Meister: So, what about the state of the unions, Mr. President?


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.

Unions? Organized labor? The AFL-CIO? Those words were nowhere to be heard in President Obama’s State of the Union address, despite labor’s vital role in the economy and strong support for Obama. The continued support of the labor movement is essential if the president is to carry out the bold plans he outlined and if he is to be re-elected.

The president’s failure to mention one of the country’s most important economic and political institutions was unfortunate. It was perhaps understandable, however, given the anti-union climate stirred up by attacks on public employee unions and their allies.

Obama’s failure to mention unions and their leaders was ignored in the post-speech pronouncements of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other major unionists. They in fact proclaimed the speech a victory because of its endorsement of policies widely supported by labor.

“It was clear throughout the president’s speech that the era of the one percent is over,” Trumka declared. “We demanded a strong stand on behalf of working families – and the president delivered.”

Trumka cited, in particular, Obama’s promise to thoroughly investigate “misconduct in the mortgage industry that wrecked our economy,” his promise to invest in jobs and infrastructure, and his proposed tax rules that would help the 99 percent.

President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers praised Obama for making it clear “that children and our future must be priorities,” and for noting “what America’s teachers have long understood. We can’t test our way to a middle class, we must educate our way to a middle class.”

Praise, too, from President Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers Union. He singled out Obama’s promise to work “to bring manufacturing back to America.” Gerard said, “The president’s commitment to discourage job outsourcing and promote insourcing is a ticket to a better economy.” It was most welcome news, added Trumka, to the millions of Americans who are unemployed.

President Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees described the president’s speech as “a comprehensive plan to move our country forward, bolster job creation and find real solutions for the problems confronting our country.”

McEntee noted that “in today’s political environment, it takes guts to stand strong with working families – even when we make our voices heard, loud and clear, because the toxic influence of money in politics – which the president spoke out against – is powerful.”

So, although Obama made no mention of organized labor in his address, he said much that greatly pleased labor, and made promises to carry out measures high on labor’s economic and political agendas.

As the AFL-CIO’s Trumka declared, Obama showed he “listened to the single mom working two jobs to get by, to the out-of-work construction worker, to the retired factory worker, to the student serving coffee to help pay for college.” The president, in short, “voiced the aspirations and concerns of those who are too often ignored.”

Trumka cited the similarities between Obama’s approach and that of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like the occupiers, the president is “speaking out forcefully against the staggering increase in inequality” between the one percent and the 99 percent. The president’s speech, Trumka added, demonstrated “a focus on job creation Republican House and Senate leaders should follow.”

It’s clear, certainly, that as long as Obama continues on his current path, he’ll have strong labor support. But should he stray, it’s clear that labor will forcefully remind him of his promises and of the needs of those who work for a living – or who are attempting to work for a living.

Whatever Obama does is certain to be in startling contrast to his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, one of the most virulently anti-labor presidents in U.S. history. Obama has already rescinded several of Bush’s executive orders that limited the union rights of some workers and has replaced openly anti-labor Bush appointees to labor-related federal agencies, boards and commissions with his openly pro-labor appointees, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Imagine Bush, or any of his GOP allies, actually saying, as Obama did, that “we need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests because we know you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.”

Important words. But they need to be heard – and acted on – by the millions of Americans who know little or nothing of unions and their important position in our economic and political lives.

President Obama failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to explain the true nature of unions and their importance to the country-at-large and make clear the often vicious anti-unionism of his political enemies. He missed a chance to explain the crucial role labor is certain to play in attempts to carry out essential reforms.

Obama needed to speak out forcefully to try to counter the anti-unionism that is limiting the chances of many Americans to find decent jobs at decent pay and a strong voice in workplace and community matters.

Obama missed an important opportunity. But if he stays true to his promises, the president will have plenty of other chances to show the country the true nature of the labor movement and its opponents, to speak out in favor of unions and the importance of their members, leaders and supporters, and to carry out his proposed and much needed reforms designed to help the nation’s working people.

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: Walter Johnson did what needed to be done


BY Dick Meister

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

Walter Johnson was everything a labor leader should be – a dedicated, unflinching, champion of working people and their unions. But more than that, Walter was also an unyielding advocate of all those  inside and outside the labor movement who wanted – and badly needed – a decent living , or who were in any way oppressed.

Johnson, who died in San Francisco of a heart attack on Jan. 12 at age 87, devoted his life to that noble – yes, noble – task as head of the Department Store and Retail Clerks unions in San Francisco. He also later headed the SF Labor Council for nearly 20 years, from 1985 until his retirement in 2004.

 Walter was a genuine humanitarian, a kind, thoughtful man who very much liked and sincerely wanted to help people, who freely acknowledged the contributions of others who joined him in his efforts for social, political and economic justice, who seemed always ready and eager to do what needed to be done.

He was a man of great good humor, an outgoing man who seemed to get along with just about everybody, even some of his toughest adversaries. I know, I know. That surely does sound like pure hyperbole. But, believe me, it’s not, as many others who knew Walter Johnson could tell you.

Listen to Art Pulaski, who heads the California State AFL-CIO. He declared that Johnson “was a big and fearless advocate for everyone and anyone who was wronged, mistreated, put down, left out, pushed aside or just down on their luck.  He was fearless because he always followed his faith, his values and his heart.”

Despite the seriousness of his undertakings and his militancy, Johnson was no grim advocate. Whatever the situation, there was always lots of good-natured teasing, and jibes to be traded with friends. And jokes, always jokes – always! Corny, make-you-groan jokes usually, but effective at lessening the tensions that invariably came with the struggles he helped lead.

One look at Johnson’s face made clear his Scandinavian background, a mixture of Norwegian and Swedish. But you wouldn’t necessarily recognize him as a labor leader. He didn’t fit the stereotype. He almost invariably dressed in coat and tie and otherwise looked more like the public image of a business leader, more like management than labor.

Many union leaders spend most of their time in their offices, but Walter was out on the picket lines, or marching or otherwise demonstrating in support of the demands of his union and others, as well as those of other organizations also demanding justice. He was arrested several times for joining in sit-ins and other demonstrations that the authorities wanted to halt. And Johnson kept that up, despite his retirement.

I met Walter thanks to my job as the Chronicle’s labor editor. That was in the early 1960s, a few years after he had arrived in San Francisco from his native North Dakota to work as a Sears appliance salesman.

Dave Selvin, the labor historian and former public information officer for the Labor Council, had told me I should be sure to check out “a young guy” who’d just been elected president of the Department Store Employees. Walter Johnson, of course.

Selvin predicted good things for Johnson, and he was right.

Under Johnson’s leadership, San Francisco store clerks, department store employees and others won labor contacts at least as rewarding as the contracts as those who held similar jobs elsewhere.

Johnson was a key leader in winning strong, virtually unprecedented support for labor from City Hall and the Board of Supervisors – especially from Mayor Joseph Alioto.

Union representatives were appointed to many city commissions, major job creating construction projects were approved, and Alioto stepped in to mediate settlements of major strikes. Picketing strikers could be pretty certain police wouldn’t interfere. New businesses unfriendly to labor found it difficult to get the necessary city permits. Thanks to Johnson and other leaders, labor had gained considerable political clout to go with its considerable economic clout.

Johnson didn’t fear clashing with the AFL-CIO and its other affiliated unions as long as he felt he was right. He was one of the few labor leaders to speak out against the Vietnam War, which was wholeheartedly supported by the AFL-CIO’s national leadership and most of its affiliates.

Johnson was a leader in the growing global union movement that aims to create a powerful international labor federation that would bring the world’s unions close together to deal with “global capitalism” and thus improve the often deplorable conditions of many workers in many countries.

Closer to home, Johnson was one of the first labor leaders to give unconditional support to the LGBT movement. He was an important supporter of proposals to create a gay organization within the labor movement, despite the homophobic nature of most unions at that time. Johnson played a key role in the founding of the LGBT group that became Pride at Work in 2004.

Nancy Wohlforth, the current president of Pride at Work and now an AFL-CIO Executive Council member, had approached Johnson with the idea of such a group in 1979 and was shocked when he readily agreed it was a great idea. Wohlforth was so thankful for his help she dubbed him “an honorary lesbian.”

“Walter was thrilled,” Wohlforth said.

She later was the new business manager of a San Francisco secretarial union that was on strike against a union group that employed its members. Wohlforth noted that Johnson could very easily have avoided being involved, but “he dove right in.”

“He walked the picket line on rainy days and led a toy drive for the strikers during the Christmas holiday. He was, as always, so concerned that workers would know that they were supported at that difficult time.

“Working people’s struggles were always on his mind. I’m sure he dreamed of them every night – and he constantly was coming up with ways to make people’s lives better. He truly was my hero and he will be missed so much by all who were fortunate enough to know him.”

Amen to that.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV, 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: Six ways to heal the economy


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 AFL-CIO has come up with an ambitious six-point plan for healing our very sick economy – one of the best plans that have yet been suggested by anyone.

Point one calls for rebuilding the school, transportation and energy systems by spending at least $2.2 trillion to restore crumbling 20th century infrastructure. As the AFL-CIO says, it would be an investment that would put millions of people to work while laying the foundation for the nation’s long-term growth and competitiveness with other nations.

Point two is as direct: “Revive U.S. manufacturing and stop exporting good jobs overseas.”  That would involve, among many other steps, reforming and enforcing tax policies that are currently encouraging U.S. companies to have manufacturing done in other countries. And enhance Buy America standards, increase investment in job training and oppose free trade deals.

Point three: Provide federal help for hiring people to do at least part of the work that needs to be done nationwide. That could create millions of jobs in distressed communities, especially communities of color, where much of the work is badly needed. In doing so, pay competitive wages and do not replace existing jobs.

Point four: Help federal, state and local governments avoid more of the layoffs and cutbacks of public services that have been a major drag on the economy. Congress should make a commitment to not lay off any more federal employees. It should prevent more state and local layoffs by providing increased federal funding of Medicaid when unemployment is high and providing additional federal funds directly to communities “to save and create jobs and protect and restore public services.”

Point five: Extend unemployment benefits for at least a year to those whose benefit payout time has expired. “Our economy continues to suffer from a massive shortfall of consumer demand . . . the primary reason why businesses are not hiring.”

The AFL-CIO calls for combining the extension of benefits with providing relief to homeowners facing foreclosure. If banks lowered the principal balance on mortgages to current market value, the AFL-CIO calculates that “over $70 billion a year would be pumped back into the economy, millions of families would be able to stay in their homes and over one million jobs would be created.”

Point six: “Reform Wall Street so that it helps Main Street create jobs.” That would mean channeling capital into productive sectors of the economy – more lending to small businesses, for instance – and enacting a federal financial speculation tax to discourage harmful speculation and “make Wall Street pay to rebuild the economy it helped destroy.” The government should “enforce tough safeguards to stop the kind of cheating and massive fraud on Wall Street that precipitated the crisis of 2008.”

Many of those who did indeed cause the crisis are still in control, many still doing just what brought on the economic ailments that so deeply affect the country. It will take a lot to loosen their tight grip on the economy. But it can be done if we are wise enough to adopt reforms such as the AFL-CIO advocates.

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: The lessons of Ohio


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.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has drawn some important lessons from last week’s election in Ohio that repealed a state law severely limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Worse, it threatened to inspire passage of similar anti-bargaining laws elsewhere.

Listen to Trumka, a man who obviously knows what he’s talking about. In an article he wrote for Reader Supported News, he cites post-election polls showing that more than half of Ohio’s voters correctly “perceived the law as a political maneuver by Gov. John Kasich and state Republicans to weaken labor unions, rather than a genuine effort to make state government more efficient.”

Another poll, done for the AFL-CIO, showed that more than half the voters also found that Kasich and his allies “are putting the interests of big corporations ahead of average working people.”<–break->

Voters everywhere in the mid-term elections clearly wanted change. But, as Trumpka says, they did not want “political maneuvers and overreach” like those of Kasich and Republican legislators. They want effective action to curb unemployment, create jobs and deal with the other severe economic problems facing the country.

As Trumka notes, public employees, union members, Democrats and liberals voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Ohio law, but so did a majority of voters “from households with no public employee, workers without union representation and independents – as well as 30 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of conservatives.”

One of the key lessons Trumka draws from Ohio’s election is that “the myth of the pampered public employee has been busted. Public employees didn’t cause the economic crisis and they’re not the enemy. Demonization of public employees is neither a strategy nor a solution and the heartland Americans who voted to restore rights for public employees understood that.”

The election also reinforced the continued need for working people, public and private employees alike, to join closely together. That’s what happened in Ohio. There, as Trumka notes, “firefighters, teachers and other public employees were joined by plumbers, pilots and all kinds of private sector employees to win. Worker to worker, neighbor to neighbor, the message spread, and what began as an attempt to divide workers flopped famously. In the end, working people’s solidarity was the message.”

Politicians could also learn important lessons – if they will. For the Ohio voters “showed that when fundamental rights and livelihoods are targeted, working people will not only defend themselves, but come back stronger.”

The outcome of the Ohio vote should show politicians seeking office that it would be wise for them to pay much more attention to the wishes of working and middle class voters than to those of the wealthy and privileged. Says Trumka:

“Cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires, scapegoating working Americans and their unions and downsizing Social Security and Medicare may get you a standing ovation from the 1%, but the voters who decide elections will not be fooled – and you may just get more than you bargained for.”

Trumka’s correct. But despite the results in Ohio and the lessons they hold for the anti-labor political right, many undoubtedly will continue what the AFL-CIO sees as “part of Wall Street’s strategy to chip away at collective bargaining rights, piece by piece, law by law, until unions and collective bargaining rights are destroyed.”

Working people and their unions can be reasonably certain, at least, that they’ll have strong support in trying to withstand the attack – including support from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Trumka credits with “redefining the political narrative.”

The next major test will come in the presidential and congressional elections in 2012. They’re especially looking for support from the swing voters who supported President Obama in the 2008 election and generally have the same political views as the majority of Ohio voters.

Trumka describes the swing voters as “working Americans with modest incomes, moderate views and little patience for polices that aren’t fair and don’t work.”

He says politicians seeking election or re-election next year must heed them and “support public policies for the 99 percent – policies that create jobs, invest in America’s future, safeguard Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and promote fiscal sanity by requiring millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.”

OK, that’s asking for much more than we’ve been getting. But the Ohio vote demonstrated that it is possible to garner the votes necessary to overcome the forces that would deny us vital economic and political rights.

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 and the occupiers: a natural fit



By Dick Meister

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

Think of what a combined effort by unions and the Occupy Wall Street movement could do to weaken the tight grip of corporate greed on the economy. Think of how it could greatly strengthen both the labor movement and the occupiers.

OWS and labor have worked together in some locations. But many occupiers consider labor a part of the economic and political establishment that they’re protesting, and fear that union leaders might try to take control of their movement, which, unlike unions, is based on direct rather than representative democracy.

And labor is not happy that OWS has no clearly identified leaders or formal demands, which of course is how unions operate.

Unions and the occupiers, however, have the same powerful enemies. They need each other if they are to overcome them. It seems to me that unions are in the best position to bring the two much closer together.

So, how to go about it? Unions need to make clear, in words and deeds, that they are indeed facing the same problems and opponents as the occupiers and that they need to join together so as to act as forcefully as possible to overcome their mutual enemies. They must make clear as well that union leaders do not want to take over their movement, but seek to strengthen it.

There’s an old, but still highly effective tactic that labor must stress to its potential OWS friends. It’s called solidarity.

Clearly identified unionists must march and otherwise demonstrate with occupiers, join them in their rallies and in their tent cities and elsewhere. They should provide them with food, blankets, medical care and other necessities. They should organize joint actions and show that labor leaders are doing important work in the occupiers’ behalf.

At the same time, unions should make clear that they do not support the destructive vandals who’ve tried to attach themselves to the OWS movement.

If necessary, labor should also take dramatic actions such as were taken November 2nd by Occupy Oakland protestors who had been camped in front of Oakland’s City Hall for close to a month. They led a rally and then a march of some 7,000 people through downtown Oakland to the city’s port, one of the most important on the West Coast.

Occupiers and their supporters forced the port to close by blocking delivery trucks from loading or unloading cargo on the docks. At any rate, many dock workers, union members all, didn’t show up for work.

The march and port closure were planned as part of a citywide general strike that, while drawing many words of support from Oaklanders and others, was not widely supported otherwise.

Most notable among those who showed their support physically as well as verbally were more than 300 teachers who did not report to school. Some other teachers used the day to explain the nature of such protests to their students.

Unions certainly have had a long experience in doing what needs to be done to build the strength for battling powerful economic and political enemies. During the Great Depression, for instance, unions waged massive organizing drives to recruit workers and give them the strength they needed to overcome the greedy oppressors of the 1930s. That led to the laws that guarantee workers the right to unionization and regulate their hours and other working conditions.

Like the union activists of the thirties, occupiers have helped focus widespread attention on the financial interests which are responsible for battering the economy and on what the financial interests must do to make it right.

That has helped OWS gain support from the AFL-CIO, and from more than two dozen national unions and many of their local affiliates. Some of the unions have made participation in the occupy movement a major activity.

Unions already have spent lots of money and put lots of members into the occupiers battles to win much better treatment for workers from the same forces that are denying decent treatment to unionists.

A partnership of labor and the Occupy Wall Street movement could very well lead to reforms as far-reaching and vital as those won by activists eight decades ago.

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

Dick Meister: Respect for car wash 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.

Few workers are more poorly treated and generally ignored than those swift moving and hard-working employees of the country’s many thousands of car washing facilities. But finally, there’s genuine hope that the carwash workers will win much better conditions.

Workers at a major Southern California carwash have won what could very well be just the first of many union contracts in California and elsewhere that will guarantee them decent treatment. The workers are significantly strengthened by their membership in a local of the powerful United Steelworkers union.

Their initial contract, with a major Southern California carwash, is what could be only the first of many union contracts in California and elsewhere that will promise carwash workers decent treatment.

As they had in winning the contract, it’s certain they’ll have strong backing from a coalition of the Steelworkers, AFL-CIO and hundreds of community and faith organizations that began a unionizing drive three years ago.

The contract terms are modest, but they’re an important, badly needed start toward correcting the carwash workers’ truly deplorable conditions. As one Steelworkers official said, they generally are treated “like workers in a third-world country.”

Most carwash workers are immigrants, many undocumented. A successful organizing drive among them undoubtedly would lead to stepped-up organizing drives among the nation’s millions of other immigrant workers, particularly janitors, nursing home aides and security guards.

The AFL-CIO noted that the car wash workers generally “are without the power to fight back against the horrible conditions in which they work.” The New York Times reported that “they are to scared to speak out or give their bosses any excuse to fire them.”

A veteran car washer, Oliverio Gomez, said bosses at the now unionized firm “didn’t treat us like people. What I hope is that future generations who come to work here aren’t treated as badly as we were – that they’re no longer humiliated, but respected.”

Car washers often work 10-hour days, six days a week, often for as little as less than half the legal minimum wage, often for as little as $30 to $40 a day. Some work before, after or even during their scheduled shifts strictly for tips. Many aren’t paid for the time they spend waiting for customers to drive in.

The work is dangerous. As the AFL-CIO reported, employers commonly violate health and safety laws, exposing workers to “a variety of toxic chemicals without adequate protective gear and frequently work for extended periods under the sun without rest or shade.”

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times estimated that two-thirds of the car washing facilities that have been investigated by California’s Labor Department over the past eight years were violating one or more laws. That included underpaying workers, hiring child labor, going without workers compensation insurance and denying workers meal breaks.

Meanwhile, the employers were doing well. Their profits in Los Angeles, for instance, were averaging $1 million a year.

The monetary terms of the car washers’ two-year union contract include a modest raise of only about 2 percent, and cover only 30 workers. But whatever the terms, they are an important foundation for better terms in later contracts covering far more workers at other car washing firms.

There are other terms in the contract, however, that are more important than pay raises. The contract guarantees badly needed health and safety protections, prohibits employers from disciplining or firing workers without just cause, including firing those who complain openly about unsafe conditions. And it sets up a formal procedure for settling grievances and a procedure to settle disputes by arbitration.

Although it shouldn’t be necessary, but certainly is, the contract requires employers to follow the labor laws that many have been openly violating. Among other things, that will require breaks for workers and paying them for time spent awaiting customers rather than just for their time working.

Above all, as car wash worker Olivereo Gomez declared, the union contract means “we finally get respect as workers.”

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 goals of Occupy Wall Street


Occupy Wall Street is an easy target — a group of protesters taking on one of the most powerful institutions in the country, with loose spinoffs in cities all over, and no clear leadership or (many would say) agenda. The Atlantic’s business writer, Danile Indiviglio, weighed in Oct 5 with an essay he called “Five Reasons Occupy Wall Street Won’t Work.” Some of it’s your typical musings from a guy in a suit who doesn’t understand direct action (“But the Occupy Wall Street movement’s anger is directed at bankers. Here’s the problem: they really don’t care.”)

But his main pitch is one that I’m sympathetic to, and so are a lot of other supporters of the growing movement. He says the protesters don’t know what they want:

Any protest that hopes to accomplish some goal needs, well, a goal. If a demonstration like this lacks concrete objectives, then its purpose will be limited at best and nonexistent at worst. At this time, all the protest really appears to stand for is a general dislike of Wall Street. But what does that mean?

And that’s where I think he’s wrong. The occupiers may have started off with only vague objectives, but some tangible, progressive goals are starting to emerge — and they don’t in any way require the bankers to care.

The Wall Street protests are growing — and some of the people getting involved have a very clear agenda. The most dramatic evidence is the growing role of organized labor in the actions. The nurses marched Oct. 5 — and they have a very specific platform, well thought-out, that calls for a financial transactions tax. AFSCMA, CWA and the city’s transit workers joined the march, too. And the head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, is now on board. And while Trumka made it clear that labor isn’t going to try to dominate the spontaneous protests,

The labor leader was specific as he summarized his demands: make Wall Street invest in creating jobs for Americans, stop foreclosures and write down problem mortgages. Paying for government programs would come from a “very tiny” tax on speculation, he said.

I’m not seeing any kind of political turf war here — the original Occupy Wall Street folks seem happy to have labor on the team. And once you get tens of thousands of labor activists in the streets — and using the media and the growing groundswell of support for the protests to push a Congressional agenda — then something potentially powerful is happening.


Heroes who did their jobs on 9/11


By Dick Meister

You know those public employees who are under seemingly constant attack? Who are being blamed for all sorts of governmental problems, financial and otherwise? Well, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is a good time to make clear how very important to the nation those unfairly maligned public employees have been for a long, long time.

I should think it would be very hard to argue against the pay and pensions negotiated by firefighters and police, for instance, given their often heroic and usually helpful acts in behalf of the people they serve.

Yes, they make demands for pay and benefit increases and better working conditions– and they should.  Just as they should be able to bargain collectively through their unions to try to realize their demands. That’s called workplace democracy, and it should be their absolute right.

But anti-labor political leaders are looking for someone else to blame for the poor state of the economy that’s at least in part due to their own ineptness. And who do they blame? Public employees, who are characterized as greedy, overpaid and underworked members of much too economically and politically powerful unions.   The employees are the cause of it all.  Certainly it’s not the failed leadership and poor bargaining skills of the political leaders that’s at fault. Or their refusal to adequately tax the wealthy. Of course not.

We should know better. And the anniversary of the 911 attacks should remind us of the essential and sometimes courageous work done by the public employees who are so frequently used as political scapegoats.  Don’t blame us, say too many politicians. Blame the firefighters, police, teachers and others who do so much of the actual work of government.

Consider what public employees did after that horrific day of September 11, 2001 in New York City when a hijacked plane crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.  More than 135,000 of the truly heroic firefighters, police and others who rushed to the crash scene were injured, some quite seriously. They rescued as many victims as they could find and cleared as much of the debris as they could at Ground Zero. Some had rushed to the scene from as far away as California and Oregon.

They were exposed to an extremely toxic mix of chemicals, jet fuel, asbestos, lead, glass fragments and other debris that caused a wide range of respiratory, intestinal and mental health problems, including lung diseases, rare cancers and other ailments.

An AFL-CIO report at the time focused on Vito Friscia, a Brooklyn homicide detective who was only a block away when the second of the Twin Towers fell. He rushed to the site through a dense cloud of toxins to seek – and to rescue – survivors.  Friscia spent a week helping with the rescue and cleanup efforts, coming away with chronic sinus problems, shortness of breath and other lasting ailments.

“But I’m no hero,” Friscia insisted. “I was just doing my job.” Many others said pretty much the same thing – that they were just doing their jobs as police officers, firefighters or as other public service employees. Thousands of them are still suffering from their exposure at Ground Zero.  Some are permanently disabled.

As one of those treating them noted, “Our patients are sick, and they will need ongoing care for the rest of their lives.”

More than 10,000 of those injured won settlements from New York and its contractors after filing lawsuits against the city.  But most of the settlements were far short of providing adequate compensation to the injured, and came long after their injuries.

Sufficient federal aid has been a long time coming, in large part because of Republican opposition to the cost.  It took nine years for Congress to finally pass an aid bill over the strong opposition of GOP House members. The measure, signed by President Obama just last January, will provide $7.4 billion in aid over the next 10 years. In a compromise that satisfied the GOP, it will be financed by a fee on foreign companies awarded procurement contracts from the federal government.

What we need now is a bill designating September 11, not only as a day to recall the horrors of 9/11 and its great impact on our lives, but also as a day to express our gratitude to the public employees who risked their lives to help victims of the terrorist attack and whose day-to-day work benefits us all in so many important ways.

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

An American blindness


After the first jetliner crashed into the Twin Towers on that September 11 morning, a friend of mine and his 11-year old daughter climbed up to the roof of their Manhattan home to look around. Just then the second plane struck, the young girl fell backward, and went blind from shock.

It took more than a year of examinations and therapies before this girl came out of her blindness to look around.

That’s what happened to America itself ten years ago this Sunday on 9/11, though it might be claimed many of us were blinded by privilege and hubris long before. But 9/11 produced a spasm of blind rage, arising from a pre-existing blindness as to the way much of the world sees us. That in turn led to the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and, in all, a dozen “shadow wars” according to The New York Times.

Bob Woodward’s crucial book, Obama’s Wars, points out that there were already secret and lethal counterterrorism operations active in more than 60 countries as of 2009. From Pentagon think tanks came a new military doctrine of the “Long War,” a counter-insurgency vision arising from the failed Phoenix program of the Vietnam era, projecting U.S. open combat and secret wars over a span of 50 to 80 years, or 20 future presidential terms. The taxpayer costs of this Long War, also shadowy, would be in the many trillions of dollars — and paid for not from current budgets, but by generations born after the 2000 election of George W. Bush. The deficit spending on the Long War would invisibly force the budgetary crisis now squeezing our states, cities and most Americans.

Besides the future being mortgaged, civil liberties were thought to require a shrinking proper to a state of permanent and secretive war, so the Patriot Act was promulgated. All this happened after 9/11 through Democratic default and denial. Who knows what future might have followed if Al Gore, with a half-million popular vote margin over George Bush, had prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court instead of losing by the vote of a single justice? In any event, only a single member of Congress, Barbara Lee of Berkeley-Oakland, voted against the war authorization, and only a single senator, Russ Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act.

Were we not blinded by what happened on 9/11? Are we still? Let’s look at the numbers we almost never see.



As to American casualties, the figure now is beyond twice those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. on 9/11. The casualties are rarely totaled, but are broken down into three categories by the Pentagon and Congressional Research Service. There is Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan but, in keeping with the Long War definition, also covers Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Second, there is Operation Iraqi Freedom and its successor Operation New Dawn, the name adopted after September 2010 for the 47,000 US advisers, trainers and counterterrorism units still in Iraq. The scope of these latter operations includes Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. These territories include not only Muslim majorities but, according to former Centcom commander Tommy Franks, 68 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and the passageway for 43 percent of petroleum exports, another American geo-interest which was heavily denied in official explanations.

A combined 6,197 Americans were killed in these wars as of August 16, 2011, in the name of avenging 9/11, a day when 2, 996 Americans died. The total number of American wounded has been 45,338, and rising at a rapid rate. The total number rushed by military Medivac out of these violent zones was 56, 432. That’s a total of 107,996 Americans. And the active-duty military suicide rate for the decade is at a record high of 2, 276, not counting veterans or those who have tried unsuccessfully to take their own lives. In fact, the suicide rate for last year was greater than the American death toll in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has long played a numbers game with these body counts. In addition to being painfully difficult and extremely complicated to access, there was a time when the Pentagon refused to count as Iraq war casualties any soldier who died from their wounds outside of Iraq’s airspace. Similar controversies have surrounded examples such as soldiers killed in non-combat accidents.

The fog around Iraq or Afghanistan civilian casualties will be seen in the future as one of the great scandals of the era. Briefly, the United States and its allies in Baghdad and Kabul have relied on eyewitness, media or hospital numbers instead of the more common cluster-sampling interview techniques used in conflict zones like the first Gulf War, Kosovo or the Congo. The United Nations has a conflict of interest as a party to the military conflict, and acknowledged in a July 2009 U.N. human rights report footnote that “there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is underreporting civilian casualties.”

In August, even the mainstream media derided a claim by the White House counter-terrorism adviser that there hasn’t been a single “collateral,” or innocent, death during an entire year of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, a period in which 600 people were killed, all of them alleged “militants.” As an a specific explanation for the blindness, the Los Angeles Times reported April 9 that “Special Forces account for a disproportionate share of civilian casualties caused by western troops, military officials and human rights groups say, though there are no precise figures because many of their missions are deemed secret.”



Among the most bizarre symptoms of the blindness is the tendency of most deficit hawks to become big spenders on Iraq and Afghanistan, at least until lately. The direct costs of the war, which is to say those unfunded costs in each year’s budget, now come to $1.23 trillion, or $444.6 billion for Afghanistan and $791.4 billion for Iraq, according to the National Priorities Project.

But that’s another sleight-of-hand, when one considers the so-called indirect costs like long-term veteran care. Leading economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes recently testified to Congress that their previous estimate of $4 to $6 trillion in ultimate costs was conservative. Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers in D.C. — in my opinion, the best war reporter of the decade — wrote recently that “it’s almost impossible to pin down just what the United States spends on war.” The president himself expressed “sticker shock,” according to Woodward’s book, when presented cost projections during his internal review of 2009.

The Long War casts a shadow not only over our economy and future budgets but our innocent and unborn children’s future as well. This is no accident, but the result of deliberate lies, obfuscations and scandalous accounting techniques. We are victims of an information warfare strategy waged deliberately by the Pentagon. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal said much too candidly in a February 2010, “This is not a physical war of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.” David Kilcullen, once the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, defines “international information operations as part of counterinsurgency.” Quoted in Counterinsurgency in 2010, Kilcullen said this military officer’s goal is to achieve a “unity of perception management measures targeting the increasingly influential spectators’ gallery of the international community.”

This new war of perceptions, relying on naked media manipulation such as the treatment of media commentators as “message amplifiers” but also high-technology information warfare, only highlights the vast importance of the ongoing WikiLeaks whistle-blowing campaign against the global secrecy establishment. Consider just what we have learned about Iraq and Afghanistan because of WikiLeaks: Tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq, never before disclosed; instructions to U.S. troops to not investigate torture when conducted by U.S. allies; the existence of Task Force 373, carrying out night raids in Afghanistan; the CIA’s secret army of 3,000 mercenaries; private parties by DynCorp featuring trafficked boys as entertainment, and an Afghan vice president carrying $52 million in a suitcase.

The efforts of the White House to prosecute Julian Assange and persecute Pfc. Bradley Manning in military prison should be of deep concern to anyone believing in the public’s right to know.

The news that this is not a physical war but mainly one of perceptions will not be received well among American military families or Afghan children, which is why a responsible citizen must rebel first and foremost against The Official Story. That simple act of resistance necessarily leads to study as part of critical practice, which is as essential to the recovery of a democratic self and democratic society. Read, for example, this early martial line of Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the white man’s burden: “When you’re left wounded on Afghanistan’s plains/ And the women come out to cut up what remains/ Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/And go to your God like a soldier.” Years later, after Kipling’s beloved son was killed in World War I and his remains never recovered, the poet wrote: “If any question why we died / Tell them because our fathers lied.”



An important part of the story of the peace movement, and the hope for peace itself, is the process by which hawks come to see their own mistakes. A brilliant history/autobiography in this regard is Dan Ellsberg’s Secrets, about his evolution from defense hawk to historic whistleblower during the Vietnam War. Ellsberg writes movingly about how he was influenced on his journey by meeting contact with young men on their way to prison for draft resistance.

The military occupation of our minds will continue until many more Americans become familiar with the strategies and doctrines in play during the Long War. Not enough Americans in the peace movement are literate about counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and the debates about the “clash of civilizations”, the West versus the Muslim world.

The more we know about the Long War doctrine, the more we understand the need for a long peace movement. The pillars of the peace movement, in my experience and reading, are the networks of local progressives in hundreds of communities across the United States. Most of them are voluntary, citizen volunteers, always and immersed in the crises of the moment, nowadays the economic recession and unemployment.

This peace bloc deserves more. It won’t happen overnight, but gradually we are wearing down the pillars of the war. It’s painfully slow, because the president is threatened by Pentagon officials, private military contractors and an entire Republican Party (except the Ron Paul contingent) who benefit from the politics and economics of the Long War.

But consider the progress, however slow. In February of this year, Rep. Barbara Lee passed a unanimous resolution at the Democratic National Committee calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and transfer of funds to job creation. The White House approved of the resolution. Then 205 House members, including a majority of Democrats, voted for a resolution that almost passed, calling for the same rapid withdrawal. Even the AFL-CIO executive board, despite a long history of militarism, adopted a policy opposing Afghanistan. The president himself is quoted in Obama’s Wars as opposing his military advisors, demanding an exit strategy and musing that he “can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” At every step of the way, it must be emphasized, public opinion in Congressional districts was a key factor in changing establishment behavior.

As for Al Qaeda, there is always the threat of another attack, like those attempted by militants aiming at Detroit during Christmas 2009 or Times Square in May 2010. In the event of another such terrorist assault originating from Pakistan, all bets are off: According to Woodward, the U.S. has a “retribution” plan to bomb 150 separate sites in that country alone there, and no apparent plan for The Day After. Assuming that nightmare doesn’t happen, today’s al Qaeda is not the al Qaeda of a decade ago. Osama bin Laden is dead, its organization is damaged, and its strategy of conspiratorial terrorism has been displaced significantly by the people-power democratic uprisings across the Arab world.

It is clear that shadow wars lie ahead, but not expanding ground wars involving greater numbers of American troops. The emerging argument will be over the question of whether special operations and drone attacks are effective, moral and consistent with the standards of a constitutional democracy. And it is clear that the economic crisis finally is enabling more politicians to question the trillion dollar war spending.

Meanwhile, the 2012 national elections present an historic opportunity to awaken from the blindness inflicted by 9/11.

After more than 50 years of activism, politics and writing, Tom Hayden is a leading voice for ending the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and reforming politics through a more participatory democracy.



By Dick Meister

(Third part of a five part daily series)

Although the United Farm Workers initially relied solely on strikes in its drive to win union contracts for California’s farm workers, it soon switched to the much more effective weapon of the boycott.

Growers could easily replace strikers, and often did. But they couldn’t do much about customers – individuals and institutions – who heeded the UFW’s call to not buy any grapes, lettuce or wine from growers who continued to rebuff the UFW demands for union recognition.

The boycotts helped forge a potent coalition of clergymen, industrial unionists, young activists and civil rights advocates, liberal Democratic politicians, socially conscious shoppers and others. They also waved crimson banners, sang the farm workers’ songs, chanted their slogans and espoused non-violence, on city streets, outside supermarkets, in meeting halls, wherever they could. There were an estimated 17 million of them worldwide between 1968 and 1975, including 10 to 12 percent of all U.S. adults. Later boycotts drew less support but were nevertheless effective in winning new contracts.

John Giumarra Jr., a young lawyer who spoke for the grape growers who signed the first UFW contracts, declared that boycott pressures had been threatening to “destroy a number of farmers.” Lionel Steinberg, a major Coachella Valley grape grower who was the first to agree to a UFW contract, urged others to quickly reach an agreement, lest they continue losing millions of dollars in sales.

Steinberg told his fellow growers, “It is costing us more to produce and sell our grapes than we are getting paid for them. We are losing maybe 20 percent of our market. The boycott is illegal and immoral, but it also is a fact.”

The signing of the union contracts with grape growers in Delano signaled the inevitable. California’s farm workers were going to be organized, and the next target would be those in the nearby Salinas and Santa Maria valleys, which produced 70 percent of the nation’s iceberg lettuce and much of its other vegetables. It was called “America’s Salad Bowl,” a flat, fertile place where morning fog hung heavy over land carpeted green for miles.

Men and women hovered over the land, gripping hoes so short their handles scarcely protruded above their fast-moving hands as they stooped and cut, stooped and cut. Most worked under the supervision of men with the broad accents of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas who had wielded hoes for small independent growers before giant corporations bought up the land and hired them to manage their new holdings. These men were among the Dust Bowl Refugees of the 1930s who had made their own violently opposed demands for better working lives during the Great Depression.

Many of the former Dust Bowl Refugees were lured into urban employment when the depression ended, but those who remained as managers joined the farm corporations to oppose the demands of the Chicano and Filipino American farm workers who replaced the at the bottom of the economic totem pole.

The demands were for union recognition elections in which the UFW seemed a certain winner. But if they didn’t agree to elections, the growers faced the certain prospect of a boycott like that which had been so costly to grape growers.

There was, however, an alternative that the growers had overlooked until the inevitability of unionization arrived with the UFW demands. They might arrange to bypass elections and sign with another union that would demand less than the aggressive, unorthodox UFW and at the same time ease the sting of a boycott by enabling by enabling growers to point out that their workers were unionized.

The growers found their alternative in the Teamsters Union, which feared that UFW strikes and boycotts would endanger the flow of produce handled by truck drivers, cannery workers and other Teamster members. What’s more, Teamster officials were eager for representation rights that would allow them to control the field workers. The potential was immense: more than 30,000 farm workers in the two valleys alone. That would bring a lot of new money into the dues and pension funds used by leaders of the corruption-ridden Teamsters to gain power, influence and fat salaries for themselves.

Virtually all the 170 growers in the two valleys soon announced they had signed Teamster contracts, even though the Teamsters had no farm worker members. The growers and Teamsters hadn’t even agreed on specific contract terms. They were in so great a rush to head off the UFW, they merely signed agreements that the terms would be filled in later. The terms, however, would not be decided in consultation with the workers or their union. Terms were left solely to grower and Teamster representatives.

The workers were not even allowed to ratify the contracts, although they would be required to join the Teamsters and have union dues deducted from their paychecks. If they didn’t join the Teamsters, they’d be fired. Most workers got basic pay raises of 10 to 50 cents an hour in return for forced membership in the Teamsters and some minimal health and welfare benefits – but that was all.

Teamster recognition was a very small price for growers to pay in exchange for maintaining their ability to make decisions on pay and working conditions in isolation from the direct collective demands of their employees. Since the Teamsters’ main interest lay elsewhere, in transportation and food processing, growers also could expect that even the minimal terms of the contracts would not be fully enforced and that strikes and boycotts were hardly a possibility. But on the slim chance that the growers might still feel insecure, the contracts were written to stand for five years.

Chavez was outraged at the Teamsters’ “act of treason against the legitimate aspirations of farm workers.” He declared “all-out war against the Teamsters and the bosses ” and marched into Salinas with several hundred farm workers and an AFL-CIO contingent headed by Organizing Director Bill Kircher. Pickets went immediately to a farm where 250 workers had been fired for not joining the Teamsters. Hundreds of workers struck at other farms and the UFW began preparing for legal action and a nationwide lettuce boycott.

Growers got a court order against what was ruled an illegal jurisdictional dispute, but the pickets and boycotters kept marching nevertheless and Chavez began “a penitential fast against injustice.”

In less than two weeks, the Teamsters were asking for a treaty with the UFW. It was quickly reached. The Teamsters agreed to reallocate jurisdiction over field workers to the UFW and agreed that growers who had signed with the Teamsters could switch to the UFW without penalty.

But there was a catch. Growers who had signed Teamster contracts would not give them up. Finally, UFW members voted to strike. It was, at the start, the largest and most effective farm strike since the mid-1930s. More than 5000 workers left their jobs at nearly 150 farms, and produce shipments were cut from 200 carloads a day to 75 or less. Growers were losing an average of $500,000 a day.

Unlike the vineyard strike, this dispute was violent, with beatings suffered by UFW and Teamster partisans alike. Some of the turmoil was caused by officials of a Teamster cannery workers local who were charged with using $25,000 in union funds to hire some of the local’s burly members to “guard” fields from UFW organizers.

A judge ruled there could only be one informational picket at 22 of the Salinas Valley farms that made up the strikers’ main targets, none at the eight others. Nor would the UFW be allowed to call a boycott against any of the 170 growers who held Teamster contracts. The union nevertheless called a boycott. Officially, the strike continued, but the major effort was at food markets in 64 cities across the country, where UFW members and supporters urged shoppers to bypass lettuce from the struck growers.

A judge ordered Chavez arrested. He went to jail accompanied by more than 2000 UFW members and supporters, including Coretta King and Ethel Kennedy. They cheered Chavez’ parting advice to “boycott the hell out of them!” and then began a series of prayer vigils and other highly publicized demonstrations. After three weeks, Chavez was released, pending the outcome of a UFW appeal.

The boycott continued at an intensified pace throughout the early months of 1971 until a committee of Catholic bishops mediated a settlement between national Teamster and AFL-CIO leaders. But growers still refused to give up their Teamster contracts. They held them for a half-dozen years more, until the Teamsters, beaten badly in a series of union representation elections under California’s new farm worker bargaining law, finally abandoned as futile the fierce fight they had waged against the UFW for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the boycott continued, as the UFW expanded its organizing efforts to Florida and Arizona. The UFW’s victory in California was truly spectacular. Imagine, one of the youngest and smallest unions in the country, representing the most oppressed of American workers, decisively beating the country’s largest and most powerful union.

It was the UFW’s incredible use of the boycott that did it,  the major non-violent weapon available to all who would seek justice from an oppressor.

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 unhappy anniversary



By Dick Meister

It was 30 years ago this month that Ronald Reagan struck the blow that sent the American labor movement tumbling into a decline it’s still struggling to reverse.

Reagan, one of the most anti-labor presidents in history, set the decline in motion by firing 11,500 of the overworked and underpaid air traffic controllers whose work was essential to the operation of the world’s most complex aviation system.

Reagan fired them because they dared respond to his administration’s refusal to bargain fairly on a new contract by striking in violation of the law prohibiting strikes by federal employees. What’s more, he virtually destroyed their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

Public and private employers everywhere treated Reagan’s 1981 action as a signal to take an uncompromising stand against the unions that they had accepted and bargained with, however reluctantly, as the legitimate representatives of their workers.

At that time, one-fourth of the U.S. workforce was represented by unions. Today, largely because of employer actions since then – often openly illegal actions – the percentage of workers with union bargaining rights is less than half that.

Ironically, PATCO had broken with other AFL-CIO affiliates to endorse Reagan’s successful run for president in 1980. The union did so because Reagan had promised to “take whatever steps are necessary” to improve working conditions and otherwise “bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers.”

Yet PATCO negotiators were rebuffed a year later when they asked for a reduction in working hours, lowering of the retirement age and other steps to ease the controllers’ extraordinary stress, plus a substantial pay raise and updated equipment.

PATCO was faced with either abandoning its demands or striking to try to enforce them. And when the union struck, Reagan, certain of broad public support because of his great popularity, issued an ultimatum to the strikers: Return to work within 48 hours or be fired and replaced permanently by non-union workers.

Faced with millions of dollars in fines for violating Reagan’s order and the anti-strike injunctions that his administration and airlines had sought, and stripped of its right to represent the controllers, PATCO declared bankruptcy and went out of business.

Reagan’s ban on re-hiring strikers was later lifted by Bill Clinton, and three unions, including a revived PATCO, now represent controllers, among them hundreds of those who had been fired. But safety experts say the air traffic control system remains understaffed and the controllers still under far too much stress.

Part of the blame for that rests with Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, who was as anti-labor as Reagan. The Bush administration, in fact, imposed an onerous new contract on the controllers that cut their pay and pensions.

It’s not likely that other employers will soon abandon the crippling anti-labor practices that were inspired and furthered by Reagan. Hiring and permanently replacing strikers, previously a rare occurrence, has become a relatively common employer tactic. And strikes – an indispensable weapon for workers in collective bargaining – have become relatively rare post-Reagan.

It isn’t just strikers who face penalties for exercising their legal rights. Some employers also have taken to firing or otherwise penalizing workers who seek union recognition, despite the law that promises them the right to freely choose to unionize. Many employers have also hired “management consultants” who specialize in Reagan-style union busting.

It’s no coincidence that, as union ranks have shrunk under the relentless anti-labor pressures first applied to air traffic controllers three decades ago by Ronald Reagan, the ranks of the middle class also have shrunk –– as has the ordinary American’s share of the country’s wealth.

The situation for air traffic controllers has stayed much the same. They’re still demanding longer rest periods during working hours and between shifts and other improved working conditions that are clearly necessary for their well-being and that of those they serve. And they’re still being rebuffed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Republican leaders in Congress have made it even more difficult for the controllers and many others by insisting that a measure making it more difficult for workers to unionize be attached to the current bill that would continue the FAA’s funding for another year. A congressional stalemate over that was the principal reason for the recent partial shutdown of the FAA, which cost the government millions of dollars in lost airline taxes, threw several thousand airport construction workers and FAA employees out of work, and forced airline safety inspectors to work without pay throughout the two-week stalemate.

Although air traffic controllers and other FAA employees are back on the job, that could be only a temporary respite. The stalemate could very well resume when Congress returns from its current recess on September16th and again takes up FAA funding.

The attempt by congressional Republicans to weaken FAA employees’ basic union rights – and their willingness to shut down the air traffic system in order to further that goal ­– is yet another aspect of the legacy of Ronald Reagan, one of the most damaging and successful union-busters of all time.


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: New hope for domestic workers



With a lot of luck, we may finally take decisive action to guarantee decent treatment for the world’s highly exploited housekeepers, maids, nannies and other domestic workers. There are an estimated 100 million of them, working in more than 180 countries.

Their pay is generally at the poverty level, and very few have fringe benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care. Few have the protection of unions or labor laws, and they’re often at the mercy of unscrupulous labor contractors.  Almost half of them are not entitled to even one day off per week. About a third of the female workers are denied maternity leave.

The hope for improving the domestics’ slavery-like conditions has arisen from action taken in Geneva this month at the annual meeting of the United Nation’s International Labor Organization – the ILO.

Delegates representing unions, employers and governments voted 396 to 16  for what’s called a “Convention on Domestic Workers.” The non-binding convention spells out how domestics should be treated in UN member countries – most importantly in the pace-setting United States.

In the U.S., as in most other countries, an estimated 80 percent of the domestics are women of color, subject to racial discrimination and physical and sexual abuse.  In the United States, most of them are immigrants as well . They’re easy targets for exploitation, especially since, as elsewhere, domestics mainly work in private unregulated households, usually alone.

