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You’ve probably seen some stories about protests for higher wages and better working conditions at giant retail chains like Walmart and fast food restaurants like McDonald’s.   Perhaps you’ve even participated.  With another “day of action” for fast food workers coming soon, New Hampshire Slim showed up with a new song. 

To be honest, it would be more accurate to say Slim brought “new lyrics to an old song,” since he really has little musical talent.  But he’s inspired by Joe Hill, the legendary Wobbly, who figured that if he put new words to familiar tunes they’d be easier for workers to remember and sing.   

This one’s to the tune of “Deck the Halls”  and corresponds to legislation that will be considered in Concord next year.  You can fill in the fa-la-las.

 

Deck the halls with higher wages,

Raise the minimum in stages,

Index pay hikes to inflation,

Workers need fair compensation.

Higher pay for low-wage labor

Is the way to aid our neighbors.

Mickey D will you be willin’?

Help your workers feed their children.

Wages less than nine an hour

Gives too little buying power

Put it on your year-end wish list

Win a wage hike by next Christmas

NH Slim, December 2013

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Six hardy activists held signs outside the Concord NH Walmart store this morning in solidarity with workers calling for higher pay and more respectful working conditions.  The “Black Friday” protest was one of many across the country intended to put pressure on the nation’s largest employer and the concord 11-29-13 004 world’s largest retailer, which has built a business model on the lousy labor standards faced by its workers and those who produce the products it sells.

According to Making Change at Walmart, most of the company’s workers earn less than $25,000 a year.  Wages are so low that 42% of the company’s Massachusetts workers are eligible for subsidized health insurance, according to figures generated by the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis.

The Black Friday protests were coordinated by Making Change at Walmart,  a campaign challenging Walmart to help rebuild our economy and strengthen working families. Anchored by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), it unites  Walmart employees, union members, small business owners, religious leaders, community organizations, women’s advocacy groups, multi-ethnic coalitions, elected officials and ordinary citizens who believe that changing Walmart is a vital priority for the economic health of our communities.  Making Change works closely with OUR Walmart, an organization of employees, many of whom have taken risky actions to  insist on a more respectful work environment.  

It’s a busy season for “Days of Action.”  One focused on preserving Social Security will be held next Tuesday.  Another, focused on solidarity with fast food workers, will be held Thursday, December 5.   In addition to supporting the efforts of workers at low-wage retail chains and fast food restaurants, the actions can also boost support for legislation to raise the minimum wage at the national and state levels.

In New Hampshire, where the legislature abolished the state’s minimum wage in 2011, a bill to raise the wage for the state’s lowest workers in two steps to $9 an hour will be introduced in January.

Walmart can afford to raise wages.  Citing sources such as the annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, the web site “The Walmart 1%” says the six wealthiest Waltons, the heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton, have a net worth of $144.7 billion and that the family has as much wealth as 42% of the American population added together. 

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It was classic Caldicott in Concord last night at the NH Peace Action dinner: part biology lesson, part moral outrage, and part call to action.  The long-term impact of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, the longer-term impacts of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the still unfolding disaster at the Fukushima reactors in Japan have provided the Australian pediatrician with more than enough data to underline her call for nuclear plants to be shut down and nuclear weapons to be abolished.

Part of the problem, Dr. Caldicott told the audience at Concord’s City Auditorium, is an “unholy alliance” between the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose purpose includes promoting nuclear power.  And the IAEA still bases its health assessments on outdated analysis of the health impacts of the atomic bombings of Japan.  Different types of cancer have varying incubation periods, she said, and even now people in Japan areconcord 11-9-13 046 getting sick from the use of nuclear weapons 68 years ago.  Children in the Chernobyl vicinity are still being coming into the world with high rates of birth defects, she noted.

Another problem, she charged, is that physicists, not doctors, still dominate the discussion of radiation effects.  “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let those bastards get away with it,” she said, with passion in her voice and a twinkle in her eye.

“Large areas of the world are becoming contaminated by long-lived nuclear elements secondary to catastrophic meltdowns: 40 percent of Europe from Chernobyl, and much of Japan” Dr. Caldicott wrote in a recent NY Times op-ed, reprinted on her web site

As a doctor treating children with leukemia in Boston in the 1970s, Dr. Caldicott was a key figure that animated the No Nukes movement in New England and then re-awakened the nuclear disarmament movement of the early 1980s.  She served as President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, started the Women’s Party for Survival (which became Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament and lives on as Women’s Action for New Directions), and in 2001 formed the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, now known as Beyond Nuclear.  Through books, films, and lectures like the one last night, she has reached millions across the world with an alarming analysis of the dangers we face from nuclear power and concord 11-9-13 034 weapons.

