Forced Labor

What kind of labor movement do we need in the era of Trump?

These should be exciting, if terrifying, times to be part of the labor movement. Following the actions at airports last weekend — a crucial part of which was a one-hour strike against pickups at JFK called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — novelist Francine Prose called for a general strike in the Guardian. Calls for a “#NationalStrike” on February 17th have been circulating on Twitter and other social media. And labor lawyers Moshe Marvit and Leo Gertner published a piece in the Washington Post, “Where’s the Best Place to Resist Trump? At Work,” whose pullquote is “From solidarity strikes to slowdowns and sit-ins, workplace revolt is a key strategy in opposing the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the institutional labor movement is under existential threat. National Right to Work legislation was introduced into Congress this week, and with Republican majorities in both houses and You-Know-Who as president, it is hard to imagine it not passing. In the state where I got my start in the labor movement, Iowa, new Republican majorities are planning to make it “the next Wisconsin” by gutting or rescinding entirely the state’s collective bargaining law for public-sector employees.

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Mourning becomes the Left

Earlier this week I came across a couple of pieces on Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb that I can’t get out of my head.  A long, meditative piece on “The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump,” and a much shorter piece on the suicide of the blogger’s friend, Mark Fisher. Both pieces dealt with mourning, melancholia, depression and the Left.

For the last few years, I have had a really hard time engaging politically, even in the last two months, with the “all hands on deck” imperative of the looming Trump presidency. Most distressingly, it is precisely the aspects of political engagement that used to fire me up the most – gathering with comrades at local or branch meetings, taking collective action in the streets – that are most likely now to sour my mood.

In fact, I have shorthanded it sometimes as “political depression” — but haven’t really taken that diagnosis seriously. I have developed certain strategies and habits that help me function when my depression is triggered by events in my personal life — thankfully, my depression is mild and infrequent enough that I haven’t required medication. But in our society, where political engagement is not only not mandated but actively discouraged, it is far easier to simply disengage when this “political depression” looms.

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Five Things Leftists Should Know About Bernie Sanders

The Bernie Sanders campaign has provoked widespread interest and debate on the U.S. Left, such as it is. This article is a contribution to that debate from the perspective of a left organizer who has been active in trade union and community organizing in Sanders’ home state of Vermont for the better part of two decades.

This article is not directed at progressives, but at leftists – those who identify as socialists, communists, and/or anarchists, those who want to replace capitalism with a different system, not simply reign in its most atrocious features. In short, those whose vision of liberation goes far beyond what Sanders has articulated in his political program.

The purpose of this article is not to convince individuals to vote for or against Sanders, or to give money or time to his campaign.  Rather, the purpose is to help leftists assess how the Sanders campaign impacts our strategies (or attempts to formulate strategies) to build a social force that is strong enough to dismantle and replace capitalism.

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What would a Just Transition in healthcare look like?

Almost eight years ago, the Vermont Workers’ Center launched the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign, which powered Vermont’s move towards creating a equitable, universal healthcare system. While the current Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, who was elected on the promise of delivering a single-payer healthcare system, announced in December that he was abandoning that goal, the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign was never just about winning policy change. It is about winning recognition that the right to healthcare, and really, the right to health, is a fundamental human right that needs to be supported and promoted in all parts of our communities.

Health is about more than just the absence of illness. Indeed, when we use terms like “healthy communities,” “healthy schools” or “healthy relationships,” we mean communities, schools and relationships whose members are not just free of ailments, but are respected, supported, and encouraged to fully develop to their potential as whole human beings.

As Dr. James S. Gordon, the director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, pointed out twenty years ago in Manifesto for a New Medicine, a sort of bible for the wise use of alternative therapies, the “biomedicine” developed in Western Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th century has been fantastically successful at curing and preventing a wide range of maladies that have caused an immense amount of suffering and death throughout human history. However, it has been much less successful in dealing with the chronic suffering that afflicts many of us – suffering that Dr. Gordon and other practitioners of “holistic” medicine have had success in treating with an approach that emphasizes understanding patients as whole and unique individuals, respecting patients as active partners in their own healing, investigating the contribution of social environments to physical suffering, and incorporating elements of the world’s other healing traditions, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda.

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Can we stop complaining about “check your privilege” already?

This morning I saw this tweet from Jacobin magazine:

which was promoting this article, Let Them Eat Privilege: Focusing on privilege diverts attention away from the real villains.

The article itself is, actually, not as bad as its title would imply – it is primarily a take-down of this stupid article, which essentially tells people that if you have any kind of middle-class status (college degree, etc.), you shouldn’t complain about the 1%. In fact, the Jacobin article is not bad at all – I was worried it would be yet another white male leftist explicitly complaining about how being told to “check your privilege” (by women and people of color and queer folks and people with disabilities and so forth) is destructive to focusing on “the real villains,” building a united class movement, etc., etc.

This critique is, of course, not limited exclusively to white dudes – last year at Left Forum I got to hear Vivek Chibber and Arun Gupta deliver a much more searing denunciation of how destructive “privilege talk” is to the Left.

There is a moral rebuttal to this line of reasoning: privilege is real, and I as a straight, college-educated white dude, while far from being a member of the 1%, just have a much easier life than my sisters and brothers who, well, are not straight college-educated white dudes.  And that is wrong.

But there is also a practical rebuttal to this: suppressing talk about privilege does not, in fact, help us build a united class movement — quite the opposite.  I’ve spent most of my adult life in the trade union movement — the movement that, however battered and backward, offers the best hope for actually changing the imbalance of power between the 1% and the 99%. We have to value solidarity of all workers: it’s not just an abstract political commitment, it’s necessary to organize new workplaces, to win decent contracts and grievances and strikes and political struggles.  But we recognize that building that solidarity requires recognizing, and dealing with, ways in which some of us are, in fact, treated better by the boss, by the state, by each other, because of the privilege of real or perceived whiteness, of maleness, of being “able-bodied,” of being or being perceived to be heterosexual.

Now, we don’t use the term “check your privilege” exactly.  But my union, the UE, devotes a significant chunk of its national conventions — as well as a lot of the educational work done in the locals — to addressing issues of racism and sexism, among a membership that is still primarily white and more-than-majority male.  Because we have learned from decades of experience that if you don’t address the very real differences in power between different groups of workers based on race, gender, etc., then you cannot in fact build the kind of unity that is necessary to win real, concrete class victories.

It is not an accident that some of the most vibrant parts of the broader labor movement right now — the National Domestic Workers Alliance*, the National Day Labor Organizing Network and the Fight for 15 movement among fast food workers — are organizing low-wage workers of color (in the case of NDWA, women of color who are primarily immigrants).  To varying degrees, these organizations operate from an analysis that understands race and gender as deeply intertwined with class.

And, let’s not forget the very real privileges that college-educated middle-class workers have – the ones enumerated in the stupid article.  It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle — but if we are insensitive to the way that our relative privilege (and our sometimes arrogant cultural assumptions) come across to our working-class sisters and brothers, then we won’t be able to build the deep unity that will allow us to not just “focus on” the real villains, but actually take away their power.

*Full disclosure: I work for NDWA

April 15: Presenting at “School Lunch”

Next Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be giving a talk on “Good, Old Fashioned Class Struggle for the 21st Century” at Radio Bean’s “School Lunch” series.

What does class struggle mean in the 21st century? Is it even relevant to the “new economy” of AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter and startups? Will there even be a labor movement in the future, and what will it look like? What kind of stake do working people have in fights over state and city budgets? We’ll look at these questions as tens of thousands of fast food workers strike on April 15.

Wednesday, April 15, Noon
Radio Bean Coffeehouse
8 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington VT

Why Your Website Should Be More Like an App

The term “web app” has been floating around for several years now. It has been derided as simply a trendy term for a website featuring lots of user interaction, or as a way to charge more for websites, but in a December 2013 poll on the developer site css-tricks.com 72% of respondents thought that making a distinction between “web sites” and “web apps” was useful.

While I’m not sure I agree that a distinction between the two (being able to put a particular web “thing” into one category or the other) is useful, I do think that thinking about your website as an “app” is helpful — especially for folks who are not developers.

At Webskillet, we always work with clients to identify the purpose, goals and audience of any new or revamped website. But those things can pretty easily mushroom. Thinking about your website as an app forces the question: what do you want people to do on your website?

One of the distinctions proposed between “sites” and “apps” is performing tasks vs. providing information and content. But, of course, finding and accessing information is itself a task – one whose difficulty is often underestimated. When we redesigned the National Domestic Workers Alliance website last winter, we realized that their work had gotten so complex, with so many different projects and audiences, that the navigation system on their old site (a traditional menu across the top with secondary sectional navigation on the sidebars of interior pages) made it really difficult to find information about any particular project. Thinking about navigation as an app to find content, rather than where to put things in a menu structure, helped us design a much better navigation system, featuring megamenus that help group and categorize the many projects and initiatives at NDWA.

And, of course, apps are generally written to do a particular thing – listen to music, share short status updates with the world, send email, etc. So the question to ask is not only what you want people to do on your website, but what is the one thing you want people to do on your website.

This also helps the explain the recent (and, in my opinion, good) trend towards “microsites” – small sites, sometimes with only a single page, but certainly no more than a few, that serve exactly one purpose. Just as my co-worker Bekah recommends that emails only have one ask to avoid “decision fatigue,” I think it’s great that people are creating sites that are dedicated to just one purpose – that give the visitor exactly one task, and focus on making that task as easy as possible for the visitor – whether that task is learning about Burlington’s livable wage ordinance or convincing people to join a new effort to hold local politicians accountable.

But thinking about your site as an “app” doesn’t need to be confined to microsites. One of the largest and most-used websites, Wikipedia, is really just an app for finding information.

Another website that we have done recently where thinking about the site as an “app” has helped us create a really focused website is Spoiler Alert! This site is, essentially, an app for exploring a recently published report about pop-culture strategies for the progressive movement. The animation and inclusion of video, Storify content, and other multimedia create a much more dynamic experience than simply downloading a PDF (although that option is there).

So, if you are thinking about a new website, or a redesign of your existing website, take some time to consider what the one thing you want people to do on your website is. And let me know if I can help you think about it.