The Chicago DSA Office

These are some photos of minor historical interest, mostly for those preoccupied with left history or with Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

My inspiration for posting them is this: Some days ago, I received an email notification of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s annual membership convention on June 8. If that sounds at all interesting, check out their web site; you need not be a member to sit in. While I’ve been a member since the organization was formed from a merger in 1982-1983, and a day-to-day activist from 1989 to 2017, I had only a transitory impulse to attend. There’s not much political about my decision; in fact, if you’re a Chicago lefty but not a marxist-leninist, I think you really ought to be there.

My decision is mostly personal. After almost 30 years, it’s time to spend my time on other things, even if I continue keeping an eye on politics as a spectator… mostly. But that transitory thought brought to mind a few photos I had taken of Chicago DSA’s old office at 1608 N. Milwaukee Avenue. These are from 2003 and 2004.

Chicago DSA’s very first office was in a building owned by In These Times at 1300 W. Belmont. It was a generous suite of offices that we shared with a regional DSA office run by the national organization. Along about 1985, it became clear that the money wasn’t there to maintain regional offices, never mind staffing them, so Chicago DSA had to look for smaller, cheaper space. We found the Northwest Tower Building. (Also see chicago.designslinger.) Our first office there may have been on the 5th floor or the 7th; I forget. We spent some time on both. By 1987, we were in a tiny space on the 12th floor. Sometime early in 1988, we moved to a somewhat larger space on the 4th floor, where we stayed until 2014. Around the turn of the century, we knocked down the wall to a tiny office next door to create a comfortable meeting area.

For most of the time we were in the Northwest Tower, the building was a commercial slum. I strongly suspect the owner for much of that period used the property as an ATM machine. The windows were the original 1929 installation, rarely cleaned and in precarious condition. On the other hand, they also opened from the top, making the office temperate for all but the very hottest days of the summer. When we expanded the office, we finally bought an air conditioner, mostly because of the intolerable roar of passing CTA trains and the dust and diesel exhaust from North Avenue.

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That’s not snow! On average, the windows were cleaned once every 4 or 5 years. Photo by Roman.

The building was also notable for being one of the three remaining buildings (at the time, that I know of) in Chicago with public elevators run by human operators. The operators were all real characters and I fondly remember them all, especially the two mainstays of the operation, two Polish immigrants: “Grandpa” and Victor. The building would have been a disaster without either of them.

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Looking westward at the original 4th floor office. It included the two windows visible. Photo by Roman.
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Another look at the original Room 403. Photo by Roman.
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Looking east at the meeting area and what was once Room 404. We did dust before meetings! Photo by Roman.
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Sticking my head out the window, this is a look westward on North Avenue. The CTA trains were incredibly loud but so was North Avenue.
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People watching was always entertaining. By 2004, Wicker Park was well on its way to being hip. Photo by Roman.

After another change in ownership and another bankruptcy, the building was sold to a developer who would gut the structure to convert it into a boutique hotel as it is today. Right before we moved, I wrote this for New Ground 151:

“After something like 28 years in the same building, Chicago DSA is moving. Chicago DSA staffer Mark Davidson found the Northwest Tower Building when it was a nearly empty shell in the process of being rehabbed. The neighborhood was neglected, sometimes dangerous, and gritty. The landlord was politically friendly. The rent was cheap. We moved in.

“It hasn’t been all 28 years in the same office. The first few years we moved just about every year, dodging the rising drywall. But we have been in 403 since 1988. Come the 21st century, we took over the office next door so we could have meetings in the office, and we added an air conditioner, mostly to cut down on the noise and dirt from outside.

“Built in 1929, the Northwest Tower (sometimes called the “Coyote Tower”) is a gently art deco 12 story (190′) masonry clad structure (architect: Perkins, Chatten, & Hammond). Its construction was financed by the long defunct Noel State Bank whose gorgeous headquarters still stands (as a Walgreens today) right across the street. The capital, it is said, came from the alternative pharmaceutical trade.

“Even after having been rehabbed, the Northwest Tower building was not in the greatest of shape. And the quarter century since has not been kind to the structure. The neighborhood, however, has become an expensive part of Chicago’s party district. Judging by the number of bars, bistros and restaurants, it’s not clear that anyone actually cooks at home in Wicker Park / Bucktown except to entertain and maybe not even then. Or that they go home sober on a weekend evening.

“The property has gone through two bankruptcies in the years we’ve been here. This last was rumored to be a saga of fiscal chicanery that involved ten different banks. But now that’s all settled. The building (and the “fireproof” warehouse next door) is to become a boutique hotel.”

I wish I had taken more photos of the rest of the building: the elevators, the doors, the stairwells. But with a film camera, I was overly parsimonious with my shots.

Chicago DSA ended up at 3411 W. Diversey Avenue, right at the northern border of the Logan Square neighborhood. It is a smaller and less expensive space with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. But like the Northwest Tower Building, it’s also an art deco structure, dating from 1939.

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The Third Way Surrenders?

Never bring a chess board to a poker game…

It is almost certainly a stretch to take one person’s opinion to represent an entire political tendency, but Vox recently published a remarkable interview with Brad DeLong. Brad DeLong is in many ways an archetypical centrist Democrat. He had been a mid-level political appointee in the Clinton administration (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury) where, according to Wikipedia, he “and Lawrence Summers co-wrote two theoretical papers that were to become critical theoretical underpinnings for the financial deregulation put in place when Summers was Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton.”

Gee, thank you Professor DeLong: That was a fabulous Great Recession you gave us, not to mention NAFTA, the dotcom crash, and various and sundry currency crises. Sorry. I’m a tad bitter.

In any case, DeLong is now urging centrist Democrats to not simply support the left, but to look to the left for leadership. How did it come to this? This exchange between Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and Brad DeLong gets to the nub of the matter:

Zack Beauchamp
What you’re describing is a broad theory of political economy, in which a vision for what economic policies are best is intertwined with a particular view of what makes policies popular and sustainable. You say something about this is wrong — do you think it’s the political part, the economic part, or both?

Brad DeLong
We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics.

Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.

And [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and company say we’ve got to build bridges to the Republicans. We’ve got to let Republicans amend cap and trade up the wazoo, we’ve got to let Republicans amend the [Affordable Care Act] up the wazoo before it comes up to a final vote, we’ve got to tread very lightly with finance on Dodd-Frank, we have to do a very premature pivot away from recession recovery to “entitlement reform.”

All of these with the idea that you would then collect a broad political coalition behind what is, indeed, Mitt Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.

And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?

No, they fucking did not. No allegiance to truth on anything other than the belief that John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are the leaders of the Republican Party, and since they’ve decided on scorched earth, we’re to back them to the hilt. So the politics were completely wrong, and we saw this starting back in the Clinton administration.

Today, there’s literally nobody on the right between those frantically accommodating Donald Trump, on the one hand, and us on the other. Except for our brave friends in exile from the Cato Institute now trying to build something in the ruins at the [centrist] Niskanen Center. There’s simply no political place for neoliberals to lead with good policies that make a concession to right-wing concerns.

Hah: “… tread very lightly with finance” indeed! Do you wonder why nearly no one went to jail as a consequence of the 2008 Crash and Great Recession, especially when there had been such blatant fraud and self-dealing? The answer is complicated and major corporations were fined billions, but much of the blame for the lack of criminal prosecution can be laid on Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder. Holder maintained that prosecutors should take “collateral consequences” into account when “conducting an investigation, determining whether to bring charges, and negotiating plea agreements.” In other words, a perpetrator can look at a prosecutor and say: “Nice economy you have here… pity if something should happen to it.” Oh, yes, those collateral consequences: too big to fail, too big to be criminal.

If you want to explore the issue of accountability for the 2008 débâcle in justice, American Public Media’s Marketplace had a reasonably detailed examination of the whys and wherefores that you can find HERE.

Contrast this with the late U.S. Representative Phillip Burton whose 1977 proposal for expanding the Redwood National Park, for example, was adamantly opposed by the timber industry. He showed them a plan that looked to put them pretty much out of business then he showed them his proposed compromise. Agree to the compromise by tomorrow, he told them in a meeting, or my proposal is what you get. Burton’s biographer (A Rage for Justice, University of California Press, 1995), John Jacobs, quotes Burton as saying, “If you show them the depths of hell, everything else looks pretty good.”

I don’t propose Burton as a role model. For one thing, Burton’s compromises tended to include provisions buying off the opposition, with the cost not very high on the list of considerations. In this regard, he was almost a living specimen of the conservatives’ “tax and spend liberal” stereotype. But at some point during the 1980s and onward, political professionals working the Democratic brand stopped playing poker and began playing chess instead. Unable to transcend the limits of calculated possibility, is it any wonder they kept getting their butts kicked? Is it any wonder an outsider, Bernie Sanders, came so close to defeating Hillary Clinton; that indeed no one else of any consequence had been willing to try?

As DeLong said, you most certainly did see it “back in the Clinton administration.” But my mind boggles that, after having the 2000 Presidential election ripped off by the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), anyone would have any illusion that the conservative stance toward President Obama would be any different.

(Obama, at least, had a better excuse: to be President and to live to tell about it. Large parts of our country, albeit a minority of it, were not ready for him as President at all. To anyone under 40 years old, this may seem hyperbolic, but assassination was all too common in the 1960s and 1970s, much of it done from the right, much of it motivated by racism or bigotry. Also, remember Oklahoma City. It hard to imagine this not being a factor in Obama’s decisions.)

If that had not been enough, there were more clues about what awaited an Obama Administration in the healthcare policy debates prior to Obama’s election. These debates were done on the state level, including here in Illinois. When a task force appointed in Illinois to consider healthcare alternatives reported in favor of what was then Republican Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan, that recommendation gained no favor among conservatives. To be fair, the left was equally unimpressed. See “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Universal Health Care How!

A lot of us on the left had been making this point since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election as President: Reagan was not another Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford, but represented a movement with an ideological agenda that would compromise only to the extent that it could be checked.* In Illinois, for example, we (DSA predecessor DSOC was a member organization) helped organize the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics to educate and agitate the public and public officials about the nature of this new movement. Some among liberals and labor were willing to listen; others had to learn through repeated experience.

Some Republicans saw this more clearly, even back then. In that 1980 election, Illinois Republican Congressman John Anderson ran for President as an Independent and earned 6.6% of the popular vote. As early as 1963, liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits (who spent a few years in the second decade of the 20th Century as a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League) was speculating on a right-wing takeover of the Republican brand, although as late as 1982, it was possible for a DSA member to be elected to a state legislature as a Republican: Tarrel Miller, South Dakota’s 14th District. This could still happen today, depending on the vagaries of state election law and local demographics; it’s all up to who wins the primary. But consider how unlikely that seems.

Well, whatever. Welcome to the Resistance, Professor.

(Watch your backs, folks.)


* I am aware of the irony: This is very much the stereotype that is held by many conservatives about socialists. Irony, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a dandelion in the field of politics. We exclaim over each delicious blossom but, bugger all, they’re everywhere. And their seeds are legion in the wind. I’m not unique in this attitude towards turn of the century conservatism, however. Consider Natalie Wynn’s informed and entertaining and (warning) ribald Decrypting the Alt-Right.

Wait! Look! There’s another irony in bloom: at least some of the current state of affairs could be blamed on a decades long 20th Century project by ideologues on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic brands. Among Democrats, this project dates back to the 1930s. On both the right and the left, this was accompanied by a desire for party government rather like what is found in most other countries but is discouraged by the U.S. Constitution. One could reasonably argue that the present polarization is yet another example of “be careful what you wish for.” On the other hand, the process hasn’t finished playing out.

And I would contend that some of the extremism on the right is a consequence of panic born of the 1960s and 1970s, aggravated and maintained by radical changes in the economy, means of production and demography of the turn of the century. Whoever is in charge gets to make the rules that will profoundly shape the nation for decades to come. But I’m getting into waters over my head here.

If you want to explore the current state of political polarization here in the States, I’d strongly recommend The Geography of Partisan Prejudice by Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla and Angela Y. He, posted this March at The Atlantic. Some of their findings are not at all surprising but some of the others are indeed interesting or unexpected.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Dude Sings

a rant by Bob Roman

No really, as of the January 26 – 27 weekend, the Federal Government was not entirely up and running. With President Trump’s promise to sign the legislation, Congress passed HJ 28 that pertains to spending for all the outstanding appropriations except the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has signed it, extending funding for those parts of the Federal government for several weeks. Money for the Department of Homeland Security is covered by HJ 31. Both the House and the Senate passed this bill, but the Senate had amendments that need to be reconciled with the House. These appear to be mostly proof reading changes, but it still requires legislative action by both chambers.

Beyond that, these bills place the situation approximately where it was right before Trump did his informal veto. The continuing resolutions were the final items on the 115th Congress’ agenda. When Trump humphed, Congress swore and went home. Trump must have felt this would inevitably put the blame on Congress. That it ended up splattering mostly upon him must have been an unpleasant surprise. Will he try it again?

There are some major exceptions to this status quo ante, however. One is the damage done to Trump’s political base of support, both within and outside the government. This has been much commented on, particularly with regard to the Fox News commentariat, blogs, and social media. But while Trump has been seen to jump in response to these folks, it’s also true that the House Freedom Caucus had lit their farts in support of a veto. Now that Trump has “caved”, it will be harder for Trump to assume their support. How badly does he want or need it? Depending on the answer, it may mean we will be facing a second shutdown when the clock expires on these two continuing resolutions.

Or it may mean that the House Democratic caucus gives Trump a piece of his wall. Because that is the other major change: the House of Representatives has changed from being run by the Republican caucus to being run by the Democratic caucus. What will the House Democratic Caucus be willing to give in exchange for keeping this assortment of government departments and agencies open, and how will that affect internal Democratic politics? And what shall we say of the Senate Republican caucus?

And then there is the prospect of a State of Emergency. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? With Trump in charge, you needn’t be an American lefty to start measuring the distance to the Canadian or Mexican borders. But in fact, a State of Emergency would not be anything new. These have been extensively if incompetently legislated. We’re actually living under several of them right now. This does not mean you should be any less concerned than you would be if asked to venture into a field of land mines. Congress today is potentially about as meaningful as the Roman Senate was under Caligula, and Trump is only the immediate hazard. My fellow Americans, Congressional incompetence has all our asses in the wind. If you are at all curious, I’d recommend this recent article by Elizabeth Goitein.

Keep in mind that walls and border police are in fact more effective at keeping people in than fencing people out. Gulag America?

Hail to the CreepAnd about round two? Oh, right. I’m supposed to be answering these questions, pretending to a punditry I do not possess; I’m not quite the walking definition of unhip, but the circles I inhabit are a long way from within the Beltway. Given that half to two-thirds of politics is gossip, I’m at a severe disadvantage. But the metric I’m watching (lacking, as I am, in gossip) is Trump’s approval polling, though not so much his disapproval numbers. Just what one is to make of them is hard to say as I believe it will depend on context. For example, is Trump cornered? What is the impact on Republican radicals?

An obvious strategy for Democrats is finding a way of splitting the Republican coalition. It seems unlikely that this would be fruitful in the space of a few weeks, but however long it would take, the resulting policies would not likely be thrilling for us lefties.

Yet these are just the latest battles in what will be a decades long conflict, the latest manifestation of a disease afflicting the American body politic like a recurring infestation of malaria. Trump is correct in identifying immigration as a major issue right now, though he sees it as means of mobilizing fear, bigotry, alienation and anger to his own ends. Indeed, that’s why he wants a wall rather than pursuing other policies. But I see migration and refugees as possibly a defining characteristic of much of the 21st Century. Granted, the 20th Century saw its share, but that illustrates how extreme I suspect the not-too-distant future will be. Even with Trump gone, this will remain a major issue.

If you judge that this is a thoroughly pessimistic vision, you’re quite right. People leave home for a foreign country mostly because their situation at home has become untenable in one way or another. And that’s pretty much what I see happening over large portions of the world. Historically, humans have attempted to deal with ecological collapse and climate change through military means. This is how I perceive much of what is happening along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coast, but it is happening elsewhere, too, closer to the U.S.A., with all the consequent people looking for new homes.

Would you stay, suffer and die if migrating were even a long-shot option?

Despite being a charter member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I don’t believe in uncontrolled borders for people, never mind goods and money. Regarding people, the most diplomatic way of putting it is that there is something about migrants that does not bring out the best in humans, most especially among the receiving population. The migration doesn’t have to be across international borders. Just think of the California of The Grapes of Wrath or the less than welcoming streets of northern cities during the Great Migration or the urban “hillbilly” slums that provided refuge for the Appalachian dispossessed. Nor are the newbies necessarily any more saintly; mostly they’re simply at a disadvantage.

Having said that, keep in mind that people are going to do what people want to do or feel they need to do. After a while, setting up a system of rewards and sanctions whose consequence make whatever it is (in this case, immigration) impossible, it becomes an exercise in malice and stupidity: exactly what we have with our current laws regarding immigration and asylum.

I don’t have much optimism that the left, including DSA, will come up with a workable solution to this issue. Calling for the abolition of ICE, for example, is a fine way of throwing rocks through the windows of the Establishment, but anyone governing will end up reinventing that institution. (Which could still be a step forward.) At best, along with the labor movement, I might hope for some mitigation of what big business clearly would love: some system of indentured servitude, something the current system of H-2B visas closely resembles.

If I could speculate on what a workable system might look like: allow people to come to the States under normal tourist or student visas. If they intend to look for work or if they are offered work, charge them (and perhaps their employer) a fee for a taxpayer ID number that would be partially refunded if they choose to leave. It could be paid in installments in lieu of Social Security deductions, for example. The cost for migrants would still be far less than what a smuggler would charge, these days at least. Depending on your level of bigotry, one might propose further punitive details involving criminality much like the last so-called “compromise” regarding immigration did, but I leave these as an exercise for your sick imagination.

Incidentally, don’t assume that U.S. citizens are automatically welcome and accepted elsewhere. It hasn’t become an issue, but various countries (Mexico and Costa Rica for examples) have populations of U.S. citizens resident with dubious documentation: retirees, mostly, but one could easily imagine circumstances where we come to work. I recall that some of the proposed “free trade” agreements in the past had provisions for numbers of foreign workers to come here. There really should be reciprocity in these agreements.

Refugees are a special category of migrant. Keep in mind that some of them will be U.S. citizens: think Louisiana, Puerto Rico and California as current examples. There will be more in the future. It’s time we start dealing with this in a more systematic way, and we may as well include provisions for foreigners as well.

One last word, this about conservatives: One ongoing point of conservative agitation is the charge that Democrats and the left (oddly synonymous among right-wingers) favor open borders because the migrants (Mexican and Central Americans in particular) will therefore end up voting for Democrats. In its more delusional manifestations, said migrants end up voting for Democrats long before they even become citizens.

Conservatives have some reason to worry about this, though realistically it’s mostly because of their own behavior. Such an unwelcoming political brand! But in the past, conservatives were steadfastly in favor of admitting migrants from communist countries: Vietnamese, Russian Jews, Cubans. And those groups did tend to vote Republican once they became citizens. Providing them a new home was the right thing to do even if it was also blatantly hypocritical. For example: the Haitian human rights record was far more sordid than Cuba and the Haitian economy every bit as wretched or worse than Cuba. Upon setting foot in America, Cubans could stay but Haitians go home! Since immigration policy has been so plainly political for conservatives, it’s easy to see why they’d be prone to panic and to assume hostile motivation. Asking conservatives to get over it is probably futile, but…

Get over it.

November 25, 1987

was a Wednesday and found me on a train, delayed, sitting in the LaSalle Street terminal in downtown Chicago. I was on my way to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving. It was a morning of shock and desolation for me and for much of Chicago. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black Mayor, had just died of a massive heart attack. He was 65 years old.

The train was delayed because, coincidentally, a stout middle-aged man had collapsed in the doorway of my passenger car. The paramedics were called. Someone was giving him chest compressions. When they arrived, the paramedics got him stabilized enough to move, but it didn’t look hopeful, nor did it look hopeful, at that moment, for Chicago.

My own involvement with Washington was simply as one of the thousands of volunteers who worked on his 1983 and 1987 campaigns for Mayor. It was mostly phone work for me, as I recall, though there may have been a few occasions for canvassing and voter registration… It’s been a while and memory fades.

Washington’s reign as Mayor also corresponded with several years when I was more or less taking a break from politics, except occasionally in a “Jimmy Higgins” role. My organization, the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), had endorsed Washington’s 1983 campaign at a meeting in a church in the Logan Square / Palmer Square area. Harold Washington appeared at the meeting to make a pitch for his campaign. I remember being at the meeting though I no longer recall what Washington had to say.

DSA, I should add, made a credible contribution to Washington’s 1983 and 1987 campaigns in terms of volunteers, campaign leadership, and even some money. This was not reported then nor is has it been mentioned in any of the Chicago histories or Washington biographies that I’ve read.* Part of it is a cultural bias. Have you noticed how the indexes of U.S. histories mention far more individuals than they do organizations; how the histories are written mostly about individuals and not about organizations? It was also a very different time politically. An organization like DSA would not have been considered part of mainstream politics and thus not in the horse race. Plus, Washington’s “horse race” would be mostly decided in the Black and Hispanic wards. That was why he insisted on a successful voter registration drive prior to formally beginning the 1983 campaign. Most histories follow the story in those communities. Everywhere else was a side-show. In that side-show, DSA’s contribution was matched or more by the Independent Voters of Illinois — Independent Precinct Organization (then the Illinois affiliate of the Americans for Democratic Action, maybe 2 to 4 times Chicago DSA’s size with a good deal more money) and the Heart of Uptown Coalition (a community group).

The last time I saw Harold Washington was just a few weeks before his death. It was at a banquet that was part of a “Democratic Alternatives for Illinois” conference held in Chicago. “Democratic Alternatives” was a series of conferences organized across the nation by DSA but this particular event was organized primarily by the Illinois Public Action Council (now known as Citizen Action / Illinois) with DSA and other groups (including some unions) in a supporting role. All of the conferences were directed at strengthening the left in electoral politics, but this one had a particular urgency as Washington’s second term would be the first where he had majority support in the Chicago City Council. His hands were finally free of an obstructionist opposition, but so were Washington’s allies. Washington had a stellar record as a state legislator and as a U.S. Representative, but he had his start as part of the Mayor Daley’s Regular Democrats. This made for awkward choices while he was in the Illinois legislature. Not all of his community and city council support were all that interested in liberal / left policies but would have preferred to simply trade a White political machine for one of color. Washington faced a municipal budget crisis not too dissimilar to what Chicago faces today, and his response was “austerity”. To paraphrase Marx, humans make history, but not just as they please. How would or could Washington balance these tensions?

We’ll never know.

And yet, those brief four years that he was Mayor made a huge difference in Chicago’s political culture. Some of it was timing and some of it was Washington himself. But that’s another story.


* I don’t claim to have read any where near everything published about Washington’s campaigns. I do know that Jim Weinstein mentioned DSA in passing in an In These Times op-ed about the Chicago municipal election in April of 1983. But that was a socialist publication. Right-wing polemicists (Stanley Kurtz, as an example) for whom merely mentioning the word “socialist” is an inspiration to fear and outrage discovered DSA’s support for Washington some years ago, mostly in the context trying to persuade people that Obama is / was a socialist: an excellent example of how ideology can sometimes make people politically tone deaf. They ramped up the noise around that narrative right when the economy was crashing.

I don’t recall that the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (a predecessor organization to DSA) was particularly involved with Washington’s unsuccessful 1977 campaign for Mayor, but the New American Movement (the other predecessor organization to DSA) certainly was.

Labor Under Fire

a review by Bob Roman

Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017. 414 pages $39.95

There’s a major problem with the subject of this book and Timothy Minchin runs slam bang into it: The topic is too damned big for a book of a mere 414 pages. Oh yes, Minchin does try to narrow the topic, pointing out and so excluding bodies of other work that deal with various historical aspects, such as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, and many of the externalities that affect organizing. In fact, Minchin himself has written extensively about Labor’s campaigns to organize in the South. Even so, he still ends up beginning this account not in 1979 but at the beginning, at the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And sensibly so as it is impossible to discuss the organization’s history post-Meany without some idea how its origins set the stage for that subsequent history.

But what promises to be a history of the AFL-CIO ends up with a primary focus on the leaders of the labor federation: George Meany, Lane Kirkland, Thomas Donahue, John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Maybe there’s no other way to compress the subject into the space available, but it’s a limited window on to a very big subject.

History’s judgement on the AFL-CIO leadership is one Minchin’s main interests anyway. He feels that the labor federation’s presidents have gotten something of an unfair reputation as being backward looking and unreceptive to new strategies, particularly in the case of Lane Kirkland. He makes an good case for it. Unfortunately the main reason so many scholars and historians have it in for union leadership is that those leaders make such convenient stones upon which ideological axes can be sharpened. Under those circumstances, counterfactuals drift like ticker tape and no broom will contain them. Nonetheless, Minchin brings considerable research to this account, including numerous interviews with the players and access to the AFL-CIO’s own archives.

As the title, Labor Under Fire, implies, the book intends to be a history of the AFL-CIO’s attempts to deal with the labor movement’s decline. The second half of the Twentieth Century has not been kind to unions anywhere in the world; the United States is not unique in seeing a decline in membership and in union density. Here in the States, Minchin feels there were two especially rough patches: the Ronald Reagan administration / PATCO strike and the George W. Bush administration / 9-11 attacks.

The PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike has long been identified as a turning point in U.S. labor history, but Minchin’s account provided me with useful context. The Reagan administration was something almost unprecedented in Twentieth Century politics: The near total exclusion of organized labor from any contact with the White House, at least at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. As far as the Reaganistas were concerned, unions had nothing to say that they were at all interested in even pretending to hear. This, as much as any of the details of the strike itself and Lane Kirkland’s responses to it, is important.

Likewise, the turn of the millennium found an optimistic Labor movement in the process of building powerful coalitions outside the union movement. The infamous attacks on 9-11 in 2001 took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration every bit as hostile to unions as the Reagan Administration. A malevolent Federal government and a public stampeded by fear and war is not an advantageous environment for organizing or for progressive public policy.

With respect to the Reagan administration, unions took a while to figure out that they were dealing with something new. They were not unique. In 1981, Chicago DSA (DSOC/NAM) was a part of the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics and we found that part of our task was convincing liberals and unions they were facing an existential threat. It took a while. It took years for some liberals.

In comparison, unions did respond and relatively quickly. One of the AFL-CIO’s responses under Kirkland was the September, 1981, Solidarity Day march on Washington. Minchin goes for the reasonably conservative crowd size estimate of 400,000, but it may have been twice that. (I was there.) The march also wasn’t a one-off event but was followed by a series of similarly branded local events including, ultimately, a tenth anniversary march on Washington in 1991. Minchin reports that the original 1981 event did make the political atmosphere in Congress more favorable to union priorities yet it certainly did not halt the erosion of union organizations. At best (it seems to me, as Minchin doesn’t argue this) Solidarity Day made conservatives a bit more cautious about directly confronting the union movement… until George W. Bush.

This speaks to a problem I had with the book generally. Minchin describes any number of interesting and innovative AFL-CIO responses to the crisis in union organization. Sometimes he will judge the initiative to be successful (for example the Strategic Approaches Committee established in 1989), but there’s never enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect most unions, including the AFL-CIO federation, are not strong on metrics with which to judge political and educational projects. This allows leaders and staff to make their own, sometimes self-serving judgements. For example, how many of the “follow-ups” to the Solidarity Day march were simply rebrandings of activities local unions were going to do anyway? I remember a follow-up rally here in Chicago that was attended by dozens — hardly a turnout to encourage Labor’s friends or to worry Labor’s enemies. My prejudice (and unfortunately nothing in the book argues against this) is: If a union program does not contribute immediately to that union’s ability to serve and expand its membership then that program is optional and expendable, even if it might pay off in the long run. Marxists may regard that as a symptom of false consciousness, but unions survive, sorta, and marxists not so much.

Minchin ends his account just before the end of the Obama administration. I don’t feel he deals with the AFL-CIO in the Twenty-First Century in as much detail as he does its history in the Twentieth nor with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka as much as he does with Lane Kirkland. This may be prejudice on my part; I’m not so much interested in bettering Kirkland’s place in history. Or it may be how material was triaged for space.

As a small example, Minchin does not mention that John Sweeney was a member of my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but he does mention that Lane Kirkland was not a member of the old Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). SDUSA membership is an odd sort of issue to simply mention in passing; very few people have even heard of SDUSA. Thus it seems to me to be a truncated thread in Minchin’s narrative. Street gossip in 1995 was that Sweeney had joined DSA specifically to irritate Kirkland and his supporters; SDUSA and DSA, for many years, did not much get along: If you were known as a DSA member (aka “a friend of Harrington”), you’d have no luck being hired at the AFL-CIO HQ. Kirkland also did his best to sabotage Michael Harrington’s “Eurosocialism in America” conference held in Washington in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Kirkland’s assistant was Tom Kahn, a leading member of SDUSA. While one of Kahn’s main tasks, even in the early 1980s, was foreign policy (one of Kirkland’s pet priorities), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kahn was one of the early promoters of the 1981 Solidarity Day march idea within the AFL-CIO. Kahn had been deeply involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington so for all that I know, Solidarity Day may even have been Kahn’s idea. There is a story to tell but arguably tangential to the main narrative and the SDUSA observation looks like a stub that may have been intended to lead toward it.

A maybe more important thing that Minchin does not deal with at all is the role of contract negotiations in forming the political culture within unions. Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a union. (My Dad, however, was a member of NAGE, currently a part of SEIU.) That’s the way it is here in the States. But as a member and (for a time) a leader in Chicago DSA, I’ve spent a good bit of time with union staff and officials. The war stories unionists share focus on the adversarial and transactional process of bargaining, whether for a formal contract or for an individual grievance or even for candidates for public office. It seems to me that this experience has informed much of their behavior with respect to other organizations, other unions, and even other players within their own union. In some circumstances, this confrontational behavior and game playing is productive but other times not so much — it can be a handicap. It may very well be a partial explanation of why some of Labor’s efforts have yielded less than optimal harvests. But this criticism speaks more to my questions about labor history generally than it does regarding what Minchin intended to accomplish in this book.

So is Labor Under Fire a significant contribution to the historiography of Labor in the United States? Go ask someone else; I’m not an academic. Yeah, that’s a cop-out answer. But here is what I’m comfortable saying. If Timothy Minchin wanted to set the record a bit straighter for Kirkland, he makes a good but probably futile argument. On the other hand, for most people with a layman’s interest in the union movement, this is a useful introduction to the AFL-CIO’s history even if the focus ends up on the top leadership. In particular, I think it is useful in illustrating the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation of independent unions. During the Meany years and during much of the Kirkland years, this awareness of being a federation was as much a part of the organization’s ideology as it was a political fact. It informed what Kirkland was willing to undertake and had a similarly big impact on the success and failure of various programs in the Sweeney years. You might nod your head when told that the AFL-CIO is not a union but a federation of unions, but Minchin’s account makes it real. In a federation, “solidarity” is often only the title to a song no one remembers the lyrics to.

For people with an interest in unions, it’s certainly worth your time to read and, depending upon your wallet, your money too.

A Small Battle in a Larger War

Originally published in New Ground 159, March — April, 2015.

Mujica Money

by Bob Roman

The usual practice for lefties defeated in electoral politics is to claim victory, victory in the sense of having spread the word, victory in the sense of building an organization, victory in the sense of whatever plausible argument comes to hand. In the case of Jorge Mujica’s campaign for 25th Ward Alderman, we can safely assert it was a successful proof of concept: The “socialist” label, in some neighborhoods, is not a handicap even if it is not an asset. Begging your pardon but I’ve been saying as much for years. Through our participation, Chicago DSA did earn a reputation as an organization that delivers on its commitments. But the campaign intended to establish a socialist presence in Chicago government and that requires victory.

Chicago's 25th Ward, 2015
Chicago’s 25th Ward: Darker Areas = Greater % Votes for Mujica. Graphic by Roman

Chicago’s 25th Ward is a gerrymandered district that was drawn for the benefit of the incumbent, Danny Solis. Solis is an erstwhile community organizer of the Alinsky school gone over to the dark side. The ward is located just southwest of Chicago’s downtown, forming an upside down “U” wrapped around the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The west wing includes parts of the largely Mexican Pilsen neighborhood. The apogee includes parts of Chicago’s well-to-do, professional near west side then swoops down through the Union Station rail yards to include much of the south side’s Chinatown. The previous ward boundaries made a district heavily Latino. The current ward has a bare majority of Latinos, Mexican mostly, with some Puerto Ricans and other Latino nationalities.

The ward ended up with three other candidates in addition to Solis and Mujica. Roberto Montano is a businessman and, in the past, Solis’ Chief of Staff. It’s hard to say why he was running though it may have had something to do with Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson. Byron Sigcho was the other credible left of center candidate. An immigrant from Ecuador, a doctoral candidate in Education at UIC and very much a student politician, he had done some significant research into charter schools. Sigcho had the endorsement of Reclaim Chicago, the electoral coalition backed by National Nurses United. And finally there was Ed Hershey, a member of a small obscure Trotskyist sect. Was that redundant? In any case, Hershey seemed to feel the campaign needed a real socialist.

Mujica’s campaign grew out of the Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC). The CSC was organized in response to Kshama Sawant’s victory as a socialist in Seattle. Initially there was interest from several possible candidates for alderman. Ultimately, three ran for office. One won. Only Jorge Mujica decided to run as a socialist.

Meetings of the CSC sometimes were as large as a hundred people, many of whom were not members of any socialist organization. Unfortunately this did not translate into election workers. Those who did volunteer were often totally without experience in election campaigns and most did not live in the district. It’s easy to be snide about this, and people have commented about leftists who like to sit and complain about Democrats. But Mujica pointed out that the CSC drew people from across the city. If he had been running for a citywide office, as Sawant did in Seattle, there would have been opportunities to be involved near at hand for everyone. Instead, there were often important contests closer to home.

And it’s not as if Mujica himself was able to put in the time a campaign requires. He’s not a rich man and had to work most of the campaign season. Otherwise, Mujica himself is reasonably credible as a candidate for city council. He was one of the organizers of Chicago’s huge May Day immigrant rights marches several years ago, and that’s just the most visible of the organizing he’s done. He’s been involved in Mexican electoral politics, and the aldermanic campaign was his second campaign in the U.S. Mujica is a personable fellow with a lively personality, articulate in both Spanish and English, and easy to look at even if he is rather more shaggy than the bourgeois image of an official. Well this is a socialist campaign, yes?

Money was a problem for the campaign. It did have a paid campaign manager. The campaign did manage two bulk mail drops targeted at voters in the Pilsen neighborhood. And the campaign did have a good social media campaign directed at that same constituency. AFSCME Council 31 endorsed Mujica, as did a council of Chicago area CWA locals, bringing some mainstream credibility and money to the campaign. Chicago DSA raised over $1600 in early money and not all of it from DSA members.

The mayoral contest also was a problem for the campaign. The Mujica campaign made no endorsement for Mayor. But many election activists in the ward were committed to working for Jesus Garcia’s campaign for Mayor. An endorsement of Garcia by Mujica might have attracted some of those campaign workers but then again maybe not because it was clear that Garcia’s campaign was not likely to endorse Mujica. The 25th Ward is in the backyard of Bob Fioretti, another a liberal candidate for Mayor, and neutrality left open the possibility of some support from his people. Ultimately though, the CSC, with its commitment to independent electoral politics, mostly felt Garcia was too much of a “Democrat.”

A great deal has been said about voter turnout. It was considerably less than the municipal election four years ago, but it was actually not much different than the municipal elections eight and twelve years ago. The 25th Ward was near the median for this election. The Board of Election did have its thumb on the scale, though. It set up the Ward’s early voting site in Chinatown. Solis escaped a run-off election by only several dozen votes, prompting the Sigcho campaign to file for a recount of several precincts. A few of the items listed in the complaint may have plausibly been voter fraud but most of it sounded like sloppy inattention to procedure. Whatever the case, it made no difference. The official results put Solis at 3811 (51.07%), Sigcho at 1383 (18.53%), Mujica at 907 (12.15%), Montano at 748 (10.02%), and Hershey at 614 (8.23%).

Of the groups participating in the CSC, the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity, and Chicago DSA came through. DSA raised money, provided opposition research, did issues research, provided mailing services, and had a dedicated handful of members who gathered petition signatures, canvassed voters, blitzed precincts, leafleted L stations, and did election day work. I think we could have done better, particularly with recruiting more people to work, but it’s also true that Chicago DSA has no members in the 25th Ward. Will this coalition effort be duplicated in future elections? It would be a good thing if it were, but I’m inclined to be skeptical. Chicago DSA is open to the possibility. We’ll see.

Socialist International Meets

This was originally published in New Ground 144, September — October, 2012.

by Bob Roman

The Socialist International (SI) met in Cape Town, South Africa, August 30 through September 1. This 24th Congress was the first to be held in Africa and the location seems to have attracted some attention and participation that it would not have had otherwise. The meeting was hosted by South Africa’s African National Congress. Over 400 people, representing more than 100 political parties and organizations, participated.

DSA is somewhat incongruously a full member of the SI; the SI is an organization of political parties and DSA is not a political party. DSA was represented at this Congress by Maria Svart, Skip Roberts, Gerry Hudson, and Mark Levinson: a heavily SEIU delegation and, therefore, maybe taken somewhat more seriously than many past DSA delegations. (“There goes the ghost of Michael Harrington.”) Possibly because it is an election year, the National Democratic Institute (an associated organization) was not represented, but then, not many other associated organizations were represented either.

While George Papandreou was re-elected President, there actually was a contested leadership election. Incumbent Secretary General Luis Ayala (Chile) was opposed by Mona Sahlin from Sweden. Ayala was re-elected.

The SI Congress adopted three resolutions.

“The Struggle for Rights and Freedoms” was an examination of the current upsurge in demands for democratic rights. In principle, there’s nothing difficult for the SI about it except that in far too many cases (the former member parties from Egypt and Tunisia, for example) SI parties have been an embarrassing part of the problem.

One might suppose “The Need to Secure Multilateralism” resolution would be aimed at the United States. But there are far too many other countries also willing to take matters into their own hands, and the resolution wisely recognizes this. Given the SI’s inability to enforce anything, it does end up having a well-meaning, hand-wringing affect to it. For example:

“With regard to Syria, the SI is following with deep concern the massacres that take place on a daily basis, as the Assad regime refuses to accept that change is inevitable. We stand firmly on the side of the Syrian people in their fight for democracy and human rights and condemn the brutal actions of the regime. We call for all sides to end hostilities and enter into negotiations without any preconditions. We are not in favour of foreign military intervention, which can lead to further human suffering and instability in the whole region. We strongly support a Syrian-led process of transition to democracy.”

One should not be totally dismissive of this, however, as the SI seems to serve as a diplomatic back channel for “progressive” elements in governments.

The economics resolution calls for a progressive fiscal policy:

“a bank levy or increased income tax on high earners, redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom; the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax; a new global reserves system that could provide developing countries with access to financing, giving them purchasing power and helping to drive demand by using resources that would otherwise be idle; and by establishing new financial institutions such as development banks and green banks that could create new credit mechanisms, enabling credit to flow once more and provide more liquidity to ensure the resources meet public needs.”

The resolution goes on to condemn austerity as a solution to the fiscal crisis and calls for

“a bold approach based on a new culture of solidarity, solidarity that works separately and simultaneously at different levels: economic, political and social. Otherwise, any government that acts alone risks being crushed by markets and ratings agencies. Common action and creative initiatives are needed to bring about a paradigm shift from the failed austerity policies; that is the only way to a sustained recovery.”

Previous meetings suggest that the SI is evolving in ways that may or may not be encouraging, and the accounts of this meeting suggest the process is slowly ongoing. For more details about the 24th Congress, see http://www.socialistinternational.org .

Post Script: I think this was the last SI meeting at which DSA was represented. The 2017 DSA National Convention voted to terminate DSA’s membership in the organization. In my humble opinion it was a brainlessly symbolic decision, but it does have the advantage of saving several thousand dollars in dues. Since DSA hasn’t had an international political agenda that I know of, this is money wisely not spent.