Velezian Protagonism: Problematizing Power to Tell a Story
May 29, 2014
By James Anderson
As he exposed his eyes to the light early that Friday evening at the union family picnic on May 16, he threw light on power.
“Bargaining is not about making good arguments,” he said. “We make those all the time. We need the power to go along with it.”
Union members elected Bob Velez president of GAU on Tuesday, May 6. Velez, 44, said he “was approached” to run for office.
“I guess you could say I was recruited to do so,” he said. “And I’ve never been the top dog in the union before. Oh, that sounds horrible doesn’t it?”
“How Machiavellian of you, Bob?” he asked rhetorically.
Self-deprecation aside, Velez said he draws inspiration from historical labor leaders who understood the paradox of power, from Eugene Debs to Mother Jones. Elaborating further the nuanced ways in which power functions, he earnestly qualified his previous statements.
“I don’t covet power, as a rule,” he added. “I certainly do not.”
Putting Faith in Power or Power in Faith: The Promises of Political Praxis
Having recently attained doctoral candidacy in the political science department, Velez has started work on his dissertation. The project involves a broad study of members of clergy who vied for positions of formal political power.
While there is a lot of literature on religion and politics, and some on the political behavior choices of religious leaders, Velez said, there has been little – if any – research on clergy that run for office. The primary reason for that is because “not a lot of them do it,” he said.
He said names like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee – or kindred religious conservatives – often come to mind when people think about politically-oriented individuals whose faith is front and center.
In a class taught by Jean-Pierre Reed, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Velez first learned about lesser-known ecumenical political activists too, like Óscar Romero.
Romero, an Archbishop often referred to as “the voice of the voiceless,” held the highest Catholic Church office in El Salvador when he was assassinated while offering Mass in March 1980.
“At the time of his murder,” authors Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky noted in their book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” “Romero had become the foremost and most outspoken critic of the policy of repression by murder being carried out by the U.S.-supported military government,” and he “was an important activist in opposition to the local alliance of army and oligarchy and to U.S. policy in El Salvador.”
In contrast, the killing of activist leader and Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko, “murdered in an enemy state,” in October 1984, Herman and Chomsky wrote, received far greater media coverage than the assassination of Romero, greater than the 72 religious leaders killed in Latin America between 1964 and 1978, and greater than the 23 religious affiliates murdered in Guatemala from Jan. 1980 to Feb. 1985.
Using content analysis “to calculate the relative worthiness of the world’s victims, as measured by the weight given them by the U.S. mass media,” Herman and Chomsky found “worth of the victim Popieluszko is valued at somewhere between 137 and 179 times that of a victim in the U.S. client states; or, looking at the matter in reverse, a priest murdered in Latin America is worth less than a hundredth of a priest murdered in Poland.”
Velez, who will be teaching Political Science 341i: Politics and Media in the fall as a graduate assistant instructor of record, said that in Reed’s class he also learned about Liberation Theology, a religious movement for socioeconomic justice with roots in Latin America, which Romero was closely affiliated but not directly involved with.
Reed, in his 2012 essay, “Theorist of a Subaltern Subjectivity: Antonio Gramsci, Popular Beliefs, Political Passion, and Reciprocal Learning,” published in the journal “Critical Sociology,” described Liberation Theology as integral to the Sandanista revolution that in 1978-79 overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.
Gramsci, an Italian theorist imprisoned during Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, advocated intellectual leadership predicated on trusting the potential of “the independent self-conscious development of subaltern consciousness into critical consciousness” necessary for social transformation, Reed explained.
Religion, can be an oppressive institution but also the “perfect suture between intellectuals and the people,” Gramsci wrote in his prison notebooks. It can promote, he argued, “the exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas,” as well as the “habit of connecting causes and effects” to make “the vague concept of freedom of thought” felt, real and imbued with transformative potential.
Reed argued in his essay that religion functioned to promote that habit of critical questioning linked to social change in the Sandanista revolution. Like other applications of Liberation Theology, the Sandanista movement was attacked by the US.
During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, US administration officials funneled arms to Iran – despite an arms embargo – so as to support counter-revolutionary Contras in Nicaragua who aimed to subvert Sandanista governance.
Velez pointed out the “offensive since the Reagan years,” against organized labor as well.
Reagan inaugurated the ongoing systematic attack against labor after he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 when striking workers ignored his order to return to the job, Velez recounted. Reagan also did away with California’s free college education program when he was governor before coming to Washington. Once president, he further cut federal aid to higher education and incentivized government interest-seeking on student loans.
The Reagan administration drew ire not only from the domestic unions and public education advocates, but also from the International Court of Justice, which sided with Nicaraguan plaintiffs in the 1986 case, Nicaragua v. United States of America. The ICJ decided that the US, “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua,” had acted “against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State,” as the court’s judgment stated.
Inequity and the Power of Re-Articulation
Velez, who has been reading the biographies, “Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem,” and the “Bob Drinan: The Controversial Life of the First Catholic Priest Elected to Congress” – both about the foray of religious leaders into the arena of political power, said “getting the narrative,” be it through Gramsican re-articulation or straight truth-telling about repressed events, continues to be a big part of mobilization.
A recent Brookings Institute survey about religion and politics reaffirmed that notion, noting that although “there may well be too much emphasis in our political discussions about how issues are ‘framed,’ it is clearly the case that different ways of framing economic and social justice questions provide each side with opportunities to move opinion.”
Yet, the Brookings report acknowledged, “qualms about social injustice affect religious respondents of all stripes,” as demonstrated by the survey results. The study found “few differences on this question across theological lines,” from the Left to the Right side of the political spectrum.
For example, 44 percent of Americans said capitalism is not consistent with Christian values, according to the survey, while slightly fewer – 41 percent – said it is.
Velez said he thinks some people probably have taken advantage of welfare provisions, which disturbs the “inherent sense of justice” people have, but he also points to the growing justice gap that privileges a select few with immense wealth and power over everybody else.
The Brookings survey findings and the growth of disproportionate justice Velez alluded to come after several decades of growing inequality.
The top one percent of the population took home more than half the total increase in income in the US between 1979 and 2007, an Economic Analysis and Research Network report published February 2014 found. In 15 states, including New York where Velez grew up, and also Illinois where he has lived since 2010, the top one percent expropriated more than half of all income growth during that 28-year time period, the report also stated.
Similarly, a multivariate analysis study conducted at Princeton University concluded “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Speaking “most directly to the ‘first face’ of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues,” the study found that compared to “the preferences of economic elites,” who “have far more independent impact on policy change,” “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Velez said agglomerated political-economic power has the advantage when it comes to crafting a narrative at odds with many shared realities, human sentiments and the interests of the majority of the population. And, “certainly the corporate media doesn’t help,” when it comes to getting the narrative straight, he added.
To provide one example, he said he only learned about faith leaders protesting the School of the Americas from the daily independent global news hour Democracy Now, hosted by journalist Amy Goodman.
School of the Americas, located in Fort Benning, Ga., and known now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Social Cooperation, “used to train Latin American soldiers in combat, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics,” Goodman reported on her program. Many officers involved in the November 16, 1989 murder of six Jesuit intellectuals on Central American University campus by a unit of US-backed military in El Salvador were graduates of the School of Americas.
Velezian Protagonism: The Power of Telling a Story
Velez discovered Goodman’s program when he was delivering newspapers at 4 a.m. to inner-city Minneapolis residents. He had moved to Minneapolis after leaving New York and serving in the Navy for a little more than 6 years.
He moved to Minnesota in 1993. Velez said he worked for a while at Harmon AutoGlass where the Glaziers were unionized. He said he had “no clue what a union was” prior to that first private-sector job.
Later, he returned to school. He said he had previously attended SUNY Cortland in upstate New York for one semester, “and they invited me not to come back for a second semester,” he added.
At Brown Institute, now Brown College, in St. Paul, he studied radio and television broadcasting for 18 months. While there, he said he first “dabbled in politics too,” and he shot the video of Winona LaDuke’s acceptance speech for the Green Party vice-presidential nomination at White Earth Reservation in 1996.
Velez earned an associate’s degree soon after.
“I graduated from Brown the same year that Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act,” he said, “and so I thought for sure that the career I’d chosen is over.”
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed limits on the number of radio stations a company could own nationally, enabling a firm to own eight stations in large communities, double the previous limit. It also enabled the Federal Communications Commission to allocate existing broadcasters, including many large media corporations, double their spectrum for digital transmissions – an estimated $70 billion dollar value for free.
In the documentary “Free Speech for Sale,” journalist Bill Moyers explained this “giveaway of the digital spectrum” as handover of the public airwaves for the benefit of concentrated private media power, which has become increasingly consolidated since President Clinton signed the act into law.
The signing of the Telecommunications Act did not immediately end Velez’s media career, however. In the process of becoming a protagonist, the subject or singularity in a common story constructed with others, Velez continued to exercise agency through dialogue and remediation.
He was offered a job to do full time radio at a country station in Winona, Minn., but he turned it down.
Velez ended up elsewhere as “community and information director or something like that,” he said. “It was a weekend gig at a small station in Stillwater, Minn. WEZU – that I remember – 1220 on the AM dial.”
While a Stillwater radio personality, he also assumed multiple media production and newscaster roles.
“I was responsible for doing the community calendar events that came up,” he said. “I’d produce that segment. It’d run three times a day – any picnics or public affairs things. Then I would do the weekend news. But I really just read off the wire.”
One morning, driving into work, he said he spotted a long line outside of a department store. He decided to investigate.
“So I’m like, ‘Hey! I could do an actual news story on this,’” he said. “And I went out there, and people were waiting in line for Beanie Babies.”
Velez said he was the only person at the station that Saturday, so he covered the Beanie Baby story, and it aired. He said he had a feeling when he first saw the line of people that it might not be an earth-shattering scoop.
“I had my suspicions. I was like [beforehand], ‘I hope this isn’t for Beanie Babies. But, sure enough, it was. I interviewed a couple people in line. And they’re like, ‘Oh, they’ve got a shipment of the new ones.’ And I’m like, ‘All right. Good for you.’”
Opening up the Paradoxical Toolbox of Union Power
While Velez came to recognize the power of consumer culture, it was not until he became a public employee with the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department that he started to fully realize the importance of union power.
At the time he was married with three kids. The employer had made a proposal during the first bargaining session that would have increased the family health insurance premium about 70 percent, he said. So he got involved and became an active member of AFSCME local 34.
Not having any prior bargaining experience, Velez did what anyone might do in a situation without expertise. He called his mother for advice.
“My mom for many years worked on the ‘dark side,’” he explained about his mother’s job at New York Racing, which includes the Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga race tracks.
So he phoned her before that first bargaining session back in 2001-2002.
“I called her up, and I’m like, ‘Alright, you’re going to have to tell me. What am I facing here? You worked on the other side, and I’m on the union side,’” he said.
He said his mother told him the experiences would not be too similar.
As part of the bargaining process at the tracks, her boss would sit down with the union guy and they would have a three-martini lunch, Velez said, as she had explained to him. The union leader would inevitably stomp off when the boss would not accept initial offers, Velez recounted per the conversation with his mother, adding that this would happen two or three more times and then they would work something out.
In between the multiple bargaining sessions he participated in, and in addition to going door-to-door, trying ‘to organize a diaspora of childcare workers,” Velez also become a steward for the union, and he served two terms as vice president of his local.
Organizing for union power, which is directly tied to membership and involvement, he said, remains essential for advancing workplace democracy.
“For any union, the more members, that’s how you get clout at the bargaining table,” he said, reiterating a point he underscores often, as he did at the family picnic. “There’s just no two ways about it. Bargaining, I’ve said it before, bargaining contracts is not about making good arguments. It’s about power.”
Michael Albert, founder of Z Magazine and author of “Parecon: Life After Capitalism,” argued in the aforementioned book that “the rule that markets and many other systems impose” is the “idea that society should enrich the thug for being thuggish,” with people getting “what they are strong enough to take,” despite how “virtually no one morally advocates brute force bargaining power as our preferred criterion” for equitable remuneration or allocation.
The capitalist organizational form is characterized by “market allocation, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for property, power, and output,” as well as class-based domination of decision-making, Albert wrote. Like systems with centralized, top-down planning of an economy through the State, capitalism also creates a “coordinator class,” Albert argues, which monopolizes all the empowering work and, hence, decision-making power.
The growing number of administrative positions and pay represents consolidation of a “coordinator class,” within the university context, following Albert’s model.
A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “The One Percent at State U,” suggests consolidation of the “coordinator class” within universities continues apace, as does the economic leverage of the upper academic strata. The report found that student debt increased most at state schools where executive compensation increased by $1 million on average in 2012, which was more than double the average increase at other public research institutions.
Institutional debt is also mounting across the country.
Debt & Society, a project for research and discussion of the causes and consequences of expanded debt financing, found that public university debt almost tripled over the last decade from $54 to $154 billion, with the average increase in spending per student on interest costs rising 68 percent from 2002 to 2012 for the 232 institutions reporting relevant data included in the study. It also noted the danger of institutions becoming ever-more beholden to bond investors and the “operational performance” measures and “pricing power” appraisement of Moody’s ratings methodology.
The structural trends have lasting impacts at both the institutional and the individual level. With respect to the latter, the Pew Research Center revealed that indebtedness exacerbates growing wealth divides. A graduate with debt to repay is likely to have significantly lower net worth than someone without student debt, Pew reported.
New Paradigms of Power and the Power of New Paradigms: Alternative Ideas and Complimentary Strategies
But there are alternatives to the “neoliberal university,” which is what Henry Giroux, professor in the English and Cultural Studies Department and McMaster University, termed the prototypical institution of higher learning in an era denuded of democratic values and rife with injustice.
In an undergraduate anthropology class, Velez said he watched a documentary about one notable alternative model: the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation. Mondragón features a federation of worker-owned enterprises based in the Basque region of Spain, which was started by Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta.
“The professor showed us that film, and I was blown away,” Velez said.
Mondragón has a university embedded within it. It also has an average pay ratio of about five-to-one for executive workers compared to field and factory workers.
In the above-mentioned Institute for Policy Studies report, one of the solutions offered for creating a more equitable university has to do with establishing pay ratio requirements so that the highest paid administrator cannot make more than the lowest paid full-time faculty member.
As far as transforming the university into a worker self-managed place of higher learning, Velez said “you would think,” it would be possible. “It’s the perfect environment right?”
Velez, whose daughter will start college in the fall at Illinois State University, said despite its “transitory nature,” and problems arising from continual cut backs in public funding, the university still has an environment that seems “conducive” for such democratic experimentation.
“You would think that we should be able to be that, to be the petri dish, to form these kinds of things,” he said.
Since she is heading off to school, Velez said he gave his daughter a copy of “Rules for Radicals,” a seminal text by the late Saul Alinksy, celebrated community organizer famous for experimental methods but also long-term mobilization techniques.
Paul Engler, founding direct for the Center for the Working Poor in Los Angeles, and Philadelphia-based journalist Mark Engler, senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, wrote a piece juxtaposing what they called Alinsky’s “art of the slow, incremental building of community groups,” with the seemingly divergent theory of “disruptive power,” popularized in the book, “Poor People’s Movements,” by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.
That “disruptive power,” existing apart from stable organizational resources and outside established political institutions can be a more powerful mechanism for social change, Piven and Cloward argued. This is particularly true for poor folks unable to address concerns through formal electoral-representative channels, they wrote. Established institutional structures are often and increasingly unavailable to the lower classes, Piven and Cloward explained, and those institutions are also inherently cautious in order to survive.
Velez, who had a printout of one chapter from “Poor People’s Movements,” sitting on his office shelf in Faner Hall on SIUC campus, said he really likes “the idea of a toolbox” for any organization or group of people “seeking social change – whether it’s workplace democracy, unions; whether it’s ‘Poor People’s Movements’; whether it’s welfare rights activists, environmentalists – there’s value in all these organizing models.”
With respect to differences between the Alinksy strategy of long-term community cultivation for collective action compared with the Piven and Cloward notion of obstreperous power to advance working-poor interests, Velez said “we should view them as complimentary models rather than competing.”
Both getting the narrative and employing a plethora of tactics – especially those conventionally conceived of as most purposeful for the poor – appears essential now, as Velez said, because while “most people think that they’re almost rich,” there’s really “many people that are almost poor.”
Graduate Assistants at SIUC in doctoral programs and on 50 percent full-time equivalents – the lowest paid being those in the college of mass communication and media arts who, according to the current GAU contract, make $1,498 per month, but also pay back about two months’ worth of salary in fees over the course of the academic year – are not usually under any illusions of being rich.
But other people are, Velez offered.
Velez said he got a keener sense of people’s attitudes about class when he did his undergraduate Capstone project several years back.
For the project, he interviewed union members and talked to both activists and non-activists. So many of the members he spoke with said they were “middle class,” he recalled. After doing the project, he realized that label did not accurately describe his own class status during his formative years.
“I realized that I wasn’t middle class growing up,” he said. “I was poor.”
The meanings for and reasons behind class divisions are not really taught or discussed in schools, he admitted.
It would be helpful for many social movements, “not just the labor movement,” he said, if people could accurately assess their position in society and assay the structures that engender stratifications – those reified gross disparities that fail to comport with popular notions of justice. Velez suggested that those notions of justice may not always be well-articulated: they may be felt primarily on a visceral level, and they may also get frequently subjected to ideological inversion by institutions like education and the media. But the potential for turning desire for justice into a powerful movement remains.
The Value of People Power
The absence of class consciousness in popular discourse, he said, also has to do with the value-systems major institutions inculcate.
The trend of “measuring outputs versus outcomes,” especially in education, coupled with the push for ever-greater productivity and efficiency, devalues us as people, Velez said.
Diane Ravitch, former US Assistant Secretary of Education, has decried pedagogical subordination to standardized testing typical of the business-model approach to education and its prioritization of “value-added measurement,” or evaluation of teachers based primarily on student test scores.
An April 2014 study by the American Statistical Association found “value-added measurement” for educational assessment problematic because the “scores themselves have large standard errors,” which make “rankings unstable,” and “it does not provide information on how to improve teaching.”
Similarly, Velez challenged system-wide hegemonic measures of value.
“That’s what makes you a value to society? Whether or not you’re producing enough widgets in your vocation?” he asked with exasperation regarding the corporate prerogatives of surplus production.
Velez entreated people to consider what they truly value, and he critiqued the “cultural overemphasis on work,” which privileges exchange value production over people’s health.
“How many employees get zero sick time?” he asked before emphatically offering answers. “Restaurant workers! People that are handling food! People that are handling groceries! Produce!”
Recent restaurant and fast food worker strikes for fair pay and basic rights are more significant than some people realize, Velez added.
Jane McAlevey, a former SEIU organizer interested in building “real power” for unions, argued in her new book, “Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement,” that supposed “strikes in the fast food and Walmart campaigns aren’t strikes just because someone spelled them s-t-r-i-k-e-s; they are press events and opportunities for liberals to wash away their guilt at this country’s disgusting levels of inequality.”
Velez disagrees. The tide of food service and retail strikes “applied some social pressure,” to structures of power, and it helped spark a national debate about the minimum wage, he said.
Actions involving thousands of fast food workers demanding the right to organize and the right to a decent wage spread to dozens of cities in mid-May with participation in more than 30 other countries. More than 100 people were arrested at the Illinois headquarters of McDonald’s shortly thereafter, demonstrating for the right to unionize and for living wages.
The labor movement also predated fast food, Velez noted, so well-established forms of worker resistance are not necessarily applicable to that sector; hence, there is a need to innovate.
However, he said he does not disagree with McAlevery’s point about the need to build union power.
The “business-model unionism,” based on writing a check for a political donation and hoping for the best, does not cut it, he contends.
Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, who edited “Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present,” wrote in their book that “creative and constructive practices” – exemplary “expressions of participatory democracy on the job and within society,” have led to “genuine innovation within unions,” often “outside established business-union structures,” which impede collective empowerment.
Indeed, Velez reiterated, workers should be innovative – like the fast food organizers have been – but, “blindly going ahead and saying ‘yes’ to everything,” spells disaster. That a-critical attitude led to foolish business-model approaches to begin with, he added.
New Superpowers for Social Change during Critical Junctures
Velez said he did not come to SIUC blindly, but he did not have the sort of financial wherewithal to ensure complete predictability either.
Velez said he and his partner, whom he met at a union event, constituting a veritable “union romance story,” came down in their 1972 Winnebago.
“We lived in that thing for five weeks,” he said.
Working with limited funds, he said he “floated the idea of getting an RV and just living in that thing the whole time,” while he attended graduate school in Carbondale.
He likened the Winnebago, which is about one hundred square foot, to the vehicle seen in the “Shazam!” TV series that aired in the 1970s. The show revolved around teenager Billy Batson, endowed by the powerful immortal eleders with the power to turn into Captain Marvel. Batson traveled the highways of the land with a mentor in an RV helping people along the way.
“So I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s cool. It’s like a ‘Shazam!’ RV. That’s cool,’” he said.
When he and his partner arrived in Southern Illinois in their Winnebago they first drove through Giant City Park, and considered staying there.
“I’m from New York City,” he pointed out, “so I’m not a camper by nature.”
Recognizing his “novice camping” skills, his partner recommended staying at a place more appropriate for him.
They stayed at a KOA in Benton, Ill., for four or five days before they received an offer to stay for free if they would help out cleaning toilets and the pool.
“So we’re like, ‘Score!’’ he exclaimed.
Eventually they got a house in Benton, and Velez continued to progress in the political science doctoral program as he became involved with GAU.
He signed his union membership card the first day of graduate student orientation back in August 2010.
It was at orientation that he met Matt Ryg, a fellow Minnesotan who was recently elected president of Graduate & Professional Student Council after just finishing his term as president of the union prior to the election of Velez.
Ryg said the experience Velez brings to the bargaining table will be an asset for the union, and that Velez can build on the work that was done this past academic year.
“Bob will continue to add value to the university via GAU,” Ryg said. “Over the next academic year, GAU will be at the bargaining table to negotiate our next contract; we will also continue to build new membership and resolve outstanding grievances with the university. I look forward to increased and mutually beneficial partnerships between GAU and GPSC.”
Initial jocular, self-reflective Machiavellian comparisons aside, Velez said assuming the role of president “seemed like a logical step,” even if it will “be really hard to fill Matt’s shoes.”
Velez described Ryg as having “high energy,” and being “very hands-on,” but not as having a markedly different leadership style.
“We’re going to get back almost the full complement of activists,” added Velez, who is hopeful that the union can continue to build the sort of power that will “make it easier for grad students to be grad students.”
The University surely realizes “it’s going to be cost-prohibitive pretty soon if they don’t do something about the fee-to-salary ratio,” he said with respect to one of the biggest bargaining issues.
Despite movement toward workplace democracy often coming “at the margins,” he said that does not preclude future advancements.
“There have been moments in history where there are big changes that occur in a seemingly – sure not to the people at the time – but seemingly short periods of time,” he said, recollecting critical historical junctures.
Whether we have entered such a pivotal point in history, has yet to be decided, but people power makes a difference, Velez proffered.
“We should keep fighting, absolutely,” he said.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee. He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.