No Trump, No War, No Way!

from the Steering Committee of Solidarity

September 22, 2017

If it weren’t frightening, it would be funny: “Big Twit Calls Out Rocket Man,” as Donald Trump ramps up his insults and threats of war against North Korea. Let’s look at some of the issues behind the antics and escalating rhetoric.


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump © Wong Maye-E, Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press).

It’s really impossible to assess the chances of an actual war on the Korean peninsula, but while it may be a low-probability event its consequences would be utterly catastrophic. All the establishment media, of course, breathlessly consider whether the North Korean regime and its “beloved leader” Kim Jong-un are a direct threat to the United States — as if U.S. imperialism didn’t threaten North Korea and a whole bunch of other countries. It’s simply taken as given that rich and powerful states have an inherent right to self-defense and security, and others don’t.

Let’s start with the general observation about nuclear weapons. Ultimately they will either be abolished — as a United Nations agreement supported by 120 member nations calls for — or they’ll inevitably proliferate. If anything, it’s rather remarkable that they haven’t spread further already; but in addition to the original nuclear Great Powers, nuclear-armed states now include India and Pakistan as well as Israel, and now DPRK (North Korea). South Africa under apartheid had a secret nuclear weapons program — in collaboration with Israel — but renounced it in the 1990s when the African National Congress took power.

If Donald Trump carries through on his idiotic threats to blow up the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany) deal with Iran, that regime might undertake its own rush toward developing nuclear weapons capability. That would likely soon be followed by Saudi Arabia and probably others. Which potential confrontation is really the most dangerous? None of us know, and we don’t want to find out the hard way.

Moving to today’s immediate crisis, it’s true that the North Korean regime is in the running for the world’s most brutal. It’s a nationalist autarky flying a “Communist” flag of regional convenience, its ruling military-political elite headed by a family dynasty, where much of the population periodically starves and internal purges are carried out by liquidating the victims with anti-aircraft weaponry. But that is not the fundamental reason why North Korea is pursuing what its rulers rather grandly call “strategic nuclear equilibrium” with the world’s greatest superpower. Kim Jong-un’s ego may play a role, but that’s not the decisive factor either — any more than Donald Trump’s serious personality disorders are the driving force of U.S. imperialism.

We need to remind ourselves that the horrible Korean War of the late 1940s and early ‘50s never formally ended. The truce that ended the fighting in 1953, after much of the country was destroyed and the U.S. and Chinese militaries had fought to a bloody draw, left tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. The U.S. presence remains a threat both to North Korea and China, and needs to be removed!

More recently, the North Korean leadership sees the examples of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein Iraq – both of whom had been on friendly terms with Western governments and intelligence services — who gave up their plans to develop nuclear weapons capability, and got whacked when the imperial godfathers found it expedient to dump them. These have been promoted as “victories” for righteous American power. In fact, they are a warning to small countries they’d better develop some kind of “asymmetric” retaliatory capability.

Since North Korea has always been on the U.S. official enemies list (remember George W. Bush’s “axis of evil“), all the more reason then for its regime to seek strategic deterrence. Its massive artillery has been aimed for decades at Seoul, the capital and heart of South Korea, in a game of Mutual Assured Destruction on the peninsula. But what North Koreans also remember, although Americans long ago forgot, is that during the Korean War the United States bombed the place to smithereens until there were no military targets left, then bombed North Korea’s dikes — so the regime has long sought a strategic balance of terror against the U.S. itself.

With the protection of its ally China no longer assured, now that China has strong economic relations with South Korea, the United States and the West in general, Pyongyang has gone for the ultimate nuclear option. That might well prove to be a suicidal choice, but it has its own insane logic within the larger massive insanity of a global system on the edge of self-destruction.

Where does this leave us? In the complex crosscurrents of regional and global geopolitics, the South Korean government (fortunately) opposes the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory. The majority of the South Korean population is antiwar — understandably not wishing to be potentially vaporized in a holocaust brought on by outside powers. The newly elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in is looking for openings for de-escalation and dialogue, and has allocated $8 million for aid (to be distributed through UNICEF) to children facing starvation in the North. This is both a humanitarian and political gesture, opposed by the United States whose policy is to draw South Korea into Washington’s increasingly confrontational stance.

China and Russia are trying to ratchet up economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to freeze its bomb and ballistic missile tests, while also calling for the United States and other powers to de-escalate and engage in negotiations with the North. None of these regimes are in any way progressive, but in one way or another, negotiations are the only actual alternative to a slide toward catastrophe. There’s no need to have any illusions about North Korea in order to recognize the importance of demanding “no war” and dismantling the U.S. military presence. We, the people of the United States, have no “place at the table” or any means of shaping the terms of negotiations. We do have our voices, and we need to use them.

We have to tell the Congress and our fellow Americans that we’re not only sick of Donald Trump’s antics and border walls and white supremacy, but we’re sick of the endless wars that Democrats and Republicans alike are continuing in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Yemen, the ever-growing military budget that’s eating us alive, and climate change denial that threatens to end human civilization even without nuclear war.

The $700 billion U.S. military budget passed the Senate by a vote of 89-8. (If that’s bipartisanship, can we please have our gridlock back?) Is there a bigger waste of money right now, at a time when Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands need to be rebuilt — as well as all the Caribbean nations pulverized by nature’s message about what climate chaos is bringing? We need to recognize that among all the retrograde and reactionary regimes at play in this crisis, the government of our own imperialist state is the most dangerous. It’s a threat not only to North Korea but to our survival. No Trump, no war, no way!

For further reading at International Viewpoint see Tadashi Kinoshita’s Before building peaceful workers’ state in the Korean Peninsula. Among the U.S. groups organizing against the war drive, we recommend the initiatives of CodePink.

Science for the People with the EZLN

by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto

May 26, 2017

Like many previous revolutionary movements, the Zapatistas in Mexico have their share of conventions, encounters, protests and the like. It is not unusual to celebrate the contribution of the arts to revolutionary fervor. Yet something different, and to us unique, happened this past December 25-January 4.
Following a conference on the role of art in the revolution last year, they held a large conference on the role of science in the construction of a new society. Called ConCiencias (literally “with science,” with the double meaning of the Spanish “conciencias” meaning consciousness), it was a large meeting to begin the process of incorporating science into the revolutionary process. Scientists from across Mexico and the rest of the world (82 scientists from 11 countries) were invited to present both the results of their own research and a perspective on the role of science in the new non-capitalist society. We were among the invitees.


ConCiencias Conference. December 25, 2016 – January 4, 2017

“Never More Mexico Without Us”

Bill Clinton’s trade deal with Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement, saw its formal birth on January 1, 1994. Simultaneously several thousand armed rebels from the mountains of the southernmost state of Mexico descended on several large towns, including the tourist mecca of San Cristóbal de las Casas, capturing police stations and civic buildings, effectively declaring war on the State of Mexico.

Named after the heroic figure of the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution Emiliano Zapata, they called themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and captured the attention of the world. Their attack came as a complete surprise, and their takeover of major towns was a remarkable accomplishment.

The rebellion was an announcement. With slogans such as “never more a Mexico without us,” they gave voice to the poor throughout Mexico and, since the majority of the rebels were indigenous people, a recognition that the indigenous people were no longer going to be silent about their oppression. The Mexican government responded with military force and routed the rebels from their positions, but not before a mystique had been established of a completely new sort of revolution. Part of that newness was a symbolic figure, taking the name of subcomandante Marcos (“sub,” because the people are the actual commanders), with a pipe, usually mounted on a horse, with a truly profound and sophisticated way of dealing with the press, both national and international, and an excellent commend of the internet.

Subsequent years have seen a continual struggle, with the Zapatistas challenging the Mexican government at every opportunity, and the Mexican government challenging them in kind. The government initially reacted with military force, using both the formal military and organized paramilitary thugs, in a truly dirty war. The Zapatistas have been extremely clever in responding to the continual challenges (not without serious setbacks), both militarily and politically. They have not only survived over the past 23 years but prospered, in their own terms, and gained considerable popular appeal.

Local Control

Their fundamental operations remind many observers of formal anarchistic ideas, with local control over political, economic, and cultural conditions. They have five political centers (caracoles, Spanish for snail — a symbol of traditional indigenous governance structure), each of which houses a committee of “good government,” to contrast with the “bad government” that the rest of the world refers to as the Mexican government. The good government regularly adjudicates local conflicts and has developed a reputation of honesty and integrity. Part of this current state can be seen in one of the ever-present slogans in their artwork and propaganda — “the people command, the government obeys.” Members of the good government are elected from their local communities and wield little political power. Indeed, membership in the good government is regarded as a responsibility, not an opportunity for personal advancement.

While the political details of the Zapatista struggle have been extremely complicated over their 23-year history, what consistently stands out is that this is a movement of reinvention toward a new society. As in all such movements throughout history they are “making the path by walking.” This means that visioning a new society is a key part of the struggle. Such visioning needs to ask questions, at least broad qualitative questions, about what that new society will look like. In short they envision what is needed for their communities to be autonomous and structure educational opportunities towards that end.

In an education center formally run by the Catholic Church (CIDECI), but fairly openly pro-Zapatista, we find classrooms for Zapatista youth. Those classrooms include classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, shoemaking, music, agroecology, and so forth. The slogan “never again a Mexico without us” encapsulates a militancy about their visioning, but the Zapatistas’ thinking is in many ways much more pragmatic.

The ConCiencias Conference

Where did the idea for the conference come from? The story of where the idea originated was told by Subcommander Galeano (the “reborn” version of Sub¬comandante Marcos) in his characteristic inspiring and artistic style (Note that Subcomandante Moisés is sort of parallel with Subcomandante Galeano in the public leadership of the Zapatistas — this story was told by Galeano):

A young Zapatista woman asked Sub¬comandante Moisés,

“What is a flower? Why is it the color it is, why does it have that shape, why does it smell like that?”

Apparently anticipating a poetic or romantic story of the role of flowers in society and the revolution, the young girl then quickly added:

“And I do not want to be told that mother earth with her wisdom did so to the flower, or that God, or whatever. I want to know the scientific answer.”

And thus was initiated the political analysis that led to the idea for this conference, formally titled “With Science for Humanity” (La ConCiencias para la Humanidad). “And in his typically playful rhetoric, Galeano told us:

“So, scientists, if, when you are back in your worlds, someone asks you why this meeting was held, or how was it, you can start your long or short answer like this: ‘It’s the flower’s fault.’”


Ivette Perfecto talks with an EZLN member.

The conference was organized mainly for a group of Zapatista students. Zapatista communities chose which students could participate. A gender-balanced total of 200 students participated, seemingly mainly young people but clearly a few older students in the mix. And the structure of the meeting was very carefully thought out to be not just a single moment in an alternative academic time. In the words of subcomander Galeano:

“These 200 compañeras and compañeros, 100 women and 100 men, were selected to attend — that is to say, to respond to collectives. Their presence here is not for their personal interest or benefit. When they leave here, they will each need to return to their collective and describe what this encounter was all about, what they learned or what they didn’t, what they understood or what they didn’t. In other words, they are obligated to socialize knowledge.”

He then addressed the invited scientists:

“The indigenous Zapatista communities, represented here by these 200 transgressors of the indigenous stereotype that reigns in both the institutional right and left, do not conceive of this encounter as a single event. Please understand: this is not a fleeting moment. They, the Zapatista people, hope that this encounter becomes the beginning of a stable and enduring relationship. They hope to keep in touch with you and maintain an ongoing exchange. Or as the people say, ‘Let this time be neither the first nor the last.’”

In addition to the 200 students, approximately 500 observers from around Mexico were also in attendance, but the presentations were clearly for the students and questions to the scientists were restricted to them.

Each of the scientists was requested to give a presentation of their own work and a separate presentation about the nature of science. Each was allocated 45 minutes for the presentation of their work and then subjected to questions from the students for another 45 minutes. These students were incredibly engaged. All of them wore ski masks (throughout the entire conference) so only their words came through in their questioning. Although normal facial expressions could not punctuate their interventions, the questions were thoughtful and frequently penetrating.

During the talks you could see all of them taking careful notes, probably anticipating the questions to follow. As part of the whole organizing, the students were required to take back to their local communities all that they absorbed from the conference — presumably their ability to do so being part of the original selection process in those communities. The idea was to socialize knowledge, and in this case science knowledge.

Reflections

On a personal note, we are professors at the University of Michigan and face both undergraduate and graduate students regularly. Facing the Zapatista students was somehow different. We cannot say for sure if the experience was excellent for the students, but for us it was amazing.

Common trappings of the U.S. university system were totally absent. We could not imagine any of the students worrying about an exam or a SAT test, nor deflecting their attention to an iPhone. All 200 students were taking notes furiously, and the 45 minutes devoted to their asking questions was completely filled with excellent and perceptive questions.

The seriousness, we believe, stems from the political organization of the educational experience. Each student knew that he or she was selected for the privilege of coming to this conference with the responsibility to bring a piece of the conference back to the community — “science for the people” in both theory and practice.

John Vandermeer is then Asa Gray Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. Ivette Perfecto is the George W. Pack Professor of Ecology, Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. This article appears in the May-June 2017 issue of Against the Current.

Against Trump and Peña: Unity from Below and without Borders

from the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT)

February 12, 2017

After the dramatic increase in fuel, electricity, and water prices throughout the country and a month of uninterrupted, massive protests across the country that have deepened the crisis of legitimacy–which is increasingly a political crisis–of Mexico’s oligarchic regime, we are now beginning to see the first steps of the new, extreme right, xenophobic, macho, racist, and anti-Mexican administration in the White House. This can only bring further complications, contradictions, and possibilities of struggle to the Mexican political scene.

The timid response of the Peña government once again shows its inability to cope with the country’s crisis, including the measures taken against Mexico by the Trump government and its continual threats. The protectionist turn of the new US government is underway: it has not only blocked investments in Mexico and liquidated the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement (TPP), it has also threatened to “renegotiate” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in its favour (virtually cancelling it), and to impose 20% tariffs on Mexican exports to finance the wall of shame on a border that is already militarized, not to mention the massive deportations that are around the corner.


Donald J. Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto shake hands, Photo © The New York Times.

All of this, which is an expression of the crisis of neoliberalism, could destroy the foundations on which decades of neoliberal economic policies were erected to secure Mexico as the United States’ back yard. Indeed, Peña Nieto’s most recent structural reforms, especially in the energy sector, were designed and imposed on the assumption of the Mexican economy’s deep and almost exclusive dependence on the imperialist interests of its northern neighbour.

It was on this neoliberal assumption that NAFTA destroyed the Mexican countryside, dismantled the incipient domestic industry to favour the “maquiladora” model (of export processing plants), gave away to US (and Canadian) companies the country’s minerals, destroyed labour rights, and spread precarious work, to name but a few of the clearest effects. At the same time, since the time of Miguel de la Madrid1 both PRI and PAN governments have justified their submission to US interests, saying that it was better to have them as “allies” than as “enemies.” These technocrats never imagined, when they prostrated themselves before the White House, that a future tenant might turn round and play with them. For these Mexican rulers and officials never saw themselves as statesmen, as representatives of an allied, sovereign nation, but as mere subordinates. That is why we cannot expect the Mexican government, or the parties that signed up to the “Pact for Mexico,” to represent the interests of the Mexican people in any “new NAFTA negotiations,” or in the face of abuses against Mexicans in the US and the imminent construction of the Wall.

There will only be a new form of subordination, more bowing and scraping, which will only bring worse consequences for workers on both sides of the border. The discomfort of Peña Nieto’s government is not only an expression of his own personal incapacity, although that is real enough. Above all it is because for decades they have faithfully subordinated themselves to the dictates of neoliberalism–most fully expressed in the structural reforms imposed by Peña and the parties of the Pact for Mexico. And now that Trump is giving a more right-wing and protectionist turn to imperialist politics, the neoliberals in Mexico have been left in the lurch, with no alternative to the crisis. They can offer no alternative because they dug Mexico’s grave by following the imperialist dictates, which is all they know how to do, and now those dictates are in contradiction with the ones they followed so faithfully.

It is important for the left, the social movements, and working people not to fear a renegotiation of NAFTA, which had only terrible consequences for working people. The worst mistake now would be, as the PRD did, to “defend NAFTA” against Trump. On the contrary, peasants, democratic unions, and the left in general, have for decades been fighting NAFTA and its consequences. We fight for a sovereign and independent nation that uses its natural resources to build a strong economy that benefits the majority, who are us, the workers.

Trump’s “protectionist turn” does not imply that the United States no longer has an interest in grabbing our natural resources and taking advantage of cheap, precarious labor to overexploit it. From the perspective of workers’ interests, faced with Trump’s protectionist trade policy, it is no alternative to “look to other countries” (such as those proposing China or the European Union), which would mean remaining a semi-colonial and dependent country. These unequal and subordinate relations will not improve the situation of the country or of the workers, but they will certainly maintain the privileges of the ruling caste. We need to break the model, not just change the master. The end of neoliberal Mexico should be the opportunity to unite all of us from below, starting with the working people, organizing and fighting to remake an independent and sovereign Mexico, one that is fair and democratic, free and egalitarian, ecological, without exploitation or oppression of any kind. That is a revolutionary political perspective.

Everything indicates that the “renegotiation favourable to the United States,” which Trump proposes in relation to NAFTA, means more destruction of Mexican infrastructure and greater subordination of the Mexican economy to the needs of its northern neighbour. In this restructuring of US production, the empire will try to secure the basic inputs it needs to do this at the lowest possible cost.

Given the economic and political collapse of the Mexican neoliberals with this protectionist turn by the new US government, the calls by Peña and other political figures like Andres López Obrador, to forge a “national unity” against Trump, are desperate attempts to overcome their crisis of legitimacy.

National unity? What do we Mexican workers have in common with the magnates who, faced with a changed political landscape, are seeking to accommodate themselves and their interests to the new master? What do the corrupt, xenophobic, and billionaire members of the Trump cabinet have in common with the millions of black, Latino, and other workers whose situation has been made more precarious by both Democratic and Republican policies in recent years? Nothing can be more poisonous than supposed calls to national unity with those who were the first to plunge us into this crisis.

It is urgent, of course, to forge the broadest unity against the policies of racist hatred, denial and oppression of the other. But that means unity from below and without borders. Trump and Peña represent the enemy, the same enemy, regardless of momentary insults. U.S. workers, the Sioux, Mexican migrants (our brother and sister workers across the border) and Latinos in general, the Black Lives Matter movement, the millions of women who flooded the streets of the United States, these are our main allies.

Although the outlook is grim, it is also true that these draconian blows (of Trump and Peña) are already facing the obstacle of mobilized resistance. On the one hand, Trump’s inauguration was welcomed by mass protests, with women in the front line, and new mobilizations and struggles are promised. These are a starting point. On this side of the border, the massive mobilizations against the petrolazo (fuel price rises) and the structural reforms herald a new period of struggle and resistance. Struggles that again will be screaming, “Out with Peña!” It is urgent for people in struggle on both sides of the border to reach out so that together we can face the capitalist monster. We need to take up again the exemplary international solidarity with the cause of the Ayotzinapa 43, who disappeared in September 2014. This is not about the fraud of national unity, but of unity without borders, unity from below, unity in diversity, of the unity to resist and win.

In the Mexican case, it is urgent that the social discontent that has been expressed in massive and spontaneous mobilizations across the country, which in a few cases like that of Baja California have won partial though not yet consolidated victories, can be channeled and organized into more permanent and democratic fronts of struggle–fronts which different organisations can promote and where they can come together. Almost a month of spontaneous daily protests across the country against the fuel price increases have begun to see greater participation by forces that had previously organized against neoliberalism.

On January 26th a decisive sector of the working class, represented by the New Workers’ Central, the Mexican Electricians’ Union (SME), and the National Assembly of Electricity Users (ANUE), supported by the Political Organisation of the People and the Workers, has taken part in a very large mobilization through the streets of Mexico City, marking the presence of an organised proletarian wing within the framework of the spontaneous, popular, citizen protests of recent days. The mobilisation on the 26th was preceded by dozens of occupations and protests at gas stations and workplaces of the former Mexico City Electricity Company, organised by the ANUE and SME.


National Agricultural Workers’ Union demonstrators march during a protest against a fuel price rise in Mexico City on January 31, Photo © Henry Romero/Reuters

On 31 January, another big mobilization has been called in Mexico City, by another important pole of reference, involving peasant organizations and the UNT (National Workers’ Union), including most importantly the union of telephone operators and university students. The scale of the crisis and the protests poses the need and responsibility to develop an organized pole of the working people in struggle, independent of the calls for “national unity” from the government and all the institutional parties (now not only the parties of the Pact for Mexico, but also Morena).2

This demands a conscious and responsible effort to create a genuinely unitary space, to be able to coordinate all the struggles across the country and to raise the protest and struggle to the level needed at this moment and to carry through to their conclusion the three mobilizing slogans of recent days: Against the fuel price hikes, Against the structural reforms, Out with Peña. This means raising the protest to new levels of struggle, including a possible, nationwide civic strike. But that cannot be just a propagandistic call. It means above all creating and coordinating the social forces capable of making it reality.

In fact, getting rid of the structural reforms, especially in energy and education, cannot be separated from the political objective of getting rid of the Peña government now (not by the smooth and institutional route proposed by López Obrador, of waiting until a few elections scheduled in 2018, which would mean a negotiated transition). Indeed, in the medium term, getting rid of the structural reforms cannot mean simply returning to the Constitution as it was before 2013 (or 1994, when NAFTA came into force). It requires a new Constituent Assembly to redesign the country. This is even truer now that Yankee imperialism, represented by Trump, is imposing a new turn on the neoliberal globalization that the parties of the Pact for Mexico and its governments enthusiastically forced on our country, destroying rights and historical conquests that may or may not have been reflected at some point in the Constitution.

