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‘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.

THE VERTEX SHELL GAME

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Pharma’s Donation to Boston, Other Cities Converts Public Funds to PR Gold

October 24, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Vertex Pharmaceuticals made a big PR splash last week with an announcement of a significant donation to Boston and other cities where it does business. The Boston-based company, best known for its cystic fibrosis meds, has pledged to “spend $500 million on charitable efforts, including workforce training, over the next 10 years,” according to the Boston Globe, and “much of the money will go toward boosting education in science and math fields as well as the arts.” The company “also wants to set aside money for grants to help young scientists and researchers.”

Well isn’t that nice. Over 10 years, $500 million works out to about $50 million a year. Sounds quite generous, yes? John Barros, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of economic development, certainly thinks so: “The establishment of a Vertex foundation is a long-term investment in the people of Boston and the neighborhoods of Boston … That’s ultimately what we hope for when corporations move their headquarters to the city.”

But sharp-eyed locals would disagree. We’ve seen this gambit many times before in the Bay State—most recently when General Electric played it last year: A big business that has gotten bad press for various kinds of questionable behavior and/or outright malfeasance decides it needs to improve its image. And it does so by the simple device of expanding its advertising budget in the form of “charity.”

The important thing to remember with such “donations” is that the corporations in question often get far more money from government at all levels than they ever give back to society. So it’s not really charity at all. It’s just public relations by other means. Aimed at being able to continue to dip from the great public money river largely unnoticed by everyone but the few investigative reporters managing to ply their trade in this age of corporate clickbait.

To that point, let’s look at four ways that Vertex has benefitted from public support. Then reconsider its most excellent announcement in that light.

1) Tax breaks and direct aid

Readers might remember Vertex as the company that got $10 million in state life science tax incentives between 2010 and 2014 and $12 million in tax breaks from the city of Boston—both in exchange for adding 500 local jobs to their existing staff of 1,350 by 2015 and, quixotically, for moving their headquarters from Cambridge to Boston. According to the Globe, the Commonwealth also took out a $50 million loan to pay for “new roads and other improvements” to the new HQ’s Fan Pier site.

Why? As is often the case in the wonderful world of corporate finance, Vertex told then-Gov. Patrick that it might leave the state if it didn’t get the appropriate… um… “incentives.” So that apparently played a role in getting state and local government in gear. The deal was based on the expected performance of Vertex’s blockbuster new hepatitis C drug, Incivek. But things didn’t go as planned. According to MassLive, when the company pulled the plug on Incivek in 2013 after being outgunned by another company’s hep C med, it agreed to pay back $4.4 million of the state money. In 2015, according to the Boston Business Journal, after Vertex failed to meet its job creation target, the city reduced its tax breaks to $9 million—but didn’t ask the company to pay anything back and will keep its deal in place until 2018. Leaving Vertex reaping a windfall of almost $17 million in state and local tax breaks. Oh, and that sweet loan, too.

2) Gouging public health programs

With the release of two major successful cystic fibrosis meds and more new related meds set to breeze through the FDA drug approval process, the company is starting to expand. And how could it not? In July 2017 it raised the price of its newer med, Orkambi, by 5 percent to $273,000 per patient per year, according to the Boston Business Journal. A product that did $980 million in sales in 2016 before the price increase. In 2013, the company had already raised the price of its first major med, Kalydeco, from $294,000 to $307,000 per patient per year. With some patients paying as much as $373,000 per year, according to an October 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today article. Cystic fibrosis doctors and researchers have strongly protested, but to no avail.

It’s true that most patients don’t pay anywhere near that amount of money for the meds—because public and private insurance eat the lion’s share of the still-outrageous cost. But the final sticker price remains tremendously high. And the company doesn’t say much about who does pay a big chunk of the bill: the government, and therefore the public at large. Stick a pin in that. Vertex, like virtually every other drug company, has a business model based on gouging the public with ridiculously high prices that various government insurance programs are mandated to pay.

Programs like, in this case, federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As an Oct 4 letter from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (whose eminently questionable role in the funding and development of Vertex’s cystic fibrosis meds will likely be the subject of a future column) to the Senate Finance Committee explained, about half of all cystic fibrosis patients—who used to die young before the new treatments came online—are under 18 years old. So they’re generally covered by CHIP. That program, sadly, was defunded on Sept 27 by our psychotic Congress as part of the Republican Party’s crusade against Obamacare. Most states will run out of their 2017 CHIP money early next year, and unless they find money in their own budget to replace it or Congress manages to do the right thing, over 4 million kids—including thousands of cystic fibrosis patients—are in danger of losing their health coverage.

Vertex is not directly to blame for that crisis, but the situation does make its promise that some of its $500 million donation “will be spent helping cystic fibrosis patients get access to Vertex drugs that help them breathe easier and live a more normal life” look even more ridiculous than it otherwise would. Because Vertex and other pharmas certainly have no plans to lower the outrageous prices of their top meds for any reason. They’ll give some destitute patients “access” to their drugs. But everyone else pays—primarily through government insurance, often in tandem with private insurance. After what the pharma industry terms “discounts”… that still result in usurious prices. So even if one takes whatever portion of the donation actually goes to helping patients get cheaper meds as an inadvertent giveback of some of the lucre they’ve leeched off the government, it’s going to be even less helpful than it otherwise would have been if half the patients on those meds lose their insurance next year.

But Vertex isn’t content with just draining funds out of the US federal and state governments. According to Forbesit’s pioneering ways to suck public funds out of countries with national health services. “Vertex seems to have finally cracked a long-festering problem: selling its expensive drugs in European markets, which are tougher at negotiating prices. Ireland recently agreed to give Vertex a flat, undisclosed annual payment; in return, all patients who need the drug will get access … other countries outside the U.S. will make similar deals … new CF drugs, including discounts, will cost $164,000 per patient in the U.S., where a fragmented health care system allows for less tough negotiation, and $133,000 in other countries. With almost all of the 75,000 CF patients in those countries treated, that would be an $8.5 billion market.”

3) Government-backed monopolies

Moving on, there’s another key way that Vertex makes bucketloads of money with government help: gaming the Orphan Drug Act. Passed in 1983, it was meant to create a strong incentive for pharmas to research drugs that treated conditions suffered by less than 200,000 patients. In practice, it’s become a standard way for pharmas to get a seven-year monopoly on many of their meds. And while it’s certainly true that cystic fibrosis afflicts about 30,000 people in the US—well below the 200,000 patient threshold—it’s also true that it’s no accident that Vertex chose to focus on the disease. Because, according to its 2016 10-K annual report filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company has won orphan drug status for both Kalydeco and Orkambi. Guaranteeing it seven years of monopoly production and distribution of both of the desperately needed and wildly overpriced meds. And 10 years in the European Union, under similar laws.

As Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers commented in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology in November 2015, such monopolies make “it’s hardly surprising that the median cost for orphan drugs is more than $98,000 per patient per year, compared with a median cost of just over $5,000 per patient per year for non-orphan status drugs.” The same study demonstrated that “44 percent of drugs approved by the FDA [in 2012] qualified as orphan drugs.” So winning orphan drug status is one structural mechanism that makes it possible for pharmas like Vertex to charge crazy high prices for many meds.

A recent article by Harvard Business Review adds that pharmas enjoy monopolies on many other meds thanks to the 1984 Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act—which allows them to enjoy “patent protection to effectively monopolize the market” for new meds. Once that protection expires, the field is then supposed to be open to other pharmas to produce far cheaper generic versions. Which is doubtless what Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden was referring to in a June Globe piece when he defended the company’s sky-high drug prices, saying “‘This is a system that actually works. It rewards innovation and stimulates it. And then after the period of [market] exclusivity is over, it actually makes these innovations free’ for future patients.”

What he doesn’t mention, however, is that pharmas routinely lobby and litigate to extend their monopolies on meds, and actually pay off potential generic producers to not manufacture generics. Delaying the cheaper meds’ arrival on the market and costing public insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the VA system, and CHIP huge amounts of extra money. Which then flows into corporate coffers. All the more so because the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) did not finally give the government the power to negotiate with pharmas to rein in drug prices, according to Morning Consult. The HBR story also notes that generic companies themselves often obtain exclusive monopolies for shorter periods of time and that their products are sometimes substandard—resulting in recalls. All these delays can keep cheaper meds off the market for years.

4) Public science, private profit

Finally, there’s the fact that much of the basic research that allows pharmas to exist is done by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health. In the case of Vertex, a direct connection has already been demonstrated. A May 2013 article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today explains that the company’s first cystic fibrosis med, Kalydeco, was only possible thanks to “a hefty investment from taxpayers through grants from the National Institutes of Health, which underwrote the cost of early research, which identified the gene that the drug targets.”

If one were to put a price tag on all the basic science Vertex uses to develop its cystic fibrosis meds—and other meds—that comes straight from the NIH, what would it be worth? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? It would be a great research project to estimate the total, but suffice to say that it would be a great deal of money. Money that Vertex could never have leveraged on its own back in 1989 when it was a startup.

Conclusion: the racket and the damage done

Add it all up: tax breaks, direct aid, profits from price gouging CHIP and other public insurance programs, profits from orphan drug status, and profits based on research directly attributable to NIH research. How much money will Vertex ultimately get from government at all levels? A hell of a lot more than that $500 million it proposes to give back to communities like Boston—mostly in ways that either benefit the company directly by providing it with a new generation of trained researchers or indirectly by gilding its public image. Assuming that it ever actually gives that much money away. Which the public has no way of knowing at this juncture.

Any more than we can know how much Vertex spends on lobbying annually to guarantee a constant flow of fat stacks of public cash. Since its shareholders at its most recent annual meeting in June thoughtfully shot down an initiative by a small number of religious shareholders to force the company to report its actual lobbying budget going forward, according to the Boston Business Journal. Not long after Vertex successfully colluded with 10 other pharmas to get the SEC to allow them to quash shareholder resolutions from the same religious groups that would have made the company’s drug pricing formula public, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Then, taking all the above into consideration, check out Vertex’s annual advertising and promotions budget for the last three years: $16.2 million in 2014, $24.5 million in 2015, and $31.4 million in 2016, according to its latest annual report. Going up, right? So tack $50 million a year onto that last figure and we get an $80+ million ad budget. Totally doable for a company with cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities worth $1.67 billion on hand on June 30, 2017. A company that’s now becoming profitable after years of running in debt—all of which has only been possible with massive public support.

Now come back to Vertex’s “donation.” Doesn’t look so generous anymore, does it?

Reforming the twisted wreckage of our drug research and distribution systems in this country will take a massive grassroots effort lasting years. But there’s one way that local advocates can get going on that project fast: demand that municipal and state officials stop giving public money to pharmas like Vertex, or participating in pharma PR stunts like promising to recycle some of that money to educate local kids—more of whom would have a fine education already if our elected officials stopped throwing money at giant corporations that should be going to social goods like public schools.

