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Laura Flanders | The Nation

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Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

What a Difference Other Candidates Make

Haven’t read Lee Fang’s excellent expose on the lobbyists controlling the Presidential Debate Committee? You should. Then imagine what these debates would be like if things were very different. For one thing, there might be more parties’ candidates included.

Thanks to Democracy Now!, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party have been able to take part in three virtually expanded debates. On no occasion was the contrast greater than in the foreign policy debate Tuesday night. While the word clouds over the Obama/Romney debate screamed “crippling, kill, world leader, Israel,” the debate over at Democracy Now! kept coming back to international law, climate change, morality and human rights.

Take the first segment. To Bob Schieffer’s question about Libya, terrorism and US policy in the Middle East, Mitt Romney applauded the president: “We’re going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done.” The president appreciated the recognition. “I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaeda.”

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, on the other hand, had this to say:

“It’s very clear that there is blowback going on now across the Middle East, not only the unrest directed at the Libyan embassy, likewise at the embassies really across the Middle East, including in Egypt. We are seeing in Afghanistan our soldiers are being shot at by the police forces that they are supposed to be training in Afghanistan. We’re seeing in Pakistan that 75 percent of Pakistanis actually identify the United States now as their enemy, not as their supporter or their ally. And, you know, in many ways, we’re seeing a very ill-conceived, irresponsible and immoral war policy come back to haunt us, where United States foreign policies have been based, unfortunately, on brute military force and wars for oil.”

Rocky Anderson, presidential candidate of the Justice Party added this:

“We’re like the bully that never got counseling, and we keep wondering, why don’t they like us? We invaded Iraq and occupied that country. It was completely illegal. Two United Nations secretaries-general declared that it was illegal. It was a war of aggression, and it was all done on a pack of lies. Now, we aggravate the situation by keeping bases in so many other nations, including Saudi Arabia, bolstering these tyrants and, at the same time, engaging in direct, unmanned drone strikes in at least four sovereign nations, killing, in the process, hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women and children. That is the policy failure: our belligerence, our efforts to control, to dominate and to make certain that we will always have that control over the resources in these nations. That’s what this is all about…”

Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson declined to take part.

For democracy to flourish, we need not only a corporation-free debate committee, we need a way to break through the monopoly of the two-party system. That problem’s only gotten harder as the wealth gap has grown and the cost of competing for office in this country has skyrocketed. What’s the number-one security threat facing American democracy? If last night’s debate is anything to go by, it’s the narrow range of policy alternatives on basic issues brought to us by Big Money in poliitcs.

For more on why our election system needs radical change, check out these commentaries from pro-democracy activists James Rucker co-founder of Color of Change and the New Organizing Institute’s Ashindi Maxton. The Why We Care series continues this week with John Nichols and Robert McChesney and Bob Edgar of Common Cause.

For more post-debate rundowns, check out Robert Dreyfuss on how Obama won—and lost—the debate

Ashindi Maxton: America's Founding Inequality

From the founding of the republic, inequality has been built into our country’s DNA. As Ashindi Maxton, a former fellow at the New Organizing Institute, sees it, the first step toward a more just society is to recognize the pervasive nature of that inequality and confront it head-on.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC continues to be hugely unpopular. A poll taken again this year showed Americans opposed unlimited campaign spending by corporations or unions by a margin of two to one. Still, our corporate media doesn’t come close to expressing how deeply people feel about money in politics. Perhaps that’s because our money-mad media feed at the same corporate trough as the candidates.

To fill the gap, we’ve cut a series of short interviews with pro-democracy activists in which they talk not just about what’s wrong but why Citizens United moves them to act. Check out the others in this series of short videos on money and politics—with among others, Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and James Rucker of Color of Change, and feel free to share, record your own, comment. These interviews were originally recorded in the spring of 2011 by GRITtv for Free Speech For People.

For more on citizens against Citizens United, check how a group of San Francisco activists stood up—by lying down—to corporate money in politics.

My Country, My Choice [Video]

Fed up with political ads? You might still like this one. Timely, from the Agenda Project Fund, this ad features twenty-eight women asking politicians: If you don’t trust me with my body, why should I trust you with my country? Good question.

For more on the power of women voters in this election, check out Bryce Covert on Mitt Romney's flip-flopping on equal pay and reproductive rights. And sign up for Feminist Roundup, The Nation's weekly newsletter featuring feminist content, here.

Freedom of Beach: Dump 'Citizens United'

With rigged debates, pay-to-play races and a money-mad media that feeds at the same corporate trough as the candidates, what’s a person to do to send a message in today’s America?

San Francisco taxi driver Brad Newsham decided to get down and if not dirty, then at least sandy. This Saturday, with 1,000 like-minded people, he lay his body down on a San Francisco beach and spelled out “DUMP CITIZENS UNITED!” in huge human letters, complete with exclamation mark.

The enormously unpopular Supreme Court ruling may not get much visibility in the televised debates, but the message sent by 1,000 bodies on a beach was visible from miles away to anyone traveling through San Francisco airspace.

