Monday, April 30, 2012

May 1, 2012 Activist Newsletter

May 1, 2012, Issue #179


Part 1, The Democrats Need the Unions
Part 2, Some Unions Join the Movement

QUOTES OF THE MONTH James K. Galbraith and Edward Wolff

The aperture between the great majority of working people and a small minority of the super rich has been widening for decades, as has the power of corporations, Wall Street and the rich. But growing inequality in the United States has only recently become a mass issue as a consequence of generalized economic hard times in recent years. Millions of Americans now speak of the 99% vs. the 1%, and it's about time. Over these decades there have been may criticisms of the takeover of American society by the power elite and the oligarchs. For instance:

From progressive economist James K. Galbraith in 1998: "The haves are on the march. With growing inequality, so grows their power. And so also diminish the voices of solidarity and mutual reinforcement, the voices of civil society, the voices of a democratic and egalitarian middle class."

And from economist Edward Wolff, and indefatigable compiler of the statistics of inequality and privilege in 1999: "We're becoming an oligarchic society, with an extreme concentration of wealth. This concentration of wealth is protected through a political process that's making it difficult for anyone but the monied class to have a voice."

By Jennifer Abel, The Guardian  (UK)

Ever since 2010, when the Transportation Security Administration started requiring that travelers in American airports submit to sexually intrusive gropings based on the apparent anti-terrorism principle that "If we can't feel your nipples, they must be a bomb," the agency's craven apologists have shouted down all constitutional or human rights objections with the mantra "If you don't like it, don't fly!"

This callous disregard for travelers' rights merely paraphrases the words of Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who shares, with the president, ultimate responsibility for all TSA travesties since 2009. In November 2010, with the groping policy only a few weeks old, Napolitano dismissed complaints by saying "people [who] want to travel by some other means" have that right. (In other words: if you don't like it, don't fly.)

But now TSA is invading travel by other means, too. No surprise, really: as soon as she established groping in airports, Napolitano expressed her desire to expand TSA jurisdiction over all forms of mass transit. In the past year, TSA's snakelike VIPR (Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams have been slithering into more and more bus and train stations – and even running checkpoints on highways – never in response to actual threats, but apparently more in an attempt to live up to the inspirational motto displayed at the TSA's air marshal training center since the agency's inception: "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."

Anyone who rode the bus in Houston, Texas during the 2-10 p.m. shift April 20 faced random bag checks and sweeps by both drug-sniffing dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs (the latter being the only necessary if "preventing terrorism" were the actual intent of these raids), all courtesy of a joint effort between TSA VIPR nests and three different local and county-level police departments. The new Napolitano doctrine, then: "Show us your papers, show us everything you've got, justify yourself or you're not allowed to go about your everyday business."....

No specific threats or reasons were cited for the raids, as the government no longer even pretends to need any. Vipers bite you just because they can. TSA spokesman Jim Fotenos confirmed this a few days before the Houston raids, when VIPR teams and local police did the same thing to travelers catching trains out of the Amtrak station in Alton, Illinois. Fotenos confirmed that "It was not in response to a specific threat," and bragged that VIPR teams conduct "thousands" of these operations each year.

Still, apologists can pretend that's all good, pretend constitutional and human rights somehow don't apply to mass transit, and twist their minds into the Mobius pretzel shapes necessary to find random searches of everyday travelers compatible with any notion that America is a free country. "Don't like the new rules for mass transit? Then drive."

Except even that doesn't work anymore. Earlier this month, the VIPRs came out again in Virginia and infested the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, also known as the stretch of Interstate 64 connecting the cities of Hampton and Norfolk. Spokesmen admitted again that the exercise was a "routine sweep," not a response to any specific threat....

The old conventional wisdom said "Get to the airport at least two hours early, so TSA has time to violate your constitutional rights before boarding." What's the new conventional wisdom – "Leave for any destination at least 90 minutes early, so TSA can violate your rights en route"?
Airports, bus terminals, train stations, highways – what's left? If you don't like it, walk. And remember to be respectfully submissive to any TSA agents or police you encounter in your travels, especially now that the US supreme court has ruled mass strip-searches are acceptable for anyone arrested for even the most minor offence in America.

If you're rude to any TSA agent or cops, you risk being arrested on some vague catch-all charge like "disorderly conduct." Even if the charges are later dropped, you'll still undergo the ritual humiliation of having to strip, squat, spread 'em and show your various orifices to be empty.

Can I call America a police state now, without being accused of hyperbole?

By Russia Today, April 24

The much-maligned Transport Security Authority (TSA) is once again in hot water after it accused an innocent four-year-old girl of attempted gun smuggling as she hugged her grandmother in the security zone.

In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, Michelle Brademeyer describes the story of her family being detained as potential terrorists by the TSA on a flight out of Wichita, Kansas. The TSA is responsible for screening passengers as they board and disembark from planes.

Brademeyer was passing through security checks with her mother and her small daughter, Isabella. When the older lady triggered the metal detector, and was told to go for a pat-down, Isabella ran over to and briefly hugged her grandmother.

The TSA immediately said Isabella would now also have to undergo a pat-down, in case the grandmother passed contraband to her during the hug.

When the child shouted “I don’t want to,” the TSA declared Isabella a “high security threat,” and said that they would close down the airport if she moved.

Afterwards, the by-now-hysterical four-year-old was taken to a separate room, and told to stop crying. When she could not, the officers called for backup – saying “the suspect is not cooperating.”

Once the girl calmed down enough to be patted down, Brademeyer claims the transport police repeatedly stated that the girl might be carrying a weapon, as they had previously “seen a gun in a teddy bear.”

Neither the grandmother, nor the child had anything illegal on their person.

Eventually, Isabella and the rest of her family were allowed to board the flight.

The TSA has not questioned Brademeyer’s version of events, but refuses to apologize.

“TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper current screening procedures in conducting a modified pat-down on the child,” said an official statement.

Recent controversial TSA security procedures have included patting down a wheelchair-bound boy, making a woman with a “cute figure” repeatedly go through the body scanner, and forcing a mother to produce a bottle of her breast milk for inspection, before allowing her breast pump onboard.

By the Editor of the Activist Newsletter

"Why are you criticizing the Democrats when the Republicans are so dangerous?" This is a question I have been asked in one form or another during presidential election years ever since I began writing and editing for progressive publications a long time ago.

I will here answer a few new reader inquiries, focusing briefly on two categories: context and principle.

• Context: Of course I criticize President Obama's record, but I have always made clear that the Republicans are more dangerous for democracy and the well-being of working people and their families than the Democrats. For example, a phrase I use repeatedly is that "Obama is head and shoulders above McCain" (and now Romney). Or "the center right, despite it's abundant shortcomings, is preferable to the right/far right."

There are important differences between the two parties, but liberals and progressives as they vote for Obama must also recognize that the Democrats utterly fail to meet the real needs of the people of the U.S. and the world. It takes a mass social upheaval to do so when "the lords of Wall Street own the government," to quote Thomas Frank in his new best-seller "Pity the Billionaire."

The American people, including many on the  right as well as left, perceive the decisive power wielded by the 1% ruling class.  Recent polls show 86% say Wall Street and its lobbyists have two much influence in Washington and that 77% think too much power is concentrated in the vaults of the rich. Both major parties brought this about and neither is equipped to reverse course. Frank, an enlightened liberal, mainly excoriates the right wing, but also offers trenchant criticism of the Obama Administration's failures, suggesting the president acted more like Hoover than FDR in confronting the Great Recession.

As long as people merely vote "lesser evil" in every election, without at least also making efforts to openly critique the failures of the Democratic Party and the candidate they support, they will perpetually vote for lesser evil candidates.

This is precisely what the two-party system was constructed to accomplish. Our elections are bought and sold like commodities by the power elite that is in essential control of the political system. That's why most elected politicians easily satisfy the demands of corporations, Wall St., and the wealthy. It is why today's political system is an aspect of the degeneration of American democracy. What's different today than just a couple of years ago is that millions of Americans are coming to understand this reality.

• Principle: We all have principles that guide our behavior. I observe several principles and ignore some others. The two most important that guide my political life are: (1) I hate wars of aggression, imperialism and militarism and will never support the presidential candidate of a political party that engages in such cruel and primitive practices. This is an absolute. As a young man I spent nearly a year in federal prison because I conscientiously and openly refused to carry a draft card on my person at all times, as was the law (I had two small children at the time and was technically exempt from the draft). (2) I hate systemic state inequality — racial, social and economic — and cannot vote for a president who will preside over, and perpetuate, such a system.

I began voting in the 1956 and have never voted for a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate because of their wars and inequality. (Local/regional politics is another matter.) I have always voted for the presidential candidate of a progressive or socialist third party for president. I don't tell Activist Newsletter readers for whom to vote, and probably up to 90% of the 3,600 who receive the newsletter will vote for Obama in this election, including some on the left. I do try to influence readers to consider the bigger picture, the needs of the people, the immense shortcomings of "free market" capitalism and the serious contradictions in our democracy.

We live in extremely conservative times. Both ruling parties have been gravitating ever further to the right for decades. The GOP is now openly far right, and the Democrats are center right.

America is in decline. The traditional global economic powerhouse — the U.S., Europe and Japan — is systemically enmeshed in long-term economic stagnation.

U.S. military power is a grave danger to world peace, particularly as emerging economies demand a transformation from unipolar U.S. world hegemony to multi-polar global guidance. Our two ruling parties have been at war or planning for the next war without interruption for over 70 years. The Pentagon's plans for World War III are constantly updated as new weapons systems are perfected and new enemies are routinely manufactured. We are now living in a surveillance state as well as a militarist state. The erosion of our liberties is taking place every day. Federal, state and local police violence goes up as our rights go down.

The U.S. political system is incapable of resolving the various crises confronting humanity. I think of the environmental disaster as Washington fiddles while the world burns. I think of nuclear weapons as Washington refuses to even consider general and complete nuclear disarmament. I see the increasing poverty in our country and the immiseration of our working class and middle class while the rich get richer and Washington misleads the people.

I believe a better world is possible, don't you? A better democracy is possible. A more equal, cooperative and peaceful society is possible. But we must struggle for it.

I imagine some of our readers see this too, and that they know things must change, and that significant change depends on whether the people rise up, unite and fight back. That's what it is supposed to mean when we say we're part of the 99%. There's still time, though not much, and we can still win.

So that's why I criticize the Democrats, too, when the Republicans are so dangerous.

— J.A.S

Part 1, The Democrats Need the Unions
By Jack A. Smith, Activist Newsletter

Mitt Romney is the Republican Party's strongest contender, but President Barack Obama still has a good chance for reelection in November. 

This is largely because the ultra-right and its antics are alienating a sector of voters who otherwise may have tilted toward the Republicans and will bring to the polls those 2008 Obama supporters who may have stayed home because of disenchantment with the White House record.

Recognizing the conservatives and their Tea Party vanguard have gone too far in openly subverting the needs and security of the American people, Obama has decided to veil his center right political record with progressive populist rhetoric for the remainder of the campaign. He even articulates some Occupy themes — a smart if not entirely convincing stance.

Perhaps the main ingredient in any possible Democratic presidential victory is the labor movement. Without it, Obama's chances plummet. AFL-CIO, Change to Win and a few independent unions are supplying Democratic candidates with over $400 million this year. Of equal importance, organized labor wants to field an estimated 400,000 campaign workers as well.

For the first time, union members can now ring doorbells in non-union households, which will allow volunteers to reach unprecedented numbers of people. This is one of the only positive aspects of the conservative Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions.

The corporations and Wall Street will provide the Democrats with more money, but they simply cannot field a fraction of labor's campaign supporters in the streets and on the phones. At the same time, as we shall discuss in Part 2 directly below, the unions not only seek Obama's reelection but several of them have an equal interest in reaching out independently and joining with social movements in the fight against the 1%. Many of the issues brought up by the Occupy forces and others are long time union issues as well, and the labor movement needs allies.

Of course all the Democratic constituencies will have to turn out in full force at the polls as well. In addition to union members this includes African Americans and Latinos, women, younger voters, college graduates, and a not insignificant sector of the 1% campaign funders.

It's ironic that during Obama's first term, with Democrats controlling the House and Senate for two years and then the Senate during the last two, the White House has done little for its main supporters, except those of the power elite. The black community, Obama's most loyal supporters, was completely neglected despite its desperate economic circumstances and high unemployment. Considerable numbers of younger voters, and others as well, of course, were disillusioned by the contradiction between the president's strong election promises of "change" and  his weak performance in office.

Many union leaders and members are extremely disappointed by the candidate they worked so hard to elect in 2008. Labor was not only ignored since then; aside from occasional tokens of Democratic support it was actually set back several times during the Obama years.

But when the AFL-CIO General Board voted unanimously to endorse President Obama for re-election March 13, its only reference to the casting aside of workers' interests was one paragraph in a declaration of over-the-top support for the Democrats. It read:

"Although the labor movement has sometimes differed with the president and often pushed his administration to do more — and do it faster — we have never doubted his commitment to a strong future for working families. With our endorsement today, we affirm our faith in the president. We pledge to work with him through the election and his second term to restore fairness, security and shared prosperity."

What followed was a series of statements and documents virtually lauding every decision the president made since taking office in January 2009, singling out three for special mention:

• "He took America from the brink of a second Great Depression by pressing Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which saved or created 3.6 million jobs.
• "He championed comprehensive health insurance reform, which — while far from perfect —set the nation on a path toward the health security that had eluded our country for nearly 100 years.
• "He insisted upon Wall Street reform — passed over the objection of almost every Republican. Now, we can finally begin to reverse decades of financial deregulation that put our entire economy at risk."

Many labor leaders saw through this of course but they are uniting behind Obama to keep the Republicans out of the White House and perhaps make inroads in the right wing-dominated House as well. The destruction of the union movement, after all, is a main objective of the Republican Party.

The unions are much weaker than in past decades. Membership today is down to 11.8%, compared to 35% in 1954. But they remain a huge organization and votes Democratic. The N.Y. Times pointed out recently that in 2008 "white blue-collar men voted for John McCain over Mr. Obama by an 18-point margin, but, in large part because of unions’ politicking, white blue-collar men in unions backed Mr. Obama by a 23-point margin."

