interests to move forward with their political ambitions and business plans. The point after all, is to make money. As early as January 2002 Mayor Luken suggested that it just wasn’t fair that poor people were monopolizing some of the city’s best real estate. In discussing his State of the City address he had said that the announcement of his new Vine Street Project would “be a signal that Over-the-Rhine is a neighborhood for all, not just people at the lowest income level.”[27] So that’s what happened, City Hall and business began to make it clear that they wouldn’t let poor people stand in their way.


Where are we now, ten years later? We might begin by looking at the criminal justice issues and what has happened to Over-the-Rhine by turning to take a broader look at the city and the region.

Criminal Justice

While there seems to be a broad agreement that the Collaborative Agreement and Justice Department intervention in Cincinnati led to some improvement in police behavior, still we continue to have very disturbing incidents in our community that show the justice system’s persisting racism and violence, as well as the impunity of police officers. In October 2009, John Harmon, an African American man who works for a downtown marketing company, was heading home to Anderson Township just after midnight. He is a diabetic, and, when sugar levels fell low, he weaved in his lane. Hamilton County Sheriff’s Deputies saw him and, presuming he was a drunk driver, stopped him. A news report described Harmon’s experience:

What happened over the next two minutes and 20 seconds should never happen to anyone, Harmon said.

Deputies broke the window of Harmon’s SUV, shocked him seven times with a Taser, cut him out of his seatbelt and wrestled him to the ground, severely dislocating his elbow, and causing trauma to his shoulder and thumb.

The deputies’ actions prompted a state highway patrol trooper to pull one deputy away from Harmon because he was so concerned about how Harmon was being treated. That trooper alerted his bosses to the deputies’ actions.

Even after learning the incident was a medical emergency, deputies charged Harmon with resisting arrest and failing to comply with a police officer’s order.

“I thought for sure I was going to die,” Harmon said. “I remember praying to God, ‘Help me through this.’”[28]

Incredible as it seems, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said that there would be no criminal charges filed against the Sheriff’s Deputies involved in the mistreatment of Harmon.[29]

The Harmon case is not the only example, and not the most horrifying. A few months before a police officer on duty in Over-the-Rhine accidentally drove his police cruiser over Joann Burton, a homeless woman sleeping under a blanket in Washington Park.[30] While no one thinks the officer’s action was intentional, still the killing of this woman certainly constitutes manslaughter (homicide without malice of forethought). Yet Prosecutor Deters decided that no criminal charge would be filed against the officer responsible.[31] Police officers and sheriff’s deputies in our area can continue to mistreat and even kill residents with impunity, despite the rebellion and reforms that took place in 2001.

At Burton’s funeral at New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine, a family member said that “Her time had come and God had called her,” but in his funeral sermon Pastor Damon Lynch III objected, saying that her death arose from and embodied the struggle between the wealthy and the powerful on the one hand and the poor and struggling on the other. “There is a land-grab going on,” said Rev. Lynch. “There are folks who don’t want the folks who are here to be here anymore.”[32] Washington Park, where Burton was killed, has been the center of an on-going thirty-year struggle between the low-income residents of Over-the-Rhine and the bankers, realtors, and developers who have sought to gentrify and transform the neighborhood into a community of young professionals and those of the “creative class.”

The Struggle for Over-the-Rhine

Since the late 1970s banks, realtors and developers have fought the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement and neighborhood residents for control of some of the city’s most valuable land. City Hall and the wealthy wanted to displace the Appalachian and increasingly African American population from the area so close to downtown and use historic preservation and economic investment in the neighborhood to attract more upscale residents. Buddy Gray (he always spelled his name buddy gray), the leader of the movement, opposed historic preservation as a tool to increase property values and drive out the current occupants. He fought for more and better housing for the neighborhood’s existing residents rather than for economic development for the yuppies to come.

City Hall and business organizations waged a campaign against him. Businessman and politician Jim Tarbell—whose massive figure painted on a building in the neighborhood, dressed in top hat and tails today salutes the dwindling numbers of residents—was Gray’s most vehement opponent. Business groups put out posters and bumper stickers reading “No Way Buddy Gray,” in an attempt to make the city’s leading community organizer and poor peoples’ advocate a pariah. On November 15th, 1996, Gray was shot and killed by a friend, a mentally ill homeless man, one of many he had helped, who had somehow gotten hold of a high caliber pistol. Many believed that someone had put the man up to it and that Gray had been assassinated, though since the police believed they had caught the culprit no extensive further investigation was carried out.[33] As the Cincinnati Enquirer headline put it, “Over-the-Rhine now up for grabs.”[34] The grab was on.

The Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement gradually transformed itself during the 1980s and 1990s from a movement into a set of institutions: the Drop Inn Center for the homeless and ReSTOC to restore buildings for local residents. Meanwhile, however, with its buildings deteriorating and with few jobs in the central city for the residents, many residents began to leave the neighborhood. With the African American population declining the area became ripe for racial turnover and gentrification. Within a couple of years, businesspeople opened almost 20 bars and restaurants on Main Street that attracted one million mostly white visitors a year. During the 1990s the neighborhood’s low rents also brought in 10 internet start-ups. The 2001 ghetto rebellion and riots together with the bursting of the bubble ended that decade of gentrification.

By the 2000s, crime had increased as drug dealers worked out of corner grocery stores or stood on the streets peddling drugs to black and white customers from the city and the conservative white suburbs. Along with the drugs came increased violence including a rise in shootings and in homicides. By 2000 the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood population had fallen to 7,638—of whom 5,876 were African American.[35] Local media—TV, radio and the newspapers—constantly ran stories on the crime and violence in Over-the-Rhine, and City Hall and business interests seized on the new situation to make a final and successful push to take control of the community.

Operation Vortex and 3CDC

In 2003, City Hall and downtown business interests created a new not-for-profit organization—Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation or 3CDC—to develop Fountain Square, the Banks, and the southern reaches of Over-the-Rhine.[36] With the City Planning Department closed, 3CDC became the de facto agency overseeing economic development in the near downtown area. During this period local schools and parks were closed, a reflection of the declining population and fewer families, but also a deterrent to any future families moving in. Working with local investors, 3CDC then bought up local properties along Vine Street, the heart of the neighborhood—bought them, and then closed them. Where once thousands had paraded up and down Vine shopping at local stores and visiting with neighbors today there is a virtual ghost town—except for the block or two nearest downtown where several bars, restaurants and boutiques have opened. 3CDC, working with local investors, also oversaw the rehabilitation of local apartments, turning them from family dwellings into a virtual upscale youth hostel for students and young professionals.

Still the crime and violence and just the presence of poor black people proved an obstacle to further investment. So, in 2006 Cincinnati Police created “Operation Vortex,” an intensive policing program ostensibly intended to bust the drug dealers and dampen the violence in Over-the-Rhine, but also serving to drive not only criminals but other residents out of the neighborhood. In the summer of 2006 Vortex officers arrested over 1,000 people in 25 days.[37] Not surprisingly Vortex officers were more likely to stop African Americans, but, interestingly, they were more likely to find contraband on whites.[38] The ACLU filed suit against the City, charging it with violating the collaborative agreement by “improperly employing arbitrary arrest sweeps in the City.”[39]

Operation Vortex, together with 3CDC’s buy-‘em-and-board -‘em-up approach, represented a virtual scorched earth policy, turning Vine Street into an urban ghost town in the midst of the city. Despite continued resistance from the Drop Inn Center and other Over-the-Rhine organizations, the battle to save the neighborhood for its residents has been lost as so many of them have left in the last decade. The economic crisis of 2008, however, meant that, with little money available for credit and the economy stagnating in the Great Recession, most of the boarded up buildings have stayed that way with no gentry, no yuppies to occupy them. No one can claim to be the winner here.


We would make a mistake if we confined our thinking about these issues to Over-the-Rhine, for it is in its poverty and its suffering an extraordinary place. We should place that community and issues of criminal justice in the broader picture and take a hard look at the state of our city. What is the state of Cincinnati today and how does that determine the outlook for criminal justice and civil rights as well as economic and social justice?

Population and Unemployment

We should begin with the basics. Cincinnati’s population declined between 2000 and 2010 by 10 percent to settle at less than 300,000, while Hamilton County’s population also declined, though by only 5 percent.[40] Most recent statistics on racial demographics indicate that the city is about 53 percent white and 43 percent African American.[41] In 2011, Salon, the online magazine, found Cincinnati to be the eighth most segregated city in the United States.[42]

Why is the population declining? The city’s economy is not growing and workers can’t find jobs here; consequently many residents are leaving and few new ones are coming to live here. While this is principally an economic question, the city’s long history of discrimination against African Americans and gays and lesbians remains a factor, despite whatever gains have been achieved. The anti-immigrant policies of Sheriff Richard K. Jones of nearby Butler County help to discourage Latino immigration which has buoyed up so many other Midwestern and Southern cities. We have a city which, because of the deep class and racial divides and a long history of separation and exclusion, does not provide the synergies of diversity but rather still presents the stark black and white contrasts of apartheid.

The fundamental problem in Cincinnati as throughout Ohio and the entire United States is the problem of jobs. While the unemployment rate fell in March 2011 from 8.9 to 8.8 percent, it actually rose for African Americans from 15.3 to 15.5 percent as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Unemployment in the Cincinnati-Middleton Metropolitan Area is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.8 percent, meaning that black unemployment here must be in the range of 17 percent. While African Americans in Cincinnati face such high unemployment rates, we cannot have economic and social justice.[43]

Organized workers in Cincinnati, whether in private industry or public employees, are under attack as at no time since the 1920s. The Republicans have succeeded in passing Senate Bill 5, virtually eliminating collective bargaining for public employees in the state—and a proposal to make Ohio a “right to work” state, that is to eliminate the union shop and destroy collective bargaining in the private sector as well, won’t be long in coming. Everywhere workers are facing pay cuts, demands that they pay more for health care, and are seeing their pensions reduced. The social safety net—Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security—are also under attack. Throughout the country both Republicans and Democrats are talking retrenchment, austerity, and belt-tightening. Cincinnatians, their belts already too tight, will be asked to tighten up a couple of notches more.

Ohio’s minimum wage was raised in January of this year to $7.40, the wage of some 270,000 workers in restaurants, retail work, housekeeping and other organizations according to Policy Matters Ohio. Everyone recognizes that the minimum wage is not a living wage. The minimum wage forms the floor for the entire wage structure of the state, and therefore other workers’ wages are also far too low. Many Cincinnati employers pay the minimum wage, and some don’t even pay that to immigrant workers who are routinely cheated out of their legal wages. The per capita income in Cincinnati is about $20,000 while household income is about $29,500. The city’s low incomes mean that for decades Cincinnati has been among the poorest cities in the country. In 2010 it was the third poorest city in the United States.

Since the economic crisis began, Cincinnatians have been losing their homes to foreclosure, or, in the case of renters, been put out as their landlords lost their buildings. While business elites and politicians talk about the economy rebounding in Hamilton County foreclosures continue and Sheriff’s sales actually increased. In 2010 there were 2,940 such sales, 300 more than the previous year. [44] Another source says that foreclosures have declined, but filings are still well above 1,000 per month.[45] Any way one looks at it, many Cincinnatians are facing the possibility of losing their homes or apartments and some of them will join the ranks of the homeless. Officially, the city has about 500 homeless people while another 500 are in transitional housing. The numbers are supposed to have fallen since last year, but even if they have fallen a few percentage points, the problem remains.[46]


Over 25 percent of Cincinnati’s residents live below the poverty level, according to the, while the rate for Ohio as a whole is 15.2 percent. Even worse, 12.1 percent of Cincinnatians have an income equal to only half the poverty level, as compared to 7.0 percent for the whole state.[47] Nor are things likely to change soon unless the citizens of Cincinnati and throughout Ohio take action.

Workers in Cincinnati, black and white, are under attack. The Federal government, which employs about nine thousand workers in the Cincinnati metropolitan area, has frozen wages for the next two years.[48] Republican government John Kasich and the Republican dominated legislature plan to cut state government and lay off state workers. This will affect thousands in the Cincinnati area. With the passage of Senate Bill 5, Ohio’s 360,000 state workers have lost their collective bargaining rights, making it more difficult for them to fight for higher wages and better benefits. The City of Cincinnati, which has 6,000 workers, has since the crisis began, laid off scores and plans to lay off hundreds of workers. The NAACP reports that 74 percent of those laid off in 2009 were African American.[49] So with the private sector failing to grow and government cutting back, unemployment will not improve very fast or very much and wages will remain stagnant or more likely fall. Poverty will continue in Cincinnati.

Where there is poverty, of course, there will be crime. CQ Press reported in 2009 that Cincinnati was the 19th most dangerous city in the United States.[50] While crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, still there is no doubt that Cincinnati has a high crime rate.[51] The inner city, where the population is mostly African American has the highest crime rate.[52] As the NAACP, Cincinnati Progressive Action and others in the community have argued, crime results from poverty, racism, lack of educational opportunities, and the lack of rewarding and well paying jobs.

Health and Education

More small children die in Cincinnati than in other parts of the state, and in our city’s poorer neighborhood, more children die than in other neighborhoods.[53] A study a few years ago found that infant mortality was 2.5 times greater for African Americans than for whites in Cincinnati, and the city’s rate higher than the county’s.[54] The City’s WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program has helped to reduce infant mortality.[55] Now the city is planning to cut back its clinics and layoff health workers while school nurses may also be laid off, suggesting that children’s health will continue to suffer in Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Public Schools claim to have made great gains in graduation rates, graduating 83 percent of entering ninth graders in 2010. At the same time the achievement gap between African American and white graduates has been closed, with whites scoring only 4.3% higher on graduation exams than African Americans.[56] Now schools are facing a $30 million dollar budget shortfall and administrators foresee the possibility of significant teacher layoffs. What will that mean for our children’s education?

Cincinnati’s New Immigrants

While for years racism and discrimination focused on African Americans, more recently Latino immigrants have also borne the brunt of such treatment. Cincinnati’s Latino community is now more than a decade old and has somewhere between 30,000 and 70,000 from Mexico, Guatemala and Peru, many of them undocumented workers who came to escape poverty and find work here to support their families back there. Most have found work in construction, meat packing plants, hotels and restaurants and many others jobs. Since immigrating, many have married either other immigrants or U.S. citizens, had children, who are, of course, U.S. citizens, and settled down into life in our city and suburban areas. Their kids go to the public schools and the parents belong to churches and social clubs. They have come to form an important new group in our city.

Ray Garcia, 4, wait with his mother, Maria Garcia, to hear news about his uncle who works at Koch Foods. Photo: Cameron Knight

While they make a significant economic contribution to our community, Latino immigrants are constantly faced with problems because of their legal status, but also because of their color, culture and language. In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided the Koch processing plant in the suburb of Fairfield and detained 160 undocumented immigrants. Most of the men were deported, while the desperate women and their bewildered children were allowed to remain for the time being with dates for deportation hearings sent a few months off.[57] That was under President Bush, of course. Under President Barack Obama, ICE has actually increased and expanded its deportation of undocumented immigrants by something like 30 percent, leading to the breakup of many Latino families.[58] In 2010, the Obama administration deported 387,790 immigrants, a record number; some were dragged off their jobs or out of their homes in Cincinnati.

