Meister: The Legislature shows Congress how


Guardian columnist Dick Meister has covered labor and political affairs for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website,, which contains several hundred of his columns.

Forget for a moment what’s happened ­­ or not happened  ­- in Congress. Concentrate instead on what’s meanwhile gone on in the State Legislature, much of it for the benefit of California’s working people.

 The State AFL-CIO cites, for instance, the Legislature’s passage this year of more than a dozen decidedly worker-friendly bills sponsored by the labor
federation and strongly backed by the federation’s Democratic Party allies in Sacramento.

The most important of the bills will raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour by January of 2016. Other key laws:

*Require overtime pay for domestic workers, who are currently excluded from
most labor laws.

*Will make it easier for immigrant workers to get drivers’ licenses and
protect them from retaliation when they speak out about poor pay and working

*Should make it easier for workers with criminal records who are denied jobs
despite their rehabilitation.

*Give corporate tax breaks to employers who create jobs.

*Increase the legal protections for the state’s notably exploited farm
workers and car wash employees.

*Strengthen current laws that require builders holding state contracts to
pay their crews the prevailing wage for construction work in their areas.

*Encourage Employers and workers “to identify and minimize the risk of
workplace violence.”

*Expand the law granting paid family sick leaves to workers caring for ill
parents and children to also include work time lost while caring for sick
parents-in-law, siblings, grandparents  and grandchildren.

*Ease the unjust impact of current immigration law enforcement on workers
and families by limiting the state’s cooperation with the federal “Secure
Communities” program.

Art Pulaski, the State AFL-CIO’s chief officer, rightly claims that with
passage of the laws, California undoubtedly has become “the national leader
in sporting workers and their families.”

What’s more, says Pulaski, passage of the laws marked a crucial start of
“the essential work of rebuilding the state’s middle class.”

If only we could expect even a fraction of such important work from our
squabbling federal legislators.

Copyright 2013 Dick Meister

Guardian columnist Dick Meister has covered labor and political affairs for
more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator.
Contact him through his website,, which contains several
hundred of his columns.

Project Censored


This year’s annual Project Censored list of the most underreported news stories includes the widening wealth gap, the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning for leaking classified documents, and President Obama’s war on whistleblowers — all stories that actually received considerable news coverage.

So how exactly were they “censored” and what does that say of this venerable media watchdog project?

Project Censored isn’t only about stories that were deliberately buried or ignored. It’s about stories the media has covered poorly through a sort of false objectivity that skews the truth. Journalists do cry out against injustice, on occasion, but they don’t always do it well.

That’s why Project Censored was started back in 1976: to highlight stories the mainstream media missed or gave scant attention to. Although the project initially started in our backyard at Sonoma State University, now academics and students from 18 universities and community colleges across the country pore through hundreds of submissions of overlooked and underreported stories annually. A panel of academics and journalists then picks the top 25 stories and curates them into themed clusters. This year’s book, Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fearful Times, hits bookstores this week.

What causes the media to stumble? There are as many reasons as there are failures.

Brooke Gladstone, host of the radio program On the Media and writer of the graphic novel cum news media critique, The Influencing Machine, said the story of Manning (who now goes by the first name Chelsea) was the perfect example of the media trying to cover a story right, but getting it mostly wrong.

“The Bradley Manning case is for far too long centered on his personality rather than the nature of his revelations,” Gladstone told us. Manning’s career was sacrificed for sending 700,000 classified documents about the Iraq war to WikiLeaks. But the media coverage focused largely on Manning’s trial and subsequent change in gender identity.

Gladstone said that this is part of the media’s inability to deal with vast quantities of information which, she said, “is not what most of our standard media does all that well.”

The media mangling of Manning is number one on the Project Censored list, but the shallow coverage this story received is not unique. The news media is in a crisis, particularly in the US, and it’s getting worse.



The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts an annual analysis of trends in news, found that as revenue in journalism declined, newsrooms have shed 30 percent of their staff in the last decade. In 2012, the number of reporters in the US dipped to its lowest level since 1978, with fewer than 40,000 reporters nationally. This creates a sense of desperation in the newsroom, and in the end, it’s the public that loses.

“What won out is something much more palpable to the advertisers,” says Robert McChesney, an author, longtime media reform advocate, professor at University of Illinois, and host of Media Matters from 2000-2012. Blandness beat out fearless truth-telling.

Even worse than kowtowing to advertisers is the false objectivity the media tries to achieve, McChesney told us, neutering its news to stay “neutral” on a topic. This handcuffs journalists into not drawing conclusions, even when they are well-supported by the facts.

In order to report a story, they rely on the words of others to make claims, limiting what they can report.

“You allow people in power to set the range of legitimate debate, and you report on it,” McChesney said.

Project Censored stories reflect that dynamic — many of them require journalists to take a stand or present an illuminating perspective on a set of dry facts. For example, reporting on the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor is easy, but talking about why the rich are getting richer is where journalists begin to worry about their objectivity, Gladstone said.

“I think that there is a desire to stay away from stories that will inspire rhetoric of class warfare,” she said.

Unable to tell the story of a trend and unable to talk about rising inequality for fear of appearing partisan, reporters often fail to connect the dots for their readers.

One of Project Censored stories this year, “Bank Interests Inflate Global Prices by 35 to 40 Percent,” is a good example of the need for a media watchdog. Researchers point to interest payments as the primary way wealth is transferred from Main Street to Wall Street.

It’s how the banks are picking the pockets of the 99 percent. But if no politician is calling out the banks on this practice, if no advocacy group is gaining enough traction, shouldn’t it be the media’s role to protect the public and sound the battle cry?

“So much of media criticism is really political commentary squeezed through a media squeezer,” Gladstone said, “and it comes out media shaped.”



McChesney says journalism should be a proactive watchdog by independently stating that something needs to be done. He said there’s more watchdog journalism calling out inequity in democracies where there is a more robust and funded media.

And they often have one thing we in US don’t — government subsidies for journalism.

“All the other democracies in the world, there are huge subsidies for public media and journalism,” McChesney said. “They not only rank ahead of us in terms of being democratic, they also rank ahead of us in terms of having a free press. Our press is shrinking.”

No matter what the ultimate economic solution is, the crisis of reporting is largely a crisis of money. McChesney calls it a “whole knife in the heart of journalism.”

For American journalism to revive itself, it has to move beyond its corporate ties. It has to become a truly free press. It’s time to end the myth that corporate journalism is the only way for media to be objective, monolithic, and correct.

The failures of that prescription are clear in Project Censored’s top 10 stories of the year:

1. Manning and the Failure of Corporate Media

Untold stories of Iraqi civilian deaths by American soldiers, US diplomats pushing aircraft sales on foreign royalty, uninvestigated abuse by Iraqi allies, the perils of the rise in private war contractors — this is what Manning exposed. They were stories that challenge the US political elite, and they were only made possible by a sacrifice.

Manning got a 35-year prison sentence for the revelation of state secrets to WikiLeaks, a story told countless times in corporate media. But as Project Censored posits, the failure of our media was not in the lack of coverage of Manning, but in its focus.

Though The New York Times partnered with WikiLeaks to release stories based on the documents, many published in 2010 through 2011, news from the leaks have since slowed to a trickle — a waste of over 700,000 pieces of classified intelligence giving unparalleled ground level views of America’s costly wars.

The media quickly took a scathing indictment of US military policy and spun it into a story about Manning’s politics and patriotism. As Rolling Stone pointed out (“Did the Media Fail Bradley Manning?”), Manning initially took the trove of leaks to The Washington Post and The New York Times, only to be turned away.

Alexa O’Brien, a former Occupy activist, scooped most of the media by actually attending Manning’s trial. She produced tens of thousands of words in transcriptions of the court hearings, one of the only reporters on the beat.

2. Richest Global 1 Percent Hide Billions in Tax Havens

Global corporate fatcats hold $21-32 trillion in offshore havens, money hidden from government taxation that would benefit people around the world, according to findings by James S. Henry, the former chief economist of the global management firm McKinsey & Company.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained a leak in April 2013, revealing how widespread the buy-in was to these tax havens. The findings were damning: government officials in Canada, Russia, and other countries have embraced offshore accounts, the world’s top banks (including Deutsche Bank) have worked to maintain them, and the tax havens are used in Ponzi schemes.

Moving money offshore has implications that ripped through the world economy. Part of Greece’s economic collapse was due to these tax havens, ICIJ reporter Gerard Ryle told Gladstone on her radio show. “It’s because people don’t want to pay taxes,” he said. “You avoid taxes by going offshore and playing by different rules.”

US Senator Carl Levin, D-Michigan, introduced legislation to combat the practice, SB1533, The Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, but so far the bill has had little play in the media.

Researcher James Henry said the hidden wealth was a “huge black hole” in the world economy that has never been measured, which could generate income tax revenues between $190-280 billion a year.

3. Trans-Pacific Partnership

Take 600 corporate advisors, mix in officials from 11 international governments, let it bake for about two years, and out pops international partnerships that threaten to cripple progressive movements worldwide.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement, but leaked texts show it may allow foreign investors to use “investor-state” tribunals to extract extravagant extra damages for “expected future profits,” according to the Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

The trade watch group investigated the TPP and is the main advocate in opposition of its policies. The AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and other organizations have also had growing concerns about the level of access granted to corporations in these agreements.

With extra powers granted to foreign firms, the possibility that companies would continue moving offshore could grow. But even with the risks of outsized corporate influence, the US has a strong interest in the TPP in order to maintain trade agreements with Asia.

The balancing act between corporate and public interests is at stake, but until the US releases more documents from negotiations, the American people will remain in the dark.

4. Obama’s War on Whistleblowers

President Obama has invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 more than every other president combined. Seven times, Obama has pursued leakers with the act, against Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Bradley Manning, Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and most recently, Edward Snowden. All had ties to the State Department, FBI, CIA, or NSA, and all of them leaked to journalists.

“Neither party is raising hell over this. This is the sort of story that sort of slips through the cracks,” McChesney said. And when the politicians don’t raise a fuss, neither does the media.

Pro Publica covered the issue, constructing timelines and mapping out the various arrests and indictments. But where Project Censored points out the lack of coverage is in Obama’s hypocrisy — only a year before, he signed The Whistleblower Protection Act.

Later on, he said he wouldn’t follow every letter of the law in the bill he had only just signed.

“Certain provisions in the Act threaten to interfere with my constitutional duty to supervise the executive branch,” Obama said. “As my Administration previously informed the Congress, I will interpret those sections consistent with my authority.”

5. Hate Groups and Antigovernment Groups on Rise across US

Hate groups in the US are on the rise, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are 1,007 known hate groups operating across the country, it wrote, including neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes, and others.

Since 2000, those groups have grown by over half, and there was a “powerful resurgence” of Patriot groups, the likes of which were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Worst of all, the huge growth in armed militias seems to have conspicuous timing with Obama’s election.

“The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813 percent since Obama was elected — from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012,” the SPLC reported.

Though traditionally those groups were race motivated, the report noted that now they are gunning for government. There was a smattering of news coverage when the SPLC released its report, but not much since.

6. Billionaires’ Rising Wealth Intensifies Poverty and Inequality

The world’s billionaires added $241 billion to their collective net worth in 2012. That’s an economic recovery, right?

That gain, coupled with the world’s richest peoples’ new total worth of $1.9 trillion (more than the GDP of Canada), wasn’t reported by some kooky socialist group, but by Bloomberg News. But few journalists are asking the important question: Why?

Project Censored points to journalist George Monbiot, who highlights a reduction of taxes and tax enforcement, the privatization of public assets, and the weakening of labor unions.

His conclusions are backed up by the United Nations’ Trade and Development Report from 2012, which noted how the trend hurts everyone: “Recent empirical and analytical work reviewed here mostly shows a negative correlation between inequality and growth.”

7. Merchant of Death and Nuclear Weapons

The report highlighted by Project Censored on the threat of nuclear war is an example not of censorship, strictly, but a desire for media reform.

Project Censored highlighted a study from the The Physicians for Social Responsibility that said 1 billion people could starve in the decade after a nuclear detonation. Corn production in the US would decline by an average of 10 percent for an entire decade and food prices would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest.

This is not journalism in the classic sense, Gladstone said. In traditional journalism, as it’s played out since the early 20th century, news requires an element of something new in order to garner reporting — not a looming threat or danger.

So in this case, what Project Censored identified was the need for a new kind of journalism, what it calls “solutions journalism.”

“Solutions journalism,” Sarah van Gelder wrote in the foreword to Censored 2014, “must investigate not only the individual innovations, but also the larger pattern of change — the emerging ethics, institutions, and ways of life that are coming into existence.”

8. Bank Interests Inflate Global Prices by 35 to 40 Percent

Does 35 percent of everything bought in the United States go to interest? Professor Margrit Kennedy of the University of Hanover thinks so, and she says it’s a major funnel of money from the 99 percent to the rich.

In her 2012 book, Occupy Money, Kennedy wrote that tradespeople, suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers along the chain of production rely on credit. Her figures were initially drawn from the German economy, but Ellen Brown of the Web of Debt and Global Research said she found similar patterns in the US.

This “hidden interest” has sapped the growth of other industries, she said, lining the pockets of the financial sector.

So if interest is stagnating so many industries, why would journalists avoid the topic?

Few economists have echoed her views, and few experts emerged to back up her assertions. Notably, she’s a professor in an architectural school, with no formal credentials in economics.

From her own website, she said she became an “expert” in economics “through her continuous research and scrutiny.”

Without people in power pushing the topic, McChesney said that a mainstream journalist would be seen as going out on a limb.

“The reporters raise an issue the elites are not raising themselves, then you’re ideological, have an axe to grind, sort of a hack,” he said. “It makes journalism worthless on pretty important issues.”

9. Icelanders Vote to Include Commons in Their Constitution

In 2012, Icelandic citizens voted in referendum to change the country’s 1944 constitution. When asked, “In the new constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?” its citizens voted 81 percent in favor.

Project Censored says this is important for us to know, but in the end, US journalism is notably American-centric. Even the Nieman Watchdog, a foundation for journalism at Harvard University, issued a report in 2011 citing the lack of reporting on a war the US funneled over $4 trillion into over the past decade, not to mention the cost in human lives.

If we don’t pay attention to our own wars, why exactly does Project Censored think we’d pay attention to Iceland?

“The constitutional reforms are a direct response to the nation’s 2008 financial crash,” Project Censored wrote, “when Iceland’s unregulated banks borrowed more than the country’s gross domestic product from international wholesale money markets.”

Solutions-based journalism rears its head again, and the idea is that the US has much to learn from Iceland, but even Gladstone was dubious.

“Iceland is being undercovered, goddamnit! Where is our Iceland news?” she joked with us. Certainly I agree with some of this list, Bradley Manning was covered badly, I was sad the tax haven story didn’t get more coverage. But when has anyone cared about Iceland?”

10. A “Culture of Cruelty” along Mexico–US Border

The plight of Mexican border crossings usually involves three types of stories in US press: deaths in the stretch of desert beyond the border, the horrors of drug cartels, and heroic journeys of border crossings by sympathetic workers. But a report released a year ago by the organization No More Deaths snags the 10th spot for overlooked stories in Project Censored.

The report asserts that people arrested by Border Patrol while crossing were denied water and told to let their sick die. No More Deaths conducted more than 12,000 interviews to form the basis of its study in three Mexican cities: Nacos, Nogales and Agua Prieta. The report cites grossly ineffective oversight from the Department of Homeland Security. This has received some coverage, from Salon showcasing video of Border Patrol agents destroying jugs of water meant for crossers to a recent New York Times piece citing a lack of oversight for Border Patrol’s excessive force.

The ACLU lobbied the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to call international attention to the plight of these border crossers at the hands of US law enforcement.

If ever an issue flew under the radar, this is it.

Dick Meister: Still dreaming of justice


Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century.  Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Think back to Aug. 28, 1963.  More than a quarter-million labor and civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. march onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand good jobs at decent wages and strict enforcement and expansion of the laws guaranteeing meaningful civil and economic rights to all Americans.

The demands, spelled out in Dr. King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech that day,  will be forcefully raised once again by  a fiftieth  anniversary March from the Lincoln Memorial  to the King Memorial  on the  Mall  this August 24.

The 2013 march has been called for very good reason: The need for greatly strengthened labor and civil rights is at least as urgent today as it was in 1963. By any measure, the 1963 March was a huge success. It had a direct and strong influence on the enactment a year later of laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and the passage two years later of the Voting Rights Act that enabled many African -Americans to freely cast ballots for the first time.

But despite the successes that followed the march, the nation once again faces severe economic and social problems. Consider:

*Voter suppression has become a serious problem once more, with several
states imposing new restrictions on the right to vote that have been upheld
in court.

*Unemployment remains notably high, particularly among African-American
workers, and young workers generally, even as a great need for workers to
rebuild the nation’s crumbling transportation and energy infrastructure
continues to mount.

*Jobless workers now, as then, need much more government aid, with
unemployment insurance payments averaging only $300 a week.  Many workers
who manage to find jobs are able to work only part-time or only temporarily,
and for less pay than they made on previous jobs.

*Millions of women workers face blatant job discrimination, as do older
workers, the young and African-American workers in general. They often are
paid less than others doing the same work, and often are denied promotions
that they’ve earned. Women sometimes face sexual harassment as well.
*Millions of workers, male and female alike, are forced to live on
poverty-level pay, including those workers making the grossly inadequate
federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Many of the country’s fast-food
workers are lucky if they make even that.

*Millions lack paid sick leave needed to care for sick children and other
family members and to keep them from having to work when ill and endanger
the health of others as well as themselves.

*Public employees, who perform some of the country’s most vital work, are
under steady attack by politicians and others who seize on them as
scapegoats by blaming the workers, many of them women and people of color,
for the economic problems that beset government at all levels. They strive
mightily to cut the employees ‘pay and pensions and other benefits and mute
their political and economic voices.

*Income inequality is a severe problem. The gap between the haves and
have-nots is downright spectacular. A recent study by the Economic Policy
Institute showed, for instance, that the CEOs of major companies make on
average about 273 times more than the average worker. That’s right ­­
average executive pay is almost three times  the average pay of ordinary
workers. Are those who direct work really worth so much more than those who
actually do the work?

 *Thousands of workers are endangered by lax enforcement of job safety laws,
thousands shortchanged by employers who fail to pay them what they’ve been
promised and clearly earned.

*Anti-labor employers openly violate laws that promise workers the right of
unionization that would enable them to effectively try to improve their
inadequate pay and working conditions. That’s one of the key reasons the
share of workers in unions has declined to a 97-year low of barely 11

*Despite the rise of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, the
men, women ­-and too often children — who harvest the food that sustains us
all are barely surviving on their poverty level wages.

*Free trade agreements and the offshoring of U.S. jobs have led to the loss
of millions of domestic jobs.

President Clayola Brown of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, a key
2013 march sponsor named for the leader of the 1963 march, notes that as in
1963, “the job situation is deplorable. Today, we have 30-year-old people
who have never had a full-time job in their lives.”

Brown will be among the thousands of union and civil rights advocates who,
like the marchers 50 years ago, are expected to gather on the National
Mall Aug. 24 to raise their demands for justice, as they march from one to
the other of the sculpted likenesses of two of the greatest advocates of
social and economic justice who’ve ever lived.

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and
politics for more than a half-century.  Contact him through his website,, which includes more than
350 of his columns.
   Copyright 2013 Dick Meister.

(Bruce B. Brugmann writes and edits the Bruce Blog on the San Francisco Bay Guardian website. He is the editor at large and former editor and co-founder and co-publisher with his wife Jean Dibble of the SF Bay Guardian, 1966-2012.)

Dick Meister: The pioneering black porters


By Dick Meister

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

It’s Black History Month, a good time to honor the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the most important yet too often overlooked leaders in the long struggle for racial equality and union rights.

The union, the first to be founded by African Americans, was involved deeply in political as well as economic activity, joining with the NAACP to serve as the major political vehicle of African Americans from the late 1930s through the 1950s.

Together, the two organizations led the drives in those years against racial discrimination in employment, housing, education and other areas that laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the1960s.

The need for a porters’ union was painfully obvious. Porters commonly worked 12 or more hours a day on the Pullman Company’s sleeping car coaches for less than $100 a month. And out of that, they had to pay for their meals, uniforms, even the polish they used to shine passengers’ shoes. And they got no fringe benefits.

In order to meet their basic living expenses, most porters had to draw on the equally meager earnings of their wives, who were almost invariably employed as domestics.

It was a marginal and humiliating experience for porters. They were rightly proud of their work, a pride that showed in their smiling, dignified bearing. But porters knew that no matter how well they performed, they would never be promoted to higher-paying conductors’ jobs. Those jobs were reserved for white men.

Porters knew most of all that their white passengers and white employers controlled everything. It was they alone who decided what the porters must do and what they’d get for doing it.

When a passenger pulled the bell cord, porters were to answer swiftly and cheerfully. Just do what the passengers asked – or demanded.  Shine their shoes, fetch them drinks, make their beds, empty their cuspidors, and more. No questions, no complaints, no protests. No rights. Nothing better epitomized the vast distance between black and white in American society.

Hundreds of porters who challenged the status quo by daring to engage in union activity or other concerted action were fired. But finally, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted workers, black and white, the legal right to unionize. And finally, in 1937 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won a union contract from Pullman.

The contract was signed exactly 12 years after union president and founder A. Philip Randolph had called the union’s first organizing meeting in New York City. It was a long arduous struggle, but it brought the porters out of poverty. It won them pay at least equal to that of unionized workers in many other fields, a standard workweek, a full range of employer financed benefits.  Most important, porters won the right to continue to bargain collectively with Pullman on those and other vital matters.

Union President Randolph and Vice President C.L. Dellums, who succeeded Randolph in 1968, led the drive that pressured President Roosevelt into several key actions against discrimination. That included creation of a Fair Employment practices Commission in housing as well as employment.

FDR agreed to set up the commission – a model for several state commissions – and take other anti-discrimination steps only after Randolph and Dellums threatened to lead a march on Washington by more than 100,000 black workers and others who were demanding federal action against racial discrimination.

Randolph and Dellums struggled as hard against discrimination inside the labor movement . . . particularly against the practice of unions setting up segregated locals, one for white members, one for black members.

Randolph, elected in 1957 as the AFL-CIO’s first African–American vice president, long was known as the civil rights conscience of the labor movement, often prodding federation President George Meany  and other conservative AFL-CIO leaders to take firm stands against racial discrimination.

The sleeping car coaches that once were the height of travel luxury have long since disappeared. And there are very few sleeping car porters in this era of less-than-luxurious train travel. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is gone, too. But before the union disappeared, it had reached goals as important as any ever sought by an American union or any other organization.

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Good news for our neediest workers


By Dick Meister

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Here’s some good news for the new year: Ten states are set to raise their minimum wage rates on January first.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) calculates that the increased rates will boost the pay of more than 850,000  low-income  workers in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The rates, raised in accord with state laws requiring automatic adjustments to keep pace with the rising cost of living, will go up by 10 to 35 cents an hour depending on the state. NELP figures that will mean $190 to $510 more a year for the four million workers who are paid at the minimum in those states.

That may not seem like much in today’s economy, but most of the workers are living at or near the poverty level, and it will mean a lot to them and their families. Another 140,000 needy low-paid workers will get indirect raises as pay rates are adjusted upward to reflect the new minimum wage in their states.

Nineteen states, including California, plus the District of Columbia will now have rates higher than the federal minimum. But though the increases in state minimum wages are vital, what’s needed now is also to raise the federal minimum so that all minimum wage workers are paid at a higher and uniform rate.  The federal rate has remained at $7.25 an hour  – about $15,000 a year for the average minimum wage worker – since it was set in 2007, although inflation has continued to erode its purchasing power

A bill now pending in Congress would raise the federal rate to $9.80 an hour by 2014, set the rate for tipped workers at 70 percent of that, and provide for the rates to rise to match future increases in the cost of living.

Federal action is badly needed, notes NELP’s executive director, Christine Owens, to “make sure workers earn wages that will at the very least support their basic needs. But earning an income that meets basic needs shouldn’t depend on the state where a working family lives.”

OK, but won’t increasing the pay of minimum wage workers discourage employers from hiring more workers and thus weaken the economy and hurt jobless workers? That’s often claimed by fiscal conservatives, but it’s simply not so.

NELP cites a large body of research clearly showing that “raising the minimum wage is an effective way to boost the incomes of low-paid workers without reducing employment.” NELP notes in particular research showing that “even during times of high unemployment, minimum wage increases did not lead to job loss.”

On the contrary. NELP estimates that increased spending by workers paid at the new state minimums will pump an estimated $183 million into the economy, creating the equivalent of more than 100,000 full-time jobs. Other estimates indicate that every dollar increase in wages for workers at the minimum rate would trigger more than $3000 in new spending.

But can employers afford to pay a higher minimum? Wouldn’t it be a burden on small businesses, as those opposing a raise often claim? No. NELP found that more than two-thirds of minimum wage workers are employed by large companies, and that many of the companies could easily afford a raise, especially since they “have fully recovered from the recession and are enjoying strong profits.”

There’s no excuse for inaction.  Ten states have done the right thing for their neediest working citizens. It’s time for Congress and President Obama to do their part.

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Michigan is just the beginning


By Dick Meister
Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Be alert, American workers: The passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan means serious trouble for unions and their supporters everywhere. Yet there’s legitimate hope that it also could lead to a revitalized labor movement.

You can be sure the action by Michigan, long one of the country’s most heavily unionized states, home of the pioneering and pace-setting United Auto Workers and iconic labor leader Walter Reuther, will inspire anti-labor forces in other states to try to enact right-to-work laws.

They aren’t likely, however, to try in California, where voters rejected a right-to-work proposition in 1958 and this November rejected the viciously union-busting State Proposition 32.  But union foes here as elsewhere are certain to seize on the Michigan vote, and the passage earlier this year of a right-to-work statute in Indiana, as evidence of labor weakness that they will try mightily to exploit, politically and otherwise.

They’re already seeking right-to-work laws in Ohio and Wisconsin and planning other steps around the country to weaken  the economic and political clout of unions and their supporters and thus weaken the basic rights and economic position of all working people.

As contradictory as it might seem, that could lead to a badly needed revitalization of labor. For it should make it unmistakably clear to unions and their supporters that there’s a very serious need for a greatly stepped-up mobilization against their political and economic enemies.

 True, unions lost a major campaign this year in trying to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But that should not dissuade labor from waging other efforts against union opponents. They came close to recalling Walker and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for future campaigns and proved that unions are quite capable of waging major campaigns against their opponents. That surely discouraged at least some others from taking anti-labor actions that would anger labor and its powerful supporters.

Notably impressive as well was labor’s role in helping elect – and re-elect – President Obama. Labor opponents and supporters alike learned from that, if they didn’t already know it, that unions have the money and the manpower to seriously mount major campaigns. They put millions of dollars and millions of campaign workers into their extraordinary efforts on Obama’s behalf.

Obama has responded by appointing a pro-union secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, and other pro-labor men and women to run the Labor Department, plus issuing executive orders that have strengthened the rights and legal protections of working Americans .

But unions are of course doing less well in Michigan and most other states, and that’s being reflected in Congress, where labor has had a rough time getting approval of national measures such as a higher minimum wage.

Most importantly, labor has been unable to garner the votes for passage of the Fair Employee Free Choice Act that has long topped labor’s political agenda. The act, which has been stalled in Congress for three years, would give workers the absolute right to unionization, by making it easier for them to form and join unions.

Also high on labor’s agenda is the pressing need to modify the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. It has allowed states to enact right-to-work laws, even though the laws, now in Michigan and 23 other states, are clearly designed to weaken – if not destroy – unions by denying them the right to collect the money from members that is essential to effectively represent them in bargaining.

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Home care workers need presidential help


By Dick Meister

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The country’s 2½ million home care workers have been waiting a whole year now for President Obama to make good on his promise to grant them the federal minimum wage and overtime pay protections they so badly need.

The need for immediate presidential action was made abundantly clear in a letter to the White House on Dec. 13 that was released by the National Employment Law Project – NELP, as it’s called. The signers include people who are receiving home care, those who employ them and those who provide the care.

NELP’s figures show that the average national wage of home care workers, including those working at for-profit home care agencies, is $9.40 an hour. Which means that one in five caregivers live at or below the poverty level, even in the 21 states with minimum wage and overtime laws that cover them.

In almost three-dozen states, the average pay is so low the workers qualify for public assistance. And that, of course, seriously harms the workers and adds to the serious financial burdens of the states that provide the assistance.

Unless the president acts, the situation is only going to get worse, with home care jobs expected to increase by well over a million by the year 2020 as the country’s population ages. As NELP says, the home care industry is already one of the fastest growing industries in the country.

Over the next two decades, the population of Americans over 65 will increase to more than 70 million. And the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that by 2050, there will be 27 million Americans needing direct home care.

NELP’s director, Christine Owens, notes that “many families rely on home care workers to get our grandparents out of bed in the morning and insure that our neighbors with disabilities live as independently as possible.”

As Owens says, extending the federal minimum wage and overtime protections to the workers would be a first important step to improving quality within the home care industry. She notes that the reforms “will be perfectly manageable for the industry and will be good for both consumers and workers.”

And, Owens adds, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: A free choice for U.S. workers


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom,  has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Now that the electioneering and political posturing is done with, it’s time for President Obama and congressional Democrats to finally deliver on their promises to enact the long delayed Employee Free Choice Act that’s at the very top of organized labor’s political agenda.

EFCA, as it’s sometimes called, has been stalled in Congress for three years. It would give U.S. workers the unfettered right to unionization that would raise their economic and political status considerably.  But that would come at the expense of employers, who have been able to block a large majority of workers from exercising the union rights that labor law has long promised workers.

EFCA would in essence strengthen the 78-year-old National Labor Relations Act – the NLRA – to make it easier for workers to form and join unions.  Which is the clearly stated purpose of the NLRA.

The lack of solid legal protection is a primary reason that, despite the higher pay and benefits and other obvious advantages of union membership, only about 12 percent of the country’s workers belong to unions.

 Surveys show that nearly one-third of all U.S. workers want to unionize but won’t try because they fear employer retaliation – and for good reason. Every year, thousands of workers who do try to unionize are illegally fired or otherwise penalized.

Employers faced with organizing campaigns commonly order supervisors to spy on organizers and force workers to attend meetings at which employers describe unions as dues-snatching outsiders, often asserting falsely that unionization will lead to pay cuts, layoffs, outsourcing of work or even force them out of business. Similar messages are delivered to workers one-on-one by supervisors, frequently along with threats of disciplinary action if they support unionization.

In many of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for unionization, the employer simply refuses to agree to a contract with the union. Workers who strike to try to force employers to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law face being permanently replaced.

The NLRA is supposed to protect workers from such actions. But employers have been able to blatantly violate the law because the penalties are slight – usually small fines at most, and they’re often not even imposed. Workers fear complaining to the government, knowing it usually takes months – if not years – for the government to act, and that meanwhile they may lose their jobs.

The most important provision of the Employee Free Choice Act would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers – unless the workers opted to have recognition decided by an election.

As the law now stands, only employers can decide whether to use a membership card check or an election to determine their workers’ wishes. Employers almost invariably choose elections because of the opportunity the election campaign gives them to pressure workers into opposing unionization.

Other key provisions of the Free Choice Act would fine employers up to $20,000 for each violation of the law and call for arbitrators to dictate the terms of employers’ contracts with unions winning recognition if the employers stalled for more than four months in contract negotiations with the winners.

The act made it through the House shortly after it was originally introduced in 2003, but was blocked from Senate passage by a Republican filibuster. It seems unlikely that the bill would even get through the House now.

Labor, however, has not backed off, and can still expect the support of President Obama, other key Democrats and civil and human rights groups, religious organizations and other influential union allies to back its demand for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act or something very much like it.

But are labor’s political allies willing – and able – to finally do what they have long promised to do? Are they willing – and able – to join labor in assuring American workers the firm union rights that have too long been denied them?

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom,  has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.


Dick Meister: Labor’s big day


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED/TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Now that the election dust has settled, it’s clear that organized labor was a big winner locally, statewide and nationally.

In San Francisco, more than half the winning candidates for local office had labor backing, as did all local candidates for state office and all but two of the winning city propositions.

Labor did as well statewide, with voters soundly rejecting State Prop 32 that would have greatly diminished unions’ political strength.  Defeating the proposition was by far labor’s most important election goal.

Almost as important was Prop 30, which will provide badly needed increases in funding for education and other local services and reduce the state budget deficit.  Funding will come primarily from higher taxes on the wealthy.

Prop 38, which labor successfully opposed, would have provided only increased education funding and that wouldn’t even have included funding for the community colleges that provide vital job training. Funds for Prop 38 would have come from taxes on everyone, including the poor. 

Labor’s campaigning nationally was done largely – and extensively – for President Obama and Democrats who had hoped to substantially increase the party’s narrow margin in the Senate and even regain control of the House.

But though they failed to elect more friendly congressional Democrats who would back labor’s political agenda, unions can correctly assume that Obama will be as friendly to labor in his second term as he was in is first four years in office.  Pro-labor measures that unions might fail to push through Congress could very well be enacted through presidential executive orders, if not through presidential pressures on Congress.

Labor’s election victories included increases in the minimum wage rates in Albuquerque, San Jose and Long Beach, and the defeat of anti-union measures in several states.

Labor Notes’ Samantha Winslow reported, for instance, that unions helped defeat a measure in Illinois that would have changed the state constitution to require a three-fifths majority vote by the legislature to increase public employee pensions, while requiring only a simple majority to make pension cuts. It would have superseded collective bargaining over pension improvements at the state and local levels

Unions also played a major role in helping groups fighting voter suppression in Ohio and elsewhere, and in the successful re-election campaign of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the Senate’s most labor- friendly members.

Labor’s political efforts obviously aren’t going to end with the election over. Unions already are planning drives to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from benefit cuts.

“Some legislators and their backers on Wall Street are already set on reaching a ‘grand bargain’ in the next eight weeks,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He says they’re aiming to raise the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility requirements for Medicare and Medicaid.

Trumka has a better idea.  He says “Congress must let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest 2 percent and make no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.”

Those are among the most important of the many tough political issues now facing unions and their supporters in San Francisco, and throughout California and the rest of the country. As the election proved beyond doubt, unions have what’s needed to seriously challenge their opponents and in the process provide important help to us all.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED/TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Labor’s wise election choices


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

No issue on the November election ballot anywhere is of greater importance to working people and their unions than Proposition 32 on the California ballot.

As the State AFL-CIO notes in its call for an all-out campaign against Prop 32, it’s “a brazen power play” by billionaire corporate interests and other anti-union forces to all but silence labor’s political voice, while at the same time greatly increasing the political strength of labor’s wealthy opponents.

Prop 32’s corporate sponsors deceptively call their measure an even-handed attempt to limit campaign spending. Yet it would only limit – and severely limit – the political spending of unions. There would be no limit on the political spending of corporations and other wealthy interests.

A Prop 32 victory would have a serious national impact, since passage of the measure in the country’s largest state would certainly lead to attempts to enact similar measures elsewhere.

California Propositions 30 and 38 also could have major, though less direct, effects nationally.  Both measures would raise badly needed new funds for education.

Prop 30, which is widely supported by unions and a broad base of community organizations, would do it through a tax increase that would be levied on wealthy Californians with annual incomes of $250,000 or more.

But Prop 38, bankrolled by some of the same billionaire interests that are contributing heavily to the Yes on 32 campaign, would raise money by taxing everyone, including the poor. And while Prop 30 specifically calls for added education funds to go to schools at all levels, including the community colleges that train workers for jobs that are heavily unionized, Prop 38 does not apply to community colleges.

There are, of course, other state as well as local and national issues and candidates that are of particular interest to labor. That includes, as it very well should, labor-friendly President Obama and just about any other Democrat.

Although the odds are heavily against Democrats regaining control of the House or adding to their narrow margin in the Senate, that has not kept labor and its supporters from trying to beat the odds.

National Democratic strategists are relying on California to be a leader in raising funds to make that happen. They’re sending out an unprecedented barrage of requests to Californians for money for Democratic candidates in general and especially for candidates in battleground states.

Unions are playing an important role in that effort and in many local elections as well. That naturally includes the voting in San Francisco, long one of the country’s premier labor cities and national pacesetter for labor.

As usual, the SF Labor Council and SF unions generally have endorsed all of the Democrats running for national and state offices. It would be hard to quarrel with that or with most of labor’s other choices of who and what to back and oppose on the city’s election ballot.

Locally, labor is backing incumbent Supervisors Eric Mar (District One) and David Campos (District Nine) and newcomer F.X. Crowley, a longtime union leader and activist who’s running in District Seven. All have consistently supported labor.

Labor is rightly eager to defeat Crowley’s opponent, Mike Garcia, a candidate of the downtown interests that have consistently opposed labor.

Voters would be wise to follow the guidance of the teachers union on candidates for the SF Board of Education. The union has endorsed Matt Haney, Beverly Popek, Sam Rodriguez and Shamann Walton. All would be new to the board.

The teachers union and the Service Employees Union local that represent SF City College workers agree that the best candidates for the Community College Board that governs City College are Hanna Leung, Rafael Mandelman and incumbents Natalie Berg and Chris Jackson.

As far as local propositions go, labor’s support for a parcel tax to raise badly needed funds for City College (Prop A) and for a trust fund to help lower and middle income families secure affordable housing (Prop C) makes very good sense.

Unfortunately, labor did not take an official position on Prop G, the policy statement that calls for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that has allowed unlimited political spending by corporations and wealthy individuals.

Otherwise, however, labor has provided voters with an invaluable election guide.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Danger and death in the tobacco fields


By Dick Meister


Dick Meister, who has covered labor and political issues for more than a half-century, is co-author of “A Long Time Coming: The Struggle To Unionize America’s Farm Workers” (Macmillan). Contact him through his website,

Amid all the well-deserved concern over the deadly effects of tobacco on smokers, we’ve largely overlooked  tobacco’s other major victims – the workers who harvest the damn stuff for the great profit of  tobacco companies, often because they have virtually no other way to make a living.

There are nearly 100,000 tobacco harvesters, some as young as 12, most of them Mexican immigrants. They work during the summer in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, the country’s leading tobacco producer. As the AFL-CIO, its Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), the human rights group Oxfam America and others have reported, the workers’ pay and working and living conditions are abominable.

The reports note that year after year, thousands of the workers are afflicted with “green tobacco sickness,” which is caused by overexposure to the highly toxic nicotine in tobacco leaves that ‘s absorbed into their bodies.

Victims feel a general weakness or shortness of breath, severe headaches, vomiting, dizziness, cramps, heightened blood pressure or speeded-up heart rates. At the least, they break out in rashes.  The symptoms frequently last for several days.

Workers’ body temperatures, already high because of the southern heat in which they work, are raised even higher by the nicotine, which sometimes leads to dehydration and heat strokes that kill them.

Yet many workers get little or no medical attention. They’re lucky if they even get rest breaks during working hours. Most work for growers who do not provide health care benefits and are exempt from the law that requires employers to make Workers Compensation payments for employees who are hurt on the job.

Workers whose productivity declines because of tobacco sickness face firing or being turned over to government authorities for deportation, as do those who dare complain about working conditions or demand union rights. There are many more desperately poor immigrants to take their places.

One-fourth of the workers are paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, most of the others barely above the minimum.

Living conditions, described as “inhumane” in the recent reports by the AFL-CIO and others, generally are as bad as working conditions. Most workers live in crowded, dilapidated, frequently rat-infested shacks in labor camps or in stifling, broken-down trailers near fields that are sprayed regularly with dangerous pesticides.

Finally, however, there’s genuine hope for change. It rests primarily with the AFL-CIO’s FLOC, which has helped thousands of workers in other crops in North Carolina and elsewhere win decent treatment.

Backed by an array of community and religious groups, FLOC has been waging a nationwide drive seeking collective bargaining agreements from growers to improve pay and conditions.  They’ve pressed their demands by tactics such as threatening to lead boycotts of the companies that buy the growers’ crops for manufacturing cigarettes and other tobacco products. They’re aiming as well at the supermarket chains and others who sell the products.

The main target has been R.J. Reynolds, which alone manufactures just about one of every three cigarettes bought in this country. FLOC and its allies are attempting to force Reynolds and other tobacco companies to demand that their grower-suppliers improve pay and working conditions or lose their business.

But realistically, what are the chances of success in the drive to provide decent treatment for the highly exploited and until now virtually powerless tobacco workers?

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez says the chances are good, despite the great political influence and wealth of those who are resisting the demands of the union and its growing numbers of supporters.

 As evidence that it can be done, Velasquez cites the union’s five-year long boycott that in 2004 finally forced a major North Carolina corporation, the Mount Olive Pickle Co., to raise the price it paid for cucumbers as a way to finance higher pay for the company’s workers. It also agreed to allow union organizers to circulate in its labor camps.

The struggle in behalf of the workers is certain to continue in any case, the struggle to erase what, as Velasquez notes, is a national shame – “the deplorable condition of the tobacco workforce that remains voiceless, powerless and invisible to mainstream America.”

Dick Meister, who has covered labor and political issues for more than a half-century, is co-author of “A Long Time Coming: The Struggle To Unionize America’s Farm Workers” (Macmillan). Contact him through his website,



Guardian voices: Finally, rights for domestic workers


The national domestic workers’ movement is on the cusp of making history in California. Any day now, the state’s Domestic Bill of Rights (AB 899) – only the second such piece of legislation in the country – could be passed on the Senate floor, finally bringing respect and recognition to 200,000 workers who have been systematically excluded from labor laws for 74 years.

In what could be the final hours of this hard-fought, multi-year campaign, grassroots domestic worker leaders are counting on a rising tide of public support to finally bring victory. Earlier in the month, the New York Times endorsed the bill (sponsored by our own Assemblyman Tom Ammiano), and last week’s video of support from “Rec & Park” actress Amy Poehler has led to a new surge in national support. You can learn about the group’s work and weigh in here, today.

I’ve been inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance since its founding in 2007, and have been carefully watching its cutting-edge approach to women’s leadership, grassroots organizing, worker rights, and movement-building. But it was not until last week, when I talked at length with one of the movement’s grassroots leaders, that the politics of this struggle became personal.

On Aug. 21, I spoke to Emiliana Acopio, a caregiver with a gentle but strong voice, fiercely proud of the love and care she provides to elderly people and a determined leader of the CA Domestic Worker Bill of Rights campaign. She was on her way to Sacramento with hundreds of domestic workers and their supporters, for possibly the 12th time (she’s lost count), to educate legislators about domestic workers’ need for basic rights like a minimum wage, overtime, and the right to at least one day of rest each week. And in the process, she educated me.

I don’t think of myself as someone who depends on a domestic worker. But Acopio helped me to recognize that my 94 year-old grandfather’s mind, body, and spirit are all in such amazing shape in no small measure because of the devoted daily care of a remarkable woman named Sandra. I love my Grandpa Lee like a second father, but the home he treasures is in Delaware and my home is here, 3,000 away. He is famously sharp for 94, still able to tell hilarious and detailed coming-of-age stories from more than 70 years ago. He still sings in the church choir every Sunday. But the reality is that every day, he needs help.

Sandra arrives every morning at the same time. Grandpa is already sitting in his favorite chair, awaiting her arrival. She asks about Grandpa’s night, how he’s feeling today. She makes his coffee, with just the right amount of the same sugar and creamer he’s been using for decades.  She puts ice in his cereal, just the way he likes it. At the kitchen counter, she carefully counts out his many medications and pounds them into a little paste. She pauses in front of all those bottles, making note of which refills are needed. She mixes her perfect little paste with applesauce and gently sets the bowl and spoon in front of him. His day begins.

