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Jason Pramas

‘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.

CAPITALIST VETO

Money tips the scales of justice image

 

Popular “millionaires’ tax” referendum question blocked by a pro-business SJC

 

June 19, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The Fair Share Amendment—better known as the “millionaires’ tax”—that would have gone before voters this November as a statewide referendum question was shot down this week by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). So the effort to increase taxes on people making $1 million-plus a year and spend the resulting funds on social needs is over. For the moment.

 

Organized over the last three years by Raise Up Massachusetts, a major coalition of labor, community, and religious organizations, the initiative had the support of two-thirds of Bay State voters in recent polling and had a good shot at passing.

 

The campaign was spearheaded by the Commonwealth’s two largest unions, Service Employees International Union and Mass Teachers Association. And naturally, most Massachusetts rich people had no intention of letting anyone—let alone a bunch of union leaders, social workers, and priests—raise their taxes.

 

Flunkies and front groups were then unleashed. The Massachusetts High Technology Council put together a bloc of capitalist lobby groups—including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership—and challenged the amendment’s constitutionality.

 

They were aided in this push by the fact that Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, was able to appoint five of seven justices to the SJC since taking office in 2015. Including one that, in fairness, wrote the dissenting opinion on the Fair Share Amendment ruling.

 

Thus, it was no big surprise that the SJC shot the millionaires’ tax down on a legal technicality. Since the wealth lobby had no convincing political argument against the tax beyond “we don’t want to pay it.” But they had high-powered lawyers, plenty of money, and a court stacked in the right direction. Theirs. A capitalist veto in the making.

 

Professor Lawrence Friedman of New England Law | Boston explained the decision succinctly on a special edition of The Horse Race podcast—hosted by Lauren Dezenski of Politico Massachusetts and Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group:

 

“What a majority of the court concluded was that this petition didn’t satisfy the requirements of article 48 [of the Mass constitution] for a valid petition that can go before the voters in November. Because it failed what’s called the ‘relatedness’ requirement—the various parts of the petition didn’t relate to each other sufficiently to pass constitutional muster.

 

“So the three parts of the petition involve the revenue raising measure, the so-called millionaire’s tax, and then two distinct dedications—one to education and one to transportation. And the court essentially said that, except at a very abstract level, those things are not sufficiently related to satisfy the relatedness requirement.”

 

The minority of the court, for their part, had a very different view. According to Justice Kimberly Budd (joined by Gov. Deval Patrick appointee Chief Justice Ralph Gants, and pardon the legalese here):

 

“Disregarding the plain text of art. 48, The Initiative, II, § 3, of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, as amended by art. 74 of the Amendments, which requires that an initiative petition contain ‘only subjects … which are related or which are mutually dependent,’ the court concludes that, in drafting this language the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1917-1918 inserted the words ‘or which are mutually dependent’ as superfluous text. … The court goes on to conclude that the people may not express their opinion on a one section, four-sentence petition because it contains subjects that are not related. … That analysis is flawed.”

 

In plain English, to rather brutally paraphrase further remarks by Friedman on The Horse Race, activists amended the state constitution a hundred years ago to allow the people of Massachusetts to make laws by referendum because even then the legislative process had been captured by corporations and the rich in ways perhaps unforeseen by John Adams when he drafted the document in 1780.

 

To block the Fair Share Amendment referendum from going on the ballot for a vote is therefore not in the spirit of the sentence at the core of the SJC majority’s case. The court’s pro-business majority focused on the “relatedness requirement.” Its pro-worker minority countered that referendum questions that contain “unrelated” items that are “mutually dependent” pass constitutional muster. But with five votes to two, the majority prevailed.

 

The result? The tiny percentage of Mass residents who make more than a cool million a year will not see their state taxes rise from 5.1 to 9.1 percent. And the estimated $2 billion that was expected to be raised from that levy annually will not be applied to the Commonwealth’s education and transportation budgets. Both areas that are ridiculously underfunded given our state’s wealth relative to much of the rest of the nation.

 

Worse still, the spurious myth that the Mass capitalists’ “coalition of the willing” flogged—and continues to flog in the case of the Boston Herald’s ever fact-light columnist Howie Carr—that rich people leave states that increase their taxes will continue to seem like reality to less careful onlookers of the local political scene. Despite the fact that a major study and a book entitled The Myth of Millionaire Tax Flight: How Place Still Matters for the Rich by Stanford University sociology professor Cristobal Young have used big data to dismiss the idea as mere scaremongering, according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Now Raise Up Massachusetts has two options: 1) start the referendum process all over again with language that will pass muster with the narrowest and most conservative interpretation of the “relatedness’ requirement,” or 2) take the fight to the legislature.

 

With the chances of the legislature passing any kind of tax increase being approximately zero as long as Robert DeLeo is House speaker, starting the referendum process again from scratch is pretty much the only way to go.

 

Unless Raise Up leaders decide to make some kind of “deal” with the legislature. Which I sincerely hope is not the case. Because the whole Fair Share campaign is already a major compromise given that the real goal of any forward-thinking left-wing reformer in this arena has to be the repeal of article 44 of the state constitution that prohibits a graduated income tax system. Followed by the passage of such a system.

 

While I’m well aware that every attempt to do that has been defeated in the past, I’m also aware that if referendum questions aimed at the much broader goal of winning a fair tax system were on the table, then it would be possible to negotiate for something smaller like the “millionaires’ tax” if the effort ran into trouble.

 

As things stand, Raise Up Mass appears to have little room to maneuver. So, better to start preparing for a win in 2022 on an improved referendum strategy—preferably aiming for a graduated income tax to replace our anemic flat tax system—than to make a bad deal merely to be able to declare a false “victory” to its supporters and switch its public focus to the two other drives it still has in play: paid family and medical leave, and the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

 

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.

‘WALK THE TALK’

Climate protest outside June 8 US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston. Photo courtesy Mass Sierra Club.
Climate protest outside June 8 US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston. Photo courtesy Mass Sierra Club.

 

Mayor Walsh needs to act faster to mitigate regional global warming threats

 

June 13, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Environmental groups protested Mayor Marty Walsh last week during the International Mayors Climate Summit and subsequent US Conference of Mayors meeting—demanding fast action to make Boston carbon neutral (achieving net zero CO2 emissions) and better prepare the city for the many threats to the region from the already-visible effects of global warming. Like the two “once in a generation” storms this winter that both quickly flooded our waterfront.  

 

According to WGBH’s Greater Boston, “The good news, for advocates who think the city is falling short, is that Walsh says he welcomes public pressure in this area—and that big changes to the way the city operates are coming. Soon.”

 

The bad news, of course, is that pols can say anything they want. But are unlikely to act until their feet have been held to the fire. So, kudos to area climate activists for continuing to do that.

 

Interestingly, the summit was scaled down from a huge confab that would’ve hosted thousands of public leaders from the US and China in 2017 to a smaller 2018 conference that featured “20 US mayors and four officials from cities in other countries, including China,” according to the Boston Globe.

 

Walsh is doubtless happy to blame the election of the Trump administration for the lack of State Department support for the conference leading to a year’s delay and the lower turnout. Democrats like himself and former Secretary of State John Kerry—who originally announced Boston summit plans in Beijing in 2016—are getting a lot of political mileage out of poking holes in Trump’s slavish support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries that are directly responsible for global warming. While pointing to his pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord by 2020 as tantamount to ecocide.

 

Unfortunately, the Democrats have been no less slavish in their support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries at every level of government. And the Paris agreement is perhaps the best example of that slavishness.

 

Because the Paris climate accord is voluntary. So, even in countries that ratify it, the treaty can’t force the fossil fuel industries and the governments they often effectively control to do anything. No surprise there, since the process that launched it—the annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—allows fossil fuel corporations to participate in everything from funding its meeting sites to directly influencing its negotiations and implementation rules, according to 2015 and 2017 reports by Corporate Accountability International (CAI, formerly INFACT). An advocacy group that previously helped organize the Network of Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals—a coalition of mostly third world NGOs that helped exclude nicotine purveyors from the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a World Health Organization treaty process. CAI and its allies have repeatedly called for the fossil fuel industries to be similarly banned from participation in the negotiation of climate change treaties. To no avail, thus far.

 

One can certainly argue, and many do, that having even a voluntary treaty on global warming is better than not having one at all. But if multinational energy corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, and BHP Billiton were willing to voluntarily phase their fossil fuel lines out of existence, I would think that they would be well on the way to carbon neutral status by now. After all, most of them knew about the dangers of global warming decades back. According to a timeline by Climate Liability News, Exxon knew in 1977, Shell in 1988, and those companies and many others formed the Global Climate Coalition specifically to cast doubt on climate science in 1989.

 

Almost 30 years later, it seems foolish to bet on companies that make obscene profits by selling fossil fuels to suddenly have a change of heart and agree to stop making those superprofits.

 

Circling back to Boston, Mayor Walsh drew fire from groups like 350Mass and Mass Sierra Club last week on largely the same grounds. The city is not doing much more than drafting plans to implement mainly voluntary measures to mitigate the effects of global warming in the coming years.

 

It’s also working on those plans—formally and informally—with major corporations that play a variety of roles in worsening global warming. From investing in fossil fuel industries to developing environmentally unfriendly buildings. And it’s potentially underestimating the threat from global warming by choosing to ignore more dire climate models in its planning that are still well within the mainstream of climate science. City government is also not addressing all the major systemic “tipping points” under investigation by climate scientists that could conceivably affect the Boston area and their interrelation to each other. Focusing instead on three imminent threats: sea level rise, air temperature rise, and more intense storms.

 

Major planning processes on minimizing the risks presented to us by global warming are absolutely necessary and a difficult undertaking at the best of times. Yet there’s little sense that Boston’s developing climate plans are going to result in the policy pedal being pushed to metal anytime soon. Hence, last week’s protestors’ event hashtag: #WalktheTalkonClimate. The environmental groups made clear that we need Mayor Walsh and the rest of city government to take swift action to reduce the many threats from runaway global warming as much as any one city or region can… and do less talking about the need to take swift action.

 

That means divesting the city of all financial holdings in fossil fuel corporations. And moving on the Boston City Council’s resolution of last fall unanimously supporting “Community Choice Energy”—a plan that would allow Boston to join with other municipalities in buying energy in bulk on behalf of residents and small businesses. Enabling the city to mandate a higher percentage of renewable energy in such purchases. Then creating regulations with real teeth aimed at mitigating the many likely harms to our city from climate change.

 

For example, Boston (and the Commonwealth) can enact regulations that would force developers of the millions of square feet of new building projects sprouting up around the city to prepare for flooding from global warming-induced sea level rise. Especially new construction in the city’s now massively overdeveloped waterfront. Hub solons can also pass regulations that would compel those same developers to power new buildings with genuinely renewable energy (i.e., not natural gas or nuclear). And regulations that would also make such buildings as energy efficient as possible.

 

Beyond that, the city should get going on actually building flood defenses and neighborhood cooling centers; and pressing ahead with operationalizing other big ideas currently under discussion in various city planning processes. Or outside of them in my case—as with my support for moving key city infrastructure to higher ground at speed, and eventually moving the seat of Massachusetts state government to Worcester.

 

Ultimately, properly preparing the city to deal with the negative effects of global warming is everyone’s job. Because politicians can’t do it all themselves. Nor should they. So, readers should contact the mayor’s office regularly to demand faster action on the issues mentioned above, participate in relevant public hearings and meetings to make your voices heard, and get active with any of the environmental organizations large or small that look to be fighting hardest in the public interest.

 

Just remember, Bostonians failing to be vigilant can result in city government dropping the ball on even fairly straightforward climate-related promises. Like former Mayor Thomas Menino’s plan to plant 100,000 new trees by 2020. As of this month, there’s been a net gain of 4,000 trees since the initiative was announced a decade ago.

 

In the same period, New York City promised to plant 1,000,000 new trees by 2017. And reached that goal two years early. They’re also well ahead of Boston with global warming preparations.

 

Worth considering why that might be. Before the next mayoral election.

MEMORIAL DAY NOTES

Poor People's Campaign Memorial Day 2018 protest on Boston Common. Courtesy of the Poor People's Campaign.
Poor People’s Campaign Memorial Day 2018 protest on Boston Common. Courtesy of the Poor People’s Campaign.

 

Peace actions, Harvest Co-op needs help

 

May 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So I’m writing on a holiday weekend that began with my joining DigBoston and Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism colleague Chris Faraone in having some fairly nasty dental work. What better excuse, then, for doing some brief dispatches this time out instead of the single topic I typically focus on with an Apparent Horizon column?

 

Peace activists arrested at Hanscom AFB

After allowing the planet to breathe a collective sigh of relief for a few weeks on the Armageddon front, President Donald Trump just tossed away his Nobel prize prospects by cancelling a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over some nonsense or other. [No wait, maybe it’s back on now! Or not. Whatever. Moving on to my point …] But it turns out Bostonians had little reason to relax anyway. Because nearby Hanscom Air Force Base is now the home to the Program Executive Office for Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3).

 

According to the Hanscom website, the NC3 unit “executes a portfolio of 17 programs valued at $1.2B over the FYDP that provide survivable and endurable communications for the nuclear enterprise. Additionally, the directorate is responsible for integrating over 60 individual nuclear command and control communications systems that underpin and enable nuclear deterrent operations.”

 

Clever though it may be that the military can develop communications systems that can survive nuclear attacks, humanity cannot. Since there are very few plausible scenarios in which “limited” nuclear strikes of the type that the Trump administration has spoken casually about will not escalate into an all-out conflagration. And with NC3 in such close proximity to Boston, we can now expect at least one more nuclear warhead to be added to the several with which our city will be hit in the event of World War III.

 

Which is why six peace activists got arrested protesting it over the weekend, according to the Lowell Sun. John Back, of Arlington and the Cambridge Friends Meeting; Laura Evans, of Unitarian Universalist Society of Rockport; Pat Ferrone, of St. Susanna Parish in Dedham;  and Dan McLaughlin, of Cambridge; Jerald Ross of Chelmsford, and Massachusetts Peace Action; John Schuchardt, of the House of Peace in Ipswich, and Veterans for Peace were busted for attempting to deliver a critical letter to the Hanscom base commander.

 

In an op-ed in the Metrowest Daily News, Mass Peace Action leader Cole Harrison points out that “the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Hanscom area Congressional Reps. Seth Moulton, Katherine Clark, and Niki Tsongas, have expressed support for the DoD’s decision to house the NC3 program in the heart of residential Massachusetts.”

 

Not cool.

 

To join Mass Peace Action and affiliated organizations in putting heat on such feckless congresspeople, and the military-industrial complex that convinces them to support the suicidal expansion of America’s nuclear “warfighting” capability, plug in at masspeaceaction.org/act/.

 

Protest links war economy and homeless vets

In a related action, the Poor People’s Campaign took to the Boston Common on Monday to protest a federal government that increases spending for war while cutting money for social programs—resulting in, ironically, more veterans becoming homeless.

 

The event featured 30 red tents that symbolized the situation, and speakers addressing topics ranging from gun violence to racism, according to the Boston Globe.

 

A full slate of oppositional activities is underway. To get involved, go to the campaign’s national website at poorpeoplescampaign.org or connect to its eastern Massachusetts chapter at facebook.com/pg/emappc.

 

Member-run markets in trouble

The Harvest Co-op grocery stores have been losing money for years and are now in danger of closing, according to the Cambridge Day and the Jamaica Plain News. Like other cooperative markets, members pay with investment and sweat equity to provide groceries for themselves at a discount. Shoppers who are not members pay full freight. But membership in Harvest, which was founded in 1974, has been trending downward for some time—from 4,000 in 2012 to 3,200 this spring.

 

In a recent email, Harvest leadership urged members “to take some obvious steps such as using the co-op for more shopping, especially by buying more bulk items, prepared foods, supplements and body care items; urging more people to switch to Co-op shopping; and paying cash.” They also asked them to buy a $200 gift card and not use it for two years.

 

It remains to be seen if such measures can help close a $300,000 funding gap before the cooperative is expected to start closing its stores in August. But now would be a good time for new folks interested in helping out to consider becoming members. Interested readers can join Harvest at harvestcoop.com/membership.

 

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.

 

DigBoston has gone on record joining the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

 

Editorial Note: Op-eds wanted. A quick reminder to DigBoston fans. We’re always looking for 500-700 word opinion articles from those of you who work with local organizations trying to make life better for Bostonians in tangible ways. Either politically, socially, artistically, or culturally. If there’s some important doing that you think the Dig audience should know about, then send finished drafts to editorial@digboston.com. Hate groups, naturally, need not apply. And fair warning that public relations and marketing hacks who think this is an invitation to send us more bullshit than they already do daily will be mercilessly mocked. And bottom feeders who try to get us to run “articles” that are really ads will be invited to to pay us $10,000 for each “placement”—and informed that we’ll surround their copy with “THIS IS A FUCKING AD” legends in some giant ugly font should they ever be stupid enough to pony up that much lucre.

—Jason

TOWNIE: CITY ON A HILL

Worcester MA with covered wagon

 

Global warming will flood Boston. Why not move the state capital to Worcester?

 

May 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many small American cities have boosterish metro research organizations that look like a cross between a public policy outfit and a chamber of commerce, and the Bay State’s second biggest urban area is no exception. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau (WRRB) was founded in 1985 during a period when all of Massachusetts’ major cities were facing a funding crisis caused by the tax-slashing Proposition 2 1/2 and needed to find ways to keep their local economies functioning with less funding from state government. Since that time, according to its website, the “Research Bureau has prepared over 220 reports and held over 200 forums on topics including public administration, municipal finance, economic development, education, and public safety.” Its board is like a who’s who of the Worcester power structure.

 

In March, WRRB released a 10-page report, “Brokering a New Lease: Capturing the Value of State Offices for Massachusetts.” Not exactly the kind of title that’s going to inspire headlines, and it didn’t—only receiving coverage in the Worcester Business Journal and Commonwealth magazine. But the white paper actually makes an interesting point: Why are the headquarters of the many state agencies mainly in the Hub?

 

Boston has very expensive real estate prices. And even though the state owns some office buildings around town, many agencies lease commercial space for their headquarters. So, WRRB reasons, wouldn’t it make good sense to move some of those HQs to Worcester? Saving the Commonwealth money, and helping the Worcester economy with lots of decent state jobs in the process?

 

Consider that, according to the report, Class A office space in Boston was running as high as $60.85 per square foot in 2017. It then points out that the “state pays an average of $37 per square foot across its Boston lease agreements, with a high of $73 per square foot near Boston City Hall and a low of $19 per square foot in Hyde Park.”

 

Meanwhile, “Brokering a New Lease” continues: “The [WRRB] consulted the City’s Economic Development Office and local real estate brokers and identified 275,000 square feet of available space across eight buildings that could feasibly house a state office. … The average rent was $21.31 per square foot, and one local broker said $22 per square foot would be a reasonable minimum estimate for new leases involving capital investment.”

 

A savings of $15 per square foot on average—which translates to my back-of-the-envelope estimate of $4,125,000 a year that would stay in the Commonwealth’s coffers—is nothing to sneeze at. It’s true that removing 275,000 square feet of the 1,675,806 square feet that the state currently has under lease in Boston, according to the report, would mean that the Hub stands to lose 16.4 percent of its state office space. Not an inconsiderable economic hit for Boston’s commercial real estate market, and something WRRB staff do not seem to be concerned about. But Worcester’s gains would potentially offset Boston’s losses from such a deal, when considering the state economy in its entirety.

 

Which makes the report’s rationale for moving some agency offices sound reasonable on cost-benefit grounds alone—although I can understand why many state employees might not want to move from more cosmopolitan Boston to a city with less social and cultural opportunities on offer. On the other hand, with a significantly lower cost of living, state salaries will stretch a lot further in Worcester County. To the point of allowing low-level bureaucrats, who couldn’t dream of buying so much as a condo in Boston these days, to buy a house out there.

 

But what interests me about the report is not so much its original subject as something I’m sure that WRRB staff hasn’t yet given the slightest thought. Over the last few years, I’ve written numerous columns and editorials sounding the alarm about what I feel is Boston’s woefully inadequate preparations for the several major global warming-induced crises that scientists expect coastal cities to endure in the coming decades. One of the most dangerous of those is sea level rise. Much of Boston is low-lying former wetlands, and unless we start building major harbor-wide flood defenses soon, we don’t have a prayer of slowing the Atlantic Ocean’s reclamation of those areas. And doing grave damage to critical systems like power, transportation, and sewage in the process.

 

Even if Boston does build huge dikes, and make other needed changes to the city design, it’s only a matter of time before the ocean wins. Since sea levels are expected to continue to rise for hundreds of years until, potentially, all of Earth’s major land-based ice sheets have melted into the ocean.

 

So why not move the state capital to Worcester—a city whose elevation is 480 feet—in stages? Starting with getting state agencies out to the city appropriately nicknamed the “Heart of the Commonwealth” in the manner the WRRB suggests. Then building the bullet train to Boston that former gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren is so excited about. And gradually transferring more and more of state government to the “City of Seven Hills” (the place really has a lot of nicknames). Until, eventually, we move the State House itself.

 

In addition to helping state government better weather global warming, having our capital in the middle of the state could go a long way toward healing the many divisions between eastern and western Massachusetts.

 

Don’t get me wrong; this is not the kind of proposal I’d make if we weren’t facing climate change dire enough to threaten the survival of the human race. But we are. Not today. Not tomorrow. Someday soon, though. We’re already seeing signs and portents now in the increasingly frequent “wild weather” that dishonest meteorologists like to prattle on about on Fox and its ilk. Including Worcester becoming more of a tornado alley than it already was—something I don’t think is nearly as much of a threat as the anticipated 10 feet of sea level rise Boston is facing by century’s end. More, if the land-based Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets start sliding into the ocean faster than the majority of climate scientists are currently projecting.

 

In past writing, I’ve suggested moving critical Boston infrastructure to the hills in and around the city. We will still need to do that. But growing Worcester while shrinking Boston is another smart move to consider. And why stop at just moving the state government? Why keep the city’s population exposed to ever more fierce hurricane- and winter storm-driven flooding when we can gradually move to a nearby city that could absorb quite a lot of our population before reaching capacity? A city acceptably far from the sea and major river systems, and high enough to not have to worry about being permanently flooded out (except, perhaps, in the worst possible scenarios).

 

Anyhow, food for thought. I’d be curious to hear what the WRRB staff—and other policy wonks and urban planners in “Wormtown” (loving these nicknames)—think about my proposal. I make it in earnest, and hope it is taken in the spirit with which I offer it. They can reach me, as ever, at jason@digboston.com.

 

Townie (a worm’s eye [ironic, no?] view of the Mass power structure) 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.

EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

Facebook middle finger
Image by gfkDSGN. CC0 Creative Commons. Modified with permission by Jason Pramas.

 

Democracy requires public control of social media giants

 

May 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In this edition of DigBoston, our Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone has already written at some length about how Medium—which is essentially a glorified blog farm with a puzzlingly opaque social media component—screwed our nonprofit, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), a few days back by precipitously terminating the paid subscriptions of dozens of our monthly supporters on the platform.


After we questioned the company’s action, a low-level flunky claimed we had been given a whole entire week’s advance notice in an email that we subsequently explained we never received. After we very publicly cried bloody murder, and got our plight written up in Nieman Lab and Columbia Journalism Review, Medium leadership offered us, and a number of other small publishers, four months of the income we would have made had they not kicked us to the digital curb.


There are many problems with the way events transpired, but the worst one is the fact that mere mortals such as ourselves do not control our presences on corporate social media bigs in any way, shape, or form. The billionaires that own them—that became rich by creating “walled gardens” under their micromanagement and have stubbornly resisted the creation of public and nonprofit social media alternatives—are the only people that could reasonably be said to control them. Even though many of them have built their fortunes on technology originally created by publicly funded basic scientific research that they were allowed to essentially steal. Not dissimilar from leaders of the former Soviet Union that were allowed to privatize once-public industries and become billionaires themselves. Distorting the politics of various successor states toward oligarchy in the process.


And, under today’s robber baron capitalism, billionaires of any provenance are extremely difficult to bring to heel with any kind of public regulation or taxation. Let alone criminal charges.

 

Medium is hardly the worst, or anywhere near the largest, of the social media scofflaws in question. Its founder, Ev Williams, seems to be a thoughtful and genial enough fellow for someone in his position. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. … Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”


Truer words were never spoken. Especially when it comes to a person who has used his power and privilege to change the business model of Medium—a corporation that’s been valued in the hundreds of millions—on more than one occasion.


So, BINJ and the other affected publishers are the latest victims of the caprices of a billionaire. Who ironically wants to help improve media with the selfsame company that just made life more difficult for a group of struggling media outlets.

 

It is precisely for this reason that both the nonprofit side (BINJ) and for-profit side (DigBoston) of this operation that I half-jokingly call the “Greater BINJ-DigBoston Mediaplex” are working to help build alternatives to corporate social media. As we announced in an editorial a couple months ago.

 

We believe that digital media can only move forward by returning to the most promising visionary thinking of the earliest internet pioneers. Including the idea that only a decentralized communication network can be truly democratic.  And that the ethos of democracy must be baked so deeply into its architecture that it can never be displaced.

 

Our enterprise can only play a small part in this “strategic retreat.” But we are pursuing that initiative with vigor. Both by moves we are making to change how BINJ and DigBoston use the internet and by trying to organize our peers in the news industry to change our collective digital lot for the better.

 

The former effort involves transitioning away from Facebook—which we adjudge to be the worst of the social media giants—and toward first Twitter then other more democratic social media as it emerges. The latter effort—to which we’re dedicating a small conference this weekend—involves helping construct the democratic social media alternatives we hope to ultimately focus on.

 

But even if such voluntarist endeavors succeed in scaling up to control some reasonable percentage of the relevant markets, they will not stop huge social media corporations and the billionaires that control them from continuing to have far more political, economic, and social power than is healthy for a democratic society.

 

So what will stop them? Not breaking them up into smaller companies. As economist Gar Alperovitz points out in his book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, old-fashioned trust busting always ends up with the smaller companies reforming into new giants. Thanks largely to “regulatory capture”: Big corporations colonizing regulatory agencies with insiders and then doing what they want—as we’ve seen most clearly of late with former telecom exec Ajit Pai getting the top seat at the FCC, then killing net neutrality.

 

Which way forward then? Alperowitz says that even the libertarian economists of the Chicago school—most famously Milton Friedman—identified the futility of breaking up huge companies. Leading Friedman’s mentor Henry C. Simons to quip, “Every industry should be effectively competitive or socialized.” Failing to do so, he and other Chicago economists thought, would lead to an ongoing series of societal crises. Which would certainly include the new kinds of crises that corporate social media has sparked. Notably “surveillance capitalism” where consumers’ every move is being monitored and thought anticipated in the service of maximizing profit in ways never before seen. With all the resulting negative outcomes—like social media addiction and political chaos—externalized to a failing democratic system largely controlled by an ever-shrinking number of multinationals and financial concerns.

 

And how best to socialize corporate social media? Alperowitz suggests turning the companies controlling the commanding heights of any sector of the economy into public utilities. So it must go with major social media companies. They must be converted into a heavily regulated and government-managed utility in such a way as to maximize democratic decentralized digital communication and provide it as cheaply as possible for the good of all. While, I would add, activists on the ground continue to develop a constellation of independent social media projects run by nonprofits, cooperatives, and social benefit corporations around the new government-funded network to allow for maximum information and technological diversity—and keep a future public social media utility honest.

 

Some kind of national security state panopticon is not what we’re aiming for here. Rather, the new utility could be run by elected regional boards with mandated seats for key community constituencies and space for lots of meaningful grassroots input.

 

Doing all that—plus related work to socialize telecoms and cable companies—will take a massive protest movement. Like most everything that involves uprooting entrenched institutions and replacing them with new, more popular institutions. And that movement will have to be international. It’s the only way to go. Because social media corporations are multinational, and most governments—corporate-dominated as they are—won’t do the job on their own. Not without a protracted struggle.

 

Going forward, DigBoston (and BINJ) will be looking to ally with good organizations willing to fight hard on these issues. And we’ll be sure to let readers know which groups we think are doing the best work as they emerge on the political stage.

 

So, stay tuned to these pages. We’ll be doing our damnedest to guide you through what is sure to be a wild ride.

 

Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston, and the network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

URBAN MISSION

City College of Boston

 

The solution to UMass Boston’s woes could start with a city-run college

 

May 9, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There was an interesting conversation recently between two people who I often criticize for being… um… insufficiently public spirited. The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung asked Boston mayor Marty Walsh a great question: “What if the city took over the University of Massachusetts Boston?” Walsh, to his credit, replied: “Am I looking to take on a potentially new school? No. … Do I think Boston potentially could be positioned well enough to handle it? Absolutely.”

 

UMass Boston has been struggling to make ends meet for many years. According to the Dorchester Reporter, union activists at the school say that student tuition and fees, state appropriations, and grants, are actually sufficient to cover its operating costs. But UMB labors under more than $30 million in structural deficit from the cost of belatedly rebuilding a campus that was thrown together with substandard materials by corrupt contractors on top of a landfill back in the 1970s. And a lot of other debt besides.

 

Successive legislatures and governors have been unwilling to fork over the money to cover the long-needed repairs—sticking a school with an “urban mission” to serve working-class Boston students with a mountain of debt that it can’t clear on its own. Even after controversial longtime chancellor J. Keith Motley was ousted last year and replaced with interim chancellor and state government hatchet man Barry Mills. Who presided over the layoff of dozens of critical faculty and staff in the interest of “balancing the school budget” even though the UMB community is not to blame for its plight.

 

As the state prepares to bring in a new “permanent” chancellor, it is not prepared to do the right thing. So, it’s definitely worth pushing Walsh to at least produce a serious study on whether a city that struggles to properly fund K-12 education could really do a better job running a medium-sized research university that the Commonwealth can.

 

It remains to be seen if UMass Boston is too heavy a fiscal burden for the city of Boston to take on. But there is a way that Mayor Walsh could dip his toe into the murky waters of administering a four-year public college without taking over UMB in its entirety. That would be to consider a plan for a separate city college that I had a hand in developing between 2005 and 2007 while I was a student, and then a graduate teaching assistant, at UMB’s College of Public and Community Service (CPCS). It was originally conceived as a possible response to the university’s destruction of that innovative and popular division.

 

In brief, CPCS was the most diverse college within the most diverse university in the entire Northeast. Not only did it focus on recruiting working-class Boston students from nontraditional backgrounds—like single mothers—it also put a lot of effort into recruiting older working students like me who had never finished college. It was founded in 1972 and 1973 by professors and politicians who believed so strongly in UMB’s urban mission that they developed a college purpose-built to take students from poor city neighborhoods with few opportunities and turn them into stellar university graduates. Which it did with aplomb for over 30 years.

 

The following section of the CPCS Mission Statement shows how seriously the school took its mandate:

 

The college works toward overcoming the attitudes, beliefs, and structures in our society which prevent access to the resources that exist and discourage full participation in economic, civic, cultural and political life. As an alternative educational institution, CPCS endeavors to function as an inclusive, democratic, and participatory learning community which promotes diversity, equality, and social justice.

 

Unfortunately, the administration of a decade ago—led by Motley—decided that the few bucks more it cost per year to educate a CPCS student compared to a “regular” UMB student was too much to spend. And it had deep ideological differences with CPCS pedagogy. Especially the rejection of letter grades as a metric for success. So it killed the college in all but name by 2008. Despite strong protests by its students, staff, and faculty.

 

Given the current crisis at UMass Boston, Mayor Walsh could revive the plan for a new City College of Boston that myself and other campus activists first suggested… as a successor to CPCS. The goal would be to provide a place for a few hundred working-class native Bostonians at a time. Students who can handle a four-year degree program academically, but are being driven out of UMB by its ever-rising sticker price—and its shift to attempting to compete with local private universities for white suburban middle-class students and full-freight paying foreign students by building dorms. Which is being done, in part, to allow its latest cowardly administration to get rid of its debt load without direct state aid.

 

The City College could hold classes in existing municipal facilities and start with a few dozen faculty and staff. It would be run by the city of Boston. And ideally, it would strive to charge students no more than the Hub’s two-year community colleges, Bunker Hill and Roxbury… which it should work with closely.

 

If the new college does decently well for a few years, then maybe the city could take over UMass Boston in its entirety, merge the two, and move on to strengthen its urban mission university-wide. Returning the school to its urban-focused roots… with local sources of funding that are somewhat more receptive to community needs than state funding sources… and a new sense of purpose.

 

Even such a bold move would not absolve the legislature and the governor of their responsibility to properly fund Mass public higher education as completely as the state budget will allow—rather than doing things like dumping $1.5 billion on the biotech industry—and to lobby the federal government ferociously for more funding as well. But it could at least ameliorate an increasingly dire situation for Bostonians seeking to improve their lot by obtaining a bachelor’s degree. And get the city back in the business of expanding public services rather than privatizing them.

 

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.

 

 

Note of Appreciation

Big thanks to Bill Marx of Arts Fuse and Greg Cook of Wonderland (and sometimes DigBoston) for inviting me to participate in a great forum “For the Love of Arts Criticism II: Small Magazines and Bloggers” held on Monday at Rob Chalfen’s fabulous music and arts space, Outpost 186, in Inman Square. Props to fellow speakers Chanel Thervil of Big Red & Shiny; Pat Williams of the Word Boston; Heather Kapplow of, like, everywhere, including DigBoston; Franklin Einspruch of Delicious Line (and DigBoston); Marc Levy of Cambridge Day; Oscar Goff and Chloé DuBois of Boston Hassle; Dave Ortega of the Somerville Media Center; Jameson Johnson of Boston Art Review; Lucas Spivey of Culture Hustlers podcast; Rick Fahey of On Boston Stages; Suzanne Schultz of Canvas Fine Arts; Olivia Deng of several publications, including DigBoston; noted events producer Mary Curtin; Aliza Shapiro of Truth Serum Productions; former Boston Phoenix, Improper Bostonian, and Boston Magazine writer Jacqueline Houton; and a number of other folks. Read Greg Cook’s fine article on the proceedings for all the details at gregcookland.com/wonderland.


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.

BROKEN MEDIA, BROKEN POLITICS

Charlie Baker

 

If Mass journalists were doing their jobs, Baker would not be so popular

 

May 1, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

It’s always funny to hear that Charlie Baker is a very popular governor… The most popular governor in the country at the moment, according to polls. Because he doesn’t do anything very differently than his predecessor Deval Patrick did. Or than Mass House speaker Robert DeLeo does. Or than most any state Democratic leader when it comes down to core economic issues—with the exception of the leaders with little actual power.

 

Baker, Patrick, DeLeo, and all their ilk in both major parties essentially follow the same game plan. They work to lower taxes for those most able to afford them, cut desperately needed social programs to the bone, and give away as much money as possible to giant corporations.

 

Much of the rest of what they do is posturing for the various constituencies that make up their particular electorates. And that’s the stuff that gets the most media coverage. Which is not to say they’re necessarily insincere about such activity. But they’re elected to represent the wealthy interests that run the Commonwealth, and the work they do for that most important constituency is always their top priority.

 

So when Patrick and Baker, for example, shovel over $1.5 billion in free public money at the biotech industry or arrange millions in tax breaks and direct state aid for huge companies that don’t need them on an ongoing basis—with DeLeo’s blessing in both administrations—to the extent those acts get coverage, they’re presented as done deals that are “good for the economy.” Then it’s on to the next press spectacle of the day. Events where they can “show leadership” and the like. As when there’s a snowstorm. In Massachusetts, a northern state noted for its frequent snowstorms. And the current governor gets on TV and says “stay indoors during the snowstorm.” That is apparently showing leadership.

 

Which explains Baker’s high numbers, I think. Simple public relations. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and all that. With most of the major news outlets gamely playing along. And his numbers are higher than Patrick’s were because he’s a white guy in a super racist state that likes to think it’s super anti-racist.

 

That’s what results in people that don’t pay attention to politics—including the vast majority of white voters—going, “Oh, Baker’s such a nice man” when pollsters ask their opinion of him. More than they did with Patrick. No doubt Baker is a nice man in person or whatever. Lots of people who do bad things when they have power are personally “nice.” Like, I’m sure when some buddy of his from childhood needs money, he’ll give it to him. Or at least loan it to him. But when all the legions of people he doesn’t know personally need good jobs with benefits, need free higher education, need major improvement to infrastructure like the MBTA—because of entrenched structural inequality—that’s a different story.

 

A story whose narrative you can hear if you listen to Baker’s remarks to the 2018 Mass Republican Convention in Worcester last weekend.

 

Stripping away obligatory pleasantries and nods to major supporters, the speech was aimed at the same white middle-class suburbanites who remain the base of the state Republican Party. Baker addressed them directly at one point while enumerating the “successes” of his administration: “We offered early college programs, our Commonwealth Commitment program, which dramatically reduces the cost of a college education. And increases in state scholarships to make the price of college more affordable for moderate- and middle-income families.”

 

See, he thinks they’re so important he mentioned them twice in a row: “moderate- and middle-income families.” No word about low-income families, though. At all. Not even a nod. Sure, working families are discussed. But in Republican-speak, “working families” isn’t code for “working class” as it often is for Democrats. It means “those who work.” As opposed to “those who do not work.” Like all those “lazy shiftless” folks that used to be called working class in more honest times. And those totally nonindustrious [ha!] immigrants. And the “undeserving” poor in general. Everyone who supposedly lives off the bounty of “our”––the good “moderate- and middle-income” people’s, the “taxpayers’”—labor.

 

But no mention of his most important constituency, the one he actually works for, either. “Small business” is mentioned a number of times. But not major corporations and the rich people that own them.

 

Still, they’re there. Lurking behind all of Baker’s remarks. Especially when he said several things that are completely and obviously false to anyone who follows politics reasonably closely. Like taking credit for “dramatically” reducing the cost of a college education. When public higher education is an absolute disaster in Massachusetts. When both the working-class families he seemingly deplores and the middle class he purports to represent—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike—are forced to run up ruinous amounts of debt just to put kids through schools that were once so cheap as to nearly be free. While tuition and fees keep getting raised year after year. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

 

The rich and the corporations are there because public higher ed, like virtually every other beneficial government program, is being starved for operating funds. To fatten that 1 percent’s coffers. Because politicians like Baker make a virtue out of cutting taxes. Slashing budgets. Laying off public workers. Privatizing anything they can get away with. As Baker himself has certainly been doing at the much-beleaguered MBTA. Another public service he addressed in Worcester, saying: “We took on the special interests at the MBTA. Created a Fiscal Management and Control Board. And saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and we’re rebuilding its core infrastructure.” While, in the real world, that same public transportation infrastructure continues to fall apart for lack of the needed direct infusion of state funds.

 

Is everything Baker does bad? No. Is he as dangerous as federal counterparts like President Donald Trump? Or the feral reactionary theocrat Scott Lively that fully 28 percent of Mass Republican delegates just chose to run against Baker in a primary this fall? No. Not yet at least.

 

But that’s not the point.

 

The point is that a polity where a Charlie Baker can be incredibly popular is a broken polity. And a news media that enables him is a broken news media. Baker does not represent even the interest of the white middle class that keeps voting him into office, let alone the working class as a whole. A media that was doing its job would make that patently clear. Every hour of every day. Yet it does the opposite. Because it too is controlled by the same rich and powerful interests that control politics and ensure pols like Baker keep getting elected. Whether those pols call themselves Republicans or Democrats.

 

So to fix politics, we have to fix the media. And I can’t address how that might be done in a single column. But my colleagues and I are trying our damndest to do it in practice at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. And the fix starts with journalists who are independent and strive to tell the truth about problems in media and the political system. Every hour of every day. Beyond that, there’s much more to say. So, I’ll plan to talk about specific potential fixes in future columns and editorials.

 

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.

TOWNIE: WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

former GM Framingham plant

 

Or how tax breaks for fat cats relate to a defeat for Harvard management rats

 

April 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

“Opportunity” for the few

Gov. Charlie Baker submitted paperwork to the US Department of Treasury last week, according to the Republican, asking the federal government to consider 138 tracts in dozens of Massachusetts communities for inclusion in the new “Opportunity Zones” program—passed in December as part of the Trump administration’s sweeping tax reform legislation.

 

As the name implies, each opportunity zone is a low-income area of an American city or town. According to Next City, acceptance to the program makes such areas eligible to receive investment from “Opportunity Funds”—which are to be certified by the treasury department. The funds “will be required to invest at least 90 percent of their investment dollars into businesses or properties located in designated Opportunity Zones,” and the initiative “allows investors to defer some of their taxes on capital gains in exchange for investing some of their accumulated wealth into the opportunity zones.”

 

This week, MetroWest Daily News looked at tracts chosen for the program in Framingham and Marlborough. In Framingham, “City officials nominated a pair of contiguous neighborhoods on the southeast side of the city, which has struggled to rebound from the decline of manufacturing and the legacy of environmental contamination in the area.”

 

One of those tracts is particularly interesting because it contains “a significant amount of industrial land, including the state prison and the former General Motors plant, which is now the site of Adesa, the vehicle auction house.” And thus encapsulates everything that’s wrong with neoliberalism—the return to 19th-century dog-eat-dog capitalism in which private interest must always outweigh any possible public good.

 

Which is germane to this discussion because the opportunity zone scheme was cooked up by a “bipartisan” (read “neoliberal”) think tank called the Economic Innovation Group—led by a who’s who of Silicon Valley movers and shakers, according to the Los Angeles Times. Napster founder Sean Parker, former Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot, and a rogue’s gallery of major West Coast venture capital investment house leaders are all part of the organization’s “founders circle.”

 

So it’s absolutely no surprise that the program is essentially yet another tax break for the rich. In a federal tax regime that’s now replete with them—especially after Trump’s ungentle ministrations. More problematic, however, is the fact that the so-called opportunity zones give the rich and powerful even more control over economic development in areas already impoverished by the rich and powerful.

 

Which brings us back to the Framingham tract in question. It houses MCI-Framingham, a medium-security women’s prison with a population that includes a majority of nonviolent offenders. Most of whom are from working-class families, and most of whom would not be there if the state and federal government put less money into the “prison-industrial complex” and more money into guaranteeing economic opportunity for those families.

 

It is also home to the former General Motors plant. Which once employed as many as 5,000 workers in high-paying jobs unionized with the United Auto Workers. Just the kind of jobs that increasingly downwardly mobile working-class families need, if they want to avoid turning to crime to make ends meet.

 

According to the New York Times, the last 2,100 workers were laid off from the GM plant in 1989. And the working families of Framingham and environs have never really recovered since then. Because pols and CEOs and policy wonks can talk all they want about Massachusetts having recovered from the Great Recession of 10 years back. They can claim we’ve achieved “full employment.” But the jobs that working people have been able to get since the destruction of the Bay State’s largely unionized industrial base between the 1950s and the 1990s are not nearly as good as the ones that were lost.

 

Gone also is the social—and therefore political—solidarity that once enabled the local working class to defend and maintain the improvements they won on the job for decades.

 

In its place, we have programs like the “opportunity zones” that help the rich find new and exciting ways to get richer. But that don’t mandate the creation of good jobs for working families, or provide for the democratic control of new enterprises that are created by the people that work in them.

 

Furthermore, as Next City points out, “Opportunity funds could end up raising too much capital without enough deals in the designated census tracts, blunting the impact per tax dollar lost, or they could end up without enough capital raised to make a discernible difference.”

 

Seems likely that the new program will go the way of a similar neoliberal program from the Clinton era: “Empowerment Zones.” Which never produced gains for poor communities that could be tied to the program. Instead lining the pockets of legions of contractors and investors along the way.

 

Harvard University grad union victory

In light of the loss of 5,000 good jobs unionized with the UAW at GM Framingham decades back, it’s extremely ironic that 5,000 graduate assistants at Harvard University just successfully unionized with—you guessed it—the UAW. Big congrats to all concerned.

 

The labor campaign was absolutely necessary because the same neoliberal system that purposely depresses working-class wages and benefits worldwide to increase corporate profits also hurts grad assistants. Harvard is a large employer, and—nonprofit or not—like most large employers it always strives to save money on staffing costs. So it makes perfect sense that a union that was decimated by decades of assaults from auto industry tycoons should get vengeance of a sort by unionizing grad assistants at a ruling-class university that continues to help spearhead the corporate drive to crush global labor power. Grad assistants that—together with various kinds of adjunct faculty—get overused by fully corporatized university management to avoid increasing the ranks of more expensive (and far more powerful) tenured faculty.

 

Naturally, being a teaching or research assistant for a few years is not the same kind of job as the ones lost at GM Framingham. And the fortunes of people with advanced degrees from an elite school are typically much different than those of auto workers that often only had high school degrees. But beyond the improvements that grad assistants will see in their working lives during their short time at Harvard, and the bump that the labor movement will get from their very public victory, here’s hoping that the students will learn to feel genuine solidarity with working families the world over. And move into their professional lives with the determination to help undo the grievous damage that too many of their predecessors did, and continue to do, to the billions of people who don’t control the commanding heights of politics and the economy.

 

 

Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) 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.