Town Hall meetings

August 11, 2009

So today, for the first time, I saw Obama supporters step over the line in an attempt to respond to Freedom Watch and the Tea Baggers’ disruptions at town hall meetings.  What CNN didn’t comment on, when they showed the clip, was how totally furious the Obama supporter was.  And I don’t think it was the security that was not-very-gently leading her out the door.  She seemed like she was headed straight for the conservative contingent, and wanted to tangle with them.

Probably best that she wasn’t able to; it sure wouldn’t be very helpful for the first blood to be drawn by somebody who’s ostensibly on the same side I am.  I don’t want any blood drawn, of course, but the fury emanating from the right on this issue isn’t much different from the fury that emanates from anti-abortion activists; seems like the right has adopted that page from the playbook.  Infuriate your opposition, and then jump up and down celebrating when one of us acts on it.  Lovely.

I appreciate what the Dems are trying to do as they respond to this madness in their own meetings–to call the tension out, make a point of asking for some decency (civility is just too much to ask for these days, I guess), and do the best they can to keep the meetings moving while assholes try to shout them down.  It makes the assholes look really bad, as if they didn’t already.  Unfortunately, the people who need to be convinced that the assholes are assholes won’t be convinced even by direct evidence.  Not sure what to do about that.

By the way, a public shout-out to CNN, who hasn’t handled this whole mess very well.  But today, Rick Sanchez actually got on the air and explained to viewers that most of what the Freedom Watch people and the Palinites are spewing is just wrong.  I’m not sure it’ll make a huge dent in the problem, but at least somebody tried.  It’s a start.

Why unions should fight for single-payer health care

August 9, 2009

This is an extension of my last post, or maybe one direction it could have gone but didn’t…

One of the main reasons, oft cited even by those who don’t really support healthcare reform, that we need heathcare reform (even though some of those who say it don’t really mean it) is skyrocketing costs.  We also need it, according to some, because small businesses can’t afford the costs of insuring their employees and feel like they shouldn’t have to.

The union member and officer in me bucks against the claim that employers shouldn’t have to insure employees.  Health insurance was a hard-won battle, and in an era where corporations are earning (and often frittering way, but that’s their fault) huge profits, it’s not workers’ faults if those corporations choose not to invest in their own employees.  I realize it’s different for small businesses.

At my own job, when I got hired, our health benefits package was one of the big selling points (not to me–I’d been uninsured for so long that to have *any* insurance seemed like a luxury).  Our faculty didn’t pay for our insurance at all.  Combined with our (at the time relatively high) salaries, the package our system offered was really hard to turn down.  The 2007–11 contract changed all that; our salaries are coming closer into line with peer systems, and for the first time, we had to start paying a portion of our health insurance premiums.  It was a bummer, but we were convinced that it was high time we shared some of the burden of our own expenses.  And we traded that for some other concessions during negotiations, which I won’t get into here because if you’d be interested in them, you already know what they were :).

But in retrospect, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that the labor movement needs to be heavily involved in the fight for single-payer healthcare.  And for several reasons–

1.  Labor cares more about workers than management does, and certainly more than the healthcare industry does.  If anybody is going to conduct this fight out of proper motivation, it’s us.

2.  Labor has a history of winning healthcare fights.

3.  Management uses healthcare as a bargaining chip with which to push labor for concessions.  Give up salary, for example, or we can’t afford your insurance any more.  In academic contexts, we might here something like “If you don’t accept furloughs, we can’t insure you.”  Or, “If you insist on keeping your insurance benefits as they are, we can’t afford to hire more faculty eligible for those benefits.”  Nothing you haven’t heard before if you’ve been involved, no matter how distantly, with these kinds of conversations.

4.  Linking labor with other progressive movements/organizations will reinvigorate labor.  I realize not all labor activists/organizers are progressive, but I’m convinced one of the reasons the labor movement has lost momentum over the last few decades is that its focus has become almost entirely on contracts and negotiations.  When those don’t go well (even when they do), it’s hard to keep memberships interested and, more importantly, mobilized.

On that happy note…

[ADDED later:  If you belong to a union that hasn’t yet signed onto this effort, check out <>.

Making people mean what they say

August 9, 2009

[Long and rambling; beware]

Well, I suppose it’s impossible to *make* people mean anything; that would require changing people’s psychological states, which I wouldn’t want to do even if I could (not very democratic, is it?).

What I’m thinking about this morning is ways of making people responsible for their own declarations and positions.  It’s easy to say one thing and do something else.  But once somebody has articulated a position, how can somebody else work to make sure they actually enact that position?

Let me be more concrete.  The summer before I started my Masters program, I worked for the Florida Public Interest Research Group (FPIRG).  Our director at the time, Tom, gave a talk in which he argued that corporate attempts at greenwashing (which was an embryonic cottage industry at the time, nothing like the slick professional operations we see 15 years later) showed that corporations had already lost the fight.  Once they adopt green rhetoric, Tom said, they’ve lost the battle even while they believe they’re using it to their own advantage.

In retrospect (as I’ve spent more time as a leader in activist/organizing settings), I realize that most of the payoff from that talk was motivational.  He knew that we were getting more and more frustrated, as a canvas office, with our public’s beliefs that corporate America was getting more responsible (and therefore didn’t warrant attention from groups like ours).  So he was reminding us that greenwashers were actually helping us by reinforcing our message.  And that greenwashers were establishing a high bar for themselves to meet.  Once polluters announce their greenness, that is, it becomes much easier to pound them for doing bad things.
OK, so it wasn’t all that simple.  If I’d heard of post-Fordism at the time, I would have argued with Tom that what we were saying was the appropriation of environtalist discourse into capitalism, the marketing of green without actual green practices.  Tom, I imagine, would have replied that the greenwashers were enabling our demands; by making green a marketing issue, we could know put pressure on them to live up to their own pronouncements by organizing customers for or against various companies.
While that approach has had mixed results (I tend to take a very long view about environmental activism, much more so than other kinds), the principle is important.  People say stuff all the time; what would happen in a world where they had to live up to what they said?
The current health care debate has provided some juicy examples to think about.  If you read this blog, you’ve probably heard already about the guy at a townhall meeting (and Prez Obama says he’s received a bunch of letters along similar line) who insisted that we can’t have government run health care, and followed up by saying, “Keep your hands off my Medicare.”  In the world I’m imagining, he would have instantly lost his Medicare (not permanently; I’m not a sadist) at least for long enough to learn that Medicare is, in fact, a government program.  That is, if he’d meant what he said and had to live with it, he would give up his Medicare.  I would kick Libertarians off sidewalks.
My current project has me thinking about this again, in a different setting.  I’m writing a conference paper in which I argue that our faculty union needs to do more with the concept of shared governance.  Although our Board of Governers doesn’t use the term in any official document, neither do they contest it when we do.  My sense is that they’re more than happy to let us believe that we’re sharing both power and responsibility for running the system, at the same time they pretty much do whatever they want–at least as much as our Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow.  They also use this concept to divide faculty, by putting intractable decisions in our hands and leaving us to reach conclusions that nobody is happy with.  But since we reached them, they’re our fault if we don’t like them (I’ve been talking about this problem for a couple of years now in various conference presentations, and apparently haven’t reached any useful conclusions since I’m still talking about it now).
So what would it look like if shared governance were actually practiced in a meaningful way?  Let me start with what it wouldn’t mean.  As long as the interests of faculty and management are at odds, which they currently are, I’m not seeing a huge, sudden shift into consensus-building lovefest.  That is, while shared sounds like a kind of starry-eyed romantic term, it doesn’t have to be.  But neither can it be the kind division of labor Christopher Carter describes/critiques in Rhetoric and Resistance in the Corporate University.  Carter argues that the origins of shared governance–as a hegenomic device–were in the move to leave financial decisions to management while faculty focused on teaching and research.  As soon as faculty left financial decisions to management, the marketing and framing of higher education went with it.
I’m hardly the first person to think about how we get that back; every academic group I’ve ever been part of wants to talk about how we reframe public perceptions of higher education, faculty work, our own disciplines in relation to the “real world” (a phrase I utterly despise), and so on.
My current line of thinking is to wonder how important that PR war actually is, especially given that we’re not in position to fight it very well.  Instead, it seems like we might be able, in an aikido kind of way, to use their own energies to our benefit.  How?  By jumping up and down in celebration every time we do something their discourse says it values.  And by stomping and booing every time their actions prevent us from doing something they say they value (I hadn’t really thought about it that way until Shelley, a friend/colleague, put it that way in a listserv discussion).
Celebrating our successes seems obvious enough.  We know when we’ve done good work.  Our students do well, graduate on time, get into successful programs, jobs, etc.  We get grants, publish articles, present at conferences.  It’s not about measurability, when we talk about it (it is when management talks about it, and that’s part of my point).  And it’s not about puffing up accomplishments disproportionately, which would be a serious strategeric (!) error.  It’s simply a matter of chronicling our successes regularly and publicly.  As they accumulate, so the theory goes, they’ll gain power exponentially, providing us grounds from which to argue the importance of our work.  Moreover, and I wish this were as much of a “duh” as it feels like it ought to be, we’ll have a much easier time acting collectively if we know each others’ work better.
I’m going to jump a couple of steps in my thinking so I can get somewhere I haven’t been before.  What I want to think about now is some strategies for enforcing shared governance that I’ve seen work elsewhere, or that have provoked me to consider some possibilities at least.
1.  Organizing outside the union: our union has certainly worked on affiliations of various kinds over the years–with other teacher/faculty unions, with other labor unions, and so on.  The situation at the College of Dupage earlier this year, which I blogged about, suggests a different (in the sense of additional) approach.  When CoD was struggling to fight against an Academic Bill of Rights campaign running through (if not by) their Board of Governers, the faculty union at CoD went to community-based actvist groups for help.  Of course, they had an obvious reason to do so–their BoG is elected from the local community, so it makes obvious sense that community organizations would have a stake in their elections.  In our case, membership on the BoG is by appointment, so the direct effects of community organizations isn’t as obvious.  I would argue, though, that in addition to help with strike-related activities, coordinating with other activist groups would help to: (a) embed us in the local community in ways that we can’t do through PR; (b) make for more efficient, if less far-reaching, networking; (c) tap into already mobilized groups; (d) invigorate our own membership as we established collaborations in which our members actually wanted to participate.
I know it’s bad form to number a #1 and not keep numbering, but I’m going to stop here.  Should be writing the paper instead :).

I feel like I’m home again

November 5, 2008

It’s hard to describe the feeling this morning.  Most of it, I think, at least in its early stages, is relief.  Relief that Sarah Palin will go home; relief that John McCain can’t advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful on the backs of the poor; relief that the discourse of hate and anger didn’t win the election.

It’s that last one, I think, that I hope is the ultimate legacy of this election.  To put it bluntly, the US told the Ann Coulters, Laura Ingrahams, Rush Limbaughs, Hannitys and O’Reillys and Liddys of the world, to SHUT UP!!!!!!  Our country, the one that belongs to ALL of us, not just the people who agree with you, has had it up to here with your hate and anger.  You gave it your best shot; you unloaded all the sleazy lies and innuendos you could think of; you spent hours and months, and millions of dollars, trying to generate a wave of hate, and that wave broke on a voting public that didn’t buy it. 

For the first time in at least 8 years, probably more like 20, I feel like I live in my own country again.  I didn’t wake up this morning wondering what the next phase of the coup (which inserted GWB into the White House) might look like.  Although I disagree with Barack Obama on a great many issues, I feel like he not only understands the issues facing the citizenry, but more importantly that he’s committed to energizing participation in our democracy–not just in the voting booth, but in our homes, schools, religious institutions, social service agencies, and everywhere else. 

The “change” Obama promises isn’t change in specific policies, although there are some policies that will certainly change.  The change he promises is in the whole ethos of how our nation governs itself, how the citizenry participates in its own governing, how the *process* of deciding what’s best and then doing it gets done.  I didn’t vote for Obama because he’s a Democrat (emphasis on the capital D).  I voted for Obama because he’s a democrat (small d), which means I believe his goal is to give the country back to the people, where the power belongs.

Community organizing and mayoring: a lesson in lying

September 4, 2008

I said the other day that I was done with Sarah Palin, but every time she opens her mouth she makes me want to put an oil pipeline in it.

During her speech to the RNC on Wed night, among other horrifically dishonest claims and jabs she offered, and among the utter absence of anything useful she offered, she attacked community organizers (at least Barack Obama’s organizing experience) as less significant than her experience as mayor of an Anchorage suburb.  I could write for 2 weeks straight probably about everything that’s wrong with this claim, but let’s look at these for now–

1.  The biggest problem, as I see it, is that Palin has revealed her governing philosophy in a way that policy discussions never could.  What she’s told us is that democracy doesn’t matter.  People coming together to work for a common good, or collective interests, isn’t real work.  Given her ultra-hyped experience as a PTA president (which, by the way, I respect more than many of my comrades), she should know better.  She does know better, I believe, but that didn’t stop her from contradicting her own claims about the importance of grassroots organizing for simple political gain.  And before any of you Palin supporters get all huffy about how garnering votes is the essence of democracy, you’re wrong.  Democracy is about working together to make sure the few don’t dominate the many, and voting for somebody who rejects democracy doesn’t change that.  As many of you are fond of pointing out, Hugo Chavez won fair and open elections, and his country isn’t especially democratic either.

2.  Her record as mayor is becoming clearer every day, and the important piece of info (in terms of my argument here) is that she didn’t do much of the mayoring.  She hired an “administrator” who did all the work, while she claimed credit for it and made speeches.  Even worse, the “administrator” that got hired to do her job for her did a bad job, which is obviously a problem given that the city council knew the administrator would do a better job than she did.

3.  Signing legislation that other people wrote, debated and passed isn’t leadership.  Neither is vetoing it.  Neither is firing and castigating people who disagree with you.  Leadership, in a democracy, is bringing people to work together for a common good.

In other words, community organizing.