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LABOR BLUES

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Boston Fight for 15 March, April 2015 — Photo © 2015 Jason Pramas 

BY 

A number of contradictions hung in the air at the Greater Boston Labor Council’s annual Labor Day breakfast on Monday. Foremost among them was that the Democratic Party-dominated Massachusetts legislature has agreed to release the MBTA from the provisions of the anti-privatization Pacheco Law for three years — which will allow Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to start to privatize some of the beleaguered transportation agency’s services.

This unfortunate decision by the Dems spurred hundreds of Boston Carmen’s Union members to stage a protest outside the labor breakfast. With Pres. Barack Obama about to headline inside, the transit workers demonstrated in favor of keeping the T public and saving good union jobs. A worthy goal to be sure. So worthy that Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, spoke at the rally as well as the breakfast. To his credit. But neither he nor any other labor leader at either event laid out any specific plan to punish politicians who support replacing decent unionized jobs with lousy non-union jobs. Vague warnings were about as heated as things got. And ironically, the rally primarily targeted the Republican governor who proposed the hated privatization move rather than the Democratic legislature that disposed it. Or perhaps not so ironically.

In an ordinary year at an ordinary Labor Day breakfast, the rally and maybe the remarks of the ranking local politician present would have been the biggest excitement of the day. But this year, Obama not onlyaddressed the breakfast, but also used his speech to announce an executive order providing up to seven days of annual paid sick leave to 300,000 federal contractors. Unable — and often unwilling — to push larger versions of this and similar labor reforms through either friendly or unfriendly Congressional sessions, Obama has taken to using executive orders to improve the situation of discrete groups of workers that he can affect directly when it suits his political purposes.

The problem being that any future President can reverse such executive orders upon taking office. And Presidents often reverse their predecessors’ executive orders. So they are a policy tool of only limited usefulness.

The other problem, and certainly the most significant contradiction on offer Monday, is that it has been decades since the Democratic Party has been reliably pro-labor — which means that neither major party genuinely supports American workers in this era.

Despite this monumental political crisis facing American labor, two linked spectacles were on display — for those who cared to look — at Monday’s breakfast that demonstrated the reluctance of current union leadership to break away from the Dems. The first was that the Boston labor establishment hosted Democratic leaders and candidates shortly after the legislature they control handed a new Republican governor a victory on his dangerous agenda to further privatize and destabilize critical public services like the MBTA. As a fellow union held a significant protest against that agenda outside. Some offending pols were then scolded by speakers, but most current labor leaders will not actually follow through on threats. Instead they’ll do what they have grown too accustomed to doing: brag about minor achievements, and remain silent as a tomb about their many failures.

The second was the even larger spectacle of the President of the United States — a Democrat — flying national labor leaders up to Boston in Air Force One, and offering unions an olive branch in the form of adecent (but minor) reform. All the while eliding the fact that he has personally inflicted some of the most bruising defeats on labor in history — including winning fast-track approval authority for a so-called “trade agreement,” the Trans-Pacific Partnership, earlier this summer. An agreement that, among other very bad things, will accelerate the “race to the bottom” among the global workforce by allowing corporations to more easily outsource jobs to countries with worse labor standards than our own. Yet those same labor leaders ate up the President’s very temporary attention with gusto. At least in public.

While it may seem strange that labor continues to cleave to a political party that is openly committed to supporting the very capitalist forces that are ripping this country and planet asunder, it makes sense if one understands that most labor leaders are terrified to let the increasingly feral and triumphalist Republicans gain any more political ground. Yet they have no strategy to break free of the two-party duopoly. And the Republicans are hammering labor mercilessly, it’s true. Because the Democrats not only let them do so, but ally with them more often than not.

This regrettable alliance with the Democrats prevents labor from organizing waves of mass mobilizations and other forms of direct action against corporations and the rich that might actually change the American political scene. Because such mobilizations would be difficult to control. Too much like Occupy, which scared some labor leaders (and some ostensibly left-leaning non-profits) so much that they tried to co-opt it or outflank it on a number of occasions.

By way of example, the Service Employees International Union did lead the latest in a series of marches and rallies Monday for its version of the Fight for 15 campaign following the Labor Day breakfast. But it was a march of hundreds — a good number of whom, as ever, were staffers from participating unions and progressive non-profits. Not the needed march of tens of thousands of enraged and emboldened Boston workers, synced with marches of millions of workers in cities around the country. And thus it presented no challenge at all to a Democratic establishment that has failed to enact needed reforms, even when it has controlled the entire Congress and Presidency (as was the case after Pres. Bill Clinton’s 1992 win, and Obama’s 2008 victory). Or entire state governments, as with Massachusetts under eight years of Gov. Deval Patrick.

Improving this difficult situation for labor will require a number of internal reforms, even as the various external crises are taken on. Highest on the list should be democratizing the more authoritarian unions to allow free, full, and ongoing discussions of key political economic issues. Followed by regular, binding, union-wide referenda on vital questions like: “What politicians, if any, should we support in the next election cycle?” And: “What politicians should we punish?” Such a program of reform is absolutely necessary if labor is going to transform itself into the militant independent force for democracy that it once, at its best, was. And stop the kinds of weak back room deals that have passed for political programs in many sectors of American labor for far too long.

At the end of the day, it’s up to union members to change their organizations from one-stop free money and campaign worker shops for the pro-business Democratic Party into standard bearers for the just society to come.

Will they do so before American labor unions cease to be a meaningful social force? That remains to be seen.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network. APPARENT HORIZON is the first column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is a longtime labor activist and BINJ network director. He recently lost his job as assistant professor of communication after helping lead a successful core faculty union drive at Lesley University with SEIU Local 509. He is currently challenging the Lesley University administration’s refusal to renew his contract at the National Labor Relations Board.

 

Boston Celebrates May Day

 

Lessons for May Day

by Jason Pramas (originally credited as Editor)

 

Today is May Day. There are many Americans, including many on the American left, who have a somewhat skewed view of the history of May 1st as a workers’ holiday. (There are even more Americans who have no idea what May Day is at all, and a few old and cranky conservatives who know the holiday as “Loyalty Day.”) The idea is that it was called into being by early socialists and anarchists in the United States on May 1st, 1886, and that it spread worldwide in remembrance of the anarchist Haymarket Martyrs who were falsely persecuted for throwing bombs at the original May Day protest in Chicago that year and later hung for their political beliefs.

That all has an element of truth to it, but according to Prof. Priscilla Murolo – a historian at Sarah Lawrence College and author of From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend: A Short Illustrated History of Labor in the United States – it’s a bit more complicated than that.

It seems that May Day as a labor holiday (its “Red Root” according to Wikipedia, as opposed to its “Green Root” as a pagan European holiday) was initiated not by the large and basically left-wing labor federation of the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, but rather by its far smaller and technically more conservative sibling, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions.

In September 1882, the New York City Central Labor Council of the FOTLU called a “labor holiday” parade and 30,000 men and women marched for labor rights. Quoting Murolo “Many marchers carried banners and placards emblazoned with the slogan ‘Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, Eight Hours for What We Will.'” This holiday quickly spread around the U.S. and eventually became the official American Labor Day. The government endorsement and its later use as an anti-communist alternative to May Day has kind of destroyed its street cred among left militants in the U.S. But Labor Day has legitimate radical roots and should be reclaimed by the American left. And it would be a mistake to forget that the International Workingmen’s Association, the storied socialist First International, called for the eight-hour day at its founding convention in 1866; so doubtless there were some active socialists in the ranks of FOTLU 16 years later.

The FOTLU continued to push for the eight-hour day, not through legislative action, but through direct action. In 1884, the FOTLU Convention passed an amazing resolution by the standards of modern national labor conferences that stated “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The admonition to the U.S. government and the American ruling class was clear. American working people were calling a nationwide general strike on May Day in just over a year. And 350,000 working men and women at 11,000 establishments did just that. Over 65,000 of them hit the streets in Chicago alone, striking fear into the hearts of the city’s capitalists, and resulting in the reaction that led to the deaths of anarchist strike leaders Albert Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and Louis Lingg.

The Knights of Labor’s national leadership did not back the strike call, but its local assemblies did which ironically made the fight for the eight-hour day the Knights’ largest campaign. It also led to the organization’s demise, when in months following the events of May 1886, the leadership refused to back continued strike calls by its locals. This emboldened employers who proceeded to crush Knights assemblies in most industries. Its membership plummeted from 750,000 in 1886 to 220,000 in 1888. Interestingly, the last Knights local assembly was a Boston movie projectionists union that merged into another union in 1949 (area projectionist unionists now in the Industrial Workers of the World should take heart in this).

Meanwhile, in December 1886, the FOTLU voted to expand its mandate and become the American Federation of Labor – which soldiers on to this day as America’s largest labor federation, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.

So why bring this history up? Two reasons. Many of the militant activists behind the original May Day, in both labor federations of the day, were immigrants. Most of the Haymarket Martyrs were immigrants. So May Day in the U.S. in addition to being one of two labor days, must also be recognized as an immigrants’ day. In the last few years, May Day has seen a revival nationwide precisely because immigrants have made it so. Many of them hailing from countries that celebrate the day as the official workers holiday when the country of its birth doesn’t.

May Day is now inexorably tied to the fight for immigrants’ rights in the U.S. So all Open Media Boston viewers are encouraged to get out and march for labor and immigrant rights today starting with a 4 p.m. Rally at the Boston Common Bandstand, and a 5:30 p.m. March to Copley Square.

The second reason will be a little more obscure to many, but worth mentioning nonetheless. The house of American labor is again split in two, as it has been on a number of occasions. Three years ago, led by the large and growing Service Employees International Union, a new labor federation called Change to Win left the AFL-CIO. The CtW platform sounded more progressive than the AFL platform. There was much talk of pouring money into organizing and vastly expanding union ranks. But that has not really come to pass. If anything, CtW is coming to be seen as merely a creature of the SEIU which in turn is seen as a top-down undemocratic union that is making some uncomfortably accomodationist deals with American capitalists in the name of “organizing.” At the same time, the weakened AFL is looking more grassroots and more progressive in spots – particularly in member-unions like the Communication Workers of America.

Of course, neither federation is uniform in its political orientation or organizing strategy. And that’s the point here. The way forward for the American left and the working people of America – immigrant and non-immigrant – is not to put all our cards in any one labor organization (or political party for that matter). Instead it is to broadly map out what we really collectively need and want for better lives and a better society, and go out and demand it from the powers-that-be. Working and middle-class activists fought an ultimately successful, if messy and still contested, fight for the eight-hour day in the 1800s and 1900s. None of the labor federations of that era were solely responsible for the victory, and many unnamed political tendencies and organizations and individuals deserve credit as well. Ultimately, the form of their organizing was never as important as their message. And therefore, what feminists in Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement pointed out to women in the 1970s in their book Feminist Revolution holds just as true for working people everywhere today – “go for what you really want.”

So everyone have a great International Workers Day. Get out and demonstrate (and party) for a better America and a better world. Keep your eyes on the prize. One day we’ll make every day May Day.

Related Story: Boston Celebrates May Day

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Boston Summer Youth Jobs Program Fails in a Time of Crisis

by Jason Pramas (originally credited as Editor)

 

It’s pathetic, but true. Boston can’t even keep a proper summer youth jobs program going these days. This according to a Boston Globe piece indicating that the city’s 3 main summer jobs programs – run by Action for Boston Community Development, Boston Private Industry Council and the Mayor’s Office – expect to fall far short of the 9,500 jobs provided last summer.

There’s an old social democratic saw that says if we’re going to have a capitalist economic system with built-in permanent unemployment then we sure as hell had better have a cradle-to-grave living wage to provide a minimum taxpayer-funded income for everyone who needs it.

But since this is the U.S. we’re talking about, even that kind of minimal safety net was successfully beaten back by corporate forces decades ago. So the next best thing historically was to run various public jobs programs coupled with Social Security, Welfare, vets pensions, Medicare and a few other Depression-era artifacts to keep people on their knees through hard times, if not on their feet.

Yet even that pale shadow of a government for the people was too much for triumphalist corporations from the 1970s onwards. So government-run jobs programs at all levels are a thing of the past, unemployment is on the upswing, and the remaining U.S. social safety net is in such precarious shape after several years of the latest Bush regime that it barely lives up to the name.

And now, despite a growing list of economic woes, it seems that Boston is not going to be able to provide even the number of summer jobs for young people that it did last year – which was already insufficient in a time where the ranks of “high-risk teens” is growing and almost 25,000 of Boston’s children (about 23%) live in “intense poverty.”

According to a 2005 study by the Boston High-Risk Youth Network, about 8,000 of the over 100,000 youth in the 16-24 age range are classed as “idle youth” (neither in jobs nor school). It is, therefore, quite clear that our city, state and federal governments need to step up and provide sufficient public jobs to give young people a fighting chance for economic survival.

After all, those 8,000 down-and-out youth are hardly the only ones in need of summer – and long-term – employment. And if last year’s 9,500 summer jobs is now slated to drop far below that figure this summer because of cyclical and structural factors in the regional economy as we enter a serious recession, what can we expect will happen to all these unemployed kids?

Simple. Rather than have a city with full employment, and a rising standard of living for all, as we would with a real social safety net, we will instead get rising levels of poverty for over a quarter of Boston’s families – and rising crime, including serious crime like homicides, across the city.

So it seems that, once again, profit trumps people. Rather than reinstitute progressive taxation at all levels of government to pay for the public services we need to have a good society, our corporate-dominated government would just assume let society go to hell as long as profits keep flowing. And perhaps it’s just a bit ironic that the chicken coop that is city government allows foxes like the Boston Private Industry Council to guard the economic welfare of our young people at the same time that such corporate lobby groups fight tooth-and-nail to prevent the expansion of needed social programs across the board. But that’s a discussion for another day. As is a serious look at overall unemployment figures for Boston and environs.

However, there’s still time to act in this case. Mayor Menino needs to seriously get on the stick with what he has long considered one of his policy priorities, and find public money to create a real public jobs program to make sure that every young person that needs a living-wage job this summer will have one. It seems likely that there are two or three things in our fair city that young people in such a program might be able to spruce up, no?

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Excerpts from the Town Meeting on Black Male Joblessness

14 April 2008 – 6:25pm
by Jason Pramas

 

News video on the April 4, 2008 Town Meeting on Black Male Joblessness at the University of Massachusetts Boston in Dorchester, MA, USA – commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. The event was sponsored by the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and featured MA State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, Boston, MA City Councilor Chuck Turner, Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, and Brian Corr of the Cambridge, MA Peace Commission. Sarah Ann Shaw (not featured in this video) was the moderator. 10 minutes, 51 seconds.

For more info, check out http://www.unionofminorityneighborhoods.org.

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Boston’s Muni Wifi Woes Exacerbate the Digital Divide

The news last week was that Boston’s municipal wireless internet access (“muni wifi”) plan had slowed to a crawl – the city’s “public-private” muni wifi partnership having raised far less than the estimated $15 million it claims it needs to deliver cheap broadband wifi access to Boston’s neighborhoods.

At stake is a much-needed end to the “digital divide” that keeps Boston’s working class communities and communities of color in the information dark ages compared to more wealthy, and predominantly white, communities. But at this point, the digital divide is alive and well in neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, South Boston, and Hyde Park. And there’s no solution in sight.

This problem is part of a national trend – and part of the failure of national telecommunications agencies like the Federal Communications Commission to fulfill their mandate to protect the public interest.

Over the last few years, cities around the U.S. got easily suckered by a series of ill-fated private sector dominated plans to deliver muni wifi – only to watch them all fall like candlepins as internet corporations like Google and Earthlink realized that they were never going to be able to make the kind of money they’d hoped for from muni wifi and pulled out of projects around the country. These developments took place even as telecoms and cable companies like Verizon and Comcast fought the muni wifi proposals tooth-and-nail as “unfair competition” to their private (vastly overpriced and pathetically slow) internet networks.

Boston tried to outclever such internet industry-led plans (and, not conincidentally, preempt attacks from Verizon and Comcast), by following Cincinnati’s lead, and proposing the creation of a non-profit entity to run its nascent wifi project – although the city’s partnering with various high-tech corporations made it questionable how non-profit the effort would really be out of the gate.

Regardless, the city’s plans quickly hit the aforementioned fundraising wall, and the few pilot tests of its system ran into protests from the local blogging community that it was “filtering” (i.e., censoring) what websites users could access. Which can be read as one of a number of ways of purposely hobbling its system’s performance to appease the telecom industry’s hollow claims of unfair competition with their paid internet services. In the Cambridge public wifi plan – which also looks to be in trouble – a similar hobbling effect is created by only offering slower-than-normal internet connections through its system.

It’s actually pretty difficult to find accurate information on what’s up with Boston muni wifi as the rather limited energy behind the project has seemingly dissipated. All the relevant city or advocate websites are either out of date or shut down. City of Boston web pages referring to the project haven’t been updated since 2007 (or 2006 in some cases). The same is true of City of Cambridge web pages on their muni wifi project.

The Boston Foundation and other non-profits sponsors are silent. Most noticeable is the absence of the Boston Wireless Advocacy Group formerly run by Michael Oh, the guy that owns the Tech Superpowers internet cafe and Mac repair business on Newbury Street. He was the most visible booster of the project next to Mayor Menino in 2006, but has dropped from view since then.

Still, wherever Boston’s at with its existing muni wifi plans, the fact remains that there’s just no substitute for a fully public taxpayer-funded muni wifi system. For example, comparing where U.S. cities are now to cities like Paris, France that have real public muni wifi (check out this site for a map of Paris’ public wifi access points) shows precisely how far behind the curve we are. Even forcing Comcast and Verizon to change their home and business wifi service contracts to allow for public use of the tens of thousands of existing wifi access points around the city (the way Fon and other European telecom companies are doing in many cities) would be an excellent alternative to the current mess.

Of course both these potential solutions involve privileging the public sector over the private sector – and with corporate power over our government at all levels still in the ascendant, this will only happen if powerful social movements arise to force the issue. Winning a real public wifi system will take a great deal of work, needless to say, but it’s surely a battle worth fighting.

Because unless Boston and other American cities are willing to admit that access to the internet is a basic right in an age where being an information have-not is the equivalent of being shut out of the political and economic systems, and agree to devote tax money to provide the needed coverage as a public service, then we’re going to continue to see only fitful progress toward the goal of universal public internet access in the U.S. There will certainly be no improvements on the federal level until there’s a changing of the guard after the November Presidential election, and maybe not even then. So progress in regional centers like Boston will still be critically important to moving policy change on the national level.

For more (or in this case, less) information, check out:
http://www.cityofboston.gov/wireless/default.asp
http://www.cambridgema.gov/wifi/index.cfm

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Welcome to Open Media Boston

20 March 2008 – 3:11pm
by Jason Pramas

 

At first I wrote a long intro editorial for this inaugural post. Then I thought better of it. Because if I lead off with a 1400-word piece, that might set the wrong tone for this section. After all, the Editorial section is where Open Media Boston editors – starting with me as Editor/Publisher – will give this publication’s opinion on matters high and low. As such, these pieces should be as short and punchy as possible, no? So let’s get off on the right foot here …

First of all, welcome! This is a new project, and lots of people have worked to get it this far. We’re glad you’re here.

Second, here’s the deal with Open Media Boston … we’re a progressive news, views and arts portal dedicated to covering the Greater Boston area. We use what’s called social media technology to do that – and that means the viewers of this site can actively produce content for the site. You, the viewer, can help build a progressive news organization. That’s the media part. This organization will also be a community. That’s the social part. Everyone involved can interact with each other on this website, and also in public events we’ll host around the area. Working collectively is key to the site’s success.

Third, by progressive we mean we’re a publication of the broad left politically. For sake of ease, let’s just say that means everyone to the left of the pro-corporate wing of the Democrats (i.e., the Democratic Leadership Committee). We like participatory democracy. We believe in social, economic and environmental justice. We’re fans of equality between all peoples. We think peace is a good thing. And we’re big on the freedoms of speech and expression. People that agree with these principles will feel right at home here.

Fourth, we are a publication. Sort of like a print newspaper or magazine. We will always represent a particular point of view about the world. Folks that don’t agree with that point of view are certainly welcome to participate in this community and join in discussions and debates here, but folks that can’t follow basic rules of netiquette and behave themselves will be shown the virtual door.

Fifth, as a publication, we have an editorial board. Right now we have a couple of initial editors, including me, and we’ll be recruiting more in the months to come. The editors are responsible for looking at multimedia content that Open Media Boston community members submit to this site, and choosing what to publish to the Front Page – after screening them for relevance, timeliness, and seeing if they meet basic journalistic and production standards. Content that passes muster will be promoted to the Front Page. Everything else will remain in the Open Forum. Stories that violate our Mission Statement or Terms of Use (soon to appear on our new About page) will be deleted. Users can comment on any content on the site, subject to the same caveats.

Sixth, everyone who joins this community will do so using their real names. No one will ever be anonymous on this website. If we are building a community, and encouraging respectful discussion and debate, then transparency and the tolerance it tends to engender are important. When people can post anonymously to communities like this one, they tend to say things they wouldn’t say in person. Often hurtful, destructive, or just completely pointless things. That kind of negative environment causes site users to leave in droves. And that’s no way to build a community, now is it?

Seventh, we’re an all-volunteer non-profit publication. But we believe it’s important that everyone who produces content for the project or works as a staff person or editor should get paid as soon as that’s possible. We also realize that publishing – in any medium, and from any political viewpoint – requires money. So we’re actively looking into various non-evil ways to raise funds. Starting with the donation page that will be appearing shortly. Please, give early and give often. Even a few bucks here and there will help us enormously. And remember, creators keep all rights to their own content on Open Media Boston, we just get the non-exclusive right to display it on this site and archive it on our server. We’ll never stop you from being able to sell your content to other publications – or giving it away or sharing it with whomever you choose. Your work remains yours when you publish here.

Finally, we really want to focus on Boston and environs in most of our coverage. We will encourage everyone who provides content to the site to make sure there is a “Boston hook” in anything they submit for publication – meaning that whatever you post to this site should be connected with the Greater Boston area in some way. There are certainly content areas that can’t and shouldn’t always be Boston-centric – like satire or discussions of technology or faith – but there are many areas than can be. And we can only distinguish ourselves as a Boston news portal, if we cover Boston.

If you want to join the Open Media Boston community, it’s easy. On the left hand side of the Front Page, you’ll see a place to register for a user account. Just click that link, follow the simple instructions, and set up your account. Our system will send you a confirmation email message. Once you reply you’re all set. Then you can create content and make comments as described above.

So I think that should get you all up to speed on the basics. The rest will be covered in great detail soon on the About page.

We hope you’ll join the Open Media Boston community today. And tell all your friends. We’re in our beta test period now – working the kinks out of our system and testing new features. But we’ll be doing our full site launch within the next few weeks; so the more the merrier.

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