The New National Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Network

Interview with Joe Shortsleeve

November 11, 2013

The following is a compilation piece about the newly formed National Student Divestment Network. The first half is a short interview with Joe Shortsleeve, an organizer with Columbia Fossil Fuel Divestment. The rest is an in-depth article on the Network by Joe Shortsleeve.

Editors: Hey Joe, thanks for taking the time to answer a few basic questions. To begin, can tell you tell me what happened this weekend during Power Shift 2013 for fossil fuel divestment groups?

Joe Shortsleeve: Sure. This weekend was the first in-person gathering of the National Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Network which was formed during a public conference call on September 17th. Power Shift had a lot going on, but I think this is actually one major, concrete, and important thing to come out of this weekend. This network is a grassroots organization based on a tactic that has radicalized 1000s of new environmental activists around the country. Some even call fossil fuel divestment its own movement. This group now makes it possible to coordinate among the hundreds of divestment groups across the country, democratically, on our own organization.

Editors: What exactly did NSDN do during this gathering?

JS: The NSDN was a part of three meetings throughout the weekend. The first meeting was the only one that was included on the Power Shift agenda. It included all the NGOS involved in divestment plus the new Network. We were equal players at the table with, REC, and As You Sow, all collaborating to put together a general meeting on fossil fuel divestment, aimed at both new and old campaigns. There were over 500 people present which means now, at the very least, over 500 people know about NSDN.

The second meeting was during lunch, immediately after the first meeting, and built by and comprised only of the new network. This is when NSDN officially launched with about 150-200 people present. The network wasn’t able to get programmed space from Power Shift organizers for our launch meeting, so we just all spilled out into an enormous hallway, making a huge circle sprawled across the room, a moment that at least for me was reminiscent of the spirit of Occupy a few years back. People at this lunch meeting in a giant hallway were clearly excited – sometimes laughing, sometimes cheering, I think in part because people felt like this was a big moment, we were forming our own national student organization for climate justice out of this tactic we’ve all jumped into – fossil fuel divestment – along with thousands of others around the country in the last year. At one point during the meeting, Zein Nakhoda, a recently graduated divestment organizer from Swarthmore Mountain Justice, kind of captured the sense of excitement in the room, he said: “The national network is at moment zero. We can take this where ever we want.” It’s totally true – maybe 50 of us have been working on this network for what feels like a long time now, since last February, but it’s a democratic organization, it belongs to the people struggling across the country for divestment.

The actual conversation was exciting too. Those of us who’ve been working on this project had a little bit of explaining to do – I think a normal question might have been ‘what do you mean a national network?’ So we gave a short history to the idea and development of the network since last February and laid out some of our hopes for the network. We asked the crowd how they felt about coordinating among the hundreds of campaigns across the country in our own democratic student run network, to build the power we need to not just win fossil fuel divestment, but to force divestment at our colleges and universities. We asked about what students imagined it would take to build a student power organization for climate justice that could work alongside other student power social justice groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and United We Dream. We presented some short-term and long-term goals about leaving the campus and moving to frontline communities already deep in the struggle for climate justice against the fossil fuel industry. We asked the room what it would take for us to collectively take on our own direct actions against fossil fuel infrastructure. Someone posed the question ‘how long could fracking last if students from every university in the country joined in the fight to block drilling operations?’ Someone else lept to the ambitious question, ‘how would it look if we were part of the end of the fossil fuel industry…’, and this should I hope give a sense of the urgency and excitement people feel behind this project, ‘and set for ourselves a deadline – end it in the next five years.’ For me, and I think maybe also for the couple hundred people in that hallway, those were some of the most electrifying 10 minutes of the whole weekend.

Cover photo of the Orange Square publication.

But the bulk of the meeting was devoted to hearing from the hundreds of new members of the national network. After briefly explaining the network’s transitional working group structure, break-out groups talked about visions and the potential for the network and brainstormed about new ideas. Students proposed dozens of regional and affinity networks that could focus power in new and creative ways within the broader national network. People took notes and put a stack of their new ideas in the middle of the room, A group of twelve of us took these ideas and workshopped them before the third and final meeting.
This last meeting meeting had about 100 people. We broke out into our working groups – the new national network publication, ‘The Orange Square’; Frontline Solidarity; Mentoring and Training; National Strategies; the People of Color Caucus; Power Up 2, the next national conference for student fossil fuel divestment campaigns and workshopped ideas. The intent was for us to have something immediate for people to work on, right away.

Editors: What are the next steps?

JS: This February will be the second national conference of these divestment group and the first for the National Student Divestment Network – last February it was at Swarthmore College, this year it’s going to be in California at a public school. Between now and then there are lots of ideas for national collaboration on building the network – publicizing and building for important moments coming up in campaigns around the country, like at Brown this week; developing the working group projects, like frontline solidarity and mentoring and leadership development; incorporating the hundreds of new members into conversations around revisiting our organizational structure, and so on. Lots of us will be working on some study-group projects also – on SNCC, SDS, and other historically inspiring or important student organizations.

Editors: How can people be involved?

JS: The single best way to be involved with this project is to be active within a local divestment campaign. Join one, start one, help win one. Not too long ago mainstream environmental organizing focused on lifestyle politics, things like recycling and conservation. In large part because this tactic of fossil fuel divestment has broken out at the pace it has, the US is now in a situation where you can be at any college in the country and participate in a kind of environmentalism that fights for justice, that is at its heart about a power struggle with the industry and layers of the ruling class that are most responsible for climate destruction, and upholding worldwide environmental racism. This tactic has the unique opportunity to contribute to a broad social movement for environmental justice.

If you’re already in a fossil fuel divestment campaign, join one of the national working groups, or submit a piece to the new publication. It’s exciting that we’re getting bigger, this weekend was extremely energizing, but the whole point of a national organization is that it’s strongest when more people are sharing and coordinating their struggles – so we want and need to hear from more people. There are thousands of us out there, on hundreds of campuses, fighting for fossil fuel divestment – and we should build together.

For contact info, people should go to

The following is an article originally intended for publication before the Power Shift conference. It was never published, so we present it here despite it being already somewhat dated.

Movement Building at Power Shift 2013

By Joe Shortsleeve

This Friday, more than 5,000 young activists and climate justice organizers are expected to arrive in Pittsburgh, Pa for the weekend to be a part of Power Shift 2013. Students and youth from all across the country, who the conference has always been directed towards, will hear from a range of speakers across the climate justice movement, picking and choosing from well over two hundred panels and trainings about next steps in the fight. The Energy Action Coalition and its numerous partners, who planned and organized Power Shift, have put together a powerful looking program with diverse speakers and topics. From the opening block of workshops Saturday morning centered on environmental justice and environmental racism to anti-oppression trainings, keynote speakers, film screenings, hip hop concerts, and the closing action on Monday, Power Shift will offer organizers and students interested in different kinds of climate justice work the chance to build across a variety of segments within the climate justice movement – and this will all happen under one roof.

Some of us – at times more, at other times less cautiously – look to the escalating level of US climate justice struggle in the last year or so with the sort of excited optimism that the energy of a national climate justice summit like Power Shift 2013 encourages. The development of hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns; increasingly large record turnouts for major climate actions like Forward on Climate last February; and likely most promising and fittingly named, the growing international Idle No More movement, are all part of what climate justice advocates are hoping is a new moment of growth in a resurgent, widespread environmental movement – the beginning of the kind of movement capable of actually shifting power away from the corporate and state targets of climate justice struggles. The kind of movement we need to win.

Hoping for a movement however, is of course not enough. Building the kinds of social movement organizations that can both advance and sustain the struggles that can, in the right conditions, provoke a social movement, is crucially important work – and work that is underway. From my own perspective as a student organizer, one particularly exciting opportunity of a gathering of thousands of young energized climate justice activists under one roof this weekend is that many of us are already right in the middle of building and developing the networks and organizations we feel we’re going to need as tools in the fight for climate justice – and we’re bringing them along with us to Pittsburgh.

Specifically, I would contend that at least two projects are worth looking at closely this weekend – both of which are emerging, explicitly anti-racist, national grassroots climate justice coalitions: The new National Student Divestment Network, which is seeking to coordinate amongst the hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the US in a bottom-up democratic organization; and System Change not Climate Change, an explicitly anti-capitalist climate justice coalition working to bring a more collaborationist left to climate activism, which is similarly an intentional bottom-up democratic organization. One hope is that this weekend, those networks and others will have a chance to develop and grow – grow bigger and also politically and analytically sharper as movement building tools.

Photo taken from the SCnCC workshop during Power Shift 2013.

‘Movement building’ however, can be difficult work. Balances between strategic struggle and political direction are hard to strike, and thousands of people fighting for climate justice do not, of course, always agree about how to do it. More and more of us are looking at the immense challenge of the climate crisis, it’s local and global effects, and then asking from as sharp as a strategic outlook as we can, ‘What is to be done?’ We are looking for specifics. Power Shift will provoke both new and seasoned climate justice organizers with questions about next steps as we keep fighting to turn the tide in the power struggles we’re all committing to, in a multiplicity of forms, across the movement. This diversity of tactics can be seen in the variety of panels and workshops, which throughout the weekend will speak to different questions. Do we fight to build a green economy? Do we zoom in on campus struggles if that’s where thousands of us are now struggling? Should we look first to the frontlines? Should we target the politically powerful? Do we collectively begin moving beyond fossil fuels as soon as possible? The short answer to all of those questions, at least evidently for the majority of Power Shift participants so far, seems to be: ‘yes.’ ‘All of them.’ One of the slogans for the weekend found throughout the EAC program materials is ‘Many fights, One movement.’

But the obvious question organizers will all be trying to find some not-so-obvious answers for at Power Shift: How? With all of these pieces coming together, how can students and youth contribute to building a real and lasting movement for climate justice fit for that daunting task? There are likely to be a series of healthy debates at Power Shift on these very questions, which will inform the direction of the movement to come.
There are already signs Power Shift 2013 represents a direction, arguably a new one, on the ‘how’ question. This will be the fourth meeting of Power Shift in the US, the last was in April of 2011, in Washington DC, as were the two that came before. For the first time, the largest climate justice summit in the US is clearly leaving behind the beltway insider politics of the nation’s capital, and it has landed in Pittsburgh – a city with a longstanding history of important movement and labor organizing. Energy Action Coalition, which organizes Power Shift points out on the conference website that,

“For the first time ever, Power Shift is being hosted outside of Washington, DC so we can focus on grassroots strategies to address the climate crisis… With Congress in gridlock, it’s time to focus making change in our own communities, and building the power to demand elected officials follow our lead. Pittsburgh is the first city in the country to enact a ban on dirty and dangerous fracking and is at the heart of building a clean energy economy.”

In other words, from the perspective of the people organizing Power Shift, how we organize a more bottom up democratic movement should center on strategies other than lobbying the two party system (currently the no-party system) in Washington, and strategies should instead be rooted in struggles that impact direct concerns of the majority of normal working people.

These are hopeful signs of a welcome direction from the perspective of a group attending Power Shift 2013 worth paying close attention to, such as System Change not Climate Change. System Change not Climate Change began as the Eco-Socialist Contingent to the Forward on Climate rally, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in DC last February along with almost 50,000 others. The group renamed itself as System Change not Climate Change in May, largely to reflect one of the most important elements of the group – a true commitment to casting off the toxic sectarianism that has all too often haunted the left in the US, and leaving room for anti-capitalists who don’t identify as socialists to make SCnCC their political home. The group has steadily grown over the course of the last year, like so many other new and creative climate justice initiatives, and is just coming off of it’s second well received national conference, hosted in LA last month.

SCnCC will likely be excitedly seeking to engage in conversations with hundreds of young climate activists at Power Shift about the underlying causes of climate change – capitalism and imperialism, they (persuasively) say – and how to identify struggles to build for which reflect this political analysis, a political analysis notably absent from most Washington based political circles. If there are important debates to watch for, SCnCC is especially worth watching – they are one of the few groups looking to collaborate at Power Shift which has also at times offered constructive criticism of major climate justice groups in the middle of our political moment, notably of and the Sierra Club, who will also be strongly represented throughout the weekend.

Author, teacher, and activist Chris Williams and a student-activist, Nurit Mablu – both members of System Change – will be speaking at Power Shift on a panel titled ‘Ecology and Imperialism – Why Climate Activists Must Oppose War Military and Racism.’ Williams and others on the left see US imperialism – notably the Obama Administration’s wars in Afghanistan, along with whole regions of the globe – as a largely missing component of the dominant discussion around climate justice. This hour long discussion, one out of literally hundreds to choose from throughout the weekend, is likely to provoke questions that are highly critical of environmentalist strategies which seek out allies in Washington. To give one example, the panel might likely ask: Given that the defense department accounts for 80% of the US government’s energy demand, and the US military as a whole itself produces staggering amounts of toxic waste and CO2 emissions – along with killing an unbelievable amount of people; why then did an important and effective climate rally like Forward on Climate, which Power Shift planners EAC, and environmental organization played important roles in building, use rhetoric and tactics that allowed room for the commander in chief of this nightmarish corner of the climate crisis to become a climate ally if he blocks the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is after all just one single pipeline? (Albeit an extremely important one single pipeline.) This is one place, happily out of many throughout the weekend, where organizers can be sure the summit will live up to its name and participants will hear concrete questions and ideas about how, why, and what power exactly should be shifted, and where it should be shifted to.

In a recent piece for Climate and Capitalism ‘Strategies and Tactics in the Environmental Movement,’ Chris Williams both spoke to and provoked a further debate within the movement on this very question of movement building, and about the efficacy of groups deemed too structured around top-down organizing. Among Williams’ respectful critiques of political structures within growing climate justice activism, (and occasional defense of existent groups such as from others on the left) he articulates one component of the debate which distinguishes the groups that have helped inspire such important upswings in struggle, and the struggles themselves.

“The question of organization and democracy is of tantamount importance as it is the base from which to decide on actions and debate political strategy… At this point, it is unclear whether a group like 350 will be able to evolve into the fighting organization that is required, or whether students will have to form their own, more grassroots organization that is financially independent, democratic and more forcefully directed…

“350 has brought together newly radicalizing students behind a leader [co-founder Bill McKibben] whose organization teams up with big funders and can’t seem to decide whether to bind arms with those to his right in positions of state power, or those to his left in the environmental justice movement. The question will be settled by the thousands of students in the 350-plus divestment movements on campuses across the country and other grassroots activists as they seek to pull many more people in and face the challenge of bringing real change to the United States.”

Notwithstanding the shift away from Washington for Power Shift organizers this year, a common question is aired: can new and important climate justice struggles, like the rally against Keystone XL and fossil fuel divestment, that have mobilized thousands of people to action lead to new grassroots organizations? To be fair Bill McKibben and repeatedly publicly declare the fossil fuel divestment movement to be “leaderless,” and likely have the exact same question about what’s next for the newly mobilized students as Williams.

The recent emergence of National Fossil Fuel Divestment network is one clear answer to just that question – and again, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes.’ It is one iteration, among many, of an important political development going into Power Shift. While as a tactic fossil fuel divestment – from the collective $400 billion in endowments around the country – has grown into hundreds of campaigns around the country, on and off campus, largely inspired by the work of groups such as, to date only a handful of institutions have divested to date. So campaigns are seeking to get better organized, to build the power required to completely strip, at a minimum, the social license of the industry most culpable for climate disaster – through the tactic of divestment. The National Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Network seeks to do that work of coordination to build power. The network formed in September after months of planning by students already fighting in fossil fuel divestment campaigns, such as myself. The network put out its first statement one month ago – and it included language that should be interesting for folks wondering, like Williams, ‘whether students will form their own, more grassroots’ organizations:

“A strong student divestment network can more successfully collaborate with off-campus divestment and the larger climate justice movement, and can work to strategize and coordinate collective action independent of and alongside our ally NGOs… Alumni of divestment campaigns and NGO staff organizers are welcome to join working groups as equal collaborators, but not as representatives of other organizations.”

In the network’s points of unity, scheduled to be published and circulated for the first time this weekend at Power Shift, the group speaks to it’s ‘student power’ orientation.

“We are grateful for the institutional and organizational support from NGO’s and prominent individual activists but affirm that the National Student Network is created for students by students.

We must build student power in ways that strengthen a national coalition of organizations capable of continuing struggles for social justice beyond divestment victory by developing organizational power and leadership on campuses first and foremost.”

This message should be taken at face value – absolutely not as a dig at groups which have been extremely effective at mobilizing large numbers of climate activists when that was precisely what was needed, which were absolutely essential allies in the process and even the ability for the network to form in the first place, and which will continue to play an important role in the movement until we win. Rather, this kind of statement is the important articulation of a strong student identity, at a time when we live in a country with over 1 trillion dollars of student debt. This message of student power framing is coming from the same group which self-consciously chose the symbol of the orange square – a reference, homage, and statement of solidarity to the red square symbol: of the historic and massive Quebec student strikes of 2011. The message is simply that we’re serious.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood during the Closing Plenary.

In other words, while students aren’t drawing as sharp distinctions as the explicitly anti-capitalist (and deliberately highly collaborative) wing of growing climate justice activism – students are carving out their own democratic spaces to organize. Among many exciting questions to watch for at Power Shift this weekend: what differences are possible when students democratically coordinate themselves across the hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns? What kind of grassroots fighting organization can the tactic of fossil fuel divestment produce within this climate justice movement? Those are in fact some questions the National Student Divestment Network will be asking thousands of young climate activists this weekend.

It is also the explicit and steadfast opinion of these two groups that a commitment to bottom up organizing is crucial, and has always been a crucial component to social movements historically. For example, it’s worth thinking back to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which from 1960-1967 was the dominant student organization of the black freedom movement – the last sustained, organized mass movement this country has seen. As far as credentials are concerned, SNCC was a student group that played a hugely important role in the task that at the time seemed absolutely daunting: breaking the back of the decades old system of Jim Crow racial apartheid – a task they succeeded in helping achieve through years of bold struggle in the south of the US. Moreover, SNCC stood out in their own time as more bottom up than important organizations like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As has previously been stated in pieces published by Waging Nonviolence, there is a loud and clear line of many fossil fuel divestment campaigns that students do not see themselves as the frontlines of the fight against fossil fuel extraction and the current effects of the climate crisis, but rather as one wing of the growing movement for climate justice. We know we are not SNCC. Nevertheless, many of us building within the National Student Divestment Network are certainly reading up on historic student groups like SNCC, in part due to their democratic structures and effective direct tactics. National Student Divestment Network organizers are excited about planning for a very much still forming and dynamic ‘Climate Justice Summer’ starting this May, which strives to have more than symbolic echoes of SNCC’s leadership in Freedom Summer of 1964.
Power Shift exists to be a space to bring cutting edge ideas and debates within the movement to center stage. In the past the program of Power Shift has been more focused on trainings and skill sharing. This year many useful trainings will be available to youth activists seeking them out, yet there is also a seemingly larger focus on political framing than in years past. These conversations are crucial to developing the right next steps – social movements, in order to last, require both sound politics and tangible ideas about relevant struggles, and activism. Lots of activism has begun – but what political analyses are driving this activism? This balance between activism and political analysis is at the heart of the development of democratic organizations.

There has never been a successful social movement that didn’t produce important debates. The differences between groups should certainly be aired, and Power Shift with all of its intentional building space is the perfect setting for that work. But the differences are very far from irreconcilable. There are many implicitly anti-capitalist groups within the climate justice fight, so the language of SCnCC might not strike readers as sharply as one might assume.

For example, System Change not Climate Change writes in their first point of unity:

“The current ecological crisis results from the capitalist system, which values profits for a global ruling elite over people and the planet. It must therefore be confronted through an international mass movement of working people around the world.”

Other than naming the capitalist system, the notion within the above statement – that the fundamental problem, creating climate change and blocking climate justice – lies in a global ruling elite valuing profits over people and the planet, is basically the cornerstone of the fossil fuel divestment campaign and can be found almost word for word in the literature of many other climate justice and environmentalist groups. What changes, then, when capitalism is explicitly named as the target? A target beyond ‘the fossil fuel industry,’ which is itself a new target for thousands of radicalizing environmental activists, like many Power Shift attendees?

This is, once again one of many questions that will be taken up at Power Shift. Groups that focus on a political analysis, like System Change, will be avidly talking with new activists already engaging in struggle asking those same questions. Likewise it can often be heard within activist circles, not always unfairly, that anti-capitalist groups tend to dwell on theoretical arguments, and their well-read political analysis would certainly always continue to gain from mixing up in strategic activism – which is more abundant this year than it has ever been in the fight for climate justice. In other words, Power Shift 2013 has many elements in place to meaningfully build towards strong, balanced social movement organizations in the climate justice struggle. Power Shift 2013 hopefully has the elements in place to live up to it’s name, to begin to shift and shake the powers we’re aiming at.

Of course, as more and more of us are almost never in need of reminding anymore, this careful optimism about the movement breaking out exists right along side the constant realization that the material outlook of our times is still all too grim. The expected 100 student activists such as myself headed to Philadelphia from New York City won’t be able to ignore that Power Shift 2013 falls just short of the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy – that around this time last year where we live and work, the tides literally rose, the streets went dark, and the city shut down. And like so many other places around the country and around the world already struck by climate disasters, thousands of New Yorkers, predominantly working class people of color, are one year later still fighting for a just rebuilding. Many New Yorkers have been fighting for much longer than a year – the fight for environmental justice in this city goes back decades. The careful optimism within this struggle pivots on the sober hope that this long fight for a just rebuilding is in some ways only just getting started – that we’re shifting closer to living not just in dire times, but movement times.

Joe Shortsleeve is an organizer for the National Student Divestment Network and Barnard Columbia Divest.

Fifty Years: Remembering Medgar Evers

by John R. Salter, Jr.

May 28, 2013

Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963 by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted of the crime three decades later in 1994. This 50th anniversary tribute was written by Evers’ friend and fellow organizer John R. Salter, Jr. for Against the Current, where it will appear in the forthcoming issue #165.

We are also posting this on a week that is now noteworthy for another event in Jackson, Mississippi, the May 21 primary victory of Chokwe Lumumba for Mayor. Lumumba, a founding member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, ran as a candidate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on a platform of upholding human rights and strengthening the organization of Jackson residents, particularly the Black and working class majority, through the formation of People’s Assemblies. In the last issue of Against the Current (#164), Robert Caldwell spoke with Chokwe Lumumba about his campaign and how it fits into the larger community initiative of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s “Jackson Plan”–read it here.

Around 2 AM, September 1, 1961, my spouse Eldri and I crossed the Mississippi River into the Magnolia State’s Closed Society. We were both in our mid-20s. Married a few weeks before at Superior, Wisconsin, where I had done an academic year of college teaching, we had come directly from my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona. We were headed to private and all-Black Tougaloo Southern Christian College, just north of Jackson, where a teaching position awaited me. A sociologist, I also had a fair amount of grassroots organizing under my belt and, before long, was to have much more.

At that point, the State of Mississippi was very close to police state status. With its sanguinary history, expanded and dominated by the post-1954 white Citizens’ Councils of America (“State’s Rights and Racial Integrity”), it was a total and pervasive segregationist complex, backed up by legions of white “lawmen” and white vigilantes. African Americans, almost half the population, were kept “down,” deprived of the right to vote or demonstrate, and mostly lived in or close to poverty. Most whites either supported the system or remained silent.

I came to know Medgar Evers, Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP, very well from 1961 to his death. Early after Eldri, and I arrived at Tougaloo, I was asked by an activist student, Colia Liddell (later to become Colia Liddell Lafayette Clark), if I would be the Advisor to the newly developed North Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP. Very small at that point, it was the only youth council in Jackson and environs. Of course, honored, I accepted. Not long thereafter, I become a member of the board of directors of the Mississippi NAACP, and, still later, as we entered a period of dramatic turbulence, chairman of the strategy committee of the Jackson Movement. I worked with Medgar closely. And I always had tremendous respect for him.

There was a significant strain of Choctaw Indian in his family background. I, myself, am one-half American Indian (Abenaki and Mohawk) — and that was only one of a number of bonding factors that quickly developed between us.

Born in Newton County in 1925, he served in the European Theatre during the Second World War, was educated at all-Black Alcorn A&M, and in 1954 became the first NAACP Field Secretary in the history of the state. He wasn’t really an organizer; was sort of a lone wolf who traveled lonely and mighty dangerous trails. He kept the few dissidents that existed in the state together in little groups that did as much as they felt they could do; persuaded people to attach their names to pioneer civil rights lawsuits; investigated and tried to publicize the many atrocities which occurred each week. And, on orders from the National Office, he sold NAACP membership cards.

Medgar was a very stable, very cool person. The only time that I ever saw him break down came in the Fall of 1961, at an evening dinner session of the annual convention of the Mississippi NAACP — in the “Negro” Masonic Temple on Jackson’s Lynch Street. It was first time we had met him — and I was much impressed by his cheerfulness and optimism. The police were parked outside and, inside, the delegates from the scattered, and generally moribund NAACP units around the state, had finished giving their reports.

Medgar got up and began to speak on the matter of Clyde Kennard of Forrest County who, a year or so before, had been spirited off to the penitentiary on the trumped-up charge of receiving stolen chicken-feed — all of this stemming from Kennard’s several attempts to enter all-white Mississippi Southern at Hattiesburg.

As Medgar talked on about the Kennard case, his voice shook and, in what was obviously deep sorrow and frustration, he wept openly. With one accord — and with many others weeping by this time — all arose and began singing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” When the song was over, Medgar continued, outwardly calm.

The Evers family lived under constant threat of violence. In late September 1962, James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at any previously all-white Mississippi educational institution — Ole Miss at Oxford. And, in the end, that took 30,000 Federal troops and Federalized National Guardsmen.

In the days just preceding the Meredith-Oxford crisis, there were all sorts of legal maneuvers going on in the Federal district and Fifth Circuit courts. Eldri and I went one Saturday night to the Evers home. We knew Medgar was probably in New Orleans where the Fifth Circuit was then grinding away, and we thought we should see his wife, Myrlie. We parked, went to the door, and knocked. Medgar’s police dog was barking in the back yard (fenced up). There was no answer to our knock and I knocked again. Then the door opened, only a crack, and I could see a gun.

I called my name and Medgar opened the door, instantly apologetic. He had come to Jackson for the weekend. Inside the Evers home, furniture was piled in front of all of the windows. At least a half dozen firearms were in the living room and kitchen. The children were in bed and Medgar and his wife and Eldri and myself visited for a good while.

The barricaded nature of the Evers home was not uncommon for a civil rights person in Mississippi; what was uncommon was the fact that both Medgar and Myrlie were extremely calm. It was a very pleasant visit — unusually so considering the fact that, next perhaps to Meredith, no one was any more prime a target in the Deep South at that time than was Medgar.

But he was cool: I recall leaving Greenwood in Leflore County with him one night at midnight — and we left at 90 MPH — with Medgar casually talking about a rumor he’d heard to the effect that a segregationist killer outfit in Leflore had installed infra-red lights on the cars, which could allow them to see the highway, but which couldn’t be spotted by whoever they were following. By the time he finished discussing this, we were going about 100 MPH But he was driving easily and well and his talk was calm in tone, if not in content.

Medgar did not take chances, and no one could seriously accuse him of consciously or unconsciously seeking martyrdom. In the spring of 1963, he and I and several members of the Jackson Youth Council began to try to pull together a little Movement in Canton, north of Jackson — the first efforts along those lines since the Citizens’ Council had destroyed a tiny NAACP in Canton around 1955.

Our first meetings, which had been preceded by promises from, say, 50 or so to attend, featured turnouts of around five and six people — but the little group (we met in the Sunday School room of an old church) began to grow slowly. The whole town was filled with terror; and there had been a number of killings of Blacks, none solved, in the fall of ’62 and the winter of ’62-’63. After we had several meetings, cars of whites began to cruise around, up and down the streets, in front of the church when we were in there.

Medgar always insisted on people not standing in the light; he, himself, stayed in the shadows — took every safety precaution. He never left Canton at night unless I, or someone else, was in another car right behind him. He didn’t want martyrdom; just wanted to keep on living and working.

No matter how discouraged he might feel, Medgar was always able to communicate — or at least made an effort to communicate — enthusiasm to those with whom he was working. In the early days before the Jackson Movement, our “mass” meetings were tiny affairs, yet Medgar always functioned as though the gatherings were the last crucial ones before the Revolution broke in Mississippi. He met each person on an equal to equal basis, smiled, joked, gave them the recognition of human dignity that each human being warrants.

By the time the meeting began, even the little handful of faithful felt it was worth holding. Never an orator, Medgar was a good firm speaker. By the time the meeting was over, he’d given it all he had, and the handful went home determined to do what they could. Those early meetings in Canton were among the most terror-stricken I’d ever seen — but, even there, he communicated enthusiasm: talked about crops, then about voting.

But Medgar Evers could, privately, get discouraged. In his neighborhood lived many teachers. Most would scarcely talk to him, scared to death to even see him. Many of the clergymen in Jackson were afraid to exchange words with him. One evening Medgar came out to our home at Tougaloo; he’d spent the day trying to draw some teachers into the NAACP. They had turned thumbs down on it; had even told him, in effect, that the state’s Black community would be better off without him.

He had had it that day and, I recall, talked then — as he always did when he got discouraged — about giving up the NAACP Field Secretary job and getting into the Ole Miss law school in the Fall. I think he would have ultimately gone to law school, and most likely at the University of Mississippi — but it would probably have been many years before he would have stopped his field work. He’d get discouraged, privately — never publicly, but a day or so later, he’d be back in form.

Our Youth Council had been growing very fast and steadily. We had also mobilized many students at Tougaloo. In the fall of 1962, we began the very effective economic boycott of downtown Jackson, and we did a tremendous amount of grassroots organizing to support the boycott — which was successful in persuading Blacks and some quietly sympathetic whites from buying in the designated target area.

As this campaign continued into the Spring, we broadened it into an all-out desegregation campaign — picketing, sit-ins, massive marches — in May and June, 1963. The Jackson Movement was the first widespread grassroots challenge to the system in Mississippi — and there was solid opposition from the Governor right on down. The State Fairgrounds had been converted into a huge concentration camp.

The National NAACP had reluctantly promised to back this major effort all the way. It sent key staff from New York to Jackson.
Mass arrests and much brutality occurred each day. Lawmen from all over the state came into Jackson to join the several hundred Jackson regulars, the large Jackson police auxiliary, state police, other hostiles. Hoodlums from all over the state — Klan-types, although the KKK as an organization was just formally beginning in Mississippi — poured into Jackson.

The National Office of the NAACP, which had reluctantly agreed to support our Jackson campaign, became frightened — because of the vicious repression and because it was costing money — and also the National Office was under heavy pressure from the Federal government to let Jackson cool off.

A sharp split occurred on the strategy committee. Many of us, the youth leaders, myself, Ed King (a native white Mississippian who had recently returned to the state to become Tougaloo’s chaplain), and other activists wanted to continue, even intensify the mass demonstrations. Others, the National Office people and conservative clergy, wanted to shift everything into a voter registration campaign (meaningless then, under the obstructive circumstances.) There was very sharp internecine warfare between our militant group and the conservatives.

Medgar, who had very enthusiastically backed mass direct action, was caught in the middle. As a staff employee of the National Office, he was under their direct control; as a Mississippian, he knew that only massive demonstrations could crack Jackson. (And we knew if we cracked Jackson, we had begun to crack the state.) The stakes were high and everyone knew it — our militant faction on the strategy committee, the conservative group, the segregationists, Federal government.

The NAACP National Office began to cut off the bail bond money to end all large demonstrations; and also packed the strategy committee with conservative clergy. Medgar, obviously under increasingly intense pressure from the organizational bureaucrats, was functionally immobilized. Being Medgar, we felt his heart and mind were with the struggle in the field. He made no effort to bridge the quickly deepening gap and his involvement from that point on was minimal. The National Office was choking the Jackson Movement to death. It waned into almost nothing in the second week in June.

I saw Medgar late one afternoon, Tuesday, June 11. He was dead tired and really discouraged — sick at what was happening to the Jackson Movement, but still too much an organizational staff man to openly challenge it. (Back in January, 1963, he had openly pushed the National Office; told New York to speed up the Jackson school desegregation suit — of which two of his own children were plaintiffs — and hinted if they didn’t, he might resign his job. The National Office had speeded it up — a little.) But in this situation, he didn’t buck the National Office. We had a long talk and, despite the internal division, an extremely cordial one much like old times. He was more disheartened than I had ever known him to be.

Later that evening, we were all at a little mass meeting (the size of the meetings had grown as the Movement had grown, from a handful to 1,500 or 2,000 a night, but now, as the Movement waned, they were dwindling fast in size.) At this meeting, it was announced by the National Office staffers that the focus of the Jackson Movement was now officially voter registration and, although the boycott would continue, there would be no more demonstrations of any kind.

NAACP T-Shirts were being sold by Medgar who had no enthusiasm at all; said virtually nothing at the meeting; looked, indeed, as though he was ready to die. This was all tragic but much more tragedy lay directly ahead.

A few hours later, Medgar Evers was shot to death in front of his home.

His death was the resurrection of the Jackson Movement. Within hours, we had organized huge demonstrations which poured out onto the streets; the National Office had no alternative, under the circumstances, but to accept this. Police brutality and terror mounted steadily — it was in a much grimmer dimension than it had ever been. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people, from all over Mississippi — from places into which no civil rights worker had yet set foot — came into Jackson for Medgar’s funeral. A number of nationally prominent people were there.

Following Medgar’s death, I had called Martin Luther King and asked if he could come to Jackson. Dr. King readily agreed and I picked up him and several of his staff at the airport.

At the funeral, much less was said about Medgar the man — and much more was said about the career of the NAACP. Most in attendance at the funeral marched the two miles or so from the Masonic Temple to the Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street.

This was the first “legal” mass civil rights-type march ever held in Mississippi’s history — and it was held only because we had let the power structure know we’d march anyway. (The National Office had really been against it; and two days or so after Medgar’s death, the National Office was once again trying to stifle all demonstrations).

Once at the funeral home, the nationally prominent folk — including the top NAACP leaders and others — left the area. But a vast number of Black Mississippians stayed there, in front of the mortuary parlor into which Medgar had been taken following the funeral. Then we had the second huge demonstration of the day — this one “illegal” — a great throng of us pressing back down North Farish Street toward Capitol Street.

There must have been 2,000 law officers massed in and around the whole area — and several hundred blocking North Farish Street at the junction with Capital Street. About 30 of us whom the police recognized, including Ed King and myself, were arrested; the police clubbed the others back down North Farish Street, fired over their heads, shot out windows.

Those of us who had been arrested were carried to the Fairgrounds. John Doar of the U.S. Justice Department, assisted by several National Office people, finally persuaded the remaining demonstrators to go home. The Governor called out the National Guard.

That was the largest demonstration of an “illegal” nature that has ever occurred in Mississippi. Shortly after that, the Kennedys got on the phone to the Jackson mayor several times, the National Office cut off any bail bond, Ed King and myself were both seriously injured and nearly killed in an extremely suspicious auto wreck and my car in which we were riding was completely destroyed. We were hospitalized and, while there, the Jackson Movement, essentially dead once again, was sold out by the National NAACP et al. for a few paltry tokens, none of which challenged segregation, and all of which the Mayor had offered at the outset of large demonstrations in May.

But our original economic boycott, via its own momentum, lived on — draining the white Jackson merchants into grudging compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

After the funeral demonstrations, the body of Medgar was out of Mississippi forever. But his death, and the many other forms of martyrdom in the Jackson Movement, ended a lonely era and began another. He had hardly been buried in faraway Arlington Cemetery when dozens, and then hundreds, of activists began to pour into Mississippi from all over.

There are now 50th Anniversary celebrations commemorating Medgar and a very minute number of Jackson Movement events (mostly our violently attacked Woolworth Sit-In of May 28, 1963) that are presently much in the Jackson scene these days. But a seriously problematic factor is widespread revisionism — the relatively new “moderate orthodoxy” which seeks to downplay the more hideous elements of the Old Order, and which shies from anything it deems “too radical” and “too militant” both in historical and contemporary-challenge frameworks.

John Salter (the author of this piece), Joan Trumpauer, and Anne Moody sit in at the downtown Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi on May 28, 1963.

