Sound, Fury and the Midterms

David Finkel

November 17, 2018

The much-discussed results of the U.S. midterm elections represent, in this writer’s view, a “rebalancing” rather than something “transformative.” It is of course significant that the far-right Republican stranglehold on both houses of Congress as well as the presidency will be broken by the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. But after the sound and fury, it’s also important to understand some sharp limitations.

Election results handwritten on a chalkboard

To begin with, let’s imagine the scenario if the 2016 election hadn’t produced the rather fluky Electoral College victory of Donald Trump. In that case, following two years of the stagnant neoliberalism of an unpopular Hillary Clinton presidency, we’d likely have been looking at a massive “red wave” of Republicans consolidating very large Congressional and state house majorities (especially with over two dozen Democratic Senate seats on the line).

Instead, the key factor this November was certainly mass revulsion against the grotesque performance of the Trump regime – a show that his base loves, but repels pretty much everyone else. It’s important that the African American and Latinx voter turnout expanded, reacting against racist voter suppression and Trump’s anti-immigrant atrocities, along with an impressive youth turnout that holds progressive potential for the future. The Republicans’ plans to “reform” (destroy) Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and wipe out what remains of health care protections under Obamacare were obvious huge factors in their defeat.

The increase in women elected to Congress is positive, of course, even if their proportion there remains pitiful by the standards of most ”advanced” countries and some “Third World” nations too. What would be essential for an electoral result to be seen as transformative, however, is a context of powerful social mobilization. That’s what wasn’t happening in this election.

Despite the heroic turnouts against Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the Women’ s Marches and #MeToo, the Movement for Black Lives, pro-immigrant actions and more, these have mostly been episodic upsurges that haven’t yet generated powerful self-sustaining campaigns. Most important, there isn’t a backdrop of massive labor militancy, even though the teachers’ strikes, the UPS rank and file rejection of a rotten contract, the widespread Fight for $15 and other organizing efforts are very hopeful vital signs.

The fact that a sizeable sector of white working class voters remain in the Trump camp remains a sobering political reality, for which the corporate-driven Democratic Party has no meaningful alternative message.

On the other hand, the fact that voter suppression is now recognized and openly discussed, after flying under the radar for so long, in my opinion is a major development. At this writing one major election – the Georgia governor’s race — has been successfully stolen by the fraudulent removal of tens of thousands of Black citizens from the voter rolls. Under the glare of public exposure, it should be harder to repeat that level of blatant cheating despite the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

Whatever the contested results in Florida turn out to be this time, the restoration of voting rights to ex-prisoners will change the voter demographics of that state. In my home state Michigan, ballot proposals to ensure access to voting, and ending absurd partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts, passed by large margins (as did legalization of recreational marijuana). Whether the defeat of the execrable Wisconsin governor Scott Walker might open the question of voter suppression there remains to be seen.

The overall reality of this midterm’s rebalancing is that the voters that Democratic strategists foolishly depended on in 2016 – those somewhat caricatured “suburban college-educated white women” – did break for them this year after two years of the Trump spectacle. What flipped in 2018 can flip back next time, of course – but just now, thinking about scenarios for 2020 is more than this writer’s stomach can handle.

For an incisive overview of the mixed midterm results and what they may portend, a useful piece by Matt Karp appears in JACOBIN.

The Left and the Future

What about the left in these elections? With regret, we must note that the Green Party didn’t do well, although the socialist Green candidate for New York governor, Howie Hawkins, is to be congratulated for maintaining the party’s ballot status.

An assessment from the Democratic Socialists of America celebrates a modest breakthrough in the election victories of more than a dozen DSA members, including U.S. House candidates Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, as well as a substantial list of DSA-endorsed state and local candidates.

The presence of a handful of self-declared democratic socialists, along with substantial numbers of left-leaning liberals, means that the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party will have a firm niche in the party. They will offer an attractive face to part of its voting base, and may be allowed a significant role in drafting that most meaningless of documents, the 2020 Party Platform.

None of this will change the reality that the Democratic Party in practice is subservient to, and a tool of, corporate power and Wall Street. Its relatively progressive stances (i.e. relative to the vicious Republican policies pandering to the religious fundamentalist right) on social issues only disguise that underlying fact.

We’ll need to watch to see whether progressive Democrats, and any other politicians who take the First Amendment seriously, will revolt against the pending Israel Anti-Boycott Act that aims to cripple and criminalize campus and community BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) activism.

No doubt this election will be followed by escalating cacophony around the daily antics of the big twit in the White House, civil wars in the West Wing, attempts to shut down the Mueller investigations, empty noise about impeachment, and all the rest. What mustn’t be forgotten is that the day after the election, whenever the vote recounts and lawsuits are over, and next January when the new Congress convenes, the fundamental crises remain.

