John Nichols

Posted: December 2, 2014
By: Clay Cerny



John Nichols of the Nation is one of my favorite political writers. Today he called for something that U.S. retail workers sorely need: A bill of rights. Here is an outline of his key points:

  1. Employers should offer full time jobs whenever possible.
  2. Employers should offer predictable schedules that let workers plan their lives.
  3. Employers should encourage worker retention and job security after companies are sold.

I agree with these points and would add the following for all workers:

  1. Workers should have the right to form unions without facing intimidation from their employers
  2. The minimum wage should be raised according to changes in inflation.
  3. The use of non-compete clauses should be limited and regulated. No minimum wage worker should be restricted by a non-compete clause.
  4. Equal pay for equal work.
  5. Repeal Taft-Hartley and other anti-worker, “Right to Work” [for less] laws.

Working people need to demand some protection.  They deserve a workers' bill of rights.

Posted: September 1, 2014
By: Clay Cerny


Laura Clawson of Daily Kos helps us plan our holiday cook outs by presenting food that is produced by union labor. Her shopping list includes many large brand names, which should be easy to find. I would add to this list that we should try to shop at stores that have union employees - not an easy task.


Common Dreams features John Nichols of the Nation who links labor rights to human rights. What is he talking about? Primarily that workers should be allowed the protection common in any democracy: freedom of speech and association. Representative Keith Ellison and John Lewis are sponsoring the Employee Empowerment Act to help workers organize without retaliation. The problem in our current political culture is that this bill has no immediate chance of being debated much less passed into law.


Non-union workers at Market Basket won a battle when their strikes led to the reinstatement of a CEO they respect. However, this victory does not lead to any secure future for the workers. If the CEO they fought for decides to turn on them, they have no recourse in the form of a contract or collective rights. As Kate Aronoff notes, it is a victory, especially in demonstrating the power of any group of workers when they can join together to demand better working conditions.


Finally, Al Jazeera America’s Gregg Levine considers the holiday in light of the Pullman Strike and the recent Market Basket labor victory. He reminds us the President Grover Cleveland first declared Labor Day a holiday during the Pullman Strike. As he concludes, politicians once feared the American working class. Maybe the time is coming when labor will again have that power.


Have a happy Labor Day. Take a minute to think about what we have as working people, what we have lost, and – most importantly – what we should fight for in the future.

Posted: December 4, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

I frequently blog about income inequality because it is a vital issue that affects all working people, not just those in low wage jobs.  Today, President Obama called income inequality, “the defining challenge of our time.”  The President referred to specific types of low wage workers in calling for an increase in the minimum wage.  More importantly, he addressed the issue of decreased mobility:  not only are more Americans being born into poverty, they seem to be stuck there.  The President’s words are good and inspiring.  However, during his first campaign, he told labor that he would stand with them and put on his walking shoes to be with them in the picket line.  Did Obama march in Wisconsin or Ohio?  No.  Did he push through passage of the Employee Free Choice Act?  No.  Hopefully, these good words will lead to some positive action.  Let’s remember Jesse Jackson motto:  “Keep hope alive.”

There is nothing hopeful about the situation in Detroit.  Judge Steven W. Rhodes, a federal bankruptcy judge, ruled that all should be for the creditors, nothing for retired workers who paid into pension funds.  David Cay Johnston describes the situation as “stealing from the workers.”  His reasoning is clear:  Pensions are deferred wages.  Would anyone think of taking money from an employee’s paycheck?  That would clearly be theft.  How is a promised pension any different?  Johnson lists several examples of how politicians have played this game in the past.  Detroit is just the latest, ugliest example of a trend that is also taking place in my state, Illinois, which is run by Democrats.

As Johnston examines the economic impact of Detroit’s bankruptcy, John Nichols considers the political impact.  Citing a study by Demos, Nichols argues that Detroit’s serious financial problems should not have led to bankruptcy.  Why did the city go bankrupt?  So the Governor could appoint an unelected manager to strip assets that range from pension funds to the great collection in the city’s art museum.  Nichols quotes Detroit’s new mayor Mike Duggan, who admits that he will only have power to the degree that it is given by the governor and his manager.  The elected mayor is powerless.  Nichols captures the problem in these words:  “There is a lot more at stake in Detroit, and in Michigan, than one city’s balance sheet.  Our understanding of democracy, itself, is being subverted.” 

If President Obama is serious about addressing income inequality and mobility, he should start in Detroit.  Turn the Justice Department loose on Governor Snyder and his “Emergency Managers,” who lord over cities that are populated mostly by poor African Americans.  Clearly American citizens in the cities under Governor’s Snyder’s Emergency Manager system are not enjoying the rights promised under the XV Amendment.  Detroit is a good starting point, Mr. President.  Save democracy and promote opportunity in that great city.

P.S.  David Sirota calls out the fraud in Detroit by discussing funds that can be found for a new hockey arena and $6 billion in subsidies, also known as corporate welfare.

Posted: August 4, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Detroit is broke.  That’s what the media and the politicians like Governor Snyder tell us. It’s an easy story to tell given the way the city looks.  It’s also easy to tell when the politicians and their banker allies only give one alternative.  What they don’t say is that unions tried to work out a deal that would have prevented the bankruptcy.  The governor and his Emergency Manager (Appointed Dictator) would not talk to them.  A cynical person might even think that the governor had some reason for wanting the city to declare bankruptcy.

Common Dreams has reprinted an article by the Nation’s John Nichols that examines how democracy is not working in Michigan’s largest city.  Michigan and Detroit voters both rejected Snyder’s Emergency Manager program, only to have the governor revive the program during a lame duck session of the legislature.  Nichols interviews experts who point out that several American cities have problems similar to Detroit.  As the nation’s industrial base broke down, the federal and state governments responded by cutting funds sent to big cities.  Rather than blame local officials as the governor does, Nichols suggests that we look at state government as part of a complex problem.

John Cassidy of the New Yorker looks at the story from the perspective how the city came to the bankruptcy “solution.”  He asks the often unasked question:  Was this move necessary?  Were there alternatives?  He points to gentrification in parts of the city.  The Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr seems only interested in giving pensioners as little as possible (as little as 20%) while offering bank creditors (as much as 75%).  Cassidy ends ominously by quoting a municipal bankruptcy lawyer who calls Detroit, “a test case.”

The same day Detroit declared bankruptcy, Chicago bond rating was hit with a big downgrade.  A couple of weeks later, the city’s school system had its bond rating slashed.  Do you see a pattern?  The same politicians who failed to fund pensions are now using that action to say pensions need to be cut.  They robbed Peter (workers) to pay Paul (bankers).  And now they’re asking Peter to pay the bill.

What happens in Detroit will be a test case.  If working people don’t wake up, they will pay the bill of the bankers while city workers, including those who have already retired, will have to live on a fraction of the pension they should have received as part of their compensation.  Pensions are not welfare.  Retired workers are not takers.  If Americans don’t wake up to this new make-the-rich-richer scheme, we will all lose.

Posted: February 20, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Writing in Think Progress, Pat Garofalo reports that Wisconsin legislators are now trying to attack private sector unions in the name of “preventing layoffs.”  The plan is called “work-sharing,” and it would allow companies with union workers to cut hours without consulting unions.  The only way working people will be safe from such schemes is to vote for politicians who support labor rights; however, they are hard to find these days.  It will be interesting to see how Governor Walker reacts if this measure is passed.  Who frightens him more, the Koch Brothers or the voters?

All eyes on Wisconsin – again.

Posted: September 2, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[Sabbath is this blog’s Sunday feature.  It usually doesn’t focus on politics, but this week I’ll make an exception.]

Labor Day Blues

It’s been a tough year for workers.  Wisconsin retained its anti-union governor, and Caterpillar pushed its employees to accept a contract that gave few, if any benefits.  If the GOP takes power in November, it’s likely that workers’ rights will be even further restricted.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teacher, has a different point of view.  Even though teacher jobs are challenged by lay offs and non-union charter schools, Weingarten remains hopeful.  Writing in Huffington Post, she declares that unions still can improve the lives of the middle class.  She recognizes the threat, but believes that union and non-union workers will make the right choices in November.

The most important thing Weingarten assets, however, seems to put her in alignment with her political opponents, but to a very different end:  “The best solutions come from you. It is your ideas that will strengthen our schools, hospitals and communities. Just as with the generations before us, it is your work and commitment that will propel economic and educational opportunity and social justice.”  This model of individualism underscores the importance of working to help others.

Paul Ryan represents the other model of individualism, the philosophy of self-interest.  Writing in the Nation, John Nichols analyzes Ryan’s ability to claim he is doing what is best for the workers in his district while he votes for measures that enable outsourcing of jobs.  When a large GM plant closed in Janesville, Ryan choose to focus on reforming Medicare and Social Security rather than bringing jobs to his district.  Nichols recounts a recent incident in which a voter asked Ryan about jobs going to China.  The vice presidential candidate ignored the man’s question and asked him if he wanted some candy or a schedule for the Green Bay Packers.  Clearly, Ryan found the question funny or irrelevant.

Sadly, too many Americans have bought into the idea that government and unions do nothing well.  They put their faith in the “free” market, which we have seen again and again is a fixed game (NAFTA, LIBOR).  Ryan and other Republicans have used the example of the Janesville plant to condemn President Obama’s record on jobs.  They conveniently forget two points.  First, Obama had the courage to save the auto industry through loans that are being paid back.  This action prevented the lost of millions of jobs.  Second, Obama and the Democrats have proposed several measures over the last two years to spur job growth and retain jobs in the public sector.  The GOP, led in no small part by Ryan, has rejected them all.  Were all of them good ideas.  Probably not.  But were they all bad, or were they simply not good politics for the Republicans who want to portray Obama as a failure?

Polls show the presidential race to be very close, which means many Americans agree with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.  They want an America where workers will have fewer rights and less security.  That’s what makes me so blue.  It’s not one party’s political stance.  It’s the inability of so many people to see what is in their best interest.  Even if Obama wins a second term, I don’t see what will change as long as so many Americans follow the gospel of self-interest.  I fear that there will be many more blue Labor Days to come.

Posted: June 3, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog considers intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

Wisconsin – the Final Round?

Over a year ago, 100,000 students, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, union workers and other protests flooded into Madison, Wisconsin.  They came together to protest  Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to end collective bargaining as well as other “reforms.”  Later, activists collected over a million signatures to force a recall election, which will take place this Tuesday.

Polling suggests that the governor will win the election, but activists remain confident that their organization can mitigate the effect of Walker outspending his opponent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by a ratio greater than 12:1.  Barrett and his supporters have filled the state’s airwaves with commercials that have little to do with fact.  However, demonstrating the power unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, Walker and his allies are using advertising to recreate reality.

This election will go a long way to testing the power of repeated messaging, which is made possible by big money, invisible funders.  If Walker wins, the floodgates will open between now and November.  Local TV stations will get fat with ad revenue, and voters will hate politics even more.

What if Barrett wins?  His victory would signal the ongoing power of traditional forms of politics, such as get out the vote campaigns.  It would give us hope that people working together can defeat the terminator-like power of big money.  In his book Uprising, John Nichols talks about the impact of new media and citizen journalism during the protests.  He also describes a revitalized labor movement that is focusing on what is good for workers, not just funneling money to the Democratic Party (which has not done enough to help Barrett).

Whatever happens on Tuesday, there is no denying the significance of the protests in Wisconsin and the recall effort.  Nichols links the protests to those in the Middle East which preceded them and the Occupy Movement which followed.  Just in the past few weeks, students in Quebec and Mexico have hit the streets to protest government policy.  Occupiers in New York marched in solidarity with those protests.  Even if Scott Walker keeps his job, the energy of people saying, “No,” cannot be stopped by any one election or – as the brave people of Syria show – even by bullets.

Nichols places the Wisconsin uprising in the context of the American Revolution and its leaders.  He quotes the most radical thinker of the time, Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.  A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.  The birthday of a new world is at hand.”  What happens in Wisconsin will be just one step in the creation of that new world.  Let’s hope it is a step forward*.

* Governor Walker’s campaign (like President Obama’s) is using “forward” as its slogan.  Clearly my idea of going forward is not the same as the governor’s.  Worst of luck to him (not just the election, the indictment too).

Postscript:  While reading Common Dreams today, I found that John Nichols has written a new article about how the recall and election put Wisconsin in line with its progressive tradition.

Posted: May 3, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

During a speech in 1864, Lincoln said, “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relationship, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”

I found this quote in The “S” Word by John Nichols.  More on this fascinating book in future posts.

Posted: April 23, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

Common Dreams offers a great interview with John Nichols on the history and power of the general strike.  Europe and England have seen massive worker protests.  Will the U.S. rise up in a similar way?

Posted: February 7, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

The Nation’s John Nichols reports that the U.S. Post Office is a target for major cost and job cuts.  However, these cuts will not be needed if relatively simple reforms are made.  A group of Senators, led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is advocating reforms to the USPS pension system (which collects too much money) and restructuring of service, which will enable post offices to earn more revenue.  That’s a good jobs program, one that will pay for itself while letting the post office provide its customers better service.  Who could be against that?*

*Yes, it is a rhetorical question.