How to think about “climate change”

December 6, 2015

(Delivered as part of a panel discussion at the Starry Plough pub in Berkeley, CA, Dec. 5)

“Our moral obligation to fight climate change is to build a collective solution, not to purify ourselves as individual consumers.”
–Margaret Klein, “What Climate Change Asks of Us”

“Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.”
–Alex Steffen, “The Bright Green City”

First off, I never liked the terms, “global warming,” or “climate change.” For many years running we are still hearing climate denialists saying things like, “Well, it’s too cold here anyway.” I’ve been using “catastrophic climate change,” but also “anthropomorphic climate change” works just as well because it puts us at the forefront where we belong, at least as far as taking responsibility is concerned.

There is no doubt, with mounting evidence every day, that things with planet Earth are deteriorating quickly, possibly getting worse than we can imagine because all the scary models scientists were using to forecast the changes are proving way too conservative. When I first heard it, I was skeptical, but now the idea of the Sixth Extinction doesn’t seem as far fetched as it used to.

So how do we navigate these times? My 15-year-old son uses this expression YOLO, meaning “you only live once.” So I ask him what it means exactly, because it seems kind of ambiguous. Does it mean we should live recklessly because it’s only one time around, so why not take chances, or should we be really careful because life is fragile and precious, to be savored and not spent frivolously? Those who use this expression, primarily the young, may be saying “enjoy it while you can” because life is short—but I think something deeper is being expressed.

I haven’t done this but I would like to see an accounting of recent Hollywood movies. Have there been more dystopian- or utopian-themed movies made lately? It seems like the former would come out on top. Maybe films where things fall apart are more entertaining, but I believe this is also a similar expression that YOLO captures, which is: the future doesn’t look so great, and Hollywood and our youth especially are picking up on that. Our culture’s collective imagination is stuck in seeing the dark side of what’s to come. YOLO means: throw caution to the wind, take license without regard to the consequences because, we are all screwed anyway.

So, with that said, I want to briefly talk about the dire situation we are in but not because I want to convince you that things are hopeless. Hope and vision are crucial motivational elements and as bad as things are going to possibly get, we can always make them worse. Sasha Lilly in her book “Catastrophism,” cautions the left about becoming a flock of Chicken Littles running around with “The end is near” signs, partly because we have lost credibility for past predictions like capitalism being pre-ordained to self-destruct—any day now—but also because the danger of promoting the idea that all is lost would beg the question: why bother to change? So even if you are convinced that the part of the world that sustains humans on the planet is coming to an untimely end, it’s maybe better not to spread that around too far and wide, without the proper context at least.

So how bad are things? There is this one piece of environmental science that I don’t see talked about all that much, and it’s important because it illustrates something crucial. This is the idea of balance, one of the immutable laws that life on Earth is based. Our culture pretends we can ignore or even improve upon the natural world but sooner or later we butt our heads against the hard reality of this unchanging law. Here’s an illustration.

Take something out of your freezer and place it on the kitchen counter. There is a measurable time until this formerly frozen item warms up to room temperature. Something frozen will not be at rest until balance with its environment is reached, and if it’s large enough in a closed space, maybe even change the temperature of the room. This is what is happening with the carbon we are taking out of storage and pouring into the atmosphere. Earth’s living systems are continuously working to find the balance point, and, just like the frozen item in my example, you can measure how long that will take from any given moment. They have done this for carbon. The balance point is 50 years out. Which means, more or less, that the effects we are feeling from catastrophic climate change today are from the carbon burned 50 years ago, and the balance point for what we are doing now, along with the negative feedback loops we have triggered, will be in 50 years. Even if, today, we could stop driving our gas-fueled cars and burning coal and rainforests, etc.—even if we could transition to renewables overnight, we can expect consequences for what we’ve already accomplished with our energy, food, transportation, etc., all of our systems being dependent on “releasing our ancestors into the air,” a.k.a. burning fossil fuels.

For quite some time our culture, now the dominant one on the planet, has been in denial about this balance law, and we are rapidly waking up to that harsh realization. So now that we know, why would we continue to break it even when assured of these dire, exponential consequences? We in this room know the problem of capitalism and the very powerful machine that has hold of our economy, our politics, what is produced, invested in, and even taught in our schools. It’s true that because of this we are having a hard time quitting the oil habit, for all the obvious reasons and for some not so obvious ones.

Now I want to ask, what does it mean to be a radical? To me it means going to the root of a problem and advocating fundamental change that really addresses the issue. Many in our circles are proud to be called radical. Many, if not all of us, question this socio-economic system called capitalism. But is questioning capitalism going to the root? Yes the corporate bankster and oil-igarchy entities are powerful, but the challenge we face goes beyond just freeing us from their economic-fossil fuel hold on our society We have to get free of the ideology, the worldview, that props up the profit-imperative system of production that demands unlimited growth, a.k.a. capitalism—in any of the many forms it can take (financialized, casino, fascist, catabolic, etc.).

Marx knew that in a capitalist society the ruling class ideology would be the dominant one. We are all wearing the blinders of a culture that does not take lightly looking through or beyond, not just capitalism, but its complimentary, world-view partner. This limited-seeing, world view is why many believe that the “climate hoax” is merely an anti-business, leftist conspiracy to challenge sacred business interests, instead of the grave threat to all of life on the planet that it is increasingly becoming.

The problem is not just about the limited understanding of right-wing-nuts, but our entire culture has this civilization thing exactly backwards. When Europeans arrived here they were convinced of their civilized superiority. Well, it was kind of easy to believe when you could mow the indigenous down like harvesting a crop or put them into slavery and still have time for tea and crumpets. The concept of sustainability is this balance idea, and many of the original inhabitants on this continent had that idea down. For some “savage” cultures, the practice of considering the impact of something seven generations forward was ingrained into their decision-making processes. This would be about three or four generations removed from those whom you might possibly meet if you lived to be a hundred years old.

So, why is a dark future for our children’s, children’s, children, etc. easier to imagine for our culture? Because it is part of the story that brought us to this point in the first place. This is a story that gives us the ideas that the earth is ours to use and couldn’t possibly “run out” and tells us nature was broken and only we can “fix” it, and, like I said, the previous animistic-based cultures were “uncivilized.” This was a story in place and operational long before both industrialization and even capitalism. This story enabled our culture to embrace the destructive technology and systems that easily harnessed the awe-inspiring power of capitalism to organize the extraction of resources, combine it with “inexpensive” energy and labor, and—through a neat trick called the “externalizing” of costs—squeeze out so-called profit (for the few) with the attendant “sacrifice-zone” byproducts of used up people and places. This is a compelling, powerful story that tells us it’s somehow civilized to give up agency before the ethereal entities of god and “the economy” so that, much like the corporate structure, we don’t have to take responsibility for our acts of destruction. This story also tells us that living today is less important than something called the “after life” existence, so burning up the planet doesn’t matter because it is in “His hands,” and this can’t be proven in any empirical sense but has to be taken as a matter of “faith” (non-believers beware). This magical thinking also promotes the fiction of independence while hiding from us the reality of interdependence, in all manifestations of our lives.

Joel Kovel in his book, “The Enemy of Nature,” does an excellent job outlining capitalism’s destructive forces, especially on the powerless of the world, and Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything,” emphasizes that the movement to address “climate change” is bubbling up and empowering those on the bottom, who tend to be left out of our culture’s great advances. Although I would emphasize that not all technologies are equal, I would agree when Klein says it’s important to be fighting for the right solutions, but would add, like the Luddites of old, we need to make sure that whatever we try challenges the inherent inequalities of a sick system and not allow the cult of technology to give us more-of-the-same non-cures like nuclear power, or putting micro-junk in space to magically make the planet colder—or any other risky scheme that avoids actually confronting what our so-called advanced civilization is all about, essentially a system that wages continual war on the poor and the natural world alike. The idea of applying some technological fix without addressing the illogic of unlimited growth in the closed, finite system we call Earth, just won’t cut it.