Building unity from below, of all the movements and expressions of resistance, certainly faces many difficulties. But the continuation and deepening of the crisis could propel it forward in the coming weeks. On 4 February, there will be new petrol price rises, already approved in the Fiscal Income Law by the parties of the Pact for Mexico. And the practical implementation of Trump’s plans will hardly bring a period of peace and stability, despite the calls for “national unity.” Again, just think of the social consequences of building the wall and charging Mexico for it, along with the possible mass deportation of Mexican workers from the US.

Today, as perhaps never before, it is urgent that social movements on both sides of the border seek spaces to meet and discuss and develop joint campaigns. Solidarity is crucial to curb racist hatred. The internationalist spirit is the only way out to defeat xenophobic nationalism. There are many possible meeting points. The hundreds of movements that for years have been resisting ecocidal megaprojects in Mexico now see themselves in the mirror of Standing Rock; the dozens of political prisoners in Mexican prisons and the protesters recently detained in the US, who could face up to ten years’ in prison, are part of the same repressive policy; the women who, since last year, have taken to the streets throughout Latin America against violence against women and femicide, find their sisters in the millions of “pink pussy hats.”

Peña and Trump: They will not pass!

United we will win!

This statement was written by the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT), the Mexican section of the Fourth International (of which Solidarity is also an affiliate), as Donald Trump signed his executive order to begin work immediately on a wall along the border between the two countries, and repeated that Mexico would have to pay for it. It was published in English on International Viewpoint.

Footnotes

1 Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado was a member of PRI who served as the 52nd President of Mexico,1982 -1988 and introduced many neoliberal policies.

2 Morena is the party of López Obrador.

Who Put Trump in the White House?

by Kim Moody

January 24, 2017

The Media Story in the days following the 2016 election was that a huge defection of angry, white, blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt from their traditional Democratic voting patterns put Donald J. Trump in the White House in a grand slap at the nation’s “liberal” elite. But is that the real story? While he didn’t actually win the popular vote, Trump did carry the majority (58%) of white voters. Furthermore, he won the key “battleground” states in the Rust Belt that are the basis of the media story, which raises serious questions. Who were these white voters? Was this the major shift that sent Trump to victory?

Exit polls taken during the primaries, when the Trump revolt began, showed that the whole election process was skewed toward the better-off sections of U.S. society, and that Trump did better among them than Clinton. Looking at those voters in the general election from the 26% of U.S. households earning more than $100,000, who are unlikely to be working class these days, we see that Clinton got 34% of her vote, and Trump a slightly larger 35% of his, from these well-to-do voters.1 In other words, upper-income groups were overrepresented in the voting electorate as a whole, and both candidates drew a disproportionate part of their vote from the well-to-do, with Trump a bit more reliant on high-income voters. This in itself doesn’t rule out a working-class shift to Trump, but the media’s version of this is based on a problematic definition.


Donald Trump waits to step out onto the portico for his Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Photo © Patrick Semansky/AP

Among other problems, a large majority of those without a college degree don’t vote at all. Furthermore, people who don’t vote are generally to the left of those who do on economic issues and the role of government. Of the 135.5 million white Americans without degrees, about a fifth voted for Trump — a minority that doesn’t represent this degreeless demographic very well. Another problem is that there are only about 18.5 million white, blue-collar production workers — the prototype of the defecting white industrial worker.2 If we double this to account for adult spouses to make it just under 40 million, and assume that none of them have degrees, it still only accounts for a little more than a third of those white adults lacking the allegedly class-defining degree.

Of course, there are another 14 million or so white service workers who are working class, but even if we include them and their spouses we still account for only about half of the huge 70% of white adults in the United States who lack a college degree. There are also millions of Americans who don’t have a college degree, who are not working class, and who are actually more likely to vote than the “left behind” industrial workers. There are some 17 million small business owners without that degree. As a 2016 survey by the National Small Business Association tells us, 86% of small business owners are white, they are twice as likely to be Republicans as Democrats, almost two-thirds consider themselves conservative (78% on economic issues), and 92% say they regularly vote in national elections. They drew an average salary of $112,000 in 2016 compared to $48,320 for the average annual wage.3 Add in the spouses, and this classically petty bourgeois group alone could more than account for all the 29 million of those lacking a college degree who voted for Trump.4

There are also 1.8 million managers, 8.8 million supervisors, and 1.6 million cops whose jobs don’t require a college degree. To this we could add insurance and real estate brokers and agents, and so on.5 Some may have a degree, but it is clear that there are tens of millions of non-working class people in the United States who lack such a degree, and who are more likely to be traditional and frequent Republican voters than a majority of white, blue-collar workers.

The relatively high-income levels of much of Trump’s vote point toward a majority petty bourgeois and middle-class base for Trump, something The Economist concluded in its earlier survey of Trump primary voters when they wrote, “but the idea that it is the mostly poor, less-educated voters who are drawn to Mr. Trump is a bit of a myth.”6 The first point, then, is that Trump’s victory was disproportionately a middle-class, upper-income phenomenon.

Trump’s Union Vote

To test the extent to which white, blue collar or related workers handed Trump victory, we will look at the swings in union household voting in national elections. This is far from perfect, of course, since only a minority of workers belong to unions these days, about half are public employees, and non-white workers make up a quarter of the total.
Nevertheless, we can safely assume that any swings toward the Republicans came mostly from white union members and their families. It is important to bear in mind as well that the union household vote has declined as a percentage of the total vote in presidential elections from about 26-27% in 1980 to 18% in 2016 so that the impact of the union household vote has diminished though not disappeared.7

Union Household Vote in Presidential Elections, 1976-2016

Year Dem. Rep.
2016 51% 43%*
2012 58% 40%
2008 59% 39%
2004 59% 40%
2000 59% 37%
1996 60% 30%
1992 55% 24%
1988 57% 43%
1980 48% 45%
1976 62% 38%

*Additionally, in 2016, 6% other/no answer; in 2000, 1% Buchanan, 3% Nader; in 1996, 9% Perot; in 1992, 21% Perot; in 1980, 7% Anderson. Source: Roper Center, “How Groups Voted”, 1976-2012; CNN politics, election2016, “Exit Polls, National President”.

Two things are clear from the table. First, an average of about 40% of union members and their families have been voting Republican in presidential elections for a long time, with the Democrats winning a little under 60% of the union household vote for the last four decades. Only in 1948 and 1964 did over 80% of union household members vote for the Democratic candidate, Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson respectively.8 Nevertheless, in 2016 a relatively small number shifted to Trump from 40% for the Republican in 2012 to 43% in 2016. This three percentage points represents a shift of just under 800,000 union household voters across the entire country.

Even more interesting is that the Democratic vote fell by seven points from 2012 to 2016 as union household members defected to a third party, refused to answer the question when surveyed, or didn’t vote and weren’t surveyed. While the unspecified “no answer” group of those surveyed lends some credibility to the theory of the “silent Trump voter,” this drop nonetheless points to the fact that the Democrats have lost votes since 2012.

Putting this in historical context, Trump’s shift of union household voters is actually less dramatic than the swing from 1976 to 1980 for Reagan, and even less so than the 14-point desertion of union household voters from Carter in 1980, half of which went to independent John Anderson rather than Reagan, in an election when union householders composed 26% of all voters.9

In other words, Trump attracted both a smaller proportion and number of these voters than Reagan or Anderson. These same voters have swung for some time between Democrats, Republicans, and high-profile third-party candidates such as Anderson, Ross Perot who got 21% of union household voters in 1992, and Ralph Nader, who got three percent in 2000.10 The meaning of the 2016 shift was more sinister to be sure, but it was also long in the making as the Democrats moved to the right. This is not to say that the swing of union household or white working-class voters away from the Democrats doesn’t reflect the conservative social views, racism, and in the 2016 election, sexism of many white working- and middle-class people as well as their anger at their deteriorating situation.

Clearly Trump won almost 10 million union household votes, compared to almost 12 million for Clinton. These numbers are significant, but we know that many are not as new to voting Republican as is often thought. This, of course, is not something to take comfort in, but it is an indication of the results of the Democratic Party’s choice to emphasize higher-income people that began under Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council.11 It seems clear that a significant number of white working-class people voted for Trump who had voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 — even if more just didn’t vote.

The Democrats’ Self-Made Debacle

While there was a swing among white, blue-collar and union household voters to Trump, it was significantly smaller than the overall drop in Democratic voters. While recent voter suppression laws demanding state-issued photo IDs in some 17 states along with the racial cleansing of voter rolls in many states have undoubtedly limited voting for Blacks, Latinos and low-income whites, most non-voters don’t vote because they don’t see anything compelling to vote for. At the same time, working-class voter participation has remained low in part because the political parties have reduced the direct door-to-door human contact with lower-income voters in favor of purchased forms of campaigning, from TV ads to the new digitalized methods of targeting likely voters.12

Vast amounts of personal data are accumulated by firms specializing in this, turned into voter-targeting algorithms, and sold. According to John Aristotle Phillips, the CEO of Aristotle, they can provide customers with “up to 500 different data points on each individual.”13 The parties or campaigns that purchase this service, in turn, use it to spread targeted messages to specific groups or even individual voters mostly via the internet through various platforms, including Facebook which apparently made a bundle off the 2016 election.

Spending on digital political ads rose from $22 million in 2008 to $158 million in 2012, and is expected to hit $1 billion for the 2016 election and over $3 billion by the 2020 elections. No doubt they will continue to soar as they are increasingly available for elections way down the ballot to the local level according to the Democratic digital outfit DSPolitical.14

Aside from the soaring costs this invasive digital targeting adds to U.S. elections and the further erosion of our privacy, it further removes political campaigning from any direct human contact. As reporters for The Guardian put it, “campaigns of the future will depend as much on being able to track people across screens and apps as knocking on doors or sending out flyers.”15 It’s not that no doors are knocked on or phone calls made, but the algorithm that decides the limited number of actual voters to be visited or called to turn out the vote in practice has meant identifying the better-off part of the population. The Get-Out-The-Vote campaign has become the Get-Out-The-Well-To-Do-Votes canvass. More importantly, the shaping of the political process, already an auction, is being even further outsourced to the profit-making “expert” firms that provide this service.

In short, despite all the vast amounts of money raised and deployed, all the digital and “expert” sophistication available to this “party of the people” and Clinton’s allegedly massive “ground game” force in the “battleground” states, the Democratic Party as a whole no longer can or tries to mobilize enough of those among its traditional core constituencies — Blacks and Latinos, as well as white workers and union members — to win national and even state offices in these key states. To be sure, Clinton won the popular vote nationally, perhaps as John Nichols gloated in The Nation by an “unprecedented” margin that might run as high as two million or more. The problem is that 1.5 million of that can be accounted for from Clinton’s margin over Trump in New York City alone.16 The majorities in the coastal states of California and New York by themselves accounts for more than her net majority; the rest of the country continues to see its Democratic vote stagnate or decline.

