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BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

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

EDITORIAL: A NOTE TO BOSTON-AREA JOURNALISM STUDENTS

Let’s talk

 

October 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”

 

Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.

 

Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.

 

Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.

 

Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.

 

Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.

 

The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.

 

Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.

 

For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.

 

Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.

 

We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.

 

It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at internships@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

EDITORIAL: WHY ADVERTISE WITH DIGBOSTON?

To support independent journalism and beat back marketing propaganda, for starters

 

September 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many people have taken to loudly bemoaning the supposedly sudden arrival of “fake news” since the 2016 presidential election… while becoming belatedly aware of the accompanying slow decline of print newspapers that are—whatever else one might say about them—the beating heart of American journalism.

 

Every other kind of news media owes its existence to these “dead tree” publications. Traditional radio and TV news outlets, and every form of digital news operation on the internet, are all possible because print newspapers—most commercial, some nonprofit—have been fielding thousands of reporters in hundreds of cities for decades. Doing the kind of deep ground-level reporting that makes all the hot (and more often shallow) takes on other media possible.

 

Advertising has been the main source of income for commercial print newspapers since the mid-19th century, and the advent of web-based online advertising blew a vast hole in that revenue stream. Precipitating, in no small part, the downward spiral in their fortunes over the last quarter century.

 

One result of newspapers shrinking and all too often ceasing to exist has been what one might call the rise of the marketers. With fewer and fewer full-time reporters doing their jobs, marketing firms have leapt to the fore. Offering a flood of “free” content to every conceivable type of news operation. Ceaselessly expanding the empire of the original fake news in the process. A fake news that, make no mistake, has existed for as long as there has been news.

 

Because rich and powerful institutions have always hired marketers or their equivalents. And marketers—in thrall to whichever institution hires them—are paid to lie to the public. And are therefore the polar opposites of (most) journalists. Especially journalists at an independent metro newsweekly like DigBoston.

 

As a journalist-owned, journalist-run newspaper, we send reporters out into the communities we cover every week in search of information that’s as close to whatever truth may be happening as it can be. We then do our damnedest to faithfully report what we observe to our audience.

 

So, we can say with certainty that no human organization is good all of the time. Least of all the big corporations that run our society. But big corporations are the very institutions that spend the most money on paying marketers to spew propaganda at every level of news media.

 

And increasingly, understaffed and underfunded news outlets take even this worst of free marketing copy—this disinformation, this fake news—and run it. Day in and day out. The public, for their part, can be forgiven for having trouble discerning reasonably honest reporting from unreasonably dishonest marketing copy. There’s nothing new about that either. Some people are critical about any news they encounter. Some are not. But marketing has gotten so sophisticated and so pernicious that even the wary have trouble telling the difference between journalism and propaganda.

 

At DigBoston, our audience doesn’t have to worry about that quandary. We exist to report the news in the public interest. In our own way, and with our own unique broadly left-leaning voice, to be sure. But we take our job very seriously, and we work very hard week in and week out to do it to the best of our collective ability. For 20 years and counting.

 

Given that, if you know nothing else about us, know this: We do not run the propaganda that paid marketers fill our email inboxes with 24/7. Like this morning’s stupid, stupid example entitled “Wondering about a sponsored post.” That is, “wondering if you all are brainless enough to run this marketing copy for free and pretend it’s a real article by an independent journalist.” To which my colleague Chris Faraone gave our standard mocking reply, “$2,000 a post”—a price we know no marketer will ever pay.  

 

However, we’re a free newspaper. As such, even more than those bigs that have a number of different ways to make money, we rely almost completely on advertising to keep publishing.

 

We offer advertisers a lot for their money, even in today’s viciously competitive media market. Our ads are obviously cheaper than larger publications. More importantly, though, they reach people who read, who support music and the arts, who are tastemakers, and who… patronize our advertisers.

 

Because of that fact, our existing advertisers love us. And we love them back.

