I view as despicable the Obama administration strategy, expressed through Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, of ostracizing members of the “left” which criticizes shortcomings of administration policies.
Progressives have appropriately condemned economic policies that limited job stimuli, bailed out banks without nationalizing them, assumed away the very popular single payer option in health care reform, escalated war in Afghanistan, stalled the end of the blockade on Cuba, and maintained an imperial military presence in Latin America, East Asia, and just about everyplace else. The administration has not pursued immigration reform, climate change legislation, and the Employee Free Choice Act.
However, the reality of the first 19 months of this administration includes some health care reform, modest symbolic gestures to reduce hostilities toward other countries and the reintroduction of diplomacy as a tool of international relations, negotiations on the reduction of nuclear weapons, reestablishment of funding to international agencies that promote family planning, and a set of economic policies that bailed out banks and the auto industry that reduced somewhat the horrific consequences of the current recession. The Obama administration still has on the table a progressive agenda as to the environment, labor, job creation, and foreign policy. This is a public agenda for which he can and will be held accountable while electoral and tea party opponents are committed to the destruction of public institutions, fairness, and access to basic human needs.
As I read the Gibbs comments, however, a small part of me, I confess, was reminded of those who are inalterably opposed to every policy and practice of this administration. Some analysts on the left have articulated views that seem to me to ignore the historical context, the constellation of political forces today, the consciousness of people at the grassroots, and the almost omnipresence of an electronic media that frames virtually everything in terms of markets, the terrorist threat, unions as “special interests,” and government as an unmitigated evil.
I was ruminating about this discomfort I have with some of our left discourse as I sat through the August meeting of the Northwest Central Labor Council, Indiana, AFL-CIO meeting. We were listening to a presentation by a labor lawyer who works for a firm that specializes in cases of worker injuries and deaths on the job. This firm, for years, has worked with liberal state legislators, mostly Democrats, to get legislation passed that might guarantee the right of families of deceased workers to sue for deaths of loved ones at workplaces and to provide access to workers compensation. It seems that Indiana law limits legal and compensation claims for victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos exposure diseases to cases occurring within ten years. Scientific evidence indicates that victims of workplace asbestos exposure may not appear for 20 or 30 years. In effect, most claims for survivors and victims of asbestos related diseases would be ineligible for compensation.
Then the Council heard from State Representative Dennis Tyler (D-Muncie) who has been working with the law firm, George and Sipes, to change the law. Tyler described the procedural roadblocks to proposed legislative reform in 2009; Republican opposition in both the State House and Senate to legislative reform, and lobbying efforts by the Indiana Manufacturers Association, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Associated Builders and Contractors, the National Federation of Independent Business, Indiana Energy Association, the Indiana Petroleum Council and the Insurance Institute of Indiana.
The Tyler Bill was reintroduced in 2010. As George and Sipes describes the outcome: “The bill was assigned to the House Labor and Employment Committee and was heard in late January. With the bill about to pass the Committee and move to the House floor for a vote, the Republicans on the Committee, doing the bidding of the manufacturer and insurance lobbyists, walked out, which left too few members to hold a vote, effectively killing the bill.”
In Council discussion State Representative Tyler admitted that Indiana working people, including union members, are disillusioned with both parties and the electoral process generally. However, as expected from a state politician, he pointed out that the only hope workers and families have for some assistance when mesothelioma hits a family is to elect a pro-worker, largely Democratic, State House. Traditionally, in the Indiana legislature, Democrats have a narrow lead in the House and rarely control the Senate.
This fall, the Democrats could lose the House which will not only bury any prospects of reform on asbestos compensation legislation but a Republican victory in the House and Senate would lead almost immediately to passage of legislation making Indiana a so-called “Right-to-Work” state. “Right-to-Work states allow workers in unionized workplaces to not join the unions that represent their interests. Wage rates and union membership in Right-to-Work states are uniformly less than in states that have not embraced such anti-union legislation.
So what do we on the “left” do? We surely do not want to be fodder for the White House strategy to convince voters that they are not “left.” We surely do not want to support more off shore drilling, more war in Afghanistan, allocation of fewer resources for public employment and green jobs etc. But, at the same time, we need to work to protect workers stricken with mesothelioma. We need to work to create real regulation of mines, of oil drilling, of global warming. We need push for single-payer health care. And we need to mobilize around a real job creation agenda. And we need to demand that with tight resources our needs must be paid for by a dramatic draw-down of military spending.
In the end, I come to the conclusion that we on the “left” must continue to perform to Robert Gibb’s characterization. But, I believe we must also continue to work in our communities, our states and nationally, electorally and in the streets, to improve the lives of all who suffer today as we organize to build a better world tomorrow.