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This Is How to Create a Green Economy That Works for All

Solar panels

Reuters/Steve Marcus

For most Americans, typically, making sure this month’s rent gets paid unfortunately ranks higher than stopping a future sea-level rise. So in his first term, President Obama framed his environmental messages around “green jobs,” with a focus on the economic benefits of “clean tech,” rather than the less politically popular imperative to curb dirty power industries or avert the impending ecological catastrophe.

But today, with chaotic weather and collapsing infrastructure turning climate change into an immediate social and economic crisis right in our communities, can the economic arguments for a green transition go beyond jobs and toward changing the way our neighborhoods and workplaces operate?

While Washington dithers, a few enterprising towns and cities have been figuring out locally based strategies to decarbonize, and revealing valuable global lessons about reorganizing their economies. In Massachusetts, the Green Justice Campaign, an offshoot of Community Labor United, an alliance of unions and advocacy groups, started with a simple plan: weatherize local homes and leverage public funds to curb carbon consumption and cut energy bills.

The organizers put grassroots muscle behind Washington’s feel-good rhetoric on the green economy and went to people’s doorsteps to recruit households and local workers, negotiated with vendors and pressed state officials to enact broad emissions-reduction standards and support for renewable energy transition. Though it operated on a small scale, the green agenda was ambitious in treating the community like an ecosystem—a collaborative climate adaptation fueled by their own labor and serving families’ material needs.

The coalition’s principles of “green justice” foregrounds economic equity for immigrants and people of color. Working-class communities of color do, after all, have a special stake in the climate change battle, since they are disproportionately burdened by the social and health problems posed by carbon-driven industries.

Under a set of new state policies aimed at promoting energy efficiency and green-technology development, the coalition crafted a weatherization project around a grassroots workforce program to give local workers a deep investment in the energy transition. Advocates worked with communities to push for structural changes in the home renovation sector, which was largely non-unionized and minimally regulated, and rife with abuses such as unsafe working conditions and wage theft.

To ensure decent working conditions, the coalition built solid labor standards into the contracting process, including protections for occupational safety and regulatory oversight of workplace conditions. The coalition also helped broaden access to jobs for poor and disadvantaged workers by pushing strong protections against employment discrimination and the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. The program also included commitments by the firms to subcontract with union workers to help raise wages and job security.

In their evaluation report, the coalition concluded, “the gains we have made will ensure an estimated $14.3 million in collective wage gains for weatherization workers each year.” As more homes get fixed up, they yielded savings on residential energy bills, income gains for workers, and on the environmental side, a cleaner, less carbon-heavy environment for local communities. All that in turn saved the state tens of millions of dollars, the group says, which would otherwise supported benefits like food stamps, Medicaid and, yes, home-energy subsidies.

The big data might not mean much to local families who are more worried about making rent than preserving glaciers, but Green Justice offered them a clear “value proposition:” on top of engaging officials and mainstream environmental groups, the group observed, “We also won credibility by bringing a new dimension to the discussion—equity.”

The project is modest in scale, but stands as a model of a collective social contract that connects the dignity of work and the integrity of the environment. Rational climate policy doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to work within the complexity of human ecology, turning social tension between communities and natural resources into momentum for social change.

Labor is at the center of that equity concept. Environmental-labor coalitions advocate for high-caliber clean energy jobs programs, based on comprehensive training and apprenticeships, which track people into living wage jobs with health and retirement benefits, backed by union representation.

But a job that is labeled “green” is not necessarily better or more secure. According to a workforce analysis by Jobs for the Future, some of the workforce programs created in the wake of the Recovery Act stimulus faltered because training programs were too short-term or inadequate for tracking workers into technology-based “green collar” careers.

An investigation by Good Jobs First on the contracts awarded through the federal stimulus revealed that some companies reportedly resisted workers’ efforts to unionize, or were known to outsource production to low-wage countries. Unionization levels in the new green jobs supported by the Recovery Act are not particularly high. In this aspect, what many activists had hoped would be a Green New Deal contrasts starkly with the original New Deal labor programs, which boosted unionization and incorporated organized labor in industrial planning and regulatory policy.

But maybe the focus shouldn’t be on funneling workers into the green industries, but greening the labor movement. In Europe, where labor institutions wield more political clout, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has campaigned for a “just transition”—a social program that aims to support workers and communities affected by climate policy. While European governments have relatively strong policies on reducing emissions, labor has been a major political champion of social policies that respond to the climate crisis, including job transition programs for workers affected by an energy transition and economic supports for poor households burdened by high energy costs.

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For example, labor groups across Europe have organized campaigns to push for transportation policy reforms. They see this effort as more than just a boost for green infrastructure projects; it will also benefit workers more practically, by alleviating urban pollution, promoting public transit over car dependency, and easing the economic barriers facing poor and marginalized communities that are isolated from local labor markets.

Denis Benjamin, adviser to the ETUC, tells The Nation that as oil, gas and coal facilities are phased out, “we need strong social protection systems… We need also to enhance and enlarge the rights of workers to be consulted on environmental issues, energy issues within companies. We really think that the strength of social dialogue must be a tool of the transition, in order to allow workers to anticipate change, and also to be drivers of this change.”

When workers gain democratic control over their energy futures, they won’t just be trying to cope with climate change, they’ll be overturning entrenched economic structures, and in the process they’ll be resisting the forces that exploit their labor the same way they exploit the earth. A real green energy transition could effectively transfer power from the hierarchy of a carbon-based economy to a new system, from which workers will have a lot to gain.

Read Next: Michelle Chen asks, “Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?

Georgia’s ‘Guns Everywhere’ Bill and How to Fight Back

Nathan Deal

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal speaks in Marietta. (Public Information Office/Flickr)

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation today that will vastly expand the places where Georgia residents can legally carry firearms, a proposal that has drawn both praise and scorn from outside groups.

“People who follow the rules can protect themselves and their families from people who don’t follow the rules,” said Deal, adding: “The Second Amendment should never be an afterthought. It should reside at the forefronts of our minds.”

House Bill 60 allows Georgians to legally carry firearms in a wide range of new places, including schools, bars, churches and government buildings. The law, which takes effect July 1, also legalizes the use of silencers for hunting, allows school staffers to carry guns in school zones and lets leaders of religious congregations choose to allow licensed gun holders inside. It also allows gun owners to carry their weapons in government buildings—including parts of courthouses. Critics have dubbed it the “guns everywhere” bill for its broad scope, and opponents including former Representative Gabby Giffords and Georgia law enforcement tried to block its passage. The National Rifle Association lauds the bill as “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history.”

If you’re like me and think expanding gun rights will actually make society less safe, then this law looks pretty awful. The other side of the coin, though, is the increasing support for regulation of firearms propelled in part by an angry grassroots disgusted by the more than sixty school shootings since Newtown and, in part, by elite opinion and financing on the part of power brokers like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The convergence of these forces can be felt most recently in the launch of Everytown for Gun Safety, a joint project of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Everytown is a movement of moms, teachers, survivors, gun owners, mayors, faith leaders, law enforcement officials and other responsible citizens who believe we can do much more to keep our families and communities safe from gun violence. For the first time in history, a disparate group of Americans are mobilizing to create a counterweight to the NRA to fight for effective regulation at the federal, state and local level.

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Everytown will address issues like background checks, domestic violence, suicide prevention and safe storage of guns. Every day, eighty-six Americans are killed by gun violence. Who knows how high that number will go with bills like what Georgia has passed today. To learn how to resist this lethal trend, visit Everytown.org.

 

Read Next: Elizabeth Warren’s new book reads like she’s running for president.

Stephen Cohen: As US Rushes Into New Cold War, Where Is the Debate?

“It is one hand—the hand of war—clapping,” said Nation contributing editor and Russia historian Stephen Cohen during an appearance on the John Batchelor Show Tuesday. With US troops headed to the Baltic states, Cold War rhetoric spewing from the mouths of US officials, and Obama effectively abandoning Vladimir Putin as a negotiating partner, Cohen suggests that a prolonged Cold War–style conflict between Russia and the West is all but inevitable. And if this new Cold War turns hot, says Cohen, American journalists and our “spineless” political class are partially to blame. The absence of a substantive debate—in the media or Congress—over the prudence of the administration’s Russia policy, Cohen said, “is a crushing defeat for democracy.” He added, “I don’t understand how these people are going to explain themselves to history.”
Sam Adler-Bell

The Week of Student Sit-Ins

CIYJA

A sit-in at the DC office of Xavier Becerra. (Photo: CIYJA)

Last spring, The Nation launched its biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on youth organizing—from established student unions, to emerging national networks, to ad hoc campaigns that don’t yet have a name. For recent dispatches, check out January 27, February 10, February 26, March 7, March 21 and April 8. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch.

Contact studentmovement@thenation.com with any questions, tips or proposals. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).

1. As Congress Sits, LA Youth Storm the Capitol

This month, affiliates of the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, including the Orange County Dream Team and the National Queer Trans Latino@ Alliance, rallied in DC as members sat down, and were arrested, at the congressional offices of Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra. We entered with letters outlining demands that both leaders, as member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, make use of their political power to ask president Obama to stop all deportations by expanding deferred action for all. As a member of the NQTLA, I also advocated for members of the LGBTQ community who are in the process of deportation—for some, a death sentence in their countries of origin. Locally, we will continue organizing through #not1more and #migrantlivesmatter, while demanding Sanchez’s public support.

—Luis Ramirez

2. As Obama Talks Civil Rights, Students Rail on Hypocrisy

On April 10, as President Obama gave the keynote speech at the University of Texas–Austin’s annual Civil Rights Summit, the University Leadership Initiative, a United We Dream affiliate, organized more than 100 students and community members to gather in solidarity with the immigrant community. The group called out Obama, whose administration has overseen record deportations, for his hypocrisy in speaking on civil rights. Three leaders separated from the rally and moved toward the LBJ Library with the intention of delivering this message to the president. As guards told us that we were not allowed to continue, we peacefully sat at their feet, the crowd began sharing stories about family separation and we were arrested. Along with another ULI representative, the three of us had spent the previous night chained to the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on campus to stand with King’s dream.

—Emily Freeman, Alejandra Gomez and Patrick Fierro

3. EMU v. the Emergency State

In the summer of 2011, Eastern Michigan University president Sue Martin, at the behest of the university’s unelected regents, secretly signed into existence the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, the receiver and privatizing agent of Detroit’s “lowest-performing” public schools. The EAA has fired school employees en masse, subjected them to at-will contracts and stripped working-class communities of color of their democratic powers. On April 14, as part of a now five-month escalation plan, the Coalition of People Against the EAA, composed of students, faculty and residents, launched a sit-in in at the president’s office, demanding that Martin remove her signature from the agreement. Thus far, the sit-in has been the site of a noise jam, teach-ins and a concert by DC punk artist Spoonboy. Our organizing will not cease until the inter-local agreement that created the EAA is dissolved.

—Coalition of People Against the EAA and Students For an Ethical and Participatory Education

4. USC v. the Retail Empire

For eight months, students from the University of Southern California have been calling on the university to terminate its contract with JanSport, whose parent company, VF Corporation, is responsible for the deaths of twenty-nine Bangladeshi garment workers and displays a continuous disregard for worker safety. Sixteen other universities have already cut ties with VF Corporation but USC’s administration has firmly refused to change course. On April 15, eighteen students occupied President Max Nikias’s office in protest of this decision, while a group of 100 students rallied outside. Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue with students, administrators called protesters’ parents, threatening expulsion and revocation of scholarships. After four hours, we marched out of the building, vowing to continue our fight.

—Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, USAS Local 13

5. Wash U v. Peabody Coal

Students at Washington University in St. Louis are entering the third week of a sit-in at our admissions office to pressure Chancellor Wrighton to sever ties with Peabody Coal. Peabody CEO Greg Boyce sits on the Wash U board of trustees, and in 2009, Peabody donated $5 million to launch the school’s “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization.” We believe that the school’s close relationship with Peabody legitimizes its practices—which include contributing to climate change, exploiting workers and relocating indigenous Navajo and Hopi people at Black Mesa, Arizona. The occupation, which began on April 8, comes on the heels of the student-led Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence at San Francisco State University, which brought together 200 student leaders from over 100 campuses nationwide.

—Leslie Salisbury and Brendan Ziebarth

6. #StandWithMonica

Since a wrongful arrest in May 2013, students at Arizona State University have been rallying to support the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Phoenix in demanding justice for Monica Jones, a student at the ASU School of Social Work and trans rights activist who was profiled by the police during a prostitution diversion program called Project Rose. Run by the School of Social Work in collaboration with the Phoenix Police Department, Project Rose creates a coercive environment by forcing those arrested to choose between a lengthy diversion program or a potential criminal record. ASU students have worked with SWOP Phoenix to gather hundreds of petition signatures demanding that the charges against Jones be dropped and Project Rose end its association with ASU. As Jones’s case moves forward, we will continue supporting the call to action put forth by SWOP Phoenix to stop profiling trans women of color and decriminalize sex work.

—ASU Students With SWOP Phoenix

7. #JusticeForCecily

On April 11, the trial of graduate student Cecily McMillan began in New York City criminal court. McMillan is facing seven years for felony assault of a police officer. Her supporters say that it was she who was sexually assaulted and brutally beaten into a seizure. The Justice for Cecily Team, activists from diverse backgrounds, ideologies and groups, including Occupy Wall Street and student organizers, is running court support—from social media and press outreach to fundraising and community events. The team has curated a website, Celly and ongoing event page for supporters to stay up-to-date as McMillan’s trial goes into its third week. Our overarching aim is to pack the courts with press and supporters to draw attention to this case and the underlying issues of police brutality, sexual assault and civil rights infringement that are common practices in the NYPD.

—Justice for Cecily Team

8. On Day of Silence, GSA Leader Stays Locked Up

Gay-Straight Alliance and immigrant youth activists have united behind GSA Network alum Yordy Cancino and all undocuqueer youth seeking asylum. Yordy, who worked to transform school culture in Los Angeles as GSA president at Animo Jackie Robinson High School, has been held in an ICE detention facility in San Diego since mid-March and faced a judge and potential deportation on GLSEN’s Day of Silence. More than 1,000 GSA leaders and alumni answered the call to action, contacting ICE and signing the #GSAs4Justice petition to free Yordy and all youth in detention. After several excuses from ICE, Yordy is still being detained.

—Mario Vasquez

9. With TRUST Act in Hand, Orange County Youth Blitz ICE

On April 7, Kareli Barrera was arrested by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department. After seeing a judge, she was set to be released, but the department held her to allow ICE to pick her up. While Barrera’s charges are not listed as crimes for which detention is authorized, on April 14, the department transferred her to ICE—a violation of California’s TRUST Act. Since then, Resistencia, Autonomia, Igualdad, lideraZgo, or RAIZ, the Orange County chapter of the Immigrant Youth Coalition, has bombarded ICE with calls and e-mails to demand it halt Barrera’s deportation. While the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit eventually granted Barrera an emergency stay of removal, she is still in detention in Orange County. This fight builds on RAIZ’s Keep Our Families Together campaign to end the police-ICE collaboration in Orange County and efforts resisting the high rates of undocuminor referral to ICE by the Orange County Probation Department.

—RAIZ

10. Napolitano’s Judgment Day

On April 9, 2014, a coalition of University of California–Berkeley law students, alumni and undergraduate students came together to protest Janet Napolitano’s human rights violations, her appointment as UC president and her appearance as a judge in the law school’s esteemed McBaine Moot Court Competition. Law students demanded her removal from the competition, which those responsible for the event rejected, insisting she contributed to “intellectual diversity.” In response, a small group of law students of color organized a rally before the start of the competition, disseminated information and dropped a banner reading, “Berkeley Law Students say NO 2 Napolitano.” Additionally, a group of five law students sat through the competition and disrupted Napolitano’s concluding comments by revealing a banner and chanting, “No to Napolitano!

—Monika Y. Langarica

11. Illinois’s Coming Out

Throughout April, undocumented youth and allies held Coming Out of the Shadows actions across Illinois. At Chicago’s Federal Plaza, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Waubonsee Community College in Aurora and Bensenville, the message was clear: deportations need to end, and our universities need to create financial and academic resources for undocumented students. Universities were asked to improve opportunities for undocumented students by opening up and recruiting funding for in-house scholarships, training university counselors on best practices, assisting with post-graduation job placement and taking public stances on immigration legislation and discrimination.

—Rigo Padilla

12. I, Too, Am CU

In March 2014, students across the University of Colorado–Boulder, inspired by the spread of the #ITooAmHarvard campaign to other campuses, organized an I, Too, Am CU photoshoot and Tumblr. With Audre Lorde’s quote, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” as a unifying theme, the campaign accrued more than thirty student statements and videos, as well as widespread staff support via #WeWorkatCU. I, Too, Am CU welcomes participation from anyone at CU who has experienced marginalization and institutional oppression on campus—from testimonies on in-class and peer-to-peer discrimination, to talking back to Steven Hayward, after the conservative scholar made a series of inflammatory comments about CU students. Rather than representing a singular, or racialized, struggle, our campaign will continue to push for solidarity among marginalized groups.

—Tamara Williams Van Horn

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13. Restart OU

On April 17, a coalition of student activists won a majority of seats, and effective control, of the student government at Ohio University. Campaigning as “RESTART,” with the avowed intention of radically overhauling and democratizing student government, we began as an alliance of activists from a variety of student organizations connected to the Ohio University Student Union, which has been organizing around issues ranging from the school’s tuition hikes, to the university’s plan to build a $90 million cogeneration gas plant, to the culture of rape around campus. We draw inspiration from the student movement continentally—including Montreal, where the transformation of student unionism led to a one-year strike. Moving forward, we intend to mobilize the student body around the need for a more affordable tuition model, build student associations in every department and ultimately replace the representative model of student government with a participatory one.

—Ohio University Student Union

14. Who Rules Northeastern?

For the past year, students at Northeastern University have been campaigning alongside adjunct faculty in their fight for a union. On April 16, the Empower Adjuncts Community Coalition, a group of students, workers and community allies organized by the United Students Against Sweatshops visited the deans of five colleges on campus. These visits were in response to e-mails with anti-union rhetoric sent by the deans to adjunct faculty. While students played noisemakers and ate pizza in the offices, the deans were told that pizza was only for those who did not attempt to interfere with the democratic process of unionization—a tongue-in-cheek warning that they will be held accountable for attempting to intimidate adjuncts as their voting period begins. After the delegations, Northeastern agreed to stop sending out anti-union e-mails.

—Empower Adjuncts Community Coalition

15. How to Stop Street Harassment?

On April 5, the media literacy/activist project Fostering Activism & Alternatives Now!, or FAAN Mail, joined International Anti-Street Harassment Week, a global campaign to raise awareness about gender-based street harassment. We recognize that unwanted attention in public spaces is both a global and local problem. In Love Park, we soap-boxed, muraled and performed street theater that enabled people—including children and male allies—to reclaim public space, share their stories about street harassment and address this problem in creative ways.

—FAAN Mail

 

Read Next: Catch up on last week’s most intriguing reads.

Christie Hones His 2016 Stump Speech at a Chamber of Commerce Event

Chris Christie

Chris Christie in 2009 (AP Photo/Christopher Barth)

Last night, appearing at a dinner sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce on its annual “Walk to Washington“—actually, participants ride Amtrak from Newark—Governor Christie used the occasion to issue a blistering, traditional Republican critique promising major new cuts in state spending, pensions and healthcare benefits, and more. While it appealed most of his audience, which included the cream of the New Jersey business community, it was also calculated to underscore Christie’s appeal to GOP voters around the country, part of Christie’s gradual effort to kickstart a presidential campaign stalled by the scandals that have plagued him since last fall.

Last night, introduced by New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President & CEO, Tom Bracken—who didn’t mention the scandals except to refer to unnamed “distractions”—and by James Fakult, president of Jersey Central Power & Light, Christie didn’t say a word about Bridgegate, the conflict-of-interest scandal that brought down David Samson, the Christie-appointed chairman of the Port Authority, or the controversy over the misuse of Superstorm Sandy aid since 2012. But speaking just blocks from the White House, where he hopes to reside in 2017, he did warn that, in the next year or so, he’ll be pushing for tough new austerity measures and holding the line against taxes.

Bizarrely, Christie was named “Father of the Year” yesterday, and he was a stern, disciplinary father indeed, saying, “It’s time to dig in and make a few people unhappy so the greater good can be achieved.” And those “few people” are teachers, public employees and disadvantaged New Jerseyans.

Back in 2011, along with collaborationists among New Jersey’s conservative Democratic political bosses, Christie enacted sweeping and painful cuts in health benefits and pensions for teachers and public-sector workers, along with tax caps and wage-increase caps. Now, in 2014, he’s demanding yet another round, though Democrats seem less inclined to go along this time. (At the reception before last night’s dinner, one top Democratic insider who works for a legislator in Trenton said that not only won’t Democrats back Christie’s call for a new round of cuts, but that many Democrats don’t even expect that Christie will be around a year from now—either he’ll resign in disgrace, if the scandal hits home, or he’ll be off and running for president.)

Still, last night Christie was playing to national Republicans, touting his record as an austerity-minded, anti-union Republican in a deep-blue state. New Jersey, he said, is facing two paths: on the first, “once again, [to] increase taxes, not do anything about spending and once again burden the businesses of the state.” On the other, more pain for people who depend on state pensions and other benefits. He cited his controversial success in imposing a 2 percent cap on annual rises in property taxes statewide, which has severely undercut the ability of towns, cities and counties to spend any money, and he demanded that the New Jersey state assembly enact yet another arbitration cap on state salaries for public-sector workers. Either that, he said, or they’d face “broad layoffs.” Bombastically, he warned that the state is spending more money on healthcare for retired workers—people who, Christie said, “are doing nothing”—than it does on healthcare for current employees. To continue doing that he said, will turn New Jersey into Detroit.

Courage, said Christie, “means looking people in the eye and telling them that they’re getting less.” And all of this, he reminded his audience, will be “an example for our entire country.” Clearly, Christie hopes that GOP primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are paying attention.

But the scandals aren’t going away, to say the least. Yesterday, the state legislative committee investigating Bridgegate said that it will issue subpoenas for four key players in the events surrounding the lane-closings, including the executive director of the Port Authority, Patrick Foye, who blew the whistle on Bridgegate early on. Others being called are Christina Genovese Renna, who served as Christie’s director of intergovernmental affairs; Michael Drewniak, his spokesman, who apparently learned of the lane-closings last fall from David Wildstein, the orchestrator of the closings; and a Port Authority commissioner, William Schuber.

Among the attendees at last night’s dinner was John Wisniewski, the New Jersey assemblyman who co-chairs the investigation, along with State Senator Loretta Weinberg.

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Schuber, a little-known player in the scandal so far, could be an important witness. He was subpoenaed by Wisniewski and Weinberg in February for documents related to Bridgegate. What’s interesting about the subpoena, besides the fact that he was one of a few PA people subpoenaed, is that they asked for records from September 1, 2012, to today that have any information about lane closures of September 2013. That would imply they wonder if he was part of the planning for it. Schuber, who served as Bergen County executive for twelve years, got a letter from Weinberg on September 19, 2013, asking him to look into why the lane closures occurred. Since he was a former top official of Bergen County and a PA commissioner she said she expected him to be interested in how the lane closure hurt Bergen County, adding that he would be expected to want to prevent it from happening again. But she didn’t hear anything from him. He is reportedly a friend of both Christie and of Bill Palatucci, Christie’s long-time top political aide, who sat on the dais last night with the governor.

Read Next: Christie is using his ties to Romney to kickstart his 2016 bid.

Obama’s Free Trade Agreement Ignores the Scandal of Rana Plaza

Rana Plaza

In front of the Rana Plaza site, Abdur Rahman holds a photo of his wife, Cahyna Akhter, who was killed there. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)

On the editorial pages of The Washington Post, the White House chief of staff was trying to pump up some enthusiasm for its still-secret trade agreement among a dozen nations, the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership. But at The New York Times, the editorial writers were getting off the team. The Times is a long-loyal advocate of free trade, but its Sunday editorial was riddled with doubts—the very same doubts critics like The Nation have been articulating for more than twenty years.

“This Time, Get Global Trade Right,” the Times suggested. Americans, it noted, are “increasingly anxious about the downside.” So is The New York Times. To get the public and Congress on board, it said “the administration must ensure that new agreements are much stronger than NAFTA and other pacts.” Done right, US trade policy “could reduce abuses like sweatshop labor, currency manipulations and the senseless destruction of forests. They could weaken protectionism against American goods and services in countries like Japan.”

Don’t hold your breath. That is not where the president is headed. Washington cynics assume Obama will find reasons to postpone a showdown on trade until after the fall elections (just as he’s done on the Keystone pipeline decision). Then the White House will try to soften up opposition among Democrats, assisted by a lot of heavy-breathing corporate lobbyists. If Republicans capture the Senate this fall, Obama can get help from the GOP.

One thing missing from Obama’s negotiating strategy is the scandal of Bangladesh. The US and European garment industries have concentrated production there to capture dirt-cheap labor and the corrupt, compliant government willing to ignore the flagrant abuses of sweatshop labor. Last year, some 1,100 people were killed there when the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka collapsed. The Times itself seemed particularly upset. When other mass killings in southeast Asian factories had occurred during the last twenty-five years, the newspaper declined to dig deeper, framing the deaths as an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable part of global development. “Two cheers for sweatshops,” Times pundits used to say.

Only these horrendous events did not go away. They got worse. This time, to its great credit, Times reporters stayed on the story and are closely following the aftermath of controversy and reform. This week, it reported on the rivalry of two garment industry organizations over how to prevent another catastrophe. One group, the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety, includes more than 150 companies, mainly European, and has an explicit commitment to cover the costs of creating safe and sound factory buildings. The other group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, is dominated by Walmart, Gap and Target, and it does not actually require the companies to fund factory improvements, according to Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

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The Accord, unlike the Alliance, helps workers form unions so they can do their own surveillance of working conditions. Activists with United Students Against Sweatshops are bluntly skeptical of Alliance claims. “We need to do a better job as an organization in telling our story,” an Alliance advisor said. Scott Nova simply sees the Alliance as Walmart’s artful public relations to dodge responsibility.

So who is missing from this fight? Barack Obama. If he wished to persuade skeptics of his good intentions, he could address the problems of Bangladesh’s garment industry quickly by changing US trade policy. He should be proposing new rules for importers who manufacture their products overseas. No more sweatshops or dangerous buildings where innocent workers lose their lives making clothing for Americans. The legislation could be straightforward and no more complicated than many existing laws on imports. To enter US markets, the garment importer would have to certify the the goods were not produced under sweatshop conditions. Any importer who violates the law gets a huge fine. Repeat offenders would face boycott.

In other words, the “crime” should punish the real culprits and many of them are in American retailing. Scott Nova believes the industry group called Accord is making encouraging progress. “What we really need,” he said, “is legislation that imposes fines on the companies. As long as you allow importers with impunity to import goods made in appalling conditions, you are going to get a lot of goods made in sweatshops.”

Read Next: Bangladeshi garment workers fight back.

Elizabeth Warren Wants to Give Students a Fighting Chance

Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the launch of Higher Ed Not Debt, March 2014. (Credit: Layla Zaidane, Generation Progress)

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.

As commencement season approaches, graduating students will soon hear words of wisdom from speakers offering experience, advice and inspiration. One thing they’re not likely to hear about is the $1.08 trillion elephant on the quad—our nation’s student debt crisis.

That is how much US households are estimated to owe in student loans, twice as much as in 2007. In fact, student debt now exceeds credit card debt, putting millions of families at risk of bankruptcy. Forty percent of households headed by someone under the age of thirty-five are saddled with student debt, unable to buy homes, raise families and secure their futures. This doesn’t just hold back individuals—it holds back our economic recovery. Meanwhile, Congress manufactures false debt crises instead of solving this very real one.

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Enter Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who intuitively understands the urgency and scale of the crisis. Indeed, Warren is not just a longtime student of bankruptcy in the United States, but someone who understands what it means for a family to be at risk of losing everything. As she writes in her new book, “A Fighting Chance,” out today, the rules are such that a sudden event—divorce, illness, unemployment—can pull the rug out from under anyone. “A turn here, a turn there, and my life might have been very different, too,” she writes.

Editor’s Note: Click below to listen to Elizabeth Warren read from the prologue to the audiobook version of A Fighting Chance.

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.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Time to Return Earth Day to its Radical Origins

Earth Day 1970

Over 20,000 people attended the first Earth Day observance in Philadelphia, April, 1970. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

Two years ago, Mark Hertsgaard argued in The Nation that “instead of rallying public pressure for far-reaching reforms, Earth Day is becoming, at least in the United States, a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt.” He proposed that an effort to “save Earth Day” should be focused on returning the day to its radical origins:

Frustrated by such cynicism, some environmentalists have called for abolishing Earth Day. But that would be throwing the baby out with the polluted bathwater. Instead, why not recall the real history of Earth Day and revive its original—and much more demanding—vision?

Little remembered today is the fact that even the first Earth Day itself, back in April 1970, occurred amidst vigorous internal debate among environmentalists as to whether it represented a genuinely promising burst of ecological consciousness or was merely a crafty diversion on the part of an establishment eager to redirect the energies of young activists away from the more pressing, more sensitive issues of race, poverty and the Vietnam War. In an April 6, 1970 article in The Nation, the Chicago-based journalist Raymond R. Coffey examined how students and professors active at the University of Michigan’s “teach-in on the environment” that March—the precursor to the first official Earth Day the following month—were deeply conflicted about how quickly mainstream politicians acted to co-opt their event.

Ecology has become a very important issue on campuses this season, and this teach-in was the forerunner—a kind of model—for thousands of college and high school colloquia to be held on April 22, dubbed “Earth Day” by the sponsors. The beleaguered environment is the kind of issue, some think, that might capture the idealistic spirit and the concern of young people as did the Peace Corps and Vietnam….

