The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Socialist Alternative meeting in Oakland, Saturday (June 28)

If you’re curious about the Socialist Alternative (SA) movement that got Kshama Sawant elected to the Seattle City Council and won an important (if flawed) $15/hr minimum wage proposal there, there will be a meeting at 3pm at the Downtown Oakland Library on Saturday, June 28th (event information here). There will be three speakers, notably Ty Moore, who came close to winning a seat on the Minneapolis City Council last year. Both Sawant and Moore have won significant labor support and their popular campaigns work to push groups often affiliated with the Democratic Party towards more radical policy solutions.

Previously I’ve written in support of Sawant, Moore, and the big-picture goal of Socialist Alternative. Even though I have some ideological differences with the organization (I consider myself a non-Marxist socialist, SA is Trotskyist), its policy goals are crucial to the long-term health of American democracy and the general welfare of common people. The creation of a popular mass movement in Seattle, and lesser but substantial results in places like Minneapolis, give credence to the idea that if it can work there, it can work in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere. There is a base of political progressivism that can be turned towards radical policy solutions, in the face of serious issues with affordable housing, transportation, and medical care.

If you’re interested and have the time, check it out. I’ve been waiting for an event like this in my area, so if you’re in the SF Bay metro area, it may be a potential place to learn and network with activists. My summer right now isn’t that busy, so I’m hoping to get involved.

Hijacking the Cause of Justice: Trayvon Martin

The case of Trayvon Martin is constantly evolving and I do not claim to be an expert on it. What I can say is that the shooting of a unarmed individual four years my junior by someone who exhibited a long history of violent and impulsive behavior does not sit well for me. Nor does the subsequent investigation that treated Zimmerman as truthful and his claim of self-defense as correct.

This sentiment brought me to Oakland at 4pm- at the famous Frank Ogawa Plaza, where one of the largest occupations in the country had once existed before being violently expelled by the Oakland Police Department. A march had been called by various parties in order to raise awareness of Trayvon Martin and to pressure both state and federal governments to be more active in prosecuting Zimmerman and those that commit acts similar to his.

Continue reading “Hijacking the Cause of Justice: Trayvon Martin”

Oscar Grant (formerly Frank Ogawa) Plaza; March 30th, 2012

Oscar Grant (formerly Frank Ogawa) Plaza; March 30th, 2012

A mural in the former Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed after the man shot by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. It depicts the now-famous silhouette cast by protesters on top of trucks in the Port of Oakland. On November 2nd, 2011 during a general strike (the first since 1946 in the United States), well over 10,000 people brought the Port to a standstill for twelve hours.

Oscar Grant (formerly Frank Ogawa) Plaza; March 30th, 2012

A mural in the former Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed after the man shot by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. It depicts the now-famous silhouette cast by protesters on top of trucks in the Port of Oakland. On November 2nd, 2011 during a general strike (the first since 1946 in the United States), well over 10,000 people brought the Port to a standstill for twelve hours.