Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Oh Hey. There Are People in the Food System.

February 20, 2014 By: Mel Category: Stratification, Work

Painting of FarmworkerMonday night I listened to a presentation about the Our Harvest Union Co-op in Cincinnati. They are modelling themselves after Mondragon, but with a union twist. The goal is to put a little more justice in the food system and they are going to do it by growing and distributing food on a large scale. The hope is to be able to certify food from the ground to the market as union – living wages, benefits, not dying of heat stroke

Once upon a time I lived in Santa Cruz and worked for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). My coworkers at CASFS studied what people cared about in the food system. It turned out that they cared more about how animals were treated than how people were treated.

I can’t say that I was surprised. Santa Cruz was the first time I was exposed to people for whom food was a religion, a way to exert moral superiority. It wasn’t everyone, of course. But there were many people who thought they were better than everyone else because of their vegan, free-range, probiotic, cruelty free food choices. Self righteousness is always annoying. But to be so self-righteous about food choices and not give a shit that workers on organic farms are treated as poorly as their conventional counterparts. Infuriating.

We shouldn’t have to choose between cruelty to animals and cruelty to people. And a lot of the time there is an overlap. No pesticides on organic produce means no pesticides on the people picking that produce. But when it comes down to it, if I have to chose, people come first. Sorry.

And just so you know, I will not be responding to any comments about speciesism. We are different. The fact that anyone is asking me to make a moral choice about my food is confirmation of their belief that I am different. I respect the people who make that moral choice. But nobody is asking a lion to make a moral choice about eating a gazelle.

But I digress. The point of the post is that there are people in the food system and they are often treated like crap. In fact, most of the lowest paid workers in the country work in food – from migrant farm workers to fast food cooks. And sometimes the food choices we make affect workers in ways we haven’t thought of. For instance, on Monday I learned that the poultry industry is the least unionized. So if you are buying more chicken thinking it is healthier than beef, you just upped your chances of exploiting some workers.

Minor consumer choices here and there aren’t going to bring down the whole system. And we sure as shit should not get too proud of ourselves for slightly better food choices. There is no way to extract yourself from the system completely. But if a whole lot of worker-managed, co-op, union companies started taking off…you never know.

P.S. Painting by Cynthia Vidal

Occupy, Unions, NGOs and the Perils of DC Activism

November 30, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking

The CapitalI moseyed over to Occupy K Street last night for the general assembly and the action committee meeting. Not much to say about the GA – except maybe to mention that there was a serious shortage of women. Of the two that spoke, one offered to take notes and the other was reporting back from the committee that cleans and does dishes.  I’ll let you make your own comments.

The action committee meeting was much more interesting. If you have been following a certain blogger (who I most definitely would never, ever socialize with – please don’t ban me too) then you know that the action committee is exhibiting some of DCs most common ailments.

There are a whole lot of people in this town who make their living in orgs that lobby. That includes me, by the way. I work in the advocacy department of the Oxfam International Secretariat. I don’t lobby. I make sure people get paychecks and that their insurance doesn’t get cancelled. (There. Full disclosure. Happy now?)

I don’t actually think lobbying is very useful. I do think the watchdog role we play has some use. My peeps watch the World Bank and IMF. But I stay the hell away from all that shit in my spare time. I’m sure a lot of the people down at occupy are like me. They are paying their rent by working in an org that they hope doesn’t do more harm than good and are happy to have an outlet for the stuff that might matter. The revolution will not be funded and all that.

The thing is, it is extremely difficult to get out of the professional, policy, advocacy, pro-democrat mindset in this town. And not everyone is just paying the bills. There are a lot of climbers in DC. That includes lots of people in organizations that you may think are warm and fuzzy.

Happily, the first part of the action committee went pretty well. While we were still talking national politics, the general tone was that democrats and republicans are equally responsible for our mess and should all be targets. So far so good.

But then the conversation turned to actions sponsored by SEIU et al. While the committee separated itself from them to some extent, we were still basically talking about actions that will inevitably connect Occupy with organizations that spend money and energy to elect democrats to office.

One minute we were talking about how fucked up it is that the democrats are having a $1,000 a plate fundraising dinner. The next minute we were talking about supporting (however nominally) an organization that funnels millions of dollars to democrats in order to get access to the halls of congress.  (How’s that been working out for you, SEIU?)

Orgs that focus on the political process drain all our energy. They are part of the problem. Any organization that is taking our money and giving it to political candidates needs to be a target. They are screwing us. The idea of marching on K street with a bunch of lobbyists (albeit more benign ones) makes my brain hurt.

Nonprofits shouldn’t get a pass either. We spend too much money on the political process as well. We can’t support candidates, but we spend a lot of time on policy. I should note here that, while the Oxfam International Secretariat is not unionized, Oxfam America is represented by…wait for it… SEIU.  (It may be very awkward in the office tomorrow.)

I’m not saying that nobody should ever lobby for anything. People have immediate and pressing needs. Sometimes a minor reform can actually help somebody without increasing the state’s power. Changing the crack to powder cocaine sentencing discrepancy does not challenge the racist prison industrial complex. Though I’m sure those people getting out of prison a bit early are glad someone did it.

But that is not radical change. And people need to recognize that being reformist and radical at the same time is damn near impossible.

The capital occupies this city. It is just too tempting for activists to focus on big, sexy targets like congress, especially in a town where so many people move here specifically to focus on national and international politics. Then we have the continuous stream of outside protesters that come in needing coordination, support, and places to stay.

It weakens us.

All the time that we spend on protesting the national government or supporting the constant stream of demonstrators to the capital is time we do not spend on local DC issues. We live in a city that has hideous statistics. Three out of four African American men in DC will spend time in prison. Our illiteracy rates are through the roof. Our AIDS rates are astronomical. Unemployment may be as high as 50% in some areas.

And by allowing ourselves to be sucked into the national political scene again and again we lose so many potential allies that would work with us if we were focusing on their daily struggles.

Another thing I noticed last night, and that I have noticed in lots of activisty spaces in DC, is the rather narrow age range present. I was probably one of the oldest farts there. We live in a city that is packed with people who have experience with everything from CORE to ActUp. Where are they at?

It seems to me that a lot of activists get burned out on the national protest scene. It is emotionally draining and shows very little results. A person can only do that for so long. Some of those people go off and work in small orgs focusing on local issues. Those people need our support and we need their experience.

I don’t know how we avoid getting caught in the national, international, labor, NGO, lobby black hole. I’m not sure if the reform v. radical or agitating v. organizing conflicts are resolvable – or even manageable. And I have no idea if we can actually get more people in on this conversation. But I don’t see where things are going if we don’t try.

Unions? NBA? Sigh.

July 01, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change, Work

I’m in the middle of writing a completely different post on media, which is taking me entirely too long and should have been up yesterday. But while on the gerbil machine at the gym, I caught Sports Center’s coverage of the NBA lockout.  Now I can’t get my head back into what I was writing. So I guess I’ll switch gears for a second.

In principle, I’m a fan of unions. In reality, they piss me off about 90% of the time. And while the sports strikes are the most extreme examples of some of the bullshit that makes me so grouchy, you see a lot of the same BS on a smaller scale in other places.

First of all, the ideal is for the workers (or in this case, the players) to be the owners. If any industry had workers with enough money to do it, it is the NBA. Am I right? And don’t tell me about needing stadiums and shit. How many of those stadiums were paid for with taxpayer dollars? They should belong to us. Then all you need is a damn ball.

Somehow the idea of worker ownership always seems to get lost in the shuffle. In fact, massive unions like SEIU operate in exactly the same unjust, hierarchical manner that they criticize in other orgs. They pile millions in worker money into their salaries and to support political candidates. And for what? Imagine if they used that money to support converting businesses into coops.

But let’s get back to the NBA. You want us to back you up? Where the hell were you when people making far less money needed support? Were you showing up on picket lines? If the NBA was filled with people like Etan Thomas, someone who actually risked having an opinion, your plea would be more convincing.

Now, I don’t know what the NBA contracts say. I do know that even the supposedly uber-lefty university that I went to (UC Santa Cruz) made their lecturers sign an agreement that disallowed any kind of sympathy strike. I know that federal regulations have made all the most useful actions illegal. I’m short on time, so I’m going to quote Wikipedia here.

The amendments enacted in Taft-Hartley added a list of prohibited actions, or “unfair labor practices“, on the part of unions to the NLRB, which had previously only prohibited “unfair labor practices” committed by employers. The Taft–Hartley Act prohibited jurisdictional strikes,wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketingclosed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. It also required union officers to sign non-communist affidavits with the government. Union shopswere heavily restricted, and states were allowed to pass “right-to-work laws” that outlawed union shops. Furthermore, the executive branch of the Federal government could obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if an impending or current strike “imperiled the national health or safety,” a test that has been interpreted broadly by the courts.

We were screwed. So legal options are limited. But there are plenty of players who don’t appear to have qualms about breaking other laws. More importantly, if you are calling for solidarity when you are on lockout, yet doing commercials for Nike (that bastion of worker rights) when everything is going well for you…Well then you can just fuck off.

And how about those people selling cokes and pretzels at your games. Are they unionized? Are you standing in front of their bosses trying to get them more than minimum wage? I’m gonna take a big leap and guess probably not.

When I was living in Santa Cruz, the bus drivers went on strike. They were on strike for months. While the relatively well-off bus drivers were negotiating, housekeepers who depended on the bus system to get them to town from Watsonville ended up losing their jobs. It didn’t exactly endear bus drivers to the community.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve heard about other bus strikes where the drivers kept driving, but refused to collect the fares. Now that is a strike that builds support. Instead the system is designed to create animosity between us. And we keep playing that stupid game.

Look at this gallop poll. People have less confidence in unions than they do in banks, newspapers, the (in)justice system, police…pretty much everybody. The only people less liked than unions are HMOs and congress. That’s pathetic.

And don’t give me a sob story about how unions have been attacked and the public is deceived. It is bullshit to blame low union opinion on the anti-union campaigns.  Unions are supposed to be the bulwark helping workers stand up to those pressures. If unions were not able to do that, they failed.

Unions have to take responsibility for that failure. They can’t just bitch and moan that they were unfairly characterized. If unions had managed to save jobs, help people get better wages, get them benefits, and just make their lives better – no amount of propaganda could have turned people against unions. Some unions may have managed to hang on to something. But overall, in the last thirty or forty years, unions failed.

If you want people to start trusting unions again, then I suggest we start being a little more critical about how unions act. Perhaps a good start would be to take up some of the suggestions in this piece about Building the Rank and File.

So, to get back to the NBA. If you want me to support your strike, you are going to have to show some love to the rest of us.

If you want to hock some company’s product for millions of dollars, then that product should be made by people who get a decent wage. If you want to keep playing for millions, then the people who clean the stadium and sell the hotdogs should be earning decent money.

If you want us to back you up, you need to start backing us up. And making a two minute “NBA Cares” video of you reading to children doesn’t count.


Things You May Have Missed

November 25, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

The situation in Mexico keeps degrading.  Predictably, increased police and military are being used against more than just drug cartels.  I mean they are so handy at getting rid of unions.  Also, they don’t actually have to worry about trials or anything, they can just shoot people and then kick back with a cold one.

Wiretap says that Latinos are Underrepresented in Nonprofits.  I can testify to that, having worked in Cali nonprofits for six years.  They say there is some better news when it comes to board representation, but I’m fairly sure those figures are misleading.  In Central California, the same handful of Latinos were on many, many boards.  In other words, they are counting the same few Latinos over and over.

Yvette brings up a good point about why women who are anti-porn don’t have equally scathing critiques about working at McDonalds.  Those women probably don’t buy porn, but they do buy cheap food from poor women (as I’ve written about before).

Janelle wrote a great article about sharing on Trust is the Only Currency.  It’s amazing how many ways there are to shift our lives in a more cooperative direction.

And, finally, this article over at the New York Review of Books talks about nonviolent revolutions since 1989.  It’s long, but there is a lot to debate about in the piece (especially for the revolutionarily inclined).

Sneaky Union Busting

September 07, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

In honor of labor day, I’d like to bring your attention to Senate bill 1184.  It is titled the Rewarding Achievement and Incentivizing Successful Employees Act and its purpose is

S. 1184
To amend the National Labor Relations Act to permit employers to pay higher wages to their employees.

That doesn’t sound so bad. I mean who is against higher wages? Ah, that’s where this gets interesting, because it is exactly the people who are against higher wages who support this bill. Huh?

The bill was introduced by Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana.  You’ll remember him as the guy who was caught up in the D.C. Madam scandal and reportedly has a diaper fetish (eeeeeewww).

Vitter doesn’t exactly have a stellar labor rights record (although he did support the recent minimum wage hike).  His answer to the auto crisis was, of course, we need to decrease wages.  So why would he be supporting a bill that aims to give workers more pay.  He’s not.  The bill’s aim is to crush the ability of unions to do collective bargaining.

Notwithstanding a labor organization’s exclusive representation of employees in a unit, or the terms and conditions of any collective bargaining contract or agreement then in effect, nothing in either–(A) section 8(a)(1) or 8(a)(5), or (B) a collective bargaining contract or agreement renewed or entered into after the date of enactment of the RAISE Act, shall prohibit an employer from paying an employee in the unit greater wages, pay, or other compensation for, or by reason of, his or her services as an employee of such employer, than provided for in such contract or agreement.”

Divide and conquer. The power of a union is that all employees are in the same boat. The aim of this bill is to make those employees competitors rather than collaborators. The aim is to break up the union. And since unionized workers, and workers in more unionized industries, get better pay and benefits, breaking up unions means lowering wages.

The Alliance for Worker Freedom is a big supporter of this bill.  They sound very pro-labor.  They even have this vaguely 1930s labor movement feel to their website.  Then you find out that they are against even a minimum wage and are run by Americans for Tax Reform. Americans for Tax Reform is headed by Grover Norquist, a virulently anti-tax, uber-right, Republican-connected activist.

The bill is supported by a list of other right wing, anti-tax, anti-people organizations and was co-sponsored by Republican Senators John Barrasso, Jim Bunning, Richard Burr, Jim DeMint, John Ensign, Michael Enzi, John Isakson, Pat Roberts, John Thune, and Roger Wicker.

Booooooo.  Boooooo for the kings of putrescence.