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
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
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
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
- 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
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
- for veterans, higher charge on prescription
- 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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.