Here’s an ironic example, uncovered by Christie Watch, of how tangled is the web involving Chris Christie, the Port Authority, its chairman David Samson, and Wolff & Samson: A key former member of Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet, who now works for the powerhouse and well-connected law firm Wolff & Samson, is overseeing a contract handed out to Wolff & Samson in August 2013 to audit the distribution of Sandy aid. Lori Grifa, who once headed Christie’s Department of Community Affairs, is the Wolff & Samson attorney in question, and it turns out that she also lobbied for the approval of the $1 billion development project in Hoboken that is at the center of charges that the administration threatened to withhold Sandy aid to Hoboken unless Mayor Dawn Zimmer approved the project.
The Bridgegate scandal that has plagued Chris Christie has already cost the New Jersey governor several key aides, including Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, the man who orchestrated Christie’s 2013 reelection and who was supposed to have been his inside man at the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Now, there’s a distinct possibility that he’ll lost another key ally: Grifa’s boss, David Samson, the chairman of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, who’s been the governor’s political mentor and who ran his transition team when he was first elected governor in 2009.
As we shall see, Samson is beset by a growing wave of conflict-of-interest scandals involving Christie, the Port Authority and Samson’s law firm. For a while now there’ve been rumors that Samson might be on the way out, and last week the Newark Star-Ledger called on Samson to quit.
The case against Samson is substantial. First, Samson has been a key focus of the legislative committee investigating Bridgegate, which has subpoenaed him after e-mails released in mid-January revealed he knew about the traffic tie-up and was “helping us retaliate,” according to an email by David Wildstein, who orchestrated the lane closures. In another released e-mail Samson accused the PA’s executive director Patrick Foye of “stirring up trouble” by talking about the lane closures.
Second, his law firm, Wolff & Samson, which he co-founded, is entangled in vast array of conflicts of interest, some of which have been uncovered since Bridgegate. His firm is a player in the Hoboken story, now being investigated by the US attorney in New Jersey, where the mayor says that the Christie administration threatened to withhold recovery aid to her city unless she went along with a $1 billion development project by the Rockefeller Group, which was then represented by Wolff & Samson. It appears, also, that Wolff & Samson used its influence, perhaps improperly, to win approval for a Port Authority-funded PATH train station renovation that sits cheek-by-jowl with another Wolff & Samson-connected real estate development project. There are other conflicts, too numerous to mention in detail, including one recently that just broke over the weekend: An article in the Star-Ledger revealed how Railroad Construction Company, whose owner is represented by Wolff & Samson, received close to $16 million in PA contracts.
And third, his firm has benefited enormously from Samson’s connections to the Christie administration and, as detailed below, its earnings from lobbying, from representing companies with business before the administration, and its work as bond counsel for various towns and entities have skyrocketed since Governor Christie took office in 2010.
The notion that Samson might be the next to fall can only make the news worse for Christie, who’s already had a bad last few days. In Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governor’s Conference, where he earlier he might have hoped that the national media attention he would get as the head of the Republican Governors Association would boost his presidential prospects, Christie ended up dodging reporters and shying away from the public spotlight. As head of the RGA, which he took over in November, Christie would have relished the chance to confront Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley who heads the Democratic Governors Association on Face the Nation on Sunday. Instead, the privilege went to Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, whom Christie had outmaneuvered last year to take over the RGA helm. Jindal will handle Monday’s press conference as well.
Perhaps Samson thinks that a half-hearted apology is enough to save him. At a February 19 meeting of the PA’s Board of Commissioners, which was the first since the scandal erupted, Samson announced that the board was “deeply sorry” for the inconvenience the lane closures caused travellers. But he offered no excuse for the way his high-powered law firm has used Port Authority projects and its close ties to the Christie Administration to line its pockets and those of its real estate, energy, construction and other corporate clients.
The next day the Star-Ledger wrote a blistering editorial calling for Samson’s resignation:
Worse still, Samson’s half-hearted attempt at remorse ignored his own failures as head of this hopelessly broken agency—a list of ethical lapses, broken promises and business-as-usual, with new examples breaking by the day. …
Samson needs to go. Certainly, he’s not the source of all that ails the Port Authority, but he is the guy in charge. Beyond Bridgegate, his tenure as the Port Authority’s chair has been a failure. Despite promises of transparency and reform, the agency remains a dysfunctional patronage pit. Samson’s conflicts of interest are well-documented, and his resignation would be a fitting first step toward fixing a troubled agency.
Of course, David Samson is not just another lawyer who has profited from knowing Chris Christie. Last November, when Christie traveled with an entourage that included Stepien to Arizona for the meeting of the RGA at which Christie took over the organization’s leadership, Samson came along for the ride, spending days meeting with billionaire party contributors behind closed doors.
Samson’s association with Christie goes back at least to 2002, when Christie was the US attorney for the District of New Jersey and Samson was the state’s attorney general. The two men bonded, often meeting over meals, both when Samson was attorney general and later, when Samson was back in private practice. And, it appears that Christie may have done one big favor for Samson during those years. In 2007, Christie handed out several lucrative monitoring contracts for deferred prosecution agreements over cases involving medical device companies that Christie prosecuted—including one contract for former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, which led to a high-profile congressional hearing at which Christie had to testify. Less well known is that one of those contracts was given to Wolff & Samson.
In 2009 Samson helped get Christie into the governor’s mansion, serving as his campaign counsel. He then chaired Christie’s transition team, reviewing and vetting government appointments. Another top lawyer at Samson’s firm, Jeff Chiesa, was the executive director of the transition team, and took the slot as Christie’s chief counsel. (Chiesa, who later served as Christie’s attorney general, is now back at Wolff & Samson.)
The ties between the Christie administration, Wolff & Samson and the Port Authority have been enormously lucrative for the law firm. Detailed analysis of lobbying and other public records by Andrea Bernstein of WNYC and by the Star-Ledger shows just how profitable it has been. Reported the paper:
Samson became chairman of the Port Authority in early 2011. His firm made $8.4 million from its contract work with the state and authorities that year and in 2012, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Figures for 2013 are not yet available.
In the two-year period, the firm got lots of work from agencies controlled by Christie: the New Jersey Economic Development Authority ($1.15 million), NJ Transit ($1.4 million), the Turnpike Authority ($2.67 million) and the South Jersey Transportation Authority ($113,700). And Wolff & Samson got more than $1 million in work from the state attorney general and the state Treasury Department.
Another area where the law firm has prospered is in its lobbying work. In 2009 and 2010, the firm earned less than $400,000 from its lobbying efforts, according to ELEC records. But in 2011, the number shot up to $1.2 million, and in 2012, $1.1 million.
And WNYC reported:
Records also show that Wolff & Samson’s municipal bond counsel business has quadrupled during Christie’s tenure. During the previous administration of Gov. Jon Corzine, the firm handled $2.4 billion worth of bond sales. In Christie’s first term, just concluded, that jumped to $10.1 billion, according to data provided to WNYC by Thomson Reuters, a media and information company that tracks the municipal bond market.
So far, the scandals involving Bridgegate and the questions about recovery aid from Superstorm Sandy after 2012 was distributed have been on separate tracks. What might bring them together is the notion that Wolff & Samson, already embroiled in Bridgegate, is also involved in state contracts to oversee Sandy aid in New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Office of the State Controller’s Sandy Transparency website, two law firms—Rothstein Kass and Wolff & Samson—jointly proposed in May 2013 to contract for “auditing and other related services in support of disaster recovery (Hurricane Sandy).” In their proposal to New Jersey, the two firms say that they will conduct a “well-planned and thorough evaluation of all programs and processes related to the distribution of disaster recovery funds/grants.” And, as might be expected for such a well-connected firm, Wolff & Samson and its partner were awarded a three-year contract.
Importantly, the Wolff & Samson attorney overseeing the firm’s Sandy aid auditing project is Lori Grifa. According to her Wolff & Samson official biography:
Lori Grifa rejoined Wolff & Samson as chair of the Regulatory Affairs Group after having served in Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs from 2010 to 2012.
It is, of course, the Department of Community Affairs that is now directly responsible for—you guessed it!—distributing a major part of Sandy aid.
Her official bio also helpfully tells us that “from 2002-2003, Lori served as chief of staff to New Jersey Attorney General David Samson.” And according to a New York Times article in January, it was none other than Lori Grifa who lobbied the city of Hoboken to get it to approve the Rockefeller Group’s billion-dollar project in the city. (The Rockefeller Group has since fired Wolff & Samson.)
Just over two weeks ago, The New York Times published a profile of Wendy Davis, candidate for Texas governor, in its Sunday magazine. It was written by Robert Draper, a longtime contributor and native Texan. By then it had already sparked controversy, as it had been posted on the paper’s web site days earlier, along with its cover. Actually, it was the cover that drew the most comment.
I reviewed the critiques in a piece here, quoting everyone from Connie Schultz to Katha Pollitt. The cover photo was a typical (for the magazine) horrid close-up, but male politicians have suffered the same treatement—remember the remarkably horse-faced Mark Warner? It was the cover line that seemed to many most clichéd, outdated and offensive: “Can Wendy Davis Have It All?” Underneath were references to “ambition” and “motherhood.” Not to mention “mythmaking.”
As for the piece itself, Eric Boehlert tweeted: “profile of Wendy Davis so disheartending. virtually NO DISCUSSION of policy. all bio/family/custody etc. unthinkable for male.”
To no one’s surprise, the Times’s fine public editor, Margaret Sullivan, explored the criticisms in her column yesterday. And in a rare move, Draper has criticized Sullivan’s take.
A few highlights from Sullivan:
When an article sets out to examine gender bias, how can it avoid perpetuating that bias along the way? Despite its well-intentioned efforts, this piece managed to trip over a double standard with its detailed examination of Ms. Davis’s biography, including her role in raising her two daughters.
For many women, this relentless second-guessing hits hard and cuts deep. We take it personally, for good reason: In our society, there may be no more damaging wound than being found wanting in the good-mother department—and no career achievement can salve it.
Beginning the reader’s experience with the outdated “Have It All” headline didn’t help, nor did the subheadline: “A Texas-Size Tale of Ambition, Motherhood and Political Mythmaking,” which comes close to suggesting that Ms. Davis is spinning a big lie. Together, they curdle the piece that follows. A description in the second paragraph of Ms. Davis’s “fitted black dress and high heels” and her omnipresent half smile does little to ease the reader’s suspicions.
The article itself has much to commend it: engaging writing, thorough reporting and a native Texan’s understanding of his subject matter. It mostly steers intelligently and perceptively through the gender issues, but when it picks apart her history as a mother so insistently, it veers off the road. Reportorial due diligence is one thing; reinforcing a sexist standard is quite another.
I’m not sure what The Times’s next major article on a female politician will be. But I’m hopeful that not only will it avoid strange planetary depictions and ’70s-era catchphrases, but also that it will rise above gender-based double standards, leaving them where they belong: in the dust of history.
Draper responded quickly on Facebook:
I don’t agree with Margaret—I think when a politician calculatedly runs on his/her life story & the representation of that story proves to be inaccurate, reporters are required to examine that story in detail, else they become complicit in the narrative-shading. (She also misrepresents the viewpoint of Rebecca Traister, seeming to suggest Rebecca found fault with my piece when she didn’t.) Still, reasonable minds can disagree on this, and I appreciate her even-tempered critique of a story that apparently caused heads of all denominations to explode.
I asked Sullivan for a response but she has declined for now. One of the commenters on her piece, however, posted a link to a Draper farewell to George W. Bush when he was about to leave the White House, which focused on his “human decency.”
Draper then added a Comment to his original Facebook post:
There’s no question that if the art dept. had gone with a glam shot, we would’ve rightfully caught hell for it. That said, on a certain level it’s kind of weird that so much scrutiny for gender bias has been devoted to a story that, far more than any other previous to it, unambiguously portrays her as a person of intelligence, accomplishment & substance (rather than just an icon or cartoon). But what the hell—I did my scrutinizing, so others are free to do the same.
Read Next: Dave Zirin: “At Long Last, Jason Collins Is First”
"Be your true authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear." - Jason Collins
Finally, more than fifty games into the 2013-2014 season, Jason Collins is on an NBA team. Finally, ten months after Collins told the world that he is gay, the 35-year-old center took the court for the Brooklyn Nets against the Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, at long last, we have reached the day when an openly gay man played for one of the “big four” US sports. If Collins had never been signed, as some were convinced would be the case, the great question surrounding his “coming out” would have never been answered. The great question was less about Jason Collins than how teammates, coaches and fans would respond to the prospect of an openly gay player.
As we all await the coming sociology lesson via SportsCenter, it is hard to think of a better landing spot than Brooklyn. The Nets are coached by Collins’s friend and former teammate Jason Kidd and the veteran leaders of the team are Collins’s Celtic best buds from last season, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Then there is Brooklyn itself. Just as the borough was the spot where Jackie Robinson blazed a new trail in 1947, it now again gets to be a backdrop to history. Yes, it's no longer the post-war, progressive, working class Brooklyn where my father cheered the exploits of the great Mr. Robinson, and no, the arrival of Jason Collins should not put a progressive patina on what brought the Nets to Brooklyn in the first place: a stew of corporate welfare, gentrification and displacement. But it is still a locale where many LGBT individuals and families live openly and it is a locale that will see this signing as a cause for celebration and solidarity. Perhaps most importantly, the Nets are not trying to make a political statement but truly need Collins, a big seven-foot body, as they begin their stretch run to the playoffs. Their star center Brook Lopez is out for the season and they just traded away broad-shouldered rebounder Reggie Evans. This is the oldest, priciest team in the league and they need Jason Collins to contribute immediately. Judging from his press conference, Collins understands the basketball realities in front of him. He said, "Right now, I'm focused on trying to learn the plays…. I've played for 12 years in the league and I know how to play basketball.... I'm ready. Let's do it."
Reaction around the league has been uniformly positive. (My favorite was Miami Heat All-Star Dwyane Wade who said, "One thing I know about him is he fouled very hard.... Welcome back.") Fans in Los Angeles gave the visiting Collins a warm reaction when he entered Sunday night's game and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni echoed a view articulated frequently on social media, saying, “I hope one day if a player can play, he can play. If he can’t, he can’t. That’s all what we should be talking about. I know why we don’t. But eventually, that’s all that will matter. That’ll be a good thing.”
He is right, but for now, the political implications of this moment are unavoidable. Jason Collins was asked at the press conference if he had a message for other gay athletes and he said, "Be your true authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear." Collins also made clear that he would continue to wear number 98, in remembrance of 1998, the year that Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered.
