The following is Part I of a Christie Watch investigative report concerning the role of Chris Christie, the Wolff & Samson law firm, and several top Christie aides in the multibillion-dollar American Dream complex at the Meadowlands. Part II will be published tomorrow.
If you’ve crossed the George Washington Bridge, at least when the lanes are open, and headed south down the New Jersey Turnpike, you’ve passed by it. If you’ve gone to see the New York Giants play at MetLife Stadium, you can’t have missed it. And if you commute north on the Turnpike though the vast swamp and wetlands just outside New York City, you see it every day. We’re talking about the enormous, misshapen orange, red and blue monstrosity of an edifice that sits there, an empty shell, one that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the “ugliest damn building,” adding: “I can’t take it anymore.”
But the project, unused and decaying—originally dubbed Xanadu (as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “stately pleasure-dome”) and now reborn as the American Dream mega-complex—could be the latest, and biggest, conflict-of-interest scandal in the tangle of scandals plaguing the New Jersey governor, according to an investigation by The Nation’s Christie Watch. Among those mixed up in the multibillion-dollar Meadowlands redevelopment project, besides Christie, are a colorful cast of characters. Leading the pack is David Samson, the founder of the über-powerful New Jersey law firm Wolff & Samson, Christie’s political mentor and disgraced former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Two former assistant US attorneys, who worked with Christie during his tenure as US attorney for the District of New Jersey (2002–08) and then served in his administration, are enmeshed in it, including Michele Brown, who headed New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority; and Ralph Marra, currently the top lawyer for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. There’s Lori Grifa, a Wolff & Samson attorney and Samson’s chief political enforcer, appointed by Christie to head New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the Meadowlands Commission. And there’s Jon Hanson, a wealthy developer with close ties to Christie.
First planned in the late 1990s as a gigantic, Mall of America–style complex with a mind-boggling array of attractions including skydiving facilities, an indoor ski slope, a movie complex and the largest Ferris wheel in the United States, under Christie it has expanded even further into a project incorporating an indoor water park, an amusement park, a giant ice rink, an aquarium, a performing arts center and a facility for bungee jumping.
Leave aside, for the moment, whether or not such a project is needed in the most densely populated, traffic-clogged state, filled already with countless malls. The project, precariously financed and putting New Jersey taxpayers at risk, involves a stunning web of conflict-of-interest arrangements, at the heart of which—and representing nearly every side—is David Samson, Wolff & Samson, and their clients. He and his firm have ties to both the state and local government agencies that will provide tax supported bond financing. He has represented as counsel and overseen massive contracts for the company that will pull together private funds for the project as well, and it is still another Wolff & Samson client, Triple Five, which is actually building the project. Grifa, the Wolff & Samson lawyer, first played a key role for the state of New Jersey in getting it off the ground and then brought Triple Five, the builder, as a client to Wolff & Samson, where she works alongside Jeffrey Chiesa, who served as attorney general and chief counsel under Governor Christie before going back to Wolff & Samson.
Christie, who’s pushed hard to move American Dream forward, has strongly backed legislation that will allow the state to play an important behind-the-scenes financing role in it. His top political appointees have brought in new developers when others pulled out, and they have maneuvered to arrange state financing aid.
Particularly troubling is the likelihood that the complicated state and local bond-financing scheme they have developed will siphon off sorely needed tax revenues.
“The project crossed the line from a public policy point of view with the bonds,” said Dennis McNerney, a Democrat and the former county executive of Bergen County, where the project is located, in an interview with Christie Watch. “Democratic Governors McGreevey and Corzine had said there would be no public money involved with the Meadowlands mall, but Christie said, ‘You know what, it’s going to be public money.’” According to McNerney, the bonds have been approved both by Christie and by Kathleen Donovan, the Republican who is currently the county executive of Bergen County, though they haven’t yet been issued. “But the day they are there will be a loss of revenue for the taxpayers,” says McNerney.
At every step of the way Christie, his top aides, and Wolff & Samson were there to keep the ball rolling. Paul Ghermezian, a project executive for the company developing the site, gives Christie credit as prime mover. At an event in April, held with the governor to announce the revised plan for the Meadowlands complex, Ghermezian, looking over at Christie, said, “Governor, you were there, you sat in on the meetings, you pushed where you needed to push—you pushed us where you needed us to be pushed.”
When Chris Christie won the governorship in 2009, the long-stalled project—designed to be built on state-owned wetlands—was made a key focus of top officials in his administration, and Samson and his law firm took a major interest in getting it moving.
Samson and Christie have been close since the early 2000s. In 2002, the two men bonded when Christie was the US attorney and Samson was the state’s attorney general. In 2009, Samson served as counsel to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign, and later that year Samson ran Christie’s transition team, helping to select key appointees. Two longtime Samson associates and law firm members were given top roles in Christie’s administration, Grifa as head of DCA and the Meadowlands Commission, and Chiesa—who also served under Christie in the US attorney’s office—as Christie’s chief counsel and then attorney general.
Beginning in February (with “David Samson’s Tangled Web at the Port Authority”), Christie Watch has reported extensively on the Samson-Christie connection, even as Samson found himself caught up in Bridgegate and related scandals and was forced to resign as Port Authority chairman. Christie and Samson have a close, symbiotic relationship, and Wolff & Samson is inextricably tied to the Christie administration and its projects, vastly benefiting from lucrative contracts with the state, its bond sales, and as legal representative for numerous, multibillion-dollar projects tied to New Jersey and to the Port Authority.
Nothing illustrates that more profoundly than the maneuverings of both regarding the American Dream Meadowlands project.
Samson’s ties to the project go back to at least 2006, when Colony Capital took over financing responsibility for what was supposed to be a $2 billion project, which had been planned since the late 1990s as a destination mall complex. Construction started in 2002 when the real estate frenzy was in its prime and speculators bet that assets would continue rising in value regardless of problems with the project. But after sinking in hundreds of millions of dollars, the initial developer ran out of money. When Colony Capital stepped in, both Samson and Grifa were state lobbyists for the firm.
Colony Capital agreed to put together a $1 billion loan package, but when the financial crisis exploded in 2008 Colony’s gamble went bust, along with one of its prime investors: Lehman Brothers. Construction on the mall ceased in August 2009, but not before its looming hulk rose over commuters on the Turnpike. By then, it was the laughing stock of the region.
Enter Jon Hanson. Soon after his election in November 2009, Christie appointed Hanson, a wealthy real estate developer who led Christie’s political fundraising team and who was a member of the Samson-led transition team, to come up with a plan for the Meadowlands project which, by that time, had $2 billion sunk into it. Colony insisted that the project couldn’t go forward without state help in the form of tax-exempt bonds. Hanson was named by Christie to lead a commission on the future of the Meadowlands boondoggle, and in the Report of the Governor’s Advisory Commission On New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment, Hanson did indeed recommend that the project get state aid. Behind schedule and in need of at least $875 million, Christie got on board. “On Xanadu, you have essentially two choices you’re confronted with: Make it work, or tear it down.”
First, a developer willing to take it on needed to be found. Hanson and Grifa led the effort. Grifa, just appointed by Christie to DCA and to chair the Meadowlands Commission, had official responsibility for overseeing development in the area. Long associated with Samson, Grifa had started at Wolff & Samson in 1997, and in 2002 she served as Samson’s chief of staff when he was attorney general. In April 2011, Hanson and Grifa signed up a Canadian company, Triple Five, which had built the largest mall in the United States, Minnesota’s Mall of America, to revive the Xanadu fiasco. When the company proposed massively expanding the plan for the project, it received the blessing of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority’s general counsel, Ralph Marra. The NJSEA oversees the Meadowlands Sports Complex, where the American Dream project is, along with other sports and convention centers on state land. Like others in this saga, Marra had close ties to Christie. During the 2000s, Marra served as Christie’s top deputy in the US attorney’s office. In 2009, after Christie left the office to run for governor, Marra oversaw the massive Big Rig III investigation, timing its unfolding—which resulted in scores of arrests of leading Democratic local and state officials—to give Christie an election boost in his campaign against then-Governor Jon Corzine. Perhaps as a thank-you, Christie appointed Marra to the sports and exposition post. To be continued.
Tomorrow: How Christie and his cronies got the project funded—with the public’s money.
Read Next: Will the Tea Party actually ditch the GOP?
When I was in Brazil for those first days of the World Cup, I was—with many other journalists—tear gassed by military police. I saw sleek, urban-outfitted tanks in the streets and I felt concussion grenades send subsonic shrapnel crashing into my eardrums. I didn’t see the drones flying overhead, but then again, no one without a Hubble telescope is supposed to see the drones.
I also saw militarism that was less high-tech, and more of the traditional boots-on-the-ground variety. Several of the favelas—precarious communities of the poor that were once sanctuaries for both outlaws and revolutionaries—are under full-scale occupation. This has sparked protests by favela residents against the violence of living under constant police subjugation
The level of high-tech hardware on display is hardly different from what we have seen at previous World Cups and Olympic games. Gunships and missile launchers have over the last dozen years become as much a part of the scenery as the FIFA Fan Park and Olympic Village. The problem, though, is not really how the media has yawned past these kinds of post 9/11 security imperatives (although this is a problem). It’s the way that in too many host countries the militarization does not go away when the mega-events end. Instead, it becomes the new reality. If you buy a drone you are not, as a security official in London told me in 2012, “going to just put it back in the box.” Surveillance culture becomes normalized, and through the Trojan horse of sports, a fresh Orwellian reality is born.
Brazil’s leaders are unashamed of this overwhelming show of force. The state has expressed grave concern, at different times, about protesters, crime and terrorism. Tragically, if not predictably, they have also chosen to see protest as an act of crime and even an act of terrorism unto itself. I witnessed this repeatedly, with the effect of turning the World Cup host into, as one activist said to me, “a facsimile of the old dictatorship.”
Concern about protesters, crime and terrorism have all undoubtedly played a role in the security buildup, but Brazil has also built up its armed forces dramatically in recent years as a way to show the world that its new global economic might would be matched militarily. Yet the presence of such overpowering—not to mention high tech—weaponry raises a critical question: Who is arming Brazil? Who supplies—and profits—from their new normal?
The answer is found in Haifa, Israel, at two different multibillion-dollar weapons and electronics manufacturers: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems. Rafael is a for-profit company owned by the Israeli state, while Elbit is a private corporation. Elbit’s earnings are up dramatically, with its drone airplanes providing crowd surveillance during the World Cup. As Chief Executive Officer Bezhalel Machlis said in an interview with Bloomberg, “The intelligence-gathering electronic and optics technologies of Elbit and our Brazilian partners are perfectly suited for the homeland security challenges at these events.” The providing of high-tech militarism caused their second-quarter net income to “rise 30 percent to $50 million.” Bloomberg News wrote antiseptically that Brazil’s desire to increase purchases of Elbit’s weaponry was “given fresh impetus after the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June  prompted record numbers of people to take to the streets in protest at a range of issues including spending on state-of-the-art stadiums.”
As for Rafael, it was founded in 1948 by the newly established state of Israel to arm the country against those who once resided in its territory. Rafael has an even stronger foothold in Brazil than Elbit. As Flavie Halais, writing for Open Democracy reported last year, “Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has bought a 40 percent stake in Brazilian GESPI Aeronautics. Back in 2010, Brazil and Israel signed a security cooperation agreement, with news reports stating the agreement dealt specifically with the World Cup and Olympics. Since then, officials from both countries have met to develop partnerships for mega-events and Israeli security experts have given several conferences and workshops for Brazilian officials and members of the Municipal Guard.”
This flow of arms from Israel to Brazil has sparked a movement in Brazil led by the Frente em Defesa do Povo Palestino–SP (Front in Defense of the Palestinian People–São Paulo), which is composed of dozens of Brazil’s civil society organizations and unions, and is a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Last year they protested at the Latin American Aerospace and Defense fair in Rio attended by arms manufacturers from around the world all competing—with the help of scantily clad models—to arm Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics. The event was seen as a triumph for the thirty Israeli arms manufacturers who were, according to an insider,given special access to Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer and Secretary of Defense Celso Amorim.
“What Rafael, Elbit and Global Shield are doing is exporting the very tactics used on the Gaza Strip,” said one activist to me in Rio. “They are taking neighborhoods of poverty and anger and creating Gaza in the favelas of Brazil. The goal of anyone who sees themselves as a part of civil society should not be more Gazas.” From even the most basic humanitarian perspective, this is unassailable, particularly given the events of this week, as collective punishment, bombings and demolitions, have been the state response to the discovery of three dead Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. We should be figuring out how to demilitarize Gaza so the 1.8 million people who call that strip of land home have freedom of movement and opportunity without the constant specter of military incursion. Exporting the “Gaza security model” to the cities of the future is a recipe for dystopia. Using the World Cup—and our collective love of soccer—to create that new normal is both frightening and enraging. This sport, created and nurtured by the poor across the world, is now being played in exclusion zones under the watchful eyes of drones in the skies and boots on the ground. We may be rejoicing in the beautiful game right now, but we also need to fight to reclaim it.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA, the World Cup’s true bloodsuckers
Twenty-five years ago today, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. Controversial then and still volatile now, it has since taken its place among the greatest American films ever made. It has a lot to say (it was written directed by Spike Lee, so of course it does) about race, class, power, sex and community. Any number of moments could be the topic of their own essay. But we mostly remember this movie for one scene: the flying trash can.
It’s the end of the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself), the delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, just wants to get paid and go home. His friends, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem, won’t let Mookie’s boss, Sal, close up shop until he makes right what they feel is his mistreatment of them as patrons of his restaurant. (Buggin’ Out is mad that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” has no black faces on it, while Radio Raheem didn’t appreciate being told to turn down the music on his larger-than-life boombox). Tempers flare, words are exchanged (including the infamous n-word), and Sal takes a bat to Radio Raheem’s prized possession. “I just killed your fucking radio,” he says. Enraged, Radio Raheem lunges at Sal and the entire pizzeria breaks out into a brawl. When the police arrive on the scene, they apprehend Radio Raheem. Using his baton, one of the officers applies a chokehold that stops Radio Raheem’s breathing. The officers put his body in the back of squad car and drive away, leaving the neighborhood’s black residents to assume Radio Raheem is dead and the police will get away with killing him, as they’ve done so many times before.
Mookie watches all of this. Moments after taking it all in, he walks toward a trash can, removes the lid and trash, picks it up, runs toward Sal’s Pizzeria, screams “HATE!” and hurls the trash can through a window. A riot ensues.
“I think all of black America threw that can,” Lee told People in 1989.
Lee noticed something about the criticism his film was receiving, particularly from those white critics who thought it might incite race riots. “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police,” he said, “They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.” The property rights of a white business owner took precedence over the life of a black man. It’s in that context where small acts of rebellion, like Mookie’s throwing the trash can, come to represent all of the frustration, anguish, and rage that are products of having to live under a racist system. Did he “do the right thing?” What’s the “right” response to a society that refuses you humanity?
I ask that question while thinking about Ersula Ore. According to The Huffington Post, the Arizona State University English professor is being charged with “assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, refusing to provide identification when requested to do so by an officer and obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare” after being stopped by university police while walking on campus on May 20. Video of the incident from the police car’s dashboard camera shows Officer Stewart Ferrin slamming Ore to the ground while handcuffing her. According to Ore, the officer pulled up next to her and asked whether she knew the difference between a sidewalk and a road. She replied, “Do you always accost women in the middle of the road and speak to them with such disrespect and so rudely as you did to me?”
“He throws the car door open actually, is what happens, and he’s towering over me,” she told CNN, “He’s intimidating. I don’t know why he’s so aggressive.” Ferrin demanded that Ore produce her ID.
Ferrin: “Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID.”
Ore: “Are you serious?”
Ferrin: “Yes, I am serious. That is the law.”
Ore: “I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. Everybody has been doing this because it is all obstructed. That’s the reason why. But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over and ask me, ‘Do you know what this is? This is a street.’”
Ferrin: “Are you aware that this is a street?”
Ore: “Let me finish.”
Ferrin: “OK, put your hands behind your back.”
Ore repeatedly tells Ferrin not to touch her. He tells her she’s going to slam her. She responded, “You really want to do that? Do you see what I’m wearing?” He replies that he doesn’t care what she has on. Ferrin, true to his word, slams Ore to the ground, leading to “expos[ure of] her anatomy to all onlookers,” according to her lawyer. When she’s back on her feet, Ore kicks Ferrin.
A statement from ASU said that authorities “have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved.”
Did Ore “do the right thing?” I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the more pertinent question is why she was put in such a position to begin with.
This past Friday (June 27), the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and BAMcinematek hosted a screening of Do the Right Thing to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. In a videotaped appearance, President Barack Obama (he and first lady Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date) said, “…Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”
From the fictional Radio Raheem to the real life Ersula Ore, to all the black people who have been harassed, assaulted, and killed by police and vigilantes in between, it’s pretty clear America still can’t see itself in black bodies. And it doesn’t seem to want to try.
As soon as the word spread that justice Sam Alito had written the decision in today’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, it was clear that it was going to be bad. And, sure enough, the ruling, opposed by all three of the court’s women, chips away at the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate and, for the first time ever, it endows at least some for-profit corporations with religious rights. It is both a blow for women’s rights and the latest example of the way this court has inexorably expanded corporate power.
There are silver linings in the ruling, but they’re corroded. It applies only to closely held corporations—mostly family-held companies in which most of the stock is owned by five or fewer people. That means that the contraceptive mandate is still in place for most large corporations, even conservative ones like Walmart. In a post-decision conference call, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, was scathing about the decision, but she pointed out that the Court had left the “basic contraceptive provision in place and did not question that there is a compelling need for such health care for women in this country.”
Further, Alito made it clear that the ruling is narrowly focused on contraception. It doesn’t give employers carte blanche to discriminate against gay people on religious grounds, or to deny other sorts of medical care that might raise doctrinal objections. “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs,” it says. “Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”
That caveat might—might—mitigate some of the ruling’s slippery-slope potential. But the way the Court singles out women’s health care is dangerous and discriminatory. “It’s really a case of exceptionalism when it comes to women and to reproductive rights and to equality,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “Justice Alito goes out of his way to say that this decision is limited to just this case. Somehow the question of contraception is different from other forms of discrimination. Somehow the question of contraception is different from other forms of health care. We’ve all seen that playbook before.”
The anti-abortion movement has been very successful at separating abortion from other forms of routine medical care, stigmatizing the doctors who provide them and the women who seek them. We’re currently in the midst of a coordinated attempt to do the same thing to birth control. Right now, for example, the Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would, among other things, ban insurance coverage of the IUD for public employees and Medicaid recipients. However narrowly construed, today’s Supreme Court decision will only encourage such efforts, and that should worry all women, wherever they work.
There were undoubtedly justices on the most anti-labor US Supreme Court in modern judicial history who wanted to strip public-sector unions of their ability to collect dues from workers they represent.
But they were not quite prepared to strike the devastating blow that labor activists feared would be delivered Monday.
Since the High Court’s 2012 decision in Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000—which complicated the processes by which public-employee unions can engage politically—there has been a general sense that conservative justices were angling for an opening to gut the twenty-six state laws that require workers who benefit from union representation to pay dues. The case of Harris v. Quinn, in which a small number of Illinois homecare workers sought to avoid paying dues to the Service Employees International Union, seemed to create that opening.
But the Court’s conservative majority stopped short of making a ruling that would have allowed public employees to stop paying dues to the unions that negotiate contracts guaranteeing them higher wages and benefits, protect them from employer abuses and advocate in the legislative and political arenas on their behalf. In so doing, they allowed public-sector unions to remain vital forces in the majority of American states.
Make no mistake, however, the Court did so grudgingly.
Writing for the five conservative justices who made up the majority, Justice Samuel Alito let the eight homecare workers involved in the Harris case opt out of paying dues because the Court determined they were not “full-fledged public employees.” The majority (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) determined that, because the workers are hired by individual patients and work in private homes, they are not actually state employees—even though they are paid via Medicaid, and even though SEIU’s negotiations with the state yielded substantial improvements in the pay and benefits of the represented workers.
That dodge allowed a sharply divided court—where Justice Scalia surprised observers of oral arguments on the case with a line of questioning that seemed somewhat sympathetic to the arguments of the unions—to avoid making a sweeping determination.
It is important to recognize, however, that the Court’s decision is an ominous one for domestic workers and the unions that are speaking to represent them.
And Alito, who has emerged as the steadiest foe of labor rights on the Court, still seems to be looking for an opening to further undermine labor rights.
Alito ripped the Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that permitted states to require payment of union dues by represented workers, referring to the precedent as “questionable” and “anomalous.”
Translation: the Harris case wasn’t quite the right vehicle, but the majority would entertain a case they could eliminate vital protections for unions and their members—creating a circumstance where they would no longer have the resources to fully represent workers at the bargaining table, in the corridors of power and at election time.
“While the Court upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities, let’s be clear that working people, who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families, have taken it on the chin for years,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “Stagnating wages, loss of pensions and lack of upward mobility have defined the economic distress they have experienced. Today’s decision makes it worse.”
Weingarten is right.
While this ruling was certainly not as bad as it might have been, the threat of a Court decision that severely undermines public-sector unions remains. And that is a threat that has much broader ramifications, as public-sector unions have become key defenders of public services and public education in an era of funding cuts and privatization schemes.
Indeed, along with the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that was issued at the same time, the Harris decision provides a powerful reminder of the importance of elections this fall for US senators who could be asked to confirm one or more High Court nominees in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, SEIU activists and leaders pledged to redouble efforts to organize and represent Illinois homecare workers.
“They are trying to divide us and limit our power, but we won’t stop standing together for our families and our consumers,” Flora Johnson, a homecare provider from Chicago, said in a statement released by the union. “Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year. I know from experience that we are stronger together.”
SEIU president Mary Kay Henry added, “For our parents and grandparents to get the care they need to live at home, workers need a strong voice in a union. I know that Flora Johnson other SEIU members are determined to keep up the fight to end poverty wages and ensure quality care.”
This Supreme Court has made that work a little tougher. But an even slightly more anti-labor Supreme Court could make it dramatically more difficult. That argues for a response that combines serious voting and serious organizing.
“With a Supreme Court that is increasingly moving hand in hand with Wall Street and corporate interests to eviscerate our democracy,” says National Nurses United union executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “it’s a reminder working people can not count on the courts for justice, and must rely on our own stepped up activism for a more just society.”
Read Next: Michelle Chen on how the Supreme Court just undermined the gains made by home healthcare workers.
After carpeting their green rooms with neocon artists for weeks, the network Sunday shows have finally had someone on who’s saying what everyone else has been thinking. On ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos yesterday, Katrina vanden Heuvel told Bill Kristol to his face that if he wants the United States to intervene in Iraq so much, “you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”
Rarely, if at all, has someone put it so directly to Kristol on one of the Sunday talk shows, where the Weekly Standard editor has made quite a successful career for himself. But The Nation’s vanden Heuvel punctured the Sunday-show gentleman’s agreement that we’re all in this TV pundit business together—so, while you don’t have to be polite to one another exactly, if you want to speak truth to a bully’s blather, it’s best to do so indirectly and on tiptoes.
Instead, sitting just a foot from him, vanden Heuvel told Kristol what we’ve all been thinking, especially of leading chickenhawks like him: that he’s one of “architects of catastrophe” who deserves “accountability,” and that what America—and by implication him and the neocons—has done to Iraq is “a crime.”
The panel, including Matthew Dowd and Donna Brazile, was talking about presidential powers when Katrina bent the discussion:
For example, the president should go to Congress if he’s going to take military action in Iraq…. There’s no military solution to Iraq, and I have to say, sitting next to Bill Kristol, man—I mean, the architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives—there should be accountability.
If there are no regrets for the failed assumptions that have grievously wounded this nation—I don’t know what happened to our politics and media accountability, but we need it, Bill, because this country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.
Kristol, his smirk fading, shot back, “That’s a very cute line.” (Would he have said that to a man?)
“But it’s real,” vanden Heuvel said. “Millions of Iraqis have been displaced…. What we have done to that country is a crime.”
“What we have done to that country?” Kristol said. “President Bush made mistakes, he was punished for those mistakes electorally as he should have been in 2006, and perhaps in 2008. He also had the courage to order the surge in 2007, which made up for those mistakes, and left things peaceful.”
It’s not clear if Kristol was trying to pin all the “mistakes” on Bush and thereby pretend that vanden Heuvel wasn’t talking about him at all.
After more back and forth, Matthew Dowd, who worked for George Bush and has a son who served two tours in Iraq, in effect seconded Katrina and obliquely slammed Kristol, “We all know, everybody—most everybody knows—that this has been a colossal waste of money…and the blood of men and women of our country,” he said.
“We don’t fix the first mistake by continuing to make a second mistake." Anyone who’s an enlisted person, he continued, “will tell you that the only way this can be solved is you have commit troops there for 100 years. …I, for one, don’t think we should send another man or another woman, over there in a mistake that was made in the first place.”
Watch it here:
Read Next: The Editors against intervention in Iraq
This Sunday, Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on ABC’s This Week and challenged Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, on Iraq and American foreign policy. Vanden Heuvel called Kristol one of the “architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives.” She added, “This country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”
The Supreme Court reached into the living rooms of homebound people with disabilities today and weakened the institutional backbone of public sector unions. At the intersection of public service and private capital, the case Harris v. Quinn was ostensibly about the cost of union dues, but hinged on a legal theory that could ultimately cost the labor movement far more.
Today’s five-four decision pushed public sector unions a step closer toward death by attrition, by eroding their ability to finance themselves. The ruling specifically blocks unions from collecting mandatory dues from Medicaid-funded personal health aides in Illinois.
Though the decision was not as broad as labor groups had feared, it strikes hard at the concept of “fair share”—the idea that workers in a union shop should be expected to contribute to the running of the union. The Court has previously upheld this concept on the premise that because everyone in the workplace benefits from the collectively bargained contract—including negotiated wages, work rules, safety standards and benefits—financially supporting that representation should be mandatory.
The workers in Harris aren’t typical government bureaucrats; they are homecare assistants with Illiinois’s Medicaid-funded in-homecare program, serving thousands of people with disabilities. After being authorized to vote to unionize with SEIU years ago, this workforce became a relatively recent addition to Illinois’s public sector. In many other states, home health attendants not only lack union coverage; their jobs are precarious, low-paid and disproportionately done by women and people of color.
The plaintiffs represent a group of workers involved in a later vote that ultimately rejected the union. They brought the suit on the principle that fair share, or what conservatives call “forced unionism,” when imposed on workers regardless of whether they personally favor a union, violates their free speech rights. This argument folds into a broader assault on public sector unions led by the group backing the plaintiffs, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF). The group advocates for “right to work” laws (already in place in twenty-four states) that undermine labor by barring “closed shop” unions that provide blanket union representation. In its sweeping focus on public-sector unionism (specifically targeting SEIU and AFSCME), the Harris plaintiffs aimed to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which upheld collective bargaining rights and dues collection for public-sector unions.
In oral arguments, the NRTWLDF argued that by forcing workers to pay dues, public sector unions were effectively forcing them to engage in political activity, and, as SCOTUS Blog explains, that collective bargaining over wages and benefits is tantamount to endorsing “the union’s public policy ambitions.” (Critics point out that collective bargaining is standard procedure for a large, organized workforce, and besides, political union activity is governed and funded separately.)
The decision, penned by Justice Alito and generally reflective of his anti-labor views, could have gone broader by invalidating fair share for all public sector workers. Today’s ruling, as Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog summarizes, was not that extreme and did not completely overturn Abood, though it left the door open to do so in a future case: “today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence.”
Ultimately the court ruled more specifically against fair share for what it oddly termed “partial public employees,” pointing out that the homecare workers were unique because their public service job provides personal care under a federal program, and “are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State.” In contrast to other civil servants, “the customer has virtually complete control over a personal assistant’s work,” so the union’s power is limited. But in a portent of future anti-union rulings, the majority outlined what it saw as outstanding constitutional problems in Abood, contending that the earlier precedent “failed to appreciate the conceptual difficulty of distinguishing in public-sector cases between union expenditures that are made for collective-bargaining purposes and those that are made to achieve political ends.”
In her dissent, Justice Kagan argued sharply that the mixed ruling created an unnecessarily complex new category and weakened the ability of a program to manage its labor relations rationally. “The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought necessary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work,” Kagan wrote. But at the same time, “the majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-homecare program.” Abood had provided “a stable balance—consistent with this Court’s general framework for assessing public employees’ First Amendment claims—between those employees’ rights and government entities’ interests in managing their workforces.”
The ruling claws back on the real material gains that collective bargaining won for homecare workers. Outside of Illinois’s state program, workers in the sector typically earn around $20,000 per year and suffer tremendously stressful, often exploitative working conditions. Only last year did they officially become eligible for federal minimum wage and overtime rules, following a hard-fought campaign by domestic workers’ advocates to end the Labor Department’s longstanding exemption for homecare providers.
Illinois health aides, by contrast, made real progress after joining SEIU as direct employees of the state. Part of a national campaign to unionize the sector, the workers collectively bargained for higher wages and labor protections typical of union workers but long denied to other health aides, including health benefits and training.
The Harris ruling has troubling parallels with today’s other bombshell decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the religious right attacked contraceptive coverage under the healthcare reform law. Both cases misleadingly pit collective rights against a reactionary concept of private liberty. Intriguingly, both today’s decisions relate to the rights of women at work. And both relate to public health for the most vulnerable. Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, said in a statement that the Harris decision “serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children.”
Though the ruling was not as extreme as right-wing activists had hoped, the right-to-work movement successfully used private rights as a legal cudgel against core public institutions. The court has stepped on the rights of women, workers, the poor and people of color, to hand more of the public trust over to corporate hands.
Read Next: Rhode Island workers fight for a living wage
It’s ugly in Syria and Iraq (and, as we shall see, the Obama administration seems to want to make the war in Syria worse), but there’s been some good news out of Syria this week: the joint US-Russian plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has worked—to the chagrin, no doubt, of the hawks and neoconservatives who said it wouldn’t. We’ll wait for their apology, right after they apologize for the war in Iraq.
Here’s an excerpt of the press release from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was charged with the task:
A major landmark in this mission has been reached today. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavour. … The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.
In an editorial titled “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” The New York Times says:
Less than a year ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his forces were sporadically using chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the civil war. Today, the stockpile that he grudgingly admitted to under international pressure is gone. … President Obama’s critics excoriated the deal, but they have been proved wrong. The chemical weapons are now out of the hands of a brutal dictator—and all without firing a shot.
A feature article in The Washington Post makes it clear that the incredibly difficult logistics of locating, packing up, transporting (through a war zone) and loading onto ships of all XXX was done with the cooperation of not only the United States and Russia, plus the Syrian government, but Iran, too:
The Iranians, [Sigrid Kaag, who heads the joint mission of the United Nations and the OPCW] said, provided technical advice. “They obviously lived through a terrible chemical weapons experience themselves,” when the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein made liberal use of chemicals during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. “They see themselves as quite committed to eliminating the use of chemical weapons anywhere. “They’ve also been helpful to us in contacts with Syrian authorities . . . in amplifying our messages, validating our approach,” Kaag said.
Some of the idiots who said it “couldn’t be done” include Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, former Senator Jim Talent of the Heritage Foundation, neocon scribbler Peter Feaver, right-wing Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the reliable neoconservative skeptics at the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Iraq war architect Douglas Feith, the usual suspects at the “thinktank” called the Foreign Policy Initiative (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman) and, well, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, weirdly, Secretary of State John Kerry seems intent to sending more aid to the supposed moderates of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. The right strategy, given that the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gobbling up territory in both countries, would be halt aid to the anti-Assad forces, since that would free up Assad’s military to go after ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. But, as the Associated Press reports, the Syrian “moderates” are hopelessly disorganized and outgunned. The Los Angeles Times reports “deep divisions, clashing rivalries and considerable disarray within the Syrian National Coalition.” Are you listening, Mr. Kerry? It’s time to surrender in the Syrian war.