John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.
Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.
Nichols is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He was featured in Robert Greenwald's documentary, "Outfoxed," and in the documentaries Joan Sekler's "Unprecedented," Matt Kohn's "Call It Democracy" and Robert Pappas's "Orwell Rolls in his Grave." The keynote speaker at the 2004 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists in Athens, Nichols has been a featured presenter at conventions, conferences and public forums on media issues sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Consumers International, the Future of Music Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Newspaper Guild [CWA] and dozens of other organizations.
Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment (The New Press); a critically acclaimed analysis of the Florida recount fight of 2000, Jews for Buchanan (The New Press); and a best-selling biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President (The New Press), which has recently been published in French and Arabic. He edited Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), of which historian Howard Zinn said: "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems, and songs from throughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."
With Robert W. McChesney, Nichols has co-authored the books It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press), The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and, most recently, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation's media-reform network, which organized the 2003 and 2005 National Conferences on Media Reform.
Of Nichols, author Gore Vidal says: "Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’s sword is the sharpest."
SENATE SHUFFLE It was a remarkably different Senate that convened following Vermonter Jim Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent status. The Jeffords jump did more than put a spring in the step of new majority leader Tom Daschle; it put a number of progressive players in a position, if not to pass all the bills they'd like, to use their control of key committees to alter significantly the tenor of the debate. "There's been a general view that you're only doing something when you are actually passing a piece of legislation," says incoming Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman Paul Sarbanes. "I think you can also perform a very important service if [committees] exercise a careful oversight over the government departments and agencies and over the economic sectors for which they're responsible." Sarbanes plans hearings on predatory lending and perhaps credit-card-company abuses. While Daschle and Edward Kennedy continue to counsel caution and bipartisanship on the part of Democrats, other senators are leaping into action. Days after taking over as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Russ Feingold, the Senate's most ardent death penalty foe, convened a hearing that gave supporters of his bill seeking a death penalty moratorium a rare forum on Capitol Hill. On the same day that Feingold grilled aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding discrepancies in their statistics on bias, the Justice Department announced it would initiate a comprehensive review designed to answer the question Feingold asked at his hearing: "How did we end up with 90 percent of the people on [the federal] death row minorities?"
SHOOTING DOWN STAR WARS With the Senate shift, few activist groups have seen prospects for lobbying success improve more dramatically than those opposing President Bush's National Missile Defense scheme. Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, is promising tough scrutiny of the bloated Defense budget, while Star Wars skeptics Joe Biden and Carl Levin now chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively. Biden and Levin showed up at a session organized by the Council for a Livable World, where, according to Chris Madison, director of the CLW Education Fund's National Missile Defense Project, "They both made clear their extreme skepticism about where the Administration is going." Peace Action stepped up its "Star Wars Is a Lemon" campaign with a June rally at the Capitol and a lobbying push that included 115 meetings with legislators and their staffs. Peace Action's twenty-six state chapters are following up with an effort to deliver 300,000 "Star Wars Is a Lemon" postcards to Congress.
ELECTION INSPECTION Election reform initiatives that were expected to be unavoidable following last fall's Florida fiasco got buried in Trent Lott's Republican-dominated Senate, but that's likely to change now that Chris Dodd has taken over the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd and Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have proposed the sweeping Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, designed to help states adopt uniform systems to assure that voting is easy and accessible, and that all votes are counted. Dodd is expected to arrange hearings not just on his bill but also on the broader issue of electoral disfranchisement. The opening comes just as activists are stepping up the pressure on the issue. A US Commission on Civil Rights draft report--characterized by the stark observation that "it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election"--has given new impetus to a Democracy Summer campaign backed by groups ranging from the Institute for Policy Studies to the NAACP Youth and College Division and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. More than 100 young people from around the country gathered in Tallahassee in mid-June for a Democracy Institute at which Representative Maxine Waters urged them to re-create the "freedom rider" energy that led to passage of the original Voting Rights Act. Just prior to July 4, a Pro-Democracy Convention will bring activists to Philadelphia to make what IPS's Karen Dolan calls "the move from outrage to action." The groups are campaigning for an agenda that addresses problems that came into focus during the Florida recount, including bad ballot designs, outdated voting technologies and the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners.
MAKING MUD The Bush Administration's energy plan may be DOA in a newly Democratic Senate, but real alternatives to utility company excesses are the province of the grassroots, especially in energy-strapped California. San Francisco activists launched a campaign in June for MUD, a proposed Municipal Utility District that could use eminent domain to take over Pacific Gas & Electric Company's electricity transmission and distribution systems. A November ballot initiative to create MUD has been endorsed by five San Francisco Commission members, California State Senate leader John Burton and the San Francisco Labor Council. "If we are able to take the power away from PG&E and put it in the hands of the people of San Francisco," says Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, "we will send a louder signal regarding the answer to power problems than anything you hear coming from the Bush Administration."
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. And for much of the spring it seemed possible that America's second-largest city would elect as its mayor a progressive Latino who at one time had a tattoo that read, "Born to Raise Hell." Antonio Villaraigosa hailed from the barrio, marched with striking workers, replaced municipal bromides about economic development with a call for "economic justice" and asked the right questions about the drug war, immigration and a tattered safety net. The high school dropout who parlayed a second chance into the Speakership of the California Assembly sought to build a rainbow coalition of the left in a rapidly diversifying city.
So Villaraigosa's 53-to-47 loss Tuesday to City Attorney James Hahn, the colorless scion of the city's best-known political family, was more than just another municipal dream deferred. It was a reminder to progressives in LA and nationally that coalition politics is always easier said than done. Villaraigosa's army of 2,500 union volunteers tripled Latino turnout from just eight years ago, but African-American voters--many loyal to the moderately liberal Hahn because of his father's long advocacy for communities of color, and others worried about losing political clout in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic--gave Villaraigosa barely one-third of their votes. And suburban Anglo voters were scared off in droves by a relentlessly anti-Villaraigosa campaign that portrayed the former president of the Southern California ACLU as soft on crime. Last-minute Hahn mailings to suburban neighborhoods sought to link Villaraigosa to a cocaine dealer and warned, "Los Angeles just can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa." Shelly Mandell, president of the LA National Organization for Women, said, "I've never seen anything worse done to a good person."
The viciousness of the final phase of the campaign was not typical of Hahn, whose record and rhetoric suggest he will be a more liberal leader than outgoing mayor Richard Riordan. But Hahn will never be the movement mayor Villaraigosa would have been.
The election was "a gut check," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute. LA didn't quite have the guts to embrace what the Los Angeles Times described as "the audacity of [Villaraigosa's] aspirations for the city." (Nor, if a close unofficial tally holds, did it have the guts to elect the audacious Tom Hayden to the City Council.) But in a year when New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other major cities--all experiencing their own demographic and political shifts--will elect mayors, opportunities remain for progressives to make the rainbow real. The challenge, and it is a big one, will be to recognize that the rainbow does not just appear; it must be created. And it must be strong enough to withstand the politics of fear and division that can dash even the most audacious aspirations.
TICKED-OFF TEACHERS Washington State teachers got a bitter civics lesson this spring, as legislators refused to implement fully plans to reduce class sizes and increase pay for teachers that were overwhelmingly endorsed by voters in statewide referendums last fall. Washington Education Association members responded with a May Day lesson of their own: More than 5,000 teachers, classroom aides, bus drivers and custodians walked out of Puget Sound-area schools in protest. Their one-day strike was followed by walkouts in school districts across the state, and union officials say mounting anger could escalate to statewide action. The new militancy mirrors a rise in teacher activism nationwide, which comes at a time of mounting cynicism about whether the new "education President" will significantly increase aid for schools. Senator Paul Wellstone dismissed Bush's education bill as "a charade" and lashed out at Congressional Democrats in early May for going soft on school-funding issues. "I thought Democrats were going to stand up for resources the right way," said Wellstone, after Senate Democrats sided with Republicans to clear the way for debate on the Bush bill. "I wish we would fight harder."... Teachers are fighting harder at the state level. Education unions across the country provided financial aid in April to the 13,000-member Hawaii State Teachers Association's twenty-day statewide strike, which ended with Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano's agreement to up teacher pay not by the 9 percent over the next two years he initially proposed but by 16 percent.
WAGE WARS The Harvard Living Wage Campaign sit-in has focused national attention on the burgeoning movement to pass ordinances that lift pay rates for public and nonprofit workers above the poverty level. More than sixty local governments and school boards--from Ypsilanti, Michigan, to New York City--have enacted living-wage ordinances, according to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Miami Beach; Ann Arbor; Missoula, Montana; and Rochester, New York, have passed municipal living-wage provisions this year, as has the Richmond, Virginia, school board. Living-wage campaigns are currently under way in more than seventy-five other communities, including Pittsburgh, Little Rock and Sacramento--where local unions working in coalition with church and student groups have begun organizing mass rallies to press for city action. Some college-based campaigns, such as the one at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, have already succeeded, while major efforts continue not just at Harvard but at other schools such as Swarthmore, where the Swarthmore Living Wage and Democracy Campaign got a boost from folk singer Si Kahn when he appeared on campus. Living-wage movements have progressed to the state level--in Massachusetts the Senate has passed a proposal to guarantee regular wage hikes by indexing the state minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index. Backed by a coalition that includes the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the state's Tax Equity Alliance and ACORN, the bill has a passionate supporter in Senate president Thomas Birmingham, a Democrat. He told a state House committee this spring, "We are in danger of becoming a bifurcated society, where the top 20 percent enjoy fabulous riches but many struggle like hamsters on a wheel just to keep their heads above water."
DRUG WARRIOR DISSENT President Bush is drawing fire for his nomination of "do drugs, do time" extremist John Walters to serve as the nation's drug czar. A Heritage Foundation acolyte, Walters quit a Clinton Administration drug-policy job to protest moves to spend more money on treatment. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing he dismissed calls for greater emphasis on prevention and treatment as "this ineffectual policy--the latest manifestation of the liberals' commitment to a 'therapeutic state' in which government serves as the agent of personal rehabilitation." How does Walters propose to win the drug war? He's a big fan of stepping up US drug-war interventions in Colombia and Peru. He opposes state moves to exempt users of medical marijuana from drug laws. He calls complaints that drug law enforcement tactics disproportionally penalize young black men one of "the greatest urban myths of our time" and dismisses as "utter fantasy" the claim that jails are packed with drug users who need treatment--despite Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that 25 percent of America's 2 million prisoners were locked up for drug offenses.... One Republican who is definitely not on the Walters bandwagon is New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who is pushing a legislative agenda that would make marijuana available for medical use, remove criminal sanctions for possession of under one ounce of marijuana and emphasize sending drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison. Already, Johnson has signed bills to increase drug-treatment spending by 35 percent and to legalize syringe sales to fight AIDS. Clinton drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey once mocked the governor as "Puff Daddy Johnson," but he warns that his successor's positions are too extreme. "Instead of finding a 'compassionate conservative' to lead our antidrug efforts," says Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "President Bush has selected a man whose views are regarded as harsh and extreme, even among drug warriors."
THE RIGHT 'CHOICE' In the first statewide race since the presidential election, Wisconsin voters gave George W. Bush's education program a failing grade. They overwhelmingly rejected a State Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate who echoed W's enthusiasm for educational vouchers, corporate "partnerships" and initiatives that weaken teacher unions. Linda Cross, who was backed by top conservatives in Wisconsin and nationally, was defeated by Elizabeth Burmaster, a high school principal whose defense of public education earned enthusiastic support from Wisconsin Citizen Action, the AFL-CIO and progressives like US Representative Tammy Baldwin. Burmaster prevailed by a 60-40 margin, carrying seventy-one of seventy-two counties in the April 3 voting. Then she came out fighting. "Don't balance your budget on the backs of our children," she told federal and state officials. That brought a rebuke from the GOP chairman of the state Assembly Education Committee, who called Burmaster "too outspoken" and added, "I think it's time now that she quiets down the rhetoric." Burmaster replied, "There's more to this transition than just changing the name on the door. I will be an activist state superintendent."... On the same day Burmaster won, Milwaukee voters tossed out the conservative local school board president and elected a slate of four critics of private school choice experiments and other "reforms" promoted by the right-wing Bradley Foundation, Mayor John Norquist and ex-Governor Tommy Thompson, Bush's Health and Human Services Secretary. Among those elected was Jennifer Morales, a critic of corporate influence on public education who works with the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education.
CONSTITUTIONAL LITERACY Last year Liz Armstrong, a high school biology teacher near Richmond, Virginia, got a lesson on the rights of students--and teachers--in an era of "zero tolerance." She was fired for objecting when administrators entered her classroom without suspicion and searched students for drugs and weapons. This April at American University's Washington College of Law, Armstrong was honored by the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program with the first Mary Beth Tinker Award, for the Person Who Most Courageously Defends the Rights of Students. Tinker's suspension from a Des Moines junior high school for wearing an antiwar armband led to the 1969 Supreme Court ruling extending free speech protections to students. Now a Service Employees International Union organizer, Tinker presented the award during a daylong session at which 200 students from Washington and Maryland were recognized for participating in a Marshall-Brennan constitutional literacy course. (A poetry slam was judged by Cecilia Marshall, widow of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.) Says AU law professor Jamin Raskin, "In the Tinker case thirty-two years ago, Justice Abe Fortas said public schools cannot be 'enclaves of totalitarianism.' Yet too many schools are that today--as the Armstrong case illustrates."
BLACK HAWK DOWN When Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation officials gathered in Washington to instruct lobbyists on pressuring Congress to increase the current $221 million allocation for purchases of the corporation's Black Hawk helicopters, used by the Colombian military, they were joined by six Oberlin College students. The women entered a National Guard museum conference room where the meeting was taking place, locked arms inside piping and then locked themselves around a pillar. Said Kate Berrigan--Phil's daughter--"We are here to let the Sikorsky Corporation know that they cannot profit off war and the suffering of the people of Colombia." Corporate officials hastily canceled the session as 100 activists--in town for a School of the Americas Watch lobbying day--gathered outside the building. The Oberlin students are members of the Oberlin Peace Activist League, which works with the Colombia Support Network to challenge US military involvement in Colombia. The six, who were arrested and charged with unlawful entry, are due back in DC for trial June 20. "We're going to do everything we can to put Sikorsky on trial," says Laurel Paget-Seekins, one of those arrested. "We want to see what a jury thinks about a corporation that lobbies Congress to intervene in another country so it can make a profit."
CAMPUS CRUSADES Citing "social responsibility" concerns, American University administrators announced on April 11 that the school would drop its contract with Sodexho-Marriott Services. That's a big win for the Not With Our Money Campaign of the Prison Moratorium Project, which has taken on Sodexho-Marriott, provider of food service at 900 universities in the United States and Canada. The firm's French parent company is the largest shareholder in Corrections Corporation of America, the world's biggest for-profit prison company. SUNY Albany, Maryland's Goucher College, Washington's Evergreen State, Virginia's James Madison University and Oberlin have also dumped Sodexho-Marriott. "We've shown that student activists can hold prison profiteers accountable," says Adam Choka, an American University student.... At Yale, which holds the patent on the AIDS drug Zerit, 600 students and staff petitioned the administration to pressure Bristol-Myers Squibb to remove barriers to affordable production of the drug. The company did so in March, sparking interest in activism at other schools holding drug patents.
MILLION-DOLLAR BASH Organizers of the April 20-22 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City were following standard protocol for meetings of trade-pact negotiators when they invited multinational corporations to pay $500,000 Canadian (about $320,000 US) for the right to deliver "welcoming remarks" to US President George W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the representatives of thirty-two other Western Hemisphere nations gathered to promote the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. But the summit sponsorships have stirred a furor among Canadians over the selling of access to corporations in a position to benefit from a trade scheme that Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow says "will give unequaled new rights to the transnational corporations of the hemisphere to compete for and even challenge every publicly funded service of its governments, including healthcare, education, social security, culture and environmental protection." Conservative Party leader Joe Clark called the arrangement "insulting to anyone who believes in democracy." Referring to elaborate security precautions being put in place to prevent protesters from getting near the summit, New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough says, "Half a million dollars and you are in, no problem, instant access. No money, stay behind the chain-link fence. Is the real reason the Prime Minister is ignoring critics that they do not have half a million dollars to put their message on a tote bag?" Jean-Pierre Charboneau, speaker of Quebec's National Assembly, has called on provincial officials to release 900 pages of secret summit negotiating texts to the media and trade foes. Under pressure from NDP and Bloc Quebecois members, Canada's parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has scheduled hearings on the summit and FTAA, and "liberate the texts" protests are planned for Ottawa.
PARTY OF PROTEST The controversy surrounding the summit and Canadian participation in the FTAA has given impetus to forces seeking to reshape Canada's democratic socialist New Democratic Party. Battered in recent elections, the NDP has been under pressure from traditionally supportive but increasingly frustrated unions, particularly the militant 220,000-member Canadian Auto Workers, to identify itself as a more explicitly anticorporate and activist political force. All thirteen NDP members of Parliament will be in Quebec City to join mass protests. Rabble-rousing NDP parliamentarian Svend Robinson hailed the new direction as "long overdue" and seized the opportunity to invite Montreal-based protest group SalAMI to Parliament Hill to provide nonviolent civil disobedience training.
BORDER BATTLE Because of Canada's stronger labor protections and broader social safety net, Canadian corporations often look to leap across the US border in the same way that US firms ponder moving operations to Mexico. In Manitoba, 250 striking Canadian Auto Workers members are fighting to prevent a move by Winnipeg's Buhler Versatile tractor plant to Fargo, North Dakota. The union has demanded that federal and provincial governments move to nationalize the plant, which was purchased by current owner John Buhler with substantial government assistance. "We're not going to sit back and allow this factory to be dismantled and moved," says CAW official Hemi Mitic.
NURSING A GRIEVANCE Six years ago the California Nurses Association--a militant union that has become a prime mover in campaigns for national healthcare reform, an ironclad patients' bill of rights and whistleblower protections for nurses--broke with the American Nurses Association. Now, following the CNA's lead, the 20,000-member Massachusetts Nurses Association has voted by a 4-to-1 margin to end a ninety-eight-year affiliation with the ANA. The ANA has come under increasing criticism for being too cautious in challenging the worst excesses of healthcare corporatization: managed-care abuses, staff shortages, mandatory overtime and limits on the ability of nurses to advocate for patients. The Massachusetts nurses' plan to forge links with the CNA and the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses to create what MNA president Denise Garlick predicts will be a national nurses' "movement for real reform and dramatic change."
TAX TROUBLES George W. Bush's campaign on behalf of his $1.6 trillion tax cut has been running into trouble not only in Washington, where senators are balking at the scheme to make the rich a whole lot richer, but also at the grassroots. Recent Bush barnstorming visits to Chicago and Portland were confronted by protests organized by Citizen Action of Illinois and Maine's Dirigo Alliance, which are aligned with the new Fair Taxes for All Coalition, organized by People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and more than 100 other union and civil rights groups. Many of the groups began working together in the fight to block the confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, says USAction's Jeff Blum. The twist is that the coalition is now stronger on the ground, with organizing continuing in twenty-eight states and April 11 rallies planned to counter Bush's pressure on wavering Democrats.
US Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democratic side of the McCain-Feingold juggernaut that is on the verge of winning Senate approval of the most significant campaign finance reform initiative
VOTE FOR THE UNION LABEL While plotting his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said, "We will only succeed if we can pull together the broadest possible progressive coalition--labor, environmentalists, women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, community activists." It was a tall order for a former Service Employees union organizer who entered politics only in 1994 and who faced a half-dozen prominent opponents for the top job in America's second-largest city. But as the April 10 primary approaches, Villaraigosa is building the coalition he envisioned. Early backing came from the National Organization for Women, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Stonewall Democratic Club--the largest gay and lesbian Democratic club in the United States--and such progressive leaders as State Representative Jackie Goldberg, US Representative Hilda Solis and the Rev. William Campbell of LA's historic Second Baptist Church. Then Villaraigosa was endorsed by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose commitment to activist politics is being watched closely as a possible model by national AFL-CIO officials. "We won't settle anymore for politicians who simply vote right; we want committed, activist leaders who march with us on the picket lines, who see themselves as part of a movement for justice for workers," says secretary treasurer Miguel Contreras, who helped engineer critical labor support for Solis and Goldberg in the 2000 Democratic primaries. He adds, "We have a chance to make history by electing the first union mayor in the history of Los Angeles."
BLUE-GREEN ALLIANCE If Villaraigosa wins in LA, he won't be the only labor-backed activist mayor in southern California. Mike Feinstein, a key player in the California Green Party, has parlayed a big November win for an at-large Santa Monica City Council seat into selection by the council as mayor. With solid backing from Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights--one of the nation's savviest local political groups--Feinstein placed first among thirteen candidates for four council seats. Feinstein ran especially well in low-income neighborhoods, where the Greens touted his record of support for organizing drives at the city's oceanfront hotels and an endorsement from Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 814. Feinstein is using the largely ceremonial mayor's post as a bully pulpit to advocate a living-wage ordinance establishing a mandatory $10.69-an-hour pay rate in the city's tourist district. "In Europe, there are a lot of examples of Greens and unions working together," says Feinstein. "I think we're providing an American model that's good for Santa Monica and useful for the whole country."
GETTING A JOB FOR LABOR AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has long argued that the best way to give working people a voice at the local, state and national levels is for union members to run for and win elected office. That's exactly what Paul Plesha did after LTV Steel announced that the taconite mine on Minnesota's Iron Range, where he had worked for twenty-eight years, would shut down. A United Steelworkers of America activist, the soon-to-be-unemployed millwright entered a nonpartisan race for a seat on the St. Louis County Commission and topped a field of twelve candidates in February voting. Plesha, a Democrat, beat his closest challenger, an aide to Senator Paul Wellstone, with a campaign that emphasized his blue-collar roots. "I know what it's like to carry a lunch pail to work," he said. Though he sought a local office, Plesha did not hesitate to address national and international trade issues--no surprise, since his union sent one of the largest grassroots delegations to the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. "I cut my teeth on the fight against NAFTA, and I've recognized ever since then that the pain we're feeling in these parts has everything to do with these trade deals," says Plesha. "I realized when we lost that fight that what's been missing from our politics for too long--at every level--is the voice of labor." Along with 1,400 other LTV Steel workers who lost their jobs, Plesha will be collecting unemployment until he is sworn in on March 13.
REAL PAYCHECK PROTECTION Ever since labor stepped up its political education and mobilization efforts in 1996, business lobbies have pushed for so-called paycheck-protection measures that would impose on unions complex administrative burdens designed to make it difficult to use union funds for political purposes. California voters rejected the scheme in 1998, and Oregon voters did the same in 1998 and 2000. But the fight goes on in legislatures across the country. In South Dakota AFL-CIO unions, rallied outside the state Capitol in Pierre on a blustery February day and succeeded in convincing the Republican-controlled House to reject "paycheck deception," 44 to 25. Labor has also beaten back similar proposals in North Dakota and Mississippi but lost a legislative fight in Utah (a court challenge is expected). The Montana AFL-CIO continues to battle a determined Republican effort to keep the legislation alive in that state. A frustrated Montana AFL-CIO president Don Judge bemoans the fact that "good ideas have gone by the wayside" as unions have been forced to defend "labor's ability to represent our members."
GREEN GIANT KILLER Back in the early days of the Clinton Administration, then-North Dakota Agriculture Secretary Sarah Vogel was touted as a potential US Secretary of Agriculture. But her challenges to corporate agribusiness and her outspoken opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled that idea. Too bad; as her subsequent career as a lawyer in her home state shows, she would have been a hell of a fighter for family farmers. With associate Courtney Koebele, Vogel recently won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 wheat farmers who faced financial ruin when the USDA and finance corporations shifted crop insurance formulas to pay farmers far less than had been promised. Her clients were activist farmers like Paul and Tom Wiley, who drove through North Dakota blizzards to deliver court documents before key deadlines. Vogel and her legal team are also taking on factory farms that spoil the environment, agribusiness corporations accused of selling farmers bad seeds and insurance companies that fail to cover crop damage. She's even going after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who say BIA policies threaten Native American farmers. In farm country, Vogel has earned a reputation as "a giant killer in ag law." The fiery lawyer--who is using some of her fees to reopen Bismarck's natural-food restaurant, the Green Earth Cafe--says, "Corporate agriculture would have farmers be serfs." A third-generation rural activist, she says she'll keep using the courts until Washington enacts "farm policy from a farmer perspective"--including restrictions on agribusiness monopolies, fair-trade provisions and limits on genetic modification of food.
IN THE FDA WE DISTRUST Academics and agribusiness leaders who gathered on the University of Minnesota campus in early February dutifully sang the praises of Food and Drug Administration policies on genetically engineered foods. There was even a chorus of endorsements of FDA plans to implement voluntary guidelines for labeling altered foods. "The public trusts the FDA on this issue," intoned panelist Thomas Hoban. Outside in the Minneapolis cold, however, the public wasn't following the script. Police were called to disperse a crowd of several dozen activists from Genetically Engineered Food Alert, who raised a ruckus about what protester Matt Rand labeled the FDA's "very weak industry-backed policy." Food safety activists across the country are stepping up the campaign to get the United States to regulate the marketing of foods that are genetically engineered or that include GE ingredients--which now make up two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves. The Center for Food Safety and the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods are among those urging consumers to write to the FDA during a comment period that ends April 3, opposing the voluntary labeling plan and calling for tighter regulation. On Capitol Hill, Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is stepping up a drive for Congressional action on his Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act. He's working with the Organic Consumers Association and other groups to get constituents to push House members to endorse the bill--which had fifty-six co-sponsors in the last Congress. "If you ask the average American whether they want a label telling them the food they're buying has been genetically modified, they will answer, 'Absolutely,'" says Kucinich, who has developed a GE Food Action Center on his website, www.house.gov/kucinich. "By putting some organization behind that sentiment, we can make this into so big an issue that the industry lobbyists will have to get out of the way."
POLITICAL HEAT FROM THE KITCHEN "Eating is a political act," says Alice Waters, whose pioneering Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has inspired dozens of organic eateries to reject the processed foods of agribusiness and buy produce from small farmers in neighboring communities. Top cooks from many of these restaurants have formed the Chefs Collaborative (chefnet.com), a network that promotes "sustainable cuisine" by supporting local farmers and educating children about healthy eating. Recently, they've stepped up efforts to educate chefs and consumers about threats to endangered species and ecosystems posed by corporate agribusiness. Chez Panisse, Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and Chicago's Frontera Grill have launched high-profile initiatives to eliminate GE foods from their menus. "It is critical for us, as chefs, to lead in this public debate and to field questions in our dining rooms and in our kitchens," says Frontera's Rick Bayless. "We're still cooking, but we're also entering the public debate as people who work with food and who want Americans to start asking the questions we do about how food is produced," adds Ann Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge)... Now that even TV networks are reporting on mad cow disease, activist-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are feeling a certain amount of satisfaction. "For years, when consumers should have been told about the risks they were taking when they bought beef, there was a blackout on the issue," says Stauber, who with Rampton wrote Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (now available free at www.prwatch.com). Stauber and Rampton are back with a new book, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (Putnam).
AGAINST FORGETTING George W. Bush's inauguration went less smoothly than the GOP would have liked, as thousands of activists filled the streets of Washington to protest Bush's disputed election "victory." NAACP chapters from as far away as Detroit dispatched busloads of activists for a demonstration that surrounded the Supreme Court building. Protests organized by the National Organization for Women, the National Action Network and other groups made dissent the order of the day, though a huge police presence blocked several marches and prevented the use of giant puppets and other tools of post-Seattle protest. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union built a tent city, "Bushville USA," on the lawn of the Health and Human Services Department, only to see it dismantled within minutes and its 200 occupants removed by security officials. Alexis Baden-Meyer, an organizer of the DC-based Arts in Action Working Group, said police restrictions violated freedom of expression. But the protests were still heard--and seen. The most high-profile challenge came along the inaugural parade route, where protesters took over bleachers reserved for Bush supporters and jeered "Jail to the Thief" as the Bush motorcade raced by.... Dozens of protests occurred elsewhere on January 20; NAACP president Kweisi Mfume told 1,000 people at an electoral reform rally in Tallahassee, "While the eyes of the nation are on Washington and on this inauguration, we've come back to Florida to say that we remember and we must not ever forget."
TAKING BACK DEMOCRACY On the day before the inaugural, voting rights activists from across the country gathered in Washington to plot a legislative and political crusade to reform the political system. "The Bush people, the Republicans, the Supreme Court--they do not yet fully understand the mistake they made when they decided to steal the election," declared Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Senator Paul Wellstone and Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Lee, Eleanor Holmes Norton and McKinney, joined academics and activists for seminars, workshops and discussions organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Challenge network, the Nation Institute and the Center for Voting and Democracy. The forum was the first of several planned to link grassroots activists with members of the 107th Congress who are pushing reform legislation on issues ranging from the healthcare crisis to the wealth gap. McKinney said the Florida election dispute and anticipated fights over Congressional redistricting created a rare opening for reform. "In 1965, civil rights activism that seemed undoable suddenly became doable after Bloody Sunday," she said. "After Florida 2000, voting reforms that seemed undoable suddenly seem doable. Voting rights is an issue--not just a civil rights issue, but an American issue."
