User Picture

Murder by another name

By: John E Jacobsen Wednesday April 24, 2013 6:18 pm
Pictured above: business and economics correspondent for Slate, Mathew Yglesias, standing under what appears to be a fire alarm.

Pictured above: business and economics correspondent for Slate, Mathew Yglesias, standing under what appears to be a fire alarm.

A response to Matthew Yglesias‘ musings on Bangladesh, outsourcing, and the murder of 87 garment workers.

Originally from the Seattle Free Press.

“Where’s my mother? Where’s my mother?” cried Rana Ahmed as she rushed through Enam Medical College and Hospital.

Mosammat Khurshida wailed as she looked for her husband. “He came to work in the morning. I can’t find him,” she said. “I don’t know where he is. He does not pick up his phone.

An arm jutted out of one section of the rubble. The lifeless body of a woman covered in dust could be seen in another.


Mobility, the 47%, and the Myth of Opportunity

By: John E Jacobsen Tuesday September 25, 2012 4:08 pm

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney poses with business partners at Bain Capital

“…there are 47 percent [of Americans]… who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement… my job [in winning the presidency] is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” – Mitt Romney

A leaked video of Republican Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has caught the attention of the country this week, validating for many their suspicion of the nominee’s contempt for poor and working people.

The video, possibly leaked by a server at a private, $40,000 per plate fundraiser for the candidate, contains clips in which Romney makes controversial remarks regarding the bottom 47% of income earners in the United States.

The remarks, and the responses from the Obama campaign, provide an interesting lens through which to view both candidates – particularly their takes on the concept of opportunity.

Romney’s remarks make reference to it it several times – when he talks about “entitlements,” or about “personal responsibility,” he is simply parroting the typical conservative talking points on the subject.

Likewise, in an interview with David Letterman this week, President Obama said of the leaked video, “We’ve got some obligations to each other, and there’s nothing wrong with us giving each other a helping hand so that single mom’s kid, even after all the work she’s done, can afford to go to college.”

The dance between these two views on opportunity – the conservative, in which we encourage people to take “individual responsibility,” or the liberal, in which we give some a “helping hand” – has been a persistent one since the beginning of the election.

In an opinion piece for USA Today last year, titled What Kind of Society Does America Want?,Mitt Romney urged Americans to support his call to create a grand new “opportunity society.”

This new society, in which “free people… choose whether or not to pursue education,” or “engage in hard work,” may no doubt remind readers of Newt Gingrich’s own call in 1984 for a “Conservative Opportunity Society,” or even Reagan’s “GOP – Grand Opportunity Party.”

President Obama, in his January State of the Union address, even went so far as to say that restoring opportunity to Americans has become “the defining issue of our time.”

The language is certainly uplifting, but just what does opportunity really mean in a country of 12.5 million unemployed people?

Defining opportunity:

The Chicago Teachers Strike and the Privatization of a Generation

By: John E Jacobsen Tuesday September 25, 2012 4:04 pm

CTU Delegates voted this week to end the 7 day long strike which had effectively shut down all of Chicago’s public schools.

The decision comes after the latest round of negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union succeeded in reaching a deal that negotiators felt they could recommend to the union’s embattled teachers.

The strike originally began on September 10, after the CTU and the city failed to reach an agreement during their most recent rounds of contract negotiations. Following the breakdown in the discussions, nearly twenty-six thousand teachers and support staff walked off their jobs for the first time in 25 years .

Teachers immediately hit the streets following the strike vote, followed in suit by throngs of supportive students and parents. Marches were held across Chicago, shutting down traffic in the city centers, and pickets were established at over 675 schools, as well as at the Board of Education.

The strike has highlighted both the rocky relationship of the labor movement with the Democratic Party, with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel – a high-end fundraiser for President Barack Obama, as well as his former Chief of Staff – going so far as to seek an injunction on the teachers union during the strike, as well as the need for the Teachers Union to take a stronger course of action in opposing the coming school privatizations we call “charter schools”.