Is this what’s left of our democracy? Freedom of beach? Not quite. The action this Saturday was part of a collaboration between Newsham and The Other 98 Percent, with a slew of groups (including Common Cause, CREDO Action, Amend2012, Free Speech for People and Public Citizen) which are all working hard to pass Measure G, a city ballot initiative which like myriad others around the country calls on Congress to reverse the Citizens United vs the FEC ruling.

Still, our censored and servile media debate don’t come close to expressing how deeply people feel about money in politics. To fill the gap, we’ve cut a series of short interviews with pro-democracy activists, in which they talk not just about what’s wrong, but why Citizens United moves them to act.

Check out the first two, with The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy (originally posted here) and feel free to repost, record your own, talk back. These interviews were originally recorded in the spring of 2011 by GRITtv for Free Speech For People.

For more on Citizens United, check out Lee Fang on why Saudi businesses can now influence U.S. elections

So You Want a New Economy? Six Questions for the Presidential Candidates

“The old economy is not coming back. We’ve got to build a new one.” That’s what Bill Clinton told the Democratic National Convention last month. But Clinton, with his signing of NAFTA and repeal of Glass-Steagall, bears much responsibility for speeding that economy’s dive off a deregulated cliff.

Indeed, Clinton is a good argument for not leaving the building of any “new economy” to American presidents. Still, those who are experimenting right now with new models for production based on new relationships to labor, communities and the planet won’t be able to change the economic playing-field without meaningful help from government.

Instead of looking to the same old economic strategies and players—very large corporations—to get us out of the mess they helped create, government needs to “act different,” David Levine of the American Sustainable Business Council told me this summer: “What we need now is not just more talk about supporting small businesses, but new principles and new, transparent rules applied to big and small alike.”

The American Sustainable Business Council is a partnership of more than fifty business associations that claim to represent hundreds of thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs pushing for a new direction.

To move things along, they’ve drawn up this short list of questions that need to be asked—and answered—by the men now running for president.

1. What role can government play to help support an economy, which builds business, grows jobs and reduce the impact and costs of short profit that creates untold economic, social and environmental costs to our economy and society?

2. What specific actions will you take and what specific policies will you push that would support innovative business approaches which can revive the American economy and make us a world leader from safer chemicals, and products to clean technologies and energy production?

3. Right now, there are many subsidies and loopholes in place that encourage business practices that damage our economic, environmental and our social fabric. What can be done to allow for a fair and truly competitive market?

4. Tax cuts reduce funding for government and increase the deficit. Make your case on the tax cuts for the wealthy, which started in 2001. If you want to keep them, what evidence is there that they have created jobs or grown the economy? If you want to let them expire, what’s your evidence that that will help the economy or employment?

5. American government has a strong history of supporting innovation in business. In your view what are the opportunities to support the overall growth of cleaner, healthier technogies and products, which the American public/consumer is demanding?

6. Many people believe that giant corporations and the wealthy own Washington, with lobbyists and campaign assistance. Explain what you will do to improve the present campaign finance system and level the playing field for policy-making so that all voices especially the small and medium-sized businesses are heard.

For more on issues that need more exposure in the debates, read Bryce Covert on the curious omission of the word "women" during the first presidential debate in Denver.

Another Victory for Resistance: Restaurant Workers Win Settlement From Star Chef

Score another victory for resistance. After thirty-one workers sued his acclaimed restaurant Del Posto, celebrity chef Mario Batali has agreed to a $1.15 million settlement.

The employees are members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’s organization, whose two-year battle with Batali has included boisterous protests outside of his fine-dining restaurant in West Chelsea.

While refusing to admit guilt, Batali management said in a statement for reporters: “B & B Hospitality Group is proud to share that we have come to an amicable resolution with the ROC and look forward to working with ROC-NY to continue to foster and improve mutually beneficial relationships with our team.”

ROC’s suit, brought in federal court, charged that workers were discriminated against and deprived of tip money and overtime. The settlement includes an agreement to expand the restaurant’s paid sick days and vacation policies and to institute a promotions policy and cultural sensitivity training for management.

“Mario Batali has actually done the right thing,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC-United, the national network of which ROC-NY is a member. She continued:

As a result of workers standing up and saying "we’re being discriminated against" a chef that was very abusive was fired; there are new policies in place to help workers move up the ladder in Mario’s restaurants; he’s also agreed to work with ROC to promote what we call the “high-road profitability" in the industry…Workers standing up can lead to victory and change.

Stand up and sue. Some might say that’s strategy enough. The settlement with Batali was ROC-NY’s tenth resolution of a workplace justice campaign in their decade of operations, winning a total of more than $5 million for aggrieved workers. But Jayaraman and her colleagues go further. Founded after September 11, 2001, by workers, many of whom had been employed at the World Trade Towers’s restaurant Windows on the World, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) has grown into a national organization with 8000 low-wage restaurant worker members in eight locations. They bring suits and protest, produce reports, partner with “high-road” employers and train members for career advancement. They are also launching a major initiative to involve restaurant-goers.

The nation’s 10 million restaurant workers are among the country’s lowest-paid employees, laboring mostly without protections or benefits for a median wage of $9 an hour. The legal minimum wage for tipped workers (like restaurant workers) has stood unchanged at $2.13 since 1991. Lawsuits are great, says Jayaraman,

But at the same time there’s got to be broader change because going restaurant by restaurant, we’re not going to win. There are ten million restaurant workers in America and over a million restaurants in America; we need to see some policy change. And for those small mom and pop restaurants, change is better when it happens across the board rather than restaurant by restaurant. We are not asking people to stick their neck out and pay a much higher wage; instead we want the floor to be lifted for everybody.

Consumers have a role to play too. “if we care about organic, sustainable or locally sourced or anything else that impacts our health and our dining experience we have to consider sustainable labor practices in restaurants as a part of sustainable food.”

To help the hapless consumer, just out for a romantic bite, ROC-U has created a national diners’s guide. (An iPhone app will be available this fall.) Using the guide, diners will be able to pick “high road” from “low-road” eateries. Get your copy here.

Below, you can read a rushed transcript my entire conversation with Saru Jayaraman, last week, in which we talk about minimum wages, movements and the joys of running a worker co-op. Early next year, Jayaraman is coming out with a book, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Everyone Should Know About the People Who Feed Us, from Cornell Press. ROC’s is a new model of organizing, along the lines of what’s been powering the National Domestic Workers United. There’s a lot in both groups’s strategy of broad community engagement that traditional unions could learn.

Transcript:

Laura Flanders: You have a book coming out in February from Cornell Press, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Everyone Should Know About the People Who Feed Us. What does everyone need to know?

Saru Jayaraman: We need to know that the ten million restaurant workers in the United States that touch our food every time we eat out, are the lowest paid workers in America, and that ninety percent don’t have access to benefits like paid sick days, which means that two-thirds of them, according to our research, cook, prepare and serve food while sick. And so the incredibly unsustainable wages and benefits of this industry lead to unsustainable food and unsustainable dining experiences for us so we need to know that if we care about organic, sustainable or locally sourced or anything else that impacts our health and our dining experience we have to consider sustainable labor practices in restaurants as a part of sustainable food.

What kind of wages are we talking about?

The median wage for restaurant workers is about $9 in the U.S. Seven of the ten lowest paid jobs in America are restaurant jobs. The two lowest paying jobs in America, lower than every other type of occupation—farm workers, every other type of occupation—are restaurant workers. So, we’re talking about a minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13, and anything above that for lots of people all over the U.S. is completely dependent on tips. And what that means is that we as consumers are basically paying the wages of this incredibly wealthy and growing industry—we’re subsidizing this very large profitable industry and paying its workers wages.

How did these wages get to be so low? And when was the last time they went up?

In 1991, that’s twenty-one years ago, the minimum wage for tipped workers went up from a $1.85 to $2.13, and they have never increased since then. The reason is that in 1996 the National Restaurant Association, with Herman Cain who was then their head lobbyist, struck a deal with the Democrats in congress saying we will not oppose the overall minimum wage continuing to rise as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen forever and so it has. It’s really just simply the matter of the power of the National Restaurant Association over Congress.

Do any of the bills that are right now in Congress address this question of the tipped workers’ wage?

Yes, we had a tremendous victory this year, which is that we have been working towards for several years with congresswomen Donna Edwards on a bill called the Wages Act that would increase the tipped minimum wage from what it is now to seventy percent of the regular minimum wage. Well, the big victory was that Democratic leadership, George Miller in the House, Tom Harkin in the Senate decided to introduce a minimum wage bill that for the first time in twenty-one years includes this great new piece that congresswomen Edwards which is an increase to the tipped minimum wage so that it is seventy percent to the regular minimum wage. So it’s the first time in twenty-one years.

Is there any chance of that going anywhere?

We think so, we think we have a real shot but it all depends on us the consumers.

Tell me more about that.

So, we’ve heard from Congress that we need to see a groundswell to show popular demand for an increase to the minimum wage. The stranglehold that the Restaurant Association has over Congress is such that we as consumers need to lift up our voices alongside workers to counterbalance that tremendous power that the Restaurant Association has and there’s so much that we can do. So we’ve launched a multi-year consumer engagement campaign to kind of prove that consumers do care about these issues. We know that consumers care about local produce, locally sourced organic, sustainable. We think that most consumers would also care about sustainable labor practices if only they knew the stories and the data of the ten million restaurant workers who are living under these conditions nationwide.

So what can consumers do?

We’ve created this national diner’s guide. It came out last year. We are putting out an updated version and iPhone app this December, and it includes the minimum wage, paid sick days and internal mobility practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America, and also those of good restaurants that are trying to do the right thing and provide good wages and good working conditions. We’ve also created these tip cards, and what we are asking people to do at the end of their meal is to use the tip card, either go up to management at the end of the meal and say, "I had a great meal, but I see that you don’t provide paid sick days in this guide or maybe you do, I don’t know, do you? And I’d like to see you do better as a consumer. As a consumer it’s important to me that you do better. Not only is it important to me to have free-range chicken, I want to see the minimum wage for the tipped workers go up. I want to see you provide paid sick days."

A lot of restaurant owners will say, look we’re not some huge corporation, we’ve got narrow margins also, we don’t want to put people out of work, we’re doing the best we can do. If you raise the minimum wage we’re the ones who are going to be laying off workers.

I would say a couple of things. First that hasn’t been proven true in other states by the data. So there are seven states in the United States where the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage are the same. Tipped workers do not receive a lower minimum wage. They include the largest restaurant industry in the country which is California. In California there are all kinds of restaurants: small mom-and-pop restaurants, big, large national chain restaurants. They all are doing fine, and in those states where the tipped minimum wage has gone up there has never been any proof of any job loss in any kind of restaurant. So when you’ve got wages going up across the board, a level increase for all restaurants, it doesn’t actually lead to job loss. Everybody manages to pay more. And it’s partly because when you put more money in restaurants workers pockets, they actually spend more in their own industry. Restaurant workers tend to consume more and tip better. So I think putting more money in general into American’s pockets, particularly in this economy, will actually help the restaurant industry than actually hurt it.

Let’s talk strategy. If there are labor violations, which is part of what you charge, why not bring a lawsuit rather than this big campaign?

First, yes, we have won some victories. We just won a victory against exploitation and discrimination in Mario Batali’s restaurants. Mario Batali has actually done the right thing, has claimed to want to do right by his workers and I think he really believes it and wants to. As a result of workers standing up and saying we’re being discriminated against a chef that was very abusive was fired. There are new policies in place to help workers move up the ladder in Mario’s restaurants. He’s also agreed to work with ROC to promote what we call the “High Road Profitability” in the industry.

So yes, I think workers standing up can lead to victory and change in the industry. We’ve got another lawsuit against the Darden Restaurant Company, which is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. They own Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grill Steakhouse, their workers have come forward and claimed wage theft and discrimination issues, and they also demanding an increase to that ridiculously low wage of $2.13 and access to paid sick days.

Yes, these campaigns make a real difference and consumers can help and lawsuits and campaigns let companies know that there will be consequences for unsustainable labor practices. But at the same time there’s got to be broader change because going restaurant by restaurant, we’re not going to win. There are ten million restaurant workers in America and over a million restaurants in America; we need to see some policy change. And for those small mom-and-pop restaurants, change is better when it happens across the board rather than restaurant by restaurant. We are not asking people to stick their neck out and pay a much higher wage; instead we want the floor to be lifted for everybody.

Finally, your organization ROC United came out of the tragedy of 9/11. A lot of the workers were people who had been from Windows on the World restaurant Trade towers. You started a restaurant in New York, Colors, that is marking its tenth anniversary this year. It’s a co-op, now is that a worker antagonism-free environment?

[Laughs]. No, Colors is a cooperatively owned and it’s grown. We actually now have a Colors, not only in New York, but also in Detroit and we’re opening up a third Colors restaurant in New Orleans early next year and as any democratic institution it has had its growing pains for sure. There’s no antagonism-free environment, and I want to say there’s no perfect employer and we at ROC don’t expect anybody to be perfect, we just expect everybody, including Colors, to continually strive to be better, to continually strive to provide better more sustainable practices and an environment where workers feel that they are treated with dignity and respect.

So how are conflicts resolved at the worker-owned cooperative different from other restaurants?

Well, in a co-op workers have to come together and decide together how, for example, does the menu need to be changed to be affordable? Do we need to have more locally sourced, affordable items on our menu? And when you have workers coming together to solve these conflicts make these decisions they feel more invested in the solution, but I will say even apart from Colors, there are plenty of “High Road Partners” we have across the country. Restaurant owners that involve their workers in these kinds of decisions and it results in better dining experience for everybody. Workers are more invested in their craft, and the food is better and the service is better as well.

What can people do if they want to get your tip cards and more information about ROC?

They can go to our website, www.rocunited.org. Excitingly they can also purchase the book via our website Behind the Kitchen Door and that will be really critical because the book is really part of the movement driving the issues to the forefront of the public’s attention. There will be a series of short films coming out with the book so people can get involved. So use the tip cards, read the books, watch the films. We’re creating a new consumer organization, they can join the organization. There’s plenty that people can do to get involved.

From restaurant workers to students, check out Allison Kilkenny's roundup of other recent resistance success stories.

Chris Hedges and Larry Gibson: 'Days of Destruction' [VIDEO]

Larry Gibson, the West Virginia activist who built a movement from his will to save a mountain, died Sunday from a heart attack while working on his home. He was 66 years old and had become the face of the fight against mountaintop removal. Gibson makes one of his last appearances in Chris Hedges’s and Joe Sacco’s new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He toured Hedges and Sacco around his community and described what’s happened to the land:

“Living here as a boy I wasn’t any different than anybody else,” he said. “I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world, with nature. I could walk through the forest. I could hear the animals. I could hear the woods talk to me. Everywhere I looked there was life.… Now there is no life there. Only dust.”

When Gibson moved back to his family home on Kayford Mountain after being forced into retirement at General Motors, mountaintop removal was just gearing up. Thirty years later, 500 mountains across West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky have been stripped of trees and flattened. The constant explosions in one typical week in West Virginia, report Hedges and Sacco, equal the cumulative power of the blast over Hiroshima. The human toll from coal—from the emissions of dust, not to mention working in the mines—stands at 24,000 people a year lost to coal related diseases. Gibson told Hedges and Sacco: “That’s eight times bigger than the World Trade Center. Nobody say anything about that… Coal kills, everybody knows coal kills. But, you know, profit.”

I had a chance to talk with Chris Hedges about Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt soon after it came out. Part one of the transcript is posted below. In this conversation, Larry Gibson comes up as one of those who fights on against tremendous odds, regardless.

Over the years, Gibson’s home on Kayford was vandalized. One of his trailers was littered with gunshots. Two of his dogs were shot. He told Hedges and Sacco how in 2007, one of his family cemeteries was bulldozed in front of him by Massey Energy operators as he was giving a tour to visitors. Today, the campaign to end mountaintop removal, or MTR, has gained national attention, forcing the Obama administration’s EPA to issue new rules for protecting mountain streams. Those rules are now being challenged in court.

What kept Gibson going? He told the two authors:

I’m not a highly-brained guy here.… don’t have a lot of education. I just point at the common denominator of things: you screw up one thing, another is gonna fall, and if that falls something else is gonna fall, and how much more do we have to fall before we start saying, “Whoa, there’s something wrong here somewhere,” you know.

The Gibson family are encouraging people to donate in Gibson’s name to the nonprofit organization he founded: Keepers of the Mountains.

Chris Hedges is a Nation Institute Senior Fellow, and the co-author with graphic artist Joe Sacco of Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, just out from Nation Books. You can watch an excerpt of the interview here, or the full conversation here.

Laura Flanders: The last time I saw you, you were just setting out on this journey. You said, “We’re going to sacrifice zones.” What does that mean and why sacrifice zones?

Chris Hedges: These were the pockets of the country that were sacrificed first. West Virginia, the coal fields of West Virginia are probably the best example. Here you have the extraction of a natural resource by large corporations; these corporations are not based in West Virginia. I mean the utter degradation, destruction and the poisoning of the environment, impoverishment of those communities. Now with mountain top removal the obliteration, literally, of the Appalachian Mountains, and we flew over the Appalachian Mountains. You can’t get a sense of the devastation, hundreds of thousands of acres that have just become a wasteland.

Now you say Massey Energy has literally leveled land the size of Delaware over the last decade.

That’s right, and there’s no stop. They own everything, they own the systems of communication, they own the senators, the judges, the governors, they own everybody. And these people in this land have been sacrificed so that we in New York can leave lights on in office towers all night and use parking garage lots. They went first [the Appalachian Mountains], and as Karl Marx understood, unfettered, unregulated capitalism is a revolutionary force it has no self-imposed limits. So in business terms these pockets—that in essence they’ve harvested and destroyed—are left behind and then they move on to the rest of us. And we have to look very closely at these areas that went first to see what happens when you force human communities, families, ecosystems to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace, which, of course, is the fundamental ideology that has gripped the late stage of the American empire. It’s absurdity, but that’s it.

Is it really coming to all parts of the country? Your Appalachia story, that’s being leveled, people are inhaling coal dust, while in New York we’re getting great new anti-smoking regs.

Sure, and they’re poisoning your water reservoirs upstate with the fracking industry. And if you go up to Pennsylvania or New York and look at the lines, frackers are selling impoverished residents. They are no different from the sales pitches that were delivered to families that lived in southern West Virginia. We just want to buy the mineral rights on your ground and everything will be fine and you won’t notice anything and, of course, look what happened. So, quite literally, New York is about to feel the reverberations of this and we have not even touched upon the environmental crisis. The droughts that have ripped across the Midwestern United States, destroying huge percentages of our corn crop, this is a direct result of the addiction to fossil fuels and in particular coal. We’re not confronting it and we’re pretending it’s not happening. And so in a literal sense when you talk about not being affected, ten to fifteen years down the line, this whole sort of demented project of ceaseless exploitation and a refusal to confront the effects of an economy driven on fossil fuel is going to implode.

Why did you decide on this journey to take Joe Sacco, the graphic artist, who contributes extraordinary graphic images to this book?

Yeah, well, because all of these places are invisible. One of the fundamental points of this book was to make these people in these communities visible. We never see them. It’s the tawdry, the salacious, celebrity gossip. The few times we ever see poor people on television is when they are ridiculed and laughed, at whether that’s Jerry Springer, Jersey Shore, but we don’t see the struggle for dignity and self-respect for economic survival that has gripped perhaps now a third of the country. These people have been banished from our consciousness. Sacco can do things that a photographer can’t. He can give a kind of filmic quality to people’s lives and every time we got a great interview—one of those interviews that as a prose reporter that you cherish, I knew I had to turn it over to Joe. He would then draw it out and he would draw out people’s lives and you get a sense of the trajectory of where we began what happened where we went and where we are now.