What’s more, U.S. domestics lack most of the protections of state and federal labor laws that are granted most U.S. workers outside of agriculture . Most other non-agricultural workers at least have the right to unionize. But domestics don’t even have that basic right.

The National Labor Relations Act specifically denies union rights to anyone “in the domestic service of any family or person.” That’s right. The Depression-era law that was designed to pull poverty-stricken workers out of poverty and build a middle class does indeed prohibit an entire group of exceptionally needy workers  from taking a major step to improve their extremely poor working conditions. The word for that is “un-American.” 

That outrageous legal prohibition has its roots in racism. Pressures from southern states, which objected to granting union rights to the mainly black domestics, was the main reason domestics were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.

 Some domestics have nevertheless formed union-like organizations to seek better treatment. But they need the force of law behind them.

The ILO convention calls for guaranteeing domestic workers in the United States and everywhere else some of the key rights that unionized workers invariably have, among them, regular working hours, vacations, maternity leaves and Social Security benefits.

Domestics would be promised what amount to contracts with employers that would make clear just what they would be expected to do, for how long, and for how much pay.  Their working conditions would have to include time off of at least 24 hours a week.

Migrant workers would have to be provided with a written job offer of employment or a contract before crossing  the border into another country to work.

It took several years for ILO representatives to adopt the domestic workers convention. It was finally adopted as a direct result of campaigning here and aboard by groups of activists from unions and other organizations. They will  be working for the next few years to get as many nations as possible to implement the ILO convention with their help.

The effort in this country is being led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with major support from the AFL-CIO, which has arranged to have some domestic workers represent themselves in ILO meetings and voting.

Among other things, proponents hope to make it clear that “domestic workers are real workers, NOT powerless individuals who are expected to remain in quiet servitude and endure long hours without overtime pay, along with hazardous working conditions without access to health and safety protections.”

Proponents also hope to end the “cultural relativity excuse that sleeping on a mattress in an unheated garage is better than he or she would get in their home country, or that the poor treatment of domestics is a tradition.”  The ILO convention says otherwise and workers in the United States and other countries where it is adopted  “will be armed with the knowledge that there is an international standard that protects them.”

Domestics already are granted labor rights in New York State, and California legislators are considering a proposal to bring them under that state’s labor laws. But winning basic rights for the badly exploited domestic workers elsewhere will be very difficult. But so was convincing ILO representatives to take on the task, the long needed task of granting domestic workers union rights and, with them, the decent wages, hours and working conditions that come with unionization.

Yes, winning the union rights for domestics worldwide will be very difficult. But we know it can be done.  And certainly we know that it should be done. 

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


Dick Meister: Paid sick leave is good for us all


The latest figures show that some 44 million workers in private employment  – more than 40 percent of the private sector workforce – do not have paid sick days that they could use to recover from illnesses, including contagious illnesses such as the flu, or worse.

It should be of particular concern that those occupations which are currently least likely to provide paid sick days include occupations most likely to have regular contact with the public – most importantly and most disturbingly, food service and food preparation.

That raises serious health problems – especially in these tight economic times, when workers need to stay on the job as much as they can, no matter how ill they are, to earn as much money as they can. Which, of course, endangers the health of those who come in contact with them, as well as delaying their recovery from their illness.

Public health experts note that the fewer the number of workers who are able to stay at home when sick, the more likely it is that diseases will spread. In addition to the increased suffering of the public and other workers which that causes, it also causes significant economic losses.

Laws have been proposed in several states and in Congress that would require employers to grant paid sick leaves to their employees, but it seems unlikely that the measures, however much they are needed, will pass any time soon – if at all.

But there has at least been a start, however slight, toward what’s broadly needed. That’s a paid sick leave law that was adopted by the city of San Francisco five years ago – the first citywide such law in the country. If nothing else, the San Francisco ordinance proves that such laws are quite feasible, and not the “job killers” that anti-labor forces contend they would be.

San Francisco business groups fought fiercely against adoption of the ordinance and thankfully lost big time. The ordinance was approved by 61 percent of the voters in a citywide election in 2006.

Under the ordinance, workers in businesses with fewer than 10 workers can earn up to five paid sick days a year, while workers in larger businesses can earn up to nine paid sick days.  Workers accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work. They may use the sick time to recover from their own illnesses, care for a sick family member, or seek routine medical care.

A recent independent survey of nearly 1,200 San Francisco workers and nearly 700 employers by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research came up with findings that the city ordinance was, in the words of the California AFL-CIO, “overwhelmingly positive for workers, businesses and the public.”

The labor federation called the study “further evidence policies that help working families meet their responsibilities at work and at home are good for everyone.”

The study shows, in short, that the San Francisco ordinance has had a great impact on workers’ lives but little or no impact on the city’s businesses.  They overwhelmingly report that the law has not cut into their profits. Two-thirds of them reported no problems implementing the law.

It seems likely that the reason for the slight impact on businesses business can be attributed to the fact that most workers take sick leave days only when they need them.  Even though the law allows workers five to nine sick days a year, San Francisco workers used a median of just three days a year. And one-quarter of the workers didn’t take a single sick day.

Even the major opponent of the law prior to its passage, the local, politically powerful restaurant association that led the political fight against the city ordinance, now concedes it hasn’t led to employee abuses or hurt restaurants or other business.

Most important, as the state AFL-CIO noted, the survey proved that having paid sick days makes a substantial difference for working families.  More than half the workers surveyed said they’ve benefitted from the law. Among other important things, the law has given workers who need paid sick days the most, including parent and workers with chronic health conditions, the time they need to care for their health and that of their children.

The labor federation reports that it hears regularly “the stories of parents who are forced to choose between their children’s health and the financial well-being of their family . . . who have put off visits to the doctor and sacrifice their health to avoid losing their jobs.

Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee have followed San Francisco’s lead and adopted ordinances providing paid sick leave for workers.  And some states, California, New Jersey and Connecticut among them, have adopted similar though less extensive laws.

But what’s most needed is a federal law – a law that, if properly enforced, would grant sick leave pay to all workers, helping them, their families and anyone else who might be exposed to their illness.

It’s obviously the sensible thing to do.


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


Dick Meister: Unions save lives



A miner’s life is like a sailor’s

‘Board a ship to cross the waves

Every day his life’s in danger

Still he ventures being brave

—Traditional labor song

A new study shows that unionization is a sure way to dramatically lessen the many deaths and serious injuries that have been all too common in the nation’s coal mines.

That ‘s the unequivocal conclusion of the independent study of coal mining between 1993 and 2008 conducted by Stanford law professor Allson Morantz and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

There’s no doubting it: Workers in unionized mines are far less likely to be killed or seriously injured than are workers in non-union mines.

The study indicates that the number of fatalities in individual non-union mines can decline by one-third up to nearly three-fourths and serious injuries decline by as much as one-third if the mines unionize.

It’s no coincidence, notes President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers Union, that several major mine disasters recently were at non-union mines. That includes the explosion at Massey Energies’ Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners last year, the Crandell Canyon, Utah, blast that killed nine miners in 2007 and the Sago explosion in West Virginia in 2006 that killed 12.

“The simple truth,” Roberts concludes, “is that union mines are safer mines, and this study proves that.”

He gets ready agreement for that obvious truth from union leaders and members at all levels of the labor movement, right up to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He was a coal miner himself, as were his father and grandfather.

Trumka says he learned firsthand “the vital importance of workers having a voice on the job through their union.”

Spreading unionization throughout the coal mining industry is a key mission of the United Mine Workers. But though that doubtlessly would lead to greater coal mine safety, the union’s Democratic Party allies must meanwhile continue pressing for stronger mine safety laws – and stronger enforcement of the laws.

Those steps and the labor-management cooperation in collective bargaining and otherwise that the steps would require would guarantee that coal mine job safety would continue to improve – perhaps at even a faster rate than shown by Professor Morantz’ study.

Labor, management and government would be in a far better position to do much more of what’s needed to continue lowering the still high number of mine worker fatalities.

That’s not just a daydream. Listen to the AFL-CIO’s Mike Hall. He knows. Says Hall: “With all we know today, and all the avenues of protection available, there is simply no need for even one life to be lost on the job.”

One of Congress’ most outspoken and effective safety advocates, veteran Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, sees the study as unassailable evidence that unionization leads to greater safety.

Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, is certain that “when workers have a voice in the mine through their union, they are safer. In union mines, workers are empowered to point out dangerous conditions to inspectors without fear of retaliation from management.”

It clearly demonstrates that “by giving miners the support they need to speak out, unions can save miners lives.”  So can the United Mine Workers’ stepped-up campaign to bring more workers under the direct protection of the union and the union’s expanding safety training programs for miners everywhere.

Saving lives. No union could have a greater purpose.


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: 11 Million a Year Bandits


Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has an important question for you.

“How much,” he asks, “did your pay go up last year? How about your friends and family?”

Before you answer, Trumka asks that you consider this: In 2010, the CEOs of major companies averaged $11.4 million for their year’s work. That was an increase of  an increase of 23 percent over their pay in 2009.

All told, the CEOs were paid $2 trillion last year.  That, of course. was during a recessionary time like now when working people were lucky to have jobs at all, whatever the pay. And the pay of those who did have jobs stayed pretty much the same, or actually went down.

The CEOs of major companies faced no such problems, obviously, with their pay increasing hugely to more than $11 million a year.  Which leads the AFL-CIO to wonder “how many firefighters, nurses, teachers or construction workers does it take to equal the pay of one CEO today?”

I’d also like to know how many CEOs do work as important as that of rank-and-file firefighters, nurses, teachers and construction workers?

The AFL-CIO’s Trumka notes that despite the collapse of financial markets three years ago at the hands of many of those same astronomically paid CEOs, the “disparity between CEO and workers’ pay has continued to grow to levels that are simply stunning.”

Think of it. Those CEOs collecting enormous pay were in charge when we sunk into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. When we lost 8 million jobs and millions of small businesses. When housing prices plummeted and millions of dollars in personal savings were wiped out.  Yet at the same time those in charge of the economy, notes Trumka, “still found a way to make out like bandits.”

Rich Trumka is a pretty outspoken guy, not known for understatement. But in this case, he probably is understating the situation.  The difference between CEO pay at major companies and workers’ pay is beyond stunning, beyond outrageous.

I’d say it’s virtually beyond human understanding. How could we let that happen? Is this not a democracy in which the great wealth generated here is spread more or less equally?


OK, I’m asking foolish questions. But if ours was a true economic democracy, the spread between CEO and workers’ pay would be far less than it is. How many workers got pay raises of more than 20 percent last year? How many were paid more than $11 million?

How many needed that much money to live comfortably?

Trumka, notes that corporate CEOs “are hoarding $2 trillion in cash.” Indeed, the money-grubbing CEOs chose to take their $2 trillion in raises rather than use the money, or at least part of it, to create decent -paying jobs for their fellow citizens who are so much less fortunate than they.

To describe the CEOs as greedy would be a gross understatement.

I know I’m laying it on thick, but I’m mad – damn mad – and think you should be, too. The CEOs and their companies are stealing us blind and getting way with it.

The AFL-CIO’s Trumka does offer the possibility of better times, however. He says that “although pay is more out of balance than it has been during most of our lifetimes, for the first time there is hope that things are changing.”

That, says Trumka, is because of a new law, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The act, as President Obama said when signing it into law last year, is “a sweeping overhaul of the United States financial regulatory system on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression.”

The lack of sufficient financial regulations sufficiently enforced was, or course, the main factor in the continuing Great recession, just as it was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The new law is already under attack by Congressional Republicans who have announced their intention to try to repeal it. They particularly object to provisions that would give shareholders a vote on CEO pay and require companies to publicly disclose the ratio between the pay of their CEOs and their workers.

Trumka says it truly shocks him that companies and their GOP allies “have the nerve to argue against those provisions in public, and lobby against them – after the companies drove our country off an economic cliff.”

Trumka says the AFL-CIO “is ready to have this debate. We will take on Wall Street and we will win.”

Strong words, but the AFL-CIO has the powerful political allies, the funding and the troops to carry out Trumka’s bold promise. Let’s hope fervently that labor and its supporters can indeed win the debate, If not, we could be in line for more serious Wall Street-based troubles  – an extended recession for sure, maybe worse.

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

Dick Meister: Teachers Need Strong Unions


Like many people, I’m sure, Washington Post writer Matt Miller is confused about, “where to come down on the question of who should ‘win”” in the struggle of public employees against attempts to strip them of collective bargaining rights and otherwise weaken them.

I know which side I’m on – the public employees and their unions.  But though highly sympathetic to the public employees cause, Matt Miller is not against the employees and their unions losing some of their powers and benefits – with one major exception: Teachers.

Again, I make no exceptions. I think we should rally around the cause of all public employees. But though Miller doesn’t necessarily agree, he does make a strong argument for making special efforts in behalf of teachers. For “the  future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers.”

I guess I should make a full disclosure here:  I was formerly a member of the AFL-CIO’s American Federation of Teachers and my wife Gerry is a current member. So I’m probably prejudiced. And should be.

Anyway, Miller makes a very strong case for paying close attention to the needs and demands of teachers. As he says, “We’ll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays more than it does today.”  With starting teachers pay averaging  $39,000 a year nationally and rising to a maximum of merely  $67,000, it’s no surprise to Miller that “we  draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class. For schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third.”

Adds Miller: ” We’re the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a ‘strategy’ of recruiting mediocre students and praying that they’ll prove to be excellent teachers.”

Miller may not be an outright supporter of teacher unions, but he does point out that the highest performing school systems in the world all have strong teacher unions. He means the systems in countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, where school administrators work closely with unions to continually improve their schools’ performances.

Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading expert on the subject, says the highest performing countries have educational systems that are built around attracting, rigorously training and retraining top talent for teaching. The stress is on supporting good teachers – not on getting bad teachers out. That’s partly because there just aren’t that many bad teachers in those countries.

I agree with Matt Miller that what’s clearly needed is a national strategy to make teaching the career of choice for talented young people. Wisconsin’s math scores, for instance, put its students not only behind Korea, Finland and Taiwan, but behind Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania. But, hey, they still outpace students in Latvia and Bulgaria . . . though barely.

As Miller notes, the only people who can change that, the only ones who can provide decent educations to Wisconsin’s children, are public employees , teachers  – teachers, furthermore, who must be given a strong voice, a unionized voice in setting their pay, benefits and working conditions.

Teachers need the firm right to collective bargaining no less than Wisconsin’s other public employees, no less than the public employees of every other state.

Dick Meister, former editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Wisconsin, unions, and defunding the left


Mother Jones mag this month has a GREAT story about the battle in Wisconsin, the history of unions and the Democratic Party, and the real aim of the move to bust public-sector unions. Writer Kevin Drum notes:

In the past, after all, liberal politicians did make it their business to advocate for the working and middle classes, and they worked that advocacy through the Democratic Party. But they largely stopped doing this in the ’70s, leaving the interests of corporations and the wealthy nearly unopposed. The story of how this happened is the key to understanding why the Obama era lasted less than two years.

He describes the history of the post-War era and the rise of the New Left, explains how the rift between big labor and the hippie/radical/antiwar folks culminated in the AFL-CIO refusing to endorse George McGovern in 1972, the decline of private-sector union membership and power and thed shift rightward of the Democratic Party.

At one point, he explains, unions were the only organized force with the resources to act as a counterforce to corporate America in political campaigns. Once that went away, the Dems had no choice:

In the real world, political parties need an institutional base. Parties need money. And parties need organizational muscle. The Republican Party gets the former from corporate sponsors and the latter from highly organized church-based groups. The Democratic Party, conversely, relied heavily on organized labor for both in the postwar era. So as unions increasingly withered beginning in the ’70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community.

You can blame the Sixties radicals for not understanding the importance of labor (and you’d be right). you can blame George Meany and the AFL-CIO folks for not realizing that those acid-abortion-gay rights folks were their real allies (and you’d be right). But in the end, the bad guys took advantage of the split, and of sweeping changes in the economy, and now we live in the most economically unequal society in the Western world. (Remember: Unions bring up wages and improve working conditions not just for their own members but for everyone else, too.)

So now the only major sector where organized labor is healthy and growing is the public sector — and that’s why the Republicans want to get rid of public-sector unions. In San Francisco, it’s often the case that the city employee unions (excluding police and fire) are the major donors to progressive causes — and are often the only institutional base with the kind of money to counter the Chamber of Commerce/Committee on JOBS/downtown developer bloc. Bust that up and you get corporate hegemony.


Dick Meister: Black Porters Led the Way


Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.

February is 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.

The union, the first to be founded by African Americans, was involved deeply in political as well as economic activity. It joined 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, and in doing so, laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

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. They got no fringe benefits, although they could ride the trains for half-fare on their days off – providing they were among the very few with the time and money to do so. And providing they didn’t ride a Pullman coach.

In order to meet their basic living expenses, 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, and full range of fringe 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 important actions against discrimination, including the 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 discrimination.

Dellums and Randolph 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 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 by any other organization anywhere.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Investing in the future


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

The nation’s crumbling infrastructure is in very serious need of rebuilding. There’s absolutely no doubt about that.

Miles and miles of roads, highways and airport runways need to be repaired or replaced, as do miles and miles of railroad track. Many bridges and other public structures need to be fixed. So do many streets and many street lights, many water and flood control systems, many park and recreation and port facilities’ high speed train systems need developing and so does very much more that’s vital to our daily lives.

Look around you. You can’t possibly miss examples of crumbling infrastructure.

The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions have been pointing that out for many years, and noting that the obviously needed repair and replacement work would provide jobs for many thousands, if not millions, of the unemployed, who need work as badly as the infrastructure needs it. Those jobs are good, relatively well-paying jobs – exactly what we need to escape the Great Recession that’s continuing to plague the nation.

It’s pretty much what was done during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt, with the support of Congress, put together the Works Projects Administration, or WPA, to put millions of jobless Americans to work on building and repairing the infrastructure. It worked then, and it would work now.

Last month, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and the Treasury Department issued a report detailing the benefits of doing the needed infrastructure work, including the “long term economic benefits.” The report also noted that a huge majority of Americans support spending tax money on infrastructure improvement.

President Obama’s labor-endorsed plan for infrastructure improvements over the next six years calls rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, laying and maintaining 4,000 miles of  railroad tracks, and creating a new air traffic control system that would reduce delays.

President Edward Wytkind of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department hailed the president’s plan for its promise of “putting millions of Americans to work in the type of good jobs that transportation investments have supported for more than a century.”

Laborers Union President Terry O’Sullivan noted that “time is running out.” He said, “We need to invest in our country, and we need to create jobs as soon as possible. It’s a no-brainer – let’s build our country, create jobs, keep America competitive in the 21st century and leave behind real assets  for future generations.”

Author Ezra Klein, writing in the Washington Post, put it this way:  “infrastructure investment creates the right jobs, for the right people, doing the right things – and at the right time. Or, to say it more clearly, infrastructure investment creates middle-class jobs for workers in a sector with high unemployment and it puts them to work doing something that we actually need done at a moment when doing it is cheaper than it ever will be again.”

He’s right. Boy, is he right.  Yet there’s a considerable body of naysayers in Congress – most of them Republicans, as you might expect – who threaten to block the bills necessary for implementing Obama’s ambitious infrastructure plans.

We need those bills passed in a hurry. We need the millions of jobs they’ll provide. We need to carry out the long delayed modernization of our crumbling infrastructure.

Rebuilding the labor movement


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Unions, as you might certainly expect, have been having a rough time during the current recession. How rough? Well, overall union membership declined by a whopping 771,000 over the past year.

The number of workers in unions is still large, around 15 million. But that’s only a little more than 12 percent of the country’s workforce. There is one bright spot: More than one-third of public employees are in unions.

The figures for workers in private employment, however, show that only about 7 percent of them are in unions, That’s the lowest percentage of unionized workers in private employment since 1900. That’s right – the lowest percentage in 110 years.

Unions are fighting hard to reverse the downward trend, and though many outside the labor movement openly doubt – or at least wishfully think – that it can’t be done, I think they’re wrong. The doubters are forgetting that it’s been done before  – and done in the face of obstacles that were at least as great as those confronted by union adherents today.
It began 75 years ago this month, in November of 1935, when eight affiliates of the American Federation of Labor – the AFL – put together what soon became the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO. Their aim was to mobilize the racially and ethnically mixed mass of generally unskilled workers in steel, rubber, auto, meatpacking and other basic industries.

The AFL had largely ignored the industrial workers in favor of skilled and semi-skilled white craftsmen who were organized into separate unions according to their trade – plumbing, printing, carpentry and so forth – rather than by industry.

That kept most workers isolated from each other and enabled the industrial corporations that dominated the economy to unilaterally set pay and working conditions at the lowest possible levels.

The CIO leaders believed that workers could not make a decent living and that the labor movement could not grow and possibly not even survive unless workers were brought together in tight solidarity through industrial as opposed to the craft unionism. of the AFL.

The issues today are different. But the basic need for solidarity remains, as does the need to organize workers whatever their occupation.

That won’t be easy, with only about 12 percent of today’s workforce in unions. But when the CIO began in 1935, less than 10 percent of the country’s workers were in unions, and they faced a Great Depression that was much worse than today’s Great Recession.

The labor movement hit rock bottom during the Depression of the 1930s. But finally unemployment became so widespread and pay and working conditions so bad that large numbers of workers rebelled – most under the banners of the CIO.

 President Franklin Roosevelt, fearing revolution, quickly pushed through Congress bills that in effect put the government behind the workers attempts to organize. They were granted the legal right to organize and to strike – and to choose by majority votes unions to represent them in collective bargaining with their employers.

Millions of workers flocked to unions, CIO and AFL unions alike. Millions engaged in strikes and other militant actions to press their bargaining demands. Pay rose substantially. Workers won unheard of fringe benefits. Working hours were reduced without reductions in pay. Grievance procedures were instituted. Job security was greatly enhanced.

Most important, the living standards of ordinary Americans were raised. And the United States at last had a true middle class.

As the CIO grew, so did the AFL. By the time the competing organizations merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO, one of every three U.S. workers belonged to a union.

The vital, demanding and essential task of today’s labor leaders is nothing less than to do what was done by their predecessors when they formed the CIO three-quarters of a century ago . . . nothing less than to bring new life to the American labor movement.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Election over, what next?


Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered political and labor issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor , author and commentator. Visit him at his website,

OK, the election is over and labor, Democrats and the other good guys came up a bit short. But what now? What next for the good guys?

 Well, for starters, organized labor and its Democratic Party allies must be ready to block Republican plans to try to enact legislation that would cut taxes for the very wealthy, slash Medicare funding, and possibly even privatize Social Security. I know that may sound alarmist and far-fetched. But that’s what Republican leaders are actually talking about.

After all, the GOP’s anti-labor corporate allies spent nearly a billion dollars on the election and they damn well want their money’s worth.  Larry Cohen, president of the communications workers union, thinks it’s getting like the way elections were 100 years ago when the big trusts and robber barons made sure their voices were the only ones heard during election campaigns.

Not yet, Larry. Not quite. Unions were able to make a lot of highly effective noise that helped elect some important pro-labor Democrats and defeat several Tea Party candidates and other anti-labor wackos who argued, as the AFL-CIO’s Mike Hall notes, “that government should do nothing to improve the economy or protect working families during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Let’s me take a little closer look at how the election went for organized labor and its political friends in two of the country’s most important states politically, numbers one and two in population, California and Texas.

In California, as the AFL-CIO says, unions were a key factor propelling notably pro-labor Democrat Jerry Brown to the governorship and pro-labor Democrat Barbara Boxer to a third term in the Senate. Those victories were especially sweet, since the opponents of Governor-elect Brown and Senator Boxer were former business executives with tons of money, including their own, to spend on their campaigns.

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent more than $141 million of her own money on her losing campaign against Jerry Brown for governor. And though Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, spent several million of her own money on her campaign, the total was nowhere near the obscene amount that Whitman pulled from her own pocket for her campaign.

Anyway, Meg Whitman lost, and good for Californians for making that happen.  Labor couldn’t imagine a worse anti-labor governor than Meg Whitman, or more labor-friendly governor than Jerry Brown, a worse anti-labor senator than Carly Fiorini, or more labor-friendly senator than Barbara Boxer.

It was a bit different in most other states. As Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro of the California Nurses Association notes, the election of Democratic, pro-labor candidates in California “provided a national alternative to the conservative, corporate-oriented economic program that won so many other races nationwide.”

DeMoro praised California’s voters “for seeing through the fool’s gold promises that the path to economic recovery and job creation is through corporate tax breaks and shifting more wealth and resources to those who need it the least.”

The news isn’t so good out of Texas, where, as Jim Lane of the People’s World  says, “the second largest delegation to the U.S. House of  Representatives, already heavily leaning to the right, tilted drastically further on November 2 – plus, many of the most popular Texas Democratic leaders were defeated.

The re-election of Gov. Rick Perry was more bad news for labor and its allies, given what the People’s World’s Lane notes as Perry’s “far-right, anti-worker vision.” Reporter Lane says “progressive Texans are not looking forward to extending the years of being shamed about their home state, as we have been since GW Bush took the national stage.”

But at least the Texas labor movement was able to run what Lane calls “a strong and largely independent political campaign.”  Unions even dared to run “one of their own,” former national AFL-CIO official Linda Chavez-Thompson, for lieutenant governor. But, as Lane notes, “Like all other statewide Democratic candidates, Chavez-Thompson’s campaign was buried by big money.”

So, what next for Texas, California – the whole country?

What’s next should be in large part to carry out what AFL-CIO and Democratic Party leaders have been advocating for many years – rebuilding of our long crumbling infrastructure

 President Obama has a plan that calls for rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, laying and maintaining 4,000 miles of railway tracks, restoring 150 miles of airport runways and , in doing so, providing badly needed jobs for many of the country’s millions of unemployed workers.
That’s how labor and political leaders can – and must – begin to deliver on their election campaign promises to, above all, do what it takes to create “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered political and labor issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor , author and commentator. Visit him at his website,

Labor’s outreach


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Never have the nation’s younger workers been more in need of unionization. And never have the nation’s unions been more in need of the membership growth that recruiting younger workers can bring them.

Here’s how it looks, and it’s not a pretty picture for labor: Last year, unions lost 10 percent of their members in private employment –  the biggest drop in more than 25 years.  That cut union membership by 834,000 workers, down to 15.7 million workers.

Which means that overall, counting public as well as private employment, unions now represent only a little more than 12 percent of the country’s workers. Just 20 years ago, 20 percent of all workers were unionized.

So, how can organized labor add significantly to its numbers and thus add significantly to labor’s political and economic strength.

The answer should be obvious, and it certainly is to union leaders: Sign up the younger workers aged 18 to 29 who are especially hurting economically. They need unions as much as unions need them.

A recent survey commissioned by the AFL-CIO shows that fully half of the young workers surveyed said they had only enough savings to cover their living expenses for two months should they become unemployed, as of course many workers of all ages have in recent months.

Many of the young surveyed also were concerned that whatever the jobs they find, they’ll do worse than workers of other generations have done when they retired.

Unions hope to attract such workers to their ranks in part with recent academic studies showing that unionized workers invariably do better than non-union workers when they retire and in virtually all other ways.  For instance, studies show that the average wage of unionized younger workers is about $15 an hour – more than 12 percent or about $1.75 an hour more than non-union workers of the same age.

 Forty percent of the unionized younger workers had employer-financed health care, while only 20 percent of those outside unions had such a benefit.

Whatever the occupation, and however they were measured, unionized younger workers did better – unionized men better than non-union men, unionized women better than non-union women, unionized African Americans and Latinos better than non-union workers in those categories.

Yet despite the obvious advantages of union membership that has brought better pay and benefits to the younger workers who’ve joined, younger workers generally have had the lowest unionization rate of any age group. Only about 7 percent are in unions.

But that could very well change. Other new studies indicate that the economic situation for younger workers is worsening, and that well over half the workers now say they hope to avoid that by unionizing. Joining a union would not only help them improve their own status and help reverse what’s been a steady decline in union strength. It also would bring new strength to union efforts in behalf of important social, economic and political reforms.

The AFL-CIO has established a program aimed at recruiting the younger members that its affiliated unions badly need – as badly as the younger workers need unions. And as badly as we need the benefits that a strong labor movement can bring to all of us, whatever our age.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his columns.