September 30, 2008

Detroiters on Obama

In trying to get a sense for how Detroiters feel about this election, I spoke to Ron Scott, a long time journalist-activist-documentarian in the city. Scott was a co-founder of the Black Panthers chapter here, and he hosted the American Black Journal (see video archive, including '78 interview with Bobby Seale). Now he blogs at Detroit News online, and is a leader of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Bruality.

I've been asking: how does Obama's message of hope and change resonate with you?
Mr. Scott assumed it was a loaded question, referring me to some folks at the ACLU who might give a cheerier assessment of the campaign.

"I never hoped he would deliver a damn thing or that he was the second coming of christ. This is the first time in a long time people presume that there's a progressive strategy without confirming it. I don't hope. I'd rather know."

On the Obama mobilization in Detroit, Scott acknowledged that Barack is organizing in a different way that reaches new voters. But, according to Scott, he's not involving Black and working class youth as organizers, so as to create and sustain organizing networks that will last beyond the election season.

"It's comparable to Evo Morales in Bolivia. It would be like if he got the sons and daughters of the patricians to organize with him around land reform."

Scott's critique, though, bordered on critical support-an attempt to put demands behind the bloc of youth voters and black voters in the city, who are assumed stalwart supporters. Without a more coherent "urban agenda" Scott says the campaign isn't doing enough to address the problems in Detroit.

"I don't want to hear about the war on Iraq if he's not gonna talk about the war we got on Mack."

September 26, 2008

L.A. Port Truckers Closer to Shedding Dirty Past

From October 2008, Labor Notes

A labor-environmental coalition in Los Angeles including several Teamsters locals inched closer to making the city’s giant port less destructive for its neighbors’ lungs—and its workers’ rights.

A federal judge refused to grant the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) request on September 8 to suspend a plan that would ban heavily polluting older trucks. It would also compel trucking companies to hire their workers as employees, not independent contractors, opening up the possibility for organizing them.

In the works for years, the plan will go into effect October 1. According to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a member of the coalition, there will be an immediate 50 percent reduction in truck pollution at the adjacent L.A. and Long Beach ports.


Since federal deregulation of the industry in 1980, industry restructuring led port truckers to work as independent contractors, who are not allowed to form unions. More than 90 percent of the workforce was organized during the 1970s, a number turned on its head since then, said Gary Smith, an organizer with Teamsters Local 952 in Orange, California.

Southern California’s port truckers have seen organizing drives before. In 1996, Communications Workers Local 9400 led an innovative campaign at the booming ports, where the number of truckers had doubled in a decade. Local 9400 called rolling strikes, and had 4,000 truckers sign union cards. They sidestepped the independent-contractor barrier by arranging to contract with a new company that pledged to hire workers and recognize the union.

The ports were hostile, and iced the company out. The plan crumbled when owner Don Allen failed to fund his corporate transformation, leaving disaffected workers back at square one. In recent years, immigrant truckers have led wildcat strikes over fuel prices and work conditions.

Area Teamsters locals have also rallied in California ports for years. “A lot of locals are interested because down the line we want to organize,” Smith said. “This is a huge paradigm shift away from the misclassification.”

The Teamsters have been talking to port truckers since the late ‘90s, but Smith says the campaign didn’t take off until Change to Win got behind the port plan.Trucking companies are intent on shutting down labor’s side-door organizing strategy.

“The Teamster solution is to fuse their interests with the environmental groups’ interest in lower pollution,” said Michael Belzer, a trucking industry specialist and professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “The employers remember the Teamsters being the guys in control and now they are not ready to relinquish control.”

The ATA is appealing the plan to the federal Ninth Circuit Court, which could rule on the case in months. Several trucking companies in the ATA have abandoned the legal fight and signed agreements that tie access to the ports with compliance to new pollution and employment rules. Other companies have begun buying new trucks and hiring drivers.

The port plan proposes to phase out older trucks over three years, and fine companies using them. A bill in California’s legislature—threatened by the governor’s veto—would impose per-container fees on cargo ships to fund the green fleet.


If the state bill doesn’t force shippers to share the costs of upgrading the truck fleet, trucking companies will bear much of the cost. But in Long Beach it’s a different story. The same requirements for newer, cleaner trucks apply there, but companies won’t be required to grant their truckers “employee” status.

This puts the economic burden for the upgrades on a largely immigrant trucker workforce, who make about $30,000 a year. In late August, truckers protested Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster at a Clean Ports event, calling for cleaner trucks, but not at their expense.

The Long Beach plan offers a subsidy that would offer new $100,000 vehicles for a third of the price. It’s not affordable for most independent truckers, who pay for their own fuel and maintenance, and drive nearly 90 percent of 17,000 trucks that service the ports.
“What’s most likely to happen is that drivers have to default on their lease payments,” said Max Palma, who’s been hauling in L.A. for 16 years.

LAANE activists think that Long Beach’s port will be forced to come around. Because companies that signed up in Los Angeles will haul from Long Beach, too, there will be a de-facto transformation at both ports.


The ports plan still must vault other hurdles. Though they backed the plan, the federal courts questioned whether a local initiative can overrule federal deregulation laws. And the Federal Maritime Commission, an independent regulatory agency, has threatened to delay it.

The ports plan erodes legal barriers that have shut out unions for decades.
But Teamsters activists in Southern California say they’re not sure a organizing strategy driven by lawsuits and deal-making can involve truckers and harness the rank-and-file energy of 1996 and the recent wildcats.

Organizing workers disaffected by past failures will be a tough task.
“There are people resisting it, they don’t even want to hear the name of the union,” Palma said, adding, “I think they are misinformed. We will manage and we will succeed—and make a union.”

September 10, 2008

Something Truly Different About Someone Who Sounds So Much the Same

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. He takes the words right from the heads of a legion of ambivalent progressives trying to reconcile their attraction to/revulsion with Obama's candidacy:
"All of this saccharine talk of "change" is so transparently a mechanical come-on that if it were anybody but Barack Obama uttering the word, you'd want to throw up at the very sound of it. And yet, as I watch Obama deliver the same hackneyed act I've seen hundreds of times before, I feel against my will that I am actually watching something different at work."
"When those other guys took this act on the campaign trail, it was obvious they were just reading lines in a bad script. But maybe it sounds different coming from Obama because he actually means what he says, as weird as that would be. The American Dream, after all, is dying. We do need something new. That much is painfully obvious.

What's confusing about Obama is that he's so successful at projecting an air of genuineness and honesty, even as he navigates the veritable Mount Everest of fakery and onerous bullshit that is our modern electoral system. And the reason it's confusing is that we've grown so used to presidential candidates who fall short of the images they present in public, we don't even know anymore what a man worth the office would look like. Is this him? Or is this just a guy with a gift for concealing the ugliness of the system he represents?"

September 04, 2008

Curb Your Enthusiasm for Obama

By Chris Hedges from Truthdig

Barack Obama’s health care plan coddles the corporations that profit from the misery and illnesses of tens of millions of Americans. The plan is naive, at best, and probably disingenuous when it insists that we can coax these corporations, which are listed on the stock exchange and exist to maximize profit, to transform themselves into social service agencies that will provide adequate health care for all Americans. I wish we lived in such a rosy world. I know, and I suspect Obama knows, that we do not.

“Obama offers a false hope,” said Dr. John Geyman, the former chair of family medicine at the University of Washington and author of “Do Not Resuscitate: Why the Health Insurance Industry Is Dying, and How We Must Replace It.” “We cannot build on or tweak the present system. Different states have tried this. The problem is the private insurance industry itself. It is not as efficient as a publicly financed system. It fragments risk pools, skimming off the healthier part of the population and leaving the rest uninsured or underinsured. Its administrative and overhead costs are five to eight times higher than public financing through Medicare. It cares more about its shareholders than its enrollees or patients. A family of four now pays about $12,000 a year just in premiums, which have gone up by 87 percent from 2000 to 2006. The insurance industry is pricing itself out of the market for an ever larger part of the population. The industry resists regulation. It is unsustainable by present trends.”

We face a health crisis. The Democratic and Republican parties, awash in campaign contributions from the beasts they should be slaying on our behalf, have no interest in addressing it. A report in the journal Health Affairs estimates that, if the system is left unchanged, one of every five dollars spent by Americans in 2017 will go to health coverage. Half of all bankruptcies in America are because families are unable to pay their medical bills. There are some 46 million Americans without coverage and tens of millions more with inadequate policies that severely limit what kinds of procedures and treatments they can receive.

“There are at least 25 million Americans who are underinsured,” said Dr. Geyman. “Whatever coverage they have does not come close to covering the actual cost of a major illness or accident.”

Obama, like John McCain, did not support HR 676, the single-payer legislation. The corporations that run our for-profit health care industry, which would be shut down if the bill was enacted, have vigorously fought it through campaign contributions and armies of lobbyists. A study by Harvard Medical School found that national health insurance would save the country $350 billion a year. But Medicare does not make campaign contributions. The private health care industries do. They have lavished money on Obama. He received $708,000 from medical and insurance interests between 2001 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And Michelle Obama is a vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, a position that paid her $316,962 annually.

“The private health insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry completely and totally oppose national health insurance,” said Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, one of the founders of Physicians for a National Health Program. “The private health insurance companies would go out of business. The pharmaceutical companies are afraid that a national health program will, as in Canada, be able to negotiate lower drug prices. Canadians pay 40 percent less for their drugs. We see this on a smaller scale in the United States, where the Department of Defense is able to negotiate pharmaceutical prices that are 40 percent lower.”

Sen. Obama argues that we can improve the system by expanding government oversight. The government, he says, should require doctors and hospitals to prove they provide quality care. His plan links payment with reported quality. This would mean that health care providers would have to hire even larger staffs to collect and report this data to the government. There would be a $10-billion federal investment in health care information technology over five years under the Obama plan, in essence turning record keeping from paper to electronic data.

Obama’s plan, said Dr. Don McCanne, who writes on health care issues, would actually make health plans “more expensive, which compounds the problem.”

Obama says he would require insurance companies to use more income from premiums for patient care.

“There isn’t an enforcement mechanism,” Geyman said bluntly. “Most states have been unable to control rates or set a cap on rates.”

Obama’s plan would also not cover all Americans. Unlike in Canada, citizens would not be enrolled in a plan automatically. Americans would have to go looking for one they could afford. And if they could not find one they would remain uninsured. Dr. Woolhandler, who is also a professor at Harvard Medical School, estimates that “tens of millions” of Americans would remain uninsured under Obama’s plan. These numbers would swell as employers, who provide plans for 59 percent of those who are employed, continue to reduce coverage.

“The only way everyone will get insurance is with national health insurance,” she said from Boston in a phone interview. “There is nothing in the Obama plan that will change the bitter reality that working-class families face when their breadwinner gets sick. People with catastrophic illnesses usually lose their jobs and lose their insurance. They often cannot afford the high premiums for the insurance they can get when they are unable to work. Most families that file for bankruptcy because of medical costs had insurance before they got sick. They either lost the insurance because they lost their jobs or faced gaps in coverage that meant they could not afford medical care.”

Obama has borrowed John Kerry’s idea to have the government absorb certain severe costs, although again the details are not spelled out. Insurers, he says, would no longer be able to discriminate based on preexisting conditions. All children would have health coverage. He would, he says, expand Medicare and Medicare-like coverage to protect the very young and the elderly. This is laudable, if he can make it happen. But the fundamental problem is a health industry run for profit. Our health system costs nearly twice as much as national programs in countries such as Switzerland. The overhead for traditional Medicare is 3 percent, and the overhead for the investment-owned companies is 26.5 percent. A staggering 31 percent of our health care expenditures is spent on administrative costs. Look what we get in return.

We on the left, those who should be out there fighting for universal health care and total and immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, sit like lap dogs on the short leashes of our Democratic (read corporate) masters. We yap now and then, but we have forgotten how to snarl and bite. We have been domesticated. And until we punish the two main parties the way big corporations do, by withdrawing support and funding when our issues are ignored, we will remain irrelevant and impotent. I detest Bill O’Reilly, but he is right on one thing—we liberals are a spineless lot.

Labor unions don’t negotiate with corporations on the basis of good will. They negotiate carrying the threat of a strike. What power do we have as long as we cave on every issue we stand for, from opposition to the death penalty to battling back against the military-industrial complex?

It is not about liking or not liking Obama. It is not about race or class or gender. It is not about growing up poor or a member of the working class. There is no shortage of greasy politicians who, once in power, sold out their own. Look at Bill Clinton. It is about fighting back. It is about confronting a system that belittles us, what we stand for and what is best for the majority of Americans. We need to throw our support behind alternative candidates who champion what we care about, whether Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader. Bob Barr’s health care plan, like John McCain’s, is even worse than Obama’s tepid proposal. We need to begin to actively and militantly defy the corporate state, and this means stepping outside of the two-party system. Universal health insurance is one issue. There are others. Nothing we care about will change until we do.

The Democrats, who promise to end the war in Iraq, create jobs and provide universal health care, ignore these promises once election cycles are over. And we never make them pay. They gave us NAFTA, the destruction of welfare and increased military spending, and we gave them our vote. This is the party that took back Congress in 2006 on an anti-war platform and then increased troop levels and funding for the Iraq war. This is a party that talks about the crushing weight of debt carried by Americans and then refuses to cap predatory interest rates as high as 30 percent imposed by credit card companies. This is a party that promises to protect our constitutional rights and then passes the FISA bill to protect the telecommunications companies. The list goes on. These politicians, including Obama, must begin to feel heat. They must learn that there is a cost to be paid for working on behalf of corporations and disempowering citizens.