The contract:

The negotiations to date have revolved around several contentious issues – pay and benefit issues, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s push for a longer school day and new teacher evaluations (which originally would have tied teachers pay to their students’ test scores), issues involving the rehiring of laid off teachers, as well as issues of pensions.

Negotiators have recommended a new three-year contract to the membership, which, pending approval by referendum, includes a number of concessions for both the city and the union.

“I personally believe that the CTU will agree to the tentative contract eventually,” says Agnieszka Karoluk, an education worker close to the Chicago Teachers Union, although “many CTU members do not trust CPS due to their history of slipping in language and caveats to original promises.”

The contract as it stands includes a 4 year agreement to raise teachers’ pay by 17.6% over the next four years, just over half of the original 30% increase the union originally sought, but still far better than CPS’s original offer of 2%.

Teachers’ workloads will also increase with the school day and year, adding more than two years of instruction over the course of a new students career, Mayor Emanuel boasted, even though teachers in Chicago already work an average of 10 hours a day at school with an additional 2 hours at home (or roughly 800 hours more per year than their current contracts require).

Reports also indicate that the union was able to fight off Mayor Emmanuel’s push for a teacher evaluation system which would have linked teachers pay directly to student test scores.

The controversial system has been criticized by many in the education system for punishing teachers for factors largely outside of their control, especially in low-income neighborhoods, where a student’s performance can and often is impacted negatively by problems at home, in access to transportation or research tools, and a myriad of other issues.

“Either way,” concludes  Karoluk, “CTU is not looking for a perfect contract. They just want a fair one.”

Many workers, however, remain skeptical of the city’s promises, notes Ms. Karoluk.

Chicago teachers were infuriated, for instance, when last year, the newly appointed school board voted to cancel contractually mandated pay raises for teachers. It surfaced later that the public schools had secretly diverted millions of dollars from teacher’s salaries and pensions in order to claim they were too broke to afford the pay raises.

Some in the union, however, were equally concerned with what was not in the contract.

“In addition to details to be worked out in the next 48 hours,” noted Ms. Karoluk in an article published on Libcom. ”CTU members criticized the lack of language about school closings in the contract. This was evidently the number one concern of both the union delegate and all the CTU staff and teachers who were present at the meeting this morning at Jordan.”

“CPS already has an agreement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to open 60+ charter schools in Chicago, causing the closing of neighborhood schools in the process.”

The new schools:

Will the Department of Justice Get Their Way in Seattle?

By: John E Jacobsen Wednesday June 27, 2012 6:04 pm
For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.
Seattle firefighters walk toward a torched Seattle Police Department vehicle.

Seattle City attorneys officially threw down the gauntlet with the Department of Justice last week, filing court documents which challenged the “reliability and trustworthiness” of a recent DOJ report on the Seattle Police.

The DOJ report, which “finds a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force… as well as serious concerns about biased policing,” has been offered as evidence in an ongoing court case brought by Martin Monetti Jr. against the City of Seattle.Monetti, a Latino man, had his head stomped into the pavement after being told by then-Detective Shandy Cobane that he would “beat the [expletive] Mexican piss out of you, homie.”

This is just the latest move by Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle Police Department in their escalating strategy of resistance to the Department of Justice, who have repeatedly called for reform of the city’s embattled police department.


A violent department and the prelude to reform:

Seattle residents – particularly those in working class and non-white communities – have called for reform of the police department  for some time, and for good reason; there have been a number of high-profile police murders in Seattle – not least of which was the shooting of unarmed Native wood-carver John T. Williams by Ian Birk, whose death sparked months of protest and outright attacks on police.

There is also the issue of routine instances of physical force used by SPD officers, which the DOJ has found to be “unconstitutional… nearly 20% of the time.” Of use of force encounters, moreover, particularly those in which impact weapons are used by police, “57% of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive.”

This, of course, is only of incidents we can statistically gather. The DOJ report also finds that in nearly half of all investigations by the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability, officers did not include any mention or report of their having used force when, in fact, they had. It was also recently revealed that a whopping 100,000 dash cam video’s in police cruisers have“disappeared” during a lawsuit against the department by KOMO News.

Moreover, many residents may simply be too intimidated to take legal action against the department, as officers with the Seattle Police Officers Guild may go out of their way to intimidate citizens who dare even file complaints against the SPD.

Harry C. Bailey, in fact, (formerly a sergeant hired by Mayor Mike McGinn to improve community relations for the Police Department) made headlines for overseeing the filing of five lawsuits against citizens in 1994, accusing them of making false complaints with the department’s internal-investigations section – all 5 lawsuits were later dismissed when the guild simply abandoned them in court,  leading many to speculate “whether the lawsuits were brought to have a chilling effect on others.”

Recall in Wisconsin – the Alternative Was Worse

By: John E Jacobsen Monday June 11, 2012 10:25 pm

Recall in Wisconsin – the Alternative Was Worse

For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.

The votes are in: republican Governor Scott Walker has survived his much publicized recall election, besting his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, by a sound 9 point margin.

In his victory speech, Governor Walker – now infamous for his successful campaign to strip collective bargaining rights from over 175,000 state employees last year, as well as repealing equal pay provisions for women -  gloated, “[Tonight] we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions,” adding, “the election is over, it’s time to move Wisconsin forward.”

Walkers’ opponent, for his part, was graceful in defeat, and expressed his own desire for the state to move on. Following his concession speech, Barret promptly called the incumbent Governor to congratulate him on a successful campaign, and both agreed that from here on out it was important to cooperate – sentiments, it hardly needs pointing out, wholly incongruous with the emotions of tens of thousands of Wisconsin working families today.

The greatest moment of the evening, however, was yet to come: that night, Barret was slapped by a woman while walking through a crowd of supporters. It was reported that the woman was upset over Barret having conceded so early.

Can Campaign Finance Reform Save Us?

By: John E Jacobsen Wednesday February 22, 2012 6:01 am
For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire:
“As Americans read about the flood of private money that is going into the current presidential campaign, most can’t help but shake their heads in disgust about how our democracy functions.

”With all the talk about changing Washington, voters are shrewd enough to understand that if contributors give this much money to the candidates in both parties, there is little chance that Washington will be much different in 2013.”

This is how Princeton University Professor of history and public affairs, Julian Zelizer, began his latest commentary for CNN, It took a scandal to get real campaign finance reform.

Arizona set to abolish public unions

By: John E Jacobsen Monday February 6, 2012 4:51 am

For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.

Arizona sate employees’ unions were caught off guard this week with news that the state’s republican controlled senate was passing a series of bills which, amongst other provisions, would completely ban unions from engaging in any negotiation which effects the terms of a persons employment with state, county or city government.

The move, according to Nick Dranius of the Goldwater Institute – one of the bills shapers – is intended to “cause people to leave the unions as they recognized that unions no longer have an unfair bargaining advantage given to them by collective bargaining laws.”

Once unions are no longer legally allowed to negotiate with the state, he concludes, workers will “realize that unions don’t do much for them.”

The unions, however, may have already beat them to it.

Provisions of the bills:

Much of the inspiration for the assault on organizing rights in Arizona has come, unsurprisingly, from the State of Wisoncsin’s own successful fight to deny collective bargaining rights to state employees. One of the crafters of the bills, the Goldwater Institute, even flew Governor Scott Walker out to Arizona in November to offer counsel on how to pass similar legislation in their state.

Like the Wisconsin laws, the new legislation would prohibit unions from bargaining with the government over the terms of their employment. It would also prohibit state and local government workers from deducting money union dues from their paychecks.

The legislators in Arizona, however, have gone much further than their predecessors in Wisconsin, largely because Arizona conservatives believe – with justification – that they face far less opposition in their fight than Republican’s in Wisconsin. Because of this, they have been able to spread their attack further than Walker, who needed to at least feign support for local police and firefighters’ unions. In Arizona, no public employees union has been spared.

Occupy Wall Streets Next Steps – Part 2 – How to Win a Fight with the 1%

By: John E Jacobsen Tuesday December 20, 2011 5:40 pm

For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.

Over the past month, Occupy Wall Street has  chalked up a large number of bold actions against both government and private authorities; it has led an attempted general strike, raucous marches, occupations of banks and abandoned buildings, disruptions of political speeches and press events, and a massive West Coast shut down of major port terminals partly to aid longshore workers in their fights against their employers.

The actions, moreover, have already achieved limited successes – besides having created space for Americans to come together outside of the established political system, they have rightly been credited with having stopped fee increases amongst the largest banks in the country, as well as having widely validated the American public’s fury over increasing inequality, generating massive media exposure. Largely, however, the only real material victory of Occupy so far – its having stopped increased bank fees – has been incidental, and was in no way a conscious objective of the Occupy Movement.

Accordingly, the Occupy Movement remains increasingly susceptible to losing its momentum if it does not achieve some tangible, substantive gains for itself and for its communities. People, after all, don’t just want to vent forever – they want something done. We can be certain that if people do not see real results from the Occupy Movement soon, they will move on to something which seems to offer them more; and with our two political parties gearing up for election season, we should take this threat all the more seriously.

Concretely, what this is going to mean for Occupy supporters is to re-orient their organizing from mass, symbolic actions – such as “mic-checking politicians” and waving signs at CEO’s - to more targeted campaigns designed to win real, immediate gains for ourselves.

A look at Direct Action and the Seattle Solidarity Network:

A small group, comprised of only several hundred people, SeaSol is an organization for local Occupy groups to look to for inspiration, because of just how much it has achieved with such little resources, largely because of its winning strategy.

Originally, a good part of this strategy was borrowed from organizations such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Industrial Workers of the World, who had launched Direct action campaigns similar to SeaSol’s present day actions.

The idea of confronting our problems ourselves, of course, actually predates both SeaSol and its forerunners. It is based not only in the anarchist tradition of self management, but critically on the idea that by surrendering control over the outcome of your problems to someone else, you’ve more than likely surrendered the outcome of your problem being solved in your favor.

Thus, unions who have relied on the Democratic Party have lost the battle over the Employee Free Choice Act, NAFTA, and even the right to basic collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin; environmentalists have lost a series of contests over offshore drilling and smog regulation; and citizen volunteers for the Obama’s 2008 campaign have lost battles for more transparency in government, and an end to corporate influence over legislators. The list could go on.

Despite the obvious setbacks of relying on political parties and ‘specialists,’ the reason organizations like the Democratic Party remain so pervasive is because there is no obvious alternative for most people. What alternatives there are in the United States are often disorganized, directionless, and most importantly, they normally aren’t relevant. They simply don’t achieve anything meaningful to our day-to-day lives.

SeaSol might be seen as a response, then, to both the dominance of “professional” activist organizations which specialize in mediating people’s struggles, and to their ineffective counterparts who partake in the sorts of symbolic, wishy-washy politics the grassroots left has become synonymous with.

Practical Politics:

For social movements to not only sustain themselves, but also to grow, its important for them to be relevant to other people’s daily lives. They must offer something that will, at least eventually, markedly improve their quality of life.

The Seattle Solidarity Network has seen a good amount of growth in its relatively short life span because it focusses on partial solutions to a problem most people face: naked exploitation. Has your boss stolen your wages? Is your landlord refusing to make needed repairs to your home? Have you been discriminated against?

A brief visit to their website reveals that all of the fights SeaSol has taken on – over stolen wages or deposits, for example – are rather small conflicts. SeaSol’s record of fighting for small gains such as these is an important distinction between itself and other grassroots organizations on the left.

SeaSol recognizes that to effectively address a problem, you must have the resources and capacity to hurt your target more than it will cost them to give into your demand. For a group comprising only several hundred people – even for a group a hundred times this size – a fight to “end corporate influence on government” would be absurd. A fight to force a landlord to fix a mold problem, however, is probably much more manageable.

SeaSol shows this relationship – between the amount of leverage we have, and the amount it would cost a  target to give in to our demands – in its “winnability graph.”

Say, for example, you and your comrades in Occupy Wall Street wanted to force a national bank to pay back all of the taxpayer money which was used to bail it out when the recession hit. How hard a demand would this be for the bank to give in to?

Well, that’s billions upon billions of dollars that the bank would have to pay back. That’s a pretty big demand. So how badly would you need to hurt the bank in order to make it easier for them to pay back that money than not to give in to your demand? Theoretically, you would have to launch a series of actions across the country which threatened to cost them billions and billions of dollars.

Even with the size of the occupy protests as they are – that’s probably not something we should consider a “winnable” demand.

But what if instead of using our time at Occupy to make unwinnable demands, we focussed on winning a series of smaller fights? What if instead of trying to get the banks to pay back all the money they had taken from taxpayers, we tried to stop foreclosures in our cities, home by home? With the level of participation in the Occupy movement, demands such as this might be much more workable – and consequently, build a larger and better organized movement, which down the line, can demand larger and larger concessions.

How to win a fight with the 1% – Putting the hurt on:

So, you’ve decided on a righteous demand that people will find compelling and just – a demand you feel confident you and other occupiers in your city can win. How do you go about fighting for it?

  • Make it clear what the demand is:

Throughout a fight, it is important that the target know exactly what they are expected to do, or what demand they are expected to meet. SeaSol, therefore, begins all of its campaigns with what they call a “demand delivery.”

First, they write a “demand letter” addressed to the boss or landlord they have a grievance with. Then, along with as many folks as they can gather, the tenant or worker leads the group into the office or home of the target. For a wonderful example of this in action, here’s a great video of one of SeaSol’s demand deliveries.

The point is both to make it very clear what we expect the boss or landlord to do, and to show our collective strength – the implication is that here is a group of people who are going to be on you, hard, until our demand is met.

  • Tactics:

SeaSol normally approaches a fight with a few principles in mind.

First, they know that the name of the game here is pressure. Essentially, how are we going to make life very, very hard for our target until they give in?

There are, of course, a lot of ways one may hurt an individual or company. You can disrupt their bottom line, and hurt them economically, with pickets, boycotts, or blockades. You can target their social connections, and embarrass them in front of neighbors, fellow church goers or business partners with flyers, letters, protests, or sit ins. There are, ultimately, a nearly infinite number of tactics you can use to put pressure on a target – it just takes some creativity.

To fit these tactics together into a coherent campaign, SeaSol first asks itself “will this tactic hurt us, and will it hurt our target?” While a sit in or a brick through a window may hurt our target, they also have the potential to get our members arrested – in which case, we would also be hurt by the tactic. So while there are no hard and fast rules for planning which tactics fit any given situation, the general rule of thumb is that you normally want your tactics to be sustainable (meaning you could, theoretically, continue them indefinitely), and you want them to hurt your target more than they hurt you.

  • Escalation:

A SeaSol organizer put the concept of escalation this way: “it isn’t the memory of what we did to the boss yesterday that makes them want to give in, but the fear of what we’ll do to them tomorrow.”

As a campaign progresses, you want to give the target the impression that things are getting increasingly worse for them – that you are constantly escalating your fight. This means that campaigns will generally begin with tactics wich are less intense, and gradually become more confrontational, both in terms of their militancy and frequency.

So while yesterday you may have simply been putting up flyers around their business, tomorrow you may be picketing their shop or disrupting a fancy dinner party.

Next Steps:

It cannot be emphasized enough that there is a real threat to the Occupy Movement in the Democratic Party. This election season, as is custom, the presidential campaign will dominate most news coverage – pushing the publicity for Occupy off the front page. Obama’s campaign will be drumming up support, threatening the American public with the prospect of a Republican administration if he should fail to win re-election.

Good organizers and participants in your local Occupy groups will leave Occupy to organize for Obama and the Democrats. The only effective countermeasure against this will be to draw in new layers of support from people not yet involved – and in order to do that, you will need to start taking on fights which help and empower regular folks.

And, of course, whatever the targets local Occupy groups plan to take on next, it will be important to remember these few little tips: make sure the fight is relevant, winnable, and hurts.

For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.