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President Obama Reelected—But Where Is the Pathway to Good Jobs?

2:15 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

With Barack Obama’s reelection last night, we witnessed the labor movement once again, as in every successful Democratic presidential race in recent decades, saving the president. Its ground troops and financial backing provided the bulwark to shore up Obama’s lead against Romney. By aiding in Obama’s victory, unions helped avert the crisis that the election of Romney/Ryan would have represented—an attack not only on organized labor, but on women’s rights and the whole of the social safety net.

But what, in terms of a positive agenda, should working people expect that’s different from when President Obama was first elected? After the election of the last two Democratic presidents, organized labor had a clear legislative priority to hand to the successful candidate—the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in the case of Obama’s first term, and a proposed ban on striker replacement in the case of President Clinton. In both cases, labor waited for the White House to lead on those issues, and that never happened. Neither EFCA nor the striker replacement ban came to pass.

This time around, labor does not have a single marquee piece of legislation that it is rallying around. We already know that any worker-friendly legislation that the White House advances will certainly face a blockade from Congressional Republicans. But that’s no excuse for the president to neglect using the bully pulpit to stand in defense of the rights of working people.

This is not a question of transactional politics. It’s not an issue of President Obama showing appreciation to labor for helping with his reelection. The need to revive the right to collective bargaining is important for a far more fundamental reason: without strengthening the ability of workers to negotiate for living-wage jobs, President Obama’s vows to restore the American middle class have little chance of being fulfilled.

Voters affirmed that the message presented by the Obama campaign was correct: the administration had inherited an economic mess, and under Obama’s presidency we have begun a recovery; it’s not moving fast enough, but the administration has put us on the right path. A Republican win would have destroyed any hope of achieving a true recovery for the 99 percent.

While that message is valid, Obama hasn’t provided an answer for how to make sure that new jobs that are being created in the economy are good jobs. In fact, the evidence is that the preponderance of jobs being created in the recovery do not support a middle-class standard of living. The National Employment Law Project’s report from August of this year, entitled The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality, found that, during the recession, low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as middle- and high-wage jobs together. A total of 58 percent of the jobs created were low-wage jobs.

It’s not just the latest recession that has resulted in the loss of good jobs: the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published a report in July that estimated that, since 1979, the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. One look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the top thirty fastest-growing occupations bears out CEPR’s observation: a majority of the jobs listed pay less than $50,000 per year.

In the end, the only path to making new jobs into good jobs is to restore and support workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The reason our country has so often gotten itself into the position of being stuck in low-wage recoveries is that no president has taken on the issue of making the right to bargain collectively legal again in this country. If Obama does not address this in his second term, his administration will continue to watch the majority of Americans experience economic hardship.

The key issue for the president’s second term will be whether he understands that the health of our democracy has depended on having an enfranchised middle class, something that was built through collective bargaining and cannot be restored in its absence. If President Obama fails to recognize the stakes, the stated goals of his economic agenda—the creation of good jobs and the rescue of the American middle class—will be perpetually out of reach.

Four years ago, candidate Obama made a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people if their rights were ever threatened. That time has come. America’s working and middle class is in a fight for its life. The only question that remains in Obama’s second term, given that legislative remedies are not available, is whether America will see the president send a message by walking the picket lines and being an unabashed public spokesperson for workers’ rights.

Originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Unity Is Strength for Progressives

8:46 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Business and liberal elites have long invested in developing collaborative leadership. In Occupy Wall Street and beyond, grassroots progressives are now getting into the game of working together.

Something huge is happening in this country. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this level of populist activity directed at the right targets: the big banks and the corporate elites that dominate our political system.

But there’s something else going on, behind the scenes. Though largely obscured by the Occupy Wall Street story, we are seeing a rare and welcome level of unity: progressive groups are maintaining a better level of coordination than at any time in recent memory. It’s a trend toward cooperation that should be recognized and celebrated.

With the Occupy protests, it’s been wonderful to see a wide range of labor, community and nonprofit groups come together to embrace the struggle – even though the activists who launched the new movement embody very different organizational cultures. When New York Mayor Bloomberg threatened to evict the Zuccotti Park demonstrators a couple of weeks ago, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka declared that his federation “Stands with Occupy Wall Street” and encouraged union members to help protect the occupation from a police raid. For their part, Occupy activists have supported workers organizing at companies including Sotheby’sWal-Mart and Verizon. Historian and Nation writer Jon Wiener calls it an alliance of “hard hats and hippies.” And it’s not just labor. An impressively diverse coalition of community groups and nonprofit advocates have marched in solidarity as well.

But the kind of cooperation that’s been on clear display in the past month thanks to the Occupy movement didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, coordination among progressives has been quietly growing for over a decade.

That the labor movement so readily signed on to support the Occupy protests is in part a result of collaboration and networking that began in the 1990s. Cooperation around trade issues – beginning with the fight against NAFTA – served as an important opportunity for labor, community, environmental, student and faith-based organizations to start forming relationships.

The coalition building exploded into view with the 1999 protests in Seattle. There, a “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition famously shined the spotlight of public scrutiny on the World Trade Organization. Global justice demonstrations were another instance in which labor might have kept activists coming from different organizing cultures at arm’s length. But John Sweeney and other union leaders instead threw labor’s institutional weight behind the protests. Many of the relationships that are fostering more fluid and open cooperation now were forged during that time.

Considering coordination among today’s groups, I would make three observations about the recent trend toward progressives playing well with others.

First, cooperation is a product of necessity. One reason we’re coming together is we have to. Divided, we get our butts kicked. Yet, tough times do not guarantee unity. In the 1970s and early ’80s, progressive groups too often fell into infighting when confronted with challenges. In contrast, we’re now channeling our frustrations and grievances into collaborative action. That’s a change for the better.

A second reason groups are working together better is that there are younger leaders at the table. A new generation of leadership, in unions and beyond, is dispensing with some of the old grudges that inhibited cooperation and viewing collaborative action as a vital part of their work. Individuals such as Mary Kay Henry at Service Employees International Union, George Goehl atNational Peoples’ Action and LeeAnn Hall of the Alliance for a Just Society are thinking beyond their own organizations. They’re recognizing that working across boundaries is critical to gaining strength.

Finally, we have seen an institutional investment in building relationships and encouraging collaboration among progressives – an area of focus that for too long has been the domain of elites. In the 1970s, John Gardner, who helped found both Common Cause and the American Leadership Forum (ALF), identified a crisis of leadership in the country. This, he believed, resulted from a dearth of influential figures working across disciplines and organizational divides in pursuit of the common good. Since then, groups like ALF have channeled resources into networking across boundaries. However, their efforts primarily targeted high-level business leaders and prominent individuals in civil society such as university presidents.

Only recently have institutions emerged that are investing resources in this type of activity for social movement activists. Groups such as the Rockwood Leadership Institute should be commended for devoting resources and attention to the challenge of building relationships and encouraging collaboration among progressives. They have created the space for grassroots leaders to come together, understand one another’s interests and learn common skills and practices. The importance of cultivating collaborative action in this way can hardly be overstated.

From the Madison protests of early 2011 to the Occupy movement today, we are seeing the fruits of a new push for cooperation. The lesson of such mobilizations is clear, and we can only hope that a greater number of people working for social change take it to heart: The more we break down barriers and join forces, the more we build power.

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via


What’s a Jew to do?

2:16 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Originally posted on

In the United States during the 1930s, revolution was in the air. With the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the broken economy was failing most Americans. This gave rise to a spectrum of responses, providing communists and socialists on the left and fascists on the right with a compelling argument that capitalism and democracy were fundamentally flawed. With millions unemployed and living in poverty, people were primed for change.

But in the United States, the revolution never came. Capitalism survived the 1930s. So did democracy.

Instead, the calls for social change compelled President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress to pass sweeping reforms, while the Supreme Court provided the new laws with a constitutional seal of approval. Today, the reforms of the New Deal remain vital to America’s compact with its citizens: part safety net, part ladder of opportunity.

Since 2008, economic conditions have sparked new movements for change. Organizers behind the Tea Party conservatives, the Ron Paul libertarians and isolationists, and Occupy Wall Street’s anti-corporatists all believe another world is possible. The messages are simple and clear. “End the Fed” the libertarians proclaim. “Tax the Rich” the occupiers chant. “Seal the border” the tea partiers insist.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were attracted to revolutionary, utopian movements like socialism and communism. Anti-Semitism made life hard for Jews, and the idea that we could create a more just society in which Jews and other embattled communities would be accepted as equals was very appealing.

Eventually, though, utopianism lost its luster for most American Jews. The revolutions of the 20th century often turned out to be more dangerous than the flawed societies they replaced. Both Stalin and Hitler inspired followers with their visions of utopia. Reform, not revolution, became the norm for American Jews.

Today, iin economic and soical conditions reminiscent of the 1930s, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is generating considerable excitement and some nervousness among American Jews. On the one hand, its critique of economic inequality and of a political system that excludes most voices from civic discourse resonates with the community’s liberal majority. On the other hand, Jews have often been scapegoated during economic crises, accused of being puppet masters behind the scenes.

So, what’s a Jew to do?

We can take a lesson from the 1930s, and advance an aggressive reform agenda that addresses the critique of structural inequality put forward by Occupy Wall Street.

Here’s how The New York Times described it.

[I]income inequality is grinding down [the] middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people… [T]he financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. … [E]lected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street… has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer… [The] dysfunctional economy [is] dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.

If we agree with this assessment, we should be sympathetic to the voices of Occupy Wall Street. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to create a more just society. The potential strategies are limitless. In Boston, for example, the Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods (SUN)  initiative has prevented more than 125 homeowners from being evicted by helping them repurchase their homes with affordable fixed-rate mortgages.

Occupy Wall Street is many things. It is an opportunity for regular people to share their frustrations with an economic system that no longer works for them. It is a mechanism for mobilizing individuals to collectively confront powerful interests. And Occupy Wall Street is a new town square where democracy is practiced and the First Amendment comes alive.

There is a reason why a majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of Occupy Wall Street. You don’t have to be an occupier to share their frustration. Finally, a populist movement even a reformer can love.