Thursday, November 17, 2011

"To Lose the Clinics Would be a Way of Dying"

Over 100 people gathered for a "People's Budget Hearing" in the Chicago Temple at 77 W. Washington on Tuesday November 15. They were upset over the budget that the city was poised to pass, the first budget passed since Rahm Emmanuel was elected mayor. In particular the crowd was upset that the budget would close 6 of city's 12 mental health clinics, privatize all 7 city neighborhood health clinics and layoff over 150 workers from city department of public health.

"Does anyone see Rahm Emmanuel in the building?" the man at the podium asked. The crowd responded loudly, "No!"

"Because the mayor's not here, we have to go to him.... we need to make sure we get the attention of city hall and make sure that they understand that this is an important issue."

 The crowd marched across the street to city hall, and up to the the mayors office on the 5th floor. When they got there, a group of 10 or so was already sitting in front of the the mayors office wearing lab coats and signs that plead to keep the cities mental health clinics public and open.

Organizer Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle told the police gathering around them, "We are here until the mayor comes. We won't let them close our clinics." Later he explained, "The only two ways we're leaving, is if they give us back our clinics, or take us away in handcuffs."

The crowd excitedly chanted, "no clinics, no votes" for several minutes.

The crowd then began to tell testimonies, using themselves as human microphones. People who relied on the clinics testified to how they had been impacted by the clinics and how they were terrified of what they would do if they were cut or privatized.

"It's a matter of expense for me, if Beverly Morgan park clinic is closed, I'll have to go to a private clinic and pay $15 a week. I don't have that money." One of those sitting in said.

Another one described her struggle with depression, "I know I will die if I don't go to my clinic. He (her therapist) means a lot to me because I have no where else to go. I have a family full of mental illness or other disabilities. So this really impacts me. It makes me so mad that I shake and get nervous because I can't deal with my life. I sit there and I cry and I panic and I think that suicide is the way out. And it's not the way out. So far I've made it and I know that this (the protest) is my calling."

Margaret Sullivan shouted from the floor in front of the mayor's office, "from 2003 - 2006 they (her clinic) calculated my medicines and kept me from committing suicide, for which I had a plan that included pills, Dramamine and a bathtub. I'm sure the new mayor doesn't care that I didn't die, but these people," she pointed to those sitting besides her, "these people do!"

Madonna Carter, described her three suicide attempts, and how she struggled with depression since she was 11 years old, "being able to be at the clinic has helped me not want to die every day. " She continued, "to lose the clinics would be a way of dying."

The rally was sponsored by many community, labor, and health groups, including AFSCME Council 31, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, SEIU Local 1, Illinois Single Payer Coalition, Mental Health Movement, Occupy Chicago, Southside Organizing for Power, and others.

Many in the crowd spoke. One person called the city's budget one for the 1%, not for the 99%. Another pointed out that the biggest mental health clinic in cook county is the cook county jail, as many of those without access to mental health clinics will end up in jail, costing tax payers even more than the clinics would have.

Another activist said that the police 'babysitting' the sit-in could be dealing with other criminals, like those at Lasalle and Jackson in the cities financial district who caused the economic crises.

After 10 hours, those who remained a part of the sit in were arrested by the police. While some alderman expressed regret that they clinics were not provided for in the budget, the budget was passed in a unanimous 50 to 0 vote.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

#Occupy the Police

"In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communication workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people - the employed, the somewhat privileged - are drawn into alliance with the elite.

They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails. That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica - expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us....

there is evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards. We have known for some time that the poor and ignored were nonvoters, alienated from a political system they felt didn't care about them, and about which they could do little. Now alienation has spread upward into families above the poverty line."

"In the twenties there was a similar estrangement in the middle classes, which could have gone in various directions - the Ku Klux Klan had millions of members at that time - but in the thirties the work of an organized left wing mobilized much of this feeling into trade unions, farmers unions, socialist movement."

"We may, in the coming years, be in a race for the mobilization of middle-class discontent."
-Howard Zinn People's History of the United States

The #Occupy movement has done an incredible job of raising class consciousness in America. From Wall Street to the occupations in smaller cities around the country, it's demand for more equal wealth distribution and for the lower 99% to have a greater say in how the economy is run, has agitated millions of Americans about the unfairness of American Capitalism.

