A Lesson from America’s Greatest Labor Leader

In the spring of 2000, I was finishing a PhD at Yale University where I also served as a volunteer organizer for GESO, the union of graduate students and researchers at Yale. I had recently, after enduring the gruelling and degrading academic job market, been offered a prestigious job in the English Department at the University of Chicago. But having experienced the power of union organizing with HERE, and having told my peers for years that building a movement of academics and other working people was the most important challenge of our generation, I was leaning toward taking a much less prestigious (and much lower-paid) job with the union. I was far from certain, though, about the long-term wisdom of such a decision.

At the height of my indecision, I ran into a young man I knew–not very well–from the basketball courts at Yale. I had also seen him around the union office and been told that one of his parents worked for the union. I asked this young man, “hey, one of your parents works for the union, isn’t that right?”

“Yes,” the young man said, “my dad has worked for the union for 30 years.” “Does he like it?” I asked, “Is he happy?”

“He LOVES it. He thinks it is the best job anyone could ever do. He feels lucky to do that work every day.” I was truly taken aback at how proud and excited the young man seemed as he reported this to me. Particularly as one of my major fears was that the life of a committed organizer left little time for family or anything else.

“What about you,” I asked, “how did you like being the son of an organizer. I mean, do you feel like your dad spent enough time with you?”

“It’s been great.  It was a little hard when we lived here in New Haven, but when we moved out West, it was a lot better. He never missed a little league game and always made plenty of time with us.”

When the young man mentioned that his father had worked with the union in Los Vegas and Los Angeles–the other cities we in New Haven thought of as part of the “movement” within our union–I said, “Wait a minute, if your Dad worked in New Haven, Las Vegas, and L.A., I must know him. Who is he?”

“John Wilhlem,” the young man said.

I recounted this story today in Chicago, where John Wilhelm resigned as UNITE HERE’s International Union President, handing the reigns to D. Taylor, president of the union’s powerful Las Vegas local. I was part of a procession of great leaders toasting the man many of us believe has been the most visionary labor leader in America for at least the last half-century.

It was probably the hundredth time I told the story of a conversation that changed my life forever.  The story was one of many that allowed me, as a new father moving to Arizona, to have faith that my wife and I might help build a new local union here without running ourselves into the ground. During many difficult times, Vinnie Wilhelm’s words offered much needed confidence and peace.

Of course, I am not alone.   The power of John Wilhelm’s words–his humility and ability to make people feel calm and confident in the eye of a storm–are legendary. What struck me today, though, was how thoroughly John transmitted those characteristics to his younger son. I thought about how amazing it was that Vinnie had never once mentioned that his father was the union’s president; he did not mention any of his father’s great achievements. Vinnie was a “legacy” student at Yale where students overflow with a sense of entitlement, and Vinnie–who now makes his living as a writer of creative fiction–showed none of that. He simply conveyed, embodied really, his father’s respect and love for both his own family and the working families he served as leader every day.

Today, on the day of President Wilhelm’s retirement, I thank him once again for all the lessons he has taught me, especially the one through his son Vinnie. And I really hope that when my girls are seniors in college, they will feel the desire and have the opportunity to thank him as well.

Mail-in Ballots and Electoral Justice

Yesterday, according to the Associated Press Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett called for an overhaul of Arizona’s ballot-counting system, saying that “Arizona would have been the focus of nationwide derision if the presidential election had been in the balance.”  That’s ironic, given that in two conversations he and I had on the phone last week, Bennett was insistent that there was nothing seriously wrong with Arizona’s ballot-counting processes and that protests like the one I had helped organize were unfairly giving state elections officials a black eye.

Of course, one could hardly blame Bennett for his concern. More than a week of protests, mainly by high-school students connected to the Adios Arpaio Campaign, had brought upon his office an avalanche of questions, and even scorn (best evidenced by this entertaining piece by Rachel Maddow) from local and national media.

In making his about face, Bennett has put forward some interesting ideas, particularly adding new scanning machines at the polls to verify ballots much more quickly.  When we meet with him in the coming weeks, I will be eager to hear his other ideas to have, as he declared to AP, 98% of ballots counted at the end of election day and to cut provisional voting by 90%.  Of course, I am sure he will need all of our help to secure the millions of dollars in additional funds he will need to put these reforms into place.

All the controversy around Arizona’s uncounted ballots though (particularly the 500,000, or almost 40% of Maricopa County ballots that remained to be counted the day after the election), got me to thinking about who wins and who loses in vote-by-mail elections.  So I did a little research.

A couple of things are certain when it comes to vote-by-mail elections.

First, as illustrated in this New York Times graphic, vote-by-mail, in the United States, is a Western phenomenon, largely developed as a way to save money in the elections process.  Second, despite their tendency to vote by mail, Arizonans really do not want to move in the direction of Oregon and Washington who have all-mail elections–they voted 71% to 29% against a 2006 ballot measure to create universal vote-by-mail elections in Arizona.

