The progressive group making a huge impact in red states

By mid-November, it was clear that the midterm elections went really well for Democrats — and even better for progressives.

Grassroots activists were able to enact a slew of progressive priorities via ballot initiatives, even in states where Democrats rarely win elections. In Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska, voters overwhelmingly chose to expand Medicaid. In Michigan, they supported nonpartisan redistricting reform, expanding voting rights, and legalizing marijuana. In Missouri and Arkansas, voters voted to raise the minimum wage. Floridians, meanwhile, gave the vote back to over a million rehabilitated ex-felons.

The list of victories goes on and on, marking triumphs for a number of grassroots groups and the ascendance of one national organization: The Fairness Project, a DC-based 501(c)(4) that works to support local activists at every step of the ballot initiative process. The organization was involved in each minimum wage and Medicaid expansion victory, a win for regulating payday loans in Colorado, and a number of other ballot wins last month.

“By actually putting progressive wins on the board there,” Jonathan Schleifer, the Executive Director of The Fairness Project, tells Progressives Everywhere, “we demonstrated that Americans are much less interested in the divisiveness of the current administration and much more interested — when given the opportunity — to look out for each other and actually make progressive policy.”

After a week filled with lame-duck Republican legislators making a mockery of democracy and thumbing their nose at voters, it’s clear that direct ballot initiatives are going to be even more essential tools in our activism. With that in mind, here is Progressives Everywhere’s conversation with Schleifer about how The Fairness Project goes about supporting grassroots groups and what’s coming next.

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The wreckage from a week of Republican power-grabs

The Republican Party has now fully entered the next phase of its all-out war on American democracy — not only are they cheating in an effort to win elections, they’ll now disregard the will of voters when they lose. After giving it a test run in 2016, when the GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature tried to strip Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper of many of his powers, Republicans are going all-in on the strategy in key states across the country.

The scheme played out this past week in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and once again in North Carolina, where Republicans have become the nation’s leaders in abject and blatant cheating. It’s hard to keep up with all the corruption, as so many of the most insidious clauses and maneuvers are nestled into giant bills that were kept secret from the public up until now. To help catch you up, here’s a running list of state GOP’s anti-democratic lame-duck treachery.

Wisconsin:

In a marathon Tuesday night session that stretched into the next morning’s rush hour commute, the GOP-held legislature passed a number of bills that will hamstring Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. The state is already gerrymandered beyond belief, which allowed Republicans to keep their legislative majority despite Democrats earning a majority of statewide votes this November. You’d think that would send a message to GOP legislators, but that assumes that modern Republicans have consciences or even self-awareness.

Awaiting outgoing GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s signature are a number of bills that will significantly weaken the executive branch and hurt voters and working people. They will:

  • Curtail early voting, reducing it from six to two weeks before the election;
  • Double down on new Medicaid work requirements
  • Stripping the Attorney General of the ability to remove the state from lawsuits, including the suit against the Affordable Care Act
  • Takes away Evers power to control or disband a key economic development council
  • Require legislative approval for some decisions made by the Governor

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Where the minimum wage is rising and where the fight continues

The national minimum wage still sits at a disgraceful and unlivable $7.25 an hour, and because Trump is still stinking up the White House and business-shill Republicans have a Senate majority, that figure is unlikely to change in the next few years. But thanks to the hard work of activists and working people, the minimum wage continues to creep up in a variety of states across the country.

Since the Fight for $15 kicked off in 2012, more than 20 states and 40 cities have raised their minimum wages. In 2019, due to previously passed legislation and successful ballot initiatives in Missouri and Arkansas, the minimum wage will rise in 20 different states. Here’s a chart with an overview of the minimum wage in each state:

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Long-time teacher, challenging wingnut Rep. Jim Jordan, comes out swinging with upset possible

It didn’t take long for the overuse of #Resistance to become a painful cliché, a punchline on Twitter used to gently mock the overly earnest and poke holes in the cynical and misinformed. But last week, we were reminded over and over that we really are in the middle of a struggle of civilizational struggle against really hateful, malevolent people and the people they exploit. The pipe bombs, the massacre at the synagogue, the endless harassment of women and minorities — it will all continue unless we do something about it.

It’s incredible to see the kind of work that is going into getting out the vote, despite the endless obstacles being thrown at them by Republicans. After a bus of black voters was pulled over by Georgia police for no good reason, ten more busses, filled with 500 voters, were sent to the polls by groups like Black Voters Matter. (You can donate to the ongoing GOTV efforts HERE.) In Texas, despite record voter intimidation and voting machines that seem to be literally changing results to the GOP, there are women in deep red parts of the state meeting in secret to help get out the vote for Beto O’Rourke.

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The Unions Will Win. We Just Have to Tell Their Stories.

Hamilton Nolan is a reporter for Splinter, the news site that is a spiritual successor to Gawker, the trailblazing New York media group that practically invented modern blogging in the early 2000s. Once it was shivved by the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, the company’s sites, minus the flagship Gawker.com, was sold to Univision, where it has been subject to endless management turmoil. Luckily, Nolan led a Gawker unionization campaign before the legal trouble began, ensuring their rights and paychecks throughout the last few years of corporate entropy.

In the years since, Nolan has continued to help organize New York new media outlets, working to bring some stability to what has become an industry defined by splashy entrances and catastrophic collapses. He’s also continued to write about politics and inequality in America, a very busy beat right now. We spoke about unionizing the media, how that might impact the way the industry covers unions and workers’ issues, and what the future of the movement looks like.

Gawker was the first digital outlet I heard of unionizing — how did it happen?

I was writing for Gawker and I wrote a lot about labor stuff and inequality. And every time I wrote about unions, you people in the comments would be like, “why don’t you guys unionize?” I always kind of blew it off because I didn’t think it was that important because we were white collar workers.

Over time I changed my thinking on that and came to the realization that basically everybody should organize, no matter who you are. So we ended up talking to the Writers Guild. The Writer’s Guild was interested in unionizing Vice, actually. And I was talking to one of the organizers there who was interested in organizing Vice and I was just like, why don’t you try organizing us? And it worked, is the short version.

Once people saw one place do it, I think the light bulb just went off everywhere and people were like, wow, that’s obviously a good idea for us. In quote-unquote old media, newspapers were unionized for decades and decades and decades, and that’s one reason why they were nice stable, middle-class jobs. And for new media, I think it’s part of the process of growing up as an industry, because people don’t want to be on that treadmill their whole lives, they just want to be able to have a career.

Another thing about being in the Writers Guild, it has TV writers and Hollywood writers. Working in Hollywood is a great job and the reason it’s a great job is because every last part of Hollywood has been unionized for many, many decades. It’s an industry that’s been forced to share the proceeds fairly among the people who work there because it’s a widely unionized industry and that’s hopefully where we can get to in our industry.

Gawker was still owned by Nick Denton at the time, right?

We actually signed our union contracts just before the Hulk Hogan verdict came down. So we signed a contract and then right after that we got hit with a big verdict that made us go bankrupt. So in that sense it was really good timing for us.

How was he about the union campaign? I imagine it was different than working somewhere like Univision, which owns Gizmodo now.

He was actually very blasé about it. We didn’t know what his reaction was gonna be, but then his reaction ended up being like, you guys do what you want to do. There was no anti-union campaign, he just said have a vote and if you vote for it, then you have a union. Like he was more concerned about getting some good blog posts out of it than running any kind of anti-union campaign. So to his credit, yes, he did not oppose us.

Meanwhile, Joe Ricketts, the owner of Gothamist and DNAinfo, shut those sites down entirely because they wanted to unionize, and Thrillist employees have been struggling for a year to have their union recognized. So the personal politics of employers is often so critical.

The law in America is that the workers get to decide if they have a union or not.The boss can try to scare you out of having a union, but they can’t tell you that you can’t have a union. Obviously the labor laws in America leave a lot to be desired, but fundamentally the workers have that on their side. So when you see a guy like Joe Ricketts, who’s a fucking ideological right-wing billionaire asshole, the only good thing about that is that most of the people who own the outlets in our industry are not Joe Ricketts. He was really the worst the worst-case scenario in terms of owner. Hopefully that won’t be replicated.

But even if they aren’t, they give people a tough time, as with Thrillist.

Our campaign was probably on the easier end of things. And some other places have been very easy, — TPM organized pretty recently. It really depends on how enlightened the boss is. The places that have enlightened bosses will say, “OK, you want to have a union, fine, let’s move ahead and let’s negotiate. “And then the less enlightened places will act like assholes. We’ve had pretty much the whole spectrum in our industry. We haven’t had any official strikes yet, although there’s a couple of places you can look at and say that the possibility on the horizon.

You mentioned Thrillist, they just had a walkout and Thrillist is a place that’s owned by the Lerer family, who are all multimillionaires. Ben Lerer is the son of a multimillionaire who is also a multimillionaire, whose dad gave him the outlet. One thing that unionization does as it moves across the industries is expose people that need to be exposed. At the end of it, the unions are going to win. It’s inevitable that the unions will win and everybody’s going to know exactly where everybody stands, who’s a hypocrite and who’s not.

I think unionization in the media can also change the way unions are seen nationwide, because it’ll change the way reporters and producers understand organized labor. In the debate between Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo, the moderator asked whether they supported public workers’ right to strike and maybe gum up the infrastructure, and I thought, shouldn’t the question be whether they’re willing to pay workers what they deserve?

I think that over the past several years that more places in the media had been unionizing, I think that a) you see more labor coverage in general. And b), I think that as a sort of side effect of all these media outlets unionizing is that you have all these reporters who are going through this process firsthand and it kind of builds up class consciousness among reporters basically. So it’s not that it’s giving a bias to reporters, but it’s sort of opening the eyes of a lot of people who work in the media and that’s something that will inevitably make their coverage better. Not just of unions specifically, but also all the history that is tied to labor and inequality, economics and all that stuff.

Ben Smith from BuzzFeed [full disclosure: I used to work at BuzzFeed] wrote a story this week about how he thinks it’s time for the end of horse race journalism. How do you think journalists have handled class issues?

It’s definitely been a problem for a long time and all due respect to Ben Smith, he didn’t invent horse race journalism. Horse race coverage of politics has been a problem in the media for a long time and it’s tied to the fact that big-time journalism is not a very diverse field, it’s not racially diverse. It’s not economically diverse. It’s not diverse. Those newsrooms tend to not look like America, right? And that’s a big problem and it affects the coverage. When you have newsrooms that are full of people who are Ivy Leaguers, it’s much easier to cover politics in that horse race style because there’s no personal stake. There’s not a personal stake in politics, so politics doesn’t get covered as something that’s very serious and affects people’s lives in a serious way.

I do think that that having some personal experience with issues like labor organizing is going to help reporters and also think that with every single place in our industry that has organized, you know, if you sit in those meetings and listen to them talk about what the issues are, diversity is an issue at every single place.  The staffs want more diversity, all types of diversity. I think in the long-term unions are going to be one of the strongest factors that’s going to drive diversity in the media.

As our industry turns more toward freelance, it also becomes easier to empathize with the economic struggle.

The whole structure of getting a job in journalism is ridiculous. The expectation that people are going to have internships and all that, that stuff forces poor people out of the industry. Paying incredibly low salaries, so that they can’t pay the rent in New York, forces poor people out of journalism because they cannot afford to in the industry. One thing we got in our union contract is a minimum wage for our company. You cannot be paid less than $50k if you work for us. Living wages for these jobs is, is absolutely tied to diversity because people aren’t independently wealthy need to be paid enough to work in this industry.