Quite the World, Isn't It?

Two actions, two setbacks for working people

June 29, 2011

Tags: current events, history

I'm still traveling, so not as tuned into news stories as usual, but two actions on Tuesday jumped out at me, and both are bad news for working people.

First, the Obama Administration finally struck a deal with recalcitrant Republicans over new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Though Congress may still kill the proposals. So what did Obama get for agreeing to pacts that would send more American jobs overseas to benefit corporate bottom lines? Some pennies sent to programs to retrain U.S. workers displaced by those newly off-shored jobs. Retrain to do what, is the question, since unemployment has been one of our most dogged problems for more than two years now.

So again, the U.S. government is picking corporations over people.

The second action was a veto by California Jerry Brown of legislation that would give farm workers the right to "card check" union organizing drives, which would make it easier for workers to join together to improve wages and working conditions in one of the most brutal industries in the country (you try working in a farm field in the triple-digit heat of the Central Valley). Brown's reason? He says the reforms contained in the bill aren't justified.

Agricultural jobs are some of the few that can't be readily sent overseas - hard to pick strawberries from Bangalore. Yet working conditions are horrific, and wages embarrassingly low. In part because low-income wage-earners have little clout in standing up for themselves; unions help balance out that power a bit. What's unjustified is Brown's vetoing this bill for reasons that are murky, at best (it seems he did it to appease Republicans angry over a budget deal passed by the Democrats).

The losers? The powerless. Again.

What I said at Ludlow

June 26, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

It was hot in Ludlow yesterday. Fortunately the United Mine Workers of America, which maintains the memorial site, built a roof over the picnic area a number of years ago. So for the 2 1/2-hour gathering we had shade, and a nice breeze. And more than 100 people.

I saw some familiar faces, and met folks I've come to know through Facebook. The themes of the speeches, as one might suspect, focused on labor, and the benefits of unions, and the continuing assault on the right to collective bargaining.

Among the speakers was Annaliese Bonacquista, the great granddaughter of a 1913-14 Colorado coal striker, who passed along some emotional stories about her family history, and the legacy of Ludlow. The keynote was by Marty Hudson, a key figure in the United Mine Workers, who talked about how the coal barons of the past aren't necessarily gone. His brother was among those underground when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia blew up last year. The brother narrowly missed joining the 29 men killed that morning (I wrote an op-ed on that theme last April).

I talked a bit about the history of Ludlow, and how it remains relevant today -- even if most people have no idea what happened in Colorado nearly a century ago. My prepared comments are after the jump.


Remembering, today in Ludlow, Colorado

June 26, 2011

Tags: history

This just seems like the perfect video to drop on the blog today, ahead of this morning's memorial observation at the Ludlow Massacre site.

And it reminds me of the one that got away. During one of the battles on the plains outside Ludlow - a few months before the massacre - a Pathe cameraman captured on 1,000 feet of film the fighting between the coal miners and the National Guard. The film, unfortunately, seems to be lost to history. But wouldn't that be fascinating to see? We'll have to settle for this only known film of Mother Jones, the firebrand union organizer who played such a high-profile in the Colorado coal field strike. The video was recorded shortly before her death in 1930.

Fire in the desert, a backup on the highway

June 24, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Yesterday's travels took me from Phoenix to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, though what should have been an eight-hour drive took closer to 10 hours. Construction in the mountains through the heart of Arizona (I took the scenic route where I could, through the Tonto National Forest) and then a wildfire outside Heber, Arizona.

It's not often you have a traffic jam caused by wild fire, but there we were, stalled by a police barricade, as they timed when they'd let cars go through, and only one direction at a time. When I went through, the fire was only 100 acres or so, but at last report had spread to more than 1,000 acres.

Amazing things, these wildfires, with which we're intimately familiar in Southern California. They're fast. And hungry. Glad I was able to slip through (some of the roads were shut down completely a little later), though also glad I was held up long enough to get some photos.

So to recap, on the first day I witnessed a chilling rollover accident. On the second day, it was a wildfire. Today's half over. Can't wait to see what it delivers.

On d. boon, the desert, and the flash of the unpredictable

June 22, 2011

Tags: current events, nonfiction

The dust cloud first caught my eye. I’d been on the road for 90 minutes or so this morning, was just east of Palm Springs on Interstate 10, when the puff of dust exploded on the other side of the median. It was a gray car and it seemed to wobble a bit as the driver, who’d drifted off the freeway onto the desert space between us, struggled to regain control. For a flash the car was pointed directly at me in the eastbound left-most lane, then it veered sharply away and across three lanes of westbound traffic as other cars, their drivers stomping on the brakes, seemed to genuflect. The spinning gray car flipped into the air and landed on its roof off the edge of the freeway, kicking up yet another burst of desert dust.

And then I was past it.

It’s remarkable how much detail you absorb in the span of a second. Or maybe two. And how simple functions momentarily move beyond reach. I couldn’t remember how to dial 911 through my car’s voice-activated system so fumbled to pull the cell phone from my pocket, the irony hovering while I punched in the numbers. It rang through on the dashboard speaker and I told the dispatcher where I was and what I had seen. “You’re probably going to need an ambulance,” I said, thinking to myself: Or the coroner.

When you drive a lot, you evolve a detached sense of safety. Crashes happen to other people. A whisper of anxiety might come as you pass roadside crosses draped with plastic flowers, but it’s for other people’s pain. Other people’s losses. We get lulled into a sense of invulnerability.

After the 911 call ended the stereo kicked back on, piping in music from my iPod, set on shuffle. I don’t remember what song was playing when the other car did its freeway shimmy then flip. But the next song up was “History Lesson Part 2,” an old blast of punk by The Minutemen, whose lead singer, d. boon, died when the van he was riding in rolled off the same freeway farther east, just over the Arizona border – which I would soon pass as I headed to Phoenix. I nudged the cruise control down a few ticks. I was going to be early anyway.

After settling into my hotel room, I called up Palm Springs news sites to learn that, miraculously, no one was hurt in the rollover. Though early Tuesday, on the same stretch of the I-10, a woman died in a ball of flames after drove onto the freeway in the wrong direction and head on into a tractor-trailer truck.

I think I’ll drive home along a different route.

Taking a road trip into the past - join us Sunday at Ludlow

June 21, 2011

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

The Ludlow Monument. Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I leave tomorrow to spend a week or so on the road doing some freelance stories during a trip framed around a tragedy - the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, the event that launched me on the path to writing books.

Regular readers here know the basics. During the 1913-1914 Colorado coal strike, 11 children and two mothers died when, at the end of a daylong gun battle, Colorado National Guardsmen torched the Ludlow tent colony. The women and children were hiding from the bullets in a hole dig beneath the floorboards of a tent; as the fire raged above them, it sucked the oxygen out of the air. As tragic as the deaths were, they were only a fraction of the 75 people who were killed during that strike, most of them shot to death in the most violent showdown between labor and capital in U.S. history.

Yet few remember this moment. A few years after the Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers union bought the site of the tent colony and have managed it as a roadside spot of reflection, and homage. In recent years, at the end of June, the union has hosted a memorial service to try to keep alive the memory of the dead from that day. It begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Ludlow Memorial site a short drive north of Trinidad along Interstate 25. I'm honored to be part of the line up of speakers this year.

Despite winning designation as a National Landmark a couple of years ago, the Ludlow Massacre remains a forgotten moment in U.S. history. That's partly, I think, because it happened here in the West, while our collective national memory is East Coast-centric. And I say that as someone born in Maine and raised and educated there and in Western New York. I came with an east Coast bias, in other words, but after more than a dozen years living in California I’ve come to recognize that, in a historical sense, the nation tips eastward. Which makes sense. The United States began in the East, and the bulk of our formative history lies in the East, so that’s where our memory is focused.

But more significantly, Ludlow is forgotten because it involved labor. And that's a dark hole in our collective memory. Workplace safety, the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour week, health insurance and retirement plans and everything else that we find ourselves once again fighting to protect, those all began with the labor movement. And as the strength of labor has faded, so have those hard-won benefits - and the middle class along with them.

That old maxim seems to be coming true, that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. Let's hope we don't wind up repeating tragedies like Ludlow. Let's hope all this national anger, frustration and class division builds into something positive.

A different way of writing

June 15, 2011

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction, fiction

So with The Fear Within launched and Detroit: A Biography safely in my editor's hands, I've been poking around for the next project while catching up on my general reading. I have a couple of ideas and am researching whether there's enough material available to make a book out of them, though at this stage I'm not too optimistic. Neither involves people who left much of a paper trail, which makes it nearly impossible to put flesh on the skeletons of their compelling stories. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've dusted off a mystery I've been nibbling away at for a number of years now, which is fun to work with, and has me contemplating the different requirements of writing history, and writing fiction. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, his history of the antiwar movement in England surrounding The Great War, and he made a comment to the effect that fiction writing differs from history writing in that with a novel, what you write only has to be plausible. With history, what you write has to be true.

Adam was talking about some of the characters in his book, including a brother and sister who found themselves in key positions on opposite sides of the war, the kind of dramatic tension that would make you roll your eyes if it appeared in a novel. Yet here they were in real life. In the novel I'm working on, I keep encountering a similar friction. Not between plausibility and truth, but between what a character would do, and what a character should do.

It's a subtle, yet crucial, distinction. Making sure actions are true to character is obvious. But as I frame a scene, I keep stumbling over the issue of should my character do this? Is this action necessary? Does it help the reader understand the story, or reveal a subtle dynamic? Or am I just indulging my imagination?

So 40,000 words in, with the victims dead, the two main plot lines firmly established, and the characters in full dress, I find myself becalmed by second-guessing. I know where the story lines go, and how the threads come together at the end. I just don't know where the characters go in the next few thousand words. It is the difference between writing what happened, and creating what happened.

Ah, writer's block. Nice of you stop by unannounced. A short visit, I hope?

Why Anthony Weiner needs to resign

June 8, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

Probity has never been a prerequisite for Congressional service, though judging by the clamor for U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner's Tweet-happy head, you'd think he had violated some sort of private club code. But others have done worse, and survived politically (hello, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and David Vitter.

The problem isn't Weiner's betrayal of his wife, even if it was a virtual betrayal. That's a personal matter. And the problem apparently isn't that he violated any laws in sending his creepy Tweets (should we call them Creets?). The problem, which should be our biggest concern, is that the man lied about his behavior once he was caught. That's where we should be most outraged. And why he should resign.

Of course, there's little precedent for a politician resigning because he lied, either (hello, Bill Clinton). If Weiner doesn't resign, his constituents should do the next best thing, and fire him come 2012. Politicians, like little kids, lie because they think can get away with it. We expect honesty from our kids, we should demand it from our elected officials.

Weiner failed in a fundamental way. And that is why he needs to go.

On anger, and the divisions that cripple us

June 5, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

Detroit, summer of 2010
A new poll this morning from Newsweek/The Daily Beast confirms what most of us have already known – the moribund economy has left many Americans angry at the world, and it's affecting everything from personal relationships to sleep patterns (I’ve seen 4 a.m. myself more times than I care to count). But it also reveals a deep crevasse between how Americans live, and how Washington responds.

Overall, 50 percent of the poll’s respondents thought President Obama has no significant plan to balance the budget, and 58 percent said the Republicans are equally stymied, and just trying to blame it all on Obama (presumably for crass political reasons). In other words, most Americans think our political leadership has no idea how to fix this. But more than two out of three believed raising taxes on the wealthiest is a step in the right direction. That isn’t going to happen here in this democracy of ours, mind you, but the will of the masses is there.

The poll also found that nearly one in three Americans said their financial straits left them feeling angry (I would have thought higher), and about half said they felt nervous. “Could the anger fueling the Arab Spring soon bring club-wielding protesters to America?” asked political strategist Douglas Schoen, who wrote the piece. Not likely, for a variety of reasons. And it’s an irresponsible line to toss out there, sounding more like a bogus Wolf Blitzer teaser before a CNN commercial break than a reasoned reading of the situation.

And that kind of breathless speculation erodes what otherwise were some pretty significant findings, because we are becoming more and more angry. And we are, as often happens in our history, turning our anger against each other while political figures use it to push agendas. For instance, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, in the GOP half of the Saturday morning political cartoons (the weekly addresses by the president and someone from the other half of the two-party tango), argued that unions were at fault for the lack of job growth.

Please. It’s a transparently false position, and the kind of red herring discourse that should fuel even more anger. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010 union membership nationwide was at 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent the previous year. And that is buoyed by unions representing public employees. The rate for private sector workers – the realm Alexander was addressing – was 6.9 percent, hardly the kind of power that would preclude an entrepreneur from opening or expanding a business.

Despite those anemic numbers, Alexander argued that union strength forces capitalists to create jobs overseas. Wrong. Federal policies that have enriched corporations by letting them fire U.S. workers and replace them with labor in lower-wage countries are what has driven jobs overseas, and killed the American middle class. If the unions had the kind of strength that people like Alexander say they fear it does, this would never have happened. It’s not unions that are sending jobs overseas, it is corporate executives and federal lawmakers who put corporate wealth ahead of community health.

So let’s make sure during these dark days that we direct our anger at the right folks, and not each other. The other day a friend on Facebook, whose daughter was rejected for much-needed financial aid for college, responded with a race-based post (she’s white) about people of color getting more government support than white people. In her moment of frustration she vented, in effect, sideways, rather than throwing her anger on the people who created the conditions: Elected leaders and the corporate powers that have excessive influence on how they vote.

Which brings me to this absurd theme coursing through parts of the electorate that because “my private sector job doesn’t give me the benefits that government workers get” that the government workers should be forced to give up theirs. No. The answer is that the private sector employers should restore those benefits. To bring government employees’ wages and benefits down to the level of the private sector continues this bizarre erosion of the caliber of American life. We won’t rebuild the middle class by pushing more workers further down the economic ladder. We rebuild the middle class by raising those from the lower economic levels up the ladder. And, dare I argue, drag some of the wealthy down a few rungs.

But it takes political will to do that. And, even with a former community organizer in the White House, there’s not much will in Washington to make life better for the poor, the working class, the middle class or average American neighborhoods, now ravaged by a housing crisis that was created by lack of oversight over the greed-mongers on Wall Street. And so we seethe. But do we act?

No. We watch “American Idol.” And maybe think think about Steve Earle's "America v. 6.0":
Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago
Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay
Yeah, well maybe that wasn't exactly what they was thinkin'
Version six-point-oh of the American way
But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club
To keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through
Yeah, I realize that ain't exactly democratic, but it's either them or us and
And it's the best we can do.

On fear, the past, and the present

June 4, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Eugene and Peggy Dennis arrive at the Foley Square courthouse for his sentencing.
Sixty years ago this coming Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions in the Dennis v. U.S. case, which is the focus of my latest book. The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to print an op-ed I wrote on the subject (or will be kind; it's available online now and is to be printed in Monday's paper).

The case was one of the major stories of the year (1949), though it has faded into obscurity, overwhelmed in our consensus memory by the Hollywood 10, McCarthyism, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Yet the Dennis case was the most troubling of all those events. For a time, the U.S. government in effect outlawed a specific political belief, undercutting what it is that we tell ourselves sets our democracy apart. This story displays exactly how fragile these basic civil liberties are.

The piece summarizes the case, and then concludes:
"Sixty years later, it might be hard to build up much sympathy for a dozen communists at the peak of the Cold War. But in this era of Patriot Act-permitted warrantless searches, surreptitious surveys of library and bookstores users' records, and extralegal rendition of terrorism suspects to secret interrogation sites, we would be wise to recognize that the rights we deny others out of fear, we eventually deny ourselves."
I encourage you to head over to the article and read it, and invite your comments there or here.

Two days, two indie bookstore closure announcements

June 3, 2011

Tags: current events

Two neighborhoods in southern California are about lose what can best be described as community cultural centers -- their neighborhood bookstores. In Pacific Palisades yesterday, Village Books announced that after several years of struggling, it would close. This morning, Laguna Beach's Latitude 33, which had been looking for a buyer, announced it's gone by the end of summer.

Independent bookstores have been fighting for survival for a number of years, first challenged by the emergence of chains like Border's (now in bankruptcy) and Barnes & Noble, and now by the convenience and prices of online outlets like Amazon (which bear lower relative overhead than brick-and-mortar stores). Add in a few years of record-setting recession, and survival becomes even more perilous.

This is a shame on a lot of levels. For the reading public, independent bookstores are community centers. It's where we meet up - on purpose or providentially - with others who share our interest, with new practitioners of a craft we love, and with unanticipated ideas.

When you go to Amazon to find a book, almost invariably you get just what you're looking for because you went to the web site with a title, or author, in mind. You find that item, click a few times and are done.

When you go to a bookstore, you find the book as well, but you also have serendipitous encounters with other books and writers, encounters that you miss by buying from your living room. Yes, it's faster, and you save money (lord knows I've done my share of the damage by doing just that). But you also miss that chance encounter with the new. It's like reading a newspaper online versus in print, where every page turn brings you something unexpected, instead of a curated set of headlines and links on a home page.

As a result, our lives, and our engagement with the world around us, slowly become more insular. We get challenged less, so believe in what we believe with more fervor. Something akin to intellectual torpor sets in as we keep returning to the same shelves in the marketplace of ideas. And we, as a society, are worse off for it, another stroke of damage from his secular religion of ours, the quest for a bargain.

Truth wins out at White House photo ops

June 1, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

A few weeks ago, when President Obama announced that U.S. special forces had found and killed Osama Bin Laden, he did it from behind a podium in the White House on life TV. After the television camera was turned off, and under a long-established practice, the media handlers ushered in news photographers and Obama returned to the podium and pretended to give the statement again, so the still photographers could make the image. They were barred from the live speech over fears that the clicking from the cameras would be picked up by the president's microphone

In other words, the photos that ran in most newspapers around the country were a fraud, and few noted that fact in the cutline.

Journalism has enough problems with credibility without adding to it with such absurdities as pretending a staged photo op is a live picture. Oddly, it was the White House that decided to suspend the practice, not the photographers assigned to the beat.

But the Washington Post's Paul Farhi reports this morning that the photographers have worked out a new protocol. They'll be "pooling" such events in the future, which means one photographer will be allowed to shoot it, and will share the pictures with his or her colleagues, with no restrictions on their use.

A reasonable solution, and one that should have been obvious back when they all agreed to play this little charade. Now if they can only do something about the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

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About me

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.

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