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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.

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 →

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.