We’ll talk about that trajectory. What you call the “days of destruction”—when did they begin?

Well, I guess what we’re dealing with is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which really started with westward expansion and the railroads, that’s why we begin with Pine Ridge because that’s where, in essence, America colonized itself before it went on to colonize the Philippines and Cuba, and of course, now Iraq and Afghanistan, and everywhere else. It was that project whereby everything was a commodity to exploit. The buffalo herds, the timber, the gold speculators and human beings who happened to be indigenous, Native Americans who stood in the way were slaughtered or moved into prisoner war camps. Originally, these Indian agencies were defined as prisoner-of-war camps, later became reservations. They were broken. They were made dependent, they lost the capacity to be self sufficient. I mean 95 percent of indigenous communities in the Americas were destroyed by the end of the nineteenth century. More immigrants were arriving in a week or a month in New York than were indigenous left on the western plain. So, that’s where it all started and it was this: Sitting Bull and others would ask do the white Europeans, do they hate the world? Because it was all about exploitation until exhaustion or collapse. And that dark ethic has essentially fueled the American empire since, it’s a kind of fusion of ceaseless, relentless, capitalist exploitation and empire that’s now sort of folded back in on us, and we’re watching those very forces cannibalize the country and destroy what’s left. Look at the assault on the middle class. The middle class is plunging rapidly into the kind of despair that has already been visited upon the working class. That’s the natural consequence of turning economic and political power over to forces that have no impediments on this drive to essentially squeeze every last drop of human life, and frankly, the life that sustains the planet for money.

Give us a specific. Going to your chapter "Day of Siege,” in Camden, New Jersey. George Norcross III: [the director of one the country’s largest insurance brokerages, whose company channeled most of the bailout funds that went to New Jersey municipalities. He’s also a major campaign contributor …] How does this white guy who doesn’t even live [in Camden] come to be what you described as the overlord of Camden?

Well, it’s a kind of window into the overlords that control the country. We often don’t see them. They tend to remain sort of faceless, and Norcross is a perfect example of how an oligarchic largely white power structure works. He is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. You can’t get a job, you can’t get an elected office in Camden unless you are a Norcross-approved candidate or worker. Because he is essentially the political boss of southern New Jersey, controls what reconstruction monies were designated for Camden, and he used them for his pet projects, in particular, his medical center Cooper Hospital. And then, of course, these become huge employers for construction firms, and public relations firms, and as the Philadelphia Inquirer has documented, these firms then give back to the Norcross machine to keep it running. And that’s a microcosm, that’s writ large throughout the country because on a national level it is utterly impossible for an American citizen to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, that’s what living in corporate state means.

Explain what you mean by that.

It means that we have devolved into what Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism. It’s not classical totalitarianism; it doesn’t find its expression through a demagogue or a charismatic leader but through the anonymity of the corporate state. That in inverted totalitarianism, you have corporate forces that purport to be loyal to the Constitution and electoral politics and the iconography of the language and American patriotism, and yet internally have seized all levels of power, so the Supreme Court is just a wholly owned corporate subsidiary. Our legislative branch passes pieces of legislation that are written by corporate lobbyists. And if anyone so much as whispers against corporate interests or fails to pay them enough deference, which is what Obama has failed to do, they destroy them. Which is what they are doing to Obama, I mean Obama in my mind could not have been more obsequious to corporate power, but he wasn’t obsequious enough. And so they’re throwing him overboard and these PACs are very pernicious, not only in their ability to influence elections, determine the outcome of the Wisconsin recall, which was a classic example of what we shouldn’t be doing, we should have gone the other way towards a general strike and stayed out of the power system because we cannot win there anymore. But every elected official knows that once they’re in office that if they dare challenge, even in an incredibly minor way, what corporations want, they are finished.

Obama is still getting plenty of Wall Street money.

He’s not getting as much as Romney. I mean he’s not getting as much as he got in 2008. Remember the Democrats got more Wall Street money than the Republican Party.

Coming back to revolt and resistance, in every place that you go, in all of these sacrifice zones there’s a story—it’s often one of Joe’s stories—of somebody who is resisting. What is the distinguishing factor, I’m thinking of the two women Mary Miller and Pauline Canterbury in Appalachia. What makes some people decide that they’re going to do something?

Well, Hannah Arendt has a great essay about that in Responsibility and Judgment, where she says that it’s finally those people who carry out acts of moral resistance are not those who say, “I oughtn’t or I shouldn’t, but those who say I can’t.” There’s just something within them, whether their dignity or their sense of outrage, their anger, that they just won’t play the game, and that was perhaps one of the most moving parts of the book, because everywhere we went, and these were some of the pockets of the worse despair in the United States, and of course, the worst poverty. Camden per capita is the poorest city in the United States, Pine Ridge second-poorest county in the United States. The average life expectancy of a male in Pine Ridge is 48, it is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti, and yet these magnificent figures rise up. West Virginia—they’re all over the place—Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe and the great Judy Bonds who we went to her memorial service when we were there. They fight back, primarily as individuals, but they don’t give up and yet they have stark and maybe kind of dark view of power and what their chances are, they’re not blinded at all, they’re not deluded.

But the picture that you get is of huge historic forces against a few individuals. Is there anything in the middle? What about unions, what about other institutions of change?

Well, the only way to fight back is to build movements, and institutions, certainly if there is a kind of theme certainly in the West Virginia chapter it is the rise of the United Mine Workers Union that made a tremendous difference in the lives, health and empowerment of coal miners, and its rise and subsequent destruction.

It’s only, I think, when we begin to rebuild these movements which have been decimated, I mean just in the last few weeks we saw the Supreme Court pass this ruling which severely weakened public sector unions, which are the last redoubt of union activity, there’s nothing left now. There’s no way to stop these corporate forces, and that’s why hundreds, of thousands of Americans have lost their unemployment benefits, which means how many tens of thousands are going to lose their homes. The reverberations of these consequences: cities going bankrupt, whether it’s Stockton, California, or Scranton, Pennsylvania. They will just eat us alive, and the only way to fight back is by building mass movements which is why the last chapter ends with the Occupy movement.

That really is, as Howard Zinn understood, the fundamental lesson of American history. We were never set up as a popular democracy. All of the openings within the democratic process were fought for bitterly, and often lethally between movements and those in power whether that was the suffragists or the labor movement or the Liberty Party that fought slavery, the civil rights movement, and if we don’t rebuild those movements, we are going to be rapidly—we already are very far gone—being rapidly reconfigured into a kind of neo-feudalistic state with a rapacious, corporate, oligarchic class that uses increasingly harsh and draconian forms of control, the iron heel, to keep us in place.

Going back to the foundations of the state, a lot of people would look at the American Revolution and say that was a revolution by small-business people who felt edged out by big business people meaning the East India Company and the British Empire. With slavery at the root (the commoditization of the people)—maybe democracy is not our destiny.

The disease is not so much the system—which was a system that really locked the disempowered out quite consciously, whether it was Native Americans, African-Americans, women, people without property—I think it’s the disease of empire. We’re following a very familiar trajectory of dying empires, where you expand beyond your capacity to sustain empire and yourself.

Empire’s tend to hollow themselves out from the inside. And the decay is palpable around us: closing schools, libraries, fire departments, a real unemployment rate when you count people who have stopped looking for work or people who have poorly paid part-time jobs that put them below the poverty level, most people at Walmart only work twenty-eight hours a week, you’re talking 17 to 20 percent long-term unemployment. So the response of empire—and we’ve seen it with the militarization of police forces—and a passage of a series of measures, whether it’s the FISA Amendment Act, whether it’s the radical interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Act which Obama thinks permits him to assassinate American citizens and their 16-year-old children two weeks later, whether it’s the National Defense Authorization Act and I sued Obama in federal court and won, but that allowed the military to arrest American citizens, hold them without due process in military facilities until the end of hostilities.

In all of this you see a decline of empire?

Yes, without question and the familiar patterns that come with the end of empire. Whether it’s the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Ottoman Empire—you have rapacious, immoral elites who retreat into their version of Versailles or the Forbidden City—and they end up consuming their own. One of the engines of the French Revolution was when Louis XVI started revoking the patents of the nobility and reselling them, they eat their own. In the same way that CEOs, in order for personal enrichment, are quite willing to take down their own companies and of course defraud their shareholders, when you reach that point it’s a kind of terminal point.

They decline, they eat their own, what do the rest of us do? Are we yet beyond the point where we can, as some have written, reclaim our own measure of a man, dream our own dreams? Reclaim our sense of identity, of humanity, given that we’ve let so much be sacrificed?

This is why we are going to have to radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and to the planet. [The] corporate forces that control our systems of communication—that have degraded our universities and systems of education into vocational schools—are determined that we don’t think that way. We sort of just march forward as cogs, and that’s the power of Occupy that they did begin to ask the right questions, and however imperfectly, attempted to build structures of governance where voices that were traditionally not heard were heard, and not only were heard but were given a kind of prominence. Can we pull ourselves from out of the brink, I don’t know.

This is part one of the transcript of my conversation with Chris Hedges. For part two, join the mailing list at GRITtv.org.

Why Strike? Hear It From a Chicago Teacher (VIDEO)

Thousands of teachers walked off the job Monday in Chicago, the third-largest school district in the United States, after union leaders announced they were far from resolving a contract dispute with school district officials. The walkout posed a serious challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and by extension to the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who as CEO of Chicago public schools initiated many of the programs that teachers say are now driving them to strike.

“This is not a strike I wanted,” Emanuel said Sunday night. “It was a strike of choice.… it’s unnecessary, it’s avoidable and it’s wrong.”

For more on the choice to strike—I’m reposting here my conversation with Chicago teacher Jennifer Johnson, who addressed the Labor Notes conference in the city in May. Johnson teaches history at Lincoln Park High School in North Chicago, a diverse public neighborhood school that also has selective enrollment. Johnson’s father and grandfather were both teachers. She loves her job, but she’ll strike if she has to, she told me then. It’d be “doing justice” to her pupils. For the original post, on the run-up to today’s strike, go to “Chicago Teachers Turn up the Heat on Rahm.”

Moms Discriminated Against at the DNC?

While Democrats are effusing over the Mom-in-Chief, it’s worth noting that a California branch of the National Organization for Women (NOW) is currently petitioning Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to stop discrimination against moms with young kids and infants.

“Moms with young children and nursing babies need your help!” They say.

According to the petition, “the Democratic Party is refusing to allow moms who are elected delegates onto the floor of the Convention if they must bring breastfeeding babies or small children in tow. There are no accommodations for on-site childcare, leaving women with very few options.”

I’m not in Charlotte, but those who are could confirm. The petitioners continue:

“When you refuse to allow children into an event, you are by default refusing admission to their caregivers, most of whom are women. By not offering childcare, you are privileging mothers and fathers who have partners and/or money, and therefore excluding single parents and/or poorer families. It is a form of disenfranchisement that must end.”

Today, while Dems are basking in the glow, just might be a smart day to raise the question.

Labor Day Message: We Can't Labor Without Our Lives

“Every culture lives within its dream,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1934:

“It is reality – while the sleep lasts. But, like the sleeper, a culture lives within an objective world that…sometimes breaks into the dream, like a noise, to modify it or to make further sleep impossible.”

This Labor Day it’s conventional wisdom to say the American dream is broken. For those who ever dreamed it, that dream featured all that typically fills the fantasies of capitalist cultures: if not heaven, then at least happiness here on earth, built from stuff and standing acquired through human sweat and toil; Americans sold themselves (and others) another fancy too, a fair shake, in a “city upon a hill” nation replete with opportunity. (The facts of slavery, land theft and genocide notwithstanding.)

For many who were sleeping soundly previously, the noise that’s broken in is that of millions of Americans living without enough to eat (46 million, including one in five of all children); the racket of rampant ill-health, the half-of-all jobs that barely lift families out of poverty ($34,000 or less) and the kicker: less social mobility than exists in most of Old World Europe.

The trade union dream is in trouble too. That’s the one in which organized workers mass enough muscle together to extract what’s due labor from the bosses. Union membership in the private sector in the United States today has fallen to levels not seen since the 1930s. Public sector unions are holding steady (where unions are allowed) but they’re under constant attack from Republican governors, propagandist media and the profiteers that underwrite both of those.

Globalization, mechanization and the fast switch from muscle to money-markets as the primary means of amassing wealth have not just modified labor’s dream, they’ve made further sleep impossible.

Talk to labor leaders and “hard times” doesn’t come close to expressing it. As labor organizer and Nation writer Jane McAlevey, put it in this interview:

“There’s been a fifty-to-sixty-year campaign in this country to destroy the reputation of unions. We don’t have a labor page; we have a business page in every newspaper. We get a one-way view from the American capitalist media every day, and it drums into people these horrible lessons. There is a total lack of understanding of what the real purpose of a union in this country really is and what it does.”

Larry Hanley, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) said this, when we spoke earlier this summer:

“Our view is that the problems that our local unions and members face are not restricted to one bargaining table in one isolated place. There is no way we can remedy the attack on workers by just fighting through the methods we’ve been taught for the last fifty years.”

What to do? There’s another aspect of the “dream” that needs modifying. That's the part (as Mumford also put it) that separates “man’s soul” from the “material world.” In more prosaic terms: it’s time, say these leaders, that organizing crosses—not the picket line -- but the industrial era divide that splits “work” from the rest of our lives.

As McAlevey puts it:

“We create neutrality on the ground by having the workers tap their own existing relationships to their own community…. It’s through our rank and file in the labor movement that the relationship to the so-called external allies needs to be built.

McAlevey’s not the only one saying the future for labor lies outside the workplace, in the many dimensions and relationships of worker’s lives. Hanley continues:

“All of our efforts now are aimed at building coalitions. We have dedicated almost all our training over the course of the last year and a half both in the field and in Washington to getting our officers and our members out from behind the wheel, meeting with people who ride the buses. We have about 100 passengers for every member we have driving a bus or driving a train or fixing them, and our sense of it that we have to go out and organize those riders to stand up not only for us, but for themselves because we have a completely common interest with the people who ride in our systems.“

Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, talks in terms of “love”; Occupy Wall Street focused on shared public space. The meeting place, it seems to me, is meeting place. Labor leaders are saying workplace organizing needs to come out of the workplace. Community activists are saying they need to expand their idea of “community” to include not one identity, one issue, one group, but all-comers.

We won’t hear any talk about this at the DNC this Labor Day. (The only turning out the major parties are interested in is turning out voters this November and then returning the people back to their homes.) But a new noise does seem to be audible and getting louder in the world of labor and organizing. More work, less pay, longer hours, slimmer chances for us or our children to advance; the message is coming up: we can’t Labor without our Lives. The site of struggle is the workplace, but it’s also everywhere else.

Jane McAlevey’s book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade in (and Out of) the Labor Movement, is forthcoming this November, from Verso.

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