So the Million Student March was held in more than a hundred locations last week (UC San Diego had a march that I helped organize). #StudentBlackOut occurred today, as students of color added their own demands about representation in faculty, in the student body, and serious mandatory education on race for students, faculty, and administration. The larger social reaction to these movements and their demands indicates how narrow the debate is about social justice and investment in youth and people of color.
The reaction to the Million Student March- among conservatives and old ‘I paid my way through college working at the soda fountain’ liberals, is that there is no money for free education, and any more money into higher education will come from the pockets of hard-working Americans.
Within the University of California system, senior administrative bloat, the product of a corporatized hierarchy where education went from the focus to a way to mine students for money to pay big salaries, is $1.1 billion a year total. The whole student population pays $3 billion, so over a third of their tuition is spent on excess administration!
Higher education is one of many programs put into a zero-sum bucket. More money is not coming from a financial transactions tax or cracking down on overseas stashes of corporate earnings (if Apple brought its cash hoard back into the US they would owe almost 60 billion in taxes– one year of free higher education by itself). Money comes from Medicaid, veteran’s benefits, food stamps, subsidized housing, and all the other non-university levels of education. As long as the scarcity is believed, then poor and vulnerable people fight with each other.
Immense wealth and immense poverty exists- both within and between countries. The political and economic elite has constructed an adversarial system where the only visible enemies are others just trying to survive. A 40 hour job is divided so that no one qualifies for benefits, and there are no stable hours and schedules. The conflict is kept at the individual level, so corporate profits and shareholder values are preserved.
With the Million Student March and the Mizzou movements converging, the question of economics versus identity has come to the forefront. When I went to a town hall meeting about campus racism and lack of diversity, I heard a lot of cutting personal stories. I heard about bigoted TAs, professors, and administrators. Racist publications and campus police. I did not hear about the system that benefits from racism and utilizes it- capitalism. The intersectionality of oppression is vital in any analysis of society, but ultimately the ruling class is that- a class. And it is its own mixture of race, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion. Oppression is itself not a zero-sum game- poor whites can be oppressed, albeit to different degrees and ways than people of color.
I’ll put it this way: when you leave an event, class, or debate, ask if the elite that control the police, military, and economy are glad that you didn’t mention them.
I’ve been published today in the San Diego Free Press, an article that lets me get more into the left-wing background of the strike- led by two members of Socialist Alternative San Diego. The one line I’d like for everyone to meditate on. Greenpeace, like other non-profits, trains their fundraisers to be very well-spoken, persuasive, and able to sell things in a non-threatening but effective way. Well what if Greenpeace treats their workers like garbage and doesn’t give them job security? They’ve created their own worst enemy.
“But choosing to resist, they have mobilized in defense of their jobs and dignity. Non-profits beware: the persuasive skills developed by your employees can be used against you. Instead of selling Greenpeace, organizers now sell the strike against it.”
I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.
Here it goes.
May 28, 2015
“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”
This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.
The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.
From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.
This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.
One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.
The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.
The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.
Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.
And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.
In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.
Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.
As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.
We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.
Saturday afternoon brought a couple hundred activists together in San Diego, in solidarity with the much larger Millions March NYC, which had in 50-60,000 protestors in Manhattan. What has been happening is a crescendoing grassroots movement against police violence and racial injustice. The killing of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many others have stuck together and strengthened a social movement. It is encouraging to see people connecting these incidents into a broader realization: that the justice system in this country isn’t giving justice to communities of color.
The march was long, probably too long for those that aren’t cut out for extended walking. Turnout was good, larger than a similar event last week in a different part of downtown. I came in solidarity and part of Socialist Alternative– we ended up having eight members involved, which is a great showing given the newness and size of the San Diego operation. We provided water and distributed information about our public meeting in Ocean Beach on the 19th. It was exciting to see Stephane, a member who is also an immigrant from Belize and a Marine vet, asked to speak at the rally.
What was less exciting was a woman interrupting his speech repeatedly, which caused him to lose his place and ultimately not give the end of his planned remarks. That a black man speaking to a rally that says Black Lives Matter would get heckled, it was unbelievably rude and insulting. It was heartening to see many people, including other speakers, come to him later in the march and talk, and to sympathize. Staying united is vital, and it was good to see cross-group support.
Several die-ins occurred, including in front of a highway ramp (the Patrol were out in legion to make sure the march did not attempt to block the freeway) and on the trolley tracks in downtown. Community support was strong- most were at least curious if not interested or supportive. It shows the value of street protest- sometimes issues have to be brought in person to the population at large.
The most powerful image for me was this picture below. I missed it initially, and only saw it later when going over these pictures. In this mass die-in at an intersection that led to I-5, two men, one white and one black, hold hands high in unity. That is solidarity- standing together, and seeing the power that each of us can give to the movement- if we rise above ego and self-interest. This is a fight for black Americans to assert their rights and strength. Let them lead the way.
There is tension in the movement attempting to prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change.
There is always tension in any coalition of people. Historically, the center-left and left have been prone to splits and animosity – even if they all agree on the major issues of the day. Climate change is no different. In New York City, a vast collection of groups and the unaffiliated came out and broke all the expectations of attendance, ending up in the vicinity of 400,000 people.
The march I went to in San Diego had both those that oppose current environmental policy in a general, non-specific way, and those with narrow issues of focus. There are the cyclists, those that oppose factory farms (or meat altogether). People advocate for solar energy, or curbing population growth. Some want to work through existing institutions (in this case, the San Diego City Council and eventually state and federal authorities), some want to create new ones. For some the solutions are simple, for others they are brutally difficult. As with any march, the question after all the inspirational rhetoric and empowering community is: what now?
A poster on the march Facebook page was fed up with the whole People’s Climate movement. Certainly there are glaring flaws in the event: corporate sponsors that are not only unpopular but environmentally damaging. A regimented march structure that kept radicals from the parts that were going to get media coverage. And the main point that popular protest has not accomplished anything beyond symbolic progress with the U.N and major polluting nation-states.
Such is the eternal split. Working within the system versus working outside of the system. Even now, 5 1/2 years in, I hear people say when a new crisis comes up, “this will really get President Obama mad, and implementing real change.” Hundreds of people in SD, and thousands in the many other marches in solidarity with NYC signed pledges and petitions. Symbolic acts like petitions and marches often yield symbolic reaction from politicians. Groups are welcomed, in this area into the Democratic machine. Their anger is used to further the institution, and the power of mass social movement is lost. Gaining currency is the phrase “graveyard of social movements” going back to the Civil Rights Movement and before that with Protestant reform efforts that used women’s issues as a springboard. Both modern parties do it, because motivated people win elections.
In the end, I participated with Socialist Alternative- we sold papers and booklets about the environment, and how a new economic system could stop the exploitation of the Earth and its inhabitants. People were receptive, and eager to engage in conversation. Even if I had no group affiliation, I still would have gone as a show of solidarity. Flexibility of tactics helps keep groups united and working in the right direction. Even if a protest is not organized exactly as I would have liked, it shouldn’t prevent participation.
These marches are a starting point, or a recharge to get people moving to the next step. Despite its flaws, I will one day have to justify to the next generation my actions. That is not only my carbon footprint, but also my moral philosophy, and affirmation that their lives and happiness are essential to my being. Few here think one march will create real progress, but it’s important to show up. All justice in the world was gained by those that showed up and used their will and tenacity.
I attended a Socialist Alternative branch meeting in Oakland today. At the end there is the technical business, including future topics and who is to present on them.
One was a historical dilemma that is essential to the United States: how can the American Revolution be seen as a struggle for freedom, if it was forwarded by slaveholders, who by the end had even more authority over the people they owned? Even a middle school history class tackles with that. Of course, when you bring in ideas of capital, imperialism, and white supremacy, there are more nuances to explore and consider.
Since I’m headed on a journey through western Canada tomorrow, I can’t write out in full the thought I had.
Wasn’t the American Revolution a fight both for and against imperialism? The colonists fought against British colonialism. Their victory allowed for a more complete imperialism of western Africa; both current slaves, and those to be taken from their homeland, were subject to imperial control. And because there was a 32 year gap between British abolition of slavery and US abolition, the colonies gaining independence brought decades more oppression.
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 at3pm 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.
There is a war going on in the Pacific Northwest. It has garnered some national attention, and cities across the country will be influenced by the result. Which side wins, and whether they get most of what they initially wanted, will ripple across the nation.
Seattle is debating a $15 minimum wage.
This is an extraordinary fight, because it was linked to an extraordinary campaign. Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, defeated a sixteen-year Democratic incumbent to win a seat on the Seattle City Council. I’ve written about Sawant several times (here was my pitch prior to the election), and her success is one of the biggest events in the American left since the McGovern campaign. The whole campaign was tightly bound around a single campaign promise- a $15/hr minimum wage.
Her victory, against the grain of traditional Seattle politics, indicated that popular sentiment was on the side of her campaign and the organization she helped found, 15 Now. Seattle is joined by San Francisco in pushing for a ballot initiative. The engine is Seattle though, with over a year of constant campaigning. Pressure has given the proposal wide political acceptance, even among business-friendly Democrats.
The argument is straightforward. Since the end of World War II-era price controls, worker productivity has increased substantially, but since the Nixon Administration is no longer matched by increases in wages. This era has also been one of sharply rising costs- education, healthcare, rent. I’ve drawn a grasp with permanent markers to give you the result. No, seriously:
The minimum wage isn’t tied to inflation, so it buys far less than in decades past. Increasingly, those that make minimum wage (or close to it) no longer have a living wage. They can’t afford to raise their kids, or live anywhere near where they work. Thus they rely on two things- credit and welfare. There are plenty of people working crazy hours yet still in the economic strata to require welfare to make basic ends meet. Without a strong wage, the taxpayers are footing the bill for underpaid workers.
There are two broad concerns at play in Seattle. The first is about the minimum wage as a whole- that it kills business, competitively, leads to unemployment. I tackled these broad issues last August here. I found there to be a lack of solid evidence that the minimum wage is a great harm to society- people often say that it is, but they’re relying on the standard (typically called ‘neoclassical’) model, which actually isn’t that accurate. We’ll return to that thought.
The second are the specifics of the wage increase. Basically, who has to increase to $15 and by when? Originally the idea was an increase from all businesses immediately. The version that’s being filed and will probably get voted on soon has a three-year lead-in for small businesses and nonprofits. $11, then $13, then $15.
In terms of a debate, the place I’ve found with the most content dedicated to the issue is The Stranger, Seattle’s sweary alternative newspaper. They strongly endorsed Sawant (dedicating an issue to making a case for her), but they’ve been releasing editorials in pairs- one advocating for an exception, one against. Currently, four pieces on the minimum wage are in the “most commented” section on the front page.
This is a bitter fight. Big businesses (especially those for which most of their staff make under $15) are fighting tooth and nail- and sometimes use small businesses as a front to advance their own interests. There is clear evidence in leaked documents. This is nothing new, but it’s important to pay attention.
While not anything close to an expert, I’ve taken enough college economics to have a decent grasp of minimum wage mechanics, as one of the basic aspects of the labor market. There has been quite a lot of misleading statements- and one would assume that if San Francisco and Seattle ultimately succeed, they will pop up again and again as the fight moves to other areas.
A number thrown out in the debate is 60%- the increase from the current state minimum wage of $9.19 to $15. Often the proposal is said to be a “60% increase in labor costs.” That’s not even close to true. What’s important to know is that essentially no business pays every worker minimum wage. If they did, it’d be 60%, but if people are making $10.50 or $12.75, it’s a lot less than that. Also there are plenty of workers who make over $15 in a given enterprise who won’t see any increase- at least directly.
Another issue is distorting costs. While labor costs are important, they sit alongside the cost of land, rent, licenses, legal and financial assistance, and of course whatever a business sells. The best read of The Stranger editorials is this one by bar owner Andrew Friedman. He got an overwhelming pushback by commenters, including several who work for a small business. As an accountant stated, if their firm raised all employees to $15 it would be a 4.33% increase in costs. There’s a big difference between 60% and 4.33%. While all cost hikes will affect total costs, labor is not all of a businesses’ costs.
A proposal has been made to include “total compensation”. A series of essays go back and forth starting here. What’s wrong with $15/hr total compensation? Well, a few things. It allows the employer to include (and overvalue) other non-wage benefits. Given the rapid rise in health care costs, this could easily eat into the actual wage earned until there is no rise at all. And it gives employers a great amount of power- they figure out the costs, they determine what total compensation is. You can’t make a good argument for wage theft because the wage has no solid meaning anymore. It’s just part of the total compensation soup.
The reality is simple. Large corporations, that employ a huge amount of minimum wage workers, are skating thanks to government subsidy of their business (sweetheart tax deals, plus tax loopholes) and government subsidy of their workers. The end result is incredible US corporate profits. A move towards a $15/hr minimum wage is recognizing that there is no disaster for American corporations if labor starts closing the gap between what it produces and what it is ultimately paid. It’ll throw a wrench into the economic idea that profits must constantly rise and increase- the system where shareholder concerns are much more pressing than labor concerns. But that sort of escalating system also causes destructive market bubbles, so maybe it needs a wake-up call.
I’m tired of people making hackneyed economic arguments that don’t have a solid foundation beneath them. The dangers of a high minimum wage are a meme, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that most introductory economics courses are strongly slanted to that conclusion. As I pointed out in a rebuke of Alex Berezow’s ill-suited attack on Sawant, many journalists and pundits don’t cite anything more complicated than N. Gregory Mankiw- often just leaving it at ‘common sense’.
Serious discussion is due for the minimum wage. Each month brings new depressing confirmations- income inequality is soaring, it’s reversing decades of gains by the middle class, people are getting wrecked by increased costs and don’t have the money to save, invest, and eventually retire. When a movement emerges that actually offers a potential solution, efforts must be made to understand it from their perspective. US journalism tends to start from the perspective of how a new policy will affect corporations.
Perhaps they should think of how the lack of a new policy current affects workers and families.