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.

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.