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Meet the trade unionist hoping to replace Paul Ryan: “I don’t blame him for running scared”

Senior Republican Paul Ryan is quitting politics. Will Randy Bryce aka the “Iron Stache” replace him?

Even before prominent Republican Paul Ryan’s sudden announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election this year, the Democrat ironworker looking to take his Wisconsin seat told Unearthed the US house speaker was “running scared”.

“I don't blame him. He's never had to face what we're bringing,” Randy Bryce, who is running for Congress in Wisconsin’s 1st district, said in a phone interview. “From the get-go, we said our intent was to replace Paul Ryan with a working person. We need more working people in Congress: we have enough multimillionaires. It doesn't matter what Ryan does. Our intent is to put an ironworker in Congress come November.”

Ryan’s decision to not seek re-election has caused alarm for Republicans, already fearful of a Democratic wave in the autumn. But even before he announced his departure, members of Congress told Bryce, who is better known by his Twitter handle “Iron Stache’, he presented the most serious electoral challenge to the speaker in two decades.

He says an internal poll from December showed him 6 percentage points behind Ryan, and Bryce says that lead evaporated when a short bio of the candidates was included next to their names.

Now without one of America’s most powerful politicians to run against the path to DC looks far easier, even if he has to negotiate a primary against schoolteacher Cathy Myers in August.

“This is a people-powered campaign - we have hundreds of volunteers ready to hit the doors,” he says. “The 1st district doesn't know what's coming. Be prepared. To the billionaires and the special interests: your time is coming to an end.”

Speaking to Unearthed days before Ryan announced he will leave Congress this autumn, Bryce makes it clear that he feels Democrats can gain ground on Republicans on the issue of climate change, while revitalising communities like his in the process.

His platform, which includes a Green New Deal, no new pipelines and a pledge to prosecute ExxonMobil for “lying to the public” has won praise from environmental activist Bill McKibben.

“The building trades get a bad rep because we'll work on projects that aren't always the best for the environment. But it doesn't have to be either or when it comes to things that help the environment. Good-paying jobs can be green jobs.

“The ironworkers’ union I belong to wrote the book on how to put up wind turbines. But after Governor Scott Walker came into Wisconsin he made sure turbines weren't built in this state any more... We know the direction we need to move in. It's just about getting the government to move with us.”

On his site, his campaign team boast about how, as an ironworker, Bryce turned down work on a new pipeline saying “he wouldn’t feel comfortable” working on a job like that.

What advice would he give unemployed workers offered with the chance of working on a pipeline today?

“It's hard to tell someone not to take a job, but if we change our outlook to having sustainable forms of energy. I'm not aware of any new pipelines being built right now. People just want to earn money to keep a roof over their heads. That's why we need to offer new types of jobs which are friendly to the planet and we need to be the ones to take the lead on this, before someone else does.”

It’s easy to see Wisconsin’s 1st district as a model for understanding the political landscape of Trump’s America. A mix of former manufacturing cities, suburbs and rural farmland, stretching along the state’s border with Illinois, the area was once a union stronghold until the car jobs largely disappeared at the turn of the century. In 2016, Trump carried it by 10 points, winning over working-class voters who had gone for Obama, previously. 

For a Democratic Party experiencing an identity crisis after Trump’s election, Bryce came around at exactly the right time.

A union activist with only limited experience running for local office in his home state, the campaign video announcing his campaign electrified liberal America.

Wearing a hard hat, he looked down the camera and addressed Paul Ryan directly: “Let’s trade places…You can come work the iron, and I’ll go to DC.”

Since then, money and support has poured in from across America. Bryce says it outraised Ryan’s by $1.75m in the first three months of 2018, with his campaign rejecting corporate, fossil fuel and Wall Street money in favour of small donations.

In a recent profile in Mother JonesTim Murphy wrote that his popularity was linked to “inescapable cultural anxiety” about the state of the Democratic Party in Trump’s America. Another writer described him as “human Springsteen song”.

By the time pictures were published of Bryce getting arrested for protesting outside Paul Ryan’s office against Congressional inaction Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme, Democrats had decided that Bryce, the living embodiment of the white, working-class voters they need to win back, was their guy.

“We can win by being honest,” Bryce argues. “There are some members of my union that voted for Donald Trump and they know I'm going to give them a hard time for it. So I ask them, can you name one promise Trump made you that he's kept? It's very clear that Trump had no intention of keeping. I have a trouble of believing anything that comes out his mouth.”

That extends to Trump’s pledge to introduce steep tariffs on Chinese steel imports.

“If we could do something to keep China from dumping steel on the US, that would be great. I just don't think Donald Trump is the right person to figure that out.”

Bryce, who has an 11-year-old son, says having a child has helped shape his politics. “It has a lot to do, not just with the environment, but all that I do. I want him to have a good future. I want his friends to have a good future. You're seeing so many voices that have been silenced for so long being more engaged than ever. Making our planet a more livable place is a big part of the reason I'm running for Congress.”

With seven months to go before the election, and without Ryan to contend, the ‘Iron Stache’ is optimistic.

“It's surreal at times, for sure. But the people who have come up and talked to me have been very supportive. Unless they're from Paul Ryan’s camp. You can judge a person by the enemies they make and I've made some pretty powerful enemies. That tells me I'm doing exactly what I need to do.”

This article also appeared on Unearthedthe Greenpeace journalism site. 

People protest Macron’s policies amid a rail strike and spreading student sit-ins. Credit: Getty
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How Emmanuel Macron may become France’s first president to defeat strikers in decades

Or, as has happened before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow him. 

Since his election almost exactly a year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron has never ceased to surprise his compatriots and wrong-foot his political rivals. Two recent TV interviews, given a few days apart, provided another example of how he intends to disrupt the status quo to his advantage – both at home and on the international stage.

Two weeks into a three-month strike by the national rail network SNCF, called by the powerful, communist-led CGT trade union, Macron needed to convince the French public that his planned reform of the state railways was not an act of stealth privatisation but a necessary adjustment of an employment status dating back to 1920 (when train-driving was both physically strenuous and dangerous).

Today, around 150,000 rail workers in France benefit from a job for life, retirement at the age of 57 (compared to 62 nationally) and an array of benefits. Among these workers, train drivers are even better treated: they retire at 52 with free life travel or heavily discounted fares for their family and extended family (spouses, children and in-laws). Partly as a result, the state railways have amassed debts of €50bn. The French government is proposing to bail out SNCF in exchange for ending the existing employment terms for new workers (while maintaining them for current employees).

President Macron chose to give his first televised interview on the subject on 12 April at lunchtime in a primary school classroom in Normandy. Seven million viewers tuned in. The interviewer was polite, the exchange was civil and the unusual setting intrigued, amused and charmed the audience. Was Macron convincing? The strikes, which resumed later that evening, were not as well-attended as before. Are the unions already losing momentum?

Former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy sought previously to reform the state railways in 1995 and 2010. Both were forced to retreat after weeks of strikes paralysed the country (indeed, there has not been a strike-free year on the SNCF since 1959). They also capitulated because a majority of French voters, imbued with the spirit of the revolution, were unconditionally backing the trade unions.

 But today is different. Macron knows this. So do the unions. Ultimately, the French alone will decide with whom they side: their inner rebel or their inner reformer?

The stakes are high for both sides and for the country. A recent opinion poll found that France was almost perfectly divided: a slight majority (52 per cent) backing the reforms and a large minority (48 per cent) supporting the strikers. Macron, who won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, has faced no greater challenge to his domestic authority.

Yet as the centre-right Républicains and the enfeebled centre-left Parti Socialiste have all but left the political stage, the only loud adversaries of the French government are at the extremes.

Both the far right and the far left are deploying the same arguments against Macron’s reforms. Front National leader Marine Le Pen (the runner-up in last year’s presidential election) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who finished fourth, are accusing the government of planning the full privatisation of the railways at the behest of the EU. They are playing on fears, weaving conspiracy theories, so that their voters see in Macron’s reforms the end of the French welfare system.

France spends more on social security than any other EU country (34.3 per cent of GDP compared to the EU average of 28.7 per cent). Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany all trail behind. With good reason, the French are deeply attached to their welfare state: its dismantlement is not proposed by Macron.

The inconsistency of the president’s detractors was rarely more apparent than during his second TV interview on the evening of 15 April. Unique in its format, this three-hour affair, staged at the Palais de Chaillot with the Eiffel Tower in the background, was broadcast on private news channel BFMTV. For once, the president had not received the questions in advance – a revealing encounter lay ahead.

But Edwy Plenel, a Trotskyist activist and founder of the powerful news website Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a talk show host on the popular Radio Monte Carlo, resorted to gratuitously attacking Macron and talking over each other without once destabilising the president. The French had to endure the sorry spectacle of populist journalism à la française, while their head of state emerged unscathed. Once again, Macron had challenged the norm, and prevailed.

Strikers who invoke the May 1968 évènements, in an attempt to galvanise the French workforce, are unwise to do so. Talk of a mai chaud (a May simmering with social anger) is at best hasty and at worst delusional.

Some French universities have been occupied and blockaded by radical leftist and anarchist students (partly in protest at more selective entry requirements). They have demanded the resignation of Macron and for student work to be automatically marked ten out of 20, ensuring undergraduates pass their exams while striking. Yet their filmed “general assemblies”, available on YouTube, should reassure Macron’s supporters. The students’ incoherent political message poses little threat to the government.

As so often before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow Macron. But there is now the genuine possibility that he may become the first French president in decades to beat “the street”.

Should Macron succeed, it will be due to his personal conviction and to his now-legendary luck. But it will also be due to the French people, who will have decided finally to trust him – at least for the time being.

Agnès Poirier is the author of “Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950”

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge