Patriot Acts

This was originally published in New Ground 101, July — August, 2005.

by Bob Roman

The Bill of Rights Defense Coalition (BORDC) had promoted and helped organize the nationwide effort to get various units of government to pass resolutions against the USA PATRIOT Act. The Chicagoland Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CCCLR) had successfully led the effort to have the Chicago City Council pass such a resolution (see New Ground 91, 89, and 88). The CCCLR became inactive afterwards partly due to personnel changes in some of the participating organizations and partly because of a lack of consensus about what should be done next. As some of the more controversial parts of the USA PATRIOT Act approach their “sunset” expiration dates, the BORDC organized a “national week of action” around the 4th of July celebrations, resulting in the reactivation of the CCCLR.

The CCCLR approached the task of organizing Chicago’s participation in the week of action with a great deal of enthusiasm and rather limited resources. None-the-less, they successfully organized a response to the Chicago Tribune’s pro-USA PATRIOT Act editorial (the editorial included an invitation to readers to debate the issue, and much of the published response was from CCCLR activists). The CCCLR also did considerable leafleting at a variety of venues, some sympathetic and some not, from the meeting of U.S. Conference of Mayors (where leafleting even on public property was essentially prohibited) to a coincidental rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza on July 5 to protest packing the Supreme Court with conservatives.

Chicago’s week of action was concluded with the July 8th showing of the documentary video State Secrets at Chicago Filmmakers. The documentary provided a concise discussion of the USA PATRIOT Act, including how it fits into the framework of prior legislation that compromises civil liberties and strips away official accountability. Some historical background is also provided, as this is not the first episode of repression and paranoia our country has gone through. The showing was followed by a lively discussion, with several lawyers from the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild on hand as a resource on legal issues and news.

Despite all this activity, the CCCLR has very limited resources, and it shows. For example, CCCLR activist Brent Mesick designed a series of wonderful posters that would be ideal as advertising on rapid transit cars and busses. At present, they are only available as PDF files on the CCCLR web site; money is definitely one of the issues.

Chicago DSA has supported the CCCLR through email announcements, targeted postcard mailings, participation in its activities, and by making the Chicago DSA office available for meetings at times when the Chicago Coalition to Defend the Bill of Rights’ office is otherwise occupied.

Coincident with the revival of the CCCLR is a new organization, the Civil Liberties Coalition of Illinois (CLCI). Membership in the CLCI and CCCLR overlap; some of the larger organizations that were initially active in the CCCLR are now part of the CLCI. Partly in deference to the predominately 501c3 IRS status of its member organizations and partly because its members range in opinion from repeal to reform of the USA PATRIOT Act, the CLCI is far more explicitly focused on public education. The political component (such as it is) is a campaign to have Illinois’ Congressional delegation sponsor town hall meetings in their districts on the subject, the first of these thus far being one with Representative Jan Schakowsky on July 17.

Normally, one would expect rivalry and disdain to arise from such a situation. Thus far that hasn’t happened. Part of it is a result of the more prosperous and more mainstream situation of the CLCI giving it a fairly secure sense of its turf. Part of it is a highly pragmatic attitude by the CCCLR that its projects are basically public property.

The CCCLR is now planning its next steps in the campaign to repeal the USA PATRIOT Act as well as considering one or more projects complimentary to that goal. If you’d like to be involved, call 773.250.3225 or email ccclr@ccclr.org or go to http://www.ccclr.org.

Preserving Social Security

This was originally published in New Ground 100, May — June, 2005.

by Bob Roman

The fight to preserve Social Security gathers momentum, helped in large part by the apparent terminal ineptness of the Bush Administration. After months of campaigning for private accounts as a substitute the present Social Security system, Bush finally broke down and proposed a plan: how about benefit cuts with private accounts on the side? This has not helped his position.

One shouldn’t give Bush all the credit. Americans United to Protect Social Security has been active in all 50 states building grassroots opposition to the attack on Social Security. This has paid off in the ability to react quickly to events. When hearings were scheduled on the issue, a National Day of Action was declared on April 26. In Chicago, Illinois United to Protect Social Security (IUPSS) brought about 100 people together outside the Social Security building on west Madison in Chicago. The event gathered considerable press and, typical of these events, spontaneous participation by passers-by. In Washington, DC, a national rally was held on the 28th. The rally brought over 3,000 people together to hear Illinois’ William McNary, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, and Kim Gandy of NOW speak. The rally even had its own feeder march: a brigade of 120 members of Congress who marched together from their Capitol offices.

In Illinois, IUPSS has engaged in other coordinated national actions and has kept up an ongoing campaign of targeted grassroots organizing. The AFL-CIO declared a National Day of Action Against Social Security Privatization on March 31, aiming at brokerage houses participating in industry trade associations advocating privatization, particularly Charles Schwab. The Illinois AFL-CIO, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans and IUPSS organized a noon hour picket outside the Charles Schwab offices on south Wacker Drive in Chicago. Hundreds of people participated, and a thoroughly stonewalled attempt at delivering a letter to the office resulted in a great bit of drama for the journalists.

On April 2nd, IUPSS took the fight to the Republican leader in the House, Dennis Hastert, with a demonstration outside his district office in Batavia. This brought together several hundred people from all over Illinois, including the local chapter of “Billionaires for Bush”.

Chicago DSA endorsed and promoted both these events.

All Along the Food Chain
Organizing continues apace with Congressional District committees being formed to target Republicans Dennis Hastert in the far western suburbs, Jerry Weller in the southern suburbs, and Tim Johnson in east central Illinois (Champaign – Urbana). IUPSS is planning to have at least one big event each month to keep the issue before the local press.

The Alliance for Retired Americans has produced a 12 minute video rebutting the conservative attack on Social Security. And it is planning to bring its petition gathering semi truck tour to the Midwest in early July (a flat bed semi with bales of collected petitions as a visual aide for rallies and media). The AFL-CIO is conducting a series of “buy-in” training sessions that both educates union activists and creates a network on the issue that can be activated.

Scoundrels Worth Watching
One shouldn’t think the other side is idle. The national strategy thus far has been to keep the hot potato in the Republican lap by discouraging any “Democratic” plans or proposals. The Congressional Democrats have been amazingly disciplined on this issue, but the proponents of dismantling Social Security have been generating some pressure of their own. Finally one Democrat, Robert Wexler of Florida, has nervously succumbed to the noise and proposed his own legislation, “The Social Security Forever Act of 2005”. As of press time, his proposal had not been translated into specific legislation, but as sketched in a speech the proposal amounts to simply removing the cap on income taxed for Social Security. That this is an entirely reasonable adjustment to the financing of Social Security is beside the point, which is that the proposal is premature.

At the same time, a few dozen bills have been introduced in Congress affecting Social Security in one way or another. Some are global attacks on the system. But quite a few are efforts at tinkering with it, both well meant or subversive, for example proposals to exclude particular classes of public employees from the system or to diversify the holdings of the Social Security “Trust Fund” to include bank certificates of deposit. These are all worth tracking as a long standing conservative tactic is to nibble institutions to death, especially if frontal attacks seem futile.

Illinois Unites to Preserve Social Security

This was originally published in New Ground 99, March — April, 2005.

by Bob Roman

The campaign to protect Social Security got off to an auspicious start in Illinois with a demonstration outside the Charles Schwab brokerage offices on South Wacker Drive. Schwab was targeted as they are one of the players in the effort to privatize Social Security. The AFL-CIO in particular has been putting public pressure on the financial services industry and has had some success in neutralizing specific firms. For example the investment firm of Waddell & Reed recently announced it left the pro-privatization Alliance for Worker Retirement Security (AWRS) after activists prepared to demonstrate outside its Kansas office. Charles Schwab belongs to the AWRS. More recently, the Financial Services Forum, made up of CEOs of big finance companies, dropped out of Compass, the group leading financial industry support for President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. Some 90 people participated in this Valentine’s Day noon-hour informational picket, including a delegation from UNITE HERE. It was particularly gratifying that a number of passers-by stopped to join the line.

Immediately after the picket, an organizing meeting was held at the AFSCME Council 31 office. In the month that has followed, Illinois United to Preserve Social Security (IUPSS) has grown to about a hundred organizations from around the state. IUPSS is defending Social Security on several “fronts”.

One is, of course, Congress. A number of Representatives have held town hall meetings, and IUPSS supporters have pressured others to do so. (You are invited to call your Representative to ask about them holding a meeting on the issue.) Two in particular have been helpful to the cause. Representative Lane Evans held several meetings around his district, using them as an educational tool, teaching why Social Security is not in “crisis”. Representative Jan Schakowsky also organized a similar meeting on the Loyola University Water Tower Campus at the end of February. This featured a very good PowerPoint presentation and appearances by Senators Durbin and Obama. An overflow crowd of several hundred attended. Representatives Lipinski and Rush have also held meetings. IUPSS is encouraging people to call their Representatives in support of maintaining Social Security, and a few downstate Republicans have been getting a steady flow of three or four dozen calls a day.

Thursday, March 31 will be a “National Day of Action for Retirement Security”. Here in Chicago, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans are planning a noon hour demonstration outside the offices of Charles Schwab at 150 S. Wacker Drive in Chicago, again, because the brokerage has refused to budge. Invited speakers (not yet confirmed) include U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama and U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and U.S. Congressman Rahm Emanuel.

An April 2nd demonstration outside the Batavia offices of Representative Hastert is also in the works, and IUPSS hopes to bring several hundred, qualifying it as a major uprising by west suburban standards. Busses will be coming from several locations, including Chicago.

A resolution, HR128, has been introduced in the Illinois legislature, opposing Social Security privatization. It can be modified for other governmental bodies, and introducing it to the Chicago City Council is a possibility.

The media is another “battle ground”. Some of this effort has taken the form of multiple rounds of press conferences in the various “media markets” around the state. Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans President Hal Gullett has been a common denominator among them. While turnout has not been great at all of them, each has resulted in at least some press.

But the major field of struggle is simply public opinion. Because of our republican structure of government, public opinion is often a secondary or even tertiary consideration in politics. But in this instance, players on both sides of the question are judging the viability of Bush’s attack by changes in polling figures. So far, we’re winning.

The fight is far from decided. The Right is in the process of raising $200 million to support their attack. Those defending Social Security have already hired a political consulting firm to manage the campaign. The intent is to have each Congressional District have an organizer, and a small staff (including PR person) for each state.

This is a fight we can win. And should we win, could it be the beginning of the end of conservative rule in America? One might hope so.

Debt and Taxes

a subtle mix of malice and incompetence…

This was originally published in New Ground 99, March — April, 2005.

by Bob Roman

Some Kill With Guns, Others With Pens
As New Ground goes to press, the House and the Senate Budget Committees were in the process of marking up their budget resolutions. By the time you read this, it is possible that one or both houses will have passed resolutions. Both proposed budgets reflect priorities starkly out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans. Overall, the proposed budgets would deeply cut critical public investments at the same time as they give more tax breaks to the wealthy and swell federal deficits.

The House committee-passed budget would cut domestic discretionary spending by $216,000,000,000 over the next five years, and the Senate committee-passed budget would cut domestic discretionary spending by $207,000,000,000 over the same period. This would amount to average cuts in public services such as education, community development, veterans’ benefits, and environmental protection of 13 to 14 percent in 2010. The House resolution does not include multi-year caps on discretionary spending, but the Senate resolution does include 3-year caps.

Both the House and Senate budget resolutions would deeply cut entitlement programs: by $67,000,000,000 and $38,000,000,000, respectively. Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and other low-income programs would likely face the deepest cuts. Moreover, both budgets include reconciliation instructions for a portion of these cuts. These reconciliation instructions would facilitate passage of the cuts by preventing them from being filibustered in the Senate, thus allowing them to pass with only 51 votes.

The Senate budget also includes a new budget rule that could harm entitlement programs beyond the cuts called for in the resolution. This rule would require any legislation that increased entitlement spending by more than $5,000,000,000 over any 10-year period between 2015 and 2055 to overcome a 60-vote point of order in the Senate. This new budget process rule would not in any way restrict enactment of new tax cuts that increase the deficit. This is a prescription for permanent irresponsible, unresponsive government. California has similar “super majority” rules written into aspects of its budgeting process; consider the state of their finances today.

While using the massive federal deficits largely caused by the reckless tax cuts of the last four years to justify the above-mentioned deep cuts in public investments, the Bush Administration and its allies are continuing to push for even more unpaid-for tax cuts. Indeed, both the House and Senate budget resolutions call for more tax cuts: $106,000,000,000 and $71,000,000,000, respectively. Moreover, the budgets include separate reconciliation instructions for a portion of these tax cuts ($45,000,000,000 in the House resolution and $70,000,000,000 in the Senate resolution), which would protect these tax cuts from filibuster and non-germane amendments and would allow them to pass the Senate with a simple 51-vote majority. This would not be the first time that reconciliation, a process designed for deficit reduction, would be exploited to pass unpaid-for tax cuts.

The cornerstone of these tax cuts is the extension of the 2003 dividends and capital gains tax cuts, which are set to expire in 2008. At a cost of $23,000,000,000 between 2006 and 2010, nearly one-half of these tax cuts would go to millionaires and nearly three-quarters would go to the top 3.1 percent of households making more than $200,000 annually. Both resolutions also include a one-year Alternative Minimum Tax fix but exclude the virtually guaranteed costs of a similar fix in subsequent years.

Reforms in Illinois?
While Blagojevich cowers at the word “taxes”, finances have hit the fan all across the state, especially in public education and public transit. This has inspired Senators James T. Meeks, Miguel del Valle, and Kwame Raoul and Representatives David E. Miller, John A. Fritchey, and William Davis to introduce SB/HB 750. This bill is primarily intended to provide property tax relief and to provide adequate funding for education on a sustainable basis. It would increase the state income tax rate to 5% and the corporate income tax rate to 8% while providing deductions so that the bottom 60% of individual income tax payers would pay no additional income tax and sometimes less. It would expand the sales tax to cover some services not presently covered, and close some corporate tax loopholes. All this would generate an estimated $7,200,000,000. Of that gross, $2,400,000,000 would be used for property tax relief. Another $1,500,000,000 would be used to eliminate the State’s ongoing budget deficit that the Governor has been filling by juggling books. However, the bill’s primary focus is education. SB/HB 750 would increase the state’s “Foundation level” per pupil support from $4964 to $6092 and is some additional money available for higher education. It also reforms the way education expenses are appropriated so that the State’s habitual under funding of mandated services would cease.

SB/HB 750 has inspired considerable grassroots support. SEIU in particular has made it a legislative priority.

Illinois’ fiscal condition is so bad that the Republicans have actually come up with a counter offer, SB 1484, introduced by Senator Rick Winkel, Jr. The bill is a stripped down version of SB/HB 750, sans tax relief for lower income taxpayers and without reforms in how education funds are appropriated, among other things.

This has not stopped the libertarian right from foaming at the mouth at the prospect of either bill. To these ideologues, there is no funding crisis in public education that increased “accountability” and “efficiency” wouldn’t solve. They make such a noise, like a pack of nasty little dogs, that one can almost forgive Blagojevich his shyness.

 

Worshiping the Golden CAFTA

is the only “human” right money?

Originally published in New Ground 98, January — February, 2005.

by Bob Roman

Winning the Battle!
Fair trade issues were in the background during most of 2004, despite some significant developments. Apart from being crowded out by election news, another reason might be that it’s also an issue on which far too many Democrats have failed the labor movement. As usual, there is good news and bad. Generally, fair trade advocates are winning a few battles but, I think, losing the war.

The good news is that negotiations toward a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) are comatose. Not dead because a framework for further negotiations exists and the Bush Administration’s “fast track” negotiating authority extends until June, but the deadline for reaching an agreement was January 1. Brazil and Argentina are generally given credit for the impasse. It would be nice to report that labor rights and environmental concerns were the deal breaking issues. Given the secrecy of the negotiating process and the bias of the press, one can’t exclude them as factors, but published accounts indicate a more traditional concern with sectors of the bourgeois economy.

Of course, it didn’t help that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick suggested that if Brazil did not want to trade with the United States, maybe it should look southward instead. Antarctica, perhaps. This comment went over about as well as you might expect. Zoellick began being talked up as a candidate to head the World Trade Organization or perhaps Fannie Mae. Well, would being Condi Rice’s new deputy do?

Losing the War?
In the meantime, negotiations on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) were essentially finished in December of 2003. The pact was not submitted to Congress, mostly because the Bush Administration did not want this to be an election issue. (Kerry did call for CAFTA to be renegotiated.) Plus, after the fact, the Dominican Republic decided it wanted to be included as well. While the Dominican Republic could probably have been accommodated in a separate bilateral agreement, its inclusion is perceived as making CAFTA more agreeable to some members of the Black Caucus. The agreement now includes Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the U.S.

Beltway fair trade advocates are upbeat about the prospects of defeating CAFTA when it comes to a vote this year. And they have some reason to for this. Some significant business interests are opposed to the agreement. The American Sugar Alliance, representing sugar growers, is opposed because CAFTA phases out import quotas on sugar. Likewise, the textile industry views the agreement as another nail in their coffin, and cotton growers are not enthusiastic either. Given the growing budget deficit, the drop in revenue from import duties, while not huge, will still be of concern.

It also doesn’t help that the agreement does not adequately fulfill the instructions given by Congress to the U.S. Trade Representative that the agreement address labor concerns and make it a priority equal to other economic concerns. Regarding labor, the agreement really only says the countries must enforce their own labor laws, but provides no effective remedies, even suggesting that such concerns are essentially outside the scope of the agreement by referring disputes to “other international agreements”. It doesn’t improve matters that only the United States and Costa Rica have a pretense toward having adequate labor laws. The AFL-CIO maintains the labor provisions in CAFTA are worse than in previous free trade agreements.

CAFTA also continues the infamous Chapter 11 of NAFTA that allows corporations to sue governments for loss of potential profits. This has not come up frequently, yet, under NAFTA, but it has and is being used in a number of cases. In fact, it doesn’t need to happen frequently; the prospect of being sued is enough to keep local governments in line.

Candy Coated
Despite this optimism, it is likely that CAFTA will be approved. The Republican leadership in Congress has been effective at maintaining caucus discipline. While some conservatives have ideological issues with such agreements related to sovereignty, it’s not likely to count for much in the face of Hastert, DeLay and the Chamber of Commerce. Any defections among Republicans will be more than balanced by defections among Democrats. This is particularly true of Democratic members of the Congressional Sugar Caucus.

Prior to the November election, the Senate Sugar Caucus included 11 Senators, mostly from sugar beet and sugar cane states. The Caucus in the House, however, is largely concerned with the confectionery industry, which would benefit from lower sugar prices. Representatives Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Danny Davis (D-IL) co-chair the House caucus, which includes 14 other Representatives, including Judy Biggert (R), Raham Emmanuel (D), and Bobby Rush (D) from Illinois. Representative Davis’ district has been hit hard by plant closings in the candy industry, particularly Brach Candy (see New Ground 36, “Brach Candy: the Battle Continues”) and there is the illusion that a drop in sugar prices might have prevented this.

For the much same reasons, expect some unions to make defeating CAFTA not a priority. Not surprisingly, the Democratic Leadership Council has been supportive of CAFTA.

The Velvet Shillelagh
While the United States International Trade Commission calculates the immediate economic effects of CAFTA in the U.S. as minimal, the U.S. business community has an interest in opening these modest economies to their participation using rules written to their benefit. Not even in effect or ratified except for El Salvador, CAFTA has been used to get the Dominican Republic to repeal a tax on beverages sweetened with corn syrup and Guatemala to repeal laws concerning intellectual property disadvantageous to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. In the United States, CAFTA is the justification given by the highly profitably Florida Crystal Corporation when it declared its intent to outsource work to “independent contractors” and impose a reduction in overtime pay and other benefits for the remaining employees, thus provoking the Machinists Union to strike. This is in a plant that had not had a strike in decades. One farmer cooperative has already closed a sugar mill in Louisiana citing CAFTA as its reason.

Threats to close or move and the bloody shirt of international competition are not unusual gambits in collective bargaining, especially when it is the first contract. And once again, the deterrence effect has an unmeasured consequence on bargaining and organizing, not to mention tax policies.

CAFTAesque
Defeating CAFTA is important and it’s pretty to think it might mark a turning point. But one has to wonder. Aside from NAFTA, the U.S. has bilateral free trade agreements with Israel, Jordan, Singapore, Chile, Australia, Morocco. A free trade agreement with Bahrain has been completed and is expected to pass with no difficulty. Indeed, bilateral agreements are being advocated as an alternate strategy toward accomplishing the FTAA.

The other CAFTA members also have their own bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. There is the Central American Common Market that includes Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This has individual agreements with Chile, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Costa Rica has agreements with the Caribbean Community and Canada. Mexico has a free trade agreement with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Nicaragua has a free trade agreement with Mexico. The Dominican Republic has a free trade agreement with the Caribbean Community.

Even allowing that some of these agreements are functioning at the level of wishful thinking, it’s easy to see that neo-liberal property rights over human rights model of development is becoming dominant.

These agreements act as tar-babies. The longer they function, the more difficult it is for a country to withdraw. Virtually no one in the United States or Canada, for example, is talking of withdrawing from NAFTA; the prospective economic disruption, real or imagined, would be too threatening to politicians’ careers. In 2000 for example, a move to withdraw from the World Trade Organization was defeated in the U.S. House, 363 to 56.

Renegotiating the agreements might seem a reasonable approach (and Mexico’s President Fox is under pressure to reopen some aspects of NAFTA). But this has some severe practical problems for U.S. fair trade advocates. The obvious one is simply the balance of power within our own country. And our negotiating partners are not always to our left, not always even to the left of Bush. Even allowing for imbalances of power in favor of the U.S. this presents a problem.

The practice of negotiations also would need to change. While CAFTA was being negotiated, the draft was treated as a state secret, not subject the Freedom of Information Act. Some NGO access to the negotiators was allowed, but it was extremely limited.

What Is To Be Done
Finally, advocates of fair trade will need to have something of a consensus as to the changes that are needed or desirable. We need summits not only on how to defeat measures like CAFTA (such as the recent Citizens Trade Campaign summit in Washington) but multinational meetings to discuss what today might seem utopian proposals for fair trade. I don’t mean to suggest that nothing on this has been or is being done, but more is needed particularly here in the States.

The need for this is urgent. NAFTA, CAFTA, et. al. are setting in concrete a system that favors only the wealthy, that regards property as the sole human right and the sole legitimate concern of the state, with inadequate means for remedy atop dynamic economies and societies and diverse cultures. Insurrectionary leftists and establishment conservatives alike take note: this is an excellent prescription for violence.