Posts Tagged ‘corporations’

Glimpses of the 2016 World Social Forum

With 200 simultaneous workshops spread among a dozen university buildings in several Montreal neighborhoods,  it was a little challenging to recognize the scope of the 2016 World Social Forum.  Nonetheless, it was clear from day one that thousands of people were there, and that it feels good to be part of a global social movement bringing together people dedicated to human rights, social justice, alternatives to predatory capitalism, and a halt to climate disruption.

We couldn’t see or experience it all, but here’s a few glimpses we captured along the way…

“I Went Looking for Ghosts and Found Coffee”

At the Forum’s opening ceremony we were drawn to a group of people with a banner about the 43 students kidnapped and presumably killed by police 2 years ago in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.  They invited me to attend a session with David Schmidt. 

Although—or perhaps because—he was raised in a fundamentalist family with aP8110109 profound fear of demons, Schmidt says he’s been fascinated by ghost stories since he was a boy.  It was the stories about fantastic creatures and weird occurrences he heard from Mexican friends that prompted him to visit a village deep in the mountains of Oaxaca.  There, he not only learned about the spiritual lives of the region’s Mixtec residents, but he also learned why so many people are forced to emigrate and about the raising of coffee.

In later travels, he learned about the benefits of fair trade for coffee growers.   One could say he’s become an evangelist for fair trade coffee, which he says has been a great boon to the Mixtec village where he had lived.  “Now when I go back it’s not a ghost town anymore.”

He’s a good writer and an excellent story-teller.  You can find out more from his website, Holy Ghost Stories.

Dismantling Corporate Power

dismantle corp power

There were dozens of sessions coordinated under the umbrella, “People and the Planet Before Profit.”  I tried to get into one called “A North-South Dialogue on Extractivism,” but all the seats were full and people were already standing in the doorway.

Instead, I went down the hall to “Corporate Rights or Human Rights? The case of Investor State Dispute Settlement.”  This forum on the impact of bilateral investment treaties and the investor rights provisions of multi-lateral “trade” agreements brought together three dozen well informed people from several countries.  As trade justice activists have been pointing out since NAFTA went into effect 22 years ago, P8110129these agreements allow investors to bring claims before private tribunals (also known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process) if they believe laws or regulations hamper their potential for profit.  The process is based on commercial arbitration practices, not on judicial review. A United Nations database lists 696 “Known treaty-based investor-state arbitrations,” 26% of which have led to rulings on the side of investors.  

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Obama plans to put before Congress during the “lame duck” session after the election, includes an Investor Rights/ISDS chapter, as does the pending Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) and TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that the Obama administration has been quietly negotiating with the European Union.   

Given the dominant role played by Canada-based firms in the global mining industry,  it was no surprise that extractive industries merited a lot of attention.  The session was the first I heard of a global campaign called “Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity!”  This campaign critiques P8110133voluntary corporate codes of conduct and is calling for a “binding instrument” through the UN to hold trans-national corporations accountable for human rights violations.    

The concept is not just backed by radical NGOs.  It also has support from the UN Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution in 2014 “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, whose mandate shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.”  The Working Group’s next meeting will be in Geneva in October.  

Wandering the Halls

In the evening we tried to attend one of the 22 “Grand Conferences,” or large lectures featuring major speakers.  Our choice was “Change the System, not the Climate,” with Naomi Klein and others on the agenda.  In the tunnel underneath the Judith Jasmin Building at the University of Quebec at Montreal,P8110145 we found a line of people waiting to get in.  Working our way to the end, we snaked through corridors, up stairs, around corners, walking for 5 or 10 minutes before reaching the end, where we introduced ourselves to an organizer from Quebec City who works on climate with retired public sector workers. 

After another 5 or 10 minutes moving forward in line we were told the crowd capacity of the hall had been reached. But we were also told we could stay in line and attend a different “Grand Conference,” this one called “Education, Environment and eco-citizenship: the art of living together.”  That sounded interesting.  But again, after a few minutes we were told the room was at capacity, so we wandered some more in the below-ground corridor that connected several UQAM buildings.  Soon we found ourselves back in a line, which we followed into an auditorium that turned out to be the forum on “eco-citizenship.” 

There, the program was in French, with no translation.  Given the limitations of our French comprehension, we decided to leave and spent an enjoyable hour browsing tables set up by left-wing (mostly anarchist-leaning) bookstores.  We also met Ricardo Levins Morales and bought a couple posters.  (Visit his Art for Social Justice website.)

Workers of the World Take on “Free Trade”

On Friday morning I decided to check out a forum on “unions and trade P8120176agreements.”  This time I got there early enough to get a seat and a headset; the session was going to have translation.  The panel had a French-speaking moderator and speakers came from Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, the Basque region, Tunisia, and Mexico. Then there were “interveners” from Argentina, Colombia, and Belgium.

Because the translation was not well done (especially from Spanish to English) I may have missed a lot.  What I got was a well-informed but pretty standard discourse on why “free trade” agreements are bad for workers.  A few key points:

  • Some Swiss communities have declared themselves “TISA-Free Zones.”  TISA is the “Trade In Services Agreement,” a profoundly dangerous proposal that obviously has gotten more attention there than in the USA.
  • The labor chapters of the trade agreements are weak.
  • There is a need for convergence of labor with different struggles, e.g. climate.
  • The advent of the neo-liberal trade agenda has created a need for unions to work together, including along North-South lines.  It’s about time!
  • There will be a “Continental Day of Action for Democracy and Against Neo-Liberalism” on November 4.  More info here in Spanish.

jornada continental

There were several topics I would have love to hear more about:

  • How are labor movements responding to the opposition to neo-liberal trade agreements that are rooted in nativism?
  • What have we learned from successful and unsuccessful resistance to other agreements?
  • How is labor building alliances with other sectors that would be harmed by privatization and deregulation of services in a Trade In Services Agreement?

Unfortunately, there was no time left for questions or discussion after the 6 panelists, 3 interveners, and 5 more short speeches.

Border Struggles and Migrants Rights

The afternoon workshop on migration benefited from a good facilitator, 4 speakers who were able to deliver their comments clearly and briefly, and a good translator (once we got the proper headsets instead of the ones that were translating the speakers in the adjacent lecture hall). 

Stefanie Kron, the moderator, started out by noting the exclusion of hundreds of Social Forum participants from the Global South whose visas were denied by the Canadian government, an example of harsh policies targeting migrants.  She also noted the “externalization” of border controls by the EU and the US governments, such as the US push on Mexico to increase the number of migrants it arrests and deports crossing its southern borders (see my recent article).  On the other hand, she noted the rise of transnationally connected movements for the rights of migrants.

I was impressed with the comments of Mostafa Henaway, from the ImmigrantP8120224 Workers Center, a Montreal group that’s been around for more than 15 years.  He described problems with guest worker programs in which the rights of workers to migrate is tied to specific employers, a condition which makes it risky for workers to demand just conditions.  Nevertheless, organizing is going on, including a hunger strike protesting indefinite detention.  He also noted that Canada is the 2nd largest exporter of arms to the Middle East, giving the country some share of responsibility for the violence that has caused so many people to flee.  

Later, in response to my question about building alliances between movements for peace and movements for the rights of immigrant workers, he observed that the immigrants’ rights movement in Canada is rooted in anti-xenophobic sentiments that flowed from the beginning of the “war on terror” after the 9-11 attacks.  

P8120255Rosa Nelly Santos, from Honduras, talked about the large numbers of people who have fled due to hunger and terror.  Thousands of migrants have just disappeared; their families don’t know if they died on the road or what.  Her organization, COFAMIPRO, brings together mothers to search for their missing children. 

She also emphasized that the right not to migrate, i.e. the right to have a decent, secure life at home, has to be an emphasis along with the rights of migrants.   

In the end, Stefanie Kron outlined 4 points for further attention:


  1. Opening and preserving legal channels for migration,
  2. Strengthening trans-national organizing,
  3. Raising the visibility of the migration issue within the Social Forum process, and
  4. Organizing additional trans-national gatherings.

Sounds like a good agenda to me.

“People and Planet Over Profit”

The final official event we attended was a Convergence Assembly on free trade and extractivism.  In Forum-speak, a “convergence assembly is a gathering focused on presentations of initiatives for action.  These assemblies aim to broaden the coalitions of civil society that work in related fields and wish to act together.  They are a step to build or reinforce an international network of actors of change that give themselves priorities of action.”

What that meant in this case was a lively program with short speeches touching on resistance to pipelines in Canada, tailings dams in Brazil, mining in Guatemala, and “free trade” agreements everywhere.  The November 4 Day of Action for Democracy and Against Neo-Liberalism was promoted, as was the call for a week of action to confront corporate impunity when the inter-governmental working group on transnational corporations meets in Geneva in October.

This assembly had good translators, effective facilitators that kept the program moving at a quick pace, a few minutes for participants to meet people in nearby seats, and even an open mic time for participants to speak about their own projects.  Throughout the program, one activist added to a global map every time a new campaign was described and the projectionist located relevant web pages as actions were announced.  



This was one of 22 convergence assemblies that took place during the week.  It was a good way to end the day.

When the Forum ended, organizers reported

The World Social Forum (WSF) is very proud of this 12th edition of the WSF, the first to be held in a Northern country.  The event counted 35,000 participants, including 15,000 who were present at the opening march, where 125 countries were represented. Let’s remember that at the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001, 20,000 people took part in the event. Therefore, considering such numbers, the organizers are more than satisfied as to the results of a first World Social Forum held in a Northern country.

In total, 1,300 self-managed activities took place, as well as 200 cultural activities and 6 parallel forums, the organizers said.  In addition, the planning involved 26 self-managed committees. 

By next week we should be able to find a calendar of initiatives posted on the World Social Forum website.  See you there!

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Stamp Stampede, an organization founded by Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s, held a rally at the State House in Concord on July 30 to bolster efforts to "stamp money out of politics."  I was one of the speakers.  The following is based on my prepared remarks.  Click here for a video of what I actually said.

Quakers say no one has all the truth and everyone has a piece of the truth, soP7300025

we need to look for truth in unusual places.  It’s interesting that one of the prophets we look to now is Dwight Eisenhower, a 5-star general, who warned about “the acquisition of unwarranted power by the military industrial complex.”

Pentagon contractors invested $27 million in candidates for Congress in the 2012 election cycle.

Just the top ten Pentagon contractors spent $23 Million on politics.  For that they received $202 billion in contracts last year.   Not a bad return on investment.

The Pentagon contractors spend $128 million a year spent on lobbying, conducted in many cases by former members of Congress, former Pentagon officials, former high-level Congressional staff members.  This is what we call the “revolving door.”

They hold job fairs for retiring generals and admirals looking for lucrative careers selling weapons back to their former colleagues. 


They sponsor trade groups, such as the Aerospace Industries Association, the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition, the Submarine Industrial Base Council, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (the trade group for drone makers), the Shipbuilders Council of America, the Surface Navy Association, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, and more.

They sponsor “think tanks.”

They sponsor the media, for example Politico’s “Morning Defense” newsletter, brought to me each day by Northrup Grumman.

They even donate to the pet charitable projects of spouses of members of the Congressional armed service committees.

P7300029This is a classic case of what we call “governing under the influence,” or GUI.

And it’s not just the military industrial complex:

It’s the Wall Street industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industrial complex, the fossil fuel industrial complex, and more,

They are all practicing GUI to corrupt the political process and serve private interest at the public’s expense.

If DUI is a hazard to the people on our roads and sidewalks, GUI is a hazard to democracy.

If DUI needs to be approached as a public health problem of great importance, GUI needs to be seen as a political health problem of the greatest importance.

But while DUI is a crime, GUI is entirely legal.  And it’s gotten more legal due to the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions which further opened the gates for floods of cash to flow into the political system from billionaires aP7300017nd corporations. 

The rich are getting richer.

The mega-rich are getting mega- richer.

The giga-rich are getting giga-richer.

And it is easy for them to recycle their wealth into the political system to generate policies that generate more wealth for themselves, leading to higher inequality, less democracy.   

Eisenhower said only “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing” of industrial might with democracy’s needs.

Article 10 of the New Hampshire Bill of Rights says:

Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government.

We say people power can be stronger than corporate power and we say today we have not yet exhausted all other means of redress.  

We are calling on the candidates to tell us what they will do to end the GUI system.

We are asking:

What will they do to make sure the corporations that profit from building weapons of mass destruction are not determining our foreign policy?

What will they do to make sure corporations that own and manage prisons are not running our immigration and corrections policies?

What will they do to make sure our police departments don’t become just another profit center for the military industrial complex?

What will they do to make sure our political system is based on the principle of one person one vote, not the principle of one dollar one vote?

So far we have trained more than 500 people in NH and a couple hundred more in Iowa.  The GUI project is putting the candidates on the spot and documenting their responses.

The GUI system is strong, but not invulnerable.  It has a crack that opens in NH and Iowa.

We have a little over six months to make sure the candidates hear from us.

End GUI.

Stamp money out of politics.


Ben Cohen, founder of Stamp Stampede

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I wrote this for the Governing Under the Influence blog.

In 1776, the signers of the Declaration of Independence stated that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” But in these days of rising escalating economic inequality, unlimited campaign spending, and a multibillion-dollar lobbying industry mostly devoted to corporate interests, the consent of the governed often seems irrelevant in the corridors of power. 

"Governing under the Influence" or “GUI.”  That’s what we call the interconnected web of campaign spending, lobbying, and revolving doors between Capitol Hill, lobbying firms, think tanks, and the Pentagon that feed private interests at the expense of public good.

Governing under the Influence can be seen at work in how public officials spend our taxpayer dollars. Let’s look at U.S. military spending, for example. Since President Eisenhower coined the phrase, the “military-industrial complex” has grown to include outsourcing of government surveillance, transforming the U.S.-Mexico border into a war zone, converting police into paramilitary forces, and turning over the military’s own core functions to private contractors.  

Lockheed Martin is a prime example of corporate influence on public policy. The corporation is the Pentagon’s top contractor. It spends over $14 million a year on lobbying, and its employee PAC (political action committee) raises another $4 million for campaign contributions. Lockheed’s 71 registered lobbyists include a former US Senator and 2 former US Representatives, one of whom chaired the committee which oversees the DOE’s nuclear weapons budget.

Norman Augustine, the corporation’s former CEO, is now co-chair of a government panel on nuclear weapons that has called for relaxed oversight of weapons labs and more lucrative contracts for private companies, such as Lockheed, that run them.   (See “Nuclear Weapons Complex: Foxes Guard Chickens.”)  The current CEO, Marillyn Hewson, sits on the International Advisory Board of The Atlantic Council, a think tank with close ties to the military and foreign policy elite.    

What does Lockheed Martin get from its investment and connections? More than $25 billion in government contracts every year. Lockheed is the primary contractor on the F-35 fighter plane, the most expensive weapons system in Pentagon history, and it also runs the Sandia nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico.  According a report of the Department of Energy’s Inspector General, released last November, Lockheed has illegally used funds from nuclear weapons contracts to lobby for more contracts.  (See “Nuclear weapons lab used taxpayer funds to obtain more taxpayer funds” from the Center for Public Integrity for details.)

This may be business as usual in Washington, and sometimes it’s easier to shrug our shoulders and give in to the thinking that this system will never change.

But something is bubbling up in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first contests for the 2016 presidential nominations will take place. There, the Governing Under the Influence (GUI) project is reminding candidates that the interests of the people must come first.

With seven months to go before the Iowa caucuses, we’ve already trained more than 500 volunteers to “bird dog” candidates about the excessive corporate influence that drives our country toward more wars, more prisons, and more violence. Our team of volunteers is at town halls, fairgrounds, living rooms, TV studios, city sidewalks—anywhere candidates appear—to ensure these issues get the attention they deserve. 

The GUI project isn’t partisan; it’s not about ranking the candidates or telling anyone how they should vote. It’s about shifting the political discourse by exposing forces that steer us in the wrong direction. And we’ve already seen results, drawing out responses from close to 20 candidates and garnering attention from media outlets like the Boston Globe, Fox News, and Huffington Post.

This Fourth of July, join us in declaring independence from corporate rule.  If “just powers” come from the consent of the governed, the GUI project may be just the thing to bring about change.

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Money is Not Speech and Constitutional Rights are for Human Beings

Following an unusually placid series of votes approving budget items, Canterbury, New Hampshire’s annual Town Meeting came to life during a debate over a resolution calling for a Constitutional Amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

Discussion began with a well delivered speech by Laurie Lockwood, who said that due to the 2010 ruling, “there can now be no effective restraint placed on campaign spending by corporations, Political Action Committees, unions,  or groups of any kind.  If you have a mailbox, a radio, or a TV, you are aware of the results.”

Lockwood explained that the purpose of the resolution is to pressure Congress to act, in accord with Article Five of the US Constitution.  Amendments are rare, P3130042

Laurie Lockwood

but not unprecedented, she said, and it is our duty as citizens to take action.

The resolution was pretty straightforward, calling on the town’s elected officials to support an amendment to the US Constitution establishing that “only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights; and money is not speech, and  therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

Without change, according to Lockwood, we will have more “nasty, expensive elections that discourage participation, and we end up with representatives who are indebted to wealthy and powerful interests.”

In a thinly veiled reference to the brothers Koch, Lockwood said “fossil fuel interests have already pledged to spend a billion dollars on the 2016 elections.” 

When she finished, many town residents applauded and it looked for a moment like we might proceed to a vote without further remarks.  But Howard Moffett, a retired attorney who serves as one of Canterbury’s State Representatives, decided to share his reservations.  Although he had voted for similar resolutions at the State House, he said he was concerned that language calling for the end of corporate personhood went too far.  He said he would have preferred the resolution was drafted differently, but that he would support it because “we just have too much money in our politics drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.” 

Rep. Moffett’s statement elicited a invitation for him to elaborate on his concerns and a request for information about how the resolution had been drafted.  Rep. Moffett spoke again briefly, and I addressed the origin of the resolution and its relationship to others being considered all over the country, which together can create a groundswell of pressure on Congress to act even if they don’t share theP3130015 exact same wording.  

Another voter asked about corporate personhood, which brought Laurie Lockwood to the microphone again for a short history lecture. 

Finally Judy Elliott took the floor.  “We want to make it clear that corporations do not have the right to spend unlimited money on elections.”  That was the last word.

Wayne Mann, the town’s Moderator, called for a vote, which in Canterbury is conducted by voters waving a green card for “yes” or a red card for “no.”  There were a few “no” votes, but no doubt that the resolution had the overwhelming support of the citizens present.   

The vote followed weeks of organizing by a small, informal committee of Canterbury residents who worked together to draft the resolution, collect petition signatures, organize an educational program at the library, and talk up the issue in town.   Canterbury now joins dozens of other New Hampshire towns, and hundreds across the country, that are calling for the Constitution to be amended.  

Disclosure: the photos of people voting were taken during earlier votes, not the vote on Article 9, the resolution on Citizens United.




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“Even a Senator Can Learn Something”

I wrote this for the American Friends Service Committee’s “Governing Under the Influence” website.  See more at http://gui.afsc.org/

The Concord Snowshoe Club, a rustic and out-of-the-way venue in New Hampshire’s capital city, was the site of a kick-off event for Senator Lindsey Graham’s possible presidential campaign on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Hosted by the City Republicans, the “Politics and Pies” event was free, open to GOP members and unaffiliated voters, and open as well to the press.  Senator Graham arrived on time, took a position by the fireplace, gave a short speech about his priorities, and responded to questions for more than an hour.

Graham is an aggressively hawkish critic of President Obama’s foreign and military policy, but at the same time takes a perspective on domestic issues that tends P3080063toward the pragmatic rather than the ideological.   Immigration is an example.

Graham was among the 14 Republicans who voted with the Senate majority for a complex immigration reform bill in 2013.  Had it passed the House, the bill would have increased funds for “border security” (i.e. more police, soldiers, weapons, and fences for the US-Mexican border) and created a tortuous path that would have enabled many of the country’s 11 million undocumented residents to gain legal status and qualify eventually for citizenship.  Graham described it as a “rational and practical” approach to immigration.

In the Q&A session, I asked Senator Graham about the budget provision which mandates that federal authorities have 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day.   “The big beneficiaries of this seem to be the private prison companies, the for-profit companies, which is where about half of the immigrants are housed.  And of course they turn around the profits and lobby for more prisons and immigration policies that benefit them,” I said, asking how we can get to a rational policy in the face of such realities.

“I thought I knew everything about immigration until now,” Senator Graham responded.  “Even a Senator can learn something.”

Without discussing the detention bed mandate, Senator Graham launched into an explanation of the need for immigration reform, starting with the fact that the reason so many immigrants are coming here is to work and that the country has a long-term labor shortage.   The Senator also believes GOP support for immigration reform will help the party woo Hispanic voters.

In response to a question from Rev. Dwight Haynes about a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Graham said he “would like to control money in politics to the extent that it will destroy the political process.”

“Here’s what we’re going to lose in democracy if we don’t have control over the money.  The most influential people in the country will be the ones with the most money, and the ads you see on TV ad nauseum, you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know who’s responsible for them.”  Graham said he wouldP3080048 support a constitutional amendment as long as it applies to union funds as well as funds from corporations.   Then he joked he wouldn’t walk as far as Granny D did. 

Senator Graham spent much of the time outlining his support for higher levels of military spending, aggressive action in the Middle East, and a “generational struggle to defeat radical Islam.”

“You could close Gitmo tomorrow and give the Palestinians everything they’ve ever hoped for and this would still be trying to kill us, Israel and everybody that disagrees with them because God commands them to do so,” he said.  “They’re crazy.”

Senator Graham has launched a political committee, Security Through Strength, to help him “’test the waters’ for a potential 2016 run for president.”  We can look forward to picking up where this discussion left off next time he’s in town. 

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This article was first published in the Concord Monitor, January 15, 2015

When President Lyndon Johnson reached Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by phone on January 15, 1965, it wasn’t to offer birthday greetings. The president wanted to strategize about voting rights.

The two leaders were at the peak of their popularity. King had recently returned from Oslo with the Nobel Peace Prize and was gearing up a voting rights campaign centered in Selma, Alabama. Johnson, elected by a landslide two months earlier, had boldly called for “enforcement of the civil rights law and elimination of barriers to the right to vote” for African Americans in his January 7 “State of the Union” speech.

“We take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is,” the president told Dr. King. “That’s right,” King responded.

But between the two leaders and realization of voting rights stood the power of southern politicians and the often violent enforcement of white supremacy that blocked blacks from the voting rolls in southern states. In Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was the major city, only 335 blacks were registered to vote by fall, 1964, despite repeated efforts. Outside Selma, black majority rural counties had no black voters at all. Attempts to register could provoke beatings, firings, or worse.

Before the Selma-based campaign led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of people would be arrested for peaceful protests, dozens would be beaten, and at least three – Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo– would be murdered by white supremacists. In Jackson’s case, the killer was a state trooper. (Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student from Keene, would be murdered three weeks after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.)

One Person, One Vote Principle is Under Attack

Fifty years later the principle of one person, one vote is again under attack, though the forces arrayed against democracy are less bloody.

For starters, federal election law been tilting toward the power of dollars and away from votes – just look at the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. In a 2013 case, Shelby vs. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School calls “a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting.” Congress has power to rewrite the provision and restore this power to the Justice Department but has taken no action to date.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Court famously affirmed the principles that corporations are people and money is speech, thus opening the gates for floods of corporate cash to pour into the election system. In 2014’s McCutcheon decision, the Court enabled donors to invest as much as $2.4 million in congressional candidates every two years. Then Congress piled on at year’s end with a last-minute amendment to the budget bill that raised the limits on contributions to political parties from $97,200 a year to $776,000.

Meanwhile the states have again become major battlegrounds for voting rights. According to the Brennan Center, 21 states, including New Hampshire, have approved measures to restrict voting since 2010. These include Voter ID requirements, laws making it harder to register, reduced voting hours, and measures making it harder for people with criminal records to regain their voting rights.

Race Still Drives Attacks on Voting Rights

“Race was also a significant factor,” the Brennan Center reports. “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election.”

New Hampshire is likely to see further efforts to erode voting rights in 2015. Bills to restrict same-day registration and suppress student voting are on the legislature’s agenda.

It’s not like the country has a problem of too many people voting. Nationwide, only 35.9% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014. In New Hampshire, 47.6% of eligible voters went to the polls – hardly a figure to be proud of if we really believe in government of the people by the people and for the people.

Fortunately, lawmakers and voting rights advocates are taking action. In New Hampshire, bills are being proposed to make it easier to cast absentee ballots and to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the General Election.

A bi-partisan bill to put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act is likely to return to Congress. At the grassroots level, a growing nationwide movement is calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish clearly that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are intended for actual persons, not corporations, and that government regulation of campaign finance can be accomplished without infringing on political speech. In New Hampshire, more than 50 communities already have adopted resolutions backing such a measure.

The January 19 holiday marking Dr. King’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision on January 21 can be occasions for us to re-assert our commitment to democracy. Shall we overcome?

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“One Day Longer, One Day Stronger”


With an inflatable corporate pig hovering behind them, hundreds of IBEW and CWA members with their allies rallied at the State House yesterday calling for a fair contract with FairPoint Communications.

The two unions went on strike ten weeks ago following months of frustrated bargaining before and after their contract expired on August 2.

“In April, FairPoint came out with their one contract proposal,” IBEW leader Glenn PC190063 Brackett said, waving his index finger while speaking from a stage attached to a Teamsters truck parked next to the State House.

The unions made three comprehensive proposals and even offered $200 million in concessions, Brackett said. But the company has refused to deal and lied to the public along the way. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of consumers have complained to the Public Utilities Commission that the company, which took over Verizon’s New Hampshire landlines in 2008, is not providing the services for which it is getting paid.  Vermont’s E-911 system has been among the casualties, as has the City of Nashua’s internet service. 

“This company has no credibility,” Brackett charged.

“The corporation is in North Carolina and this morning they have internet.  They’ve got 911 and their telephones work,” Brackett said.  “Why?  Because FairPoint does not provide services to the communities in which their executives live.” [see video] 

“How long will the State of New Hampshire allow its public safety to be threatened by a company frPC190054om North Carolina?,” Brackett asked. 

Strikers and supporters took a few circuits around the State House lawn, chanting and chatting, while  Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter and retired IBEW member Linda Horan greeted them as they went by.  Other political figures in the crowd included State Representative Renny Cushing and State Senators Jeff Woodburn, Donna Soucy, and Lou D’Allesandro. 

The crowd left the State House at about 12:30 pm and walked a few blocks to the FairPoint office on South Street, where they chanted some more and tauntedPC190065 strikebreakers who were looking down from company windows. 

The conflict is not just about wages and benefits.  Central to FairPoint’s strategy is its intent to outsource jobs now held by union members.  The unions points out that the service problems consumers are experiencing now will become the norm if FairPoint can hire unqualified contractors to perform functions now carried out by experienced union workers. 

The conflict over contracting out is emblematic of developments in the larger PC190064

economy, where outsourcing via staffing agencies is becoming the norm in ever larger sectors of the labor market.  Strong unions are about all that stops the slide toward a disposable workforce.

That may be why clergy from the United Church of Christ have decided to speak up about the FairPoint strike.  In a column published in the Valley News, they wrote:

So here we are today: hedge fund corporate owners versus dedicated New Hampshire (and Maine and Vermont) workers who have the courage to take a stand to protect the kinds of jobs that sustain families and strong communities. Shades of Moses standing up against Pharaoh’s hard heart, perhaps? Or David versus Goliath? Or Jesus challenging the greedy money changers?

According to the Concord Monitor, a spokesperson for Governor Maggie Hassan said she is “concerned about the disruption in FairPoint services and its impact on the state’s communications infrastructure, our public safety systems and economy, as well as the company’s overall commitment to the people and businesses of New Hampshire.”

“One day longer, one day stronger,” the strikers chanted.  That’s great spirit, but some emergency funds for workers on strike more than two months will help.  You can contribute to the IBEW/CWA Solidarity Fund by clicking here.


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