Butler County’s Sheriff Jones has become notorious nationally for his aggressive stance against undocumented Latino immigrants. His deputies have been accused by critics of racial profiling and hostility to the Latino immigrant community. Jones policies have led some Latino immigrants to move out of the area and to other states.[59] While Jones has received the most attention, Sharonville Police have also made life difficult for Latino immigrants. Local Latino rights activists accuse them of racial profiling and harsh treatment of immigrants. While Cincinnati Police and Hamilton County Sheriff’s Deputies have not persecuted Latino immigrants, still any undocumented immigrant stopped for a routine traffic violation may find himself removed from the County Jail by ICE and quickly processed and deported—leaving spouse, children and friends behind. While concerns about discrimination in Cincinnati have focused on African Americans, we should remember that Latinos too have suffered with persistent racial profiling and discrimination from local police.

While we have talked here about Latino immigrants, we could also point out similar problems for the many African immigrants here, mostly West Africans from countries like Mauritania, and Arabs from Palestine/Israel or other regions in the Middle East. These immigrants too often experience problems at the hands of the authorities and also face discrimination and bigotry from other residents. The problems race and ethnicity have not gone away and in some ways they have become more complicated.


What all of this makes clear is that what really counts in Cincinnati, that is improvements in the well being of all, and especially in the wellbeing of those who have the least, will only come with struggle. All of the gains of the past, the abolition of slavery, the organization of the labor unions, the winning of women’s rights, the civil rights movement, gay and lesbian liberation have only been won—insofar as they have been won—through developing a critical consciousness, through organization, and though struggles with the powers-that-be. We look then briefly at what may be the most important change that has taken place in Cincinnati in the last ten years, the change in political culture.

The Impact of the 2001 Events on Society and the Movements

One of the legacies of the protests of 2001 was a change in the political culture of Cincinnati. During the 1980s, social movements and political protests in Cincinnati were small and marginal. During the 2000s that changed, and social protest movements in Cincinnati came to number in the thousands, a reflection both of the change after the 2001 ghetto rebellion, and of the deepening of the country’s social and political crisis.

The new decade in America had been opened a little early by the Battle of Seattle of 1999, protests by labor unions and environmentalists in November of that year against the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference held in that city. Thousands who had come to protest peacefully and to engage in direct action to stop the conference confronted mass repression by the city’s riot police but longshoremen, teamsters, and steel workers locked arms with environmentalists and refused to yield an inch. Inspired by the Battle of Seattle, Cincinnati activists had formed the Coalition for a Human Economy (CHE) and organized protests here against the Transatlantic Business Dialogue. Cincinnati police responded with repression, severely limiting assembly and speech, and arresting anyone—including passersby—dressed in black.[60] As mentioned above, CHE activists then joined the protests over Timothy Thomas’ killing. The Cincinnati’s ghetto rebellion of 2001, while caused by completely different issues, could be seen as part of the same rising trend in social protest.

This new spirit of rebellion was suddenly interrupted by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leading to a rapid rise in patriotism, militarism, government surveillance and repression, along with anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. The rightward shift, led by the media and the politicians, quickly cut off the rising wave of protest in places as different as Seattle and Cincinnati. Nevertheless, on October 7, 2002 thousands of Cincinnatians, joined by many hundreds from other cities in Ohio and around the Midwest, turned out for a protest in front of the Cincinnati Museum Center where George W. Bush announced his plan to make war on Iraq. Five thousand protestors, held back by mounted police officers, chanted and shouted their opposition to Bush’s war.[61] The spirit of protest returned once again to the city.

Another upshot of the events was Christopher Smitherman’s election to the Cincinnati City Council in 2003. Smitherman, a businessman and economic conservative, ran on a program of “fiscal responsibility, racial reconciliation, and improved community-police relations.” Modest as that sounds, what made Smitherman different than other local black councilmen and women was his desire to both learn and speak the truth. His outspoken demands for both economic accountability and racial fairness made him unpopular with some of his colleagues and especially with the powers-that-be. He was not reelected in 2005. Two years later, however, he won the election for president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the NAACP and began to turn it into a more vital organization. He spoke out and organized against racial discrimination in the justice system and opposed attempts to build a new and larger jail for a city with a declining population.

Two years later in November 2004, Cincinnati voters repealed Article 12, the charter amendment banning protection on the basis of sexual orientation. On March 15, 2006, the Cincinnati gay, lesbian and transgender community, led by the group Equality Cincinnati and backed by some local corporations, finally won its 13-year-long battle when City Council re-inserted sexual orientation into the City’s human rights ordinance. The vote was 8 to 1 with only Republican, Christopher Monzel, voting against it. Cincinnati now had a human rights ordinance with protections against discrimination[l1] in housing, employment and public accommodation, whether that discrimination was made on the basis of sexual orientation, religion, gender, race, color, age, disability, marital status and ethnic, national, or Appalachian regional origin. The LGBT community in Cincinnati felt both proud of the achievement and safer and more comfortable in the city.[62]

In January 2004, in response to President George W. Bush announced plans for immigration reform, 650 Latino immigrants meeting at the Catholic Hispanic Ministry’s Su Casa center in Carthage held the first meeting of what came to be the Coalition for the Rights and Dignity of Immigrants, the first truly immigrant-led immigrant rights movement in Cincinnati. For several years CODEDI led the immigrant rights movement in Cincinnati. On May Day 2006 about 1,000 Latino immigrants, organized by CODEDI and Su Casa, or simply coming on their own, took to the streets to demand immigration reform. The Cincinnati demonstration formed part of a tsunami of Latino immigrant protests throughout the United States, the largest in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. In some cities they became a virtual general strike as hundreds of thousands of Latino workers left their jobs to join the marches and rallies. The Cincinnati march represented a sort of coming out party for Latino immigrants who had not taken to the streets before to manifest their presence and their desire for change.

Just one year later, in October 2007, thousands of grocery workers affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) held a rally in Fountain Square to demand a decent contract from the grocery corporations, such as Cincinnati-based Kroger company that employed them.[63] And just a couple of weeks ago, on March 15, 2011 some three thousand union members and their supporters rallied on Fountain Square to oppose cuts in education and to oppose Senate Bill 5, the bill to effectively end collective bargaining by public employees in Cincinnati.[64]

Among the most important achievements of Cincinnati’s political opposition in recent years was the defeat of two proposals—first one from the Republicans in 2006 and then one from the Democrats in 2008—to build a new and larger jail. The NAACP, Cincinnati Progressive Action, and the conservative COAST organization led two successful campaigns against a new jail, and Cincinnati voters defeated the proposition both times.[65]

We could mention other developments in the city that show a change in political culture. Take, for example, the creation of the Amos Project, “federation of congregations in Greater Cincinnati dedicated to promoting justice and improving the quality of life for all residents. AMOS develops the leadership skills of low-income and working families to be active in public life.” While that is a modest enough goal, for a collection of churches, synagogues and mosques made up of people of different races it is a very good one.[66]

Or to take another example, Cincinnati’s labor unions working with the Catholic Hispanic Ministry came together with others in March of 2005 to create the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center. The Center has since then undertaken the education and organization of low wage workers and immigrants. Among others it has worked to organize day laborers and to help immigrants fight employers who cheat them out of wages owned them.[67]

Finally, we could mention the Blue-Green Alliance, a partnership between the Sierra Club and the Steelworkers, later joined by other organizations, with the intention of creating jobs while protecting the environment.

One cannot attribute this entire history of grassroots mobilization, political opposition and social protest to the events of 2001, since many of them responded to national and international developments. Yet, I have little doubt that the 2001 rebellion played a role in changing the cities political culture. Since that date, social protests here no longer number in the dozens or hundreds but have several times numbered in the thousands. This is significant. Social protests help to create a new political consciousness, they inspire individuals, they build organizations and they create and push forward leaders. The rebellion and the many meetings and marches afterward, as well as the boycott, served to legitimate social protest, and we are better for it. Yet we must continue to educate and to organize, to resist and to rebel.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The author, Dan La Botz, is a Cincinnati teacher, writer and activist who was directly involved in the protests in April 2001. He was present at the initial confrontation at the City Council committee meeting on April 8; he then joined other protesters at the First District Police Station that same evening; and later he participated in peaceful protest marches in the midst of the Over-the-Rhine rebellion. He was present at Timothy Thomas’ funeral where police fired on peaceful mourners. Afterwards he helped to organize the March for Justice of June 2 and subsequently he helped to found the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati (CJS) which was one of the boycott organizations. During the late 2000s he worked with Spanish speaking immigrants in CODEDI and responded to the ICE raid at the Koch plant. In 2008 he wrote the pamphlet Who Rules Cincinnati? (or at In 2010 he was the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. His book A Vision from the Heartland: Socialism for the 21st Century discusses the economic, social and political issues of Ohio, including questions of racial justice).

I could not have written this article without the help of my friends Linda Newman and Tom Dutton and my partner Sherry Baron. I alone am responsible for the opinions and views expressed in this article.


[1] Jackie Shropshire, Henderson Kirland, and Suthith Wickrema participated in both organizations.

[2] Dan Klepal and Cindi Andrews, “Stories of 15 black men killed by police since 1995,” Cincinnati Enquirer

[3] An acquaintance of mine, a longtime civil rights and poverty activist, was pulled out of her car and beaten up. She understood and forgave those who attacked her. Others who were beaten were less charitable.

[4] My wife told me of an African American professional in her workplace explaining these realities of life in Cincinnati to her white coworkers at that time.

[5] Kevin Aldridge and Mark Curnutte, “NAACP leader calls for justice”

[6] Kevin, Aldridge, “Cincinnati CAN: ‘Willingness to shake things up’,” Cincinnati Enquirer at:

[7] Kevin Aldridge, “CAN Leaders: Firing Lynch was right call,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 5, 2001

[8] Lew Moores, “Peaceful Marchers Cry for Justice,” Cincinnati Enquirer

[9] The meeting between the March for Justice Organizers and the African American ministers actually took place at my home in Clifton shortly after the march. Among those in attendance were Rev. J.W. Jones, Rev. Stephen Scott, Jackie Shropshire, Rev. Land, Rev. Doc Foster, and Rev. Donald Sherman. For Rev. Jones’ biography see: Rev. James W. Jones at Cincinnati Historical Society. While Rev. Jones accepted the idea of an implicit alliance with the gay community, some of the others had been opponents of gay rights.

[10] Lew Moores, “Cincinnati gay-rights appeal already costing conventions,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, [date?], 1993

[11] Allen Howard, “Black group to boycott restaurants, Closings during Coors Light Festival caused ire,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 2, 2000; James Pilcher, “Restaurant pickets: ‘No truce’, Blacks protesters say they are out to make a point,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 10, 2000

[12] Randy Tucker, “Restaurants to stay open for fests,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 27, 2001

[13] The three voted off the board were Mike McCleese, Heidi Burlins-Green, and Roy Ford. All three were active in the March for Justice. See: Doug Trapp, “Stonewall Decides,” CityBeat, Sept. 5, 2002; Clayton C. Knight, “New Fissures Appear in Stonewall,” CityBeat, July 4, 2002

[14] Jonathan Diskin and Thomas A. Dutton, “Cincinnati: A Year Later but No Wiser,”

[15] Issue Paper: Cincinnati Boycott

[16] The Cincinnati Arts Association suit asked for $87,000 in damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. It was thrown out on first amendment grounds but the CAA appealed; organizers countersued the CAA for governmental infringement of their civil rights, since the governing board was largely populated by local city and county officials. The CAA’s appeal and the counter-suit were later settled out of court, but the boycott activists did not agree to stop boycotting or to stop asking performers not to come to Cincinnati. The defendants in the case were Rev. James W. Jones, Amanda Mayes, Linda Newman, Rev. Stephen Scott, Rev. Donald Sherman, Michelle Taylor-Mitchell and “John or Jane Does 1 through 20.” Associated Press, “State judge throws out art agency’s suit against Cincinnati boycotters,” First Amendment Center. See also: Maria Rogers, “Right to Boycott,” CityBeat, Jully 25, 2002.

[17] I received two death threats in this period, one from a group called Wendepunkt. The same death threat was received by the owner of a gay bar and a Cincinnati judge. The individual responsible was convicted and jailed for his threat on the life of the judge.

[18] Collaborative Agreement

[19] Sheila McLaughlin and Jane Prendergast, “Police frustration brings slowdown” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 30, 2001.

[20] Thomas A. Dutton and Rev. Daman Lynch II, “The National Underground Corporate Center to Railroad Freedom,” Sept. 26, 2004

[21] Chiquita Branks International, Wikipedia

[22] Kevin Aldridge, “Boycott demands consolidated” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 8, 2002.

[23] Gregory Korte and Dan Horn, “City settles 16 police suits for $4.5 million,” The Cincinnati Enquirer

[24] All of the reports on the agreement can be found at:

[25] See for example, Gregory Korte, “Deal answers some of boycott demands” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 5, 2002

[26] Gregory Korte, “Lynch to run for City Council” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Aug. 20, 2003

[27] Gregory Korte, “Luken focuses on Vine Street” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 11, 2002

[28] Sharon Coolidge, “Lawsuit: Diabetic ‘pummeled,’ shocked by Hamilton County deputies”

[29] Sharon Coolidge, “Deters: No criminal case against deputies”

[30] Quan Truong, Jennifer Baker and Carrie Whitaker, “Woman dies after Cincinnati police car hits here in Washington Park”

[31] Trina Edwards, “Officer who ran over woman will not face criminal charges”

[32] Mark Curnutte, “Homeless woman killed in park is buried”

[33] Adam Weintraub, Buddy Gray shot dead; client held, Cincinnati Enquirer, Nov. 16, 1996, at; Dirk Johnson, “Gunfire Silences a Voice for the Poor” The New York Times, Nov. 30, 1996

[34] Cameron McWhirter, “Over-the-Rhine now up for grabs” Cincinnati Enquirer

[35] Cincinnati City government demographic statistics

[36] See 3CDC’s self-description

[37] “Operation Vortex Tragets Crime-Troubled Streets”

[38] Rand Report, “Police Community Relations in Cincinnati” 2007

[39] ACLU press release

[40] Jay Hanselman, “Census data show population decline in Cincinnati, Hamilton County” WVXU radio

[41] U.S. Census Quick Facts

[42] “The 10 most segregated urban areas in America” Salon

[43] See interactive map at: Because the figures shown in these maps are based on government statistics which underestimate unemployment they are not entirely accurate. Unemployment is actually higher.

[44] “More local residents losing homes to foreclosures” Local 12, March 29, 2010.

[45] “Cincinnati foreclosures continue down trend in February” Business Courier, March 16, 2011

[46] “Cincinnati’s homeless population falls 12%” Business Courier, March 24, 2011

[47] Cincinnati Ohio Poverty Rate Data

[48] Dan La Botz, “Obama’s Federal Wage Freeze Will Become Model” Labor Notes; Malia Rulon, “Fed has deep impact on local workforce”

[49] NAACP Press Release, October 10, 2009.

[50] “Cincinnati” Wikipedia

[51] See “United States Cities by Crime Rate” in Wikipedia

[52] See the interactive crime map,, or another at:

[53] Peggy O’Farrell, “Childhood mortality uneven across the city”

[54] John Besl, “Infant death haunts us all” The Community Research Collaborative Blog

[55] Noble Maseru, Cincinnati Health Commissioner, “Cincy Health Department’s WIC program recognized nationally for decreasing infant mortality” The Cincinnati Beacon, April 9, 2010

[56] Cincinnati Public Schools, Districtwide Graduation Rate

[57] Andrea Hopkins, “Immigration raids Koch Foods Ohio chicken plant” Reuters, August 28, 2007

[58] Julia Preston, “Firm Stance on Illegal Immigrants Remains Policy” New York Times, August 3, 2009

[59] Jennifer Ludden, “Latinos Rattled by Ohio Sheriff’s Mission” NPR, June 19, 2006

[60] Valerie Miller, “TABD Conference, Protests End,” WCPO TV 9 (Scripps Howard) ; “Trade Forum Sparks Protest in Cincinnati”

[61] Dan La Botz, “Cincinnati: Protest in the Heartland”

[62] Eric Resnick, “Cincinnati Passes LGBT human rights ordinance” Gay Peoples Chronicle

[63] UFCW, “Cincinnati Workers and Supporters Rally by Thousands”

[64] Jay Warren, “Union members rally at Fountain Square”, WCPO, at

[65] Dan La Botz, “Troublemaker’s Journal, No Justice, No Jail” Wednesday, May 23,2007.

[65] The Amos Project

[65] Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center

Lessons from Ontario's city-wide, political strikes of the late 1990s


by Dan La Botz

[In 1995-1998, unions in Ontario embarked on a series of eleven one-day
citywide strikes against the policies of the Conservative provincial government.
This article, published originally in The Troublemakers Handbook details the labor-community coalitions they put together;
the cross-picketing they did of each other’s workplaces; and a deal of
practical advice for mounting huge strikes and demonstrations.]

Unlike most strikes, political strikes are aimed not at management but
at the government. A political strike is an attempt to force the government
to change some policy, or even part of a broader attempt to change the
government itself. In the United States, political strikes have been rare,
usually against one city government. For example, after police attacked
workers during a post-World War II organizing drive among retail clerks
in Oakland, 142 AFL unions and 100,000 workers declared a "work holiday,"
walked off their jobs, and shut the city down. After a compromise settlement,
the unions ran a political campaign and in the next election won office
for four out of five of their city council candidates.

Sometimes the scope is wider than a single city. In the 1960s, West Virginia
coal miners struck to pressure the government to pass legislation dealing
with black lung. From the 1950s through the 1970s, public employees and
teachers in many states called illegal strikes to win collective bargaining
laws for public employees. The United Farm Workers used strikes to pressure
the state of California to pass a collective bargaining law for agricultural

In countries with more militant labor traditions, political strikes have
occurred more often. During the 1970s and 1980s, Brazilian workers used
political strikes to help overthrow a military dictatorship. South African
workers used political strikes to fight the apartheid government. During
the 1990s and early 2000s, Latin American unions in over a dozen countries
engaged in national general strikes against privatization, free trade
agreements, and the effects of globalization.

Political strikes are often met with government repression. When Polish
workers’ national strikes threatened to overthrow the Communist government
there in 1980, the Polish military suppressed the movement. Political
strikes can clearly be powerful weapons, but when they become national
movements in which workers challenge the government, the stakes are high
on both sides.


Between late 1995 and 1998, Ontario unions called eleven "Days
of Action" that were, in effect, political strikes against the provincial
Conservative government of Mike Harris. The Days of Action were a series
of rolling, one-day general strikes in different towns and cites, involving
not only unions but also many social movements and community organizations.

Eventually Ontario’s unions called hundreds of thousands of workers into
the streets, shutting down many private businesses and public agencies,
while also holding mass demonstrations and rallies throughout the province.
While they did not succeed in bringing down the Conservative government,
the strikes did challenge the Conservatives’ anti-worker onslaught, and
they helped develop a new group of labor and community activists.


The Days of Action were the unions’ response to a government
assault on workers and the poor. Mike Harris was elected on June 8, 1995
on a platform he called "the Common Sense Revolution," inspired
by Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies. As the Canadian Broadcasting
Company reported, Harris "…cut taxes, reduced the size of government
in the province, cracked down on welfare, encouraged work-for-welfare
programs, merged school boards…." He became notorious for his
tough talk and attacks on the poor; for example, his government eliminated
a $37-a-month benefit for pregnant welfare recipients, "with Harris
explaining he wanted to make sure ‘those dollars don’t go to beer.’"1

Rick Witherspoon, now a Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) official, was president
of the London and District Labour Council at the time. "Harris first
attacked the poor by rolling back social assistance," says Witherspoon.
"Then he turned his attention to workers and put in place some of
the most regressive labor legislation we had seen in decades. He repealed
anti-scab legislation, froze the minimum wage, amended health and safety
legislation, and made it harder for injured workers to get workers’ compensation.
Then he turned his sights on public sector workers by challenging their
ability to bargain collective agreements. It was very clear that his agenda
was to support big business and attack the rights of workers."

René Fortin, assistant to the regional director of the Canadian
Union of Public Employees (CUPE), remembers "Bill 136, which removed
anti-scab laws that had been introduced by the New Democratic Party [the
labor-backed party]. They were proposing a whole slew of issues dealing
with employment standards, things like the legal hours of work per week.

"They were making proposals about privatization. They were talking
about removing the right to strike in some areas. Or in areas where we
did not have the right to strike (such as hospitals) but had arbitration,
they were talking about getting rid of mutually agreed-upon arbitrators
and having government-appointed arbitrators."


The Canadian labor movement was not united as it began to develop
a response to the Harris government. When the previous, labor-backed New
Democratic Party (NDP) government had cut budgets for social programs
and attacked the bargaining rights of provincial public sector workers,
unions were divided on how to respond. The public employee unions–including
CUPE, Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), Canadian Union of Postal
Workers (CUPW), and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF)–had
wanted to fight back, and, along with the CAW, Hotel Employees (HERE),
and UNITE, they began to question their relationship with the NDP.

However, most of the industrial unions wanted to maintain unquestioning
support for the party. At a meeting of union leaders, a group of unions
(principally the United Food and Commercial Workers, Communications, Energy
and Paperworkers, Service Employees, Machinists, National Union of Public
and General Employees, Steelworkers, and Teamsters) issued a statement–printed
on pink paper–that called for renewed support to the NDP. The so-called
"pink paper unions" also made a veiled critique of the role
of the public sector unions, and threatened to split the Ontario Federation
of Labor. The "pink paper" divisions still existed when Harris
came to power.

Nevertheless, Canadian unions found enough unity to launch the Days of
Action, but with different emphases. For example, while the general slogan
of the province-wide Toronto Days of Action was "Organize, Educate,
and Resist," the slogan of the Canadian section of the Steelworkers
was "Organize, Educate, Legislate" (though in the city of Toronto,
the Steelworkers aligned themselves with the more militant public employee

We look here at the Days of Action in two Ontario cities: first, the
conservative, medium-sized city of London; second, Toronto, Canada’s largest
and most diverse city.


Despite the differences among Ontario’s unions, all had a strong
reaction against the Harris government. Virtually all began to lobby against
the Harris government’s program and to educate their members about it.
They lobbied municipal councils and got many of them to pass resolutions
opposing the federal government’s budget cuts, which would have a disastrous
effect on many city services and programs.

CUPE’s leadership called for meetings with local union leaders to discuss
the political situation and to raise the idea of a general strike. "At
that time, CUPE represented about 200,000 members in Ontario, organized
in 800 locals with 2,000 collective bargaining agreements," explains
René Fortin. "We held a series of consultations with the local
leadership, which culminated in massive conferences throughout Ontario
in which direction was given by the local leadership. In every community
or concentration of membership, we called leadership meetings and then
membership meetings. We went around obtaining strike votes aimed at a
general strike for the withdrawal of all public services in the provinces.

‘We had to do that," Fortin continues, "because we have local
autonomy. We’re not centralized by any sense of the imagination, and in
terms of going on strike, those decisions are made by vote.

"We reached out to other labor groups, both those in the Canadian
Labour Congress and those outside the CLC. We also attempted to bring
into the fold the industrial unions, which were hesitant. CAW was up front
with us, but the Steelworkers and other industrial unions were reticent,
and we were trying to win them over."


Union officials and activists realized that the first group they
had to reach was their own membership. Herman Rosenfeld, a national representative
in the CAW Education Department, says, "A lot of auto workers and
other workers had voted for Harris. Even many public sector workers had
voted for him. One of the key thrusts was to change people’s opinion.
We had to convince people that they should oppose Harris, strike their
employers, and participate in the Days of Action."

So the CAW and a number of other unions mobilized to talk to the members.
Rosenfeld remembers, "We took a group of political activists from
the unions–some lower-level elected officials and other rank and filers–and
paid them to work as organizers. We set up meetings in union halls, or
informally in bars and donut shops. We produced leaflets and materials
specifically targeted to the workers in the workplaces in the community,
zeroing in on issues that we knew would touch a chord with them. They
were handed out in union meetings, informal meetings, and inside workplaces.
We encouraged activists and local union officials inside workplaces to
talk to co-workers, and suggested tactics for them to do this. This was
a planned component of building the Days of Action in each of the target
cities. While most of the meetings were with small numbers of people,
they eventually involved thousands of workers.

"Many of the workers had supported Harris because he talked about
cutting taxes. We challenged them on this issue. We argued that most of
the tax cuts would go to his rich friends. We pointed out that he was
cutting the number of health and safety inspectors in the workplace, and
cutting workers’ compensation. We told them, ultimately you will pay for
this in terms of your own health.

"We pointed out that the cuts to social assistance were so vicious–along
with the end of funding to social housing–that people were being forced
into hostels and motels. The government was threatening to bring in workfare,
which would force social service recipients–workers who had exhausted
their unemployment insurance benefits–to work for their benefits. The
government had threatened to use them as low-wage replacements for jobs
being cut from government agencies, and even as potential scabs.

"London was the model, but we did this in several cities. We had
a pretty intense period of talking to people about these things. Where
we did this we had the best results.

"We didn’t know if we could pull this off, but we did, and it worked
brilliantly. Not everyone was convinced, but we convinced many. Other
workers often supported it even if they were not convinced, because they
were loyal to the union."

The goal was to mobilize members against their employers, to pressure
Harris to withdraw his policies. The challenge of bringing down the Conservative
government and forcing a parliamentary election for a new provincial premier
and cabinet would be a long shot–and could occur only if the strategy
of one-day general strikes could breach the divide between unions. Certainly,
the most militant groups of worker activists sought to build towards a
more massive movement to get rid of Harris’s government, but that presupposed
a number of other things happening. The goals from the point of view of
the overall union movement were to change workers’ and community members’
opinions, to mobilize them against employers and the government, and to
pressure the government to withdraw its policies.


However, union leaders were clear from the beginning that a general
strike could not be organized by the union movement alone. It would also
need allies among the social movements and community organizations. "Because
the legislation also meant cutbacks in services, it was a frontal attack
on the working poor, and those on welfare," Fortin explains. The
next step was bringing the unions and community groups together.

"We called for meetings with community groups in each area. We were
reaching out to church groups, anti-poverty groups, organizations dealing
with social services and their recipients."

The next step was to set up coalitions in every city and town. "The
Ontario Federation of Labor was coordinating the Days of Action and they
began to focus on different towns," says Fortin. "In each town
where the Days of Action were to take place, there was a community co-chair
and a labor co-chair. That was the structure, and there had to be complete
buy-in from all parties in terms of roles and direction."

Working with the community groups wasn’t always easy for union activists.
"Those that hadn’t worked previously with community groups found
it difficult to work with them because of the organizational approach,"
says Fortin. "The labor movement style is, ‘let’s have a vote and
deal with it, let’s have a vote and go.’ The community groups had a different
style based on consensus; they don’t always take votes. They say, ‘this
is the approach we would like to take.’ Our members wanted to say, ‘let’s
cut the debate and take a vote,’ so the debates took longer. We had to
find a common solution, and then take a vote.

"Another issue is that there was a degree of suspicion as to the
motives of the union," Fortin adds. "The typical question was,
‘Where are you going to be after this?’ For years, community groups had
come to the labor movement and sometimes they had had a solid reception
and in other cases not. For some union members it was just bizarre dealing
with other organizations that weren’t part of the union movement. Certainly
there were hiccups on occasion, but we dealt with them."

The process—labor leadership meetings, rank-and-file member meetings,
meetings between union activists and community activists—was repeated
in one town after another. Out of these came the common understanding
that made possible cooperation in common actions.


The Ontario Federation of Labor decided that the first Day of
Action should occur in the conservative city of London. Rick Witherspoon
explains, "To take this challenge to the streets, they didn’t really
want to go to a town like Windsor or Oshawa, which are real union towns.
The union leadership felt that if they focused on a conservative (small
‘c’) town, the impact would be greater.

"Nothing like this had ever happened on this scale in Ontario. It
was a formidable task to ramp it up. As it did throughout Ontario, the
labour council decided to create two co-chairs, one from the private sector
unions and one from the public sector." Witherspoon was president
of a CAW Ford local and represented the private sector.

"We believed that if we wanted to challenge the business community
that supported the administration’s agenda, then we had to get to their
wallets. Shutting down as many businesses as possible would get their
attention," says Witherspoon.

"To solicit support, we held membership meetings for almost every
union affiliated with the labour council in London. We also involved many
of our London community partners, social action groups, church groups.
It became very clear this wasn’t just about the labor movement; it was
about the kinds of communities we wanted to live in and the impact the
conservative agenda was having on our communities."

Because the government viewed the Days of Action as illegal, and because
workers would shut down their workplaces, union officials were initially
worried about repercussions. In both the public and private sectors, contracts
contained no-strike clauses. "Partly for this reason, we didn’t call
it a strike, we called it a Day of Action," says Witherspoon. "Many
employers threatened their workers that they could face discipline up
to and including dismissal." But the unions decided to go ahead.

In London, the unions took their fight into the public arena. Although
they didn’t always win, it was a useful educational and organizing process.
"When we approached the London City Council and asked them to adopt
a resolution supporting the Day of Action, they rejected it," Witherspoon
says. "The Council said that that they expected all municipal employees
to report for work. We brought many employees to the city council meeting,
and it was an interesting debate. It was interesting partly because the
Day of Action was planned for December 11, 1995, and a council meeting
was scheduled for that day. In their wisdom, the council changed their
next meeting date to avoid being confronted by picketers."

At the same time, Witherspoon says it was clear to the organizers that
"there was good support both within the unions and the community,
and the Day of Action started to take on a life of its own." Unions
from other parts of the province pledged to supply support–workers to
make phone calls and work on schedules for picketing. The unions recruited
marshals and organized buses to bring people to London.

"To protect workers who would not be reporting to work but to keep
them involved in the action," says Witherspoon, "we developed
a strategy called ‘cross-picketing.’ Rather than put a Ford worker at
risk picketing his own plant, we would have workers from other plants
picket the Ford plant and have Ford workers picket other plants."
Thus, any worker who did try to go to work on the Day of Action would
be confronted with a picket line, but management would not see its own
employees in front of the plant. Social movements were equally crucial,
as they appealed to their members and the wider communities to help cross-picket
various workplaces.


When organizers met with the London police, for the most part
they were cooperative. "However," Witherspoon remembers, "one
day when we met with the police, it had been announced that for all demonstrators
in the march the CAW would supply balaclavas, which are knitted masks,
usually used by skiers, that cover the lower part of the face. This was
a problem from the police point of view because people couldn’t be identified,
and they went a little ballistic in the meeting. We assured them they
were just toques (simple knitted caps) and not balaclavas. In fact, they
were balaclavas, though we didn’t know that at the time. Still, it was
good to have the balaclavas, because December 11 was one of the coldest
days on record that winter."

In meetings, the organizers explained what would happen, emphasizing
that they were planning a peaceful day of picketing and a rally. "We
impressed on everybody that this was intended to be peaceful, and that’s
how we were able to sell it to the police. We created hundreds of marshals,
and got the police to agree that before they reacted to a situation they
would ask a marshal to handle the problem.

"On the Day of Action, two parades started in different locations,
one in the center and one in the east end. The police closed off all the
streets, and the two parades converged in the downtown area for the rally,"
says Witherspoon.


"On December 11, we began picketing at midnight to make
sure that people who would have gone in for the midnight shift would face
pickets, so they could either go home or join the protest," Witherspoon
remembers. "There were also pickets at all locations at 6:30 in the
morning and then again in the afternoon. "There was picketing at
hundreds of locations: at manufacturing plants, office buildings, municipal
offices, and the airport. The locations that we focused on were shut down.
At the Ford and GM plants, which together employed between 7,000 and 8,000
people, there was no production for 24 hours. The Labatt’s brewery shut
down and didn’t make any beer that day. The Kellogg plant didn’t make
any cereal. The buses in the city didn’t move that day. Before the day
many of the schools and government offices had agreed to close down, knowing
that it wasn’t going to be business as usual."

Although they shut down the city, the unions made sure that essential
services were provided. "We didn’t put people’s health at risk,"
says Witherspoon. The teachers’ unions put on educational events for the
students and parents, and parents and children supported the picketing
at the schools.

The London Day of Action proved a tremendous success. "We probably
had 20,000 people on the streets in London that day, the largest demonstration
and rally that had ever taken place in that community," says Witherspoon.
"We succeeded in closing down the workplaces we had targeted. We
had more media than this city had ever seen for any event. It was truly
national coverage, even international. There were letters of support from
people from Canada and the United States, as well as outside North America."

Witherspoon doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the most important part
of the Days of Action: "That we took the opportunity to educate our
leadership, our members, and the community about the reasons for this
action. If we had not taken time to educate everybody, it would not have
been as successful as it was.

"What led to our success was the fact that we involved as many unions
as we could and included our community partners, so it wasn’t just the
labor movement challenging the government. It was the community challenging
the government. The coalitions formed then still exist today. There was
a new respect among groups in the community. People who didn’t understand
each other before now had a better understanding. We learned that being
inclusive was one of the keys to success. When we put together committees,
we made sure they were as inclusive as possible, that people really did
have a sense of ownership in the actions we were taking."


The city of Hamilton followed with the next Day of Action in
February 1996, with the participation of 120,000 people. In April 1996,
about 30,000 participated in the three neighboring cities of Cambridge,
Kitchener, and Waterloo. In June 1996, in a somewhat smaller city, Peterborough,
some 10,000 participated. In Toronto, in October 1996, the Day of Action
mobilized what is said to have been the biggest demonstration in Ontario’s
history, with at least 250,000 people.


Organizing a general strike in Toronto was an enormous undertaking.
In 1996 Toronto had a population of about 2.5 million in the municipality
and 4.2 million in the total metropolitan area. While Ottawa is Canada’s
political capital, Toronto is the country’s corporate and financial capital,
filled with corporate headquarters.

We look at the Days of Action in Toronto from two perspectives. Helen
Kennedy was involved in organizing a labor-community coalition in a local
community, while René Fortin had responsibility in the organization
of the citywide strike. As these accounts make clear, things can look
quite different from different locations in the same movement.


Helen Kennedy works in a subsidized-housing community center
for the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department, where she is a coordinator
of the At Risk Rescue program. She works with poor families, and particularly
with youth of color from the Caribbean and East Africa. She belongs to
CUPE Local 79, which represents Toronto city workers, serves on the executive
of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and is also secretary of
CUPE’s Toronto District Council.

"During the Toronto Day of Action," says Kennedy, "I was
very involved in my own district, North York. Just after Mike Harris was
elected, we created a grassroots organization that brought together both
community and labor organizations, the North York Fight Back coalition.
We didn’t have funding from anybody. We went to community organization
meetings where we explained what was happening to the budget and funding
for social programs. And we organized our own information meetings where
we explained the 22 percent cut to welfare. We grew to become a much larger
organization reaching across the whole community.

"The big difference between what we did and what René Fortin
did was that they had tons of money, and they had 75 activists that were
paid for organizing. In North York we weren’t getting paid, and the people
from the unions who were involved were known as community activists.

"The day of the work stoppage, we connected with the larger groups
and arranged cross-picketing. We had busloads of community people coming
in to picket as well. One of my most favorite memories was seeing two
busloads of seniors from the Lawrence Heights community. It was amazing
to see all these community members coming in to join the picket lines.

"There were a lot of teachers involved as well–from primary and
secondary–and students, and we ended up having 5,000 people out in the
Valley of North York, a suburb of the north end of Toronto, which was
the largest rally in North York’s history."


Helen Kennedy offers these suggestions for building a labor-community

Go slow: Understand that it takes a lot of
time to build coalitions; it cannot be done too quickly. Don’t
go faster than the group is going. It has always been one of my
personal problems, I know where I want to go and I want people
to go with me. The group has to move all at the same time.
Stick to the common goal: One of the problems
is that you get sidetracked into other issues, which may be very
key issues, but that could put you in danger of not bringing the
coalition forward. You have to decide what issues can be dealt
with in terms of a consensus. A coalition does not have to take
a position on every issue.
Reflect the diversity of your community: We
did a lot of work in the poorer neighborhoods to get the people
that were most affected by the cuts. In a city like Toronto with
large immigrant populations, you have many different languages
such as Farsi, Tigrina, Amharic, Chinese, Vietnamese. You have
to be able to communicate with people. Providing meals may be
important, or providing childcare. We also worked to bring in
women through the North York Women’s Center.
Create balance in the coalition: There are
totally different ways of organizing. How you organize in the
union may not be how you organize in the community. When you get
both groups together there has to be balance. It’s not just having
co-chairs that’s important, it’s having co-power. Labor came in
with the financial power, they had all the money, and they had
the staff, organizers.


"In Toronto we put together a group of rank and filers on a coordinating
committee," says Fortin, "and I was the staff person in charge
of coordination. We had about a dozen members from all sectors and it
was a diverse group in every way."

CUPE’s plan was to shut down about 100 different institutions and facilities,
everything but hospitals, for which special arrangements were made. Before
the Days of Action began, Fortin and other union leaders met with management
to negotiate no-reprisal agreements to protect striking workers.

Fortin remembers, "We said to them, ‘We’re shutting down your place.’
They said, ‘That’s illegal.’ We said, ‘Well, we feel it’s legal.’

"We negotiated ‘no reprisal, no disciplinary action’ agreements
with most of the employers." Those agreements were possible because
the funding cuts were affecting the agency managers too.

Organizing any strike, but particularly a general strike of an entire
metropolitan area, requires detailed planning of every aspect of the event.

"We had our map," says Fortin, "and we had located all
the facilities, but we had to make sure there were people able to be on
all those picket lines for the day. We had to insure that–where there
were multiple entrances–they had all entrances covered. We wanted to
make sure nobody would go in to work. So we had to have training for picket
captains, and a communication system to communicate directly about hot

"We developed a protocol for picket captains, so that people would
know their rights, and to insure the people on the line were orderly.
You have to understand that we had people who were quite aggressive, and
that not everybody was sympathetic to us. So we had to have contacts for
the picket captains, for when problems occurred. We had to have people
with experience in the neighborhood to assist them," says Fortin.

In addition to meeting with the employers, the union leaders also met
with the police in advance of the demonstrations. "We had a series
of meetings with the police, giving them a heads-up as to our intentions.
We established members to be in charge of contacts with the police."


"This was a hand-in-hand situation with the community groups,"
says Fortin. "We had co-chairs, and we were joined at the hip. So
all of our actions were joint actions. The community groups appreciated
the unions’ organization, and they had a sense of empowerment collectively.
Community groups don’t have a centralized organization like the labor
movement does, and they don’t have the funds, and they appreciated the
power, and economic base."

Communications with union members, the communities, the public, and the
press was an important job. "We had three staff people assigned to
press, communications, publications, translation of documents," says
Fortin. "Since the city is highly multicultural, we produced literature
in 18 different languages, which is only some of the 146 different languages
spoken in Toronto. We dealt with the major ones, French, Cantonese, and
sixteen others."

Press coverage came almost automatically because of the significance
of such a shutdown. "We were in the press everyday. The Day of Action
became the issue. We were in all forms of media."


The event had to be built in various ways. "We planned for
particular activities for the different sectors," says Fortin. "A
demonstration to protest the impact on education, another to protest the
impact on social services. So there was a special day for each group,
with massive demonstrations leading up to the Day of Action. So it was
not only a one-day event.

"At the same time that we were mobilizing Toronto, we were also
mobilizing the rest of the province for people to come to Toronto. So
we needed a whole transportation network to insure that others could get
to Toronto on that day, and mobilization in every other community.

"The respective unions also had their own events. CUPE has about
145,000 members in Toronto alone. We decided, ‘Here’s 100 or 111 places
we want to shut down.’ Then we began to plan for the day itself: what
do you do with thousands of people in a particular area? Community groups
and unions formed committees, such as an entertainment committee or a
transportation group.

"We had a plan to shut down major highways on that day, in and around
Toronto, a city of about two million. Our plan was to stretch cars across
the freeways and just drive at a slow rate, causing traffic congestion.
So we had people get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to set up those barriers.
But on that day, everybody decided to stay home, because the subway was
going to close down, and people presumed there would be major havoc on
the roads, so when we got there in the morning the highways were deserted.
Our cars traveling at a slow speed got pulled over by the police. Toronto
was a ghost town, nobody came that day.

"On October 25, Toronto’s Day of Action, we began to close things
down at 5 o’clock in the morning. We set up our picket lines. Our people
shut down the landfill sites, social services, City Hall, the Hydroelectric
Commission (power facilities), and school boards. We didn’t picket the
schools, but rather the administration, though there was no school on
that day. Effectively everything was shut tight. There was some administration
staff that got in, but as far as business as usual—nothing."

Did the strike remain peaceful? "There were minor incidents,"
says Fortin. "Minor violence on the subway spots. At landfill sites.
Some of our people were becoming quite aggressive. Such minor events were
to be expected, but there was nothing of a major consequence. Was there
intimidation? Sure. When you see a policeman on a mounted horse, that
itself was intimidating. But there were no police incidents.

"We made it clear our intention was not to rip down buildings, we
wanted to express our opinion. We had marshals for the parades, and all
those advance things. We were prepared for anything.

"So on that day, all these buses came rolling into Toronto to get
ready for the parade at exhibition grounds on the lakeshore, which was
the congregating point. Then we marched up to the legislature. Along the
route we had entertainment and speakers. At the parade people had their
colors representing their unions and community groups. Community groups
put on theatrical skits. We went along this massive five-kilometer route.
Tens of thousands of people, with a sea of flags. It’s great fun to be
in that type of a crowd. Top-name artists playing, speakers from the labor
and community groups and opposition political parties.

"We calculated 250,000 people at the parade on the Day of Action.
It reminded me of the ’60s. It was great. And it was the result of all
the legwork, the union and community meetings, and the acquiescence in
terms of employer retribution."

"Toronto is mostly a financial and service place, and most of the
strikers were public sector workers," says Herman Rosenfeld. "Many
activists were recruited to picket transit maintenance yards and entrances,
and the financial district. There was little work on the inside in these
workplaces. There weren’t huge numbers of private sector workplaces left
to close down."


The organization of the Days of Action shut down one city after
another in Ontario in 1996, 1997, and 1998. What does it take to organize
such a massive movement?

Clearly, a citywide general strike requires hundreds of people prepared
to take responsibility for organizing thousands of others to carry out
the strike and the related marches and demonstrations. Almost nothing
in such an undertaking can be left to chance. The list below barely begins
to convey the many varied elements involved in such a strike:

  • A sense of crisis and urgency: The Days
    of Action were precipitated by a political crisis, a frontal attack
    on unions and the poor by a Conservative government. It was important
    that unions and many social movements and community organizations perceived
    that they were under an unusually fierce attack that required an extraordinary
  • The support of official labor bodies: The Ontario
    Federation of Labour, representing most of the province’s unions, passed
    a resolution to support the Days of Action. While some unions gave only
    nominal support, the resolution was important in authorizing the strike,
    making it "official."
  • The endorsement and support of local labor leaders and rank-and-file
    : The strike could only be successful with their commitment
    to making it happen.
  • A core of dedicated activists: These people brought
    the message to co-workers, within and across unions and, if necessary,
    past leaders who were opposed or ambivalent.
  • An alliance between labor, social movements, and community
    : These alliances gave the movement a greater social
    base and greater mobilizing power. As one official said, "We were
    joined at the hip," throughout the Days of Action.
  • The creation of a "general staff" for organizing
    and running the strike
    : The general staff must be large enough
    to reflect the leadership of the organizations involved, and small enough
    to effectively engage in rapid discussion and decision-making when necessary.
    The general staff has to be responsible to the unions that have authorized
    the strike, to the rank and file involved, and also to the communities
    that will be affected. The general staff must plan and oversee the strike,
    handle negotiations with authorities, and respond to emergencies.
  • A detailed plan: The plan of action should include:
    a) a list of all the workplaces to be closed; b) a list, for each location,
    of all entrances and exits to be covered; c) a general map of all the
    facilities to be closed, and specific maps for each location; d) a timeline
    for the closing of workplaces, with plans to mobilize pickets for each
    hour and each day; e) listings of picket captains and their contact
  • The assignment and training of picket captains and pickets:
    Picket captains need to be trusted, reliable, capable people who will
    take responsibility for closing down locations, dealing with authorities
    at the local level, maintaining discipline of the picketers, and enforcing
    the strike on those who attempt to violate it. Picket captains need
    to understand the strike’s "rules of engagement." The strike
    may be peaceful, involve the use of civil disobedience, involve the
    use of force, or involve seizure of property. In the case of the Days
    of Action, the rules were to maintain peaceful picket lines and enforce
    the strike. But in other situations, different rules may apply.
  • The training of pickets: Picketers need to know exactly
    what they are supposed to do, where and for how long, and to whom they
    are to turn over responsibility when their shift ends. Typically, strike
    rules include: assigned hours of duty, assigned equipment (bullhorns,
    picket signs, armbands, ropes or tape to indicate off-limits areas),
    rules of behavior (no drinking, no drugs, no swearing or abusive language),
    rules of engagement with those who attempt to violate the picket line
    (shouted slogans, locked arms, physical isolation and removal, use of
    limited force, etc.).
  • Media team: Media spokespeople have a sensitive job,
    since their statements establish in the mind of the public—including
    the employers and the government–the reason for the strike, its character,
    its objectives, and its methods.
  • Internal communications team: In the lead-up to the
    strike and on the days of the strike, the team needs to constantly produce
    information for strike captains, picketers, union and community organization
    members, and the general public, possibly in several languages.
  • Emergency medical services: In any large gathering
    of people, there will almost always be health problems, and doctors,
    nurses, and other health professionals strike should be organized into
    teams identifiable to the public and the police, and linked to picket
  • Transportation or logistics team: In a strike like
    the Toronto Day of Action that brought thousands of other Ontario residents
    into the city, a committee must arrange transportation, overnight shelter,
    and food (whether through prepared meals or simply directing people
    to restaurants).
  • Liaison with employers: The general staff needs to
    negotiate with employers over maintenance of essential services, such
    as emergency rooms, ongoing patient care, and hazardous operations such
    as chemical and nuclear plants. Leaders should also try to negotiate
    no-retribution agreements.
  • Liaison with police: The general staff needs to inform
    the police of plans, to avoid unnecessary conflict and confrontation.
    Strike leaders may also want to meet with leaders of the police union.
    The general staff should be able to communicate instantly with police
    commanders during the strike, to deal with emergencies and, if possible,
    ward off repression.
  • Strike day operations team: This team oversees picket
    captains, picket lines, and related activities to make sure that they
    happen as planned, and to deal with contingencies and emergencies.
  • March or rally team: The march route needs to be
    carefully examined and worked out in detail with the police and other
    authorities. Entertainment needs to be organized, and making the speakers
    list will likely be a politically sensitive task.
  • Negotiation committee: If the strike has a particular
    political objective, and will continue until there is some sort of resolution
    of the issue, a negotiation team will have to deal with the relevant
    authorities. It should made up of the central leaders of the bodies
    that authorized the strike. The negotiators will coordinate with the
    general staff and the media and communications teams to keep the picket
    captains and picketers informed of developments.

1. Martin O’Malley, "Common Sense
Mike steps aside," CBC News Online, March 21. (Back
to article)

The New American Workers Movement at the Crossroads

By Dan La Botz

The new American workers movement, which has developed so rapidly in the last couple of months in the struggle against rightwing legislative proposals to abolish public employee unions, suddenly finds itself at a crossroads. Madison, Wisconsin, where rank-and-file workers, community members, and social movement activists converged to create the new movement, remains the center of the struggle. In Ohio, which faces similar legislation, unions have also gone into motion, while working people around the country have been drawn into the fight.

In both states, things are coming to a head. In Wisconsin the courts have ordered the capitol building closed and the governor is threatening layoffs to begin next week. In both Wisconsin and Ohio the legislators are threatening to push the bills through one way or another. And now, in the fight to win, the movement has come to a fork in the road.

Two different tendencies in the labor movement point in two quite different directions. The top leaders of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions like SEIU have thrown their weight into the struggle in the only way that they know how. Following the model they use in political campaigns, they have reached out to established organizations to build coalitions. They have sent organizers into take charge and to reach out to communities. Their goal is to rebuild their institutional power and their relationship with the Democratic Party, hoping to turn the upsurge in support for public employees into a political victory.

The Union Leaders’ Approach

In both Wisconsin and Ohio, while not publicly giving up the fight to defeat the anti-union legislation, the top union officials quietly suggest that the bills cannot be stopped in the legislatures. So the unions in Wisconsin and Ohio indicate they will be turning respectively to efforts at recall and referendum. With their usual orientation toward political solutions, the unions’ Central Labor Councils in Ohio return to their reliance on the Democratic Party and prepare for the contest in the coming elections.

The unions’ top leaders at the national level shy away from mobilizing the social and economic power of the unions to win this thing, turning instead to their allies in the Democratic Party. It is not that the union officials don’t want to win in Wisconsin and Ohio, but their notions about how to win and what winning means represent a particular conception of the role of the labor movement. For the AFL-CIO and other major unions, winning means preserving, through political influence, the existing model of collective bargaining—even though we know that under the existing model unions have been losing for the last 40 years.

The Workers Power Tendency

There is, however, another tendency in the new workers’ movement which presents a different alternative. This alternative, which is not so easy to name but which might be called workers’ power tendency, is made up of those rank-and-file workers and their union stewards and local officials, together with the community groups and social movement activists who have rallied to the cause. This group includes the teachers who called in sick and produced a virtual shutdown of the schools in Madison and other parts of Wisconsin. It is made up of firemen, policemen and other public employees who have spent every available minute surrounding the capitol in spirited demonstrations. And it includes the union, community and student activists who have occupied the capitol building and made it the center and the symbol of the new workers’ movement.

This tendency has demonstrated—even it is has not yet worked out an elaborate position on paper or issued some sort of manifesto—that for them winning means using workers’ power to stop the anti-union bills and to stop concessions offered up by some of the union leaders. Some of these workers have been holding on to the capitol risking arrest. Others are considering some form of direct action or civil disobedience.

These are the workers and their supporters who taken seriously the call for a general strike issued by the South Central Federation of Labor. Taking seriously the idea of a general strike of Wisconsin workers doesn’t mean jumping into it. A general strike issue from the ranks isn’t simply called—as some activists have been trying to do. A general strike is mulled over, it is prepared through conversation, discussion and debate. It is organized. And finally (but soon), when the moment is right, it is begun when one crucial group of workers has the courage to make the first move drawing others into the process.

How We Win Makes all the Difference

One might argue that the anti-labor legislation might be stopped either way, either by the union officials’ program of working from the top down to build coalitions and create the alliances that will return the Democrats to power or by the workers’ use of their economic and social power. Through either course, one could argue, the anti-union legislation will be stopped, unions and collective bargaining preserved, and the movement vindicated. But the lessons of the two courses and the results would be quite different.

The lesson of a victory organized by the union officials and won by the Democratic Party in the legislatures would be that workers must rely on the Democratic Party to defend themselves, returning unions and workers to their usual dependence on a political party dominated by big business. We might remember that it was the Democratic Party’s failure in Wisconsin and nationally to defend unions and workers’ interests which has been responsible for getting us here. The result of the top union officials’ strategy would be a return to the situation we were in yesterday, where employers forced the unions into retreat and where workers were losing ground. And so, it being yesterday again, the assault on workers in both the private and the public sector would resume—in truth, it would never have ceased.

The other alternative is that workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states engaged in this battle—and almost all of them are—exert their economic and social power, through direct action, civil disobedience, and economic and political strikes, reasserting the power of workers in our society. The lesson of such an experience would be that workers do have power and that workers can lead. Such an upheaval—which would necessarily be met by the employers with resistance and repression and which would entail both defeats and successes—would necessarily lead to new tactics and strategies, to new leaders, to new organizational forms.

We would come out of the experience with a new and revitalized labor movement. Such a new workers’ movement might even create independent political campaigns, and, if it grew in breadth and depth, might even raise the question of a workers’ political party. We would through the experience of fighting and winning this thing on our own, really have a new American workers movement and we would continue the fight on new and higher ground.

The New American Workers Movement and the Confrontation to Come

Dan La Botz

February 26, 2011

The new American workers movement—born in the last few weeks in the giant protests in Wisconsin and Ohio—faces a fateful confrontation this coming week. In Madison and Columbus, Republican legislators are pushing to abolish public employee labor unions and tens of thousands of workers are protesting and resisting. We have seen nothing like this face off between workers and bosses in the United States since the labor upheaval of the early 1970s, though the issues in the balance are more like those of the 1930s. The very existence of the American labor movement is at stake. The question is: What will it take to win?

What a movement this has become in just a couple of weeks. In the fight to preserve public employees’ right to unionize, tens of thousands—as many as 70,000 on one day—have demonstrated in Wisconsin. There they have maintained a permanent occupation of the state capitol building and sustained a mass movement seething around it. In Columbus, Ohio there have been several demonstrations at that state capitol building, one of as large as 10,000 workers. And there are plans for more demonstrations in Columbus to continue the pressure. In Indianapolis where thousands of steelworkers and autoworkers demonstrated and Democrats fled to prevent a vote, the Republicans have agreed to take their “right-to-work” law off the table.

From the Midwest to the Coasts: Solidarity

At the center of this movement, in Madison, Wisconsin, a new conception of the workers’ movement has been created. For decades American workers have fought to improve their lives within the parochial confines of a particular union. Each union largely ignored other unions (except when it competed with them) and often neglected the issues of the labor movement as a whole, to say nothing of the broader issues of the working class, most of which has no union. Suddenly we have a real labor movement again, where public sector unions join together with private sector unions, pipefitters march with professors, steel workers with secretaries, and computer programmers with the sanitation workers. And the unionized workers are often joined by non-union supporters.

Not only that, but in Madison community members and college students have swelled the picket lines. Even high school students have come out in numbers. And everybody who stands on the right side of the class line is welcome. As the movement opens up, so do minds. Union members are snatching up the leaflets of their unions, but also taking copies of the union reform paper Labor Notes. Workers and supporters listen to the Democratic Party politicians who come through and they grab up too the newspapers of the socialist organizations and chat with leftists. Where the struggle is at its peak in Wisconsin, the labor unions are becoming a workers’ movement again and the old concept of labor solidarity, that “An injury to one is an injury to all,” has been reborn in the marches, the protest rallies, and the chants to “Kill the bill.”

This movement is not confined to the Midwest. Around the country workers are showing solidarity and support this movement. California union members, at least 150 of them have flown two thousand miles to join the picket lines in Madison. Demonstrations have been held to support the Wisconsin workers from Vermont to Atlanta and in many other cities around the country. We now have a new national workers movement propelled from below by the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity of the rank and file.

The Stakes: Enormous

We had better have a big movement. The stakes in this battle between the right and the workers’ movement are enormous. The Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana would like to break the unions, to eliminate them altogether as a factor in American life. The proposed legislation would end public employees’ right to unionize, strike, and bargain. The legislative elimination of the unions would mean the end of “dues check off,” that is, the automatic deduction of union dues from members paychecks, undermining the economic viability of the unions.

Some on the left argue, and with some merit, that dues check off itself has undermined the union movement. When, in the old days, union stewards collected due by hand, member by member, they had to listen and respond to members’ concerns and complaints. Once the boss was collecting the dues for the union, it was another story. The money went directly into the bank providing unions with a steady flow of cash but eliminating that direct relationship to members and the steady flow of comments and grievances that once came along with the dues.

While there is some truth in that argument, the kernel of truth being the unions’ need for democracy and member control, to cut off the funding of the unions as they are now will be devastating. Union halls would close, union staff would be laid off, and union programs would fold up. The national unions would no doubt continue to support unions in states where they were broken, but on the state and local level unions, while continuing to exist, would be reduced to a hard core of dedicated activists with much less power.

The breaking of these unions would also mean the ripping up of the contracts that protect their members. Many of these are contracts that not only insure decent wages, but also protect health benefits, working conditions, and provide grievance procedures for workers’ complaints. Union contracts have protected not only the wages, but also the rights of members. They have created a sense of workplace citizenship and of equality, one might say, that is, the understanding that we are all as workers entitled to the same rights and protections.

What Would a Union Free Environment Mean?

The Republicans want to break the unions because it would reduce the unions’ power both in politics and in the workplace. The Democratic Party would no longer be able to count on the unions’ treasuries and members to finance a good part of their election efforts and to provide the troops who do the calling and door knocking. Government supervisors could work workers harder and pay them less. The weakened public employee unions would mean less union influence in society, leading to an even further weakening of private sector unions. Because breaking the unions in the public sector, however, is only a first step. The real end goal is to finish them off the unions in industry and especially manufacturing where all the real wealth of society is actually produced.

There are other implications as well. Unions, for all of their problems, and the problems are many—the national officers’ high salaries, the organizational bureaucracy, unresponsive officials, racial and gender inequities, political “less evilism” and subservience to the Democratic Party—still, the unions often throw their weight into the scales on the side of many important causes. Even while they may exhibit backwards racial and gender politics within the union, they still often support causes of racial and gender justice in society.

With all of their problems, unions represent the weight of the working class in society and in politics. And even if their weight, because of their reliance on the Democrats, is not always translated into power, still the organization of the working class into the unions represents the most important factor in American democracy. Without the unions, the financial and industrial oligarchy, which already holds power, may wield that power with impunity.

What Will It Take to Win?

The movement has already exhibited great potential and shown some power. The demonstrations by tens of thousands who have participated in the Midwest supported by thousands in other states have been more than symbolic. This is a mobilization of workers who are also taxpayers and voters, and the Republicans know it and fear it. In Wisconsin, this mobilization has been accompanied by the occupation of the capitol and by what was for a day or two a virtual general strike by teachers in the state.

The tremendous mobilization of tens of thousands of workers which has taken place so far is indeed impressive, but it is not clear that that alone can stop the Republicans and their corporate backers from passing the legislation. Workers have concentrated on the occupation of the capitol, but they also have still untapped power of numbers in the streets, using civil disobedience to disrupt government and business. Groups of workers prepared to go jail for their rights would raise the level of struggle in Wisconsin and throughout the state.

Workers also have greater power both in the economy and in society which they have not used to the fullest. The strike is a powerful weapon in this struggle. Teachers in Wisconsin have already used it both in Madison and around the state. The South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin has raised the idea of a general strike of all unions in the state. To be effective a general strike has to be called before the legislature votes and it has to be organized in such a manner that it both shuts down government and business and simultaneously takes charge of protecting the safety and wellbeing of the people in Wisconsin.

Around the country, hundreds of thousands of workers are looking to Wisconsin and to Ohio to take the bold steps needed to stop the Republican assault on our rights. We are watching you. We are with you.

A New American Workers Movement Has Begun

By Dan La Botz

Thousands of workers demonstrated at the state capital in Madison, Wisconsin on Feb. 15 and 16 to protest plans by that state’s Republican Governor Scott Walker to take away the state workers’ union rights. Walker, cleverly attempted to divide the public workers by excluding police and firefighters from his anti-union law, and the media have worked to divide public employees against private sector workers. Yet, both firemen and private sector workers showed up at the statehouse to join public workers of all sorts in what has been one of the largest workers demonstrations in the United States in decades. Only California has seen demonstrations as large as these in recent years.

Many demonstrators, taking a clue from the rebellions against authoritarian and anti-worker governments that are sweeping the Middle East, carried signs saying, “Let’s negotiate like they do in Egypt.” While the situation in Wisconsin is hardly comparable to the revolution in the Arab world, what we are witnessing is the beginning of a new American workers movement. Because this movement is so different than what many expected, it may take us by surprise.

Not What We Expected

Many of us, myself included, had for years expected a rank-and-file workers movement to arise out of shop floor struggles in industrial workplaces, out of the fight for union democracy, and out of the process of working class struggle against the employers. While that perspective still has much validity, something different is happening. The new labor movement that is arising does not start in the industrial working class (though it will get there soon enough), it does not focus on shop floor issues (though they will no doubt be taken up shortly), it is not primarily motivated by a desire for unions democracy (though it will have to fight for union democracy to push forward the leaders it needs). And it does not, as so many American labor movements of the past did remain confined to the economic class struggle (though that too will accelerate). It is from the beginning an inherently labor political movement.

The new movement that is arising does not focus on the usual issues of collective bargaining—working conditions, wages, and benefits—but focuses rather on the political and programmatic issues usually take up by political parties: the very right of workers to bargaining collective, the state budget priorities, and the tax system which funds the budget. The new labor movement, because it has begun in the public sector, will not be so much about the process of class struggle as it will be about how class struggle finds a voice through political program. This will have tremendous implications for the traditional relations between the organized labor movement and the Democratic Party, especially since the Democrats, from Barack Obama to state governors like Cuomo, are also demanding that public employees give up wages, benefits, conditions and rights.

Not Your Grandfather’s Working Class

We have for decades in this country thought of the working class as being made up of those workers of railroad, mine and mill whose calloused hands produced the material wealth of this nation over 200 years, that is, since the first factories were opened in the Northeast in the 1790s. Industrial workers though have been declining as a percentage of the population since the 1920s and have diminished at an accelerated rate since the 1950s. Since the 1980s the decline of industrial workers as a proportion of the wage earning class has been dramatic.
In the old days, skilled workers, almost all white men, came as immigrants from the countries of Western and Northern Europe, while the unskilled industrial workers were immigrants from the South and East of Europe, whites from Appalachia, and African Americans from the South’s plantations. While most of those industrial workers were male, millions of women also toiled in textile mills, garment shops, and other workplaces. Those workers created the Knights of Labor in 1869, American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1886, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905, and finally in the great labor upsurge of the 1930s won the legal right to organize with the Wagner Act of 1935 and built the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO).