Sandra is not a biological relative, but the care and compassion she shows to my Grandpa Lee far exceeds what some of my own kin are capable of. She tell us that she does it as a labor of love — but the reality is that she is a caregiver worker, and like Acopio and 2.5 million other domestic workers in the nation, she does not have the labor protections that most US workers take for granted. Her wages and working conditions are completely dependent on my family’s sense of fairness. Should we fail or forget to pay her wages, she has little recourse. Should we lose our minds and begin demanding much more work for no more pay, what could she do? She is not a wealthy woman, and her family needs the income just as much as my Grandfather needs her support.

Acopio knows about the fundamental vulnerability of domestic workers – working behind closed doors, under-valued and exploited in the privacy of other people’s homes:

They hired me to take care of their elderly parents but then expected me to cook, clean, and care for the entire family. And they were very disrespectful to me. I did all I could to make sure their needs were met, and it was important to me that their aging family members felt loved and respected. But it hurt me, especially as a Filipina taking care of a Filipino family, that I was not given that same basic respect. That’s what this is all about. Our work makes all other work possible; we need the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights because we deserve respect, recognition, and dignity.

Acopio shared with me the challenges of organizing domestic workers, the need to share personal stories and organizing victories to break through the immobilizing fear so many women – mostly immigrant women of color – face.  We were talking on the phone with the help of a translator, and it wasn’t until the interview was over that her translator explained to me that Acopio – grassroots leader, fighter for worker rights, and a longtime caregiver for the elderly – was elderly herself. At 79, she continues to work to help provide for her family back home in the Philippines.

It’s been 74 years since federal labor law finally gave most US workers rights like the eight-hour day, overtime, and breaks. But farmworkers and domestic workers were intentionally excluded from that law. The legacy of white supremacy and slavery meant that at the time, fully 65 percent of all Black workers labored in one of those two occupations, and there was a white elite interested in keeping it that way. Black domestic workers and civil rights leaders lobbied against this clearly racist exclusion, but that legacy of racism remains with us to this day.

Despite the organized efforts of Black domestic workers and other women of color – like the groundbreaking campaigns of the National Domestic Workers Union founded by Black domestic worker Dorothy Bolden in 1968 – it wasn’t until the National Domestic Worker Alliance consolidated more than 30 domestic worker organizations and won the groundbreaking NY Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2010  that hundreds of thousands of women of color workers finally have basic labor protections.

While the historic role of Black women as domestic workers – as exploited workers, courageous organizers, and even as the critical foot soldiers of the victorious Mongtomery Bus Boycott — is unfortunately ignored or misrepresented in the media, history books, and even sometimes in multi-racial settings, it is never, ever too late to fight the legacy of racism in the United States. The modern-day domestic worker’s movement is largely led by Asian and Latina immigrant women, and their fierce, creative, multi-generational and holistic approach to building this movement has lessons for everyone who cares about justice.

Time Magazine named NDWA director Ai-Jen Poo as one of the world’s most influential people back in April of this year. It was incredible, and provided an entirely new level of national attention to campaigns like the CA Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. But media attention is not the victory that 2.5 million workers want – it’s protection under the law.

What my grandfather’s caregiver receives in wages could not ever properly compensate her for her labor of love. All domestic workers – caregivers, childcare providers and housekeepers– do their work with care and compassion. They also have the right to basic respect, recognition and rights in the workplace. The thousands of stories of wage theft, failure to provide time for rest for live-in workers, and never-ending vulnerability to other acts of exploitation are simply unacceptable.

Stand with me, thousands of organized domestic workers, hundreds of domestic worker employers, the AFL-CIO, the state NAACP and more than 14,000 petition-signers; support the CA Domestic Worker Bill of Rights today. Call your Senator or Governor Jerry Brown today at (916), 445-2841. Go here for more information and help make history.

Dick Meister: Obama needs labor–again!


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Organized labor, which played a major role in President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, thankfully has launched what seems certain to become an even greater and perhaps decisive effort in behalf of Obama’s re-election this year.

We should all be thankful for that, given the reactionary policies Mitt Romney and his Republican cohorts promise to put in place should they win, and the positive reforms Obama and the Democrats promise.

Four years ago, 250,000 AFL-CIO activists campaigned for Obama’s election. But the AFL-CIO says the number of union volunteers campaigning for Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress this year will reach at least 400,000, and be waged among union and non-union members alike.


That’s not an unrealistic expectation, considering what happened in 2008.  One-fifth of all voters that year were union members or in union households, and fully two-thirds of them supported Obama, and the ratio was even higher in so-called battleground states.

The AFL-CIO calculates that union volunteers knocked on some 10 million doors to make their pitch for Obama in 2008, handed out 27 million leaflets and mailed out 57 million more.  The number of union voters alone reached a record high of more than 3 million.

The AFL-CIO claims its campaign “made the difference in critical states.”  Maybe it did, maybe not. But it is clear that organized labor significantly influenced the vote everywhere – and undoubtedly will do so again.

The AFL-CIO is certainly not going to match the billions being spent on the campaigns of Romney and his big business allies. But labor has the ground troops that can and will spread the pro-Democratic and pro-labor message widely, however much unions are outspent.

It’s true enough that labor has been unhappy with Obama’s failure to deliver on many of the promises he made to unions during the 2008 campaign, primarily his failure to overcome Congressional opposition to pro-labor reforms he’s proposed or supported.

 But there’s no doubt Obama’s administration has been a pro-labor administration. Federal agencies dealing with collective bargaining, job safety and other labor matters have been labor-friendly, in sharp contrast to their clearly anti-labor positions under George Bush. What’s more, Obama has spoken out forcefully to the country in behalf of unions, their demands and their needs.

He’s urged passage of virtually every measure advocated by labor in Congress. That includes bills guaranteeing millions of Americans the right to unionization that has long been denied them, prohibiting employers from permanently replacing strikers, raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation so it would rise as the cost-of-living rises.  Bush rarely even uttered the word, “union, ” much less voiced any pro-union sentiments or support for such union-backed measures.

People on the political left continue to clamor for more from Obama, and they should. But they must realize he’s the best we can reasonably expect in today’s political and economic climate. Give him four more years and who knows?

Yes, Barack Obama is not Franklin Roosevelt.  But neither is he George Bush – nor Mitt Romney.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Workers launch global Hyatt boycott, hundreds picket at Union Square


As shoppers scurried around Union Square yesterday, a picket that drew more than 300 people could be heard for blocks. The grand-scale noise-making was in front of the Grand Hyatt, where workers and supporters demonstrated against what they say is unsafe and unfair treatment of hotel workers.

UNITE HERE Local 2 has been supporting a boycott of a couple Hyatt locations in San Francisco for years now. But this week the national union, along with a broad coalition of supporters, has called for a worldwide boycott of the hotel chain.

Wong says the boycott will end if the Hyatt capitulates to three demands. Two of these are a “fair and mutual process for non-union workers to organize” and to “agree to a fair contract for thousands of unionized Hyatt workers that have been without contract for three years.” But the most important, according to Local  2 spokesperson Julia Wong, is to implement the workplace safety measures that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently outlined in a letter to the Hyatt corporation and its CEO, Thomas J. Pritzker.

Year after year, boycott organizers say, Hyatt adds new worker abuses to its track record.

“In 2009, Hyatt fired 100 housekeepers in Boston and replaced them with temporary workers making minimum wage,” Wong said. Rose Sia, a 31-year San Francisco Hyatt worker, recalls being alarmed that Boston workers who had held their jobs for 15 and 20 years were made to train their minimum wage-earning replacements. “They were treated like trash that day,” Sia said.

In a July 2011 incident, Hyatt workers in Chicago were picketing in 100-degree weather when their employers turned on heat lamps to beat down on them.

“They’re continuing to spread subcontracting around in more cities,” Wong said. “In Baltimore there used to be 40 or 50 in-house housekeepers. Now there are only eight or nine, and everybody else is subcontracted.”

Most recently a Hyatt worker in Indianapolis, Elvia Bahena, was fired, she believes, as a direct result of speaking out about her negative workplace experiences at a city council meeting.

Mona Wilson, who has worked at the Grand Hyatt since 1980, says that learning the difference between how union and non-union hotel workers are treated at Hyatt was an “eye-opening experience.”

Many Hyatt workers must clock in 30 every week to receive heathcare benefits, and meeting that quota can be a struggle. “I’ve met with people who work in banquets,” Wilson said. “The guys that move the tables around. They bring them all in, they’ll rush them through to hurry up and finish the job, and then send them home before the shift is over, so they never make enough hours to qualify for healthcare. I’ve met with one guy whose been working there for three years and he hasn’t been able to get healthcare.”

“He’s a regular hired worker, but it’s a non-union hotel,” Wilson said.

Even in San Francisco, where most Hyatt workers are unionized and experience relatively fair treatment, Hyatt workers have seen their workloads increase to back-breaking proportions and had to fight to get raises and benefits.

Sia says Local 2 has been instrumental in improving working conditions. “They are the ones helping us get our pension, get our raise, get everything. Without the union, we’re nothing,” she said.

Workers in San Francisco have been locked in contract negotiations for three years. One of their key issues is the freedom to protest in solidarity with other workers, which Sia says is particularly important as non-union Hyatt workers continue to suffer abuses.
Picketers sing labor songs at yesterday’s demonstration

Hotel workers are largely women, and UNITE HERE’s Hyatt Hurts campaign has always called out their mistreatment as a feminist issue. They protested on International Women’s Day, focusing on two sisters who experienced disrespectful treatment and objectification of their bodies at the Hyatt Santa Clara. A few weeks later, the Reyes sisters met with Gloria Steinem, who pledged her support for the boycott.

Women’s rights groups like the National Organization of Women, the National Women’s Health Network, and the Feminist Majority Foundation have endorsed the worldwide boycott of Hyatt hotels. GLBT rights groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Stonewall Democrats, the National Black Justice Coalition, and Pride at Work have also signed on. So has the national AFL-CIO.

A more unusual supporter, the NFL Players Association, is also getting behind the boycott, promising that the organization will not spend it’s money at Hyatt and discourage players from staying there.

“Many football players were raised by hardworking men and women who punch time cards just like the hotel workers at Hyatt. This is why we decided to get in the game and support Hyatt housekeepers who suffer abuse and debilitating injuries at work,” said DeMaurice Smith, the association’s executive director.

This kind of support is keeping spirits high for union organizers and workers as they escalate their tactics, but the fight may not be over any time soon.

“It took us seven years to bid the Mariott,” said Chito Cuellar, head of UNITE HERE’s hotel division. “It took us five years to defeat Park 55. It’s been three years that we’ve been fighting the Hyatt. And we don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we know we’re going to win.”

Eat your veggies and join a union


Mom and the AFL-CIO have an intriguing new message for America’s working people: “Eat Your Veggies  – and Join a Union.”

Many moms know, of course, that unionized workers are paid better than their non-union counterparts, have better benefits, better working conditions and stronger voices in what goes on at their workplaces, as well as in off-the-job political activities.

And now comes a Duke University study  –  “Unions – They Do a Body Good ” – which suggests, as the AFL-CIO notes, “that labor unions also are good for your health.” It would indeed be difficult to effectively argue with that conclusion, whether you are pro or anti-union.

 The Duke study was based on a sampling of more than 11,000 full-time union and non-union workers who answered questions about their general health. It showed that , whatever the reason, there are many more unionized workers who consider themselves healthy than there are non-union workers who say they’re healthy.

On the surface, the numbers might not seem significant – 85 percent of unionized workers said they were in good health compared with 82 percent of non-union workers. But that 3 percent gap between 82 and 85 percent represents 3.7 million workers – 3.7 million more healthy union members than healthy non-members.

But why so many more healthy union members? The study’s lead author, doctoral student Megan Reynolds, speculates – correctly I think – that the generally higher pay and benefits earned by union members “help hold off the anxiety that comes with trying to pay rent and feed a family on basement-level wages.”

She notes that  “decent employer-paid health insurance means you’re seeing the doctor when needed. Paid vacation means your body and soul are getting a rest now and then. Grievance procedures and increased job security help you breathe a bit easier.”

Reynolds and co-author David Brady, a Duke sociology professor, believe their study  clearly illustrates “that union membership is another factor – like age, education level and marital status – that affects a person’s health.”

The AFL-CIO, and hopefully your mom, agree. Veggies are indeed good for you, and so are unions. The likelihood of better health for union members should give union organizers a compelling new pitch to make in their attempts to sign up new members.

Better pay, better benefits, a stronger voice on the job and elsewhere – and better health. What more could a worker or a mother ask?

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes

Meister: Walker won in Wisconsin, but so did labor


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,

Yes, labor lost its attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, one of the most virulent labor opponents anywhere.  But as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared, the heated election campaign was “not the end of the story, but just the beginning.”

The campaign, triggered by Walker all but eliminating the collective bargaining rights of most of Wisconsin’s 380,000 public employees, showed that labor is quite capable of mounting major drives against anti-labor politicians, a lesson that won’t be lost on unions or their opponents.

And labor’s political enemies, while perhaps emboldened by labor’s failure in Wisconsin, undoubtedly will hesitate, lest they be confronted with similarly heavy union opposition in their attempts to restrict the bargaining rights of public employees.

Think of it: Labor was outspent hugely by outside corporate interests that funneled $50 million into Walker’s campaign, outspending labor seven-to-one. Yet labor managed to capture nationwide attention and support, and though losing the gubernatorial race, managed to wrest control of Wisconsin’s State Senate from Walker’s Republican allies.

Trumka was rightly awed by “the tremendous outpouring of solidarity and energy from Wisconsin’s working families, against overwhelming odds. Whether it was standing in the snow, sleeping in the Capitol, knocking on doors or simply casting a vote, we admire the heart and soul everyone poured into this effort” in response to “a gargantuan challenge” to labor.

The Senate victory was almost as important as recall of Walker would be. It gave Democrats a one-seat majority in the 33-seat Senate, which will make it much harder for Walker and his Republican allies to enact his anti-labor agenda.

Trumka says he believes  “the new model that Wisconsin’s working families have built won’t go away after one election – it will only grow.” The election, he adds, was “an important moment, and an important message has been sent: Politicians will be held to account by working people.”

Walker, as Trumka says, was forced “to answer for his efforts to divide the state and punish hard-working people.” Trumka optimistically believes that inspired working people elsewhere, union and non-union alike, will follow the lead of the anti-Walker forces and “forge a new path forward.”

Trumka concludes that the challenge to labor and its allies in Wisconsin and everywhere else is “to create an economy that celebrates hard work over partisan agendas.” He said the recall election moved that goal closer.

Of course Richard Trumka is highly partisan, as he should be. But that doesn’t necessarily lessen his credibility. Facts are facts. Although not victorious, labor waged an extraordinary campaign that laid the groundwork for future campaigns that could result in important labor victories.

That would at the least increase the strength of the nation’s working people and diminish the strength of those who, like Scott Walker, would weaken the vital rights of workers and their unions.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,

Dick Meister: Two big tests for labor


By Dick Meister

 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Helping get President Obama re-elected tops organized labor’s political agenda. But for now, unions are rightly focusing on special elections this month in Wisconsin and Arizona, where other labor-friendly Democrats are being challenged by labor foes.

Coming up first, on June 5, is the Wisconsin election to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who’s been labor’s public enemy No. 1 for his blatant anti-union policies. He’s been acclaimed by anti-labor forces nationwide and as widely attacked by labor.

Both sides see the election as highly symbolic, a possible guide for those seeking to limit the union rights of public employees and other workers or, conversely, for those attempting to halt the spread of Walker-like attacks on collective bargaining in private and public employment alike.

There are many reasons for replacing Walker with his recall election opponent, Democratic Mayor Thomas Barrett of Milwaukee. The AFL-CIO has come up with about a dozen reasons, headed by Walker’s severe limiting of the bargaining  rights of Wisconsin’s 380,000 public employees – a key action that helped trigger what Obama has described as a national “assault on unions.”

The AFL-CIO also complains that Walker has:

*”Led Wisconsin to last place in the nation in job creation.”

*”Disenfranchised tens of thousands of young voters, senior citizens and minority voters with voter suppression and voter ID laws.”

*”Put the health care coverage of 17,000 people at risk with unfair budget cuts.”

*”Allowed the extremist, corporate-backed American Legislative Council to exercise extraordinary influence.”

*”Made wage discrimination easier by repealing Wisconsin’s Equal Pay enforcement law.”

*”Attacked public workers’ retirement security.”

*”Blocked the path of young workers to middle class jobs by repealing rules on state apprenticeship programs.”

*”Killed the creation of more than 15,000 jobs when he rejected $810 million in federal  funds to construct a passenger rail system between Milwaukee and Madison.”

*”Sponsored new tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations that will cost the state $2.4 billion over the next 10 years.”

*”Proposed cuts to the state’s earned income tax credit that will raise taxes on 145,000 low-income families with children.”

Despite all that – and more – polls show the recall vote could go either way, with lots of campaign funding for Walker flooding in from  corporations and other union opponents across the country.

Unions have lots of tough campaigning ahead, as they do in Arizona. There, on June 12, a special election will determine who will serve in the Congressional seat held for three terms by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. She resigned in mid-term this year while still recovering from the serious wounds she suffered during a 2011 shooting in Tucson in which six people were killed.

Ron Barber, a Giffords’ staffer who was wounded in the Tucson attack, will challenge Republican Jesse Kelly in the race to elect a representative to serve the rest of Giffords’ term. Kelly, who ran a close losing race against Giffords in 2010 , opposes  much of what the AFL-CIO supports.

The labor federation is especially unhappy with Kelly’s support for GOP proposals in Congress “which would turn Medicare into a voucher system,” and for getting $68 million in federal stimulus funds for his family’s construction firm while at the same time attacking Obama for creating the stimulus program.

Apparently, says the AFL-CIO, “Kelly lining his own pockets with stimulus dollars is proper. Everything else is socialism.” The AFL-CIO is likewise unhappy with Kelly’s endorsement by organizations considered “extremist and racist” by civil rights groups.

Like labor, Barber is a strong supporter of Social Security and Medicare. But Kelly says that Social Security is a “giant Ponzi scheme” and that Medicare recipients are “on the public dole.”

He’s said health care is a “privilege” and so presumably should not be a government-guaranteed right, and claimed that “the highest quality and lowest cost can only be delivered without the government.”

Kelly wants to reduce the Federal Drug Administration “as much as humanly possible.” He’s also advocated an end to government food safety inspections, leaving individuals to do their own inspections rather than rely on “the nanny state” to do it for them.

No wonder labor is mounting major campaigns against Kelly in Arizona and Walker in Wisconsin. Labor victories are needed there to help protect unions, their members and many others from attempts to weaken the rights, protections and other essential aid provided through government.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Fair Trade: Not With Columbia


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

By all accounts, Colombia is one of the world’s worst abusers of workers and their unions. Yet President Obama has just signed a Free Trade Agreement with Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos.

The agreement, set to go into effect May 15, will align the United States with a nation in which working people have very few of the basic labor rights long granted U.S. workers.

In fact, trying to exercise those rights in Colombia can be fatal. Two-dozen Colombian labor leaders and organizers were killed during the past year.

The U.S.-Colombia trade agreement was supposed to implement an “Action Plan on Labor Rights” that the two nations agreed to in 2011. The plan was designed to “protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence” in Colombia.

Violence continues, however, as does the anti-union actions of the Colombian government and Colombian employers. Colombian union leaders noted in a joint statement that though the action plan calls for some badly needed reforms, it does not address many others also needed. That includes combating the serious violations of labor and human rights that continue to plague Colombia.

Many workers, for example, are prevented from exercising the two most important of all labor rights – the right to collective bargaining and to free association. The labor leaders said the government has done very little to prosecute the employers who deny those rights and other fundamental rights of workers.

“Labor activists and other human rights defenders remain subject to threats and violence, including murder, when they stand up to fight for their rights,” the leaders concluded.

As now written, the leaders said, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement “perpetuates a destructive economic model that expands the rights and privileges of big business and multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment.”

Other trade agreements that have followed that basic model have “historically benefitted a small minority of business interests, while leaving workers, families and communities behind.”

Key U.S. labor leaders also have denounced the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, even though it was championed by President Obama, who generally gets high marks from labor’s establishment, as he should.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka saw Obama’s signing of the agreement as “deeply disappointing and troubling. We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions.”

That is, the administration thinks the returns U.S. businesses and the economy generally gain from trading with Colombia are more important than protecting Colombian workers from exploitation by rejecting deals with businesses that violate the workers’ rights.

Trumka and the Colombian union leaders want a new trade agreement with lofty but reachable goals of creating jobs on a widespread scale, boosting economic development and raising the standard of living in both the United States and Colombia.

Workers would be guaranteed stronger protections. But more than that, Trumka and the Colombian leaders would add provisions “to ensure a healthy environment, safe food and production, and the ability to regulate financial and other markets to avoid crises like that of 2008.”

That would be fair trade as well as free trade – a vital, necessary fair and free trade agreement that would benefit millions of people on both sides of the agreement.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.



Meister: The obvious solution to our social security problem


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Guaranteeing America’s working people a decent retirement has become increasingly difficult with the decline of traditional pension plans and the glaring inadequacy of the 401 (k) savings accounts that have replaced them.

So what to do? The answer is obvious to the AFL-CIO, and should be to everyone else: Increase Social Security benefits.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka notes, “Social Security is a phenomenally successful program that represents the very best in American values and has virtually no waste, no corruption and almost no overhead.”

The program does have one serious problem, however – “its benefits are too low.”

Trumka certainly has that right. The average Social Security payout for men is only about $16,000 a year, barely above the minimum wage. Payouts for women average only about $12,000 a year, barely above the poverty line.

Most of those drawing benefits earned much more during their working days. The retirement programs in most other industrialized countries pay retirees benefits in amounts far closer to what they made while working.

It’s for very good reason that the AFL-CIO has taken an official position calling for “an across the board increase in Social Security benefits,” including adjustments to account for retirees’ steadily escalating health care costs and, among other economic setbacks, “the loss of home equity experienced by millions of Americans in the Great Recession.”

Remedial action is clearly needed. As the AFL-CIO says, “Our retirement system is falling apart at the seams. Millions of Americans are afraid to retire because they know they can’t maintain their standard of living in retirement, and more and more seniors have to keep working well past the age when they should be retiring.”

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who calls Social Security “the most successful program in history,” has introduced a bill – the Rebuild America Act – that includes changes in the program such as the AFL-CIO is advocating.

Harkin’s bill would increase benefits by about $60-$70 a month and guarantee that the trust fund from which benefits are drawn would remain solvent and able to pay out full benefits for at least another 40 years, in large part by removing the $110,100 cap on income subject to Social Security deductions.

Quite a contrast to what’s been discussed in Washington, where most of the talk about Social Security has been about Republican proposals to cut benefits. That has especially included increasing the retirement age and cutting back cost-of-living adjustments.

Harkin’s measure would not only revitalize the Social Security system. It also calls for modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures and education systems, increasing access to quality child care, expanding time-and-a-half overtime pay, raising the minimum wage, increasing the availability of paid sick leave, expanding union rights and increasing opportunities for disabled workers. The bill also would end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

Increasing Social Security benefits remains a top priority with Harkin and other Democrats. As the AFL-CIO sees it, “the overwhelming majority of working Americans of every political persuasion in every part of the country ‘get’ the absolutely critical importance of adequate Social Security benefits, but our elites don’t seem to get it. Social security is the solution, not the problem.”

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Labor’s David vs. GOP’s Goliath


By Dick Meister

 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister,com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Organized labor is doing exactly what it must do to combat the onslaught against unions being waged by Republican politicians nationwide, throwing lots of money and lots of ground troops into the election campaigns of Democrats – most especially President Obama’s campaign for re-election.

The AFL-CIO made it official with a ringing endorsement of Obama. Federation President Rich Trumka declared that “as president, Barack Obama has placed his faith in America’s working men and women to lead our country to economic recovery and our full potential. So we’re putting our faith in him.”

Trumka acknowledged that the AFL-CIO has sometimes disagreed with Obama and “often pushed his administration to do more – and do it faster.” But he said there never has been any doubt about Obama’s commitment to working families.

On the other hand, Trumka noted, the Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination have all “pledged to uphold the special privileges of Wall Street and the 1% that have produced historic economic inequality and drowned out the voices of working people.”

Trumka characterized working people as “the Davids standing up to Goliath in today’s politics. Our strength is in our numbers, our values and plain hard work. When we come together, we are formidable.”

Labor’s political forces have indeed been formidable in past elections, putting millions of dollars and millions of union members into the campaigns of labor-friendly Democrats such as Obama. The AFL-CIO pledges to do even more for Obama’s re-election bid, aided in part by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows unions to go door-to-door to solicit support from non-union voters as well as union members.

Unions expect to spend $400 million this year on national, state and local elections, fully one-fourth of it coming from a key AFL-CIO affiliate, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The Service Employees International Union expects to mobilize 100,000 of its members, many of them public employees. The AFL-CIO itself anticipates spending nearly $7 million it has collected primarily for campaigning among non-union voters.

The federation aims to outdo its extraordinary campaign for Obama’s election in 2008. A quarter-million union volunteers took part in that effort, knocking on 14 million doors, making 76 million phone call, sending out 57 million pieces of mail and distributing 29 million leaflets at work sites.

It’s certainly true that Obama has generally been a good friend to organized labor. But what, specifically, has he done for working people and their unions? Why do unionists feel he’s deserving of so much union money and so much union effort?

Why? The AFL-CIO’s Trumka cites, for example, Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which “saved or created 3.6 million jobs” and averted a second Great Depression. There’s also Obama’s championing of comprehensive health insurance reform which “set the nation on a path toward health security,” and Wall Street reform that will eventually lead to reversal of the financial deregulation “that put our entire economy at risk.”

Re-electing a labor-friendly president will be only a part of labor’s election-day mission. Unions will be campaigning at least as hard to defeat the many anti-union Republicans who are running at the local, state and national level and threatening the very existence of unions.

As AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer notes, “they’ve clearly tried to weaken unions and drain our treasuries. But the consequence has been more like kicking a hornets’ nest than draining our resources.”

Unions hope to repeat their success of last November in Ohio, where they waged a major campaign that repealed a Republican-sponsored law that greatly weakened the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public employees. It was an overwhelming victory with 62 percent voting for repeal, only 38 percent for retaining the law, which was similar to those proposed elsewhere, along with other anti-union measures.

The AFL-CIO is confident that it can rally millions of voters for Obama in Ohio and other battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Unions have already had a major impact in Wisconsin, where voters have approved the holding of recall elections for Gov. Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators because of their support for legislation that stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Previous labor campaigns led to the recall of two other Republican state senators.

Obama would seem to need unions as much as they need him. The latest polls indicate that only about half the citizenry approves of the job he’s doing. He’s going to have to work hard to win over the large body of Americans who apparently don’t share labor’s view of him, but who could be convinced to at least give him another four years to meet their expectations.

Labor’s election–year role, in short, will be to do much of the convincing needed to help rally millions of voters behind their friend in the White House. That would be highly rewarding to labor and to millions of Americans, union and non-union alike.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister,com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Apple’s unethical innovation


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.

Apple’s position as a worldwide leader in technological innovation has brought huge rewards to those who run the company or own stock in it, and has raised co-founder Steve Jobs to demigod status. But the men and women who manufacture Apple’s highly profitable products are not doing well – and the AFL-CIO wants very much for that to change.

“When it comes to technology,” notes AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, ” Apple has revolutionized its industry and set a standard other companies aspire to meet . It is now the biggest publicly traded company in the world, worth a whopping $465 billion.”

But, adds Trumka, “Apple’s record-breaking success comes at a back-breaking price.”

He cites news reports that workers who assemble iPhones, iPads and iPods at Foxconn, Apple’s major supplier in China, “have needlessly suffered lifelong injuries, and even died from avoidable tragedies, including suicides, explosions and exhaustion from 30- to 60- hour shifts.” There also have been reports of some workers suffering repetitive motion injuries that caused them to permanently lose use of their hands. Others have suffered from exposure to chemical toxins.

The manufacturing plants run by Foxconn clearly are sweatshops of the worst sort, relying heavily on child labor and rampant violation of basic labor rights. The working conditions are truly horrendous and brutal.

So what to do? For starters, the AFL-CIO is joining a global movement aimed at presenting hundreds of thousands of petitions from activists worldwide to Apple CEO Tim Cook. The petitions tell Cook to make sure that the workers who manufacture Apple’s products are treated fairly and ethically. Their work, after all, is essential to Apple’s success and its development of products happily bought and used by millions of people.

Trumka himself is one of those satisfied Apple customers. He uses an Apple iPhone, which he describes as “intuitive and powerful – an incredible piece of machinery.”

But the AFL-CIO insists that Apple “transform its industry by being ethical and innovative . . . to ensure the quality of its working conditions matches the quality of its products.”

The AFL-CIO wants Apple “to immediately allow genuine unions, with truly independent factory inspections and worker trainings” in its plants in China and elsewhere.

Apple obviously could afford the reforms demanded – and then some. Manufacturing costs, as the AFL-CIO’s Trumka notes, “are only a very small portion of Apple’s expenses. Chinese workers are paid just $8 to manufacture a $499 iPad, for example, while Apple pockets $150 of the retail price. And the company is sitting on nearly $100 billion in cash.”

Apple also could tell suppliers to improve their working conditions or lose Apple’s business. As one anonymous Apple executive told the New York Times recently, “suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

The Times cited another revealing quote from another anonymous Apple executive, which contradicts the AFL-CIO contention that Apple could be both innovative and ethical. The executive claimed there’s a trade-off between working conditions and innovation: “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories,” or you can “make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.”

Apple’s choice, of course, has been to move its manufacturing to overseas facilities where it can indeed get work done “faster and cheaper” by highly exploited and easily manipulated workers under conditions that would not be tolerated in the United States.

Apple has been trying to fend off complaints by joining an employer group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to arrange for inspection of Apple suppliers’ factories. That’s unlikely to change anything, however, since the FLA is funded and controlled by the multinational corporations that it’s charged with investigating.

As Richard Trumka points out, “What leaders do matters. And Apple is now the leader in its industry. That’s why the AFL-CIO will be watching Apple closely to make sure the company does right by the workers who make its products – no matter where they live.”

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.

Dick Meister: The IWW Legacy


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement and the other anti-capitalist forces of today could find no greater inspiration than the Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW, one of the most influential organizations in U.S. history, that was founded in Chicago in 1905 by a band of fiercely dedicated idealists.

The Wobblies, as they were called, battled against overwhelming odds. Their only real weapon was an utter refusal to compromise in a single-minded march toward a Utopia that pitted them against the combined forces of government and business.

Their weapon, their goals, the power of their opponents, the imperfect world about them made it inevitable that they would lose. But this is not to say the Wobblies failed because they didn’t reach their goal of creating “One Big Union” to wage a general strike that would put all means of production in the hands of workers and transform the country into a “Cooperative Commonwealth of Workers.”

To say the Wobbles failed would be to misinterpret the history of the Wobbly battle that left the world, as few battles leave it, a little less imperfect.

You need not believe in the simple Marxism and direct action techniques of the Wobblies to appreciate their great contribution to democracy, to union theory and practice, to folk music and literature, to the American idiom.

The IWW was founded by a group of socialists and dissident union organizers as an alternative to the American Federation of Labor, which they saw as an elitist and racist handmaiden of the capitalist class that controlled the economy. They denounced the AFL for ignoring the racially and ethnically mixed mass of unskilled workers in favor of the far fewer skilled and semi-skilled white craftsmen who were organized into separate unions according to their crafts.

The Wobblies would bring all workers, all of them members of the working class, into the “One Big Union” regardless of their race, nationality, craft or work skills.

Wobbly organizers crisscrossed the country on freight trains to spread their message. They mounted street corner soapboxes in many cities, often battling police and vigilantes who tried to silence them. They organized lumberjacks, mine workers, farm workers, factory and mill hands. They led strikes.

The speeches, the written statements and the songs of the Wobblies were powerful, simple, direct and moving. So were the cartoons, posters and other material that filled the IWW’s tremendous outpouring of publications, among them a dozen foreign-language newspapers that were distributed among the many unskilled immigrants from European nations where unions had goals similar to those of the IWW.

Much of what was said and sung and written is still with us, a century later. Probably most important are the brilliant insights of the IWW’s chief leaders, Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and the songs of famed IWW martyr Joe Hill, those simple satirical rhymes set to familiar melodies that focused workers on a common body of ideals.

You’ve probably heard at least one of Hill’s songs. Remember? “You will eat, bye and bye/ In that glorious land above the sky/ Work and pray, live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

The IWW legacy goes far beyond words and song. There’s still much of value that we can draw from its history, sadly including what the IWW’s ultimate fate tells us about how excessively undemocratic our government can be if left unchecked.

The Wobblies’ refusal to support U.S. entry into World War I and their refusal to abandon strikes and other organizational activities during the war were used as an excuse by officials at all levels of government to side with employers. They called out troops and police to attack non-violent IWW strikers and raid IWW offices. They encouraged vigilantism and lynchings and generally raised public hysteria against “IWW terror” that allegedly hampered the war effort.

After the war ended in 1918, officials seized on the IWW’s open support for the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia as an excuse to crush Wobbly strikes and organizing efforts by mass arrests and imprisonment of strikers and IWW leaders for engaging in “Bolshevik conspiracies.”

The IWW was all but destroyed. Membership shrank steeply and steadily, to the point that today the organization has only a relative handful of members, most of them employed at coffee shops, bookstores and other small businesses, their message spread primarily via websites.

Make no mistake, though. Employers did make some concessions in response to the IWW, and the very example of the Wobblies, their spirit of protest, their tactics, their history, and their courage continue to inspire labor and political activists worldwide.

As author Joyce Kornbluh notes in her magnificent IWW anthology, “Rebel Voices,” the Wobblies made “an indelible mark on the American labor movement and American society” – laying the groundwork for later mass unionization, inspiring the formation of groups to protect the civil liberties of dissidents, prompting prison and farm labor reforms and leaving behind “a genuine heritage … industrial democracy.”

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.


Dick Meister: Celebrating the Farmworkers’ Filipino American Champion


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former Labor Editor of SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. He’s co-author of “A Long Time Coming: The Struggle To Unionize America’s Farm Workers.” Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The birth date of Cesar Chavez, the late farm workers’ leader, will be celebrated next month, and rightly so.  But it’s well past time we also celebrated the life of probably the most important of the other leaders who played a major role in winning union rights for farm workers and otherwise helping them combat serious exploitation.

That’s Larry Itliong. He died 35 years ago this month at age 63. Itliong got involved in the farm workers’ struggle very early in life, not long after he arrived as a 15-year-old immigrant from the Philippine Islands. He was among some 31,000 Filipino men who came to California in the late 1920s.

They migrated throughout the state doing low-paying farm work, isolated from the rest of society and discriminated against because of their race.  They were prohibited from marrying Caucasians, from buying land and otherwise integrating into the community at large.

The Filipinos were perhaps the most isolated of the groups of penniless workers that growers imported from abroad. That, however, caused the Filipinos to band closely together. They formed extremely efficient work crews to travel the state under the direction of their own leaders, at times even forming their own unions.

They actually struck – a rarity for farm workers at the time – when grape growers in Southern California’s Coachella Valley rejected their pay demands in 1965. The strike was led by Itliong, who was then working for the AFL-CIO’s recently-formed Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. The strikers got what they wanted in just ten days.

Elsewhere, however, the Filipinos were forced to accept growers’ terms, initially after brief strikes at several vineyards to the north.  But their fortunes changed after they struck grape growers in the Delano area of Kern County, where many Filipinos lived.

Again, they called on Itliong to lead them.  He clearly understood the deep anger and frustration that motivated his fellow Filipinos – an understanding based on his own long experience. Soon after he came to California from the Philippines, he turned to farm work and, while still in his teens, was involved in an unsuccessful tomato pickers strike in Washington State.

After that, Itliong traveled up and down California, trying, as he said,  “to get a job I could make money on . . . Whatever money I made from one job was not enough for me to live on until I got to the next job.” He barely made enough to pay for food and the cigars he seemed to be endlessly chomping. School was out of the question. But Itliong did learn plenty.

Like Chavez, he said he learned that farm workers could not improve their wretched working and living conditions, could not win any rights, if they did not band together to demand decent treatment.

Itliong did not have the intellectual and philosophical bent of Chavez. Nor did he share Chavez’ deep distrust of outside unions and their orthodox tactics. But Itliong was as convinced as Chavez of the need for unionization. And the depth of his conviction made Itliong a natural leader among the Filipinos.

He was readily hired as a full-time organizer by the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, eventually leading the strike against Delano grape growers that drew worldwide attention, much of it focused on Chavez.

The vineyard strikers were seeking no more than a pay raise of 15 to 20 cents an hour. But growers refused to negotiate with Itliong and meanwhile evicted strikers from the grower-owned camps where they lived.

Growers relied on animosity between Mexican-American and Filipino workers, caused in large part by the growers’ practice of setting up separate camps and work crews for various racial and ethnic groups.

But Chavez, who was then forming a union in Delano for Mexican American workers, did not hesitate when Itliong asked him for help.  Chavez felt that his group, then called the National Farm Workers Association, wasn’t ready to strike itself, but would honor the picket lines of the striking Filipinos.

Yet if they were to honor the picket lines of Itliong’s group, Chavez’ members asked, Why not strike themselves? Why not? And so they did.

That became the grape strike of 1965 that drew worldwide attention and support and ultimately led to the unionization, at long last, of California’s farm workers. It was Larry Itliong and his Filipino members who started it all, and who played an indispensable role throughout the struggle.

Without them there could not have been a strike. Without them, there could not have been the victory of unionization, without them no right for the incredibly oppressed farm workers to bargain with their employers

Within a year of the strike’s launching, Chavez and Itliong’s organizations merged to form what became the widely acclaimed United Farm Workers union – the UFW. Chavez was president, Itliong vice president. Chavez and the UFW’s far more numerous Mexican American members were in firm control.

Itliong never really accepted this situation. He finally resigned from the UFW’s executive board in 1971. He complained that the union’s outnumbered Filipinos “were getting the short end of the stick” from the Anglo lawyers, clergymen and other activists who were Chavez’ chief advisors.

Itliong preferred the more orthodox tactics of the AFL-CIO organizing committee, apparently not realizing it was the unorthodox tactics of Chavez’ group that finally led to unionization – boycotts, non-violence, use of religious and student groups and all manner of other help from outside the labor movement.

But this is not to detract from the extremely important role Itliong played in bringing farm workers a union of their own. He may not have clearly understood the need for new tactics, but he most certainly understood the paramount need of farm workers for unionization, and the great needs of Filipino Americans generally.

Larry Itliong devoted most of his life to seeing that they got much of what they badly needed.

After resigning from the UFW’s executive board, Itliong joined a project to develop desperately needed low-cost housing for the union’s retired Filipino members. Most of them were aging bachelors who had been unable to save much from the pittance growers had paid them for their years of sweating in the fields of California.

Few had families to shelter them now that they could no longer work and so were no longer welcome in the grower-owned labor camps that had been their only homes for decades. They faced living in squalid little rooms on Skid Row, lucky if they got enough to eat, far away from the fellow farm workers who had been their only family.

Itliong was determined that they would have decent housing and helped them get it by playing a key role in construction of a retirement village on union-owned land in Delano. Here they could live among their friends in clean, comfortable rooms, with plenty of food, recreational facilities and medical care.

Dick Meister, former Labor Editor of SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. He’s co-author of “A Long Time Coming: The Struggle To Unionize America’s Farm Workers.” Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Sit down, punk!


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

I spotted a forgotten hero at the memorial service for SF labor leader Walter Johnson the other day, a true but largely unacknowledged hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement – Art Carter, former head of the AFL-CIO’s Contra Costa Labor Council.

The AFL-CIO, you might recall, was a major and outspoken supporter of that damned war which was waged as a key part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.  The AFL-CIO held tenaciously to its unqualified support of the war, whether it was being waged by a long-time labor ally, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, or by his anti-labor Republican successor, Richard Nixon.

It was in 1969, at the AFL-CIO’s national convention in Atlantic City, that Carter, a 28-year-old delegate, dared stand up to oppose a resolution unconditionally supporting the Vietnam War and the Vietnam policies of then-President Nixon, which delegates had loudly cheered when a guest speaker, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, had spelled them out. The measure was presented by hawkish AFL-CIO President George Meany and ultimately opposed by only six of the 700 delegates – including, of course, Art Carter.

Much to the open disgust and anger of Meany and most delegates, Carter offered a substitute resolution that urged the AFL-CIO “to exercise all possible influence and persuasion on the national administration to effect an immediate major reduction of American military involvement in Vietnam and to bring the Vietnam War to a speedy end. “

Carter called his proposed measure  “a rather modest resolution” that came from his members – “working men whose sons have either just returned from Vietnam or who face going to Vietnam.”

He urged the AFL-CIO ‘s national leaders to take a critical look at the government’s Vietnam policies rather than “giving carte blanche to a president to do anything he regards as in the national interest.” Carter followed that with a proposed resolution condemning the Nixon administration’s Vietnam policies that got but one delegate’s vote – his.

Boy, did the stuff hit the fan, as I and other reporters from around the country rushed forward to question the young renegade from the Bay Area. It was big news, someone inside the AFL-CIO actually challenging the imperious George Meany, who was rarely challenged within labor circles.

Consider the situation. There was Carter, a delegate from a small, nationally obscure labor council, surrounded by hostile men at least twice his age and faced with the barely concealed animosity of a 75-year-old who was known nationwide as “Mr. Labor.” How dare Carter question Meany and the other labor elders?

 Meany, at the convention podium, snapped back at Carter immediately. He derided Carter and others who sought “peace at any price,” equated their suggestion for a reduction of forces in Vietnam with surrender and claimed that would result in “the kind of peace you get in the jail house.” Carter tried to respond, but Meany abruptly ruled him out of order, and Carter was forced to move away from the floor microphone and resume his seat amid noisy catcalls and angry shouts of “sit down! sit down!”

Carter was hardly a wild-eyed radical, just an intelligent young man of liberal bent calling for a peaceful solution to an ugly, futile war that had already left many Americans dead. Yet, he asked reporters, with an air of angry futility, “Did you hear what they called me?  Young punk, that’s what they said: Sit down, punk!”

Although Carter’s brave stand – and, believe me, it was indeed brave – didn’t directly alter the AFL-CIO’s war mongering, or that of others, it couldn’t help but have an impact on millions of Americans both inside and outside the labor movement.

 Just a few days after the AFL-CIO convention adjourned, as many as three million people in more than 200 cities took part in marches and other demonstrations to  demand immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. It was the largest peace demonstration ever held up to that time.

Although the precise effect of Carter’s courageous stand is not clear, it undoubtedly did help inspire many others to openly oppose or at least seriously question the government’s Vietnam policies and pressure the AFL-CIO and others to at least tone down their support of the war.

In the context of the time, Art Carter’s was indeed a heroic act. Thankfully, today’s AFL-CIO leaders bear little resemblance to Cold Warrior Meany and his cohorts. The AFL-CIO’s current president, Richard Trumka, is an outspoken backer of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for instance, as are many other AFL-CIO leaders and members who can cite Carter as an inspiration.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.