Thursday, October 28, 2010

Freedom of the press and the people

A colleague of mine has passed on the following message he got from a French colleague of his concerning the strikes in France.  I use it as today’s blog post because I think it is interesting and it follows my earlier post, but also because it shows the degree to which we are not getting  the full story from our press.  And this will bring me eventually to another blog post:  the health of the commons requires a truly free, diverse and not corporate owned press for the people to hear anything like the truth.  

The author of this 'personal note' is Jean-marie Fardeau, whose day job is with Human Rights Watch. 

Dear friends and colleagues,

This is a personal message in order to share with you some information and personal thoughts about the current social situation in France. It seems that international media are looking at us again! (after the riots in Paris poor suburbs in 2005, Sarkozy's wedding with Carla in 2008 and immigration policy targeting Roma people in 2010 - among other issues!)

As you know, the social tension raised at the occasion of a pension system reform.

Everyone in France, including those striking and demonstrating, knows that we need a reform of our highly financially unbalanced pension system.

Therefore people are not protesting against A reform but against THIS reform which appears to be unfair for the most vulnerable (poor workers, women with hectic careers, workers who have physically demanding  jobs, etc.). The problem of THIS reform is the following: it does not seem to take into consideration those who are living in the low and middle-low "ranges" of the society (to avoid the word "class/classes"). For instance, the government should have included in this reform that people who started working at 18 or 19 years old (majority of the workers / nurses..) - and in particular for those having physically demanding jobs - will continue to have the right to leave at 60 .. (After 41 or 42 years of work...).

Some so-called "realistic" people say that French people should take into consideration that the life expectancy increasing, people should work longer... and therefore the symbolic "right to retire when you complete 60 years" became unbearable... But actually, the previous reform (voted in 2003 with the support of the most reformist trade union, CFDT - negotiation led on the side of the government by Mr. Fillon) established that you are entitled to your full pension only if you work 41.5 years.. Which means that, if you start working at 23 years old.. You ALREADY have to work until 64.5 to get a full pension. You are currently allowed to leave when you are 60 but with a lower pension.

The reform (and the change from 60 to 62 and 65 to 67) might have been more acceptable if the government would have taken at the same time measures going in the direction of social justice and of reducing inequalities in France. Sarkozy (he is the only one making decisions) should have abolished his less popular and most unacceptable decision taken in 2007: to limit the income tax for the richest people (ceiling at 50% of their income).

The content of the reform could be (and should be) different. But also the method used by the government has been really insulting for the trade unions. As usual, the government prepared the reform on its own, and consulted the trade unions very late in the process without any willingness to negotiate with them on the content of the draft bill. Over last spring, the trade unions (CGT and CFDT leading the trade union coalition - both being pragmatic and not leftists) tried to persuade the government that a negotiation should take place before the discussion before the Parliament. No discussion took place and the government tried to speed the discussion at the Parliament and hoped that the concessions it was prepared to do (on women's pension, for dangerous professions) will be enough to stop the protest.  But the concessions were not sufficient to persuade citizens that this reform was the only one possible (several recent polls show that 70% of the people are against this reform and supporting the strikes - see below).

And, in a typical French style (since the different governments do not know how to negotiate before a important bill is passed), the confrontation was unavoidable and the trade unions know exactly the weak points of a country like France: oil, transportation, and the greatest fear for a French government: the youth in the streets.

Many other proposals to reform the pension system have been put on the table by the opposition parties, economists, trade unions but, once again, no serious discussion was possible with the government on alternative projects.

Last not least point: the current social tension is also the result of three years of Sarkozy's regime during which we felt the tension growing growing (because of cuts in education and health systems, migration policy, increasing of security measure leading almost 1 million persons a year to police custody for minor infractions..)... and this unjust reform of the pension system became THE opportunity to oppose Sarkozy's policy.

What will happen in the next days? Nobody knows.

The goal of my message was to give you some contextual information around this important social movement. It may seem a bit "outdated" way of making reforms in an country like our but this is also the result of three years of attempts by President Sarkozy and his team to reform France in a top-down way without listening to the people and their representatives. In July 2008, our president said in one of his famous speech: "Quand il y a une grève en France, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit." ("when there is a strike in France, nobody notices it") in an attempt to delegitimize the trade unions (Thatcher's nostalgia remains high among French right-wing leaders who never succeeded to destroy the trade unions) The current movement shows that French rebel spirit remains strong.

To conclude, I would like to answer to those saying that a majority of demonstrators do not not why they are demonstrating and do not understand the complexity of the pension system...

 I personally doubt that the 3 million people demonstrating 6 times in France over the last 45 days (i.e. that means one person over twenty in the whole French population in the streets once a week !!) are ignorant and not able to understand why they are demonstrating...

And the latest polls published on Oct 21st:
  • 59% are in favour of "the continuation of the movement" (until the opening of new negotiation and the suspension of the law)
  • 71% are supportive of the demonstrations and of the strikes (against 56% early September and 64% early October)
  • 71% of the French people unable to understand why they support this social movement they consider legitimate and necessary?
Any comments welcome

All the best

Jmf

Thursday, October 21, 2010

War and Peace, and Pensions

Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle provided an unintended commentary on two related commons issues:  the role of work as it is understood in Europe, and the degree to which military spending is the one thing that almost no one is mentioning as a major source of the worldwide economic recession. 

Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative (by French standards) President of France, is seeking to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60.  Even teenagers took part in the resulting strike, with 261 high schools blocked or disrupted Monday. (“France Protests Disrupt Schools, Transportation” SF Chronicle, 10/19/10).  Further 71% of French people sympathized with the strikers, who have brought France to almost a grinding halt with blocked highway traffic, airlines instructed to bring enough fuel into France if they plan to fly back out, and shipping ports closed.  Almost 1 million people have participated in what is now several days of strikes and protests.  Critics of Sarkozy’s plan describe it as “American style capitalism.” 

To be fair to Sarkozy, France is suffering the worst recession in 70 years and the cost of pensions given to people at 60 who may well live to be 90, is astronomical. 

However, not in the newspaper, but in any reports on military spending to be found on Wikipedia or from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is the fact that France has the third largest defense budget in the world, behind China and of course dwarfed by the United States (which spends more than the next nine most militarized countries put together).  France has increased their military budget every year and shows no sign of slowing down.  In a cursory search of major news sources on the French protest I did not find one person quoted as suggesting a cut in military spending as a way to pay pensions. 

Pacifists and anti-war activists make the connection between war and world wide military spending, which globally tops $1.3 trillion a year.  (The USA accounts for 44% of the world’s military spending.)   Movement building and commons activists have got to start making connections between bloody and pointless wars waged around the world, ineffectual, bloated and corrupt clandestine “intelligence” efforts to prevent terrorism, suppression of dissent in the name of safety, and the global recession.  The only cuts in spending that would increase the health, safety and peacefulness of our planet are weapons and military and (with a handful of exceptions) the left is not doing nearly enough to call this out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Finding the Commons in Rescue of Chilean Miners


Last week’s rescue of the 33 Chilean miners was a massive media sensation. It was the kind of human interest story the media loves. The public’s interest had been building steadily since the San Jose mine collapsed on August 5, so when they were finally rescued, after 69 days, everyone tuned in and cheered. Unfortunately, there are important Commons-lessons that the media industry (at least in the U.S.) obscured in their coverage.

First, the mainstream coverage of the trapped miners missed a discussion of the dangers and damage wrought by the anti-Commons ethos of profits, exploitation and indifference. Although the United States was still seeing oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster that took the lives of 11 workers (by the way, today marks the 6-month anniversary of the explosion on the BP well), there was very little scrutiny of the corporate pathologies that led to both crises. Whether drilling for oil, or drilling for copper, neither industry tends to show much regard for the environment. And both BP and the San Esteban mining company had histories of workplace safety violations, and taking advantage of lax governmental regulations. In spite of all this, the Wall Street Journal declared (without any intentional irony) that “capitalism saved the Chilean miners.” [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allison-kilkenny/capitalism-didnt-save-the_b_765079.html]

The second lesson that the media got wrong was the Commons-based decision of the miners to share the proceeds of their story. Rather than cover the miners’ cooperative impulse in the same feel-good vein as they covered their rescue, reporters speculated about what it would take to break up this collective. The New York Daily News gleefully reported that some of the miners “may break pact of silence, for the right price.”

The rescue of the Chilean miners has certainly been a moving story, but it could be even more impactful if the media were willing to tell a fuller story.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Transit Cuts in Chicago: Update on LVEJO

As we mentioned in an earlier post, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) was one of the partners in a People’s Movement Assembly at this year’s US Social Forum. During the gathering, they lead an exercise on taking back the public transit system in Chicago, demonstrating that public control of the system was the only way to ensure fair and equal access to jobs, food, housing, etc. The participants experienced first-hand how LVEJO works “for a real voice in building democracy, including if, how, when and where any development of [their] communities takes place, as the basis for environmental, economic and social justice.

We now see that exercise taking place on the streets of Chicago, where LVEJO, in conjunction with Chicago I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) is coming up with a solution to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus cuts. LVEJO is raising money to buy buses and create a system that can pay bus drivers a living wage while still providing quality service. They are taking things into their own hands until the CTA can restore service, but as David Bollier points out in a blog post on this issue, “If the Little Village neighborhood is going to wait for the CTA to restore service, it could wait a long time.”

What would it look like if we had transit systems that were adequately funded and could apply some of the ingenuity these groups are showing? In the meantime, it’s DIY in Little Village.

For more information on LVEJO campaigns and how they link democracy with environmental and racial justice, please visit their website.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Columbus Day is Over

Across the U.S., many marked yesterday's national holiday with parades; some workers got the day off (at least some of those who haven’t already been laid off in this recession); and the banks took a break from the business of profiting from interest rates, fees and foreclosures. Among many of my facebook friends though, this day was mocked with sarcastic e-cards (below), and criticized with links to youtube videos asking us to “Reconsider Columbus Day.”

I also lament the legacy of colonization and enslavement brought about by Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic and am part of the 27% of Americans who think we shouldn’t be devoting a holiday to him. However, the analogy of “walking into someone’s house and telling them we live there now” lazily reinforces the anti-commons views that led to the bloody history begun by Columbus.

Equating the lands held in common by Native American tribes with a private home is a false equation and misrepresents many tribes’ commons approach to land. In fact, it was the commons-view of Native Americans that European conquerors saw as uncivilized because “there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.”

I’m by no means defending or apologizing for the enclosure of land that had been shared and held in common by Native Americans. But interpreting that horrific history only through our current framework of theft and ownership fails to honor the wisdom of traditional, commons-based patterns of native land tenure.


Note: to read more on the history of how the U.S. government dismantled the Native American communal approach to land, read two articles that Lewis Hyde wrote for On the Commons here and here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pat Cody

Last week a dear friend of mine named Pat Cody died at the age of 87.  I had known her since I was 24, and she was younger than I am now when we first met.  We worked together at an organization called the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women.  I was the first development director they had ever had, and this was my first development job.  The combination worked out very well, and Pat was a great part of the reason why. 

I have been thinking about why she was such a great person since I learned of her death.  She had many accomplishments to her name:  she and her husband, Fred, started one of the most successful independent bookstores in Berkeley called Cody’s Books, and ran that for 30 years.  Prior to owning the bookstore, they had lived in Mexico where they hung with the likes of Pablo Neruda and Diego Rivera.  They were Communist sympathizers, caught up in the suppression of dissent called the McCarthy Era.  Pat founded or helped to found a number of Berkeley institutions: the Berkeley Free Clinic, DES Action (her great passion for many years), and later Grandmothers Against the War

But what made her great was that I never learned any of the above from her.  She focused always on the future, bringing in lessons of the past without nostalgia or righteousness.  She had the mind of a steel trap and could bring to mind dates, names, and places with no effort at all.  She had learned Spanish in Mexico, but then rarely spoke it, yet when we went to the UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi in 1986, she easily talked with the Spanish speakers there. 

In our working relationship, she offered unconditional support, great enthusiasm, and gave me credit far past what was due to me for any success we experienced at the Coalition with fundraising. 

Pat introduced me to the idea that taxes were a good thing.  In the mid 1970’s, nonprofits could opt out of paying social security tax and I wanted us to do that, to save money. She was able to help me see that any short term gain from this move would only hurt all of us later, and that social security tax was our obligation to the entire society.  She was the first ‘commoner’ I ever knew, although she did not use that word to describer herself.

I did not see her very often in the past few years: I was too busy and I did not take into account that she would not always be around.  I missed some great opportunities and I regret that very much.  In terms of rough social equity, death is the great equalizer: it comes to us all and those that go on living are never entirely prepared for the shock of it. 

Although I was not as good a friend as I should have or could have been, I never got that message from Pat.  She was always glad to see me when she saw me, with no recriminations.

I only hope that I can offer that same unconditional loving support to the people who are younger than me that she gave me.

Pat, you live on!!!  Thanks.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Movement Moment

The Building Movement Project team just met in Oakland this past weekend. We meet in person twice a year and the meetings are always, in almost equal parts, fun, exhausting, stimulating, overwhelming, theoretical and practical. I am amazed at all we get done and daunted by what we commit ourselves to do.

One of the things we came back to over and over, from different angles, is the notion that this historical moment provides those of us who work in and around the nonprofit sector some important opportunities which we could easily miss if we simply hunker down and wait for the economy to get better.

While this current recession has caused enormous suffering, it has also created the space to promote profound economic change. Every economic assumption is up for grabs right now. People are talking about banking, regulations, compensation, the role of government, the role of the corporate sector in a deep and thoughtful way, and are asking fundamental questions. We of the progressive nonprofit sector need to get out in front of this “movement moment” and provide some suggestions and even some answers to the questions people have, and we must invite people to develop their own analysis. The right wing will happily provide simple easy to understand answers, largely beginning and ending with the frame “no taxes”. We must provide a simple easy to understand beginning frame which begins and ends with ‘the common good.” Peter Maurin, the teacher of Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, said that our job is “to create a society in which it is easy to be good.” There are many elements to this society, but it does presume a commitment to a rough social equity which will be achieved in part by a progressive tax system. The nonprofit sector can be instrumental in insisting on this, or we can be the primary organizational victims of not having it. It is our choice, and it must be made quickly.