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!)

Employment and Survival in Urban America

A Town Meeting on Economic Insecurity

This is an article that I wrote for New Ground 45, March – April, 1996. It played a small role in the 2008 election. Why? Barack Obama. You may recall that right-wing blogs and propaganda media began a campaign to label Obama a “socialist” that year, that he was someone who had worked closely with Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. This article (among a few other articles in New Ground related to the New Party) was presented as proof. It was also argued that this (and Bill Ayers) demonstrated that Obama owed his political career to DSA. While these points were floated as trial balloons as early as May, the campaign was not unleashed until after Labor Day in September.

The timing was perfect: It was just in time for the dramatic start of the Great Recession. Especially since many of the web postings included links to the New Ground article. Thank you for referring folks to DSA right when capitalism was going through a major dysfunction! It generated considerable traffic.

Here’s what I know about the meeting itself. I was at the meeting to staff our literature table. It was the University of Chicago Young Democratic Socialists (then referred to as the “Youth Section”) that organized the meeting. It was part of a national DSA agitation on the topic of economic insecurity. The UofC YDS brought on board the University of Chicago Democratic club. Just who invited any particular speaker I really don’t know. It would be more reasonable to assume the University Democrats were responsible for both Obama and Preckwinkle, but I don’t actually know. Chicago DSA endorsed the event as a matter of doing publicity.

Obama did not need anyone’s help in 2008. After he knocked Alice Palmer (the incumbent and his former employer) off the primary ballot, there was no primary contest. In the November general election, there was no one on the Republican ballot line. He walked into office.

A Town Meeting on Economic Insecurity:

Employment and Survival in Urban America

by Bob Roman

Over three hundred people attended the first of two Town Meetings on Economic Insecurity on February 25 in Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago. Entitled “Employment and Survival in Urban America”, the meeting was sponsored by the UofC DSA Youth Section, Chicago DSA and University Democrats. The panelists were Toni Preckwinkle, Alderman of Chicago’s 4th Ward; Barack Obama, candidate for the 13th Illinois Senate District; Professor William Julius Wilson, Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago; Professor Michael Dawson, University of Chicago; and Professor Joseph Schwartz, Temple University and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.

The meeting demonstrated that economic insecurity is an issue not exclusive to Buchanan Republicans. It is a vital issue for the left as well. More than that, it illustrated that, unlike the Right, the democratic left has a number of potential solutions that go beyond mere demagoguery.

Alderman Preckwinkle began the discussion by observing that the Chicago City Council rarely takes up the great issues facing the city even when it is presented with legislation dealing with these issues. Hearings are not held. Legislation rarely makes it out of committee.

As examples, she used Alderman Joe Moore’s (49th) Privatization Ordinance which was introduced last year and the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance which will be formally introduced in the Council very soon.

The Privatization Ordinance (see January – February, 1995, New Ground, page 1) was a modest effort to regulate the manner in which city services were privatized. It would have made the process accountable and made sure savings were not accomplished at the expense of employees. The measure was consigned to oblivion in committee. While a majority of the Council “supported” the ordinance, an attempt to release it from committee failed for lack of votes.

The Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance (see January – February, 1996, New Ground, page 10) is a more ambitious attempt to require city contractors to pay a minimum living wage. The measure will be formally introduced into the Council in April or May. Alderman Preckwinkle was not optimistic about its prospects although the presence of the Democratic National Convention may provide some opportunities for better leverage.

Barack Obama observed that Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in the 1960s wasn’t simply about civil rights but demanded jobs as well. Now the issue is again coming to the front, but he wished the issue was on the Democratic agenda not just on Buchanan’s.

One of the themes that has emerged in Barack Obama’s campaign is “what does it take to create productive communities”, not just consumptive communities. It is an issue that joins some of the best instincts of the conservatives with the better instincts of the left. He felt the state government has three constructive roles to play.

The first is “human capital development”. By this he meant public education, welfare reform, and a “workforce preparation strategy”. Public education requires equality in funding. It’s not that money is the only solution to public education’s problems but it’s a start toward a solution. The current proposals for welfare reform are intended to eliminate welfare but it’s also true that the status quo is not tenable. A true welfare system would provide for medical care, child care and job training. While Barack Obama did not use this term, it sounded very much like the “social wage” approach used by many social democratic labor parties. By “workforce preparation strategy”, Barack Obama simply meant a coordinated, purposeful program of job training instead of the ad hoc, fragmented approach used by the State of Illinois today.

The state government can also play a role in redistribution, the allocation of wages and jobs. As Barack Obama noted, when someone gets paid $10 million to eliminate 4,000 jobs, the voters in his district know this is an issue of power not economics. The government can use as tools labor law reform, public works and contracts.

Finally, Illinois needs an industrial strategy. How do we create more jobs for everyone? Illinois has no strategy for encouraging high wage, high productivity jobs.

Professor Wilson’s presentation was based on his forthcoming book, When Work Disappears: the World of the New Urban Poor. William Julius Wilson began by demanding that the left not be intimidated by the Contract on America and how it has limited the terms of the debate. What we need, he asserted, was a jobs policy based roughly on the New Deal’s WPA. The work would concentrate on badly needed infrastructure maintenance and improvement. It would be a universal program; the jobs would be available to everyone, “including Donald Trump” if he chose to do some useful work for a change. These would be new jobs. State and local government would not be allowed to subsidize their own budgets the way they did with CETA in the 1970s.

Professor Dawson spoke on how critical the issues facing this country have become. Not only have the problems themselves become severe, but the politics resulting from them have become a danger to freedom and democracy.

DSA member Joe Schwartz brought the presentations to a rousing close. He observed that any politics of the democratic left needs to confront racism. There is no way we can finesse the issue by simply organizing around universal programs; we need to build a new politics of social solidarity. He concluded by pointing out that all of the proposals given tonight, even the most modest, will be red-baited. We must grow up and be forthright about how social democracy / democratic socialism has made the life of working people better the world over.

Which is exactly our point.

“Party at Ground Zero”

with apologies to Fishbone

Note: the 1994 mid-term election was a disaster for liberal / left politics, especially in Congress. The article below was my attempt to come to grips with the consequences. It was originally published in the November — December, 1994, issue of New Ground. Illustration above, CTA mural at Glenwood and Estes, photo by Roman.

Party at Ground Zero

by Bob Roman

It’s hard to be current in a bi-monthly publication, and the recent elections happened right before the deadline for New Ground, but we couldn’t let the recent conflagration pass without comment. Unfortunately, the days of “scientific socialism” are past. No longer can an accurate assessment of the objective material conditions in the context of dialectical materialism turn every Jimmy Higgins into an instant Kevin Philips. Whither America? Your guess is as good as mine.

The election results were worse than we generally expected. It was considered possible that the Republicans would gain control of both the House and the Senate, but it wasn’t considered likely. It happened. The Single Payer initiative in California lost and the anti-immigrant initiative passed. The Republican sweep extended even to the state level, with Democratic governors and legislators exploding in flame like so many bone dry pines.

Yet the democratic left did not do too badly. Bernie Sanders squeaked back into the House. DSA members Ron Dellums (72%) and Major Owens (89%) were reelected.

The Democratic incumbents who were defeated tended to be the more conservative and centerist members of Congress. The ironies are manifest. We have a somewhat more liberal Democratic Congressional delegation being led by a somewhat more conservative president. No one is happy with the situation; no one wants to be identified as a Democrat — not even Bill Clinton?

“And the World Will Turn to Floating Vapor Soon”

So now we’re back to fighting defensive battles. There’ll be no more discussion about what kind of national health plan to have, at best we’ll tinker with insurance reform- maybe. Bid a sad farewell to labor law reform, reproductive rights, a better Supreme Court, public education, civil rights….

So what kind of bulwark can we expect Clinton to be? He won’t be much of one, I think. Clinton was already in favor of a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto. His welfare reform package differed only in degree from the Republican proposal. On other issues he is as likely to roll over and ask for a belly rub as he is to show his teeth with a veto.

Luckily, the President is not the only option. The Republicans did not sleep through high school civics class. They remembered that the Federal government was designed specifically to provide a minority veto to the desires of the majority. They have very professionally demonstrated the utility of such a strategy for the past two years. If at least some of the Democrats in Congress are willing, there will be plenty of opportunities for bomb throwing and sabotage.

The obstructionist strategy does have some pitfalls for the left that it did not have for the right. Destroying the ability of the majority to govern fits the conservative shibboleth of governmental incompetence just fine, and we need to be wise about just how such a strategy is implemented

Third party politics will continue to be problematic. Certainly there’s going to be a great deal of activist enthusiasm for the various third party projects on the left. Even Clinton doesn’t seem to want to be identified as a Democrat. You’ll notice that when he accepted “responsibility” for the electoral débâcle, he did not include his role as head of the Democratic Party. But the natural tendency for the organizations clustered around the Democratic Party will be to circle the wagons rather than experiment.

Don’t dismiss the possibility of a third party or independent campaigns, though. The unruly rabble of organizations and players that’s called the “Democratic Party” could split — in either direction, particularly if the electorate demonstrated an enthusiasm for the idea. Unfortunately, most of the grass roots enthusiasm for such a project is to our right. Not that a split is our balm in gilead. If it were to happen, the last of this century would remain Republican, but it could open up some longer term possibilities.

It’s more likely that we will continue to see an erosion of the relevance of party labels. Party loyalty, above the county level of government, has not been a major feature of U.S. politics for a long time. The next few years should see it drop to a new low and an increasing number of elected officials running independent, non-party campaigns.


Stanley Aronowitz accused DSA of being only concerned about “what we’re going to do on Monday”. All right, I confess: What are we going to do on Monday? I wish I knew. Though in general terms, coalition politics will be the name of the game. It is vital that as broad a coalition as possible be mobilized to demonstrate that the “contract on America” is not acceptable. Time is critical; the Congressional conservatives will try to move very quickly. We must be there to say no!

A forest fire burns off a lot of dead wood, allowing a renewal of the forest. It’s our task to get in there and go to seed. And grow.

“This is not a charade!”