David Newby hopes to lead labor’s comeback
By Roger Bybee
In 1991, Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan wrote a popular and powerful book, Which Side Are You On?, with the despairing subtitle, "Trying to be for labor when it’s flat on its back."
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President David Newby has felt that despair over the past three decades of plant closings, wage cuts and union-busting. But he’s convinced the labor movement has the potential to rebound.
"In recent years, we’ve been on the defensive, and we’re determined to turn that around," says Newby, a compact, square-jawed man who is a young-looking 66. "All of a sudden, the possibilities are all open. It is exciting.
"We’ve got the chance to make fundamental structural changes to the benefit of working people," says Newby, who has headed up the 210,000-member labor federation since 1994. "We have to seize this moment. An opportunity like this doesn’t come along very often."
Why is Newby so hopeful?
For one thing, the election of Barack Obama marks the first time in four decades that the presidency has been held by a strongly pro-labor Democrat. Newby, who was active in the Southern civil rights movement, is heartened by labor’s enthusiastic support for Obama, which he sees as a victory over lingering racism in its ranks.
Moreover, the Wall Street meltdown has exposed the government’s unholy alliance with corporations and large banks. Says Newby, "The popular response was spontaneous and deep, with tens of millions of Americans demanding, ‘Where’s our bailout?’ There’s a lot of anger out there about what is happening to people in the present economic free-fall, because the power of labor has declined."
The AFL-CIO’s legislative agenda, relates Newby, focuses on three main issues: "making the economy work for working people," passing the Employee Free Choice Act "to eliminate unfair management opposition to unions," and working toward universal health care "because our system is so dysfunctional and unsustainable."
The good news: "We have identifiable villains who have benefited from deregulatory policies that we have been fighting for years." The bad news: "Our worst fears and predictions came true with the collapse of Wall Street."
So while there are fresh opportunities for labor gains, the economy makes those harder to achieve.
David Newby grew up in a middle-class Cleveland suburb. His father was an English-born draftsman and his mother a librarian. The family’s Methodist religion "had a strong influence on me in terms of ethics and responsibility, and it underlies a lot of my commitments."
While an undergraduate at Wooster College in Ohio, he fell in love with fellow campus rebel Kathleen McElroy. The couple have been married for 40 years; they have no children.
McElroy is herself a devoted progressive activist, with her creative energies focused on the culture and history of labor. She recently wrote and produced a musical play called Esperanza (Spanish for "hope"), about the making of the path-breaking 1949 labor film, Salt of the Earth, based on a New Mexico strike by Mexican American miners. The high point, she says, was performing the play in Silver City, the site of the original strike, before an audience that included "some of the surviving strikers and many of their descendants."
After obtaining a master’s degree in European history at the University of Chicago, Newby taught from 1965 to 1968 at one of the nation’s oldest black colleges, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. "It was an incredible time," he recalls. "I did a lot of work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee," which fought for voting rights for blacks and for equal access to public facilities.
"The defining moment came when a student of mine was shot and killed by a gas-station attendant" who went unpunished, Newby remembers ruefully. "When the students got word, there were sit-ins daily, and the whole campus was mobilized."
The protests spurred the election of the nation’s first African American sheriff south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which infuriated local segregationists. After hearing rumors that the Ku Klux Klan would be marching one night on the local jail, Newby and a member of the "Deacons for Justice" (a group of armed African American Army veterans who provided security to civil rights leaders) were designated to hold down the fort. "I was deputized to sit in the jail all night long with a shotgun across my knees," he says, smiling faintly at the distant memory.
In 1968, Newby headed to Madison to begin work on his Ph.D. in history, becoming an assistant to the legendary professor Harvey Goldberg, noted for his memorable lectures on labor and leftist movements. "Harvey was an important mentor," says Newby. "He was very effective in teaching history in a way that made you understand specific events and see them within a larger ideological framework."
Newby soon became active in the fledgling Teaching Assistants Association. "Because of an ‘open shop’ rule and turnover among the TAs, we had to organize constantly," he recalls. "Through pressure and a strike, we got UW administration to recognize us."
The experience taught Newby the importance of persistent member involvement. He says it’s a lesson that organized labor ignores at its peril.
"In recent decades, labor fostered a sense of complacency among many union people," he reflects. "They paid their dues like insurance premiums, and the union operated like an insurance company to get the best deal. [But] as soon as corporations started all-out organizing against us, we lost because we didn’t have the dedication and commitment. Labor must be a movement and not an insurance policy."
David Newby began his role as labor leader in 1982, when he won election as president of the Madison Labor Council, a precursor to the South Central Federation of Labor.
"This was an effort that took several years of more progressive labor folks trying to create a more activist agenda," recalls Jim Cavanaugh, the group’s current president. "David was the logical candidate when we got the votes to elect someone."
Members wanted the local group to take positions on national issues and forward these to the national AFL-CIO. These included speaking out against Reagan policies that enjoyed the active support of national AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland (who served 1980-1994), like building the costly and controversial MX missile system and backing the anti-revolutionary Nicaraguan Contras, who were killing teachers and health workers.
"In contrast," says Cavanaugh, "the incumbent leadership took the position that they took orders from above and should follow what Lane Kirkland said."
Under Newby’s leadership, the group also adopted a much more activist version of "solidarity" regarding union organizing drives and strikes.
During a strike against Greyhound shortly after he became the group’s president, Newby literally put his life at risk. He stood on the picket line in front of a fast-moving bus driven by a strikebreaker, forcing it to come to a screeching halt.
"The newspaper photo the next day showed David with his arms and legs outstretched like Wile E. Coyote," chuckles Cavanaugh, referring to the oft-squashed cartoon character. "If the bus driver hadn’t stopped, David would have been flattened."
Newby won a hard-fought election for secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO in 1986, narrowly edging out Milwaukee County Labor Council President Thomas Parker, who was backed by longtime AFL-CIO President John Schmitt and the powerful United Auto Workers. But the biggest UAW local — the 7,000-member Local 72 in Kenosha, led by ardent progressive Rudy Kuzel — cast its decisive votes for Newby.
Labor’s Old Guard was clearly uncomfortable with Newby’s willingness to criticize Democratic "labor friends" like Congressman Les Aspin (who had backed Reagan’s 1981 firing of air controllers and his MX missile system). Newby also raised hackles with his opposition to U.S. militarism abroad and his insistence that labor should aggressively fight plant closings and devote resources to organizing new members.
Over time, Newby’s hard-working style and eagerness to assist other unions won him friends throughout Wisconsin. When state AFL-CIO President Jack Reihl stepped down in 1994, Newby assembled a broad coalition and easily won the presidency. (1994 was notable in another way for Newby: He finally completed his Ph.D. in European history.)
Since becoming state AFL-CIO president, Newby was elected to represent the Midwest on the national AFL-CIO Executive Council, where he helped lead the federation’s early opposition to the Iraq War.
Newby speaks in a perfectly pitched bass tone that must be the envy of radio broadcasters everywhere. (In the early ’90s, his wife drafted him to join a traveling chorus performing labor songs.) And he’s able to break down sophisticated economic issues into easily understood terms.
"David has an ability to articulate issues from the standpoint of working people, to be a voice for working families," says Phil Neuenfeldt, the state AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer. "He has a tremendous heart, and it comes across."
Neuenfeldt, seen by many as a strong contender for the AFL-CIO presidency when Newby is due to retire in 2010, has worked alongside Newby since they were both elected 14 years ago. "David stays calm during crises, which is a good trait to have," he says. "He’s consistent and unflappable."
While Newby now represents a broadly held consensus, some on the left see the AFL-CIO as too wedded to a Democratic Party where corporate interests often prevail over worker needs. Meanwhile, some conservatives are uncomfortable with the AFL-CIO’s support for immigrant worker rights.
Jim Buchen, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, faults Newby and the AFL-CIO for opposing things that serve "our shared interests on creating jobs," like tax breaks and regulatory relief for businesses. "[These] are essential to attracting companies and keeping companies and jobs from leaving the state."
But Buchen praises Newby for being articulate and remaining professional even in heated disputes: "You can do battle with him and still maintain a relationship."
Newby’s home is in Madison, but he’s often on the road meeting with local AFL-CIO councils, speaking at labor rallies and forums, and strategizing with labor leaders and allies. He primarily works out of his Milwaukee office, a large, softly lit room lined with bookshelves and labor posters. Except for the stacks of paper on and around Newby’s massive desk, the office is neat as a pin.
Typically clad in chinos, a sport coat and a snap-button cowboy-style shirt, Newby is cheerful and unassuming. He mixes easily with AFL-CIO members, whether they are white-collar professionals or foundry workers. Central to his appeal is Newby’s clear, bone-deep commitment to the cause of working people and his ability to movingly express their concerns.
"Through working with the guy, I’ve gotten to respect him more and more," says Andy Nirschl, president of Steelworkers Local 2-9, which is fighting a plant closing in Kimberly ("The Paper Chase," 10/18/08). He notes that Newby "shortened his speech at the Labor Fest rally in Milwaukee so that I could talk more about our struggle when I introduced Barack Obama. He’s an all-around good guy and a great labor leader."
Racine’s Ron Thomas, longtime secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council there, marvels that Newby "has the energy of a young man. Just recently during the elections, he came down to Racine and helped us with our phone bank. For him to sit down and just be one of the callers, that’s David Newby."
For decades, America’s concept of a labor leader was shaped by the late national AFL-CIO President George Meany, a bald, cigar-chomping, heavy-set man whose blunt pronouncements invariably framed the cause of working people in narrow, self-interested and uninspiring terms.
Meany was indifferent to the civil rights movement and hostile to those who opposed the Vietnam War, denying labor’s endorsement to antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. Most stunningly, Meany professed no need for further expansion of the labor movement.
This complacency, coupled with the hostility of corporate America, has taken its toll. The portion of U.S. workers represented by unions has fallen from 35% in the mid-1950s to 12% today. Wages have been driven down as U.S. workers are pitted against workers making $1 an hour in Mexico and 30 cents an hour in China. U.S. workers now toil more hours per year than the famously workaholic Japanese and about four weeks more per year than Europeans.
Newby, in contrast, stresses the need for labor to build alliances with environmentalists, clergy, students, civil rights activists and women’s groups: "What’s going to help us in labor is not just bringing together our members but also bringing in the general public."
Madison attorney Ed Garvey, former director of the NFL Players Association during its most successful days and now the editor of the FightingBob.com website, views Newby as a labor reformer facing tough odds despite the Obama election and economic collapse.
"We’ve had a series of administrations that have not given labor a chance, even during the Clinton years," says Garvey. "Clinton was more concerned with getting NAFTA passed than punishing employers who fired union sympathizers. As Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council grew stronger in influence, labor grew weaker. Even at Obama’s first news conference, there was no one present from labor."
Further, employers have undermined unions in the private sector and moved jobs to Mexico and China. "Labor has been stretched thin to cover so many fronts under attack at once," notes Garvey. "First, there was the private sector, and now the public sector is under attack, with politicians talking about privatizing everything including Mitchell Field in Milwaukee."
Even the state of Wisconsin, under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, hired Accenture — a firm chartered in Bermuda to avoid paying U.S. taxes — to compile voter lists for Wisconsin, instead of using state employees. (In the end, after numerous problems, the state ended up giving Accenture the boot.)
"Right now, it’s just not a fair fight for labor," says Garvey. "It’s not a lack of talent or grit or willingness to fight. If the referee, like the National Labor Relations Board [which sets the rules for labor-management disputes], has been paid off, you’re never going to win a call."
Yet despite the major obstacles outlined by Garvey, Newby remains optimistic about working people stepping forward during hard times.
"Tough situations can bring out the best in people, doing extraordinary acts of solidarity and community," he says. "Hopefully, the whole nation can see we’re all in this economic mess together, and that we can’t get anywhere as just a bunch of individuals seeking raises for ourselves."
David Newby on…
Banking bailout: "Once again, the rich and powerful take care of their own. When blue-collar workers in precarious economic situations request a bailout, they are ignored. What a vicious, class-based double standard!"
George Bush: "Incurious, incompetent and a serious threat to constitutional democracy. No sense of government as the process by which we care for each other and create a civil society. An especially vacuous agent of the ruling class, with blood on his hands."
Barack Obama: "He represents the possibility of progressive change that can benefit working families for generations to come. But little will change unless labor and our progressive allies organize and mobilize to demand the fundamental changes we so desperately need."
Raising the minimum wage: "It astounds me that some right-wing or even just conservative legislators and business types oppose a meager minimum wage, let alone a minimum wage that is high enough to support a family at a decent standard of living. We simply have to transform our economy so that it serves the interests of the people, not just the rich."
Health-care reform: "There are a few courageous exceptions. But in general, business opposes fundamental health-care reform. It is blind to its own economic interest and cruel regarding the social consequences of a failed health-care system."
Wisconsin’s $5 billion budget deficit: "Although some of it reflects the depth of the current economic depression, the current deficit has been years in coming. This is what happens when the corporate/political leadership allows corporations to abandon paying their fair share, and then dishonestly creates budgets whose costs will come due in the future."