Collins's very presence should also raise immediate political concerns for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as well as the NBA Players Association. Currently the state senate of Arizona has passed a law, SB 1062, that would allow businesses the right to refuse service to anyone they believe to be a part of the LGBT community. Governor Jan Brewer will decide whether or not to sign the bill by this Friday. If she does, what would that mean for Jason Collins on a road trip to play the Phoenix Suns? Doesn’t the league and the union have a responsibility to speak out on behalf of not only Jason Collins but their own newly minted policies against anti-gay bigotry? This question also applies to Roger Goodell and the NFL, which is due to bring the Super Bowl to Arizona in 2015. You cannot be a league that welcomes Jason Collins or Michael Sam and then does business in a state where your players can be expected to be treated like second-class citizens. That is a message which needs to be communicated to Governor Brewer posthaste.
But for now, at least, we should just take a moment to recognize and appreciate the hurdle that Jason Collins just cleared. Thanks to his courage, it will be easier for pro athletes yet to come out. It will be easier for young LGBT athletes debating whether or not to tell their “family” in the locker room their truth. It will be easier for apprehensive straight players to get over themselves and embrace any teammate who helps them attain their goals. It may even save lives. I have no doubt we will reach the moment that Mike D’Antoni mentioned and in the future an openly LGBT teammate will be a nonstory. But today it is a story and an inspiring one at that. At long last, after traveling in the brave footsteps of Dave Kopay, Glen Burke, John Amaechi, Wade Davis and so many others, Jason Collins has made history.
Read Next: Michael Sam and the "man box."
On March 2 I will risk arrest in front of the White House alongside hundreds of other young people from across the country. Our plan is to enact a theatrical human oil spill in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.
Youth and students around the country are mobilizing, preparing to return to the White House to demand action in what could be the most crucial environmental decision of Obama’s presidency: the approval or rejection of Keystone XL.
As young people, we’ll be living with the results of this decision for the rest of our lives. Science and basic math have shown time and again that Keystone XL and the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands will have serious climate ramifications for our country and the entire planet. The State Department’s environmental impact study on the pipeline shows that all emission scenarios in which the Keystone XL is approved put us on a path to warming of more than six degrees C (11 F). This would put thousands of US cities and counties—and the homes of millions of Americans—underwater. The negative health and economic consequences of the pipeline are also well documented.
We have and will continue to employ every peaceful and legal channel available to us to stop this pipeline. We’ve issued public comments. We’ve petitioned. We’ve rallied. We’ve lobbied our politicians (though we were outspent thirty-five to one). We’ve cast votes for climate champions who opposed the pipeline. But it has not been enough to make our leaders to commit to real climate action. With lives already impacted and our future on the line, we feel we have no choice but to escalate.
The fight over this pipeline has been going on for years. It began with courageous resistance to tar sands exploitation by indigenous groups like the Beaver Lake Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations—living at ground zero of tar sands development—and communities on the frontlines of this fight in places like Manchester and Houston and along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, the site of a 2010 tar sands spill that still hasn’t been cleaned.
These predominantly low-income communities of color have had their water contaminated beyond potability and their air polluted with nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. These commuities have disproportionately high rates of asthma, and their residents suffer rare forms of cancer associated with tar sands pollution. They are fighting back to defend their health, their land, their water and their homes. It’s important that those of us with privilege—including basic privileges like safe water, breathable air and livable communities—join in this fight.
We are all indebted to these communities for their leadership in fighting Keystone XL and fossil fuel expansion. We young people are determined to play our role, too. We are here in solidarity with our allies, whose lives and livelihoods are on the line, and who have taken far greater risks than this to defend their communities. We will do everything we can to protect the land and people we love.
Ultimately, the Keystone XL decision lies in the hands of the Obama administration, which at last has an opportunity to match rhetoric with action. As youth, we turned out for President Obama in both elections. Our vote decided the outcome in pivotal swing states that include Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. We chose to elect a president who would protect us from a future of climate chaos.
I believed the president when he said, “We want our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” I trusted him to appoint climate-conscious officials like Secretary Kerry, who in a speech last week called climate change the “world’s most fearsome” weapon of mass destruction, and affirmed, “We can make good on the moral responsibility we all have to leave future generations with a planet that is clean and healthy and sustainable for the future.”
With Keystone XL, President Obama and Secretary Kerry have the freedom to bypass our dysfunctional Congress and prove that they’re serious about protecting our future. In coming months, Obama and his administration will decide whether or not to approve construction of the Northern leg of the pipeline. Will they match words with action, or will they betray frontline communities, young people and all future generations of Americans?
We felt betrayed when the president fast-tracked the Southern leg of the pipeline through Oklahoma and Texas, but there is still hope he will put things right. This is the president’s chance to answer his own call to action. But we can no longer sit idly by and wait for him (or anyone else) to make the right choices. We will be there, at his house, to make sure he does, or to hold him accountable if he sides with foreign special interests and the oil lobby. We will be there to fight for our future and the lives of people already living under the worst impacts of fossil fuel extraction and climate change. Will you join us?
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on how the US undercuts its own climate change policies
On Saturday, Missouri All-American Michael Sam took to the podium at the NFL combine to face a throng of reporters that gawked at him like he had just made the journey from Mars. Here he was: the man who would become the NFL’s first openly gay player. The size of the media swarm shows, if nothing else, that the right-wing media that have refused to cover the Michael Sam story by saying explicitly, to take one headline, “We really don’t care that you’re gay, gay people,” are living in a reality of their own making.
Yes, people care. The media that make their money by generating page views are acutely aware that people care. People care because the NFL is the closest thing we have in this country to a national obsession. People care because, beyond NFL fans, there is a collective recognition that this is history being written before our eyes. People care because for all the gay players that have played in the NFL, Michael Sam is the first to “live his truth” openly.
As for Mr. Sam, based on the press conference, he seems to be both savvy as hell and acutely aware that there is no need to stoke the embers of this publicity inferno. It will rage regardless, and the best thing he can do is make the best possible impression on his profoundly risk-averse future employers in the NFL.
The sportswriters in attendance certainly swooned at his every word. Sam dolloped out a series of responses, which suggested less a new archetype of masculinity than a recalling of the old: call it Dick Butkus spliced with Sidney Poitier alongside a dash of Gary Cooper.
Sam looked at the buzzing hive and said, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player.”
When asked if he was a trailblazer, Sam said, “Do I feel like I’m a trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”
For those who relish the prospect a hypermacho NFL player holds to mortally damage the age-old trope that equates being a gay male with being weak, Sam did not disappoint. When asked how he would handle an anti-gay slur, he said, “If someone calls me a name, I’ll have a chat with them. Hopefully it won’t lead to anything further.”
Sam even commented on the standing ovation he just received at a Mizzou basketball game by saying, “I wanted to cry, but I’m a man.” Yup, a regular Gary Cooper.
As welcome as it always is to see stereotypes explode (and to imagine Rush Limbaugh’s head doing the same), there is a vexing aspect of Michael Sam’s square-jawed certitude. Bomani Jones, one of the sharpest knives in the sports writing box, somehow laid this out in 140 characters. Jones tweeted, “What Sam can do is separate sexual orientation from notions of masculinity. So what will we say when he reinforces gender norms as such?”
It’s a question worth asking. So many players in the league are caught in what former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann has called “the man box.” This is the locker-room ideology that preaches, “Bullies are heroes; pain—physical or mental—is for wimps; and women are either ‘road beef’ or collateral damage.” We just received a firsthand look, thanks to Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins, of what the “man box” looks like when the sportswriter’s romantic prose is stripped away, and it’s ugly as sin.
There are many pinning a set of extremely unrealistic hopes onto Michael Sam: the hope that his mere presence will crack open the man box and let some other emotional truths inside the locker room. Brandon Marshall of the Bears has taken it upon himself to actually try to do this in Chicago. He wants to make the Pro Bowl and redefine entrenched league concepts of masculinity at the same time. It’s different, it’s courageous, and given his own—and the league’s—history with violence against women, it’s brave as hell. Michael Sam, for now at least, just wants to play football. To do so as an openly gay man is, in 2014, a radical act. That also may be the only mountain we can—and should—ask this young man to climb. As Michael Sam says, he just wants to play football.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews Wade Davis, executive director of the You Can Play Project.
If a United States senator claims that a key manufacturing facility in his home state would lose a new product line if workers were to vote for a union, might the workers be less inclined to vote for the union?
If legislative leaders in that state threaten to withhold tax incentives for future expansion of the manufacturing facility if a pro-union vote was recorded, might that influence the election?
It would be absurd to try to deny the influence that top elected officials, with powerful connections and control of treasuries and tax policies, could have were they to intervene in this way.
It would be equally absurd for the union to simply walk away from such a blatant assault on not just the rights of workers but the rule of law.
The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, with it’s almost eighty-year history of fighting not just for labor rights but for civil rights and civil liberties in the United States and around the world, is not inclined toward absurdity. So UAW President Bob King announced Friday that the union has asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate the extraordinary level of interference by politicians and outside special interest groups in the mid-February representation election at Volkswagen’s state-of-the-art plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“It’s an outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee,” says UAW president Bob King. “It is extraordinary interference in the private decision of workers to have a U.S. senator, a governor and leaders of the state legislature threaten the company with the denial of economic incentives and workers with a loss of product.”
In the complaint that could lead to an NLRB decision to set aside the controversial result of the first vote and arrange a new election, the UAW argues that top Tennessee Republicans “conducted what appears to have been a coordinated and widely-publicized coercive campaign, in concert with their staffs and others, to deprive VWGOA workers of their federally-protected right, through the election, to support and select the UAW.” The campaign by the elected officials, in combination with efforts by anti-union groups from outside Tennessee to publicize it, was “clearly designed to influence the votes” of Volkswagen workers.
“No VWGOA employee could cast a vote without a well-founded fear that the exercise of the franchise could mean both that their job security at VWGOA and the financial health of their plant could be in serious jeopardy,” reads the detailed complaint of the UAW, which cites NLRB standards and precedents regarding similar forms of interference. “Such an environment, foisted on VWGOA workers by politicians who have no regard for the workers’ rights under federal law, is completely contrary to the environment that the National Labor Relations Act demands for union certification elections.”
The process of challenging the vote is likely to be costly and complex. Success is far from guaranteed. But the complaint is credible, and it is vital to the discourse about the future of unions—and the role that right-wing politicians hope to play in thwarting labor organizing not just in the South but nationally. At a time when Republican governors and legislators across the country are using the authority of government to undermine union organizing and to weaken existing unions, it is entirely appropriate—and increasingly necessary—to raise objections to obvious abuses of power and the public trust.
The Volkswagen vote provides a glaring example of the extremes to which anti-union politicians will go.
By any reasonable measure, the most aggressive campaign to prevent Tennessee Volkswagen workers from deciding for themselves about whether to join the UAW was not waged by the company, nor even by the usual cabal of Koch Brothers-funded zealots from Washington.
As the high-stakes vote at the Chattanooga plant approached, the most prominent and powerful Republican elected officials in the region used their positions of public trust and responsibility to attack the UAW and to suggest that a pro-union vote would harm efforts to expand the plant and bring new jobs to the region.
Republican US Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, began claiming just hours before the voting began that a new product line would come to the plant if workers voted against the union—and indicated that the line might be lost if the workers chose UAW representation. Volkswagen officials vigorously denied that this was the case, and Corker was never able to produce any evidence to support his claims. Yet, because he made them on the eve of the vote, they were not effectively refuted.
Similarly, State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, a powerful Republican legislator, held a news conference two days before the vote in which he declared that a vote for the union would be “un-American” and announced that the Republican-controlled state Legislature would be disinclined toward providing aid that would assist in the expansion of production at that plant. That was no idle threat, as the state provided a $500 million incentive package to help lure Volkswagen to Chattanooga in 2008.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam played along with the anti-union campaign, lending further credence to the threats.
“In my twenty years on the hill [in the Tennessee legislature], I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company,” said Tennessee state Representative Craig Fitzhugh, a senior Democrat.
The intimidation and threats were covered on a daily basis in Chattanooga newspapers and on radio and television stations. The message was clear. “It’s essentially saying, ‘If you unionize, it’s going to hurt your economy. Why? Because I’m going to make sure it does,’” Volkswagen worker Lauren Feinauer said of what she termed an “underhanded threat.”
When the NLRB counted the votes, the UAW organizing drive was narrowly defeated. Very narrowly. If just forty-four votes swung—out of almost roughly 1,400 cast—the union would have won.
Might the underhanded threats from politicians have shifted forty-four votes?
And might those underhanded threats amount to an inappropriate intervention in the election process?
Anti-union politicians, their allies and financial benefactors will, of course, say “no.”
But Volkswagen officials, who adopted a neutral stance with regard to the initial vote, could say “yes.” If they do, key hurdles to a new election would collapse. The company has made no secret of its desire to establish a European-style labor-management “works council” at the plant. Experts on US labor relations have argued that approval of the union must be a part of that process.
So the UAW’s long struggle to organize the VW plant—and foreign auto manufacturers in other parts of the South—is far from finished. Indeed, as union president Bob King says: “We’re committed to standing with the Volkswagen workers to ensure that their right to have a fair vote without coercion and interference is protected.”
Read Next: Ari Burman's feature on the Southern-led Moral Monday protests.
Let us stipulate that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has blood on his hands for the massacre of protesters in Kiev, and that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin—who seems to view the repression of Ukraine’s opposition with equanimity—bears a lot of guilt for the killings. And let us hope that the cease-fire reached overnight in Kiev, after much to-ing and fro-ing by Western diplomats and desperate phone calls from Vice President Joe Biden, will hold—though it isn’t likely.
Now what? Well, though the United States has little leverage, Washington could start by letting Moscow know that it doesn’t want Ukraine to blow up.
To American hawks and neoconservatives, the crisis in Ukraine ought to trigger a muscular American response. A Wall Street Journal editorial blames “Western passivity” for Ukraine’s tumble into near–civil war conditions, blaming the Obama administration for not taking stronger measures, such as freezing Ukraine’s financial assets. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan says:
It is particularly important now for us to show the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, that America is not some exhausted shell of itself with no adherence to anything larger than the daily concerns of its welfare state, but still a nation with meaning.
And hawks in Congress are demanding, among other things, that the United States immediately offer membership in NATO to Georgia, apparently seeking deliberately to widen the crisis and further provoke Russia. Additionally—and again in the Journal—Bernard-Henri Lévy, the reliable old war horse, demands that the United States pull out of the Sochi Olympics, which would accomplish precisely nothing.
And there’s more. Anna Borschchevskaya, writing in National Review, says: “This is one battle the U.S. cannot ignore.” And Ariel Cohen, the venerable neoconservative at the Heritage Foundation, writes: “An East-West confrontation may be imminent.” But Cohen has little to offer as to steps that the United States might take other than sanctions and, well, bluster.
The tough talk from hawks is expected. But what’s evident in reading their prescriptions is that there is really little or nothing that the United States can do, except perhaps what it’s already doing, namely, having talks with the government of Ukraine and the opposition (at least the mainstream representatives of the opposition), and trying to bring Western Europe and even Moscow into the picture—though contacts with Moscow, at least directly, seem few and far between.
You don’t have to look far for evidence of the lack of American leverage in Ukraine. Take, for example, the inability of the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon and US military leadership even to get Ukrainian leaders to answer the phone.
Hagel spoke with [Ukrainian Minister of Defense] Lebedev on Dec. 13 and ‘warned Minister Lebedev not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion,’ according to a statement issued then by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog…. Other Pentagon leaders, including Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of the U.S. European Command, have attempted to reach the Ukrainian military without success, said Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hagel has since attempted to call the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as the situation worsened, but “the Ukrainian defense minister won’t take Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s calls; in fact, no one at the defense ministry will even answer the phone,” according to Stars and Stripes.
USA Today headlined its article: “Hagel not able to engage Ukrainian counterpart.” And Stars and Stripes says Rear Adm. John Kirby “described the situation as ‘pretty unusual,’ and said nothing like this has ever happened to Hagel since he took office.”
The very nature of the shocking police assault on the protesters may itself be Yanukovich’s undoing, since he’s now losing control both of his own party and of Ukraine’s fractious parliament, plus apparently losing the backing of some of the oligarchs who’ve supported him until now. If so, it’s possible that the accord will lead to new presidential elections, almost certain to empower the pro-Western (and anti-Russian) political powers in Ukraine.
How that will sit with Putin isn’t clear. Putin has both defensive reasons—opposition to the expansion of the European Union and NATO to Russia’s very borders to the south and west, and vast economic interests in Ukraine that he hopes to integrate into a revived Russian power—and offensive reasons for pressing Russian influence in Kiev. The editor of Russia in Global Affairs—on whose board sits Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, along with other prominent Russians, including a former ambassador to the United States is Fyodor Lukyanov. Writing for the BBC, Lukyanov describes Putin’s view thus:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating “good” and “bad” players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same—things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow’s initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
And he adds:
Putin fears chaos. The main driving force behind his policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia. To this end, anything goes—both defensive and offensive means.
It ought to be the role of the United States to ease tensions in Ukraine, by backing off, supporting a smoother European-Russian dialogue (one in which the words “Fuck the EU” aren’t heard), and hoping for a commitment from all sides in the Ukrainian dispute to come up with a political solution that works. That may mean that Ukraine does indeed reorient toward a closer economic affiliation with the EU, or that it joins the confederation being assembled by Russia, or something in between. But, despite what’s being said by so many in the US establishment, Ukraine is hardly a top American national security interest.
Above all, easing tensions means letting Putin know that Washington isn’t seeking “chaos” in Kiev. And meaning it.
Read Next: the battle for Kiev
Is lobbying going underground? Despite its official decline on paper, Nation Institute reporting fellow Lee Fang argues that the influence industry “is growing very quickly.” In an interview with Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan González, Fang spoke about his latest Nation feature “The Shadow Lobbying Complex,” drawing attention to an Obama executive order banning registered lobbyists. In effect, the order has catalyzed an underground, unregistered lobby industry. Fang also talked about Palantir, a Silicone Valley–based company backed by the CIA and venture capitalists, and the recent uptick in lobby money spent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Bangladesh.
Life for homeless people in New York got better just a week into the de Blasio administration, as the new mayor restored an emergency provision that relaxed shelter entrance requirements when temps on the city’s streets dropped below freezing. Mayor Bloomberg, who in 2004 made a bold promise to dramatically reduce homelessness but pursued several hard-hearted and light-headed policies, had eliminated those “code blue” rules a year earlier.
And today, de Blasio took another step toward a more humane homeless policy: taking steps to move more than 400 children out of two family shelters notorious for their unsafe, unhealthy conditions. But de Blasio himself called today’s announcement merely a “first public step in a larger strategy to improve homeless services, while we address the underlying causes that have left a record number of adults and children living in New York City shelters.”
Indeed, while the situation facing 400 kids at the Auburn Family and Catherine Street shelters will improve, the fact that 22,509 children (and 29,752 other people) are in city shelters in the first place is the real challenge facing the administration. And meeting that challenge is another subplot in the dance of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.
Already the two Democrats—one coming off a huge landslide win, the other aiming for one in November—are jousting on the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy and joining up to push for a federal waiver to save Brooklyn’s hospitals. The waiver came through. The other issues remain on the table.
While homeless numbers were high throughout the Bloomberg years, they spiked after the city terminated its Work Advantage program—a temporary rent subsidy for formerly homeless people. After Work Advantage disappeared, there was no place for people to go after living in the shelter. With the exit door blocked, the population inside swelled.
Many advocates had disliked Work Advantage because of its very short, one or two-year duration, which they argued was not enough time for formerly homeless families to find a way to pay their own rent. The Cuomo administration evidently shared some of those misgivings, and cut state funding for Work Advantage. The Bloomberg administration followed suit, and the program vanished.
Now Cuomo’s people and the de Blasio administration are talking about creating a new subsidized housing program. One question is how much the new program will resemble the disliked Work Advantage scheme. Another is whether, as part of the deal with the state, de Blasio will make good on a campaign pledge to restore a priority status for homeless shelter residents applying for Section 8 or public housing. Bloomberg eliminated that priority on the idea that it drew into the shelter system people looking for a fast-track to a cheap apartment. De Blasio said during the campaign that he’d restore the priority, but has not done so yet.
Why? According to today’s Times:
The city is less likely to depend on federal housing programs as a solution because of the dwindling supply, Mr. de Blasio said. “It will be a tool we use as needed, but I think the central thrust has to be getting at the root causes,” he said.
It’s true that neither Section 8 nor the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are on rock-solid ground, and both already have lengthy waiting lists. But neither program is melting away anytime soon. De Blasio took a big step toward shoring up NYCHA by eliminating some fees the authority was forced to pay the city. No, public housing and Section 8 aren’t going to solve New York’s homeless crisis, but together they turn over around like 8,000 apartments a year. Families—some 10,000 or them—make up most of the city’s shelter population, so even if a minority of those slots went to shelter residents, it’d make a big difference.
It’s possible that the issue of homeless access to Section 8 and NYCHA is part of the discussions with the state about a replacement for the Work Advantage program. Those discussions have to wrap up before the state passes its fiscal 2015 budget, which is supposed to be by April 1.
But that alone won’t put the homelessness issue to bed. De Blasio said today that a broader effort (“Greater supply of affordable housing. Pushing up wages and benefits. More preventative efforts.”) is needed to really reverse the tide of homelessness. Pushing up wages—at least the minimum wage—is, of course, another gambit in the Cuomo–de Blasio chess match.
Read Next: How universal pre-K could redistribute wealth—right here, right now.
The Israel lobby appears to be panicking.
Earlier this week, New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage cancelled a talk by New Republic senior editor John Judis about his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict, deeming it too controversial. The book, which comes with a blurb from The Nation’s own Eric Alterman, has enraged the right by looking seriously at Zionism’s colonial history and, worse, assuming that Palestinian concerns are as important as Jewish ones. Judis writes that he has taken from the Reform Jewish tradition “the idea that an American Jew should be as concerned about the rights of a Palestinian Arab as he is about the rights of an Israeli Jew. That’s not a view you’ll find today at many of the so-called pro-Israel organizations, or at the evangelical churches that call for the Jewish conquest of Judea and Samaria, but it’s my view, and it’s the one that informs this history.” Evidently, this basic moral universalism is too inflammatory for parts of the Jewish community.
Then, yesterday, news came that a different institution, the Jewish Museum of New York, was scrapping a talk on Kafka by BDS supporter Judith Butler, who pulled out amid a pro-Israel uproar. “[T]he debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended,” said a museum statement.
Meanwhile, there’s The J Street Challenge: The Seductive Allure of Peace in Our Time, a new right-wing documentary that, if the online preview and early reviews are accurate, smears the liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street as dupes of crazed anti-Semites. It was made, producer Avi Goldwasser told the Jewish Press, “in response to what we perceived as a one-sided discussion, dominated by J Street spokespersons, about the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.”
Supporters of the Israeli right are right to worry. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, and it’s increasingly difficult to reconcile liberalism with actually manifest Zionism. Particularly among younger Jews, the cutting edge debate isn’t between AIPAC and J Street—it’s between J Street and BDS, and it seems as if AIPAC and its allies can’t decide which side it hates more. The BDS movement poses an existential threat that has Israeli leaders terrified, but at the same time, the shrillest of pro-Israel groups thrive when Jews are made to feel under siege. J Street is committed to the safety and longevity of the Jewish state, but the right finds its demand for a Palestinian state alongside it intolerable, and the group threatens the hegemony of Israel hawks in American Jewish life. That’s particularly true at a time when AIPAC and its allies suffered a major diplomatic defeat in the failed push for new sanctions on Iran.
“I believe there’s a major shift taking place in the Jewish American community and in its politics,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote me in an e-mail from Jerusalem. “It’s a shift that is generational and will take time but is certainly a challenge for all those organizations and individuals who’ve experienced only an ‘Israel-right-or-wrong’ relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.” As a result, those organizations and individuals are lashing out all over the place.
AIPAC is even trying to hire a “National Progressives Outreach Constituency Director” in hopes of making inroads into the left. It’s not going to work. The growing liberal disenchantment with Israel is not a PR problem. It can’t be solved by shutting critical voices out and doubling down on dogma. American Jews are going to abandon Israel unless Israel abandons the occupation, and no amount of censorship and propaganda is going to change that.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg asks, “What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?”