A Victory for Progressive Values

Let's be clear -- it wasn't just a good night for Democrats. It was a good night for progressives, and no media spin that these new elected officials are "conservatives" changes who they are. The media is always marvelling that "new" Democrats are so much more conservative than "traditional" liberal Democrats of the past -- which would surprise all the folks firehosed in the streets of the South by many Democrats of a generation ago.

There are no doubt some conservatives among the new Democrats elected but as Rick Perlstein, Ezra Klein and Chris Bowers note, many were progressive and Netroots supported and almost all were tough on core economic justice issues.

Let's remember -- those massive Democratic majorities of a generation ago were fake. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was able to control the agenda in Congress because 67 Boll Weevil Democrats essentially caucused with the GOP. In 1993, the Democrats had a "majority" of 258 but Clinton was only able to pass his initial budget by one vote, so he had a de facto majority of 218 votes. I actually am more confident in the present 228-230 Dem majority we are getting this round to support progressive initiatives than those fake-larger majorities of the past.

And the ideological meaning of this election is nowhere clearer than in the state initiatives passed across the country. The obvious examples are passage of minimum wage initiatives in every state where they were proposed, passage of stem cell funding in Missouri, passage of ethics reforms in Montana, approval of early education funding in Arizona, a prescription drug program for the uninsured in Oregon, and a program for alternative energy reform in Washington State (the last one teetering on passage).

Add in the rejection of the rightwing ideological agenda -- while bans on gay marriage were passed, voters said No on the abortion ban in South Dakota and defeated parental notification in California, Ohio and Oregon. Voters rejected repeal of the state estate tax in Washington. The tax revolt died this year as across the country "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" -- which would have put a meat axe to state budgets -- were defeated at the polls or blocked earlier in the petition gathering process. While "eminent domain" was restricted in a number of states, the attempt by the rightwing to hitch those bills to a radical theory of "regulatory takings" was defeated in California, Washington and Idaho -- with only Arizona approving this deceptive rightwing gambit.

The signs of ideological collapse on the right are relatively clear as different coalition partners fight with each other -- and those fights between corporate interests, libertarian small government types and religious zealots are only likely to increase without as much access to power and the budget to bind their differences over with money.

So celebrate -- this was not a partisan victory but a real victory for progressive values across the country. There's still lots of work to be done, but it's a great first step.

The Brilliance of Labor

Admit it. Many of you think labor unions are dinosaurs, lumbering beasts with pea-sized brains stumbling along waiting for extinction in a world passing them by. God knows, union leaders have done stupid things at times, but what strikes me is the sustained innovation and intelligence by unions over the last decade or so, barely noticed by the media or even fellow progressive activists.

So on this Labor Day, this is my celebration not of the justice of the labor cause, but of the brilliance of those fighting and often winning against long odds in the modern economy.

What's Been Won: Just surviving in the fact of political and corporate assaults by a rightwing that wants to kill off labor is an underestimated victory. I remember in the early 90s when talk of the death of the labor movement started and many analysts confidently predicted that union workers would make up less than 5% of the workforce. If you look at this table, labor has seen some steady erosion in the percentage of works organized since the early 90s -- although even that stabilized a bit last year -- but the actual number of workers unionized has largely stabilized around 16 million members in the last decade.

With total annual budgets from dues of $5-6 billion per year and with hundreds of billions od dollars in union-connected pension and health funds, unions remain the only institution that combines more resources that pretty much all other progressive groups combined with a mass membership. Which is why they have faced bad laws, hostile courts, and anti-union political and corporate attacks-- and their holding onto to nearly 16 million members is a testament to the innovative tactics and strategies they have developed over the years.

And what were those strategies?

Card Check to Replace a Hostile NLRB: As federal labor law and the National Labor Relations Board largely abandoned protecting workers, leaading to over 20,000 workers being fired each year for trying to organize unions, labor leaders realized in the last decades that they needed to emphasize new ways to strengthen the freedom of workers to form unions without depending on the NLRB. The tool was pressuring companies to agree to have independent groups - church leaders or private arbitration groups - measure whether a majority of workers had requested having a union brought into the workplace. (See these resources at American Rights At Work for more on how card check works).

The results have been dramatic. In an early signature campaign reviving the fortunes of the union movement, janitors began organizing around the country, largely using card check to win. In Los Angeles, for example, a union local where once 5000 workers were organized collapsed down to just 1800 members by the mid-0-s. But with the support of community allies, they used dramatic street protests to pressure janitorial companies to recognize the union and raise wages and benefits in the industry. Now, over 25,000 building service workers are organized in California alone. Similarly, hotel unions in Las Vegas would use card check to expand a local to over 50,000 members in that city alone.

And in the high-tech world, traditional telephone-based unions used card check to make inroads into new industries like cell phones. The Communication Workers of America has organized over 39,000 cell phone workers at Cingular Wireless, many of them workers in the US South. After initial resistance, this campaign has even forged a partnership with SBC (now AT&T) that has helped workers and management pursue win-win gains in the workplace, rather than the hostility bred of constant union busting and outsourcing in so many industries.

Corporate Campaigns: Beyond traditional "street heat", unions have begun wielding economic resources they control, such as union pension funds, as part of the tools to pressure companies to agree to card check agreements. William Greider in this Nation article describes many of the tactics used by labor, from proxy fights to shareholder lawsuits, to put pressure on management, but one of my favorite descriptions of this work is by an anti-union consultant who explains to companies in this piece what they face. The author describes the combination of boycotts, pension actions and other publicity actions as a coordinated strategy that brilliantly turns former financial allies against corporate management:

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The Care Crisis

If you think its about sexual prowess, you'd be wrong. If you think it's about size, forget it. And if you imagine we follow the various pissing contests going on among male liberals, you're too self-absorbed. It's about what I call the Care Crisis.

During the last week, I've had a series of conversations with intellectual, liberal women who, like most of our male friends, companions and husbands, want to restore American democracy, end the war and free up our nation's wealth to support the health and well being of our nation's citizens.

We care about the common good. We believe in a public good. We agree with those liberal men who are writing about how Democrats will have to be more than a "collection of aggrieved out-groups," to quote David Brooks (New York Times, April 27). We agree with Brooks that "the message voters respond to best is notions of shared sacrifice for the common good...people are ready for an appeal to citizenship."

Multiculturalism and identity politics, gloats Brooks, are dead. Fine by me. Gleefully, Brooks announces that "Democrats are purging the last vestiges of the New Left and returning to the older civic liberalism of the 1950s and early 1960s."

But here's the rub: Notice the years Brooks chooses as the historical moment to which we should return--before American women began demanding the equality that is essential to their citizenship.

In these conversations you men never hear, this is what we discuss: For four decades, working women have poured into the paid labor force. Yet American society has done precious little to restructure the workplace or family life. The result? Working mothers are burdened and exhausted, families are fractured and children are often neglected. The dirty little secret, we repeatedly tell each other, is that it is both profitable and convenient to our government, business and many men, for women to wear themselves out trying to do the unpaid work of caring for children, caring for the elderly and caring about the social networks of our communities.

It's as though Americans are trapped in a time warp, certain that women will still do all this caring, even though they can't, because more than half are outside their homes working in the paid workplace. And so, we have the mounting Care Crisis.

But somehow male progressives and liberals continue to view these problems as those of a special interest group and part of identity politics. Yet it is the core dilemma faced by most middle class and working class American families, all along the political spectrum.

These are some of the war stories we share with each other:

A distinguished op-ed editor rejects an opinion piece that describes the need for high-quality, affordable, accessible child care because "It's been written about thousands of times." He's right. But nothing's changed.

A distinguished editor tells a journalist that he doesn't really want articles about "women's" problems because he's more interested in addressing the public good. Hasn't he heard that women hold up half the sky and then-some?

Fortunately, one person may have found a way around these gatekeepers who are so bored with vital changes that have never been addressed and implemented.

Joan Blades, co-founder of the online activist web movement,, has launched a grassroots virtual campaign dedicated to making working mothers's private choices and dilemmas a central part of our national conversation and political agenda.

She and her co-author Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner have just published The Motherhood Manifesto (Nation Books), a book filled with elegantly accessible stories that reveal the problems faced by working mothers in the early 21st century Without using the F word, they also prescribe such essential changes as paid parental leave, flexible working conditions, after-school programs, universal health care, excellent, affordable and accessible child care and realistic living wages.

Maybe, just maybe, you'll finally hear us. True, it's boring to discuss the vital needs of working mothers and families, when nothing ever changes. But while you're talking about the common good, consider this: There is nothing more vital to the common good of our nation than the well-being of our working mothers and their families. And that, dear gentlemen, is where the votes are.

Talking Taxes

I don't need to remind anyone that it's time to pay your taxes. But when will progressive politicians, intellectuals and activists learn to counter the Right's mantra that we get nothing for our hard-earned tax dollars?

What we all need to do, however, is to figure out how to explain to ordinary Americans why, in fact, we do pay taxes. The Republican mantra -- "shrink government and lower taxes" -- is fundamentally dishonest. They want us to believe that we are heavily taxed by an oppressive government and get nothing in return.

The truth is, our quality of life is far safer and more convenient because of government ordinances, regulations and inspections. Follow me through a typical day and I'll show you what I mean. Government services and regulations may seem invisible, but they're everywhere you look.

I wake up and brush my teeth with water whose purity is inspected by government agencies. I pour some cereal and milk into a bowl. No creepy crawlers appear; both are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federally mandated labels on the cereal box and milk container, moreover, list the ingredients contained inside.

I leave home and in the middle of the street intersection are city workers doing maintenance on the sewer system after California's most recent ferocious winter storms. I get in my car, reassured that the smog device in my 20 year-old care recently passed the state's stringent test. On the way to the BART station, I look across the bay and see a breathtaking view of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. When I first arrived in California, some 30 years ago, before the state enacted stricter pollution controls, a brownish haze masked such magnificent vistas.

As I drive, I slow down for city workers fixing potholes. I pass the public library where I often do research. I stop at lights and signs that regulate traffic and keep drivers from murdering all the kids walking to public schools. I park and walk to a Bay Area Rapit Transit subsway station, financed with public money. From the window of the train, I see cars locked in gridlock on an interstate freeway funded by the federal government.

In a café, I turn on my computer, remembering that a Pentagon agency created the Internet and that the federal government subsidized the development of the chips that now drive my laptop. To complete some research, I call a colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, the world's premier public university. The U.C. system has educated hundreds of thousands of undergraduates who, as educated and skilled workers, have fueled this state's economy.

By now, I have a headache. So I take some ibuprofen, tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

It's time for lunch, and I'm meeting a former graduate student from China, who is now an American-based professor. I don't even think about the hygiene regulations or public health inspections that allow us to enjoy eating in a restaurant without worrying about getting sick from contaminated food. She asks if it's possible to earmark your taxes so that you don't pay for the war in Iraq. I wish.

On a walk between storms, I see San Francisco police officers dealing with a car accident and hear the shrill siren of a fire truck racing toward some emergency. We stop at a corner convenience store that's prohibited by law from selling liquor and tobacco to minors.

Once at home, I make a reservation for a future holiday hiking in one of our great national parks, paid for by tax dollars. Last month, I spent four glorious days cross-country skiing in Yosemite, yet another taxpayer supported national park.

I finish reading my students' papers for tomorrow's seminar. Rarely do I remember that it's the taxpayers of California who pay my salary and give me the opportunity to teach and write. I finally put those envelopes with my tax checks -- my dues for using all these services and infrastructure -- into the mail.

As a slip them into the mailbox, I think about the right-wing's unbelievable success at persuading Americans to believe that they are heavily taxed and receive nothing in return for their hard-earned dollars.

What progressive politicians, intellectuals and activists need to do, perhaps every day, is to remind Americans how many times, during a single day, they actually see their tax dollars at work. Otherwise, the idea of a public good will simply become one of those quaint phrases from a distant past.


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