Five Minutes With
Harold Meyerson has come a long way since the 1968 Democratic Convention, where he worked as a young aide to Senator Eugene McCarthy. Forty years and a couple political eras later, Meyerson is the resident leftist on the Washington Post’s editorial page, the political editor for the L.A. Weekly, and an editor-at-large and frequent contributor to The American Prospect. According to a profile in the Los Angeles Times, he “has spent the bulk of his working life shuttling between the political barricades and the journalistic trenches.” Meyerson, whose parents belonged to the Socialist Party USA of Norman Thomas, is a self-described social democrat and a passionate pro-labor activist. His writing has appeared in almost every left-of-center publication, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Statesman, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Dissent.
Campus Progress stopped by his office at The American Prospect to talk with Meyerson about The Employee Free Choice Act, unionization among young people, the failure of socialism in America, and the meaning of the Republic Windows sit-in.
Campus Progress: You came of age during the late 1960s, a decade known for student activism and powerful protest movements. How do the anti-war and student movements today compare to their ‘60s counterparts, and what sets them apart?
Harold Meyerson: The student movement of the 1960s, which began as part of the civil rights movement and gained a more definitive identity as part of the anti-war movement, defined itself in opposition to the older liberal mainstream. Vietnam propelled the split because so much of mainstream liberalism, as personified by Lyndon Johnson, supported the war, while the student movement grew more and more estranged from that position. There was a more distinct definition of the student movement back then because they were defining themselves both politically and culturally against their liberal parents, and today you don’t have that kind of sharp division. The Obama campaign mobilized millions of young people in a progressive cause, but that doesn’t define itself generationally except in the sense that it is something new.
CP: Speaking of Obama, the word socialist was slung around a lot last election. Your parents actually were members of the Socialist Party of America, and you are a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Could you explain your understanding of socialism in contrast to the right-wing ideologues?
HM: The definitions have gotten fuzzier and fuzzier. The way society and the economy have evolved there is nothing plausibly to the left of social democracy, which I would say includes elements of public ownership and worker input on the management side of corporations, a strong public sector, a strong safety net, and strong unions. Public ownership, not just in the current crisis, but for 30 years on the left, has not been [necessarily] viewed as [intrinsically socialistic]. The leading American democratic socialist when I was your age, Michael Harrington, said that any government can nationalize anything; it doesn’t necessarily change the fundamental nature of the economy, and it doesn’t mean the structure plays a more democratic role in the society at large, simply by changing ownership from private to public. That said, the idea, at a moment like this, of a publically-owned bank to compete with and do things that private sector banks wouldn’t be willing to do, such as loan money, is not a bad idea at all. That there is space for publically owned and controlled companies and a generous welfare state is all the more important, as the private welfare state that was erected after World War II continues to erode.
CP: In Canada, Israel, most of Europe, and Latin America, socialist parties are an accepted part of the political spectrum. But in the United States socialism is a fringe movement. Why has a successful and sustainable socialist party never developed here?
HM: The American working-class was always ethnically, religiously, and racially divided against itself in the decades when socialism rose in Europe. In Europe the working-classes were quite ethnically uniform, unlike the Europe of today, and so they couldn’t be divided by the kinds of things that have traditionally divided Americans. [The effects of] these differences persist even given the weakness of socialism in Europe. For instance, you won’t find any place in Europe where the business community is as rabidly anti-union as it is here. That reflects the absence of socialism as a tradition here versus Europe.
When [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt came along there were decently sized socialist and communist parties in the United States, but many of the smartest people in both movements saw that the way to advance their goals was to go into the world of the New Deal rather than stay in a pure partisan mode. A lot of historically socialist institutions, the garment workers union [and] the clothing workers unions, began to shift to supporting Roosevelt and the New Deal because he was the first Democratic administration to seriously support unions and social welfare programs. You could be a social democrat within the Democratic Party. And so many socialists and social democrats made that leap. Michael Harrington always said he wasn’t the head of the Socialist Party, he was the head of the Democratic Socialists of America, which absolutely worked through the Democratic Party, because all else is just kind of out in space, and you won’t really accomplish much. He said you can be an open socialist in the Democratic Party and he certainly was. In a way, Sen. Bernie Sanders functions that way today.
CP: The recent Republic Windows sit-in has lead to speculation that a militant labor tactics may be a force on the national stage again. What do you think is the significance of the sit in?
HM: On the one hand it is a very inspiring tale. On the other hand what they were asking for was basically their severance pay, not for a greater say in the contract or the running of the company. The sit-downs the autoworkers did in Flint Michigan in 1937 were what built industrial unionism; you could say that the Republic Windows sit-in is almost the coda, the ending to a kind of unionism. If the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) passes I think the unions could stage a decent comeback. It was a great tactic and I was glad to see it, but honestly you cannot imagine in the current context this tactic being repeated, except for in the same cause—give us our severance. That is just the state of the economy today; it comes at a time when people are just scared shitless of losing their jobs. This is not necessarily the best time for militant union action. The Flint sit-downs and the rise of the CIO [what is now part of the AFL-CIO] followed four years of Roosevelt. The economy was modestly rising and people’s hopes were rising. That is historically the best setting for the rebirth of militant action.
CP: There has been a lot of speculation that with the Republic Windows sit-in, the organizing victory at Smithfield, and, as you said, with EFCA coming up, we may be seeing the revitalization of the American labor movement.
HM: Obama’s victory is the necessary but not sufficient condition for that, just like Roosevelt’s victory was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the birth of American labor. [The labor movement] is going to have to get EFCA passed or they can’t seriously grow. When a factory is closing, you can organize it to the extent of demanding your severance, but that will be good for the next two months and what do you do then? Labor is going to go all out for EFCA. They know they need it.
CP: Young people are unionized at some of the lowest rates of any demographic. When there is so much to gain from being a unionized worker, why are so few young people organized?
HM: First of all, desire to be member of a union doesn’t correlate to actually being a member of a union, which is why labor law needs to be changed. Most polling shows that a majority of non-unionized American workers would clearly like to belong to a union. Young people aren’t exceptional in that. But it is all but impossible to unionize under the current laws.
Secondly, most workers who are union members are not members because they joined a union recently or because their workplace was unionized recently but because it was organized decades ago. Union rules go by seniority, and there have been so many losses in auto, for instance, that you can’t find an autoworker under 40 these days.
Thirdly, where do young people work? Areas where young people tend to be employed have been very hard to organize. For instance retail, the level of unionization in retail is abysmally low, way under 5 percent. That is organizing that probably can’t be done absent EFCA. And then parts of the economy have risen since it became very hard to organize workers, certainly the whole tech economy of the last twenty years has come into existence at a time when companies routinely moved heaven and earth to resist unions.
CP: Do you have any advice for young people who want to pursue a career trajectory similar to your own, political journalism, labor activism?
HM: Apart from anything else, this is a time when journalism as a means of making a living is really in crisis. I am bereft of really good ideas as to what to tell people who want to go into journalism. God knows anyone can blog, and there are lots of great websites, but the issue for someone trying to make a living is how to work it out so you actually get paid for it.
On the other hand, I think this going to be a good time for movement activism, even if the movements aren’t nearly as flush as they might be if the economy were better. I think this is going to be a good time to be involved in these things and I think significant [victories] could be won over the next couple years, just as they were in other times of progressive government, the ‘60s in particular. To get a sense of what is possible and what people have done, read a lot of history. I just finished a book that is being published this month. It’s by Adam Cohen, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, how the left and the right of the Roosevelt administration [fought it out] and how the progressives ultimately won. The ways in which progressive change comes in America are many, varied, and often surprising. It’s always a good idea to get some idea of what people have agitated for and campaigned for and how they have done it.
Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher living in Philadelphia and a former Campus Progress staff writer. His work has been published by the American Prospect, Alternet, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.
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