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New Ground 77

July - August, 2001


  • Murder on the Fast Track Express by Bob Roman
  • Dubya and his band of thieves: Your Retirement Is Next! by Bob Roman
  • Summer Reading by Bob Roman
  • Campaign for Care and Dignity by Bob Roman
  • March Against Police Violence by Bob Roman

  • Murder on the Fast Track Express

    By Bob Roman

    The murder of Carlo Giuliani at the G8 demonstrations in Genoa and the subsequent police raid on the dormitory and the Italian Indy Media offices are repulsive, outrageous and to be condemned. Without actually consulting all our members, I think this is something that all Chicago DSA members would agree with. This much we would all agree on but I'm not sure how much more; the murder, the raids, and role of the Black Bloc in general are not without some rather complex ambiguities.

    My own opinion, and I do emphasize that it is my own, is that the murder was an event waiting to happen; it is an implicit part of the script that the Establishment and the anti-corporate globalization movement have written for themselves. It was only by chance that death didn't happen in Quebec or in the Czech Republic. If things continue as they are, we should not be surprised if it happens again. We are all to some degree complicit in Carlo Giuliani's death.

    This is not to say that we are all equally complicit. It is the elite nature of these gatherings that provokes the strangled rage of the street. It is the closed, secretive nature of the negotiations that mobilizes mistrust. It is that these "free" trade agreements are so clearly written to the benefit of the rich that motivates the opposition of so many. It is the wealthy that have set this agenda; it is the political leadership that selected the venue. They run the meeting; they are first in line for responsibility.

    It did not take the murder to start a reassessment of strategy and tactics within the anti-corporate globalization movement. Quebec was such a near thing that the process began shortly afterwards. Some of the concerns are political. Ted Glick of the Independent Progressive Politics Network wrote in his column shortly after Quebec:

    "Make no mistake about it: the battle we are waging against the global capitalist order is a political battle, first and foremost, far and away. It is not a military battle because if it were we'd be snuffed out in a New York minute. It's not an economic battle because, even with all of our coops and alternative economic institutions, as important as they are, our "economy" will never just grow and grow to the point at which the corporate economy is supplanted; it's not in the cards. Our primary work, the touchstone of all of our discussions concerning tactics, must be about winning the hearts and minds of literally tens of millions of North Americans. It is only that broad base of support, out of which can grow a bigger and bigger movement of organizers and activists, which will make the changes we seek possible.

    "Based upon my experiences in Quebec City, as well as in D.C., Philadelphia and Los Angeles last year, I don't think all of those involved in this righteous struggle share the view that it is primarily political, that we need to develop and adjust tactics with the hearts and minds of those tens of millions in the forefront of our thinking. I'm referring specifically to many-not all, but many, it seems-of those who are commonly seen as making up the Black Bloc." ("On Winning Hearts and Minds", http://www.ippn.org/Hearts&Minds.htm)

    Make no mistake about it; Ted Glick is not proposing to buy into the corporate media's characterization of "good" demonstrators vs. "bad" demonstrators. Rather,

    "It may be that individual Black Bloc'ers wouldn't have been bothered if serious injury had been done to one of the cops as a result of their actions. I don't think that is a good thing, but I can at least understand it. But they should care if the tactics they use are directly responsible for injury to those of us who are also out there putting our bodies on the line, and they should care about the effect of their tactics on those broad masses of working-class people who know little about either the FTAA or us and who, unfortunately, rely on the corporate media for their information. And although we don't control that media, we can have some influence over how and what they report depending upon what tactics we use."

    Similar concerns have been raised within the pacifist community but as much from an ethical perspective. The War Resisters League, for example, has begun revisiting the issue of what role, if any, does violence against property play in non-violent civil disobedience.

    It would be a pleasure to report a similar reassessment among the economic and political elite, but beyond some public hand-wringing and a sly look at smaller, more easily controlled rural venues, there's not much to report.

    An example of the continued arrogance of the corporate elite and their political lackeys is the recent introduction of "Fast Track" negotiating authority in Congress as HR 2149. Introduced by Illinois Congressman Philip Crane (8th), the legislation has collected 100 co-sponsors, including the entire Illinois Republican delegation though none of the Democrats. The bill includes no provisions requesting that the matter of labor or environmental standards even be brought up at the negotiations. As such, it represents a hard line maximalist position. Considering that the Republican House leadership hope to have passed the bill by the time you read this, compromise does not seem high on their agenda.

    In a demonstration of opposition, two Democratic Congressmen, Martin Frost and Earl Pomeroy, have circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter demanding labor and environmental protections as objectives in any agreement. The letter gathered 99 signatures.

    Activists in Chicago have already responded with some demonstrations. On Friday June 6 over 40 union members, religious leaders, community activists, and students protested at Congressman Crane's district office in Palatine. As a means of peaceful protest, they took over Crane's office and began to sing, filling the office with the strains of "We Will Not Be Moved, " picket signs, and gravestones depicting images of shutdown factories and mills. Protestors demanded to speak with Crane, who was in Illinois while on Congressional recess. Ultimately, two representatives from the protest, Sarita Gupta of Chicago Jobs with Justice, and Bill Carey of USWA District 7, were able to speak via telephone with Crane's Chief of Staff. Meanwhile protesters chanted and rallied outside the office, garnering support from pedestrians and cars. Although there was no expectation that the protest would shift Crane's position, no one was prepared for the outright insults directed toward Gupta and Carey. At one point, the Chief of Staff asked Sarita Gupta, "What did you smoke on your way to work this morning?" As the staff at Crane's district office locked themselves inside, the protesters chanted "We Will Be Back!"

    And the movement will be back. Plans are already being made for the IMF / World Bank meeting in DC this fall.

    Dubya and his band of thieves:

    Your Retirement Is Next!

    By Bob Roman

    By the time you read this, Dubya's marvelously bipartisan commission on Social Security will have recommended diverse and devious ways of "strengthening" a system in "crisis". This is rhetoric from George Orwell's 1984, where war means peace, where strength means weak, where words in political discourse mean whatever is presently advantageous.

    Of course, the conservative side of the debate has no monopoly on misdirection. Social Security was promoted in Congress and to the public as something analogous to a private pension plan. It was financed as a payroll deduction, split equally between the employee and employer, just like something from a collective bargaining agreement. The benefits were based in large part on the monies earned. Surplus revenues were placed in a "trust fund". It all sounds so very fiduciary, something so very familiar to people accustomed to receiving their benefits as a condition of their employment. In fact, Social Security is and has been a "pay as you go" government program that provides disability and survivor benefits as well as old age pensions out of current revenues. The surplus gathered by the payroll taxes is not entirely irrelevant but it is primarily a matter of bookkeeping by the government. And, it might be added, not entirely honest bookkeeping.

    If you need an example of why the expedient argument is not always the best argument in the long run, Social Security is it. The same arguments used to sell the system to a wary public, particularly a wary business class, turn out to be the same arguments to use in destroying it. Because as a financial trust, Social Security can be portrayed as vulnerable to changes in the economy and to demographics.

    Draw the trend lines. At some point they'll intersect; sound the alarm. You've got a great story: the monumental crash of a program that will send millions of soon to be elderly into poverty. It is a story that will guarantee a multitude of eyeballs and thus advertising revenue, one that is sufficiently complicated to deter any reporter or editor from explanatory reporting that would spoil the fun, one that nicely serves the needs of all levels of the media enterprises from reporter to editor to publisher to owner.

    The moderately obvious problem with trend lines is... that they are trend lines, a static representation of a dynamic system, subject to change without notice. For a long while, the left attempted to use a variation, a subset of this argument. The left pointed out that projections calculated by the Social Security Advisory Board, and used as ammunition against the program, assumed a rate of economic growth that was historically conservative. Use a different but plausible number, and your lines intersect at a point so far in the future as to be no longer very interesting.

    There are many problems with this argument, including the fact that higher levels of economic growth ultimately result in higher benefit levels and that given the vagaries of history the Board's economic growth projections could have just as easily been optimistic. More to the point, it maintains the myth of Social Security as Trust Fund.

    Happily, this debate happened during sustained period of economic expansion. The crisis point kept receding into the future. The news media were confronted with what should have been obvious: this story has no clothes.

    What to do?

    Because we live in a 1984 political world, where past political news dims into irrelevance within a span of months, it's easy enough for the opponents of Social Security to at last admit the obvious. The draft report of Dubya's Commission clearly describes Social Security as a pay as you go government program. But now, it is that very nature of Social Security as a government program that is identified as a problem.

    The Commission's report states:

    "Many working adults do not believe that they will ever collect retirement benefits from Social Security. Such a failure has never once happened in a program that dates well back into the last century." (Page 2)

    " workers and retirees have no legal ownership over their Social Security benefits. Instead, what they have is a political promise that can be changed at any time, by any amount, for any reason. In any retirement system a lack of legal ownership is a source of insecurity." (Page 3)

    Later, the report continues:

    "Today's beneficiaries are not living off financial assets accumulated in the past. Today's workers are not accumulating financial assets for the future. Workers 'invest' their payroll taxes not in financial assets but in the willingness of future politicians to tax future workers to pay future benefits." (Page 10)

    Is this a problem? Just who are these politicians who are unwilling to fulfill this promise to the working people of our country? In fact, they are the President's cronies and allies. They are the people who, year after year, have been insisting that the system is in crisis, that something needs be done now. They are the usual suspects: that vast right wing conspiracy of money, foundations, mouth pieces and tame elected officials.

    The AFL-CIO has identified some of the principal players in the campaign to destroy Social Security. The libertarian Cato Institute has made Social Security a major priority. They have an ideological agenda and this is a major motivation for the much of attack on the program, although for cynics and Marxists it is enough to point out that much of the Cato Institute's funding comes from Wall Street firms and banks that would directly benefit from a privatized "social security". Another player is The National Development Council/Economic Security 2000, which plays a role on the right similar to that of the Campaign for America's Future on the left. The National Center for Policy Analysis is another major player. This organization was one of the top backers of California's Proposition 226, and it has promoted privatized Social Security for the past 10 years. It also supports school vouchers, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, privatized prison labor, paycheck deception legislation and funds bills opposing patients' rights. And finally it should be no surprise that the Investment Company Institute, the lobbying arm of the mutual fund industry, has made trashing Social Security a top legislative priority.

    Let us be clear and plain. There is no problem with Social Security. Social Security will be there for us and for our children if we have the guts to stand up and fight a gang of thieves and ideologues who mean to take it from us.

    The problem is not programmatic. It is political.

    What of those intersecting trend lines? The average age of our population is increasing, and if we hope to limit the number of humans on our planet, let us hope this trend continues. As it continues, Social Security will become more expensive. If one insists on financing the program strictly out of payroll taxes which are limited to the first 80,000 dollars of income, the payroll tax would increase from the present 12.4 percent to, at worst, 15.4 percent, split equally between employer and employee. This is according to the Social Security Advisory Board. To whom is this a problem?

    And there are other possibilities regarding payroll taxes:

    "Making all earnings covered by Social Security subject to the payroll tax beginning in 2002, but retaining the current law limit for benefit computations (in effect removing the link between earnings and benefits) would eliminate the deficit. If benefits were to be paid on the additional earnings, 88 percent of the deficit would be eliminated." (Social Security: Why Action Should Be Taken Soon. Social Security Advisory Board, July, 2001. Page 27)

    And finally, why should Social Security be restricted to the payroll tax? If providing for the elderly, the bereaved, the disabled is a priority then partially financing it out of general revenues should not seem unreasonable. But it does mean, perhaps, that we will need to decide which is more important: Social Security or Star Wars? Social Security or another carrier battle group? Social Security or a tax cut for the wealthy?

    The last resort of the enemies of Social Security is an appeal to greed. Heaven knows, we are a people well trained to gluttony, so this argument should have some affect. Beyond tedious explanations of the difficulty in making comparisons between private investment and the benefits of the Social Security program, it should be enough to simply note that for the rich and the reasonably well off, we already have a privatized supplement to the Social Security program in the form of the various Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k) plans. These subsidized forms of retirement savings only sometimes provide enough to actually support retirement; the less well off end up raiding or borrowing against them for immediate needs. But more to the point, as the New York Times recently reported, the average 401(k) plan actually lost money last year. And while it's probably too complicated for a mass audience, it wouldn't hurt to point out the uncertain record and uncertain health of our nation's private pension plans.

    Dubya's tame Commission argues that there is no guarantee in the promises of politicians: of course not. It's not entirely up to politicians to keep promises; it's our responsibility as well. But neither is there a guarantee in the value of financial assets, as the stock markets have so well demonstrated recently.

    The drive to privatize Social Security is not an isolated issue. It is part of an ideological attack on the working people of this country. It is nefarious plot by Dubya and his band of thieves to carve the U.S. government as if it were a Christmas turkey, and sell it, piece by piece at bargain prices to the wealthy.

    Are you going to let them get away with this?

    Summer Reading

    by Bob Roman

    Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. New York, Metropolitan Books: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 221 pp Hardcover $23.00

    One big problem with political books is that they are not often read by people who do not already pretty much agree with the author. Books on a special interest draw a readership concerned with the special interest. Books with an ideological subtext draw their own readership. Barbara Ehrenreich has succeeded in writing a special interest book (the working poor) with an ideological (left) subtext that can easily be read people who very much disagree with her perspective or are not overly concerned with her topic. You could, for example, give this book as a present to you reactionary Uncle Ernie and it's likely he would read it, enjoy it, and possibly even learn from it.

    This is not an easy thing to do.

    The basic premise of Nickel and Dimed draws upon a grand old tradition of journalism, that of assuming an identity to do a story. Specifically, "how does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market going to make it on $6 to $7 an hour?"

    In this case, Barbara Ehrenreich did not so much assume a false identity as a misleading biography: an older woman forced by circumstance to return to the job market after a long absence with little savings, no special skills, a car, and few or no friends in a new town. Ehrenreich drew up a fairly strict set of ground rules for herself to follow in each of the three cities where she attempted to live. These rules were a reasonable simulation of her assumed biography, and she applied them in Key West, Florida, in Portland, Maine, and in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She chose these venues partly for whimsical reasons but partly, also, to control for race and for local politics (Minnesota having a liberal tradition).

    Her experiences were depressingly uniform. Poverty is poverty and it imposes its own priorities. A lack of resources restricts choices, leaving one more vulnerable to exploitative situations. This applies to both economic and personal situations. Ehrenreich found that despite tight labor markets, large corporations such as Wal-Mart, often manipulated job applicants into being supplicants, denying any possibility of even individual bargaining over the conditions of employment. Likewise, for people working at near the minimum wage, an informal support network of friends and family is often crucial to staying off the streets, but too often the price for this support is high.

    A lack of resources also means that, of necessity, one's time horizon for planning ahead (listen up, Banfield!) is very near, forcing such people into making decisions that are considerably more expensive in the long run. Housing is an excellent example of this. Many of the people Ehrenreich worked with and indeed Ehrenreich herself lived in motels where the monthly expense is considerably more than even a modest apartment. But the motel does not get paid monthly but daily or weekly, so each payment is less than an apartment's monthly rent and, more to the point, the motel does not demand a month (or more) rent in security deposit. While Ehrenreich did not mention it, this does raise the issue of access for the poor to reasonably priced credit.

