Activists in Chicago. (Photo by Kira Mardikes.)
Elijah Zarlin, who worked as a senior email writer at Obama campaign headquarters in 2008, was back in Chicago yesterday—in the First Precinct jail, following a peaceful sit-in in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline.
“It felt strange,” Zarlin said, “to be getting arrested in order to send a message to the president that he needs to make good on his commitment to fight climate change.”
Twenty-two people were detained in front of the Metcalfe Federal Building, where the State Department keeps an office. Protestors ranged in age from a high school student to a grandfather. Many wore t-shirts that read, “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” a pledge on climate change that Obama made during this year’s State of the Union address.
But action has yet to materialize, and supporters are getting impatient. “The president has said over and over that he wants to do something big on climate,” said Andrew Nazdin, 24, who worked as a deputy training instructor for Organizing for Action (OFA) in Virginia in 2012 and protested yesterday. “The president has a tremendous opportunity to reject this pipeline, since the decision sits with him. But we are going to need to continue to push him.”
The administration will make a decision on the pipeline in the next few months, pending completion of a State Department environmental review. A draft released earlier this year, which the EPA criticized as “insufficient,” found no compelling reason to reject the pipeline.
Fear that the State Department findings will grease the skids for approval is creating a rift between Organizing for Action, the former campaign army now tasked with promoting the president’s agenda, and other activists and donors who are frustrated with the administration’s reticence not only on Keystone but also on a range of climate change actions.
Organizing for Action stated clearly last month that it will not support grassroots activism against Keystone right now. “Organizing for Action’s mission is to support President Obama’s agenda,” reads the first in a list of talking-points for volunteers. “The Keystone XL pipeline is still under review, and OFA supports and respects the process as it is currently underway.”
The global warming campaign unveiled by OFA in May skirted the president’s timid record on climate by asking supporters to call out climate change deniers in Congress via social media.
It isn’t clear to serious activists how tweeting at John Boehner to “stop denying the science of climate change” will have an impact if the people who already acknowledge the real and immediate danger of greenhouse gas emissions, like President Obama, won’t act themselves. “Given that it’s unlikely that the majority is going to change in Congress, and certainly that no action is going to be taken by this Congress on climate, it’s really the president who needs to show leadership,” said Zarlin.
Along with rejecting Keystone XL, there are several options for addressing the causes of climate change that do not require congressional approval, particularly capping emissions from power plants, which are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. But in April the EPA announced that it was putting a decision to regulate new generating stations on hold indefinitely. According to The New York Times, EPA officials said the rule “would be rewritten to address the concerns raised by the industry.” The delay effectively rules out the possibility that a separate decision to regulate existing plants more strictly will go forward in the near future.
While the administration dithers, the grassroots climate movement is gaining momentum, with Keystone as the touchstone. “This decision more than any other will signal your direction, your commitment, your resolve,” a group of heavy-hitting donors wrote to the president last month. “It is the biggest, most explicit statement you will make in this historic moment, the moment when America turns from denial to solutions.” More than 62,000 have committed to engaging in civil disobedience should Obama approve the pipeline. Yesterday’s sit-in, organized by CREDO, Rainforest Action Network and the Other 98%, was just one of the many demonstrations that have been planned for the summer.
Former OFA staffers don’t see their colleagues as complacent enough to stay out of the action. “We, as some of his biggest supporters, who put in countless hours—twelve, fourteen hour days—to get him elected, are serious about making sure he does the right thing on climate,” said Nazdin, who expects that the disconnect between the president’s slow action and the urgency that many young Americans feel will dampen OFA’s effort to mobilize young volunteers. “Unfortunately, we’re not going to sign up to volunteer and we’re not going to be donating money when we’re getting arrested,” Nazdin said. “We’re organizing to push him on something that right now he’s failing to address.”
Protesters are taking to the streets in Brazil. Read Dave Zirin's analysis here.
Days after the White House announced plans to step up military support for Syrian rebels, President Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. Nation Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joined All In with Chris Hayes last night to take stock of US-Russia relations and demand an “off-ramp” for escalating US engagement in the Syrian conflict.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman)
The Constitution is clear. Written by revolutionaries fresh from a protracted battle against a colonial empire that was forever involving them in wars of whim, the document was designed to assure that the powers of war making and military adventuring would never be concentrated in the hands of a monarch—or a president. So it is that, while the American president has from the founding of the republic been designated as the commander-in-chief, it is the Congress that retains the sole power to declare wars and to set terms for the engagement of the United States in the country in the “attachments and entanglements in foreign affairs” against which George Washington warned.
While it can be argued that presidents have the authority to act unilaterally to repel attacks and defend the country, there is far less justification for the wars of whim and casual military engagements that have come to define the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first.
Yet, since 1941, succeeding executives have entered into wars, military engagements and schemes to aid foreign armies without ever seeking or receiving congressional authorization.
Often, the United States has policed the world without the informed consent of the American people, and without any evidence of the popular support that ought to be achieved before any country mingles its destiny with the struggles of distant lands.
Such is the case with the Syrian imbroglio.
That Syria has degenerated into crisis is clear.
That the violence on the ground is atrocious, and horrifying, goes without saying.
But the notion that the Syrian mess is an American problem, or that the United States can or should choose a favorite in the fight, is highly debatable. There is no defense for the actions of the Syrian government, but only the most casual observers presume that the rebels are universally committed to noble and democratic ends.
The American people “get” that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and that any US involvement there had the potential to make untenable demands on this country’s future. Polls by the Pew Research Center and various media outlets have found high levels of opposition to even the most minimal of US engagement with the rebels.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans have consistently said that the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Late last year, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans oppose any move by the United States and its allies to provide arms to anti-government forces in Syria.
Since the Obama administration—under pressure from Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, and other hawks—announced this month that the United States would aid the Syrian rebels, opposition to the move has actually risen. Indeed, the latest polling shows that 70 percent of Americans oppose the United States and its allies’ sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. A mere 20 percent favor the initiative.
Yet Obama is taking the next step toward an active US role in the conflict.
Public opinion is not the only measure to be applied in weighing military engagements. But the wisdom of the people ought not be casually dismissed—especially when it comes to questions of whether their country should involve itself in distant civil wars.
If ever there was a time when congressional oversight needed—make that required, if one inclined toward a literal reading of the Constitution—this would seem to be it.
But Congress is disengaged and dysfunctional.
The House and the Senate choose not, for the most part, to govern. And they are especially resistant to governing when it comes to checking and balancing presidential decisions to embark upon military endeavors that carry with them the prospect of escalation and blowback. Congress relies too frequently on the convoluted and constitutionally dubious War Powers Act as an out for avoiding direct responsibility.
This is deeply unfortunate, not just in the immediate moment but on the long arc of history.
The United States is ill-suited to a career of empire, as former Secretary of State John Quincy Adams reminded the Congress in 1821.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” Adams explained four years before he would assume the presidency. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
It was an understanding of the many threats that go with the search for monsters to destroy that led the framers to rest the war-making power with the Congress. Now, however, Congress is resistant to taking up the basic work of oversight.
Indeed, its inclination is toward writing blank checks.
During the recent debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, Congressman Chris Gibson, R-New York, and John Garamendi, D-California, submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have removed “Sense of Congress” language—previously added to the NDAA—which might be read as signaling support for US military interventions and engagements in Syria. Only 123 members of the House (sixty-two Republicans, sixty-one Democrats) supported the amendment, while 301 members (168 Republicans and 133 Democrats) opposed it.
Garamendi is generally a supporter of President Obama, as are most of the sixty Democrats who joined him in supporting the amendment. They understand that congressional oversight does not weaken or undermine the executive; rather, it establishes a framework in which presidents, their aides and military commanders can operate.
It is not a matter of partisanship that argues for congressional action. It is a combination of common sense and respect for the Constitution.
In arguing for the amendment, Gibson made the wise case that “we need to proceed with more caution—having a full and robust debate on the situation in Syria and how and if the United States should be involved. As we saw in Libya—operations I opposed from the start—it is critical we use the utmost caution when involving Americans overseas.”
That was the common sense argument. But it did not prevail.
This is troubling.
It made even more troubling by the fact that the practical argument made by the congressman from New York is, as well, the constitutional argument.
A Congress that cedes its authority to check and balance the military manipulations of the executive branch does not merely diminish its own stature. It undermines the separation of powers that is essential to keeping the United States from involving itself “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
No war of whim should ever be embarked upon without a declaration from Congress.
No military endeavor—and that certainly includes the arming of rebels in foreign conflicts—should ever be engaged in without oversight from the US House and the US Senate. That’s a standard that ought to be applied by congressional conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, no matter who sits in the White House.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Book),explores how big money has made politics and government dysfunctional. Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”
The Supreme Court defended voting rights in Arizona, but what part of the bill did the leave intact? Read Aura Bogado’s report here.
People protest anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona. (REUTERS/Joshua Lott)
The Supreme Court defended voting rights yesterday when it struck down Arizona’s requirement to present proof of citizenship when registering to vote. But while the decision relieves registrants of an unnecessary burden, the rest of the proposition that brought it into being remains intact. Arizona’s Proposition 200 attacks not only voters but immigrants as well. Despite a win for voting rights yesterday, undocumented immigrants will remain especially vulnerable under the law.
Created twenty years ago, the National Voter Registration Act, also known as Motor Voter, was approved to encourage voters to register—and also mandated that states use a matching federal form in order to keep registrations consistent. About ten years later, Arizona voters passed an anti-immigrant and voter suppression proposition backed by the hate group the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Among other provisions, Prop 200 required voters to issue proof of citizenship in order to register—in violation of Motor Voter. It was that portion of Prop 200 that was struck down in the high court Monday.
But Prop 200 went further in its attack on voting rights—demanding that voters also provide voter ID. It also mandates that those seeking certain public benefits establish their eligibility; if they cannot, then state, county and city workers can be fined $700 for providing services. In Arizona, Prop 200 has meant that immigrants who use certain healthcare services, or even public pools and libraries, can be reported to authorities and find themselves in deportation proceedings.
Aside from keeping a harmful voter ID provision in place, Prop 200 has also meant that undocumented immigrants who might use public hospitals to test for non-life-threatening services—such as testing for communicable diseases—might be reported to authorities and face possible deportation. Any public service that is not provided by the federal government requires proof of eligibility, which has meant that undocumented immigrants avoid certain services that would keep them healthy in a state in which they, too, work and pay taxes. If they do use those services, they may find themselves separated from their families and from Arizona—a place that, despite its criminalization schemes, they call home.
Yesterday’s victory in the Supreme Court should still be celebrated—but only cautiously so. After all, the same Court may still deal a blow to voting rights soon in another case that challenges the Voting Rights Act. And we should be vigilant, because while it took nearly a decade to strike down a portion of the law that went after certain citizens who vote, there is no current case challenging the other dehumanizing portions of Prop 200, which keep Arizona’s undocumented immigrants in the shadows.
What’s missing in the debate on food stamps? Read Greg Kaufmann’s argument here.
Taliban fighters. (Reuters)
The BBC, The New York Times, and other news outlets are reporting the crucial news that the United States and the Taliban will start peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
For months, as the United States has moved to drawdown its remaining forces in Afghanistan, President Obama has seemingly neglected diplomacy. For years, it has been apparent that as the United States and the rest of the military coalition backing Kabul departs, an accord involving the Taliban and the Afghan government—and backed by the United States, Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran—is critical if Afghanistan is to avoid slipping into full-blown civil war in 2015.
Now, it seems, diplomacy is being rekindled. According to the BBC:
US officials told reporters the first formal meeting between US and Taliban representatives was expected to take place in Doha next week, with talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban due a few days after that.
The announcement came in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where negotiations have been under way for more than two years with a number of international participants in an attempt to start peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
In a televised speech announcing the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, Mohammed Naim, a Taliban spokesman, said their political and military goals “are limited to Afghanistan” and that they did not wish to “harm other countries.”
That statement, presumably, is a Taliban pledge not to work with Al Qaeda. A Taliban commitment to break completely with Al Qaeda has been a key demand of the United States since the talks between the two parties began. Says the Times:
Senior Obama administration officials in Washington said the Taliban statement contained two key pledges: that the insurgents believed that Afghan soil should not be used to threaten other countries, and that they were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the war.
“Together, they fulfill the requirement for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government,” a senior administration official said.
American officials had long insisted that the Taliban make both pledges before talks start. The first element, in particular, is vital—it represents the beginning of what is hoped will be the Taliban’s eventual public break with Al Qaeda, the officials said.
Yesterday, Reuters reported that President Karzai of Afghanistan is sending members of the High Peace Council, the often-disparaged but critical group that is assigned the task of talking with the Taliban, to Doha:
Karzai said three principles had been created to guide the talks — that having begun in Qatar, they must then immediately be moved to Afghanistan, that they bring about an end to violence and that they must not become a tool for a “third country's” exploitation of Afghanistan.
And Pajhwok, the Afghan news service, noted that a group of former Taliban and other leading Afghans had agreed to the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar:
Former jihadi leaders and some prominent politicians who held a meeting with President Hamid Karzai on Monday agreed to the opening of a Taliban political bureau in Qatar for the sake of a sustainable peace and stability in the country.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
A Syrian rebel soldier. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
It was heartening to hear President Obama on the Charlie Rose show last night making dovish sounds on Syria, just days after charging the Assad side with using chemical agents against its foes—whoever they are—and promising to finally supply the rebels with US weapons. One has to wonder if he has returned to listening to the American people on this issue after a brief dalliance with key media figures and the many hawks in Congress and within his own administration. I did have to laugh, however, when the president hailed the “dentists” and “blacksmiths” among the rebels, leaving out the “jihadists.”
The media, particularly on TV and cable, have overwhelming featured Democrats backing their president on this issue and hawkish Republicans pushing for even stronger action, with little face time for critics of intervention. This, of course, is malpractice, and a recipe for disaster—if the rebels really face collapse will Obama now resist the accusations that he-lost-Syria? An example of this typical media coverage (with little or no rebuttal) this past weekend, as described at CNN’s site:
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told CNN’s Candy Crowley there is a strong consensus on arming Syrian rebels. “As the Foreign Relations Committee voted nearly a month ago on a strong bipartisan vote of 15-3…we believe the rebels need to be armed, the moderate elements of those rebels,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey.
“Public intelligence sources have said that we’ve come to know who, in fact, we could ultimately arm. And the reality is we need to tip the scales, not simply to nudge them. And the president’s moving in the right direction.”
I noted last Friday that McClatchy was standing alone again (harkening back to the run-up to Iraq) in quesitoning the White House’s evidence on Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Yesterday new polls appeared (don’t expect them to spark a shift in media coverage, even if maybe the president is listening).
While mainstream pundits and political figures left and right endorsed President Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels last week, polls from several weeks back showed that most American opposed such a move. But, aha, the hawks cried—wait till polls come out in light of the “finding” that Assad had used chemical agents. That would be a game changer.
Well, a new Pew survey finds that seven in ten still oppose arming the rebels, mainly because they (60 percent) correctly realize that this ragtag bunch, including many jihadists and Al Qaeda backers, might be no better than the current regime. And, for once, views were little different whether Democrats, Republicans or Indies. Few want another intervention in that region.
And a Gallup poll finds 54 percent oppose arming rebels, with 37 percent backing. The Gallup question framed it more as supporitng or opposing Obama which accounts for more Dems backing the idea.
A sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
To follow the congressional debate about food stamp (SNAP) funding in the Farm Bill—and media coverage of that debate—you would think that the relevant issues are the deficit, rapists on food stamps, waste and abuse and defining our biblical obligation to the poor.
The only thing missing from that conversation is the state of hunger in America today and how we should respond to it.
“A good part of the food stamp debate in Congress and the media is not an evidence-based conversation, it’s fantasy-based,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit organization working to improve public policies to eradicate hunger in the United States.
Weill insists that there is plenty that we know about food stamps that Congress and the media are busy ignoring, including from the government’s own data: a January 2013 Institute of Medicine (IOM)/National Research Council (NRC) report clearly described the inadequacy of SNAP benefits for most people struggling with hunger.
“The whole thrust of the report is that this is not a benefit allotment that’s adequate for people in most real world circumstances,” says Weill.
Since the average benefit for a SNAP recipient is just $4.50 per day, this conclusion shouldn’t come as much of a shock. But the authors—who comprised a blue-ribbon panel charged with conducting a scientific analysis of benefit levels—did a good job breaking down exactly why the benefit allotment might come up so short.
For starters, there is the “Thrifty Food Plan” (TFP) itself—a theoretical “market basket of food” that is supposed to represent “a nutritious diet at minimal cost.” The plan assumes that a consumer is able to mostly “purchase less expensive, unprocessed ingredients—such as vegetables and meat to make a stew.” It points out, however, that these ingredients require “substantial investment of the participants’ time to produce nutritious meals…inconsistent with the time available for most households at all income levels.”
But even if one did have time to shop and then slow-cook that family recipe for Granny’s Goodness Stew handed down through the generations—and not many low-wage workers or workers period do—the Thrifty Food Plan also assumes the availability of an assortment of “supermarkets and other food stores that offer a variety of healthy foods at a lower cost.” The authors note that “low-income and minority populations are more likely than other groups to experience limited access to supermarkets and other large retail outlets…that offer a broad range of healthy foods at reasonable cost.… In addition, a lack of transportation infrastructure commonly leads to limited food access in small towns and rural areas.”
There is also a bizarre assumption in the SNAP program that food prices are consistent across the nation—from Snohomish County, Washington, to Neodesha, Kansas, to New York City. Benefits are adjusted only for Hawaii and Alaska.
“SNAP participants who live in locales with higher food prices find it difficult to meet their needs with the current benefit,” reads the report. (I would argue that SNAP participants who live anywhere in America find it difficult to meet their needs with a benefit of $4.50 a day.)
This problem of an unrealistic measure of food prices is compounded by the fact that the inflation cost adjustment for food stamps has a lag time of sixteen months. As the report notes, “Because of the impact of inflation and other factors on food prices, this lag in the benefit adjustment can significantly reduce the purchasing power of SNAP allotments.”
Any one of these factors would be sufficient reason to revise upward the amount of assistance offered to hungry families, but there is more.
Even the way a family’s monthly net income is calculated is flawed. For families with earnings, Social Security or other income, there is a shelter deduction capped at $469 (unless there is an elderly or disabled member of the household). The report notes “considerable evidence that [SNAP] households face housing costs in excess of the current cap on the shelter deduction, which results in overestimation of the net income participants have available to purchase food.” Translated, SNAP families are paying more for housing—and have less income available for food—than the government is assuming; the SNAP benefit is lower for many families than it should be due to flawed assumptions about their net income.
In calculating net income there are also no deductions permitted for out-of-pocket medical costs for nonelderly, nondisabled SNAP participants.
“The fact that these out-of-pocket healthcare costs are not considered particularly concerns me as a pediatrician,” says Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch, a research organization analyzing the effects of economic conditions and public policy on young children seeking care in emergency rooms and clinics around the country. “Parents with children with special healthcare needs are less able to work many hours and have higher out-of-pocket healthcare related expenses. That means they are at particularly high risk of food, energy and housing insecurity, so there is a reciprocal relationship between children’s poor health and poor nutrition.”
Weill sees a willful ignorance at play “in some corners of Congress” when it comes to examining current benefit levels.
“It’s possible that the inadequacy of SNAP benefits might have better come to Congress’ attention if the House of Representatives—among its numerous hearings on the Farm Bill—had held a single hearing on the food stamp program, which it didn’t,” he says.
Also, for all of the GOP’s talk about designing welfare programs that move people towards self-sufficiency, it is completely ignoring (as are too many Democrats) new research showing that SNAP does exactly that.
University of California at Davis economist Hilary Hoynes and her colleagues looked at adults born between 1956 and 1981 “who grew up in disadvantaged families (their parents had less than a high school education)”, and the impact of access to food stamps early in life. The authors find that “access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, and income, and decreases in welfare participation).”
“The power of this study is that it goes all the way back to when the program was first being rolled out, county by county, and it looks all the way forward, to see how children’s decades-long trajectories changed as a result,” says Arloc Sherman, senior researcher, at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “A baby girl fortunate enough to be born after food stamps had arrived in her particular county was doing significantly better, years later, in terms of health, education and all around self-sufficiency. Some in Congress may not realize it, but this program hasn’t been stifling long-term self-sufficiency, it’s been building it.”
And yet here we are, teetering on the edge of cutting $21 billion from a SNAP program that is assisting one in seven Americans; it’s a cut that would remove 2 million people from the program and cause more than 200,000 low-income children to lose access to school meals. Even the Democratic-led Senate is proposing a $4 billion cut, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will result in 500,000 households losing $90 per month in SNAP benefits.
“More than two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to families with children,” says Frank. “This is trying to balance the budget with the bodies and brains of babies.”
“This farm bill is going to hurt poor people as one of the last sacrifices to the short-term deficit hysteria gods,” says Weill. “It reminds me of the famous line from John Kerry, ‘How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?’ Well, not atypically, members of Congress are offering up poor people.”
You can let Congress know that current proposals to cut the SNAP program ignore all of the evidence—that we need to protect and strengthen the program. Participate in today’s National Call-In Day to Protect SNAP.
Workers at Guitar Center’s Manhattan location are unionizing. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report here.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil)
I traveled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound. Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.
Most argued that the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed thirty years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Worker’s Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country’s slogan, “Order and progress.” Others argued that statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido said to me, “Statistics are like a mankini [a Brazilian speedo that men wear]. They show so much but they hide the most important part.” That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.
The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least ten cities this week. The financial capital of São Paolo was brought to a standstill. The political capital, Brasilia, saw protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress building. In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracana Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings on the outside. While sports journalists recorded the action on the field, reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted. This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising” after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It’s also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.
There are numerous factors driving people into the streets, but the back-breaking piece of straw that crystallized all discontent was a twenty-cent fare hike for public transportation. The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.
As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio´s Federal Fluminense University said to me, “Big shit happening downtown Rio tonight, with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well. It is of course linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and healthcare atrocious… and this [is the state of services] for the middle class!… People are realizing that the 50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by twenty cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa. This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn`t think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don’t think they did either. But they do and it`s massive.”
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for a decade, and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found itself with a mass audience. But moving comfortably among its throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media are reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters that read, “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”. People have gathered outside Fortaleza where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying with signs that read, “FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!” A protester in Sao Paolo named Camila, has been quoted in the international press as saying, “We shouldn’t be spending public money on stadiums. We don’t want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”
The right wing in Brazil, as Yuseph Katiya who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, points out, is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the steets is a formation called “Acorda Brasil” (Wake up Brazil). As Katiya wrote on his extremely informative Facebook wall, “This is a mixed-bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption. Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country’s problems. I don’t think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”
Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice among the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. Over 300 people marched in New York City on Monday with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about $320 a month in US dollars]. Do you still think it’s about 20 cents?” There have also been reported protests in France, Ireland, and Canada. This isn’t a movement against sports. It’s against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It’s a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It’s a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.
Dave Zirin writes about the unprecendented corruption that is fueling development for Putin’s Winter Olympics.
Guitars on display at Guitar Center. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Cummings. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
At the end of May, employees at Guitar Center’s flagship store in Manhattan overwhelmingly voted to form a union of its fifty-seven retail workers. The national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organized the win, marking what the union hoped would be the first of many such votes around New York City and the rest of the country.
Brendon Clark, 28, was one of the workers who voted to unionize. Clark has been working at Guitar Center for four years.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Clark. “Our grievances have been at play for at least six or seven years, the main thing being how we’re paid and our compensation. No one ever considered a union, and a lot of that is because of how the company has not necessarily blocked unions, but just kind of blocked any way for employees to maybe press on the issue.”
Clark was hired about a year after Bain Capital bought Guitar Center in 2007, and he says a regular sales person at the store used to have a lot of autonomy, but things started to go awry when Internet sales for guitars and other equipment boosted and workers suddenly had to compete with giant online retailers like Amazon.com. Guitar Center tailored its marketing and discounting to represent the way the market was turning, and workers like Clark say their hourly wage and commission structure have been slashed since the investment firm took over.
“What they started to do was offer sale prices all the time, price-matching Amazon, and basically doing whatever they can to make sure the customer leaves satisfied at the lowest price possible, but with the company doing that, in order for that demand to be met, they have to cut away at pricing, which cuts away at profit, which ultimately cuts away at our pay check because we’re 100 percent commission employees,” he says.
“We’re paid on a pay structure that existed before the Internet existed. The company has modified their strategy in marketing and their web presence, and just about every way they do business, except for how they pay their employees,” said Clark.
Within the past three years, Guitar Center has rapidly expanded. Four years ago, the chain had 200 stores and it was very rare for the company to open another one. Within the past six months alone, it has opened ten stores.
“We’ve seen more stores open, we’ve seen more emphasis on dot com sales, and they were neglecting existing stores and existing markets that were profitable, and the number-one profiting store is Manhattan, and it was falling by the wayside,” Clark says.
Guitar Center management was less enthusiastic about the vote.
“We always want to have a working environment that our folks love, and it’s unfortunate that we now have a third party involved,” says Dennis Haffeman, executive vice president of human resources for Guitar Center, a $2.1 billion retail chain owned by Bain Capital. “We’re constantly listening to our employees’ needs so that Guitar Center can be the best work environment in the music industry and, quite frankly, the best in retail.”
But workers don’t seem to love the working environment at all, which is why they called for the vote. RWDSU started working with workers in late 2012 after workers approached the union complaining of worsening compensation.
Clark describes a payment system called “fading,” which he calls “a way for the company to get away with paying us less without it making it seem like they do.”
Workers at Guitar Center make the legal minimum wage plus commission, but they aren’t paid that commission until they sell a certain amount of product against their base pay.
“Where that becomes an issue is during slower months, like this month for example, or if a sales person has a bad month, which everyone eventually does. Sometimes you don’t sell enough product and you ultimately don’t make enough money for the company to cover minimum wage, even though you’ve worked full-time and you’ve showed up to work on time and did your job to its fullest, you’re making minimum wage that month,” he says.
That’s problematic for a number of reasons. All the money workers make in heavily trafficked months, they hang on to in preparation for months ahead. There’s never a consistent pay check. They’re never fully sure if what they receive in pay is going to cover their bills, because minimum wage in New York City is extremely low.
“We’re in this gray area where we have solid jobs, which are hard to get in New York, and we have benefits, but at the same time, we’re not making enough money to survive, and a lot of us end up selling our instruments to make rent and living off of credit cards.”
And the problem isn’t just in New York.
“There were many weeks where I only ate one meal a day, sometimes none, due to low wages,” said another Guitar Center employee in a Southern state who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their job. “Some brands pay more than others. Successful sales people sell what makes money, not what is truly needed.”
“It’s a mistake to just focus on Amazon. It’s also Sweetwater, Musician’s Friend, owned by Guitar Center, Direct Factory Sales, and now even Best Buy is selling gear. There is no Internet tax either, so sometimes you have to reduce the price of the product by the tax rate to match your own website. This can often be the entire commission,” the employee added, saying Guitar Center staff are increasingly treated like free consultants.
“Sometimes people buy products on Ebay and then pose as potential buyers, just to get educated.”
The customers come in, ask about a mixer they bought online, get advice from staff, and then leave.
“It’s a dying art and the business is cut-throat.”
“The commission-only model has been a struggle for many of the workers. Some workers make as little as $800 a month while living in New York City, one the most expensive cities to live in,” says RWDSU’s Janna Pea. “Also, with the commission-only model, it creates loopholes for the company. If you have an eight-hour shift, but you spend three of those hours teaching a class, you’re losing money because you’re not on the floor selling products. It’s a tough situation for someone to have to depend on a commission-only wage.”
Despite the successful vote at the Manhattan store, it’s difficult to get Guitar Center workers to go on-record about the unionization effort. Clark explained there have been rumors of retribution by management at a Guitar Center in San Francisco where workers voted to unionize.
“It didn’t go through successfully for a number of reasons, but a number of sales staff that were vocal during that vote, about five or six months afterwards, they no longer worked there. The company tells us they weren’t fired for supporting the union, but they were fired for other tedious things,” he says.
In Manhattan, workers are protected now because they have unionized and they’re in the midst of formulating a contract, so Guitar Center wouldn’t be able to edge out employees without there being some kind of legal repercussions.
But before the vote, Clark said people were scared.
“[Workers] are afraid to be vocal about their concerns in wanting to unionize because they’re afraid that if they were to do that, management would start looking at them for every possible thing that they could do wrong and fire them for those reasons.”
Clark thought it was worth the risk.
“A lot of people have lost sight of the good unions do, mainly building what is now the middle class today,” he says.
Clark did everything he was supposed to do. He graduated college even though it buried him debt. He immediately looked for a job, but couldn’t find a high-paying one in the terrible market that is oversaturated with college graduates.
“Hard-working, educated people have nothing coming their way because capitalism has driven things into either the high end or the low end. When it all comes down to maximizing profit and the bottom line, there’s no protection for the employee at that point. It’s all focused on the company and how much profit they’re drawing. The less they have to pay someone, the more profit they’re going to make, and the more they can grow their business,” he says.
Clark describes an environment at Guitar Center where there is a hard divide between upper management and Bain Capital, where, he says, “my word means nothing at the end of the day.”
“I feel like the only way to be heard is to have an actual support where we can all collectively sit down and talk things out and I have federal protection. Otherwise, there’s nothing for me. There’s nothing that will make my voice heard.”
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