Pleading for Player Power

Pic-University_of_Missouri_PlayersNew Orleans    In the United States, from place to place, Thanksgiving comes with its own set of traditions enhanced by families and friends.

One of my first Thanksgivings away from home while on my brief on and off collegiate tour, the details are now lost in the fog of memory, but somehow I ended up, likely with a friend, invited by a generous soul to her Italian family’s late afternoon dinner in the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens, where multiple courses were served, accompanied by wine, all of which seemed revolutionary to me at the time and for which I am still thankful.  Another year, in Springfield, Massachusetts, my brother came over from New Jersey, while we were living there, and Barbara Rivera, one of our spectacular welfare rights leaders invited us all over to her house for a Puerto Rican flavored Thanksgiving dinner, still remembered by both me and her family.

For years when we were young and had grandparents in the delta of Mississippi, Thanksgiving meant a drive up from New Orleans for family and a feast.  There was always divinity fudge, one of the great inventions in candy-land, and jam cake, which has become a family tradition from grandmother to mother to now daughter.  And, in Mississippi before, during, and after a huge, piling heap of food was offered and consumed I now know not only there, but in much of the rest of the South there was football, one game after another.  Now with its increasing popularity there’s basketball, too.  In the South, there’s also the mandatory nap option that has to be squeezed in during half-times or blowouts.   Sometimes it’s even funny to read in the paper as pro-ballers talk about what it might be like to have a Thanksgiving at home.  The crocodile tears are flowing everywhere now, I know they are.

The business of sports though has become simply sports as business, and that’s not something to be thankful about.  Living in the heartland of the big college football power conference, the South Eastern Conference, where football often seems to pass the line between sports and religion, it may be the biggest business of all.  In Louisiana, the coach has lost three games in a row and despite perhaps the winningest record of almost any coach anywhere, a national championship on his record, and several SEC titles, yet some of the heavy breather alums are talking about paying gazillions to buy out his contract that’s good until 2019.

Meanwhile, one of the newer SEC teams at the University of Missouri may not be leading the league in the win-loss column but has shown how semi-professional college players can stand up for themselves and others.  The NCAA fought the Northwestern players hammer and tong, but despite their billion dollar bottom-line mentality, collective action by the players works, no matter what the lawyers might want and wish.  Now some pundits are calling for coaches and basketball players to get into the act to push back at the NCAA and its unaccountable and arbitrary way of dealing with current and prospective players, including recruits from all over the world.  The price of the first coach standing behind his players may have been the heave-ho in Missouri since even though the President and other bigwigs fell by the wayside, the athletic director was still standing, and may not have been a solidarity-forever guy, no matter what the coach claims.

If sports, professional and amateur, is going to be part of our contemporary culture in coming years, and run as a body killing, youth stealing, child labor sweatshop, then the workers,  paid, unpaid, and exploited need to exercise their market power and bring them to their knees.  For my part I think Thanksgiving and New Years’ Day would be the perfect tactical times for football and basketball players to stand up and stand together to force some change.

I would definitely interrupt a nap for that kind of action!

What Goes Around, Comes Around, Even for Presidents like Wilson

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

New Orleans     A saying with common currency in recent years has been, “haters gonna hate.”  An old one that seems almost timeless from the later part of the last century is, “what goes around, comes around.”  As a matter of long standing record, I’m rooting for campus protestors these days on the issues of race and sexual abuse, and campuses around the country continue to heat up, reminiscent of the good old days of some of our youth around both issues.  

            Coincidentally, I happened to be on a Skype call yesterday with a New York based publisher, who mentioned at the end of our call that he had graduated from Princeton and how proud he was of the protest and sit-in on his old campus around the issues of Woodrow Wilson’s blatant racism.  Though many know Wilson as the World War I president along with his failed leadership to create the League of Nations, which later laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United Nations, fewer are familiar with his hardcore racism, including expressed sympathies for the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. 

            Some hearing this unwelcome and tawdry news about a former US President from Virginia might say, “Well, he was a man of his times.”  Hmmm….yes, perhaps, if his times were the mid-1800’s rather than 100-years ago.  Furthermore, the protestors have it right.  They’re not just picking on him long distance from Princeton, New Jersey to Washington, DC, since he was also later the President of Princeton University and is honored widely on campus with buildings bearing his name and an Institute and scholarships as well. 

            What goes around, comes around when the arc of justice bends our way though, and this may be the moment.  In a moving op-ed in the Times, Gordon Davis, a lawyer, wrote of his grandfather, John Abraham Davis, who had passed the civil service exam, along with many other African-Americans in late 19th century when the federal service outlawed discrimination.  He had started on the bottom but had worked his way up to being a mid-level supervisor of many including whites at the Government Printing Office, making decent, middle class wages appropriate to his 30 years of seniority.  Within months of Woodrow Wilson becoming President his administration rolled all of that progress backward as the President and his appointees, including in the Post Office where there had been a deliberate campaign promise to re-segregate especially in the south.  Davis wrote that his grandfather lost the family farm after being demoted to menial jobs at hugely reduced pay, and died a broken man rather than the respected member of the community he had been.

            Princeton should feel the heat, and they must make the change.    The publisher immediately understood that.  My brother with a PhD from Princeton would have been clear about this as well.

            Presidents should worry about their legacy and the judgment of history.  Bill Clinton still has much to do to outrun the pain inflicted by his program to “end welfare as we know it” and kowtow to Wall Street by eliminating Glass-Steagall and helping usher in the Great Recession.  George W. Bush no doubt reads daily of the disasters in Iraq still and the ripple effects throughout the Middle East including in Syria.  Lyndon Johnson knew that despite many legislative accomplishments that there was no way to get Vietnam off of his shoes.  No amount of spinning can ever make Richard Nixon look good, and so it goes on and on.    Barack Obama is wildly trying to sprint faster to make change in the last two years of his term after disappointing so many in his early years.

            The rich and powerful should never sleep soundly without being very, very careful about the certainty that for many, what goes around will indeed come around. 

Redefining Employment Status Is Just Exploitation by Another Name

 lobbyNew Orleans     Tech lobbyists, led by Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are now spending almost as much as the automobile industry on Washington, DC lobbyists.  That’s not good news for the rest of us.

            A lot of the lobbying, according to recent reports, at both the federal, state, and local level is from Uber and the Uber-wannabe companies that have a huge vested interested in promoting the so-called “gig economy,” as if it is a revolutionary and utopian step forward for workers.  It almost goes without saying that anytime companies start claiming that what they think is best for their workers, eyebrows and probably voices need to be readied and raised in protest. 

            Uber, as many urban dwellers know, is the high flying tech company that is hard to define somewhere between being an application that consumers can carry on their smartphones to a huge employer of drivers, according to most recent rulings by labor standards regulators in the state of California.  They see themselves in tech-speak as “disruptors,” and in this case they disrupt the taxi industry and the huge number of drivers who work in that, admittedly imperfect, world where workers are already routinely misclassified as subcontractors already.  Uber’s defense in legal proceedings filed by some of its drivers in California is that people just love this part-time, no benefits, casual, work.  Maybe some do, but many don’t.

            Other tech companies in the wannabe Uber world are also trying to develop apps that will replace full-time workers with casual, contingent workers.  Some, sniffing the legal pleadings and understanding that the breeze is not blowing these days in favor of more worker exploitation even in this Age of Inequality in the USA, actually have done the right thing and classified their workers as employees, just as they should.  Crying like stuck pigs, they have jumped into the lobbying game because they want to see if there’s some way, some loophole, some wink-and-nod that would allow them to reclassify their workers as free agents and on their own.

            You might ask the reason they offer about why this is new and different?  Well, they say, to no one’s shock, that it cost them money:  social security payments, unemployment, health insurance, and workman’s compensation – the whole package.  How does that sound like a “new economy?  In fact it seems word to word like exactly the same complaint that employers have been making for decades as they plead for the right and wherefore to be able to completely exploit their workforce and then walk away when they are out of work, elderly, hurt, or sick.

            The answer from Washington, state capitals, and city halls needs to be the same to these new hustlers as it should be and sometimes has been to the old employers:  shut up and pay up!  Hiring workers is not a license for exploitation.  We have an app for that and it’s called laws that prevent it.

Is the Chattering Class Calling for the Poor to Organize?

ACORN PLATFORMNew Orleans   The darned poor! They are so exasperating! They won’t get jobs, when there are no jobs to be gotten. They won’t simply abandon their children, when there is no daycare they can afford or place to put them. They still want to eat even when they don’t have enough money for food. They won’t get off the streets, just because they don’t have homes. Perhaps worse, some believe that they’ll always be with us.

And, now some in the chattering class are calling for the poor to rise up and organize and do something about this inequality problem that the rich insisted successfully for so many years was the only way to go.

Alec MacGillis, a political reporter for ProPublica, recent author, and former reporter for The Washington Post and The New Republic writing about the paradox of poor areas voting for politicians who want to sock it to ‘em and the Democratic Party’s loss of the white working class, especially in rural areas, asks the question in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?”

