Making sense of Russia’s Olympic resort.
Sochi seems like a weird place. With the Winter Olympics beginning at the Black Sea resort last week, Western correspondents have uncovered everything from murderous gangsters to toothpaste terrorists to the hundreds of stray dogs that call the city home. And I’m sure by now you’ve caught the Twitter storm over the less-than-ideal accommodations there. “Ok, so my hotel doesn't have a lobby yet,” tweeted Mark MacKinnon, an international correspondent with Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Missing drapes, dangerous water, dog extermination … welcome to Russia's problem Olympics,” lamented National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur, later adding, “We're all going to look silly when all of Sochi's stray dogs come back with little surveillance cameras strapped to their adorable heads.”
Is Sochi really that seedy? The Olympic infrastructure may have seen a rocky start, but the resort town has long been a popular tourist destination. Since the 1950s, Sochi has attracted some of the most powerful people in Russia, including Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin. But like much of Russia, Sochi also struggles with poverty and corruption. The average income in the area surrounding Sochi is just under 19,000 rubles a month—about $550. Less than half of residents have an active internet connection. The region has seen a half dozen major wars over the past two decades and is home to more than one active insurgency.
I guess that’s what makes coverage like this a little hard to stomach—it smacks of ruin porn, a kind of imperial gaze at the bizarreness of Russian poverty. And it’s not just “advenjournalist” hubs like VICE or Buzzfeed. In sources as serious and respected as the Washington Post and CNN we can read bemused correspondents live-tweet the “hilarious and gross” hotel rooms they were given in Sochi. “To appreciate the hotels in this area,” writes David Segal in the New York Times, “it is probably a good idea to think of them not as hotels but rather as a rare opportunity to experience life in a centrally planned, Soviet-style dystopia.”
Undoubtedly nationalism plays a part as well. From homophobic laws to the Pussy Riot controversy to crackdowns on free speech, Westerners certainly have every reason to distrust Putin’s Russia. Comparing this to places where marriage equality and free speech are better protected, it’s easy to feel smugly progressive. But focusing on Russian homophobia and authoritarianism seems odd when many Americans encounter similar laws everyday (is Putin’s crackdown any more nefarious than, say, being prosecuted as a terrorist for passing out leaflets?). Think about it like this: inviting openly gay activists to join the U.S. Olympic Delegation is a powerful statement for human rights and solidarity with oppressed people in Russia. But it also masks the very real homophobia and transphobia many Americans experience to this day. As David Zirin points out in a recent Democracy Now! interview, nine U.S. states continue to enforce laws that are remarkably similar to Putin’s “gay propaganda” law.
And in a larger sense, a lot of this has to do with our preconceived notions of Russia, its culture, and our mistrust of its political intentions. For centuries Western Europe and the U.S. have tended to define their “Western” identity in opposition to anything they saw as “Eastern” or, in particular, Russian. So if the West could be defined by progress, innovation, and freedom, Russia was the opposite—reactionary, backward, and unfree. And if the East-West cultural divide seemed sturdy a century ago, after 70-odd years of Soviet Communism it was positively cemented. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall couldn’t help as two decades of economic chaos and increasing authoritarianism seemed only to reinforce old stereotypes. And it’s not just news media. Hollywood’s Russophobia may have reached its zenith during the Cold War, but to this day, its boilerplate villains hail from Mother Russia. Combine all that with flashy news reports of “flesh-eating zombie drugs” and internet sensations like dash cam videos, and Russia appears lawless, backward, and very quickly falling apart. Even Google thinks Russia is insane. Type in “Why is Russia so” and it gives you the standard suggestions: big, poor, homophobic, crazy. A lackluster Olympic Village plays into this narrative nicely.
But in terms of Olympic branding, this is all a bit strange. Traditionally, events like the Olympics accompany a highly organized PR campaign that whitewashes a whole host of human rights abuses, from forced displacement of locals to worker exploitation to “clean up” campaigns that target sex workers and the homeless. According to a 2007 report by the UN-funded Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), policies like this have been the rule rather than the exception for Olympic events over the past two decades. According to the report, more than 1,000 people were displaced from East London to make way for the 2012 Games; the ’96 Games displaced more than 30,000 in Atlanta, including 6,000 people kicked out of public housing projects, which were then demolished; in 2004, Athens evicted close to 3,000 Roma from the city to pave the way for their games, worsening, the report says, their second-class status in Greece.
These figures are surprising because they’re not supposed to be part of the story. And, for the most part, they’re not. Major media were mostly silent about crackdowns and displacements in Atlanta: a 1996 New York Times story was among the only mainstream pieces to shed light on an anti-homeless campaign there, but it didn’t mention displacement. Eight weeks before opening ceremonies, in fact, an AP story touted the millions of federal dollars that would go to “rehabilitate public housing” in the city. But neither AP nor the Times followed up when evicted low-income tenants found that among the small number of new units built to replace their homes, most now sold for skyrocketing market rates. Even in retrospect, when major media look back on the Atlanta Games, the controversies they do remember are more about local economic growth and the event’s effects on tourism. Same for other Olympic hosts, from Athens to East London to the upcoming games in Rio. Large-scale displacement, exploited migrant labor, and human rights abuses aren’t really part of the picture.
There are good reasons for this. One is that corporate sponsors go to great lengths to avoid a scandal during Olympic events. This was the case in Vancouver when Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola hired private spy firm Stratfor Global Intelligence to collect information on animal rights activists in Canada, particularly PETA, ahead of the 2010 Winter Games. Two years later, Stratfor found itself on Dow’s payroll (a sponsor of the 2012 Games), this time tracking groups concerned about Dow’s role in the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India. In both cases Stratfor spied on activists through social media and looked for signs of large-scale organizing at Olympic events. And amazingly, when WikiLeaks blew the whistle on Stratfor’s spy operation, Coke defended its actions and hinted that spying on activists wasn’t so uncommon: “We consider it prudent to monitor for protest activities at any major event we sponsor, as such activities may affect our partners, customers, consumers or employees.”
Olympic branding, after all, is serious business. Every two years corporations pay billions for sponsorships, exclusive monopoly rights, and sophisticated marketing strategies to associate their brands with the Games’ multicultural, humanitarian image. For athletes, who are barred from using their talents in any professional way outside the Games, the result is often a kind of indentured servitude to the media image of their sponsors. “I was not allowed near any camera without giving a visual and verbal statement of thanks to Verizon for making all of my dreams come true,” writes 2006 Olympic U.S. Luge Team member Samantha Retrosi in The Nation, adding,
I went through intensive media training each year to reinforce this allegiance—to learn how to be a better spokesperson for Verizon. During my Olympic year, I signed away my rights to use media time for just about anything other than gratitude to sponsors. It was a condition for entrance into the Olympic Village.
The Olympics may be a corporate PR bonanza but it’s also an airtight, elaborately rehearsed, and overwhelmingly privatized spectacle. With billions to be made, the world’s most powerful corporations aren’t interested in encountering surprises. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Olympic cities are also in the habit of banning protest before the Games begin.
All of which makes Sochi’s experience that much more extraordinary. At the most expensive Olympic Games ever, how did such an elaborate corporate whitewash get punctured? How did the loudest media message from the Games’ opening week become, “Ok, so my hotel doesn’t have a lobby yet”?
There are probably many reasons, a big one being Western media’s open distrust of anything at all Russian. But one thing’s for sure: it won’t be Western sponsors that pay the price of Sochi’s PR disaster. In fact, Putin’s authoritarian style may even be profitable. Take a look at AT&T. Last week they managed to earn some good press by publicly condemning Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. Left-leaning sources like Think Progress and Daily Kos wrote quickly and admiringly on the move, and already more than a dozen other sponsors have followed suit, from Visa to Coca-Cola to that darling of social responsibility, BP.
Of course, this is the essence of a PR whitewash: taking a risk-free, popular position on an issue that in no way affects profits (what stake does AT&T really have in Russia’s anti-gay law?). Critically, AT&T sponsors not the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but the U.S. Olympic Team, meaning there’s little the Russian government could do in retaliation (and can you imagine the PR nightmare if they tried?). And just like when it sponsored the ’96 Atlanta Games, AT&T will never shed light on the forced evictions or exploitation of workers that have already occurred in Sochi—that is, things that could actually affect the profitability of the event.
Which brings us back to Sochi itself. Behind the PR blitz and Olympic shimmer, and behind even the snarky advenjournalism, Sochi’s experience with the Winter Games is a familiar one. Over the past seven years Russian officials have evicted some 2,000 families to make way for new construction, sometimes paying little or no compensation. Construction has also destroyed local water wells, leaving whole villages without safe drinking water. Elsewhere in Sochi toxic dumps have destroyed otherwise healthy water sources.
And it’s not just locals paying the price. Since winning the rights to host the ’14 Games, Sochi has been home to tens of thousands of migrant workers, many coming from impoverished former Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, these workers have been regularly forced to work 80+ hour weeks, often for as little as $1.80 an hour. Lured by ads touting $1,500-a-month salaries, workers have been lucky to earn as much as half that—when, that is, they see a paycheck at all. Wage theft, reports HRW, has also been rampant, with employers withholding pay for months at a time and often failing to pay wages at all.
Even more egregious, employer-provided housing has bordered on the Dickensian, with more than 200 workers sharing a single family house in some cases, according to the report. On top of that, working conditions have ranged from unsafe to deadly. To date, 25 construction workers have died while building Sochi’s Olympic infrastructure. And don’t expect pushback from workers themselves: employers in Sochi have been in the habit of confiscating passports and work permits, cutting down on turnover and organizing. Those that do protest are often deported.
But shameful as these abuses may be, they’re not that unusual in Sochi’s history. Located in the North Caucasus, Russia’s poorest and most violent corner, Sochi is no stranger to exploitation or instability. Sochi’s unemployment rate is low for the region but within a hundred kilometers it tops 50 percent and human rights violations become much more common. Nearby places like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia, and Chechnya all have very recent memories of brutal war, conflicts that stir much older ethnic and imperial clashes. Rather than a “Soviet-style dystopia,” Sochi’s identity draws on centuries of upheaval, imperialism, and tradition.
But then, Sochi has long been a kind of manufactured place—a sleepy resort in one of the world’s bloodiest regions. In their exhaustive multimedia “Sochi Project,” journalists Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen write of Sochi as the meeting point of hundreds of contradictions: a winter resort where snow doesn’t fall in winter, a proletarian palace modeled on the exclusive spas of Germany, a destination remembered fondly by both Stalin and Tolstoy. In the Middle East, the surrounding Caucasus is known as the “mountain of languages,” while in Moscow it’s synonymous with corruption and criminality, a Russian Wild West. “Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi,” they write. It’s a place of unfathomable cultural richness and unspeakable tragedy. If the Olympics can’t make sense of Sochi, perhaps the feeling is mutual.
Image by John Morn, licensed under Creative Commons.
Welfare programs have long attacked the symptoms of poverty. What if we targeted the roots?
Last month, progressives celebrated the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty. In January 1964 Johnson laid out an ambitious set of programs that have helped countless low-income families afford housing, medical care, education, and basic nutrition. In policy terms, the programs were the clearest expression yet of what Franklin Roosevelt once called the Second Bill of Rights—the idea that the government had a responsibility to ensure economic well-being for everyone.
But even before neoliberal reforms gutted War on Poverty programs beginning in the 1970s, Johnson’s war never really succeeded. Even as his reforms went into effect, cities across the country exploded in riots as the violence of entrenched poverty became starkly visible. Half a century later, these programs continue to fight a losing battle. Within weeks of Johnson’s anniversary, in fact, Harvard economists released a landmark study on social mobility that includes a startling finding: children born into poverty today are no more likely to escape it than they were 50 years ago. There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to rethink this war.
One problem with Johnson’s approach has been that it mostly attacks the symptoms of poverty—hunger, lack of medical care, barriers to education. But what if we could attack poverty’s roots? What if a government program could simply eliminate it? That’s the thinking behind universal basic income (UBI), a proposal to give every American enough money to stay above the poverty line—unconditionally and for life.
OK—stay with me. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Alaska has had a similar, if smaller, system for decades and Swiss voters will soon decide whether to introduce a much larger basic income in their country. Proposals and pilot programs have, in fact, sprung up around the world. And people in unlikely places are starting to take notice.
One of them is Charles Murray, the libertarian author of The Bell Curve and Coming Apart. A longtime critic of welfare programs, Murray estimates that, compared to the current system, giving every American $10,000 a year would be far cheaper. Within two decades, the government could be saving around $1 trillion annually. Tim Harford, a more progressive economist at the Financial Times, more or less agrees. Although his basic income is closer to $6,000 a year, Harford says it’s perfectly affordable as long as most people use it to supplement income they’re already earning, meaning they’d still make enough to pay taxes. And under his plan, large parts of the welfare state, from housing subsidies to medical benefits, would remain intact.
Of course, there are about as many approaches as there are supporters, and plenty of questions remain unresolved. Should basic income replace welfare programs or supplement them? What happens to public education, or health care? How much money is enough to stay out of poverty?
Specifics aside, it’s worth considering what all a basic income could accomplish. For one thing, it would make workers less dependent on any single job, forcing employers to improve working conditions and wages to retain them. Basic income would also make it easier for workers to organize unions without the risk of losing everything. In the U.S., close to one-in-five union supporters is illegally fired for organizing, a number that’s jumped over the past decade. UBI could help cushion these blows, providing a safety net for workers and their families, and allowing more to organize.
It could also have huge cultural impact. As anthropologist David Graeber points out in a recent conversation on basic income, it’s impossible to know the real cultural effects of inequality. How many books, art pieces, or bands have never come into being because young people are working extra hours to pay off student debt or afford exorbitant rent? In other places and times, welfare benefits have been critical in the arts. Joe Strummer famously met Mick Jones on an unemployment line; J.K. Rowling spent years on the dole as a single mother while polishing her early manuscripts for Harry Potter. For generations after World War II, Britain’s expansive welfare state subsidized some of the most exciting and vital artistic expression in the nation’s history.
Welfare programs, of course, come with their own set of problems, from being too low to alleviate poverty to stigmatizing and humiliating those in need. But the biggest problem may be the latest trend toward “work first,” an idea pioneered when Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced welfare in the U.S. in the mid-‘90s. Here’s how it works: the single mothers who make up the bulk of TANF participants don’t see any benefits unless they seek unpaid “workfare” outside the home, often in retail or food service. And going to college doesn’t count. So instead of recognizing the critical and demanding work single mothers are already performing for their families, the attitude behind TANF is “any job is a good job.” As long as it comes with a paycheck (which recipients don’t actually get), any work is more important than raising children or getting an education.
(And by the way, that policy hasn’t made much of a dent: while TANF participation has dropped 60 percent since the program began—recipients are now kicked out of the program after 60 months—the number of families living in deep poverty has jumped 13 percent.)
It’s this work-obsessed ideology that basic income turns on its head. Rather than use work requirements and means tests to determine who deserves to get assistance, UBI applies the same standard to everyone. Whether someone should be kept out of poverty is not a question of their intentions or actions—with UBI, it’s something everyone could reasonably expect. At its core, it’s about trust—can we trust people to live outside of poverty, to escape their dependence on low-wage labor, to define success for themselves?
Of course, for most of us this is all still pretty utopian. Basic income may be making the rounds of activist and policy circles for the first time in decades, but it’s going to be a tough sell in Congress. For it to be possible, attitudes about inequality and the value of labor would have to change quite a bit in Washington, and Democrats would probably need to get over their aversion to new ideas. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen; it’ll just take a while.
But maybe that’s not important right now. Maybe for now the takeaway is in the conversation itself—about labor, about inequality, and about who deserves to live in poverty. The very idea of a universal basic income forces us to confront the fact that poverty is to a large degree a political problem rather than an economic one. Entrenched poverty is what happens when you shred the safety net, bust unions, and let corporations write public policy. It’s not natural and it’s not inevitable. There’s no real reason we can’t win this war; we just need a new strategy.
Image by the USDA, licensed under Creative Commons.
Something about Thursday’s
New York Times top story stayed with
me. You know, the one about the NSA searching Americans’ email and text
messages to recipients overseas. I wasn’t thrown off by the story itself—after a
summer of PRISM slides and XKeyscore leaks, it’s hard to be surprised that the
government is reading the emails we send to other countries. What stayed with
me was how it was reported.
Written by Charlie Savage, the article describes how even
Americans “who cite information linked to” foreigners under suspicion can be
targeted for surveillance. After describing the operation, Savage considers
whether casting such a wide net is legal—and specifically whether it violates
the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows the government to surveil cross-border
communications between Americans and foreign nationals without a warrant. Toward
the end of the article, an unnamed “senior intelligence official,”—all of
Savage’s sources for the leak are anonymous—assures us that the program is
legal and does not result in “bulk collection” of Americans’ private data.
Oddly, Savage doesn’t mention any NSA programs by name, but
it’s clear he’s describing something close to PRISM, which allows NSA agents (and
private contractors) to monitor electronic communications between Americans and
foreigners. Even stranger, Savage doesn’t mention XKeyscore, the data-mining
NSA program revealed
last week by the Guardian’s Glenn
Greenwald. XKeyscore goes far beyond anything Savage describes, and would seem
to contradict what the anonymous officials told him about NSA surveillance
being so legal and precise.
But what really stuck out was the sourcing. Although there
are some experts Savage quotes on the record from the ACLU and the Bush White
House, all sources relating to the initial leak—that is, the backbone of the
story—are anonymous. It reminded me of a
column Robert Fisk wrote a few years ago about mainstream coverage of the
Iraq War. Taking an LA Times profile of insurgency “mastermind”
Abu Musab Zarqawi as an example, Fisk describes a pattern he sees in the paper’s
Here are the sources—on pages one and 10 for
the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: "US officials said", "said one US Justice Department counter-terrorism
official", "Officials ... said", "those officials
said", "the officials confirmed", "American officials
complained", "the US officials stressed", "US authorities
believe", "said one senior US intelligence official", "US
officials said", "Jordanian officials ... said"—here, at least is
some light relief—"several US officials said", "the US
officials said", "American officials said", "officials
say", "say US officials", "US officials said",
"one US counter-terrorism official said".
Of course, the LA Times is hardly
alone in this, says Fisk. Open the international section of any major U.S. paper and
you’ll find the same thing: reporters relying almost exclusively on anonymous,
high-level government officials for tips, stories, quotes, and analysis. Leaks
like this, adds
State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, ensure that official messages,
perspectives, and stories get priority coverage. And the Obama administration
has this down to a science, from the bizarrely laudatory “kill
list” story in the Times to cyber-warfare
to the details
of the bin Laden raid. This is exactly
how the Bush administration’s fantasies about Iraqi WMDs became reported
fact, says Glenn Greenwald. “Reporters are trained that they will be selected as scoop-receivers only if
they demonstrate fealty to the agenda of official sources,” he adds. “It
converts journalists into dutiful messengers of official decrees.”
Contrast all of that with the treatment the papers dished out to actual
whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Before contacting
WikiLeaks, Manning famously attempted
to get in touch with reporters at the Washington
Post and the New York Times.
Neither got back to him. In retrospect, that
may have been a good thing, says Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake—the Times has
a history of checking with the White House before publishing top secret information,
as they later did with the State Department cables.
Three years later, when Edward Snowden approached Barton
Gellman at the Washington Post with his own groundbreaking leaks, he
faced similar barriers. In exchange for the leaks, Snowden had asked
Gellman for assurances that the paper would publish the full NSA PowerPoint
presentation describing PRISM within 72 hours. Instead, the Post consulted with government officials
who raised red flags about several of the 41 PRISM slides. When the story
appeared two weeks later, the number of slides was down to four.
The most startling thing about this episode is that all of
this information came directly from Gellman and the Washington Post. Gellman simply reports exactly what happened,
without comment. Like the New York Times,
the Post’s policy on national
security leaks is apparently to check with senior officials before
publishing—that way anything unflattering or embarrassing can be deleted. It’s
as if—and this is hardly an exaggeration—Bob Woodward had contacted officials
in the Nixon White House to approve the leaks he received from Deep Throat.
Ultimately of course, it didn’t matter that the Times ignored Manning or how the Post edited the PRISM slides. Miraculously,
both leaks found their way to readers, sparking rigorous debates about national
security, privacy, and American imperialism. But that may not always be the
case. The more reporters and papers rely on government officials to provide and
approve their stories, the less we’re all likely to know.
Image by Thomas
Roggero, licensed under Creative Commons.
Students in England bring feminism out of the history books and into the here and now.
Do you remember having a serious conversation about feminism
in high school? Neither do I. There were history lessons on the suffrage
movement, sure, and English reading lists included the occasional Ibsen
play. But if we did talk feminism or gender equality, the message was clear—feminism
was something you study. It was something that mattered to other (mostly dead)
people. Not something that had much to do with our lives now.
It’s that silence that students at Altrincham
Grammar School outside Manchester, England,
wanted to break. Witnessing and experiencing sexist harassment and abuse on a
daily basis, the students decided their school could use a dose of equality.
So, back in March, they kicked off a campaign called We Need
Feminism in which female students photographed themselves holding homemade
signs, each beginning with “I need feminism because…” Inspired by a campaign begun last year at Duke University, the messages range from biting
social critiques (“…because people still ask what the victim was wearing”) to
deeply personal statements (“…because my cousin shouldn’t be ‘on the shelf’ at
24”). Taken together, they evoke a deeply chauvinistic social and institutional world that
millions of young women face on a daily basis.
The campaign was only latest for Altrincham’s Feminist
Society (FemSoc), a student group cofounded by 17-year-old Jinan Younis after experiencing
particularly hurtful harassment on a school trip last year. “After returning from this school trip I
started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the
pressures associated with our gender,” she
writes in the Guardian. “Many of
the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into
sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are
constantly told they are worthless.”
FemSoc suffered abuse from peers and reluctance from school
administrators from the very beginning, but the opposition reached fever pitch
after the group’s “We Need Feminism” posts appeared
on Facebook this past March. Almost immediately, Younis’ male peers
unleashed a torrent of sexist and racist abuse, much of it on Twitter. “I was called a ‘feminist bitch,’ accused of
‘feeding [girls] bullshit,’” Younis recounts. “The more girls started to voice
their opinions about gender issues, the more vitriolic the boys' abuse became.”
But here’s where it gets really messed up. Instead of confronting
the male students and using the incident to kick off a discussion about gender
issues, administrators at Altrincham simply told FemSoc to take down the site. This
left the girls isolated, says Younis, and more vulnerable than ever to abuse
that was somehow going unpunished. “It
is appalling that an institution responsible for preparing young women for
adult life has actively opposed our feminist work,” she writes.
wasn’t quite the end of the story. Hearing what had happened at Altrincham, a
group of students and teachers in London
started a Tumblr page in solidarity called Feminism Belongs in Schools.
Launched just last month, the page combines the personal and political in way akin
to FemSoc, but also has ties to the worldwide Who Needs Feminism? project that emerged last year. These
connections have helped lend the Altrincham story international attention.
campaign’s worldwide scope underscores how big this problem is. American
schools, for instance, are no better. “High schools overwhelmingly
disregard the subject,” writes
Anna Diamond for Ms. Magazine.
After a high point
in the 1970s, when public schools across the country began moving gender
equality into the curriculum, progress stalled. “When my mother attended public high school in Santa Monica in the 1970s… she was lucky enough
to take [a women’s studies course] at her school,” Diamond adds. “As a high
school senior in a similar public school in 2011, I have not had access to any
such classes, and women’s contributions still don’t get as much attention as
those of men.”
Part of the problem is that topics like these are just not
priorities in American education. Even finding data on how many women’s studies
courses exist in U.S.
high schools is a daunting task. The Department of Education has plenty of
numbers on the gender gap in math and science performance, but nothing on how
many female writers a 10th grader can expect to read in English lit,
or how many schools teach their students about intersectionality.* By and large
feminism is a similarly
low priority in British schools.
But that doesn’t mean people like Jinan Younis and her
classmates are slowing down. With the We Need Feminism page still online (they
never actually took it down), and supporting actions in London and worldwide, FemSoc continues to bring
feminism into the 21st century—that is, into the here and now. “If you thought the fight for female equality
was over,” Younis writes, “I'm sorry to tell you that a whole new round is only
*To be sure, there are
inspiring exceptions. Check out Ileana
Jimenez’s experiences of teaching intersectional feminism in a New York high school for
an exciting alternative.
Image above: Activists
from Latin America, Europe, South Asia, and North America
express solidarity with Altrincham’s Feminist Society (Feminism
Belongs in Schools Tumblr page).
Faced with widespread
union busting and a feckless NLRB, a more aggressive labor movement is brewing.
The National Labor Relations Board has a long history of
dysfunction, but its job just got a lot harder. In January, a federal appeals
court ruled that Obama had illegally appointed three of the board’s members
while the Senate was in recess early last year. Now, recess appointments are a touchy
subject in Washington,
but Obama had good reason. Republicans in the Senate had threatened to block
any and all NLRB appointments, leaving the president with few options.
(Oddly, there’s no law against deliberately obstructing a vital government
If the decision stands, the
board is toast. With only one remaining member, the NLRB lacks a quorum,
and legally loses all decision-making power. The bedrock of labor law
enforcement would grind to a halt. What’s more, all decisions since the January
4 appointments last year could be nullified—that’s hundreds of rulings on
everything from workers using social media, to who handles union dues on a
This is bad news for organized labor, but not as bad as you
might think. While few doubt the board’s importance in protecting things the
right to organize, the NLRB also has a long history of institutionalizing the
bureaucracy and hierarchy that have plagued American labor for decades. The
board was born during an era of historic labor militancy, and reforms that
established basic workplace protections also went hand in hand with bans on
more militant actions like sit-downs, sympathy strikes, and wildcats. In their
place, the board set up channels like union elections and regulated
negotiations. The new system was more predictable for everyone, but also more
top-down, less democratic, and arguably much less effective for labor.
So, alienated by the rigidity and hierarchy of the NLRB
system, many workers and organizers have begun learning to live without it,
preferring to engage in struggles on their own terms. Indeed, with or without a
functioning labor board, many of the movement’s brightest flashpoints are operating
well outside the system.
One of the clearest of those flashpoints was certainly last
year’s unprecedented organizing effort at Walmart, a grassroots campaign that
united unions, labor groups, and activists across the country. The push began
in September, when workers at a Walmart-controlled warehouse in Mira Loma, California, walked
off the job and began a “Walmarch” to Los
Angeles to demand safer working conditions. Earning
well below a living wage, the Mira Loma workers had suffered 120-degree heat,
inadequate ventilation, and broken equipment—conditions that lead more than 80 percent
to experience on-the-job injuries. They were also mostly part-time workers, and
often relied on a “buddy system” during slower workweeks.
The symbolism of the 50-mile march, inspired by the 1966
United Farm Workers march to Sacramento,
was striking. Like the UFW, the warehouse workers found themselves excluded
from the protection of the NLRB system—the UFW because the board explicitly
excludes agricultural workers, the warehouse workers because of Walmart’s
notorious (not to mention illegal) union-busting. But also like the UFW, where
the warehouse workers lacked legal support, they found an outpouring of
community reinforcement. During some of the march’s hottest days (with temps
climbing above 100 degrees), volunteers set up impromptu clinics to provide
health care to the mostly uninsured workers. A few days later, the warehouse
workers were joined by more than 100 California
farm workers as well as activists from Students
Against Sweatshops, who marched alongside them in solidarity. By October 5,
the marchers returned to work with a guarantee of better conditions.
That extraordinary victory soon galvanized Walmart workers
in other states to more militant action. Within a couple of days of the Mira
Loma strike, workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois,
presented a petition for safer conditions, consistent schedules, and an end to
forced overtime. When supervisors began firing those who had signed, workers
walked out. On October 1, hundreds of community activists joined the striking
workers, where riot
police arrived and arrested 17 protesters for civil disobedience. But like the
workers in California,
the Elwood strikers quickly won victories on core demands. By October 15, increasingly
under the umbrella of the labor group OUR Walmart, actions had spread to a
dozen cities nationwide.
Such early success had a lot to do with strategy, writes
historian Staughton Lynd in December’s Industrial
Worker. Although they relied on support from recognized unions like the
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), their grievances, demands, tactics, and
victories were entirely their own. At every step of the way, including the climactic
Black Friday actions throughout the country, Walmart workers operated decidedly
outside the NLRB system of petition and arbitration. Instead of channeling time
and energy into the tedious process of requesting recognition and electing representatives
to negotiate, workers in Mira Loma and Elwood decided collectively to organize
and take action themselves. This direct action approach had a big impact.
For one thing, it meant a much quicker process. Workers in Illinois and California
organized, went public, and won concrete victories within a matter of weeks—an
unheard of timeline for unions sticking with official channels. Eschewing
official recognition also meant sidestepping legal restrictions like no-strike
clauses and bans on civil disobedience, sympathy actions, and boycotts. In California, Illinois, and
across the country, much of the campaign would’ve been difficult under the NLRB
umbrella—from the “Walmarch” in California
to the civil disobedience in Elwood, not to mention the spontaneous way it all took
But most importantly, workers took the company by surprise. For
decades, Walmart has remained union-free by exposing and undermining union
campaigns in whatever way it could. A 2007 Human Rights Watch report found that
the company routinely
breaks US labor law to snuff out labor actions, from spying on workers, to
banning discussions of unions on company property, to firing those who join.
The report added that because labor law in the US is so toothless, Walmart’s
illegal conduct usually results in little more than a “slap on the wrist.”
And if workers can somehow make it over these barriers and
go public with their demands, retaliation can be swift. When organizing workers
at a Quebec Walmart went public in 2005, the company pulled
up roots and left. When a handful of Walmart meat-cutters in Jacksonville voted to
join the UFCW in 2000, Walmart announced it was terminating
meat-cutting operations in 700 stores. And like many big-box companies,
Walmart’s managers have long been
trained to put a stop to organizing efforts before they get off the ground.
One “Manager’s Toolbox” from 1997 urges supervisors to be “constantly
alert for efforts by a union to organize your associates.” It also gives instructions
on curbing unionization at every step of the process, from initial organizing
to petitions to elections and bargaining. The handbook even provides a “Union
Hotline” to alert upper management at the first sign of trouble. Bottom line: Walmart
knows the NLRB process very well, and how to subvert it.
Which is what made last fall so exciting. If workers in Mira
Loma had circulated a petition, signed cards, or went public with demands,
management would’ve been all over it. But there’s nothing in the “Manager’s
Toolbox” about a Walmarch. This is what gives unofficial actions their power:
instead of working through a process stacked against them, workers in Mira
Loma, Elwood, and across the country took up the fight on their own terms. In
so doing, Staughton Lynd argues, Walmart workers revived the tactics and
strategy of the labor movement’s zenith—the heady decades before the NLRB put a
lid on labor militancy in during the Depression.
But as groundbreaking as these victories have been, they’ve
not been alone. Workers in Mina Loma and Elwood are part of a growing trend in
organized labor, one that relies more and more on decentralized, grassroots
action outside the NLRB system—what the American
Prospect’s Josh Eidelson calls “alt-labor.” It’s a method
more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World have been pushing
for a long time, and lately, it’s been catching on. Especially in big cities
like New York,
workers in traditionally unorganized sectors have started to organize in a
different kind of way, and it’s led to more than a few concrete victories. From
broad-based movements like Coalition to
Immokalee Workers to local restaurants like Hot and
Crusty, workers, particularly in food service, are winning critical
victories by taking a more militant and creative approach to demanding their
One of the most interesting approaches has been that of the Restaurant Opportunities
Center, a radical labor group based in
New York City. Like
OUR Walmart, the ROC is not a formal union and has no desire to become one. Their
strategy is a familiar one: direct action, unofficial strikes, and building
community support for campaigns. Not only that, with a cadre of lawyers and
worker advocates, the ROC helps educate workers on their rights, and when
necessary, provides legal support against the industry’s worst offenders. It’s
also adept at publicizing ongoing struggles. When food service workers win a
victory on, say, overtime violations, like they did at Mario Batali’s Del Posto
restaurant in Manhattan
in 2012, the ROC labels them a “high road” establishment. To date, the ROC has
won more than a dozen settlements against employers in New York City, along with millions of dollars
in workers’ back-pay.
The ROC has been active in the New York area for more than a decade, but
last year, they were joined by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of community
groups and unions including the SEIU. Unlike OUR Walmart and the ROC, Fast Food
Forward would eventually like to see their workers gain NLRB protection. But
instead of petitioning for recognition and then entering into negotiations with
employers, the group decided to take action in a more direct way. Less than a
week after Black Friday, the group organized a mass walkout in New York to demand
higher wages and greater labor protection. Workers pulled off the largest
strike in fast food history before anyone even signed a union card.
Now, at first glance, the fast food strike doesn’t make a
lot of sense. Historically, big unions like the SEIU have not been fans of acting
outside the NRLB system. Even during the Depression, when wildcat actions and unofficial
strikes broke out in hundreds of cities nationwide and labor’s power was at its
height, large, established unions like the AFL and CIO urged moderation. The
difference today, argues Labor Notes
reporter Jenny Brown, is that the moderate strategy hasn’t
worked. If labor was at its militant height in the 1930s, today it’s at an
historic low. Faced with employers like Walmart that regularly violate the law to
impede organization, and an NLRB system that offers few prospects for victory, some
labor leaders have started to rethink and retool. The result has been a labor
movement that is more grassroots, more democratic, and more about action.
And it seems to be working. The last few years have seen a
wave of unprecedented achievements, often in industries long thought impossible
to organize. Numbers are still small, but activists and strikers in New York, Mira Loma, and
across the country have shown an energy and creativity that’s been hard to
ignore. Whether supported by established unions or not, this new militant wing
of organized labor has in many ways brought the movement back to its roots—rank
and file workers, organizing themselves democratically to fight for their
rights in direct and meaningful ways. If the campaigns spearheaded by OUR
Walmart and the ROC can continue this trajectory, it will have much more to do
with their unique vision and spirit than whatever ends up happening at the
Above image, of a Fast Food Forward/Occupy/RiseUpNY day of action in July 2012, by Katie
Moore. Used with permission.
The humanitarian crisis in
not something you hear much about these days. It didn’t come up in the presidential
policy debate on Monday, though of course Obama and Romney spent a long
time talking about Netanyahu’s “red line” with Iran. G8 nations were similarly
silent on Palestine during the group’s
conference back in May, although Israel’s
ongoing blockade of Gaza
was a major
G8 talking point just two years ago, as was the peace
process a year later.
When we do see Palestine in the news, it’s
mostly about why and how the two-state solution is dead—a theme that’s been
driven home repeatedly over the last year by the likes of Jimmy
Carter, Atlantic senior editor Robert
Wright, and Haaretz journalist Gideon
Levy. Not that there’s much reason to believe otherwise. In fact, the
crisis there only seems to be getting worse.
For one thing, Jews are
now a minority in Israel and
the Occupied Territories, raising serious questions about
minority rule and apartheid. Last week, Israel
officially declared that of the 12 million people living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean,
Israeli Jews represent about 5.9 million (a fact Israeli demography expert
Sergio Della Pergola had already
pointed out in 2010). “Apartheid
is here,” says Haaretz columnist
Akiva Eldar. “The Jewish majority is history.”
And apartheid is not
a subjective term, says UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine at Al-Jazeera. Since its formal
implementation in 1948 in South
Africa, a series of international treaties like
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Racial Discrimination of 1966 and the 2002 Rome Statute have defined apartheid
in no uncertain terms. Despite cosmetic differences in how it’s implemented, Israel’s policies toward Palestine
fit the international definition—as Rome
calls it, an “institutionalised
regime of systematic oppression and domination”—to a bill, says LeVine. Arabs in Israel may have some basic political rights like voting and holding office, he says, but it's hard to ignore the widespread economic discrimination they face, "as well as in access to land and most components of social citizenship
(education, healthcare, language and access to upper echelons of political
life)." Not to mention the entangling maze of checkpoints, settlements, and walls dotting and dominating Palestinian territory.
Of course, the charge has been raised
before, most famously by Jimmy Carter in 2006. A year later, John Dugard, a South African international law professor and UN human
rights envoy to the Occupied
Territories, echoed the same concern. “It
is difficult to resist the conclusion that many of Israel's laws and practices violate
the 1966 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination,”
he wrote at the time. And late last year, Dugard reiterated his
point, writing in Al-Jazeera that,
“Most South Africans who visit the West Bank are struck by the similarities
between apartheid and Israel's
But whatever we choose to call it, human
rights abuses in Palestine
are only escalating, whether our political leaders discuss it or not. Last
week, Israel released its “red lines” document,
which spells out some of the tactical specifics of the Gaza blockade, and their intended impact on
Palestinians living there. (The revelation was almost totally ignored in the U.S. media.) The
idea, reports Amira Hass in Haaretz,
was to allow Gazans access to only the minimum
number of calories each day to avoid outright starvation. Despite the fact
that the blockaded Gaza is almost entirely
dependent on outside resources, Israeli government attorneys defended such “economic
warfare” as entirely within Israel’s
rights, while also attempting to prevent the document’s disclosure.
So what’s the minimum number? 2,279 calories
each day for each person, or 131 truckloads entering Gaza, says Hass. (To put that in perspective, the average American has access to about 3,800 calories each day.) But, says Hass, UN data show the
actual number entering the territory has been far less. And Israeli prohibitions
on seeds and agricultural technology served to make food insecurity even more
of a serious problem for Gaza’s
1.7 million residents.
Though the specific policies outlined
in the “red lines” document officially ended in 2010, the blockade continues to
enforce a real and growing hunger crisis in Gaza. A report by the United Nations Relief
and Works Agency, released in August of this year, finds that in a territory where
a majority are under 18, three
out of five families face, or are at risk of facing, food insecurity. The report
went on: With unemployment now nearing 30 percent, and Palestinians there
already facing a severe shortage of schools and medical care, Gaza’s future looks grim unless serious
changes can be made. By 2020, it concluded, by which time Gaza will grow by half a million residents, the
territory may be completely uninhabitable, unless serious steps are taken to
reverse the humanitarian crisis.
This is a bleak portrait, but a more
humane future for Palestine
is certainly possible. The work the Middle
East Children’s Alliance has been doing for 25 years gives us an inspiring
vision of what that humane future could look like, as do the flotilla movement's ongoing efforts to break the Gaza siege. If a two-state solution is
indeed finished, writes Gideon Levy, the real fight is for human rights. And
that fight has much to do with us: because crimes like the blockade are so
dependent on U.S.
aid and support, Americans have enormous influence on the future of the crisis.
Human rights in Palestine
may not be a campaign issue this year, but neither was South African apartheid
in 1984. It was only through popular struggle—here and in South Africa—that
more humane alternatives became politically possible.
Image by Paolo Cuttitta, licensed under Creative Commons.
One of the ironies of
American political culture is that in such an overwhelmingly urban and increasingly nonwhite society, issues of poverty, segregation, and race rarely figure
into presidential races in a meaningful way. Listening to campaign rhetoric,
it’s hard to find evidence that America
is becoming poorer, more divided, and less integrated than it was a generation
This was especially true
of Tuesday’s town
hall debate. Despite pointed questions about issues like crime and economic
growth, both candidates chose not to connect them with the persistent poverty
and racial division that increasingly define American cities. Instead, Obama
got into a lengthy joust with Romney over who supported natural gas drilling
more (and coal and fracking). Meanwhile, America’s racial and class makeup
continues to change in profound ways.
For one thing, we’re
becoming a more segregated society. A recent report by the Pew Research Center finds that income
segregation in American cities has increased dramatically since 1980,
especially in places like New York and Philadelphia. While
middle-income neighborhoods have shrunk over the past 30 years, low-income and
high-income areas are more concentrated than they have been in decades—problems
only intensified by the recession. Racial segregation is no less prominent. On
cities are more
racially segregated now than they were in 1940, says the Economic Policy Institute.
Divisions like these are
deeply felt in our public schools. A recent study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project finds that race
and income segregation have been rising quickly in American schools,
especially since 1991. Today, most students of color attend schools that are
overwhelmingly low-income and nonwhite, and one in seven attend what are called
apartheid schools, where whites make up less than 2 percent of the student
body. In some areas, like the Western U.S., a
full 43 percent of Latino student attend such hyper-segregated schools.
And while the Obama
administration has touted its support for underprivileged and underachieving
schools and students, they haven’t seen much success. In particular, Obama’s
support for charter schools, the UCLA report finds, has undermined modest
desegregation efforts, as charters remain by far the most segregated branch of
public schools. What’s more, issues like these don’t make it very far in the presidential
segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education,” the
report concludes, “neither candidate has discussed it in the current
That issues of urban
segregation and unequal education are so absent from this year’s election cycle
is more than a little
ironic, says Richard Rothstein at the American
Prospect. When racial segregation became a visible political issue in the
late 1960s, even Republican leaders became active in fighting it. One
Republican in particular, George Romney, the head of the Department of Housing
and Urban Development under Nixon, supported a broad-based policy of
residential integration—of the kind unthinkable today.
Not content with
approaches like busing that attacked school segregation at the student level,
Romney saw integration as an expansive, holistic public issue, says Rothstein. A
student’s success in the classroom, he believed, had as much to do with their
access to health care, their parents’ employment situation, and the safety of
their neighborhood as it did with the racial makeup of their class. Following
advice from 1968’s Kerner
Commission (which President Johnson flatly ignored), Romney’s plan was to invest heavily in low-income and
subsidized housing mostly in white suburbs, and to force suburbanites to
reverse racist zoning practices. But the plan, despite having (conservative)
supporters in high places, did not see the light of day. Nixon, whose ideas on
school and residential integration might today be considered liberal, believed
that forcing communities to integrate was the wrong approach. As a result, the
principled Romney, who as a presidential candidate had strongly spoken out against
segregation in the tumultuous year of 1968, chose to resign.
Needless to say, Mitt
hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps—but then, Obama hasn’t made much
noise on poverty or race either. In the first three debates this year, the GOP
team has actually mentioned poverty far more
than the Dems, says Seth Freed Wessler at Colorlines.
At the same time, Obama has spoken “less
about race than any other Democratic president since 1961,” writes Ta-Nehisi
Coates in The Atlantic.
That’s a shame, because
problems of inequality and segregation won’t go away without dialogue and serious
action. An Obama presidency may be somewhat
better overall than a Romney presidency in terms of race and poverty, but that
assumes structural solutions are impossible. To really tackle segregation and
inequality, we need a holistic approach—like the kind that might have worked in
Image of Milwaukee’s
racial makeup from 2000
U.S. Census (public domain). Milwaukee is famously the most
segregated city in the United
States; blue dots represent black residents.