The Counter-Offensive Gathers

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!

Originally published in New Ground 46, May – June, 1996. Photo by Roman.

by Bob Roman

After a year of damage control following the disastrous 1994 Congressional elections, a counter offensive is beginning to take shape around economic issues of immediate concern to working people across the nation. If Clinton is inclined to paste a smiley face on the current situation, labor and the democratic left have not forgotten Carville’s reminder: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

Across the country, DSA has been holding town hall meetings on “Economic Insecurity” to packed rooms. The University of Chicago Youth Section’s [YDS] first town hall meeting in February attracted an audience of over 300. In Boston, a coalition effort led by DSA brought almost 1,000 people together.

The Progressive Caucus has decided to hold a series of monthly hearings on Capitol Hill and in the Districts on the theme of “The Silent Depression – The Collapse of the American Middle-Class.” The first of these hearings, was held in Washington, DC, on March 8.

Caucus chair Bernard Sanders (I-VT) said, in calling for the hearings, “The most important economic issue facing our country is that 90% of the American people since 1973 have seen their standard of living stagnate or decline. The reality is that the average American, whether white-collar manager or blue-collar factory foreman, today is working longer hours for lower pay and in constant fear of a sudden pink slip. Meanwhile, the richest people in America have never had it so good.”

Future hearings will be held around the country and will address issues ranging from whether we need a new national jobs policy, how to offset the impact of corporate downsizing to the creation of jobs that pay a living wage. Later in the years hearings will provide an opportunity to explore untried ideas for keeping and creating more good-paying American jobs and achieving more economic justice and security in the context of sustainable economic development.

The AFL-CIO has adopted a strategy similar to DSA’s Activist Agenda. The campaign links its legislative, organizing, bargaining and political efforts under the slogan “America Needs a Raise”. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced in February the labor federation would hold a series of town hall meetings from March through May to hear from workers on the impact of stagnant wages on their families. Organized labor will also support the Jobs and Living Wage campaigns in states and cities around the country. The AFL-CIO will hold a town hall meeting in support of an increase in the minimum wage on Wednesday, May 29. At press time, the venue and program were to be determined.

The campaign begins in Chicago with a rally on April 24th in support of the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance and the Minimum Wage bill (HR 620). The event will take place at 5 PM in downtown Chicago in conjunction with SEIU’s national convention. At press time, the exact venue for the rally had not been finalized, but the initial plans had it located at the band shell in Grant Park. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney will be a featured speaker.

The Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance will be formally introduced into the Chicago City Council at the May meeting of the Council. The measure, patterned after similar ordinances introduced in major cities around the country, provides that companies contracting with or subsidized by the city pay a living wage. The Chicago ordinance also has provision for community based hiring halls for non-construction employees.

The campaign for the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance is led by Chicago ACORN and SEIU Local 880 under the auspices of Chicago Jobs with Justice. The campaign is very well organized and it brings together a broad coalition of labor and community groups. Nearly every Alderman has a group assigned to lobby in favor of the Ordinance. A video has been produced to popularize the issue. Economic research is being done to investigate the effect on business and the city’s finances.

But opposition to the Ordinance is also organizing. The Ordinance has been attacked by CANDO, the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations, on the grounds of “business climate” and paperwork. They also do not like the hiring hall idea. Some of CANDO’s arguments could have merit. The quality of the debate is demonstrated by the lack of any effort by CANDO to get these concerns addressed prior to the introduction of the ordinance.

In Congress, the counter offensive is mostly centered on two “wedge” bills, the Corporate Responsibility Act (HR2534) and the Income Equity Act (HR 620). Neither of these bills have much chance of passing in this Congress, but the campaign in support of them frames the issues of economic insecurity and budget priorities in ways that are awkward for conservatives; they bring issues of class to the forefront.

The Corporate Responsibility Act was part of the reaction to the conservative victory in the 1994 elections. A relatively large and complicated bill, it raised the issue of “corporate welfare” at a time when social programs were under increasing attack. The bill closes a number of a number of tax loopholes favored by corporations and the wealthy. It also ends a number of Federally financed research and development projects that are viewed as being primarily corporate boondoggles.

Unfortunately, this approach to the issue runs into the ambiguities of the Federal budgeting process and the issue of industrial policy. There is no way to distinguish between “handouts” and “investments” in the current Federal budgeting process and there is no way to track the performance of “investments” even if there were agreement on which is which. Under the current Federal budgets, one person’s “welfare” could easily be another person’s “investment”.

The Income Equity Act is simply a bill to raise the Federal minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $6.50 an hour. It also has an interesting provision which closes a tax loophole that rewards employers that pay their most highly paid employees more than 25 times their lowest paid employee. This bill also dates back to 1995, but it has attracted the majority of its cosponsors in this session of Congress.

Your support for these two bills is important. Legislators need to understand that the balance of power and wealth needs to begin tilting toward the working people. Enclosed with this issue of New Ground is a postcard, courtesy of Share the Wealth, to send to your Congressman. The address is: U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. Don’t forget to include your name and return address. Don’t delay! Do it today! (And it only takes a 20¢ stamp!)

Tom Broderick

Tom Broderick is dead. Tom was very much of Irish extraction. One hates to deal in stereotypes, but in many ways Tom fulfilled his: an exuberant humor, a fondness for intoxication, a joy in friends and enemies. Enemies? As an activist, he was a frequent op-ed author for Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal. While reader comments were generally favorable, there is a constituency who will be glad his voice is now silent. Tom was happy to irritate them, and their irritation shows that they, in their own way, cared. And that maybe Tom’s arguments had more merit than they would like to concede.

the brodericks
From left to right: Tom Broderick, son Byron Broderick, and uncle Byron Broderick. On a Congress Hotel strike picket line. Photo by ?.

He did, in fact, receive one death threat, but that’s not how he came to his end.

tom broderick anti-TPP
Tom Broderick serving stone soup at a demonstration protesting the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership in February, 2014. Photo by ?.

Tom was a friend of mine. We met because of our common membership in and activism in the Democratic Socialists of America. In particular, Tom became a leader in the Greater Oak Park branch of Chicago DSA. Tom and I worked on any number of labor support projects, notably the Congress Hotel Strike and boycotts by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the recent Chicago Teachers strike. We worked on supporting fair trade over free trade, the successful campaign to repeal Illinois’ death penalty, opposing America’s endless wars, campaigns for a living wage, campaigns for a LaSalle Street Tax and more. He was also a good, reliable contributor to Chicago DSA’s newsletter, New Ground. Tom was always a big reason why the Debs – Thomas – Harrington Dinner kept being held each year in this century.

Byron and Tom
Byron Broderick and Tom Broderick at the 2012 Debs — Thomas — Harrington Dinner. Photo by John Scott.

Tom had spent a part of his youth wandering the world with not much more than lint in his pockets. It made for good stories over ale. I’d like to think that he’s back on the road again and some day we’ll share stories about Aldebaran or the Magellanic Clouds while passing the bong. I don’t see that the universe works that way.

The End.

De Nile
Graphic by Tom Broderick for New Ground. De Nile.


Frankie Sinatra

The Avalanche…

I’m not much for music videos. Most of the time, the video doesn’t add much to the music and often enough the music is nothing much either… nothing plus nothing equals…

Maybe it’s generational. But I do know any number of geezers my age who are enthusiasts. Or maybe it’s circumstantial. MTV was founded in 1981. The last TV that I owned died in 1982 or 1983, and I never replaced it.

Nonetheless, every now and then a music video will grab my attention. It could be that this one is an exorcism of geezer demons and is really, disturbingly bizarre. Check it out:

A Better Left in Birth

Or so we hoped…

I’m not sure why I went to the 1995 DSA National Convention in a suburb of Washington, DC. Generally I am not at all amused by conventions and conferences. Unless I have specific business to transact or specific responsibilities to fulfill, they seem to be an expensive waste of my time. But I went. And was unwell for much of it.

We did think that things were looking up for the left and especially for DSA. In Chicago, at least, membership and activism and nearly doubled since 1990. The national director, Alan Charney, had many of the qualities needed to make a brilliant leader. Unfortunately, he had equally large liabilities and left the organization nearly bankrupt.

In any case, this is the article that I wrote for New Ground 44, January – February, 1996. The article makes an attempt at dealing with the problems that beset multi-issue organizations otherwise I’d be inclined to consign it to the null device.

A Better Left’s in Birth

by Bob Roman

The 1995 DSA National Convention brought together about 100 delegates and 60 or so observers over the Veteran’s Day weekend. Most of the observers and some of the delegates were DSA Youth Section members who took the opportunity to use some of the time for their own national meeting.

The spirit of the convention was grimly upbeat. Most democratic socialists have long ago discarded the idea of socialism being inevitable. Barbarism seems to be at least as likely: a grim prospect. But there was also the feeling that what DSA does matters to the outcome.

DSA National Director Alan Charney deserves some credit for this as he had spent time touring the local chapters, promoting the convention. The participation of so many Youth Section members also made a substantial contribution to the positive spirit of the convention. And then there are the times.

Back at the 1991 DSA National Convention here in Chicago, I had the occasion to overhear a reporter calling in to his editor between sessions. In response to a question from the editor, the reporter said, “Well, you know, this organization’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is that, after 10 years, they still don’t know what they are.” Finally, at the 1995 DSA National Convention in Chevy Chase, Maryland, DSA is edging toward a definition.

The problem of definition plagues all non-leninist, non-party leftist organizations to a lesser or greater degree. It is essentially a question of utility. As a non-party organization, the idea that members are part of an electoral project is not a given. A non-leninist organization does not have the excuse of being an army in waiting for a someday revolution. The organization must invent a purpose, some utility in the practice of politics; otherwise, the organization exists only as an affirmation of identity and of values. This leads to a politics, internal and external, that resembles a student council: that of posture and personality. This is not a political organization but a secular version of a church.

The problem of definition is further complicated by the fact that it must be answered individually by each organizational subdivision. The menu of possible answers varies with each subdivision’s constituency and arena of action. The answers chosen do not have to be the same. In DSA, they have not been the same.

Key to DSA’s future was the adoption of an “Activists’ Agenda” which makes a considered and realistic attempt at intervening in mainstream politics. Key to this intervention is the “Economic Insecurity” hearings which are being held by DSA across the nation. Organized loosely around DSA’s publication “Working Our Way to the Bottom”, these hearings are intended to put the issues of class and community on the agenda of mainstream U.S. politics. If the effort is coupled with four or five carefully targeted congressional races, the campaign could succeed in much the same way as Wofford’s victory placed national health insurance on the agenda of mainstream politics.

This Economic Insecurity campaign has the further advantage of allowing local DSA chapters to use the project to their own ends. As an example, DSA member Congressman Major Owens is apparently facing a significant primary challenge this year. The congressman’s campaign has made it clear to the New York Local that the congressman needs these hearings. If done well, everyone will benefit.

This strategy has the potential benefit to make DSA into something rather unusual in recent U.S. history: a political ideological organization.

It is also not a given that a socialist organization in the U.S. should concentrate on the politics of elections, legislation and solidarity. In fact, there are those in DSA that would argue that our primary utility should be on the battlefield of ideas. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and there were interesting discussions and proposals at the convention that addressed the battle of ideas.

It is here that I must become (briefly!) bureaucratically technical. DSA is a 501c4 non-profit corporation. The 501c4 refers to a section of the IRS tax code. Under this section of the tax code, organizations are exempt from paying taxes (mostly: it can get very complicated) but contributions to the organization are not tax-deductible. This does have some major disadvantages in fundraising, but the trade-off comes in political freedom, including the option of participating in electoral politics.

Most 501c4 organizations compensate for the handicaps in fundraising by establishing parallel 501c3 organizations. 501c3’s are what most people think of as non-profits. They are both tax exempt and contributions are tax deductible, but their functions are restricted to charity (service) and education. Political advocacy can consume only a small percentage of their resources and electoral politics is strictly forbidden.

DSA is no exception to the usual pattern. Our 501c3 organization is the Institute for Democratic Socialism (IDS). As is typical for such 501c3’s, it has served primarily as a conduit for contributions and organizations that wish a tax deduction.

One of the more interesting meetings at the convention was organized by Ronald Aronson around the “IDS Project”, a proposal to eventually develop IDS into a full service democratic socialist think-tank. This prospect was not nearly so fascinating as the sense of possibility and immediate benefits that came from the meeting. The conversation focused on ways in which the project might be boot-strapped into viability, using very few resources, and on simple techniques that can be (and are) used to develop an organization into a recognized media resource.

The primary challenge facing this project is DSA’s National Political Committee and the Steering committee, both of which will have some responsibility for getting the project off the ground. In addition to the usual problem of one more project competing for scarce attention, the IDS Project faces legitimate issues regarding governance and less legitimate attitudes of ‘not invented here’.

The issue of governing the IDS Project are more potential than immediate. Among the disadvantages of the 501c3 / 501c4 duality is that the two organizations can sometimes become so distinct and separate that they then part ways. Examples are not hard to find; the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund is but one. A more immediate concern may be the diversion of money to IDS projects that might otherwise go to DSA.

Still, the IDS Project has tremendous potential, especially if accompanied by a purposeful and realistic DSA intervention in mainstream politics.

There was not a great deal of controversy at this convention, and the improved sprit of the delegates made some of the issues of previous conventions (e.g., the expense of attending the convention) far less salient. But what issues there were illustrated the continuing problematic nature of the convention as a decision making body. The limited time available to the delegates, the general lack of knowledge about parliamentary procedure, the general lack of knowledge and experience about how to lobby: all these make the legislative process difficult for delegates who brig their own agenda to the convention. These are longstanding deficiencies that the National Office and the NPC had best be aware of in planning future conventions.

There were few surprises in the National Political Committee elections. The proposed constitutional amendment reducing the size of the NPC did not pass; it remains a 24 person body. It remains a largely bi-coastal body, also, although California has lost some representation largely through migration to New York and New Jersey. Ann Arbor’s Eric Ebel and Chicago’s Ron Baiman ran for the NPC and lost, but Tom Ellett of Sparta, Wisconsin, was elected, as were candidates from Pennsylvania, Colorado and Puerto Rico.

The complete set of resolutions adopted by the 1995 National Convention should be available from the DSA National Office and, eventually, at the DSA web site. An excellent first person account of the convention is archived among the November messages (message #144) at the Economic Democracy gopher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Resolutionary Socialism

Among the more popular items of business at the DSA National Convention was the work to be done on the “Where We Stand” political perspectives document. The document is the culmination of the “Mission Vision” discussion begun a few conventions ago and is intended to replace the founding statement of DSA adopted in 1982.

The work offered delegates the opportunity that most lefties dream of: a soap box of one’s own before a largely sympathetic audience! After much pulling and tugging, hacking and adding, the document was referred to an editorial committee for polishing before being submitted to the January NPC meeting for approval.