Category Archives: Leo Jennings

Politics is Personal: How Our Taxes Subsidize Walmart and Hurt Local Workers

We talk a lot about workers in this space— at the Center for Working-Class Studies and in our  Working-Class Perspectives blog—but for the most part we do it on the macro level: massive job losses precipitated by NAFTA and other foreign trade agreements; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; the Walmartization of  America; a stimulus package that pours too much money into the financial institutions that caused the economic meltdown and far too little into job producing infrastructure projects; weak unions; falling wages; vanishing pensions; disappearing health care; fading opportunity.

Sometimes, we’re too focused on the big picture to see how these macro issues affect people in our community.  We have a sense that government’s coddling of business is problematic, but do we really understand why?  We feel in our gut that a neutered union movement leaves working families vulnerable, but can we truly identify with the moms and dads who lie awake at 3:00 A.M. worried that their jobs may evaporate in a week, a month, a year?

Probably not, and that’s too bad, because if we can personalize the devastation caused when the economy stops working for the working class we may actually be able to solve some of the problems that are steadily eroding the American Dream.

For example, I firmly believe that health care reform would have been easier to achieve if, instead of talking about the 47 million people who don’t have health insurance, we gave the problem a face by talking about the 60 year-old woman living down the street who nearly died of colon cancer because she had no health insurance and could not afford to get the follow-up colonoscopies she needed after her first bout with the disease.

That woman, by the way, is my now 75 year-old mother.  She’s a walking, talking advertisement for reform: she had insurance when she first contracted cancer, had it cancelled shortly thereafter, was repeatedly denied coverage because of her pre-existing condition, could not afford the $3,000 per month premium for the only policy she could get, and finally made it to age 65—the point at which she qualified for the government-run health care system that has saved her life repeatedly: Medicare.

If we put my mother and the millions like her who live in every community in the nation out front in the health care debate, would Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck really be able to call reform advocates commies?  Would the health insurance industry have any credibility at all after callously attempting to kill my mother and thousands like her every year?  The answer to both questions is no.

It’s also way past time to personalize the discussion about the many ways in which working-class taxpayers are subsidizing gargantuan multi-national corporations like Walmart. We’re all familiar with the storyline: state and local governments roll out tax abatements and other incentives to attract the chain.  The Bentonville, Arkansas behemoth comes to town and builds a store that devastates the competition.  Shortly thereafter the store owners and employees who paid the taxes that funded the abatements are out on the street.  Meanwhile, many of the giant retailer’s employees are eligible for food stamps and qualify for Medicaid.  Walmart may save us money at the check-out, but we pay for it in taxes and lost jobs. Even though we all know the story, it is for some inexplicable reason, repeated year after year in community after community.  Why?  Perhaps because the government officials who work so hard to entice Walmart and the residents who breathlessly anticipate its arrival don’t know or have any connection to the people whose lives will be changed forever once the store opens its doors.

So let’s personalize the situation and talk about the new Walmart in Liberty Township, one small business owner who operates in its shadow, and the response of the union that represents his workers.

I’ve known Sandy Zander for a long time. He was my boss when I worked for the grocery chain he helped run. He was a fair-minded and able negotiator when we sat on opposite sides of the table during contract talks, and he’s been a successful small businessman since 1988 when he bought a few stores from the company that employed us until it went of business in the wake of a strike neither of us wanted but couldn’t avoid.  He’s genuinely a good guy.

Today, he and his family own two stores: a Giant Eagle in an upscale township east of Youngstown and Union Square Sparkle, one of the few full-service markets still operating in the distressed city.  Sandy’s stores are unionized, so his workers earn a decent wage and have health care and pension benefits.  For two decades he’s managed to survive despite the fact that he’s competing with non-union operators whose wage cost is much lower than his.

In Poland his main competitor is Henry Nemenz.  Henry’s been in the grocery business a long time.  He’s always been a non-union, low-wage, no benefits operator who profits by exploiting his employees.  His owns only a handful of stores, and the Zanders clean his clock every week.  When you drive by the two markets, which are located across the street from each other, you notice two things.  First, there are ten times more cars in the Giant Eagle lot and, second, the UFCW is conducting informational picketing at Nemenz.  The union is spending a lot of money to let people know that Henry’s non-union.  Good for them.

In Youngstown, Sandy’s main competitor is the new Walmart that Liberty Township officials begged for on bended knee.  When you drive by the two stores, which are located less than a half mile apart, you’ll notice two things: first, there are a lot of cars at Walmart and far fewer at Sandy’s than there used to be and, second, there is no UFCW picket line even though Walmart is every bit as bad an employer as Nemenz.

Picket line or no picket line, Sandy will continue to dominate the market in Poland.  But in Youngstown the prospects are not quite as bright.  If people continue to flock to Walmart, Sandy, his store, his workers, and the neighborhood he’s served for two decades could be in trouble.  His employees will lose their good jobs, their health care benefits, and their pensions.  Youngstown will lose the income taxes they pay, and 30 or 40 more city residents will be added to the unemployment rolls.  All because Liberty Township went out and bought themselves a Walmart.

Maybe, just maybe, if the UFCW decided to stand in front of the new store and make sure that people knew that every dollar they spent was putting a neighbor or friend in jeopardy they’d think twice about going in.  Maybe, just maybe, if the union decided to air some ads that highlighted the importance of good-paying retail jobs to the community customers would make different decisions about where they shop.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start fighting back — one township and one worker at a time.

Leo Jennings

Lessons from the Health Care Debate

Now that Senate Finance Committee Chair and Blue Dog Democrat Max Baucus has introduced his overdue and incredibly inadequate version of health care reform legislation, all eyes are on the Obama administration and House and Senate leaders as they stuff the provisions of five different bills and hundreds of amendments into the Congressional sausage-making machine and attempt to grind out a palatable reform package.

Away from the spotlight, however, strategists aligned with both political parties are already engaged in an exercise that is even more important than fixing the nation’s crippled health care delivery system.  Democrats are busily attempting to figure out what went wrong and how they can make sure they don’t screw up like this again, while Republicans want to figure out how to make sure that it happens again, and again, and again, until we end up back in power?

The answers have far deeper implications than the provisions of the health care bill that will eventually reach the president’s desk.  The side that finds the right answers will control the policy and electoral battlefield for years to come.

Among those offering answers are William Galston, Stan Greenberg, and Ruy Teixeira, the influential editors of the web-based journal The Democratic Strategist. In their most recent issue, they and writer James Vega assert that the Democrats’ difficulties were not caused by the administration’s flawed strategic and legislative decisions related to health care reform.  Instead, they place the blame on the Obama team’s failure to create and organize around a clearly defined core message within one month of taking office.

Their prescription for curing what ails the Party?  They suggest that the President clearly define himself and his agenda, that the Democrats establish a highly motivated corps of volunteers dedicated to spreading the word about the message, and that the Party develop local activities, including selling or distributing coffee mugs, tire gauges, and soap emblazoned with the words “Yes we can,” that will eventually involve into “enduring” institutions.

My reaction: wrong diagnosis, wrong cure.  And that’s dangerous because Galston, Greenberg, and Teixeira are so influential that some Democratic leaders may actually attempt to implement their misguided strategy instead of focusing on fixing what’s really gone wrong—and what most threatens the Democratic grasp on the reins of power.

Let’s start with their contention that the president’s failure to define his overall message, rather than his flawed health care strategy, is to blame for the current debacle.  This ignores the fact that the American people were extremely familiar with and supportive of Mr. Obama’s overall philosophy and agenda immediately before and after he took office.  They knew health care reform was his signature initiative, they overwhelmingly agreed that the system needed to be fixed, and in poll after poll, including one recently conducted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, they name him as the person they trusted most to get the job done.

It wasn’t necessary to lay out the big picture—everyone got it, including the suddenly cooperative health care stakeholders and dispirited conservatives: reform was inevitable.  Not even Rush Limbaugh, who assumed virtual leadership of the GOP after the 2008 election, or the incredibly bizarre Glenn Beck could stop it.

Then the President made a strategic blunder. He turned responsibility for crafting the final plan over to Congressional Democrats.  The minute he did so the public’s confidence in and support for reform began to erode, especially among critically important independent voters.

That created the opportunity for conservatives to gain control of the debate.  As five separate Congressional committees dithered for months, anti-reform activists began spreading lies about the various proposals.  Suddenly we heard about government-run death panels that would cavalierly kill grandma, dangerous cuts in Medicare, and Canadian-style socialized medicine that would leave Americans dying in the streets as they waited for heart operations and chemotherapy.

As the falsehoods gained traction in the media, reform advocates grew increasingly frustrated.  Not because no Democratic activists were prepared to enter the fray.  To the contrary, the nearly ten million members of Organizing for America were eager to become involved.  But without a concrete reform plan to counter the lies being spread by Limbaugh, Beck, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannitty, and Sarah Palin, they found it hard to fight.  You can’t beat something—even a compendium of BS—with nothing.

And that’s all the Democrats had until the president addressed a joint session of Congress on September 9.  Reclaiming ownership of the issue, he used his impressive rhetorical skills to inspire supporters, engender trust among skeptics, and shame the liars.  We won’t know for months whether he acted in time.  But at least reform, which had entered a permanent vegetative state during August, is now showing spasmodic signs of life.

No matter the outcome, Democrats must learn some important lessons from the current battle.  The first is that Barack Obama was elected to lead and despite his apparent compulsion to seek consensus, he must do exactly that when the stakes are high.  Damn the Republicans and the Blue Dogs.  Take charge. Get the job done.

A number of difficult issues remain on the table, including reshaping the American economy, re-regulating Wall Street, and restoring workers’ rights.  The outcome of those battles is entirely dependent on whether the president will use his personal political capital to fight for what’s right.  If he does, progressives will win.  If not, they will almost certainly lose.

The second lesson is not to re-invent the organizational wheel.  Democrats weren’t out-organized on health care.  They were out-communicated.  The millions of Organize for America activists who check their e-mail everyday hoping to be called to action would have totally overwhelmed the conservative wing-nuts if only they’d been given the message they needed to do so.

Finally, Democrats don’t need to waste time, effort, money, and energy building a new organization or printing up a bunch of doo-dads emblazoned with “Yes, we can.”  Organize for America has already demonstrated that.  And they’re out there waiting for the opportunity to show that they can do it again.

Leo Jennings

Obama’s DeLorean?

I know I’ve used the déjà vu/time machine analogy before,  but if Michael J. Fox can make three Back to the Future movies, then I can make a sequel, too.  Every time I read about how the Democrats first pandered to and are now ignoring the needs of the working class, I feel like I just landed back in 1993 after taking a wild ride in Doc Brown’s beat up DeLorean.

Back then, the Clinton administration lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and screwed a whole bunch of Mahoning Valley residents who worked for Packard Electric. Clinton’s approval numbers tanked, and Republicans, once thought to be an endangered species, regained power.

Sound eerily familiar?  Today, the Obama administration has lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and apparently screwed a whole bunch of Valley residents who used to work for Packard Electric.  The president’s once-phenomenal approval ratings are tanking, and Republicans, pronounced dead less than eight months ago, have risen Lazarus-like from their crypt.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on just to make sure we aren’t really caught in a time warp.  On health care, Mr. Obama is being beaten into the ground by the same right-wing liars who crushed reform in ‘93: Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, the insurance industry, and the AMA.

These guys, along with some new crazies, are recycling the lies they told 16 years ago.  They say we’re headed toward the kind of socialized medicine that (they claim) doesn’t work in Canada, that bureaucrats will interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, that care will be rationed, and that a government worker sitting in a cubicle will decide whether your elderly mother lives or dies.

The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter any more today than it did in the Clinton era.  Like then, the liars are using paid advertising and talk radio to propagate their fables.  And, like then, people are listening.

The President has responded by conducting town hall meetings where he spends most of his time refuting tall tales.  But that won’t get the job done.  It’s time for the president and the Democratic Party to spend some of the millions in their campaign accounts to mount a counterattack.

The TV and radio ads will be easy to make—just tell people the truth.  Tell them your plan won’t require them to abandon their coverage or their doctor, that bureaucrats working for the profit-hungry insurance industry are already making decisions about their health care, that care’s already rationed, especially if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who are under or uninsured, and  that we already have socialized medicine.  It’s called Medicare, and it’s kept untold millions of elderly mothers alive since 1965.

Tell the American people all that and do it right now, before members of Congress head home and are verbally assaulted by constituents who haven’t heard the truth.  If you don’t, the reps and senators will return to Washington scared sh—well, we all know how scared they’ll be—and health care reform will be dead.

Now let’s talk about unions.  In another Back to the Future moment, Mr. Obama, like Clinton in ’93, recently abandoned his promise to fight for the enactment of organized labor’s number one priority.  Sixteen years ago the issue was scabs.  During his campaign Clinton had promised to do everything possible to ban the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes.  He didn’t.

In 2008, labor’s priority was passage of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act (EFCA) a rewrite of the National Labor Relations Act that would, among other provisions, make card check recognition the law of the land.  This would prevent employers from engaging in the coercion and intimidation that have crippled countless organizing drives over the past two decades.  Obama repeatedly promised to do whatever was necessary to get it done:

We need to stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Congress and in the White House to block card check. That’s why I was one of the leaders fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That’s why I’m fighting for it in the Senate. And that’s why we’ll make it the law of the land when I’m President.

But they haven’t.  In yet another Democratic betrayal of the working class, the card check provision was stripped from the EFCA before it came to a vote in either house.  The president expended zero political capital on the issue.

Which brings us to Delphi-Packard.  At one time approximately 14,000 people worked in the company’s plants in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.  Then Clinton won the NAFTA battle and thousands of Valley residents saw their good-paying jobs head to Mexico.  Thousands of employees agreed to retire early in exchange for enhanced pensions and guaranteed health care benefits.

Guess what happened next.  First, Delphi-Packard went bankrupt.  Then salaried retirees lost their health care.  Then the company dumped its pension obligations on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  As a result salaried employees will lose the enhanced benefits they were promised, as will thousands of retired hourly employees who had the misfortune of belonging to the IUE, including  most of the company’s workers in the Mahoning Valley.  They will also lose health care benefits.

Ironically, one group of hourly retirees will not face similar cuts: those from the UAW.  In a move designed to facilitate GM’s emergence from bankruptcy by gaining the union’s support for a concession package, Packard workers who were UAW members of  won’t lose a penny of their pensions or their health care benefits.  The IUE asked Mr. Obama’s auto task force to order GM to provide its members with the same supplemental pension and benefit package given to the UAW.  That request was summarily rejected.

It should come as little or no surprise then, that when retirees gathered to protest their fate, many carried signs castigating Obama and told reporters that they would do everything they could to deny him a second term.  Of course, these same workers had made a similar threat about Clinton in ’93.  Maybe Rahm Emanuel and the crew in the West Wing are confident history will repeat itself?  After all, they know that Democratic leaders keep getting away with disrespecting working families and their unions.  And maybe that’s why they were so willing to pit one union against another in order to protect GM?.

By the way, Mr. Obama’s approval numbers: 64% in February, 54% in July.  Was that whoosh I just heard the sound of the air rushing out of his presidency or the whirr of an old DeLorean flying by?

Leo Jennings

Deja Vu All Over Again

In mid-October of 1992 I was working as the Director of Communications and Public Policy for Local 880 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  It was an exciting time.  A young, virtually unknown governor named Bill Clinton had used charisma, big ideas, and a sweeping vision of hope and change to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.  Now, with three weeks until the general election, he was poised to win the presidency and end the Reagan-Bush regime.

One evening following a meeting to discuss the get-out-the-vote plan that would enable Clinton to win Ohio and the presidency, a couple of union organizers and I were standing at the bar of the now-demolished Boatyard Restaurant on the north side of Youngstown.  Our mood was celebratory.  Great things were about to happen.  The world was about to change.

Suddenly, an extremely well dressed stranger made his way toward us through the crowd.  His look was intense.  He was pointing at my chest.  I was apprehensive.  He could have been the owner of a non-union grocery store, and many of them were fuming about the “Hold the Line” informational picketing program I had helped the UFCW develop.  He stopped inches from my face.

“I want that,” he said pointing at my Clinton-Gore button. “Can I have it?”

“You want this?  But you’re a Republican, aren’t you, I mean you look like one,” I said.

“Absolutely, lifelong.  But I have a Chamber of Commerce meeting tomorrow and I want to walk in wearing a Clinton button.  I’m a small businessman who is voting for Clinton because he’s going to fix the health care mess and that will save my company,” he said.  “And I want everyone at the Chamber meeting to know it.”

I gave him the button.  He beamed.  “This is an exciting time,” he said, shaking my hand. “We’re going to solve a real problem and make this a better country.  For the first time in my life I can’t wait to vote.”

I knew then that Bill Clinton would win the election based in large part on his promise to reform America’s deeply flawed health care delivery system.  A system bedeviled by exploding costs that threatened the viability of corporations like Chrysler and GM and that left 41 million people uninsured.

This encounter verified what the polls were saying: that health care reform was the third most important issue among likely voters and that, according to a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, Clinton held a 55% to 27% lead on the issue, a margin that would grow to 42% by election day, even though his reform plan was a sparse outline at best.  People simply believed he would get the job done.

So did those of us in the labor movement.  The health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, even Richard Nixon was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Clinton was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Now, flash forward to 2008.  Every Democratic candidate for the White House, including one named Clinton, vows to remedy the ills that afflict America’s health care system: exploding costs that will soon contribute to the  bankruptcy of  major corporations like Chrysler and GM and  a cadre of 51 million people who have no access to care.

It becomes the third most significant issue to voters, trailing closely behind concerns about the economy and the nation’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq.  The Party’s nominee, a young, charismatic, big thinking but virtually unknown senator from Illinois campaigns aggressively and effectively on the issue, although his reform plan is a sparse outline at best.

As in 1992, that minor shortcoming doesn’t seem to matter.  Voters simply believed he would get the job done.  So they made him president, and the health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Richard Nixon, and yes, Bill Clinton was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Obama was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Which brings us to where we stand today: once again on the precipice of disappointment.

That is because despite the President’s commitment to reform, including the development of the government-backed health care insurance option that is essential to holding down costs and providing universal access, we’ve already lost the first skirmish in the battle.  And that means we may not even have the war.

The skirmish broke out when the Congressional Budget Office released cost estimates for establishing the public plan and extending coverage to some, but not all Americans who don’t have it now.  The trillion dollar price tag choked pro-reform advocates in Congress and the White House and emboldened the coalition of opponents that has killed every attempt to regenerate our health care system over the last eight decades.

By week’s end Congressional Democrats were already in reverse, concerned, pundits said, that the president was “overreaching.” Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and the other intellectual Lilliputians who are the voice of the GOP were rejoicing, and the folks at the AMA, Pharma, and America’s Health Insurance Plans were smugly smiling—they’d seen this movie before and they really liked the ending.

Whether they will still be grinning a few months from now largely depends on whether those of us who supported Obama in 2008 are willing to jump into the fray in 2009 and help him write a new ending to the health care reform saga.  If we engage, educate, organize, and fight we may be able to win.  If we do not, well, sometime in the next 20 years, a story will be written about yet another charismatic candidate who won the presidency by promising to fix America’s broken health care system.

Leo Jennings

Who Really Runs the Place

Memories may be fading, but I’m sure most of you have some vague recollection of last year’s presidential election.

Come on, you remember.  Lots of bad TV commercials.  Debates that weren’t.  New and vibrant versus old and tired.  America turned blue.  The first African-American president.  Attractive wife.  Cute kids. Election night speech in front of Greek columns.  Hope.  The “dream” come true.

Hell, there was even a parade in January.

Yeah, that election.

I’m willing to wager that like me, most of you voted for Barack Obama.  We did so because we craved change; a shift of power from the war mongering, detainee torturing, job exporting, business-butt-kissing Republicans to a champion of the working class.

I’ll also wager you thought that’s what we got when Barack Obama raised his right hand and took the oath of office.  That’s why we shared a sense of excitement and exhilaration.  Things would be different now that Washington was controlled by a young, strong progressive president with a mandate in his pocket and a Democratic Congress at his beck and call.

Health care reform.  A solution to the foreclosure crisis.  Assualt weapons banned.  Cheaper student loans.  It was all coming and coming rapidly.

Uh, not so fast.

As recent events—or lack thereof—have demonstrated, you can elect all the new presidents you want, but that doesn’t mean things are going to change.  Because, it seems the people — that’s you and me — don’t run Washington. All those government buildings?  Not ours.  The millions of federal employees whose salaries we pay?  They don’t work for us.

How do I know?  Dick Durbin said so yesterday on the floor of the Senate.  Venting his frustration when 11 Democrats joined Republicans to kill legislation giving federal bankruptcy judges the power to renegotiate the terms of predatory mortgages and thus help middle-class families keep their homes, the Illinois senator did something strange and wondrous: he told the unvarnished truth:

“And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

They own it.  They do.  Need more proof?  OK, let’s talk about Sallie Mae, the quasi-federal agency that guarantees student loans made by private banks.  That Obama guy, the one we elected, he wants to do away with Sallie Mae because doing so will free up $94 billion that can then be given directly to students in the form of Pell Grants.

Great idea.  Who could possibly oppose it?  One guess.  Did you say banks?  You win.  And who did the banks hire to lobby on their behalf?  Tony Podesta, a major Democratic fundraiser whose brother John served as Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff and head of the Obama transition team.

According the New York Times, Mr. Podesta already has plenty of Democratic allies in Congress, including legislators who represent districts where Sallie Mae has offices.  As a result a simple, smart idea — giving student loan money directly to needy students instead of filtering it through banks that make billions for pushing paper around — may be dead.

It turns out, however, that the banks aren’t the sole owners of the house of government.  I guess it’s kind of a time share thing.  One of the co-owners, and I’m sure this won’t come as a huge shock, is the health insurance industry.  Access to high quality, affordable health care was one of the primary issues in last year’s campaign.  John McCain had a goofy scheme that would have taxed employee benefits and protected the huge profits of insurers.  Barack Obama didn’t really have a plan, but we trusted that when push came to shove he’d back real reform that would hold down costs and provide coverage for the more than 45 million Americans who don’t have it.

One way to do that, and one concept he did embrace, was the formation of a government operated health care plan that would compete with the for-profit insurance industry.  While not quite the single payer system progressives yearn for, it was a start.

So, when the president convened a health care summit to tackle the issue who dominated the conversation?  Karen Ignani, the front person for the AFL-CIO during the 1993 health care reform effort—until she turned traitor and went to work for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group that represents the nation’s for profit health insurance companies.

It appears that AHIP isn’t thrilled about the prospect of competing with the government.  Not good for insurers’ bottom lines, you see.  So they proposed other ways of reducing costs that experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, have repeatedly said won’t work.  That doesn’t matter to Ms. Ignani and the companies she shills for.  They, and other groups that sell insurance including AARP, aren’t interested in reform, they’re only interested in running out the clock, just as they did in 1993.

Did our champion, our working-class hero, stand up, smite Ms. Ignani, and tell her that universal coverage, not preserving insurance industry profits, was the goal of his administration?  Well, no.  And he wouldn’t let anyone else do it, either.  Congressman John Conyers and Dr. Oliver Fein, two long-time advocates of the single payer solution who were reluctantly admitted to the meeting after first being denied invitations, were expressly forbidden to speak.

The President has been similarly unwilling to tangle with another group of longtime Washington squires: the NRA.  Despite the fact that once-banned assault weapons were recently used to kill four cops in San Francisco, three in Pittsburgh, and are the weapons of choice of both domestic psychopaths and Mexican drug lords, the administration has signaled that it’s not willing to throw its weight behind an effort to once again prohibit guns that have only one purpose: killing human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While some progressives are growing restive with Mr. Obama’s timidity, I’m willing to give him a break.  After all, he just moved in and wants to show he’ll be a good tenant.  And he’s busy doing other things, like fixing the economy by doling out hundreds of billions to the bankers who screwed it up in the first place.  But sooner or later he’s going to realize that while bankers, insurers, big oil, gun nuts, and the pharmaceutical industry may own the building, working families issued his four year lease.  If he wants an extension in 2012 he’ll need to invite us over for a chat—no matter how uncomfortable it makes the landlords.

Leo Jennings

The “Bigs” vs. the Working Class

It’s no surprise that we spend a lot of time on this site discussing the working class. After all, it is named Working Class Perspectives.

We’re not alone.  Over the eighteen month run up to the general election pundits, professors, poets, and political hacks were consumed with thoughts about the tens of millions of people who, by one definition or another, qualify as working class.

It now appears, however, that far too much time has been devoted to the working class-especially by President Obama.  At least that’s the opinion of Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman, who writes in the March 10 edition of Newsweek that the country’s “Establishment” comprised of Beltway insiders, the chattering class including the Manhattan-based media, and Wall Street are  “taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking.”

According to Mr. Fineman, although the President still has the approval of the people [his approval rating has averaged between 65 and 60.8 percent since the inauguration], the Establishment is beginning to mumble that the president may not have what it takes.  He provides a litany of issues that are making the “Bigs,” as he calls them, restive:

  • The failure to call for genuine sacrifice on the part of all Americans, despite the rhetorical claim that everyone would have to “give up” something.
  • A 2010 budget that tries to do far too much, with way too rosy predictions on future revenues and growth of the economy.
  • Obama is no socialist, but critics argue that now is not the time for costly, upfront spending on social engineering in health care, energy or education.

He then concludes “Other than all that, in the eyes of the big shots, he is doing fine. The American people remain on his side, but he has to be careful that the gathering judgment of the Bigs doesn’t trickle down to the rest of us.”

Mr. Fineman is dead wrong.  The fact is, the “Bigs” are the last people Mr. Obama has to worry about for a number of reasons.  First, because they didn’t vote for him.  Second, because they never will.  And third, because his presidency will be doomed if he focuses on mollifying the elites rather than on meeting the needs of the millions of working families those very elites have dragged to the edge of the economic abyss.

It’s apparent that Mr. Obama grasps this point.  He clearly understands that after being ignored by pundits and politicians and suffering abuse at the hands of Wall Street for the last two decades, the working class has more than earned the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame that’s come their way.  After years of wage stagnation, job loss, and the resultant evaporation of the American Dream, the nation’s working families not only need, they undeniably deserve the government’s full attention.

That’s exactly what they’ve been getting from the new chief executive.  Nearly every domestic policy or program emanating from the White House is discussed in the context of its probable effect on workers and the middle class.   And while economists like Paul Krugman and others have raised legitimate questions about how effective the administration’s approach to the crisis may ultimately be, no one has questioned the new president’s concern for or commitment to the millions of men and women who placed their trust in him on November 4.

That commitment is obviously at the heart of the Mr. Obama’s adherence to the bold agenda he has established for his presidency, despite warnings from the all-knowing Establishment that his plans are overly ambitious given the state of the economy.  Far from retracting or retrenching, he continues to move forward with plans to provide tax cuts for the working class, reform health care, increase access to education, and invest in a real energy policy that will create jobs and reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

Just as importantly, he appears to be unmoved by warnings from the “Bigs” that allowing the Bush tax cuts to sunset in order generate the revenue to pay for his programs will stifle growth and job creation.  He recognizes that working families, beset by falling wages and deteriorating home values have sacrificed enough and that efforts to revive the economy will only succeed if sufficient stimulus is directed toward those who need it most.

Contrary to Mr. Fineman’s contention, what Mr. Obama should fear most about the Establishment in not that their discontent will trickle down to the “little people” who live outside the Beltway and Manhattan, but that the “Bigs” will succeed in derailing his effort to remake and reorder America and in so doing cause him to break faith with the people who elected him.  It is then, and only then that his presidency, his legacy, and our country will be in jeopardy.

Leo Jennings

A Lesson in Politics and Power

Unless you’ve been too busy looking for a job to notice, things are kind of upside down in Washington. President Obama and the Senate Democrats, who kicked the GOP’s posterior last November are skulking around like losers, cutting billions from an already inadequate stimulus package in the hope of securing Republican votes they don’t need.

The Republicans, who should be wearing sack cloth and ashes, have, under the guidance of the party’s de-facto leader, the great prevaricator Rush Limbaugh, seized control of the stimulus agenda and are eroding the public’s support for the president they loved just moments ago.

In order to restore the balance of the universe, I’d like to get everyone together in a huge classroom-the President, Democrats, Republicans, the media, and the public-and give them a reality check in the form of a vocabulary lesson.

Here’s how it might go:

Good morning, class. May I have your attention please?


Claaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!  Tom Daschle and all you autoworkers, please stop scanning the help wanted section for a moment and pay attention..

Thank you.

We are going to begin with a vocabulary lesson.  While these words are not directly related to economics, they are definitely related to the fate of President Obama’s economic stimulus package, so we must become familiar with their true meaning.

The first word is “bipartisan.”  Repeat after me: “bipartisan.”  It means “Of, consisting of, or supported by members of two parties, especially two major political parties.”

Now I will use the word in a sentence.  “President Obama was foolish enough to believe that the Republicans would put the future of the country first and engage in truly bipartisan talks to develop a stimulus package that would help the working class.”

Our next word is “consensus.”  Repeat after me: “consensus.”  It means “general agreement or concord; harmony.”

Here’s a sentence using the word consensus: “It is impossible to reach consensus with a group of disgruntled ideologues who, in their heart of hearts, want you to fall flat on your liberal-commie face.”

Our next word is “mandate.”  Say it with me, “mandate.”  No, little Sean Hannity, it does not mean a bunch of guys going to Hooters to watch extreme fighting and pound down shooters and beers.  And please, when I want to hear from you I’ll call on you.

Now, let’s get back on task.  Mandate means “a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative.”

Here it is in a sentence: “Americans, including the millions of working-class voters who put their faith and trust in him, did not give Barrack Obama a mandate so he could roll over for a bunch of moronic Republicans.  They gave him a mandate so he could roll over them and their failed policies.”

Our last word is “leadership.”  Repeat it, “leadership” — “the quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.”

I’ve come up with this sentence using the word leadership: “If President Obama had demonstrated the lack of leadership that’s been on display since he took office when he was candidate Obama, we’d all be talking about President Hillary Clinton’s stimulus plan.”

That’s it, but there will  be a quiz in 2010 and a final exam in 2012.

Like many others in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I take no pleasure in acknowledging that the President and his team are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people when it comes to revitalizing the economy.  Especially since they’re losing it to a corps of cynics led by Limbaugh who, when asked by Hannity if he wanted Obama to succeed said:

“No! I want him to fail.” If his agenda is a far-left collectivism — some people say socialism — as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?

And yet, knowing that the people with whom he is negotiating want him to go down in flames, the President and his allies are still chopping billions from a stimulus package that economic experts including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman say is already too small to accomplish the goal of creating good-paying jobs for millions of working-class Americans.

Why?  Because the President and Democratic leaders have decided that it’s more important to get Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to vote for a watered down package then it is to battle the GOP, exercise the mandate they’ve been given, and pass a package that will spur a recovery.

What should the President do?  As Krugman and others suggest, he should beef up infrastructure spending by about $200 billion, initiate health care reform, tell Americans why his plan is in their best interest, and, like the voters, tell the Republicans to go to hell.

Better yet, he should grab one of the 100 cigarettes John Boehner smokes every day out of his mouth and grind it out on his forehead. Then he should walk over to the Senate and poke career obstructionist Mitch McConnell in the eyes-the way Moe from the Three Stooges used to do when he was mad at Curly.

Then he should pass the stimulus package we need and have the courage to say: “I’ve just done the right thing and I am willing to be judged for it.”

He must do this now because, as Ron Todd, the late leader of the British equivalent of the UAW once said, “You don’t have power if you surrender all your principles-you have office.”  After eight years of abuse and neglect at the hands of a president who couldn’t spell “principle” the last thing we need at this difficult time in our history is a man who can do little more than sit in the Oval Office.  Clearly this is not the time for our President to run up the white flag.  It is time for him to fight.

Leo Jennings

Bail Out the Working Class

I don’t mean to be snide-okay, I do mean to be snide-but does anyone else share my concern that the leaders of the Big Three Automakers have yet to figure out how best to travel to Washington D.C. in early December to fall on their knees and offer Congress a plan for the survival of the domestic auto industry in exchange for the $25 billion the companies need to keep the lights on.

While the three CEOs and their PR staffs have, apparently, grasped the incongruity and just plain stupidity of flying to Washington to beg for money in private jets that cost millions to buy and tens of thousands to operate, they haven’t yet embraced the idea of traveling to the nation’s capital via a convoy of their best vehicles, accompanied by the workers who built them, as suggested by an unnamed PR flack quoted on NPR last week.

That’s a no-brainer that any first year marketing or communications student would understand.  Here’s how it should work: the CEO’s, UAW officials, and UAW rank and filers and their families jump in a couple hundred of  Detroit’s most appealing SUVs, hybrids, sub-compacts, minivans, and crossovers,  and drive cross country to D.C.  Along the way they stop their mobile auto show in every possible media market, show off the vehicles at press conferences, grab a box of McNuggets and some fries at Micky Ds, and get back on the road.

The exercise would provide endless hours of press coverage, free advertising for their products, and may even convince a skeptical public that the Big Three might actually be able to do something constructive with the funds they’re requesting.

Better yet,  the CEOs should adopt the idea floated facetiously on last week’s Saturday Night Live: they should make the trip in a Ford Fiesta, just to show that they know what one looks like and that the car can make the trip.

Such a caravan would also do one more thing: it would put a very human face on the all-but forgotten element of the tottering industry: the working-class families who have dedicated their lives to producing American cars-and whose lives depend on the viability of the now not so big Three.

Unfortunately, until now workers have been discussed only in the abstract, only as a number: 3,000,000 jobs that would be lost if the industry goes toes up.  The time has come, indeed the time has passed, for the CEOs and the UAW to feature the real people whose real lives will be destroyed if Congress doesn’t act.

With all due respect to Ron Gettlefinger, as long as he is the person being interrogated by skeptics, , the conversation about the proposed bailout will continue to focus on minutiae like the job bank, vacation time, and the cost of health care benefits and pensions.  To effectively counter the attacks launched by critics such as Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who clearly relishes serving in the role as Lord High Executioner of the Big Three and those commies at the UAW,  who vociferously contend that bankruptcy is the only option, Congress and the American public need to see and hear from the members of the working class who will lose their homes and their hard won share of the American Dream if the Big Three are not resurrected.

Moving away from the abstract will also focus attention on one other issue that is too often ignored during discussions of  the auto bailout, the financial sector bailout, or the possible provisions of  an Obama-conceived stimulus package: the need to revive hope and opportunity amid the working class by creating millions of good jobs to replace the ones the Big Three and other industries stupidly erased over the past three decades as they cavalierly went about firing millions of their best and most reliable customers.

For if there is anything more scary or confidence eroding than the automakers’ inability to understand how to get to Washington on December 8, it is their apparent bewilderment at how their industry and the American economy as a whole got to this point in the first place.

If they truly do not grasp the fact that purposely eroding the standard of living of millions of working-class families would eventually stagnate the nation’s economy, it won’t matter how the CEOs get to Washington because no amount of money, be it 25 cents, 25 billion, or 25 trillion, will save them.

On the other hand, if the Big Three, Congress, and the Obama administration recognize that the only way to stimulate the economy now and for decades to come is to reinvigorate the working class by investing hundreds of billions of dollars in domestic job creation programs, education, and health care, then the ride to D.C. in the Fiesta might just be worth the CEOs’ and all Americans’ time and effort.

Here’s hoping they enjoy the ride.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters

From the 19th Hole: What Obama’s Election Means

I played golf Tuesday, as I do every Election Day.  The hours on the course help consume the time between the opening and closing of the polls-hours when political consultants can’t do much except wait and worry.  Yes, it’s true, we worry constantly, but until “E” Day we delude ourselves into thinking we can do something about whatever the hell the crisis of the minute happens to be.

So I golf because swinging and swearing makes the time move faster and it’s almost as aggravating as running a campaign.

After the round my golf buddies and I retired to a local bar to lie about our rounds and watch the early election returns. I alone was elated as it became apparent that Barack Obama was about to score an overwhelming victory. My joy was counterbalanced by the long faces of my playing partners, all middle aged, middle class, white businessmen whose race-based revulsion for Obama is, supposedly, more typical of the white working class.

As the results poured in they contemplated moving to Canada, Costa Rica, or Greenland in order to avoid the catastrophe that would accompany the election of the first:

(A) Muslim President

(B)  Domestic terrorist President

(C)  Alien-as in not an American citizen–President

(D) Communist President

(E)  “Colored” President

(F)   Black Panther President, or

(G) All of the Above and worse

Their reaction was not surprising. They had repeatedly expressed these and similarly outrageous thoughts over the past two months as Obama’s election assumed an air of inevitability.

My buddies wondered, how could Americans be so dumb, so gullible?  Didn’t they listen to Rush, Hannity, or Savage, read the Drudge Report, or watch Fox News?  Obama had done so many horrible things and yet he was going to be the president.

It wasn’t right.  It couldn’t be.

Except it was unfolding before their eyes on one of the six huge TV screens that hung over the bar.  Right there, sandwiched between a rerun of the Texas/Texas Tech game and an inane show on the Golf Channel, their America was slipping away-drowned by the blue wave washing over state after state, including Ohio.

Gone because we’d made a “colored guy” president.

And then I offered them some hope-words of consolation that helped them stop crying into their Blue Moons.

I told them that Obama’s victory, a true watershed moment in our nation’s history, the culmination of a struggle that began with slavery, ran through the Constitution’s declaring that slaves were three-fifths of a human being, through the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, to the Reflecting Pool where Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream, to the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts, was, ultimately, as much a dream come true for racists like them as it was for slimy liberals like me.

“How could that be?” they asked, ignoring the fact that I had called them racists because they are and they don’t care.

Simple, I answered.  From now on whenever someone like me has the nerve to say that discrimination or racism or lack of equal opportunity still exists, you can say “That’s bullshit.  A colored guy’s president, which means if you get off your lazy ass, go to school, stop taking drugs, and quit having illegitimate kids for the welfare money, you can do anything.”

And therein lies one of the serious dilemmas created by Obama’s victory.  He’s proven that the American Dream can indeed become a reality-that anyone, anyone, can be elected President. But in so doing he’s forever changed the dialogue about race and opportunity in our country.

On one hand, those of us who view Obama’s victory as validation of government programs and policies that provide, protect, and enhance equality of opportunity for all will argue that we should do more.

Those who have always opposed such programs will, on the other hand, almost certainly argue that his victory means we no longer need to do anything at all.  They will say that equality is obviously a fait accompli.  Need more money for urban schools?  Ridiculous, a black guy’s president.  Need more protection against discrimination in the workplace?  Forget about it, a black guy’s president.  Need to invest more in our inner cities to create economic opportunity?  Forget about it, a black guy’s president.  Which, in their minds will be concrete evidence that we’ve actually done way too much-after all, a black guy’s president.

And that means that those of us who recognize Obama’s election for what it really is — merely the end of the beginning of the struggle for equality and opportunity — must not become complacent.

In order to prevail in this struggle we must use his victory as an example of what can happen when a man or a woman regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or class has the opportunity to succeed.   We must use it to frame the impending policy debates on issues like education, health care, workers’ rights, taxes, immigration, and regulation.  We must assert that by creating more opportunity for all we will create more Obamas in the years ahead.

And that is, after all, our ultimate goal: creating a nation in which electing an African-American, woman, Latino, or disabled person president is no big deal to anyone at all.  If we can use Barack Obama’s election to achieve that goal, his victory will truly be a triumph for the entire nation and not just for one man.

Leo Jennings, guest blogger

Jennings is a political consultant who has working with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters