Monday, December 29, 2008

Memo to Obama: No More Spilled Blood

Photo by Chris Geovanis: Chicago Protest on Gaza Killings

We have No Words Left...
By Ali Abunimah
The Electronic Intifada

Dec. 29, 2008 - "I will play music and celebrate what the Israeli air force is doing." Those chilling words were spoken on al-Jazeera on Saturday by Ofer Shmerling, an Israeli civil defence official in the Sderot area adjacent to the Gaza Strip. For days Israeli planes have bombed Gaza. Almost 300 Palestinians have been killed and a thousand injured, the majority civilians, including women and children. Israel claims most of the dead were Hamas "terrorists". In fact, the targets were police stations in dense residential areas, and the dead included many police officers and other civilians. Under international law, police officers are civilians, and targeting them is no less a war crime than aiming at other civilians.

Palestinians are at a loss to describe this new catastrophe. Is it our 9/11, or is it a taste of the "bigger shoah" Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, threatened in February, after the last round of mass killings?

Type rest of the post hereIsrael says it is acting in "retaliation" for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel's method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people - mostly refugees and children - caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, pleaded that Israel wanted "quiet" - a continuation of the truce - while Hamas chose "terror", forcing him to act. But what is Israel's idea of a truce? It is very simple: Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonise their land.

As John Ging, the head of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said in November: "The people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence ... at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food."

That is an Israeli truce. Any act of resistance including the peaceful protests against the apartheid wall in the West Bank is always met by Israeli bullets and bombs. There are no rockets launched at Israel from the West Bank, and yet Israel's extrajudicial killings, land theft, settler pogroms and kidnappings never stopped for a day during the truce. The western-backed Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas has acceded to all Israel's demands. Under the proud eye of United States military advisors, Abbas has assembled "security forces" to fight the resistance on Israel's behalf. None of that has spared a single Palestinian in the West Bank from Israel's relentless colonisation. The Israeli media report that the attack on Gaza was long planned. If so, the timing in the final days of the Bush administration may indicate an Israeli effort to take advantage of a moment when there might be even less criticism than usual.

Israel is no doubt emboldened by the complicity of the European Union, which this month voted again to upgrade its ties with Israel despite condemnation from its own officials and those of the UN for the "collective punishment" being visited on Gaza. Tacit Arab regime support, and the fact that predicted uprisings in the Arab street never materialised, were also factors.

But there is a qualitative shift with the latest horror: as much as Arab anger has been directed at Israel, it has also focused intensely on Arab regimes - especially Egypt's - seen as colluding with the Israeli attack. Contempt for these regimes and their leaders is being expressed more openly than ever. Yet these are the illegitimate regimes western politicians continue to insist are their "moderate" allies.

Diplomatic fronts, such as the US-dominated Quartet, continue to treat occupier and occupied, coloniser and colonised, first-world high-tech army and near-starving refugee population, as if they are on the same footing. Hope is fading that the incoming administration of Barack Obama is going to make any fundamental change to US policies that are hopelessly biased towards Israel.

In Europe and the Middle East, the gap between leaders and led could not be greater when it comes to Israel. Official complicity and support for Israel contrast with popular outrage at war crimes carried out against occupied people and refugees with impunity.

With governments and international institutions failing to do their jobs, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee - representing hundreds of organisations - has renewed its call on international civil society to intensify its support for the sanctions campaign modelled on the successful anti-apartheid movement.

Now is the time to channel our raw emotions into a long-term effort to make sure we do not wake up to "another Gaza" ever again.

[Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of 'One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse']


Friday, December 26, 2008

Memo to Obama: No Bailouts Without Change

Photo: Time for Adults?

Wall St, Autos:
Cyclical Crisis
or Structural?

By Robert Reich

First prediction for 2009: A widening gap between the public's view of the bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit, and the views of the direct beneficiaries. The public believes the bailouts will permanently change these industries, but industry insiders don't really want to change.

Exhibit one is Goldman Sach's CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who says the firm's business strategy doesn't need to change.

What? Goldman got $10 billion of taxpayer money precisely because it and other big banks were so over-leveraged they threatened the whole financial system. I can understand why Blankfein doesn’t want to change. He took home $54 million last year. (He has foregone a bonus this year and is taking home a piddling $600,000.) But the public expects real reform for its $10 billion at Goldman and tens of billions more in other major banks.

Blankfein isn't alone. I've heard the same thing from CEOs and directors all over the Street. They see the problem as cyclical, not structural. "The economy stinks," they tell me, "but it'll turn around in 18 months, and then we're back to the same business."

Or take the Big Three. They've agreed to become far more fuel efficient, as a condition for their bailout. But they promised this before -- during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Congress threatened higher fuel-economy standards. But after the crisis passed, they never delivered. Why? Because their biggest profits were in gas guzzlers that consumers wanted to buy as soon as the first oil crisis was over.

Will history repeat itself? Now that gas prices are half what they were six months ago, consumers who can afford it are suddenly less interested in fuel efficiency. They're buying fewer hybrids and showing renewed interest in SUVs. So why should we think Detroit will revolutionize itself?

I'm not so cynical as to accuse anyone of bad faith. It's just that both Wall Street and Detroit earned big bucks from their old strategies, before the bottom fell out of the economy. So it’s natural they’d view the bailouts as ways to hold on until the economy rebounds. And it's clear they see their problem as cyclical, not structural.

Right now, Wall Street and Detroit are willing to say whatever they need to say to keep the taxpayer money coming. But when the economy begins turning up, my betting is that their Washington lobbyists will push back hard against any major restructurings the government wants to impose on them. New regulations of Wall Street will be watered down and circumvented; new requirements on the Big Three for green technologies will be resisted.

Yet the bailouts have been sold to the public as means toward fundamental change in finance and autos. If the bailouts are to do what they're supposed to – stop Wall Street from wild risk-taking with piles of borrowed money, and push the auto industry into making fundamentally new products that conserve energy -- Washington will not only have to set strict standards now and in the months ahead when the bailout money flows, but also hang tough when the economy begins to revive.

The emerging debate over Wall Street's and the Big Three's ongoing obligations to reform themselves is but one part of a much larger national debate we'll be entering upon in 2009 and beyond -- whether the economic crisis we're experiencing is basically cyclical (in which case, nothing really needs to change over the long term, after the economy gets back on track) or structural (in which case, many aspects of our economy and society will needs to change permanently).


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Way Forward in Afghanistan

Photo: Taliban Fighters

Interview with
Stephen Kinzer
by Maya Schenwar

Truthout Original
Dec 16, 2008

[Last week, with President-elect Obama's blessing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the beginning of a troop "surge" in Afghanistan. As the US embarks on a slow redeployment of troops away from the widely condemned occupation of Iraq - though that occupation is not by any means ending - it is easy to frame Afghanistan as a milder war, a war that can even, perhaps, be "won." However, sending more American forces to Afghanistan is a peculiar first project for a supposedly peacemaking president-elect, according to Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents, and has written extensively on US interventionism around the world. In the following interview, Kinzer puts forth a new approach to Afghanistan. He calls for a framework that acknowledges cultural differences, considers Afghanistan in its geographical context and confronts the Taliban - and the poppy trade - in a realistic way. As Obama gears up to assume his role as commander in chief, Kinzer challenges him to ponder what "real change" might actually mean when it comes to Afghanistan.]

Stephen Kinzer proposes a transformative US policy in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan tends to be viewed as the "Good War," in comparison with Iraq. What's behind that image?

Stephen Kinzer: We first became militarily involved in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It was a very emotional moment, and it was understandable that most Americans wanted a sense of revenge against the perpetrators of those attacks. It might, in retrospect, have been possible to dislodge the Taliban from power in Afghanistan without a military operation. That, however, did not suit the tenor of those times. As a result of the operations that followed the September 11 attacks, the United States has become more and more deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan. What seemed at first like it might be a relatively quick operation turned out to be one that is dragging us ever deeper in, all these years later. Before we allow inertia and a general momentum, cloaked in our emotions, to drag us even deeper into Afghanistan, we need to stop and ask ourselves, "Is this a military problem, or does it need a different kind of solution?"

So, the solution to our situation in Afghanistan will probably have to involve some serious diplomacy. How can the United States begin the process of negotiating with the Taliban?

In the first place, increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan is sending the wrong signal. The very presence of foreign troops in aggressive, frontline military roles in Afghanistan is an incitement for reaction from local people. The first thing we need to do is decide to maintain our troop strength at the relatively modest level that it's at now, and not increase it.

Resisting foreign armies is something Afghans have been doing for thousands of years - they're probably better at it than anyone else in the world. The British learned this in the 19th century, the Soviets learned this in the 20th century. We shouldn't have to repeat those very painful lessons. So that's the first part: we should not be escalating our military presence there. What do we do instead of that? I think we need a dual process; a process that goes on within Afghanistan and a process that goes on in a much broader region. Within Afghanistan, it's important to understand that what we call the Taliban is actually a very broad coalition of tribal factions and warlords and other groups. Afghanistan is a place of constantly shifting factions. A faction that might be on your side today might not be tomorrow. A Taliban-allied warlord may not necessarily be anti-American, and if he is today, he might not be tomorrow. This system of flexible alliances holds out great opportunity for sophisticated diplomacy. There's a great possibility that once the United States is not seen as an invading force, it will be able to persuade a number of these warlords or factional leaders to shift their alliances. We ought to test that.

At the same time, we need to be negotiating throughout this region. This is not a problem anymore that can be solved within Afghanistan. It has long since become a regional problem. Just in the last week, after this recent attack on a concentration of American trucks, the American commanders started talking about alternative routes into Afghanistan for their supply convoys. They're talking about doing that from central Asian countries or even from places originating in Russia. So this shows you what a regional dimension is involved here. Pakistan is a deeply influential player in Afghanistan. We need Pakistan to take a more resolute position, but Pakistan, like any country in the world, is only willing to make security concessions when it feels safe. Right now, Pakistan's security focus is - and has been for nearly all of its existence - on India. Its policy of insisting on having a pliant government in place in Afghanistan, and supporting favorable factions inside Afghanistan, is based almost entirely on its desire to counter India. India has been opening up consulates in Afghanistan, and there's talk about Indian military aid and Indian development aid in Afghanistan. Until the Pakistan-India confrontation can be ratcheted down several levels, there probably won't be peace in Afghanistan. Iran is another country that can have great influence inside of Afghanistan. Parts of Afghanistan used to be in Iran - it has tremendous ability to influence some large regions of Afghanistan.

So, we need a policy, first of all, of not increasing our troops in Afghanistan, and pulling the troops we have there out of offensive roles. And second, trying to negotiate among factions within the country. Third, we need to produce a regional framework in which some kind of stable Afghanistan is possible.

You've said you don't recommend a quick withdrawal. Why maintain current troop levels instead of decreasing them?

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become so destabilized now that some of the worst warlords, the most grotesque criminals, are now in positions of great power. The presence of the United States is something Afghans feel will prevent an immediate explosion. If we leave immediately, I fear that violence would devastate that country. I don't think the problem is necessarily that there are American troops in Afghanistan. It's more what they're doing. The tactics that we're following there, of carrying out aggressive raiding and bombing places with predator aircraft is very counterproductive.

The region where the conflict is unfolding in Afghanistan is generally thought of as a Muslim region. And it is. However, it's more productive to think of it as a Pashtun region. Pashtun tradition is the dominant force there, even more powerful than Islam. Pashtun tradition, embodied in a relatively simple and ancient code they call Pashtunwali, is based on a particular form of honor, the offense against which is considered a great crime. This honor is defined very simply in a series of what might be described as concentric circles. You do not violate a woman's dressing space. You do not violate my home. You do not violate my compound. You do not violate my village. And you do not violate my country. As long as you observe that principle, you can make all kinds of accommodations with the Pashtun. But we're not doing that, and the nature of our policy is to violate that very fundamental cultural code. So, we are not seen how we'd like to be seen. We'd like Afghans to compare what we want for Afghanistan with what the Taliban wants, and see that what we're trying to do for them is better. But they don't see it that way. They are not judging these different factions according to what they're offering. Instead, they're judging them by another standard: Who's from here, and who's an outsider? Well, if you're an outsider, no matter what you're pushing in Afghanistan, you're always seen through that lens. So, emphasizing by military escalation that we are the outsider only further weakens our position.

In your video that came out a couple of days ago, you talk a little bit about how our presence in Afghanistan has not only rallied the Taliban, but has also become a recruitment device for other anti-American groups, like al-Qaeda. How do we defuse that inspiration for recruitment, if our troops stay in Afghanistan?

We can do it by making our troops less visible. If our troops are simply out training Afghan military units, or even helping to carry out engineering projects in the countryside, our presence alone is not seen as hostile. It's when we're smashing down doors and making people lie on their stomachs while we search their homes; it's when we send predator bombs to attack targets which may be real - but which also involve the killing of civilians - that we incite this hatred toward ourselves.

Being in the country itself is not a violation of this Pashtun code; in fact, the opposite is true. The obligation to protect and embrace a guest is a very profound part of Pashtun culture. There's a difference between being a guest and a violator. We should make sure we stay on the right side of that line.

In your video, you make some pretty big suggestions about our policy on the Afghan poppy trade. Could you describe your ideas on that?

We're now spending $4 billion per month on our war effort in Afghanistan. The total annual value of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is also about $4 billion. Today, the proceeds from nearly all the poppies growing in Afghanistan go into the pockets of the warlords. We are very rightly concerned about that. The money that's being used to finance the war against us is in part coming from the Afghan poppy crop. In addition, we're turning the poor farmers who grow most of these poppies into enemies by pursuing our traditional policy of burning fields and spraying with them from above with herbicides. How can we resolve all these problems together - not to mention that people are dying on the streets of Hamburg and Chicago every day from the heroin that comes from Afghan poppies?

My suggestion is that we abandon the idea of wiping out the poppy fields. That's like wiping out the Taliban. It's a great idea, but it's just not practical. Therefore, since it's not possible to do what we would like to do in our fantasies, what would be a realistic approach?

I'd like to see the United States buy the entire Afghan poppy crop. We would be paying as much as we pay each month for our war effort in Afghanistan. We could use some of that crop to make morphine for medical use, and the rest, we could burn. This will have the effect of, A, dramatically reducing the income that pours into the coffers of many of the most brutal Afghan warlords; B, showing poor Afghan peasants that we're actually buying something from them, giving them some money to live on rather than firing predator drones into their wedding parties; and C, presumably impacting the heroin supply worldwide.

Obviously we have made some mistakes in Afghanistan. If we're going to learn from history, what are the lessons here? How can future generations look at what's happened in Afghanistan and avoid repeating today's mistakes?

Let me focus on one big lesson that I hope we learn. It is that, when you are trying to bring a country to do what you want it to do, military action is not always the best course. We need to understand the culture of each country before we go in. These countries are in many ways quite different from us; people think in different ways than how we think. We have certain ways of approaching security problems. We use methods against others that we think would be effective if they were used against us. But those methods aren't necessarily effective against people with different cultural backgrounds. So, the number one lesson I'd hope we would learn is: Instead of acting reflexively to confront security threats in ways that seem to allow us to use our own advantages to the fullest, let's be more careful in analyzing the places we're going into. Let's see if there are ways we can achieve our security goals without inadvertently undercutting our own security.

In so many of these places - and Afghanistan is a great example - we sense a security threat, act against it, and then, after awhile, wake up and realize we've only made the threat worse. Every time we do that, whether it's in Central Asia or the horn of Africa or Central America or Southeast Asia, we are confronted with the same lesson, but we just don't learn it. The lesson is, countries are different. They have to be dealt with in ways that are in harmony with their own cultures. Once you understand other countries, you have a much greater ability to extract from them the understandings that you need to live safely with them. So don't charge ahead with your prefixed idea about what's going to solve your security problem. Stop and think about what will really be in America's interest over the long run.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama: Use Strike as Spark for Wider Program

Photo: Republic Windows Sit-Down Strike

Leveraging the Chicago
Sit-Down to
Help All Workers

By Peter Dreier
Huffington Post

December 9, 2008, - Since Friday, 240 members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a small but feisty union that has always been in the progressive wing of the labor movement, have displayed uncommon courage. They have illegally occupied their Chicago factory after their employer abruptly told them that it was shutting down the plant.

Equally impressive, President-elect Barack Obama, by quickly endorsing the workers' protest, showed the kind of bold leadership that progressives have been hoping for, but didn't expect to see so soon. Indeed, Obama's statement puts him ahead of Franklin Roosevelt, who didn't embrace worried workers' escalating demands until after his inauguration in March 1933, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed.

The workers began their sit-in on Friday, after their employer, Republic Windows and Doors, closed the factory with only three days notice. The company management told the workers and their union, UE Local 1110, that the Bank of America had canceled Republic's line of credit, making it impossible to stay in business -- or even pay employees the severance and vacation pay they'd earned. The company immediately terminated the workers' health insurance.

The BofA said that the cancellation was routine business practice, caused by Republic's cash flow problem in the wake of declining sales in the nation's housing construction downturn.

"When a company faces such a dire situation, its lender is not empowered to direct the company's management how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid," declared the North Carolina-based BofA in a statement. "Such decisions belong to the management and owners of the company."

The BofA's antiseptic statement reflected the kind of cold-blooded market fundamentalism that has led a growing number of Americans to demand more government regulation of big business.

But the Republic workers didn't wait for government action. They refused to walk away from their jobs quietly or to accept the argument that the lay-offs were an inevitable result of the nation's economic hard times. They peacefully took over the plant, where some of them had worked for decades, and demanded that the Bank of America and Republic management find a solution. The workers insist that they won't leave until getting assurances they will receive severance and vacation pay, but they also hope to find a way to keep the plant open.

Although by occupying the factory they are breaking the law, no politician has called for the Chicago Police Department to arrest them -- a sure sign that their action has become a symbol of working families' distress in the unraveling Bush economy. Millions of Americans, watching interviews with the workers on TV during the past few days, can identify with their plight - the loss of their jobs, their health insurance and perhaps their homes - only a few weeks before Christmas.

The sit-in began the same day that President Bush reluctantly acknowledged, for the first time, that the country was in a recession. He released a Department of Labor report revealing that U.S. employers axed 533,000 jobs in November, the biggest monthly cut since 1974. As a result, the official unemployment rate has jumped to 6.7 percent. Now in its twelfth month, the recession is already the longest since a 16-month slump in 1981-82. Some economists predict that this downturn will set a new post-World War 2 record.

"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned," Obama said during a press briefing on Sunday, " I think they are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."

With that statement, Obama used his bully pulpit to endorse the workers' protest and to put pressure on the Bank of America and Republic to forge a solution. Representatives of the company, BofA, and the union have been meeting at the bank's office in downtown Chicago. Congressman Luis Gutierrez has been moderating the talks.

The symbolism of the workers' take-over also adds credence to Obama's call for a major government-funded infrastructure program that will stimulate several million jobs -- almost all of them in the private sector -- and help jump-start the ailing economy.

"The workers want Bank of America to keep the plant open and the workers employed," said UE President Carl Rosen. "There is always a demand for windows and doors. But with Barack Obama's stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic's workers. It doesn't make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious."

"We were cutting out glass for an order for 1,000 new windows last week," 34 year-old Vicente Rangel, a Republic employee for 15 years, told the Los Angeles Times. "There was work to do. Then, the bosses called us to a meeting and said everyone was quitting, whether they wanted to or not." The union workers earned an average of $14 an hour, and received health insurance and retirement benefits as part of their union contract.

"I'm not scared because I'm not alone on this," said Raul Flores, according to the Chicago Tribune. The 25-year old Flores, who had worked at Republic for eight years, added, "We're strong and we're going to stay. This gives us the strength to keep going. This is going to be for everyone."

Americans have rallied to the Republic workers' cause. They've sent money, food, clothing, blankets, and good wishes. (To donate, go here). On Monday, protesters picketed a Bank of America branch on Chicago's West Side, explaining that they support the workers' sit-in. A coalition of unions and community groups, Jobs with Justice, held a rally at Chicago City Hall and threatened to organize a boycott of the Bank of America if the problem isn't resolved.

Union members, politicians, and others have highlighted the irony that Bank of America just got $25 billion of the federal government's bank bail-out funds, designed to push banks to start lending money again. BofA's refusal to extend Republic further credit seems cold-blooded and hypocritical.

The bank's hypocrisy hasn't been lost on elected officials. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich threatened to suspend all state government business dealings with BofA if a reasonable solution is not achieved quickly. He asked the state Department of Labor to investigate if Republic had violated Illinois' plant closure laws. The company may also have violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, a 1988 law that requires employers to provide employees and community 60 days notice in advance of plant closings and large-scale layoffs.

After U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) visited the plant, he expressed support for the workers, observing, "The taxpayer dollars going into these big banks are not for dividends, they're not for executive salaries," according to the Chicago Tribune (which, ironically, just declared bankruptcy). "They're for loans and credit to businesses just like Republic so they can stay in business and so these workers won't be out on the street unemployed."

Chicago aldermen have called for hearings on Republic, which received over $10 million in city redevelopment funds. They and Cook County officials suggested withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of government funds from the Bank of America.

"We never expected this,'' Melvin Maclin, a factory employee and vice-president of the UE local, told the Associated Press about the support they've received. "We expected to go to jail."

Inside the factory's lobby, local residents and workers covered the walls with hand-scrawled signs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Thank you for showing us all how to fight back!" wrote one person. "Here's to change, from the bottom up," penned another.

These sentiments will sound familiar to anyone who followed Obama on the presidential campaign trail. "Change comes from the bottom up," the former community organizer said frequently during his stump speeches.

During the past two weeks, as Obama appointed moderates and former Clintonites to high-level positions in his economic brain-trust, some progressives worried that the president-elect was already moving to the center, even as the economy nosedived. But Obama's call for the largest public investment plan since the interstate highway program begun in the 1950s, his support for a major federal loan to the Big 3 auto companies if they retool to become more energy-efficient, and now his embrace of the Republic workers' occupation of their factory has given many progressives assurance that Obama hasn't forgotten his liberal instincts.

Its worth recalling that FDR did not campaign for president in 1932 -- three years into the Great Depression -- as a proponent of government activism or with a clear plan for economic recovery. But in the five months between his election victory and his March 1933 inauguration, Depression conditions had worsened, and grassroots worker and community protests escalated throughout the country. As soon as he took office, Roosevelt became more vocal, using his bully pulpit -- in speeches and radio addresses -- to promote New Deal ideas, pushing banking reform, public works, relief for struggling farmers, and help for homeowners within the first few months of his administration. In June 1933 he signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which for the first time recognized workers' right to collective bargaining.

Immediately, union activists gave speeches and posted signs -- on posters and billboards, and in store windows -- proclaiming, "The President wants you to join the union." Workers responded, and union membership began to climb. When the Supreme Court ruled in May 1935 that NIRA was unconstitutional, FDR and Congress immediately enacted the National Labor Relations Act, often called the Wagner Act, to preserve workers' right to organize. Workers became even bolder in order to protect their jobs and defend their rights. Department store clerks, bakers, hospital laundry workers, longshoremen, meatpackers, steelworkers, tire and auto workers, and others engaged in various forms of protest, including the first wave of "sit-down" strikes demanding recognition of their unions. The combination of government intervention and union activism laid the foundation for the post-World War 2 prosperity that lifted the majority of Americans into the middle class.

That social contract has now been shredded, spurred by two decades of government deregulation of business, widening inequality, increasing job insecurity, and the unraveling of the social safety net, including health insurance. These trends have been compounded during the Bush years -- corrupt crony capitalism, the mortgage meltdown, escalating foreclosures, and large-scale lay-offs.

The bold factory take-over by the Republic workers in Chicago may be a fluke, or it just could be the opening salvo of a new wave of grassroots activism, not only by workers and their unions, but also by community groups, enviros, religious congregations, housing crusaders, and the millions of Americans inspired by Obama's campaign who voted for the first time in November. Clearly the Republic workers' protest has struck a nerve with the American people, including many who don't share their plight but can nevertheless empathize with their predicament.

It would be uplifting and useful to see vigils and rallies in cities around the country on behalf of another New Deal -- a pump-priming infrastructure plan, a "green jobs" investment program, a universal health insurance proposal, a long-overdue reform of corporate-friendly labor laws, a strategy to help Americans afford housing, and a significant federal investment in public schools and college financial aid.

Like FDR, Obama can use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to organize and raise their voices -- as he did Sunday in support of the workers at Republic Windows and Doors, a month before he officially takes office. But if Americans want the country to change direction, as the election results indicated, they'll have to follow Obama's advice, and the Republic workers' example: change happens from the bottom up.
[Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College, is coauthor of "The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City" and "Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century."] View this story online at:


Monday, December 8, 2008

Note to Obama: You Need Unions, More of Them

Is Obama Backing
Off a Crucial
Pledge to Labor?

By Steve Early

Dec. 8, 2008 - It's only been a month since hundreds of thousands of union members and their families helped Barack Obama win key "battleground states." Yet, already, some labor supporters of the president-elect fear he may be backing away from a key campaign promise to workers threatened by recession.

While running for office, Obama said he strongly favored the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a long overdue labor law reform measure that should be part of his promised economic stimulus plan. However, when Obama introduced his top economic advisers on Nov. 25 and talked about steps to "jolt" the economy in January, EFCA was not part of the package. More disturbingly, his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, declined to say whether the White House would support EFCA when he was questioned about it last month at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored "CEO Forum."

EFCA is vehemently opposed by big business because it would enable workers to unionize and negotiate first contracts more easily. The bill would amend the 73-year old National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) so that private sector employers have to bargain with their employees when a majority sign union authorization cards. Just as the NLRA did, as a centerpiece of the New Deal, EFCA would encourage collective bargaining to raise workers' living standards and restore greater balance to labor-management relations. Beginning in the late 1930s, this federal labor policy helped create a vast new post-World War II American middle-class.

Now, facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression, the Democrats have an unparalleled opportunity to link labor law reform to their broader economic recovery efforts. As economist Dean Baker, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, points out, "If workers are able to form unions and get their share of productivity gains, it could once again put the country on a wage-driven growth path, instead of growth driven by unsustainable borrowing."

Tax cuts, home foreclosure protection, extended jobless benefits, and a public jobs program are all fine, EFCA supporters say. But expanded use of labor's traditional tool for "self help" (i.e. collective bargaining) is needed just as much and doesn't require new federal outlays like the recent $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. With newly-won bargaining rights, both hourly and salaried employees would gain a seat at the table, when management decisions are being made during the hard times ahead. Even amidst down-sizing, they would have more say about lay-offs, severance pay, and recall rights, not to mention wages, health care benefits, and the funding of troubled retirement plans.

Business has a far different and scarier view of EFCA's potential (and not just because it might lead to a wave of successful organizing). Contrary to the opinion of most historians, employer propagandists claim that NLRA-assisted union growth during the late 1930s actually prolonged the Depression. In a recent op-ed piece, National Right To Work Committee president Mark Mix predicted that passage of EFCA "will likely have a similar effect on the economy as the original Wagner Act, transforming what could have been a recovery into a lengthy, deep recession, or worse." To kill the bill, business groups spent an estimated $50 million on anti-EFCA advertising in Congressional races this fall.

Key Democratic challengers were elected anyway, giving labor law reform a large majority in the House and, by some estimates, 59 Democratic, Republican, and independent supporters in the Senate. Based on this latter head count, it will only take a single additional Republican vote (for cloture, if not for EFCA itself) or another Democratic win, in the still-disputed contest for a Minnesota Senate seat, to thwart any GOP filibuster like the one in 1978 that doomed labor's last bid to overhaul the Wagner Act.

Of course, a few Senate Democrats counted as pro-EFCA by labor may now be waffling, on cue from Chief of Staff Emanuel. See, for example, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln who told the Northwest Arkansas Times Dec. 4 that "focusing on this bill, this issue, isn't paramount." According to the Times, Lincoln professed to be "undecided" on EFCA and "believed the nation has more important issues to deal with." Even a union supporter and key House committee chair like Rep. George Miller (D-Calif) seemed to be sending mixed signals in a Nov. 18 Chicago Tribune interview. Miller said EFCA was not going to be "the first bill out of the chute," but was "not moving to the back of the train" either.

As Michael Mishak reported in the Las Vegas Sun Nov. 30, the new administration clearly fears that any debate about EFCA early in 2009 "would be divisive at a time when Obama has gone to great lengths to bridge the partisan rift in Washington that has grown deeper over the past eight years." (Of course, outside the Beltway, there's little evidence that strengthening workers' rights is an unpopular cause anywhere in America.) The problem for labor is, if EFCA is not pushed early and hard as part of Obama's overall economic recovery plan, the bill runs a high risk of getting pigeonholed as "special interest" legislation and post-election "pay-back" for labor. This narrow frame will seal its fate.

That's why the same union-backed political apparatus that helped put Obama in the White House needs to be re-mobilized now to keep grassroots pressure on him and other Democrats. In many cities, a broad coalition of labor and community groups organized by Jobs With Justice is planning a week of activities, Dec. 7-13, calling for a "People's Bailout" that would include passing EFCA. In January, unions need to bring their rank-and-file members to Washington in far greater numbers than the UAW has mustered on behalf of its foundering, management-driven agenda for the auto industry.

Labor has a strong case to make that EFCA is an economic fix that would work, while costing taxpayers almost nothing compared to massive handouts for bankers, insurers, credit card companies, investment firms and, perhaps next, auto makers as well. Workers about to be--or already--crippled financially by the recession will be watching closely to see whether their plight merits the same helping hand so quickly extended to corporate America.

[Steve Early is a labor journalist and lawyer who worked as a union organizer for 27 years. He is the author of a forthcoming book called Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War At Home (Monthly Review Press, 2009). A shorter version of this article appeared in the Dec. 6 Boston Globe. Early can be reached at]


Friday, December 5, 2008

Obama: The Day of Reckoning Is Upon Us

Prosecute Bush
Officials Behind
Torture Policy

By Michael Ratner
The Progressive

Dec. 3, 2008 - One of Barack Obama's first acts as president should be to instruct his attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation of former Bush Administration officials who gave the green light to torture.

At Obama's press conference on Dec. 1, he spoke of upholding America's highest values as he introduced Eric Holder as his choice for attorney general. Holder insisted there was no tension between protecting the people of the United States and adhering to our Constitution.

A few months ago, Holder was even more explicit. "Our government authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution," he said. "We owe the American people a reckoning."

The day of reckoning is fast upon us.

If Obama and Holder want to adhere to our Constitution and uphold our highest values, they must pursue those in the Bush Administration who violated that Constitution, broke our laws, and tarnished our values.

Read the words of Lt. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal for the Pentagon.

"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes," he concluded.
"The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Despite Taguba's words and reams of documentation supporting his statement, there has been little discussion about holding officials accountable for their design and implementation of the torture program.

We need to make it clear, just as we do in cases with the most minor offenses, that actions have consequences. To simply let those officials walk off the stage sends a message of impunity that will only encourage future law breaking. The message that we need to send is that they will be held accountable.

A popular refrain in Washington these days is that criminal prosecutions would be an unnecessary look backward. Some argue that in order for the new administration to move forward, presidential pardons should be granted and a Truth Commission assembled to investigate the circumstances that gave rise to the brutal interrogations and deaths of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites around the world.

But pardons would be the final refuge for an administration whose egregious violations of human rights have, for all too long, gone unpunished. And a Truth Commission is not applicable.

This is not Latin America; this is not South Africa. We are not trying to end a civil war, heal a wounded country and reconcile warring factions. We are a democracy trying to hold accountable officials that led our country down the road to torture. And in a democracy, it is the job of a prosecutor and not the pundits to determine whether crimes were committed.

Criminal prosecutions are not about looking to the past; they are about creating a future world without torture. They will be the mark of the new dawn of America's leadership and our new era of accountability.

Prosecuting these officials would help the United States regain its moral standing in the world and to prove our commitment to upholding international human rights standards.

In his first nationally televised interview, President- elect Barack Obama made this promise: "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture."

The best way to do that is to prosecute those who designed the torture policies.

Copyright 2008 The Progressive Magazine

[Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of "The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book."]


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