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Rooting Out the Fake Job Creators

5:42 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Without serious accountability, the rallying cry for more “job creation” is likely to amount to nothing more than empty rhetoric.

Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, recently declared on Face the Nation that that President Barack Obama “is hostile to job creators,” reciting a standard Republican canard.

Especially since movements such as Occupy Wall Street began shining a spotlight on inequality, right-wingers have tried to rhetorically position the rich as engines of economic progress. However, the tired policies of trickle-down tax cuts don’t boost jobs.

For their part, liberals are advocating a new wave of spending to stimulate the economy. Yet, given a hostile Congress deep into election-year politicking, a jobs plan reliant on expanding government outlays is dead in the water. To bring much-needed relief to an ailing job market, we need a different solution.

Here’s one step we can take immediately that should command broad support across the political spectrum. Why not demand accountability for the public support we’re already doling out to companies large and small?

The watchdog group Good Jobs First recently reported that taxpayers currently spend $70 billion per year on business incentives. In return for tax breaks and other subsidies, companies routinely make big promises about the number of jobs they will create.

Sounds great. But there’s rarely any follow-up. We don’t know if these companies are keeping their promises, and they have few incentives to do so.

“Many states fail to even verify that companies receiving subsidies are meeting their job-creation goals and other commitments, and many more have weak penalty policies for addressing non-compliance,” wrote Michelle Lee of Good Jobs First upon the report’s release.

Many people argue that government should be run more like a business. But what company would enact policies that hugely affected its revenue stream without making sure it was getting a worthwhile return on its investment?

Any spending that’s supposed to generate new jobs should hinge on accountability. If a business promises to generate 1,000 new jobs in return for a public subsidy, our states and localities should demand that money back if the jobs never materialize.

Fortunately, we’re seeing some progress in this direction. In its $15-million program providing cash grants to companies that create jobs, Vermont included measures to get its money back from supported businesses if promised jobs don’t materialize. The state will publish online the names and penalties incurred by any companies failing to meet their obligations.

North Carolina and Virginia both have subsidy programs that carefully track grants, and companies must return tax dollars if they don’t prove that the public benefitted from them. Iowa, Oklahoma, and Maryland are also taking commendable steps to ensure accountability.

In other cases, investigative journalists and public interest activists are picking up the slack. They’re holding companies accountable on the public stage for job promises not kept.

One hopeful example has emerged over the past year in Chicago. There, diligent reporters at the Chicago Reader, along with advocates at the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, worked to expose a program known as tax increment financing. Half a billion dollars raised through property taxes were sent annually to fund this program, originally designed to help struggling neighborhoods attract investment that would spur economic development. But in practice, the program became an unaccountable slush fund.

Shamed by the exposé, three businesses — Bank of America, the insurance company CNA Group, and a financial exchange company called the CME Group — announced that they would give back a total of $34 million that the city of Chicago had paid in subsidies. In the case of the first two groups, the businesses had promised — and failed to deliver — a total of 2,700 jobs as a condition for public support.

Additionally, the uproar compelled Mayor Rahm Emanuel to announce reforms to that program, including outside auditing of whether businesses receiving public subsidies were actually meeting job-creation pledges.

Republicans can call for corporate tax breaks and Democrats for public funding to generate jobs. But unless we’re all calling for serious accountability, the rallying cry for more “job creation” is likely to amount to nothing more than empty rhetoric.

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This commentary was distributed by, and cross-posted at, Otherwords.org.

Photo published under Creative Commons license courtesy of Talk Radio News Service

Can Obama Win Back the Youth Vote?

12:13 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Cross- posted from Huffington Post.

In 2008, young people in America — including many who voted in their first presidential election — rallied behind a youthful senator from Illinois campaigning on the promise of change and hope. Now the incumbent in the White House, Barack Obama faces a difficult challenge in recapturing the youth vote for his reelection. Early this month, The New York Times reported that enthusiasm for Obama among voters aged 18-24 has fallen sharply since the last election cycle. And many of the young people interviewed in the article spoke of feeling alienated from politics.

So what is behind young peoples’ disaffection? And what must President Obama do if he is serious about winning back the country’s youth?

Young People Face a Broken American Dream

Young people are not acting irrationally when they report growing cynical. They are responding to the reality of an American Dream that lies in fragments at their feet.

Traditionally, the promise of prosperity in this country has rested on three foundations: good jobs, decent housing, and attainable college education. In recent decades, each of these three legs of the stool of economic stability has been kicked out from underneath the middle class.

With regard to jobs, young people have been told they could do anything — that they were America’s best hope for a competitive edge over other developed nations. But for those entering the workforce today, the good jobs just aren’t there. A quick survey of Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that only one of the ten fastest-growing occupations carries a median income of over $50,000 per year. Five of the ten make less than $30,000.

Second, young people were told that if they studied diligently and prepared themselves for careers, their hard work would allow them to one day earn enough buy a home. Yet home ownership is getting more and more inaccessible, with affordable housing now as distant a reality as well-paying jobs.

Finally, there’s college. University education was supposed to provide the basis for achieving the other two keys to middle class life. However, today’s graduates leave college shackled by ruinous debt, with sky-high tuition meaning that students must take tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Even in a good case scenario, these loans take decades to pay off.

The New York Times‘ story about growing alienation of young people from politics included interviews with several 18- to 24-year-olds who said the impossibility of finding decent work and the burden of student debt were driving factors in their despair. Their alienation is not baseless pessimism. Rather, it reflects a breakdown in our political and economic system.

The Consequences of Abandoning Our Youth

Failure to invest in America’s youth has serious consequences: a loss of international competitiveness, a rise in disenfranchisement, and an expanding polarization in our politics.

While the United States languishes, other nations are actually investing in their young people. That America is a world leader in student debt leaves members of our next generation with a disadvantage over their foreign counterparts that promises to become a long-term liability. Moreover, countries like Sweden and Germany have government-sponsored workforce investment and apprenticeship programs that help their young people transition into full-time work with some confidence of future security.

The Obama campaign’s 2008 promise of hope inspired many, but it also raised the danger of creating false hope amongst our youth. We need a next generation that is engaged in renewing our politics and making current beltway deadlock obsolete. But young people who feel ever more disenfranchised are ever less likely to take on that challenge. False hope fosters a lingering sense of anger, cynicism, and distance from civic life.

Those who do bother to get involved in politics may be tempted to enter at the fringes. Loss of hope is giving rise to something even more insidious than embarrassment on the international stage; it quietly pushes more young people to the extreme edges of social and political discourse. Those who feel they have been sold a false bill of goods find solace in the messages of conservatives and libertarians, who offer no policies to address the true interests of young people, but who effectively channel popular disaffection into a worldview that pits working people against one another.

Winning Back the Next Generation of Voters

More polarization is the last thing we need. Obama can re-inspire young people, but he will have to show some concrete results, not just rhetoric, in order to do it this time.

First, instead of kicking the can down the road on student loans, the president must take action to ameliorate the pain of existing debts and save young people from crippling financial burdens. After months of stalemate, Congress finally reached a deal on June 29 to extend the low 3.4% percent interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford student loans for one more year. But that means that without further action from Congress and the president, those loans will jump to 6.8 percent next year, hitting young graduates in the pocketbook just as they are exiting school. Obama is using his commitment to student loan reform as a campaign issue: he mentioned the loan rates in his weekly address just days before the vote. But Obama could go further by supporting Rep. Hansen Clarke’s (D-MI) Student Loan Forgiveness Act, a bill that would forgive federal student loans after borrowers have made payments of 10 percent of their incomes for ten years. Those who work in public service would get their loans forgiven after five years. It’s not a panacea, but having the president use his bully pulpit in support of the measure would help to show young people he is serious about making college affordable.

Second, Obama could introduce stronger workforce investment measures, such as expanding vocational certificate programs as a pathway toward improved job skills and higher educational attainment. A June 5 study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce entitled “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees,” found that certificates, which take less time and money to earn than do college degrees, could serve as an important path forward for a segment of young people preparing to enter the workforce. The study’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson, recommend investing in certificate programs in order to boost young and displaced workers’ prospects during this period of high unemployment. Indeed, employers say jobs requiring online research (and other skills in which one can earn a certificate) are sitting vacant. Yet Obama’s education budget proposal for 2013 focused almost exclusively on college completion, requesting little or no new funding for non-degree certificate programs.

(Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has been crisscrossing the country on a campaign tour to showcase community colleges as career-starters. If Biden were to add a few certificate programs to the tour as part of her workforce development boosterism, it could encourage Obama to transform his verbal support for vocational education into actual dollars for these programs in his 2014 budget proposal.)

Finally, Obama needs to work to restore the right for people to bargain collectively with their employers over the conditions of their employment. It was not preordained that the manufacturing jobs that gave rise to America’s middle class would pay living wages and provide decent benefits. Those things were won through collective action. Instead of making empty promises to bring back factories that have moved overseas, the White House should focus on making sure that the jobs that do exist in this country are good ones.

That means reinventing collective bargaining for the next generation, cracking down on corporations that violate rights to free association, and creating new means for workers who are independent contractors or have non-traditional work arrangements to join in employees’ organizations. A variety of innovative proposals — from extending the Civil Rights Act to protect the right to unionize, to instating “just cause” laws at the state level — have been proposed as steps toward achieving these goals. But the Obama administration has yet to make employees’ right to organize a priority.

That is a problem. For without good jobs, affordable housing, and a solution to the student debt crisis, young people will have every reason to cry foul about the choices of political leadership being presented to them — and to demand something better than what the president currently has on offer.

The 99 Percent Takes Office: Lessons From a Rhode Island Special Election

6:01 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Lessons Learned (Photo: anselm23, flickr)

Lessons Learned (Photo: anselm23, flickr)

This article was originally posted on Truthout.org.

If labor and other progressive groups are going to rebuild an economy that works for the 99 percent in America, they need to do great organizing in workplaces and communities and they also need to build deep coalitions among themselves. But that’s not enough.

They also need to translate their organizing muscle into political power. And that means looking at electoral strategies in a new way.

The progressive victories in this November’s elections were inspiring and important, but they were essentially defensive. We fended off Republican attacks in Ohio, Mississippi and Maine, but we need to be winning pro-active campaigns, too. We need to be able to use electoral politics to reinforce our organizing strategies.

We often elect lesser-evil politicians and send them off in the vague hope that they will do the right thing once taking office. But we have seen time and time again, that even when we have friends in elected positions, they often end up holding the grassroots constituencies that got them elected at arm’s length. Politicians face huge pressures from corporate interests once in power and, consequently, just having a “D” after their name does not guarantee that they will take tough stands on behalf of working people. We don’t need friends in office; we need champions.

Fortunately, activists in Providence, Rhode Island – prominently including the hotel and restaurant workers union (UNITE HERE) – are providing a model for electing officials at the municipal level who will champion the interests of working people. These progressives are creating impressive coalitions, overcoming historic divides between the building trades and other unions and translating organizing strength into a political program that can produce real community benefits.

What’s more – in an exciting special election this Tuesday – they succeeded in electing one of their truest champions yet. Carmen Castillo, a hotel housekeeper and a rank-and-file union leader, brought to her campaign the life experience of an immigrant and a single mom, along with the vision of an organizer. She is drawing on the strength of an electoral coalition that has never looked more impressive. Read the rest of this entry →

How Progressives Won the Labor Rights Showdown in Ohio

11:34 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This piece was originally posted on Truthout.

Last week, the labor movement and its allies scored a major victory with the repeal of Ohio Senate Bill 5 (SB5), a piece of anti-union legislation signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. In a referendum that gave voters a chance to speak on the issue, Ohioans resoundingly rejected the law, which would have gutted the bargaining rights of 350,000 public-sector workers. In a landmark defeat for Republicans, voters turned out in large numbers and voted 61 percent to 39 percent to strike down SB5.

To understand how progressives pulled off this remarkable win, I spoke with Paul Booth, one of the chief strategists behind the campaign to repeal SB5. Currently, Booth is executive assistant to Gerald McEntee, the longtime president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). But he is also an organizing legend outside of the labor movement. In the 1960s, Booth served as national secretary and vice president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and in the 1970s he was a prominent figure at the Midwest Academy, an influential training ground for organizers. He has worked for AFSCME since 1974.

Delving into the Ohio victory, I opened with a simple question: “Why did we win?”

“The people of Ohio decided that this was as a power grab by the governor and his people,” Booth said. “They decided public service workers’ rights were worth preserving.”

His answer seemed consistent with the common “overreach” analysis. Many commentators argue the Ohio vote is symptomatic of a widespread backlash against Republican governors who exceeded their electoral mandates by ramming conservative agendas through statehouses.

“I’m cautious about ‘overreach,’” Booth countered. “We stuck Kasich and his people with that characterization, but as a factual matter overreach is the wrong word. Because what they did was right out of their game plan. They had electoral success in November 2010. And, in order to thwart everything that we stand for, they wanted to cash that in as quickly and thoroughly as possible. They wanted to change the rules of the game for 2012. They view next year’s elections as their last best hope for throwing Obama out, taking back the Senate, and finalizing everything they’ve worked for in the last forty years. So this was reach, not overreach. They did exactly what they thought they had to do. In the context of everything they’ve been trying to do for the last forty years, it is essential for them to cripple the voice of working people.” Read the rest of this entry →

Four Reasons for Hope in the Next Election Cycle – and One Reason Progressives Must Do More to Win

8:02 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Just a few months ago, conservatives had the momentum, emerging victorious from the midterm elections and claiming a sweeping mandate for their policies. In states across the country, newly elected Republican governors launched a radical drive to roll back workers’ rights and gut social programs.

While many states are still trying to stave off deep and harmful cuts to our social safety net, Republicans can no longer pretend that they are acting on the basis of popular will.

Having seen the true agenda being promoted by officials such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, voters have discerned several key truths: that conservatives’ proposals in no way offer real solutions to the problems we face, that they merely try to scapegoat immigrants and public employees for public woes and that the measures right-wingers wish to enact represent an assault on our rights – whether it is our civil liberties or our right to form collective organizations in our workplaces.

In recent weeks, several promising signs for the next election cycle have emerged. The following are four of my favorite reasons for hope that backlash against conservative overreach will carry into the next elections:

1) Buyer’s Remorse Sweeps the Country

As pollster Margie Omero has reported, voters who may have supported Republicans in the midterm elections are having serious second thoughts. Having seen the true face of the conservative agenda, they are more than a little taken aback. As Omero writes:

Polls show voters in battleground states regret having voted for their new Republican Governors. Since February, [the] Democratic firm PPP released surveys in eight states asking voters “if you could do last fall’s election for Governor over again, how would you vote?” In seven of the eight, the Democrat now would win, with all seven showing double-digit improvements in their margin. (Only Rory Reid in Nevada still trails.)

2) Govs. Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie Face Disapproval

In particular, three of the governors leading the conservative crusade are now paying a price. Polls show Wisconsin’s Scott Walker with a current disapproval rating of 54 percent (compared with an approval rating of only 43 percent). Half of Wisconsin residents would like to see him recalled.

Likewise, in Ohio, Gov. John Kasich faces a 49 percent disapproval rating (with only 38 percent of those polled approving of his performance). Moreover, as a local news station reports, “Voters say 52 to 38 percent that limiting collective bargaining for public employees is not needed to balance the budget.”

Finally, in New Jersey, right-wing hero Chris Christie is proving far less popular among residents of his own state than with his national Republican admirers. His disapproval rating has increased nine percentage points since February, with 47 percent of residents now critical of his actions as governor.

3) Heavily Republican Jacksonville Elects Its First Black Mayor, a Democrat

Jacksonville, Florida, is a city that leans heavily Republican. But, in a good sign for progressive prospects in that pivotal state, the city has just elected its first African-American mayor, a Democrat. Blogger Joy Reid writes about the significance of this shift:

[I]t appears that the doubters such as myself were wrong, and [Democratic] party chairman, Rod Smith, was right to pour money into J-ville, where an African-American Democrat and former Clinton administration official Alvin Brown, is leading by just over 600 votes in the mayor’s race in the red, red city, after Tuesday night’s election, pending a recount. The guy he’s beating, for now at least, is a tea party favorite and Jacksonville’s current tax collector, Mike Hogan….

To be clear, this is a big deal.

Jacksonville is so Republican, most of the city council races are Republican vs. Republican (in the city’s electoral system, the top two candidates of either party to emerge out of a primary face off in the general.)

Reid continues:

… [I]f it holds, it would seem to indicate the kind of anti-Republican backlash that could portend good things for Democrats in 2012…. And it would also make it clear than when they’re ready, Florida Democrats do know how to organize and get out the vote.

4) New Yorkers Stand Up to Defend Medicare

In a final hopeful development, a special election in upstate New York (a fight known as “NY26,” in reference to the electoral district in question) became a referendum on conservative efforts to undermine Medicare. Standing up for essential public services, voters rejected plans by national Republicans to privatize health care for the elderly, putting a Democrat into office in a come-from-behind victory.

As The Hill reported:

Medicare proved a winning issue in the New York special election, giving the [Democrats] a campaign theme for next year’s election. The party hammered Republican nominee Jane Corwin for her support of [Paul] Ryan’s budget plan and its proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher-like system for those under the age of 55. She lost to Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) by four points in a Republican-leaning district.

Almost immediately after the race was called for Hochul, Democrat after Democrat put out statements crediting Hochul’s win to the Republicans’ plan “to end Medicare.” Polling seems to support the Democrats’ strategy.

Why We Still Need an Agenda

All these things are genuinely positive. But while it is hopeful to see that the conservative agenda is backfiring and that Democrats are winning over voters, ultimately, gains at the polls do not substitute for having a real progressive agenda.

No doubt, voting is important. In the wake of Republican attacks in the states, we need to come out and send a strong message that public policy which strips away fundamental rights takes our country backward, not forward.

But, more than anything, the conservative maneuvers of recent months show what a truly desperate predicament we are in. Although they are now facing backlash, the Republicans came all too close to being able to successfully use their deceptive tactics. They may lose this round, but Republican actions of recent months should make us realize how vulnerable we have become.

When people in our country are in severe economic distress, it makes us increasingly susceptible to scapegoating and demagoguery. Democratic enfranchisement is based on people having some measure of economic stability. People cannot be full participants in our democratic system without it.

Recognizing the negative affect of divisions wrought by scapegoating and narrow special-interest appeals, our agenda must be based on rebuilding a common sense of purpose among Americans. The Democrats can no longer be a party representing a loosely knit collection of interest groups. If we are serious about building a majority party, we must advance a program that not only increases the number of jobs available, but that also improves the quality of existing jobs by expanding people’s rights at work.

What does it mean to have a true progressive agenda? At its core, it means revitalization of key New Deal institutions such as the labor movement and an activist public sector – retooling these institutions so that they are relevant in a new economy. Recent weeks have offered signs of hope that conservatives will be punished for their overreach. But for us to truly be the beneficiaries of their decline, our support for elected officials should not be based merely on candidates’ party affiliation, or on shallow promises to stand with working people. Instead, it should be based on their concrete actions taken in support of this agenda.


– Amy wrote this piece for her “Walking the Walk” series on Truthout. Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.” She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor and faith communities. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean.