The Peoples’ Climate March Demonstrates the Danger of the Numbers Game

New Orleans  There are many iron laws in organizing, and one of them has to be that the more any tactic is repeated, the less effective it becomes.

The so-called resistance may be on the verge of painful reality, as the triumphant numbers of the Women’s March in late January was followed by disappointing numbers in the Women’s followup, and even smaller numbers in the parade-like, rather than protest-like, recent Science March. The related Peoples’ Climate March was this week’s march story with a march on immigrant rights and protections scheduled for the next week.

The Peoples’ Climate March was met by news that a federal judge may have approved the Trump Administration’s executive orders to delay and likely dismiss the last of President Obama’s climate protection orders. They did stumble on a small piece of luck as reportedly “tens of thousands” surrounded the White House. For a change President Trump was not enjoying another taxpayer funded golfing weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, but was actually at the White House trying to establish that he was hard at it on the 100th day of his presidency. We can hope he looked out the window and that he heard the voices still trying to convince him not to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Organizers claimed that there were “300 sister marches” around the country, and that’s a good thing for sure, but coverage was spotting and targets were thin. Organizers have to be concerned though. The Peoples’ Climate March in September of 2014 was in New York City and the estimated crowd was 310,000 and touted as the largest climate march in history and was joined by global action largely initiated by, but also enjoying the sponsorship of 1500 organizations. The “tens of thousands” the Associated Press and New York Times reported in Washington, DC on this second march is a long, long way from 310,000 in New York City only 2 ½ years ago, especially in light of the fact that the recognition of the potential catastrophe inherent in unchecked climate change has grown exponentially everywhere in the world perhaps except in the antediluvian and atavistic crew bunkered down in the White House with the President.

Like it or not, marches are a numbers game. If organizers don’t want to take the risk of discounting the anger of their base and the urgency of their issue, they either have to prove their mass support with the tactic or risk inadvertently diminishing the perception of their base and its willingness to fight and take action. The Peoples’ Climate March did showcase a nice, creative tactic by pausing as they encircled the White House and letting out one sustained roar that was symbolically intended to “drown out” the voices of climate deniers ensconced in behind the columns.

If we’re going to sustain the energy and momentum of this moment, maybe we need more unexpected twists and turns like that roar and fewer times where the targets will be counting our boots on the ground, until we’re ready to rise up and swell the numbers to new heights again?


It Helps the Rich and Powerful that People Are Mystified By Enormous Inequality

New Orleans   Some professors are reporting that they are changing their minds about the importance of equality to people. They argue that it’s more about access to opportunity than it is about distribution. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

Key to their change of mind, reported in the Wall Street Journal, was a survey of 5000 Americans in 2011. The upshot was that those people surveyed thought that in a perfect society, individuals in the top 20% should have more than three times as much money as individuals in the bottom 20%. They also were unaware how unequal society is today, thinking that the bottom 40% had 9% of wealth and the top 20% had 59%, while actual proportions were 0.3% at the bottom and 84% at the top.

Frankly, it was hard for me to follow the argument being made by the profs, at least from the weight being attributed to the survey. To say that people are OK with there being a $3 to $1 difference between the top and the bottom when they believed that there was more than a $6 to $1 divide now, would seem to make the case that in fact people want major advance in equality. Furthermore, when you compare the reality that there the top 20% have 280 times more wealth than the bottom, then narrowing the gap to the richest segment only having three time the wealth of the bottom 20% is almost revolutionary!

It seems to me that from those numbers the desire for more equality is deep and profound. This is the United States, and Americans are not suddenly going to say they believe that everyone should get an absolutely equal piece of the pie with a dollar for me for every dollar for you. This is country proclaiming itself the “land of opportunity.” People want more equality, but they only know how to get there by winning more equality of opportunity, hoping against the evidence and their own life experience that the gap narrows with better breaks and a fairer deal.

In this age of gross inequity and almost total residential segregation of huge wealth from most lower income people, and vice-versa, there is no way people can get their minds wrapped around the fact that people holding onto more than 280 times their wealth are living in the same world or what their world might be like. It makes your head hurt. It strains the brain.

Meanwhile those doing the bidding fluff up the opportunity issue to change the conversation from gross greed at the top to false claims of slovenliness at the bottom. And, they get away with it more often than not, until it comes to taking something away from the bottom, like their healthcare, and then it’s harder to pull off the crime in broad daylight, since it normally happens daily in the high towers and behind the gated walls.

No one should make the mistake that inequality is not a huge issue and a bomb rolling around the street waiting to be exploded.


Trump’s High-Low Bargaining Strategy is Hurting America

New Orleans   Maybe once or twice bluff and bluster will achieve a marginal advantage, but the odds are slim, especially when negotiating with a serious folks with equal or even greater power or advantage sitting on the other side of the table. It goes without saying there has to be enough credibility behind the bluff that it has weight, largely because you’ve proven your muscle in the past and present and are willing – win or lose – to inflict pain even in the face of risk in order to win your point.

These are lessons learned the hard way from decades of experience negotiating for poorer and more powerless people against richer and more powerful companies and governments. Whether with ACORN or our unions, we were only at the table because we had won the right by forcing our opponents to be there. No matter the hue and cry, the threats and posturing on the other side of the table, we only could get an agreement by accurately understanding both our situation and the bottom lines and those of our adversaries. If not, it was back to the fight or holding an empty bag.

After the preliminaries though, among the first things we would say would be that we didn’t practice “high-low” bargaining. We would certainly bargain in good faith and were prepared to negotiate, but we were always clear: the proposal we made would be very close to whatever final agreement we were prepared to make. We didn’t go “high-low,” asking for the moon and believing foolishly that we would all end up in the middle. That’s a fool’s errand.

Somehow President Trump in decades of commercial transactions seems never to have learned this. To him a deal was a deal and there was always another transaction coming and if a bad one was made, there were lawyers and bankruptcy courts that would clean up the mess. If you weren’t a fan of bluff and bluster, then you didn’t do business with him which kind of explains why his standing on Wall Street and among major banks was so low.

This doesn’t work in government. Other countries have sovereignty, and don’t believe that America is first. Congress, courts, and tons of elected officials think they have a base, and don’t have to stand down, but can push back. There’s no joy in being taught domestically and internationally that Trump is a bad negotiator, because he’s weakening the country and making any possible agreements more difficult.

The list is getting too long: Russia, NAFTA, healthcare, taxes, and on and on. If he can just sign an order without negotiations, he’s king. If he has to negotiate, he’s the dunce. Maybe this is good for all of us in some ways, but we need to be very afraid on the international level how we can make agreements when the world is not as simple as firing off Tomahawk missiles. On the domestic level this kind of unhinged, transactionalism devoid of both politics and principle, guarantees increased polarization.

Someone has to get the President to buy a clue or no matter what any of us think about him, we’re in deep trouble!


Prosecutors Gone Wild

New Orleans   For months I had heard the stories of the abuse by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office of two so-called “material witnesses.” The DA was trying to compel them to testify about gang violence, so in each case they were jailed. The young, single mother was being pressured that she risked losing her children to the state while in jail. The young man was being held in order to force him to testify or lose his job because he was incarcerated. Did I mention that these were potential witnesses, even though they were being rough-handled ruthlessly as if they were criminals. Needless to say both of them were African-Americans.

Headlines in the local news services this week trumpeted the fact that prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office finally conceded that they would drop the practice of issuing written notices labeled “supoena” and threatening jail time and fines that they had been using for years to trick potential witnesses into talking with them. Prosecutors admitted that the DA’s office does not have the authority to issue subpoenas without court orders from a judge.

This is not just New Orleans. These kinds of untrammeled, wildly unaccountable actions by local prosecutors from US Attorney offices to local district attorneys is increasingly seen as responsible for the epidemic of mass incarceration and blatant discrimination which has filled the nation’s prisons even while crime rates have been dropping.

This point was made starkly in a recent book by James Foreman, Jr., son of the late civil rights leader, in a book he wrote entitled, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Besides his points on prosecutors, including former US Attorney General Eric Holder during his time as US Attorney in Washington, DC, he puts the shoe firmly on the collusion of local police and prosecutors:

When we ask ourselves how America became the world’s greatest jailer, it is natural to focus on bright, shiny objects: national campaigns, federal legislation, executive orders from the Oval Office. But we should train our eyes, also, on more mundane decisions and directives, many of which took place on the local level. Which agency director did a public official enlist in response to citizen complaints about used syringes in back alleys? Such small choices, made daily, over time, in every corner of our nation, are the bricks that built our prison nation

Another recent author was even more severe in pointing the finger of responsibility at prosecutors by looking at the numbers and the impact of various policy decisions, making the point that…

While violent crime was increasing by 100% between 1970 and 1990, the number of “line” prosecutors rose by only 17%. But between 1990 and 2007 when the crime rate began to fall, the number of prosecutors went up 50% and the number of prisoners went up with it.

None of this has to do with justice. This is state-sanctioned vigilantism shielded by politics and demagoguery. The local prosecutors’ offices is where real reform has to begin.


Depressing Reports on the State of Union Organizing

USW campaign to organize at Pitt

New Orleans   Just by the luck of the draw in a 48-hour period I happened to have a chance at some “state of the unions” shoptalk with three former high ranking union officials with deep backgrounds in organizing as well as a younger former organizer whose current work forces him to try to find the pulse of union organizing around the country from the rank-and-file forward. Spoiler alert: it was really depressing, especially in these times that cry for a revival of a workers’ movement demanding change.

Let’s have some good news first.

