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STRIKE. IRON. HOT.

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Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) demonstration with Joseph J. Ettor speaking from platform to striking barbers in Union Square, New York. (1913)

You don’t need a union to take action for justice on the job

July 18, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week 1,200 Tufts Medical Center nurses unionized with the Mass Nurses Association (MNA) called a rare one day strike for a better deal on their latest contract. This doubtless left many onlookers — especially younger ones — scratching their heads and asking “what’s a strike?” No surprise, given the American corporate media’s ideological aversion to covering all matters labor, past and present. But fortunately a willful omission that is easily remedied by news outlets willing to honestly discuss the political economic struggles of working people.

A strike occurs when any group of workers refuses to work. Usually to demand reforms on the job like better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Although commonly perceived as an action that can only be taken by members of a labor union, that is not the case. Historically, workers struck long before there were formal unions — and more recently, the right of most workers in the private sector to strike was enshrined in section 7 of the New Deal era National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The salient part of which reads:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…

The Supreme Court supported the idea that any group of workers covered by the NLRA had the right to strike and engage in “other concerted activities” — whether unionized or not — in the 1962 decision National Labor Relations Board v. Washington Aluminum Company. Finding that a group of seven ununionized workers had the right to refuse to work in an unheated factory in the dead of winter until its furnace was repaired.

Naturally, most formal strikes are called by organized unions like the MNA, but it’s worth focusing on the right of ununionized workers to strike because we live in an era when labor unions have been beaten down by giant corporations and the rich people who own them. To the point where the vast majority of all working people in the US are not unionized. Over 89 percent of us in fact. Much research indicates that the precipitous decline in living standards for American families since 1979 is directly connected to the decline of union power. Notably a 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers” that demonstrates the important role unions play in increasing wages for all workers when they are strong.

But another way of looking at the situation is that worker militance on the job has been in steep decline over the same period that unions have been smacked down to the proverbial curb. When strikes were common, working people got the goods. As strikes have become more and more infrequent since the 1970s, the fortunes of the working class (which by the way includes all you supposedly “middle class” people out there who wear dressier clothes to work and have fancy degrees) have trended downward.

This state of affairs is certainly the fault of the “one percent” who control the commanding heights of capital, but blame can also be laid at the feet of many American unions — which have become decidedly less willing to fight over the decades since they won concessions like the NLRA from bosses and the government. Its leaders preferring to put their dwindling funds and often woefully limited political aspirations into backing Democrats for office at all levels. Who — on the rare occasions that they get elected now that most Americans understand them to be bought and paid for by the same ruling class that has made the Republicans into a caricature of a political party — continue to backstab working families with depressing regularity.

So workers in Boston and beyond, unionized and ununionized, need to step up and start exercising their NLRA right to “concerted activities” on the job… up to and including strikes. Before we all lose that right. The Trump administration is many things, but it is no friend of working people. And any damage it does to labor will not be undone by corporate Democrats or anyone else without pressure from below. Strikes, aside from their instrumental value, are very much part of the necessary political pressure for a more fair and just America.

It won’t be easy. Many, many laws have been passed by Democratic and Republican administrations alike since the McCarthy Era to reverse pro-labor reforms and stop working people from fighting for their rights on the job. People who do so will definitely lose battles on their way to building a better society. Believe me, I know. I have taken such risks inside and outside of unions, and lost jobs on more than one occasion.

But there will also be many victories. And as Frederick Douglass, a man who did not just help lead the abolitionist movement to victory, but was also elected president of the Colored National Labor Union in 1872, said:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

If you believe in democracy, on and off the job, then you will stand with union workers like the Tufts nurses when they strike. And you will take the fight to your workplace — whether it’s unionized or not. Reviving existing unions and building new ones along the way. And then onward to vie for control of the halls of power.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

REAL RIDESHARING

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Evolving the way the world moves … beyond Uber (and Lyft)

July 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the July 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

Over the years, I’ve often written about how to improve public transportation in the Bay State. But this time out, rather than rehash my standing call for the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to properly fund such a necessary service, I’d like to take a different tack and discuss a topic germane to the future of both transportation in general and public transportation in particular. Specifically, the so-called ridesharing industry pioneered by corporations like Uber and Lyft.

Ridesharing is a transportation system in which riders and drivers interact via software on cell phones, rather than going through human dispatchers. The software allows riders to see which drivers are near them, and to have the closest one assigned to them. It provides price estimates for rides, features seamless automatic payments from rider to driver at the end of each trip — and it incentivizes simple but important things like drivers keeping their vehicles clean.

One would think this ridesharing system would be great for riders and drivers alike, but that’s not the case. The problem with ridesharing … is that it’s not really ridesharing. That is, Uber and Lyft and smaller companies like Fasten completely control their operations from top to bottom. Including the economic structure that determines how much riders will pay in fares — and what cut of those fares go to drivers. This system is non-transparent and largely unregulated.

An actual ridesharing system would be controlled by its riders and drivers. It could, and I would posit should, be publicly managed. In short, rather than allow ridesharing companies to assist in the dismantling of existing public transit systems like the MBTA by gradually privatizing them, those systems — or agencies set up by individual cities — could run municipal ridesharing services at cost.

Fares would be regulated in ways that would ensure riders the best fares — which poor and working class riders would be able to consistently afford. A small percentage of each fare would go to the municipal rideshare service to develop and maintain the necessary software and infrastructure. Then all the extra money that presently flows into the coffers of Uber and Lyft top brass and investors would be paid to drivers in the form of the best possible wages.

Such a service would be an excellent adjunct to public trains and buses, and would make it much easier for everyone to get from point A to point B. Plus it would be far more democratic because it could be organized to ensure that riders and drivers would play a large role in managing the service. It could even be run as a hybrid of a consumer and a worker cooperative. And democratically controlled from top to bottom. Restricting the growth of Uber and Lyft to something like their natural share of the private transportation market by its mere existence.

Going the public route — or at least a similar nonprofit route being experimented with by RideAustin in Austin, TX — would satisfy the needs of the loyal base of Uber and Lyft clients by providing comparable service at a better price point. And it would also satisfy the needs of a whole new layer of riders who will be able to afford access to new municipal ridesharing services on a regular basis — in addition to public buses, trolleys, and trains. All while paying living wages to drivers. Who are, after all, the backbone of the current corporate ridesharing system. But who are also the most exploited by it.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

GETTING TO BIKE

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Urban multimodal network needed to make bicycles a viable alternative in the ’burbs

June 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the June 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

There are many merits to backing legislation, regulations, and customs that make it easier for people to use bicycles to get around. Improving individual health by getting more people more exercise, improving public health and global warming prospects by reducing carbon emissions, and relieving traffic congestion to name just a few. And over the last four decades, many communities have created bike lanes and bike paths, installed bike racks, and limited certain streets to pedestrians and bikes for those very reasons.

The problem is that the societal benefits that come with an expanding bike culture are unevenly distributed. In the car-centered suburbs — meaning most of the US — using a bike as a primary transportation mode is more difficult and significantly more dangerous than it is in many cities. And the distances people have to pedal to get to jobs or shop are longer — stopping more people from getting out of their cars and onto bikes day to day.

Ameliorating that situation will require better regional planning with an eye toward creating bigger, better public transportation networks that link to bicycle infrastructure in their “last mile.” Then building bike lanes from the network hubs where buses, trains, and trolleys converge. Out to the neighborhoods where people live.

It will also require a change in thinking by millions of people who are used to jumping into their cars anytime they need to go anywhere. Be it 100 miles or, all too often, only a few blocks away. Such a change means that people will need a pretty big incentive to begin to do things differently.

So here’s one important incentive: life is easier when you don’t have to rely on a car to get around. In cities like Boston, more and more people are riding their bikes to subway stops or bus stops in the morning, parking them there, taking the T to work, and reversing those steps in the evening. Many others ride their bikes all the way to work — moving much faster on average than the cars stuck in traffic around them. Still more use our growing rental bike system, Hubway.

From my perspective, living and working in the city spares me the expense of a car. And, more importantly, I don’t need to own one to get around. I live a couple of blocks from four bus lines, and a 10-minute walk from two T stops. With a bike, that 10 minutes plus any wait time becomes two or three minutes. And skipping the T and biking across town takes 20 to 30 minutes. Even in busy traffic.

When it’s time to shop, one can either use a bike equipped with a basket or trailer. Or take a bus or train both ways. Or walk or bike to the nearest market and take a cab back, if buying heavy stuff. Or take a cab both ways. Or use a car sharing service like Zipcar to rent cars and vans by the hour. Myself and fellow urbanites have all these options, and more, because Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline all have dense public transportation networks — augmented by quasi-public and private transit options. And a fast-growing separate bicycle infrastructure. Businesses and public services cluster around transportation hubs; so there’s much more for me to do much closer to home than when I lived in the suburbs.

In general, this means that I have more leisure time in the city than many people in the suburbs do because I’m commuting less — and I have more money in my pocket because I don’t have to own a car to get around. I’m also not sitting in traffic for big chunks of my day — so my life is that much less stressful (understanding that every form of transportation has its own problems). Best of all, I can take comfort in the fact that my “carbon footprint” is very small. The amount of carbon that’s burned in the form of oil and natural gas to allow me to be a modern person in an advanced industrial society is much lower than someone who has to own a car. True, housing prices are higher in the city than the ’burbs, but the difference is definitely offset by cheaper transportation costs. And having more free time is invaluable.

My point here is simple. More folks need to get behind policies that make an urban multimodal transportation network possible for the vast majority of US residents — instead of just a minority of Americans in mostly coastal cities. That’s going to require large numbers of people to be more aware that life with bikes and public transit is easier and better in some important respects than life in the current suburban car culture.

And that’s why I’m recounting my daily transportation experience here. So that you all think it over, and consider joining advocacy coalitions like MassBike in backing policies that improve transportation options in your city or town. And then help fight for more money to vastly expand our public transportation system. Two reforms which will, in tandem, transform suburban biking from a recreational activity, sport, or idiosyncratic form of commuting into a commonplace.

 

This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its ongoing Vicious Cycle series. Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at binjonline.org, and share your stories about cycling in Greater Boston at facebook.com/binjnetwork

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

PRESS FAIL: AS GE CEO STEPS DOWN, BOSTON JOURNALISTS MUST DO THEIR JOB

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June 14, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

recent column by the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung perfectly encapsulates the problem with local media cheerleading for General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters to Boston. The title alone says it all: “Will GE’s new CEO remain committed to Boston?” Because, like so many pieces on the subject by Leung and company, it fails to ask the key question: why did state and local government shovel huge amounts of public money to a private enterprise, and put it in a position to potentially cause grievous harm to a major city’s economy, to begin with? And why did the region’s newspaper of record — and much of the Boston press corps — back the scheme so uncritically?

But now, after all the prattle by fawning journalists about the days of wine and roses to come, it turns out that the various moves GE CEO Jeff Immelt made to reinvent the conglomerate as an “innovation” company came at the expense of a significant drop in profits. And it looks like the GE board balked and forced Immelt out — although the official line is that he “stepped down.” Doubtless after noting a rise in share prices in March after activist investors told Fox News that he might be pushed into retirement. He’s been replaced with a new CEO from within GE’s own ranks, John Flannery. Who hails from Chicago, and may not have the same warm fuzzies for the Hub that Immelt at least pretended to have. If Flannery doesn’t back the Boston deal as strongly as Immelt that could mean disaster for everyone who shilled for it. And if GE’s stock prices continue to tank, fuggedaboutit!

In that spirit, it’s worth recalling that the whole boondoggle was dumped on the public by Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker as a done deal in January 2016. There were no public forums on the plan, no deliberation by the state legislature or the Boston City Council, and certainly no referendums. The whole thing was cooked up on the quiet by high level politicians, their aides, and top GE brass. In the end, over $145 million in state and city tax breaks and direct aid was promised to GE — together with another $25 million in state money to fix up the area around the site of the company’s new Fort Point HQ, and up to $100 million in repairs to the Old Northern Ave. bridge. Up to $270 million in public money in total. Although the bridge project is now up in the air; so the final total — as with all final totals in public spending — remains to be seen. Still, a huge amount of money to spend on a vast multinational any way you slice it. Especially when GE is not yet being asked to pay rent for the 20 year lease on the public property its new headquarters is using.

As my own series of columns on the deal showed last year, GE has a decades-long track record of screwing government at all levels, communities it operates in, and its own workers six ways from Sunday. Which is why unearthing corporate crime after corporate crime by way of demonstrating why the people of Massachusetts have absolutely no reason to trust the company did not require much new reporting on my part. It was a relatively simple matter of looking at major investigative stories on GE by several news outlets — including the Globe itself. What I found was disturbing in the extreme. Yet the largest Boston news outlets were virtually silent about the very obvious downsides to championing the payoff of a corporate behemoth to relocate its HQ to our fair city. And now the most prominent of them is clearly getting worried about its violation of the public trust.

To review, General Electric has done a lot of bad stuff over the last forty years — much of it in Massachusetts. It slashed tens of thousands of good unionized jobs here. Destroying the economies of Bay State cities like Lynn, Pittsfield, and Fitchburg in the process. GE played highly illegal games with municipal bond investment funds nationwide — and got away with it. It wreaked havoc with the environment in many of the places it did business. Notably in Pittsfield and the Housatonic River valley south to Long Island Sound. Which it polluted with carcinogenic PCBs. A horrendous mess that it partially cleaned up after a protracted struggle with the EPA and local activists. Yet it continues to try to weasel out of finishing the job to save some small fraction of its annual profits. Like it did in a similar Hudson River cleanup. GE also played a major role in creating the toxic housing debt that led to the 2008 financial crash, and was then bailed out by the federal government with boatloads of practically free public money. In exchange for ruining the lives of thousands of poor mortgage holders. And it did all this while paying hardly any taxes at all relative to its huge size.

Ultimately, far too many area journalists dropped bags of balls with the GE Boston Deal story. If they had been doing their job — instead of engaging in a particularly crass form of unthinking civic boosterism that one would expect of low rent PR consultants for a down-on-the-heels rust belt city — Boston might not be in the position it’s now in. Stuck with a bad deal and light a bunch of money that the city and state desperately need during our ongoing fiscal crisis. Which was created by the very neoliberal playbook that still guides both government policy and kid glove news coverage of same.

But that’s what passes for thinking on economic development in the American press of today. My colleagues in major news media generally don’t push for regional planning controlled by democratically elected politicians and overseen by the public in real ways. They don’t support a grassroots process directly involving local communities that start by asking “what do working families need, and how might those needs be best served?” No, they just figure “let’s encourage the pols to throw public money at big corporations, and then they’ll come to Boston, and we’ll have a great economy.”

Well an economy that’s not great for working people is not a great economy. It’s a bad, unequal economy. And that’s the root of most of our major societal woes in this era.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that next time top politicians cook up another backroom deal with corporate titans that the rest of the Boston news media will join my teammates and I at DigBoston in calling it what it is: corruption. Those who won’t should just go ahead and get jobs in the sleaziest PR operations they can find. Because they’re not fit to be journalists.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

THE PEOPLE’S BUDGET

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A better way forward for the federal government

May 30, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

At this point, anyone who pays attention to current affairs in even a cursory manner will be aware that President Donald Trump’s proposal for the next federal budget is a savage attack on working families — and a slap across the collective face of the working people who voted for him.

Appropriations for Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Meals on Wheels, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Public Service (student) Loan Forgiveness program are to be slashed — with funding for programs like Child Care Access Means Parents in School, the Legal Services Corporation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Endowment for the Arts to be wiped out entirely.

But fear not because Trump offsets domestic immiseration with major increases to the military and law enforcement budgets. Which translates to more dead peasants globally, more dead immigrants at our borders, and more dead black kids at home. Making America great. According to the administration anyway.

No real surprise to anyone who was paying attention to the company Trump was keeping (defense contractors and theocrats and charter school flacks, oh my) during his campaign. Even as he mouthed populist rhetoric that convinced enough white working and middle class voters in swing states to back him that his victory in the Electoral College was assured.

So what’s the alternative? At the moment, the People’s Budget: A Roadmap for the Resistance FY 2018 proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus does a reasonable job of pointing to a more positive future for the nation. It hasn’t gotten much coverage, unsurprisingly, but it’s definitely worth a look. Bullet points from the CPC website follow.

Massachusetts Reps. Jim McGovern (D), Mike Capuano (D), and Katherine Clark (D) have all sponsored the forward-thinking budget. Plus a raft of left-leaning Democratic groups and organizations to their left are supporting it. The proposal is obviously a long shot, but you can’t have a successful movement for change without some aspirational campaigns like this one. For more information, and to plug into local activism for the passage of the People’s Budget, check out mass-peoples-budget.orgReaders seeing this column online on Tuesday 5.30.17 can take immediate action at the March Against President Trump’s Budget Plan, tomorrow (Wednesday) at 11:30 am at the Tip O’Neill Federal Building on Causeway Street in Boston.

Invest In America

  • Invests $2 trillion to transition to a 21st Century infrastructure to transform our energy, water and transportation systems
  • Closes loopholes so our government agencies use materials made in America
  • Expands our commitment to efficient renewable energy and green jobs
  • Invest $100 billion to increase access to reliable, high-speed internet

Affordable Health Care

  • Maintains critical coverage gains under Affordable Care Act
  • Lowers costs of prescription drugs
  • Allows states to transition to single-payer health care systems
  • Expands access to mental health care and treatments for opioid and heroin addiction
  • Repeals excise tax on high-priced healthcare plans for workers and replaces with public option

Fair Tax System for Working Families

  • Ends corporate tax break for offshoring American jobs and profits
  • Stops companies from renouncing their American citizenship to dodge U.S. taxes
  • Closes wasteful corporate tax loopholes that cost billions of dollars
  • Taxes Wall Street to fund Main Street
  • Ensures profits from investments are finally taxed at the same rate as income taxes
  • Raises revenue from the wealthiest few who can afford to pay more
  • Expands the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Care Credit

Justice and Fair Elections

  • Ensures the justice system is fair and effective for all Americans by increasing funding for voter protection and legal assistance programs
  • Rebuilds trust in the justice system by developing community oriented policing reforms
  • Protects American election systems from any interference and increases protections for voting rights by strengthening key election reforms
  • Funds public financing of campaigns to curb special interest influence in politics
  • Supports policies and initiatives to significantly reduce gun violence

Educational Opportunities for Every Student

  • Delivers on the promise of lifting working families up by investing $1 trillion in effective early learning opportunities and for a child care for all program
  • Makes debt free college a reality for all students
  • Greater investments in K-12 education
  • Increases computer science opportunities for all students
  • Allows refinancing of student loans
  • Fully funds IDEA and provides Pre-K for all

Pathways Out of Poverty and Empowering the Middle Class

  • Supports a minimum wage increase and collective bargaining rights
  • Provides a plan to reduce poverty by half in ten years
  • Increases discretionary funding to invest in women, communities of color and their families
  • Provides an increase in Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers
  • Strengthens the Small Business Administration’s ability to provide support to America’s small business owners
  • Addresses the pay equity gap

Comprehensive and Just Immigration Reform

  • Implements comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship
  • Prohibits funding for construction of any border wall and any immigration policies which seek to ban people from entering the U.S. because of their religion
  • Supports continued funding to sanctuary cities

Access to Housing

  • Fully funds programs to make housing affordable and accessible for all Americans
  • Invests $12.8 billion to end family homelessness

Protecting our Environment

  • Closes tax loopholes and ends subsidies provided to oil, gas and coal companies
  • Identifies a price on corporate carbon pollution
  • Invests in clean, renewable, and efficient energy and green manufacturing

Protecting Our Veterans

  • Eliminates veterans’ homelessness
  • Increases access to mental health care for all veteran and service members
  • Invests in job training opportunities for transitioning service members and veterans

Sustainable Defense: Promoting Peace And Security

  • Modernizes our defense system to create sustainable baseline defense spending
  • Ends emergency funding for Overseas Contingency Operations
  • Increases funding for diplomacy and strategic humanitarian aid
  • Adds robust funding for refugee resettlement programs
 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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BATTLE OF THE NOOBS

Fascist Rally Photo by Luke ONeil.jpg

Photo by Luke O’Neil

‘Boston Free Speech’ protesters and counter demonstrators both lose the day

May 17, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week’s right-wing Boston Free Speech protest at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common did not require a response from the left wing. Let’s get that out of the way up front. The small rally and march of — to be generous — maybe a couple hundred people throughout the course of the day was not newsworthy. Because its political message was incoherent.

By way of proof, check out this rally speech from an older activist I’ll call Scooby Doo:

There’s a reason why these people think the way they do. They are being indoctrinated. They have been indoctrinated since they were very young. Since they were in elementary school that whites are the evil people, that here are the evil white boogeyman. That the white man has his boot on the neck of every minority out there. And that they somehow have to right the wrongs of their ancestors. This is nonsense, people. This is bullshit what they’re trying to do. As if they’re trying to destroy western civilization. And to do that they’re going after whites.

Then compare that to this talk from a younger activist I’ll call Scrappy Doo:

But the shot that was heard was our voices, people. Today we come together united. [Unintelligible] all races, all nationalities, all genders, we don’t discriminate. Contrary to what the left says, if you’re a liberal, you love the constitution, you belong here with we the people. People, this is just the beginning of this movement.

And compare both to these remarks from another younger activist I’ll call Dooby Doo:

This isn’t a Massachusetts thing, this isn’t a white thing, this isn’t a black thing, this is an American thing. And it’s not wrong to say make America great again. It doesn’t mean racist things. Make America great again means let freedom ring. And not it be silenced. We have our veterans to thank for that. So let’s support our veterans to support our rights to freedom of speech, our Second Amendment, and the cops. To all you police, we’re with you.

To review, the speakers platform was shared by an older unreconstructed racist who thinks a decent history education is some kind of communist plot, a younger very accepting guy who thinks the broad left doesn’t like the Constitution, and another younger guy who thinks Trump’s campaign slogan was meant for everyone Black and white — while sending unconditional love to all cops everywhere. Including, by default, racist killer cops. No one was exactly what I’d call “on message.” Because the rally’s message was all over the road … and even the demands its organizers listed in their press release were gonzo: “First, encourage public institutions to reaffirm their commitment to the First Amendment or face cuts to their federal funding; second, label ‘Antifa’ a domestic terrorist organization due to the violence at previous Free Speech events; and third, end the culture of fear surrounding political correctness.”

 
                       Photo by Luke O’Neil

So, like a hundred small left-wing actions that have been staged at the same location in recent decades — with the same intent of “reaching the public” while suffering from a serious lack of political focus — there was literally no danger at all of rally organizers reaching anyone they weren’t already reaching. Let alone recruiting significant numbers of new people to any hard right organization. Both because it was poorly attended for a regional event and because it was confusing. Like, really confusing. Since the language [e.g. “Kekistan”] and symbols [e.g. the “Kekistan” flag] used by many attendees and speakers are meaningless to anyone who doesn’t spend a large part of their life in online forums shaking their virtual fists of aimless rage at the hated sky.

All in all, if you held a political rally on an island in the middle of a frozen lake in the deepest wilds of the Canadian tundra, you’d likely have more effect on the public discourse than this event would have had.

And how could it be otherwise? The action was run by a mismatched coalition of older right-wing extremists and a larger number of younger hacker types. The main thing that seemed to bring attendees — who were mostly white (with exceptions like three members of a conservative Black family) and male — together was disdain for sectors of the American left that believe it’s important to try to shut down right wingers’ ability to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech. Hence the name of the event.

This was an action, therefore, run in no small part by amateurs. By “noobs” in the parlance of dank corners of the internet — like the 4chan and 8chan imageboard websites where many of the rally organizers found each other. Newbies. People with very little experience in politics, in this case.

That’s great, right? No harm, no foul. A group of people smaller than you’ll find in the average chain restaurant at lunchtime, yelling to each other with megaphones for a couple of hours. Then “taking to the streets” to yell at random passersby. Then calling it a day.

Well, that’s how it would have gone … until some younger inexperienced left-wing activists decided that the event was a manifestation of some kind of new mass fascist organization on our doorstep. And went off on the very “black bloc” trip that pissed off a lot of the hackers enough to have a “free speech” rally in the first place. Given that, as readers may recall, Bay Area black bloc types recently played a role in forcing the cancellation of talks by conservatives Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley. That is, in the absence of forethought, they thought that hiding their faces from the majority of the population who are their natural allies against the confused array of outright reactionary and merely unschooled ideas on offer at the rally was somehow a good plan.

And so it came to pass that an even smaller group of mostly younger people politicized and organized in a different set of internet forums donned a motley assortment of heavy clothing (black being the most prominent color), masks, and in some cases helmets, and stood on Flagstaff Hill looking down on the right wingers around the bandstand from some distance away. Ready to fight if necessary. They were joined by a slightly larger coterie of area left-wing activists — also mostly younger people, but with more political experience overall — who had taken a nonviolence pledge before attending. The Boston police formed a cordon between the right- and left-wing groups. And a shouting war started between the two sides capped by another conservative I’ll call Scooby Dum crossing the skirmish line and belting a left winger after shoving a Pepsi at the person (in an apparently ironic reference to the Kendall Jenner commercial scandal). Both antagonist and victim were arrested. The BPD version of equal justice, one supposes.

 
                        Photo by Luke O’Neil

This tyro armageddon provided red meat for the press that would otherwise have ignored the event, and resulted in coverage that would not have happened if the counter demonstrators had left well enough alone.

Now it’s true the organizers of the right-wing action fell on each other shortly afterwards in a torrent of mutual social media recriminations involving the absurd neologism “cuck.”

But the critical lesson of the whole sorry affair should not be lost on erstwhile “anti-fascists” on the fringes of the American left: There are indeed times when it’s important to stand up against the right wing in militant and very public ways … but you never want to hold response actions to dysfunctional right-wing events that will result in their learning to become more effective organizers. You don’t want to help them evolve. You don’t want to act like an overdose of old antibiotics on a mutating strain of TB. You need to be smart and LET THEM FAIL. So badly that they’re forced to scurry back under their disconnected individual rocks to lick their wounds and perhaps even rethink their more extreme political positions.

In this situation, the correct thing to do was let the right wingers have their wonky little rally and then faction fight themselves into oblivion over its failure. Instead, the ill-conceived counterdemo got that rally far more attention than it deserved, and taught the fringe right that it’s really easy to bait the more jumped-up sectors of the left to play the part of “bad freedom haters” in their latter-day Old Glory-waving passion play. Helping them organize more disaffected young people … and possibly turning them from a sideshow of a sideshow into a serious threat in the process. Not good.

Here’s hoping that the younger left activists who participated in the counter demonstration now decide to turn their energies toward better educating themselves politically and then focus on reaching out to engage society at large with organizing campaigns to challenge the root causes of racism and racist white reaction. And that the more established left-wing organizations that inexplicably decided to join them on the Common revert to their usual activities along those lines. Helping build the majoritarian movement for democracy that America desperately needs, rather than comporting themselves in ways that could end up bringing ruin down on the heads of the left at large. At the hands of a right wing that will always be better at violence in this period than macho posturing fringe leftists looking for a shortcut to their ill-considered version of “revolution.”

Note: This column was written based on my analysis of news coverage and social media posts about the Boston Free Speech rally from the perspective of a longtime political activist who has run large numbers of left-wing protests. I did not attend the event.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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PROGRESSIVE CONFUSION

Clinton campaign image

Only multiparty democracy will ensure that left policies are enacted in Mass

May 10, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

There is a persistent myth that Massachusetts is a left-wing state. The basis of this demonstrably false conceit is that the Commonwealth has had a Democratic majority in its legislature for as long as anyone can remember. In that context, a recent State House News Service article, “Mass Progressives See Something Missing on Beacon Hill,” makes sense. It examines the political travails of the left-leaning Democratic Party pressure group Progressive Massachusetts, and questions why a progressive grassroots organization in such an ostensibly progressive state can’t get its bills passed with any regularity.

A state that just 50 years ago could build public housing, significantly expand public transportation, and build public colleges, today can’t pass any forward-thinking social program of any significance. Unless you think cutting taxesslashing public spending, and throwing public money at giant corporations like General Electric is a social program. Yet all along, the state has been run by politicians calling themselves progressive Democrat.

The answer to this quandary lies in the fact that the meaning of key terms in politics is  always shifting, as thought leaders modify them to suit the times. So, “progressive” has  had a variety of definitions over the last three centuries — all of which center around the  idea of modernity. From early “laissez-faire” free market capitalist modernity in the 1700s  and 1800s, to socialist modernity from the mid-1800s to the present, to the capitalist  social reformer modernity of the Progressive Era in the US between the Civil War and  WWI, to welfare state social democratic capitalist modernity from the 1930s to the 1970s,  followed by a full-circle return to free market ideology with neoliberal capitalist modernity  since that time. And its meaning continues to be contested to this day.

Key terms sidebarEspecially since a main feature of neoliberalism has been its ability to seduce once social democratic formations like the Democratic Party and produce so-called “Third Way” political leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton — who have proved themselves more than willing to do tremendous damage to their core working and middle class constituencies. Via right-wing economic policies barely obscured by an ever-shrinking layer of critical social welfare programs, and a somewhat thicker layer of policies extending human rights guarantees to LGBT folks and other oppressed minorities.

So, in a sense, virtually all the legislators in the Mass State House today can call themselves progressive with a straight face. And many do, including lots of neoliberal Clintonite Democrats who play the role of Republicans in Bay State politics — the actual  Republican Party being quite weak here. Which leaves left-leaning Democrats like the  organizers of Progressive Massachusetts, heirs to the social democratic tradition of  reform-minded Keynesian welfare state policies as they are, in a bit of a pickle.

Because the main version of progressivism in American politics — electoral politics anyway — remains the neoliberal one. The Hillary Clinton wing of the Democrats, which just drove the party off a political cliff, and will continue to speed its descent to earth as long as its corporate paymasters wish them to do so. That wing, backed by multinational corporations, took power from the earlier generations of union-backed social democrats within the Democratic Party by the 1990s. It will not give power up without a major political struggle, and therein lies the heart of the problem facing groups like Progressive  Massachusetts.

In countries with more democratic electoral systems, this would be less of a problem than it is in the US. Or in Mass. We would have a multiparty democracy. The Republicans would be a smaller (but still powerful) right-wing capitalist party with smaller ascendent hard right parties on its flanks. The Democrats would be a smaller (but still powerful) center-right capitalist party. Progressive Massachusetts would be part of a center-left social democratic capitalist party. Socialists like me would have at least one significant left-wing party. And there would be smaller hard-left parties on its flanks.

Both the Democrats and Republicans would have to form coalition governments at the national and state levels. And it would be possible for smaller parties to drive their policies through in exchange for joining such ever-shifting coalitions. Messy perhaps, but far more democratic than our two party American system — where both “big tent” parties are dominated by corporations and the rich.

In that situation, a center-left party built around a group like Progressive Massachusetts could actually get its bills passed and have more influence in state politics. And a democratic socialist party of the type I’d like to see formed would join it in fighting for all of the good reforms it would back: single payer health care, free higher public education, etc. Then seek to influence the center-left party to back its policies … like a state bank and municipal control of utilities, for example.

The term “progressive” might devolve back to its original meaning: “believers in human progress, in modernity.” And be used more sparingly as a yardstick of societal advancement rather than a marker of a particular political camp.

Until then, many people — being creatures of habit we all are — will continue to use “progressive” to refer to the broad left. Or the even more misused term “liberal.” Various kinds of capitalists will continue to refer to themselves as “conservative,” “libertarian,” and, yes, progressive, and liberal. Massachusetts politics will remain to the right on economic matters and to the left on social ones — until new mass movements rise to shatter the status quo.

And we’ll muddle through somehow until then.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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CHECK OUT THE 2017 AGENDA FOR PROGRESSIVE MASS

WHEN SLOGANS REPLACE BIRTHRIGHTS

19.17-AH-TOP

How corporate ed reform threatens democracy

April 25, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the last couple of decades, it has become fashionable for Americans to attack our public education system. Behind these attacks is that most un-American of attitudes: elitism. This is problematic for a number of reasons — the main one being that America remains a democracy. Not a perfect democracy where citizens get to vote on pretty much every decision at every level, but a system of government where citizens can at least have some political impact when they stand up for themselves in the voting booth and in daily life.

In a democracy, the education of all children capable of being educated is a vital necessity. Because, as a political system, it can only continue if its history, practices, and values are taught to young citizens by older citizens on an ongoing basis. Further, living in a democracy requires the experience of being directly socialized into its norms.

A public school therefore is both the training ground of our democratic society … and its mirror. Virtually every kind of young person in any given community is there. From every background represented in that locale. Kids from every race, sex, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, immigration status, and belief system. Understanding that we’re still a very segregated nation, and that all too many neighborhoods, towns, and cities remain relative monocultures.

Regardless, this generally diverse student body has to learn how to get along and work together toward common goals. Just like they will to one degree or another in their adult lives. This, more than any of the sadly diminishing number of civics classes on offer in today’s public schools, teaches students how to be active citizens in a democracy.

Or at least that was the ideal when public education became the standard a century back.

But that ideal has been replaced by a pernicious new mantra: Public schools don’t work. Our government can’t afford to educate every child. And we shouldn’t try. Political front groups bankrolled by corporations — ultimately seeking to privatize public schools and convert them into a profitable industry — are convincing average Americans to help destroy their own birthright to a good public education on little more evidence than such cynical slogans.

They are leading the charge to steal public funds from public education — more than $450 million this fiscal year alone in the Commonwealth, according to the Mass Teachers Association — and give them to charter schools that do not have a mandate to educate every child in their communities. Only the better students who have parents with the time and money to participate in mandatory charter school family activities.

Public schools are getting stripped of their best and brightest in this fashion. Sending their performance into decline in many instances and strengthening the argument that charter schools are inherently superior to the publics. Something that study after study shows is not the case.
 Students in those charter schools do not sit in class with other students from every conceivable background. They sit with a limited selection of classmates.

And they are taught, whether their teachers intend it or not, to be elitists. Not just that they are smarter than other students — which can happen in any school — but that they are better than other students.

The same thing has happened for generations in private schools, too. But Americans do have the democratic right to organize private schools if they want to — as long as they are prepared to fund those schools without significant government support. And private schools have not attempted to tear down the public school system the way charter schools and the corporate titans behind them have been doing. Nor are they as damaging to our society as the often wildly anti-social and anti-democratic homeschooling movement has been. A topic for another day.

So, parents, remember that your decision about where to send your kids to school has very serious consequences for the future of our democracy.

And students, it’s true that no school is perfect, and that all schools suck at least some of the time. But where would you rather be? In a school that truly reflects your community and the best American values of equality, justice, and opportunity for all? Or in a school that only believes that “elite” students deserve a good education, and to hell with everyone else?

It’s your decision. As long as we remain a democratic nation.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show — co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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A CONFERENCE ON SOCIALISM

 

Sherri Mitchell

Sherri Mitchell

 

Questioning capitalism? Learn more about an increasingly popular alternative.

April 19, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last year, a Harvard University survey concluded that a majority of young Americans between 18 and 29 years old rejected capitalism, and fully one-third now support socialism as an alternative. Despite this interesting development, very few Americans of any age have a clear idea of what socialism is. To help remedy that situation locally, the Boston Socialist Unity Project (BSUP) is holding its second annual public conference this weekend at MIT. I caught up with Suren Moodliar, one of the BSUP organizers, to ask him why people should consider attending to learn more about a political economic system based on the idea that workers should democratically control their government, their workplaces, and the fruits of their labor.

What is the Boston Socialist Unity Project?

It is a collaborative that focuses on education to foster a greater sense of community among Boston area socialists and organizations in hopes of developing better communication, stronger campaigns, and a broader vision of a future without capitalism.

Socialism has been making a comeback in recent years, and is considered a fresh set of ideas worth considering by many young people. Why do you think that is?

To be sure there is a certain newness. But it is a powerful and deeply popular idea that has resurfaced in the United States and globally in response to the bomb dropping, climate altering, and livelihood destroying economic system championed by Donald Trump and his fellow race warriors. If activists “name our pains,” socialist activists must also name that which we must gain. When Bernie Sanders had to distinguish himself from his bomb dropping, climate altering, and livelihood-destroying Democratic Party rivals, he turned to the socialist idea. In doing so, he was echoing a movement that elected mayors and congresspeople from Kansas to Massachusetts in a previous gilded age, and that had deep roots in the South as defenders of Black freedom. Young people, union workers, and people of color have historically been the most receptive to socialist ideas given their experience of a system that fails to address their most basic needs as individuals, that also fails them as communities, and serves only a rapidly diminishing minority of humanity.

What is the goal of the 2017 BSUP conference in the context of a socialist resurgence?

This year’s conference takes place in a historical context that is unprecedented in modern times — never before have the dominant parties and the presidency shared such low legitimacy while their ruling ideas hang on by force of habit and power rather than merit. For the Boston Socialist Unity Project, the challenge is to engage that majority of Americans who are searching for answers; our second annual conference promises to be a second installment paying down a huge debt to the future. Specifically, the conference showcases important ideas and strategic choices that the left has to consider.

Who are the keynote speakers this year?

On Friday, we have turned to Barbara Madeloni of the Mass Teachers Association, a union that successfully defended public education in Massachusetts against corporate privatizers last year, and to Eugene Puryear, organizer of this coming August’s “Millions for Prisoners” march in Washington.

On Saturday, we take the climate crisis head on with Sherri Mitchell, an indigenous activist and lawyer from Maine, and Fred Magdoff, a soil scientist from Vermont. Together, they address both the original sin of the American state and the global challenge of environmental catastrophe.

Matching the dysfunctional economic system is a political one that rewards its boy-president every time he lobs a bomb on a defenseless country. Helping the conference understand these dynamics is the legendary socialist writer and activist Vijay Prashad. He will lead a workshop and a plenary session on imperialism.

There are several small socialist organizations in Boston … plus many self-identified socialists — myself included — who aren’t in an organization. How can people interested in socialism figure out where to plug in?

Each conversation provides entry points for interested individuals to engage with socialist ideas and formations. More intimate discussions will also take place in workshops that address grassroots organizing on campuses, for housing and health, in the media, and on music and revolution.

I should add that socialists have notoriously diverse political strategies; so, our Saturday lunchtime plenary deals with that issue directly. Political projects of various stripes will present their strategies for social change — working inside of the dominant parties, against the same, or outside the entire system, or some combination thereof. This may also surface important areas of convergence and cooperation.

The Boston Socialist Unity Project 2nd Annual Conference will be held on Fri., April 21 and Sat., April 22, 2017 at MIT Room 34–101, 50 Vassar St. in Cambridge. For full info and to register, check out the BSUP website: bostonsocialistunity.org. $10 donation requested.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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ACTION CALL: SAVE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION WITH INVEST NOW MASS

Photo of giant Charlie - Chris Faraone

Photo of giant Charlie by Chris Faraone

  

March 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the long four months since the election of President Donald Trump, this column has focused more on national politics than usual — with special attention to the promising wave of broadly progressive grassroots activism that has resulted. However, it’s important that our newly restive populace also keep related developments on the state political scene on their radar. So, here’s the first installment of an occasional “Action Call” series to review hot-button issues in Bay State politics, and to point readers toward forward-thinking advocacy groups they can join to take action in the public interest.

This time out, a look at the public transportation crisis. We may have just dodged a bullet with Gov. Charlie Baker backing off a plan to cut weekend commuter rail service for a year to ostensibly save $10 million while making upgrades to the rail lines — which would doubtless have been disastrous for the regional economy. But the MBTA — and 15 regional transit authorities across the Bay State — have been in serious trouble for some time. Though not for the reasons most news media focus on.

The origin of the present dilemma goes back to 2000, when the state eliminated the T’s “backward funding” system where any costs it could not cover with fares and other income were simply paid by state government, and replaced it with a “forward funding” system where the T received an annual outlay at the start of each fiscal year based on a fixed percentage of the state sales tax. Later, the budgets of the other regional transit authorities were “reformed” along similar lines.

Making the deal worse for populous eastern Massachusetts, debt that should be part of the state budget was loaded onto the T in “exchange” for getting the cut of sales tax revenue. Then those revenues failed to meet projected targets, leading to more debt. All of which caused the rising fares, worsening service, and diminishing investment in physical plant and rolling stock that riders have been made to suffer through — even as T ridership grew 15 percent between 2004 and 2014.

The solution to this problem is to return to funding the T and the regional transit authorities as the public services they are, and to stop pretending that they’re businesses — or that eliminating good union transit jobs and slashing desperately needed services with various privatization schemes will do anything more than line the pockets of favored consultants and contractors. Such a move will require tax increases on corporations and the rich that they will fight tooth and nail to stop. And that’s why large numbers of people will have to take to the streets to make it possible.

Readers interested in taking action to defend and expand public transportation statewide should check out the big new labor-community activist coalition, Invest Now Mass. Its member organizations range from T workers unions to public transit advocacy groups to civic associations. According to Invest Now lead organizer John Doherty, the coalition plans to pursue organizing in five areas: investment, equity, economic development, climate, and transparency. Plug in at its website: investnowma.org. Anyone interested in having an Invest Now organizer give a public talk in their city or town can click the “Host a Speaker” link in the “Take Action” section of the website or contact Doherty directly at 617–592–2230.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube