Dick Meister

Meister: A Halloween invasion from Mars


Guardian columnist Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area journalist.

“2X2L calling CQ … 2X2L calling CQ, New York … Isn’t there anyone on the
air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone?”

Millions of Americans — panic-stricken, many of them — waited anxiously
for a response to the message, delivered over the CBS radio network in slow,
flat, mournful tones on the crisp Halloween eve of Oct. 30, 1938.

“Isn’t … there … anyone?”

There wasn’t. Listeners heard only the slapping sounds of the Hudson River.

Many of New York’s residents were dead. The others had fled in panic from
“five great machines,” as tall as the tallest of the city’s skyscrapers,
that the radio announcer at CQ, New York, had described in the last words he
would ever utter. The metallic monsters had crossed the Hudson “like a man
wading a brook,” destroying all who stood in their way.

“Our army is wiped out, artillery, air force — everything wiped out,”
gasped the radio announcer.

It was the War of the Worlds, Mars versus Earth, and the Martians were
winning with horrifying ease. Their giant machines had landed in the New
Jersey village of Grovers Mill, and soon they would be coming to your town,
too … and yours … and yours. Nothing could stop them.

The War of the Worlds had sprung with frightening clarity from the extremely
fertile imagination of Orson Welles and the other young members of the
Mercury Theater of the Air who adopted Wells’ novel and dramatized it so
brilliantly — and believably — from the CBS radio studios on that long ago
Halloween eve.

Their use of realistic sounding bulletins and other tools of radio news
departments made it sound as if Martian machines truly were everywhere, and
everywhere invincible.

Studies done at the time show that at least one million of the program’s
estimated six million listeners panicked.

“People all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically
to escape death from the Martians,” noted Hadley Cantril, an actual
Princeton professor who directed the most detailed study of the panic that
was caused in part by the pronouncements of “Richard Pierson,” a bogus
Princeton professor played by Welles.

“Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings,
hurried to inform neighbors … summoned ambulances and police cars … For
weeks after the broadcast, newspapers carried human interest stories
relating the shock and terror of local citizens.”

“When the Martians started coming north from Trenton we really got scared,”
a New Jerseyian told one of Professor Cantril’s interviewers. “They would
soon be in our town. I drove right through Newberg and never even knew I
went through it … I was going eighty miles an hour most of the way. I
remember not giving a damn, as what difference did it make which way I’d get

Those who didn’t join the streams of cars that clogged the highways clogged
the phone lines or huddled in cellars and living rooms to await the end,
some with pitchfork, shotgun or Bible in hand.

“I knew it was something terrible and I was frightened,” a woman recalled.
“When they told us what road to take, and to get up over the hills, and the
children began to cry, the family decided to go. We took blankets and my
granddaughter wanted to take the cat and the canary.”

It was an extremely rare occurrence., as Cantril noted: “Probably never
before have so many people in all walks of life and in all parts of the
country become so suddenly and so intensely disturbed …”

And never since then has the country experienced such deep and widespread
fear and anxiety. Not even after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
three years later. Not even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept.
11, 2001.

It was a unique display of widespread panic. Many people actually believed
their very world was coming to an end and there was nothing anyone could do
to stop it.

Welles had made clear at the start that the presentation was fictional. But
radio listeners generally paid little attention to opening announcements,
and many Sunday night listeners commonly turned first to the very popular
Edgar Bergen-Charley McCarthy show that was broadcast over another network
in the same 8 p.m. time slot, turning to the Mercury Theater out of
curiosity only later.

What they heard that Sunday were primarily news reports and commentaries
ingeniously patterned on the real reports and commentaries that were
constantly interrupting programs to report the aggressive actions of Nazi
Germany and other events that would shortly lead to the outbreak of World
War II.

People expected to hear the worst. Most also expected that what they heard
would be accurate, radio having supplanted newspapers as the most trusted
and relied upon of the mass media.

It helped, too, that much of the information was presented by “experts” …
Welles and other make-believe professors from universities around the world,
supposed astronomers, army officers and Red Cross officials, even the
otherwise unidentified “secretary of the interior.”

“I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the professor from Princeton
and the officials in Washington,” as one listener recalled.

Even relatively sophisticated and well-informed listeners were fooled by
what Cantril cited as the program’s “sheer dramatic excellence.”

Events developed slowly, starting with the relatively credible — brief news
bulletins calmly reporting some “atmospheric disturbances,” later some
“explosions of incandescent gas,” and finally the discovery of what appeared
to be a large meteorite. Only then came the incredible — the discovery that
the “meteorite” was a Martian spaceship, reported in a halting, incredulous
manner by the “reporter” supposedly broadcasting live from Grovers Mill.

The police, the New Jersey State Guard, the army — none could subdue the
invaders. Finally, the “secretary of the interior” announced that man could
do no more, that the only hope for deliverance from the Martians was to
“place our faith in God.”

Few listeners were in a position to make independent judgements about
matters Martian. Few knew astronomy, and what standards does one use to
judge an invasion from Mars anyway?

Listeners could easily have turned to other radio networks for the truth, of
course, but many were too caught up in the masterful drama of the CBS
program to think of that.

Even some people who lived near the alleged invasion site were fooled. “I
looked out the window and everything was the same as usual,” said one, “so I
thought it hadn’t reached our section yet.”

The second half of the hour-long broadcast, with “Professor Pierson”
wandering dazedly through the deserted and ravaged streets of New York,
should have made it obvious to even the most gullible that they had been
listening to drama rather than news. Welles, shocked and shaken by the
listener response, followed that quickly with an ad-libbed assurance that it
had all been make-believe.

But by then, many people had left their radios. They had other ways in which
to spend their last hours on earth.

Copyright © 2013 Dick Meister
Guardian columnist Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area journalist

Meister: The Legislature shows Congress how


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Give corporate tax breaks to employers who create jobs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2013 Dick Meister

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

Dick Meister: Still dreaming of justice


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Meister: We’ve suffered a great loss


She’s gone, Gerry, the love of my life, my dearly beloved wife for 57 years. It’s difficult at this time of deep mourning for me to think of Gerry except in the context of our long and extremely happy life together and great devotion to each other, difficult to think of Gerry as anything but a loving partner who shared my life for so long.

We met briefly while I was playing semi-professional baseball in Gerry’s hometown of Coquille on the Oregon coast in 1952, and again a few years later during a party at Stanford, where we were both students. I was introduced to her as someone who actually knew of Coquille.

Within two years, we were married. That came shortly after a lunch date at Tommy’s Joynt on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. We were earnestly discussing the merits of Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (remember him?} and savoring our beer and pastrami on rye when it suddenly popped into my head, and I blurted it out : “I think we ought to get married.” Gerry paused for just a moment. “Yes,” she said, “I think we should.”

But our relationship aside, let me don my journalist’s hat to objectively note that Gerry was long one of the key leaders in the often extraordinary efforts of active and retired teachers and other public employees to win, secure and expand their rights and benefits.

Gerry died in San Francisco on March 4 at 77 after a brief struggle with cancer.  She was most recently chair of the 900-member retired division of the local teachers’ union, the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) and co-chair of the Protect Our Benefits Committee (POB) that advocates for retired teachers and retired public employees generally.

Gerry was particularly effective in advocating for the local Health Service System (HSS) and insisting that it provide workers the health care they required. It was a very difficult task to which she devoted most of her time after retiring in 2001 from the social studies teaching post she had held with distinction at San Francisco’s Washington High School for nearly 40 years. She had taught more than 7000 students and generously mentored scores of new teachers. She was an activist member of the Silver Eagles organization of retired Washington teachers and of several neighborhood organizations.

She  played a major role in passing the ballot initiative that defined the HSS as a separate and thus much more effective agency in 2004 and went on to become a valued advisor to each HSS director and to the many retirees who sought her help

Gerry also was a leader in political campaigns involving ballot initiatives. She led the way to victory for several important worker-friendly measures and to the defeat of several that she and her fellow activists and their allies thought harmful to the general public as well as to teachers, students and retirees.

Gerry, who modestly described her work as “doing what needs to be done,” was an exceptionally popular teacher and leader. Her death drew dozens of messages from students, her fellow teachers and others praising and thanking her for her life’s work and for leaving behind an invaluable legacy.

They described Gerry as overwhelmingly concerned about others, always giving, but never taking; loyal; highly competent and knowledgeable, tenacious, dynamic, brilliant, truly inspirational.

Gerry’s work, conducted with integrity, grace, warmth and compassion, made her a force for truth and justice throughout her lifetime  and an inspirational guide for those who follow. We are fortunate she lived among us, and I am especially fortunate that she lived her extraordinary life with me.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Protect Our Benefits Committee, P.O.
Box 320057, San Francisco 94132, or to Gerry Meister Scholarship Fund, UESF
Retired Division, 170 Topeka Ave., San Francisco 94124.

Dick Meister: Honor a legendary organizer


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is co-author of A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers (Macmillan)

There’s still time, if you hurry, to join a nationwide campaign  to posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to legendary organizer Fred Ross. For more than a half-century he was among the most influential, skilled, dedicated and successful of the community organizers who have done so much for the underdogs of American society.

Most people have never heard of Fred Ross, which is exactly how he wanted it. He saw his job as training others to assume leadership and the public recognition that accompanies it.  And train them he did, hundreds of them, including farm worker leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who were previously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Chavez and Huerta were typical Ross trainees ­­ poor, inexperienced members of an oppressed minority who were inspired to mobilize others like them to stand up to their oppressors.

“Fred did such a good job of explaining how poor people could build power I could taste it,” Chavez recalled.

Chavez was among the Mexican Americans living in California’s barrios in the 1950s that Ross, then with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, was helping form political blocs to demand improvements in the woefully inadequate community services provided them.

Ross’ approach was, as always, to get people to organize themselves, and he sensed correctly that young Chavez was “potentially the best-grass-roots leader I’d ever run into.”

Within just a few years, the small organizations formed by the residents of the particular barrios joined into a potent statewide group, the Community Services Organization, headed by Chavez.

A few years later, Chavez and Huerta founded what became the United Farm Workers Union. It was the country’s first effective organization of farm workers precisely because it was built in accord with Ross’ principles ­­ from the ground up by farm workers relying heavily on such non-violent tactics as the boycott.

Ross had started out to be a classroom teacher after working is way through the University of Southern California in 1936. But he could find no teaching jobs in that dark year of the Great Depression. He took other public work, eventually managing the federal migratory labor camp near Bakersfield, California, that novelist John Steinbeck used as a model for the camp that had a central role in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Fiction though it was, Steinbeck’s account was accurate. Conditions in the camp were deplorable. So were the conditions imposed on the migrants by the local growers for whom they worked.

But the migrants organized themselves to win better living and working conditions, thanks to young Fred Ross. He went from cabin to cabin and tent to tent every morning after daybreak, encouraging camp residents to form the organizations that helped improve their conditions,

Ross had found his life’s work. He would become a full-time organizer, a task he described as being “a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.” Never was Ross paid more than a marginal salary, sometimes no more than room, board and expenses, but never would he falter.

His goal was “to help people do away with fear­­ fear to speak up and demand their rights ­ ­ to push people to get out in front so they could prove to themselves they could do it.”

Ross left the migrant group to work with the Japanese Americans on the West Coast who were herded into internment camps during World War II. Ross, then with the American Friends Service Committee, helped internees win release by finding them jobs in the manpower-short steel plants and other factories in the Midwest that produced vital war materials.

After the war, he returned to southern California, to help African Americans and Mexican Americans fight against housing and school segregation.  They fought effectively, too, against police brutality and helped elect Los Angeles’ first Hispanic city councilman.

Ross also worked in Arizona, helping Yaqui Indians get sewers, paved streets, medical facilities and other basic needs that had been denied their communities.

Ross’ most ambitious and probably most satisfying work came during his 15 years of training hundreds of organizers and negotiators for the United Farm Workers from the UFW’s inexperienced and long-oppressed rank-and-file members.

Ross kept at it for virtually the rest of his life, joining his son, Fred Jr., a highly regarded organizer himself, in grass-roots campaigns for liberal politicians and progressive causes. He actively supported a wide variety of international as well as domestic issues, much of the time working with anti-nuclear and peace groups.

It was not until four years before his death in 1992, when Alzheimer’s Disease struck, that he finally stopped.

Fred Ross was an organizer’s organizer, a trailblazer, a pioneer. He was ­­and he remains ­­ a vitally important model for those seeking to empower the powerless and to truly reform, if not perfect, this imperfect society.

“Fred fought more fights  and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation against social injustice than anyone we’re ever likely to see again,” noted Jerry Cohen, formerly the UFW’s general counsel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted  that Ross “left a legacy of good works that have given many the courage of their convictions, the powers of their ideals, and the strength to do heroic deeds on behalf of the common person.”

Honoring Ross, said his son, would be recognizing “the foot soldiers in all struggles that do the day to day work but rarely get acknowledged for their labors. It’s about honoring the farm workers, low- wage urban workers, and all those fighting for social justice against what many see as insurmountable odds.”

To add your voice to those urging President Obama to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fred Ross, send an email before Feb. 28 to presidential aide Julie Chavez Rodriquez at Julie_C_Rodriguez@who.eop.gov. Please send a blind copy to Fred Ross Jr. at fredross47@gmail.com. You might also ask your House and Senate representatives to join others in Congress who have signed a letter urging the President to act.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is co-author of A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers (Macmillan)


Dick Meister: Martin Luther King Jr. — a working class hero


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


While celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, let’s remember that extending and guaranteeing the rights of working people was one of Dr. King’s major concerns.

 You’ll recall that King was in fact assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for striking sanitation workers who were demanding that the city of Memphis, Tennessee, formally recognize their union.

King had been with the 1300 African-American strikers from the very beginning of their 65-day struggle. He had come to Memphis to support them despite threats that he might indeed be killed if he did.

King considered the right to unionization one of the most important civil rights. And virtually his last act was in support of that right. For his assassin’s bullet struck King as he was preparing to lead strikers in another of the many demonstrations he had previously led.

King’s assassination brought tremendous public pressure to bear in behalf of the strikers. President Lyndon Johnson dispatched federal troops to protect strikers and assigned the Under Secretary of Labor to mediate the dispute. Within two weeks, an agreement was reached that granted strikers the union rights they had demanded.

For the first time, the workers’ own representatives could negotiate with their bosses on setting their pay and working conditions. They could air their grievances. And they got overtime pay, their first paid holidays and vacations, first pensions, first health care benefits.

They got a substantial raise in pay that had been so low that forty percent of the workers had qualified for welfare payments.

And they won agreement that promotions would be made strictly on the basis of seniority. Which assured the promotion of African Americans to supervisorial positions for the very first time.

The strikers’ victory led quickly to union recognition drives –– and victories ––by   public employees throughout the South and elsewhere.

As a strike leader said, the strikers had won dignity, equity and access to power and responsibility.

Those clearly were the lifelong goals of Martin Luther King Jr., whether he was seeking civil rights for African Americans or labor rights for all Americans, black and white alike.

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




Dick Meister: Your first World Series is always the best


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

Whoopie! Our valiant Giants are in the World Series again, for the fifth time since they moved to the city from New York in 1958. Pretty exciting, but it can’t possibly be more exciting than the first SF Giants series in 1962.
Actually, it was more than excitement that swept San Francisco during that ’62 World Series and the regular season leading up to the series. It was near-hysteria. As a young reporter for the SF Chronicle in those days, I felt it up close and very personal.

It didn’t matter what had happened anywhere in the world during that summer and early fall, the main headline in the Chronicle and the city’s other two daily newspapers, spread in screaming black type 1 1/4 inches high all across the top of page one – day after day – was almost always about them.

Merchants filled the newspapers with ads that offered goods “the Giants look up to,” promised “big league values,” and, of course, congratulated the Giants and their fans for every victory leading to the series.

The hype was too much for some of us at the Chronicle, even me, a former ballplayer. I joined ten others to sign an anti-baseball petition prompted by the airing at the paper – loudly and daily – of the radio broadcasts of Giants’ games.

 “It is not that we have any inherent objection to the Great American Pastime,” the petitioners explained. “Our protest is against the unilateral establishment of an electronic device which broadcasts to a captive city room the trivia associated with the sport. Exhortations like ‘Willie Mays,’ while they obviously provoke a pseudo-religious ecstasy among fans, leave a number of us writhing in embarrassment.”

We gained nothing by our petition. Worse, City Editor Abe Mellinkoff added insult to injury by sending us out, transistor radios in hand, to capture the mood of the “man on the street” during the World Series’ broadcasts. I was the first to get the assignment. I was supposed to rush up to people in the street after particularly exciting plays, get their excited comments and weave them into one of the fluffy page one feature stories my editors favored – “wiggly rulers,” they called them, after the wavy lines used to set them off.

But I stuffed the radio into a jacket pocket and wandered aimlessly around Chinatown, where there were few Giants fans in evidence, returning later to explain lamely that I just couldn’t find any men in the street who cared about the World Series.

The next day, the radio was turned over to another reporter, but he had no more interest in the assignment than I. City Editor Mellinkoff, hinting darkly that he might fire the lot of us for insubordination, got his story on the third try – even though the reporter he sent out that day spent the whole time in his favorite drinking establishment down the street.

The reporter returned to the office barely able to walk, much less type a story or give a coherent excuse for not doing so. We propped him up carefully behind a desk in the far reaches of the city room, safely hidden from the nearsighted city editor, then dictated a story to another reporter at the desk directly in front of his, using the names of friends for our men on the street and quotes we had turns making up to go along with the names.

As he completed a page, the reporter who was typing the story would turn and lay it on the desk of the reporter who supposedly was writing the story, one of us would shout, “Boy!” and a copy boy would grab the page and rush it to the city editor’s desk at the front of the room.

It was a very lively story, quite possibly the best wiggly ruler the Chronicle had run in several months.

Eat your veggies and join a union


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meister: Walker won in Wisconsin, but so did labor


By Dick Meister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Meister: A decent living for all?


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

Finally there’s some good news for the millions of Americans who must to live on pay at or close to the legal minimum wage. Eight states are raising their minimum wage on January First, in line with state laws requiring the minimum to keep pace with inflation.

The raises to come are modest by any measurement. But any increase must be welcomed as desperately needed and hopefully as a major start toward increasing the minimum wage everywhere to a level that will provide a decent living to all working Americans, many of them living in poverty or near-poverty.

The minimum wage is just as important now as it was in 1938, when the wage law was enacted as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, with a promise of guaranteeing workers “a standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general wellbeing.”

The federal rate was set at 25 cents an hour, with states and local governments free to set their own minimums, as long as they are above the federal rate.

Today’s rates are much higher, of course, although barely adequate. The federal rate is $7.25 an hour, only about $15,000 a year for full-time workers before taxes and other deductions. Eighteen states, more than 100 cities and counties and the District of Columbia have higher rates, but their rates also are clearly inadequate.

During his 2008 election campaign, President Obama proposed raising the minimum to  $9.50 an hour by 2011. But even though that would merely adjust the minimum wage for inflation, Congress and the White House have done little to make it happen.

Some of Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress actually have called for the minimum wage to be abolished, largely because their big money backers in the restaurant business, who employ about 60 percent of all minimum wage workers, are against it, as are many other business and corporate interests.

Congress’ failure to act has left it up to the states. The eight that are raising their rates on New Year’s Day include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.  Their rates will increase by 28 to 37 cents an hour to between $7.64 and $9.04. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) calculates that will bring nearly 1.4 million full-time minimum wage workers an extra $582 to $770 per year.

Another 400,000 will get raises as pay rates are adjusted upward to reflect new minimum wage rates. It’s not just individual workers who will benefit from the raises. Like all low-wage workers, they must spend virtually every cent they earn, thus raising the overall demand for goods and services and the hiring of new employees to help provide them.

NELP estimates that the increased consumer spending generated by the raises will add $366 million to the gross domestic product and create the equivalent of more than 3,000 full-time jobs. Other estimates indicate that every dollar increase in wages for workers at the minimum creates more than $3,000 in new spending after a single year.

And we shouldn’t forget that those earning the minimum include many of our most valuable yet needy and exploited workers.  Most work in the service or retail fields, as domestics providing home health care for the elderly and other household services or caring for the children of working mothers, for example. Others work in agriculture.

Many can’t find full-time jobs even at the bare minimum.  More than one-third are the main or sole support of their families. Almost two-thirds are women, many of them single mothers. One-third are African-American, Latino or Asian. Many are recently arrived immigrants. Only a few belong to unions or have other protections aside from the law.

But wouldn’t a minimum wage increase cause businesses to cut back their hiring, as opponents of minimum wage raises claim? No. Studies show that even during times of high unemployment, raising the minimum does not lead to a loss of jobs. Actually, the number of jobs has grown after each of the 19 times the federal minimum has increased over the past 73 years.

Consider this, too: Taxpayers are providing billions of dollars in subsidies to employers of minimum wage workers, since much of the money paid out in public assistance goes to families whose working mothers do not earn enough to be self-supporting. Private charities provide additional millions in aid.

There’s no doubt employers are shifting a significant part of their labor costs to the general public, and no doubt that welfare costs could be reduced substantially if the minimum wage they had to pay was raised to a decent level.

Think of the benefits to society generally if the minimum wage workers who now must depend on government assistance could earn enough to make it on their own.

Think of the benefits to employers. As several studies have shown, raising workers’ pay raises workers’ morale and with it, their productivity, while decreasing absenteeism and replacement costs.

Think of the benefits to small retail businesses. Opponents of a minimum wage increase say they’d be hurt the most by a higher minimum wage, but it’s far more likely they’d be among the greatest beneficiaries. For minimum wage workers have no choice but to spend most of their meager earnings in neighborhood stores for food and other necessities.

Tiffany Williams of the Institute for Policy Studies says raising the minimum wage “would be a step toward restoring dignity for millions of workers, enabling many ordinary working Americans to become part of the economic recovery rather than its collateral damage.”

Hard to argue with that, or with Christine Owens, NELP’s executive director,  who says the minimum wage increases “represent bright spots on an otherwise bleak economic horizon. Workers’ buying power is the secret weapon in the fight to get our economy back on track. States are taking action to protect that critical buying power. Congress should follow their example to realize those benefits for the national economy.”

Let the minimum wage raises in eight states be just the beginning of raises in all states.  Let all Americans have the right to a decent living

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

Dick Meister: The artistry of silence in film


Dick Meister is a long-time San Francisco writer. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

I didn’t get much sleep last night. I was kept awake thinking of a film – “The Artist” – I had just seen. It stands out, even in the harsh light of day, as one of the very best of the many movies, silent and sound movies alike, that I’ve watched over the past 60 years. (Read the Guardian’s take on the film here.)

Although the widely-acclaimed movie was made this year, “The Artist” is a silent film, except for an excellent music soundtrack that sounds like the live orchestral music that accompanied major silent films. That practice ended, of course, with the coming of talkies.

That’s the movie’s major theme, the end of the silents – a theme it handles even better than other excellent films covering the topic, such as “Singin’ in the Rain.” I won’t go beyond noting the theme, for fear of disclosing the plot, but, believe me, it’s a very well-plotted and well-acted theme.

It was filmed in the United States, and two of its co-stars, Penelope Ann Miller and John Goodman, are American, but it’s really a French film. The director, Michael Hazanavicius, is French, as are the two lead characters, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. They play it straight with none of the mugging and exaggerated gestures that were common in the silents of yesterday.

But, boy, do Dujardin and Bejo look like the silent stars of yesterday, he classically handsome with pencil-thin mustache playing a silent film idol in the late 1920s, she with the pert, almost always-smiling look of a twenties flapper seeking film stardom. Their acting is indeed special, as is that of an incredibly talented fox terrier named Uggie, Dujardin’s romping, steadfastly loyal canine sidekick.

All that, and dancing, too – especially the stars’ dynamic hoofing to jazz melodies that could have come straight out of the twenties. They will surely turn you to toe-tapping and maybe the urge to leap up and do a little body swaying yourself.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s exceptional film critic, Mick LaSalle, describes Dujardin’s performance as “extraordinary and lovely, the first truly great silent film performance in about 80 years.” Amen to that, and to LaSalle’s assessment of “The Artist” as “a profound achievement . . . a product of serious study, honest appreciation and love” of silents.

Maybe it could even lead to a resurgence of the silent film, a medium that has not been of much interest to contemporary audiences. For the average person’s exposure to silents – if any – has been primarily through the speeded-up, bleached-out, “sound-enhanced” silents shown occasionally on television, that greatest of all the enemies of thoughtful, imaginative silence.

Watching silents presented as intended is an experience unlike any other, one that brings the actors and their audiences particularly close, far closer than most sound films. It requires special skills of actors, film directors and editors, who cannot rely on the crutch of words and sounds to reach the audience.

It requires great involvement and concentration by the audience as well. Silent film viewers are free to exercise their right to interpret cinematic actions as they wish, to imagine for themselves the retort of the gun, the scream of the heroine, the lonesome whistle of the train.

They are free to imagine all that’s being said, be it in French, or any other language. Silent films are truly universal and truly a distinctive art form apart from sound films.

Relatively few people have been privileged to see silents as they were meant to be seen. “The Artist” gives them that rare opportunity.

Dick Meister is a long-time San Francisco writer. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

Dick Meister: Newt’s wacko 18th century idea


Providing services is secondary to them, however needed the services might be. Saving money is their concern, whatever the consequences of the savings might be.

In case you haven’t heard the details of Rep Gingrich’s outrageous suggestion, let me recap what he’s said about it over the past week or so. Honest, this is exactly what he’s proposed.

You know those child labor laws that were first enacted in the 19th century to protect children from serious exploitation – laws that limit their working hours, give them time to get a decent education and protect them from workplace dangers that could very well lead to serious harm?

Those laws are still in effect, on the state and federal level. The federal law limits the working hours of children under 16 to no more than three hours a day or 18 hours a week when school is in session or 40 hours a week when school is not in session. Some states limit working hours even more.

Ah, but that’s too much for Newt Gingrich. He calls the child labor laws “truly stupid.” That’s right: “stupid.” That surely puts Gingrich right where he belongs, squarely in the 18th century.

Gingrich’s 18th century plan calls for schools to “get rid of unionized school janitors “and hire poor school kids to clean the schools in low-income neighborhoods.”. That’s what the man said. Just think of that. And he wants to be president!

But Gingrich is right on one thing. Yes, as he says, kid janitors “would be dramatically less expensive than unionized janitors.” But obviously the difference is well worth paying, although not to Rep. Gingrich.

But don’t be too hard on the man. He’s only talking about working the kids a mere 20 hours a week.  And this, said Gingrich, would empower them to succeed. He actually said that kids in the poorest neighborhoods are trapped by the child labor laws that prevent them from earning money. They also, of course, protect kids from serious exploitation, but that apparently doesn’t concern Gingrich.

So what should schools do to carry out Gingrich’s 18th century plan? “Get rid of their unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school . . .the kids would actually do work.”

Why, that would give them “pride in the schools.” And the students “would begin the process of rising.

What next? Have classes in janitoring? Put teachers to work with brooms, too?

AFSCME is currently asking people to add their names to an on-line letter that says Gingrich’s idea “is outrageous, dangerous and downright hogwash.” You can add your name to the letter at www.reallynewt.com.

The letter notes that “doing janitorial work in a school entails sanitizing toilets, handling hazardous cleaning chemicals and scrubbing floors hunched over a mop for hours. It’s hard to imagine a nine-year-old doing any of those tasks. Come on.”

The union cites another important point that Gingrich ignores: A lot of those unionized janitors he’d replace with kids are parents. And their janitorial jobs “put a roof over kids’ heads, food on the table, and provide them with health care and the chance to get an education.

“That job is the only thing between a kid and poverty. Firing someone’s mom and hiring the kid for less money, isn’t exactly the ‘process of rising.'”

Could it possibly be that Newt Gingrich is willing to exploit children 18th century style in order to boost his campaign for president?  You make the call.

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

Heroes who did their jobs on 9/11


By Dick Meister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Meister: Workers gaining in fight for union rights


This year marks the 76th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law that was essential in building an American middle class – and which remains essential to the well-being of all working Americans. 

But you know what? Powerful corporate interests and their Republican buddies in Congress are nevertheless trying mightily to cripple what has so long been one of the most important U.S. laws of any kind.

Their main target currently is the National Labor Relations Board – the NLRB –which administers the National Labor Relations Act and takes seriously the act’s stated purpose of encouraging collective bargaining between workers and their employers.

The five-member labor board did very little to carry out its task of encouraging unionization during the notoriously anti-union Bush administration. But under President Obama, the NLRB has been doing its job – or has been trying to do its job — in the face of stiff Republican opposition.

The Republican opponents claim – what else? – that under Obama, the NLRB has become a tool of organized labor, Big Labor, as they like to call it.

It’s impossible to take those charges seriously. The labor board obviously has not been acting as an agent of unions, big or small. It’s merely been enforcing the law. But that, of course, means anti-labor forces no longer have the firm cooperation of the NLRB in their attempts to weaken unions as much as possible. They no longer have an ally in the White House. Bush is gone.

Imagine that. The National Labor Relations Board is actually doing what the law says it should do. And unions are actually getting a more or less even break vis-à-vis the corporate interests with whom they collectively bargain – or with whom they try to bargain.

What’s really got the anti-labor crowd sputtering lately is a ruling by the NLRB’s acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon,  against the Boeing Aircraft Company. Boeing was charged with breaking the labor law by moving a major assembly line from a unionized plant in Washington State to South Carolina, a notably anti-union state, in response to a machinist strike at the Washington plant. 

Moving the assembly line was done in violation of a provision in the National Labor Relations Act that bans companies from punishing striking unions by withholding or transferring jobs. Thus, said the NLRB’s Solomon, the assembly line should be moved back to Washington State.

Oh, boy, those union-hating Republicans in Congress didn’t like that at all. They threatened to defund the NLRB if it doesn’t withdraw its order to Boeing, trotting out their usual tired response to just about anything done in favor of unions these days. You’ve undoubtedly heard it – thousands of  times, maybe. Yes, that’s right. A ruling in favor of labor and labor law would be . . . Ah, yes, a job killer. Sure.

GOP House members have actually introduced something called – really – “The Protecting Jobs From Government Interference  Act.” that would void the NLRB order against Boeing  and prohibit future such orders. The proposed law undoubtedly has the approval of the union-hating U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has led the right-wing charge against the NLRB. It complains that the labor board is “out of control.”

Actually, the NLRB is out of control  – out of control of the right-wingers who had  their way throughout Bush’s two terms and are miffed that, unlike Bush, Obama doesn’t think their way is the only way to handle labor-management relations.

Much to the chagrin of the right-wingers, the labor board has come back strong under Obama. One of the board’s most important steps has been to develop rules to streamline the workplace elections that are held to determine if workers want to unionize. 

The board has cut short the pre-election periods that employers have used to harass workers into voting against unionization, approaching them individually and in mass meetings, frequently threatening to fire or otherwise penalize workers who vote for union representation. Obama’s NLRB also has cut back the time for management to appeal the outcome of a vote for unionization.

The changes, as one union attorney noted, are “common sense changes that drag labor law into the 21st century.” 

Common sense often doesn’t mean much to anti-labor Republicans. Sensible or not, they plunge onward on the anti-labor path that’s always been theirs. According to a count by Politico.com’s Joseph Williams, House Republicans have convened oversight hearings on the NLRB or summoned board members to Capitol Hill 14 times since the midterm elections to answer harassing questions and have threatened to severely cut the NLRB’s budget to “bring the board to heel.”

So, it’s still not easy for unions and workers who want to join unions, despite the progressive change in the NLRB’s attitude and operations. 

But the situation is looking much better since the change has come, since the law that promises American workers the right of unionization – and the important benefits that come from it – -is now being enforced by people who believe that their mission is not to hamper unions, but to encourage their growth for the benefit of all Americans.


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


Dick Meister: New hope for domestic workers



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dick Meister: Farm workers need drastic change


No workers are more in need of union protection than the nation’s miserably treated farm workers. Yet a promising new effort to ease their path to unionization has been blocked by one of their former champions, Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown was rightly hailed for signing, in an earlier term as governor, the 1975 law that granted farm workers in California the collective bargaining rights denied them nationwide. It’s the weapon farm workers must have if they are to escape poverty and the arbitrary and often harmful actions of grower employers.

But now, Brown has vetoed a bill sponsored by the United Farm Workers union, the UFW, that would have made it much easier for farm workers to unionize. Currently, they can be granted bargaining rights only if a majority working for a particular grower votes for unionization. The vetoed measure, the so-called Card-Check Bill, would have granted bargaining rights simply on the showing of union membership cards or petitions for union recognition signed by a majority of workers.

Farm workers, of course, are among our most important workers. They help feed us, after all. Their pay nevertheless averages less than $10,000 a year, and most lack employer-paid health care and other benefits. They work hard, frequently under the blazing sun, with few  – if any – rest breaks and without even such simple on-the-job amenities as fresh drinking water and toilets.

The UFW, which sponsored California’s 1975 law, has been trying for many years to remedy farm workers’ conditions by leading them in drives aimed at winning union contracts that promise them decent treatment and an effective voice in determining their wages, hours and working conditions.

 It’s not been easy for the UFW, even with the law in effect. Thanks mainly to employer intimidation and high worker turnover, the union has been able to sign up only a small part of California’s farm labor force and to win only a relatively few contracts from growers. But it’s an important start. Without the law, it would have been nearly impossible.

So why in the world did self-proclaimed farm worker advocate Jerry Brown veto the bill that would have strengthened the union rights granted farm workers in the bill he signed 36 years earlier?

Well, Brown didn’t say much, but did say he didn’t like the bill because it called for “drastic change.”  Which it did, of course. That, as Brown must know, is exactly what’s needed.

Requiring union rights to be granted only by elections gives growers a great opportunity to unfairly pressure workers into voting against unionization – and many take full advantage of the opportunity.

It’s common for growers faced with elections to require workers to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, threaten to fire union supporters and warn that they might have to go out of business if their farms are unionized, or at least greatly curtail operations and thus job opportunities.

“You’re talking about voting on the employer’s site, with foremen and supervisors making eye-contact with you after they’ve alluded to or flat out threatened you with the loss of your job or your housing,” notes a UFW vice president, Armando Elenes. “It takes a lot of strength to even vote.”

There’s plenty of evidence that employers do indeed put lots of pressure on workers to vote against unionization. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez notes, for example, instances of growers pulling guns on workers who were trying to organize.  That may seem exaggerated – but not to anyone who’s experienced the superheated grower-worker confrontation up close.

The UFW is not giving up the struggle for Card-Check recognition. The union will soon re-introduce the Card-Check bill in Congress with the strong backing of the nation’s labor leaders. Some of them call it the single most important labor bill in the country this year.

It certainly is for farm workers and should be for workers in other industries throughout the country who also seek Card-Check rights, and for anyone who wants decent treatment for those whose vital work helps put food on our tables.


Dick Meister is co-author of “A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers” (Macmillan). He can be reached through his website, www. dickmeister.com.


Dick Meister: Paid sick leave is good for us all


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s obviously the sensible thing to do.


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


Dick Meister: Can a woman beat Hoffa?



A woman as president of the macho Teamsters Union that was once headed by supermacho Jimmy Hoffa? It could happen. 

Sandy Pope thinks so, and she’s going to try as hard as she can to make it happen – going to try as hard as she can to succeed Hoffa’s lawyer son, Jimmy junior, as head of one of the country’s largest and most powerful unions.

If a majority of delegates at the Teamster convention that opened today in Las Vegas vote for Pope to unseat Hoffa, who was first elected a dozen years ago, she’ll be only the third woman to ever head an international union.

Randi Weingarten, the highly regarded president of the American Federation of Teachers, who took office in 2008, is one of the others. The third is Mary Kay Henry, who just recently succeeded the controversial Andy Stern as president of the country’s largest union, the 1.3 million-member Service Employees International Union, the SEIU.

The Teamsters comes in at number two, with 1.2 million members. Hoffa’s supporters argue that Sandy Pope is not up to handling such a huge and diverse union. Her record, however, seems to indicate otherwise.

For 33 years, the 54-year-old Pope has held her own in the union’s macho culture, as a driver of big long haul freight trucks and as a warehouse worker.  For seven years she’s been president of a New York Teamster local of drivers and warehouse workers, one of only 16 of the Teamster’s 407 locals nationwide to be headed by a woman.

Before that, Pope was an international union representative in the Teamster’s warehouse division. She’s been a longtime leader of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which has exposed much of the corruption that’s been common in the union since the days of Hoffa senior as president.

The TDU’s work has led to some important corrections in union operations, but much remains to be done, and it’s unlikely that Hoffa junior would do much about it.  As the incumbent, he’s running a status quo campaign. Some local level Teamster officials fear retaliation from Hoffa and his allies if they campaign for Pope.

But Pope certainly isn’t backing off one bit. She’s promising to halt or at least slow the concessions that Teamster negotiators have granted employers in recent years.  Under her, she says, the union” will close the concessions stand.”

It also would push the union’s officers off the gravy train. In one Minnesota Teamsters local closely allied with Hoffa, for instance, the principal officer is paid $200,000 a year. Hoffa himself is paid $363,000.  And that’s going on at the same time that many rank-and-file Teamsters are taking pay and benefit cuts and otherwise feeling the effects of a declining economy.

It’s what the pro-labor magazine “Labor Notes” quite accurately calls “the union leadership’s back-scratching, pocket-lining culture.”

Generally speaking, Pope’s promising to return to the basics of union operations – to build public support, mobilize the union’s current members and wage a major organizing drive to recruit new members. Pope also promises that some 20,000 of the union’s members whose jobs have been downgraded to part-time can expect a drive to make those jobs full-time.

It’s clear that, like many dissident Teamsters, Sandy Pope is “sick of having a lawyer with a big name hijack our union.”


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


Dick Meister: The battle of our generation



President Bob King of the United Auto Workers union is proving again that he’s one of our most astute labor leaders, a worthy occupant of the position once held by the legendary Walter Reuther.

King’s latest column in Solidarity, the UAW’s official magazine, certainly proves that. King writes about the severe weakening of the union rights that are supposedly guaranteed all working people – the right to organize. King calls that “the first amendment for workers.”

That basic and essential right was granted U.S. workers by the National Labor Relations Act – the NLRA – that was enacted in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal measures that were designed in part to pull the country out of the Great Depression.

But now, says UAW President King, the NLRA’s basic process for determining whether workers want to organize – having them vote for or against unionization – is “fatally flawed.” King says the National Labor Relations Board ­–­ the NLRB – which is charged with enforcing the NLRA, does not do that – “does not protect workers’ right to organize.”

Workers’ lack of adequate legal protection is not a new development, as King notes. It’s been a serious problem for several decades. Since the 1970s, employers have been allowed to hire anti-union consultants “to design sophisticated ways to intimidate workers trying to organize.”

Boy, have they. Supervisors are trained to put pressure on individual workers to vote against unionizing. Workers are forced to attend meetings where they are warned of the dire consequences they’ll face if they vote for unionizing. Employers threaten to close down if their employees vote for a union. Union supporters are commonly disciplined, sometimes fired. And employer lawyers “find thousands of excuses for delaying elections. “

King needn’t look beyond his own union for examples of the NLRB’s ineffectiveness against the dictatorial actions of employers against unions. He could cite hundreds of cases involving the UAW.

For instance, last August, six years after the UAW lost a union election by just three votes at a facility in North Carolina, the NLRB finally ordered a new election “because the employer violated the law in more than a dozen ways.” The violations included threatening to do away with the jobs held by union supporters, spying on workers’ meetings and interrogating workers about union activity.

By now, however, all 25 members of the union’s organizing committee have left for other jobs, most union supporters have been fired, laid off or quit. And the new election still hasn’t been scheduled.

Another example involves a California facility. Seventy percent of the workers there signed union membership cards, but were so intimidated by management that only 19 workers out of 161 dared vote for UAW representation.

King says the union is “returning to its roots of direct action on behalf of workers rights.” Which is no small matter, given the UAW’s influential position within the labor movement.

The union is demanding that “all corporations, whether American or foreign-owned, allow their workers to freely decide whether to organize.”

King calls that “the battle of our generation,” as it surely is. He says “the battle for the First Amendment right to organize will determine the survival of the labor movement. It is the mission of our generation of trade unionists to secure these rights for future generations. We must win this fight for our children and grandchildren.”

King and other UAW officers are going to “call upon each and every member to give some time – perhaps two hours a week – to participate in public demonstrations for the First Amendment.”

The union also will be seeking the support of workers and their unions in other countries, since the UAW is dealing with companies whose owners are in Japan, Korea and Germany and whose products are sold worldwide. The UAW will in turn support the struggles of foreign workers for union rights in their countries, as part of “the global fight to force corporations to respect workers’ right to organize.”

It’s important to remember the UAW’s crucial role in helping establish a true middle class in this country through its organizing of the auto industry. That led workers in other industries to also demand – and get – decent wages, benefits and working conditions.

UAW President King thinks his union can lead the way again, this time to reforms that will protect and expand the union rights that the autoworkers and others won seven decades ago. Those are the rights that had so much to do with the rise of a true middle class, whose standing is now endangered by the anti-union onslaughts of employers and their government allies.


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


Dick Meister: Unions save lives



A miner’s life is like a sailor’s

‘Board a ship to cross the waves

Every day his life’s in danger

Still he ventures being brave

—Traditional labor song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving lives. No union could have a greater purpose.


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


Dick Meister: The minimum wage is a poverty wage


Imagine trying to live on pay of $7.25 an hour. Even if you managed to work full eight-hour days, you’d be making only about  $58 a day, $290 a week, or a measly $15,000 a year.  And out of that would come taxes and other deductions.

According to the standards of the federal government, you’d be living in poverty. Yet $7.25 an hour is the federal minimum wage set by Congress. State legislatures can and do set state minimums higher than the federal rate, but never lower, much as some would like to.

Far too many workers have no choice but to take minimum wage jobs, no choice that is, but to live in poverty. New research out of Columbia University’s law school lays out the sorry details of the minimum wage workers’ very serious situation, one that should never be tolerated in a country with such riches as ours.

In many states, the minimum wage laws are but barely enforced, in part because there’s little or no money budgeted for enforcement. But it’s also because the government agencies charged with enforcing the laws are clearly not much interested in carrying out their mandate.

Equally at fault are the governors and state legislators who’ve done virtually nothing to try to help their state’s neediest workers earn a decent living. They have to be aware that no one can make a decent living at the current minimum wage rates.

The government officials who have been ignoring the problems could at least try to make sure that employers pay workers the legal minimum, however inadequate it might be.  And the government officials could apply effective pressure to raise the minimum. They could, but given their record in such matters, that’s most doubtful.

Congress could raise the federal minimum, but having just recently raised it, that’s extremely unlikely, even though it should be obvious to everyone that a higher rate is needed to effectively help the many working people who badly need help.

It may be hard to believe, but despite the great need of workers and despite the widespread violations of the minimum wage laws, five states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – have no agency assigned to enforce the minimum wage laws and other laws designed to protect workers rights.

The researchers also found that a majority of states do not fine or penalize employers who violate the minimum wage laws and other wage and hour laws. Which means that employers “have little or no incentive to obey wage and hour laws if the only repercussion for violating them is to have to pay wages owed in the first place.”

The report warns that “without meaningful enforcement by state regulators, some employers will simply disregard their legal obligation if doing so allows them to save time, money or effort, putting the majority who wish t abide by the law at a significant competitive disadvantage, This creates a regulatory race to the bottom by states as they seek to compete to attract businesses.”

Most important, it denies workers the basic rights and protections the law promises them but often fails to deliver.


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




Dick Meister: A Memorial Day Massacre



It’s a dramatic, shocking and violent film. Some 200 uniformed policemen armed with billy clubs, revolvers and tear gas angrily charge an unarmed crowd of several hundred striking steelworkers and their wives and children who are desperately running away. The police club those they can reach, shoving them to the ground and ignoring their pleas as they batter them with further blows. They stand above the fallen to fire at the backs of those who’ve outraced them.

Police drag the injured along the ground and into patrol wagons, where they are jammed in with dozens of others who were also arrested. Four are already dead from police bullets, six others are to die shortly. Eighty are wounded, two-dozen others so badly beaten that they, too, must be hospitalized.

The close-ups are particularly brutal. As one newspaper reviewer noted, “In several instances from two to four policemen are seen beating one man. One strikes him horizontally across the face, using his club as he would a baseball bat. Another crashes it down on top of his head and still another is whipping him across the back.”

The film ends with a sweaty, fatigued policeman looking into the camera, grinning, and motioning as if dusting off his hands.

The film was made in 1937. It was not, however, one of those popular cops and robbers features of the thirties. It was not fictional. It was an on-the-scene report of what historians call “The Memorial Day Massacre,” a newsreel segment filmed by Paramount Pictures as it was happening on the south side of Chicago on May 30, 1937.

We’re accustomed these days to the use of videotaped evidence to show wrongdoing by abusive law enforcement officers. Video technology was unknown in 1937, of course, and though film was available, it had rarely – if ever – been used for that purpose. The 1937 film, in fact, was initially kept from the general public by Paramount’s executives. Fearful of “inciting riots,” they refused to include it in any of their newsreels that were shown regularly in movie theaters nationwide.

But the film was shown to a closed session of a Senate investigating committee chaired by Robert LaFollette Jr. of Wisconsin. The committee, concerned primarily with civil liberties, was outraged – particularly since the Chicago police had acted in violation of the two-year-old federal law that guaranteed workers the right to strike and engage in other peaceful union activities.

The committee found that strikers and their families, while noisily demanding collective bargaining rights as they massed in front of the South Chicago plant operated by Republic Steel, had indeed been generally peaceful.

But that was beside the point to the police in Chicago and other cities with plants operated by Republic and two other members of the “Little Steel” alliance that also were struck.  For, as the committee concluded, the police had been “loosed … to shoot down citizens on the streets and highways” at the companies’ behest. The companies even supplied them with weapons and ammunition from their own stockpiles.

The committee said the companies had spent more than $40,000 on machine guns, rifles, shotguns, revolvers, tear gas canisters and launchers and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to use against strikers. Republic alone had more supplies than any law enforcement agency in the entire country.

The companies were prepared to go to any extreme to remain non-union. Two closed their plants temporarily, anticipating that most of the 85,000 strikers would soon be forced to return to work because they had little – if any – savings. But though Republic Steel closed most of its plants, it continued to operate the Chicago plant and a few others.

Republic fired union members at the plants that remained open and, with police help, cleared out union sympathizers and brought in strikebreakers to replace them. The strikebreakers, guarded by police day and night, ate and slept in the plants to avoid confronting the pickets outside.

Municipal police, company police and National Guardsmen harassed and often arrested pickets for doing little more than lawfully picketing. Six strikers were killed outside Republic’s Ohio plants in Cleveland, Youngstown, Canton and Massillon.

The killings and other violence, the steadily increasing financial pressures on strikers, unceasing anti-union propaganda – all that and more combined to end the strike in mid-July, two months after it had begun.

But the steelworkers didn’t give up.  Determined to not have made such great sacrifices in vain, they turned to the labor-friendly administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help. They got it in 1941, when heavy pressures from the administration finally forced the steel companies to recognize their employees’ legal right to unionization and the many benefits, financial and otherwise, that it brought them and the many other industrial union members who followed their lead.

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


Dick Meister: Ronald Reagan’s Law of the Jungle


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

The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’ s birth is coming up in February, and before the inevitable gushing over what a wonderful leader he was begins, let me get in a few words about what sort of a leader he really was.

Ronald Reagan was, above all, one of the most viciously anti-labor presidents in American history, one of the worst enemies the country’s working people ever faced.

Republican presidents never have had much regard for unions. But until Reagan, no Republican president had dared challenge labor’s firm legal standing, gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s.

Reagan’s Republican predecessors treated union leaders much as they treated Democratic members of Congress – as adversaries to be fought with at times, but also as people to be bargained with at other times. Reagan, however, engaged in precious little bargaining. He waged almost continuous war against organized labor and the country’s workers from the time he assumed office in 1980 until leaving the presidency in 1988.

Reagan had little apparent reason to fear labor politically. Opinion polls at the time showed that unions were opposed by nearly half of all Americans, and that nearly half of those who belonged to unions had voted for Reagan in both his presidential campaigns.

Reagan, at any rate, was a true ideologue of the anti-labor political right. Yes, he had been president of the Screen Actors Guild, but he was notoriously pro-management in that position. He led the way to a strike-ending agreement in 1959 that greatly weakened the union and finally resigned as union president under heavy membership pressure before his term ended.

Reagan’s war on labor as U.S. president began in the summer of 1981, when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union.

As Washington post columnist Harold Meyerson noted, that was “an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers. Employers got that message loud and clear, illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing  permanent employees  who could collect benefits with temps who could not, and shipping factories and jobs abroad.”

Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were originally designed to protect and further the rights of workers and their unions. Most important was Reagan’s appointment of three management representatives to the five- member National Labor Relations Board.

The appointees included NLRB Chairman Donald Dotson, who declared that “unionized labor relations have been the major contributors to the decline and failure of once healthy industries” and have caused “destruction of individual freedom.”

A House committee found that under Dotson, the NLRB abandoned its legal obligation to promote collective bargaining, in what amounted to “a betrayal of American workers.”

The NLRB settled only about half as many complaints about employers’ illegal actions as did the board during the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter. Most of the complaints were against employers who responded to organizing drives by illegally firing union supporters. The employers were well aware that, under Reagan, the NLRB was taking an average of three years to rule on complaints, and the board did no more than order that the discharged unionists be reinstated with back pay – which was much cheaper than if the employers had been operating under a union contract.

The board stalled as long before acting on petitions from workers seeking union representation elections, and generally stalled for another year or two after such votes before certifying winning unions as the workers’ bargaining agents. Also under Reagan, employers were allowed to permanently replace workers who dared exercise their legal right to strike.

Reagan’s Labor Department was as one-sided as the NLRB. It became an anti-Labor Department, virtually ignoring, for example, the union-busting consultants that many employers hired to help them fend off unionization.

Very few consultants and very few of those who hired them were asked for the financial disclosure statements that the law demands, Yet all unions were required to file the statements that the law required of them – and that could be used to the advantage of their opponents. Although the department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for such union-busting activities by almost 40 percent.

Among Reagan’s many other outrages, there were his attempts to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, weaken the child labor and anti-sweatshop laws, tax fringe benefits, and cut back programs to train unemployed workers for available jobs. He also tried to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not have civil service or union protection.

Reagan all but dismantled programs that required affirmative action and other steps against discrimination by federal contractors. And he seriously undermined job safety programs.  He closed one-third of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s field offices, trimmed the agency’s staff by more than one-fourth and decreased the number of penalties assessed against offending employers by almost three-fourths.

Rather than enforce the laws, Reagan appointees sought “voluntary compliance” from employers on safety matters – and generally didn’t get or expect it. Reagan had so tilted the safety laws in favor of employers that safety experts declared them virtually useless.

The same could have been said of all other labor laws in the Reagan era. A statement issued at the time by the leaders of several major unions concluded that it would have been more advantageous for those who worked for a living to ignore the laws and return to “the law of the jungle” that prevailed a half-century before.

The suggestion came a little late. Ronald Reagan had already plunged the nation’s labor-management relations deep into the jungle.

Yet Reagan will nevertheless be honored in centennial celebrations throughout the United States, in Europe and elsewhere in coming days.  He’s become a much beloved mythical figure, and nothing will change that, certainly not the unheard or unacknowledged facts of his presidency and its disastrous effects on America’s working people, many of whom ironically will be among the celebrants.

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.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Investing in the future


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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