 

But we need more of them. We need to grow our news operation if we’re going to give the many communities in Boston and environs that we cover the constant attention they deserve. To do that we need to be able to pay more full-time reporters, and part-time ones, too. To do that, we need a bigger business staff and more salespeople.

 

All of which is only possible if more institutions that could advertise with us—all the local businesses and charities who serve the communities we cover—step up and do so.

 

Rather than spend advertising dollars on marketers who straight-out lie to people and harm our struggling democracy rather than help it.

 

Folks interested in advertising with DigBoston can email our sales staff at sales@digboston.org.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

THE MERRIMACK VALLEY DISASTER: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT OLD PIPES

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

 

September 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The events of last week in the Merrimack Valley were unfortunate by any measure. Something bad happened to the natural gas distribution system in parts of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover that resulted in dozens of homes being damaged or destroyed by explosions and fire, at least 25 people getting injured, and one person (tragically, an 18-year-old) getting killed. The leading theory for the conflagration is that it was triggered by a pressure spike in area gas pipes. But until the National Transportation and Safety Board concludes its investigation—which could take up to two years—we likely won’t know the cause of that spike. According to ThinkProgress, the Mass Department of Public Utilities will be conducting its own investigation, and Attorney General Maura Healey will oversee that effort to ensure transparency.

 

The company responsible, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts—a division of NiSource Inc. of Indiana—was so slow to respond to the crisis that Gov. Charlie Baker put Eversource Energy in charge of the cleanup effort.

 

But the magnitude of the disaster is just starting to sink in. About 8,500 homes were affected, and its occupants are being told that it will take months to replace the cast iron gas pipes under city streets and restore service. Pipes so old, and so prone to rusting, leaking, and failure, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started pushing gas utilities nationwide to replace them over a decade ago, according to USA Today. Yet despite being allowed to recoup such costs—which run about $1 million a mile—from their customers, utilities like Columbia have been slow to complete the needed work. Meanwhile, the thousands of residents that officials have allowed to return to their homes are forced to stay in apartments and houses that use gas for heating and cooking… with the gas shut off for the foreseeable future. As winter approaches.

 

This highlights the danger of using methane, an obviously flammable and explosive gas, as a fuel source for homes and businesses. Notwithstanding being in continuous use at millions of sites in the United States for well over 150 years, “natural” gas is not as safe as many people believe. According to the New York Times, “Since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured. …” And the reasons for such episodes are not always found.

 

Perhaps it could not be otherwise, since America has allowed private companies to control the production and distribution of natural gas from the industry’s beginnings. Sure, we call those companies “public utilities” and tell ourselves that federal and state government regulate them. But, like all corporations answering to the siren call of the market, gas companies exist to make profits for their shareholders. To the exclusion of all other considerations—be they health, safety, environmental, or economic. Even though the small local gas companies of the 1800s have long since merged to become large and powerful combines, and even though they are allowed to be monopolies in the areas they control, they continue trying to save money on costs and make as much profit as regulators allow. Often quite a lot, since the phenomenon of “regulatory capture”—where a revolving door sending top staff back and forth between utilities and regulatory agencies generally assures that utilities have fat bottom lines—continues unabated. Including here in the Bay State. Whether utilities provide good service or bad.

 

Which is why National Grid—another one of the seven companies that have gas monopolies in parts of Massachusetts—is getting away with locking out 1,200 union gas workers who are trying to get a better contract for the difficult and dangerous work they do day in and day out. And why Columbia, which has already been dinged for recent safety issues in the regions of the Commonwealth gas infrastructure under its control, according to the Boston Globe, was allowed to continue business as usual until the Merrimack Valley fires brought international attention to the consequences of its malfeasance. Leading WGBH’s Jim Braude to wonder aloud on the Sept 17 episode of Greater Boston what would have happened if the gas network in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover had been owned by National Grid. A company currently trying to service its infrastructure with ill-trained scab labor—some of them managers with little or no field experience. The better to bust the labor unions that protect the livelihoods of its workers, and permanently replace them with un-unionized workers that will make its stockholders even bigger profits.

 

If all these developments were taking place in a period where there were no demonstrable environmental consequences for burning fossil fuels like natural gas, they would be dire enough. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. True, burning methane as an energy source only produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are so many methane leaks in the production and distribution of both oil and gas that any relative advantage to the environment that burning it provides is mostly erased, according to a Washington Post article on a key study in the journal Science. Given that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So even the 2.3 percent of methane estimated to be leaking away into the atmosphere before it can be burned is enough to ruin its oft-hyped potential as a more “green” fossil fuel source that can be leaned on for decades while carbon neutral energy sources like solar are brought online on an industrial scale. Not because we don’t have the technology to do so faster, but because energy multinationals don’t want clean energy systems deployed until they’ve made all the money they can make by burning carbon.

 

Worse still, more than half of the natural gas being used in the Greater Boston area is now coming from fracked gas, according to Boston University earth and environment professor Nathan Phillips in a BU Today article. Fracking (more correctly, hydraulic fracturing) is an incredibly destructive and ecologically disastrous method of squeezing oil and natural gas out of vast underground shelves of shale rock by injecting massive amounts of water and any number of often-toxic liquid chemicals into them. Direct environmental impacts include ground, water, air, and noise pollution in those areas unfortunate enough to have lots of shale. And the technique has even been known to trigger earthquakes. Phillips also explains that fracked methane contains many impurities that may be making consumers sick. But the indirect impacts are far more problematic because fracked gas and oil have flooded the planet’s fossil fuel markets with cheap product at exactly the time we need to move away from burning carbon.

 

In a better world, the Merrimack Valley disaster would be a clarion call to move more decisively toward clean energy alternatives—at least in the affected communities as a useful demonstration project. In advance of doing so swiftly across the country, and in every corner of the globe. But we are not in that world. We’re in a world where energy corporations control the politics of the US and many other countries to their own advantage. And they want to ensure that humanity squeezes every last possible joule of energy out of fossil fuels like natural gas before allowing alternatives to finally become the dominant mode of energy production. Regardless of the fact that doing so will very likely result in a planet that’s unable to sustain advanced human civilization, and perhaps unable to sustain human life at all. If the worst global warming scenarios are allowed to become reality.

 

That’s why I have repeatedly called—most recently in a column about Eversource, the utility called upon to “fix” the Merrimack Valley crisis—for bringing energy companies to heel on both the environmental and economic fronts by winning the huge political struggles necessary to make them all genuinely public utilities. With a mission to provide cheap, clean, green energy like advanced wind, solar, and hydroelectric (ideally not from environmentally destructive mega-dams) power to America, and phase out all fossil fuel production, distribution, and usage as soon as possible. If we could accomplish that sea change in our energy system, other countries would be likely to follow at speed. And we might actually stand a chance of minimizing the damage from global warming, already on display with increasingly alarming frequency in the form of catastrophic storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut.

 

So if you want to help the Merrimack Valley disaster victims, certainly donate to the best local charities you can find. But also join environmental groups like Mass Sierra Club, Resist the Pipeline, and HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) that are working to end the ability of privately owned energy utilities to harm communities like Lawrence in particular and our planet’s ecosphere in general going forward. Furthermore, be sure to make your house, condo, or apartment as energy efficient you can and do whatever you can do to convert your dwelling from reliance on burning fossil fuel to using genuinely clean energy sources. Every little improvement helps. Just remember, we won’t really be able to ensure our survival as a species until the fossil fuel megacorps are stopped. Cold.

 

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

SOME THOUGHTS ON TRANSPORTATION POLICY

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

 

August 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Carbon

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

 

Planning

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

 

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

 

Alternatives

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Labor

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

 

Public

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

August 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

July 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

school parody image

Why the Mass budget surplus is better spent on infrastructure needs

 

July 7, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But that’s not what Baker is proposing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • $4 million to provide training to school resource officers

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

‘DON’T MOURN, ORGANIZE!’

 

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

 

Why Janus might actually be good for the American labor movement

 

July 3, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.