However the movement goes back and forth on a critical issue. How to relate to the police. Many discussions have turned into shouting arguments, with some protesters arguing that they want to have good relations with the police, pointing out that they are public blue collar workers, "we're fighting for your jobs" is a common thing to hear them say to the police. Other activists will argue that the police only exist to serve the rich, and point to a long history of police brutality against labor organizers, people of color, and protesters.

Which is it?

Well it's both. Like just about every job in this society, the workers face contradictory interests and will have to go through a dialectical process if they are going to join with the forces of liberation.

I was in Ohio for several months, working to repeal Senate Bill 5, an anti-union law that would have limited the things that public employees could bargain over. Unlike the 'Budget Repair' bill that Scott Walker pushed in Wisconsin, SB5 in Ohio would have taken away bargaining rights from police and firefighters as well. We successfully repealed the law, with 61% of Ohio voters supporting union rights.

What was surreal was that the victory party I attended was at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
I'm used to police in riot gear surrounding a protest march I'm in. It was different to have the police fighting for union rights and joining me at the same victory party. Many of the police there had never been involved in politics before, but were now becoming involved in labor activism. A few were Republican, but now swore to never vote Republican again.

I was speaking with one of my Anarchist friends about the discussions within #Occupy about the police. He described his annoyance with those who fawn over how the police are part of the 99%, "We're fighting for your jobs, we're fighting for your jobs, well, I'm fighting for a world where police are not needed." He then described how in Sweden, the police give rides to people who are too stoned to drive.

When the Iraq war began, many of us protesting against the war were called unpatriotic, and told that we didn't 'support the troops.' We were glad when Iraq Veterans Against the War began. Veterans spoke out against a war that did not serve the interests of working people in America or in Iraq.

IVAW helped service members file for Conscientious Objector status, and supported those who refused to oppress Iraqi's.

Why is there not a similar group for police and #Occupy? How do we get the police to stop serving the rich, and to support the 99% of which they are materially a part of?

We have to be smart about it. What have we tried thus far? Shouting slogans at anonymous police from the picket line? It hasn't been very effective. When was the last time you followed the advice of someone you didn't know shouting at you?

Let me propose two ideas.

1.) We organize the rank and file. Let's talk to our friends and family who are in the police, and organize a day of police solidarity with #occupy.

2.) Also, we can approach police organizations, the Fraternal Order of Police, etc and speak to them in their terms in order to gain their support. Lets talk to them about their pension, about training, about staffing levels, about their own safety. Let us seek common ground in support of working class issues and against austerity.

The biggest obstacle we may face is their consciousness. They have probably never read Marx, and probably never will. It will be our task to raise their consciousness, through material struggle over their real life concerns as working people, so that they can join us and fight alongside the 99%, instead of against it.

The other obstacle we will face will be our own consciousness in relation to the police. Yes, many police join for the barbarity and ability to have a license to oppress others. It is important to support efforts to hold those individuals, institutions and cultures accountable to the people. Many in #Occupy will say that the police know what they have chosen to do is to support the 1% and brutality. Well, not always. Many police officers join to be able to serve their community's, and to have a steady paycheck for their families.

This is more than just a moral question, this is a strategic question for the movement - will it attempt to unite all who can be united, will it attempt to peel away the layers of support that prop up the system? Or will it take a puritan approach that anyone who has in any way supported the system as it stands is incapable of change or becoming an ally of the 99%?

Yes, many in the police have put the private interests of the rich and powerful ahead of serving and protecting the public. Like our public governments, we have watched as private power has hollowed out what we should hold in common.

We need to enlarge the discussion about private power over our public institutions by asking whether we as a society want public safety or private security.

Do we want a police force that will take drunk drivers off the road, help rape victims, break the silence around police brutality, and protect the rights of the 99%? Or do we want a police force that will act as strikebreakers, cover-up police brutality, and serve the interests of the 1%?

Will we automatically write off all those who are not 'as-left-wing-as-us' as incapable of joining the forces of social justice?

The answer, will be in what the movement does.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Celebrating the Defeat of Ohio Issue 2 in Dayton Ohio

I was interviewed by the Dayton Informer about the defeat of Issue 2 in Ohio.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Repealing SB 5: On the Verge of Victory in Ohio

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times Blog.

DAYTON, OHIO—I tried to stay dry in the thunderstorm. I would duck under porches, but quickly became drenched. My feet squished my wet socks as I tromped through muddy yards. My papers, a list of registered voters and fliers, became difficult to read as the ink smudged.

This was the second day in a row that it rained while we were outside knocking on doors and canvassing, trying to repeal Senate Bill 5, the anti-union law signed into law by Ohio Governor John Kasich that makes Scott Walker's "budget repair" bill in Wisconsin look tame in comparison. 

SEIU Local 1199 members prepare to canvass door-to-door against Issue 2 on October 25 in Dayton, Ohio. 

There are similarities between the two pieces of legislation. Both were passed after Republicans seized control of governorships and state houses in the wake of the 2010 elections. Both bills attempt to limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Both bills ban strikes by public employees like teachers and strip unions of the ability to collect automatic dues deductions from members. Both bills aim to make public employees pay more out of pocket for their pension and healthcare.

But there are big differences: In Wisconsin, the bill spared firefighters and police. Ohio's SB 5  would prevent firefighter and police unions, which are already prohibited from striking or joining broader labor federations, from negotiating over training, staffing levels and equipment. Perhaps most extreme, SB 5 would allow local governments to impose a "final offer" that public employee unions would not have legal recourse to appeal.

As soon as the SB 5 was proposed in Ohio, unions and supporters protested outside the statehouse in Columbus. But unlike in Wisconsin, there were no legislators who left the state. Even if all the Democrats left, the Republicans would have still had a quorum. There were no state house occupations, like in Madison.

And things have been different after the bills became law.
While organizers in Wisconsin attempted to turn the popular rage against Scott Walker into recall elections that would replace Republicans who voted for the bill with Democrats who would fight to repeal it, organizers in Ohio began to collect signatures in order to put Senate Bill 5 on the ballot for voters to repeal it themselves. 

After collecting more than 1.3 million signatures, Senate Bill 5 was certified to appear on the November 2011 ballot as Issue 2, where voters will have to respond to the question, "Shall the Law be Approved?" A labor and community based coalition, We Are Ohio, began to recruit canvassers and phone bankers to encourage voters to "Vote No on Issue 2" in order to reject the law and repeal Senate Bill 5.

In Ohio, the polls initially showed a large number opposed to the senate bill. One poll showed 54 percent of voters supported repeal (a "no" vote), while only 31 percent planned to vote "yes" to enact the bill.

With no way to convince the majority of Ohioans to vote against teachers, firefighters and police officers, a pro-business group, Building a Better Ohio set out to confuse them.    

Ads started airing saying that a "yes" vote would save firefighters jobs. And, disturbingly, Building a Better Ohio took video of a grandmother from a Vote No ad and cut it in a way to make it seem as though she was encouraging a Yes vote. 

Voters I spoke with at their doors told me about their confusion. They would talk about "Issue 5," and I'd have to correct them by informing them that Senate Bill 5 is on the ballot as Issue 2. Many had signed the petition to repeal Senate Bill 5, but were uncertain whether to vote Yes or No on Issue 2.

A poll from few weeks ago showed the race tightening, with the number who wanted to reject the bill falling to 50 percent. 

However a new poll shows that opponents of the new legislation now have a 25-point lead among voters: 57 percent support repeal, while 32 percent do not. Educating voters is paying off.

There has been a serious effort by my union, the Service Employees International Union, to get new voters registered and to get infrequent voters to the polls. I have helped 90-year-olds sign up to receive ballots in the mail and helped register students on their 18th birthday.

With less than two weeks until the election, the Vote No effort is pivoting toward the final GOTV (Get Out The Vote) effort: reminding people with absentee ballots to mail them in, asking voters to plan their election day schedule, and clearing up any last minute confusion. If we continue to educate Ohio residents and voters about Senate Bill 5 and remind them to Vote No on Issue 2, then Election Day—November 8, 2011—could be the day anti-union legislators around the country realize that if you strip workers of collective bargaining rights, they will fight back.

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