Farewell address to the Indianapolis community-faith-labor coalition

The following "Farewell Address" was given by me at the meeting of the Indianapolis Community-Faith-Labor Coalition on August 2, 2008. It has been emended for clarity and accuracy, and a new paragraph added--GF

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The lead editorial by Ron Haldeman in the August, 2008 issue of the Indianapolis Peace & Justice Journal, “Where have All the Radicals Gone?” says it all. After briefly listing where radical presences in Indianapolis were in the past, visible and effective, he concludes plaintively, “So where have all the radicals gone? We need them very badly.”

Indeed we do. And a good number of them should be coming out of the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition, but they’re not. Much to my dismay, and also much to the detriment of the working people of Indiana and Indianapolis.

In fact, all three editorials by Ron Haldeman in the August Journal commend themselves to attention. They nicely limn a program of issues and action the Coalition should be actively working on. But, unfortunately for the people of Indiana and Indianapolis, the Coalition is definitively not working on them.

The Community-Faith-Labor Coalition used to be the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition for a Living Wage, and as such, had a substantial program for that. For you who’ve been around for a while in the Coalition, and remember those days back in 2001, let me refresh your memories; for those of you who are newer, let me recall those days when the Coalition actually had substance. That program was: to ensure for all workers in Indianapolis a Living Wage of at least $10 an hour (then officially designated by the State of Indiana as a “livable wage”), to be raised yearly by $1 an hour up to $15 an hour. So that no one had to be poor and also working.

Alas, the Coalition has abandoned that program, along with the name, and consequently has no real purpose or mission today at all. It doesn’t even have a decent name. Community-Faith-Labor Coalition. Coalition for what? A coalition has a purpose for existing, that’s just dictionary definition. But that part’s left out, and so the crucial question is begged. Coalition for what? Coalition for the Enhancement of Coffee Cups, perhaps? Or maybe Coalition for the Triumph of Galoofah? Even the word “Coalition” in the title lacks definition, for the group’s not a coalition at all. Once again, back to dictionary definition. A real coalition sends delegates to represent the member organizations in the coalition. But the attendees at the meetings of the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition represent no one but themselves. Moreover, the attendees aren’t even representative as individuals of the Indianapolis social activist community, such as it is. They are overwhelmingly a bunch of retirees with nothing to do, but who like to attend meetings. [With the influx of some new, younger members, this statement is not as true as it was a few months ago—GF] And so old that even I, at age 61, make up a substantial part of the Coalition’s youth contingent!

One of the Coalition members talked to me recently about the Coalition and was apologetic for not attending the meetings more, but then remarked tellingly of those meetings, “They’re boring.” Indeed they are.

Boring meetings can be tolerated if they accomplish something. But what has the Coalition, for all its regular monthly meetings, actually accomplished? It likes to rest on its laurels about getting pay raises for the Indianapolis/Marion County regular and contract government employees, but that was some time ago. Same with its touting that it got 200,000 workers in Indiana a pay raise by working to raise the state minimum wage to the federal level. Fine and good, but is this all that’s been done since the Coalition’s inception in 2001? Seems like very small potatoes to me!

Further, we need to look more closely at the number of workers who actually benefited from the Coalition’s efforts. I give a generous estimate of the number of city and county workers affected at 10,000. Add that to the 200,000 given above, that’s 210,000 workers. But, since I am an economist and statistician, I tried to find out what proportion of low wage workers in Indiana were actually affected by this effort, and how many were left out. Basing myself on Census data, I concluded that the Indiana work force comprised between 5 million and 6 million workers. Using national data that showed that ⅓ of U.S. workers make under $11.15 an hour, which I don’t think anyone can truly argue doesn’t stand as an absolute minimum for a real Living Wage in the country today anywhere, that gives us a low-wage Indiana work force of 1,300,000 to 1,600,000 persons. Divide 210,000 by those figures and subtract from 100%, and you get the astounding figure that 84-87% of Indiana’s low-wage workers were not affected by the Coalition’s efforts! To that I say: shame!

The President of the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition reproached me for using Indiana-wide statistics. But Indianapolis/Marion County is not only central to the Indiana economy, and directly affects much of what workers get elsewhere in the state, it is also the site of the Indiana state government. Surely, given this, it is truly provincial for the Indianapolis/Marion County-based Coalition to not be concerned with goes on throughout the state as a whole. Especially since so many Coalition members like to talk to politicians, and both state and local politicians are readily available in Indianapolis for having their ears bent; for, after all, they also determine statewide policy here, as well as local. And further, when the Coalition was first formed, and was the first activist group in Indiana to devote itself to the Living Wage issue, it directly inspired the creation of such groups elsewhere in the state. Or have we, in our provincial preoccupation, forgotten this? And also forgotten that we live in the State of Indiana as well, and our central location gives us preeminence in advocating for all the low-wage workers in the state, not just those in our backyard?

Further, while the Coalition has indeed raised consciousness in Indianapolis on the Living Wage issue, in terms of results of getting a Living Wage for more and more workers it has very definitely not succeeded. And its strategy of limiting the issue to getting a Living Wage for city-county government employees in Indiana only on a county-by-county basis seems to me to be horribly inadequate. Rather, it should expand and extend its educational, activist and networking work toward getting a Living Wage for all workers who need it, in Indiana as well as nationally, and that will require working for positive legislation and changes on the issue at both the statewide and the national level, as well as extending its outreach to groups outside Indiana and on the national level. And while what one Indianapolis-based organization can actually do will be limited, it definitely seems to me that the Coalition is too self-limiting, and accepts too many self-imposed limitations on what it does.

For some time the Coalition has been occupied with the issue of privatization of welfare, but that issue has been significantly resolved lately, and a far greater role was played by the federal government in insisting that the Indiana Family and Social Service Administration fix the glaring inadequacies existing in the newly-privatized system, a far greater role indeed than was ever played by the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition. The Coalition’s role in what’s now been achieved was peripheral at best, despite that the privatization issue so preoccupied the Coalition’s work (such as it was) that it couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even consider serious involvement in any other issues.

As I recall, the Coalition at its last meeting endorsed a call by the Unitarians for a forum on raising the national minimum wage to $10 an hour. Splendid demand! And a raise much, much needed, for surely the present minimum wage of $6.55 an hour is horribly inadequate given today’s prices, and given the present rate of inflation, its raise next year to $7.25 an hour, and to $7.75 an hour the year after that, will still make it highly inadequate. Especially given the minimum wage’s role as a benchmark for other wage levels. So, the very least the Coalition could do is begin actively agitating for a raise in the minimum wage to the decent level of $10 an hour now, and one continually adjusted not just for inflation, but for increases in worker productivity as well. After all, it’s only the case nationally, and Indiana does substantially follow national economic trends, that, while worker productivity has increased 85% since the mid-Seventies, real wages have fallen 8%!

But that’s liable to irk the Democratic politicians the Coalition sees as the only real political support for progressive change in the state, despite their shameful record of proving otherwise. The Coalition likes to trot out the “progressive Democrat” troika of Joanne Sanders, David Orentlicht and John Day [Sanders and Orentlicht are Indianapolis City-County Council members, while Day is a State Representative from Indianapolis] as the saviors of the day for Indiana progressivism, but admirable as these three are (and they are admirable indeed), and admirable sometimes as Andre Carson may be [Representative from Indiana's Seventh Congressional District, which comprises Indianapolis] , and as the sainted Julia Carson [late Representative from Indiana's Seventh Congressional District, who died in office and was succeeded by Andre Carson] sometimes was, how do they stand up against a Democratic Party dominated by the none-too- progressive Evan Bayh [Governor of Indiana, 1988-1996, and presently Senator from Indiana and head of the Democratic Leadership Council]; his successors as Indiana Governors Frank O’Bannon [1996-2001] and Joe Kernan [2001-2004], who carried on the privatization of welfare and social services that was first done, lest we forget, under Evan Bayh, Mr. Republican in drag himself (also co-author of the resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq, as well as co-author of the present draconian bankruptcy law, which hurts working people the most); the developers’ good friend, former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, who had his bid for unsuccessful re-election endorsed by the city’s Republican Establishment; and State Senator Patrick Bauer, who gave the citizens of Indiana crying for honest tax reform an increase in the Indiana sales tax to 7%. But the sales tax is the most regressive tax of all!

I say “Enough!” to cozying up to these Democrats who don’t deliver! I say the Coalition must be resolutely non-partisan in its approach to politicians, criticizing and opposing reactionary and hidebound Democrats as well as Republicans, and not simply a “progressive” shill for the Democratic Party!

For those of you wondering why this speech is on the agenda today, it’s because I’ve been “strongly invited” by the Coalition’s President to leave the Coalition. And why? Because as an independent writer I’ve resolutely written about what I see as the real issues that need to be addressed, and have not flinched from criticizing those failures and inadequacies among the “good guys” as well as the bad. I published on my blog at the Bloomington Alternative, bloomingtonalternative.com, “Online Features,” “Blogs” links, an “Open Letter to the Indianapolis Living Wage Coalition” that noted many of the things I’ve said above (which are also many of the same points Ron Haldeman made in the August Indianapolis Peace & Justice Journal). That irked several members of the Coalition, who do not take kindly to anyone breaking ranks. But not only do I retract nothing I said in the “Open Letter,” I even more strongly affirm it, and commend it to all who are interested and have an open mind. Even to the Coalition’s President, who’s outraged at what I wrote, even as she stands adamant in refusing to actually read (until recently) what I wrote there!

Unfortunately, the Coalition would rather ape the bureaucratic authoritarianism that characterizes too much of today’s labor movement (read: labor sclerosis) rather than stand forthrightly as tribunes of the people of Indiana, who really need such tribunes badly. No, it would rather stand pat and revert to those old tried-and-true Indiana ways of smugness, squeamishness, cliquishness, cronyism, and stifling of genuine debate and discussion in the name of “consensus” rather than be an effective advocacy group in Indiana that can really make a difference and cause progressivism, not reaction, not the intolerable status quo, to prevail here. Or at least be a fighting contender that does positively affect the lives of Indiana workers, and thus galvanizes them to fight for what they need and deserve. To be an Indiana movement truly worthy of, truly honoring, the Greatest Hoosier of them all, Eugene V. Debs, lifelong resident of Terre Haute!

And so, I now bid the Coalition “adieu.” Not a “fond adieu,” just “adieu.” I will continue writing and speaking my mind, of course, and you are always free to comment on what I say and write; but don’t be surprised if I respond sharply to what many of you will say, for too many of you are among the recalcitrant troglodytes that are Indiana “progressivism’s” bane and even fatal woe. I’ll even make it easy for you to respond. Here’s my e-mail address: . I fear not your strong language, for, after all, sticks and stones, baby, sticks and stones.

And so now I leave you, and call upon you who are receptive to this message to carry on the fight for a real, not sham, Indiana progressivism. For those who are receptive, and who act on that receptiveness, I will always be there with you, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you and armed with my pen as sword and cudgel. What else can I honestly do, what else can I do and still be true to myself as a lifelong fighter for social and economic justice? What else indeed! So goodbye, and perhaps even good riddance! I want to move on. Do you?