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We have had 25 years of denigration of the very idea

 that there is something called the public good



We Need Political Climate Change

By Roger Toussaint

President Local 100


Thank you Rabbi Feinberg, Ed Ott and all the organizers of this event. Thank you all for your support in these difficult times.

I want to talk about climate change. Some of you just had two full days on climate change at the North American Labor Assembly on Climate Change. Is there anything else to say? Especially from someone who is not a climate scientist.

I want to talk about changing the political climate. I have been asked to frame the discussion and then the panel jumps in. Here’s a 5-point proposition for our discussion.

1.    The political climate is very important.
2.    The current political climate makes any progressive change almost impossible.
3.    We are entering a period where the political climate can and will change.
4.    Which way it changes – good or bad -- is up to us.
5.    So the big question is: What do the groups represented here tonight have to do to change the political climate in a progressive direction.  That’s our task.

Our Union knows something about message development. 17 months ago, right before our last contract expired, TWU Local 100 put ads in newspapers and issued public statements. Our message was simple.

•    Transit work is difficult, dangerous, vitally important work.
•    Transit workers deserve respect and consideration for the work we do.
•    Safety for riders and transit workers is our top priority.
•    If we are hard nosed negotiators, it is because we have been to too many funerals.

That last line is not a paraphrase or summary. It is a direct quote from full page ads in December, 2005. “We have been to too many funerals.”

The response from government and the media was swift and furious. We were denounced in the press for holding the city hostage. We were called greedy, overpaid, even lazy.  We were told we should be thankful we had a job with any benefits. Editorials in the NY Post and Daily News called for my arrest and jailing. Imagine that.

The media was not reporting the news. It was trying to create the political climate we had to work in. Let me add that the press was as rabid or more in 2002. Then the Post said I was leading a “neo-socialistic jihad.”

There were also editorials about transit workers in the Daily News and Post this past week. Let me briefly quote from them: 

Safety is Job One in any environment. Transit workers find themselves in particularly dangerous circumstances all the time; the need for care is that much more acute.”

That’s from Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post. Here’s another, and here from the NY Daily News, an editorial titled “The tracks of our tears.”

The sad, sorry truth is that most of us pay little attention to the men and women who keep this city running. Like the transit workers out there in the dark, dank tunnels where the subway trains come screaming through. We take both - the trains and the workers - for granted. Although the former would not be there for us if the latter were not there also, laboring under dangerous conditions.

We take the risks for granted, or do not understand the perils that come with the job. But this past week, our collective conscience was shaken by the deaths of two of these men.

Meanwhile, workaday New York - all the busy people rushing to-and-fro - should take a moment to acknowledge those who labor underground, unsung and unheralded. They deserve our thanks. And Franklin and Boggs and their grieving families deserve our prayers.

Like I said, the political climate can change. Local 100 did not hire a new PR firm to get these editorials. We paid a much higher price. There is an old IWW song: “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years.” Here is the refrain:

But if blood be the price of all your wealth
Good God we have paid in full

Transit workers have paid in full to keep New York moving.

Climate change is coming. I think we are in one of those historic periods where what we do in the next year or two will determine the way people live for the next generation or two. It’s one of those periods where the stakes are higher than usual.

•    The future of American health care will be determined.
•    The future of immigration.
•    Transportation policy, and all that entails.
•    The environment.
•    The nature of work and retirement.
•    War and peace for the whole world.

Use whatever term you want.  Watershed.  Paradigm shift. Or listen to Sam Cooke:

It's been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

Should we be hopeful or fearful?  I say both. Clearly there is hope. If we had this meeting a year ago, with Bush and a solid Republican Congress, the future would seem impossibly bleak.  Today it is less so.  

But all change is not good change.

The last time things shifted for a generation was 1980, with Ronald Reagan. We are still living under that change.

What do we need to make the change a good change?

•    We need stronger alliances between labor and other movements.
•    We need stronger alliances between union labor and the rest of labor.
•    And we need to forthrightly confront the big cultural roadblocks that block the progressive path.

The first one is about the public good. We have had 25 years of denigration of the very idea that there is something called the public good. Government has to push it forward. Society has to pay for it.

The Republican presidential debate last week was at the Ronald Reagan library. It belonged there. Reagan unleashed the open assault on the public good. The candidates fell all over themselves trying to show who was the most Reagan-like. Who would keep starving the public sphere and push all wealth into the marketplace.

I used to think that the only public good the right wing accepted was the military. But today they even send our children and neighbors and co-workers into battle without armor. And then de-fund the VA hospitals when they come home wounded.

We need a full scale cultural counter-attack on this front.

•    The market can NOT provide health care for all.
•    The market can NOT provide efficient, affordable, accessible mass transit.
•    The market can NOT make the environment green.

There are things the market can do. It can provide 300 TV channels and a fancier cell phone every few months. And if progressive public policy decisions are ever made, the market can try to make a buck off of them.

The market won’t provide equality, or decency. It won’t ensure dignity in our old age, though it will try to profit if society goes that route. We need to change the culture that worships the market and rebuild a sense of the public good, the common good.  

I think this will require taking a deep breath and wading back into the battle over taxes. I offer as a proposition for debate: low taxes are an indication of a society going the wrong way.

Let me say a few words about New York City. A few weeks ago Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his big “Plan NYC 2030” to develop a more sustainable New York over the next generation. This time I did not tell the Mayor to shut up.

Two reasons.  

1.    He was talking about a big public initiative. It’s about time.
2.    And much of the content made sense. Playgrounds and green space throughout the city, a sound water supply, a superior mass transit system, and even congestion pricing for lower Manhattan.

But I have to raise the same questions I raised yesterday at the Climate Change conference. We are all for a greener New York, but a greener New York for whom? Who should do the sacrificing? And whose children get to benefit? It’s not just about generations. It is also about class and race.

Every picture tells a story. Examine the photos accompanying the 157 glossy page Plan. You will see lower Manhattan, you will see Midtown Manhattan, and you will see Central Park. Not the South Bronx. Not East New York. Not Jamaica. Now read the text. You will see references to improving conditions in every borough and in every neighborhood of New York City. There is a mixed message here. Might I even say class perspectives are being shown?

We spoke out on congestion pricing because we see it as part of the mix for making NYC more livable and more viable in the future.  Congestion pricing must be coupled with expansion of our mass transit system, with reducing transit fares, and with restoring the City’s dwindling funding for mass transit.

For us, this is not about making lower Manhattan a more comfortable place for bankers and lawyers to work, live and play. It is about making mass transit effective, accessible, affordable for working New Yorkers. It is a matter of class. But in New York matters of class often turn out to be matters of race as well.

Look at a map of childhood asthma in New York. The South Bronx jumps out at you, as do other minority neighborhoods. Bloomberg’s plan notes that 15,000 diesel-fueled trucks work the Hunts Point Market every day. That’s true. But the trucks did not get there by themselves. They did not even get pushed there by the by the doings of the invisible hand of the market. NYC put them there. NYC poisoned the children of the South Bronx through conscious planning decisions.

We did not invest in mass transit. Instead we shut the ports. We shut down the rail lines. And the Cross Bronx became a trucking route. Childhood asthma in the South Bronx is not an accident. It is not the result of unplanned growth. It is the consequence of policy decisions pushed by big money and enacted by government.  Policies soaked through with environmental racism.

And still I might take that over what has happened since: the total abandonment of public policy, planning and investment. It is a good thing that Mayor Bloomberg has reopened the possibility of government action in the public interest.  It’s up to us to make sure that the policies are good one.

One specific example that might illuminate our challenge. For the better part of a generation, government has reduced its commitment to mass transit. City and State contributions have gone down, and down again.  They even cut back subsidies to the MTA for transportation for school children. And at the same time, they cut taxes for the rich over and over. The MTA borrowed to make up the difference. Now interest to the banks on bonds is a growing burden.

Bloomberg calls for more mass transit. But he left out more money from the City and State. He talked of using the congestion pricing revenues, but not increasing the City and State share. He left out progressive taxation. And he left out fare reductions as a pull to accompany the congestion pricing push. He left all this out. We better not.

Why do I focus so much on public policy? Ask Dick Cheney. Standing on Ronald Reagan’s intellectual shoulders, he said that conservation is a matter of individual decisions, not public policy. Our children are taught that if each of us does our part, we can make the world greener.

NO.  Turning off the lights and riding a bike to work will not solve the problem. We better reestablish the legitimacy of the social sphere and public policy decisions. We better reestablish the proper role of government.

One more issue of American political culture that needs a climate change. I also think we need a major campaign that re-values honest work. We are losing that fight.  America idolizes investment income.

Wages you can raise a family on, healthcare, and pensions have become “unsustainable entitlements”. We are accused of dragging down the economy. Our benefits must be eliminated.

They actually say “unsustainable entitlements.” That’s from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Unsustainable!  

Hedge funds are not called unsustainable. They don’t think the war in Iraq is unsustainable. Good jobs and Social Security and Medicare are called unsustainable, over and over. This from the very people who say that spewing carbon based pollution has nothing to do with global warming.

Wages and pensions and health benefits are not just issues for labor negotiations.  They are cultural markers that signify how society values work. Inside labor, we have many members who think their taxes are too high because public sector pensions are too high.  Even in the public sector. I think this is a culture war we have to get into if we want to keep our alliances and our ranks together.

Our notion of sustainability includes jobs you can raise a family on, jobs with health care for your family and a pension at the end. Our notion of sustainability includes parks and playgrounds, but also affordable housing and schools that work. Our notion of sustainability includes an effective, accessible and affordable mass transit system – and good, union jobs operating that system. Our notion of sustainability means making life livable for working people, for our children, and for our children’s children.

If the lawyers and bankers come along for the ride, well, we can deal with that. But we are not giving up our seats for them.

This means we have to take a complex approach to the proposals that are out there. We will weigh seriously any proposal that can contribute to making life in New York more sustainable.

But we will also insist upon attaching the conditions necessary to meet our answer to the question “sustainable for whom?” For working people, that’s who.

I started  out saying that these next months will set the terms for a generation. On health care. Immigration. Transportation. The environment. Work and retirement. War and peace. And that we need alliances. Let me start the discussion with my comrades with an observation on alliances and some questions.

•    Labor is under attack.
•    Labor is a key partner in any plan for progress.
•    If we go down, we all lose.
•    So our partners have to be much more than just tolerant of labor. You have to be affirmatively and strongly PRO-LABOR.
•    If you (our partners in the environmental and other movements) need a strong labor movement, you have to help us more than you do.

So let me offer some questions to the panelists.

•    What kind of alliances do we need to win?
•    What do you need from us?
•    What do you bring to the table?
•    What’s holding us back?

We have to collectively come up with the right answers or our children will hold us to account. Thank you.


posted 19 May 2007  

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

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By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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update 13 February 2012




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Related files:  We Need Political Climate Change   Transit Workers' Union Announce Settlement