25 Years Later

Last week I received an invitation to create an entry for the 25th reunion registry for Harvard College’s class of 1991.  Generally, I have not responded to these invitations, which inevitably end with a donation request.  This time, though, I took the opportunity to reflect, with what I hope is “reasonable brevity,” on how my four years at Harvard affected the trajectory of my life thereafter.  Here are those reflections for those of you who may be interested:

Oddly enough, the 25 years since graduation took me nowhere I imagined they would while I was at Harvard. Still, they seem to have brought me exactly to where I am supposed to be.

My Harvard experience, while rewarding, was difficult. Coming from a humble, working class background—and having a very thick Boston accent—the vast wealth and influence on display at Harvard was at once awesome and alienating. I had great respect for my peers, and a desire to be accepted among them. Yet I always suspected that full entry into the world of Harvard Students and alumni, and the kind of success that entailed, was neither what I wanted nor what was meant for me.

Perhaps for that reason, I spent much of my time at Harvard on the fringes—spending summers working at home or with kids from Cambridge’s Jefferson Park housing projects, afternoons and weekends with the other misfits from the HRFC, and evenings bouncing or tending bar at the Bow and Arrow Pub. I wrote my senior thesis on scholarship students at Harvard, missed out on the finals club scene, and bombed my interviews with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch.

After graduation, I took a teaching position at Santiago College in Santiago de Chile. There, I taught IB English, backpacked the Andes, and learned, for the first time and first hand, the impact of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. In 1993, I entered a Ph.D. program in American Studies at Yale, hoping to draw from my experience to imagine ways that elite education could be a tool for collective uplift rather than individual achievement. Little did I know that the current trend among universities away from tenure and tenure-track positions toward contingent faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, was making such a prospect more and more unlikely.

As fortune would have it, Yale University was at that very time the hotbed of a movement—buttressed by Yale’s unions of graduate-student teachers, dining-hall and maintenance workers, and clerical workers—to counteract the corporatization and erosion of academic freedom Yale and its counterparts (including Harvard). Initially reluctant, I became a leader of that movement in 1996 when, after joining a strike of graduate-student teachers at Yale (for equal pay for equal work, same-sex domestic partner benefits, diversity, and affordable child care), I witnessed the wrath of university administrators and senior professors who threatened to fire, expel and blackball the striking teachers. Moved by the sincerity, compassion, commitment, and strength of the strike’s leaders, I decided, though I did not fully realize it at the time, that I wanted to be one of them for the rest of my life.

I received my Ph.D. in 2001, and stayed on as an organizer with the unions at Yale for 4 more years. In 2002 I married Rachel, herself a dynamic leader in the union, and in 2005 we had our first daughter Anna. Also in 2005, at the request of the union, our family moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start a new Hotel and Airport workers’ organizing program there. Here we joined my parents, along with two of my brothers and their families, who had all migrated West a decade earlier. In 2007 we had a second child, Naomi, and in 2008 Rachel and I together helped found CASE (Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy), a non-profit organization which works to improve working and living conditions for low-wage and immigrant service workers in Arizona through workplace organizing, naturalization assistance, youth leadership development, and voter engagement. I have served as CASE’s Executive Director since 2009. Resisting the horrendous attacks on immigrant families by the Arizona legislature and law enforcement agencies, and creating workplace democracy in a state that crushed the mineworkers and farmworkers movement before ours, is truly a very difficult task. My family has begun to enjoy the challenge, however, and we are very proud of the work we do every day.

Thanks to all of you classmates who tolerated and supported me during those 4 critical years at Harvard. And please come to Phoenix to visit. We would love to host any and all of you at any time. Blessings to all.


Courageous Leaders or Socialist Dupes

Intelligent, courageous leaders or Stalinist dupes?

Last Wednesday, dozens of CASE volunteers, all of them high school or college students from Phoenix, participated in the Global Action for a $15 dollar minimum wage.  Along with hundreds of other students, teachers, workers, and community members, they marched from the Hayden Lawn at the Tempe campus of Arizona State University to a nearby MacDonald’s, where they held a boisterous rally fueled by hopes for a future where everyone who works full time can afford to support their families, gain an education, and enjoy their fair share of the American dream.

And they looked great in the papers.  Check out this article, and this one, to see a photo of our volunteers shouting at full voice for a better future for themselves and their families.  If you read the articles themselves, though, you will see exactly what these young leaders are up against.

In this article, the full Editorial Board of the Arizona Republic declares “You want $15 and hour?  Get an education!”  What they fail to mention, though, is that the Arizona legislature has cut funding to our schools for the last 20 years, that tuition at Arizona’s public universities has increased more than that of any other state over the last five years, or that, in 2006, Arizona voters passed an initiative depriving undocumented youth of in-state tuition at Arizona’s public colleges and universities.

Even worse, the second article, by Republic columnist Doug MacEachern, claims that our volunteers, like all the other young people who participated in Wednesday’s Global Action, “were trotted out before the cameras in Tempe” by organizers who, in trying to hold MacDonald’s responsible for the labor practices of it franchisees, are following in the footsteps of “socialists” like Stalin, who went after the petroleum magnate Armand Hammer, or–if you can believe it–Hitler, who villainized the Krupps family of German steel barons.

Calling for a $15 minimum wage–nearly twice the current minimum wage in Arizona–is an intentionally provocative tactic.  But, in today’s economy, $15 is barely above the living wage for a head-of-household in Arizona.

CASE’s young leaders are prepared to fight for their future.  Our 50 team leaders are right now beginning to recruit between 500 and 1,000 volunteers who, in the coming months, will work to increase Latino voter participation, improve job quality, expand access to Deferred Action and Citizenship, and restore funding to our public schools.

But they cannot do it without your helpPlease click here to become a member of CASE and support their effortsYour donation will help these young people lead a fight that we all need to win.  You can also join us as a volunteer.  (Drivers are especially welcome!)  Just come by our office any Monday at 5 for our weekly leadership meeting to get plugged in.

Please don’t let the naysayers crush the dreams of our young leaders.  Join us today!

Immigration Reform and the Jobs Dilemma

Having flexed their muscle in November’s elections, Latino voters momentarily had Republican elected officials, especially in Arizona, falling over themselves in an effort to appear more friendly to the state’s Hispanic communities.  Infamous sheriff Joe Arpaio, when announcing his intention to run for reelection in 2016, made an effort to reach out to Latinos in Maricopa County. Five days after the election, Governor Brewer announced that she was “fine and dandy” with the idea of immigration reform (before quickly backtracking).  And Senator John McCain told Fox news that, in order to create a “bigger tent,” Republicans “have to do immigration reform.”

These remarkable developments had many advocates of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) feeling as if the wind is at our backs, and that CIR will finally be a reality in 2013.  Those advocates, however, would be wise to keep in mind, especially now, the fact that the fight for immigrants’ rights in the United States involves addressing the continued consolidation of corporate power in this country, and won’t be won simply by leveraging the minimum number of congressional votes for a least-common-denominator CIR package.  Nor will it be won without a significant change in our public discourse about jobs.

Perhaps the best example of the connections between immigration policy and the pervasive power of corporations in U.S. involves the enormous rise in the last decade of private prisons that house immigration-related detainees.   Such prisons have boomed since 2005, when then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff proclaimed an end to “catch and release” in favor of “catch and return”–where apprehended undocumented immigrants would be detained until their deportation hearing.  Between that announcement and the end of 2011, the number of ICE detention beds beds grew 85% from 18,000 to 33,000, and the ranks of immigrant detainees industry wide has doubled to about 400,000.  Nearly half of those detainees are held in private prisons, and the percentage of U.S. immigrant detention beds that are operated by private companies has tripled since 2002.

At the center of the expansion of private prisons in the U.S. are the two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, Inc.–both of which have more than doubled their immigrant-detention revenues since 2005.  To maintain that revenue flow, both CCA and GEO stepped up their lobbying game, spending at least $45 million on federal and state lobbying activities over the last decade.

Connections between CCA and Arizona’s government are particularly insidious.  Former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini sits on CCA’s board of directors, and CCA in 2011 had 22 registered lobbyists in Arizona, the most prominent of whom was Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants and a senior political adviser to Governor Jan Brewer (Coughlin also served as Brewer’s campaign manager in 2010).  NPR exposed CCA’s connection, through ALEC, in the drafting of SB 1070 (a September 2012 report in the Nashville Business Journal ties them to the movement of copycat legislation in their home state of Tenessee). And CCA won a significant prisons contract with the State of Arizona in 2012, after a legislative change made it no longer necessary for private prisons the prove they could be run more cheaply than a public one (CCA is paid $65.43 per detainee, whereas the cost of detention in public facilities was determined to be 48.43).

If this picture of a conspiracy at the top of Arizona’s political pyramid seems too nefarious to be true, it’s because it is.  Which is not to say there is not something rotten at the top; instead, it is to say that the feat could not have been pulled off without a direct, consistent, and ultimately persuasive appeal to the popular rhetoric of job creation.  Indeed, while some proponents of private prisons point to cost savings as the main benefit (see for example this recent op ed by Glen Hamer, President of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce), CGA’s own press strategy is centered around the company’s success as a job creator in Pinal County, in south central Arizona, where CCA is now the largest private employer.  But they are not alone in making this appeal.  A 2010 independent financial impact report compiled by the Arizona real estate firm Elliot D Pollack and Company declared that a new CCA facility in Pinal would create “hundreds of permanent career opportunities in a fairly recession-resistant industry.”

And how could anyone disagree?  For years, cash strapped towns in Pinal county have competed with each other to attract private prisons.  As Jess Knudson, Deputy Town Manager of Florence, AZ told Chris Kirkham, “we’re one of the few towns in Arizona that has been able to stay in the black with this recession.”  Instead of cutting services like other Arizona cities and towns, Florence — which has a prison population of more than 17,000, plus 7,800 residents outside of prison — has been able to increase services for seniors, and to build skate parks, dog parks and little league fields throughout town.

And here is where we come full circle on the connection between immigrants’ rights and the fight of American workers–particularly those stuck in the low-wage service sector–for fair job standards.  In our recession economy, appeals to the gods of job creation trump all.  In Arizona in 2011 they led to $538 million in corporate tax breaks that were underwritten by cuts of nearly the same amount to the state’s k-12, higher education, and public health-care programs.  Nationwide, those appeals create a race to the bottom in order to attract corporate business, and they bring non-union Casinos, Walmart, and other aggressively low-wage employers to our communities, just as they have helped propel the unprecedented expansion of the U.S. prison system on the back of undocumented immigrants.
There is a way out of this dilemma, however.  We need, today, to shift the public discourse of job growth to the issue of job quality, especially in the low-wage service sector.  We must move beyond focusing, as even President Obama did in his 2012 campaign visit to Arizona, exclusively on the centrality of high-tech jobs and a renewed manufacturing base as the key to restoring America’s economic security.  Instead, we need to train our sights on an effort to make the millions and millions of low-wage service jobs in the U.S. good, family-sustaining jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin, in an important Demos article on the retail industry takes just this tack, arguing that “given the vital role retail plays in our economy, the question of whether employees in the sector are compensated at a level that promotes American prosperity is of national importance.”
The recent wave of attention and support for worker actions at Walmart and New York City fast food restaurants indicates that such a discourse may be gaining purchase among the American public.  An equally important development was the Adios Arpaio campaign, where hundreds of highschool students, many of whom had family members awaiting deportation proceedings in Arizona’s private prisons, worked side by side with hotel and airport-food service workers to build a New Arizona where working families, and especially immigrant working families, would be bullied neither by racist politicians nor by the multinational corporations (particularly hospitality corporations) the Arizona government has been conditioned to serve.  Even the Arizona labor movement, slow to take a clear stand on Arizona’s immigration controversies, has begun to take a leading role in clearly linking the need for quality jobs with the essential push for immigration reform with an accessible path to citizenship now.  Thank goodness for these initiatives that can keep focus on the need to talk immigration and jobs at the same time.
Surely, just as the rights of workers cannot be served without justice for immigrant families in the United States, the rights of immigrants in the U.S. will never be secured if the jobs the immigrants seek permission to legally pursue remain poverty jobs.  The guest-worker question, therefore, and potential obstacles allowing undocumented immigrants work permits without an option for citizenship, represent a potentially massive wedge issue when it comes to jobs quality and immigration.  Indeed, at stake today, as congress drafts a potential CIR bill, is the capacity of progressives in the U.S. to avoid falling into the latest divide and conquer strategy.   God help us if we reverse the left’s critical New Deal era mistake–stopping short of racial justice for black and latino farm- and domestic- workers in favor of improved workplace rights primarily for white, male workers in the north and northeast–by trying to advance CIR as a stand-alone political issue while devoting little energy or resources to nationally-important, but less sexy, jobs-quality campaigns like the Walmart fight, fast-food service organizing, and innovative hospitality organizing campaigns like UNITE HERE’s Hyatt Hurts Campaign.

Power and Persuasion: A Civics Lession from the Arizona Legislature

“I’m not trying to pressure you, but are you going to change your vote?”

Eddie Farnsworth, the chair of the Arizona House Judiciary Committee uttered these words yesterday as he stared down Representative Doris Goodale during deliberation over SB 1003.

“If you are going to change your vote, this would be the appropriate time.”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman. I will change my vote.”

Goodale’s original “no” vote would have killed the bill. Her stand was principled and courageous.  Unfortunately, it also directly contravened the opinion of the Chair.

Drafted largely by the office of Secretary of State Ken Bennett in response to the post-election uproar last November about uncounted votes in Arizona, SB 1003 would make it a class 6 felony to carry another person’s mail-in ballot without a signed affidavit. It’s primary affect would be to eliminate a key voter engagement tactic used by community groups over the last three years to alleviate the massive disparity in participation between white and Latino voters in Arizona.

In the original round of voting, Goodale, a Republican, joined three Democrats—two Latino and one the former President of the Navajo Nation—in opposing the bill.  She clearly articulated the needs of her largely rural constituents when she voted “no.”

But Farnsworth dismissed his colleagues’ and all other citizen testimony and took offense to the very idea SB 1003 could discriminate against Latino, Native American, elderly, and disabled voters.  He even went so far as to mock one disabled man who testified against the bill, saying he found it “hard to believe that a man who can come all the way here from Tucson to testify cannot not get on the bus to deliver his ballot.”  Of course, Chairman Farnsworth did not make these comments during testimony, when opponents of the bill could respond.

A few hours after the hearing, I received an email from a colleague who had also been present for deliberations on SB1003.  She complimented me on my testimony, which she found “very persuasive—not persuasive enough to overcome all the prejudice and suspicion at the front of the room, but maybe a start.”

Yesterday’s committee meeting, however, demonstrated that in Arizona, as in most of today’s United States, policy—especially when matters of race and discrimination are involved—has little to do with persuasion and everything to do with power.  More than anything, her words made me feel stupid for forgetting, even for a moment, this golden rule.

So, today, for us advocates of racial justice and fair standards for working people, it’s once more into the fray. Thank you, Chairman Farnsworth, for the civics lesson.

Meet Karen Flores

Meet Karen Flores, a face of the New Arizona

“My name is Karen. I am 16 years old and I attend Westview High School in Avondale, Arizona. I have been a volunteer with the Adiós Arpaio campaign for two months. Becoming a part of this campaign, where I can fight for the change I want in Arizona, has been the greatest decision I’ve made in my life.

image004On November 6, 2012, Election Day, I skipped school to go out and canvass with the campaign. I was out volunteering from 7 A.M. until 7 P.M, knocking from door to door making sure people took their last chance to vote. On Tuesday night I knew Arpaio was in the lead. On Wednesday, I woke up with a sick feeling knowing Arpaio was the winner. I am not going to lie: I cried. I never cry in my life so it was very strange. But in that moment, I had lost all my hope of Arizona ever changing.

That same Wednesday, in class, I received a text from my organizer telling me that there were over 500,000 ballots in Maricopa County that had not been counted yet. I felt disgusted to be a part of a county in which this was allowed to happen. I was upset, angry, and frustrated all at the same time. On Thursday, I woke up and said to myself “I am NOT going to let them think that this is right. I am NOT going to let them think that I am going to stand for this. I am NOT going to sit down at home and watch this happen. I need to get out there and fight with the campaign because I’m done with all the injustices Maricopa County makes.”

That same Thursday I went out and protested. That was when I realized in matter of seconds that all hope wasn’t lost because so many volunteers had come out. Election Day was over and all these people still cared.

I loved being out there with UNITE HERE, but I also felt that our protests should not be necessary. We shouldn’t have to be protesting every day and keeping an eye on them just so they would count all the votes—something they should have done no matter what.

I went out and protested with the campaign almost every day until a week later, Thursday, November 15, 2012, we had a massive protest. Over 500 people showed up to support us. It was amazing to see that we were not alone. Every single person took the time out of their day to spend it protesting with our campaign.

That day changed the way I saw Arizona. It helped me see that Arizona could really change. These people who came out were just a small percentage of those who supported us. Arizona can be the state we want it to be, the state known for good things not for cruel and racial things like SB1070 and Sheriff Arpaio. I believe that with our votes and our voices we can change Arizona.image009

Just after Thanksgiving, our directors had a meeting with the Secretary of State Ken Bennett where he agreed with us that the election shouldn’t have been such a mess. Then the Secretary of State said he wanted OUR help to fix the election counting system in Arizona. When I found out about it this it made me feel really accomplished because that was the moment when I realized that all the protesting we did had not been for nothing. Our voices had been heard.

If Arizona forgets all this and goes back to its old ways, I know I am NOT going to forget what happened. I am NOT going to ever stand for anything like this again in Arizona. I am NOT going to let them think that they can play their old tricks on us. And I am definitely NOT going to ever stop fighting for what is right.” – Karen, Phoenix

Top Photo: Veterans standing with Adiós Arpaio and UNITE HERE in demanding every vote count in Arizona.
Bottom Photo: Karen celebrating another successful day of canvassing.

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.