Category Archives: Political Education

Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

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Restoring Justice in U.S. Cities

Painting of Early Morning City by Aline Feldman, 1988

Early Morning City by Aline Feldman, 1988

Over forty years ago, while living in Manila in the Philippines, I wrote a pamphlet titled “Cities Are For Living” on the growth of Manila as a city. Like all Southeast Asian port cities, Manila was the center of the nation and the nation’s political future. Southeast Asian port cities were trade centers and drew people from the provinces and from overseas nations to make them the principal city of their particular nation. 

The central role of a region’s principal cities was called to my attention by the April 21st article in The Nation on “Power to the City.” Michelle Goldberg aptly points out the importance that cities have come to play in progressive movements as a balance to the gridlock that has become the nature of national politics in Washington, D.C. The gridlock has unfortunately given an upper hand to conservative voices in Congress who have blocked any move toward more economically equitable solutions to the nation’s issues.

The redistricting that ensued after the 2010 U.S. Census set in motion a right wing shift that has deadlocked any forward motion in Congress.  Although the popular vote nationally represented a shifting toward Democratic policies, the larger representation within the House of Representative from the nation’s rural and redistricted areas outweighed the more Democratic urban centers.  Unfortunately, this imbalance remains as we enter the 2014 electoral season.  Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest action taking restrictions off the political contributions encouraged by Citizens United, a larger amount of money flowing into Republican candidates’ campaigns threatens the Democratic majority in the Senate. 

This situation raises the question:  “What hope is there for any progressive movement toward social and cultural advancement and toward economic justice for the 99 percent in the nation?”  It is here that Michelle Goldberg makes her case for the role of urban centers as a counter force to the debilitating climate in our national politics.  Urban centers, which by their nature are cross cultural and are more representative of a society’s economic classes, have a greater tendency and wider possibilities to engage in more progressive policies. The recent election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City is a case in point. Against the background of former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s moves to beautify New York and draw larger numbers of professionals and the elite to the city’s environs, de Blasio was elected in a counter effort to provide more space and opportunity to the lower classes in New York society. 

Goldberg points beyond New York for examples of the victories of progressive mayors: Betsy Hodges elected on the new Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minneapolis, former construction laborer Marty Walsh to head the city of Boston, and Ed Murray elected as Seattle’s mayor on a proposal to raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour.  Even in Republican Texas, the State’s largest city of Houston is run by Annise Parker, a lesbian who is a third term mayor on the Democratic ticket.

When it comes to progressive policy, San Francisco, with its countless professionals who live in the city but take arranged transportation to work in Silicon Valley, the policies of a progressive administration are a harbinger of the future. Goldberg cites the research of Michael Reich, Ken Jacobs, and Miranda Dietz, who have enumerated in their studies the decade-long progressive movement in San Francisco. In 2003, San Francisco had established $8. 50 as a minimum wage and by 2013 it had increased to $10.55. In 2006, the city was first in the nation to require employers to provide paid sick leave.  Moving on from there, the city passed the San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, which “mandated minimum health spending requirements for businesses with twenty or more workers, and created Healthy San Francisco, which provides comprehensive healthcare to uninsured city residents.”

There is a growing movement to reverse the prevailing  antagonist conservative spirit.  The obvious conservative goal is to block any move that reverses the growing economic divide in the nation. For the conservative mind any federal program that seeks to ameliorate human distress and dislocation is anathema. On the other side of the equation are  progressive efforts at the local base to  advance and strengthen programs  that serve lower income and middle class persons and families. This message of social justice being acted out in our cities cannot be contained.  They have won to their support the new generations who recognize the need for a society in which all people, no matter their race, ethnic or gender background, have an opportunity to participate  in a more open and equitable society.

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Remembering May Day – 125th Anniversary – Haymarket Square

416px-Haymarket_FlierWorking people still struggle to win their rights in workplaces around the world.  One hundred and twenty-five years ago at Haymarket Square in Chicago, the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886 led to an event that forever memorialized the rights of working people as an international holiday.  The Haymarket Square gathering began as a peaceful demonstration on May 4th for the eight-hour day.  As police moved into to disperse the participants, a bomb was thrown which ended in the death of seven police officers and a number of the demonstrators.  Eight of the organizers were convicted of conspiracy and four were hanged in 1887.  In 1893,  newly elected Governor Peter Altgeld, who criticized the original trial, pardoned those still remaining in prison.  May 1st  was chosen to represent working peoples’ struggle for justice and became a holiday around the world.  In the United States,  those in the economy and the government distanced themselves from May 1st celebrations and instead chose the first Monday in September to memorialize Labor Day.  In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated as the end of Summer and the beginning of the Fall season.  The underplaying of this holiday that celebrates the rights of working people is even starker today against the backdrop of increasing economic and social distance between the oligarchs and those who are the primary producers in our society.

Even those who are on-the-line or over-the-counter workers sometimes lose sight of their democratic rights in the functioning of our economy.  The recent negative vote for a union to represent the workers in the newly built Volkswagon factory in Tennessee is a case in point.  The Volkswagon management, growing out of a history of German labor-management cooperation, favors working directly with democratically elected unions within their plants.  Within Germany since the 1950s the policy of mitbestimmung has been part of the German economic environment.  Mitbestimmung guarantees the rights of workers to elect a worker’s council that deals directly with management in those areas that concern the rights and conditions of workers.  In the Tennessee case, the anti-union stance of local politicians and “the right to work” climate in the South worked against a favorable vote for a union.  Too bad the workers at Volkswagen didn’t look to the Harley-Davidson Company as an example of  labor-management cooperation. Harley-Davidson management moved to a labor-management cooperation model in the 1980s.  In the process the  Harley-Davidson workers won fairer equity and greater work security and  the company saw higher productivity and better quality in their products.

This year on May 1st, the  labor community in Chicago will not forget the long tradition it has in the Haymarket event.  The Illinois Labor History Society and the Chicago Federation of Labor will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket struggle, also called The International Workers’ Day, at 3 p.m. in Haymarket Square at Randolph and Desplaines Streets.  To lift  up the global character of May 1st, representatives of the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) will place an international commemorative plaque on the Haymarket Memorial.  One would hope our U.S. government would recognize and accept our own dramatic part in this global event and celebrate May 1st as a national holiday.

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H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N* Returns to New York

 

DSC_3426_2For the past sixty years the garment industry, which was a major provider of jobs in New York, has withered away to a minor economic actor.  Over that time the jobs that provided a good income to many immigrant people just beginning life in New York have moved overseas. The stories we have seen in these last months of the death of 1,100 garment workers in the illegally built factory in Bangladesh are representative of the result of the global relocation of the garment industry.  It is a story of the inexpensive clothes we buy in our malls mixed with the travails of the poorly protected workers who produce them overseas.

I took part in a version of this story over sixty years ago when I spent three summers during my college days working for the Dress Joint Board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City.  The Dress Joint Board, for which I worked during the summers of 1947 through 1949, was composed of Locals 22 and  89.  I was assigned to interview workers who were applying for union benefits, and, if time would permit, to do research on the background of the union membership. The Local 22  workers I came into contact with were of Puerto Rican, African-American, and European Jewish background.   The workers of Local 89 were largely of Italian descent.

My daily work was to interview workers who were seeking unemployment benefits during lay-offs and others who were applying for specific health care benefits.  This required checking against the manufacturer’s payroll to determine how long the worker was employed and whether the manufacturer had been paying the special assessment.  The stream of people I interviewed was like a cast of characters out of Leo Rosten’s “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N    K*A*P*L*A*N.”   Hyman Kaplan was a garment worker who was learning to speak English in a night school. He spoke his own version with amazing and unbelievable creativity.  Kaplan’s fellow immigrant classmates added their own peculiar interpretations and flavor to the beginner’s English language class.

Those summers I spent working at the Dress Joint Board were a continual replay of the book. I heard more variations of accents and more unique spoken English than I had heard in my lifetime, and I had grown up in an immigrant neighborhood.  The working people I encountered were just getting a start in the economy, and with the protection of the union, were representative of the vitality of the garment industry and of the economic health of  New York in the 1940s.

There was also another side to the story.  Garment workers were also subject to the conditions of a highly competitive industry.  Dress manufacturing is made of numerous small shops, and very mobile.  The small “fly-by-night” operations are difficult to track and are prone to “sweat shop” conditions.  This is where the trade union stepped in – to assure just wages and safe work conditions.  Many garment manufacturers operated a step ahead of union organizers. 

I became aware of this when less than a decade after I had worked in the garment district, I moved with my wife and children to Asia.  On a trip to Hong Kong in the 1950s a Chinese friend took me on a visit to small dress-making operation in a high-rise building, which produced clothes for the U.S. Market.  It was a shop similar to the ones I had known in New York, but  the jobs which had employed the immigrants in New York, were being moved to Hong Kong.  For the last sixty years this has been the nature of the garment industry.

Can this story be turned around?  In an article in the February 17th issue of  The Nation, the author Elizabeth Cline sees hope for a rebirth of the New York garment industry.   She sets the stage by citing the colorful designer coat worn by the wife and daughter of Mayor Bill de Blasio at his recent inauguration.  Cline sees in “The Economics of A Raspberry Coat” a story of the new mayor’s opportunity to restore the garment industry to New York.

Efforts are already underway, says Cline, with the move by Manufacturers New York to support fashion designers in finding the work space and the work force to produce their new clothing lines.  Some of the areas for development are already in place with the creation of the sixteen industrial business zones (IBZs) set aside by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Even though Mayor Bloomberg’s plan called for the rezoning older manufacturing areas for the rebuilding of high-rise condos, the sixteen IBZs are prospective spaces for new industrial businesses with incentives in the form of technical assistance and employee training.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio attention is being given to those areas in the metropolitan region, ie. Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where older industrial buildings can be rehabilitated and where a local work force is already existent. Alongside the beginning of an upstart new clothing industry measures are in place to modernize the industry by encouraging “the most innovative and sustainable design entrepreneurs.” In areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant plans are underway to train local people in the technology and methods now being used to modernize the garment industry.

Attention must be paid to the Hyman Kaplan’s of  our day, and to assuring them a just wage and safe conditions in the their work space.  And always support  for the right of  workers to organize, on their own behalf, and for the well-being of the industry and the economy. 

(see also Chapter 14 ” A Union Summer ” in www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com)

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Chapter 23 – On the Line

“Workers pour molten metal into castings, circa 1950s,” Teaching & Learning Cleveland, accessed October 6, 2012, http://csudigitalhumanities.org/

Beyond their jobs in the steel mills, Richard and the other the Ministers-in-Industry participants take part in evening discussions and study visits to deepen their understanding of the church’s responsibility with industrial workers. At work, they continue to shield their identities as seminarians to keep the situation real. The seminar discussions are alive with the retelling of the day’s events and the culture of factory life, as the seminarians become more engrossed with the lives of their co-workers. Study visits to United Steel Worker offices and the U.S. Steel headquarters, and to the rectory of Father Charles Rice, a prominent “labor priest” in the Roman Catholic Church, round out the program. Over the summer, the seminarians go through a sea change in their perspective on the effects of industry on working people, and the direction of Richard’s ministry is now more clearly in focus.

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Chapter 20 – Beginning at the Beginning

podcast artworkAs he enters Union Theological Seminary, Richard looks forward to his studies under Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most challenging theological thinkers of his generation. In his last summer at the Dress Joint Board of the ILGWU, he discovers Niebuhr’s name is well known among the garment worker officers. Educational Director Will Herberg, a former Communist, has been converted back to his Jewish faith by Niebuhr’s theology. Richard soon learns that he is part of the “Golden Age” of teaching at Union Theological Seminary. Beginning at the beginning in Genesis, Jim Muilenburg’s dramatic teaching style fires up the seminarians for three years of prophetic learning. Richard’s excitement is heightened by the critical view of preaching by George Buttrick, his pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

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Chapter 19 – Saying Good-bye

Wooster’s Kauke Arch in 1947

Richard gets together with old New York friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) convention. His recent co-op farm experience in Saskatchewan wins him connections among the CCUF delegates. He turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster with the recognition of the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development.

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Chapter 18 – The Election of 1948

Richard’s Saskatchewan experience opens him to join the Young People’s Socialist League on his return to New York. He spends the 1948 Fall election season organizing student chapters of the League for Industrial Democracy on college campuses. The presidential election campaign brings on the prominence of the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace’s candidacy. Richard is impressed with the Madison Square Garden gala and presentation of Henry Wallace as Progressive Party nominee and is moved by the performance of Paul Robeson. His loyalty to the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, is not swayed. He poll watches in his Bronx district and waits for the results at the Socialist post-election gathering at the Claremont Hotel. There he meets Vincent Sheehan, who has just published his best seller on Gandhi.

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Chapter 17 – Up on the Co-op Farm

Chow line on the co-op farm

After the CCF convention in Moosejaw, the students move on to the provincial government in Regina, where they visit offices responsible for universal health insurance, universal auto insurance, and new industrial ventures. The study tour officially ends, but the “Model T Four” sign up to work on the newly organized Carrot River Co-Op Farm in the sparsely settled, harsh northern terrain. The six-day workweek was long and hard, broken up three times a day by a bell calling the workers to the dining hall for meals. The co-op members cleared deeply rooted trees and sawed and planed the trees in a lumber mill for materials to be used in building the settlers’ homes and community facilities. Leaving the farm after a week of heavy rains, the Model T gets stuck in the mud. The farmer who pulls it out gives the four travelers a piece of Saskatchewan advice: “Choose your ruts carefully and stay in them till you get to Prince Albert.” Richard hitchhikes from Winnipeg to West Virginia, arriving just in time for the wedding of his college roommate.

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Chapter 16 – The Shaping of a Socialist

In June 1948, Richard prepares for his upcoming study trip to Canada to see “democratic socialism” in action. The governing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Saskatchewan was holding its convention in Moosejaw. Before he leaves on his journey, Richard accepts an offer from the League for Industrial Democracy to serve as Student Secretary in the fall. Richard hitchhikes 1,000 miles from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the Madison, Wisconsin, farm of Walter Uphoff, the Socialist candidate for governor. In Madison he meets up with a group of eighteen students. Richard decides to throw in his lot with three other men and travel the remainder of the way in E. Scott Maynes’s  Model T Ford half truck. At the CCF convention, Richard is moved by the down-to-earth nature of the delegates and their pragmatic concern about how the government programs were serving the people. In meeting one of the CCF’s founders, Richard receives validation of his conviction that there is a place for religion in social and economic justice.

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