Alarm is an appropriate state to be in.

High on Dr. Caldicott’s list of concerns right now is the need to remove damaged nuclear fuel rods form the melted-down reactors at Fukushima, where she said “they’re running out of workers”  and mistakes could be deadly. [see comment]

When Dr. Caldicott turned to her slide presentation, she began with a list of radioactive isotopes, then showed slides of birds and insects with genetic mutations associated with radiation spewed from Chernobyl 27 years ago. 

The nuclear industry is carcinogenic, she said, “and it’s going to kill people.  These people should be tried like Nazi war criminals.” 

Dr. Caldicott wound up her presentation with a shorter warning about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the influence weapons builders have over US military policy.  “Who runs the Pentagon?,” she asked.  “Lockheed Martin,” she answered.

There are still 20,000 H-bombs in the world, and the US and Russia control most of them.  “How dare America have enough weapons to destroy life on earth?  How dare the Russians?”

Dr. Caldicott’s pleas would have been strengthened by references to efforts by Beyond Nuclear and SAPL to concord 11-9-13 001 block a 20-year license extension for Seabrook Station and to the fact that Vermont Yankee (which she mentioned several times) is actually going to be closed after decades of No Nukes campaigning.  But at least she did follow Will Hopkins and Sandra Yarne, who talked about NH Peace Action’s current projects, including efforts to place “Move the Money” resolutions on New Hampshire Town Meeting warrants and city council agendas.  

One thing we’ve learned over the years: the best way to deal with the realistic dread that comes from living in the nuclear age is to work for a nuclear-free world.  

You can find out more about Dr. Helen Caldicott on her web site, http://www.helencaldicott.com/

 

 

 

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Chuck Collins, whose latest book is 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About it, spoke to the Henniker Peace Community yesterday. 

Chuck Collins didn’t come to Henniker to “foment antagonism or class warfare,” he said, but instead to encourage people to do some “simple math.”  It’s pretty much the same thing.

The richest 44 households in the USA hold more wealth than the poorest 95%, for example.  The wealthiest 1 percent controls 36 percent of US wealth and more than 42 percent of all financial assets. 

It hasn’t always been that bad.  According to Collins, there’s been a “dramatic upward redistribution of wealth” in the past three decades.  That was no accident, but followed policy changes in which the rules of the economy were “rigged” to benefit asset owners over wage earners.  “These are the folks we need to defend ourselves against,” he told an audience of more than fifty people at the Henniker Congregational Church.

Historically, Collins said Americans have been comfortable with wealth and income inequality as long as they thought the rules were fair.  But that has shifted since the 2008 Wall Street meltdown.  Now, 70 percent of Americans believe extreme henniker 11-3-13 005 inequality is a problem.

It’s a problem that can be addressed with three types of policy changes:

1) “Raise the floor,” through a higher minimum wage and a stronger safety net;

2) “Level the playing field,” through reforms of the political process, such as overturning the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision; and

3) “Break up concentrations of wealth and power.” 

It’s that third point that would meet the most resistance from the natural persons, organizations, and corporations where power and wealth are unfairly concentrated.  But there are specific steps to advocate, such as restoring the progressivity of US income taxes, raising the estate tax, closing loopholes that enable corporations to evade taxes by assigning profits to overseas subsidiaries, breaking up the megabanks, and imposing a tax on financial transactions.    Some of the One Percenters even agree.

One place we can take this message is into the presidential campaign, now warming up in both major parties.  New Hampshire and Iowa may soon be awash in candidates.  Let’s tell them what we think.

Author Hedrick Smith Tours New Hampshire with Answers and Proposals

That wages for typical U.S. workers have been stagnant since the mid-1970s is not breaking news to anyone who has paid attention, nor is the rise of wealth and income inequality that makes us the most unequal country in the so-called “developed world.” 

Forbes reported last month, “Five years after the financial crisis sent the fortunes of many in the U.S. and around the world tumbling, the wealthiest as a group have finally gained back all that they lost. The 400 wealthiest Americans are worth just over $2 trillion, roughly equivalent to the GDP of Russia.”  Such reports have gained more attention since the Occupy movement drove the concept of the “1%” into the national consciousness. 

Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute says “A key to understanding this growth of income inequality—and the disappointing increases in workers’ wages and compensation and middle-class incomes—is understanding the divergence of pay and productivity.”  [see chart]  Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011

But what was it that detached productivity from wages in the 1970s?  What started a trend that has continued pretty much unabated through all the booms and busts of the past five decades?  That’s the major theme of Who Stole the American Dream?, a new book by Hedrick Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who toured New Hampshire last week.  With a pace that might have made observers wonder if he’s running for president (he’s not), Smith spoke at three college campuses, one high school, 2013 10 24 NH AFL CIO 001 the NH AFL-CIO, the office of the NH Democratic Party, and community groups in Exeter and Amherst.  He also appeared on NHPR’s “The Exchange,” recorded an interview with Manchester Community TV, and joined me for an interview on WNHN-FM.

Smith told an audience that packed the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church that he set out to write a book on “the American dream at risk.”  That was until he did his research and concluded that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a wealthy elite was more extreme than he had realized. 

Smith attributes the beginning of the “bosses’ revolt” to an obscure memo written by Lewis Powell in 1971.  At the time the future Supreme Court Justice was a well-connected corporate lawyer, worried that the “the American economic system is under broad attack.” 

“Powell’s intention was to spark a full-scale political rebellion by America’s corporate leaders … to change the political and policy mainstream in Washington and to put the nation on a new track, a track more favorable to business,”  Smith writes in the opening chapter. 

“The over-riding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival – survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people,”  Powell warned the US Chamber of Commerce, the body that commissioned his paper.  His prescription gave particular attention to the mood on college campuses and the need for business to take charge of the intellectual environment, but above all called for business leaders to “be far more aggressive than in the past.”

Business responded.  “After having kept government at arm’s length, the business community massively expanded its physical presence in the nation’s capital,” Smith writes.  “In a few short years, more than 2000 companies set up Washington offices.  The number leapt from 175 in 1971 to 2445 a decade later.”  Leaders of the biggest corporations formed The Business Roundtable, the heaviest of the heavyweight business lobbies.  New think tanks, notably Heritage and Cato, sprang to life, and the American Enterprise Institute ballooned in size and influence.  The National Federation of Independent Businesses, the most powerful advocate for small business groups, grew from 300 members in 1970 to 600,000 in 1979. 

“By the late 1970s,” writes Smith, “business interests had mustered such a hugeconcord 10-23-13 008 force that they outnumbered Congress 130 to 1.  They had 130 lobbyists and advocates for each of the 535 members of Congress.”

Big business flexed its muscles big time during the 1977-78 Congressional session.  The business lobby took on Ralph Nader’s consumer movement and defeated the proposal to create a consumer safety agency.  They went head to head with organized labor and defeated plans for labor law reform.  They pushed for de-regulation of transportation, a new bankruptcy law that kept corporate leaders at the reigns of companies they had driven into debt, laid the groundwork for the decline of the defined benefit pension plan, and most important, won cuts in corporate and capital gains taxes.  The new tax law “gave the economic benefits of tax law primarily to the economic elites that were now exercising increased economic power,” says Smith. 

One aspect of this development is especially worth noting:  the revolt of the bosses began in part as a reaction to moves by President Richard Nixon, who Powell thought was overly sensitive to public pressure.  And the first big wins for the new business lobby came when Jimmy Carter was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  Ronald Reagan carried the Powell prescription forward, but it was already gaining bi-partisan momentum when Reagan gained the White House. 

Hedrick Smith’s strongest chapters are in the sections called “Dismantling the Dream,” “Unequal Democracy,” and “Middle Class Squeeze.”  With a blend of stories from downwardly mobile middle class workers and solid descriptions of the specific policies promoted by the business lobby, Smith provides ample details to explain why the bosses are winning. 

For example, he describes how Dirk Van Dongen, President of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, led the backroom lobbying that enabled George W. Bush and Karl Rove to push through another round of massive tax cuts benefitting the rich.  Despite public opposition, Van Dongen and his Gang of Six – the US Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, National Association of concord 10-23-13 015 Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Business, National Restaurant Association, and Van Dongen’s Association of Wholesalers – organized thousands of CEOs, district by district, to lobby for the tax cut.  “With a full court press by the Gang of Six reinforcing the White House push, the Bush tax bill, offering $1.35 trillion in tax cuts over a decade, passed the House by 240 – 154 in May 2001.”  The bill then cleared the Senate 58 – 33. 