The Democrats are and have been for decades the party of the (neoliberal) status quo when millions of all races have seen their living standards shrink and future prospects disappear and, as a result, have come to despise the status quo. And as the many millionaire Democrats in Congress (average wealth of a Democratic Representative is $5.7 million) and their business buddies demonstrate for all to see, they are part of the nation’s elite.

The decline in manufacturing jobs, the shrinking of union representation, the creation of more and more lousy jobs, the withdrawal of aid to the cities, etc. have created not just “angry white men” who voted for Trump, but angry white, Black, Latino and Asian men and women who, for good and sound reasons, no longer see the Democrats as their defenders. Many in this legion have voted with their feet, and it wasn’t to the polls. In 2014, the last off-year Congressional election, non-voters numbered almost 128 million adult citizens — a majority of eligible voters17 — the vast majority of these were middle-to-lower income working-class people.

Strong evidence that the Democrats can no longer motivate or mobilize the majority in much of the country is the fact that the millions of non-voters are on average and in their majority politically to the left of those who do vote on key economic issues. As one study put it, “Nonvoters tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality” more than voters, by about 17 percentage points. This includes whites as well as Black and Latino non-voters.18 The Democrats cannot mobilize the forces needed to defeat the right, in part because they cannot implement any policies capable of addressing the plight of the majority that might attract these left-leaning non-voters.

Nationally the Democrats have been losing elections at just about every level since 2009. In that year, during the 111th Congress the Democrats had 257 members in the House of Representatives. By 2015, in the 114th Congress that was down to 188 Democrats, the lowest number since the 80th Congress in 1947-49, over which time voter participation rates fell from 48% to 42% in off-year Congressional elections. In 2016 the Democrats won back just six seats in the House.19 Between 2009 and 2015 the Democrats lost 203 seats in State Senates and 716 in State Houses or Assemblies. An indication of what was to come in Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2016 could be seen in the loss of 21 Democratic seats in the state legislatures of each of these states between 2009 and 2015.20

Consequences of Failure

This time, however, the falling Democratic vote meant the victory not of a run-of-the-mill conservative or even a Tea Bagger, but of a racist demagogue bent on doing serious damage. And he will. There will be resistance. Rather, there will be increased resistance. And this will offer new possibilities for organizing, even in a more hostile atmosphere. At the same time many, including not a few on the socialist left, will run for cover in the Democratic Party’s “Big Tent,” arguing that now is not the time to take on the Democrats, that the great task is to elect a Democratic Congress, any Democratic Congress, in 2018 to rein in Trump just as the Republicans blocked Obama after 2010, and so on.

But such a political direction will only reinforce the Democrats’ neoliberalism, digital-dependency, and failed strategies. We had better bear in mind what this approach has not done for the past four decades and will not do in the coming years. It will not significantly or permanently increase voter turnout for working-class people, especially African-American and Latino voters. The rate of voter turnout has fallen for the past few decades and particularly for off-year Congressional elections.

Both Black and Latino rates of voter participation in off-year elections, long below average, have nose-dived since 2010 and did not recover in 2016 despite the threat of a Trump victory.21 Nor will the centrist liberalism, much less neoliberalism, of Democratic incumbents and most likely candidates win back those white working-class people or those in union households who have been voting Republican for decades, much less the recent angry Trump converts.

Politics as usual have failed! Who put Trump in the White House? The Democrats.

Kim Moody was a founding member of Solidarity and a co-director of Labor Notes. He now lives in the U.K.

Footnotes

1 Nate Silver (2016) “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support,” FiveThirtyEight, May 3, 2016; CNN politics (2016).

2 US Census (2014) Table 1, “Educational Attainment of the Population 18 years and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2014”, CPS, 2014.

3 NSBA (2016), NSBA 2016 Politics of Small Business Survey. Washington DC: National Small Business Association, 4-6; SBA (2016) Demographic Characteristics of Business Owners and Employees, 2013. Washington DC: US Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, 1; BLS (2015) Occupational Employment Statistics, “May 2015 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States” ; Indeed (2016) “Small Business Owner Salary.”

4 CNN politics (2016), “national president.”

5 BLS (2014b) “Occupational employment, job openings and worker characteristics,” Table 1.7.

6 The Economist (2016) “Where Donald Trump’s support really comes from,” April 20, 2016.

7 Harry Enten (2014) “How Much Do Democrats Depend on the Union Vote?” FiveThirtyEight, July 1, 2014; CNN politics (2016) “national president.”

8 Kim Moody (2007) US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, The Promise of Revival from Below. London: Verso, 145.

9 Roper Center, “How Groups Voted,” 1980, 2014; CNN politics (2016).

10 Roper Center, “How Groups Voted,” 1996, 2000.

11 McElwee, Sean (2015) “Why Non-Voters Matter,” The Atlantic, September 15, 2015.

12 Donald Green and Michael Schwam-Baird (2016) “Mobilization, participation, and American democracy: A retrospective and postscript,” Party Politics, March 2016, 22(2):158-164; NCSL (2016b) “Voter Identification Requirements / VoterID Laws,” National Conference of State Legislatures.

13 Politics & Policy (2016) “Campaigns and Voter Information: Elections in a Digital Age”; Max Willens (2016) “Election 2016Ads: Xaxis Will Target Voters Using Their Digital And Real-Life Data,” ibtimes, November 9, 2015; DSPolitical (2016) “NGP VAN and DSPolitical Join Forces Bringing Self-Serve Voter Targeted Digital Advertising to Nearly Every Democratic Campaign in America”; Sreenivasan, Hari (2012) “The Digital Campaign,” transcript, PBS.

14 Davies, Harry and Danny Yadron, “How Facebook tracks and profits from voters in a $10bn election,” The Guardian, January 28, 2016; Green and Schwam-Baird (2016), 158-164; Willens (20126; DSPolitical (2016).

15 Harry Davies and Danny Yadron, “How Facebook tracks and profits from voters in a $10bn election,” The Guardian, January 28, 2016.

16 John Nichols (2016) “Hillary Clinton’s Popular-Vote Victory Is Unprecedented — and Still Growing,” The Nation, November 17, 2016; New York Times (2016c) Election 2016 “New York Results.”

17 United States Elections Project (2016) “2016 November General Election Turnout Rates”; Thom File (2015), 3.

18 Sean McElwee (2014) “Why The Voting Gap Matters,” Demos, October 23, 2014; Sean McElwee (2015); Pew Research Center (2014) “The Party of the Nonvoters,” October 11, 2014.

19 US House of Representatives (2016) “Party Divisions of the House of Representatives”; Thom File (2015) Who Votes? Congressional Elections and the American Electorate: 1978-2014. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 3; NCSL (2009) “2009 State and Legislative Partisan Composition,” National Conference of State Legislatures.

20 NCSL (2009); NCSL (2015) “2015 State and Legislative Partisan Composition,” National Conference of State Legislatures.

21 File (2015), 1-4.

The State Is at War: An Eyewitness Report from Standing Rock

Interview with Rebecca Kemble

December 9, 2016

Rebecca Kemble is an alder (representative) on the Madison, Wisconsin Common Council. She organized the Council to pass a unanimous resolution on September 20, 2016 expressing solidarity with the indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Rebecca and her husband travelled to deliver the petition to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II. They were at Standing Rock for three days. She spoke with David Finkel from the ATC editorial board on November 23 about what she witnessed and experienced. Thanks to Ann Finkel for assistance with transcribing the interview.

Against the Current: Please describe what you saw, especially how the protectors were organized, and what happened.


Photo by Rebecca Kemble

Rebecca Kemble: We arrived there on Sunday, October 9th, and slept in the car with our dog. Early next morning October 10 — Indigenous peoples’ Day — there was a sunrise prayer ceremony organized at the camp. My friend Patricia Hammel, an attorney on the legal support team, and I attended a prayer ceremony, along with 300 people from camp. There were Lakota pipe carriers, mostly grandmothers, and also singers and drummers as part of the ceremony. After the ceremony there was an announcement that there would be another ceremony based on the Eagle and Condor prophecy (an ancient Amazon people’s prophecy — ed.) that would take place on the pipeline site a couple miles away. At the ceremony there would be Indigenous youth from Argentina representing the south, and Indigenous people representing the North. Patricia and I, in a convoy of 60-100 vehicles) drove to the pipeline site.

There was a teepee structure erected on the site with 16 poles and prayer ties wrapped all around it, and that’s where the dancing and ceremony happened. As I was getting out of the car, Patricia put on a green National Lawyers Guild observer’s hat. I said that I had legal training and had my camera, so I also got a green hat. I went there not to participate in the ceremony, but to keep my eyes and my camera on the police. As the ceremony happened concluded, the master of ceremonies announced that the police were moving in. I saw and filmed the police moving in. He said: If you are not ready to risk arrest, go back up to the cars. Sixteen people were prepared to engage in civil disobedience by sitting peacefully under the teepee structure.

ATC: So they sat under the teepee?

RK: Yes, in a circle. Grandmother Theresa Black Owl, a Lakota grandmother, a pipe carrier, was among them, and she began conducting another prayer ceremony with the pipes. Now as people were trying to leave the site, which was maybe 100 to 150 yards off the road, many dozens and dozens of police in military formation came into the area in different groups, blocked people’s ability to leave. No “no trespassing” signs were posted, and I didn’t hear any “disperse” order from the police. What I saw in one of the first lines was all Wisconsin State patrol — Dane County Sherriff’s deputies, from my county — who formed a line close to the road, kettled people in and stopped them trying to leave even though they were trying to leave. Another line was formed by North Dakota officers from local counties. There were also some from Marathon County, Wisconsin in that line. So we were blocked.


Photo by Rebecca Kemble

My thought process was that I was going to document arrests of people in the teepee. I stayed back from the police, but close enough to see people in the teepee. All of a sudden from that line of police an officer with a megaphone, who I later found out was from Cass County, North Dakota said: “If we touch you, you are under arrest” — just this shocking statement. I was trying to back up but was hemmed in by pipes that weren’t installed yet, very large, with two lines of police hemming us in on the other side. Next thing I knew, the officer with the megaphone, whose name I know now is Jesse Jahner, a Cass County Sherriff’s deputy, ran at me, accosted me, grabbed my arm with my camera in it and dragged me back toward the teepee.

He was putting my arms behind my back. I was trying to protect my camera and close the view finder and turn it off. He yelled at me: “Now I’m arresting you for destruction of evidence.” So I’m facing four charges: destruction of evidence, criminal trespass, engaging in a riot, and resisting arrest. Those are state charges, with a penalty of up to two years in jail.

ATC: How long were you held?

RK: I stayed overnight in jail. I was strip searched, many of us were barefoot; we were not given socks or shoes; we got no blankets or food until late in the night. One of the Morton County deputies said, when we kept asking for things: This jail was only built for 40 people and there are 80 people now. So they clearly weren’t prepared to handle us.

ATC: Is there a trial date?

RK: Yes, January 12th. My attorney is going to file motions to dismiss, within the next week or two, so we’ll see how that goes.

ATC: Obviously you’ve been following this since then, as things have become even more intense. How would you describe the situation now with what’s going on and what’s at stake?

RK: I would describe it as war: The state is at war against the Standing Rock tribe and all of their allies who are peacefully attempting to protect the water, which they see as threatened by this pipeline that is going to go under the Missouri River, and is already going over 200 streams and tributaries, and threatens the drinking water of 17 million people downstream.

What was alarming and new about attacks this past Sunday night (November 20) was that the police did not seem to be interested in making any arrests or in controlling the situation. What they seemed to be interested in doing was hurting people — that’s what they wanted to do. The vicious attacks went on for seven hours, using chemical weapons, tear gas, concussion grenades, pepper spray, and water cannons, in below freezing 20-degree weather. The state of North Dakota is not even pretending to protect the rights of people; they are protecting the financial investments of the global elite in the Dakota access pipeline and they are prepared to injure, maim and possibly even kill people to protect that investment

ATC: What has the Obama administration done in this escalating crisis?

RK: Nothing — effectively nothing. They have “requested” the pipeline people to slow down construction, but with no enforcement, and the companies doing the construction have ignored that request. Obama said he would give it a few weeks “for things to play out” — a crass, heartless statement to make, when people are under attack by state forces. How many more people have to get hurt, and do people have to die, in this “playing out”?

ATC: If people want to go, what should they prepare for?

RK: I would tell them to prepare to do several things:

  • Be humble, and accept the guidance of the elders at camp
  • Go there ready to work.
  • Bring everything you need to be self-sufficient; don’t strain the resources of camp for the people who are living there.
  • The camp is steeped in prayer and ceremony, so be respectful of what is happening; participate if you can, and if you can’t, be respectful and allow other people to do their prayer and ceremony.

The historical resonances of this struggle are strong. These are the descendants of people who dealt the U.S. army its only defeat on U.S. soil, who vanquished Custer and the 17th Cavalry in the Battle of Greasy Grass or the Little Big Horn. This is the place where the U.S. army set up the Forward Operating Bases to conduct the Indian wars, which have never stopped and are now coming back full circle. They changed from military assaults to economic, to cultural (boarding schools), now back to full-scale military assault on the indigenous people of this land. Standing Rock people understand this, and so do their tribal and non-tribal allies. Many are prepared to die to protect land and water. This needs to be understood by North Dakota, by the federal government, and by anyone who would go there to support them.

Postscript: Following the December 4 Army Corps of Engineers announcement denying the final pipeline permit, ATC asked Rebecca what had happened with the Dane County personnel at Standing Rock, and how she sees the new situation.

RK: Dane County Sheriff Mahoney recalled his 13 officers after they had been deployed for one week, due to community pressure. Energy Transfer Partners don’t care about the law or legal orders, as evidenced by their press release today. They just care about not alienating investors and creditors. That’s what their recent merger with Sunoco Logistics was all about — spreading the really bad risk that DAPL has become.

The only real hope for stopping DAPL has been to delay the completion long enough so that the investors pull out and creditors start calling in their debts. If the Army Corps is unwilling to physically force them to remove the drilling rig and dismantle the military compound around it in order to enforce this decision, DAPL construction will continue.

Rank-and-File Versus Finance Capital: Massachusetts Stops Charter School Expansion

by Dan Clawson and John Fitzgerald

December 7, 2016

Four years ago, corporate reformers came after public education and teachers’ unions and found that the leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association was unwilling or unable to fight. The result was the end of seniority for teachers in Massachusetts. Emboldened by their success, corporate reformers once again came after what are widely acknowledged to be the best schools in the country and the teachers who work in them with an attempt to lift the cap on charters. This time, however, the reformers encountered a very different union, a union with a far stronger rank-and-file movement and a president, Barbara Madeloni, who is a member of the rank-and-file movement, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).

In Massachusetts this year the corporate attack focused on charter schools was backed by $24 million in dark corporate money, and was expected–by the legislature, by corporate donors, by the charter forces–to crush teachers. This attack is fully bipartisan: most of the money came from finance capital, the largest on-the-record donors included the family that owns Walmart, billionaire Michael Bloomberg chipped in, and the corporate campaign sent a flyer from a shadow group called Continuing Obama’s Legacy. (The flyer used a quotation from Obama, but he had not authorized its use.) Despite their $24 million, the charter forces–which had more than a 20-point lead in the polls in March–lost by an amazing 24 points, 62% to 38%. It was a huge victory for progressive teacher unions, for a grassroots campaign that insisted on fighting even when it seemed the odds were against us, and for rank-and-file union president Barbara Madeloni.


Sadatu Mamah-Trawill led a chant prior to a “Yes on 2” rally, which received a rousing reception outside the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club in Boston on Monday. Photo © Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Charter schools are one of the two most important forms of the attack on teacher unions. (The other is high stakes testing and teacher evaluations.) Charter schools are privately run schools, almost always non-union, that receive the great bulk of their money from public funding, sometimes supplemented by donations from the one percent. Charter schools insist on being called “public” charter schools, an indication of the fact that public schools are widely supported. (Charters are “public” in the same sense as defense contractors or for-profit nursing homes are: most of their money comes from the government.)

If you believe test scores, Massachusetts has the best schools in the country. Except for the charter schools, the teachers are entirely unionized. A corporate victory in Massachusetts would have sent a message to the entire country that no one was safe; the grassroots victory sends a counter-message that people value and will defend their public schools.

Historically, Massachusetts has tightly regulated the number of charter schools, with a cap on the number of schools that can be opened, a single state authority that must approve any new charter, and an additional cap on the amount of money any district can be required to use to fund charters. When charter forces were unable to get the legislature to “lift the cap,” they initiated a referendum campaign and put the measure on this November’s ballot.

The past history of the 110,000 member Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was to give in when attacked, negotiating a “compromise” retreat. Under the former union leadership, in 2012, the corporate forces used the threat of a ballot referendum measure to attack teacher seniority. Scared by the ballot measure, and unwilling or unable to involve members in fighting back, the then union president, Paul Toner, negotiated a legislative resolution in exchange for the corporate forces agreeing to withdraw the ballot measure. Under the “compromise,” most parts of the referendum were withdrawn; teachers “only” gave up their seniority rights for layoffs and involuntary transfers. This is what the old leadership considered a victory.

This time around the same dynamic was at play, but with a very different union president. Barbara Madeloni had been elected in 2014 in a stunning upset, a rank-and-file union member who had never been a local union president or a member of the MTA board. She and the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus that backed her argued that the union needed to be prepared to fight, even if that involved a risk of failure. In Barbara’s first year in office that “take no prisoners, we are fighting to the end” approach had been a spectacular success when the Commissioner of Education tried to impose new rules that would have made it impossible for teachers to renew their licenses unless either their students’ test scores went up by a sufficient amount, or their supervisor supported their license renewal. The old leadership would have negotiated a compromise; Madeloni said “hell no” and gave teachers a way to fight back. They did, by the thousands, and in three weeks the proposal was withdrawn.

The charter story was somewhat the same. The old union leadership would have seen good reasons to give in to the charter forces: they had pledges for more money than had ever been spent on any ballot referendum campaign in Massachusetts history, they were backed by a highly popular governor (who appeared in ads for the pro-charter campaign), the media were pro charter, and the spring poll results showed their ballot measure passing by a landslide. President Madeloni and Educators for a Democratic Union insisted on fighting, even if we ran a (non-negligible) chance of losing. The board of the MTA, still dominated by old-guard forces, was reluctant to embrace the fight, three times postponing a vote to fully commit to the campaign, finally making a partial commitment and throwing the issue to the 1500 delegates to the MTA’s Annual Meeting. The delegates to the Annual Meeting, the union’s largest and most democratic decision-making body, voted overwhelmingly for a full fight against charters. The MTA delegates pledged $9.4 million to the fight, the state’s AFT teacher union pledged $2.6 million, and the money was there not to match the charter forces, but to have enough to get our message out.

The rest is history. It was important to have enough money for TV ads, but we always knew we would be outspent by 2 to 1. The key to the pro-public schools campaign was grassroots involvement, by educators especially, but also by parent and community forces. The campaign phoned or knocked on the doors of 1.5 million voters. By the end of the campaign over 200 school committees voted to support the “No on 2” campaign and not a single school committee voted for yes on 2. The NAACP, Black Lives Matter, the PTA, the Mass Municipal Association, and lots more came out for No on 2.

The door knocking, the school committee votes, the alliances with community groups didn’t just happen; they took lots of hard work and member engagement. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that in fact a relatively small percentage of union members engaged in active voter outreach, although many more wore buttons, had lawn signs, or talked to friends. There is lots of room for a stronger union with more member engagement; the No on 2 campaign has helped us identify where we are strong and where we need to re-build.

In March of this year a rational calculus would probably have concluded that the charter side would prevail: they had more money, the full support of a popular governor, the backing of the state’s major media; the union side had never fought such a campaign, was internally divided, had always thought of political clout as coming from campaign money and paid lobbyists. But when the union decided to fight, lots of members stepped up and we found an amazing level of support from the public. Members uniformly reported that when they would knock on a door and say “Hi, I’m ______ , and I’m a teacher here in town, and I’d like to talk to you about supporting our public schools” people were always impressed and eager to hear what the teacher had to say. The lesson here is almost a cliché: When we fight, we win.

Dan Clawson is an active member of EDU and serves on the Executive Committee
of the MTA. He teaches sociology at the University of Massachusetts
Amherst. John Fitzgerald is a high school history teacher in the Boston area
and is an active member of EDU.

Environmental Racism in Santa Cruz

by Michael Gasser

November 13, 2016

In Santa Cruz, California a much-beloved community garden, tended by immigrant gardeners for 23 years, has been reduced to half its size, with the future of even the smaller plot in doubt. The fight to save the garden has galvanized progressive Santa Cruzans, many of whom seem to be in this for the long haul. Even if insignificant in the larger scheme of things, this campaign has much to teach us about how different forms of injustice converge and about how to confront the environmental racism in our midst.

Santa Cruz is a city of 62,000 on the central California coast, known for its University of California campus (unofficially, the “alternative” UC campus), its surfing culture, its coastal and forest scenery, its restored Spanish-era mission and its Beach Boardwalk, one of the Pacific Coast’s oldest and most popular beach amusement parks. The Boardwalk is owned by the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, a 101-year-old local business that also owns a hotel, a motel, a bowling alley, car dealerships and rental properties.


March on October 27, 2015. A sign says, “La tierra es de quien la trabaja. The land belongs to those who work it.”

Beginning with the founding of the University of California Santa Cruz in 1965, the city has had a reputation for progressive politics, so much so that it was the subject of a book by UCSC sociologist G. William Domhoff titled The Leftmost City. Although the heady days of leftist city councils may now be over, it is still safe to say that many Santa Cruzans value diversity, strict limitations on development, and sustainability. Santa Cruz is a majority white town, with one neighborhood that stands out demographically. Beach Flats, bordering the Boardwalk’s enormous parking lots, is populated mainly by immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Its 1700 residents are relatively poor, many are undocumented, and the crowded Beach Flats housing affords little space for the yards that most Santa Cruzans take for granted.

Not surprisingly, Beach Flats has a history of tense relations with the local police, and city support for the community has had its ups and downs, mostly downs, over the years. Because it adjoins the Boardwalk, Beach Flats also has an intimate relationship with the amusement park. Residents are forced to cope with the Boardwalk-related noise, traffic and partying, especially during the summer months. And the Seaside Company owns about half of the land within Beach Flats. Twenty-three years ago Seaside agreed to lease the City of Santa Cruz a small chunk of land they owned within Beach Flats for a nominal annual amount. This plot had been best known for the junk people dropped off there. Together with a dedicated group of Santa Cruzans, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department converted the space into a community garden.

Until February of this year, the Beach Flats Community Garden (BFCG) occupied 26,000 square feet (0.6 acres), the only significant green space in Beach Flats. The 20 current gardeners are all Spanish-speaking immigrants, the older ones from Mexico, the younger from El Salvador. The BFCG is more like a farm than a typical community garden since it is an important source of food for the gardeners, their families and some of their neighbors. The gardeners have also brought unique Mexican and Central American farming traditions and plant varieties to an area where there is already a great deal of interest in alternatives to conventional agriculture, not only among local farmers but also on the UCSC campus. Because of the class-based and cultural gap that exists between more privileged Santa Cruzans and the residents of Beach Flats, it is possible to live in the city for years and know nothing of the BFCG, let alone visit it. But a small group of residents from other parts of town has always been involved, sometimes as researchers, sometimes as advocates, sometimes as gardeners themselves. In spite of its isolation, the BFCG clearly represents values that most Santa Cruzans rank highly: cultural diversity, sustainability, environmental justice, and the availability of healthy food.

The Crisis and the Coalition

In the spring of 2015, the Parks and Recreation Department sent letters to the gardeners, informing them that the land would be turned over to the Seaside Company when the lease expired in November 2015. By summer a small coalition had formed to preserve the garden, and the city returned with an alternate plan, presented at a public meeting in the Beach Flats Community Center that September. This plan would create a permanent, but significantly smaller, garden in a different location. The center was packed with gardeners, Beach Flats residents, and supporters from other neighborhoods. The plan was roundly and angrily rejected. Everyone in the room, except the uncomfortable city officials sitting in front, agreed that the garden should stay put in its current form.

The threat to the BFCG touched a nerve in Santa Cruz. After the September meeting, which was widely publicized, the coalition that had formed in the summer attracted a number of new people, including myself. The Save the Garden Coalition holds regular weekend meetings in the garden. Because most of the gardeners are monolingual Spanish speakers, the meetings are bilingual. The City Council put the future of the BFCG on the agenda for its October 27 meeting, and the coalition organized a march of nearly 250 people from the garden to City Hall for the meeting.

A spokesman for Seaside spoke first, presenting a new plan, by which the company would take possession of 40% of the garden and renew the lease for three more years on the remaining 60%. He said there was no question of a permanent garden on any of the space since the land was not for sale. After speaking, the representative left the meeting, so he missed the public comment from around 20 gardeners and supporters, all arguing (often eloquently and from a wide array of perspectives) in favor of preserving the whole garden. The City Council then passed a confusing resolution that committed them to “negotiate with the goal of acquisition of the current Beach Flats Garden property to allow it to continue permanently as a community garden.” The 40% of the garden that Seaside wanted immediately included the plots of several of the most active gardeners, five fruit trees and at least 50 nopal cacti. Since the 60% to be redivided among the gardeners included a large community meeting space and a shed, in fact Seaside planned to take at least half of the cultivated portion of the garden.

The City Shows its True Colors

An ensuing series of City Council and Planning Commission resolutions and statements made it clear the city had been on board with Seaside’s 60/40 plan from the start. In early January 2016 the gardeners were sent letters, asking whether they wished to continue gardening within the reduced garden. Those with space in the 40% destined for Seaside were told to vacate that area. Deadlines for both the return of the letters and the vacating of the 40% passed without a response. After weeks of discussion, the coalition decided it would fight to retain 100% of the garden rather than accept the city’s plan. This was the position of all but one of the gardeners who had been involved in the meetings, including those whose plots were within the 60% that was not to be lost.


Beach Flats Garden supporters hold sign saying: “Save the Beach Flats Garden.”

On January 25, the gardeners took the brave step of delivering a letter signed by 17 of them to the Parks and Recreation Department saying they wanted to continue gardening but would not sign the department’s letter, which would force them to give up part of the space. In late January the City Council voted in a closed session to stand firm, negotiating the terms of a lease with Seaside for 60% of the garden, which would be allotted to the single gardener who had returned the city’s letter and to other interested residents, with no preference given to the rest of the gardeners. On February 9 the coalition organized another march from the garden to City Hall to support the gardeners’ stand. This time more UCSC students participated, which had the effect of radicalizing the chants when the marchers reached City Hall. However, the march was ignored by the conservative local newspaper and had little immediate effect.

Finally, threatened with lawsuits by the city manager, the majority of the gardeners negotiated an agreement with the city on February 15, consenting to vacate the 40% that Seaside was demanding. In return the city agreed to grant the current gardeners priority for plots in the reconfigured remaining 60% and to move the fruit trees and cacti growing in the 40%. Then, without any warning, Parks and Recreation bulldozers showed up on the property on March 24 and began knocking down the trees and cacti on the 40%. By the time outraged gardeners and supporters had assembled and contacted city officials, many plants had been destroyed. The city apologized for this “mistake” and agreed to compensate the gardeners for the loss, but few believed their version of what had happened.

The April 26 City Council meeting took place six months after their resolution in favor of a permanent garden, at which time a report was to be made on progress negotiating with Seaside to purchase the land. The coalition chose this day for a third march to City Hall to show that they had not forgotten what had been promised. Again speaker after speaker made the case for the preservation of the whole garden, including the use of eminent domain if necessary. If anyone had had any illusions that the City Council really cared about the garden, the gardeners, and the larger Beach Flats community, those illusions were quashed that evening. Instead the City Council used the occasion to announce that a lease with Seaside had finally been signed, including an escape clause for the company: if they were not granted the use permit they needed for the reclaimed 40% of the property, they could back out of the lease! The possibility of eminent domain was rejected by all but the garden’s single ally.

For May Day, the following Sunday, the coalition and their student allies organized a further march. Billed as a March for Food Justice, it linked the garden struggle with Driscoll’s Berry Boycott, a fight for the rights of farmworkers. Although smaller than the other marches, this one took the campaign to the Boardwalk for the first time. The students delivered a letter to the Seaside Company, tying the future of the Boardwalk’s lucrative relationship with the campus to Seaside’s willingness to sell the property to the city. In June the city erected a nine-foot wooden fence separating the two sections of what used to be the BFCG. On July 7, the city’s Planning Commission met to consider Seaside’s application for a permit “to establish a private garden/landscaping area” on the newly cleared 10,000 sq. ft. of the original garden. Coalition members showed up to challenge the need for such an area in the neighborhood and to attempt to set some conditions on the permit. Following a pattern that was by now familiar, the commissioners each proclaimed their sympathy with the points made by the community before proceeding to ignore them and vote unanimously in favor of the permit.

What’s Been Achieved?

Despite the setbacks of the winter and spring, the coalition has come a long way in the year since a marginalized group of immigrant gardeners, hardly in a position to lead the fight for their right to continue gardening, joined forces with a diverse group of allies. First, there has been enormous progress in getting the word out. Through press releases, letters to the editor, op-eds, leaflets, public events and a petition signed by almost 4000 people, the threat to this wonderful local resource has attracted lots of local attention.

Second, as the gardeners’ participation in meetings has grown and they have shown their willingness to challenge the city directly, it is clear that they have been empowered to some small degree. The city’s assumption that threats and bullying would cause the gardeners to accede to their demands proved naïve, and the relationship between Beach Flats residents and local government may end up forever changed.

Third, the fight to save the garden has, at least for the moment, bridged two of the gaps that are part of political and social life in Santa Cruz, the one separating the majority white English-speaking community from the minority Spanish-speaking community, and the one separating the UCSC community from the city.

Fourth, as demographic and cultural gaps have been bridged, so too have connections been made between disparate issues. People joined the fight for different reasons, the gardeners because of the threat to an important source of food and recreation, others because of their commitment to green space, to food sovereignty, to racial justice, to fighting climate change, to challenging corporate power over local affairs. There is a bottom line behind all of these issues, and it was inadvertently laid bare by the commissioners during their July 7 meeting. For the umpteenth time, we heard a city official say yes, it would be wonderful if the gardeners could continue to grow food in the garden in their time-honored way — but after all, the land belonged to the Seaside Company.

So the fight to preserve the BFCG is a fight that ultimately challenges, in a modest local way, the very foundation of U.S. economic life, private property! At the same meeting, a commissioner blurted out a second, underlying theme of this campaign and many others like it. After she had heard coalition members relate this campaign to the fight for food justice around the world, she said yes, she understood why this mattered so much, but “you can’t expect us to solve the world’s problems.” There are two ways to respond to this statement — one by challenging, the other by agreeing. First, if the world’s problems aren’t solved locally, in places like Santa Cruz, where will they be solved? Second, if “us” means the current crop of city officials, then, yes, we obviously can’t expect these people to solve really challenging problems. Solving the real problems will require a whole new set of people, or, better yet, a whole new system.

As far as a whole new set of people is concerned, coalition activists are now involved in the campaign to elect a slate of candidates for the City Council elections in November who would stand up to Seaside, invoking eminent domain in the creation of a permanent Beach Flats Community Garden, and usher in a new era in the relationship between city government and the immigrants who live on the margins of an immense amusement park. So the garden is a symbol of where this city is headed. Will private property continue to trump everything else? Or will those values that Santa Cruz thinks it stands for actually matter in the end?

Save the Garden! ¡Salvemos el Jardín!

Michael Gasser is a member of Solidarity in Santa Cruz, and is Emeritus Associate Professor in Informatics & Computing and Cognitive Science at Indiana University. This article will appear in the November-December issue of Against the Current.

Only the Privileged Can Afford Hillary Clinton

By Howie Hawkins

November 4, 2016

It’s That Time again in the presidential election cycle when the scolds of institutionalized liberalism are out in force to bully people into voting for the perennial corporate Democrat in order to stop the perennially worse corporate Republican. Paul Krugman. Robert Reich. Ben Jealous. Dan Savage. Michael Moore. Joy Reid. Bernie Sanders. Tom Toles. In These Times. The Nation. The Root. Daily Kos. Rolling Stone. The New York Times.

“Only the privileged can afford to vote for Jill Stein” is one refrain. But only the privileged can afford the status quo represented by Hillary Clinton, from growing inequality and persistent poverty to the climate crisis and endless wars. The liberals shout that we must vote for Clinton to stop Trump. But the history of Clintonism is triangulation, accommodation to the right. She may stop Trump for president. But she is not going to stop Trumpism. Not only have the Clintons and Trump socialized together in the precincts of the higher circles before this election, the Clintons have often echoed the dog whistles of the racist Republican “southern strategy” that Trump has centered his campaign around.


Jill Stein “Debates” Clinton & Trump on Democracy Now! at Hofstra University.

We’ve seen this all the way from Bill’s 1992 presidential campaign, with his execution of Ricky Ray Rector just in time for the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary and then his pre-Super Tuesday tough-on-crime event at the symbolic capital of white supremacists at Stone Mountain, Georgia, on down to Bill’s condescending defense of that crime bill, and Hillary’s “super-predator” remarks in support of it, to the faces of Black critics at a campaign event in Philadelphia in April of this year.

As bad as the signals to white racists are, the center of gravity of Clintonite triangulation is its commitment the domestic austerity and global militarism favored by the corporate elites who have funded their political ambitions. Since Sanders endorsed her, Clinton has campaigned to her right, running ads with endorsements from outspoken militarists and besting Trump by far in campaign donations from the high rollers of every corporate sector, from Wall Street, real estate, and corporate media to Big Pharma, Big Energy, and the military contractors.

When she does make a gesture to the inequality issues that Sanders raised, she highlights the same trickle-down corporate welfare policies that have made inequality worse since the mid 1970s. For example, in her Sept. 22 NY Times op-ed, “My Plan for Helping America’s Poor,” Clinton says she will make economic growth a priority with public investments (i.e., corporate contracts and subsidies) that will create good jobs for the poor. That’s the same approach we’ve seen since Carter and Reagan that targets “anti-poverty” spending to businesses, not poor and working people.

To create more affordable housing, Clinton says in her op-ed that she wants to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), another program where the money goes to businesses, not poor people. This tax credit was enacted in conjunction with the regressive tax reform of 1986, which, though often called the Reagan tax reform, was thoroughly bipartisan with sponsorship by leading Democrats Richard Gephardt of Missouri in the House and Bill Bradley of New Jersey in the Senate. It cut the top income tax bracket from 50% to 25% and increased the bottom tax bracket from 11% to 15%. The LIHTC has since expanded while public housing and Section 8 vouchers have been cut back, even though public housing and vouchers provide far more affordable housing for the same expenditure. The LIHTC is now 90 percent of federal affordable housing support. But rents in LIHTC units are more than 30% of income (the federal definition of affordability) for the people with incomes below 50% of the Area Median Income. Looking beneath the stated goal of affordability, Clinton’s housing policy expands a program that helps developers (and her campaign donations from real estate interests), but does little to solve the growing crisis of housing affordability.

Joshua Holland writing in The Nation justifies his support for Clinton by touting the 2016 Democratic platform, “which Bernie Sanders, among others, hailed as the most progressive in the party’s history.” Oh, really? The 1972 Democratic platform had these progressive planks:

  • Single-payer National Health Insurance.
  • Repeal of section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows state anti-union right-to-work laws.
  • Extend Fair Labor Standards Act coverage to farmworkers.
  • “Substantial” cuts in military spending.
  • Cut is overseas military bases and forces.
  • Public campaign financing.

None of these planks are in the Democrat’s 2016 platform. Meanwhile, the pro-Clinton majority on the platform committee voted down these progressive planks for the 2016 Democratic platform:

  • Single-payer National Health Insurance.
  • Oppose TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).
  • A carbon tax.
  • A ban on fracking.
  • A ban of fossil fuel drilling on federal lands and waters.
  • $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation.
  • Oppose Israeli occupation and settlements on the West Bank.
  • Reconstruction aid for Gaza.

When the conventional wisdom blandly accepts claims that the 2016 Democratic platform is the party’s most progressive in the history, it just shows how thoroughly today’s corporate New Democrats have marginalized the progressive remnants of the New Deal Democrats.

A vote for Jill Stein is not a wasted vote. It is a vote to build an independent political movement that can contest the two-corporate-party cartel for power. Stein won’t win the presidency. But the movement can win several gains in this election.

The first is what third parties have historically contributed in American politics: to force demands into public debate that the two major parties have ignored. In this election, those demands include single-payer, defeat TPP, serious climate acton, a WPA-style public jobs for the unemployed, and military spending cuts with the savings devoted to uplifting struggling poor and working people. The bigger the Stein vote, the more leverage the independent political movement will have on these issues going forward.

The second is ballot lines. A Green ballot line for the next two or four years is up for grabs in 37 states, for 1% to 3% of the vote in most of them. Those ballot lines will enable the independent left to run competitive and winnable races at the local level, which is how an independent political movement will develop into a national force.

Third, 5% of the vote will qualify the Green Party for public funding for the 2020 presidential general election. This is a second presidential public campaign financing fund, in addition to the primary matching fund for which Stein qualified in this election, that starts at about $10 million at 5% and goes up with higher percentages. With Stein polling between 3% and 6% in most polls, this goal is within reach.

Fourth, the lists of supporters that Stein/Baraka campaigners develop canvassing voters during this election can be the base for post-election organizing, from stopping TPP in the lame duck session of conference to local independent Green and left campaigns for public office in the next election.

A vote for Clinton is not only a wasted vote for the status quo, it is a vote against the Green Party’s challenge to the two-party system of corporate rule.

Howie Hawkins was a co-founder of the Green Party in the United States in 1984. He received 5% of the vote as the Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 2014. Howie is a member of Solidarity.

Chicago Teachers Union Makes Tentative Contract Agreement without a Strike

by Robert Bartlett

October 26, 2016

As the October 11th strike approached, Chicago teachers set up a strike headquarters and distributed picket signs while parents and their children picketed the mayor’s house. After 18 months of bargaining, and over a year since their contract expired, the Board of Education blinked just before the deadline and came up with a significantly better contract offer that is now being debated within the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Both the earlier January 2016 Board of Education proposal and the changes contained in the new tentative agreement are available online.

In the context of the attacks on public education in Illinois and across the country, the four-year tentative contract pushes back the latest attempts to force teachers and support staff to pay for the crisis in funding public education, making modest gains in improving the conditions of teachers and neighborhood schools. On October 19 the House of Delegates voted 328-153 to approve the agreement and submit it to the membership for a vote. Still, many questions remain as to whether gains made in the contract can be felt in the everyday work lives of CTU members. Will there be sufficient funding available to fund the agreement, should it be approved?


CTU supporters hold a sign saying: “Rahm: Starving Schools to Feed the Rich.” Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

The tentative contract is a testament to the continued strength of the CTU. Without a strike looming, the Board would not have blinked. The union has pushed back on the mayor’s consistent demands that teachers help pay for the deficit in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). It is estimated to be as large as one billion dollars. In spite of the anti-union and anti-public worker pension demands by CPS and the new anti-union governor, Bruce Rauner, parent and community support for the CTU remains strong.

Neither the city of Chicago nor the state of Illinois are broke, but they are attempting to balance their budget by forcing concessions on the teachers or even possibly pushing the system into bankruptcy, where a financial oversight agency could impose an austerity contract. For its part, the CTU has been consistent in bringing the issue of funding to the forefront by highlighting tax-diverting schemes like the Tax Increment Financing (TIFs), which siphon property taxes intended for blighted areas into accounts controlled by the mayor. These are then often used to fund corporate developments instead of schools and other social services.

TIF money has been used to finance a basketball arena for DePaul University, build a Marriott hotel, help the Pritzker family construct a tony hotel in well-to-do Hyde Park, subsidize United Airlines and build a luxury car dealership on the north side. Unfortunately, these egregious instances of using tax money to help the rich remain a divisive point among various segments of Chicago labor. The building trades are in favor of these construction projects, despite the harm they do. The proposed agreement uses a significantly larger amount of “excess” TIF funds to plug the budget hole, but that still is only a stopgap measure. It doesn’t address the overall inequitable funding system that relies predominantly on property tax revenue to fund schools (meaning that poorer communities have a lower funding base than wealthier communities). Yet in a sign of CTU’s political influence and the weakening power of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 40 out of 50 aldermen signed on to a proposal to distribute the surplus directly to the schools.

With class sizes of up to 37 or more in some elementary schools and cuts to special education budgets, some of the most vulnerable students are being victimized. Midyear cuts of $100 million in the budget meant that teachers were furloughed for three days and the already overburdened support staff was reduced. Before the school year started there were 1,000 layoffs, including 500 teachers. The number of school nurses, already in short supply, was reduced by 20% and the potential caseload for a school social worker stood at 971 students! Over the past four years teachers, students and parents have been forced to deal with layoffs and the continued closure of neighborhood schools in the poorest and disproportionately Black and Latino communities. CTU President Karen Lewis pointed out that the conditions under which teachers work “have gotten to the point where they are not tolerable.”

For his part, the mayor believed he could demonize teachers and declare their decision to strike a “matter of choice” when they have been without a contract, were understaffed, faced severe cuts to programs, and then threatened with a pay cut. The Board policy of drawing out the negotiations prevented a timely strike during the last school year, but the CTU showed its muscle by calling a one-day strike April 1st. As a result of that mobilization, teachers won significant new support from the Black Lives Matter movement as well as from union locals, including the Amalgamated Transit Union and university professors who work at various campuses, all suffering from severe cuts.

Roots of the Funding Crisis

Chicago has the only unelected school board in the state of Illinois; members are directly appointed by the mayor. Between 1995 and 2005 the city council, under the leadership of Richard M. Daley, propped up the budget through a magic trick, diverting two billion dollars’ worth of pension payments into the school system’s operating budget. Since the 2012 strike, the Board of Edu­cation has refused to go after new revenue to fully fund both the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund and eliminate the budget deficit. The demand by the Board, appointed by Mayor Emanuel, to make the teachers pick up 7% of the 9% of their salary that must be paid into the pension system, rubbed salt in the wounds of classroom teachers who have been forced to deal with school closing, layoffs, decreases in school funding and generally deteriorating working conditions.

Last year, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that the city cannot walk away from its pension obligations. Although fully funded as late as 1993, pension funds have dropped to a 58% funding level. Over the last three years the Rahm Emanuel administration has pushed for the state to pick up the pension payments. However, under the leadership of Governor Rauner, the state legislature seems unlikely to pick up the tab. In fact the flat state income tax was reduced from 5% to 3.5%, fueling a self-inflicted funding crisis. Legislators are also unwilling to eliminate corporate tax loopholes or in any way ruffle the feather of their corporate donors.

Currently the state lacks a budget, with both the Democrats and Republicans waiting for the November elections to judge whether the balance of power shifts. (The Democrats have super majorities in both the House and Senate, but lack the unity to overturn vetoes by the governor.) The situation is so dire at Chicago State, a university that has historically educated many African-American teachers, that this year its incoming freshmen class is only 87 students. It was forced to truncate its spring semester to save money; the school’s very existence is threatened.


CTU supporter holds sign saying: “The first 5 years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out…Early childhood education matters!” Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

For the past two years CPS has operated under a new funding system called “student-based budgeting.” Schools are allocated a pot of money based upon student enrollment. When faced with hiring decisions, school principals are pushed to hire the least experienced teachers who are lower on the salary scale. This means that when veteran teachers are laid off, they are often forced out of the profession since principals refuse to hire a more experienced and higher-paid teacher. Experienced Black educators have been disproportionately impacted — and pushed out of teaching.

A second pressure on public school teachers and staff results from limitations on seniority. Teachers with seniority have no right to transfer to another school so when positions or jobs are closed, their careers are in jeopardy. In 2012, when CPS shut 53 schools, African-American teachers were 52% of those terminated while their overall percentage in CPS was only 27%. A decade ago 31.4% of the teachers were Black; today it is only 22.6%. Meanwhile, of the new hires only 13% are African American. Over the course of a decade this disproportion means that in a school system where 39% of the students are Black, fewer and fewer of their teachers are.

Another case in point is Roosevelt High School teacher Tim Meegan, a 12-year veteran teacher. He was one of five CTU members who ran for positions on the city council during the last election, almost causing a political insider into a runoff election. Losing his job in the August layoffs, Meegan was forced to take a position in Mankato, Minnesota. The possibility of finding another job in Chicago, given his years of experience and political activism, was bleak.

Assessing the Contract

There is a debate within the CTU over whether there is a real funding crisis in Chicago. Over the years CPS has cried that it is broke only to be able to balance its budget later, so some activists believe the city is crying wolf again. In that case, a strike could force CPS to open its coffers and solve the problem. But that does not seem realistic given the current revenue stream. The question had been posed: What can be gained from a strike?

In the wake of the tentative agreement there have been loud objections to its terms, with one former activist calling it the “worst contract in CTU history.” Arguments range from the size of the wage increase to desires to more effectively protect class size, to oppose excessive paperwork and for better working conditions for special education personnel. Opponents also charge there was insufficient will to carry out a strike. There is no doubt that no matter what agreement is reached, the ability to enforce and pay for it, regardless of what’s in the contract, depends on the ability of the union and its members to exercise power within the schools and politically at the city and statewide levels.

Let’s look at what is in the contract and what it promises.

  • One of the main issues was the desire of CPS to cut costs by forcing teachers to pick up the entire cost of their pension, meaning a big wage cut. Because Illinois teachers are not part of the social security system, they must rely on their pension for retirement. Currently 499 out of 769 school districts in Illinois pay part or the entire employee pension contribution. In the January tentative agreement, the Board payments would have been phased out and teachers would have received pay raises and health care increases resulting in a net pay cut. In the new tentative agreement all current employees will continue to have the Board pick up the 7% pension cost while employees hired after January 1, 2017 will have the pickup phased out in two steps as increases to their base pay will offset that amount. Over time, as people retire, all employees will pay for their pensions, but based on a higher base salary.
  • While there will only be a 2% and 2.5% increase in wages during the last two years of the contract, the step-and-lane system of compensation, which “education reformers” wanted to eliminate — and was suspended in the 2012 contract — will be retained. A .08% raise in the cost of health insurance does reduce the effect of the modest raises. Merit pay, another Board desire, was, just as in the last contract, dead on arrival.
  • The agreement provides for a 10-month paid period where there is a reassignment pool for laid-off teachers and paraprofessionals. This reestablishes what had been lost in the last contract, but with even stronger recall rights and layoff protection.
  • The agreement restores a small amount of teacher preparation time for elementary school teachers.
  • Although the evaluation system is still flawed, the union won additional rights to grieve unsatisfactory evaluations and put an end to having teachers tested outside their subject areas. As layoffs are determined on the basis of a teacher’s rating, this is an area of extreme importance, especially because abusive principals have an incentive to give lower ratings to experienced teachers.

The Schools Children Deserve

The issue on which the union has built its public support has been the demand that Chicago’s children deserve quality schools. Class size limits, a curriculum that goes beyond test prep, wraparound services, counselors, librarians, and quality neighborhood schools are crucial to the vision that the CTU championed. Many activists felt that it was essential that community issues be addressed in the contract — that these issues were as important as defending the pay and working conditions of teachers and support staff. So how did that play out in the tentative agreement?

Modest gains were made in several areas.

  • One egregious CPS practice has been outrageously high classroom sizes with as many as 37 students in kindergarten or early elementary grades. In the tentative agreement, when class sizes are over 31 in K-2 classes a teachers’ aide is to be provided. While that will probably make life more tolerable in those too crowded classes, it will also tend to put a cap on what is still way too large a number. Most educational research points to a strong link between small classes in early elementary grades and lasting impact on student growth. This is an area that needs to be improved in the future. It is of course very expensive.
  • Another gain is to mandate that the Board obtain a minimum of $500,000 funding for between 20 and 55 community schools. These would be models of what all the schools should be. They would have wraparound services including medical and mental health services, after-school programs and restorative justice in place of punitive discipline. While establishing lofty goals, the funding to make them successful is not guaranteed, but needs to be fought for.
  • A clause in the tentative agreement also calls for no net growth of charter schools. Although it leaves the existing number of charter schools intact, at least it doesn’t deepen the hemorrhaging of funds going to new charters. A long-term solution remains the unionization of charters, bringing their contracts toward those of CPS teachers, and transforming them into fully accountable public schools.

The Next Stage

While the 2012 strike was a victory against an attempted imposition of austerity, nonetheless CPS was in a position to be able to increase the pressure on teachers. Layoffs, paperwork requirements, testing and evaluations have all made working in Chicago Public Schools more onerous. The question facing the union, both its leadership and its membership, is whether this agreement places the CTU in a position to continue to educate and mobilize its members and the public in the fight for a quality education. How could the modest gains written into the contract be enforceable and paid for?

The new agreement depends on a large amount of future TIF money, which is not guaranteed. The CPS budget also counts on over $200 million in money from the state that is contingent on pension reform, and the chance that Governor Rauner would approve that is questionable. The reforms in the educational system that CTU calls for are just not possible without fundamental changes in funding that will require new taxes on the wealthy. Adequate staffing and wraparound services could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars if extended to all schools. That is why just appropriating the $200 million TIF surplus to balance the budget this year is only a short-term fix. Governor Bruce Rauner’s threats to declare bankruptcy and take over the Chicago public school system are still real dangers.

The community still supports the CTU and its members over the mayor. That support has remained high over the past four years, and the continued violence in Chicago and police murders of Black youth have deeply weakened the mayor. But while the mayor is weakened, so is the union due to job losses and school closings. The question facing the CTU is not whether the membership will support a strike — they have decisively prepared for one — but whether any settlement can begin to address the endemic funding crisis.

Without new revenue sources that tax the rich, schools will continue to be undermined and education and educators will suffer. While this same question is common across the country, who will pay is now sharply posed in Chicago. CTU has not shied away from calling out bankers and corporations that profit from siphoning money from public education and other public services. It is essential that activism — and engagement of parents and community members — continue and broaden. Judging by past experience, changes in the way education is funded, if moved forward in Chicago, can invigorate similar struggles in underfunded U.S. public school systems. Certainly the demands for progressive funding and increases in corporate taxes must be put at the center of teacher union contract negotiations.

Rob Bartlett is a teacher in the Chicago area. This article will appear in the November-December issue of Against the Current.

Standing Rock and Our Future

By Alison Baldree

October 24, 2016

Standing Rock, the largest uprising of indigenous people that our generation has seen, is what the future looks like. Tribes who have had centuries-long divisions have entered into a space of forgiveness and love with their shared mission: saving mother planet, saving her water. The people at Standing Rock are incredibly welcoming. Seven massive kitchens serve three hot meals a day to any and everyone living at the encampment. Standing Rock is a role model of the future. These incredible indigenous leaders are putting their lives and bodies literally on the line in the fight for a better world. One message was very clear: they are not going anywhere.


Jill Stein meets with Dakota Access Pipeline protesters on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Photo via Duluth News Tribune

After we toured around the first day, we met some organizers who were meeting with the parents of children at Standing Rock. They were organizing a parent meeting to make sure that every child at Standing Rock would receive a quality education. They were collecting school supplies and by the time this article is published school will be fully in session.

There is no currency at Standing Rock. The community is supporting each other. It is a land without corporations. They are feeding each other, clothing each other, and educating each other. They are fighting with and for each other, and for all of us. Standing rock is an example of what the world without corporations can look like. The center of the activity at Standing Rock is on the front lines, where the community is fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The day that I was there we joined in a ceremony proclaiming that “Water is life,” and that “There are other forms of energy, not water.”

The community of warriors were surrounding their comrade who was being locked onto one of the machines. This machine had just dug up a sacred burial ground during a sneak attack in the middle of the night. DAPL workers dug up the exact coordinates that were reported to them, and requested to be respected. This is a major human rights violation, especially considering the mass genocide that the indigenous people in this land that we call America have endured for centuries.

Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, the Green Party presidential and vice-presidential candidates, were invited by some of the leaders to chain themselves to one of the machines. This request is not to be taken lightly. When people engage in this kind of direct action they risk being beaten, pepper sprayed, or worse.

When asked to spray paint a message on one of the machines, Jill and Ajamu stepped up to stand in solidarity with the people. Ajamu spray-painted “We must decolonize.” He spoke not as a candidate for Vice President but as a human rights activist from an oppressed community, with the full personal and global understanding of the generational impact of colonization of people of African descent. Jill, when asked to spray paint a message, took the opportunity to center the struggle of Standing Rock by making the statement of the “presidential seal.” She sprayed “I approve this message,” as a sign of solidarity.

Jill constantly speaks about the limitations of one single person and even the highest office of this land we call America. Real transformative change happens in the frontline communities like at Standing Rock. Jill and Ajamu have been visiting and working with frontline communities such as Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (who camped out in front of City Hall demanding that the chief of police Charlie Beck be fired), and the homeless in Baltimore. They are using their platform as the presidential and vice presidential candidates for the Green party as a way to not just uplift but to help unite these struggles.

There are powerful forces working to divide the left and when we unite, organize and work together, we becoming exponentially more powerful. What do we have to lose? The electoral process continues to frame the individual and there is a “celebrity” factor that comes into play that we must fight against. For example, many people heard about Standing Rock from the mainstream media for the first time when Jill and Ajamu visited, and still the reporting has been all about her spray painting on the machine, not the leadership and bravery of the indigenous people leading the struggle.

The mainstream media are holding tight to their control of the story. They did not share that Black Lives Matter and Palestinian rights activists were also fighting at Standing Rock. The mainstream media have missed the main point: that there is larger struggle going on. People are developing a larger understanding of intersectionality of our struggles and standing up together and unified.

I firmly believe that we are living in a very historic moment, as the people are starting to understand the complex intersectionality of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, and gender identity in the fight for freedom. Standing Rock is what the future looks like if we are willing to stand together, to organize and to fight for it.

Alison is a staffer with the Jill Stein campaign and a member of Solidarity. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Stein campaign.