The Revolution Will Be Blogged

Journalists are not what they used to be. The profession and the news industry have changed dramatically over the past few decades, reshaped by information technology and new media innovation that googles the mind, literally. It remains to be seen if the public is benefiting from this evolution, even as its buying habits help to shape it.

ImageNo, I’m not mourning the loss of the “ink-stained wretch” of yesteryear’s newsroom or the film editor in the broadcast booth. Journalists generally have adapted just fine, learning to love multiple platforms for story telling, or they move into another field. Some may feel like Rick Redfern of Doonesbury fame, the former Washington Post correspondent pushed onto a blogging platform … or is it a plank? Many blogs reward contributors with celebrity rather than hard cash, as Redfern discovers when word surfaces he’s out of print.

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As the industry shakes out, working journalists shake with it, incurring some bumps and bruises along the way. My friend Roger was in his mid-50s when he was mustered out of a newspaper job in North Carolina. He languished for more than a year before accepting a one-year assignment teaching English in rural China. For his perseverance, Roger got a tryout and regular copy-editing gig at The New York Times. May we live in interesting times.

These changes not only dramatically affect the lives of working journalists, but also those preparing for careers as journalists – or new graduates who are searching for work in the industry. How do you prepare young journalists for a field in flux, when the job market is moving farther away from the traditional news-gathering and reporting exercises? And how do you retain the integrity of a profession founded on the public trust to inform and educate in a Wiki world?

These are questions being raised today in many Journalism schools across the nation, including my alma mater, Indiana University. To stay current, IU is creating a new Media School, combining Journalism and Broadcast with Communication and Culture (Film, TV and Digital Media), and affiliated with Computer Science/Informatics and other departments through the College of Arts and Sciences. The reorganization is not without critics and skeptics among IU Journalism alumni, a long and distinguished list of working and retired journalists.

IU-trained journalists want to know what happens to the legacy of Ernie Pyle, the legendary Hoosier war correspondent whose name graces the longtime Journalism building – and what happens with that building, long in disrepair? How will IU attract top-notch J-school faculty and scholars if it is diluted with nonprofessional communications studies, and administered through the huge liberal arts school?

These were some of the questions that the IU Media School’s Associate Dean Lesa Hatley Major and Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Larry Singell sought to answer during a “Media Roundtable” held recently at the National Press Club. I joined about 50 alumni during the informal briefing, which featured finger food and a full bar. Everyone wanted to know if IU would be able to provide the same sort of quality education that journalists across the country have come to expect.

“Well, to be perfectly candid, we haven’t been providing the quality education we have in the past,” said Major. “We have fallen down in key areas, particularly in keeping up with new media platforms, new ways to gather information and tell stories. That’s what we hope to fix with The Media School.”

Singell promised the housing of The Media School within Arts and Sciences wouldn’t diminish the principles and values of IU Journalism education. “Let’s face it: everyone is publishing today,” he said. “All you need is a PC and you can broadcast to the world. It’s the quality of information that we are concerned with, the highest standards for storytelling, and our Media School is dedicated to that.”

I am going to trust these administrators with their words, and the promise of this new Media School. I’ve read the proposal and the step-by-step plan to create the J School of tomorrow, Media writ large. It makes good sense.

Change is inevitable, so let’s get out ahead of it, anticipate as best we can. But Indiana University must build on the tradition that makes the program great – including the daily news coverage through the Indiana Daily Student and other campus and community outlets. New media platforms can enhance the IDS and other fine media already serving the IU community.

Friendships and East Asian studies were the catalysts for my interest in IU, but the IDS sealed the deal. The award-winning daily newspaper was the perfect platform for practicing daily news journalism. Most of IU’s finest alums honed their editorial skills in the IDS newsroom at Ernie Pyle Hall. I wrote editorials and columns, and some feature stories, including a 1973 interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of my fondest memories, when he was giving a commencement address, getting an honorary degree, and effectively dismissing all his characters with the publication of “Breakfast of Champions.”

Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis and studied journalism for two years at Cornell before shipping out to World War II, the life event that haunts his fiction. Although he worked as a Chicago police reporter after returning from the war, and his journalism training is evident in his spare declarative writing, he grew to dislike how the profession was evolving – particularly in its pursuit of celebrity.

Quoting Ralph Nader, Vonnegut told one interviewer that “reporters have given up on their jobs and instead are causing us to focus, as long as possible, on stories like O.J. and Princess Di,” he said. “But they never get around to having us consider what the real problems of the country are.”

Certainly this propensity for celebrity and spectacle has moved onto the Internet, alongside more sober sources of news and information. But like it or not, our media will be driven largely by consumer demand – even if big-money advertisers wield the biggest influence. We can console ourselves that at least we’re getting thousands of channels of information, however cluttered by noisemakers.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that Indiana University will continue to turn out first-class journalists and communicators – such as Suzanne Collins, who in 1985 graduated from IU with a double major in theater and telecommunications, then went on to write The Hunger Games trilogy. There is more to world-class communications than a journalism degree, as this list of IU’s distinguished graduates of arts and humanities reveals. Journalists, authors, playwrights, lyricists, sportscasters, actors, poets, folklorists and assorted other storytellers enhance us all with their gifts, and we can thank the university that stoked their imaginations and refined their talents.

A Fine Madness

March is roaring in but who cares if the weather is frightful? Inside gyms and arenas across the land, college basketball players are reaching for the brass hoop, and the crowds roar. It’s a beautiful thing, this March Madness. This year, it’s anyone’s game to win. Will Cinderella crash the party?

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Few college basketball seasons in recent memory have produced such a competitive field. Any one of a dozen teams could win it all, with the right breaks. This year more than many others, it may come down to the breaks. It will pay to know the players, and consider wild cards.

Some of the traditional powers don’t even make the field this year, including Georgetown and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, who didn’t even deserve an invite to the consolation NIT after stumbling through the home stretch. Upstarts are legitimate: Wichita State is the first team to go undefeated through the regular season since UNLV in 1991, playing in Larry Bird’s old conference. Virginia got a No. 1 seed after winning the ACC for the first time since 1976.

Naturally, I’m tracking the event closely, as the inveterate basketball junkie, with a “virtual office pool” for friends and associates that is largely for bragging rights. Bracket mania sweeps the cubicles heading into Thursday’s opening games, and Yahoo and Quicken Loans are teaming for a $1 billion payoff (maybe, if you act fast, and tell about your finances and take loan pitches, etc.). Games are cropping up all over.

The Big Game is on the court, and I’ve been watching closely.  Front and center are the shooting stars, the one-and-done freshman phenoms who are positioning themselves for a top NBA draft slot. Jabari Parker (Duke), Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) are auditioning for the pros. Kentucky has at least three other freshman players who will turn pro after this tournament, and many others will come out.

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Will Tom Izzo lead the Spartans back to the Final Four?

While the traditionalists may mourn the passing of the old college spirit, the steady turnover of all-stars hasn’t hurt the game that much, thanks largely to the coaches. If you follow college basketball, you know the coach is the most important part of the game – a teacher and motivator as well as crafty tactician, and strategist. Nowadays, he also has to be restoration artist, building a new team every year.

Chances are good, once again, that Rick Pitino (Louisville), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Billy Donovan (Florida) will guide their teams into the Final Four, with five championships between them. The other guy could be Bo Ryan, the steady if unspectacular defensive guru at Wisconsin, who is due (and who may have the easiest road, through the West Region).

But others are worthy, and I’ll probably change my mind before the ball goes up on Thursday. The phenoms at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke could will their teams into Final Four. Three great coaches lead those teams – John Calipari, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski – with multiple championships among them.

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Does the Cinderella slipper fit Steve Alford and UCLA?

Cinderella, oddly, this year could take the form of the winningest NCAA tournament basketball program in history, UCLA, with 11 national championships. The Bruins are back after many lean years, beating No. 1 seed Arizona in the PAC-10 tournament. Guiding UCLA is first-year coach Steve Alford, the shooting guard for Indiana’s 1987 NCAA champions.

Also resembling Cinderella is Wichita State, which has a shot at being the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.  (I just can’t stop saying Indiana! Indiana! Indiana!) Leading the Shockers is Gregg Marshall, a Roanoke, Va., native who coached little Winthrop University to a series of NCAA tourney appearances before leading Wichita State to the Promised Land. Hmmmm.

But the tournament poobahs appear to have stacked the deck against Wichita State, which will come out of the Midwest Region. Hurdles include Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and Michigan, coached by John Beilein, one of the smartest coaches around. Maybe it’s his turn to win a championship.

Grab those brackets and jump in a pool! It’s March and the water’s fine.

The Big Fix to Income Inequality

Income inequality is the defining and dividing issue of our time, as President Obama has reminded us in a series of speeches over the past few months. The huge gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of us has been the subject of much debate and even “occupy” demonstrations targeting Wall Street greed and government inaction. But little is done, even though we have a prescription to reverse inequality and restore the middle class to our economy.

ImageThe remedy is presented by former Clinton Secretary of Labor and economics guru Robert Reich, who recently took us on a Mini Cooper spin through income inequality and what it means to our society. Reich is the impassioned lecturer-in-chief in “Inequality for All,” a smart and insightful documentary detailing the historic nature of the inequality problem, and how it has come to a head.

“Inequality for All” won a special award for documentary films at last year’s Sundance Film Festival but was ignored by the Academy of Motion Pictures.  The Oscar-nominated documentaries were more dramatic and visual than “Inequality for All,” I grant you, but perhaps none of them as important. Without a major commercial ad campaign, Reich nonetheless is able to push it relentlessly through his social media network – and I’m happily caught up in that loop.

The film is available via Netflix, Amazon and on-demand services. You will have to put up with the recurring lecture format to get to Reich’s keen insights and observations at the heart of the film, but you will be rewarded for your attention with a better understanding of a very serious problem in our nation. Fortunately, Reich uses humor and clever graphics to help tell the story:

The image of the suspension bridge frames the largest income gaps — between 1929, ahead of the Great Depression, and then again in 2007, just before the housing bubble burst and our extended Great Recession. We have reached a period not unlike that of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, when we should be changing the rules of the game so that the destructive nature of income inequality doesn’t eat our middle class and collapse the social order.

But the political system is responding slowly, choked by influence peddlers with a vested interest in the status quo. The robber barons of today have a lot more resources at their disposal for influencing both public opinion and political alliances. The Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, allowing unlimited spending on political campaigns, has further stalled political action.

In fact, since the beginning of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession, the top 1 percent has resumed its accelerated income gains while the bottom 99 percent has returned to stagnation and loss, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which has been tracking the trends in unshared prosperity since the 1970s. A state-by-state EPI study released Feb. 19, found that in 33 states the top 1 percent captured between half and all income growth from 2009-2011. This is continuing an alarming trend:

“The lopsided growth in U.S. incomes observed between 1979 and 2007 resulted in a rise in every state in the top 1 percent’s share of income,” EPI reported. “This rise in income inequality represents a sharp reversal of the patterns of income growth that prevailed in the half century following the beginning of the Great Depression; the share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in every state but one between 1928 and 1979.”

You can find out how your state ranks in income disparity with the EPI’s interactive feature linked to its report here: http://www.epi.org/publication/unequal-states/

Still, nearly seven in 10 Americans say the government should act to make sure the rich pay their fair share and more Americans share in economic prosperity, according to a CNN survey a few weeks back. And that view has held remarkably steady: in 1983, 68 percent of Americans favored government action to narrow the divide. Today, that number is 66 percent.

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So, what’s to be done? Part of the solution is to get the big money out of politics. Other laws and reforms are necessary. Here’s Reich’s prescription, which you can find at www.inequalityforall.com:

  • Raise the minimum wage. Many states have raised the minimum on their own, but it’s long past time for the United States to raise the federal minimum wage. We must ensure that fulltime jobs have wages and benefits that allow people to afford the basics.
  • Strengthen workers’ voices. Unless employees enjoy the fundamental right to form and join unions to bargain collectively with their employer, they will continue to be undervalued and disrespected in the workplace.
  • Invest in education, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to a quality education, from early childhood to college.
  • Reform Wall Street. We must ensure the financial sector is working honestly and accountably to prevent it from taking over our economy.
  • Fix the tax system so that everyone is contributing a fair share. We must reverse the Ronald Reagan tax shift that benefited rich individuals and corporations and dumped on the rest of us.
  • Get big money out of politics. New laws are needed to overturn Citizens United so that corporations can’t spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns and in return affect public policy and spending priorities.

As Reich notes in his documentary, solving the income inequality problem will require citizen action, making our voices heard over the thunder of the big-money influence peddlers. I like to think we can go back to basics, a la Dr. Seuss and the beloved Lorax:

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Love Story

This week the historic Des Plaines Theatre in suburban Chicago is undergoing a rebirth with the world premiere of “Etude: The Musical,” an ambitious production that tells a love story spanning centuries, connected by myth, music and the arc of history. “Etude” presents a new take on the classic battle between good and evil, challenging the audience to sort it all out while also embracing the bloodthirsty characters.

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Music composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (Ryan Bennett) sings in anguish with his fallen vampire queen Regine (Miki Byrne)

“Etude” is based loosely on the life and mysterious death in 1888 of French composer and virtuoso pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan. In the new musical, produced by Jerry and Michael Sigman, nephews of the legendary Tin Pan Alley lyricist Carl Sigman, Alkan never really dies. Instead, he is seduced by the voluptuous vampire Regine, who promises him eternal life and musical pleasure.

The musical brought us to Chicagoland for opening night of “Etude” because daughter Miki stars as Regine. Like other members of the talented cast of 23 singers, actors and dancers, Miki has been working part-time on the musical for nearly a year – and it continues to be a work in progress as they refine and expand the complicated roles and story before live audiences.

More about the musical and opening night performance in a bit, but first let’s consider this love story and how it came to be. There is more here than meets the eye. And the history is both personal and civic for the Sigman Brothers, who grew up in Des Plaines and dreamed of musical adventure and the big stage while attending performances at the old Des Plaines Theatre.

Jerry and Michael Sigman formed The Sigman Brothers Production Company “to foster an artistic environment that inspires the creation and staging of new and original theatrical works of all genres, and to preserve and extend the storied tradition of the American Theater,” according to their website.

The Des Plaines Theatre was built in 1925 by the Chicago Polka Brothers to be a suburban mecca for that unique European dance music. It went through several refurbishments over the next 40 years, hosting vaudeville acts and first-run shows. A fire in 1982 damaged the storefront, but the theater was largely spared. Unfortunately, its fortunes sank with live productions and eventually it was converted into a movie theater that ran mostly Indian-language Bollywood films.

1393680_424473347664632_2039589716_nThe Sigmans mounted a “Kickstarter”-style campaign to raise funds to restore the stage, and wrote “Etude” as the kickoff for a new “artistic environment,” in the Sigman’s vision. Jerry, who has performed in Chicago as an actor, singer and magician over 25 years, wrote the book for “Etude.” Older brother Michael, who composed the music, has earned five degrees in music composition, theory and history. The Sigman Brothers make clear that their work is inspired and directed by the memory of their uncle, Carl Sigman.

If the name Carl Sigman doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because the great American popular music lyricist has not been properly toasted over the years, certainly not in the Chicago area. You will know his songs, for sure, including this revived jazz standard, given words and wings by Sigman after the music, composed by Francis Lai, was a hit movie theme in 1971.

Sigman collaborated with some of the greatest music composers of his day, from Duke Ellington to Johnny Mercer, Lai and Jimmy Van Heusen. His songs were hits for Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and many others.  I have been obsessed by some Sigman tunes since high school, even mastering the karaoke versions of “Ebb Tide” and “It’s All in the Game.”

And then there is this great, fun piece given rhythm and bop by New Orleans Italian jazzman Louis Prima:

As scions of the Sigman legacy, Jerry and Mike Sigman would like to return the Des Plaines Theatre to the pinnacle of Chicagoland stage, and the community should applaud them for investing the time and money into “Etude.” As students of music and history, they have created a fantastical tale. I’m especially grateful that Jerry saw the spark in Miki during auditions and selected her for the lead female role.

And you can’t help but be proud of all the cast and creative direction for “Etude.” The music soars in the first act, but seems to make a rough transition to the second act, when the classical composer and his vampire queen return to modern life in a punk rock band. Also, some plot twists are not wrapped up neatly as we move toward the denouement of the tale.

Aside from an uneven dance opening, the dance performances were outstanding – including the nicely choreographed and amplified swordplay as bloodsuckers of every stripe clash again and again. It wasn’t quite clear what the life of these vampire heroes involves, but that is a small detail when set against the timeless love story unraveling onstage.

The Sigmans have created a love story that comes from the heart of the American music experience, channeling their uncle as they explore the music thread that underlines our cultural history. Yes, the plot gets stretched a bit thin in places, but it’s easy to overlook those moments when another lively song and dance ensues. Humor infuses the dialogue, and nice physical comedy helps carry it off.

The Sigmans may be trying too hard to meld the history of 150 years into their tale, and a lengthy historical video that leads into the second act mixes images of politics, war and disaster along with popular culture and vampire movies. They’ve used this video in promotions, but they might have been better served on stage by using dancers to create the allusion of moving through time, communicating not boring topics but the overall themes of the play – love and passion.

It was interesting at the end of the opening night to see the cast gather on stage for champagne and congratulations. How can we make it better tomorrow, they asked. Some among the production team wanted to cut specific scenes, to make it move faster and trim the two-and-a-half hour two-act play to keep the audience riveted to their seats.

But the music and performances were stellar, so most of the cast resisted efforts to cut their babies. At least subtle changes will be made, for sure, just as the producers of “Next to Normal” refined the future Tony Award-winning musical during its run at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Whether “Etude” is destined for a longer run or new production in the future will depend on how well the producers and cast master what they learn in these first few days.

You can have a fun night at the theater and support community art in Des Plaines by seeing “Etude: The Musical.” There are plenty of tickets left for the performance at the beautiful Des Plaines Theatre, and it is scheduled to run through Nov. 3. You can get tickets here.

Eventually we will have clips from our baby’s Love Story, but until then here’s Carl Sigman waxing romantic, through the soulful sound of The Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield:

The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy

Sometimes the most vicious political attack ads can be completely ludicrous in presentation. Witness this breathless broadside against, ostensibly, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe:

McAuliffe is only nominally the target of the ad, “Don’t Let Them Detroit Virginia,” which vaguely connects him to a broad left-wing conspiracy, a “Gang of Five.” These dangerous radicals are led by Hillary and Obama and fed by the perverted forces of liberal media, foreign-sponsored smear groups (a photo of AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka looms ominously behind that legend), plus “Wall Street liberals” and Hollywood flesh-merchants.

When you stop laughing at the preposterous claims in the ad, however, you see how it is calculated to reach not rational, clear-eyed citizens, but lunatic fringe nutjobs who will buy any conspiracy theory if it pins the tail on Obama. It is coolly calculated and slickly delivered, narrowly focused. I’m sure all the audiences were surveyed, and the majority was dismissed.

ImageFight for Tomorrow, the Texas-based PAC behind the attack ad, waves its ideological agenda around like a freak flag, proud to say they’re on the edge. They’re also very well seeded, with a trail from Northern Virginia/DC officialdom to the Texas boardrooms. They will not provide information about who funds the group, although you can be sure it’s corporate in nature and possibly Koch in personality.

On the Fight for Tomorrow website, the group proudly announces,  “Contributions to Fight for Tomorrow are not deductible as a charitable contribution for federal income tax purposes.” In other words, you can’t deduct this on your taxes because we’re not telling where our funds are coming from.

The Roberts’ Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC ensured that rich corporations with vested interests in public policy could spend any amount to influence public policy. Ordinary citizens are left to fend for ourselves, to sort out information that is skewed not only by the partisan interest fringe, but also by the mainstream media, which insists that everybody is making sense.

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Moderator Chuck Todd wanted to make a point.

Watching NBC Political Director Chuck Todd moderate the debate tonight between McAuliffe and Tea Party darling Ken Cuccinelli was infuriating, as the Washington talking head sought to corner both candidates with calculated equanimity. For example, Todd persisted in asking McAuliffe, who favors expanding Medicaid to make Obamacare more accessible, if President Obama has shown adequate leadership in promoting his own program.

Perhaps that is a good question, but certainly not in a forum weighing the candidates for Virginia’s governor, with clear differences on the issues. It was a question calculated to elicit liberal criticism of Obama on his program, even though most liberals think Obamacare falls well short of the mark of real health care reform.

Not that McAuliffe is a liberal darling. He’s a businessman with a checkered past in both business and politics, with much intermingling along the way, including as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. McAuliffe was Clinton’s prime fundraiser, and those years of dedication to Clinton and the Democrats are being rewarded in political and financial support this year.

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Virginia gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinnelli (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D)

I’m pulling for McAuliffe, though. Cuccinnelli is an ideologue who wants to foist his moralistic religious and political views onto the citizens of Virginia. He’s also a hypocrite who has gone along with the influence-peddling game in Richmond even while feigning the high moral ground.

If we are to judge these candidates by their associates, then we have to give McAuliffe and the Democratic establishment the advantage over Cuccinnelli and the knuckleheads at Fight for Tomorrow.

Lessons from Sifu Rasmus

Additional video from our Frederick, Md., “Science of Elastic Force,” tai chi workshops, with Sifu Mark Rasmus, are now available for viewing on YouTube. As a prelude, check out my three-part series on the workshop in Tai Chi Revelations, Into the Mystic and The Body Electric.

ImageBut the best presentation comes from Sifu Rasmus himself, and these videos are revelatory. Following on The Body Electric, Sifu expands on the notions of vibrations and frequency – how to match vibrations with your practice partner to easily bounce them. Notice his cynical view of martial arts masters who keep these “very, very simple” techniques a secret. One commenter pointedly asks, “(If you keep telling all these secrets), what will become of the tai chi teacher?” Who would not want to experience this demonstration?

Here he describes how a compliant practice partner helps you develop rebounding force, giving you the pressure you need, that you feel down to your root:

Sifu demonstrates how to “touch the elasticity” in the body through the frequency of your practice partner’s push, then control them through the elasticity in your body:

Finally, Sifu demonstrates how you can use the Science of Elastic Force to deliver a strike – in this case with the elbow.

Sifu covers a number of different defensive and offensive moves in his workshops. Videos from other training sessions on his U.S. tour also are uploaded for your viewing pleasure.  Check them out here.

Good Vibrations in LA

Hope was a byword of the AFL-CIO Convention this year, and the positive vibe was contagious even long distance.  As the federation wrapped up its business in Los Angeles this week, the positive signs were all around, even with the challenges that lie ahead. Labor seems fit for the organizing, bargaining and legislative campaigns coming up.

As veteran AFL-CIO News staff writer David Perlman remarked, it was an impressive show. “The odds are daunting but there is real hope for a youthful new movement that can make a difference,” he wrote. “Quite a change from the conventions I remember.”

David remembers, as I do, how the leaders of the movement were derided as pale, stale and male – it wasn’t that long ago, in fact. This year, reporting on the convention was uniformly positive, including this column by Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, which points out that the labor movement suddenly seems younger and more diverse.

As Meyerson writes, “This is the first AFL-CIO convention – meetings attended chiefly by union leaders, not rank-and-filers – that hasn’t looked like a bunch of middle-aged white guys. The union movement now looks like the new America – and is trying to figure out how best to champion that new America’s interests.”

Much of the credit for the youth movement goes to Liz Shuler, the federation’s No. 2 officer behind President Richard Trumka. Shuler’s election as secretary-treasurer four years ago was exhilarating precisely because she is young and female — and very smart. She and Trumka immediately set up the Young Workers Advisory Council to empower younger workers, and Shuler conducted a series of meetings with young workers around the country, including two national conferences.

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Liz Shuler went on a mission to raise the profile of young trade unionists.

By pushing young activists to the forefront, Shuler was successful in stirring the cauldron. Other leaders have emerged. Among the resolutions passed by the delegates was one that transformed the Young Workers Advisory Council into the Young Workers Organization with a mission to “empower the next generation of labor leaders to challenge, inspire, build and organize around issues that directly affect their generation.”

The resolution recognized “that the Young Worker Program will lead a diverse and vibrant young labor movement made up of rank-and-file union members, progressive allies, community groups and students that will advance social and economic justice and ensure that all people have the opportunity to secure a better future.”

Putting policy into practice, the delegates elected Tefere Gebre, a 44-year-old former Ethiopian refugee, to serve as the new executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, the No. 3 officer, succeeding Arlene Holt Baker, who raised a vigorous voice for civil and worker rights during her tenure.

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Tefere Gebre, a former Ethiopian refugee, became a political force as executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation.

Gebre, as the executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation, combined union organizing, community activism and political savvy to help convert notoriously conservative Orange County into a pro-worker bastion – now represented in Congress by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, herself a former union activist.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council also elected as a vice president of the federation the first leader not of a union, but a worker “center” — Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a nonunion group that battles for immigrant workers. She will bring a new perspective to the AFL-CIO leadership.

So the labor movement is prepared for a new dawn that draws on the energy and expertise of a younger, more diverse leadership – and also the more direct input from its natural allies in the civil rights, religious, environmental, women’s rights groups and other progressive standard-bearers. As the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reported, “at times the convention seemed like a mass group therapy session, with a consensus reached that major changes were needed.”

The devil is in the details, they say, and the exact framework of the new labor-community federation sanctioned by the delegates has yet to be defined. How will the allies from other progressive groups be integrated into the labor movement to expand the reach and raise the voice of ordinary workers?

How the new vision is framed going forward will determine the success or failure of the mission. It can’t stop with the adjournment of the convention. But for someone who has devoted much of his working life to the success of the labor movement, I am cheered by the actions of the delegates at the 2013 convention.

While the federation works at revitalizing itself, it is not abandoning the essential fight to preserve worker protections that have been enshrined in U.S. law for 75 years, but which have been chipped away steadily by the business lobby and its legislative ideologues at every level of government.

The first resolution passed by the convention deal with protections for the right to organize and bargaining collectively, calling for major labor law reform that, among other things, eliminate the state preemption of federal labor laws through so-called “right-to-work” laws. See the full recommendations here:

As the resolution points out, on two occasions the majority in Congress and the president had supported comprehensive labor law reform but both times it stalled when a minority of senators managed to tie it up with filibusters.

That’s why labor must continue to exercise its power at the ballot box, to use its energy and moxie to elect people who support workers’ rights and to defeat those who support corporate rights over employees. Because it has the people, and a capacity to energize and mobilize them, labor has always played above its weight class in election campaigns.

AFL-CIO leaders made clear they intend to recommit the federation to political action at the state level, aiming at states where governors and legislators have been hostile toward workers, suspending bargaining rights for public employees and enacting new anti-worker laws.

“We’ll get a huge influx (of energized workers) on state races because they lived under repressive regimes,” AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer told a press briefing at the convention. AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who heads the AFL-CIO Political Committee, didn’t name names but clearly singled out Govs. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.), John Kasich (R-Ohio), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) for special attention. They all face re-election campaigns next year.

Our nation is better off if the AFL-CIO is alive and well. Join a union if you have a chance, but connect with the labor movement any way you can. It is a force for economic and social justice in America. We need it now more than ever.

Reinventing Labor

Although I’m not on the scene, the pressure that labor faces this week at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles is palpable across the nation. The labor movement is at a crossroads, and major changes are on the horizon. We will soon see if the federation can implement a radical plan to revive a labor movement that, left to continue its decline, is headed to the ashbin of history.

ImageThe evidence for labor’s possible demise is depressingly clear, given the depths to which this vital counterweight to corporate power has sunk since 1970. Once representing a robust 37 percent of American workers in 1954, the U.S. labor movement now represents less than 11.3 percent of the labor force – only 6.6 percent of the private sector.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted in his keynote address this morning, “At the end of the day, it’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent. Not just the 11 percent we are right now – the 99 percent.” Trumka is proposing major changes in the structure of the federation to achieve this broader base of support, a bold move to inject formal religious, environmental, civil rights, women’s rights and other progressive advocacy into the federation’s structure.

These groups are natural allies, although sometimes the common grounds have been rocky. It remains to be seen how much a majority of unions in the AFL-CIO are willing to cede to outside organizations in the drive to survive. Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times reports here.

Leaving aside for the moment the all-important corporate assault on labor law, a little history is in order.

Back in 1984, union presidents voted to create a “Committee on the Evolution of Work,” chaired by Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue, to anticipate changes in the workforce so the labor movement could adapt and succeed in the 21st century.

ImageThe resulting final report in 1985, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” served as a blueprint for important structural changes for the federation over the next several decades, including:

Union Privilege, a benefits program that increased the purchasing power of union members, from credit card and home mortgage to travel and dental care discounts.

Working America, an associate membership program that allowed nonmembers to participate in the political and community activity of the labor movement.

Those programs, as important as they have been to giving labor a toehold among workers who would not or could not join unions, have not been enough to stem the tide swamping the labor movement. But Working America, in particular, is now seen as a model for the kind of affiliation that could transform labor into  “a movement of the 99 percent,” in Trumka’s words.

By walking neighborhoods and organizing for community issues, Working America has kept millions of Americans informed and energized for election campaigns. Karen Nussbaum, the founding director of Working America, used her 9-to-5 organizing skills to organize for political action, especially in Ohio where those votes have been critical in recent elections.

These millions of Americans who are not union members have signed up to join Working America, for a nominal fee, because they want to participate in a campaign to help working families, to create good jobs and services in their communities. Using email and Twitter, plus viral marketing with YouTube and the social media, an expanded labor movement built on the Working America model, with millions of potential new members, can rival MoveOn or Organizing America to promote collective action.

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Trumka: “We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

You don’t have to be a member of a bargaining unit to be a part of the movement for social and economic justice, Trumka says. People want a culture shift, “We heard that all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways and they call their unity by all kinds of names – workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks. We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

This may seem obvious, but many institutions have failed to adjust to a new environment, and simply faded away. Labor must tailor its organization to match the needs of workers and the economy, and not demand that they fit the organization. We must change. Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation outlines how a broad-based associate membership for nonunion allies might work here.

How that idea is translated into practice remains to be seen. Some unions are concerned about organizations at cross-purposes on some issues – the building trades and the Sierra Club over the Keystone XL pipeline, for example – and how those differences are resolved.

ImageBut strange bedfellows can be powerful allies, as witness the blue-green alliance, which for the past decade has promoted green industries, retrofitting and community redevelopment. The advantages of forging more formal alliances far outweigh any other consideration. The only question is how much will it cost to join this super labor movement.

And will it have the punch to lure back those big unions that abandoned the federation eight years ago? One of those unions, the Teamsters, has used its “independence” to raid several AFL-CIO unions, organizing the organized at American Airlines. This kind of power grab was specifically outlawed in Constitutional Article XX, another good recommendation by the Donahue Committee.

Article XX could have undergone a facelift as a result of the unfriendly actions by the Teamsters, which still works bilaterally with other AFL-CIO unions and coordinates some political activity. But the proposed constitutional amendment to allow the federation to punish non-members for raiding member unions was left on the table. The suggestion of a new era of union hostilities certainly is not the message Trumka wants to send as he tries to grow the federation. But what is to be done with the Teamsters?

Trumka prefers to highlight the return of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a million-member union that was welcomed back to the federation with much pomp and ceremony at the opening day session on Sunday. Another prize would be the Service Employees International Union, which led the disaffiliation charge eight years ago but is also the mover and shaker behind the one-day strikes for higher wages by fast-food workers, and other campaigns for a living wage and immigrant rights.

But the big story out of the convention will be what is the shape of the labor movement going forward. There must be some concrete steps to expand the vision and the organization of the AFL-CIO. This is a time for change, and there’s really nothing to lose.

Whither Labor

Four years ago, in Pittsburgh, the American labor movement was retooling for the challenge of an economy gone terribly wrong. Rich Trumka, the fiery former coal miner and inveterate boat rocker, was assuming the helm of the AFL-CIO with a warning shot across the bow of Wall Street and K Street. And he elevated two feisty women, labor leaders in their own right, as his top lieutenants.

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Arlene Holt Baker, Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler taking the reins of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2009. Holt Baker announced her retirement at the 2013 convention

This was not your father’s labor movement. Liz Shuler, the tough and polished Oregon legislative aide, electrical worker, editor and union leader was elected Secretary-Treasurer, and Arlene Holt Baker, daughter of a Texas domestic worker who rose through the ranks of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employees union, was elected Executive Vice President. Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, was introduced with a video biography, which I’m proud to say I helped to create.

I drafted all of the speeches for Trumka and his new leadership team as they left that convention and stormed into Cleveland, site of some of the worst foreclosure rates and neighborhood blights; Atlanta, where the religious community was rallying around minorities who were being “redlined” by the mortgage industry; and Wall Street, scene of the crime. In Cleveland, as in every location, Trumka decried the human cost of globalization: “The real tragedy of globalization,” he said, “is that corporations have lost their sense of community. They’ve turned their backs on America. … The system is broken.”

In the boisterous rally before tens of thousands on Wall Street, Trumka recited the litany of abuses by the titans of Wall Streets and said, “we’re going to fight you!” “We’re going to tell the truth about what you’re doing,” he said. “And we’re advocating for new regulations to make sure the financial sector is the servant to the real economy, and not its master.”

In that one whirlwind weekend, Trumka also addressed labor-environmental issues in a New York international confab and supported a New York borough community-based development campaign spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a former member of the federation.

It was a brilliant beginning, but many wonder whatever happened to that determined leader and his team. True, they’ve spent a lot of time cultivating a “new base,” younger workers, students and low-wage workers. But little has been done to heal the wounds of the labor movement, except for Trumka’s recent announcement that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) will rejoin the federation.

That is big news, and it will not go unnoticed at this convention. The UFCW represents more than a million retail workers at America’s groceries and other services, and it’s a mature union with a storied history within the overall labor movement. And it’s no coincidence that the UFCW is the parent union of the RWDSU. Trumka has been persistent in his pursuit of the Food and Commercial Workers and calls Joe Hansen, UFCW’s president, a good friend.

The UFCW was one of the major unions that defected from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – a ceremonious “disaffiliation” led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. Trumka’s professed goal in assuming the presidency in 2008 was to reunite the labor movement. The UFCW decision is a small first step.

Still, the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced last month that it is leaving the federation, and the East Coast-based International Longshoreman’s Association could follow. Others have indicated their irritation at Trumka and current federation policies, and particularly the AFL-CIO’s close affiliation with President Obama.

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Trumka and President Obama have made no secret about their fondness for each other.

Trumka’s political moxie definitely is at issue given his strong support for President Obama, who he has hailed a hero for working class Americans, someone who is working for our best interests. The jury is still out on Obama, who has consulted with labor even as he ignored its counsel. Obama has fallen far short of labor’s proposals for financial reform, among other issue.

As the 2013 convention gets underway this week, Obama’s promise and resolve are very much on the line as he prepares to address the delegates on Monday, Sept. 9. Obama has received his share of criticism among unions for his less than wholehearted support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its champion, Elizabeth Warren, now senator from Massachusetts who will deliver what is described as “one of the keynotes” of the convention.

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Elizabeth Warren, apostle for bank regulation.

Obama also has been slow to address major concerns raised by unions about his signature health care program, Obamacare. Unless changes are made, the law will penalize multi-employer plans that provide good benefits at minimal cost. Also, we need to know what avenues exist for people who fall through the cracks of states that refuse to extend the benefits.

Four years ago, I was at the AFL-CIO convention working on the speeches for Trumka, Shuler and Holt Baker in Cleveland, Atlanta, Columbus and New York’s Wall Street. It was an exciting time in which everything seemed possible. Four years later, while I may wish I were there in L.A. with the gang, I’m thinking I’m in the best position now to take stock in what is happening.

Join me here over the next week or so to learn more about the history and the future of the American labor movement. They are indelibly linked.

Miss Saigon Revisited

As Cameron Mackintosh prepared to bring “Miss Saigon” to Broadway in 1990, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  Would the burden of those years be reduced to a song and dance routine? As a Vietnam veteran stationed briefly in Saigon and Bangkok, the settings for Acts 1 and 2, I didn’t see how a musical could do justice to that historic passage.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for musicals since then, encouraged by my musical muses and having seen history and modernity fused in fine musical form with “Titanic,” “Les Miserables,” “Next to Normal,” “Ragtime,” “Spring Awakening” and many others. I learned, as well, that “Miss Saigon” was modeled after Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly,” and promised to rise above the Vietnam landscape with a timeless story of love and loss.

ImageAs we approached the performance last weekend at the Signature Theater in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, my anticipation at seeing the musical was tempered by memories of how I resisted “Miss Saigon” when Mackintosh decided to export it from England to America. There was more at stake for me then than how the Vietnam War was depicted.

At the time, as the editor of the AFL-CIO News, I was concerned that Mackintosh was using an Englishman, Jonathan Pryce, to play the French-Vietnamese “Engineer,” using prosthetics to make his eyes look Asian. With Actors Equity jobs on the line and Asian-American actors offended by the prosthetics, the union challenged Mackintosh to open the Engineer role to Asian or mixed-race actors.

Pryce is a fine actor, of course, but it was the principle. Why not give a young Asian actor the chance to play a central role in a groundbreaking musical set in Asia? I wrote a letter to the editor of Variety, decrying an anti-union editorial and expressing support for the position of Actors Equity, which had threatened to scuttle the production.

ImageLater the union dropped its objection to Pryce playing the role when he agreed to forgo the offensive Asian-eye prosthetics and Mackintosh agreed to seek qualified Asian actors as replacements or understudies, and to originate the role of the Engineer in future companies.

The Engineer plays the pimp who hustles the bar girls in the Saigon club, Dreamland, then helps our heroine, Kim, escape to Bangkok. In a climactic scene near the end of Act 2, he speaks for every immigrant in “The American Dream,” as dancers who pranced with spears and black pajamas now sport top hats, nylons and Vegas glitter.

It was quite a show, this “Miss Saigon.” I immediately regretted my initial resistance to seeing the musical, which is a fine follow-up by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil of their successful Les Miserables. The mad exit from Vietnam, the lost dreams and lost loves, resonates with their martial musical style – everyone is living on the edge, with life and death in the balance. Their voices soar in song, some memorably and some perfunctorily, as just lines.

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Thom Sesma as the Engineer

At Signature, Thom Sesma fills the shoes of the Engineer, and he is masterful. Sesma’s bio doesn’t reveal his heritage, but his features are Asian Pacific, perhaps Hawaiian or Filipino. He previously portrayed the Engineer in the second national tour in the mid-’90s, and he has played the King of Siam in the King and I.

The star of this show, however, is Diana Huey, who plays Kim, the 17-year-old orphan forced to work at Dreamland, and whose torrid affair with GI Chris (Gannon O’Brien) results in vows of love, a love child, and tragic abandonment as the Saigon embassy is seized. Huey carries off this role despite having little experience – mostly children’s theater and some karaoke in the Seattle area. But she seemed to be born to play Kim.

Miss Saigon is designed to be an operatic tragedy and, thus, the setting in the final throes of the Vietnam War is fitting indeed. I found myself transported back – at least to the club scenes where I had joined so many other GIs in escaping the war. In Miss Saigon, you are forced to see those scenes through the eyes of the Vietnamese, and to understand their own efforts to escape, through all the occupations, from the French to the Americans.

Here’s how the Engineer sings it, in The American Dream:

“My father was a tattoo artist in Haiphong
but his designs on mother didn’t last too long
my mother sold her body, high on Betel nuts
my job was bringing red-faced monsieurs to our huts
selling your mom is a wrench
perfume can cover a stench
that’s what I learned from the French

Then it all changed with Dien Bien Phu
the frogs went home. Who came? Guess who?
Are you surprised we went insane
with dollars pouring down like rain?
Businessmen never rob banks
you can sell shit and get thanks
that’s what I learned from the Yanks”

If that seems harsh, well, war is hell.  I was happy to see that it could be presented in all its gritty reality, with songs and dance. Very artfully done.

Miss Saigon has been extended through September at Signature. If you have a chance, go see it! Here’s the trailer from the creative people of Signature: