Whither Labor

Four years ago, in Pittsburgh, the American labor movement was retooling for the challenge of an economy gone terribly wrong. Rich Trumka, the fiery former coal miner and inveterate boat rocker, was assuming the helm of the AFL-CIO with a warning shot across the bow of Wall Street and K Street. And he elevated two feisty women, labor leaders in their own right, as his top lieutenants.

Image

Arlene Holt Baker, Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler taking the reins of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2009. Holt Baker announced her retirement at the 2013 convention

This was not your father’s labor movement. Liz Shuler, the tough and polished Oregon legislative aide, electrical worker, editor and union leader was elected Secretary-Treasurer, and Arlene Holt Baker, daughter of a Texas domestic worker who rose through the ranks of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employees union, was elected Executive Vice President. Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, was introduced with a video biography, which I’m proud to say I helped to create.

I drafted all of the speeches for Trumka and his new leadership team as they left that convention and stormed into Cleveland, site of some of the worst foreclosure rates and neighborhood blights; Atlanta, where the religious community was rallying around minorities who were being “redlined” by the mortgage industry; and Wall Street, scene of the crime. In Cleveland, as in every location, Trumka decried the human cost of globalization: “The real tragedy of globalization,” he said, “is that corporations have lost their sense of community. They’ve turned their backs on America. … The system is broken.”

In the boisterous rally before tens of thousands on Wall Street, Trumka recited the litany of abuses by the titans of Wall Streets and said, “we’re going to fight you!” “We’re going to tell the truth about what you’re doing,” he said. “And we’re advocating for new regulations to make sure the financial sector is the servant to the real economy, and not its master.”

In that one whirlwind weekend, Trumka also addressed labor-environmental issues in a New York international confab and supported a New York borough community-based development campaign spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a former member of the federation.

It was a brilliant beginning, but many wonder whatever happened to that determined leader and his team. True, they’ve spent a lot of time cultivating a “new base,” younger workers, students and low-wage workers. But little has been done to heal the wounds of the labor movement, except for Trumka’s recent announcement that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) will rejoin the federation.

That is big news, and it will not go unnoticed at this convention. The UFCW represents more than a million retail workers at America’s groceries and other services, and it’s a mature union with a storied history within the overall labor movement. And it’s no coincidence that the UFCW is the parent union of the RWDSU. Trumka has been persistent in his pursuit of the Food and Commercial Workers and calls Joe Hansen, UFCW’s president, a good friend.

The UFCW was one of the major unions that defected from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – a ceremonious “disaffiliation” led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. Trumka’s professed goal in assuming the presidency in 2008 was to reunite the labor movement. The UFCW decision is a small first step.

Still, the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced last month that it is leaving the federation, and the East Coast-based International Longshoreman’s Association could follow. Others have indicated their irritation at Trumka and current federation policies, and particularly the AFL-CIO’s close affiliation with President Obama.

Image

Trumka and President Obama have made no secret about their fondness for each other.

Trumka’s political moxie definitely is at issue given his strong support for President Obama, who he has hailed a hero for working class Americans, someone who is working for our best interests. The jury is still out on Obama, who has consulted with labor even as he ignored its counsel. Obama has fallen far short of labor’s proposals for financial reform, among other issue.

As the 2013 convention gets underway this week, Obama’s promise and resolve are very much on the line as he prepares to address the delegates on Monday, Sept. 9. Obama has received his share of criticism among unions for his less than wholehearted support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its champion, Elizabeth Warren, now senator from Massachusetts who will deliver what is described as “one of the keynotes” of the convention.

120806_elizabeth_warren_605_ap

Elizabeth Warren, apostle for bank regulation.

Obama also has been slow to address major concerns raised by unions about his signature health care program, Obamacare. Unless changes are made, the law will penalize multi-employer plans that provide good benefits at minimal cost. Also, we need to know what avenues exist for people who fall through the cracks of states that refuse to extend the benefits.

Four years ago, I was at the AFL-CIO convention working on the speeches for Trumka, Shuler and Holt Baker in Cleveland, Atlanta, Columbus and New York’s Wall Street. It was an exciting time in which everything seemed possible. Four years later, while I may wish I were there in L.A. with the gang, I’m thinking I’m in the best position now to take stock in what is happening.

Join me here over the next week or so to learn more about the history and the future of the American labor movement. They are indelibly linked.

Prying Eyes

I haven’t joined the Pardon Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning movement, although I credit her for trying to do something about government overreach, even if it was poorly conceived. It’s fine that she will be spending a few more years in prison, as a soldier. She is genuinely contrite and apologetic.

Given her special struggle with gender identity and decision to live as a woman, I think Manning is destined for hospital treatment and out – as Chelsea Manning – before the expected eight-year term is done.

Image

I’m more concerned about Edward Snowden, now holed up in Russia on a one-year asylum deal. He is not contrite, but he is collared.  I’m sure he is quickly learning the limits of freedom, particularly in the grip of Vladimir Putin, former czar of the KGB.  After a year of internment, offers of asylum in Venezuela and Uruguay may look less inviting. Snowden may return to face the music. Are we ready for that trial?

Manning, a U.S. army enlisted man serving in Iraq, leaked 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and 500,000 battlefield action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, including a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, including two Reuters journalists. These releases shone a harsh light on U.S. diplomatic and military activities – an embarrassment, certainly, and a black eye for American relations with some allies.  But also sunshine on a dark place.

Snowden was a civilian computer program analyst working on contract for the National Security Agency.  He used his access to reveal NSA’s massive metadata gathering of U.S. phone records, and its PRISM, EKeyscore and Tempora Internet surveillance programs on Americans. He also revealed parallel British mega-spying, leaking the information to both UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.

Both Manning and Snowden maintain they leaked the information to journalists to expose the overreach and deception of U.S. policy makers. Manning’s data dump was to an international Internet clearinghouse called WikiLeaks, which promises no holds barred in releasing government documents and protecting whistleblowers. WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange have come to the aid of Snowden, trying to help him find asylum.

What makes Snowden’s case unique, however, is that his leaks involve the U.S. government spying on its own people. The NSA has cast its widest net under the cover of the “war on terrorism” to record and review voice and email communications of Americans, tracking who is talking to whom and how often (metadata).

ImageBased on Snowden’s information, the NSA surveillance programs appear to violate the privacy rights of millions of Americans. Since those revelations, ensuing audits and declassified documents have shown that NSA has, in fact, stepped over the line again and again in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s time for Congress and the administration to sanction illegal surveillance activity, and review and reform these intelligence programs. We need greater oversight.

President Obama has promised to fix it, and I look forward to seeing the details. Part of fixing the program should be giving Snowden credit for time served behind the old Iron Curtain, at least tacit credit for exposing the NSA problems. Perhaps that means that Snowden will deserve a pardon. I look forward to the trial, when Snowden stops running. But first he has a year in the gulag.

Image

Obama was wise to cancel a September summit meeting with Putin, but the Snowden affair was a red herring. Under Putin, Russia has acted poorly on the world stage, arming Syria’s strongman Bashar al-Assad and repressing its own people, from truth-telling journalists to girl rockers Pussy Riot. Russians are being imprisoned and killed for speaking their minds. Meeting with Putin in summit pomp and circumstance would provide tacit support for the dictatorship.

I’m sure Russia’s ignominious record (and maybe some prying eyes, and fingers) is chilling to Snowden as he sets up house in a Russian dacha. The iron culture engrained in Russian rule is no friend to notions of freedom of speech, freedom of association or freedom, period. The Russian experience is the exact opposite, citizens struggling against an oppressive state, whether it is tied to a tsarist monarchy or to a communist apparatchik.

Meanwhile, we may have a creeping menace of our own, the National Security Agency. I studied at NSA headquarters in another era — focusing on the Vietnamese language and the codes the Viet Cong were using as they ran supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. I believe NSA is a critical element of the American intelligence community. It provided the pictures of Bin Laden’s fortress in Pakistan, for example, and images tracking the efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Without proper oversight, however, NSA is a scary proposition, the intrusive eye in our affairs, Big Brother. The potential for abuse is enormous. As a democratic people, we have to set the parameters for this kind of intrusive spying. It is only one step removed from the oppressor in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” watching our every move.

Fortunately, Americans are not taking this sitting down:

A Time to Grieve. A Time to Act.

We must act. We must change. We must try to prevent more tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. That was the gist of President Obama’s powerful sermon before the grieving community of Newtown Sunday night. It was the fourth deadly rampage during his four years as president, horrifying experiences for towns across the nation, and for him.

Visibly moved by the tragic loss of young lives, he declared, “We must be willing to try to stop it. … In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”

We can expect much discussion over the next few months about guns, about curbing assault weapons and improving background checks and gun sale authorizations. Let’s hope that the new Congress has the impetus and the guts to get it done. But beyond the guns, we also should look closely at mental health issues – not just the monsters who lash out and kill innocents, but also the culture that spawns the violence and hate.

ImageWhat do we need to do – as a society and as a nation – to protect ourselves from the “Abby Normals”? And I don’t mean to make light by using the “Young Frankenstein” reference, but to make a point that Adam Lanza was an extreme case, the aberration. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School just before Christmas – a cowardly and dastardly act – was the act of a mentally deranged individual who slipped through the cracks of our society.

How else can we explain it? A young man, not yet 21, kills his mother and assaults an elementary school, blasting away at the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers and supervisors – as if he is reveling in the horror of this moment, his complete control and mastery of this “game.” Perhaps it was also a cry of anguish and desperation from an individual adrift in American society, but it was crazy. Abby Normal.

Mental health experts don’t like us to use words like “crazy,” but someone who becomes unhinged and strikes indiscriminately at innocents is not sane.  Even if he were acting in the name of some God of vengeance – committing an act of political terrorism – he would still be mentally unbalanced, in my view. The pieties and spiritual allusions in President Obama’s speech, so necessary to soothe the wounded community at church, cannot obscure the fact that the fervor of religion is the basis for most wars and terror throughout history.

It would help, obviously, if Adam Lanza – or his mother – had sought professional help, and a psychiatrist could come forward with an educated diagnosis and opinion about his state of mind. We do know, based on every report I’ve seen, that there is no link between Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and violence. And there’s no confirmation that Lanza was even diagnosed with Asperger’s.

As we look to find a solution to this outbreak of violence against innocents, I think it is worthwhile to look beyond this murderer to see his unspeakable crime through the prism of the society in which we live – this violent, dangerous world that is also projected through our arts and culture. Yes, guns are a big part of this miasma, and so also may be the games we play. I think it’s fair to ask if this commando-style assault was modeled on violent video games, as they were with the boys at Columbine.

And there is the chicken and egg question. Who is modeling whom exactly in this boy marketing game? How does a young man tune out the real world, numb himself to the brutality and humanity of actions that kill and maim? Amanda Palmer reflects on this sad phenomenon through the eyes of a Columbine killer:

Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and chairman of the Forensic Panel, who works on more than 20 homicide cases a year, told The Washington Post, “I point the finger unreservedly at the entertainment industry, which has spawned and cultivated gaming that by design is increasingly real, geared to action as the shooter’s point of view, increasingly dehumanizes victims, and increasingly rewards players by how many they kill.”

Violent video games are just one of the sources of disturbing images we are exposed to daily in our society – in movies, TV, the daily news. But they are expressions of the world we live in. Kids are routinely assaulted at school and, sadly, in their homes. Young women are physically and verbally assaulted just simply walking down the street. We are all exposed to images, and individuals, at the edge of culture and propriety in modern society.

Most of us handle it just fine and move on. We live in a free society and we are not going to restrict speech, but we can limit the exposure to the young and impressionable – including those who have mental health issues. But we need help in our communities to reach out and touch the vulnerable ones. This is where Obama’s call for our society to take responsibility “for others’ kids, for each other” should be answered. The social safety net is genuinely frayed and needs serious repair. How do we begin?

Let’s heed the president’s call to act. In case you missed the president’s moving presentation in Newtown, here it is: