Almost half a million Massachusetts low-wage workers won a significant victory on June 26th, when Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill to raise the minimum wage in stages to $11 per hour in 2017, the highest minimum wage in the country. His signature was the culmination of a two-year campaign by thousands of labor and progressive activists, including Massachusetts Social Democrats, who gathered thousands of signatures on petitions to put a minimum wage question on the ballot. While the state legislature moved to forestall action on the minimum wage by the voters, it did not respond to the companion campaign for a paid sick leave proposal, which will be on the ballot in November. The activist coalition is gearing up for that fight.
As important as the new law is, it has several shortcomings:
First, it contains no provision for indexing the minimum wage.
Second, even $11 per hour will not raise a family of four above the totally inadequate poverty level of $23,492.
Third, as Massachusetts Social Democrats pointed out at the legislative hearing on the bill, given the higher rate of unemployment among low-wage workers, they cannot rely on getting a nearly sufficient annual income at the new minimum wage. A full employment program is an essential complement to an adequate minimum wage, MSD observed.
Much work remains to be done, starting with winning paid sick leave in November.
On November 29, 1981, an ordinary day in the bustling Damascus neighborhood of Azbakiyah, droves of Syrian pedestrians on Baghdad Street moved in and out of their apartments and offices. Some were children visiting their friends. Many were high-ranking intelligence functionaries working to foil subversive plots against the state.
It was a tense time. The Muslim Brotherhood was at war with the Syrian government and had been detonating car bombs all over Damascus. In August, Brotherhood agents leveled an attack near the Prime Minister’s office and, in September, leveled another one near a government agency. Indoctrinated in Islamist dogma and trained at camps in the region, these terrorist bandits were slick, ruthless, and determined to wreak havoc. At the time, their jihad was against the non-believers of Hafez Al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party and its military cronies spread throughout the country.
Suddenly, all at once, the city shook, and a bomb left Baghdad Street in bloody shambles. With this attack, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood murdered and injured hundreds of civilians, causing more casualties than ever before. If there was any reason left for the world to ignore this appalling threat to civilized society, it was now gone.
But the United States remained unconcerned. Hardly any of us knew where the Muslim Brothers were, let alone who they were serving and who was financing their jihad. American news outlets provided scant coverage of the attacks, and our national security apparatus said little about it in public.
American indifference to Islamist terror, even if not justifiable, would have been more understandable had it not been for the fact that, in very important ways, our government bolstered Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it is not clear whether the US government directly funded Syrian terrorists, it certainly handed off weapons and billions of dollars to Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue their agendas through various proxies, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. At the end of the Cold War, as one CIA analyst put it, we were “playing with fire,” and our blasé government knew it, even if our people did not.
Today, as we again consider sending weapons to “vetted” Syrian rebels in the current civil war, our costly recent involvements in the Mideast should remind us that it is risky to cast our lot with foreign factions intent on using our aid for murder and warfare. Because our patron states in the region have themselves thrown around funds willy-nilly for a long time, it will be necessary not only to withhold aid from violent insurgencies but also to take a more critical look at the aid that we so readily wire into other states’ bank accounts.
Although the tale of Islamism is over a hundred years old, this chapter began when Muslim Brotherhood agents fled to Syria in the 1950s after Egypt’s Nasser amped up his attacks on the Brotherhood. As the largely secular Syrian Ba’ath assumed power the following decade, the Brothers were forced to fight for the heart of their new home, declaring outright war against the Syrian government during the Arabs’ 1967 war with Israel.
Meanwhile, in Jordan, the Muslim Brothers were fending off similar threats from anti-Islamist nationalists and Palestinians. Though it seemed that Syria would intervene on the Palestinians’ behalf during their 1970 uprising against the Jordanian monarchy, Assad backed down when Israel “threatened action if the Syrian army moved to help the PLO.” Still, Jordan and Israel were concerned about Syrian-endorsed nationalism and socialism and thus supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s reinvigorated jihad against Assad in the mid-1970s.
To complicate matters even further, the Lebanese Civil War erupted in 1975 and eventually provoked the involvement of both Israel and Syria. Still pitted against the PLO, Israel funded the predominantly Christian Free Lebanon Forces and Lebanese Front, both of which supported the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, one of Israel’s main allies in the Free Lebanon Forces, Sa’d Haddad, operated multiple Muslim Brotherhood training camps, including some in northern Jordan with the go-ahead of King Hussein.
Pause for a moment. Suppose that, after a long day’s work in the 1970s or 1980s, you returned home to find King Hussein pulled up in a limousine to ask you to support his latest onslaught against the Syrian government and the PLO. Before you were able to respond, Israel’s Menachem Begin popped in asking for a big donation as well. The two leaders’ countries were technically enemies, yes, but they both needed your help in training a group of useful Islamist rebels. Right as you tried to answer again, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia came by and asked to buy weapons from you for the same purpose. They all admitted that they would kill innocent people with your aid but that it was ultimately “for a good cause.” What would you have said?
Sadly, it doesn’t even matter. In real life, you effectively said yes to all of them. Islamist “terrorist acts” at the time were widespread, “centered around urban centers such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.” The US was implicated in this violence by its financial support for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, by extension, the Free Lebanon Forces and the Lebanese Front.
Recently, we have again been asked to fund a bunch of fighters amidst Syrian mayhem—this time, by taking money directly from our pockets and putting it into theirs. As crucial as it is for the international community to support humanitarian aid to Syria’s civilians being slaughtered by the brutal Assad on one side and Islamists on the other, it is risky for us to throw any more weaponry and military support into the volatile madness unfolding in the country.
The lesson from next door in Iraq– where ISIS is on a murderous rampage with stolen weapons that the US originally gave to Iraq’s Shi’ite government– is that our arms transfers can come back to haunt us and may be redirected by almost anybody to pursue a nefarious agenda. Boasting a recent history of such counterproductive results, the “more weapons” strategy deserves much greater scrutiny and, in the case of Syria, should probably be discarded entirely.
Save the date! This week the National Committee of Social Democrats USA approved the dates and location for the biennial convention. It will be held in Pittsburgh on Thursday Oct 23 and Friday Oct 24. Our last convention was held in Buffalo in August of 2012. We are pleased to bring the convention to Pittsburgh this year, another city with significant labor history.
We are also very pleased to announce that Dr. Sheri Berman, Chair of Political Science at Barnard College, will be a featured speaker. Sheri is an expert on social democracy and the history of the Left. She has written a number of books and papers on the birth and growth of European social democracy. Sheri also sits on the Editorial Board of Dissent magazine. She has written a number of articles for Foreign Affairs. She will bring a great new perspective to our discussions and we are delighted she is coming to Pittsburgh. Additional speakers will be announced in coming weeks.
Any SDUSA members who want to attend should call the office at 412-894-1799.
This article was originally published at goodmenproject.com.
Ten years ago, as I sat with my parents in John Foster Dulles airport on our way out of the country, I happened upon a thick-accented custodian who amused me with a quick magic coin trick. After duping me, she ruffled my hair, chuckled and kept on sweeping the floor. In the moment, all awed and enamored, I swore that I would be just like her as a grownup: warm, enthusiastic about my work and friendly to children. (In fact, when I worked as a cashier many years later, I did this woman proud by playing magic tricks on customers whenever I got the chance.)
Alas, about ten minutes after our encounter, my new custodian friend was accosted by a belligerent passenger who apparently thought that the worker was standing in his way. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” I wanted to shout at the patron, “She’s the most decent woman on earth!” But in my moment of disgust and incredulity, I stayed silent.
The older I got, the more common and disturbing these sorts of experiences became. I had peers in my large public high school who did not just tacitly dismiss our janitors but outright mocked them behind their backs. When a custodian swept by my table during lunch one day and uttered something indiscernible, a classmate reassured the table, “He’s just a janitor. Why should we care what he said?”
These attitudes are the fruits of a culture that has disastrously confused social value with social prestige. When the Heritage Foundation intellectual Russell Kirk demonized the “growing proletariat” for contributing “nothing much to society except their offspring,” perhaps he, like so many of us, forgot that without these reviled “proletarians,” our society — our roads, schools, office buildings, and houses — would literally fall apart. Sure, they make less money than Kirk did and may never have fancy titles, but does that make them less benevolent, virtuous, respectable or human? Where there is a noble person, there is a noble profession.
I think of my friend at Dulles airport because she always uses her job to enrich the lives of others, whereas the person for whom her workplace is named — Secretary of State John Foster Dulles — did not. When the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 for his opposition to the United Fruit Company, Dulles declared it the “biggest success in the last five years against Communism.” When, a bit earlier, Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh challenged Western control over Iranian oil, the Secretary of State supported his replacement as well, ushering in the Shah of Iran who dispatched the SAVAK to torture thousands of Iranian prisoners with “electric shock, whipping” and “beating.” To now deify Dulles as a national hero is to betray the working folks of the 1950s — the real heroes — who brought integrity and humanity to their jobs every single day.
And yet it is Dulles, and people like him, after whom we name our airports, highways and office buildings and upon whom we lavish wealth, recognition and adulation. I suppose that demanding anything different in our society will be laughable to many: should we really celebrate manual laborers the way we now idolize movie stars, politicians, war-makers, and CEOS?
Well, no, because our idolization of celebrities today is not as much based on their actual social contributions as it is on their image, looks, wealth, titles and superficial accolades. Just as there are greedy and self-absorbed VIPs who do not deserve all of the hoopla they get, there are, no doubt, the same kind of cashiers and custodians who shamefully fail to maximize the social utility and benefit of their professions. The intolerable part of the status quo is not that “ordinary” folks aren’t privileged over big shots but that even the most noble ordinary folks are subordinated to the most ignoble big shots. It’s that the crass, while praying to ascend to Ken Lay‘s (former) position someday, call diligent and kind working-class people “losers.” It’s that we socially divide ourselves on the basis of wealth and income while ignoring the benevolent capacity of people who work jobs considered beneath the professional class. It’s that we joke about certain jobs as if they were not filled by real people who extract livings and purposes from the indispensable work that they do.
Dr. King once suggested, “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures…Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” Not all of us have yet taken King’s advice or replicated his spirit towards our fellow working people. Our continuing class snobbery and contempt have done a great disservice to the moral integrity of our society. It’s time we change that.
There are many interesting and important anniversaries occurring this summer. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Lyndon Johnson— a momentous step towards ending discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin. Two weeks ago we remembered the 50th anniversary of the murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney— three young men who were registering blacks to vote in Mississippi. Those events were part of what we know as Freedom Summer.
This summer we also remember the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI. It was on June 28, 1914 that Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie were murdered by a Bosnian nationalist. This led Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia, and this in turn grew into The Great War, which enveloped all of Europe and eventually engaged the United States and Japan as well. One of the deadliest wars in history, more than 70 million military personnel were mobilized, of which about 9 million died on the battlefield.
On July 31 we will remember the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès. Most Americans are not familiar with him, but his role in reshaping European politics was extremely significant. I have made no secret that Jaurès has been influential for me in my own political development. Who was he? Jaurès was a French parliamentarian; leader of the French social democrats (at that time called the French Socialist Party). He was a prolific writer, and editor of the French socialist journal L’Humanité. During his time, the socialist parties of Europe were dominated by classical Marxists who believed that capitalism would collapse due to its own natural excessive behavior. However some leaders in the parties concluded that it wasn’t going to happen and pushed for changes in strategy that included participation in electoral politics. In Germany, Bernstein led the way, but the government structure there didn’t allow for parliamentary elections. The story was different in France, and it was Jaurès who led the charge. His proposal was that Socialists should enter parliament and work in coalition with other parties representing other constituencies to achieve the socialist goals. It was through his leadership that various socialist factions joined together to form the Left Bloc and push through legislation separating church and state. His use of parliament to constrain the destructive behavior of capitalism while at the same time allowing a limited free market has been copied around the world. It is unfortunate that the impact was not immediately felt, but eventually it would lead to an enduring stability in western Europe when social democrats took charge at the end of WWII.
In was at this time 100 years ago that France was getting ready to engage in a catastrophic war prompted by the murder of Franz Ferdinand. Jaurès was very vocal against the war. In fact, he was planning to attend a conference of the Socialist International in August where he would speak out against it. Unfortunately, a French nationalist would shoot him dead at a cafe in Paris on July 31. So ended the life of this great man. But his legacy lives on. Tomorrow, the French and Germans meet each other on the battlefield once again. This time it will be in the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. It is a wondrous development of civilization that replaces war with sports. While Tea Partier Ann Coulter may prefer that Americans express their nationalism by killing foreigners instead of playing soccer, I’m sure the members of the American Mens National Team are happy to live to play another day.