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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Ohio Early Voting Cuts Violate the Voting Rights Act

Early voting

Early voting in Ohio in 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Ohio keeps trying to cut early voting and the federal courts keep striking the cuts down.

Last year, Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature cut a week of early voting and eliminated the “Golden Week” when voters can register and vote on the same day during the early voting period. GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted also issued a directive prohibiting early voting on the two days before the election, and on weekends and nights in the preceding weeks—the times when it’s most convenient to vote.

Today a federal court in Ohio issued a preliminary injunction against the early voting cuts, which it said violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, ordering Ohio to restore early voting opportunities before the midterms. “African Americans in Ohio are more likely than other groups to utilize [early] voting in general and to rely on evening and Sunday voting hours,” wrote District Court Judge Peter Economus, a Clinton appointee. As a consequence, the early voting cuts “result in fewer voting opportunities for African Americans.”

The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU and the Ohio NAACP. In 2012, 157,000 Ohioans cast ballots during early voting hours eliminated by the Ohio GOP. Overall, 600,000 Ohioans, 10 percent of the electorate, voted early in 2012.

Blacks in Ohio were far more likely than whites to vote early in 2008 and 2012. “In the November 2008 election in [Cleveland’s] Cuyahoga County, African-Americans voted early in person at a rate over twenty times greater than white voters,” according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. In cities like Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton blacks voted early in numbers far exceeding their percentage of the population.

There’s an important backstory here. Early voting became a critical reform in Ohio after the disastrous 2004 election. Once Democrats and minority groups began using it in large numbers, Republicans repeatedly tried to curb early voting. As I’ve previously reported:

In 2004, Ohio had the longest lines in the country on Election Day, with some voters—particularly in large urban areas—waiting as long as seven hours to vote. A DNC survey estimated that 174,000 Ohioans—3 percent of the state’s electorate—left without voting. George W. Bush won the state by just 118,000 votes.

In response to the long lines, Ohio adopted thirty-five days of early voting in 2008, including on nights and weekends. But following the large Democratic turnout in 2008, Ohio Republicans drastically curtailed early voting in 2012 from thirty-five to eleven days, with no voting on the Sunday before the election, when African-American churches historically rally their congregants to go to the polls. Voting rights activists subsequently gathered enough signatures to block the new voting restrictions and force a referendum on Election Day. In reaction, Ohio Republicans repealed their own bill in the state legislature, but kept a ban on early voting three days before Election Day (when 98,000 Ohioans voted in 2008), adding an exception for active duty members of the military, who tend to lean Republican.

These cuts disproportionately impacted black voters, who made up a majority of early voters in large urban areas like Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County and Dayton’s Montgomery County in 2008. Ohio Republicans brazenly tried to cut early voting hours in Democratic counties while expanding them in Republican ones. GOP leaders admitted the cuts in Democratic counties were motivated by racial politics. “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine,” said Doug Preisse, the GOP chair in Columbus’s Franklin County.

These voter suppression efforts backfired in 2012. The Obama campaign successfully sued to reinstate early voting on the three days before Election Day (although Secretary of State Jon Husted limited the hours) and the overall share of the black electorate increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012.

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Despite the public and legal backlash, Ohio Republicans pressed ahead with early voting cuts in 2013. Now they’ve lost in court, again. (Some Ohio Republicans are also trying to pass a new voter ID law. Nine hundred thousand Ohioans, including one in four African-Americans, don’t have a government-issued ID).

Judge Economus’s ruling could have broad significance. Ohio is once again a critical swing state in 2014, with competitive races for governor and secretary of state.

More broadly, the courts are split over how to interpret the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s gutting a key part of the law last June. This is the first time a court has struck down limits on early voting under Section 2 of the VRA. A Bush-appointed judge recently denied a preliminary injunction to block North Carolina’s cuts to early voting and the elimination of same-day registration, a lawsuit similar to the one in Ohio. A Wisconsin judged blocked the state’s voter ID law under Section 2, while a similar trial is currently underway in Texas.

As Rick Hasen points out, we still don’t know if the courts will consistently stop new vote denial efforts like voter ID and cuts to early voting. And the Roberts Court could very well overturn any good precedents in the lower courts.

The Ohio ruling is an important voting rights victory. But it won’t be the last word.



Read Next: Will Texas get away with discriminating against voters?

Six Ways to Fight for Racial Justice

A woman protests police brutality in the wake of Mike Brown's death

A woman joins a silent protest in front of the White House to demand justice in the wake of Mike Brown's death. (Flickr/Elvert Barnes)

Late this summer, the world’s eyes were on Ferguson, Missouri, as the killing of Michael Brown and the occupation of his community by a militarized police force shed light on our country’s long history of police brutality against people of color. For many, the events in Ferguson were eye-opening. But as Mychal Denzel Smith illustrates in our recent issue on racial justice, young people of color across the country had already been fighting policy brutality, racial profiling and a host of other issues that have a disproportionate effect on people of color. We reached out to some of these groups to find the best ways readers can help. From making a donation to watching a video to sharing your own story, here are six ways you can support young people at the forefront of the fight for racial justice.

1) Formed in 2012 in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Dream Defenders aim to “develop the next generation of radical leaders to realize and exercise our independent collective power” and have been active in advocating for an end to police brutality and the criminalization of communities of color, among other issues. Watch and share their latest video, which outlines their demands on our national government for their #HandsUp Don’t Shoot campaign.

2) One of the ways the Dream Defenders are aiming to effect change is by developing power at the ballot box. Donate to help fund organizing to support their “Bloc Is Ours” voter engagement program.

Black Youth Project 100 logo3) The Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) is a national organization of 10-to-35-year-old black activists dedicated to “creating freedom and justice for our people using a Black queer feminist lens.” Donate to support their membership base building and to help them train, mobilize and organize young black activists across the nation.

4) Every day, countless black youth across the country experience racial profiling by the police. Few of those stories make the national news. Share and, if you are a young black person between the ages of thirteen and thirty-five, add your own video to BYP100’s #CriminalizedLives campaign to “amplify the stories of youth who have been racially profiled and abused by law enforcement.” On top of collecting and sharing the stories, BYP100 uses the submissions to inform their campaign work on the ground.

Million Hoodies for Justice logo5) With their 50,000 plus members, the Million Hoodies Movement for Justiceworks to empower young people of color and fights to protect them from racial profiling and senseless gun violence. In 2012, the organization mobilized to help with the collection of 2 million signatures for a petition created by Howard University students demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman. Since then, it has organized rallies, built new platforms and tools, and educated the public about violence against people of color. Going forward, the group plans on deepening its membership in local communities and developing campaigns to “raise the profiles of victims of gun violence and racial profiling.” Donate to help them make that happen.

6)The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice launched the community platform The Frequency to give its members a place to exchange ideas, artwork, photos, videos and writing. Spread the word about this innovative community platform (or add your own work!) and keep up with the Million Hoodies Movement on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The BRICS: Challengers to the Global Status Quo

(L-R) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma (RT/Nacho Doce) 

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy in Focus.

The term “BRICS”—which refers to the bloc of emerging economies in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—was coined years ago by Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill, who saw the countries as promising markets for finance capital in the twenty-first century. But even if O’Neill had not invented the name, the BRICS would have emerged as a conscious formation of big, rapidly developing countries with an ambivalent relationship to the traditional center economies of Europe and the United States.

The BRICS served notice that they are now an economic alliance that poses a challenge to the global status quo during their last summit in Brazil in mid-July, when they inaugurated two path-breaking institutions intended to rival the US- and European-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank: a Contingency Reserve Arrangement, with an initial capitalization of $100 billion, which can be accessed by BRICS members in need of funds; and the New Development Bank, with a total authorized capital of $100 billion, which is open to all members of the United Nations. Both institutions aim to break the global North’s chokehold on finance and development.

But while the BRICS countries have made plain their desire to loosen control of the global economy by the United States and Europe, they’ll have to confront some serious problems at home.

Benefiting from Globalization

The BRICS have been among the key beneficiaries of corporate-driven globalization, owing their rise to the marriage between global capital and cheap labor that has followed the fuller integration of formerly non-capitalist or dependent capitalist countries into the global capitalist system over the past thirty years. This union was among the factors that kept up the rate of profit and raised global capitalism out of its crisis of stagnation in the 1970s and ’80s.

Make no mistake: the BRICS are capitalist regimes—albeit with large central apparatuses capable of controlling workers.

In China, for instance, though the Communist Party leadership retains its socialist rhetoric, the reality is that thirty years after Deng Xiaoping’s pro-market reforms, the country now represents—in the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek—”the ideal capitalist state: freedom for capital, with the state doing the ‘dirty job’ of controlling the workers.” Zizek says China “seems to embody a new kind of capitalism,” with “disregard for ecological consequences, disdain for workers’ rights, everything subordinated to the ruthless drive to develop and become the new world force.”

The other BRICS states may not have the same coercive and extractive power as the Chinese state, and three of them—Brazil, South Africa and India—are electoral democracies. But all have relatively powerful central bureaucracies that have been the key instrument in the technocratic transformation of their economies. Lula’s Brazil, it might be noted, inherited the developmental state forged by the Brazilian military-technocratic elite that produced the so-called “Brazilian Miracle” in the 1960s and ’ 70s. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress stepped into a centralized state apparatus that had been honed not only for repression but for extractive exploitation by the apartheid regime. And of course, Putin’s Russia inherited the old super-centralized Soviet state.

While there might be a healthy discussion on whether all of these regimes might be called neoliberal, there can be no doubt that they are capitalist regimes, prioritizing profits over welfare, loosening prior restraints on market forces, spearheading the integration of the domestic to the global economy, following conservative fiscal and monetary policies, exhibiting close cooperation between state elites and dominant forces in the economy, and, most importantly, relying on the super-exploitation of their working classes as the engine of rapid growth.

Contradictions with the Center Economies

Although the BRICS have been major beneficiaries of corporate-driven globalization, their integration into the world economy has been marked by a complex relationship with the traditional center economies of Europe and the United States.

True, some of them, particularly China, have developed investment regimes extremely hospitable to foreign capital. But all have also manipulated foreign capital to accumulate technological and management expertise to eventually wean themselves off foreign financiers. Even as they have re-energized global capitalism as a whole, they have pursued decidedly nationalist goals of enhancing their own clout vis-à-vis the traditional centers of global economic, political and military power.

This is exhibited most sharply in the relationship of China to the United States. American consumer demand has driven the rapid growth of China’s export-oriented economy, but China is increasingly challenging the hegemony of the US dollar as the global means of exchange. It is also supplanting the United States as the main investor and trading partner of many countries in Latin America—America’s so-called “backyard.”

If competition is pronounced at the economic level, it is even fiercer at the geopolitical level. In recent years, Beijing has moved from its policy of “peaceful rise” on the global stage to overtly challenging the military power of the United States and Japan, two economies with which China is deeply integrated, in the Western Pacific. At the same time, Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States—two blocs with which Moscow has developed significant economic ties, especially when it comes to finance and energy—have deteriorated as Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed back against NATO’s expansion onto Russia’s doorstep.

From Engines of Growth to Stagnation

In 2001, O’Neill identified the BRICS as the “drivers of global growth.” The next few years appeared to prove him right, as their performance on all key indicators—including GDP growth rate, per capita income growth rate and rates of return on investment—surpassed those of the United States and other economies in the North.

When the global financial crisis broke out, the BRICS at first seemed to be dragged down by the collapse of their markets in the North, with their growth rates slowing down significantly in 2008. However, recovery was swift, triggered in some countries by countercyclical stimulus programs. In China, for instance, a $586 billion stimulus program—which was, in relation to the size of the economy, bigger than Obama’s $787 billion stimulus in the United States—reversed the economic contraction not only in China but also in neighboring economies that had become greatly dependent on Chinese consumers to absorb their products.

It was in this context that Nobel Prize laureate Michael Spence predicted in his book The Next Convergence that the BRICS would replace the United States and Europe as the key engines of the world economy. In a decade, Spence confidently predicted, the BRICS’ share of global GDP would pass the 50 percent mark. Much of this growth, he said, would stem from “endogenous growth drivers in emerging economies anchored by an expanding middle class.” Moreover, as trade among the BRICS increased, “the future of emerging economies is one of reduced dependence on industrial-country demand.”

Hardly had Spence’s book come out when the performance of the BRICS put paid to his rosy predictions. Beginning in 2012, the stagnation of the global economy engulfed the BRICS in earnest, revealing the stimulus-triggered recovery of 2009 to be a short-term affair rather than a passing of the baton. Brazil’s growth rate dropped from 5.3 percent in 2010 to 1.5 percent in 2012, India’s from 8.2 to 3 percent, Russia’s from 4.9 to 2.5 percent and China’s from 9.8 to 7.2 percent. The near simultaneous slowing down of the BRICS’ growth was accompanied by foreign capital outflows, which plunged currency values, increased inflation and exacerbated inequality.

The Crisis of Export-Led Growth

Export-oriented manufacturing based on the exploitation of hundreds of millions of workers from parts of the world formerly independent from or peripheral to global capitalism was the mode of integration for most of the BRICS into the international economy. This strategy focused priorities, incentives and resources on the export sector, depressing domestic demand and creating dislocations in the domestic market. With its dependence on the now stagnant or contracting markets of Europe and the United States, however, the export-oriented strategy has entered into severe crisis.

China’s crisis illustrates the difficulty of breaking away from the model of export-oriented production. China’s stimulus program was meant to help transition the country to a new domestic-demand centered economy, where growth would be driven by Chinese consumers rather than foreign importers. After achieving some initial success, however, China then reverted back to its reliance on exporting products to US and European markets. According to Yu Yong Ding, one of Beijing’s most influential economists, the dependence of millions of Chinese workers on the export sector “has become structural. That means that reducing China’s trade dependency and trade surplus is much more than a matter of adjusting macroeconomic policy.” The retreat back to export-led growth reflected the powerful influence wielded by a set of forces from the reform period that, as Yu put it, “have morphed into vested interests, which are fighting hard to protect what they have.” The export lobby—which brings together private entrepreneurs, state enterprise managers, foreign investors and government technocrats—remains the strongest lobby in Beijing. Staying with the export-oriented model was a dead end, according to Yu, since China’s “growth pattern has now almost exhausted its potential.” As the economy that most successfully rode the globalization wave, China “has reached a crucial juncture: without painful structural adjustments, the momentum of its economic growth could suddenly be lost. China’s rapid growth has been achieved at an extremely high cost. Only future generations will know the true price.”

Social Conflicts on the Rise

The crisis of the export-oriented model is likely to exacerbate social conflicts in the BRICS, which were already intensifying in the period of rapid growth. The most explosive problem is rising inequality.

In Brazil, which has one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America, the payback came in the form of riots throughout the country in 2013. The outbursts were triggered by an explosive combination of transportation fare hikes, deteriorating public services and the displacement of urban residents and corruption connected with the construction of infrastructure for the World Cup.

In South Africa, the illusion of BRICSdom fostered by the 2010 World Cup was shaken by the protests of miners that climaxed with the infamous Marikana massacre, in which troops fired on strikers and killed forty-four people in August 2012. Marikana exposed a developed-country infrastructure coexisting with one of the world’s most unequal income structures.

In China, “mass incidents”—a euphemism for protests—doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to 180,000, according to the Chinese Academy of Governance. The causes were varied, ranging from land grabs to official corruption to environmental degradation. Protests against pollution and other forms of ecological destabilization appeared to be particularly numerous and underlined the authorities’ subordination of quality of life to the goal of high growth rates. In China and the other BRICS as well, the notion appeared to reign that there was a trade-off among environmental protection, labor rights and development. In 2010, however, a successful strike for higher wages by workers at a Honda plant in Nanhai inaugurated a new era of resistance, this time with the workers who had served as the backbone of export-oriented manufacturing in the lead. In June 2011, it was the turn of thousands of poorly paid garment workers in Zengcheng, the so-called “blue jeans” capital of the world, to protest with riots and strikes. These events were a dress rehearsal for the strikes involving some 30,000 workers in Dongguan, near Guangzhou, which hit the manufacturing subcontractor Yue Yuen, perhaps the largest producer of branded footwear in the world, this past April.

The movement appears to be growing. “More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform,” noted a writer for the progressive journal Jacobin, “China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes—there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.”

The BRICS and the Global South

Despite their exploitative practices at home, the BRICS portray themselves as paragons of the global South, providing the leadership of such blocs as the “Group of 77 and China” in international climate negotiations and the “Group of 20” in the World Trade Organization.

However, critics of the BRICS say that their investment and trade practices belie their benevolent posture toward developing countries.

Much of this criticism is directed at China. Although China has poured billions of dollars in aid into sub-Saharan Africa—much more, in fact, than the World Bank—it has also been criticized by local populations for bringing in Chinese workers instead of hiring local labor, for flooding retail markets with Chinese products and for supporting repressive regimes with economic assistance. In Southeast Asia, China’s economic diplomacy is said to be geared toward dividing the region’s collective stand on the South China Sea issue, isolating in particular the Philippines and Vietnam.

Although many of these criticisms are valid, the rise of the BRICS is a good thing for the South. In the geopolitics of development, the BRICS currently fulfill the role that the Soviet Union once played, which was to provide a pole that developing countries could play off the United States as they struggled to achieve political and economic independence. The dark period of unipolar domination by the United States, with its neoliberal institutions and ideology, has come to an end with the emergence of the BRICS bloc, and this is an extremely positive development.

The Future of the BRICS

With export-oriented production and globalization now in crisis, the question emerges: what is the future of the BRICS? It is certainly possible that the BRICS will not break with their current paradigm of growth. However, there are serious discussions in ruling circles about ways to surmount the current crisis.

One option is for the BRICS to become more integrated with one another and with other developing-country economies, along the lines of the “South-South Trade” or “South-South Cooperation” strategies that have long been propounded by many progressive economists. Further integration is one of the key topics in the BRICS summits that now take place every two years.

There is, however, one problem with this solution: the fruits of integration would be limited if that integration involved highly unequal societies with restricted demand, since large parts of the population would be left out of the market.

The other solution, which the BRICS elites are not too enthusiastic about, is for the BRICS to adopt policies aimed at radically reducing income inequality and thus creating vibrant domestic markets. This would involve no less than promoting social revolution in these countries, since powerful interest groups have congealed around the current economic regimes.

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Even more fundamentally, assuming that the BRICS can break with export-led growth, can the pursuit of policies promoting greater equality be undertaken within these countries’ current capitalist frameworks, where profitability remains the elites’ central concern? The elites in the BRICS are dealing with the challenge of transformation in diverse ways.

In India, the new BJP government of Narendra Modi seeks to revitalize the Indian economy by opening it up more fully to foreign investors and radically cutting down the country’s budget deficit à la Tea Party partisans in the United States. This seems to be a prescription for continuing and deepening the past twenty-five years of conservative economic policies and thus is unlikely to succeed in surmounting the country’s stagnation.

In this area, the bellwether among the BRICS is again China, where the current leadership is very much aware of the consequences of the previous leadership’s failure to cultivate a domestic market invigorated by radical asset and income redistribution. Whether Xi Jinping succeeds where Hu Jintao failed remains to be seen.

Whatever strategies the BRICS follow in the coming period, their competition is likely to intensify with the center economies, even as their long pent-up domestic pressures are released in a staccato of internal social explosions.

Read Next: Pietro A. Shakarian on recent developments in the Ukraine crisis.

Mitch McConnell Reveals His True Colors

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

A year ago, President Obama convulsed the White House Correspondents Dinner when he responded to complaints that he wasn’t meeting enough with the Republican leaders in the Congress: “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really?” Obama asked the audience incredulously. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

The Kentucky senator, continuously partisan and mean spirited in public, earned the jab by leading a record number of filibusters as Senate minority leader during Obama’s tenure, forcing more than a quarter of all cloture votes in the history of the Senate since the beginning of the Republic.

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Now, many political bookies, however prematurely, have made Republicans favorites to win the Senate majority. What will McConnell do if he must go from opposition to governing? Last week, The Nation magazine, which I edit, along with Lauren Windsor of the Undercurrent, released an audiotape of McConnell’s revealing remarks to a private June strategy session of deep-pocket Republican billionaire donors, convened by the Koch brothers.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.


Read Next: Laura Windsor on McConnell’s plan to shut down Obama’s legislative agenda.

Three Poems to Get You Through the Drought

Drought in the Wheatlands, Western Australia (cc)

While reading through The Nation’s coverage of the droughts and dust bowls of the 1930s and 1950s—antecedents of the current spell afflicting the American West—I came across three poems published in our pages under the same stark title: “Drought.” The first is from 1964; the other two are both from 1977. Biographical notes on their authors follow the texts.

* * *

Allen Planz was a poet and commercial fisherman who died in 2010. His most well-known book was perhaps A Night for Rioting (1969). The late Peter Matthiesson praised Planz as “the best poet of the sea that we have.”

* * *

Keith Bosley, born in 1937, is a British poet and an accomplished translator, especially of Finnish works such as The Kalevala.

* * *

Gary Young, born in 1951, is a poet and artist and the founder of Greenhouse Review Press. Recent volumes include Pleasure (2006) and Braver Deeds (1999). He is currently the poet laureate of Santa Cruz County.

* * *

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Top Ten Back-to-School Songs

A school bus back on the job (cc)

For many students, September is an exciting time—new friends, new teachers, new experiences. For others, it’s a dreadful month: the resumption of homework, detention and cafeteria food. Songs/laments about school have likely been sung by students for as long as there has been formal schooling. Wikipedia reports that examples of such literature can be found dating back to medieval England. Here, we’ve tried the highly dubious task of trying to highlight ten of the best such songs ever written. Please use the comments field below to let us know what we’ve missed.

1) Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall

2) Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors

3) The Clash, Mark Me Absent

4) The Ramones, Rock and Roll High School

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5) Belle & Sebastian, We Rule the School

6) The Replacements, Fuck School

7) The Smiths, The Headmaster Ritual

8) Chuck Berry, School Days

9) Pete Seeger, What Did You Learn in School Today?

10) Vampire Weekend, Campus

How Did New York Become the Most Unionized State in the Country?

Union workers

Construction workers with Laborers Local 79 Union (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) 

With all the filthy lucre sloshing around on Wall Street, New York City may not strike you as a bastion of organized labor. But the city is in fact the nation’s leading union town. And in the past year, according to researchers at the City University of New York, there has even been a slight increase in unionization in the five boroughs.

About 24 percent of wage and salary workers in New York City are union members, a small but significant increase over the past year, from about 21.5 percent in 2012 . Statewide, according to Current Population Survey data analyzed in the study, New York remains the most union dense state in the country at 24.6 percent of workers.

According to the authors, Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce, the increase—amid a multi-year trend of decline—appears to be driven by hiring trends, not organizing new sectors. As the so-called “recovery” boosts labor demand, long unionized industries are just hiring more. “There are some new organizing efforts here and there, but nothing that accounts for this [increase],” Milkman tells The Nation. “It seems to just be shifts in the labor market reflecting long-unionized sectors that are rebounding.”

Union density in a large population offers only a rough gauge of actual labor activity. The overall number of union members may fluctuate from year to year whenever big unionized industries add or shed jobs, Milkman explains, but that does not capture, and could even mask, the effect of new union formation in smaller-scale workplaces—like the handful of immigrant workers who have recently unionized at local carwashes.

Much of last year’s growth in union workers has come in the construction industry, where unionization in the NYC metro area is about 27 percent, and 30 percent statewide—about twice the industry rate nationwide. But construction trades are a mixed bag, because employers can use both union and non-union workers on different jobs, and the industry runs on short-term contract work. Milkman says the recent trendlines point to growth in both union and non-union construction jobs, but with relatively strong growth among union members.

Overall, New York’s unionization rates are highest in the public sector, at about 70 percent. But surprisingly, recent expansion of union membership centers on private-sector workplaces. Alongside union boosts in the building trades, unions have made gains in building-based services, like janitors and porters, and hotels, where over a third of the labor force is union.

Though undocumented immigrants often work non-union jobs, immigrants (who make up about 37 percent of the city’s population) are rapidly joining the union ranks. Though newer immigrants have relatively low rates of unionization, according to the report, among immigrants who arrived before 1980, the rate is actually higher than that for US-born workers in both New York City and statewide. Black unionization rates have been the highest of any racial or ethnic group, Asians the lowest.

Though union workplaces generally offer higher wages and better benefits, union jobs face multiple threats from displacement and eroding working conditions. Building trades employers, for example, have recently shifted away from a longstanding agreement to stick to using union labor, enabling large developers to hire cheaper non-union and “off the books” workers, including many undocumented immigrants. A “two tier” labor structure, in which union and informal workers “compete,” may squeeze down job quality and undermine wages across the sector, by constraining workers’ ability to negotiate working conditions. A new condominium development plan in mid-town Manhattan seems to exhibit how the city’s economic “recovery” is banking on this trend. According to Crains, the project was recently sealed with “a special package of work-rule and wage concessions from construction unions that is expected to shave as much as 20 percent off labor costs—a savings of millions of dollars.”

According to a 2007 report by the think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, the prevalence of “underground” non-union construction workers led to hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden social costs, due to unpaid payroll taxes and public healthcare spending.

The city’s relatively high union density is rooted in a historical legacy of labor militancy, particularly in blue-collar trades and public services like mass transit. Over the course of the twentieth century, tough union shops cultivated what Milkman calls a workplace culture of “social democracy.”

Yet unions have not significantly penetrated newer, rapidly growing, service industries like retail and restaurants. Meanwhile, New York’s established manufacturing sectors maintain relatively high unionization rates, but the city has shed about half its manufacturing jobs since 2001.

Nonetheless, unions are more welcome in New York than most places in the country. Nationwide, unionization has tumbled since the 1980s after decades of deindustrialization and global offshoring. Today, only about 11 percent of workers belong to a union, and the right-wing backlash continues with “right to work” legislation, which impedes union organizing, and attacks on public sector collective bargaining rights.

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Andrew Friedman of the Center for Popular Democracy, which advocates for low-income workers and communities of color, says “the vast majority of New York’s workers are not unionized, do not have a voice at work and are forced to confront ever-more exploitative treatment at work.” For the city’s working class as a whole, Friedman says via e-mail:

Not withstanding this recent uptick in unionization rates, far too many workers, particularly workers of color, women and immigrant workers, in particular, continue to receive inadequate wages, inadequate hours, inadequate control over their schedules and inadequate respect and dignity on the job.

Unions are not the only way to empower workers. Recent efforts to “organize the unorganized”—the unprecedented wildcat mobilization of non-union fast-food workers, organizing day laborers through worker centers, or community-driven campaigns for a $15 minimum wage—all illustrate the promise as well as the challenges of building labor power, with or without a formal union.

The right to good, safe jobs is universal; unionization is sadly not. But the struggle is the same whether you’re a hotel housekeeper striking for a better contract, or a day laborer suing for unpaid back wages. New Yorkers are holding onto traditionally unionized jobs. But a revival of the labor movement requires building new traditions of organizing in workplaces where activism makes the most difference.


Read Next: John Nichols on raising the federal minimum wage.

Let’s Tell Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage… Right Now!

Wage protest

Darlene Handy of Baltimore holds up his banners during a rally supporting to rise the state’s minimum wage outside of Maryland’s State House in Annapolis. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

President Obama launched the fall campaign season with a robust call for increasing the minimum wage.

“If you work full time in America, you shouldn’t be living in poverty, you shouldn’t be trying to support a family in poverty,” Obama told thousands of cheering union members in Milwaukee, adding, “There is no denying the simple truth: America deserves a raise.”

The president wasn’t trying to convince the American people. They know that increasing the minimum wage is necessary to address income inequality and the injustice of a circumstance where millions of American families are struggling because their hard work is not adequately compensated. A poll conducted last summer for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. Ninety-two percent of Democrats favor the increase, as do 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.

This enthusiasm is not just theoretical. It is immediate. Seventy-four percent of Americans say that Congress should make it a priority to significantly increase the minimum wage.

That focus on Congress is the key, as Obama acknowledged when he noted Monday that “in the year and a half since I first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage—of course, the Republicans in Congress have blocked it.”

“Eventually, Congress is going to hear [the people],” Obama continued. “We’ll break those folks down. We’ll just stay on them.… Persistence—you just stay at it. Because the only thing more powerful than an idea whose time has come is when millions of people are organizing around an idea whose time has come. Millions of people are voting for an idea whose time has come.”

This emphasis on voting, on the fall election, echoes the elite consensus in Washington that, while hiking the minimum wage (up to $15-an-hour) has become a big issue at the state and local levels of government, Congress will not budge on this issue. That consensus says that only an election will change the shape of things to come.

But that’s a bogus consensus. Telling full-time workers who are living in poverty that they must wait for the next election, and the next election, and the next election after that is a form of surrender.

Of course elections matter. But they are not an excuse for putting progress on hold.

The House and Senate will be in session this fall. A proposal to increase the base hourly wage to workers from $7.25 to $10.10 has been advanced. Top Republicans are on board for a higher minimum wage, with Mitt Romney saying “We ought to raise it,” and Rick Santorum saying “It just makes no sense” to oppose an increase.

Members of the Senate Democratic majority back higher wages and, despite the obstructionist tactics of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, the prospect of a high-profile vote just weeks before a critical national election might even get some Republicans—like Maine Senator Susan Collins— to do the right thing.

So where’s the problem? In the House.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has shown no inclination to allow a vote. But the rules of the House allow a majority of members to go around the speaker and use a “discharge petition” to force a vote, which is precisely what the Time for a Raise campaign being championed by Ralph Nader argues is the right approach.

Nader and his allies are not just theorizing here. They are outlining strategies, naming names(of Democrats and Republicans) and proposing action.

“To date, 195 House members have signed the petition, meaning only 23 more member signatures are required to bring H.R. 1010 to a vote,” argues the Time for a Raise message going into the fall. “There has been insufficient effort by House Democrats, concerned Republicans, labor unions and poverty organizations to mount an effort find and persuade the 23 House members needed to complete the discharge petition and bring a raise in the federal minimum wage to a vote.”

“Time for a Raise” argues that Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House should ramp up the push for a minimum-wage hike as soon as their return to Washington.

Nader and his allies have produced compelling political math.

“To catalyze action,” they explain in a new action plan, “the Time for a Raise campaign has identified 55 House members worth pressuring to sign H.R. 1010’s discharge petition:

(a) 3 House Democrats who have not co-sponsored H.R. 1010 nor signed it’s discharge petition;

(b) 6 House Republicans who signed a letter to then-majority leader Boehner in 2006 arguing that “Nobody working full-time should have to live in poverty”;

(c) 17 House Republicans from districts won by President Obama in 2012;

(d) 26 other House Republicans who voted for a minimum wage increase in 2007; and

(e) 3 high-profile House Republican leaders.

Among the House members listed are Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia US Senate candidate who have advocated in the past for wage hikes, and House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, who has been trying to portray himself—with a new book and speaking tour—as a compassionate conservative friend of working families. They should both sign the petition, as should House Republicans in swing districts and reluctant Democrats who represent thousands of families that would experience an immediate improvement in their circumstance with a minimum-wage increase. A refusal to sign the petition by candidates of either party sends a “Which Side Are You On?” message to voters that goes far beyond partisanship or ideology as the November 4 election approaches.

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But this is not just about Republicans. Democrats have to step up. When the discharge petition was circulated last winter, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan declared, “The minimum wage is woefully inadequate to help keep hard-working people out of poverty. When millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules cannot support themselves or their families, when they live in poverty, we face an economic crisis. That’s why we must raise the minimum wage, which would give 24.5 million Americans and more than 500,000 hard-working Wisconsinites a pay raise and generate $500 million in increased economic activity in our state alone.”

That’s a powerful message that Pocan has continued to push the issue at every turn, going so far as to propose an amendment to the Republican budget as a vehicle to force a minimum-wage vote.

That’s the right idea, and the right level of aggressiveness.

Now, as members of the House return to Washington, Democrats should take up the call—not as an election issue but as an immediate demand for action. As Nader has illustrated, it is possible to turn the volume up on this issue quickly, and effectively.

Congress should put politics aside and raise the minimum wage. Now!


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Arthur Danto’s Critique of the ‘Aesthetic Terrorism’ of Jeff Koons

Tulips, by Jeff Koons (cc) 

In the current issue of The Nation, Barry Schwabsky reviews the Jeff Koons retrospective currently on exhibition at the Whitney. “The survey of his message of hope,” Schwabsky writes, “left me feeling hopeless. I’m just not good enough at being the disinterested viewer to find myself cheered by a cheerleader for the neoliberal economy, no matter how brilliantly inventive.”

Similarly, in a review of the 1989 Whitney Biennial, the late American philosopher and longtime Nation art critic Arthur Danto skewered a solo Koons exhibition of that year as “a vision of an aesthetic hell.” An excerpt from that essay is reprinted below.

In the waning weeks of 1988, it was impossible to meet an art-worlder who was not burning to know what one thought about IT. IT could refer to nothing but the Sonnabend Gallery exhibition of recent works by Jeff Koons, a young and fiercely entre­preneurial artist who stood, it was re­ported, to gross $5 million if, as seemed likely, he were to sell out that show and two others exactly like it being held con­currently in Cologne and Chicago. A fair amount of critical boilerplate had been generated in response to Koons, all of it of the tiresome order that speaks of commodification, simulacreation and late capitalism—categories that apply, unfor­tunately, to so many things that it would be difficult to explain on their basis the peculiar frisson felt by those who attend­ed this show. “A new low” is what Hilton Kramer of course wrote, but he writes in much the same way on just about every­thing (“depressing,” “distressing,” “ap­palling,” “sad!”), and like a broken clock whose hands point always to the same black hour, is irrelevantly predict­able and critically useless: You can always tell what time it says (“later) but never what time it is. But even those who are immeasurably more responsive to the serious issues posed by contempo­rary art were airing a question that I thought long dead: Is it (is IT) art? And it struck me that the one sure formula for artistic success in New York is to produce a body of work that causes those who think they have seen every­thing to wonder afresh whether some important boundary might not have been transgressed.

The boundary between art and nonart appeared to me sufficiently elastic that it could easily contain most of what I had seen up to then of Koons’s work. The 1987 Whitney Biennial, for example, displayed a fishtank in which two basketballs were immersed and a somewhat prophetic stainless steel replica of a plastic bunny. It was explained to me with great patience that it is exceedingly difficult to partially immerse basketballs as Koons had learned to do by consulting with engineers from M.I.T.; I had read of a collector who, having purchased one of these works, was thrilled that Koons had agreed to install it himself. But neither this misapplied technical virtuosity nor the vapid steel bunnikin would be enough, in 1988, to arouse a vexed query as to their arthood. It was plain that something more powerful, more threatening, even, was drawing the glazed and jaded of the art world, almost against their aesthetic will, to Sonnabend’s for a perverse flutter. In the Republic, Plato writes of Leontius, son of Aglion, who once glimpsed some corpses of executed men: “He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, ‘Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.” This earliest discussion of what the ancients termed akrasia, or weakness of will, fit the common conflicted attitude of the art world to perfection in the case of Koons. I knew I was in for something morbid when, out of a pretended sense of critical duty, I paid my visit to “the fair sight.” I found the things terrifying.

There is an order of imagery so far beyond the pale of good or even bad taste as to be aesthetically, and certainly artistically, disenfranchised. Objects that belong to it are too submerged even to be classed as kitsch, for kitsch believes itself to be the high taste it instead pathetically parodies. I am referring to such things as cute figurines in thruway gift shops; the plaster trophies one wins for knocking bottles over in cheap carnivals; marzipan mice; the dwarves and reindeer that appear at Christmastime on suburban laws or the crèche figures before firehouses in Patchogue and Mastic; bath toys; porcelain or plastic saints; what goes into Easter baskets; ornaments in fishbowls; comic heads attached to bottle-stoppers in home bars. Koons has claimed this imagery as his own, has taken over its colors, its cloying saccharinities, its gluey sentimentalities, its blank indifference to the existence and meaning of high art, and given it a monumentality that makes it flagrantly visible, a feast for appetites no one dreamt existed and which the art world hates itself for acknowledging. There was a figure of a man smiling with intolerable benignity at an armful of blue puppies that haunts me like a bad dream. The aggregation of rebarbative effigies at the Sonnabend Gallery was a vision of an aesthetic hell.

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As it is the mission of the Whitney Biennial to display the leading artistic productions of the preceding two-year period, it was of course mandatory that this year’s show should include a representative sample of Koons’s latest work. There are three pieces: a porcelain girl, busty and lusty, smiling in rapture as she presses a Pink Panther toy to her bosom; a John the Baptist in a shaggy porcelain garment, smiling over a penguin and a piglet with gilded snout and trotters; and a stack of wooden barnyard animals in graduated sizes, with an immense simpering pig as anchor-brute. (Koons’s figures are executed for him by Italian craftsmen.) You will certainly want to see these preternatural vulgarities, if only for the pleasure of clucking over the state of an art world that hath such creatures in it. But their effect is somewhat muted by the circumstance of being shown with other things. Part of the aesthetic terrorism of the Sonnabend show lay in the fact that nothing was there except Koonses, so one had the scary sense that his killer chotchkes had taken over the world. Each augmented the presence of each and amplified its in­credibility. But at the Whitney, some­how, the objects have subsided into giant bric-a-brac, and this may be one of the costs of the necessary pluralism and the salon format imposed upon biennials, where Koons is just one among the main artists to have done something worth singling out over the past two years.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Brief Interviews With the Hideous Cheneys

Tom Tomorrow

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