But change our culture’s dark world view, where all living things are in competition (the neo-Darwinian “all against all” ethos) instead of cooperation (a web-of-life ethos) and we will be changed. The challenge is two-fold: can we imagine a different, life-affirming story and can we start living it fast enough? We have gone so far down this dark path, it is impossible to change in time to avoid some pretty bad effects. But, instead of making things worse by giving up, we should be doing all we can to accelerate the positive change needed. As Klein says, yes, this is a serious crisis, but it’s also a major opportunity to create the better world we all, once we understand what’s at stake, will want to see. Effectively dealing with climate change is the road to the social justice many of us have dedicated our lives to achieving. We, those of the dominant culture, need to start taking responsibility by primarily putting ourselves back in balance with a story that follows the rules of life, and puts the entire planet Earth at the center, instead of ourselves.

So, what do we say to the flat-earth-club, climate-truth resisters and capitalist’s half-blind apologists? I’m reminded of this cartoon, posted on a lot of activist’s refrigerators: picture an auditorium where you can see both audience and the stage. On the stage is a presenter and on his screen are all these positive outcomes of addressing climate change, like clean water and air, livable cities, etc. There is an audience person standing up and he says, “If climate change is a hoax then we would be creating a better world for nothing.” So, tell them it doesn’t matter whether they believe climate change is man-made or not, we all will benefit from the effort to create a better world. And we need to help others see through the constant vilification of viable alternatives to capitalism. Just because there have been no truly successful socialist societies does not mean there can’t be, especially if based on a commitment to justice and sustainability, for not just humans, but the entire web of life on Earth. Ultimately, it is in no one’s interest to continue committing humanicide because of children’s stories like capitalism = freedom. (Incidentally, I was extremely disappointed that Sanders allowed Clinton to get away with saying this in their first debate.)

I believe that we, the people of the dominant human culture today, are finally awakening from many centuries of deep, dark insanity. There is a major paradigm shift happening comparable to the drift away from animistic cultures and the old form of agriculture to the new, cult-of-the-individual era with its methods of waging war on the so-called competition, a shift that reflected the oppressive, anti-life patriarchal world-view of the modern era.

So, once you understand the science of catastrophic climate change—and the lengths some may go to in order to preserve their perceived advantages—it can be depressing to think about what’s in store for us. But, like Antonio Gramsci, I still have hope in the form of an “optimism of the will.” On the positive side, where we can go is exciting to think about. But then I despair that the challenges will be too great, that we will run out of time or the will to preserve what is good about humanity. Like George Carlin advocated, maybe we humans rightly deserve planetary negation, and like Gore Vidal said, the apes have had their run, maybe it’s time to let another species have a turn—but I’m not ready to concede defeat. Our task then is to build a collective solution, one that addresses the totality of human existence on the planet so that we live out a story that puts all of humanity in life-affirming balance, and, please, let’s put to rest once and for all the insanity of believing the world is destined to burn. So, let’s get to work because, well, YOLO.

xxx

Letter to “Rolling Stone” magazine re. Gov. Action Hero

June 13, 2015

Editors,
I suppose some of your readers may care about the People-magazine-esque piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger written by Jonah Weiner in the May issue, but it pretty lame for RS fare. Now let’s see the same story done by the likes of Matt Taibbbi. There certainly is plenty of juice here to tell a story of substance and explain why and how California fell so low beyond being merely being a “casualty” of economic forces outside the former governor, or anyone’s, control.

That Schwarzenegger’s grand ego is still intact despite his dismal failure as a political leader the article captures, not to mention other controversy that followed him like a dark cloud (the unfaithfulness to spouse mentioned pales to the seemingly-legitimate, but unexplored charges of the “Heir-gropenegger” stories).

What it misses by a wide mark is explaining who he was politically and what he did to California’s economy before the 2008 crash that compounded the damage ten-fold. We are just starting to climb out from under Schwarzenegger’s legacy and dark vision of America. The article seems to play along with Arnold’s grand fantasy—the blame is obviously on us for failing to understand that he was born to lead and we failed our part to blindly follow, never venturing beyond his social-policy libertarian side, but says nothing about his neo-con, Chicago-school, economic views best captured in his “starve the beast” rhetoric—the “beast” being, of course, the public sector.

Candidate Schwarzenegger ran as a Republican but also on an almost “independent” platform, saying he was not connected to Sacramento—a real “outsider” who could come in and, like a Hollywood action-hero script, clean up the mess. That un-connectedness turned out to not be such a strength (Republican leaders took to wearing nametags at their own caucus events so he would know their names), as he often couldn’t deliver votes from his own party, let alone across the aisle that is the hallmark of a civil democracy.

He also ran on the idea that “career” politicians (a phrase some public servants are rightly proud of) were the problem, along with their “irresponsible” spending, and the selectively used “special interests” moniker. His campaign stops were grand theater—gigantic scissors and the cutting of a massive state credit card to dramatize what he could do for us. State Senator Mark Leno explained what Gov. Arnold actually did to California to me once in this way: sure he cut the Vehicle License Fee (a progressive tax that brought in $6 billion a year and was spent mostly at the county and city levels) and gave you a petty refund (a state retiree showed me the two dollar and change VLF-refund check he got) that maybe made you feel good for a moment—all the while reaching around to your back pocket for your credit card, running up the tab, and finally leaving you paying the bill.

He disgraced the office of California governor not only with his arrogant smoking tent and sexist-pig behavior but also by blurring the lines between state business and Arnold, Inc. Schwarzenegger was always first and foremost about Arnold but that wasn’t his worst side. The darker story here is how he came to run in the first place.

The VLF tax-cut was not his first act in office. His first act was to drop the lawsuit that Gov. Davis and Lt. Gov. Bustamante had against Enron to capture some of the approximately $30–50 billion stolen from the people of California in the illegal manipulation of the energy market and put a stop to the effort to regulate energy markets so it couldn’t be done again. Maybe Gov. Davis, and most politicians for that matter, are “girley-men” in Arnold’s world, but at least he tried to stand up to wrongdoing as opposed to making deals with the Devil that Arnold allegedly did to climb upward (see the work of investigative journalist Greg Palast on the meeting between Enron’s Ken Lay and Schwarzenegger before his announcement to run in the recall-election, and the film, “The Smartest Men In The Room,” especially the outtake interviews of Gov. Davis’ staff).

Any article that glosses over Schwarzenegger’s corruption both as a political leader and human being does a grave disservice to the people of California. Peace.

Regarding Brown’s 2014-15 state budget proposal

May 24, 2014

Dear Gov. Brown,

What are you thinking? Or maybe it’s, what are you drinking? Stop sipping that Tea Party-flavored brew and drink some refreshing reality-check waters, please!

 

Dear California citizens,

We deserve better of our leaders. The good governor, who I have on reliable authority is a registered Democrat, is on a “fiscally prudent” kick that is merely more of the same—kicking those already down. To say priorities and parties are a little mixed up is to put it mildly. What reasoning says we must pay down the “wall of debt” and save for a “rainy day” before helping those who are getting drenched—not in some mythical future but right now, or, to take another angle on basically the same issue: how about investing in the stuff that will really pull the state’s economy out of the doldrums and shift state policy away from our apparent “compassion fatigue” to figuring out how to apply a culture of caring for the collateral damage of a broken economy that works great for the 1 percenters (or even the point-one-percenters) but leaves the super-majority behind? Instead of more tax breaks so the already wealthy can do more of that virtual job creation they do so well, making solid investments in the public sector can do the trick in real time. This so-called responsible, fiscally “conservative” reasoning the governor is spouting played a leading role in putting us in this mess in the first place. We can do better than to adopt the slight-of-hand, disingenuous, disconnected logic of the dastardly right.

 

California’s great turnaround

Wow. Amazing. We’ve traveled from the fiery pit of economic red ink of tens of billions of dollars to the lofty heights of single-digit, billion-dollar surpluses—and our governor thinks he gets bragging rights. He must be some kind of magician. Not! So, how do you go from gigantic deficit to a pretty-big surplus in so short a time? Well one way was to cut spending, and cut we did—mostly from the bottom. Another way was to raise revenue, and although approximately 90 percent of Prop. 30 funds come from the better-off class in our great state (and better off they are, with 95 percent of the gains in the post-2008 “recovery” flowing upward to the top one percent in our great “jobless” recovery), there is still that little regressive part of sales tax that has possibly made things a little harder for those with not enough. You know the ones, those folks who work full time and aren’t making it and those without the jobs that the “job creators” are always so selflessly working so hard to create (a.k.a. in tee-party, neo-con logic: the undeserving among us). I’m sorry Mr. Governor but you don’t get to brag about a surplus made up partially from cutting 100,000-plus children from state-supported child care. You don’t get to brag about mediocre re-investment in a positive future for our children and our state as opposed to, say, pushing plans to build even more prison cells. It’s the world turned upside down, where we are rushing ahead with plans to house more cellmates in the self-fulfilling prophesy of lowered expectations —instead of making plans for desperately needed classmates.

 

Forget history, rinse and repeat

Way back when, there was this Gov. Brown, see. He happened to be in office in the late ’70s when Prop. 13 finally passed. I say finally because that was the third-charmed time it was tried. What was different from the first two tries? The state piggy bank was bursting at the seams with surplus dollars, already saved up waiting for the proverbial “rainy” day. The anti-tax, anti-public-sector freaks, Jarvis, et. al. (I say freaks to distinguish them from those who are not against all taxes, but would rather see the burden shared fairly among all entities of the state) had plenty of ammunition to fire at the political class in Sacramento and to convince the people with arguments like, “Give the money back to the people and let them decide how to spend it.” And, lo and behold, that was the charm that carried the day and the state has suffered under the shrinking public sector—you know, the part of government that serves working people—ever since.

 

Now we are being set up for failure a second time, and I call it a failure when the political class can’t convince the people that it is in our own interests to pool our wealth and take care of state citizenry rather than allowing the class-with-most-of-it-all-already to take and horde even more. The set-up? Proposition 30’s progressive taxation is temporary. It runs out by 2017. At that point we will be back to square one. If the governor gets his way the state will be sitting on surplus dough trying to convince state voters that we need more. Thanks governor for the ready-made argument against extending the temporary relief from Proposition 30, handed to the neo-cons on a platinum platter. It says on paper you’re a Democrat, but whose side are you really on?

 

Proposition 30 was half savior and half scourge to begin with, saving those on fixed income from losing their homes, true, but it also opened up massive loopholes that older corporations who play the game right have used to lessen their tax burden significantly and capitalize on the unfair business advantage over newer enterprises, not to mention the other two main affects, that of switching the state’s income burden from an equal share of corporate, income, and sales taxes to predominately more volatile taxes on income and sales. Now, when the economy gets a cold the state gets influenza. The solution, of course, is simple. Can you say split tax roll? Where in Brown’s program or, dare I say, “vision” was anything on this? MIA. So what happens now if Brown gets his way for the new-improved “rainy day” measure II (or is this version III?) and stock away some dough? (Hey, wasn’t the previous governor, who was a Republican, pushing us down the same path? It’s deja vous all over again!)

 

The “Great Crime” of 2010

The “national debt” was not a concern until the tsunami of billionaire-funded propaganda washed over the public conversation drowning out any common sense whatsoever. We know how to get out of bad economic times in our continuously dysfunctional economic system. The last time this was the Great Depression (represented by the captains of industry of the day) vs. the New Deal (represented by FDR and the people). The sequel, this tired rerun, is the Great Recession (represented by the banksters who broke the economy) vs. the increasingly desperate people who haven’t a clue how to get out of this being lead by a political class that says either cut everything or only cut some things. But we know how to effectively eradicate hunger and at least substantially address the worst effects from abject poverty. That effort was LBJ’s War On Poverty. We also know that most of the protections put in place by those efforts have been just about eroded and even decimated, all to pay down something called “the national debt” that was supposedly bankrupting us.

 

Sacramento’s budget battle this time

In theory there doesn’t have to be a battle. Didn’t we put all that behind us with the super-Democratic-Party-majority and the passage of the simple-majority budget rule? Under Brown’s proposal, I’m hoping there will be a fight, but, thankfully, the Republicans will be watching from the sidelines. But with governors like Brown, who needs the Republi-thugs of old to hold the state back? The opposing sides are lined up with progressive Democrats on the left bank —standing up for those 100,000 children and their families—with the good governor, hoisting his flag for putting the banksters first and something called a “rainy day” fund, on the right bank. But when you think about it, why shouldn’t the state become a player in the hold-back-on-society game? Hey, everybody’s playing it. It’s easy (for some, at least). The rules are simple (just in case you want to play along): 1) Extract and horde society’s wealth, and 2) Sit on it until some grand get-rich-quick scheme presents itself so you can have more to play with.

 

The state wants to get in the game by sitting on 2.2 billion “rainy-day” dollars (so Wall Street can continue to gamble with our future). Meanwhile society crumbles around us due to lack of investment. Meanwhile, one of those lost causes, the Master Plan for Higher Education, the economic and democratic engine that fueled California for decades, turning us into a world leader in education, business, and living standards (that is before the banksters and Republicrats broke it), is rapidly going down the tubes.

 

The CSU in its official pronouncements has gone from “very encouraged” over Speaker Perez’s budget proposal to being merely “encouraged” over the governor’s. Of course, the former fully funds the CSU’s budget request of a modest increase of $237 million over this fiscal year’s budget, while Brown only provides $142.2 million. So, in a sense, the CSU is stating what we need at a minimum and the governor is saying sorry, we have to pay the banksters first and “save” the rest, to the tune of $2.3 billion in umbrella insurance.

 

Part of the problem is that Brown has taken the disingenuous “tax-and-spend” critique to heart. The right likes to throw out meaningless phrases like that, tax-and-spend liberals to avoid discussion of the real issues, what are we spending on? Some tax spending is wasteful.

 

One of the fundamental problems here is, of course, what side of the ledger sheet you put education. It isn’t a cost but an investment. Seen this way the state of California cannot afford to not invest in education. Here is what CSU Chancellor White said in December: “Higher education is the antidote to poverty, crime, and violence. An investment in higher education is an investment in the fabric of California.”

 

As a result of the “anti-tax” pledge, etc., whether this is their intent or not (somewhat open for debate), those with power get taxed less under the Jarvis-Tea Party rhetoric and policy as implemented and those without get taxed more. (See studies done by the California Budget Project). What we need is a conversation on tax fairness and beyond even that, are those with wealth, not just income, taxed fairly? Hell no! The rich have tons of loopholes to squirrel away the dough into off-shore tax havens, etc. Better idea: go the way of North Dakota. ND you say? Good ol’ conservative ND has got us beat. Since [tk] they have a state bank to take care of state business. They don’t need to save for a “rainy day” because they can draw funds from their own bank. They don’t need to pay the banksters interest on state income, those who gambled (and lost and broke the economy) to make the state run. The ND bank is more like a credit union, with the state residents as shareholders. For those who would claim that this is socialist, they would be wrong. It is putting the capital of capitalism to work for the community instead of expanding the off-shore accounts of the one percent. The bank makes profit by making sound investments in the state, like the old days when we had a national Savings and Loan system that, by law, had to invest locally. Wall Street does not reminisce over those good old days because the money wasn’t flowing through their coffers. So what are we waiting for?

 

The state Legislature’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) calls the governor’s budget proposal “prudent.” These days that’s Wall Street speak for “he’s in our pocket.” The LAO agrees with the governor that the state needs to be on stronger financial footing. Guess what? North Dakota avoided the 2008 financial collapse. [reference?] That seems pretty strong to me. I say there is nothing for California to gain from making our Wall Street overlords stronger. It is time for a vision that makes us stronger by better serving the citizens of California. The idea of the public good needs to make a come back.

 

Back in the day when the state had a surplus, during Brown’s first round as governor, and the political class was arguing about what needs they were going to take care of first, the anti-tax folks attacked and took advantage of the golden opportunity to push their agenda of “defunding the left.” Included in that definition of “left” was anything public. They are still pushing the myth of the inefficient public sector, that you can hold the private sector accountable and government equals waste. What bunk. If this were the slightest bit true then why did our economy collapse? Both sides of the aisle have been scheming and cutting since the golden age of Reagan. Where has that left us? Shrinking and struggling public services, public buildings for sale cheap, public lands stripped of their resources at a horrific scale of environmental rape of the planet, and, predictably, the gap between the many and the few growing by leaps and bounds beyond the historic excesses of the Gilded Age.

 

Chancellor White got it right when he said in December, “We need to renew public interest in publicly funded higher education.” To do that we need to find champions of the public sector, or if we can’t find them, then create them and give them the support of a movement for economic and social justice and recommit to serving all the people of California. Now’s the time. Peace.

An open letter to California State University Chancellor Tim White

January 26, 2014

Long Beach, California
1/22/14

Dear Dr. White,

I hope you had a restful holiday break. I wanted to wish you the peace of the season and share a few thoughts for the coming year and beyond. As a long-time staff person, union activist, and advocate for the CSU, higher education, and the public sector it is as important for me to tell my story as it is for you to hear it—so at the very least, thank you for listening. But, as the actor Alan Alda once said, real listening carries with it the possibility that what you hear might change you.

I wanted to start by complimenting you for making the effort to signal that this is, indeed, a new day for the CSU. As much fun as I know you had fulfilling your promise last year to see every campus, visiting this demoralized system cannot possibly be a joy-filled experience all the time. I appreciated you coming to my campus and offering the opportunity to meet you in person. Many tough decisions have been, and will continue to be required of you. I don’t envy your position but it was wise to put yourself out there first so your employees got the sense that one can deal with this guy and maybe he deserves our support.

We have been through a rough time the last five years, as you may well know. I spent part of this time in a voluntary (elected) position as a statewide union leader in charge of bargaining and representation for CSUEU. In June of 2009, the day after I was elected, I had to fly to Long Beach to prepare for the challenge of whether thousands of staff would be laid off or, with some luck, bargain a furlough agreement that the classified staff could accept. In the end we did get an agreement, and then, instead of taking our advice, the CSU messed up its implementation, creating all sorts of unnecessary problems for leaders on both sides. In the next three years I, too, visited every campus, my road time averaging three-to-seven days a week, facing painful issues that included layoff mitigation on ten campuses. At the time we were already down too many positions and even Chancellor Reed admitted that losing additional staff was threatening the very functionality of the CSU. Nonetheless, two handfuls of CSU presidents decided that some staff were expendable. In addition, some campuses (with support from the chancellor’s labor relations office) unwisely tired to manipulate the layoff agreement—which is, by design, fundamentally sound in providing options to mitigate and ensure worker’s rights—to, sadly avoid fairness to their dedicated employees.

This is a new day but we are still in a big mess. We know you didn’t create it. Please don’t ever feel you need to make excuses for those who came before. But at least part of the reason we are in this pickle has been a lack of dynamic leadership. The few good leaders in the CSU were overshadowed by the cynical, defeated, visionless, and outright twisted ones we’ve been saddled with. What we really need is a crusader, a champion to lead us forward. Let me explain.

The defunding of public higher education is a project that started in the Reagan era with the proliferation of corporate-funded “think tanks,” (affectionately known as “stink tanks” in some circles) whose purpose was to undermine the influence of the perceived bias of the “liberal” universities, both public and private. Along with this misconception of the universal mission of higher education came the CSU’s second strike: that we are publicly funded. The third was our affordability, the unfair competition that free market fundamentalists find so abhorrent, stripping so-called deserved profit away from the entrepreneur job and wealth “creators” we hear so much about. Thomas Jefferson’s vision is lost on these Americans, who feel that the relative advantage of privilege that their wealth provides should not be undermined by offering the children of working people the equal opportunity to succeed. Never mind that the society as a whole benefits, their argument seems to be: why should they have to fund it and unfairly undermine the price that all comers should have to pay?

Next came the 2008 budget crisis. Well, actually the crisis started well before Gov. Schwarzenegger played his game of smashing the state piggy bank in order to promote his economic neo-con agenda. It started with Prop. 13. Ever so slowly the heat was turned up on the frogs to the surreal point where the CSU trustees were arguing about changing the term for the non-tuition we are not supposed to be charging students from “fees” to “tuition-fees” and more than half the state portion of the CSU’s revenue now comes from those non-tuition-fees we are charging for what rightly should be a free education. In addition, this violates the other mandate of the CSU, that is affordability, but to maintain that pretense the amount of available student aid is increased with each upward tick of the temperature dial. And we can see how that is working as students are graduating, those lucky enough to get there, with higher debt than ever before. This has untold ramifications for our society. As John Garamendi said to me once, how can young people consider public service as a career choice like he did with this debt hanging over them?

Besides the manipulated and purposeful underfunding of the entire public schooling sector, the real crime for the CSU was that California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was abandoned with no public debate and little fight. Unfortunately, the CSU leaders (the so-called trustees) were either salivating over the contracts they were going to see their corporate fellow travelers get or (the one’s who cared) wringing their hands saying: “What can we do? TINA.” All while distancing themselves from the groups that could have marshaled the political power to actually make a difference, the students and the employee unions. Oh, for a brief time there was the Alliance For the CSU, which actually worked (on many campuses and in Sacramento) to create the political pressure to turn back some threatened cuts, but it too soon fell apart, as if it were not needed anymore after securing a brief respite, just one victorious battle in the ongoing war. And all the while the chancellor’s governmental affairs office continued to push an indifferent agenda as if it were just another day in the life of dismantling a great institution. I don’t know if you could hear the violin music emanating from the 6th floor in Long Beach, but whatever the former leadership was doing, we were not clued in. Like I said, why would you not use the one power you have, the massive university community, including the parents, to turn back the anti-public higher education agenda? Instead they ran the other way.

The entire university community, and the state itself, is a victim of this ongoing crime. Not least the non-faculty staff. Going forward, first we need recognition that our problems are both the external, corporate-driven attacks that are part and parcel of the project to destroy the public sector (by “proving” the private sector can do it better, a wild assumption at best, and totally discredited over and over again), and the attack from within to demoralize the workforce (to better promote the private sector as the only alternative to a supposedly coddled, over-privileged state employees).

Thus we end up with “solutions” to budget shortfalls that make the overall problem worse for the people of the state, while dialing down the mission from excellent education to sort of OK. But we survived. The CSU would have been much worse off if not for the heroic efforts of the entire university community in struggling to maintain quality with much fewer resources and at great personal sacrifice. But if state employees, and specifically CSU staff, are coddled, then maybe we deserved to be cut. But what is the reality?

An internal problem that the budget crisis only exacerbated is the CSU’s broken staff classification and compensation system. The underlying philosophy is outdated and the system is dysfunctional in more ways than just being underfunded. This isn’t just my own opinion. There is plenty of empirical evidence. So much so that a joint labor-management committee wrote a report with recommendations for making significant changes (Long-Term Compensation Strategy LMC Report, June 2010). Some of these items are ever-so-slowly being implemented but the overall dysfunction has not been addressed. This needs to come from your office, from your leadership. Oh, you may have a battle with some of the trustees, who will object to this change in direction away from the Social Darwinian, corporate-inspired, philosophy to a system that rejects the race-to-the-bottom regime and honors public service and honestly values those providing the service. We are not making widgets. We are a service institution. Contrary to the view that too much of our budget goes to wages and benefits (as your predecessor was fond of saying without this clarification, effectively pushing the anti-tax panic button). It is both right and healthy for the majority of our resources to be put into the people providing this service for the greater good. The CSU is an investment in our children that we cannot afford to not make.

On top of the systemic issues there really has been serious underfunding and misdirected priorities. We, the staff, have been without cost-of-living raises since, in 2006, we were denied the raises in the third year of our contract at the time. This goes back to the beginning of the last round of the state budget crisis, when Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency (after he made the crisis worse, of course). When we bargained those well-deserved raises at that time the CSU was still reeling from previous budget cuts. Our bargaining team successfully showed management that our represented employees—the life’s blood of the CSU—were already terribly behind market wages, averaging 20 percent for most classifications. Since that time, things have gotten much worse, especially for the long-term employees.

As I stated earlier, in FY 2009-2010 we were faced with the choice of massive layoffs or furloughs. I helped negotiate the agreement that cut staff compensation by 10 percent for one year to help preserve positions. The staff in our bargaining units voted by better than 80 percent to take the cut. However, we still saw layoffs in subsequent years; the chancellor’s office not being so keen on furloughs anymore. We did our best to mitigate those layoffs to lessen the damage both to the individuals and for those campuses. Most of those affected have since returned to work but, as predicted, the system is just now beginning to fill long-vacant positions and address the increased workload burden our staff endured.

Unlike most other state employees, we do not have regular salary steps. Back in 1996 the CSU unilaterally took steps away when they implemented their merit pay system, featuring manager-discretion, open salary ranges—which were never adequately funded, and are only partly justified for a handful of classifications in the first place (mostly in Bargaining Units 2 and 9). The ranges look great on paper, but the reality for most CSU employees is that they are hired at the bottom and that is where they stay for most, if not all of their careers.

Although we do have the contractual right to ask for a raise through the In-Range Progression (IRP) process, they are, again, entirely discretionary and the CSU campuses do not typically have a budget line for staff promotion, so mostly it’s a futile exercise only to hear: “We recognize that you have taken up more duties at a higher level, but there’s no money for raises at this time.” Managers are doubly affected due to the frustration of not being able to reward their hard-working staff on top of themselves not seeing raises, and, like their staff, taking on increased workloads as they struggled to hold onto staff and avoid layoffs, mostly by not filling positions vacated through attrition. Staff know that the rule is: the longer you work for the CSU the farther behind you fall. For example, I was helping a union member—a health center nurse of 20 years—with her IRP (raise) request and discovered that she was making $2,000 a month less than a recently hired nurse doing the same work. Of course, she had to show this newly hired employee the ropes.

So, with the CSU in periodic budget crisis, coming in waves, classes cut in the early 1990s have still not returned. In addition, SF State’s plans to expand education pedagogy into innovative inter-disciplinary directions with it’s NEXA program was entirely sacrificed to the “budget crisis” gods. Meanwhile some staff who spent their entire careers during this time have experienced stagnation, no movement through salary ranges; asked to take on more without compensation; literally overworked and underpaid; often working out of classification; and then hit with furloughs and effectively told over and again that we are the most expendable members of the university community.

Any effort on your part to restore what was lost, and beyond that, secure adequate funding for the CSU will be greatly appreciated. The state legislature must be shown that to lose 33 percent of our operating budget over the last five years (not to mention previous cuts) and then have 18 percent trickle back in puny increments (the governor’s “5-5-4-4 plan”) but still be expected to take in even more students and meet other enhanced performance criteria is not reasonable. As we are public servants and also citizens of the state we take to heart our mission and can’t help but be disturbed about the unmet needs of a state in economic recovery. California’s citizenry and government leaders need to be shown that not to invest adequately in our collective future is a less than prudent path, to say the least. In addition, there was a cruel joke played on us with the so-called “equal” cuts made to both the CSU and UC. The same dollar amounts have not had the same affect because our overall budgets and funding sources are not the same.

You join us in somewhat better times, but the very real threats to the CSU are still out there. It is heartening to see the system begin to go in what appears to be the reverse direction. I commend your effort to recognize our neglect the last seven years by carving a 1.34 percent raise out of the $125 million the Legislature provided the CSU in the last budget. This is a significant sign of hope. In addition, your support for our bargaining team’s proposal to fund a minimum $40-a-month increase for those below that threshold has not gone unnoticed. While it was a hopeful move and very much appreciated by those employees affected, it is sad that it was even necessary. Imagine living in the SF Bay Area on less than $3,000 a month gross pay, working full time.

However, to watch a democratic leader (one of our supposed friends that some elements like to say are in the union’s pockets) campaign against the BART employees by promoting a petition against public transit employees’ right to strike (in his bid to join the State Legislature) is extremely disheartening, especially since he is the governor’s man on the CSU Board of Trustees. We are left wondering, who are the trustees, let alone legislators, with the courage to stand up for public service employees?

The next round of full-contract bargaining is upon us. In the last round we proposed similar language to that of other state employees to protect bargaining units from overuse of outside contractors performing our work. Unfortunately, we did not have the leverage at the time to convince the CSU, and this problem has only gotten worse since. We may be pushing this in the state legislature. We are convinced it is the right thing to do for the sate as a whole. The reality is, contracting out is a very efficient way to waste already scarce state resources. California as an employer does not need to join the race to the bottom with the creation of junk jobs that don’t provide for healthy communities and a career we, as state employees, can be proud of.

You and I have our respective roles, but they aren’t so different, at least they shouldn’t be in some respects. We both need to champion the public sector, value the workforce, and figure out how to restore what has been stolen from the citizens of California and ensure that it doesn’t happen again by securing an ongoing commitment for the future.

Again, thank you for listening. Your heartfelt respect for what we do is important to us. Now let’s see some action, taken with the help of the entire university community. Speak up on what we know is good for us all, a strong public sector, and, we got your back.

I remain a proud public servant at your service.
Sincerely,

California State Employees Association Vice President Russell Kilday-Hicks
ITC at SF State, CSU Employees Union member and activist

Equity Week speech

November 10, 2013

[Given at SF State’s Malcolm X Plaza at an event organized by the local CFA chapter.]

Let me ask you a question, who washes your floor at home? If this work is kept up regularly you don’t have to think about it. If it weren’t done for a while you would eventually notice and then it would get to a point of intolerance—especially if you tired the four-second rule on a filthy dirty floor.

Second point. Drive by any auto sales lot and what do you see? The hoods are open. Why is that? Because when you buy a car you want to check to see if there is an engine in there and whether you are getting your money’s worth. So then, why would you purchase an education without looking “under the hood”?

Let me guide you “under the hood” for a moment. As you go about your current job of getting an education, think about all the work done behind the scenes, the mostly invisible work that’s done every day. Look at the park-like surroundings on campus. BTW—those workers and the ones who clean the classrooms start work at 4 a.m. What if it suddenly weren’t done? What if your classrooms were filthy, or your chemistry experiments were not set up, or you were given all the wrong classes, or the wireless went down? It might just interfere with your job, wouldn’t it?

The staff here enable the faculty to do their jobs. The staff enable you to focus on learning. As they cut staff and push more of the behind-the-scenes support work onto fewer of us, or onto your faculty, or hire high-priced, low-quality contractors, you are the ones who are buying a car with a lemon for an engine. We do our best but the CSU has been less than appreciative of both our heroic efforts and that of the faculty to keep SF State an institution of quality higher learning despite the obstacles.

Do me a favor. Don’t wait until after you graduate to look for and join a union. Join the statewide student union movement, CASU, now. We are told we live in a democracy, but at best it is of a very limited kind. Everywhere our society is structured in hierarchies, where power is concentrated at the top. The university is no exception. Unions, by the way, are a keystone to democracy because they can redistribute some of that concentrated power.

The floor washers thank you for your support. We are proud of what we do and you should take pride in improving yourselves through study. Now, go out and make a better world so that the toilet cleaners have hope, if not for themselves, at least for their children.

The history of this nation has been the struggle to always expand the limited democracy the framers started us with. The deck has always been stacked against working people. Just recognize the work we do for you and we will be empowered. Respect and support our union and we will be even stronger. Join your own union and then join up with the faculty union and the staff unions and then we can begin to put the demos back in democracy.

Remember, staff and faculty working conditions are your learning conditions and SFSU stands for Students, Faculty, and Staff United. Peace.

Have a slice of nation with your holiday pie

December 10, 2012

Have a slice of nation along with your holiday pie

Dec. 10, 2012

We are a divided nation. There is no time like the holidays for putting that glaring and uncomfortable gorilla of a fact right on the table next to the turkey and pumpkin pie. So my kid sister is dating someone whom I’m meeting for the first time and what does he bring up but Donald Trump’s claim of how Obama is not a legitimate president because he wasn’t born “in America.” I actually surprised myself and behaved. I avoided the temptation for mischief by not pointing out our culture’s penchant for listening to the wisdom of billionaires because having a billion dollars makes you automatically a wise and studious person that everyone should stop whatever he or she is doing and give our full attention to. I also avoided pointing out that maybe Trump may have a point because, as a stolen colony still fighting for its independence, Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii is not exactly legitimate United States territory for some. Then, of course, I avoided the more-direct pathway to holiday disaster by not gloating over the (bad pun alert) trump-ing of the Romney/Ryan ticket and how Romney is headed to the “also ran” dustbin of the history books, or even to get into why it would matter anyway seeing Obama has already served four years and will be with us for another (or, like Bill Clinton, maybe never go away, ever). No, I was good for my mom’s sake by tactfully changing the subject to one that could possibly lead to a more common-ground discussion by asking how we went from a nation of “no taxation without representation” to just plain “no taxation.” My partner came into the room and was pleasantly surprised that there was a civil political discussion going on and while there wasn’t total agreement at least different views were getting a hearing.

 

But now, of course, I’m still thinking about what I could have said regarding the “birther” subject directly.

 

Now despite the fact that, as a former professor of Constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama is one of a handful of thoughtful scholars our nation has elevated to presidential heights, I’m actually not that big of an Obama fan. I couldn’t help liking his chapter on the Constitution in the “Audacity of Hope,” a book he wrote while he was a senator from Illinois, because I could have written that chapter myself. While we are in agreement that the Constitution is flawed and needs more work, I don’t think that is an excuse for undermining it, as he has done and is doing with summary executions of enemies and waging war without Congressional authorization, for example. Even his Irish roots do not swell me with pride (for a chuckle check out this song from the Irish pub “Starry Plough” in Berkeley, “There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama”). The real answer to the birther gang is a great big: Who cares? Does anyone else wonder where this silly law came from in the first place? If the free people of a free country want to elect Herr-Gropen-Führer Arnold Schwarzenegger president, for example (while he was governor of California rumor had it there was going to be an effort to change the law so he could continue his political career), why then should a foolish law like this protect us from even greater foolishness?

 

Let’s step into the way-back machine for a minute. After all, there is at least one political party who seems quite fond of the idea “going back” (as in “take our country back,”) although I wonder sometimes if they have ever picked up a history book, but no matter, we are a product of the sweatshops of Hollywood, after all, so we should never let facts get in the way of a good story line.

 

Where did this law come from anyway? Why would a nation that started as part of another country make a law that disallowed anyone who was born in said country, or any other for that matter, from being democratically elected president? What were they afraid of? After all, during the revolution some of our most passionate patriots were technically Englishmen. Would it have been all that terrible to have Thomas Paine as president? Well, it turns out, Paine could have become president because there was a one-time exception made at the nation’s start, providing you became a citizen before the Constitution of 1789 became the law of the land. Also, with the 14-year residency requirement, you could have run pretty much right away if you were in the colonies at the outset of hostilities in 1775 (with the war ending in 1783, roughly eight years of hostilities, and the treaty and Constitution taking six more years to be crafted and ratified, this adds up to the 14-years the framers specifically mention in the Constitution, and yet, like elections on Tuesdays because market day was Monday, this stuff just hangs around for no good reason). Article 2, Section 1 states: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution [emphasis added], shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

 

So they had a clause that would allow the non-native born to be elected at the start, but after that it would be taboo? What were they thinking? I do not know if the debate on this topic among the framers was ever recorded for posterity. However, as a legitimate objection to a presidency, as the Trumps and ditto heads have steadfastly refused to let go of, it really doesn’t carry much weight. Can you say “grasping at straws”? (I would like to know who came up with the idea of 35 years as well. Was there research at the time proving that pre-35 years of age no man had yet attained the wisdom to rule our nation? And, shouldn’t we lower the age for women seeing as they mature faster than men?)

 

Again, I want to stress, WHO CARES? Let’s flash forward twenty years from now when the so-called minority-majority of our citizenry elects our first Mexican American president despite the opposition’s efforts to tag him or her with the label of “anchor baby,” that is they will attack this person for being born here legitimately, but with “illegal” parents. Of course, if we are still cursed with listening to the likes of the offspring inheritors of Trump’s, and other mega-war-buck oligarchs (at least money can’t allow the rich themselves to live forever, not yet anyway, but for an interesting take on this watch the movie “In Time”), they will probably not remember that their forbearers attacked our first “black” president for the very opposite reason. Is Obama vulnerable on this account? According to Obama’s autobiography, his father had little interest in using a child to leverage living here, as is the claim made of so-called anchor-baby parents from the “other” Americas.

 

In the end, I have no idea how this conversation with my sister’s new beau would have turned out. To be fair, I don’t really know what my sister’s friend believes about Obama. No doubt he knew I was from liberal-central Bezerkely, California, and possibly was just baiting me to see how crazily I would react.

 

Like I said earlier, we are a divided nation, but this is hardly the first time in our history, and will most likely not be the last. After all, only about one third of the population supported the radical project begun when the tea merchant John Hancock put quill to parchment. The sad part in all this is the division is blamed on so-called extremists on “both” sides but this is just plain unfair. I for one believe that no matter what the gulf of our differences may seem to be, in the end, we have enough in common to find some agreement, even if it is on the basic level of shared humanity (OK, maybe even this isn’t possible with some so-called Tea Party Patriots). I believe also that it is essential and even your civic duty to listen to each other and, goddess forbid, possibly even learn from each other.

 

My advice, when all is said and done, is not to avoid politics at the holiday table by discussing football or shopping, etc. For some of us, even those topics, or just about anything else you can bring, up are chock full of fascinating political angles. For the sake of our democracy we need to talk, and especially cover all the political spectrum in all its amazing glory.

 

One final note. Check out this Dar Williams song to prepare you for the next holiday gathering. It is the perfect song for the holidays, where only the pies get burned. Peace.

 

Regarding the Brown-Millionaire Tax measures compromise

March 22, 2012

By Russell Kilday-Hicks, CSUEU VP for Representation

“My practicality consists in this, in the knowledge that if you beat your head against the wall it is your head which breaks and not the wall … that is my strength, my only strength.”                        — Antonio Gramsci

As one of four statewide, rank-and-file elected officers of my union, the CSU Employees Union, Local 2579 SEIU, I recently returned from a meeting of our statewide Board of Directors, a body made of statewide and campus chapter rank-and-file elected officers.

Along with two other officers who, like me had participated in recent Occupy Education activities, we made the argument for support of the Millionaires Tax measure (MT). We lost, overwhelmingly. Even though in their hearts they supported the MT, their heads told them that it couldn’t win, that it would be an uphill struggle to get it on the ballot, and that from their perspective there were some serious flaws in its design. While I can see both sides of the argument, I am going to support their position.

I proposed in the Occupy Education GA on March 17 that we declare the Brown tax compromise a victory and move on. Here’s why.

 

I participated in the “99-Mile March to Sacramento for Education and Social Justice” and greatly value being part of that experience and the community we built. I believe in the power of the Occupy Movement (Occupy) to bring about significant social change that’s long overdue. It has given me real hope I haven’t felt for 30 years of activism. I also strongly support taxing the rich to fund a vibrant public sector, and to expose the obscenely unequal distribution of wealth in our society, the unbalanced distribution of power, and the farce both of these make of democracy,.

 

The time is right for a tax measure like this. But the MT is not getting the support it needs from some key organized groups, making its qualification for the ballot, let alone passage in November, an extremely long shot. We need to understand why. It is too simple to just say, “the unions are in Brown’s pocket” or, they are “too tied to the Democratic Party.”

 

One persuasive argument against MT is that even if the MT gets on the ballot and wins a majority vote (two pretty high hurdles), because it doesn’t address the ongoing structural General Fund deficit (the state’s income is less than mandated expenses), in the end, there could be no net increase to CSU funding. Whatever the CSU gets on the front end (from MT) could be cut on the back end (from General Fund dollars) in order to address other pressing social needs. CSUs and UCs are at least earmarked to receive funding in MT. Not so for child care and health and human services.

 

Another problem is that the funds set up by the MT won’t begin paying out until Sept. 1, 2013. What happens until then? Brown has promised to cut the CSU another $200 million (on top of the $750 million cut to this fiscal year) if his measure doesn’t pass. At least the compromise measure brings in funds immediately so some planned cuts can be stopped. It’s true these funds are from a regressive sales tax. But without some immediate infusion of funds the CSU and the people I represent will loose even more jobs than we already have. Since CSU can’t gamble on something passing in November, they must cut at the start of the 2012 fiscal year (and they just announced at the Board of Trustee meeting that up to 25,000 students could be turned away and about 3,000 staff could be laid off). If this happens, one of the ongoing threats to the union, dismantling and privatization of the CSU system, will have an easier time moving forward.

 

Now is the time to push for increasing taxes on the rich. Our tax system has been inherently unbalanced for the last three decades, and that problem has become even more severe in recent months with our “jobless recovery.” Neither do we need to debate whether or not Brown is part of the problem. He’s a solid corporate centrist who is not about to challenge the two-party system of privilege and inequality that is too often mistakenly called democracy.

 

The question here is what will best build the movement. I’m making a call for a tax-the-rich victory that will deliver much-needed funding more immediately and encourage an increasingly broad group to keep fighting. If we are going to choose electoral work as a tactic, we must get into the nitty-gritty details of how thing work in Sacramento, how to qualify measures for the ballot and figure out who will vote for what—and if we are in this for the long haul.  

 

We heard from the president of CFT some of the practical reasons why they compromised—primarily not enough support to even get it on the ballot—let along pass it in November—both financially and from activist/volunteers. The harsh reality is: there have been a number of recent, progressive ballot measures that have gone down to defeat. You may say this doesn’t matter because Occupy has changed everything, and I would agree to a point. This compromise would not have happened without Occupy. It has changed the debate and opened up new space for change, but has Occupy delivered millions of new voters, for example? This compromise measure needs to qualify for the ballot in record time. Even the compromise measure is an opportunity for Occupy to show its strength by shifting the tone of California’s politics and show our readiness to stand up against the anti-tax rhetoric.

 

Even if MT is still a viable option, successful passage could still lead to cuts in areas not protected by Prop. 98, and comes with the risk of carrying on the message that government and taxes are the problem, rather than the real issue (the strength of the Occupy meme), that the wealthy are in control. While Prop 98 is an important defensive measure against Prop 13 and the attack on education, as long as we have one public sector with guaranteed funding (as inadequate as it is still) while other crucial services for the 99 percent continue to starve, we will have a divided movement. We need to build initiatives that unite all public sectors serving the 99 percent: health and human services, and education from diapers (child care) to PhDs and life-long learning. Until we find a better way, some revenue dedicated to the General Fund is what we need.

 

It is unfortunate that Brown has not officially withdrawn his measure. I spoke with CSU Trustee Steve Glazer, who is spearheading the ballot effort for the governor, about the perception that if the old measure is not withdrawn then the compromise measure looks like a ploy to merely eliminate viable competition. He said he understood and will deliver that message to the governor. Glazer also said they are going to be challenged with keeping their governor’s business partners behind the compromise agreement.

 

In addition to appropriate criticism from the Left, it’s important to understand what the Right is calling this compromise. They portray it as Brown giving in to the unions. If we are really trying to build a mass movement we need to be strategic and keep the “eyes on the prize.” We must transform unions as a crucial ingredient for progressive and radical change. We must be careful that our critiques of unions don’t support those forces attacking the unions.

 

The fact that unions don’t feel supported enough by Occupy to take the chance on the MT should not surprise us. We are at the beginning of this movement. The unions need the support not only to survive, but to democratize internally, and allow more radical leaders to come into power. Let’s analyze why our natural allies continue to align with the likes of Brown (let alone the crazies on the Right) and give them the support and security they need to join us. Let’s broaden our discussions to those affected by other public sector areas, unionized or not. The public education sector has the strength of organization, dedicated students, and unions to lead this charge. As one of those unionists, I’m dedicated to Occupy for the long haul. I’m asking for your help. Peace.

 


Occupy Education walk from Oakland to Sacramento, March 1–4

March 9, 2012

By VP for Representation Russell Kilday-Hicks

California State University Employees Union

Image 

A rag-tag band of approximately 50 to 60 people started out from Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland on Thursday afternoon, March 1, for a 99-mile stroll for the 99% to Sacramento. Our ranks were formed out of Occupy Education, a coalition group made up of concerned citizens who work in, with, at, or around public education. The common thread among us was the belief that California’s public education system isn’t working for the working class. We marched behind a large, yellow hand-painted banner and a one-person, hand-sewn, multicolored 99% banner. (I joked with the 99% banner maker that this movement isn’t old enough to have banners made in China just yet, but next year we will have T-shirts with Che saying, “Occupy!”) Our controversial upside down American flag read in words of tape: “Education is in distress.” (BTW—an upside-down flag is an internationally recognized sign of distress, like opening the hood of a car when broken down at the side of the road. The walkers held a GA to discus the pros and cons of the flag. There is no doubt that it garnered attention, some of it misunderstood as disrespect, but it was a powerful statement and not enough to divide the group over.)

 

Along the way we were mostly cheered and occasionally jeered, hosted and fed by churches, welcomed and honored by Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and even provided breakfast by the CSU Maritime Academy, arranged by supporters in the CSU’s California Faculty Association. We were heading to Sacramento in time for the annual student association rally and lobby day. We planned to hold a GA in the capital rotunda at the heart of California’s government—the idea of bringing the Occupy Movement’s direct democracy model to Sacramento being a powerful one. There were others who wanted to support the civil disobedience action afterward by staying beyond closing time.

 

You may have heard on the news coverage of the march how a “group of university students” were doing this, and that was mostly true. They came from a sprinkling of SF Bay Area schools, including SF City College, SF State, CSU East Bay, and UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz.  But we also had a Concord high school teacher with us, and others who attended college and never made it to degrees. We even had a child care teacher, to encompass all learning from diapers to PhD. We had along some graduates, from UCB and even from private schools like Stamford, who were still looking for meaningful jobs aligned with their studies. We had local Occupy activists and even some who came from afar, like the man from Occupy Boston. Along the way we were joined for parts of the march by others, like when a group at Solano Community College hosted us for lunch we left with more walking pairs of feet than what we had arrived with, and others who joined along the road.

 

I joined along not only because I share the discontent in the state of public education funding but to represent the union workers who support education. I was also a bridge from past social movements to the present. Many of my friends who could not be on the march because of its physical demands were overjoyed that I was representing older generations of activists disturbed by the shrinking support of the public sector.

 

On foot from Thursday through Sunday is a long journey, not just walking but eating, sleeping and taking care of other human needs (like entertainment) together. The operating principle was clearly “from each according to ability, to each according to need” but it also offered us the opportunity to really get to know each other. With all the various disciplines and life experience represented, it felt like an open university on the road. And that is just the thing. We do have much to teach and learn from each other if this movement is to grow into something that will bring on real change. Join us next time, and don’t worry, there will be a next time.

 

For more information, see: http://occupyeducationca.org/wordpress/

http://99milemarch.tumblr.com/

 

 

 

 

Politics for unions: A four-letter word?

November 13, 2011

Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you hate politics? I can’t really blame you. But I want you to realize that whether you love it or would rather leave it, politics is here to stay. The French have a saying: Those who don’t do politics will have politics done to them.

Some would rather not have unions involved in politics. Certainly corporations “feel” that way (contrary to the law, corporations are not people, so they can’t really have feelings) but even some union members (let alone non-member fee payers) tell me that they “don’t like our politics,” as if unions should do something other than fight for working people’s rights wherever they are threatened: in the workplace and in the state house in Sacramento. But I have to tell you what a mistake that would be. We have no choice but to play in the political arena; not doing so automatically concedes defeat. As a state employee union in public higher education, we have no choice but to fight for the CSU and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education—our fates are entwined. Outside of that we have a much bigger fight on our hands. Let me explain.

“Paycheck protection.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want their paycheck protected? “Protection of the secret ballot.” How could you be against that? These are just two of the deceptive measures that might be on the California ballot in November of 2012. Along with them might be multiple attacks on public employee pensions and even whether state employees should be allowed to have unions at all.

The “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” a.k.a. the “paycheck protection” initiative is gathering signatures at a campus (or a grocery store or church) near you. If this measure qualifies for the ballot and then gathers a majority of votes it will make it more difficult for unions to fundraise for political action. It messes with the unions’ ability to do payroll deduction for political spending by requiring permission, in writing, from each member each and every year. It doesn’t stop political deductions at all, and oh, by the way, your paycheck is already “protected.” If you don’t want political money taken just tell us, once, and we will not take another cent until you tell us to. (Also, you should know that money for politics is treated differently from dues money. There are two sets of rules that apply to dues verses political donations.)

Unlike its name, however, it hardly stops “special interest” money. Of course, to be “fair,” it also puts the same restrictions on corporations that deduct money from their workers’ paychecks—which would actually apply to no corporation on the planet, let alone in California. Corporations take their money through profit to spend as they will. When a union “takes” your money you have a say in how it is spent. We have a statewide legislative committee that looks at bills and ballot measures and candidates and decides which ones to support using the criteria of: will endorsement hurt or help state employees and the CSU? Any member is welcome to get involved in this work. Yes we want and need your money, but to spend it for our own collective good, some on programs and training and staff to defend your rights and some for issues that will directly affect us all—like whether we can even have a union.

As an aside, in case you didn’t know, “special interest” is code for the evil unions. They never refer to corporations by this name and the money they spend on politics is typically 17 to every one union dollar spent. I like to say in response when I hear unions called this: “We are not a special interest, but we have one: a vibrant CSU.”

Lest we forget, that other attack I mentioned, the “secret ballot” measure, is also a ruse, you can be sure of that. It is an attack on “card check” employer neutrality, when an employer can chose to be neutral and allow union representation of its employees—without holding an election—if enough workers sign a “pledge of intent” that states that if the workplace were unionized he or she would join it. Those who want to “protect” elections for unionization are really protecting their opportunity for all sorts of dirty tricks that elections allow for. “Union avoidance” is a $4 billion business, along with the over 10,000 union organizers who are fired illegally each year. (Where is their protection?)

Politics can be, and often is, a “four letter word,” meaning it is a dirty business, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just that for the most part our politics has become corrupted with backwards priorities and the unequal distribution of resources. As the journalist Greg Pallast says: “We have the best democracy money can buy.”

A politics of millions could change this — but it begins with us. As American citizens it is our right and our duty to “do” politics. As public sector union workers, it is also our right to be politically active unless we allow those corporate forces to strip our Constitutionally given right of association from us. (Oh, sorry, that right isn’t in the Constitution but established in case law. This is why they can take it away from us. But the right of association is still a human right, regardless. Maybe someday we can struggle to actually put it in the Constitution.)

As union leaders, we have a responsibility to our co-workers and to the trust we hold in the union to vigorously defend our rights, and, really, we would be crazy not to. Freedom is a constant struggle. Peace.

Lessons from the cold war on labor

October 6, 2011

In the recent skirmish in the cold war against unionized public-sector workers, the results are mixed. Despite the positive spin applied to the two-out-of-five seat “victory” in the recall effort in Wisconsin, portrayed by the AFL-CIO and others as a huge win, it is unclear at this point how big it really was. Whether the effort to un-elect (in Republican-dominated, gerrymandered districts) some of the lawmakers who voted to strip union rights from state workers was worth the effort or, as some say, just a wasteful redirection of the broad support labor had in the moment that was better spent on a general strike, we need to figure out. The real victory may be down the road—if the coalition can continue beyond this effort. From this extra-election venture we see not only the limits of putting all our union eggs in the Democratic Party basket but also the inherent problems to electoral activism (as it hits the fail-safe, two-party-system lock on power). With some luck and a continuation of the gargantuan effort, a replication of the broad coalition that formed (outside of normal two-party limits and with goals that include but go beyond electoral) it may be our only hope for some lasting movement toward a better life for working people in America.

In Wisconsin, the Republican-leaning districts chosen for the recall effort were determined by how presidential candidate Senator Obama did in the 2008 national election. Special elections traditionally put most voters to sleep. This reduced turnout unfortunately tends to favor the more conservative vote. The challenge for the recall was matching the 2008 turnout to overcome the odds not only of a stacked deck of registered majority Republican voters but also the usual cynicism that keeps voters home: elections don’t really matter, so why should this one be any different? At 60 percent, turnout was actually better than a traditional special election and even better than most recall efforts, but was still lower in these districts than when the national presidential seat was the prize. The broad, statewide support unions had in the moment did not find expression in three of these five districts. We have to ask both what was missing here, and is an electoral effort what is needed?

But some key elements were missing. Part of the reason for only a partial victory was that the Democratic Party controlled the candidate picking and the message. Even though they had the most to gain by “flipping,” that is, replacing Republican office holders with those from their own party they distanced themselves from the one hot issue of the day: whether state employees had the right to be unionized, apparently in an attempt to counter the perception that unions control the party. And despite the president’s campaign promise to “put on his sneakers and walk the picket lines” for labor, surprisingly, the Obama administration also sat this one out. Oh, lest we forget, candidate Obama promised to sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as well—if Congress sent it to his desk. Alas, that has yet to happen, although it did make it to G.W. Bush’s desk, not once, but twice, for his cynical, service-to-the-rich veto. That was no surprise. However, when Obama was sworn into office Congress had a Democratic majority in both houses. This historic renewal of the 1935 Wagner Act could have been history in his first month in office. Unfortunately, and here is the lesson, with Obama in and the possibility of the bill passing Congress a reality, a few key Democrats switched their votes from yea to nea, among them California’s Senator Feinstein. Following this vote, the Obama administration asked labor to put EFCA on hold until after the health care reform legislation became law. Today, health care “reform” (mostly a corporate handout with a few mild reforms thrown in for credibility sake) passed into law but the odds of passing EFCA are more remote than ever, as the window of opportunity seems to have closed (for another decade or so).

With all the effort unions put into electing Democrats across the country some might think labor would have more to show for it. Where are labor’s supposed champions? As President Obama was missing in Wisconsin, so is Gov. Brown missing the opportunity to fully defend California’s public sector. The best we can say is he isn’t outwardly attacking us. The reality is, despite Republican myth and Tea Party mouth-foaming, the Democratic Party is hardly the champion of labor or of working people in general. The party is firmly in the hands of corporate powers. These same powers lead (using divergent methods) the Republican Party and the so-called Tea Party Patriots by their invisible nose rings.

The cold war is getting hotter. As wealth disparity reaches new heights the powerful few are coming after the last holdout of opposition with any semblance of power—public employee unions. In the last 30 years especially, private-sector unionism (now at around six percent) is falling to the corporate-led backlash that has been hard at work since FDR’s New Deal. At 37 percent, the public sector is still unionized at post New-Deal-era levels. The larger agenda has been to attack and “shrink” the public sector, in order to “defund the left,” as if the public sector were “the left” but really to attack the base of the last vestiges of supports to the working class. With anti-tax rhetoric (the very underpinning of the public sector) now winning the day, it makes perfect sense to turn up the heat on public employee unions, the last defender, it seems, of the public sector. It also forces the question of continuing to fight for “progressive” crumbs tossed by the Democratic Party to maintain its “base” (public unions, public sector) or create something new and more powerful.

Beware the coming ballot. And beware the approach we take in our defense. We must clarify our goals and the strategy and the tactics needed to reach them. Elections are only one tactic in our movement to make life better for working people, and may not be the best one to put most of our energy into. Did the decision to switch from sit-downs, marches, and occupation take away from the coalition building and education “happening” that Wisconsin’s state house had become? Did the flipping of two seats in Wisconsin, and the effort to elect Brown, move us forward or take us back? What will a two-thirds Democratic majority in California yield without a movement with a progressive agenda pushing them away from the corporate?

If the coalition that flipped two Republican seats in Wisconsin can continue on and grow, and we can replicate this effort across the country and in California; if we can bring together public education at all levels from pre-school, to K–12, to the Community Colleges, CSU and UC—with all their students and parents and alumni, and combine that with health care and other social services, and then include the unemployed and the underemployed and connect with other movements like Occupy Wall Street and Refund California—if a broad coalition, the politics of millions, can create a dialogue centered on turning around the existing economy that’s structured to the needs of bankers (the “financelization” of the economy that happened in the last 30 years) into one that works for working people and re-create public spaces and raise voices that carry the message to protect and grow (using a real democratic model) the public sector—when that day comes, working people will have a fighting chance.

As “Solidarity Divided” author Bill Fletcher Jr. said to the Progressive Caucus at the recent California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, the Democrats have to decide which it is: are they about merely gaining and exercising political power for its own sake or are they really committed to making things better for working families in America? The party’s mostly lip service “dedication” to working people is not reversing the latest trends. Labor, it seems, has to figure out the very same thing—are we about power, growth at any cost with top-down schemes that organize workers who don’t know the difference between filing a union grievance and complaining to a human resources manager, or can we be about building a union movement that embraces and empowers all workers, no matter if they are unionized or how they feel about labor? We need to decide. And soon.


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