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Immigration reform must include workers’ rights

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

At this moment, various plans to reform America’s broken immigration system are working their way through Congressional debate. On Monday, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers unveiled a plan that includes what they call a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Last Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with President Obama to discuss the issue, and this caucus’ input will be influential in shaping any final legislation.

In the current political climate, immigration reform is broadly popular, with both parties eager to win over the Hispanic electorate in 2014 and 2016. But that doesn’t mean that a bipartisan effort will pass a good law—especially if long-time opponents of immigration reform are only cynically vying for votes. We have every reason to doubt the sincerity of conservatives such as Senator Marco Rubio, who is leading the charge from the Republican side of the aisle with an eye on his own bid for president.

For the Democrats, the challenge will be to avoid simply jumping at the first deal offered by newly converted conservatives. Instead, for the first time in decades, promoters of reform have the opportunity to hold America to its promise of being a land of liberty and justice for all.

Most centrally, that comes down to the issue of work. Holding America to its promise will mean ensuring that immigrants have pathways for securing just and meaningful employment in this country.

Immigrants Rebuilding the Middle Class

The primary reason people come to the United States from other nations is the potential for good work. It’s not enough for immigrants to have legal status to stay here. They must have legal rights as employees to speak out against wage theft and abusive working conditions—and to exercise their freedoms to associate and engage in collective bargaining.

In recent decades, unions that were once isolationist have come around to this position. That’s why, in the current debate, organized labor is one of the strongest institutional voices speaking out in favor of immigrant rights.

A key goal in crafting a legislative package for reform will be to avoid the creation of a permanent two-tiered system of employment—with some immigrants allowed to stay and work, but only on terms that greatly restrict their rights. Some conservatives would like to see a version of immigration reform that emphasizes helping corporations maintain a pool of cheap immigrant labor and that would further weaken unions. Such a system would foster a permanent underclass of workers living little better than serfs.

We go down that path at our collective peril. More than any other institution, the trade union movement was responsible for the creation of a stable American middle class. And more than any other constituency, waves of fresh immigrants to this country’s shores did the most to lay the foundation for the U.S. labor movement.

For this reason, whether or not you are an immigrant or a union member yourself, we all have an interest in ensuring that new arrivals to the United States are able to stand up to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Avoiding the Errors of the Past

In order to make sure that immigrant rights and workers’ rights go hand-in-hand in any new reform package, we must not repeat the errors of the past. And with regard to immigration, the past is the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986. For the last 27 years we have lived, however messily, under the guidelines set out in this bill.

Most consequentially, Simpson-Mazzoli beefed up enforcement partly by making employers turn workers in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called ICE). At the time, this idea had broad support. In an influential editorial from 1982 (the year Simpson-Mazzoli was first introduced), the New York Times argued, “The United States cannot conceivably let in all the worldwide millions who want in. That means controlling our own borders and that in turn, means something called employer sanctions.”

 

This provision was likely the bill’s greatest mistake, as many former supporters have since recognized. Employers should not be made to do the government’s job of enforcing the law. Doing so only deepened the divide between employees based on their legal residency status. More importantly, it opened the door for unscrupulous employers to use the threat of an immigration raid to keep disaffected workers from standing up for themselves and exercising their rights.

Under the broken system, employers looked the other way on employees’ legal status when it was to their advantage, but they used workers’ undocumented status as a tool when it could ensure their employees would never take collective action. Such behavior and unfairness helped lead to depressed wages throughout the economy.

The current bipartisan immigration reform plan promises an “effective” employment verification system. The devil will be in the details, and much remains to be worked out. But this much is clear: To allow employers to have the power to enforce immigration laws in 2013 would be history repeating itself, and it is the wrong way to go.

The folks who supported Simpson-Mazzoli back in 1986 thought they were making our system fairer. Yet everything fell apart after it was passed. The U.S. began to witness a steady climb in illegal border crossings, rampant fraud, and a snarled mess of an enforcement system–the exact reverse of the legislation’s intended consequences. And America’s middle class has only suffered in the years since.

When people come to this country, they are coming because they want to make a living. While it’s important that immigrants be given a pathway to citizenship and the ability to reunite with family members, these goals are not enough. Until immigrants are able to fully exercise their rights in the workplace, America has not lived up to its promise.

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.

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.

******

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.

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 →

What’s the Real Lesson of Wisconsin for Progressives?

10:07 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

"Lesson #3 - the Secret's In The Sauce"

"Lesson #3 - the Secret's In The Sauce" by Stv. on flickr

Despite coming up short of retaking control of the Wisconsin Senate, yesterday’s recall elections sent a clear signal to conservative politicians who are using false pretenses to slash social safety nets, scapegoat public employees and immigrants, and take away the rights of working people. The message: Beware. The public will no longer accept your abuses of power.

The fact that there were recall elections at all meant that voter anger overcame the typical inertia of off-cycle, special elections. Contrary to conventional assumptions, turnout in some areas was nearly 60%. Democrats were victorious in recalling two Republican senators and they were competitive in every single recall district, which is even more significant given the fact that when Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, Democrats did not win any these seats.  In fact, the GOP carried those districts with 55%.

Democrats may have won just two more seats, but they should not see that as the end.  It should just be the beginning. Beyond the message sent at the polls, I believe we need to concern ourselves with another question: What lessons will Labor and its community allies take away from these recall races? This question is vital. We miss a key opportunity  if we measure our success based only on Election Day results, and not also on our ability to build permanent progressive infrastructure at the state and local levels.

Currently, many things are going well on that front. Under the umbrella of an impressive political action committee called We Are Wisconsin (WAW), a coalition of unions, community groups, and outraged citizens in the state have joined together to undertake voter education, grassroots lobbying, and media advocacy activities. While Progressives are often fractured, this organization has demonstrated an admirable degree of coordination among varied groups. 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.

Not a Union Member?: Why You Should Care About Wisconsin (or Ohio, or Michigan)

4:28 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

After two weeks of protests in Wisconsin, we are now watching demonstrations spread across the country. Over the weekend, the on-line advocacy group MoveOn.org helped to mobilize tens of thousands of people, who marched in all fifty state capitals in support of Wisconsin workers. Demonstrators are speaking out against attacks by Republican governors in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan and their own states.

It is entirely appropriate that protests should spread, because recent events in Wisconsin are only a window into what is happening in states scattered across the country. It is important that we understand the scope of this debate. This is a discussion that has impact on all Americans, not just union members. One point should be clear: This is not a story of public employees trying to feed at the trough. It is a story about whether or not governors can take away fundamental workers’ rights.

Everyone in this country is entitled to their opinion about politics and public policy. Every governor is free to propose policies that he or she feels are in the public interest, even if others might disagree with those actions. But they must follow the rule of law.

In this case, newly elected Republican governors can certainly negotiate contracts with public employees. But there is a lawful process for such negotiation. It involves sitting down at a bargaining table, talking through disagreements, and coming to a mutual agreement. Instead of engaging in this process, governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker want to unilaterally take away people’s rights, while claiming that they are doing something entirely different. He and others like him are using budget issues as a subterfuge for their power grab. That is not acceptable. And it is why they have stirred the passions of so many.

Many people may not see collectively bargaining as relevant to problems in their own work lives. You might think, I don’t need a union because I’m a professional. Even if this is the case, you are nevertheless affected by a growing imbalance of power in today’s workplaces.

There was a time in America when employers couldn’t unilaterally decide to take away health care or pensions. Workers had some say in deciding to accept less in wages in order to hold on to their families’ health care coverage. Yet in recent decades, we’ve moved toward a situation where there are little or no counter-balances to the whims of employers. America’s once-strong middle class has dwindled as a result.

Whether any of us happen to be union or non-union, we need to get back to the day when people had a say in negotiating the terms of their employment. In the past, public employees opted to prioritize their health care and retirement over other forms of compensation. They should still have a right to believe their employers will abide by the legitimate contracts they previously negotiatied.. They have the right, in other words, to be treated just as any of us would expect to be treated when we’ve come to an agreement with an employer regarding our livelihoods.

It is important to understand that this is not a question of tightening belts to cope with a moment of economic crisis. Public employees in Wisconsin and beyond have been very clear that they are willing to bear their share of common sacrifice in tough times. But they are not willing to give up the basic rights to associate, to belong to a union, or to organize collectively.

This is something that should matter for all Americans. Because if our rights related to association and collective bargaining can simply be denied, taken away as part of an executive initiative disguised as being about something else, then other rights are also at risk. We avoid restricting freedom of speech in our country because we recognize that encroachments on our freedoms create a slippery slope. One violation of basic rights leads to another. If we don’t stand up now against abuses of power on the part of state executives, the safety of our dearest liberties could be called into question.

Our ability to freely associate and form organizations to advance whatever political and economic interests we might have is one of the things that makes this country great. It is something that Alexis de Tocqueville admired about American democracy when he wrote his renowned observations about our political system in the early nineteenth century.

We abandon this democratic tradition at our peril. A politics that condemns public employees for being greedy because they insist on maintaining their rights is profoundly dishonest and dangerous. The fact that we have elections in this country is not enough to safeguard our democracy. If we allow rights to be restricted, under the auspices of a twisted interpretation of the rule of law, we follow a treacherous path that has historically led the way to tyranny.

Those outside of Wisconsin who have joined in solidarity protests and those speaking out against assaults by their own governors on middle-class employees, understand that this issue impacts us all. Our rights are too precious to be sacrificed without a fight.

– 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, or she can be reached via the Web site, www.amybdean.com.