Labor Organizer Paul Booth, 1943-2018
Six days ago, I was having an email exchange with the author of a piece I was editing on how Democrats can both turn out their base and reach out to voters outside their base in the 2018 midterms. We were going back and forth on three points in the piece—chiefly, on whether Latinos could be said to have realigned themselves more toward the Democrats during the 1990s (the author’s position) or whether so many new Latino voters came forth during that decade that their Democratic shift was more a surge than a realignment (my position).
After dredging up the exit poll percentages from the California gubernatorial elections of 1990, 1994, and 1998, and doing the numerical calculations (candidate preference percentage times Latino share of the electorate times raw number of votes cast) to come up with the steadily declining number of Latino votes for the Republican gubernatorial candidates in those three elections, the author quietly and indisputably won his point.
He then added: “I’m a trifle indisposed though I will try to do some revisions on points 2+3 later this morning. (Actually I’m at Sibley [a Washington, D.C., hospital] dealing with a flare-up of leukemia!). Can you point me to more data sources on the CA question?”
The indisposed author—Paul Booth—suddenly and shockingly died yesterday, succumbing to his flare-up of leukemia. So suddenly and unexpectedly that his wife, the legendary organizer Heather Booth, was on Capitol Hill getting herself arrested for demanding justice—and legal standing, and a path to citizenship—for DACA recipients and the other undocumenteds.
For decades, Paul had been one of the labor movement’s key strategists. As AFSCME’s organizing director, and then consigliore to the union’s presidents, Paul devised the nation’s very first living-wage campaign, helped mastermind the 1995 insurgency that ousted the old-line cold warriors from the leadership of the AFL-CIO, and mentored scores—perhaps hundreds—of union leaders and organizers, movement activists and elected officials. His organizing pedigree was as long and distinguished as any figure’s in American politics: As national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society in 1965, he organized the first anti-Vietnam War demonstration in the nation’s capital. The following year, he became one of the first of numerous New Left veterans who entered, renewed, and, with varying degrees of success, transformed the main institution of the Old Left: the labor movement. The union presidents who hired Paul—first, Ralph Helstein at the Packinghouse Workers, then Jerry Wurf at AFSCME—were democratic socialists who found in Paul a comrade, a kindred spirit, and a brilliant analyst and tactician.
Some labor leaders are bombastic. Paul was quiet, ironic, self-effacing, witty, warm, scholarly, and diligent—just the kind of guy who’d crunch the numbers to make a point about Latino realignment, whose commitment to a decent future for his nation was such that he’d research and rewrite from his hospital bed on what the Democrats needed to do to win in 2018 (we’ll post that article tomorrow), who could dismiss his own illness as a trifle indisposition.
There was nothing trifling about Paul’s life or work. Damn your indisposition, Paul. We’ll miss you.