Harold Meyerson

Why Democrats shouldn't pick one of those many senators for VP

Over the next two nights, we’ll see seven Democratic senators (counting Bernie Sanders as the Democrat he effectively is) on the debate stage. Not all of them, of course, are really running for president. The more obscure, the non-frontrunners, may have calculated that the exposure they are getting will set them up for a vice-presidential nod. (Some of the other candidates now polling at one percent appear to be running for a post on the level of deputy assistant secretary for Horseshoeing in the Department of Commerce.) Senators Michel Bennett, Kirsten Gilllibrand, and Amy Klobuchar might well have had Joe Biden’s old job in mind when they declared their candidacies.

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What the Teacher Strikes Mean

Around seven years ago, I had a standard wisecrack to explain the standing of workers in the world’s two dominant economies: “China has strikes but no unions; America has unions but no strikes.”

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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).

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Flying the Bloody Skies

While the videos of security cops dragging a bloodied physician down the aisle of a United Airlines plane clearly shocked the millions of people who viewed them, my guess is that, at some level, it didn’t surprise them. Indeed, the reason the videos were so damaging to United—and at some level, to the entire airline industry—is that everyone who’s flown in coach during the past several decades knows that the welfare of airline passengers, save for those who fly first- or business-class, is the least of the airlines’ concerns.

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Corporate Media Really Has It Out for the Idea of Paying People a Decent Minimum Wage

Despite abundant empirical evidence that raising the minimum wage doesn’t lead to job loss, the idea that it does is an article of faith among right-wing economists, and all too often the media report their theological musings as fact. The latest example of such folly popped up in an article in the March 22 Financial Times, a paper that usually knows better than to publish this bushwah.

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Why the Democrats' Challenge Is Far Greater Than Donald Trump

"I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “I know where to look for it and how to use it.”

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This Is the Year Economists Finally Figured Out What Everyone Else Long Understood About 'Free Trade'

This week, Bloomberg’s Noah Smith published a list of “ten excellent economics books and papers” that he read in 2016. Number three on his list was the now celebrated paper, “The China Shock: Learning from Labor-Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson. Here’s Smith’s summary of the work and its consequences:

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Trump Presidency Could Kill Labor Unions

As Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—states that once were the stronghold of the nation’s industrial union movement—dropped into Donald Trump’s column on election night, one longtime union staff member told me that Trump’s victory was “an extinction-level event for American labor.”

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Trump's Refusal to Accept Election's Legitimacy Is No Surprise

Donald Trump’s Jeezus-Christ-Did-He-Really-Say-That Moment on Wednesday night—saying he wouldn’t guarantee that he’d accept the result of the impending presidential election—didn’t come out of the blue. Herewith, two explanations.

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Is Millennials' Support for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson About Privilege?

On the afternoon of the opening session of this summer’s Democratic Convention, I was walking into the convention arena while hundreds of young demonstrators, many carrying signs backing Green Party candidate Jill Stein, shouted and occasionally hurled invectives at those entering the hall—an odd tactic, I thought, since more than 40 percent of the delegates entering the building were Bernie Sanders’. The friend I was walking in with—a Latino legislator from California—cast a cold eye on the demonstrators and noted, “They’re all white.”

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Gary Johnson Does Not Embrace Millennials' Interests

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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Bad News and Some Good From a New 50-State Poll: Third Party Candidates Are Hurting Clinton

We are all of us drowning in polls, but The Washington Post’s poll of each of the individual 50 states, posted online on Tuesday and presented in a special section of the paper’s print edition Wednesday, is something else again. The survey of 74,000 voters, compiled from August 9 through September 1, offers us two things that most national polls don’t: A window on the broader future of American politics, and a clear picture of how the third-party candidacies of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein are affecting this year’s race.

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How the Charter School Lobby Is Changing the Democratic Party

At a time when Democrats and their party are, by virtually every index, moving left, a powerful center-right pressure group within the liberal universe has nonetheless sprung up. Funded by billionaires and arrayed against unions, it is increasingly contesting for power in city halls and statehouses where Democrats already govern.

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Why the Democrats Need to Sink the TPP

Of all the misfortunes that may befall Hillary Clinton and the Democrats at their upcoming convention, the one they have most reason to fear is a platform fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. By repudiating the TPP, which has yet to come before Congress, and promising to repudiate those trade deals already in effect, Donald Trump is clearly scoring points with voters in Rust Belt states whose support the Democrats have long counted on in presidential elections. Earlier this year, Clinton reversed her provisional endorsement of the TPP, thereby aligning her position not only more closely with those Rust Belt voters’, but also with Bernie Sanders’ and most of the Democratic establishment (unions, environmentalists, and a clear majority of Democratic members of Congress).