There’s been progress in organizing adjunct professors, graduate students, and other university employees by several unions. These kinds of workers may not be at the heartbeat of the labor movement in some peoples’ estimation, but more pink and white collar workers in unions is always good news for the future and a hope that more trickles down. The shifting emphasis by unions like the Service Employees towards airport-based workers and subcontractors is achieving some successes, especially along Atlantic Coast cities. A unit here and there of hospital workers breaking through to win elections on the West Coast still holds hope as well. There was some hints that some workers’ centers are migrating from service provision, job training and referral to assisting immigrant workers in organizing unions.

And, now for the rest of the news.

The McDonalds’ initiative and much of the Fight for Fifteen which propelled some cities and states to raise their minimum wages, seems virtually all over but the shouting. The encouraging efforts supported by large unions and federations to develop what I have called “majority union” strategies among Walmart workers nationally and warehouse workers in the Imperial Valley of California have now seen their support wither so substantially, as their sponsors have pulled the plug, that they are trying to subsist at some level almost like advocacy organizations hoping to score foundation and various philanthropic funding.

In fact several conversations veered dangerously into the “grasping for straws” area of how to shore up declining organizing prospects and membership dues support for worker organizing with private monies. A social media action network that seemed to be growing rapidly to support organizing and union work was trying to figure out how to appeal to foundations. Workers’ centers who were debating helping organize unions, shop to shop, were asking for advice in mapping the borderline between their tax exempt, nonprofit status, and the more direct work entailed in actually union organizing, which is not exempt.

Several former officials speculated that membership figures of various unions were being propped up by “creative accounting” of associate members and various affiliations of worker associations in order to maintain the public claims of membership strengths even as actual full-fledged dues payers were dropping precipitously. Such moves might be politically tactical and even defensible in a more expansive view of worker organization, similar to what I have advocated, especially in these trying times, but are certainly not strategic as organizing strategies, and, needless to say, are not sustainable. Meanwhile published reports indicate that a lawyer being vetted for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board is a certified and registered union-buster or “persuader” as they call themselves, currently involved in trying to take away recognition for over 20,000 home health care workers in Minnesota in the ongoing efforts to push back on the area of greatest organizing success for organized labor in the last generation of organizers.

What’s the old saying, “if it weren’t for bad news, there wouldn’t be any news at all?”


Ask El Chapo About the Wall

New Orleans   There seems little question that El Chapo, also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera, the infamous Mexican drug lord and leader of the Sinaloa cartel, would have to be classified in President Trump’s words as a “bad hombre.” He is alleged to have ordered the killing of thousands in Mexico’s bloody drug wars of recent years, but he is perhaps more famous in the United States as a serial prison escapee having broken out twice from high-security prison facilities in Mexico, once in a laundry cart and then again after he was recaptured his gang members were able to dig a tunnel a mile long that ended up in the shower of his prison cell to bust him loose. After his last capture, he was extradited to the US and has more recently been calling home, a 17 by 18 foot prison cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan which is also know as 10 South, where he is held in solitary for about 23 hours per day.

El Chapo is not a happy camper wearing an “I Love New York” button these days. A report in the New York Times says he has had his public defenders file numerous petitions with the court demanding reforms in his imprisonment. As a putative prison reformer, he has asked that Amnesty International investigate conditions in the prison, which unsurprisingly prosecutors have resisted in their pleadings. He has complained about the quality of the tap water, which might be a comment on the New York City infrastructure, in his request for bottled water. He also has raised a beef about the inability in the exercise area to see the television because it is placed at a bad angle to the stationary bike and the treadmill preventing a twofer experience in his break from solitary.

Perhaps El Chapo does have a small contribution to make as an adviser of sorts to the President about the construction of the wall between Mexico and the United States. He does have a research staff it turns out. Lawyers and others visit with him 21-hours per week preparing his defense. Undoubtedly, his ability to dedicate this kind of time would exceed the time that President Trump has really spent thinking about the problem of the wall from financing to security.

In the “Ask El Chapo” prison news column, if prisoners were allowed such, it’s easy to imagine the questions that might come flying about the wall. Would a wall be enough to keep anyone out who wanted to come to El Norte or is the wall just a giant construction and employment project, sort of a big real estate deal which Trump would understand best? Would the wall be able to stop this whole tunneling thing? What should we do about the hundreds and hundreds of miles of gaps that the generals running Homeland Security think would still exist along the border, would this be a deterrence for El Chapo and his crew or anyone else? El Chapo clearly knows a lot about getting out, maybe the White House needs to take advantage of his free time now to ask him more questions about getting “in?” All of his years of moving drugs across the border could help make El Chapo the Answer Man for the President about whether or not this is wall is worth the $60 billion or so that some experts are estimating it would cost. Maybe some hard facts from El Chapo might convince President Trump that this whole wall thing is just a waste of time and money.

El Chapo is now a New Yorker, just like the President, and god knows he probably is a gazillionaire as well, if he could get his hands on his stash, and certainly his tax returns are as unavailable and invisible as the President’s as well. El Chapo seems just the kind of guy who Trump would be able to identify with so that they could have a heart-to-heart about the wall and really make some sense of this nonsense. Let’s “Ask El Chapo!”