Despite the enthusiastic statement of support, the labor movement has been complaining for well over a year, often in public. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka repeatedly suggested last year that labor wasn't getting its due and that the unions should seriously consider taking a more independent stance toward the Democrats.

It was expected the key union leaders would silence dissent during the election year, but they have been unable to mask their irritation as the Obama Administration has taken one anti-union step after another in recent weeks and months.

For example, the JOBS bill, passed in mid-April by Congress and signed with enthusiasm by President Obama, doesn't create jobs. The acronym stands for "Jumpstart Our Business Start- Ups Act," and it’s a gift to one constituency — the wealthy contributors of Silicon Valley's tech industry — at the expense of another, the labor movement. The legislation was the creature of  Obama's corporate-controlled Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.  The bill will greatly benefit big business and Wall St.

Trumka, one of the two labor members of the 24-person blue ribbon 1% panel, thundered: "We are disappointed — and angry — that despite warnings from current and former financial markets regulators, law professors, institutional investors and consumer advocates, 73 senators voted for the cynically named 'JOBS Act'.... This is a vote against investors in the real economy and for Wall Street speculators. When the next bubble bursts, Americans will know who to blame."

And then there's the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which was engineered in April by President Obama in Colombia and will go into effect May 15. Obama characterized what has been called a "little NAFTA" as a "win-win" for both countries and an expression of support for the besieged Colombian labor movement.  More union organizers have been murdered in Colombia than anywhere else in the world. Two dozen were killed last year alone.

United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard denounced the agreement, charging that it allows the Colombian government to continue "its shameful distinction as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.” He suggested Obama's guarantee about enhanced safety for Colombian union organizers was mistaken. Trumka called the compact "deeply disappointing and troubling."

Leaders of the Colombian labor movement joined Trumka in this statement: "The underlying trade agreement perpetuates a destructive economic model that expands the rights and privileges of big business and multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment. The agreement uses a model that has historically benefited a small minority of business interests, while leaving workers, families, and communities behind."

This is just the latest. In February Congress and Obama approved a bill funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over union objections. The legislation also weakened bargaining rights for workers in the aviation and rail industries by increasing from 35% to 50% the number of worker signatures required to allow an election for union recognition. It wasn't even necessary to pass the measure at all. FAA reauthorization has been extended for the last four years by temporary funding, and could have been continued until the labor restrictions were excised.  Labor howled again, to no avail as usual.

In fact Obama has reneged on nearly all his 2008 campaign promises to the unions, such as his pledge to fight for the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would have removed onerous limitations on labor organizing going back many decades. Trade unions have been fighting unsuccessfully for relief the whole time.

The White House also didn't act on labor's call for the administration to create 25 million full-time jobs. Obama ignored a promise to hike the federal minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011. He didn't, as he vowed, renegotiate NAFTA. He strengthened the Patriot Act after insisting in 2008 that he would get rid of it. He didn't fight for safety and health standards for workers. The White House supports cutbacks in postal services that are strongly opposed by labor.

The list of Democratic dismissals of labor's priorities — to placate the right wing and satisfy Wall St., corporate and wealthy backers — contains many more examples. And as far as the AFL-CIO's three favorite Obama moves are concerned — jobs, health insurance and Wall St. reform — they stand as their own refutation. Each of these "victories" was worked out and compromised beforehand in negotiations with insurance companies, corporations and the financial industry.

This is only part of the story. Several key unions are beginning to engage independently with various movements for social change, mainly on economic issues. Labor is hardly united on this matter, but it's a development worth watching.

(Part 2 follows)

Part 2, Some Unions Join the Movement
By Jack A. Smith, Activist Newsletter

In an open letter to Trumka in late March, independent consumer advocate Ralph Nader said he was aware of "your group’s public stands in favor of" progressive legislation, "but as you well know, there is a very marked difference between being on-the-record, as the AFL-CIO is, and being on-the-daily ramparts pushing these issues, as your organization is not."

Nader was right in terms of the AFL-CIO endorsement of the president, which simply didn't accord with its own known disposition, but efforts are being made by some unions to mount the "ramparts" of public witness in recent times and they are not just intended to collect more votes for Obama in November.

This is an important point. There are two aspects to the question of the large labor-liberal coalition that lately has bedecked itself in the slogans of the Occupy movement. According to the Global Justice Ecology Project April 24: "Over the past several weeks, a broad coalition of progressive organizations — including National People’s Action, Color Of Change, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA),, the New Bottom Line, environmental groups like Greenpeace and, and major unions such as SEIU and the United Auto Workers — has undertaken a far-reaching effort to train tens of thousands of people in nonviolent direct action. They have called the campaign the 99% Spring."

This effort is not an Occupy project, and a number of Occupy supporters (such as the key magazine Adbusters) and some activist groups are suggesting that the coalition is merely an effort to co-opt the anti-1% forces to support Obama, but that's only partly correct.

It's true that Obama is using the 99% slogan to draw a sharper distinction between himself and shape-shifting Romney, who is expected to occasionally gravitate to the center right during the remaining campaign while not completely disavowing his opportunist waving of the Don't-Tread-On-Me Tea Party banner during the primaries. It's also true that some groups in 99% Spring are in it strictly to support the Democrats and are in fact front groups.

But some unions, which certainly want a Democratic win, also seeks to promote labor's agenda independently among the masses of people, not least by associating itself with movements demanding a better deal for the 99%.

Union leaders know this isn't the latter 1930s or the first three decades after World War 2, when the Democrats often went to bat for the working class/lower middle class. This is 2012, after several decades when productivity jumped 70%, wages stagnated at 10% increase and the rich more than doubled their income. Today the Democrats are no longer center/center left. Wall Street has both parties in its pocket.

Actually, many of the Occupy slogans are quite similar to what labor has been fighting about for years, such as denouncing Wall St., the corporations, CEO pay, the end of the "American Dream," and particularly the rampant growth of economic inequality and the rich-poor gap.

The AFL-CIO organized several marches to Wall St. in New York in the years leading up to last September's Occupy march and occupation of Zuccotti Park near the financial center. Labor hardly received any publicity because the commercial mass media is anti-union. The media, however, thrives on new social disruptions that include matters of permanent encampment, forced removal, several incidents of serious police brutality, and the fact that millions of people are adopting relatively radical slogans throughout the country.

Some big labor organizations, such as the giant Service Employees International Union, the Transport Workers Union and others supported Occupy Wall Street protesters from the beginning and joined in their big demonstrations because of a similarity of grievances. Finally, as a perhaps belated response to the economic crisis, a lot of labor's old slogans have now percolated into social movement discourse.

The unions didn't invent the 99% watchword but it was an easy fit for a major people's movement representing millions of workers that's being aced out of the political system by the power elite. The AFL-CIO  now refers to the labor movement as "America’s original working class social network."

Not all unions by a long shot are yet involved with social movements, and all too frequently social movements seem indifferent to union problems or view organized labor as just one more  "interest group." Some unions, indeed, have become antagonistic to certain causes such as the environmental movement. The Laborers International Union, for example, was highly critical of the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline because it "takes away jobs." The actual number of jobs involved is not that large, but it's important to a union with high percentage of unemployed workers.

This is not a new problem and a possible step toward resolution is fairly obvious. Social change movements must make genuine efforts to demonstrate concrete solidarity with the trade unions. The job issue is real in terms of the environment and other labor issues. What's needed is a united campaign by the social/political movements and the trade unions to oblige the power structure to take forceful steps to put people to work, including the creation of "green" jobs and infrastructure repair. Social change movements should also provide active support for labor's campaign to eliminate barriers to organizing workers.

Frankly – though this is a long shot – at some point labor should consider taking a portion of the multi-millions its spends on financing Democratic candidates and lobbying Congress and use part of it to build a mass coalition of unions and various social change organizations willing to fight the power. It’s obvious the unions aren’t getting an adequate return for their monumental investments in the system. It would take several million bucks and a few years, but a huge nationwide activist movement making radical economic and social demands on the government and political system could pay off  in a big way.

This is an unusual election year. As all peace and justice organizers know, presidential election years are virtually a washout for all activism except that of an electoral nature. The enormous anti-Iraq war movement was totally sidelined in 2004 as its Democratic base focused on supporting pro-war John Kerry. It happened in 2008 as well, and the peace movement nearly collapsed when Obama took power. Now there are numerous dissident actions taking place around the country in an election year. Occupy still gets considerable attention but other types of activism are in the streets and meeting halls as well.

Today's activism is a far cry from the dramatic growth of the political left and the union movement during the Great Depression — particularly in the formidable strike activity that characterized the period — but at least it has started after a relatively quiet couple of years following the onset of the Great Recession.

The May Day action and other manifestations are signs that economic and other activism will continue to grow. Another reason is that the government acknowledges that 14.6% of workers remain unemployed, partially employed or "discouraged and not working (a probable underestimate) — and this situation is expected to last for several years.

The American labor movement is under the gun and beginning to move in a good direction, too slowly for some, to fast for others. The big union federation only broke with decades of top leadership "business unionism" in 1995 that kept the movement distant and suspicious of progressive social forces. This is changing, though many unions are still foot-dragging.

Real solidarity between the movements and the unions will enhance positive change. The more the unions involve themselves in social struggles for equality, people's rights and labor rights, in the face of a political system in thrall to the 1%, there's a good chance it can become stronger. And a bigger and more viable union movement can lead the way to substantial progressive social change. Time will tell.

By Marilyn Katz, In These Times

In the first half of 2011, close to 1,000 measures related to reproductive health and rights were introduced into state legislatures.

The first “women’s group” that I was involved in was not born out of feminist theory or organized by intellectual women on campus. Rather it was in 1966 in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and its members were poor African-American moms on welfare and thirtysomething (looking 50) Appalachian women, newly arrived from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Not much older than me, many of the women in the group provided physical testament to the possible effects of multiple childbirths while young and poor. The work of the group ranged from food co-ops to welfare reform, from rent strikes to learning to read. The impetus for the group, however, was a clear-eyed view that welfare was a “women’s issue,” and the need – among the Appalachian women in particular – for protection and camaraderie in the face of their husbands’ explosive anger upon learning that “their” women were seeking information about birth control from government VISTA volunteers. Back then the outraged cry from men was not about “religious freedom,” but about male prerogative and the duties of women.

I have been reminded of those meetings in recent months by the series of controversies surrounding the contraception mandate in the federal healthcare reform law – from the exclusion of Sandra Fluke’s testimony at congressional hearings (GOP Rep. Joe Walsh said the birth control debate is “not about women”) to Rush Limbaugh’s virulent rant (and limp apology), to the barely audible denouncements of his statement by the Republican presidential candidates.

Contrary to the posturing of politicians and bishops alike, religious freedom is not the core issue. Consider, for example, the Catholic hospitals, schools and universities that have, for many years and with little fuss, provided insurance that covers birth control in the states that require them to do so. [According to recent poll of Roman Catholic opinion, 98% of Catholic women between the ages of 15 and 44 who have had sex used birth control.]

The reality is, as it was 40 years ago in Uptown, that the debate about birth control is firstly and fundamentally about women – their rights and their lives. From Biblical times on, women – who bear the brunt as well as the joy of childbearing – have struggled to curtail unwanted pregnancies, often resorting to extreme measures in the face of possible death or the poverty that another child might bring.

More than 500,000 women die around the world each year from pregnancy-related causes, according to the World Health Organization. A majority of those deaths occur in developing countries, but only a century ago American women faced similar fates. It was not until the 20th century that pregnancy-related death rates in the United States declined – a result of modern medicine, better sanitation and the advent of modern female contraception. According to a 2011 study, more than 99% of “sexually experienced” American women, including 98% of such Catholic women, use or have used non-natural (i.e., not abstinence or the “rhythm method”) birth control.

In the past year, as elected Tea Partiers have aligned themselves with religious fundamentalists, Republicans in the House have introduced eight anti-choice bills, each of which received the support of the same 225 GOP representatives. In the first half of 2011, close to 1,000 measures related to reproductive health and rights – from those curtailing contraception to those mandating transvaginal ultrasounds – were introduced into state legislatures. Of the 28 states controlled by Republicans, 26 have passed laws that limit women’s reproductive choices. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 55% of American women of reproductive age lived in states characterized as “hostile” to abortion in 2011 – up from 31% in 2000.

The danger is to women, but among us also lies the remedy. Perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to the Limbaughs of the world – they have brought to public view and hopefully to public attention the attack on women’s reproductive health and rights that has been steadily building over the past years. And while it would be uplifting to get Limbaugh off the air, the real task is ridding our nation’s legislative bodies of misogynists. Women fought for and won a great deal in the last century. It’s time to say on the Web, in the streets, and of most importance and effect, in the ballot box: We’re not going back.

— Marilyn Katz is the founder and president of Chicago-based MK Communications. An antiwar and civil rights organizer during the Vietnam War, she served with Lee Weiner (one of the Chicago 7) as co-head of security during the August 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention.

By Curtis Skinner and Susan Ochshorn

Life for 21st-century children and families is defined by rapid economic, social, and technological change, with profound implications for human and workforce development. The demographics of the American workforce bear little resemblance to those of past decades.

In most families today, all adults are in the workforce and two-thirds of dual-earner couples work a combined total of more than 80 hours a week. Many more families are also headed by a single working parent, usually the mother.

More than 55% of women with children under 3 years old are in the workforce. Among those employed, the number of hours of work has also increased, most noticeably among women. Despite this, women commonly retain primary caregiver responsibilities — for both young children and elderly relatives.

Unlike elsewhere in the industrialized world, our federal and state family and work policies have failed to keep pace with these demographic changes. In 2012, the United States remains the only industrialized nation without a national paid family leave program that supports workers who need time off to attend to important family needs, such as caring for a new baby or a sick child.

This policy vacuum has created a generation of families in which parental work obligations increasingly compete with children’s needs for parental time and energy. The conflict between job and family demands is especially acute for low-income parents, who often work in jobs that provide few family-support benefits. This scenario is shockingly common in the United States, where 44% of children live in low-income families and more than one child in five lives in poverty.

