Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Working for a new, new deal

Oak Park, IL - Nearly 100 activists and concerned citizens gathered on Sunday, Jan. 25 for a lively forum hosted by the Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice (OPCTJ) entitled, “A new, new deal: what should it look like?” (http://www.opctj.org)

The gathering was like hundreds of others that have been held in the wake of the victory of President Obama and continuing the fight for a people’s agenda in the new era.

The panel of well informed speakers included renowned Dr. Quentin Young, of the Physicians for a National Heath Program and a leading proponent of a single payer health system; Bill Barclay, an economist, member of Progressive Democrats of America and co-convener of the Illinois Coalition for Peace and Justice; Robin Rich, an organizer for United Steel Workers of America, District 7 and the Blue-Green Alliance; and Bamshad Mobasher, a DePaul University professor and an OPCTJ activist.

James Thindwa, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, moderated the event. He noted it was a great time for progressives to engage in a dialogue and the progressive movement was having a powerful effect on the direction of the country.
“Let’s not forget, Barack Obama himself is a product of the ‘hyper-charged’ movement in Chicago and Illinois. And to his credit in one debate when asked who would Dr. King support for president, he or Sen. Clinton, Obama replied, ‘neither, he would be out organizing for to make sure we did the right thing.’”

The panelists wove together issues of national health care, an economic stimulus, rebuilding the manufacturing base, green energy and changing US foreign policy into a long term vision for the basic changes needed in the years ahead.

Dr. Young noted that President Obama has voiced on numerous occasions that the single payer model is the best health care system. The challenge for the progressive movement is to create the conditions to allow for its passage.

“The single payer model has become now the best and only answer to the deepening health care crisis facing the nation. The country spends $2.3 trillion on health care, over $7,200 per person. And yet we have 45 million uninsured and another 45 million underinsured,” said Young.

“One half of all bankruptcies are due to medical bills,” said Young, who noted the crisis will get worse because there is now a sharp decline in primary care physicians.

The resources are in place to convert to a single payer system, he said. The US spends twice on health care per person as any other country; we have all the high tech equipment, the trained workforce.

Young said it would take a huge struggle to win a single payer system. The opposition is very powerful and includes the for-profit hospitals, insurance and pharmaceutical companies. They will push the Obama administration to keep much of the current for profit system.

More can be read at the PNHP website: http://www.pnhp.org

Robin Rich has been a steelworker since 1977 in Gary, Indiana. She spoke about her experiences in the labor movement and especially the impact of the “Battle in Seattle” that brought the labor movement together with the environmental movement to oppose unregulated “free trade.” Out of that experience both labor and the environmental groups saw the commonality of the struggle for higher labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. The Blue-Green Alliance was born with the USWA and the Sierra Club at its core.

Rich said the global warming issue has emerged more urgently and demands a conversion to a sustainable economy that relies on green energy. She said global warming is a “jobs killer,” for example thousands of forestry workers in the USWA are losing their jobs because of the infestation of tree killing beetles in vast stretches of timberlands across the west. The loss of water in the Great Lakes is causing barges to be damaged by scraping bottom.

Rich said everywhere the idea of saving and creating jobs and saving the environment is taking hold. For example it tons of steel to make one windmill. States like Illinois have set a goal for 25% of their energy needs to be from renewable sources. Today there is a four-year backlog of orders for windmills.

“This is crazy. We could easily reopen shuttered factories in NW Indiana and across the country. Tons of steel are required for infrastructure rebuilding too,” she said. “Steelworkers will be in the streets for a Main Street recovery plan, to shape the present stimulus bill so there are buy American and green clauses.”
More about the Blue-Green Alliance can be read at: http://www.bluegreenalliance.org/site/c.enKIITNpEiG/b.3227091/k.E4AB/Blue_Green_Alliance.htm

Bill Barclay is part of a group of Chicago economists and community activists who have crafted a jobs creation plan which goes farther than Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act, one that meets the crisis level unemployment. The full plan can be viewed at: http://www.chicagodsa.org/ngarchive/ng122.html#anchor577843"

Barclay said in 1932 unemployment in Chicago was 45%. After the New Deal was passed in the wake of a huge movement of the unemployed and Roosevelt’s leadership, unemployment dropped to 14%.

Barclay said an effective jobs program had to deal with the long-term unemployment due to de-industrialization and population growth, as well as that, which has occurred in the last year. The groups plan calls for creation of 4 million new jobs a year for 5 years. Obama will be forced by objective circumstances to think bigger, said Barclay.

Barclay called for the creation of a maximum of public sector jobs at a living wage by social investment in public infrastructure projects and the expansion of public sector employment in education, health care, etc. and reestablishing an industrial development policy, especially in alternative energy production. The plan needs to tackle long-term structural unemployment that has had a special impact on communities of color and youth, especially youth of color.

Barclay said such a project would cost about $675 billion/year which could be paid for by imposing an income tax surcharge on the top 2% of earners, let expire Bush’s estate tax, impose a tax on all stock transfers and slash the military budget.

Bamshad Mobasher said the new administration and the incredible movement that swept Obama into office offered many new opportunities and possibilities to pass a progressive agenda. But he warned that addressing the economic, health care and other crises could be derailed if the Obama administration pursues a policy that leads to deepening military involvement in Afghanistan and continues the occupation of Iraq.

Mobasher said a big part of why Obama won was his opposition to the Iraq War. He said there were hopeful signs and also signs of concern. The Status of Forces Agreement signed between the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government actually provides the framework for an expedited US withdrawal, something the Bush administration didn’t want. They were hoping for a permanent occupation that would turn Iraq into a colony, but the opposition in Iraq prevented this. As a result the US military must get permission to conduct missions, US troops and contractors are subject to Iraqi law, US troops must withdraw to bases and all troops must leave the country by 2011.

There has been some discussion of a residual force, but this will cause a dilemma for the Obama administration. It could provoke a firestorm of protest in Iraq if the SOFA is changed.

Mobasher said in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration must engage Iran to arrive at a comprehensive solution to the crisis in the region. He said the basis might be there in the form of a letter the Iranian government sent to the Bush administration last year that called for solution of the nuclear issue and a pledge to stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. Bush rejected the letter but Mobasher said it could be resuscitated and used as the basis of an accord.

Mobasher warned the situation in Afghanistan is more perilous. He said the Obama plan calls for a military surge then negotiations. He called this a flawed strategy. He said there was no possibility of militarily defeating the Taliban, which was gaining in strength. Such a surge could destabilize the region further and the US should learn from the history of Afghanistan and failed efforts by Alexander the Great, British Imperialism and the Soviet Union to control developments. A diplomatic surge and a plan to help the country overcome underdevelopment are needed, including overcoming reliance on the poppy production, which funds the Taliban.

The presentations sparked a lively question and answer period and plenty of enthusiasm to keep mobilizing the grassroots for the battles ahead.

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