Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MIDWESTERNERS GATHER TO DISCUSS HEALTH CARE AND BUILDING A PROGRESSIVE MAJORITY

Harry Targ



(Generally articles in this blog constitute commentary on politics, economics, and culture. From time to time I attend meetings that I believe may have substantive interest for readers beyond those in the organization. Because panelists addressed issues of health care and building a progressive majority, I thought it appropriate to include here my summary of the discussions that took place).

Approximately 28 labor activists, activists for single payer health care, gay rights, an end to mountain top removal, voter rights for ex- felons, students for socialism, and campaigners against racism and war in Afghanistan came together on Saturday, September 19 in Louisville to share information and action plans at the semi-annual Midwest Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism meeting. Participants were young and old, Black and white, long-time grassroots organizers, educators, health care and social work professionals, and a professional musician and published novelist.

Discussion was organized around three broad themes. First, attendees received a report on the national convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) which occurred in late July, 2009 in San Francisco. Report-backs from Marilyn Albert, Harry Targ, and Eddie Davis emphasized the enthusiasm, excitement, and renewed commitments for building a progressive majority and envisioning socialism that came out of the convention. People were informed of the new multi-racial, multi-age leadership that was elected at the convention and how that body engaged in a fully open revision of a “Goals and Principles” statement for the 21st century that was adopted for the years ahead. Eddie Davis presented an exciting slide show of images of the convention which captured the enthusiasm of most people who were there.

Then, the Midwest meeting addressed the two substantive issues of the day. Long-time health care activists initiated morning discussion on the healthcare crisis. Marilyn Albert, founding member of CCDS, registered nurse, labor organizer, and single payer activist since the 1970s, made a powerful argument for supporting HR 676 or other single payer bills. She argued that the various versions of the “public option” will not adequately address the health car needs of the American people and may in fact make the situation of many worse by having a limited and flawed piece of legislation. In addition, if a new program is adopted by the Congress and President that fails to provide affordable health care for all Americans, unencumbered by insurance companies, the single payer movement might be set back for years.

Kay Tillow, Kentuckians for Single Payer Healthcare, reported on the fact that despite mainstream media stories to the contrary, the single payer health care movement is as strong as it has ever been. She reported returning from the national convention of the AFL-CIO that a single payer system is broadly supported within the labor movement. International unions, state AFL-CIOs, local labor councils, and individual locals have publicly endorsed HR 676. She distributed data provided by Physicians for a National Health Program (http://www.PNHP.org) that compared a single payer amendment to HR 3200 as proposed by House democrats. It pointed out that with a single-payer system everyone in the United States would be automatically covered, while the more limited bill would leave 20 million uninsured, and tens of millions underinsured. HR 676 would also cover everyone who needs health care in the United States with no exceptions for undocumented workers.

After the two presentations lively discussion occurred, for the most part involving assessment of the single payer movement in the context of political opposition from so-called Blue Dog Democrats, Tea Baggers, insurance companies, and the mainstream media. The panelists provided much useful information, compellingly made the case that progressives must continue work in the single payer movement, and convinced most participants in the discussion that the single payer movement had come a long way from the 1970s when Congressman Ron Dellums from the Bay area introduced a precursor to HR 676.

Jim Glenn, Kentucky director for Organizing for America, participated in the last part of the morning discussion. He made it clear that many Obama supporters also support a single payer health care system and Obama himself would not be opposed to it either if HR 676 got to his desk for signature.

The afternoon panel addressed “The Crisis and Building the Progressive Majority in the Heartland-Race, Class and Gender.” While the panel presentations were more varied, in the end they led meeting participants to the point of discussing how activists need to come together to address the varied issues that drive our political work. Pem Buck, Professor of Anthropology, Elizabethtown Community College, Kentucky, presented a paper on how “whiteness” and race have been used to divide the working class. An attack on racism, Buck suggested, must involve an attack on whiteness, which in the United States became a juridical concept to justify privilege and class rule. There was discussion from the audience about “white skin privilege” as it applies in a practical manner.

Thomas Lambert, Lecturer, Department of Economics, Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana, presented results of a study he had done that showed the continued relevance of Marx’s theory of exploitation. Using contemporary national and global data, the Marxian formula that emphasizes capitalism’s expropriation of the surplus value produced by workers remains an excellent predictor of levels of inequality within countries and in the international system. Higher rates of exploitation in the Marxian sense, he concluded, lead to greater inequality. (The papers presented by Pem Buck and Thomas Lambert can be found at the Midwest Regional meeting link at http://www.cc-ds.org/ ).

K.A. Owens, chairperson, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, spoke of the historical election of Barack Obama and what it has meant to African-Americans, gays and other sectors of the society who have lived in discrimination. He then suggested that there is much work to still to be done. Along with grassroots activism, progressives need to work to revise our language and how we relate to each other. He used as an example the typical way in which people great each other for the first time. People are asked “what do you do?” Along with visible codes communicated physically as to race, and gender, “the what do you do question” signifies class. And, as with responding to people by virtue of race and gender, responses to the job/employment question shapes peoples reaction to others in class terms. Owens argued that we must transcend race, gender, and class in our organizing.

Bob Sloan, East Kentucky author who has written such novels as Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees: A Novel of Appalachia, described the horrific consequences of mountain top removal for workers and communities in East Kentucky and West Virginia. He described how he and other artists were mobilized by Wendell Berry to launch a campaign to stop this odious practice. He claimed that the campaign is having some success. He urged all of those who are engaged in building a progressive majority to use whatever media outlets they can to get the word out about health care, the devastating consequences of war, racism, and sexism, and issues like mountain top removal. Even though the national media is a monopoly, Sloan said, local media, public broadcasting, and other print and electronic outlets have open spaces for news and views. They are eager to fill their spaces and we on the left can help them in that regard.

In the final brief period, participants in the meeting thanked the Kentucky hosts and organizers of the panels. All agreed that progressives from the region need to continue meeting regularly to share insights and plan more collaborative political work. The next meeting was tentatively set for March 27, 2010. Participants agreed to discuss the feasibility, travel and expenses, for hosting the next meeting in Cleveland, or whether Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania should host their own regional meeting while Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois CCDS members meet in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Pem Buck’s book on class, race, and gender in Kentucky is called Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky, Monthly Review Press.

Bob Sloan’s web site is at http://www.bobsloansampler.com/

An interview with Bob Sloan on mountain top removal can be seen at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKpfTVNUv10