29 April 2011

Paul Beckett : Slouching Towards Democracy in Nigeria

Goodluck Jonathan was elected President of Nigeria on April 16.

The Elections in Nigeria:
Slouching towards democracy

By Paul Beckett / The Rag Blog / April 29, 2011

The perils of democracy

To title (and set) his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, Nigeria’s great novelist, Chinua Achebe, drew on lines from the poem by William Butler Yeats which begins:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
And ends:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats, 1920
Nigeria is among the world’s most dangerous countries. Nigeria has the seventh-largest population in the world (nearly 160 million), and that population is a potentially explosive mixture of peoples, regions, and religions -- a mixture of almost infinite complexity.

The center’s holding (to paraphrase Yeats) has indeed been challenged throughout Nigeria’s 51 years of independence. At various times, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s longest-serving head of state (sometimes military, sometimes elected) has compared his country’s potential for violence to cases like Bosnia, Rwanda or Burundi -- but on a much larger scale.

Nigeria came to independence two years after Achebe’s book was published with a British-style parliamentary electoral democracy in place. Unsurprisingly, the country’s experience with democracy since has been rocky. “Mere anarchy” (Yeats uses “mere” in the obsolete meaning of “pure” or “unmixed”) has frequently seemed close by.

As Nigeria celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain last year, the country had had elected governments for only about 20 years. The other 30 were accounted for by a succession of military governments, each a bit more dictatorial (and corrupt) than the one before. In its democratic interludes, it took Nigeria only about 40 years to get into its “Fourth Republic” (the present one); reputedly volatile France required about a century and a half to achieve the same.

Nigeria has spent enormous sums of money trying to create fair and transparent electoral systems. Yet rare is the election that has not been condemned as false by the loser (often, by everyone except the winner!). Over the 20-some years of democracy, vote-buying, thuggery, bribery, and ballot box-stuffing have been developed into high art forms. Sometimes the ballot boxes are simply stolen. Or, perhaps, stolen and stuffed. Voter registration, a vast process usually commenced too late, has often verged on chaos (if not “mere anarchy”).

Polling station administration has usually seemed imperfect and sometimes much worse than that. Nigeria’s last round of general elections, in 2007, was condemned universally by observers as almost hopelessly flawed by violence, rigging, and mismanagement. (For one of the reports, go here.)

As we recommend democracy for all countries, we should be conscious that democracy can be dangerous in a country like Nigeria: very dangerous. Democracy has been a significant factor in Nigeria’s horrific communal clashes (stretching from the pogroms against the Igbos in the middle 1960s to the bloody clashes in the Jos area that are on-going now). Scores and sometimes hundreds have been killed in violence in each national election.

By its nature, then, Nigeria does not seem a natural case for Western-style competitive electoral democracy. When I lived in Nigeria in the early 1970s, the number of separate ethnic groups was put at 250; the figure used now is 389. (Imagine for a moment the French, German, British, or American democracies functioning with 389 different national traditions and identities in play.)

Overlaying the ethnic mosaic are traditions of regional hostility (both great and small). Since the 1980s, religion (Muslim or Christian) has become vastly more important as a basis for often violent conflict. Access to education, and therefore literacy, varies widely through the country. Finally, poverty, the national oil wealth not withstanding, is endemic, and wealth differentials are, well, worse than in the U.S.

Just as a reminder, Western-style democracy has generally flourished in -- you guessed it! -- Western countries characterized by a large middle class, high literacy, and a much higher degree of national integration.

In a sense, the puzzle is that Nigeria has tried so hard and persisted so long in the effort to make democracy work.

The effort to create democracy

But try they certainly have, in a creative, participatory, and deeply serious way which will surprise those who know Nigeria mainly for corruption and “419” email scams.

In the latter 1970s, after a failed First Republic and a decade of military rule, Nigerian military leaders and civil society intellectuals (academics, administrators, doctors, lawyers, journalists) put their heads together to try to figure out how Nigeria could be a democracy. A kind of “great debate” occurred in a constitutional convention and through the media (it reminded yours truly of the Federalist Papers episode in our own history).

A constitution was designed in which electoral success went to the leaders and the parties who best reached across the old divides of region and ethnicity, while punishing those who waged ethnic or regional political warfare. A principle of “federal character,” which essentially means fair representation of Nigeria’s constituent regions and peoples, ran through the constitution. (In some applications, it resembles American affirmative action practices.)

Thus, to illustrate with the presidential election (the one Nigerians care most about), to win a candidate must win by a majority of votes cast (so run-offs are likely), but also must receive at least 25% of the votes cast in two-thirds (24) of the 36 states in the Nigerian federation.

Other features were requirements placed on the political parties to be truly national in scope, a powerful independent, non-partisan electoral commission to prepare and run the elections, and judicial review of challenges.

What is interesting is that, while Nigeria has had three constitutional revisions since the totally disastrous First Republic, the basic elements have carried through each one.

As a distant and somewhat desultory observer, I have felt for some time, and feel more certain all the time, that Nigeria has been subject to a kind of creeping constitutionalism and a growing habit of democracy over more than three decades.

The 2011 general elections

This month Nigeria has completed a mammoth round of elections: for the federal bicameral legislature (April 9), the federal presidency (April 16), and governors of the 36 states (April 26). The scale of the exercise was enormous in every way (very much including cost which has been estimated at more than half a billion dollars).

Some 325,000 poll workers manned many thousands of polling stations scattered throughout a vast country where communications and transportation infrastructure remain limited. Sixty-three political parties were registered; at the presidential level, 21 had fielded candidates. (For more details, go here.)

How did it go?

The ominous precursors were there. The elections, originally scheduled for December 2010, had to be pushed back twice. As usual, registration was a last-minute achievement. There were many problems with ballots, both their preparation and printing (they were complicated with many minor parties that had to be correctly listed) and ballot security.

There were many efforts to rig or otherwise falsify or even to derail the elections completely. Just before the presidential election a vehicle traveling north was found to contain 100,000 ballots marked “tendered ballot papers.” Serious bombings occurred before and during the elections.

Also very ominous was a spike in violence (or arbitrary arrest) directed against reporters. This was reported by the international organization Reporters Sans Frontieres, which noted:
Nigeria has one of the poorest media freedom ratings in Africa and is 145th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders worldwide Press Freedom Index.
One could go on and on with such ominous reports. But: surprise!

The Economist (London) almost gushed: “Nigeria’s Successful Elections: Democracy 1, vote-rigging, 0.” They went on, “Gambling on the world’s most expensive voting system has paid off.”

The leader of an international team of observers, Robin Carnahan of the (U.S.) National Democratic Institute, said the vote was “largely free and fair.”

“There were a number of people in our delegation that observed the elections in 2007,” Carnahan said,
and they said they felt like there was a marked difference this year. That there was a determination on the part of the Independent National Electoral Commission to run a real election, [and] a free and fair election. There was determination on the part of the Nigerian people to participate in an election that really reflected their voice.
European Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) teams’ reports were similar, as was the verdict of the U.S. State Department.

Sweet music!

But then the music ended.

Serious rioting broke out in most of the far northern states, with hundreds killed. There were renewed bombings on the eve of the last set of elections for governor on April 26 (and they could not be held on schedule in at least two of the states). Meanwhile, the major opposition candidate for President (Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change party) and many others are charging (what else?) “massive rigging” that falsified the election.

The balance sheet

As the dust clears (and, as the bodies are buried), we see that the damage has been great: more than 500 killed, many more wounded, much property loss, much personal displacement, much loss of personal sense of security. The election and its aftermath have further exacerbated the dangerous combination of anger and fear at the Muslim/Christian interface, especially in the northern states.

