School Is In Session: How one history professor is modeling the future of labor education

(This piece originally appeared at Hack The Union.)

Sometimes, the greatest ideas and innovations begin unintentionally. So it was with #SaturdaySchool, the weekly Twitter social justice teach-in hosted by Rhonda Ragsdale, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice and Associate Professor of history at Lone Star College:

“On Saturday mornings, my children would be asleep and I decided to make that space a time for myself. But I didn’t want to really get out of bed or do any work, and seeing as I always had a technological device in my hand, I would always do these teaching rants on some article I had read. And some of my followers started calling this ‘Saturday School’, and tweeting ‘Hey look, @profragsdale is doing Saturday School again.’”

#SaturdaySchool has become a weekly get-together for progressive and leftist activists on Twitter to share information and gain a greater understanding of the issues that affect our communities. It is a fun way to engage those who work both in and out of various progressive causes. But as Ragsdale pointed out in my interview with her, she is simply following a long-held tradition in American social movement activism.

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Power of the People: Remembering Senator Martin Nesbitt

I didn’t know him personally, but I had watched and listened to him. And I was moved. In a time when complacency and silence plagues much of mainstream political discourse, even in public service capacities, I had always been moved to listen to Sen. Martin Nesbitt speak. Not only did he speak, but also people listened in my home state of North Carolina. In a time where we are still fighting against the stereotypes associated with using a southern accent, he did not hide his drawl.  As I think about how quickly and what a shock his illness and death occurred, I continue to return to Joan Didion’s words in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

While life certainly changes fast, one thing that will steadily stay in my mind about Sen. Nesbitt is his work for keeping the people, the grassroots, at the forefront of the political and policy conversations for my state. He made strong statements in the North Carolina General Assembly during points when it would be easy to be silent, to feel silenced, to feel like it would do no good. Yet, he did not forget to speak up and speak up loudly. He will be missed. As I think about the upcoming elections and moving North Carolina forward, not just in a “is this candidate electable” way but in a “is this candidate electable AND gives a damn” way, I think about Sen. Nesbitt’s work; I hope that we carry his work with us as we press forward.

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Rest In Power: A Remembrance of Chokwe Lumumba

When it comes to politics and policy, I would not consider myself to be a particularly cynical person. Far from it actually; my faith in the power of social movements and grassroots change would not be as strong as it is if I did not hold to the notion that we will see an ultimate victory over the inequalities and oppressions that plague our society. I believe in people, and I believe in communities.

However, it would be accurate to assume that I do not have much faith in politicians or the political parties from which they emanate. I am, after all, old enough to remember a Barack Obama who said that he would walk a picket line as President and repeatedly affirmed his support for a public healthcare option. The breadth of politics today has become a game of Team Blue vs. Team Red, and opposition is based less on ideas than the jersey you wear when you take the court. After all, if it were a Republican Congress and President that had signed a bill that slashed food assistance for low-income families, funded the government on the backs of government employees, and ended unemployment benefits that are still necessary in a sluggish economy, many of the Democratic cheerleaders for “bipartisanship” and “compromise” would be a bit more muted in their praise.

So suffice it to say that when a city councilman named Chokwe Lumumba announced that he was running to be the mayor of Mississippi’s capital city, I was skeptical. Having met Chokwe through her work at the ACLU of Mississippi, my wife told me that he was a legit radical. As I looked him up, that much became evident: student radical who once occupied buildings at Western Michigan University in protest of the paucity of Black faculty; former second Vice President of the Republic of New Afrika; founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; and the lawyer for the Scott Sisters. There was no doubt that this was a person who went the extra mile for his community. Yet as I observed his campaign, I came to the same conclusion that I am sure a lot of other people came to:

He won’t win.

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How The UAW Lost Chattanooga.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

“Neutrality should mean ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit’ not ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit as long as you use the outhouse’” -Brett Banditelli

There is no question that the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) failure to organize at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, TN is significant. It is the first time UAW has brought a strategic campaign targeting the so-called “transplant” automakers to a National Labor Relations Board ballot since it lost to Nissan in 2001.* Secondly, it is the UAW’s first new campaign in the South since that crushing loss. Thirdly, this election was touted as a new model by both VW executives and UAW leadership, seeking to create a “works council” at the plant in Tennessee similar to ones in existence at every other VW plant. More on that last point later.

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A Bundle Worth Keeping: Critiquing “The Unbundled Union”

In recent years, we have seen an explosion in activism around the issue of economic inequality. The frustrations that many low-income people feel at a slow economic recovery and a continued assault on the American welfare state have culminated in a slew of direct action by individuals, labor unions, and other progressive organizations. While the policy outcomes generated from these actions have been mixed, it is undeniable that the issue of poverty and income inequality commands a place in the economic policy discussion that has not been seen since the end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency.

In addition to the concerns about economic inequality, the lack of representational equity for low- to middle-income workers has also been a rallying point. The failure to pass a farm bill has led to the reduction in food assistance that working families receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while the companies that they work for continue to rake in record-setting profits. The same gridlock that has delayed the farm bill’s passage would likely delay any policy proposal that could ameliorate the problem of stagnating wages as well. And through all of this, the conversation about revving up the American economy has focused less on solutions that would impact low- and middle-income families and more on things like more tax cuts, which would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. Attempts by Congress to ameliorate this representational inequality through policies such as campaign finance restrictions have largely been ineffective, as the wealthy and their advocates were able to circumvent the procedure through myriad loopholes (the infamous “social welfare organization” loophole being one of them), culminating in the Citizens United ruling that effectively gutted America’s campaign finance regulations.

Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard, correctly attributes representational inequality to the decline of the labor union in America. Labor unions were strongest as arbiters of economic and representational equality, he states, when they had the ability to pressure lawmakers into supporting progressive legislation that leveled the economic playing field. This was done through an organizing apparatus that was able to mobilize workers for direct action on Capitol Hill and turning out on Election Day, as well as building a lobbying apparatus that could effectively push labor’s priorities in Congress. Sachs’ central argument is that this political power has always been tied up in the collective bargaining of wages and benefits by workers at their respective workplaces. He calls this “a highly contested form of economic organization”, meaning that the opposition to a labor union’s entry and continued operation at a workplace is always under attack, usually from both external political forces and company management. As anti-union forces became more successful at reducing the ranks of the unionized rank-and-file, the political machine that churned out policy victories for working people slowly began to wither.

Sachs’ solution to this problem, and the larger issue of representational inequality, is to decouple the political and economic functions of a labor union, and change labor law to allow employees at a particular workplace to form “political unions”. These unions would enjoy the same advantages that have traditional unions have enjoyed in the workplace, namely:

  1. The ability to use the shop floor as a locus for organizational activity,
  2. the ability to use the employer’s payroll function as a means of funding union activity,
  3. the ability to use the company’s information that has been gathered about their employees, and
  4. the protection of workers against retaliation by their employer for engaging in union activity.

Sachs makes it clear that he proposes the political union not as a replacement for collective bargaining efforts, but rather as a complement. But as I will point out through the course of this piece, the birth of the political union could end up doing just that: replacing hard-won gains in collective bargaining with a toothless form of worker activism.

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How to Win Elections and Fix Bad Policies: A Leftist Blueprint for Remaking the Democratic Party

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

The status quo in the Democratic party is an unholy mess. This is true at all levels of the party, but especially so in the South, where most state parties are in an unacceptable state of disarray. Our nation is at a juncture where leftist politics and policy have started to re-enter the realm of the feasible. Certain progressive dream policies like Medicare for All and raising the minimum wage are now actively debated and discussed after the failures of pro-corporate policies have become manifest. And yet, the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic state parties in the South risks the best chance since the demise of the postwar consensus and the rise of neoliberalism to fundamentally move this country’s politics to the left.

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#GiveToWendy: Wendy Davis and our collective fight as Southern progressives.

Wendy Button FINAL FB cover

The story of the South has been written through the coverage of its seemingly larger-than-life politicians, and Texas is no exception to that. There’s James “Pa” Ferguson, a “wet” (anti-temperance) Governor who was impeached from office in 1917, only to have his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, sent by popular vote to the Governor’s Mansion on the slogan, “Me for Ma, and I Ain’t Got a Durned Thing Against Pa.” There’s W. Lee O’Daniel, the flour magnate known as “Pappy” who turned his popularity from both business and music into a term as Governor and a term as a U.S. Senator (and serving as the inspiration for Charles Durning’s character in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, also named Pappy O’Daniel). In that 1941 special election for the U.S. Senate, he would become the only person to ever hand an electoral defeat to a then-little-known Hill Country Congressman by the name of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who would go on to do some great things in his own right. And who can forget about Ann Richards, the quick-witted State Treasurer who once told us about the silver foot that was firmly lodged in Vice President George H.W. Bush’s mouth? She would also be elected Texas’ 45th Governor in 1990, defeating a colorful politician who will forever be known for comments that were, well, off-color, to put it mildly.

Into this political tradition steps Wendy Davis, a State Senator who seized the hearts, minds, and computer screens of liberals and progressives across the country with a 11-hour filibuster against SB5, a bill that would have shuttered many of the state’s abortion clinics by placing onerous and expensive regulations on them and their doctors with the hope that they would be forced out of business. While the law was eventually passed and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, he had to call a second special session to do so, as Davis, her fellow Senate Democrats, and thousands of activists in the Texas State Capitol ran out the clock and killed the bill at midnight on June 26, 2013. It was an energizing synergy of grassroots activism and steely legislative determination of the likes unseen in Texas, or rest of the South, in more than a generation.

And it was not even her first time filibustering bad policy: two years prior, Davis forced Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) to call a special session of the Texas Legislature as she filibustered draconian funding cuts to the state’s education system.

But while all of that was amazing to have witnessed, that is not why Wendy Davis gives me hope. This is:

“U.S. Sen. John McCain won 52.1 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential race, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won 53.3 percent in the 2012 presidential race in that district, and Gov. Rick Perry won with 52.7 percent in 2010.”

Wendy Davis represents a solidly Republican district. And yet, she has shown progressive leadership on two issues that are under constant attack from conservatives all across the South: education and reproductive rights. She has won against all odds time and time again, for us. And now she needs our help once again.

A Wendy Davis victory will provide the blueprint for progressive victories across the rest of the South, and will show that our issues and votes matter just as much as the conservatives that Democrats always prioritize over us. That is why this fight does not belong to just the people in Austin, or El Paso, or the colonias along the Rio Grande Valley, or the thick pine woods of East Texas. This fight belongs to all of us as Southern progressives. Period.

As such, we must #GiveToWendy anything we can over the next thirteen months. Phone calls, door knocks, time for data entry, blog space, tweets, Facebook statuses, anything that we can muster.

Also, we must give our money. Think of it as an investment in a new South that will see all of its citizens as equals. Think of it as paying it forward for your progeny; they will appreciate a South that believes in healthcare, education, and socioeconomic security as rights for all, and not privileges for a few. I will be thinking of my grandmother when I donate, who did not battle the forces of oppression through her lifetime in order to see hard-won freedoms for communities of color and women rolled back by politicians whose odious policies always fall on the backs of “the least of these”.

Please join The South Lawn in supporting Wendy Davis as she leads the charge for a new South. Our future depends on it.

You can donate here.

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