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Help Obama Find His Shoes

5:04 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

President Barack Obama’s re-election is a huge relief—we dodged the Romney/Ryan bullet.

However, that’s not the same as winning a better future. If Obama’s first term is a prologue to the second, we should not expect to see much progress in strengthening the rights or bargaining ability of workers. Therefore, in Obama’s second term, we need to be:

• Smarter about the policies we advocate.

• Selective about the candidates we endorse.

• More disciplined about building a strong social movement.

Progressives need to recognize where the real fight is happening. Congress is still firmly under Republican control—or, at least, under threat of a Republican veto that can stop any worthwhile federal legislation. Since progress won’t happen in Washington, we must work for it at the state and local level. We are already seeing some of the most exciting innovations take shape in cities and metropolitan regions. Urban labor-community coalitions are making respect for collective bargaining a precondition for businesses to receive public support. They are also approaching politics in a new way. In exchange for supporting candidates, these coalitions are ensuring that politicians use the bully pulpit to defend workers and denounce union-busting. In San Jose, Calif., student, labor and faith groups demanded that local politicians back an across-the-board minimum wage increase that passed on Election Day. And in Long Beach, Calif., a coalition of LGBT activists, labor and faith groups got city council members to endorse a ballot measure for hotel housekeepers to get a raise, which passed.

Such coalitions must evaluate elected officials on whether or not they understand that their success in pushing legislation forward is directly linked to the strength of social movements. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told me earlier this year in an interview for The American Prospect, “Sympathetic members of Congress have the power to draft, introduce and vote on legislation. But leaders in the progressive community … have the ability to mobilize, educate and organize all across America. We need each other to be successful.” We can no longer afford to invest in politicians who do not understand this.

Most candidates favored by Democratic Party powerbrokers are unable to grasp this concept. The few who do have social-movement roots, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Consequently, a long-term electoral strategy must involve cultivating candidates directly from the ranks of social movements and then fighting for them in the primaries.

As Obama begins his second term, Republican obstructionism cannot be an excuse for inaction—particularly when it comes to the president’s use of his bully pulpit.

During the recent attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, and during the teachers’ strike in Chicago, White House leadership was nowhere to be found. Obama once promised, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.”

The President seems to have misplaced his walking shoes. We should send him a new pair—and make sure that no future candidates we endorse have any excuse for losing theirs.

Originally published on In These Times.

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