By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Now, one strong point of a movement whose watchword is "America needs a raise" is that it isn't totally paralyzed by the decade's other (and distinctly non-liberal) watchword: "The era of big government is over." The immediate goals of the new movement -- raising the minimum wage, enacting a "living wage," unionizing low-wage workers -- were not dependent on government social-welfare policy. The new poverty allowed the new liberalism -- actually, required the new liberalism -- to work around the crumbling welfare state.
Both the organizing and political strategies of the new liberalism tracked a demographic shift that was transforming American cities. The social-welfare liberalism that arose in the '60s was rooted in black-led urban liberal coalitions. The liberalism of the '90s was more reflective of the concerns of immigrants who had come to the cities over the past two decades: above all, Latinos ghettoized into low-wage work. The shift was between two distinct kinds of poverty. The kind of chronic joblessness, or withdrawal from the labor market, that dogs the black community in good times as well as bad is far less characteristic of Latinos. The latest (February 1999) unemployment figures show the jobless rate among African-Americans to be 8.3 percent; for Latinos it's 6.7 percent. Nationally, the level of labor-force participation for blacks stands at 65.8 percent. For Hispanics, the level is 68.3 percent -- higher than the overall U.S. level of 67.3 percent.
For years, pundits on the right have been predicting that Latinos, when they finally entered the electorate in force, would reject traditional liberalism for a more â centrist politics. They were half right. In California, Texas and nationally, poll after poll shows Latinos to be far less supportive of welfare, or concerned about police abuse, than African-Americans. On cultural issues, such as the use of medicinal marijuana, they've been measurably more conservative than the population as a whole. On issues of working-class upward mobility, however, Latinos are the vanguard of the new liberal coalition. By an 86-to-14-percent margin, they supported Proposition 210, the 1996 initiative raising the California minimum wage, while it was passing statewide by 61 to 39 percent. In the spring of 1997, L.A. Latinos supported a bond measure to build new public schools by an 82-to-18-percent margin. Blacks gave it 76 percent support; it passed citywide with 70 percent backing. And in June of '98, Latinos opposed Proposition 226, which would have curtailed the political power of unions, by a 75-to-25 percent margin -- rejecting it by 6 percent more than the margin by which blacks rejected it, even as it lost statewide 54 to 46 percent.
In short, far from ringing down the curtain on urban liberalism, the political mobilization of the new immigrant communities, Latinos in particular -- increasingly, a mobilization organized by the new labor movement -- is one of the linchpins of liberalism's rebirth. In America's cities, it has come not a moment too soon. The urban liberal coalitions rooted in the movements of the '60s -- in ethnic entitlements and welfare programs -- have everywhere lost power. America's mega-cities -- New York, L.A. and Chicago -- have seen liberal black mayors succeeded by center-right white ones. By the '90s, the moral claims of the old coalitions registered with fewer and fewer voters.
In universities and in working-class neighborhoods alike, it is the causes of the new liberalism that are mobilizing activists. The Service Employees International Union, under the leadership of Andy Stern, has hired more organizers than any union since the great auto and steel drives of the '30s -- hundreds of them off campuses, which inevitably has led to some cultural clashes. (In response to a rising number of expressions of bewilderment from nurses in a hospital chain SEIU is organizing, word went out to the organizers to take out their tongue studs.) The Service Employees will spend $65 million this year on campaigns such as the one that just organized 75,000 L.A.-area home-care workers (half of them immigrants). The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will spend $35 million, much of it on a drive to organize Head Start employees. In a move sure to please the centrist advocates of the New Economy, the unions will establish training programs to improve the skills of these New Economy bottom-dwellers. In a move that would never occur to the New Economy centrists, these unions will also enable them to bargain collectively and win higher wages.
At a time when old urban liberal coalitions have crumbled, the organizers of the new have had no trouble winning middle-class allies. In city after city, large groups of clergy have marched and prayed in support of municipal living-wage ordinances, which require city contractors to pay their workers an hourly wage about $3 over the minimum, or $2 if they provide health benefits. Limited as they are to employees of city contractors -- inherently a small population -- living-wage ordinances are no substitute for universal health insurance. But inasmuch as it is the working poor -- not welfare recipients or Medicaid clients -- who constitute the majority of the 45 million Americans without health insurance, living-wage ordinances could address a good deal of that need if their popularity continues to spread and they come to supplant minimum-wage standards (which don't address the issue of benefits) for the entire population.