Skip to content

Writing

FROM INJURY TO ACTION: A LABOR DAY REMEMBRANCE (PART I)

spool of wire

 

September 5, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Every once and a while, I move slightly differently than usual. Maybe I shift position too fast. Maybe I pick up something a bit too heavy. Maybe I’m sitting askew for just a bit too long. Whatever the cause, one second I’m fine… and the next, my old spinal injury flares up. It’s that fast. Pain radiates outward from my core to my extremities.

 

It traces a burning track to the tips of my fingers. I am aware of exactly where each nerve runs back to damaged vertebrae. And there is nothing much I can do in the way of palliative care but let the latest flare-up run its course. I mean, sure, I can do light exercise. I can do some special stretches learned over years of occasional physical therapy. I can use ice, then heat, then ice again. Then I can rest. And start over again the next day.

 

With luck, after a week or three, whatever inflammation I caused calms down. The pain comes with decreasing regularity. And then I return to my “normal” state. The state that has made me unable to do manual labor for many many years. And unable to drive in recent years. If my friends or family need help moving, I can’t do it. If anyone needs me to jump in a car and pick them up, they have to ask someone else.

 

As I type these words on Labor Day, I have just had such a flare-up. Which is, it must be said, kind of ironic. Yesterday, I sat texting someone in a marginally different posture than usual… and bang, I’m hurt again. So it hurts to type. A lot. But I’m pushing through anyway. Like I always do. Like I’ve done for decades.

 

Because I was first injured directly after leaving the last shift of a job in late March 1989. But it was not an actual job. It had neither security, nor benefits, nor decent wages. It was certainly labor, though.

 

The incident occurred at the conclusion of an eight-week temp assignment for Manpower—then, as now, one of the largest so-called “staffing agencies” in the world. The company I worked for—yet didn’t work for—was Belden Electronics. The plant in question was in Essex Junction, Vermont. I had moved up to the Green Mountain State the previous year and was never able to find a decent “job job” in the two years I lived there. Or in several years before or after my “mountain sojourn.” Like many other members of my generation coming of age in the 1980s, I was discovering that the “good jobs” my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation had enjoyed after WWII were already becoming a thing of the past. The late ’80s recession under the first Bush presidency only made things worse.

 

Prior to the factory gig, the temp assignments I had gotten were shorter term. And I wanted something that lasted for longer than a week at a time. The better to pay my rent and keep my car on the road. So when Manpower offered the Belden assignment, I took it. It was swing shift, and I’d be working from 3 pm to midnight, Monday through Friday. I was a night owl, and that allowed me to do other things I was doing in Vermont at that point in my life. I was told I’d be driving a forklift—which I thought sounded interesting. I was 22 years old.

 

So one fine afternoon in early February 1989, I coaxed my old car with manual transmission and a busted second gear I couldn’t afford to fix into driving the half-hour from Burlington’s more or less urban sprawl into the deep woods where some genius had thought it was a good idea to drop an industrial park. Snow was piled 10 feet deep on either side of the country roads as I pulled into a large parking lot outside the commodious Belden facility for the first time.

 

Inside, I was given a quick tour of the factory floor, break room, and bathrooms. Then I was “trained” to drive two kinds of electric forklifts for a total of three hours. One of which involved watching a video. The other two of which involved a manger running me through my paces on actual equipment at speeds much lower than I was going to be expected to drive in the coming weeks. Then I was sent out onto the floor to start work. I received the rest of my training, such as it was, from the guy whose job I was helping eliminate. After working there eight years, he was to be replaced by temps like me.

 

He was a devout Mormon. Many folks don’t realize it, but Mormon church founder Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in the early 1800s. So there are more of that flock about on the starboard side of Lake Champlain than one might think. My trainer and his wife were doing their level best to increase that flock, too. So he had several children. And that was why Belden let him stay on after using me to render his job redundant. He was allowed to work on a machine station, after being forced to accept a pay cut. To make ends meet, he had already started a second job as a janitor at his Mormon temple. Yet despite all this adversity, he never said an unkind word to me—the guy who was to be the first in a series of temps to work his old job—or anyone else in the plant.

 

He was, in fact, one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. Toward the end of my brief tenure at Belden, he gave me a Book of Mormon that he and his family had inscribed with their best wishes. I read it, and discussed it with him. Explained that I was still searching for a spiritual home, but was honored and humbled by his gift. Then went back to work.

 

And what was that work? Well, the factory made wire for electronics companies—including the nearby IBM works. The wire was then spooled. And the spools ranged in size. From little ones that might weigh 10 pounds each. To huge ones that weighed 1000 pounds or more. I am 5’6”, and at the time I weighed 132 pounds soaking wet. My job was to lift or roll those wire spools onto the tines of either of my forklifts—the fast one (which I loved) or the slow one. And take them from station to station, machine to machine, where the wire went through the various stages of its processing.

 

All that lifting and pushing of spools took its toll on me in the brief time I was there, but my body seemed to handle the stress ok. After all, I was young and bouncy. But I didn’t realize that, in the absence of proper training or safety equipment, I wasn’t doing anything correctly. Not to say that I wasn’t a good worker. People from management on down were quite decent to me, as far as it went. I was, however, putting a great deal of strain on my spine.

 

Meanwhile, I was essentially participating in the forced speedup of a nonunion factory by corporate management who were trying to increase profits by cutting labor costs. Driving from station to station, I got to talk to lots of workers—many of whom, like my trainer, had been there for years. They were very stressed out and unhappy. They were working harder and longer for less money with worse benefits. And I began to wonder why they couldn’t unionize.

 

I didn’t know much about unions. Though I was aware that the only recourse working people have on a bad job is to start one. So I actually tried to get a longer-term contract with Belden in hopes of being able to try to do just that.

 

But there was no way they were going to hire a temp they were using to keep their longer-term workers off-balance. And at the end of March, I worked that fateful last shift. Shortly after midnight, I said my goodbyes—taking a few minutes to fill out whatever paperwork Belden and Manpower needed me to complete on the way.

 

By the time I walked out the plant door with the remaining manager, everyone was gone. There was no third shift at that time, so the parking lot was already empty. The manager’s car was parked next to the plant, and he drove off straight away. The door had locked behind me, and there was no one in sight. Except for a lone car in the middle distance that I hadn’t noticed. Which started up unexpectedly, causing me to snap my head to the right to see whose it was.

 

And then I heard a sickening crack. Followed by a massive wave of pain—emanating from my spine—that coursed through my body from head to toe. And then I realized my left arm wouldn’t move.

 

I was only halfway to my car. There was no one around. In the middle of a large parking lot. In the middle of the night. In the middle of the woods. On a freezing Vermont night many years before cell phones became common. A light snow was falling.

 

I was completely alone.

 

Part II coming soon…

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

VOTING AS A SOCIALIST IS STILL HARD (IN THE MASSACHUSETTS OF 2018)

Red Star Over Massachusetts

 

Plus an endorsement for Michael Capuano for Congress (MA 7th District)

 

August 28, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

It’s never easy being a socialist in the United States. And at no time is it more difficult then come election season. Because neither of the two major parties—hard-right ravings to the contrary taken as given—is socialist. Both Republicans and Democrats are capitalist. There have been many attempts to form major left-wing anti-capitalist parties over the last couple hundred years. Some, like two I’ve participated in—the Green Party US and the Labor Party—have been national efforts. The former is still struggling on gamely, though Mass affiliate Green-Rainbow Party currently does not have official party status—having failed to win 3 percent of the vote for any state or national candidate in the last election or to enroll 1 percent of registered voters. The latter petered out over a decade back. There have also been state-level efforts like the Peace and Freedom Party in California—which, for one reason or another, haven’t spread to other states.

 

The received political wisdom is that the major parties have set up so many structural roadblocks over their many decades in power that it’s impossible for any of the smaller so-called third parties to achieve major party status. And from my experience that received wisdom has been correct. So far.

 

Where does that leave a socialist like me? Well, I have a few options. None of them ideal… unless we manage to change our political system to allow for small parties to more easily become big ones. I could go back to the Greens. I could join one of the tiny socialist parties that runs candidates from time to time like Socialist Alternative. I could join the somewhat larger Democratic Socialists of America—which is not a party but a pressure group that throws its weight behind the most left-wing candidates it can find or field, mainly in the Democratic Party. I could help try to revive an effort for a “fusion” ballot in Massachusetts with the Working Families Party (of New York and several other states). Such a move would create a formation that would be allowed to support larger parties’ candidates (i.e., the Democrats for all intents and purposes) without sacrificing independence. But allowing that would require a change in Bay State law… and a 2006 attempt to make the necessary change failed. I could help start a new left-wing party in the Boston area, and try to win some municipal races before moving on to state and national contests. Or I can join the majority of Massachusetts voters and be an independent. Registering as “unenrolled” in our state’s parlance. Currently the simplest and easiest option. And a reasonable one for a journalist like myself since I remain independent of all political parties.

 

So like many other left-wingers, I’ve bitten the proverbial bullet and have been unenrolled for most of my adult life. But it’s a dissatisfying place to situate myself politically. Because functionally it means that I’m voting for whoever comes closest to my beliefs on a case-by-case basis. Not usually for a slate. As minor parties like the Greens rarely have the wherewithal to run candidates for multiple offices in one voting district. Just individual candidates. And should those candidates win, they are basically on their own. Meaning any political gains they make typically won’t outlast their terms of office.

 

Being unenrolled also means that I’m almost never voting for a candidate I fully support. Unless a maverick left-wing candidate happens to run for one office or other in my area—usually in a nonpartisan local race—I’m nearly always forced to compromise. And, sure, voting always involves compromises. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans. Yet casting such votes usually requires that I make a big compromise. A fundamental one, as the candidates on offer all share the major flaw of backing a political economic system—capitalism—that I don’t believe in. Even though I’m forced to participate in that system by nature of being born in a capitalist country in this time and place.

 

At this juncture, some readers will naturally ask, “Well, why vote at all?” After all, I’ve got more than a little bit of a libertarian streak in the sense that I’m a big fan of liberty. And many left libertarian traditions—notably anarcho-syndicalism—push for direct democracy at the local level in place of representative democracy at every level. I’ve always had a soft spot for such views. But I have never found them practical for a nation-state of over 300 million souls amid a planetary population of over seven billion and rising.

 

Ultimately, as messed up as capitalist democracy is, I refuse to take my franchise for granted. For much of human history, people like me didn’t get any say at all in how they were governed. Even the US restricted voting to white males with property at its inception. Only after generations of grassroots political struggle did we get universal suffrage for everyone 18 or older. So as long as we remain an even nominally representative democracy, I’m going to keep voting.

 

Great, but how do I go about picking candidates to support? Not easily, and I simply don’t vote in races where none of the candidates are good by my lights. Still, taking next week’s primary as an example, let me shed some light on my internal decision-making process. For sake of space, I’ll think aloud about only the hottest current local political fight—the 7th District Congressional race between incumbent Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley—in the manner I normally do when preparing to vote as an independent socialist. Mainly by considering the candidates’ political positives and negatives from my perspective.

 

Capuano’s positive policy points include backing Medicare for All for many years and consistently anti-war foreign policy stands. Strikes against him include taking campaign contributions from the real estate and biotech lobbies. Pressley’s positive points include taking decent positions on issues like housing and immigration—including recent support for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Strikes against her include more hawkish foreign policy views. And a long Intercept piece on the race paints her as the chosen candidate of corporate Democratic leadership. Someone who fakes left, but will likely break right when it matters. A big negative in my book.

 

For me, Capuano is one of the last old line social democrats in Congress. Meaning he’s about as left-wing as he can be without leaving the Dems. He’s also been in office a long time and holds key committee positions that would be lost with the election of a first-term opponent. He’s brought a lot of money to his district that benefits the working class, and he’s taken a lot of stands he didn’t have to take in defense of that class.

 

Pressley has done much less as a politician thus far. According to Politico, her “biggest projects have ranged from supporting pregnant teens and revamping sex education in schools to expanding liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods.” Admittedly while holding a seat in a political body, the Boston City Council, that has very little power. So not an entirely fair comparison, but food for thought nonetheless. However, given Capuano’s predictable and significant lead in the polls and in funding, I can’t shake the feeling that Pressley’s really doing groundwork for her next big race more than expecting to win this one.

 

For these reasons and many more besides, I have to back Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary for the 7th District Congressional seat.

 

But all that said—and there’s much more to say—in backing Capuano, I’m still backing a capitalist. This is not a guy who is pushing for workers to own the means of production. This is a guy who has consciously decided that the best path is to shave the rough edges off of capitalism to make it less harmful to workers. While allowing billionaires to control the commanding heights of our political economic system. He may not like it. But he’s decided that’s the best that can be done under the current circumstances.

 

I respect that decision, even if I disagree with it. Yet whatever I think about individual candidates, I always have to come back to the same problem: What can I do to help ensure that there is a mass socialist (and anti-racist and feminist and environmental and anti-war, etc., etc.) party that can field candidates with the experience and funding to win enough electoral races to change the face of politics in Massachusetts and the United States for the better?

 

And my answer? For the moment, I’m writing for a growing audience about the kind of political changes I’d like to see, and looking for opportunities to help build the kind of political party that could bring those changes to fruition. There are seeds of what I’m searching for in Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative and many other existing socialist and anarchist and green formations besides. But none of them presently fits the bill for me. All I can say is that I’ll know the party I’m looking for when I see it. And jump on board as soon as that happens. But for now, I’ll just muddle through at election time in the fashion I’ve described above. As best I can.

 

Readers interested in engaging in discussion and debate on this and related matters in various public forums can contact me at execeditor@digboston.com.

HERALD READERS RESPOND TO ANTIFA COVERAGE

Antifascist Action symbol circa 1932. designed by Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists members Max Keilson and Max Gebhard.
Antifascist Action (Germany) symbol circa 1932. Designed by Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists members Max Keilson and Max Gebhard.

 

August 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Spoiler alert: anti-nazis are somehow nazis

 

On Saturday, a few hundred left-wing activists showed up to protest a tiny ultra-right wing protest held on City Hall Plaza around the anniversary of last year’s tiny ultra-right wing protest on Boston Common. That earlier action being completely dwarfed by the tens of thousands of people that turned out in opposition to the racist and fascist views of its organizers. This year, many counterprotestors hailed from Black Lives Matter, Stand Against Hate-Boston, and the Boston Democratic Socialists of America. And their mobilization was just as successful as the previous one in putting the wannabe master race to flight (to the suitably distant summit of Breed’s Hill where they briefly screamed at the stone monument patriotically named for an adjacent hill… dogged by some of their antagonists).

 

There are certainly times when people need to stand up against the ultra right. This demo was one of them. So the counterprotestors are to be commended. Although I still stand by my column of last year in which I explained why I’d like to see left activists focus more on positive political organizing than reactive street actions.

 

To my point, however, I have long made a habit of reading comments on online articles. From which I often glean a good deal of useful information. And I naturally expect a certain amount of gonzo earthiness from the often anonymous wags who weigh in on issues of the day. But whenever anti-fascist activists are in the news, I note that the insanity ratchets up by an order of magnitude. And responses to such coverage contain more than the usual share of genuinely disturbing views. Nowhere is this more true in the local press than in the comment sections of Boston Herald articles.

 

So I thought it would be… um… let’s call it educational to choose the best of the worst online comments made on the Herald’s quite reasonable piece on the weekend’s protest and counterprotest, and dissect them in the public interest. The authors’ names—real or otherwise—have been changed to initials so as not to further embarrass the clueless.

 

“PC”
Clowns? No..Patriots standing against Leftist Anti-Free Speech… Anti-Constitution… Anti-Life… Anti-Freedom… Anti-Constitutional Republic Useful Idiot Communists.. look at the Soviet Flags in the Photos…..who act like Racist Brown Shirt Nazis crushing free speech… attacking those who disagree with them violently… That is what the Nazi SA (Brown Shirts) did in the 1930s Germany…as they call the oposition Nazis…

 

So, the ultra-right wingers who are happy to exercise their free speech rights against freedom are for freedom? And the left-wingers who exercise their free speech rights to protest people against freedom are anti-freedom? And left-wingers’ willingness to physically defend communities under threat from the ultra-right makes them the violent ones? As opposed to the ultra-right networks that are the only one of the two sides racking up death counts in the US in recent memory? And the left-wingers are the nazis?! Okely dokely…

 

“MF”

Boston: once young Patriots met under a huge pine tree – to plot a course of Freedom from the tyranny of an English King – and his Parliament,…Saturday young fools with no concept of God, History, or world events think they marched to squash and shut down “Hate Speech”… They are Soros’s expendable cannon fodder, acting EXACTLY like Hitler’s Sturmabteilung!

 

First, the Liberty Tree that this post is definitely referencing was an elm. Second… what?!


“RC”
Until we redefine the terms ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, white people will not have free speech in this country. This is obvious from multiple news articles.

 

Well, it’s obvious from multiple online ravings anyway.

 

“BD”

Awful reporting. Conveniently left out the part where free speech activists averted violence by marching to Bunker Hill Monument where we held a very successsful rally, opposed only by a tiny handful of screechy Black Lives Matter activists.

 

This is apparently a post from one of the ultra-right protest organizers referencing the out-of-the-way location that said protestors scurried off to after being heavily outnumbered by counterprotestors at their original rally site. And trying to make lemonade out of the lemons of abject failure. Pobrecito

 

“SM”

Haha so CLEVER Alexi! Poor thing, you’re one of those that paid to be brainwashed by a “professor-former screw the man 60’s hippie” weren’t you? Trumps free speech group. Haha.

That’s liberalism/socialism today. Just like Kristallnacht In Germany circa the1930’s , scream and yell and intimidate those who don’t agree with you. Same as the Nazis, like I said. Look at that red headed idiot all worked up in the photo. Here’s what the hippy professors and mommy never told you; you CAN lose in life. You did in 2016, will this year and so will the former Boston Herald, which is now a pop up ad space barely readable online and the Globe’s “Fredo Corleone”

 

An attack on the Herald reporter. And on college education in general. Conflates liberalism (which in both its original meaning, and in today’s parlance, generally indicates support for capitalism) with socialism (which indicates support for workers owning the means of production). Compares counterprotestors to nazis (sense a theme?). Concludes with amusing shot at the Herald. C+ for effort.

 

“FC”
The antifa aholes use the same tactics as the pre-war German socialists did. Their brilliant propaganda minister felt they had to “control the streets”. This kind of violence was new then, and effective. Devious manipulation got a certain demented leader in power, but it’s not going to work now. We’ve seen this crappy movie before. Also, next Free Speech Rally, I’m gonna be there.

 

Assuming this poster means pre-WWII here. He seems to think that the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had a propaganda minister who wanted to control the streets during the two brief periods when it led the Weimar Republic. Sounds a lot more like a certain nazi propaganda chief of the same period—who only became Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1933. Which might explain why he’s blaming “socialists” for the rise of the nazis. Perhaps he means “national socialists.” Whatever. Anyhow, while it is true that SPD members controlled a fighting group catchily dubbed the Black, Red, Gold Banner of the Reich with as many as three million members by the 1930s to combat the Nazi Party’s SA on their right (with two million members by 1933) and the Communist Party’s Red Front Fighters’ League on their left (with 130,000 members at the time of their banning in 1929), neither they nor the communists actually mobilized their troops against the ascension of the nazis to power. Therefore, don’t think we’re watching the same “crappy movie” at all. Also doubt the poster will be at the next sad little “rally” for herp and also derp.

 

“DO”
Wonder how much money Soros spent funding these miscreants

 

None. Arch-capitalist George Soros doesn’t typically give money to anti-capitalists, and doesn’t fund every smallish American rally to the left of Trump in either this or alternate dimensions.


“LA”
You forgot “Pravda”, the fake news in this country engages in this Nazi style “reporting” daily.
And they are proud of it. Both sides are allowed by our Constitution to have their say in the public square, one side does so peacefully, the other side wearing masks and weiding weapons taunts them and attacks them. All the violence at these rallies is innitiated by one side and the fake media villifies the peaceful protestors. It’s all “Alice in Wonderland” stuff. Engals would be so proud of them.

 

This poster starts by comparing the American press of today with the Soviet Union’s main state propaganda organ. Not entirely false equivalence considering the frequently submissive behavior of the top echelons of that press—especially the New York Times and the Washington Post—in the service of the billionaires that effectively control the US government. But not true of all journalists or of independent news outlets like this one. The rest of the post infers that the left-wing counterprotestors are the violent side and that local news media is being unfair to the ultra-right wing protestors in not reporting that imaginary. We’re certainly through the looking glass with this one; so the Alice in Wonderland reference is unintentionally apt. Not sure who this “Engals” person is, though. But I’d like to buy them a vowel.

 

“AS”
The lack of press coverage of the Communists is really horrifying. That a regime that murdered many more people in support of an evil ideology than the Nazis did is openly supported on the streets of Boston, and is treated by the press and the left as the good guys, is outrageous & scary.

 

This poster is rehashing the roundly refuted figures promulgated by the anti-communist lead author of The Black Book of Communism a couple decades back. A person so desperate to make the total number of deaths supposedly caused by communism between 1917 and the book’s publication in 1997 reach 100 million people—and outnumber the death toll from capitalism (and, not coincidentally, nazism) in the same period—that he made a bunch of highly questionable editorial decisions. Like including the estimated death tolls of famines in communist nations in his total, but ignoring the much larger estimated death tolls of famines in capitalist nations—notably India, as famed left scholar Noam Chomsky subsequently pointed out using economist Amartya Sen’s numbers as that nation dropped its socialist pretensions. Communist governments certainly killed many innocent people during the period in question, but the thrust of this comment seems to be that nazism isn’t so bad after all. Right? Yikes.

 

SOME THOUGHTS ON TRANSPORTATION POLICY

Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.
Image courtesy of pxhere.com. Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain.

 

August 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.

 

Such was the case a three weeks ago when I published a piece that took a dim view of Bird Rides dumping its dangerous electric rental scooters all over Cambridge and Somerville without first discussing the move with officials in either city… following a nationwide pattern of flouting relevant laws that is clearly its business model. About a day later, a few wags took to Twitter to slam me for having the temerity to suggest that motorized skateboards with handlebars might not be the ideal vehicles to allow on area streets in numbers. On both political and safety grounds.

 

I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.

 

With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.

 

Carbon

It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.

 

Planning

We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.

 

But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.

 

Alternatives

And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.

 

And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.

 

Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.

 

We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.

 

Labor

Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.

 

Public

As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.

 

So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.

 

That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.

 

Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GREENFIELD BLUES: HOMELESSNESS IS NOT JUST A BIG-CITY PROBLEM IN MASS

Greenfield City Hall by ToddC4176 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Greenfield City Hall by ToddC4176 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

August 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

We don’t get much news about Western Mass in Boston. And since the population is relatively small in the largely rural western counties of the Commonwealth, it can be easy to miss significant stories. Because the scale of noteworthy happenings is naturally smaller there. Because our diminished metro news outlets have trouble covering the entire state. And because, let’s be honest, Bostonians don’t usually care about what happens west of, like, Brookline.

 

So at first glance, word of a homeless encampment out in Greenfield isn’t something that would get much attention hereabouts at the best of times. But for a city with a population that fell by more than 500 people to 17,456 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—with a median household income of $33,110, and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line—it’s an important enough development to warrant a series of articles in the local press. And I think it deserves coverage here in the Hub as well.

 

Especially when the encampment is on the Greenfield Common, opposite the Greenfield City Hall (better known as the Town Hall prior to a recent change in nomenclature). Something unusual is definitely afoot.

 

It seems two local homeless people began camping on the common a couple of months ago. A number that quickly grew to 20 regular residents in as many as a dozen tents. According to the Greenfield Recorder, their “de facto spokeswoman” Madelynn Malloy “and others have said previously they are camping on the common because there is no other place that is safe for homeless residents to go and because current city law allows them to stay there day or night. There are no requirements for licenses or permits to be there and the homeless residents’ actions are not considered loitering, but public assembly. The city has an ordinance prohibiting loitering, but it only applies to sidewalks.”

 

A city count of last January pegged the homeless population at 39, but area charities have said the actual number is significantly higher—as they noted during the brutal cold snap at the end of 2017 when their shelters were so overwhelmed that the Salvation Army put up $1,600 to house people at Days Inn. Since that time, the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and homeless advocates have been pushing for the city to do more. Meanwhile, the encampment has put a very human and public face on the crisis, and has sparked meetings and debates in local government about how to find housing for the homeless.

 

Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as much concern from Mayor William Martin to get the city council to pass rules effectively banning camping on Greenfield Common as there is to find ways to house local homeless people. The latter being the obvious policy priority, if for no other reason than to relieve overwhelmed private social service agencies.

 

Most recently, a breakthrough of sorts—also reported in the Greenfield Recorder—happened when the city council voted to put a port-a-potty closer to the common than the one local churches previously made available. “According to the Department of Public Works, the cost of a temporary restroom is $150 a month and includes emptying it. The mayor’s office said the first two months of the portable toilet would be paid for by the Interfaith Council and an unnamed local business. There is no plan currently in place for funding after the two months.” The council also voted, apparently contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to decrease “regulations on churches to set up temporary shelters” and open “the former Wedgewood Gardens property on Kimball Drive as a possible site for an encampment.” The mayor then vowed to “attempt to find temporary housing solutions through a ‘rapid re-housing team’” made up of “city officials and social service and humanitarian agencies.”

 

Baby steps perhaps. But it would not do to underplay the difficult situation Greenfield government finds itself in. It’s going to take officials time to find even a stopgap solution. Large cities like Boston aren’t doing a great job of dealing with a growing homeless crisis either; so it’s obviously more difficult for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to house and provide services for even a few dozen people.

 

Particularly when, as was pointed out in a DigBoston op-ed by Lawrence social services executive Joe D’Amore in January, many communities in Massachusetts ban people from sleeping in public spaces or even “loitering” there. Which merely shifts the burden of dealing with homelessness to more densely populated and tolerant locales with more social services like Lawrence. Or Greenfield.

 

Hopefully people will retain the right to sleep on the Greenfield Common overnight when needed, and the city government will cobble together some longer-term housing options for its homeless population before winter sets in.

 

Yet however things turns out in the largest burg in Franklin County, the situation is interesting not because it is unique… but because it is sadly commonplace. Across Massachusetts and all over America the story is the same. Despite claims of a “strong economy” from Republicans and many Democrats, homelessness is ever more persistent and ever more desperate.

 

To see an actual strong economy in a place like Greenfield, one has to look back to the 1950s—when the city was home to major metal-working concerns, the largest being Greenfield Tap & Die. But that plant was sold off to a larger company in 1958, and most of its jobs disappeared over decades. The city’s last major manufacturing business, Lunt Silversmiths, went under in 2009 during the Great Recession.

 

According to the Republican, Lunt had 800 employees in 2001. And only “12 to 15” by the end. It’s difficult for even larger cities to recover from that kind of blow to their job base, let alone a small city like Greenfield.

 

It will thus shock no one that the rise of the opiate crisis tracks closely to this decline in the city’s fortunes. And it’s therefore ironic in the extreme that the former Lunt plant is now home to two drug treatment facilities, Franklin Recovery Center and Northern Hope.

 

The opiate crisis relates directly to the homeless crisis. And both relate to the ongoing jobs crisis. Increasingly unregulated capitalism, as I often write, is clearly incapable of providing good jobs for our population. As the job base collapses, people in Greenfield, Boston, and around the nation are stuck with lousy part-time, temp, contract, independent contractor, and day labor gigs. Or with no jobs at all.

 

As these downwardly mobile people see their lives collapsing, they turn to opiates. Maybe because they got injured in their precarious pseudo-jobs and got put on addictive pain killers by well-meaning doctors being suckered by criminal conspiracies like oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Or maybe because they couldn’t take the humiliation of no longer being able to provide for themselves and their families, and reached for the strongest, most reliable, and readily available chemical solace. And soon enough, more and more of these folks end up on the streets.

 

Without public jobs programs, new public housing, and cradle-to-grave public healthcare, local, state, and federal governments will not be able to fix these related crises. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t in this era of gangster capitalism. Nor will “private” charities. Many of which already rely on shrinking pools of government money to do what little they can do to stem the tide of rising poverty.

 

So it’s critical that people in big cities like Boston—especially press and policy makers—pay careful attention to small municipalities like Greenfield. They are canaries in the coal mine of a political economic system that can only be called failing, the less it is able to provide for the growing number of people on the bottom of our societal pyramid.

 

As such, we ignore the Greenfields of our nation at our peril. We must act now to stop the rest of our communities, large and small, from continuing their rolling collapse. A task we can best begin by rebuilding government at all levels to focus on the human needs of all of its denizens. And stop privileging the schemes of the rich and powerful few over the livelihoods of the struggling multitude.

 

Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His Apparent Horizon column is winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

POPULAR NOT POPULIST: GOV BAKER CONTINUES TO POLL WELL WITH PEOPLE HE’S SCREWING

 

July 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There is no area of Massachusetts politics where it is more baffling to contemplate Gov. Charlie Baker’s ongoing popularity in the polls than the annual state budget debate. One can only draw two conclusions from such musing: either people don’t get the budget information they need from Bay State press, or a majority of Commonwealth residents simply enjoy watching poor people get kicked to the curb. While corporations are encouraged to line their pockets with public funds in ways that hurt everyone but the wealthy.

 

At no time of year is the contradiction of Baker’s popularity thrown into bold relief more than late July when he issues his line item vetoes and other modifications to the legislature’s final budget.

 

And this year that contradiction is sharper than ever. Because the most visible victims of the governor’s last budget action look to be people on welfare—many of whom are single mothers with children.

 

So last week, Baker refused to agree to a budget policy section that would remove the “family cap” that stops families on welfare from being able to receive extra benefits for children born while they were on welfare. Instead he sent an amended version of the family cap section of the state budget back to the legislature.

 

As reported by MassLive, “That amendment would lift the family cap but also change welfare eligibility laws so that an adult’s Supplemental Security Income is counted when determining if a family is eligible for welfare. SSI is a federal payment given to severely disabled adults.” … “According to state figures as of last year, 5,200 children with a severely disabled parent would lose their welfare benefits entirely under the change, and 2,100 children would lose part of their benefit.”

 

By contrast, MassLive continues, “Lifting the family cap would make approximately 8,700 additional children eligible for welfare assistance.”

 

If the family cap policy section of the budget had simply been vetoed, it could have been overridden by a two-thirds vote of the legislature like any other veto. But since its language was amended and sent back to the legislature for action, they have to vote on it like a new bill. After which, Baker has 10 days to act on it. And since he sent it back to the legislature at the end of its current session, the end of the 10 days after any new bill passes comes after the session is over. So Baker can simply veto it, and supporters will have to wait until next session to go through the entire legislative process again.

 

Advocates from organizations like Mass Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services are crying foul, given the heartlessness of the measure and the fact that it has taken years to get the family cap reform through the legislature.

 

As of this writing, the House has reinstated the original family cap language, and the Senate is expected to do the same. But Baker will almost certainly veto it within 10 days of passage as planned. After the legislative session has ended.

 

Which is a total drag, and exemplary of a backwards view of welfare as an “incentive” to “encourage” poor people to work. Language that Baker has used when explaining his position on the family cap debate—a standard conservative view, unfortunately shared by Republicans and many Democrats alike, that poor people are poor because of individual failings like “laziness,” not for any structural reasons beyond their immediate control.

 

But here’s another way to view welfare: People are poor because just as capitalism provides billions of dollars to a vanishingly small number of big winners like Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers, it creates millions of losers who have to struggle endlessly to make ends meet. Meaning inequality is baked into our economic system. Without strong government regulation, capitalism is incapable of even blunting the brutal impact of such inherent flaws, let alone somehow fixing those flaws.

 

Part of that inequality comes in the form of job provision. Since the drive for people at the commanding heights of the capitalist system is always to maximize profits, their concomitant drive is to do so by slashing labor costs whenever possible. One way they have done this since the 1970s is by changing labor from a fixed cost—as it tended to be under postwar American social democracy when over 30 percent of the workforce was protected by government-backed union contracts and there was a reasonable social safety net (including welfare)—to a variable cost.

 

The result? As was last the case at the turn of the 20th century while a militant labor movement spent decades fighting the “robber baron” billionaires of that era for redress, bosses can hire workers when needed at the worst possible rates and push them out when they don’t need them. Often without even having to officially fire workers—which would allow them to collect unemployment for a few months. And the largely ununionized workforce has almost no say about the conditions of its employment, or job policies in general, outside of insufficient minimum wage laws, easily avoided health and safety laws, and a few increasingly weak civil rights laws that might get a handful of people reinstated on the same bad terms on the rare occasions when open discriminatory practices by employers can be proven.

 

So by converting stable decent-paying union jobs to unstable contingent jobs—like temp, part-time, contract, day labor, and independent contractor jobs—over the last 40 years, capitalism and the capitalists who run it have ensured the creation of a growing impoverished underclass. This vast group of poor people acts as a reserve army of labor that, together with vicious union-busting that is on the verge of killing the American labor movement, accelerates the downward pressure on wages. And ensures that the only jobs that most poor people can get are bad contingent jobs.

 

When poor people can’t put together enough of these precarious non-jobs to make ends meet, they turn to welfare. But the old “outdoor relief” programs that provided poor men with jobs, money, food, and other necessities in many parts of the country were eliminated long ago (as were New Deal-era public jobs programs), and the remaining welfare system that largely benefitted poor women and children was hamstrung by the Democratic Clinton administration in 1996. Not coincidentally, its prescriptions were first tested here in Massachusetts in 1995 by our completely Democrat-dominated legislature—presided over by a Republican governor, Bill Weld. A so-called “libertarian” cut from much the same cloth as Charlie Baker.

 

According to a 2008 report (“Following Through on Welfare Reform”) by the Mass Budget and Policy Center, the one-two state-federal punch to poor women and children in the Commonwealth predictably ended up significantly cutting already meager welfare payments by imposing time limits on assistance and by mandating the most cruelly ironic possible change, “work requirements.”

 

Why cruelly ironic? Because the work requirements forced people who were poor because the only jobs available to them were bad contingent jobs to prove they were “working” before getting the reduced welfare benefits still on offer.

 

The new system was in many cases literally run by the very temp agencies that played a key role in making people poor to begin with. The “jobs” forced on people to qualify for much-denuded benefits were often not jobs at all. Welfare applicants were just “employed” by such temp agencies—now recast as privatized social service agencies—and forced to wait for “assignments” that were low-paying and sporadic. But unless they “worked” a certain amount under this system, no benefits. It was a hardline right-winger’s wet dream made flesh. The same capitalist system that made them poor now kept them poor. And state and federal government were no longer in the “business” of helping offset the worst depredations of capitalist inequality in what we still like to call a democracy.

 

So this is what popular Gov. Charlie Baker is up to when he plays games with reforms like the family cap. He’s screwing people who get a few hundred bucks a month in benefits out of an extra hundred a month for another kid born while they’re jumping through every conceivable time-wasting bureaucratic hoop and working the same shit jobs that made them poor to begin with. Meanwhile, he’s finding new and creative ways to dump more millions in public treasure on the undeserving rich with each passing year.

 

And you like this guy, fellow Massholes?! Just remember, in a “race to the bottom” economy presided over by capitalist hatchet men like Baker, once the poor are completely crushed, the working class is next. Followed by the middle class. Maybe think that over next time a pollster asks your opinion of the man.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

FLIPPING US THE BIRD: SCOOTER-SHARING COMPANY LITTERS CAMBERVILLE WITH DANGEROUS VEHICLES NO ONE ASKED FOR

Bird’s model looks to be entirely profit-driven and completely mean-spirited. No matter how much CEO Travis VanderZanden tries to equate the unasked-for and unwanted service to “freedom.”

STOP BAKER’S ‘MORE SCHOOL COPS AND SURVEILLANCE’ PLAN

school parody image

Why the Mass budget surplus is better spent on infrastructure needs

 

July 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Having just been handed an estimated $1 billion budget surplus for the 2018 fiscal year, Gov. Charlie Baker was quick to make a proposal last week to divide up the unexpected spoils.

 

According to MassLive, “Around half of that will be placed in the state’s reserve account to be available in case of emergency. Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday laid out how he is proposing to spend the rest of that money, introducing a $583 million supplemental budget bill.”

 

And where does the surplus come from, readers might well ask? Well, the details are still a bit fuzzy, but the Trump administration’s drastic changes to the federal tax code months back seem to have resulted in what’s likely to be a very temporary state tax revenue increase.

 

Which explains why the Boston Globe paraphrased Noah Berger of the Mass Budget and Policy Center opining that “it would not be prudent for the state to spend the extra money from last fiscal year in the current one.” His preference being that “it should be spent on one-time capital expenses like roads or schools, or put away in the state’s savings account.”

 

But that’s not what Baker is proposing.

 

To be sure, there is money allotted for roads and the like. But only two items seem clearly earmarked for infrastructure expenditures: $50 million for cities and towns to fund local road and bridge maintenance and improvement projects, and $30 million for municipal clean water projects. Both worthy candidates for what is likely to be a one-time windfall.

 

The rest of the proposal is more problematic, however. Especially in its stated focus.

 

According to a July 13 press release from the governor’s office, “The administration is proposing a wide-ranging $72 million package to make school security upgrades in the Commonwealth’s schools and provide resources to students, staff, and first responders to better respond to threats within schools.”

 

Which is probably just red meat for Baker’s right-wing supporters. Massachusetts is definitely in dire need of more funding for K-12 and higher education. But it needs that funding on an ongoing basis.

 

What it doesn’t need is a supplemental budget better dubbed the “More School Cops and Surveillance Plan.”

 

Yet that’s exactly what Commonwealth students will get from the following proposed items that are part of the aforementioned $72 million section of the governor’s larger supplemental budget proposal:

 

  • $20 million in matching grants for security and communications upgrades in K-12 schools and at public colleges and universities

 

  • $4 million to provide training to school resource officers

 

  • $2.4 million to create a tip line to provide public safety and school personnel with timely information on potential risks

 

  • $2 million for a statewide “Say Something” campaign

 

It’s true that the proposed $40 million in additional aid to school districts in that same section to hire more social workers, mental health counselors, and psychologists is a good idea in general terms. But such an effort can’t amount to much if the funding evaporates next year. Something also true of most of the line items outside the ed-targeted package in the supplemental budget proposal that would provide funding for a variety of decent-sounding programs for K-12 and higher education, and “substance use prevention, education, and screening.” Plus a grab bag of other one-offs of varying importance like “$35.4 million for snow and ice removal costs in FY18” or wastefulness like “$8 million for multi-year municipal police training needs” (in a state that already spends vast sums on cops).

 

And, sure, we don’t want students (or school staff and faculty) to be vulnerable to killers with automatic weapons. But then we don’t want them to be vulnerable to asteroid strikes either, and most of what we could conceivably fund in the way of preparedness on that front would be about as useless as what the governor is proposing to fund for “school security.” Worse than useless, since the main result of such measures will inevitably be to increase official harassment of students of color and poor and immigrant students in their own schools. And the concomitant danger of their being shot for no reason. As the militarization of police proceeds apace. And their well-documented trigger-happiness is validated by the likes of Weymouth police Chief Richard Grimes in shockingly opportunist remarks at yesterday’s memorial for Weymouth Officer Michael Chesna—who was felled by a rock before being disarmed and executed by a random criminal over the weekend. Even as the K-12 school districts and the state colleges that serve those populations remain starved for funds with or without the FY18 surplus.

 

Regardless, there’s already a general decades-long trend toward stationing armed police on campuses nationwide, but that hasn’t stopped mass shooters from slaughtering students. There’s a veritable panopticon of surveillance measures from all levels of government on the population in general and on students in particular. Which also hasn’t prevented mass shooters from slaughtering students nationwide.

 

The things that might actually stop mass shooters from appearing in the Commonwealth—like stronger welfare and public jobs programs and more stringent gun control measures—are not in the cards in the current political climate. Even here in a supposedly left-leaning state that is unable to provide the first of those two needed reforms because it’s constitutionally prohibited from having a progressive income tax. The second, naturally, being blocked by a powerful and triumphalist gun lobby in this Age of Trump.

 

Fortunately, the legislature hasn’t weighed in on the FY18 supplemental budget yet—having failed to send the regular FY19 budget to the governor’s desk for his signature as of this writing either. So there’s still time for constituents to weigh in on how the surplus funds get spent.

 

And my suggestion would be to push your state reps and senators to fight for spending whatever part of the supplemental budget is not put into the “rainy day fund” on key capital projects. Like fixing public transportation infrastructure that stubbornly continues to disintegrate no matter how much Gov. Baker’s hand-picked MBTA flacks claim they don’t need any more money—as they had the temerity to do yesterday.

 

Once that’s done, then start agitating for the progressive tax system that would better fund state education, transportation, and social safety net programs for the foreseeable future. Because we badly need such reforms, and because—for those of you worried about a mass shooting at a Bay State school—families that have a stable income are less likely to produce violent misogynists and racists and nazis (oh my!), since they won’t need to find scapegoats for economic instability anymore.

 

Progressive taxation will be a very hard reform to win in the Commonwealth, as I’ve written many times in the past. But then so will better gun control legislation. Yet both are needed if we are going to have a more just, stable, and safer society.

 

We’ve got our work cut out for us. So let’s get cracking.

 

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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

‘DON’T MOURN, ORGANIZE!’

 

The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin.
The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin.

 

Why Janus might actually be good for the American labor movement

 

July 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The Supreme Court issued a decision last week that will have profound consequences for American working people. In Janus v. AFSCME, the court overturned a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that allowed public sector unions—like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—to charge government workers who refused to become members a “fair share” fee to defray the expense of representing them.

 

According to the Atlantic, “Until now, 22 states had in place a so-called ‘fair share’ provision, which required people represented by unions who did not choose to be members of these unions to pay fees to cover the cost of the unions’ collective bargaining activities. By contrast, 28 states were so-called ‘right-to-work’ states, and barred employers from including ‘fair share’ requirements in employment contracts.”

 

Private sector unions—although most large unions these days like Service Employees International Union represent both private and public sector workers—are also not allowed to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees in right-to-work states. The thing that makes this ruling so pernicious is that it expands that right-to-work mandate to cover public sector unions nationwide.

 

The understandable view of the majority of labor supporters is that Janus is a disaster for American unionism. Bankrolled by a rogues’ gallery of right-wing donors, its passage virtually guaranteed by the replacement of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative, Neil Gorsuch, the decision is certainly going to have a negative impact on public sector unions. Which comprise the largest wing of the US labor movement of 2018. Private sector unions having already been beaten back by endless attacks from corporations over the last 50 years.

 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate of public sector workers (34.4 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than that of private sector workers (6.5 percent) in 2017. With only 10.7 percent of American jobs unionized overall, and public sector union members outnumbering private sector union members since 2009.

 

This low “union density” rate is no accident, as big business wants to eliminate unions as an impediment to their endless drive for profit. Since unions have the strongest track record of any institution in our society of keeping the pressure on employers and government for higher wages, better benefits, and more spending on government programs that benefit working families. Just the sorts of things that lower corporate profits.

 

But public sector unions have been better protected than private sector unions—organizing jobs that are generally directly funded by government at all levels. This has made them a primary target of the right wing—for whom giving unionized government workers a better deal over decades is tantamount to using public funds to expand the government.

 

Also, public sector unions—like most other unions—provide tens of millions of dollars to the Democrats every election cycle, and most of the ground troops the Dems need to run successful election campaigns in many districts.

 

For those reasons, right-wing strategists have been looking for ways to get rid of public sector unions since they rose to prominence in the mid-20th century. Even more than the private sector unions they’ve had an easier time busting. And Janus moved them a long way toward that goal by cutting into union bottom lines.

 

How? Fair share fees add up. Eliminating them for public sector unions nationwide will cut millions of dollars from their budgets. Effectively slashing the amount of money they can spend on organizing new workers and plumping up Democratic Party coffers. Even though the Aboud decision dictated that fair share fees could only be spent on “collective bargaining” costs—basically, providing nonunion government workers the same services provided to union members—not on political activity.

 

No surprise, then, that many union leaders and boosters think this is the worst anti-labor decision by the court in decades.

 

However, there’s a minority view on the left wing of labor—where I have always situated myself as a longtime union member and activist—that says that the Janus decision may actually save American unions. Why? Two reasons.

 

First, because the more money that American unions have raised from members and nonmembers alike, the more they have tended to bureaucratize. And become top-heavy with high-paid staffers and elected officials that have become culturally distant from those same members.

 

Because union leaders making secure six-figure salaries with generous benefits have very little in common with members making typical union wages. They are also more likely to be college educated than union members are. A phenomenon that’s been growing (ironically) since the radical campus movements of the 1960s produced a generation of student activists who entered union jobs—and staff positions— in an effort to push them to the left politically. After the communists, socialists, and anarchists who actually built many unions through titanic workplaces struggles between the turn of the last century and the 1940s were pushed out of them during the anti-left “witch hunts” of the McCarthy Era.

 

Today’s union leaders therefore are not like the leaders of those earlier struggles. They’re often more comfortable with the college-educated corporate and government leadership sitting across from them at the bargaining table than they are with their own members. And they’ve tended to replace militant grassroots organizing on behalf of the entire working class with narrow bargaining for minor contractual gains for the shrinking number of members they represent. Such leaders make tough-sounding noises when it’s time to get a new contract with an employer or during big election campaigns. Yet they’re actually quite timid compared to their predecessors—who were often on the front lines of literal street battles with police and the National Guard or in jail on trumped-up charges when union activity was deemed illegal by courts stacked with pro-corporate elites.

 

Second, as this timidity in an era of renewed vicious corporate assaults against labor has contributed to declining union membership rolls as a percentage of the growing population, union leaders have turned to spending larger and larger sums of money on the Democratic Party. In a mostly vain attempt to purchase political clout they no longer have in the streets or at the ballot box. Even as the Democrats have moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, and become more and more beholden to corporations. Which still makes the Republican hard right angry enough to fight for court decisions like Janus, since the now slavishly pro-corporate Democrats are insufficiently capitalist by their lights. And, more to the point, since the Republicans have a strong desire to rule—a “will to power,” one might say—and any force that opposes them is an enemy that must be defeated. An attitude that hapless Dem leaders have definitely adopted to anyone to their left, including the social democratic pro-union left of their own party. But have failed to adopt to the Repubs and the outright fascists on their right.

 

So, Janus might be just what’s needed to cause a rebirth of the labor movement. It eliminates a big chunk of the money that union leaders have to spend on the Democrats—who have done little more than take that money and spit on union workers since the neoliberals of the Clinton administration took over party leadership.

 

It also will force the unions to cut staff. Including top staff. Which will definitely dump good leaders as well as bad ones, and that’s a drag. But it might very well help with the other big problem American unions have—a lack of internal democracy. Like other bureaucracies, too many unions have come to vest too much power in their top echelons. And leave their members out in the cold. Which is another factor that has led to union leaders making bad political decisions. Like backing pro-corporate Hillary Clinton over pro-labor Bernie Sanders in 2016.

 

Budget cuts caused by Janus could cause more power to be vested in union memberships’ hands. Leading to more victories like the one won recently by unionized teachers in West Virginia—who organized massive wildcat strikes over the protests of their own leadership. And won big while lighting a fire that has spread to teachers in other “red” states like Oklahoma and Arizona. States that are, among other bad things, right-to-work states.

 

However things play out, moribund American union leadership has been in need of a wakeup call for decades. And if Janus is what it takes to shake them out of their torpor, then so be it.

 

In any case, as storied labor martyr Joe Hill once said, “Don’t mourn, organize!” But don’t expect to win gains in the workplace and at the ballot box without a real fight—and without unions controlled by their members top to bottom.

 

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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GRAND SCHEME

workers protesting

 

Mass legislature helps, harms workers in “deal” with labor and business lobbies

 

June 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

No sooner did the Supreme Judicial Court shoot down the “millionaires’ tax” referendum question last week than the Mass legislature rammed a so-called grand bargain bill (H 4640) through both chambers. A move aimed at shoring up tax revenue threatened by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts referendum question that is virtually certain to lower the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent if it should go before voters in November.

 

The house and senate did this by rapidly completing the brokering of a deal that had been in the works between pro-labor and pro-business forces on those issues for months. Giving each side something it wanted in exchange for encouraging the Raise Up Mass coalition to take its remaining two referendum questions—paid family and medical leave, and the $15 an hour minimum wage—off the table, and the retailers association to do the same with its sales tax cut question. Both organizations have not yet made the decision to do so.

 

If passed, the so-called grand bargain bill will give labor watered-down versions of its paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage ballot questions, and give business something that’s explicitly anti-labor: the end of time-and-a-half wages for people working Sundays and holidays, and their ability to legally refuse to work Sunday and holiday shifts.

 

While Gov. Charlie Baker still has to sign the bill, as of this writing it’s looking like he will do so. Soon.

 

Which is a pity because it’s not such a great deal for working people as written. True, the grand bargain does ensure that the state minimum wage will raise to $15 an hour for many workers. But it moves up to that rate from the current $11 an hour over five years, instead of the four years it would take with the referendum version. Plus it betrays tipped employees, whose wage floor will only rise from a pathetic $3.75 an hour now to a still pathetic $6.75 an hour by 2023. Keeping all the cards in the bosses’ hands in the biggest tipped sector, the restaurant industry. Although it’s worth mentioning that even the referendum version of the $15 an hour wage plan would have only raised tipped employees to $9 an hour. When what’s needed is a single minimum wage for all workers.

 

It also makes Massachusetts one of the first states in the nation to institute paid family and medical leave for many workers. Which is truly a noteworthy advance. Yet again, the referendum version is better for workers than the grand bargain version.

 

But legislators gave away another noteworthy advance from 20 years ago in the process: time-and-a-half wages for many employees who work on Sundays and holidays. Which will hurt some of the same people who the new minimum wage and paid and family medical leave will help.

 

Thus far, the labor-led Raise Up Massachusetts coalition has had mostly positive things to say about the deal. However, the main union representing supermarket workers—many of whom currently take Sunday and holiday shifts—is already vowing to torpedo the grand bargain. Even though their union contracts also mandate time-and-a-half pay for working Sundays and holidays. And they’ve resolved to take down legislators who backed it over their protest.

 

Jeff Bollen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, minced no words on the subject in a recent video message to his members:

 

“I am really pissed off at our state legislature for stabbing retail workers in the back by taking away time and a half on Sundays and holidays for all retail workers in Massachusetts.


“Remember, it was this local union in 1994 with big business and the retail association wanting to get rid of the blue laws; so they could open up their supermarkets, their big box stores, and their liquor stores and make money on Sundays that we fought hard to get a law passed to protect you, the retail worker. And we did.”

 

The supermarket union leader went on to explain that state lawmakers “panicked” when the millionaires’ tax was derailed and pushed through the grand bargain to avoid losing any more revenue from the referendum question to lower the sales tax. He swore the union was “going to remove those individuals that voted against you. We’re going to get them removed and replaced with pro-labor legislators who are going to fight for the rights of working people.” And defiantly concluded: “We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to continue to try to get this whole thing repealed.”

 

How much support the UFCW can expect to get from the rest of the labor movement remains to be seen. But the fact is that some Bay State working families are going to suffer nearly as much pain as gain from the grand bargain.

 

Worse still, there’s a deeper problem with the bill. It potentially stops the retailers’ referendum drive to lower the sales tax—which they’ve definitely put on the ballot to ensure that big businesses make more profits. But it must not be forgotten that the sales tax is a regressive tax that disproportionately harms working families. And even though the state desperately needs money for many programs that help the 99 percent, it remains a bad way to raise funds compared to a progressive tax system that would force the rich to pay higher tax rates than everyone else. Like the federal government has done for over a hundred years.

 

Yet since the rich and their corporations continue to rule the roost in state politics, and since a state constitutional amendment would be required to allow a progressive tax system in Massachusetts, there is no way that is going to happen anytime soon. As I wrote last week, the millionaires’ tax would have at least increased the amount of progressivity in the tax system had it been allowed on the ballot (where it was projected to win handily). But business lobbies got the SJC to stop that move.

 

Given that, the revenue lost from a sales tax cut would really hurt in a period when many major state social programs are already being starved for funds.

 

Nevertheless, many working families will take a big hit from the grand bargain bill as written: They’ll see the full introduction of the $15 minimum wage delayed by an extra year, they’ll get a worse version of paid family and medical leave, they’ll lose time-and-a-half wages on Sundays and holidays, they’ll see the sales tax remain at 6.25 percent… and if they’re tipped employees, they’ll still be made to accept a lower minimum wage than the relevant ballot question would get them and still have to rely on customers to tip them decently and their bosses to refrain from skimming those tips.

 

So, it would behoove Raise Up Massachusetts and its constituent labor, community, and religious organizations to stay the course with the paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage referendum questions that are still slated to appear on the November ballot. And pro-labor forces should also be ready to lobby harder for a better deal should Gov. Baker refuse to sign the grand bargain bill.

 

Of course, it could very well be that the bill will be signed into law before this article hits the stands, and that labor and their allies will throw in the towel on their ballot questions. And that would be a shame.

 

Here’s hoping for a better outcome for Massachusetts workers. Even at this late date.

 

Note: Raise Up Massachusetts announced that it had accepted the “grand bargain” bill shortly before this article went to press on Tuesday evening (6.26), according to the Boston Business Journal.

 

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 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.