On Saturday July 13th delegates from the Massachusetts Democratic Party gathered in the old mill city of Lowell to approve a platform. Massachusetts Social Democrats was there to raise the SD torch and to kick off a campaign to bring back the issue of full employment to the consciousness of the progressive community.
Massachusetts Democrats hold a platform convention biannually in the off-years, when there are no presidential or gubernatorial contests. The conventions bring together over 4,000 activists from throughout the Commonwealth, and they fine-tune a platform that is already mostly complete.
I was elected as a delegate to the convention on a snowy day in last February by a caucus of registered Democrats in the town of Dedham, where I live. It was not the hardest-fought election I have ever seen, in part because of the overshadowing presence of the Markey-Lynch camapign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate but mostly because many people don’t care a great deal about the platform. In the event, there were just enough candidates to fill the delegate slots, sparing us the anxiety of a contest.
In the months before the convention, I considered how Massachusetts Social Democrats could best make its organizational debut on the state’s political stage. Clearly it was necessary to bring a Social Democratic issue to the convention in a Social Democratic manner. This meant finding a “next step” that would be acceptable to many delegates but that would be a definite advance in the dialogue. An increase in the minimum wage, with a probable petition campaign in the offing, is the current major issue in the Bay State progressive community, and, as follow-up on MSD testimony to the legislature on this subject, full employment at living wages seemed a logical next measure.
Research on the website of the National Jobs for All Coalition led to H.R. 1000, a bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, Jr., in the Congress last March. This bill would establish full employment as a national policy and would establish an entity to provide job creation. More research led to fact sheets and statements on the bill, suitable for reproduction as leaflets. Only one Massachusetts Member of Congress has joined Representative Conyers as a co-sponsor of the bill, so it was decided to ask convention delegates to sign a petition requesting that other members of the Massachusetts delegation join Representative James McGovern as a co-sponsor. A final touch was a leaflet with quotes on full employment from President Franklin Roosevelt, Senator Edward Kennedy and the draft platform of this very convention. The leaflet’s headline was: “It’s time to keep the promise: full employment and living wages for all.” An inquiry at the state Democratic office yielded the information that an organization could, for a fee, get a table in the convention hall. MSD was ready to go!
The day of the convention was somewhat anticlimactic. Like any Democratic convention, it was noisy, chaotic and full of people who were eager to talk, usually while some bombastic oratory was being served from the stage. Most delegates were idealistic folk who were genuinely concerned about the problems of poverty and joblessness. This being Massachusetts, there was also an air of moral superiority (the city on the hill), although such an attitude suits me better than its cynical opposite. Some 20 “cause” organizations, including Massachusetts Social Democrats, lined a corridor with their tables.
I cannot report that the debut was a world-beating success; I didn’t expect that it would be. I collected about 50 signatures in the full employment petition in 3 hours, but it should be remembered that I was working alone. Nobody signed an SDUSA application, but I didn’t have the impression that other organizations were making many converts, either. I wasn’t making a “hard sell” for memberships; rather, the emphasis was on the issue. If we do a good job on the issues, I reasoned, the memberships will come.
The venture was most valuable as a kind of learning experience. The other “cause” organizations learned about the continued existence of SDUSA, perhaps a not entirely happy experience for DSA comrades, who also had a table. A few delegates were curious about MSD and wanted to talk about its exact position among “left” groups. Perhaps most important were the acquaintances gained and renewed among the “cause” activists with whom we will work in the future. On the whole, the experience should be evaluated as useful and worth the resources expended.
One analytical insight was sharpened by the convention experience and may prove useful to SDUSA in our efforts to frame a productive political strategy: at least in Massachusetts, the Democratic Party is social democratic in its aspirations and even in many of its legislative proposals. Its platform is comparable, allowing for local differences, to those of Canada’s New Democrats and the British Labour Party. Like those parties, the Democratic Party is full of people who are really social democrats, although they may never have heard of the upper-case variety. Our basic strategy of working within the Democratic Party (or local variants such as the Working Families Party) makes sense, just as it makes sense for Social Democrats, in other national contexts, to work in the New Democrats and in the Labour Party.
Apart from rhetoric, however, the reality is different, and that is the real challenge. In Massachusetts, which appears to be so progressive, most of those holding public office have only a remote relationship to the principles proclaimed by the Democratic Party in convention assembled. At best most of them follow the lead of the national administration and at worst some are quiet “blue dogs.” An egregious example of this disconnect is the current minimum wage controversy in the state: the convention endorsed a living wage for all workers, which it has done before and which everyone understood would be higher than anything currently proposed as the minimum wage in the state; in the meantime, an inadequate minimum wage bill languishes in a legislature that has a 75% Democratic membership (and despite support of the minimum wage increase by the Democratic Governor and the Democratic Senate President).
Clearly the grand strategic task in the immediate future for progressives and their Social Democatic allies is to eliminate this gap between announced principles and policies and the actual practice of Democratic politicians. We can do this by putting into public office persons who are committed to the social change advocated by the Democratic Party and by holding them to their promises.
The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is later this month. Everyone knows about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered at the rally outside the Lincoln Memorial for this event. What most do not know is that the entire march was conceived and planned by the Shachtmanites. A Philip Randolph conceived it. But Max Shachtman also had a hand in the idea for the march. He also chose Rustin to be the main organizer for the march. When Rustin was caught and arrested for homosexual conduct in a men’s room in Washington, Shachtman (though he was a homophobe) outlined for Bayard a defense of his action. Randolph was being pressured to fire Rustin and Southern Senators, such as Strom Thurmond, were attacking him on the issue of immorality. But as a result of Shachtman’s defense, Rustin continued to be the main organizer of the march (though his official position was downgraded a bit.), and he hired many Shachtmanites such as Norman Hill and Tom Kahn to assist him. At the same time, Bogdan Denitch organized the West Coast version of the march in California. At the rally itself, Kahn wrote the controversial speech by SNCC chair John Lewis in which the advanced text contained attacks on the Kennedy Administration and stated that “the revolution is at hand. We will take matters in our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us a victory…If any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.” Then Att. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy said that Lewis shouldn’t be allowed to deliver his speech at the March. Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, the Catholic prelate of Washington protested that he wouldn’t deliver the invocation for the rally if Lewis delivered his speech. Randolph, King, Rustin, Kahn and Lewis and other leaders of SNCC argued about revising the speech while the rally had already started. Finally, Lewis agreed to a rewritten speech and he was allowed to address the masses gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. (Lewis is now a Democratic congressman from Atlanta.)
What most history books do not tell you about is the Socialist Party conference that was held in Washington after the rally was over. It was entitled, “Socialist Party National Conference on the Civil Rights Revolution”. This was a 2 day affair held at the Burlington Hotel from Thursday August 29-Friday August 30, 1963. (The SP had a party for Marchers and Conference participants on the evening of August 28th after the conclusion of the March on Washington and rally.) The first session was Thursday morning with the theme: “Toward Full Equality in a Progressive America. Chairman of the session was Richard Parrish ( who was the chairman of the Civil Rights Committee of the United Federation of Teachers, Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers and Treasurer of the Negro-American Labor Council. Parrish was also running on the SP line for a special election for NYC Councilmember at Large in Manhattan and was supported enthusiastically by all factions of the SP.) Speakers were Norman Thomas, Floyd McKissick, Chairman of CORE (spoke in place of James Farmer, who was in jail in Louisiana), A. Philip Randolph and Congressman William Fitts Ryan (D-NY), a leader of the reform Democrats. Special remarks by Samuel H. Friedman, SP VP candidate in 1952 and 1956 and former editor of the Socialist Call. The afternoon session was entitled: “The New Phase: A Prospectus for Civil Rights.” Chairman of the session was long time SP activists Seymour Steinsapir. Speakers were Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director March on Washington. Responding to Rustin’s address were Robert Moses, Field Secretary, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Ike Reynolds, Task Force, CORE and Tom Kahn, Staff, March on Washington. The evening sessions theme was “A Political Strategy for Civil Rights. The sessions’s chairman was Eleanor Holmes, now DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. She introduced the conference’s keynote speaker, Max Shachtman, who spoke on the topic, “Drive Out Dixiecrats For Jobs and Freedom.” Responding to Shachtman’s address were Ernest Calloway, President, St Louis Chapter of the Negro-American Labor Council, and Wiloughby Abner, Vice-President, NALC, National Staff, UAW. The final session of the Conference took place on Friday morning. It’s subject was “Fair Employment-Full Employment. The chairman of the meeting was Warren Morse (a name I am unfamiliar with). Speakers were Lewis Carliner, Assistant to the Director, International Affairs Dept., UAW, Norman Hill, Assistant Program Director, CORE, Cleveland Robinson, Secretary Treasurer, District 65 RWDSU, Co-Chairman of March, Herman Roseman, Economist. Closing Remarks and Summary by Norman Thomas.
Thus, well known figures took part in this conference. such as leaders of CORE, SNCC, Randolph, Rustin, Norman Thomas, Norm Hill, Kahn, prominent folk singers like Joan Baez, etc. But my main point is that the Shachtmanites, militant civil rights leaders, labor, were all united seemingly in the same broad realignment movement of the democratic Left. SDS was still also a part of this coalition, despite of Harrington’s tirade against them over the Port Huron Statement, the year before. As long as the Shachtmanite-militant civil rights alliances continued, it would be counter-productive for SDS to seem to be against this realignment coalition. This is the very positive aspect of the Shachtmanites activities in the SP that too many are unfortunately not aware of. Harrington was not at the March. He was in Paris writing his second book, The Accidental Century.
David Hacker is Vice Chair of Social Democrats USA. The above article is excerpted from a book he is writing about Max Shachtman. Historical note: The Socialist Party in existence in 1963 was renamed Social Democrats, USA at the contentious 1972 Convention. Harrington would eventually leave the organization, but organized labor stayed and so did Bayard Rustin, becoming National Chairman.
Being poor is a bummer. Even in America.
It’s no surprise that depression ravages our low-income communities at exceedingly high rates. Performing menial tasks, day after day, to receive a salary barely sufficient to afford necessities, is unenviable, and alas, all too common a lifestyle for poor folks. An enforced lifestyle, I should add, beneath the dignity of a country that purports to be free. As the anti-apartheid leader Harry Schwarz aptly noted, “Freedom is incomplete if it is exercised in poverty.”
It’s certainly not the case that working-class folks are ruder than the rich. It is instead that, by virtue of their increased stress, many low-income workers exude a palpable despondency. For proof, please enter a McDonald’s, wherein the dreariness of minimum wage employees elicits widespread complaints and official reprimands from supervisors. I myself experience working-class discontent as a grocery store cashier, when antsy poor folks pass through my line with food stamps in one hand and a pack of Marlboros in the other.
Yes, smoking atop poverty. It’s like the opposite of, hmmm— levity atop joy.
That low socioeconomic status is the single biggest predictor of smoking propensity is no accident. Tobacco companies, aware that people cope with stress and “fit in” by smoking, make entire communities tobacco-dependent by getting some downtrodden people to pick up the habit and share it with their friends. And where better to find stressed out people than in poor neighborhoods? Not only are tobacco advertisements in low-income areas bigger, the number of targeted tobacco ads, per person, in low-income black neighborhoods, is 2.6 times larger than the number per person in richer white neighborhoods. Alas, big tobacco’s efforts to spread smoking culture to poor communities have succeeded: roughly 29% of people below the poverty level smoke, compared to only 17.9% of everyone else.
The malevolence of tobacco companies is almost unfathomable; that they flock to people in destitute areas, precisely because they are poor, in order to hook them on nicotine is exploitation defined. Giving depressed people an “escape” through expensive, carcinogenic rat poison is neither altruistic nor socially beneficial, no matter how slyly one tries to rebrand it. Real altruism would involve uplifting people from poverty, something in which tobacco executives have no interest whatsoever.
And yet, to point the finger solely at Phillip Morris is not only futile, but also too gentle on the social forces allowing this to happen. Until it ceases to exist, the tobacco industry will continue extracting from the poor every penny it can, regardless of how depraved the public perceives such a process to be. Alleviating tobacco’s burden on the working-class will thus require a large-scale societal investment in healthy living, one that condemns poverty itself as a threat to citizens’ mental and physical health.
If we hope to maintain sanity in our society, we must stop thinking of the working-class as a purely economic entity, an aggregate only valuable as a purveyor of production. It is indefensible to constrain non-unionized employees to mind-numbing work for more than 40 hours a week, even when folks are getting paid overtime. Dull work is, well, just that—dull, and still, the working-class today depends on it for sustenance.
So, you’re darn right they smoke, and otherwise engage in psychological and physiological alteration when they’re off the clock. A cigarette is a thirty-second escape from a seeming eternity of drudgery. Of course, this particular refuge itself causes stress by impoverishing and weakening the poor even further, which in turn aggravates the smoking poor and makes them want to smoke even more. There are also some happy, working-class smokers I know, but they’re jolly in spite of their addiction, not because of it. Even to them, smoking is a false, however alluring idol, to which they acquire a tumultuous addiction only satiated by further indulgence in it. A cruel cycle, if I’ve ever seen one.
At the register, I checked out one patron on food stamps who coughed when she spoke. Poor enough to receive SNAP, she was clearly too short on cash to comfortably afford cigarettes, but her addiction got the better of her. If she, like the average SNAP recipient, receives $1.50 per meal, her food is probably lacking either in portion or nutrition, or both, thus exacerbating the unhealthiness of her smoking habit. Furthermore, if she lives in one of the 76% of SNAP households with a senior citizen, child, or person with a disability, her dearth of food options combined with her smoking habit puts her already-vulnerable cohabitants at risk of malnourishment and second-hand smoke. Mind you, even if you brashly insist that this sort of customer “deserves her unhealthiness,” you cannot say the same of her impoverished codependents, nor of the 57.5% of service industry workers and 52.2% of blue-collar employees exposed to second-hand smoke because of their employment in non-smoke-free communities.
Simply put, poverty’s unhealthy, which is why the rich outlive the poor and fare better medically when they’re alive. We can justifiably lambast tobacco companies for targeting the poor, but only if we’re willing to accept responsibility as a society for breeding conditions conducive to tobacco’s successful encroachment upon impoverished neighborhoods. We must increase funding for cessation programs serving the poor, but until we also address structural economic injustices, perpetuated by politicians today cutting food stamps, smashing unions, and removing Medicaid supports for working-class people (including smokers trying to quit), we cannot claim any genuine inroads against big tobacco, for eradicating smoking culture requires us to eradicate the stress and despair that breed it.
The Massachusetts special election for the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry, held on June 25th, was, as Wellington said of the battle of Waterloo, “a damn close run thing.” While the Democratic candidate, Edward Markey, beat Republican Gabriel Gomez by 55% to 45%, expressing the result in percentages hides the reality of the election results in arguably the bluest state in the Union. The turnout for the elction was very low, and had the Republicans motivated another 117,909 voters to come out and vote for Gomez, the Democrats would be facing the worst debacle since Scott Brown snatched away Ted Kennedy’s seat (and control of the Senate) in 2010. There were plenty of those extra voters to find. Over 70% of the electorate stayed home, and if the Republicans had realized the possibility of victory and poured in resources, they might well have brought out the needed voters. Fortunately, the Karl Roves of the national Republican Party did not grasp the opportunity they had.
Given the rather hapless Republican candidate, a former Navy Seal, Harvard Business graduate and not so stellar venture capitalist (think Mitt Lite) , given the lack of a serious Republication organization in Massachusetts, given a war chest a third the size of Markey’s and given the personal intervention of Obama, Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and Biden on Markey’s side, the Republican vote was outstanding. Clearly it was a motivated group of voters who understood what they were voting for: a candidate who would stand with Mitch McConnell and his merry men in their drive to destroy what little we have of a welfare state and to block any forward steps that would improve the lives of ordinary Americans. That’s the nature of the Republican Party throughout the country, and its adherents know it.
Republicans have a brand, and their supporters understand it. Would we could say the same of the Democratic Party. The lack of enthusiasm among Democrats for a colorless candidate running as close to an issueless campaign as he possibly could says much about the Democratic Party in both the nation and the state. Markey, to be kind, was simply imitating the Democratic leader in the White House, who has managed to ignore the repeated evidence that the American people are worried most about jobs and the economy. And why should they not be worried? We are five years into the worst economic slump since 1939, and we have just been told that the goal of the Federal Reserve is to reduce, by next summer, the official unemployment figure from 7.5% to (wait for it!)….. 7%!
Markey’s victory in Massachusetts was largely for the same reason that Obama won last year: the candidate didn’t stand for much but the alternative was terrifying. My guess has been that Obama won because of two events: the first was Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention which laid out exactly what would happen to the working and middle classes under a Republican administration and the secretly recorded talk of Romney to the fat cats in which he confirmed Clinton’s description of Republican attitudes. Of course, if Obama had addressed the most pressing fears and concerns of the people, he might have felt some need to put forth a serious program to put America back to work, and he clearly didn’t have such a program.
Full disclosure: the tiny resources of Massachusetts Social Democrats was engaged in the circulation of nominating petitions and in campaigning in the primary and special elections for Markey. Sometimes we just don’t have a choice and have to make sure that the bad guys don’t get in. Now begins the real task: to make the Democratic Party a genuine progressive instrument for addressing the needs of the people.
I had the good fortune yesterday to welcome a group of 10 Ukrainian members of parliament to my humble little borough of Carnegie. They are visiting the U.S. to learn about Marcellus shale. Marcellus shale is an unpopular subject with environmentalists in western PA, but it has sparked economic growth here. To Ukrainians Marcellus represents an opportunity to get out from under the thumb of the Russians. Ukraine gets its natural gas from Russia. You will recall that not long ago, there was a dispute between Ukraine and Russia, and Russia subsequently shut off the supply of natural gas to Ukraine for two full weeks. Needless to say, the impact was severe on a country which still is considered poor by European standards.
I spoke with Sergey Yermilov, member of parliament from Kiev. He is also a member of the Institute for Environment and Energy Conservation. He believes that if they can safely adopt the technology of Marcellus natural gas drilling, his country would be able to gain some energy independence from Russia. This must also be combined with conservation and efficient use of existing energy supplies. I also had a few moments to discuss parliamentary politics in Ukraine. (no, we did not discuss the fistfights which seem to break out on a regular basis in Ukrainian parliament). I asked him about the structure of their parliament and their focus at the moment. He said that they have about 450 members of parliament and that about half of them are elected at large from independent parties. The other half of parliament is made up of the Party of Regions and consists of delegates from local districts across the country. They held parliamentary elections last October and are preparing to select a president. He said this is a very important process because he says there is an imbalance of power between the president and the prime minister and the imbalance favors the president. He believes that puts Ukraine closer to the Russian model, and he would prefer more balance.
During the socializing that followed our formal conversations, a fellow walked over to me and introduced himself as Vin Weber. What a surprise! I had worked and lived in Minneapolis for a number of years and knew Vin Weber as a Republican congressman but had never met him. I was more familiar with his colleague, Congressman Jim Oberstar, who was chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee. As a union president at the time, I had travelled to Washington to lobby Oberstar on a cooperative agreement between the Dutch Airline KLM and our own Minnesota airline Northwest. But I digress. Vin Weber’s foreign policy positions closely aligned with some SDUSA members, although much of his domestic policies obviously did not. Nonetheless, while he continues to be active in the Republican Party, he considers himself a “small d” democrat. Well, it was enough of a surprise to meet Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber in my small Pennsylvania town. But after talking with him briefly, and mentioning I am Chair of SDUSA, he informed me that he is a board member of NED. Unbelievable. I think most of you know that NED is an outgrowth of SDUSA activity way back in the early 80s, and that is too long of a story to recount here. Former SDUSA director Carl Gershman has been president of NED since its inception in 1984. Anyway, I will be talking more with Vin and I’ll update you with any noteworthy news.