A related problem is the obvious effort to canonize murdered Medgar, something I much think he’d reject. It’s an elevation that, as so often with many humans, goes beyond the fine realities of the man and essentially ignores the signal contributions of a vast throng of courageous grassroots people who risked much by their roles in the Jackson Movement. Most media in Mississippi echo and reflect the foregoing “moderation” positions.

Much has changed for the better in the Old South and certainly in Mississippi: the development of the very right to organize and dissent and vote, widespread desegregation, and a substantial reduction in terror. But the economic royalists still ride high, poverty remains rampant, relative powerlessness still characterizes much of the grassroots regardless of race, racism is far from gone. Yet there are solidly activist things going on in the Magnolia state: civil rights, labor organizing, independent politics, and other creative thrusts.

Not long after Medgar’s murder, the radical Southern poet John Beecher did a poem dedicated to me, commemorating the Jackson Movement, the Southern struggle, and the martyrdom of Medgar. The conclusion of “One More River to Cross” looked ahead to the great and never-ending thrust of the grassroots:

Who knows that some unpainted shack/

in the Delta/

may house one destined to lead us the/

next great step of the way . . .

Well, those people have arisen and continue to arise in the traditions of the great warriors who’ve gone before, those in the mold of Geronimo, Medgar Evers — they organize, they fight, and they always will.

And we will win.

John R. Salter, Jr. (Hunter Gray) is a long-time activist, social justice community organizer, and radical university professor who now lives in the mountains of Eastern Idaho. His book, Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, has recently been published in expanded/updated form by the University of Nebraska Press.

A Reflection on the Ecosocialist Conference by an Organizer

by Andy Wojozen

April 29, 2013

On Saturday, April 20, at Barnard College in New York City, a coalition of Ecosocialists hosted a conference whose purpose was to call together [groups and individuals fighting ecological destruction from an anti-capitalist perspective]. The coalition evolved from a group of organizations originally calling itself the Ecosocialist Contingent, who held a public forum and rallied against the Keystone Pipeline in Washington on February 17.

Joe Shortsleeve of the Columbia Divestment group helps set up the main conference room before the opening plenary.

This struggle and our collaborative process around ongoing specific fights, brought together 240 participants for a discussion endorsed by 29 different organizations, exceeding all expectations. Participants were pouring through registration well through the opening plenary. A majority of folks were New York residents though we had some attendees from Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and even our Canadian neighbors in Toronto. While students were a significant portion of the audience, the conference attracted numerous ecosocialist writers and organizers. In addition to the plenaries, I made time to take a look at the workshops and snap some pictures. Each one had roughly 50-75 people in attendance with consistently lively discussions after the main speakers.

Between sessions, discussions continued around the literature tables of participating organizations. In fact, the organizers had some trouble pulling folks back into the main room for plenaries. The high activity level of participants from different areas suggests that Ecosocialism not only has a theoretical place, but that its activists are eager to branch out and network as part of a larger coordinated struggle. One of the illuminating aspects of the conference was how many activists are knee deep in local ecological work as opposed to parties just interested in these talks.

These folks are working diligently in campaigns that have been betrayed by the Democratic party and straight up attacked by the GOP. Not surprisingly, the conversation about political action was concentrated on street organizing and involvement with third parties. One can easily imagine that there are many more ready for an amplified Ecosocialist voice in the environmental justice movement. If we can gather 240 organizers and activists for a conference which was organized in six weeks, what can we do in six months? A year? How can this collaborative outlook spread to other forms of struggle? Can it be useful for the anti-capitalist movement in general?

Reflections on Our Collaborative Work

Informally, one of the conference’s student organizers made a critical comment that a majority of our presenters were from older generations. This was mostly true with some exceptions, notably the Divestment Campaign and Occupy Sandy workshops. Youth are very much entrenched in ecological work, consistently in the forefront of actions and national campaigns against mountaintop removal and the Keystone pipeline. These are people who are courageously radical and secure enough in their own political beliefs to risk their livelihoods. Arguably the limited amount of time, resources, and collaborative experience showed when it came to integrating youthful and veteran organizers for discussions of the future. How do we do a better collective job of bringing younger activists to the national table? The Ecosocialist Coalition made some progress in recognizing and dealing with this question, but we will have to work on making remedies more deliberate and efficient.

The Occupy Sandy workshop.

Another criticism of the conference was that the presenters were majority white and male. None of the presenters spoke from a queer perspective or integrated LGBTQ issues into their talks. Organizers made open and honest attempts to balance these issues. Rather than a problem specific to this conference, segregation and over-representation of older white men is an issue that pervades much of the radical Left. A systemic look reveals that the problem is not that women or people of color are not involved in ecology work. Quite the contrary, several conference participants spoke anecdotally that their experience in local work has been the opposite. The question is how can we organize deep and meaningful collaboration between the section of the movement represented at the conference and the environmental justice movement? If we merely cite the dilemma without taking self-conscious steps to fix it, our shortcomings will persist. An established national coalition, pooling its resources, could ensure access to a much more inclusive group of activists resulting in a more informed analysis and enhanced potential for effective organizing in the future.

On the other hand, I would like to take a moment to thank our seasoned activists and organizers for their experience and insight. Up and coming organizers are inheriting a rich history of ecological work based on Earth Day in 1970 and since. The lessons of this work will help to synthesize an Ecosocialist strategy. For example, Howie Hawkins, a founding member of the Green Party and ongoing Green activist and organizer, spoke during one of the workshops of re-raising the 1970s demand for socializing the energy sector. It is necessary to understand that this solution cannot simply be a nationalizing of industries, but requires democratic control. Without collective control by the people, a state-owned industry would only centralize Capital’s vice grip on resources. This is the type of lesson that experienced organizers can and should be citing in our current effort to bring Ecosocialism to the ecological movement.

Howie Hawkins giving his presentation.


The conference, itself, was not perfect or without its logistical and planning hiccups. I do not advise organizing workshops only six weeks in advance if it can be avoided. And I am not suggesting that our coordinating structure is a model. The organizers did what they felt was best based on what was available. But now is the time to productively critique the process – to sum up our strengths and our weaknesses – so that the process can continue to function as a unity project, bringing together activists based on our common work, and one which I hope can be looked at as a significant step in the right direction.

There is plenty of work to be done. For one, the Northeast does not represent the entire country. The West Coast has its own fair share of ecology work, as well as the Mid-West, Southwest, and Southern regions. In the big picture, organizing this conference, as difficult as it was, will be one of the easier steps. It will take a lot of labor and time to grow Ecosocialism in other places until we can ultimately connect as a national effort. It would appear the time is ripe now that the Obama Administration has shown its true intentions on environmental policy. As the corporate profits continue to rise, multitudes of ordinary people continue to suffer from an ongoing streak of super storms and other violent changes in climate, and a non-stop assault of pollution. Ecosocialists here and abroad insist that there’s no stopping us now.

From ‘Grand Bargain’ to ‘Grand Collusion’

by Jack Rasmus

April 26, 2013

ON APRIL 10, PRESIDENT Obama released his formal budget for Fiscal 2014 beginning this October. Liberals should not act shocked and surprised: Obama’s repeated offers to cut
Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, and other yet undefined Medicare measures, are a continuation of his practice and approach for the past two years.

The budget will usher in the final stage of negotiations over the proposed deficit cuts —
Austerity American Style — that began with the recommendations of Obama’s Deficit Cutting
Commission, referred to as the Simpson-Bowles report, that was made public in November

The Simpson-Bowles Commission — chaired by arch-conservative retired Senator Alan
Simpson, and Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, now investment banker Erskine Bowles — proposed an
approximate $4 trillion cut in U.S. deficits and debt for the subsequent decade. Their report has
been the ‘template’ for deficit cutting negotiations ever since.

Issued around the time the Teapublicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives in late
2010, the report was offered by the Obama administration as the basis for negotiating a “grand
bargain” of $4 trillion in deficit cuts in summer of 2011. The $4 trillion target was agreed by
virtually all parties in Congress and the administration at that time — and ever since. The only
difference was, and remains, “the mix:” how much in spending cuts vs. how much tax revenue
hikes; how much to cut defense spending vs. how much social programs; and how much to tax
the wealthiest 2% vs. the middle class.

In June 2011, Vice-President Biden was assigned by Obama to begin negotiating the basis for
the “grand bargain.” He and House Speaker John Boehner attempted and failed to do so, even
though Biden had offered a package of 87% spending cuts to only 13% tax hikes — even more
onerous than Simpson-Bowles’ recommended 75%-25% mix.

Obama then took over negotiations with Boehner directly in July 2011. He unilaterally — i.e.
with no counter concession from Boehner — offered to cut Social Security and Medicare by
$700 billion to entice Boehner and House Teapublicans into a deal. Offering big cuts in Social
Security-Medicare has thus been a bargaining tactic by Obama, the “carrot” dangled to the
Teapublicans to entice them to agree to a $4 trillion Grand Bargain from the very beginning.

Boehner and the Teapublicans did not bite on Obama’s grand bargain offer in July 2011,
however. They held firm and demanded an “all spending cuts” agreement in exchange for
raising the federal government the debt ceiling in August 2011. They got their way. Obama and the Democrats caved in on all his demands by August for some tax revenue hikes. All they
got from the August 2011 debt ceiling deal was agreement from the Teapublicans not to raise
the debt ceiling issue again until after the November 2012 elections. Very convenient for the
president and the Democrats; not so for the rest of us since the August deal involved $1 trillion
in immediate social spending only cuts, mostly in public education, with another $1.2 trillion in
spending only cuts — the “sequester cuts” — that would take effect on January 1, 2013.

As part of that August 2011 $2.2 trillion deal, Congress was given the option to cut even more
than the $1.2 trillion ‘sequester’ part of the total. A special committee of Congress (the so-
called Supercommittee of House and Senate leaders) was established and given the option
to cut more than the $1.2 trillion by year end 2011. The Supercommittee, however, not
surprisingly decided to “kick the can down the road,” shelvingf all deficit cutting during the
2012 election year.

Instead, in 2012 both parties and their candidates talked about economic programs neither had
any intention of introducing. Regardless of who won the November 2012 election, the Simpson-
Bowles “template” was waiting in the desk top drawer, to be resurrected after November 2012.
And that’s just what happened: Within days following the election, Obama immediately offered
$340 billion in “entitlement” program cuts in his attempt once again to resurrect the grand
bargain negotiations.

Phony Fiscal Cliff: It’s the Tax Cuts, Stupid!

But the Teapublicans and big corporate interests, in the form of the Business Roundtable
in particular — the biggest and most influence U.S. corporate lobbying group, composed of
CEOs of the largest corporations — were neither interested in a “grand bargain” at that time.
The Business Roundtable preferred to focus initially only on the Bush tax cuts that were also
scheduled to expire January 1 — not the “sequestered” $1.2 trillion in spending cuts also
scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2013l.

The Bush tax cuts — more than 80% accruing to wealthy households and investors — were far
more important to them than the spending cuts. Their primary goal has always been to protect
and extend the Bush tax cuts; cutting spending and deficits has always been secondary, and the
cuts should be at the expense of social programs.

The Bush tax cuts amounted to $4.6 trillion for the coming decade, according to the
Congressional Budget Office. The CBO’s projected deficits for the coming decade, should the
Bush tax cuts be totally repealed, amounted to only $2.5 trillion. Extending the tax cuts meant
the projected deficit would amount to around $7 trillion. To borrow the popular phrase: It’s not
about deficits; it’s the Bush tax cuts, stupid!

Following last November 2012’s elections, the Teapublicans initially wanted all the Bush cuts
extended permanently, but the Business Roundtable wanted some kind of a settlement on
the tax issue first. Without that happening, the Roundtable’s even bigger objective of a major revision of the entire tax code, including cuts in the top rate of corporate taxes from 35% to
26%, already working its way through Congress, could not proceed. To preserve as much of the
Bush tax cuts as possible the issue had to be decoupled from the sequester. Furthermore, the
Bush tax cuts had to be resolved before the tax code could be revised and corporate tax rates

Following the November elections, the Roundtable therefore blocked with Obama and against
the House Teapublicans. To get the public on board, the media spin given to the Bush tax cuts
extension was labeled the “Fiscal Cliff.” Although the media included the sequestered spending
cuts as part of the “Fiscal Cliff,” that issue was separated tactically by both the Roundtable and
Obama weeks before January 1, 2013.

With the assistance of House Speaker Boehner, Obama plus the Roundtable prevailed over the
Teapublicans. It was touch and go, with Teapublican leaders like Ryan and Cantor wavering
and striking a neutral pose to protect their ultra-conservative credentials. But no doubt in the
end, campaign finance spending by the Roundtable big corporations prevailed and the Obama-
Roundtable-Boehner nexus were able to swing a sufficient number of House Republicans to get
a “tax deal” on January 1, 2013.

And how sweet a deal it was. Only $60 billion a year of the deficit was reduced, impacting less
than 0.7% of the wealthiest households — far fewer than Obama’s promised 2%. Moreover,
as part of the deal, the Alternative Minimum Tax was permanently repealed (amounting to
about $100 billion a year tax cut benefit to the wealthy), the Inheritance Tax was cut even more
generously than under Bush, and all the other Bush tax cuts were made permanent. No need to
extend them ever again.

The total cost in revenue loss and therefore deficit increase that remained was $4 trillion
over the coming decade. Ironically, that’s just about what the Simpson-Bowles commission
recommended in deficit reduction. The deficit for the coming decade was thus raised from $2.5
trillion to now about $7 trillion as result of the Bush tax cut deal — billed as “avoiding the Fiscal
Cliff” — of January 1, 2013. Now the attack on spending could begin in earnest once again, and
focusing on entitlements in particular.

As part of the January 1 deal, the sequestered additional $1.2 trillion in spending cuts were
postponed for two more months, until March 1, 2013. In signing the deal on January 2, Obama
declared that more tax revenue hikes would have to be negotiated in future deals. No doubt
he and Democrats believed that the March 1 date would put pressure on the Teapublicans
to compromise on more tax hikes in exchange for avoiding the approximate $500 billion in
defense spending cuts that were part of the sequestered $1.2 trillion going into effect on March

There was also the March 27, 2013 date when the Federal government would run out of money
to pay its bills. Surely, the Teapublicans didn’t want to get blamed again for that fiasco, as they
had been in the past? And thereafter there was the May 18, 2013 revisiting of the debt ceiling extension. Obama undoubtedly believed that somewhere along this line the Republicans would
give him the token tax hikes he needed as cover to agree to his massive cuts in Social Security,
Medicare and Medicaid he was always willing to make as part of a Grand Bargain.

But the Teapublicans again called his bluff. They let the sequestered spending cuts, including
the defense cuts, go into effect on March 1, 2013. They then agreed to fund the government
past March 27 and suggested as well the debt ceiling would not be an issue. This left Obama
with no bargaining leverage for insisting on tax revenue hikes. His answer has been his
increasingly desperate re-offering of big Social Security and Medicare cuts in recent weeks,
some of which appear in part in his April 10 budget. That will serve as a base from which he will
then agree to even further cuts in subsequent negotiations with Teapublicans in the House (and
Roundtable CEOs in the background).

Some Key Strategic Questions

The question is why have the Teapublicans agreed to the token January 1 tax hikes? Why did
they agree to allow the $1.2 trillion sequestered cuts, including defense spending, go into
effect? Why did they not engage in brinksmanship again on March 1 or March 27, unlike wqhat
they did in August 2011? And why will they not go to the brink again on the debt ceiling issue
when it arises once more in May?

The answer to the first question is that they got a tax deal they simply couldn’t refuse on
January 1, and one which their big corporate campaign benefactors, the Business Roundtable,
wanted. After having blocked with Obama prior to the January 1 deal, however, the Roundtable
has since shifted gears and adopted in total the Teapublicans’ position on subsequent spending

In February 2013, the Roundtable came out with its position paper on the matter of
sequestered cuts and entitlement spending. It proposed to cut the Social Security COLA (cost
of living adjustment), introduce a means test for Medicare, raise the eligibility age for both
Medicare AND social security to 70, and convert Medicare into a voucher system in 2022. That’s
exactly the Teapublican-Paul Ryan program.

With big corporate interests now in their corner firmly with regard to entitlement cuts as the
primary focus of deficit cutting, why should the Teapublicans agree to any further tax hikes
on the rich? And with the Roundtable and CEOs now firmly on their side, and the tax cuts
successfully decoupled from the spending cuts, why should the Teapublicans go to the brink
over shutting down the government on March 27? By March 1 they were already almost three-
fourths of the way to the $4 trillion deficit target, with a total of $2.8 trillion in spending cuts
and token tax hikes!

By letting the March 1 sequestered cuts take effect, the Teapublicans in effect did to Obama
on the topic of defense spending what Obama had the opportunity – but didn‘t take — to do
to them on the topic of Bush tax cuts on January 1. Obama could have let all the Bush tax cuts expire January 1, and then reintroduced middle class tax cuts only on January 2. That
would have put the Teapublicans in the position of having to vote down middle class tax cuts.
But he didn’t, and settled for the paltry 0.7% hike on taxes on the wealthy, some of which
will undoubtedly be reversed again, buried deep in the legislation, when the major tax code
negotiations conclude later this year.

The Teapublicans, by allowing the sequestered defense cuts to take effect on March 1, can also
always reintroduce legislation piecemeal later this year to restore many of the defense cuts.

It’s not surprising that Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, and others in Congress, in recent
weeks have offered “deals” amounting to another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. That number
is not coincidental, as $1.2 trillion is now the remaining “target” number . Graham’s proposal is
for $600 billion in Social Security and Medicare cuts and another $600 billion in unspecified tax

So why should Teapublicans precipitate a political crisis over the March 1 or March 27
deadlines? Why should they repeat the debt ceiling crisis on May 18? They’re winning hands

What Obama May Propose

Having agreed to decouple tax cuts on January 1 and having been outmaneuvered on March
1 and March 27, and with Teapublicans signaling there will be no debt ceiling crisis in May,
Obama has been stripped of all his leverage points in bargaining. Obama has left only the
option to offer even more Social security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts. And throughout March
he continued to do so, once again unilaterally — not just offering again to cut COLA adjustments
for Social Security but suggesting his willingness to confront big cuts in the $600-$700 billion
range for Medicare and Social Security and more for Medicaid.

But Obama has planned all along to cut Social Security and Medicare. He made that clear in his
signing of the Bush tax cuts deal on January 2, 2013, during which he stated: “Medicare is the
main cause of deficits.” Again in his February State of the Union address, the president publicly
noted he “liked the Simpson-Bowles” recommendations concerning Medicare cuts.

And what are those recommendations? Instituting a new $550 a year deductible for Parts A
and B of Medicare, and providing only 80% coverage for Part A instead of the current 100%
(which would require another $150-$300 a month in private insurance to cover the remaining
20%, much like Part B now). That together amounts to another $195-$350 taken out of monthly
Social Security checks, when the average for social security benefit payments is only $1100 a
month today.

In other words, Medicare benefits will not be cut – but if seniors want to maintain current
levels of benefits they’ll have to pay even more for them. Alternatively, they can choose to
have fewer benefits and not pay more. It’s all about rationing health care, just as Obamacare for those under 65 is essentially about rationing — as were Bush’s proposals to expand health
savings accounts (HSAs) and Bill Clinton’s health maintenance organization (HMOs) solution.

With only $1.2 more to cut in deficit spending to reach the Simpson-Bowles $4 trillion target,
and Obama offering again his $600-$700 billion enticement in entitlement spending cuts, a deal
is closer than ever before. Watch therefore for the full $600 billion in Social security, Medicare
and Medicaid to take effect, the effective date of the changes to be backloaded in later years of
the decade and certainly not before the 2014 midterm elections.

Expect defense spending cuts of no more than half the $500 billion proposed in the sequester,
and nearly all of which will be from withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq operations, not from
equipment spending. After 2014, most will be recouped as defense spending on naval and air
force equipment and operations will ramp up for the shift of U.S. military focus to the Pacific.
They Army brass haqs had its land wars in Asia; now it’s the turn of Navy and Air Force.

That leaves only a “token” tax revenue increase of about $200 billion over the coming decade,
or a paltry $20 billion a year, which will come in difficult to estimate phony “loophole” closings.
Major cuts in corporate taxes later in 2013 will not be factored into the Grand Bargain $4
trillion official calculations. In addition to big cuts in the top corporate tax rate, look as well for
multinational corporations’ tax breaks and tax forgiveness on the $1.4 trillion they are presently
sheltering in offshore subsidiaries. Of course, small-to-medium business will be thrown yet
another tax cut bone to buy into the deal. In exchange, the middle class will pay more in terms
of limits on deductions and exemptions.

Grand Collusion

In retrospect over the past three years, and especially since November 2012, the Grand
Bargain looks less like a bargain and more like a “grand collusion” among the various parties —
Teapublican, Big Corporate, Obama, and the pro-corporate wing of Democrats in Congress that
have had a stranglehold on the Democratic party since the late 1980s.

This is not the Democratic Party of your grandfather that agreed to introduce Social Security
in the 1930s and that proposed Medicare in the 1960s. This is the Democratic Party, and the
Democratic President, that has agreed with Republicans and Corporate America to begin the
repealing in stages of these very same programs — programs that are not “entitlements” but
are in fact deferred wages earned by Americans over the decades, are now being “concession
bargained” away.

Not content with concessions from those workers still in the labor force, capitalist policymakers
are intent on concessions on social wages now coming due in the form of Social Security and
Medicare benefits. It’s a charade from Simpson-Bowles to the present.

What should be done? Writing letters to Congress won’t change anything. What is now necessary is to begin the formation nationwide of Social Security-Medicare Defense Clubs. After all, that’s how Social Security started in the first place. Neither party proposed it in the 1930s initially.

In fact, Roosevelt initially publicly advocated that Social Security should not be part of the New
Deal. A grassroots protest organized by the clubs forced him and the Democrats to reverse this
position just before the midterm 1934 elections and support the proposal for Social Security.
Now it’s time to reform the clubs to defend Social Security — and the first action should be to
call for a million person march on Washington to reverse whatever cuts are surely ahead.

(Copyright Jack Rasmus 2013)

Jack is the author of Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few (2012), which provides a history of deficit
cutting in the US and predictions of its impact. His blog is For a video presentation on
Social Security and Medicare given recently to the Progressive Democrats of America, see his website.

Earth Day – Its Legacy and Our Future

by Paul Prescod, for the Political Committee

[This article was written by Paul Prescod for the Solidarity Political Committee. For information on the April 20 Ecosocialist Conference in New York City, please see their “call to conference” here. A statement by Solidarity’s Ecosocialism Working Group on the Superstorm Sandy disaster is online at the Webzine, as well as an announcement by Nick Davenport of the “Ecosocialist Contingent” here.]

EARTH DAY BEGAN on April 22, 1970 as an environmental teach-in modeled after those on the Vietnam War, initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. It had resonance because there was a vibrant environmental movement that had been developing. The date was deliberately chosen because it was not during students’ exams or spring break, and 20 million activists participated. Streets, parks, auditoriums, and college campuses were the sites of protests against environmental degradation.

Another important figure related to this was Tony Mazzocchi, a labor leader who took the lead in building strong ties between the union movement, including his own Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers, and the environmental movement. Mazzocchi was heavily influenced by Rachel Carson, whose famous book Silent Spring brought to light the dangers of pesticides and chemicals in our lives.

The modern environmental movement came out of the activism of the 1960s, a product of the politicization and activity that was taking place on a mass scale in the United States globally. Most environmental regulations and legislation that are worth anything today are a result of this movement. It also gave rise to the environmental justice movement, which focuses on environmental issues in communities of color.

For many activists, the awareness of the effects industrial capitalism was having on the environment was integrated with the consciousness that had developed on a number of issues. Struggles of African Americans, feminism, gay liberation, and resistance against imperialist wars were all part of the atmosphere.

This environmental consciousness must be developed again, for today we face a truly planetary crisis. In many different areas of ecology we are fast approaching several tipping points that are unalterable on a human timescale. Ultimately it is up to the populations affected to make Earth Day resonate beyond April 22nd and to build a society that respects ecological limits and addresses real human needs.

With Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather incidents there is a growing awareness that climate change is already here, and it’s real. The movement against the Keystone pipeline showed its force on February 17th with the largest demonstration against climate change this country has ever seen, although the result still hangs in the balance.

As the fracking industry in the country develops, so does the resistance of the communities whose land and water are being destroyed. Globally there are even more inspiring examples of resistance on these fronts.

Melting, Drying Up and Drowning

Climate change is perhaps the most urgent crisis, whose effects are clearly already being felt around the world. The record-breaking U.S. Midwest and plains drought last summer, and the “super storm” Hurricane Sandy, have demonstrated the seriousness of this issue. Extreme weather of all kinds has made its mark across the world. Arctic sea ice had a record melt in the summer of 2012 and scientists are seriously contemplating whether an Arctic without ice in the summer will be a reality within as few as 5-10 years.

Scientists have generally considered an increase in global temperature of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as the point where control of climate change will be out of human hands. (So far, the temperature increase is already 0.8 degrees C.)

This temperature increase would correspond to cumulative carbon emissions of about one trillion metric tons. If business as usual continues we are set to hit that mark in 2043, just 30 years from now. The real goal should be to stay well below this mark, at around 750 billion cumulative metric tons of carbon. In order to avoid this mark we have to decrease our rate of emissions by 5.7 % per year. To put it another way, the International Energy Agency recommends that 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves stay put in the ground.

Contrary to many predictions, the financial crisis has not led to a decline in carbon emissions. Emissions did drop by 1.4% in 2009, but only to spike up by 5.9% in 2010. The widely predicted onset of “peak oil” production also will not come to the rescue: Increased global coal production, tar sands and fracking are being enthusiastically pursued by governments and energy corporations. These sources contain enough carbon to push the planet far over the temperature tipping point if they were to be burned.

The effects of climate change go beyond rising sea levels and more unpredictable weather. Extreme weather, floods, and droughts will change the way farming is done around the world and could set off catastrophic food security crises in Africa and Asia. Staple foods could double in price by 2050 as a result of all this.

Many regions around the world can expect to experience declines in crop and livestock production. Agriculture is simply not flexible enough to adjust to such massive climate swings occurring within a few decades.

As disastrous as it is, climate change represents just one of many ecological crises currently underway. The acidification of the oceans is a direct result of climate change, and even small changes in acidity can cause a huge change in sea ecology. Species extinctions now taking place are on par with other periods of mass extinctions in geological history. Dead zones in oceans are being caused by nitrogen pollution, fueled by its use in chemical fertilizers.

A dramatic loss in freshwater supplies is also occurring, leading to a push for the global privatization of water. Dams, irrigation, destruction of forests, and artificial tree plantations all play a role in disrupting natural water cycles. The depletion of the ozone continues, as well as the destruction of the rainforest. Of course all of these ecological factors interact with and influence each other, making precise predictions about their future development difficult.

Economy and Environment

All this is taking place amidst a global economic crisis that does not show many signs of letting up. The usual rhetoric by world leaders of encouraging economic growth raises serious problems when considering the ecological devastation this “growth” has caused, and the limits that we are pushing up against.

This situation brings many challenges for environmental activists. The economic crisis has brought alarming rates of unemployment, declining wages, erosion of the social safety net, and a more precarious mode of living for many people. Faced with these very real and overwhelming problems, long-term environmental crises will be hard to bring to the forefront of peoples’ concerns. The old ” jobs vs. the environment” card will undoubtedly be played by the energy industry against any threat to its profits.

Socialist activists should be sensitive to this issue and be able to offer up solutions and alternatives. Clearly, the massive infrastructure changes that would be needed to create a truly sustainable society would require equally massive numbers of new jobs. New industries could be accompanied by trainings and employment for workers previously employed in carbon-based energy industries. The various alternative energy sources that do exist, and how they could be utilized, needs to be pointed out.
The system of capitalist production is based on limitless growth, continuous consumption, planned technological/psychological obsolescence, and constant expansion. A high level of planning and cooperation would be needed to seriously address the ecological crisis. This planning simply cannot be dictated by the laws of private profit if it is to be meaningful or effective. The political leaders of all the worst polluting nations have utterly failed to come up with any type of plan to limit climate change or avoid any of the other crises.

It is revealing that in the last presidential election neither Mitt Romney nor Barrack Obama mentioned climate change even once in their debates (in fact, none of the journalists even asked!). Instead they fought over who was more supportive of the coal industry. Obama did begin talking about climate change after the election, but this is primarily to satisfy the Democrats’ voting base and because the movement around the Keystone XL Pipeline made it an issue he could no longer ignore. Except when there’s some current disaster, the mainstream news networks are still largely silent on the issue.

It goes without saying that the Left needs to be heavily involved around these issues. On April 20th an Ecosocialism conference will be held in New York City at Barnard College, involving the collaboration of several socialist organizations. This is a step in the right direction going forward and hopefully will help in refining our analysis of the crisis and what we can do about it. Surely this should be an issue at the center of attention of all generations fighting for a real chance at a future.

Sequestration: Crisis by stealth

by Warren Davis, for the Political Committee

Is it the stupidity of dysfunctional bureaucrats? The tactical blundering of a likeable president facing an irreconcilable congressional divide? Or is this the cleverest maneuver yet from the self-proclaimed defenders of democracy and the American quality of life? My vote is for clever.

For the moment we are talking about the Sequestration crisis, just the latest of what president Obama himself called many manufactured crises in his inauguration speech. Though it may seem like he is distressed by the perceived gridlock on Capitol Hill, the actual agenda for the long series of bought-off Congresses and corporate-friendly presidents is moving along quite nicely. Across the board discretionary spending cuts amounting to $85 billion have taken effect as of March 1 and will need to be absorbed by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. A total of $4 trillion in cuts are mandated over the decade so far.

To be sure, this “crisis” is not a crisis at all for the president and the congress, since they’ve been intending to see these cuts enacted in some form all along. As Jeffrey Sachs observed in his recent Financial Times op-ed: “The administration is now vigorously blaming the Republicans for the pending cuts. Yet the level of spending for fiscal year 2013 under the sequestration will be nearly the same as Mr Obama called for in the draft budget presented in mid-2012.” Of course, the president won’t be entirely pleased until Congress legislates authority to agency heads to redistribute and prioritize spending, but that will be as easy as the last – or the next — continuing resolution to keep the government operating. Not a problem.

This is really a continuation of the now-permanent campaigning that consumes Washington’s politicians. Virtually all federal legislation has taken on a public relations character, a contest between party spin doctors for points toward the next election. The supposed “fiscal cliff”, off which no sane politician would dare jump, has been neatly turned into the new plateau. Instead of dramatic congressional debates or presidential addresses, we see campaign speeches lamenting the failure of bipartisanship followed by the president treating Republican leaders to dinner at the luxurious Jefferson Hotel in D.C. One supposes having the dinner hosted in-house would have been a bit rich after cancelling the White House tours for American school children on account of the sequestration cuts. By the way, to watch the ABC Evening News with Diane Sawyer, we might guess that these school children are facing the worst of it.

So what will the sequestration really cost America’s working and poor folks? Estimates vary widely, but none of it is good for the 99%, and all of it is good for the 1%. In a nation of TV addicts, crises take on a surreal character: our political storms are like our weather reporting. The reporters breathlessly describe the storm of the decade or the century, or more like the month, devastating to millions. But typically most viewers “escape” the worst effects, as the trees happen to fall on neighbors’ cars, or the power goes out in another neighborhood; all of it will be restored sooner than later by those trusted companies and contractors who apply good old American ingenuity and know-how to end the crisis, and private enterprise hums along. Of course, odds are that everyone will be affected by a crisis sooner or later, but the sense of security, knowing that American commerce will fix the problem and keep the economy working, is enough to sooth all nerves.

According to the Congressional Budget office, GDP growth would be 0.6% slower under sequestration, and Austin Goolsbee, former chairman of Obama’s economic advisors, told Congress that the impact of the sequester would “put us back in the circumstance where growth is not fast enough to shrink the unemployment rate.” In other words, not enough new jobs would be created to keep up with new workers entering the job market, and unemployment rates would again rise as the mid-term election campaigns get under way. Incidentally, a key part of the electoral calculation is the new demographics. One thing will certainly happen before then: passage of immigration reform. Latino voters put Obama over the top in 2012. Republicans would like to have a bipartisan reform under their belts as they enter the midterms, so they can claim a remedy to fix the rising unemployment that disproportionately hurts Latinos in lower paid jobs.

The effects of sequestration will not appear to be catastrophic to those still with jobs – somewhat like an overdone weather report – unless you are the one affected personally. The FT explains: “[M]any federal agencies plan to handle the cuts by sending staff home, without pay, for one day a week or fortnight. Such workers will not show up as unemployed because official jobs data include anybody who did any work in the past week. Nor will figures for hours worked or average earnings fall as a result of such lay-offs because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect those numbers for the salaried federal workforce.” As usual, the effects are wider than reported, but the crisis quickly recedes from the newscasts and the brief attention span of public consciousness.

The next “crisis”? Recently government economists have begun to point out that the legislation making tax cuts permanent has been a major factor in a further trillion-dollar shortfall. It just so happens that the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission, designed to market cuts in Social Security and Medicare, has come up with another trillion or two in savings. Expect the eventual “grand bargain” among Republicans and Democrats to be something like the shared sacrifice we’ve been promised by Democrats all along, chief spokesman among them, president Obama. But if all goes according to the usual formula, Republicans will demand a revised tax code, “giving up” favored loopholes in exchange for lower rates (a net lower tax bill, of course); and Democrats will trade off “small but fair” cuts in “entitlements” (what was a cut in cost-of-living increases could now include a raised retirement age for Social Security; Medicare rates will rise but so could the age of eligibility to match longer life spans, etc). If true to form, Obama’s Democrats will offer their concessions at the beginning of negotiations before even being asked to give them up, showing us all what decent sports they are.

The real crisis is systemic and politically unsolvable. The Fed, like the European Central Bank, will continue its “quantitative easing infinity” (another term for printing money because they have no other answer); corporations will be forced to continue to shake out, eliminating or absorbing competitors, lowering costs and shedding jobs; banks, reluctant to extend credit to businesses in a shaky economy, are looking more to currency speculation and higher yields on money they lend to debt-saddled governments; and the 99% will continue to bear the burden of bankers’ debts gone bad, the decimation of labor institutions, a drastically lower standard of living and dismantlement of the social safety net, in short the end of the New Deal.

As we publish, Europeans were shocked to hear that the citizens of Cyprus will have a substantial portion of their bank savings deposits stolen (“taxed”) by the government to qualify for billions of euros in bailout funds for their failing banks. After Greece and anticipating Italy, the Germans and Finns (the two highest rated European economies) especially are worried that politicians can no longer be relied upon to impose the worst of austerity measures in failing European economies, and that the financial system faces complete collapse. No longer confident that governments can buy off the total debts of their banks with privatizations, more taxes and cuts in pensions and wages, now almost half the losses will be directly withdrawn from the bank accounts of ordinary citizens. The sales pitch is that depositors can take the tax bite or face total losses when the banks go under. As it is, the run on the Cypriot banks is likely to spread as other European investors realize their own governments don’t have the cash to guarantee their bank deposits either. The Irish prime minister, currently serving as rotating chair of the European Union Council (heads of government), told Russian TV that Italy, next in the bailout line, “is too big to be saved and too big to fail.” There is no plan B. Meanwhile, in a corporate state as culturally hegemonic as the United States, the consequences of this crisis will be visited on the working class mostly by stealth. But sooner or later, all of us will be affected by the storm’s effects, and the catastrophe will be unfixable.

Conclusion? There is a choice. Either we accept the looting and pillaging, dysfunction and mendacity, of the corporate class as they destroy the system that feeds them, or the 99% can make the capitalist system dysfunctional on its own terms, by stopping payment of the debts of the rich and demanding the fruits of our own labor. Tell that to your neighbor next time there’s a storm.

Warren Davis is a long-time labor activist living in the Philadelphia area, recently most active in the Occupy movement and the struggle against austerity. He joined Solidarity in 1987.

The Union Situation in GM Colmotores (Bogota, Colombia)

by Jorge Parra with Frank Hammer and Paige Shell-Spurling

March 15, 2013

This document was written to provide history on the struggle of Colombian GM workers at the Colmotres assembly plant in Bogota, Columbia. A number of injured workers, most of whom were injured on the job, have been fired from the plant. The ongoing occupation outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, which is referenced below, has been present for almost 600 days. Activity within the United States has been and continues to be in the form of pressuring the UAW to speak to General Motors to intervene and raising money to support the injured and fired workers. For further information, see this article published in the latest Against the Current and this interview with Jorge Parra published for the Webzine.

August 15 demonstration at GM headquarters (Photos: Frank Hammer)


SINTRAIME, a labor federation which includes workers from the mines and metal industries throughout Colombia, has been present in the GM Colmotores Chevy assembly plant for more than 40 years. In recent years, GM has worked to replace the SINTRAIME local with a company union which is known as the “collective pact.”

More than 1,000 workers who were members of SINTRAIME went on strike against GM Colmotores in 1997. The strike was in response to the company’s refusal to negotiate with the Union, which was seeking to protect the gains made through past collective bargaining agreements. These included health benefits, housing, education, and housing improvement funds. Massive picket lines halted production for a month; workers armed with sticks formed self-defense units.

The company retaliated by launching a campaign attacking the Union’s legitimacy, and illegally firing approximately 500 union members. Due to corruption within the Labor Ministry, GM Colmotores was not sanctioned for its violation of Colombian law. The company began to hire workers under a variety of inferior – mostly one-year – fixed-term contracts, denying new hires the stable employment, pensions and other benefits enjoyed by union workers. The union workers were steadily displaced by the new hires. Police paid by the company at one point were used to keep workers – whose names appeared on a list of strike participants – from entering the plant. In 2003, in the wake of passage of new laws weakening labor rights, GM Colmotores fired an additional 300 workers who had less than 20 years’ service.

Year by year, GM Colmotores laid off union workers, and pensioned those who aged out. This and the other actions described above explain why SINTRAIME has declined from 1,400 workers at its peak – out of a workforce of 1,800 – to 45 workers. The remaining members are protected by law from arbitrary dismissal, though a majority suffers from occupational injuries.


Prior to hiring in on May 10, 2004 as a production welder at GM Colmotores, I had been a journeyman welder, having invested 3.5 years in technical training in welding and metallurgy. At the start of the shift one day after having worked a few months, the new hires were separated from the older union workers, and were directed to the cafeteria for a meeting. Those who belonged to the union were told to go directly to their jobs and begin working. The then-VP of Labor Relations Maria Lucia Sambrano addressed the 600+ workers who had gathered in the cafeteria, saying: “Today we are launching the new ‘collective pact’ for new hires, putting an end to unionized workers. I want to present your representatives.” She pointed to five workers who were obviously chosen by the company, as we didn’t have anything to do with their selection.

We were given a little breakfast and a pen, and told to sign a document to become part of the first “collective pact” (company union). To get a buy-in by the new workers, they told us that those who signed the “collective pact” would receive a bonus that afternoon. (Workers who later changed their mind and joined the union would have to pay back the bonus). 50-60 of us who didn’t sign were told to go to Labor Relations. There Maria Lucia Sambrano showed us a thick document with many pages and said, “This is the collective pact, each of you have 5 minutes to read it. Sign the collective pact and you may return to your job. If you do not want to sign it, you may leave immediately.”

From then on, GM Colmotores pitted the new hires against the older workers belonging to SINTRAIME, by creating an environment with clear differences and clear preferences. This produced a tense work environment. New hires were used to marginalize the union workers with the new hires, for example, receiving bonuses from which the union workers were excluded. The five “reps” selected by the company were instructed to pay attention to new hires caught talking to the union workers.

New hires who entered after the implementation of the first “collective pact,” such as Carlos Ernesto Trujillo and Wilson Blandon, were simply told that they were being hired under a one year contract, and were told that they must sign the “collective pact.”


ASOTRECOL, an association made up of injured workers and former workers from GM Colmotores, was formed in May, 2011 after nearly four years of filing complaints and building awareness among the workers. Unable to join a union, but realizing we must be organized in order to defend our rights and change conditions inside the plant, I and other injured workers and former workers formed ASOTRECOL. We documented the fact that many fired workers were suffering work-related injuries, and that GM Colmotores was blatantly violating numerous Colombian laws. We exposed corruption within the Labor Ministry (charged with protecting workers’ rights). We brought this to public attention when 68 members of ASOTRECOL set up tents in front of the U.S. Embassy, August 2, 2011, maintaining a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-per-week presence since.

Jorge Parra, president of ASOTRECOL, sewed his lips shut in a final hunger strike on November 20, 2012.

In retaliation for defending my rights and organizing my colleagues, not only was I fired, I also have been persecuted and threatened. Today my life is in danger. On one occasion, my truck was broken into, with threatening messages left inside. Two people who were following me on motorcycles and photographing me were detained and taken to a police station (only to be released). And my mother received “sympathy” cards in response to my supposed death, inscribed with comments that her son shouldn’t have been involved in certain activities. An order by the Attorney General of Colombia directing the National Police to protect me and my family has been ignored.

Standing up for our rights as workers in my country is practically a death sentence. 3,000 union and labor organizers have been murdered in Colombia in the last couple of decades. Their deaths are often attributed to a personal conflict or common street crime. There is no guarantee that I will not be killed in retaliation for the allegations we have raised against GM Colmotores or the corruption we have exposed in public offices. If it were to happen, government officials and/or the Colombian media would likely say I was killed when a thief tried to rob my cell phone. That is the reality that union leaders and organizers face in Colombia.

The publicity about the work carried out by ASOTRECOL has prompted GM Colmotores to make many improvements which are greatly benefiting our fellow workers inside the plant:

According to Colombia’s primary newspaper, GM Colmotores is making much-needed improvements to its assembly line, including investing $6 million in the truck line where many of us developed injuries, which was attributed to intervention by GM HQ.


One of our biggest accomplishments has been that current workers are more aware of their rights and the rights of injured workers, and the laws that protect the latter from arbitrary dismissal. Some of these workers decided about 10 months ago to form a new union inside the plant, SINTRAGMCOL. Now workers are refusing to join the collective pact (company union) and instead are joining SINTRAGMCOL to fight for their rights along with the older union workers of SINTRAIME. (Note: having more than one union inside a plant is allowed in Colombia; also, the presence of a union does not mean that union-negotiated rights extend to all workers, as described above).

These two unions joined together about two weeks ago, with approximately 200 workers declining to take a paid temporary layoff, while GM Colmotores made improvements on the assembly line in response to the pressure that ASOTRECOL has generated. The workers are glad for the improvements to the line, which include: ergonomic improvements, installation of robots, and the completion of the new assembly line at its new stamping plant. But they were opposed to the company’s plan to pay workers during the layoff, only to recoup that pay by compelling workers to make up for those hours by working extra hours on their return while only paying their normal salaries. From past experience that’s meant 12-14 hours daily, 7 days per week. The workers belonging to the unions SINTRAIME and SINTRAGMCOL are resisting working the long days and weeks because they are aware that’s what’s responsible, in part, for their repetitive stress injuries. They weren’t willing to take the “vacation” time off, only to be required to make up the hours later at the expense of their health. This, despite the fact that workers do not receive any vacation time off, regardless of years of service, except for the holiday period around Christmas and New Year’s. Management’s response was to find work for the 200 workers to do. What will happen when the other workers are called back and the excessive hours get scheduled is anyone’s guess.

ASOTRECOL is nothing more than a group of workers who are seeking justice. Both SINTRAIME (the older union with more than 40 years of struggle inside GM Colmotores) and SINTRAGMCOL (the new union of injured workers) recognize that the struggle of ASOTRECOL is precisely what has changed many conditions within GM Colmotores.

The information contained herein can be corroborated by Mr. Felix Arturo Herrera, President of the SINTRAIME labor federation and the SINTRAIME local inside GM Colmotores.

Jorge Parra, President


with Frank Hammer and Paige Shell-Spurling

The Heroism of Bradley Manning

WE KNOW ABOUT heroes of social justice and liberation who come “organically“ from the movements: Nelson Mandela. Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr. Eugene V. Debs. Chico Mendes. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Heroes of grassroots resistance in Palestine, in the Philippines, in Central America and so many other struggles, those with names we know and so many more we don’t.

Then there are those heroic individuals who seem to come out of nowhere, perhaps influenced in some ways by the atmosphere of dissent but with no indication that they ever were, or intended to be, part of an organized movement let alone symbols of it. That’s who Bradley Manning seems to be, pretty much an ordinary guy with ordinary human qualities and problems — who didn’t check his moral compass at the door when he signed up for the military.

Maybe he was indirectly influenced by the example decades earlier of Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the “Pentagon Papers” with their revelations of the lying fraud behind the United States’ war in Vietnam. Maybe not. In any case, you can and should read the statement of this hero here.

Because of the political and judicial climate at the time of Daniel Ellsberg’s revelations, Richard Nixon’s attempt to destroy his life didn’t succeed. It’s different in the age of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As Chris Hedges writes, “Manning will surely pay with many years – perhaps his entire life – in prison. But we too will pay. The war against Bradley Manning is a war against us all.”

Hedges is right, of course. Self-interest as well as basic morality and human decency demand that the antiwar and civil liberties movements stand in solidarity with Bradley Manning as well as with Wikileaks, which published his revelations after mainstream corporate newspapers’ cowardly refusal to be the primary recipients.

In its bloodlust, the government – that’s the Obama administration – won’t accept Manning’s statement of responsibility exposing him to 20 years prison, but will press the ridiculous charges of “aiding the enemy,” “espionage” and “computer crimes.” Manning had no contact with “the enemy,” didn’t spy for anyone and hacked into no government computers. Doesn’t matter.

For background on the case, you can read Hedges’ Truthdig article, and follow developments and offer support through Manning’s defense committee website. There’s another comparison worth thinking about: What made Bradley Manning behave differently from the flyboys he saw on the video in their Apache helicopter, gunning down civilians on a Baghdad street and then returning to incinerate a van (including kids) who were trying to assist the wounded victims?

Those guys weren’t necessarily cynical psychopaths when they joined the military. Nor were those who have raided village homes in Afghanistan, shot the men, raped teenage girls and burned the bodies to hide the evidence. We don’t know when and why they shed their moral compasses, or how many of them will return to become violent abusers or PTSD-afflicted human time bombs. The military and the government have every reason to keep us from finding out any time soon. The truth would expose too much about what these wars have done to our society as well as those we’ve pulverized with our smart weapons and stupid leaders.

Decades from now when it’s too late, there will be studies that provide considerable detail like Nick Turse’s new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Right now, we need the heroism of Bradley Manning and more like him to lift the information blackout. That’s why the system is determined to crush him and anyone else who might follow his example of ordinary, and extraordinary, heroism.

This statement was written for the Solidarity Political Committee by David Finkel. The author is not to be confused with the Washington Post reporter (referenced in Bradley Manning’s statement) who embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Ecosocialism: The Time is Now!

by Nick Davenport

The Forward on Climate demonstration in Washington, DC on Sunday, February 17th will be a landmark event in the history of the US environmental movement and a major step forward for the struggle. Radicals and revolutionaries, including Solidarity along with other socialist organizations, are organizing an Ecosocialist Contingent at the demonstration. (Details of the contingent are at the end of this article.)

Despite great advances in changing popular consciousness on the gravity of the ecological crisis, mainstream environmentalism has been ineffective at dealing with the crisis because its ideology is based on a compromise with capitalism. The leadership of these mainstream groups hope to introduce reforms and regulations that will supposedly make the system sustainable. But this goal is impossible, as ecological sustainability runs counter to the profit motive and imperialism. Because they are unwilling to give up on pursuing a compromise with capitalism, this strategy must, in the end, compromise on ecology.

Major campaigns of liberal environmental organizations often take a soft stand on destructive practices like fracking, calling for regulation rather than bans. They fail to take a systemic view of the crisis threatening the planet, and to keep protest within the bounds of the current system they adopt a strategy based on lobbying — not mobilizing people in a way that can build real power. Such a strategy is so non-threatening to polluting industries that natural gas companies gave over $25 million to the Sierra Club between 2007 and 2010.

Environmental activist groups, like, are clear and honest about the urgency of combating the climate emergency, and have displayed strength in bringing people out to protests.’s campaign for campus divestment from the fossil fuel industry is an edxciting initiative! 350 is a leading sponsor of the Forward on Climate demonstration (along with the Sierra Club, which may be seeing the bankruptcy of a lobbying-based strategy).

This looks to be the largest U.S. climate demonstration to date, and it’s an inspiring and sorely needed effort. The demonstration is politically strong in taking a firm stance against the Keystone tar-sands oil pipeline, demanding that president Obama reject it.

The demonstration, held on President’s Day weekend, expresses faith in Obama, calling him to take leadership to move “forward on climate” (without specifying what that should look like). The problem is that Obama is beholden to the corporate interests which run this society, and financed his election. Although he is no doubt personally aware of the gravity of the climate crisis, president Obama has consistently supported continuing the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels and building new oil pipelines.

We believe that Obama is unlikely to reject the Keystone pipeline, as he will be under intense pressure from oil interests as well as the Canadian government. But even if he does – which would be a tremendous victory for the movement! – this is a long way from truly solving the climate crisis, which will require a break from the endless exploitation of natural resources and the increasing production of consumer goods which corporations depend on for their bottom line.

In order to win immediate demands like rejection of Keystone XL, we need to show political elites that there is a real threat that they will lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the public if they approve the pipeline. And ultimately, we need a revolutionary transformation of our political and economic structures in order to create a sustainable society free of oppression.

This points to the need for radicals to build a current within the climate and environmental movements that advances a revolutionary strategy based on ecosocialist politics. Such a strategy would be based on challenging political elites, maintaining independence from pro-capitalist politicians, and building alliances with struggles for social justice, workers’ rights, and the liberation of women and oppressed peoples around the globe. Such a strategy is the only way to win the immediate ecological reforms we need to avoid catastrophe, as well as to build a new, truly sustainable society.

Ecosocialism would put forth a vision of a society worth living in, truly democratic at all levels, in which production and consumption would be carried out to fulfill people’s needs and regenerate the earth, not to produce private profit. An opportunity to start building an ecosocialist current will come on the 17th, when members of Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, and other radical organizations will march together as the Ecosocialist Contingent in the Forward on Climate demonstration.

We hope to begin building a radical current within the movement, in order to overcome the limitations in the strategies pursued by mainstream environmental groups and build grassroots power that can win. Through our participation in the demonstration, we’ll show that ecosocialism is a real force within the movement. Anyone who supports ecosocialist politics is welcome to join us.

The Ecosocialist Contingent will meet at 11 A.M. on Sunday, February 17th at the Smithsonian Metro station (12th St. and Jefferson Drive SW) in DC. Join the Facebook event here and check out the official webpage of the contingent here. If you’re in DC the evening before the demo, come to the forum, “How to Stop Climate Change: A Socialist Response”, Saturday, February 16th from 7 to 9 P.M. at All Souls Unitarian Church, 1500 Harvard St. NW. The forum, sponsored by the International Socialist Organization, will feature several speakers, including a member of the Ecosocialist Working Group of Solidarity and Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism. RSVP for the forum here. We hope to see you there!

Nick Davenport is a member of Solidarity and an activist involved in environmental organizing in Baltimore.

A statement by the Ecosocialist Working Group of Solidarity, following Hurricane Sandy, is online at

Over the Climate Cliff

from the ATC Editors

This editorial statement appears in the January-February issue of AGAINST THE CURRENT. It went to press before the full horror of the fire and heat crisis in Australia – with recorded temperatures of up to 129 degrees Fahrenheit! – had unfolded. We hope very soon to have reports on the Australian situation. We also draw readers’ attention to the Webzine report on the Idle No More mobilizations in the Canadian state, which includes a critically important focus on environmental degradation as well as other fundamental issues.

Students from the group SEAC at the University of New Hampshire campus have been campaigning to have their school divest from fossil fuels (December 2012)

HUMAN CIVILIZATION IS heading over the climate cliff, with consequences even on conservative estimates that threaten the survival of the world’s coastal cities as well the viability of agriculture, fishing stocks and fresh water supplies — in short, essentially the natural base on which all of society is built. Within this century, a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is regarded as inevitable.

The consequences of that are serious enough — but beyond that point, the future of society is at severe risk.

We won’t review here the scary statistics on the Arctic and Greenland icesheet shrinkage, loss of glaciers critical to agriculture in South America and Asia, melting of permafrost with its dramatic contribution to rising carbon emissions, collapse of coral reefs, and other well-documented symptoms of a hotter and less hospitable global climate — all with a temperature increase so far of only about 0.8 degrees Celsius. These have been fully explored in many hundreds of popular as well as scientific articles, books and documentaries.

Depending on what actions are (or aren’t) taken now, that two-degree threshold may be reached within only a few decades — with further catastrophic acceleration to follow — or more gradually toward the end of the century with additional warming held in check by radically transforming our present fossil-fuel-dependent economy. That may be the defining choice for human society for hundreds of years to come.

As author and activist Bill McKibben (founder of the network has memorably put it, the laws of physics and chemistry — unlike politicians — do not negotiate. The interaction of these laws in a dynamic and changing system is so fiendishly complex that we don’t know what results they’ll give us, or exactly how quickly. But it’s entirely clear both from theory and observation that the consequences of the present level of fossil fuel consumption, to say nothing of the annual exponential increase, are somewhere between catastrophic and apocalyptic.

How to address this genuine civilizational crisis is a matter of perspective. For a sector of the capitalist class — notably those centered on oil and coal production like the notorious “Crack” (Koch) brothers, but not them alone — the strategy is to create a massively funded pseudo-scientific industry of climate change denial. We have seen denialism manifested in many forms — from “Drill, baby, drill” Republican politics, to organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Heartland Institute, to a half-hidden but vast production of religious-right literature exposing “The Global Warming Deception” as a plot of the New World Order conspiracy. (For a comment on one such work, see

Other elements of capital take a more sober view reflecting a combination of self-interest and rational thought.  Well before Superstorm Sandy, the insurance industry for example has been conscious of the costs arising from sea level rise and storm surges in coastal regions, as well as crop failures and various economic disruptions. The Pentagon’s astute planners have identified the environmental crisis as a leading causal factor in 21st century warfare (while not accounting for their own considerable contribution to the catastrophe, of course). New York mayor Michael Bloomberg even repudiated Mitt Romney for his association with climate change denial.

The fashionable trend called  “Green Capitalism” is based around making profits from solar and wind energy, organic grocery choices, reusable shopping bags, electric hybrid vehicles and the like, all on the premise as described by author Heather Rogers, “that global warming can be stopped by swapping out dirty products for green ones,  with little disruption to daily life…Eating organic breakfast cereal no longer feels unfamiliar because it’s coated with sugar and comes in cartoon-covered boxes.” (Green Gone Wrong, 5-6) Much of this amounts to greenwashing the same dirty stuff that ordinary capitalism promotes — not finding a solution at all, but providing a pretense so that capitalist life as usual can simply continue.

Capitalism itself, we’re often told, can save the environment by letting the free market work its miracles of “innovation.” At the high-tech and futuristic end of the spectrum are ideas for literally transforming the world by miracles of bioengineering through the creation of new organisms that will produce energy, eat pollution, cure diseases and solve global hunger. (For an interview with Human Genome Project pioneer Craig Venter on such fabulous possibilities, see

What Will Work?

Amidst the swirl of proposed fixes to the looming disaster, it’s possible that some of these technical innovations along with sustainable and local production, reforestation on a large scale and other schemes might actually help. Some others, notably fracking and converting food production to biofuels, unquestionably do way more harm than good and must be stopped immediately. But the larger point is that real solutions can only be found in a transformed social and political — and international — framework.

Capitalist technological innovation has certainly trans­formed political economy several times over. It has done so, however, by generally increasing the use of energy to replace (i.e. enormously expand the productivity) of human labor, with the need for profit driving the whole process. That is most definitely not what the environmental crisis of our age requires.

Consider a few of the immediate as well as longer-term problems that must be addressed — just within the U.S. context, to say nothing of the global one. Should coastal zones devastated by Sandy or threatened by other storms be rebuilt as they were, reconstructed with protection by seawalls and dunes, or not rebuilt for housing but redesigned as public parkland? Should large areas of the U.S. Southwest where water is disappearing be “saved” for agribusiness by massive engineering projects, or set aside for (perhaps) wind farming? Can the automobile be made environmentally sustainable, or does that industry need to be scrapped and replaced entirely?

Globally the questions are even more profound. What do rich countries, whose economic growth produced the carbon-emissions crisis, owe to the rest of the world that’s being devastated by it — and what form would those reparations take? What is the future of countries like Venezuela that depend on oil exports — or of China, if its energy needs aren’t to be met by climate-destroying coal? And perhaps the ultimate question: Under the most favorable and optimistic assumptions, how quickly could the world dramatically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions?

The Meaning of Ecosocialism

There are a few essential points to be stressed for the emerging politics of “ecosocialism.” The first of these is that the environmental crisis is absolutely real, and threatens the survival of civilization and tens of thousands of species who might be driven to extinction along with ourselves. That’s the “eco” in ecosocialism.

The second critical point is that human action can avert the worst consequences of climate change and environmental degradation, but this depends both on immediate action and on a profound transformation of consciousness about the crisis. Indeed, amidst all the devastating news about the annual exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the proliferation of superstorms and acceleration of polar ice melt, the hopeful signs point to a growth in popular understanding about the reality of our condition.

A movement inspired by Bill McKibben’s organization has sprung up on campuses, demanding divestment by university endowments from the fossil fuel industry (see, just as the tobacco industry and South African apartheid were targeted in the past (and increasingly, the Israeli occupation today).

Third and most important, the grounds on which crucial decisions are based can no longer be the demands of capital and profit. That means, of course, that the political rule of capital must be abolished so that human needs can be met, and decisions are taken through democratic institutions controlled by the masses of people whose lives and futures are at stake. This, in short, is the “socialism” in ecosocialism.

Keystone XL Protest in Washington D.C. (September 4, 2011)

Fracking, mountaintop removal for coal and nuclear power may well be profitable directions for the energy industry, but that cannot be the deciding criterion. In fact, profitability stands in the way of survival. That’s the bottom-line truth that the corporate-owned politicians and media can never tell us. The need for a bottom-up approach was confirmed, once more, by the absurd spectacle of the Doha UN climate change “summit” where no serious action was even proposed — let alone any commitments made — by the world leaders. (For some details see “The Tragic Farce at Doha,”

In historical perspective, we can say that the unresolved question of the 20th century was the socialist revolution. Capitalism had already prepared “the development of the productive forces” and become a profoundly destructive system — as two world wars, a global depression and multiple genocides should have been sufficient to demonstrate.

Let’s assume realistically that a 20th century transition to socialism, by itself, would not have prevented the onset of climate change, the magnitude of which as a product of coal and oil-powered industrial development was certainly not well understood. It’s unmistakably clear now that the global problem of the 21st century is the sustainable survival of civilization, so that the unfulfilled socialist revolution and the “sustainability” revolution have become inseparably combined.

The Transformation We Need

All this poses profound issues for how society can be reorganized from the local to the national and global levels; how standards of living can be sustained or raised without committing ecological suicide, and what is meant  or measured by “standards of living” to begin with; what kinds of consumption may need to be restricted or relinquished; and how health, welfare, working conditions, and the enjoyment of leisure and culture can be expanded when we are freed from the demands of unending capital accumulation.

Ecosocialism is a movement expressed in multiple forms, where women in India block World Bank-financed destructive dam construction or indigenous peoples in Latin America blockade logging roads on their lands; where youth protest the farce of the Doha do-nothing “summit;” where activists in Texas, Nebraska and Canada mobilize to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline and the metastasis of tar sands production; and wherever communities organize against the cancer of fracking. It exists, consciously or not, wherever people reject the priority of corporate profit as the deciding factor of “development.”

The plain political fact is that climate change (along with poverty, racism, inequality and other critical issues) were never addressed by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the presidential election, nor did any of the dummy “debate moderators” think to ask. That doesn’t mean the crisis is going away — it’s simply a reflection of the reality that capitalism cannot begin to solve the problem, even if and when it bothers to acknowledge it. Only action at the global grassroots can begin to save the only planet we’ve got.

[For a perspective on “A Marxist Ecological Vision” in our previous issue, see Nick Davenport’s article at A statement by the Ecosocialism Working Group of Solidarity, following Hurricane Sandy, is online at]

January/February 2012, ATC 162