Co-opting the 99%?! Shame on UNITE HERE 217!

Here are some imponderable questions:  what role should big labor play in progressive coalitions?  If so, how?  What about Occupy?

If we look at the political landscape in recent times it is clear that there is not one answer.  On one hand, labor unions are most definitely not the voice of the 1% – they have been the voice of the working people they represent at a time of cutbacks and increasing austerity, and often one of the only voices of reason as cities and states decimate all kinds of public services.  And, from Los Angeles to Madison to New York City there are all sorts of examples of community-labor coalitions that have been for the good.  On the other hand, the big labor unions seem to be stuck in a co-dependent and abusive relationship with the Democratic Party.  And if you speak to progressives and radicals within those unions, you don’t have to dig too deep to learn about undemocratic practices, hierarchical leadership structures, and an instrumental relationship to communities.  It sometimes seems that for every inspiring example you hear about a progressive coalition you then you also hear about unions playing hardball with community groups.  The charge you sometimes hear – that “unions only care about their own,” seems to find evidence in the checkered record some of the big organizations have with regards to immigrant and not-documented workers, temporary laborers, and youth.

One of the things I have been writing about, here in Spain, has been the way that the 15M movement has maintained a distance from the labor movement, which is seen as in the pocket of one of the political parties, as well as made up of anti-democratic and hierarchical organizations.   In an essay coming out in the next Boston Review, Ernesto Ganuza and I close the essay with some reflections on this very theme:

In spite of the strict ban on special-interest promotion, the lesson from the  Indignados of Spain is not that  unions or other groups have no part to play in a radically democratic movement. Rather, to play a part, they need to make their demands for just democracy more than a slogan or an election strategy.  Yes, unions need to focus more on speaking for the common good, as some leaders have acknowledged in efforts to connect with Occupy.   But they need to understand that ossified leadership structures and dependence on political parties are at odds with the larger goal of achieving a genuinely democratic renewal.

Recently I received a story from “Truthout” about a recent primary election in my hometown of Providence.  The article, called “The 99% takes Office” tells one version of the story of the special election to replace city councilor Miguel Luna, who unexpectedly passed earlier this year, leaving us with a huge gap in the world of social justice.  Miguel – whom I’d had actually the privilege of working with earlier this year, had been city councilor for Providence’s Ward 9 for eight years.  A leader in what seems like every meaningful struggle in the city in recent years – affordable housing, workers’ rights, police misconduct, lead poisoning, he held the distinction of being the first Dominican elected to political office in Rhode Island and was a founding member of DARE – Direct Action for Rights and Equality.  Miguel was also fiercely independent.

I was stunned to read the story, and given its tone  it is not hard to understand why so many people in the social justice world of Providence are furious at its publication.

What the story does not tell, in its effort to make the winning candidate a “voice for the 99%,” is what actually happened in the election. The article says that the winning candidate,

 drew support from the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Painters, SEIU and the Teachers Union, as well as from the city’s Central Labor Council.

Another way of putting it is that Local 217 of UNITE HERE and its allies above, put tens of thousands of dollars into an election, and bringing scores of out-of-town white organizers into Ward 9, a primarily Latino and Black area, so as to support one of its members in the election. UNITE HERE did this against the wishes of very many progressive community organizers who had come together in near-consensus around the candidacy of Rochelle Lee.

In what is, unfortunately and sadly, not a new turn of events, organized labor steamrolled community.  The campaign of Rochelle Lee, which was essentially unfunded, lost in the end by only 29 votes.  A participant in her campaign recalled:

it was one of the most beautiful examples of Black/Latino (and Asian and White) unity ever in Providence politics, again, part of Miguel’s legacy.  We know that we won in many ways, not the least of which was dollars per vote.  We were also able to keep Miguel’s broad vision and menu of issues, his revolutionary spirit, and especially his heart front and center during the campaign.

And then, to add insult to injury, is the spin-piece going around by Truthout.  There are several inaccuracies in the piece, and most of the details won’t concern people outside of Providence, but for example, the winning candidate, who never had much to nice to say about the late Miguel Luna is quoted as being his “best friend.”

And then, of course, it ignores how the election was won.  Here is what we take to be UNITE HERE’s election playbook during this election: Steam-rolling community folks; using professional organizers; winning a campaign with dollars; following it up with cynical propaganda pieces like this one.  Shame on UNITE HERE:  this helps give labor bad name, and this kind of thing goes some way to explain why people are hesitant about unions.  But the very worst  inaccuracy is the claim that is somehow the spirit of Occupy.   This behavior is, in every way possible, business as usual.   The chant comes to mind:  “You do not represent us!”  And the question comes to mind:  is it time to occupy big labor ?




More Cigarrettes, Fewer Immigrants, and Lots of Cuts: What does the Future Hold for Spain?

It’s been barely a week since the Conservative PP (Partido Popular, or Popular Party) swept the elections in Spain, winning an absolute majority in parliament here.  For the currently (but not much longer) ruling social democratic party, the PSOE, it was its worst defeat ever.  For weeks polls had been predicting a conservative victory, and the socialist party had drawn “a line in the sand” at keeping 120 of the 350 parliamentary seats – its performance, ten seats bellow that has been called a “debacle,” a “fiasco,” and a “major defeat” in the papers.  While the parties to its left, the IU (the Izquierda Unida, the United Left, a sort of refoundation ex-communist party) won 11 seats, and the Catalan Republican Left won 2, it appears the electorate has spoken and conservatives have a clear mandate.

And what will they do?  While next-door Portugal burns – general strikes, severe austerity, and the country’s credit rating reduced to “junk” – the question here in Spain is what will happen once conservatives come into office.  The PP candidate, Sr. Rajoy, was vague during the campaign, though at different times saying he would spare education, health, and pensions.  But the general expectation are that there will be cuts and streamlining as a way to try to restart the Spanish economy.  This week Rajoy met with heads of banks, but has announced few specifics.  One was that he was intent on finding a way to restore smoking to public places like bars and hotels, something that has evoked quite a stir in response.

The other came from the PP itself, and it was on immigration: the government will revoke the current “amnesty-style” law that permits immigrants without documents to regularize their situation within three years if they can establish they’ve worked for one of those years.  It is wrong, according to their press release, to “incentivize immigration when unemployment is so high in Spain,” and they would like to encourage “circular migration” rather than settlement.

There is a specific kind of nastiness in the logic of the argument, the same that once was used to justify the Bracero program in the United States: “they are less desirable as citizens than as laborers.”  If previously the language of integration (“they must integrate to Spanish culture”) barely hid paternalism or cultural chauvinism, and the distinction between “the good immigrant” and the “lazy immigrant” barely masked contempt – the latest discourse is, I think, actually quite a bit nastier because it does not even allow for the possibility of “integration” or being a “useful immigrant.”  It simply states: “we don’t want you” but recognizes that “we need you.”

Spanish unemployment is tremendously high.  A report this week on regional unemployment figures in Europe showed that 8 of the 12 highest regions were within Spain (the 4 others being French Colonies, I mean, “overseas territories”), with some regions like Andalucía having unemployment close to 30%.   But these figures are relative, and need to be understood in the context of social democratic unemployment insurance and other social rights like universal health care and education.  So, those nearly one out of three Spaniards looking for work are, in many many cases not going to settle for some of the more precarious, seasonal, and low paying job positions that have come to be occupied by immigrants who now make up over 10% of the population.  If you add to the that the fact that Spain has an aging population with low birthrates, and a very high proportion of retired people to working people, it becomes clear that this country needs working-age immigrants who will pay into the system.

The relatively civilized immigration rules here may well come from enlightenment, but they serve a function.  The anti-immigrant discourse that circulates – sometimes quite nasty, especially when dealing with Romanians,  is present in public discourse but even conservative party policy makers recognize that immigration is important to the economy.  This most recent proposal – we’ll take your labor and taxes but please don’t stay too long – is a way to try to reconcile plain disdain with economic imperatives.  Unfortunately, it has traction during these times of uncertainty.  The Bracero program was one shameful chapter in US history (also originally hatched during economic difficulties), and it would be terrible to see something like it emerge here.    Unfortunately, so far it appears that the smoking proposal has more opponents than the immigration one.

Porto Alegre, 11 years on, and Where are the Brazilian Indignados?

El País, one of the Spanish newspapers of record, ran a headline on October 16th, that the Indignado movement had spread all over the world.   This is, of course, a Spanish take on things.  As important as the acampados in Madrid have been in sparking the flame, Occupy also has its own roots: adbusters, Madison, disappointments with a certain occupant of the White House, and others. One of the interesting things to think about as 15O/Occupy builds up momentum in the United States is the way that different strands come together to animate people´s imaginations.   As my friend Michael Kennedy has said, how we think of the movement’s origins is now still an open question that has to do with what the movement will become and understand itself.

In that spirit, it is worth it, for me, to think back about 10-11 years and the shifting topography of global social justice. Back in 1999 there were the Genoa/Seattle protests and some of the contemporary moments that marked what would become known, for many, and despite efforts otherwise,  as the “anti-globalization movement.”  I remember a lot of the discussions that ensued after Seattle: the possibilities of  “turtles and teamsters” alliances, how to think of this new moment (movement? movements?)  the less-than-diverse composition of some of the crowd in Seattle and the role that people of color would play in its leadership, for example. But one of the important debates had to do with proposals. If the movement was against corporate globalization, what did it stand FOR?

The story from then on is well-known, but global social justice then became a largely Franco-Brazilian co-production.  Attac, Abong, and a few other Brazilian organizations  helped kick off  the World Social Forums, held in Porto Alegre for the first years.  The Forums were very much about proposals. Lots and lots of them. Though the decision was taken after the first year to disallow participation of representatives of political parties or by elected officials, political parties were always present in some way.  Of course, the sympathetic PT administration in the municipality and state made things possible.  But  Petistas, Chavistas, the Fourth International, French Socialists, the forum of progressive elected officials, Cuban government officials, were all in some ways always there. I thought that this was not a bad thing, and I wrote in 2004 that these groups, and principally the PT, respected the autonomy of the Forum.  The important thing was the productive tension between Forum spaces and party activity.

One of the interesting things of the recent global wave of events has been that the center of gravity has been Spanish and US American.   The mobilizations in both France and Brazil have been very muted, if not absent.  I know less about France, but the argument, at least according to some editorials in Le Figaro and Le Monde (and thanks to Ernesto Ganuza for pointing this out), is that the primaries within the Socialist party give voice to those who would be indignados.

And in Brazil, despite an internet campaign ahead of time, the acampamentos in Brazil have been small.  There is one occupation in Sao Paulo, one in Cinelandia in Rio de Janeiro, and a half dozen other even smaller ones throughout the country  You can follow them here.   On one hand it is nice to see, for once, that the United States is in the news for something positive, but on the other this is curious – Brazil, the country of superlatives when it comes to social justice (the largest democratic leftist party in the world, the largest social movement in the world,  the largest labor federation in the world, the supersized social forums, the fastest redistribution of income in a democracy etc.) is essentially not part of an incredibly significant global movement.  Why is this?

Part of the answer is that Brazilians have been doing well, better than probably in any time in recent memory.  A poor Brazilian today likely has better access to health services than a poor American.  Unemployment is low, and we have talk of upward mobility for the first time in generations.  Access to higher education has wildly expanded in the last eight years, and dire poverty has essentially disappeared thanks to cash transfer programs.

But at the same time Brazil does not lack for causes of indignation.  Landlessness continues to be a problem.  Violence and social exclusion still define urban spaces.   Racial inclusion has a long long way to go.  Police abuses are still the order of the day in many, if not most, favelas. And urban improvements in favelas for the olympic games/world cup currently threaten to go the way of South Africa (ie. urban cleansing).  And by no stretch of the imagination are lives of Brazilians not impacted by global financial markets.   The Brazilian government has continued a policy of political economy orthodoxy – running budget surpluses and making debt repayments, which as many have argued over the last eight years, takes money out of social programs and puts them in the coffers of international banks to service debts partially accrued during a dictatorship.  And whatever one´s position on the events of the last years with the Workers´Party, corruption still exists in all levels of government in Brazil.   In other words, many of the banners of the Indignados of  Plaza del Sol or on Wall Street could just as easily be adopted in Sao Paulo or Rio.

For me, those who would be  Indignados of Brazil have simply too many other places to voice their opinion.  On the ¨Democracia Real Brasil” page someone posted a satirical “Shut up Brazil” card, implying that all of the social programs have come at the cost of the people´s voice: in exchange for social benefits, the poor have decided to be quiet.  I think it´s quite the other way around.  I think people have had lots of opportunity for voice.    In some writing related to a project with my friend Ana Claudia Teixeira (in which Luciana Tatagiba, Lizandra Serafim, Evelina Dagnino and Rebecca Abers also participate), we relay some of figures from the last 8 years of participatory efforts under Lula in Brazil.

In addition to the thousands of local instances to participate (in health councils, participatory budgets, etc.), the government sponsored a tremendous number of national spaces of dialogue in terms of standing councils, like the national council on health  (an institution to mediate dialogue between government and society on the topic), and conferences, like the national conference on human rights  (a nation-wide meeting in Brasilia with representatives from civil society from all states).  By 2010 there were 68 distinct national councils in operation in Brazil; and during the Lula years there were 74 national conferences  on 40 different topics, 28 of which were recognized by the government for the first time.  These conferences mobilized over three million people, who came up with over 14,000 proposals and approved 1,100 motions.  Youth conferences mobilized an additional 5 million people.   That’s a lot of places to voice your opinion! Some have been critical of the limits of participatory conferences (as Ana Claudia and I have been in our essay), but it´s undeniable it has been a policy of recognition of many unrecognized voices.

In fact, some indignado themes have been subject of conferences, including corruption.  While people all over the world were preparing for the mobilization of October 15th, in Brazil, the National Conference on Transparency and Participation was moving through its preparatory stages.  After months of meetings in most cities, delegates from all over the country are now going to be chosen to defend proposals and motions at the final, national stage, in June of 2012.


I would love to hear from my friends Ana Claudia Teixeira, Regina Pozzobon, Sergio Baierle, or Luciano Brunnet on this.  Or from France, Heloize Nez or Julien Talpin.


Watching Occupy From Afar

We are watching Occupy from afar with interest, wishing you all the best from here. Inspired by all the young people who were twittering as we marched I thought I would put some of this up.

I´ve put up some pictures here from the October 15th demo in Madrid (and thanks to Ernesto Ganuza for sharing some of them). I was there among the 200,000 people that marched to the Plaza de Sol on this global day of protest. Like you´ve heard, it was an inspiring, wonderful and peaceful afternoon. The pictures represent the crowd well: there were young, old, families, teachers, and retirees in the crowd. There were more literally strollers than police along the way. The chants were some of the ones the 15-M has become known for, “if we can´t dream you won´t sleep,” “they don´t represent us,” and my favorite, “these are our weapons” (hands in the air). There were some new ones, more specific to Madrid, about the rightwing Mayor Esperanza, and about the PP/PSOE (the rightwing and the centerleft main parties) being the same. Palpable also was the energy from the simultaneous mobilization in the United States. True to the principles of 15M, there were almost no signs representing any political party, union, or association. The only exception were the ubiquitous green t-shirts of the movement to defend public education, which has been lead by public school teachers. (Someone also commented on the high ratio of cameras, cameraphones, journalists and sociologists present.)

The march took almost six hours, and upon arriving at the Plaza del Sol there was an assembly, where we all sat down, presumably to have a group discussion. It was opened with a music recital/performance. At this point, organizers were asking over the loudspeakers for people to stop coming into the plaza, as marchers were still arriving. As we left, the mobilization continued into the early hours of the morning. One abandoned hotel has been occupied and as of yet it´s not clear what will happen with that (there needs to be a legal injunction for occupiers to be forcibly removed, and the government has not sought that).

It´s hard to know what the outcomes of the mobilization will be. They took place all over spain, the second largest being in Barcelona, with some 100,000 people. The 15-M, as the movement of the indignados is known, has been a permanent encampment for months now. It has evolved from a group that coalesced around an internet-based manifesto, the Democracia Real Ya, to something much larger and more diffuse. Its principles are by now well-known: direct democracy, peaceful demonstrations, respect, and non-partisanship. The last one is one of the most interesting to think about- in practice it has meant that left organizations and groups are not part of 15M. They are insistent than an individual can only represent herself. But this is not an uncontroversial position within it. Some of the internal discussion has revolved around whether this makes the movement reformist, for example.

Some of the criticism from both the social democratic left and the left has been that this is irresponsible. Spain is about to have national elections, and the predictions are that there is going to be an overwhelming victory for the PP, coupled with the last results of provincial and local elections, this is going to be the first time since the transition to democracy that Spain will be under near-total right-wing dominance. The predictions are for austerity measures of all kinds. Of course, the response has been that these have not been great times under 8 years of socialist rule anyway. Then they counter that it will be worse under conservatives, and I then feel as if i´m back in the United States. Anyway, one set of controversies over the movement has to do with its relationship to traditional politics.

There are interesting things to think about all of this when we think of the alterglobalization movement, or the World Social Forum, for example, but more on that later.

Hope you are well
in solidarity

Gianpaolo Baiocchi