His answer, so to speak, is a stab in the dark, more a prayer than a wish. He says, “For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs. This is no easy task with the rural poor….Not helping matters in this regard is the decline of local institutions like labor unions….” Then rather than actually spelling out how poor people in general, or in rural areas where it is even harder, are going to get this organizing and mobilizing done, he shifts to his second answer of sorts and that has to do with reducing “…the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst.” He concludes his lengthy piece with the conclusion that, “If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities – not least by turning out to vote.”

Like I said, he’s clueless and reduced to wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams, but worse, he seems to be blaming the poor for the resentment others might feel about them, and in some convoluted and crazy way saying miraculously if there are less of them needing benefits, then others will hate them less, and then somehow low income folks will come out of the shadows and vote. Unbelievable. The nation has decimated the welfare population since Bill Clinton’s presidency, but now almost twenty years later there’s no fading of resentment, heck, politicians are still targeting the ones that are left and moving on after the working poor and seeing if they can take away their food stamps to boot. Vote, heck, if people mobilize and organize, you better hope they stumble on voting as a program!

Even esteemed sociologist and well-known author, William Junius Wilson seems confused about all of this. Earlier in the Times he was quoted saying, “Unfortunately no one has organized for these poor people. There is not a mobilization of political resources among the poor.” When I first read it, I said, “Right on! Look Professor Wilson is advocating that the poor organize! About fricking time!!” Then I read it more carefully. What does he mean, “…organized FOR these poor people?” Is he thinking about calling Ghostbusters or somebody to go advocate for the poor? Like MacGillis he seems to want to see “redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs.” Meaning poor people. Wilson wants there to be “a mobilization of political resources among the poor,” but is he blaming the poor for not mobilizing their own “political resources,” like MacGillis was blaming them for calling resentment down upon themselves, or is he asking for someone somehow to get the poor moving, like MacGillis is hoping maybe the Democrats will shake off their doldrums and do?

Hey, don’t get me wrong, these are guys that know better and the times are hard and at least they are trying to say the right thing and calling for organization of the poor, which makes them special and super in my book, even though they both seem hopelessly confused about what that might mean and how it might be done.

Look, I know quite a bit about the ways and means of organizing and mobilizing the poor, and the one thing I can guarantee is that it will NOT reduce resentment and when they start voting and winning, the wrath of the powers that be will be called down upon them and then Wilson, MacGillis, and others like them had better not be in the long chorus line claiming they are asking for the right things just not going about it in the right ways, but they better be in the amen section. In the meantime, they and others who understand there has to be organization of and by the poor, need to put some money and muscle where their mouths are. There are plenty of people ready and able to see the job done, but it takes more than wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams to make it happen. Believe me!

Lightning Strikes and a Democrat is Elected Governor in the South

JBE_001New Orleans   Even when State Representative John Bel Edwards from small town Amite, Louisiana, known for little of nothing other than being near where Abita beer is made and on the way to Mississippi, led in the open primary against three Republicans, when asked about his real chances of winning, I was doubtful. He wasn’t the first Democrat to lead a primary race after all. The trick in recent years has been hanging on.

Edwards though ended up with a smashing, almost historic runoff victory, unseating the conservative Republican two-term sitting U.S. Senator David Vitter and administering a butt whipping with nearly a 150000 vote margin and winning by 56% to 44%. In ruby red Louisiana, in recent years a Republican stronghold, Edwards becomes the first Democrat in eight years to win a statewide election. In the Republican solid South with the recent defeat of Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Edwards will also soon become the only Democrat sitting in the governor’s chair in the South.

The pundits are careful to underline that Edwards’ victory does not mark a sea change, but something more akin to a rogue wave. True or false?

Well, it’s true enough that Edwards is a blue dog Democrat rather than a yellow dog one. He’s pro-gun and anti-abortion though wisely not foaming at the mouth on either issue. Significantly, he also benefited from long family and political ties to the critical local law enforcement groups and even won the association of sheriff’s endorsement. He also has a military background including West Point in his resume which meant his only experience with camouflage pants wasn’t while touring the set for Duck Dynasty like either Vitter or Louisiana’s occasional governor and until recently full-time presidential aspirant, Bobby Jindal. Nonetheless, he was enthusiastically endorsed by labor, and wildly loved by the teachers’ unions for his opposition to charters, privatization, and vouchers, which have been constant Jindal themes. He was also clear in a state with more uninsured than any other that he would expand Medicaid thereby embracing the Obamacare punching bag. He also had hardcore business opposition for his pledge to create a state minimum wage where now Louisiana has none.

The Kentucky strategy of tying Edwards to Obama to defeat him was a total loser though, even though it had worked for Vitter in the past. So, learn from that, pundit posse!

One clear lesson, always true and worth remembering, has to do with arrogance. Vitter’s history in the Louisiana legislature and in Congress has been to always fly solo while pointing his fingers at colleagues and trying to shame them for this and that. It turns out that what goes around, comes around, and Vitter was completely alone at the end. His Republican opponents either took a walk or endorsed Edwards calling Vitter “vicious” and a “liar. Voices in his support were few and far between. It turns out that if are a mean, self-servicing, son-of-a-bee, eventually it will bite you, and if you add hypocrisy to that, whoa, Nellie, you’re going down.

Another lesson has to do with competence in actually governing, rather than purity in ideological posturing, both administered by the Bobby Jindal ego-trip. When it’s Republicans in charge from top to bottom and the state is in a total fiscal and economic mess, and the majority of the citizens are hurting, eventually that bill will come due at the polls. Jindal for eight straight years had a budget that by constitution had to be balanced returned for fixing or fudging by the legislature, while kowtowing to out of state ideologues. The first rule of all politics is that you have to tend to your own base first, and the corollary should now be that if you worship at the altar of Republican orthodoxy and forget that rule then change is going to come.

It’s worth remembering that decades ago politicians and political scientists from V.O. Key onward once believed that the solid South meant everyone was a Democrat. Some thought, wrongly, that would last forever. I can remember my father saying he never had a choice in Louisiana about whether to register as anything but a Democrat or he would have only been able to vote once every four years for President, and he was right. The pendulum can and will swing, and the more the Republicans go harder and harder right, leaving more and more people out of the sight and out of mind, the more likely their dominance will be as temporary as it has been painful for people.

Models, Replicability, and Getting to Scale


Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, MS speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, September 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenge to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

New Orleans    Talking on KABF’s Wade’s World to Kentaro Toyama, tech wizard, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and for now a Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, was fascinating. As we went back and forth about his stimulating, bubble-bursting book, we talked a bit about the problems of scale, much needed, but hugely difficult to achieve in social change, as well as technology, and maybe joined together, twice as hard for all I know. This is something that Toyama is still spending a good chunk of time thinking about and researching now as well, and he was he was spot on in calling me out as well for having spent decades on the practical problems of achieving scale in community and labor organizing.

Toyama might call it something different, but the problem and potential starts very simply, though many might both disagree and ignore this, by looking backwards. To get to scale something has to be replicable. To be replicable it has to work. To work in many places there has to be a model. If it isn’t replicable, it may be an innovation, it may be a revelation, it may be the best thing since slice bread in whatever field of endeavor, but whatever “it” may be, no matter how wonderful, it’s not a model.

Not to get off on a tangent, but it is amazing how many people stumble right at the gate and blur the distinctions by referring to one-off experiences as a model even though they have not been duplicated and perhaps are unable to be duplicated. A sure sign is in the “secret sauce.” If it’s a secret, it’s not a sauce easily cooked by others, so it may be amazing, award winning, and game changing, but it is not a model, and it will live – and die – right where it was born in all likelihood no matter the ingredients.

Organizing is an amazingly creative and courageous affair for many. I’m now reading a book about the civil rights organizing in Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta being done by SNCC and Mississippi Summer workers in the early and mid-1960’s, which is always inspiring. Having spent time there over the years, where my grandparents lived and my mother and her brothers were born and raised, all of the little, similarly sized towns would seem about the same to someone just driving through, and most would just step on the gas and be done with it. Ruleville though was a hot bed of organizing, while Drew, only a few miles down the road, was a wasteland. The organizers were the same, their approach, their canvassing, their issues, and their campaign was all about the same, but there was never what might be called a model, because with replicability in an organizing model, there also has to be a high level of predictable success within acceptable ranges. Ruleville turned out to have a different economic base allowing more membership protection. Ruleville also had Fannie Lou Hamer, an exceptional, unique leader to keep the fight welded together and sustain the momentum. Leadership is central in all effective organizing models, but for a model to work it has to depend on standard off-the-shelf, garden variety leadership – and organizers – within the range of normal human capabilities, rather than unique one of a kind leaders like Hamer or organizers like Bob Moses.

There have to be resources, there has to be sustainability, and there even has to be a reasonable expectation of success in widely different situations and environments before there is a model. Too many simply think if something worked well one place, it’s just add-water-and-stir, put in more, and wham-bam, there will be more, but even before we cross the bridge in creating social change to scale and the myriad challenges and obstacles that lie on that road, if there’s not a real model as the foundation, none of us will be able to get there from here.