Helsinki: the promise and peril of upending diplomatic tradition

The Christian Science Monitor

Helsinki: the promise and peril of upending diplomatic tradition


Many US presidents have viewed one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders as important. But history offers cautionary tales as to how to go about them.

By Ned Temko     July 23, 2018


LONDON: There can be no question about the most jarring difference between last week’s US-Russia summit and those that have gone before: the tone and tenor of US President Trump’s final news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But the differences run deeper. They represent a fundamental shift from how past administrations have used, prepared for, and organized summits, and how they’ve approached diplomacy with adversary powers. To borrow a line from Star Trekkers, Mr. Trump is practicing summitry … but not as we know it.

The key question, especially with the announcement that Mr. Putin is being invited for a further meeting in Washington this fall, is whether the promise in the new approach will outweigh the peril.

The promise, from Trump’s perspective, is the prospect of cutting through the strictures of traditional diplomacy, relying on personal chemistry to unknot longstanding disputes and secure a breakthrough. The potential peril, unsettling not just to American allies but some of Trump’s own diplomats and security advisers, is that in advance of any definitive results, the United States will deal away concessions, weaken its future leverage, and, meanwhile, allow the adversary to shape the narrative.

Trump is not alone among modern presidents in viewing one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders – and the prospect of establishing personal chemistry with them – as critical parts of his diplomatic toolbox. There have even been summits broadly similar to last week’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki: John F. Kennedy’s with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, for instance, or George W. Bush’s encounter with Putin in 2001, just months into the Bush administration and a year into Putin’s rule.

But those precedents suggest reasons for caution. Before Kennedy decided to meet Khrushchev, his own advisers warned against overrating any personal connection with the Soviet leader. Amid rising tensions concerning Berlin, and barely a month after the US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, they need not have worried. It was a testy affair. Yet it highlighted potential pitfalls in summitry. Kennedy came to feel he’d allowed himself to be bullied. Some historians have suggested the Soviet leader’s assessment of the new president emboldened him to take on the Americans, first with the construction of the Berlin Wall and then by moving missiles into Cuba the following year.

President Bush’s 2001 summit with Putin seemed, at first, a validation of “chemistry.” But in a remark that would come back to haunt his administration as tensions grew, he told reporters: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

A critical contrast with Trump’s approach – on the evidence not just of the Helsinki summit, but his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un six weeks ago – is the degree of preparation, and protective safeguards, built into past summitry. At virtually all past summits, US presidents arrived with a set agenda, warnings from advisers on potential pitfalls, and an understanding of what, if any, concessions might be given, and broadly of what the post-summit message would be.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

We can’t know for sure how much of that happened ahead of Trump’s meetings with the North Korean and Russian leaders. But after the Kim talks, he announced the cancellation of “provocative” US military exercises with the South Koreans, surprising both South Korea and his own military. His embrace in Helsinki of Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election took intelligence and security aides by surprise. The Putin meeting also broke another rule of past summits: that even in meetings without aides, an American note-taker be present to ensure the US side had an accurate picture of what had been said, and could help shape the narrative afterward.

Another concern for past summit planners has been the possibility that merely holding such meetings could represent a concession to authoritarian adversaries the US and its allies had been seeking to isolate: regimes like Putin’s in Russia and Kim’s in North Korea.

That was one of many reasons that thousands of hours of planning went into President Richard Nixon’s summit visit to China in 1972. The trip was calculated not just as a historic opening to China, but a rebalancing of superpower relations that would increase US diplomatic leverage with the Soviet Union. Before it was even announced, in 1971, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger made a series of secret visits of his own to Beijing. No detail of the Nixon visit – including the summit communiqué – was left to chance.

Whether Trump’s more freewheeling approach will work remains to be seen. With no early sign of concrete progress on the “denuclearization” agreed to with Kim, for instance, he has said it’s natural such problems take time to resolve. He is still projecting confidence of success.

But one top US diplomat has offered a window into how different the new approach is. On the eve of the Helsinki encounter with Putin, Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Russia, cautioned “Meet the Press” not even to call it a summit. Just a “meeting.”

“There will be no state dinner, no joint statement, no deliverables that are pre-packaged,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to come out of this meeting…. This is an effort to see whether we can defuse, and take some of the drama and, quite frankly, the danger out of the relationship.”

Why Trump advisers stay, even when he flouts their advice

The Christian Science Monitor

Why Trump advisers stay, even when he flouts their advice


Today is the 18-month mark of the Trump presidency, and for those in place from the start, it’s a natural time to think about leaving. But many stay on out of a sense of duty to the country.

By Linda Feldman, Staff Writer     July 20, 2018

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
WASHINGTON: The look on Dan Coats’s face said it all. President Trump’s director of national intelligence had just been told on live television that the White House had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to Washington this fall – clearly news to Mr. Coats.

“Say that again?” Coats replied, being interviewed on stage Thursday by NBC-TV’s Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “Okaaay,” he continued, chuckling, after she repeated the news. “That’s gonna be special.” 

Once again, Mr. Trump had kept a top adviser out of the loop, announcing another major move in his controversially warm approach to Mr. Putin. Coats’s comments might not be good for his job security, especially given that he was speaking to the type of elite audience that Trump typically disdains. What’s more, the intelligence chief is not alone among the corps of key administration officials whose advice has been ignored or not solicited in the first place.

Before the Helsinki summit this week, Trump advisers had reportedly given him 100 pages of briefing materials proposing a tough approach to Putin, which he then mostly disregarded in their press conference. Most shocking was Trump’s apparent siding with Putin against the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US election.

So why do senior Trump advisers stay, even when the president clearly flouts their advice?

The short answer is that senior White House aides, Cabinet members, and agency heads typically see themselves as serving their country, as well as the president. That would be especially true for the heads of national security and law enforcement agencies, say former government officials.

History shows that presidents and advisers disagree on policy all the time; aides present their best advice, and presidents call the shots. But under Trump, conflict with and among advisers has risen to an art form. In fact, it’s a management style he relishes. “I like conflict,” Trump said last March. “I like having two people with different points of view.”

Now, the stakes are especially high, as Russian cyberattacks on the US continue, ahead of the November midterm elections. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats warned last week.

“The biggest problem I see with this president is that these are major differences on major issues,” says former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta in an interview.

Some advisers stay out of a sense of duty to country, even when the president doesn’t listen to them, he says. But at what point does staying enable potentially unwise behavior and damage the personal reputation of those who serve the president? Mr. Panetta pauses.

“That really is an issue that is up to each individual to decide,” says Panetta, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, and later criticized the president in his memoir. “Where is that line that should not be crossed regarding your service to the president?”

‘Who would replace me?’

The Trump administration has broken records for turnover among senior advisers, according to the Brookings Institution. Then there are the top officials still in place but generating headlines that they may leave or be fired. FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking Wednesday at the Aspen forum, didn’t deny that he had threatened to resign over Trump’s comments in Helsinki casting doubt on Russian meddling.

Chief of Staff John Kelly is regularly rumored to have one foot out the door, and has been caught on camera showing apparent exasperation with the president. In May, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly threatened to quit after being upbraided by Trump in a cabinet meeting; she later denied the reports.

Staff turnover, of course, is natural. The burnout factor is high. Today is the 18-month mark of the Trump presidency, and for those in place from the start, it’s a natural time to think about leaving.

But many will press on. Among the considerations, beyond a sense of duty, could be concern over who might succeed them.

“Some have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and perhaps there’s concern that if they do stand down, someone with a belief system unlike their own could take their place,” says retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.

“I believe they’re all patriotic, loyal Americans, in a very, very difficult position,” he adds.

Trump-Putin summit blindsides aides

Trump’s handling of his meeting with Putin may be the biggest controversy of his presidency since last August, when he blamed both sides for the violence at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. That reportedly prompted Trump’s then-top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to draft a resignation letter, though he stayed on until April.

So far, no one has resigned over Trump’s controversial press conference with Putin. But “I wouldn’t be surprised” if someone did, says Michael Kimmage, a historian on the cold war at Catholic University in Washington and a former State Department official.

By calling for the summit with Putin in March, seemingly out of the blue, Trump didn’t leave staff much time for aides to prepare. “That already undervalued the role that staff could play,” says Mr. Kimmage. “Then to have the president override the staff in such a dramatic fashion – not good news for American diplomacy.”

At least the White House has belatedly rejected Putin’s request to allow the Russian government to question former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and other Americans, an idea the State Department had rejected immediately.

But American officials say they still don’t know exactly what Trump and Putin said in their more than two-hour private meeting, where the only others present were interpreters, a set-up Coats says he would have advised against. So it’s impossible to assess whether Trump did in fact heed other aspects of staff guidance, such as sticking to the US position of not recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In the words of a former US government official, speaking privately, “You may fault me for what I didn’t get done, but you’ll never know all the terrible things I prevented from happening!”

The biggest mystery of all may be how Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – both Russia hawks – proceed. In 2016, Mr. Bolton publicly expressed alarm over Trump’s resistance to aiding NATO allies in the event of Russian aggression, calling it an “open invitation to Putin to attack.”

There has been no public hint that any of the key advisers associated with the Helsinki summit, including also US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and the National Security Council’s top Russia expert, Fiona Hill, are considering resigning. As history has shown, presidential advisers learn to swallow hard and live with the boss’s decisions – except when they don’t.

“Exit strategies are tricky things,” says historian David Pietrusza. “A bit like dismounting a tiger.”

Everything’s Bigger in Texas—Except Its Support for Small Farmers

Civil Eats

Everything’s Bigger in Texas—Except Its Support for Small Farmers

Attorney, farmer, and activist Judith McGeary and the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance support small and sustainable farmers in the Lone Star State.

By Cat Modlin – Jackson, Farming, Local Eats    July 24, 2018

Judith McGeary wanted answers that the State of Texas wasn’t willing to give, so the lawyer-turned-farmer fought the law—and won.

When McGeary learned she needed a food manufacturer’s license to keep selling meat at her local farmers’ markets, she contacted the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) for clarification. “The response was, ‘that’s for you to decide,’” says McGeary.

Judith McGearyJudith McGeary

Without the license, McGeary would have been unable to store packaged meat in a home freezer during the days between processing her grass-fed lamb meat and selling it at the market. Meeting requirements for the license was expensive, but there was no viable alternative if she wanted to stay in business. When McGeary learned she might have to spend hundreds of dollars on water testing to attain the permit, she asked the state for a concrete response. But instead of answers, she was told to take a gamble.

The decision is fraught: On one hand, paying steep fees for potentially unnecessary processes, and on the other skipping the testing and running the risk of punitive fines down the road. The incident illustrates a bureaucracy that hinders small-scale farmers, says McGeary. “The laws and regulations are just so opaque that a reasonably intelligent human being—even one with legal training—who reads through them will have significant difficulty figuring out just what do you have to do.”

And McGeary has more tools than just legal training. The one-time federal appeals court clerk is executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), which she founded in 2006 to support independent family farmers and protect them from convoluted regulations like the one she encountered. McGeary and the national organization she operates with the help of one other employee work to level the agricultural landscape by liaising between a predominantly Texan base of 1,000 members and lawmakers in both Austin and Washington, D.C.

Through her advocacy with FARFA, McGeary lobbied in 2013 for the successful passage of the state’s Better Communications Bill (HB 1392) requiring officials to answer farmers’ questions about how to follow the law.

In spite of the state’s reputation as a friend to small business, it’s no friend for small farmers, says McGeary. “The regulations are just not designed for small-scale or diversified production. They’re designed for large-scale single product lines.”

Since the organization was founded, FARFA has racked up a list of wins for small farmers. The first came after FARFA rallied a group of activist organizations across the country to stop the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), an elaborate livestock-tagging program that opponents said would have brought devastating costs and complications for small ranchers.

FARFA also led led a nationwide lobbying effort to get the Tester-Hagan amendment attached to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The amendment kept small farmers from needing to comply with safety standards that FSMA opponents like McGeary said were designed for large-scale operations and burdensome, if not impossible, for small-scale farms to meet.

And under McGeary’s direction, FARFA has also brought cottage food laws to Texas, blocked legislation that would have inhibited rural communities’ access to vital water resources, and pushed to make it easier for permaculture farmers to receive the same benefits afforded to corporate monocropping operations.

A Texas native, McGeary started her career as an environmental lawyer in 1997, but she found herself frustrated trying to solve problems within the confines of the legal system. She decided to pursue a master’s degree in biology and become a consultant. But her path changed after meeting Dick Richardson, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Texas.

“If you care about the environment, you should care about where your food comes from,” Richardson told McGeary, and also offered a number of reading recommendations on sustainable agriculture. She studied independently for years, learning about the ways that sustainable agriculture is beneficial for both the planet and its people, and was so inspired by her education that she decided to put her knowledge into practice. In 2003, McGeary made the leap and became a sheep farmer in a town just outside of Austin.

Now McGeary is on the final leg of FARFA’s 2018 Raise Your Voice tour, traversing nearly 20 towns across Texas to hear from other farmers trying to survive.

Bucking a One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Regulation

From the Coast to the Panhandle, McGeary has heard from Texas farmers concerned about keeping up with the costs of licenses, permits, and equipment necessary to grow their business. A common complaint comes from those wanting to can vegetables at home for market sales.

McGeary wants what she calls a “scale-sensitive approach” to food safety regulation. She’s spent years advocating for looser laws on the sale of raw milk and policies that make it easier for farmers to process their food.

The cottage food laws she helped pass in 2011 and 2013 allow people to make and sell up to $50,000 of certain “non-potentially hazardous foods” in their home without having to pay thousands of dollars for a food manufacturers’ license and access to a commercial kitchen. But canned vegetables other than cucumber pickles don’t fall under the law’s purview—and McGeary says that’s preventing growers from applying sustainable practices to maximize profits. She plans to keep pushing lawmakers to include a practice that would allow farmers to extend harvests, prevent food waste, and, in some cases, keep from going under.

Few of the 48 states with cottage food laws allow producers to can food. The Food and Drug Administration reports that improperly canned foods can cause botulism, a potentially deadly illness. A representative with the Texas Department of State Health Services told Civil Eats that current canning regulations “are required to maintain a baseline of safety, regardless of the size of the operation.”

But local food advocates like McGeary say the real safety issues stem from the conventional labyrinth, wherein food from various farms is funneled into a centralized processing location, making it difficult to trace the source of a food-borne illness outbreak. Cottage production, however, closes the gap between producer and consumer, making it easier for both ends of the supply chain to troubleshoot in the event of an outbreak.

“The best way to protect food safety,” says McGeary, “is to reduce the complexity and scope of these distribution systems.”

Fighting for Small-Scale, Sustainable Farmers in the Land of Big Ag

Glen Miracle can testify to the impact that FARFA is having in Texas. McGeary is working to help farmers like Miracle, who struggled to get his 21-acre diversified vegetable farm recognized by officials as agricultural land.

The Texas Department of Agriculture is more concerned with the interests of large farms, says Miracle. “We needed somebody like Judith to set up advocacy for small farmers.”

When Miracle started farming vegetables and sheep full-time in 2012, he went to the Waller County Appraisal Office to apply for agricultural valuation, an assessment that would save him about $4,000 a year in taxes—no small sum in what’s often a break-even profession, at best. But he was denied.

Under Section 23.51 of the Texas Tax Code, land qualifies for agricultural use valuation if the space has been “devoted principally to agricultural use to the degree of intensity generally accepted in the area” for at least five years.

In Waller County, there are no clear guidelines for mixed vegetable farmers. Each of those farms is considered case-by-case, says the county’s chief appraiser, Chris Barzilla, who makes the final decision on what land meets the county definition for agriculture. Barzilla explains that one reason he denied Miracle the valuation in 2012 was because he had not been farming long enough. But that was only part of the problem. For diversified farmers like Miracle, who also keeps livestock and bees, it can be difficult to meet the county’s requirements of animal or crop density per acre.

It didn’t matter that Miracle made a living off income combined from his vegetables and sheep. “We don’t piecemeal it together,” says Barzilla. Were Miracle to qualify because of his sheep, he would have had to have at least three sheep per acre, a standard Barzilla says was set by a board of large farmers.

That definition of agriculture runs contrary to the principles of permaculture farming that Miracle lives by, however. “They have a set of rules that aren’t supported by science,” Miracle says. “They told me I had to have 60 ewes on this property… [but] this of course leads to overgrazing and erosion.” Ultimately it was Miracle’s bees that garnered the valuation in 2018, because Waller County residents with at least 20 acres and eight hives are also eligible.

Miracle says this is a prime example of the nonsensical approach to agricultural regulations in Texas. “How in the world does 60 ewes relate to eight beehives?”

Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms, a FARFA supporter.

Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms, a FARFA supporter.

For the past three sessions, McGeary has lobbied the state legislature to make it easier for farms like Miracle’s to be recognized as agricultural for tax purposes. FARFA has proposed so-called fair property tax bills that would specify vegetable and fruit production as agricultural activity and encourage appraisers to consider farming methods, as opposed to just outcomes, when determining what land qualifies for the tax exemption.

Joe Outlaw, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University who’s spent his career analyzing policies in Texas, explains that what seems like common sense doesn’t always translate into policy, especially in a state where land value feeds the budget.

“There’s a lot of people that question a lot of what happens in the government, but nothing happens that someone didn’t want,” says Outlaw. “[And] every time somebody wants something there’s going to be somebody on the other side.”

On the side of farmers and consumers nationwide, McGeary is one of the few lobbyists interested in sustainably produced food, says Brad Stufflebeam, a former president of the Texas Organic Farmers Association who played a role in FARFA’s creation.

“When we helped set FARFA up, it was because we saw the need for a national organization that would give small farmers and consumers a lobbying organization,” he says. “Judith grabbed the baton and ran with it.”

Working for a Win-Win System

As state lawmakers prepare for the 2019 session and congressional representatives butt heads over the farm bill, FARFA has its work cut out for it. The organization is pushing for legislation that McGeary says will help farmers stay in business.

Now that McGeary’s nearing the end of her listening tour, she’s using notes from the road to write FARFA’s legislative agenda for 2019. Small farmers want expanded cottage food laws, fairer taxes, and an agriculture ombudsman to help navigate the “regulatory maze,” she says.

Chasing after lawmakers is tiresome business, says McGeary, but local and sustainable food is worth fighting for because it benefits folks on all sides of the political spectrum.

“It doesn’t have to be a trade-off,” she says. From left-leaning environmentalists to far-right constitutionalists, “it’s something that’s good for everyone that can appeal to everyone.”

Top photo: Cowhands drive the 200-head longhorn herd at the 1,800-acre Lonesome Pine Ranch, a working cattle ranch that is part of the Texas Ranch Life ranch resort near Chappell Hill in Austin County, Texas. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress). All other photos courtesy of FARFA.

In Camden, a Hot Sauce is Helping Young Urban Entrepreneurs Fight Poverty

Civil Eats

In Camden, a Hot Sauce is Helping Young Urban Entrepreneurs Fight Poverty

Eco Interns, a teen-focused entrepreneurial program in Southern New Jersey, offers job training and education in community gardens and farmers’ markets for an underserved urban community.

By Susanne Cope, Food Deserts, Urban Agriculture – July 24, 2018


Last fall, a half-dozen teenagers from the Southern New Jersey city of Camden brought hot peppers they’d grown in an urban garden to a rented industrial kitchen. Donning latex gloves, they de-seeded and chopped the chilies before adding them to vinegar and salt. A few days later, they processed and bottled the resulting product into their own brand of hot sauce, Kapow!

The group is part of a teen-focused entrepreneurial program called Eco Interns, offered by the Camden-area Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET). The mission of this nonprofit is to create a sustainable, healthy source of fresh fruit and vegetables—through community gardens and a farmers’ market—for an underserved urban community, while offering job training and education with a focus on meeting environmental challenges.

The interns do everything from picking and preparing the peppers to processing and selling their hyper-local, all-natural hot sauce. And they’re paid a competitive hourly wage to do so. In the early stages of the annual summer program, about a dozen interns work in one of the organization’s urban gardens, cook nutritious food, and run a stand at a weekly summer farmers’ market. The garden has both raised and in-ground beds, a greenhouse, a beehive, and a fruit orchard, all tended primarily by the teenagers.

young farmers planting cropsIn a neighborhood where jobs—particularly for young people—are hard to come by, participants say they appreciate the program and the training it provides. “I was very grateful to have this experience,” one teenager reflected in a writing activity at the end of the summer. “I learned a lot of things that I plan on carrying with me for the rest of my life.”

The inaugural cohort of teenagers conceived of Kapow! three seasons ago from the ground—or garden—up, working with a designer and small-business consultant to get the product into the hands of customers. During the first year of this entrepreneurial enrichment program, which takes place after the summer Eco-Intern program has ended, they made and sold a little more than 100 bottles; in 2017, that number rose to 450.

kapow hot sauceBottles of Kapow! are mostly sold at CFET events, and through people and organizations that reach out to the group directly. Recently a representative of Subaru came across Kapow! at a CFET event and ordered a few dozen bottles to use as corporate giveaways. All of the proceeds are invested back into the program, where they help pay for additions like the recent beehives that CFET has acquired for its gardens.

Participants learn much more than how to produce a condiment; they gain experience with every aspect of developing and building a small business. The initiative provides not just diverse job training but also nutritional education and a source of fresh, locally grown produce in a region labeled a food desert for its lack of access to fresh food. CFET grew out of an effort by parishioners at the nearby Sacred Heart Church, who were so moved by volunteer work they had performed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that they sought to create similar change in their own backyard.

The entrepreneurship program that developed Kapow! began with the help of a grant from New Jersey’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives as a way to extend CFET’s efforts. As the program grows in size and popularity, community groups say local nutrition and food security is improving and area youth are better prepared for higher-paying jobs and further schooling—opportunities that long felt out of reach in this community.

In addition to making Kapow!, CFET manages urban garden spaces around Camden that include community gardens, fruits orchard, and a plant nursery, and offers gardening programs to younger children (called Garden SEEDS).

“Our first mission is respect for the environment,” says Teresa Niedda, CFET’s program director, of the group’s goals. “But we are also concerned with food issues: the availability of fresh, local food for the youth workers and the local community. Also, of course, we’re committed to youth development—giving Camden youth a safe place they can go to learn about the environment, health, and job training, among other things.”

Meeting a Need in Camden

The decade-old CFET is located in the city’s Waterfront South neighborhood, a mix of residential and industrial areas where shipbuilding was once the biggest industry. Throughout Camden, more than a third of the almost 75,000 residents live in poverty, compared to the United States’ 12.7 percent average poverty rate.

And whereas 14 percent of Americans nationally receive federal nutrition assistance programs, 65 percent of Camden County residents are eligible, and studies have shown that there are many food-insecure families in the city who don’t qualify for or receive SNAP. In response to the widespread food insecurity and the limited job opportunities available for young people, CFET chose to focuse on teenagers.

Participants have the ability to work their way up from an eco intern to a senior farmer, at which point they can take part in community food justice discussions, lead workshops, speak at Earth Day events, and collaborate with high schools and colleges that now come to Camden for service learning and to learn about food justice issues.

young entrepreneurs at the farmIn addition to benefitting participants, the program serves the local community. The farm offers growing space and a green oasis for the urban neighborhood. The weekly farm stand the teenagers run provides one of the few sources of fresh produce in the area and the kids are allowed to bring home any excess from the week.

Rutgers researcher Kate Cairns studied the effect of the program on its participants and found that the added income and fresh food home have both made noticeable differences in their lives. It has also taught them skills that will affect their ability to provide for themselves throughout their lives. “Now I don’t have to worry about [accessing fresh food] because I can do it myself if it ever got serious,” one participant in the study was quoted as saying.

Cairns’s research also highlights the lack of opportunity for teenagers in Camden. In her article, she shared participants’ stories of being encouraged to sell drugs instead of working at CFET.

She says one youth told her that a student had been approached by a man who asked, “Why you doin’ this for $9 an hour?” While waving a stack of cash, he continued, “Do you know how fast I can make this much money?” Cairns notes how appreciative the participants are to be part of a program that provides options beyond those neighborhood pressures.

young entrepreneurs at a farmers' marketWhile CFET doesn’t yet have a system for tracking youth who have finished the program, Niedda says it’s clear that interest is growing. They no longer have to advertise for summer workers, and as many as 35 people applied this summer through word-of-mouth alone. Interest in the locally grown produce has increased as well. “When I first started, the youth just weren’t into the healthy food,” she says with a laugh. “Last year’s group fought over taking the extra food home. It was amazing.”

In 2013, Niedda notes, only three Camden high school graduates who took the SATs were considered college-ready. But things are changing. “[Last year’s] senior farmer and assistant farmer are both in college,” she says, while another former participant is majoring in botany thanks to his work at CFET.

The success of Kapow! has led students to expand their offerings. Last fall, they created Midas Touch Honey, made from last summer’s newly productive hives. Working with a pro-bono designer, they came up with a branding concept: a queen who turns everything she touches into golden honey. This is a fitting metaphor for their own experiences: As a result of the program, they see their futures looking brighter. As one teenage participant says, “I know I could sustain myself because I learned so much from here.”

Photos courtesy of CFET.

Vladimir Putin Has Donald Trump By The Balls In Jim Carrey’s Latest Portrait


Vladimir Putin Has Donald Trump By The Balls In Jim Carrey’s Latest Portrait

Lee Moran, HuffPost      July 24, 2018
Jim Carrey roasted President Donald Trump over his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin with his latest artwork shared online Monday.

Labor has a far-right problem: Why some unions are cheering Trump’s immigration crackdown


Labor has a far-right problem: Why some unions are cheering Trump’s immigration crackdown

ICE and Border Patrol unions have emerged as among the biggest cheerleaders of Trump’s immigration policies

By Sarah Lazare and Michael Arria      July 23, 2018

(Getty/AP/Photo Montage by Salon)

This article originally appeared in In These Times.
On June 21, Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), released a statement condemning the Trump administration’s immigration “enforcement overreach,” including the forcible separation of children from their parents.“Nothing embodies our broken immigration system more than the unnecessary pain and suffering of our immigrant brothers and sisters as families are torn apart at the border,” wrote the head of the federation, which is composed of 55 unions representing a total of 12.5 million workers.

Just eight days later, the president of an AFL-CIO affiliate — the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) —w rote a column for Fox News forcefully defending Trump and arguing for more hardline immigration policies, including a wall between the United States and Mexico. “If families can’t enter illegally, then they won’t be separated while the adults await trial and sentencing,” wrote Brandon Judd, head of the NBPC, which represents 16,000 border patrol agents.

This divide raises pressing ethical questions for the U.S. labor movement, whose ranks are filled with undocumented workers demanding basic safety and dignity on the job, but which also includes unions representing U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Those unions constitute the far-right pole of the labor movement — and of the U.S. political spectrum — backing Trump and his hardline immigration policies. In These Times spoke with union members, as well as immigrant justice activists, who say the white supremacist and xenophobic positions of immigration enforcement unions are an affront to the principles of justice and solidarity that the labor movement should embrace as the undocumented workers in its ranks face unprecedented attack.

“There is no place for racism or xenophobia in the labor movement,” Sam Gutierrez, an activist member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2822, tells In These Times. “We have to understand when we are fighting for our rights, we are also fighting for everyone.”

The NBPC and the National ICE Council, a union representing ICE employees, have emerged as among the biggest cheerleaders of Trump’s hardline immigration policies. They endorsed him during the presidential election and have forcefully defended him in the press and lobbied for his most aggressive immigration policies. Amid mounting public outrage at family separations, Judd publicly defended the policy and called for more draconian actions, including the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The leadership of National ICE Council, meanwhile, has publicly expressed frustration that the president is too soft on immigration and is open about its intentions to push the Trump administration further to the right.

Doing public relations for Trump

The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, including the forced separation of more than 2,300 children from their parents at the border, has provoked widespread public outrage. People have taken to the streets across the country, occupied ICE detention centers and blockaded court proceedings. As the call to Abolish ICE goes mainstream, the Trump administration claims it will jail families together — yet, in reality, thousands of children are still separated.

In this climate, Judd hit the media circuit to defend Trump’s policies, appearing June 19 on NPR, where he argued that the media is largely overblowing the horrors of the Trump administration’s immigration policies—and falsely claimed that Border Patrol agents are not separating families for meaningful amounts of time. In a June 30 appearance on Fox and Friends, Judd again championed Trump’s proposed wall, which he said is a result of the “business expertise” Trump is “taking to the White House.” In a May 20 interview with Fox News, Judd defended Trump’s description of some immigrants as “animals,” saying “”They’re worse than animals, in my opinion. . . . Animals do not treat other animals the way MS-13 treats other human beings.”

During this period, the website and social media account of the NBPC looked nearly indistinguishable from the website of white nationalist publication Breitbart, referring to immigrants as “illegals” and choosing inflammatory headlines for its posts. Breitbart, incidentally, is where the union records its official podcast.

But the union’s pro-Trump public relations efforts predate his presidential victory. In March 2016, the NBPC broke with past practice of not endorsing presidential primary candidates, and came out in support of Trump. “We think it is that important: If we do not secure our borders, American communities will continue to suffer at the hands of gangs, cartels and violent criminals preying on the innocent,” said the union in its endorsement statement.

There is reason to believe Trump finds the alliance useful. In January, Judd appeared in an official White House video, in which he says, “The Trump administration has accomplished more in one year to secure our border than any other presidents. … He wants to ensure the American public is safe. He wants to ensure that we can go about our daily lives and not fear what might be coming across the border.”

On April 1, Judd went on Fox and Friends to call for even more hardline immigration policies, criticizing the policies that allow some people to leave detention facilities to attend immigration court at a later time. “They need to pass laws to end the catch-and-release program that’ll allow us to hold them for a long time,” Judd said. Trump immediately took to Twitter to echo Judd’s call, proclaiming: “Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release.”

The exchange prompted the New York Times to write a headline about Judd’s influence: “A Border Patrol Agent (and Frequent Fox News Guest) Has Trump’s Ear on Immigration.” Judd reiterated the demands in April 12 in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Pushing Trump further right

If anything, the ICE union is to the right of the NBPC — and of Trump. The National ICE Council, which says it represents roughly 7,600 “officers, agents and employees who work for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” endorsed Trump on the campaign trail but has grown frustrated with the Trump administration for not being aggressive enough on immigration. In a September 2016 statement explaining its first-ever presidential endorsement, the union citedTrump’s confrontational stance toward immigrants: “He has outlined core policies needed to restore immigration security—including support for increased interior enforcement and border security, an end to Sanctuary Cities, an end to catch-and-release, mandatory detainers, and the canceling of executive amnesty and non-enforcement directives.”

In January 2017, the union cheered Trump’s decision to build a wall along the Mexican border. “President Trump’s actions now empower us to fulfill this life saving mission,” reads part of its joint statement with the NBPC. By November 2017, however, the union began publicly declaring that the Trump administration had “betrayed” it by leaving Obama’s ICE team in place. That same month, its president Chris Crane wrote an open letter accusing Trump of inflicting “a stab in the back to the men and women of law enforcement who we know you support wholeheartedly.” Among his grievances, he cited “ICE managers ordering their own officers in the field not to wear bullet-proof vests because illegal aliens might find it offensive.” The letter also cites alleged deal-making that ICE managers are making with so-called sanctuary cities.

In February, Crane released another letter to the White House criticizing Trump’s immigration strategy: “We simply cannot in good faith support any legislative effort on immigration that does not include provisions regarding immigration detainers, sanctuary cities and the smuggling and trafficking of children across U.S. borders.” The union wants more money to detain people, as well as an end to “catch and release.”

Anonymous ICE employees have also created a website that criticizes the leadership of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security for not being tough enough on immigrants, citing articles from Breitbart. One typical headline reads, “ICE Officers forced to warn city officials before making arrests; Criminals and Fugitives ‘magically disappear’ before they can be arrested.”

There are signs that the Trump administration has been influenced by the political efforts of these unions. In January 2017, the president publicly thanked Judd and Crane, identifying them as “two friends of mine.” Trump said, “You guys are about to be very, very busy doing your job the way you want to do them.”

An unacceptable affiliation?

Both unions are chartered by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), an AFL-CIO affiliate. The AFGE hasn’t taken an official position on the border crisis, but in the past, the border patrol union has praised the AFGE, saying the NBPC’s parent union has “gone above and beyond” in supporting it.

The NBPC is less pleased with the AFL-CIO and its stance on immigration. In the FAQon its website, the union justifies its AFL-CIO affiliation to its members by stating that, if it disaffiliated, the union would be placed in trusteeship by AFGE and lose its assets and status as the exclusive representative of border patrol agents. “Although NBPC is opposed to the shameless promotion of illegal aliens by the AFL-CIO, the NBPC must work through internal measures to change the position of AFL-CIO or risk jeopardizing our status,” reads the section. (When asked for comment, the AFL-CIO referred In These Times to Trumka’s aforementioned statement on the border crisis.)

For some labor and immigrant-justice activists, the affiliation is unacceptable. In 2016, the immigrant justice group #Not1MoreDeportation released a petition calling on the AFL-CIO to terminate the NBPC’s membership after the border patrol union endorsed Trump. “NBPC’s endorsement shines light on the disconnect between Border Patrol, immigrant communities and the rest of the labor movement across the United States,” reads the statement. “By endorsing Trump, Border Patrol endorses a racist, xenophobic and misogynist campaign that advocates mass deportation, torture, state-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims, subordination of women, and more broadly undermines the values and goals of the labor movement.”

There’s a precedent for the AFL-CIO to expel unions for political reasons — although, troublingly, it has only been applied to progressive unions: In 1949 and 1950, the CIO expelled 11 left-led unions, joining the liberal Cold War consensus and aligning itself with McCarthyism. The unions represented almost one million workers altogether and the ensuing strife ultimately led to the CIO merging with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955. Some of the expelled unions were able to survive outside of the AFL-CIO. One, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), rejoined the AFL-CIO in 1988, but chose to leave again in 2013 after the AFL-CIO failed to punish unions whose members had crossed an ILWU picket line.

The way the constitution of the AFL-CIO is currently written, it would be difficult to isolate the Border Patrol and ICE unions, since they’re within the AFGE, which also represents other federal and Washington, D.C.-based workers. However, with a two-thirds vote at one if its conventions, the AFL-CIO could conceivably amend the constitution to say it can expel certain chapters without expelling the whole affiliate. The AFL-CIO also has the option of pressuring AFGE to stop chartering the Border Patrol and ICE unions.

Whatever the best procedural path, some rank-and-file union members say the labor movement must grapple now with the urgent moral questions presented by the actions of border patrol and ICE unions. “As a federation, we cannot condone their behavior,” says Gutierrez, whose union is part of the AFL-CIO.

Carl Rosen, president of United Electrical Workers Western Region, told In These Times that he prefers not to comment on the AFL-CIO question, since his union is not a part of the federation. But he argues that the actions of border patrol and ICE unions should prompt soul searching on the part of the labor movement. “It’s extremely unfortunate that these organizations are taking those sorts of positions that are extremely destructive to the working class and antithetical to what the labor movement ought to stand for,” he said. “I think it is important for the labor movement as a whole to stand up on the side of justice and condemn organizations taking those positions.”

In a labor movement where other law enforcement unions have historically generated controversy and internal opposition, at least one labor council appears to be encouraging immigration enforcement agents to refuse orders. On June 26, Rusty Hicks, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, released a statement declaring, “As L.A. labor, we call on immediate and comprehensive reform of the U.S. immigration detention system. We commit to defending and protecting all immigrants. We also commit to defending and protecting all workers who take a stand against orders they are asked to carry out in violation of basic human rights.”

And in February, Jordon Dyrdahl-Roberts, an employee at Montana’s labor department, quit his job after he learned that his agency was sending employee information to ICE. He called on other government employees to do the same. “So this is me, pointing at you, and telling you to act,” he wrote in a Medium post. “I’m especially telling you to take action if you find yourself as part of one of the agencies helping commit these atrocities.”

As the labor movement fends off attacks from Trump’s National Labor Relations Board and attempts to organize more workers, including undocumented immigrants, who are highly exploited by employers, its response to the current crackdown on immigrants could impact its success moving forward. According to Amy Livingston, a labor educator at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, “The call for the labor movement to divest from Border Patrol and ICE unions is a meaningful opportunity for the mainstream U.S. labor movement to stand with workers and communities of color by rejecting white supremacy.”

Carlos Rojas Rodriguez is an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha, which organizes undocumented workers to build collective power. He tells In These Times, “Unions have a responsibility to protect workers, and in the United States we have one of the most diverse workforces in the whole world. The recent statements made by the ICE and CBP unions defending Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-worker policies are a betrayal to union values.”

Detroit Shows How Cuts to SNAP Affect an Entire Community

Civil Eats

Detroit Shows How Cuts to SNAP Affect an Entire Community

In the Motor City and across the country, restrictions on nutrition assistance in the House farm bill will affect individuals and families, small businesses, farmers, and others.

Editor’s note: As the Senate and House get set to reconcile the 2018 Farm Bill—the House version would lead to dramatic changes to SNAP nutrition assistance programs—during #SNAPweek, we are looking at how SNAP affects a range of different communities, and what the proposed changes might mean for a variety of Americans.

The future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could be shaped this year, as Congress seeks to pass a final 2018 Farm Bill before the existing bill expires in October. Roughly 80 percent of the farm bill goes to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, and while the Senate version of the bill maintains the program more or less in its current form, the House version goes to great lengths to restrict access to food assistance.

The House bill would raise by 10 years, to 59, the age limit that requires recipients to work or enroll in job training programs, remove dispensations for parents with children older than six years old, and impose harsh penalties for non-compliance, revoking an individual’s benefits for a year for a first offense and three years for subsequent infractions. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, these changes would affect between 5 and 7 million of SNAP’s 40 million enrollees.

Farmers at Detroit's Brother Nature Urban Farm. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

Farmers at Detroit’s Brother Nature Urban Farm. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

These proposed changes to SNAP would have wide-ranging impacts on communities around the country—rural and urban alike. To illustrate what those changes would look like on the ground, Civil Eats traveled around Detroit, Michigan—a state that is rolling out new state-level work requirementsfor SNAP recipients—for a first-hand look.

Individuals and Families

On the east side of Detroit, 42-year-old Roquesha O’Neal is one potential target of cuts to SNAP. She relies on the program to take care of herself and her disabled, teenage son. She receives a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check worth $750 for her son and makes an additional $150 a month babysitting and doing odd jobs for neighbors. After rent and utilities, her family is left with about $500 a month to live on.

Even with SNAP, putting food on the table can still feel like a full-time job: SNAP recipients only receive on average $1.40 a meal. O’Neal gets even less than this, feeding herself and her son on $205 a month or roughly $1.13 per meal, per person. And this doesn’t include her daughter’s son, for whom she provides free childcare and also has to feed.

O’Neal has had to be resourceful, visiting the local soup kitchen run by Capuchin Friars and “bargain shopping” with neighbors, making bulk purchases of staples like bread and rice to share. Luckily, O’Neal has a branch of the Aldi grocery store chain nearby, but she has to take public transportation or carpool with neighbors to get to the soup kitchen because she doesn’t have a car. She says that bus fare is her largest monthly expense.

She suffers from high blood pressure and fibromyalgia, and says that side effects from her medications make it nearly impossible to work. Even so, the state is disputing her claims for disability, something that could force her to work or lose SNAP benefits, and would put her in a bind in terms of taking care of her son and grandson. “Everything is connected,” O’Neal says. If she were to lose her benefits, “that means my son would miss meals,” a situation that could also affect her grandson. In terms of her own health, “It would mean life and death for me. If I don’t eat healthy, I could lose my life.”

O’Neal worries that other proposed changes in the House version of the farm bill would hurt her community. This area, in what’s sometimes called the “deep eastside” of Detroit, hasn’t gained much from recent investment downtown and, like many parts of the city, it suffers from high poverty and unemployment.

A reduction in food assistance here could radiate consequences, undermining local businesses, reducing employment even further, and placing additional stress on food pantries and other nonprofits. In addition, the House bill would remove benefits for residents who are just leaving prison, a move that some believe could increase recidivism.

Supermarkets and Grocery Stores

Sam Attam owns the Farmer John Food Center, a heavily secured market that anchors the businesses on the corner of Harper and Gratiot Avenue. He employs around a dozen people and offers the sort of full service-grocery that is often lacking in Detroit, where “party stores” with pre-packaged foods predominate. Attam says that food stamps make up 80 percent or more of his business, a statistic echoed by several grocers in the city, including Charles Walker, a former grocery store owner and the retail specialist for the Detroit-based Fair Food Network.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, estimates that changes like those in the House bill could remove roughly 2 million people from food stamps, or about 5 percent of the program, creating a small but significant loss for businesses with typical profit margins in the low single digits.

Auday Arabo, President and CEO of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, a trade group that represents grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores in the Midwest, says that SNAP cuts could result in layoffs and store closures in urban areas where chain stores have generally already left.

He also notes Detroit-specific problems: “you’re running into an infrastructure issue—you have a lack of transportation, and it’s just [a low] number of rooftops … if you have less rooftops, the stores are not going to sustain.” That lack of “rooftops” refers to Detroit’s dispersed population, where large areas of the city have seen sharp population declines. This, coupled with the lack of transportation, makes it harder for people to get to grocery stores and harder for grocery stores to survive.

All these factors weigh on a business like Attam’s, the loss of which could make both food and jobs harder to find in an already-struggling area.

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ markets have emerged as one bright spot in Detroit’s food landscape. The Double Up Food Bucks program, facilitated by the Fair Food Network and funded by the Farm Bill through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Program, allows food stamp recipients to double their food stamp dollars for up to $20 a day if they buy Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.

And it appears to be working. The Michigan Farmers’ Market Association (MIFMA) reports that shoppers spent $662,921 in SNAP benefits in 2016, and they expect that figure to grow. Markets report an average of $470 in SNAP sales the first year they begin accepting benefits, whereas overall the average for markets that accept benefits is $4,725 a year, representing a tenfold increase for most markets that stick with the program.

But cuts to SNAP could diminish the positive effect programs like Double Up Food Bucks are beginning to have. “It’s detrimental to both families and to farmers,” says Amanda Shreve, MIFMA’s executive director. “In this case, cuts to SNAP can hit direct-marketing farmers twice: Once through cutting SNAP dollars spent at market, and the second time through limiting the number of families that can take advantage of the Double Up Food Bucks program.”

In addition, there’s a looming threat of discontinuation of the Mobile Market+ app by the Novo Dia Group. The Austin-based software company allows farmers’ markets to process SNAP transactions on certain mobile devices. Although Michigan has funds for markets to obtain new wireless devices, some markets may be unable to process transactions for several weeks until they get the new equipment.

Purchasing fruit at Detroit's Eastern Market. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

Purchasing fruit at Detroit’s Eastern Market. (Photo courtesy the Michigan Municipal League)

Eastern Market, near downtown Detroit, which is one of the largest year-round farmers’ markets in the country, accounts for a significant portion of SNAP transactions statewide, Shreve says, and could be deeply affected by the cuts. But smaller neighborhood markets like the Oakland Avenue Farmers Market in the North End neighborhood—which also serves as a community art and performance space—could be even more vulnerable because they don’t have a wide customer base of both urban and suburban shoppers.

Jerry Ann Hebron, executive director of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation, which runs the market, says, “people walk to us or ride their bikes to us. We’re concerned about the impact it’s going to have on them to utilize those benefits to buy food.” Overall, she says that food stamps account for 40 percent of the sales at Oakland Avenue.

Hebron does say that those facing SNAP cuts could still get some food from the market in exchange for volunteer work. “It’s a kind of a barter that we work here,” she says. However, she adds “we don’t get too many volunteers on a regular basis … because people just don’t have the agility or the time to do this work when they’re working two or three jobs—or trying to.”

Food Banks and Charities

It’s unlikely that food banks or charities will be able to pick up the slack should food assistance be reduced in coming years. “For every one meal that the food bank network provides nationally, SNAP provides 12 meals,” says Kait Skwir, Deputy Director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, underlining the massive disparity between what charities and government can do.

And if charities can’t make up the difference, the results would be predictable. “There would be more people who are hungry,” Skwir says. As she and others point out, roughly 40 percent of SNAP recipients are already working, using food stamps to supplement their salaries. Even if that population is able to pick up more work—or get paid a higher wage for their work—the effects on children and seniors who depend on those workers for caregiving could be significant.

There may also be other difficulties in store for the people forced to move into the workforce. As Roquesha O’Neal puts it, “If you don’t have the education, if you don’t have the right health … and if they take the SNAP program away, people are going to be too hungry to even go to work. To me it’s a losing situation.”

In a statement to Civil Eats, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee that oversees the Farm Bill, stressed her support for the Senate version of the bill saying, “Just as the Farm Bill has a safety net for farmers, it also has a safety net for families, which many people rely on to put food on the table during tough times.”

But even if the final version of the bill maintains SNAP as is, the fight over nutrition assistance seems destined to increase in intensity during the 2018 and 2020 elections. O’Neal says she’s committed to engaging in the fight. She has shown up at rallies in support of SNAP and engaged with local non-profits like Michigan United and Mothering Justice to learn about food stamps and other issues and raise awareness in her neighborhood. “I’m going to keep fighting and take a stand,” she says. “I’m going to wake my neighbor up and say you need to vote.”

How to Tilt the Balance of Power Back to Workers

In These Times

After Janus, How to Tilt the Balance of Power Back to Workers

There’s a simple fix to Janus’s “free-rider” problem.

By Jessica Stites and Aaron Tang  July 16, 2018

August Issue

This is the first of a four-part series on rebuilding labor after the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling. You can read the second part herethe third hereand the fourth here. All four pieces, as well as an exclusive interview with Bernie Sanders on the future of the labor movement, are featured in the August issue of In These Times magazine.

More than once during the ongoing crisis of organized labor in the United States, In These Times has wondered whether this event or that is the nail in labor’s coffin. Today, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 27 Janus v. AFSCME decision, we hear clods of earth hitting the lid. With private-sector union membership at an all-time low of 7 percent, Janus threatens labor’s last bastion: the 34-percent-unionized public sector.


Many unions are wisely channeling resources into deep member organizing, but a strong bedrock of legal protections for organized labor sure would help. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote for In These Times’ 40th anniversary anthology, “Even the most creative forms of rank-and-file militancy could but rarely triumph against a free market-oriented neoliberal legal and financial regime.” The International Trade Union Confederation, in its annual workers’ rights assessment, routinely groups the U.S. with Iraq, Honduras and other countries where “fundamental rights [are] under continuous threat.”

The labor and employment protections that do exist have been eroded for decades, often on the Democrats’ watch. But unions and workers weary of broken promises from corporate-captured legislators may find a glimmer of hope in the current rise of progressive Democrats. To those candidates and legislators looking for strong pro-labor proposals, we invited labor experts to offer four concrete policies to bolster workers’ rights. You can find the first proposal, by Aaron Tang, below, and the rest on over the course of the week.

We offer these with one caveat: Legislative change won’t happen without a groundswell of worker action, rooted in the conviction that we do not shed our rights when we clock in to work.

Jessica Stites,  In These Times executive editor


By Aaron Tang

If there is any agreement between Right and Left regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus, it is that the ruling delivers a potentially crushing blow to public-sector unions across the country. Before Janus, small automatic deductions could be debited from workers’ paychecks to cover union bargaining costs. After Janus, this is no longer an option: The Supreme Court has ruled that requiring union contributions violates the First Amendment.

So, as a matter of law, all public-sector workers are now free to opt out of paying union dues while still retaining the benefits of union representation. Experts estimate that anywhere from 20 percent to 70 percent of those affected will stop paying—with significant negative effects on unions’ ability to advocate for workers’ interests.

This doomsday scenario is entirely avoidable, however. Lawmakers in the 22 states that permitted public-sector unions to collect fair-share fees before Janus can enact a simple legislative workaround that would neutralize essentially all of Janus’ impact. Most of these states are blue and ostensibly pro-labor, so they should jump at the opportunity.

Instead of deducting union dues from paychecks to reimburse union bargaining-related costs, government employers—fire departments, school districts, etc.—could be required to reimburse those expenses directly. Workers who previously objected would no longer have an issue, and unions would still enjoy the same, pre-Janus level of resources needed to carry out their representational activities.

It gets better. There is a hidden benefit to this “direct reimbursement” approach: Workers would actually experience a small net pay increase. The pre-Janus approach created an extra tax burden that would be alleviated. Union fees formally counted as wages (even though they never made it into employees’ bank accounts), so workers were paying taxes on the money that funded the union. The direct reimbursement approach would eliminate that oddity, resulting in a roughly $200 tax cut for an unmarried worker who earns $50,000 a year. (A worker earning $60,000 would get a $300 tax cut.)

If direct government reimbursement of union bargaining-related expenses sounds far-fetched to you, it shouldn’t. State lawmakers in Hawaii are already considering a government funding bill that would create a statewide pot of money (think of it as a “Janus fund”) to ensure that public-sector unions have the resources they need to bargain. Some states may prefer a statewide response like Hawaii’s; others, an employer-by-employer approach (which would be more similar to the pre-Janus fair-share system).

Lawmakers in Hawaii are already considering the creation of a statewide pot of money (think of it as a “Janus fund”) to cover public-sector unions’

One note of caution: Whatever approach states choose, it will be important for legislators to enact procedures to ensure unions remain fully independent from their government employers at the bargaining table—even though those employers are reimbursing bargaining costs. For example, rather than letting employers negotiate over union reimbursement levels alongside wage increases, employers could be required to reimburse unions for all bargaining-related expenses (the same costs that could be charged to all workers before Janus), with disputes resolved by a state Public Employment Relations Board. I explore these design questions and others—including proposing some model legislation—in “Life After Janus,” a full-length article posted on the Social Science Research Network.

The lesson is that Janus is only as big a problem as progressive lawmakers want it to be. There is a ready-made solution—if only they are willing to act.

AARON TANG is acting professor of law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. A former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he is the author of “How to Undo Janus: A User-Friendly Guide,” a short white paper that includes model legislation for state lawmakers.

This Would Be Delicious If It Weren’t So Poisonous


This Would Be Delicious If It Weren’t So Poisonous

The Vlad and Donnie Show got renewed for the fall.

By Charles P. Pierce      July 20, 2018

Getty Images

For ten days or so, ever since the Helsinki in a Handbasket press conference, the president* has seemed to go out of his way to prove himself at the very least a useful device in an autocrat’s toolbox. He has spent a couple of days flopping around like a bass in a boat, trying to explain that “would” meant “wouldn’t,” and that he wasn’t really considering shipping a former ambassador to Russia for questioning.

Evidence has piled up that his presidential campaign, and his subsequent administration*, may have functioned primarily as laundromat for ill-gotten currencies of many lands. Evidence has emerged that much of conservative Republican politics may have served to fluff and fold the proceeds of the Volga Bagmen. The president*’s one-time campaign manager is about to begin the first of what may be a prolonged miniseries of trials, most of them centering on work he did in what we used to call The Former Soviet Union. So, in the face of all of these unprecedented developments, what does he do? He does this.  From CNN:

“President Trump asked (national security adviser John Bolton) to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway,” Sanders tweeted Thursday, hours after Trump tweeted he is “looking forward” to meeting again with Putin to “begin implementing” issues they discussed during their summit earlier this week. 

The invitation was extended to Putin by Bolton earlier on Thursday, according to a National Security Council spokesman.

The pair of tweets were the latest indication that Trump is doubling down on his Russian rapprochement strategy even as his approach to Putin continues to draw bipartisan criticism and questions abound as to what Trump and Putin agreed to during their first meeting.

Well-struck, old bean.

(I just had another horrible thought. The president* is supposed to have his idiotic parade this fall, too. I am conjuring up the vision of Donnie and Vlad, together on the reviewing stand, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff sneak out and apply en masse for citizenship on Fiji.)

It was going to be an eventful autumn anyway. The future of the Supreme Court for the next 30-odd years is going to be hanging fire as the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh comes before the Senate. Robert Mueller is due to produce his report. And we will be winding into the homestretch of one of the most crucial midterm elections most of us have ever experienced. Now, with all of that going on, the president* has presumed to invite his favorite thuggish kleptocrat to town. There will be bands and bunting. There will be a state dinner to which many influential Republicans, and members of Congress, many of whom will be running for re-election at the time, will be invited. I predict a staggering number of unbreakable tonsorial appointments. The announcement caught the Director of National Intelligence flatfooted on live televisionThis would be delicious if the whole thing weren’t so poisonous.

ABC News Politics: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informed on stage at Aspen Security Forum that the Trump administration has invited Vladimir Putin to the White House.

“Say that again,” he responds.

They have something on him. Almost everyone is convinced of that now. And, at least in the fog of the president*’s head, what they have on him is sufficiently lethal for him to act like an autocrat’s apprentice all over the world. On Thursday night, a former CIA Moscow station chief, one of the spookiest of the spooks, told Anderson Cooper:

“Before the Helsinki summit, I was not prepared to go to the darkest corner in the room and say there is kompromat—there is compromising information—on Donald Trump,” Hall said. “After … I saw Donald Trump treat (Putin) in a fashion that is just inexplicable, the only conclusion that I can come to is … I think there is information and data out there that implies there is indeed compromising information that Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump. Why else would he treat him that way?”

The squirming already has begun. Mitch McConnell huffed and puffed and pretendedhe still has dignity on which to stand while his colleagues all try to cram themselves behind the drapes of the caucus room at the same time. From The Hill:

“There is no invitation from Congress,” McConnell spokesman David Popp said in an email to The Hill…Senate Republicans are generally opposed to the prospect of another Trump-Putin meeting so soon after the pair’s one-on-one meeting in the Finnish capital this week, which sparked controversy after Trump appeared to side with Putin’s denials over the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

That’ll show him.


The rest of us have to come to grips with the fact that there is no real mystery any more. The president* of the United States is a reckless vandal who is in thrall to a man whose only real goal in life is to loot his own failing country and hobble this one. Putin is a brutal con-man who has found a transparently bad one that he can play like a cheap violin. How the president* got into this situation almost seems irrelevant at this point; there well may be a video of some icky water-sports in a Moscow hotel, but I still think it’s all about money that Russians needed to clean, and that the president* needed to keep his Potemkin empire afloat. In that context, this latest, scarcely believable plot twist has a certain mad logic to it. In for a dime, in for a ruble.

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In Farm Country, Grappling With the Taboo of Talking about Climate Change

Civil Eats

In Farm Country, Grappling With the Taboo of Talking about Climate Change

Despite the heated political rhetoric on both sides of the issue, the realities of the changing climate are driving farmers of all stripes to take action.

In November 2014, agriculture journalist Gil Gullickson challenged the readers of Successful Farming—mostly conventional corn, soy, and livestock farmers—to consider the reality of climate change. He started off by writing, “I know what you’re thinking. Climate change is just some figment of Al Gore’s imagination. A communist-socialist-liberal plot hatched by a gaggle of Third Reich eco-Nazis aiming to run the U.S. economy into the ground.”

The article, “How to Cope with Climate Change,” then went on to lay out the historical record: increasingly wetter springs, growing severity of droughts, higher-volume downpours. Gullickson pointed out that 97 percent of climate scientists, with the backing of over 10,000 peer-reviewed studies, agree that climate change is happening now and that we humans are the cause. Then he laid the groundwork for positive steps that farmers could take in response.

It was a surprising piece, and one some might characterize as brazen, as nearly all of today’s mainstream agricultural leaders tend either to ignore, or vehemently deny, the existence of climate change.

Not too long ago it seemed possible that stance might change. Under President Obama’s U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there was a clear focus on reducing the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of agriculture and food systems. Part of this effort involved integrating the language of “climate adaptation,” “carbon sequestration,” and “climate action” into a great deal of the agency’s materials. USDA budgets were crafted in part around how the agency was approaching the issue. The Climate Hub Initiative convened top agricultural scientists to deliver research and data to farmers and rural communities in need of information.

Then, under Trump—a champion for fossil fuels and agribusiness in Middle America—everything changed. In February of 2017, shortly after the new administration came to power, the USDA’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) employees were directed to avoid using the term, “climate change,” full stop. “Weather extremes,” would be the new language of choice. Likewise, “climate change adaptation” would become “resilience to weather extremes.”

The Guardian uncovered the directive, and published emails from Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune, Director of Soil Health for NRCS.

“We won’t change the modeling, just how we talk about it—there are a lot of benefits to putting carbon back in the sail [sic], climate mitigation is just one of them,” she wrote. But the message was loud and clear: Most conventional farmers don’t want to hear about climate change and this administration wasn’t going to push the envelope.

Last June, the Trump Administration announced it was leaving the international Paris Climate Agreement. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, issued a supportive statement at the time saying: “The Earth’s climate has been changing since the planet was formed—on this there is no disagreement. At USDA, we rely on sound science and we remain firmly committed to digging ever deeper into research to develop better methods of agricultural production in that changing climate.”

And yet, even as the official line has shifted, the evidence that agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—as well the role farm practices can play in both in mitigating and helping farmers adapt to climate change—has only mounted. And while some advocates are working to bring the conversation to the fore among rural communities, others are more focused on supporting farmers to change their practices and build healthy soil, regardless of what language they use.

A group of farmers discuss weather extremes and recent historical data as part of a Rural Climate Dialogues convening. Photo: Center for Rural Strategies.


Today’s changing climate raises serious questions about the viability of agriculture in many of the same regions where it has thrived over the last century (and the places where climate denial is common). Precipitation, temperatures, and atmospheric circulation patterns have changed. So has vegetation. Not only has the West become more drought-prone and arid, but the 100th Meridian—the line that separates the dry cattle-rangeland-and-wheat agricultural zone from the more fertile, productive land used for corn, soy, and pasture—is expanding to the East, changing the landscape for Midwest farmers.

According to a new study, around half of rural residents say they “Believe global warming/climate change has affected their community.” But many farmers seem to see it as something that is merely happening, unrelated to the causes most scientists seem to agree on. According to one 2014 study by Purdue and Iowa State universities, only 8 percent of farmers said they believed it was associated with human activities.

And 2015 research from Iowa State University found that these opinions are often tied to where farmers received their information. “Farmers who said they trusted environmental groups for information about climate change were more likely to believe [it] was occurring and that it was due to human activity. However, farmers who said they trusted farm groups, agribusiness, and the farm press were less likely to believe climate change was happening and due to human action,” according to Scientific American.


The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), one of the more powerful agriculture lobbying groups, rarely mentions the words “climate change.” Their official policy on the topic mainly describes its stance in relation to greenhouse gas regulations. (And, unsurprisingly, they’re opposed to just about all of it.) But the AFBF—and many of the other industry groups it works with—have also actively opposed climate policy and worked to sway the conversation in other ways. Take the federal Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill that went before Congress in 2009 and failed. The AFBF, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) were among a handful of ag industry groups that opposed the bill and actively lobbied to stop it from passing.

Chris Clayton, a long-time farm policy and farm economy reporter, points to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the turning point for agriculture’s rejection of climate change and climate science.“You had Farm Bureau and NCBA issuing news releases saying EPA was going to tax your cows [for the climate-warming methane they release]. This all came out within weeks of when President Obama won the election, well before he had even named an EPA administrator or anything, and it spread like wildfire,” Clayton said.

In December of that year, The New York Times published a story titled, “Farmers Panic About a ‘Cow Tax.’” In that story, New York Farm Bureau spokesperson Peter Gregg said that the emissions tax would represent a “massive hit on our industry here in New York,” and that you “could take all of our cows together and they probably wouldn’t have the same effect on the atmosphere than the average traffic jam on the Tappan Zee Bridge.”

“You really want to go back and look at ‘fake news,’ that’s the perfect example,” Clayton said, referencing the period. Clayton’s book, The Elephant in the Cornfield, covers the topic. “That thing spread to the point where the cable networks were all covering it,” he said.

Clayton said the fear incited by the ag lobby ultimately sunk any chance for farmers’ groups to consider the possibility of embracing the opportunities for addressing climate emissions. “By the time that the Obama Administration was in office, you already had this large resistance that was all based on a lie,” Clayton said. “And it gridlocked anything that was going on regarding climate policy in rural America.”

The ties between the agriculture lobby and climate change denial resurfaced again earlier this year, when Austin Frerick, a candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in Iowa, dug into the investment history of the Iowa Farm Bureau, the largest of the state-level bureaus working with the AFBF. He issued a press release stating:

The documents reveal significant conflicts of interest for the Iowa Farm Bureau and raise questions about whether the Iowa Farm Bureau’s public denials over the existence of climate change and its opposition to classifying carbon dioxide as a pollutant as recently is 2015 is influenced by its extensive investments in Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.


Not all farm groups are opposed to direct talk about the existence of climate change. “Agriculture is one of the few sectors of the economy where you can actually take carbon out of the atmosphere. Family farmers, with their intimate relationship with the land, have the room to make an enormous contribution,” said Tom Driscoll, Director of Conservation Policy at the National Farmers Union (NFU).

“That said, it’s important to understand that farmers and rural people are not homogeneous on the climate change issue. Farmers are just as diverse in opinion as any other population,” Driscoll said.

NFU also has a history of engaging on climate change, such as facilitating access to the voluntary carbon credit market and supporting the Paris Climate Accords. The group’s approach, according to Driscoll, is to support information and opportunities that lead to a greater adoption of conservation practices by farmers—many of which can help mitigate climate change. “Our producers, our approach, involves seeing farmers as advocates for the rural communities where they live. This historical identity is what drives the transition to conservation. It’s not necessary that the farmer-to-community relationship be antagonistic,” Driscoll said.

Farmers Tom Pyfferoen (left) and Curt Tvedt examining the soil structure of no-till soybeans in a cereal rye cover crop. Photo: Land Stewardship Program.


Take Minnesota farmer Tom Cotter, who has lived the reality on the front-lines of a changing climate. Cotter raises corn and soy for animal feed as well sweet corn and peas for a regional vegetable canning business in Southeastern Minnesota. He is up to date on climate science, and he has thought a lot about how best to communicate with farmers in his community.

“I talk with farmers about the issue in terms of global weather extremes,” Cotter said. He works with other farmers, presenting at workshops and helping them procure cover crop seeds, which can be hard to find in his area. “Farmers experience the reality of heavy storms, dry springs, and colder than normal springs like this year.”

A member of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), Cotter is committed to tilling his field much less than most farmers do, using cover crops and planting a wider than average variety of crops. These practices also help him build up his soils with more organic matter, which helps to capture, or “sequester” carbon in soils. Conveniently, many of these practices are also subsidized as “conservation” practices by the Department of Agriculture.

Cotter believes he’s responsible to his neighbors and to others further downstream. He considers the impact of runoff from his land will have on fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and sees capturing carbon issue in the same light. Why wouldn’t I want to feed my soil and put carbon back in the ground at the same time? That helps everyone,” he said. But not everyone shares that motivation.

“Our approach is driven by pocketbook issues for farmers,” said Shona Snater, organizer for LSP’s ambitious “Bridge to Soil Health” Project, which links crop and livestock producers with scientists and other farmers around a soil health community in the Upper Midwest. Rather than using language about climate change, they address soil as a way to help farmers first and foremost stay in business in a tough market.

“For us, it’s a blatant, ‘How can I stay on the farm?’ conversation. Soil health is our focus, and many farmers are finding that cover crop and no till systems can cut costs,” said Snater.

She adds that working with farmers and rural people requires a bottom-up approach. The vast majority of farmers are small and medium-sized, but the industry is dominated by the largest producers who are well-connected to policy makers and sources of capital. “There’s a general lack of confidence in government,” Snater noted. “There’s a general skepticism of science and scientists. People ask the questions, ‘Who funds the science?’ and ‘Who is going to benefit?’”

LSP is one of many grassroots groups that works to hold industrial agriculture accountable to communities and the environment for the pollution risks they pose. From this perspective, government has made it possible for the largest industrial agriculture players to benefit from government policy. The Republicans and Democrats have clear policy differences, but as many farmers see it, neither party has done much to challenge those companies’ power.

The key to Rural Climate Dialogues’ success, says Anna Claussen, is meeting people where they’re at. “It’s not about ‘bringing people along,’” she says. Photo: Center for Rural Strategies.


In Minnesota farm country, the climate change discussion is taking a much more direct form.

“For rural Americans, and farmers in particular, the benefits don’t seem that clear when it comes to discussing the climate crisis,” said Anna Claussen, co-founder of the Rural Climate Dialogues, a long-term project designed to empathetically engage with rural people on climate issues. “Farmers tend to have very high energy costs. They have fuel for the tractor. They have fertilizer costs. They have to move their products to market.”

The Dialogues bring together a selective but demographically representative group of community leaders forming a “citizens jury” panel charged with creating a shared, community-based response to “climate change and extreme weather events.” The project has been able to draw out thoughtful responses to climate change, even from some participating climate skeptics.

As Claussen sees it, the Dialogue’s successes can be attributed to the historical nature of the climate data she presents. “In the middle of the country, we don’t have sea level rise. We don’t have droughts to the same extent they do in other parts of the country. We don’t have these wildfires like California or Texas,” she said. “Instead, when looking at the climate history you can see real evidence of extreme rainfall events, the volume and duration of storms are changing. People look at that history, and start to say, ‘Yes, we do have climate change here in the Midwest, too.’”

Raised on a Minnesota family farm that struggled to survive during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, Claussen described how the jury process also leads to breakthroughs and participation. “I think it was the tailored data, and treating the participants as jurists. They were able to look at the data, measure its bias, figure out facts and truth. If something wasn’t accepted as truth, we threw it out.”

Just like in a court of law, the jurors decided if an expert or data point was valid, factual, and relevant to their final consideration. “It was positive to focus on the presentation of the history as we know it instead the fear of the climate projections in the unknown future,” Claussen said.

The key, says Claussen, is meeting people where they’re at. “That doesn’t mean talking down to them or talking in a different way to them. It’s not about ‘bringing people along.’ This is not an intellectual game.” Rather, she believes it’s a matter of inviting people to work together as stakeholders with an equal amount to gain (and lose) as we move forward into an unknown climate future.

In order to follow the advice of meeting farmers where they are, the realities of the farm economy must be front and center. Family farmers that raise livestock and row crops are struggling with low prices and lack of access to markets. Farm incomes have declined steadily since the boom years of 2011-2014. President Trump’s NAFTA re-negotiation and tariff threats with China have shaken up international export markets. Bankers are worried about farmers’ ability to service their debt. Dairy farmers are leaving the business as corporate-controlled industrial dairy factories expand. The mood in farm country is understandably sour.

It’s possible, though, that the lessons of the Rural Climate Dialogues can demonstrate a way through the politics and the gridlock of the moment. Perhaps agriculture could lead the way to a low-carbon economy by looking at the evidence.

To Chris Clayton, the most heartening sign of change is the soil health movement and the rise of farmers like Tom Cotter, and more well-known experts like Gabe Brown. As he sees it, national farmer gatherings such as the No Till on the Plains conference and the Soil Health Institute Meeting are bringing together a growing number of people who appear to be taking climate change mitigation by the horns.

“This whole issue is focused around climate, but they still have a hard time wrapping their heads around explaining it and implementing it in that vein,” says Clayton. “So what they’ve come to is a focus on soil health. If you were to go to that meeting, you would hear a room full of people talking about climate issues without actually saying the words.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation opted not to comment for this story.

This story is part of a year-long series about the under-reported agriculture stories in our rural communities.