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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Struggle for Water Rights in Detroit is Showing How to Fight (and Beat) Austerity

Detroit water

Protesters rallying outside Detroit's water department in May 2014. (KTLA)

The austerity agenda as it plays out on the ground in American cities is often so relentless in demanding cuts in public services that it is easy to imagine that it cannot be upended. And that goes double for Detroit, where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has given his appointed “emergency manager” —rather than local elected officials —control over critical decisions regarding city operations.

But that does not mean that austerity always wins.

Last week, protests by Detroiters and allies from across the country focused local, national and international attention on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s program of shutting off water service for thousands of low-income families that have fallen behind in paying bills. On Friday, religious leaders and community activists were arrested after blocking trucks operated by the private contractor that was responsible for the shutoffs. At the same time, a mass march filled the streets of downtown Detroit with protesters arguing that the most vulnerable citizens of a city hard hit by deindustrialization ought not be further harmed by the loss of a basic necessity that the United Nations deems a human right.

Members of National Nurses United and the Michigan Nurses Association declared the city to be “a public health emergency zone.” And Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, told the crowd, “Water should be available to everybody,” Conyers said. “It shouldn’t be something that only people who can afford it can get.”

On Monday, the Water and Sewerage Department announced that it was suspending water shutoffs for 15 days. The department says it is merely "pausing" to do more education about what it refers to as a “collection campaign” to get payment for unpaid bills from residents of a city that is itself in the midst of a bankruptcy process. Activists with the People's Water Board coalition say," We have a little over two weeks to make (the halt to shutoffs) permanent."

There is actually a great deal that must be done. "The city of Detroit’s fifteen-day moratorium on water shut-offs, announced (Monday) nearly four months after the shut-offs began, is welcomed but inadequate relief for a city in which thousands of residents either have lost or face the continuing threat of losing access to water," announced the ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, both of which have argued that the water shutoffs violate both civil and human rights.

That focus on civil and human rights has been central to what has developed into a powerful challenge to to a specific manifestation of austerity in Detroit— a challenge that could serve as a model for other fights on the local, state and national levels.

The decision to suspend shutoffs came just three days after the arrests and the mass march brought the issues into clear focus—as was duly noted in local media. " The decision comes after the city has put into national spotlight for a policy that has been framed as a human rights issue for low-income residents who can’t afford to pay their bills," The Detroit Free Press explained Monday. " It also was announced on the same day that a group of Detroit residents filed a lawsuit in the city’s bankruptcy case asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to restore water service to residential customers."

Last week, Judge Rhodes told a representative of the Water and Sewage Department at a hearing that, “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city and also a lot of hardship.

The judge added that, “It’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now.”

Those statements came before Friday’s march and rally, which garnered significant media attention and featured an appearance by actor and water rights activist Mark Ruffalo, who said " the American people have got to know that this is wrong, and that it’s happening here and that it should be stopped."

At Friday's rally, Jean Ross, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, read an NNU declaration that warned, “We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics. We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”

That message echoed the demands of local groups such as Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board and the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network and Moratorium Now! – all of which are supporting the lawsuit – for an end to the shutoffs that have left some families without water while forcing others to sacrifice other necessities in order to pay what critics decry as excessive water fees.

Friday’s protests in Detroit also addressed the broader question of how cities, states and the nation should respond to financial turbulence. At several Detroit events over the weekend (when Netroots Nation met in Detroit) this writer joined Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, in discussions that focused attention on the unfairness of austerity responses that put too much pressure on low-income families while paying too little attention to the role of financial speculators. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that a recent Demos study concluded, “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”

Ellison, the author of legislation to create a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation, told Friday’s rally, “Instead of shutting peoples water off why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations? We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”

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Making that connection is important. What is happening in Detroit is part of a much broader scenario, in which decisions about how to pay bills and cover costs are too frequently made with little attention to human needs.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, when those human needs are brought into focus, the policymakers start to pay attention— and, sometimes, they start to change the policies.

 

Read Next: Michelle Chen on the sex worker rights activist that China barred from attending the International AIDS Conference .

Elizabeth Warren Offers Democrats More Than a 2016 Candidacy—She Offers a 2014 Agenda

Elizabeth Warren

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

DetroitElizabeth Warren says she is not running for president in 2016—despite the enthusiastic “Run, Liz, Run” chanting that erupted when the senator from Massachusetts took the stage at this year’s Netroots Nation conference. But Warren came to Detroit with the platform on which Democrats should be running in 2016.

And in 2014.

Warren is frequently described as a populist. And she can certainly frame her message in populist terms, as was well illustrated by the strongest statement of her Friday Netroots Nation address: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail, but a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested. The game is rigged.”

But as the Rev. William Barber, of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement, reminded the conference in a Thursday evening keynote address, populism is not an ideology or a program unto itself. Populism can go left or go right. Populism can be cogent or crude. What matters is the vision that underpins a populist appeal.

What Elizabeth Warren brought to the Netroots Nation gathering was a progressive vision that is of the moment—a vision rooted in the understandings that have been established in the years since the “Republican wave” election of 2010. As Republicans in Congress practiced obstructionism, and as an increasingly activist Supreme Court knocked down historic democratic protections, Republican governors aggressively attacked labor rights, voting rights and women’s rights. Citizens responded with rallies, marches and movements—in state capitals, on Wall Street, across the country. They developed a new progressive vision that is more aggressive and more precisely focused on economic and social justice demands, and on challenging the power of corporations and their political allies.

Warren’s Netroots Nation speech incorporated what has been learned, and what has been demanded. She made a connection between the movements and the political process that has tremendous significance for the coming election cycles.

Warren’s Democratic Party has not fully recognized that connection—not by a long shot—but Warren gets it. And the response of the thousands of activists, organizers and communicators gathered at the Netroots conference suggests that “the base” is ready to rally around it.

So what is it?

“This is a fight over economics, a fight over privilege, a fight over power,” says Warren. “But deep down it’s a fight over values. These are progressive ideas; these are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.”

They are specific ideas, rooted in recent struggles and using the language of those struggles to form an agenda:

1. “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

2. “We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth. And we will fight for it.”

3. “We believe that the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality. And we will fight for it.”

4. “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage. And we will fight for it. We will fight for it. And let me add to that: We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”

5. “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt. And we are willing to fight for it. We are willing.”

6. “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. And we will fight for them. We will fight.”

7. “We believe— only I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work. And we’re willing to fight for it."

8. “We believe that equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in all of America. And we’re willing to fight for it.”

9. “We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform. And we are willing to fight for it.”

10. “And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it."

The specificity of the agenda matters as much as the promise to fight.

Unlike too many prominent Democrats—including Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke the day before Warren at Netroots Nation—the senator from Massachusetts is both passionate and precise.

“I think the views she expresses are not necessarily accepted Washington views on things. There are different ways of being a fighter,” says Erica Sagrans, a key organizer of the “Ready for Warren” movement that was a huge presence at Netroots Nation. “There are some people talking about similar policy positions, but the difference is the way she’s doing it.”

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Warren does not get personal. She does not mention other Democrats—except the Senate candidates she campaigns for, including progressive populists such as South Dakota’s Rick Weiland, who hailed Warren as “a tremendous supporter, a tremendous help” to his determined run.

Warren's focus is on a set of essential issues and on bold responses to them. She says things that need to be said—about the agenda and about the attitude that might get Americans excited about not just a particular campaign (for president in 2016 or for US Senate seats in 2014) but about a political agenda that extends beyond individual elections.

“The game is rigged. And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much. So the way I see this is we can whine about it, we can whimper about it or we can fight back. I’m fighting back!”

Read Next: James Carden asks if the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy could have been avoided.

Standing Up to Disaster Capitalism in Detroit

Detroit pensions

Retirees protest near the Federal courthouse in Detroit, July 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DetroitAs Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his appointed “emergency manager” were steering Detroit into bankruptcy last fall, the public-policy think tank Demos released a groundbreaking report on the city’s financial circumstance—and how to address it.

Demos recognized that deindustrialization, high unemployment and an exodus of residents had left Detroit uniquely vulnerable: “the current bankruptcy filing is the result of a severe decline in revenue, caused by the 2008 financial crisis, and cuts in annual state revenue sharing starting in 2011. Risky Wall Street deals further jeopardized the city’s public finances by threatening immediate payments that the city could not afford.”

Now, as the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is drawing international criticism for shutting off water service for low-income families, activists are asking why the people are being forced to pay while the Wall Street banks live large. On Friday, members of the National Nurses United union and local, state and national groups will march and rally in downtown Detroit to say the priorities are out of whack.

Their message is direct: “Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!”

As a writer who has covered the debate about Detroit for several years now, I welcome and embrace this recognition that what’s happening in this city has a lot to do with the warped priorities of our current age of austerity.

It really is time to put things in perspective.

While politicians and pundits have tried to blame pensions, public servants and public services for the city’s financial challenges, the Demos report noted that “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”

The author of the report, Wallace Turbeville, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, founder of the Kensington Group and well-regarded expert on infrastructure finance and public-private partnerships, was blunt in his assessment of the sources of the city’s challenges and the proper response.

“Misguided and irresponsible decisions by politicians over the years, often at the urging of Wall Street, have funneled wealth out of Detroit’s neighborhoods, and enriched financial institutions and corporations in the process,” said Turbeville, a Demos fellow. “If Detroit wants to come back from this and rebuild a strong economy, it needs to reverse that trend and start prioritizing the people who live here over the interests of Wall Street bankers.”

Unfortunately, under an emergency-management scheme that puts political appointees rather than elected officials in charge, Detroit has not been very good at “prioritizing the people who live here.”

This reality has been highlighted by the Water and Sewage Department’s mass water shutoffs.

The Detroit Water Brigade, a local activist group that is striving to assure families do not suffer for lack of water, reports that the shut-off strategy “will effect over 120,000 account holders over a three-month period (June-September 2014) at a rate of 3,000 per week. This accounts for over 40 percent of customers who are using the Detroit Water system and has been dubbed a violation of human rights by various organizations. 70,000 of those accounts are residential accounts which could amount to anywhere from 200,000-300,000 people directly effected.”

Food and Water Watch, the national nonprofit health and safety watchdog group, says, “This is not sanitary and violates the human right to water and sanitation. In fact, with improper disposal of waste, these shut-offs pose serious health concerns.” The international Blue Planet Project complains that “in order to make the utility attractive to investors, lower-income households are being forced to pay exorbitant rates for their water and sewer services or see their access cut. Water rates have risen in Detroit by 119 percent in the last decade. With unemployment rates at a record high, and the poverty rate at about 40 percent, Detroit water bills are unaffordable to a significant portion of the population.”

Sorting out Detroit’s financial troubles will not be easy, and the process will not go quickly. But there should be an understanding that the people who live in Detroit need protection, not pressure from bill collectors and proponents of privatization. As Turbeville notes, “This program [of shutting off access to water] is morally indefensible and contrary to basic principles of shared responsibility. It punishes Detroit’s citizens for a complex set of circumstances that have interacted to produce an economic crisis much more intense than the effects of the Great Recession in other cities. It also reinforces the myth that the people of Detroit cannot govern themselves without discipline from the rest of the state.”

Detroit residents do not need punishment and discipline. They need resources.

Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has pointed to ways in which the federal and state governments could ease the pressure in the short term. But in the long term, there will be a need for real revenues to aid the people not just of Detroit but for all Americans.

Those revenues can and should come from Wall Street speculators.

NNU and its allies are arguing that a “Robin Hood Tax”—a small fee on financial transactions—should be enacted as a vehicle to “tax hedge funds and (to assert that) the rest of the financial sector should pay their fair share to clear up the mess they helped create.”

Specifically, they are backing the “Inclusive Prosperity Act” (HR 1579), a measure proposed by Representative Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, to use a tax on Wall Street transactions and to gain revenue needed to meet human needs.

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The list of backers for the march is long. In addition to NNU, it now includes the International Union United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW AFL-CIO), the Michigan Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, Netroots Nation, the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO, the Michigan Nurses Association, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, We the People of Detroit, Moratorium Now!, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the People’s Water Board, the Detroit Water Brigade and dozens of additional labor, religious and community groups.

People are coming to recognize that it is indeed time to start prioritizing the people who live in Detroit over the interests of Wall Street bankers.

 

Read Next: Agnes Radomski and John Thomason on cities that are taking the lead in the fight for raising the minimum wage

Martin O’Malley’s Right: The Immigration Debate Must Respect ‘Essential Human Dignity’

(Reuters/Eric Gay/Pool)

Martin O’Malley is speaking about immigration policy in smart, reasonable and moral terms. This distinguishes the two-term governor of Maryland and potential 2016 presidential contender from most politicians these days.

O’Malley’s approach is not a radical one. But his emphasis on fairness and human dignity, as opposed to predictable political positioning, is refreshing. And the governor’s fellow Democrats would be wise to consider the wisdom not just of his words but of the tone in which he is speaking.

O’Malley does not deny the serious practical and political challenges that have arisen as thousands of children from Central America have crossed into the United States in recent months. He know that there are a lot of issues to be resolved with regard to the particular circumstances of these children—and with regard to broader need to reform an ill-defined and frequently dysfunctional approach by the United States to immigration policy. But the children who have entered the United States are children. They come, in many instances, as desperate refugees fleeing extreme violence, poverty and dislocation in countries where the social fabric is rapidly fraying because of destructive globalization schemes, corruption and a horrific maldistribution of wealth.

The reality of why immigrants flee their own lands must, by legal and ethical standards, be taken into consideration.

So O’Malley has broken with prominent members of his own party—and with Republicans who, like Arizona Senator John McCain, propose to deport “planeloads of these young people”—to say that the response to the plight of the children must be a humane and knowing one.

“We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley told reporters at last week’s National Governors Association meeting in Nashville. “I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity.”

The governor remarks drew immediate criticism from conservatives who make little secret of their determination to politicize border issues. The Republican-linked group America Rising portrayed O’Malley’s position as a left-wing stance—a “hit from the left” at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leader in 2016 Democratic presidential polls.

But O’Malley’s response is grounded not in the language of left or right, or even of predictable political positioning. Instead, he is placing the debate in a moral, and American historical, context. In media interviews over the weekend, the governor calmly explained, “I believe that it is contrary to everything that we stand for as a people to try to summarily send [refugees] back to death, whether it’s in famine; death whether it’s in the middle of the ocean; death whether it’s in a war torn area or death in a place where gangs are the greatest threat to stability and the rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere."

Media outlets were quick to suggest that O’Malley’s position places him at odds with the Obama administration—which is seeking $3.7 billion in funding to respond to the challenges posed by the arrival of tens of thousands of children in the region along the United States border with Mexico. The Huffington Post noted that “much of that money will be spent on carrying out deportations.”

O’Malley argues that legal representatives of the children and family members should be afforded an opportunity to challenge the threat of deportation. “They should have their ability to make their case for protection and asylum in the United States,” explains the governor.

O’Malley’s remarks provoked a response from White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who on Monday told reporters that, under the president’s plan, children facing credible threats would likely be “granted humanitarian relief.”

The back-and-forth provided a reminder that any serious immigration debate is more nuanced than the headlines suggest. But the broader point ought not be missed. By speaking in humanitarian terms, O’Malley is helping to reframe the discussion, and forcing fellow Democrats to clarify their positions.

The governor’s focus and tone is significant. And it is distinct from that of his potential 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, who in a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said the United States must “send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”

“They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are,” added the woman who leads in polls that ask Democrats who they would like to have as their next presidential nominee. While she acknowledged that “there are concerns whether all of them should be sent back,” Clinton added, “I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families.”

The problem with Clinton’s calculus, of course, is that many of the children were sent to the United States from countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, by families that have legitimate fears for the safety of the youngsters. That’s what O’Malley means when he expresses concern about a policy that would “send children away [from safety in the States] and send them back to certain death.”

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This is not the first time that O’Malley has spoken up for immigrants. Indeed, his record provides an indication that when a Democrat offers a humane and thoughtful response to immigration issues, voters respond positively.

When he was running for re-election in 2010, O’Malley defended immigrants as “new Americans”—a reference that was seized on by his Republican opponent. But even in that “Republican wave” year, the governor was easily re-elected. Against a popular and well-financed Republican, former Governor Robert Ehrlich, the Democrat won 56 percent of the vote.

In 2011, O’Malley signed state “DREAM Act” legislation, opening access to in-state tuition at state colleges for many children of immigrants who has arrived in the United States without documentation. That created an outcry and a Republican legislator led a drive to force a statewide referendum vote on the issue in 2012.

O’Malley campaigned for the DREAM Act, raising money for an Educating Maryland Kids coalition that supported the legislation. “The DREAM Act says that students can be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, provided they pay state taxes, graduate from a Maryland high school and commit to legalizing their status as soon as they are eligible,” the governor declared. “This issue is about fairness and basic human dignity for all.”

The emphasis on “fairness and basic human dignity” was spot on. The pro–DREAM Act campaign adopted the slogan “It’s Right and It’s Fair.” Maryland voters agreed. On November 6, 2012, they decided by a 59-41 margin to keep the DREAM Act that O’Malley and the coalition had championed.

Read Next: Christy Thorton and Adam Goodman explain how the Mexican drug trade thrives on free trade.

Against Austerity in Detroit: ‘Water Is a Human Right’

 A mother and child sit on the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Water is a human right.

The United Nations formally “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

A new European Citizens Initiative declares, “Water is a public good, not a commodity.”

Former President Jimmy Carter writes, “Clean water is a basic human right. Without it, the other rights may not even matter. Human societies cannot be healthy, prosperous and just without adequate supplies of clean water. What could be a more basic right than clean water?”

So why are children in Detroit marching through that battered city’s downtown with signs reminding officials that “Kids Need Water to be Healthy” and “Kids Without Water Can’t Brush Their Teeth”?

Why are religious leaders being arrested when they seek to prevent the shutoff of water services to families who cannot afford to pay bloated bills?

The answer is that, thanks to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit is again providing a stark example of what happens when right-wing officials implement an unthinking and inhumane austerity agenda. Since Snyder imposed “emergency manager” control on Detroit last year— effectively disempowering local elected officials and putting the governor and his appointees in charge—the city’s residents have faced plenty of threats from unelected “managers” who are determined to balance the books of a financially strapped city on the backs of its hardest-hit residents.

But none of those threats has been so extreme, or so dramatic in their illustration of the crisis created by austerity policies, as the rush by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and its for-profit contractors to shut off water to some of the poorest families in America.

Under pressure from the governor’s emergency manager, the DWSD has so far this year shut off the water for approximately 17,000 households and small businesses that owed on their bills. And that’s just the start. In a city that has been brutalized by deindustrialization— where the official unemployment rate is 14.5 percent and where the real rate is dramatically higher; where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line—water rates have spiked by almost 120 percent over the decade. Even as the city has gone through a bankruptcy crisis, rates have continued to rise at a dramatic rate.

Families and small business owners have struggled to keep up, but today an estimated 138,000 accountsare past due— including those of roughly 90,000 low-income families. Many families have paid their bills by cutting back on other necessities, but many others are struggling— while, at the same time,Snyder’s managers are pocketing hefty checks and toying with privatization schemes that have the potential to enrich private, out-of-town interests.

The Detroit officials who have ordered the shutoffs say they are simply creating pressure to get bills paid, and argue that they are trying to do so in a responsible manner. But environmental writer Martin Lukacs counters:

The official rationale for the water shut-downs—the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions collapses on inspection. Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wing’s hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users are also owing—a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.

The targeting of Detroit families is about something else. It is a ruthless case of the shock doctrine—the exploitation of natural or unnatural shocks of crisis to push through pro-corporate policies that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance.

Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has called on the DWSD to stop the shutoffs, making the case that “in the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should ever go without safe, clean water.”

The congressman has aligned with the Detroit Water Brigade, a grassroots movement that is organizing to stop the shutoffs and to get water to families. They’ve drawn international support. Canadians living across the river in Windsor have been organizing to deliver water to Detroiters.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has made it plain that “[d]isconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” And the Blue Planet Project, a global movement to promote water justice is petitioning President Obama (and Governor Snyder) with a message that “[t]he U.S. government is obligated to respect the human right to water and sanitation, yet the thousands of water cut-offs currently taking place in Detroit, Michigan, is a violation of this basic right.”

