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.

Fitness, Practice, and Social Change

A central component of any change process – personal change or organizational change – is the concept of practice.
— Ng’ethe Maina and Staci Haines, The Transformative Power of Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot about practice recently. My current practice is pretty good: on weekdays, I get up, exercise almost every day, work at a job that is fulfilling and that I generally enjoy, eat good and reasonably healthy food, drink good beer, go to bed. I generally take enough down time on the weekends to recharge and keep in house in order, and I spend enough time with my spouse and kids to maintain good relationships with them. Over the years I’ve learned how to respond to most difficult situations with patience, humility and compassion instead of anger, frustration and insecurity. In Maina and Haines’s terminology, I’ve been intentional enough about changing my practice that my default practice now aligns pretty well with my “present-day values, politics, [and what I] care most about” (I should also note that I have been lucky/privileged enough not to have experienced the kind of trauma that can lead people, for reasons of immediate survival, to develop practices that in the long run are not healthy/aligned with their values/etc.)

Still, there are things that I would like to do more of: writing (beyond what I do at my job), composing and playing music, and being more involved in local political work. To some degree, these are limited by the number of hours in the day, but I recognize that if I want to find the time to spend even a few hours more on these activities, I need to change my daily practice.

I’ve also been thinking about practice a lot because I recently, largely by accident, became part of a fascinating and compelling online community of people who attended one of the institutions of higher education that made up my somewhat checkered higher-ed career. Over the past six months, this community — originally devoted almost entirely to witty banter mocking the seriousness of official alumni publications — has become equal parts comedy improv troupe, free-ranging discussion forum, and on-demand support group for any number of issues, with a good dash of exhibitionism, flirtatiousness and hedonism (“drink threads” are de rigeur on weekends, and common during the week) thrown in.

One of the things that I find especially fascinating about this community is how people have started using it as a sort of accountability mechanism to change their practice. As in, literally, people will post about something that they intend to do (but might be worried they won’t actually follow through on), in order to be “held accountable” by the group.

This is most noticable in a spinoff group devoted to fitness. And, even without having had a conscious desire to improve my own fitness practice, I have noticed that the ritual of posting my daily workout to the fitness group, reading other’s workouts (at all levels — from starting to get off the couch to qualifying for national triathalons), and us all encouraging each other with comments and “likes,” has increased the length of my runs, the intensity of my gym workouts, and my curiousity about other forms of exercise (I’ve even flirted with the idea of re-learning how to swim).

The world of fitness, of course, as both a social phenomenon and a capitalist industry, has done an exceptional job figuring out how to create this kind of culture of accountability and encouragement. The kind of camraderie formed at races, in zumba and spin and yoga classes, etc., is crucial to the industry’s profitability and growth — and this has naturally spread to social media.

Now, I have fitness goals (it would be great to lose the noticable beer belly I’ve had for the last 5 years or so), but I’ve got other goals as well, as mentioned above. Many of these not-fitness goals, especially writing about politics and culture, are essentially social (I want to change society), even if the mechanism (writing) is a solitary activity. So I find it kind of ironic that I am currently, in essence, pursuing my personal goals in a social manner, while I think of the work to pursue my social goals as something that I just need to “find more time for” in my personal life. (To be fair, this is probably exacerbated by the fact that my spouse and I are both doing essentially social and political work at our jobs for 8-10 hours per day; it’s just the “extracurricular” social goals, as it were, the ones I don’t get paid for, that I’m talking about here).

I don’t think this is totally uncommon. We know (from opinion polls, surveys, our own door-to-door work) that people want the world to be a better place. Yet even our most popular actions are dwarfed by the number of people who turn out for 5Ks every weekend. Our job, as a movement, is to help more people — if we want to succeed, millions of people — feel supported and accountable in being part of changing the world, in ways that are effective and also doable. To grow to scale, we can’t just “organize” people as we currently understand it — getting them to participate in social-change organizations through repeated reminders and turn-out calls and so forth, and if we’re lucky recruiting a few more volunteers to help us with the turn-out calls — we need to bring people to a place where “showing up” for justice (in whatever way) becomes part of their default practice.

I think part of the appeal of the fitness world is precisely the kind of casual camraderie of racing or taking a class together, or being part of an online fitness community. It is precisely that kind of community that capitalism has hollowed out, especially in recent decades as the massive disruption of globalization has forced people to move and the casualization of work has made it difficult to even maintain regular social practice within families, let alone the (generally) less intense social interactions of friendships, reading groups, bowling leagues, etc.

In this environment, most of us struggle to maintain two really intense relationships: one with our job (or jobs), and another with our partner and/or immediate family (or spending energy trying to find or establish one). These relationships, even when not fraught with oppressive power dynamics, are extremely high-stakes, and thus I think are actually particularly ill-suited places to think about changing our practice. In these intense and high-stakes 1:1 relationships which structure the vast majority of our waking hours, we dig more deeply into our default practices, and we’re also less likely to hold the other person/institution accountable, even in the smallest of ways.

And, the problem with so much movement organizing is that we expect people’s relationships to our organizations to mirror the same kind of intense relationships we have with our employers (especially if we, ourselves, are professional organizers or staff of social-justice organizations) and our families. Perhaps not consciously, but subconsciously — we always talk about wanting to provide “easy asks,” low-intensity ways for people to participate (such as signing petitions), but at some level we’re just scanning the petition signers for potential “leaders,” people who could be brought to having the same intense commitment to the organization as we do. We rarely think seriously about how people could particpate in and be accountable to the organization in the way that they are part of and accountable to their spin class.

So, I have a couple of questions I think we should be thinking about (and I welcome thoughts in the comments):

First, how do we (not just people who currently identify as movement organizers, but anyone who wants to see a better world), provide ourselves and others with a structure that allows us to pursue our social-change goals with a similar flexibility, accountability and scalability as, say, the world of running (while recognizing that it’s much harder to do something when it’s (a) not generating profit and (b) actually threatening people with power).

Second, since I sort of work in the intersection of technology and social change, are there existing platforms, apps, etc. that include similar social-accountability mechanisms as the fitness-based ones yet are flexible enough to be used for social-change goals? Is there something already developed for social-change purposes that organizations could use and experiment with? If not, is there a need for one?

Back to the Cooperative Commonwealth?

I think a lot about the problems of building a labor movement for the 21st century.  And, as a long-time labor activist who now finds himself a member of a worker-owned cooperative (I work at Webskillet Cooperative, which is both a worker coop and a UE union shop), I struggle with reconciling the militant traditions that have shaped my outlook with the sometimes overly optimistic approach of the cooperative movement.

On Saturday I drove down to Glens Falls, New York, for an international meeting of union cooperative workers.  The newly-formed network of cooperative workers inside UE, which includes four worker coops and the organized workers at two food coops, was hosting a coop delegation from Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).

FAT coop delegation at UE Regional Council Meeting

The UE and FAT have a long and deep relationship.  Initially formed during the fight against NAFTA, when the “official,” government-controlled trade unions in Mexico supported the free trade agreement, the UE-FAT Strategic Organizing Alliance has included joint organizing projects targeting the same multinational employers, support for each others’ organizing — including the FAT organizing Mexican unions to file a complaint against the US for denying collective bargaining rights to public sector workers in North Carolina, and many, many exchanges of rank and file workers.

The UE’s semi-official slogan is “The Members Run This Union,” reflecting both a commitment to democracy and a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run their own unions.  The FAT’s slogan, “¡Por la autogestión de la clase trabajadora!” doesn’t translate smoothly into English, but it means, roughly, “for the self-management of the working class” — reflecting a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run everything about their lives.

The FAT, unlike UE, is not solely a union (the name literally means “authentic workers’ front”).  While the union sector is the largest, they have long had a cooperative sector.  In large part, this stems from the fact that Mexican labor law, in some cases when an employer cannot pay the settlements they owe to the workers, allows workers to take over buildings and equipment and either sell them or run them cooperatively.  However, it also reflects the FAT’s commitment to autogestión.

The FAT delegation we met with on Saturday included the director of the FAT’s cooperative sector, a leader from a state workers’ union which is forming coops to help its members build their own green housing, the general accountant of a credit union which was formed by the FAT in the wake of a strike 26 years ago, and a member of Bicicooperativa Urbana, a coop of young bicyclists in Mexico City who are sort of an incubator for bicycle-based businesses in the city, including a parcel delivery service, bicycle repair and bicycle parking lots.  This was the second UE-FAT exchange to focus on the cooperative sector, following a visit by UE coop members to Mexico in November of last year.

The cooperative movement and the labor movement, of course, emerge from a similar history of working-class organization.  The modern coooperative movement generally traces its history to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of weavers, Owenite socialists and other workers who started a cooperative grocery in 1844, in an area of England with a rich history of working-class agitation.  Not unlike the FAT credit union, the Rochdale pioneers started their cooperative after an unsuccessful weavers’ strike.

In fact, the principles of cooperation, as an alternative vision to capitalism, animated the vision of the first large-scale labor movement in the US, the Knights of Labor.  The Knights, along with many other radicals in the late nineteenth century, expressed their goal of an exploitation-free society as “The Cooperative Commonwealth.”  The fact that they used this term rather than being explicitly socialist, as most European labor movements were, combined with the fact that some leader of the Knights expressed distaste for strikes (stating that workers should instead form cooperatives), has not done wonders for their reputation among labor historians, who tend to be a rather left-wing and pro-strike bunch.

I don’t think cooperatives are the answer to everything (my UE brothers and sisters currently fighting a GE plant closure in Ft. Edward, NY are not going to be able to take over and run that capacitor plant as a worker coop — but I think they do have a shot at convincing GE to keep the plant open).  Nonetheless, I think the idea of the cooperative commonwealth, and of various forms of cooperative organization of social life, bears reexamining in a couple of ways:

1. I think we need more historical investigation of the Knights’ practical experience with cooperatives.  Did they actually try to form cooperatives, and if so what kinds (worker, consumer, producer)?  What challenges did they face, and how did they try to overcome them?  What was the organizational role of cooperatives within the Knights’ assemblies (their form of local organization), and what relationship (if any) did they have to groups of workers who engaged in more traditional collective bargaining?

2. The labor movement, and the left more generally, has been on the defensive about the public sector.  Partly this reflects ruling class strength, partly this reflects strategic weaknesses and mistakes on our part, but partly this also reflects the reality that for many people (especially, though not exclusively, poor and working-class people), dealing with the actually-existing public sector can be extremely frustrating.  Racist teachers, unhelpful bureaucrats and condescending social-service providers are not the rule, but they are not uncommon either.  While I think we absolutely need to close ranks to defend the public sector, and public-sector workers, we also need to think more creatively about ways to make the delivery of social goods more participatory and accountable to the people who are being served.

3. Finally, I think most people who care about such things realize that our currently-existing institutional labor movement (i.e., the trade unions) are at the very least not sufficient to defend the working class from the assaults of capital, let alone improve the condition of the working class and the people as a whole.  In order to “join the labor movement” in America right now, a group of workers needs to win legal collective bargaining rights.  This involves, at a minimum, overcoming a significant set of legal hurdles.  In almost all cases, the boss will hire professional union busters, a whole industry of people who are highly skilled at “persuading” vulnerable workers.  And there is a large and increasing sector of the working class who don’t even have access to these minimal legal avenues, because they are prohibited by state law, classified as independent contractors, working off the books or unemployed.

Yet there are no obvious answers to this problem.  “Alt-labor” groups are almost exclusively dependent on foundation funding.  “Non-majority” or “pre-majority” unions, while no doubt a crucial strategy, are extremely difficult to build and sustain, and so far few of them have either won majority status or become financially self-sustaining.  And it is hard to imagine how “associate membership” programs like Working America — where the “members” share little more than a general support for working-class political issues and the experience of being door-knocked — can do much more than build mailing lists and recruit a small handful of activists.

The FAT structure, bringing worker coops and other forms of coops into a democratic structure with unions, seems to offer a useful model to explore (as I understand it, in the FAT the coops affiliate with the FAT as coops — it’s not like the more transactional United Steelworkers-Mondragon agreement, where workers at coops are simply enrolled as members in the union).  It allows a way for working-class people who cannot otherwise “join” the labor movement to join together with others in a collective effort to improve their own material conditions.

Coops, like unions, at their best require their members to be accountable to each other, and have a direct, positive influence on their members’ day-to-day lives.  That is what creates the kind of loyalty, to each other and to the institution, that is necessary for sustained struggle.  And in this moment, the labor movement, the working class, and everyone who cares about social justice is clearly in for a sustained struggle.

This blog was also posted at the Labor Online blog.

Why Our Worker Co-op Is a Union Shop: Democracy

Democracy. A little over ten years ago, I had come to New York City with a van-full of my fellow union members, to join tens or hundreds of thousands of people who had come to protest the impending war against Iraq. A young white man on a subway car, berating us, explained how democracy works: “People voted for Bush, now he gets to do what he wants. That’s democracy.”

I think most of us like to think we have a deeper understanding of “democracy” than this young man did. But the reality is that, in our governments and, truth be told, in most of the organizations we’re part of, we accept that logic. As long as we’re allowed to protest the decisions of those we elect, we don’t really think that deeply about the process of democratic decision-making, about making decisions together.

This may be, in part, because the organizations where most of us spend most of our time and energy are, like it or not, the places where we work. Our workplaces may be better or worse, but very few of them are democratic. Worker coops, of course, are one of the few exceptions – in a worker co-op everyone who works for the enterprise gets to have an equal say in decisions.

Last weekend I attended the Owning the New Economy Summit at the University of Vermont. At the “Envisioning the Cooperative Economy” workshop in the morning, Keith Taylor, Director of the Coop Research Project, reminded us about the importance of learning, and practicing, democracy, pointing out that the highly centralized government and corporate structures that govern most of our lives neither teach nor encourage democratic practices.

Which got me thinking — where did I learn democracy? And the reality is that I didn’t learn it from school, I didn’t learn it from voting, and unfortunately, I didn’t learn it from the food and financial co-ops (credit unions) that I’ve been a part of. I learned it from my union.

To be fair, I’ve been a member of one of the most democratic unions in America, UE, for most of my adult life. The experiences of other union members are almost certainly different than mine. But here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned from UE democracy, lessons that have helped Webskillet thrive, and lessons that all institutions that strive to be democratic – and most co-ops – could learn from:

1. Be Inclusive. Actively. If you’re a union and the only way you engage your members is to encourage them to come for meetings or run for the board (and then complain about them when they don’t), or if you don’t pay attention to how certain demographics within your membership are alienated from the union, you’re going to be in a pretty weak position going up against the boss. Democracy isn’t just offering people the opportunity to participate – it’s actively encouraging (and organizing) them to participate, and asking (honestly) why they aren’t, and being willing to listen and change.

2. Own the Big Picture. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where the “ground rules” — either explicitly or implicitly — prevent us from talking about the broader social problems that underlie the specific issues we’re trying to address. I’ve never experienced this in the UE — and, in fact, a willingness to talk about broader issues (even if we can’t solve them immediately) has often helped us come to a better, and stronger, consensus. A contentious discussion of gay marriage at a UE regional meeting in 2004 was aided immeasurably by our collective willingness to address deeper philosophical questions about whether the government should be in the business of regulating private relationships at all.

3. Democratic culture and practice is at least as important as democratic rules. UE, formally, uses Robert’s Rules of Order for all of our meetings. But 70-plus years of collective experience trying to make democratic decisions — and having to live with the consequences when decisions made through formally democratic processes divide the membership — have created a culture in UE that encourages collective and consensus-seeking leadership, far more so than in many organizations that formally use consensus processes, but often develop invisible (and therefore unaccountable) hierarchies.

4. Democracy is hard. And that’s ok. Democracy is a lot of work. It takes time, it takes intellectual and emotional energy, and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we’re on the losing side. Sometimes — even worse — we’re on the winning side, and later realize that we were wrong. But the beautiful thing about (truly) democratic institutions is that nothing’s written in stone, that we get the opportunity to go back and fix it. Together.