It turns out, however, that opinions vary on the left as to whether vote-by-mail creates more or less justice in our electoral processes. David Dayen, for instance, a few days ago declared on the Firedoglake blog that vote-by-mail is “clearly the best solution to get hundreds of millions of Americans to vote.”  Eliminating lines, stretching-out the ballot count, and allowing voters to mull over their vote with a ballot in front of them will remove many barriers to voting among regular Americans.  The Progressive States Network, as well, has taken an affirmative stance on universal vote-by-mail, adding cost effectiveness and the flexibility of multiple drop-off sites to the arguments for mail-in voting.

I remain compelled, though, by 3 of the reservations raised in 2007 by Project Vote: (1) as it is only as reliable as the mail system itself, and as low-income voters move more often than their more affluent counterparts, vote-by-mail, and, in particular, universal vote-by-mail may serve to disenfranchise, relatively speaking, low income voters; (2) the actual rise in voter participation in vote-by-mail situations tends to come not from including new and underrepresented voters, but increasing participation among sometimes-voters who are demographically similar to habitual voters; and (3) vote-by-mail is more susceptible to manipulation by partisan election officials who can decide which voters are or are not considered “active” voters eligible to receive ballots.

In the end, though, this commentary on vote-by-mail tends simply to confirm what many of us on the ground have been learning in Arizona over the last several years–that no electoral system can by itself create a more just and inclusive voting process.  Vote-by-mail has served in Arizona to increase voting among low income citizens and Latinos because of the organizations, community leaders, and volunteers who have gone door to-door in working-class neighborhoods throughout the state registering voters and signing voters onto the Permanent Early Voter List (PEVL).  Indeed, according to the Latino voter engagement organization Mi Familia Vota, those voting rights activists raised the numbers of Latinos on the PEVL from 90,000 in 2008 to over 220,000 in 2012.  Mi Familia Vota reports that, as of November 2 (four days before election day) almost 111,000 Latino voters in Arizona had cast early votes by mail–compared to 86,902 early votes among Latinos in the entire 2008 Arizona elections.

Clearly, election officials never expected this kind of increase among Latino voters; nor have they, until now, responded with the appropriate urgency to accommodate the amazing influx.  But just as organizing increased the vote, organizing appears to be bringing about the changes necessary to making sure the votes will be counted in a timely and just fashion.  Here’s hoping that, together with Ken Bennett and election officials, we can make sure that Arizona will be a model for efficient and inclusive elections in 2016.  And given the problems Florida has 12 years after the “hanging chad” fiasco, we should all be pretty proud of that.

The New Arizona

Two days ago, over 500 people gathered at the Maricopa County Recorder’s office to celebrate the emergence of a New Arizona.  Young and largely Latino, the New Arizona is vibrant, energetic, forward-looking, and ambitious.  It gives the lie to stereotypes of the Grand Canyon State as a transient home to retirees and a refuge for right-wing conservatives.

The New Arizona, though, is not a “sleeping giant” awoken suddenly from slumber by the momentum of demographic changes in the Southwest.  Instead it is built on a tradition of little-remembered social movements of Arizona’s past–movements that were crushed by Arizona’s two dominant corporate interests and a government dedicated to serving those interests.

In 1917, for instance, Sheriff Henry Wheeler of Cochise County teamed with Phelps Dodge, the largest copper mining company in the Arizona, to form a posse of 2,200 armed men to break a strike by miners in Bisbee Arizona.  The Wheeler posse forcibly detained over 1,000 striking miners and citizen bystanders.  Loading them into boxcars inches deep in manure, Wheeler’s men deported the detainees to Hermanas, New Mexico, and left them there with no money and no food.  Appeals to state and national authorities did little to abate Wheeler’s vigilante tactics.  For decades, however, mining families in Southern Arizona continued to battle Phelps Dodge and the other mining corporations.  Earning a measure of dignity and decent living standards for their communities, they were the dominant force for Arizona’s working class until August of 1983, when Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt sent 325 National Guardsmen and 426 state troopers, armed with tanks and helicopters, to crush escalating miners’ strikes Clifton and Morenci.  “Operation Copper Nugget” was devastating:  not only did it break the strike, but it broke the backs of the unions at the center of the mine-working families’ movement

In the agriculture industry as well, immigrant workers came in droves to work as Arizona became one of the world’s largest midcentury producers of lettuce and other crops.  Farm-working families settled in communities across the state and began to seek their fair share of the American dream.  By 1972, with the California grape boycott settled, Arizona briefly became the heart of the national farmworkers movement, when Governor Jack Williams responded to organizing efforts in the state’s agricultural communities by signing a law making it illegal to picket, strike, or boycott during harvest season.  In response, Cesar Chavez initiated a 25-day “Fast of Love” (out of which the phrase “Si Se Puede” originated), while farmworkers and their allies collected 168,000 petition signatures in an ultimately-unsuccessful attempt to recall Williams.  Just two years later, though, a massive voter-registration drive among Latinos in Arizona led to the election of Raul Castro as Arizona’s first Latino Governor.  Still, with the decline of the UFW as an organizing force in Arizona’s Latino community, that election failed to ignite a lasting social movement among Latinos and working people in the state.

The New Arizona is a product of the third great industrial expansion in Arizona’s history–a housing boom that created the greatest population explosion in Arizona’s history.  Metropolitan Phoenix alone grew from 2.8 million residents in 1980 to 6.2 million in 2006.  As in the state’s two preceding booms, however, the economic rewards generated by that growth were far from evenly distributed among Arizona’s populations.  Indeed, of the 300,000 new jobs created in metropolitan Phoenix between 2000 and 2008, fully 100,000 were poverty or near-poverty jobs in construction, retail, transportation, food service, and custodial/mainteanance services.  Housing prices soared out of reach for working families, and anti-immigrant legislation began to hamper residents’ access to education and other public services.

Signs of a resurgent Latino/working families movement surfaced with the massive rallies for immigration reform in Phoenix during the spring of 2006, but with the economic collapse of 2008, and Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano’s departure for Washington in 2009, the arch-conservative Arizona government, led by Governor Jan Brewer, State Senate President Russell Pierce, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio unleashed an all-out attack on working people worthy of Sheriff Wheeler and Governor Williams.  Arpaio stepped up his workplace raids; SB1070 became a model for anti-immigrant legislation across the United States; the Arizona legislature referred an anti-affirmative action ballot measure to voters which was approved by a wide margin; and a slew of anti-union bills appeared on the legislature’s docket in the aftermath of the Wisconsin assault on workers’ rights to organize.

To the great surprise of many, however, this most recent wave of attacks on the efforts of new Arizonans–Mexican and intranational immigrants to the state who came here for boom-era job opportunities–has been met with unprecedented resolve by an emerging social movement.  That movement has not arisen spontaneously, as some would believe.  Rather, it is the result of painstaking movement-building undertaken by an emerging group of young leaders, between the ages of 15 and 45 (I say 45 to fit myself in under the wire!), who are all affiliated in one way or another with international service-worker’s unions, locally-rooted community organizations and national philanthropic foundations.

The first pillar of this movement is UFCW Local 99, Arizona’s largest private sector union.  Representing almost 20,000 workers–primarily grocery workers throughout the state–Local 99 has led the effort to maintain job standards for the state’s service workers while providing moral and material support to nearly every effort to promote Latino civic participation, racial justice, and workers’ rights in Arizona over the last several decades.

The second pillar of this movement is the One Arizona Roundtable.  One Arizona was convened in the aftermath of SB 1070 by Mi Familia Vota (a national Latino voter engagement organization backed by the Service Employees International Union), the We Are America Alliance, and a handful of local organizations.  And it has been sustained by generous and consistent funding from the Four Freedoms Fund and the Marguerite Casey Foundation, among a few other national funders. Today, One Arizona comprises more than a dozen locally-based organizations (one of them being CASE, for which I serve as Executive Director).  Since 2010, One Arizona organizations have registered more than 30,000 Latino voters, driven a 130% increase of Latinos on the state’s permanent vote-by mail list, increased Latino voting each election cycle, and trained a new cadre of political organizers in Arizona.

The third institutional pillar of the New Arizona movement is UNITE HERE.  Since 2007, UNITE HERE has been the undisputed leader of a political transformation of Phoenix, the sixth largest city in the United States.  UNITE HERE played a decisive role in electing the first two Latino City-Council members in Phoenix since 1991.  And those Council members have helped turn electoral victories into organizing opportunities (between 2008 and 2011, UNITE HERE grew from 25% to 75% union density in Downtown Phoenix, while growing to represent more than 1,000 Phoenix airport workers) and policy gains (working with community partners to secure an historic worker-retention requirement which has now become the norm in contracting at the City of Phoenix).

In 2012, UNITE HERE made its most ambitious intervention yet in Arizona politics, funding a campaign that recruited 2,000 high school volunteers who registered more than 34,000 primarily-Latino voters in an effort to unseat Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  While the “Adios Arpaio” campaign may have fallen short of that goal, it is clear that that the volunteers who served on that campaign feel like there is a new sheriff in town.

Only time will tell if the New Arizona will be able to withstand the kind of attacks that led to the demise of the movements that surged around the mine-working and farm-working families of Arizona’s first century.  If it has nearly the cultural effect though, that the farmworker’s movement had on the United States (see Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields for a great read on that subject), then those of us in Arizona today are surely living in the middle of a world-historic social and cultural event.