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Harmony and Dissonance: Two Meetings of the Democrats and the Left

For Democrats and progressives concerned about whether their disparate forces can come together this November to defeat Donald Trump, and whether they can continue to prod the Democrats leftward in the coming months and years, two conferences held this past weekend offered some hopeful signs.

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Why Bernie May Have a Better Shot at Winning in November Than Hillary

Much as I’ve liked Bernie Sanders, I never believed he’d be a stronger candidate than Hillary Clinton in the November run-off against the Republicans’ pick for president. I knew he polled better than her when pitted against the leading Republicans, but those polls didn’t factor in the red-baiting and hippie-baiting (Bernie being a child of both the ‘30s and ‘60s lefts) he’d be subjected to by a desperate GOP. 

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Why Organized Labor is More Important Than Ever In An Era of Vast Economic Inequality

Imagine America without unions. This shouldn’t be hard. In much of America unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America they’re battling for their lives.

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How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy

Santayana had it wrong: Even if we remember the past, we may be condemned to repeat it. Indeed, the more we learn about the conflict between the North and South that led to the Civil War, the more it becomes apparent that we are reliving that conflict today. The South’s current drive to impose on the rest of the nation its opposition to worker and minority rights—through the vehicle of a Southernized Republican Party—resembles nothing so much as the efforts of antebellum Southern political leaders to blunt the North’s opposition to the slave labor system. Correspondingly, in the recent actions of West Coast and Northeastern cities and states to raise labor standards and protect minority rights, there are echoes of the pre–Civil War frustrations that many Northerners felt at the failure of the federal government to defend and promote a free labor system, frustrations that—ironically—led them to found the Republican Party.

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The Seeds of a New Labor Movement

This article is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.

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In the Wake of Ferguson, What Will It Take to Reshape America’s Police?

While the election of Barack Obama as president may have seemed to some to herald a new era in American race relations, the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, made clear that one of the venerable flash points in race relations—the police (or in the case of Sanford, self-appointed police) killings of young black men—is very much still with us. Discriminatory police treatment of African Americans remains one of the hardiest perennials in American life, as the “stop-and-frisk” tactic that New York’s police force employed against young blacks until just last year made clear.

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The American Middle Class Was Destroyed by Design: How to Make It Strong Again

Once upon a time in a faraway land—the United States following World War II—workers reaped what they sowed. From 1947 through 1973, their income rose in lockstep with increases in productivity. Their median compensation (wages plus benefits) increased by 95 percent as their productivity increased by 97 percent. Then, abruptly, the rewards for greater productivity started going elsewhere—to shareholders, financiers, and top corporate executives. Today, for the vast majority of American workers, the link between their productivity and their compensation no longer exists.

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One-Percent Justice: The Right's War on Labor and Consumers Takes an Ugly Turn

Should the Supreme Court uphold it, last Friday’s decision by three Reagan-appointees to the D.C. Circuit Appellate Court appears at first glance to rejigger the balance of power between Congress and the president. The appellate justices struck down three recess appointments that President Obama had made to the five-member National Labor Relations Board during the break between the 2011 and 2012 sessions of Congress partly on the grounds that Congress wasn’t formally in recess, since one and sometimes two Republicans showed up to nominally keep it in session for the sole reason of denying Obama the right to recess appointments. Two of the three justices went further, ruling that the president can’t really make recess appointments at all.

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What Happens If Labor Dies?

Imagine America without unions. This shouldn’t be hard. In much of America unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America they’re battling for their lives.

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Fed Up With Federalism

By accident of its birth -- a collection of separate colonies that slowly came together to form an independent union and revolted against the remote power of the British government -- the United States has an enduring bias toward localism, an aversion to centralized government that is part of its DNA. For some on the left, this has been seen as a positive. "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country," Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote.

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The End of Solidarity?

The hardest thing to explain is how labor got here. How it reached the point where it now looks as if we may have two separate and distinct labor federations come September.

After all, it's not as if the two groups wanted to represent different elements within the work force, as was the case in 1935 when a largely white, Protestant (and Irish) AFL took a pass on representing the unskilled workers -- many from Eastern and Southern Europe -- in factories, and the CIO came forth to organize them. It's not as if the two groups had political or ideological differences.

Indeed, the differences within the new Change-To-Win Coalition (the thankfully provisional name of the group that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and UNITE-HERE, among others, have formed) may be sharper than those within labor as a whole, since the SEIU and UNITE-HERE are among the leftmost of unions, while the Teamsters and the Carpenters have a long history of flirting with Republicans. It's not as if one side had the unions that organized and the other the unions that didn't: Both sides have unions with great track records, and with god-awful ones.

And yet, here we are: The SEIU, the AFL-CIO's largest union, and the Teamsters, the third largest, have left, and the UFCW looks sure to follow. There's been a little more reticence of tone among the leaders of UNITE-HERE, the clothing and hotel workers union, since their union owns the Amalgamated Bank (in which unions deposit -- and from with they can withdraw -- their funds), and needs support from other unions when they're boycotting hotels. Terry O'Sullivan, who heads the Laborers' International Union of North America, has been the most circumspect of the dissidents, as his union depends on collegial relations with other building trades to get construction-site agreements.

But anything resembling middle ground is eroding fast. On Monday, when SEIU president Andy Stern and Teamster president Jim Hoffa announced their unions' disaffiliation, they began for the first time to outline what looks to be a rival federation. Hoffa pledged to direct half of the dues he'd otherwise pay to the AFL-CIO ($10 million) to the new entity, which apparently will develop an organizing staff of its own, much like the old CIO. The creation of a whole new entity will make it harder for unions whose leaders intended to maintain joint memberships to do so: Emotionally and financially, the costs of dual membership will be very high.

For one thing, the departing dissidents leave in their wake some mightily pissed-off labor leaders, who believe that much of what Stern and his allies were calling for was in fact incorporated in the convention's resolutions. The positions ultimately backed by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney on, for instance, coordinated organizing, says American Federation of Teachers president Ed McElroy, "took their issues into consideration, and ours [the Teachers]. He didn't back anyone's ideas entirely. But there are a few leaders who want to dictate terms to the AFL-CIO with just 25 percent of the membership. I won't buy that; my union won't buy that. We won't have things dictated by a minority."

The mood in the Sweeney camp -- and even among some of the dissidents -- is even darker when they contemplate the damage the defections will do to the Federation. The fate of a joint Wal-Mart organizing project, backed by the Federation, with the UFCW and SEIU as the key internationals, is now a mystery. The International Affairs Department, probably the planet's most important proponent of a social-democratic model of globalization, has already been dismantled.

And the political program -- which both sides acknowledge is the glory of Sweeney's presidency and the one indispensable element in American progressive politics -- is clearly endangered. So much so that last Sunday, in between announcing the SEIU's non-attendance at the convention and its departure from the Federation altogether, Stern told me that he'd offered to have the SEIU continue to "help the AFL-CIO with its political program."

"They can keep some of the best aspects of our work," Stern said. "The AFL-CIO is making a huge mistake if it chooses not to work with us."

This policy of selective engagement, which renders the Sweeney people understandably ballistic, will be particularly tested in the central labor councils -- the city and county AFL-CIO bodies (of which the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is widely thought the most effective) that run labor's election-season political operations. Sweeney's position is that unions cannot choose to be part of, and benefit from, just those AFL-CIO programs they like, and he has said he'll enforce a ban on state and local participation by the defectors. But in California and Los Angeles, the dissident unions constitute roughly half of the AFL-CIO's membership. "Our state will be affected the most," says California Labor Federation Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski.

"We need these unions to do politics," says one L.A.-area labor leader. "But some unions are so angry, they'll say, 'Don't let 'em in the room. Fuck 'em.' "

The journey from "Solidarity Forever" to "Fuck 'em" remains hard to explain. I doubt if any of the dissident union leaders other than Stern -- whose SEIU is so large and successful that it can clearly stand alone -- figured that they would be where they are today. When I interviewed UFCW president Joe Hanson in February, he said he expected to support Sweeney's re-election. But mistrust and frustration have grown in both camps, despite the desire of many of the key players to avoid just this kind of crackup. "There's been a massive failure of leadership on both sides," one union leader close to both the Sweeney and dissident camps told me on Sunday. "The movement's already on life support. It's mind-boggling that we are where we are."

But we are.

Wal-Mao

Up to now America's largest employer has opposed every effort of its employees to form a union. Wal-Mart doesn't recognize unions; it doesn't even recognize "employees." The proper Wal-Mart name for its workers is "associates," a term that connotes higher status and collegiality and that actually means lower pay and workplace autocracy. For the privilege of associating themselves with Wal-Mart, its employees are paid so little that many can't afford the health insurance the company generously allows them to buy. One study of health care in Las Vegas revealed that a plurality of that city's employed Medicaid recipients worked at Wal-Mart.

But that was the old Wal-Mart. Last week Wal-Mart announced that if its associates wanted a union to represent them, that would be hunky-dory – as long as the union was affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a body dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. The official statement was simple and seemingly unambiguous: "Should associates request formation of a union, Wal-Mart China would respect their wishes."

Wal-Mart America has made no such declaration, of course. Why it deems its 20,000 Chinese associates who work in its 40 Chinese stores worthy of representation while its million U.S. employees can't be trusted with the right to represent themselves is a good question. Whence the Sinophilia and Americaphobia?

We can, I think, dismiss suspicions of anti-anyone-but-Chinese racism as such. The answer, then, must lie in Wal-Mart's preference for old-line communist-dominated unions in authoritarian communist states over any other kinds of unions anywhere else. America's unions, which Wal-Mart despises, have a long history of anti-communism, and today's AFL-CIO is the staunchest defender on the American political scene of democratic rights in communist nations such as China. For that matter, unions affiliated with reformed or post-communist parties outside of the few remaining communist states have gotten nowhere with Wal-Mart either. Only in China, with its inimitable blend of Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, has Wal-Mart found a union to its liking.

And small wonder. Unions affiliated with the All-China Federation seldom push for wage increases or safer machinery. Indeed, the locals are often headed by someone from company management. Not that there isn't worker discontent in China: Every week brings accounts of spontaneous strikes, and now and then an occasional riot over such lifestyle impediments as unpaid wages. But the role of the state-sanctioned unions isn't to channel the discontent into achievable gains; it's to contain it to the employer's benefit.

The leaders of genuine workers' movements in China don't end up running the All-China Federation. They're to be found in prison, in exile, or in hiding.

Besides, truly democratic unions in China would run counter to the truly undemocratic, one-party state. Allowing a democratic union movement to form would threaten both Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, and diminish some of China's competitive advantage over other low-wage but not authoritarian nations in Southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere. Such a development would be anathema to both the Politburo and Wal-Mart's board of directors. It would introduce the concept of free choice and the prospects of higher living standards not just to Wal-Mart's 20,000 Chinese store employees but to the far larger number of Chinese workers laboring in poverty-wage servitude to stitch clothing for the contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors whose products fill Wal-Mart's shelves.

When a company such as Wal-Mart is so plainly comfortable with authoritarianism abroad, it tells you something about that company's values at home. Bentonville regards the prospect of employee free association and organization within its stores with the same fear and loathing that Beijing feels at the prospect of free elections in China. Anti-union American employers can't imprison pro-union workers, but exile is a real possibility. Troublemakers are free to go. According to Cornell labor relations professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, at least 5 percent of workers involved in unionization campaigns are fired, which is both quite illegal and quite routine: Companies would rather pay the nominal fines than pay their workers higher wages and lose the absolute control they hold over the work lives of their employees.

The noblest of the Bush administration's goals, surely, is that of spreading democracy. If it's serious about that task, though, there are places closer to home than the Middle East that could use a little democracy-spreading, and the American workplace is high on that list. Strengthening labor law would make it harder for employers such as Wal-Mart to thwart their workers' desire for an organized voice on the job. When America's largest employer feels more affinity for the political legacy of Mao Zedong than for that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it's time to start democratizing our own back yard.



A United Front

They are, by conservative estimate, the two most goddamn tenacious unions in the United States. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), which last week announced their intention to merge, are each known for two of the most remarkable long-term campaigns in American labor history.

From 1963 through 1980, UNITE (actually, one of its predecessor organizations, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers) campaigned to unionize J.P. Stevens, a clothing manufacturer based in the right-to-work South. The workforce was biracial, the cops were against the union, the political culture offered no support and the standard union playbook provided precious little guidance as to how the union should proceed. But proceed it did: The Stevens campaign was one of the first "new" organizing campaigns that a union had run -- relying on community-based and church-based as well as workplace organizing, hiring some '60s kids, among them a crack organizer named Bruce Raynor, who today is UNITE's president -- which most unions in those days tended to shun. In the end, and against all odds, the workers won their union in a story Hollywood dramatized in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae," starring Sally Field.

From 1991 through 1997, the Las Vegas local of HERE was on strike against the Frontier Hotel, one of the oldest lodges on the Vegas Strip. Alone among the Strip hotels, the Frontier refused to sign a contract that granted workers wage increases and enabled them to win union representation at new hotels when a majority of them had signed union-membership cards (a process called "card check"). Five hundred fifty workers went on strike and walked a picket line for 24 hours a day (and midsummer Vegas days are a mite warm) for the duration of the strike -- that is, for six years, four months, and 10 days. During that time, not a single worker crossed the picket line. The strike ended only when the owners sold the hotel and the new owners agreed to the contract.

Almost as remarkable as the duration of these campaigns, and the skill and determination required to win them, was their object. At a time when organized labor in America was shrinking (which really is any time since 1955), these campaigns represented strategic and groundbreaking efforts to grow. The Stevens campaign was probably labor's most successful effort to break out of its Northeast-Midwest-Pacific Coast ghetto and organize the South. (Up until 15 years ago, when American companies wanted to outsource work to get cheaper labor, they didn't go offshore; they just went south.) And HERE's campaign in Vegas was labor's most successful effort to bypass the roadblocks to organizing that employers were able to erect by manipulation of the increasingly toothless National Labor Relations Act. Instead, by building the kind of worker solidarity evident in the Frontier strike and by offering hotel chains crucial political cooperation on industry-related matters if they acceded to the union's demands, HERE built a local that went from 18,000 members in the late '80s to 48,000 members today through the use of card check -- getting the company to recognize the union when a majority of the workers indicated that they wanted it.

At the Frontier and at Stevens, then, the two unions made clear they would commit an endless stream of resources to campaigns that marked strategic breakthroughs in union building. But neither union has ever been more strategic -- for themselves or for the movement as a whole -- than they were Thursday when they announced their decision to merge.

All too many union mergers take place when one of the mergees is at death's door. That's not the case this time. "We don't have to merge," Wilhelm told me earlier this week, "and they certainly don't have to merge." HERE, after all, is organizing the one industry -- American hotels and resorts -- that by definition can't move offshore. UNITE is an exceptionally wealthy union; it may have more assets relative to its size than any other.

But both unions have problems. UNITE is based in the North American clothing- and textile-manufacturing industry, which has been vanishing at a dizzying pace and which the expiration of all trade quotas in 2005 may effectively terminate. Since the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers merged in 1995, it has organized 82,000 new members. But the industry has lost 850,000 jobs during that time.

In recent years, UNITE has moved into other aspects of the clothing industry. It has organized major chains of industrial laundries and is currently embroiled in a national campaign to unionize the largest such chain, Cintas. It is organizing the distribution centers and retail outlets of some major clothing stores (just now, the Sweden-based H&M chain, which is opening outlets all over the East Coast). But with its core industry going entirely offshore, its membership has been in decline for years and would continue to decline without the merger.

"UNITE has to go through closing a factory they organized every month, sometimes every week," one union leader said last week. "It's horribly depressing. The older workers really don't have a future. Having to do this all the time is horribly demoralizing. So, the merger -- what's in it for UNITE is a future."

Since Wilhelm became HERE's president in 1998, the innovative organizing practices that had taken hold at some locals have become the norm within the international. But the union took a tremendous hit in the aftermath of September 11. (And on 9-11, too: 43 of its members who worked in the World Trade Center were killed.) The hotel and tourism industry went into a huge slump, and HERE, which had had 272,000 dues-paying members on September 10, 2001, saw that number shrink to roughly 150,000 by year's end. In city after city, the union ran food banks and medical clinics for its laid-off members. In time, most, but not all, of those jobs came back, and the union has organized 14,000 new members since 9-11. Today, it has 260,000 members while UNITE has 180,000; the merged union would thus have 440,000.

The explosive growth of the casino industry provides HERE with a major opportunity. Like UNITE, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and a handful of others, it has converted itself into an organizing union, devoting about half its resources to organizing and actually making major cuts in other departments in order to make that change. But it lacks the resources to fund campaigns on the scale of the opportunities it confronts. UNITE's assets, by contrast, total about 10 times those of HERE's.

"That terrible year and a half forced us to rethink how we could build the strength to grow, to achieve the level of union density to get our members good contracts," Wilhelm says. "I used to look for other unions that had real numbers of organized workers in our industry -- but none of them did."

So he and Raynor -- HERE and UNITE, that is -- looked at each other and saw some genuine synergies. More than half the staffers in each union are organizers, and large numbers are researchers with expertise in their respective industries. Their members -- and the work forces in the industries they represented -- were strikingly similar: majority female, majority immigrants, with sizable minorities of African American members in both unions.

Moreover, the unions complement each other geographically. HERE is strong in the West, where UNITE is weak; and UNITE has strength in the South, where HERE has an abundance of opportunities but hardly any members. HERE has been looking at organizing campaigns in Mississippi casinos (the state ranks third, behind only Nevada and New Jersey, in the size of its gambling industry), and in the hotels of Atlanta and Orlando, Florida, but has had nothing on the ground in those areas. Now, with the merger, it does.

The new union plans to reassign current organizers and hire new ones to avail it of these and other opportunities. Consolidation will allow for some savings: UNITE has imposing headquarters buildings in a number of cities into which HERE locals could move. (Over lunch on Thursday, Raynor remarked that some of these buildings served as cultural centers for immigrants in the early 20th century and told how members had made donations from their paychecks to help build their Chicago headquarters. Wilhelm observed that the same impulse was probably not so strong among the bartenders who made up the bulk of HERE's members at that time.)

The unions also share a history of progressive political advocacy beyond the realm of collective bargaining. UNITE's chief predecessor organizations, the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, had both arisen from the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 as the tribune for impoverished Jewish and Italian immigrant workers. Avowedly socialist unions for their first several decades, they not only won wage increases for their workers but built them health clinics, credit unions, a bank, and apartment housing. Their programs inspired much of the New Deal; their leaders helped shape it. Amalgamated President Sidney Hillman coordinated labor's first real plunge into national politics by heading up its efforts to re-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Even as the old clothing workers unions were the foremost advocates for the great second wave of European immigrants who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so HERE has been the leading tribune for the Latin American immigrants who've come to America over the past quarter-century. It was Wilhelm who led the successful campaign to persuade the AFL-CIO to change its long-held position from one that viewed immigrant workers as a threat to one that defended their right to obtain citizenship and form unions. It was HERE that sponsored last summer's Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides across the nation.

As for Wilhelm and Raynor, they have known each other since the early 1990s, when Raynor was the Amalgamated's southern regional director and Wilhelm the western regional director for HERE. Both were active in the AFL-CIO's mid-'90s efforts to help unions restructure for organizing, and they became close friends in the process. Raynor will be the general president of the merged organization -- to be called, inevitably, UNITE HERE -- and Wilhelm will serve as president of its hospitality division. Wilhelm will not comment on the speculation that he may run to succeed John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president when Sweeney's term is up in 2005 -- but neither will he say that he won't run.

Both leaders have a long history of trying to prod the labor movement to change fast enough to survive. Last year, both aligned their unions with the SEIU, the Carpenters and the Laborers in an experimental coalition to bolster organizing efforts. Both believe that larger unions, with more resources to take on global corporations, are essential to the movement's survival. "There are 76 unions," Raynor told me Thursday. "There need to be fewer, more formidable unions. And how do you lead, except by example? If we can do this and it goes well, hopefully that puts the idea in the minds of other labor leaders."

The merger took place during what appeared to be the waning days of the strike of 70,000 supermarket workers in southern California (and with the strike ending Thursday in a tentative agreement that could considerably lower their standard of living). A number of union leaders fear that management in many industries will be emboldened by this victory and try to push their own employees toward more Wal-Mart-like levels of pay and benefits.

"What happened to the supermarket workers could happen in any number of industries; at least, management could try to make it happen," one board member of the merged union told me this week. "You don't merge when you're too weak to stop that. You merge when you have the strength to keep it from happening, when you have the strength to really grow. That's what's happening here."

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

Electricity Sticker-Shock

To all appearances, Gray Davis delivered two speeches in his State of the State address Monday night. The second -- the latter half of his address, in which he called for lengthening the middle-school year and expanding health coverage for the working poor -- was the plodding, straightforward Davis: no flourishes, no verbal disasters. But the first -- Davis' long-awaited response to the state's deregulated-energy crisis -- was plainly a harrowing experience for the gov. Throughout the first 20 minutes of his speech, he stammered and shook, flubbed phrase after phrase, stepped on applause lines and buried his one major proposal -- to establish a state authority with power plants and lines owned by the people of California -- as a kind of afterthought.

California's deregulation debacle is forcing Gray Davis to do the unthinkable: choose between a proven donor base (the energy industry, which has given him hundreds of thousands of dollars) and an irate public. This is a choice Davis devoutly wishes he did not have to make; he is in politics, so far as anyone can discern, specifically to raise money and offend nobody. For months, he resisted making this choice, even as energy executives, consumer activists, business lobbyists, editorialists and ratepayers all demanded action. Davis' dilemma recalled nothing so much as the old Jack Benny radio routine, where Benny, whose character was famously a tightwad, is accosted by a burglar who demands, "Your money or your life!" A ludicrously long silence then follows until the burglar, exasperated, repeats his demand. "I'm thinking it over!" Benny replies. And so was Gray.

On Monday night, Davis finally announced his decision -- at least, part of it. On the toughest question of all, what to do with the $11 billion or $12 billion in debt that California's three privately owned utilities have incurred, the governor is still thinking it over. Davis ducked completely the issue of whether the state should issue bonds -- for which taxpayers would ultimately have to pay -- to rescue the companies from their own folly. On the other aspects of the crisis, however, he emerged, however improbably, as Gray the Bold: threatening to take over the power plants of miscreant companies, vowing to have the state, by itself or with the state's 30 municipally owned power companies, build an alternative system of its own. Dizzied and breathless from his own display of decisiveness, Davis barely stayed erect as he promised to seize and condemn; I can't recall a more timorous display of courage. But he got through it -- and the state got a badly needed assurance that it will return to a rational energy policy.

The deregulation of the California energy industry that Pete Wilson signed into law in 1996 was a solution in search of a problem. For decades, California's three major privately owned utilities, and several dozen municipally owned companies, had distributed power across the state -- not flawlessly, and with the ratepayers of the private companies having to pay more than those of their public counterparts. But the system, however imperfectly, worked: Californians were not subjected to bottlenecks, brownouts or huge rate increases.

The deregulation of 1996, however, prompted the big three private utilities to sell their power plants to other energy companies, most of them based out of state, which sold them back the power at market rates -- often on the very day the power was needed. If plants were down and demand was up and prices were soaring, the energy companies had absolutely no incentive to bring more plants online. The system was a prescription for disaster, and disaster soon followed.

America may be the most capitalist nation on the planet, but Americans' commitment to market economics is a sometime thing -- and when the market causes havoc, they usually rein it in. An L.A. Times poll released last weekend shows that by a 2-to-1 margin, Californians support re-regulating the power industry. Even California business lobbies pronounced themselves pleased with Davis' speech: Power outages and mega--rate increases play no better in Silicon Valley than they do in Watts.

There's opposition to Davis' proposals, of course, but it is almost entirely ideological in nature. "It doesn't make sense to get into a public power authority," Assembly Republican leader Bill Campbell told the Sacramento Bee after Davis' speech, "except that it broadens the involvement of government, which is what liberal Democrats want to do." Where Campbell merely saw creeping liberalism, James Flanigan, the Times' normally sober-sided economics columnist, saw galloping Stalinism: "Many California political and business leaders are saying that electricity is a unique commodity that cannot be subject to competition," he observed darkly in Sunday's paper, "that only a state authority, on the model of the old Soviet Union or China, can run an electric system."

Flanigan must have some wild and crazy sources. The business and political leaders I've heard cite as their model L.A.'s own Department of Water and Power, which, under the leadership of S. David Freeman, has provided stable, clean, affordable power. They cite the public power authority of New York state, established by Franklin Roosevelt, or that of the state of Nebraska, where every power company is publicly owned and where power rates are 20 percent lower than the national average. Clearly, I'm listening to a pretty tame bunch of executives, but if Flanigan has uncovered a nest of Bolsheviks inside the Bohemian Grove, it is his duty to name names.

In proposing to put the state into the power business, Davis was borrowing -- and watering down -- a proposal from state Treasurer Phil Angelides. On the Friday before Davis' speech, the treasurer sketched out in considerable detail a new public authority, backed by $10 billion in bonds, to oversee an extensive conservation program, build power plants of its own, and to buy existing power plants and the grid from the state's embattled private utilities. Instead of simply bailing out PG&E, Southern California Edison and their ilk, taxpayers would buy their facilities, in return for the cash with which the companies could repay their debts. Davis has shied from endorsing this equity-for-debt swap, but state Senate leader John Burton has embraced Angelides' proposal.

Angelides has a keen understanding of the role that public investment has always played -- and must continue to play -- in making California the most dynamic and, at times, successful state in the American experiment. In his two years as treasurer, he has become the pre-eminent leader of the forces endeavoring to return the state to its midcentury glory, when California boasted America's best schools, highways and universities. He's consistently invested state funds in projects that rebuild inner cities and inner-ring suburbs, and has led the charge to reduce the popular-vote requirement for local bond issues from two-thirds to a simple majority (a cause state voters partially endorsed this November when they reduced the requirement for school bonds to 55 percent). Now, he's drawn on California's 90-year-old progressive tradition, and its commitment to publicly owned power, to find a solution for an energy market run amok. By every measure, Angelides has become California's outstanding statewide public official -- and has won clear claim to lead this state when Davis' tenure in office is up.

But Davis has had a good week, too, even if he can no longer plausibly claim, as he did in his first year as governor, to be the only California official with a mandate to set policy -- the Legislature's task, he added, being merely to "implement [his] vision." Now events have forced Davis to redefine not only the Legislature's mission but his own. At his best, the governor's role, it's now clear, is to implement Phil Angelides' vision.

A Four Letter Word in the White House

Okay, what's a four-letter word for "our next president"? If you said Gore, you have about a 50 percent chance of being right next November. Probably a little higher than 50, but it's early yet.Vice President Al Gore has emerged from the primary season relatively unscathed, and certainly with far fewer scathes than GOP nominee-to-be George W. Bush. The most recent national polls have the Bush-Gore contest about even up, but the indications from Tuesday's contests, and their attendant exit polls, are favorable to the Veep. In the exit poll of all voters from the California primary -- an electorate probably more GOP-leaning than the turnout come November -- Gore leads Bush by a 51-percent-to-43-percent margin.The problem for W. is that he ends the primary process well to the right of where he started. That he knows he needs to re-center was clear from his Tuesday-night speech, where he not only sought to cloak himself, however improbably, in the raiment of reform, but also relegated his tax cut to the fourth item on his list of things he'd do with the surplus (after shoring up Social Security and boosting spending on the military and schools). For his part, Gore began trolling for unmoored McCainites as early as last week's debate with Bill Bradley, in which he charged several times that of the four major candidates, only W. was deaf to the appeal of campaign-finance reform.Neither Gore nor Bush is a natural fit for the McCain malcontents come November. But someone (not Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot) will lay claim to most of them, and Gore's positions on choice, guns and the environment -- and his ability to claim some credit for the state of the economy -- are more likely to attract wavering centrists than Bush's attempt to personify the cause of moral regeneration. Should the election come down to a test between Gore's credibility as a steward of the economy and Bush's credibility as a midwife of moral rebirth, the Dems should prevail. It's easier to see the Veep as a banker than it is the Guv as a minister, let alone a prophet.When historians look back on the brief, intense primary season of campaign 2000, they will doubtless note that John McCain proved himself a far more compelling challenger in his party than Bill Bradley did in his. But they should also note that February's bizarre primary calendar artificially inflated McCain's stature, and further deflated Bradley's in the process.The weirdness of February was that Republican contests were scheduled in several key states that had no corresponding Democratic contests. As a result, Democrats, having no place else to go, flocked to crucial GOP primaries. Republicans constituted only 48 percent of the voters in their own Michigan primary, where McCain got enough support among independents and Democrats to overcome Bush's 2-1 advantage among Republicans. The McCain problem this Tuesday night, however, was that Democrats finally had their own Democratic primaries to vote in, and only a relative handful of Dems were willing to go behind enemy lines when they could easily vote in their own party. In Ohio and Missouri -- two states where the Republican primaries were open to Democats -- fully 70 percent and 61 percent of the voters in the GOP contest were Republican, and Bush carried these states overwhelmingly. McCain simply couldn't win anywhere that the Republicans constituted a clear majority of the Republican voters (well, anywhere except New England, where Republicans are the ideological equivalents of center-left Democrats anywhere else).The reasons for McCain's considerable appeal to Democrats and independents were legion. He was the onetime hawk who made friends -- who made a show of making friends -- with onetime doves. He made war not just on the cultural right wing of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell but on the economic right wing of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. His attacks on W.'s tax cuts for favoring the rich (38 percent goes to the wealthiest 1 percent) were every bit as heretical as his affront to the Christian right. Indeed, I suspect part of McCain's appeal to Democrats was that he confirmed their hitherto unvoiced suspicion that reasonable Republicans, freed from the confines of party discipline, didn't really believe all that stuff they voted for, and didn't even want to associate with those right-wing movement types who normally surrounded them. Left to their own devices, serious Republicans would hang with liberal reporters and end up as tribunes for moderation.In hindsight, the amount of wishful thinking that went into the McCain phenomenon -- on the part of both the campaign and its Democratic supporters -- was staggering. No presidential campaign can prevail that flatly rejects its party's core program, let alone that insults the party's activist cadres. McCain's only chance, coming off his Michigan upset, would have been to find some way to appeal more directly to the Republican base. Problem was, the Republican base already had a candidate, and almost everything McCain said after Michigan -- his attacks on the Christian right most especially -- only increased the determination of core Republicans to vote for Bush. On Tuesday, the religious right cast their vote for Boy George over McCain by margins ranging from 3-to-1 to 8-to-1.McCain, at least, can comfort himself with the knowledge that he himself provoked his obliteration at the hands of his party base. Poor Bill Bradley, on the other hand, fared even worse among hardcore Democrats than McCain did with the Republican right, and these Democratic cadres were precisely the voters that Bradley targeted most of all. From the day he first intimated he was thinking of seeking the presidency, Bradley said his number-one concern would be to shine a light on American racism. No presidential candidate had ever before decried the racial profiling that is common practice among police, or the disproportionate effect that the war on drugs has had on nonwhite communities. No mainstream campaign since Robert Kennedy's has ever exhibited such a strong preferential option for the poor, with its call for linking increases in the minimum wage to those in the median wage, and for establishing universal health insurance.And few mainstream Democratic campaigns have ever fared quite so poorly among the poor and nonwhite. Bradley lost to Gore among African-American voters by margins of 6- and 7-to-1; in Georgia, it was a breathtaking 11-to-1. Similarly, the poorer the Democratic voter, the more likely he or she was to vote for Al Gore; in every single state, Bradley ran strongest among voters with incomes in excess of $100,000.In short, Bill Bradley did worst among the very groups he cared about most. His problem was that those groups were also the groups that were the most loyal to Bill Clinton, the groups least likely to stray from Al Gore. In California, the Veep got nearly seven African-American votes for every one Bradley pulled down, and there was an identical disparity among Latino voters. Indeed, though some election-night commentators speculated that Latinos might be prepared to embrace the friendly cultural traditionalism of Senor W. come November, Gore emerges from Tuesday's primary with a strong claim to the Latino vote. In New York, just 4 percent of the voters in the Republican contest identified themselves as Hispanic; in the Democratic contest, it was 12 percent -- and Gore pulled down over four-fifths of that vote. In California's blanket primary, Gore won 56 percent of the Latino vote to Bush's 18 percent.The political effect that the third wave of immigrants is having, then, is fairly complex. As the electorate grows slightly more Latino, it may well grow more conservative on cultural questions like gay marriage -- at the same time that it is growing more liberal on school-spending, income-equity and labor-rights questions. As a voting bloc, Latinos look more and more like the Southern and Eastern European Catholic and Orthodox voters of the 1930s, who stuck close to their churches on matters of morals, and close to their unions on all things economic. One more reason why Gore's in somewhat better shape than Bush come November. Know a four-letter word for "loser"?

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