Sarah Jaffe on the Verizon strike, Tom Hayden on AFL-CIO’s condemnation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Britney Wilson on a welcome change in the prisons


VERIZON WORKERS STAND UP: On August 7, 45,000 workers at Verizon, represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, went on strike, becoming the latest front in an ongoing battle that has taken on national significance, as the financial crisis exerts a heavy toll on union workers and their paychecks.

While governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio attack public sector workers, massive—and massively profitable—corporations like Verizon have demanded givebacks from their workers even as their executives rake in the cash. The unions estimate that the wage and benefit reductions amount to $20,000 per worker per year.

The weak economy has forced people across the country to accept wage and benefit cuts or take new jobs that pay far less than they were making, out of fear that the only other option is unemployment. But the Verizon strikers joined protesters in Wisconsin and Ohio in saying that it’s not fair for working people to face austerity while the rich get tax cuts and bonuses.

The Verizon strike ended after two weeks, with participants returning to work on August 22, after the company agreed to resume bargaining with the unions. It was the country’s largest strike since 2007, when General Motors workers left their posts for two days. But that strike took place in a radically different context, before the economic crisis and the ensuing loss of millions of jobs. Americans have seen companies like Verizon return to profitability, while the rest of us are still struggling. Working people who are standing up for their rights and demanding what they’re owed are standing up for all of us.   SARAH JAFFE

THE AFL-CIO SAYS ENOUGH: In a victory for the progressive movement, the AFL-CIO has condemned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “militarization of our foreign policy” and a “costly mistake.” Its statement, adopted on August 3, is the most forthright in the history of a labor movement marked by pro-war allegiances and reflects a deep sentiment among working families, a large majority of whom oppose the wars, according to one longtime labor official in Washington. Much credit goes to the patient bottom-up organizing by US Labor Against the War and others, who solicited endorsements from hundreds of local and mobilized labor contingents at countless rallies across the country.

The AFL-CIO officially opposed the Iraq War at its 2005 convention. But the organization was supportive of military action in Afghanistan, or at least reluctant until recently to oppose the administration’s policy. For example, at a closed meeting last year, the labor federation refused to participate in a large Washington march if the demands included withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Judith LeBlanc of Peace Action, the new stance “opens the door to more intense activity at all levels of the labor movement to partner with community, social service, religious, student and other organizations for racial and economic justice in an effort to turn back the deficit mania sweeping the country and establish new priorities in public policy that create jobs and provide the social services people need.”   TOM HAYDEN

MAKING STUDENTS PAY: A new report from the New York Federal Reserve shows that student loans have increased dramatically in the past decade. Since 1999, outstanding student loan debt has soared from $90 billion to $550 billion—growing more than $110 billion in the past three years alone. And students aren’t just taking on more debt; they’re also having more trouble paying it back. Payments on more than 11 percent of student loans are more than ninety days late.

Washington is only making the problem worse. Since President Obama signed a sweeping overhaul of the student loan system last year, the industry and for-profit colleges have fought back, donating millions to candidates in the 2010 midterm elections and maintaining a large lobbying presence in DC. In some cases, the industry is even paying Congressional staffers. In July it was revealed that Peter Warren, a former industry lobbyist and top staffer for Republican Representative Darrell Issa, is still receiving benefits from the industry’s lobbying group. That money has certainly made a difference: the debt deal recently approved by Congress eliminates the federally subsidized graduate student loan program. And GOP presidential candidates have supported slashing Pell Grants and easing regulations on the predatory loan industry—making college not just more expensive but riskier as well.   KEVIN DONOHOE

CHANGING COURSE ON PRISONS: After four decades of relentless expansion, state legislatures are finally shuttering prisons, according to a new study by The Sentencing Project. As many as thirteen states have closed, or are considering closing, prisons in 2011. The reason: they are too expensive. In Michigan, for example, the corrections budget makes up almost a quarter of the general funds for the state.

When it comes to solutions, Michigan is largely leading the way: since 2002 the state has closed twenty-one facilities, thanks to sentencing reforms like replacing “mandatory minimums” for drug offenses with sentencing guidelines in which judges can use their discretion. These kinds of changes have had a significant impact.

Still, this apparent silver lining to the fiscal crisis does not erase the dark cloud that looms. Economic shortfalls have also led to cutbacks to programs that offer alternatives to prison and help lower recidivism, and some people argue for privatizing prisons, claiming it will save states money, despite evidence to the contrary. While financial woes may present opportunities for reform, those fixes are not a cure-all for the problem of mass incarceration.   BRITNEY WILSON

REWARDING FEMINIST JOURNALISM: Congratulations to Laura Tillman, who was recently honored with a 2011 Maggie Award from Planned Parenthood for her article “Crossing the Line,” published in the September 13, 2010, issue of The Nation. Tillman’s piece was supported by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, as was another winner, “Not a Lone Wolf,” by Amanda Robb, published by Ms. magazine.

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