Upcoming Event: “Moving Forward: What’s Next for Massachusetts Progressives?”

Congressional Democratic Candidate Ayanna Pressley Attends Rally With Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Moving Forward: What’s Next for Massachusetts Progressives?

November 28th, 7:30PM
Christ Church Cambridge
Zero Garden Street, Cambridge, MA

In the wake of this year’s midterm elections, progressive democrats have seen significant gains. However, it’s clear there is still much progress to be made. State senator Jamie Eldridge and former congressional candidate and longtime labor activist Jeff Ballinger will speak on the prospects for progressive advances in the legislature, the congress and the Democratic party. This event is free and open to the public. Coffee and light refreshments will be served.

RSVP on Eventbrite and Facebook!

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SDUSA welcomes MSD’s Michael Passarini to its National Committee

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Social Democrats, USA (the offspring of the Socialist Party of America, which also birthed Democratic Socialists of America) has appointed MSD secretary Michael Passarini to its national committee. In addition to his secretarial duties, Passarini acts as MSD’s webmaster, graphic designer and social media manager. Active in various progressive political causes over the past several years, Michael is honored to join SDUSA in their efforts to foster and advance social democracy in the United States.

Pictured at right: Michael protesting Trump’s election in Boston, November 9th, 2016. (Photo: Michele Diana)

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Who exactly does the American Nurses Association represent?

By Jerold Duquette

Nurses unions are split on the initiative. The Massachusetts Nurses Association has endorsed it. The larger American Nurses Association opposes it.”

This line in a recent news story about Senator Warren’s support of nurse staffing ratios and Question One caught my eye. To me, this was an incredibly counter-intuitive claim. Are nurse’s unions really “split” on Question One? Is the American Nurses Association “larger” than the Mass Nurses Association? Is it even a union? The reporter who wrote the story clearly came to share my confusion and, after a conversation with me about it, corrected the record in his online piece to the following:

“Nurses disagree on the initiative. The Massachusetts Nurses Association has endorsed it. The American Nurses Association of Massachusetts opposes it.”

The corrected formulation is certainly accurate, but it doesn’t help clear up at least two implicit mischaracterizations. First, unlike the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), neither the American Nurses Association (ANA) nor its Massachusetts chapter (i.e. the nurse’s organization that opposes Question One) are unions. They do not represent members in collective bargaining. Also, the ANA-Massachusetts (ANA-M) is not larger than the Massachusetts Nurses Association. It appears to have 1000-2000 members, while the MNA has more than 20,000 dues paying members. Of the nurses that would be impacted directly by Question One, more than 70% are represented by labor unions that have endorsed Question One. So the above claim, despite correction, still leaves readers to assume that the two organizations both represent the nurses impacted by Question One and that the “American” organization is larger than the “Massachusetts” organization.

Am I splitting hairs? Maybe, but given the fact that opponents of Question One are portraying themselves as representing the interests and opinions of laborers in what looks to me like a pretty conventional labor – management disagreement, I think some clarity on the exact role, function, and membership of the American Nurses Association of Massachusetts, which bills itself as “the voice” of Massachusetts nurses, is called for.  I think such clarity would go a long way toward understanding just how “split” the state’s nurses are on Question One. Voters deserve to know which nurses are for it and which are against it, and why. It also seems to me that an important detail about the two nurse’s associations making headlines on both sides of this issue is not getting enough press attention, namely that the MNA, the state’s largest nurse’s union, separated itself years ago from the American Nurses Association (which was and is NOT a union) because of the ANA’s perceived anti-labor and pro-management posture.

When you cut through the opponents’ efforts to muddy the water, the “split” among the state’s nurses on this issue looks pretty unsurprising. Unionized bedside nurses appear to be solidly supportive of Question One. Others, such as nurse-managers and nurse educators, and non-unionized bedside nurses may very well be split on the issue, but to date no one has adequately probed that divide. In other words, the nurses most impacted by Question One who are protected by their unions from management coercion are, just as one would expect, supportive of a law that would prevent their employers from assigning them too many patients at one time, while some unclear number or proportion of non-unionized and/or non-bedside nurses are not supportive of Question One.

