Sarah Leonard: Developing sharp, well-informed leftists is as important a role for magazines as publishing left ideas

Photo: Andrew T. Warman

Sarah Leonard is a journalist and editor of several left-leaning magazines and online magazines, which are becoming more and more common in the United States. Together with Bhaskar Sunkara, she edited a collection of essays entitled: “The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century”. We met Sarah in Belgrade last year on her journey through Southeast Europe, and we renewed the conversation during the past few months marked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Can you tell us something about your own position of a journalist as well as a magazine editor in the left media in the USA. How do you see your/their role in spreading socialist ideas? What are their/your main topics and who is the main audience?

I started as an editor at Dissent magazine, a socialist publication, then worked at The Nation, which has a mix of left and liberal opinion as well as investigative reporting. I then worked at The Appeal, focused on the criminal justice system, and now I’m starting my own socialist feminist publication.

At socialist publications, I think of our work as being “upstream” – in other words, we feed ideas into the public sphere that may not be popular yet. I also think of these publications as training grounds for the left. For example, when I was just out of college, I worked at Dissent and got my political education from being around more experienced and well-read socialists who encouraged me to participate in editorial discussions about every topic under the sun. When I have interns or young reporters or junior editors, my hope is that they learn not just a journalistic skill set, but are able to deepen their politics and take that knowledge with them to the next place they go. Developing sharp, well-informed leftists is as important a role for magazines as publishing left ideas.

In the last ten years, the audience for left-wing ideas has grown enormously, mostly among young people. Occupy brought about a renewed interest in the left and it’s been growing ever since. This has meant that more mainstream publications write about socialism because they realize there’s an audience for it. For example, ten years ago, a feminist website like Jezebel or “women’s magazines” like Vogue or Elle never would have mentioned socialism. Today, they run articles about labor struggles and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reflecting both the fact that millennial staff writers tend to be socialists (and reading socialist publications) and the reality of growing socialist political power.

“Black Lives Matter” protest, June 7 in Brooklyn. Photo: Sarah Leonard

What can we learn from The Chicago Teachers Strike? Can you explain their strategy based on “bargaining for the common good”? What are their key wins on social justice issues? This is an important topic in our country as well as in the whole region, since almost every year there is a teachers’ strike. During the Covid crisis the enormous pressure is additionally put on them. 

The Chicago teachers were radical in demanding fair treatment not only for themselves, but for their students and community. They demanded that students receive meals, decent housing, and clothing, on the premise that no student can learn well while hungry, scared, or cold. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has taken community solidarity seriously ever since the radical CORE caucus took over the union in 2010, organizing families in support of a massive teachers’ strike, and now organizing teachers in support of the community. This strategy has led to not just labor victories, but the deeper radicalization of Chicago as a whole.

Since the CTU’s earlier strikes, teacher strikes have swept the country from coast to coast, even in conservative states like Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Teachers are capable of striking because they still have strong unions. They’re also an educated workforce, and one with close connections with the local community that they serve.

It helps to look at these strikes through a feminist lens. About three quarters of public school teachers are women. As state budgets have been cut in the name of austerity, women have born a special burden: care work that should be organized collectively (health care, child care, etc.) is pushed back into individual homes where women do the overwhelming share of care work. At the same time, women have to do wage work to support their families, and with falling real wages, have to do more and more of it, for less money than men. The feminized teaching workforce is being crushed between paid and unpaid work, and has an intimate involvement with the hardships of their students and students’ families. Of course, during Covid, these pressures have gotten much worse due to high levels of unemployment, the need to care for sick friends and family in the home, and children being home from school.

Why is it important to have militant unions in the public sector? What is their strength, when we compare it to private sector union mobilizing?

In the US, the public sector unionization rate is about 33 percent, and the private sector rate is about 6 percent, making public sector unions among the most important institutions for progressive politics. The public sector is disproportionately female and non-white because it has often practiced fairer hiring practices than the private sector.

The public sector includes essential workers like teachers and firefighters. Conservatives have long made it their mission to crush public sector unions because they see them (accurately) as the most powerful force preventing massive cuts to public spending within individual states. In the wake of the pandemic, unionized teachers have organized the most powerful pushback against returning to in-person instruction before it’s safe. In New York, where I live, public school teachers pretty much forced a shutdown of the schools as the pandemic grew, saving the supposedly progressive city leadership from their own bad judgment.

In Serbia, the major problem in the public health system is the departure of medical staff to Western Europe, mostly Germany, due to catastrophic working conditions and low wages, which proved particularly problematic during the Covid crisis. As we can see, the situation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic in the USA is very difficult, how do nurses and other health workers cope with that situation?

Nurses have been among the most impressive and militant labor organizers in the US, huge supporters of Medicare for All, and of Bernie Sanders. It’s nurses, not doctors, who spend significant time with patients, and who hear their panic at not being able to pay for the care they’re receiving. It is nurses, more than doctors who experience the trauma of understaffing – not being able to give enough time to patients because the nurses are overloaded. (I would really recommend reading this nurse’s words about dealing with understaffing during Covid.) And it is nurses, not doctors, who have to organize if they’re going to get decent pay, benefits, and staffing ratios.

The nurse whose interview I link to above talks about how being called a “hero” during the Covid pandemic is terrible: it has made the deaths of nurses seem tragic but normal – a part of their jobs. In reality, it is the hospitals and the government who are to blame for nurses having insufficient equipment and staffing – they are suffering from a completely unnecessary level of danger, an extreme version of what happens during normal times.

Can you tell us more about The Abortion Rights Movement in USA, and how left feminist movement fight for each and every women to have the legal right to an elective abortion? Is there any grassroots movement fighting for equal access to reproductive health care? 

The status of abortion in the US is very difficult right now. Although it remains legal, many laws have been passed to restrict access, causing many clinics to shut down. Some large states have only one abortion clinic. This means that if a woman needs abortion, she may have to take multiple days off work, find childcare, drive hours from her home, and pay for lodging near the clinic. This has effectively placed abortion outside the reach of many working class and poor women.

In the past, the most visible defenders of abortion rights were Planned Parenthood (which has both clinics and a political arm) and NARAL. Both focus their political activity on elections and lobbying, and this has not proved terribly effective in recent years.

More grassroots groups are on the rise, most with a “reproductive justice” framework that encourages people to think not just about abortion, but about reproduction in general, including the right to have a child, the right to suitable food and shelter in order to raise a family, good reproductive education, financial assistance for accessing care, and so forth. The National Network of Abortion Funds has been very important in fighting for access and raising money for women who need help, and Sister Song was the first organization to use the reproductive justice framework, and remains extremely important in grassroots organizing.

Increasingly, there are also underground networks helping women to have abortions, and online abortion pill distribution through groups like Aid Access (run by a doctor in Austria) and Plan C.

“Black Lives Matter” protest, June 7 in Brooklyn. Photo: Sarah Leonard

There have been massive uprisings in the US against police brutality – what is the role of left and feminist politics in the protests?

The recent uprisings against police brutality are responding to a police force that was originally invented to control slaves and striking workers, and continues today to terrorize Black people, people of color, and working class people. The outpouring of rage, and radical actions like burning a police station and looting, show that many of our socialist institutions are less radical than thousands of people who are in the streets. Crucially, the key organizers who have been fighting for police abolition for a long time – a position that is now part of mainstream discussions – are Black women who are both intimately familiar with police terror, and with the needs of their communities. The movement to defund the police is arguing for moving that money to democratically decided community needs, from education to community centers to housing.

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