The attractiveness of environment as a political issue is fairly obvious. An uncompromising stand against dirty air and for clean water should win votes, and hardly hits the same mark on the controversy scale as does taking a strong position on Vietnam.

Coffey then quoted several Michigan students who noted that it was precisely the issue’s attractiveness to politicians which ought to given environmental advocates pause.

“I’m uneasy about why we’re here,” [James] Shapiro, a new hero of the New Left told the crowd of 15,000. “I think maybe we’re here to waste our time. I think some people want us to divert our energy…to forget there is a criminal war going on in Vietnam…to forget that 50 million people in a country that put a man on the moon don’t have enough to eat.” …

Barry Bluestone, a graduate student in economics and a veteran of political movements on the Michigan campus, told a reporter that he believes leaders in the political and industrial establishment are deliberately pushing the environment issue “to take some of the force out of the anti-war, anti-racism, anti-poverty issues.” And even [Douglas] Scott, the teach-in co-chairman who has been largely nonpolitical as a student, said many young people suspect their concerns are being diverted by the environment cause.

While conceding that “it was by any reckoning an extraordinary happening,” Coffey wrote that “some of the stunts—such as sledge-hammering an old automobile into junk after convicting it of pollution in a mock trial—seemed on about the level of panty raids, but panty raids with a conscience.” Yet he acknowledged that “much of the activity was a good deal more sophisticated than that.”

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The students’ incipient concerns with Earth Day were reflected twenty years later in a characteristically fiery but sobering essay by Kirkpatrick Sale, later a Nation contributing editor, titled “The Trouble With Earth Day.”

In general the environmental organizations in this country and the official agencies that have grown up in response to them have not, over the past two decades, gotten beyond the most elemental Where-does-it-hurt? questions; certainly they have not raised the deeper, subsequent questions or demanded the still deeper answers. Earth Day 1990, I regret to say, for all its ballyhoo and good intentions, has moved not one step out of that mire….

It is an operation—however well meaning, however many good people involved—that is, at its core, a shuck. For after telling us where it hurts, it gives us only the most simplistic sorts of remedies. Its first is personal “life-style” Band-Aids for hemorrhaging wounds and do-it-yourself surgery; its second is the nostrum of federal laws and regulations, providing the patient with more of the kind of cures that created the disease. And it never gets around to asking—much less proposing answers for—those fundamental questions this society must be forced to face: Who, really, is causing the degradation and destruction of the environment? How can they be stopped, and stopped short, not just “regulated” and “overseen” and reformed? Why has society allowed this to go on, to the point that all oxygen-dependent species, including humans, are imperiled, and why do we seem powerless to prevent it? What would it take to accomplish the serious, wrenching, full-scale readjustments that in fact are necessary to save the earth, including reduced standards of living, consumption and growth; severe population reduction; and a new, modest, regardful relationship with the earth and its species? Who is going to carry this literally vital message to the American people? And when? For the time, as every new crisis lets us know, is later than we think.

But importantly, Sale did not think Earth Day entirely without value, and his conclusions are as valid today, a quarter-century later, as they were in 1990.

However, I do not despair of Earth Day entirely. I belong to three organizations that will be taking part in activities of one kind or another in New York City; I will be participating in a couple of forums and giving a talk during Earth Week; and I will get up early on Sunday to travel out to the middle of Pennsylvania to give another talk on Earth Day itself. It is obviously a time when at least some part of the population will wish to hear messages about the earth, and they need not all be shallow and individualistic.

In short, we must make of Earth Day what we can. Many I know will take the opportunity to criticize it, in a friendly fashion, and to educate when and where they can. Many will regard it as an occasion to organize and recruit for one righteous cause or another. And many will treat it merely as day one of a campaign to carry on with the spirit of Earth Day (or their version of Earth Day) in a more concerted and farseeing way.

Whether in 1970, 1990, or 2014, the most important day to advocate for the Earth is not April 22nd—it’s April 23rd.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

 Take Action: Stop Cove Point

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Elizabeth Warren May Not Be Ready to Run for President, but Her Book Is

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren, testifies before the Senate Finance Committee.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The measures of books written by politicians are never simply literary.

Books written by the women and men who might, maybe, just possibly run for president are invariably judged by electoral standards.

So it is that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s fine new book, A Fighting Chance, will be assessed both for its composition and for its potential to spark the popular uprising that might make a reasonably populist Democrat a contender for the presidency, the vice presidency or a top cabinet post in a next administration.

Warren says she is not running for president in the 2016 Democratic nomination contest that too many pundits have already decided will be won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—just as they had already decided the 2008 nomination fight for Clinton. Warren’s statements have been consistent in that regard. On the CBS Sunday Morning program this week, she was pressed repeatedly on the issue. “I’m not running for president,” Warren reiterated, cutting her interviewer off with a warning that “you can ask it lots of different ways” and still get the same answer.

Warren has a reputation as a straight shooter. But even straight shooters have been known to resist entreaties to seek the presidency, or to accept an invitation to join a national ticket, right up to the point at which they hear the siren call.

Candidates and potential candidates write books for two reasons. At their worst, they seek merely to advance their own ambitions. At their best, they seek to frame the debate—not necessarily with a precise platform; often with an ably developed premise, as was the case with the two best-selling books that a young Barack Obama wrote before launching a presidential bid that in its early stages was grounded at least in part on a stack of favorable reviews.

But reviews, and even sales, do not necessarily translate into votes. The finest “idea” book written by a political figure who was angling for a presidential run, Wendell Willkie’s 1943 text One World, got him precisely nowhere in his 1944 run for the Republican nod. Folks showed up at Willkie events seeking autographs on their copies of the enormously popular book and then voted for Tom Dewey or Franklin Roosevelt.

It was different with John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1957 book that positioned a very young Massachusetts senator as both an intellectual and as something of a bipartisan prospect for the presidency. And his impressive collection of foreign policy observations, 1960’s Strategy for Peace, helped Americans to imagine how the Democratic nominee would chart a course through Cold War politics. The first book was critical to getting Kennedy into the 1960 race as a serious contender, the second provided him with foreign-policy credibility for a contest with Vice President Richard Nixon.

Warren’s text is a relatively standard political book, as least in comparison with those by Willkie, Kennedy and Obama. But it strikes the right ideological tone for a moment in which Warren’s long-term issues—income inequality, middle-class misery, Wall Street excess and accountability—have finally gotten notice from a traditionally neglectful media, and from a Democratic Party that is in need of a new playbook.

It is with all of these understandings that the professor-turned-senator’s tenth book enters the long list of political tomes that will be read not only for their ideological insights but for hints about practical politics.

Let’s begin by stipulating that, apart from any political calculus, Warren has written a good book. It’s appropriately biographical, relatively frank and quite strong with regard to the pathologies of our politics and our economics. The book is at its best when it explores those pathologies, as when Warren recounts her effort to establish and lead what would become the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Recalling a meeting with Congressman Michael Grimm, R-NY, she writes: “When I launched into an enthusiastic description of what we were trying to get done at the agency, the congressman looked surprised. After a bit, he cut me off so he could make one thing clear: He didn’t believe in government.” Warren wryly observes that Grimm believed in a lot of government—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for which he worked before embarking on a political career, and the “government-paid health insurance [he got] when he joined Congress”—“but not other forms of ‘big government’ and certainly not a consumer protection agency.”

Warren’s book is tougher on Republicans than Democrats, despite the fact that Democrats were responsible for many policies and approaches she opposed as a crusading Harvard Law School professor and ally of the late Senator Paul Wellstone. She generally goes easy on the Clintons and is gentle with Barack Obama—though she does do some damage to Larry Summers, whose Diet Coke–drenched seminar on how to be an insider Warren recounts to devastating effect.

The senator seems most comfortable in the realm of ideas and debate, especially when she goes after those who would have the government stand down as a regulator and enforcer of the rules.

“We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if ‘big government’ disappears, so will society’s toughest problems,” she writes. “That’s just magical thinking—and it’s also dangerous thinking. Our problems are getting bigger by the day and we need to develop some hardheaded, realistic responses. Instead of trying to starve the government or drown it in the bathtub, we need to tackle our problems head-on, and that will require better government.”

With knowing references to right-wing dogma, those lines are being read as a shot at Tea Partisans such as Ted Cruz and sort-of-libertarians like Rand Paul. But Warren goes a good deal deeper, pressing the point that government is needed. It’s a personal message, rooted in her experience as a girl growing up in a working-class Oklahoma family.

The biographical sections of the book are the most poignant, especially as the senator recalls her mother, shaken after Warren’s father suffered a heart attack and afraid about losing the family home, pulling on a best dress and heading out to take a low-wage job. Warren makes the right connections, arguing in conversations about this story that, “we came right to the edge of losing our home. My mother saved our home with a minimum wage job. But in the 1960s, a minimum wage job would support a family of three above the poverty line. Not today. Not even close.”

The reasons why it is “not even close” are highlighted throughout Warren’s book, in which one chapter is titled “Bailing Out the Wrong People.” But the real heart of the matter was summed up in the working title of this book, Rigged—“It refers to how the economic system’s too often rigged against families who work hard and play by the rules—and how it’s loaded in favor of those with money and power,” she told an interviewer last year.

Book titles change for a lot of reasons.

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But no one should miss the point of the title change for this book. Warren and her publisher decided that Americans don’t need another bummer book about a broken economy. They need some hope that a rigged system can be fixed so that it doesn’t always favor “those with money and power.”

A knowing optimism is better for book sales.

It is, as well, better for presidential bids.

There is little reason to disbelieve Elizabeth Warren when she says that “right now” she is focused on electing populist Democrats like Iowa’s Bruce Braley and South Dakota’s Tim Weiland to the US Senate, and on keeping that chamber in Democratic hands. But should Democrats find themselves casting about for a populist in 2016—either because a front-runner stands down or because economic justice issues take precedence—there is good reason to believe that they might be drawn to a potential candidate whose book announces, “I’m here to fight for something that I believe is worth absolutely everything: to give each one of our kids a fighting chance to build a future full of promise and discovery.”

Editor’s Note: Click below to listen to Elizabeth Warren read from the prologue to the audiobook version of A Fighting Chance.

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