If the presidential election of Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party was generally peaceful and fair, as observers tell us, the results may still prove dangerous for the future.

Jonathan (Christian, from a southeast minority ethnic group) represented the dominant party (PDP) and his victory was expected by most. He handily met the constitutional requirements for election taking nearly 60% of the popular vote, and winning 24 states outright.

Meanwhile, his principal opponent, Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim, Hausa-Fulani, from Katsina) swept the 12 most northern states, but failed to carry any states outside that group (including those that in past elections have tended to associate with the “far north”).

Thus, while Jonathon’s election complied easily with the constitutional requirements for national reach, paradoxically this presidential election seemed to result in a situation of stark regional, ethnic, and religious separation that we have not seen before.

Slouching towards democracy?

There were a number of special circumstances in the candidacy of Goodluck Jonathan and the opposition led by Muhammadu Buhari that are too complex to deal with here. Yet, even with allowance being made for these, the 2011 elections are likely to be seen as a watershed in Nigerian politics.

Viewed in national political terms, the far north finds itself (temporarily, at least) in unprecedented isolation. Over most of the previous half century, the Muslim (in ethnic terms, mainly Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri) far north (it was sometimes referred to as the Holy North in the old days) has generally provided the core political leadership for the rest of the huge area of the original Northern Region. During the first political decade, their dominance was absolute.

And throughout the independence period the influence of the far north has been disproportionate at the national level, too. Of the 13 men who have headed the Nigerian government (military or civilian) since 1960 (see list here), eight have been northern Muslims (one other was a northern Christian).

Six of the northern Muslims have been from the core Hausa-Fulani or Kanuri states of the far north. All four of the southern Christian leaders owed their original accession to accidental factors (Jonathan, the latest, became President unexpectedly in May last year after Umaru Yar’Adua (Hausa-Fulani, Katsina) developed a serious illness and finally died in office).

Thus, the landslide election of Jonathan may mark a watershed event in the evolution of Nigerian politics. The historic pattern of at least mild hegemony exerted from the far north may have largely run its course.

This assumes that Nigeria continues its “slouching” progress (borrowing again from Yeats) toward institutionalizing electoral democracy.

Which in turn returns us to the question: Why does Nigeria work so hard and so persistently to create a functioning, stable, permanent democracy?

The costs and dangers, after all, are great. With the country’s complex ethnic makeup, and the now bitter relations between many Christian and Muslim communities, Nigerians know that they live over a political sea of magma that could, at almost any time, erupt.

Yet Nigeria persists in the effort, and, I believe, will continue to persist. At the time that Nigerians were emerging from more than a decade of military rule in the latter 1970s, intellectuals advanced many ideas for a constitutional system that would work for Nigeria, not as one might want Nigeria to be, but as it is. A number advocated indirect, or “guided democracy,” or a benign single-party system.

Ultimately, such compromises were rejected in favor of straight, unadulterated winner-take-all electoral democracy with competitive parties. The preponderance of opinion was that Nigeria was too complex a country to function as a single party system, and their experience with military rule had convinced them that benign dictatorship never remains benign.

One could say that Nigeria needs to be a democracy not in spite of its staggering complexity, but because of it.

[Paul Beckett taught political science at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, from 1969 to 1976. He is co-author of Education and Power in Nigeria and co-editor of Dilemmas of Democracy in Nigeria.]

The Rag Blog

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28 April 2011

FILM / William Michael Hanks : Jamie Johnson's 'The One Percent'

Documentary film:
Jamie Johnson's The One Percent is a
revealing statement about wealth in America

By William Michael Hanks / The Rag Blog / April 28, 2011

Jamie Johnson has a conscience if he can keep it. He is heir to one of the largest fortunes in America: Johnson & Johnson. In The One Percent, his second documentary after Born Rich, he combines his interest in economic inequality in America with a skill and talent for filmmaking.

The film is worth seeing. It is a fresh and honest statement about the disparity of wealth in America. The exclusive access the filmmaker's family name gives him to the very wealthy made some of the surprisingly revealing interviews possible.

Jamie points out that:

Today in America the disparity between the haves and have-nots is greater than it's ever been. Now the top one percent of Americans like my family and me own 40 percent of all the country’s wealth and we share an aggregate net worth that is greater than the bottom 90 percent of individuals combined.
His family, as do most very wealthy families, has a wealth counselor who meets with the whole family regularly. You have to see this guy. He comes off like a mean-spirited hired gun -- like the Jack Palance character in Shane. The deference which Jamie's father shows this bully is pathetic. But then, every year the story is always the same -- the wealth of the family continues to grow and who can argue with success?

Jamie uses his family name to enroll in one of the most exclusive wealth conferences in America -- The Lido. Jamie remarks to the conference director: "There are people that are looking for funding for their projects who would absolutely kill to get into this meeting." The Director, Gregg Kushner, responds "That's right, absolutely, and we make sure they don't get to get in."

It is this "circle the wagons" -- the "us and them" mentality -- that pervades the attitudes of the very rich. There is a universal refusal to even broach the subject of disparity of wealth. The candid sequences with the very rich in the film reveal this in ways that media coverage and mere commentary cannot.

The mantra of the rich as given by Gregg Kushner, the Lido Conference director, is as follows
There is much greater good done by the people with the wealth in creating jobs, creating business opportunities, and in philanthropy than otherwise, and I would say it makes more sense to me to encourage business ownership, to encourage the wealthy to generate that wealth so that wealth can then be shared rather than take it from individuals to then redistribute it through social policy and transfer policies of medicare and social security or whatever. I hope that didn't come out sounding crass.
Well, Gregg, it did.

Of course the fallacies -- some would say lies -- are that the facts belie the myth that wealth is shared. How much sharing is being done if one percent owns 40 percent of the wealth? And how is having a person over the barrel, so he has to accept slave wages, not taking it from individuals? How does charging 600 percent interest on a pay day loan not taking it from individuals?

Apparently taking from some individuals is OK -- just not from the wealthy. As Dickens said, "The poor have no right to their good fortune." The other lie is that rather than being "redistribution" or "transfer" policies, social security and medicare are self-funded programs that are supported by those who participate.

But it is this hedge of false mythology that is the personal cover of most of those who are represented at the conference. The justifications are so weak that most of those who are among the privileged few react very nearly with violence when these questions are even raised.

Jamie runs into these attitudes repeatedly in his interviews. The interview with Milton Friedman is something to see. The duplicity and bullying are astounding. I would like to know who paid for this man's Nobel Prize. It could not have come from an original contribution to economics; the previous author Attila the Hun should have gotten the prize. He reveals himself to be merely a thug who works as economic muscle for the wealthy and their minions.

These reactions are typical in most of Jamie's interviews with the very wealthy, but there are some who seem not to be able to silence their conscience so easily. His interviews with Warren Buffet's granddaughter led Buffet to disown her and his interview with the the Oscar Mayer heir revealed his struggle with economic equity which culminated with giving away his money.

It's not even that huge profits are a result of hard work and innovation anymore, or real service to the market; more and more, huge profits are the result of favorable laws, regulations, and subsidies. Laws bought and paid for with campaign contributions.

In one interview, Kevin Philips, a former Nixon aide and author, said "It's been the case for the last 25 years in the United States that the amount of money flowing into the system for political contributions has been a major shaper of who gets what within the economy." The film shows specific examples of how corporate and individual contributions lead directly to multi-million dollar subsidies for donors.

The most revealing moments of the film are the times when the very wealthy are being interviewed and show a complete lack of self reflection -- their mythology, tired and aging as it may be, seems the touchstone of justification for their control of such vast assets. It was always the same song: vast wealth generated all good in society and any form of taxation is socialism.

Most of those interviewed just shut up and refused to comment when the subject of the film was revealed. The fear of addressing the obvious was palpable.

The saddest thing about the film is the portrait of Jamie's father. When he was Jamie's age, he had made a film about poverty and apartheid in South Africa. He was so criticized by his family that it appears he never quite got over it. He, one of the wealthiest men in America, was reduced to being a fearful, ineffectual, and indecisive man with faith no more in anything but the bloodless approval of his financial adviser, his croquet games with rich friends at the country club, and an ice cold martini, or two.

But the unseen tragedy that the film holds like a secret box within a box is that Jamie himself will end up like his father. The wolves encircling him -- biting, punishing, threatening to alienate him from all he has known in his life. Reminding him of the ultimate price -- exclusion, poverty, and isolation. Surely he will come to his senses, surely he will come back into the fold, a chastened member of the club.

But then again, Jamie has a conscience, if he can keep it.

[William Michael Hanks lived at the infamous Austin Ghetto and worked with the original Rag gang in the Sixties. He has written, produced, and directed film and television productions for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The U. S. Information Agency, and for Public Broadcasting. His documentary film The Apollo File won a Gold Medal at the Festival of the Americas. Mike lives in Nacagdoches, Texas. Read more articles by Mike Hanks on The Rag Blog.]The Rag Blog

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27 April 2011

SPORT / Dave Zirin : Taking Back the Dodgers

Dodgers Stadium. Image from Seitivinsfa.

One, two, many Green Bays...
Taking back the Los Angeles Dodgers

By Dave Zirin /The Rag Blog / April 27, 2011

On Friday, I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times that put forward a common-sense solution to the current ownership disaster that is the Dodgers franchise: public ownership. Last week, Commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball took the unprecedented step of seizing the team from bankrupt chief executive Frank McCourt.

In my column, I asked the question: instead of now selling off this historic franchise to the highest bidder, why not allow the fans to be the new bosses? What if Commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball pursued the solution -- that has been so successful for the Green Bay Packers -- public ownership?

The Dodgers faithful could buy shares in the squad. Then -- like in Green Bay -- 60% of concessions could go to local charities, premium tickets could be made affordable to working class Angelenos, and one of baseball’s most storied teams could repair its ruptured relationship with an alienated fan base.

Let Los Angeles be a baseball town again. Let them truly be the people’s team.

It’s unlikely that Major League Baseball or the sclerotic Selig would want any of this. After all, since 1961, it’s been written explicitly in the league’s bylaws that fan ownership is as forbidden as the spitball or aluminum bats.

Selig sees his number one job as protecting the profits and interests of ownership -- not safeguarding the best interests of the game. Proclaiming to the world that fans can own a team and sports owners are superfluous creatures runs counter to Selig’s very DNA. In other words, I didn’t expect the suggestion to gain much traction at MLB central.

But I also didn’t expect Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn to step up to the plate and swing for the cause. Hahn, the daughter of former City Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, is now running for US Congress. The day following publication, Hahn cited my piece in the LA Times on her campaign website and issued the following statement:
The Dodgers have been previously owned by FOX and the McCourt family, it is clear that the only ones who have the teams best interest at heart are the fans. If elected to Congress, I will introduce an amended version of the "Give Fans A Chance Act" which would allow Major League Baseball teams to be owned and operated by their fans, much like the Green Bay Packers are structured today.
This is an idea whose time has come. Major League Baseball for years has relied on public subsidies to make mountainous profits. We have collectivized the debt and privatized the profit for years in operating the National Pastime. But now, as our states face historic cuts, it’s time for payback.

I spoke to 12th grade LA public school teacher Sarah Knopp, and she said,
Just a percentage of the revenue from merchandise sales could help save the hundreds of art and music teachers being pink-slipped right now. At my small school for at-risk kids, art is one of the main tools that keeps students engaged and practicing higher-order thinking. And we're losing our art teacher.
Then there’s physical education. Maybe Dodger revenue could help us to develop world-class sports programs, rather than cutting them. When I was a public school student, girls' sports were crucial for me during those formative years of self-esteem development. I'm scared that a whole generation of girls (and boys) will suffer the effects of not having those opportunities.
The only way this option could be pursued is with a tremendous amount of pressure. This pressure needs to be of two kinds: popular, fan-based pressure on Major League Baseball, and political pressure on -- and through -- the political powers in LA and California. People should rally, fans should hold up signs, politicians should be questioned, and every union in greater Los Angeles should back Councilwoman Hahn's call.

The Bud Selig alternative involves selling off the team to the highest bidder, with no guarantees this broken franchise would even stay in Los Angeles. On April 24 Selig announced that former member of the George W. Bush inner circle and Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer would be running the team. This is not the right direction for the team or the city. The answer lies not in Bush-Land, but Green Bay.

It should be noted that this franchise was founded when it was stolen from the people of Brooklyn, Then the actual Dodgers Stadium was built on the original sin of the Chavez Ravine land grab. At that time, Chavez Ravine was a beloved residential community of Chicanos known to all as “the poor man’s Shangri La."

Shangri-La was seized by the state and handed over to owner Walter O’Malley. Second base now sits on what was once someone’s house. It’s long past time we take the team back. Doing so would rectify the past, aid the present, and maybe play a part in changing the future.

[Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner) and just made the new documentary Not Just a Game. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com. This article was first published at The Nation. Read more articles by Dave Zirin on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Tom Hayden : Response to Bill Fletcher on Rethinking 'Hope'

Obama landscape: seeing the forest for the trees? Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images.

Returning to a grass roots agenda:
A response to Bill Fletcher
on Obama, 2012, and rethinking 'Hope'

By Tom Hayden / The Rag Blog / April 27, 2011

[This is Tom Hayden's response to "Obama, 2012, and Rethinking 'Hope,'" by Bill Fletcher, Jr., posted to The Rag Blog, April 21, 2011.]

I agree with Bill Fletcher’s essay on how to approach Obama in 2012. I only wish to add these thoughts.

First, I knew very well that Obama was a centrist, because he declared himself to be at the midpoint between Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and “Tom Hayden Democrats” such as myself. I knew where things stood from the get-go. No matter how reasonably I described my beliefs, Obama would keep moving to the right of them in order to maintain his role as a centrist.

Aside from the frustrations this would mean for progressives like myself, it also meant that Obama was defining “center” in an unfortunate way. He apparently didn’t mean a midpoint between the 75 percent majorities and 25 percent minorities on taxing the rich, saving Medicare and Social Security, and getting out of Afghanistan. He meant staying in the middle between the poles he chose to consider relevant, which meant the far right and the middle, leaving the Democratic Party liberals stranded on many issues.

His call.

But now Obama has stranded himself, with a majority of Americans favoring “another candidate” in 2012, and a fall-off of about 30 percent among all Democrats and Latinos. His strategy obviously is to get Democrats and Independents to hold their noses and vote for him against an obnoxious Republican in 2012.

This, folks might do. I certainly will. On the other hand, Obama will have an impossible time mobilizing the same level of resources, organizers, and energy of his grass-roots campaign of 2008. So he could lose in some of the dozen states where he won by 1-3 points in that historic year.

I attended an Obama rally in Culver City, California, the other night. There were 2,500 people gathered at Sony Studios, in the district of progressive Congresswoman Karen Bass. The crowd was loyal, caring, supportive, but not inflamed as they were in 2008. The speeches, which were supposed to galvanize, were somewhat flat. People had the president’s back, but all were well aware that the road ahead would be hard and uphill.

I certainly don’t think that the President should throw red meat to his base if it harms him among the independents. But I think he should be aware that his careful parsing of words and positions leaves many people lacking their previous level of faith.

To be specific, does he really mean that he will let the tax credits for the rich expire in 2012, no matter the outcome of the election and negotiations with Republicans? Or is he open to an extension? No one knows, because Obama loathes absolutes.

On Iraq, will he really withdraw the remaining 50,000 troops, or is he open to a deal extending the occupation? On Afghanistan, does he plan a significant withdrawal beginning this July, or will American combat troops remain through 2014? Again, no one can be confident that they know.

On immigration rights, does Obama really have a plan to implement a “path to citizenship," or does he mean to make this a wedge issue with Republicans? Did he do all that he could for the Dream Act students? Or is he just trying to bring back the Latino vote in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada?

On Wall Street reform, will Obama really protect us against the return of the vulture capitalists? On campaign contributions, does he really intend to reverse the Supreme Court over Citizens United, or will he focus on raising 1 billion dollars for his re-election? On green jobs, does he seriously believe we can accept coal mining, deep water drilling, and more nuclear plants as part of the bargain?

Serious questions all. By keeping his base uncertain, Obama lowers our commitment to a point where we are going through a shared uncertainty about each other. If he seems to hedge his bets, so do many of us.

Back in 2008, we thought there might be a progressive upsurge that would keep Obama accountable to our agenda. It was a provisional experiment.

As things turned out, however, the big constituencies of the Democratic Party [like labor] have failed to come up with effective strategies to turn the economy around and end the wars. Perhaps the most interesting success of progressives, in my mind, was that of the brainy and well-financed LGBT network, which maintained the pressure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." It was a remarkable victory, but even so the legislation contained loopholes actually allowing the military to stall.

In 2012, like most of us, I will campaign and vote for Obama, not because he is the Second Coming, but because the alternative is unimaginable, and his administration is staffed with all sorts of intelligent and creative people who are open to progressive pressure and thought.

In fact, I will take pleasure in trying to engage the American public in a debate about Tom Payne versus Ayn Rand, Keynes versus Milton Friedman. I think we are at a historic turning point in our culture when so many white people are incapable of accepting the election of a black president. For these extremist “birthers," Obama is symbolic of the Illegal Aliens undermining traditional white culture. They pose a serious internal threat; even the Homeland Security Agency warned in 2009 of the rise of right-wing violence due to the election of a black president and an economic recession.

Like Bill Fletcher, I hope we can return to the grass-roots agenda of trying to shift public opinion and building state and local power bases capable of creating blue-state models of social change and competing with the corporations to push Obama towards applying his experience of community organizing to making the presidency a progressive bastion.

Most on the American Left have internalized the idea that only social movements can make a president progressive, citing the examples of abolitionist pressure on Abraham Lincoln and workers’ pressure on Franklin Roosevelt. That’s a huge step towards understanding how history works from the bottom up.

But the plain fact is that the American Left, unlike our counterparts in Latin America and Europe, has been unable to build an infrastructure of parties, unions, media, and artists capable of the daily work of organizing to compete politically while fostering counter-communities of lasting meaning.

The reason that education, health care and social services are more affordable, that green politics is more viable, that labor protections are stronger on other continents is that there are stronger social-democratic, radical, and green parties with popular support in those parts of the world. They resisted the impulse to empire and war, and tried to develop and improve their lives at home.

There is little Obama can do about that. He plays with the cards he is dealt. He is both the commander-in-chief of a global network of power, and a leader elected on promises of deep reform. He cannot be both.

We cannot fight wars over oil and make the deep commitment to energy conservation that is necessary. How do you reform empire when we are four percent of the world’s population consuming 40 percent of the world’s resources? When becoming more “competitive” means keeping the rest of the world at bay and at risk?

Obama is the symbol of the new globalization processes unleashed in the world, still under excessive influence of those banking elites who Lula refers to as “white people with blue-eyes." Perhaps the American Left needs to study the political experience of social movements in countries where, when forced to leave their empires behind, a better quality of life was discovered, waiting all along.

[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. This article was also published at TomHayden.com. Read more of Tom Hayden's writing on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Kate Braun : Beltane Fire Festival Celebrates Life

Beltane Fire Festival. Photo from Damn Amazing Pics.

Celebrate life, fertility, passion:
Beltane: Sunday, May 1, 2011

By Kate Braun / The Rag Blog / April 27, 2011
“Dark of the Moon what we envision will come to be by the full moon’s light”
Sunday is Lord Sun’s day, and Beltane is a festival celebrating life, fertility, vitality, passion, and growth. It is a fire festival, so be sure to include fire in some form as you plan your festivities.

Beltane, like Samhain, is a time when the veil between worlds is thinnest; the Spirit World can easily interact with the Mundane World on this day and especially after dark.

Lore tells us that on this night (also named Walpurgisnacht) spirit light will glow on the site of buried treasure (or so Count Dracula told Jonathan Harker), but this is Lore only; I do not recommend venturing forth with picks and shovels to follow a will-o-the-wisp.

All colors may be used in your decorations, but be sure to include white, dark green, and red. Your menu should include custards, sweets of all kinds, green salads, red or pink wine punch, breads, cereals, all red fruits, and ice cream.

Roses, representing the flowering dimension of the human soul, are insightful additions to your decorations as are mirrors, honeybees, and braided fibers.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian are frequently used as symbols of God and Goddess at this celebration. You may designate two of your guests to personify them by blessing all your guests, leading them in weaving red and white ribbons around a May Pole, and exchanging a kiss to symbolize the union of God and Goddess. Their kiss would be a signal for the blowing of horns and whistles, ringing of bells, and other signs of joy.

In addition, if you are able to celebrate outdoors and can build a fire, Marian may bless any animals present by adding fragrant herbs to the coals and then using a feather or feather fan to wave smoke from the fire over them.

In the Long Ago, two fires were built and cattle, horses, and other farm animals were guided between the fragrant smoke of both fires; now any animals included in this festival are more likely to be pets, led or carried by a family member to receive Marian’s blessing.

Don’t forget the fairies and other nature sprites. Decorating a tree or bush with bells and ribbons will not only please them but also prompt them to care for and protect your gardens and outdoor areas.

[Kate Braun's website is www.tarotbykatebraun.com. She can be reached at kate_braun2000@yahoo.com. Read more of Kate Braun's writing on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

26 April 2011

Danny Schechter : Why Wall Street is Winning

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Wall Street: The bull is back.

Why Wall Street is winning
The hated financial center is bouncing back. How did they do it?
By Danny Schechter / The Rag Blog / April 26, 2011

Two years ago, as financial reform was put on the U.S. Congressional agenda, a skeptical Senator, Dick Durbin of Illinois, spoke of the power of the banks over the country’s legislative process.

“They run the place,” he said matter-of-factly.

The comment was then treated as a sidebar in the few newspapers that carried it, perhaps because it hinted at how interests, not ideology, dictate what happens on Capital Hill.

The remark about a shadowy power structure far more important than all the partisan in-fighting that dominates the news is worth recalling as a way of explaining how little has been done to rein in Wall Street in the years since its crash virtually wrecked the global economy.

It is also worth realizing that the people who “run the place” usually do so in ways that rarely get high profile media scrutiny or even public attention.

During the deliberations on re-regulating banks, they mounted a formidable army of lobbyists. It was reported that as many as 25 industry lobbyists were assigned to each member of Congress.

Even as new laws passed to satisfy an angry public, the industry dominated the process of what the laws would cover and how.

They also spread money around to help politicians who helped them. For years those donations were made on a nonpartisan basis, with Democrats as well as Republicans the beneficiaries of carefully-targeted help. Today, they are cutting off the Democrats who pushed financial reform.

The corporate sector is following suit. Nominally “liberal” companies like BP, sharply criticized by the White House for the Gulf Oil spill, are pouring money, not oil, into GOP coffers.

As bipartisanship fades, and certain ideological lines are drawn more sharply, the bankers are now favoring the Republicans financially, perhaps to thank them for erecting a unified wall against tighter rules for banks.

The GOP, led by the pro-free market slogans of the Tea Party, are busy defunding regulators as well.

Right-wingers in turn are being funded by wealthy billionaire backers including the shadowy Koch Brothers who are responsible for backing the anti-union programs of governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin. These campaigns are designed to neuter all opposition to a conservative agenda.

Meanwhile, President Obama reaches into the corporate sector for “help” on his economic “recovery” agenda. In recent months, he named Jeffrey R. Immelt, president of General Electric, a company known for outsourcing jobs, as his jobs advisor.

He plucked William Daley from the American Chamber of Commerce to become his Chief of Staff.

Daley recently scolded politicians for calling for the prosecution of Wall Street criminals. He said that job belongs to producers in Hollywood, not lawmakers.

These efforts have emboldened other arms of Wall Street to intervene in politics. The most visible last week was the statement by the ratings agency Standard and Poor's that it was revising the country’s credit rating to “negative,” warning that it will consider lowering the long-term rating of the United States “within two years.”

Many stocks fell, but bond markets ignored it. Former International Monetary Fund economist Simon Johnson raised questions about their decision of a kind absent in most media outlets.

Writing on his website Baseline Scenario, Johnson noted that few outlets pointed out how inaccurate the ratings agencies had been at the height of the crisis, and how irresponsibly they hyped worthless bonds packed with sub prime junk. Yet once again they were treated as credible, despite their sloppy analysis.
The main problem is that S&P did not lay out even the most basic numbers or even point readers towards the nonpartisan and definitive Congressional Budget Office analysis of medium -- and longer-term budget issues. This matters, because the CBO numbers definitely do not show debt exploding upwards immediately from today...
Bloggers like Cannonfire go further arguing that
The revised credit rating is meant to push the administration and lawmakers into going after Social Security and Medicare. The right-wing now has an additional propaganda tool to push for draconian cuts in areas that will most hurt working and middle class Americans.
Here's the kicker: Standard and Poor's and Moody's are private firms. They don't work for the United States; they serve the interest of Wall Street banks. 2008 taught us that they are completely unaccountable.”

Doug Smith adds on the influential Naked Capitalism blog that Wall Street should know that joining the Tea Party jihad on government spending will be counterproductive for economic recovery.
We know the banksters control both parties and are immune from any threats to their bonuses or their liberty. Still, even on the banksters’ own terms of extend-and-pretend, these cuts are idiotic.
Despite all of its frauds and deceptions, Wall Street has bought its way out of the many pressures that it change its ways. In a special issue, New York Magazine concludes that in this economic war, “Wall Street Won.”

Their editors write,
In the political realm, Wall Street faced the prospect of root-and-branch reregulation, up to and including the potential nationalization of the industry’s largest players, and in the cultural realm its transfiguration into a kind of pariah state. Once upon a time, the Street’s leading lights had been glamorized and admired to the point of worship; now the likes of Robert Rubin, Lloyd Blankfein, and Richard Fuld were relentlessly pilloried and demonized...

Yet today on Wall Street, all of that seems a very long time ago. Not only are the banks rolling in dough again, but their denizens’ customs and sense of self-esteem have largely reverted to the status quo ante.
A retired well-known journalist, James Clay Fuller, notes that media coverage of these issues adds to the confusion because it is often superficial and misleading.
Corporate media refuse to tell many of the stories of bank fraud, as they decline to tell many of the stories that would show the public the corporate takeover of government, but the facts are available to those who recognize that they won't learn much of importance from CNN.
The public is not just uninformed; it is unorganized on these issues and not fighting back. The power of the bank lobby can be compared to the pro-Israel lobby in the sense it dominates the discourse.

With a besieged Democratic administration siding with the banks, unions and activists may not be willing or able to challenge Wall Street. They are so desperate to hold on to the White House, they seem willing to pull any potential punches to make Wall Street a target.

Only a national high profile and populist campaign will be able to stop the financial industry from consolidating its clout. The banks are banking on their ability to stop such a campaign before it starts or gains any traction.

[News Dissector and blogger Danny Schechter made the film, Plunder The Crime of Our Time, treating the financial crisis as a crime story. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org. Read more by Danny Schechter on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Ted McLaughlin : Climate Change and Corporate Propaganda

Global warming cartoon titled "Eco-Glazing" by Vladimir Druzhinin of Russia, from Earthworks 2008 global cartoon competition / Treehugger.

Causes of climate change:
The corporate anti-science
is working

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / April 26, 2011

Just three or four years ago a majority of the people in the United States believed that global climate change was either fully or partially the result of human activity (overuse of fossil fuels) -- about 60% of Americans believed this. And this was in line with the views of most of the rest of the world, especially the developed nations. But a lot has changed in the last few years.

American corporations have spent millions of dollars yearly to propagandize the issue. And they have bought a lot of congressmen (most of them Republicans). These corporations and their political lackeys have used a powerful tool creating doubt -- a tool they learned from the successes of the creationist movement.

The creationists attacked evolution (a proven fact) by repeatedly calling it just a "theory" and getting a few dubious scientists (usually from fields other than biology) to back them up. They then used the statements from these very few "scientists" to attack the work and facts of actual science and scientists. And after repeating their lies a few thousand times they have been able to get a substantial portion of the population to believe them -- enough to force religion into many science classes around the nation.

The corporate barons saw how well this tactic had worked for the creationists, and decided to try it for themselves. They figured they could be even more effective since they were willing to spend many millions of dollars to spread their falsehoods.

They found a few scientists who could be bought or hoodwinked and used pronouncements from them to make it seem as though man-made global climate change was only a theory that had widespread disagreement in the scientific community (even though it is accepted by more than 90% of the world's scientists).

Then they turned their politicians (who had been bought and paid for) loose to claim that acting on this "unproven theory" would cost jobs and damage American businesses by making them unable to compete in the world market (more well-paid-for lies). And it has worked.

Now only 48% of Americans (a 12 point drop since 2007-2008) believe that human activity has anything to do with global climate change, and a full 47% of Americans believe that human activity had nothing to do with it -- that it is just a natural phenomenon.

I believe this drop in the belief that humans are causing the global climate change is due to this corporate-based propaganda, because the numbers of those who believe humans are at least partially responsible remain very high in most of the rest of the world -- especially the developed nations.

The only nations with less than 50% belief in human responsibility, other than the United States, are the developing parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa (where about half of the populations have never even heard of global climate change). And even in these undeveloped areas, a clear majority of those with knowledge of global climate change believe it is caused at least partially by humans.

In fact, the only place in the world where more people believe global climate change has a natural cause instead of a human cause is the United States. This is sad. This used to be a nation that respected science and scientists. Now a substantial portion of the population has been hoodwinked. And the only reason is greed.

American corporations know it will cost them some money to clean up their act, and they don't want to spend that money. They are perfectly willing to endanger the future of all mankind to maximize their own profits today.

It now looks like nothing will be done to delay or prevent global climate change until it is too late, and the United States will have to shoulder much of the blame for that. We not only use the lions share of the world's fossil fuels and produce much of it's pollution (Texas alone produces more pollution than all but six countries), but with our international influence it is unlikely the rest of the world will (or could) act without us.

Some on the right tell us that the Earth is very resilient and will survive. I agree. The Earth will survive whatever humans do to it (just as it always has). It is not the Earth's survival that is in doubt -- it is the survival of humans and the societies they have created that is in doubt. And that is because far too many in the U.S. are convinced that corporate profits are more important than anything else:

Here's what a recent Gallup Poll showed when people in different parts of the world were surveyed on global climate change and its causes.

Percentage of those who believe humans are at least partially responsible for it:

Developed Asia...............83%
Western Europe...............69%
Eastern & Southern Europe...............68%
Latin America...............65%
Commonwealth of Ind. States...............51%
UNITED STATES...............48%
Developing Asia...............39%
Middle East/North Africa...............37%
Sub-Saharan Africa...............32%

Percentage of those who haven't heard of global climate change:

Developed Asia...............4%
UNITED STATES...............4%
Western Europe...............6%
Eastern/Southern Europe...............17%
Latin America...............23%
Commonwealth of Ind. States...............23%
Developing Asia...............48%
Middle East/North Africa...............49%
Sub-Saharan Africa...............54%

And here is how the world collectively views this crises:

Human cause...............35%
Natural cause...............14%
Both causes...............13%
Not aware of it...............36%

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

David Bacon : Bay Area Workers Still Fighting for Justice

Workers from the Woodfin Suites Hotel protest the firing of immigrants in Emeryville, California. Photo by David Bacon.

150 years after general strike:
Bay Area workers still fighting for justice

By David Bacon / The Rag Blog / April 26, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the 150-year history of workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, the watershed event was one that happened 70 years ago -- the San Francisco general strike. That year, sailors, longshoremen, and other maritime workers shut down all the ports on the West Coast, trying to form a union and end favoritism, low wages, and grueling 10- and 12-hour days. Ship owners deployed tanks and guns on the waterfront and tried to break the strike.

At the peak of this bitter labor war, police fired into crowds of strikers, killing two union activists. Then workers shut down the entire city in a general strike, and for four days, nothing moved in San Francisco. The strike gave workers a sense of power described in a verse in the union song "Solidarity Forever": "Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn."

The strike marked the end of a period in which, for 70 years, the efforts of workers to form unions were met with violence and firings. By the end of the 1930s, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was one of the strongest in the nation; workers had a hiring hall instead of a humiliating shapeup in which they had to beg for jobs, and workers on both sides of the bay were busy building other unions, as well as political organizations that eventually elected mayors and sent pro-worker candidates to Congress.

The strike marked the beginning of our modern labor movement.

One product of the rising power of unions was the development of the workers' compensation system to ensure that injured and sick workers would receive enough compensation from employers to survive.

While California had passed its first workers' compensation law, the Compensation Act, in 1911, participation by employers was at first voluntary and only became compulsory two years later. Establishment of the system was both a reaction to the high level of workplace injuries at the turn of the century and a product of the progressive movement that sought to limit the power of large corporations.

The state established its own compensation fund in 1914 to offer a system with costs lowered by removing insurance corporations and their profits. At the height of the Depression, 18 private insurance corporations went bankrupt, while the state fund continued to pay injured workers.

Sam Johnson, a worker for the City of Burlingame, prepares to tap a water main to provide water service to a home.

The 1930s and '40s were high points in the power of industrial and manual laborers. By that time, trucks had replaced the horse-drawn wagons that employed the area's first Teamsters. Assembly workers labored in huge factories, churning out automobiles and electrical equipment; construction workers built the bridges that span the bay and thousands of sailors and other marine workers sailed out on ships that packed the wharves.

The unions of the '30s ended the worst conditions that prevailed in the previous 70 years -- 10-hour days and six-day weeks, job conditions that could sicken and kill, wages that could barely feed a family and constant fear of getting unfairly fired. The changes won by the unions of the '30s and '40s created an economic base for many working families to buy homes and send their children to college.

The state responded by creating a system of universities and community colleges and, by the end of World War II, promised that any working-class kid who graduated high school would find a place in one of them. The nation's first employer-paid medical plan began in the Richmond shipyards.

Belonging to a union gave workers from diverse backgrounds a common shared culture, with its own labor songs and activities built around the hall, from sports and fishing, to dancing, eating and other social activities.

Still, in the '30s and '40s, the Bay Area's workforce was rigidly divided by race and sex. A "color line" prevented African-Americans from getting skilled jobs in construction, industry, and public services like fire and police. Women could work in some jobs, but were kept out of the best-paying ones.

The general strike made one of the first cracks in that wall when striking longshoremen promised that, if African-Americans supported the effort, they'd force shipping companies to abandon the color line on the docks.

The promise was kept, and today people of color are a majority of the bay's dockworkers. Meanwhile, wartime work in the shipyards drew many African-Americans from homes in the south to new communities in California. Black families living in West Oakland and San Francisco's Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods shared a vibrant cultural life, with its clubs incubating jazz and bebop, while the promise of employment gave a new generation a sense of security.

But it wasn't until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the color line came down in most areas, as a result of affirmative action decrees affecting jobs from building sites to fire houses. Demonstrations and active protest won women many gains as well. The reality today, however, is still that most women and workers of color earn less and are unemployed more than the workforce in general. Equality remains very much a work in progress.)

Immigration, too, transformed jobs and industries. European immigrants and their descendents made up the workforce in the best jobs in the Bay Area's budding economy of the late 1800s, in construction, transport and industry. Meanwhile, immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines drained the San Joaquin delta, developed the agriculture that became the base of the state's economy, laid the railroad tracks, served the meals and washed the clothes.

Immigration status caused few problems for those from Europe, but workers from Asia and Latin America faced continuing raids and deportations, especially when unemployment rose. While today these immigrants make up a growing section of the workforce in many areas, inequality based on immigration status, with rising raids and deportations, remain as well.

With the cold war of the 1950s and '60s, however, many things changed for Bay Area workers. Among those changes was an increasing question about the adequacy of the workers' compensation system. One case that highlighted the doubts was that of Marcos Vela.

Vela began working in the Johns-Manville asbestos factory in Pittsburg, California, in 1935. In 1959, the company began medical examinations to detect lung disease. A company doctor did a chest x-ray and found indications of asbestosis. But no one told Vela. In 1962, the same thing happened and again in 1965. In 1968, Vela's x-ray showed a "ground glass" appearance. But the company again told him he was fine, even though he'd begun to cough and couldn't catch his breath. Later that year, he was hospitalized and never went back to the plant.

Vela's case became a symbol of the failure of the existing system of occupational safety and health and helped win passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed by President Nixon. But Vela's case and that of other asbestosis victims also showed the limitations of the workers' compensation system.

Dinorah Galdamez, a housekeeper at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, one of the most luxurious in the U.S.

Christopher Boggs voices the common assertion that employers will clean up dangerous workplaces in order to avoid higher compensation premiums. "Human capital (the value of the employee) became a driving force behind the push for a system of protection," he says, adding that, "recognition of the value of employees and other events between 1900 and 1911 helped spur the movement towards a social system of workers' compensation."

Yet, higher compensation insurance premium costs didn't dissuade Johns Manville from maintaining a carcinogenic workplace, or from lying to its workers. Vela and his coworkers had to win the right to sue Johns Manville to enforce its liability and to win adequate compensation.

The radical political culture that built the unions of the previous decade came under attack during the Cold War. Suddenly, workers needed to prove their loyalty to sail on a ship or teach in a school, and those who failed the tests, or refused to buckle under to them, found themselves out of a job and blacklisted.

Many unions became more conservative in response and lost much of the vibrant culture that made them a part of workers' lives. Others fought hard and kept their leaders from being deported, as was attempted with ILWU President Harry Bridges and cannery union leader Lucio Bernabe. They won court cases protecting political rights and kept pushing for better conditions for workers.

But changes in technology changed the workplace greatly in the following decades and affected the power of unions as well. On the docks, the union was as strong as ever, but the number of longshore workers fell to less than a tenth of what it was during the general strike, as huge container cranes replaced the old hook and cargo net. Similar technological changes affected factory workers.

Beginning in the 1970s, large employers moved production overseas and most of the big factories of the Bay Area began to close. Wrenching dislocation and unemployment devastated working families, as the old industrial base shrank to a small fraction of what it had been. In cities like Oakland and Richmond, which had been healthy working class communities, neighborhoods, especially African-American ones, were devastated by the consequences -- permanent unemployment, poverty and drug use.

New industries arose at the same time, although not in the former industrial centers, but in areas like the South Bay. Burgeoning semiconductor and computer plants created job opportunities for a whole new wave of immigrants, mostly from the Asian Pacific rim. San Francisco and the East Bay experienced an explosion of service industry jobs -- clerical workers in the new glass and steel office towers, hospital workers in the health care industry and retail workers in the malls that took the place of the old downtown shopping districts.

But these new jobs were not the same as the ones they replaced. The wages were generally lower, benefits fewer, employment much more temporary, and overwhelmingly, the employers were very hostile to unions. Beginning in the 1980s, therefore, the labor movement had to almost begin again from scratch, helping a new generation of workers to understand the advantages of being organized, which the general strike had made so clear to a generation before.

The development of high-tech industry also posed new challenges to efforts to protect workers' safety and health. Although the industry had a clean image, with no smokestacks belching visible pollution, the use of highly toxic solvents and other chemicals led to large waves of injured and poisoned workers.

Often workers charged that the synergistic effects of exposure to many chemicals at once made them so sensitive that they could not even walk down the detergent aisle in a supermarket without painful reactions. Studies, even those by industry, documented a large increase in birth defects among workers in semiconductor plants.

Linh Vu is a school cafeteria worker at the Toby Johnson Middle School and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The system of workers' compensation was often inadequate in analyzing these dangers and assuring workers of adequate compensation and treatment. Some affected workers organized a Disabled Workers United group to press for banning some chemicals and liability by the industry for causing the injuries. They viewed the workers' compensation system as overly favorable toward employers because it was hard to collect benefits for chemical exposure and it insulated employers from liability.

At the same time, laws passed under worker pressure, designed to encourage union organizing and protect public benefits like unemployment insurance and Social Security, came under attack from a wave of conservative administrations in Sacramento and Washington. Overtime pay, won through generations of strikes and protest, was stripped from six million workers nationally. As a result, while Bay Area unions included over a third of all workers in the 1950s, today they represent less than half that.

As unions struggled with this new environment, however, many workers did win new rights. The farmworkers movement, beginning in the 1960s, established the right of the state's poorest workers to form unions and achieve a decent standard of living. The union ended abuses like the infamous short-handled hoe, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and the lack of bathrooms and drinking water in the fields. During the period of its greatest strength in the 1970s and early 1980s, the wage of a union farm worker was at least double the minimum wage, the highest level it has ever achieved.

A crew of farm workers harvests bok choy for Vessey Farms in the Imperial Valley. Photos by David Bacon.

The movement of rural workers was strongly supported by urban workers through the boycotts of struck fruits and vegetables. In the rural areas of California, Chicanos, Mexicans, and Filipinos were able to end discrimination in schools and public services. The United Farm Workers, in turn, helped revitalize the fighting spirit of other unions and help them relearn the organizing tactics of a social movement.

Public workers, denied the right to organize and strike through the '30s and '40s, became some of the most active and numerous members of the labor movement by the 1980s. When teachers and nurses began forming unions in the '50s, they had to quit their jobs in protest in order to force public agencies to bargain. Today, legislation sets salary minimums in the classroom and protects the right to organize, while in hospitals, workers have won new laws establishing minimum staffing levels, protecting both jobs and patients.

That has made public worker unions a target for the political right, which seeks to reduce union strength even further by attacking the area where the labor movement now is strongest. The most severe economic crisis since the Depression has become the pretext for slashing education, public services, and employment, while taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy continue to decline.

The growing costs of the workers' compensation insurance system became the subject of intense debate in the late 1990s and early 2000s and competing "reform" bills were put forward by Democrats and Republicans. During the years when unions held more power in Sacramento, they proposed reforms to try to hold down costs while protecting the right of workers to adequate compensation. When unions lost power, reforms passed that disqualified thousands of workers from benefits.

The continued survival of the workers' compensation system as one that can provide adequate benefits to injured and sick workers is more clearly than ever tied to the size and strength of the labor movement.

Workers of a century ago would find the Bay Area a very different place. New industries have replaced old ones. Unions are more legally accepted, but have to fight just as hard. Worker protections and benefits have been legally recognized, but are being attacked. Race and sex discrimination is still a fact of life, but the fight to end it has scored important victories.

And that's what the veterans of the general strike would recognize most clearly. The world needs the labor of today's workers as much as it needed that of workers in an earlier era. And the effort by the Bay Area's working people to win power, equality, and better lives for their families is still going on, as hot and hard as ever. Their answer to those problems -- to get organized in strong and democratic unions -- is the same one working families seek today.

[David Bacon is a writer and photographer whose work frequently appears on The Rag Blog. His new book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, was just published by Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found at dbacon.igc.org. This article was also published at Truthout.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

22 April 2011

Lamar W. Hankins : Price Gouging at Your Corner Drug Store

Product placement! Display at a CVS drug store. Photo by gbeckley /The Consumerist.

Consumer alert!
Price gouging at your corner
convenience drug stores

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / April 22, 2011

The press coverage this past week of the 2007 CVS-Caremark merger that is being characterized as anti-competitive by several consumer organizations -- Consumer Federation of America, Community Catalyst, Consumers Union, National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices (NLARx) and U.S. PIRG -- piqued my interest because I was in the midst of some consumer research about CVS’s high prices for non-prescription products.

Long ago, I stopped using the CVS card that was issued to me and which is used by CVS to track consumer preferences and provide coupons for discounts on certain products, most of which I found had an expiration before I was ready to use them. I decided that I didn’t want CVS tracking my purchases so easily, given the loss of privacy we have generally in this high-tech consumer society.

As it turns out, the merger controversy may have nothing to do with what I discovered in my research, but it is indicative of the tactics of many, if not most, retail corporations to increase their profits.

Most consumers may know that the layout of stores is intended to encourage impulse purchases of items on which the stores enjoy greater profits than on other items. The special displays on rows and aisles, the displays at the ends of aisles, and the special displays at checkout counters are all used to increase sales of those items. Product placement on shelves is also used to encourage purchasing. Distributors fight for noticeable and accessible shelving space, whether at drug stores, supermarkets, or other retail outlets.

In an effort to increase profits through its drug plans, Caremark is accused of steering customers to its retail pharmacies where prescription drugs cost more than through its mail-order service. This behavior, which Caremark has denied, is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and 24 state attorneys general. But consumers may want to investigate other marketing practices.

I have been a volunteer consumer advocate for nearly 20 years, mostly relating to all things funeral, but I’ve seldom turned my attention to other consumer pricing issues. Quite by accident, I recently learned a consumer lesson that many people on tighter budgets may know about already.

Because I have arthritis, as do 50 million other Americans, my hands often ache at night, waking me up. When I saw a product -- JointFlex -- advertised with a money-back guarantee, I decided to try it. I stopped off at the CVS store on a corner near my house and bought a tube for $20.99. I thought the price was a bit high, but with a money-back guarantee, I decided to give it a try and hold on to my receipt and the box.

Much to my surprise and relief, the product worked. As my first tube of JointFlex was running out, I remembered to buy another tube while I was shopping at HEB one day. I was shocked to find that the HEB price for the same product and quantity was $11.30.

I took both boxes and receipts to the CVS store and asked to speak to the manager. I asked her why JointFlex was so much higher at CVS than at HEB. She didn’t know. She said that the corporate office tells her what prices to charge and she doesn’t ask questions.

And the winner: HEB ("A Texas Tradition"). Image from Icemancast.com.

That experience gave me an idea. I priced another 11 name-brand items normally found at drug stores and selected at random. After noting the prices at CVS, I went to HEB to price the same items. HEB was significantly cheaper on every item. I decided to check out the prices on the same items at Walgreens and found that Walgreens is about 7% cheaper than CVS for the same items -- still no bargain in comparison to HEB. Here is what I found about the prices at CVS and HEB:

Neosporin (first aid ointment), .5 oz: CVS-$6.39..... HEB-$3.86
Bactine Cleansing Spray, 5 oz: CVS-$8.79..... HEB-$4.96
Visine for Contacts, 1/2 fl.oz: CVS-$4.99..... HEB-$3.62
Band-Aid Plastic Strips, 60 strips: CVS-$3.59.... HEB-$1.96
Johnson’s Body Care Lotion, 14 oz: CVS-$6.49.... HEB-$3.97
Tums, assorted fruit, 150 chewable tablet: CVS-$5.49..... HEB-$3.68
Pepto Bismol-original, 12 oz: CVS-$5.99..... HEB-$4.92
Phillips Milk of Magnesia-original, 12 oz: CVS-$6.29..... HEB-$4.16
Aleve Liquid Gels, 40 gels: CVS-$7.99..... HEB-$6.48
Bayer Aspirin, 100 coated tablets: CVS-$6.46..... HEB-$5.88
Children’s Claritin syrup, grape flavor, 4 oz: CVS-$11.29..... HEB-$9.22
JointFlex arthritis cream, 4 oz: CVS-$20.99..... HEB-$11.30

CVS charges $94.75 for the twelve items. HEB charges $64.01, for a savings of about 33%.

Convenience drug stores appear to be much like convenience grocery stores. They may have a few low prices to get you in the store, but most other items are overpriced as compared to a supermarket (or, at least, some supermarkets). Of course, if you are willing to pay more for the convenience, which all of us are occasionally, we have to give up some money to get that convenience.

The moral of my research project may be this: buy your prescriptions wherever you please, but be aware that other drug store products are likely to be overpriced at the corner convenience drug store.

As I am approaching living on a fixed income as a retiree, I have become more concerned about costs. You can be sure that I won’t be making any more convenience drug store purchases unless I’m in a real hurry.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

21 April 2011

Emily Hellewell : Public Radio and the West Texas Wildfires

The Southwest Incident Management Team conducted burnouts April 19 near the McDonald Observatory in far west Texas. Photo by Frank Cianciolo / McDonald Observatory / Marfa Public Radio.

Why public radio maters:
Marfa station is critical resource
during west Texas wildfires

By Emily Hellewell / NPR / April 21, 2011

MARFA, Texas -- Deep in far west Texas, about 60 miles north of the Rio Grande, lies a city called Marfa. While the population might be sparse (about one person per square mile), the cattle are plentiful and tourists are known to especially appreciate the city's unique art scene -- as well as the wide open spaces, of course.

On Saturday, April 9, a brush fire sparked and quickly spread across the ranch lands, eventually blazing through more than 182,000 acres, destroying homes, killing cattle, leaving many without power but, remarkably (even for this rural space), not taking any human life.

In the thick of it all, was KRTS, the only local radio broadcaster in its listening area. Their story is just one example of the value of public radio stations, and the importance of federal funding in their operations.

Like any good news organization staff serving the community they live in, KRTS' three-member team set out to cover the Rock House Fire. General Manager Tom Michael, Programming and Production Manager Rachel Osier Lindley and Office Manager Anne Adkins stood on the front line of the fire on that first day. They were actually on the scene from the start, covering the fire as it spread and developed into a major wildfire.

With lives at stake the small crew went to work broadcasting critical emergency alerts and information to their community.

Over the next several days these three were joined by volunteers and the station's former high school student intern, Daniel Hernandez, who all simply showed up at the station to help KRTS bring the community news of the evacuations, the path of the fire, and road closures and openings. Listeners would call the station to give first-hand reporting and updates on road closures, often before the Texas Department of Transportation could confirm.

When the station, like many residents, lost power late on Saturday night, Michael knew he couldn't stand for the estimated five days the local electricity provider expected it would take to get back to full service.

Just three weeks ago KRTS was awarded a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to purchase a backup power generator. They were in the process of purchasing the generator when the station went off the air.

"Unacceptable," Michael said of the time KRTS would be off-air, given its critical role in sharing the public emergency information and updates.

So, in short order he wrestled the complicated logistics necessary to get back on air. An engineer from NPR Member station KUT in Austin was tapped to bring the station back on the grid.

Marfa Public Radio, Marfa, Texas.

Michael then accomplished a few more Herculean tasks in a matter of hours: 1) finding a donor to cover the cost of the engineer's flight, 2) getting special permission from the FAA for the engineer's plane to land at the closest airfield which was under a temporary flight restriction, 3) arranging a 4x4 vehicle ride up the mountain, and 4) negotiating with the area's wireless provider, whose tower was adjacent to KRTS's tower, to tap into their backup generator.

Fortunately, the power came back on just as they got to the tower. The KUT engineer checked the connection and the station was back on the air. Just 24 hours later.

That's not to say KRTS wasn't reporting during the time of dead air. Through the station's website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed they covered the wildfire's status, every critical community evacuation, and road closures and openings.

As the wildfire's containment increased and the immediate threat lessened, the station added reports on Red Cross services for those who had homes destroyed as well as details on local drives being set up to donate household items and food. During that first day alone Michael contacted the station's streaming provider three separate times to double their capacity so they could accommodate the growing volume of online listeners.

Michael isn't hesitant to share his projection about what would happen if federal grants were eliminated. The station relies on grants like the PTFP and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Community Service Grants, which make up 30-50% of KRTS's annual budget.

"We would go away if that money was lost," Michael said.

The station's operations are lean; without an engineer, music library, or a dedicated news staff, Michael doesn't have to worry about many expenses beyond utilities and paying for the NPR programming that contribute to the station's schedule.

With a tight margin between expenses and revenue and the looming threat of cuts to federal grant money, Michael is working hard to protect his station from going permanently dark. The station's 600 members and total potential audience of 12,000-- consisting largely of ranchers, border control agents, tourists, art gallery owners, and residents -- relies on KRTS, he says.

"People are listening, especially in times of crisis. I feel terrible about the one day we were off the air during the wildfire, but fortunately during the evacuations we were able to get people to safety." said Michael.

Michael thanks the first responders and the community that came together to fight this fire. And although he would probably never admit it himself, especially when it comes to the Rock House Fire, KRTS could certainly be considered among those first responders who helped residents stay informed and safe.

Whether bringing listeners the important details of a wildfire deep in west Texas or providing NPR's coverage of a firefight on the streets of Kabul, KRTS is keeping the residents of Marfa informed every day.

Read the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's thoughts on Marfa Public Radio's efforts during the fire here, and find out more about the station online at www.marfapublicradio.org.

[This article was published by National Public Radio and was distributed by Free Press' Media Reform Daily.]

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