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

THE LONG GAME: SANCTUARY CITIES FIGHT POINTS TO NEED FOR GLOBAL LABOR PROTECTIONS

Original flag image by Adbusters. Or Betsy Ross, depending on who you ask

March 7, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. Yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and related federal agencies often rely on local police to help round up undocumented immigrants for deportation. That problematic lies at the heart of the rising sanctuary cities movement. Local governments in opposition to increasingly inhumane federal immigration policy under the Trump administration are passing resolutions ordering police forces under their control to refuse to aid federal agencies seeking to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant advocates hope that creating large numbers of such sanctuary cities—plus sanctuary campuses and sanctuary religious institutions—will stop or at least slow the latest wave of deportations until the US finally develops a more fair and rational immigration policy.

That’s not going to happen without popular support. And all too many Americans have not been provided with the information that will allow them to make an informed decision on the matter.

Citizens who back slowing or stopping immigration do so because they believe immigrants “steal jobs” from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and/or increase crime. Positions that are not borne out by major research studies. But if they looked more closely at what has actually happened on the immigration front since the early 1990s, there’s every possibility that they would join a groundswell of support for progressive immigration policy… and for something else besides: support for strong labor legislation at the national and international levels.

So it’s imperative that nativist Americans begin to understand the structural crisis that led to the current situation. The biggest precipitating factor was a so-called “trade” treaty signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It went into effect in 1994.

According to labor journalist David Bacon, NAFTA was the result of a major lobbying effort by American multinational corporations with support from CEOs in Canada and Mexico. It was sold to Congress as a remedy to the supposed dilemma of migration from Mexico (and points south) to the US. The argument was that by eliminating “barriers to trade” like tariffs and taxes on major corporations, profits would rise, the economic boats of all three countries would be lifted, more good jobs would be produced, and immigration would slow to a trickle. Because there would be no reason for anyone to leave home.
As often happens in politics, this turned out to be a pack of lies. Removing the so-called trade barriers meant that US multinationals were able to flood the Mexican market with cheap goods and services. Goods and services that Mexicans had once produced for themselves either in Mexican-owned companies or in a robust public sector that included a strong nationalized oil industry.

The Mexican economy went into immediate freefall—throwing over one million people out of work. Then the American multinationals were able to move more manufacturing operations to Mexico than ever before—where they were free of pesky labor unions and tax burdens—resulting in the loss of over 682,000 good American jobs by 2010 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Corporations that kept major factories and farms in the US were free to take advantage of a seemingly endless flood of undocumented immigrant workers who are rarely able to organize into labor unions—since one call to the feds ensures the deportation of any “troublemakers.” Canada was also badly hurt by NAFTA. Billionaire CEOs got even richer, and extended their political power significantly in all three countries.

And here’s the irony: It is precisely those Americans who lost their jobs to NAFTA and other neoliberal schemes like it who voted for Donald Trump in significant enough numbers in key states to ensure his victory.

That’s why any successful movement for immigration justice must be linked directly to the most far-sighted sectors of the labor movement in the US and abroad. The key to ending the fight over immigration is to enshrine strong labor rights worldwide; so that major corporations will no longer be able to pit workers in the US against workers in other countries in what’s been aptly called a “race to the bottom.” Spread that message widely enough, and the nativist movement will evaporate—aside from a small core of outright racists. Because if workers can make a decent living wherever they live, then immigration will cease to be an issue anywhere. And when people do migrate to the future US once a fair immigration regime is finally in place, it will be much easier to do so legally and permanently.

Which is the kind of world we all want, yes? One in which the rights of human beings to make a decent living and to move about the planet freely are respected more than the rights of corporations to maximize their profits.

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

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

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

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

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

A QUESTION OF STRATEGY: WILL WOMEN’S MARCH LEADERS HELP BUILD A DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT OR JUST PUT THE DEMS BACK IN POWER?

Photo by Scott Murry

January 24, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The Boston Women’s March for America was a tremendous success by any metric. Likely the largest political demonstration in the city’s history, its estimated 175,000 attendees made it big enough to dwarf even many national demonstrations of the last many years. Which shows two important things. First, there are a great many Massachusetts residents ready to fight to bring down the Trump administration. Second, the state’s population is strongly in favor of women’s rights—and a number of other positions mentioned in the event’s mission statement, including: racial justice, economic justice, human rights, climate justice, and religious freedom. So, credit where credit is due, march organizers did a wonderful job of reading the political moment, and turning out the broad left against a clear and present threat to democracy … in the form of a triumphalist hard right wing of the Republican Party.

However, the local march and hundreds of related actions across the US last weekend—up to and including the main Washington, DC march—all had an inherent political flaw that’s going to be hard to overcome. That is, their organizers appear to have no follow-up plan beyond mobilizing voters to get the Democrats back in power.

This is because the progressive nonprofits and labor unions behind the marches themselves have no high-level strategy beyond that same goal. Which is why many of them could not even support Bernie Sanders, their party’s credible left alternative in last year’s election. And why the Dems are not much better than the Repubs on a host of key issues—and in some cases, as with the Trans Pacific Partnership that President Trump just shot down as a first order of business, they are worse. Because the organizations that comprise the progressive wing of the Democrats, and provide most of its grassroots muscle, continue to refuse to challenge the still-dominant pro-corporate Clintonite wing of the party for control of its platform.

Given that problematic background, it’s easy to understand why the marches were essentially transformed into giant launchpads for the candidacies of key Democratic politicians for the 2018 and 2020 elections. In Boston, for example, the main speaker was Sen. Elizabeth Warren—a clear contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, having stood down in the recent election and consolidated her power base. Other rising Democratic politicians like Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Boston City Councilor and City Council President Michelle Wu also mounted the podium—and none could ask for a better campaign kickoff for their next races. Whatever those races may be.

But electing more Democrats to office is not going to solve the problems this nation is facing. Especially if the party continues to be led elitist technocrats who fake left, but break right on all the issues that matter to its populist wing.

An otherwise decent progressive like Warren will keep pulling her punches on effective policy prescriptions like single-payer national healthcare, and continue to defend Obamacare when she herself has written in favor of single-payer as the “most obvious solution” to our health crisis. Because she doesn’t have the support of party leadership to take on corporate power.

A union-backed mayor like Walsh will continue to base his economic policies on the simple conceit of attracting as many major corporations to Boston as possible—as he did by supporting the GE Boston Deal—in the likely vain hope that doing so will somehow result in more decent jobs for his working and middle-class constituents. Instead of creating public jobs programs and building large amounts of public housing like big city Democratic pols from the 1930s to the 1960s. Pushed by an ascendant and militant labor movement for much of that period. Because, again, he doesn’t have the support of party leadership for such policies. And because today’s union and nonprofit leaders have been unwilling to push Democrats to back the democratic socialist policies that many of them privately believe in.

So that’s the strategic quandary that progressive Democrats of the type who just pulled off huge and successful mass mobilizations find themselves in. They know perfectly well that a society run by and for the rich is incompatible with the fairness and justice they seek. They know that we cannot solve all the dire problems facing America by handing the reins of power to the CEOs—as both major parties have been doing for decades—and hoping for the best. And they know that the best organizing isn’t top-down, but is instead horizontal and, well, democratic.

Yet even when they pull millions into a great event like the marches against President Trump, they remain afraid to let the grassroots they just inspired to action run the political movement they hope to build. And as long as that cycle continues, the Democratic Party might indeed return to power by 2020. But all the marches in the world won’t bring true democracy to the United States.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

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

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:
iTunes, Google Play Music, BlubrryStitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube


UNITED WE STAND: AN ADMONITION FOR 2017

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January 4, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

As another calendar year begins, it is my custom to prognosticate about what I think is most important for my audience to consider in the months to come. Last year at this time, I asked readers if they wanted to live in a democracy—and I encouraged those who did to join organizations willing to defend and expand the democratic lifeways our society has left.

But how one thinks about democracy depends on where one stands politically. So this year, now that the 2016 election drama has played out, I think it’s worth reflecting on how to unite everyone who believes in American democracy around the cause of saving it. Given that people with very different politics still share a common vision of democracy at a gut level. Though they agree on very little else.

For example, most people who voted for President-elect Donald Trump—outright fascists, theocrats, and incipient monarchs excepted—believe that they did so to defend and expand democracy. Most people who voted for also-ran Hillary Clinton—including former Bernie Sanders supporters who held their noses and took one for the team—believe the same thing. Same goes for Libertarians, Greens, smaller left and right third parties, and a vast array of independents. Most everyone believes that people should have some say over political and economic decisions that affect their daily lives.

However, there is one significant group that doesn’t seem particularly interested in democracy (although they often say otherwise). The “good and the great.” The rich and powerful. The corporate leaders, major investors, and top politicians who comprise the oligarchy that controls the commanding heights of American politics and economics. Trump and Clinton represent different factions of it. And until popular movements reign in that oligarchy, nothing significant will change for the better.

Doing so will have to be a broad effort. Because neither the left nor the right can win this one alone. And removing an oligarchy is no easy task. As such, here’s what I think each political crew should do toward that goal.

Democrats: I wrote my basic prescription for you all a few weeks back … reform your party. Do us all a favor, take it away from Wall Street operatives like Clinton and let the grassroots membership run the show (read up on the midterm 1978 Democratic National Conference for some ideas). Give working Americans someone decent to vote for and there won’t be another repeat of the recent debacle anytime soon.

Republicans: If you’re serious about the small government thing, let’s see some grassroots action against the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, and the national security state. Also, fight to keep government funding for science and medicine in place. [Evangelical Republicans, keep Matthew 19:24 in mind.]

Greens: Get more of your members elected to local and state offices. The better to develop a core of experienced public servants, and eventually field national candidates who have some hope of striking hard bargains with the major parties to win significant reforms like national health care. Or even some Congressional seats.

Libertarians: Same as the Greens (understanding that you will generally oppose big federal programs). But unseating some of the current crop of racist and nativist Repub elected officials would be super helpful.

Smaller parties, “fusion” parties, and proto-parties: Get larger. We really need to muddle our way to a multiparty parliamentary system.

Non-voters of various political stripes: Even if you don’t believe in electoral politics, or just don’t see a point in voting, there’s still plenty you can do. Help rebuild local and regional democratic institutions like neighborhood associations, benefit societies, community service organizations, clubs, co-operatives, labor unions, and forward-thinking religious groups.

That said, everyone should work in concert to create a more democratic culture. A culture where people don’t just accept decisions handed down to them from on high in any sphere of life, but question them. And demand to be part of making them.

We will debate over every conceivable policy while we build that culture. And that’s OK. In a democratic society, the most important thing is that we’ll be able to have those debates. But without such basic human solidarity—such commitment to “hang together” rather than “hang separately,” as Benjamin Franklin probably quipped—democracy in America is finished.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

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

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PLAY TO WIN: UK LABOUR PARTY LEADER SHOWS THE AMERICAN LEFT HOW TO MOVE BEYOND SYMBOLIC POLITICS

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September 29, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Last week—as is the case many weeks every fall and spring in Boston—notices of small scripted protests by an array of area progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups got me thinking about the rut the anti-corporate American left has been stuck in for decades. Most especially about the damage done by the habit of ineffectual symbolic political action on a host of important issues. Combined with tailing after a corporate-dominated Democratic Party establishment. Which, time and time again, ignores or actively betrays its base on key issues like jobs, education, healthcare, global warming, and military spending. As it’s done during the current presidential race.

But what if there was a way to change the whole political game for the oppositional left? After all, we almost saw such a tectonic shift happen this year with the Bernie Sanders campaign. There have also been glimpses of a more vibrant, creative, and successful progressive politics from the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements over the last five years. What if left activists could get back to a mass politics that can really win solid victories for working families?

The way forward, it seems, is not yet to be found on our shores. However, it might be on view in the United Kingdom … where Jeremy Corbyn just won yet another vote to remain the leader of the Labour Party.

Who is Jeremy Corbyn?  Think of him as the Bernie Sanders of the UK. But one who has gotten a good deal farther politically than the original Sanders has to date. In his context, being the leader of the Labour Party is kind of like being the head of the Democratic National Committee. Except that the levers of actual power are more built into the Labour Party structure than the Democratic Party structure. And the party sits within a parliamentary political system where its leaders have a lot more control over what their elected officials do than their American counterparts. At the same time, Labour members get to vote directly for their party leaders—unlike Democrats. So when a socialist like Corbyn wins leadership elections twice in under a year and a half, it means that he has the power to help spark changes in his party of the type that Sanders can only dream of presently.

Since Corbyn first ran for Labour Party leader last year—on a platform well to the left of Sanders that calls for an end to austerity policies that hurt working people, renationalizing the once-public UK rail system, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and refusal to support Clinton-style “bomb diplomacy” (sorry, “humanitarian intervention”) in the Syrian war—he has increased the number of voting party members and supporters from 200,000 to over 600,000. Even while fighting a running battle with the corporate-backed acolytes of the neoliberal warmonger Tony Blair for full control of the party. Many of those new members are disenfranchised young voters of the same type that supported Sanders.

What Corbyn is doing with those young folks is fascinating. Upon winning his second leadership election by 61 percent last week, he didn’t talk about beating the ruling Conservative Party in the next general election. Instead he’s planning to deploy the growing militant grassroots of his party to win political victories in advance of the next election. Which looks like a completely different strategy than the one Sanders is taking post-primary—so far focusing his new Our Revolution organization on electing more progressive Democrats to office. Even as that party remains in full control of its Clintonite corporate wing. [Although in recent days, Our Revolution is starting to sound more like Corbyn’s similar Momentum organization—which is all to the good, and perhaps unsurprising given that the two insurgencies have long been in touch.]

And what issue is Corbyn focusing on? Public education. Namely stopping the Conservatives from increasing the fairly small number of UK public exam high schools known as “grammar schools.” He is calling for the large socialist camp coalescing around Labour to defend the egalitarian tradition of quality public education for all in Britain. Rather than allow the grammar schools to continue cherry-picking middle and upper class students, and helping them get into elite universities over the heads of working class students. Thus attempting to perpetuate the ancient British system of class privilege in education long after it was formally constrained. The Labour left is also likely to push to end the charter school-like “academy” (or “free school”) system that is allowing corporations to run many public secondary schools in Britain. Lining their pockets, threatening unionized teachers, and further limiting opportunity for working class students in the process. The Conservatives, for their part, plan to expand the academy system to 100 percent of secondary schools and many primary schools besides. If allowed to proceed unchallenged.

Street protests are absolutely part of what the reviving Labour Party and its allies are doing to challenge the corporate wing of their own party and the Conservative Party. Plus, Corbyn supporters have the possibility of leading their party to victory in a future general election, and starting to implement significant democratic socialist reforms thereafter. Echoing their predecessors in Labour leadership at the conclusion of World War II. Reforms like massive public jobs programs, building lots of good public housing, expanding government-funded lifelong educational opportunities for all, deprivatizing the still-impressive UK national health system, rolling back the assault on unions—while cutting the military budget and raising taxes on the rich and the corporations to pay for it all.

So their protest campaigns against conservative policy initiatives are not limited to small numbers of people waving signs and chanting slogans at the wealthy and their minions in business and government like latter-day Don Quixotes. Corbyn and his supporters are taking control of the Labour Party away from its discredited neoliberal leadership and using it to build a democratic socialist movement in the UK. That very project has been attempted in the Democratic Party before by movements like the Rainbow Coalition – and has been crushed every time. Based on that kind of experience, some American leftists feel that the structure of the party precludes such maneuvers from succeeding. A position potentially strengthened by Sanders’ dispiriting loss in the primary—after what was arguably the strongest attempt to take over the Democrats from the left in history.

Positioning the left—the actual left—for political victory in the US will therefore be extremely difficult. No two ways about it. And it’s not clear whether trying to commandeer the Democrats like Corbyn’s movement is doing with the UK Labour Party or building up small left-wing formations like the Green Party into a national powerhouse or some combination of the two strategies will lead to the desired outcome.

But one thing’s for sure. Corbyn’s success is built on grassroots activism. If we’re going to see similar successes for the American left at the national level, progressive nonprofits, unions, and student groups in cities like Boston will have to do better than calling sporadic underattended rallies, marches, and teach-ins—coupled with desultory lobby days where their peonage to the Democratic establishment is generally on display to their detriment. And start winning real political battles instead of scoring points on phantom targets.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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AUTONOMOUS PROFITEERING: CORPORATE NETWORKS ENLIST BOSTON TO HELP THEM SELL SELF-DRIVING CARS … AND ELIMINATE JOBS

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September 18, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

When seemingly random things happen in city government, they’re always worth a second look. Which was certainly the case last week when Mayor Marty Walsh announced a new partnership between the City of Boston, the World Economic Forum, and the Boston Consulting Group to test self-driving cars—aka autonomous vehicles—on city streets.

The stated goal is “a year-long engagement focused on creating policy recommendations and supporting on-street testing of autonomous vehicles … to advance the safety, access and sustainability goals identified by the public during the Go Boston 2030 transportation planning process.”

The rationale—“building on prior World Economic Forum research into Personal Mobility and Self-Driving Vehicles, conducted in partnership with The Boston Consulting Group, and the Future of Cities”—is framed primarily in terms of ending urban traffic congestion, reducing carbon emissions linked to global warming, and reducing poverty.

Sounds like a worthy endeavor, right? Perhaps in a better world. But not the way this technology is being rolled out. Or, more precisely, the way it’s being shoved down the public’s throat. Despite being one of the least-mentioned transit options by residents participating in the aforementioned Go Boston 2030 process—appearing with similar frequency to waggish questions like, “When can I fly around the city like the Jetsons?”—it’s suddenly a policy priority.

Put bluntly, this plan has all the makings of yet another corporate boondoggle. This time on an international scale with profound implications at the local level. Think Boston 2024 on steroids. A passing glance at the players tells the tale.

The World Economic Forum is an extremely powerful network of the global capitalist elite. They work hand-in-glove with the leaders of every major industry to ensure that the rich and powerful get ever more rich and powerful—and democracy be damned. The Boston Consulting Group is a multinational “management consulting firm” that is one of the architects of the “race to the bottom.” Where companies are encouraged to move jobs to countries with the cheapest labor costs and worst human rights standards in the quest for ever larger profits. Its recent accomplishments include flacking for charter schools and the privatization of public education worldwide. Then there’s the junior partner, the City of Boston, that takes virtually all of its major policy cues from corporate think tanks and foundations. A pattern established by a series of mayors since the 1950s. Most notably, the late Tom Menino.

Such corporate networks and organizations have the money and connections to turn their priorities into the priorities of hapless government officials like Mayor Walsh—who always seems to be chasing after bragging rights for Boston being a “global city,” or a “city of innovators” or whatever—even when the resulting policy prescriptions directly attack his core grassroots constituencies. As we’ve seen with the GE Boston Deal debacle.

For example, Walsh is known as a labor mayor. Someone who was put into power by local unions. Yet when considering this particular policy issue—self-driving cars—in that light, a number of serious potential problems for Boston area workers immediately present themselves.

To focus on the most obvious one, switching over from our existing fleet of cars and trucks to self-driving cars and trucks—in the service of expected mega profits to the auto, energy, and technology industries—will likely result in massive job loss to a huge number of professional drivers. Many of whom are taxi drivers and limo drivers whose jobs are already under threat of destruction by mostly unregulated “online transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft. And many people who hold those professional driving jobs—like truck drivers or MBTA bus and train drivers—are members of labor unions like the Teamsters and the Boston Carmen’s Union that are already threatened by technologies being developed for private interests. Not for the public good.

What are the plans to help workers displaced by self-driving cars? Apparently the usual corporate non-plans. A September 2015 report by the Boston Consulting Group put it this way: “Rather than wage a doomed battle against progress, affected incumbents might be better advised to use the current ‘calm before the storm’ to adapt their business models to this new technology and position their businesses to profit from a new era of mobility. That is the key message that [vehicle manufacturers], dealers, and suppliers must convey while they work with governments on good-faith efforts to mitigate the impacts on those most negatively affected.”

The report’s most specific suggestion is that governments should provide: “job-retraining and placement services and compensation for income losses from unemployment.”

Anyone who has ever seen what actually happens in instances of mass layoff knows exactly what will follow in practice. In the best possible scenario, some affected workers—not all—will qualify for extended unemployment, and receive some training for job markets that don’t have enough openings to make up for the jobs being destroyed. After unemployment runs out—and even extended unemployment typically runs out in one-to-two years depending on the program—the displaced workers who have not managed to find new jobs are screwed.

And as shown above, the industries and “consultants” doing the damage to the affected workers will not have to pay a cent for any of the havoc they wreak. The burden of such “externalities” as the immiseration and dislocation of thousands of professional drivers in Boston alone is to be borne by already overwhelmed and underfunded public programs—where they have not already been eliminated by the ongoing corporate onslaught against the public sector led by those same industries and consultants.

On those grounds, the city should pull out of this incipient arrangement and pursue only those future transit options purpose-built to help working people rather than harm them. Self-driving vehicles could be of great benefit to humanity depending on how they’re produced and deployed. But shadowy corporate networks like the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group—given their long history of looting public goods for private profit—are absolutely the wrong institutions for municipal governments to be partnering with on such a critical project as the introduction of a major new technology.

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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STREET FIGHT: STUDENTS DISSATISFIED WITH POLITICS AS USUAL WILL FIND PLENTY OF GRASSROOTS ACTION IN BOSTON

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September 6, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Are you a student? New to Boston? Want to fight for social justice, but not sure where to plug in? Well, this will hardly be a comprehensive list, but here are some local activist organizations and campaigns that are worthy of your consideration. I’m only including groups that I’ve written about (and that I agree with in broad strokes) for the sake of brevity. But, rest assured, there are activist organizations for people of every political disposition hereabouts.

A few tips are in order for people new to grassroots political activism. Seek organizations that are open and welcoming, have a democratic internal process, play well with other groups, and treat students as equals regardless of age or experience. Avoid organizations that look at students as free labor, seem focused on hitting people up for money, don’t work with other groups, and have a very undemocratic internal process run by a small ruling clique. Also avoid outright cults masquerading as political activist groups. They exist. You’ll know you’ve run into one when you meet people whose entire lives seem to be directly controlled by their organization and who will not stop trying to recruit you even after you say “no.” In general, listen to your gut instinct when checking out an activist organization, and you’ll be fine.

Here’s the list.

Black Lives Matter

One of the most important and vibrant American political movements today. Leading the biggest fight against entrenched structural racism in decades. In the wake of an ongoing series of police shootings of Black people around the country. Different local nodes of the activist network have varying membership requirements. But if you can’t be a core member, BLM periodically calls for allies to join them in the streets. That will be your cue to step up. Just remember to check your privilege. Chapters in Boston and Cambridge.

http://www.facebook.com/BlackLivesMatterBOS/

http://www.blmcambridge.org/

350 Mass for a Better Future

If you’re down to stop global warming, this group has got you covered. It’s organized on the state, national, and international levels and doesn’t shy away from civil disobedience or legislative action. Its current big campaign is the Clean Money for Climate Pledge, asking “candidates running for state, federal and municipal office in Massachusetts [to] commit not to accept campaign contributions from executives, in-house lobbyists and others employed by the top ten climate-disrupting corporations.” Including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

http://www.betterfutureaction.org/

Save Our Public Schools

Do you believe education is a right—not a privilege—in a democracy? Do you think that charter schools are a total scam designed to siphon public money into a variety of private pockets, and destroy public schools in the process? Well there’s an active fight against Question 2, an upcoming state ballot measure backed by very well-funded supporters determined to expand the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth. It’s called Save Our Public Schools (a.k.a. the “No on 2” campaign) and it’s spearheaded, as ever, by teachers unions—in this case, the Mass Teachers Association.

http://saveourpublicschoolsma.com/

Make GE Pay

Since the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced their plans to dump at least $270 million on General Electric—one of the largest and nastiest multinational corporations in the world—in exchange for moving its world headquarters to the Hub, there’s been been a good deal of discontent brewing in communities around the state. Largely in opposition to local and state government handing huge wads of public cash to a tremendously wealthy company with plenty of skeletons in local closets—in a period of savage budget cuts to critical social programs. The Make GE Pay coalition formed last spring to try to stop the deal, and is looking to get in gear this fall after some early public actions.

http://www.facebook.com/makegepay/

encuentro 5

Can’t decide which campaign excites you the most? Why choose? This movement building space right off the Park Street T stop has a mission to get social justice activists “better networked, better resourced, and better organized.” Home to several important nonprofits, and a regular meeting place for dozens of activist groups, if you can’t find a campaign that interests you here then you may wish to reconsider your aspiration to be politically active.

http://www.encuentro5.org/

That’s enough to get you started. Have fun. Fight the power. And be careful out there.

Full Disclosure: 350 Mass is a member of my organization’s Community Advisory Board, and encuentro 5 was launched by colleagues at my former nonprofit, Mass Global Action.

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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DISSENTING OPINION: SMITH COLLEGE SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL WORK STUDENT PROTESTERS RESPOND TO CRITICAL BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL

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August, 29, 2016

BY SMITH COLLEGE SOCIAL WORK STUDENTS

Introductory Note by Jason Pramas, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism: For the growing number of American students who come from “non-traditional” (read “Black, Latina/o, Asian, Native American, immigrant, and/or poor”) backgrounds, getting into a university — let alone graduating— remains extremely difficult. All too many colleges — especially elite Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools — simply were not designed to deal with students who weren’t white, wealthy, and WASP. They were designed to exclude them. Things have changed over the past half century after much struggle by university students, faculty, and staff of good conscience (together with off-campus allies) across the country, but not nearly enough in some important respects. So it was disappointing to read last week’sBoston Globe editorial, “Smith College activists cry wolf over bigotry.” In which the immensely privileged editorial board of a major newspaper told a group of students of color at the Smith College School for Social Work — a co-ed graduate program — that they were out of line for protesting racism at their school. Specifically, letters to the Smith administration written by one of their department chairs and an anonymous group of their adjunct faculty. Both stating that many social work students of color should never have been admitted to the college. Globe reporter Laura Krantz took a more balanced look at the Smith situation earlier this week, but that doesn’t excuse the newspaper’s editors for choosing to call the Smith students out for special disfavor without giving them a chance to respond in print. By way of corrective, I thought it was important to reach out to the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters and let them speak for themselves. They graciously agreed to write a response to the Globe editorial, and I now publish it here in the public interest. Read on … 

Several Smith College social work students drafted this statement addressing recent organizing surrounding issues of race and racism at the Smith College School for Social Work. Our voices are a small part of a larger organizing collective committed to this work.

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe suggests that student activism at Smith College’s School for Social Work is “overwrought,” and advises us as organizers that “not every dispute warrants a social-justice crusade.” TheGlobe’s editorial writers have not been sitting in classes or common spaces on campus, nor have they been talking to professors or students directly. As students in these spaces, we feel that we must provide context that challenges the Globe’s narrative: our actions have encouraged open dialogue to better our school, community, and the larger profession of social work.

Thus, we agree with the authors of the Globe editorial, who write: “disagreements and problems can only get worse when people don’t talk about them.” It is imperative to bring these issues out from behind closed doors, where professors and administrators are discussing their concerns about students without our input. Our actions this summer follow the actions of many before us, extending far beyond the walls of Smith. They are intended to start public conversations, not shut them down. We encourage our administrators and professors to engage authentically with us, not in private, anonymous forums without giving us an opportunity to respond. Students have been left out of these conversations for decades, and the two letters released were written directly in response to student voices finally being a part of the conversation. This was a result of organizing efforts by students. Our hope has always been to have the opportunity to respond and engage in collective dialogue to improve Smith College.

Further, the Globe editorial mischaracterizes Smith students as individuals who don’t know what real oppression looks like. We do in fact understand the reading of “colonialism and racial oppression” in the two leaked letters. When faculty and administrators decry students “lacking academic qualifications,” call our “competence” into question, and criticize a “tainted” admissions process, we understand that this rhetoric has a history. In academia, as Roderick A. Ferguson writes in his book “The Reorder of Things,” words like “ability,” “competence,” and “efficiency” are used as seemingly “neutral” words that are actually used to surveil, exclude, and measure students of color. As one organizer points out, “these notions are only ever deployed in an attempt to ‘neutrally’ or ‘colorblindly’ exclude members of marginalized communities from gaining access to sites of power.

However, it is critical to understand that as student protesters, we are addressing more than these singular letters. Like students from other institutions of higher learning across the country, we are seeking structural changes in faculty and student diversity, curriculum variety, and an academic review process that has disproportionately harmed students of color at Smith’s School for Social Work. As recently as 1986, there were only 3 students of color in the school’s student body of nearly 300. Even today, the school’s widely-publicized anti-racism commitment fails to bring diversity to its teaching staff, its admissions recruitment and retention, and its assigned readings. In the summer of 2015, students at Smith presented a list of demands similar to the demands presented by students at 51 other institutions across the country, demanding that the school live up to its anti-racism commitment. This work carried over into the summer of 2016, and student organizing on campus has had a history of success in bringing about tangible change. In this work, we are not here to shut down speech or dialogue. We are not here to speak over white members of our community. Faculty, students, and administrators can be able to engage in collective conversation around the ways Smith lives up to its commitment.

We are concerned that the Globe has chosen to characterize us as part of the maligned “college crybully” generation. If aligning ourselves with the standards of social work articulated by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics makes us “crybullies,” then so be it. We seek to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.” We “challenge social injustice.” As students who want to carry our critical thinking skills with us into practice now and in our careers, can we be blamed for our criticisms of Smith’s culture? As Roxane Gay writes in The New Republic, “Whether we agree with these student protesters or not, we should be listening: They are articulating a vision for a better future, one that cannot be reached with complacency.”

As members of the Smith community, we are in pain watching our fellow community-members disproportionately take on the burden of educating peers and professors about their own internalized racist beliefs. We are then saddled with a burden of proof when we engage with professors like the “concerned adjuncts” and Dennis Miehls: individuals who are eager to cast doubt on students of color and our experiences here. And yet, many are not only hesitant to engage in direct conversation with us about our concerns, but consistently invalidate them.

In the words of the “concerned community members” who leaked the letters, “if we are truly to be a leading school for social work with an anti-racism mission, then our faculty must be leading our field to be more inclusive and ever-committed to the pursuit of social justice.” These protests were not simply about the letters; the letters were symptomatic of a culture of latent racist bias at Smith, where students of color are constantly pushed to prove that we belong here, too. We can no longer idly stand by while Smith fails to give us the education we need to be successful social workers.

Readers who would like to communicate with the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters can email them at smithmswforchange@gmail.com.

CABLE JEOPARDY

BEYOND BOSTON COLLAGE

August 22, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Now that broadband internet is a public utility, both cable companies and telephone companies need to pay for public access television — not try to defund it

Last week, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) was pleased to welcome the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) 2016 Annual Conference to our mini metropolis. Staff, board members, and volunteers from public access television stations from the around the nation were camped at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel — sharing skills, networking, and, unfortunately, discussing the best way to survive in a hostile political climate. Because despite being one of America’s greatest remaining democratic communications resources, public access TV is perennially fighting to preserve its funding. In honor of the ACM conference, I wrote the following commentary for the pilot episode of Beyond Boston — a video news digest that BINJ just launched this month in partnership with several area public access TV stations, including: Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), Malden Access TV (MATV), and Somerville Community Access Television (SCAT). Our aim is to feature news produced at local public access TV stations and link it to news we produce at BINJ. Expanding the reach of all our work by effectively merging our audiences. Check out the show on participating stations and on the new Beyond Boston YouTube channel. And read on to get some perspective on the crisis facing a vital community media resource.

Public access television is one of greatest innovations of the grassroots movement for media democracy in the last half century. Also known as community television,  it has helped cities and towns nationwide to have their very own cable TV channels. Allowing residents to keep up with local news and views while enjoying a wide variety of arts and entertainment programming — most of which is produced by their family, friends and neighbors. Filling the gap in local nonprofit media options left by PBS and NPR.

One of the best things about public access television is the way it’s funded. Community media pioneers like noted filmmaker George Stoney helped craft regulations back in the late 1960s that made everything go. They were based on the principle that cable companies should pay an annual franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for being able to build out their systems on municipal rights-of-way. In other words, companies like Comcast have to pay local governments for stringing their cables along public streets. That money can then be used to equip and sometimes staff public access stations. And those stations get used by the local population to celebrate their culture. Expanding free speech in the process.

That funding mechanism worked pretty well — despite a bunch of political speed bumps there’s no time to discuss today — until the telephone companies joined cable companies in offering broadband internet service about a decade back. Soon people in many places were getting all the content carried over the old cable systems and much much more from both telephone companies like Verizon and cable companies like Comcast. This created a problem for funding public access stations because cable companies offering broadband still had to pay the franchise fee to local governments that is used to finance those stations. But telephone companies that now also provide broadband don’t have to pay that franchise fee.

This has potentially provided the cable companies an opening to get rid of the franchise fee by stating that it’s unfair that they have to pay when the telephone companies don’t. Putting public access funding in extreme jeopardy. However, last year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband internet service is a public utility. Raising the possibility that both cable companies and telephone companies could be mandated to pay a franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for stringing their broadband wires on public land.

The FCC is still figuring out how to proceed on that front, and they are under intense pressure from cable companies and telephone companies to free them from all responsibility for funding public access stations. So it is critical that everyone who supports public access media gets together with other interested folks in your community and starts building a new grassroots movement to demand the FCC apply the franchise fee to both cable companies and telephone companies. A win on this issue will keep public access stations funded for decades to come. And that’s a big win for democracy.

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Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.