The Rise of the Public Employees

The post-war period saw the expansion of government as millions found jobs not only in streets and sanitation, the water works, and as teachers, but also as social workers, public health nurses, and college professors. Another labor upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s led to the establishment and rapid growth of public employee unions of all sorts: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). These public workers were far more racially diverse than many of the private sector unions, made up white, African American, and Latino workers, of men and many women.

Public employees in the 1960s and 70s won the rights to union recognition, collective bargaining, and the strike through hundreds of strikes, large and small during those two decades. The newspapers front page often carried the photo of some teacher or social worker, nurse or secretary, sanitation worker or park employee being carried off to jail for striking with the union. The most famous of these strikes, perhaps, was the AFSCME Local 1733 strike by African American sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the civil rights movement, was there to help those workers with their strike, when he was assassinated.

The Unions at a Turning Point

Today we in the labor movement are at a turning point. American employers, political parties, and government at all levels have decided that the time has come to move against what is the last bulwark of American unionism: the public employee unions. As of the latest count by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.9 percent of all workers are in unions, and only 6.9 percent in the private sector. In the public sector, however, public employee unions represent some 36.2 percent of all workers, and the number is even somewhat higher among teachers. America’s political and economic elite are looking for the final solution to the labor problem—and we are not getting on the trains and going to the camps.

Public employees, now finding themselves now on the frontline of the labor movement, are fighting back from one end of the country to the other and nowhere at the moment so dramatically as in Madison, Wisconsin. Just as the Arab revolution spread rapidly from Tunisia to Egypt, so we can expect to see this public worker movement spread from one state to another as it resists Republican and Democratic party governors and local officials who want to strip workers of their rights.

What Sort of a Labor Movement Can We Expect?

What does labor history teach us about labor movements? First, we know that when masses of workers go into motion, as they have now begun to do, political consciousness grows and changes rapidly. Workers who today simply fight to defend their union rights will, if they succeed in resisting the right’s attempt to destroy them, go on to fight to expand not only their rights but to improve their working conditions and standard of living. Most important, workers will fight to expand their power. We are just at the beginning.

Second, when workers discover the strategy and tactics of their movement, those quickly spread to other groups of workers in society. When the rubber workers in Akron, Ohio discovered the sit-down strike in 1936, it quickly spread not only to the auto industry leading to the great strikes of 1937 and 38. Remarkably, the sit-down also spread to such unlikely workers as the “shop girls” of department stores. During the 1950s and early 1960s, African American civil rights activists rediscovered the power of the sit-down, transforming it into the sit-in in lunch counters, bus stations, and other private and public places across the South.

Today public workers in Wisconsin are in search of the strategies and the tactics that can defend their rights, and they are using the mass rally and the camp out at the capital. When they discover or rediscover the strategy and tactics that work, those will spread like wildfire across the country to other public workers—and then jump to the private sector.

The Movement is both Economic and Political

Third, real labor movements ignore the artificial separation between economic and political, taking up either or both as they follow the logic of the struggle. Industrial workers’ struggles for higher wages in the 1930s became transformed into struggle for the employers’ recognition of the unions and labor legislation granting workers the right to organize. Similarly, public employees in the 1960s fought for the right to organize unions and collective bargaining which then flowed the other way, to a fight for higher wages. What is today primarily a political fight in Wisconsin, that is to defend the right of public employees to have a labor union, bargain collectively and enjoy the right to strike, will inevitably become a struggle for better conditions, higher wages, and health and pension benefits.

Fourth, when a real labor movement arises, that is, a movement not merely of thousands or even tens of thousands, but of millions, it necessarily becomes transformative. Labor union officials who hesitate, who waver, or who knuckle under will soon find themselves challenged by new, younger leaders who will either force those officials to fight or push them aside. Such a movement will change the unions—often by changing the leadership first and sometimes by changing the very institutions themselves. Such was the case with the rise of the industrial workers movement in the 1930s which broke the shell of the old AFL to create the new CIO.

A Political Alternative

Fifth, and finally, a new American labor movement of millions will challenge the old political relationship between the unions and the Democratic Party. The unions will fight at first to force the Democratic Party to give up its own conservative budget, tax and labor policies, and failing to do that, will seek another vehicle. Unions may first attempt to change the Democrats by running union candidates in Democratic Party primaries, or they may attempt to take over the state party. Whether the new American labor movement will have the power to put forward a political alternative remains to be seen.

Wisconsin though is famous for its long history of political grouping to the left of the Democratic Party which, from time to time, have shown considerable influence: the Socialist Party held power in Milwaukee into the 1960s, the Farmer-Labor Party was once a power in the state, Progressive Dane (county) thrived a couple of decades ago, and the Wisconsin, Green Party has over a score of elected officials throughout the state. None of these was or is what a workers’ movement needs to achieve real political power, but the presence of such political alternatives is indicative of a more tolerant and experimental attitude in the state. American workers have never in their history succeeded in creating a workers’ party of any power, with the exception of the Socialist Party of the early 20th century.

Today, with the Democrats lowering taxes on the rich, cutting budgets, and laying off public employees, we may be in for the kind of confrontation between workers and a pro-business Democratic party that can produce a political alternative. Certainly the struggle over politics and government is built into this contest as it seldom is so directly in the private sector. The task at the moment is to build the fight to defend public services and public employees unions and their rights, but this leads directly to political confrontation.

Food in America and the World

Today, food production in the United States and in the world is dominated by a handful of corporations that put their profits above the hunger, the health, and the well-being of America’s and the globe’s population. Tyson, Kraft, Pepsico, Nestle, Conagra, and Anheuser-Busch are generally at the top of the list, though in virtually every area of food production, a small number of corporations control what is grown and what we eat. The food industry, of course, meshes with the banks and with other corporations, such as chemical companies and agricultural implement manufacturers, as well as with government agencies, which built the network of dams and canals that provide their water and which also provide government subsidies and financial aid.

We know some of the results of this concentration of wealth in the hands of the corporations and the government they dominate. Family farmers—and there are few of them left—must borrow from the banks and produce for the corporations, their livelihood often in question. Another result of this interlocking of corporate and governmental interests has been, for thirty years, the deregulation of food production, resulting in outbreaks of E.coli and other diseases. The American people who eat corporate food are increasingly unhealthy, obese, suffering from diabetes and heart disease. Farm workers and meatpacking workers work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, often live in abysmal conditions, and are paid extremely low wages for the most arduous work. While most Americans can afford food, there are approximately 40 million people in the United States who have difficulty getting enough to eat; and worldwide there are between a billion and two billion people who go hungry.

The great food corporations have for decades successfully resisted attempts by workers, consumers and environmentalists to restrain their power. Still we see important movements to change the food industries. Worker’s organizations such as the United Farm Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have succeeded in winning better wages and conditions for a small number of farm workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has had important victories in new organizing among meat and poultry processing workers. Within the Teamsters union, which represents most other food processing workers, there is an in important rank-and-file movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, working to make the union do a better job in representing its members.

We have also seen in recent years a tremendous growth in consumer movements demanding a return to government regulation of the industry, as well as movements that press for locally grown and organic food. Environmentalists continue to educate the public about the tremendous waste and environmental damage done by our food production system which relies so heavily on carbon fuels. While all of these are hopeful signs, we do not yet see a powerful social movement which can begin to restrain the food industry’s dominant corporations. To get there, we need to work to rebuild the unions, expand the workers’ centers, revive the social movements, and create a political alternative.

We see in this country a small but growing anti-corporate and sometimes anti-capitalist sentiment. Beyond that, recent polls by Rasmussen, Gallup, and Pew have shown that about one-third of the American people feel sympathetic to socialism. Still, many Americans fear that socialism means Soviet style Communism while others can see that European Social Democracy more often administers capitalism somewhat more humanely than the United States, though still without escaping its crises and the suffering they bring. We need to be able to talk about socialism in a way that makes it clear to the American people, that socialism is fundamentally an expansion of democracy, and an increase in the power of ordinary working people to improve their lives.

What might agriculture look like under socialism? First, of course, we stand for the social ownership of the banks, as I’ve said, nationalize them and create the U.S. credit union to provide credit to small business, homeowners, and farmers. We want to see the nationalization of the oil, coal and other energy corporations which represent such a large factor in agriculture today. Third, we would want to see the nationalization of agribusiness, not to continue the factory farm or industrial meat model, but rather to create an environmentally, economically, socially sound alternative. We would want to see the nationalization of the grocery chains and the restaurant chains, bringing them under social control, with large input from workers and consumers. We might want to consolidate in some areas and decentralize in others. Only once we have taken the resources away from the corporations, however, will we be able to create the alternative.

We as socialists have no blueprint for the future, but we have a vision and principles that revolve around working class power and democracy. The alternative to today’s food industry might well include some large-scale agriculture, but could also mean a vast expansion of small family-owned farms and cooperative farms. We would want to put the emphasis, of course, on healthy, affordable food produced by workers who are paid living wages and enjoy all the benefits and rights of other people in our country. We would want to consult throughout these processes with health professionals such as nutritionists, with environmentalists, and with consumers. We would want to see the American people, through democratic institutions elaborate a national economic plan, in which agriculture would play a central role, and we would want that plan to be carried out through the cooperation of workers and consumers.

All of this, however, remains nothing more than a dream unless we can rebuild the labor and social movements and create the political alternative. The Socialist Party, as well as other political groups such as the U.S. Labor Party and the Green Party, have worked to help present the American people with a left alternative. Today, I am running for U.S. Senate in order to continue to raise the vision and platform of democratic socialism, to help to build networks of activists in my state and throughout the country, and hopefully to inspire others to become part of a struggle for an alternative.

The New Corporatism in American Politics and the Grassroots

From the Tea Party to the Coffee Party, How Political Parties Grow the Grass and Mow the Lawn
Dan La Botz
May 3, 2010

There are moments in history when driven by economic and social conditions, by war, or by political problems, grassroots groups spring up from below, among rank-and-file workers or people in local urban or rural communities. Usually the Democratic Party has succeeded in gathering up such movements, domesticating them, and gathering them into its fold and making them part of its electoral machine, to the benefit of corporate America. Overtime, however, the labor unions and the national African American and Latino civil rights groups became so tame and tired, that they ceased to provide the social base required by the party if it was to be successful in elections.

So today, the major political parties, both Republicans and Democrats, are creating new foundations and non-governmental organizations to expand the base of the parties and attract new voters. Those party think-tanks and NGOs in turn create what could be called pseudo-social movements, often describing themselves as “grassroots,” though, in fact, they are created and controlled from above by inside-the-beltway D.C. organizations. These new corporate organizations, now propelled by the internet and social networking, are changing the landscape of social and political life.

The Republican Party and conservative think tanks and foundations summoned up the Tea Party to give the Republicans new life after its defeat in the national election. The Democratic Party has similarly over the last several years inspired or created a number of such group —, Repower America, Reform Immigration for America, and the Coffee Party — organizations that both work to shape the politics of social movements and win a new base of support for the Democrats. The organizers of these groups, using electronic media, social networking, and creating coalitions that absorb other smaller groups, create organizations that often meet in the local coffee shop, churches, American Legion or union hall, but have an agenda set in Washington by foundations and NGOs which in turn are controlled by the two major parties.

The new corporate movements inspired and controlled by the Republicans and Democrats have the same relationship to a grassroots movement that genetically modified grass imbued with the Roundup pesticide does to a country meadow. The new grassroots is not so much a pasture as it is a modern suburban lawn, seeded, fertilized, watered and mowed by the foundations — ultimately to be enjoyed by the Republican or Democratic Party as the site of campaign barbecues.

A New Corporatism

What we’re witnessing is the development of a new corporatism in American politics. Some use “corporatism” to refer to control of our economy and culture, society and politics by the corporations — and certainly we have that problem. I use “corporatism’ here, however, as political scientists use it, to refer to government and party control over other organizations and movements. Most important among these are those started by the Democratic Party, its leaders or simply those who share the party’s goal of creating a new activist base, while also setting limits of activism and ideological dissent.

The goals of the neo-corporatism are two: First, to be able to mobilize people concerned with social problems and turn them out to vote for the major parties. Second, to create a series of organizations that can prevent the development of politically independent movements with agenda of their own. The trajectory of these groups is that in the name of political realism and expediency, they become bureaucratically centralized — usually in Washington — and pursue opportunistic and pragmatic goals within the framework set by the Democratic Party and its legislative agenda. The ultimate goal of the Republican and Democratic Party neo-corporatism is to prevent the development of independent political parties which might disrupt the regular rotation to power of the two capitalist parties.

Those who join these new groups are folk looking for a way to influence politics in a progressive direction, well-meaning people, often new to politics, though some of them longtime activists and genuine grassroots groups. They join and participate in these organizations because they seem to have the potential to influence national policy in a good direction, though in the long run the goal of the politicos who conjured up these organizations is precisely to circumscribe the limits of activism and to contain their followers within the ideological boundaries and political programs of their respective parties and of corporate capitalism.

Neo-Corporatism: A New Version of an Old System

Political parties, of course, have always given political expression to other organizations and movements and have always worked to create or to control others groups and developments for the parties themselves. The Republican Party was during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries became the expression of groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the U.S. Chambers of Commerce, and other such employer organizations, or of wealthy capitalist farmers and later of corporate agribusiness. And the party acted in government as arbiter of those various capitalist interests within the capitalist system.

At the same time the Republicans and those employer organizations worked to keep in tow and in check small business associations which were otherwise often at odds with the big corporations. The Republicans fundamentally fought for the interests of finance and heavy industry, while keeping small town merchants and manufacturers and farmers from breaking with big capital and heavy industry. Similarly they fought for the wealthiest farmer groups, while working to keep medium and small farmers from breaking ranks. The Tea Parties of those days were Citizens Alliances, Midwest Grange groups, and nativist associations which rallied and railed against socialists, labor unions and immigrants.

More recently, the Republican Party’s economic conservatives, still representing the interests of finance, industry, and oil, also both helped to create the evangelical religious right which acted to draw lower middle class and working class white voters into the party’s fold. Perhaps that the starting point of the neo-corporatist organization of politics was with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, established in 1979. Falwell’s group provided the prototype for other such rightwing religious organizations which simultaneously drew people into the Republican Party and headed off the development of political alternatives on the right.

The Old Democratic Party

The Democratic Party before 1965 was based primarily on the Solid South — the racist white politicians who enforced segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line — and also the corrupt big city machines in place like New York and Chicago which turned out the immigrant and working class vote. At the same time it also always represented finance, industry, and service corporations — though often consumer goods rather than heavy industry. The Democrats, however, found their most important political support through mass organizations of labor, African Americans, Latinos, and women. Beginning in the early 20th century, the Democratic Party had succeeded in politically subordinating the American Federation of Labor and its craft unions to its corporate political agenda, while also coming under pressure from those organizations to adopt elements of their agenda.

During the 1930s, a powerful, militant, and politically radical labor movement arose that in some states created independent labor parties. The experiment, however, as short lived. After the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, the Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats also succeeded capturing the CIO. With the AFL-CIO merger in the 1950s, the Democrats and the labor unions formed a partnership that lasted, with much better results for the Democrats than for the unions, until today.

Similarly, with the rise and then the victory of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Democratic Party, after long resisting African American demands for equal rights, succeeded in drawing in and subordinating the NAACP and other African American organizations, while also becoming the primary vehicle, however inadequate, of the black political agenda. Likewise with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Council for La Raza whose leaders and members been drawn into the Democratic Party’s sphere of influence. The organized women’s movement too succumbed. The women’s movement of the 1970s found its organizational expressing in the National Organization for Women (NOW), which also became politically subordinate to the Democratic Party, as did most other women’s organizations.

The Movements Ossify

The workers movement of the 1930s, the civil rights organizations in the 1960s, and the women’s groups in the 1970s had all been tumultuous movements, but once gathered into the Democratic fold they ossified. The bureaucratization of labor organizations and the growth of a privileged caste of labor officials, together with the routine character of collective bargaining from the 1940s to the 1970s, led the unions to become pragmatic, moderate, and weak. They also grew out of touch with the changing character of the workforce, far more “male, pale and stale” than the membership.

Similarly, the civil rights organizations moved from the period of radicalism to respectability, from militant leadership to liberal leadership, and from real confrontations with power to symbolic reenactments of the past. The women’s movement, linked to the labor movement and the democrats, largely shared the same fate of succumbing to the system, ceasing to be a movement in the streets and largely becoming a legislative lobby. Unions, African American and Latino organizations, and NOW and other women’s groups became, at the political level, extensions of the Democratic Party and of a liberal establishment which supported the corporations and capitalism — and the actual economic, social and political interests of those groups were largely forgotten.

All of these groups — labor, African Americans, Latinos and women — sought to use the Democratic Party as the vehicle for their political demands, though in that vehicle they were definitely not in the driver’s seat, and sometimes they felt as if once the election was over, they were locked in the trunk. The Democrats — and the corporations they represented — succeeded because they held the steering wheel. The labor and social movements, locked up in the party of another social class, could not change the direction of the party, or government, or of the economy. And a crash was coming.

When these groups pressed hard enough, the Democrats would take up their cause, and often even a token effort often proved to be enough to continue winning the votes of workers, African Americans, Latinos and women. Year after year, for example, the Democrats failed to pass labor law reform, including most recently the Employee Free Choice Act, yet labor continued to support the Democrats — because the alternative would mean a social struggle that the labor movement was not prepared to carry out. While disappointed with the Democrats’ jobs of representing them, most of those groups felt that creating an independent party would be too difficult, though they had also learned that taking over the Democratic Party also proved impossible.

A Shrinking Social Base

The Democratic Party, however, was also disappointed with unions and the civil rights groups which by the 1980s were failing to keep voters loyal to the party. The unions shrunk from about 35% of all workers in the 1950s to just about 12 percent by the 1990s, losing power and influence. The Republican Party made gains among Hispanic voters. The historic African American civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, passed through a series of organizational crises which made them less useful, though most black voters continued to vote for the Democratic Party seeing no alternative in the Republicans. While some new social movement had appeared — particularly the environmental movement and the gay and lesbian rights movement, and while the Democratic Party had gained most from them — they had not proven large and strong enough to rebuild the party’s base. So by the 1990s the Democrats stumbled upon another strategy, the creation from above of new organizations that could both conjure up and control a mass following for the Democratic Party. The Democrats went into landscaping; time to plant the grass.

The Democrats’ new corporatism might be dated from the establishment of in 1998, originally as a group calling upon Congress to censure rather than impeach President Bill Clinton and then “move on.” opposed President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and became for one of the country’s most important anti-war groups. created Action Forums as local discussion and action groups and worked with to organize street demonstrations and other events.

MoveOn’s fundamental strategy and method was to act both on the Democratic Party and within the Democratic Party. MoveOn became involved in the 2004 election and issued its Call for Change in the 2006 election, always with an eye to moving the Democratic Party to the left, but without moving to the left of the Democratic Party. The desire to serve the party gradually supplanted the responsibility to serve the movement. By the end of middle of the century’s first decade it had become clear to many anti-war activists that MoveOn’s fundamental commitment to the Democratic Party had become an obstacle to effective anti-war activism., though it had not exactly been created in Washington, provided the prototype of the a group created and commanded by Democratic party loyalists who wished to use the organization to both create and contain a social movement, a movement which might otherwise have found its way into other more independent channels, in the case of the anti-war movement into United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ ). MoveOn also provided the first model of organization for the new corporatism: an organization led by Democrats organizing from above, through an electronic apparatus which they controlled and reaching down into the social soil of America.

MoveOn used the new electronic media and social networking as no other group had used them before, reaching out to millions with its ideas and its actions. MoveOn did provide many people with their first experience of activism, and set them in motion around issues such as the war in Iraq, and for many this was a politically important and personally meaningful experience. But the goal was always both to create that movement and to contain it within the political parameters of the Democrats.

Eventually MoveOn, moved on to deal with all sorts of economic and social issues, becoming a broad liberal lobby that claimed five million members, more than twice as large as the country’s largest labor union. MoveOn urged its members to vote, and to vote for Democrats and to support the Democratic Party agenda. MoveOn would provide the model for other groups — Repower America, Reform Immigration for America, and the Tea Party — which were more directly created and controlled respectively by the Democratic or Republican Party.

Reform Immigration for America

A similar process took place around the issue of immigration reform. Back in 2003 immigration national advocacy organizations, mostly based in Washington, D.C., and labor unions came together to create the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) also known as the New American Opportunity Campaign (NOAC). The founders of CCIR were four immigration advocacy groups — The Center for Community Change, the National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum, New York Immigration Coalition — and two labor unions, SEIU and UNITE. The groups organized the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, modeled after the civil rights freedom rides of the 1960s, and then went on to create an umbrella organization for all immigrant rights and immigrant organizations.

When in 2005 Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) introduced the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (or “McCain-Kennedy Bill”) — involving legalization of a majority of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S., stricter border enforcement, a large guest worker program, and plans for the orderly control of future flows of immigrants — the CCIR became its principle organizing vehicle. CCIR worked on building support for the bill in immigrant communities throughout the United States. Well-funded and professionally organized, CCIR staff worked to convince local immigrant groups and regional coalitions, though local immigrant groups often objected that both the organization and the bill had been foisted on them.

Many independent immigrant groups wanted all immigrants living and working in the U.S. to be legalized, objected to the heavy costs and penalties in the proposed bill, opposed guest workers, and rejected the idea of building more walls on the borders. Every major city or immigrant community saw tense arguments not only over the bill’s content but also over the CCIR’s top-down organization for it.

Then, under the pressure of genuine grassroots groups — hometown clubs, soccer teams, local radio disc jockeys, church congregations — a tremendous movement developed in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and many other cities and towns. In the spring and summer of 2006 that movement took to the streets, not controlled by CCIR and not in support of any particular bill, but rather a social explosion of immigrants demanding the right to live and work in America. Those massive demonstrations, some as large as one million people — the largest social movement demonstrations in American history — threatened in some places to become a kind of general strike of Latino workers.

Still, the movement could not overcome the backlash — fanned by conservative Republicans and some Democrats — that had developed among many whites. The Kennedy-McCain Bill failed to pass the U.S. Congress, and the CCIR went on to support other versions of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” proposed to the Congress over the next few years. The Washington-based immigration advocacy groups held together around roughly the same program for immigration over the next several years.


After the election of Barack Obama, the same core group that had created CCIR founded a new group, Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), to support another “comprehensive immigration reform” bill. Under the pressure of immigrant communities, RIFA created a program somewhat more progressive the former CCIR’s, calling for more visas, rather than for guest workers programs. While RIFA’s program puts forward more humane values, it is not without its problems. It would not legalize all immigrants now working in the country and would deny undocumented immigrants an opportunity to work legally, driving them into the underground market. More important, RIFA and the advocacy groups at its core are prepared to accept a far more conservative compromise bill in order to pass immigration reform in one version or another.

Genuine grassroots immigrant groups and their allies will have little if any voice in the political process of passing some sort of immigration reform, which will remain in the hand of the Democratic Party. The Democrats will subordinate RIFA to their aims, and RIFA will keep local immigrant groups in line. Ultimately the Democrats will further weaken an immigration bill to please the Republicans. Neither RIFA nor the Democrats are prepared to organize the power of immigrant workers, which would in turn revitalize the labor movement.

Repower America

In 2008 multi-millionaire and former Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore created Repower America, an extension of his organizations the Climate Protection Action Fund and the Alliance for Climate Protection, which claim five million members worldwide. The group’s home page says, “Founded by Al Gore, Repower America is dedicated to revitalizing our economy, strengthening our national security and solving the climate crisis through clean energy.”

Well funded and staffed, Repower America has put organizers in the fields in states throughout the country, and they in turn have hired young people to distribute literature and circulate petitions on environmental issues. The website invites “grassroots supporters” to engage in “grassroots” lobbying for the environmental agenda. Recently the group also created Inconvenient Youth to involve teenagers from 13 to 18. That site has a social networking to allow members to connect with others near them, cultivating the young shoots of the neo-corporatist grassroots.

Founded by Al Gore, one of the Democratic Party’s most important and, since his failed election campaign, most successful leaders — winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award for his film “An Inconvenient Truth” — Repower America is clearly a Democratic Party project. Clearly Gore’s goal is to build a top-down movement that will support the Gore’s environmental policy within the Democratic Party.

Interestingly, when the Obama administration recently decided to permit the oil companies to engage in drilling along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Repower America created a petition where its members and others could appeal to President Barack Obama to reconsider and change that policy. One should not take that as a mark of political independence from Obama and the Democrats. While Repower America may be willing to criticize some particular administration policy, no one should expect it to fundamentally criticize Democratic Party policy or come to an independent position.

Operation Free

Gore’s isn’t the only neo-corporatist environmental game in town. The U.S. Department of Defense has created Operation Free, a “coalition of leading Veterans and national security organizations,” to promote green environmental policies. The DOD sends veterans traveling around the country to speak on the need to “Secure America with Clean Energy.” Locally sponsored by groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund, Operation Free tours the country in a big blue bus emblazoned with a military-style service patch displaying wind turbines and solar panels.

Operation Free’s veteran spokesmen and -women, talk about their service time in wars overseas, their commitment to the country, and to environmental policies. Sounding like liberal sheep in conservative wolves’ uniforms, they tell environmentalist audiences that they oppose the oil companies and that they can better reach conservative voters and win them to support green policies. “We’ve won health care reform, and now we can win green environmental policies,” one veteran told an audience in Cincinnati, Ohio. The carefully orchestrated meetings are dominated by the veterans’ prepared statements and they permit only written questions, and most audiences hesitate to raise the issue of war and its environmental consequences.

The Obama Campaign

Barack Obama’s brilliant 2008 campaign for the U.S. presidency drew upon the experience of groups such as and Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, creating an attractive website and logo, using electronic social networking that eventually involved millions, and then turned that electronic network into a campaign organization that mobilized tens of thousands to do precinct work. Many young people in particular, who had never been involved either in politics or a genuine social movement, experienced the Obama campaign as what was for them a social movement.

The sense of excitement, the meetings and rallies, the door-to-door canvassing, though orchestrated from Washington, D.C. were experienced regionally and locally as the nearest thing to a movement that many of the participants had ever known. When the campaign was over and Obama was elected, he then turned his campaign organization into Organizing for America. OFA invites those who visit its website to join “grassroots OFA campaigns to support the President’s agenda.”

OFA represents perhaps the largest and broadest of the neo-corporatist organizations, a “grassroots” group controlled by the Democratic Party President who is the head of the U.S. government and commander-in-chief. After Obama’s election, however, interest in OFA declined, revived only briefly, sporadically and spottily by the campaign around health care reform. OFA called upon Obama supporters to engage in lobbying for his health care reform — without single-payer (Medicare for all) or a public option. Disappointment with the President on the left and the right, had left the door open for the Republican’s neo-corporatist Tea Party.

The Tea Party

The stunning victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 election devastated the Republican Party. Not only did Obama win, but the Democrats also won a majority of both houses of Congress. At the same time, however, during his first year in office Obama failed to provide strong, clear leadership to the Democratic Party majority, to his supporters in the Democratic Party and to his followers in Organize for America. Enthusiasm waned, support dwindled, and the grass dried up. Then the crab grass came.

Rightwing Republicans with strong support from conservative foundations such as Freedom Works and from FOX News and other conservative media, stepped into the vacuum created both by the lack of leadership from Obama and by the disorientation of mainstream Republicans. Beginning in 2008, rightwing Republicans and some Libertarians began to call for a Tea Party to protest against Obama’s administration and its policies. By January 2009 the Tea Party had been born — with many claiming to be the fathers, mothers or midwives of the movement. Tea Party activists took a lead in opposing Obama’s call for health reform, arguing that it was the first step toward socialism and the end of America as we have known it.

While the proliferation of Tea Party websites, organizations, political programs, and ideological orientations gave the impression of a genuine grassroots movement, in fact the Republican Party and its most conservative think-tanks backed by the corporations had quickly taken command of the group. True, the Tea Party has its racists and fascists, its cranks and screwballs, but it’s the Republicans who have paid the bills and provided the direction. Dick Armey, former leader of the House Republicans, lobbyist, and chair of Freedom Works, emerged as the principal party leader of the Tea Party, while Sarah Palin, Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, became one of the group’s favorite spokespersons. The Tea Party organizers increasingly promoted an anti-government and free market position, claiming that Obama was leading the nation toward socialism and the brink.

By the spring of 2010 Tea Party organizations were active principally in Republican Party primary races supporting more conservative candidates than those wanted by the Republican Washington establishment. In a few place the Tea Party and its rightwing activists wrecked local Republican Party election plans. Such a development could threaten the Republican Party leadership and even the future of the party, still the Tea Party remains for now part of the party, not a genuinely independent political movement. Whether or not the Tea Party will be able to sustain momentum after the November 2010 elections remains to be seen, but we can be sure that the Republican Party will remain in place.

The Coffee Party

With the Tea Party garnering much of the media’s attention, two Barack Obama supporters, movie makers Annabel Park and Eric Byler, decided to create the Coffee Party, with the motto “Wake up and Stand up!” in January of 2010. Using the kind of electronic media techniques developed by MoveOn and by the Obama campaign, they created a website, and then quickly called meetings in some 370 coffee shops throughout the country and a few overseas. The group claimed 150,000 members within six weeks. The initial meetings were followed a second round of meetings, often with a different group of participants.

The Coffee Party, while clearly intended to be the Democrats’ answer to the Tea Party, presents itself as non-partisan. The group’s website explained itself this way:

“The Coffee Party Movement gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government. We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans. As voters and grassroots volunteers, we will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.”

The group’s organizers failed to inform participants that the movement had been formed by Democratic Party loyalists, though that was obvious from the discussions that revolved around the Democrat’s key issues, such as health care reform, with a clear intent to minimize calls for single-payer. Discussions of the wars abroad were generally off the table.

Some of the Coffee Party’s initial announcements asked people to turn from the extremes and to “meet in the middle.” Local leaders explain that the group rejects the political extremes of left and right. Cincinnati’s principal Coffee Party organizer speaking to a class at the University of Cincinnati said, “We won’t want to be like those people out in the streets carrying signs with hand-written slogans.” Sounding like an American Progressive of the 1910s, he said, “We want our discussion to be based on facts. When we have a question we go to the experts and read academic papers that have been peer-reviewed.”

Rather than taking to the streets, in Cincinnati at least the Tea Party has organized a meeting to thank a local Congressman for voting for Obama’s health care reform. So, while the Tea Party has been in the streets winning a following by challenging the government, the Coffee Party has so far remained cloistered in mostly middle class coffee shops, eschewing the streets and rejecting confrontation.

Grassroots Redefined

All of these organizations talk about building “grassroots movements,” but in a way that gives a new definition to old expression. Grassroots originally meant a movement with roots in local concerns and suggested the notion of a local group democratically controlled by some local community and the people involved in it. Grassroots suggested a kind of authenticity, a genuinely homespun movement of local people, even if concerned with regional and national issues. It also suggested a movement from below, in local communities or one sort or another that then reached up to try to influence the centers of power. These neo-corporatist movements, however, mostly have their origins in Washington, D.C., though, even if conceived outside of the beltway, they have been created by people loyal to the Republicans or the Democrats as the case may be.

While mostly created from on high by the parties, party leaders, NGOs or foundations, there is no doubt that in many cases they have successfully reached down into the grassroots. Whether we talk about MoveOn, the Obama campaign, The Tea Party or the Coffee Party, almost all have found constituencies in communities across the country. None of them, however, really originated there, with the possible exception of some of the first manifestations of the Tea Party. Controlled by the parties, foundations, and NGOs, well-funded and usually with professional staffs, they have reached outward and downward — principally through electronic media and social networking — to attempt to build a local base. They are planting the grass they want, and view other things that pop up as weeds.

Most of these groups do not have a democratic membership structure with an elected leadership, nor do they usually have local chapters with any degree of autonomy. Organizational directives and political positions move from the top to the bottom, from the center to the periphery, though some of these groups create some semblance of local autonomy. The Tea Party may be if not the most democratic, at least the most chaotic. While Dick Armey, the Republicans, Freedom Works, and FOX provide much of the real direction for the Tea Party, local chapters do their own thing from holding meetings, and demonstrations, to issues proclamations and manifestoes.

The Democratic Party organizations create the regional and local structures and establish quite clear if not always publicly stated political parameters. And they may also offer a lot of space for local discussion and debate of the sorts that is either about high minded and abstract ideals — “How do we promote real democracy in the United States” — and therefore does not affect political policy, or is about organizational matters — where to hold the meeting — and therefore does not touch on any matters of substance. Generally, members have no way in a local chapter to make decisions that might affect the national organization, while the national organization makes all the substantive decisions for the local chapters.

Still, both the Tea Party and the Coffee Party, and the other organizations, find followers looking for like minded folk with whom to socialize, commiserate, and chat (both actually and virtually). The success of these models has a lot to do with creating partisan substitutes for what were once more diverse and democratic town hall meeting, or with building new forms of party precinct and ward organizations which went out of business with the growth of radio and television.

The Independent Left and the New Corporatism

How should the independent left, that is people to the left of the Democratic Party, anti-capitalists and socialists, relate to these neo-corporatist organizations and pseudo-movements? Our goal in approaching this question should be to understand that we want to join people in action and while working with them, win them to our point of view. With that in mind, each of these organizations presents a different set of problems or questions.

With regard to the Tea Party, while most of its members may simply be exceptionally conservative Republicans, there are within it various sorts of ultra-conservatives, some of them racist and some potentially violent. The more radical right-wingers often dominate protest demonstrations and put forward slogans and demands, and sometimes carry racist posters, which would make it impossible for us to participate in good conscience. We will probably not be able to even converse with much less influence people in the centers of these movements, though we might draw away people in their penumbra.

Organizations like, now that it has become a kind of generic liberal lobby, and groups like the Coffee Party call meetings in which we would want to be present, both to understand liberal arguments, and to meet some of the many fine people who participate in these meetings. We may through conversations with them be able to identify some who share our more independent views. When they call demonstrations, we may want to participate, though perhaps with our own slogans, signs and chants which raise a more independent political position.

Similarly with Repower America which has put so much money into creating an apparatus to organize young people, one might want to participate in the movements without adopting the politics, while offering critical perspectives. Where Repower does draw young people into the environmental movement, we would want to argue, for example, for the need to socialize energy resources and to create socialized green production. We should look for opportunities within Repower to challenge the capitalist, liberal, and ultimately Democratic Party parameters set by the group.

With Operation Free, on the other hand, we should take a different position. This is after all an organization of the Department of Defense — better called by its historic name the War Department — and we should try to rip off the green mask which covers the bloody red of imperial wars, occupations, mass murder, environmental disasters in victim nations, and the dislocation of millions, together with the drone missiles and the horrifying civilian deaths they cause. If we are members, we should insist that the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund cease to work with the War Department.

Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) has to be approached much as we would approach some of the labor unions which founded and support it, that is, as a bureaucratic organization with reformist politics which has some degree of organizational and ideological influence over millions of workers. When RIFA calls meetings and demonstrations such as it has which involved thousands of workers, we must be present, but we should not accept the RIFA program which does not speak to immigrants’ real needs. Where possible, and this depends on local conditions, we should introduce a critique of RIFA’s immigration program, such as denying undocumented workers in the U.S. the right to a job and increasing border policing. Just as we do in the labor unions, we should work in the movement, but without accepting its politics, working to represent the interests of all the immigrants and of the broader labor movement.

With regard to the anti-war movement, while keeping informed about activities and participating when possible with independent signs and literature, one would perhaps rather work to build United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), though at this point most independent anti-war activists are working to build a new independent anti-war coalition of some sort. Certainly the continuing war in Iraq, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, and the shameful and horrifying drone attacks on Pakistan which have killed civilians demand that we build a new anti-war movement, and, with its commitment to the President and the Democrats cannot and will not provide leadership.

Ultimately, for those of us work in the grassroots, the point is this: We need no condescending gardeners. We will rather work to cultivate movements at the real grassroots, the diverse garden of self-managed organizations independent of both the Democrats and Republicans.


Note: In writing this article, I have found it helpful to refer to the Wikipedia articles on the various organizations discussed, from which I have taken some of the accounts and descriptions of them.


Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati based teacher, writer and activist and the Ohio Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate.

The Pope, the Catholic Church, and the Sexual Abuse Controversy in Historical and Political Perspective

News reports have revealed that Pope Benedict XVI appears to have been directly involved in the cover up of priests’ sexual abuse of children. What should be clear is that the Pope’s action is entirely consistent with the religious and political philosophy that he has promoted for decades within the Church. The Pope believes that he and the Roman Catholic hierarchy stand not only above the Church and its members, but also above the world’s governments and their laws.

For hundreds of years—that is, throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods of European history—the Catholic Church existed as a state within the state. The Catholic prelates and priests were not subject to the laws of the Christian kings, but rather the Church had its own laws and its own courts. Even after the French Revolution, wherever it could the Church continued to refuse to recognize secular government and to be a law unto itself.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as head of the Doctrine of the Faith, did everything he could to protect the Church from modernizing tendencies and to turn the clock backwards. He fought the democratizing movements in the church, as well as movements that would have elevated women or expressed greater acceptance of homosexuals. And he protects priests who abused children.

We should at this moment as the Church faces one of the greatest crises in its modern history, as a result of the sexual abuse scandal, see the current scandal in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s reactionary politics. Please find below, then, an article I wrote in April 2005 shortly after the Pope’s election.

Article from Mexican Labor News & Analysis
published by UE International

Date published: April, 2005

Web version:

Pope Benedict and the Future of the Church in Latin America

by Dan La Botz

The election of 78-year old Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI raises important issues and challenges for the Catholic Church and for Latin America. Former Archbishop of Munich, Germany, for many years Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Dean of the College of Cardinals since 2002, Ratzinger served as the closest advisor to John Paul II. Together Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger centralized the Church’s power in Rome, fought for an ultra-conservative theological orthodoxy, and waged a relentless struggle against the Theology of Liberation in Latin America.

For 25 years the church moved in a more conservative direction under their leadership, and Ratzinger’s election indicates that there will be more of the same and that will not be good for Latin America. To best understand what Ratzinger’s election is likely to mean for the Church and for Latin America, we must see his career in relationship to that of John Paul II.

A Conservative Theology

When John Paul II became Pope, many Catholics around the world hoped that John Paul II would continue to modernize and liberalize the Church as John XXII had done, but they were to be sorely disappointed. John Paul II, working closely with Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also known as the Holy Office – the successor to the Inquisition – imposed a conservative theology on the Catholic Church around the world. At the center of this theology was a repudiation of the notion that Christians create the Catholic Church, and an affirmation that on the contrary it is the Church that creates Christians. In the view of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, there was no room in the Church for democratic decision making of any sort. Power would be centered in Rome and doctrine would come down from on high. Using the nineteenth century doctrine of Papal Infallibility they would impose order on a restless and sometimes rebellious Church.

Despite calls for liberalization on matters of doctrine, John Paul II, strongly supported by Ratzinger, reaffirmed the Church’s opposition to the ordination of women and to the marriage of priests. He opposed homosexuality and gay marriage, and strengthened the Church’s opposition to contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. Even within marriage, sex was only acceptable when it aimed at procreation, and not as an expression of love or mutual pleasure. He would not authorize the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus in Africa. Nor did he did issue a strong condemnation of the priests involved in sexual child abuse in the United States. But John Paul II was not only a social conservative, but also a political and economic conservative as became clear in the fight against Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology in Latin America

If John Paul’s papacy had one central thrust, it was the struggle against the Theology of Liberation in Latin America and other parts of the developing world. Cardinal Ratzinger was the principal leader of the campaign, writing the key documents, attacking theologians and religious leaders, and reshaping the Latin American Church in the process.

Vatican II (1962-1965) had modernized certain elements of Church doctrine and practice: turning the priest from facing the altar to facing the congregation, ending the use of Latin and introducing modern languages in the mass, opening participation in services to the laity, including women. Some Catholic clergy and laity wanted to see the Church reach out even further, reach beyond the walls of the Church into the urban shantytowns and poverty-stricken rural villages not only to save souls but also to bring about social justice.

In Latin America, the Church had historically been aligned with large landowners, the military and the government, supporting conservative political parties that opposed democracy and social reform. In the 1960s voices began to be heard that suggested that the Church have a “preferential option for the poor.” Father Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Catholic theologian coined the term “Liberation Theology” and created a systematic theology that would put the Church on the side of social change in favor of the oppressed and the exploited, rather than on the side of the rich and powerful. Others, like Monsignor Dom Helder Camara of Brazil spoke out strongly for the principles of the Theology of Liberation, a religion for the poor.

The Theology of Liberation filled an ideological and programmatic vacuum in Latin America. Both the populism of the 1930s and 1940s and the developmentalism of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to have failed, leaving both the laboring classes and the middle classes without a vision of the future. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 stirred hopes of social change among many throughout Latin America, including among Catholics. Many in Latin America believed that the Church could and should play a role in ending the poverty and social inequalities. The Theology of Liberation brought the Christianity of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount together with a Marxist analysis of economic and political power in a project aimed at rebuilding both the Church and society. The Church in some areas was reorganized into “ecclesiastical base committees,” that is, grassroots lay organizations that would deal with everything from the liturgy to community organizing.

The Theology of Liberation grew and spread, finding advocates among Catholics in virtually every Latin American country. Conferences on Liberation theology were held in Havana, Bogotá and Cuernavaca, culminating in the Medellin conference of 1968, convoked by Pope Paul VI. Medellin pointed the Church in the direction not only of doctrinal change but also of social action. Catholics in many parts of Latin America found themselves fighting for social justice beside radical nationalists and revolutionaries inspired by Marxism or the Cuban Revolution. The rise of radicalism and revolution throughout Latin America led the United States to back counter-revolutionary military coups in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Inspired by their faith and Liberation Theology, some Catholics joined armed guerrilla movements to struggle against the military strongmen. In many Latin American countries left-of-center Catholic Bishops supported social change, while more often rightwing bishops backed the dictators. Meanwhile the Theology has spread to Catholics in Asia and Africa, raising the specter of religious radicalism contributing to the struggle against imperialism and neo-colonialism around the world.

John Paul, Ratzinger and the Catholic Counter-Revolution

Such was the state of affairs when John Paul II became Pope at the end of 1978. With Cardinal Ratzinger acting as his doctrinal enforcer, John Paul moved against Liberation Theology, arguing that at its best it was deviant and dangerous and at its worst it was Marxist and heretical. In 1984 Ratzinger announced that “the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.” The threat, he wrote, arose from its humanism, from its faith in science, from its emphasis on the power of the people, and above all from its coincidence with Marxism on too many issues. A “preferential option for the poor,” he said, was little more than the Marxist emphasis on the class struggle.

John Paul II and Ratzinger launched a systematic attack on the intellectuals who had developed Liberation Theology. In 1983 Ratzinger pressured the Peruvian bishops to repudiate Gutierrez and Liberation theology, though they refused to do so. Later that same year Ratzinger criticized Salvadorean Professor Jon Sobrino, an advisor to Monsignor Oscar Romero, who had been murdered by the military while saying mass in 1980. In 1984 Ratzinger attacked Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff for “doctrinal error” and forced him to stop teaching. In late 1984 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially condemned Liberation Theology in an “instruction” signed by John Paul II and Ratzinger.

The 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua represented a particularly important contest for the Church in its struggle against the Theology of Liberation. In Nicaragua several priests had taken leading roles in the revolutionary government, lending the Church’s authority to revolution, democratic transformation and social reform. John Paul II and Ratzinger allied themselves with Managua’s Archbishop Miguel de Obando y Bravo in the struggle against the base committees, which they declared to be heretical. The Vatican forbid Fathers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, Maryknoll Father Miguel D’Escoto, and Father Edgard Parrales, all high officials in the Sandinista government, from performing any religious duties. In 1985 the Vatican ordered all four priests to resign from the revolutionary government or be suspended from the priesthood. The four ignored the order from Rome. Nevertheless, John Paul II’s attack on the Catholic priests, combined with Ronald Reagan’s illegal support for the Contras, the counterrevolutionary army in Nicaragua, succeeded in debilitating the Sandinista government. In 1990 the Sandinistas held free elections and were voted out of office. (1)

During his reign, John Paul II succeeded in removing from positions of influence many of the teachers of the Theology of Liberation and diminishing the power of many of its advocates in the Church hierarchy. At the same time, he promoted his own conservative positions largely by being a very public Pope and a major media figure. He made 104 trips outside of Italy, traveling to countries all over the world, riding through cities in his pope-mobile, waving to the crowds. He canonized 482 new saints from countries around the globe creating a sense of inclusion for Catholics of many nationalities and ethnicities. Most important, he appointed 231 new cardinals, overwhelmingly men who shared his conservative views, thus shaping the Catholic Church for years to come. Those conservative Cardinals chose not to pick a Pope from Latin America, Africa or Asia, but rather another European Pope.

The Catholic Church in Latin America Today

The Catholic Church in Latin America today has been shaped by Cardinal Ratzinger’s unrelenting attack on Liberation Theology, having moved the church away from the poor and back toward the right-wing political parties, conservative landlords, big business, and the military. Nevertheless, several progressive Catholic bishops still hold office, and though condemned by the church, the Theology of Liberation continues to inspire many Catholics throughout Latin America. At the same time, the Catholic Church faces strong competition from the Protestant evangelical churches that are gaining ground throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil. The Catholic Church’s failure to modernize has led many poor people in Latin America to seek comfort from the equally (or even more) conservative evangelical churches which offer charisma, community and personal salvation.

Meanwhile, a radical populism hostile to the church has returned in the form of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, and radical indigenist movements have arisen in Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador inspired not by the Christian theology of liberation, but rather by older indigenous peoples’ religions. The greatest threat to the Roman Catholic Church comes from the neoliberal economic revolution that has destroyed the stability of Latin American society, replacing the old combination of political repression, traditional communal values, and Catholic religion with a combination of capitalism, consumerism, and continuous economic and social crisis. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger succeeded in building a centralized, theologically conservative church at the top, but many forces continue to erode the church’s authority at the base, leaving the option for Catholics to create new ways of fighting for personal liberty, democracy, and social progress in Latin America.