Conyers says the Obama administration and federal officials have options to act. In particular, he is “calling on President Obama to make available some of the $200 million still apportioned for Michigan from the Hardest Hit Fund, a reserve made available for relief from impacts of the Great Recession, for water service relief.” Additionally, the senior congressman is “requesting that US Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell formally designate the water crisis a public health emergency eligible for federal relief.”

But Detroiters have over the past several years come to be recognize that the plight of their city, even as it is assaulted by the governor’s austerity measures, is often neglected by federal officials.

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It will be harder to neglect Detroit in coming days, however, as Netroots Nation brings its ninth annual gathering (and Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren) to the city. And National Nurses United, the activist union that has been promoting a “Robin Hood” tax on financial speculators as an alternative to austerity cuts, is working with dozens of local, state and national groups to organize a July 18 “Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street!” march and rally.

The registered nurses plan to “declare a public health emergency and demand a moratorium on the unprecedented water shutoffs in Detroit.”

Their message is a blunt challenge to austerity:

Gov. Snyder is allowing the tragedy to continue with an endgame of privatizing the public water department—the latest in a string of gifts to Wall Street. The historic transfer of public wealth to private hands overseen by Snyder has cost the public jobs, pensions, vital public safety services, and civic jewels like Olmstead Island Park.

Now they have come for our water.

Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!

Read Next: Katrina vaden Heuvel asks why Detroit is denying its citizens water.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Just Backed an Amendment to Overturn ‘Citizens United’

US Supreme Court

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Constitutional amendments are often proposed but rarely advanced to the stage of serious debate. What moves any meaningful amendment from mere paperwork to serious consideration is the popular will of the great mass of Americans. And the popular will of the great mass of Americans have been abundantly clear since the United States Supreme Court struck down barriers to corporate control of democracy with its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Sixteen American states and roughly 600 communities have formally told Congress that the Constitution must be amended to make it clear that corporations are not people, money is not speech and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections that are defined by votes rather than dollars.

Once dismissed even by many reformers as an appropriate yet impossible initiative, the movement for a “Money Out/Voters In” amendment to the Constitution has grown so strong—and been proven to be so necessary—that it has now achieved what most organizers of amendment movements only imagine.

On Thursday, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to endorse an amendment that would undo the damage done to democracy by a series of High Court decisions—and to restore reasonable limits on financial contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections.

Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor and the senior member of the Senate, framed the vote with a declaration that “I have served in the Senate for nearly 40 years and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for nearly ten. I have always believed that amending our Constitution must be subject to the highest measure of scrutiny. It is something that should only be done as a last resort. But when the voices of hardworking Americans continue to be drowned out by the moneyed few, and when legislative efforts to right this wrong are repeatedly filibustered by Republicans, more serious action must be taken.”

Leahy’s position was echoed by committee Democrats who joined him in backing an amendment that declares:

SECTION 1: To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.

SECTION 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.

SECTION 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.

That’s more cautious language than many activists would like to see. And it may be that, as the amendment movement grows in strength, and as the congressional debate evolves, a final amendment will feature more specific language regarding all the issues that arise when the courts and Congress extend special rights to corporations.

But no one should doubt the significance of the fact that, in four short years, a grassroots movement has changed the calculus of the money-in-politics debate. With little money and almost no major media coverage, the movement started by groups such as Move to Amend and Free Speech for People, and advanced by People for the American Way, Common Cause and Public Citizen has staked out bold positions and made overly cautious Democratic officials and even a few Republicans move toward them.

“This vote is an important step forward for the movement to take back our democracy from billionaires and corporations,” declared Marge Baker, the executive vice president of People for the American Way, which was part of a broad coalition of groups that delivered petitions signed by two million Americans asking the committee to back a Twenty-Eighth Amendment proposal based on an approach initially advanced by Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.

“In the wake of cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon, the voices of everyday Americans are being overpowered by the money of special interests,” said Baker. “That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. People understand that. Americans have made it clear that all of our voices should be heard. We look forward to a full Senate vote on this important piece of legislation.”

With Judiciary Committee backing and forty-five cosponsors, the Udall amendment as it currently stands has traction in the Senate. There is a dawning recognition that, as Udall says, “the Supreme Court has left us one option for real reform. We must pass an amendment that will restore integrity to our elections, so that a billionaire in one state cannot have more influence than working families in the other forty-nine. That is not the equality envisioned by our founders, and is in direct contradiction to the kind of democracy they intended to create.”

Public Citizen president Robert Weissman echoed that sentiment in a statement Thursday.

“The amendment is crucial to strengthening and restoring the First Amendment, which has been weakened and distorted by a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings,” explained Weissman. “Specifically, the amendment would overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and its misguided holding that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as real, live, breathing human beings to influence election outcomes. It will overturn McCutcheon v. FEC, with its holding that the only justification for limits on campaign donations is to prevent criminal bribery. And it will overturn Buckley v. Valeo—the case holding that ‘money equals speech’ and imposing Supreme Court-made constitutional obstacles to imposing limits on what can be spent on elections.”

But that does not mean that the amendment will move easily through Congress. Senate Republican leaders, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, have grown increasingly militant in their opposition to efforts to reduce the overwhelming political influence of corporations and billionaire donors such as the Koch brothers. During Thursday’s Judiciary Committee session, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and his fellow Republicans trotted out all the talking points that have been developed as part of a cynical campaign to prevent limits of election spending focusing especially on the fantasy that corporations and wealthy Americans have a right to shout down everyone else.

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Because sixty-seven votes are required to secure Senate approval of an amendment, majority support—even if it is bipartisan—will not be sufficient. So the organizing work that got the proposal this far will have to continue. That work is likely to face growing opposition from powerful interests. “We’ve now seen the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers take notice of the overwhelming public demand for far-reaching action to restore our democracy. In the coming weeks, we’ll see those defenders and advocates of the 21st Century Gilded Age leverage their power and money to oppose a constitutional amendment that threatens their grip on American politics,” argues Weissman.

But, he adds, “The tide of history is against them, however. The day is not long away when Americans will celebrate the 28th Amendment and the return of control over our elections and our country to We the People.”

 

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Teachers to Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Please Quit

Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Given the choice between Republicans who are explicitly committed to doing away with collective bargaining rights and Democrats, public-sector labor unions tend to back Democrats at election time.

But that does not mean that unions are always satisfied with Democratic Party policies—or with Democratic policymakers.

This is especially true with regard to education debates. There are certainly Democrats who have been strong advocates for public schools. But there are also Democratic mayors, governors, members of Congress and cabinet members such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who have embraced and advanced “reforms” that supporters of public schools identify as destructive.

Duncan’s policies were so appealing to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—who explicitly praised the “good things” the education secretary was doing—that education writer Dave Murray wrote a 2012 article headlined, “Could a Romney Administration include Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary?”

Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as a leading champion of public education, refers to Duncan as “one of the worst Secretaries of Education”— arguing that “Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality.

Teachers are pushing back against Duncan and those policies.

When 9,000 National Education Association members from across the country gathered in Denver last week, they endorsed a resolution that declares:

The NEA Representative Assembly joins other educators and parents in calling for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.

Duncan is not about to resign. Instead, he dismisses the resolution with a typically glib DC-insider dig about how he is “trying to stay out of local union politics.”

But the NEA statement is not a “local” resolution.

This is a call for the resignation of a Democratic secretary of education from the nation’s largest professional employee organization—a union with 3 million members working from the pre-school to university graduate program levels of public education in 14,000 communities across the United States.

Past resolutions urging Duncan’s resignation failed to gain traction with NEA representative assemblies. But this year, the delegates determined that it was time for the education secretary to go.

Even if Duncan does not seem to take the call seriously, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress should.

For a number of years now, teachers, parents and students have expressed mounting frustration—and appropriate anger—with the focus of Duncan and other education policymakers on standardized testing that they say makes evaluation a bigger priority than actual education.

“For us, one thing is clear: before anything is going to get better: It’s the Testing, Stupid,” the incoming president of the NEA, Utah teacher Lily Eskelsen García, told delegates to the representative assembly. “Better yet, it’s the stupid testing.”

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In her speech, Eskelsen García decried what she referred to as a “phony” accountability system that she said hurts students and demeans the teaching profession.

Members of the California Teachers Association, who submitted the resolution urging Duncan to quit, have been especially blunt in their calls for Duncan to exit the cabinet.

Upset both with the education secretary’s emphasis on standardized testing and with Duncan’s response to a recent court ruling that eliminated workplaces protections for teachers, the CTA says:

Authentic education change only comes when all stakeholders— teachers, parents, administrators and the community—work together to best meet the needs of the students in their school or college. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are part of the solution. And it’s time we have a Secretary of Education who understands and believes that.

 

 

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Left-Right Coalition of 80 House Members Wants Congress to Check and Balance Iraq Intervention

Resistance to a new intervention in Iraq has helped forge some bipartisanship in a gridlocked Washington. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

There are many ways to express patriotism. Yet there remains a common sense that the best expressions extend beyond ideology and partisanship to embrace the noblest ideals and deepest truths—of the American experiment.

In this time of deep division and money-driven hyper-partisanship, can that higher common ground still be reached?

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has been the steadiest antiwar voice in the US House, and Congressman Scott Rigell, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve before representing Virginia as a very conservative Republican, have found it. They may disagree on many, perhaps most, issues. But Lee and Rigell are in absolute agreement that President Obama and Congress should resist “calls for a ‘quick’ and ‘easy’ military intervention in Iraq.”

Lee and Rigell recognize that while the rise of sectarian violence in Iraq is a serious concern, it cannot become an excuse for the casual redeployment of US troops to the country where so many Americans and so many Iraqis have already perished.

“We do not believe intervention could be either quick or easy. And, we doubt it would be effective in meeting either humanitarian or strategic goals, and that it could very well be counter-productive,” write Lee and Rigell in a joint letter to President Obama. “This is a moment for urgent consultations and engagement with all parties in the region who could bring about a cease fire and launch a dialogue that could lead to a reconciliation of the conflict.”

The letter, which eighty House Democrats and Republicans have signed, urges the president to be restrained in his own response and to accept respect the further restraint of the system of checks and balances outlined in the Constitution.

“As you consider options for U.S. intervention, we write to urge respect for the constitutional requirements for using force abroad,” it reads. “The Constitution vests in Congress the power and responsibility to authorize offensive military action abroad. The use of military force in Iraq is something the Congress should fully debate and authorize. Members of Congress must consider all the facts and alternatives before we can determine whether military action would contribute to ending this most recent violence, create a climate for political stability, and protect civilians from greater harm.”

Deep caution with regard to military intervention has a deep history in the United States of Thomas Jefferson, who warned that America should “have nothing to do with conquest,” and James Madison, who declared, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”

On July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams used the anniversary to describe the thinking of the nation with regards to its place in the world—and the concerns that underpinned that thinking.

Adams’s statement remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire.

Above all, Adams reminded Americans that while they have a responsibility to speak up for global democracy clearly and without apology, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoil of other lands. Echoing the warnings of George Washington, the great diplomat warned that such entanglements would ultimately undermine liberty in the United States—as they would require of America economic and political compromises that were inconsistent with domestic democracy.

After reading aloud the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, Adams said of America:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. [But] 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. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit…”

The genius of the American experiment, said Adams, was found in the revolutionary spirit of 1776, which rejected the corruptions of empire—the worst of which stem from the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other countries.

“Her glory is not dominion, but liberty,” Adams said of the United States. “Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”

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Adams concluded his address by urging Americans to renew their acquaintance with the revolutionaries against colonial meddling and empire who founded the American experiment, to celebrate their example and to: “Go thou and do likewise!”

Barbara Lee and Scott Rigell are doing likewise, and the House members who have signed their vital letter are wise to recognize the danger that arise when the United States involves 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.

 

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When the Republicans Really Were the Party of Lincoln

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (AP Photo)

The Republican Party was, for a vital century, the major American political party that most frequently aligned with the cause of civil rights. The invariably realistic Frederick Douglass explained, “I knew that however bad the Republican Party was, the Democratic party was much worse. The elements of which the Republican Party was composed gave better ground for the ultimate hope of the success of the colored man’s cause than those of the Democratic Party.”

Well into the twentieth century, many leading Republicans took seriously their party’s history and the responsibility that went with it. They worked to earn the votes of African-Americans and all supporters of equal justice under law, declaring in the party’s 1960 platform that

[t]his nation was created to give expression, validity and purpose to our spiritual heritage—the supreme worth of the individual. In such a nation—a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—racial discrimination has no place. It can hardly be reconciled with a Constitution that guarantees equal protection under law to all persons. In a deeper sense, too, it is immoral and unjust. As to those matters within reach of political action and leadership, we pledge ourselves unreservedly to its eradication.

True to their word, top Republicans in Congress provided advice, counsel and support that was essential to the development and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While Democrats struggled with their party’s internal contradictions on the issue—deferring far too frequently to the demands of Southern segregationists who held powerful committee chairs in the House and Senate, and who commanded machines that delivered needed electoral votes—Republicans demanded action. “When President John F. Kennedy failed to submit a promised civil rights bill, three Republicans (Representatives William McCulloch of Ohio, John Lindsay of New York and Charles Mathias of Maryland) introduced one of their own,” noted The New York Times in recalling the great struggles of the era. “This inspired Mr. Kennedy to deliver on his promise, and it built Republican support for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

When the key votes in the House and the Senate came fifty years ago, Republicans were significantly more supportive of the Civil Rights Act than were Democrats. The measure passed the House on a 290-130 vote, with support from 61 percent of House Democrats (152 in favor, ninety-six opposed). But Republican lawmakers gave it 80 percent backing (138 in support, just thirty-four against).

The critical test came in the Senate in June, 1964. Republicans aligned with northern Democrats to break the segregationist filibuster. Then, 82 percent of Republican senators backed the final passage of the measure, as opposed to two-thirds of Senate Democrats.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he is said to have told an aide, “We [Democrats] have lost the South for a generation.”

But that statement did not just apply to the Democrats. Republicans were, necessarily, part of the change equation.

The change began to develop quickly. Two weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the Republican National Convention in San Francisco nominated for the presidency Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the handful of Republican senators who had opposed the measure.

Two months later, a key Democratic foe of civil rights, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, switched his party affiliation and began working to remake the Republican Party so that it could appeal to Southern white voters. Thurmond was an essential backer of the campaigns of Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. His influence on Nixon, who developed a so-called “Southern strategy” to help realize Thurmond’s vision of a transformed political map, was immense. It extended deep into the decision-making process for the selections of a vice president and Supreme Court nominees.

At the same time, civil rights advocates within the Republican Party either left or were defeated. House minority leader Charles Halleck, the Indiana Republican who worked closely with the Johnson administration to pass muscular civil rights protections was deposed the following January by his own caucus. John Lindsay, who was rejected in his own party’s 1969 New York City mayoral primary (winning instead on the Liberal Party line), became a Democrat in 1971. His ally in the 1963 civil rights push “Mac” Mathias was so unsettled by the GOP’s move to the right that he threatened to run for the presidency in 1976 as a progressive independent. Others champions of civil rights, such as California Senator Thomas Kuchel (the Republican floor manager in the fights to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), New Jersey Senator Clifford Case and New York Senator Jacob Javits, would eventually lose primaries to conservative challengers.

The senators who were rejected did not lose merely because of their civil rights advocacy but because of their Lincolnesque vision of a progressive Republican Party that, in Kuchel’s words, “brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many.”

That philosophy was replaced by a more rigid and divisive politics. “The Republican Party that had been ceased to be sometime in the 1980s, and the modern party—the radical conservative party—not only has little or no interest in honoring its history, it is actively hostile to it,” Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of the brilliant 2012 book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party explained to Todd Purdum.

Purdum, who has written his own fine book on the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked the anniversary of the signing of the act with an article headlined, “Why the Civil Rights Act Couldn’t Pass Today.”

Purdum is appropriately critical of both major parties, but his most damning statement is an observation that “the Party of Lincoln became the party of white backlash, especially in the South.”

Thurmond was certainly not the only Southern Democrat to switch his party affiliation in the period following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act—Jesse Helms made the change in 1970; Trent Lott, an aide to a segregationist Democratic congressman, ran for the House as a Republican in 1972; Virginian Mills Goodwn Jr., whom The New York Times described as “a pillar of his state’s policy of ‘massive resistance’ to the racial integration of schools” during his years as a Democratic state legislator, was elected governor as a Republican in 1973. But Thurmond was the most prominent, and the most influential of the party switchers. Over time, he evolved his rhetoric away from the crude language of his 1948 States Rights Democratic Party presidential run and his Senate filibusters to a more politically palatable critique of “big government.” The senator would eventually say that “if I had been elected president in 1948, history would be vastly different. I believe we would have stemmed the growth of Big Government, which had begun with the New Deal and culminated with the Great Society.”

That statement conveniently neglected the fact that Thurmond and his allies in 1948 did not just talk about the size of the federal government. The same States Rights Democratic Party platform that declared its opposition to “the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions” also announced, “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”

Thurmond left the Democratic Party the first time, in 1948, because the Democrats were becoming more like the Republicans on the issue of civil rights—as both parties moved, slowly but surely, toward a recognition that Hubert Humphrey was right when he told the 1948 Democratic National Convention it was time “to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, enlightened Democrats and Republicans competed to be the party of civil rights. And the Republicans were in the lead through much of the period—encouraging Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate in the modern era, to observe that the Republican Party “was, I believe, much more progressive than the Democratic Party.”

Republicans were not the party of Thurmond, they were explicitly and proudly the party of Lincoln. That 1960 GOP platform read:

Equality under law promises more than the equal right to vote and transcends mere relief from discrimination by government. It becomes a reality only when all persons have equal opportunity, without distinction of race, religion, color or national origin, to acquire the essentials of life—housing, education and employment. The Republican Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln—from its very beginning has striven to make this promise a reality. It is today, as it was then, unequivocally dedicated to making the greatest amount of progress toward the objective.

The tragedy of the Democratic Party through much of its history was an unwillingness to stand strong against its Southern wing and to clearly align itself with the cause of social and economic justice. The tragedy of the Republican Party is that when Democrats began to do the right thing, key figures in the GOP welcomed Thurmond into its fold and began to craft not just a “Southern strategy” but a politics of reaction. There were plenty of Republicans who resisted the trend at the time, and there have been plenty of Republicans since (notably former Congressman Jack Kemp and former Secretary of State Colin Powell) who have sought to broaden the party’s focus and appeal.

But as one of the great Republican advocates of civil rights, John Lindsay, noted when he left the GOP in 1971, “Today the Republican Party has moved so far from what I perceive as necessary policies…that I can no longer try to work within it.”

John Avlon, the longtime speechwriter for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has since become a prominent advocate for centrist projects such as the “No Labels” movement, wrote several years ago: “The Republican Party was right on civil rights for the first one-hundred years of its existence. It was right when the Democratic Party was wrong. Its future strength and survival will depend on rediscovering that legacy of individual freedom amid America’s essential diversity. To win in the 21st century, the Party of Lincoln needs to start looking like the Party of Lincoln again.”

This is true.

It is also true that Republicans have a right to reflect proudly on the role the GOP played in securing approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This anniversary belongs to both parties—to Democrats who recall Johnson’s leadership, to Republicans who recall the role played by congressional Republicans.

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Unfortunately, the Republican Party that has spent much of its energy in recent years promoting restrictive Voter ID laws and that is currently entertaining a telling debate about Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s outreach to African-American voters in last month’s runoff election fight, often finds itself at odds with the legacies of Lincoln and the Republicans who championed civil rights in the mid-1960s.

“There’s also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” Powell said on NBC’s Meet the Press last year. “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities.”

Powell recommended that his party “take a very hard look at itself.” In particular, the Republican Party should take a very hard look at its past—and it should embrace that past.

 

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Court Allows Unions to Keep Collecting Dues From Workers They Represent—for Now

Today's US Supreme Court ruling undermines, but does not cripple, public sector unions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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.

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“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.

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