NOT A FAVORITE SON The grilling of Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft by Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden during the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings benefited substantially from information provided by one of the nation's most ambitious grassroots organizations, Missouri Pro-Vote, a coalition of labor, pro-choice, gay and lesbian, and community activist groups. Soon after Ashcroft's nomination was announced, Pro-Vote officials began working with Pacifica's Democracy Now! radio program, the Institute for Public Accuracy and USAction--the national network of state-based progressive groups with which Pro-Vote is affiliated--to spread the word about Ashcroft's extremist views and his record of racial insensitivity. Much of the information had been gathered as part of a five-year monitoring project of the Pro-Vote-linked Missouri Citizen Education Fund. Pro-Vote's work to expand African-American voter registration in St. Louis last year--when Ashcroft was narrowly defeated for re-election to the Senate--was honored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists as part of that city's Martin Luther King Day festivities.
MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRIC "You can't always get what you want," crooned activist-musician Doug Hartnett, as his band the Oxymorons ripped into the Rolling Stones classic and a set of equally appropriate tunes for dissenters on the first night of the George W. Bush Administration. Rocking a crowd of more than 800 at the Americans for Democratic Action Counter-Inaugural Gala, Hartnett, who works by day as a lawyer for the whistleblowing Government Accountability Project, and the Oxymorons had no trouble filling the dance floor at Washington's Mayflower hotel with a multigenerational crowd that answered the call to "party liberally." Grand Old Partyers arriving to celebrate in another wing of the hotel did double takes when they encountered revelers like Baltimore's Sarah McClintock, whose green brocade gown was accented with gold glitter slogans that read, "Reject the Republicans" and "Jail to the Thief." "I wanted to make a fashion statement that no one would misinterpret," announced a grinning McClintock.
John Nichols's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fierce farm crisis that is ravaging rural America garnered scant attention during the 2000 presidential campaign, so it came as no surprise that President-elect George W. Bush's nominaton of Ann Veneman for the post of Agriculture Secretary received far less attention than those of several others. Yet, because of the broad authority she would be handed and because of her extreme politics, Veneman merits every bit as much scrutiny as that directed at Bush's more high-profile appointments. Veneman's track record leaves little doubt that if confirmed she will use her position as head of a powerful agency with 100,000 employees, an $82 billion budget and responsibility for implementing federal farm policy, protecting food safety and defending public lands, to advance what farm activist Mark Ritchie describes as "strictly pro-agribusiness, pro-pesticide company, pro-pharmaceutical company positions."
As a key member of the Reagan and Bush farm teams, as former California Governor Pete Wilson's Food and Agriculture Department director, as an agribusiness lawyer and as a member of the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush, Veneman has rarely missed an opportunity to advance the interests of food-production and -processing conglomerates, to encourage policies that lead to the displacement of family farms by huge factory farms, to open public lands for mineral extraction and timbering, to support genetic modification of food and to defend biotech experimentation with agriculture. Indeed, Veneman served on the board of Calgene, the corporation that in 1994 launched the first genetically engineered food, and she declared last year that "we simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology."
With Veneman's encouragement, California developed an increasingly conglomerated, big-farm, chemically enhanced version of food production that Iowa Farmers Union president John Whitaker describes as "an entirely different face of agriculture" from that practiced or desired by most working farmers. "I don't want to see that face transferred to Iowa," says Whitaker. But with Veneman at the reins of the USDA as Congress prepares to rewrite the dismally flawed Freedom to Farm Act, the transfer would likely be unavoidable.
Veneman would not merely be hustling to deliver for Bush's corporate contributors on domestic farm policy and public-land-use issues; she'd also be working for them on the international stage. A militant free-trader, Veneman helped negotiate the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which led to the World Trade Organization) and NAFTA. Even as family farmers were marching in Seattle to protest WTO interference with agricultural supports and food-safety standards, Veneman was there to tell the WTO to be more aggressive in removing so-called technical barriers to trade. So determined is Veneman to advance the free-trade agenda that Bush transition-team aides briefly considered her as a candidate for the position of US Trade Representative.
Veneman "seems to be coming in with the notion that her job is to be as extreme as possible in parroting the agribusiness line," says Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "The problem is that that line is completely out of sync with what farmers want, what consumers want and what we know to be scientifically, ecologically and economically right."