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A Legislative Blitzkrieg on Women, Gays and Workers

North Dakota Enters the Political Ice Age

by JEFF ARMSTRONG

North Dakota ushered in spring this year with temperatures dipping below zero, but the physical climate was relatively balmy when compared with the political ice age emanating from the state capitol in Bismarck.

The state has grabbed national headlines over the legislature’s frontal challenge to Roe v. Wade awaiting the governor’s signature, a piece of legislation that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat could be detected. One of no less than six proposed anti-abortion measures, the heartbeat bill would in effect mean state abolition of the procedure, currently performed by a sole, valiant clinic in Fargo, ND.

Doctors would face criminal prosecution under the legislation, a stiff deterrent from performing an abortion any time beyond six weeks (when a heartbeat might be detected by vaginal probe), a time when many women have yet to confirm their pregnancy.

Women themselves are exempted of criminal liability under the act, a curious mixture of patriarchy (women as helpless victims of a mythical “abortion industry”), cynical political and legal calculations, and perhaps moral consideration that the public shaming of being compelled to testify in trial against the doctor might be sufficient punishment for the errant lass. The only exception to HB 1456 is a medically-verifiable need “to prevent the death of a pregnant woman, to prevent a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman, or to save the life of an unborn child.”

Rape and incest victims need not apply.

If signed by Governor Dalrymple, the law is unlikely to pass constitutional muster in what promises to be a lengthy court challenge. However, proponents of the act hope that it might remain in effect long enough to force closure of the Red River Women’s Clinic, the ultimate goal of the legislation in any event.

A separate abortion bill would include a provision to block a $1.2 million federal grant for a local university to provide sex education to teens.

But the abortion bills are just the tip of the iceberg. The Republican-dominated legislature has something for everyone.

Gay or lesbian? In a state in which you are constitutionally denied the right to marry, you may now be fired or evicted arbitrarily, as the legislature signaled when it rejected a bill that would have created limited legal recourse to challenge blatant sexual-orientation discrimination for those with the means and wherewithal to do so (given the pitiable state of legal services programs in the state).

Poor, with children? Your kids may be entitled to federally-subsidized meals, but they will not suckle at the teat of state with a free milk or juice during school break, a program that would have cost the state a fraction of one percent of the tax breaks legislators are offering oil companies ravaging western North Dakota, or an even lower percentage of the estimated $1 billion surplus the state has reaped from the transaction.

A union worker? Already a Right to Work state, North Dakota is set to become a corporate-lockout friendly one if the House approves a bill to amend the state unemployment statute to deny locked-out workers from receiving benefits. The legislation stems from a bitter 19-month lockout of Crystal Sugar’s 1,300 workers by a company that had reported record profits before trying to extract additional surplus value from its employees. While workers in Minnesota were able to cushion the economic blow of the lockout by collecting unemployment, Crystal Sugar was able to pressure state officials to deny benefits under a provision of the law that prohibits striking workers from receiving benefits.

Union local President John Riskey said the denial of unemployment through two Christmases took a cruel toll upon many workers, including a few who lost their homes because of it. After more than a year and one-half, Crystal Sugar management has refused to budge from the terms of the company’s proposed contract, which was rejected by more than 96% of workers on July 28, 2011. “It’s been voted on three times, and they’ve rejected it every time,” said Riskey. “Our members have stood strong for 19 months.” The lockout, Riskey says, was a abrupt shift from a history of fair and responsible collective bargaining dating back to the 1930s. It is clear that the Crystal Sugar lockout was the leading wedge of a nationwide corporate-lockout offensive.

In a rare victory for the union last month, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled by a 3-2 margin that the state had wrongly denied unemployment benefits to the locked-out workers and restored their eligibility from the first day of the lockout. Denied their rightful benefits for 19 months, some 400 Crystal Sugar employees in North Dakota have yet to receive ta dime, however, as the company has asked the state high court to reconsider its opinion, thus delaying its implementation.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, which left the state on the hook for an estimated $4 million in unpaid unemployment benefits, the state House of Representatives passed legislation allowing Job Service North Dakota to place liens on companies with outstanding unemployment insurance obligations. When the bill went to the state senate, however, Republicans tacked on an amendment to exclude future lockout victims from receiving unemployment benefits and thus lubricate the machinery of class warfare to steamroll the last vestiges of collective bargaining in the state. The amendment and the bill passed the senate on strictly partisan lines, making it a virtual certainty to clear the state house and be signed into law by the Republican governor.

Absent a dramatic political realignment in what is now a virtual one-party state, the only weapon of resistance to this reactionary onslaught is to take the issues directly to voters through North Dakota’s initiative and referendum process. Ballot initiatives in North Dakota are a widely-utilized direct democracy tool dating back to the early days of the Non-Partisan League, a farmer-labor populist movement that played a prominent role in state history before merging with the Democrats in the 1950s.

State legislators took aim at this process, too, but they encountered an unlikely obstacle on the editorial page of the Fargo Forum newspaper. Forum Communications, Inc. is a staunchly right-wing media empire that owns the majority of larger newspapers in North Dakota and northern Minnesota, along with several radio and TV stations. In an official editorial, the Forum took ND House Majority Leader Al Carlson to task for introducing a bill that “would increase the number of signatures needed for a petition, and require at least 3 percent of signatures to come from at least half the state’s counties. That’s a nearly impossible standard, and Carlson knows it, which suggests he wants to hamstring the people’s long-standing right to use the ballot to challenge the Legislature.” The Forum took a similar stance on the abortion legislation, possibly offering some degree of hope that Gov. Dalrymple might veto the bills, which passed by a veto-proof majority in the House but not in the Senate.

In the longer term, what is needed in North Dakota is a third party (or is it a second?) capable of addressing the urgent and unspoken need for protection of the state’s land and groundwater from the ravages of the fracking oil boom, along with comprehensive reform of the political and economic systems that grow increasingly polluted with the runoff of easy petrodollars. The clearest evidence of such is that the first significant action of newly-elected Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, accused by her reprehensible opponent of closet opposition to fracking, was to champion the Keystone XL pipeline, vociferously opposed by environmental and Native activists inspired or rejuvenated by the Idle No More Movement.

Combined with the Democrats’ inability to resist the legislative blitzkrieg, Heitkamp’s signature betrayal of her most loyal partisans opens the door to the creation of a rainbow coalition party of gays and lesbians, segments of organized labor and civil libertarians, tenants and homeless people, impoverished parents and antiwar activists, environmentalists and indigenous peoples. If such a party could assemble a representative coalition and draft a platform speaking to the real and immediate needs of diverse groups on the basis of strict adherence to internal democracy, the potential is as limitless as the need.

Jeff Armstrong is a longtime journalist and activist in Fargo, North Dakota. He can be reached at armstrong@i29.net