Truthout Stories Mon, 27 Apr 2015 03:10:31 -0400 en-gb New York Airport Workers Strike, Telling Management "Poverty Wages Don't Fly"

Airport workers calling for higher wages and union representation rallied outside LaGuardia Airport on April 23, 2015, in Queens, New York. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Airport workers calling for higher wages and union representation rallied outside LaGuardia Airport on April 23, 2015, in Queens, New York. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

The people who may have handled your baggage or helped you or a family member who uses a wheelchair navigate through the airport, or perhaps on or off a plane, continued their call for higher wages, more affordable benefits and union representation on April 23 in New York City.

Striking baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants, joined by dozens of union members from 32BJ SEIU and a city politician, rallied outside LaGuardia Airport's Terminal D, calling for a union contract. For two years, Local 32BJ, part of the Service Employees International Union, which is funding the nationwide Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and unionize fast-food workers, has been organizing airport workers at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airport, among the 12,000 subcontracted workers employed in New York and New Jersey.

In the last year, the airport workers, employed by Aviation Safeguards (ASG), a company contracted by airlines British Airways and Delta, have protested allegations of wage theft and intimidation by ASG, after workers received a letter from their employer stating their jobs could be terminated for participating in union activity, which the National Labor Relations Board ruled illegal. More recently, workers again received a similar notice from ASG stating that they could be fired for engaging in strikes.

Workers have also faced other forms of intimidation from their supervisors, including being told to remove union buttons and, the day before the April 23 strike, being asked if they planned to walkout, said Jordany Bueno, a LaGuardia airport worker.

"They intimidated a lot of people," which resulted in less of his co-workers participating in the action, he told Truthout.

Bueno and other workers said that despite pressure from management, they were not afraid to speak out for higher wages and union representation, and against unfair labor practices.

Truthout spoke to a few airport workers, and 32BJ members who rallied in support of those seeking representation by their union.

Jordany Bueno. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Jordany Bueno. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Bueno, 24, has worked at LaGuardia as a wheelchair attendant for four years. He didn't show up for his 6 am shift on April 23.

"We don't get gloves; we don't get any sanitation [supplies] so we go from passenger to passenger without ever really sanitizing," said the striking worker. Sometimes passengers urinate on wheelchair seats, he added.

When he started working for Aviation Safeguards, Bueno said he was earning $7.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time. After union organizing efforts, he said, Port Authority mandated a $10.10 per hour minimum wage for airport workers, which went into effect on February 1.

Bueno, who lives with his uncle, mother and brother in Manhattan, hopes to get his own place. With student debt, rent and transportation costs, "It's hard to start a life now with this kind of job," he said.

Azamet Soltanoff. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Azamet Soltanoff. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

The day before the strike, Azamet Soltanoff, a 29-year-old wheelchair attendant at LaGuardia, said his manager told him - at a gate, with airline passengers present - if he went on strike, he could be transferred back to his original position as a baggage handler. Like Bueno, he earns $10.10 per hour, helping passengers who use wheelchairs get to their gate, baggage claim and to their seat on the plane.

Soltanoff, who is married with a 20-month-old daughter, and lives in Queens, worries about the lack of sanitary supplies, especially gloves. "I don't want to get my daughter sick," he said. "We gotta keep fighting till we win the contract."

After rallying outside LaGuardia's Terminal D, airport workers and 32BJ union members and organizers traveled in vans to rally outside British Airways' New York offices in Manhattan, hoping to put pressure on the airline, which could then apply pressure on its contractor ASG. But while some workers, 32BJ organizers and New York City Councilman Ben Kallos attempted to meet with an airline representative to voice their concerns, British Airways declined to speak with the group or Kallos individually.

Laylarnie James. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Laylarnie James. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Working as a wheelchair attendant at LaGuardia for two years, Laylarnie James, 27, of the Bronx, said she earned $7.25 per hour when she started, and got a pay bump when the minimum wage was raised, but it's not enough.

"Aviation is not giving me enough for me to just have one job," said James, who lives with her parents, sister and 16-month-old nephew. She works 40 hours per week at the airport, but also works a part-time retail job in order to help pay rent and other household bills.

Across the street from British Airways' offices, where protesters held balloons and inflatable airplanes, James said she hoped the rally and union representation would allow her to "have my own place and be able to make it on my own."

Michael Carey. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Michael Carey. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Michael Carey, 49, is a security officer at JFK airport, also employed by Aviation Safeguards and seeking union representation by 32BJ. He spent his day off rallying with fellow airport workers at LaGuardia and in Manhattan.

"To get a union of our choice, that is what I want," Carey told Truthout. "To bring the union in, not only for me, but for workers coming after me."

Originally from Jamaica, Carey said he's worked at the airport for six years and loves his job, but earning $10.10 per hour has put a financial strain on his family. He supports two children, ages 24 and 14.

"I've been hearing people saying that minimum-wage workers don't deserve what we are fighting for, especially the $15 [per hour]," Carey said. "People are saying, 'Oh, get a job' or 'educate ourselves.' ... but if all of us leave minimum-wage workers' jobs, who's going to do it?

"With the help of God and a better union that we're fighting with," Carey added, "we're going to get it - the $15 and the contract and especially the union to put us forward."

Marek Nowak. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Marek Nowak. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Marek Nowak, 47, is a concierge and security officer at a Manhattan commercial building, and a 32BJ shop steward, who attended the rallies at LaGuardia airport and in Manhattan to show solidarity with workers seeking union representation.

"It's a shame. How can they support their family?" said Nowak, a Polish immigrant, who has two children, and earns $22 per hour after working for his company RXR for 13 years.

Gertha Cadet. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Gertha Cadet. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Gertha Cadet. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Gertha Cadet. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Another 32BJ union member, Gertha Cadet, of Brooklyn, has been a commercial cleaner for 25 years and said she hopes more people will support the airport workers, "especially those people who fly ... because [the workers] give them service."

Originally from Haiti, Cadet said she earns about $23 per hour working in an office building in Manhattan's Financial District. "With the [higher wage I earn], believe me, it's not enough," she said. "But what about them with that little minimum wage? It's not fair."

Pedro Gamboa. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Pedro Gamboa. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

Pedro Gamboa. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Pedro Gamboa. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

At JFK, Pedro Gamboa, 58, has handled flyers' baggage for four and a half years as an ASG employee. While he said he was glad airport workers' wages rose to $10.10 per hour in February, thanks to the Port Authority mandate, "$10.10 is just a start," he said. And, "$15 is a good start, but ... [due to the cost of living] in New York City, it's not enough."

Gamboa, who is from Guatemala, said he participated in Fight for $15 actions in New York City on April 15, and has become part of the wider campaign to raise the minimum wage for all low-income workers.

As a baggage handler who wakes up at 2 am to get to work on time via public transportation, Gamboa said most airline passengers "see us ... but they're not aware of the situation that we live in."

The workers, he added, "feel that Aviation Safeguards is not standing right by us. We need better wages; we need respect."

Airport workers and 32BJ SEIU members rally across the street from the New York offices of British Airways on April 23, 2015, in Manhattan. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Airport workers and 32BJ SEIU members rally across the street from the New York offices of British Airways on April 23, 2015, in Manhattan. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

In the van driving from LaGuardia airport to Manhattan, one 32BJ member was hopeful that the union's show of solidarity would have the desired effect on the airport workers' employer and the airlines. "I think they'll get the message," he said. "If not, we'll be back."

According to a 32BJ spokesperson, the Port Authority is expected to release details of an updated health, benefits and wages mandate for airport workers on April 30.

News Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Glyphosate Saga and "Independent Scientific Advice," According to Germany, the UK and France

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently classified glyphosate, the active substance of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, as “probably causing cancer in human beings.” Germany is charged by the EU with the safety review of glyphosate: yet three scientists sitting on its scientific panel on pesticides are employees of BASF and Bayer, two major pesticides producers. Meanwhile, the UK has simply privatised its governmental Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) outright, and France's experts in charge of assessing the safety of medicines have been shown to have been selling undeclared advisory services to pharmaceutical companies on how to best to file their market authorisation applications.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient present in Monsanto's weed killer Roundup, again hit the headlines when the WHO recently classified it as probably causing cancer in human beings. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – WHO’s cancer research agency – published their study in The Lancet Oncology on 20 March 2015. Monsanto is up in arms – and has already asked for its retraction, saying the study was “junk science,” "biased and contradicts regulatory findings that the ingredient, glyphosate, is safe when used as labelled."

The battle is fierce, since glyphosate is a cornerstone of Monsanto's business (the company sold more than 5 billion dollars of Roundup last year). Monsanto has always claimed the herbicide to be much less toxic for animals and humans than other weed killers. But is is not only about Monsanto: pretty much all chemical companies market glyphosate-based herbicides since the patent expired in 2000.

Roundup is sprayed widely in North and South America, where millions of hectares of glyphosate-tolerant GM crops are grown. But also in Europe: where it is widely used by farmers, gardeners and public authorities to kill weeds in public spaces, or on train tracks. It is (together with its degradation product AMPA) the most detected pesticide in French rivers. In 2013, tests commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe showed that people in 18 countries across Europe had traces of glyphosate in their urine. The Netherlands has banned the use of Roundup (and other glyphosate-based herbicides) in public spaces like parks and side walks as from November 2015. In general, detailed formulations of Roundup are not publicly known as they are considered a trade secret by Monsanto.

Yet in the EU, the issues around glyphosate seem caught in a never-ending saga of delays and conflicts of interest. Glyphosate has been around since the '70s, and was last given re-approval in the EU in 2002. A next re-approval was scheduled for 2012.

Germany is the EU rapporteur member state (RMS) for glyphosate – i.e. has been designated responsibility for assessing its safety on behalf of the EU.

The European Commission caused surprise when it decided to delay glyphosate's review (due in 2012) to 2015. The German Government body dealing with the glyphosate review, the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), explained that the reason was that the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) were overworked. The review of 39 other pesticides was also delayed.

The current authorisation of glyphosate relies on old, outdated testing protocols, and almost exclusively on industry studies. According to a 2011 report by the NGO Earth Open Source, EU regulators knew decades ago that glyphosate causes malformations, something that could even be deducted from industry's own studies, but kept this away from the public.

Germany submitted its glyphosate renewal assessment report (RAR) in January 2014, which was a vast document written up by its Federal Institute for risk assessment (Bfr). It also published a separate answer to critics, arguing among other things that several studies indicating harm could not be fully taken into account given that they did not follow certain very expensive international standards such as GLP (Good Laboratory Practice).

In its report, Germany concluded that: “the available data do not show carcinogenic or mutagenic properties of glyphosate nor that glyphosate is toxic to fertility, reproduction or embryonal/foetal development in laboratory animals.” Germany recommended not only the re-approval of glyphosate for use in Europe, but even an increase in the acceptable daily intake (ADI) from 0.3 to 0.5 mg per kg body weight per day.

Both EFSA and the German regulatory agencies however refuse to disclose the two key chronic toxicity studies that this decision was based on, because these would contain commercially confidential information.

Testbiotech, a German research NGO, strongly criticised Germany's report saying that it failed to evaluate several peer reviewed studies which were omitted for unknown reasons. And to reassure everyone, Bfr's pesticide committee has employees from pesticide giants that profit from glyphosate, two from BASF and one from Bayer, among its members. The current committee (from 2014) includes Monika Bross and Ivana Fegert of BASF, and Frank Pierre Laport of Bayer CropScience. The previous such committee (2011-2013) included two from BASF and two from Bayer CropScience. And the one before that (2008-2010) again two from BASF and one from Bayer CropScience. Bfr's boss, Andreas Hensel, told the newspaper TAZ: “We consciously selected also professionals from the industry for our committees. Many facts around for instance cosmetics or plastics can only be judged by those that work with them.” (A comparable situation prevails at the Bfr GMO committee, as shown by this 2012 report by Testbiotech.)

It should be noted that even at EFSA, where we found that 59% of scientific panels members had direct or indirect links with the agri-food industry, such a situation could not happen as industry employees are banned from sitting on these panels. You cannot work for a corporation and for a government agency charged with regulating that corporation at the same time!

Were such industry employees involved in the glyphosate review? Bfr claimed that the pesticide committee had no formal role in writing the Renewal Assessment Report. So who did write it? We don't know. The authors are not mentioned anywhere in the RAR.

What is clear from the RAR though is that Bfr did not draft its report from scratch but rather used the work of the Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), a “consortium of companies joining resources and efforts in order to renew the European glyphosate registration with a joint submission”. This is how Bfr describes its work:

“Due to the large number of submitted toxicological studies, the RMS was not able to report the original studies in detail and an alternative approach was taken instead. The study descriptions and assessments as provided by GTF were amended by deletion of redundant parts (such as the so-called ”executive summaries”) and new enumeration of tables. Obvious errors were corrected. Each new study was commented by the RMS. These remarks are clearly distinguished from the original submission by a caption, are always written in italics and may be found on the bottom of the individual study summaries.”

In other words, the Bfr was overwhelmed by the volume of industry's submission and only commented on the summaries provided by the Glyphosate Task Force.

As if so many gaps in our knowledge of the safety of glyphosate weren't enough, there is a crucial additional dimension to the problem. So far we've only been talking about glyphosate itself, Roundup's declared active ingredient, because this is the only element within Roundup to be actually assessed by public authorities. However, by the time its sprayed on the field, its mixed with many other chemicals. Glyphosate-based herbicides' formulations are not public (producers say they're a trade secret), but we know they combine glyphosate with, for instance, surfactants that facilitate the herbicide being taken up by the plant. These chemicals are very toxic, some more than glyphosate itself. As journalists Pete Farrer and Marianne Falck reported in The Ecologist, Germany has secretly forbidden the use of the most dangerous surfactant (POEA, polyethoxylated tallow amine) - but is not warning the rest of the EU. Green MEP Martin Haüsling commented: "Even though I have been criticising the European Food and Safety Authority for many years because of its conflict of interest with the agricultural industry, it would be wrong to blame them alone. The national authorities play a big role in this process."

The UK has just taken a far more drastic step than appointing industry employees on its public risk assessment panels when it comes to undermining independent scientific advice. The government privatised its public research agency altogether. The country's Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), employing over 400 researchers, has just been sold off to consultancy group Capita, a faceless outsourcing giant reported by The Guardian to be swallowing up to 3.3 billion GBP in government spending for doing work outsourced by numerous government departments. Capita was dubbed 'Crapita' by the British satirical magazine Private Eye for its many blunders, such as the catastrophic way they managed housing benefits.

For some years, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), then led by agribusiness champion Owen “Badgers” Paterson, said it was looking into possibilities for 'partnerships' with the private sector, but in the end outright privatisation must have seemed the simpler option. This privatisation of a public service is part of what is ironically called the 'Civil Service Reform Plan'.

What could possibly be the benefit of selling this service off for at least the next 10 years for a mere 20 million GBP? Capita promises to invest more in the next five years and double FERA's “sales” by expanding its commercial services.

This means zero independence left, since the Agency will have the same corporations as clients that they also need to help regulate by delivering scientific assessments. For Defra this does not seem problematic. They commented in the media that the joint venture "will enable Fera to play an even greater role in helping to drive growth in our £100 billion agri-food industry." So much for food safety!

Professor Tim Lang told The Independent that “once the agency is privatised, it will be under pressure to ignore low-paying projects vital to public safety and the environment in favour of more lucrative research.” He added: “No one will pay for evidence about food and biodiversity, or food and pesticide residues.”

It is ironic that it was precisely in the UK that many staunchly defended the former post of Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU Commission President in the name of independent science. When a broad group of NGOs (including CEO) wrote last summer in an open letter to Commission President Juncker that the CSA role should be scrapped as it concentrated too much influence in one person and undermined scientific research and assessments already being done by the rest of the EU' scientific evidence appraisal system, these NGOs were lambasted as “anti-science” in a well-orchestrated campaign by UK-based organisations. But now that it is not a top-level adviser but an entire public food safety research institution which is being scrapped, these enthusiastic defenders of independent science remain silent.

Last but not least, in our sobering tour of national scientific authorities' performance at making independence from big business a bad joke: a big scandal broke in France after journalists from Mediapart revealed that, for more than a decade, key members of the country's national expert commissions in charge of assessing the safety of medicines prior to their market authorisation were at the same time selling undeclared consultancy services to these pharmaceutical companies on how best to present their applications, with payments made in cash and not declared as revenue. One of them, J.P. Reynier, even sat on the Board of the European Medicines Agency between 1996 and 2003.

There are heated discussions these days about the problematic consequences of public suspicion of science and technology. But how can one expect popular trust when public regulators are siding with the corporations whose products they are supposed to regulate, rather than with the public interest?

News Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
PETA's Cruel and Unusual Crush

The provocative animal rights group PETA famously despises cages.

Press statements from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have described birdcages as a “death sentence” for avian pets, likened crating dogs to incarcerating them, and condemned the cruelty of fencing animals into tiny spaces on factory farms.

So the group’s latest role model — a man who cages people for a living — makes no sense to me.

In fact, Joe Arpaio, the hardline anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, prides himself on making jail a miserable place to be. Why would PETA ever pal around with this guy?

Because Arpaio took meat off his inmates’ menu.

PETA was so supportive of the change that it dispatched former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson to visit Arpaio’s county jail and show support for the vegetarian menus.

Bad move.

First, if PETA wants to assure the rest of the population that a vegetarian diet is healthy and delicious, it shouldn’t associate it with jail food. Especially since Arpaio is famous for serving prisoners some really nasty stuff.

Of course, vegetarian and vegan food can be delicious, even if Arpaio’s version isn’t. (He also bans all salt and pepper — to save money, he says.)

Second, if PETA seeks the ethical treatment of all animals, it must demand the ethical treatment of human beings. We’re animals too.

Arpaio has kept jailed inmates under tents in the Arizona desert, where temperatures soar up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. He’s forced them to wear pink underwear to humiliate them, and he maintains both male and female chain gangs.

How nice — he’s for equal rights for women.

Arpaio boasts that his move to meatlessness saves the county money. But the litigation his office has spurred — from allegations of torture to racial profiling — costs taxpayers far more than they save each year by dishing out vegetarian meals.

Meat-free meals don’t get the credit they deserve in America. And associating them with a sadistic sheriff isn’t going to make them more glamorous or popular.

Besides, for omnivorous prisoners, the diet change is simply a form of punishment. It’s just one more way Arpaio is depriving the incarcerated of dignity when they do time.

Praising him for ditching meat is like telling him “pink is a nice color” about the underwear he forced inmates to wear. He didn’t choose it to look pretty.

So, PETA, please choose better bedfellows to promote your agenda.

Vegetables aren’t a punishment — especially when they’re fresh and well prepared. I recommend seasoning them with salt and pepper.

Opinion Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Crisis, Opportunity and Climate Austerity in Drought-Stricken California

A dry riverbed in California.A dry riverbed in California. (Photo: Wikimedia/David Bailey)

In the midst of a severe drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown has enacted the state’s first mandatory water cuts. The restrictions are aimed at curbing municipal water consumption by 25 percent from 2013 levels, acting on 400 local water-supply agencies. Noticeably exempt, however, is the state’s largely corporate-controlled agricultural industry, which uses 40 percent of the state’s water and makes up just 2 percent of its economy. Fossil fuel companies, which used 70 million gallons of water for fracking last year and an estimated 2 million gallons each day, won’t face any restrictions either.

In an op-ed calling for Brown to include agribusiness in the cuts, Ted Rall asked, “Isn’t it easier and cheaper to regulate the water consumption habits of a few thousand huge farms than of millions of individual households?” Growing almonds alone, in fact, requires more water than the metro areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco combined over the same time period.

Unsurprisingly, it’s wealthy Californians who tend to consume more water than their lower-income counterparts, according to a recent UCLA study. As one Los Angeles-based community organizer told the Los Angeles Times, “South L.A. and East L.A.,” two poorer areas of the city, “have done their part. Now the affluent communities need to ante up.” While class-based differences in water consumption are important to point out, there’s a bigger issue at hand.

Both of these arguments, along with the media’s renewed vilification of water-intensive almond products, are missing perhaps the restrictions’ most troubling facet. Responding to California’s drought isn’t about shaming consumers, governors or even crops, it’s about making a blueprint for life in a climate-impacted world that isn’t driven by the logic of austerity.

In all likelihood, California’s hydro-cuts will be just the first in a long line of drastic, last-ditch policy proposals to emerge from state capitols as climate change’s impacts become more widely felt. As such, organizers, face a key opportunity to reframe the story about who’s responsible for both California’s water shortage, and the climate crisis writ large. Without a serious course correction, Gov. Brown’s cutbacks may well set the stage for a new and troubling wave of climate adaptation policies that blame individuals for industry’s externalities, and open the floodgates to back-door privatization.

Asked why larger, water-hungry businesses were not included in the restrictions, Brown told ABC’s Martha Radditz that “They’re not watering their lawns or taking long showers” — which he apparently sees as the bigger problem.

As Andreas Malm recently wrote in Jacobin, “ours is the geological epoch not of humanity, but of capital.” Laying out the contours of what he calls the Anthropocene myth, Malm explained that most popular conceptions on how to confront climate change, even among the sympathetic, fall back on “species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation,” and an, “appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.” In other words, humanity is left stagnant, scape-goating our basic (fictional) flaws for a problem that’s the collective creation of the 1 percent, rather than the 99 percent. Now, with Gov. Brown chiding his state’s citizens for their wasteful ways, we’re seeing the Anthropocene myth play out in real time — and real, inadequate policy. As in the case of fiscal austerity, demonizing individual taxpayers or consumers is a shoddy way to navigate society out of a crisis, but it may be a great path to privatization.

Writing for Oil Price, a fossil fuel industry trade magazine, business consultant and finance professor Michael McDonald argued that, “Regardless of one’s views on the efficiency of government or the effectiveness of corporations, it is clear that the world is entering a new era where water is now fair game as an economic resource.” Three of the word’s major privately-owned water companies, RWE/Thames, Veolia and Suez/ONDEO, are now setting their sites on the United States’ long-public water infrastructure.

The problem facing California is a microcosm of sorts for climate change itself, and all the more reason why adequately confronting it has implications well beyond the state’s borders. That’s not to say the drought — California’s most intense since record keeping began in 1895 — shouldn’t be taken lightly. NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti warned that California has just one year of water left in its reserves, which have been steadily drained as a result of the climate-exacerbated drought.

The drive to tackle this problem by focusing on spendthrift households is strikingly similar to that of austerity policies that try to slash deficits by scaling back and then privatizing such amenities as health care, public transportation and even water. The basic reasoning is the same: The masses are at fault for mismanaging resources, and the market can do it better.

Rations, as some have framed the cutbacks, carry a less ominous connotation than austerity, though, stirring up heroic images of patriotic families in World War II conserving bread in bomb shelters as part of a collective national effort to stop the Nazis. The climate crisis is not a war, however, and neither is war itself the economic boom it was in the 1940s, when it brought with it fat defense contracts that saw the country through the last painful hump of fall-out from the Great Depression.

Inspiration for plotting a course out of this crisis, instead, should come from the period that followed the World War II — namely, rebuilding. According to author Naomi Klein, “If enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of what some have called a ‘Marshall Plan for the Earth,’ then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril.”

A “Marshall Plan for the Earth,” unfortunately, is unlikely to emerge from a political narrative dominated by talk of shorter showers and smaller lawns. Thankfully, campaigners aren’t starting from scratch. It may have been the Occupy movement — and the dramatic, if predictable, collapse of U.N. climate negotiations two years earlier in Copenhagen — that gifted the environmental movement with the ability to name an enemy outside of themselves and humanity at large.

The movements for divestment from fossil fuels and against the Keystone XL pipeline have each named clear corporate targets, and gradually started shifting the movement’s mainstream from individualistic talk of banning bottled water and riding more bikes to taking on greedy executives’ social license to operate. In California, green groups should be asking themselves every free market fundamentalist’s favorite question: How do we use this crisis to our advantage?

Opinion Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Food Stamps Are Worth Double at These Michigan Farmers Markets - Helping Families and Local Businesses

2015 0426fo (Photo: Dave Brenner/U-M SNRE)The USDA is putting $31 million behind a program that helps low-income families take home twice the veggies, and local farmers make twice the money.

Vicki Zilke is a farmer in Ypsilanti, Mich., population 20,000, where more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. Every week, she sells her vegetables at Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, one of two in the city. Nearly 40 percent of the shoppers at both hubs are on some form of food assistance funding from the government. 

The two farmers markets first started accepting payment through food assistance programs  back in 2006. But that year, they only received $378 from the program.

But in 2010, an incentive program called Double Up Food Bucks expanded from Detroit to Ypsilanti. The program matches SNAP money (formerly known as “food stamps”) dollar-for-dollar when people spend it at farmers markets. That means shoppers can double up to $20 in spending on fruits and veggies. By 2014 customers spent more than $39,000 at these markets through initial SNAP dollars combined with Double Up’s supplement.

So instead of a customer base with $20 of SNAP money to spend, farmers like Zilke had a customer base with $40 to spend. “I make more money, I expand my business, and then I can hire more people,” Zilke said. “If I hire more people I then improve the bottom line of my community. It’s a ripple effect.”

That’s why the USDA is providing $31 million in grants to finance organizations around the country that, like Double Up Food Bucks, provide SNAP incentives. The grants were announced March 31 and were authorized under the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program in last year's Farm Bill. Double Up Food Bucks will receive $5.1 million and will be matched in full by private donations.

“The fact that we now see this national funding program from the USDA is really a testament to the legislative process…” said Oran Hesterman, CEO and president of Fair Food Network, the organization behind Double Up Food Bucks. “It’s a bright spot in the world of sustainable food and healthy food access.” 

Here’s how the program works: People bring their SNAP cards, which function much like a debit card, to the local farmers market. They tell the market manager how much they want to spend—let’s say $5—and then they are given tokens for that amount—plus $5 more in Double Up Bucks. You can get up to $20 doubled, which means customers take home extra food, and farmers earn more revenue. This allows shoppers to stretch their food budgets and include nutritious options they might not otherwise find in their diet.

It also keeps money circulating in the local economy, supporting farmers who, like Zilke, may in turn create jobs. In fact, SNAP sales at Michigan farmers markets went from nearly $300,000 in 2009 to more than $1.2 million in 2013. By working at different levels of the food system—with producers, distributors, and consumers—SNAP incentives approach problems holistically.

Double Up began as a pilot project of the Fair Food Network, a national organization that works to improve accessibility to healthy food. It started in 2009 at Detroit farmers markets and has grown to more than 150 sites statewide. Hesterman said they hoped that by offering SNAP users double their money when they spend it at farmers markets, it would be more affordable for them to eat healthy food and they would be less inclined to buy processed foods.

Hesterman worked on other SNAP incentive programs across the country and saw how effective they were at bringing people to farmers markets. Nationwide, more than 46 million Americans—almost half of them children—currently receive benefits to improve access to food. Finding healthy food can be especially hard for recipients who live in food deserts.

He said that when the program started, Detroit was one of the worst food deserts in the country, with more than 30 percent of the population receiving food assistance of some kind. There was not a single SNAP incentive program in the state.

But Detroit also has Eastern Market, the largest and oldest continuously functioning farmers market in America. “I saw all these features in place,” Hesterman said. “Really ingredients for what I thought would be a really successful SNAP incentive program.”

While food availability has improved across Detroit, the Double Up program has successfully spread to markets and farms across the state. Hesterman credits this in part to the increasing demand for local food. It’s a way for families on limited incomes to support and participate in the movement for local production and consumption, he said.

Gordie Moeller is a retired social worker and activist. He works in the eight counties around Grand Rapids, Mich., trying to get farmers to transition from cash-only transactions to accepting SNAP benefits, something they don’t usually have the technology for. He was moved to do this when he found out that, of the millions of dollars that come into the area in food assistance, only a small portion goes to farmers and farmers markets. The rest goes mostly to supermarkets.

“I tell them [farmers], Muskegon County gets $63 million a year in food stamps,” Moeller said. “Right now you’re not getting any—it’s all going to Walmart.”

Part of the problem is that farmers aren’t set up to accept SNAP. Another part is that many people don’t know their options.

To spread the word, Moeller goes to food pantries frequented by SNAP users and informs workers and shoppers about the program. He said that when shoppers walk into the food pantry, they often say they would like to eat things like strawberries, but can’t afford them. Pantry workers then inform them they can spend some of their money on fresh food at the farmers market.

Once pantry workers understand the Double Up program, they are able to help SNAP users learn how to get double their money’s worth in food. According to Moeller, the results are worth it. “That’s how we got 49 new families in one week to go to the farmers market,” he said.

Now, with the support of the USDA, Hesterman said he hopes programs like Michigan's can move to more states, and more locations. The next steps for the program include using the grant money to spread awareness and get the Double Up dollars accepted at grocery stores so shoppers can have access to fresh, Michigan-grown food year-round.

“We need solutions that hit on different facets of an issue at the same time,” he said. “This kind of incentive does that.”

News Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Does Fast Track Supporter Earl Blumenauer Also Support Israeli Settlements?

I was recently introduced to the acronym "TSINO" - "Two-Stater in Name Only." This is someone who claims to support the international consensus for a diplomatic resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but 1) refuses to actually help bring it about, or more grievously 2) actively tries to obstruct the efforts of others to help bring it about.

Earlier, I documented that Maryland Senator Ben Cardin is a TSINO (or, as I called him at the time, a "Two State Faker.")

But now I have worse news. Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer - who has been endorsed by J Streetspoke at the J Street conference, and has been praised by J Street Portland for his support of the two-state solution, is apparently also a TSINO.

I say "apparently" because 1) I want to give Blumenauer the benefit of the doubt - he has been a strong advocate of diplomacy in general (one of the first Members of Congress to pledge to skip Netanyahu's anti-diplomacy speech to Congress, for example) and 2) the public reporting on this issue - which barely exists - is not very good so far, as you will see below.

The Hill reports:

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a trade promotion authority (TPA) measure -- 25-13 -- with only two Democrats lending their support to the divisive bill, highlighting the difficulty President Obama is having courting members of his own party. 

As expected, Democratic Reps. Ron Kind (Wis.) and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) backed the measure.
Ryan offered an amendment at the end of the markup that incorporated two amendments adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday night. 

One discourages boycotts, divestments and sanctions by European countries against Israel and would allow negotiators to raise the issue in the TTIP talks.

Now, you might think from The Hill account that this is just one more "pro-Israel" thing that Congress is doing - dog bites man.

But the Senate version of the measure applies to European actions against businesses in "Israeli-controlled territories" - that is, it aims to prevent European actions to uphold international law with respect to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such European actions are supported by Human Rights Watch.

Equating "Israel" with "Israeli settlements in the West Bank" is exactly what this legislation is all about. AIPAC's statement praising the legislation is here. Note how in AIPAC's statement there is no mention of "settlements", the West Bank, or "Israeli-controlled territories," just "Israel." So, whether intentionally or not, The Hill is doing AIPAC's work by failing to distinguish between "Israel" and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which as the Europeans see it, are illegal under international law. 

J Street's statement on the pro-settlement legislation is here. Americans for Peace Now's statement is here. Jewish Voice for Peace's statement is here.

Did Blumenauer use his position say boo about this? There is no public evidence yet that he did. Blumenauer has unique leverage in this situation. From the point of view of the Administration, Blumenauer is an extremely rare commodity: a House Democrat who supports the Ryan-Hatch fast track legislation. House Democrats overwhelmingly oppose it; Minority Leader Pelosi opposes it. Given that a bunch of House Republicans are also going to oppose it, if the number of House Democrats supporting it doesn't somehow increase, the Ryan-Hatch fast track bill is dead as a doornail. The fast track supporters need Blumenauer very badly.

Blumenauer could say: this is supposed to be about "trade", not about undermining European efforts to uphold international law, and I'm not going to support this bill until this provision is taken out. (Yes, yes, I know that "fast track" isn't just about "trade"; I got the memo. We're doing "liberation theology" here, trying to hold people to account for what they claim to believe.) Why isn't Blumenauer using his unique leverage in this situation to defend the principles in which he supposedly believes?

You can ask urge your representatives in Congress to oppose the pro-settlement provision here; you can ask your representatives in Congress to oppose the Ryan-Hatch fast track bill here.

News Sat, 25 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Memories of Galeano's Fire: My Afternoon With the Late Uruguayan Writer

Eduardo Galeano.Eduardo Galeano. (Photo: gndolfo/Flickr)

My heart has been heavy since learning over the weekend of the death of the radical and marvelously lyrical Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting some 20 years ago.

Galeano was an iconic literary and intellectual figure of the Latin American Left, but his work has a global footprint. Arguably among the most influential books of the second half of the 20th century, his landmark 1971 Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold over a million copies. It stands with Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, Albert Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized, and Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers, in the pantheon of anti-colonialism and Third Worldism. Hamid Dabashi calls Galeano a "creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular."

Open Veins of Latin America was banned under the murderous military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay alike, and Galeano was driven into exile from his country during the 1970s. In 2009 the book made international headlines-and saw a major surge in sales-when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez personally presented Barack Obama with a copy.

But while Open Veins was Galeano's best-known work, his magnum opus was a trilogy titled Memory of Fire. My friend Scott Sherman captures it beautifully:

Unquestionably Galeano's masterwork, Memory of Fire is a kind of secret history of the Americas, told in hundreds of kaleidoscopic vignettes that resurrected the lives of campesinos and slaves, dictators and scoundrels, poets and visionaries. Memoirs, novels, bits of poetry, folklore, forgotten travel books, ecclesiastical histories, revisionist monographs, Amnesty Inrnational reports - all of these sources constituted the raw material of Galeano's sprawling mosaic.

Galeano's Book of Embraces occupies a special place in my heart, in part because it was a gift from my then-girlfriend, Debbie Bookchin. Our mutual love of Galeano was bond-forming. "A Diego Rivera mural in words," the literary critic John Leonard felicitously called it. I read it the way I read Adorno's Minima Moralia (another book Debbie and I bonded over), sipping from its aphorisms here and there, drawn back in by its charms over years, decades now.

The Galeano book that has always meant the most to me as a physical object is Walking Words. Illustrated by the Brazilian woodcut artist José Francisco Borges, it is a work of arresting, hypnotic visual beauty. One reviewer called it an "assemblage of tales, fables and parables [full of] intense lyricism, subversive humor and spellbinding storytelling." Indeed, the literary critic Michael Dirda once wrote, Galeano "rivals such masters of the fable as Kafka."

The Interview

I feel deeply fortunate to have spent an afternoon with Galeano almost exactly two decades ago, in the summer of 1995. I hosted a radio show in Chicago at the time. When I found out that Galeano was coming to Chicago to do a literary reading, I scrambled to get an interview with him. I contacted his US publisher, W.W. Norton. They were not encouraging. It was too late, they informed me. Galeano's itinerary was already full and in any case he was in Seattle and out of contact (this was before cell phones and e-mail). And besides, who was I? I hosted a show on a college radio station.

I refused to take no for an answer. I asked them which hotel he was staying at in Seattle. They somewhat reluctantly told me. I called and got the hotel's fax number. I rushed over to a nearby printing and computer shop (I didn't own my own computer) and composed a desperate but serious letter to Galeano requesting an interview. I poured my heart into the letter, expressing my profound admiration for his books. I also mentioned how much I liked an article he had just published in the magazine NACLA: Report on the Americas (a staple of the left-wing Latin Americanist diet) on the tyranny of cars (cleverly titled "Autocracy: An Invisible Dictatorship"). I faxed the letter to the hotel and called (more than once) to make sure that the front desk had received it and gotten it into Galeano's hands.

The next day, my roommate, Benjamin Ortiz, called me at work and said, incredulously, "Yo, there's a message for you on our answering machine from Eduardo Galeano!" Time stopped. It was one of the coolest moments in my life. Galeano would later tell me that it was the specificity of my letter that won him over: in particular the fact that I had read his NACLA article. He was impressed by this obsessive metabolism and by my stalking techniques, he told me. It was a refreshing departure, he said, from many of the media requests he got, for example, in New York - from journalists who had never even heard of publications like NACLA, let alone read them.

I met Galeano at the hotel he was staying at in downtown Chicago and we conducted the interview in his room. I was in such awe of his presence, and so captivated by his eyes, that I can barely remember what he said. It torments me to no end that no recording of that interview has survived. (If anyone reading this happened to be listening to WLUW when it was broadcast, and recorded it, and saved the recording, please contact me!) One of the great regrets of my career is that I never transcribed that interview and published it…

The one thing I vividly recall from the interview is that when I said, by way of introduction, "My guest on this week's program is Eduardo Galeano, author of the classic Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent…" he stopped me in my tracks and asked me to start the interview over (I was recording it for later broadcast). He explained that he hated the subtitle and wanted me to leave it out. It was only the English edition that carried that subtitle, he told me. The original Spanish edition had no subtitle, just Open Veins of Latin America. The book's US publisher, Monthly Review Press, was a Marxist operation that specialized in political nonfiction. It was they who added Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent as a subtitle, which Galeano, a prose stylist of the first order, found utterly leaden.

I didn't dare tell Galeano that I loved that subtitle. I remember the first time I held the book in my hands and took in those words on its cover. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Veins. Pillage. Centuries. A cascade of images, ideas, sensations. I knew I had to read the book and that doing so would turn my world upside down.

But I was a poetically tone-deaf leftist. Galeano was an artist. I of course obliged and started the interview over.

It's because of that experience that I wasn't as shocked as some were when it was reported last year that Galeano had disavowed that book, or at least distanced himself from it. "I wouldn't be capable of reading this book again," he remarked at a book fair in Brazil. "I'd keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can't tolerate it."

But this recoil was more than just stylistic. He went on to say in Brazil:

Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot. … Reality is much more complex precisely because the human condition is diverse. Some political sectors close to me thought such diversity was a heresy. Even today, there are some survivors of this type who think that all diversity is a threat. Fortunately, it is not.

As far as I know, Galeano never wrote an essay or gave a full-blown interview elaborating on this line of thinking. I interpret his comments not as an abandonment of leftism as such but as an affirmation of pluralism. In a brilliant talk at a recent conference at Columbia University, the Tunisia scholar Monica Marks distinguished between the politics of "purists" and "pluralists". I read Galeano's comments in Brazil as an expression of disdain for the former and sympathy for the latter.

Walking Words. Memory of Fire. What fitting images Galeano conjured with these titles. His words will continue to walk, to wander the earth, to inhabit our thinking, and to ignite our imaginations. Thank you, Eduardo, for the memory of your marvelous fire.

Opinion Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
To Defend the Environment, Support Social Movements Like Berta Caceres and COPINH

Berkeley, California - The 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America has been awarded to Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Honduran woman who co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as COPINH.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the events that earned Cáceres the prize it is this: to defend the environment, we must support the social movements.

Like many nations rich in natural resources, Honduras, in the heart of Central America, is a country plagued by a resource curse. Its rich forests invite exploitation by logging interests; its mineral wealth is sought by mining interests; its rushing rivers invite big dams, and its fertile coastal plains are ideal for the industrial cultivation of agricultural commodities like palm oil, bananas, and beef.

Honduras is also the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. The violence is largely linked to organised crime and to a political oligarchy that maintains much of the country's wealth and power in a few hands. With the country's rich resources at stake, environmental defenders are frequently targeted by these interests as well.

Some of the best preserved areas of the country fall within the territories of the Lenca indigenous people, who have built their culture around the land, forests and rivers that have supported them for millennia.

In 1993, following the 500th anniversary of Colombus' "discovery of America," at a moment when Indigenous Peoples across the Americas began to form national and international federations to reclaim their sovereignty, Lenca territory gave birth to COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.

In the 22 years since, COPINH's leadership in the country's popular struggles has made it a driving force in preserving the country's cultural and environmental heritage – and earned it the ire of loggers, dam-builders, palm oil interests, and others whose wealth depends on the depredation of the natural world and its defenders.

Since the early 1990's, COPINH has forced the cancellation of dozens of  logging operations; they have created several protected forest areas; have developed municipal forest management plans and secured over 100 collective land titles for indigenous communities, in some cases encompassing entire municipalities.

Most recently, in the accomplishment that won Berta Caceres, one of COPINH's founders, the Goldman Environmental Prize, they successfully pressured the world's largest dam builder, the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, to pull out of the construction of a complex of large dams known as Agua Zarca.

Berta became a national figure in Honduras in 2009 when she emerged as a leader in the movement demanding the re-founding of Honduras and drafting of a new constitution. The movement gained the support of then-president Manuel Zelaya, who proposed a national referendum to consider the question.

But the day the referendum was scheduled to take place, Jun. 28, 2009, the military intervened.  They surrounded and opened fire on the president's house, broke down his door and escorted him to a former US military base where a waiting plane flew him out of the country.

The United Nations and every other country in the Western Hemisphere (except Honduras itself) publicly condemned the military-led coup as illegal. Every country in the region, except the United States, withdrew their ambassadors from Honduras. All EU ambassadors were withdrawn from the country.

With the democratically-elected president deposed, Honduras descended into increasing violence that continues to this day. But the coup also gave birth to a national resistance movement that continues to fight for a new constitution.  Within the movement, Berta and COPINH have devoted themselves to a vision of a new Honduran society built from the bottom up.

Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed a huge increase in megaprojects that would displace the Lenca and other indigenous communities. Almost 30 percent of the country's land is earmarked for mining concessions; this in turns creates a demand for cheap energy to power the future mining operations.

To meet this need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects. Among them is the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world's largest dam developer. Slated for construction on the Gualcarque River, Agua Zarca was pushed through without consulting the Lencas-and would cut off the supply of water, food and medicine to hundreds of Lenca familes.

COPINH began fighting the dams in 2006, using every means at their disposal: they brought the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, lodged appeals against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank which agreed to finance the dams, and engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to stop the construction.

In April 2013, Cáceres organised a road blockade to prevent DESA's access to the dam site. For over a year, the Lenca people maintained a heavy but peaceful presence, rotating out friends and family members for weeks at a time, withstanding multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarised security contractors and the Honduran armed forces.

The same year, Tomás Garcia, a community leader from Rio Blanco and a member of COPINH, was shot and killed during a peaceful protest at the dam office. Others have been attacked with machetes, imprisoned and tortured. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

In late 2013, citing ongoing community resistance and outrage following Garcia's death, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA. Agua Zarca suffered another blow when the IFC withdrew its funding, citing concerns about human rights violations. To date, construction on the project has come to a halt.

The Prize will bring COPINH and Honduras much-needed attention from the international community, as the grab for the region's resources is increasing.

"This award, and the international attention it brings comes at a challenging time for us," Berta told a small crowd gathered to welcome her to California, where the first of two prize ceremonies will take place.

"The situation in Honduras is getting worse. When I am in Washington later this week to meet with US government officials, the President of Honduras will be in the very next room hoping to obtain more than one billion dollars for a series of mega-projects being advanced by the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the United States - projects that further threaten to put our natural resources into private hands through mines, dams and large wind projects.

"This is accompanied by the further militarisation of the country, including new ultra-modern military bases they are installing right now."

Around the world, the frontlines of environmental defence are peopled by bold and visionary social movements like COPINH and by grassroots community organizers like Berta Cáceres.

"In order to fight the onslaught of dams, mines, and the privatisation of all of our natural resources, we need international solidarity," Berta told her supporters in the US "When we receive your solidarity, we feel surrounded by your energy, your hope, your conviction, that together we can construct societies with dignity, with life, with rebellion, with justice, and above all, with joy."

If the world is to make strides toward reducing the destructive environmental and social impacts that too often accompany economic development, we need to do all we can to recognise and support the peasant farmers, Indigenous Peoples, and social movements who daily put their lives on the line to stem the tide of destruction.

Learn more about Berta Cáceres and COPINH in this video celebrating her Goldman Prize award.

Edited by Kitty Stapp.

Opinion Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Vermont Activists Battle Democratic Governor for Single-Payer Health Care

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. (Photo: Community College of Vermont/Flickr)

Liz Nikazmerad is a rarity in American labor: a local union president under the age of 30, displaying both youth and militancy. For the last two year years, she has led the 180-member Local 203 of the United Electrical Workers (UE), while working in the produce department of City Market in Burlington, Vermont. Thanks to their contract bargaining, full-time and part-time employees of this bustling community-owned food cooperative currently enjoy good medical benefits.

But that wasn't always the case in Nikazmerad's past non-union jobs, nor is it any assurance that UE members won't be forced to pay more for their health care in the future. To curb medical cost inflation and related cost-shifting to workers, the UE has long advocated that private insurance plans be replaced with publicly funded universal coverage.

Four years ago, a newly elected Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, took a promising first step in that direction at the state level. His Democrat-dominated legislature passed Act 48, which laid the groundwork for creating a comprehensive public insurance plan called Green Mountain Care (GMC).

Not all activists deemed GMC to be truly "single-payer," because of potential legal or political obstacles to the inclusion of Vermonters currently covered through Medicare, the Veterans' Administration, and even some "self-insured" plans offered by local employers. However, Act 48's blueprint for getting everyone else into a more rational, cost-effective healthcare system, financed by taxes, was generally hailed as a great breakthrough.

Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) first required Vermont to operate a private insurance exchange until 2017, when a federal waiver permitting further experimentation might be granted. Despite this delay, Shumlin was still reassuring Vermonters, as recently as last fall, that a brighter health care future lay just a few years ahead.

By January 8, when the governor began his third term, that promise had dimmed so much that Liz Nikazmerad and several hundred others weren't there to applaud his inauguration in Montpelier. Instead, frustrated advocates of health care reform staged a sit-in at the state capitol, chanting and singing, unfurling banners and refused to leave in protest against the governor's abrupt abandonment of universal health care six weeks after his re-election.

"People had fought for this a long time," Nikazmerad says. "It was a huge win and to have the rug yanked out like that was very upsetting. People were very emotional about it."

Escalating Labor Protests

By the end of day, the UE leader and 28 others - now known as "The Statehouse 29" - faced multiple criminal charges, including resisting arrest, despite the peaceful nature of their capitol sit-in. The cases against 18 were later dropped; other participants settled by paying a fine or promising to do community service work. Their still controversial reproach to the governor has, since January, become the first in a series of angry labor sorties to Montpelier.

During the current legislative session, the bitter recriminations over the governor's health care retreat have morphed into broader controversies about workers' rights, contract concessions, and what the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) calls Shumlin's "austerity budget." On April 11, 500 state employees, school teachers and other union members rallied at the state house to protest threatened budget cuts and state worker lay-offs. Among the demonstration sponsors were the VPP, the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), and the Vermont Workers Center, which is also building for another big labor gathering on May Day in Montpelier.

"I'm tired of being asked to give back more and more of my wages and benefits, " state highway department plow driver Ed Olsen told the crowd. "The state always wants to balance the budget on the backs of hard-working Vermonters."

Alison Sylvester, a leader of the Vermont NEA, added her union's voice to the "Fight Back" rally and hailed public teachers successful defense of their right to strike. After a brief public school work stoppage in South Burlington last fall, Governor Shumlin publicly endorsed the idea of banning such strikes, which have been legal in Vermont for fifty years. It took several months of frantic lobbying by hundreds of teachers to kill this idea, by a two-to-one margin, in a Vermont House vote in early April.

About-Face on Single Payer

Shumlin's most publicized betrayal of past labor allies occurred, with little advance notice, on December 17. That's when he called a press conference and declared that "now is not the time to ask our legislature to take the step of passing a financing plan for Green Mountain Care." The 58-year old governor, a multi-millionaire former business owner, had already postponed the day of reckoning on how to fund universal coverage for more than two years, until he was narrowly elected for the third time. (In last year's gubernatorial race, Shumlin greatly outspent his Republican challenger, but won by only 2,500 votes; his 46 percent showing would not have been sufficient without conservative vote-splitting by a Libertarian candidate.)

The 2015 session of the legislature was expected to take up the challenge of Act 48 financing in January. With the acquiescence of key legislators, Shumlin short-circuited that debate by issuing a highly unfavorable status report of his own, which seemed to validate past single-payer criticism by the Vermont GOP and conservative Democrats. According to Shumlin, the latest projected cost of universal coverage would double the state budget in its first year alone, while requiring onerous new payroll and income taxes.

"In my judgment," the governor stated, "the potential economic disruption and risks would be too great to small businesses, working families, and the state's economy."

The VWC, which helped mobilize statewide support for passage of Act 48 four years ago, countered the governor's claims by releasing its own plan for financing Green Mountain Care in a manner more equitable than the state's current market-based system.

One hundred economists endorsed the VWC approach, which relies on progressive taxation. The VWC also struck back with a clever "whiteboard" video, entitled "The Time is Now: Healthcare Financing for Vermont, Explained in Three Minutes." But, of course, neither that quick tutorial on health care reform math or the VWC's full report garnered the media attention - or had the same legislative clout - as Shumlin's self-demolition of Green Mountain Care.

From Bad to Worse in Montpelier

In his state budget address in January, Shumlin had another surprise for his past labor friends. He presented the 5,500-member VSEA with a choice between re-opening its current contract and agreeing to give-backs or face hundreds of layoffs. These steps were necessary, he announced, to close a fiscal year 2016 budget deficit, projected to be $112 million, which soon become the main preoccupation of his administration and its legislative allies.

Legislators representing the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), the nation's most successful third party formation, urged their Democratic colleagues to raise needed revenue by capping tax deductions for the wealthiest Vermonters and taxing capital gains on the same basis as earned income.

Neither the Democratic leadership nor the governor wanted to do that. So his administration is instead seeking $8.8 million in state worker concessions, and the Democrat-controlled House has already approved cuts in social programs like heating assistance for low-income households.

In 2008-9, VSEA members agreed to a 3% pay cut, followed by a freeze, under Shumlin's Republican predecessor. When Shumlin ran for governor in 2010, he promised to be more labor-friendly and find better ways to pay for state programs, including the projected single-payer-like plan. Now he is scapegoating unions that backed him and health care reform, complaining that state workers' scheduled pay hike this year is unreasonably high. "There aren't too many Vermonters who are getting a 5% increase this year," he told the press on April 11.

Shumlin's about-face on Green Mountain Care reflected more than revised estimates of its cost and feasibility. The troubled 2013 rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the state's ACA-mandated private insurance exchange, adversely affected public perceptions of the longer-term goal of single payer. Among those most upset were lower-income people previously covered by state-subsidized plans who ended up paying more out-of-pocket when insured through the new exchange.

"Over the last few years, the Shumlin administration hasn't done anything to give Vermonters confidence that we could handle being innovators in health care," says Chris Pearson, a Progressive state rep and vice-chair of the House Committee on Health Care. "There were just too many bad headlines about the nightmare of enrolling, computer problems and cost over-runs."

As a result, the popularity of Green Mountain Care is not what it was even a year ago. Pollsters working for the Vermont NEA found 55 percent of those surveyed in favor of the concept then, while 42 percent were opposed. A slight majority remained in favor even if implementation required, as it would, a large tax increase to capture health care system revenue currently coming, in myriad forms, from individuals and employers, in both the private and public sector.

After the recent flurry of negative publicity about Green Mountain Care - much of it generated by Shumlin's own disputed cost estimates - 64-percent of Vermonters polled in February said they supported the governor's new position, only 20 percent were opposed, and 10 percent were unsure. Even a majority of Democrats polled said they favored his abandonment of single payer, for the time being.

Inside the state legislature, friends of Act 48 still hope to emerge from this legislative session with an authorized study of the VWC's financing plan, the governor's contested findings and a publicly funded primary care plan that has been proposed by some single payer advocates as an incremental step toward Green Mountain Care.

Organizing Challenges Ahead

Sometime in May, the legislative wrangling in Montpelier over budget cuts, health care, and workers rights will be over for this year. But the challenges facing Vermont Progressives and labor-community organizers will remain daunting. Chief among them is sustaining a now seven-year-old campaign to make "healthcare a human right" after such a demoralizing setback. While continuing to assist private and public sector workers involved in strikes and contract fights, the Vermont Workers Center plans to do more grassroots organizing around the shortcomings of Vermont Health Connect coverage.

Within the VPP, its statewide organizer Kelly Mangan has "gotten a lot of member feedback about running a candidate for governor next year." This is something her third party refrained from doing in the last three election cycles, to avoid putting a Republican in office - who would have opposed Act 48 from the outset or shelved it sooner than Shumlin did.

Now, the growing estrangement of labor voters from the Democrats could lead to Shumlin's replacement by a Republican. One likely candidate for the job is Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott, the affable GOP incumbent who defeated Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) candidate Dean Corren last November by a 62 to 34% margin, with no Democrat on the ballot.

Any backlash against Vermont Democrats next year, though, might be salved by further VPP legislative gains. Last fall, seven Progressive state reps and three senators were elected, creating the VPP's largest delegation in Montpelier ever. In March, Progressives captured four seats on the Burlington City Council, where the VPP has jousted with a centrist Democrat mayor.

But, next year, personal health problems may prevent state senator Anthony Pollina, the VPP's most experienced statewide standard-bearer, from running for governor. (In 2008, he placed second in a three-way race). At the moment, Vermont's most successful progressive politician, US Senator Bernie Sanders, seems more intent on seeking executive office higher than any available in Montpelier, where, as governor, he could help get Vermont back on the single-payer road.

In his not-yet-official campaigning for the White House, Sanders speaks regularly to out-of-state audiences about the need for a "political revolution." Unfortunately, on his own home turf, the wrong kind of revolution may be brewing, fed by working class alienation from pro-corporate Democrats.

News Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Confronting Brunch

Activists in New York and Oakland devised a novel target for the "Black Lives Matter" movement: brunch. Entering restaurants in affluent neighborhoods, they read the names of Black civilians killed by police, to the visible discomfort of the predominantly white patrons who had expected nothing more than a Bloody Mary and an overpriced eggs Benedict.

A sign from a Black Lives Matter protest march in Rochester, Minnesota.A sign from a "Black Lives Matter" protest march in Rochester, Minnesota. (Photo: Rose Colored Photo/Flickr)

On the first weekend of 2015, activists in New York and Oakland devised a novel target for the "Black Lives Matter" movement: brunch. Entering restaurants in affluent neighborhoods, they read the names of black civilians killed by police, to the visible discomfort of the predominantly white patrons who had expected nothing more than a Bloody Mary and an overpriced eggs Benedict.

Brunch patrons and their self-appointed media defenders played their assigned roles, expressing outrage at their momentary inconvenience in ways that made them look clueless, callous, or downright absurd. Social media erupted with often rascist vitriol. As one Baltimore Black Brunch organizer told MSNBC, "People acted like it was the worst thing that happened to them." What made the protest action so powerful, and so irresistible to the curators of viral media, was the juxtaposition of the outrage of stolen Black lives with the perceived triviality - and whiteness - of brunch.

The choice to interrupt brunch, specifically, was no accident. The meal and the people who eat it have become metonyms for a whole complex of social phenomena, including gentrification, segregation, economic inequality and conspicuous consumption. Adrian Chen at Gawker calls brunch "a kind of decadence unique to our time." Jule Banville of the Washington City Paper thinks it's "phony" and "stupid." Even the New York Times chimed in last year with an op-ed titled "Brunch Is For Jerks." By late 2014, things had reached the point where a San Diego Reader columnist felt the need to defend the weekend pastime from a growing "anti-brunch movement."

Read through a few of the anti-brunch diatribes, and it soon becomes clear that they belong to the same genre as that distinctive twenty-first century mode of cultural lament: complaining about hipsters. In both cases, there is the recurrent note of contemptuous familiarity. Many who denounce brunch, or hipsters, are the sort of younger adults in large cities, employed in media, academia, or other "creative" professions, who are most likely to themselves be called hipsters or invited to brunch.

Perhaps the most detailed elucidation of anti-brunchism to date comes from Toronto Star columnist Shawn Micallef, author of 2014's The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure. Assessing a now ubiquitous urban ritual, he finds not harmless relaxation, but rather a "performance of leisure around brunch and other non-work activities" that, he fears, "clouds our understanding of our work, social and civic lives" [10]. The publication of his book preceded the events of Black Brunch, but I can only assume they brought a smile to his face.

The choice to interrupt brunch, specifically, was no accident.

They brought a smile to mine, too. As someone who moves through these same environments, I can certainly understand the instinct to roll one's eyes at some of the trappings of contemporary urban culture - especially its culinary permutations - beginning with the trendy décor and its fetish for a disappeared industrial economy. It's what Jordan Somers, in Fanzine magazine, calls the "hipster Cracker Barrel" aesthetic: reclaimed wood, rusting machinery, and the like. The workers who actually used this machinery decades ago had little interest in aestheticizing it during their time off. They were more likely to brunch, when they did so at all, in someone's home or the splendor of a fancy hotel.

But when this aesthetic complaint stands in for social critique, we get what Anthony Galluzzo in Jacobin calls "the fucking hipster show." Rather than identifying the forces of large-scale capital accumulation that drive inequality and displacement in the city, anger is displaced onto the visible signifiers of the process - the ostentatiously stylish or performatively tasteful "hipster" and the overcomplicated or precious brunch. Passed over are the landlords, politicians, and investors for whom these people are useful pawns, allowing cities to be portrayed as both transgressively hip and safely white, until the early gentrifiers can be displaced in favor of luxury condos for a better-paying clientele.

So just what is the trouble with brunch? There is, first of all, an essentially aesthetic objection: brunch is bad food, or a mindless conformism, or simply in poor taste. Micallef veers into this territory when he mocks patrons eating "the dregs of the week's dinners under rich sauces" (7) or waiting for hours to sit in the one Buenos Aires restaurant that's been "written up in the Wallpaper guide" (59). But this line of attack remains trapped within the same discourse it criticizes, knocking brunchers as clods or suckers without analyzing their underlying conditions of existence. Lampooning the fancy brunch in this fashion is easier than asking whether perhaps the problem isn't the brunch, but the fact that only a certain stratum of people have access to this kind of leisure experience.

Passed over are the landlords, politicians, and investors for whom these people are useful pawns, allowing cities to be portrayed as both transgressively hip and safely white.

The aesthetic evolves easily into the ascetic, a Protestant rejection of brunch's excess and gluttony, its "ritual intake of fat and grease" given "a defiantly rebellious air." [9] This complaint, too, is troubling, and hardly one that leftists should embrace.

But the most substantial argument in Micallef's book amounts to the claim that brunch represents what older socialist traditions used to call "false consciousness." Along with other features of today's urban lifestyles, it is a distraction from the real material conditions of the people who eat it - which are frequently neither as secure nor as affluent as the trappings of the fancy meal would make them seem.

Unusually for a leftist, Micallef writes sympathetically of Richard Florida's notion of the "creative class," which he tries to recover as the basis for solidarity and identity among the brunch set. Rituals like brunch, Micallef argues, allow today's creative class to persist "in denial of what it is" [103]. Micallef argues that by defining ourselves according to where and what we consume - and, specifically, eat - we lose sight of what we share as workers, and hence our common class position.

Micallef responds with a dubious proposal for a more self-aware, self-critical use of our leisure time. But he also acknowledges that real class consciousness largely belongs beyond the brunch table. Micallef expresses the necessary shock of recognition he felt when he first saw his work referred to as "intellectual labor" [50], and he suggests that many of his peers have difficulty regarding what they do for money as work at all. The runaway success of Miya Tokumitsu's 2014 Jacobin essay debunking the exploitative exhortation to "do what you love," regardless of economic considerations, demonstrates that, in this regard, Micallef may have a point.

For all their hip tastes, and for all that they may be relatively advantaged compared to more marginalized workers, brunchers too can be part of an exploited class. As such, they might benefit from a bit of class struggle on their own behalf.

Micallef asks us to turn our focus away from the trappings of contemporary middle class consumption and toward "the erosion of what made the middle class so desirable: stability, a good work/life balance and genuine leisure time" [101]. What he is trying to reclaim, it would seem, is the kind of middle class existence he grew up with, predicated on strong unions and welfarist social policy. But this nostalgia for the postwar social-democratic class compromise, shared by many liberals, is disingenuous.

For all their hip tastes, and for all that they may be relatively advantaged compared to more marginalized workers, brunchers too can be part of an exploited class.

While the strong unions and rising wages of that time certainly look appealing from our present vantage point, to romanticize them is to ignore the internal contradictions that unmade that order. Micallef, the son of a mid-level manager at a whiskey distillery in Windsor, Ontario - Canada's Detroit - portrays his father's negotiations with the distillers on the shop floor as basically congenial, with management-labor tension "smoothed over" by the mutual conviction that "the ultimate outcome of labor relations would likely be reasonable" [18]. This idyllic class harmony, in his telling, extended into the broader community, in which workers and managers sent their children to the same public schools, and to their leisure time, when they bowled in the same leagues.

Histories of Canadian labor from the period, however, tell a different story - of a working class chafing against a life chained to the assembly line, the occasion for what in the 1970s was commonly called the "blue collar blues." In 1966, as Sam Gindin reports in The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union, company time lost to strikes hit a twenty-year high. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, workers became increasingly militant, engaging in wildcat strikes against speedups and compulsory overtime.

All of this happened not in spite of the relatively stable, full employment macro-economy of the day, but because of it. Workers resisted the boss secure in the belief that, as Gindin quotes one worker, "If they canned you in the morning you could just go down the street and get another job before lunch." The inverse of this audacity is the quiescence of the urban creative proletariat: they can't be nearly as sure that if they contest their conditions of employment, they'll be able to pick up another gig before brunch. That structural facet of our working lives won't be wished away by lectures about conspicuous consumption.

If Micallef's ideas about work are rather uninspiring, so is his vision of leisure in the form of a re-imagined brunch. He cites as a model a group of Portland residents and their "Joy Brunch Club," which attempts to recapture brunch as a truly leisurely and relaxed enterprise. But what it mostly seems to consist of is a lot of rules. Don't go anywhere that's too crowded. Meals must begin at 10 and end no later than noon. Brunch time should be used to "process the things that we're looking forward to, the things that we're going to be doing," in the service of generating a "productive brunch." Some of this could be defended as a solution to a collective action problem, pre-committing members to a set of rules they would like to adhere to, but can't enforce on their own. But it mostly just sounds like the sort of self-flagellating lifestyle politics that Micallef elsewhere dismisses, geared to produce mostly self-satisfaction and sanctimony rather than collective action. The solution to the blurring of the lines between leisure and work, it seems, is to make leisure more like work.

The desire not to be defined by work is, at its heart, a liberatory impulse, one that points to a world beyond the prison of wage labor.

"Nothing's too good for the working class," Big Bill Haywood supposedly said, and surely that includes brunch. It seems improbable that class consciousness will arise from attacking a leisure activity that can be a respite from time spent hustling gigs - or working as a server on the other side of the brunch relation. And no amount of self-conscious, mindful brunching can overcome limitations which emanate not from the meal itself, but from the larger social circumstances of its patrons. As with so much else, the trouble is not some kind of vague "consumerist" malady, but the way consumption and leisure opportunities are limited to certain people only, and even then are inadequate to overcome obstacles in our wider lives as workers and citizens.

The desire not to be defined by work is, at its heart, a liberatory impulse, one that points to a world beyond the prison of wage labor. The trouble arises when that desire is manipulated to obscure the ways in which the vast majority still do find their lives defined by overwork, underwork and dependence on the boss. Brunch and other consumer leisure experiences are often treated by leftist scolds as a new "opiate of the masses," as Marx once said of religion. But Marx went on to say that religion was also "the heart of a heartless world," and so too, for some of us, is brunch. Asking people "to give up their illusions about their condition," he said, "is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions." Demanding that we give up brunch and other consumer illusions - rather than demand more, for ourselves and for others - is unappealing for those of us who aren't hair-shirt ascetics.

Class consciousness, in other words, needn't preclude unlimited mimosas. Indeed, without them, it's not my revolution. The Black Lives Matter protests were effective not because they showed the trouble with brunch, but because they exposed the obliviousness of many white brunch-goers. More politically engaged brunchers wouldn't find the appearance of protesters threatening. Instead, we would put down our forks for a moment and join in - and then perhaps invite the interlopers to join us for a drink. That might at least be the first step toward joining the struggle against the social divides that have made brunch such a potent symbol, rather than simply ignoring them.

Opinion Sun, 26 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400