Democrats Must Take on Corporate Power If they Want to Win
In part two, Mike Elk says a winning strategy for Democrats must elevate the to improve income inequality and working conditions, and discusses his new media project PayDay Report, that seeks to amplify labor struggles in the south
JAISAL NOOR: All right, we’re continuing our conversation with Mike Elk. He’s a long time labor reporter. He’s just helped start up a new project called, ‘Payday Report’, and he’s traveled thousands of miles across the South, documenting labor struggles.
Mike, I want to ask you about the Democratic Party strategy in the South. They’ve said they’re trying to appeal to workers that might’ve voted for Trump, by helping improve some of their working conditions, as you have reported.
But what I noticed, in the March on Mississippi, that we were just talking about in the first segment, was that there was only the most… the members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party there, Bernie Sanders, Nina Turner. And it seems like the other big Democratic figures are more concerned about Russia, and other fights, that don’t necessarily involve working conditions or wages and workers, which seems to be a big, kind of forgotten struggle in this country. What are your thoughts on that?
MIKE ELK: Well, I think the corporate wing of the Democratic Party was certainly discredited in the last election, but it still has some fluency. I know a lot of people try to suggest that, you know, Perez being elected was the corporate wing taking party. I think it’s a little more complex than that. There’s certainly a liberal wing.
JAISAL NOOR: Tom -– Tom Perez –- who was Obama’s Labor Secretary.
MIKE ELK: Yeah. And I think what’s interesting about Perez, going back to this Nissan march, is that he did issue a statement of solidarity. And Perez has indicated that he wants to encourage more Democrats to get involved in labor struggles in a big way. And go out on picket lines, and really, I think that’s what the Democratic Party has to do, in order to remain relevant. It’s really become a representative of those social movements. I think certainly in lack of that, we’re seeing a lot of other organizations pop up that are really moving the ball forward.
This group, Indivisible, has been really remarkable. Indivisible, is a group that was started by congressional staffers, who survived the Tea Party. And they wrote a guide, a 35-page guide, on how folks can organize, and put pressure on congressmen in districts, at events and office visits and phone calls. And they’ve gone all over training and doing this model, and doing these workshops, and it’s had an incredible, remarkable effect.
I was just down in Huntsville, Alabama, where the first meeting of Indivisible, 500 people showed up to a meeting. And they’ve been bird-dogging the Congressman Mo Brooks, all over the district, and it’s been constant headlines, and now Mo Brooks, is one of those Republicans who’s a “no” on voting for repeal of Obamacare.
What effect is that having? Certainly the Democratic Party can compete in the South, but the Democratic Party the way it’s currently represented can’t compete there. I think we’re starting to see in a lot of big cities in the South, progressive forces. Mayor Andy Berke was just re-elected in Chattanooga. This is a mayor who sued General Electric for leaving the town.
You know, we saw Megan Barry elected in Nashville as the mayor. Although, you know, she came to town with a lot of promises for labor, she still hasn’t really done enough for the city’s construction industry. Which is something that we’re writing about, is that Nashville is the fastest-growing city in America, it’s growing at 10% a year.
And yet, you have construction workers that are making below $15 an hour there — people working as independent contractors on city-funded projects, and the Mayor’s Office hasn’t stepped up to do anything about this, despite promises that they would.
So, we’re seeing that, and we’re also seeing in places like Atlanta, Vince Ford, who’s a state senator, is running for Atlanta mayor right now. He has the support of Bernie Sanders, and the area’s labor unions. He’s still got an uphill struggle, but he’s certainly going to be competitive.
So, I think in a lot of these cities in the South, you’re seeing a lot of progressive energy in these big cities. And I think, to really compete in the rural areas in the South, we have to get back to that populist base that takes on issues of income inequality in big ways. That takes on issues of monopoly in industry in big ways, and takes on issues of unaffordability of healthcare.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, some groups have…
And so, some groups have vowed to primary Democrats that aren’t living up to their bill, and are perhaps succumbing to corporate influence. Do you think that’s going to be an effective strategy, when it seems like everyone is concerned about the Trump agenda? Even though it seems to be stumbling out of the gate. Do you think Demo… progressives, can do both?
MIKE ELK: I certainly think so. I was just in West Virginia, where people were talking about primary Senator Joe Manchin, and, you know, people are going to argue, oh, well, he shouldn’t be primaried. I mean, one, it’s not clear that a primary challenge could beat him. But, two, primaries are good for democracies: they’re good for debates; they’re good for ideas. But more importantly, down-ballot, primary challenges help built power of the progressive wing, and within the party.
Certainly for that reason, I support a primary to Joe Manchin in that state. It may not win, but at the very least, someone does have to challenge how the party is structured in West Virginia. Now, where you have a Democratic governor in West Virginia, who’s calling to cut the budget for public broadcasting by 40%. You know, there has to be some competition in those primaries, in order to build power at the progressive roots of the Democratic Party.
JAISAL NOOR: I wanted to turn to Donald Trump, just for a few minutes, because just today his healthcare proposal just failed. He said he was pulling it. It didn’t even get to a vote. And you saw that a record number of undereducated white voters have opposed that measure, and he’s losing support with that demographic. Which was key for his victory in November.
How do you evaluate how his presidency has proceeded so far, where we’re just barely three months in?
MIKE ELK: Well, I think it’s tough to say. Obviously, there’s been a lot of frustrations, and obviously they don’t have a clear game plan of how to move the ball forward. But opening the fight with Obamacare was a disaster for him. I think, you know, President Obama has certainly made his legacy that healthcare is a human right, however imperfect the first incarnation of that. But he’s now opened the debate again on Obamacare, where progressives next time we get power back, are going to come and talk about improving it.
Instead of letting this debate die, and let Obamacare be rule of the land, he’s instead reopened the debate in a way that I think actually will help progressives over the long run. Continue to talk about how to fix and how to build and how to improve on it. This isn’t a debate that’s going to go away any time soon. I think what it has shown is how well the plan is liked, and particularly in the South, Obamacare is a big issue.
Unlike in states in the North, many states in the South did not expand Medicaid, so you’ve had states where you’ve had Medicaid expansion organizing going on for five years. It’s a very popular issue, and it’s a particularly popular issue with the social justice church left there. You know, the evangelical sects, and the different churches down there are starting to lose relevance for the new generation of young Southerners, who grew up with the same Facebook that people in the North grow up with. The social issues are being somewhat taken off the table when, you know, kids in college in the South can only ever remember Michelle Obama, as First Lady.
So, you have a new generation in the South that’s much more progressive. Bernie carried Southerners under the age of 35 overwhelmingly. So, you have a new generation in the South that’s much more progressive. And the church, in order to maintain relevancy, has become much more engaged on issues. And Medicaid expansion has been a big issue for the church down there, and it’s a morality issue.
I really think Trump miss-stepped in such a big way, with this opening move. I mean, he could have gone for renegotiation of NAFTA, or gone for infrastructure, however flawed that was, and it would really help his base. I was up in Pennsylvania for a couple of months this winter, helping out my uncle, and visiting with a number of people who had voted for Trump. And what it was, was this kind of macho male, you know, we’re gonna take back society and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and not have anybody politically correct around to correct us.
And, you know, those kind of guys now are sitting around saying, “Well, whoa, he’s going to take away Obamacare, and he hasn’t done this other stuff.” So, I think it’s a big miss-step.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, another place where Trump is facing some resistance in the South, is Republican governors who are seeing his budget. And seeing that it’s going to take big cuts to infrastructure, even though he’s promised to expand infrastructure, and other job training programs that they really rely on.
Do you think that through their pressure, and pressure of others, some of that could -– it’s still early in the process -– but do you think some of those deep cuts to everything except for foreign policy, and for weapons and military, do you think they can be reversed, and be put in a progressive direction, perhaps?
MIKE ELK: Well, I think certainly, one thing that was interesting about the Trump budget was that it would repeal and eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission. Now, the Appalachian Regional Commission has a budget of about $150 million a year. They mainly coordinate the efforts of economic development in various states throughout Appalachia. A majority of its board is Republican governors.
So, you know, when Trump says he wants to do away with something like that, that’s very popular with Republicans, obviously he’s stepping on it. And he’s becoming so extreme that it’s really remarkable to watch the Republicans step up to really oppose him, and it’s showing just how scared the party is of going that far.
JAISAL NOOR: And finally, you know, as you’ve traveled through the South, we know a lot of cities -– and Baltimore is still technically the South -– but in many cities…
MIKE ELK: I consider Baltimore the South.
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah.
MIKE ELK: With Jim Crow.
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah, exactly. In many cities like Baltimore, there isn’t a lot of independent media. There’s not a lot of investigative journalism. There are fewer and fewer media outlets. There’s been tons of media consolidation, especially with newspapers. And Baltimore, for example, the Baltimore Sun bought over the City Paper, and so you really have one newspaper in circulation right now. Well, one set of owners, at least.
Talk a little bit about what you’re doing with Payday Report, and you’re starting a new podcast about labor law. Do you think that’s going to help fill some of this vacuum we see in independent critical journalism, journalism that’s not afraid to challenge authority and take on, whether it be Democrats or Republicans?
MIKE ELK: Well, I think what we’re doing here with Payday, is what a number of other outlets are starting to do. We’re using online fundraising tools to get monthly pledges from donors. We have about $1,400 a month pledged. I use my own money. I was fired illegally in a union drive at Politico, and I won a year’s salary, and I used that money to start the publication.
Now, when I was fired, I won that settlement because it was covered in MPR, and Newsweek, and the Washington Post, all those big outlets. My firing was. Every worker, when they’re fired, should get the kind of wall-to-wall coverage that I got -– any worker being fired in this country, should be a front page New York Times story. But it’s not.
And we know that has a negative effect on labor, because when people read about organizing, they want to organize. They don’t feel as isolated. People learn about organizing. It’s not something that’s considered taboo anymore.
And if you look at it, there are hundreds of union elections that happen in this country all the time, and we never hear about many of them. And what effect does that have on the movement? So, what we’re trying to do at Payday is what we learned in the digital media unionization movement. It is in the digital media unionization movement, we saw 13 outlets go union in two years. They went union so quickly because there was so much coverage of it.
Since we’re media workers, you know? Other media workers covered other media workers. If most union drives got even a quarter of the amount of coverage digital media unionization got, I think we’d be in a bunch of different places as a labor movement.
And so, what we’re really trying to do, is help amplify organizing and help move the ball forward for organizers. As well as do strategic research and campaigns against big targets. I mean, we’re really going to be going after the Nashville construction industry, and we’re going to dig in on certain projects.
We’re moving up to Louisville, Kentucky, now, and we were in Chattanooga for the past year. And in Louisville, we hope to focus on how the right-to-work fight there, is forcing unions to adapt and change their methods, and become more responsive, in terms of reaching out to members.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. Well, Mike Elk, thanks so much for joining us.
MIKE ELK: Thanks.
JAISAL NOOR: And we hope to keep going back to you, as you’re traveling in the South and doing these stories, having you back on, give us updates on these important struggles.
Thanks so much.
MIKE ELK: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.