This simple, logical assessment of the interests and identities of the two sides on Question One is bolstered by simply “following the money!” Only a tiny fraction of the money behind the “No on One” campaign comes from working nurses. The lion’s share comes from the Massachusetts Hospital Association, individual hospitals, and other pro-management groups. The organization claiming to be the voice of the state’s nurses, the ANA-Massachusetts has put up less than 500 bucks of the $10 million plus raised by opponents. By contrast, the State’s leading nurse’s union, the MNA, has provided more than $2 million of the $5 million plus raised by the “Yes on One” committee.

The substantive merits of nurse staffing ratios are well above my pay grade, but the ways and means of ballot initiative campaigns are right up my alley. The opponents of Question One (understandably) do not think average voters would agree with them on the substance of the matter and (also understandably) expect average Massachusetts voters would side with with nurses if proponents of Question One succeed in framing the issue as a David versus Goliath battle between overworked bedside nurses and profit hungry hospitals and well-financed trade associations.  Therefore, the tactic of confusing voters into thinking that the nurses who know best and who have the power to make their voices heard are opposed or are at least “split” on Question One is a “no brainer” for the hired guns working for the Mass Hospital Association’s cause this fall. Will it work? Hard to say. Should it work? Hell no!

Creating substantive confusion for political gain is not noble, though it’s also not easy to resist when complex policy issues are put to a public vote, but intentionally trying to distort voters’ understanding of who is for and who is against a proposed ballot measure, crosses an important line in my book.

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. This piece was originally published on the MassPoliticsProfs blog.

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When We Thought We Had It All (Part II)

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Rustin outside the March on Washington’s Harlem office, circa 1963. (Photo: Bennett Singer)

In late 1958 Bayard Rustin sat in my studio apartment and, as one socialist comrade to another, described his vision of the movement for social change that was coming. By that time Bayard was a seasoned veteran of the struggle for Black civil rights, having started in the early days of World War Two in A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington for equal job rights. When the Montgomery bus boycott broke out in the first capital of the Confederacy, Bayard quickly put his organizational expertise at the disposal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and became a close advisor to the young minister. As important as the achievement of equal rights for African Americans was to him, Rustin was already thinking beyond the Montgomery victory. In effect, he said that the achievement of legal civil rights was necessary but not sufficient. The real liberation of Black folk would not come until we had achieved an economy of full employment at living wages for all, health care for everyone, access to education for everyone and decent housing. Of course, the achievement of these goals would benefit far more white than Black people, and that was Bayard’s point: Black and white had in common that they were overwhelmingly working class and in need of a robust program of economic help. A coalition for the working class, composed of the labor movement, middle class liberals and the civil rights movement would provide the muscle that would transform American society, and the civil rights revolution would give initial force to that coalition. By 1963, he was the organizer of the March for Jobs and Freedom that literally embodied his vision of a coalition.

Throughout 1964 and 1965 it seemed that he had been prophetic. On March 15, 1965, Johnson electrified the nation by using the revolutionary watchwords “We shall overcome” as he challenged Congress to put teeth into the previous year’s Civil Rights Act by passing a strong voting rights act, a measure that could transform the politics of the southern states. In April Congress passed an education bill that would provide Federal aid to poor school districts. July saw amendments to the Social Security Act that created Medicare and Medicaid and raised benefits to retirees. This action raised millions of the elderly out of poverty and health insecurity and, surely, we thought, was a preface to universal health coverage. In August Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. If 1964 was good, 1965 was breathtaking.

In February of 1965 Bayard Rustin made a public statement of the argument that he had been making for years and once more seemed far-sighted. In an important article, “From Protest to Politics,” he said that the war against legal discrimination and segregation had been won, although some mopping up needed to be done. The time had come for an attack on the much more difficult economic problems of Black and white workers. This was to be done by the March for Jobs and Freedom coalition: the civil rights movement, liberals, faith groups and the labor movement. Together these powerful groups would engage in political action, move the Johnson administration from the center and permanently change America.

As eloquent and hopeful as the article was, one word did not appear in it: Vietnam. This was a fateful omission. In counterpoint to the great domestic achievements of 1965 was a steady build-up of U.S. military forces in South Vietnam and the beginning of a massive air bombardment of North Vietnam. By December the United States had 200,000 troops engaged in the conflict and had plans to send more. Before it could solidify, the coalition began to come apart. Civil rights, faith and liberal groups started to demand an end to the growing war and turned against the Johnson administration. The labor movement stood by Johnson and scorned its former allies. Not only did the coalition collapse but the Vietnam war became the only political topic, the elephant in every room. The summer of 1964 had been the Freedom Summer, when hundreds of young people had gone to Mississippi to register Black voters, at literal risk of their lives. By the summer of 1965 many of these same activists were working in the nascent peace movement. The civil rights movement began to flounder as it tried to find a path forward.

Bayard made one last attempt to save the dream. He enlisted Leon Keyserling, first Chair of President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers and a member of the social democratic wing of the New Deal, and others in a year-long effort to draft a Freedom Budget that would end poverty within 10 years, provide full employment at living wages and guarantee income to those who could not or should not work. These goals were to be accomplished not by increased taxes but by planned national economic growth. Further, this was a “guns and butter” document. In deference to the sensitivities of Lyndon Johnson, it did not require taking from the stream of billions of dollars that were being used for the war. We could, it seemed, have domestic reform and a war in Southeast Asia.

When it was released in early 1967, the Freedom Budget had introductory statements by A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. and was signed by all of “the usual suspects:” labor leaders, bishops, great names of the civil rights movement, liberal leaders. It was Rustin’s March 1963 coalition in a pamphlet. It was also dead on arrival. For many of the signers, the mere act of adding their names was the last effort they made to advance the Freedom Budget. There was a complete absence of the grass-roots movement that was necessary to move forward such a far-reaching program. The coalition was dead.

And so the country lurched on, into the dreadful year of 1968. The U.S. had more than half a million soldiers in Vietnam by then, and it seemed that there was no way to bring them home. A revolt of the young people drove President Johnson from seeking re-election. Then came the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy in June. A hundred thousand protesters gathered at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and, while the delegates nominated Hubert Humphrey, the nation watched virtual war in the streets of Chicago. Humphrey’s candidacy was fatally wounded at what should have been his moment of triumph. He would go on to lose by only half a million votes, but the great movement that had started with FDR in 1933 had reached its end.

Could we have changed this result? Certainly we could not stop our opposition to the war for the sake of Party unity. Perhaps we might have overcome the great sense that Hubert Humphrey had betrayed us and backed him as the lesser evil. Then, sometimes wise politics demands too much.

But history moves in strange ways. Marching in Washington that hot day in August 1963 was a young college student from Brooklyn. After years of domination of the Democratic Party by the neoliberals and contempt heaped by them on social democratic principles, that man, now a United States Senator, called us to battle and nearly took the presidential nomination from the entrenched centrists. We have come full circle. Now we have another chance to get it all.

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When We Thought We Had It All (Part I)

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Lyndon Johnson meeting with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer, circa 1964 (Photo: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

I have been reading Monte L. Pearson’s recent book, The Roots of Defeat: the Clintons, Obama and the Decline of the Democrats, which I hope to review for these pages. Pearson, as the title suggests, writes about the capture of the Democratic Party by the Third Way Democrats, a process which he sees as beginning with the final breakup of the New Deal Coalition in the mid- 1970s. As I read, I was reminded of an earlier time, a dramatic, four-year period when the Democratic Party went from towering success to near-destruction.

There was a brief moment in the early 1960s when it seemed that the immediate agenda of American social democrats was going to be realized, that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, proclaimed in 1944 as he tried to shape the post-war society, was going to be written into the law of the land. Today, when Republicans to the right of anything we thought possible rule the Presidency, both houses of the Congress and the Supreme Court, when we often can’t preserve a basic social and economic safety net, the remembrance of those days is bitter-sweet. We thought we had it all. What happened? Where did we go wrong?

They were heady, even revolutionary times. In my memory, I date them as beginning in late August of 1963 at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event organized by the great tactician and social democrat, Bayard Rustin. Of course, the March did not start the civil rights revolution; that had been growing from strength to strength since the mid-1950s. The March was, however, a vast summary on one day of the events that had gone before and a linking of the cries for Black rights and better lives for all. A quarter of a million people gathered in Washington to demand not only equality before the law but also the jobs, wages, housing, etc. that would make legal equality a living reality. The presence of the labor movement was conspicuous, as leaders like Walter Reuther put their political muscle behind the coalition that the March represented. Towering over the March was its leader, A. Philip Randolph, who combined in his dignified person a lifetime of civil rights advocacy, labor leadership and social democratic vision. As we walked in our Sunday best along the sweltering streets to the Lincoln Memorial, we knew that we were making history.

Within three months President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, commencing a violent decade, and our new President was that very complicated man, Lyndon Baines Johnson. We knew a few things about him: that, just out of a Texas teachers college (no Harvard!), he had taught poor Mexican-American children, that he was a dedicated New Deal congressman in the 1930s, that he revered FDR, saying that Roosevelt treated him “like a daddy.” We also knew that his ambition for power had driven him to ally with Texas oil and construction interests and that some Southern senators had seen him as the great hope for a leader who would maintain segregation.

We began to learn about our new President when, in his first State of the union Address, on January 8, 1964, he called for a “War on Poverty.” With poverty in America at 17%, Johnson called for a national effort not only to relieve poverty but to prevent it. In July 1964, with Johnson’s inimitable arm-twisting, Congress passed a civil rights act that outlawed discrimination, prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations and banned unequal application of voter registration requirements. By August of the same year, the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, putting the “War on Poverty” into the statute books. The food stamp program, improving nutrition for the poor, quickly followed. Politically, it was clear that Johnson was breaking with his Southern base and that the long-hoped-for realignment of the party system into liberal and conservative parties was happening.

The seal on the greatest year of reform since the New Deal came with the election in November 1964. As if to guarantee the return to the days of FDR, Johnson selected as his running mate Hubert Humphrey, the leader of the Democratic Party left. In a straight left versus right contest with Barry Goldwater, Johnson crushed the conservative champion, winning the popular vote by 16 million votes. As 1965 began, we knew that we were on the verge of a still greater wave of change, one that would sweep us forward to a real social democracy.

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The “Red Tide”

If you have tried to put a Socialist Party congressional candidate on the ballot, as I have, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party primary in New York’s 14th CD (Bronx, Queens) brings out at least warm nostalgic feelings. Unfortunately, it has also produced, in some quarters, quite poor political analysis, has added to the considerable confusion about the meaning of democratic socialism and has apparently unduly terrified certain Democratic centrists, an already mauled bunch. If we believe some commentators, the workers and peasants (in New York’s middle class borough) are marching up Queens Boulevard, bellowing The Internationale, flying red banners, on their way to storm the Winter Palace…well, Queens Borough Hall, anyway. Where is Eisenstein when we need him?

Let’s take a deep breath and try to put Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’ deserved victory in some context.

The most glaring comparison is between a tired, aging pol with a creaking political machine and an energetic, idealistic, attractive candidate who wanted the job and was willing to work to get it (Martha Coakley, please note). Mr. Crowley, who combines the positions of Queens Democratic Leader and member of Congress, literally “mailed in” his campaign by using TV ads and direct mail. He seems to have expected that just telling the serfs back on the home plantation that he wanted to stay in Congress would be enough. Instead of acting like an absentee landlord, his opponent went door to door and asked people for their votes. She questioned Crowley’s attachment to the district by noting that his children go to school in Virginia. She also had a fine social democratic platform that spoke to the needs of people in the district (I would also guess that the Democratic Socialists of America concentrated its relatively few activists on the district, an ancient tactic of the New York left). She had respect for the voters, and she deserved to win.

As it happens, there weren’t a whole lot of voters. A total of 27,658 votes were cast in the Democratic primary. There are 214,570 enrolled Democrats in the 14th CD. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez received 15,897 votes, that is, the support of about 7.5% of the Democrats in the district. Lesson to be learned: in a summer primary election, with probable poor turnout and an incumbent who is lazy, a candidate who is willing to work has a shot at winning.

The national story was quite different. It focused on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’ membership in Democratic Socialists of America, which I would speculate was one of the most insignificant factors in her success. Breathless reporters projected from one result in one district with unique circumstances that “Democratic Socialists” were about to take over the Democratic Party, that a vast Red Tide was sweeping moderates aside. This caused predictable heart fluttering among neoliberal Third Way Democrats, who met in solemn conclave and produced what was truly the most boring political platform in recent memory.

Again, a couple of reality checks.

If “democratic socialism” means anything, it has the meaning that it had when I was a democratic socialist and that it has had since the social democratic- socialist split: the public ownership and control, using various forms, of the means of production. Love ’em or hate ’em, democratic socialists believe in the end of the market economy, and if they don’t, they aren’t democratic socialists (forgive me, Bernie). Certainly democratic socialists believe in such goals as quality health care for all, living wages, full employment, free education, etc. but those are not the differentiating points of their ideology.

Perhaps it escaped me but I have not seen a particle of evidence that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on ending the market economy or that she got a significant number of votes on the basis of her democratic socialist convictions. If she didn’t have a DSA membership card, there would be nothing to distinguish her from other left-Democrats, that is, members the Party’s historic social democratic base. So let’s calm down and get on with taking our country back.

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The Legislature goes home. What next for progressives?

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New York City taxi cabs, August 1973 (Photo: Dan McCoy/National Archives)

When I was a member of the New York City Council in the early 1970s, the Council was responsible for setting fares and other working conditions for the taxicab industry. On one occasion we had before us a measure that was violently opposed by the cab drivers. We were besieged at City Hall by lobbyists for the drivers and by their union representatives, all to no avail. The Majority Leader had made his deal with the Mayor, and the legislation was going through.

Then one day a colleague from Brooklyn, Howard by name, came into the area reserved for Council members, and he was looking very uncomfortable. It seems that the previous night, a Monday, he had strolled over to his local Democratic club (Monday was traditionally “club night” in New York politics). He climbed the stairs, opened the door and was met by the angry faces of 300 cab drivers. Over the next hour they proceeded to tell him, in eloquent Brooklyn accents, what they thought about the Council’s bill and what they were going to do to him if he continued to be a sponsor of the legislation. This was an epiphany. Howard had a vision of 300 cabbies working for his opponent in the next election, with the same zeal he had seen. The next morning he marched into City Hall and proclaimed to his colleagues “I’m going to tell Tom (the Majority Leader) to take my name off that bill!” He had learned the truth of Tip O’Neill’s aphorism about all politics being local.

I thought about this experience when I read a progressive friend’s post about the shortcomings of the Legislature in the last two years. She was understandably angry about the Legislature’s failure to protect immigrants by passing the Safe Communities Act and by the not so “Grand Bargain” that forced Sunday workers to give up their premium pay in a devil’s bargain for minimum wage improvements and paid medical and family leave. Add to that the failure to change a school aid formula that short-changes some of the poorest communities in the state, and it’s enough to make anyone spitting mad.

It would be a mistake to leave things there. Too often we progressives are satisfied with occupying the moral high ground and leave the hard slogging of practical politics to the professional pols. If we do that, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature treats our causes shabbily. From now until January, when the new Legislature comes back into session, we have five months to prepare (yes, along with a primary election and a general election).

The foundation of our preparation is the building of strong local organizations. We talk a lot about grass roots organizing, but how often does it really happen? The election season focuses attention on politics and provides a good opportunity to recruit. In planning our electoral efforts, we should always look beyond November and ask ourselves, what comes after the election? How can we retain in our progressive group the other volunteers with whom we have been working? Democratic politics is, to a considerable extent, a numbers game, and the one skill that all politicians seem to have is the ability to count. State Senators and Representatives are sensitive to the numbers where they live, their home districts. It’s up to us to make sure that we have the numbers.

Beyond that, we have to make legislators aware of our existence and of our ability to make their lives difficult or easy. How many of us know our legislators personally? Do they associate our faces with particular issues or is our relationship only with a staff member who picks up a telephone? Do they know and respect our abilities as political organizers? Do they have an ongoing, even if rocky, relationship with our group? It’s not necessary to be as confrontational as the cabbies in my story (that was Brooklyn, after all), but it is essential to get their attention.

Perhaps if we build our power, our skills and our relationships, we may have a better result at the conclusion of the next legislative session.

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