Posts from Harold Meyerson

Bank Workers Rising

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a city ordinance that sought to do something no other U.S.-based government had done before: Insulate bank employees—and through them, the bank’s depositors—from their bank’s high-pressure sales tactics. The ordinance stipulated that in order for the city to deposit its funds in a bank, that bank would have to produce documents demonstrating that it wasn’t linking its employees’ pay, or continued employment, to the sale of products that its depositors might—or might not—want or need.

There was ample reason why it was Los Angeles that produced the first such ordinance, for it was in Los Angeles that the first major Wells Fargo scandal (there have been several since) came to light. Faced with demands that they prod depositors to open additional accounts, Wells employees fabricated at least 3.4 million such accounts. The practice, which had been particularly pervasive in Southern California, first came to light when Wells employees brought the story to the Los Angeles Times. After their account was published, LA City Attorney Michael Feuer brought suit against Wells, initiating a chain of suits, settlements and penalties that to date have cost the bank more than $1 billion in fines and compelled it to sack its CEO, replace most of its directors, and place an ongoing and somewhat numbing series of four-full-page ads in leading newspapers attesting to the bank’s good, if only recently deemed necessary, moral character.

The workers who blew the whistle on Wells were among the nucleus of employees who formed the Committee for Better Banks (CBB)—an initiative of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The project first took shape under the leadership of Larry Cohen, then the CWA’s president, who did as much or more than any other U.S. union president to build strategic alliances with unions overseas. It became quickly apparent to Cohen that in most other countries (particularly in Europe and Latin America), bank employees were almost universally unionized. In the United States, by contrast, not only were bank workers not unionized at all, but the rate of unionization in the Finance-Insurance-Real Estate sector was the lowest of any sector of the American economy.

Cohen, and his successor as president, Chris Shelton, decided to deploy organizers to sound out the nation’s bank workers. They found an industry whose greed had not only led to the Great Recession but also had compelled its employees to plunge customers into debt they couldn’t conceivably retire. They found bank workers indignant at a system that penalized them if they didn’t persuade customers to take on such debt or open new accounts.

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The GOP’s Suburban Collapse

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

hree years ago, when he ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Mark Warner, Republican politician Ed Gillespie carried the big Washington, D.C., semi-suburban, semi-exurban Loudoun County by a narrow margin. Last night, running for governor against Democrat Ralph Northam, he lost it by 20 percentage points.

The Loudoun result epitomizes the Revolt of the Anti-Trump suburbs, which not only yielded a surprisingly large 9-point victory for Northam but may even have enabled the Democrats to win a majority, or come damned close to it, in the commonwealth’s House of Delegates—which required a pick-up of 17 seats in the 100-seat house. No one was expecting that.

To be sure, Gillespie won by Trumpian margins in Virginia’s rural southwest, but like most of rural America, this is a region that is losing population even as the suburbs and exurbs continue to grow. It’s a white working-class region, where Republicans still thrive, but in Virginia, as in most states, Republicans still have to run well in the more populous suburbs if they’re to win statewide. They didn’t do that last night: Not only did Northam pile up huge margins in Northern Virginia’s suburbs, but that’s also where the Democrats made most of their House of Delegates pick-ups. The most prominent of these was the victory of Danica Roem, who will become Virginia’s first transgender legislator, having defeated longtime GOP delegate and self-professed homophobe Robert Marshall. But no less unlikely was the victory of Democrat Lee Carter, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, in the district adjoining Roem’s.

After the Third Battle of Bull Run, Manassas will now be represented in Richmond by one transgender delegate and one socialist delegate.

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A Shifting Electoral Map Gives Democrats the Advantage

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

We are all of us drowning in polls, but The Washington Post’s poll of each of the individual 50 states, posted online on Tuesday and presented in a special section of the paper’s print edition Wednesday, is something else again. The survey of 74,000 voters, compiled from August 9 through September 1, offers us two things that most national polls don’t: A window on the broader future of American politics, and a clear picture of how the third-party candidacies of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein are affecting this year’s race.

First, to this year’s election and the curious role of the third parties: By presenting numbers for all the states, the Post poll makes clear that the Johnson and Stein candidacies pose a bigger problem for Clinton than they do for Trump. In nine swing states—Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas (whose voters, in the Post poll, are evenly split between Clinton and Trump), and Virginia—Clinton’s share of the vote in a four-candidate race declines from its level in a two-candidate race by a bigger margin than Trump’s does. In those nine states, her share drops by 1, 2, or 3 percentage points more than his. In three other swing states—Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—the two candidates’ percentages decline by equal amounts. In not a single swing state does Trump’s decline exceed Clinton’s when the other two candidates are factored in.

In every one of those dozen swing states, Johnson is polling roughly three times the percentage that Stein is getting—on average, about 12 percent to her 4 percent. In every one of those states, Clinton’s decline exceeds the percentage of pro-Stein voters, meaning some number of Clinton’s supporters when she’s pitted only against Trump go not for Stein but for Johnson when the field is expanded. It’s reasonable to infer that she’s losing those votes not for reason of ideology but because some voters have doubts about Clinton’s conduct and character—at least, as the media have presented them for several decades—and see Johnson, who is largely a tabula rasa to most voters, as a non-ideological alternative (which by any measure he’s not) to both Clinton and Trump. For that matter, we can’t assume that some Stein supporters don’t have similar motivations—that their reluctance to vote for Clinton may be less about Stein’s progressivism than about their distaste for Clinton’s persona.

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America's White Working Class Is a Dying Breed

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

America's White Working Class Is a Dying Breed

The news this week that the death rate of middle-aged American whites—more particularly, working-class middle-aged American whites—is rising, while that of all other Americans continues to fall, is appalling. But it should come as no surprise.

A study released Monday by Princeton economists Angus Deaton (the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics) and Anne Case documented that the number of deaths by suicide, alcohol use, and drug use among working-class whites ages 45 to 54 has risen precipitously since 1999—so precipitously that the overall death rate for this group increased by 22 percent. Death rate increases in the modern world are so rare that economists and public-health scholars have been groping for equivalent instances. “Only HIV/AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,” Deaton told The New York Times. A closer parallel might be the increased death rates of Russians, particularly by alcohol, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economy—not only because the instrument of death was the same for both the Russians and our white working class, but also because the real cause in each instance was the end of a world that had sustained them.

There was a time when the white working class was the subject of happier tales. Like the yeoman farmer in the 19th century, the white worker of the mid-20th century was the protagonist of the American saga. Members of the white working class were the linchpin of the New Deal coalition, the guys who fought and won World War II (well, if you ignored those Americans shunted to the all-black units), the Riveting Rosies who built those guys’ armaments, the postwar factory workers who made the goods we sold to the world at the height of U.S. economic power and, in consequence of their high levels of unionization, the world’s most affluent and economically secure working class from the 1950s through the 1970s.

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Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Candidates in the Age of Anxiety

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

One of the mysteries attending the eclipse of the political center and the rise of left and right, both in the United States and in Europe, is why it has taken so many by surprise. When economies fundamentally alter their course, to the detriment of most, a radical shift in nations’ politics — for both better and worse — shouldn’t be so astounding, particularly when an economy’s dysfunctions have been clear for many years.

The United States’ economic dysfunctions have been apparent for decades: The decline of manufacturing, which provided middle-income jobs to millions, and the burgeoning of the low-wage service sector were visibly underway by the 1980s. So, too, was the shrinking of unions, and with it, the ability of workers to bargain with their employers. By now, it’s clear that long-held beliefs about how an economy works — for instance, that declining unemployment should be accompanied by higher wages — need to be altered, or at least qualified. Since the depth of the Great Recession, in 2009, the unemployment rate has been cut nearly in half, but despite its decline over the past year to roughly 5 percent, wages haven’t budged, while median income and the rate of poverty, according to Tuesday’s Census Bureau report, have remained unchanged. A different litany of economic woes vexes most European nations, but on both sides of the Atlantic the belief that the economy generally produces broadly shared prosperity has been shaken, if not shattered.

Under these conditions, voters respond, and should respond, to political leaders who offer compelling explanations and solutions for the harsher economic realities. They respond to those who identify the culprits behind their troubles and say how they’ll diminish their sway. That’s why Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have connected with millions of voters, and why politicians who haven’t gauged the depth of voters’ anger over the economy’s betrayal of their prospects and expectations have failed to connect.

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A Democratic Socialist Campaign? It’s About Time

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

A Democratic Socialist Campaign? It’s About Time

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is the first such effort by a democratic socialist since Norman Thomas waged the last of his six such campaigns on the Socialist Party ticket in 1948.

It’s about time.

Historically, the role of the two great American socialist standard-bearers Eugene Debs and Thomas, and such socialist members of Congress as Meyer London and Ronald Dellums, was to advance ideas that their progressive compatriots were sometimes able to enact — partially — years or decades later, or that later were transformed into common sense. Running for president in 1904, Debs campaigned for the eight-hour workday, social insurance and women’s suffrage. Representing New York’s Lower East Side in Congress during the 1910s, London introduced legislation to create paid maternity leave, something Congress still has yet to get around to. In 1942, Thomas was virtually the only prominent American to publicly oppose the internment of Japanese Americans.

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A Trade Deal at What Cost?

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

A Trade Deal at What Cost?

So what gives with the American people? Don’t they realize, as my colleague Charles Krauthammer argued last week, “that free trade is advantageous to both sides”?

The sides to which Krauthammer referred, of course, are nations. But perhaps those who’ve experienced such free-trade consequences as factory closings and lower-paying jobs are thinking about two entirely different sides — capital and labor. Trade promoters cite David Ricardo’s 200-year-old assessments of trade’s benefits to nations, but skeptics can mine a rich vein of mainstream economics that demonstrates how trade deals can, and frequently do, benefit major investors at workers’ expense.

As a letter to The Post noted this week, future Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson wrote in 1955 that, under free trade, “national product would go up, but the relative and absolute share of labor might go down.” More pointedly still, another Nobel laureate, Bertil Ohlin, showed that as a result of trade, a nation’s workers could see their wages decline even if none of them lost their jobs.

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Germany Shows the Way on Labor

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

Germany Shows the Way on Labor

“Policy,” says David Rolf, the Seattle union official chiefly responsible for the first successful campaigns for a $15 minimum wage, “is just frozen power.” By which measure, the problem with U.S. trade policy for the past quarter-century is that it reflects the growing imbalance of power between investors, able to profit from global markets, and workers, who have lost the institutions that once enabled them to improve or at least maintain their jobs and incomes.

Beyond question, the entry of China, India and the former Soviet bloc into the world labor market has exerted downward pressure on jobs and wages throughout the advanced industrial world. In the United States, that pressure has been particularly intense and widespread. As one paper published last year in the Review of Economics and Statistics concluded, U.S. workers forced out of their jobs by globalization between 1984 and 2002 saw their wages decline by between 12 percent and 17 percent. And that was before the full weight of Chinese competition descended on American manufacturing and an additional 55,000-plus U.S. factories shuttered their gates.

But globalization has not had so grim an aspect in every advanced economy. Like the United States, Germany is home to a large number of iconic manufacturers — Volkswagen, Daimler, Siemens, to name a few — that have factories all over the world. Yet Germany frequently has the world’s largest trade surplus while the United States perennially runs the world’s largest trade deficit. More remarkably, German manufacturing workers make a good deal more than their American peers: Their hourly compensation averaged $46 in 2012, $10 more than the U.S. average, according to a Labor Department survey.

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The AFL-CIO Is on Sound Political Ground to Push for Wage Increases

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

“Raising wages is the single standard by which leadership will be judged,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced Wednesday at the federation’s conference unveiling labor’s political agenda. To that end, he said, the AFL-CIO would launch projects this year in the four states that hold the first four presidential primaries and caucuses of 2016 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — as a way to make presidential candidates spell out exactly what they would do to boost Americans’ increasingly anemic wages.

The focus on wages is hardly new to U.S. labor, of course. In 1996, Trumka’s predecessor as federation president, John Sweeney, co-authored a book with David Kusnet titled “America Needs a Raise.” Since Sweeney’s book appeared, however, the raise has all but disappeared from the lives of U.S. workers. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted in addressing the conference, the bottom 90 percent of Americans, who received 70 percent of the income growth between 1935 and 1980, have gotten precisely zero percent of the income growth since 1997.

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Labor's New Reality -- It's Easier to Raise Wages for 100,000 Than to Unionize 4,000

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

Haltingly, with understandable ambivalence, the American labor movement is morphing into something new. Its most prominent organizing campaigns of recent years — of fast-food workers, domestics, taxi drivers and Wal-Mart employees — have prompted states and cities to raise their minimum wage and create more worker-friendly regulations. But what these campaigns haven't done is create more than a small number of new dues-paying union members. Nor, for the foreseeable future, do unions anticipate that they will.

Blocked from unionizing workplaces by ferocious management opposition and laws that fail to keep union activists from being fired, unions have begun to focus on raising wages and benefits for many more workers than they can ever expect to claim as their own. In one sense, this is nothing new: Unions historically have supported minimum wage and occupational safety laws that benefited all workers, not just their members. But they also have recently begun investing major resources in organizing drives more likely to yield new laws than new members. Some of these campaigns seek to organize workers who, rightly or wrongly, aren't even designated as employees or lack a common employer, such as domestic workers and cab drivers.

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Union Matters

The Big Drip

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

A rash of water main breaks in West Berkeley, Calif., and neighboring cities last month flooded streets and left at least 300 residents without water. Routine pressure adjustments in response to water demand likely caused more than a dozen pipes, some made of clay and more than 100 years old, to rupture.

West Berkeley’s brittle mains are not unique. Decades of neglect left aging pipes susceptible to breaks in communities across the U.S., wasting two trillion gallons of treated water each year as these systems near collapse.

Comprehensive upgrades to the nation’s crumbling water systems would stanch the flow and ensure all Americans have reliable access to clean water.

Nationwide, water main breaks increased 27 percent between 2012 and 2018, according to a Utah State University study.  

These breaks not only lead to service disruptions  but also flood out roads, topple trees and cause illness when drinking water becomes contaminated with bacteria.

The American Water Works Association estimated it will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years to upgrade and expand water infrastructure.

Some local water utilities raised their rates to pay for system improvements, but that just hurts poor consumers who can’t pay the higher bills.

And while Congress allocates money for loans that utilities can use to fix portions of their deteriorating systems, that’s merely a drop in the bucket—a fraction of what agencies need for lasting improvements.

America can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to a systemic nationwide crisis. A major, sustained federal commitment to fixing aging pipes and treatment plants would create millions of construction-related jobs while ensuring all Americans have safe, affordable drinking water.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work