Under the impact of climate change-driven disasters, California is burning and towns in Florida and the Carolinas are still staggering from hurricane destruction, as does the entire island nation of Puerto Rico. At the U.S. border, world-class crimes are committed against asylum seekers confined in detention camps while ICE’s reign of terror sweeps immigrant communities. Children in Yemen die from starvation by the hundreds every day under U.S.-supplied Saudi Arabian bombs and planes. College students are drowning in debt, families are devastated by housing foreclosures and water shutoffs, and wages stagnate even as official unemployment reaches “record lows” and corporate profits soar.

Elections don’t change these realities – certainly not automatically. It takes sustained mobilization and mass action to do so.

Hospitals Torch Safe Staffing Limits in Massachusetts

Chris Brooks

November 15, 2018

Photo: Massachusetts Nurses Association

Massachusetts nurses suffered a devastating defeat at the polls yesterday as a union-led ballot initiative, Question 1, lost by more than 2 to 1.

Question 1 would have improved hospital care by limiting the number of patients that bedside nurses could legally be assigned.

The ballot question was shepherded by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents nurses at 70 percent of the hospitals in the state, including 47 private and five public hospitals.

On the face of it, the appeal of Question 1 seems obvious: Would you rather be cared for by a nurse who has three other patients, or a nurse who has seven other patients?

Safe patient limits are the Holy Grail for nurse unions. While many union contracts establish nurse-to-patient ratios (see box), only in California have nurses won universal ratios at the legislature.

The results speak for themselves. “In California they have lower instances of avoidable readmissions and their patient outcomes are better,” said Nora Watts, a 43-year nurse at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston. “The morbidity and mortality rates from hospital-associated problems are decreasing faster than anywhere else in the country.”

So how did employers persuade the public to vote no? The Massachusetts hospital lobby spent upwards of $30 million to drum up fear and confusion in a campaign that strongly resembled an anti-union drive.

MASS CONFUSION

Question 1 pitted MNA’s ground game against the deep pockets of the state’s $28 billion hospital industry.

“We did a huge amount of behind-the-scenes research, polled our members, developed literature, developed a pool of speakers who went all around the state in forums we organized,” said Katie Murphy, a nurse for more than 40 years.

“We made posters. We organized constant phone banks, pumped out social media. We wore buttons on the job, planted lawn signs in our yards, made legislators sign pledge cards, and we knocked the doors of our neighbors.”

But in the end, it wasn’t enough.

“We have been outspent three to one,” said MNA Executive Director Julie Pinkham, “and the hospital lobby was effective enough in confusing and scaring people to the point that they didn’t know how to vote to support nurses.”

Banners and yard signs opposing Question 1 intentionally resembled the MNA’s. An employer-financed television ad featured a statement from the American Nurses Association, a manager-dominated professional association with anti-union roots.

“Everyone wants to support nurses,” Pinkham said. “The opposition has done an effective job in dressing up non-staff RNs in scrubs as the front of their campaign.”

TERROR AT WORK

In the hospitals, the employer campaign mimicked an anti-union drive.

“I’ve seen co-workers in tears,” said Mark Brodeur, a nurse from Berkshire Medical Center.

“They have group meetings where they told the LPNs [licensed practical nurses] that if this goes through then there won’t be a job for you,” he said. “In every outpatient office there are pamphlets all over the counters claiming that unless everyone votes no, hospitals will close and services will be eliminated. Administrators are creating terror.”

“There are lots of non-union nurses who helped us in this campaign,” said Karen Coughlin, a 34-year nurse who retired last month to work full-time on the Question 1 campaign. “They’ve knocked on doors, made calls, and been out with signs at the polls—and they’ve been through hell at work.

“They’ve been forced to have one-on-one conversations with their supervisors who tell them to vote no on 1 or they will close their unit or change their hours.”

The MNA established a hotline for patients and health care workers to report intimidation by administrators. Patients called to say they had received envelopes from Baystate Health, stamped “TIME SENSITIVE” in red ink. The envelopes contained “No on 1” pamphlets.

The union also received reports that patients undergoing treatment were told that the services they were receiving might end if Question 1 passed.

Many health care workers are represented by mega-local SEIU 1199, which partnered with the MNA to write the ballot initiative, but then chose to remain neutral on Question 1.

“It is concerning that SEIU members were being threatened but the union didn’t take a public position on this legislation,” said Brodeur.

CONFRONTING UNDERSTAFFING

Constant understaffing is a serious concern for hospital nurses everywhere. It’s a major union priority in contract negotiations.

Had the initiative passed, the maximum number of patients per nurse would have varied by department. These numbers were chosen based on research and guidelines from organizations such as the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses, said Susan Wright Thomas, a nursing instructor who works at Cambridge Hospital.

For instance, nurses treating mothers in labor or who had just given birth would be assigned only one patient. In a step-down unit—where the severity of the patient’s condition is one step down from intensive care—the limit would be three patients per nurse.

The MNA has been trying to pass a law mandating safe patient limits for years. The closest it came to success was in 2014, when a similar ballot initiative was withdrawn in exchange for a legislative compromise that set a limit of one patient per nurse in intensive care units.

Some nurses contrasted the failed campaign with the Massachusetts Teachers’ successful 2016 campaign to shoot down the business-backed Question 2, which would have lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

The charter school measure “had a lot of money from business behind it,” said Katie Murphy, who has been a nurse for more than 40 years. “But school administrators weren’t publicly threatening teachers with school closures and layoffs.”


Striking for Safe Staffing

Suzanne Love is a nurse in the emergency department at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. She and her co-workers won their first union contract in May. She describes the fight to win safe staffing:

“I work for a small community hospital that is owned by Baystate Health, a huge corporation that employs over 12,000 people across the six hospitals it owns. It’s the largest private employer in the region.

“At Franklin, we have a good nurse staff ratio because we won language in our contract saying the hospital will hire enough people.

“Before, they would put out a schedule and there would be hundreds of holes in it because they wouldn’t hire enough people. Instead they would pressure nurses to come in and work more shifts, to work overtime, or work understaffed.

“We had to go on strike twice to get them to hire enough staff to properly staff the place. Those strikes were June 2017 and April 2018. It was only after those strikes that the hospital finally agreed to our safe staffing language.

“As a result, the hospital hired 25 full-time nurses. We only had 200 nurses to begin with, so that is a pretty big jump.

“Having the ability to negotiate with management makes a huge difference. Non-union hospitals have the worst patient and staff ratios.”

This was originally posted on Labor Notes.

Educators for a Democratic Union is Transforming the Massachusetts Teachers Association

Dan Clawson and John Fitzgerald

May 8, 2018

Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) is the progressive caucus in the Massachusetts Teachers Association in which several Solidarity members are active. Four years ago, EDU ran a candidate for president largely as a vehicle to make connections with those we couldn’t easily reach. As a result of an effective campaign, an unsuspecting old guard, and a disgruntled membership, Barbara Madeloni won a two-year term. She ran for re-election in 2016 with a running mate; she won again, but her running mate lost. Since then our union has been in the process of becoming a more progressive and militant union.

MTA members against Measure 2. Photo: MTA

In the fall of 2016 we defeated a ballot question that would have raised the cap on charter schools in the state.  The pro-corporate forces to expand charter schools (and thereby remove public control of schools), spent $26 million.  In March of the ballot year they were up in the polls by 25 points; the governor (the most popular in the country) and the state’s largest newspaper strongly backed the charter forces.  Our union, together with community and labor allies, organized teachers to go door to door; we eventually WON the measure by 25 points (that is a 50 point swing).

This was a really enormous victory that shocked the corporate ed reformers (see this leaked report commissioned by the Waltons analyzing what went wrong in which they specifically point to a transformed MTA) and has been part of the emerging and growing teachers movement that’s been taking place since the Chicago Teachers Union lead the way.

Barbara Madeloni is terming out. EDU organized essentially a primary to choose our candidates for president and vice-president, choosing Merrie Najimy and Max Page. The vote was May 5 at the MTA’s Annual Meeting (where delegates vote for these positions) and our candidates won a decisive victory. This victory reflects a really well-run campaign as well as a leftward drift of the membership that’s clearly been inspired by our victories under Madeloni as well as by the national walkouts.

This year we (together with numerous allies) have put on the ballot a measure to increase taxes on incomes over a million dollars a year.  That will bring in up to $2 billion a year, which is designated to be spent on education and transportation.  (Comparison:  Massachusetts now appropriates less than $5 billion for K-12 education, and about $1 billion for higher education.)  Our opponents inside the Massachusetts Teachers Association oppose spending any money to promote the ballot question, arguing that since it is up in the polls, it is sure to win without our committing resources.  (Seriously — that’s their argument.)

Had the EDU candidates for president and vice-president of the union been defeated, that ballot question would surely have been lost, as would the transformation process in the union.  Besides the members, a lot of labor and community groups in the state are very happy that EDU won this election and won big.