Home About CDSA New Ground Events Debs Dinner Links Join DSA Audio Email us

1995 Eugene V. Debs - Norman Thomas - Michael Harrington Dinner

The 37th Annual Dinner was held on May 13, 1995, at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago. There were tornado warnings that evening, but it did not deter attendees. Bob Fitrakis was the Master of Ceremonies. Henry Bayer presented the award to Rosetta Daylie. Carl Shier presented the award to Harold Meyerson. Harold Meyerson provided the Dinner Address.

Rosette Daylie

Community Activist
Labor Leader
International Freedom Fighter

As a member of the Illinois Black United Fund, you have worked to improve the well-being of your community.
As a rank-and-file trade unionist, local officer, and organizer, you have worked tirelessly on behalf of all workers.
As a member of the AFSCME International Women's Advisory Committee, Commission on the Status of Women, and Mayor's Commission on Women's Affairs, you have been a staunch advocate of working women.
As a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists executive board, you have fought for the rights of African-American workers.
As a trade union leader, your example has bridged the racial and gender gaps that divide workers.
As a spokesperson for the Illinois Labor Network and as an international labor monitor, you helped close the nightmare chapter of apartheid in South Africa.
For your dedication to workers everywhere, the Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee hereby presents to you its annual award this 13th day of May, 1995.


Harold Meyerson

Writer
Commentator
Activist

Your vision of a just society has informed your life's work.
In an age of confusion and cynicism, your insightful analysis has enabled thousands to better understand the world about them.
In an age of conservatism and despair, your persistence in advancing the "left wing of the possible" has provided hope to those who share your vision.
In the tradition of Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, you have been unwavering in your articulation of a politics both radical and democratic.
For your dedication in the fight for a just society, the Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee hereby presents to you its annual award this 13th day of May, 1995.


HAROLD MEYERSON'S SPEECH TO THE DEBS - THOMAS - HARRINGTON AWARDS DINNER, CHICAGO, MAY 13, 1995

In some long forgotten faction fight at a DSA convention, I was once called, derisively, one of Harrington's boys. It's been the term of derogation I've long been proudest of, and now I've got a plaque to put on the wall that proclaims it.

I cherish this award, too, because it was given to me by Carl Shier. This past January, when I was in DC, I was on Capitol Hill one afternoon, and on two occasions, people stopped me and commented on some pieces I'd recently written. Each time, like a sap, I said, "I didn't know you got the Weekly." And each time, I was told, "I don't get the Weekly; I'm on Carl Shier's mailing list." Which would have been fine, except one of them was from L.A.

Of course, it works both ways. I know more about Local 6 Retirees than just about anyone on my block.

Those of you here who know my work through Carl's list don't really have an image of the Weekly, though. If you got the Weekly, what you'd chiefly notice is that our advertising department makes sure that each issue has ads for altering every single bodily organ.

Since I am, I suppose, an emissary of L.A. to Chicago (one second city to another), I suppose I should also explain the phenomenon that has become the dominant feature of L.A. life in the late 20th century, and is certain to remain so well into the 21st. I refer, of course, to the O.J. Simpson trial.

What people don't understand is the role the trial plays in the greater L.A. economy. L.A. still has unemployment flirting with double digits, aerospace still hemorrhaging, commercial real estate still overbuilt... and into this desert has come the Simpson trial, giving needed work to attorneys (both practicing and kibitzing); reporters, photographers and editors; tour guides; tee-shirt manufacturers and vendors; conspiracy theorists; Kato Kaelin impersonators The Weekly is coming out with a story, by the way, that reveals that Kato Kaelin and Sonny Bono are really the same person.

An entire cottage industry is booming and no one can afford to let it stop; the economic consequences of a quick verdict are too dire to contemplate. In the L.A. economy, the Simpson trial is the only thing that's come along to take up the slack created by the end of the cold war that sustained us for 45 years. And it is the goal of all involved to make sure the trial lasts at least that long.

I admit, in a state that's always depended on job-generating public investment, from federal subsidy of the railroads in the 1860s all the way down to the cold war, the O.J. trial is a pretty puny public investment.

But we live in pretty puny times. (Those of you who've been wondering "where is the socialist speech", here it is.) We live in mean times, confused and hysterical times, where the social fabric is dying the death of a thousand cuts, where powerful forces are eager to rip it to shreds, and where we and our allies haven't yet found the wherewithal, the strategies, and at times, the visions to move us beyond the hysteria and confusion and meanness.

What I want to do tonight, in the best Harrington tradition, is look at three things: at the right and its ascendancy, and how to assess and diminish the source of its strength; at our broad political world, the Democrats, and how to revive the source of their strength; and at our more narrow world, American labor and its allies, and how to revive the source of its strength. First, the right. We'll start with the far right. With the Michigan Militias. With Oklahoma City.

Which was shocking, but was it really surprising? The location, yes. But if you chart the anti-government rhetoric of the mainstream right over the past couple of years, the anti-government violence of the insane right has a certain grim predictability. Since the election of '92, we've seen a more virulent and enraged right than we've seen in decades, united first around the principle that a government headed by Bill Clinton must be illegitimate.

It wasn't the militias, after all, but Jerry Falwell who sold a video alleging that Bill Clinton was responsible for murders down in Arkansas; not the militias but Republican Senate candidate Oliver North (endorsed by Bob Dole and the rest of his party) who said Clinton had stolen the election; not the militias but Dick Armey who in floor debate with the Democrats referred derisively to Clinton as "your president"; not the militias but the Wall Steet Journal editorial page that suggested without hestiation or foundation that Vincent Foster's suicide really masked some sinister murder and that the Clintons were at the bottom of all manner of foul play in Arkansas.

And it's not just the Clintons at whom the right has aimed its venom:

  • it's not the militias but the NRA that held the federal government guilty of murder of civilians and alleged it was plotting to swoop down and disarm the populace;
  • not the militias but Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition that's engaged in on-again, off-again flirtations with anti-Semitism;
  • not the militias but two esteemed academics who've propounded the notion of immutable race-based differences in intelligence;
  • and not the militia but the Republican Congress that in the past week has plainly demonstrated its desire to destroy far more of the federal government than Timothy McVeigh could even conceive of, and with not a whole lot more concern than he had for the toll it may take in innocent human life.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence, after all, said governments were instituted to help people secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A budget is supposed to be a means to those ends, not a prescription for destroying them.

Look at just a smattering of what Congress stands on the brink of enacting in its budget:

  • for seniors, a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments on social security, and a major but as yet unspecified cutback in Medicare that could easily make it a two-tier system, a system with far higher deductibles, and a system with a lot less freedom of choice;
  • for students, an end to the government's role in bankrolling college loans (something that Senator Simon helped bring about) and handing those loans back to the banks at an average cost to students of $4,800 more in interest over the life of the loan, and an end to the Administration's Americorps Program which allowed students to work off their loans in public service jobs;
  • for veterans, higher charge on prescription drugs;
  • for the poor, cuts in welfare and food stamps and the legal services available to them, and cuts in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps bring the working poor out of poverty;
  • and for the rich, tax cuts, and for corporations, despite the efforts of Congressional Democrats, only a handful of reductions in subsidies.

Not, on the face of it, a popular program. If that's all there were to it, it wouldn't be, as we learn from the example of George Pataki in New York, whose standing in the polls has plummeted as he's proposed universal cuts.

But that's not all that today's Republicanism is about. It's not just the spirit of Ronald Reagan, warring on government, that's stalking Capitol Hill. There are two fathers of modern Republicanism. And behind ghost of Reagan stands the ghost of Nixon, whose entire career is a testament to the politics of dividing Americans along lines of race and cultural resentments.

Consider Nixon's career: during the anxieties of the McCarthy period, which he helped inflame, he wins election to the House, the Senate, the Vice-Presidency. Then, he loses, both the White House and the governorship of my state, in a time of relative stability and absence of anxiety: 1960 and '62. But he comes back to win the presidency in a time of great division, 1968 and '72, inflaming the white backlash and the rage against anti-war protestors. He wins whenever he can successfully scapegoat.

And what the '94 elections demonstrated was the Republicans had learned to scapegoat in a world without communism. It was touch and go for a while, what with evil empire crumbled to dust and Saddam Hussein too ephemerala threat. But in '94, Republicans resurrected the enemies within. And their champion resurrector was my own beloved governor, Pete Wilson.

Now, I have a theory on Wilson. You may remember he was one of eulogists at Nixon's funeral. And what I think happened is that Nixon's soul, if we may speak of such a thing, entered Wilson's body at that moment. And he came out warring on illegal immigrants, and now on affirmative action. That, and the war on welfare, is what Republicans can fall back on when their war on government cuts too deep, and threatens to alienate the voters. Cutbacks with social divisiveness, that's modern Republicanism. Clear away the cult of the Newt, brush aside the Toffler-babble, and the foundation of the Republican ascendancy remains. It has precious little to do with the third wave and everything to with their manipulation of fear and resentment at a time when the Democrats seem unable to arrest the downward drift of what's called the middle class: which means about 80 percent of the American people.

So we turn to the Democrats, and their inability to affect the economy. Look at that economy. A rising tide today lifts 15 percent of the boats. In 1993, the second year of a recovery, average annual household income falls -- that's falls -- by $312. In 1994, growth roars ahead by 4 percent, profits of the 900 largest corporation" are up by 40% in Business Week's index (Business Week, not a Marxist publication, calls it "an orgy of profits") and wages and benefits combined go up by a mere 3 percent, the lowest annual increase since the government started measuring in it in 1981.

Now, this is what Democrats are supposed to address. Overcoming these inequities is what the New Deal order was about. But Democrats don't know how to do that any more. At every level, they don't know what they're about anymore, what their raison d'etre is. Never mind the White House. It was hardly Bill Clinton's doing (or my friend Vern Watkins', either) that Kathleen Brown changed identities every week, that Mario Cuomo had no rationale for serving one more term in government; that Tom Foley, Jack 8rooks, and here in Chicago, Dan Rostenkowski, with 110 years of seniority between them, couldn't induce 110 volunteers to walk their districts, that Democrats across the land last November drifted themelessly toward oblivion.

We've heard a lot about their losses among angry white males, and that's true. But that's just part of the picture. The Democrats lost along class lines, too. Between '92 and '94, they maintained their vote among the symbolic analysts, among college graduates. But they went down by 10 percent among high school graduates, 11 percent among those voters with some college.

Why this inability to deliver as they used to? In the good old days of the New Deal order, in the great postwar prosperity, the Democrats had five ways to induce long term prosperity and economic security. There were "entitlements" like social security and medicare; public works and public investment to generate jobs; on occasion, a Federal Reserve system to keep recessions from being too steep; training policies like the GI bill and aid to education, that boosted the productivity of individuals; and unions and wage and hour legislation, to make sure that prosperity was not just for the few, as had been the case before 1929, but broadly shared.

Prosperity rested on five legs. And today, most of them are all but gone. Entitlements are shredded, public works are being dismantled, the Fed is now run by a right-wing libertarian who sees his only mission as keeping wages down. Unions are so weak, at 11 percent of the private sector work force, that wages and incomes have decoupled from all other indices of economic health. Prosperity is back in its pre-1929 configuration; in good times, only the rich get richer.

That leaves training as the only element in the strategy the Administration has tried to promote, through apprenticeship programs that were a casualty of deficit reduction mania in 1993, through more affordable college loans and the Americorps program. Even if all these programs were left intact by the Republicans, even if they were greatly expanded, they would not be enough. Training does not suffice. Prosperity cannot be left teetering on one leg. If it is, it will fall. Democrats cannot make the economy work, cannot prevail at the ballot box, on a policy of training alone.

Let me suggest just a few battles we should undertake and urge our friends to undertake to provide a firmer footing for a return to a greater measure of equality and prosperity.

Of course, we need to defend affordable college loans and the Americorps program, which are widely popular. Beyond that, we must:

  • Make an issue of the Federal Reserve. Clinton's just made one of his best appointments, of economist Alicia Munnell, to an open seat on the Fed. But the real fight should come in '96, when Alan Greenspan is up for reappointment. The Administration has no business re-appointing him, this Ayn Rand acolyte who sees his mission as holding down wages. And if ever a left-wing campaign was made for talk radio, it's war on the semi-secret, semipublic, semi-private Federal Reserve.
  • This is clearly not the moment when it's possible to expand entitlements. Like me, I'm sure you all support single-payer health insurance, but as last year's initiative campaign in California made clear, single payer's moment hasn't come round yet. It will. There is a battle we have to fight this year, though. It's clearly a fight we can win: the fight to preserve Medicare. And it's a battle we can, and should, put a particular spin on.

Gingrich attacks Medicare as a one-size-fits-all behemoth. But, of course, Medicare totally allows freedom of choice. Freedom of choice, and patients' rights, are very important to the American people; and last year, the Clinton plan was badly damaged by the claim that it would end freedom of choice. The charge was false. But, ironically, freedom of choice is being restricted every day, not by government but by the market, with the spread across the nation of for-profit HMOs. Making huge profits, their executives pull down multi-million dollar salaries while the percentage of funds devoted to medical care steadily falls. As Mike Harrington would say, American medicine is being collectivized. And the question is, should it be controlled by for-profit bureaucracies accountable to the bottom-line, or by patients, doctors, nurses, and an accountable government? We're not about to get single-payer, but as HMO-ization gallops along, we should be proposing an HMO patients' Bill of Rights, and defending Medicare and the freedom of choice and emphasis on quality that it affords.

  • Finally, and most crucially, the Democrats' prospects and the liberal project are both doomed unless there's a massive strengthening of unions. There is no reason to believe the Democrats, or anyone, can arrest the decline of national income with a union movement that comprises just 11 percent of all private sector workers.

There's no evidence that the Democrats can win elections with union members comprising just 14 percent of the electorate, as they did in last November's network exit polls. Union membership still made a crucial difference in voting behavior. Union household members voted Democratic at a rate 14 percent higher than non-union household members. Among white men, union members voted Democratic at a rate 18 higher than their non-union counterparts.

And there's no reason to think the Democrats, or anybody, can amass the forces to lobby successfully for major social change or for the other items on the progressive agenda with the union movement so diminished in size, as the case of national health insurance makes abundantly clear. Indeed, the party and the nation have reached the point when those forces that promote equitable income growth and security, unions in particular, are too weak to sway the party in some of its most basic policies.

The Democrats have always been the world's pre-eminent cross-class party. But in a period of rising inequality, at a time of "an orgy of profits" and a scarcity of income, that can become less a blessing than a curse. It was one thing to be the party of millionaire magnate Averill Harriman and labor leader Walter Reuther at a time of shared prosperity; quite another to be the party of millionaire financier Robert Rubin and labor leader Gerry McEntee at a time when we've become the most unequal nation in the industrial world. I'm not suggesting labor leave the Democratic Party; that will merely mean it totes its weaknesses into irrelevance. I am saying that for its own sake, and that of the liberal project, and that of the nation, it had better cease its decades-long slide toward extinction.

That slide to extinction isn't universal, of course. Chiefly because of unions represented here in this room (AFSCME first and foremost, then SEIU and in recent years, some intrepid internationals and regions and locals and individuals, who, in the face of a dysfunctional law and hostile political culture, have rediscovered ways to organize), organized labor still exists in the United States. But its future is by no means assured.

In the last couple months, we've found ourselves in a battle nobody really anticipated for the movement's future. And in the last couple weeks, it's become a battle that holds more promise than many of us who love the movement had dared to hope. I refer, of course, to the battle for presidency of the AFL-CIO.

Now, "battle" and "presidency of the AFL-CIO" are words that haven't often appeared together in the same paragraph. This is not an historically embattled position. In the 109 years since the founding of the AFL, the AFL-CIO and its predecessor organization, the AFL, have had just five presidents - four if you discount the guy who was in for one year in the middle of Sam Gomper's 40-year reign.

So, really, four in 109 years. By way of comparison, in same 109 years, there have been 21 presidents of the United States. There have been nine popes, and you know, they don't elect a new pope until they're totally sure the old one is dead.

But just four presidents of the AFL and AFL-CIO. And the truth be known, there have been all manner of reasons for not challenging the incumbents: many unions have decided it's not worth the struggle. They work through the Federation when they can and around it when they can't-- unions here tonight have done that. And then, for some of the international presidents (who are, after all, the people who choose the Federation president), the idea of removing a chief executive hasn't always been viewed with wild enthusiasm. Underpinning job security of AFL-CIO presidents has been the most exquisite expression of working class solidarity in the land: an injury to one union president is an injury to all union presidents.

But no more. Last week, 11 unions presidents reached the point where they publicly declared that the survival of the movement had to take precedence over folkways of the past. And all praise to presidents Sweeney and Trumka and Korpious and Bieber and the rest, and above all Gerry McEntee for taking the leadership on this.

Now, is Lane Kirkland the cause of all that's wrong with labor? Of course not, and none of presidents claim he is. Lane Kirkland is not the cause of labor's many external problems. And within labor, Lane Kirkland has not been keeping member unions from spending more of their own money on organizing or from mobilizing their own rank-and-file in major lobbying drives.

But when prominent leaders came to him and asked for major increase in organizing budget, and to bolster the Organizing Institute (a terrific center of dedicated unionists that's reinventing the culture of organizing), Lane Kirkland said no to the increase, while his henchmen, threatened that the Organizing Institute is actually about the job of organizing while they are not, tried to undermine it at every turn.

And when Gerry McEntee asked Kirkland to sanction a campaign, Project 95, to form coalitions with Citizen Action and other grassroots groups in targeted congressional districts for the '96 elections, when it became necessary to put together the institutions of the '30s, the unions, with the institutions of the '60s, the social movement organizations, to have a chance in the battles of the '90s, Kirkland said no.

And when the president of the AFL-CIO was touring the former east bloc for the six weeks leading up to the senate vote on striker replacement, and when the leading national spokesperson against NAFTA wasn't the leader of labor but the somewhat problematic Ross Perot

And when the AFL-CIO's own polling shows that a majority of Americans favors workers over management in disputes, but a far smaller majority favors unions over management, when a majority says they are unhappy with their jobs but don't even think about unions as a way to improve them, when a big majority says that unions are out of touch, when the most common word used to describe unions in the AFL-CIO's own focus groups is "dinosaur"

Then it's time for a change.

And not just dumping Lane Kirkland.

The quickly unfolding fight for the AFL-CIO holds more promise than I would have thought to put through some significant changes, to greatly increase the movement's material and spiritual commitment to organizing. to solidify the movement's ties with the rest of a battered progressive coalition.

And above all, perhaps, to give the movement a public presence, a public face, a public voice at a time when the world is a bewildering and frustrating and unfriendly place for millions upon millions of American working people.

So for those of you here tonight from unions that are not among the 11 challengers, I say to you that this is the moment to make your voice heard to your international leadership. This is a one time only opportunity (and quite possibly the last) to bring this movement back to life.

And without that movement, it's not that the American working people won't receive a perspective on how the world really works. The world is explained to them every day by talk radio. The problem, they're told, is foreigners. The problem is minorities and women. The problem is government.

In his biography of Sidney Hillman, founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, historian Steven Fraser notes that at an earlier juncture in American history, workers were getting similar messages. Of the mid 1930s, he writes, "Many a Polish-American auto worker, Slavic-American steel worker and German-American carpenter listened intently both to the social Catholicism of Father Coughlin and the social democracy of John L. Lewis."

Now, Father Coughlin was the first radio priest, the first radio demagogue, the first radio nativist, the first radio fascist. He has lots of descendents out there today, from Limbaugh to Liddy and back again. But who's the descendent of John L. Lewis? Not George Meany, not Lane Kirkland, that's for sure.

We need a labor movement with a leadership that can deliver that social democratic message. That can talk to the angry white men and angry white women and angry black and Hispanic men and women, and link them together, not play one off the other, in a real campaign for their futures.

Let me end by returning for a minute to the wackos of the Michigan Militia. We've all been exposed by now to their beliefs, and I think the wackiest at first hearing had to be their fear of the United Nations, that the UN is planning a military takeover of the U.S. This is the same UN that's been unable to prevail over Somalian factions, the same UN with soldiers in Sarajavo who, every time they're fired upon, have to wait from orders from New York to fire back -- orders seemingly delivered by carrier pigeon. This UN is going to take over the U.S.

But on second hearing, the Militias' fears strike me as a distorted view, like something glimpsed in a funhouse mirror, of a much more widely shared fear. A fear, as they call it, of the New World Order.

And you know what? They're right. There is a New World Order. Only it has nothing to do with the UN. This New World Order takes many names. In Decatur, it's called Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone, A.E. Staley. In my city (and all over the U.S., and in London, Rome, Sydney, and Beijing), it's called Rupert Murdoch. But really, there's just one new world order, and it's the new world order of global capital. It's an order that not merely prevailed over a rickety Soviet Union: that's no great accomplishment. It's prevailing right now over Mexico. And it prevailed over France in the early '80s when that nation sought to build a more equitable economy, and capital responded by closing its factories and moving its investment elsewhere. And it prevailed over the steel mills ten miles south of here that are overgrown with foliage today. It prevailed over the steel workers of Chicago and the auto workers of Detroit and the aircraft workers of my city: over that vast edifice of a mixed economy which the left -- which unions -- helped bring into being here and in Western Europe in the decades after World War II.

And our challenge, which is inconceivable without a revitalized labor movement, is, first, to explain this to them, to the American working people. And then (not that that is easy, but this is the hard part) to build that mixed economy on a global level as our parents and grandparents did on the national level. And if that sounds daunting, well, it is daunting. It is the project of a generation or two, maybe more. But I'd remind you that building the mixed economy on a national level was a daunting project, too. The national corporation arose in the 1880s and '9Os, and it wasn't until the 1930s that the broad left got a handle on how to deal with it. (The socialists had some crucial ideas well before them but no vehicles with which to carry them out.) In our time, the multinational corporation takes off in the 1970s. And it will take us some time to get a handle how to deal with that, how to create the vehicles to stop global capital from running amok: how to build unions that are really international, how to enact trade agreements that foster human and worker rights, that raise standards of conduct and living across national borders, how to impose barriers against currency speculators who would play one nation off against another in favor of the one that treats its workers worst and has the cruelest budget.

A daunting task, and the most urgent, and fulfilling, task on the planet. A task that begins with organizing right here and ends with organizing God only knows where. A task to which the DSA is profoundly committed and which it seeks to join you in fulfilling. A task to which Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington, Carl Shier, Rose Daylie and the people sitting in this room tonight have devoted their lives, which makes this award something I will cherish all the more.


 Add yourself to the Chicago DSA mailing list (snail mail and email).

 Back to top.

Privacy policy.