To date, much of the focus of research and advocacy in the states and nation has been on the benefits of paid family leave to business — including improved employee retention and job satisfaction — and workers’ rights, in particular, gender equity. A growing body of research, however, suggests that paid family leave also has beneficial effects on child and parental physical and emotional health.

Yet, the child and maternal health outcomes of paid family leave are largely absent from the national policy debate.

This topic is the subject of a 12-page policy brief titled "Paid Family Leave--Strengthening Families and Our Future," produced by the National Center for Children in Poverty. The brief looks at the effects of maternal employment and parental leave policies on child health, child cognitive and emotional development, maternal health, and the health of parental relationships. It highlights compelling new arguments that strengthen the case for paid family leave, and includes a set of research-based recommendations to advance policy for this important social benefit.


By Amy Goodman

President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign launched its first Spanish-language ads this week, just after returning from the Summit of the Americas. He spent three days in Colombia, longer than any president in U.S. history. The trip was marred, however, by a prostitution scandal involving the U.S. military and Secret Service. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We let the boss down, because nobody’s talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident.” Dempsey is right. It also served as a metaphor for the U.S. government’s ongoing treatment of Latin America.

The scandal reportedly involves 11 members of the U.S. Secret Service and perhaps a dozen members of the U.S. Army Special Forces, who allegedly met prostitutes at one or more bars in Cartagena and took up to 20 of the women back to their hotel, some of whom may have been minors. Three Secret Service employees have been forced out of the agency so far. This all deserves thorough investigation, but so do the policy positions that Obama promoted while in Cartagena.

First, the war on drugs. Obama stated at the summit, “I, personally, and my administration’s position is that legalization is not the answer.” Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told me that, despite Obama’s predictable line, this summit showed “the transformation of the regional and global dialogue around drug policy.... This is the first time you’ve had a president saying that we’re willing to look at the possibility that U.S. drug policies are doing more harm than good in some parts of the world.” He credits the growing consensus across the political spectrum in Latin America, from key former presidents like Vicente Fox of Mexico, who supports legalization of drugs, to current leaders like Mexico’s Felipe Calderon, who cited the rapacious demand for drugs in the U.S. as the core of the problem.

Nadelmann went on: “You have the funny situation of Evo Morales, the leftist leader of Bolivia, former head of the coca growers’ union, lecturing the United States about—essentially, sounding like Milton Friedman—that ‘How can you expect us to reduce the supply when there is a demand?’ So there’s the beginning of a change here. I don’t think it’s going to be possible to put this genie back in the bottle.”

Then there is trade. Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also announced that the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement would take full force May 15. Colombian and U.S. labor leaders decried the move, since Colombia is the worst country on Earth for trade unionists. Labor organizers are regularly murdered in Colombia, with at least 34 killed in the past year and a half. When Obama was first running for president, he promised to oppose the Colombia FTA, “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” That year, 54 Colombian trade unionists were killed. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the announcement “is deeply disappointing and troubling.” Republicans, on the other hand, are offering grudging praise to Obama for pushing the FTA.

On Cuba, Obama took the globally unpopular position of defending the U.S. embargo. Even at home, polls show that a strong majority of the American people and businesses support an end to the embargo. The U.S. also succeeded, once again, in banning Cuba from the summit, prompting Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to boycott the meeting this year.

[According to Cuba Central of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, "The leaders of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia made it clear that they will not attend the next Summit, scheduled for Panama in 2015, without Cuba's participation. Colombia's President Santos emphatically called Cuba's exclusion and the U.S. embargo "unacceptable," as the Financial Times reported. These are among [Washington's] staunchest regional allies." ]

Responding to overall U.S. intransigence, other Western Hemisphere countries are organizing themselves. Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University, told me: “Latin Americans themselves are creating these bodies that are excluding the United States, that are deepening integration, political and economic integration. This seems to be a venue in which they come together in order to criticize Washington, quite effectively.”

Grandin compared Obama’s Latin America policies to those of his predecessors: “The two main pillars of U.S. foreign policy — increasing neoliberalism and increasing militarism around drugs — continue. They feed off of each other and have created a crisis in that corridor, running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico. That’s been a complete disaster, and there’s no change.”

It will take more than a prostitution scandal to cover that up.

— Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a great program of peace and justice news. It's a one hour radio/TV broadcast Monday-Friday and available all day (with a text if you wish). The website will also tell you about local radio stations that carry Democracy Now!  Go to

By Jim Hightower

"It's certainly true," declared Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, "that having Canada as a supplier for our oil is much more comforting than to have other countries supply our oil."

He was referring to the Canadian tar sands oil that TransCanada Corporation intends to move through the Keystone XL pipeline it wants to build from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. He and lobbyists for the pipeline assert that filling America's gas tanks with fuel derived from Canadian crude will cut U.S. dependency on the oil we get from unstable and unfriendly nations.

Good point! If it were true. However, ask yourself this question: why go to the expense of piping this stuff 2,000 miles through six states, endangering water supplies and residents with inevitable toxic spills, when there are oil refineries much closer to Canada in the Midwest? What's the advantage of sending Canadian crude to refineries way down in Port Arthur, Texas? Aha — because it's a port!

What the pushers of Keystone want to keep secret from you and me is that this oil will not be made into gasoline for our vehicles. Most of it will be refined into diesel and jet fuel and exported to Europe, China, and Latin America.

The claim that the pipeline will reduce our reliance on OPEC is an outright lie. Such oil giants as Valero, Motiva, and Total have already rejiggered their Port Arthur refineries specifically to make diesel and jet fuel, nearly all of which will then be piped into tanker ships at the port and sent abroad. In presentations to investors, Valero openly touts its export strategy, even showing world maps with convenient arrows pointing from Port Arthur to its foreign customers.

You'd think our energy secretary would know this dirty little secret and come clean with the American people. [President Obama, depending on the support of environmental organizations in November,  deferred a decision on the pipeline until after the elections.]

— from, April 9

[We consider the article by Brian Becker, national coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition, to be of considerable importance. It sheds an entirely different light on Washington's contrived outrage about that country's recent attempt to launch a satellite, its nuclear program, and false allegations about its "aggressive" intentions.]

By Brian Becker

Nearly one third of the countries in the world, about 60 so far, have put satellites into orbit. That number will grow in 2012 as other countries put satellites into orbit for the first time.

A smaller number of countries have developed the scientific and engineering prowess to have a fully independent capability to place satellites into orbit with their own launch vehicle instead of relying on foreign countries. Numerous countries have designed and built their satellites but do not yet have the capability to indigenously produce their own launch vehicle or rocket.

Satellites serve a large number of purposes. Weather, communications, navigation, Earth observation and research satellites are a central part of modern industrial society. There are both military and civilian satellites.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced on March 2012 the launch of a non-military satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, manufactured by North Korea itself with indigenous technology to mark the 100th birth anniversary of the late President Kim Il-Sung. The DPRK space program began in the 1980s.

The DPRK, within a few hours following the launch on April 13, announced that the satellite launch failed to reach orbit. Although this mission failed, there is no question that the DPRK, like most developing countries in the region and the world, will continue to work to perfect its scientific and engineering capabilities so that it can rely on its own technologies to put satellites into space.

Smaller countries and emerging economies, as a general rule, want to develop their independent technological capabilities so as to avoid the relentless bullying from world imperialism and the so-called major powers.

With the DPRK, however, this is not simply a preference. It is the very top priority of the government. Facing unrelenting hostility from Washington and its allies in the South Korean government, the DPRK has believed for several decades that the development of its indigenous technological capacity, especially as it concerns its military and space programs, is a matter of life and death.

The U.S. government and media treated the April 13 satellite launch as a virtual act of war by the DPRK. Although no one in the Obama administration disputed that this satellite was for purely non-military purposes, the White House and the U.S. mass media condemned North Korea for using its own launch vehicle or rocket, which they argue was merely a cover for the test of an advanced rocket prototype that could someday be used as a launch platform for a weapon.

The logic of the U.S. argument: any and every effort by the DPRK to do something all other countries desire, which is to possess an indigenous capability to launch its own satellites, must be treated as an existential threat to world peace.

Given that the Pentagon conducts massive mock invasions and mock bombing assaults against the DPRK in regular joint war “games” with South Korea, it is impossible to conceive of the DPRK accepting the notion that its programs are the actual threat to peace on the peninsula.

The tactical orientation of the Obama administration and the Pentagon is to keep North Korea in a resource-draining military and economic vice from which it has neither real options nor escape.

The DPRK is attacked for “violating international rules” and its “agreements” with the United States but the opposite is actually true.

When it announced the April 13 satellite launch in March 2012, the DPRK’s space agency, the Korean Committee for Space Technology, issued a statement that completely conforms to international standards and obligation.

“The DPRK will strictly abide by relevant international regulations and usage concerning the launch of scientific and technological satellites for peaceful purposes and ensure maximum transparency, thereby contributing to promoting international trust and cooperation in the field of space scientific researches and satellite launches,” said the statement.

Although the United States has launched thousands of satellites—for both military and civilian purposes—and has prioritized its own militarization strategy for outer space, the U.S. capitalist-owned media treated the DPRK satellite launch as wild and reckless provocation.

The April 11 issue of the Washington Post condemned the Obama administration for having resumed negotiations with the DPRK on Feb. 29. “Duped Again” is the screaming headline of the Post editorial, which treats the DPRK as a wild and dangerous provocateur whose people should now be deprived food and other economic necessities as punishment for having dared to demonstrate an indigenous technological capability to launch a satellite into orbit.

The colonial arrogance of the Washington Post editorial board is echoed faithfully by the other corporate media, the politicians from both ruling class parties in the United States, and even by some liberal and “socialist” media outlets.

Any move by the DPRK to assert its independent capacity in economic, military or diplomatic matters is deemed a hostile act by the U.S. government.

North Korea, according to the Washington foreign policy establishment, was supposed to go the way of the East German socialist government which was swallowed up by the West German capitalist government in 1989 as the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel.

The U.S. still occupies South Korea with tens of thousands of foreign troops. Destroying the government of the DPRK would allow the U.S. to turn the entire Korean peninsula into an extension of U.S. power—right on the border of China and Russia. That is the ultimate motivation for U.S. policy toward North Korea.

China and Russia are well aware of the U.S. game plan in North Korea. Neither wants the North Korean government to be overthrown. If successful in carrying out “regime change,” U.S. military forces would be permanently stationed right along China and Russia’s border.

Both countries have a long-term friendly relationship with North Korea that began with the creation of a socialist bloc of nations following World War II. Even though the USSR was dissolved in 1992, Russia views the DPRK as an ally and counter-weight against U.S. hegemonic designs in Northeast Asia.

Rather than directly confront and expose the U.S. designs on North Korea, however, both China and Russia are engaged in a careful diplomatic dance—appeasing Washington by agreeing to criticize the DPRK in some UN Resolutions but only on the conditions that the resolutions are watered down in a way that makes the outbreak of war or military conflict less likely.

The U.S. and South Korean media have been filled with articles about how even China and Russia were so opposed to North Korea’s satellite launch that they condemned it along with the United States. This is partly true and partly untrue. In fact, China and Russia refused to go along with U.S. demands for a new binding UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea and imposing additional sanctions on the country. Instead, they appeased Washington by allowing U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice to issue a non-binding Security Council “Presidential Statement” condemning North Korea (by coincidence, the U.S. in April held the rotating seat of President of the Security Council).

The DPRK, although it values its relationship with China and Russia, is not about to allow its right to launch satellites or defend itself militarily be compromised by others.

When the Security Council Presidential Statement was issued on April 16, the DPRK promptly announced that it was expelling foreign nuclear inspectors that it had just allowed to return to the country in March 2012.

An article from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper was carried on the Korean Central News Agency Web site on April 23 summarizing the DPRK’s view of what it believes to be the actual objectives of the U.S. campaign against North Korea’s space program.

In effect is said the U.S. is intent on establishing Missile Defense system in Northeast Asia and Middle East under the signboard of “defense.” It is even making far-fetched assertion that the DPRK's satellite launch for peaceful purposes was a long-range missile launch. An aim sought by the U.S. is to make “threats” from the DPRK a fait accompli and justify its Missile Defense moves for world domination.

The U.S. says that the global MD is to thwart missile attacks from the DPRK and Iran but this is just a lame excuse.

The U.S. Missile Defense program is explained to people in the United States as a new system to prevent foreign missiles from ever reaching the shores of the United States. Thus, “Defense” provides a handy promotional label for an extremely expensive weapons system. The rest of the world views the system as a means to give the United States a nuclear first-strike capacity against any targeted country whose own capacity to retaliate, if any, would be rendered harmless by the Missile Defense shield.

Current United States military doctrine gives priority to technological dominance of space. The Pentagon has large numbers of satellites that fulfill many tasks in the coordination of nuclear and conventional weapons systems. Using an integrated system of satellites, sensors, lasers and missiles the Pentagon continues to push forward with the National Missile Defense program (also known as “Star Wars”), which alone has cost more than $150 billion since its inception around 1980.

The demonization of the DPRK is so complete in the United States that the truth is rarely understood. Here are some useful facts:

Fact 1: The DPRK complied with the terms of the Feb. 29 agreement to resume negotiations with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea—known as the “six-party talks”—on the enduring crisis on the Korean peninsula. The DPRK promptly complied by issuing an invitation to international nuclear inspectors to inspect the DPRK’s nuclear sites.

Fact 2: The Feb. 29 agreement required that the DPRK pursue a moratorium on nuclear tests and longer-range military rocket tests. The Feb. 29 agreement does not bar the DPRK of launching satellites for non-military purposes.

Fact 3: The DPRK had suspended its nuclear weapons program, but openly resumed it following George W. Bush’s declaration on Jan. 21, 2002, that the DPRK was part of an “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and Iran. Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program and was invaded on March 19, 2003, by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and subjected to a sustained and massive bombing campaign. Faced with the threat from the U.S. government, the DPRK expelled foreign nuclear inspectors and produced several nuclear warheads—making it clear that, unlike Iraq, the DPRK was prepared to inflict a retaliatory response in self-defense if it was invaded or bombed. The Bush administration resumed negotiations with the DPRK.

Fact 4: U.S. forces invaded North Korea in 1950. By 1951, there were no more stationary, hard targets for the U.S. air force to bomb since by then there were no structures higher than one story still standing. The U.S. and allied military forces drove up through North Korea in 1950 but were ultimately defeated by a counter-offensive launched by North Korean and Chinese troops. No one knows how many Koreans died during the three-year conflict, but according to the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1967, more than five million Koreans perished who would not have died if there had been no war. [American airpower caused s great disproportion in the deaths. The number of American troops killed in battle during the 1950-53 stalemated war was 33,741. China lost 152,000 dead, including the son of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.]

Fact 5: In 1953, the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized the nuclear bombing of North Korea and China, which was prevented by the signing of the July 27, 1953, armistice agreement that suspended military operations on both sides.

Fact 6: The United States still refuses North Korea’s demand that the 1953 armistice agreement be replaced by a permanent peace treaty. Thus, technically, the U.S. is still at war with North Korea.

Fact 7: Tens of thousands of U.S. troops still occupy South Korea 59 years after the signing of the armistice agreement. U.S. troops in South Korea not only stand as a permanent menace to North Korea, but allow Washington to maintain a huge influence in political matters in South Korea.

Fact 8: U.S. and South Korean war games are the largest conducted by the Pentagon. They include the mock invasion of North Korea. North Korea is thus kept in a state of high alert and mobilization. This requires diverting huge portions of a limited national budget to military readiness, which is designed to weaken the DPRK’s economy.

Fact 9: The U.S. possesses 5,113 nuclear warheads that are operationally deployed or in active reserve, and at least several thousand more that are officially retired but not dismantled. The United States has spent $7 trillion on nuclear weapons since the inception of its nuclear program 60 years ago.

Fact 10: The United States is the only country to have used nuclear bombs. It dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were incinerated almost instantly, and generations suffered the effects of radiation poisoning.

The crisis on the Korean Peninsula may be about to heat up. U.S. officials are demanding new sanctions against North Korea. Promised humanitarian food shipments from the United States have been cancelled by the Obama administration.

In turn, the DPRK has declared that the Feb. 29 agreement is null and void. North Korea has instructed foreign nuclear inspectors to leave the country and it is widely anticipated that the U.S. will use a nuclear test by the DPRK as the pretext for an escalation of hostile acts, including new war games that simulate the invasion of North Korea.

In the midst of a new war crisis, the hysteria against North Korea will grow. Under those circumstances, it is ever more important to demand that Washington sign a peace treaty with the DPRK, withdraw its troops from South Korea, end economic sanctions and normalize relations rather than pursue a policy of endless militarism targeting the DPRK. That is a minimum program to allow Korea and its people to live free from the precipice of war.


By Debra Sweet, World Can't Wait

County sheriffs grabbed 33 people April 22, a few blocks from the main gate of Hancock Air Force Base near Syracuse N.Y.  Faster than you can say “parading without a permit,” people at the front of a single file, silent march along a mostly deserted suburban road, were cuffed and stuffed into police cruisers.  Others were arrested standing near the gate of the base, where people conduct a vigil every two weeks, because pilots based at Hancock control drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) over the skies of Afghanistan, and perhaps over other countries as well.

Given that we had just walked two miles in the Town of Dewitt, seeing people in only three yards, a total of 30 cars, and not one marked police car, one has to assume it wasn’t the good citizens of the town who were inconvenienced, annoyed, or even aware of the procession. Did the plan to stop our protest from arriving at the gate by arresting us before we got there come from the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department?  No, these arrests were ordered and planned at the federal level to preempt the delivery of a political message and to keep media from showing images of the group gathered by the gate.

If the operations out of Hancock are so legit, so clean, and clear of legal ambiguity; if they’re arousing no opposition, then why are the powers that be so afraid of 100 people gathering at the front gate to present some papers to any guard who would take them?  The ordinances used against this protest are probably unconstitutional curbs on free speech and assembly, and perhaps they’ll be challenged in court by those ticketed and released.

But, to the substance of our charge that the U.S. drone programs, and the wars that underlie them, are illegitimate, unjust and immoral, what is the government’s answer? That we’re criminals for parading without a permit?  While the 82nd Airborne units who posed with Afghan body parts are an aberration, and therefore not criminals?  These lies are all they can come up with.  They have no answer to the indictment we attempted to deliver but brutality and suppression.

We know these drones kill civilians; we know some of those civilians’ names, and that some were children.  We know war crimes are being carried out in our name from inside the base, under the legal justification that the U.S. president can kill anyone, anywhere, because there is an limitless “war on terror.”

The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars did a similar action one year ago.  38 people stepped across a line to place themselves under arrest.  At trial, they mounted a a thorough case, detailing the ways in which the U.S. drone war violates international law, and of course they were still found guilty.  These actions, along with others at Creech AFB in Nevada, and recently at Whiteman AFB in Missouri, are bringing attention to the illegitimacy of the growing US deployment of drones to spread terror among the populations of whole countries.

[From the Activist Newsletter: The UK Daily Mail newspaper has published an extraordinary series or satellite photos of surveillance drone launching sites in the United States. It's a must see.

[The photos were posted only in late April soon after Federal aviation regulators acknowledged scores of universities and law enforcement agencies have been given approval to use drones inside the United States. The list includes the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, various branches of the military, defense contractor Raytheon, drone manufacturer General Atomics, as well as numerous universities. Police departments with drone permits include North Little Rock, Arkansas; Arlington, Texas; Seattle, Washington; Gadsden, Alabama; and Ogden, Utah.


Jon Flanders, Labor Notes

New York state public employees, like their compatriots across the U.S., are in the gunsights of politicians eager to appease irate taxpayers by slashing workers’ pay and benefits.

A new caucus inside a large and influential public sector union is determined to roll back the attacks and re-energize a demoralized workforce.

The assault on state employees has been led by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who after demanding contract concessions, spearheaded the drive for a pension cut. “Tier 6” is an additional lower pension level for new hires in the public sector.

Tier 6 raises workers’ retirement plan contributions on a sliding scale, ranging from 3% for those earning up to $45,000 a year to 6% for those at $100,000.

The new plan also raises the retirement age by one year, to 63. Workers who retire early will collect pensions that are 6.5% lower per year, by tinkering with the formula to exclude much overtime. Virtually eliminated is the possibility of retiring at 55, which has been the case for current longtime employees under Tier 1.

The vote to approve pension cuts in the state Senate took place without Democrats present, ostensibly due to their protest of redistricting plans. In the Democratic-dominated Assembly, the vote was 95-44.

The Public Employees Federation, which represents 55,000 professional and technical workers, opposed Tier 6, but was unable to stop it. Rank-and-file PEF activists were confounded when their leaders scheduled an opposition rally one day after the legislature’s vote.

The pension cuts were part of a campaign by Cuomo to burnish his resume as a leader ready to take on public employee unions and bring them to heel. He seems to have the 2016 presidential race in mind.

Cuomo’s attitudes toward public workers were no secret in the run-up to the 2010 election, but despite this, the PEF leadership pushed his endorsement through the union’s executive board, telling them that the governor was just going to eliminate archaic commissions and public authorities, not jobs at state agencies.

“Andrew Cuomo earned our endorsement because of his positions on two key issues for us—reducing the state's wasteful use of consultants, and his plan to rein in hundreds of unaccountable public authorities that are packed with patronage appointments,” said PEF President Kenneth Brynien at an August 2010 convention.

PEF members say they are unaware of any major Cuomo initiatives on this score.

The pension cuts Cuomo pushed through the legislature followed a round of contract concessions he extracted in last year’s talks. The deal included nine days of unpaid furloughs in the first two years, zero percent raises for three years, and health care takeaways. Cuomo claimed the concessions helped save the state $400 million.

The increased health care costs are already proving unaffordable for many members at the lower end of the pay scale. The union also forfeited millions in annual education and training funds the state formerly provided its members, which paid for college tuition and workshop reimbursement.

The largest groups of public employees in New York State are divided into two unions, PEF and the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents mainly blue-collar workers. CSEA ratified the Cuomo-backed contract first.

PEF members initially voted it down. It took major arm-twisting by PEF leaders and threats of layoffs to get virtually the same contract passed in a second vote.

Before the first PEF contract vote, opposition emerged. It has now morphed into a full slate of opposition candidates, known as NY Union Proud, who will oppose the incumbents in PEF’s June election.

The slate includes a diverse mix of young and seasoned leaders. While they are based in the Albany and New York City areas, they have received enthusiastic backing from PEF members in the Buffalo and Adirondack regions. The slate is headed by Susan Kent, who represents education department workers on the union’s executive board.

NY Union Proud points to the concessions last year as a major failing of current leaders. They say the incumbents hastily repackaged the concession deal with minor changes after the first vote and launched a full-court press for a yes vote.

They criticize those leaders for promising that voting for concessions would “save jobs” and “prevent layoffs.” “Faced with a difficult Hobson's choice, with their leaders in full-fledged retreat, PEF members ratified the contract,” their statement reads.

But not even six months after ratification, the no-layoff assurances have already proved hollow. PEF members in the offices of Children and Family Services, Mental Health, and Persons with Developmental Disabilities as well as the State University of New York now face the unemployment line.

“Job losses caused by cutbacks tell only a part of the story,” the slate said in a statement. “On top of the profound disrespect heaped on public workers, PEF members continue to fall farther behind their counterparts in the private sector when matched for age, gender and education.”

The opposition slate pledges to “ensure that PEF endorses only those candidates for political office who have acted in our members’ best interest.” They also identify privatization as a major issue, promising to expose the abuses and inefficiencies it causes.

PEF has a history of voting out incumbents: Four presidents in its history lost their first re-election campaigns. There is also a tradition of opposition groups, starting with the Statewide Coalition for a Democratic Union in the early ’80s.

Political commentators in Albany note that the PEF opposition has already impacted current leaders’ positions. The incumbents were forced to take a more combative public stance on Tier 6, launching an ad campaign and scheduling the belated protest rally.

The Union Proud slate said that if similar efforts had been put into educating and mobilizing the members ahead of contract negotiations, a better contract deal could have been possible.

It remains to be seen how much traction the opposition will get, given members’ demoralization following the vote-till-you-get-it-right contract ratification. Nonetheless, the emergence of the Union Proud slate is a sign of growing resistance to the attacks on state employees.

— Jon Flanders is a member and former president of International Association of Machinists local 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He has been a labor activist since the 1970s and writes and photographs for Labor Notes, MRZine and other publications

By the Activist Newsletter

Surveillance technology seems about to reach another milestone, according to researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas — Cellphones with a terahertz-band scanner that can see through walls.

When the technology is finally put into production it is supposed to provide many beneficial consumer applications, such as finding studs in walls, authentication of important documents, detecting cancer tumors, and seeing through pockets to examine the contents of a wallet.

Due to "privacy concerns," it was pointed out, researchers only focused on uses in the distance range of less than four inches. The technology is entirely capable of increasing the distance range to feet and yards, though probably not in initial commercial applications. It is  understood that this development means more sophisticated, longer-range handheld THz scanners may be on the way in the near future.

Should this pan out, count on the FBI, CIA and local cops utilizing a new means to probe every more deeply into the private lives of Americans in the name of insuring "public safety" or "fighting terrorism."  Now they use the "naked scanner" in airports. Will they soon be looking through the walls of houses and apartments?

Here's how the process works technically, according to Popular Science April 18: "Electromagnetic waves in the terahertz range can penetrate where optical light can’t, and they can sense any molecule, so they are useful for security scanners, medical devices and various other applications. Their energies fall between microwaves and infrared light. But terahertz imaging devices require tons of energy and multiple lenses to focus light, so they are prohibitively large. Kenneth O, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, is developing new versions that would not require multiple lenses."

Here is the April 18 UT Dallas article discussing the invention, though not its surveillance possibilities:

Comic book hero superpowers may be one step closer to reality after the latest technological feats made by researchers at UT Dallas. They have designed an imager chip that could turn mobile phones into devices that can see through walls, wood, plastics, paper and other objects.

The team's research linked two scientific advances. One involves tapping into an unused range in the electromagnetic spectrum. The other is a new microchip technology.

The electromagnetic spectrum characterizes wavelengths of energy. For example, radio waves for AM and FM signals, or microwaves used for cell phones or the infrared wavelength that makes night vision devices possible.

But the terahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, one of the wavelength ranges that falls between microwave and infrared, has not been accessible for most consumer devices.

"We've created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use and life-saving medical applications," said Dr. Kenneth O, professor of electrical engineering at UT Dallas and director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence (TxACE). "The terahertz range is full of unlimited potential that could benefit us all."

By Alain Sherter

How did breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay end up behind bars? She didn't pay a medical bill — one the Herrin, Ill., teaching assistant was told she didn't owe. "She got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn't have to pay it," the Associated Press reports. "But the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and eventually state troopers showed up at her home and took her to jail in handcuffs."

Although the U.S. abolished debtors' prisons in the 1830s, more than a third of U.S. states allow the police to haul people in who don't pay all manner of debts, from bills for health care services to credit card and auto loans. In parts of Illinois, debt collectors commonly use publicly funded courts, sheriff's deputies, and country jails to pressure people who owe even small amounts to pay up, according to the AP.

Under the law, debtors aren't arrested for nonpayment, but rather for failing to respond to court hearings, pay legal fines, or otherwise showing "contempt of court" in connection with a creditor lawsuit. That loophole has lawmakers in the Illinois House of Representatives concerned enough to pass a bill in March that would make it illegal to send residents of the state to jail if they can't pay a debt. The measure awaits action in the senate....

Illinois isn't the only state where residents get locked up for owing money. A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that focused on only five states — Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington — found that people were being jailed at "increasingly alarming rates" over legal debts. Cases ranged from a woman who was arrested four separate times for failing to pay $251 in fines and court costs related to a fourth-degree misdemeanor conviction, to a mentally ill juvenile jailed by a judge over a previous conviction for stealing school supplies.

According to the ACLU: "The sad truth is that debtors' prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts....

— From Money Watch, April 21