Labor’s promise


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 AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions know what they must do to grow and strengthen the labor movement for the benefit of all Americans. They must recruit and train millions of young workers, particularly young women and minority workers.  It is they who will join with others to shape our future.

Union organizers are already focusing clearly on reaching out to young would-be members who are often skeptical of union promises to help them win, not only better pay and working conditions, but also a meaningful voice in community affairs.
Participants in one of several recent AFL-CIO meetings on the subject noted that a key issue among young workers, as among so any others in these perilous economic times, is their inability to find a job or to pay for higher education. While unionization, of course, does not guarantee workers jobs or money to pay for higher education, it certainly gives them to at least a good chance of finding work or earning a college degree.

AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler told another gathering that outreach to young people is a top labor priority. But she said that, even though young workers need unions, they generally don’ t know much about them. That’s in part because they are less likely than young people in earlier generations to have a family member or neighbor to talk to them about unionization and its rewards.

Unions, of course, usually win agreements from employers for, among other fringe benefits, health insurance.  But recent surveys show that about one-third of young workers have no health insurance.  The surveys show in general “a massive decline” in the economic situation of the young. One-third of those surveyed say they often can’t pay their bills, for instance. Only about half have paid sick days and must work so even if ill.

A survey done recently by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics cautions that  “unions must become more diverse and open up more opportunities for young workers and women in leadership or they will move on to other social justice organizations.”

The AFL-CIO’s James Parks noted that “while acknowledging the significant gains for women in the workplace made possible by unions and their growing diversity in the union movement, the federal report urges unions to do even more to become more open.”

The national AFL-CIO has moved further in that direction by requiring state and local AFL-CIO bodies to establish concrete goals for diversifying the leadership of their member unions.

There’s also been efforts to movement to meet the complaints of young members and would-be members that union leaders  are often able to stay in office far too long, blocking younger candidates for union office from assuming leadership posts. .  That would be eased by an AFL-CIO proposal for unions to set term limits for elective leadership positions.

At any rate, this much is very, very clear: Unions need the young if they are to prosper and grow, and the young need unions if they are to realize their full potential as citizens. Together, unions and the young can bring important new strength to the country.

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.

Brown or Whitman? No contest


Sidebar to The pummeling of SF Labor

Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman? Barbara Boxer or Carly Fiorina? For labor voters, the choice should be obvious.

All too often, we’re faced with choosing between the lesser of two political evils, but not this time. Democrat Jerry Brown has proven throughout his long political career to be one of the best friends labor has ever had, and shows no sign that he’d be anything else if returned to the governorship in November.

I particularly recall the great political skill Brown demonstrated in convincing the State Legislature to enact what is still the only law outside Hawaii guaranteeing farm workers the collective bargaining rights granted most non-agricultural workers in the 1930s.

It’s impossible to imagine Brown’s Republican challenger having the will or the skill to do something like that. Whitman’s position on labor is precisely the opposite of Brown. She has made union bashing, and especially the bashing of public employee unions, a major theme of her campaign.

On the national level, Democratic Senator Boxer has long been a solid labor supporter and surely merits re-election in November. Like Brown, she’s in a contest against a mediocre Republican candidate, but one with many, many bucks to spend on her campaign.

Some of the nine initiatives on the state ballot would be good for labor, some not so good.  Prop. 25 is easily the best of the bunch for labor and just about everybody else. It would require a simple majority vote of the Legislature to adopt the annual state budget rather than the current requirement of a two-thirds majority.  The great difficulty of lining up two-thirds support has often resulted in legislative stalemates that have forced some state operations to be cut back or even temporarily shut down for days, sometimes weeks. No money, as they say, no service.

Prop. 23 is bad news. The measure, backed by Big Oil and other major polluters,  would suspend the state air pollution laws that limit  omission of greenhouse gases known to cause global warming until statewide unemployment drops to 5.5 percent or lower for one year, which – surprise! –  is not about  to happen. Not for a long time, anyway.

Corporate greedheads could lose big, however, with passage of Prop. 24. It would repeal $1.7 billion in tax breaks granted big corporations during last year’s budget negotiations, or “backroom budget deals,” in the impolite but quite accurate words of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT).

The CFT, an AFL-CIO affiliate, and the rival California Teachers Association  (CTA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, are both campaigning for the excellent Democratic candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Assemblyman and former State Sen. Tom Torlakson of Antioch.

They stress Torlakson’s experience as a longtime high school science teacher and part-time community college teacher and his commitment to increasing badly needed funding for the state’s schools, as shown by the bills he authored that have provided more than $3 billion in school aid.

— Dick Meister

The pummeling of SF Labor


Click to read sidebar, Brown or Whitman? No contest

With five supervisorial seats open and only one incumbent running, the Labor Council has had a tough time picking the right pro-labor candidates. The easy choices were incumbent Carmen Chu in District 4, with no opposition, and Raphael Mandelman, an exceptionally promising newcomer in District 8. But Janet Reilly in District 2 opposes the Labor Council’s revenue measures. In District 6, where long-time activist Deborah Walker has been endorsed, and in District 8, where Malia Cohen and Chris Jackson are #1 and #2, there are a multitude of candidates, many of them labor friendly.

It’s not an easy year.

Prop. B on San Francisco’s November election ballot confronts the city’s working people and their unions with an unprecedented challenge. The measure, sponsored by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, would severely weaken public employee unions and undoubtedly lead to other serious attacks on workers and unions in private as well as public employment nationwide.

The proposition is by no means the only dangerously anti-labor measure on the ballot, but it ‘s the worst from labor’s point of view, as it very well should be. It’s a prime example of the public-employee bashing that’s become a favorite theme in election campaigns everywhere and, if passed, would set a clear national precedent.

Actually, Prop. B might better be described as a pummeling rather than bashing – and one coming, furthermore, just a few months after city employees took a voluntary $250 million pay cut. Prop. B would steeply raise the employees’ contributions to their pensions unilaterally and prohibit bargaining on the issue in the future as well.

It would arbitrarily lower city contributions to the employees’ health plans, especially dependent care. What employees pay for health care coverage for children and other dependents would be as much as doubled.

The steep rise in the employees’ share of their health care coverage could quite possibly force families to drop city coverage and try to get cheaper coverage on their own. That, of course, is a primary goal of the corporate anti-labor forces and others who seek to balance the budgets of public entities on the backs of their employees.

So what if workers can’t afford to take the kids to the doctor.  Cutting taxes and balancing budgets is a lot more important. Besides, there’s always the emergency room and charity.

But wait! There are yet more major Prop. B flaws. For example: If city health care coverage is changed by increasing the premiums paid by employees, as the proposition requires, the city Health Service system (HSS) would have to forfeit new $23 million-a-year federal grants intended to reduce premiums for employees and retirees covered by the HSS. The system includes, not just city employees, but also school and community college district and SF court system employees and retirees.

There’s even more, much more than enough to energize labor’s troops. They are angry. Very angry. Unions citywide have at least temporarily set aside their sometimes considerable differences and feuding over tactics, jurisdictions and other matters. They’ve come together tightly along with a substantial number of labor’s Democratic Party allies to oppose Prop. B.

And watch out for Prop. G. It’s another favorite of the anti-union, anti-public employee crowd, led in this case by Sean Elsbernd, a very politically ambitious member of the SF Board of Supervisors.

Elsbernd and friends claim their intent is to “fix the Muni,” one of the nation’s most complex transit systems. The Municipal Railway, overseen by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), is indeed badly in need of fixing. But the principal blame for that does not rest with Muni’s bus and streetcar operators – most of them people of color – as proponents of Prop. G claim. Most of the blame rests with Muni’s overpaid managers, headed by $336,000-a-year executive director and CEO Nathaniel Ford.

As President Irwin Lum of the Muni operator’s union said in a Guardian interview,  “Muni needs to be changed from the top to the bottom.” He sees Muni’s problem as mainly a lack of resources and the political will to pursue them.  Muni officials might also avoid lots of problems if they’d deign to consult regularly with community groups and their leaders on their transit needs.

The public rightly complains of buses not arriving on time, of being passed up while waiting at bus stops, of grumpy drivers and of other certainly legitimate matters.  Naturally, they blame the drivers. But drivers do not make schedules. Under pressure to keep to the schedules made by others, they sometimes speed by waiting passengers. Sometimes they’re slowed by heavy traffic, sometimes by problems with faulty, broken-down down buses or slowed by having to deal with violent passengers. Sometimes, managers making out the schedules don’t properly anticipate such probable delays.

Oh, yes, those grumpy drivers.

Wouldn’t you be grumpy if you had to work a full shift without going to the bathroom? If you had to listen to loud complaints from unruly passengers who sometimes got rough with you and each other?  If you had to weave through heavy traffic for hours at a time? If you had to time your work to unrealistic schedules you had nothing to do with making?

It’s not the drivers who are in charge of replacing badly worn buses and streetcar tracks and equipment, not the drivers who are in charge of negotiating with Muni suppliers for a reduction in ever-escalating fuel prices and other costs. In short, it’s not the drivers who run Muni – though Muni, of course, could not run without them.

So, what do Elsbernd and his anti-labor cohorts want to do to the Muni’s invaluable workers? Here’s the deal:

The City Charter now requires that Muni operators be paid at least as much as the average salary of operators at the two highest paying similar transit systems in the country.  And if benefits granted Muni operators are worth less than those of operators at similar transit systems, the difference is paid to the operators from a trust fund established for that purpose.

Under Prop. G, operators’ pay and benefits would be set by bargaining between union and MTA representatives. If they couldn’t agree, the dispute would be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decision would be binding.

The arbitrator would be required to consider the possible impact of disputed proposals on Muni fares and services. But though all other city unions are also subject to arbitration, there’s no requirement that the arbitrator consider how their proposals would affect the services provided by the union’s members – an unusual requirement that’s virtually unheard of elsewhere.

Prop. G backers presumably see the proposition as a step toward their goal of being able to set, change or eliminate Muni work rules without bothering to consult workers or their unions. They are, you might say, “unilateralists.”

 Taking on Muni operators is only part of Supervisor Elsbernd’s anti-labor romp. He’s also sponsoring Prop.  F, a deceptively simple charter amendment that would seriously impact the 105,000 members of the Health Service System. It’s a stealth proposition, difficult to understand and explain, and thus often brushed aside as a minor ballot measure of no particular consequence.

But Prop. F is capable of doing major long-term damage to HSS members by weakening their position in negotiating with powerful health insurers such as Blue Shield on the size of the premiums HSS members have to pay for coverage and the benefits they receive.

All politicians stretch the truth. It’s part of their game. You needn’t look further than Elsbernd for evidence of that.  He actually claims he put Prop. F on the ballot strictly to save the Health Service System money by eliminating two of the four elections in which HSS members vote for representatives on the HSS Board. This seemingly small change would eliminate the overlapping terms that provide the continuity essential to successful negotiations with health insurers.

The savings would average a mere $30,000 a year, and would not even be available until 2016. Nor is there a guarantee that any of the money would go to the HSS. $30,000? What’s the real motive here?

As for the rest of San Francisco’s ballot measures and candidates, union supporters could hardly do better than to follow the recommendations of the AFL-CIO’s local Labor Council, which almost invariably backs the propositions most likely to be labor-friendly and opposes those that are not. This time, the Labor Council is saying “no” to those decidedly unfriendly Propositions B, G and F.

And don’t forget Props. J, K and N. Hotel workers and others are supporting Prop. J, which is meant to stop the travel industry practice of using online hotel booking to avoid paying SF’s hotel tax. Prop. J also would increase the city’s hotel tax for the first time in 14 years in order to raise some most welcome revenue for the city’s general fund.

However, Prop. K – introduced by Mayor Newsom – could stand in the way. Since Prop. K makes no change in the hotel tax rate, apparently it’s intended to confuse and distract the voters so they won’t approve Prop. J.

The other major revenue measure strongly supported by labor – Proposition N – would increase the city’s transfer tax rate on the sale of property worth more than $5 million from 1.5 percent now to a range of 2 to 2 ½ percent for a property worth $10 million or more. This would also generate millions for the city’s general fund.

Rarely has so much been at stake for San Francisco’s working people and their unions.

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

9/11 rescuers need rescuing


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.

A new AFL-CIO report shows that more than 13,000 of the truly heroic firefighters, police and other rescuers who were the first to rush to the scene of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 are still being treated for the serious injuries they received.

They were exposed to a highly 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. Also exposed were nearly 53,000 other first responders who are being monitored for signs of 9/11 related illness. Yet another 71,000 are being watched closely because they also were exposed to the extremely harmful toxins while helping clear debris.

The number of reported victims continues to grow. For example, another new study, from the Mount Sinai Medical Center, shows that some 70 percent of the 10,000 workers involved in the cleanup who were tested between 2000 and 2004, now say they have new or more serious respiratory illnesses.

In addition to firefighters and police, the victims include construction workers, residents of the area and school children, among others. The new report, by the AFL-CIO’s James Parks and Mike Hall, focuses in part on one of the first to reach Ground Zero — Vito Friscia, a Brooklyn homicide detective.  He 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 efforts.

Today, Detective Friscia has a deep cough that won’t go away, chronic sinus problems and shortness of breath.

“But I’m no hero,” he insists. “I was just doing my job.” Many others involved in the rescue efforts say pretty much the same thing – that they were just doing their jobs as police officers, firefighters or as other public service employees.

Frisia’s sister-in-law, Maria Pusteri, has produced a documentary film, “Vito After,” which takes a detailed look at what the detective has endured since his rescue efforts.  The film, first released in 2005, recently made its international debut in London.

What’s needed now, the AFL-CIO says, is to provide long-term medical care and careful monitoring of the tens of thousands of rescue and recovery workers and community members whose health remains at serious risk because of their exposure to contaminated materials.

The AFL-CIO rightly blames part of the problem on Republican opposition. For instance, the Bush administration refused to create or support a permanent research, monitoring and health care program for Ground Zero workers. And the administration also cut funding for health care related to the 9/11 cleanup.

 Just before the congressional recess in August, House Republicans managed to block a bill – the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act – that would provide $7.5 billion for long-term monitoring and health care of victims.

This prompted another of the ailing first responders, Greg Staub, to complain that “they told us if we did our job, they’d take care of us. We did our job. Now we’re sick and they don’t remember who we are anymore.” Staub was forced to retire from the New York City Fire Department last year because of chronic lung problems stemming from his rescue efforts.

The odds, however, are that the House Republicans will not be able to block passage of the proposed Health and Compensation Act when comes up for a second vote, which is expected soon.

Those who rushed to Ground Zero to help the 9/11 victims clearly need – and certainly deserve – lots of help, probably at least as much as provided by the bill. As one of those treating the 9/11 victims noted, “Our patients are sick, and they will need ongoing care for the rest of their lives.”

Providing that care is the very least we can do.

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.

SEIU and the new McCarthyism


OPINION More than 43,000 California health care employees are currently involved in the largest union election in private industry since the 1940s, a contentious campaign that pits officials of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against the National Union of Health Care Workers (NUHW). The outcome of the election may well determine the future of the labor movement for years to come.

The leaders of NUHW (the interim president is Sal Rosselli) are the same organizers who inspired and united us in achieving a historic victory: the five-year Kaiser Permanente contract of 2005-10. Health care workers all over the state depend on the benefits enumerated in that contract, including employment and income seniority, paid retirement, paid family health care, and employee participation in staffing and health care issues. The contract is still considered the national gold standard for hospitals.

A few years ago, our union, part of SEIU, was united and strong. The nurses, lab technicians, secretaries, operators, environmental service personnel, x-ray technologists — we were all proud to work together in a noble enterprise, fostering and saving human life. Today, SEIU is in disarray.

The decline began when Andy Stern took power in Washington. He established absentee rule of California. After he withdrew SEIU from the AFL-CIO (which prohibits union raids of other unions), Stern launched a series of raids on two sister unions, UNITE HERE and the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union. The San Francisco Labor Council (along with the AFL-CIO) formally denounced the Stern raid on UNITE HERE. The raid cost our members millions of dollars. Stern then moved against our California locals, particularly United Healthcare Workers-West, led by Rosselli. Rosselli was the leading champion of democratic unionism in the state. In defiance of the wishes of our membership, Stern fired Rosselli.

The bitterness and hostility within our union today are a direct result of Stern’s mass purges. One hundred elected members of the executive board were removed by fiat. Hundreds of elected shop stewards were dismissed. Subsequently, 48 other stewards resigned in protest of the autocratic policies of the national office. The standard joke at California Kaiser worksites is, “Got a grievance? Call Washington!” Juan Gonzalez, the widely read columnist for the New York Daily News, called the Stern blitz “a stunning assault on democracy within his own union.”

SEIU represents a new kind of McCarthyism in the labor movement, a trend that threatens the unity of labor as a whole.

SEIU bully tactics to prevent workers from joining NUHW are so widespread, so well-documented, that Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers, sent an open letter to SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, who succeeded Stern after he retired. Huerta complained that “every time workers met to talk about NUHW, SEIU staff surrounded them and began chanting and yelling insults, refusing to let workers talk.”

Even the homes of workers are not off limits. In Fresno, local TV stations (just Google “TV Coverage of SEIU Threats”) documented SEIU pressure tactics during house visits, after workers received their ballots in the mail.

The demise of our once great union has implications far beyond our locals in California. If California’s most successful, democratic labor organizers can be overthrown, If elected shop steward networks (shop stewards are the backbone of union democracy) can be dismantled by fiat, if Washington can establish absentee rule of locals from 3,000 miles away, no union is safe, and American democracy itself is diminished.

Jessica Garcia and Elaine Monney are rank-and-file members of SEIU.

Hands off social security!


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 recent columns.

Republican leaders in Congress would have us believe that most Americans support cutting Social Security and Medicare payments as a way to cut the federal budget deficit. But don’t you believe it.

As the AFL-CIO and other labor sources have discovered, that’s at best a figment of the Republican imagination. Or, as is most likely, it’s a bald-faced political lie.

The proof came in a poll marking the 75th anniversary of Social Security this year. It was conducted by a prominent research organization, Greenberg Quilan Rosner, and commissioned by the nation’s leading public employee unions, the Service Employees International and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, joined by and the Campaign for America’s Future.

The poll was in response to Republican House leader John Boehner’s call for reducing the federal budget deficit by raising the Social Security retirement age to 70, while continuing President Bush’s massive tax breaks for multi-billion-dollar corporations and wealthy individuals.

Boehner, that is, wants to lower the Republicans’ rich friends’ taxes at the expense of Americans who must rely on Social Security payments, averaging less than $14,000 a year, to meet their basic living expenses.

It would make much more sense, of course, to reduce the deficit by increasing taxes on the wealthy at least to the level they were before Bush’s tax cuts, rather than do it by raising the retirement age and making other financial cutbacks that hurt low and middle income Americans.

So, what did the poll show?

Most Democrats and independents responding wanted to end the Bush tax cuts that, if not repealed, will increase the deficit by an estimated $3.1 trillion over the next decade and reduce government revenue by more than $650 billion. That obviously would greatly curtail Social Security and other government programs for poor and middle class Americans.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that most of the Republicans polled did not want to repeal the tax cuts and thus help government provide more services to those who need them, often badly need them.

Nevertheless, nearly 70 percent of the probable voters polled, whatever their political party, opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit.
What’s more, two-thirds of the Republicans also opposed raising the retirement age, despite their general dislike of the Social Security system. Raising the retirement age from 67 to 70 obviously would greatly curtail Social Security and other government programs designed to help poor and middle class Americans. But that apparently didn’t disturb many of the Republicans polled. Most of them did not want to repeal the tax cuts under any circumstance.

The AFL-CIO concluded – and quite accurately, I think – that “those conservative politicians who want to use concern about deficits as an opening to go after Social Security or Medicare risk a backlash” from voters.

The poll made clear that relatively few people are buying the Republican claims that Social Security and Medicare outlays are a major cause of the continuing federal budget deficit. Too many people have too much sense to believe that.

But what did sensible voters see as the main causes of the deficit?

Nearly half of those polled blamed the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About a third blamed the bailouts of big banks and the auto industry.

Nearly a third blamed lobbyists and special interests for getting unnecessary spending put into the budget.

Almost as many placed the major blame on President Obama’s economic recovery or stimulus plan.

About one-fourth blamed the Bush tax cuts.  A relative few blamed the economic recession that reduced tax revenue and required costly government support for the unemployed. A relatively few others blamed the deficit on the cost of Medicare prescription drug benefits.

What it boils down to is this, as the AFL-CIO’s James Parks said in a bit of public advice to GOP Congressman Boehner:  “The public doesn’t like your plan to cut their Social Security so your rich friends can get another tax break.”

Anyone doubting the popularity and importance of Social Security need only consider a recent AARP survey that showed  “exceedingly high” support for the program.

” Clearly,” said AARP researcher Colette Thayer, ” most Americans rely on Social Security and expect it to be a source of income in their retirement. In fact, it is the most commonly cited source of retirement income.”

    Whatever their ages, whether over 30 or under, the poll – just as others like taken on the program’s anniversary dates five, 15 and 25 years ago – shows that Social Security is one of the government’s most important programs in that it provides essential retirement income to millions of Americans who would otherwise have little or no income.

The Campaign for America’s Future and, will be jointly campaigning for candidates in the coming midterm elections who’ll pledge to block cuts in Social Security and Medicare and otherwise back the organizations’ liberal agendas. The unions that helped them sponsor the poll will also be waging major campaigns, as will other AFL-CIO affiliates.

They’re backing the kind of political candidates we should all back – and as strongly as we can. Our social security depends on it.

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 recent columns.

Historic election for labor


Labor and Democratic Party leaders are concerned – and rightly so – that labor’s rank-and-file may not turn out in November to support labor-friendly Democrats in the massive numbers that played a major role in the election of President Obama and Democratic congressional majorities in 2008.

AFL-CIO officials are hoping to turn the anger and frustration that so many working people feel into votes, financial support and campaigning in behalf of pro-labor Democrats.  But the officials worry about an “enthusiasm gap” among unionists and their supporters stemming from the relatively slow pace of the progressive economic and political changes that they had very much expected from Obama and the congressional Democrats.

Many unionists are frustrated as usual by the lack of a viable progressive alternative to the Democratic Party. But they’d best beware, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, of the serious consequences of   being less than enthusiastic supporters of Democratic candidates in November’s elections.

“The Republican Party of NO doesn’t want our vote,” says Trumka. “All they want is for us to stay home. They want us to feel hopeless and disgusted so they can come back by default.”

 Trumka acknowledges that many union members, and many of their supporters and other progressives, are frustrated with the slow pace of economic change, the continuing high unemployment rate, continuing wars and other serious, unsettled problems.

But Trumka points out that in just a year and a half, Obama has had to dig out of a huge economic hole and “face extremist opposition on every point.” Yet, Trumka notes, “We’ve halted taxpayer bailouts … no longer are losing 700,000 jobs a month but are gaining a few… And by the end of this year we will have created or saved 3 1/2 million jobs and have fulfilled the dream of every president since Harry Truman and started to move down the road to health care for all. “

Organized labor has particularly good reason to be pleased with the performance of Obama and the congressional Democrats – particularly good reason to once again deploy millions of campaign dollars and millions of campaign workers in their behalf as labor did in the 2008 elections.

The Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board, virtually tools of the anti-labor right wing under President Bush, are under Obama returning to their job of enforcing the laws that guarantee workers the right to unionize without employer interference.

 And federal agencies are once again strictly enforcing the minimum wage and hour laws and other vital pro-worker laws that had been seriously neglected under Bush’s distinctly anti-labor administration. What’s more, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is actually attempting to clamp down on the widespread violation of the job safety laws that has led to the needless deaths and serious injury of millions of American workers.

“We know you are angry,” Trumka told a recent gathering of labor leaders, “but we have made progress. No one said this was going to be easy. Ask African Americans how long they have fought and continue to fight. If they had given up after a year and a half they would still be in chains.”

 November’s election, says Richard Trumka, is  “the most crucial election in 75 years.” It will in any case be of unusually high importance to America’s working people and their unions and of exceptional importance to the rest of us as well.

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, www., which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.

Safety first!


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 recent columns.

The number of serious on-the-job accidents this year have yet again made very clear the urgent need for expanded and tightened government safety regulation. The toll on workers has been high, as President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers union told the House Education and Labor Committee in mid-July.

Roberts noted the explosion at a mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners, a blast at a refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers, the BP oil rig blast in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11, an explosion that killed six workers at an Energy Systems facility in Connecticut.

Those were but a very small sampling of the on-the-job accidents that kill nearly 6,000 U.S. workers every year. More than two million other American workers are seriously injured yearly. And another 50,000 or more die yearly from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.

The Mine Workers’ Roberts came before the House committee to urge passage of a bill, the Miner Safety and Health Act, that focuses on mine safety but also includes provisions that would strengthen safety protections in all other workplaces.

Joe Main, who heads the federal Mine Safety and Health Agency, said the bill would do nothing less than “change the culture of safety in the mining industry, and put the health and safety of miners first.”  That indeed would be a major shift in focus, a very much needed and most welcome shift.

It’s sad but true that the safety of miners has often been a secondary consideration of many mine owners and government regulators. Greater profit and productivity – not safety – has been the overriding concern, and far too many workers have suffered because of that.

Too many have been maimed, too many killed for lack of proper protections, some required by law but ignored, some not required at all, however essential they are.

The Mine Safety and Health Agency’s Main says the proposed law would give his agency the tools to make employers live up to their legal and moral obligation. And if they don’t meet their obligation, the agency would be empowered to step in to see that they do so.

As the AFL-CIO’s general counsel, Lynn Rinehart, told the House committee, the federal job safety laws – now 40 years old – are way out-of-date. They have never been significantly strengthened, Rinehart noted, and their penalties are slight compared to those imposed for violations of other labor laws.

What’s more, Rinehart said, the law gives workers little protection from employer retaliation against those who raise safety concerns. Current law, he added, “simply does not provide a sufficient deterrent against employers who would cut corners on safety and put workers in harm’s way.”

Among the bill’s most important provisions is one that would guarantee workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. That right is guaranteed in mineworker union contracts, and for good reason: Non-union miners have long complained that they fear employer retaliation if they speak out about mine safety problems.

The bill would give the mine safety agency authority to close a mine if there’s a continuing threat to workers safety, and would subject mine owners to increased civil and criminal penalties for safety violations.

The AFL-CIO’s Rinehart noted that the median penalty for having working conditions that cause a fatality was a mere $5,000 in 2009. The penalties generally have been mere slaps on the wrist.

One of the most important parts of the proposed safety law would extend coverage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act  – OSHA – to the millions of local and state government employees who are not covered by the law.

Sponsors of the proposed law face formidable opposition – the National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and nearly two dozen other industry groups whose members aren’t eager to spend money on safer workplaces.

The Bush administration was openly on the side of those groups. Safety laws were only lightly enforced – if enforced at all – by the Bush appointees who ran the federal safety agencies. Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s safety and health director, figures it will take years to reverse and undo the “many bad policies and practices that were put into place” under Bush.

It will indeed be a long time before the government can provide the full protection from on-the-job hazards that will continue to needlessly harm millions of American workers. But the proposed new safety law, and the worker-friendly Obama administration, give us a fighting chance to finally do what must be done if we are to have truly safe workplaces.

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 recent columns.

Congress is acting stupidly


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 recent columns.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has it right. It’s not the heat in Washington, D.C., that’s bothering him and many other advocates of working people. It’s the stupidity – the economic stupidity of Congress refusing to give financial aid to states that badly need help in order t o save the jobs of some 300,000 teachers, nurses, firefighters, police and other public service workers who are facing layoffs because of budget deficits.

The possible remedy is at hand – a pending $100 billion jobs bill.  Most of the money would go to states for quickly creating or saving up to one million jobs in public and private employment, restoring government services that have been cut, and averting other planned cuts, mostly in education, public safety and job training.

Republican opposition has kept the jobs bill from passage. The GOP also opposes a companion bill that deals with another bit of economic stupidity in Washington – the stupidity of Congress’ refusal to extend the unemployment insurance benefits of the 1.4 million Americans who will run out of benefits by the end of July, and the 325,000 who already have run out of benefits.

By year’s end, more than eight million workers will have exhausted their benefits. Their regular benefits, averaging $300 a week, ran out after 26 weeks and have not been extended as they usually have been during periods of heavy unemployment. The House voted for extension, and President Obama urged extension. But the Senate has refused to act.

The AFL-CIO’s Trumka calls the situation tragic, as well he should. He notes that almost 15 million Americans are currently unemployed, a number that’s been growing by about 250,000 workers per week.

So, 15 million people who need jobs – many who desperately need jobs – are unable to find them. About one million have been jobless for more than a year.

Overall, the jobless make up about 10 percent of the workforce. They’ve been out of work an average of 35 weeks. Another 11 million Americans are underemployed, including temporary and part-time workers and others who are underutilized and underpaid.

Nearly half of all the jobless have been out of work for more than six months.  As Trumka says, “Families are stretched to the limit and state budgets are under incredible strain, putting hundreds of thousands more jobs in danger. Yet the Republicans in Congress repeatedly have blocked efforts to take action, create jobs and rebuild our battered economy.” Although it’s mainly Republicans who’ve opposed extension of benefits, some conservative Democrats have also opposed extension.

Trumka, noting that many politicians, including every member of the House, will be on the ballot in the coming mid-term elections, urges union members to demand that the office seekers take concrete action to “rebuild our economy and create jobs now.” If they don’t take action, Trumka warns, “they may not be elected officials anymore.”

New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman blames Congress’ failure to provide relief to the jobless on “a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused.”

Krugman defines the heartless as “Republicans who have made the cynical calculation that blocking anything President Obama tries to do – especially anything that  might ease the country’s economic problems – improves their chances in the midterm elections.

And the clueless? Try Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for senator from Nevada. She’s repeatedly claimed that the unemployed are deliberately choosing to stay jobless so they can keep collecting the benefits of a few hundred dollars a week.

The confused include politicians and others who apparently are too confused to understand the obvious – that the unemployed need money, and will quickly spend whatever they get in the way of extended benefits, thus boosting consumer spending, helping create jobs quickly and otherwise expanding the economy.

Except to the heartless, clueless and confused, saving money at the expense of the unemployed by denying them benefits is, as Paul Krugman says, “cruel as well as misguided.”

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 recent columns.

An extraordinarily good man


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 Web site,, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.

It was 40 years ago this month that Walter Reuther died in a plane crash. Forty years. Yet the auto workers leader remains an important inspirational figure – a man whose life holds crucial lessons for those who are today seeking to revitalize the American labor movement.
I came upon him late in his career, and to me he seemed verbose, distant and a bit pompous: a do-gooder who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t wench; who did only good things, and always in the artfully arranged glare of publicity.
He couldn’t possibly be as good as those who had known the man for a long time claimed him to be. But they were right. Walter Reuther was an extraordinarily good man.
He was truly the conscience of organized labor – a crusader struggling very, very hard against the stagnation he found in a movement he had helped found, lead, and, finally, had tried to reform.
Reuther was the conscience as well of a lot of people who never paid union dues in their lives. I mean those who saw him as the embodiment of their hopes to change this imperfect society in ways that would better the lives of those at the bottom of its social, economic and political ladder.
It was Reuther, as much as any union leader, who brought dignity and economic security to the mass of Americans, expanding the country’s major concerns beyond the elementary economic concerns that preoccupied most people in the years before World War II.
Reuther’s specific contributions were many. There was the central role he played in establishing the United Auto Workers Union, over which he eventually presided.  There was his role in forging together the country’s industrial unions and in leading them, as president of the Congress of Industrial Organization – the CIO – in struggles for broad economic and social causes.
There was Reuther’s exceptional success in negotiating better wages, hours and working conditions for the auto workers that were pace-setting marks for workers in all industries and all occupations.
And there were Reuther’s many efforts to shift the labor movement in new directions.  His last attempt, and surely his boldest, came in 1969 when he led the United Auto Workers out of the AFL-CIO and into an “Alliance for Labor Action” with the then-unaffiliated Teamsters Union.
Reuther hoped the alliance of the country’s two largest unions could begin carrying out the programs he had suggested repeatedly to the AFL-CIO, only to be rebuffed by the former American Federation of Labor leaders who dominated the federation.
The alliance planned organizing drives among white-collar workers and other groups, particularly in the South, that the AFL-CIO had been neglecting. But the new organization hoped to go beyond organizing the unorganized, as important as that was.
The goals of the alliance were nothing less than a summary of the great needs of the country: Helping build low-cost housing, for instance; developing new job training programs; unifying the poor and minority groups; vastly improving education and health services; effectively attacking racial discrimination, poverty,  consumer fraud, and the particular problems of the young and the aged, and attacking urban decay, pollution and other environmental problems.
The alliance never really got going before Reuther’s death and dissolved shortly afterward.  Some of Reuther’s fellow labor leaders had scoffed, in any case, that it was actually nothing more than an attempt by Reuther to satisfy the ambitions for broad union leadership he had been unable to realize within the AFL-CIO.
“Walter,” they would tell you, “is just being Walter – all talk and no action.”
Well, they were right about one thing at least. The man could talk. Others were accustomed to it, after three decades of Reuther-watching, But he was new to me, and I marveled to see him hold audiences of thousands for an hour and more while speaking without a single note – strictly off the top of his head – and doing so with great and forceful eloquence.
I especially remember a talk he gave in 1966, in a dilapidated little auditorium in Delano, California, where vineyard workers led by Cesar Chavez just a few months before had begun the strike that someday would capture the attention of the entire country.
I played the sophisticate and smiled knowingly over Reuther’s wordy and dramatic promises to the farm workers. But then came the terrible news, four years later, of a plane down in Michigan, and I thought back to that cold December day in the grape country.
I remembered what those words had meant to the penniless, obscure and powerless band of farm workers who had gathered in the auditorium. There he was, one of the great leaders of America, promising to “stand with you until the end.”
I may have been fooled, but the farm workers were not fooled.  They knew that Walter Reuther meant exactly what he said.  He always did.
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 recent columns.

Progressives, labor, grassroots win in May 18 primaries


Forget all the talk of anti-incumbent (and by implication, anti-Democrat and anti-Obama) sentiment in the electorate. The primaries May 18, which I talk about here, actually sent a much more interesting message.

Yes, there was the election of Rand Paul, who is about as looney as they come , but Republicans have nominated looneys before. What’s interesting is that in most contested Democratic races, the more progressive candidate won. Randy Shaw points out that CNN had it all wrong, and refuses to acknowledge what actually happened. The Chron actually notes (in one of the few intelligent MSM post-election pieces) that labor, particularly the AFL-CIO, won big in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. In the only open house seat, the Democrats won.

In the Democratic primary in Kentucky, the more progressive candidate won. In Pennsylvania, the more progressive Democrat won. In Arkansas, a Democrat in name only is facing a runoff she might lose.

So the progressives and the grassroots organizers can get people to the polls — if there’s a candidate to vote for. What Nancy Pelosi needs right now is a good national issue to run on. Electoral reform, for example.

ENDORSEMENTS: National and state races


Editor’s note: the file below contains a correction, updated May 5 2010. 

National races



The Republican Party is targeting this race as one of its top national priorities, and if the GOP can dislodge a three-term senator from California, it will be a major blow for the party (and agenda) of President Obama. The pundits are happily talking about how much danger Barbara Boxer faces, how the country’s mood is swinging against big-government liberals.

But it’s always a mistake to count out Boxer. In 1982, as a Marin County supervisor with little name recognition in San Francisco, she trounced then-SF Sup. Louise Renne for an open Congressional seat. Ten years later, she beat the odds and won a hotly contested primary and tough general election to move into the Senate. She’s a fierce campaigner, and with no primary opposition, will have a united party behind her.

Boxer is one of the most progressive members of the not-terribly progressive U.S. Senate. She’s been one of the strongest, most consistent supporters of reproductive rights in Washington and a friend of labor (with 100 percent ratings from the AFL-CIO and National Education Association). We’ve had our disagreements: Boxer supported No Child Left Behind, wrote the law allowing airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, and was weak on same-sex marriage when San Francisco sought to legalize it (although she’s come around). But she was an early and stalwart foe of the war in Iraq, split with her own party to oppose a crackdown on illegal immigration, and is leading the way on accountability for Wall Street. She richly deserves reelection, and we’re happy to endorse her.




It’s odd that the representative from Marin and Sonoma counties is more progressive by far than her colleague to the south, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi. But over the years, Lynn Woolsey has been one of the strongest opponents of the war, a voice against bailouts for the big Wall Street banks, and a foe of cuts in the social safety net. We’re proud to endorse her for another term.




George Miller has been representing this East Bay district since 1974, and is now the chair of the Education and Labor Committee and a powerhouse in Congress. He’s too prone to compromise (with George W. Bush on education policy) but is taking the right line on California water (while Sen. Dianne Feinstein is on the wrong side). We’ll endorse him for another term.




We’ve never been terribly pleased with San Francisco’s most prominent Congressional representative. Nancy Pelosi was the author of the bill that created the first privatized national park at the Presidio, setting a horrible standard that parks ought to be about making money. She was weak on opposing the war, ducked same-sex marriage, and has used her clout locally for all the wrong candidates and issues. But we have to give her credit for resurrecting and pushing through the health care bill (bad as it was — and it’s pretty bad — it’s better than doing nothing). And, at a time when the Republicans are trying to derail the Obama presidency, she’s become a pretty effective partner for the president.

Her fate as speaker (and her future in this seat) probably depends on how the Democrats fare in the midterm Congressional elections this fall. But if she and the party survive in decent shape, she needs to take the opportunity to undo the damage she did at the Presidio.




Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley and Oakland, is co-chair of the Progressive Caucus in the House, one of the most consistent liberal votes in Congress, and a hero to the antiwar movement. In 2001, she was the only member of either house to oppose the Bush administration’s Use of Force resolution following the 9/11 attacks, and she’s never let up on her opposition to foolish military entanglements. We’re glad she’s doing what Nancy Pelosi won’t — represent the progressive politics of her district in Washington.




Most politicians mellow and get more moderate as they age; Stark is the opposite. He announced a couple of years ago that he’s an atheist (the only one in Congress), opposed the Iraq war early, called one of his colleagues a whore for the insurance industry, and insulted President Bush and refused to apologize, saying: “I may have dishonored the commander-in-chief, but I think he’s done pretty well to dishonor himself without any help from me.” He served as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee for exactly one day — March 3 — before the Democratic membership overruled Speaker Pelosi and chucked him out on the grounds that he was too inflammatory. The 78-year-old may not be in office much longer, but he’s good on all the major issues. He’s also fearless. If he wants another term, he deserves one.


State races



Jerry Brown? Which Jerry Brown? The small-is-beautiful environmentalist from the 1970s who opposed Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon nuke and created the California Conservation Corps, the Office of Appropriate Technology, and the Farm Labor Relations Board (all while running a huge budget surplus in Sacramento)? The angry populist who lashed out at corporate power on a KPFA radio talk show and ran against Bill Clinton for president? The pro-development mayor of Oakland who sided with the cops on crime issues and opened a military academy? Or the tough-on-crime attorney general who refuses to even talk about tax increases to solve the state’s gargantuan budget problems?

We don’t know. That’s the problem with Brown — you never know what he’ll do or say next. For now, he’s been a terribly disappointing candidate, running to the right, rambling on about preserving Proposition 13, making awful statements about immigration and sanctuary laws, and even sounding soft on environmental issues. He’s started to hit his stride lately, though, attacking likely GOP contender Meg Whitman over her ties to Wall Street and we’re seeing a few flashes of the populist Brown. But he’s got to step it up if he wants to win — and he’s got to get serious about taxes and show some budget leadership, if he wants to make a difference as governor.




Not an easy choice, by any means.

Mayor Gavin Newsom jumped into this race only after it became clear that he wouldn’t get elected governor. He sees it as a temporary perch, someplace to park his political ambitions until a better office opens up. He’s got the money, the statewide name recognition, and the endorsement of some of the state’s major power players, including both U.S. Senators and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He’s also been a terrible mayor of San Francisco — and some progressives (like Sup. Chris Daly) argue, persuasively, that the best way to get a better person in Room 200 is to ship Newsom off to an office in Sacramento where he can’t do much harm and let the supervisors pick the next mayor.

But it’s hard to endorse Newsom for any higher office. He’s ducked on public power, allowing PG&E to come very close to blocking the city’s community choice aggregation program (See editorial, page 5). His policies have promoted deporting kids and breaking up families. He’s taken an approach to the city budget — no new revenue, just cuts — that’s similar to what the Republican governor has done. He didn’t even bother to come down and talk to us about this race. There’s really no good argument for supporting the advancement of his political career.

Then there’s Janice Hahn. She’s a Los Angeles City Council member, the daughter of a former county supervisor, and the sister of a former mayor. She got in this race way before Newsom, and her nightmare campaign consultant, Garry South, acts as if she has some divine right to be the only Democrat running.

Hahn in not overly impressive as a candidate. When we met her, she seemed confused about some issues and scrambled to duck others. She told us she’s not sure she’s in favor of legalizing pot, but she isn’t sure why she’s not sure since she has no arguments against it. She won’t take a position on a new peripheral canal, although she can’t defend building one and says that protecting San Francisco Bay has to be a priority. She won’t rule out offshore oil drilling, although she said she has yet to see a proposal she can support. Her main economic development proposal was to bring more film industry work to California, even if that means cutting taxes for the studios or locating the shoots on Indian land where there are fewer regulations.

On the other hand, she told us she wants to get rid of the two-thirds threshold in the state Legislature for passing a budget or raising taxes. She supports reinstating the car tax at pre-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger levels. She supports a split-roll measure to reform Prop. 13. She wants to see an oil-severance tax to fund education. She’s one of the few statewide candidates who openly advocates higher taxes on the wealthy as part of the solution to the budget crisis.

We are under no illusions that Hahn will be able to use the weak office of lieutenant governor to move on any of these issues, and we’re not at all sure she’s ready to take over the top spot. But on the issues, she’s clearly better than Newsom, so she gets our endorsements.




Debra Bowen is the only Democrat running, a sign that pretty much everyone in the party thinks she’s doing a fine job as Secretary of State. She’s run a clean office and we see no reason to replace her.




Like Bowen, John Chiang has no opposition in the primary, and he’s been a perfectly adequate controller. In fact, when Gov. Schwarzenegger tried two years ago to cut the pay of thousands of state employees to the minimum wage level, Chiang defied him and refused to change the paychecks — a move that forced the governor to back down. We just wish he’d play a more visible role in talking about the need for more tax revenue to balance the state’s books.




Bill Lockyer keeps bouncing around Sacramento, waiting, perhaps, for his chance to be governor. He was attorney general. Now he’s treasurer seeking a second term, which he will almost certainly win. He’s done some good things, including trying to use state bonds to promote alternative energy, and has spoken out forcefully about the governor’s efforts to defer deficit problems through dubious borrowing. He hasn’t, however, come out in favor of higher taxes for the rich or a change in Prop. 13.




There are really only two serious candidates in this race, Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, and Rocky Delgadillo, the former Los Angeles city attorney. Harris has a comfortable lead, with Delgadillo in second and the others far behind.

Delgadillo is on his second try for this office. He ran against Jerry Brown four years ago and got nowhere. And in the meantime, he’s come under fire for, among other things, using city employees to run personal errands for him (picking up his dry-cleaning, babysitting his kids) and driving his car without insurance. On a more significant level, he made his reputation with gang injunctions that smacked of ethnic profiling and infuriated Latino and civil liberties groups. It’s amazing he’s still a factor in this race; he can’t possibly win the general election with all his baggage.

Harris has a lot going for her. She was among the first California elected officials to endorse Barack Obama for president, and remains close to the administration. She’s a smart, articulate prosecutor and could be one of the few women atop the Democratic ticket this year. We were never comfortable with her ties to Willie Brown, but he’s no longer a factor in state or local politics. These days, she’s more closely allied with the likes of State Sen. Mark Leno.

That said, we have some serious problems with Harris. She’s been up in Sacramento pushing Republican-style tough-on-crime bills (like a measure that would bar registered sex offenders from ever using social networking sites on the Internet) and forcing sane Democrats like Assembly Member and Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Ammiano to try to tone down or kill them (and then take the political heat). If she didn’t know about the problems in the SFPD crime lab, she should have, and should have made a bigger fuss, earlier.

But Harris has kept her principled position against the death penalty, even when it meant taking immense flak from the cops for refusing to seek capital punishment for the killer of a San Francisco police officer. She’s clearly the best choice for the Democrats.




Two credible progressives are vying to run for this powerful and important position regulating the massive — and massively corrupt — California insurance industry. Dave Jones and Hector De La Torre are both in the state Assembly, with Jones representing Sacramento and De La Torre hailing from Los Angeles. Both have a record opposing insurance industry initiatives; both are outspoken foes of Prop. 17; and either would do a fine job as insurance commissioner. But Jones has more experience on consumer issues and health care reform, and we prefer his background as a Legal Aid lawyer to De La Torre’s history as a Southern California Edison executive. So we’ll give Jones the nod.




Betty Yee has taken over a job that’s been a stronghold of progressive tax policy since the days of the late Bill Bennett. She’s done well in the position, supporting progressive financial measures and even coming down, as a top tax official, in favor of legalizing (and taxing) marijuana. We’re happy to endorse her for another term.




Two prominent Democratic legislators are running for this nonpartisan post, state Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles and Assembly Member Tom Torlakson of Martinez. It’s a pretty clear choice: Romero is a big supporter of charter schools who thinks parents should be able to move their kids out of one school district and into another (allowing wealthier white parents, for example, to abandon Los Angeles or San Francisco for the suburban districts). She’s been supported in the past by Don and Doris Fisher, who put a chunk of their GAP Inc. fortune into school privatization efforts. Torlakson wants more accountability for charters, opposes the Romero district-option bill, and has the support of every major teachers union in the state. Vote for Torlakson.




Sen. Leland Yee can be infuriating. Two years ago, he was hell-bent on selling the Cow Palace as surplus state property and allowing private developers to take it over. In the recent budget crisis, he pissed off his Democratic colleagues by refusing to vote for cuts that everyone else knew were inevitable (while never making a strong stand in favor of, say, repealing Prop. 13 or raising other taxes). But he’s always been good on open-government issues and has made headlines lately for busting California State University, Stanislaus over a secret contract to bring Sarah Palin in for a fundraiser — and has raised the larger point that public universities shouldn’t hide their finances behind private foundations.

Yee will have no serious opposition for reelection, and his campaign for a second term in Sacramento is really the start of the Leland Yee for Mayor effort. With reservations over the Cow Palace deal and a few other issues, we’ll endorse him for reelection.

 Correction update: Yee’s office informs us that the senator suports an oil-severance tax and a tax on high-income earners and “believes that Prop. 13 should be reformed,” although he hasn’t taken a position on Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s reform bill. 



Fiona Ma’s a mixed bag (at best). She doesn’t like Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and supports public power, but comes up with strange bills that make no sense, like a 2009 measure to limit rent control in trailer parks. Why does Ma, who has no trailer parks in her district, care? Maybe because the landlords who control the mobile home facilities gave her some campaign cash. She faces no opposition, and we’re not thrilled with her record, but we’ll reluctantly back her for another term.




When the history of progressive politics in modern San Francisco is written, Tom Ammiano will be a central figure. His long-shot 1999 mayoral campaign against Willie Brown brought the left to life in town, and his leadership helped bring back district elections and put a progressive Board of Supervisors in place in 2000. As a supervisor, he authored the city’s landmark health care bill (which Newsom constantly tries to take credit for) and the rainy day fund (which saved the public schools from debilitating cuts). He uses his local influence to promote the right causes, issues, and candidates.

And he’s turned out to be an excellent member of the state Assembly. He forced BART to take seriously civilian oversight of the transit police force. He put the battle to reform Prop. 13 with a split-role measure back on the state agenda. And his efforts to legalize and tax marijuana are close to making California the first state to toss the insane pot laws. As chair of the Public Safety Committee, he routinely defies the police lobbies and the right-wing Republicans and defuses truly awful legislation. We’re glad Ammiano’s still fighting in the good fight, and we’re pleased to endorse him for another term.




Nancy Skinner has taken on one of the toughest, and for small businesses, most important, battles in Sacramento. She wants to make out-of-state companies that sell products to Californians collect and remit sales tax. If you buy a book at your local bookstore, you have to pay sales tax; if you buy it from Amazon, it’s tax-free. That not only hurts the state, which loses hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, it’s a competitive disadvantage to local shops. Skinner’s a good progressive vote and an ally for Ammiano on the Public Safety Committee. We’re happy to endorse her for another term.




Sandre Swanson represents the district where BART police killed Oscar Grant, but he wasn’t the one out front pushing for more civilian accountability; that was left to SF’s Ammiano. And while Swanson was generally supportive of Ammiano’s bill, he was hardly a leader in the campaign to pass it. This is too bad, because Swanson’s almost always a progressive vote and has been good on issues like whistleblower protection (a Swanson bill that passed this year protects local government workers who want to report problems confidentially). We’ll endorse him for another term, but he needs to get tougher on the BART police.

Cheating U.S. workers


The drive to strengthen workers’ rights is one of the most important ever undertaken by an American administration

Hundreds of thousands of workers are being cheated by U.S. employers who blatantly violate the laws that are supposed to guarantee workers decent wages, hours and working conditions.

That’s been going on for a long time, but rarely as extensively as it was during the administration of George W. Bush. Thankfully, Bush is gone. And thankfully, President Obama and his outstanding Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, have this month launched a major campaign to try to overcome the very serious damage of the past.

Even the name of the campaign itself is very un-Bush-like. “We Can Help,” it’s called. Bush, of course, never so much as offered help to badly exploited workers. But he did, of course, offer plenty of help to their law-breaking employers.

So, just what are Obama, Solis and their allies in the labor movement and elsewhere up to? They’re taking some very big steps to encourage workers to report employer violations of the wage and hour laws – especially low-wage workers, who are the most exploited. And they’re trying to respond as quickly as possible to the workers’ complaints.

Undocumented immigrants, who are perhaps the most exploited of all workers, are being encouraged to make complaints and are promised they won’t be punished for their illegal status. As the Labor Department explains, all workers deserve decent treatment, whatever their legal status.

Solis’ Labor Department has made the campaign a top priority. The department has already hired more than 250 new investigators, increasing the number by more than one-third. Even with a lesser number, the department recovered more than $170 million in back pay for more than 200,000 workers since Obama took office.

The key element of the campaign is to make sure that workers understand their rights under the laws and report any violations of those rights.

Certainly there’s no doubt that there are plenty of violations to report. For instance, a recent survey of workers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago found thousands of rampant abuses of low-wage workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. They worked in stores, in factories and offices, at construction sites, in janitorial and food service jobs, in  warehouses, in  private homes  and elsewhere.

More than one-fourth of the workers had been paid less than the legal minimum wage, often by more than $1 an hour less. That amounted to an average of more than $50 week in underpayments on wages that averaged not much more than $300 a week to begin with.

Many of the workers had been denied overtime pay or had their pay illegally docked for the cost of tools or transportation. Some were forced work without pay before and after their regular work shifts. Slavery is the word for that – being forced to work without pay.

Although the Labor Department is relying primarily on workers themselves to report on employers’ labor law violations, the department is also getting help from the AFL-CIO, its affiliated unions and other worker advocacy groups.

They are distributing posters, fact sheets and booklets spelling out the wage and hour laws and how to report violations, arranging meetings between workers and Labor Department staffers, holding forums at union halls, and other steps.

The department also has begun a publicity campaign in English and Spanish that includes TV ads featuring prominent Latinos, such as Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, and prominent Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits.

Win or lose, the drive to greatly strengthen workers’ rights is one of the most important ever undertaken by an American administration. And I strongly suspect it will come in a winner.

Dick Meister, formerly 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 recent columns.





A union that made black history


The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a pioneering union that led the battle from the l930s to l950s against racial discrimination that laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the l960s. 

Few of the groups that we should honor during Black History Month are more deserving than the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a pioneering union that played a key role in the winning of equal rights by African Americans. The union, the first to be founded by African Americans, was involved as much in political as in economic activity, joining with the NAACP to serve as the major political vehicle of African Americans from the late 1930s through the 1950s. It led the drives in those years against racial discrimination in employment, housing, education and other areas that laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The need for a porters’ union was distressingly obvious. Porters commonly worked 12 or more hours a day, six or even seven days a week, on the Pullman Company’s luxurious sleeping car coaches for a mere $72.50 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. Pay was so low porters often had to draw on the equally meager earnings of their wives, almost invariably employed as domestics, to pay the rent at month’s end. It was a marginal and humiliating experience.

Porters were rightly proud of their work, a pride that showed in their smiling, dignified bearing. But they knew that no matter how well they performed, they would never be promoted. They could never be conductors. 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. No point in arguing. No point in even correcting the many passengers who called all porters “George” — as in George Pullman, their boss — whatever their actual names, just as slaves had been called by their masters’ given names. 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. No questions, no complaints, no protests. No rights. Nothing better epitomized the huge 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 precisely 12 years after union founder and president A. Philip Randolph had called the union’s first organizing meeting in New York City. But the long struggle was well worth it. The contract pulled the porters out of poverty. It brought them pay at least equal to that of unionized workers in many other fields, a standard work week, full range of fringe benefits and, most important, 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 him in 1968, led the drive that pressured President Roosevelt into creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission aimed at combating discrimination in housing as well as employment. FDR agreed to set up the commission — a model for several state commissions – 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 black 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 any other organization. Dick Meister, formerly 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 recent columns.

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

Labor widens and radicalizes its SF hotel fight


By Steven T. Jones

After a three-week break in their ever-escalating labor battle with the owners of San Francisco’s biggest hotels, Unite-Here Local 2 workers and their supporters plan to hit hard tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 5) with a rally featuring national labor leaders, an expansion of the union’s hotel boycott, and civil disobedience.

The action begins at 4 p.m. at 750 Market Street, in the plaza between between 3rd and 4th streets, forming into a march to O’Farrell Street outside the Hilton, which will be the latest hotel to be added to the union’s boycott list. The others are Le Meridien, Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, Grand Hyatt, Westin St. Francis, Palace Hotel, and the W Hotel.

The big national hotel chains have claimed the recession and high health care costs are forcing them to reject union demands for a 1.5 percent increase in worker pay, but the union calls that ridiculous, noting that Starwood Hotels and Resorts – which owns more than half the hotels on the boycott list – made $180 million in profit in the first three quarters of 2009 and saw their stock price increase 66 percent.

Supporting the union tomorrow will be local progressive groups as well as Unite-Here’s national president John Wilhelm and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, both of whom will speak at the rally. In addition, organizers say about 100 workers will engage in civil disobedience and face arrest.

Meister: A lesson too long unlearned


Wisconsin has enacted a law that makes the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining part of the state’s model standards for social studies classes in the state’s public schools

(Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for half-century)

Despite the importance of unions in our lives, our schools pay only
slight attention to their importance – or even to their existence.

Little is done in the classroom to overcome the negative view of organized labor held by many Americans, little done to explain the true nature of organized labor.

There have been many attempts to remedy that situation, none more promising than the steps taken recently in Wisconsin with enactment of a law that makes the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining part of the state’s model standards for social studies classes in the state’s public schools.

The law does not mandate the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining, as its sponsors had wanted. But it amounts to just about the same thing, by requiring the state superintendent of public instruction to make the subjects part of the state’s educational standards and to provide schools and teachers assistance in teaching labor subjects.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society, the state AFL-CIO and other labor and educational groups worked a dozen years to finally win enactment of the law, the first such state law anywhere. But the History Society fully expects other states to follow Wisconsin’s example.

The importance of including labor history in the classroom was underscored effectively in the latest issue of the American Federation of Teachers journal,

American Educator.

“With the key protections for workers that unions have gained under attack,” said a journal article, “there is a greater need for the next generation to understand the real role of working men and women in building the nation and making it a better place.”

James Green, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, explains that, in studying labor, students learn important lessons – above all “the contributions that generations of union activists have made to building a nation and democratizing and humanizing its often brutal workplaces.”

Fred Glass, communications director of the California Federation of Teachers,

provides an ideal primer for students studying labor. His summary is an excellent guide to what they should know about labor – a guide to what we should all know.

“Some people,” said Glass, “interpret the decline of organized labor as if unions belong to the past, and have no role to play in the global economy of the 21st century. They point to the numbers and say that workers are choosing not to join unions anymore.

“The real picture is more complex and contradicts this view. Most workers would prefer to belong to unions if they could. But many are being prevented from joining, rather than choosing not to join.”

Unions, Glass concludes, “remain the best guarantee of economic protection and political advocacy for workers. But as unions shrink, fewer people know what unions are, and do. And fewer remember what unions have to do with the prosperity of working people.”

That’s what our schools should be teaching, and presumably what they’ll be teaching in Wisconsin shortly, thanks to the new law there. If we’re fortunate, more states will soon follow suit.

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

Dick Meister: We need jobs! Now!


The most sensible job creation program comes from the AFL-CIO and a coalition of civil rights and other organizations

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator.)

Of all the ideas out there on how to pull us out of the economic mess we’re in, none makes more sense than the program laid out by the AFL-CIO and a coalition of civil rights groups and other organizations.

Dick Meister: Obama, labor, and FDR


Obama is well on his way to becoming the most pro-labor president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED’s TV’s “Newsroom,” has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a author, reporter, editor, and commentator.)

It¹s clear that Barack Obama is well on the way to becoming the most pro-labor president since Franklin D. Roosevelt – clear that he’s firmly committed to strengthening the vital union rights that FDR secured for U.S.
workers seven decades ago.

Consider Obama’s address to the AFL-CIO’s national convention in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15. Yes, the president was speaking to a friendly audience, saying what the convention delegates wanted him to say and promising them what they wanted him to promise. But his were not empty words.

Michael Moore coming to SF


By Steven T. Jones

We’re now getting word that the Commonwealth Club’s Inforum speakers series has just landed a big fish for this week: filmmaker Michael Moore, whose new “Capitalism: A Love Story” promises to make a big splash when it hits theaters on Oct. 2 (check out the glowing review of the film by Beyond Chron’s Randy Shaw, who saw an advanced showing yesterday at the AFL-CIO national convention).

Inforum officials tell us Moore will speak here in San Francisco on Thursday evening, Sept. 17, although details and ticket information haven’t yet been posted on the club’s website, although that’s expected soon. More to come.

Dick Meister: Labor’s White House friend


President Barack Obama brings new hope to America’s working families, says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has been covering labor and politics for more than half a century.)

Barack Obama the presidential candidate declared that the nation needed “a
president who doesn’t choke on the word ‘union.'” But now that Obama has
assumed the presidency – and good riddance to his virulently anti-union
predecessor — is he delivering on his promise to lead a pro-union

Absolutely, says the AFL-CIO, which played a major role in Obama’s victory.
The federation spent more than $450 million and put more than a
quarter-million volunteers to work in its campaigns for Obama and pro-labor
congressional candidates, and turned out millions of union voters.

“The political pendulum is swinging back toward sanity,” says AFL-CIO
President John Sweeney. “Barack Obama brings new hope to America’s working

It is clear, in any case, that Obama’s strong support for unions is genuine.
He really meant it when he said — not while campaigning for labor votes,
but after his election – that “I want to strengthen the union movement in
this country and put an end to the barriers and roadblocks that are in the
way of workers legitimately coming together in order to form a union and
bargain collectively.”

Imagine George Bush making such a statement. He would indeed have been very
likely to choke.

Obama already has done a lot to back up his words. For starters, he quickly
rescinded some of the most damaging of the anti-worker executive orders that
Bush had issued. One had allowed White House staffers to overturn, in behalf
of Bush’s employer allies, job safety regulations that the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration had promulgated. Obama ordered that those
regulations and some new ones go into effect immediately.

He also voided a Bush regulation that had allowed federal contractors to be
reimbursed for the costs of blocking unionizing drives. And Obama overturned
a regulation that had banned so-called Project Labor Agreements, which in
effect call for collective bargaining on federal and federally funded

Unions are especially pleased — and should be — with Obama’s appointment
of Congresswoman Hilda Solis to head the Labor Department. Bolstered by what
promises to be a substantial increase in funds and personnel for labor law
enforcement, Secretary of Labor Solis is certain to move forcefully to
protect and enhance workers’ rights. Under Bush, workers had little
protection from employer exploitation.

Workers didn’t get much help, either, from the Bush appointees who
controlled the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to protect
workers’ union rights. Bush’s NLRB did the opposite in many cases, siding
with employers to block workers from unionizing, particularly by failing to
act against such illegal employer tactics as firing or otherwise penalizing
pro-union workers.

Obama will soon be able to appoint a majority of board members who are
certain to protect workers’ rights. His appointee as NLRB chair, longtime
board member Wilma Liebman, is expected to put a high priority on reversing
board rulings that stripped union rights from thousands of workers.

Other important pro-labor steps taken by the new administration include:

*Creating a cabinet-level “task force” headed by Vice President Joe Biden to
give working people a direct voice in developing and coordinating policies
to improve the status of poor and middle class Americans.

*Obama’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which Bush had threatened to
veto. It overturns a Supreme Court decision that made it virtually
impossible for women to sue for wage discrimination.

*The signing of a bill, vetoed twice by Bush, that reauthorizes a health
insurance program for more than 10 million children of low-income workers.

Additionally, Obama’s budget and stimulus programs call for major
infrastructure projects that would provide as many as 3.5 million
well-paying construction jobs. The programs also would give tax relief to
working people, create job training programs to help low-wage workers and
ex-offenders learn marketable skills and, among other changes, update the
unemployment insurance system to provide more help to the jobless.

Several other promised reforms await White House action, including
strengthening the union rights and job security of federal employees. What
organized labor wants most is passage of the highly controversial Employee
Free Choice Act that would remove the legal obstacles that have limited
union expansion. Obama supports the act, but he’s been giving signals that
he would back a compromise version because of heavy pressure from opponents
that threatens to block congressional approval.

Although some unionists are demanding that Obama take a stronger stand on
the proposed act and otherwise show even more support for labor, most
unionists seem to be highly pleased with his actions so far. The AFL-CIO
praises him for taking “big, concrete steps” to lay the foundation for
important change.

The federation’s organizing director, Stewart Acuff, says Obama is “doing
extremely well in very difficult circumstances. He continues to have our
unwavering support and appreciation …. There is much to be done and we
intend to do all we can to help him succeed.”

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has covered labor and
political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website,

Do the right thing, Dianne


OPINION At the end of World War II, approximately 36 percent of American workers belonged to a union. Today that number has shrunk to about 12 percent, lagging behind the world’s other industrial democracies. But now, with a Democratic president in office, we have a realistic chance of enacting the most significant piece of labor legislation in decades, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect the right of workers to organize into a union.

The opposition, of course, is well organized and well funded. Opponents will spend more than $200 million to defeat the bill in the Senate. They will argue that EFCA is just a special interest bill that helps big labor. But the truth is that the legislation should be part of the long-term economic recovery plan and is key to rebuilding the middle class.

In 1980, average CEO pay was 42 times that of the average blue-collar worker. By 2006, CEO pay had grown to 364 times the average blue collar worker’s pay. A survey of median weekly earnings in 2007 revealed that union workers make 30 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, and are 59 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage than other workers.

The key EFCA reform, and the one that has generated the most controversy, is called “card-check.” Under EFCA, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finds that a majority of employees have signed written authorization forms designating the union as their collective bargaining representative, the union is certified.

Opponents of card-check often argue, erroneously, that EFCA will deprive workers of their right to a so-called secret ballot. In fact, EFCA preserves both options, but it places the choice in the hands of workers, not employers. Moreover, the history of these “secret ballot” elections shows that they are often anything but democratic. Too often employers use their power over unorganized employees to intimidate them into voting against the union. Such documented employer tactics have included mandatory attendance at antiunion meetings, one-on-one meetings, threats to close the business if the union wins the vote, and harassing or even firing workers engaged in organizing activity.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has an 87 percent lifetime voting record from the AFL-CIO and has co-sponsored EFCA in the past. But now, with EFCA finally within reach, she has announced that she is looking for a “less divisive” option.

Say it isn’t so, Senator.

For many years progressive activists have had concerns about Feinstein, even going as far as to seek her censure at a state Democratic convention two years ago. In 2007, the party leadership reminded the activists that although she may stray occasionally, Feinstein is really a good Democrat who shares our basic values and commitments. There was no censure.

But workers’ rights is no side-issue in our Democratic Party. Economic justice is the issue. This is a moment of truth for Feinstein — and all of us who are her constituents have an obligation to help her get to the right answer.

On April 28 at 7 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center, the SF Labor Council, Pride at Work, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club are sponsoring a community briefing on our campaign to urge Feinstein to support working people. Join us. *

Robert Haaland is the co-chair, SF Pride at Work. Rafael Mandelman is president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.


Feinstein MIA on Employee Free Choice Act


By Tim Redmond

So why is Sen. Feinstein the only Democrat in the California delegation who hasn’t signed on as a cosponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s number one priority for the year?

Curious — she supported it in 2007, and it’s exactly the same bill. I called her press office, and they promised to get back to me. Haven’t heard yet, but I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, Steve Smith, a spokesperson for the AFL-CIO in California, told me that Feinstein “has said nothing one way or the other in public. But she was very clear in her support for the bill two years ago, and we fully expect she will support it in 2009.”

Let’s keep on eye on her, eh?

UPDATE: Feinstein’s office got back to me with this statement:

Senator Feinstein has supported the Employee Free Choice Act in the past. She is not a co-sponsor of the current bill at this point, but is considering it very carefully. She is concerned about this extraordinarily difficult economy and is taking a very serious look at the legislation.

So .. maybe she’s backsliding a bit. We’ll be watching.

Dick Meister: Labor’s high hopes



By Dick Meister

Organized labor is rightly claiming a major role in the Nov. 4 victories of President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats ­ and is rightly expecting much in return.

The figures are impressive. One-fifth of all voters were union members or in union households, and fully two-thirds of them supported Obama, a ratio even higher in battleground states.

The AFL-CIO calculates that more than a quarter-million volunteers campaigned among their fellow union members and others, discussing the issues that were of particular importance to working people, drumming up support for Obama and other labor-friendly Democrats and, finally, getting labor voters to the polls on election day.

Local Heroes


Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

Del Martin, left, and Phyllis Lyon

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have lived active lives — although “activist” would be the better word. One, the other, or both have been founding members of the Daughters of Bilitis, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, and Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. Martin, 87, was the first lesbian elected to a position in the National Organization for Women, where she was also the first to assert that lesbian issues are feminist issues. Lyon, 83, edited the Ladder, the first magazine in the United States devoted to lesbian issues. And together, it seems, there’s little they haven’t done, from coauthoring books to becoming the first gay couple in the nation to legally marry on Feb. 12, 2004, almost 50 years to the day they first became a couple.

Deemed void later that year, their marriage was reconstituted this June when the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is, in fact, legal. Once again, Martin and Lyon were the first in line to tie the knot.

But gay marriage wasn’t the right they were fighting for when their relationship began back in 1954. “We had other, bigger issues. We didn’t have anything in the ’50s and ’60s,” Lyon recalls. “We were worried about getting a law passed to disallow people from getting fired or thrown out of their homes for being gay.”

Even something as simple as having a safe space to congregate was elusive. Before the mid-1950s, the only organizations that dealt with gay issues were run by and focused on men. So Martin and Lyon, along with a few other lesbian couples, founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. “We would meet in homes, dance, and have drinks and so on, and not be subject to police raids, which were happening then in the gay and lesbian bars,” Lyon said. Those informal get-togethers eventually became the first lesbian organization with chapters nationwide.

They say their activism isn’t something that was sparked by their gender and sexuality, but came from being raised in politically conscious homes — Lyon in Tulsa, Okla., and Martin in San Francisco. When they met, working at the same company in Seattle, “both of us were already politically involved,” Lyon says.

“Really, ever since we were kids,” Martin adds. “You followed elections. You followed things like that. We wore buttons for Roosevelt. We couldn’t send money because we didn’t have any.”

“And then when we both moved in together, in San Francisco, the first thing we did was get involved with Adlai Stevenson,” Lyon says. They quickly got to know the major Democratic movers and shakers in the city, like the Burton family and later Nancy Pelosi, whom they would eventually turn to when there were gay issues that needed a push.

“We didn’t come out to everybody, but we came out to Nancy and the Burtons,” Lyon says.

These days age has tamped down the physically active part of their political activism, although they still donate money and were ardent Hillary Clinton supporters during this year’s Democratic primary race. They’re now backing Barack Obama over John McCain, though Martin expressed reservations. “I’m waiting to see how he handles the question about women and women’s rights. I’m not satisfied yet.”

Amanda Witherell


Local hero

Alicia Schwartz

Alicia Schwartz

Whether she’s demanding sit-down time with the mayor to discuss asbestos dust at Hunters Point Shipyard, offering to debate former 49ers president Carmen Policy over the need to develop 50 percent affordable housing in the Bayview, or doing the cha-cha slide on Third Street to publicize the grassroots Proposition F campaign, which fought the Lennar-financed multimillion-dollar Proposition G on the June ballot, Alicia Schwartz always bubbles with fierce enthusiasm.

“I absolutely love my job,” says Schwartz, who has been a community organizer with POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) for four years.

Born and raised in Marin County, Schwartz graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a degree in sociology and anthropology before returning to the Bay Area, where she is enrolled in San Francisco State University’s ethnic studies graduate program and works for the San Francisco–based POWER.

“It’s an amazing organization full of amazing people, united for a common vision, which is ending oppression and poverty for all,” says Schwartz. “In cities, the priorities are skewed to benefit folks who are wealthier and have more benefits. But the folks who keep the city running are not recognized or are suppressed.”

Prop. F wasn’t Schwartz’s first campaign experience. She had previously organized for reproductive justice, for access to health care and sexual-health education, and against the prison-industrial complex.

But it was the most inspirational campaign she’s seen so far.

“I saw the Bayview transformed,” Schwartz explains. “I saw people who’d lost faith in politicians come to the forefront and fight for the future. And I saw people across the city rallying in support, too.”

Schwartz acknowledges that Prop. F didn’t win numerically.

“But practically and morally, and in terms of a broader vision, Prop. F advanced the conversation about the future of San Francisco, about its working-class and black future,” Schwartz says. “Clearly, that fight isn’t over. It’s just beginning.”

Schwartz says she believes that the other success of Prop. F is that it raised the question of who runs our cities.

“And I think it was a huge victory, even being able to accomplish running a grassroots campaign, with no money whatsoever and where we had to up the ante, in terms of getting to know some of the political establishment.”

Most of all, Schwartz says she appreciated being able to work with people who hadn’t been part of POWER.

“And I appreciated being able to advance a set of demands that a broad range of people could support, while keeping the Bayview and its residents at the forefront,” she says.

While that particular campaign may be over, the battle for Bayview–Hunters Point continues on many fronts, says Schwartz.

“Are we going to allow it to be run by developers who don’t have our best interests at heart and who fool us with payouts and false promises?” she asks. “Are we going to allow San Francisco to become a place where people can’t afford to live, but surely have to come to work?”

Amanda Witherell

Local hero

James Carey, Daniel Harder, and Jeff Rosendale

From left, Daniel Harder, James Carey, and
Jeff Rosendale

It would be unfair to give any one person credit for stopping the state’s foolish plan to aerially spray synthetic pheromones to eradicate the light brown apple moth (LBAM). Thousands were involved in that struggle.

But there are at least three individuals we can think of who successfully fought the state with science, a tool that too often is used to dupe, not enlighten, the public.

They are James Carey, a University of California, Davis, entomology professor; Daniel Harder, botanist and executive director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum; and Jeff Rosendale, a grower and horticulturalist who runs a nursery in Soquel.

Together and separately, this trio used experience, field observation, and fact-finding tours to make the case that the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) would court disaster, in terms of lost time, money, and public goodwill, if it went ahead with the spraying.

And they did so at a time when UC, as an institution, remained silent on the matter.

“I felt like I needed to do this. No one was stepping up from a position of entomological knowledge,” says Carey, whose prior work on an advisory panel working with state agencies fighting the Mediterranean fruit fly between 1987 and 1994 led him to speak out when the state sprayed Monterey and Santa Cruz counties last fall.

Carey says the signatures of two UC Davis colleagues, Frank Zalom and Bruce Hammock, on a May 28 letter to the US Department of Agriculture also helped.

“All of us are senior and highly credentialed scientists,” Carey notes, “so our letter was taken really seriously by the agriculture industry.”

Rosendale and Harder had taken a fact-finding tour last December to New Zealand, which has harbored this leaf-rolling Australian bug for more than a century, to find out firsthand just how big of a problem the moth really is.

“We wanted to get the best information about how they were dealing with it, and what it was or wasn’t doing,” Rosendale recalls. What he and Harder discovered was that New Zealand had tried using organophosphates, toxic pesticides, against the moths — but the chemicals killed all insects in the orchards, including beneficial ones that stopped parasites.

“When they stopped using organophosphates, the food chain took care of the LBAM,” Rosendale says.

Like Carey and Rosendale, Harder believes that the state’s recently announced plan to use sterile moths instead of pesticides is a lost cause. He says it’s impossible to eradicate LBAM at this point because the pest is already too widespread.

“It’s not going to work, and it’s not necessary,” Harder says.

And now, Glen Chase, a professor of systems management specializing in environmental economics and statistics, says that the CDFA is falsely claiming that the moth is an emergency so it can steal hundreds of millions from taxpayer emergency funds.

“The widespread population of the moth in California and the specific population densities of the moth, when analyzed with real science and statistics, dictate that the moth has been in California for at least 30 to 50 years,” states Chase in a July 15 press release.

The state has put spraying urban areas on hold, but the battle isn’t over — and the scientists who have gone out on a limb to inform the public are still on the case.

Sarah Phelan


Local hero

Queer Youth Organizing Project

From left, Fred Sherburn-Zimmer,
Josue Arguelles, Jane Martin, Vivian Crocket,
Justin Zarrett Blake,
Joseles de la Cruz, and Abel-Diego Romero

The queer-labor alliance Pride at Work, a constituent group of the AFL-CIO, added a youth brigade last year, and it’s been doing some of the most inspired organizing and advocacy in San Francisco. The Queer Youth Organizing Project can marshal dozens of teen and twentysomething activists with a strong sense of both style and social justice for its events and causes.

Founded in March 2007, QYOP has already made a big impact on San Francisco’s political scene, reviving the edgy and indignant struggle for liberation that had all but died out in the aging queer movement. Pride at Work has also been rejuvenated and challenged by QYOP’s youthful enthusiasm.

“It really is building the next generation of leaders in the queer community, and man, are they kick-ass,” says Robert Haaland, a key figure in both Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Pride at Work. “Pride at Work is now a whole different organization.”

QYOP turned out hundreds of tenants for recent midday City Hall hearings looking at the hardball tactics of CitiApartments managers, an impressive feat that helped city officials and the general public gain a better understanding of the controversial landlord.

“They have a strong focus on tenant issues and have done good work on Prop. 98 and some tenant harassment legislation we’ve been working on,” says Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “They really round out the coalition between tenants and labor. They do awesome work.”

In addition to the energy and numbers QYOP brought to the campaign against the anti–rent control measure Prop. 98, the group joined the No Borders encampment at the Mexican border in support of immigrant rights and turned a protest against the Human Rights Campaign (which angered some local queers for supporting a workplace rights bill that excluded transgenders) into a combination of pointed protest and fun party outside the targeted group’s annual gala dinner.

“It’s probably some of the most interesting community organizing I’ve seen in San Francisco,” Haaland says. “It’s really made a difference in our capacity to do the work.”

As an added bonus in this essentially one-party town, QYOP is reaching young activists using mechanisms outside the traditional Democratic Party structures, an important feature for radicalized young people who are wary of partisan paradigms. And its members perhaps bring an even stronger political perspective than their Party brethren, circulating reading lists of inspiring thinkers to hone their messages.

Haaland says QYOP has reenergized him as an activist and organizer: “They’re teaching me, and it’s grounding me as an activist in a way I haven’t been for a long time.”

Steven T. Jones