Tuesday, July 15, 2014


By David Bacon

The editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle thinks a Silicon Valley Congressman should speak for the billionaires who have a voice and want an even louder one. 

Perhaps thanks are due the board for making the choice between Mike Honda and Ro Khanna so clear.  If we want a Congress member, it argues, who will be a voice for "those high-tech titans (Eric Schmidt of Google, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo among them)" we should follow its recommendation and dump Mike Honda, and install Ro Khanna.

The board goes further.  "The word among tech executives [who have graciously passed it on to the board] who are supporting Khanna is that incumbent Honda generally has been supportive of their positions.  They just want more.  They want -- and this district deserves -- a stronger voice in Washington."

Of course, most people who live in this district are not billionaires.  In fact, according to Working Partnerships' report on economic polarization in Silicon Valley, Life in the Valley Economy (http://www.wpusa.org/Publication/#LIVE12), the number of households with incomes under $10K (inflation-adjusted) more than doubled  - up 127.7% (from 11,556 in 2000 to 26,310 in 2010).  The number of households making $50,000 to $199,000 dropped from 62% to 55%.

"Whereas in the hourglass economy of the 1990s," its report said in 2010, "the Valley saw a shrinking middle class with some middle class families falling down and others rising up, the real income distribution trend is now shaped less like an hourglass and more like an old-fashioned Victorian gown: small on the top, squeezed ever tighter in the middle, and ballooning out at the bottom."

In 2012, in the middle of the Valley's "economic recovery," it added, "From 2000 to 2010, real median household income in the Valley has fallen by 19% - more than three times the national decline.  It's not that the region has stopped producing wealth. Total personal income flowing into Silicon Valley increased, as did per capita earnings for workers. But a disproportionate share of this growth is flowing to a small segment of highly compensated individuals - leaving the majority of working families struggling to get by on reduced incomes."

In other words, creating a good business environment for the "high-tech titans" benefitted them, but didn't benefit the vast majority of people.  The "commitment to meritocracy" lauded by the editorial as its reason for supporting Ro Khanna, is actually a commitment to the welfare of the wealthiest 1% of Silicon Valley.  Perhaps Mr. Khanna is committed to the welfare of more than the titans.  It doesn't seem likely, though, given that those titans are financing his race, and that according to the Chronicle, he condemns "ideological protest votes or budgets."

It is to Mike Honda's credit that he has been concerned, throughout his political career, with the welfare of the Valley's working families, especially middle and low-income families.  The editorial does recognize Honda's "unwavering commitment to civil rights."  That commitment was shown last year, when he supported immigrant workers who were losing their jobs as a result of the overzealous application of immigration "silent raids" at local worksites.  These were the ordinary working people of the Valley -- construction workers, cafeteria workers and the people who process our recycling.

Mr. Khanna, who worked on trade policy at the Department of Commerce, supports the "more competitive, free and fair trade [that] grows the economies of participating nation [from his website:  http://www.rokhanna.com/economy]."  These are the trade policies like NAFTA, and now the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, that displace millions of farmers and workers in countries like Mexico, plunging them into poverty and giving them no alternative other than migrating in search of work, including to the U.S.  He calls for allowing U.S. corporations (Silicon Valley giants prominent among them) to repatriate the enormous profits they've kept outside the country in order to avoid paying taxes on them.

It's a familiar idea -- support industry with subsidies, tax credits and political clout, and industry will create jobs.  Unfortunately, the record of the Valley titans is that they've taken the subsidies over the years, and then relocated tens of thousands of jobs out of the Valley, searching for low wages and even bigger subsidies. 

Silicon Valley industry has a long record of hating unions, of chemical contamination of the environment, of avoiding the social costs of industrial expansion, and of using the wealth generated in our community to try to bend politics its way.  In California we've had two decades of experience with industrial titans who want to buy their way into office, to better serve the interests of those already at the top of our society. 

Most people in Silicon Valley recognize that Mike Honda, a former schoolteacher, is not one of them.  Thanks to the Chronicle editorial board for pointing that out.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


By David Bacon
In These Times, web edition, July 8, 2014

In front of Oakland's Federal Building young people from immigrant youth groups protest against the detention and deportation of young migrants and families on the U.S. border, and especially against President Obama's decision to increase border enforcement and deport them more quickly. 

The mass migration of children from Central America has been at the center of a political firestorm over the past few weeks. The mainstream media has run dozens of stories blaming families, especially mothers, for sending or bringing their children north from Central America. The president himself lectured them, as though they were simply bad parents. "Do not send your children to the borders," Obama said last week. "If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it."

Meanwhile, the story is being manipulated by the Tea Party and conservative Republicans to attack Obama's executive action deferring the deportation of young people, along with any possibility he might expand it╤the demand of many immigrant rights advocates. More broadly, the Right wants to shut down any immigration reform that includes legalization, and instead is gunning for harsher enforcement measures. Even Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, has sought to frame migration as a national security threat, calling it a "crime-terror convergence," and describing it as "an incredibly efficient network along which anything - hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children - can travel, so long as they can pay the fare."

This push for greater enforcement ignores the real reasons families take the desperate measure of leaving home and trying to cross the border.  Media coverage focuses on gang violence in Central America, as though it was spontaneous and unrelated to a history of U.S.-promoted wars and a policy of mass deportations.

U.S. foreign and immigration policy is responsible for much of the pressure causing this flow of people from Central America. These eight facts, ignored by the mainstream press and the president, document that culpability, and point out the need for change.

1. There is no "lax enforcement" on the U.S./Mexico border. There are over 20,000 members of the Border Patrol, the largest number in history. We have walls and a system of detention centers that didn't exist just 15 years ago. Now more than 350,000 people spend some time in an immigrant detention center every year. The U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than all other enforcement activities of the federal government combined, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The growing numbers of people in detention╤young people as well as families and adults╤ is being used as a pretext by the anti-immigrant lobby in Washington, including the Tea Party and the Border Patrol itself, for demanding increases in the budget for enforcement. The Obama administration has given way before this pressure.

2. The migration of children and families didn╒t just start recently. It has been going on for a long time, although the numbers are increasing. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the U.S. promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change. Two million Salvadorans alone came to the U.S. during the late 1970s and 80s, to say nothing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that some day they'd be reunited.

3. The recent increase in the numbers of migrants is not just a response to gang violence, although this is virtually the only reason given in U.S. media coverage. Growing migration is as much or more a consequence of the increasing economic crisis for rural people in Central America and Mexico, as well as the failure of those economies to produce jobs. People are leaving because they can't survive where they are.

4. The failure of Central America's economies is mostly due to the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and their accompanying economic changes, including privatization of businesses, the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and cuts in the social budget. The treaties allowed huge U.S. corporations to dump corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America, forcing rural families off their lands when they could not compete.

5. When governments or people have resisted NAFTA and CAFTA, the United States has threatened reprisals. Right-wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) put forward a measure in 2004 to cut off the flow of remittances (money sent back to Salvadoran families from family members working in the U.S.) if people voted for a leftwing party, the FMLN, in El Salvador's national elections. Otto Reich, a violently anti-communist Cuban who was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. government was "concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory could have on the commercial, economic, and migration-related relations of the U.S. with El Salvador." Salvadoran papers were full of the threat, especially those on the right, and the FMLN lost.  In 2009 a tiny wealthy elite in Honduras overthrew President Manuel Zelaya because he raised the minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates and instituted free education. The Obama administration gave a de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the U.S.

6. Gang violence in Central America has a U.S. origin. Over the past two decades, young people from Central America have arrived in L.A. and big U.S. cities, where many were recruited into gangs, a story eloquently told by photographer Donna De Cesare in the recent book Unsettled/Desasociego. The Maratrucha Salvadoreña gang, which today's newspaper stories hold responsible for the violence driving people from El Salvador, was organized in Los Angeles, not in Central America. U.S. law enforcement and immigration authorities responded to the rise of gang activity here with a huge program of deportations. Most of the kids in gangs in Central America were originally deportees from the U.S. The U.S. has been deporting 400,000 people per year, more than any other period since the Cold War.

7. And in Central America, U.S. policy has led to the growth of gang violence.  In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, U.S. law enforcement assistance pressured local law enforcement to adopt a "mano dura" or hardline approach to gang members, leading to the incarceration of many young people deported from the U.S. almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment.  El Salvador, with a leftwing FMLN government, at least has a commitment to a policy of jobs and economic development to take young people off the street, and to providing an alternative to migration.  Even there, conservative police and military forces continue to support heavy enforcement. In Guatemala and Honduras, the U.S. is supporting very rightwing governments who only use a heavy enforcement approach. While punishing deportees and condemning migration, these two governments actually use the migration of people to the U.S. as a source of remittances to keep their economies afloat.

8. Kids looking for families here are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis. The separation of families is a cause of much of the current migration of young people. Young people fleeing the violence are reacting to the consequences of policies for which the U.S. government is largely responsible, in the only way open to them.

Two and three years ago we were hearing from the Pew Hispanic Trust and other sources that migration had "leveled off." No one is bothering to claim that anymore. Migration hasn't stopped because the forces causing it are more powerful than ever.

More enforcement will not deal with the causes of the migration from Central America. In fact, the deportation of more people back to their countries of origin will increase joblessness and economic desperation. This is the largest factor causing people to leave. Violence, which feeds on that desperation, will increase as well.

President Obama has proposed increasing the enforcement budget by $3.7 billion.  He has called for suspending a law passed in 2008, which requires minors to be transferred out of detention to centers where they can locate family members to care for them.  He instead proposes to deport them more rapidly.  Both ideas will cause more pain, violate basic rights and moral principles, and fail completely to stop migration.

NY Times writer Carl Hulse writes that the law transferring minors out of detention centers "is at the root of the potentially calamitous flow of unaccompanied minors to the nation╒s southern border." This report and others like it not only ignore history and paint a false picture of the reasons for migration, but provide the rationale for increased enforcement.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez picked up the cue, declaring "we must attack this problem from a foreign policy perspective, a humanitarian perspective, a criminal perspective, immigration perspective, and a national security perspective."  He called for increasing funding for the U.S. military's Southern Command and the State Department's Central American Regional Security Initiative.  Giving millions of dollars to some of the most violent and rightwing militaries in the western hemisphere, however, is a step back towards the military intervention policy that set the wave of forced migration into motion to begin with.

Instead, we need to help families reunite, treat immigrants with respect, and change the policies the U.S. has implemented in Central America, Mexico and elsewhere that have led to massive, forced migration. The two most effective measures would be ending the administration's mass detention and deportation program, and ending the free trade economic and interventionist military policies that are causing such desperation in the countries these children and families are fleeing.

Young people in Oakland protest the detention of children and families from Central America.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Immigration and U.S. Policy:  Making the Connections
By David L. Wilson, NACLA Report
Summer 2014

David Bacon's The Right to Stay Home explores how the United States pushes free trade agreements such as NAFTA that drive so many Mexicans out of their home countries. In response, more Mexican activists today are advocating for the right to not migrate.

Review:  The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration
By David Bacon
Beacon Press, 2013. Hardcover, 328 pages, $27.95.

U.S. journalist David Bacon's new book on immigration begins with stench. Since the 1990s the Granjas Carroll de México company has been raising literally millions of pigs in the Perote Valley in Mexico's Veracruz state. The smell is overwhelming. Some nights Fausto Limón and his family drive away from their farm and sleep in their old pickup to escape the fetid air from Granjas Carroll's facilities. The problem is more than just a bad smell. The family suffered from kidney ailments for three years as the pig farms expanded, and Fausto's mother eventually died of kidney failure. A doctor advised the family to stop drinking the water from their well; the kidney problems ended when they switched to bottled water.

As Bacon explains in this compelling book, the polluting pig farms of the Perote Valley are just one example of how NAFTA-the North American Free Trade Agreement-has affected Mexicans since its start in 1994

The Virginia-based corporation Smithfield Foods is a part owner of Granjas Carroll. NAFTA makes it highly profitable for Smithfield to site hog-raising operations in Mexico, taking advantage of lower wages and weaker environmental enforcement. NAFTA also lowers the cost of feeding the pigs, since "free trade" opens Mexico up to corn and soy from U.S. agricultural corporations. Mexico's family farmers can't compete with government-subsidized grain from north of the border; as a result, Mexico's corn imports quintupled between 2002 and 2010, from 2 million tons a year to 10.3 million.

Before NAFTA, farmers in the Perote Valley had been able to make a modest living from their crops and livestock. "Sometimes the price of a pig was enough to buy what we needed," former Perote resident David Ceja tells Bacon in the opening chapter, "but then it wasn't."

Fausto Limón and many other farmers have stayed in the valley, organizing with mixed results against Smithfield's environmental violations and struggling to get by from what they could grow. Others followed David Ceja's example: unable to make enough by raising pigs in Mexico, Ceja ended up butchering pigs in Tar Heel, North Carolina at a giant slaughterhouse owned by Smithfield.

"Now the boys I played with are all here," Ceja says. "I see them working in the plant."

Stories like Ceja's are the main focus of /The Right to Stay Home/, a title that reflects the growing emphasis among Mexican activists on what they call /el derecho de no migrar/, the right not to migrate.

For the past three decades the U.S. government and media have promoted "free trade" policies in Latin America and the Caribbean that inevitably drive large numbers of people out of their home countries. At the same time that the U.S. deprives these people of their right to stay home, it uses harsher and harsher anti-immigrant measures to deny them the right to migrate legally. The result is the more than 11 million immigrants now living in the United States without legal status.

NAFTA is probably the most devastating of the US-promoted policies for Mexicans, especially in its effect on farming. Bacon cites the dramatic fall of agricultural employment as the trade agreement kicked in. Farm sector jobs declined from 10.7 million to 8.6 million just from 2001 to 2008, according to Jonathan Fox of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The United States lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to Mexico, as noted in a 2011 report <http://epi.3cdn.net/fdade52b876e04793b_7fm6ivz2y.pdf> from the Economic Policy Institute, but these weren't nearly enough to offset the millions of jobs Mexico lost through competition from U.S. agricultural corporations and through other NAFTA effects, such as the intrusion of US corporations into the retail sector. After displacing thousands of small stores, Walmart is now Mexico's largest private employer.

NAFTA has turned out to be exactly the opposite of the "win-win" the politicians promised working people on both sides of the border 20 years ago.  Other U.S.-promoted neoliberal economic policies have had similar consequences. Bacon shows, for example, how the breaking of militant unions by a series of U.S.-backed Mexican presidents has made emigration an appealing option for formerly well-paid miners and electricians. When former president Felipe Calderón Hinojoso assaulted the powerful Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) in October 2009 by closing down a government-owned power utility-to cheers from the /Wall Street Journal/-he cynically offered the 44,000 laid-off workers a severance package that included English lessons.

David Bacon has decades of experience as a reporter and photographer covering the struggles of Mexican workers, both here and in Mexico. In striking contrast to the U.S. media, /The Right to Stay Home /lets us hear the thoughts and opinions of the workers themselves-their own explanations of why they would leave their homes and risk their lives crossing mountains and deserts to face the challenges of living in the U.S. as unauthorized immigrants.

Teresa Mina, an immigrant from Veracruz, describes the desperation that motivates some immigrants. "After my children's father abandoned us, I decided to come to the U.S.," she says. "There's just no money to survive. We couldn't continue to live that way. We all felt horrible when I decided to leave."

Not all immigrants share Mina's sense of desperation. David Ceja, the Perote Valley resident who ended up at Smithfield's Tar Heel plant, doesn't talk about survival but about a declining standard of living. After NAFTA, he says, "we couldn't pay for electricity-we'd just use candles at home. But when you see your parents don't have any money, that's when you decide to come, to help them." Other immigrants are simply trying to move their families into a better situation. "In our case, we wanted to provide our child with an education," immigrant Miguel Huerta tells Bacon. "He came to us when he was 17 years old and asked if we were able to send him to college.... But we didn't have the money in Veracruz to send him to college. So I came to the United States."

Ceja is clear on the factors that drive immigration: "The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems... It's the poverty that recruits us. We all had to leave Veracruz because of it. Otherwise, we wouldn't do something so hard."

The workers have equally strong opinions about this country's anti-immigrant measures. "This law is very unjust," Teresa Mina tells Bacon. She lost her job as a janitor in San Francisco after immigration authorities ran a check on workers' documents at her company. "We're doing jobs that are heavy and dirty. We work day and night to help our children have a better life, or just to eat. My work is the only support for my family. Now my children won't have what they need."

"I don't believe it's the people of the United States who are aggressive toward Mexico,' Aldo González, an indigenous community leader in Oaxaca, tells Bacon. The problem is a lack of awareness, he says. "Many policies of the U.S. government don't just affect people who are in the United States. They have very harmful consequences for people all over the world. It's important for people in the United States to realize and be conscious of that."

Bacon points to promising efforts to help U.S. citizens understand these realities. Some North American unions have started developing stronger ties with Mexican unions. Bacon notes that this sort of cross-border organizing was effective in the struggles of the Wobblies during the early 1900s and again in the creation of industrial unions during the 1930s. In a parallel development, some local union leaders have joined with grassroots immigrant rights activists in the Dignity Campaign, which promotes a real "comprehensive immigration reform"-one that addresses the causes of immigration instead of punishing the immigrants.

But these are still relatively small-scale efforts, mostly carried out by immigrants without broad support from other sectors of the population. The organizers face powerful opposition: a political class and a media establishment that do their best to obscure the connections between policy and immigration. Even native-born progressives and the larger pro-immigrant policy organizations have shied away from these issues. Throughout 2013 they expended crucial resources, both cash and the hard work of dedicated activists, in the drive to get an immigration bill through Congress-a bill which does nothing to address the underlying causes of immigration and, according to Bacon and many grassroots activists, only offers limited benefits to some unauthorized immigrants while actively making the situation worse for many others.

U.S. progressives have for the most part ignored the appeal that the "right not to migrate" analysis could have for a broad section of the U.S. population. After all, policies like NAFTA are wildly unpopular here, and it's not at all difficult to explain the connection with immigration; anyone who has tried can testify to how quickly people, especially young people, grasp the argument. Thousands of activists spent 2013 lobbying politicians around a flawed immigration bill. What would have happened if instead they'd been reaching out to the 99 percent with the ideas presented in Bacon's book?


By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA (7/1/14) -- By a narrow majority, the United States Supreme Court on Monday dealt a setback to unions for workers who take care of sick or disabled people in their homes.  The court's conservative majority decided that those unions could not require workers to pay a fee for representing them in negotiating higher wages and better conditions.

But unions had feared a much broader decision that might have ended bargaining rights for all workers in the public sector.  The court's more limited ruling, at least for now, did not extend that far.

"Today's ruling did not hand anti-worker extremists the victory they'd been hoping for," said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.  "It did not eliminate existing contracts ... but make no mistake - Justice Alito's opinion made clear that the relentless assault on workers' rights will not abate."

The decision arose in a case filed in 2010 by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on behalf of nine homecare workers in the state of Illinois.  Throughout the U.S. hundreds of thousands of workers work every year care for sick and disabled people in their homes.  Those individuals, or members of their families, hire the workers.  The money to pay their wages comes from the government, mostly a Federal program called Medicaid. 

In the first years of the last decade, public sector unions in Illinois convinced the state to set up a public body that would act as the employer of homecare workers in determining wages and benefits.  This same process was followed in recent years in nine other states, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

In 2003, approximately 26,000 workers employed in Illinois under this arrangement were then able to vote for union representation.  The vote was won by the Service Employees International Union (in other states similar votes gave representation status to AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers). 

Once it represented the workers, SEIU then negotiated a contract.  "Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year," explained Chicago homecare worker Flora Johnson. 

Under a previous Supreme Court decision in 1977, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, unions in the public sector can charge a fee to pay the cost of representing workers, including workers who are not members and don't pay union dues.  SEIU's contract with Illinois therefore required homecare workers to pay such a fee.

The Right to Work Fund suit sought to eliminate the fund requirement for all public sector workers.  Unions feared that this would serve as a pretext for a sweeping national roll back of public sector bargaining rights, as some state legislatures have implemented in Wisconsin and elsewhere in recent years.

It was clear in the majority opinion written by notoriously anti-union Justice Samuel Alito that this would have been his preferred outcome.  He questioned the 1977 precedent, and his opinion invented a category, "partial public employee," to justify excluding homecare workers from its coverage.  Even though the union negotiates wages and benefits for the workers, he questioned whether it performed any service worth payment.  He also said paying such a fee violated the prohibition by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment on restricting freedom of speech, because it forced an anti-union worker to give money to a union.

His opinion was praised by Trey Kovacs of the rightwing Competitive Enterprise Institute, who said, "The ruling frees thousands of home care and child care providers from financially assisting government unions that they disagree with."

Judge Elena Kagan wrote the minority's dissent, and said there was no difference in law between home health care workers and traditional public employees.  Unions had a positive impact, she declared.  "Workforce shortages and high turnover have long plagued in-home care programs, principally because of low wages and benefits. That labor instability lessens the quality of care which in turn forces disabled persons into institutions and increases costs to the state."

Not only did higher wages reduce turnover, but "what may surprise many is that this arrangement is cheaper, with savings of $632 million, according to the state," she added.  Compared to the virtues of weakening unions, however, the rightwing justices were unmoved by these arguments of fiscal, much less social, responsibility.

In the face of Alito and the four conservatives, SEIU was defiant.  "No court case is going to stand in the way of home care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care," said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was equally angry:  "Make no mistake: the fate of workers cannot and will not be decided by one Supreme Court decision," he warned.

In the short run, the impact on unions representing homecare workers will be severe.  SEIU receives $3.4 million in fees in Illinois each year.  As some workers stop paying, it will have to maintain the same pressure on the state in bargaining with fewer staff and resources.  That in turn will make it easier for state governments to try to solve their budget shortfalls by reducing wages and benefits.  Sharper labor conflict is almost inevitable as a result.

And declining wages and benefits will impact, not just the workers, but the sick and disabled people who depend on them.  Rahnee Patrick, a home care consumer and advocate from ACCESS Living in Chicago, worries "I could lose [my homecare provider] if her wages and benefits don't keep up with the cost of living."

In the long run, the decision seems aimed at sections of the workforce in the U.S. where unions have been growing.  Homecare workers are mostly women of color, and have worked at the lowest possible wages for decades, and have therefore been very open to the idea of unionization.  That is also true for other groups of contingent workers who don't have traditional relationships with large employers -- day laborers on street corners, domestic workers, freelance writers, taxi drivers and others.

With homecare workers, unions have sought to make government responsible for their conditions, a solution that might work for these other groups as well.  At its recent convention in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO made a commitment to work more closely with worker centers in this part of the workforce.

Employer groups have been increasingly hostile to workers centers and the rising union activity among low wage and contingent workers.  This Supreme Court decision reflects that hostility, and is intended to put new obstacles in the way of their efforts to organize and make big changes in their economic status.