    Housing ends up being the immediate deal killer in all three metropolitan areas. Affordable housing, meaning housing that costs no more than 30 percent of one's income, is simply not available to people working near the minimum wage. Barbara Ehrenreich makes no systematic attempt to diagnose the reason for this beyond some observations about what might be called wealth inflation. But finding reasons isn't the purpose of her book. Rather, she lets her experience, and the experience of her fellow workers, illustrate the problem. She does point out (as have others) that our "official" definition of poverty is based on a "market basket" that assumes food takes a fixed percentage of the family income when in fact other necessities have inflated faster.

    All these things will be enlightening to our hypothetical Uncle Ernie, but don't expect a conversion experience for Ehrenreich's experience can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most particularly, conservatives are likely to observe that her experiment was designed with a short life span, with no more than a month spent in each metropolitan area. Sure, the circumstances are tough but that's life and ultimately, it's for the best.

    Our Uncle Ernie would point to one of the many interesting characters Ehrenreich met in her adventure, "Caroline" in Minnesota. She is the aunt of a New York friend; Caroline did in real life what Ehrenreich is doing as an exercise in journalism and then some. She took her children, left her husband, and ended up starting over in an unknown city.

    It would be untrue to characterize Caroline's life story as one disaster and hardship after another though she clearly has had more than her share. But it is clear that she is a survivor. Her advice for starting out in a new town: "Always find a church." At this point, Uncle Ernie would be starting to plug Bush's "Faith Based Initiative", but regardless of that proposal's merits or demerits, it's beside the point. What Caroline is telling us, really, is that if you live so close to the edge of disaster, the safer place to be, the place that might make the difference between survival and not, is a place of human solidarity. Regardless of the merits of faith, this is exactly what a church community can provide, ready made. Solidarity is something survivors understand; when Ehrenreich concludes her interview, Caroline spontaneously donates "a family-sized container of her homemade chicken stew". Don't expect Uncle Ernie to grasp this without help.

    There's a lot that Uncle Ernie won't understand. When we meet Caroline, she's living with her husband in a rented three bedroom house. It's expensive. It's shabby. It's in a chancy neighborhood. But with two incomes, they're earning $40,000 and have a life that works, albeit precariously. It was a tough struggle; it damaged her health. You might get Uncle Ernie to concede the need for some specific assistance, but I imagine him holding Caroline up as if she were a trophy, proclaiming it can be done!

    For socialists, this is beside the point. It doesn't matter that given hard, smart and lucky effort some measure of security might be gained. The outrage is a society, our society, that in order to function demands that there be losers and in doing so creates them just as it does yuppies, super stars, businessmen, etc. Ehrenreich's book merely documents the ugly process of making sausage. As Upton Sinclair's Jungle did, one hopes it may move some of the privileged to take action or, more to the point, be ready to lend a hand when the poor themselves take action. As Barbara Ehrenreich says at the end of her book:

    "Someday, of course and I will make no predictions as to exactly when they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end."


    Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle Edited by Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor. New York, New York University Press, 2000, 936 pp Softcover $29.95

    I should confess to a certain conflict of interest in writing this review. Jonathan Birnbaum is a Chicago DSA member. I first met him some years ago at the now defunct Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference. Over the years, I've come to know him as one of the more amusing, interesting and informed conversationalists in an organization replete with such skills. He has saved me from death by boredom at any number of conference literature tables.

    Yet when Jonathan Birnbaum tossed a review copy of this book in my lap last Fall, it wasn't the combined mass of 900 pages that made me sit up and shout; it was the title of its introduction: "It Didn't Start in 1954". I was hooked.

    The book consists of 182 articles, essays, original documents. It is divided into 6 parts: "Slavery: America's First Compromise", "Reconstruction", "Segregation", "The Second Reconstruction", "Backlash Redux", "Toward a Third Reconstruction". Civil Rights Since 1787 bills itself as "A Reader on the Black Struggle"; however, its main emphasis is actually on what is called the Second Reconstruction, the U.S. civil rights struggle of the second half of the Twentieth Century. But for that struggle to make sense, it needs to be in context. The prior record of the struggle needs to be presented.

    Even so, context will be a problem for some readers, particularly for those documents from the Nineteenth Century. Birnbaum and Taylor do provide an introduction to each selection and a longer introductory essay for each section, but even so: not only is the language somewhat different, but the documents are redolent in implications no longer obvious. This seems less true of the more contemporary material (or perhaps I'm getting old). It is clear, though, that the first audience for this book is the college (and perhaps high school) classroom where instructors and supplementary material can provide that context, or where the book itself is the supplementary material for a more specific syllabus. With this in mind, it almost seems that the book might have been better published as a CD, with annotations, links and a supporting web site.

    The part devoted to the Second Reconstruction includes about a third of the material in the book. The essays, articles and documents from this time are subdivided into "The Legal Strategy" (which is mostly material about Brown v. Board of Education, including the actual Supreme Court order), "Labor Days", "The Churches' Hour" (extensive!), "Economic Justice", "Black Power", "Electoral and Street Politics", "Discrimination: Ongoing Examples", "Affirmative Action".

    My two favorite essays in this book are from this part: Stokley Carmichael's essay on Black Power: "What We Want", and Bayard Rustin's "From Protest to Politics". Both were enormously controversial when they were fresh, and they both defined what seemed to be very different perspectives on the struggle. Yet from a distance of thirty years, they somehow seem not so different, almost complimentary. Considering the subsequent political careers of the respective authors, there's an essay in there somewhere. With 182 selections, folks will find their own favorites.

    Likewise, with so much material, you'll find selections that might have been better left out. My own particular disappointment was "The Abolitionist Movement" by Herbert Aptheker. Now, it would have been odd to not have included something by Aptheker in this volume (on the other hand, there's nothing by Robert Fogel), but this particular selection was simply Aptheker's attempt to turn the Abolitionist movement into a leninist fairy tale. It doesn't give either the subject or Aptheker much credit, and it comes at a place where the historical coverage is less dense thus the failure is more noticeable.

    But look, folks, there's a lot of material in this volume, and it's impressively indexed. If you're at all interested in U.S. history, particularly African American history, it belongs on your shelf. And at $30, let no one say you never get more than what you pay for; this book is truly a labor of love.

    Campaign for Care and Dignity

    By Bob Roman

    It is a pleasure to pass along a small but important victory. Last year the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 and the Service Employees International Union Illinois Council began a Campaign for Care and Dignity. The Campaign was intended to boost the pay of direct care workers, people who provide care for the developmentally disabled. Even though these people are employed by privately run community based agencies, a raise is something that must be done through the state legislature as this work is done through state contracts. Chicago DSA was among the endorsing organizations.

    The state budget for fiscal year 2001 - 2002 adopted in May includes funding to increase wages by $1 an hour for the estimated 20,000 frontline workers in privately run community based agencies for the developmentally disabled. A supplemental appropriation for the existing fiscal year was also passed, making that funding available retroactive to March 1 of this year.

    As AFSCME Council 31 Director of Community Relations John Cameron noted:

    " much remains to be done. Even with the raise, earnings for most direct care workers remain far below the self-sufficiency standard. Many lack affordable health insurance, pensions and other job benefits. And the right to dignity that union representation brings is still not available to most direct care workers in Illinois."

    March Against Police Violence

    By Bob Roman

    Chicago DSA was among the four dozen or so organizations that endorsed the "March Against Police Violence and Racism" on Saturday, June 2. We supported the march with a targeted postcard mailing directed at the zip codes around the Rogers Park venue for the march and to people most interested in the issue.

    The march drew about 500 people to Touhy Park near the intersection of Rogers and Clark. While the general objective of the event was to protest the Chicago Police Department's lack of accountability, the immediate object was a Rogers Park resident, Cook County States' Attorney Dick Devine because of his reluctance to pursue criminal cases against cases of police misconduct. The march involved a something of a ballet of bluff with the police, who attempted to use the mysterious loss of the parade permit application as a leash. Some 6,000 pieces of informational literature was distributed in the course of the march.

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