IN MEMORIAM: MARGO HALL-O’KANE

By Patty Friend

Margo Hall-O’Kane, beloved wife, daughter, sister, cousin and friend passed away on May 3, 2021. She died peacefully, in her sleep. The profound nature of her loss – to her family, friends and community to which she gave her heart, soul and amazing energy – is indescribable.

Margo was a member of SDUSA back in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. She worked then for the AFL-CIO’s Department of Organizing, and before that for the Seafarers International Union (SIU) – her father’s and brother’s union. During all of that time, over the course of 30 years, she worked on union and other political organizing campaigns, from Maine to Texas, Detroit, NYC and more. She was also a labor lobbyist,  mentored many younger women in the movement, and trained a whole generation of organizers.

She was one of the great organizers. Not only was she a hard worker, skilled professional and loyal, generous spirit, she was a natural-born leader. Her energy and warmth lit up the room, along with her contagious laugh. She had a mind like a steel trap. We met in 1986 when I worked for the NYC Central Labor Council and she was with the SIU.

With all her virtues, she had a wicked temper. You did not want to be on the wrong side of her anger, where she would ‘lay you out in lavender’ as she would say. But she rarely carried a grudged or stayed angry for long. She was demanding of those she loved and motivated them to do their best. People of all ages were crazy about her, At her funeral were senior citizens, teenagers and everybody in between. One of her youngest friends, a 9-year-old boy, said, “I really loved her…my life will never be the same.”

Margo and her brother Max grew up in a Labor home. Her father was Paul Hull, the President and amazing leader of the SIU, and their mother, Rose, was an organizer in her own right. The entire family gave their hearts and souls to the American Labor Movement and the Democratic Party. Many of our older members will remember hearing about or even attending Frontlash training conferences at Piney Point, the SIU’s training institute, and have fond memories spending time with Paul Hull. In 1996, she married Raymond O’Kane, a dedicated trade unionist who worked as the Human Resources Director of the Consortium for Worker Education in NYC, where he made an invaluable contribution to staff and workers throughout New York.

After she retired from the AFL-CIO, she became a full-time resident at Smallwood, a lovely hamlet in the Catskills. As a community activist there, she devoted her time to helping battered women and abused and homeless animals. In addition ,she helped raise funds to the local fire department. As one woman from Smallwood said to me, “Smallwood has suffered a deep loss.”

Margo lived with an enormous amount of pain all over her body, and apart from her doctors, no one knew how debilitating and destructive her chronic pain was. She didn’t want to be a ‘complainer’ or let the pain defeat her. Eventually, something did defeat her: cancer. It started as a ‘freckle’ in her left eye, which traveled to her liver and lungs, and then everywhere else. Fortunately, in the end she had hospice care at home. Raymond, helped by her medical professionals and great friend Stephanie Donahue (whose husband and in-laws also died of cancer), was with her all the way. And the rest of us got to be with her every day until she passed.

In the last four months of her life, she was as sharp and as aware as she ever had been during her organizing career. It was not easy loving her or being loved by her, but it was so rich.  All of us who knew her and loved her were better off for having her in our lives.  She has passed away, but she will always be with us, because a spirit like hers is just too big, too robust and too loving to die.

Sleep well, my dear sister and comrade and enjoy your future. And as I always said to her, “I love you forever.”

Patty Friend is the National Chair of Social Democrats USA.

ANNOUNCEMENT: CONVENTION!!

Social Democrats USA is holding its national convention in Buffalo, New York on Friday September 24 through Sunday 26, 2021.

LOCATION: EUGENE V. DEBS HALL, 483 Peckham Street, Buffalo, NY 14206

INVITED GUEST SPEAKER: INDIA WALTON, DEMOCRATIC NOMINEE FOR MAYOR.

HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE, COMRADES!!

More details to follow…

BOOK REVIEW–> Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left, by John Judis. Columbia Global Reports, 2020. 127 pages.

By Jason Sibert

The new book by John Judis gives anyone on the center-left a lot of food for thought. He worked as a journalist for years, well-known for his regular dispatches for James Weinstein’s In These Times newspaper. He was the co-author, along with Ruy Teixeira, of “The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002),” a book that was partially prophetic, as the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in every presidential election with the exception of one since 1992. In the one exception, in 2004, nearly half of the country voted for Democrat John Kerry. However, this doesn’t translate into a majority in a gerrymandered House and a Senate that give sparsely populated states two senators just like heavily populated states. This book also didn’t take into account the voter suppression we see going on around the country. It was also written before the rise of the populist left and the populist right in various industrial democracies.

He has penned, or co-penned, nine books. He was active in a New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960’s. Judis exited the organization when the influence of Maoists and Marxist/Leninists surged and joined a breakoff organization, New America Movement. The NAM, started in 1971, merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form Democratic Socialists of America in 1982. Judis was the founding editor of “Socialist Revolution,” later named “Socialist Review” and “Radical Society.”

“Socialist Awakening” covers the reemergence of socialist ideas, particularly among the young, in western democracies around the world. These movements are a reaction by young people to their dissatisfaction with the current economy, economies based on what we call Reaganism here in the United States and Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and in the rest of Europe. Center-left parties adapted themselves to this trend in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Here in the U.S. we saw the rise of President Bill Clinton’s New Democrats (President Barack Obama was of the same school) and people in the United Kingdom saw the rise of Tony Blair and New Labor. Other center-left parties went through similar makeovers in other countries. I was a Clintonite in the 90’s and for years after that before reading Lane Kenworthy’s “Social Democratic America.”

This new book covers the history of socialism in the U.S., including interesting content on figures like Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Bernie Sanders. It also covers socialism in other countries. This is a very enjoyable feature of Judis’ work. I found this history on the Labor Party in the U.K. to be very interesting. The populist left has different manifestations all over the world – the Bernie Sanders faction in the U.S. Democratic Party, the Jeremy Corbyn faction in the U.K. Labor Party, and the Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Left Party in France. We’ve also seen more center-left voters moving to the Left Party in Germany or to the Greens. Right wing politics has seen a similar shakeup with the rise of Trump, Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and Nigel Farage in the UK.

The growing power of these populist movements also has ramifications in the pursuit of a world defined by international law and peace. The main audience for the populist left are those with some education (an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in the U.S.) who are working in positions that don’t require a degree – the Starbucks  barista with a BA (bachelor of arts) . Many felt they would have meaningful work but have seen their dreams dashed. They might have found that meaningful work in the past in a world where technology did not do so much of the work formerly done by college graduates. The main audience for the populist right are members of the dominant ethic group (whites in the U.S.)  that have a high school diploma or maybe some college and have seen their dreams dashed by stagnant wages and benefits in the private sector. In the past, they would have had quality wages and benefits due to the power that labor unions had, a little-mentioned fact in the media. These voters are drawn to demagogic appeals based on race, gender, and sexual identity and preference. These movements also attract fans of 1930’s era fascism. These voters are also scared at becoming a racial minority, something that will happen to whites in the U.S. eventually.

One problem with the populist right is that it is incompatible with internationalism in any form. This form of populism could lead to a less stable and more war-prone world.  While Judis gives credence to the populist left for raising the issue of inequality, he feels that socialist and social-democratic parties need to discover a respect for the concept of the nation-state. No doubt, democracies are moving away from Reaganism and Thatcherism and to economies with more state involvement. Judis feels that our country’s future will look different than its past in terms of socialism, or I really prefer to use the term social democracy, which amounts to a mixed economy; if I may borrow a term for the 1980’s era Social Democratic Party in the U.K., a Labor Party breakoff group. The young, who make up a good deal of Sanders’ following, do not associate the word socialism with revolutionary Communism, like many in older generations. Future politicians will be able to run under the banner of socialist or social democrat and not be associated with Communism.

Immigration,as Judis points out, drives support for the populist right. He feels the nation-state has the right to control immigration and brings up the issue of employers using low-skilled immigrants to undercut the labor of workers who have lived in a particular nation-state. This is a real problem for the populist left, as it sometimes sees the immigration laws of that nation-state as illegitimate. This allows the populist right to stir up fear around the issue. Judis feels that the Left needs to move away from views on immigration that are defined by few if any means of regulation in the area, or the idea that once one sets foot on U.S. soil, they are legal. This doesn’t mean that the left needs to engage in racism light to try and capture populist right votes. In 1977, President Carter advocated an immigration policy that legalized those in the country illegally, made it illegal to hire illegal immigrants, and supported the enforcement of immigration laws on the border. None other than President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 where these ideas became a reality. President George HW Bush legalized even more illegal immigrants. Keep in mind, companies who hire illegal immigrants do so to avoid following labor laws, undercutting the power of workers already here. I remember a news story in the last year about a Walmart store that hired illegal immigrants. Of course, the store wasn’t following labor law. A 90’s Clinton administration committee, chaired by Barbara Jordan, the first female African-American congresswoman, echoed a similar set of policies. The commission supported the government setting a number on the immigrants our country admits per year.

The Left’s immigration policy should stress that those here illegally are not hardcore criminals, like murders or rapists. Those who entered the country illegally should pay fines and do community service – that’s all. Some on the populist right claim immigrants don’t want to assimilate. However, wave after wave of immigrants have assimilated into our culture. Social democrats should mention this fact. Social democrats must also support the right for people to apply for refugee status, a right under international law. The populist right demagogues refugees – we should not.

According to Judis, the Left should move away from slogans like “abolish the police” or “abolish prisons. How could we have arrested Derek Chauvin and imprisoned him if there were not police or prisons? Social democrats should work on taking on the prison-industrial complex. Journalist Eric Schlosser thoughtful piece, “The Prison-Industrial Complex” (The Atlantic, December 1998) pointed out that. many of the people in our jails are not hardcore criminals.  We imprison more people than the People’s Republic of China with all of its ‘ideological criminals’. If one is sent to prison for petty crime, they often find it hard to find work in the regular economy upon release. Then they return to more petty crime! There’s an endless cycle that costs the taxpayer lots of money. However, there’s money to be made in constructing prisons and running them if we’re talking about a private prison company. Congressmen and congresswomen looking to create jobs in their districts sometimes look to prisons. There’s also a class connection to petty crime, as those involved in petty crime are usually poor. Lifting people out of poverty would be a great way to combat petty crime! Recent laws legalizing marijuana are positive as far as petty crime is concerned. It must be added that the Clinton administration’s crime policy federalized certain petty crimes, increasing the prison population..

The Left, he argues, should return to some sort of economic nationalism, or the idea that we produce more of what we consume here in the U.S., an idea associated with the Democrats in the Reaganite 1980’s.  In the Covid-19 pandemic, we found out how dangerous it was to not be able to manufacture ventilators and other essential items here in the U.S. Social democrats should work to relocate manufacturing essential to our security within America’s borders, and becoming less dependent on China would be good considering current geopolitical tensions,. Of course, this would create jobs. Hillary Clinton carried 30 percent of the white working class in 2016, but Joe Biden carried 35 percent of the white working class in 2020, an improvement. If the Democratic Party could carry 40 percent of the white working class and add this to their current coalition of educated professionals, minorities, and union members, the party would have a winning coalition.

This carries over into the struggle for a world defined by international law and peace. Trump’s foreign policy was defined by alienating our country from allies as well as from foes. We could easily return to that policy in the future, if someone similar wins the presidency. The various nation-states of the have much in the way of dangerous weaponry. Spreading more geopolitical tensions around the world increases the likelihood that these weapons will be deployed.. Social democrats must campaign hard for a more orderly international system and the positive outcomes it produces for the security of people in our country. It is essential that we find a form of internationalism that works for our future. Otherwise, our future looks pretty scary!

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.

INDIA, INDEED!

By Patty Friend

The voters of Buffalo have just made history by electing, against all odds, its first Democratic Socialist as the Democratic mayoral nominee. India Walton is smart, capable, experienced and a serious caregiver with a well-lived life to inform her politics and her decisions.

India Walton grew up in the “Fruitbelt” neighborhood on Buffalo’s Eastside. She was responsible for her brothers and sisters, and helped her mother who was a single mother. At the age of 14, India herself became a single mom and five years later had twin boys with serious medical problems, making it necessary both for her to ride the city buses with her twins and their strollers and accoutrements, and to work with hospital and social services’ bureaucrats. Then, she had a fourth son in her twenties. In these years, she got her GED and went to nursing school, eventually becoming a registered nurse working at different local hospitals. On top of all this, she became a hard-charging activist who always impressed people with her intelligence, great ideas and presence.

As one of Buffalo’s premier community organizers, she was the natural choice to run against Mayor Byron Brown. True, she lacked the “connections in high places” or access to large amounts of money or wealthy donors, but she’s been a magnificent and victorious candidate nonetheless, upsetting a well-funded machine politician in her first campaign. Walton’s platform does an old Social Democrat’s heart good. It includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Eliminating nepotism and other corrupt hiring practices in city government
  • Ending the closing of budget gaps on the backs of the poor (ex: parking/motor vehicle fees/penalties, taxes)
  • Extending public transportation
  • Capping the 33 Expressway and bringing back the Humboldt Parkway
  • Increasing civic involvement by marginalized communities
  • Enhancing infrastructure user-friendliness for all Buffalonians rather than the wealthy few.
  • Stopping tax abatements for wealthy developers and large companies

Running the city of Buffalo on this platform will be quite challenging. Buffalo is plagued with gentrification and a lack of affordable housing, a biased criminal justice system and police force. There are issues around  the maintenance of public buildings and disposition of older public buildings, infrastructure needs and existing projects, tax collection, the aftermath of Covid-19, and Buffalo’s (in)famous winter snow. Community organizations will have great expectations of her administration; ‘old-timers’ in government may want to sabotage her efforts.

She may not have a lot of experience in electoral politics or in management/administration, but she is a quick study. She will need experienced advisers and lots of help from staff that she can trust, who will ‘have her back.’ Hopefully, she can either fire the ‘dead-weight’ employees loyal to Mayor Brown or get them to work on her behalf. It’s precisely her not being from the Old Guard that could enable her to come up with new ways to analyze problems and arrive at more creative solutions. As she said about herself to MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton, she may not be the perfect candidate for mayor, but if we insist on perfection, we lose out on what a lot of talented and exciting people can do for us and the community.

She will make a good mayor of Buffalo, but there is still a General Election to win in November. Brown is launching a well-funded, hard-fought write-in campaign. Power doesn’t give up easily, and Mayor Brown and his cronies certainly won’t. Social Democrats USA has not only endorsed India Walton, but has pledged to contribute to her (as individuals) and work for her. Our members are already signed up to doorknock for her this summer and fall. I predict that our work will be extremely fulfilling and worth it. So good luck to India Walton – the next Mayor of Buffalo, New York – and good luck to us all!

Patty Friend is the National Chair of Social Democrats USA.

TURNING ON THE BEACON

By Jason Sibert

The United States has frequently held itself up as a beacon of democracy to the world. We’ve sometimes seen the development of democracy as the way to a peaceful world. It’s nice to see the U.S. becoming more electorally democratic in time. In the earliest days of the republic, only white men with a certain amount of property could vote.  Women gained the right to vote with women’s suffrage in the 1920’s and People of Color (POC) gained the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (POC voting was confined to certain regions prior to that key law). America became more democratic in economics from the 1930’s to the 1970’s with the adoption of some moderate social democratic reforms.

The democratic republican form of government does a lot for the idea of international law and peace, as international relations scholars have long realized that democracies do a lot for foreign relations because of their stability, according to Rachel Myrick (“American is Back – But for How Long?”, Foreign Affairs, June 14)  In autocracies, when leaders are removed from power via revolution or military coup, the transitions often mean dramatic swings in foreign policy. This makes for a less stable international system. Our political system is currently polarized, and foreign policy is no exception. Former President Donald Trump challenged or withdrew from more than a dozen international agreements or institutions, including the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization. Polarization presents a problem for foreign policy because it chips away at a key component of power – our reputation for stability and reliability.

Political polarization means a tendency to dislike a particular party, and this gives leaders an incentive to undo the accomplishments of the prior president. Trump was determined to undo all of Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments. Democracy holds another advantage over other forms of government when it comes to constraining leaders. Since leaders are held in check by the people, they are less likely to make threats or make promises they cannot keep. In international negotiations, the signals a democracy sends to foreign actors tend to be more credible because democracies also tend to be better at keeping international agreements.

Treaties are a problem in U.S. politics because they require two-thirds of the Senate to ratify. Myrick points out a solution to the ratification process and the problem with that solution: “anticipating partisan opposition, presidents now usually avoid the congressional approval process altogether by entering into political commitments or executive agreements instead. Although this strategy allows leaders to enact their preferred policies, there is a cost: agreements that are not ratified by Congress are more easily undone by subsequent administrations.”

Myrick points out that some feel the geopolitical competition between our country and the People’s Republic of China might be cause for partisan cooperation. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case because foreign policy is becoming more polarized by the moment. The polarization is weaking our democratic republic which could lead to a weaker international system and a less stable and more armed world. Despite our long Cold War with Soviet Russia, our country managed to engage in quality arms control with the SU and rachet down tensions at times, particularly in the nuclear realm. There was a policy of detente with Soviet Russia that emerged in the 1970’s under President Richard Nixon, broke up under President Jimmy Carter, and reappeared under President Ronald Reagan. Would this be possible today? I don’t think so.

The concept of international law is only a valid concept if there is a group of nation-states that back up the law or laws in question. The U.S. cannot be a part of that body if it’s always going back on agreements it made in the previous presidential administration, and it cannot be a beacon of hope to those who aspire to the democratic way of life if we fall out of the democratic republic orbit and into the orbit of authoritarian democracy.

This brings us to the issue of voter suppression, a tool of those – like former President Donald Trump – that support the abolition of portions of our democracy that might weaken their power. All those who believe in the causes of democracy, international law and peace should fight voter suppression and the trend toward authoritarian democracy. A less stable international system and more deadly arsenals don’t point to a better future. Social democrats have historically believed in political and economic democracy – let’s continue to fight the good fight in the future.

Jason Sibert is the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.