News and Features
San Franciscans will vote on whether to create a public power company.
The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center led journalists and image-makers to rediscover New York's working class. In an extraordinary essay in Business Week titled "Real Masters of the Universe," Bruce Nussbaum noted that during the rescue effort, "big, beefy working-class guys became heroes once again, replacing the telegenic financial analysts and techno-billionaires who once had held the nation in thrall." Nussbaum fulsomely praised "men and women making 40 grand a year...risking their own lives--to save investment bankers and traders making 10 times that amount." In The New York Times Magazine, Verlyn Klinkenborg, describing the construction workers who formed the second wave of rescuers, wrote, "A city of unsoiled and unroughened hands has learned to love a class of laborers it once tried hard not to notice."
Until September 11, working-class New Yorkers had disappeared from public portrayals and mental maps of Gotham. This contrasted sharply with the more distant past. When World War II ended, New York was palpably a working-class city. Within easy walking distance of what we now call ground zero were myriad sites of blue-collar labor, from a cigarette factory on Water Street to hundreds of small printing firms, to docks where longshoremen unloaded products from around the world, to commodity markets where the ownership of goods like coffee was not only exchanged, but the products themselves were stored and processed.
Much of what made post-World War II New York great came from the influence of its working class. Workers and their families helped pattern the fabric of the city with their culture, style and worldview. Through political and ethnic organizations, tenant and neighborhood associations and, above all, unions they helped create a social-democratic polity unique in the country in its ambition and achievements. New York City became a laboratory for a social urbanism committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality and popular access to culture and education.
Over time, though, the influence and social presence of working-class New Yorkers faded, as manufacturing jobs disappeared, suburbanization dispersed city residents and anti-Communism made the language of class unacceptable. Then came the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which saw a rapid shift of power to the corporate and banking elite. When the city recovered, with an economy and culture ever more skewed toward a narrow but enormously profitable financial sector, working-class New York seemed bleached out by the white light of new money.
The September 11 attack and the response to it have once again made working-class New Yorkers visible and appreciated. Not only were the rescuers working class, but so were most of the victims. They were part of a working class that has changed since 1945, becoming more diverse in occupation, race and ethnicity. Killed that day, along with the fire, police and emergency medical workers, were accountants, clerks, secretaries, restaurant employees, janitors, security guards and electricians. Many financial firm victims, far from being mega-rich, were young traders and technicians, the grunts of the world capital markets.
The newfound appreciation of working-class New York creates an opening for insisting that decisions about rebuilding the city involve all social sectors. Whatever else it was, the World Trade Center was not a complex that grew out of a democratic city-planning process. We need to do better this time. Labor and community groups must be full partners in deciding what should be built and where, how precious public funds are allocated and what kinds of jobs--and job standards--are promoted. Some already have begun pushing for inclusion; others should begin doing so now.
In the coming weeks and months, we need to rethink the economic development strategies of the past half-century, which benefited many New Yorkers but did not serve others well. Might some of the recovery money be better spent on infrastructure support for local manufacturing, rather than on new office towers in lower Manhattan? And perhaps some should go to human capital investment, in schools, public health and much-needed housing, creating a work force and environment that would attract and sustain a variety of economic enterprises.
Winning even a modest voice for working-class New Yorkers in the reconstruction process won't be easy. Already, political and business leaders have called for appointing a rebuilding authority, empowered to circumvent zoning and environmental regulations and normal controls over public spending. The effect would be to deny ordinary citizens any role in shaping the city of the future. As the shameful airline bailout--which allocated no money to laid-off workers--so clearly demonstrated, inside operators with money and connections have the advantage in moments of confusion and urgency.
But altered perceptions of New York may change the usual calculus. On September 11, working-class New Yorkers were the heroes and the victims, giving them a strong moral claim on planning the future. Rightfully, they had that claim on September 10, too, even if few in power acknowledged it. It ought not require mass death to remind us who forms the majority of the city's population and who keeps it functioning, day after day after day.
Al Giordano is currently a free-speech defendant in the New York State Supreme Court [see Mark Schapiro, "Drug War on Trial," September 17, 2001].
New York's Democratic mayoral primary revealed the city's racial fault lines.
Liza Featherstone will be reporting periodically on the antiwar movement for The Nation. This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, sponsored by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.
August 20 issue we endorsed Mark Green, a lifelong liberal who has
been running as a liberal centrist, for mayor of New York City. Two
weeks before a runoff election against Fernando Ferrer, a lifelong
centrist who has been running on behalf of what he calls "the other
New York," Green accepted Mayor Giuliani's proposition that he be
allowed to stay in office an additional three months. If Green's
ill-advised cave-in were all we knew about him, we'd drop him like a
cold potato, the mayor's idea being unwieldy, unwise and
possibly--even if the state legislature went along--illegal. But
given Green's long and valuable service as a public interest
activist, his anti-Giuliani credentials, his anti-police brutality,
pro-public safety stances, we regard this as one bad decision in a
career replete with the right ones, and our endorsement stands. --The
As political insiders in New York City got back
to talking politics after September 11, people asked one another: How
did the World Trade Center attack change the mayoral election? No one
had any idea, but everyone agreed that, somehow or another, things
just had to be different.
It turned out that they were and
they weren't. On the no-change front, it appears that the greatest
calamity in the city's history proved no match for old-fashioned
ethnic politics. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer finished
first in the Democratic primary, riding the wave of an unprecedented
Latino turnout (Latinos represented 23 percent of the Democratic
electorate and voted for him against four white opponents by a
three-to-one margin). The vast majority of white observers, I among
them, assumed that after the attack Ferrer's campaign mantra about
"two New Yorks" would wind up buried under the lower Manhattan
rubble. The problem was, as we were dismissing Ferrer, we forgot to
ask his voters. That those voters sent the message they did,
especially at a time when rhetoric about unity and coming together as
one had become the only permissible lingua franca of municipal
political life, should remind us--and, one hopes, the next mayor,
whoever he may be--that as urgent as the need to rebuild may be, the
legions of homeless families and children without adequate healthcare
are still out there.
One thing that did change, and
disturbingly so, was the ground occupied by Mark Green, the city's
Public Advocate. Green finished second, with 31 percent to Ferrer's
35, largely because Ferrer's leftish campaign--ironic for someone
who, in a previous mayoral run four years ago, ran as a veritable
Democratic Leadership Councillor--struck a chord with the solid third
of the city that has consistently opposed incumbent Rudy Giuliani,
while Green's more moderated race--ironic for someone who has been a
lifelong liberal crusader and Giuliani's most consistent high-profile
critic--tried so hard to please so many different constituencies that
it ignited none.
Now, as the two head for an October 11
runoff, the distinction between them is even more stark. When
Giuliani proposed an extortionate "deal" to Green, Ferrer and
Republican primary winner Mike Bloomberg under which the mayor would
be permitted to stay on for three extra months (extortionate because
his implicit threat was that if they didn't accept, he'd seek ways to
run for a third term), Green capitulated, and Ferrer had the gumption
to say no. In truth, both decisions were political calculations.
Green needs the backing in the runoff of white voters who are looking
very sympathetically at Giuliani these days, and he needs to keep
Giuliani, who detests him and who could depress white turnout with a
few well-chosen words, off his back; Ferrer needs to stoke his Latino
and black (and anti-Giuliani) base. But the fundamental fact is that
one candidate defended an uninterrupted democratic process and one
did not. Green is still, by history and inclination, the more progressive
of the two, but many of his voters are sure to note that when he had
a chance to show some courage against the bullying incumbent, he took
Green's runoff dilemma, and his middling
performance in the primary, reflect a larger historical trend that
has percolated in New York City politics for nearly a decade
now--namely, that many white New York City liberals have become, in
the past two mayoral elections, Giuliani voters. While Ferrer's
natural base of politicized, anti-Giuliani blacks and Latinos has
grown in the past eight years, Green's natural base of progressive
whites has shrunk. White voters who would never think of voting for a
Republican at the national or state level voted for Giuliani by the
thousands in 1993 and 1997 (Giuliani beat Ruth Messinger on her own
Upper West Side in 1997). Ferrer was able to ignore these Giuliani
liberals, more as a matter of strategy than principle, although he
was clever enough that, to the naïve, it often came out sounding
like the latter. Green could not and cannot, and so he regularly
tempered his rhetoric with assurances to this bloc that he "got it"
on crime. Thus the major distinction between these two basically
liberal candidates reduces to skin color, and the fact that one feels
free to embody the grievances of the underclass while the
other--whose record on police abuse issues is, if anything, more
substantive than Ferrer's--must bear in mind the anxieties of the
The challenge to both is to harvest the votes of
their respective blocs without resorting to the sort of winks, nudges
and euphemisms that can inflame the racial tensions here that always
lie about an inch and a half below the surface. And the challenge to
the winner will be to bring the blocs together to fight Bloomberg,
who has unlimited millions and will, in all likelihood, have
Giuliani's endorsement. Bloomberg is a bad candidate and still a long
shot, but given what New York has been through these past few weeks,
this election is now taking place inside a funhouse mirror room, or a
Magritte painting (images are indeed treason)--Mark Green, the
white-backlash candidate?! Ed Koch endorsing Ferrer, whom he
pilloried as racially devisive two week before?!--and anything can
The brother of the Sultan of Brunei
Set out to see how much a guy could buy,
And fifteen billion's what he finally spent
Before the sultan voiced some discontent.
The guilt of many shoppers was assuaged.
The most committed shopaholic gauged,
"I'd really have to spend a lot more dough
To be a spendthrift like the sultan's bro."
He is the most promising candidate progressives can look to for leadership.
Under pressure from activists, the city agreed to assist its poorest residents.
We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
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