“When economists did the numbers,” Smith writes, “they found that 52.5 percent of the Bush tax cuts went to the richest 5 percent of U.S. households.”  When joined with the off-budget trillions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tax cuts are the major contributor to the federal deficit that has right-wingers calling for cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  

Who Stole the American Dream also gives great descriptions of the shift from defined benefit pensions to largely self-funded 401-k plans, and the resulting insecure retirement faced by the baby boom generation.  In addition, the book has a good chapter on the housing bubble and sub-prime banking crisis that touched off the 2007 financial meltdown.  It details Wal-Mart’s decision to outsource production to China and the ripples this has sent through the US job market.  Smith also describes the outsourcing of knowledge-sector jobs to China and India.  Given that these are the jobs we were told would replace blue collar manufacturing, the implications are stark. 

That NAFTA is not mentioned at all and the World Trade Organization is mentioned only as a body that might help the U.S. improve its trade relations with China leads me to wonder what Smith thinks of the approach to global commerce brought to us by the same corporate lobbyists.  Likewise, I wonder how he sizes up the impact of Paul Volcker’s tight money policies during the Carter years.   Attention to the link between race and poverty would have provided valuable depth to Smith’s analysis.  But those quibbles aside, Hedrick Smith has answered his own question; we can read who stole the American dream and how they did it.

Smith confessed at a couple of talks that as a journalist he was somewhat reluctant to offer a prescription for middle class resurgence.  “Changing America’s direction will not be easy,” he writes at the beginning of his concluding section.  “It will happen only if there is a populist, grassroots surge demanding it, like the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s.”  That’s hard to argue with.

Instead of a bold plan to reverse the agenda foisted on the country by Lewis Powell, Dirk Van Dongen, and their legions of corporate lobbyists, Smith offers a conventional set of proposals to rebuild the infrastructure, rebuild American manufacturing, cut military spending, and protect the safety net.  Those are all admirable objectives, but Smith then states that progress is being held back by “partisan extremists,” as if the Left somehow shares responsibility with the Right for the rise of plutocracy. 

Instead of a resurgent Left, Smith calls for a resurgent “center.” Step 9 in his ten-2013 10 24 NH AFL CIO 005 point plan is “to regenerate the centrist core of American politics both by rejecting extremist candidates in both parties and by opening up our political process in every state to give more influence to moderate and independent voters.” 

This left me confused.  Smith understands and states clearly that “Democrats have been dragged toward the right by the gravitational pull of the Republican Right.”  That means the “center,” a function of political geometry, has moved right as well.  That’s the wrong place to look for inspiration and answers.  Throngs chanting, “What do we want?  Moderation!  When do we want it?  Now!” won’t worry Dirk Van Dongen and his Gang of Six. 

Writing recently in The Nation, Gar Alperovitz starts an article on “Renovating the American Dream”

Everyone knows the United States faces enormous challenges: unemployment, poverty, global warming, environmental decay—to say nothing of whole cities that have essentially been thrown away. We know the economic system is dominated by powerful corporate institutions. And we know the political system is dominated by those same institutions. Elections occur and major fiscal debates ensue, but most of the problems are only marginally affected (and often in ways that increase the burdens).

The issue is not simply that our situation is worrisome. It is that the nation’s most pressing problems are built into the structure of the system. They are not unique to the current economic slump or the result of partisan bickering, something passing in the night that will go away when we elect forward-looking leaders and pressure them to move in a different direction.

For Alperovitz, whose latest book is What Then Must We Do?, the answers come from building democratic economic institutions, such as worker-owned enterprises, state-owned banks, and a state-by-state transition to a single-payer health insurance system.   When combined with active resistance to plutocracy, that route is promising.

Alongside his plea for a resurgent “center,” Hedrick Smith also calls for a mass uprising against the plutocrats,

“an army of volunteers prepared to battle for the common cause of reclaiming the American Dream.  Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs in more than fifteen cities around the country began that process, focusing more of the national dialogue on the hyper-concentration of wealth and power in America – the costly divide of gross inequality between the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent.  But for significant long-term impact, either Occupy will need to mature or some new movement will need to emerge with broader participation, better organization, more clearly articulated goals, and specific policy targets.”

Bring it on!

 

Today the government of Iran executed 16 so-called “rebels” by hanging, reportedly in retaliation for the killing of 14 guards at the Pakistani border.  Barbaric, isn’t it?

Hanging is still a permitted method of execution in the State of New Hampshire, too.  Sound barbaric?  Think all forms of state-sponsored execution are barbaric?

If you said “yes,” then it’s time to join a growing campaign to wipe the death penalty off New Hampshire’s law books for good.  The New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty publicly launched its “Road to Repeal” this month with a statewide speaking tour by Kirk Bloodsworth and a State House news conference.  The news conference drew religious leaders, former police officers, lawmakers from both major parties, and the judge who presided over the state’s homicide trials during his tenure as Chief Justice of the state’s Superior Court system. 

Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row based on DNA evidence that another man was responsible for the crime which nearly sent the ex-Marine to the gas chamber, delivered lectures at UNH Durham, Keene State College, ad Winnacunnet High School in Hampton.  He also met with hampton 10-11-13 003 reporters and lawmakers, many of whom said they were moved by his story of surviving death row. 

Bloodsworth was arrested in 1984 and charged with the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.  He always maintained his innocence, but it was not until he read a book about the use of DNA to capture killers in England that he found a way to free himself after more than 8 years behind bars.  “What happened to me could happen to anybody,” he told everyone he spoke to.  Bloodsworth noted that of the 144 people exonerated from death row in recent , only 18 have used DNA evidence.  “How many more innocent people do we have in prison?” he asked. 

Regardless of guilt, though, Bloodsworth said “you can’t kill a person to say killing is wrong.”  That’s a sentiment that has the approval of Bishop Rob Hirschfeld of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and Bishop Peter Libasci of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, both of whom spoke to reporters, lawmakers, and repeal advocates in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building on October 24. 

“The death penalty neither deters others nor brings the perpetrator to

road-to-repeal understanding but validates the taking of a human life,” the Catholic leader said.  Bishop Hirschfeld called on everyone to “refuse to be contaminated by the sin of violence” and to resist the temptation to demand retribution for horrible crimes.

Ray Dodge, who served as Chief of Police for the Town of Marlborough, said “mistakes are inevitable” in our criminal justice system, no matter how skilled, experienced, and well-intentioned are the officers and prosecutors charged with bringing perpetrators to justice.  

Following the former chief, former Chief Justice Walter Murphy delivered a lengthy speech, drawing on his years in court and his more recent experience as Chair of a legislatively created commission to study the state’s death penalty.  “There is not one whit of evidence that the death penalty deters crime,” he said, and certainly no more deterrent effect than the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which is the statutorily mandated sentence for first degree murder. 

Murphy noted that the case of Michael Addison, convicted in 2008 for the 2006 slaying of Michael Briggs, has already cost the state more than $5 million “and I’m told it will be double that by the time they finish the appeals.”  Those funds press conf 1-24-13 could easily be put to better use, he said. 

Rep. Renny Cushing, the repeal bill’s prime sponsor, said this is a “moment in history,” pointing out the fact that the 2012 gubernatorial election featured two major party candidates who opposed the death penalty.  Governor Maggie Hassan, who prevailed at the ballot box in 2012, has indicated she opposes the death penalty on moral grounds and would sign a repeal bill as long as it does not undo the Addison sentence. 

The repeal bill is the first on the list of nearly 700 bills already filed for the 2014 legislative session.  Joining Cushing as legislative co-sponsors are an impressively diverse array of lawmakers, including liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, pro-choice and right-to-lifers, leading “free staters,” and three Representatives who lost their fathers to homicide.  Passage will require their hard labor, but also the work of citizens who agree it’s time for the death penalty to be repealed.  The best way to get on the road to repeal is to join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

The Concord Monitor asked for short essays on novels which affected their readers in their youth.  Here’s what I sent:

It’s hard to choose between George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, two books which informed and inspired the anti-authoritarian spirit of my high school years. Both novels center on an “everyman” hero trapped in a world whose rules crush the human spirit. Both gave their titles to the English language.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, peered into the future and foresaw a society in which the state crushes all dissent and Big Brother is always watching. Propaganda determines which thoughts are thinkable. Perpetual war keeps the populace focused on external enemies. Lies are truth. Resistance is futile.

Catch 22, published in 1961, looked backward to the European theatre of World War Two. Where Orwell’s world was grim, Heller’s was absurd, filled with unforgettable characters. Who can forget Major Major, with whom a soldier could only meet when he wasn’t there? Or Milo Minderbinder, the entrepreneurial mess hall officer who makes a fortune selling chocolate-covered cotton? Amidst the horrors of battle, the hero Yossarian knows he’s sane because the war has driven him crazy. Resistance is imperative.

Together, these novels equipped me with a readiness to question authority and spot the absurd. How else can one face a time when the government of the world’s leading democracy is tracking your phone calls and the person who reveals the truth is a wanted criminal? How else can we understand politicians who use the term “right to work” to mean “work without rights?” Resistance is imperative. Laughter is essential.

October 5, 2013

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