Could last fall's Occupy fever portend a progressive takeover of Congress?
The answer could hinge on the outcome of an upcoming Democratic primary in a congressional district near Chicago, where a corporate-friendly centrist faces a remarkably stiff challenge from a 25-year-old Occupy Wall Street supporter who has even cut an OWS-themed campaign ad.
"What excited me about Occupy was that the target of this anger and frustration was finally the right one," says Ilya Sheyman, who stepped down as national mobilization director for MoveOn.org early last year to compete for a seat held by a vulnerable GOP congressman. "I think what's happened is people feel like, 'Wow, we've changed the national conversation. Now we have to change leadership in Washington and deliver on that.'"
Sheyman's main rival in the March 20 primary is Brad Schneider, who is running on his experience as a former accounting exec. The two have dueled for money, volunteers, and endorsements, with Schneider locking in the centrist New Democrat Coalition and moderates like House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), while Sheyman has won support from MoveOn, Democracy for America, and liberals like Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). So far, Sheyman has the edge in buzz and fundraising, although competing polls have put both men in the lead.
The lobbyist who helped kill California's Proposition 19, the 2010 ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana, has constructed an entire business model around keeping pot illegal. While fighting against the proposed law, lobbyist John Lovell accepted nearly $400,000 from a wide array of police unions, some of which he also represented in attempting to steer millions of federal dollars toward California's marijuana suppression programs.
The revelation, reported yesterday by the Republic Report's Lee Fang, illustrates how Prop. 19 threatened the paychecks of some of its biggest foes. Police departments stood to lose lucrative federal grants like a $550,000 payment in 2010 to police departments in three Northern California counties that covered 666 hours of police overtime spent eradicating marijuana. And Lovell would have presumably lost a job as a guy who helped land those kinds of grants. Here's a copy of a notice sent to a police department in Lassen County, California:
Police unions and their lobbyists weren't the only economic interests with a stake in Prop. 19. The alcohol industry and prison guards also contributed money to fight the measure. And on the other side, the passage of Prop. 19 would have given thousands of "hempreneurs" behind the state's $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry a stimulus stronger than a vaporized bowl of Hindu Kush. The likely side effects—a decline in budget-busting law-enforcement costs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state of California—don't seem all that bad compared to what we got stuck with: A war on drugs that makes people like John Lovell even richer.
Also read: Tony D'Souza's "The New Dealers," a tale of recession-strapped Americans who turned to dope dealing to make ends meet.
march1strikeucsc.orgIn the past three years, California has slashed funding for public education by $20 billion and laid off 40,000 teachers. Once known for its stellar public school system, the state now has the lowest staff-to-student ratio in the country. Even its crown jewel, the University of California, is losing luster. Tuition has gone up by 300 percent since 2000. Other states' public and university systems are in similarly dire straits.
In the era of offshoring, digitization, and corporate downsizing, public education remains one of the few hopes for sustaining the middle class. While a generation ago, high-school graduates (or even dropouts) could reasonably expect to earn enough working a factory floor to buy a house and put their kids through college, those jobs have mostly been replaced by an "innovation economy" that demands even factory workers to have years of specialized training. As Adam Davidson ably explores in "Making It In America," his article in the current Atlantic, we live in a world in which "the opportunities for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish."
Nobody understands the importance of reinvesting in education better than the students who now depend on it for their futures. As tuitions skyrocket, some of them are being priced out of a college education. Others are entering an uncertain job market saddled with mountains of student debt, which now totals more than a trillion dollars nationally.
Today, many students are joining protests organized by Occupy Education, a coalition of 80 occupy, labor, and community groups, to launch a week of action around the idea that "education is a human right." Rallies using the Twitter hashtags #OccupyEducation and #M1 are taking place in seven cities. Students will stage walkouts in Boston and Philadelphia. In Oakland, organizers will embark on a 99-mile march from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza (the old home of Occupy Oakland) to Sacramento, where they plan to occupy the state capitol on Monday. Their demands: Killing a proposed 24 percent tuition increase at UC Berkeley and getting the university to support a tax on millionaires that would raise $6 billion annually for public education.
"I think this is the beginning of an uprising of the 99 percent on campuses this spring," says Charlie Eaton, a UC Berkeley PhD student in sociology. He believes "the stakes are huge" but the students' demands aren't: All they want is to "get an education without taking on a huge amount of debt and have an opportunity to get a job when we finish."
Portland Action LabToday, occupiers in 80 American cities will hold the movement's largest coordinated demonstration since fall: a huge protest against the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Never heard of it? That's the point.
"It's an extremely secretive organization," says David Osborn, an organizer with Occupy Portland's Portland Action Lab, which is spearheading the national protest (known on Twitter as #F29 and #ShutDownTheCorporations). "Our goal is to expose the destructive role that it plays in our society."
Founded in 1973 as a "nonpartisan membership organization for conservative state lawmakers," ALEC brings together elected officials and corporations like Walmart, Bank of America, and McDonald's to draft model legislation that often promotes a right-wing agenda. It claims to be behind 10 percent of bills introduced in state legislatures.
Pete Woiwode figures that if the 1 percent is going to take a stand against the 99 percent, it might as well be at a country club.
"I mean, we have a right to golf," the 29-year-old community organizer proclaimed on Saturday. He was wearing a khaki suit and standing under the palms of Pleasanton, California's Castlewood Country Club, where a dozen or so protesters had gathered near the 14th hole, next to a tent on which someone had written, "Save the 1%!" The group had come together to support Castlewood's two-year lockout of its unionized cooks, dishwashers, and janitors—people who "are asking for so much," Woiwode told me as another demonstrator sipped Perrier. "They are asking for health care and asking for their good jobs back. Why don't they go out there and find other jobs?"
Pleasanton, a town of 70,000 southeast of Oakland, is fertile territory for a 1 percenter movement; the Census Bureau ranks it as the nation's wealthiest mid-sized city. Located a short drive from the cute Main Street, the grounds of the Castlewood Country Club once surrounded a 53-room mansion inhabited by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of the Gilded Age newspaper magnate. Porsches typically clog the club's parking lot and weekend warriors zip past its fairway on carbon-fiber Kestrels. On this day, one of them slowed down just enough to shout a single word at the Save-the-1-Percenters: "Idiots!"
Whether the biker thought the protesters ridiculous or just not rich enough was hard to say. Instead of the club's de rigueur golf shirts and yoga pants, members of the group sported a faded top hat, wrinkled knickers, and a full-length evening gown of questionable vintage. Woiwode's suit seemed ill-tailored and his Dockers the knockoff kind, but he didn't let that curb his enthusiasm. "The real idiots are the people who are talking about trying to spread the wealth around," said Woiwode (who works for anti-poverty groups in Oakland when he's not advocating for the rich). He clutched a handmade placard that read: "Can I pay you to hold this sign? (It's heavy)".
Members of Save The 1%
The conflict between Castlewood and its employees began three years ago during labor contract negotiations, when the club's new management told employees that it would no longer cover as much of their health care costs. Workers whose families had received free health insurance would have to pay $739 a month, or 40 percent of their average salary, according to their union, Unite Here Local 2850. When negotiations broke down in early 2010, the club locked out its workers and hired scabs in violation of labor laws, the union alleges. The National Labor Relations Board will hear final arguments on the case on Thursday.
This past Saturday, not everyone was in on the joke. Observing the protest from the doorway of the nearby golf house, a club membertold me that that the "Save the 1 Percent" message "seems a bit contradictory."
Closer to the demonstration, a union backer furrowed her brow as the mock 1-percenters launched into another chant: "The wealthy, united, will never be indicted!"
"Whoever you are, support the workers," she chided. "Do a chant for the workers!"
A few minutes later, several hundred union members marched to the club and staged a mock confrontation with the 1-percenters. "We won't be silenced!" Woiwode yelled at them through a bullhorn. "We own the media!"
Organized by Unite Here and members of Occupy Oakland's labor solidarity committee, the protest reflected a marriage of strategies. In recent years, California unions have embraced mock demonstrations, most notably in the lead-up to the 2010 gubernatorial election, when the California Nurses Association drew attention to the wealth of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman by hiring an actress to make appearances as "Queen Meg." And of course, the 1 percent vs. 99 percent concept (and fixation on the ultra-rich) has roots in this fall's Occupy Wall Street protests.
Speaking to reporters at the edge of the protest, Castlewood spokesman Vintage Fostersaid that the club offered a health package comparable to what other country clubs in the area provided and was justified in passing on rising health care costs to its workers. "Every company has had to go through this," he argued. "That's why Obama pushed through health care reform. It's a societal issue, not specific to Castlewood."
But Unite Here organizer Sarah Norr told me that the union offered to accept lower wages in exchange for better health benefits, saving the club money over the package it had offered prior to the lockout. "This is not about economics for them," she said. "It's about a philosophical opposition to workers having a union and having rights."
With very few actual club members present at Castlewood (union organizers claimed the golfers had "locked themselves out"), it fell to "Save the 1 Percent" on Saturday to represent the clubgoers' perspective. Holding up their signs behind Foster as he did TV interviews, the group seemed frustrated that he wasn't more outspoken. "I mean, I am the victim here," said a woman in a purple evening gown. "I've had parties over here with my children, and I've had to cross picket lines saying people want health care. How am I supposed to explain that to my children?"