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“As goes the South, so goes the nation,” with Libby Devlin, Saladin Muhammad and Rita Valenti


The Southern Movement Assembly is on its seventh year of bringing together movement organizers from across the U.S. South to strengthen relationships, build a deeper political analysis, and connect different struggles. It’s something different from a conference, its participants say–its goal is to build a different kind of movement that challenges the structures of capital and white supremacy. Libby Devlin of National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, Saladin Muhammad, retired international rep for the United Electrical Workers union, founding member of the Black Workers for Justice, and Rita Valenti of National Nurses Organizing Committee, Healthcare-NOW! all worked to pull together the Movement Assembly and in particular the Workers Justice Assembly part of the gathering, and they joined me to talk about the movement they are building and what the rest of the country can learn from a place that has been Trumplandia for a long time.

RV: I really want to underscore this notion of not just mobilizing, not going backwards in history to a time that is past, and not just a series of workshops, but actually deep political organizing that produces a change of consciousness and begins to actually discuss the vision of the world that we want to build in this hugely transitional and chaotic period. And development of strategies.
I think the South has had much more of a handle on that because we have had a lot less, since our inception, resources that we have had to rely on each other and respect each other and understand the centrality of our history based in genocide and slavery. Wall Street has controlled the South and through that control has really controlled the nation. We see that in not just this Trump era, but more so in the history of Right to Work in terms of labor, the history of “state’s rights,” particularly in terms of healthcare and failures to expand Medicaid. What we bring, I think, to this table is that we try to listen to each other and not just tell each other.
LD: I guess I always kind of hoped that the standards in the northern states would move South, not vice versa. So, when you look at income inequality, it is worse in the South. Health outcomes are worse in the South. Education quality is worse in the South. Infant mortality rates are worse in the South. The percent of unionization rates is directly linked to all of that, as well. Particularly, income inequality and wealth inequality, there’s a reverse correlation between union strength and income inequality. The stronger the union is, the less income inequality is.
I think what we bring from the South is that we have been living under these same conditions that the existing government and their funders would like to see brought throughout the country. We have existed. We have survived. We can say we have done that. I think a lot of people in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, they are all going to be faced with the same conditions that we have now. I know that they are working to try to figure out “How do you fight back in that environment?” because the political climate has been different there. One thing that people can learn from us is how to be scrappier. How do you fight in that context? There has been a lot of cross-state discussion that has been going on and I think that is helpful and useful.
SM: Historically, the labor movement, in particular, has not recognized the strategic role of the South in a national strategy. The south is a zone of global capital very much like, and that pre-existed, NAFTA, the maquiladoras, etc. The South hasn’t been looked at almost as if it had maquiladoras, but international capital is now seeing it as a region of concentration that is protected by a state that is dominant internationally. Economists have said that the regional economy of the South would be considered as the world’s fourth largest economy, following Japan. If we are not recognizing this concentration of global capital in the South and understanding how to challenge the outrageous actions of US and global capital then I don’t think we are looking at a strategy correctly.

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Mitigating the medium-term disaster and making long-term change in Miami, with Jennifer Hill

Miami is recovering from Hurricane Irma slowly, but weeks out from the storm, secondary effects are creeping in. Organizers from the Miami Workers Center have seen up close the primary and secondary effects of the disaster now, and how they impact unequally, how opportunists use the storm to push through already-existing agendas of displacement, how race and gender and immigration status shape the relief people receive. Jennifer Hill is an organizer and attorney with the Miami Workers Center and Advocacy Parters Team and she talks about the work they’re doing to rebuild and strengthen the community against systemic problems.

Like many other people, we have gone back and forth about what makes something organizing versus servicing. It is not necessarily the nature of the work. It is more, I think, the approach to the work, how one carries out the work. In the wake of a disaster, people need a lot of services. They just need a lot of very practical help. It might be giving out water and it might be helping with disaster unemployment applications, and it might be many other things. What we have started to think about that it is important to be able to respond to some of the immediate needs in the community with actual services that are helpful and we want to partner with different groups that have different expertise if they can do that. But, it is also important to try to inject political education into the delivery of services. We want to make sure that when people get information and they go to a legal clinic, like when they came to our disaster relief legal clinics, that in addition to getting information about FEMA applications and disaster unemployment applications and disaster food stamp applications, that they get time to talk and that we have time to talk with them about their rights on the job and what to do if there is a problem and they face a threat or what to do if they are not paid or whether they anticipate any problems with access to healthcare and where they go for healthcare so we can try to make sure that the healthcare centers are open and that they have the ability to get all the services they need and they know about the sorts of programs for reduced fees or for access to healthcare. We try to set up these clinics, so they get to go from one station to another station and they get the services that they need. Then, they go to a station that is really a political education station where we talk about what is needed to make sure that people have their rights and how they can access and express their rights, but also, what is needed to make the changes that will make this better.

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Out of the headlines, the labor movement works to rebuild Puerto Rico, with Dan Maldonado

The rumors always come when disaster strikes, it seems–failures of the disaster recovery system are blamed on rank-and-file workers. As Dan Maldonado of Teamsters local 445 notes, the rumor this time was that Teamsters went on strike rather than deliver relief supplies across the island. The rumor was demonstrably false, and indeed the Teamsters sent workers down to the island for weeks of volunteer work. Maldonado was one of those workers–of Puerto Rican heritage himself, he has family still on the island–and he tells us what it’s still like down there and why recovery is likely to take a long time, and likely to slip from the headlines.

When you look at the death toll…and right now, they are saying it is 51. It may not seem like a lot, 51. But, the bigger concern is the long-term health effects. Let me give you two examples: one from what I knew from another Teamster and a personal one, myself. One, being that there was a Teamster that went to a neighborhood with a group of nurses and the lady had gangrene. Basically, she was in such a condition that her daughter kept obeying all her commands and we basically had to tell the daughter, “We understand that you respect your parents, but her mind is not there. The gangrene is getting inside of her.” We were able to get a VIP room for her. Unfortunately, her legs were amputated, but that was the only way for her to survive. Me, on a personal level, I have an uncle who is a diabetic, he had no electricity… So, for 7 days he didn’t take his diabetic medicine and he has the funds, he is economically stable to come over here, but now, because [he didn’t take his medicine], his legs got swollen which affected his kidneys and now he has got a pacemaker. So, he is in a catch 22 where he can’t get on a plane because he has got a pacemaker and he has got to stay in Puerto Rico. So, a lot of the long-term ill effects are something that we are concerned with down the road.

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Connecting the dots between healthcare and climate justice, with Dotty Nygard and Rhonda Risner

Dotty Nygard and Rhonda Risner are registered nurses, members of National Nurses United and activists for single-payer healthcare and climate justice. Their work has taken them across the country and the world, where they’ve seen firsthand the effects of climate-worsened storms and the lack of consistent healthcare. In addition, Dotty Nygard is a candidate for Congress from California’s 10th district.

DN: It plays on the fact that our healthcare system is broken and we have very fragmented care. We have many that can’t afford insurance. There are still millions of people that are not insured in this great nation of ours, and we have people that are insured but are afraid to use it because their co-pays and their deductibles are so high. It hinders those that do want to seek care and only perpetuates illnesses or whatever is ailing them at the time to become even more of a problem. We see people sicker in the ERs now. Preventative care is very minimal. It is not an emphasis. It is not a priority.
It speaks loudly of how we really have to fix the system first before we can really help our communities heal.

RR: We don’t need to wait for a disaster to happen to provide every person in this country with healthcare. We don’t have to wait for a disaster because healthcare is a disaster. We need to look at prevention and making sure that everybody has some sort of access to healthcare. We believe that everyone in this country deserves that.

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Living socialism in Houston, with Amy Zachmeyer

The Democratic Socialists of America are one of the political organizations on the ground doing disaster relief in Houston after Harvey, and to co-chair Amy Zachmeyer that work is an expression of working-class solidarity, “really living socialism.” She talks to me about the work DSA has done, where the austerity state has failed, and the environmental issues that make climate change tangible in Texas.

AZ: For large portions of Houston, things are going back to normal. The highways are reopening, people are going back to work, and their lives look relatively the same. But, for other portions of Houston, things are not going to be okay for a very long time. A lot of those divides are economic divides. It has also really highlighted the racial segregation in our city, because you go to some neighborhoods and they look fine. Everyone still has their home and their manicured lawn and their car sitting out front. Then, you go into some of the other neighborhoods that were affected and you see where people’s entire lives have been removed from their home, including the drywall. Everything inside a home that made that home a home has been pulled out and thrown in a large heap on the side of the road. It is a very visual representation of which neighborhoods are affected and which neighborhoods are just business as usual. SJ: We see the inequality really clearly in times of disaster. AZ: In a lot of the neighborhoods that we have gone to, we have actually had people tell us, “Nobody else has come to check on me.” Maybe their pastor has come to check on them, but no other organizations have been out there besides the Democratic Socialists in their red shirts. There is something really heartbreaking about that to me.

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Defending Immigrants, Rebuilding Texas, with Greg Casar


Even as Hurricane Harvey battered Texas’s coast, its politicians were adding more fear to the state’s immigrant residents. From the rumors of immigration checkpoints along evacuation routes to looming bills to further criminalize undocumented people to the threat from Trump to revoke DACA protections, there was a lot to be afraid of. Yet Texans beat back one big threat to immigrants, and the coalition they built, Austin city councilmember Greg Casar says, will help them turn the tide in the future.

[Senate Bill 4] has become a statewide issue, so there have been statewide calls by organizations for all local elected officials to join in on this lawsuit. What I think was really important and special about this moment was that community organizations on the ground, like Texas Organizing Project and Workers Defense Project and United We Dream, were on the demanding that local elected officials stand up and fight back and sue. There were grassroots attorneys that were advising those organizations through their work. Local Progress, which is the national network of progressive local elected officials, set up infrastructure in Texas to coordinate progressive city council members and county commissioners to play sort of an inside/outside game to stand with the activists, but also work on the inside to move the rest of their local government to join this lawsuit.
I think, if you read Judge Garcia’s opinion, it becomes so clear that both the overwhelming damage that SB4 could have caused, that community members themselves raised, was critical for his decision, but also, it was critical to his decision with how many jurisdictions and municipalities stated that there could be irreparable harm caused by the law to those jurisdictions’ safety and wellbeing if the law went into effect. I think it was really critical that both grassroots organizations like United We Dream, Workers Defense, and TOP and an organization like Local Progress were helping to coordinate something that had never been done in the State of Texas before, which was local governments all joining together to sue the governor and state on an immigrants rights and social justice issue like this one. It wasn’t just the mayors sweeping in to save everybody.

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Moving pieces for system change, with Jeff Ordower


It’s been nearly eight months since the inauguration of Donald Trump, and things could be a lot worse, notes longtime organizer Jeff Ordower. Yet it is not enough to simply congratulate ourselves for saving the Affordable Care Act or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he says. Instead, we should be thinking about how to move the protests and uprisings of recent years onto the next level.

I think the story is really critical. Uprisings and movements happen because something horrible happened or something that affects people is going to happen. They are going to poison the water on indigenous land at Standing Rock or there is yet another police massacre in cold blood or there are people who are worried about their healthcare and what is going to happen to them and more importantly what is going to happen to their children. That is really important and can’t be underestimated as a starting place. How we tell that story and who is affected and having affected people take the biggest and boldest risk, being in the front is critical.
Then, I think a lot of times as organizers we sometimes fall into the trap where we want to have the perfect thing; either it is the perfect narrative, the perfect story—I know in the early days of the healthcare fight, for example, people were like, “If you want to move McCain, you have to get seven veterans to go to McCain’s office.” I think sometimes we try to be too strategic. Really, if people want to move, we have got to give them something to do that makes sense. Sometimes that is occupying a park or putting your bodies on the line and sometimes that is just like, “Show up with a handwritten letter. Here is your toolkit for organizing this alternative town hall.” I think creating those containers where everyone can take action is really, really important.
It is no different than when I was first training as an ACORN organizer back in the 1990s and you sit on someone’s couch and you’re talking about neighborhood issues. The way people were going to get involved or not, you are saying, “What do you think it would take to get a stop sign on the corner?” and they would say, “I don’t know. We have got to get some people in the street” and you are like, “How many people would it take to block the street?” “Thirty.” You would say, “Great. Could you be one of those thirty?” and if they could see themselves doing that, then they were going to join. And if they thought it didn’t make sense, they wouldn’t. I think creating things that people can see themselves doing is really, really critical to all the fights. That ask is different. It is not always an easy thing to do. People will go and be in the streets as we saw in St. Louis, as we saw in Ferguson, night after night after night, because they felt like that was the most important thing that they could do.

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No is not enough, with Naomi Klein


The rise of Donald Trump seemed shocking to so many, but to Naomi Klein, something of an expert on shock, the feeling that Trump brings out is more akin to the horror of a bad dystopian novel. Indeed, it’s like her decades of previous research into the growth of global brands and a movement against them, into the violence of neoliberalism, and the destruction and movement against climate change has all come together in one presidency. That gives her a lot of ideas of how to fight him, ideas she details in a new book, No Is Not Enough.

There is no doubt that the far right is entering into a vacuum left by neoliberal centrism and liberalism. It is worth remembering that not so long ago, there was a very large, progressive, committedly internationalist movement that was taking on the whole logic of what was called “free trade” or “globalization” or “corporate globalization.” We called it “corporate rule” for the most part, because the problem was not trade, it was the writing of rules for the global economy in the interests of a small group of powerful corporations. Forget hollow brands. The center of that fight was about the hollowing out of democracy. Yes, sure, you can still vote, but the most important decisions about your life are being outsourced to institutions over which you have no control.

The fact that neoliberal centrist parties pushed those deals, signed those deals, negotiated those deals, and never aligned themselves with that grassroots progressive movement, left the space open for the Donald Trumps and the Nigel Farages and the Marine Le Pens of the world to come in and say, “We know how out of control you are. We believe you should be authors of your own fate, of your own destiny.” We left these ideas unattended, let’s just say. There are lots of great groups that never stopped focusing on trade, like Public Citizen and Food and Water Watch and lots of groups in Europe. But it stopped being a mass movement in the global north after September 11th. It is worth interrogating why that happened.

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Beyond the Clean Power Plan to real power, with Jordan Estevao

Donald Trump wants to destroy the planet–that’s often how it feels, but never more than when he’s dismantling protections against the ravages of climate change. On Tuesday Trump’s latest executive order dropped, opting out of the Clean Power Plan and removing other regulations designed to mitigate against climate crisis. Trump did so with a group of coal miners at his back, but his plan actually will do little to help those coal miners. I spoke with Jordan Estevao of People’s Action, a network of community organizations with a climate justice program that comes out of its organizing in directly-affected communities.

There are multiple states that had no plans to comply anyway. Actually, since last summer it has kind of been in limbo, the regulation, because as Antonin Scalia’s final act as a Supreme Court Justice he and the Court issued a stay on the order, which has left the states that wanted to keep on complying on track and some states waiting to see what happens. But, there is still lots of potential to win good policies. Our Illinois affiliates, Illinois People’s Action and Fair Economy Illinois, just recently passed the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act which is going to double Illinois’ renewable energy production. It is going to invest between $500 and $750 million in low income communities for energy efficiency, renewable energy, job training, so that low-income people can get into that kind of work, and so on.

I think what a lot of folks on the right and in the Trump administration are missing is that the transition to clean energy, to energy efficiency actually could be a huge economic driver and a way to revitalize our economy, especially since the coal industry is already going under. It is already being undercut by fracking and low oil prices. Coal companies have been going bankrupt at a really high clip with no end in sight. He is not going to bring those jobs back. There is no bringing them back. What we do need to do is figure out where we can invest so that we can start to rebuild an economy that actually puts people to work and also is good for our environment and slows climate change.

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